Tales From Two Number Nines

Chelsea vs. Valencia : 17 September 2019.

I walked to Stamford Bridge with Alan. As we turned into the West Stand forecourt, and after we had bypassed the programme sellers and after we had safely navigated the bag search, I looked up and spotted Champions League insignia adorning, as I had expected, the West Stand frontage. I took a photo with my Samsung phone and posted it on “Facebook.”

“The Champions League. Chelsea Are Back.”

I knew I’d have to linger a while and take some images with my trusty Canon EOS1300D.

“See you inside, mate.”

We had spent the previous forty-five minutes or so in “Simmons” in the company of some very good friends – mainly from London and the Home Counties – and, before that, PD and I had spent a similar period in “The Goose” with lads and lasses from mainly the West Country. We had commented to each other that we thought both pubs were quieter than usual. There was no doubt in my mind that this did not suggest a less than full house for the visit of Valencia, but rather it was an indication that such nights see increasingly fewer “regulars” in attendance. Milling around outside Stamford Bridge were, indeed, natives of many nations.

European nights at Chelsea always did attract a more cosmopolitan and diverse crowd.

I took a wide-angle shot of the stand head-on, with everything nice and symmetrical. I then noted that the evening sky was gradually changing from a solid blue. On the drive up in the car – just PD and I again – the sky had been completely devoid of clouds. It had been a cracking afternoon. And now, at around 7.15pm or so, the sky above was infused with delicate pinks.

I walked towards the Peter Osgood statue, and did my best to capture a little bit of everything.

Peter Osgood and the Chelsea flag atop the stand. Peter Osgood and the list of our trophies. Peter Osgood and a specific image of the 1971 ECWC trophy. Peter Osgood, in profile, against the early evening sky.

The King of Stamford Bridge would have loved a night like this. And it is truly sickening to think that he was taken from us at the relatively early age of fifty-nine. In comparison, Ray Wilkins and Ian Britton were sixty-two when they sadly passed. In my mind, I find this impossible to comprehend. Not only are my three favourite Chelsea players of my childhood (my some margin) no longer with us, but Ossie was taken from us at the earliest age. Of the three, he will always be the elder statesman, the most revered, the most loved, the most iconic, The King.

Fifty-nine.

It’s no age, is it?

It is only five years older than me.

A deep deep sigh.

Our time is so precious.

On some European nights, I make the point of touching one of the boots at the base of the statue. It’s not a strong superstition, sometimes I forget.

On this night, I didn’t.

Inside the stadium, it took a while to fill. Over in the away section, there were very few Valencia fans inside. They surely brought more in 2006/7, 2007/8 and 2011/12.

Ah, that season…

By kick-off time, the stadium was full to capacity. These CL group phase tickets are just £35. That’s great value, eh?

In the pub beforehand, though, Andy from Nuneaton and I had briefly touched on the demands of midweek football, especially for us that live a hundred miles or more from HQ. Sometimes, with an early start for work the following day dominating our thoughts, I just find myself wanting for the game to end and get home to get some sleep. Not so much on European nights, though. However, I will be honest; next Wednesday’s match against Grimsby Town might be one of those occasions.

The team was announced; it was the team that had started the second-half against Wolves on Saturday.

Arrizabalaga.

Christensen – Zouma – Tomori

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Willian – Abraham – Mount

This was an eight o’clock kick-off, and with a few minutes remaining, the players appeared on the TV screens, massing in the tunnel. Then, the iconic walk across the Stamford Bridge pitch, past the billowing circular black and white Champions League banner, and across to the West Stand. A slight pause, and then the Champions League anthem.

Chelsea were indeed back.

Hearing the familiar anthem, I am unashamed to admit, caused me to feel a surprisingly warm tingle. It surprised me because many see the Champions League as the epitome of the way that money has won out in this magical game of ours, and that this possibly cheesy and overly-dramatic anthem is a step too far. But it genuinely moved me. One word kept entering my thoughts.

“Barcelona.”

