Tales From Youngsters And Veterans

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 9 November 2019.

Like many match days at Stamford Bridge, this was a day that was devoted to meeting up with good friends just as much as cheering the team, and hoping for yet another league win. But it was also, of course, a day that Chelsea Football Club honoured those that have served our country. I am always pleased when we have home matches at Stamford Bridge over Remembrance weekends. Chelsea manage this day so well.

This home game against Crystal Palace came just four days over a complete year since the corresponding fixture in 2018/19, a relatively easy 3-1 win.

This one was a 12.30pm kick-off, a lunchtime kick-about.

It meant that I needed to leave home as early as was feasible in order to squeeze as much out of a Chelsea Saturday as was possible. I had set the alarm for 6am ahead of a planned 7am departure from my dormant Somerset village. Unfortunately, I awake anyway at just before 5am and could not get back to sleep.

I peeked out of my landing window; there was a frost, the first of the year. Winter was with us now.

I collected Simon, a work-colleague, and PD in Frome and then shot over to pick-up Parky. We were soon headed over Salisbury Plain and London was beckoning us. We usually speed past Stonehenge during its normal opening hours, but at around 8.15am the site was devoid of visitors. The historic stones stood alone on a blanket of delicately frosted grass. It was a striking sight. Sometimes I have to blink at the magnificence of our land. It is so easy to take such sights, and sites, so much for granted.

Simon works as a project manager at my place of work; he joined in 1995, I joined up in 2003. Whereas it is my job to deliver our products – office furniture – it is his job to oversee the installation programme.

I’m a Ruben Loftus-Cheek to his Tammy Abraham.

Kinda.

It stayed fine throughout our trip to London, though there were reports of rain to follow later in the day. Our pre-match was at an unusual venue for us, “The Oyster Rooms” which sits above Fulham Broadway.

Dennis and Kazuko, still buzzing from the Ajax game, were already in the bar when I arrived. I had joked with Dennis about them putting other travel plans on hold once they had experienced match day at Stamford Bridge; I was to be proved right. They were already planning on a return visit before the end of the season. The queue for the drinks was heavy. Eventually everyone was served. We were joined by Ben and Christina, husband and wife, from Louisiana. Ben and I first started chatting in Philadelphia in 2012 ahead of our game against the MLS All-Stars in Chester, Pennsylvania.

I was reminded that Ben was a passenger on the same bus, one of the four school buses that had been arranged to take us to the game, that I was on. It turned out to be quite a fateful journey. I had chatted to other supporters on that bus and these have become firm friends with them since; Karen from Connecticut, and Kathryn and Tim from Virginia. Well, what a shocker – Dennis was apparently on the same bus too. What a small world. That bus ride was such fun. Each of the four yellow buses took turns in overtaking in each other. Fans flicked Vs at each other. Then the Chelsea team bus made a brief and fleeting appearance as it sped past as we headed south on interstate I-95. What a laugh. Phantastic times in South Philly.

There had been little talk of the upcoming game, but we knew that it was likely that N’Golo Kante would step in to take the place of the suspended Jorginho, who – we are sure – took a yellow at Vicarage Road so he would miss the Palace game so he would be ready for Manchester City.

I appreciated that Dennis made a point of shaking Parky’s hand as he thanked him for his service. Both had served in the armed forces. Both were veterans. Indeed, Dennis was in for a treat, if that is the correct word in such circumstances. I am deeply proud of the way that our club goes about honouring our war veterans in the first week of November each year.

For this reason alone, I made sure that I was inside the stadium in good time.

I loved seeing the special banners that Dennis had reported seeing being fastened to the buildings behind the Shed End on a stadium tour during the week. To the left, a lovely photograph of some Chelsea Pensioners, their red tunics and black tricorn hats adding a different colour to Stamford Bridge for this particular match day. To the right, the simple “Chelsea Remembers” backed with poppies, and more red. With Chelsea in blue and white, and Crystal Palace in a ‘seventies-inspired away kit of white edged with blue and white, this day really was all about the colours of the Union flag.

The team news came through.

Indeed, N’Golo Kante came in for Jorginho. Emerson was in for Marcos Alonso. Pulisic kept his place, and quite rightly too.

But the big news, really, was that Reece James was in for Cesar Azpilicueta. Dave has been such a solid regular, almost an ever-present, in this team since 2012 that not seeing him in the line-up was an odd feeling. But after James’ excellent substitute appearance on Tuesday, plus the threat of Wilfrid Zaha, it was a decision that was wholly understandable.

Arrizabalaga

James – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Kante – Kovacic

Mount

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

Two Chelsea pensioners in scarlet lead the teams out, past a huge flag of a poppy and our club crest, and after the teams had gone through all of the pre-match presentations, we stood in silence as we remembered the fallen. Poppies fell against a simple white backdrop on the TV screen above the three-thousand away fans.

Right at the end, a lone voice from the away end.

“God Bless Them All.”

This was not expected, nor strictly something that should be supported, but I was OK with this. It added a dramatic, and unexpected twist, and certainly didn’t detract from the moment in my opinion.

The resulting lone shout of “wanker” from the Matthew Harding Lower immediately after was not so wise.

The game began.

Unsurprisingly, we began on the front foot and dominated so much of the early stages, with the visitors more than content to drop and soak up pressure. An early cross, excellent, from Reece James high up the pitch on the right flank hinted at a productive afternoon from the young defender. At times, I was annoyed that we did not utilise him more. At times he found himself in acres of space. I liked the look of Christian Pulisic, in that inside left position in the main rather than always hugging the line, who showed neat footwork from the off. A shot from him went wide early on. But soon after, Pulisic collected a pass from Willian and showed excellent skill in drifting past a last defender with a shimmy that Eden Hazard would have been pleased, but his shot was saved by the Palace ‘keeper Vicente Guaita.

One of the highlights of the first-half for me was a full-on, rather old-fashioned, race up the right touchline by Reece James. Not only did he show great control, real pace, and spirit, but he stayed on his feet throughout despite a couple of challenges that might well have sent others sprawling.

I was dead impressed.

A free-kick was awarded in a central position.

“Give it to Zouma. He needs shooting practice.”

In the end, the resulting effort from Willian drifted past the near post. Not long after, Emerson tested the Crystal Palace ‘keeper from a similar position, but again wide.

Despite our dominance, the atmosphere was hindered by the early kick-off; in a nutshell, not enough alcohol. A simple truth.

A free-kick from Mason Mount did not clear the wall.

Crystal Palace rarely enjoyed much of the ball at all. On a rare foray up field, they were awarded a free-kick down below us, but it was over hit and screamed past the far post.

“Awful.”

We carved out a couple of chances; a Pulisic header, and then a shot from Tammy Abraham that was blocked by right in front of the goal as the first-half minutes ran out.

There was a hint of deep irony that a full four minutes of added-time at the end of the first-half were signalled.

“Great. Where was that on bloody Tuesday night?”

Just before the break, a truly horrific pass from Kepa to Zouma, with an attacker breathing down his neck, had us all screaming and roaring . Sometimes his distribution is just awful. King Kurt had enjoyed a solid first-half in fact. A double tackle, sliding, perfectly timed, was one of the highlights. Or was that in the second-half? I forget.

It had been, generally, a good half but not a great one. Tammy’s movement was not great, but on a few occasions we did not spot the option of an early ball into space, over the top. There were positives in midfield with excellent play from Kovacic, always involved, and Mount, always running and closing down space.

As an aside, can anyone remember what football was like before pundits, and some supporters – not all, you know who you are – used the word “press” every five fucking seconds?

For goodness sake, talk about buzz words.

There was talk between Alan and little old me at half-time about the possibility of Frank being bold and taking off Tammy and replacing him with Michy at the break. Alan had spotted that Tammy’s body language had been a little “off” during the first forty-five minutes. He had, possibly, become frustrated with the service.

Lo and behold, seven minutes into the second-half, with a noticeable increase in speed of movement on the ball and off it, we watched as a great move unfolded. Lovely interplay between Kovacic and Willian – a simply wonderful flick into space, quite exquisite – played in Tammy. He steadied himself, and slotted home.

Just what he needed.

Lovely.

GET IN.

His face in the celebrations displayed a certain melancholy. The last shot that I took almost hinted at an apology :

“Sorry I haven’t scored before now.”

We hoped that the goal would jump start his confidence.

Elsewhere we began to show greater freedom, greater confidence and greater awareness of others moving off the ball. I loved the way that a player, usually Mason Mount, would “nibble” at a Palace player in an attempt to nick the ball. If the ball was not immediately won, very often the challenge caused the player in possession to miss-control and this tended to result in a second or even third Chelsea player winning the ball. This instilled momentum, and moves developed at pace.

It was excellent.

We improved as the second-half continued, and as the rain eventually arrived.

Pulisic drifted past some defenders and let fly from a central position. His rising drive was admirably saved by Guaita.

The visitors enjoyed around ten minutes just after the hour mark where our play was not quite so solid. There was a perfectly-timed block from King Kurt inside the box. Once or twice, but no more than that, Zaha had the better of Reece James. Generally, the youngster had enjoyed a very fine league debut. Early days, but he looks a very great prospect indeed.

Another shot from Pulisic. This time it flew over.

But the boy from Pennsylvania had impressed me again. He looked confident and keen to take players on.

Michy Batshuayi replaced Tammy Abraham.

With around ten minutes remaining, Pulisic controlled a long cross-field ball with ease and he worked it into Michy. His shot was blocked and as the ball ballooned up into a dangerous position inside the six-yard box, Pulisic was able to react quickly and nod he ball in.

GET IN.

I caught his joyous run and leap on film, snap, snap, snap.

Sadly, more “USA USA USA” claptrap.

The scorer was replaced by Callum Hudson-Odoi.

At the other end, Kepa continued his tradition of late lunges to his left to stop certain goals as a James McCarthy effort was wonderfully pushed around the post.

Was it his only save of note?

We thought so.

Chances still continued, with Willian – enjoying a really fine game as captain – and Batshuayi threatened the Palace goal.

Billy Gilmour was a late substitute for Mason Mount, who had been everywhere. I even saw him buying drinks for Chelsea supporters at half-time. He has an engine that would not be out of place at Silverstone, Monza or Monaco.

The minutes dried up.

It stayed at 2-0.

We improved as the game had developed. There were solid seven and eight of ten performances throughout the team. We were soon to learn on the drive home – into dark clouds and through more rain – that this would be our youngest-ever starting eleven since the Premier League began in 1992.

The kids are alright, as someone once said.

We laughed as Tottenham dropped points at home to Sheffield United as I drove along the A303 towards Stonehenge. Later, Arsenal lost too.

Good times. Again, we are London’s top club.

Later that evening, dried out at home, I watched the Service of Remembrance from the Royal Albert Hall, and the highlight, as ever for me, was the appearance of the Chelsea Pensioners. There was an extra special treat this year, though; an extended rendition of “The Boys Of The Old Brigade” with the fine voice of a lone Chelsea Pensioner leading the way.

