Tales From The Johan Cruyff Arena

Ajax vs. Chelsea : 23 October 2019.

It had been a surprisingly long and tedious journey to the stadium from Amsterdam’s Central Station – standing room only, everyone pushed together, all of us getting warmer by the minute, around fifty minutes all told including a change of trains en route – and at last the towering roof of the stadium appeared to my left. I was with PD, who I had travelled out with from Bristol the previous morning, and Alan and Gary too. The train stopped. We exited en masse. We were back at the site of our Europa League Final victory against Benfica in 2013. It was just after five o’clock in the evening and night was yet to fall.

There was the usual rush of adrenaline that accompanies the arrival at a stadium, especially a foreign stadium, especially the home stadium of Ajax, one of the most revered clubs of the European scene. We clambered down the steps and escalators at the station and were soon out into the cool of the evening. Everything was well signposted. Ajax straight ahead. Chelsea to the left. I stopped to take a few long distance shots of the stadium – some twenty-three years old now – and my gaze focused on the image of Johan Cruyff that welcomed all. The stadium was simply called the Amsterdam Arena in 2013, but since the passing of the Dutch master in 2016, the place has been re-named in his honour.

Johan Cruyff.

What a name.

What a player.

Cruyff, along with Netzer and Muller and Beckenbauer and perhaps Eusebio, was one of the very first European players that had caught my eye in the early ‘seventies. These players, revered by the football commentators and TV pundits of the day, stirred our senses. The Ajax team, which provided many of the Dutch side, were simply in a class of their own. They oozed style. Their football was fluid. The long-haired maestros played liquid football. Everything was so seamless. Those of a certain vintage will remember Cruyff guesting at Stamford Bridge in the autumn of 1978/79 when we played New York Cosmos. Cruyff also pitted his skills against us when we played the Los Angeles Aztecs in 1979/80. And he also guested for the little-known team DS79 in 1980/81. I had mentioned the DS79 game to my friends Mark and Paul – from England, now living in The Netherlands – when they took time out of their day to meet the four of us for a pint on Rembrandt Corner, away from the masses, earlier that afternoon. It was a game that most will have forgotten. His appearance at Stamford Bridge during three consecutive seasons was one of the oddities of those years. His name, perhaps because of this, was often linked with our club.

Back in those years – oh we were awful in 1978/79, millions of the new fans of today would not have touched us with a barge pole – I was always amazed that we were linked with Johan Cruyff, and Kevin Keegan of Hamburg too, even though we were playing in the Second Division. I suppose it illustrates the point that we have always been a glamour club, and have always been linked with some of the great players. When Keegan announced that he was leaving West Germany for Southampton in 1980, I am sure I wasn’t the only Chelsea supporters who felt snubbed.

I let the others walk on as I took it all in. After I had taken a couple of photos, I showed my ticket at the security check, but was then forced to hand in my SLR. My far from comparable phone camera would have to suffice for the game.

I met up with the others again and they told me that we were getting the lift up to the upper tier where the 2,600 Chelsea were to be housed. A female steward had seen PD limping and had walked straight over, bless her. We walked through some security gates, and took the lift up to the seventh floor. She told the funny story of how a few of the Ajax stewards had travelled to Lille a few weeks back, but had been met with hostility when the local police saw their yellow tabards.

We walked through the home concourse – an odd feeling – and joined up with our own.

I was more than happy that we were in the upper tier. For our game in 2013, we were stood in the lower tier behind the goal. At least we were watching the game from a different viewpoint. Memories of Fernando Torres and Branislav Ivanovic came flooding back. It was never on the same scale as Munich the previous season, but it was still a mighty fine night out in Europe.

I remembered one song from that night which never stood the test of time :

“Strippers and whores, Ivanovic scores.”

The “we won in Munich, Munich” chant never lasted too long either.

All these memories, what lucky souls we are.

2013

The stadium was as I remembered it. Two simple tiers, but a towering and presumably ridiculously heavy roof. Under the trusses were banners illustrating the many trophies that Ajax had won over the years. It was quite a haul.

I was aware that they had played at the much smaller De Meer stadium for the period of their huge successes in the ‘seventies. I had almost seen Ajax play for the first time in 1988 when I was on one of my badge-selling circuits around Europe. I plotted up at the Olympic Stadium, which PD and I had passed in a taxi from Schipol on the Tuesday morning, for the Ajax game with Young Boys Bern, but did not sell a single bloody badge. There were other stalls selling British football badges; the niche market that I had exploited in Italy was nowhere to be seen. I was gutted. Had I sold some, I might have chanced getting a ticket. As it was, I returned back into town with my tail firmly between my legs.

The younger element aired a relatively new, if not overly original, song.

“Tammy’s on fire. Your defence is terrified. Tammy’s on fire.”

As kick-off neared, the stands filled to bursting. There were hardly any seats not in use. There was the dimming of the lights, then a dramatic use of spotlights focused on the Champions League logo. It was time for both sets of fans to perform. The noise in the Chelsea end had been sporadic, but as the yellow “Chelsea Here Chelsea There” flag was hoisted over the heads of us in the central area, the chanting increased. I took a few photos through the flag. One shot, for some reason, turned the flag green. It was as if the haze of marijuana that had followed us around central Amsterdam was now clawing at us in the stadium.

The home areas were full of white and red mosaics.

One huge banner was draped at the opposite end.

“VASTBERADEN.”

Determined.

The teams entered the pitch. Chelsea would be wearing the all black kit, with a touch of Dutch – orange trim – for good measure.

The team, I guess, had chosen itself.

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Zouma – Alonso

Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Mount – Hudson-Odoi

Abraham

I looked around and spotted a few familiar faces, but there were many people that I did not recognise. Many had come over without tickets, lured by the city of Amsterdam and all of its usual charms and pleasures. PD and I had spent a leisurely few hours on a gentle pub-crawl around our hotel in the Vondel Park part of the city on the Tuesday. We had visited three bars, and in the second one, close to the Rijksmuseum, we chatted to the barman who was an Ajax season ticket holder and who would be at the game. He produced a photograph of Johan Cruyff on a visit to the pub. It seemed that we simply could not escape his presence. In the first bar that we visited in the city centre on the Tuesday night, there was an iconic photo of Holland’s greatest son in the classic kit. There was even an image of Cruyff welcoming visitors to the city’s “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.” Later that night, I had met up with plenty of the usual suspects in the Red Light District. The drinking continued long into the small hours. I am not saying it turned into a crazy night but I did witness Wycombe Stan buying a round. Good times.

The game began with Chelsea attacking our end, the North Stand. The noise from the Ajax fans, especially those in the South Stand, was impressive.

In front of the lower tier, there were other banners illustrating the sub-culture of European football.

Amsterdam Casuals.

A Stone Island logo.

F-Side.

Perry Boys.

A mod logo.

I loved the goal nets; white with a central red stripe.

The Ajax kit has to be one of the greatest ever.

Talking of kits, I posed a question to Mark and Paul during our afternoon meet-up.

“Why do virtually all of the top Dutch teams have red and white kits?”

Ajax : red and white.

Feyenoord : red, white and black.

PSV : red and white.

Sparta Rotterdam : red and white.

Utrecht : red and white.

AZ Alkmaar : red and white.

Twente Enschede : red.

Any ideas?

Mark and Paul struggled to name any team in The Netherlands that plays in blue. You would think, with its reputation, that Amsterdam might have at least one blue team. Well, I have managed to find one. We played DWS Amsterdam back in the Fairs Cup in 1967/68 – losing on the toss of a coin – and they play in white and blue stripes, albeit in a very low league these days.

It was a very lively start to the match. Before the game, we had all uttered “we’ll take a draw now” and as the play flowed from end to end, it felt that it would be a night of goals. An early handball shout against Marcos Alonso was waived away, and we then got stuck into the game with Mason Mount looking loose-limbed and lively as he brought the ball out through the midfield on a few lovely bursts. One shot from him forced a low save from Andre Onana at his near post.

Fikayo Toomori looked a little edgy at the start of the game but certainly grew as the first-half continued.

On many occasions, Callum Hudson-Odoi found himself in favourable positions, running into parcels of space in the inside-left channel, but on nearly every occasion he seemed to choose the wrong option. He either held on to the ball too long, took an extra stride before shooting, played a ball to an unsuspecting team mate or poorly controlled a simple ball. His shooting was off too. With each error, we saw his frustration rise. That little patch of around twenty square yards of space at the angle of the penalty box seemed to be his very own, horrible, Bermuda Triangle. The frustration was shared by the fans in the away section.

We were all stood.

We sang when we could be heard.

Thankfully, the noise from the Southern end was subsiding.

Gary continually took the piss out of Daley Blind.

“You should stick to walking football, Blind.”

The game ebbed and flowed. I was not overly impressed with Ajax’ defence. They looked neither tight nor awake. Their attacks often petered out too. In the middle, Kovacic impressed me with his quick runs and intelligent passing.

With ten minutes of the first-half remaining, a cross from the Ajax right took a deflection and the Chelsea defence seemed unable to recover. The ball squirmed through to the six-yard box – “oh no” I uttered – and Quincy Promes prodded in. I must admit I quickly glanced over to see if the linesman on the far side was going to raise his flag but it stayed down.

The home fans made a bloody racket alright.

Bollocks.

We were 1-0 down.

But, wait.

After a while, we realised that there was going to be a Godforsaken VAR moment.

I will be honest, as honest as I can be. At that moment in time, such is my hatred of all things VAR that I remember thinking to myself “let it stand, for fuck sake, let it stand, I can’t be having with this nonsense impinging on so much of football.”

We waited. And waited.

No goal. Offside.

I did not cheer.

Alan and myself just looked at each other.

Alan : “I’m never going to cheer a VAR decision in our favour.”

Chris : “You and me both.”

Hundreds did cheer though.

Soon after, Dave made a beautiful tackle – the epitome of guts and timing – to thwart Promes. This drew marvellous applause from the away contingent. He may have endured a difficult start to this season but this was evidence that he still has a place to play during the current campaign.

The stats at the end of the first-half showed Ajax dominating possession by 56% to 44% but we had carved out more chances.

It was goal-less at the break, and we wondered how. Just before the game recommenced, “Three Little Birds” was played on the PA. This Ajax song was adopted by us in the latter stages of 2009/10 and it always takes me back to a hideously rainy night at Fratton when we won 5-0 and the away end sung it. Great memories.

“Cus every little thing…is gonna be alright.”

As the second-half began, I mentioned to Gary that I had seen Ajax play Chelsea once before; way back in the summer of 1993 in the Makita Tournament at White Hart Lane.

“Did you go to that Gal?”

“Yeah.”

It was, in fact, the first time that I had ever seen Chelsea play a foreign team. It was also Glenn Hoddle’s first game in charge. I had travelled up with Glenn from Frome, had met up with Daryl, and we watched as Chelsea drew 1-1 in normal time before winning 4-2 on penalties. The Chelsea team that day seems from another age.

Hitchcock

Hall – Johnsen – Sinclair – Dow

Donaghy – Hoddle – Wise – Peacock

Cascarino – Fleck

The Ajax team included Edwin van der Sar, Frank de Boer, Edgar Davids, Ronald de Boer, Finidi George and Marc Overmars. Within two years they would be European Champions under Louis van Gaal. It was a joy to see the Tottenham fans squirm as Glenn Hoddle played for us. It was the first of a two-game set on the Saturday, but while Glenn and Daryl stayed on to see Tottenham beat Lazio in the second game, I shot off to see Depeche Mode at Crystal Palace that evening. It was a perfect Saturday for me.

