Tales From 2015/2016

Chelsea vs. Watford : 26 December 2015.

What were my expectations for this game? It would be easy to simply say “a win.” But in this most ridiculous of football seasons, where north is south and where black is white, it seems that I am constantly having to re-calibrate my hopes on a match by match basis. Here was another game that illustrated how this campaign has been turned 180 degrees. Watford, newly arrived in the top flight after an eight year hiatus and with a new manager to boot, were enjoying a recent burst in form, taking them up to the heady heights of seventh place in the table.

Chelsea, the Champions, were languishing in fifteenth position.

Yep.

This is 2015/2016.

Up is down. Big is small. Wet is dry. Bill Gates is Apple. Coke is blue. Puma has three stripes. The Confederates are from the North. The Pope is agnostic. A bear shits in a bathroom.

It is as difficult to unravel as an Agatha Christie whodunit with half the pages missing.

I had traveled up to London on a very mild but also a very grey and nondescript Boxing Day morning with Lord Parky and P-Diddy. My Christmas Day had come and gone with little cheer. Having lost my mother in February, the first Christmas without her warm smile was always going to be a tough one. My Christmas Day was somewhat of an emotional wasteland for me. As I drove towards London, its grey shadow lingered long in my thoughts. To be honest, I was struggling to conjure up too much enthusiasm for the game at Stamford Bridge against Watford. My thoughts were more focused on Monday’s away game at Old Trafford – always one of “the” trips each season – what with the current malaise affecting that particular club too. Add all of the conjecture about Mourinho joining United in to the mix, and you have a highly intriguing scenario.

Monday will be a cracking day out.

Prior to the game with Watford, I spent a couple of hours in the company of Peter, a pal now living in the United States. I last met him on his own turf, in Washington DC, for the game with Barcelona during the summer. We were joined by two Stamford Bridge game day virgins Chris and Kate – also from the US – all giddy with excitement about seeing the boys in the flesh in SW6 for the first time. I gave them a few insights into our club as we set off to meet up with the usual suspects in The Goose.

The pub seemed quieter than usual. As soon as we had settled, there was a roar as Stoke City went a goal up against Manchester United. A second soon followed. After United’s poor run of form, a trip to the Potteries is the last place that they would have wanted to visit. The stakes for Monday were raised further.

I met up with Jeff from Texas, who had just flown in that very morning. It was lovely to see him again. This was a similar scenario to our game at St. Andrew’s on Boxing Day in 2008 when Jeff and two friends had driven straight from Heathrow to Birmingham. This time, Jeff was with his wife, another Stamford Bridge game day virgin. In order to save money for this trip, Jeff – who is a school teacher – took on a second job throughout the summer, mowing lawns, possibly with a dog called spot. I heartily approved of this. It annoys me at times how so many of our US fans moan about not being able to travel to England to see us play – hell, some even moan about Chelsea not playing in their part of the country during US pre-season tours – so “fair play” to Jeff for working a second job to see us in England. It immediately reminded me of the story that my good friend Andy told about his schooldays. Andy would often go without school meals during the week in order to save money for the train fare down to London from his Midlands home to see Chelsea play at Stamford Bridge.

Top work from Andy in 1979 and top work from Jeff in 2015.

Outside the West Stand, and underneath Peter Osgood’s boots, I met up with three or four more acquaintances from the US, those that I have befriended through Facebook or met on pre-season tours, but these were only part of a bigger “Chelsea In America” ensemble – those who have been saving their lunch money over the past few years – and I was very happy to take a group photo of them all. There were a good few Stamford Bridge virgins among this little group too, although some were on a repeat visit.

Peter, Chris, Kate, Su, Tim and Dan posed with Howard, Marion, Ralph, Richie, Arnold, Al, Fonzie, Joanie, Chachi, Potsie and Pinkie. Laverne and Shirley were still in the pub.

Happy days.

After taking the photo, I repeated something that I always say to first-time visitors –

“And if we lose today, you’re not fucking coming back.”

Some would be at Old Trafford on Monday too, the lucky bleeders.

Inside Stamford Bridge – I was in early – both sets of players were going through their re-match drills. Unsurprisingly, Watford brought their full three thousand.

Neil Barnett introduced Guus Hiddink to the Stamford Bridge crowd and he drew a fine reception. Hiddink seems a good man, a steadying influence after the storm which accompanied Mourinho’s closing months, and if memory serves he was well-liked by all of the players during his tenure in 2008/2009.

I whispered to Alan : “When we sang ‘we want you to stay’ to Guus at Wembley in 2009, who would honestly have thought that we would be welcoming him back almost seven years later. And that he would be replacing Mourinho.”

The team was virtually unchanged from the win against that very poor Sunderland team. Gary Cahill replaced Kurt Zouma.

Chelsea dominated the first quarter of an hour with the opposition, in all black, hardly crossing the halfway line. An early chance for Diego Costa from inside the six yard box was headed over. I wondered if the watching guests from the US – in the Shed Lower, Parkyville – would be rewarded with a first-half goal. We came close with a couple of efforts and the mood inside The Bridge was good, although the atmosphere was not great. Watford then seemed to awake from their slumber. They perhaps subconsciously remembered that they were, statistically, the better team. They came to life with Ighalo looking dangerous on two occasions.

Watford, famously sticking two fingers to the football world, and playing a traditional 4-4-2, had originally seemed content to hump long balls forward towards Ighalo and Deeney. It had been a nod towards their own particular footballing heritage under Graham Taylor in the ‘eighties when their rudimentary long ball game was a particular component of that footballing era. In those days, the two strikers were Ross Jenkins and Luther Blissett. Even in the more traditional ‘eighties – before we had heard of “false nines”, “double pivots”, “transition phases”, “attacking mids” and “tiki taka” – Watford’s style of play was the most basic of all. I always thought that it contrasted, ironically, so well with the more pleasing football played by their great rivals Luton Town under David Pleat. Both teams romped to promotion from the Second Division in 1981/1982, when we were still trying to harness the very unique talents of Alan Mayes in our own 4-4-2 variant.

Watford were indeed posing us problems, and our midfield – Fabregas in particular – was finding it hard to shackle their movement. However, rather against the run of play, a corner from in front of the US guests found the high leap of John Terry at the far post. The ball bounced down, not specifically goal wards, but towards where Diego Costa was lurking. A quick instinctive spin and the orange ball flew high in to the net past Gomez.

The crowd roared as Diego reeled away, accepting the acclaim from the crowd, and especially those in Parkyville. Throughout the game, there had been no significant boos for any player to be honest. Perhaps there was just the slightest murmurs of disdain for Costa when the teams were announced. But nothing on the scale of the previous game, which the media took great pleasure in highlighting. Maybe the protest at the Sunderland match was well and truly behind us now. I am pleased, if this is the case. Under Hiddink, we need to move on.

Oscar came close, but then Watford attacked us again. A free-kick was deflected over and from the resultant corner, Matic was correctly adjudged to have hand-balled inside the box. Deeney converted, low past Courtois.

“Here we go again.”

Just before the half-time whistle, a fine run by Pedro down the Chelsea left was followed by a low cross which just evaded the late run of Diego Costa.

It had been a frustrating half. Our early dominance had subsided and we were back to questioning various aspects of our play.

There was a surprising substitution at the break, with Hiddink replacing the admittedly lackluster (aka “shite”) Fabregas with none other than Jon Obi Mikel.

Soon into the second period, Watford peppered our goal with two shots in quick succession. Capoue was foiled by Courtois and then a follow-up was bravely blocked. I thought to myself “under Mourinho, one of those would have gone in.” Sadly, just after I was to rue my thoughts. The ball found Ighalo on the left, but hardly in a particularly dangerous position. To be honest, I was quite surprised that he had decided to shoot. I looked on in horror as his shot deflected off a defender and into the empty net, with Courtois off balance and falling to his left.

We were losing 2-1.

“Here we go again.”

To be fair, we upped our play and began to look livelier. A key move began in inauspicious circumstances, though. Watford played a long ball out to their left and Ivanovic had appeared to have lost his man. However, with grim determination and resilience – the Brana of old – he recovered remarkably well. A sturdy tackle halted the Watford attack. Brana played the ball simply to Oscar. Oscar passed to Willian. Our little Brazilian livewire played – probably – the pass of the season into the box, and into the path of Diego Costa, who was thankfully central. He met the ball and adeptly cut it past the despairing dive of Gomez.

2-2.

The crowd roared again. Diego Costa ran towards the sidelines. My photographs captured the joy on the faces of the fans in the East Lower, but also the look of – what? Disdain? Annoyance? Umbrage? – on Costa’s face as he turned towards the Matthew Harding and remembered the boos against Sunderland.

Regardless of the politics of booing, we were back in the game.

After capturing both of Diego’s goals on film, I clasped my camera and wondered if I might be able to photograph a possible third.

We went close on a couple of occasions, and it honestly felt as if a winner was on the cards. Watford were offering little now. It was all Chelsea. Hiddink brought on Hazard for Pedro. Thankfully there were no boos. We need to move on. Dancing and moving in that mesmeric way of his, Hazard soon got the bit between his teeth with a couple of dribbles down below me. He was clattered by Behrami, and referee Marriner quickly pointed towards the spot.