It was brilliant stuff.

The boys of the old brigade.

The boys of the young brigade.

On this day, and hopefully in those days to come, Chelsea got it right.

 

Tales From The Home Of Our Delight

Chelsea vs. Everton : 11 November 2018.

The Eleventh Hour Of The Eleventh Day Of The Eleventh Month.

No matter where I am on the eleventh of November, I always stop and have a reflective two minutes in silence, away from anyone, to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for the benefit of future generations. I am usually at work. I usually walk over to the quietness of the company car park and stand alone with my thoughts. It was with a great deal of anger – plus frustration and sadness – that I let myself get wrapped up with work last November, it pains me to say it, thus missing the two minutes of silence. I vowed to myself to never let it happen again.

One Hundred Years.

Fate transpired for 2018. And I am careful to use the right words here. There is no reason to blithely thank our participation in the Europa League, but it just seemed right that our game against Everton should take place on Sunday 11 November, a date which would mark the end of the First World War in 1918. For whatever reason, and I can list a few, I have always linked the early history of Chelsea Football Club with the First World War. If I was not to mark the one-hundred-year anniversary of the very first armistice day in my home village, Stamford Bridge would be as good a place as any.

Our First Decade.

Chelsea Football Club were formed in 1905. The First World War commenced on 28 July 1914. At the end of the 1914/15 season – in which Everton were the Division One Champions – it was decided to halt professional football in England and Wales, although not in Scotland. The FA Cup was also stopped after that season as the war gathered speed throughout Europe. However, not before Chelsea took place in our first ever FA Cup Final on Saturday 24 April 1915, against Sheffield United at Old Trafford. We lost 3-0 and, due to the large number of servicemen in the crowd it will be forever known as the “Khaki Cup Final.” By the time football recommenced after the hostilities, Chelsea had not played competitive football in four of its first fourteen seasons. The link with the armed forces took several forms. From the earliest moments of our existence, the team were known as “The Pensioners”, named after the inhabitants – former servicemen – of the Royal Hospital. Many of the country’s new recruits would have travelled to the battlegrounds of Belgium and France via the nation’s capital and then to the channel ports. In my mind, at least, the First World War, London, the soldiers, and Chelsea Football Club will always be indelibly linked.

A Somerset Village.

Just as I always link Chelsea Football Club with the First World War, I have always sensed that the conflict has played an important part in how I feel about my home village. My mother was born in the same house, right in the centre of the village of Mells, just opposite the Talbot Inn, that my grandfather was born in 1895. And the First World War has wrapped itself around my village for decades.

Edwin Meredith Draper.

I called my mother’s father “Grandad Ted.”

He served in the British Army during the “Great War” in the ambulance service, ferrying the injured from the trenches to field hospitals as a driver. After the war, he returned to his home village to be a gardener in the manor house now owned by the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, where he would meet my grandmother who served as a cook in the same house. My grandfather rarely spoke of his life as a soldier in the Great War. I still have his medals. I remember him speaking of how he stayed at a French family’s house for a while after the end of the war. He spoke highly of the German soldiers that he met. He did not seem to be blighted too much by his experience. I remember his only physical scars were from the marks left on his skin by the leeches which inhabited the water-ridden trenches. I have no doubt that there were mental scars, but my grandfather was a quiet, private, and occasionally stern, man and I do not doubt that he chose not to air too many really personal feelings.

My dear grandfather is pictured in the series of three black and white photographs below.

Dulce Et Decorum Est.

I never studied the war poets at school, but I have become familiar with the writings of Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon over recent years. The reason for this is simple. I have been inspired by my village. Mells was often visited by Sassoon over many decades – the Manor House would often host a variety of bohemian characters from London – and I have tried to read a little about him. So much was his love of the village of Mells that in a quiet corner of St. Andrew’s churchyard, a simple gravestone marks Sassoon’s final resting place.

As an aside, I always remember that in a Chelsea magazine from around 2004, the editor chose to illustrate a story about the Chelsea players and club staff who are buried in Brompton Cemetery with a stock photograph of a gravestone. Imagine my surprise when I spotted that the photograph chosen was of Siegfried Sassoon’s headstone. I have featured a poem by Sassoon in these match reports before (Remembrance Day 2012, Chelsea vs. Liverpool), but a poem by Wilfred Owen was brought to my attention recently. It is so honest in its grim commentary of the trenches that it always makes me smart when I read it.

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.”

Edwin Lutyens.

There is a further link between my village and the First World War. Edwin Lutyens, the great architect who left his mark on the world with buildings from England to India, often stayed at the Manor House. In addition to designing the Cenotaph in Whitehall, the war memorial in Mells was also designed by Lutyens. It is a stunning piece of work. And it includes a piece of writing which always makes me misty-eyed and reflective.

“We died in a strange land facing the dark cloud of war and this stone is raised to us in the home of our delight.”

Images of men, young boys too, breathing heavy, gasping at air, calling out to friends, calling for “mother”, imagining views of childhood, the stony path to the village school, the cobbles on the pavement in front of the village shop, the church bells of St. Andrew’s, the hay in the fields, the sunset over the woods on the hills, the cry of the cuckoo. One last breath. One last image.

“The home of our delight.”

There was one last personal gift from Lutyens to the people of Mells. In the village church, a wonderful statue of Edward Horner stands proud, featuring the only child of the Horner family, killed in action during the First World War. The statue was designed by Alfred Munnings, but the plinth is by Lutyens and it has many similarities to the large block of slightly-angled marble of The Cenotaph.

Thomas Frederick Axon.

Dad called his father “Pop” so I called him “Grandad Pop.” From memory, he would have enlisted in his home town of Wareham in Dorset and he experienced army life in India – for sure – but I also remember the exotic sounding city of Baghdad being mentioned. He passed away in 1971 so my memory of his war tales are very scant. Thankfully, there were no injuries from the conflict. I have strong memories to this day of the time I spent with “Grandad Pop.” After the First World War, he would later marry and move to Frome, and then to Mells. Growing up, both sets of my grandparents were only a bare minute away. We all lived under the shadow of St. Andrew’s church tower.

Silence.

I had left Mells, past the pub, past my grandparents’ old home, the churchyard, the gravestones and the war memorial at 6.20am. By 7am I had collected PD, Glenn and Parky. Just before 10am, we were inside “The Eight Bells” near Putney Bridge, sipping clandestine beers ahead of the official opening time. We had planned the day’s activities around the service of remembrance which was due to take place at the nearby Fulham War Memorial at 11am. Soon, friends Peter, Liz and Charlie called in to the pub; unknown to us, they had the same plan. Alan soon joined us. Then the Kent lads. Then Diana and Ian – from Chicago – dropped in. We walked over to the churchyard of All Saints Church just as the parade, which had started at Parson’s Green, arrived. It was perfect timing.

There were representatives from the army, local dignitaries, a band, even some Mods on scooters bringing up the rear with Union Jacks flying.

Alongside us all was Parky, wearing medals from his stay in the army in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties.

As we neared eleven o’clock, we stood in complete silence. The crowd numbered maybe four hundred. Above were clear blue skies. The orange and yellow and russet of autumn hemmed us all in. It was a perfect Sunday morning in London. But thoughts drifted. To foreign fields. To a distant land.

I thought of my two grandfathers.

Abide With Me.

After the two minutes of complete silence, the introduction to “Abide With Me” was played by the brass band. I began strongly but began to fail, the words were obviously not as entrenched in my mind as I had perhaps envisioned. A gentleman to my left handed me the order of service and I shared it with Alan. We sang along. Under the words was a depiction of the famous game of football played between enemy lines at a war time Christmas. With the hymn being the “Cup Final” hymn, this was a very nice touch.

There were two further hymns. The first one was unfamiliar. The second one was a favourite.

“I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

 

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.”

Shudder.

I felt privileged to be present.

Friends First, Football Later.

We returned to the pub. Josh and Chad and a few of their fellow Chelsea fans from Minnesota had arrived. There was talk of the game, briefly, in Belarus, but the Everton game was hardly mentioned. We wolfed down Sunday Roasts, and just enjoyed the chance to be with each other again. Diana and Ian were last featured in these reports for our game with Manchester City last season. They were wisely combining the two staples of British life – football and music – on their trip. There were ska festivals, Trojan nights, and a UK Subs gig. Wise choices all. Chad had followed up his trip to Belarus with a trip to see his “other” team York City play at Swindon Town the previous day.

I set off early with Diana and Ian to sort out tickets. Although married, they would be watching at opposite ends of the Stamford Bridge stadium; Diana in the upper tier of The Shed among fellow Evertonians, Ian in the front row of the Matthew Harding Lower alongside my friend Pam.

Stamford Bridge.

Once inside the stadium, early for once, I was able to relax a little and put everything into some sort of perspective. Although I was hoping for a Chelsea win against Everton – although far from “expecting” it – there seemed that other weightier matters were surely important. This indeed was an important day, an important occasion. And I thought again of my grandfather, Ted Draper.

My grandfather was a good sportsman. He played football for Mells and Vobster United and cricket for Mells. I remembered the black and white photographs of both sides, taken in around 1925, on show in his bedroom when I was a child. He was, apparently, the star of the cricket team, and after studying the scorebooks from that era – priceless items – I can vouch for this. However, a family friend would not be afraid to tell me that he had a mean temper on a cricket pitch. Quiet off the pitch, a bit of a demon on it. A familiar story for many I suppose.

For all of his adventures on both football and cricket pitches, though, there is one sporting story involving my grandfather that I have been enchanted about for decades. Once I chose Chelsea as my team in 1970, I can remember Grandad Ted telling me that he once visited Stamford Bridge with his great friend – and fellow Mells sportsman – Ted Knapton. It was, I am pretty convinced, the only football stadium that he ever visited.

My grandfather, however many times I pressed him, could not remember the teams involved though. But I know that he said he favoured Aston Villa – possibly a first love – as a child, and then latterly Newcastle United – through a friend. And I have often wondered if the two Teds, because of their association with Mells football, were gifted tickets for the 1920 FA Cup Final at Stamford Bridge between Villa and Huddersfield Town.

I am no detective, but that might be the answer.

Heaven knows, I have visualised his visit to Stamford Bridge in the ‘twenties so many times.

The train trip from Frome railway station to Paddington. A bite to eat in a nearby café. The underground to Walham Green Station. The crowds of people along the Fulham Road. The closeness of everything. The colours of the rosettes. The clamour for attention of the programme sellers, official and otherwise. The sellers of iced lemonade, of ginger beer, of cigarette salesmen. The shouts of the crowd. The Birmingham accents. The Yorkshire dialect. The smoke. The Londoners and the spivs, the touts, the brashness of the city. The lines at the turnstiles. The musty aroma of overcoats. Caps, bonnets and hats. The swell of the crowd. The bands marching before the game. The huge advertisements adorning every spare inch of space, on hoardings at the back of the huge curve of the terrace, and on the backs of the houses on the Fulham Road. The appearance of the teams. The surge of those on the terrace as a chance goes close. The unstable nature of the terrace beneath the feet, of wooden risers and of mud and cinders. The clouds of dust. Pockets of cigarette smoke drifting over the spectators. The trees in Brompton Cemetery. The smoke rising from chimneys. The wounded Chelsea pensioners – that vivid splash of red – watching from the side of the pitch in antiquated wheelchairs, some without limbs, some without sight. My grandfather, wistful, lost for a moment, a flashback to Amiens or Ypres or Valenciennes.