No European team has played us more over the past twenty years. No team has been at the centre of more drama. The anthem takes me back to 2000, to 2005, to 2009, to 2012 and to 2018, our last tie in this competition. I thought of Terry, of Iniesta, of Drogba and shuddered again.

The game began.

I turned to Alan.

“Just weird that Joaquin isn’t playing.”

It seemed that in every game against Spanish opposition not involving Barcelona featured the well-travelled winger. He played against us for Real Betis in 2005/6 and against us for Valencia in 2006/7 and in 2007/8. He even showed up at Stamford Bridge in 2015 in the colours of Fiorentina in that pre-season friendly (Marcos Alonso played too).

But no Joaquin.

Not even on the bench.

Just before the kick-off, and for a few moments, maybe twenty seconds in total, Tammy Abraham stood waiting for the whistle. He was loudly serenaded by the Stamford Bridge crowd. Wearing the famous number nine shirt that Peter Osgood wore with distinction in his two spells with the club, I wondered what was going through his mind. With seven goals to his name already this season, and fresh from his three-goal haul at Wolves, his confidence must have been pinky-blue sky high. And here he was, about to kick-off his first ever Champions League game.

What a time to be alive, Tammy Abraham.

At eight o’clock, Tammy kicked the ball towards the Matthew Harding and we were off and running.

We dominated – utterly – the first twenty minutes. The visitors – in the traditional white shirts and black shorts with the distinctive red, yellow and Batman black badge – hardly entered our half. There was early concern when Mason Mount was fouled and looked in pain. He tried his best to continue, but the foul by former Arsenal Goon Francis Coquelin proved too much. He fell to the floor again and was replaced by Pedro who took position out wide.

We dominated the play but did not create a great deal. There was a fine move down our right and a tight cross from Azpilicueta that Abraham met at the near post. We often played the diagonal to Alonso. Another quality Azpilicueta to Abraham cross amounted to nothing. We were lucky when a rare Valencia attack resulted in a low shot that was blocked by another Valencia player. We kept chipping away at them. It was Willian who managed our best efforts on goal. On the half hour, he twisted in and out of space and ran centrally and quickly but slashed a shot narrowly wide. Later, Kovacic spotted Willian’s run with a sublime ball from deep. The Brazilian chested the ball magnificently but his rushed shot was well over. There were occasions when Willian elected to pass out wide rather than shoot, but he was our main attacking threat. As the first-half drew to a close the last of his three efforts on goal produced a fine save at the near post from Jasper Cillesson in the Valencia goal.

We had most definitely dominated the first-half. Our 60% possession told that story. But Tammy had not received the best of service throughout the half. Our crosses, with a couple of exceptions, had been poor, often rushed and lazy.

I remember my games master – Mr. Ward, a Stokie who was on the books of Stoke City until a leg-break – once lambasted me, as a winger, for a lazy cross and I wondered what he meant. It soon struck home. It meant that I didn’t focus on the options, on the team mate running into space, on the best course of action. I guess that I simply looped it in. I was hurt that I was being castigated for a key part of my game but I hope I learned from it. It is a phrase that has stuck with me to this day.

At nine o’clock, the players reassembled.

Alas, as against Leicester City and Sheffield United, there was a familiar second-half story about to unravel before our eyes.

The atmosphere had been far from red hot throughout the first-half and the noise faded away during the opening moments of the second period as the away team, attacking The Shed, eased themselves more and more into the game. Everyone was sensing that we were defending deeper, and looking uncomfortable in possession. Rather than produce an invigorating and noisy backdrop in which our players would be lifted and taken to another level, we collectively sat back and became as nervous as the players.

There were only one or two occasions when we decided to get it going with our standard “COME ON CHELSEA” battle cry.

Not good enough.

Ten minutes in, a short corner resulted in a shot from Kevin – Kevin? – Gameiro flashed narrowly over from the edge of the box. On sixty-one minutes, Willian and Alonso stood over a free-kick. We were all expecting Alonso to flip the ball high and arch it over the wall. Instead, he struck a low drive which the Valencia ‘keeper scrambled away with a late dive at his left-hand post. Our chances then almost dried up. Tammy was isolated throughout the half. We rarely attacked with any cohesion. How we missed Eden Hazard down below us.

