Tales From One Billy Gilmour And One Decent Scouser

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 3 March 2020.

In the pubs beforehand, there was not one Chelsea fan that I spoke to who thought that we would be victorious in the game with Liverpool.

“They’re so far ahead in the league that they can afford to play their first team, rather than rest players.”

“They’re light years ahead of us.”

“We’ll be lucky to get naught.”

“Expectation level is nine below zero.”

“Could be another Bayern.”

But complete and total negativity was not the order of the evening.

There were a couple of pluses.

In “The Goose”, Parky, PD and I chatted to some of the lads from our home area. Does anyone recollect the story of Sir Les, and a few others, getting stuck in a lift before a home game before Christmas? They were stuck in there for virtually the entire first-half. Well, I am pleased to report that Chelsea rewarded these fans with a corporate style package for the Everton home game which is coming up in Sunday.

Well done Chelsea Football Club.

There was also some good work from the club regarding the pricing of this FA Cup fifth round tie with Liverpool. Initially, as with previous seasons, it was announced that all FA Cup ties would be priced at £30. When Liverpool came out of the hat, the club decided to up the tickets to £40. There was an immediate uproar and the Chelsea Supporters Trust, alongside the original Supporters Club I believe, soon petitioned the club to re-think. Within twenty-four hours, there was a statement to the effect of the club getting it wrong and the price returning to the £30 level.

Well done again Chelsea Football Club.

We made our way down to Simmons to chat with the others. It wasn’t as busy as I had expected. As I waited for friends to arrive, I spotted that the 1970 replay – often a favourite at “Simmons” – was being replayed on the TV screens. It is still the fifth most viewed TV programme in the UK, ever.

That’s right. Ever.

During the few days leading up to the evening’s game, it dawned on me that the last time we played Liverpool at home in the cup was the famous 1997 game. Many of my generation mention the 1978 third round win – 4-2 – when an average Chelsea side surprisingly defeated the then European Champions. I was not at that game, but can remember the joy of hearing about our win as the news came through on the TV. Next up, in the story of games in the cup at Stamford Bridge between the two teams, was the equally memorable 2-0 win in 1982. Chelsea were a Second Division team that season, and Liverpool were again European Champions. I was at that one. And I have detailed that game on here before. It was seismic. What an afternoon.

Next up was a fourth round tie in 1985/86 that we lost 2-1 which is probably best remembered for Kerry Dixon injuring himself and, probably, not quite being the same player ever again.

It’s worth noting that we haven’t played at Anfield in the FA Cup for decades.

The last time was in 1966.

Then came the fourth round tie on Sunday 26 January 1997.

It is a game that evokes wonderful memories among most Chelsea supporters; it was a real “coming of age” moment for club, team and fans alike. Chelsea, under new manager Ruud Gullit, were still finding our collective feet under the talisman and Dutch legend. During the league in 1996/97, we had lost 5-1 at Anfield in the autumn but a Roberto di Matteo strike gave us a deserved 1-0 on New Year’s Day. In October we had suffered the sadness of the loss of Matthew Harding. We were winning more than we were losing, but by no great margin. Liverpool were a better team than us in 1996/97. They would go on to finish fourth, we were to finish sixth. We had easily defeated First Division West Brom at home in the third round.

We – Glenn, my mate Russ and little old me – watched the Liverpool game unfold from the last few rows of the Matthew Harding Lower. It was a terrible view to be honest, the overhang meant that we watched the game through a letterbox.

Chelsea started with Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli up front. We played with Scott Minto and Dan Petrescu as wing backs. Liverpool fielded players such as David James, Jamie Redknapp, John Barnes, Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore. They were a tough team. But, with us having the home advantage, it was evenly matched. Or so we thought. With Liverpool attacking the temporary seats in The Shed in the first-half they soon galloped to a 2-0 lead after just twenty-one minutes. I think it was McManaman who missed an easy chance to make it 3-0. Chelsea were out of it, and the atmosphere in Stamford Bridge had quietened severely after the early promise.

It was as flat as I had ever experienced.

At half-time, Gullit replaced Scott Minto with Mark Hughes, went to a 4/3/3 formation, and Sparky proved to be the catalyst that sparked a revolution. He turned and smashed a long range effort in on fifty-minutes.

“Game on.”

Then Gianfranco Zola slammed in an equaliser eight minutes later.

The atmosphere was red hot by then.

Despite the gate being just 27,950, the place was booming.

Gianluca Vialli scored on sixty-three and seventy-six minutes – euphoria – and we ended up as 4-2 winners. Liverpool, their fans all along the East Lower in those days, did not know what had hit them.

I would later watch that second-half on grainy VHS again and again and again.

Up until that point, my two favourite Chelsea games – out of the then total of two hundred and sixty-five – were the FA Cup games in 1982 and 1997.

Lovely memories.

That win over Liverpool in 1997 gave us confidence and with further games against Leicester City at home (I went), Pompey away (I couldn’t get tickets) and Wimbledon in the semi-final at Highbury (I was there) we marched triumphantly towards Wembley for the 1997 FA Cup Final with Middlesbrough. And through it all, Matthew Harding’s presence was with us all.

Heady and emotional moments?

You bet.

My friend John, a lecturer at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, arrived at about 6.30pm. I last saw him at Ann Arbor for the Real Madrid game in 2016. He was visiting London, Liverpool and Manchester for a few days with some students who were on a “Soccer: Media, Art & Society” course that would go towards their various degrees.

“Soccer: Media, Art & Society.”

Yeah, I know. What a course. Where can I sign up? It sure beat the “Cultural Geography” and “Transport Geography” sub-courses I took at North Staffs Poly from 1984 to 1987.

John was keen for me to talk to his six students – three lads, three lasses – for a few minutes about football, its heady sub-culture, its fads and fancies. I enjoyed it, though I can’t see myself as a lecturer in the near future, not without a bit more practice anyway, and not without a script.

I briefly mentioned the story of my grandfather attending a match at Stamford Bridge, and how I genuinely think it could well have been the 1920 FA Cup Final, one hundred years ago this year.

I hoped that the atmosphere would be good for them on this night in SW6. I always remember a League Cup semi-final in 2015 between the two teams and the noise was sensational all night. I hoped for a repeat. Apart from John, who comes over every season, this was the students’ first ever game at The Bridge.

At about 7.15pm, I downed the last of my two small bottles of “Staropramen” and headed off to Stamford Bridge.

There were six thousand Scousers in the area, though I was yet to see one of them. I guess they were doing their drinking in the West End and Earl’s Court.

Alan and I soon realised that the place was taking an age to fill up. There were yawning gaps everywhere. Even with ten minutes to go, we wondered if the paranoia over the Corona Virus had deterred many from travelling into The Smoke.

“Chelsea will be the death of me.”

The team news came through.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Zouma – Alonso

Gilmour – Kovacic – Barkley

Willian – Giroud – Pedro

So, Kepa back in, an enforced change in personnel, a rather aged front three, and a start for young Billy Gilmour.

Like the 1997 game, this was live on BBC1.

I spoke to a few friends close by in that period before the pre-match rituals kick in and, again, nobody was hopeful.

Nobody.

Within the last few minutes, the place suddenly filled to capacity.

There was more 2020-style pre-match nonsense. The lights dimmed, almost darkness, fireworks, the teams appeared.

Blues vs. Reds.

South vs. North.

Chelsea vs. Liverpool.

(In the slightly off-kilter parlance of the modern day: “Chels vs. Red Scouse.”)

As the floodlights returned to full strength, I spotted white socks. As the tracksuit tops were taken off, I spotted the dogs’ dinner of the normal 2019/20 kit. Where was the promised 1970 kit, the beautifully understated blue with yellow trim?

Where the fuck was it?

My heart sank.

It seems that Chelsea Football Club – two steps forward, one step back – had been less than truthful about our 1970 kit.

Who thought that we would be wearing it throughout this season’s FA Cup campaign?

Everyone?

Yeah, thought so.

What a fucking disgrace.

So, this season – three kits, and one kit to be worn just once.

I only bought the shorts, and I am yet to wear them, but I felt for those significant others who bought the range. They shot off the shelves, didn’t they?

And, the sad thing is, I was really looking forward to seeing us in that kit once again.

I vented on “Facebook.”

And here are a few responses :

Michelle : So wrong I’m sure it was marketed as an FA Cup kit ! The club have taken the fans for mugs yet again,

Lottinho : Absolute joke. Pathetic on the club. Strictly for £££.

Karn : It’s bollocks. Still, glad I bought it though – lovely shirt.

Alex : As predictable as it is disappointing

Kelvin : So cynical how Chelsea avoided making that clear when they were marketing it.

Jake :  All about the money, mate. That was a class kit

Lee : Utter bastards

The game began.

Liverpool were an instant reminder of another team in all red from last Tuesday. I silently shuddered. The away team, with a heady handful of familiar players but also a couple of unfamiliar ones, began the livelier and moved the ball in and around our defence. There was an early, relatively easy, save from Kepa following a strike from Sadio Mane. But at the other end, The Shed, Willian drove at the defence and forced a good save from Adrian in front of the Liverpool hordes.

