Tales From Classic Chelsea.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 4 February 2017.

I was not worried about this game. I was convinced that we would beat Arsenal. My optimism actually surprised me since I am not usually so gung-ho about matches against one of the top four, five or six. But this season, or more importantly at this moment of this season, I was not concerned one little bit. There is just something so inherently fragile about Arsenal. Their current form has dipped. Indeed, their last four visits to SW6 have all ended in defeat; we were aiming to make it five in a row.

The boys were keen to be in London as soon as possible. I awoke to the confirmation that we would be repeating the day’s game against Arsenal in Beijing during the summer. Sign me up for that. My mate Glenn is keen too.

Chelsea fans in move to China shock.

Everything was fine and dandy as I collected The Fun Boy Three for our second game in five days; a lovely week of beer and football was continuing. We re-capped on the alcohol-induced highlights from Merseyside, and prepared for another – but much shorter – drinking session. We spoke how quiet the January transfer window had been in general. For our club, most of our activity involved players leaving. We said goodbye to Oscar – OK, in December – and Jon Obi Mikel, bound for China. On the last few days of the window, we heard confirmation that Branislav Ivanovic was off to Russia. That goal against Brentford was indeed his parting gift to us. They will all be missed. But these adjustments represented a purging of the squad, and we hoped that the arrival of Nathan Ake would be mirrored by other loanees returning. I was not concerned that no major signing took place. It underlined how happy everyone was with the current squad.

I was parked-up at just before 10am. We marched past around forty souls waiting in line for The Goose to open its doors at 10am and made a bee-line for “The Chelsea Pensioner.” I had hopes to meet up with a few friends from near and far. I was not disappointed. I last bumped into George and Petr – both from the Czech Republic – at the first game of the season, the friendly in Vienna against Rapid. They were ecstatic at being in town for such a high-profile game. Andy – from California – and his trusty beige jacket soon appeared and a few laughs were shared. He was again in town for one game only and it’s always a pleasure to see him. I briefly chatted to a group of young lads from New York, all bedecked in Chelsea bar scarves, knocking back lager like it had gone out of fashion. I asked if they had heard of the New York Blues, and was surprised to hear that they hadn’t. My guess that they were enjoying the beer in “The Pensioner” so much as they would have been under the drinking age back in the USA. Andy wondered how they had managed to get tickets. There was around ten in their group. An older couple seemed to be their chaperones. We presumed that they had stumped up for some sort of corporate package. I had a little chuckle to myself when two of them unveiled Stone Island tops.

File under “ah, bless.”

Anyway, I wished them well. When I was a young kid, standing on The Shed, I always loved how I was welcomed into the Chelsea family even though I was from Somerset, and there has never been any kind of London-only elitism about our club. At least domestically. These days, there is a certain wariness among the Chelsea support about our overseas fans. But I can spot “proper” fans a mile off. It’s a shame that the bona fide ones are lumped into the same category as half-and-half scarf wearing fools and those silent ones who don’t engage in our football culture of singing at games.

We popped next door to “The Fox & Pheasant” and met up with a few other mates. Lunchtime games still feel odd. I remembered a similar game from 2014 ; Arsene Wenger’s one thousandth game and Chelsea 6  Arsenal 0. What a game. What a memory. We were on fire that day. I had mentioned that an early goal in 2017 would settle us and I silently wondered if a similar score line might follow.

There was no surprise that Nemanja Matic continued to partner N’Golo Kante. There was simply no room for Cesc Fabregas. Elsewhere, Pedro got the nod over Willian. It would be our strongest team for sure.

Neil Barnett spoke about Branislav Ivanovic and also Frank Lampard, who had announced his retirement from football during the week. A large Lampard banner hung proudly from the Matthew Harding as the teams strode onto the pitch. A montage of Frank Lampard moments were shown on the TV screen.

His exploits have been well documented in these match reports.

As I wrote in Mark Worrall’s book in 2013, when speaking about his goal at Villa Park which took him to a record-breaking 203 Chelsea goals, “his professionalism, his dedication, his spirit and his strength are much admired by all. We love him to bits.”

My favourite Chelsea player remains Pat Nevin. The most loved Chelsea player is probably Peter Osgood. But our greatest-ever player may well be Frank Lampard.

Enjoy your retirement, Sir Frank.

For once, Arsenal had a few flags. One simply stated “The Arsenal. Never outgunned.”

Yeah, right.

I wasn’t sure why Wenger had not chosen Welbeck or Giroud to give a little support to Sanchez upfront but I hoped that the little forward would not create havoc. We looked a little nervous during the first few minutes to be quite honest. Alex Iwobi pounced on some sloppy defensive play and sent a low shot towards Thibaut Courtois. It edged wide but only after the slightest of deflections. It was a warning sign that things might not go all our own way. Arsenal continued to move the ball around well. We then managed to get hold of the ball and our football began to shine. Gary Cahill rose unhindered at the far post but headed down and not towards the Arsenal goal.

There was a moment when the ball broke and both Eden Hazard and Pedro, out of position really, were running at the same Arsenal defender. I imagined a white flag being waved amid howls of pain.

On twelve minutes, we worked the ball out to Pedro and his magnificent cross was met by a high leap by Diego Costa. His powerful header crashed against the top of the bar. The ball spun up and seemed take forever to descend. Peter Cech was still scrambling back to his feet as Marcos Alonso sped in and headed the ball in. The crowd roared our pleasure. There was that early goal. Full credit to our left wingback to get his arse inside the box for a potential “second ball.”

One nil to Chelsea.

There was a break in play as Bellerin, laid asunder by Alonso’s challenge, was replaced by Gabriel.

Diego Costa caused the net to ripple with an angled drive.

We began to purr and enjoyed some gorgeous possession. Kante and Matic set a lot of our tone by winning plenty of loose balls, getting under Arsenal’s skin, tackling hard, then moving the ball quickly. We were relentless. This pace of ours was wonderful to watch. Eden Hazard was another on top form. One dribble out of defence was exceptional. Pedro buzzed around and never stood still. At the back, the chosen three were again playing supremely. Luiz was majestic, defending well, and releasing a few early balls for Diego. Dave was another who chased and tackled with such great desire. One Gary Cahill cushioned chest pass back to Thibaut surely had JT smiling in admiration.

I lost count of the amount of times that Arsenal were robbed of possession not by one Chelsea player but the contributions of two team mates working together.

Kante rushing to get close to Ozil, not actually tackling him or getting a touch on the ball, but putting the Arsenal player under so much pressure, that the subsequent heavy touch was pounced upon by Matic.

Chelsea hunting in packs; “unleashing the dogs” as a neighbour used to say to describe the Manchester United midfield of twenty years ago. Despite our dominance Courtois did well to push away a header from Gabriel, a defender so ugly that he makes Martin Keown look like a member of a boy band, and there was an even better save, low, to deny Ozil. It was a fine game of football.

The three thousand Arsenal supporters were very quiet. Apart from one “WWYWYWS?” there were a couple of monotone “Aaaaaaarsenal, Aaaaaaarsenal” dirges and that was about it.

Diego Costa continued to lead the line well as the second-half began. One shot was saved well by Petr Cech.

Seven minutes into the second-half, we were able to witness one of the very great Chelsea goals. And it was very much a typical – a classic – Chelsea goal. David Luiz cleared an Arsenal punt up field with a cushioned clearance towards Diego Costa. Facing his own goal and inside his own half, he did so well to flick the ball on, under pressure, to Eden Hazard. Eden, a few yards inside his own half, turned and set off. He raced away, his low centre of gravity allowing him to shake off challenges en route. One defender, Coquelin, spun off him like a drunken dancer, and as he continued his high-paced drive towards goal, there was widespread panic in the Arsenal defence akin to that experienced by children when they lose their mothers in supermarkets. We watched, hearts in mouths – me with my camera quickly brought up to my eye – and watched as he bore in on goal. It was a one-man onslaught. One final shake of the hips that Elvis Presley would have been proud, and Eden had slalomed the last two chasing defenders. He dinked the ball past the falling Cech and the Earth seemed to jolt off its axis.

