Tales From An Old Gold Adversary.

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Chelsea : 18 February 2017.

After two easy home wins against Peterborough United and Brentford in this season’s FA Cup, we were on our travels. I would have preferred a new ground – Huddersfield Town, Sutton United, Lincoln City, not Millwall – but the Football Gods had given us an away fixture at Wolverhampton Wanderers. This was fine by me. Our last visit was five years ago and, since then, a new stand has been built, so there would be something new to see. Wolves away is an easy drive for me too; after the arduous trek to Burnley last weekend, this would be easy.

I remembered our last game against Wolves in the F. A. Cup in the spring of 1994. Our game at Stamford Bridge – on TV, on a Sunday – was only our second FA Cup quarter final in twenty-one years, and the stadium was bouncing. Memorably, there were blue flares in The Shed before the game, and the old – and huge – original “Pride Of London” flag made its first-ever appearance that day. From memory, it was the biggest “crowd-surfing” flag ever seen at a London stadium at the time. The 2,500 Wolves fans were allocated a large section of the East Stand because the North Stand was recently demolished. I watched from the old West Stand as a Gavin Peacock lofted chip gave us a 1-0 win. We were on our way to an F.A. Cup semi-final for the first time since 1970 and – boy – how we bloody celebrated. We flooded the pitch afterwards; in fact it would be the last time thst I would walk on the hallowed turf. However, the one thing I really remember from that game was the noisy repetition of “The Blue Flag” which really became an immediate and legendary Chelsea song on that particular day. It had not really been sung much until then. On the Monday, at work, I could not stop singing it to myself. The photographs from that day show a much different Stamford Bridge and a much-changed support. Of course I miss it.

Twenty-three years later, the four of us (Parky, PD, Scott and myself) were in Wolverhampton over four hours before the game was due to commence at 5.30pm. We darted into the first pub we saw, The Wheatsheaf, and once inside, soon realised the errors of our ways. We didn’t mind that it was a home pub – there were Wolves shirts pinned to the walls and ceiling – but the clientele soon began to change. We stood to one side of the bar supping our pints and watched as a few Wolves lads came in. We wondered if they were in the “Yam Yam Army”. I was certainly being eye-balled by a young chap. You could tell they had us sussed. One bald lad sauntered in – blue Stone Island jacket – and we soon decided to cut our losses. A few minutes later we were settled in an “away fans only” pub – big gothic columns outside, formerly “The Walkabout” which we have visited before, now renamed and re-branded as a nightclub – and we could relax a little. There were a few Chelsea “faces” of our own on a table on the back wall, and a few more friends and acquaintances soon arrived. I had a laugh with a local copper about the previous pub.

“Didn’t you think it odd there were Wolves shirts there?”

“Yeah, but there are home pubs and there are home pubs. This one was a little – pause – tense.”

“Ha. Bet your arse was twitching like a rabbit’s nose.”

Songs were soon bellowing around the cavernous and dark boozer. There were only a precious few “away only” pubs in Wolverhampton and I was glad we had stumbled across one of them. We had heard that – quite a miracle – non-league Lincoln City had won at Burnley with a goal in the last minute of play. What a stunning result. At around 3.45pm, I left the others to it and departed for the stadium. Outside the pub was a sport shop owned by former player Ron Flowers. I walked past a pub called “The Billy Wright.” I wondered if another pub called “Slaters” was named after the former Wolves defender Bill Slater. I did wonder, in fact, if there were other such places in Wolverhampton, a town famous – only? – for its football team.

“Maybe it is all they have.”

Maybe in other streets there are the George Berry Tea Rooms, the Sammy Chung Bowling Green and the Kenny Hibbitt Bingo Hall.

In a previous edition, I briefly flitted through Wolves’ history.

Tales From The Old Gold And Black Country : 20 February 2010.

“The stadium in Wolverhampton is right at the heart of the city and I like it. The long natural incline leading down from the town centre once formed the basis of the huge Kop until the ground was slowly – very slowly – remodelled in the ‘eighties. When I think of the Wolves of my childhood, not only do I think of players such as Jim McCalliog, David Wagstaffe and Derek Dougan, but I also I think of the idiosyncratic Molyneux stadium. There was the immense Kop to the right and the unique multi-spanned roof opposite. All of these individualistic stadia are long gone these days and it’s a shame. I can also hear the gentle burr of the ‘seventies ATV commentator Huw Johns telling of some action on the pitch. He had such an evocative voice and often commentated on Wolves games. Before my time, Wolves were the team of the ‘fifties – winning three league titles – and they captured the imagination of the nation with their unique set of friendlies against teams such as Honved. In their distinctive old gold shirts, they were some team, led by England captain Billy Wright. If the Munich air crash had not happened in 1958, catapulting Manchester United into the nation’s hearts, maybe Wolves would be a major player these days.”

By the time of my next visit, I was able to update on Molyneux’ expansion plans.

Tales From A Dark Night : 5 January 2011.

“Wolves almost went to the wall around 1985 as a result of their relegation to the old fourth division and debts caused by the messy redevelopment of their stadium. For many seasons, the Steve Bull Stand – built in 1979 and very similar to the Spurs West Stand of the same year – stood way back from the pitch, with the rest of the crumbling stadium unable to be rebuilt and moved to meet up with the new stand’s footprint. The three new stands were eventually completed in around 1993 and it’s a neat and compact stadium, with the iconic old gold used on stand supports and seats. It feels right. Alan and Gary had been talking to a Wolves fan as they waited for me to arrive and he told them that there were plans to build again, with the end goal being a 50,000 stadium. I guessed that relegation might halt such grandiose plans.”

I was looking forward to sitting in the upper deck of this new stand, which was still being built on my last visit. However, the Wolves of previous eras were dominating my thoughts as I walked past pub after pub of home fans, each one with bouncers outside.

The Wolves of the ‘fifties were indeed a grand team. And the game against Honved in 1954 – during our first league title season – was shown live on BBC; a very rare event in those days. Played under new floodlights, Wolves played the game in special shimmering old gold silky shirts to add to the drama. Many observers have credited the series of Wolves friendlies against Honved, Tel Aviv, First Vienna and Spartak Moscow as kick-starting a pan-European knockout competition. In the very next season, Chelsea were advised, of course, not to take part in the inaugural European Cup by the curmudgeons in the English FA. One can only imagine how spectacular the Wolves vs. Honved game seemed at the time. The Honved team included six of the Magyars who had defeated England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and again 7-1 in Budapest in 1954 including the legendary Ferenc Puskas. Watching on a TV in Belfast was a young lad called George Best, who chose Wolves as his team. The game must have had a similar effect on many; my next-door neighbour Ken is a Wolves fan and would have been a young lad in 1954.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxoI4AjgokU

Of course, Wolves were our nearest rivals back in that 1954/1955 season. A Billy Wright handball at our game at Stamford Bridge is the stuff, as they say, of legend.

Our paths memorably crossed during the 1976/1977 Second Division season too, when a 3-3 draw at Stamford Bridge was followed by a 1-1 draw at Molyneux. Wolves were promoted as champions that year, with Chelsea also going up just behind them. I wrote a few words about this during our last visit.

Tales From A Work In Progress : 2 January 2012.

“Alan and Big John were reminiscing about their visit to the same ground in April 1977 when our fans were officially banned, but around 4,000 fans still attended. A Tommy Langley goal gave us shares in a 1-1 draw and secured our promotion. Those were heady days. That was a cracking season. I only saw three games in our promotion push, but the memories of those games against Cardiff City (won), Bristol Rovers (lost) and Millwall (drew) are strong. On the day of the Wolves match, I can vividly remember running up the slope outside my grandparents’ house once I had heard that we had secured promotion and jumping in the air. But then the realisation that, as the lone Chelsea fan in my village, I had nobody to share my enthusiasm with.”

So, 1954/1955 and 1976/1977 and 1994/1995 – three instances when the two clubs have been thrown together. I wondered what 2016/2017 would bring. I approached the stadium from the south, and used the infamous subway, much beloved by home fans who used to ambush away fans in previous eras. It has something of the feel of “A Clockwork Orange” and it spawned the Wolves firm “Subway Army.”

I reached Molineux unscathed and rewarded myself with a cheeseburger.

There were Chelsea supporters milling around the Steve Bull Stand, whose lower tier would house 3,000 of our 4,500 supporters. But I headed on and took a few photographs of the stadium, which has changed so much over the past few decades.

It was soon clear that many away fans had been drinking heavily from London to the Black Country; the concourse in the lofty Stan Cullis Stand was soon full of Chelsea song and football-style rowdiness. One fan collapsed on reaching the final step, overcome with alcohol. Some younger lads could hardly stand. I made my way to our seats – black in this visitors’ quadrant, as opposed to old gold elsewhere – and I loved the view. A new perspective on Molineux. Many other away regulars had chosen seats in this section too. I noted that the Steve Bull Stand was so far from the pitch, but Molineux remains a neat stadium. We watched the sun disappear to our right and the air chilled.

Antonio Conte had chosen a relatively experienced team; our attacking options did not lack any punch. There was all change in the back three though, with the manager choosing John Terry, Kurt Zouma and Nathan Ake.

Begovic, Moses, Zouma, Terry, Ake, Pedro, Chalobah, Fabregas, Willian, Costa, Hazard.

Happy with that.

I liked the wordplay of the slogan on the balcony of the Stan Cullis Stand :

“This is our love and it knows no division.”

From Champions to the depths of Division Four, Wolves have seen it all.

The stadium took a while to fill, but with a few minutes to kick-off, the place was packed. Although Wolves play to gates of around 18,000 to 24,000 for most league gamers, this one would be a 30,000 capacity. Wolves used to play “Fanfare For The Common Man” before the teams entered the pitch, but we were treated – oddly – to “The Wonder Of You.” More than a few Chelsea fans joined in. That drink again. As the teams appeared, the PA played the customary “Hi Ho Silver Lining” and the place roared.

“And it’s hi ho – Wolverhampton.”

Soon in to the game, the Wolves fans to our right bellowed “The North Bank!” and it sounded like something from another era. The home fans were the first to be treated to a chance on goal when a loose header from Kurt Zouma allowed the unmarked George Saville a shot on goal. I sucked in some cold air and expected sure disappointment. Thankfully, his firm strike hit a post. The danger was still there, but again thankfully Andreas Weinmann ballooned over.

Just after, a fantastic pass from Fabregas found Willian in a central position, but he took a little too long to control the ball, and the chance was wasted. I sensed that Victor Moses had the beating of his opposing defender; an ugly tackle was clear evidence that he was a threat. Eden Hazard, despite plenty of willing support from the overlapping Pedro, was quiet. Nathan Ake oozed class and was easily the best of the three at the back. Kurt Zouma still looks so stiff. He did enjoy one “balls out” run deep in to the Wolves half though and – it reminded me of those barnstorming runs that Michael Duberry used to love. I have a feeling that King Kurt will one day score an absolute screamer following a typical run.

One fan in the Steve Bull Stand was clearly enjoying his five minutes of fame; he was spotted gesticulating to the away hordes, and he was soon singled-out.

“Who’s the wanker in the pink?”

(For those who remember, this is a famous chant from 1983 – even mentioned in “The Football Factory” by John King if memory serves – when the pastel-clad casuals from Portsmouth’s 6.57 arrived en masse on our North Terrace and one similarly-attired lad was picked out by the scallywags on The Benches. I know because I was one of them.)

Wolves were carving out occasional chances and Begovic saved low from Helder Costa (hair c. 1991). There were certainly grumbles throughout the first-half. I can only really remember another effort on goal; a cross from Moses was unable to be tucked in by the quiet Diego Costa. Wolves must have been annoyed as hell that their slight dominance did not result in a goal. But I was so confident that we had enough quality in our ranks to be victorious. What we did not want, almost as much as a defeat, was a horrible replay. But ours was a very patchy performance and we needed Antonio to fire up the troops.