Phew.

Here would be my third Diegoal of the afternoon.

Here would be a deserved winner.

Hazard needed treatment and the penalty was delayed.

We waited.

Alas, Oscar decided to take the kick and his dramatic slip resulted in the ball being ballooned high over the Watford bar.

The Stamford Bridge crowd groaned.

Then it was Watford’s turn to go close at the other end. It was a pulsating game of football, if not the most technically brilliant. Apilicueta was maliciously scythed down but the Watford miscreant was not red carded. Then, so stupid, a wild tackle by Diego Costa – also on the half way line – resulted in a yellow. I half-expected a red. It would mean that Costa would not be joining us at Old Trafford on Monday. It undoubtedly took the shine off a much better performance from Diego Costa, who was back to – almost – his best. Mikel, by the way, was exceptional in the second-half. It was his shot, late on and from a good thirty yards out, which whizzed past Watford’s post in the last meaningful moment of the game.

I had to be honest.

As a game of football, I had enjoyed it. It was a decent game.

As a Chelsea fan, however, there are still questions to be asked of our troubled team.

Back in the car, my views were shared by my two mates.

“Not a bad game. Should have won it.”

Before I knew it, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim were soon fast asleep. I drove on, eating up the miles. Thankfully I made good time and I was back home by 7.30pm, with my mind now realigned towards Old Trafford.

Oh, and Southampton, where Arsenal were being dicked 4-0.

Yep.

This is 2015/2016.

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Tales From Work

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 19 December 2015.

On most mornings, prior to myself leaving my home to collect the usual suspects en route to football, I invariably post on “Facebook” some sort of Chelsea-related message allied with the phrase “Let’s Go To Work.”

This reflects the rather business-like nature of football these days. It underlines the sense of focus that is required to progress at the top level of football. Over the past few seasons, especially under Jose Mourinho, I have considered it to be most apt. It is the phrase that the Milanese allegedly use, on occasion, rather than a standard greeting such as “good morning.” It cements the predominant work ethic in Italy’s industrial north. I can’t separate this from the old Italian saying “Milan works, Rome eats.” And while other teams and clubs have been doing a lot of eating recently – growing flabby and lazy, lacking focus and determination – Chelsea Football Club has been working hard.

“Let’s Go To Work.”

Work.

It made me think.

To be quite frank, as I stumbled around in the early-morning, for once, a trip to support my beloved Chelsea – never usually a chore – actually seemed like a work day. The decision by the board to dispense with the services of manager Mourinho on the afternoon of Thursday 17 December had meant that, in my mind, the game with Sunderland would not be an enjoyable event. In recent memory, there had been the toxic atmosphere of Rafa Benitez’ first game in charge after the sacking of Roberto di Matteo. I suspected something similar three years on. Yes, this seemed like a work day. A day when my appearance at Stamford Bridge was expected. It was part of my contract. There would be no chance of phoning in for a “sicky”. I had no choice but to don my work clothes, collect fellow workmates and “clock on.”

Chelsea? I’d rather be in Philadelphia.

There was even a small part of my mind that was glad that I had a duty to collect Glenn and Parky and to drive them to London. I was also glad that my local team Frome Town were away, at Kettering Town. Who knows what thoughts might have been racing through my mind had this just been about Chelsea and me, with the Robins playing a home game just three miles away.

In all honesty, it is very unlikely that I would forgo a Chelsea home game for a Frome Town game, but that the fact that I was even thinking these thoughts is pretty significant.

I collected Glenn and on the drive over the border from Somerset to Wiltshire, we spoke about the troubles and travails of Chelsea Football Club. There was talk of player power, a lack of summer signings, Mourinho’s intense and relentless demands, and dissension in the ranks. Not many stones were left unturned. There was concern that there would be boos for some players. There was never a chance that this would be part of my modus operandi for the day. I recalled, with Glenn, the one moment in my life that I had booed a Chelsea player. Back in 2000, the board chose to sack the loved Gianluca Vialli, and “player power” – yes those words again – was muted as the main reason for his demise. In the much-used phrase of the moment, Vialli had “lost the dressing room.” Frank Leboeuf was seen as one of the main instigators. In the home game which followed Vialli’s demise, against St. Gallen, as Leboeuf came over to retrieve the ball from a ball boy, a section of the crowd collectively decided to let him have it. I momentarily joined in the booing. If people think that I like Mourinho, I simply loved Vialli. However, the look of disbelief on Leboeuf’s face – of bewilderment and shock – quickly made me rue my actions. There would be no more boos from me.

As I have often said, “it’s like booing yourself.”

But I knew that there would be boos for some Chelsea players later in the day. And although it would not be for me, I wasn’t pompous enough to say that others would be wrong to vent however they felt fit. I usually grumble if there are boos at half-time if there has been a poor performance, but this day would be a bit different.

There were rumours of some players under-performing on purpose. I was not sure of the validity of these rumours, but this would not stop a certain amount of negative noise. I wondered if players would be individually targeted. Or would there be a blanket booing?

“Is that fair though? Not all players should be tarred with the same brush.”

I quickly listed those who I believed should be exonerated from any talk of players conniving against Mourinho.

“Willian stands alone, fantastic season. No problems with him. John Terry has tried his best, as always. And you can’t complain about the two ‘keepers Courtois and Begovic. Zouma too. And Dave. No complaints there. Even Ivanovic, who has had a pretty crap season, but nobody could accuse him of not trying. Cahill and Ramires, not the best of seasons, but triers. Pedro borderline, not great. Remy always tries his best. No complaints with Kenedy. You can’t include Loftus-Cheek as he hasn’t played too much.”

I then spoke of the others. If there was some sort of clandestine plot, then these under-performing players would be my main protagonists, based purely on lack of fight and application.

“No, the ones that you have to wonder about are Hazard, Fabregas, Diego Costa, Matic and even Oscar. Those five. So it’s only those five in my book.”

We very quickly spoke about our options for a new manager. Glenn made a very insightful comment about the world of top class football managers.

“Maybe there will be some sort of reaction against Chelsea. These managers obviously speak to each other. If they see that Mourinho didn’t last, maybe they will shy away from it. Too much a poisoned chalice. Too much pressure.”

Inside the pub, and outside in the beer garden, the troops assembled from near and far. The weather was mild for December. And the debate about Mourinho was mild too. Several of us spoke in little groups about the state of the nation. And all of it was level-headed and intelligent. It was good stuff, and I only wish that I could remember more of it to share here.

Rather than limit the discussion to a stand-off between Mourinho and players, which undoubtedly the media seem to want to focus on, we broadened it to include the whole club, embracing the various strands of its operation. We spoke about the ridiculous tour to Australia and the Far East right on the tail of last season. We chatted about a poor pre-season and questioned why the players were flown in to our three games in the US from a base in Montreal in Canada. We moaned about Mourinho’s increasingly weary outbursts and his tendency to blame others. For sure, his complex character was discussed. We questioned a very ineffectual set of summer signings. I condemned the over-long obsession with John Stones. We were annoyed with our manager’s continued reluctance to play our heralded youngsters.

“What has Loftus-Cheek got to do to get a game?”

“Say what you like about Benitez, but at least he played Ake.”

We grumbled about Michael Emenalo.

“Out of all the wonderful players that have come through this club over the past twenty years, surely we could find someone of greater credibility and standing than Emenalo. Our club, the director of football and other key positions, should be stacked full of former players.”

There was one point that took a few minutes to discuss.

“What I don’t understand, is that if Mourinho was having problems with some key players – maybe those five named above – why did he constantly pick them?”

Yes, that was the real conundrum of the day.

Fabregas was only recently dropped, yet has struggled for months. Matic awful all season long. Costa has lacked focus. Hazard has either suffered a horrendous drop in confidence – quite possible – or has not been up for the fight. Either way, he was rarely dropped. Oscar has not shown the fight.

More questions than answers.

The gnawing doubt in the back of my mind was that, despite his former prowess in cajoling the best out of his players, Mourinho had lost that gift. It’s possible.

But here was my last word before the game.

“Regardless of the relationship between Mourinho and the team, on many occasions it seemed to me that the players were simply not trying. And that doesn’t just mean not running around like headless chickens, but not moving off the ball, not tracking back to offer cover for the defenders, not working for each other. They have been cheating us. The fans. Inexcusable.”

That was where the “palpable discord” existed in my mind. Between players and fans.

However, before we knew it, the beers were flowing and our little group of Chelsea lifers from London, Essex, Somerset, Bristol, Wiltshire and Edinburgh were smiling and laughing.

At around 1.45pm, it was announced by Chelsea FC that former boss Guus Hiddink would be rejoining us. I reverted to old habits on “Facebook.”

“Welcome Back Guus. Let’s Go To Work.”

I was inside Stamford Bridge a little earlier than usual. Glenn was in earlier than me and had commented that some players had been booed when the teams were announced for the first time at about 2.15pm.

The team? Much the same as before, but without the injured Hazard.

As the clock ticked, the stadium filled up.

I was pleased to see that the Mourinho banners were still up behind both goals. To drag them down would have been unforgiveable. It was clear that he would remain a presence, spiritually, at our stadium for years.