I caught his beatific dance towards the far corner on camera, but inside my heart was pounding, and I felt myself smiling wide.

Click, click, click, click.

I hope that you like them.

At last, that stubborn old fucker Wenger brought on Olivier Giroud who must surely be the doyen of every self-obsessed, hipster, bar-scarf wearing, micro-brewery loving, metrosexual, sleeked back hair, bushy bearded and self-righteous Arsenal supporter everywhere. Sanchez had been remarkably quiet. On came Danny Welbeck too. Wenger, watching from the stands for this game, is now a parody of himself these days. He is surely losing his most devout fans at Arsenal. He’s just such an odd character. And I really mean odd. Just look at the way he has always celebrated goals. Not the natural outpouring of emotion of most football types; instead the delayed, queasy, fist-punch, that doesn’t fool anyone. I have a feeling for all of his alleged passion for football, I am sure he would rather be at home, sorting his socks alphabetically. He is the sort of person who eats his Sunday roast in order of nutrional value.

A cross into our box was met by Welbeck, and his strong downward header was surely headed for the goal. Not a bit of it. Thibaut dived low to his right and pushed the ball away. It looked world class to me. I instantly likened it to the Banks save against Brazil in 1970. It certainly looked similar. It was a stunning save.

In the closing moments, Antonio Conte replaced Pedro with Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard with Willian.

The applause rang out all around The Bridge.

Shortly after, in a moment of pure melodrama, Petr Cech made a complete hash of an attempted clearance. The ball darted straight towards Fabregas, who quickly lobbed the ball back towards the empty net. Time seemed to stand still yet again. Initially, I thought the chip was too high, but – no – the ball perfectly dropped into the goal. I roared again but watched as Cech turned in dismay. There was no celebration from the scorer against his former team. I felt for Cech – just a little – but not for long. What a surreal and farcical moment it was.

We were three-up and had therefore mirrored the infamous 0-3 score line at The Emirates in the autumn, a result which helped define our season, not that we knew it at the time. I still look back on the four of us, utterly distraught, sitting on a bench at Paddington Station, completely silent, and saddened by our display, unwilling to look too far into our future as the strongest memory – emotion wise – of our whole season this far.

Diego, who I thought was magnificent during the second-half, sadly blasted high after a fine run.

4-0 would have helped us forget the 0-3 further.

Kurt Zouma replaced the tireless Victor Moses and soon had a little run at the Arsenal defence himself. What a laugh this game was truly turning out to be.

Bizarrely, Arsenal scored. Giroud put down his skinny macchiato and headed in from close range.

3-1.

Oh well.

Our amazing season continues on. All of our players were simply sensational. Our crazy manager didn’t sit the entire time; he was a picture of constant involvement. He is such an endearing character. When Eden scored his phenomenal solo-goal, a beaming Roman Abramovich was briefly shown celebrating in his executive box. This was clearly the type of football that he has always wanted to see at Chelsea. And it is a brand of football that clearly makes me happy; skillful, high-tempo, passionate, emotional, relentless. It takes my breath away. I’d like to think it is a hark-back to previous styles of football played at Stamford Bridge. The ‘sixties, the early-‘seventies, 1976/1977, 1983/1984, 2004/2005.

Classic Chelsea.

Back in the car, we listened as Hull City beat Liverpool and quickly did some mathematics.

“If we win at Burnley and Liverpool beat Tottenham next weekend, we’ll be twelve points clear of them.”

I’ll drink to that. See you all at Turf Moor.

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Tales From St. Mary’s.

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 27 February 2016.

I should dislike Southampton Football Club a lot more than I do. When I was a mere eight-year-old boy, they stole my childhood hero Peter Osgood away from Stamford Bridge a mere couple of weeks before my very first Chelsea match.

That is reason enough to carry a lifetime of dislike for them – hatred would, of course, be far too strong – surely?

Looking back at this event some forty-two years later, although I can well remember the sense of pain that I felt at the time, my memories are rather sketchy, not surprisingly. But here are the facts :

My first ever Chelsea game was on Saturday 16 March 1974. Peter Osgood’s last ever Chelsea game was on Saturday 29 December 1973, although he appeared in a friendly at Aberdeen on Friday 16 February 1974.

He left Chelsea a couple of weeks before my first-ever game.

How cruel.

In those formative years of my fledgling support for Chelsea, Peter Osgood was my favourite player, my hero and my idol. He was our charismatic goal scorer and the focus of my adoration. I’ve told the story before of how some family friends, who worked alongside Peter Osgood’s sister Mandy at an office in Windsor, managed to obtain a signed 8” by 10” black and white photograph of Ossie in around 1971 or 1972, and that the excitement of opening up that brown buff envelope containing the photograph was one of the most wonderful moments of my childhood. I still have the autograph of course. It is a treasured memento to this day. Incidentally, I recently spotted a photograph of Ossie’s sister Mandy planting an oak tree in a park in Windsor in memory of her brother, and it brought my childhood memories racing back.

http://www.windsorexpress.co.uk/News/Areas/Windsor/Oak-tree-planted-in-memory-of-England-footballer-Peter-Osgood-08022016.htm

I once spoke to Peter Osgood about the signed photograph and he explained that Mandy was a fine footballer in her own right, and an England international to boot. He laughed when I suggested that she used to sport a fine pair of sideburns, too.

But in 1974, Southampton – and Peter Osgood – broke my heart.

I can vaguely remember the stories in the ‘papers and on the TV about the infamous fall out between our manager David Sexton, and a few of our star players – most notably Alan Hudson and Peter Osgood – and as the day of my first ever game approached, there was this horrible gnawing realisation that I would not be seeing Ossie play. Hudson’s last game for Chelsea was also against Liverpool in December 1973, and he was sold to Stoke City in the first few weeks of 1974. The 1970 and 1971 cup winning team was falling apart in front of my eyes, and – to my sadness – my hero Peter Osgood would be the next to leave. There are hints of an olive branch being pointed towards Ossie with his appearance in the Aberdeen friendly at Pittodrie and possibly a chance of reconciliation, but my idol was sold to Southampton for £275,000 in the first few days of March 1974.

I would never see Ossie play for Chelsea.

Although Chelsea’s 1973/1974 was far from impressive – we only just staved off relegation – it is with a certain amount of melancholy that I note that Ossie’s new club were duly relegated in the May. I am sure that this must have been a huge blow to Ossie, and I am sure that he wistfully looked on as Chelsea stayed up. With a cruel twist, I saw him play against us in March 1976 in a Second Division game, and can sadly remember the furore in the media about The Shed chanting an unsavoury song towards our former hero, and Ossie “flicking some Vs” back at them.

It wasn’t meant to be like this.

When Ossie returned for some games in 1979, our paths sadly never crossed, and his time as a Chelsea player ended with me never seeing him play in our club colours.

It is one of the few regrets that I have as a Chelsea supporter.

As we approached the tenth anniversary of Peter Osgood’s sad passing, how fitting that the Premier League fixture list should pair Southampton and Chelsea together.

For the first-ever time, we had decided to take the train to Southampton. The four of us – Parky, PD, Glenn and myself – met up at Westbury station and caught the 9.01am train down to Southampton Central. Other local blues Les and Graham were on the train too. Opposite us were four Bristolian Chelsea supporters. Throughout the day, we would bump in to many West Country Blues. It is one of the nicest attributes of Chelsea fans that Londoners very rarely take umbrage to Chelsea fans coming from other areas, unlike a couple of Northern teams that I could mention.

Soon into the trip, through rolling countryside, and then the spired city of Salisbury, Parky and PD opened up a couple of cans. I was just happy to share a few laughs as the day unfolded. It was time for me to relax. Leaving work on Friday, I was able to look forward to two fine away games within the space of just four days.