Oh, we beat Tottenham 4-0 in the final on the Sunday, but I suppose that is a given knowing our history with “that lot.”

1993

The second-half continued. The intensity wasn’t at the previous levels, but it was still a good enough game. On the hour, a low corner down below us was met with a diving header from Edson Alvarez and we watched in horror as his effort grazed the far post.

Phew.

“COME ON CHELS.”

There was less attacking intent than in the first-half.

On sixty-six minutes, Christian Pulisic replaced Willian, who had toiled all night long. I remembered one phenomenal gut-busting run from deep to support an attack which left me breathless let alone him. Then Michy Batshuayi replaced Tammy Abraham who had not had the best of service. We did think that Callum was lucky to avoid being substituted.

With twenty minutes remaining, Pulisic gathered the ball and ran confidently at the Ajax defence. He cut in and sized up his options. His shot from outside the box was deflected up and right into the path of Batshuayi.

This is it, we thought.

This is fucking it.

His wild shot ballooned up over the bar and probably ended up in one of the city’s concentric canals.

Bollocks.

Behind me, an altercation between two fans about Michy.

“He should be burying them chances if he wants a place on the team.”

“Give him a break, he has only been on the pitch for ten minutes.”

Pulisic, looking lively on the left, again advanced with pace and intent. His pass to Batshuayi was returned to him, but he dragged the ball wide. With just four minutes remaining, we again worked the ball down the left flank. Mount to Pulisic, and a fine piece of skill to carve out a yard of space. His low cross was dummied by Alonso and the ball was rifled high – but not too high – by Michy into the roof of the Ajax net.

BOOM.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

The screams from myself and others were wild and unrelenting.

We yelled and yelled, it seemed that we were all as one, the same body shape, the same fists up punch.

The euphoria of a late winner in Europe. What can beat that?

The final whistle was met with wild applause from us all.

The Chelsea reprised the Bob Marley song.

“Cus every little thing…is gonna be alright.”

This was our equivalent of Manchester City playing “One Step Beyond” every time they beat us at their gaff.

This was a fine team performance. I was especially impressed with the four defenders, who looked in control and played as a unit, but kudos to all. All of a sudden, after losing our first game at home to Valencia, we now look to be favourites to go through with two of our last three games at Stamford Bridge.

They kept us in for a good thirty minutes or so, and the return trip to the city was interrupted by a few delays. But we were back in the claustrophobic hub of the city soon enough.

It had been, surely, one of our greatest nights in Europe.

2019

Tales From Level One And Level Eight

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 6 October 2019.

By a rather strange twist of fate in the odd world of the scheduling of football matches, the two teams to which I am most emotionally tied were playing within six miles of each other on the same weekend and just twenty-three hours apart.

Frome Town of the BetVictor Southern League Division South were at AFC Totton at 3pm on Saturday 5 October.

Chelsea of the Premier League were at Southampton at 2pm on Sunday 6 October.

These two divisions represent levels one and eight of England’s football pyramid.

Premier League, Championship, Division One, Division Two, National League, National League South, Southern League Premier South, Southern League Division One South.

As the weekend approached, the lure of seeing two football games became increasingly tempting. With a little more planning, I could have – at a push – stayed over in Southampton on the Saturday night, but that would have meant that I would have been unable to have a pre-match beer before the Chelsea game as I would need to drive home under my own steam. My pal Glenn had volunteered himself for driving duties for that game. It would mean a rare chance for a few pints before a game for me. That was too tempting to resist. Going in to Saturday, I carried out a few chores and soon decided that a trip south to Totton was too tempting to resist too.

So, a bit of a first here. I know that I have briefly touched upon the exploits of my local team on this site on several occasions (Frome Town were, after all, the first team that I ever saw live, in September 1970), but due to a couple of reasons that will become self-evident, I will include a little match report here.

This would be my fourth Frome Town game of 2019/20. There was an entertaining 1-1 draw with Evesham, a good 3-1 win against Barnstaple, but a poor 1-2 defeat against Slimbridge. All of these games were at home. The three crowds averaged around 220. Frome had enjoyed a fine start to the season, but had weakened recently. “Dodge” – as in Dodge City, our little nickname for this once wild town of The West – were still in third place. The game at AFC Totton, on the western edge of Southampton, would be my first Frome Town away game of the season. It’s only an hour and a quarter’s drive from Frome; straight down the A36, through Salisbury, easy. I was parked-up at 2.15pm ahead of the 3pm kick-off. It was £9 to enter. Their stadium has an impressive stand on one side, where I took a seat, a low cover opposite and open-air enclosures behind both goals. I soon spotted club crests for both AFC Totton and Southampton Football Club on the gate leading onto the pitch. AFC Totton occasionally hosts Southampton youth team fixtures. There is the tie-up. The pitch was exceptional in fact. I spotted a couple of Saints shirts during the afternoon.

Frome Town raced into a two-nil lead with goals from Rex Mannings and Joe O’Loughlin in the first quarter of an hour. Our play was quick and incisive. Just as I texted a mate back home to say “it’s all us”, we let in two quick goals. The second effort was superb; the nippy right winger cut in, Robben-esque, and dipped a magnificent curler high into the far corner. I was right behind the flight of the ball. I stood up to applaud. It was sensational.

The little band of fifteen Frome Town supporters changed ends at half-time. I chatted to a mate who I often see at Frome; Jamie is an exiled Arbroath fan, now fully behind Frome Town. We both explained how we would much rather watch Frome Town live rather than Premier League or international games on TV.

In the second-half, it was a lot scrappier, but the home ‘keeper was sent-off for handball outside the box. A central defender went between the sticks. Jon Davies smacked the resultant kick against the wall but was on hand to rifle home the rebound. With a 3-2 win, Frome rose to second in the table behind local rivals Paulton Rovers. The gate was 248, a common amount for this level. At the end of the game, all Frome players walked over to clap the travelling band of supporters, a good half of which I know, and shook hands with every single one of them.

Lovely stuff.

So, there you have it. Frome Town. Level Eight.

Who knows, one day when I feel the need, I might even set up a Frome Town website of my own. I could call it “Well Dodgey.”

People always remember when Mork and Mindy first appeared on TV in an edition of “Happy Days”. Followers of Frome Town – of which I know that there are a few in the US, lured in by my love of both Chelsea and Dodge – might look back and remember it gracing this website first.

Nanu fucking nanu.

Well Dodgey

On the Sunday, Glenn collected me at 8.45am. Well, he actually showed up a whole hour early – he got his times mixed-up – and we soon collected PD, PD’s son Scott, and Scott’s mate Dan, who featured in the League Cup Final tale from last season. In another report recently, I noted the sad demise of my local village team – Mells & Vobster United – but I am pleased to report that it has risen like a phoenix from the ashes to stake a place in the Mid-Somerset League Division Three. I can’t even begin to fathom at what level in the pyramid this represents. But this pleased me. My grandfather played for Mells & Vobster in the 1920’s. I made my debut for the reserves aged thirteen in 1978 and played a few more games in the ‘eighties. Dan is on the committee too. It’s all good stuff.

Another little quirk of fate. Dan is soon moving into a bungalow in Frome which is currently owned by a Chelsea couple – Dave and Karen, erstwhile match day travel companions of The Chuckle Brothers – and which was originally built by my grandfather’s brother Jack before he emigrated to Australia, whose grandson Paul I met out on tour with Chelsea on the Gold Coast last summer.

“Chelsea World Is A Very Small World” – Part 862.

Sadly, this particular Chelsea Away Day was soon hit with a problem. Skirting Salisbury, Glenn’s Chuckle Bus lost power and we stopped as he checked a few things. He turned the ignition again, but there was a puff of blue from the exhaust, and just like Tottenham Hotspur’s claim to be a top-ranking club, our journey went up in smoke.

Glenn had no choice but to dial for roadside assistance. The four of us took a cab into Salisbury and nimbly caught the 1013 train to Southampton Central. We then enjoyed our usual Southampton pre-match routine of a Full English and a few pints of “Peroni.” Sadly, Glenn was unable to report a quick fix and was on his way home on the back of a recovery vehicle. At least we soon sold his match ticket to a fellow fan.

The time soon passed. We caught a cab up to the stadium; PD has just had an operation on his leg, just like Parky – the missing warrior – and so he can’t walk too far. On the walk towards the stadium, we passed through a little tunnel which is bedecked in Southampton images and features their current marketing battle cry of “WE MARCH ON.”

In the darkened concourse under the away seats, I squirmed as I heard more than a few – youngsters, to my ears – singing the “Y” word to “The Famous Tottenham Hotspur.”

Twats.

We were inside with about fifteen minutes to spare. The usual seats, low down, row five, sunglasses on, the sun occasionally hot.

Outside And Inside

The team?

We were back to a 4/3/3.

I do like how Frank can mix it around. The big news was that our Callum was starting for the first time this season. And Jorginho was still anchoring.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Zouma – Tomori – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Mount

Hudson-Odoi – Abraham – Willian

I was stood alongside PD, Alan and Gary.

“We don’t often lose down here, Gal.”

We were the first team to play at this stadium in 2001 – a win – and, after ten subsequent league visits, we had lost just once in the league, a terribly weak capitulation under Rafa Benitez – who? – in 2012/13.

I had seen all of eleven games at St. Mary’s. It’s an easy away game for me, after all.

The flags waved – “WE MARCH ON” – and the jets of flame burst into the air in front of both main stands. We were last at St. Mary’s almost a year to the day ago; Sunday 7 October 2018. This was remembered by myself as a fine Chelsea performance, a 3-0 win, almost a high-point under Sarri. Ross Barkley and Eden Hazard were on fire. Even Alvaro Morata – who? – scored. Another repeat performance please.

Flags And Flames

The Chelsea choir were in good voice as the match began, and Chelsea – in all blue – were defending the goal in front of the 3,000 loyalists.

In the first few minutes, the home team looked eager. In fact, from the kick-off taken by Tammy, we lost possession and failed to stop a move developing. A rasper from Nathan Redmond flew narrowly over Kepa’s bar. Our game slowly improved. Marcos Alonso was often involved in setting up attacks, and we started to look capable of breaking into some areas that would hurt the home team. A low shot from distance from our Tammy, set up by our Callum, was easily saved by the Saints’ ‘keeper Angus Gunn.

With a quarter of an hour played, Callum spotted a burst from Tammy and played a lofted ball into the inside-left channel. The ‘keeper raced out to the edge of the box, but there was no AFC Totton style handball. Instead, Tammy lobbed the ball high – ridiculously high – into the air and over the ‘keeper and we then watched as the ball dropped right on the line. It had been up in the air so long that Tammy was able to sprint forward and watch from very close range as a Saints defender Maya Yoshida tried to hook the ball clear.

Was it a goal?

To me, it looked like it.

Tammy celebrated, a good sign.

No loathsome VAR required this time. Goal line technology to the rescue. A quick decision. A quick roar from the Chelsea faithful.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

I caught Tammy’s leap of gleeful celebration if not the goal.

Off to a good start, lovely stuff. The mood in the Northam Stand improved further.

There was the latest, of many, versions of the “Tottenham get battered song.”

In Baku, it started out as this :

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor.

Lyon and to Rome.

Tottenham’s got battered.

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

This season, the complexities were ignored and it soon became :

“Tottenham gets battered.

