Tales From The Shores Of The Caspian Sea

Qarabag vs. Chelsea : 22 November 2017.

 

Sandwiched between two Saturday away league games at West Bromwich and Liverpool was a European away game that had tantalised myself – and many others – ever since the Champions League draw way back in August. Our game in Baku in Azerbaijan against Qarabag represented Chelsea Football Club’s longest ever trip for a UEFA game. Only the two games in the World Club Championships in 2012 in Yokohama, Japan – FIFA not UEFA – were further away from our home in SW6, with friendlies on the west coast of the US, South America and Australia not included.

On the evening of the draw, I booked myself onto an Aeroflot flight to Baku, via Moscow, and it soon became apparent that many good friends had decided to travel too. Only a few were going direct. Most had decided to go via Istanbul, but a fair few had chosen the Moscow route.

I had missed the last minute drama of the Michy Batshuayi winner in Madrid, but was there in Rome five weeks ago to see us lose 3-0. Bizarrely, Qarabag’s draw in Madrid that night dampened the pain of that loss to Roma. A win in Baku would see us through to the knock-out phase. It added a little drama – if it was needed – to this most lengthy of adventures.

Did this trip need a little drama to add a certain piquancy?

I was in two minds.

I have recently begun reading a book written by the revered Paul Theroux – “The Deep South” – which details his travels, experiences and insights of that fabled sub-section of the United States. In one of the first chapters, he details how travel books often engineer some sort of false logistical conflict in order to add a degree of tension and drama to the narrative. I have often thought that this was true of television travel documentaries – probably my favourite type of TV programme if I am honest – and I lay the blame solely at the feet of Michael Palin. His ground-breaking “Around The World In Eighty Days” travelogue from 1988 was enjoyable but there were endless “will I catch the correct plain/train/coach/car?” scenarios which I could not help but think were added to give the series an extra edge and a sense of danger.

Theroux was having none of this and it struck a chord. Certainly travelling within the US – he was to drive by car from the small towns of the Carolinas, through Appalachia and down to the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf of Mexico – there was surely no recognisable conflict. He was wealthy, he owned a good car, the fuel was cheap, the roads were wide and easy to navigate. There was no need to add any drama to his movement through the area.

However, on the day before I was set to leave for Baku, my friend Dutch Mick reported of a nightmarish experience in Moscow. He was not allowed on the waiting plane to take him to Baku. Then, once arrived in Baku – ten hours late – his son had paperwork issues with his Azerbaijani visa and had to wait for a new application, but there were subsequent issues with that too. I was then horrified to read that he commented that Aeroflot often cancel flights to Baku without any notice.

“Oh bollocks.”

Of course there are always usual worries linked to foreign travel – those horrid doubts about having neglected to pack that all important passport, visa, credit card – but as I left work on the Monday, I remembered how one friend had lost both his passport and wallet and another pal had lost his passport in Rome. Then came this extra worry of cancelled flights. I had no margin for error; my flight was only getting in to Baku at 5am on the day of the game. It is fair to say that I felt myself remembering Paul Theroux’ comments about enforced conflicts with a wry smile.

I hoped that the only conflict within this particular edition of my travels with Chelsea would be result-related and not due to any logistical snafu.

The English portion of the trip began well. I set off from my home in Somerset at 9am. At just after midday, I had parked my car in my friend Nick’s driveway in the small Berkshire town of Twyford. Although Nick has been going to Chelsea since that horrible relegation season of 1978/79, our paths have only recently crossed; in China of all places. We were over in Beijing for the Arsenal friendly in July. The Aeroflot flight took us out of London via Gatwick but back in via Heathrow; by parking at his place, potential problems from the English section of the trip were smoothed.

Nick’s wife was able to take us to Wokingham train station, from where we caught the hour long train to Gatwick. On that train journey, Nick and myself chatted relentlessly about our travels around Europe with Chelsea. Interestingly, our team’s performances were rarely mentioned; the buzz was all about foreign cities, unbelievable itineraries, excessive beer intakes, endless laughs and various “characters” that we both knew, of which Chelsea has many. Nick was full of tales and many brought a smile to my face.

He began one story by shaking his head and uttering the immortal words “I was sure I told her.”

One day, Nick received a text from his wife asking if he could pick up his son David from school in the afternoon as she would be busy with work.

He replied –

“I can’t. I’m in Bucharest.”

And he was, for our 2013 Europa League game. Classic.

Bearing this story in mind, plus a few others that reinforced the notion that Nick was as “football daft” as myself, I recalled the look that Nick’s wife gave me when I shook her hand back in Twyford.

“Here’s another bloody idiot.”

This would be my thirty-second trip abroad with Chelsea for a UEFA game. I was able to delve into a few of my personal memories. Off the top of my head, a top ten would be Munich 2012, Tel Aviv 2015, Turin 2009, Stockholm 1998, Barcelona 2012, Seville 1998, Lisbon 2014, Vienna 1994, Istanbul 2014 and Prague 1994.

There was time for a couple of pints at Gatwick. On the four-hour flight to Moscow, there were around twenty other Chelsea supporters. I wondered how many tickets we had sold; I hoped for at least one thousand.

Ah Moscow, bloody Moscow. After the memories of that damp and depressing evening at the Luzhniki Stadium in 2008, I swore never to return. But returning I was, and to the same Sheremetyevo airport too, although the Aeroflot terminal, built in 2010, was vastly superior to the now demolished northern terminal that we used in 2008. There was time for a few beers – Spaten, ah Munich – using some of Nick’s roubles from the Rubin Kazan game in 2013; the surly barman reminded me of the welcome we had from the locals on my only previous visit. Although it was around 11pm, all of the retail outlets were open – manned by bored shop assistants staring blankly at their mobile phones – and I was again reminded of how pervasive US commercial activity has proven to be; “Victoria’s Secret” and “Burger King” among others were peddling their wares in deepest Russia. A gaggle of Maribor players returning to Slovenia after their game against Spartak Moscow brushed past us. An enthusiastic Chelsea fan from Munich regaled us of his train trip from Southern Germany to Moscow for the 2008 Final; sixty hours there, sixty hours back. Suddenly Baku did not seem so far away.

I caught a little sleep on the Moscow to Baku leg. We touched down at bang on 5am. Outside, the night, everything dark and mysterious. We were quickly through the passport and visa check; “phew.” I exchanged some sterling for the local currency. The terminal was eerily quiet. A line of white taxi cabs was parked outside and the drivers seemed a little ambivalent to us. Eventually, we knocked back one driver who wanted 60 manat and finally negotiated a 25 manat cab into the city; this translated to around £12.

It was a quiet cab ride into town. We were both tired. The road was devoid of traffic. We wondered what was lying in wait. Baku seemed a beguiling city from afar. Soon, the cab driver took us straight past the oddly-named Olympic Stadium (I must have missed that one), which certainly reminded myself of the Allianz Arena in Munich; adjacent to the main road in to the city from the airport, and encased in a plastic skin. It looked stunning. The game would kick-off in fifteen hours. As the cab took us deep into the city, the buildings became more impressive.

Back in 2014, the furniture company for whom I work sent around seventy articulated trailers of workstations, chairs and storage cabinets to the city of Baku. We kitted out the twenty-five stories of the impressive Socar Tower. It was a huge project. Socar is the state-owned oil and gas company. Within ten minutes of landing in Azerbaijan, I had spotted my first Socar petrol station. As the cab neared our final destination in the city centre, not far from the promenade which overlooks the Caspian Sea, I was able to spot a large building bearing the name of the furniture installation company – Palitra – who were involved in the project. It brought a shudder; due to the intricacies of the export documentation required for exporting into Azerbaijan, which were an added burden to my already busy workload, the Socar project represented the most stressful time in my working life. I was certainly relieved when the tower was fully furnished and open for business. I so hoped to be able to set eyes on the tower, which is in the shape of a flickering flame, during my thirty-five hours in the city.

At about 6.30am, the cab driver deposited us right in the heart of Baku; Nick’s hotel was a few yards from the city’s “Hard Rock Café.”

My hotel – where my mates Alan and Gary, plus it would transpire, a few others – was not far away but the room was not ready until 2pm, so I crashed on the hard wooden floor of Nick’s hotel room for a couple of hours. At around 10am, I set off to collect my match ticket at the Grand Hotel, which was around a twenty-minute walk away. A Chelsea fan pointed me in the right direction. I wasn’t prepared for the very strong winds which blew leaves up off the roads and pavements. My bag on wheels thudded on the cobbled streets which lead up a slight hill. During those first few moments, my eyes were on stalks, taking it all in. I was impressed with the architecture; strong and formidable. I walked past small shops…clothes shops, fast food joints, small and intimate. The Grand Hotel was on a busy intersection. The cars flew down the hill but I soon noticed that, although lights were absent, cars always stopped once pedestrians stepped on to the zebra crossings.

My match ticket collected – 10 manat, or £4.50 – I was unsure what to do. Alan and Gary were on their way to the collection point too, but my phone was playing up. I decided to head back in to town, and soon spotted a Chelsea fan, Scott, sitting in a café on Fountain Square with another supporter. I joined him for a coffee. Outside, they were setting up stalls for a German-style market. A large Christmas tree overlooked the pale blue huts. Nearby were large KFC, Pizza Hut and McDonalds restaurants. The shops and eateries in this central square seemed very westernised. It reminded me of a small German city. Scott had arrived on the Tuesday; I soon wished that I had done the same.

And I was in a slight quandary. I was well aware that the city’s beers were cheap and the bars welcoming and plentiful. But I was sleep-deficient and I had a long day ahead. I wanted to see something of the city. I didn’t want to be tired and drowsy for the football. I wanted to be up relatively early on the Thursday for more sight-seeing. I pondered my options.

I imagined that if I chose to drop my bag at the hotel room and dive into some bars, my destiny might career out of my hands.

The risk of cheap alcohol was real.

I imagined myself stood next to a wheel of fortune and it spinning around, with an array of worrying options.

  1. Drink too much too early and – without food – become a burden, and manage to lose my wallet and match ticket.
  2. Drink too much, spend too much, lose debit card at an ATM, go back to hotel, sponge money off mates and get to game late.
  3. Drink too much and end up in a bar in the wrong part of town and struggle to get to the game in time.
  4. Drink too much, vomit over my jeans, end up in a dishevelled mess in a shop doorway.
  5. Drink too much, get on the metro, take the wrong train, end up miles from anywhere.
  6. Drink too much, simply go back to the hotel, miss seeing my mates, fall asleep, comatose.
  7. Drink too much, drop my camera, get annoyed, head back to the hotel room to charge up my phone/camera, fall asleep and miss game.
  8. Drink too much, fall asleep, wake up on Friday.
  9. Drink too little, but still get lost en route to the game, get in late.
  10. Drink too much and end up supporting Tottenham.

I decided in the circumstances to play it cool. I had drunk enough in Rome. This would be a chilled-out trip.

A young lad approached me on Fountain Square and interviewed me for either a) an Azerbaijan TV station, audience 5,000,000 or b) his YouTube channel, audience 7.

I briefly spoke about Chelsea, Qarabag and the city. Oh well, I knew about one of the three topics.

I reached the hotel, which was centrally-located on a pedestrianised shopping street with a mixture of local and Western brands. Above there were apartments with balconies. They love their balconies in Baku. Luckily, I was allowed into my room early at around midday. I hooked up my wifi; Alan had messaged me to say that he and Gary were out and about.

