Tales From Friday Night Football

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 16 September 2016.

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Friday Night Moans :

When it was announced that, as part of the new multi-billion trillion gazillion Marillion Carillion TV deal with Sky last season, that there would be games on Friday nights in season 2016/2017, it will not surprise anyone to read that I was far from happy. I already despair at the thought of games such as the one at Middlesbrough later in the season, which will kick-off at 4pm on a Sunday, which in reality means that I will not be home until near midnight on that particular “day of rest.” Similar games have haunted us for years. Lunchtime kick-offs in Newcastle, Monday nights on Merseyside, you know the score. But this seemed different. Football on a Friday night. It seemed that the football authorities were seeking extra ways of making life even more difficult for the average match-day fan. It seemed almost cruel.

After a long week at work – I am up at 6am every day – I am usually crawling over the finishing line at 4pm on a Friday. And now I have to fend off tiredness, and drive along congested motorways in order to attend a football match on a Friday evening? It’s crap. And it’s another small step in the process of me saying “enough is enough” with modern football. That point may never come, but I am, like a few others I know, thinking along these lines. I love my football, my Chelsea, but there has to be a point when I say “hang on, they’re taking the piss, here.”

If we ever play a regular season game in Adelaide, Bangkok or Chicago, I will have given up on it.

I have, as a lovely counterbalance to the increasingly commercial and all-consuming Premier League, found myself attending non-league football, and specifically my local team Frome Town. In the past fortnight, there was an away day at Salisbury City in the F.A. Cup, and then two home games against Biggleswade Town and Dorchester Town. I have loved every minute of it. Whisper it, but it just might be my future.

Friday Night People :

Thankfully my good mate PD had kindly volunteered to drive up to Chelsea for the visit of Liverpool. He is usually awake before me – a 5am start during the week for him – but as he picked me up in Melksham, he said that he went to bed extra-early – 7.30pm – on the Thursday in preparation for the drive to London. Also on board the Chuckle Bus was Young Jake. We all expected a keenly fought game against Liverpool. A cracking game was anticipated.

Friday Night Traffic :

No surprises, the journey was long and arduous. The one-hundred-mile journey took a tiresome three hours exactly. I was yawning throughout. Thankfully, PD coped remarkably well. On approaching Hammersmith, a coach had broken down in the middle lane of the A4. Just what we bloody needed.

Friday Night Beer :

I just had time for a solitary beer before the game, in The Malt House at the end of Vanston Place. Until now, with me on driving duties for all of the five previous domestic games, I had vowed to stay on “cokes” in order not to risk drowsiness at the wheel. The single pint of “Kronenberg 1666” would surely hit the spot. I savoured my first Chelsea beer since Minneapolis in August. It tasted just fine.

Friday Night Teams :

We already knew that Antonio Conte would play the returning David Luiz in place of the crocked John Terry. Elsewhere there were no changes. Thibaut, Brana, Dave, Luiz, Cahill, Kante, Willian, Matic, Oscar, Hazard and Diego Costa were chosen against Klopp’s team of familiar and not-so familiar adversaries.

Friday Night People :

“The Malt House” is typical of a Chelsea pub these days. The front part houses a section where, even on a Saturday lunchtime, people, and they don’t even look like football match-goers, are enjoying meals at tables. The bar area is always cramped and busy, with nowhere to stand in comfort. I was starving, but baulked at the ridiculous price of bar snacks; £5 for a Scotch egg, £4.50 for a sausage roll. Out in the beer garden, the football followers were amassed. It is a cliché I know, but I know more people on a match day at Chelsea than I do on a night out in Frome. I chatted to Barbara and Denise, both nervous with worry about the game ahead, which was under an hour away now. There was also an enjoyable few minutes in the company of former Chelsea player Robert, who played around fifteen games for us between 1985 and 1987. One big family, everyone together. It is moments like this that make supporting Chelsea so special.

Friday Night Games :

This was, from memory, only the fourth Chelsea game to take place on a Friday, except for the obvious exceptions of games over Christmas and the New Year period, and possibly some in the dim and distant past.

Leading up to the match, there was talk among the Chelsea aficionados about previous Friday night games. Common consensus was that this would indeed be game number four. All three previous matches were in 1984. During that season, “live football” was introduced for the very first time, shared equally between the BBC and ITV. A grand total, five games were on a Friday night, five games on a Sunday afternoon. That was it, though; ten games for the entire season.

We played Blackburn Rovers at home in March, away at Manchester City in May (the first non-First Division match to be shown on live TV in the UK) and then, back in the top tier, at home to Everton in August. I didn’t attend any. In 2016, I would be a Friday Night Virgin.

Incidentally, I did attend a mid-season friendly on a Friday night in February 1986; a game at a very cold Ibrox, between Rangers and Chelsea, and strangely enough Robert and I spoke about that game. He played in that one, but my memories of it are very scant, with it being over thirty years ago, and me being half-cut on all-day drinking.

Friday Night Lights :

In the build-up to this game, it seemed that the club were treating it as something of a novelty. There was talk of a free bottle of “Singha”, but I was not able to partake as I reached the turnstiles too late for my voucher. Some people might regard this as a plus point. I was inside in time to see, at about 7.50pm, the advertised “pre-match entertainment” which the club had also advertised. The lights dimmed, and smoke started billowing in front of the East Stand. In the past – the distant past, the ‘seventies and ‘eighties – pre-match entertainment was a very hit and miss affair at Chelsea. I remember a couple of instances of the Police Dog Display Team (I think we must have been easily pleased in those days), a Marching University Band from Missouri – I know this sounds like a figment of my imagination, but the Marching Mizzou did a pre-game show at a Chelsea vs. Derby County game I attended in March 1975, and which I have detailed here previously – and a Red Devils parachute show against Tottenham in April 1985, in which one poor chap missed the pitch completely and landed on top of the West Stand.

Stamford Bridge was bathed in darkness as a heartbeat pulsed through the stadia’s PA system. Then, from searchlights positioned in front of the East and West Stands, blue and white lights danced across the Stamford Bridge turf.

My thoughts on this?

It looked OK, to be honest – in a happy clappy, “look! bright lights!” kinda way – but was rather out of place. This wasn’t a rock concert. It wasn’t the NBA. It wasn’t the NFL. It was a regular season football match. It might have worked at an end of season trophy presentation – “I wish” – but not for an ordinary league game.

File under “trying too hard.”

Friday Night Flags :

During this light show, a far more agreeable show was taking place in The Shed. The large “The Shed” banner, which I believe has been aired before, was joined by three smaller yellow banners. It was pretty effective, though I am not one hundred percent sure that the suits at the club completely understood the exact meaning and rhetoric of the words used.

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Friday Night Football :

Chelsea, in white track suit tops, and Liverpool, in black tracksuit tops, marched across the turf. The good guys and the bad guys. Neil Barnett had, prior to the pre-match “show,” welcomed our two new signings to the Stamford Bridge crowd. There was hearty applause for the returning David Luiz, and also for Marcos Alonso.

From the start, from the very first whistle, Liverpool looked more lively. Very soon, Thibaut Courtois was tested from outside the box by Daniel Sturridge, and we had our hearts in our mouths as he momentarily spilled the ball, which was hit straight at him, but then recovered before the ball was able to crawl apologetically over the line.

I always keep a look out for Philippe Coutinho when we play Liverpool, but on this occasion it was one of Klopp’s summer signings Sadio Mane – one in a never ending line of players who have gone from Saints to Sinners – who caught my eye. He looked lively, and linked well with others. In fact, the entire Liverpool team looked neat on the ball and hungry when hunting the ball down.

On a quarter of an hour, an infamous goal was scored at Stamford Bridge. The ball was slung in by that man Coutinho from a quickly taken free kick, and no fewer than four red shirted Liverpool players appeared to be completely unmarked on the far post. It is an image that is etched in my mind still. The four players were able to play a game of “Scissors, Paper, Stone” among themselves as the ball floated over. In the end, Dejan Lovren – another former Saint – won the right to prod the ball homewards.

We groaned a million groans.

Chelsea, in our rather feeble attempts to impose ourselves on the game, stumbled. Yet again we were one-paced. Matic – looking a little better this season to be honest – struggled to release the ball early. Oscar was humdrum. Willian fizzed around but ended up running across the pitch more often than not. Ivanovic – oh boy – always took an extra touch before attempting to cross.

Sturridge, as his style, skipped through and then selfishly shot from a ridiculously tight angle. The shot went off for a throw in. This player is so disliked by many at Chelsea, that it is hard to believe that he was part of our squad on that night in Munich.

The one exception to our underperforming players was N’Golo Kante, who stood alone, attempting to stifle any attacking intent within a twenty-yard radius of his diminutive frame. I was very impressed with his work rate and his desire. Where was this desire among the others?

I kept a special look out for David Luiz, and hoped and prayed that he would not commit any embarrassing moments on his return after two seasons in Paris. To be fair, he at least showed his worth as a ball-playing defender, with three fine balls to the feet of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard.

Efforts on the Liverpool goal were rare.

With ten minutes to go before the break, the ball broke into our half. David Luiz was under pressure from a Liverpool player, but with Thibaut Courtois unwilling to leave his six-yard box to collect a back pass, nor to communicate with Luiz, the ball was hacked off for a throw in. Liverpool dallied on taking the throw in, and referee Martin Atkinson urged it to be taken. Gary Cahill’s clearance unfortunately dropped right at a Liverpool player. He had time to touch the ball, and curl a superb shot up and over Courtois’ leap.

The scorer?

Jordan bloody Henderson, this generation’s Geoff Thomas.

The Scousers were buoyant again.

“Stevie Heighway on the wing.
We had dreams and songs to sing.
Of the glory, round the Fields of Anfield Road.”

And then their ditty about “History.”

Are they as obsessed with us as we are with them? It really is a close run thing.

However, there was certainly no denying it; Liverpool had deserved the lead, even though chances had been rare.

A Luiz header from a Willian corner just before the break hinted of a Chelsea revival.

As I made my way into the concourse at half-time, I looked up to see our first goal being dissected on TV by a Sky TV “expert” and although I could not hear the commentary, I could guess his words of mockery.

“It must be an easy job being an expert on TV, yet not having the balls to be a coach or a manager in your own right” I thought to myself, but not in so many words.

2-0 down to Liverpool at half-time brought back clear memories of the FA Cup in 1997.

“Bring on Sparky” said PD.

The second-half began, but there were no changes to Antonio Conte’s team.

No Mark Hughes. No Cesc Fabregas. No Michy Batshuayi. Nobody.

We certainly enjoyed more of the ball in the opening period. Hazard was full of running, and we were pressing for the ball with more determination. Ironically, it was the much maligned Nemanja Matic who helped our cause, exchanging passes and showing a rare turn of speed as he drove deep into the heart of the Liverpool box. He reached – miraculously – the by-line and picked out Diego Costa with a little flick.

Diego doesn’t miss those.

2-1 and Stamford Bridge was vibrant once more.

With thirty minutes of the game remaining, there was – at last – hope.

I hoped that the support would rally behind the team, providing a noisy backdrop to a fine recovery.

The noise never really materialised.

Diego shot straight at Mignolet as our play continued to improve.

Liverpool countered and, at the Shed End, Courtois was able to save from Coutinho and then substitute Origi’s shot. This latter save was quite magnificent.

The hoped-for rally never really materialised either. Conte made a bizarre triple substitution with eighty-three minutes on the clock.

This was late, way too late, surely?