We rolled in to Southampton, breakfasted at a local café, and then joined up with many familiar Chelsea fans in “Yates’s” in the city centre. I am not particularly smitten with Southampton. Right outside the train station, there are a couple of brutal concrete tower blocks, more akin to those on show in the former communist cities of Eastern Europe, which hardly create a welcoming impression. The civic buildings and the Guildhall are fine, but the city centre seems jumbled.

As I worked my way through six pints of San Miguel, such matters disappeared from my mind.

I was able to relax, to chill out, to unwind.

It was important for me to just sit upstairs with Glenn, chatting and relaxing, rather than join in with others in the crowded ground floor, packed to the rafters, and scene of a Chelsea karaoke.

On the previous day, I had silently marked the first anniversary of my mother’s passing by taking some flowers to my parents’ grave, and I was in no mood for too much ribaldry before the game.

I remembered the time in 1981, when my mother and I watched a Southampton vs. Nottingham Forest game from the lower tier of the cramped bench seats in the East Stand at The Dell, lured by the chance to see another hero of my youth, Kevin Keegan, when a work colleague of my father gave us their two season tickets for the day.

Outside the weather looked cold. There seemed to be a biting wind. More than a few of the local police force were watching us. Only two of the central pubs allow away fans.

“Yates’s” was heaving. The lagers were going down well. Good times.

On the walk to St. Mary’s, I joked with Mick that it was lovely to see him holding hands with Pauline.

“It’s not romantic, Chris. I just needed to prise her out of the pub.”

We laughed.

St. Mary’s, positioned next to the River Itchen to the east, but hemmed in by industrial units to the south and two rusty gasometers to the north, is a rather bland stadium. It is no Dell.

There was not a lot of time to spare and I joined up with Alan and Gary in our seats just in time.

All of a sudden, among the beers, and the laughter and the song, it was time to pay attention to the actual match. Guus Hiddink, quietly going about his business and without the squealing histrionics of our previous manager, had chosen the same starting eleven that had defeated Manchester City the previous weekend. In the home team were former blues Ryan Bertrand and Oriel Romeu, both involved to varying degrees on a certain night in Munich in May 2012.

Southampton, winners at The Bridge earlier in the season, and finding their feet again under Ronald Koeman would be a tough proposition.

The Chelsea support, rising up from the darkened concourse in to the light of the stadium, were in fine voice from the start. However, an early injury to Pedro – improving of late – caused Hiddink to reconfigure. On came Oscar.

Chelsea seemed to control much of the possession during a rather tame first-half, yet Southampton were able to carve out the clearer goal scoring chances.

Thibaut Courtois seemed to be a little unsure of himself on a couple of occasions, and dithered once too often for my liking. Shane Long, the journeyman striker, headed over with our ‘keeper stranded. At the other end, the masked marksman Diego Costa went close. Southampton just seemed a little more dynamic in the final third. Whereas we passed the ball without a lot of purpose, the Saints seemed more clinical. Charlie Austin, the steal of the season, struck a firm shot past our post.

Sadly, on forty-two minutes, two defensive blunders resulted in us conceding. A high ball was weakly headed square by Baba Rahman, and Shane Long pounced. His rather heavy touch seemed, to my eyes, to be within reach of Courtois to race out and clear, but the tall Belgian seemed to react slowly. As he raced off his line, Long delicately clipped it in.

Our ten game unbeaten run in the league was under threat against a capable Southampton team. Our attempts on goal were minimal. It was a deserved lead for the home team at the break. At the interval, the ruthless Hiddink replaced Baba with Kenedy.

We slowly improved. Cheered on by the loyal three thousand, who have taken to singing about Frankie Lampard’s goal against West Ham in 2013 with ever-increasing zeal, we began stretching the Saints’ defence.

Mikel headed over.

Diego volleyed wide.

I said to Gary : “Although we have players in wide positions, we don’t really have wingers any more.”

A few tackles resulted in Martin Atkinson brandishing some yellows. Diego Costa looked like a man “in the mood” and some of his industry seemed to inspire others.

At the other end, a rare Southampton attack ended with a robust challenge on Austin by Cahill. From my position some one hundred yards away, it was clearly not a penalty.

Cough, cough.

Eden Hazard, finding pockets of space, played the ball out to a rampaging Diego Costa. He managed to pull the ball back to Cesc Fabregas, who advanced. He played the ball – almost lazily – in to the box, and I was right behind the course of the ball as it avoided a lunge by Hazard and a late reaction by Forster. It nestled inside the net and the Chelsea support screamed.

What a strange, odd, easy goal.

It had was a fine reward for our increasing urgency in the last portion of the game.

In the eighty-ninth minute, we won a corner and Willian – often unable to get his corners past the first man – sent over a fine ball with pace. The warhorse Ivanovic timed his jump to perfection and his thundering header crashed down past Forster.

Get in.

The Chelsea support again screamed.

Hiddink shored things up with the late addition of Nemanja Matic, and the game was safe.

On a day of late goals, we were more than grateful to hear that Leicester City had grabbed an 89 minute winner of their own.

Get in.

There were songs as we walked back towards the train station. This doesn’t happen too often. It seemed to underline the new sense of belief and happiness within our ranks at the moment.

We had time to relax before catching the train home. There was time for two more pints, and a lovely assessment of our resurgence, not only in the last quarter of the game, but over the past few months.

Back in Frome, Glenn and myself finished off the day with a few more drinks, with more reflections on our fine time among good friends, and then, finally, a late night curry.

It had been a wonderful away day.

On Tuesday evening, we reassemble at the home of Norwich City, another of Peter Osgood’s clubs, and our most famous number nine will again be in our thoughts once more.

See you there.

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Tales From The Toon.

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 26 September 2015.

When I left the office at around 5pm on Friday, and slowly paced across to my waiting car, there was a rising feeling of contentment. My week’s work completed, I would now be on holiday for five days, with a couple of Chelsea trips, to Newcastle and Porto, thrown in for good measure. Five days of relaxation with a few good mates and The Great Unpredictables.

Life rarely gets much better.

On the Saturday morning, I needed to be up early. I set the alarm for 4.30am, and meticulously packed for two trips. On the Sunday, the schedule was tight. I would be arriving back from the North-East at Bristol airport at 2.15pm, but heading out from the same airport to Portugal at 6pm. It is just as well that some good friends of mine live but a five minute car ride from the airport. It meant that I could leave my car, and bag for the European leg, at their house without having to drive back home.

I left home on the Saturday at around 6.15am. There was a great feeling of escape. The Mendip Hills were waking, and the air was crisp and perfect, with mist hugging the lower levels of land. Childhood memories flooded my mind. At Burrington Combe – a less dramatic version of Cheddar Gorge – one distinct memory returned. When I was a young’un, from the age of four or five onwards, whenever we went on a trip, I always seemed to take my football. There might be a lawn at the house of an uncle and aunt where I could pop out and kick a ball around while conversations inside continued. I always took my ball to beach visits. It was a constant companion.

A boy and his ball.

On one particular occasion, when my parents and I visited Burrington Coombe – I was surely no more than six years of age – we walked up to the top of a hill overlooking a deep valley. Until then, my father would always kick the ball back to me. On this occasion, I always remember that my mother joined in too. And I always remember being really impressed with this. It showed my mother in a new light, happy to join in a previously “father and son” activity, with dear Mum laughing and smiling as we kicked the ball between ourselves. That afternoon always sticks in my mind. It was one of those early moments of my childhood that brings me great pleasure in remembering.

A father, a mother, a son and a ball.

It has been a tough year, but these memories bring me great sustenance.

On the short drive from Pete’s house to the airport, we chatted about football, family and work (possibly in that order, I can’t remember) and it is ironic that Pete supports Newcastle United. When Newcastle United were newly-arrived in the Premier League in 1993, we always said that we would drive up to Newcastle for a game against Chelsea. We never did. I hope we can do it over the next few seasons, especially since air travel between Bristol and Newcastle has made this such a great option. Sadly, Pete has – like many Newcastle supporters – become totally disillusioned with the way the club is run of late. He would be tuning in to the England versus Wales rugby match after the game between our two clubs, and I had a horrible feeling that I knew which game he was looking forward to more.