I slept, fitfully – I think I was too excited – and then went off on a personal tour of Baku for two and-a-half hours. I headed straight down to the promenade. I passed many high-end shops; Burberry, Boss, Lacoste. The wind was still howling. I crossed the busy road – used by the cars on the F1 circuit – and walked down to the steps which were being buffeted by a few small waves from the slate grey Caspian Sea. To the east were cranes, with new building development visible. To the west, the three flame towers dominated the vista, and they towered over the city. Beyond was the spindle of a TV tower. I headed up the hill – more impressive buildings, the warm yellow stone reminded of the Cotswolds – and edged around the walls of the old town. I dipped inside – I would return, I hoped, at length on the Thursday – and decided on a local meal. Just inside one of the gates, there is a row of around four wooden huts which house ridiculously small and intimate restaurants. Brian and Kev – the Bristol lot – spotted me and we chatted; the luck buggers had been in town since Monday.

I entered a small hut – a massive stone oven was right by the door – and the place was full of the atmospheric smoke from the wood which was being incinerated. I sat in a corner, the wind howling outside and rattling the windows, and ordered the national specialty – “plov” – which consisted of lightly scented boiled rice, tender lamb, tomato, onion and a small flat dumpling. Along with a huge slab of bread and a bottle of the local Xirdalan beer, it came to a mighty 12 manat or around £6. There was only one other person in my little section; a local man of around seventy years of age. I wondered what his life story involved. What was his history? I wonder if he had heard of Chelsea.

I took a leisurely walk back to the hotel, the night falling all around me.

I spotted a lone Chelsea fan. I was the first fellow-fan that he had seen all day. His travelogue was beset with “conflict”; he had been stuck in a two-hour traffic snarl-up in his home town and only just made the first of his two flights out to Baku. On the second flight, one of the passengers died. Bloody hell.

 

At around 6.30pm, Alan, Gary and myself – plus Pete and Nick – caught a cab to the stadium. The roads were full. Not long into the thirty-minute trip, Nick spotted that there were nine lanes of traffic, all going north. To our left, I spotted the magnificent Socar Tower, with the blue, green and red flames of the company logo flickering on the outside. It was a mightily impressive sight, at present the tallest in Baku.

The wind was blowing even stronger on the wide open approach to the stadium. I unravelled “VINCI PER NOI” and posed with it, making sure to grip it tight. I had visions of it flying off into the night.

There was a security check – bags through X-ray machines, a pat-down – and the surprisingly friendly police examined my banner for a few moments. It was allowed in. As there was an hour to kick-off, I left the others to enter, and I walked all of the way around the impressive stadium. It was certainly impressive alright. Towards our northern side, the light panels were dappled pink, orange and red, like a Cocteau Twins album. During the day, in the city, I had not seen a single Qarabag shirt or scarf. And yet there was an expected 67,000 sell-out expected. I had the distinct impression that the locals were jumping on this and treating it like a match involving a quasi-national team. Qarabag – exiled from a town that simply does not exist anymore in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of western Azerbaijan – usually play in a smaller stadium in Baku, but were playing this season’s Champions League games in this much bigger Olympic Stadium.

 

Inside, I made my way up to section 307. The lads had saved me a spot in the very front row. The stadium was marvelous, a photogenic delight. Three tiered on two sides, with two tiers behind the goals, it was fully encased. The athletics track meant that we were long way from the pitch, but it just felt like a proper stadium. It had its own design. Its own feel. Its own identity. The thousands of light jade seats soon filled. We spotted Dutch Mick a few rows behind us.

Down below us, a small knot of Qarabag supporters were in early, enthusiastically flying a few blue and white flags, and singing all sorts of songs. Throughout the game, many of them would be faced away from the pitch, encouraging others to sing. Football fans are a varied breed. Below us to our left, a gaggle of supporters wearing red were spotted. Maybe supporters of another team. If my prediction was right, this was a proper gathering of various clans.

The Chelsea team was displayed on the huge screens.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

So, no Alvaro Morata. I envisaged the front three swarming with pace at the Qarabag back line.

Just before the game began, we were treated to a cheesy Qarabag club anthem, and then the spectators in the huge stand to our left unveiled a couple of banners amid a sea of mosaics.

“FAR WAY FROM HOME BUT WHERE YOU BELONG.”

The stadium lit up with mobile phones being held aloft in the home areas, then the anthem and the teams. As the game started, a little rain fell. My jacket was warm but others were struggling. The home team in all black. Chelsea in dirty white.

In the first few moments, we started on the front foot but were soon shocked by a couple of Qarabag attacks. We watched in horror as the home team sliced through our defence like a hot knife through butter. The shot from Michel slammed against our crossbar with the defenders looking on aghast. Thankfully, the rebound was well wide. It was a real warning sign for sure. A fine block from Dave followed.

A header from David Luiz flew over the Qarabag bar. On twenty minutes, Eden Hazard pushed a ball through for Willian. As he advanced into the box, he was slightly nudged by a Qarabag defender. Down he went. The referee pointed to the spot and to be honest we were so far away that I was not so sure that the push had taken place inside the box. Next, the referee sent off the Qarabag defender, their captain Sadygov. The home fans were in uproar and I could see why. It seemed a soft penalty, and my eyes saw a covering defender too. Regardless, Eden rolled the penalty home.

Alan : “İndi onlar bizə gəlmək məcburiyyətində qalacaqlar.”

Chris : “mənim kiçik brilyantlar.”

Boos boomed around the stadium.

We were in control now. Pedro was busy. A Hazard header was straight at their ‘keeper. The Chelsea fans – officially 912 – struggled to make much noise but one song joined us all together.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

With ten minutes of the first-half remaining, Willian combined beautifully with Hazard. Willian ran at the defence, played a ball to Hazard, who back-heeled the ball back to Willian. He stroked the ball past the luckless ‘keeper.

Game over? It certainly felt like it. Apart from that initial flurry in the first few minutes of the game, Qarabag had been no threat whatsoever. At half-time, thousands upon thousands of home fans – maybe not bona fide Qarabag supporters per se – left the stadium.

The temperatures dropped further as the second-half began. A few Chelsea supporters were spotted drinking pints of lager in the seats behind me; authentic too, not non-alcoholic. In this part of UEFA’s kingdom, normal rules apparently do not apply. Chelsea looked to increase the score and were in control. Pedro went close. Antonio replaced Marcos Alonso with Gary Cahill. Eden Hazard forced a fine save from the Qarabag keeper but was then replaced by Alvaro Morata. The Spaniard himself went very close to scoring, just staying onside but just steering his shot wide. The offside trap worked in Qarabag’s favour as a ball from Willian was touched on by Pedro to Azpilicueta. However, Dave had just wandered into an offside position; the resultant cross and goal from Morata was wiped off.

On seventy-three minutes, another weak penalty in my eyes; a slight tug from a defender brought Willian down. A few old-fashioned looks were exchanged in the away section. Cesc Fabregas needed two attempts to score, but score he did.

So, two pretty weak penalties and a sending-off in or favour. The tiresome Chelsea / UEFA conspiracy theorists might need a rethink.

Danny Drinkwater replaced N’Golo.

With five minutes to go, Willian – the man of the night – shimmied and stroked the ball to his right, making space. His fine shot thundered past the ‘keeper.

Qarabag 0 Chelsea 4

We were kept in for around thirty minutes. A gaggle of maybe fifteen Chelsea fans from Iraq – resplendent in Chelsea replica shirts, how quaint – appeared down below us, with a large banner. I bumped into Brian from Chicago right at the end; from one windy city to another, his trip was surely the longest of the night.

Outside, the gales were howling, but thankfully subsided as we walked around the stadium before catching a metro back to the centre. In our compartment, around six or seven local Chelsea fans were singing songs, if a little out of tune. I guess that there had been little pockets of non-UK based Chelsea fans dotted around the stadium. I would like to think that these took our total to over one thousand. Though I am sure some Chelsea fans would argue that these fans don’t count.

Back to Fountain Square at 12.30am, a kebab, and bed.

 

For a few lovely hours the following day – Thursday – I spent my time walking around the compact old town. It was a relaxing and chilled-out time. I walked to the top of Maiden Tower which offered fine views of the city, which rises quite dramatically from the shore of the Caspian Sea. I bumped into a few Chelsea fans, all heading back on the same 4.10pm flight as myself.

Down below, within a few square yards, various locals were going about their daily routines. Traders were setting their stalls up for passing custom – honey, confectionery, drinks, cakes, pots and pans, rugs, souvenirs – while four men were standing over a backgammon board, and making a considerable noise as they slapped the pieces down. A couple of young back-packers walked past. A model – ridiculously thin and with over-the-top make-up – was being photographed on one of the dusty streets, while three others waited their turn. Large wooden balconies towered over the scene before me. One of the flame towers peaked from a distance. Cars reversed with meticulous care along narrow streets. Space was at a premium. There was a call to prayer in a local Mosque.

This was Baku.

I darted inside a large restaurant. The friendly waitress guided me through the menu. The waiter looked like Andy Kaufman. I decided on stuffed aubergines, a salad, some lamb wrapped in vine leaves, another Xirdalan.

It was time to call it a day.

I met up with Nick and his mate James outside the Hard Rock Café. They sunk their beers and at 1.30pm we took a cab back to the airport. We had loved our short stay in Baku. It is a horrible cliché to say that the city is a city of contrasts. But it is both an ancient and increasingly modern city. If I was return in ten years, there is no doubt that I would witness a very different one. Oil rich and punching above its weight, Baku will surely become inundated with even more startling architecture as the years pass. A substantial area is already being built to the east of the city. I so hope that the very friendly locals don’t change for the worst.

We caught our flight to Moscow. We were homeward bound.

However, deep in the bowels of Sheremetyevo airport, for around thirty minutes, things became rather tense. I was at the back of the queue at the transfer desk, but did not recognise anyone from our flight. All of the signs were in Cyrillic text. Had I missed an announcement while I took two minutes to powder my nose in the gents? I was not sure of the time in Moscow. My mood grew dark.

Our flight was at 7.50pm. Our boarding time was 7.10pm.

I spotted a woman’s watch. It said 6pm. Phew.

“Is it six o’clock?”

“No, seven o’clock.”

With that, I pushed my way to the front of the transfer desk to force my way through. I looked to my right and around ten Chelsea fans were doing the same. An unsmiling Russian woman stamped my passport and I had made it.

“Thank fuck for that.”

That was enough conflict and drama for me thank you very much.

We landed at Heathrow at 9pm and I was soon hurtling along the M4. It had been a whirlwind trip to the windy city on the Caspian. At around 11.15pm. I found it inconceivable that, even allowing for the time zones, I had only touched down in Baku the previous day. Next time, I will stay longer. You never know, with UEFA’s predilection of pairing us with the same old teams year after year, we might be making a return visit to Baku again.

Over to you Qarabag.

 

Tales From A Day Of Heroes

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 5 November 2017.

It was approaching 4pm and I was walking towards Stamford Bridge a little earlier than usual. I wanted to ensure that I was nicely settled before the annual display of remembrance that Chelsea Football Club always does so well, but which would take place a full six days before Saturday 11 November and a whole week before Remembrance Sunday. We had already stood for a minute of silence at Bournemouth last weekend to show our appreciation for those who had fallen while serving in our armed forces. It is right that football pays its respects. With each passing season, the displays become more impressive. I am sure that twenty years ago there was just a toot of the referee’s whistle, a minute of silence, and that was all. There was, of course, nothing wrong with that. I would hate to think that clubs want to “out-do” each other – that is surely not the point – but at the moment the balance seems to be just right.