Victor Moses for Willian, Cesc Fabregas for Nemanja Matic, Pedro for Oscar.

For a few moments, it looked like we were playing with three wingers; Moses on the right and both Pedro and Eden on the left, before Eden dropped inside.

Our only real chance, gift-wrapped for a deafening equaliser, was a free-kick on the edge of the box after Hazard was fouled. It took an age for Atkinson to sort out the wall and this added to the drama. Both David Luiz and Cesc Fabregas stood over the ball.

The ref’s whistle, and Cesc stepped up.

Typical of the night, the ball hit the wall and our hopes drifted away.

So, a first domestic loss for Antonio Conte.

Hopefully some lessons to be learned, and some home truths to be shared.

Friday Night Shite :

Exiting the stadium, pushed close against a sombre crowd, I overheard the most ridiculous comments being aired by my fellow fans. I know only too well that we had not played particularly well all game, and the first-half was – of course – very poor, but some of the nonsense I heard produced a mixture of displeasure and hilarity. Why do we – Chelsea fans, but football fans in general – veer from one extreme to the other so easily? When is there ever an even, balanced opinion? I glanced at my phone on the way out of London as PD drove west. The internet was evidently melting. A 2-1 loss at home to a pretty decent Liverpool team and fools were already on Conte’s case, and I even saw someone calling for his head.

Get a fucking grip.

We were five games into a new campaign, and old hardened supporters and new FIFA17 “experts” were already on Conte’s case. The man is at a new club, with a new team, in a new league, and he is being questioned by some of our own. Give the man some slack, please.

The night is young.

I remembered back to a game in September 2009. In our eighth game of that season, we lost 3-1 at Wigan Athletic and the team was under the orders of a new Italian manager.

New to the club, new to the team, in a new league.

Later in that very season Carlo Ancelotti won us the double.

I am not saying that we will be in the hunt for trophies at the business end of this season, but we have to show a little more restraint with our words of disdain, blame, antipathy and antagonism.

A club in disarray has never won anything.

On Tuesday, we play at Leicester City, but I will not be there. I haven’t bought a ticket; I won’t be travelling. I hope that those who have bought tickets will be there. It would be horrible to see a half-empty away section, especially since the away allocation sold out rather quickly.

My next game will be at Arsenal on Saturday. A cracking day out is planned. See you there.

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Tales From The Hawthorns

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 18 May 2015.

The end of the season was nigh. It really did not seem so long ago that we still had ten league games left to play. And yet now there were just two games remaining. The Monday evening game at The Hawthorns seemed to conjure up mixed emotions. There was real sadness in the fact that this would be the last away game of the season. But happiness came with the realisation that we could bestow some love and appreciation on the team – the champions – once more. A trip to The Hawthorns is one of the easiest of the season for me. As I collected Parky from The Pheasant, I was relishing the chance to be among the tight little knot of three thousand loyalists in the away end later in the evening. There was a lovely buzz, growing with each passing hour, at the thought of a Chelsea game in the evening.

This would probably be the last time that The Pheasant gets a mention in these tales. Over the summer, my place of work changes from Chippenham to Melksham – same company, sparkling new premises – and we have already sorted out a new Parky pick-up point; a newly-built pub opposite my new place of work on the A350 called The Milk Churn. Parky had enjoyed a spirited send off at The Pheasant. He had already supped four pints while waiting for me to finish my shift.

There was an undoubted tingle of excitement, then, as we headed north to the trip to the stadium which sits on the boundary between Birmingham and the Black Country. I missed the match – another midweek fixture – at West Brom last season, but there were strong memories of the last three games that I had attended there. Four seasons ago, there was a 3-1 win under Carlo Ancelotti amid glorious self-mocking chants of “We’re Gonna Win Fuck All” from the smiling Chelsea contingent. Three seasons ago came a 1-0 defeat and chants of “Sacked In the Morning” from the home fans aimed at the fated Andre Villas-Boas (no wonder the home fans disliked him with a name like that). Two seasons ago, there came a 2-1 loss and the last league game for the much-loved Roberto di Matteo, who lost his job after the following game in Turin.

“The Chelsea manager’s graveyard” they called it, and with good reason.

Over the past three visits, we had endured two losses and a draw. The Hawthorns has clearly not been the happiest of hunting grounds at all. However, this season West Bromwich Albion have hardly set the world alight. I can’t think of another Premiership team that has endured such a nondescript season. There have been no relegation scares, only lower-mid table mediocrity. The both of us were confident of a Chelsea win.

“Two wins to finish off the season, ninety points surely” uttered Parky as he opened a bottle of cider as we headed through Gloucestershire.

Our pre-match at West Bromwich Albion is always the same; a few beers at the “Park Inn” hotel just off the M5. The hotel’s bar was over-run with Chelsea fans of a certain generation and it was lovely to see so many familiar faces. Parky and I found ourselves chatting to a little group of home fans as we downed some lager. One West Brom fan was the spokesman for the group. He mentioned the last time that he had ventured to Stamford Bridge – in the 1988-1989 season – when a last minute Graham Roberts penalty saved our skins. We bantered back and forth about that game – it was on New Year’s Eve – and he reminded me that Roberts later played for West Brom, though he was well past his prime. This link seemed to inspire the cheery Baggie.

“I’ve always felt, like, that – going back – West Brom were a bit like Chelsea. Flair players. Maybe not always winning much. But…”

I smiled, benignly, wondering where this was going. The standard comparison of my youth was more like Chelsea and Manchester City – ooh, the irony – but this was the first time that I had heard of this unlikely pairing. He continued on.

“And there’s a link with West Brom and Mourinho, you know.”

Now I was intrigued.

“Mourinho began as a driver didn’t he, for Bobby Robson, at Barcelona?”

I thought to myself “translator, not driver but keep going mate, I’m intrigued to see where this is going.”

“Well, Bobby Robson played here, at West Brom, in the ‘fifties. We played some pretty good stuff. I bet you that Robson mentioned his time at West Brom to Mourinho. The tactics, like.”

This was fantastic stuff. Expect a plaque to be erected at The Hawthorns over the summer stating that Chelsea’s success under Jose Mourinho was conceived and nurtured by Bobby Robson at West Brom in the ‘fifties.

The team line-up was shown on the bar TV.

“Diego Costa in, Loftus-Cheek playing, Remy in midfield, Izzy Brown on the bench.”

We left in good time for the 8pm kick-off, but the inevitable scrum at the turnstiles resulted in a delay. The rain had just started to fall. To my right was a large rainbow lightening the gloom. My enduring love of stadia – Simon Inglis calls it “stadiumitis” – flitted in to my mind.

“A rainbow over the site of the former Rainbow Stand, nice.”

As we waited in line, a familiar face at Chelsea was to be found singing songs to himself. A decidedly odd character at the best of times (I don’t think I have ever seen him sober), he was now putting to song every single thought that was entering his head.

“We are the Chelsea, we want to go in.”

“Let us in, let us in, let us in.”

“Getting wet, getting wet, getting wet.”

Oh boy.

To my left were two touristy-types, looking quite out of place, adorned with Chelsea track-suit tops, Chelsea coats and Chelsea scarves, obviously hot-foot from the megastore. Everywhere else, Chelsea colours were at the bare minimum, as per normal.

I edged towards Al and Gal, right behind the goal. I had just missed the guard of honour. Bollocks. There was just time for me to join in with both sets of fans clapping and singing along to “The Liquidator.”

“We are West Brom.”

“Chelsea.”

Chelsea in all yellow. It always reminds me of our 6-3 win at Goodison way back in August. Good noise from both sets of fans at the start. At West Brom, the noisiest section is right next to us in the shared Smethwick End. The three of us were just yards away from them. I was surprised at the amount of empty seats in the corners.

After a few early exchanges, the ball fell to Berahino outside the box. With no Chelsea player able to get close and charge down his shot, the ball tantalisingly curved away from Thibaut Courtois and inside the post. I was, annoyingly, right in line with the flight of the ball.

After less than ten minutes, we were a goal down, and the baying home fans just yards away were letting us have it.

Groan.

Out came their colourful array of songs, but then one which made me chuckle.

“WWYWYWS?”

I turned and looked at one in the eye, pointing “here.”

He waved away my gesticulations.

Thoughts wandered back to the 1985-1986 season with me in the Rainbow Stand; a 3-0 win in front of just 10,300, including 3,000 Chelsea.

“Where were you when you were shit, mate?”

As the game developed, we struggled to find any rhythm. Overhead, the skies grew dark and dirty.The home fans were buoyant. Their chants rang out. They suggested that we’d all be Albion fans by next week, which was at least original.

Then, a few moments of craziness, which the viewing millions in Belgravia, Brisbane, Bombay and Badgercrack, Nebraska probably saw – and understood – better than the three thousand in the Smethwick End. At the other end of the pitch, with Chelsea attacking down the right, the play was stopped. Initially, I thought the play was stopped for an offside. There appeared to be an “altercation” in the penalty area. For some reason, Diego Costa was booked, although Gal was convinced that he saw an elbow aimed at our number nine. While that melee was just about to be resolved, I looked up to see Cesc Fabregas drive the ball back towards the crowd of players in the box. I can only presume that he had heard a whistle and was returning the ball to the referee.

It was struck too well. It bounced back off a player. We thought nothing of it.

Red card.

The away end went ballistic.

To be honest, nobody was sure what had happened.

I still don’t.

Down to ten men, we seemed to play with an extra drive and with extra spirit. We troubled the home defence, but not the home goalkeeper. At the break, there was a general consensus that we’d claw a goal back.

Our hopes were smashed after just a minute of play when, down at the other end of course, we saw a defender – John Terry – attempt to rob Berahino of the ball from behind as the dangerous striker advanced on goal. I could only hope, from one hundred yards away, that it had been ball before leg. The referee had decided otherwise.

Berahino scored from the penalty.

The Baggies’ stadium was in full on “Boing Boing” mode now.

Their unique club anthem, with Black Country affectations, boomed out.

“The Lord’s moy shepherd, oil not want.

He makes me down to loy.

In pastures green, he leadeth me.

The quiet waters boy.”

The Chelsea team, clearly frustrated, were struggling to create chances, but we were running up against a packed defence. The otherwise poor Loic Remy twisted into a little space and shot low, but his firm drive came back off the base of Myhill’s post. On the hour, Courtois tipped over a Morrison effort, but from the resultant corner, the ball fell at the feet of Brunt, who smashed a drive past everyone and in to our net.

Three fucking nil.

Oh boy.

The home fans could hardly believe it and, frankly, neither could we.

However, with the home fans still bubbling away with chants and taunts, the evening changed.

With thirty minutes of the game remaining, the Chelsea fans collectively decided to act. Yes, we were getting stuffed at West Brom, but we had enjoyed a magnificent season and we weren’t going to let one game stop our sense of fun. Harking back to an afternoon at Selhurst Park earlier in the season, out came a song from our recent catalogue.

“We’re Top Of The League.”

And it continued, like at Selhurst, and continued.

At some point, it morphed into “We’ve Won The League.”

At times, both versions were sung together.

After thousands of miles following the team all over England, Wales and Europe, this was the simple answer – an exhausted answer – to the people who mock us.

“We’ve Won The League.”

Diego Costa was replaced by Juan Cuardrado. Nathan Ake replaced Loftus-Cheek. Izzy Brown replaced Remy.

And still we sang.

I joined in at the start and tried my best to keep it going for as long as I could. After a few breaks, I re-joined the rendition…“think I’ll have a sore throat in the morning.”