On seventy minutes, Frank Lampard bravely replaced Kurt Zouma with Olivier Giroud, switching to four at the back and paying with two upfront.

Just after, a silly challenge by Kovacic gave the visitors a free-kick from a central position. There was a smart run into space by Rodrigo and the ball was played perfectly to him. His snappy finish left us in complete silence. All ten Valencia outfield players raced over to celebrate in front of the three hundred away fans.

Our reply was immediate.

“Come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea.”

In reality, only a fine effort from Giroud – creating space and moving the ball neatly – bothered the Valencia goal. They were now defending deep and space was at a premium. Very often an outstretched leg would stop a pass from reaching its destination.

With ten minutes to go, Ross Barkley replaced Mateo Kovacic.

On eighty-three minutes, a corner from Willian was met with a leap from Fikayo Tomori. I photographed the downward header and did not cleanly see what happened next. There was an appeal for handball, although neither Alan nor I were sure.

Sections of the home crowd began shouting “VAR, VAR” and a little part of me died.

I saw JD shake his head.

After a slight delay, it was announced that VAR was in operation.

We waited.

And waited.

And waited.

No decision.

The referee then sprinted over to watch a replay, and another replay, and another replay, on a TV screen which was on some sort of contraption in front the West Stand. Evidently, a team of experts locked away in a room in Nyon in Switzerland, or somewhere, could not decide, so it was back to the referee who had been standing around ten yards from the initial incident.

Alan : “Surely, if there is any doubt whatsoever, there should be no penalty.”

Chris : “Agreed. 100%.”

After what seemed like an ice age, the referee pointed to the spot.

For the first time that I can ever remember, I did not celebrate a Chelsea penalty. I looked at Alan and our expressions mirrored the opinions of each other.

“Good grief.”

Ross Barkley took the penalty after a considerable wait. His shot clipped the top of the bar and the ball flew into the stand.

Bollocks.

It was not to be.

We don’t lose many European home games, do we?

Lazio, Besiktas, Barcelona, Internazionale, Manchester United, Basle, Atletico Madrid, PSG, Valencia.

Nine.

I have seen them all, damn it. But it is a fantastic record, eh? I alone have seen ninety-nine European games at home from 1994 to 2020. And the complete record is just nine defeats out of one hundred and twenty-two games at Stamford Bridge in all UEFA games. That’s OK with me. It is a stunning run of numbers.

But, records aside, we have done ourselves no favours and this group phase will be – now – doubly difficult to escape from.

I whispered to JD as we trudged down the Fulham Road, “Gdansk is lovely in May.”

There was talk at the start of this week that the three games against Wolves, Valencia and Liverpool will be very testing.

Liverpool is next.

See you on Sunday.

Tales From Three Leaps

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 14 September 2019.

Football – of the right kind – was back after a self-imposed interruption of a fortnight. The international break saw England play Bulgaria and then Kosovo, and despite both matches being shown on “free-to-air” terrestrial ITV, I saw just five minutes of the second game. Even with appearances from Ross Barkley and Mason Mount, I’m afraid that my interest in our national team continues to wane. In the break, instead, I saw two consecutive home games involving my local team. Frome Town drew 1-1 with Evesham United and then beat Barnstaple Town 3-1. Both were excellent matches and I continue to feel an emotional attachment to my most local team, something that I struggle to do with England.

But now it was all about Chelsea.

The Chuckle Bus carried just two of its Brothers to our game against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Parky was still recuperating after his hip operation and Glenn was otherwise engaged. I was parked-up in the city centre at 11.30am, and the two of us – PD and CA – were soon settled in “The Sunbeam” pub outside the city’s bus depot and not too far from the train station, right in the middle of everything. There were signs saying “HOME FANS ONLY” but we skipped past the security guard on the door and were soon inside, despite PD wearing shorts and thus allowing a loud and proud Chelsea tattoo on his leg to be seen by all.