Everywhere they go.

Tottenham gets battered

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

It now seems to be this :

“Tottenham got battered 7-2 at home.

Tottenham got battered 7-2 at home,

7-2 at home”

We also aired Callum’s “Buffalo Soldier” song – with full intro, which not all of us know – and this soon morphed into “The Banana Splits.”

It’s all a bit messy.

“We’ve won it all” was – falsely – sung too.

As a few of us have mentioned, let’s win the World Club Championships before we can even think of singing that. And even then, it seems a pretty loathsome chant.

On twenty-four minutes, we engineered a great move again in the inside-left channel. We put the home team under pressure, and some slick passing from Jorginho and Willian found Mason Mount, who coolly slotted home. His celebration was caught on camera too. His hands were cupped over his ears; our Portsmouth-born pup was enjoying this. Two more efforts from Mount – one just over, one screwed well wide – were evidence of our upper hand.

But poor defensive play on the half-hour mark set us back. From a throw-in on our left, Yan Valery set off on a solo dribble past what seemed like – and was – half of our team. It was awful defending.

“After you, Claude.”

His astute low cross was prodded in by Danny Ings.

Fackinell.

“No clean sheet this week, either.”

The dangerous Redmond was put through but his shot hit the side-netting at Kepa’s near post. Thankfully, with forty-minutes played, Alonso found himself in acres of space on the left. He found Willian, who found Kante. I begged him to hit it to Gunn’s left, where I could see space. His shot hit a defender, and wickedly deflected to where I had originally hoped.

We were 3-1 up.

GET IN.

I captured the celebrations in the haze of the shadows at the Chapel Stand end.

Thankfully, Jorginho was able to clear a goal-bound shot on the edge of the six-yard box when Fikayo Tomori gifted the ball to Ings.

“Jorginho, Jorginho, Jorginho.”

His rebirth has been amazing. It shows, I think, how fickle us football supporters can be.

Egg on faces for some who chose to lampoon him last season? Sure.

It had been an open and eventful half of football. Surely there would be other goals? Pre-match, I had predicted a 3-0 win for us. I was hopeful for further efforts and chances. At times our expansive and high-energy football was a joy. It was a beautiful antidote to the over-passing under Sarri. It was so enjoyable.

The second-half began, with Chelsea attacking the away section. Our noise was good all game long. The home fans only really got behind their team when they scored. It was to be a poor showing from them.

A Braziliant run from deep from Willian was the first notable show of skill in the second period. His burst through the middle, eating up ground voraciously, was followed by a well-aimed pass to Callum, whose low shot across Gunn was deflected wide after a leg was flung out at the last minute.

There was a Southampton free-kick from James Ward-Prowse which failed to trouble Kepa. A rare shot from Yoshida was easily saved.

“His only save this half, PD.”

We were well in control of this game despite the quality of the first-half.

On eighty-minutes, some substitutions.

Mateo Kovacic for Mason Mount, who had run his royal blue socks off all game.

Christian Pulisic for Callum Hudson-Odoi, who had been a lively threat when we were purring.

With six minutes remaining, Michy Batshuayi replaced Tammy Abraham, who had enjoyed another sensational outing.

Eight goals this season.

Beautiful.

As the Chelsea hordes changed from singing “Is There A Fire Drill?” – tedious – to “Oh When The Saints Go Marching Out” – much better – we kept attacking as the home team tired.

“One Man Went To Mow” boomed around the away section as a fine move developed. Alonso kept the ball well on the far touchline. The song reached its conclusion.

“Ten men, nine men, eight me, seven men, six men, five me, four men, three me, two men, one man.”

To Jorginho. He waited for movement. A pass to Michy.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

Michy to Pulisic. A superb give and go. Michy in behind. A sublime touch from Pulisic. Michy in space.

A low shot through Gunn’s legs.

GET IN.

More celebrations, this time right in front of us.

Celebrations

AFC Totton 2 Frome Town 3

Southampton 1 Chelsea 4

A perfect double.

PD is never Willian’s biggest fan, but even he admitted that he had been exceptional all game.

“Man of the match for me, P-Diddy.”

Prince Willian

The whistle soon blew and we all waited for the players and management team to walk down towards us. More photographs. This was, I think, the most enjoyable part of the entire day, the entire weekend. Just as Frome Town’s players had joined in with the celebrations at the end of Saturday’s match, here were the rank and file of Chelsea Football Club joining forces to completely revel in the moment.

Frank’s hugs with his players and his smiles towards us?

Priceless.

We loudly serenaded our beloved manager.

“Super Frankie Lampard” and it felt good, it felt very good.

Frank and Friends

We left the stadium with a bounce in our step.

This was a fine win.

The day continued its take on “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” with another cab to the station, another train to Westbury, a car to Frome and the second van of the day to Mells.

It had been a very fine weekend.

We are sitting pretty in the league, we are in the mix in the Champions League, we play the worst Manchester United side that I can remember for a long time at home in the League Cup, Tammy is among the goals, the youngsters are the talk of the town, Frank is the gaffer and we are one.

Next up, Newcastle United at home in a fortnight.

I will see you there.

Tales From A Perfect Ten

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 8 April 2019.

On the day before our game with West Ham United – the Sunday – I was getting stir crazy at home and so decided to head out on a short drive to try out a new pub and a new Sunday Roast. My route south took me on a road that always reminds me of several trips that I used to take with my father. I soon found myself heading towards the village, ten miles away, of Maiden Bradley. My father used to be a shopkeeper, of menswear, in the local town of Frome. He would work six days a week, but Thursday was always “half-day closing” (Thursdays were always a favourite day of the week for me because Dad would always be at home when I returned from school, unlike his appearance at 5.30pm or so on all other days). On some Thursdays, Dad would announce to me that he was off “on his rounds” and this inevitably meant that during the school holidays, right after lunch, I would accompany him as he visited one or two customers who could not get in to town as often as they would normally hope. One such customer was Mrs. Doel who lived in Maiden Bradley. My father was a very safe driver, and I suppose this really means that he was a slow driver. He was never ever caught speeding. He would potter around at forty miles per hour on most roads. I suspect that the desire to save money by not eating up fuel was a main factor. However, as a special treat on these visits to Maiden Bradley, and where the road is particularly long and straight, with excellent visibility, he would – as a treat for me – get the car up to the seemingly blistering speed of fifty miles per hour. After the slower speeds that I was used to, fifty miles per hour seemed supersonic.

“Do fifty, Dad” I would plead.

And off we would go. It was even more enjoyable when I had my own plastic steering wheel to stick on to the plastic dashboard of his green Vauxhall Viva. I’d grip it, stare out of the windscreen and watch the trees and hedgerows, and oncoming cars, fly past.

It was one of my favourite father and son moments from my early childhood.

Of course, over the following years, fifty miles per hour was reached with increasing regularity, if not by my father, then certainly by myself. I often reach fifty miles per hour in the country lanes around my village without even thinking about it.

The thrill has long gone.

And on Sunday, as I thought ahead to the match on the following evening, I realised that the thrill of playing West Ham United had long gone too.

It wasn’t the same in 1984/85 and 1985/86, seasons that marked the first two occasions of seeing our rivals from the East End of London for the very first time. In those days, the identity of football clubs seemed to be stronger; West Ham were a tightly-knit club, with a very local – and famously violent – support, and their whole identity was wrapped up within the structure of an East End football club, the tightness of Upton Park, those ridiculously small goal frames in front of the packed and occasionally surging terraces, local players, Billy Bonds and all, pseudo-gangsters in the ICF, the whole nine yards. These days, their team consists of mainly foreign players – like most – and they play in a vapid and bland “super” stadium. When did the thrill wear off? Not so sure. I still – always – get “up” for a Tottenham game. But not necessarily a West Ham one. The game on Monday 8 April 2019 would, after all, be my twenty-fifth Chelsea vs. West Ham game at Stamford Bridge and my thirty-ninth in total. After that many games, in which we have generally had the upper hand, the thrill has dwindled.

And then Everton beat Arsenal 1-0 at Goodison Park late on Sunday afternoon and my interest levels increased. I quickly did the maths. We all did. Believe it or not, if we were to beat West Ham the following day, we would end up – and God only knows how – in the heady heights of third place.

Game – most definitely – on.

This was turning into a typically bloody ridiculous season even by Chelsea’s standards. We had lost games – Tottenham in the League Cup – where we had come away in a very positive frame of mind and we had won games – Fulham at home, certainly Cardiff City away – where we felt as though we had lost.

It was turning into another emotional roller-coaster.

And then at work, on Monday, I had my personal roller-coaster too. I realised that a co-worker had not only booked the week off in which the Europa League semi-final first leg was to be played – potential trips to Lisbon or Frankfurt – but also the week of the bloody final too. My mood plummeted. We have a small team and I feared the worst.

Why the hell had I not booked the week of the final off in August or September?

It spoiled my pre-match if I am honest.

Talking of holidays, on the drive up to London with the usual suspects, Glenn and I reminisced about our trip to Australia last summer. We wondered how on earth it has taken Maurizio Sarri until April to start Callum Hudson-Odoi in a league game. Callum had laid on the cross for Pedro to score against Perth Glory back in July and seemed to be the talk of that rain-sodden town. His emergence into the first team ranks has been a slow process, eh?

There were drinks in the usual places with the usual faces. I told a few people of my “holiday problem” and although the saying is “a problem shared is a problem halved” I don’t think it helped. I just disliked myself twice as much for not booking the time off earlier. But it was a great pre-match. As often happens, Parky had the best line. On my way back from the gents, I managed to stumble a little as I headed up the stairs to re-join the lads.

Parky : ““That’ll be the biggest trip you’ll be going on over the next two months.”

We made our way to Stamford Bridge. On the cover of the match day programme was a photograph of Eden Hazard, a mixture of quiet confidence and a little coyness, his head bowed, not sure if he really wanted to be the focus of attention. It would turn out to be a prophetic choice of cover star.

The team?

I was generally in favour of the one that the manager picked. Glenn and I had wondered if he would prioritise the game in Prague on Thursday. It was difficult to tell. Our two bright hopes, Ruben and Callum were in. Excellent.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Higuain – Hazard

We guessed that the more Euro-savvy Alonso, Barkley, Pedro and/or Willian would start against Slavia.

For the first time that I can ever remember, Alan and Glenn had swapped seats. I was next to my mate from Perth; I was sat next to Glenn in the Sleepy Hollow.

It was the usual pre-match; “Park Life”, “Liquidator” and the flames and fireworks of twenty-first century football. “The Shed” flag crowd-surfed at the other end. By an odd quirk, it was an exact year since the Chelsea vs. West Ham game in 2017/18, but on that occasion the banners in The Shed sadly commemorated the life and death of Ray Wilkins.

One year ago.

Where does the time go?

RIP Butch.

Right from the kick-off, there was a sense of purpose in our play and we seemed to be able to move the ball ten percent quicker and twenty percent more intelligently. We didn’t seem to be over-passing. We seemed to be moving it at the right time. West Ham were, typically, still singing about the blue flag, from Stamford Bridge to Upton Park, and all that bollocks. They really need to update that one. Our shouts of encouragement were much better than against Brighton the previous Wednesday, but – for a London derby – not at stratospheric levels.

“Do fifty, Dad” seemed to fall on deaf ears.