They had their usual assortment of flags, including one of Bill Shankly who – I cannot lie – I used to love to hear talk about football was I was a mere sprog.

The game heated up.

A Willian corner from our left was glanced on my Dave, and the ball spun wide. Only on the TV replay were we able to see how close both Olivier Giroud and Antonio Rudiger got to adding a decisive touch.

Liverpool, despite their large numbers, were relatively quiet and it surprised me.

We enjoyed a great little spell. Ross Barkley thumped centrally at goal, but Adrian saved.

A lovely flowing move, instigated by the poise of young Billy Gilmour, cruising through a pack of red shirts before coolly releasing Pedro, resulted in a fierce shot from Willian, but Adrian was again able to save well.

“Gilmour. Excellent there, Al.”

This was turning, early, into some game. It had all of our full and undivided attention. I wondered what John was making of it in the West Upper.

After twelve minutes, I leaned over towards PD.

“Open game, innit?”

There was a reassuring nod of agreement from him and also Alan alongside me.

Barely after me commenting, the game stepped up a gear. Attempting to play the ball out of defence, we put pressure on the wall of red. Barkley forced a slip and the ball fell to Willian. His optimistic shot flew at Adrian, but whereas just thirty seconds before he had saved well, this time the ball bounced off him, and flew into the goal.

GET IN.

Willian danced away and in front of the livid Liverpudlians.

Livid Liverpudlians. Is there any other type?

Stamford Bridge was bouncing. What joy.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds, la.”

Could we make it three out of three in the FA Cup against reigning European Champions?

1978, 1982 and 2020?

We were going to give it our best shot by the looks of it.

The game continued to thrill, and we could – ever so slightly – begin to enjoy it all with that slender lead.

Gilmour, getting into it, tackling hard, kept the ball alive and helped win a free-kick after a foul on Ross Barkley. A fine effort from Marcos Alonso sailed narrowly wide.

On around twenty minutes, pure pinball in the Chelsea box as shot after shot tested Kepa. A double save, a save, another save. All within a few seconds. It was dramatic and glorious stuff, though in the light of day two of the shots were hit straight at him.

What a game.

Mane, the biggest Liverpool threat by some margin, wriggled through our defence like a little eel and forced another excellent save from Kepa who was, dramatically, the centre of attention. Williams made a poor effort to connect with the rebounded shot. We had survived another scare.

A lot of the standard Chelsea and Liverpool songs were getting aired towards the end of the first-period and it absolutely added to the occasion.

“Fuck off Chelsea FC, you ain’t got no history.”

“Steve Gerrard Gerrard, he slipped on his fucking arse.”

There was gutsy defending from our players, and this was turning into a rather old-fashioned game of football with a lovely balance of cut and thrust, raw energy and honest attacks. Pedro was as involved as anyone, and after a few early miss-fires, was causing all sorts of problems. Giroud was a one man battling-ram. But the undoubted star of the first-half was young Billy Gilmour. Billy the kid was everywhere. An absolutely stunning performance.

Mateo Kovacic was injured, to be replaced on forty-two minutes by the fresh legs of Mason Mount.

Liverpool, after a string start, were visibly starting to become less of a threat.

As the first-half came to a close, I had a question for Alan.

“Wasn’t Lalana in the Teletubbies”?

At the break, all was well with the world. Previously worried faces had changed. There was a lovely buzz in the air.

On Saturday 24 April 1920, on this very same site, if not this very same stadium – but certainly one which was in situ for the 1982 game, those lovely packed terraces – my grandfather stood on the great slug of the West terrace with his old school friend Ted Knapton alongside him. It was half-time, and the score between the two teams – Aston Villa, who he favoured, and Huddersfield Town – was 0-0. It had been an exhilarating game of football for my grandfather, though the spectacle of seeing fifty-thousand spectators in one sports ground had proved to be the one abiding memory that he would take away with him.

Fifty thousand people.

And virtually all were men, and so many had fought in the Great War.

My grandfather was twenty-five years old. He silently gazed out at the main stand on the far side, the open terraces behind each goal, and looked behind him at row after row of fellows in caps and hats, some with the colourful favours of the two competing teams. A claret and blue rosette here. A light blue hat there.

Fifty-thousand men.

It struck home.

My grandfather had just that week spotted a local girl, a few years younger than him, who was beginning work in the manor house of his home village. She was a young cook, with a lovely smile, and had caught his eye.

My grandfather was a rather quiet man. He looked out at all those faces. He did not speak to his friend Ted, but he – at Stamford Bridge on Cup Final day 1920 – had decided that the stadium, indeed the whole of England was full of men, and the thought of one of them asking the young cook out before he had a chance to utter a shy “hello” ate away at him.

He had survived the Great War. He lived in a great village and now this great spectacle had stirred him in a way that he had not expected.

“You had better get your act together, Ted Draper. On Monday at lunch time, I think I will ask Blanche if she would like to accompany her to next weekend’s village dance. I can’t be second in that race.”

Almost one hundred years later, the players of Chelsea and Liverpool reappeared on the pitch. Could our lively form continue into the second-half? We bloody hoped so, but there was another enforced change early on. Willian, injured – oh our bloody injury list – was replaced by Jorginho, and there was a shift of Mason Mount out wide.

The game continued with the same noisy support cascading down from the stands. The Matthew Harding seemed particularly up for it, no doubt aided by some interlopers from The Shed who had been displaced by the northern hordes. The game had lost little of its attraction in the first half. On the hour, a fine cross field ball from Dave opened up the Liverpool defence but Mount was scythed down. I honestly thought that the position of the resulting free-kick would be too central, too flat. But to my surprise, Mason dug one out. Sadly, the fine effort bounced on top of Adrian’s bar.

So close.

On the hour, too, a loud and beautiful chant was aired for the very first time.

“One Billy Gilmour. There’s only one Billy Gilmour.”

Just three minutes later, with Chelsea defending, Pedro – bless him – nipped in to win the ball and Giroud jumped so well to move it on. The ball fell at the feet of Ross Barkley, still in his own half. I reached for my camera.

“Here we go.”

I sensed a huge chance.

Barkley ran on, and on, and with Pedro in acres to his right, I half-expected a slide rule pass. But he kept running, despite being chased by two defenders, and with one recovering defender goal side. He kept going. A shimmy, a shot – CLICK.

Adrian was beaten.

A goal.

Oh get in you bastard.

I was full of smiles, but clicked away. I had only recently mentioned to Alan that “I bet Barkley would love to score tonight.”

His slide was euphoric.

Up the fucking Toffees, up the fucking Chelsea.

Chelsea 2 Liverpool 0.

Just beautiful. The goal had come at just the right time. Liverpool had been clawing their way back into it a little.

Another lovely chant was bellowed from the lungs of the Matthew Harding Lower.

“One decent Scouser. There’s only one decent Scouser. One decent Scouser.”

Bliss.

Incredibly, from a Liverpool corner, Rudiger headed strongly out and Pedro – bless him – picked up the pieces, and his little legs went into overdrive. I reached for my camera once more.

“Here we go.”

His legs pumped away, but as he ate up the ground I sensed he was tiring. His shot, after a long run, lacked placement and Adrian easily saved.

In the last segment of the match, with Liverpool fading, Giroud capped a very fine performance indeed by forcing himself to reach a lovely pass from Dave, strongly fighting off challenges, but Adrian was able to touch the effort onto the bar and down.

Liverpool were chasing a lost cause now. Late substitutions Firmino and Salah added nothing.

It was Chelsea who finished the stronger, with shots from Mount and Giroud continuing to test Adrian. Gilmour had a quieter second-half, but one dribble late on made us all so happy.

“One Billy Gilmour.”

Indeed.

Reece James replaced the fantastic Giroud in the final few minutes.

The final whistle signalled the end.

“One Step Beyond.”

It had been a game for the ages.

As we bundled down the steps, and onto the Fulham Road, everything was fine in our world.

Into the last eight we went.

Yet another FA Cup appearance? It’s a possibility.

In 1920, the FA Cup Final stayed at 0-0, and Aston Villa – much to my grandfather’s approval – won 1-0 in extra-time with a goal from Billy Kirton.

However, as my dear grandfather Ted Draper travelled back by train with his pal that evening, back to beautiful and bucolic Somerset, he had another match on his mind.

On the Monday, he met with his new love, and nervously chatted.

He would later marry Blanche in the summer of 1925. My mother Esme would arrive in 1930, and the rest, as they say in Liverpool, is history.

Tales From Saturday Tea Time

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 12 January 2019.

This was another 5.30pm kick-off and so PD, Parky and I took the train to London once again. One subject dominated our chat on the journey; the decision to hold the FA Cup tie against either Sheffield Wednesday or Luton Town at 6pm on Sunday 27 January.

Six o’clock on a Sunday evening.

What a ridiculous time.