I had to laugh when we spotted a gathering of magpies in the middle of a country lane as we approached the airport. They soon flew off. I quickly counted them.

“Five.”

“One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl and four for a boy.  Five for silver.”

“Silverware, Pete.”

“You’re joking aren’t you?”

“Yes, perhaps you are right. Silver hair maybe.”

As Pete dropped me off at Bristol airport, we exchanged pleasantries.

“Cheers mate. Enjoy the Toon. See you tomorrow.”

“Cheers Pete. Enjoy…the rugby.”

The flight left Bristol at 8.40am and I recognised a smattering of West Country blues on board. I don’t attend every Chelsea game at St. James’ Park – far from it – due to the long distances involved. This would only be my ninth such trip. But I have enjoyed them all. Newcastle is one of my favourite away destinations. In 2013, I flew up for the first-time and, despite the 0-2 defeat, had an enjoyable time, though I am still struggling to remember how I managed to get back from the centre of the city to my hotel that evening. In 2015, there would be no boozy repeats; I needed to keep a clear head for Sunday.

On the metro in to the city, I chatted to a Chelsea fan from Weston-Super-Mare who was on the flight. He used to sit right behind me in the MHU for around five seasons. I see him sporadically. It was great to see him again.

Although the West of England was full of early morning sun, a bank of cloud enveloped the North of England as we crossed the Pennines. Newcastle was grey, but thankfully not cold. As soon as I reached the city centre at around 10.15am, I retraced my steps from 2013 and headed down to the quayside where I enjoyed a late breakfast, overlooking the River Tyne.

This area is wonderfully photogenic, with four or five bridges of various styles traversing the river. My camera clicked away madly, especially when the Gateshead Millennium Bridge was raised to allow a yacht pass underneath.

The iconic rail bridge was adorned with a “Rugby World Cup 2015” banner and I noted many rugby fans drinking in the river-side bars. Maybe there is a game at St. James’ Park on the Sunday. I really would not know, nor even care. I enjoyed a pint in the “Hop and Cleaver”, which is a wonderfully renovated old pub, with exposed brickwork and high ceilings. I then huffed and puffed my way up the 107 steps to the high land by the site of the original castle. Porto, too, is a city located on a river with high gorges and iconic bridges. It will be a theme for these few days.

At around 1pm, I met up with Kev from Edinburgh in “The Victoria Comet.” I passed over his match ticket, and we chatted about our trip to Porto. I first met Kev over in Lisbon virtually a year ago and here we were again. I then met up with Joe and Michelle, from Chicago, who I first met in Turin in 2009, and – most recently – in Charlotte in the summer. Another ticket was handed over, amid talk about their plans for Porto, too. Joe and Michelle distribute “CFCUK” in the USA and it was a pleasure to see them again.

I excused myself and headed up to my hotel in West Jesmond to check in. I enjoyed a pint in a local pub, The Lonsdale, as I waited to catch a metro train back in to the centre. I overheard a group of Newcastle fans bemoaning the state of their club. I had a quiet chuckle to myself when I heard one of them recount the famous story of the loathed Joe Kinnear, as their director of football, hearing good stories from a club scout about a player playing in a foreign team and making tentative requests to sign him. This player, infamously, already was a Newcastle player and was merely on loan with this team.

As they say :

“You couldn’t make it up.”

On the walk to the stadium, on that little cut through in the Chinatown area, I happened to spot “The Back Page” which was an Aladdin’s Cave of football memorabilia, and not just of the home town team. I have mentioned before in these reports of my fascination with the former Newcastle United and Chelsea player Hughie Gallacher, a ticking time bomb of a centre forward, who starred for both teams in the ‘thirties. I have long wanted to buy a book written on the 5’ 6” firebrand by Paul Joannou, so I thought I would try my luck. At first, I was met with a negative response from Kev, the shop owner.

“Maybes on Amazon like, and then yez talking silly money, maybes £150.”

We continued talking and he could tell that I knew my football. He then seemed to think they might have copies and so disappeared downstairs. He came back with not one but three copies.

“We have so many Newcastle books down there. I had this inkling we might have one.”

I was ecstatic, but the price was a £50.

“Put it to one side and I’ll be back after the game.”

On the short walk up to the stadium, I stopped to take a photograph of the Bobby Robson statue.

After the 107 steps earlier in the day, I was now confronted with 140 steps to the top of the towering stand at the Leazes End. I had forgotten how small the pitch looks from the top tier. The Chelsea support, as always in Newcastle, was swollen by a large number of Rangers – and Hearts – fans, who took over the bar areas with some of their songs and chants. I momentarily spotted Simon’s son Milo – eighteen now, and travelling independently of father – soaked in beer. His face was a picture, though.

We had tickets for three thousand and there were only a few empty seats.

The home areas took forever to fill up. At 5pm, the ground looked empty.

Newcastle were in a terrible run of form, and many conversations that I enjoyed throughout the day included these words :

“Surely we will win today.”

The news was that Jose Mourinho had again decided to go with Cahill and Zouma; no JT. Upfront, I was glad to see Loic Remy given the start. Elsewhere, there were few surprises.

Begovic.

Ivanovic, Cahill, Zouma, Apilicueta.

Matic, Fabregas.

Oscar, Hazard, Pedro.

Remy.

There were unfamiliar faces aplenty in the home team. At last the home areas were populated, but I spotted many empty seats; those of disinterested and disenfranchised Toon fans.

We began OK – lots of the ball – but as the first-half progressed, there were rising levels of frustration within the Chelsea support at our general play. After our three consecutive wins and a presumed upturn in our confidence, we were showing exactly the types of problems inherent within our poor start to the season.

Lack of movement off the ball.

No pace.

No width.

A lack of intensity.

No pressing.

Defensive frailties.

Exposure down our right.

Possession with no penetration.

A lack of leadership.

The nine deadly sins.

As the half progressed, our noisy support waned. I remember a Remy snapshot and a fine effort from Febregas. But Newcastle were creating more chances than us, and we had to rely on Asmir Begovic to keep us from going behind. The mood in the away seats was of disbelief and at times anger.

“Cam on Chowls, get in to them.”

Blame the first goal on me. I stupidly commented to Gary :

“Oh God, the last thing we want is to conceded just before half-time.”

With that, an innocuous cross from the Newcastle right from Anita drifted over the head of Kurt Zouma and Perez, to our disbelief, was able to bring the ball down, with Ivanovic too far away to act, and adroitly touch the ball in off the post.

It was a goal which absolutely summed up our woes in 2015.

The home support roared, we were gobsmacked.

During half-time, this typical of my comments :

“Shite. Absolute shite. We had two or three chances, they have had six or seven. Have we won a tackle? We have made a very poor team look good. With City losing again, here was a chance for us to make a statement.”

In the second-half, the roundly booed Remy (who played for Newcastle in 2013/2014 and scored against us in the corresponding fixture that season) had two headers, though one was offside. Our play improved, with a little more drive, but a goal seemed as distant as ever. After a fine run by Hazard, the move broke down, and Newcastle immediately broke away in one of their first real attacks of the game. A corner ensued and we watched – absolutely aghast – as Wijnaldum managed to get his stooping head to a low cross to head home past Begovic. I am not usually angry with our heroes, but on this occasion I screamed “free header” in absolute anger.

I was silent, stewing in my own juices, for minutes after.

“For Fuck Sake.”

I wondered what John Terry was thinking.

So, here we were.

0-2 in 2013.

1-2 in 2014.

0-2 in 2015.

Despite our slight improvement in our play, we were staring defeat in the eyes. The away end was now full of supporters who were venting more and more scorn on the manager and the players. The manager had been wanting to bring on Falcao – for Remy – and Willian – for Matic – for a while, but they now appeared.