We had a few chances, but the focus was now not on the players, the focus was on us.

And still we sang.

The home fans quietened. It is easy to say we left them dumbfounded by our noise, but they had sung well all evening. They were merely taking a break. I expect that they thought we might tire, but we kept it going. It was truly wonderful. I remember a “Chelsea, Chelsea” chant at Anfield – captured on TV, with a quick glimpse of me – from a 3-0 loss in 1986 going on for about fifteen minutes, and drawing a comment from the BBC commentator Barry Davies and boos from The Kop, but this one at The Hawthorns in 2015 went on for thirty minutes.

The result was simply brushed aside. I am sure that plenty of sweaty new fans in Nerdistan were getting all anxious about a surprising loss – “damn, Berahino isn’t this good on FIFA15” – but the three thousand foot soldiers in the Smethwick End were having a party.

At the final whistle, the home fans roared. Well done to them. Three losses and a draw in our last four games there now. The Hawthorns is indeed turning in to a private nightmare for us all.

I quickly spotted the lone figure of Jose Mourinho making his way across the wet grass of the pitch, his brown suede shoes pacing out in a strong path. It reminded me of his “chin up” walk at Arsenal in 2007.

With his players staying a respectful distance behind him, our manager simply walked towards us, signalling “number one” with his index finger pointing to the sky. He stopped by the goal line, and clapped us. He hasn’t always been our biggest fan this season; I always wondered if his well-publicised complaints about our home support were aired to inspire us or were they the mark of a manager who just wanted to vent? I don’t know. At The Hawthorns he wanted to just say “thank you.” Perhaps if we had kept quiet, with no thirty-minute serenade, maybe we would not have seen this iconic walk from our manager. We will never know.

For maybe thirty seconds or more, he stood in front of us, and we lapped it up. The players clapped too. It was a beautiful Chelsea moment. He turned and met his players.

We said our goodbyes to each other – “see you Sunday” – and exited amid a party-like atmosphere. Never has a three-nil loss been so widely ignored amid scenes of complete and proper joy. We walked down the exit ramp, leading down from the stadium and out in to the night, with songs continuing.

Football, eh?

With the floodlights piercing the sombre Black Country night, a West Brom fan bundled past and admitted to his mate –

“If they had to win, they’d have fookin’ spanked uz.”

I smiled. He was probably spot on.

I slowly walked back to the car. These trudges back to the Park Inn after a defeat are becoming common place, but this one was thankfully a little easier.

On Sunday, Sunderland, and the party continues.

See you there.

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Tales From The Banks Of The Royal Blue Mersey

Everton vs. Chelsea : 14 September 2013.

At last the universally despised international break was over and I had my sight set on a Chelsea away day. Over the last few seasons, I have eventually concluded that a trip to Everton’s Goodison Park is my favourite of them all. As increasing numbers of stadia that I grew up with fall by the wayside – The Dell, The Baseball Ground, Highfield Road, Maine Road, The Victoria Ground, Highbury, Ninian Park – or become modernised, and sanitised – Upton Park, Villa Park, White Hart Lane, St. Andrews – there is one old school stadium that defies logic and continues to shine. I have shared my love of Goodison Park on many occasions before, so without going over old ground – no pun intended – I will only say at this stage that Goodison Park, or as the Old Lady as Evertonians refer to it, was dominating my thoughts as the build-up to our first league game in almost three weeks drew nearer.

In addition to seeing the boys play – oh, how I have missed them – I would be wallowing in my own particular and personal slice of football history once again.

The 5.30pm kick-off allowed me plenty of time to plan my day. The intention was to park-up near the Pier Head, where ferries departed in decades past, and amble around the Albert Dock area. I’ve visited both the Maritime Museum and Tate Liverpool on previous football expeditions to Merseyside; I was hoping for a relaxing pint in a pub or bar overlooking the revamped riverside, rather than the usual pint of fizzy lager in a plastic glass in “The Arkles” opposite Anfield, which is my usual routine for Everton.

At just after 10.30am, I was on my way; on the royal blue highway once more. This would be my thirteenth visit to the stadium at the bottom of the gentle slope of Stanley Park. I missed last season’s encounter. In 2011-2012, it was a terrible performance under Villas-Boas. The defeat on the last day of 2010-2011 was remembered for the brutal sacking of Ancelotti.

At 11am, I collected Lord Parky. It was a lovely moment – and long overdue. For all of last season, my away trips were solitary affairs. Apart from the pre-season friendly at Brighton and the Community Shield game at Villa Park, the last time Parky accompanied me to a standard away game was in April 2012 at Arsenal.

Back in the days when England’s capital city had no European Cup to its name.

This would only be my fourth trip the north-west during season 2013-2014. In recent years, the area was very well represented; Premier League regulars Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic were augmented by single-season stays from Burnley and Blackpool. It seemed that I was heading north on the M6 every month in those days. Now, only the big hitters from Manchester and Liverpool remain. In fact, during this season, there is perhaps the largest spread of cities for decades within the top flight; Swansea and Cardiff to the West, Liverpool and Everton to the North West, Newcastle and Sunderland to the North East, Hull and Norwich to the East and Southampton to the South. We only need Plymouth Argyle and Carlisle United to join us and all extremities within the football landscape will be covered.

I backtracked through Bradford-on-Avon, skirted Bath and then headed north. It was brilliant to be back on the road alongside His Lordship once again. However, once on the M4, we were held up for a good thirty minutes as the traffic was reduced to a crawl. After stopping for a coffee at Strensham, and with signs on the M5 warning of even more delays on the M6, I soon realised that our trip down to the banks of The Mersey before the match were probably needing to be curtailed. This was a shame, but there is always next year…and the year after.

Throughout the previous week, one song kept bouncing around my head. It had acted like a constant reminder of where I would be on Saturday, a football metronome, ticking away, keeping me focussed. Let me explain. After a New York Yankees game last summer, I got chatting to three Evertonians in my favourite bar on River Avenue in The Bronx. It was my last night in NYC, my beloved Yankees had walloped the Red Sox and I was in no mood to retire to bed. The beers were flowing and the chat soon turned from baseball in the US to footy in England. The father had been living in Manhattan for twenty years and his two sons were over to visit him. The youngest lad was typically wearing a Lacoste polo. After a while, it was decided to continue the drinking session in a bar down on East 23rd Street, way down in Manhattan. We hopped into a cab – there were five of us in total, including a bemused local, struggling to understand our quick-fire conversations in unfamiliar accents – and the chat turned to football songs. I made the point – as politely as I could – that Everton were not known for their wide and varied songbook. I remember serenading them with “The Shed Looked Up” and they responded; I was expecting “It’s A Grand Old Team To Play For.”

Instead, the father belted out a song which was completely new to me, and the two sons joined in with gusto.

“Oh we hate Bill Shankly and we hate St.John.

But most of all we hate big Ron.

And we’ll hang those Kopites, one by one, on the banks of the royal blue Mersey.

To hell with Liverpool and Rangers too.

And we’ll throw them all in the Mersey.

And we’ll fight, fight, fight, with all our might for the boys in the royal blue jersey.”

This was rounded off, nicely, with a rousing –

“Kopites are gobshites, Kopites are gobshites!”

I approved. As the drinking continued, we spoke continually about our two favoured teams, buoyed by beer and a mutual dislike of Liverpool. The big moment in the lives of the two sons was the 1995 F.A.Cup win versus the equally despised Manchester United. I sensed a tone of jealousy in their voices when they heard me talk of our recent successes, but I kept telling them – probably to the point of exhaustion – that there really was “no need to be jealous of others. Your team is your team. Relish every goal, every win.” It was a lovely night. One more thing; the father kept referring to me as “Chris, la” which I found to be particularly endearing and authentic. They were good people.

After turning off Queens Drive and up Utting Avenue, with the bright stands of Anfield at the top of the hill, I deposited £8 in the hands of a local at the official car park in Stanley Park. It was 3.45pm. The journey north had taken me over five hours. We avoided “Arkles” and headed towards Goodison. Lord Parky soon disappeared inside for a few beers and to his seat in the lower tier of the Bullens Road.

With my trusty camera at the ready, I had other ideas.

I took a leisurely hour to slowly circumnavigate the four stands of Goodison Park. I was in my element. The sun was out, the sky perfect. The clamour of a match day gave the late afternoon a buzz all of its own.

Goodison Park. So, why do I love it?

Firstly, the location; surrounded by terraced houses, a proper football locale. Secondly, the history; Everton have played here, since uplifting from Anfield, from 1892. Thirdly, the gargantuan main stand; when I first spotted it in 1986, I could hardly believe its scale, towering over the other three edifices. Next, Archibald Leitch; the venerable stadium architect was responsible for the design and construction of three of the original four stands, two of which – the Gwladys Street and the Bullens Road – remain to this day. The signature Leitch cross-trusses at Goodison, which are still on show on the balcony wall of the Bullens Road, are only present at two other stadia. The others are at Fratton Park and Ibrox. Yep, you’ve guessed – two of my other favourite grounds. Next, my imagination; my late father’s first ever football match took place here at Goodison Park, during the grey years of World War Two while he was stationed on The Wirrall. Lastly, another first game; I took football-mad James, then an eleven year old boy, to his first ever football game at Goodison in 1998.

So, yes, Goodison Park ticks a lot of boxes.

My tour began behind the new Park Lane stand; constructed in 1994, it is a banal and insipid single-tiered structure which adds nothing to the overall feel to the stadium.  I noted that the statue of Dixie Dean had been moved from its original location; maybe it has been moved inside the stadium. Dean was an Everton legend who once amassed a Babe Ruth-like haul of 60 goals in season 1927-1928, and who died, at Goodison, during the 1980 derby. A “fan zone” was in operation behind the Park Lane stand; I avoided it like the plague. I noted a six-piece samba band, dressed in Brazilian yellow and green, parading outside on Goodison Avenue, which was met by blank stares from the locals. It was as incongruous a sight as you will see. I shook my head, tut-tutted and moved on.

On Goodison Avenue, my senses were going into overdrive. Unlike at Anfield, Everton have made a conscious effort to spruce up the walls of the stadium’s once grim exterior. Long banners depicting current players adorn the main stand, which now looks bright and welcoming. The “Everton timeline” wraps itself around 75% of the current stadium, beginning above the away entrance on the Bullens Road in 1878 and ending on the southern side of the main stand in 2013. It depicts key events, photos of record buys, famous games and Everton trivia. As I found myself walking clockwise around the stadium, I found myself going back in time.

Quite apt.

Opposite the main stand, towering high, were a couple of basic cafes. One sight saddened me though; The Winslow Hotel, which my father may well have entered around 1942, was boarded-up and empty. The sign depicting Dixie Dean had faded. How sad. I once drank at this pub in 1994, when I parked outside the stands of Goodison before walking up the hill for a Chelsea game at Anfield. There is always something rather spooky about being outside a stadium with no match taking place; the ghosts of thousands of supporters, the silence, the stillness.

I once watched a game from the upper tier of the main stand; season 1992-1993, front row, brilliant view, awful retro collars with red laces, Robert Fleck scored, we won 1-0, shortest match review ever.

As I took a selection of photographs of the bustling street scene below the vertiginous structure, I noted Romelu Lukaku being driven slowly towards the main reception. At first, the locals were unaware of who the young man in the passenger seat was. Eventually it dawned on them. With the car halted, the window lowered and the Everton loanee kindly signed a few photographs for a few youngsters. I took a few photographs of his smiling face and then seized my moment. I leaned in and shook his hand.