“And there was much wailing.”

But, the FA had made another crazy decision to play an FA Cup game at a similar time some seventeen years earlier. In 2002, Fulham objected to their allocation for the first-choice venue of Highbury for our FA Cup Semi Final against them. So – and I still can’t fathom the madness of this – the FA chose to send both sets of fans up to Villa Park in Birmingham for a 7pm kick-off on a Sunday. And then, the deepest irony, Fulham failed to sell out, and in fact sold less tickets for the Villa Park game than their initial allocation at Highbury.

Altogether now : “For fuck sake.”

I don’t dislike Fulham Football Club one bit, but this has really tested me over the years.

5.30pm on a Saturday tea time is OK, there is at least Sunday to recover. In fact, it is rather agreeable as it allows for a good session in various pubs beforehand. But six o’clock on a Sunday is just wrong. At best, I would not return home until 11pm – 11.30pm is a more realistic prediction – and I would need to be up early for work the next day.

So, did I get a ticket when they went on sale on Thursday?

Yes, of course I did, but I partially hated myself for it.

File under “I am a twat” ( sub-section two thousand, nine-hundred and seventeen).

Maybe we can walk in after ten minutes, maybe we can turn our backs for the first five minutes, maybe we can produce banners. Some sort of protest would be good. But I won’t hold my breath on this. It would be nice, just once, for the club to see how much these mistimed kick-off choices affect the rank and file Chelsea support. I note that the Chelsea Supporters Trust wasted no time in condemning the time. Let’s see what transpires over the next fortnight.

It was the usual routine; a Paddington breakfast, a tube to Putney Bridge, into “The Eight Bells” for 11.30am.

We had decided to visit the southern tip of Fulham for the fourth time this season as a few friends from Scotland had sorted out tickets and had chosen the Premier Inn opposite the pub as their base. We had met John and Gary in a fantastic pub before our game at Sunderland in 2016 – “that Courtois save” – and had stayed in touch ever since. They touched down at Stansted at 11am and joined us in the cozy boozer at about 1.45pm. They were joined by their two mates Dave and Colin. All four are Heart of Midlothian supporters. It was fantastic to see John and Gary again. We sat chatting about all things football, though not all things Chelsea, and then moved on to “The Kings Arms” around the corner.

After a very enjoyable pre-match sesh we caught the District Line tube back up to Fulham Broadway.

As I have so often mentioned, my first-ever game was against Newcastle United in March 1974. First, my grandfather in 1920 – I think – and then my mother and myself in 1974. I am a third-generation visitor to Stamford Bridge, and doesn’t that sound good?

We were inside Stamford Bridge with a good twenty minutes or so to spare. John was alongside us in The Sleepy Hollow. It was his first visit to the “modern” Stamford Bridge since the rebuilding was completed in 2001. He was enamoured with our seats. We are truly blessed with our view.

But how the stadium has changed over the years. I can remember getting to Stamford Bridge really early before our game with Newcastle United in 1984/85 with the sole intention to take some photos with my little Kodak camera before any spectators were present. I walked up the steps at the back of The Shed and took several photos of a Stamford Bridge lying dormant. From memory, it was a bitterly cold day during a bitterly cold winter. But I am so glad that I took those photographs; I only wish that I had taken more of the old stadium over the years.

The Geordies were at their usual three thousand level despite a solid block of around one hundred and fifty left unused in a top corner. But this was a fine turnout from them.

There was the usual darkening of the lights before the teams entered. More flags, flames and fireworks, which are at least better suited to a 5.30pm kick-off than a midday one.

We half-expected another “false nine” role for Eden Hazard. And Maurizio Sarri did not disappoint :

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso.

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic.

Pedro – Hazard – Willian.

There was a reunion of former Napoli managers underneath the East Stand. But Benitez only flitted in and out of my consciousness; it is almost six years since he left us. If only those who claimed that they – still – don’t care about him would stop bloody singing songs about him.

Sigh.

I watched the Newcastle players down below me in a huddle on the pitch as the floodlights came on and the pitch was cleared of banners and the paraphernalia of the pre-match handshakes. It shocked me that I did not recognise many. Twenty years ago, I would have been able to spot a Warren Barton, a Robert Lee, a Temuri Ketsbaia, a Luis Saha, a Philippe Albert.

I have recently come to the conclusion that with so many overseas players – or specifically those signed from overseas teams –  in our game these days, my identification of them has dwindled. I still find it easier to note, identify and track a player that has bedded down in the English leagues for a while and then moves, than a player picked from a team in Europe and parachuted in to a team here. Back in the days of when I used to collect football cards as a child, my knowledge of teams’ players was encyclopedic. This continued as I started attending games, reading ‘papers and buying magazines. And it certainly continued as I subscribed to “Sky” for the best part of ten years.

But these days, I am rather lost, and have probably entered the most recent of “phases” that I briefly mentioned a few weeks ago.

I find it easier to remember a youngster from Torquay United or Tranmere Rovers who joins a Premier League team – I think my love of geography helps, in that I can pinpoint names to places – but I am floundering, if for example a Spaniard playing for an Italian team signs for another top team. There is just something untethered about these players. Give me a player like Chris Wood who played for Leeds United before joining Burnley and I might have a chance. So, unless I make the effort, they are just names to me. Most importantly neither myself nor virtually any of my Chelsea mates spend endless hours playing “FIFA” either, which would – I suppose – aid my knowledge of players, but there are just some things that are best left well alone, like Star War films, the books of J.K. Rowling, cruises and Jeremy Clarkson. Of course, if players take my eye when I see them play and have that something about them – that unquantifiable “je ne sais quoi” – then that makes them endear themselves to me and I track them.

But, Lascelles, Lejeune and Longstaff? Who?

The away team were playing with black socks, which made them look like the Newcastle of old rather than the white-socked team we played at St. James’ Park in late August.

The game began with Chelsea attacking the northern goal for a change.

There was the usual probing from us in the first portion of the match but without too much end product.

Then, on just nine minutes, David Luiz sent a ball from deep inside the Chelsea half into a space where Pedro was running. For so long I have asked that we send in an occasional early ball, just to keep the opposition back-line on their toes more than anything else. A team expecting us to pass through them all the time will not be expecting a long bomb. And this certainly was a long bomb from Luiz. It was sensational. Luiz played it with an almost nonchalant air, a sideways sweep. Pedro took the ball out of the sky and clipped it over the startled Newcastle United ‘keeper Martin Dubravka.

Whatabloodygoal.

At least I captured the celebrations if not the goal itself.

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

Chris : “Howay Pet, come on m’little diamonds, like man.”

With Arsenal suffering a surprising loss at West Ham United in the early-kick-off (it had been “on” in the pub but we did not bother watching), here was a fantastic start to our game. If we won, we would go a healthy six points clear of them. All of us have been well aware that we have an intimidating amount of away games to endure in 2019 and that we have to win as many home games as possible.

We still have to play at Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and, to a lesser extent, Everton and Leicester City.

Tough games all.

But we did not capitalise and there was growing frustration as we struggled to get past a resolute back five. Our corners were especially poor. There were rare forays up-field from the Newcastle United players.

After half-an hour of huff and puff, Azpilicueta was fouled just outside the box and Willian floated in a cross which Luiz headed over.

There was a shot from Lejeune, but straight at Kepa. Salomon Rondon – “I know him!” – received a ball from Christian Atsu – “I know him!” – but he blazed over. Pedro shot meekly at the other end and then Perez did similarly at The Shed End. But the warning signs were there. With five minutes to go until half-time, a towering corner from Matt Ritchie was headed home by Ciaran Clark. It was a free header.

Bollocks.

The Toon Army went Loony.

It was a rare goal for The Geordies at Stamford Bridge.

I have seen the last thirty consecutive league encounters with Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge – this was game number thirty-one, undoubtedly the longest stretch out of all the games that I have seen – and they had won only two of those. In the pub, I chatted briefly to three Toonistas and it did not take them long to mention the two incredible Papiss Cisse goals that gave them their first win at Stamford Bridge in twenty-six years when they beat us 2-0 in 2012.

But that was it. One win since 1986.

A meek effort from Willian and then a wild volley from Ritchie brought the first-half to a close. It was a very mundane performance from us and there was much shaking of heads at half-time. Eden Hazard had been especially ineffective.

Early in the second-period, Kante set up Pedro but Dubravka spread himself well to block. We looked a little more dynamic during the opening moments of the second-half and Kante was the one driving the team on. But we only had half-chances. A Luiz air shot and a scuffed Pedro effort did not worry the Geordies’ goal.

On fifty-seven minutes, the ball was worked over to Willian after some sublime skill from Hazard. He stood, with two defenders blocking his sight of the goal. Not to worry, his trademark hippy-hippy-shake bought him a yard of space and his curling missile found the net, just clipping the post before making the net bulge.

Whatabloodygoal.