There was an early free-kick for Emerson, who has never let himself down in his sadly limited starts thus far, but he arced it high and wide of Fabianski’s goal. There were passages of play which delighted us, with Kante and our Callum forming a good relationship on the right. A shot from N’Golo was fired over.

With around twenty-five minutes of the match played, Ruben played the ball square to Eden Hazard around fifteen yards inside the West Ham half. He set off for goal, a direct line, right into the heart of the box, no fear. We watched – mesmerised? dumbfounded? enraptured? – as his side-stepping dribble took him past a couple of floundering West Ham players, who hardly caught a sniff of his aftershave let alone a sight of the ball. There were seven or eight touches, no more, but the ball was moved with ridiculous speed. One final touch took him free – legs and limbs from the East End arriving so late to the party – and he clipped the ball in with a swipe of the left boot.

Oh my.

What a goal.

I watched as he raced towards the West Ham fans, and I was able to take a few photographs. I originally thought that Eden brought his forearms up to his face, mocking them and their “irons” trademark, but he was simply cupping his ears. His run mirrored that of Frank Lampard in late 2012/13.

Ronnie : “They’ll have to come at us nah.”

Reggie : “Cam on my little diamonds.”

It was a perfect crime from our perfect ten.

We were on song, on and off the pitch. Soon after, Eden found the run of Gonzalo Higuain with a fantastic ball but his fierce shot from an angle was tipped onto the post by the West Ham ‘keeper. In truth, his first touch allowed the ball to get away from him that extra few feet. But our chances were starting to pile up. Eden, from deep, played a long but piercing ball into Callum who skipped and shimmied in from the right wing – acres of space – and his equally strong shot was parried by Fabianski who was by far the busier ‘keeper. On the side-lines, Manuel Pellegrini – death warmed-up – looked even greyer if that is at all possible. The last chance of the half worthy of note fell to Higuain again. From a Kante cross, he brought the ball down to hit rather than attack the ball with his head. That extra half a second allowed a West Ham defender to block. Higuain looked shy of confidence. But it was a thoroughly impressive performance from us in the opening period.

Into the second-half, we prayed for a second goal to make it safe. West Ham have sometimes, only sometimes, provided moments of misery at Stamford Bridge – that hideous 0-4 defeat in 1986, the horror of hearing Julian Dicks’ scream as he scored against us in 1996, that gut-wrenching Paul Kitson goal in 1999 – and I was so aware of the fragility of a slender 1-0 lead.

Eden was the focal point of all our attacks and the centre of attention for those defenders whose job it was to stop us. I have a couple of photographs where he is being hounded by four defenders. How on earth does that feel, when four people are trying to stop a person doing their job? Oh wait a second. Trying to get a load of office furniture despatched when the trailer is running late, there are product shortages, the warehouse team are under-manned and the client is still deliberating about where they want the goods delivered? I guess that comes close.

Eden shimmied into space down below us and slammed a ball across the face of the goal. We “oohed” and “aahed”. It was a real pleasure to see Eden on fire. I commented to Glenn about his ridiculously broad shoulders and short legs. He is Maradona-esque in stature – “like a little eel, little squat man” as Bryon Butler memorably described him, another number ten – and one of the most sublime dribblers of the modern game.

Throughout the second-half, Ruben came into the game more and more. He has great strength in holding off defenders – a little like that man Mikel – and there were a few trademark runs right through the middle. Again, not a Sarri play, but still effective. Callum, on the other hand, tended to disappear a little as the game continued.

The crowd were nervy rather than loud. The evening continued.

West Ham carved a couple of chances down at The Shed as the rain started to fall. Lanzini forced a save from Kepa. The shot was at a comfortable height for our ‘keeper to easily save. Anderson then forced a save too. There was a weak finish at the other end from our Ruben. But then a weak defensive header from Rudiger – hearts in our mouths now – allowed the ball to sit up nicely and a powerful volleyed-drive from Cresswell narrowly missed its intended target.

“Inches” I said to Glenn.

A deep cross found Arnautovic but his goal-bound header was fortuitously headed on, and wide, by Emerson.

Nerves?

Oh yes.

“COME ON CHELS.”

The substitutes appeared.

70 : Ross Barkley for our Ruben.

76 : Olivier Giroud for Higuain.

85 : Pedro for our Callum.

Barkley to Giroud. A low shot at Fabianski. The ball ballooned over.

One more goal. Please.

Unlike the previous home game, virtually everyone was still in the stadium on ninety minutes. Just as it should be, eh?

In the very last minute, Barkley spotted that man Eden in a little space in the box and lofted a lovely ball right to him. I captured both the pass and the low shot from Eden on film. His drilled drive easily zipped past the West Ham ‘keeper.

Chelsea 2 West Ham United 0.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Game over. Third place was ours.

The night was all about Eden Hazard who, undoubtedly, was the star by some ridiculous margin. Rarely have I seen a more mature and pivotal performance from him.

He is the real deal.

Sadly, the Real deal will surely take place over the next few months.

On the drive home, the night continued to improve as I heard positive news from my manager regarding my future holiday plans. I am going to forgo the potential semi-final trip to either Germany or Portugal. But the final in Azerbaijan is on. We just need Chelsea to get there.

Next up, aways in Prague and Liverpool.

Safe travels to those going to Czechia.

I will see some of you on Merseyside.

Tales From A Positive Step

Chelsea vs. Brighton And Hove Albion : 3 April 2019.

We live in interesting times.

The negativity surrounding the unconvincing 2-1 win at Cardiff City on Sunday still seemed to be dominating the thoughts of many before the Wednesday evening game at home to Brighton & Hove Albion. The match in South Wales certainly triggered many reactions and emotions. Taken at face value, we squeaked home – oh so fortuitously – against poor opposition and, on any other day in any other season, that might well have been the end of it. But not this season, not at this moment in time. Debate raged among the Chelsea support about our manager’s aptitude, while the media tended to focus on the loud protests against Maurizio Sarri at the game.

The negativity was at times overwhelming on Sunday and in the following few days.

I was just sick of it.

And then I looked at the league table. Chelsea were in sixth place, tucked in behind the others. And then I looked at Tottenham’s recent form guide which stood at four losses in the last five league games, and I managed to have a sideways look at everything. Was everything quite so apocalyptic? Was this really a horrific season? The Tottenham run of form really shocked me. Not so long ago they were, allegedly, being touted as being in the title race, and not just by those who were soon to frequent the Tottenham High Road once more. It seemed that all was goodness and light with our rivals from N17; a team on the cusp of glory, a respected young manager, the new stadium about to open, young English players making the national team and everything so positive. And yet, there was not a great deal of difference between our relative league positions.

This is not to disguise the fact that Chelsea Football Club is enduring an awkward season. Our troubles are well known and well documented. I won’t bore everyone to death. But it did make me think. At Chelsea, is our glass – like Tottenham’s trophy cabinet – always half empty?

At work on Wednesday, I did an early shift and worked 7am to 3pm. One lad – Andy, a relatively new colleague, I do not know him too well, but he is certainly approachable and not full of nonsense – was working the 6am to 2pm before heading up to London for football too. But he was a Tottenham fan, a season ticket holder, and was hugely excited about their first league game at their new and impressive stadium. I suspect that our individual  approaches to the two games in London were wildly different. My game was –  I was quite sure – going to be all about putting the leg-work in, showing up, trying to support as best I could, enduring the possible poor quality on show, trying not to grumble too much and make some noise. Another game ticked off and hopefully a win.

More than anything else, I just wanted no more negativity. The loud chants against Sarri at Cardiff showed our support, to me anyway, in a bad light. I’ve never been an advocate of loud “demonstration-level” booing and suchlike during games. It just adds to the pressure on the players, on the management team, on the substitutes.

And – to reiterate – we are a top six team in the toughest league going.

As my father used to say “if you can’t say anything good about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

Too simplistic? I don’t care.

We are supporters. To me that means that during the ninety-minutes of the framework of the game, we support.

PD again drove to London and I was able to grab a little sleep en route. The pre-match routine was the usual : pints of Peroni at The Goose, bottles of Staropramen at “Simmons.” There was talk with Rob about The Old Firm, there was talk with Walnuts about Stiff Fingers, there was talk with Simon about his son’s trip to Austin in Texas. The football would take care of itself later.

The team was announced and there were wholesale changes from Cardiff.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Giroud – Hazard

I might have chosen Rudiger and not Christensen, but there were generally few complaints from anyone.

The big story concerned Callum Hudson-Odoi. It would be his first league start and about bloody time.

(Am I the only one who detests the “CHO” moniker? Back in 2006, I warmed to Sean Wright-Phillips’ SWP as it linked itself to SW6. But as for “CHO” and “RLC” – nah. File alongside “Chels.”)

It was a cold night alright. On the cover of the match programme – did the editor know something that we didn’t? – was a highly stylised photograph of our Callum. The scene was set for great things from him on this evening in SW6. Inside the stadium, the three-thousand away fans were virtually all present with a fair few minutes to go. There were noticeable gaps elsewhere. In The Shed and in the Matthew Harding I spotted random empty seats which just meant that people had decided not to attend. In the top upper corners of the East Stand, always the last to sell, whole swathes of blue seats could be seen. These seats were never ever sold in the first place. This was going to be our lowest league gate for quite a while.

Brighton were dressed in a solid racing green shirt and it seemed odd. I had to think back to the last team to show up at Chelsea in a similar colour. My mind raced back to a match with Plymouth Argyle in 1988, but that was it. Over in The Shed goal stood their ‘keeper Mat Ryan – dressed in all black –  and, to me, he looked quite short, quite ridiculously so. Lev Yashin used to wear all black because he claimed that it made him look bigger, more intimidating. The reverse seemed to be the case on this occasion. At the other end, Kepa was dressed in bright orange and looked much taller (he’s two centimetres taller, but you get my point).

Another football folklore tale debunked?

What next?

Bert Trautmann’s ailment in the 1956 FA Cup Final was a sore throat and tickly cough?

The game began, Chelsea attacking The Shed. It was a quiet start to the game, both on and off the pitch. I was pleased that there was no negative noise aimed at anyone, though the change in a more agreeable starting eleven surely quelled any unrest from the natives.

While Brighton fans sung of Wembley – they play Manchester City in the up-coming semi-final – and of our support being awful (which it undoubtedly was), their team seceded from taking part in the more combative parts of the game. There was no desire to challenge, no desire to tackle, no desire to do much at all, except sit deep and let us have the ball. A corner from Eden Hazard found Giroud whose near post header cleared the bar. Our Callum cut in and shot from the right but it was deflected over. A half-chance for Giroud, whose swivel and shot came to nothing. On twenty minutes, a long cross found Solly March who did well to dig out a shot from a tight angle but only found the side netting. Until then Kepa, I think, had not touched the ball at all.

Alan and I spoke about the current state of the nation.

“If anyone had said, back in August, that come the first week of April, we would be in contention for a top four finish and with a strong shout of reaching the Europa League Final, while the manager and his players found their feet – a slow curve – I think most people would have been relatively content.”

“I think the players share some of the responsibility; it’s not just the manager’s fault that we have been lacking desire in some games.”

“The Chelsea story this season is multi-layered.”

“It’s certainly not a page turner.”

Inside, silently, I reminisced about another season under a different Italian manager.

I thought back to 2000/2001.