“Have a great season here. Then come back to us next season. God bless you.”

Romelu smiled.

I hated to see look of pure desolation on his face after his nervy penalty miss in Prague. I also hated to see some puerile comments on the internet by some Chelsea fans immediately after. Oh boy.

The red-brick St. Luke’s church sits right on the junction of Goodison Avenue and Gwladys Street. Back in the ‘eighties, it was still possible to see the whole of this modest place of worship from inside the stadium. It has since been hidden by extra cladding on the Gwladys Street stand and the addition of a large TV screen. Like the cottage at Fulham, it adds to the sense of place that makes Goodison so unique. Still the photographs continued; a turnstile, the angle of two stands joining, a streetside café, Tommy Lawton on the timeline.

There is a rather patronising TV advertisement for Barclay’s at the moment; thanking us match-going fans for our continued presence at games. It strongly features a smiling pensioner, possibly photographed at Goodison, certainly wearing Everton blue; his knowing eyes telling a thousand stories, his slight smile indicating past glories and hope for the future. As I walked behind the Bullens Road – getting close to the formidable Chelsea presence outside the away gates now – I spotted his female equivalent. A lady in her ‘eighties – tight perm, blue and white scarf – was being driven in to her personal parking space in a small car park. The sight of this spritely Evertonian made me smile. For those who bemoan the negative aspects of football – the richly-paid players, the out of touch directors, the price of tickets, the occasional presence of racism and loutish behaviour, the commercialisation, the deadening of atmosphere – here was a reminder of what the game means to a lot of people. She must have thousands of great memories from her time supporting her team.

I wonder if she remembers Tommy Lawton, his hair Brylcreamed, leaping high at the far post, or that dashing young man in his RAF uniform at Goodison Park during the Second World War…

I chatted to a few friends outside the away turnstiles. We had heard that Samuel Eto’o was to start. There was confused talk of how Lukaku had been loaned out – again – when most of us supporters would have preferred to see him in Chelsea blue throughout this season. I guess we will never know the full story of the club’s decision to keep Torres and Ba, though I presume that the former’s wage demands have played a part in possible thoughts of moving him on.

At least Juan Mata was starting.

I looked up and spotted Burger, the erstwhile Toronto native now transplanted into the heart of England. He quickly introduced me to his father – his first visit to these shores, his first football match, his first Chelsea match. I repeated my father’s story about Everton and he smiled. Burger Junior and Burger Senior had been drinking, with Cathy and others, since 10am and I was impressed. I wished them well and hurriedly took my place alongside Alan, Gary and 1,500 others in the Bullens Road upper tier. There were a similar number down below us.

The Farm’s “All Together Now” was on the PA as I scanned the scene around me. Goodison’s capacity is 40,000 now and I spotted a few empty seats, namely those behind the roof supports in the Gwladys Street. Another Goodison favourite – “Z Cars” – was played as the teams entered. Chelsea were in black once more.

Cech – Brana, JT, Luiz, Ash – Mikel, Rambo – Mata, Schurrle, Hazard – Eto’o.

The game began brightly enough. Ramires was full of energy and we dominated the early few minutes. All eyes were on our new striker though; as he moved around the pitch, my mind played tricks on me. I imagined Eto’o to be taller. He seemed willing, but his first few efforts were poor. One header over with Tim Howard untested and another which ballooned into the top tier. At least he was getting in to position. Gary, standing alongside me and already “venting,” made me chuckle with his pronunciation of our new striker’s surname.

Only a Londoner could attempt to pronounce Eto’o without sounding the letter T.

“Cam on E’o’o.”

Oh boy.

The best chance of the first-half came when Howard fluffed a clearance and Andrea Schurrle pounced. He played the ball into the path of the advancing Eto’o and the 3,000 Chelsea away fans inhaled a breath of expectation. Out of nowhere, a leg from an Everton player – Gareth Barry – blocked the shot. We were in disbelief.

On the subs bench, Fernando Torres was heard to utter “even I could have missed that.”

Our support was OK. The home fans, though, resorted to type and hardly spoke, let alone sang. Everton rarely threatened; Naismith shot wide, but chances were rare down below us. At the other end, Mikel and Schurrle shot over. Our chances were being squandered and the away support grew frustrated. During the closing minutes of the first-half, Everton turned the screw. During one attack, two Everton players were completely unmarked at the far post and we were lucky to escape unpunished. Right on half-time, sloppy defending allowed a cross to be headed back across the goal by Jelavic to allow Naismith to leap unhindered and nod home from a yard out.

At half-time, I chatted briefly to Tim from Dublin.

“We should have been three up.”

Straight after the whistle, Andrea Schurrle was played in and inexplicably missed from an angle. It took me a few, puzzling seconds to realise that he hadn’t scored. Eto’o lunged at a cross and failed to make contact. At least he was getting into the right positions. Right?

Jose Mourinho then surprised us all and made a double substitution, taking off Mata and Schurrle. On came Oscar and Frank Lampard. In truth, neither player produced in the remainder of the match. A Ramires toe-poke went wide. The general consensus was that we wouldn’t score even if the game continued until November. In reality, such was our mood, we expected Everton to increase their lead on their rare forays into our half. Luiz was lucky to stay on after a tangle on the half-way line. We were riding our luck. Then, the last throw of the dice; Ashley Cole off, Torres on, three at the back, but with Mikel playing very deep alongside Lamps. Where other players were faltering, Mikel was having a great game…reading attacks, breaking-up play, turning, playing it simple. Top marks.

Two last chances summed our day up. Firstly, an attempted flick from Eto’o from close in, but he missed the ball completely. Secondly, a poor shot from Torres’ weak left foot which looked as ugly as it gets and meekly spun off for a goal-kick. Thankfully, Leighton Baines clipped the junction of post and bar at the other end from a free-kick on ninety minutes. Although it was a far from adequate performance – too many personal errors – we barely deserved to lose.

At the final whistle, we shuffled out as the Evertonians – at last – made some noise. I glanced at Tim, but his face was disconsolate. No words were needed. I glowered back.

On the walk back to the car, Parky and I caught up with Chopper, Jokka, Neil and Jonesy. There were a few mumbles and grumbles and this was to be expected. However, it was a difficult game to summarise. Everton weren’t that great. They did enough. If our players had played 10% better – maybe just 5% better – we would have won 3-0. Our play suffered with just too many silly errors at key times. I spoke with Jokka and offered some home-spun philosophy.

“Maybe another set of supporters would have been quite content with that sort of performance – we created a few chances, we weren’t dire – but us Chelsea fans have higher expectations. High expectations make for bad losers.”

On Wednesday, we have the chance to make amends when our European campaign kicks off.

Let’s go.

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Tales From An American Away Day

MLS All-Stars vs. Chelsea : 25 July 2012.

It was game day in Philadelphia.

The Chelsea faithful had traveled down by buses, trains and automobiles from New York and were awaiting the third game of the US 2012 Tour. After the rather average performance by the team against Paris St. Germain, we were all hoping for a better showing against the MLS team in the All-Star game in nearby Chester, a small town to the south, which plays host to the Philadelphia Union team. All of us were adamant that the patchy support at Yankee Stadium would be trumped by some loud and loyal singing from the cramped corner segment of PPL Park, too. In this scenario, less would definitely be more. There would be more passionate fans in a tighter area. It just had to be a winner. It was a theme that resounded throughout meetings with fellow fans in Philly.

However, NYC was still on my mind; my troubled mind. Personally, I was still trying to get to grips with what I had witnessed in NYC. I had seen Chelsea play in Yankee Stadium and yet I was somewhat unsure of the whole experience. To be truthful – and I always knew this – I was still missing old Yankee Stadium. Sure, the record books will show that Chelsea played at the shining new edifice in the South Bronx, but deep down I was struggling to rationalise the reasons why I felt it was so odd to be a spectator in the new place.

I guess the facts speak for themselves. Between May 1990 and June 2008, I had seen 23 Yankee games in old Yankee stadium. Those memories will never be erased. The Mattingly home run in my first-ever game, a couple of magnificent wins against Boston, the first ever Yankees vs. Mets series in 1997, a David Cone master class, a Jorge Posada grand slam…Paul O’Neil, Wade Boggs, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez…Derek Jeter…Mariano Rivera.

I am so grateful that I chose the Yankees as my team because I truly felt at home in the tight passageways beneath the towering upper deck of that historic ballpark on River Avenue. The place will always be with me. I guess it was typical New York; grimy, claustrophic, rowdy, monumental.

The new stadium just doesn’t thrill me in the same way.

So, there was all that floating around inside my addled head. For a day or so, I was also rueing the fact that I never really had the chance to say a proper farewell to Roma, Vanessa and Shawn. The plan was for them to meet us down at Legends after the game, but they got caught behind some horrendous traffic and so decided to head up to Roma’s brother’s house in Massachusetts instead as time was moving on. There would be no hugs for them all. It left me a little sad.

However, after the adrenalin-filled action of NYC, Philadelphia was proving to be much more relaxing. The four of us were certainly enjoying our fantastic apartment right on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. From our balcony, we could see the Rocky Steps to our left and the City Hall to our right. The apartment was so big that we had to text each other to communicate. The bedroom had a different zip code to the kitchen. The rooftop pool was a fantastic extra. Philadelphia was superb.

This was my fifth visit to the City of Brotherly Love and I joked that it was “typical Chelsea” that I keep getting pulled back to the same cities in the US as the team does during European competitions; how many times have we visited Porto, Valencia, Rome and Marseille?

Although I would class NYC as my favourite US city, Philly is rapidly becoming a bit of an obsession. I mentioned to a few Chelsea fans that my great great grandparents lived in the city in the middle of the nineteenth century – after getting shipwrecked off the coast of Newfoundland – before returning back to England. My great grandmother was born in England, but at least one of her siblings was born in America. My personal knowledge of this slice of my past is rather sketchy, but my mother always wanted to visit Philadelphia on the back of this story. So, in 2010, my mother and I spent a very memorable week in the city. It is a week I will never forget. On several occasions, I trembled when I realised that Benjamin and Barbara White may have walked the same steps in the 1850’s.

In 2012, Philly was treating me well.

On the Monday, Captain Jack had taken a half-day off work to show a few of us around his adopted city; it was a marvellous walk through a few blocks of the historic centre, ending up with a cheese steak at the legendary “Jim’s” on South Street. This was followed by an equally wonderful visit to see the Phillies defeat Milwaukee 7-6. The others were feeling tired and headed home when the home team were 6-3 down, but I stayed the course and was rewarded with four runs in the bottom of the ninth. This was my fourth Philly game in the city and although the Yanks are my team, I did let my mind wander a little and wonder if I should really have chosen the red of Philly over the navy of the Bronx in lieu of my own personal history.

Nah, what am I thinking?

Everyone knows that Randolph Axon once lived in a little tenement off Grand Concourse in the Bronx in the first few years of the last century.

“I hadda come back to England see. Da police were on my tail and I hadda run.”

Good old uncle Randolph.

On the Tuesday – a really lazy day – we were lucky enough to meet some of the players as they boarded the coach for a practice session outside the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, overlooking the City Hall.

We were memorably tipped-off about the players’ hotel on the Monday when we were returning to our hotel. A cab slowed down and none other than Andy Wray shouted over to us. His first words were not about Chelsea, though. Typical Andy; he pointed to a nearby restaurant and shouted –

“That place does great food.”