With over half-an-hour to go, we obviously hoped for more goals, or at least more efforts, and indeed effort. Pedro had gone close with another chip, but the Newcastle ‘keeper did enough. And although the manager rang the changes – Barkley for Kovacic, Hudson-Odoi for Pedro, Giroud for Hazard) – no further goals followed.

Sarri is under the microscope now, and his man Jorginho is not particularly loved among the Chelsea match-going support. I am still trying my best to work it all out, I am trying to get my head around his philosophy, I am trying to give him the benefit of doubt.

It worked in Italy. Can it work in England?

Time will tell.

For all of the negativity during the game, the match game ended with a 2-1 win for Chelsea which solidified our fourth-place position.

Outside Stamford Bridge on the Fulham Road, after collecting some tickets for some upcoming games, PD and I bit into a couple of hot dogs with onions – the best of the season – as light rain dampened the evening air. Opposite us were a line of seven away coaches, taking the Toonistas back to Ashington, Long Benton, Swalwell, Byker, Jesmond and Gateshead. They would not get back home until 2am or 3am.

I tipped my cap to them.

“One win since 1986, bloody hell.”

We made our way back to Paddington where we met up with Parky. Although the game had been difficult to watch – I think it was John who called it “turgid”, a good word – we now enjoyed a healthy six-point gap on Arsenal.

And we play at The Emirates next Saturday tea-time.

I will see some of you there.

Tales From An Evening Of Bouquets And Boos

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 5 December 2015.

Alan, Glenn and myself were in the stadium far earlier than normal. After the sad loss of our dear friend Tom on Friday 27 November, whose season ticket was right next to our line of three, we had planned to mark this first home game without him with a small floral tribute. Glenn and I were the last to arrive at seats 369 to 371 in row D of the upper tier of the Matthew Harding. Alan, who had arranged with a florist outside Fulham Broadway to assemble a fitting bouquet, had already secured the flowers to Tom’s seat.

It was around five o’clock and Stamford Bridge was only just starting to fill up. There were probably less than a few thousand inside and the stadium was still. In our little section of the wraparound, housing maybe five hundred seats, there were only forty or fifty inside. It seemed right that we had the time and the space to ourselves. All three of us took a photograph of the blue and white flowers, and the hand-written note from Alan. A few friends came over to pay their respects. Alan used his mobile ‘phone to send a couple of photographs of the bouquet to Tom’s daughter. Although Tom’s last appearance at Stamford Bridge was back in May when we were presented with the 2014/2015 trophy, and his seat has been unused this season, there was a huge sadness as we looked down on his seat, knowing that we would never see him at Chelsea again. Alan’s words were chosen well.

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As the stadium filled up, and as the players appeared down below us on the floodlit turf, our thoughts slowly turned towards the early evening game with newly-promoted Bournemouth. On the drive up to London, we had agreed that our form was slowly improving and we should be able to harvest nine points out of the home games in December against three of the lesser teams in the division.

“Two tough away games, but maybe a little run. There’s a little bunching ahead of us, so we could easily get up in to the top half by the New Year. And then push on.”

It definitely felt, especially after a well-fought point at Tottenham, that the worst was behind us.

Pre-match had been a little different. While Parky and PD joined up with the usual suspects in “The Goose”, Glenn and I had decided to meet up with Dave for a cheeky Peroni or two and some nosh at Salvo’s restaurant on Old Brompton Road. We met up with Dave in “The Pembroke” but all was not well. Dave reluctantly told us that Salvo’s restaurant – “Dall’Artista” – was closed. My heart sank. We had not visited it this season, but I was truly saddened that there would be no more visits, no more laughs with the owner, no more fun. We have been visiting it since around 2003. Countless Chelsea fans – and friends – have accompanied us. How many? Maybe a hundred. Many from the United States. It really was a home from home for us. Tons of memories. What a great place.

And then my thoughts wandered. I hoped and prayed that Salvo, now in his late ‘sixties for sure, was OK.

We still decided to have a bite to eat, and chose a relatively new restaurant nearby – “The Bottlery” – where, after a very tasty meal and another lager, I was relieved to hear that Salvo was fine. He had just decided to move on. He might have even headed back to his home town in Italy. We were relieved. I just didn’t want any more bad news in 2015.

Dave and Glenn joined the others in The Goose.

My pre-match was still gathering pace. I headed down to the stadium, through the eerie Gothic majesty of West Brompton Cemetery, to meet up with Beth, who heads up the Chelsea In America supporters group. As an aside, Beth had visited Salvo’s with us after a game at Arsenal in 2009 I seem to remember. One of many. Beth presented me with my honorary CIA membership card for the season and we had a little chat. Back in 2006/2007, after getting to meet many of the US-based fans at a Chelsea game in Chicago, I decided to start detailing a few Chelsea tales on the Chelsea In America bulletin board. Ad hoc postings after games – sometimes a few sentences, sometimes several paragraphs – eventually lead to a weekly match report, which people seemed to like, and the positive feedback gave me the impetus to create this current website. Beth, from Texas, and Andy, from Michigan, encouraged me in those early seasons to get my own personal blog up-and-running, and I am grateful for their support.

This is my 381st consecutive match report.

You don’t like it?

Blame Beth and Andy.

In The Goose, alongside my mates, it was clear that many a boozy session had taken place. The team news came through in a sudden rush of Facebook alerts.

“Hazard playing as a false nine again. Costa sub.” It had worked really well at Tottenham, but playing without a recogniseable striker – or at least a target man, a finisher, a “presence” – was, well, odd.

Thibaut Courtois was back between the sticks, but strangely Dave was not playing.

Glenn and I popped into “The Malt House” en route to the game for a quick livener before heading on to join up with Alan. There were positive noises being made about our recent improvements. Glenn – excited like an eight year old – was a little wobbly as we walked along the Fulham Road and it reminded me of his lurching walk towards a certain stadium in Germany in May 2012, bless him.

Outside by the West Stand entrance, stood a Christmas tree, bedecked in blue and white.

We had heard that Stoke City had defeated Manchester City 2-0.

Oh this crazy season.

Just before the 5.30pm kick-off, the Stamford Bridge floodlights were extinguished, leaving only the smaller marker lights of the balconies. The grass became strangely lusher, the stadium more dramatic. The teams entered the pitch. The three thousand away fans were already in their seats, whereas there were many late arrivals in the home areas.

After a very encouraging start, with the ball being played quickly between our attacking four – Oscar, Willian, Pedro, Hazard – we had to be grateful for two blocks from the recalled Courtois. They were easily the best two chances of the game thus far and gave us food for thought. As the half continued, Bournemouth did not threaten our goal quite as much, yet certainly made life very difficult for us with their desire to close down space.

At last, a shot on target. Eden Hazard cut in from the right and forced a fine save from Artur Boruc. Soon after, Pedro – flitting about, looking to get involved – advanced and steered a shot towards the far post. Boruc again saved well. As the game wore on, I was having to re-evaluate my hopes for the evening. This would clearly not be as easy a game as I had hoped.

The atmosphere was pretty dire. The away fans were heard. Only occasionally did the home support rouse itself.

At half-time, I had a quick word with the Chelsea Supporters Trust chairman Tim, who sits a few rows behind us, regarding the recent planning proposal for our new stadium which was submitted to the local council. On the Friday evening, I had flitted through some of the incredibly comprehensive diagrams and associated design details; I was very impressed indeed. The level of information available to access is breath-taking, but so too is the research that the architects – and the club – have obviously undertaken.

I have said it before, but the new stadium looks a winner.

I was especially pleased to note that the “corporate” middle tier, will only be so in the new East and West Stands. Behind both goals, there will be three tiers of general seating, thus hopefully enabling some noise to be generated. I also noted that the away fans will be split in to three tiers – see my comments about Manchester City away this season – but this section will move over to the west side of The Shed, where the Bovril Gate will act as a separate entrance for away fans. This seems to be a common sense approach.

In fact, the entire planning proposal is full of sense, from the Chelsea insignia detail on the brickwork, to the use of every spare inch of space, to the iconic and unique design.

I heartily recommend taking a peek.

http://public-access.lbhf.gov.uk/online-applications/applicationDetails.do?activeTab=documents&keyVal=NVL8QGBI0IE00

On the pitch, former centre-forward Steve Finnieston was walking the pitch with Neil Barnet. After Neil did the introduction, “Jock” grabbed the microphone and began an increasingly manic monologue involving name-checking many Chelsea supporters in the four stands. He didn’t want to stop. This seemed to go on for minutes on end. It was one of the great half-time shows. Who needs Janet Jackson’s nipples when we have Jock Finnieston and his ramshackle ramblings? He would probably still be talking now if it wasn’t for the second-half.

Ah, the second-half. Do I have to?

Jose decided to replace the very quiet Oscar with Diego Costa. With us attacking the Matthew Harding goal, scene of many a second-half deluge over the years, we hoped that a bona fide striker inside the box would pay off.

However, a rasping drive from Matt Richie – who? – just cleared our goal, and again I wondered if I had to rethink my hopes for the day.