Claudio Ranieri was an odd choice, in some ways, and he was certainly a relatively untested Italian who had replaced Gianluca Vialli, who was a loved and respected Italian manager. There are obvious comparisons with Maurizio Sarri and Antonio Conte. Eventually, Ranieri got it right – but with no silverware – and laid the basis for our ridiculous haul of trophies from 2005 to 2012. In retrospect it is hard to believe that Ranieri was given the best part of four seasons at Chelsea. It would not happen today.

Everything was a little humdrum although Callum was showing promise on the wing. However, the chances slowly increased. A run from deep from Eden got the juices flowing but he ran out of space. There was a weak header from Giroud. Callum was probing well and his quality cross towards Dave was sadly not matched by the subsequent header. Eden blasted over from a central position, but the chances were stacking up. Down below me, Yves Bissouma gave Dave the run-around but his cross into the box luckily did not fall to a waiting Brighton attacker.

There was still hardly much noise from anyone in the home sections.

On thirty-eight minutes, Callum skipped past a defender in front of Parkyville and his low cross was turned in at the near post, with the most clinical of touches, by Olivier Giroud. From my angle, I wondered how on earth it had ended up in the net. He was mobbed by his team mates – with Parky looking on, can you see him? – and blew a kiss to the crowd.

Dallow, Spicer : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Pinkie, Cubitt : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Brighton’s defenders had resembled loafing oafs in all-night chemists.

The goal was replayed on the TV screen and the fleet-footed shimmy from our young winger was just magical to watch. More of the same please.

We pressed on and there were a couple of jinking runs from Hazard, one from in his own half, others on the edge of the box. These, I would imagine, might well have drawn the ire of manager Sarri, but with the defence choked of space and with no runners, nor space to run into anyway, Hazard obviously felt that the best way to navigate the Brighton defence was via old-school dribbling rather than the pass-and-move mantra of the gaffer.

And this is where it has all broken down this season.

I suspect that when – if? – it is played correctly, the movement of our players in the manager’s system will mirror that of the White Helmets motorcycle display team, with synchronised runs and dummy runs, bluffs and counter bluffs, runners gliding into space and with runs using obtuse angles. It’ll be like a Busby Berkeley musical on grass.

In the meantime, we have to do what we have to do.

One Hazardous run was halted abruptly but David Luiz banged the ball against the wall. Late on in the half, after another dance into the box by Eden, there was an embarrassing air-shot from our Callum.

In that first-half, with lovely promise shown by Callum, our Ruben seemed to play within himself. I hoped for greater things in the second period. At the half-time break, I turned to Alan and became a ground hopper bore.

“You realise Slavia Prague’s rebuilt stadium used to be called the Eden Stadium?”

Ah, Prague. The joy of European travel. I know that I decided not to go to Czechia – new name, same place – for our up-coming game, but a boy can dream can’t he? I loved Prague on my two – ridiculously brief – previous visits (en route to Jablonec in 1994, en route to Munich 2012) and I spent a few wistful moments dreaming of the Czech capital. It is, like Budapest, a ground-hoppers’ paradise. In fact, if I was going, I could visit all of the five major stadia on a beautifully straight diagonal waking tour.

From south-east to north-west –

Slavia Prague.

Bohemians.

Viktoria Zizkov.

Sparta Prague.

Dukla Prague.

And then there is, at the top of the hill overlooking the entire city, the Strahov national stadium – where it was rumoured that we might have to play Zizkov in 1994 – and alongside it, the second-largest stadium ever built. This once held a monstrous 250,000 and was a vast area surrounded by a single-tier of terrace that was home to the “Spartakiada” for many years. It is now home to Sparta’s training ground and has enough space for nine full-size football pitches.  I can vividly remember a Friday night in 1976, right after an edition of “Open All Hours” on BBC2 if memory serves, when I watched the coverage of this annual show of communist strength via synchronised gymnastics that Busby Berkeley, and probably Maurizio Sarri too, would have been proud. It simply blew my mind. It is an image that has stayed with me for over forty years. Maybe I need to visit Prague again, maybe on a weekend over the coming summer. All of those stadia, all of those teams. Watch this space.

Later in the half-time break, I politely asked Alan to get me a Dukla Prague fridge magnet.

“It’s all I want for Christmas.”

Blimey, too many obscure musical references.

Back to London. The second-half started with us attacking the Matthew Harding. Hazard wriggled into the box, Luiz slammed a low cross towards the goal. Ten minutes in, a deep cross from Jorginho found the leap of our Callum – who looked offside to me – but his header fell into the arms of Yashin Junior.

“Oh Hudson-Odoi.”

At last we made some noise.

On the hour, Ruben played the ball in to Eden, who wriggled himself into space and sold Lewis Dunk a wonderful dummy before curling a wonderful effort wide of the ‘keeper and into a gaping net.

GET IN.

I was lucky to capture his run, jump and fist pump towards us.

Three minutes later, Jorginho to Hazard to Ruben. There was a quick appraisal of where he was, where the goal was, where the ‘keeper was, and our Ruben took one touch, opened up his body and despatched a firm shot – a little more loft and pace than Eden’s effort – which dropped beautifully high into the Brighton goal. It was sensational. I was again lucky to shoot the resulting elation from him and his team mates.

Brighton were rocking.

Teetering on their heels, they had offered nothing all game and were now well and truly out of it.

The game continued, but against an increasingly odd backdrop as thousands decided to leave early. I suppose it is, at least, better to leave for home when Chelsea is winning 3-0 than when we are losing 3-0. Regardless, the sight of acres of blue plastic was a jolt to the senses. Brighton sang about “Sussex by the Sea” and we watched as we continued to attack. Ruben’s strike seemed to give him confidence and a shot was drilled wide. A wide cross from Eden found a stretching N’Golo Kante who could only push it over the bar from close in.

The substitutions were made.

Davide for Dave.

Mateo for Ruben.

Willian for Eden.

Brighton, oddly, came to life a little in the last quarter, but the match was won and lost by then.

At the final whistle, the stadium was only two-thirds full. But it had been a reasonable game. I thought that in the immediate aftermath, fans were lavishing a lot of praise on Ruben, who had been fine and had scored a fantastic goal and yet had hardly influenced the game as much as some would believe. Maybe I saw a different match. But there were many more positives than negatives. This 3-0 win against Brighton just seemed a lot more wholesome than the 2-1 win against Cardiff.

Phew.

On the walk back to PD’s car, after demolishing yet another hot dog and onions from “Chubby’s Grill”, I chatted to Long Tall Pete and Liz.

We were of the same opinion about Ruben.

We looked ahead to our run-in.

“We can finish top four, of course we can. But our little sequence of games against these mediocre teams, and I am going to include the Europa League teams too, are not going to prepare us for our two horrific games at Anfield and Old Trafford. They will be so different. And I’m not convinced we can step up in those games.”

On Monday evening – continuing a run of nineteen consecutive games without a Saturday game  – we meet up again at Stamford Bridge for the visit of West Ham United.

I will see you there.

Tales From Wednesday On Sunday

Chelsea vs. Sheffield Wednesday : 27 January 2019.

Sunday Six O’Clock.

Our match in the fourth round of the FA Cup against Sheffield Wednesday was to begin at 6pm. This was just a ridiculous time for a game of professional football. As I have mentioned before, there was a part of me that just wanted to swerve it. But this was the Cup. It wasn’t just any game. Regardless, it had felt bizarre to be collecting PD and then Parky for a game on a Sunday and saying to both of them “good afternoon “as they slipped into my car. It felt bizarre to be heading to London on the M4 midway through the afternoon. And it felt bizarre to be entering the pub – “The Famous Three Kings” – at 3pm.

And it certainly grated to be watching a London derby between Crystal Palace and Tottenham on TV which had kicked-off at 4pm. Why the bloody hell that one could not have started later – virtually all the spectators would be back home by 10pm – and we could have had the earlier spot is beyond me. But it is further damning evidence that the Football Association only ever plays lip service to the needs of the match-going fan. Of course, I felt for the away supporters – six thousand strong – more than anyone who would not be back in South Yorkshire by midnight at the very earliest. The fixture was so very wrong on so many levels. I’m getting irate just typing this.

I always remember that in the middle of the match programme of my very first game in 1974, the programme editor had debated the spectacle of Sunday football, which had been trialed for a number of reasons that season, and there was a selection of letters from Chelsea fans both in the “for” and “against” camp. Those “against” often cited religious reasons – “the day of rest” et al – and so heaven knows what they would have thought about a Sunday evening kick-off.

But the three of us were there.

We decided that, should we be successful against Sheffield Wednesday, our favoured draw in the Fifth Round would be an away game at Doncaster Rovers, but please not at six o’clock on a Sunday please. We briefly mentioned Millwall. No thanks. There were comments about the scrapping between the ne’er do wells of Millwall and Everton the previous day. None of us bother with the fighting these days – well, I never did, what is the point of hitting someone who simply does not like the same team as myself?  – but we had to admit that Everton earned some Brownie Points for heading straight into the eye of the needle in “Deep Sahf.” Not many firms do that. But rather them than me. We have only played away at Millwall four times in my life and I have mitigating circumstances for avoiding all of them. In 1976, I was eleven. In 1984, I was scared shitless. In 1990, I was in Canada. In 1995, my car was knackered. Maybe next time, there has to be a next time, I will run out of excuses.

We met up with a few others, and settled to watch Palace humble Tottenham with two first-half goals. We took especial glee when Tottenham missed a penalty. I roared as if we had scored a goal in fact, and the pub roared alongside me. It wasn’t their week for penalties, was it? Over in the far corner of the pub was a group of well-dressed Sheffield Wednesday fans – virtually all males, but a few kids too – and I spoke to a couple of them. One lad had never visited Stamford Bridge before. How could he? He was about twenty years old, and their last visit was in the last few days of the twentieth century. It was never like this in the ‘eighties.

The ‘Eighties.

It seems odd now, and especially to our legions of new fans, but for two or three seasons the rivalry in the mid-‘eighties between Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday gave the matches between the two teams a very special edge. Sheffield Wednesday have always been a big club – the bigger of the two teams from the steel city – but in my first ten years of being a Chelsea fan, we never met since they were mired in the old Third Division. When they eventually won promotion to the Second Division in 1979, just as we were relegated from the First, we would play them incessantly for the best part of the next twenty seasons.

The rivalry built as Chelsea, with perfect dagger-in-the-heart timing, overcame all-season-long league leaders Wednesday on the very last day of the iconic 1983/84 season to become Second Division Champions, and the mutual dislike continued the next season as we were embroiled in a famous trio of games in the League Cup quarter-finals. I went to both the league games in 1984/85, but did not attend any of the League Cup games due to finances and travel limitations. But I certainly watched on with glee as we came back from trailing 3-0 at half-time to lead 4-3 at Hillsborough in the first replay – it was Paul Canoville’s finest hour – only for Doug Rougvie to scythe down a Wednesday player in front of our travelling support at the fated Leppings Lane to force a second replay. We won that game 2-1, and we were heading to our first semi-final of any description in thirteen long seasons. In those days, under the tutelage of Howard Wilkinson – before he was given his “Sergeant Wilko” moniker by the Leeds fans, with whom he won a League Championship in 1992 – Sheffield Wednesday were known for rugged defending, no frills, no thrills, route one football, a Northern Wimbledon. In 1983/84 and in 1984/85, our more skilful and entertaining football gave us a deserved edge. We had Pat Nevin. They had Gary Shelton. It was simply no contest in the entertainment stakes. Wednesday were Friday to our Crusoe, Watson to our Holmes, always subservient. We dominated them and they disliked us for it, though there was never a Leeds level of pure hatred.