There was another “hi ho – Wolverhampton” and the second-half began.

With Chelsea attacking our stand, things began to brighten. There were speculative efforts from Zouma and Pedro and then Diego carved out a fine chance for himself but his strong shot hit the side netting. On sixty-five minutes, we were warmed by an excellent move involving Cesc, Diego, Hazard and then Willian. As he paused momentarily, I spotted Pedro racing in at the far post and I hoped that Willian had seen him too.

No need to worry; an inch-perfect cross was sent over to the far post and The Hummingbird jumped, hovered in mid-air, and headed home. There was an enormous roar and soon the away end was covered in a blue sulphurous haze of a flare – the second of the day, how 1994. Wolves tried their best to mount a counter but rarely threatened again and the home atmosphere died. In one surprisingly dramatic race, we watched as John Terry just about reached a through-ball a mere  nano-second ahead of an attacker.

Phew.

The away fans were now in good voice. This was much better. There were songs of Wembley.

Antonio made three late substitutions involving Dave, Kante (all Wolves fans : “ah, bollocks”) and Loftus-Cheek.

We enjoyed a few more chances; Willian slipped while inside the box, Fabregas shot wide and Zouma went close with a header.

In the final minute, a loose ball was slammed home inside the box by Diego Costa.

“Get in, game over.”

Into the last eight we went.

The temperature had greatly-dropped in the second-half, but after the tundra of Turf Moor, this was no real issue. There was a rare event of a police escort back in to the town centre. Such must be the problems in keeping home and away fans separated in Wolverhampton. The police were out in force and the “Yam Yam’s” day was over.

On the drive home, we wondered about the draw for the quarters, while looking ahead to the league game against Swansea City next Saturday.

It had been a fine day in the Black Country.

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Tales From 1986 And 2017.

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 4 January 2017.

What a huge game. Tottenham Hotspur, under-achieving thus far this season but recently hitting a good run of form and intent on enacting a massive revenge on a Chelsea team that, in addition to ending their title hopes in May, always seem to have the upper hand over their North London rivals. And then there was the side issue of Chelsea’s thirteen consecutive wins being extended by one all-important game.

They seriously do not get much bigger than this one.

Throughout the day at work, I kept thinking – and saying to others – “it should be a cracking game.”

PD drove for a change and we were parked up at Barons Court in good time. We caught the Piccadilly and Central lines to Liverpool Street where we met up with a rum assortment of Chelsea loyalists in The Railway Tavern at about 6.15pm. Time for a single pint. It was unsurprisingly boisterous and loud. We ended up catching the 7pm train up to White Hart Lane, along with two hundred other Chelsea fans, and the thirty-minute ride north was full of singing and bouncing. There were police accompanying us, how ‘eighties. Chelsea fans have a bad reputation for travelling on trains, but the banter and songs were light-hearted and benign.

Getting out of White Hart Lane station seemed to take forever. At the bottom of the steps were more police, with some on horseback. This again had the feel of a game from the distant past. The streets around the Tottenham High Road were dark, and the atmosphere was dark, too. The new Tottenham stadium, being built just a few hundred yards to the north of the current ground, is now starting to take shape, and there has been considerable progress since my visit last season. Cranes and huge blocks of concrete dominated our walk before the familiar West Stand came in to view. The clip-clop of horses’ hooves was joined by loud and random shouts of “Yids” from the Tottenham fans walking alongside me. The four of us – PD, Parky, Young Jake and myself – kept together, no stragglers. Ahead, we saw – and heard – the nearest we get to a battleground at away games these days. There is no aggro outside the away turnstiles at Anfield, Old Trafford, or other stadia, but at Tottenham there always seems to be an ugly edge. Tottenham fans turning right onto Park Lane are kept away from the away fans by a line of police and temporary barriers. There was pushing and shoving, bravado and gesturing, and the police were being tested. Shouts of “Yid Army” broke the London air. And then we spotted bottles and glasses being hoisted towards us. Jake, walking just behind me, was hit in the temple by a coin. No blood, keep moving. I shielded my eyes. I brushed past the security check and I was inside.

This could be my last-ever visit to the current White Hart Lane. Spurs aim to de-camp in to their new stadium for the 2018/2019 season. Dependent upon the timing of our game, our game against them could be at Wembley.

I always remember my first visit.

Chelsea were promoted to the old First Division in 1984, but I did not attend our first two games at Tottenham – a 1-1 draw in 1984 and a 4-1 defeat in 1985 – so my very first visit to the home of our old rivals was in September 1986. It was a game that I attended by myself, travelling up by train from Somerset, and I remember a long old walk from Seven Sisters, up the High Road, and – typical of me – getting to the ground way ahead of schedule at midday, allowing me to take a smattering of photographs outside the ground before kick-off. There were no frills at football in those days. Red brick, boarded windows, no colour, no spare money for gentrification.

My diary entry from that day talks of queuing up in the rain and getting in as early as 1.20pm. I guess it was pay-on-the day. I noted the opposite North Stand – the Paxton Road – being pretty empty, especially the terrace at the front. The Shelf was more populated. The main West Stand too. Needless to say, our end was packed. I watched from the lower terraced area in the Park Lane. Usually, in those days, Chelsea would flood the seats behind that terrace too. I only knew a few Chelsea fans in those days and I spent the whole day by myself, not bumping into anyone, but just immersed in the whole atmosphere.

Just a simple relationship between my club and myself.

We went ahead after Wee Pat was fouled inside the box. New signing – and former Spurs midfielder – Micky Hazard slammed home the penalty. Just as we were singing “You Are My Chelsea” at full throttle, Pat worked the ball in for Hazard to slam home a second. Clive Allen – who would later have a cameo role at Chelsea in 1991/1992 – pulled a goal back from the spot. When Speedo put Kerry Dixon through, I lifted myself up on the crush barrier in front of me, and watched as he slotted the ball past Ray Clemence. It was a typical Kerry goal. I felt honoured to have witnessed our first league win at White Hart Lane since 1974.

In the final part of the game, we just sang and sang and sang.

“OMWTM.”

“Oh Chelsea we love you.”

And two songs which were typical of the time.

“We’ve got foreskins, we’ve got foreskins, you ain’t, you ain’t.”

“Tottenham boys, Tottenham boys, no pork pies or saveloys.”

The long walk back to Seven Sisters – no trouble, remarkably – was completed with a big bounce in my step.

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Chelsea 3.

You never forget your first time, eh?

The gate on that wet Saturday thirty-one years ago was just 28,202. I remember being disappointed, with the home turnout especially. We must have had 6,000 or 7,000 there. Which meant just 21,000 Spurs fans.

(For a sense of balance, the gate at Stamford Bridge for the return fixture, just before Christmas, was even worse : just 21,576. Sigh. This match has turned out to be the last game that I saw Spurs beat us at Stamford Bridge.)

We were inside with ten minutes to spare. Unlike in 1986, I bumped into many friends, possibly too many to remember. I noted an absurd over-abundance of Aquascutum scarves. Again, how ‘eighties. I love them though; I have one myself. I also had one in 1986, before it was stolen at Milano Centrale station a few years later. They are a terrace classic; the small check, the scarf wrapped around the face, just perfect.

White Hart Lane has retained its general shape since 1986. However, a large corner segment has been demolished, to allow for the new stadium, and has resulted in a reduced capacity of 31,500. Our away section was reduced to around 2,400 as a result.

As for our team, Antonio Conte made a couple of changes, with Nemanja Matic and Pedro returning. I was happy with the starting eleven.

Tottenham in white, navy, navy and Chelsea in royal, royal, white.

A blue and white battle.

Let’s go.

Eden Hazard was presented with the very first chance of the game, when Matic lofted a ball in to space for our Belgian wizard. He approached the goal at an angle, and we sighed as his low shot was scuffed wide of the far post.

Gary was not pleased : “He should’ve buried that.”

I defended Eden : “It was a tough angle, Gal.”

We had a reasonable start, though further chances did not happen. Slowly, Tottenham gathered momentum. Whereas I had been quite positive of our play – “Cahil is playing well, Gal” – it quickly dawned on me that Spurs were playing better than us. Luiz was way off target from a free-kick. A venomous strike from Eriksen – Gary : “Fuck off, Tin Tin” – narrowly went wide. I thought it was in.

There was the usual to-and-fro from both sets of fans.

Tottenham : “WWYWYWS?”

Chelsea : “WE WON SIX-ONE AT THE LANE.”

That shut the fuckers up. They never bloody learn.

A new song, or two.

“Did you cry at Stamford Bridge?”

“You won the league in black and white” (although I used to hate it when Arsenal taunted us with this very same ditty.)

A wild shot from Diego Costa flew high and wide, possibly aimed at the Godzila-sized bite taken out of the north-east corner.

Spurs were definitely on top now. There were a few silly challenges by our players. We seemed to be slower in possession. We were exposed down our flanks. Courtois saved from Dier.

This was quiet for a London derby though. The early songs had died. It was shockingly quiet.

As the end of forty-five minutes was signalled, I just wanted us to reach the break and for Conte to galvanise his troops. Sadly, Tin Tin was allowed time to dink a ball in to our area. An unchallenged Dele Alli was able to rise and steer a header past Courtois.

FUCK.

We were a goal down just before the bloody break.

We were then treated to a full five minutes of Billy Ray Cyrus.

Shite song. Shite lyrics. Shite club.

Chas and Dave. Billy Ray Cyrus.

Fuck off.

I was positive at half-time, though, that we would be able to get a goal back. I’m always hopeful. To be honest, we began pretty well at the start of the second-period. There was a shot from Diego Costa, and then a rushed half-chance for Eden Hazard, who headed wide under pressure from a Spurs defender.

In the tenth minute of the second-half, there was further misery. Alonso made a mess of a challenge and the referee waved the advantage. Eriksen, out wide again, looped in another long cross. Alli at the far post, with a carbon copy of his first goal, made it 2-0.

It felt like that there was no way back now.

We didn’t step up our game.

Conte replaced Alonso – who had struggled – with Willian, with Pedro switching to a wing-back.

Fabregas – roundly booed by the home fans – for Kante.

The game continued on but with few further chances. To be quite honest, it wasn’t as if Tottenham had ripped us apart. Far from it. We just looked off the pace. The goal just before the break was a real killer.

Batshuayi for Moses.

Matic was as good as any on the night, breaking up play, patrolling the space, shuffling the ball on to others. But Eden was quiet, often coming ridiculously deep to retrieve the ball. Diego was often out wide. It was an altogether sub-Conte performance.

A fair few Chelsea left before the end. The final whistle was met with a roar from the home support, and we quickly left. Thankfully, there was no silliness outside. We were back on the train south within no time. A hot pasty on the forecourt at Liverpool Street helped warm us up. Back through London by tube, back to Barons Court, and a rapid return west on the M4.

So, the thirteen game run did not evolve into fourteen. The best team won on the night. It’s no big deal.

Our recent league record against Tottenham is still stupidly magnificent.

Won 29

Drew 20

Lost 5

I sincerely hope that we get to visit old White Hart Lane one more time. It would be apt that our last game there would result in a Chelsea win. However, I am bloody sure that Spurs’ fans would not agree.

I just don’t think they’d understand.

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Tales From A Long And Winding Road.

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2016.

There was a moment, not long in to the trip north, when the heavens opened and a spell of intense rain fell. The sky darkened, to an almost surreal dark green hue, and the light diminished. The spray from the cars ahead made visibility a struggle. I heaved a heavy sigh. After the second-half slow-down, and eventual capitulation at Sunderland, I had already made it quite clear that I was not relishing the long trek up to Liverpool for a Wednesday night game. I had picked up an annoying cough since just before the weekend, and as I battled the rain and the spray and the darkness, I kept barking every few minutes. There was a hint of a headache. I was not in a good place. If the rain continued on, this would surely turn out to be one of the most tedious away trips of them all.