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In the match programme, John Terry said that there had not been any player power. In the words of Mandy Rice-Davies :

“He would, wouldn’t he?”

Just before the teams entered, the teams were announced again.

Yes, there were boos. But there were claps and applause too.

The last three names to be announced – 22 : Willian, 26 : Terry, 28 : Azpilicueta – drew most applause, quite thunderous. Zouma was applauded well. I was saddened to hear Ivanovic booed. Others clearly did not share my view of him. Unsurprisingly, Fabregas, Matic and Costa were booed, though of course not by a large number. Many had chosen to stay silent. After all, the naming of the players at this stage every home game is usually met with varying degrees of indifference.

To be honest, as the game began, the backlash was not as great as I had feared. Maybe, just maybe, we are getting too used to all of this. Too used to the serial sackings. Too used to ups and downs and the slash and burn mentality of the current regime. I certainly didn’t feel the venom of the 2012 sacking of Di Matteo.

There can be no doubt that Roman Abramovich, watching alongside Hiddink and also Didier Drogba in his box in the West Stand, had agonised long and hard about the dismissal of Mourinho. For a moment, I had thought that we would ride it out, but no. In the end, there was an inevitability about it all.

The ground was rocking in the first few minutes in praise of our former manager. As we attacked The Shed, I joined in almost without thought.

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

With an almost eerie sense of timing, Branislav Ivanovic rose to head home a Willian corner as the name of Mourinho continued to be sung. In reality, from Sunderland’s perspective, it was that bad a goal that we could have conceded it. An unchallenged header. As easy as that.

We were 1-0 up after just five minutes. There was a roar, but this soon died down.

Soon after, with Chelsea playing with a little more spring to their step, a loose ball fell at the feet for Pedro to smash high in to the Sunderland net. After both goals, the name of Jose Mourinho rung out.

The Matthew Harding, capturing the moment, the zeit geist, burst in to spontaneous song.

“Where were you when we were shit?”

Self-mocking but sarcastic and poisonously pointed, it summed things up perfectly.

Oscar, undoubtedly much improved than during all previous appearances this season, was enjoying a fine game. His long run deep in to the Sunderland box, with the defence parting like the Red Sea, was sadly not finished with a goal. Elsewhere there was more high-tempo interchange, and our play was noticeably more cohesive. How is that possible after months of a more conservative approach?

I wish I knew the answer.

Sunderland hardly crossed the halfway line. It was virtually all one way traffic. Diego Costa, a little more involved in a central position, came close on two occasions.

Our visitors began the second-half with a lot more verve. However, from a counter-attack, Pedro – also showing a lot more zip – raced away before playing in Willian. He touched the ball forward but the Sunderland ‘keeper Pantilimon took him out. We waited as former Chelsea full-back Patrick van Aanholt was attended to, but Oscar coolly despatched the penalty. Again a burst of applause, but this soon died down. In truth, the game continued on with very little noise.

To be honest, a silent protest is difficult to ascertain at Stamford Bridge, since many home games are played out against a backdrop of sweet-wrappers rustling and birds chirping.

Soon after substitute Adam Johnson, booed for other reasons, sent in a free-kick and Courtois could only watch as his parry was knocked in by former Chelsea striker Fabio Borini. Sunderland then took the game to us, and went close on a few occasions. Shots from Borini and the perennial Defoe whizzed past our far post.

I almost expected a second goal.

“It’ll get nervous then, Al.”

Oscar shimmied to make space and hit a fine curler just past the post. Oscar was turning in a really fine performance. We briefly discussed his Chelsea career. He has undoubted potential – skillful, a firm tackler – but that potential is yet to be reached.

It is worthwhile to mention that there was not wide scale booing throughout the game. I was happy for that. However, when Mikel replaced Fabregas and Remy replaced Costa, boos resounded around The Bridge. I looked on as Costa slowly walked towards the Chelsea bench. He looked disgusted. He made a great point in looking – scowling, almost – at all four stands as he walked off. No doubt the noise had shocked him.

It was, if I am honest, as visceral as it got the entire day.

Ramires came on for Oscar. There were no boos. Maybe the Stamford Bridge crowd were changing their opinions, being more pragmatic, more forgiving.

There were a few late chances, with one being set up by a run from Jon Obi Mikel deep in to the Sunderland box. Yes, it was one of those crazy days.

At the final whistle, there was relief.

Out on the Fulham Road, there were still cries of “Jose Mourinho” but the mood was lighter than before the game.

Back in the car, we were just so happy with the three points and that another tough day was behind us. We quickly recapped on the day’s events, but then looked forward to the next couple of games, when we can hopefully continue some sort of run. It worked out rather well with Guus Hiddink in the latter months of 2008-2009, so let’s hope for a similar scenario.

On hearing that unfancied Norwich City had beaten The World’s Biggest Football Club, I went back on “Facebook” one last time.

“Van Gaal out. He never even won the league last season.”

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Tales From Typical Chelsea

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 19 April 2014.

This was a match that I just couldn’t wait to attend. In this bewildering football season, a rather forgotten striker by the name of Connor Wickham had effectively opened the fight for the title right up. His two goals at The Etihad during the week had taken the edge away from Manchester City. Suddenly, miraculously, Chelsea were back into contention. Although the media love-fest with Liverpool had shown no sign of abating, the tantalising truth was this –

If we rolled off four league wins in a row, Chelsea Football Club would be league champions for the fifth time in our history and for the fourth time in just ten seasons.

I was up early – too early, 6.45am – and began the day with a few errands. At 11.45am I had collected Young Jake from Trowbridge, at midday Lord Parky joined us and Bournemouth Steve was picked up at Amesbury Services, close to Stonehenge, at 1pm. The sense of anticipation was palpable. Talk was now of the league, whereas en route to Swansea the Champions League had taken precedence. Of the two, I found it hard to choose. But, to be honest, why did I have to choose? Whatever will be will surely be. After a few miles, I gulped down a can of Starbucks double-espresso (my second of the trip) while Parky and Jake were on the lager.

On the way up, Young Jake asked Parky and I about our favourite Chelsea goals that I had seen live. My stock answer to this question has always been the same. Had I been present at the Chelsea vs. Norwich City cup replay in 2002, I might have chosen Gianfranco Zola’s impudent flick. My answer came from a few years earlier.

What was my favourite ever Chelsea goal? It was Gus Poyet’s scissor-kick volley from Gianfranco Zola’s sublime lob in our league opener against Sunderland on Saturday 7 August 1999. As I reminisced, I easily remembered the complete joy that I had experienced on that sunny Saturday almost fifteen years previously. Although the shot from Poyet was magnificent enough, it was the other-worldly lob from our Sicilian maestro which made it so wonderful. Zola’s vision and intelligence, plus his perfect application, still makes warms me after all these years.

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I love the way that Zola controls the ball and touches it – caresses it – into the correct position in order for his audacious assist. It was pure artistic brilliance. The goal sent the Stamford Bridge stadium into a blue frenzy. Immediately after, I recollect that my friend Glenn and I clambered up to the walkway immediately behind our seats and, there and then, recreated the high-kick from Poyet. We were already calling it the goal of the season. What wonderful and happy memories.

The irony of Poyet (who has had a love-hate relationship with us Chelsea supporters since his departure in 2001) returning to Stamford Bridge with Sunderland was not lost on me.

So, Connor Wickham. I pondered what role his two goals at Manchester City might play in the final outcome of the league title. In truth, the goals may not mean much at all. The championship is decided after each participant has played thirty-eight games. The two goals at City may be a minor detail. However, with just four games to go, it meant that City’s final position was not, now, in their hands. It pushed the advantage back towards firstly Liverpool, but also us. I was bristling with excitement throughout the last few miles of the journey. It was a fine day in London. Let the fun begin.

It was a typical pre-match in The Goose. Talk was of other things – not really the Sunderland game – and a few lads were full of Madrid and, whisper it, Lisbon. As I lined up in the queue for the turnstiles underneath the blue sky above the Matthew Harding stand, it dawned on me that a win against the bottom team in the division was perceived by many to be a foregone conclusion.

Did I? Well, maybe yes. Guilty.

I checked the team.

In came Mark Schwarzer to replace Petr Cech. The back-four picked itself. Matic and Ramires holding. The attacking three were Willian, Oscar and Salah. Upfront, alone, Samuel Eto’o.

Sunderland only brought around eight hundred fans.

We were a little laboured at the start and I commented to Alan that there was a lack of a spring in our step. Was this the result of our number of games this season? Debateable.  A shot from our former striker Borini flashed wide, but soon after a Chelsea move led to a corner, from where we struck. A nicely played delivery from Willian, with just the correct amount of pace and dip, found Samuel Eto’o, with held off a half-hearted challenge to volley home from the six-yard box.

Eto’o wheeled away to celebrate in front of the Chelsea match.

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

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

Pressure off? Not a bit of it.

Sunderland worked a corner well, though our collective lapse in concentration was culpable, with the ball being played back to the unmarked Alonso. He volley flew through a pack of players and Schwarzer was unable to gather. The ball spilled away from him and Connor Wickham, yes him, neatly flicked home.