I had purchased a paper poppy in the morning, but as so often happens, I soon managed to lose it as I walked down the North End Road. I then purchased a “1917 – 2017” enamel badge from a serving soldier underneath the old Shed wall in the early afternoon. I would have felt naked without a little splash of red on such a day.

As I approached the CFCUK stall outside the Fulham Town Hall and opposite the Fulham Broadway tube, I called in to say “hi” to a few of the Chelsea faithful. I chatted to Neil. Our paths have crossed a fair bit of late. I admitted that there seemed to be a general air of nervousness around the streets and pubs – I had visited three of them, but was on driving duties so was limited to “cokes” – and on the drive up to London, I think that the general view was “anything but a defeat.” But then I turned a little more optimistic.

“Imagine we get a win, though. It’ll be celebrated like the Chelsea of old. Say we win 1-0 with a goal in the second-half. The place will go wild.”

With a smile, I went on my way.

Thankfully, we had heard that N’Golo Kante had returned from injury and there were a few other changes too. Davide Zappacosta was in at right back. Andreas Christensen was in. But there was no David Luiz amid a sniff of a bust-up with Antonio Conte. There was no place for the wide men Pedro and Willian. But Bakayoko and Fabregas retained their spots. As I headed inside the stadium, I decided to wait until I saw the players line up at the kick-off before I could fathom out the shape of the team to face Manchester United.

Ah, United. I had picked them to finish in second place this season, behind their City rivals and ahead of us, but they have faltered lately. All three of us expected a defensive game-plan from the ultimate pragmatic strategist Mourinho. After two defeats at Stamford Bridge last season in league and cup, a third defeat for Mourinho’s new charges would be a tough pill to swallow.

But we lived in hope.

In the other Sunday games at the top, City continued to impress with a win against Arsenal while Spurs crawled over the line against Crystal Palace.

While wolfing down a McBreakfast in Melksham, we spotted two replica-kit wearing Arsenal fans, a father and young son. They were off to Manchester.

“Is it your son’s first away game” I enquired.

“No, no. We go to all the games. I’m teaching him to be a thug” – and a loud laugh.

I turned to PD and Parky and rolled my eyes.

Once I heard that Arsenal had lost 3-1, I quickly thought of Thug Life and Thug Lite and hoped that they were suffering a thoroughly miserable return journey from The Etihad.

I was inside Stamford Bridge at just after 4pm. A quick scan of the away end. A couple of flags from the visiting hordes caught my eye.

“Immerse Me In Your Splendour.”

Yet another musical reference from the United support; this time The Stone Roses.

Another one was a little more basic and direct : “UTFR.”

The Chelsea flags were out in force too. Over at The Shed, the white banner with a red poppy was on show again:

“Chelsea Supporters Will Remember Them.”

The place filled to capacity.

It had been a busy day for me, flitting around, taking a few photographs, soaking in the atmosphere, “tut-tutting” at friendship scarves.

Earlier, I had met Janette – visiting from Los Angeles – in the Copthorne Hotel, but her visit back home to England was heart-wrenchingly emotional. Her brother, who I had briefly met a few seasons ago in The Goose, has been ill with cancer for some time and is now in a hospice in South London. It was difficult to know what to say. The two of them recently celebrated their birthdays – on consecutive days – and I am sure that this brought a small but priceless morsel of joy in tough times.

Janette certainly touched a nerve when she admitted that it would be fitting for him to leave as a “champion.”

It was good to see Janette again, albeit in tough times.

With ten minutes to go, with no real introduction, “Heroes” by David Bowie was played. It provided the understated backdrop as members of the armed forces carried a large banner on to the centre-circle, then stretched it out. A Chelsea crest and a scarlet poppy was featured and it mirrored a large banner pinned to the upper heights of the hotel above The Shed.

This was just right.

“I, I will be king.

And you, you will be queen.

Though nothing will drive them away.

We can beat them, just for one day.

We can be heroes, just for one day.”

It brought back memories of Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode singing the same song as his tribute to David Bowie at the concert I saw at the London Stadium in the summer. In the opposite corner of the Matthew Harding, another large flag bearing club crests and a poppy appeared over the heads of supporters. On the pitch, members of the air force, army and navy stood between large letters denoting “Chelsea Remembers.”

Just enough.

The teams appeared from the tunnel. I looked up to see a few Chelsea Pensioners in the East Middle. A penny for their thoughts. The teams walked past the poppy in the centre circle. The red of the visiting United team seemed apt on such an afternoon.

Then, a few moments later, the shrill sound of the referee’s whistle.

Silence.

Not a sound.

Perfect.

I hoped that a few Chelsea heroes would shine on this bristling afternoon in West London, but the focus was really on the heroes who have gone before and on those who protect us today.

I turned once again to football.

Nemanja Matic received a pretty decent round of applause from the home supporters. Not so much the opposing management team.

The game began.

It took me a few moments, but it looked like we had packed the midfield, with Eden Hazard playing off Alvaro Morata in attack.

So much for a dour and defensive game. After Rome – I still contend that we were well in it until the second goal was conceded – I was absolutely gushing with praise for the way that the manager had re-energised his troops. It was a breathless start to the match.

The returning hero Kante struck from distance within the first few minutes, but De Gea saved easily. Then, with us breaking at pace, Marcos Alonso crossed into the box and from my position one hundred yards away, the ball was seemingly steered into the United goal by Morata. I celebrated wildly, but soon realised that the goal had been disallowed. Offside? Handball? A foul?

At the other end, Rashford – full of running – dolloped a ball over Courtois but on to the roof of the net.

With Romelu Lukaku attacking our end, I was reminded how much weight he has put on since he was with us. He is a huge unit. With a touch of a refrigerator.

United struggled to cope with our energy and vibrancy in the first-half. I loved the way that we pressed every United player caught in possession. The constant nibbling by Kante and company meant that United players struggled to get the ball under control, and were forced into errant passes, which were pounced upon by our players. From the off, Andreas Christensen was so cool on the ball. Davide Zappacosta stretched out the United defence with a few gut-busting runs down the right.

But the star, even early-on, was N’Golo.

Although I had not been drinking, I soon exclaimed –

“Kante I fucking love you.”

His selfless harnessing of the United threat enabled Bakayoko to gallop forward. At once, the new purchase looked like the player of September and not October. He looked to be enjoying himself too. A shot wide from a Zappacosta pass hinted at greater things from him. Another shot soon followed. Cesc Fabregas, playing deep at times, played the ball short, then long, then high, then angled into space. I purred at the sight of Alvaro Morata’s first touch. It was sublime. One pass, shades of Rene Higuita’s scorpion kick at old Wembley, was ridiculous.

Over in the far corner, United were remembering a night in Moscow.

“Viva John Terry.”

A rare shot from Lukaku was saved by Courtois.

I was really in to this game.

“Close him down. Great pressure. Play it square. Use the width. Go on son. Go on. Touch it. Pick a man. “

A firm effort from Hazard was pushed out by De Gea but Fabregas, following up, never looked like getting his header on target from an angle.

United sang “Twelve Days Of Cantona.”

The Chelsea choir then really got our act together towards the end of the half.

“Carefree, wherever you may be…”

Deafening stuff.

No goals in the first-half, but I was oh-so pleased and proud of our performance. At that moment in time, I had to laugh when I thought that some sections of the media were talking about our manager either –

  1. Not enjoying life in London.
  2. Losing the trust of some of the players.
  3. Being in a strained relationship with Roman.
  4. Losing his motivational edge.
  5. Close to getting the push.

What a load of cock.

Doug Rougvie was on the pitch at the break, and a clip from 1984 of that tackle with Viv Anderson on his debut at Highbury was shown on the TV screen. What memories.

Eden Hazard was constantly getting fouled – assaulted, molested, chopped – throughout the first-half and it continued in the second-half. Phil Jones – a player more famous for pulling faces than his footballing abilities – was rightly carded for such a foul. That horrible little player Ander Herrera, a latter day Nicky Butt, then fouled Hazard and his name was taken too. The noise levels were raised.

Fabregas played in our little Belgian but his opportune volley on the edge of the box was straight at De Gea. Was this turning in to Roma all over again?

Just after, a deep but perfect cross from the trusty Spanish boot of Cesar Azpilicueta picked out the unmarked leap of Alvaro Morata. I was amazed how much space he had. He jumped, so gracefully – shades of Peter Osgood – and headed the ball back across the goal, so that it nestled, quite beautifully, in the far corner.

Pandemonium in SW6.

There was the goal. It was what we deserved. Morata raced over to the corner, followed enthusiastically by Bakayoko and posed a la Fernando Torres in Amsterdam as an archer.

What a moment.

Not long after, The Bridge was in unison.

“Super Chelsea FC…”

We continued to dominate, but the game changed as first Mourinho brought on Fellaini and Martial. Antonio replaced the tiring Zappacosta with Rudiger, his Roman moment forgotten.

“Rudi, Rudi, Rudi.”

We continued to pepper De Gea’s goal. There were shots from Bakayoko and Hazard. United looked tired and listless. They resembled us in 2015/15. We were still firing on all cylinders and – ironically – reminded me of the Ferguson team at their peak in around 1998, when their midfield terriers chased all game long. Matic? I thought he was very poor. As leggy as ever. Lukaku was hardly involved. In fact, hardly any United players warranted more than a 5/10 apart from De Gea. This is simply not a typical United team.

And for once, the usually noisy and vociferous away support were very quiet. I heard an occasional song mocking Merseyside, but that was it.

Danny Drinkwater added some solidity – alongside N’Golo for the first time since Leicester City – and replaced the majestic Fabregas, who was given a standing ovation. His performance was a real surprise after floundering of late.

N’Golo kept going and going and going and going. He was our star.

It then got a little nervy. No, I tell a lie, it got very nervy.

Mourinho regurgitated an old Chelsea tactic of his – memories of Robert Huth and John Terry playing upfront in the final few minutes – and his players lumped the ball high towards Fellaini and Lukaku. There is no doubt that Fellaini is useful in the air, all elbows and afro, and he did cause us some shaky moments. A rasper from Rashford flew past the far post.

We held our breath.

In the very last few minutes, the oh-so-predictable Fellaini equaliser looked to cruelly rob us of a deserved three points. Thankfully his swivel and volley was pushed away by our man Thibaut.

“What a save.”

Still chances came and went.

Willian – on for Hazard – played in Morata but with only De Gea to beat, he fell over himself and the chance went.

United were awarded a free-kick, centrally. I mused that it was a bloody good thing that David Beckham no longer wears their number seven shirt. Rashford’s effort was belted over, but a deflection meant that we had to endure a further corner.

It came to nothing.

On an afternoon when Chelsea Football Club showed the same indomitable spirit of last season, the simple shrill sound of the whistle was met with a resounding roar. It had been our most rounded league performance of the season, and I was just so proud.

Crisis. What fucking crisis?

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Tales From A Fool’s Paradise

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 1 April 2017.