“To be honest Kev, I can see them getting a third.”

Our play was still frustrating us all. Some supporters left to return to the bars of The Bigg Market.

Ramires replaced Oscar. His impact was great.

Eden Hazard was showing a little more spirit, and he played the ball square to our Brazilan number seven. Without hardly a thought, he ripped a fine shot high past Krul in to the top corner.

“Get in.”

It was as surprising as it was impressive.

The spirit raised within our ranks, our support levels climbed several notches. Hazard led the way, but was often crowded out. A magnificent ball from deep from Fabregas, his head bandaged now, picked out a run from Pedro, but his touch was heavy and the chance gone.

With three minutes remaining, Willian swung in a free-kick towards Krul’s goal. I had my camera poised and clicked just as the ball evaded Ramires’ lunge and dropped in past the dithering Newcastle ‘keeper. It was a goal which was so similar to the one against Tel Aviv recently.

“YEEEES.”

Kev and I grabbed each other around the waist and bounced up and down for ages.

We were loud now.

“Champions Of England. We Know What We Are.”

There was joy and also disbelief in our and. It was an amazing turnaround. We even had the chance to win it in the last few minutes, but Ramires’ header was dramatically clawed away by Krul.

Two points dropped or a point gained?

We will know in May.

I bounced down the 140 steps and we were out in to the Newcastle night. I said my goodbyes to Kev outside “The Back Page” – it billed itself as “A Football Pervert’s Paradise” – and went in to purchase the book on Hughie Gallacher. The shop owner slipped in a couple of other books too. That was a nice gesture. We had a good old chat about the game and our two respective clubs. Perfect.

It had been a fine day on the banks of the River Tyne.

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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.

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Tales From The Road To Recovery.

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 23 August 2015.

This game had it all. Thankfully it had the most precious commodity; three points to us. Because, let’s make no mistake about it, a defeat at West Bromwich Albion would have dealt a huge blow to our immediate welfare and would have given those outside our club reason to swarm like birds of prey over us. Yes, it was only the third league game of the season – and I know titles are not decided in August – but surely everyone connected with Chelsea Football Club was hoping and praying for a win, any win, but a win.

It had been a fairly typical pre-match for a game at The Hawthorns. The morning had started off, however, with a torrential cloudburst and the few miles that I drove to collect Lord Parky filled me with dread for the rest of the day. Surely, it wouldn’t be as miserable and treacherous for the entire journey north? The rain lashed against my windscreen, the spray made visibility difficult and the surface water ebbed and flowed at the kerbside and it was the worst driving conditions that I had encountered for ages. And I hadn’t even left Somerset yet.

The clouds were dark overhead and the mood was sombre.

It clearly wasn’t a good start to the day.

Parky clambered into my waiting car, his bag full of tins of cider for the journey ahead, and we gave each other the usual abusive welcome.

For a change, we had decided to have a breakfast en route at the nearby town of Bradford-On-Avon, and this meant that we could wait for forty-five minutes or so while the worst of the storm, hopefully, would pass. A famous “Boatman” breakfast at The Lock Inn on the banks of the Kennet and Avon Canal hit the spot. I won’t give full details because it will only give any ex-pats reading both hunger pangs and home sickness. Parky washed his plate full down with a pint of Thatcher’s cider.

It was only 9.15am.

As the calories mounted up, the rain subsided.

We left just before 10am and were soon on the M4 and M5.

West Brom is an easy away game for us. It is barely over two hours from door to door. The pre-match was again spent within the confines of the Park Inn, where we encountered many of the Away Club that we met at the same location before the last away game of last season, and on many seasons previously. There was also the sighting, quite common at this location, of former football presenter Adrian Chiles, quietly drinking with a few elderly friends, and resplendent in in a “Bostin” T-shirt. Talk was of European travels with the club rather than the apparent doom-mongers among our support.

With a 1.30pm kick-off, our time was squeezed. We gulped down a couple of pints apiece. Thankfully, the rain had subsided since the early morning bursts, but the clouds were looming overhead as we made our way across the bridge which crosses the busy M5 and on to The Hawthorns, only a fifteen minute walk away. I noted that many of the home fans were wearing the Albion’s new shirt, which thankfully remains true to their history, with navy and white stripes rather than the strange, unbecoming, white with navy pinstripes of last season. There is only one team that can pull that off, and they reside in The Bronx.

Unlike in May, there was no tedious wait at the turnstiles. We were in with time to spare.

As I joined up with Alan and Gary, plus countless others, there was time to run through the team that manager Mourinho had chosen. If I am honest, I was not at all surprised that Branislav Ivanovic had maintained his place. There had been a clamour among the FIFA16 managers within our support for new boy Baba Rahman to be handed his Chelsea debut on the left-hand side of our suddenly troubled defence with Cesar Azpilicueta shifting over to the right. Rather than risk the young lad in a new team, with new team mates, a new system, a new country, a new league and a new stadium, Jose Mourinho chose the old war horse Brana instead. Debuting in a defence under scrutiny, in a tough “must win” away game is always more difficult, in my opinion, than a new player joining the team further up field, as in the case of Pedro, who was handed a Chelsea start immediately. The other change was Kurt Zouma being drafted alongside John Terry, replacing Gary Cahill. This was an interesting twist really, since several were thinking that the substitution of our captain at half-time at Manchester City would herald a new dawn. Gary Cahill has been a fine servant for us, though I sometimes cringe when he has time on the ball, and when he seems to awkwardly shift from one leg to the other like a cat on a hot tin roof, wondering what on earth to do with the ball at his feet. Regardless, I am confident that he can play a part this season, and the growing transfer talk of John Stones might inspire him. Courtois, of course, was back between the sticks.

Just before the teams emerged it began raining. Although it was August, in the early afternoon, the floodlights were on.

British summertime.

A first look at our third kit. All black, but with a certain degree of nastiness going on with the shorts, as if they had seen too much sun, and faded to grey.

The three thousand Chelsea loyalists were all together in the Smethwick End. In the lower corners of the side stands – the home areas – seats were empty.

As the rain fell, the game began.

It was a lively start from both teams and I was encouraged with the way that Diego Costa battled and held off a robust challenge before giving himself half a yard but then screwing a shot wide. It was just the sort of tenacious play that our number nineteen brings to our team.

A silly challenge by Nemanja Matic on Callum McManaman, with the West Brom player dribbling away from goal, gave referee Mark Clattenburg no choice but to award a penalty kick.

“Oh hell, here we go again.”

Thankfully, the penalty by James Morrison was drilled centrally and Thibaut was able to block with a flick of a trailing leg. The Chelsea support roared.

On two separate occasions in the opening quarter, Eden Hazard slipped away from markers using exquisite skill in tight areas, turning 180 degrees and opening up space in an instant. He is as slippery as an eel. On twenty minutes, Pedro – who had only flitted in and out of the game until then – exchanged passes with Hazard and drove in to the heart of the Albion defence. Within a blink of the eye, our new signing had feinted to create a little space and despatched a low shot goal wards.

His joy, running over to the far corner, was matched by ours.

We were on our way.

“Are you watching Man-chest-er?”

On the half hour, we broke quickly – for once – and Willian found Pedro on the right, who drove on. I snapped my camera just as he appeared to shoot, but the ball was more of a cross, which the surging Diego Costa was able to meet with a perfectly-timed slide.

We were 2-0 up, and loving it. Diego fell to his knees in front of the home fans in the Birmingham Road end.

“We are staying up. Say we are staying up.”

However, in an open game, West Brom pulled a goal back when new signing Rondon did well to keep a ball alive and hooked it back to Morrison. He managed to drill the ball low through some covering defenders.

2-1.

The home support alongside us were now making some noise of their own. We countered, poking fun at the empty seats to our left and right –

“Your grounds too big for you.”