1-1.

The game opened up, and Oscar had shots on goal. On thirty-five minutes, another Willian corner produced more uncertainty in the Sunderland box. On this occasion, a thundering Ivanovic header was forced up on to the underside of the bar by Manone. Matic  fancied a dig from outside the box, but Manone saved. Sala, playing well on our right, reacted well but Manone just reached the cross before Eto’o could pounce.

There was frustration at the break, despite some good work from Salah, Matic, Oscar and Willian. Eto’o had shown good control, eager to go and find the ball, but I sensed the need for an extra presence in the box. I suggested that Ramires should be replaced by Demba Ba, with us playing 4-1-3-2. Did we need two defensive midfielders at home against lowly Sunderland?

“I won’t worry. Mourinho will sort it out.”

The second-half began and we began well. Willian, from deep, ran with the ball for what seemed an eternity. With the Sunderland defenders back-peddling and seemingly over-stretched, Eto’o was played in. His deliberate shot curled tantalisingly past the post. I was already up and celebrating. I howled in agony. On the hour, Jose replaced the fitful Oscar with Demba Ba. I was very pleased to hear the home support rallying behind the team in their half-hour of need. This was good stuff. I felt encouraged and hoped that the players could feed off the positivity. Willian teed up Ba, but our striker was off balance and his shot was screwed off target.

Mourinho replaced the tiring Salah with Schurrle and I implored him to stay wide and hug the line. Some half-chances came and went. A shot from Schurrle drew a save from Manone. We were on top, but lacked a finish. The cutting edge, the cliché of our season, was nowhere to be seen.

With a quarter of an hour left, Fernando Torres replaced Eto’o. A spectacular bicycle-kick from one of many Willian corners flew over. A Torres header was saved. The clock ticked. The atmosphere grew more nervous.

With less than ten minutes remaining, the usually steady and reliable Azpilicueta slipped calamitously as he brought the ball out of defence, with Altidore lurking. I sensed danger immediately.

“Oh no.”

Altidore galloped away, but Azpilicueta lunged at him just before the American was able to pull the trigger. Dave’s challenge – to my eyes, some hundred and twenty yards away – looked like a definite penalty. Mike Dean – “the Scouser in the black” was never more apt – had already ignited a great deal of animosity within our ranks all afternoon and he added to his role as a figure of hate by pointing to the spot.

Two things hit me.

If they score this, we will probably be right out of the league title race.

If they score this, the Mourinho league run could be over.

Borini – on loan from Liverpool, ugh – calmly slotted home.

Chelsea 1 Sunderland 2.

Schurrle broke in from the left and Mannone flew himself into the air to dramatically tip over. For all of our possession – and chances – the Sunderland ‘keeper had few saves to make all game. Torres’ claim for a penalty was waved away by Dean, now the devil incarnate, and the derisory boos grew louder. Five minutes of extra time was signalled, but our attacking spirit had dwindled to a memory.

I was in agony during those final minutes. I looked away. I stared at the floor. My mind was full of defeat. It was such an alien feeling after our dominance at Stamford Bridge over the past ten years.

At the final whistle, hideous and hateful boos behind me.

Yes, it’s true. Some of our “fans” are spoiled fools.

What is the saying…”if you can’t support us when we are bad, don’t support us when we are good.”

Versus Sunderland, I don’t think we were bad. Several players did themselves proud. But our finishing was bad.

It has become the story of our 2013-2014 season.

Young Jake, Steve, Lord Parky and I met up at the Fox & Pheasant after walking past a few ridiculously upbeat Mackems. I spotted an American wearing a Philadelphia Phillies cap and I blurted out “Let’s Go Phillies” to which his friend, wearing a Chelsea tracksuit top, replied, with a pitiful smirk on his face –

“Yeah. And they suck too.”

I just glowered at him.

Back at my favourite Italian restaurant, we tried to lighten the mood a little. Pizzas hit the spot, but conversation was difficult. The rug had been pulled from underneath us and our hope of a title had been seemingly extinguished. I can cope with near misses and missing out on silverware – of course – but it was just the sudden shock of defeat, when we appeared to be hitting some form, which made this defeat seem so tough. It was, as the phrase goes, just typical Chelsea.

Beat the strong teams, lose to the weak ones. It was our way for years.

However, after Villa and Palace, it was also the third game where we had prefaced a Champions League game with a meek league defeat.

Ah, the Champions League.

I looked ahead briefly and quickly to a potentially riotous second-leg against Atletico Madrid in around ten days’ time and experienced a flutter in my heart.

Maybe. Just maybe.

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Tales From My Chelsea Family Tree

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 14 December 2013.

As strange as it seems for me to write these words, this was only my sixth sighting of Crystal Palace as a Chelsea supporter. During my teens and ‘twenties when my ability to attend matches was hampered by lack of money, there were some teams that I wittingly or unwittingly avoided. Admittedly our paths didn’t cross every season, but given the choice of travelling up from Somerset to see the boys play Tottenham or Palace, there would have been only one winner. My first-ever game was an away encounter at Selhurst Park in the autumn of 1991; a dull 0-0. There has only ever been one other visit to Selhurst Park for me to see us play Palace; a pre-season friendly in 2003 when the Arthur Waite Stand was overrun with a huge Chelsea army excited at seeing one of the first games of the Roman Abramovich reign. In fact, another odd statistic; I’ve visited Selhurst Park on five occasions, but only two games have involved Palace. The other three games were against their tenants Charlton Athletic (1989) and then Wimbledon (1996 and 1999).

So, this would only be my fourth Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace game at Stamford Bridge. I can remember the game in November 1992 when I watched on the Shed, uncovered, in spitting rain, with my mate Daryl. Our respective paths had crossed a year or so earlier as fans of baseball – the Yankees in particular, Daryl produced a Yankee fanzine and I contributed on occasion – but it only became apparent a year or so into our limited communication that we were both Chelsea fanatics. We arranged to meet up for a pint in The Black Bull before that game over twenty-one years ago and we have become the very best of friends since. I met Daryl’s brother Neil a month or so later for another game. It’s fascinating to me how these Chelsea friendships are forged. Daryl, Neil and I hope to celebrate our fiftieth birthdays watching baseball in New York in 2015. Meeting new fellow fans in that era was rare; at the time I usually travelled up from Frome by myself, meeting only Alan on occasion, and most commonly in the Black Bull. In those days, Gary used to call by occasionally. There were other acquaintances, but many have fallen by the wayside.

I remember introducing Daryl to Glenn at the Makita at White Hart Lane in 1993, then Alan a year or so later. For the 1994 F.A. Cup Final, Daryl and I watched the game together. The following season, we travelled to Prague and Zaragoza together. In Prague, we bumped into long-time Chelsea stalwart Andy from Nuneaton and friendships blossomed.

With each passing game, my number of match-going Chelsea mates grew one by one. One day I might sit down and type out a chronological chart of when friendships began.

A Chelsea Family Tree, if you will.

Glenn 1983.

Alan, Walnuts, Leggo, Mark and Simon 1984.

Gary 1988.

Daryl and Neil 1992

Andy and Neil 1994.

Jonesy and The Youth 1995.

Ironically, Daryl and Neil would not be in attendance for this one; instead, they were back in Guernsey to celebrate their father’s 70th. birthday.

I collected Glenn (from 1983, though we first met in 1977) at 8.45am and soon picked-up Parky (2000) too. Glenn always berates me for not wanting to talk too much about the football on the drive to Chelsea, but on this occasion there was lots to talk about. Players were discussed, performances analysed, games examined. There was hope that we could despatch Crystal Palace and stack up three points ahead of the pre-Christmas showdown with Arsenal.

Before the usual pre-match in The Goose (a friend since 1999), all three of us made a quick pilgrimage to the “CFCUK” stall to purchase Mark Worrall’s new Chelsea book. Detailing the first ten years of “The Roman Years”, it contains many anecdotes from Chelsea regulars, a selection of photographs and a forward by Sir Frank Lampard. My small contribution details the day of Frank’s 202nd and 203rd goals at Villa Park.

“Only £16.99, HURRY UP.”

It was a lovely pre-match in The Goose. The Manchester City vs. Arsenal game was garnering a fair bit of attention and yelps of approval greeted the City goals. Some may say that a draw would be the best result, but I just wanted a heavy Arsenal defeat so that their season could start its inevitable implosion in December 2013 rather than March 2014. I personally think that the league is City’s to lose. Being brutally honest, if we are not to win it – a tough ask, let’s admit it now – I would rather the title ended up at City rather than Arsenal.

There was chat with Rob (2005), Sophie (2000), Barbara (2011) and Eva (2012). Tim (2009) and the Bristol Boys were nearby.

As the goals rattled in at Eastlands, the laughter increased. A great time.

Rob warned that although the Crystal Palace “ultras” come in for a lot of stick, they would make a lot of noise.

And fair play to them. This would be their first visit since they were gubbed 4-1 in the 2004-2005 Championship season – WHEN EVEN MATEJA KEZMAN SCORED TWICE – and I was sure they would enjoy their visit regardless of the result. I’ve lost count of the number of games I have seen this season when Selhurst Park appears to be rocking, yet the only fans seemingly involved are the little knot of 200 “ultras” in the bottom corner of the Holmesdale Road End. They appear to be “miked” too.