We had whispered a final farewell to winter and spring was upon us. The clocks had sprung forward during the previous weekend, which was amid the most recent tedious international break, and the sun was shining down on a perfect Stamford Bridge. Just as in those black and white French films which seemed to feature regularly on BBC2 in the ‘eighties, when there was an extended period of complete blackness between one scene and another – signifying a time for reflection on what had just been witnessed – it seemed that Stamford Bridge was awakening from an enforced slumber and we were waking with it. A stretch here. A yawn there. A remembrance of the toils of winter before a final push towards the days of destiny in April and May.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture, as it often does in the first blush of spring.

It looked like paradise.

The pre-match had been busy.

Due to a section of the M4 being closed, I chose to divert via a more southerly route, and came in via Stonehenge, the A303, the M3 and past Twickenham. From BA11 it to SW6 it took me three and a quarter hours. Not to worry, The Chuckle Bus was providing laughs-a-plenty throughout. The game against Crystal Palace was the first of three games in a week. Travel plans had occupied our thoughts for a while. After Manchester City’s visit on Wednesday, we are staying the night in Bournemouth – just like a huge section of the Chelsea away support – and there are then away games at Manchester United and Everton to get excited about. Sandwiched in among these league matches, we have the FA Cup semi-final against “that lot”; Parky has us all booked-up for train tickets for that one. A rare break for me and I can’t bloody wait. There have also been long and sustained thoughts of foreign travel.

Part serious, part-whimsical, I told the boys on the drive up :

“You know what, I’m more focussed on our first European away game together in the autumn than I am about us being champions.”

How we have missed Euro aways this season; they are surely at the pinnacle of my experiences following this team over the past twenty-five years.

At just before midday, I joined the usual suspects at “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington. Our mate Bob was over from California and Dave was over from France. I quickly knocked down two pints of Peroni. But time was marching on.

We walked down the North End Road and briefly popped in to “The Cock Tavern” to quickly say “hello/goodbye” to a few friends over from various parts of the US. It was fantastic to see them all again – too many names, too little time – but I took great pleasure in seeing Dave meet up with several New York Blues again, since he used to live in that great city for a good few years. Clearly his smiles and laughter were mine too. Bloody fantastic.

In the packed pub – an old haunt of mine, it was the very first pub I had a beer at Chelsea – there were supporters from New York, Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Elsewhere, fans from Chicago and Fresno were around and about.

Many of the supporters’ groups within the US have set off on a life of their own, attempting to absorb Chelsea fan culture as best they can, but ultimately many cities always seem to have developed an overwhelming American twist. One supposes that this is to be expected. In some respects, the last thing that anyone wants to see is anyone trying too hard to fit in to a perceived notion of what it is to be a Chelsea fan.

But it’s the subtle things that I notice. I like to see US fans meeting us halfway; or at least attempting to learn of our history, our rituals, our style.

With the New York group, I always feel that there are enough ex-pats involved to still provide a distinct cultural backbone to their fandom, whether it be behaviour, attitude, humour, songs, clobber, or a general Chelsea sense of self-deprecation induced by many years of suffering. When the New York Blues show up at tour stops in the US, they get the beers in and they know the score. As an added plus for this particular Chelsea fan, I like it that not all of them are ritually bedecked in Adidas tat nor Chelsea scarves ad nauseam. I like the New York Blues. I have a lot of time for them.

Just before I left, I bumped into Frank from Queens. We always share some ribald banter each other with our support of the Italian teams Napoli – Frank – and Juventus – myself – and I couldn’t resist passing on a little morsel of news from my work. Over the next month or so, we have to plan to deliver four of five artics of office furniture to none other than Juventus Football Club.

Frank’s response – “awesome!” – was quickly followed by a big hug.

Love it.

The next stop took in “The Malt House.” I promise not to bore the living daylights out of everyone between now and the end of the season with talk of the summer tour, but four of us had a little chitchat about the trip to Beijing in July. Bob, Glenn and myself were able to meet up with Big John, and we had a fruitful thirty minutes. The flights, hotels and match tickets have been paid for. Next on the agenda is the visa application and plans for a visit to The Great Wall.

OK – enough!

Amid the busyness and business of this particular pre-match, I had not heard about the team news.

There was only one change in the starting eleven; in came Cesc Fabregas for Victor Moses, but obviously this was not a straight swap. Pedro was shifted to wing back, with Cesc pushed up to a place in the front three.

The away fans were initially the centre of our attention. They had arrived with many a flag and banner draped over the balcony. Most notably of all, around one hunded– mainly young – black-clad supporters (the self-styled Holmesdale Road Ultras) were placed right above the banners at the epicentre of their block. Alan and myself pondered why a club like Crystal Palace could easily designate a block of away tickets to a distinct set of fans yet Chelsea Football Club continually finds this simple task beyond their ken. Countless times over the past few seasons, members of the away season ticket scheme have ended up in poor areas at various stadia all over the country.

The ultras, if not everyone within the block of three-thousand, were soon making a racket. Their favourite was a chant that took me right back to my night with two thousand Leverkusen fans at Wembley last November.

“La la – la la la – la la – Crystal Palace.”

However, they soon fell silent. A gorgeous long range pass from Fabregas allowed Eden Hazard to gather and reach the goal-line in front of the Palace fans. He seemed to be gifted too much time to skip past his marker and pick out a team mate. I had spotted Diego Costa supporting the attack, so imagine my surprise when I saw Cesc arrive with Lampardesque timing to touch the ball high past Hennessey.

Only five minutes had passed and we were one-up.

Get in.

Not long after, just as I was extolling the virtues of our team ethic as Pedro charged down a ball and then David Luiz cleared – chatting away to Alan, but watching the play – I then suggested it would just be our bloody luck that, after all this praise, we would concede. We both watched, aghast, as Wilfried Zaha twisted among several Chelsea defenders and struck a fine shot past Thibaut to equalise.

Just as my words floated off into the afternoon air, Alan was able to say “like that.”

Bollocks.

Only two minutes later, we watched as Palace broke with pace and we were cruelly exposed. The once lampooned Christian Benteke ran at David Luiz, with N’Golo Kante too far away to challenge. After a poorly-timed Luiz nibble, the ball broke fortuitously for that man Zaha to play in Benteke, with our defenders at sixes, sevens, eights, nines and tens. With Courtois scrambling out to block, Benteke craftily lifted the ball over our ‘keeper and into the net.

One-nil up, two-one down, we were a terrace chant gone wrong.

In the away section, a red flare appeared behind the flags. The ultras were making even more noise now. If I am honest, it was an impressive sight. They might be lampooned by some, but I can’t fault their desire to make some vibrant noise in support of their team. There is a distinct possibility that they are more famous than their players these days, just in the same way that the social misfits who appear on Arsenal Fan TV are more famous than the Arsenal players at the moment. I know who I favour.

We were 2-1 down.

But only eleven minutes were on the clock; surely more goals would follow?

We enjoyed much of the ball during the rest of the half. We had tons of possession. Oodles of it. But there seemed to be a noticeable lack of incisiveness. I lost count of the number of times that a diagonal was played wide left to Marcos Alonso. This might have been part of Conte’s game plan, but it honestly felt like we were painting by numbers, without individual thought. I was too far away to spot a potential penalty appeal in our favour. Diego tried his best but was not finding space. A Luiz free-kick was wasted. Alonso fizzed a ball across the box but nobody was near. I brought my hands up to my head; it was a reaction that would be repeated again and again as the game progressed. Dave smashed over, Matic forced a finger-tip save from Hennessey, Luiz again wasted a free-kick. Pedro was up and down the right flank like a demon, perhaps – actually – covering too much ground. Elsewhere the bite was missing. Hazard was a little peripheral.

But Palace were defending well.

At the break we were 2-1 down. Damn.

Sadly, there wasn’t a great deal of noise at Stamford Bridge. There were pockets of song, but in general our supporters were losing too.

At the break, a few supporters were presented with their CPO shares and we were treated to a walk around by Celestine Babayaro, who graced our team from 1997 to 2005. He formed a great left-wing alliance with Graeme Le Saux for a few seasons.

We found it inconceivable that the first player to be booked by referee Craig Pawson was Diego Costa. Palace had been swiping at our players throughout the first-half. Diego stretched to reach a ball, but Hennessy reached the ball just before he could get a touch. Diego then had a shot blocked by Scott Dann, who stayed down for an eternity. He was eventually carried off.

Conte replaced Matic with Willian and we went to a four at the back. I bet Pedro never ever thought that he would play right-back when he joined us last year.

Despite us dominating the ball, Palace broke down our right and Zaha, their star player, forced a great save from Thibaut. They had a little period when they caused us a few worries. We kept attacking, moving the ball between our players, but again without a killing pass. I thought our final ball in to the box, from Marcos Alonso especially, was very poor. Balls were swept in low, but defenders cleared. Lofted balls were played deep, but with nobody in Chelsea blue near. A clear chance fell to Diego from a Hazard cross. His header not only lacked power but direction too. It landed, pathetically, yards wide.

The pass of the day from Fabregas between the centre-back and the right-back was a thing of beauty but it amounted to nothing.

The time passed. I had a little chat with Alan, thinking back to previous home games against Palace.

“Bloody hell mate, have we ever lost to Palace in the league in our memory? I remember the FA Cup game in 1976, but have they ever beaten us here?”

PD looked over and said “last season.”

“Oh bloody hell. Yes. Of course.”

Had I shoved the trauma of last season so far in to my memory that I had forgotten that 2-1 reverse?

Evidently so.

Michy Batshuayi entered the fray as a replacement for Alonso. Balls from out wide were continually whipped-in, but Palace players blocked everything.

At last – on about the eightieth minute – the whole of Stamford Bridge eventually united in a single song.

“About bloody time.”

Shots from Willian, Cesc and Pedro were saved by Hennessey, who was having a storming game. As the referee’s assistant signalled a massive seven minutes, we willed the team on. But, unlike in previous games, when I felt that a goal would definitely come, on this occasion I wasn’t convinced.

The seven minutes soon passed. In our last attack, we urged Thibaut to join the attack as we awarded a corner. He did so. Dressed in black, he lined up to challenge for the ball among the blues and yellows. It is always the oddest of sights. Typically, Hennessy punched the ball clear.

At the whistle, at least there were no boos. That would have been the last straw.

So, on April Fool’s Day, we had dropped a clanger. This was a very surprising defeat. After we had all met up back at the car, it did not take long for us to thrash through our thoughts of the game. It wasn’t as if any player had performed particularly poorly, it was just that not enough had enjoyed those little moments of top quality.

I was the fool for thinking that our big week of football would begin with three easy points.

And I won’t be making that mistake again in a hurry.

On Wednesday, we face Manchester City at home in a game that could define our season; a Chelsea win, and our position will look a little more secure.

See you there.

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Tales From Turf Moor

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 12 February 2017.

It seemed wholly appropriate that our visit to the most austere town on our travels this season was coinciding with the worst weather of the campaign thus far. There had been a short burst of winter sun as I had climbed towards Blackburn on the M65, but the bleakness soon returned. Lo and behold, as I raced on past signs for Accrington and then Clitheroe, I spotted snow on the distant Pennine Hills beyond Burnley.

We were well and truly “up north.”

We had set off from Somerset at 6am. Five hours later, I fitted my car inside a parking space outside Burnley’s bus station in its compact town centre. We gingerly opened up the car doors. Within seconds, we were scurrying to grab coats, scarves, and hats from the car boot. An arctic wind was howling and for fuck sake it was cold.