Our first real chance of the second-half followed a corner from Willian. The ball flew off a near post head towards the waiting Matic, but the ball came too quick for him to react. The header flew over. A penalty appeal for handball on a sliding Simon Francis – who? – was waved away. The portents were not looking good. To be honest, we were dominating possession throughout the second-half. However, I lost count of the number of times that crosses were admirably whipped in by Ivanovic and even Baba, but with no threat inside the penalty area. Further back, Matic and Fabregas were very poor.

Only rarely did the home support rally behind the team. Despite all the possession, there was rising levels of anxiety at our lack of a killer punch. One ridiculously optimistic effort from Ivanovic almost went out for a throw-in. Our much troubled Serbian was having a pretty reasonable game in all honesty, and his constant jaunts up the right touchline resulted in many good crosses. Willian too – of course – was constant movement, and how we wished that others could replicate his touch and drive. Hazard, often marked by three players, was struggling and Pedro was tiring. Fabregas and Matic were simply not involved.

With around ten minutes to go, and after a very rare foray by Bournemouth in to our half, we conceded a corner.

Stamford Bridge tensed up.

I leant forward and whispered to the lads in front –

“Here we go. Corner. Far post.”

It seemed that the entire crowd was besieged by the same fear.

The ball was swung over. Courtois flapped and the ball dropped to a Bournemouth player, who clipped the ball back towards the other post. In a scene that seems to have become oh-so familiar over the years, a seemingly unmarked Bournemouth player – Glenn Murray, who? – headed home. I leant back and sighed.

“Knew it.”

We were losing 1-0 at home to A bloody F bloody C Bournemouth.

Jose replaced Baba with Traore, Fabregas with Remy.

It was no good.

Our play went to pieces, and our support started to go home.

At the final whistle, there were boos from some home areas, though not from Alan, nor Glenn, nor myself.

As I edged out of my seat, I reached over and touched the empty seat next to where Glenn had been sitting.

“God bless Tom.”

I spoke with a clearly miserable Long Tall Pete out on the Fulham Road, who could not fathom why Mourinho had not played with a striker in a home match.

“4-4-2, Costa and Remy.”

I had to agree.

Back in the car, after the initial flurry of moans from all four of us, I soon headed home. I am usually quite sanguine and philosophical after such defeats, but on this occasion I really was pretty low. This was a game that we should have won easily, yet our deficiencies were exposed once again. There had been little fight from any of our players – perhaps one exception, the redoubtable Willian – and it left me jaded, upset and confused. As Gaspar, Balthasar and Melchior slept for virtually the entire trip back to the West Country, I was left with my thoughts.

“Porto. Wednesday. We simply have to win that fucker.”

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Tales From The High Road

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 28 September 2013.

I was cutting this one a bit fine. Despite leaving home in good time, I only reached Seven Sisters tube station at midday. The Tottenham vs. Chelsea game was due to start in just forty-five minutes. I ascended the elevators and steps and soon found myself on the Tottenham High Road. The warm September weather surprised me; I threw my rain jacket behind my shoulder and began walking north. This was a well-travelled path for me. And for thousands of Chelsea fans like me.

One of my favourite passages of Chelsea prose over the years came from the pen of the venerable Chelsea scribe Scott Cheshire. After another F.A. Cup Semi-Final replay defeat against Arsenal in 1952, closely following on from the same scenario in 1950, I remember his words as he described the long and painful walk south from White Hart Lane, a Wembley Cup Final appearance having just evaporated in the spring air once more. In 1952 remember, Chelsea had not one item of silverware to our name while Arsenal were the great London rivals with trophies aplenty. Scott Cheshire spoke of the depressing familiarity of Chelsea failure as he trudged through puddles alongside hundreds of other typically disheartened Chelsea fans. The sense of longing and the yearning for a trophy struck a chord as I read his evocative words in the mid-‘nineties. It seems that every time I repeat my walk to White Hart Lane, past the Turkish cafes, the colourful Asian clothes shops, the hardware stores, the supermarkets, the pubs and the eastern European convenience stores, I am walking with Scott Cheshire and all of those hopeful Chelsea fans from a greyer time over sixty years ago.

The day had begun with a cursory flick through a few Facebook updates. The match in London N17 was clearly the main event. There were a few references to the publicity in the media about the continued presence of the “Y” word at Tottenham games. A couple of classic lines from a Nick Love film were popular too. I wonder why.

“Up and at em! Early start for Y word away!”

“Time to rise and shine. Spurts away beckons, see some of you at that wonderful part of London!”

“What else are ya gonna do on a Saturday. Tottenham away. Love it!!”

“Off to cheer on the only London club to win the European cup.”

“Off out to catch a rattler to meet up with some of the chaps for a couple before going on to cheer on London’s first and finest against the Ys.”

“What else ya gonna do on a Saturday? I know what I’d rather do! Tottenham away… luv it!!”

“En route to Three Point Lane.”

“Very soon I’ll be off to our biggest away of the season. Tottenham away.”

“Tottenham oy vey. Love it.”

I entered the fray –

“The Biggest Away Game Of The Season. Why? Tottenham. That’s Why.”

After the faux rivalry of Fulham the previous Saturday, this was the real deal, the main event. I have detailed our ridiculous dominance over our bitterest rivals since 1990 many times before; to go over old ground seems pointless.

Just like Tottenham.

As I headed north – “head down, avoid eye-contact, be wary” – police sirens wailed and a phalanx of police vans raced past. I wondered what was going on a mile or so to the north. A Tottenham versus Chelsea encounter, even after all these years, still has an edge. Old habits die hard. There may not be the widespread violence of the ‘eighties, but the intense dislike – yes, hate, even – is still there. It is now standard form for the main body of Chelsea to meet at The Railway and The Hamilton Hall down at Liverpool Street and then travel up to Northumberland Avenue. For me, travelling up from Somerset, the early kick-off made this a non-starter. I wasn’t worried. On the drive to London, my head was full of thoughts of Swindon last Tuesday, the War Zone at Tottenham and Steaua Bucharest away on the following Tuesday, to say nothing of the game in deepest Norfolk the following weekend.

Four consecutive away games; tick, tick, tick, tick.

I reached the corner of the High Road and Park Lane at 12.25pm. There were a few familiar faces in and amongst the Spurs fans, but I had no time to dwell. I skirted past a couple of police vans and soon joined the short line outside the entrance to the away section of White Hart Lane; prison blocks have been more architecturally appealing. Tottenham, of course, have been given the green light to build a new stadium just a hundred yards or so to the north of their current stadium. My conscience was pricked slightly; that’ll be three London team with new stadia, while Chelsea will be limited to 41,500. Will we be left behind, struggling to compete against the larger, potential, attendances at Arsenal, Spurs and West Ham? In October 2011, should I, and the other CPO shareholders, have meekly surrendered our certificates to the club so that they could earnestly begin a search for a new home? The answer is still no. I hear rumours, just whispered at the moment, of the Hammersmith & Fulham council desperately trying to entice the club into redeveloping the Stamford Bridge site and the club, again, whispered rumours, being slightly more willing to listen than in the past. I have a feeling that this one will run and run, like a Jesper Gronkjaer dribble. My stance on this has not wavered.

I, like many more Chelsea fans – as per the recent Chelsea Supporters Trust survey – believe that tradition and history, and that difficult to describe notion of “community and brotherhood” are just as important as an overpowering lust for silverware. Staying at Stamford Bridge is wrapped up in all of this.

I soon met up with Alan and Gary and we took our seats. There was little time for chat. The players soon appeared on the pitch. Chelsea, for the first time in a while, were back to wearing white socks at White Hart Lane. Spurs have changed their kit yet again. Last year’s all white kit has now given way to white / navy / navy. As a kid, it was always white / navy / white. Every two or three years, it seems that Spurs try a different combination. It would drive me crazy. What was I saying about tradition?

We reviewed the team. Would Ramires be playing wide right with both Lamps and Mikel starting? The three thousand Chelsea fans were in good voice as the match began. I always remember White Hart Lane, back when they longed to beat us, as having a very hostile atmosphere. In truth, the Spurs support before the whistle seemed subdued. I commented to a fellow fan that it is ironic that Fernando Torres is now many Chelsea supporters’ favoured striker.

“It’s a case of addition by subtraction.”

With Lukaku out of the picture, Torres’ stock has now risen.

The match began.

Down on the touchline, in the technical area, Jose stood, hands in pockets. He ignored the home fans’ shouts of “sit down Mourinho.” Villas-Boas, so often the fidgeting, crouching figure while at Chelsea, was nowhere to be seen. At times, it is hard to believe what has happened to Villas-Boas since the summer of 2011. He was lauded at the start. He looked the business. We were behind him. His demise was catastrophic. I still think he’ll be a good manager; hopefully not at Tottenham. Going in to the game, I was concerned. Spurs have been performing well – one of the form sides. We, however, had undoubtedly struggled. In reality, I would have been content with a point; Alan and Gal agreed.