I had taken a half-day holiday, and alongside me were Young Jake and Old Parky. They could both tell that I was getting stressed at the thought of another four hours on the road. Up on Merseyside, a few friends would be waiting for me. Jason had flown in to Liverpool from Dallas the day before, especially for the game, and I had managed to get him a ticket in the away end. It would be his first-ever Chelsea away match. If I was feeling sorry for myself a little, I was certainly feeling for him too. Let’s be honest, after our poor show at Sunderland, I think most Chelsea supporters – apart from those ridiculously optimistic ones, of which I know around four – were fearing the worst against a Liverpool team that, on their day, could shine. Jason would also be missing John Terry too, banished to some excruciating nether world. I was also mindful that our end might possibly be full of empty seats. I had memories of our 4-1 loss at Anfield on the Wednesday after we beat them in the 2012 Cup Final, when our end had swathes of empty seats. Our end was maybe only half-full. As far as first away games went, for Jason this could well be a most rotten one.

Thankfully – and I really was thankful – at around Cheltenham, the sky miraculously cleared and the sun eventually started to burn its way through the layers of foggy cloud.

By the time I had reached Birmingham, the day was turning out to be very pleasant.

I had become suddenly, yawningly, tired though. At Hilton Park Services, just out of Walsall, I decided to have a thirty-minute power nap. Jake and Parky were banished into the services as I reclined the seat. I closed my eyes. I was away. Only my bloody coughing woke me. Feeling instantly refreshed, I made light work of the remaining ninety miles or so. These away trips can be so tiring. Thankfully, I was pencilled in to do a late shift starting at 2pm on the Thursday; there would be no doubt that I would be sleeping for England once I would eventually return.

We were parked up near Albert Dock at just after 4.30pm, some five hours after I left work in Melksham. We met up with an excited Jason at a bar adjacent to “The Beatles Story” in the Albert Dock complex. I last saw him when he came over for a game in SW6 in 2013. He was having a fine time in Liverpool; he had popped up to have a look around Goodison Park on the Tuesday. This was the same bar that we chose for pre-match beers before the Everton cup game; it serves excellent Warsteiner lager.

“Four pints please.”

As at Everton, we were joined by Kim and Eddie, and it was lovely to see them both again. As before, music and football dominated the chat. We spoke about places for Jason to visit on the Thursday, and a few ideas were suggested. We chatted about The Beatles. Eddie was rather taken aback when it transpired that the five of us – Kim, Parky, Jake, Jason and myself – were not really fans of Britain’s greatest ever pop band. Coming from Merseyside, and a musician himself, his astonishment was real.

What a tragedy. What a mystery.

Time was moving on and I wanted to make sure that I was parked-up in good time. I wanted to make sure that Jason wasn’t rushed on his first visit to Anfield, and – more importantly – got to squeeze as much as possible into his two hours with the Chelsea hard-core.

Our walk through a housing estate would have caused me a severe anxiety attack back in the ‘eighties, but there was thankfully no antagonism or nastiness from any loitering youths. Strangely enough, we found ourselves on Robson Street, near the very bus stop that I had first alighted at Anfield on my first trip in May 1985, over thirty-one years ago. I easily remembered walking down the terraced road, with the almost mystical Kop at the bottom of the street. In 1984/1985, I only went to five away games due to finances, and the visit to Anfield was one of the highlights for sure. Liverpool were European Champions in 1984 and reigning League Champions too. They were in their pomp. Growing up as a child in the ‘seventies, and well before Chelsea fans grew tired of Liverpool’s cries of history, there were few stadia which enthralled me more than Anfield, with The Kop a beguiling wall of noise.

No gangways on The Kop, just bodies. A swaying mass of humanity.

Heading up to Liverpool, on an early-morning train from Stoke, I was excited and a little intimidated too. Catching a bus up to the stadium outside Lime Street was probably the nearest that I came to a footballing “rite of passage” in 1985. I was not conned into believing the media’s take that Scousers were loveable so-and-sos. I knew that Anfield could be a chilling away ground to visit. Famously, there was the “Cockneys Die” graffiti on the approach to Lime Street. My first real memory of Liverpool, the city, on that murky day over three decades ago was that I was shocked to see so many shops with blinds, or rather metal shutters, to stave off robberies. It was the first time that I had seen such.

The mean streets of Liverpool? You bet.

We walked down Venmore Street – I am adamant it was the same street I walked in 1985 – with the new main stand dominating Anfield. It will be a huge structure once completed, adding 10,000 more to the stadium’s capacity. There has been extensive housing clearance around the stadium for a while. Venmore Street has grassy areas now, and only The Albert pub underneath the new stand has been left standing, solitary, for ages, it’s terraced neighbours razed to the ground.

Back in 1985, the local scallies – flared cords and Puma trainers by the look of it, all very 1985 – were prowling as I took a photograph of the old Kop.

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Back in 1985, traveling down to Chelsea from Stoke, I was well aware of the schism taking place in the casual subculture at the time. Sportswear was giving way to a more bohemian look in the north-west – flares were back in for a season or two – but this look never caught on in London.

I always maintained that it was like this :

London football – “look smart.”

Liverpool and Manchester football – “look different.”

We walked around past The Kop – and mirrored the route that I undoubtedly took in 1985.

The Centenary Stand, in 2016, was the site of the Kemlyn Road Stand – complete with newly-arrived police horses – in 1985. You can almost smell the gloom. Note the mast of the SS Great Eastern, which still hosts a fluttering flag on match days to this day.

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We were now outside the site of the old away end at Anfield. Back in 1985, the turnstiles were housed in a wall which had shards of glass on the top to deter fans from gaining free entry. Note the Chelsea supporters’ coach and the Sergio Tacchini top.

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To complete this visit down memory lane, and to emphasise how bloody early I was on that Saturday morning in May 1985 – it was an 11.30am kick-off to deter excessive drinking and, ergo, hooliganism – here is a photograph of an empty, waiting, expectant Anfield. I guess that this photograph of the Chelsea squad in their suits was taken at an hour or so before kick-off. This is something we never see at games now; a Chelsea team inspecting the pitch before the game. I suspect that for many of the players, this would have been their first visit to Anfield too. Maybe that half-explains it.

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Incidentally, we lost that game at Anfield 4-3, but it was a fantastic Chelsea performance. The attendance, incidentally, was only 33,000 – way below capacity at the time. Maybe we should take to inquiring of the Scousers “Where were you when you were good?”

Inside the stadium, with the new upper tier peering over all, I was pleasantly surprised how many Chelsea fans were already in attendance. My worries of an embarrassingly small “take” were proving to be unfounded. In the concourse, I introduced Jason to a smattering of the loyalists. The mood among us was not great.

“I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

Hiddink had tweaked the team since Saturday.

Begovic – Baba, Mikel, Cahill, Azpilicueta – Matic, Fabregas – Pedro, Hazard, Willian – Traore.

Eddie, the Liverpool supporter – he has a season ticket in the Kemlyn, er Centenary Stand – was convinced that Klopp would put out a “B” team ahead of their Europa League Final, but it looked pretty strong to me. It included the England’s most boring international of recent memory, the plodding James Milner.

The Chelsea fans were assembled, and the home fans too.

Liverpool supporters always mock our plastic flags at Stamford Bridge, and they poke fun at our supposed plastic and manufactured atmosphere. Well, just before the teams came out on to the pitch, we were treated to “We Will Rock You” in an effort to get the locals energised and I rolled my eyes.

The teams.

Red.

Blue.

The atmosphere heightened.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

I looked around. Familiar faces everywhere and not too many empty seats. A fantastic effort on a Wednesday night.

Liverpool, as they always seem to do at Anfield, began very brightly and that man Coutinho seemed to be everywhere. I really like him. He’s a fine player. We were immediately concerned about Baba’s waywardness – “Have you turned your GPS on Baba?” bellowed Alan – but through a mixture of poor finishing, and strong defending we survived the early onslaught. Sturridge was wasteful early on with a ridiculously high free-kick, and we loved that. We never really warmed to him at Chelsea, and since joining Liverpool, there has been no love lost. Soon into the game, we rounded on him.

“Chelsea reject.”

Rather than smile it off, he pulled a stern face, and encouraged us to sing up, waving his hands in mock encouragement. He was the target of our abuse for ages.

“Well this is going to end one of two ways” I laughed.

Begovic was particularly active, saving well, but many of their shots were right at our ‘keeper. A heavy touch from Firmino when through was met by howls of derision. Our goal was, if I am honest, living a rather charmed life. Chances from Lallana and Lovren were wasted. After around twenty minutes, we kept possession for a lovely spell, and seemed to get a foothold in the game, as so often happens at Anfield. We began to get Eden Hazard involved, and how he warmed to the task. He danced and weaved past defenders with ease and came close with a long shot that Mignolet saved. Our support was strong throughout the opening period, and grew noisier, while poking fun at the docile home fans.

“Where’s your famous atmosphere?”

A blue flare was set off to my right, and the away end was filled with sulphurous fumes. I spotted a banner in praise of John Terry.

“Sign him up, sign him up, sign him up.”

We were on top now, and playing some lovely stuff. Matic was the Matic of old, breaking play up and moving the ball on. We grew stronger with every tackle won. What a Jekyl and Hyde season. Why were we not so fired up against Sunderland?

The ball broke to Eden Hazard, who waltzed out wide, and then exchanged a pass with Baba, before cutting in, like a slalom skier, and dancing past innumerable Liverpool defenders – I use the term with a little reticence, since none of them bothered to put in a tackle – and slotted home, the ball nestling just inside the far post

One-nil to Chelsea and The Kop go mild.

Fantastic. What a sublime goal. He’s having a goal of the season contest all to himself as this campaign closes. We celebrated wildly.

Ah, this game could turn out to be alright in the end.

Traore, full of running, but with a tendency to cut back on himself rather than push on, then came close to making it 2-0. Baba, playing better now after a shaky start, was in place to hack away after a timely block.

One-up at the break and time for a photo with Jason, who was watching right down the front.

At half-time, Star Wars paratroopers and a dance routine.

First, Queen and now Star Wars. This was turning into a “Room 101” evening for me.

Queen, shite, Star Wars, shite.

The second-half, with Chelsea attacking the loud and proud away fans, will be remembered by myself for the number of times that Eden Hazard, looking every inch, every centimetre, the player who so beguiled us last season, took flight and attacked the cowering Liverpool defenders. I brought my camera up to my eyes and captured several of his wonderful flights of fancy.

The puff of the cheeks, the body getting ready to explode with pace, the eyes wide open and in focus, the acceleration past a defender, the sudden stop, the change of direction, a feint, the move again, the flick, the touch, the energy.

It was truly mesmerising.

Baba of all people went close.

I thought of two mates in the US.

Steve, soon heading off to see a Liverpool vs. Chelsea pairing, of sorts, in Pennsylvania; Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole now team mates at LA Galaxy, playing at Philadelphia Union.

JR, his wife Erin expecting the birth of their first child and the birth very imminent. If we could hold on for an unexpected win, and the baby was born on Wednesday 11 May, maybe they might be tempted to name the baby Eden.

Sturridge was having a ‘mare in front of The Kop. Maybe we had got to him after all.

This was turning into a great game of football. We broke at will on a few more occasions, and Pedro – the latest of our masked men – should have done better on two occasions.

Mikel was coolness personified as he chested down a cross before releasing a great ball out.

“Jon – Obi – Mikel” sang our support, with no hint of irony.

To be honest, there had not been the all-out songfest in praise of John Terry that some had perhaps expected.

Liverpool slowly clawed their way back, but the noise was quiet. I remembered my first visit to the same stadium in 1985. We had all been brought up on the notion of Anfield being red hot, but I remember coming away all those years ago being very underwhelmed.

Kenedy came on for a quiet, again, Willian. He began in a blaze of glory with a spectacular dribble, but faded.

News came through that Sunderland were beating Everton.

Newcastle United and Norwich City were no more.

The Chelsea choir were celebrating :

“He’s going down, he’s going down. Rafa’s going down.”