We kept to ourselves and there was no bother nor trouble. This was despite the presence of some locals of a certain vintage who – if their clobber was anything to go by – might have been involved in some fisticuffs a few years back. However, not everyone who goes to football these days who sports a Stoney is a psycho and not everyone who likes the Lacoste label is a lad. We were joined by Scott, Paul and Kim. The mixture of accents must have confused the bouncers, although I suspect that Scott’s Wolves mate, who he met at the Chelsea Legends game at Real Madrid a few months back, might well have aided their entrance into the pub.

The sun was out, we had a good chat, and I liked being able to partake in a little bit of people-watching through the windows. By the time we had decided to move on, there was a large gaggle of Wolves lads drinking outside but the occasional Chelsea fan wearing colours who walked past received no trouble.

“Wouldn’t have been like this in the ‘eighties, PD.”

Wolves fans wearing all different types of replica shirts waltzed past. I soon realised how off the mark the home club was in 2018/19 with the yellow shirt rather than the warmer old gold of the current design.

There were more “home fans only” signs in a few other pubs. One day I’ll make it inside “The Billy Wright”, but maybe not on a match day. We bumped into Alex – originally from Sofia – and he moaned that the “away pub” down near the train station was rammed, so we decided to cut our losses and leisurely walk down to the ground, passing the university buildings and the leafy surrounds of the local church. Molineux was soon spotted, and we disappeared down to the infamous “subway” which was the scene of many an ambush in days of yore.

Despite my decision to forego home programmes this season, I just could not resist purchasing the £5 special edition that marked the one-hundred and thirtieth anniversary of the club moving to their current site. The famous old club was one of the twelve members of the inaugural Football League which began in 1888/89 and Molineux is their fourth home. The programme was wrapped in an evocative panorama featuring an artist’s adaptation of the stadium in 1889, 1958 and 2019. I can well remember the multi-span roof of the stand which used to sit on the land from where we would be watching the game in 2019. The old stadium was in poor repair for many years, but Sir Jack Hayward, whose statue welcomes spectators as they arrive with eyes blinking after walking through the darkness of the subway, helped renovate the stadium with huge success in the ‘nineties and the stadium has since been improved with a new double-deck north stand. It works well. If Goodison Park is my favourite away venue, then Molineux is surely my favourite “new build.” It is ridiculously close to the city centre, there is a perfect use of old gold in much of its structure and it all seems to fit together with a minimum of fuss.

In fact, I bought two programmes. When I was over in Italy during the summer, I spent a few hours in a bar on the beach in which one of the bar staff was a Swedish lad who, after I told him I was a Chelsea fan – I soon get this key fact out of the way pretty sharpish when I start chatting to a stranger for any length of time – he told me that he was a Wolves fan, and had been to Molineux a few times. I decided to send him a copy and he was very grateful when I quickly messaged him.

We waited in the cool of the concourse, PD supping lager, and little old me on my third and fourth Diet Cokes of the day. We welcomed a few friends as they arrived.

We made our way inside and I was well happy with our seats; right on the half-way line, just three rows from the front. For the FA Cup game in 2017, we were located in the lofty heights of the double-decker to my right. For this game, all 2,600 Chelsea were strewn out along the entire length of the lower tier of the Steve Bull Stand. I knew from the off that getting consistent singing from us all would be a difficult task.

I centered my gaze on the ten outfield players going through their warm-ups. There were three centre-halves involved; Christensen, Rudiger and Tomori. I wondered what plan Frank Lampard had hatched.

The sun was beating down. This would not be “Dublin in July hot”, but this was a lovely early autumn afternoon. “Love will tear us apart” by Joy Division improved my enjoyment of the moment, but this was then cut short as we were treated to a prolonged display of pyrotechnics just before the teams entered the pitch. Our faces were scorched by the heat of the flames.

OK – old gold, orange, I get it. I can make the connection between the fingers of flame which darted into the air and the club colours, but on a bright sunny day it seemed rather pointless.