We played well in the first quarter of an hour. What this really means is that we had more of the ball than I had expected. We weren’t subjected to raid after raid of home pressure. The home crowd were quiet. The away fans not so.

“We won 5-1, Wembley.”

“We won 6-1, at The Lane.”

“You got battered, in Seville.”

The Willian song, repeated again and again.

It was seemingly going well.

Then, a quickfire break by Tottenham down their left. A pass from Eriksen to Soldado, who played in Sigursson. He took a touch and I willed John Terry, slightly out of position, to get a block as he lunged forward. The Spurs player rode the tackle and delicately flicked the ball past Cech.

Groan. Here we go again. We always seem to concede first at Tottenham. The home crowd came to life. All four parts of the ground soon joined in with a rendition of “Oh When The Spurs.”

It was loud. Very loud.

An Ivanovic block from Paulinho saved us further blushes just after.

Spurs dominated the rest of the half. We just didn’t gel. Oscar was particularly poor, with awful first touches and wayward passes. But the whole team seemed to be off the pace. The one highlight of the first-half was an exquisite chipped pass, with perfect fade, from David Luiz into the path of a raiding Ramires down the right flank. A Hazard shot – I was right behind it – was goal bound, but a home defender blocked. Tackles were starting to test the referee and Townsend was booked for diving. It was turning into a predictably tetchy affair. Spurs again cut through our defence like a hot knife through butter but Paulinho – I last saw him in Tokyo, the bugger – scraped the near post from inside the box. At the break, time for quiet contemplation.

I wished that we had played the ball earlier to Torres. I explained to Gary –

“Not hitting it at his chest, Gal, but just hit it into the space behind the central defenders. We haven’t done that once yet.”

Over to you Jose. Work your magic in the away dressing room.

Either Hazard or Oscar, in my opinion, could easily have made way for Juan Mata. Instead, Mikel was substituted, with Ramires dropping in alongside Frank.

Soon after the restart, Fernando Torres did ever so well to turn and beat a couple of Spurs defenders down the right flank – running towards us in the Park Lane – before sliding in a low pass, which unfortunately Oscar just failed to reach. The Spaniard soon became embroiled in a personal duel with Vertongen. He was soon booked for a foul, though I presumed that the referee Mike Dean had shown him the yellow card for placing his hands on Vertongen’s face.

Torres was now on fire and a gorgeous jink and strong run past Dawson meant that he only had Lloris to beat; his shot was blocked. Soon after, a long ball from Luiz was expertly chested down by Torres into the path of Mata who shot home, but the goal was disallowed for offside. A daisy-cutter from Frank soon followed. We were playing well, with intelligent passing making life difficult for a faltering Spurs team. Mata was heavily involved.

A horrible tackle by Vertongen on Ramires brought us all to our feet. He was easily becoming the villain of the piece. From the resulting Mata free-kick, played with perfect strength and position, the Spurs back line seemed to freeze, allowing John Terry to launch himself and guide the ball in past Lloris at the near post.

Pandemonium in the Chelsea section.

I pumped my left arm continually, then glanced down to see the Chelsea players following JT into the near corner.

My camera was ready; click, click, click, click, click, click. A lovely mess of fans’ fists and ecstatic Chelsea players’ faces.

Mourinho brought on Schurrle for a quiet Hazard. Torres again did ever so well to shimmy away from markers and lay the ball into the path of the German substitute, but Lloris again thwarted a near certain Chelsea goal. This was evolving into a cracking game of football.

With around ten minutes remaining, with Chelsea well on top, the on-going feud between Vertongen and Torres came to a head. A ball was pumped towards Torres and the two protagonists leaped for the ball. From my viewpoint, there seemed to be little contact, save for the flailing of arms, which is to be expected in any airborne challenge. If anything, Vertongen’s right arm seemed to catch Torres in the face. Both players went down, but the Spurs defender stayed down. Both sets of fans were baying. We knew that both players were on a yellow. When Alan suggested that Torres was in greater danger, I could hardly believe my ears.

What had he done? I had witnessed nothing untoward.

Mike Dean brandished a yellow towards the crowd of players. Some of the away fans presumed that it was for Vertongen. Fearing the worst, I knew that it was aimed at Torres. It soon became a red. We howled our displeasure. Fernando could not believe it. He took ages to slowly walk off the pitch. There was a genuine level of support for our number nine from the three thousand away fans. I think that this was his best game – OK, his best 36 minutes – in a Chelsea shirt by far.

However, it still irked that our hopes were dashed so cruelly.

“Well, we won’t score now Gal.”

Thankfully, two long range efforts from Sigurdsson and substitute Defoe blazed wide and over Petr Cech’s goal. A loss would have been unbearable. A draw was, in the circumstances, well deserved.

Walking south along the High Road once more, there was an overwhelming feeling of pride in that second-half performance. Our team is still evolving, but here was a great standard for us to aim for in all subsequent games. I was soon heading home, listening to the demise of both Manchester teams on the radio, and I was quick to reflect that an away point at the league leaders (yeah, I know) was becoming greater and greater by the minute.

It had been a good day.

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Tales From Another Chelsea Debut

Chelsea vs. Wigan Athletic : 9 February 2013.

Another Saturday, another Chelsea home game. Except…this was a Chelsea game with a difference. After relinquishing my grip on the 240 game unbroken home run against Arsenal some three weeks ago, the game with Wigan Athletic now represented “Game One” of a new sequence. I don’t expect to go nine years this time, but let’s see how far I can get. Unfortunately, Lord Parky has been suffering with the ‘flu and so was unable to accompany me to Stamford Bridge on this occasion. I hoped that he would be “match fit” once again for the Brentford F.A. Cup replay.

Before I say too much about the events of Saturday 9 February 2013, I feel that I need to share a solemn tale. On Monday, a former Frome Town player was killed in a road traffic accident and, although I did not know him personally, I remembered him from school days when he played in both the school and cricket teams. On Wednesday, I attended a Frome Town game with a few friends and there was a minute’s silence before the match in his memory. Ironically, on my drive out of the Frome area, I needed to top up with diesel at Beckington. It was here, coming home late from a mid-week Chelsea game before Christmas, that I last saw him. As I circumnavigated Warminster on the town by-pass, I drove past the crash site. There was blue and white police tape marking his car’s final resting place. There were bouquets of flowers propped against a fence. Why do I mention this story? I mention it to highlight the fragility of human life. On my travels around the highways and byways of England and Wales, I have had a couple of small-scale accidents. I have been lucky. But this was a deeply sobering incident which has played deeply on my mind over the past few days. The drive past the crash scene was a deeply moving moment. As I headed past Warminster and up on to Salisbury Plain, the solemnity inside my car was all too apparent.

Outside, the weather was murky. As I climbed up onto the A303, snow started to fall. I wondered what sort of weather would be awaiting me once I arrived in London. Thankfully, by the time I had stopped at Fleet in Hampshire for a McBreakfast, the snow had stopped. I spotted a group of four Chelsea fans – unknown to me – at the services and I rolled my eyes to the sky when I saw their appearance. All four were rather rotund and all four were wearing tight-fitting Chelsea shirts – but crucially they were all wearing Chelsea shirts over various sweatshirts and the like. They were all in their mid-‘fifties – not a sin in itself of course, I’ll be there sooner rather than later – but I’ve always thought that tight-fitting football shirts look plain silly on people of a certain age.

I could only imagine what conversation Parky and I might have had in the circumstances.

I made great time and was parked up at 10.50am. I had plans to meet a few friends at the hotel at 11.30am, but had just enough time to pop in to “The Goose” which had recently been closed for refurbishment. Although I didn’t have time for a drink, I greeted a few friends who were already enjoying a few liveners. The place looked excellent, with new leather seats, floor tiles, carpets, wallpaper and fittings. There is even a TV out in the beer garden. As I headed down to The Bridge, I noted that The Malt House had opened-up again, too. No doubt there will be higher beer prices at each locale, but I guess that’s inevitable.

Down at the hotel, there was a gathering of friends from near and far. My guest for the day – Constanza, born only a few miles away from The Bridge – was visiting London for a week from her home in Michigan. She was in town to attend a couple of interviews at colleges in order to get a place for a Master’s degree in the autumn. She had already done the stadium tour and museum earlier in the week, but this was her big day.

Her first ever Chelsea game.

Without wasting much time, I quickly introduced her to Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti, who were sitting in their usual area. Cons’ smile was wide as she shook hands with both of these Chelsea legends. Mike from New York was over for the game – he got out of JFK just before the snow fell on Friday – and was chatting to father and son Jim Senior from NYC and Jim Junior, who now lives in Thailand. Gill and Graeme were also present and we soon posed for a photo with Gill’s “Kent Blues” flag.

Happy days.

It is always a big thrill for me to meet first-time visitors to Stamford Bridge and to show them a few of the sights and share few stories. I’m a very lucky person. With no children of my own, I at least get the chance to play “father” to a few first-time visitors to Chelsea every season and it is something that I treasure. Thankfully, a “meet and greet” with Ron Harris is part of the usual routine now and I am very grateful for that too. Unfortunately for Cons, Ron Harris passed on the news that John Terry wouldn’t playing. His old knee injury had become enflamed again. JT is Cons’ personal favourite, so my heart went out to her.