I mentioned this to Alan.

“Of course” he replied. “The TV love that, miking the fans that make a racket, making out the atmosphere is loud throughout the stadium.”

On ascending the steps to the upper tier, confirmation that two very late goals had been exchanged in Manchester.

City 6 Arsenal 3.

Let the implosion commence.

As we entered the seats, I was given a Christmas card from Joe (1997) who sits nearby with his son Gary. Joe is now eighty-five. We love him to bits.

There have been few Chelsea versus Crystal Palace “classics” but the one game that always seems to grab the attention of my generation came in 1976 during our F.A. Cup campaign. As a struggling Second Division team, we were drawn at home with Malcolm Allison’s Third Division Crystal Palace in the fifth round of the cup. This fixture really captured the imagination of the London public and, with Stamford Bridge’s vast terraces able to withstand the demand, over 54,000 attended. Sadly, we lost 3-2 but it is an afternoon that I can easily recount some 37 years later.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7M6pRs5PHF4

Just after the first two Palace goals, thousands of Chelsea teenagers can be heard singing “Chelsea aggro, Chelsea aggro, ‘ello, ‘ello.”

With Chelsea chasing the game, the atmosphere is clearly electric. The old Stamford Bridge, full to bursting, was a grand old stadium in its time. The sight of The Shed holding almost twenty thousand spectators is just gorgeous.

Peter Taylor went on to play for Tottenham. I never liked him.

I had a quick run through the team and two players stood out; Michael Essien, despite having a nightmare two weeks ago, was back alongside Ramires and David Luiz was partnering John Terry. Further forward, Juan Mata, Willian and Eden Hazard were asked to provide ammunition for the recalled Fernando Torres.

Very soon into the game, the three thousand Palace fans were working their way through their own very distinctive repertoire of songs. They were bellowing them out. It was pretty impressive stuff. Maybe I was wrong; maybe Selhurst is rocked by more than those two hundred self-styled “ultras” in that bottom left corner of their home end.

They taunted us : “Is this a library?” and then “Here for the Palace, you’re only here for the Palace.”

We replied : “Here for the season, you’re only here for the season.”

The away team were fighting for every ball under new boss Tony Pulis. However, after only a quarter of an hour, Willian sensed an opportunity to run at goal. His positive dribble took him close and he sent a low shot towards Speroni. The Palace ‘keeper’s dive turned the ball onto the post only for Fernando Torres to pounce on the rebound.

1-0 Chelsea

Alan and I did our usual routine.

You know the score.

Immediately after, the Palace fans ignored the deficit and rallied behind their team. Well done them. It reminded of us when we were…er…shit.

We then hit a little purple patch with some lovely play from a strong Torres run and then a Mata touch enabling Ivanovic to strike at goal. His shot scraped the far post. This was good stuff. Maybe more goals would follow. Even the home crowd were getting involved.

A London derby with noise. Just like 1976. Luvverly jubberly.

Until then, Palace had only enjoyed rare opportunities to attack. Sadly, just before the half-hour mark, a Palace move down our right resulted in a ball being whipped in for an unmarked Chamakh to volley home.

We fell silent and the Palace fans bounced in unison. It was a celebration typical of fans from Istanbul, not Croydon.

I turned to Alan : “I don’t care what anyone says. That’s impressive.”

Thankfully, we regained the lead soon after.

Eden Hazard, relatively subdued until then, glided past his marker and passed to an unmarked Ramires. Our little midfield dynamo looked up, aimed and fired a curler into Speroni’s goal.

2-1 Chelsea. Phew.

At the break, Danny Granville – Stockholm 1998 and all that – was on the pitch with Neil Barnett. Thousands upon thousands of new Chelsea fans in the West Upper scratched their heads.

In the second-half, Crystal Palace were clearly more aggressive than in the opening forty-five minutes. Our midfield were left chasing shadows and the frustration among the home support grew with each passing minute. Palace raided our goal, but thankfully neither Nicky Chatterton nor Peter Bloody Taylor was on hand to score. Petr Cech was able to smother and repel all of the efforts on his goal. Still the Palace fans sang.

Essien, though clearly not at his best, stayed on as Juan Mata was replaced by Oscar. Our chances had dried up and we were hanging on. Palace were surprising us all. There was a ridiculous scramble at The Shed End on seventy-five minutes, but continued shots at goal were thwarted by desperate defending by the Chelsea rear-guard. A header then flashed past the post. Cech’s goal was leading a charmed life.

And all around me, instead of generous support for Chelsea in our twenty minutes of need, there was little singing and little encouragement.

At one point, after a welcome period of positive Chelsea play, out of over one hundred spectators in our little section, Alan noted only Big John, Alan and myself clapped.

Welcome to Stamford Bridge 2013.

In the last ten minutes, Andre Schurrle replaced Willian and then Demba Ba replaced Torres. This really surprised me. Although there was little defensive options on the bench available to him, Mourinho chose to make offensive rather than defensive changes. Rather than bring on Lamps as extra cover, Jose chose other options. I quickly remembered an infamous game from only last season.

At Reading with us winning 2-1, Rafa Benitez replaced Torres with Ba rather than shore up the defence. We let in an equaliser.

At home to Palace in 2014, with us winning 2-1, Jose Mourinho replaced Torres with Ba rather than shore up the defence. I hoped there would be no equaliser.

Our nerves were jangling. We were still hanging on. There was still no noticeable show of support for the boys.

There were two late Chelsea chances at the Matthew Harding. The ball was played through towards Ramires but, with only Speroni to beat, the little Brazilian fluffed his kick. Whereas I sighed in silent frustration, I looked quickly to my left where there were howls of indignation and anger being aimed at Ramires by many in the MH Upper.

These fuckers had hardly sung a note of support for the team all afternoon, yet their faces were contorted with rage at Ramires’ miss and were heaping abuse towards our own players on the pitch below.

Soon after, another Chelsea chance came and went. There was an almighty scramble after substitute Schurrle played a lovely wall pass with Ba, but shot right at the Palace custodian. The rebound came to Ba, but Speroni again saved. A further rebound was sliced wide by the suddenly hapless Rami.

I grimaced as fellow supporters in the MHU spewed vitriol once more.

With four minutes of extra time signalled, I commented to Alan that we were still looking to attack. This was a very different approach to the Mourinho team of ten seasons ago when a tight, nervy game would be notable for ball retention among the back four rather than forward passes.

Despite one more Palace chance, we survived.

However, such was the dreadful atmosphere during the last ten minutes, it honestly felt like we had lost.

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Tales From Third Gear

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 1 December 2013.

December was upon us and our first game in a very busy month involved the visit to SW6 of high-flying Southampton. The team from the south coast caused us huge problems during the two league games of the previous campaign, beating us 2-1 at St. Mary’s and earning a point in a 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge. This would not be an easy game. After the very poor performance in Basel on Tuesday, another match could not come quickly enough.

However, although the minds of most Chelsea supporters were centred on the game, my build-up was focussed elsewhere. This game would mark the return to the fold of a good friend – one of the Frome Gang of Seven, then Six, then Five, then Four.

Paul – or PD – was back.

I first met Paul, famously – or infamously – on the train on the return trip from a famous – or infamous – away game at Cardiff in March 1984. After we drew 3-3 after being 3-0 down with just six minutes remaining, a couple of the Frome brethren had been arrested and there was talk in the crowded train compartment of the afternoon’s events. There was talk of “Daniels” and I wondered who this was. My Chelsea journey was in its infancy; these older lads had obviously been going to games for a few more years than me. I was all ears. Paul appeared at the door to our compartment wearing old school boots and jeans, maybe a green flight jacket, with cropped hair and a fearsome reputation that went before him. Soon after his appearance, the compartment was singing “Daniels Is Our Leader.” I was predictably impressed. Later that season, I travelled up with him in a car with three others for the decisive game with Leeds United.

Oh what a day that was.

Since then, there have been numerous Chelsea games in his company.

Sadly, in September 2010, Paul was involved in a horrific accident at work; he was working in one of the many tarmac gangs that have made my local town a veritable capital city for road resurfacing. There are many limestone quarries in the area – seen from the air, the local Somerset landscape is pot-marked by vast open areas of grey – and so, as a result, Frome is now home to hundreds of “Boys from the Black Stuff” who hurtle about the English countryside in teams, patching up roads and motorways with limestone.  After the accident, Paul almost lost his leg and has not worked since. I have often bumped into him at the local football club, and he has often aired his yearnings to be able to return, one day, to Stamford Bridge.

Sunday 1 December 2013 was that day.

I collected PD at 9.30am and Lord Parky soon after.

The Boys from the Blue Stuff were soon on our way east.

There was a real sense of the Southampton fixture being a “must win” game for Chelsea to keep in touch with Arsenal. With a fixture at the Emirates looming large on the horizon, we needed to keep on their coat tails. And yet it got me thinking; surely this contravened my general, relaxed, thoughts about this being a transitional season where the league title might be beyond us. Was this game important to gain three points or to simply expunge the awful performance in Switzerland from our collective memory? Well, whatever it was, I guess it is human nature to want to win every game. The thought of losing to Southampton, not unfeasible in the current “will the real Chelsea please stand up?” climate, and therefore allowing Arsenal to remain seven points clear, made me anxious.