Surely a display at night games only would be better.

Old gold and black.

Perfect.

The teams entered the pitch. We had jettisoned the blue shirts, and even the blue socks from Norwich City, and were in all white.

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Christensen – Rudiger – Tomori

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Willian – Abraham – Mount

It was an Antonio Conte-style 3-4-3.

The game began and it was a quiet beginning. Tammy was soon booed for his Aston Villa connections. On the Wolves right, we were treated to a few lightning bursts from Adama Traore – built like a sprinter or a modern-day winger in rugby – but who (classic football cliché warning) “flattered to deceive.” We looked composed on the ball without creating too much. Things were a little quiet off the pitch too. It took a full twenty-five minutes for a pitch-long chant to unite the Chelsea support. I spotted that Willian and Mason Mount swapped wings once or twice. We tried hard to reach Tammy, but it was a struggle. If I was honest, I’d say that Wolves possibly edged the opening half-an-hour, if only in terms of possession. But there were no efforts on target. A wild shot from Willian which blazed over was our one notable effort. Before the game, in whispered tones, a few of us had been worried about the three games in the next week.

Wolves away, Valencia at home, Liverpool at home.

“We could…possibly…lose all three.”

On thirty-one minutes, everything changed. An attack on our right floundered and the ball was knocked away by a Wolves defender. The ball rolled at pace towards the onrushing Fikayo Tomori and he shaped to hit the ball without the need of a second touch. I snapped just as he connected. We watched, eyes bulging, as the ball made the net ripple.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBASTARD.

Oh my.

What a goal for this match, for this season, for any season.

His leap in front of me was euphoric.

After a few seconds…

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us nowwwww.”

Chris : “Come on moi little dimonddddds.”

Three minutes later, with the Wolves defence on their heels, we found our way into the box. Mount appeared to be fouled but the ball rebounded off a Wolves leg to Tammy who spun one-hundred and eighty degrees and lashed it in. The net bulged again. There was a kiss to the Chelsea support from an ebullient Tammy, back among the goals again.

Seven minutes later, and after a slight Wolves resurgence, a Jorginho cross was headed out. Alonso picked up the loose ball.

I had commented to Alan earlier that because we only had Tammy up front, our crosses needed to be on the money.

Alonso’s cross was.

He picked out Tammy perfectly and the tall striker headed home with ridiculous ease. It was a fantastic goal. Yet more lovely celebrations. I caught his leap towards the Chelsea support in the corner on film. This was another great celebration. It pleased me that I evidently took a better photograph of Tammy’s leap than that of Tomori.

Bloody hell.

We were 3-0 up at the break.

We could hardly believe it.

We had caught fire in the last fifteen minutes and the Wolves fans standing in the South Stand, the old Kop, were as scorched as we were from the pre-match flames. Our three goals might have flattered us a little, but we cared not. Wolves, after all, had not really forced a save from Kepa the entire half.

During the first forty-five minutes, I had mentioned our 5-0 win at the same stadium in 2003, which was my first-ever visit to Molineux. Alan had then spoken to me about his first visit too.

“To her dying day, my Mum never knew I came up here in 1977.”

Alan was just fourteen – I was eleven – and had been going to Chelsea for a few years. Our famous game in 1977, in which our travelling support was officially banned, was a huge occasion. Alan simply had to be there. He had told his mother that he was out to see friends and stayed out the entire day, via a secret trip to Wolverhampton, returning late. In those days – God, they seem so distant, before mobile phones and constant attention and interaction – kids would often disappear for hours on end. On this day – with Wolves needing a point to secure the Second Division Championship and with Chelsea requiring a point to gain promotion – thousands of Chelsea flooded Molineux. We drew 1-1 and, as I have reported previously, my one recollection of that day was hearing the result on “Final Score” at my grandparents’ house, opening the front door, running up the slope to the main road and jumping up, punching the air in a leap not too dissimilar to those of Tomori and Tammy forty-two years later.

Alan and I chuckled about the ridiculousness of it all.