Welcome to Philly!

Our good fortune in meeting the players reminded me so much of my time in Chicago in 2006. I still rate this as my favourite CFC trip to the US, despite our 1-0 defeat and despite it being the only game of the trip. It was, quite simply, a perfect few days in the Windy City. On the very first night, myself, Roma – plus her daughters Vanessa and Jenny – and my mate Chris met virtually all the Chelsea players outside the team hotel, no more than 300 yards from our hotel just off Magnificent Mile.

On this trip, however, I became more integrated with the fans from America. During my two previous trips – 2004 in Pittsburgh, in 2005 in DC and NYC – we mainly kept to ourselves.

In 2006, though, the floodgates opened and I was lucky enough to meet many US-based fans. Since then, my Chelsea life has taken a wonderful – unplanned – route all of its own.

I’m just so grateful.

After spending a few hours in “Tir Na Nog” on the Tuesday evening – nice and easy, meeting a few new Chelsea fans – we retired to the pub which was part of the same building as our apartment. We were relaxing outside on the pavement, having a bite to eat, supping some ales, when a taxi cab pulled up outside the bar. A chap exited the cab with a couple of friends and I immediately remembered him from a post-baseball game pint the previous night. I had remarked that he was a doppelganger for Carlo Ancelotti. On this occasion, we couldn’t let the moment pass.

As he approached the bar, I started chanting

“Carlo! Carlo! Carlo!”

This elicited further song from The Bobster, Lottinho, Speedy, Jeremy “Army Of One” Willard from Kansas, plus Shawn and Nick from the Boston Blues –

“Carlo, Carlo, Carlo.
King Carlo Has Won The Double.
And The 5hit From The Lane.
Have Won Fcuk All Again.
King Carlo Has Won The Double.

2, 3, 4

Carlo, Carlo, Carlo.
King Carlo Has Won The Double.
And The 5hit From The Lane.
Have Won Fcuk All Again.
King Carlo Has Won The Double.

2, 3, 4

Carlo, Carlo, Carlo.
King Carlo Has Won The Double.
And The 5hit From The Lane.
Have Won Fcuk All Again.
King Carlo Has Won The Double.”

We were roaring with laughter and “Carlo” approached us with an increasingly bemused look on his face. I explained to him about his uncanny resemblance to Carlo and guess what? He was a Scouser.

To be fair to him, he took it all in great spirits and even posed for photographs with us. He said he had been mistaken for Jay Leno the previous night.

As one, all of our left eyebrows arched in disbelief.

By the way, the look on the faces of the other customers at the tables was priceless.

I felt like saying – “yeah, we serenade random strangers all the time back in England.”

We were still laughing about this incident when we arose from our slumber on the Wednesday. We had no real plans for the day, but I soon received a text from Steve Mantle about walking over to the Rocky Steps with the four official Chelsea banners in order for photographs to be taken.

Now, that sounded like a magnificent idea.

Despite the sun bearing down on us, we assembled at Tir Na Nog and set off.

I had previously run up the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2008 – it is surely the most important thing that anyone must do in Philadelphia – and so I knew what to expect. The steps were perfect for a photograph. I stood at the base and conducted the proceedings. We elicited the assistance of a few willing tourists and I shouted instructions from below.

With everyone in place, I snapped away like a fool, knowing full well that Chelsea would be using some of the photographs in an upcoming magazine or programme. We created a bit of a scene to be honest and I guess it is the nearest I’ll ever get to being part of a flash mob.

We engaged in conversations with a few fellow fans and met a young lad wearing a Frank Lampard shirt who would be taking part in the on-game ceremonies later that day at the game.

In truth, the twenty minutes we spent under the baking sun at the Rocky Steps were one of the highlights of the whole trip.

And, no – I didn’t run to the top of the flights of steps and yell

“Yo Adrian Mutu.”

I changed into my 1989 Chelsea shirt and met up with the Chelsea faithful in Tir Na Nog at just after 5pm. Amongst the mass of blue, I was very pleased to be able to meet Captain Jack’s family; his wife Teri and their three lovely daughters called in to say “hi” and I was able to start the slow but thorough dialogue with Teri which will eventually lead to Captain Jack being allowed across the ocean to see Chelsea play at The Bridge.

In fact, there is a humorous sub story here. Teri once lived in South Kensington for a short amount of time – way back when Chelsea were mere mortals – and has actually stepped foot inside Stamford Bridge.

Come on Teri – let Steve at least even the score.

I then did a very silly thing.

I did a “Zigger Zagger” and scared the three girls to death.

I had a very quick word with Frank Sinclair and I thanked him for his kind comments about my performance on the five-a-side pitch in New York. He seemed to be enjoying himself on the tour. I can pay him no bigger a compliment than this; when we used to call in on Ron Harris in the ‘nineties, Frank was always a player who Ron rated. Frank was maybe not the most skilful, but a player who always tried his hardest. A player of guts and determination.

Good one, Frank.

As I wandered around the pub, bumping into a few old friends – and a few new ones – I noticed some Chelsea fans not joining in with the songs. I secretly tut-tutted to myself and hoped for solidarity later on that evening. It would be no time for shyness or indifference.

At 6pm, we were told to board the fleet of four yellow school buses which had assembled in the little side street outside the pub.

Another surreal experience, another typically American moment, another memory for me to take away with me.

Yellow school buses.

How quintessentially American. How hugely untypically Chelsea.

School buses.

The sight of us piling into the yellow vehicles still brings a smile to my face.

We were allowed to drink beer on the 45 minute journey to PPL Park. As the four buses roared along I-95, and then got caught in commuter traffic, and then raced each other, with fans gesticulating wildly at each other, with the skyscrapers of downtown Philadelphia in the background, it was a wonderful moment.

Why can’t all Chelsea away games be like this, full of excited fans, smiling faces, with none of the surliness shown by sections of our usual support?

The beer was going down well and the songs were roaring. We had two Seattle Sounders fans on our bus and they led the way; others followed. Speedy was in good form and I followed with a few old favourites. There is nothing like a beer to keep your throat well-oiled. I chatted to a few new faces and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

In fact, I didn’t really want the journey to end.

We were eventually dropped off way past the stadium. Beth was far from pleased and I could understand her displeasure. Out in the bright evening sun, I soon chanced upon a few familiar faces that were having a little all-American tailgate. Beers were handed out and we even had a little kick-about. Tim from Philly, Mike from New York, Matthew from New York wearing a vintage NASL Memphis Rogues T-shirt.

At the baseball game on the Monday, I had chosen to wear a Philadelphia Fury shirt in honour of the great Peter Osgood who played for them during the summer of 1978.

The time was moving on. Away in the distance, the stadium looked a picture. Beyond, the Commodore Barry Bridge – again, so typically American – was proving to be just as magnificent.

By this time, my head was buzzing, but I knew I had to get inside the stadium in order to get a share of some the pre-match atmosphere. I was also concerned about getting a fair share of photographs.

I began the long walk to PPL Park, with the sun just starting to set to the west. By now, I had lost contact with everyone and was – ahem – walking alone. At the pub, I had met a Chelsea fan who was wearing a bona fide shirt from 1991 – Commodore – and I met another one just outside the stadium.

I had a little banter with a few Union fans; friendly, in the main.

I did wonder, though, why so many fans were wearing scarves.

In July.

It seems that the US “soccer” fan base has clearly decided that a scarf is the de facto mark of football subculture, whereas – in reality – very few regulars wear scarves at Chelsea.

Discuss.

I bumped into Kev outside. Kev sits no more than eight seats away from me at Chelsea and we have been keeping each other updated with stories and rumours of this 2012 tour for what seems like an eternity.

Now, we were both there in the flesh.

Brilliant.

I was amongst friends in the Chelsea section at PPL Park. We were positioned at the top of the terrace. A few yards to my right were Funchficker and Mrs. Funchficker, Lottinho, The Bobster, Captain Jack and Speedy. Alongside me was Rey, from Los Angeles, and I was so pleased to see him again. Behind – a real surprise – was Mike Dutter and I haven’t seen him for ages. Phil was there with the Iowa Blues. Beyond – the OC Hoolifans, Mike Price at only his second ever Chelsea game, the Boston Boys…everyone together, everyone well-oiled and up for it. In front, Mark Coden – like me, an ever present on all of these recent Chelsea tours to the US.

The game against the MLS All-Stars would be my eleventh such game.

I had taken several photographs of the bridge on my approach to the 19,000 capacity stadium but was rather annoyed that its iconic steelwork was out of sight, just beyond the stand to my left. I had admired the way that the roof of this stand seemed to extend out to the bridge.

Above, the sky was slowly turning a deep blue. The moon was strikingly clear above the stand to my right.

The Chelsea fans around me were standing.

And we were clearly in good voice.

The stage was set.

The spectators were urged to take part in a two-part “stunt” but I had neither the time nor the energy for it. I believe the words “Chelsea” were visible on cards held aloft by the fans in the stand to my right, but the moment was lost to be honest.

Secondly, the colours of the American flag were visible.

The entrance of the teams.

Fireworks.

My head was still buzzing and I still needed to concentrate on getting some photographs.

Click, click,click.

The game against the MLS All-Stars in Chester, Pennsylvania will be remembered by those Chelsea fans present not for the performance of the players, nor the result, but for the constant singing, chanting and commotion created by the 1,200 fans present.

We stood the entire game and we sung the entire game.

Steve-O set the tone early on with a trademark “Zigger Zagger” and the chanting continued throughout the match. This was just what we had hoped; that the closeness of everyone would produce a subsection of PPL Park akin to an away terrace at Blackburn, Everton, West Ham or Tottenham.

I noted one chant which was new to me –

“You Play Soccer. We Play Football.”

I liked that. A little jab at the MLS hierarchy. Keep ‘em on their toes.

All the Chelsea classics were aired; too numerous to mention. I’m sure everyone has their own particular favourites.

Over to you.

Halfway through the first-half, I absolutely loved the roll-call which was started by the usual suspects to my right.

For Mary-Anne and Paul –

“Tennessee, Tennessee, Tennessee.”

For the Funchfickers –

“Ohio, Ohio, Ohio.”

For Lottinho, Dennis and Detroit Bob –

“Michigan, Michigan, Michigan.”

And for little old me –

“Somerset, Somerset, Somerset.”

Lottinho then pointed at Dennis –

“Puerto Rico.”

Out on the pitch, I will admit to being thrilled to see David Beckham play one last time, way out on the right in a rather withdrawn position. I have a lovely shot of him joking with John Terry.

The MLS team went a goal up through a Wondolowski effort from close in, only for John Terry to rise high and head home from a corner.

At the break, I rushed down to buy a beer, a hot dog and a match programme. The beer did its job because soon into the second half, I let rip with another “Zigger Zagger.” I was elated to hear the thunderous response to each guttural yelp. However, I knew I was reaching the end of my capabilities when I reached the closing moments.

“Ziiiiiiiiiger” (Oh God – I have to do a big ending here.)

“OI.”

“Zaaaaaaaaager” (Oh God – I’m barely going to be able to make this.)

“OI”

(Here we fcuking go – in for a penny, in for a pound.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER, ZIGGER ZAGGER” (…only just!)

“OI OI OI.”

A nice tap in from Frank Lampard gave us a 2-1 lead, but – much to our annoyance and disbelief – the MLS team not only equalised through Pontius but scored the winner in the “nth” minute of extra time with a ridiculous looped shot from Eddie Johnson which ricocheted off David Luiz’ leg and into an empty goal with Ross Turnbull beaten.