So much for my bloody cough. Despite the risk of irritating my throat further, I was joining in with all of the songs; there is no rationality to it, is there?

Baba blocked an on-target Coutinho effort.

Traore came close before being replaced by debutant Tammy Abraham. The play swayed from end to end, with both teams looking to score. Abraham, clean through, could not finish. Pedro was wasteful again. I was convinced that we would hang on for a win – for you, Jason, for you JR – but with extra-time being played, a cross from the Liverpool left was parried by Begovic, but we watched aghast as the ball fell for a Liverpool player to head home.

Bollocks.

At least it wasn’t Sturridge.

The Liverpool fans were now noisy as hell and I wondered where they had been all game. Of course the goal hurt, and I think our play definitely deserved a win, but I would have taken a draw before the game, as would many. I had thoroughly enjoyed the game. What a surprise. It had been a cracker. And Eden Hazard; at times, unplayable.

Outside in the concourse, we said our goodbyes.

Parky, Jake and I walked back to the waiting car, at the top of the hill, equidistant between the two football cathedrals of Goodison and Anfield. Out onto the East Lancs road, around the city and the long trip south.

And it was a long trip south. We were diverted off the M6 on two separate occasions, and I took a silly error-ridden detour through Birmingham city centre. It was a proper Chelsea-themed magical mystery tour.

The evening’s game at Anfield would represent only the second time in my life that I had completed all away league games in a single season.

Nineteen out of nineteen.

I did it in 2008/2009 and I have done it in 2015/2016.

I dropped the lads off, feeling so tired now, driving on auto-pilot. This long and winding road – The Away Club 2015/2016 – finally ended as I turned into my drive at 3.45am on Thursday.

It was time to sleep.

 

For Harrison Patrick Lotto, future Chelsea supporter, born 12 May 2016.

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Tales From A Heavy Loss And A Heavy Win.

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 2 April 2016.

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I sometimes wonder what on Earth I am going to find to write about in these match reports, which now number over four hundred. What story? What angle? What back-story? With an upcoming game at Villa Park coming up, after a two-week break, I began thinking about possible subject matter. I was tempted to head off on a tangent and rant about my growing dissatisfaction with the way that certain parts of the football world is headed. I thought about several options. I was going to quote a few words from the recent edition of “When Saturday Comes” about the sense of a shared footballing history that people of my generation have, but does not seem to be prevalent today. And then, late on Wednesday evening, I spotted something on “Facebook” that turned my thought-processes upside down. I read that Ian Britton, one of my favourite all-time players – who I knew was battling prostate cancer – was in a poor way. The next few words struck me down.

“He’s not got very long.”

Oh my. How very sad. Thoughts whirled around in my head, and I must admit that there were a few tears. I braced myself for some imminently sadder news.

The very next day, the last day of March, we all learned that Ian Britton had passed away.

As we all get older, and as we all advance in years, it is an unavoidable truth that more of our idols, our peers, our friends, our close family members will pass.

In my time as a Chelsea supporter, I can remember the sadness of the Matthew Harding tragedy in October 1996 and the sudden death of Peter Osgood in March 2006. Of course, other players – and just as importantly fellow fans – have passed away too. It was only in November that we lost Tom, who sat next to us from 1997.

But the sadness that I felt on hearing that Ian Britton had died was as deep as any Chelsea loss. This one felt very personal. It hit me sideways.

It brought back memories of my childhood, when I was Chelsea daft, and doted on players. They were my absolute idols and my heroes. I can remember the very first time that Ian Britton came in to my consciousness. During the 1973/1974 season, I used to get “Shoot!” magazine and would always hope that there would be Chelsea players featured. One week, there was an article about two young Scottish youngsters – Ian Britton of Chelsea and Jim Cannon of Crystal Palace – finding their feet in the English game. I cut the article out and stuck it with drawing pins on the wall beside my bed, along with other Chelsea photographs. There was something about the photograph of the cheeky grin of the nineteen-year-old from Dundee that struck a chord. Those early recollections are slightly hazy. Ian’s debut had been against Derby County in December 1972, and although I have recently seen footage from that game, which involved a sparkling goal from Peter Osgood and a horrific miss from Derby’s Roger Davies, which I can remember, I have no recollection of Ian Britton’s substitute appearance.

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In truth, it took me a while for Ian Britton to become a common name. The fact of the matter is that in those days, my only exposure to Chelsea Football Club was via rare highlights on TV – when Ian would not always appear – and magazines such as “Shoot!” In my grandparents’ “Sunday Express” not every Chelsea game was featured since we ended up with the West of England edition, focussing on the Bristol teams and Plymouth Argyle.

Living in Somerset, I was in the Chelsea wilderness.

So, that “Shoot!” article proved totemic. As the 1972/1973 season gave way to the 1973/1974 season, I guess I became more and more aware of the young lad from Dundee, only five feet five inches tall, and with his trademark hair, and as my first Chelsea hero Peter Osgood departed early in 1974, I surely hoped that Ian Britton would play in my very first game in March 1974. Alas, he didn’t. At the start of the 1974/1975 season, Ian Britton was now my personal favourite. Again, he didn’t play in my next game against Tottenham, but I was very happy to see him play in my third-ever game against Derby County on a wet Saturday in March 1975.

Alas we lost 2-1, but I was excited to have seen my new favourite play.

The relegation team of 1974/1975 stalled in the Second Division in 1975/1976 but Ian was now a regular. I can remember being on holiday in Wareham, Dorset in August 1975 and being horrified to read on the back page of a Sunday tabloid that Manchester United were putting in a £600,000 joint bid for “starlets” Ray Wilkins and Ian Britton. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

In 1976/1977, Ian was a star as we took the Second Division by storm and gained promotion behind Wolves. I remember being upset – “gutted” in modern parlance – that Ian didn’t play in two of the three matches that I saw that season.

He was such an energetic and honest player. I loved his work rate and his attitude. He played wide, and had a lovely pass. He scored his fair share of goals. He was always so neat and tidy. For such a small player, he scored a fair few headers. I remember how giddy I was hearing him speak – yeah, I know, we were all football daft at one stage – on “The Big Match”, answering questions from Brian Moore about an Achilles injury.

He played through another relegation, then starred in 1979/1980 as we came so close to automatic promotion. I was so thrilled to see Ian score a match winner against Orient in March of that season, watching in the East Lower alongside my parents.

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As we became mired in the Second Division, other players caught my eye…Clive Walker, Mike Fillery…but Ian Britton was still a favourite. I last saw him play against Wrexham in October 1981. He left us in 1982 after 263 games in royal blue and signed for his childhood team – which I knew from that “Shoot” article in 1974 – of Dundee United. At that time, Dundee United had signed a few former Chelsea players – Peter Bonetti, Eamonn Bannon, Jim Docherty – and they became my Scottish team. While Chelsea were battling relegation to the old Third Division over Easter and then in to May of 1983, I was exhilarated to watch from afar as Dundee United won the Scottish Championship for the only time in their history.

It felt just right that Ian Britton had played a part. He played a couple of games for Arbroath, then played 106 games for Blackpool before finishing his career at Burnley, playing 108 games. At Turf Moor, he became a Burnley legend.

In 1986/1987, the Football League decided to move on from the much derided voting system for admitting non-league teams in to the league, and on the final day of the season, Burnley – Football League Champions in 1960 – were facing the prospect of being the first club to be automatically relegated from the league. Ian Britton scored – with a header – as Burnley overcame promotion hopefuls Orient. Burnley went 2-0 up with his goal, but let Orient back in at 2-1. History books will show that it was Ian Britton’s goal which kept Burnley safe.

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I can well remember seeing a huge photograph of Ian Britton from that game in 1987 as part of a mural on the main stand as I visited Turf Moor for the very first time in 2010. During that game, Ian made the half-time draw and he waved over to us, with that endearing cheeky smile of his. We responded with a chant from the ‘seventies –

“Ian – Ian Britton – Ian Britton on the wing.”

Later in 2010, I travelled down to Eastleigh with my mother to watch a Southampton Old Boys team take on the Chelsea Old Boys. Not only did I see Ian Britton play one last time, I also got to meet him for the very first time in the bar afterwards, and I do not mind admitting that I was uncomfortably giddy – for a forty-four-year-old man – as I chatted to Ian for a few moments. It was one of my Chelsea highlights. I found him to be very friendly and I really appreciated that he called me “Chris.” It meant a lot. That he was so personable. It was a lovely memory to take away from that day. I mentioned Dundee United. It was a lovely few moments.

As the sad news swept around the Chelsea family on Thursday and Friday, one thing became clear.

Nobody ever had a bad word to say about Ian Britton.

I made a vow to try to attend his funeral, even if it would mean that I would only stand outside the church or crematorium. These players – these special players, these special people – touch our lives in ways that people outside the football world can only vaguely understand.

So, with all of this Burnley claret and blue flowing around in my thoughts, I drove to Villa Park and was met with more of the same.

There was not a great deal of enthusiasm for this game with the doomed Villains. As Parky and Young Jake – his first game this year, his first trip to Villa Park – dropped in to the Witton Arms, I had decided upon a different pre-match. I have been visiting Villa Park since my first game in 1986, but for some reason I had yet to take a look at the nearby seventeenth century Aston Hall, which sits on a small hill overlooking Villa Park, and is but a ten-minute walk away. With Aston Villa’s future looking rather bleak, I wondered if this would be my last visit for a few seasons. It was high-time I paid a visit, however fleeting.

Whereas it might be debated about Aston Villa being a big club, despite their rich history, there is no doubt that Villa Park is a grand dame of English football stadia. There is red brick everywhere at Villa Park. On the walk to the away turnstiles on Witton Lane, I passed an old tramway shed, with another red brick building opposite. As I walked past the bleak concrete of the North Stand – which housed our support in the 2002 semi against Fulham – I was struck with how much room Villa have behind that goal. Should they ever wish to expand, unlikely at the moment, they could build a huge stand at that end, perhaps mirroring the huge Holte End to the south. When it was built, the Villa North Stand was the latest in modernity with its darkened executive boxes. At the time of my first visit, Villa Park was a very piecemeal stadium. The low Witton Lane, the huge Holte End terrace, the classic and ornate Trinity Road, the ultra-modern North Stand. Since then, all three stands have been altered and the North Stand is now the antique. Although there was an outcry from Villa fans when the unique Trinity Stand was bulldozed, at least Villa have kept the red-brick motif in the new builds.

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Back in 1991, when this photograph was taken, who new how the Taylor Report would systematically change how people thought about new stadia? Out with terraces, in with seats and executive areas. The charming Trinity Road entrance did not stand a chance.

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Ah, 1991. This was our last game of the season and I had traveled up by train for the game. It was memorable for being Bobby Campbell’s last game in charge. It had been another season of underachievement but the Chelsea hordes were going to make a day of it. I took my position in on the terraces, which had been recently seated. I remember seeing white socks again for the first time in six long years and hoping that this would be repeated in 1991/1992. The old Trinity Road Stand – with those lovely curved balconies – really was a treasure.

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At the end of the game, which we drew 2-2, a few Villa rapscallions raced on to the pitch, but Chelsea – there in huge numbers – soon chased them off. At the height of the rave culture, the pitch was awash with baggy Joe Bloggs jeans, Chipie sweatshirts, baggy pullovers and Umbro Chelsea shirts. Bobby Campbell, ironically I felt, was chaired off. It was a crazy day.

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The entrance to the Holte End brought back memories of our 1996 semi-final against United, when the Chelsea fans descended on Villa Park with balloons and banners and – in fact – I had not visited this south side of the stadium since. The steps, the stained-glass windows and the gables bow their heads in a nod towards the old Trinity Road stand.