A Willian miss, after good work from Pedro, caused us all to groan. However, soon after we restored our two goal lead. A move down the right found Diego Costa, who appeared to be fouled. All of my attention, and maybe that of the sleeping home defence, seemed to be on that, because nobody picked up the raiding Azpilicueta who nipped in to slip the loose ball home.

3-1.

There were smiles at half-time and quite rightly. This was more like it Chelsea.

In the crowded concourse, full of beer and ribaldry, the “Juliano Belletti” chant of a few years back was reworked, though I am not quite sure how we managed it, with fewer syllables up for grabs:

“Ped-ro-oo Rodriguez, Ped-ro-oo Rodriguez.”

Soon in to the second half, our world seemed to crumble. A long ball was pumped forward towards Rondon and with Courtois seemingly unable to intercept, John Terry challenged with what appeared to be a clumsy tackle. I immediately smelled fear. Without too much deliberation, the red card was brandished. This was a little similar to what befell John during the opening period of the second-half in our game at the same venue in May. Then, a penalty after a last ditch challenge. This time, the same. But no, wait, thankfully the challenge was just outside the penalty area.

The resulting free-kick thankfully came to nothing.

But we were down to ten men with many many minutes remaining.

Willian was sacrificed to allow the masked man Cahill to enter the fray.

Further doubts entered our collective minds when Morrison’s leap inside the box resulted in the ball looping up and in above Courtois’ despairing hands.

3-2 now and the Albion fans were the noisiest of the entire game, singing songs that only they could decipher.

This was going to be a long thirty minutes.

We didn’t retire into our shell, nor did we submit territorially. We kept plugging away, though the game seemed to bypass one particular player. For one who allegedly starts seasons on fire and then fades, Cesc Fabregas has hardly set the world alight in August. Some would say he is too lightweight to anchor the midfield, but on this occasion he failed to knit much together offensively. I hope for greater things from our number four. His magic hat seems to have been mislaid.

Matic came close with a free-kick. Diego Costa created a good with a typical piece of aggressive running. Down at the Birmingham End, Rondon belted a good chance wide and we all knew that we had escaped. This was tense stuff. There was more to come. The Chelsea faithful, inside the stadium and outside, were being tormented every time the Baggies attacked.

McManaman should have equalised for West Brom, but the ball whistled past the post. Another coat of paint, and the ball would have hit the upright. We breathed in as the ball was struck, we exhaled as it flew in to the advertising hoardings.

“Fackinell.”

Among the onslaught, Kurt Zouma seemed to repel everything. His distribution might lack a certain refinement, but his defensive strengths are evident for all to see.

We still created half-chances. Another for Diego Costa, who was then replaced by Falcao, who himself narrowly missed after failing to properly connect. I remember our last win at West Brom, back in 2011, when Fernando Torres was mired in his own personal hell, and when he was ridiculously unfortunate not to open his Chelsea account. I wonder what the future holds for our current number nine.

Our new starlet Pedro was replaced by Jon Obi Mikel, and I welcomed his addition as we attempted to dampen the attacks.

I commented to Alan that it wouldn’t be long before Chelsea fans near and far would be irritated by his very presence on the pitch.

He was soon showing his prowess in nullifying our opponents though, nibbling at any potential threat, and then playing the ball simply.

I was able to admire the close skills of Eden Hazard, dribbling his way around several nameless West Brom defenders down below me in the near corner. By this stage, late on, this bewitching show of twists and turns, shimmies and feints, were mainly in the guise of maintaining possession and – dare I say it – time wasting, but, even so, was a joy to watch. How he accelerates away with that ridiculously low centre of gravity, is one of the great joys of watching Chelsea in 2015. He even came close after a lovely ball from the hard-working Matic.

In the last ten minutes, the sun appeared. We would be saved from getting drenched on the march back to the car.

Courtois was involved throughout the last ten minutes of normal time and the five minutes of extra time. He did not let us down.

The minutes passed.

Tick tock.

A few shouts for the ref to “blow up.”

The game continued.

“Fackinell ref.”

The whistle blew and we could relax.

It was our eighth game of the season – I have seen them all – and our first win, not including those odd wins on penalties in Charlotte and DC.

We are still, obviously, on our road to recovery and there are still issues surrounding our team, but – boy – it was wonderful to finally get three points on the board. Did I enjoy it? I enjoyed the final whistle. These tense games certainly take it out of you. I felt like I had aged ten years over the second-half.

Phew.

There were a few handshakes with a few good friends. The mood was of relief.

Rob, who learned on the Thursday that his son was finally cancer free, suddenly appeared to my right. A handshake and a smile for him, especially.

I said just a few words.

“It’s been a good week.”

Rob’s smile said it all.

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Tales From The Malt House.

Chelsea vs. Swansea City : 8 August 2015.

The same four Chelsea supporters that had battled the awful traffic for last season’s league opener at Burnley were back together, twelve months later, for the first league game of 2015/2016. I was joined on my trip to London, the home of the champions, by three good friends; Glenn, PD and Lord Parky. And although the early evening game against Swansea City would be my sixth Chelsea match of the season, there was no doubt that all of the other encounters, to various degrees, were much less important than this one.

This one would matter.

Game one.

Game on.

Slowed by some traffic around Swindon, I sped away and made good time. Although we had been chatting away like mad at the start, by the time we had reached Reading, the conversations had dwindled. As I pulled out of the M4 services, almost apologetically – everyone knows how much I dislike discussing upcoming games ad nauseam – I suggested that it was appropriate that we ran through our projected line-up for the game ahead.

I took the lead.

“Well, the back five picks itself surely? Courtois, Dave, JT, Cahill, Brana. I think he’ll go with Matic and Fabregas. I am thinking Willian, Hazard and Oscar. And let’s hope he is fit, Diego Costa.”

Glenn agreed. Parky and PD stuck to their ciders.

“There’s the team sorted then.”

We passed the town of Slough, where my local team Frome Town were opening up their league campaign of 2015/2016.

It was a full on day of football.

The waiting was over.

After calling in at The Goose, with the beer garden sun kissed and overflowing but with fellow supporters being rather guarded about how well they thought Chelsea would fare this season, Glenn and I popped down to The Malt House. By that time, John – an acquaintance visiting from Los Angeles – had joined us. He has been living in London since March working on the score of the latest of the Mission Impossible series of movies.

“Mission Impossible.”

I wondered if our defence of the league championship might be similarly-named. Some friends in The Goose might have agreed with that working title. As for myself, I was relatively confident in our chances, though expected Manchester United to press us harder than any. I felt that Arsenal would flatter to deceive – that lovely football phrase – while I had doubts about Manchester City’s team spirit. Above all, we have Mourinho. He may irritate me at times with his outbursts, but lest we forget that he is one of the very best coaches in world football.

We bumped into Big John and his son Chris in The Malt House, which was decidedly less popular than The Goose, due in part perhaps to the more expensive prices. We enjoyed a good hour or so of banter. I chatted about my enjoyable trip to the US for the summer tour and we discussed the rise of football in that part of the world. John, clearly happy to be among some Chelsea “lifers,” spoke about how he became a Chelsea supporter and cited Gianfranco Zola as a deciding factor in choosing us, over Arsenal especially, in 1996. Big John was keen to hear about our support on the other side of the Atlantic. I warned him that many of the US supporters appear to love talking about tactics and trades. John smiled, and I know him well enough to know where he was going :

“I know a lot about Chelsea, but I know fuck all about football.”

We laughed.

For a change, we left enough time to calmly reach Stamford Bridge before the crush.

The news had filtered through about the team.

“Costa starts.”

It was the same team that I had named earlier.

Inside, I was saddened to see a large wedge of empty seats in the Shed Upper. They were obviously some of the 3,000 away tickets which Swansea City had not managed to sell. This is disappointing. It meant that around five hundred tickets were left unsold.

As the teams entered the stadium, I spotted a large and Italian-style banner, being held aloft by the inhabitants of the first few rows of the Shed Upper.

“We Are The Shed.”