We were not deflated, though. We kept singing till the end.

It was a proud night in Pennsylvania.

If the long walk back to the bus wasn’t tiresome enough, we were then kept waiting for all buses to depart. Canners was on my bus back and I leaned towards him and said –

“Fcuking hell Paul. I saw your Stamford Bridge debut thirty years ago and now, here we are, on a school bus in Philadelphia.”

From the sublime to the ridiculous.

It was a quiet bus ride back to Philly.

Throughout the evening, Roma’s daughter Vanessa had texted me a few times to see what time we would be getting back into town. It seemed that they were halting their long drive back to North Carolina especially to call in to see me in Philadelphia. I gave them instructions of how to reach Tir Na Nog, but I wasn’t sure if they could delay their drive home for long.

I quickly darted back to the apartment to drop off a few things and made my way to the pub.

I was in mid-text to Vanessa when I looked up to see the three of them walking towards me.

Ah, that cheered me up no end.

With typical disregard for authority, Vanessa had simply parked her car right on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, right underneath a sign which plainly said “no parking.”

Now that, my friends, is Proper Chelsea.

They, of course, were horrified to hear that Chelsea had lost.

“Yep, we always lose to the MLS All-Stars. I don’t think we’d better play them again.”

We returned to Tir Na Nog and met up with the usual suspects once more. The mood among my Chelsea mates was defiant. We all agreed that the singing and the atmosphere amongst the “away” fans had been magnificent. I was certainly full of praise, if not full of voice.

I was croaking again.

The time was moving one. It was past 1am. I knew that the night wouldn’t last forever. With real sadness, I said my goodbyes to Roma, Vanessa and Shawn. This was the first time that I had met Shawn and I wanted to have a little moment with him. I crouched down and babbled out something like –

“Shawn – it has been so good to see you. It was great to see you in New York. And it has been even better to see you tonight. You’re a lucky boy. You have a great mother and a great sister. And you’ve seen Chelsea play! Now, until I see you again, I want you to know that we all love you.”

To which he smiled and said –

“I just farted.”

My words had obviously impressed him.

I waved them off as Vanessa drove away into the night.

Back in the apartment, Lottinho, Speedy and I spent a few philosophical moments as we looked out into the city from our balcony. It had been a simply superb time and we had enjoyed ourselves immensely in Philadelphia.

Until we do it again.

“Phriendship And Phootball.”

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Tales From Celery World

Portsmouth vs. Chelsea : 16 July 2011.

Eight weeks.

Just eight weeks have passed since the last Chelsea game: that dour, depressing and unrewarding performance at Goodison Park which was immediately followed by the hurtful sacking of Carlo Ancelotti, just hours after the final whistle. It was a sad end to a frustrating season for us and the treatment of Carlo by the club certainly left a sour taste in my mouth for some time after.

Since then, I have been on a self-titled “Chelsea Detox.” I have been laying low, keeping still and quiet, calming myself, re-energising for the trials and tribulations for the highs and lows of the new season ahead. If it is at all possible, I’ve been trying not to think too much about football and Chelsea in particular.

This way of life so devours me during the season itself that I really do need this two month break from it all. Of course, the internet – the damn internet – does not help. Various sites have been full of various scurrilous and wayward rumours about certain players with whom Chelsea are allegedly linked. Over the summer, I realised that I have grown tired of all this. The last time I was genuinely elated about a Chelsea signing was in the Gullit, Vialli and Zola years. Since then, without sounding too blasé, I’ve seen them come and I’ve seen them go.

The managers too. Hoddle, Gullit, Vialli, Ranieri, Mourinho, Grant, Scolari, Hiddink, Ancelotti…and now the new guy Andre Villas-Boas. Seen ‘em come. Seen ‘em go.

Welcome to the club Andre. I wish you well.

I remember my good friend Rob (who, like me, is not so keen on the “Chels” epithet) commenting one day in The Goose :

“I don’t really care…this player, that player. I’m at the stage now where I’m not too bothered. It doesn’t make much difference to me. This is Chelsea – drinking with your mates, looking after each other, the away trips, the banter. The players come and go. This is what matters.”

This is a mantra I have been preaching too. As the years pass, the football almost becomes irrelevant. I have even said that my Chelsea goes from pre-match drinking session to the next, rather than game to game. The games in between the sessions give us something to talk about, but the drinking and socialising is the crux of all this. When the football wasn’t so great (let’s say 1991-1992 for example, though there have been others…), the pre-match meet-ups were what kept me coming back to Chelsea season after season.

…and you will hear variations of this ethos throughout my many various match reports during the coming year ahead. I guess you all had best get used to it. Wink.

The constant drone of 24/7 football overkill with salacious rumours and gossip seem to be the norm these days, but I remember times when the summer was a more restful time. When I was younger, my family and I used to get daily newspapers and there used to be a reduction in football news from the end of May through to the start of July. The sporting sections of papers would be full of Test Match cricket, Wimbledon and golf and, at times, football might only warrant a few scant paragraphs.

Those days seem a lifetime away to me now.

I remember the summer of 1983 in particular. I remember being in Frome on a Friday afternoon, the day before I was due to travel up by train for the league opener with Derby County at The Bridge. In those days, virtually the only football magazines that were on offer were the ones aimed at early teens…”Shoot” and “Match Weekly.” I had been getting “Shoot” since I was seven and I was now eighteen. And I was probably embarrassed to buy it, but it was always good for mail order products like football programmes and replica kits. Anyway, on this particular afternoon, I remember buying a “Match Weekly” and not only seeing our new Le Coq Sportif shirt for the first time, but also reading, with increasing disbelief, that we had recently purchased Kerry Dixon, Pat Nevin, Joe McLaughlin, Nigel Spackman, Eddie Niedzwiecki, John Hollins and Alan Hudson. Not only was I excited and amazed, but I was also dumbfounded that these signings had passed me by. I can only surmise that we had stopped getting daily ‘papers that summer as we sometimes couldn’t afford them, if the truth be known. Living in the south-west, without access to the London TV and national press, I guess I was out of the loop. Also, Chelsea were a struggling Second Division Two team at the time. Maybe we just weren’t newsworthy enough for these signings to reach me in deepest Somerset.

So – imagine that. A Chelsea fanatic like myself not knowing we had bought “The Magnificent Seven” during the summer of 1983. It’s hard to fathom, isn’t it?

How the times have changed.

I set off for Fratton Park at 11.30am and Parky, my travelling companion for 75% of my Chelsea trips, was alongside me once again. I haven’t seen too much of him in that eight week period, so we spent quite a while updating each other on all of the gossip. A sizeable segment of the first hour was spent running through my travel plans for the Asia tour and how I wish Parky and a few more friends could accompany me. I’m such a lucky so-and-so to be off on my travels once again. Other topics were discussed and news of mutual friends exchanged. The tickets for the game at Portsmouth were just £15 and we wondered how many tickets were sold. I guess we expected a full Chelsea allocation of around 3,000 in an attendance of around 15,000. I went to a pre-season game at Fratton once before, in 2002, and sat in the rickety old Leitch stand above the half-way line. It was a great view to be fair. Everyone knows how much I love my stadia architecture and I have a definite soft-spot for raggedy-arsed Fratton. I get quite depressed when fellow Chelsea fans lambast it. I for one will miss it when it is redeveloped or bulldozed and Pompey play in a sterile bowl on the city boundaries.

The traffic was horrendous as we passed through the quaint Wiltshire city of Salisbury and this held us up. The weather forecast was for rain, rain and more rain. At least there is a roof on the away terrace at Fratton these days. Eventually, we left the cathedral city of Salisbury behind and ploughed on, eventually parking up outside the Good Companion pub at 2pm.

Inside, it didn’t take us long to meet up with our closest Chelsea companions; Alan, Gary, Daryl, Rob, Whitey and also Barb, Burger and Julie. How on Earth could it be eight weeks ago that I left Burger and Julie’s house in Stafford after that Everton match? When I said “goodbyes” to them that night, Carlo was still the manager…

Time moves fast in Chelsea World.

I bought His Lordship a pint and a Coke for myself. My alcohol intake over the summer has reduced to just a trickle and I am wondering how I’ll cope once I get on the beers in Kuala Lumpur and Bangok. Things could get a little messy. I had a good old chat with Rob and then Burger and Julie, who had decided to book the night in a city centre hotel. At 2.45pm, we left the now empty pub and walked the short distance to Fratton. This was a first-time visit for Burger and Julie and I acknowledged their gasps of astonishment at the down-at-heel entrance to the away stand.

Good old Fratton.

Ironically, my PFC-supporting mate Rick was visiting his parents in Frome and there is a fair chance that we may have passed each other on the A36.

Parky and myself had tickets in the very back row of section M. We reached our seats just as the teams entered the pitch. We have that “Drinking + Walking + Admission” equation worked out perfectly these days.

Ah, the first game back.

A quick scan around. Paolo the captain, looking more tanned than usual. Torres with his Liverpool-style haircut and Alice band.

Chelsea in blue, Pompey in a new black away kit.

I only had the pleasure of seeing our new away kit once during the entire time at Fratton. And, frankly, that was once too many.

It was on a 50-something year old bloke and it looked awful.

I saw a few Chelsea home shirts, but the crowd in that packed Milton End mainly wore that usual eclectic mix of English football threads. Parky and I, overlooking the rear walkway, noted a few nice tops.

“Nice colour Fred Perry there, mate.”

And it was – a subtle yellow with deep orange trim. Good work.

The game quickly began and I snapped away like mad. I wanted to capture a few images from the game and I could then relax. I looked at the players on show and tried to piece together the formation. I soon spotted the new manager over to my left, in white, alongside the much-loved Roberto Di Matteo. It didn’t take long for the boisterous Chelsea crowd to acknowledge our former mid-fielder;

“One Di Matteo, There’s Only One Di Matteo, One Di Matteo.”

It dawned on me that this song was sung so quickly in order to fill the void of where a song for Andre Villas-Boas should be. Still haven’t mastered his name, still haven’t mustered a song…but we are working on it.

Then, a crazy period of football and support, intertwined.

A fan had evidently smuggled in some bags of celery, right down below us, and frantically pelted it everywhere…it was the biggest show of celery at an away game for years and it was a joy to behold. We pelted some stewards and someone managed to hit a female steward, who picked the celery up and threw it back. It was a great piece of comedy. Many pieces of the yellowy-green vegetable had made their way onto the pitch. With that, a young lad did a hearty Zigger Zagger and we all joined in. I had trouble concentrating on the game as the support in our section was boiling over. However, the ball was played out to Fernando Torres out on the Chelsea right. I spotted Studge making a run into the middle, but the ensuing cross was nimbly headed into his own net by a Portsmouth defender.

I’ll be honest – I think Parky was too busy filming the celery and missed it.

Amidst the laughter caused by the celery flying in every direction, now laughter at an own goal. It was a great moment.

We had most of the ball in the first-half and Paolo, especially, found himself wide on the right on a number of occasions. Sturridge looked confident and was full of sweeping runs. One lone Pompey fan, in a white baseball cap and a snide Stone Island jacket, was coming in for bundles of abuse from the Chelsea section nearest the Pompey North stand. An attempt to get his fellow fans to sing fell on deaf ears and we roared –

“On Your Own, On Your Own, On Your Own.”