“There but for the grace of God, go I.”

In later years, whenever I stood on The Shed, as part of that unhindered mass of terrace that originally swept all around the stadium, including the small paddock in front of the old East Stand, I had a wonderful feeling of being a physical part of the history of the club. Of a link with the past. I miss that terrace. It was immense, in more ways than one.

“I wonder if my grandad stood here.”

The Colour Red.

We knew what was coming. There has been a new appetite to honour the fallen in recent years. Possibly since the relatively recent war in Afghanistan, maybe even from 9/11; a resurgence to remember those injured or killed in battle and to acknowledge those who serve. Was there such a show of remembrance, say, when we played Everton on Remembrance Sunday in 2007? My diary entry from that day would suggest not.

The red poppy is the omnipresent symbol of Remembrance Day. But for this Chelsea fan, the scarlet tunic of the Chelsea Pensioner – with tricorn hat, black boots, medals – is the image that makes me tingle.

Before the kick-off, members of the armed forces carried a huge banner with the image of the poppy to the centre circle.

In the north-east corner, not far from Ian, stood the white letters “CHELSEA REMEMBERS.”

With the spectators naturally quieting now, two Chelsea pensioners strode onto the pitch and placed two poppy wreaths on to the centre circle.

The two teams stood in silence.

We all stood in silence.

And again my mind wandered.

Uncle Fred.

Although my two grandfathers lived through the Great War, and I have told their stories here, the last relative who completes my own First World War story, was sadly not so lucky.

My gran’s young brother, Francis “Fred” Hibberd served in the Somerset Light Infantry in the 1914-1918 war. He was killed, tragically, in the last few days of conflict. His face, in a large photograph, loomed over my grandparents’ living room for as long as I can remember. It upset my gran, Blanche, terribly. He was the only “close” relative of mine who was killed in the First World War. In the past few years, I happened to find a letter – written while he was recuperating from an illness – posted to my great-grandmother from a hospital in Hollywood, Northern Ireland in October 1918. It was, probably, the last letter he ever wrote. When I realised what I had stumbled upon, my heart wept. Yet I felt so privileged to be able to hold it and read it. He would soon be posted abroad one last fateful time…

In November 2014, I attended a service at the nearby village of Buckland Dinham – his home, my gran’s home, just three miles from where I sit – in which hornbeam trees were planted to commemorate the men from the village who did not return from the front.

It was a humbling experience.

“It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country.”

I am not so sure, and I am not so sure if my gran and her sister Laura and brother Geoff were ever sure, either.

Rest In Peace.

Red, White, Blue.

Chelsea in blue. Everton in white. And the Chelsea Pensioners in red.

Ross Barkley, our former Toffee, did not make the cut.

There had been negative comments about Ruben and Ross against BATE on Thursday. But both are runners, if nothing else, and there was simply nowhere to run on Thursday. It was a poor game, eh?

Eden returned.

The game began.

It looked like Everton had taken more than the usual three-thousand as their support stretched further along The Shed than usual. But I have noticed the emergence of some new executive boxes in the last few rows of The Shed Lower in recent weeks (not unlike the boxes which were there in 2001) so I imagine that this has resulted in fewer seats available for the away fans in that part of the tier. It is my only explanation.

I thought that Richarlison might prove to be a bit of a handful, but Everton never really bothered us much in the first-half. The diminutive Bernard went close for the visitors but the first part of the game struggled to whet the appetite. It was a messy start with mistakes and errors everywhere. For once, the Evertonians were making a fair old din, though not on the same scale as others. They have never been the loudest.

A free-kick to us just outside the box, and although David Luiz was standing close by, and Willian looked set to strike, we watched as the left-foot of Marcos Alonso swept the ball narrowly wide.

It continued to be a messy game.

On the half-hour, with the ball having been played out of the Chelsea half, and the crowd so quiet, Luiz turned cheerleader and waved his hands in the air to the Matthew Harding. The crowd replied with the loudest noise thus far. A nod from Luiz shortly after showed his approval.

On forty minutes, Willian spotted another good run from Alonso and chipped the ball over to him. It looked an impossible task, but Alonso not only reached the ball, but his volley was on target, stinging the hands of the England international Jordan Pickford.

“Great football.”

I did not see the “coming together” of Toni Rudiger and Bernard. The reaction of others lead me to believe that our defender had been dealt a bad blow by the referee; both players were booked.

At half-time, I chatted with John from California, his first visit in the Matthew Harding after a lifetime of tickets in The Shed. He too had been tempted by lower level football on the Saturday. He had watched QPR take on Brentford in the cosy confines of Loftus Road. He commented that the pre-match ceremony had included the listing of every QPR and Brentford player killed in the First World War.

A nice touch.

The second-half began with a little more quality. Luiz – rather hot and cold in the first forty-five minutes – allowed Hazard to set up a chance for Morata. Pickford was able to scramble it away. Then the visitors came into the game. Kepa Arrizabalaga was at full stretch to tip over a Gylfi Sigurdsson effort. Bernard then stumbled and missed an easy chance from close in. Eden had been quite quiet in the first-half but as players tired, he seemed to get stronger. Willian went close with an angled shot. Hazard tested Pickford from distance.

In the stands, things were pretty quiet.

Fabregas for Jorginho.

Pedro for Willian.

I had a vision.

“Barkley to come on and score the winner in the last minute” I said to Alan.

Down below us, Hazard set up Alonso whose low drive just clipped the far post. Ian must have had a great view of that one; it must have been straight at him.

Out on the other flank, Dave sent in a low cross and Morata poked it home.

“GET IN.”

I was up celebrating, but soon realised that he was offside.

“Bollocks.”

Into the last ten minutes, Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic. Very soon, there were misplaced passes and cheers from the Evertonians. His shot from a ridiculous angle and distance drew groans from everyone. He had a ‘mare to be honest.

Everton had defended well. But they had not troubled us. We played within ourselves, and were lacking quality in the box.

It ended 0-0.

Injury Time.

Just after the break, I received a message from my friend Luke, who sits and stands near Parky in the Shed Lower. Parky had stumbled and had grazed his head, and was being tended to in the medical centre. Glenn shot off to find him, thus missing the rest of the match. After realising that Parky needed to take it easy, Glenn walked slowly with him back to the car.

The old soldier had fallen, but there were friends to stand alongside him.

 

Tales From Firework Night

Chelsea vs. Everton : 5 November 2016.

Everton have an atrocious record against us in the league at Stamford Bridge. We have not lost to them since Paul Rideout gave them a 1-0 win in November 1994, a game which marked the opening of the then North Stand. It is an unbeaten record which stretches back twenty-two consecutive seasons. If it wasn’t for our home record against Tottenham – twenty-six years unbeaten – then this is the one that everyone would be talking about.

So, we had that in our favour. The cumulative effect of all that misery would surely have some part to play on Everton’s performance; among their fans for sure, who must be well and truly fed-up with their trips to SW6 over the years. The Evertonians never seem to make too much noise at Chelsea. It is as if they have given up before the matches begin. But Everton would be no mugs. Ever since they jettisoned Roberto Martinez for Ronald Koeman, they have looked a far more convincing team.

For some reason, I kept thinking back to a game against Everton in Jose Mourinho’s first season with us. Almost to the day, twelve years previously, Everton had provided a tough test for us as we strode to top the division for the very first time that season. I remember a lone Arjen Robben strike at the near post at the Shed End after a sprint into the box. We won 1-0 that day and went top. The excitement in the packed stands was palpable. It was a great memory from 2004/2005. We would hardly look back the rest of that momentous season.

Fast-forward to 2016/2017. We went in to the game with Everton in fourth place and with a chance – albeit slim – to go top once again. However, once heavily-fancied Manchester City were at home to lowly Middlesbrough at 3pm, and I fully expected City to win that one.

But we live in a place called hope, and there was a chance that City might slip up.

We had heard that the team was again unchanged; no surprises there.

I was in the stadium at just after 5pm. I didn’t want to miss the club’s salute to the fallen, ahead of next week’s Remembrance Day.

There was a cold chill in the air, and we waited for the stands to fill. How different to the “pay on the gate” days of the old terraces, when the stadium would be virtually full a good half-an-hour before kick-off for the big games; this always added to the sense of occasion and the anticipation. There even used to be singing from the terraces before the teams came out.

I know – crazy days, eh?

The lights dimmed with about five minutes to go. Instead of the focus being singularly on Remembrance Day, the club had decided to celebrate Guy Fawkes’ Night with some fireworks being set off into the London night from atop the East and West Stands.

The air crackled to the sound of the detonations, and the night sky turned white.

It was over in a few moments, a few flashes.

The smell of sulphur lingered. For a few moments, Stamford Bridge seemed to be hosting a proper London Fog of yesteryear. I almost spotted Hughie Gallacher, a ghost from the foggy ‘thirties, appeal for a penalty, pointing with rage at a referee.

And then, the “Chelsea Remembers” flag, including two poppies either side of the club crest, appeared down below in the Matthew Harding Lower. The teams entered the pitch, with the striking scarlet tunics of two Chelsea Pensioners leading the way.

There was applause.

And then there was silence as the teams stood in in the centre-circle.

A moment of solemn remembrance.

Perfect.

At the shrill sound of the referee’s whistle, a thunderous boom from the stands.

I’m not sure, with hindsight, if it was right and proper to combine both a celebration of Firework Night and Remembrance Day. Did the former detract from the latter? I think so.

We had heard that, miraculously, Middlesbrough had equalised at Eastlands. The chance for us to go top was back “on.”

I love days like these.

The game began and there was hardly an empty seat in the house. Even at games which are advertised as “sold out” it is always possible to see a fair few empty seats. Not on this occasion. In the first few moments, we were able to be reunited with Romelu Lukaku, whose shoulders are as wide as the African tectonic plate. He had a few runs at our defence, but all was well in the vaunted back-three.

His partner upfront soon drew a comment from Alan alongside me :

“Bolasie – go home.”

We began playing the ball around with ease. I noted that even Gary Cahill now looked totally comfortable playing the ball out of defence.

The coldness of the early evening had resulted in a few players wearing gloves. Alan was soon grumbling.

“Short-sleeved shirts and gloves. What’s all that about?”

“Reminds me of me doing the washing up, Al.”

We were warming up to a sixty-second blitz. Out wide on the left, Eden Hazard received the ball. As is his wont, he took on a couple of Everton defenders and shimmied inside. A little voice inside my head doubted if he could score from so far out. I need not have worried one iota. A low shot beat Stekelenburg at the far post.