I had driven through the town centre and had noted a few pubs which seemed to be overflowing with locals. Rather than chance our arm there, we quickly decided to cut our losses and head towards the stadium, where – like at Swindon Town – there is a cricket club adjoined to the football club which allows away fans a drink or two.

Burnley. Such is the nature of the town that it allows no added affectation to its football club. Even the town’s stadium, Turf Moor, is named as abruptly as possible. But for all of the hackneyed jokes which would undoubtedly be aimed at the much-maligned town during the day by the visiting hordes, I approved. This was a grand old football team – twice Champions – playing in a grand old football town – population just 75,000 – and there is much to admire of the way the area has supported its club over the years.

I even approved of the quick ten-minute walk from the car to the stadium; it was a walk deep into Football Land.

Locals rushing by. The proud claret and blue. Ancient mill chimneys in the distance. Narrow streets and terraced houses. Police cars flitting past. A grafter selling scarves and trinkets. An ornate and historic bridge carrying a canal over the busy road. Echoes of an industrial past. A Balti take-away. The thin floodlights of Turf Moor. A couple of pubs. The rain starting to fall. A working men’s club. The grey of the main stand. Grizzled old locals selling lottery tickets. Programmes. Flags billowing in the wind.

We settled in at the cricket club and watched from the warmth of the first-story bar as the rain turned to sleet and then to snow. There was the usual chat with an assortment of friends from near and far. We all expected a tough game against Burnley, who had won nine of the thirteen games played at Turf Moor previously.

“A win would be bloody great though. Twelve points clear. What a message to the rest.”

Outside the away end, I was dismayed to see that the montage of past Burnley players was no longer present. I had hoped to pay my silent respects to the lovely image of Ian Britton, bless him, which was originally just along from the away turnstiles. It did not seem plausible that it was a full ten months since I had attended his funeral at the local crematorium. Instead of the montage, the stand was now covered with more formal photographs of former players.

The lads supped one last cider in a marquee outside the away concourse, and we then made our way inside. Memories of my only two previous visits came flooding back.

January 2010 : an equally bleak day, just after the John Terry / Wayne Bridge fiasco, when JT scored a late winner. There was snow on the way home after that one I remember.

August 2014 : my one-thousandth Chelsea game, and Chelsea league debuts for Thibaut Courtois, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa. The night of “that” pass from Cesc to Schurrle.

We had predicted an unchanged side on the long car ride north; Antonio did not let us down.

Thibaut – Dave, Luiz, Cahill – Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso – Pedro, Costa, Hazard.

What a cosmopolitan set.

In contrast, the home team was singularly Anglo-Saxon and solidly no-frills 4-4-2.

Heaton – Lowton, Keane, Mee, Ward – Boyd, Barton, Westwood, Brady – Barnes, Gray.

It was noticeable that the exotic Tarkowski, Darikwa and Gudmundsson were banished to the bench.

Nowt fancy at Turf Moor.

The sleet was still falling as the players went through their drills. I took the time to ask a steward why there is always a section of seats which are empty in the away end at Turf Moor. She answered that it is for the team members of both clubs that are not involved, plus other club officials, and sometimes wives and girlfriends. Glenn and I were down in the front row, and we were immediately soaked.

For the opening game of the 2014/2015 season, Chelsea had over 4,000 seats and the entire end. At the time, Burnley wanted to concentrate all of their support in three stands. For this game, the end was shared with Chelsea having to “make do” with around 2,400.

As the game began, it was the home fans in our end – to my left – who were the noisiest. As before, they shared taking pot shots at us with songs of derision for their bitter local rivals from Blackburn.

“And its no nay never, no nay never no more ‘til we play bastard Rovers, no never no more.”

Lots of hatred between these two cities, eh? The venom was there alright.

“We are those bastards in claret and blue.”

They rolled up with a song calling us “rent boys” and I wondered why it had taken fifteen years to reach Burnley from Liverpool and Manchester.

To my right, John Terry was spotted in the cordoned-off area. Many fans posed with him for selfies. He looked cold, too.

We began very brightly indeed with tons of crisp passing and quick one-touch possession. It was a joy to watch. Pedro, Moses and Kante were always involved. After a fine passing move, an Eden Hazard shot should have caused Heaton in the Burnley goal more trouble. Just after, a Burnley attack disintegrated and we quickly exploited gaps in their defence. Hazard played an early ball wide to Victor Moses, who rode an ugly tackle before playing the ball in to Pedro, who arrived just at the right time to steer the ball low past Heaton. The Chelsea end exploded.

I screamed and stretched my arms out wide and could not help noticing Thibaut, just a few yards away, jump up, turn towards us in the away stand and do the same. His face was a picture. A lovely moment.

The Pedro strike was reminiscent of Frank Lampard at his very best. However, it was noticeable that it was Victor Moses, in lieu of his strong run and pass, that drew the plaudits and applause rather than the goal scorer.

Soon after, very soon after, parts of the away end decided to sing – ugh – “we’re gonna win the league” and I turned around to spot who was perpetrating this monstrosity and glowered accordingly.

A woman behind me bit back:

“But we will, though.”

I retorted:

“But it’s bloody February.”

At least wait until April when we are on the brink.

Back in 2005 – when we were ten points clear in early February – I think we sung it first at Southampton in early April. Even then, I wasn’t too happy.

There then followed the equally obnoxious “we’ve won it all.”

Another “ugh.”

At least we were saved from hearing the nastiest chant of them all – “Chelsea till I die.”

I could not help but notice that David Luiz, for once, was beset with problems with his distribution. I let it go the first couple of times, but as the half progressed, I became increasingly annoyed that he found it increasingly difficult to hit Diego or Eden or Victor. It was all Chelsea in the opening quarter, though, and I hoped for a crucial second.

The sleet continued. This would not be a day of too many photographs; a shame since I was virtually pitch side.

Burnley began to attack with a little more conviction – Ashley Barnes shot wide – but we always looked dangerous on the break.

Then, after twenty-five minutes, Burnley won a free-kick just outside the box. I watched as Thibaut arranged the all blue wall. We waited. Robbie Brady, with a fine curling effort whipped it over the Chelsea players and it screamed into the top corner of the net, just fifteen feet away from me. Courtois’ dive was in vain. It had might as well have been in Spain. He was nowhere near it. Brady was in ecstasy – like a proper Clitheroe – and the home fans roared.

For a few moments, we were reeling. Thibaut blocked a save at close range and Gary Cahill flung his whole body to block another goal-bound shot.

It was definitely a case of “game on.”

Glenn and myself walked back to join up with the lads at half-time and shelter from the sleet and rain.

“Eden has been quiet.”

Our support had died a little during the closing moments of the first-half. I think my support had died from the feet up. They were bloody freezing.

Glenn quickly shook Cesc’s hand as the substitute raced past us before taking his position on the bench. His face was covered in a black scarf. He looked freezing too.

The second-half resumed. More rain. More sleet. More plunging temperatures. My toes were tingling with the chill. Everybody had their hoods up, their hats on. One nearby steward wore a bobble hat and a baseball cap.

“Johnny two hats.”

His icy cold stare back at me suggested that his brain had already seized.

With Chelsea attacking our end, and with me yards from the pitch, I was looking forward to tons of action right in front of me. Instead, it was Courtois who was called in to action at the start of the second-half. He saved well, down low, after a ball evaded the lunges of both Cahill and Luiz. I am not sure if this was some sort of reaction to Luiz playing with his hair tied back, but his passing continued to disappoint. Maybe there are some sensors within that usual free flowing frizz, but against Burnley in the wet and the cold, his mechanics were off. He defended well, but his distribution was shocking.

Chelsea – not surprisingly – dominated possession. We kept the ball well, but just could not break the two banks of four. Time and time again, the ball was pushed out wide for either Moses, Pedro, Hazard or Alonso, but we failed to play in any balls to hurt the defence. The twin pillars at the back – Keane and Mee – won virtually every high ball. Diego simply could not reach.

A shot from Azpilicueta did not really trouble Heaton.

My feet ached with the cold.

Conte replaced Matic with Cesc Fabregas and we prayed for a Schurrle repeat. Matic had not been at his best, though to be honest many players were not performing too well. But they never stopped trying. They never stopped running into space, to try and tease an opening, nor did they shirk any tackles. There were no complaints from me about the effort from the boys.

Willian replaced Moses. The crosses still came over, but were dealt with admirably. It was all Chelsea again in the final quarter of an hour, and I was convinced that we would nab a late winner. I looked hard at Fabregas and saw him spot runners before lofting balls towards his team mates. I was enjoying the game from this fresh viewpoint; despite the extreme temperatures, this was a good enough game, full of tough tackles and earnest endeavour. The skilful stuff was missing, but if football is a chocolate box, there has to be room for the occasional nut brittle.

Batshuayi came on too late for my liking. It was another “three minute hero” appearance, but he hardly touched the ball. On a day when we needed to flood the Burnley box, I found his late appearance a little baffling. Surely better to support Diego with Batshuayi if the crosses continued to come in. Although it was difficult to tell from such a low angle, we wondered if Conte had changed to a 4/4/2 since Dave seemed to support Willian in an advanced position. He even found time to put in a few crosses from out wide on the right.

Wayward efforts from Pedro and Hazard just about summed the game up.

It was not to be.

Instead of a gap of a dozen points, we were now ahead of the pack by ten points.

We slowly walked back up the icy steps of the away end, gathered together, then headed back to the car. The walk back began to get some life back in to my frozen limbs. Inside the car, off came the wet jacket and pullover, the blowers were turned to turbo, and I began the five-hour drive home. The draw, we admitted, had been a fair result. No complaints at all.

“Hey listen, we’re not going to win every bloody game you know. Tough place Burnley. Especially on a day like this.”

I had enjoyed it. Despite the wind and the rain and the sleet and the snow – or maybe because of it – it had felt like a good old-fashioned football day out in good old, ugly Burnley. Not every away game is the same, thank heavens, and I relished the whole adventure.

Next week we visit another classic football town, Wolverhampton, that used to have a grand old team of their own a few years ago.

I will see many of you there.

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Tales From Winter On Wearside

Sunderland vs. Chelsea : 14 December 2016.

This was the longest trip of the season. I had set off from deepest darkest Somerset at 6am, with PD and LP keeping me company for the long – 320 miles – drive north. After around seven hours battling the traffic, we finally arrived. We checked into our hotel, no more than a mile from the Stadium of Light. The stadium in fact was clearly visible from my room on the fifth floor. There were clear skies overhead. Winter on Wearside didn’t appear to be as bleak as I had originally thought. Our good friend Kevin, from Edinburgh, soon arrived and joined us for a pint at the hotel bar. The plan was to travel by train to Newcastle – a far more interesting and photogenic city a few miles to the north – but we soon decided to cut our losses and stay in Sunderland. On the walk in to the centre, we spotted a few half-decent pubs. We popped in to the first one – “Vesta Tilley’s” – and were suitably impressed that four pints cost just over a tenner.

Over the road, we popped into “The Dun Cow” and I immediately fell in love with it. It was a fantastic find. Outside, it was an architectural gem, with intricrate stone carvings above its bay windows, ornate roof gables and even a clock tower. Inside, it was a classic old-fashioned pub, with mirrors, stained-glass, wooden panels, shiny beer pumps, a plethora of ales, and a very warm atmosphere.