They had good gates at Hillsborough though. I remember being annoyed when our league game at Hillsborough in 1984/85 attracted a whopping 29,000 but the return fixture down at Chelsea only drew 17,000. I remember feeling let down by my fellow fans. And annoyed with myself for missing the two League Cup games at Chelsea earlier that season. A few grainy photographs of that day, inside and out, are featured in this report.

Only on rare occasions did they have the better of us. They prevailed over us during our League Cup semi-final in 1990/91, when we assembled at noon on a Sunday – another silly time, see above – and the virtually silent crowd watched as we were ripped apart by the same free-kick routine within the same half of the first game. It was a massive anti-climax that one, especially having beaten Tottenham in the previous round, as mentioned in my previous match report. We did get some sort of revenge during the 1993/94 season when we beat them away in the FA Cup on the way to our first FA Cup Final in twenty-four years. But we don’t talk about that.

So, Wednesday. Yeah, we remember you well.

I can certainly remember chatting on many occasions to a lad called Dave during my time at college in Stoke, and he was a Sheffield Wednesday supporter, from Yorkshire, and we always kept it light-hearted, even when – after too many pints in our students’ union – he accosted me, semi-seriously, and said –

“You support a fascist football club.”

It was the era of racism, hooliganism, political extremism, the miners’ strike, Thatcher and Scargill, and Dave was – like many at my college, in fact – of a socialist persuasion, and I could not summon the energy nor wit to defend my club, so I just retorted –

“Yeah, and you support a fucking shit one.”

I remember he simply smiled and hugged me.

Those were the days.

Sheffield Wednesday. Bloody hell, where have you been? It reminded me of that school friend that I once had – not a close friend – but a protagonist for the same starting spot in the school football team, and a rival in a pathetic pursuit of the prettiest girl in class, who had suddenly moved a few miles and, as a result, had been forced to change schools. I’d see him every day for four years, then all of a sudden, nothing. You wonder what sort of life he was living. In the case of Sheffield Wednesday, it has been a case of life in a parallel universe with trips for them to Yeovil Town, Burton Albion, Southend United and Bristol City rather than trips to Manchester United, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint Germain for us.

Two Ghosts.

The three of us left the pub and caught the tube to Fulham Broadway. We changed onto the District Line at Earl’s Court. Standing on the platform waiting for the Wimbledon train always takes me back to my first visit to Stamford Bridge. I wonder if my grandfather and his pal stood on that same platform on their sole visit to Stamford Bridge in the ‘twenties. It is quite likely. Outside the Oswald Stoll Foundation, while PD and Parky went on to the stadium for another pint, I stopped for a bite to eat at the busy match-day pop-up café. Damn it, they were out of pie and mash, but I devoured a salt beef – and gherkin – roll, as I sat outside for a few moments. A slug of away supporters marched past, full of noise, but no maliciousness, singing the praises of former Chelsea youngster Sam Hutchinson, who was now a regular in their blue and white stripes. I looked up at a tablet of stone whose words commemorated a visit by the Duchess of Wessex to the Oswald Stoll buildings – for ex-servicemen – in 2009. It mentioned a respect for the “fortitude and resilience” of those soldiers of both World Wars. I looked up and saw the sepia figures – “ghosts” – of Ted Draper and Ted Knapton marching purposefully towards Stamford Bridge for the 1920 FA Cup Final.

The salt beef was thick and succulent, the gherkin was juicy, the brioche roll was soft. The evening was getting darker. I needed to move on.

Six Thousand.

I was inside Stamford Bridge at 5.30pm. Tottenham would soon be out of their second cup competition within the space of seventy-two beautiful hours. What a lovely hors-d’oeuvre before the main meal, a high tea at six.  For the second successive game, Parky was forced out of his seat in The Shed. For the second successive game, I let him swap with me. For the second successive game I was behind the goal in the Matthew Harding Upper. With hindsight, I was incorrect in saying that my last game in that section before Thursday was the 1995 game with Bruges. It was in fact a year later against, of all teams, Sheffield Wednesday, when their bright orange shirts matched the rust of the Lots Road gasworks that were visible in the distance behind the slowly rising Shed. Facing me was a wall of six thousand away supporters, already noisy. There would be no doubt that this would be their day, their noise would dominate. We had matched Tottenham on Thursday, but I doubted if we could counter the Wednesdayites on this occasion. There was a smattering of flags draped over The Shed Balcony. Their nickname is due to the part of Northern Sheffield where one of their first grounds was placed, Owlerton.

“Salisbury Owls.”

“Worksop Owls.”

“Chapeltown Owls.”

Walking up from the city’s train station in the middle of Sheffield to Hillsborough on that wintry day in 1984, I was surprised how far out I had to walk, a good three miles. In the pub, we had admitted that however lengthy and arduous a replay would be, we would nonetheless go. Hillsborough is still a classic stadium – my last visit was in 1996 when we toppled them off the top of the Premier League with a very fine 3-0 win – and it is such a shame that the name will always and forever be tainted with what happened on Saturday 15 April 1989.

I soon spotted the self-styled “Tango Man”, bare chested and tattooed, in the front row.

Two Teams.

The players were announced. In addition to Sam Hutchinson – admirably recovered from a seemingly-career ending injury in our colours – the Wednesday team included familiar names Keiren Westwood, Steven Fletcher and George Boyd. The Chelsea starting eleven included Willy Cabellero – on the cover of the programme – Ethan Ampadu in the deep midfield berth, Callum Hudson-Odoi on the right, and a debut for our new striker Gonzalo Higuain. Supporters of a nervous disposition must have been squirming at the sight of current boo boys Marcos Alonso and Willian appearing on the same flank. I spotted Gianfranco Zola pose for photographs with a couple of young lads sporting Cagliari scarves in the front few rows of the Matthew Harding Lower. I get that, I like that. Despite no apparent link with us, Cagliari – because of Zola – will always be linked with Chelsea. One day I might wear my royal blue and white Moscow Dynamo scarf to a game. In the upper reaches of the East were hundreds of empty seats. Also – incredibly so, I think – five corporate boxes in a row, stretching for fifty yards or more, were completely devoid of spectators, including the one belonging to our owner. On the pitch, on Holocaust Memorial Day, was a “Say No To Antisemitism” banner.

The First Forty-Five.

Songs about Blades dominated the first few minutes as the away team carved out an early chance, with Adam Reach hardly testing Caballero from an angle down below me. We could not believe that Westwood in the Shed End goal was wearing a dark kit, virtually the same as the outfield players’ uniforms. Brian Moore would be turning in his grave; he used to love a clash of kits to obsess about on “The Big Match.” It is no bloody wonder my generation struggles with the styles and techniques of modern day football. Instead of talking catenaccio, liberos, wingless wonders and total football, Brian Moore and Jimmy Hill were forever rabbiting about teams having the same colour socks.

We dominated the early stages, and Higuain – hair thinning to match his once considerable paunch – did well to engineer a shot which drifted wide of the far post from close in. Mateo Kovacic looked lively – for once, cough, cough – as he chased balls and tackled well.

With about twenty minutes played, the ball was played through to Reach by Fletcher, and Ampadu robbed him of the ball. The referee Andre Marriner pointed straight at the spot and I immediately doubted my sanity and football-spectating skills. Surely he had got the ball? While Ethan was down, clutching his shin, and with trainers on, it dawned on us that VAR was being called into action. Marriner was wrong, no penalty. With that Marriner gave himself a yellow card and booked himself in at his local “Specsavers.”

Not long after, a move inside their box came to an end when we lost the ball to a challenge, some hundred yards away from me. There was a delayed reaction from our players, the referee and our supporters alike, but Marriner signalled towards the spot. Was VAR used? I had no idea.

“Quite a week for penalties” I whispered to the chap to my right.

Willian seemed to offer the ball to new boy Higuain, but it was Willian who placed the ball above Ossie’s ashes. Another staccato step, another successful penalty to us.

Chelsea Sunday 1 Sheffield Wednesday 0.

Out came the chorus from The Shed.

“VAR is fookin’ shit, VAR is fookin’ shit.”

Quite.

For all of the online and offline moans about Callum Hudson-Odoi, there was a considerable buzz when he had the ball at his feet. Despite our ridiculous amount of possession, we struggled to create many more chances of note. There was little service to Higuain. The away fans had provided a fair proportion of the entertainment in the first-half. There was even a Sheffield version of the Derby County chant that Frank Lampard loves so much.

“If you don’t fookin bounce, you’re a Blade.”

It must be a Derbyshire and South Yorkshire thing.

The Second Forty-Five.

The first real action of the second-half almost embarrassed Caballero, who scrambled back to protect his near post when a, presumably, miss-hit cross from the Wednesday right caught him unawares. It was only their second effort on goal the entire match.

Soon into the second period, we were treated to some sublime skill from Willian, who killed a ball lofted towards him with the outside of his right foot, before a “now you see it, now you don’t” shimmy took him away from his marker. He created enough space to send over a cross but Alonso wasted the opportunity. There was a wild shot from Kovacic shot which almost hit the roof above my head. I did notice on two occasions in quick succession a massive gap in the middle of their defensive third – enough for a game of bowls – but neither Higuain spotted it, nor our midfielders ran into it. At times, we chose to play the ball to the nearest man, the easiest option, rather than hit a killer ball into space.

There was a header from Higuain, just wide.

But the play was opening up on both flanks now; we were simply going around Sheffield Wednesday’s Siegfried Line. Willian and Hudson-Odoi were becoming the main players. Indeed, on sixty-four minutes, a great ball from Andreas Christensen released our Callum, who brought the ball down perfectly and turned inside with an ease of movement that defies description. His finish was almost a formality.

Chelsea Sundaes 2 Sheffield Puddings 0.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Ampadu, and Kovacic was realigned deeper. Still the pace of Callum and Willian had Wednesday chasing shadows. I did like the look of their diminutive number ten Barry Bannan, though. He was their best player by a country mile.

Higuain was replaced by Giroud with ten minutes to go. Jorginho replaced the quiet – again – Ross Barkley.

A pacey run from Hudson-Odoi and the ball was played in to Willian. An alert one-two with Giroud and the ball was side-footed, but with a firm prod, past Westwood.

GET IN.

Chelsea 3 Sheffield Wednesday 0.

Wednesday’s children were full of woe.

At last a forward pass from Jorginho tee’d up Giroud in the box but his over-ambitious bicycle kick was shinned wide.

Throughout the game, I had been warmed by the words issuing forth from a young lad – no more than ten or eleven – who was sat right behind me and who gave his father a running commentary.

“What are you DOING Willian? Why don’t we shoot more? No wonder we don’t score enough goals. Come on Chels!”

At the end of the game, as easy a match as I could ever imagine, I gathered my things and turned. I caught the father’s eye and said –

“Love your boy’s take on the game. A perfect mix of enthusiasm and frustration.”

Round Five.

Into the last sixteen we went, into Round Five, it had been an enjoyable evening.

There was a definite case of “After the Lord Mayor’s Show” after Thursday, but we could ask for no more from our players. I bumped into the trail of away supporters as I made my way slowly down the Fulham Road. They seemed a bit subdued. It is not surprising. I did not envy their trip home. I would be home, God-willing, at around 11pm.

Outside the town hall, I overheard a bloke who was chatting to someone on the ‘phone. He was a middle-aged Wednesdayite and philosophical.

“It was a good day out, that’s all.”