“YEEEEEEESSSSSS.”

I jumped up and bellowed my approval, and I soon spotted Eden run over towards the Chelsea bench, and then get engulfed by players. Conte was in and among them. What joy. I’m amazed how defenders allow Hazard to cut inside. Surely their pre-match planning was to show him outside.

In the very next move, Hazard played the ball into space for Pedro to run onto. His square pass evaded Diego, but Marcos Alonso was on hand to smash the ball home.

We were 2-0 up on just twenty minutes, and playing some wonderful football.

A lofted chip from Alonso picked out the late run of Victor Moses, whose hard volley crashed against the outside of the near post.

We were purring.

Our one touch football was magnificent. Everyone looked comfortable on the ball. Everyone worked for each other. There was so much more movement than in previous campaigns. It was as if a switch had been pressed.

A corner was swung in and Matic eased it on. The ball conveniently fell at the feet of the waiting Diego Costa. He wasted no time in slamming it in.

Chelsea 3 Everton 0.

Wow.

I leaned over and spoke to Alan : “I think we are safe now.”

Just before the break, Pedro worked an opening but shot wide. Then, well inside his own half, a sublime turn by the effervescent Pedro released Diego Costa. It seemed that every single one of us in the ground was on our feet and willing him on. He broke away, evaded his defenders, but shot wide when I had spotted a Chelsea player square. This was breathless stuff this.

Quite magical.

We were leading 3-0 and it so easily could have been 5-0.

Total domination.

Everton were simply not in it.

I commented to Alan, PD and Bournemouth Steve : “That’s one of the best halves of football I have ever seen here.”

This really was sublime stuff. A keenness to tackle, and to retrieve the ball, and an incredible array of flicks and touches to keep the momentum once in possession. We were unstoppable.

I noted that a fair few hundred Evertonians had vacated their seats after the third goal. Their creditable three thousand would dwindle further as the game progressed.

I spoke to Kev and Anna : “In all the time that Mourinho was in charge here, we never ever played free-flowing football as good as that.”

They agreed.

Soon in to the second-half, we were treated to another gem. Diego had already threatened the Everton goal on two occasions, but we were soon treated to another Hazard gem. He played a crafty one-two with Pedro, who back-heeled the ball in his path, and advanced. With that low centre of gravity, he just glided forward. This time, his left foot guided the ball just inside the Everton near post. The ‘keeper hardly moved.

What a finish. It amazed me.

Chelsea 4 Everton 0.

Super stuff.

Eden raced back towards his team mates, his tongue out, smiling, in a perfect moment. I noticed that all ten outfield players surrounded him in a close huddle. At the Shed End, Thibaut Courtois had hoisted himself on to the cross bar and had performed a handstand, with a back somersault on dismount. He was bored. It gave him something to do.

The Stamford Bridge crowd were on fire, and a new chant soon echoed around the stadium.

“Antonio. Antonio. Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

Simple but effective and so much better than that other one. The manager, raised his arms and clapped all four stands. It was his moment just as much as ours. Lovely stuff.

And still it continued.

A delightful back-heel from Eden and another lofted cross from Alonso resulted in a spectacular volley from Diego which was well saved by Stekelenburg.

I whispered to Steve : “Alonso has been fantastic – so much energy.”

On sixty-five minutes, Diego broke from the halfway line, showing great strength to race away from two markers, and strode on. He set up Eden who forced the ‘keeper to parry. The ball dropped at the feet of Pedro.

Bosh.

5-0.

Oh my oh my.

There was still twenty-five minutes to go and we were leading 5-0.

Oscar replaced Pedro, who received a standing ovation; he had been wonderful. Oscar dolloped a lovely ball for Diego to run on to, but the ball got stuck under his feet and the chance went begging. David Luiz volley from an angle forced Stekelenburg to tip over. Luiz had enjoyed another fine game. His series of “keepy-uppies” and a nonchalant pass to a waiting team mate drew warm applause.

And all through this demolition job, Antonio Conte did not sit for one minute. He paced the technical area, coaxing and cajoling his team to greater deeds. It was amazing to watch.

Everton were leggy and I almost felt sorry for them. They had been swept aside by a Chelsea whirlwind.

Conte, to my surprise, added Batshuayi to play alongside Costa. By this time, only a few hundred Evertonians were still in the stadium. I bet that they were not happy about us playing with an extra man in attack.

“Leave it out, la.”

Batshuayi replaced Eden.

It had been a perfect display from Eden. He had been simply unplayable.

A perfect ten.

We applauded him as loudly as anyone that I can remember in living memory.

Moses cut inside and Stekelenburg fumbled, but the ball stayed close to him. John Terry replaced Gary Cahill and soon played a superb faded ball through with his left foot, but we were flagged for offside.

It remained 5-0.

Five bloody nil.

Superb.

Maybe the club should have saved some fireworks for the end of this particular game. It would have ended the evening’s entertainment perfectly.

There had been a gathering of the clans in the pubs around Stamford Bridge before the game; Dave the Hat from France, Kevin and Richard from Edinburgh, Bob from California. I am sure that they, and everyone else, had loved every damn minute of it.

On the drive home, PD, Parky and myself were euphoric. Rarely had we played better. Sure, there have been more dramatic games of football, and more hard-fought victories, often resulting in silverware, but this one was so special. Everton had hardly had an attempt on goal the entire game. They are no slouches, but we could have won 8-0.

As I drove into the night, with fireworks exploding into the sky, I was reminded of a few other games where I had come away from Stamford Bridge, thinking “that was almost perfect.”

A 6-0 against Newcastle United in 1980 with two old-fashioned wingers and a beautiful “feel good factor” which lasted for weeks. The football had been wonderful.

A 4-0 against Newcastle United in 1983, when the John Neal team produced a near-perfect performance. Newcastle had been favourites for promotion but we were so dominant that day.

A 5-0 against Middlesbrough in 1996, and a fantastic show of one-touch football under Glenn Hoddle. A game which got the media talking and which made me feel energised for many weeks.

Since then, of course, we have enjoyed ridiculous riches, and I can rattle off many memorable games at Stamford Bridge. Three against Barcelona, a few against Liverpool, a few against Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United. But there was not a dramatic change in our playing style in any of those games.

But those three from 1980, 1983 and 1996, and the one against Everton on Firework Night 2016, seemed different; they signified that there was something fresh happening, that we had set new benchmarks for the future.

Incredible.

Remember remember the fifth of November?

We certainly won’t forget the one in 2016.

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Tales From A Lucky Escape

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 9 November 2013.

One of my earliest footballing memories as a small child was being informed by my father that my chosen football team’s nickname was “The Pensioners.” The year was 1970, or maybe 1971, and the club’s link to those famous scarlet-clad residents of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea was explained to me. Of course, in reality, this nickname – our original nickname – was dropped in the ‘fifties by the then manager Ted Drake in favour of the more generic “The Blues.” My father, not really a football fan, was probably unaware of this change. As my support for Chelsea grew with each passing season in the early ‘seventies, I seem to remember that I soon adopted the newer nickname despite “The Pensioners” being mentioned in various schoolboy football magazines and on bubble gum cards. With each year, though, the usage declined.

There had clearly been, if you will excuse the pun, a changing of the guard since the ‘fifties.

“The Pensioners” were out and “The Blues” were in.

I’ll be honest; in all of my time of going to football at Chelsea, I cannot recall a single instance of a supporter yelling “Come on you Pensioners.”

It’s a shame really. One of football’s more charismatic and romantic nicknames is no more. I can remember writing a letter to Ken Bates c. 1982 asking if “The Pensioners” could be reinstated in place of the bland and ubiquitous “Blues.” It was met with a swift rebuff from the chairman. He cited Ted Drake’s reasoning that “The Pensioners” made the club sound like a music hall joke.

And yet, the link between Chelsea Football Club and the Royal Hospital still exists. At every home game, free tickets are given by the club so that up to eight former soldiers can attend. I always remember – back in the late ‘eighties – a Chelsea Pensioner, “Geordie”, dropping in to our favoured hostelry of the time, The Black Bull, and enjoying a pre-match tipple. I loved seeing him in there. He was a Newcastle fan through birth, but a Chelsea fan through fate. Although our colour is blue, there is something quite beautiful about that rich red tunic. Maybe this is because red is such a rare colour at Stamford Bridge. The contrast always strikes me as quite endearing.

One of my favourite memories of recent years at Stamford Bridge was the perfectly choreographed Championship celebrations after the match against Charlton Athletic, following on from the win at Bolton. The Chelsea Pensioners played an integral role that day. It was magnificent, stirring stuff.

So, although the nickname is consigned to history, the vivid scarlet uniforms and the neat black caps of the Chelsea Pensioners still play a role in the public face of Chelsea Football Club. And long may it continue.

It had been a rather long-winded journey up to Stamford Bridge from Somerset. I had collected Parky and then Bournemouth Steve en route to the capital. An England vs. Argentina rugby game at Twickenham had forced me up on to the M4, where I managed to get embroiled in heavy traffic. Eventually, I was parked-up at 12.30pm.

Parky and I fancied a change and so dipped into “The Rylston” – formerly the Normand Arms – on Lillee Road for an hour. Previously, the pub had looked rather rough and ready in its former guise, but has recently experienced a makeover so typical of many pubs in and around the Fulham area. There was new décor with a classic retro feel, black and white tiles, black and white photos, a food menu and some great brews on tap. Although it was only four hundred yards on from the football-mad “Goose”, there was little evidence of any Chelsea fans inside.

At 1.30pm, we had moved on and the difference in “The Goose” was all too evident.

A packed pub, a boisterous crowd, familiar faces – and cheaper prices.

Outside in the beer garden, it was a pleasure to see Mike from NYC once again, alongside Dave the Hat, both full of beer and bollocks.

The laughter rang out.

On the walk down to Stamford Bridge, it was a typical scene on a Saturday match day. Although Londoners were going about their usual routines – queuing up at the busy market stalls along the North End Road, dipping in and out of betting shops, catching the tube into central London at Fulham Broadway, dining out along Vanston Place – the area was dominated by the football match soon to commence a few hundred yards away. The hundreds marched towards Stamford Bridge as three o’clock neared. And so shall it always be.

An image from Chelsea’s history once again; a black and white photograph of Stamford Bridge just after World War One, many former soldiers, in wheelchairs, in front of the old East Stand on the old dog track, blinking in the afternoon light, their bodies weakened by the ravages of conflict, but now smiling at the camera, contented to be watching their footballing heroes once more. One wonders what stories those fellows could tell; of brothers no longer able to embrace the gentle caress of the autumn sun, of glorious battles won and the searing pain of loss.

I’m sure I am not the only Chelsea supporter who can’t escape linking the early years of our club, formed just nine years before the outbreak of what was called “The Great War”, with our country’s military history in those tumultuous years. We were, after all, participants in the “Khaki Cup Final” of 1915. I wonder how many Chelsea followers from our first few years only enjoyed the briefest of lives.

Let’s remember them.