Sadly, the two pensioners in our row – Joe and Tom – were not present. We wondered if they would be well enough to attend many more matches at all.

As the game began under a perfect London sky, the atmosphere was bubbling. There was cut and thrust in equal measure from both teams in a lively start. The hulk of Bafetimbi Gomis rose to meet a corner, but his header thankfully passed the post. As he was defending the part of the Stamford Bridge pitch closest to my seat, I could not help but notice that the first four times that Branislav Ivanovic was involved in the game, he either miss-controlled, lost his marker or missed a tackle. After a far from impressive start, I felt I had to keep an eye on Brana throughout the game. Usually so reliable, his form has worried me thus far this season. I’ll give him the benefit of time, though.

Good old Brana.

We looked impressive as we attacked the Shed End, with fine movement and intricate passing. Oscar again looked in fine form.

A lovely Swansea move, involving the strongly-booed Shelvey, found Gomis and a magnificently-timed tackle from John Terry saved our skins. Courtois then saved well from Ki Sung-Yueng. This was evidently a good game of football. The crowd were so obviously paying great attention to every twist and turn, in a way that was so missing from the previous couple of games.

A chance for Diego Costa, and a tumble inside the box, but no penalty. Soon after, a foul on Dave resulted in a Chelsea free-kick. Oscar punched a low cross in to the heart of the Swansea box, and the ball appeared to go unaided in to the far post.

The net rippled.

We rubbed our eyes.

Goal.

Alan and I had our first “THTCAUN / COMLD” moment of the nascent season.

However, on the half-hour mark, Swansea attacked our goal once more and after a fine Courtois block from that man Gomis, it was the nimble-footed debutant Ayew who managed to slide the ball in from the resulting melee.

Just as the Welsh hordes were celebrating with hymns and arias, we worked the ball out to Willian on the left. His attempted cross was wickedly deflected up by Fernandez and over the flat-footed and stranded former Goon Fabianski.

The hymns and arias stopped.

The Chelsea roar took over.

It had been a fine half of football. Despite Swansea’s resolute play, Chelsea had done just enough at the break to go in ahead.

As Paul Canoville – after New York, Charlotte and DC, there is no escaping him – walked the Stamford Bridge pitch at half-time, I dipped in to the match programme in search of entertainment.

Two statistical nuggets to share.

Our opening day results were listed, from 1992. Though, this in itself annoyed me. I had only recently seen someone, at Wembley I think, wearing a T-shirt in “Sky” font stating –

“Football Did Not Start In 1992.”

Anyway, twenty-three games and only three defeats, the last two at Coventry City in 1997 and 1998.

Also listed were the six highest attendances for overseas friendlies. Games in Baltimore, DC, Jakarta, California, Sydney were listed, but top of the pile was the game in 2011 that I was privileged to attend in Kuala Lumpur.

84,980.

Great memories.

Other than that, nothing much has changed in the design of the programme from last season and the season before that and the season before that. Maybe, like the megastore – which I had neither time nor inclination to visit – it needs a major overhaul.

I’ve always fancied myself as our programme editor.

Swansea came out guns-a-blazing in the second period. They peppered Thibaut’s goal with several efforts. Then, a ball from Shelvey released Gomis, who had beaten an offside trap and found himself free. As he approached the edge of the penalty box, Courtois swung a leg and Gomis tumbled. Admittedly, I was not particularly well sighted, being around one hundred yards away, but not only did it look a penalty, I was not surprised to see a red card being brandished.

Ugh.

Asmir Begovic replaced the unfortunate Oscar, who had impressed thus far.

Gomis coolly rolled the ball in from the penalty spot.

2-2.

Begovic, who some in the Chelsea fraternity have decided is not up to the job after only a handful of games, did well to save from Montero. To placate some of our fans, who apparently seem justified in pontificating about the prowess of our players despite not having much football knowledge outside of X-Boxes and Playstations, surely is a “mission impossible.”

Chelsea pressed on. At times the urgency was breathless, though not always with the required degree of skill to accompany it. Willian attacked down the right. Hazard, the little darling, attacked down the left. Without an extra man, though, we found it difficult to work the ball in to the brooding menace of Diego Costa. We urged the team on.

“Cam On Chowlsea.”

Brana headed over. At the other end, a Gomis goal was adjudged to be offside. Begovic saved well again. The ball was worked well to the dancing Eden Hazard, but his angled shot was parried away.

Despite Mourinho ringing the changes in the final quarter with King Kurt replacing a listless Fabregas and Radamel Falcao replacing the ever-willing Willian, in truth our best chances had come and gone. An errant foul by Williams on Costa drew howls of derision from others, but no penalty decision from Michael Oliver. I had noted that Costa had gone down too easily on other occasions throughout the half. Maybe that had worked against him.

In the circumstances, although I was obviously disappointed that our title defence had not opened up with three points, it is obvious that we did well to scramble a draw against a highly proficient Swansea City team, especially as we were reduced to ten players so early in the second-half. There won’t be many better teams than Swansea City who visit us in SW6 this season.

On the drive home, I stopped at Reading Services to refuel car and body. I briefly checked in on what the Chelsea Nation thought about the evening’s game via my smartphone. Although some were calm and pragmatic, others were sensationalist – “we drew against Swansea, therefore we will struggle this season” – and tiresome – “this player was rubbish, that player was rubbish” – in equal measure. For those among us who get pre-menstrual about a draw against a fine team such as Swansea City, I have to wonder if they are really suited to the life of a Chelsea supporter. In that long list of opening day results, there is a line which details a 0-0 draw at Stoke City in August 2011. I seem to remember that season ending rather well.

Next Sunday, we travel to the city of Manchester for an early-season heavyweight bout with one of our title contenders.

See you there.

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Tales From The International Champions Cup.

Chelsea vs. Fiorentina : 6 August 2015.

This was a strange evening and a strange game.

In the current climate, a home friendly is a pretty rare occurrence anyway. With our predilection for foreign climes and summer tours, a warm-up match at Stamford Bridge has been a very rare event over the past decade or so. I didn’t bother with last season’s game with Real Sociedad and, if I am honest, the only reason that I decided to attend the game with Fiorentina was because I had attended our other three “International Champions Cup” games in the US. I set off from work, alone, at 3.30pm to complete the set.

My main concern for the evening was the probable traffic chaos in London likely to be caused by the planned one-day tube strike. I sped as quickly as I could along the M4. At Reading Services, I spotted a father and daughter in Chelsea blue.

“Thought I was the only one daft enough to go tonight.”

“Should be a good game.”

Ah, the game. I hadn’t thought much about it until then.

This would be our first ever match with the viola of Florence. My very first encounter with them was on a muggy Sunday afternoon in late May 1989, when I watched a dull 1-1 draw between Juventus and Fiorentina in the home end at Stadio Communale. Apart from my first-ever sighting of Roberto Baggio – the eventual transfer of him between the two clubs would heighten animosities which exist until this day – my main recollection from that balmy Italian afternoon took place with around fifteen minutes of the game remaining.

Around 1,500 Fiorentina paninari – Timberland boots, Best Company T-shirts, Armani jeans, Burlington socks, Invicta backpacks, Schott bomber jackets, sunglasses, attitude – got a signal from their leaders, or maybe a phone call from their Juve counterparts, and quickly packed up their banners in the away end and left the terraces en masse, intent on disturbing the peace of an Italian summer on their way back to the city’s train station.

Ten years later, I was in Turin again, when Juventus boasted Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry in their team, and watched as Antonio Conte scored a very late winner against Fiorentina. He famously went down in Juve folklore that afternoon by sprinting over to the visiting Viola fans and taunting them with a black and white corner flag.

As a Juve sympathiser, there was a frisson of excitement about seeing them again sixteen years later.

As expected, I did hit some slow-moving traffic, but further out than expected. Ironically, the last section into London stayed relatively clear. At 6.15pm, I was inside The Goose, but in the strangest of circumstances. Nursing my first SW6 pint of Peroni of the season, I soon realised that there was not one single person in the pub that I recognised. I felt like I was in a parallel universe. This was going to be a strange one alright.