On Wednesday, the cups behind us and on hold for a while, we reconvene on the South Coast at Bournemouth.

I will see the lucky ones there.

1984/1985 : Kerry Dixon On The Prowl.

1990/1991 : A Rumbelows Cup Anti-Climax.

1996/1997 : The Shed Rises As Sheffield Steel Goes Rusty.

2018/2019 : A Willian Spot Kick.

2018/2019 : A Free-Kick In Front Of The Wednesday Away Support.

2018-2019 : The Debutant.

2018/2019 : Burst.

2018-2019 : Pace.

2018-2019 : Nike Football.

2018-2019 : The Third Goal.

2018-2019 : A Winning Smile.

2018-2019 : Together.

2018-2019 : Duel.

 

 

Tales From The Cock Tavern

Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest : 5 January 2019.

Along with a league opener and a Boxing Day game, an FA Cup Third Round tie was historically one of the games of the season. But, I have to be honest that the home match against Nottingham Forest was simply not exciting me as it should. I, along with many foot soldiers, had originally hoped for an away game at a new stadium such as Accrington Stanley, Doncaster Rovers or Lincoln City. But no, we were given yet another home tie, and against a team that we only met as recently as last autumn in the 2017/18 League Cup competition.

So, the tricky trees were heading to Stamford Bridge once more, and as I picked the Three Chuckleteers up in the morning, the game was simply not getting me too excited.

The alarm had sounded at 6.15am – bloody earlier than a normal working day – because I wanted to be on the road nice and early. By 8am, I had collected two Glenns and one Paul. There was a slight frost, everything was a light shade of grey outside. By 10.15am I had dropped Parky and PD outside The Old Oak, where they hoped they would be able to grab an early pint. I parked up closer to the ground and walked down to Stamford Bridge with Glenn, where we hoped to spend some time with some of the US friends that have been featured in these match reports of late.

We walked past the usual smattering of ticket touts that have been part of the match day scene at Stamford Bridge for ever and ever.

They were certainly present as long ago as 1920, when the FA Cup Final itself was held at Stamford Bridge for the first of three times.

My grandfather, being careful not to walk into the onrushing crowds as he picked his way along the pavement from the Walham Green tube station to the main entrance of Stamford Bridge, was approached on several occasions by Cockney ticket touts, offering the chance to watch from the main stand. His ticket, and that of his friend Ted, had been given their general admission tickets by the Somerset Football Association in lieu of their role in the running of their local team Mells and Vobster United, for whom they had both played for a few seasons, along with my grandfather’s brother Christopher. My grandfather wondered how the touts had managed to get their hands on these tickets. It was a surprise to him. This was his first football match, and he was simply unaware that such tickets would be available.

“No thank you. We have tickets.”

“OK governor. You want to sell them to me?”

This confused and surely bemused my grandfather. He thought to himself, simplistically, “how would we get in without tickets?” and he paused for a while with a look on his face which probably was more serious than it really should have been.

“No. No thanks. No – they are ours.”

His long-time pal chipped in :

“We’ve come from Somerset for this match. Why would we give them to you?”

The tout uttered a couple of oaths and moved on.

In 2019, my responses to a few touts were not so wordy. I just shook my head and solemnly moved on.

We were at Stamford Bridge for 10.45am, a quite ridiculously early time. In the bar area of The Copthorne Hotel, we settled down with a couple of astronomically priced coffees – £4 apiece – and chatted to a couple of our former players. I like to do this two or three times a season; it makes a lovely change from the usual routine, and I usually bump into a few Chelsea friends while I am there. Ron Harris, who Glenn and I got to know when he lived in Warminster in the ‘nineties, but who moved away to live on the south coast for a while, now lives a mere ten miles from me. It was no surprise that Ron was there early. He always is the first to arrive.

“I’m only ever late for a tackle.”

It was the first time that I have seen him since his move.

Colin Pates, the captain of “my” Chelsea team of the mid-‘eighties chipped in :

“I heard the house prices have fallen since he moved.”

We sat there, chatting away, for a while. Bobby Tambling was another early presence, and then former players John Hollins, Tommy Baldwin, Paul Canoville, John Bumstead, Gary Chivers and Kerry Dixon arrived too. I won’t name names for obvious reasons, but a few of these former players were quite scathing of our recent play, and playing style. I found myself nodding in silent agreement.

I offered an opinion.

“If someone who had never seen a game of football ever before, and the game was not explained to them, and they watched us play, they would probably think that the aim of the game was getting the ball over to within ten yards of the white corner posts by using as many touches as possible.”

Alas, the first of my friends – Lynda from Brooklyn – arrived just after the players went on their way around the various corporate areas, but we still had a good natter about her stay. She has been lucky enough to see four Chelsea matches. Outside, at about 12.30pm, I bumped into the “London Is Blue” team again, and said I would join them later. PD and Parky had spent a while in “The Goose” rather than “The Old Oak” and had by now walked back up to “The Famous Three Kings”. Glenn had dived into “The Malt House” and had bumped into Dave and Karen from Frome. After wishing Lynda a safe journey back to the US after the game, I met up with Glenn, Karen and Dave in “The Cock Tavern.”

This was turning into a tale of five pubs.

I chatted to a few of the American visitors in the beer garden of “The Cock.”

It was the first time that they had met Glenn, so we recounted a little of our Chelsea story for their general amusement and bemusement.

“Yeah, met Glenn in 1977 when he joined his brother and me at Oakfield Road Middle School in Frome. We were one of only three or four Chelsea fans in our entire school, we were a rare bread. We always stopped and spoke about Chelsea when we saw each other at school over the years. Bumped into him on The Shed at the opening game of the season 1983. Went to our first game together at home to the Geordies in the November of that year.”

It then dawned on me.

“Talking of 1983/84, this pub is where I had my very first alcoholic drink at Chelsea, before we thumped Leeds 5-0 to win promotion.”

Ah, 1983/84. Here I go again.

I was eighteen. In previous visits to Stamford Bridge, the thought of going in to a pub was simply not relevant. Not only did I look young for my age, risking the humiliation of not being served, I was also usually broke. Very often I would not eat a single thing on these Chelsea trips to save money for the next one. I remember so much from that day. I certainly remember that this was the first occasion that I had travelled to a game with with PD, along with Glenn and two chaps from Westbury, Mark and Gary. My memory recalls a lager and lime. The pub filled up and I remember talking to a lad from Reading about some Chelsea characters, one of which I would later realise was Hicky. He also spoke about some Chelsea fans going over to the Iranian Embassy Siege in 1980 after a game, intent on “aiding” the release of the people inside, though how that might have manifested itself heaven only knows. The songs started up and “One Man Went To Mow” – which was the song of that season – was heartily roared. We all sat until “nine”, then exploded onto our feet on “ten.” We stood on the sofas, we sang our hearts out. The pub was a riot of noise. I felt as if I was coming of age, a Chelsea rite of passage. Skinhead fashions had been taken over by a new movement on the terraces, more so in that season than in any other at Chelsea. The weekend before, I had travelled to Bath to buy my first ever bona fide casual garment, a blue and white Pringle, which cost me £25 or one week’s dole. I wore that with my Chelsea shirt underneath. I felt the business. I belonged.

The team news came through. To my surprise, Cesc Fabregas was playing, and was captain too. After his apparent “wave goodbye” to the fans after Wednesday’s dull game, I had blithely assumed that his Chelsea career was over.

  1. Caballero.
  2. Zappacosta.
  3. Emerson.
  4. Fabregas.
  5. Christensen.
  6. Luiz.
  7. Hudson-Odoi.
  8. Barkley.
  9. Morata.
  10. Ampadu.
  11. Loftus-Cheek.

“Happy with that.”

Once inside the stadium, Alan and myself agreed that this was a potentially very attack-minded team. It would be good to see Ethan Ampadu in a more advanced position than in his previous starts. Alongside us was a young lad, visiting from New York, who worked for NBC sports. PD arrived a little late after his sesh with Parky and was soon cursing away, and Alan told the lad that maybe he could arrange for PD to get a job commentating on games for NBC.

“A colour commentator, I think you call it. This would just be the colour blue, though, fackinell.”

Forest had around four thousand. Their simple red/white/red is a surprisingly rare combination at Stamford Bridge these days. Their white collars looked like those starched ones from the Edwardian era. I am a big fan of the Nottingham Forest badge, which appeared years ahead of its time in 1977, but still has a lower-case “E” which infuriates me a lot more than it should.

The away fans were soon snorting derision at our lack of noise.

“Is this a library?”

“It’s just a ground full of tourists.”

They had a point. I thought that the atmosphere was bad on Wednesday, but this was even worse. It was, without a doubt, the quietest atmosphere at Stamford Bridge that I had ever witnessed.

We began – again – well but I hoped that we could carry it on for a longer amount of time than in other recent games.

Early half-chances came to us. A Fabregas shot, a Morata header, an Emerson free-kick. At least we were creating more than on Wednesday and moving the ball a little quicker. There was not, quite thankfully, a huge amount of frustration or cynicism in the home support. Morata appeared to go down way too easily to us, admittedly some one hundred yards away, and no infringement was judged to have been manifested on his frail body.

“Stay on yer feet, FFS.”

Forest goaded him with being a “poor Daryl Murphy” whoever Daryl Murphy is.

I turned to Alan.

“He’s a poor Brian Murphy, let alone Daryl Murphy.”

On the half-hour, a clumsy challenge of our Ruben resulted in an easy penalty decision. Unsurprisingly, Cesc stood up to take it. But his approach was too clever by far, and his poor low shot was ably pushed away by the Forest ‘keeper Luke Steele.

Bollocks.

Morata supplied Davide Zappacosta who cut in and smashed a shot goal wards, but Steele was equal to it. We enjoyed so much of the ball. I was pleased with the contributions from Ampadu, his body language is spot on. Fabregas was responsible for a few lovely forward passes. We were well on top.

After running for a ball down below us, our Ruben evidently injured himself and was substituted by Eden Hazard just before the break.

Forest were goading us with “WWYWYWS” but there was hardly a response from the Chelsea sections, apart from a few “YNFAs.”

They then rhymed “Aitor Karanka” with “Lampard’s a wanker” as the biggest rivalry in the East Midlands was transplanted to SW6.

Chelsea responded with songs about our Frank, which only remotely seemed relevant. Where were the songs about the current players? Still in the development process, I presume.

Forest sang a version of “Mull of Kintyre” ;”oh mist rolling in from the Trent.”

How 1977.

Ah 1977.

I find it hard to believe that of the three promoted teams in 1977, it was not the teams finishing in first and second place – Wolves and Chelsea – but the third-placed team Nottingham Forest who would surprise the football world with the League Championship in 1978 and then then the European Cup in 1979 and 1980. And all of this under the unique management skills of Brian Clough.

Clough – famously – rarely used to show up on the training pitch and would let his players play the game to their own devices. Of course he set the team up in a certain formation, but his view was this :

“You are all good players. I trust you. You are not stupid. You know how to defend. How to attack. Get on with it.”

He is at the other end of the football spectrum compared to the fastidious and studious style of many in modern football. I even suspect that there are dossiers produced by modern managers on how to tie bootlaces correctly. Clough was certainly of the “laissez-faire” school of man management. But bloody hell it worked. How he won the title in 1978 with journeyman players such as Kenny Burns, Ian Bowyer, Frank Clark, Larry Lloyd, Peter Withe and Martin O’Neil is certainly a mystery to me if not others.