The roar of the crowd ushered the end of the perfectly-observed minute’s silence and the four Chelsea Pensioners slowly walked from the Stamford Bridge pitch to take their seats in the East Stand, just like their predecessors throughout the years.

Time to check the team – Frank Lampard and Eden Hazard returning. Time to check the crowd – another full house, and 1,500 away fans. The return of Steve Clarke but no Nicolas Anelka.

The first-half was a hum-drum affair. West Brom were well drilled and made life difficult for us. A few chances were exchanged at either end. The Shed End could be heard singing at various times, but generally the atmosphere was quiet. The away fans were not in the same caliber as the visiting Schalke contingent on Wednesday.

With Mourinho yet again favouring Ramires and Lampard at the base of the midfield, we looked towards the three of Hazard, Oscar and Willian to unravel the Baggies’ well-marshalled defence. Chelsea again relied on the advanced runs of Ivanovic, who was often a full fifteen yards further upfield than Oscar; it didn’t always pay off. There was yet more over-elaboration and a reluctance to hit Eto’o early with intelligent through balls. It was turgid stuff. Willian, though new to the club, looks willing yet at this stage is only a link player – moving the ball on – rather than an impact player. We’ll give him time.

I missed Shane Long’s follow through on John Terry, though the crowd wailed in displeasure.

On the half-hour, Oscar lined up a free-kick from a central location. His wildly dipping shot was easily tipped over by Myhill.

Just before the break, Hazard at last decided to run at pace at the West Brom defence. He cut inside and watched as his low shot was clawed away by the Albion ‘keeper. The ball was not cleared and Samuel Eto’o slammed the ball in from behind the hesitant Ridgewell.

1-0.

This sort of predatory goal from Eto’o seems to be his trademark in his early Chelsea career. More of the same each week please. The goal brought the home support to life, but it didn’t fool anyone; it had been a poor half.

During the break, former midfield stalwart, captain and manager John Hollins was on the pitch with Neil Barnett. It was time for me to quickly scan the match programme. There were lovely words for Steve Clarke from Jose Mourinho –

“I have to publicly say thanks to a great man who gave me all of his support in my first period at Chelsea, a man of values, a family guy, a hard worker and a loyal man.”

A few friends and I were discussing Steve Clarke only recently. I had posed the question as to “who was the last Scot to play for Chelsea?” and, although I initially thought it was Craig Burley, of course the answer – unless I am mistaken – was Steve Clarke, whose last match in royal blue was in Stockholm in 1998. Our history has been littered with Scottish players throughout the years, yet it is over fifteen years since a Scot appeared in a Chelsea shirt.

No pressure, Islam Feruz…

The Scottish players reel off the tongue…Jimmy Croal, Hughie Gallacher, Tommy Walker, Eddie MacCreadie, Charlie Cooke and Ian Britton . Ironically, elsewhere in the programme,  Rick Glanvill chose to pick a game from the 1984-1985 season, against West Brom, which highlighted the presence of several Scottish players of that era; the three internationals Pat Nevin, David Speedie and Doug Rougvie, plus the steady Joe McLaughlin.

Elsewhere, a whole article was devoted to one of my favourite Chelsea matches of all; Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, November 1983. Thankfully, the programme mentioned in great detail the one absolute highlight.

“Nevin’s run.”

Just before half-time, Pat Nevin won a loose ball from a Newcastle United attack in The Shed penalty box on the West Stand side. “When Saturday Comes” founder Mike Ticher, in a great article about the run a few years later,  claimed  that Pat had nut-megged Kevin Keegan at the start of the move, but I can’t confirm this. However, Pat then set off on a mesmerizing dance down the entire length of the pitch, around five yards inside the West Stand touchline. This wasn’t a full-on sprint. Pat wasn’t that fast. At five foot six inches he was the same height as me. Pat’s skill was a feint here, a feint there, a dribble, a turn, a swivel, beating defender after defender through a body-swerve, a turn…it was pure art, a man at his peak…he must have left five or six defenders in his wake and I guess the whole run lasted around thirty seconds…he may well have beaten the same man twice…each time he waltzed past a defender, the noise increased, we were bewitched, totally at his mercy…amazingly he reached the far goal-line…a dribble of around 100 yards. He beat one last man, looked up and lofted a ball goal ward. Pat’s crosses always seemed to have a lot of air on them, he hardly ever whipped balls in…his artistry was in the pinpoint cross rather a thunderbolt…a rapier, not a machine gun. The ball was arched into the path of an in-rushing Kerry Dixon. We gasped…we waited…my memory is that it just eluded Kerry’s head and drifted off for a goal-kick, Kerry may have headed it over. Whatever – it didn’t matter. On that misty afternoon in West London, we had witnessed pure genius. I loved Pat Nevin with all my heart – he still is my favourite player of all time – and most Chelsea fans of my generation felt the same.

Alongside Bournemouth Steve, Alan and I was Gary’s father Ron, who has been going to Chelsea for decades. He had no recollection of Pat Nevin’s master class against Newcastle in 1983, though he was surely there, but mentioned an equally impressive run by Horatio “Raich” Carter, who played for Derby County against Chelsea in the ‘forties.

So many games, so many memories.

The second-half began. Oscar found Eden Hazard with an absolutely sublime through ball which arched over the West Brom defence and ended up on Hazard’s toes. Sadly, the reinstated Belgian struggled to control the exquisite ball – the best pass of the season thus far – and the ball squirmed away.

West Brom began to exert some pressure on our defence and a fine, firm cross from Amalfitano found the leaping Shane Long, whose header had Cech beaten, but bounced up and away off the post.

Our play was faltering, and I shouted out in frustration –

“Someone take some responsibility.”

Soon after, the visitors – perhaps deservedly – equalised when a header from McAuley was parried high by Cech from close range, only for Shane Long to do “an Eto’o” and squeeze home from a leap between our dithering defenders.

1-1.

The away fans sang “The Lord Is My Shephard.”

Mourinho replaced the poor Lampard with Demba Ba, while Oscar moved back alongside fellow Brazilian Ramires. Sadly, a second away goal soon followed. Ivanovic, forever pressing up field, was caught in possession (illegally to my, no doubt, biased eyes) and West Brom broke. Our defence was now back-peddling and we struggled to pick up the rampaging attackers. It was one of those moments when I sensed fear; I was sadly correct. The ball was worked quickly to the impressive Sessegnon, whose weak shot managed to evade Cech’s rather pathetic attempt to block.

1-2.

Mourinho rolled his dice once more; on came Mikel and the much loved Mata. A shot from Ivanovic was saved by Myhill, a header from Willian flew over, a cross from Cahill was aimed at Ba and he couldn’t connect. The frustration amongst the home fans was now apparent as we struggled to fight our way back. Yet, the noise levels slowly grew, as we pounded the West Brom rear guard. Corner after corner were met with resounding headers from Olsson and the rest of the visiting defenders who seemed able and willing to rebuff all of our attacking notions with vigour.

Then – heart in mouth. A West Brom break and we were staring a third goal in the face. We were outnumbered, but thankfully Brunt chose to shoot himself rather than play others in.

Four extra minutes were signalled and we willed the team on. Big John banged the balcony wall once more.

Thud, thud – thud, thud, thud – thud, thud, thud, thud – “CHELSEA!”

A ball was pushed into the path of Ramires, running alongside Reid. The Brazilian fell and I looked at the referee Andre Marriner. In truth, there wasn’t a great shout for a penalty and I fully expected the referee to book Rami for diving. After a momentary stall, the referee unbelievably pointed to the spot. Everyone around me – we had a perfect view – shook our heads and mouthed “never a penalty.” One chap in front of me clearly couldn’t take the tension and hurriedly clambered over the seats to leave before the penalty was taken.

After what seemed like ages, we watched as Eden Hazard calmly waited and slotted the ball in. There was a guttural roar from the Stamford Bridge crowd and I caught Hazard’s ecstatic leap and spin on camera as he raced away.

2-2.

Phew.

This was clearly a ropey performance from Chelsea, albeit against a pretty reasonable team. One can only hope that the manager, players and supporters react well and move on. This is clearly a season of transition and evolution, rather than whole spread change; a season where Mourinho is trying to identify strengths and weaknesses in his squad, in order to provide a stable future. There will be periods of growth and periods of fallow. So be it.

I’m not going anywhere.

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Tales From 24 Photographs From The Round Of 32

Chelsea vs. Sparta Prague : 21 February 2013.

On the evening of Thursday 21st. February, I took 58 photographs at the Chelsea vs. Sparta Prague game. I uploaded 24 of these to my latest Chelsea album on Facebook. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. Here are a few words about these photographs.

Photograph 1 : 8.01pm.

A close-up shot of the Europa League banner. This had been placed on the Stamford Bridge pitch in front of the West Stand, awaiting the arrival of the two teams. The Europa League represents a new competition for Chelsea Football Club although we took part in its predecessor, the UEFA Cup, in 2000-2001, 2001-2002 and 2002-2003. In the pub beforehand, my mate Daryl commented that he was tempted to miss the night’s game, but he has attended every single one of Chelsea’s European home games since our return in 1994, so felt compelled to buy a ticket. I’ve missed a few; the last one was, ironically, against Sparta Prague in November 2004, when I was tied down at work. I think I’ve missed five home games over the years; Vaalerenga, Hapoel Tel Aviv, MSK Zilina, Helsingborgs, Sparta Prague.

Photograph 2 : 8.03pm.

The two teams standing in a line. A TV cameraman is taking those up-close-and-personal shots of the players. Chelsea in their kit, Sparta wearing tracksuit tops. It was great to see John Terry back in the line-up.

Photograph 3 : 8.03pm.

A photograph of the yellow and burgundy Europa League flag. While the unfamiliar Europa League anthem was played, the flag was being fluttered in the centre-circle by a dozen UEFA clad helpers. With a new colour scheme – no more Chelsea blue and white on European midweek games for now – and with unfamiliar advertising hoardings around the circumference – Hankook, HTC – the night seemed strange from the off-set, like a game being played in a parallel universe. During the anthem, the away section lit up with a hundred or so mobile phone lights – like Napoli last season – and I noticed a few Sparta fans in other parts of the stadium too.

Photograph 4 : 8.04pm.

Another shot of the two teams, the Europa League banner in view. Although the first game at the Letna Stadium was poor, Sparta didn’t offer too much of a threat to Chelsea. I expected a comfortable passage to the next round – the awkwardly titled “Round of Sixteen” – and I had even gambled on flights to Amsterdam, expecting both Chelsea and Ajax to progress.

Photograph 5 : 8.04pm.

A close-up photograph of the Sparta Prague players shaking hands with the Chelsea team. I wondered what the Sparta “game-plan” would be. Contain or attack? Stick or twist?

Photograph 6 : 8.05pm.

A close-up shot of the away fans. In the pub before the game, there were around ten Czech fans, quietly chatting and drinking around a table. A couple were wearing Torino-esque pomegranate coloured Sparta scarves, but their match-day attire was understated and normal. There was even a couple of classically “high-cheek boned” Czech girls in the group. I approved.