Thankfully, a few friends soon arrived.

Mick mentioned that he might have to leave just after half-time because of the expected ninety minute wait at the two closest mainline stations. For once, I was glad that I was driving and the master of my own destiny. The Bristol Four soon arrived and we chatted about the pre-season. We briefly spoke about Kenedy, the Brazilian lad who appeared in our team against Barcelona in Maryland. We all agreed that we could not remember the last time that a “trialist” ever appeared in our team. It’s an odd one. Like something from the amateur days of the pre-war years.

Although I was not too bothered about seeing the introduction of the first team squad to the spectators at 7pm – a full hour before kick-off – I wanted to have a leisurely stroll down the North End Road and Fulham Road. I soon noticed US-style pennants hanging from street-lights celebrating our Championship of last season, with torso shots of all of our players looking all mean and moody, and intent on repeating in 2015/2016.

I approved. It added a little to the streetscape around Stamford Bridge.

It was difficult for me to judge the size of the crowd. I didn’t expect a sell-out, especially in lieu of the London Underground strike. The place seemed busy enough. I didn’t spot any Fiorentina fans outside the stadium. I had decided to purchase a ticket in the East Upper for a change. What with the chances of the modern Stamford Bridge being demolished within the next few seasons, it might turn out to be one of my last visits. I promised myself to take more than my usual share of photographs. A different angle, a different perspective, lovely.

I had a great position in the towering East Stand, in row seven towards The Shed. The place was filling up nicely. Flags had been positioned by each seat. It was soon obvious that there were many more youngsters in attendance than usual. By all accounts the pre-game introductions were a little over the top with their US-style razzmatazz. What next? Players being parachuted in from the skies above next season?

As kick-off approached, the area around myself was full. There were chattering kids behind me, plus many more within sight. The next generation was well represented and it was good to see.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture. I like the fact that each of the four stands are slightly different, with idiosyncrasies, yet there is a common design to all. I am stirred that the new stadium designs echo these slight variances. The usual banners were out, though I noticed a few – Captain, Leader, Legend for example – looking rather faded and forlorn.

Our team contained several surprises.

Begovic – Aina, Zouma, Terry, Traore – Mikel, Loftus-Cheek – Cuadrado, Oscar, Moses – Falcao.

It would be home debuts for four.

I am sure that Ola Aina is in for a fine future at the club, but my main worry is that his name contains too many vowels for a defender.

“Too exotic son. See if you can get yourself some consonants. Work on that and you’ll be fine.”

Am I the only one who thinks our home shirts and shorts are – nicely – a deeper and darker shade of royal blue this season? They are certainly darker than the mid-blue of 2012-2013. Fiorentina, sadly but not surprisingly, showed up in white / white / violet.

Asmir Begovic did well to get down low within the first minute to save a rasping shot from distance after a simple passing move cut into our defence. We then enjoyed long spells of possession and our best twenty-five minutes of the evening. With the sun setting in the north-west corner, lighting up the sky nicely, I was settling down and enjoying this. Victor Moses, one of the stars in the United States, was again showing real promise in his determination and desire. Ruben Loftus-Cheek was impressing with his finesse and strength. We were playing some nice stuff. We were treated to a lovely Rabona from Oscar on the goal-line to my left.

I commented to the young couple to my right “I can do that after seven pints.”

I detected a foreign accent in the chap’s confused response, so I then decided to talk my way through the game with the Shed season ticket holder to my left. We had a good old natter throughout the match.

Mikel had been doing the simple stuff well, but then caused much merriment with an effort on goal which more resembled a defensive tackle.

Fiorentina then gradually took hold of the game. They kept the ball well and our play deteriorated alarmingly. On the half hour, a long raking drive smashed against Begovic’ crossbar. We had been warned. Soon after, Begovic saved well but could not smother the ball leaving an easy tap-in for Rodriguez.

The Fiorentina manager – ex-Juventus player and ex- QPR manager Paulo Sousa – was watching down below from the technical area and was increasingly pleased with his team’s performance. The little knot of away fans, no more than 150 in the bottom corner of The Shed, roared with approval too. They were, surely, mainly ex-pats. There was one “Viola Club Stockport” flag.

Fiorentina gained control and we struggled. The game went flat.

The noise, hardly tumultuous, reduced too.

At the interval, the Chelsea Women – in coats, they must have been feeling the cold – were introduced by Neil Barnett with the recently-won FA Cup.

Mourinho changed the personnel at the break, with Azpilicueta, Cahill and Ivanovic joining Zouma in defence. Matic replaced Mikel. The impressive Moses was sadly replaced by Ramires after the second of two knocks.

In truth, the second-half resembled the second-half at Wembley on Sunday; we enjoyed the majority of the ball, but found it difficult to break the opposition down. The frustration was starting to seep down to the players from the stands. Ivanovic seemed to be, again, a main source of our attacks, but again annoyed me with his final ball. As the game progressed I saw him getting increasingly annoyed with things. On one occasion he turned to the bench and had a proper rant, his face clearly contorted with rage about something or other.

“He had a face like a bulldog licking piss off a nettle” as the saying goes.

The comparison with the cool and calm and seldom-flustered Azpilicueta on the other flank could not be more dramatic.

Jose Mourinho, too, seemed to be increasingly annoyed. There were wholesale changes from both teams on the hour mark – on came Willian, Hazard, Fabregas and Remy – and Mourinho took dislike to the amount of time that Sousa orchestrated a similar amount of team changes too. It turned out to be the longest break for substitutes I can remember.

Joaquin, a visitor to Stamford Bridge with both Real Betis and Valencia in previous years, appeared among the viola substitutes. It was one name that I recognised.

“What do you mean Giancarlo Antognoni doesn’t play for them anymore?”

With more established quality in our ranks, surely a goal – and the inevitable win on penalties – would come now. Chelsea controlled possession but seemed to take forever to get going, and I lost count of the number of times the ball was passed laterally. We did improve when Willian, Hazard and Fabregas linked on a few occasions, but chances were rare. A Gary Cahill header from a Fabregas free-kick went close, and we all wondered how Remy, on for the quiet Falcao, managed to shoot wide from close range.

A rather agricultural – no, bloody clumsy – challenge from Kurt Zouma on a poor Fiorentina player – caused much merriment in the seats around me. It was, quite simply, one of the ugliest tackles that I have seen for a while.

The atmosphere, roused at times, was pretty quiet now, and parents with young families began to leave early on their long and tedious journeys home. I had commented to the Shed Ender to my left that I was impressed with the attendance. It looked to be at the 35,000 mark. Imagine my surprise when a full house of 41,435 was announced. Again, even for a friendly game, tickets sold rather than spectators in seats is used. It’s an odd one. Undoubtedly, there were empty seats around the ground too. Even so, on a night of massive travel disruption, this was a great attendance.

Despite five minutes of extra time, no equaliser was forthcoming.

“We could have played until March and not scored.”

The Shed Ender agreed.

“Sorry for the cliché, but as so often happens in these pre-season games, there are more questions than answers.”

He agreed again.

“My biggest worry is that all three of our strikers might be a knock away from being side-lined for weeks.”

I was a little subdued on my slow exit from a warm and sultry Stamford Bridge. And although I wasn’t – honestly – reading too much in to our rather lacklustre performance against a well-drilled Fiorentina team, I knew full well that out there in cyberspace, thousands of virtual Chelsea fans were throwing themselves off the nearest bridge, building or balcony as we endured another pre-season loss.

How these people would have coped in 1975, 1979 or 1988 beggars belief.

I wanted to get home as quickly as I could. Sadly, the journey home turned into one of farce as the roadworks on the A303 meant that I was severely re-routed, almost as far as Southampton damn it, and didn’t get home until 1.30am. Others, living in London, were still catching one final night bus.

A strange evening indeed.

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