Cons and I then walked around Stamford Bridge as I explained a few of the sights. Outside the East Stand, we met up with Steve Mantle who was with another first-time visitor from the US; a member of the infamous “OC Blues” in California.

“Oh – you know Steve-O and Wrayman? My condolences.”

So, Steve and I were doing our little bit for Anglo-American relations.

I asked Steve’s guest how many times she had used the word “awesome”: but she replied “no – just amazing…everything is amazing.”

How wonderful it is to see Stamford Bridge through fresh eyes. It’s easy to get a little disheartened at the ever-diminishing atmosphere and the increasingly disconnected support base at The Bridge, but we mustn’t lose sight of how intimate Stamford Bridge is, nestled amongst the bars and pubs of the Fulham Road. There is nothing like the re-match buzz on match days in deepest SW6.

We continued our walk around The Bridge, stopping off for a photo-call at the Peter Osgood statue, before meeting up with Mike again down at the White Horse on Parson’s Green.

There were reminiscences of Tokyo and also thoughts about the Asia tour in the summer. Once the tour dates for the games in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta were announced on Thursday, I felt the adrenaline start to pulse through my body and within a few hours of checking and cross-checking flights on the internet, I had found some very agreeable prices. However, I explained to Mike that I have since thought hard about the tour and have “stepped back from the edge of the cliff.” I was ready to take the plunge, but I need time to look at all options. In truth, I am a little dismayed that Chelsea has again chosen games in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. These are a couple of fine cities, but it was only eighteen months ago that I visited them in 2011. I was hoping and praying for games in China – Shanghai and Beijing would have been perfect – but I am not sure about returning to BKK and KL so soon after my last visit. It seems that the Chelsea “problem” of getting drawn against teams from familiar cities – Barcelona, Prague, Porto, Rome, Milan, Valencia – in UEFA competitions is now being replicated in Asia.

Another pal – Dave – arrived at around 2pm. He is from London but has been living in New York for seven years. I first met him out in California on the 2007 tour. He is now living back in England – and badly missing New York. He is especially missing the view from his apartment in Brooklyn, overlooking the East River, bridges and all. The view of a pub from his flat in Tufnell Park just doesn’t match up.

Cons was enjoying the pre-match and there was talk of her getting a season ticket for 2013-2014 should her interviews be successful. It warmed me to hear her mention the phrase ‘my Chelsea family” on more than one occasion.

Although I originally wanted to be inside the stadium at 2.30pm to allow Cons the sight of the players’ pre-match routine, I’m afraid that old habits meant that we reached our seats with only five minutes to spare.

Wigan’s away following was unsurprisingly small. For the first time that I can remember, all 200 away fans were encamped in the lower tier, allowing an extra 1,000 Chelsea fans above them in the upper tier. I’ve long been advocating this; good to see. David Luiz partnered Frank Lampard at the base of our midfield five, which meant that Cahill partnered Ivanovic in the defence. I am – of course – not Benitez’ biggest fan, but at least he has spotted the potential of Luiz in the midfield, as a playmaker rather than a destructor.

I thought that Wigan caused us a few problems in the first-half, with old boy Franco di Santo involved. When he came to retrieve a ball from behind the goal line, the MHL gave him a nice reception and he clapped us back; nice to see. A fine Petr Cech save from Shaun Maloney brought us all to our feet.

A through ball from David Luiz, fresh from his captaincy of the Brazilian national team on Wednesday, found Fernando Torres who ably pushed the ball into the path of an advancing Ramires. He thumped the ball past Al Habsi and we could relax a little. A couple of efforts from Fernando Torres – another Cons favourite – promised good things. As the first-half drew on, our dominance increased. A few efforts from fizzed close to the Wigan goal but there was no further addition to the score line. I had already warned Cons of the lack of atmosphere at games these days, but she didn’t seem fazed.

Frank Leboeuf was on the pitch at the break. He hasn’t put on an ounce of fat since he hung up his boots.

Soon into the second half, a rampaging Azpilicueta sent over a great ball which easily found Eden Hazard, unmarked. The finish was cool and clinical. 2-0 and coasting.

But this was Chelsea.

Within two minutes, we conceded. A hopeful punt into space seemed to befuddle Cahill and Ivanovic. Maloney ran on to the ball, rounded Cech and adroitly slotted home from an angle.

I turned to Cons and said “and that’s why I’ve gone grey.”

The crowd were slowly getting into the game. A Lampard shot whizzed past the post. Ramires chased down a defender right down in front of us – it was a great piece if aggressive play – and this single action galvanised the support. Of course, in my mind, this is completely the opposite of what should happen at Chelsea.

Our loud and partisan support should galvanise the team.

The two highlights of the second-half were two perfectly played passes from Lampard, with perfect weight, direction and “fade.” However, Wigan threatened again, causing Benitez to change the personnel. Juan Mata replaced the impressive Oscar. He was soon involved. A Hazard pass found Mata. He played the ball back towards Lampard, who took aim and slotted the ball low past Al Habsi. With great pleasure, I photographed the goal – number 198 – and the resultant celebratory leap, before Frank returned back to thank Mata for the perfect pass.

3-1. Phew.

The crowd found its voice towards the end of the game and Cons was joining in.

Job done.

Some more changes. Benayoun for Cahill, Luiz back into defence. Marin for Hazard.

Another rampaging run from Azpilicueta took him in to a central position. He fired in a dipping shot, which the Wigan ‘keeper could only parry. The ball flew out to Marko Marin who flung himself at the ball. He appeared to head it – like a youngster, unsure of the best way – with eyes shut and head down, the ball thumping against the top of his head. In truth, he did well to contort his neck to meet the ball in the first place. I snapped away as he celebrated amongst a few exultant fans in the MHL. In truth, the score line flattered us. There were no anti-Benitez chants throughout the game, which I regard as a positive. All things considered, a good – albeit quiet – day at the office.

After the game, Cons joined me for the first Supporters Trust meeting in the Fulham CIU club, just a few yards down from the old So Bar. I was happy that she was able to witness a key moment in the history of our club. Although the meeting was rather chaotic, a few key statements were announced and there was a good vibe in the crowded bar. I would heartily recommend that any Chelsea supporter – in the UK, in the USA, in Thailand, in Indonesia – join up. It only costs £5.

Outside, Cons and I said our goodbyes, but with a promise that we’d do it all again soon.

I walked back to the car, past a busy Goose, and set off for the return home. A strange thing happened, however, at Fleet Services. As I sat inside the services, eating a brie, lettuce and grape sandwich, refuelling myself for the next hour’s drive, I suddenly had a moment of concern. A moment of clarity.

It was 8pm on a Saturday night. I was all by myself. I was at a service station in Hampshire. It was a cold night outside. What on Earth was I doing? Without Parky – or Glenn – or any of the friends who used to travel up from Frome for home games – the return drive back to Somerset appeared to be a rather sad journey.

I sighed. I haven’t felt like that for years and years. I then smiled.

“Don’t knock it Chris…millions of Chelsea fans around the world would love to be in your shoes.”

The rest of the drive home was uneventful, save for some foggy weather as I tentatively made my way past Stonehenge. This slowed my progress, but on this particular occasion, after the events of the past week, I was more than happy to take it easy. I peered in to “The Cornerhouse” pub as I made my way through Frome and imagined conversations taking place.

“Do anything today?”

“Stayed in. Watched the rugby.”

“Went shopping.”

“Nothing much.”

“I see Lampard scored again.”

That moment of concern which I had encountered at Fleet services an hour or so before, was put into perspective.

“Yep, Lampard scored again. I was there.”

The home run had begun again.
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Tales From The League Leaders

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 22 September 2012.

After a period of inactivity with no Chelsea game for me personally for three whole weeks, we were now well and truly in the thick of it, with two games per week for a while. And yet, I was in a downbeat and melancholy mood on Saturday morning. It was brewing up to be a lovely autumnal day and, if I am truthful, I was almost wondering if I could have put my twelve hours to better use. Frome Town were playing at home against Weston-super-Mare in the F.A. Cup for starters, plus I had some jobs to complete around the house and I kept thinking “that lawn won’t cut itself you know.” The prospect of yet another 220 mile round-trip hardly filled me with joy. In a nutshell, the lure of a home game was not as appealing as it should have been. I drove over to collect Young Jake at Trowbridge using my auto-pilot facility, hoping that my drowsy state would disappear once I became focussed on the day ahead.

Lord Parkins was taking a break for this game; it was just Young Jake and I representing the two towns of Frome and Trowbridge for the visit of Stoke City.