Up the hill, and outside Aston Hall – a lovely structure built between 1618 and 1635 – I was able to take it all in. It really was a fine view, a gracious Villa vista. Aston Hall is constructed of red brick too. Everything blends in so well. I will no doubt be taking an increasing interest in various types of bricks over the next few seasons, on visiting stadia near and far, since our new proposed stadium is said to be using particular London brick – various shades, but generally a warm yellow – on all of its outside surfaces. I could not help notice that I have been approaching mighty Villa Park from completely the wrong direction in all of these years. For ease of access to the M5, I park to the north and head in past terraced streets and shops. It’s all rather tawdry. From the south, however, with Aston Hall and its pleasant park to the left, and with the Edwardian splendour of the large Holte pub ahead, Villa Park looks fearsome and yet aesthetically pleasing at the same time. It is just a shame that acres of ugly grey cladding blot the stand roofs.

But I think the new Stamford Bridge will be fine. No cladding there.

I sorted out some tickets outside the away turnstiles. As kick-off approached, I spotted Peter Bonetti over the road, looking good at seventy-four bless him. The troops arrived and we ascended the steps.

Last season, I missed our narrow win at Villa Park as my mother had been taken ill that morning. There was an air of melancholy inside me. There were haunting thoughts of that particular day. I remembered how my mother’s father had a soft spot for Villa, though I am sure that he had never visited Villa Park.

Villa Park was hardly half-full. Sure, we had sold our three thousand tickets, but elsewhere there were thousands of claret and sky blue seats clearly visible. I know their team are going through a really rough spell, mismanaged from board level down, but even so. The poor crowd really shocked me. I am sure that the advertised gate of 31,120 included thousands of “no shows.”

Guus Hiddink, I am sure, surprised many with his team selection. At last the kids, were being given their chance to shine. A Chelsea debut was given to the American Matt Miazga. I envisioned the Chelsea chatter boards among the various supporter groups in the US going into meltdown.

“Awesome” – Nate, New Jersey.

“Awesome” – Ian, Idaho.

“Awesome” – Calvin, California.

“Way To Go” – Grant, Georgia.

“Awesome” – Micky, Minnesota.”

“Awesome” – Phil, Pennsylvania.

“Awesome” – Bubba, ‘Bama.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Miazga, Baba – Mikel, Fabregas – Pedro, Loftus-Cheek, Kenedy – Remy.

Scott Sinclair did not even make the Villa starting eleven. What a waste of a once promising career. I wonder if I will eventually see him playing alongside his brother Jake for my local team Frome Town.

The morning rain had stopped and the pitch was soon bathed in sunshine. Villa, heaven knows how, tested Thibaut with a few efforts, but we soon got in to a groove. Pedro, looking our liveliest player, tested Guzan then was offside soon after.

An injured Loic Remy was substituted by the forgotten man Alexandre Pato. The appearance of the Brazilian instilled a little life into the rather subdued Chelsea support. There was a little ironic cheering. I was just intrigued to see what he had to give the team.

Soon after, a lovely move gave us the lead; Mikel kept possession well and released Azpilicueta, who played in Loftus-Cheek. His low shot swept pass Guzan. Mikel’s fine play soon warranted his own chant from the travelling hordes.

A bizarre chance for Villa next, when Courtois saved from Gill, and then again as the ball bounced back off Ayew. Villa then kept their momentum going, but our defence coped well, with Miazga only rarely out of position. Baba drove in on goal but shot weakly. Kenedy promised much but, like Pedro at times, chose to either hang on to the ball or slipped on the wet surface.

Pato was bundled to the ground and the referee had no option but to give us a penalty.

Fair play to Pato for having the balls to step up and take it. His strong shot evaded the ‘keeper’s dive. He looked overjoyed as he ran away, jumping in the air in front of the half-empty Holte End.

The Chelsea support had an easy response to this :

“We were there when Pato scored.”

Awesome.

At the break, Oscar replaced Kenedy. We soon broke down the Villa left and Pato played in Oscar, who slid the ball to Pedro. It was a very fine goal. Gary remarked to Alan that it was very similar to Frank’s record breaker in 2013.

Villa, it has to be said, were bloody awful by now. They were demoralised and pathetic.

Their fans, those in the stadium, seemed to be a mixture of anger and disconsolation. Throughout, they bellowed “Villa Till I Die” – almost as if they were warming up for The Championship, since it is a proper Championship song, bellowed by the likes of Barnsley and Derby and Forest for years – and the Chelsea fans, to my surprise to be honest, applauded them.

Alan wondered if there would be a protest.

“Maybe they will stage a walk-in on seventy minutes.”

Ha.

Joleon Lescott was the target for much of the Villa fans’ ire, in light of a horrible piece of gloating a while back.

“Joleon Lescott – he’s got a new car.”

I piped up –

“Joleon Lescott – he wants a new face.”

Pato forced a save from Guzan, but Pedro slotted home from the tightest of angles. His kung-fu kick on the corner flag showed how excited he was. Who says our players do not care?

4-0 and I hoped for more. There was still half an hour to go.

The Chelsea crowd bellowed “catch the ball” to Courtois after he flapped at a high ball and I noted a rising air of disquiet among our ranks about our young ‘keeper’s attentiveness. I have noticed it too, of late. Too often he seems to resemble a fielder at third man, idling by his time thinking about tea, rather than being on his toes in the slips.

This was becoming an odd game though. Villa were so poor. And rather than push on, we seemed to be happy to play within ourselves. Another debutant, Jake Clarke-Salter, came on for Baba, who was pushed forward. He went close as the game dragged on.

Villa fans held up small placards with the words “Proud History, What Future?” but they honestly looked like white flags.

Alan Hutton was dismissed for a second yellow.

It was not Villa’s day or season.

Miazga had looked competent all game and Pato showed a neatness which I found gratifying. Elsewhere, Loftus-Cheek put in a sound performance. And Pedro too.

As I drove away, I didn’t take too much comfort in our win. A four goal triumph surely should have elicited greater joy?

No. It was only Villa.

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Tales From 1905 To 2016.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 7 February 2016.

I love a good list. If it is football-related, even better.

A week or so ago, I stumbled across a little gem which I had originally seen a year or so ago. It was a complete list of the teams with the highest average home attendances, year on year, since the Football League’s inaugural season of 1888/1889 to the current day. The timing was impeccable; it came just in time for the visit of Manchester United. The Red Devils, in my lifetime, have topped the list of highest home attendances in what seems like nearly every season. They have dominated, much to the chagrin of their closest rivals. And yet I knew full well that Chelsea, especially in our early years, drew phenomenally large crowds at Stamford Bridge. I have touched on my desire to debunk the myth about Chelsea being a “small club with money” on a few occasions before and so it was with great relish that I studied this list once more.

Of course, there is a famous line about “lies, damned lies and statistics” but this particular statistical nugget provided a really intriguing insight into the growth of football, and football fandom, over a span of one hundred and fifteen seasons – of which I have attended games in forty-three of them – and helped to illustrate how certain clubs dominated certain eras.

Let’s start at the beginning.

For the first ten seasons, from 1888/1889 to 1897/1898, one club dominated the attendance record. That club was Everton, who finished with the highest average gate in every single one of those seasons, despite being league champions just once. During the very first season, the average attendance in the top division was 4,639, and Everton’s average was 7,260. By 1887/1898, the average had grown to 9,558, while Everton’s had swollen to a weighty 17,390.

Next up were Aston Villa, taking over Everton’s mantle as top drawers, with six straight seasons of league-leading averages. In 1898/1899, Villa’s average was a sizeable 23,045. In the league’s first twelve seasons, Villa were the first real powerhouse force, claiming the league five times. The early years of professional football in the late nineteenth century were dominated by teams from the Midlands and the North. For many years, the Football League did not consist of a single southern team.

Taking over from Aston Villa were Newcastle United, with three straight seasons of leading the league in average home gates, which mirrored three championships for the Geordies in the first decade of the twentieth century. The average on Tyneside in 1906/1907 of 33,235 dwarfed the top flight average of 15,526. Interestingly, my grandfather – the cricketer and footballer, from whom I think I received my sporting genes – was a young boy at around this time, and perhaps it is no wonder that, although he was not a fervent fan, if ever pressed, he always said that he used to follow the results of Aston Villa as a young lad, and also – to a lesser extent – Newcastle United, as he became a young man.

In to this new sport, with clubs jousting for attention, came Chelsea Football Club.

Chelsea, formed in 1905, were able to take part in the Second Division during 1905/1906. In that inaugural season, our home average was 13,370, compared to the divisional average of 13,429. That seems a reasonable start, yet this only tells half of the story. Most attendances at Stamford Bridge were around 8,000 to 10,000. But there were 25,000 present for the visit of Bristol City, who would end up as Second Division Champions, and 30,000 for the game against Glossop on Easter Bank Holiday Monday.

However, this is where the story comes alive.

The Chelsea vs. Manchester United game on Good Friday 1906 was watched by a staggering 67,000.

I have always been astounded by the size of this gate. It seemed to come, unannounced, out of nowhere. I have no evidence to back it up, but I’d suggest it created a new league attendance record at the time. It would be Stamford Bridge’s first colossal crowd. One can only imagine the frenzied activity around the pubs and saloons on the Fulham Road and the melee at each of the busy turnstiles as such a number of spectators feverishly entered the stadium, ascended the steps, and then saw the vastness of the Stamford Bridge arena from the top of the terracing. Both Chelsea and Manchester United were excelling towards the top of the table, and I can only imagine that the Easter crowd were drawn to watch two promotion hopefuls going toe to toe. I hope they all witnessed a fine game. It ended 1-1. However, Chelsea would not win any of our remaining five games in 1905/1906, finishing nine points away from Manchester United, who were promoted alongside Bristol City.

Of course, in those days, virtually all of the spectators would have lived in London and the Home Counties, travelling in by train, tram and charabanc. Unlike in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies – and later – there would have been no sizeable United following at Stamford Bridge. The mere thought of all of those people, all those lives touched by the sport of football, the enormity of it all makes me lose myself in thought. For many, perhaps, it would be their first ever football match. I wonder what they thought of it all. It must have been an amazingly potent and visceral experience. The sense of occasion, the colour, the cigarette smoke, the ribald laughter, the cheers from the crowd, the players.

67,000 in our very first season; what a start for the young pretenders.

Chelsea had made their mark.

Is this the end of this trip down memory lane? Not a bit of it.

It gets better.

In season 1907/1908, Chelsea were the team with the highest home league attendance with a hefty 31,965, almost double the First Division average of 16,809. It was our first season in the top flight. The young pretenders, despite finishing in an unremarkable thirteenth place, were setting the football world alight. By comparison, Arsenal were one place behind us, but their home average was a lowly 13,765.

In fact, from 1907/1908 to 1925/1926 – fifteen seasons, allowing for the hiatus enforced by World War One – Chelsea finished top of the averages on nine occasions. It would be our high water mark in terms of attendances. In 1919/1920, we finished third in the First Division but we topped the attendances with an average of 42,615, which – at the time – was an all-time record across all clubs. It was a heady time to be at Stamford Bridge, despite silverware eluding us. A particularly impressive season was 1925/1926 when we recorded a league leading high of 32,355 despite playing in the Second Division.

So, take a moment and suck all of that information in.

Chelsea were always a small club with poor gates? Not true.

In later years, other clubs’ periods of dominance were reflected in high average attendances. In the ‘thirties, Arsenal ruled, with nine consecutive seasons ahead of the pack with an impressive high of 46,252 in 1934/1935. Newcastle United – again – and then Tottenham Hotspur dominated in the immediate years after World War Two. Chelsea’s last season of topping the attendance chart was our Championship year of 1954/1955 with 48,260.

Interestingly, Manchester United did not register the league’s highest average until as late as season 1956/1957. The year after, of course, the supreme sadness of the Munich air disaster galvanized an entire nation and Manchester United have dominated attendances ever since. In the past fifty-nine seasons, they have finished with the highest home attendance some forty-eight times. Since 1966/1967, their dominance is especially marked; only five Liverpool seasons have interrupted their procession. For the past twenty-two straight seasons, United have finished in first place.