In fact – and I am sure I am not alone – the thought of Arsenal winning the league, after their much-scorned period of drought, made me feel nauseous.  In comparison, a league win for either of the two Manchester teams seemed to be the far more palatable option should Chelsea falter. This wasn’t an exact science though; if questioned, I am sure that I dislike United more than Arsenal.

“Oh boy. Weird this football lark, innit?”

At 12.30pm I deposited PD and Parky in The Goose, where I knew that they were in for a warm welcome. I headed on to Stamford Bridge where, for the first time this season, I popped in to the megastore to buy a few Christmas presents. I was pleased to be able to collect the new, full game DVD of Munich.

Ah, Munich. Just the name, just the name.

By the time I had met up with the boys in the pub, Manchester United had dropped two welcome points at Tottenham. Soon after, the Hull City vs. Liverpool game was on the TV screens. We ignored the game and just chatted. My mate Foxy, who I had last met up with on a trip to Scotland a mere fortnight previously, soon appeared with his son Ricky. But the day was all about PD really; there were hugs a-plenty for him. It was great to see.

By the time we had walked down to the stadium, Liverpool had conceded a third goal at the KC Stadium and things were looking up. With points being dropped by United and Liverpool, a Chelsea win would be a magnificent winter warmer on this cold December afternoon.

PD took his seat next to Alan and me. This was another full house with hardly any empty seats. Southampton had around 1,500 and one paltry flag. I soon spotted Foxy and Ricky in the front row of The Shed. And there was Parky a few yards away.

Everyone in. Everyone ready.

A quick scan of the team; surprisingly a start for Michael Essien, the “three amigos” of Hazard, Oscar and Mata were reunited, no place for Sir Frank and Fernando Torres recalled. Still no Luiz.

Was Southampton’s goal by Jay Rodriguez the fastest-ever goal at Stamford Bridge in 108 years? Surely, there couldn’t have been many that were quicker. A terrible intervention by Michael Essien had spun the ball into the path of the Southampton striker, who slotted the ball past a stranded Petr Cech. The 1,500 away fans boiled over in jumping, leaping ecstasy.

With the Stamford Bridge crowd stunned into an eerie silence, Chelsea encountered a horrible first-half malaise; was it a hangover from Basel, one of the most lack-lustre performances that I can ever remember? We played in a fog of self-doubt and faltering confidence, with little movement, and a dearth of crunching tackles in the midfield and penetration up front. There was, again, a distinct unwillingness by key players to take hold of the game by the horns. Too often players played the ball to a disadvantaged team mate, eschewing responsibility, rather than create with their own skills. Oscar was very quiet and Mata peripheral. Hazard showed willing, but there was little movement off him.

A strong Torres run into the box at least showed willing and desire.

Southampton, to their credit pushed us hard, closing us down, putting pressure on us. As PD commented:

“Just like Mourinho likes us to play.”

However, Cech was largely untroubled despite Southampton’s persnickety persistence. We had no more than a few half-chances as the afternoon grew darker.

It saddens me to report that Michael Essien endured his own personal nightmare. His unfortunate error in the build-up to the Southampton goal aside, his play was strewn with passing errors, poor tackles and – worst of all – he often found himself out-muscled as he tried to retain possession. I felt for him. The biggest ignominy of all? A silly dive – simulation as it is called these days – after he had lost possession. He was rightly booked.

Two late chances in the first-half were the highlights of the entire first period. On forty minutes, Torres did ever so well to retain possession and battle off a defender and dig out a cross for Oscar but his header was right at Boruc. Soon after, there was a superb Boruc one-handed save from a Torres header.

Oscar fell injured and was replaced by Frank Lampard; so much for a day off, eh?

I’m also sad to report that there were – of course! – boos at half-time.

It dawned on me that I have an increasing, festering dislike for many of my fellow fans. To my annoyance and consternation, I have almost given up trying to support the team during those times when The Bridge is silent. Even only five years ago, I would try to rally the troops around me, but what is the point? What is the bloody point?

With every passing season, the atmosphere at home games decreases.

How far have we fallen? Let me give a quick illustration.

Way back in 1992, with Chelsea enjoying a little run of form under Ian Porterfield and in the top six of the table, we met Southampton at home on Boxing Day. In 1992-1993, I largely travelled to games alone and only met up with Alan by chance. I had just recently learned to drive the previous season and so was enjoying my new found freedom; it was, in fact, the first Boxing Day game I had ever seen at Stamford Bridge. I was well aware that there were plans to remodel Stamford Bridge and so I had decided to take my father’s rather large camcorder to the game and capture some of the day’s events on film, aware that The Bridge might soon be changing its appearance. I have rather grainy footage of the old Fulham Broadway station, early-morning risers walking past the old souvenir shops on their trudge to the forlorn entrance to the West Stand, all corrugated iron and ancient turnstiles. The main forecourt is captured, quiet, awaiting the day to unfold.

I managed to smuggle the camcorder inside and capture several moments of the actual game. I was sitting halfway back in the East Stand. Our football that season was rudimentary stuff. We often played with Tony Cascarino and Mick Harford in the team. It was direct and far from pretty. However, most tellingly of all, the video film from almost twenty-one years ago shows repeated evidence of honest and heartfelt clapping, encouragement and applause at every single worthwhile Chelsea attack.

The ball is played up for Graeme Stuart to run on to? Shouts of encouragement.

The ball goes off for a throw-in near the Southampton goal-line? Widespread clapping and applause?

A pleasing period of play involving Dennis Wise and Andy Townsend? More encouragement.

The difference between 1992 and 2013 is galling.

At half-time, I returned to my seat and spotted Neil Barnett on the pitch with an elderly gentleman in a gabardine coat. It was John Payton, apparently our oldest-ever former player at ninety years old. I can’t lie; it is not a name that I am familiar with. In a strong Scottish accent, he encouraged the crowd to get behind the players in the second-half and pleaded for us to make some noise. The response from the docile crowd annoyed him.

“Well, that’s not much of a roar.”

I knew how he felt.

No surprises – Demba Ba replaced the struggling Michael Essien.

I hate using clichés, but this was obviously a case of a “game of two halves.”

The crowd, thank heavens, seemed immediately more energised as we upped our play. A Frank Lampard free-kick was well saved by Boruc.

On fifty-five minutes, a Juan Mata corner was aimed high and Brana leaped to force a header back in towards goal. Demba Ba lunged at the ball and it bounced up and off a post back into the six yard box. Gary Cahill, falling, did ever so well to contort and twist his body to head the ball in.

The Bridge roared. Back level.

Gary raced away and milked the applause down below me.

There was noise – proper noise – at last.

“And it’s super Chelsea – super Chelsea F.C.”

Boruc injured his hand and was replaced by Gazzaniga.

Six minutes later, Juan Mata played a ball into the box. With the camera to my eye, I saw a body rise and loop a header up and over the substitute ‘keeper. I clicked just as the ball was on its rise. The ball nestled in the goal. There was a loud yelp and a jump from myself.  I let out a guttural scream.

“YES.”

I soon focussed on the player racing towards me and obviously realised that the scorer was JT. Until that point, it was all a mad blur. This was a very typical John Terry goal and it reminded me instantly of two similar goals at the same end, versus Barcelona in 2005 and versus Manchester United in 2009.

The emotion on our captain’s face was a picture. I photographed the scream, the shout, the slide.

Captain. Leader. Legs First Slider.

This was more like it, Chelsea. Southampton were tiring now and were soon chasing shadows as two sublime slide-rule passes from first Ivanovic and then Mata were played in, dissecting the Southampton defence.

Demba Ba added an extra dimension to our play and his strong run on seventy-one minutes was almost rewarded in a goal, but his shot was dragged wide.

PD kept saying “I’ve missed this.”

Fernando Torres worked tirelessly all afternoon and was replaced by Mikel late on. This was typical Mourinho. I approved. Rather than settling for a 2-1 victory, however, we continued to push forward.

On eighty-nine minutes, we witnessed great perseverance from Ramires as he fended-off tackles from three opponents, retained possession and, with a wicked turn, whipped in a lovely ball for Ba to prod in.

3-1.

At the final whistle, the poor first-half was virtually forgotten as we slowly made our exit out. “Blue is the Colour” was being played, John Terry and Frank Lampard were applauding the Chelsea faithful for our support and everything was well the world.

On the walk back to the car, PD and I quickly reviewed the race at the top of the table.

“I hate to say it, but Arsenal are flying. Can they keep it up, though? City are hot and cold. United too. Liverpool haven’t got enough depth. But we are in second place and yet haven’t even got out of third gear yet.”

“That’s right me zun.”

There is no trip to Sunderland for me on Wednesday but Parky and I have yet another jaunt up to The Potteries next Saturday. Stoke City is one of my favourite away games. However, I might have to rack my brains for new subject matter after five previous “Tales” involving “Stoke away.”

Oh no, wait – I have an idea.