Photograph 7 : 8.05pm.

Another close-up of the Czech fans. As soon as I had walked into the stadium, I noticed an orange glow emanating from the away corner. This surprised me since I knew that the Sparta kit colours were – like Roma – burgundy, white, black. After zooming in on the away section, the reason for the orange glow was apparent. Virtually every single one of the three thousand Sparta fans was wearing blue, yellow and red woollen hats. I had never seen this at a game before. Top marks to them. The Sparta crest is blue, yellow and red. Overall, the away end looked orange. What with the Europa League banners in the stadium too, this was turning out to be quite a new visual experience.

Photograph 8 : 8.05pm.

A photograph of the upper tier of the away section. More ski-hats, more colour. Of the three-hundred fans in the photo, there is only one without the hat. Typically, a few “half-and-half” scarves but, as this was a game between teams from two different leagues I saw no problem with that. It was a bitterly cold night in SW6 and everyone was wrapped up in warm jackets. A few wre wearing their Sparta shirts over their outer jackets; maybe their mothers weren’t around this morning to dress them properly. There was an absence of shiny puffer jackets, much beloved by the Italians. Maybe they haven’t reached Prague yet.

Photograph 9 : 8.15pm.

A shot of eight Chelsea pensioners, resplendent in their rich scarlet overcoats sitting at the rear of the East Middle. In front, there was an array of unoccupied seats. I had noted during the day that the Chelsea website had declared the match “sold-out.” This both pleased me and surprised me; the last thing that I wanted was the football world poking fun at Chelsea’s possibly spoiled fan base turning their collective nose up at the Europa League. However, although the rest of The Bridge was full, this corporate area – of some 2,000 seats – was predominantly unoccupied. The question to ask here is; did the corporates decide that this game was not worthy of their presence or did Chelsea get their pricing structure wrong?

Photograph 10 : 8.32pm.

A photograph just before the point of contact of Juan Mata’s boot as he aims a free-kick goal wards goal. The Sparta wall is just about to leap. By this stage in the game, despite a promising start with Torres squandering two good chances, Sparta had gone ahead via a quick free-kick and a goal from Lafata.

Photograph 11 : 8.34pm.

A photograph of the action inside the Chelsea penalty area from a Sparta corner. The ball is just about to be headed clear by Gary Cahill. Despite Chelsea dominating possession during the first-half, Sparta were clearly not just sitting back. The tie was now level and a Sparta away goal would put them at a huge advantage.

Photograph 12 : 8.44pm.

The Prague ‘keeper Vaclik, who had a poor first game, is photographed catching the ball from a Juan Mata corner. Just before the break, Fernando Torres headed over. It clearly was not going to be his night.

Photograph 13 : 9.19pm.

A photograph of the photographers. Dressed in Sparta burgundy, they are poised with their long lenses to capture that elusive Chelsea equaliser at the north end of the stadium. The second-half had begun with Oscar, now showing what a well-rounded and accomplished midfielder looks like – strong in the tackle, good balance, tremendous close skill, great vision – dancing through the Sparta defence with a tremendous run. His ball found Ramires whose shot on goal was deflected onto a post. A lovely turn from Torres was not matched by the finish. He found himself one on one with the ‘keeper but his attempted flick over – with all of ready to celebrate – was amazingly swatted away by Vaclik.

Photograph 14 : 9.21pm.

Push and shove inside the Sparta penalty area. Juan Mata’s cross is out of shot, but players of both teams are moving in every direction possible to elude each other. John Terry is seen pulling a sleeve. One defender is facing away from the ball, creating a block for Mikel. I really wonder why the much-lampooned goal-line officials bother showing up; when have they ever spotted any of these illegal activities during a match? As the second-half developed, the Chelsea fans – already out-shouted by the away fans – began getting more abusive. On the hour, there was a loud shout of “Jose Mourinho” from the Matthew Harding Lower.

Photopraph 15 : 9.23pm.

The ball is headed away by a Prague defender, with Ryan Bertrand challenging. I commented to Alan that Ryan needed a good game; if I’m honest he hasn’t developed particularly well since his surprising involvement in the game in Munich. Ah, Munich. Just the word sends me dizzy.

Photograph 16 : 9.35pm.

John Terry in attack, heading back across goal from another Mata corner. By now, we had wasted many free-kicks in and around the box and Sparta had threatened on a few forays up field. Benitez replaced Oscar – our best player in my book – with Eden Hazard. The dice were being thrown.

Photograph 17 : 9.35pm.

A photo of the Prague fans in the Shed Lower raising their scarves above their head. With their constant chants of “Sparta! Sparta! Sparta!” sounding similar to “Barca! Barca! Barca!” and their yellow and red of Catalonia plus the burgundy and blue of Barcelona, I wondered if there might be an Iniesta-like strike to send us packing. An away goal now and it would be Czech, mate.

Photograph 18 : 9.35pm.

Eden Hazard, in extreme close-up, down below me, shaping to zip a free-kick goal wards. Our domination continued but Torres’ poor night was summed up when a Ramires effort hit him in the chest.

Photograph 19 : 9.50pm.

Juan Mata caught taking yet another free-kick. One after another they came. The frustration rose with every missed opportunity. Ramires wide. A Hazard free-kick was parried by Vaclik. Ramires kicked and missed.

Photograph 20 : 9.53pm.

Bodies in the box. Victor Moses is photographed attempting to latch onto a loose ball. The Prague defenders heads clear. By this stage, we had heard that Ajax was losing 1-0. My flight to Amsterdam was looking in jeopardy. A Gary Cahill block stopped a crucial Sparta goal.

Photograph 21 : 9.55pm.

The captain John Terry is photographed booting the ball goal wards. He had already come close with an impudent flick from close in. At the other end, a Sparta Prague break had caused me to look away – I hardly ever do that – but an effort from Kadlec was zipped wide. That chance really should have sealed the tie. Apilicueta shot high from an angle. Penalties were looming large.

Photograph 22 : 9.58pm.

Eden Hazard is engulfed by ecstatic Chelsea players down below me. In extra-time, the substitute had cut inside a defender, using that lovely low centre of gravity body swerve and worked the ball onto his left foot. A thunderbolt flew past the redoubtable Vaclik and, although I at first thought that Hazard’s thunderstrike had rippled the side-netting, the roar from the Stamford Bridge crowd told me otherwise. I continued snapping the players’ celebrations below.

Photograph 23 : 9.58pm.

A close-up of Torres, Ramires, Mikel, Moses, Hazard and Bertrand. Beside me Alan was shouting for joy – and relief. Phew. It was virtually the last kick of the game. We were through. Phew again.

Photgrapho 24 : 10.01pm.

A photograph of the Sparta Prague team, lined-up, arms around each other, basking in the warm applause of the colourful three-thousand away fans. Soon after, the entire away end was bouncing in joyous abandon. This had clearly been an enjoyable night for them in London. Their players’ performance had been very brave; they almost pulled off the unexpected. The Sparta supporters’ performance was even better. I take my hat off to them.

The 24 Photographs –

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Tales From The Blue Corner And The Red Corner

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 11 November 2012.

It was early morning on Remembrance Sunday.

Outside, the fields surrounding my Somerset village were frosted white. The sky was pure blue, devoid of clouds. Although this was a day of football, this was also a day of solemn contemplation and appreciation. Later in the morning, there would be a church service at the parish church of St. Andrew’s to commemorate those who had died while serving in the armed forces. Before the day gathered speed, I decided that I’d like to have my own little moment of quiet. I made my way down to the centre of the village and took a few photographs in and around the village church. Poppies bordered the pathway leading into the churchyard. The sun shone brightly. The village was barely awake.

Towards the eastern edge of the churchyard, there was one gravestone which I needed to capture on film. Siegfried Sassoon, one of England’s famous war poets – along with Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke – spent much of his life in my home village. It was his wish to be buried underneath the limestone spire of Mells church, alongside the avenue of yew trees, facing forever east into the Somerset countryside. As I approached his grave, I noticed the shadow from another grave – a cross – slanting across the plain tombstone. There was a ruby red bouquet and a single red poppy.

I wandered down to the village war memorial and took several more photographs. The memorial was designed by Edwin Lutyens, the famous British architect who was also responsible for London’s Cenotaph. In a quiet moment, I stood in the quiet Somerset morning. The names of the brave young men from the village who lost their lives in the two world wars were etched on Somerset stone. It was time for silence.

A Whispered Tale.

I’d heard fool-heroes brag of where they’d been,
With stories of the glories that they’d seen.
But you, good simple soldier, seasoned well
In woods and posts and crater-lines of hell,
Who dodge remembered ‘crumps’ with wry grimace,
Endured experience in your queer, kind face,
Fatigues and vigils haunting nerve-strained eyes,
And both your brothers killed to make you wise;
You had no babbling phrases; what you said
Was like a message from the maimed and dead.
But memory brought the voice I knew, whose note
Was muted when they shot you in the throat;
And still you whisper of the war, and find
Sour jokes for all those horrors left behind.

Siegfried Sassoon.

My friend Francis, who I first met on my inaugural day at Frome College in September 1978, collected me at just after 9am. Parky joined us en route. The banter soon started flying around. Francis is a Liverpool fan and, in some respects, is my lucky charm. He has attended around seven Chelsea vs. Liverpool games with me – including the momentous Champions League semi-final from 2008 – and was yet to see his team victorious.

The very first of these was way back in May 1991, when we travelled up by train from Frome, along with two of my former workmates Dave and Matthew. Liverpool, under Graeme Souness, were putting in a very late challenge to retain their title, but a strong Chelsea performance that day gave us a deserved 4-2 win. Our team included players such as Dave Beasant, Jason Cundy, Andy Townsend, Dennis Wise, Alan Dickens, Kerry Dixon and Gordon Durie. The four of us watched from high up in the old West Stand. It was a great game, our last home match of the season. I remember that I had to defend Francis and Matthew, who was also a Liverpool fan, from abuse from Chelsea fellow fans after they celebrated a little too noisily. Two goals from King Kerry gave us the win. Arsenal went on to win the League Championship. Liverpool, of course, is still waiting for their first title since 1990. It’s hard to fathom that the team which so dominated the football scene in my childhood (championships in 1973, 1976, 1977, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1988 and 1990) are still waiting. Although Manchester United suffered twenty-six years of title-drought from 1967 to 1993, their success in the ‘sixties was not as dominant as Liverpool in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. The comparison is valid, in terms of yearning, though Liverpool’s drought seems more dramatic somehow. I think that league success for Liverpool is still some time away.

Francis is off to the US next summer with his family. They are visiting Orlando, Miami and New York. We have been chatting about places to see, travel tips and possible itineraries for ages. For once it will be me living vicariously through his travel experiences. He has always been supremely interested in my trips to the US, to NYC especially, and I can’t wait to hear of his time across the Atlantic next August. We’ve spoken about baseball; rather annoyingly, the only Yankee game taking place is on the evening of his arrival from Miami, only hours after touching down at La Guardia. We think he’ll settle for a Mets game instead.