Soon into the second-half, with thoughts of a midweek flit to the banks of the River Trent for the first time – for me anyway – since 1999, the game changed. The ball was played out to our Callum, who showed a classic piece of wing-play, a shimmy, before running past his marker. His low pass was magical, right into the path of Alvaro Morata who prodded the ball in from close range.

It was a money-shot from inside the six-yard box alright.

Get in.

Alan : “thay’ll have ta come at us naaa.”

Chris : “Come on me little diamonds, me ducks.”

It was then Callum’s chance himself to add to the score line, advancing with pace but forcing Steele to scramble away but with nobody on hand to force home the ball. Morata then suffered the miss of the century, touching the ball over from a mere four feet, but – thankfully for him – he was offside anyway.

“Obvs” as the kids say.

Not to worry, further stupendous wing play from our Callum – shackled by two defenders now – created a few spare feet of space which enabled him to send over a most remarkable deep cross which curved and dipped to hit Morata’s forehead and subsequent downward prod with perfection.

Get in.

There were late changes, with Dave replacing Morata, slotting in at left back to allow Emerson an advanced role. N’Golo Kante then replaced Cesc Fabregas, who hugged David Luiz before slowly walking off to tumultuous applause. I carried out the eulogy for this well-loved player a game too early, but it all still stands. One of the best passers of a ball I have seen at Chelsea. And I think we are definitely dispensing of his services too quickly. He is only thirty-one. But one supposes that he needs first team football, and being a bit-part player for someone such as Cesc is clearly not ideal.

The game continued, but we were never in danger of conceding any silly late goals. Hazard was rather quiet. Emerson enjoyed a few late runs. We peppered the Forest goal with a few shots from distance.

The referee blew and into the next round we went.

Phew.

As I slowly made my way out of the Sleepy Hollow, I watched Cesc Fabregas make a solitary walk towards us in the Matthew Harding. My camera was by now tucked away, so the moment is unable to be shared. But I applauded him as he strode on the Stamford Bridge turf as a Chelsea player for one last time.

He has been magical for us.

He waved to the left. He waved to the right.

We could have sung his song all night.

Tales From The Long Road To Baku

Chelsea vs. PAOK : 29 November 2018.

As we set off for the game, with PD driving alongside Lord Parky, and yours truly in the backseat, I spoke to my travelling companions.

“You have to wonder why we’re going tonight, don’t you? We’re already through. It’s hardly an important game.”

PD soon took the bait.

“Yeah, but we love our football, Chrissy.”

Indeed we do.

Indeed we do love our football.

Guilty as charged.

PD battled the evening traffic and some appalling weather as I relaxed in the rear seats. I drifted off to sleep on a couple of occasions. I had been awake since 5.30pm. By the time we reached our usual parking spot at around 6.30pm – three hours after we had left – I was suitably refreshed.

In the busy “Simmons Bar” at the southern end of the North End Road, I met up with some friends from near and far. It was good to see Neil from Guernsey again for the first time in a while. He was with his brother Daryl, alongside Gary, Alan, Duncan, Lol and Ed and all seemed to be making good use of the two bottles of “Staropramen” for a fiver deal. On the exact anniversary of his first ever game at Stamford Bridge, Eric from Toronto soon appeared and we bought each other a bottle of “Peroni.” He is over for a few games. His enthusiasm was boiling over and he was met with handshakes and hugs from my little gaggle of mates. Prahlad, now living temporarily in Dusseldorf, but originally from Atlanta, was present too, and it was fantastic to see him once more. The Chuckle Brothers first met him for a good old pre-match in Swansea two seasons ago. He was with his wife; her first game, I am sure. Brenda, who runs the Atlanta Blues, was in the pub too, with another Atlantan, Ryan; his first game at Stamford Bridge for sure.

Everyone together.

Chelsea fans from England; South London, Essex, Somerset, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire. From Guernsey. Chelsea fans from Canada. Chelsea fans from the US.

These foreign visitors are not tourists in my book. They are Chelsea supporters. Tourists – that most derided of all at Chelsea and other football clubs in this day and age – happen to find themselves in London and decide to go to a game at Chelsea as part of the London experience. Another box ticked. Buckingham Palace. The Houses of Parliament. Oxford Street. The Tower of London. The Fullers Brewery. Harry fucking Potter. An “EPL” game. Check, check, check, check, check, check, check.

Eric joked with me; “See I am assimilating nicely. Not wearing a Chelsea shirt this time.”

We laughed.

Prahlad was assimilating nicely too. As he said his goodbyes, I tapped him on the shoulder –

“Nice Moncler jacket, mate. You thought I didn’t notice, didn’t you?”

It was his time to laugh.

Off we trotted to the game. We had heard warnings of many away fans travelling over without tickets – something that Chelsea will be doing when we visit Budapest in a fortnight – but I didn’t see any Greeks outside Stamford Bridge. As I walked with Eric past the touts and the souvenir stalls and the general hubbub of a match day, I heard voices from almost a century ago; my grandfather walking the exact same steps –

“Shall we get a rosette, Ted?”

“I’d rather have a pint of beer, Ted.”

There was a quick bag check and we were in. Eric had a ticket in the West Lower. I’d see him at the Fulham game and the one at Wolves too.

Inside the stadium, the three thousand visitors were stood, and were hoisting banners and flags ahead of the game. There were yawning gaps in the top corners of the East Upper, and similar gaps in the West Upper too. After 39,000 gates against BATE and Vidi, this one might not reach those heights.

But these tickets were only twenty quid. Here was a good chance for our local fans to attend a match at Stamford Bridge; to be bitten by the bug, for peoples’ support to be raised a few notches.

But I was sure that there would be moans about “tourists” the following morning…

For a few moments before the teams entered the pitch, I moved over to the seats to my right, which look down on the West Lower, and which give a slightly different perspective. In my desire to photograph every square foot of Stamford Bridge, it allowed me a few new shots.

The teams took to the pitch and I returned to my usual seat in The Sleepy Hollow.

The team was basically a “B Team.”

Arrizabalaga

Zappacosta – Christensen – Cahill – Emerson

Barkley – Fabregas – Loftus-Cheek

Pedro – Giroud – Hudson-Odoi

This was a chance to see how a couple of our youngsters might shape up. In the first-half, our Callum was right over in the opposite corner to me; in the second-half, he would be closer. After seeing him play in Australia, and then again at Wembley in the Community Shield, here was a rare start.

We began with all the ball, and on just seven minutes, our position improved further still. With Olivier Giroud chasing a loose ball, a PAOK defender lunged awkwardly at the ball. Giroud tumbled and the referee from Estonia flashed a red. Off went Yevhen Khacheridi. Sadly, Cesc Fabregas shot meekly from the resulting free-kick.

There were attempts on goal from Hudson-Odoi and Giroud. Very soon into the match, Fabregas began sending a few lovely balls from deep towards our forwards. Of course, Jorginho and Fabregas – although both playing right in the middle – are wildly different players, but it was a real pleasure to see Cesc pinging a few beauties to Giroud and Pedro. Pedro took one down immaculately and forced a fine save from their ‘keeper Paschalakis.

A chance fell for Loftus-Cheek and his effort was tipped wide.

The away fans, dressed predominantly in black, and overwhelmingly male and under the age of thirty-five, made a constant din throughout the opening period of the half. They were not the loudest away fans that I had ever heard at Chelsea – I seem to remember Olympiakos, their countrymen, making more noise – but this lot were non-stop. It was stirring stuff.

On twenty-seven minutes, another magnificent ball from Fabregas found Pedro, who controlled magnificently. He spotted Giroud outside him, and he rolled the ball to his right. The finish from Giroud, struck with instinct with his left foot, was perfectly placed into the PAOK goal.

Stavros #1 : “They’ll have to come at us now, peeps.”

Stavros #2 : “Come on my little diamonds, innit.”

Hudson-Odoi went close just after, his curler from distance dropping into the bar with the ‘keeper beaten. There had been a solid effort from Ross Barkley too. Ten minutes after his opener, Giroud doubled our lead. Another Fabregas ball dropped at Giroud’s feet, but his finish was made to look easier than it must have been. Another first-time finish, volleyed home at the far post, the ball squeezed in between the frame of the goal and the luckless ‘keeper.

Amid some fine quality, there was time for a wild shot from Davide Zappacosta which went off for a throw-in.

PAOK’s attacks were rare. A sublime block from Gary Cahill nulled the best chance of their half.

The half-time whistle blew and we were well worth the 2-0 lead. On every seat back, a sticker advertising “The Fifth Stand” had been applied. It seemed that a private game had been taking place in the row behind me; our mate Rousey – he was oblivious – had been “stickered” by many. He even had one sticker stuck on his ski hat. The back of his coat was covered.

I whispered to Alan :

“Not the first time Rousey is going to end up with a lot of sticky residue on his jacket.”

“I dare to think about it” replied Alan.

The match programme, a better read this season I think, produced a few interesting morsels. The news of our game in the summer in Japan was detailed. I won’t be going; Tokyo in 2012 for the World Club Championships was a pristine, sublime and wonderful memory. I won’t be going back. It would only pale, I think, in comparison. But I am keen to see where else we are headed in the summer. This was our one-hundredth and seventeenth home game at Stamford Bridge in all European competitions, and we have lost just eight. I always remember the sadness of our unbeaten record going against Lazio in 2000. But eight out of one hundred and sixteen is phenomenal. I have – sadly? Is that the correct word? – been at all of the defeats. Throughout all the defeats, though, nothing hurts more than the Iniesta goal in 2009 and the resulting draw. There were nice profiles of Tommy Baldwin and Peter Houseman, players from my childhood, and who played in the first two games that I saw way back in 1974.

Into the second-half, and our dominance continued. The away team, so obviously lacking the class to combat us, would have found it hard to prise open a vacuum-packed packet of feta cheese, let alone our defence. But their fans were still making tons of noise.

A fine run from Loftus-Cheek – looking loose and confident – forced another good save from the PAOK ‘keeper. Then, the ball was played out to Hudson-Odoi by Fabregas. He took a quick touch and then shimmied a little before striking, the ball being whipped in at the near post with Paschalakis beaten. I just missed “shooting” his shot, but I caught his joyful celebratory run into our corner.

This was just lovely to see. The players swarmed around him. I have to pinch myself to think that our Callum is just eighteen years of age.

Ethan Ampadu replaced Zappacosta and took his place in front of Maurizio Sarri and the towering East Stand.

Willian replaced Pedro.

The away fans still sung.

Olivier Giroud – a great performance – was replaced by Alvaro Morata.

After only three minutes, Cahill pushed the ball towards Hudson-Odoi. He soon spotted the presence of Morata in the box, and his cross was simply faultless. Morata jumped and timed his leap to perfection, even though he was sandwiched between two defenders. It was a classic header – why does his heading ability remind me of Peter Osgood? – and the net was soon rippling.

Chelsea 4 PAOK 0.

Perfect.

Against the bubbles, we hardly squeaked it.

The away supporters among the 33,000 crowd were still singing. Their performance throughout the night was very commendable. As a comparison, I have to sadly report that this was the first Chelsea game that I can ever remember in which I did not sing a single note. However, I wasn’t the only one. It was a sad sign of the times.

With a midday kick-off coming up on Sunday, I am not overly hopeful that the atmosphere will be much better, London derby or not.

But I’ll be there.

I’ll see you in the pub.