Watch this space.

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Tales From Royal Berkshire

Reading vs. Chelsea : 30 January 2013.

In my desire to be as honest and upfront in these match reports as I possibly can, I have to say that, throughout the day, I wasn’t looking forward to the away game at Reading. It was just as well that the match was taking place just sixty miles up the road. Apart from that, there was little going for it. As I’ve said before, if the current ailments at Chelsea were solely linked to the form of the team, it would be an easier scenario for us all to cope with. However, the added angst amongst the supporters – aimed at the manager and the board – has resulted in attending Chelsea games to be rather depressing at the moment. I usually have to be away from my desk at 4pm for a midweek game at Stamford Bridge but, on this occasion, I joked with a few close friends that I could have the luxury of leaving as late as 6pm and still be there for the 8pm kick-off.

In the end, I worked on until 5.45pm. I had Reading in my sights, but was still not getting the usual match-day “tingle.”

The drive up the M4 was uneventful. With no Parky alongside me, I was alone with my thoughts. Echo and the Bunnymen – the “What Are You Going To Do With Your Life?” album from 1999 – were my sole accompaniment as I drove east. It gave me the chance to remember previous visits to Reading. To my surprise, I realised my last trip to the Madejski Stadium was in August 2007; it seemed a lot more recent. Five and a half years – where does the time go? This was a midweek game which was played in horrible rain that we easily won. I remember being on the phone to Beth just as our second goal was scored. She was watching the game on TV, but there was a slight delay. She heard the roar from the Chelsea fans a few seconds before the goal was scored. That must have been a strange sensation. During the previous season, there was the infamous game involving the Stephen Hunt challenge on Petr Cech, which so upset us all. In that crazy game, Carlo Cudicini was injured too, with John Terry ending up in goal. With Jon Obi Mikel getting sent off, what else could go possibly wrong? Well, my car was broken into during the game and a few items were stolen. Despite the narrow 1-0 win, this wasn’t a great day in our history. It was, however, the perfect coming together of Cockney Rhyming Slang and football since the birth of the game.

“Steve Hunt. Berkshire Hunt.”

The only other previous visit was a League Cup game in December 2003. Chelsea won that game, but the whole evening was a strange one for me; the previous week, a dear friend had undergone a major operation to defeat the threat of cancer and her follow-up examination was due to take place that evening. I watched the game, but my head was obviously miles away during the entire ninety minutes. Never has that silly quote about football being “more important than life or death” seemed more ridiculous. With great relief, a quick phone-call after the cup tie had finished brought the magnificent news of the “all-clear.”

My friend was at the Chelsea versus PSG at Yankee Stadium in July.

Those worrisome days of 2003 seem a long time ago.

On the approach to the Reading exit, the traffic slowed. I started looking at the clock with growing intensity. Surely I wouldn’t be late for my easiest away game of the season? The last couple of miles took ages. At last, I parked my car in one of the last remaining places in a nearby car park. The 60 miles had taken me an hour and forty-five minutes. At 7.45pm – the usual time for a Wednesday kick-off – I was hurriedly walking along the dual-carriageway with the stadium in my sights. I heard a father and son talking about the game. I said a few words and the lad, who was no more than eight, asked me who I thought would win…

“Well, I’m a Chelsea fan…so I fully expect we’ll lose.”

The boy replied “I like Chelsea, too” even though he was wearing a Reading hat. I secretly “tut-tutted” as I walked on. I’ve heard of supporters of lower league teams having a soft-spot for a “larger” team too, but two teams from the same division? That’s just not right, is it?

Modern football. Pah.

The Madejski Stadium is a different beast than Griffin Park. I could have spent a leisurely hour walking around Brentford’s home ground last Sunday, basking in its quirkiness, revelling in its old time feel. In my four visits to Reading’s pad, I am yet to venture further than the away entrance. In many ways it resembles Bolton’s stadium; an out-of-town stadium close to the motorway network and with an adjacent hotel attached. It’s not a bad stadium once inside – it has a few quirky features of its own – but is purely functional from the outside.

In the end, I reached my seat, high above the goal, with no more than two minutes to spare.

Perfect timing. I guess there is a reason why I work in logistics.

I’m not going to the Newcastle away game and was thankful that Bristol Tim was able to take my “spare.” I handed the ticket over just before I ascended the steep terrace to take my seat.

For a change, Alan, Gary and I were towards the rear of the away section. In our application for away season tickets, we have asked for seats in the middle. Not to worry, at least we were there. A quick look around revealed that there were many empty seats in our section. I believe that all of our seats for Reading were sold prior to the game; I guess some fans just didn’t fancy it.

So, the game.

Torres was still in. Not so John Terry. Ivanovic shifted over and Azpilicueta returned. Juan Mata started. Ryan Bertrand retained his place.

The first-half was a turgid affair.

As the Chelsea players struggled to find each other in attacking positions, the real battle was in the stands.

Firstly, the Chelsea and Reading fans exchanged songs.

Chelsea : “Champions Of Europe, We Know What We Are.”

Reading : “We Support Our Local Team.”

Chelsea : “You’ll Never Sing That Song.”

Reading : “You’ll Never Sing That Song.”

…this brought some polite applause from the Chelsea fans, acknowledging a witty response for once.

Chelsea : “We’re Gonna Have A Party, When Rafa Leaves Chelsea.”

Reading : “Get Behind Your Manager.”

Chelsea : “We Don’t Care About Rafa…”

Reading : “Rafa Benitez – He Thinks You’re All Scum.”

So, even the Reading fans were obsessing about Benitez. Down below, in the front section, we noticed a kerfuffle with stewards wading in to separate two Chelsea fans who were very close to coming to blows. I saw one lad spitting at his enemy. Oh dear; is this what it has come to? Although I wasn’t privy to the reasons for the altercation, it’s pretty clear that the two lads weren’t discussing the relative merits of Microsoft and Apple, the differences between the musical styles of Bach and Beethoven or were coming to blows in a heated discussion about which is the best sausage; a Lincolnshire or a Cumberland. It was obvious that the reason for the antagonism was Rafa Benitez.

It was a perfect illustration of what we are going through as Chelsea fans in 2012-2013.

I imagined the conversation.

“Stop booing, get behind the team!”

“Who are you, you mug?”

“Fcuk off you prick.”

“Wanker!”

Chelsea 2012-2013.

Welcome to Roman’s Empire.

To be honest, there was a good (or bad, depending on your point of view), five minute session of anti-Rafa songs in our section. I was annoyed. Keep all that for before or after the game, lads. Support the team during those precious ninety minutes.

We then had to endure the most pathetic Chelsea chant I have witnessed for years. There are large advertisements for Waitrose (an upmarket supermarket, prevalent in the prosperous south-east) around the Madejski and some Chelsea fans decided to use this as a spear of abuse against Reading.

“No noise from the Waitrose boys.”

Alan and I shook our heads.

Almost the only memorable piece of action from the first half was the wayward Torres shot which went off for a throw in.

Yes – as bad as that.

I turned around to Tom and said “I don’t know why I’m here.”

With the interval beckoning, a lovely interchange between Juan Mata and Fernando Torres resulted in a 1-0 lead. Torres’ delightful flick into the path of Mata certainly made up for his wayward shot a few minutes earlier.

I guess this averted more boos at half-time.

Our confidence grew during the second-half. We completely bossed the game, with Reading hardly daring to offer any resistance. As the game drew on, our whole body language changed; where there were extra heavy touches, there were now instinctive first-time passes, little dribbles and flicks. Torres, rolling his foot over ball, caressing the ball, was having a fine game and found himself out on the right with time and space to play in others.

Great chances for Oscar and Torres. We were in complete control.

I captured Frank Lampard’s headed goal on film – what poor marking! – and Alan and I tried to work out how far away he was from Bobby Tambling.

196 – and counting.

At around the 75 minutes mark, the away fans began singing – and kept it going for ten minutes. It was the best bout of singing at a game I have witnessed for ages. Each group of fans sung a separate part…thus keeping sore throats to a minimum.

“We Are The Champions.”

“The Champions Of Europe.”

“We Are The Champions.”

“The Champions Of Europe.”

“We Are The Champions.”

“The Champions Of Europe.”

“We Are The Champions.”

“The Champions Of Europe.”

By the end of it – oh dear – I was succumbing to a horrible sore throat, but I kept going.

Proper Chelsea.

The new Demba Ba song was sung with gusto by the fans around me. Did they want to see him make a late appearance? Wayward son Yossi Benayoun came on for Juan Mata. Oscar had another chance to make it 3-0. We were coasting this. An evening of dread was turning into a cracking night out, sore throat notwithstanding.

Then – unbelievable, crushing, damning, preposterous calamity.

Reading substitute Adam Le Fondre beat Turnbull at the near post and – after Ramires had a chance to restore our two goal lead – the same player finished superbly after a ball into the box evaded our defenders. There were three Reading players waiting on the ball to drop and a goal looked a formality. Le Fondre’s finish was immaculate.

It was now the turn of the Reading fans to bounce like fools.

I trudged back to the car. The Reading fans were ebullient. I was deflated.

That’s Chelsea 2012-2013.