At 11am, we turned the radio on in order to hear the chimes from Westminster to signal the two minute’s silence at The Cenotaph.

We were parked up in good time and dived into the café for a filling breakfast. Parky darted into The Goose, but Francis and I headed down to The Bridge. I pointed out a few of the changes to the landscape since Francis’ last visit. Walking along Vanston Place, we passed a wine merchants’ and an upmarket restaurant. Often after midweek games, these two establishments are often full of late night carousers. I mentioned to Francis that there is often a late-night wine-tasting session taking place in the former. It’s typical Hammersmith and Fulham, typical Kensington and Chelsea, typical London. I don’t suppose that there are similar activities at 10pm near stadia in Wigan, Sunderland or Swansea.

I collected my Juventus ticket – fantastic to get my hands on it – and we walked around to the main forecourt, past the old Shed wall; the last remaining structure, apart from the East stand, from that game in 1991. My friend Lynda, from Pennsylvania, had arranged to meet us. She introduced us to Tee, her significant other, and we quickly popped up to the hotel foyer to meet Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti. I first met Lynda in The Goose on a NYB trip two seasons ago. Lynda was in the Chelsea team against PSG at Chelsea Piers in New York in July. It was great to see her again. The two of them had just flown in and were off to the delights of Madrid during the week. Tee, once he had spotted Ron Harris, needed a little moment to compose himself. Of course, Ron is the Chelsea equivalent of Manchester United’s Bobby Charlton, Bayern Munich’s Franz Beckenbauer, Baltimore Orioles’ Cal Ripken, San Francisco 49ers’ Joe Montana. What a treat for him to meet Chelsea’s two leading appearance makers on his first trip to Chelsea, his first trip to England. It would be like me informally chatting to Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford on my first ever visit to Yankee Stadium.

Wow. No wonder he was dizzy.

We took some photos. Francis quizzed Tee about visiting America while Lynda and I caught up on a few things. Thankfully, Sandy didn’t cause too much hardship to her house and home. I also bumped into Gary from LA, an ex-pat who I first met on the US tour in 2007.

For the next two hours, we spent an enjoyable time in two Chelsea pubs; “The Imperial” on the Kings Road, the former watering hole of Matthew Harding, and “The Pelican” on Waterford Road. I was able, at long bloody last, to chill out and enjoy some pints, even though they were served in poxy plastic glasses. Tee, who is a professional footballer with the Dayton Dutch Lions, was having a great time. He has been a Chelsea fan since 1998 and his personal favourite was Michael Essien. He was dismayed when he was loaned out to Real Madrid; imagine Tee’s pleasure, then, when he realised that he is able to see Ess play in Madrid next weekend. Free tickets too, but that’s another story. It was lovely for Francis and I to spend time with our guests from the US, to experience their enthusiasm for the game at first hand, to join in their fun. It’s what football is all about. On leaving “The Pelican,” all four of us almost got knocked over by a crowd of several hundred in-line skaters, streaming through the streets of Fulham, ghetto-blasters roaring. I repeat my comment about stadia in Wigan, Sunderland or Swansea.

I bought a programme and we said our goodbyes to Lynda and Tee, who would be watching from the south-west corner of The Shed Lower, only a few yards away from Lord Parky. I told Lynda to keep an eye out for his flailing crutches should we score. This part of the stadium seems to be the de facto home for all CFC supporters’ group tickets these days.

Inside the stadium, all of the usual banners had been removed from behind both goals and, in their place, two banners of remembrance stood alone, just above the goalmouths. This was a great touch by Chelsea. We took our seats – Francis to my left, Alan to my right – and ran through the teams. It would be a big day for the two young full-backs, Ryan Bertrand and Cesar Azpilicueta. Torres was starting of course, and we lived in hope. We wanted him to constantly attack the aging Carragher. Despite the F.A. Cup Final win over Liverpool in May, there is no doubt that they have been a thorn in our side of late. Their last three visits to Stamford Bridge all resulted in away wins. It was time for revenge, of sorts. We just don’t like Liverpool, do we?

This game would be my fifty-ninth game involving the two teams (thirty-seven games at Stamford Bridge, eighteen times at Anfield, two at Cardiff, one at Old Trafford and one at Wembley). What is that old saying about familiarity and contempt? I’ve seen Chelsea play Liverpool more times than any other team. Every fifteen games, around come Liverpool again.

Both teams gave a guard of honour to members of the serving armed forces and, of course, to the Chelsea pensioners, marching so proudly in their bright scarlet coats and tricorn hats.

There was a near perfect silence in honour of the fallen before the kick-off. The only sound, thankfully not particularly audible, was from down below in the area underneath the Matthew Harding where some shameless home fans were singing about “poor little scousers.” I hoped that the noise was not discernible on the live TV feed.

After the two magnificent matches against Manchester United and Shakhtar Donetsk, we all wondered what the game would have in store for us. Tom looked as though he couldn’t take another 94 minutes of drama.

Despite the two clubs’ recent intense rivalry, I thought that the atmosphere wasn’t great at all. Maybe we had been “all yelled out” against Shakhtar. The Liverpool fans began noisily but soon faded. They held up a flag saying “Football Without Fans Is Nothing” before the game – nice sentiment, not sure who it was aimed at. They also had a flag which stated the oft-cited “Against Modern Football.” I first saw Ipswich Town fans with this banner at Stamford Bridge on their visit in 2009. Again, I understand the sentiment. For all of my enjoyment in following the club and for all of the magical moments I have witnessed, the sport of football can still be a bloody train wreck.

Obscene wages, aloof players, malevolent owners, loathsome agents, numpty fans, the cult of celebrity and lurid tabloid headlines, the WAGs, the hangers-on, the gutter press, the cost of tickets. It goes on.

Maybe one day even I will stop in my tracks and cry “enough is enough.”

Liverpool enjoyed the bulk of possession in the first-half, but rarely troubled Petr Cech. A shot from Oscar, so strong of late, was our only real threat on the Liverpool in the first twenty minutes. It sailed high of the Shed End goal. Fernando Torres began the game brightly, though, skipping away from his markers on two occasions, and we hoped that his enthusiasm wouldn’t wane.

A great corner from Juan Mata, with Lynda and Tee looking on, was whipped in and John Terry, returning from his four game ban, rose unhindered and the ball flew into the net. It was a dramatic blow and The Bridge erupted with noise. Our captain sprinted down to the south-west corner and I snapped away like a fool, catching the players behind one of the three large flags which are waved each time a Chelsea goal is scored. In several photos, Tee can be seen grinning maniacally.

Fantastic stuff.

Chelsea goal scorers always seem to celebrate by running down to the three “Chelsea” corners of the pitch at Stamford Bridge. Luckily for me, this affords great photo opportunities. I can’t think of many other teams that similarly do this. Long may it continue.

The headed goal from JT reminded me of a similar goal on Remembrance Sunday in 2009 when we defeated Manchester United 1-0. A similar result would be just fine. In truth, chances were at a premium for both teams. Liverpool laboured away without much threat. A Torres strike was aimed at Brad Jones in the away goal and Hazard shot wide. Sadly, John Terry fell awkwardly in his own half and I could see immediately that our captain was in tremendous pain. We watched on as players, then our medical team, surrounded him. He was sadly stretchered off and Alan wondered if we would see him again this season.

In the closing moments of the first period, Juan Mata broke through and shot wildly over when we all wanted him to take an extra touch and possibly waltz around Jones.

At the break, Ron Harris was on the pitch with Neil Barnett. I always remember a story Ron told about a game against Liverpool in March 1979. He had been told that he would not be playing, so he went out on the Friday night and, quite unlike him, had got rather drunk on Irish coffee (of all things). On the day of the game, the Chelsea manager Danny Blanchflower had a change of heart and Chopper was playing. Although we were a very poor team that season, we drew 0-0 with the European Champions and Ron was named Man of the Match. It is not known if he repeated that pre-match ritual in later games. As an aside, Ron often played in a midfield role during that season and – even more bizarrely – often wore the number nine shirt.

Soon into the second-half Francis and I were treated to another classic comment from Alan –

“I saw that game the other night. Liverpool versus Anzi Machalach…Anzi Mallacaz…Anzi Makhachkala …I’d never heard of them before. Turns out they’re a team from Merseyside.”

Even Francis enjoyed that one. Down below us, we could hardly believe our eyes when Howard Webb only gave Glenn Johnson a yellow for seemingly elbowing Oscar in the face. The Brazilian was visibly upset and the supporters around me wailed in protest. From the free-kick, Jones saved from Torres.

Thankfully, the game was devoid of the “Murderers” and the “You Killed Your Own Fans” chants. Long may it continue. Maybe the solemnity of the pre-game silence negated this. Either way, the two chants were notable absentees.

Ryan Bertrand was having a fine game attacking down the left flank at every opportunity. It has been an aspect of his game that I wished that he could improve. From a whipped-in cross, Torres just failed to connect. In this period of our ascendency, the Liverpool fans were woefully quiet. Jon Obi Mikel was the next player to spurn an opportunity after Gerrard fouled Oscar and Mata centered.

On seventy-two minutes, Liverpool stunned us all by equalising. Carragher rose to head a corner across the goal. Luiz Suarez, the master irritant, was on hand to head the ball in from underneath the cross bar. It was his turn now to celebrate over in the corner. The visitors now fancied their chances after being poor for over an hour. We changed things and brought on Victor Moses to run at the Liverpool defence but, in truth, he saw little of the ball. Liverpool grew stronger and two saves from Petr Cech denied them an unlikely winner.

Although the game ended 1-1, it felt like a defeat.

Francis was happy. I clearly wasn’t.

Tellingly, on the way home, while we were listening to some soothing music from Paul Weller in some slow-moving traffic, Francis said, possibly in jest –

“You’re too spoiled at Chelsea, Chris.”

It made me think. I’d hope that I’d never feel spoilt. I’m sure I wasn’t. It was just a big disappointment to give up three points and, because of it, be shunted down to third place.

For the record, the fifty-nine games against Liverpool now reads –

Won 24
Drew 14
Lost 21

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Tales From The Blue Family

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 10 March 2012.

With two games in Birmingham behind us, the rambling story of our season returned to London. We have three games in nine days at Stamford Bridge. Three match tickets and an outlay of £136.50. Does anyone think I am complaining? No, of course not. I’m just happy to have a three-pronged attack for silverware as we head into the month of March.

In some ways, the game against Napoli and their rampaging Three Tenors of Lavezzi, Cavani and Hamsik was on my mind more than the run-of-the-mill League game against the brutal threat of the Stoke City kickers and scufflers. Of course, our 2011-2012 season began with that difficult game at the Britannia Stadium on Sunday August 14th. In some ways, it seems only a matter of weeks ago.