The sun eventually broke out from behind the clouds and it was becoming a pleasant, though blustery, afternoon. The Chelsea songs continued throughout the first half, even when Pompey had a little spell of possession just after the half-hour mark.

“Don’t Worry…About A Thing…’Cus Ev’ry Little Thing’s…Gonna Be Alright.”

“One Man Went To Mow.”

Just before the break, the much-maligned Pompey fan left his seat and took yet more abuse from the away fans. As he danced up the terrace steps, heading off for a half-time drink but loving the attention, I shouted –

“Milk and two sugars, mate.”

At half-time, the management team decided to hold the half-time preparations on the pitch and out came my camera to record the shuttle runs, the tactical talks and the fans serenading the substitutes – especially JT, Frank, Drogba and Nico. Songs for each of them. It was a lovely period, actually. I wondered if we would see some of the players in a Chelsea shirt ever again in the UK…Anelka must be a favourite to move on, I would guess. Andre Villas-Boas is a slight figure and he quietly spoke to a few players in turn. Di Matteo, however, was in control of a folder which he flicked through with various players. Lots of chat, lots of gestures. The players looked attentive and primed.

With the re-start came wholesale changes from Villas-Boas, but more Chelsea songs to wind up the home fans –

“When John Went Up To Lift The FA Cup, You Went Home, You Went Home.”

The play on the pitch wasn’t fantastic, but what do people expect? We had a lot of the ball, but found it difficult to work openings. A delightful Josh turn here, a lovely Kalou dribble there, a run from Drogba, neat control from Anelka…but not much threat. To be honest, it was Hilario’s half. He scythed down a Pompey attacker, but then threw himself to his left to save the resultant penalty. We then endured two almost identical pieces of horrendous defending caused by Hilario’s poor communication with his defenders. How we never conceded goals on each of those occasions, I will never know. Only a piece of super-human defending from JT on the second instance kept our goal intact.

By this stage, we were urging every player to “Shoot!” but the shots were as rare as polish being used in the Arsenal trophy room. Still the wind ups came –

“On When The Saints Go Marching In…”

No more goals ensued and the final whistle was met with a half-hearted cheer from us in the packed Milton End. It hadn’t been a great game, but so what? Today was all about showing up in our thousands – which we did – meeting up with friends – which we did – out singing the home fans – which we did – throwing celery at everyone – which we did – and showing some love to our players – which we did. Anything else, surely, would have been a bonus.

We quickly galloped back to the car and I made great time heading north up the A36. The music kept us buoyant – Joe Jackson, Tom Robinson, The Skids, The Undertones, The Pretenders and The Members – and I dropped Parky off at just before 7pm. With a four week gap now, until the home opener, it will be a while before I see him again.

And here I am.

I’m on the edge of the biggest leap yet in support of my team and my club, with a flight to Kuala Lumpur just 14 hours away.

I think it’s time to reflect for a moment on what Chelsea Football Club has become.

The loveable old under-achievers of my youth, supported by rapscallions and hooligans, celebrities and eccentrics, working class lads from inner London and die-hards all over the UK, have evolved into a 21st Century footballing powerhouse of national and international prominence.

It gives me a moment in time for me to hold a mirror up and comment on what I see. To paraphrase my old geography lecturer at North Staffs Poly : Who is Chelsea? What is Chelsea? Where is Chelsea? Why is Chelsea? And what of it?

This trip out East might aid me in answering these questions.

Apart from the football – see my earlier comments – this trip is going to give me a great opportunity to appreciate how other nationalities perceive us and for me to try to get to grips with what being a member of the Chelsea Family means to the good people of Malaysia and Thailand. I’m particularly anxious to hopefully dispel some myths about our overseas support. There is a growing and tedious trend at Chelsea – or at least amongst the less enlightened members of some chat forums – to think that foreign fans have no right to support Chelsea. That they are all JCLs. That you have to go to 50 Chelsea games a season to be a true fan. Well, I already know from my travels in the USA that this view is way off the mark. So, as is the case with a lot of the games that I have witnessed in America, whereas others will be watching the action on the pitch, I might well be centering my gaze on the supporters and fans off it.

To say I am excited would be a ridiculous understatement.

Now, where did I put that celery?

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Tales From The Sticky Black Tarmac

Everton vs. Chelsea : 22 May 2011.

At 8.30am, I left my village. For the last time of the season, I sent a text to Alan –

“Jack Kerou’Whack.”

On passing through Bradford-On-Avon, I had to slow down to accommodate several cyclists on a Sunday morning race. It was a little reminder that the summer was on its way and that there were other sporting pursuits taking place. To be honest, it has felt that the football season had already finished, especially since we had the “lap of appreciation” after the Newcastle game. On this last day of the season, the focus was elsewhere; the relegation dogfight, played to its nail-biting conclusion for the fans of Birmingham City, Blackburn, Blackpool, Wigan and Wolves. I collected Parky and we were on our way north for the final time of season 2010-2011.

This would be my eleventh trip to Goodison Park and it remains one of my favourite away stadia. The reasons for this have been well detailed before, but it’s quite simple really; a historic stadium, with two stands from the early part of last century still intact, a cramped inner city location, with an atmosphere all of its own, rich with tons of memories of past games.

We chatted away on the drive north and the time flew past. We spent a while talking about the football / music crossover which has been such a feature of the game in Britain. And at Chelsea in particular. From the songs from West Indian ska bands of the late sixties, beloved by Ben Sherman-wearing youths on the terraces of The Shed, to punks and skins of the late’seventies (Kings Road posing in the morning, football in the afternoon), soul boys in the early eighties (wedge haircuts and skintight jeans), through to the house music phenomenon of the late ‘eighties, all baggy jeans, bright colours, ecstasy in the dance clubs and on the terraces.

There just isn’t anything similar for any other sport in the UK. Music and football – the perfect combination. It’s just a magnificent celebration of working class culture. This relationship, in my mind, reached its zenith in the summer of 1990 with the New Order / England song “World in Motion.” We then had the Chelsea vs. Manchester City battle-royal between Blur and Oasis during the Brit Pop years, with laddish attitudes evident in every song, borne from the terraces, and enthralling a nation. At Chelsea games this season, we still see “London Calling” and “One Step Beyond” banners. And no team has as many pop star fans as us, from Suggs and Woody from Madness, Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher of Depeche Mode, to Damon from Blur and Gorillaz…the beat goes on.

At 11am, we called in to collect Julie and Burger from their home in Stafford. Time for a quick coffee and then onwards to Merseyside, whack. They are both busy with work, but still loving life in the heart of the Midlands. We managed to spirit two tickets for them out of the ether and they were happy to be aboard The Axon Express for the final game of the season. A few alcoholic beverages were shared between Burger and Parky and Julie spent a little time looking through the CIA book of my match reports from last season.

At 12.30pm, bang on time, I pulled into the car park of the Stoneycroft pub on the Queens Drive. A pint of Becks Vier. A relaxing time, with good people. Andy, Woody and Rob – travelling up from Nuneaton – soon joined us and we sat down for a Sunday carvery, with food piled high on our respective plates. The chatter subsided as we got stuck into the mountains of nosh in front of us.

“Bloody hell, it’ll take me twenty minutes until I reach the meat.”

“Bolton” said Andy.

“Best carvery in the Premiership.”

He then spent a few moments rekindling his love affair with the Toby carvery at Sunderland. Burger bought some Amarettos for the non-drivers. We all agreed that it felt strange to be at a game which was effectively meaningless. I guess we were all there for the craic though – nothing different, there.

We then drove on up to the Liverpool FC car park on Stanley Park and quickly found ourselves inside The Arkles pub. The pub was pretty full and I spent a little time with the other Nuneaton lads.

Lacoste watch –

Chris – lavender.
Chopper – sky blue.
Neil – royal blue.

WeroLoco from Calexico in California had been in touch and we eventually met outside. I had told him to look out for my travelling companion, identified by his trusty crutches.

“Are you Lord Parky?”

I quickly met WeroLoco’s mother, sister and girlfriend. His mother and sister were not planning on going to the game, but we advised them to pick up the two spare tickets which were being offered up by a Chelsea fan. We then sped off across Stanley Park, a force ten gale blowing, and reached Goodison Park just at the right time, with ten minutes to spare.

I made my way into the cramped Bullens Road stand and a large sign inside said “Everton Welcomes Visiting Supporters.” I had a seat in the upper tier and I was reminded of the first time I had seats in that particular section. This was a game in December 1998 and was memorable for being my girlfriend Judy’s boy James’ first ever football game. Now James is – and was then – a United supporter, but I had decided that it was high time that he got to see my team play. He was only ten. To be truthful, the game was poor (no goals, but a double-sending off, first Dennis Wise and then Richard Dunne), but it was lovely to take football-mad James to a game. I don’t have any kids of my own, so this was a very special moment. Despite his allegiance to United, I loved it when James joined in with a few Chelsea songs. It was my privilege to take James a year later to Old Trafford for the very first time. Don’t worry, he was with us in the Chelsea section and I even caught him chanting “Chelsea” at that game, too.

Just before I made my way to my seat, alongside Alan and Gary, my mate Ajax gestured to me and pointed out an actress from Coronation Street – I don’t watch the show, so didn’t recognise her – Brooke Vincent, who is seeing Scott Sinclair (according to Gary…again, I didn’t know.)

We had seats 1-3 in row L, so we were right in the corner, not too many seats away from the game in 1998. In with just a couple of minutes to spare.

Ah, Goodison – the wooden floorboards, the mammoth main stand opposite, the blue paintwork, the detail of the Leitch stands, the Toffee Girls, the “Z Cars” theme.

So, no Drogba, but Torres upfront with Anelka and Malouda.

“I’ve never seen us lose here, Gal.”

And when I said it, Gal’s look said it all.

The game began in bright sunshine and the wind had thankfully subsided. I was well aware that many seats in the Chelsea section were not occupied; I’d imagine several hundred had decided not to travel. Behind us, in the top corner, tens of seats were unoccupied.

The game was played out before me, but this was not appetising fare. An Everton corner was swung in from the far side and a header thudded against the bar. We had been warned. Soon into the game, a healthy chant echoed around the away section –

“We want you to stay. We want you to stay – Ancelotti, we want you to stay.”

And then, not so loud – “Carlo! Carlo!” – and a brief wave.

We struggled in the first period and Leighton Baines was in typical raiding form down the left. A woeful finish from Beckford and a strong Everton penalty claim were Everton’s highlights. A bursting Alex found support from Torres and the ball was played into Anelka but his shot was blocked by Klunk. Generally speaking, we were our usual slow and sluggish selves and only a couple of long distance Anelka shots late on were our further comforts.

At times during the first-half, the whole stadium was silent.

The sending off livened-up the second-half and, at least, the game seemed to be a little more feisty and engaging. I caught John Terry’s nice strike on goal on film – this rattled the left-hand post. His first Chelsea goal from “distance” still awaits.

The Everton goal was a joke, but nobody was laughing. Beckford just waltzed through from deep and shimmied past the convergence of four – it could have been nine – Chelsea defenders.

“After you Paolo.”

“No, after you JT.”

“Your ball, Alex.”

“Micky Droy’s ball.”

“Chopper’s ball.”

“My ball.”

“Sorry Marcel.”

“John Sillett!”

“Get him, Frankie Sinclair!”

“Hack him down, Berge.”