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Tales From London And Donetsk

Chelsea vs. Nordsjaelland : 5 December 2012.

So, the day of destiny had arrived. I’m not sure how many days of destiny the average Chelsea supporter faces in his or her life, but this was the latest one. I had travelled up to London, alas, without Lord Porky once again. For the last hour of the journey, my thoughts had been not of the imminent game, nor the consequences of elimination from this season’s Champions League, but of my imminent trip to Japan. In truth, I really haven’t thought too much about it until just recently. Flights and hotels were booked during the summer, but my usual meticulous planning hadn’t really advanced too much. Ironically, I received a disturbing email during the day which told me that one of my connecting flights (from Beijing to Tokyo) had been cancelled.

What?

Thankfully, a phone call later and I had been booked onto a slightly later flight. Sorted.

So, to sum up my feelings as I neared central London; I had already “moved on.” I didn’t really have much hope of Shakhtar beating Juventus. In truth, I just wanted the game to come and go – regardless of the result – and for there to be as little “bad atmosphere” at the Bridge as could be hoped. Our chances of progressing (involving Chelsea and Shakhtar wins) was personally ranked by myself at 10%.

As I slowly edged around Hammersmith roundabout, the evening commuters swarmed all around me. I quickly made the connection; I immediately thought of the thousands of pedestrians who habitually use the iconic Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, underneath acres of shimmering neon. In ten days I would be one of those pedestrians. I caught a little buzz of excitement, and then continued on my safe passage around the busy roundabout, navigating it safely before hitting the Fulham Palace Road and my final approach into home territory.

It was another bitter night in London. The wind chilled me to the bone. I needed warming and so I popped into my old favourite, The Lily Tandoori, and enjoyed a king prawn bhuna while I defrosted. The place was virtually empty. I chatted with the Fulham-supporting waiter about the state of play at my club. Was it me, or did he slightly resemble Rafa Benitez?

Oh dear, I think I was losing the plot. On leaving, I said “I usually come in here after a Champions League game. Should a miracle happen tonight and we go through, expect me in here ordering king prawn bhuna for the rest of this season before each Champions League game.” My comment drew a hearty laugh from the other two customers – Chelsea – in the restaurant.

Over in The Goose, things were quiet and subdued. There were rumours of plenty of “spares” for the night’s game. Out into the night, there was the usual volume of football-going traffic along the Fulham Road. Inside the stadium, thankfully the crowd looked pretty reasonable. This was to be another near full-house. I spoke with John and we both shared the same sentiments –

“Let’s just get this over with, whatever the result.”

I briefly chatted to Kevin and Anna, who will both be in Tokyo. Like me, they took some convincing to do the trip, but are really looking forward to it. No doubt our paths would cross in Japan.

Despite the cold weather, Pensioner Tom was sat alongside Alan. All credit to him for endeavouring to drive up from Sutton on such an inclement night for football. The game began and Chelsea attempted to inflict some early damage on the Danish visitors. However, on a clearly odd evening, the Chelsea support in the Matthew Harding Lower had one eye on events in the Ukraine. On more than one occasion, we supported another team.

“Come on Shakhtar, come on Shakhtar, come on Shakhtar, come on Shaktar.”

We managed to get the ball played into the opposing penalty area on a number of occasions, but our luck was not with us. Chances for Torres and Hazard went begging. At times, I lamented the lack of movement in our midfield. I was reminded of the great Tony Hancock line –

“I thought my mother was a bad cook but at least her gravy used to move about.”

At times our gravy was solid.

Then, a Nordsjaelland attack and Gary Cahill handled. Oh fcuk.

Thankfully, Stokholm’s penalty was struck at a good height for Petr Cech to move to his right and save. As in Munich, he had come to our rescue once again. The crowd roared and Alan commented that maybe this was just what the crowd needed in order for some noise to be generated. It had been another quiet evening. There had been a small amount of booing as the TV screens showed Benitez taking to his seat at the start of the game. I had clapped throughout the sixteenth minute, but there was thankfully not much negative noise. The Chelsea fans are still trying to find their feet – a common ground – after the calamitous events since Black Tuesday in Turin.

Soon after, we were awarded a penalty, but Eden Hazard’s low shot was saved too.

Oh boy.

Bizarrely, another penalty was awarded to us for yet another handball, but this time David Luiz confidently struck home, the ball tearing a path high into the net. We breathed a massive sigh of relief.

Alan and I went through our usual post-goal routine, with accents coloured with a Scandinavian lilt. In the last kick of the first-half, Torres broke and poked a ball home after seeing his initial effort saved. It was a fine piece of intuitive goalscoring, so sadly missing from Torres’ play of late. It was his twentieth goal for Chelsea and – yes, here I go again – I’ve seen every one of the buggers.

20/20 vision.

Pat Nevin was on the pitch, briefly, at half-time and commented about the three penalties. He couldn’t resist a self-deprecating dig at himself, mentioning this beauty from 1985.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0u4lTUl39I

Proper Chelsea.

In Donetsk, it was still 0-0.

After just twenty seconds into the second period, our visitors broke down our left and Cech was beaten by a crafty lob.

Soon after, I asked Alan –

“With the way things have gone here with the three penalties, do you get the feeling this could be one of those crazy nights of football?”

I was clearly grasping at straws.

A Gary Cahill header – looping up and in and over the line – from a Mata free-kick restored our two-goal cushion. Surely our game was won. Soon after, a strong run down the left down below me from Hazard and the ball was pulled back from the bye-line for Torres to prod home. Get in.

21/21.

However, I soon received a text from Tullio in Turin. It ruined my celebrations.

“0-1.”

We were virtually out and in to the Europa League.

A nice move involving Ramires, Hazard and Mata gave us our fifth goal after Mata followed up after his initial shot was parried. There was tons of Chelsea possession in the second half and some of it was lovely to watch. Flicks and turns, albeit against secondary opposition, at least warmed me a little. Eden Hazard even attempted to play a ball back to Oscar by turning and letting it him firmly between the shoulder-blades.

Prowling in the Chelsea technical area was the figure of Rafa Benitez, but I largely chose to ignore him. This is how I am dealing with all of this at the moment. There have been two vaguely similar scenarios to the di Matteo sacking in my memory; the Vialli sacking in 2000 and the Mourinho “mutual agreement” in 2007. Both were horrible affairs, both bring me moments of pain in remembering them.

I loved Vialli as a man, as a Chelsea player and as a Chelsea manager. In his place came the unknown figure of Claudio Ranieri. It took ages for me – and other Chelsea fans – to warm to him. I can well remember a horrible trip to The Valley (some new fans might have to Google this stadium) in November 2000 when we lost 2-0 and the Chelsea support was wailing in displeasure. Didn’t Dennis Wise play wing back for a period in this game? I don’t know. It was a bleak old time. Ranieri’s predilection for playing Slavisa Jokanovic (remember him?) really infuriated the support at the time. Jokanovic was Ranieri’s man and we never warmed to him. The poor bloke was the most hated player of that odd 2000-2001 season.

We then experienced the move from the sublime to the ridiculous in September 2007 when the idolised Jose Mourinho was replaced by the shambolic figure of Avram Grant. Dark days again. It’s no bloody wonder us Chelsea fans sometimes have to throw our hands up to the footballing gods and yell “what the hell is going on?”

In the current climate, Chelsea fans are split into various factions. Some support the team, but boo Benitez. Some support the team but stay silent on the manager. Some support the team at games, but want the team to lose in order for Benitez to be sacked as quickly as possible. Some support the board and the team regardless. Some stay silent. Some even boo players.

A common ground will eventually be found, but – in my mind – not for a while. This could well turn out to be the ultimate winter of discontent.

At 5-1, I spotted a gaggle of tourists in the corner of the Shed Lower continually attempt to initiate the loathed “wave.” Thankfully, it never made it past a third of the way down the lower tier of the West Stand. We don’t do waves in England. It shows utmost disrespect for the players on the pitch and it detracts from the reason why supporters attend games. I pulled my telephoto lens up to my eyes just in time to see a Chelsea lad remonstrate with the entire section and I can easily imagine what words were spoken. I have the bemused reaction of the “happy clappy” tourists on film.

This match report is dedicated to that lone Chelsea fan. Good work son.

On the pitch, Oscar side-footed home to make it 6-1. Mata was replaced by Paolo Ferreira and both players were given a great reception. More chances came to Chelsea, who were now hitting the visitors hard. I captured a perfect rabona by Fernando Torres down below me on film. Torres’ confidence has taken a massive hit since those halcyon days of – when? – October (ha!) but I hope he recovers and recovers quickly. His play, let’s be honest, in the past month has been shocking.

The game ended with a 6-1 win, but we were out of the Champions League. I stared in disbelief at the end, but I soon ended up being annoyed with myself. I had clearly been guilty, in our embroilment with the Champions League since 1999, to have been rather dismissive of the other trophies on offer. The Europa League is the second most prestigious prize in the UEFA portfolio. Back in 1977 or 1983 or 1990 or 1993 I would have given the world to take part in any European competition. Let’s win the Europa League in Amsterdam.

As for the Champions league, at least we had Munich.

We’ll always have Munich.

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