The four of us spotted a free table in the “snug” at the rear of the pub.

A “Birra Moretti” never tasted better.

I quickly toasted Everton Football Club, who had miraculously defeated Arsenal 2-1 the previous night. This simply meant one thing; if we won our game against Sunderland later that evening, we would be six points clear at the very top of the most competitive league in the world. And it would mean that we would stretch our consecutive win streak to a mighty ten games.

We chatted about the season so far, and a host of other topics. Two lads from Stockport – Mike and Liam, both Chelsea – were sat close by, and soon into the introductions it transpired that Liam had sat right next to Kevin in the home seats at Porto last September. What a bloody small world. Quite ridiculous.

My good friend Orlin – from first Sofia and then San Francisco – arrived with his two pals Ivan and Plamen, and it was a pleasure to see them. Orlin, evidently keen to experience as many new football experiences in England as he can, had dropped in to Elland Road on the previous night for Leeds United’s game with Norwich City. He had enjoyed it. The rawness of it all. The fervour of the home support. The noise. The passion. I reminded him of Leeds’ last league game against us, at Stamford Bridge in May 2004, when I remember the South Yorkshire legions claiming – with certainly a hint of truth – “if it wasn’t for the Russian you’d be us.” Peter Ridsdale and Ken Bates had gambled on spending big and gambling on immediate success, but there was no sugar daddy to step in at Leeds.

Orlin, though still disliking Leeds United, came away from their game with a little respect, and I think it shocked him.

Fellow season ticket holder Ian, with a few mates, and then Pete arrived. This was clearly becoming a base camp for many.

Kev’s two pals from Edinburgh John and Gary then joined us and the beers flowed at a more rapid pace. All three are Hearts fans first, and I had an enjoyable chat with them about my visits to Tynecastle in 1982 and 1997, Scottish football in general, and our differing opinions of Pat Nevin. This was obviously turning out to be a fantastically enjoyable pre-match. The four hours raced past.

“Bloody hell, it’s seven o’clock.”

We buttoned our jackets and bounced outside into the night, and over the oxidised green iron Wearmouth Bridge, looking rather beguiling in the evening light, with the rail bridge – ancient and green too – just a few yards to its left. There is something quite wonderful about supporters walking towards a football stadium, lights shining in the distance, our pace quickening as we get close to the ground. I never ever made it to the old Roker Park and it is a shame. It was a mile from the site of the current stadium, towards the North Sea, planted among the terraced streets of Roker. The Stadium of Light stands alone, high on the exposed banks of the Wear as it wriggles its ugly way into the sea.

I quickly gobbled down a cheeseburger with onions. Past the Bob Stokoe statue – Leeds again, ha – and I made my way up the many steps to the away deck.

We were inside the stadium with about ten minutes to spare. It meant that we had missed out on those special moments involving Sunderland supporter Bradley Lowery, the brave five-year-old lad who has been given a few more months to live, and who has captured the hearts of many. As the teams entered the pitch down below, the hearty Chelsea following of almost three thousand roared our support.

The news that Eden Hazard had not travelled to Sunderland had been the breaking story of the morning. We had wondered if Willian would come in for him; it was no surprise to see him in the starting line-up. A bigger surprise, no doubt, was the inclusion of Cesc Fabregas at the expense of Nemanja Matic. Elsewhere there were familiar faces.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill.

Alonso, Kante, Fabregas, Moses.

Pedro, Costa, Willian.

Our seats were virtually in the same position as our visit in May. On that day – when we had meekly lost 3-2 – we were concerned that we had probably witnessed John Terry’s last-ever game for us. Who would have thought that he would get an extra season, yet we would not be unduly worried that his absence from our team over the past two months would cause little concern? It is a mark of his professionalism that he has quietly supported the team from the side-line, knowing that a winning team is paramount. Nine wins in a row without John Terry? Who would have ever thought it?

Sunderland’s team included three former Chelsea players; Patrick Van Aaanholt, Papy Djilobodji and Fabio Borini. I had bright hopes for two of those, but never the other. On the side-lines were our man Antonio Conte and their man David Moyes. The football world had bright hopes for Moyes at one stage. How his star has fallen since leaving Goodison Park.

The stadium was pretty full, but there were sections of empty seats in the upper tier to our right, beyond the packed Chelsea section.

The game was in its first few nascent stages when both sets of fans acknowledged brave Bradley. A number five shirt – Lowery – was displayed on the TV screen – and we all clapped, the noise ringing around the stadium. Very soon we joined in with a song.

“One Bradley Lowery. There’s only one Bradley Lowery. One Bradley Lowery.”

Lovely stuff.

Lovely apart from one boorish fan behind me who decided to sing “one Matthew Harding” instead. I turned around, shook my head and glowered at him. I won’t mention him by name, but he’s a prominent face – and famously ugly – at all Chelsea games, and he has always struck me as a tedious fucker. And that moment just proved it.

Chelsea enjoyed much of the early possession, but Adnan Januzaj had the first effort on goal. I was proud of the way we got behind the team. It was clear that not only our little group of Chelsea followers had enjoyed the hospitality and cheap prices of the boozers of the North-East. We were keeping the ball well, moving it quickly, and we tried our best to carve out a chance. Sunderland had the occasional effort, but Courtois was in commanding form. A chance fell to Diego, bit his volley was well off target. In a packed box, Pedro was found, and he drew a fine save from Sunderland’s Jason Pickford. A David Luiz free-kick tested the Sunderland ‘keeper. We were turning the screw. With five minutes of the half remaining, a fine move through the middle resulted in a lovely one-two between Cesc and Willian. I was able to watch the path of the ball as Fabregas calmly stroked the ball past the home ‘keeper and in to the goal.

How we roared.

And how we celebrated, with the players down below us enjoying it equally as much as us.

GET IN.

Whisper it, but our tenth win in a row was on the cards.

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

Chris : “Come on wo’little diamonds.”

The away end soon sung praise to the scorer.

“He’s got a magic hat.”

Diego headed weakly over and then Willian went close with a free-kick from just outside the box.

There were positive vibes at the break. The drinkers in our support topped up their alcohol levels and the noise continued as the game continued.

In virtually the first move of the second-half, the ever-troublesome Jermaine Defoe attacked us at the heart of our defence and played in Januzaj. His low shot was flicked away by Courtois’ outstretched left leg. It was a fine save.

For virtually the rest of the game, it was all Chelsea. Willian set up Moses who blasted wide. Willian’s shot was deflected on to the bar. It seemed that a second goal was only a heartbeat away. A fine run and shot from Costa. Moses flashing wide, then Willian, both after losing markers with a shimmy this way and that. It was all Chelsea.

“We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league.”

Alonso at Pickford. Willian at Pickford. For some reason the second goal just would not come. A single thought flashed through my mind –

“Bloody hell, how disappointing it will be if we conceded a goal and we only drew.”

Nemanja Matic replaced Pedro, and the domination continued.

A run from deep from Costa and their ‘keeper scrambled to save at his feet before he could pull the trigger. A delightful dink from Costa to Fabregas but his volley was well wide.

Chalobah for Willian. Ivanovic for Moses.

Sunderland then caused us to rue all of our missed chances when they pumped a few high balls into our area. After one clearance was knocked out to Van Aanholt on the edge of the box, we watched – agonising stuff – as the ball seemed to be flying into the goal. Thibaut leaped to his right, flung his arm up, and clawed it away.

It was a stunning save.

The away end erupted as if a goal had been scored.

“Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut!”

Phew. It should have been 3-0, maybe 4-0. It could have been 1-1.

We had done it.

Ten league wins in a row.

I quickly posted an image of Bo Derek on “Facebook” and I felt sure more than a handful of fellow fans would “get it.” Down the stairwell, the noise bounced off the walls.

“Antonio, Antonio, Ten In A Row.”

Outside, we strode back in to town, and it seemed that the majority of home support had buggered off early, leaving our path clear. We met up with Daryl and Simon, who along with Alan and Gary had travelled up on the discounted club train. There was a long and tiring journey for them to look forward to. I, for one, after a long drive, eight pints and a tense game of football, was supremely happy that I had a bed just ten minutes away.

A kebab and chips on the walk back to the hotel was followed by a gin and tonic in the hotel bar.

It had been a long day and now it was time for slumberland in Sunderland.

Our third game in seven days takes place at Selhurst Park on Saturday.

Let’s make it eleven.

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Tales From Vicarage Road

Watford vs. Chelsea : 20 August 2016.

After the euphoria of Monday’s dramatic win against a rather disappointing West Ham United, Saturday could not come quick enough. On the face of it – “although no team should be underestimated blah, blah, blah”- I for one was certainly hoping for another league win to get us off to a solid start to 2016/2017. I was on driving duties again, and picked up PD, Parky and Young Jake en route. The skies threatened with rain a little, but this would surely be a fine day. I was parked in our standard car-park at just after midday. All four of us looked at the skies and decided against jackets. As with last season, the pre-match drink-up was in the ridiculously busy “The Moon Under Water” Wetherspoon’s on Watford High Street. Alan and Gary were soon spotted and, while I slowly sipped on “Cokes” – deep joy – I watched with admiration from afar as the others kept returning from the rammed bar with plastic pint after plastic pint. Many other members of the Chelsea Away Club popped over to say “hello” and the time soon passed. Watford’s High Street is solid with pubs, bars, clubs, restaurant and fast food joints. One lot of Chelsea were over at “The Flag” near the station. And we were in “The Moon Under Water.” Watford fans were present but a minority.

This was Chelsea Central.

It didn’t take long for the place to be reverberating with Chelsea songs. I am sure that many of our foreign fans, possibly still to visit England for a game, have this notion that on every match-day at Stamford Bridge, every single pub is shaking to the rafters as Chelsea song after Chelsea song is bellowed out. It simply isn’t like this. Singing does happen, but it’s quite random and ad hoc. My local “The Goose” is noisy, but pre-match songs are quite rare these days. There is more condensed singing at away pubs – “The Arkell’s” outside Anfield, “The Shakespeare’s Head” on the way to Arsenal and “Yates” in Southampton’s town centre are three easy examples – but a lot depends on numbers. Often, with Chelsea in the minority, there are no songs, often there are no clues who we are. On this particular match day, amid the usual Chelsea standards, I quickly noted a new chant. It could hardly be termed a song, since it was very flat, with hardly a melody. I quickly made a note of the words.

“Antonio Conte. Does it better. Makes me happy. Makes me feel this way.”

The last few words sounded familiar – annoyingly familiar – but because there was no notable tune involved, I was struggling to name the song. It boomed around the pub and although I felt myself subconsciously joining in as I queued for my round, I really wasn’t convinced. Maybe it will grow on me.

After the game on Monday, in the car on the way out of Fulham, I suggested to my friends that Willian’s performance had been the only one that had been a little sub-standard. On the face of it, once the team news had come through on our phones, it seemed that Antonio Conte had agreed with me.

Pedro in for Willian, otherwise unchanged.

I passed this nugget of news to Parky, but he was sodden with cider and just smiled and gave me a big hug.

“Whatever” I said, smiling, “sorry for spoiling your drinking.”

It is a bloody good job that I wrested the troops out of the pub earlier than normal because we were met with a ridiculous wait at the away end. There was building work last season, but no delay. This season, all two thousand Chelsea fans were pushed like cattle towards a double doorway of no more than four feet wide, with four turnstiles located inside the stand. What a farce. Why not have four turnstiles built into the actual perimeter wall? Anyway, we made it inside.