For as long as I can remember, they have always pulled the crowds.

My first Chelsea game was in 1974, yet it took me ten years until I saw those famous red shirts of United at Stamford Bridge for the very first time.  A grainy photograph from the West Stand benches takes me back.

On that occasion, just after Christmas 1984, the gate was 42,197 and we sadly lost 1-3. Alongside me on that day were Alan and Glenn, and we would be watching together some thirty-two years later. In those days of course, the open north terrace housed up to eight thousand away fans and United certainly brought thousands.

However, it was a black day for me; seeing United for the first time, yet losing.

Before I close this walk through the turnstiles of the past, here is a summary of teams that have finished with the highest average home attendance each season.

Manchester United – 48 times.

Everton – 13 times.

Arsenal – 12 times.

Newcastle United – 11 times.

Chelsea – 10 times.

Aston Villa – 7 times.

Liverpool – 7 times.

Tottenham Hotspur – 6 times.

Manchester City – 3 times.

For those with an interest in all of this, here is a link to the website.

http://www.european-football-statistics.co.uk/attn/nav/attnengleague.htm

…from 1905/1906, I need to bring all of this up to date.

The weekend drew near, but although the lure of another Chelsea vs. Manchester United game – my thirty-fourth at Stamford Bridge – was exciting enough, the chance to meet up with my mates again was even more important. After three away games in north London and to the north of London, it would be good to be back home again in deepest SW6.

On the Saturday before the game, which marked the fifty-eighth anniversary of the previously-mentioned Munich air disaster, I was pleased to see so many of my fellow Chelsea supporters being respectful on “Facebook” with quite a few posting kind words and pictures in remembrance of those that were killed so many years ago. It really warmed me. It contradicted the still widely-held view that a lot of football followers are mindless hooligans.

This fact was touched upon during an hour or so spent at “The Bottlery”, near Earl’s Court, where I shared a couple of pints with Glenn and Dave. Glenn had volunteered to drive us up to Chelsea, and so this allowed me a few pints for a change. Dave was over from France, and was following up Wednesday’s evening of fun – cough – in Watford with a home game. Parky and P Diddy had diverted off to “The Goose” where they were launching into a gallon of cider apiece. So, on a perfect Sunday, Dave, Glenn and myself supped some beers, had a bite to eat, and talked about a few topics close to our heart. We spoke about Leicester City’s amazing season. It seems everyone wants them to win it. We touched on the protest among Liverpool fans at their game at the weekend. If pushed, I would walk out from a Chelsea game too, if all other avenues of discourse were blocked. We spoke of the away game in Paris. Dave is going, though is honestly not convinced that he knows why. We spoke about Hillsborough. The horror still haunts. We spoke about standing areas. Celtic will be a test case. We spoke about the redevelopment of Stamford Bridge. We were optimistic. We spoke about an exile at Wembley. We were pessimistic. We spoke about all sorts.

Intelligent football talk? If only the people who still think that we are knuckle-dragging oafs could have heard us.

We were having a lovely time.

We then sped over to a local pub, “The Pembroke”, where two visitors from California were waiting. Alex and Annissa were in town for a few days, and I had arranged to spend a bit of time with them before they watched their first ever Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge. They just wanted to experience an authentic pre-match with some of us regulars. The two of them watch most of our games at the famous “Olde Ship” in Santa Ana, California, and were full of giddy excitement at the thought of seeing Chelsea, and no doubt Manchester United. It certainly was a great game, on paper, for a Stamford Bridge debut. In an email exchange, I had written, tongue in cheek:

“See you in the pub. We’ll be the ones not wearing Chelsea shirts.”

We ordered some beers, and the chat accelerated away. They were so happy to be able to meet some old-school supporters.

After a few moments of getting to know each other, Annissa whispered to me “so why don’t you wear Chelsea shirts?”

“Oh gosh. How long have you got?”

We then gave the two visitors a crash course in a few Chelsea fundamentals. We spoke about how I first met Glenn at school in 1977 and on The Shed in 1983, and how I first met Dave in Los Angeles in 2007. We chatted about our usual routines on match day, the Chelsea pubs, which are sadly closing one by one. The days of ska at “The Imperial”. How skinheads and boots gave way to Adidas trainers and Lacoste polo shirts in the days of our youth. Talk of Gus Mears and Brompton Cemetery. The fact that Stamford Bridge, unable to be expanded in 2011, is now looking to expand by 18,000. The Banter. Pints. Memories of Munich. The three of us were taking the piss out of each other and everyone else. The two Californians were lapping it up.

In “The Goose” Arsenal were on the TV, but nobody was watching. With so many nearby pubs closing, the pub gets busier and busier with each passing game. Annissa and Alex purchased the iconic “Chelsea and Proud” pensioner pin badge. Their smiles were wide. I could tell they were loving it.

In among the laughter, there was a moment of farce.

My friend Alan had written to the club and had asked that an obituary for dear Tom be placed in a match programme. Alan had texted me on Friday to say that there would be a short piece, written by Alan, plus a photo of Tom, in the Manchester United programme on the Sunday. The photo chosen was a rather nice one, featuring Tom at the front, with Alan, Glenn and myself, behind.

Imagine our displeasure when we heard that the imbeciles at Chelsea had cropped Tom from the photograph completely, leaving just a head shot of Alan to accompany the obituary. I was fuming. Alan, after his initial exasperation, was still annoyed, but was sure that Tom would be finding the funny side of it.

What a bloody farce.

After a while, a few texts started coming in from those friends who had already purchased a match programme.

“Bloody hell, Alan, you looked fine at Watford.”

Annissa and Alex left early to catch the pre-game stuff. They had seats in the MHL, down below Alan, Glenn, P Diddy and myself, all seated together. To be honest, there had hardly been much time to pay attention to the team. Suffice to say, Guus Hiddink went with the same team that began against Watford; no place, again, for Eden Hazard.

I had predicted 0-0 for the game at Old Trafford in December. My prediction for the return game was the same.

The United fans, the men in black, were already singing by the time I reached my seat. They had brought a few more flags than usual. One with the Munich clock. One for the “Ralph Milne Ultras.” Ferguson’s most unlikely signing in 1988, Ralph Milne became something of a cult figure at Old Trafford. He is their Robert Fleck. Kinda. Milne sadly passed away in 2015 and his flag bore the tangerine and black of his former club Dundee United, with whom he won a Scottish championship medal in 1983.

So, the Ralph Milne Ultras.

Not everything in Planet Football makes sense.

With Stamford Bridge full to its current capacity of 41,000, it was time for the focus to turn to the game itself.

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Manchester United have reverted back to Adidas this season, and their red, white and black is deeply reminiscent of the kits that were worn by United in their under-achieving years of the mid-‘eighties. I have to say it is a classic kit. The three stripes looked at home.

Sadly, United got out of the traps the quickest. Chelsea seemed unable to stop their quick passing, and although I was trying my hardest to ignore how much possession they were enjoying, by the time they started to rack up corner after corner, it was obvious that we were second best. It still hurt to see the smiling face of Juan Mata in red. His delicious touch made it all the more difficult to watch. However, a Courtois save from Martial was thankfully the only time that our goal was seriously threatened in the opening period of play. We struggled to create anything of note. A shot from Diego Costa flew wide of the post. The United fans were, unsurprisingly, the loudest. In all honesty, it wasn’t much of a contest. The Chelsea support hardly sang a note. There had been loud shouts in honour of John Terry at the start, but it was as quiet a Chelsea vs. Manchester United game as I could remember. Although Kurt Zouma shows great promise, both Alan and myself wished that he had more confidence in his own ability to allow him other options than a quick hoof of the ball in to row Z.

We were warmed slightly with a couple of half-chances, but then United, in turn, threatened us too. The big bearskin of Fellaini met a corner, but he was thankfully off target. It was a decidedly humdrum affair. Towards the very end of the first period, a John Terry effort struck the arm of Blind. It didn’t seem to be “ball to hand.” From my viewpoint, it was hardly point-blank range. Surely Blind could have moved his arm away? Despite our howls of derision, no penalty was given.

At the break, all was quiet.

United continued where they had left off as the second-half began. This was tough to watch. Shots flew at Courtois.

Hiddink, admonished for using just one substitute at Watford, soon replaced the quiet Oscar with Eden Hazard. Then, Kurt Zouma fell awkwardly. A stretcher was soon called for, but it seemed to take a while for him to leave the pitch. We wondered what the problem was; it was not clear. It didn’t look good. I felt guilty for being negative towards him earlier. Gary Cahill was the easy replacement.

On the hour, the best move of the match. United worked the ball out to the left, where Borthwick-Jackson (who?) struck a low cross in to the box. Wayne Rooney touched it to Lingard, who seemed to be unhindered as he brought the ball under control and struck it past Courtois.

Ugh.

All was not good.

The home fans still sat silently. There seemed to be no will to generate much noise. I felt for Annissa and Alex down in the tier below.

We slowly created a few more chances. A Willian free-kick, and then a powerful volley from Ivanovic both tested De Gea. Fabregas was the next to threaten the United goal, but another fine stop from the United ‘keeper. Pedro replaced Matic.

There was only a slight response from the Chelsea support.

However, as the minutes ticked by, we enjoyed more and more of the ball. A few wayward efforts frustrated us. It seems churlish to knock Willian after his exemplary form in the first few months, but he seems to have faltered of late. Some of his corners and free-kicks were woeful.

Then, a hope of salvation.

There were an added six minutes.

The crowd at last responded.

“Come on.”

With the United defence massed behind the ball, Cesc Fabregas miraculously found an unmarked Diego Costa in the middle of the penalty area. I could hardly believe it. Time seemed to stand still. I immediately stood up, expecting a goal. Diego turned, rode the challenge of a defender and pushed the ball wide of De Gea. With me just about to go in to orbit, Diego coolly slotted home from an angle. At last The Bridge thundered. I turned to see Alan screaming right at me.

Get in.

Down below, a fist pump from Diego Costa, and a hug from John Terry, who had sauntered up field to add support to the attack. Stamford Bridge echoed to the sound of a relieved home support. And I bet Annissa and Alex were in heaven.

In the final minute, a lovely moment. Juan Mata was replaced by Herrera and Stamford Bridge rose, seemingly as one, to applaud our former number ten.

Just like in 1906, the game had ended 1-1, though I can only hope that the match that drew 67,000 all those decades ago was a far better game.

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Tales From Fresh Fields.

Milton Keynes Dons vs. Chelsea : 31 January 2016.

The two domestic cup competitions were serving me very well in season 2015/2016. First, there was my first visit to Walsall’s Bescot Stadium in the League Cup in September. Then, on the last day of January, there was my inaugural visit to Stadium MK, the home of the Milton Keynes Dons, in the fourth round of the F.A. Cup. This was excellent news indeed; two new stadia within four months.

As soon as they appear, I’ll keep on ticking them off.

It had been an easy drive on an overcast Sunday; a leisurely trip through the shires of Southern England, avoiding the motorway network except for a fifteen minute spell on the M4 near Swindon.

Somerset, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

We drove past villages with names like Tingewick, Tubney, Kingston Bagpuize, Hinton Waldrist and Pusey.

We had decided to break the journey at Bicester. While I deposited the Chuckle Brothers – P Diddy, the birthday boy, and Puff Parky – at “The Acorn” pub for bevvies, I quickly raided the nearby shopping outlet for a lightning strike.

I had pulled over for a pullover, if you will.

I joined them for a drink, but we were soon on our way again.

We were parked up a few hundred yards away from the stadium on a grass verge by the side of the road. Although it looked just like any other road, flanked by industrial units and commercial premises, it was anything but. It was the site of the Watling Road, an old Roman road which originally shot as straight as an arrow from Canterbury through London – including Edgware Road – and up in to the Midlands before ending south of Chester. Back in August, while meeting pals at a pub before the Community Shield against Arsenal, we had walked a few hundred steps north on Edgware Road. And here we were, five months later, back on the Watling Road again. A little history, a little geography.