We imagined Alan returning home at 10pm, in a scene not too dissimilar to that of Perry’s return from Manchester in the “Harry Enfield Show.”

“You’re back late, son.”

“Aye, I yam.”

“Why are you talking funny?”

“What yow talking about? Anyway, I’ve brought you a present.”

“What’s this, pork scratchings?”

“Bostin’ ah.”

Kurt Zouma replaced Toni Rudiger at half-time. Very soon, he was causing a few nervous jitters in the away section. However, we withstood some early Wolves pressure. On fifty-five minutes, Jorginho lofted the ball forward to Tammy. He controlled the ball, stood tall against Conor Coady, twisted into a little space, leaving Coady for dead, then struck a low shot past Rui Patricio.

He had silenced the Yam Yam Boo Boys in fine style with a sublime hat-trick.

Smiles everywhere.

Alan, knowing full well our past, uttered the immortal line :

“We’ve got the draw, let’s go for the win” and those close by chuckled.

Mount was set free and should have scored after darting past the ‘keeper after a magnificent pass from Jorginho, but his effort was wide.

With twenty minutes to go, Wolves grabbed a goal back after a corner was scrambled in after Kepa made an initial save. We would only learn much later that it was Tammy’s fourth of the game. Dave, playing wide, had several gut-busting runs down the right and should have created more with his final ball. At times, we were purring.

Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic. Michy replaced Tammy. We kept attacking. There was a lovely looseness to everything we did. Michy impressed me in the final quarter and could have scored a couple himself.

Bizarrely, Patrick Cutrone made it 4-2 with five minutes to go, stabbing home from close range after Kepa fumbled.

…maybe Alan was right after all.

“Bloody hell, we are 4-2 up, why are we all as nervous as hell?”

Wolves appealed for a penalty. The referee did not give it. VAR did not give it.

What a fucking non-story.

With six minutes of extra-time signalled, we found ourselves clock-watching.

“Come on ref, blow up.”

In the final minute, Michy controlled a bouncing ball, and fed in Mount in the inside-left channel. With ridiculous ease, he turned his defender and slotted home.

5-2.

Memories of the 5-0 in 2003.

Game, set and match.

Beautiful.

At the end of the game, Tammy grabbed the match ball. What a time to be alive for this young lad. May he go from strength to strength.

We are all right behind him.

On Tuesday, we reassemble at Stamford Bridge for our first Champions League match since Barcelona away in March 2018.

I can hear the music now…

…see you there.

 

Tales From The Return Of The Blades

Chelsea vs. Sheffield United : 31 August 2019.

Sheffield. My first memories of Sheffield football involved United and not Wednesday. Back in the early ‘seventies when I first became enchanted by football, and all that went with it, it was Sheffield United who were involved in the top flight while their bitter rivals and near neighbours Sheffield Wednesday were playing football in the old Second and Third Divisions.

Names such as Tony Currie, Trevor Hockey and Alan Woodward starred for the Blades in that period. They were a mid-table team and, at times, an entertaining team. In those days, Wednesday – even though they were the bigger of the city’s two clubs, with a few more trophies and a larger stadium – were off the radar for me. Wednesday’s plight mirrored that of Aston Villa who were also loitering in the middle two divisions in that era too.

Although Chelsea played Sheffield United at regular intervals in the ‘seventies, we did not meet throughout the ‘eighties. Instead, Wednesday became one of our biggest rivals in that decade. We met United a few times in the ‘nineties, but our last meeting was in the 2006/7 season.

In all of this time, I have only ever seen them play at Stamford Bridge on three occasions, and there has only ever been one trip for me to Bramall Lane.