Incidentally, a rather huge Watford fan had waltzed past us, bellowing some chant or another, as we waited rather impatiently to get inside. The Chelsea choir seized the moment and targeted him.

“You ate Dennis Wise, you ate Dennis Wise – you ate Dennis, you ate Dennis, you ate Dennis Wise.”

Unlike last season, shunted way to the left, we had good seats. Vicarage Road is a tidy stadium, and there is infill taking place on all four corners. The corner to our left was a work in progress.

Before I had time to think, the Evertonian “Z Cars” heralded the teams on the pitch, and with the home end opposite a riot of yellow, red and black flags, the scene was set.

Chelsea were in a rather neat all-white kit. It is much better than the sub-standard home kit, with the juvenile lions embedded into the knit, and a hundred times better than the black away kit. Overall, I have not been too impressed with the Adidas kits since they took over from Umbro in 2006/2007. I wonder if the standard 2016/2017 Nike template will continue into next season. It seems that every single one of Nike’s uniforms have the same colour shirts and shorts, with contrasting sleeves and socks. I wonder what horrors we have in store next season. Light blue sleeves maybe? Shudder.

Lacoste Watch.

Parky – white.

Chris – dark grey.

Let’s not deny it, for a very large part of this match, we were quite woeful, and it reminded me so much of some of our soporific performances last season, with little urgency and drive. Our game at Vicarage Road during the last campaign had been poor, although we had slowly improved during the second-half, but this was almost worse. As the game continued, I kept thinking back to my very effusive match report from Monday and wondered if my enthusiasm would now be looked at as rather premature and excessive.

If it was the same 4/1/4/1 as Monday, I would not have known, since Matic seemed unwilling to move from a deep midfield berth. The first-half was truly awful. The singing, which had been strong at the start, drifted away with each passing minute of inactivity on the pitch. Soon into the game, the skies darkened and misty rain gave way to a stronger shower.

“Good job we’ve all forgot our jackets.”

The floodlights flickered on. This was November in August.

To my left, I noticed that many Watford fans had vacated their seats in the Elton John Stand simply because the roof overhead did not fully extend over the seats. What a joke. I guess they watched from inside the concourse on TVs. Pathetic, really.

In the Chelsea dugout, I was transfixed with the animated cajoling of our new manager, who again looked very dapper in his suit and tie.

“A penny for your thoughts, Antonio.”

“And what do you think of the new song?”

“Yeah, me too.”

In all honesty, Watford could have been two-up at the break. A fine save by Thibaut Courtois from an angle kept Watford at bay early on. As the rain continued, play did not flow. Chelsea were ponderous in picking passes and movement off the ball was poor. Watford, without creating too much early on, seemed to be up for the fight more than us. The robust and spirited nature of our play on Monday was sorely lacking. Dare I say it, we looked tired. Kante buzzed around, attempting to bring other players in, but too often Ivanovic’ cross failed to get past the first man, Oscar failed to do anything constructive, Hazard failed to pick out Diego Costa, and Matic was just Matic. To my left, Gary was turning the air blue with every swear word known to mankind.

I turned to TBBM (“the bloke behind me”) and sighed “I’ve got this all season.”

Cahill did well to block a Watford shot. There was a call – from me anyway – for a back-pass after Gomes picked up the ball under pressure from Costa after a Watford defender seemed to have got a touch after the much-barracked former Tottenham ‘keeper initially spilled it.

A game of few chances and little joy, at half-time there were yawns the size of underground tunnels in the away end.

There were no positives from the first forty-five minutes to be honest. After the optimism of Monday evening, there was a noticeable deadening of our spirit. The singing had almost petered out completely.

It wasn’t good.

It wasn’t good at all.

With Chelsea attacking the away support, we hoped for better things as the game re-started. Eden Hazard fired wide, and we seemed to liven up a little. Sadly, after just ten minutes of the second-half gone, we were caught napping when Guedioura – who? – was able to cross from the Watford right. As three Chelsea defenders rose to head the centre away – all missing the flight of the ball completely – I immediately spotted danger as the ball dropped invitingly to a completely unmarked Watford player beyond the frame of the goal.

I uttered the immortal words “here we go” with a knowing sigh, and watched as Capoue brought the ball down and volleyed it high past Courtois.

Watford were one-up. Oh bollocks.

After the Watford celebrations and flag-waving had died down, we heard the home support for possibly the only time during the whole afternoon, as they sang in praise of their goal scorer.

Yep, you guessed, it – the Billy Ray Cyrus song. Fuck off.

The Antonio Conte song struggled to get going. It needs to change, somehow, for it to become more palatable.

We seemed to marginally improve, in terms of chances on goal, with Hazard and Matic going wide, but there was still a dullness to our body language. Watford turned overly physical in their efforts to hold on for the win. Frustrations boiled over on a number of occasions. An unlikely attacker almost created an opening when Ivanovic tempted Gomes out of his six-yard box, but the resulting cross in to the danger zone was cleared for a corner. A handball appeal, which I missed, was waved away.

With twenty minutes remaining, Antonio Conte replaced Pedro with Victor Moses. No complaints there.

Immediately, our play seemed to be more direct, more intense.

Moses enjoyed a spirited run down the left, which was met by a song from a few years back.

The Victor Moses “Pigbag” was sung with far more gusto than the Antonio Conte “Chaka Khan” (for it was her song “Ain’t Nobody” which had been butchered that afternoon in Watford.)

Oscar, who had drifted over to the right wing, was then replaced by Michy Batshuayi.

Things improved further and the fans around me realised this. The support grew stronger.

The final change and Cesc Fabregas replaced the woeful Nemanja Matic. I turned to Alan –

“Bloody hell, that’s an attacking line-up alright.”

After only two minutes on the pitch, Fabregas daintily picked out Hazard outside the box. He moved the ball laterally and then unleashed a low shot on target. The much-maligned Gomes made a mess of his attempted save, only feeding the ball towards Batshuayi who was on hand to tuck the spilled ball into the net.

GET IN.

Our new young striker reeled away in ecstasy and we were back in it. Playing with two up had borne dividends. We had an extra striker in the six-yard box. It seems simple, but how often has this simple fact been ignored over recent seasons? I again turned to Alan.

“Mourinho would often change personnel, but he very rarely changed the shape. Credit to Conte. Game on.”

Everyone around me sensed a more adventurous Chelsea now. It seemed we were genuinely on top. We pressed forward, urged on by a support that had finally found its voice.

“Antonio Conte. Does it bet-tah.”

Ivanovic came close. It was all Chelsea. The noise cascaded down towards our heroes on the pitch.

A rare Watford attack broke down, and the ball fell to Cesc Fabregas. He instantly looked up and spotted an advanced Diego Costa, about to set off on a run into the Watford half. His clipped pass was perfect, dropping right between two bamboozled and befuddled Watford defenders, allowing Costa a clear run on goal. He aimed for goal and steadied himself. A touch to set himself up. I was on my toes now, awaiting the strike. He shot low. It flew in through the legs of Gomes.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.

Watford 1 Chelsea 2.

Pandemonium in the away end, pandemonium everywhere. Bodies flying this way and that. I steadied myself to photograph Diego’s beautiful celebrations – his second late match winner in two games –  but Parky grabbed hold of me and shook me hard. I managed to release myself to snap the team’s celebrations, and immediately after the away end was reverberating to a song about a Spaniard and his magic hat.

Beautiful.

I am not sure how we had done it, but we were winning a game in which, for a good seventy minutes, we had looked second-best. Over on the touchline, Conte had masterminded another masterstroke. I was full of admiration. Five minutes of extra-time were signalled but we would not let this slip. The team remained strong, energised, together. I was really impressed with Batshuayi and the striker could have made it 3-1 but his very neat turn and shot crashed back off the Watford bar.

The whistle went.

Phew.

Two wins out of two.

Phew.

On the walk back to the car, we were full of praise for the way that our Italian manager had changed things, in almost a carbon copy of the game on Monday. It is early days, of course, but it seems that we are all in for a fine time this season. Thankfully, we narrowly avoided a few spots of rain, which started up just after we reached the car, and again on the way back west along the M4. There would be no raining on our parade on this fine day of Chelsea glory. At Reading Services, we again avoided getting wet as we called in to collectively re-charge our batteries with our assault on “Fifty Shades Of Greggs” (OK, three – a sausage roll, a tandoori chicken baguette and a Philly Steak lattice; three down, forty-seven to go, watch this space, with no European travels this season, we have to find excitement where we can). Who should walk around the corner but two local lads that PD and myself know who had watched my local team Frome Town play at nearby Kings Langley, drawing 2-2. Frome have begun the season well, and I have seen them play twice already. Like Chelsea, Frome Town are in fourth place in their respective league, and I wished a few of the players well as they appeared from their coach on their way to refuel.

It capped off a fine day.

On Tuesday, we play Bristol Rovers in the latest incarnation of the League Cup, in what promises to be a noisy affair with four-thousand Bristolians taking over The Shed. I am sure that by the end of the evening, I will be sick to the death of “Goodnight Irene” being sung on a constant loop but I am relishing the chance to see a local team to me at Stamford Bridge for the very first time. There will be, undoubtedly, memories of games against them at Eastville flitting in and out of my head, and the resulting match report, all night.

I will see a few of you there.

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Tales From A Stroll In The Dorset Sun

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 23 April 2016.

As I was chatting to a few good friends outside the entrance to the away stand at Bournemouth’s neat and tidy Vitality Stadium, I made a comment about our priorities for the remaining five games of the season.

“You know what, I could even forgive them for the last two games if they were saving themselves for Tottenham.”

It was said semi-seriously, maybe part in jest, but it made more sense the more that I thought about it. United might have Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger, but Chelsea will be overdosing in Schadenfreude should we royally bugger up Tottenham’s bid for the title at Stamford Bridge on Bank Holiday Monday.

In this craziest of seasons, I was looking for a huge crumb of comfort.

The match at Bournemouth was always going to be a very special highlight of this 2015/2016 season. In the same way that the Chelsea faithful were relishing a beano to Blackpool in 2010/2011, but were then let down with a Monday evening game in March, this was an away game for all to anticipate with relish. That the footballing Gods gave us a trip to Bournemouth in April, on St. George’s Day no less, just seemed too good to be true. While others booked up hotels for the weekend, and hoped and prayed for match tickets to materialise, the Fun Boy Four purchased train tickets, arriving via Southampton in Bournemouth at 11am, and waited expectantly. This was going to be a brilliant day in the sun.

And then things went awry.

For the second successive Saturday morning, fate contrived that I had to work.

Bollocks. No pre-match giggles for me.

Thankfully the journey to Bournemouth is only an hour and a half and I would hopefully be away by 12.30pm. However, the last thing that I wanted was to get caught up in traffic, and get frustrated as I drove around in ever decreasing circles looking for a place to park. Thankfully, my pal Steve came to the rescue. He lives on the border between Poole and Bournemouth, and kindly suggested that I could park at his house and he would then drive me over to the stadium.

Job done.

I left work, thankfully, ahead of schedule at 11.45am. It had been a cold Friday, but Saturday broke with warmer weather, and on the drive south, the sun came out. This was going to be a cracking, albeit truncated, day out with the Champions.