This was just up my street.

On more than one occasion in fact, the trip to Milton Keynes seemed a little like my schooldays revisited. Way back in 1979, I can remember learning about the new towns which were developed after the Second World War throughout Britain, in an effort to cope with population growth on one hand and a clearance of inner city slums on the other. Glasgow had East Kilbride and Cumbernauld. Edinburgh had Livingston and Glenrothes. Liverpool had Skelmersdale, Warrington and Runcorn. Birmingham had Telford. Newcastle had Washington. London had Bracknell, Basildon, Crawley, Harlow, Hatfield and a few more.

However, Milton Keynes, almost a cliché for blandness with its grid-pattern of streets and regimented land use, not to mention its famous concrete cows, is the most famous new town of them all. Apart from flying through the town on many train journeys from my college town of Stoke-on-Trent to Euston for football in the ‘eighties – the cows could be seen from the train – I had never visited Milton Keynes.

I would not visit it on this occasion either since the stadium actually sits in the town of Bletchley, merging in with its more famous neighbour to the north.

The town of Milton Keynes itself, the butt of many a joke, would have to wait.

It was approaching two o’clock, and the kick-off was over two hours away. A few good friends were drinking in a working mens club, but that was just too far away for us. We were not sure if there would be any pubs close by, but we decided to chance our luck and headed to the stadium.

From the outside the stadium is rather sleek. Although there is a large Hilton Hotel latched on to the main stand, the exterior walls are black and stylish. I was immediately impressed.

Outside the main entrance, excited locals were waiting for the Chelsea team coach to arrive. There was a tangible “buzz” about the place. We had sold around 6,700 tickets for this one, but I hadn’t been convinced that all of the home areas would sell out.

Outside the away end, we struck gold. Lined up, directly opposite the northern turnstiles, were a collection of restaurants.

“Prezzo.”

“Nando’s.”

“Pizza Express.”

“Frankie & Benny’s.”

“Bella Italia.”

“TGI Friday’s.”

This was too good to be true. We settled in “Thank Goodness It’s Sunday” and relaxed. The place was full of Chelsea, to be honest. Although hardly anyone was wearing colours, we just knew. We spotted a few faces. We chatted away to a chap who was with his four year old boy, one of the very few bedecked in Chelsea wear. The young lad was hugely excited and it was such a joy to see. Living locally, I asked if it was the boy’s first game. Far from it; it was his fifth game of the season. There had been tears at Wembley against Arsenal, to begin with, but this would be the lad’s third game of the month after Scunthorpe and Everton (more tears, followed by huge joy). It was bloody lovely to see the kid’s enthusiasm.

I spotted that the father’s mate was wearing a “Canada Goose” jacket, which I have started to notice being worn at football by those in the know this season.

“Aren’t you a bit warm with that on mate?”

“Just a bit mate.”

There had been a brief conversation with a MK Dons supporter outside. She had explained that she had grown up a Chelsea supporter, but could not afford tickets for our games these days. She was wearing a white MK Dons shirt, and was troubled that she did not really know who to cheer for. I found this rather odd. Even if you couldn’t afford tickets to many games, surely your club stays with you.

She seemed to sum up perfectly my dislike for our hosts.

Of course, I need not spend too much time chronicling the history of Milton Keynes Dons. Formed in 2004, on the back of the financial meltdown of former FA Cup winners Wimbledon, this is a football club which draws much disdain from the rank and file supporters of many teams throughout the football pyramid. That the town of Milton Keynes should suddenly be gifted a professional league team ahead of other more deserving towns and clubs, each with decades of history, really makes me angry. I won’t labour the point, but I was so happy and pleased when AFC Wimbledon, rising like a phoenix from the ashes, and cared for and succoured by fans, regained their place in the Football League in 2011.

Inside the stadium, I took my seat high in the upper tier in a corner underneath a large scoreboard. For once, I would be sitting alone. Other friends, the usual suspects, were scattered around the 6,700 away fans. I made myself at home. The black seats were padded, and roomy. I looked around. This was a very impressive stadium indeed. Originally there was just a lower tier, but as the years have passed the upper tier has been in-filled. Unlike so many new stadia – Southampton, Middlesbrough, Derby – this stadia had a variety of quirky features. The upper deck, quite steep in fact, gave the place an extra dimension. And rather than a single tier, wrapped around, there were distinct sections, set apart, with corporate boxes behind. This aspect reminded me a little of Red Bull Arena in New Jersey where our season began. I was especially drawn to the roof though. It seemed very light and airy, giving the whole stadium a European feel. I soon decided that I might not be a fan of the club, but I was a big fan of their stadium. Add in the row of bars outside the away end, Stadium MK was getting a huge “thumbs up” from me.

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As kick-off approached, the stands swelled to capacity. It was quickly evident that this was a full house. Hardly a seat was unused. Ironically, four next to me were empty. The Chelsea end looked fantastic. As this was “live” on BBC1, I was hoping that we would give the viewing millions a show both on and off the pitch. I had watched some of the televised Derby County versus Manchester United match on Friday evening and was pretty impressed with the United fans’ wall of noise throughout the game. Now it was our turn. I wanted skill on the pitch and noise off it.

A lot of Chelsea had come dressed for the occasion. There is no doubt that many make a special effort for away games.

Adidas, Aquascutum, Lacoste, Canada Goose, Moncler, MA Strum, CP.

Guus Hiddink had shuffled his cards slightly.

We were thrilled that Ruben was given a start.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Baba – Matic, Fabregas – Loftus-Cheek, Oscar, Hazard – Diego Costa.

We began the game on fire, and Diego Costa was the first player to test our faith. He was clean through, yet goalkeeper David Martin stuck up an arm to save at close range. We attacked at will and chance after chance came or way, only for awful finishing to let us down. Oscar was especially wasteful. However, the Chelsea supporters were in good voice and we hoped for a little more success in front of goal. Thankfully, Diego Costa pounced on a defensive error out wide and was able to feed Oscar, arriving on the far post. Although he slipped on impact, he was still able to guide the ball home.

Get in.

The home team had appeared to be silent witnesses to our comfortable start to the game, so it was a huge surprise when an optimistic shot from Darren Potter – who Cesc Fabregas really should have tackled – was deflected up and over Thibaut Courtois by the leg of Nemanja Matic.

Balls. That was not on the cards.

Fabregas then sent Eden Hazard clear, but his weak shot was parried by Martin on to the near post. We waited, still, for Eden’s first goal of the season. Baba, looking a little nervous, managed to squeeze a ball across the box, but Costa and Oscar seemed to get in each other’s way.

Not to worry, the Chelsea fans were making a racket.

“Oh Dennis Wise…”

Thankfully, just after the half-hour mark, Oscar was set free inside the box and struck a fine shot, first time, past Martin. The applause from the Chelsea fans, I thought, seemed quite subdued, but it only heralded more song.

“Bounce in a minute…”

A couple of shots were traded, but then Oscar went on a dribble before curling a lovely shot past Martin to give us a 3-1 lead.

A hat-trick for Oscar. Braziliant.

Just before the break, the entire Chelsea end burst in to song :

“Wimbledon, Wimbledon, Wimbledon – Wimbledon, Wimbledon, Wimbledon.

“Wimbledon, Wimbledon, Wimbledon – Wimbledon, Wimbledon.”

Lovely stuff.

Our 1997 FA Cup semi-final opponents were remembered.

In the second-half, with victory surely on the cards, the flowing football from Chelsea began again. Hazard was fouled just inside the box, and a penalty was awarded. Eden placed the ball on the spot and calmly rolled it home.

Get in you beauty.

4-1 and game over.

There was a song for Fabregas, now seemingly back in the fold, after a strange time for him.

“Fabregas is magic…”

There was also songs for heroes sadly no longer with us.

“The Shed looked up and they saw a great star…”

Bertrand Traore replaced Diego Costa.

He was soon involved, latching on to a Hazard pass and ably sweeping the ball home.

5-1, with hopes of a few more.

I do not know too much about the young lad from Burkina Faso, but he looks confident with the ball. Baba, after a shaky start, improved as the game went on, and Loftus-Cheek (complete with his “Give It Up” song) oozed calmness on the ball. The home team were reduced to taking long shots at Courtois.

Willian and Pedro replaced Hazard and Oscar.

There was no way that the BBC commentators could accuse us of taking the FA Cup lightly.

No.

Not Chelsea.

In truth we took our foot off the gas a little during the closing minutes, by which time I seemed to be transfixed by Dean Lewington, down below me on the Dons’ left, his movement reminding me so much of his father, Ray, who played for us from 1975 to 1979.

On the walk back to the car, we heard that we had drawn Manchester City in the fifth round.

By the time we had begun our return trip to Wiltshire and Somerset, we were numbed by the odd announcement by club captain John Terry that this would be his last season in the famous royal blue. I was confused and bewildered by this news. Ironically, I had mentioned to the lads on the drive to Bletchley that JT was worth another year. Last season was one of his best ever, and he rarely plays poorly. His performance at Arsenal last week was exceptional.

It had taken the edge off a fine day out in Buckinghamshire.

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Tales From A Lesson In Double Dutch.

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 December 2015.

Regardless of the current troubled predicaments of both teams, “United away” is always one of the very best Chelsea trips each season. Some would say it is the best of all. There is just something about visiting Old Trafford that never fails to stir the senses.

North against South.

Manchester against London.

Red against Blue.

As the day got underway, I was relishing the chance to be one of three thousand tightly-packed away fans in that sweeping corner, trying our best to be heard against the four-thousand United followers in the lower tier of “K-Stand” – I’m showing my age here – if not many more in all of the other home areas. It would surely promise to be a visceral treat for those of us who enjoy the noise and passion of a top-notch away fixture as much as the football played before us.

Old Trafford.

“The Theatre Of Dreams” as the advertising executives at Manchester United have called it.

Of course, there have been Chelsea defeats, but it was historically a venue which always used to be a pretty successful hunting ground for Chelsea Football Club in my youth.  Until 1970, it was the scene of our most famous match, our most famous win. And for many years we were undefeated in league games at Old Trafford and it annoys me to this day that I was present to see us relinquish that record on the last day of August in 1987.

From season 1965/1966 to season 1985/1986, we visited the home of Manchester United on thirteen occasions in the league and never lost once.

My first visit was in the spring of 1986, when two goals in front of us in the tightly-packed paddock sent us wild. The atmosphere that night was as visceral as I had ever experienced in my eighty Chelsea games to that point. A late Kerry Dixon winner sent us into ecstasy long before it was a staple drug of delight in Madchester. The natives were not happy that night. I can remember running the gauntlet back to our coach which was parked at the now long-gone Warwick Road train station. Fantastic memories from almost thirty years ago. You always remember your first time, right?

This would be my twenty-first visit to Old Trafford with Chelsea. In the previous twenty, my own personal record is five wins, six losses and nine defeats.

In my mind, it seems a better hunting ground than that. Maybe it is the strong memory of the emotion connected with those five wins (1986, 1986, 2005, 2010, 2013) which have altered my perception.

Regardless, as I collected Glenn and Parky at around 9am, I just knew that a classic day out was waiting for me.

Before we headed north on the busy motorway network, though, we diverted in to Bath for an archetypal post-Christmas spend-up. After a bite to eat, the three of us raided a few shops in the city’s crowded centre for some classic football clobber.

Two pairs of Adidas trainers, a Lyle and Scott Harrington jacket, a Paul & Shark hooded top and a pair of New Balance trainers were purchased between the three of us. I’ve noticed how New Balance are being worn more and more at football these days; a hark back to around 1985/1986 when they shared the limelight with the usual suspects. In one of the shops that we visited, there was a little banter with the two shop assistants.

Shop Assistant One : “Chelsea are not doing too well this season, eh?”

Chris : “Nah. Not too brilliant at the moment.”

Shop Assistant Two : “It could be worse. Could be United.”

Glenn : “We’re off to the game later this evening.”