As Saturday March 10th 2012 unravelled before me, I acknowledged the truth in the the old adage about the football being an increasingly small part of the whole day out at Chelsea these days. I have my friend Bryan to thank for that. Bryan is 53 and a lorry driver from my home town of Frome in Somerset. He used to travel up with us for a few years a while back; I have a feeling that his first game with us was the 6-2 slaughter of Sunderland in 1997. He used to go to Chelsea in his younger years of course, but grew out of the habit. Anyway, from 1997 to 2002 or so, Frome was well represented at Stamford Bridge. There was Frank and Michelle, Glenn, Bryan and myself travelling up in one car and Dave, Karen and PD in another. Eight of us; a good show. In some respects, this was a bit of a golden age for us Frome followers. Not only were we rewarded with our first successes on the pitch since 1971, but most home games were usually followed up by us calling in at Ron Harris’ pub in nearby Warminster on the way home. They were superb times.

Bryan stopped going regularly to Chelsea in around 2002 but has been back a few times since. Apart from a silly dalliance with Bristol City in his skinhead youth, much frowned-upon by Glenn and me, he has remained true to Chelsea, as his tattoos will testify.

In November, I bumped into his partner Linda in town, but she had some shocking news. Bryan had returned from a job in Spain and had been very ill for a few weeks. He had a stomach ulcer, but further tests identified that he had contracted Legionnaire’s Disease. I called around to his house that morning and, without being melodramatic, Bryan explained to me that it was touch-and-go at one stage if he’d pull through. Thankfully, his spell in hospital enabled him to recover and he was back at work before Christmas.

Bryan hadn’t been to Chelsea for a couple of years and so I was really looking forward to getting him back in The Goose amongst old friends. When I called for him at 8.30am, he was already out on the grass verge, awaiting my arrival. He looked so keen that I imagined that he had been doing press-ups on the lawn in an attempt to dissipate an overflowing and enthusiastic supply of energy which had been welling up. Linda waved us off and we were on our way. I soon collected Parky at 9am and we were London-bound.

Bryan had met Lynda in the Falkland Islands. Parky had served in the Falklands Conflict of 1982. As we zipped past Swindon, the chat centred on those islands in the South Atlantic. Bryan and Parky certainly had lots to talk about. With the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands approaching, we spoke about the past…Port Stanley, Goose Green, HMS Sheffield, the General Belgrano…memories of 1982. We spoke about the present; the noises coming out of Argentina at the moment. We spoke about the recent deaths of the six British soldiers killed in Kandahar Province in Afghanistan. I am currently getting the house redecorated (the Chelsea room, specifically) and I was horrified to hear on Thursday that the son of my decorator Steve was in the tank behind the one which was hit. Thankfully, and mercifully, he escaped the immediate attack, though how that young man is coping the aftermath of losing some of his comrades can only be imagined.

I told Bryan and Parky that the club had quickly agreed to a minute’s silence before the day’s game as a mark of remembrance for those six brave soldiers who had been stationed in nearby Warminster but who had lost their lives on a foreign field, thousands of miles away from their homeland.

It makes our silly and superficial worries about our football club pale into insignificance…

At 11.15am, the three of us were tucking into a Saturday Fry-Up and at 11.45am, we were in The Goose amongst friends. The weather was pretty mild and the beer garden was being used in earnest for the first time since the late autumn. While Bryan chatted to Daryl, Rob and Alan, I had a good old natter with Neil and The Youth.

Unsurprisingly, our conversation centred on the recent sacking of Andre Villas-Boas, but also the recent rumblings from the club and the Hammersmith & Fulham Council about the possible development of Stamford Bridge.

Neil is from Guernsey and I don’t get the chance to see him too much. We were in agreement about Villas-Boas. He said that after he heard the news of the sacking on Sunday, he was as low as he has been for ages. He commented that he had never felt more out of touch with the club. I knew what he meant. Many words were exchanged between the two of us. I said to Neil –

‘If you had said to me before the first game of the season that the team would be heading into March still in the Champions League, still in the FA Cup, in fourth or fifth place in the league, I would have said “OK, no worries, that’s alright, what’s the problem?”…I certainly would not have expected us to have sacked the manager.’

Madness.

Of my eight to ten match going mates, my closest mates, the inner sanctum, I think most are of the same opinion.

Chopper from New York suddenly appeared and he was full of smiles, loving the London life and relishing the Napoli game on Wednesday. Jesus flitted past; happy to have seen us win in Birmingham during the week. While I was getting a round in, who should I see but Dave and Karen, from Frome. Dave has been on a diet and has lost a massive five stones; fair play to him. Of course, this just meant that he was the instant target of tons of Micky-taking and light-hearted abuse.

Photographs of all of us. Tons of smiles. This is the life.

Alan passed over my away tickets for Manchester City, Fulham and Aston Villa; another £142. Phew. On the TV, the Bolton vs. QPR game was garnering scant attention. My views on goal-line technology are softening with every mistake made by an official, but my fear, as always, has been that this will be the thin end of the wedge. Before we know it, there will be video replays being used for off-sides and then fouls and handballs. Referees will be undermined further and the lunatics will have taken over the asylum.

At Chelsea, however, this happened years ago.

I set off for The Bridge with Bryan a little bit earlier than usual. I wanted to pin my 16 year old banner denoting “Win For Us” on the back wall of the MHU and I hoped that Roberto di Matteo would see it. I can well remember that I first took “Vinci ”to a game – to welcome Vialli and di Matteo to our club – on the home opener of the 1996-1997 season and I draped it over the MH balcony, no more than twenty feet away from my current seat. On that occasion, versus Middlesbrough, of course it was di Matteo who scored a late winner and initiated one of the most iconic Chelsea celebrations. I was elated to hear that there was a brief mention of “Vinci” in the following day’s “London Evening Standard.”

We taped the banner up – it’s a little tattered these days, having travelled with me from America to Malaysia – and drew the usual stupefied looks from the nearby Chelsea fans. I always have to explain what it means.

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Over in the far corner, the Stoke contingent looked pretty pathetic, duck. Alan joked that it looked like only their notorious “Naughty Forty” – plus a few others – had bothered to travel.

The teams appeared and then gathered on the centre circle. Neil Barnett mentioned that this was our 107th birthday and was our Founder’s Day. He also drew attention to the scarlet-tunics of the seven Chelsea Pensioners who had been given prime seats in the Directors Box in the West stand. Neil then said a few sullen words detailing the six soldiers who had given the ultimate sacrifice during the past few days. Rather than reverential silence, though, there was applause. I’m not so sure I agree with this. I see no problems in applause when one is acknowledging, and celebrating, the life of someone who has lived to the allotted “three score years and ten” – or hopefully more. But I do not feel that applause should be used when we mark the loss of lives so young. We don’t applaud on Remembrance Sunday in November do we? Applauding a life is a relatively new phenomenon in the UK – the Italians have been doing it for years – and the first time that I can remember it being used at a Chelsea game was at Fratton Park in 2005 when the crowd began in silence, but soon started applauding the life of George Best, that famous former Chelsea native, who had recently lost his battle with alcoholism.

Another full house. The sun was out. No need for my jacket; a polo shirt was enough. In the end, Stoke had around 350. There was an additional “Remembrance” banner on display in The Shed; Peter Osgood had momentarily been displaced a few yards. The atmosphere was typically tepid.

The game. Do I have to?

I wondered if Ramires would be stationed out wide in a forward three with Drogba and Kalou, ahead of the midfield of Mikel, Meireles and Lampard. We attacked the MH during the first-half and it felt odd. We don’t often do this, do we?

Early chances came to us. Branislav Ivanovic headed over from a corner and then Gary Cahill had a strong run, followed by a belter which was saved. Bryan, the truck driver, unveiled his iPhone and this was met with some typically derogatory comments from Alan. I wondered if it had any aps which helped Bryan locate the nearest HP Sauce bottle when he was in a greasy spoon café.

Stoke rarely troubled us to be honest. A slip by Terry allowed Walters in, but his effort was blocked by the covering Cahill. Their limited game plan was affected when Ricardo Fuller was given his marching orders for a stupid stamp on the prostrate Ivanovic. To be honest, my eyes were elsewhere and didn’t see the offence. Just after the half hour, there was typical rough and tumble at a corner and John Terry appeared to be manhandled as he tried to gain a square inch of space. Despite these close attentions, JT’s down and up header rattled the bar. A few Chelsea half-chances came and went. The manager decided, after a while, to withdraw Meireles and bring on Mata. It was clear that Stoke would do their dogged best to hang on for a draw. Just before the break, that man Ivanovic struck a thunderous angled drive which rocked the bar. Lampard hit a daisy-cutter which Begovic easily gathered.

We had heard that Bobby Tambling would be on the pitch at half-time. Neil introduced us to a young lad from Cork, who was attending his first game at Stamford Bridge.

“He’s OK though ‘cus he has his uncle with him.”

Bobby Tambling, with his wife Val alongside, was introduced to lovely applause and was able to say a few, halting, words to thank us for all the best wishes he has received during his recent period of ill health. I was able to capture this on film.

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10150723999217658

On more than one occasion he referred to his “blue family.” It was a touching moment.

There was a lazy start to the second-half really. David Luiz came on to take over in the right-back berth from Ivanovic. It took a full 15 minutes for us to threaten Begovic’ goal when JT took the ball from deep and let fly with a shot which whipped past the post. We still await JT’s first blooter from outside the box. Maybe he is saving it for a special occasion.

The Stoke fans were quiet and we were no better.

On 65 minutes, Frank was hauled down when apparently through on goal, but Didier’s fine free-kick was palmed away for a corner. Soon after, a moment of pure class.

The ball was played in from Cole into a central position. Mata delicately played the ball through to the unmarked Drogba, who side-stepped the goalkeeper and slotted home. I immediately thought that this was just the sort of ball that Torres has been begging for the past year. The crowd roared and the players danced down to the South-West corner.

I knew what was coming.

Alan : “Thay’ll have to come at us know, duck.”
Chris : “Come on ma little diamonds.”

A lob from Wilkinson evaded Cech and had us all worried, but thankfully was wide of the target. A mistake by JT then allowed Jerome in on goal, but his shot was wide after a strong run. Daniel Sturridge, the last substitute, had a chance after a jink inside. Mata struck the woodwork from a free-kick. One last chance for Sturridge, but again wide.

It was hardly a game to remember.

At the final whistle, Neil Barnett commented that Didier became the leading African scorer in English football. I watched as Didier advanced towards the Chelsea supporters and gave his shirt to a lucky fan in the MHL.

I made good time on the drive home. We listened in as Tottenham lost at Everton. It was the usual end to a Chelsea Saturday with a time-honoured viewing of “Match of the Day”, the national institution. All I can add about the programme is that Liverpool’s 1-0 loss at Sunderland was featured a few games after ours. This was a morsel of comfort for me; in years gone by, any Liverpool loss would be seen as major news. These days, such defeats warrant hardly a flicker of interest by the media.

We reconvene on Wednesday for the visit of the crazy Neapolitans.

It could be an absolute cracker.

Andiamo a lavorare.

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