Goodison Park erupted. Our hearts sunk and our support got quieter. I’d say that only JT showed any spirit. Frank Lampard was absolutely woeful – and I’m genuinely concerned for him. I have a fear that his form, so dependent on his vitality and energy, could continue its rapid decline. Torres was looking disinterested and I was begging for him to lose his markers and spin his markers occasionally. We clearly need to change to accommodate him. Mikel – slow and ponderous. Malouda – hiding.

Pass, pass, pass – to infinity.

We had to wonder who had the spare man. It couldn’t have been us.

The final whistle and it was over.

I had my camera at the ready and hoped to take a few photos of the boys down below us. Maybe even one of Carlo. Malouda was playing wide left and Ashley Cole, too. They applauded us. But the only three players who walked over to applaud us were – go on guess, it is obvious – John Terry, Frank Lampard and Petr Cech.

Respect to them.

In a poignant moment, I watched as JT stooped to take off his two boots and shirt. He clapped us, but looked very disappointed. He walked towards the fans in the lower tier and presented the boots and the shirt to fans down below. He pounded his chest with his right palm, and then slowly walked across the Goodison Park turf. One man with his thoughts.

The Everton fans were scowling and he pounded his chest once more.

As I walked down the stairs, I noted the rather nice working of the Everton motto “Nil Satis Nisi Optimum / Nothing But The Best” on a large sign. I mused that the Chelsea performance was far from it.

We met up outside the away end, the Evertonians buoyant, the Chelsea fans silent.

After a while to get out of the car park, we eventually edged onto Queens Drive at 7pm. The post-game discussion was brutal but brief. We had already put the game behind us. On the way home, I briefly glimpsed the hills beyond Manchester and wondered what sort of celebrations were going on at Old Trafford. The relegation equation was finally resolved and we were all sad to see Blackpool relegated.

A few Everton cars passed us – and quite a few had “Nil Satis Nisi Optimum” rear window stickers (they looked classy to be honest) but I came up with a different translation –

“Forever Seventh.”

We dropped off The Burgers at 7pm and we had another coffee in their delightful rear garden, the sun slowly fading. We wished each other all the very best for the summer, with the season in August not so far away. There is the friendly at Fratton Park, my two games in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, plus the Rangers game too. Lots to relish, lots to look forward to.

As we left Stafford, at about 7.30pm, I received a text from my oldest Chelsea friend Glenn, deep in rural Somerset.

“Carlo sacked.”

We fell silent for a few seconds and I had that awful dry feeling in the back of my throat that seems to appear whenever my mind and soul encounter sad news.

My initial reaction was : typical Chelsea, typical classless PR.

Poor Carlo.

For a while, Parky and I were quietly mulling over the future and the spectre of Roman’s obsession with the Champions League. In Roman we trust? I’m not so sure.

Confused. Sad. Tired. Frustrated.

The last junk food refill of the season at Strensham and the last Red Bull. It is just as well that Bruce Buck didn’t pull up alongside me on this occasion. I may not have been so pleasant as after the Stoke city game a month or so back.

We raced south and we listened to a Jam album. I’ve never met a Chelsea fan who doesn’t like The Jam – and it seemed appropriate for us to be belting out the lyrics to this most English of bands on this most typical of Chelsea evenings.

“A police car and a screaming siren
Pneumatic drill and ripped up concrete
A baby wailing, a stray dog howling
The screech of brakes and lamplights blinking

That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

A smash of glass and the rumble of boots
An electric train and a ripped up phone booth
Paint splattered walls and the cry of a tom cat
Lights going out and a kick in the balls

I say that’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

Days of speed and slow time Mondays
Pissing down with rain on a boring Wednesday
Watching the news and not eating your tea
A freezing cold flat and damp on the walls

I say that’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

Waking up at 6 a.m. on a cool warm morning
Opening the windows and breathing in petrol
An amateur band rehearse in a nearby yard
Watching the telly and thinking ’bout your holidays

That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

Waking up from bad dreams and smoking cigarettes
Cuddling a warm girl and smelling stale perfume
A hot summers day and sticky black tarmac
Feeding ducks in the park and wishing you were far away

That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

Two lovers kissing amongst the scream of midnight
Two lovers missing the tranquillity of solitude
Getting a cab and travelling on buses
Reading the graffiti about slashed seat affairs

I say that’s entertainment, that’s entertainment.”

I dropped off Lord Parky at 10.45pm and I was home at 11.15pm.

And next season, we’ll do it all again.

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Tales From The Return Of Jesper Gronkjaer

Chelsea vs. FC Copenhagen : 16 March 2011.

Ah, the 16th of March – a momentous date in my life.

Our game with Copenhagen coincided with the 37th anniversary of my first ever Chelsea game. Ironically, our defeat at the hands of Inter last season was on the same date – but I was pretty confident that a similar fate would not befall Chelsea in 2011. In fact, I had hardly thought about the game against Gronkjaer and co – yet another game that had snuck in under the radar.

I took a half day holiday as I had just about had my fill of stressful sorties up the M4 motorway for midweek games. As it happened, this was a very fortuitous move. At around 4pm, with His Lordship alongside me, I received a text from Bristol Tim on the M4. It seemed that there had been a major snarl-up around Maidenhead and that the eastbound motorway would be closed until 6.15pm. I contemplated my options and took the A34 down to the A303 and headed in on the M3.

From my home in Somerset, I had headed north to collect Parky, then east towards Hungerford, north to the M4, east towards Newbury, and then I took that well-timed diversion south to the A303, then east again to the M25 and eventually north to the M4 and then finally east towards HQ. My route to Stamford Bridge had mirrored an elongated Pat Nevin dribble. A bit like that famous one against The Geordies in 1983, maybe.

With much pleasure, we stumbled into The Goose at 5.45pm – my journey had grown to 141 miles, but I could relax. Tim, however, was still struggling to get in and was still stuck on the M4.

We spent a lovely 90 minutes in the pub, chatting and looking forward to possible venues for “the last eight.” One of our topics of conversation – and consternation – was the price of the game…my ticket had cost me £57. That’s a lot of money for a tie which, hopefully, was already won in Denmark. But what can we do? Maybe one day, I’ll resist. To be fair, Rob had looked at the price and had resisted. However, he made it in from Essex for the pre-match banter (which is what 75% of “Chelsea” is anyway, let’s be honest) and then had plans to disappear off to The Imperial to watch the game on the box. I respected his opinion – he had paid ?50 to fly to Copenhagen for the first leg, but had really felt disgusted about paying more for his own seat at The Bridge. I was left with explicit instructions for me to text him my guestimate of the crowd.

In our little corner, surrounded by familiar faces, it was a typical scene.

Smiles and laughter, groans at shocking puns, pints of Carling, mobile phones being checked for messages, friends arriving, faces noted, talk of past games, the Blackpool post-game party and the inevitable hangovers, Barbour jackets, pints of Fosters, new pullovers, shrieks from the far corner, friends from far off places, the excitement of the imminent draw, “get the beers in Parky”, more tales from Blackpool, plans for Stoke away, Russell’s new job, “mind yer backs”, more beers, blokes in work clothes, shared memories of distant fashions and distant games, Bayern Munich away, Juventus two years ago, the classic moments relived one more time, lads in Adidas trainers, “one more beer”, tangled conversations, jokes, banter, football.

Inside the stadium, it soon became apparent that fewer people than we had expected had resisted the game. All areas, with the exception of the very back rows of the East Upper and the upper corners of the West Stand were full of spectators. Of course, the three thousand away fans were in early and were making the expected din. I suspect that they had been on the Carlsberg all day. Alan had met a couple in The Imperial and he reported that they were buzzing. Their balcony was covered in club banners and flags. Throughout the game, they did themselves proud. Lots of noise. Balloons when the two teams entered the pitch. Lots of planned and choreographed waving of scarves and bizarre hand-jives…lots of singing, lots of fun.

It was back to the CL style programme – white cover, spine – for this game. The programme seller gave me an extra one and I noted a photo of Gill and Graeme inside.

Carlo was testing the 4-4-2 once more and I was a little surprised to see Fernando Torres on the bench.

We had a reasonably well observed moment’s silence in memory of the poor souls who lost their lives in Japan and then the MH serenaded John Terry with the much-loved –

“One England Captain.”

The game?

We couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo.

We couldn’t hit a donkey’s arse with a saucepan.

We couldn’t hit a chef’s arse with a soup ladle.

We couldn’t hit a spaceman’s arse with a ukulele.

We couldn’t hit a red-headed Bourbon Street floozie’s arse with a trombone.

We couldn’t hit Peter Piper’s arse with a peck of pickled peppers.

We couldn’t hit a banjo’s arse with a cow.

The most memorable moments of the entire night’s football involved the banter between the two sets of fans. Again, fair play to the Danes. In superb English, they goaded us with –

“Can you hear the Chelsea sing? I can’t hear a fcuking thing.”

“Sing when you’re winning, you only sing when you’re winning.”

The MH responded with a classic of our own –

“Speak fcuking Danish, why don’t you speak fcuking Danish?”

The Danes also gave many rousing renditions of the theme from “The Great Escape” too. Generally speaking though, we were subdued and were only roused intermittently. As I looked around to check on the gaps in the seats, I spotted a few more American flags…notably those from Southern California, Austin and the Bay Area. Good work.

It was enjoyable to see Jesper Gronkjaer once again. He was a bit of an enigma was Jesper, to say the least. He had blistering pace, but the end product was usually woeful. We ought to name The Shed roof after him, since a high proportion of his crosses ended up heading towards it. Whenever he received the ball, loads of us would often shout “Run Forrest.”

And he usually did.

He had a peculiar running style too, as though his upper body was in a different plane to his legs. His arms tended to move sideways.

We carved out plenty of chances in the game, of course…a few early chances including one for Yuri with the entire goal begging, a Drogba curler which was well saved, a great deep cross from Bosingwa which was volleyed wide by Didier, a couple of Anelka one-on-ones wasted, a Ramires strike saved, some head tennis in the six yard box and a Mikel header hitting the bar, a strong run from the substitute Torres and a deft flick, a deflected Torres shot and an Essien blast saved.

The pick of the bunch though, was a nonchalant shot from Didier which ballooned about fifteen yards in the air and went off for a throw-in down below the TV studio in the NE corner.

Oh boy.

Overall, I thought Drogba and Anelka played two far apart, especially in the first-half. They need to work on their partnership and that can’t be done when they are so distant. The midfield did not really support the front two that well…I have the impression that Carlo advised the team to play within themselves and not overly exert themselves. I can see the reasons for that. Despite the 25 shots on goal, the mood was of frustration amongst the Chelsea faithful, though. Torres looked sharp…I keep saying it…the goals will come. Copenhagen didn’t really threaten too much, but of course the free-kick which rattled our woodwork certainly gave us a scare early on.

As I left the stadium, there were murmurs of discontent, but it only took me a few sobering moments to remember March 16th. 2010 and I was just glad that had made it into the final eight. Carlo’s pragmatism over wild adventure had succeeded and we all eagerly await the draw on Friday.

On the drive home, I contemplated the draw options while listening to a few Spurs fans on “606.” They were just too full of themselves and I’m just dreading our two names to be drawn together in the quarters. Looking ahead, I am hoping to travel to any venue apart from Donetsk. I have visited all of the other six stadia over the years, though I haven’t seen a game at Real Madrid. As I missed out on the trip to the San Siro in 1999 and 2010, a game against Inter would be my personal favourite, though a return trip to the grimy industrial town of Gelsenkirchen would not be a problem either.

On Sunday, let’s beat City.

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