Shop Assistant Two : “Oh right.”

Chris : “Who do you follow then?”

Shop Assistant Two : “United.”

This little exchange took me back somewhat. Although Chelsea are going through a ridiculously poor run of form, the United fan thought that his club were in a worse predicament.

But then I realised the mind set of many United supporters, who expect – nay, deserve – success.

I would like to think that Chelsea fans like Parky, Glenn and myself are a little more grounded, a little more pragmatic.

Shop Assistant One : “Predictions for tonight?”

Chris : “0-0 I reckon. I’d be happy with that.”

Regardless, purchases all bagged-up, we were on our way to the delights of Mancunia with an added spring in our step.

Sadly, the trip north – M4, M5, M6 and beyond – was yet another in the ever-growing list of horrific away journeys. A trip that should have taken three hours took over five. There were traffic delays every few miles. I had to divert through Stoke to avoid further problems on the M6. In the car, Parky had compiled a Northern Soul tape which was keeping us entertained. This was the stand out track.

“Moonlight, Music and You” by Laura Greene.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OE2H92jGoS0

Heaven.

However, I was getting frustrated with my slow progress.

News came through that Guus Hiddink was to employ a “false nine” in the game which was now getting close. With Diego Costa out through suspension, we presumed that Loic Remy was injured. Getting Radamel Falcao back on the pitch to score a winner at Old Trafford was beyond the stuff of fantasy.

In a similar scenario to that used by Mourinho at Tottenham, Eden Hazard was to be deployed in the furthest forward position. To be fair, the draw at Spurs was one of our most palatable performances of the season. For an old-stager such as me though, there is something decidedly odd about a “false nine.” It seems to rank up there with Peter Kay’s exclamations and protestations of “Cheesecake?” and “Garlic Bread?”

“False Nine?”

“Football with no striker?”

“False? Nine?”

It sounds like something that a transvestite might wear.

As I turned off the M60 and joined the Chester Road on that long familiar approach to Old Trafford, I reluctantly ‘phoned an old college mate, Rick, who had been waiting for me to arrive so that we could have a chit-chat before heading in to the game. Rick is a Manchester United season-ticket holder and lives in nearby Northwich. We had been looking forward to meeting up. Sadly, I advised that he should head on in.

“May the best team win and all that bollocks.”

Although we had left the city of Bath a few minutes before midday, we did not reach our allotted parking place – “a tennoh, please mate”- until around 5.15pm.

We quickly walked across Gorse Hill Park. Out on the Chester Road again, all was eerily quiet. Time was moving on and virtually everyone else was seated, or standing, inside the vastness of Old Trafford. It was a mild night as we walked as quickly as possible.

It seemed that the three of us were alone in the city of Manchester.

The red bricks. The Victorian streets. The car lights. The emptying pubs. The road signs for the neighbouring suburbs. The vast steel supports of the stadium roof. The colour red.

Manchester.

A couple of years ago, I went to see the great punk poet John Cooper Clarke, a native of the neighbouring city of Salford, in my home town of Frome, with a few good friends. Supporting him that evening was the poet Mike Garry, who went down equally well. One of Mike Garry’s most evocative poems is a tribute to the late TV presenter, journalist, and Factory record label owner Tony Wilson. DJ Andy Weatherall recently put this poem – “St. Anthony : an ode to Anthony H. Wilson” – to a dance beat and it has been in my head ever since. As a tribute to a much-revered impresario, the poem hits the spot. Hearing Garry’s emotional words, in a heavy and lazy Mancunian accent, put to music is perfect. Of course, it acts as an ode to Manchester itself. I love it. These football travels, these trips of faith and devotion, take me to some wonderful sporting cities. Surely Manchester is one of those.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LUE9PPiZ7W0

[A tip from this honest hardworking blogger; play this in the background as you read below. Don’t be passive. Engage.]

St. Anthony is the patron saint of things lost, of people missed. Everything about the poem seems very poignant for me and my 2015.

As I walked towards Old Trafford, one more time, Garry’s words resonated.

“Talk to me of Albion, of Anderton and of art.

Of The Arndale.

Alan Turin.

Acid House.

Alexandra Park.”

Past the Bishop Blaize pub, for once devoid of sound. United song master Pete Boyle had left for the game.

“Of Bez, the Buzzcocks, the bouncing bombs.

And the beautiful Busby Babes.”

Past the take-aways and the offies, and in to a very empty Sir Matt Busby Way. The grafters and the fanzine sellers were no more. How odd to be outside a football stadium after kick-off.

“Of Curtis.

Cancer, Christies, Catholicism.

Crack and Curt Cobain.”

We met up with Kev, from Edinburgh, who was waiting on my ticket. We quickly disappeared into the away section underneath the Munich clock. There were other Chelsea fans arriving late. We were evidently not the only ones. For the first time in ages, the away season ticket holders were in the curve, not down below to the left in the South Stand.

We had missed seven minutes. A quick “hello” to Alan and Gary. Apparently, it had been an eventful opening period. I heard how Juan Mata had struck the woodwork, but also how John Terry had gone close with a header. I took a few photographs. I tried to settle in. Everyone standing, everyone shouting. There seemed to be no seat unused as I looked across to the Stretford End, now partly corporate, its heart ripped out years ago, and then the towering North Stand. I looked across to where Rick would be watching, somewhere near the rear of the lower tier as it curved around. A quick run through the teams. I was pleased to see the steadying choice of Mikel alongside Matic, who – from memory – does well at Old Trafford. For the home team, I quickly spotted Bastian Schweinsteiger amid thoughts of that night, that penalty and that foreign city, whose name brings awful memories to this part of Manchester. How odd that one word can elicit such vastly differing emotions.

It was the first viewing of a few of these United players for me. To be frank, it just didn’t seem like a Manchester United team. With the two teams now being overseen by two Dutch managers, I pondered on what was before me. Guus Hiddink was playing without a striker and Louis van Gaal was playing Ashley Young at left-back. I had a feeling that my understanding of all of the traditional footballing rules were being tested.

To be honest, it looked double Dutch to me.

Pure football gibberish.

“Dance, Design, Durutti, Devotto.

Development of a dirty Northern city.

De La Salle.

Dignity.

And how in the end you hated all the pity.”

What then happened over the next ten minutes or so was horrible. We were simply over-run and out-paced and out-played. From Alan’s seemingly reassuring words about a rather reasonable start, it seemed that all of that pent-up angst and anger about their inability to play expansive and thrilling football in “the United way” was being unleashed, and for my eyes especially. Ivanovic, so often the culprit in this car-crash of a football season – but seemingly improved of late – was back to his infuriating form of August and September, allowing Anthony Martial a ridiculous amount of space, then seemed unwilling to challenge. Martial struck a low shot against Courtois’ near post and we watched as it spun across the six-yard box. Thankfully there were no United attackers in the vicinity. The home team continued to dominate, and Rooney shot from distance. Chelsea’s attacking presence was sadly lacking. Our breaks soon petered out. I wondered how on Earth John Terry had forced a save from De Gea while I was still outside in the Manchester night.

Tackles were thundering in from both sets of players.

The Chelsea crowd were in reasonable voice. Yet again I will make the point of how away fans are more prone to creating an atmosphere than the home fans. Old Trafford is no different. The game continued. I just wanted us to get to the break unscathed, so that Hiddink could fine-tune our performance.

At half-time, there were long faces in the Chelsea section. In reality, this was as poor a performance as we had seen all season. Maybe the first-half at Leicester was the worst, but this was not much better.

I wondered what we had lost. I wondered if a prayer to St. Anthony was needed.

“Saint Anthony – Saint Anthony,

Please come around.

Something is lost that can’t be found.

Oh talk to me.

Oh talk to me.

Of Gretton, God, Granada.

Hooky and Hannett.

And how the fighting just got harder.

Hamlet, Ibsen, The IRA.

Jesus Mary and Keith Joseph.

Joy Division.

Judaism.

The importance of the moment.”

I remembered back to my last visit to Manchester, the game with City in August. I reminisced how Parky and I had waited in the foyer of the Lowry Hotel and had observed the Chelsea players walk through to their awaiting coach. At the time they looked focussed. With hindsight, they looked joyless, without a spark. I remember, too, how Mourinho walked to the coach independently, away from the team. Now the separation seems important.

“Something is lost that can’t be found.”

Our team seems to have lost a spark, a sense of vitality, the desire.

It hurts.

“Liam.

London.

Lust for Life.

Louis Louis.

Linnaeus Banks.

Manchester.

Music.

Marijuana.

Majesty.

And Karl Marx.”

Thankfully, Chelsea began with a lot more zest as the second-half began. Eden Hazard set up a chance for Pedro, who forced a fine save from De Gea. The follow-up shot from Azpilicueta was also blocked by De Gea. How we had not taken the lead still escapes me. The away support stepped it up a notch. At the other end, a sublime block by John Terry stopped Wayne Rooney advancing. Throughout the evening, Terry’s control of Rooney was a Chelsea highlight. On the hour, a sublime block from close range by Courtois kept the score goal-less; a cross from the artful Martial on the right had gifted Herrera a wonderful chance to score. With the Stretford End already celebrating, the ball ricocheted off Thibaut. Stupendous stuff indeed.

We were definitely improving as the game wore on. I noted a greater desire amongst our players. With United flooding our half, they left themselves exposed when Pedro played in a bursting Nemanja Matic.

This was our moment.

I brought my camera up to eye-level. With any luck I would capture a game-winner, just as I had memorably captured a Juan Mata strike grazing Phil Jones’ thigh on the way past De Gea in 2013.

I brought the camera up to my eyes. I was aware that Dave was alongside.

Snap.

The ball was struck high and wide.

“Fuck it.”

Another shot from Matic went wide.

Willian was replaced by Ramires with twenty minutes remaining. He had looked tired. Clearly not at his best, he had been consistently fouled all evening. His departure was no surprise. I noted how quiet the United crowd had become. I had expected more disdain, more barracking of van Gaal.

I commented to Gary how poor Wayne Rooney had been, fluffing his lines on two occasions in the second-half and prone to over-hitting some passes. I wondered about Mourinho’s pursuit of him in 2013. I thought that Terry and Zouma had performed well. Further forward, there had been more positive signs as the game progressed. Eden Hazard had proved to be less effective than at Tottenham but I thought that he had tried his best in a very difficult role. At times, he was too distant from a supporting cast. But this always going to be a tough assignment without a Diego Costa or a Loic Remy. Pedro had run his socks off all game. You had to look hard, but there were pluses.

“Tony talk to me of Sex Pistols, the substance, the streets, the sounds.

The sniffed and snorted, stolen, swigged multi million pounds.

And talk to me of the greatest ever Man United team.

Greg

Burns

Jones

Edwards

Robson and Roy Keane

Was it Best

Law

Charlton

Stiles and Eric Cantona?

Unknown Pleasures of the doubles and the trebles

Incantation from the stars.”

At the end of the game, there was a general feeling of relief from Parky, Alan, Gary and myself – stood in a line – and from Glenn, stood several rows in front.

A goal-less draw is what I had predicted and a goal-less draw is what we had witnessed.

We walked back to the car. It was not even 7.30pm. It seemed later. We were caught up in more slow-moving traffic as we joined the red surge around the M60 and then south, homeward bound.

We were now on twenty points.

“Halfway to paradise.”

To complete a full day of friendship and football, we stopped off for a curry in Walsall, not so far away from our League Cup away day a few months ago. The game had been discussed on the motorway. It was now time to relax and enjoy a madras, a jalfrezi, a pathia.

I eventually reached home at around one o’clock. Of course I had enjoyed the day. Others, watching further away, were apparently not so happy. What have we lost? Maybe they need to have a word with Saint Anthony too.

“Guus talk to me.

John talk to me.

Jose talk to me.

Roman talk to me.”

On the third day of January, we reassemble at Selhurst Park. See you there.

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>>Tales : A Lesson In Double Dutch.

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