My last visit to see a Chelsea game at Bournemouth was way back in 1994, when I witnessed a 1-0 win in the League Cup, back in the days when the early rounds were two-legged affairs. I watched alongside a visiting uncle from Australia, and one of his friends, in the home end. A Gavin Peacock goal gave us the win. In those days, the stadium was known as Dean Court. Today, it’s the Vitality Stadium, and although the new stadium is on the same site as Dean Court, the axis has been rotated 90%. I remembered it as a small, and tight stadium, and the new place is much the same.

My other previous visit was a personal low point in my days of following Chelsea Football Club. Back in 1988/89, with us newly relegated to the Second Division, I watched aghast from a particularly packed away terrace – with awful sightlines – as we lost 1-0 to Bournemouth, a team managed at the time by Harry Redknapp. I can still remember the solitary walk back to Pokesdown railway station after that game wondering where on earth my club was going. They were sobering times.

The gates at those two games were 8,763 in 1988 and 9,784 in 1994. The gate in 2016 would only be a few more thousand in number. I suspect that the Chelsea contingents in those two previous games were more than the miniscule allocation of 1,200 that we were given this season. This is ridiculously small, but it is in line with the league ruling. No wonder it was a hot ticket. With around 650 on the away scheme, there was only an extra 550 up for grabs for the rest.

Although, historically, Bournemouth was located in Hampshire, the 1974 boundary changes threw it in to the neighbouring county of Dorset. The area was well visited by myself in my childhood. There were day trips to the glorious beach at Sandbanks, now one of the most desirable locations in all of the United Kingdom – still home to Harry Redknapp – and two holidays in nearby Southbourne in 1979 and 1980. My father was born in Wareham, not more than fifteen miles to the west and many summer holidays were spent on the Isle of Purbeck. Although I am a native of Somerset, the area around Wareham is very close to me. It is a wonderful part of the world, with castles and beaches, country pubs, holiday parks, and perfect villages.

My drive south took me past some wonderfully named towns and villages : Longbridge Deverill, Melbury Abbas, Fontmell Magma, Iwerne Minster, Blandford Forum, Sturminster Marshall, Lytchett Matravers.

Just out of range were my two favourite place names of all : Toller Porcorum and Piddletrenthide.

Dorset has all the best names.

It also has AFC Bournemouth, changed a while back for no other reason than being the first club in an alphabetical list of all ninety-two professional clubs in the football pyramid. Before that, they were called Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic. Only as recently as 2008/2009, the club was relegated to the lowest tier of the Football League and were in administration. Their recent rise has been mesmeric.

My aunt Julie, who lived all of her life in and around Bournemouth, played a major part in my recent Chelsea story. She kindly left me a sum of money in her will after she sadly passed away in 2004, and this enabled me to travel out to the US with Chelsea during that summer. Since then, my life has been enriched greatly after meeting many good people – Chelsea folk – from the US, and I owe a lot of this to dear Julie. She always spoke to me about Chelsea and would be pleased as punch to know that I was returning to her town to see the boys play her home-town team. I can remember how upset she was when it looked like Bournemouth might be relegated from the Football League back in the ‘nineties.

As I drove in to Bournemouth, if felt slightly odd that I was apart from my usual match day companions. They kept me updated with their progress though; they were having a blast.

Steve dropped me off at around 2pm, and it was great to be back in the tree-lined streets leading up to the small stadium, situated alongside other sporting grounds in the Kings Park. The slow walk to the stadium was an arboreal treat.

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I spotted a few Chelsea faces, and walked around the stadium, taking it all in. The locals were bedecked in red and black, and there was an expectant buzz in the air. Maybe I miss-read their smiles, but I think there was an air of “I can’t really believe we are playing Chelsea” in and around the stands.

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Everything was neat and tidy. For once, I bought a programme. Inside there was a facsimile of the 1994 edition. It seemed so old-fashioned in comparison to the fine production standards of the 2016 version. The sun was warming the air. A while back, the club changed their kit from all red to the red and black stripes of yesteryear, which were taken from the classic lines of the Milan kit. Outside the away stand, the club training facility was spotted, all sleek and modern, with Italian styling, like their own version of Milanello.

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On the red brick wall surrounding the northern boundary, keeping out the prying eyes of suburbia, there were large posters – evidently weather-resistant – of past teams and past eras. Bournemouth have certainly had their fair share of different kits over the years, but the red and black resonates throughout.

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Lastly, there was a nice remembrance of times past. The Jubilee Gates from 1960. The image conjured up potting sheds, Woodbines, the home service, The Goon Show, and men sitting in deckchairs on Boscombe beach wearing not only shirts, but ties too. Another era.

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Just before I entered the away turnstiles – how I love the click click click of those typically British contraptions – I will admit to being worried about the game ahead. This was just too nice a day, too nice a setting. It almost seemed like a pre-season friendly. Would we be fully focused? Would AFC Bournemouth hand us the A to Z on attacking and incisive football on this hazy day on the south coast? Hiddink had selected a strong team with Eden Hazard recalled, but there was surprisingly no room for Rueben Loftus-Cheek. Elsewhere, Jon Obi Mikel was preferred to the raw American Matt Miazga. Asmir Begovic replaced the suspended Courtois. Sadly there was no place for John Terry. One wonders if we will see him play again this season, and indeed if this season will indeed be his last in our colours. If fit, surely deserves a start against Tottenham.

I was half-expecting many of the Chelsea faithful to be stuck in the town centre as the kick-off approached, unable to coordinate the final leg of their match day plans. In the final twenty minutes, there was a late surge and most people were in. I met up with all the usual suspects. Everyone had had a blast in the busy town centre pubs. Bournemouth, with golden sands, high cliffs, sunken gardens, and white-faced hotels everywhere, is a very fine seaside resort.

Chelsea were playing in all white, and we had a great view of the action, along the side of the pitch, and with a similar vantage point as that cold night in Blackpool in 2011.

Bournemouth began marginally brighter, but we took the lead on only five minutes when a well-worked move, involving Hazard and Costa, found Fabregas. His fine forward pass, which dissected the centre-back and full back, found Pedro who adeptly lifted the ball over Artur Boruc. We were one-up, and it was time for Alan and myself to go through our Tommy Docherty-inspired celebration.

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

The game continued with some crisp passing from both sides, and with the Chelsea fans in good voice. All of that beer and cider had the desired effect. Joshua King wasted a good opportunity, slashing the ball over the bar, and Bournemouth then got the bit between their teeth, especially exposing our right flank. They had a few chances, and could easily have scored if their finishing had been better. A nice Chelsea move, again involving Fabregas, then picked out the previously quiet Hazard. He let fly with a speculative effort, which Boruc was unable to stop from reaching the net. It was – read it and weep – Hazard’s first league goal of the season. It was late April. Oh boy. However, the ‘keeper really should have done better. This was against the run of play to be honest. We were 2-0 up but Bournemouth were giving us a few moments of concern.

We spotted Cesc’s pink and yellow boots. It looked like he was wearing one of each.

“Rhubarb and custard” said Gary.

My pal Kevin was stood behind me and was talking to me about the bet that he had put on before the game.

“I got a bet that we’d win 3-0, so let’s see how this goes.”

In the very next two seconds, Elphick rose higher than anyone else and nodded a slow header past Begovic’ despairing dive.

I turned to Kev, smiling, as his betting slip became Chelsea Confetti.

“Ha. Perfect timing mate.”

Soon after, Bournemouth came close on two occasions, while Pedro skied a shot from a similar angle as the opening goal. I will be honest; we were lucky to be 2-1 up at the break.

After I returned to my seat alongside Glenn, Alan and Gary during the break, I could smell the sulphurous fumes of a flare which had evidently been let off by our support. The OB were swarming around, but there was no animosity anywhere.

As the second-half began, I was really pissed off to see so many empty seats in our section. So much for everyone wanting a ticket for Bournemouth. Immediately behind me, and right behind Kevin, there were around fifteen seats which had been vacated. Now, let’s get this straight. I acknowledge that going to football never has been “just” about the football and the pre-match and post-match drinks are as much a part of football culture as songs, pies, Adidas trainers, banter and boredom, but for fuck sake.

Leaving a Chelsea game at half-time?

Please fucking explain that to me.

Everyone likes a drink or two, but surely drinks could wait for forty-five minutes? The pubs would close in seven or eight hours’ time. Why the need to fuck off before 4pm? I especially thought of many good friends, and quite a few bad ones, who had missed out on a ticket for this game and would be watching on with a mixture of feelings from afar.

This was a very poor show.

Ironically, the absentees missed a much-improved performance from us in the second period. Diego Costa ran and ran, holding the ball well, challenging for the ball, leading the line well. Pedro was all hustle and bustle, a fine game from him. But the star was Cesc, teasing openings for our forwards, and looking at ease in the middle of all of our attacking plays.

There was a song or two for JT.

“John Terry – We Want You To Stay.”

“Sign Him up, Sign Him Up, Sign Him Up.”

Baba, seeing a lot of the ball in front of us, set up Matic who drilled a low ball across the box. Diego Costa stretched, but could not get enough of the ball. Stanislas curled a fine effort past Begovic’ far post, but we were hogging the ball, and threatening the home team at every opportunity.

Hazard skipped in to the box, but decided not to shoot – why? – and the chance went begging.

There was a little banter between the two sets of fans, but a song from us annoyed me.

AFC Bournemouth, a small club who almost went out of business not so long ago, and who exist on gates of 11,500, were being picked on by the mouthier elements of our support –

“Champions of England – you’ll never sing that.”

Again. Embarrassing.

Take the piss out of Tottenham, West Ham or the like with that song.

But not AFC bloody Bournemouth.

Kevin spoke about the embarrassing moment at Villa Park three weeks ago when the younger element of our support were taunting the home fans with “Champions of Europe – you’ll never sing that.”

Equally embarrassing.

With twenty minutes remaining, that man Fabregas picked out Willian and our little Brazilian waited for the ‘keeper to advance before guiding the ball past him.

3-1, get in.

Costa played in Pedro, who attempted a cheeky bicycle kick. We were pouring forward now and the home fans were starting to head home. Then, the mood changed.

Out of nowhere, from behind me and to my right, came a new chant.

“Beat fucking Tottenham. You’d better beat fucking Tottenham. Beat fucking Tottenham. You’d better beat fucking Tottenham.”

I joined in.

I had to.

It summed up everything.

It begged a question of our team’s application. The perception was that we could play well if we felt like it. If we fancied it. If we were in the mood. Well, against Tottenham the players had better be in the mood. We have a twenty-six-year record to protect and, should Leicester City falter, we needed to extinguish Tottenham’s title hunt.

Ugh, even writing it.

”Tottenham’s title hunt.”

The noise was deafening, and it really developed when the play was over on our side of the pitch. There seemed an immediate schism between team and support; not something that I would normally advocate, but on this occasion, at this moment of time, at this stadium in Dorset, it seemed absolutely correct.

“Beat fucking Tottenham.”

And I immediately noticed the exact words used.

“You’d better beat Tottenham” and not “we’d better beat Tottenham.”

That divide. That gap. The supporters were laying everything at the feet of our under-performing players.

When Eden Hazard poked home a deserved fourth, the applause seamlessly merged into the same mantra.

I bet the players were thinking “oh, here they go again.”

They heard us. It would be hard for them not to. The players looked sheepish. Not one looked towards us.

The message was loud and clear.

Don’t let the club down on Monday 2 May.

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