A little banter kept us occupied on the drive up and – yes – my enthusiasm soon returned. Jake is 24 and has seen Chelsea on around 25 occasions. He is still to see a Chelsea away game, but we hope to break that duck this autumn…maybe Swansea, maybe West Brom. I was lucky in that two of my first seven Chelsea games were away games, in Bristol, and I have very strong memories of both those matches from season 1975-1976. Away games are quite different to home games and I can sense that Jake was desperate to experience them. I can’t understand Chelsea fans who attend games at Stamford Bridge only; they do exist, I have met a few of them. They don’t know what they are missing.

It did feel odd to be driving up to The Smoke later in the day than usual. There was a reason for this; I had plans to attend the “start-up” meeting of the Chelsea Supporters Trust later in the evening. More of that later.

I slid into Archel Road at just before 1.30pm and it was a glorious day in London Town. I spent just an hour in the pub – or, rather, the beer garden – and it was the usual hubbub of noise.

On the twenty minute walk to Stamford Bridge, I noted the same old faces trying their best to punt tickets. These touts – or scalpers – are present at every game and, for the life of me, I never understand why Chelsea can’t work in unison with the OB to flush these away from Stamford Bridge.

I bought a programme and noted that Jon Obi Mikel was featured on the front cover. Was this a tacit endorsement of our midfielder by the club, so soon after the brouhaha following his errant pass against Juventus? I hope so. I hope that it wasn’t just a strange coincidence.

I soon noticed a large swathe of empty seats towards the back of The Shed upper. Maybe the touts hadn’t been so successful on this particular day. However, these empty seats eventually filled up over the first twenty minutes of the game.

Over on the western side of The Shed, a new banner caught my attention.

“Welcome to Chelsea FC. The first London team to win the Champions League.”

Nice sentiments, but way too “wordy.”

If I had my way, it would just say –

“Arsenal didn’t. Tottenham didn’t. We did.” (with a small gold star as decoration.)

Frank Lampard and John Terry were sidelined. This meant that Gary Cahill started alongside the erratic David Luiz.

I won’t dwell too much on the game itself on this particular occasion. However, what a contrast in styles; not only between Chelsea and Stoke City, but between Chelsea 2011-2012 and Chelsea 2012-2013. Our little triumvirate of “number tens” were the focus of our attacking play. This, of course, was the first time that Mata, Hazard and Oscar had started together. If we were playing in Italy, I have a feeling that these three players would have already been given a little moniker all of their own. For some reason, Napoli came to mind. Not only the three tenors of Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik of last season, but the “Ma-Gi-Ca” trio from the late ‘eighties…Diego Maradona, Bruno Giordano and Careca.

Mata. Hazard. Oscar.

Ma-Ha-Os.

Ma-Os-Ha.

Ha-Os-Ma.

Os-Ha-Ma.

I’ll work on that.

Despite or domination of the game, we hardly troubled Begovic in the Stoke goal. If anything, the visitors had the best two chances of the first-half. At the break, Gary was fuming, but I tried to make the point that this was only the fifth game of the news season and that the team was noticeably different to the team of previous years, with a new way of playing, a new style, new tactics.

Mike Fillery was on the pitch at the break. For four seasons, from 1979 to 1983, he was the kingpin of our midfield. He was a skilful touch-player with a great range of passing, who chipped in with a fair share of goals, too. His team mates included Clive Walker, Tommy Langley, Colin Pates, Ian Britton and Colin Lee. His style was often called languid but the inhabitants of the whitewall, the tea-bar and the benches often called him “lazy.” Both Alan and Gary commented that, despite him now having a limp, he moved around the pitch quicker than when he was playing for us. He left us in the summer of 1983 for the promise of First Division football at QPR. Ah, QPR – where Chelsea players go to retire. In some ways, he left us at just the wrong time. It would have been interesting to see how he would have fitted in as a midfielder in the all-action team of Dixon / Nevin / Speedie (or “Di-Ne-Sp” as we didn’t call them at the time). On the day we beat Derby County 5-0 on the opening day of 1983-1984, Fillery made his QPR debut at Old Trafford and I remember seeing him on “Match of the Day” that night. I’ll be honest, he had been one of my heroes and it just didn’t seem right. Anyway, twenty-nine years later, it was good to see him back at Chelsea.

The second-half continued in a similar vein. The Holy Trinity dominated the play and there were more flicks and back-heels seen at Chelsea for many a year.

There were more flicks on show than at a wedge haircut convention.

Mikel was having a solid game and Ramires was a looking lot more at ease alongside him. I’d suggest that Ramires stays in this position all season long.

As the half progressed, at last the crowd started to make some noise. Victor Moses made his home debut as a substitute and added some instant energy. Fernando Torres was full of honest endeavour, but it just wasn’t working for him. Some of his passing was excellent, though. I made a comment that if only Torres could be on the end of his own through-balls. During the last quarter, Stoke began a few raids on our goal. When substitute Michael Owen appeared – and also Kenwyne Jones – I feared the worst. I made the point – only half in jest – that with Jones, Owen, Crouch and Walters, Stoke probably had a better four attackers in their squad than us.

With five minutes to go, substitute Frank Lampard helped to work the ball out wide. The ball was played in towards Juan Mata who stepped over the ball to allow it to reach the waiting Ashley Cole. With a deft flick, the ball spun up and over the ‘keeper’s despairing block. The ball nestled inside the netting, the crowd burst into life and Ash raced over towards the north-east corner. It was a well worked goal.

Phew.

John Terry came on to protect the lead, replacing Juan Mata in one of the oddest substitutions seen at Chelsea for a while, and we played with five at the back.

We held on.

After the game, I did my annual raid on the club shop and bought a few items. After a quick bite to eat at the “Pizza Express” at Fulham Broadway, I made my way up to the Barrow Boy pub on the North End Road (formerly The Hobgoblin, formerly The Victualler).

Upstairs on the roof terrace, around seventy Chelsea fans assembled for a “Supporters Trust” start-up / feasibility meeting which was hosted by Tim Rolls, Neil Beard, Dave Johnstone and Cliff Auger. The scene was rather plush with the terrace’s perimeter bedecked in canvas; it had the ambience of a Bedouin tent. All very decadent, all very Chelsea. The meeting lasted around ninety minutes.

A representative of Supporters Direct was present to talk through the concept of football trusts, of which there are around 150 in the UK. The meeting, at times, was predictably heated, but I found it very worthwhile. Tellingly, the SD guy stated that virtually all football trusts are formed at times of crisis.

“Crisis? What crisis?” I hear people cry…”we’re Champions of Europe!”

The raison d’etre for this meeting at Chelsea was no doubt instigated by the ramifications of the CPO affair last autumn, but was also linked to the general feeling amongst fan groups that Chelsea Football Club are continually out of touch with its match-going support. Another reason for a supporters trust, I think, is to try to unite the many various Chelsea fan groups which currently exist; in many cases, a trust acts as an umbrella for various factions.

Examples were given to explain how trusts work. Some are very active, some are virtually dormant. It depends on the individual circumstances of each club. On one hand, the Manchester United trust has over 100,000 members but is not acknowledged by the United board. At the other extreme, the trust at Swansea virtually runs the club. In between, there are many different shades. Arsenal only has 1,000 members in its trust, but is seen as a media savvy, political pressure group with a surprising amount of power. Newcastle United, like Chelsea, has many different supporters groups, but they came together to form a 35,000 strong trust. Mike Ashby ignores them, but the NUFC trust has strong links with the local media and council. Clearly, a trust is seen as a more bona fide and credible entity than a normal fans’ group.

It is inevitable that football trusts have more clout at smaller clubs where revenue is more dependent upon match-going fans. At Exeter City, where gates average 3,000, the football club is obviously going to listen to a 1,000 strong football trust since it is in its best interests to have an appreciation of what fans require out of their club. At financially opulent clubs, trusts have a bigger battle.

It was stated that trusts tend to have short term, medium term and long term goals. At many clubs, the long term goal of getting a trust member onto the football board has been accomplished.

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

Despite a couple of unsure voices, it was decided to go ahead with the general notion of the Chelsea supporters trust. A follow-up meeting will take place in October or November.

Three points were made which are worthy of further comment.

The Supporters Direct representative emphasised that the Chelsea Pitch Owners are incredibly important to the future of the club. He stated that Chelsea is the only club in Europe whose ground is owned by its fans. Virtually every other club would love to have what we have. It is, as one fan said, the jewel in our crown.

One of the long term goals for a Chelsea trust, rather than aim for the board (unlikely…let’s be honest), might be to get a normal fan to take the internally-appointed Graham Smith’s role as the club’s Supporter Liaison Officer.

A short term goal will be to get many overseas supporters groups to buy in to the idea of a supporters trust. At the meeting, Chelsea in America was mentioned on a few occasions. This is a win-win. The club is desperate to grow its overseas fan base and by getting various foreign groups on board, the club would have to take the trust seriously.

As I left the meeting, I was invigorated by the passion and the common sense of brotherhood engendered amongst my fellow fans. It was a great meeting. It was a great day. I momentarily wandered back to my thoughts in the morning.

How silly of me to think it might have been anything else.

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