The first time that I saw Chelsea play Sheffield United at Stamford Bridge came in season 1991/92 in the fifth round of the FA Cup. I remember that Daryl and I spotted David Lee and Robert Fleck enjoying pre-match pints in “The Stargazey” – alas no more – on the Fulham Road before the game. But don’t worry, they weren’t playing. We won a nondescript game 1-0 with a goal from Bobby Stuart. However, the most memorable part of the entire day took place in a pub in Camden several hours after the game had ended when myself and a couple of college mates, enjoying a quiet pint, noticed an influx of United’s lads – the Blades Business Crew – who were evidently playing cat and mouse with Chelsea and also Sheffield Wednesday who, remarkably, had been playing a league fixture at Highbury that very same day. Thankfully, we managed to sidestep any problems that arose that evening, albeit narrowly. The escapades that took place that night have been well documented elsewhere. It was, evidently, quite an evening.

The most famous Chelsea vs. Sheffield United game of the past three decades, however, was the final match of the 1993/94 season. Chelsea, under Glenn Hoddle, had struggled in the first part of the campaign, adapting to a more expansive and possession based style of football – ring any bells? – but had enjoyed a resurgence after Christmas. We had, monumentally, reached our first FA Cup Final since 1970 too. The home game against Sheffield United was to be our final preparation for the Cup Final. All of our focus was on that game. It was, however, to be the final day of The Shed. We had heard that the club was to demolish the famous old terracing during the summer in preparation for new developments.

I remember travelling up with Glenn, meeting up with Daryl and maybe a couple of others in “The Stargazey” but then deciding at the last minute to get tickets in the East Stand Upper rather than stand on The Shed for the last ever time. I remember that it was raining heavily and there would have been no guarantee of cover in The Shed. So, in one of my most shocking Chelsea decisions ever, I chose not to experience The Shed on its final day. I still shudder at this ludicrous choice twenty-five years on.

“What was I thinking?”

As the North Stand terrace had been demolished around Christmas 1993, the only place left to house the away fans was the East Upper. Lo and behold, Glenn and I found ourselves just a few rows in front of the large and boisterous Sheffield United contingent. The Blades were threatened with relegation, though from memory were unlikely to go down as they were several places above the drop zone. Other teams were in the mix too and it never really dawned on me that relegation would be an option for them. Famously, Everton were right in the mire. Jostein Flo – Tore Andre’s older brother – put the away team 1-0 up and the away fans bellowed “The Blades are staying up.” Jakob Kjeldberg equalised, but Glyn Hodges quickly restored the lead. This was looking good for Sheffield United.

“Now you’re gonna believe us…the Blades are staying up.”

But this was anything but good for us. We had lost 2-1 at home to Coventry City the previous Wednesday evening at Stamford Bridge – in front of a miserable 8,923, maybe everyone was saving their hard-earned for Wembley – and now we were losing to a poor team on the Saturday. It was hardly good preparation for Wembley. Then, miraculously Mark Stein – the season’s unlikely hero – scored in the seventy-fourth minute and again on ninety to give us a dramatic 3-2 victory. Elsewhere none other than Bobby Stuart – or Graham Stuart, now that he had left us – had scored for Everton to give them a late win at home to Wimbledon, and – much to my sadness – we soon realised that Mark Stein’s late winner, a poacher’s goal in front of The Shed, had relegated Sheffield United.

The away fans went deathly quiet.

It was a game that we wanted to win for sure, with Wembley coming up, but it was horrible to witness at close hand the absolute sadness being experienced by the Blades fans. Some younger fans were in tears.

It was the first time that they had been in the bottom three all season.

It was a bizarre experience. And, I’ll be honest, I really felt for them.

Glenn and I sloped away, quiet too.

My pre-match activity for the game in 2019/20 involved more history. I joined up with twelve other Chelsea supporters who had signed up for Rick Glanvill’s historical walk along the Fulham Road. Rick is the official club historian and is heavily involved at Chelsea, having written the official book celebrating our centenary in 2005 – what timing, what a year – and writes for the match programme to this day.

From 11pm to 12.30pm, Rick effortlessly guided us from the Fulham Town Hall to Stamford Bridge – the bridge, not the stadium – and from 1905 (and before) to 2019. It was a thoroughly entertaining ride through our history, with fascinating insights into key moments in our formation and subsequent decades. It’s probably best that I don’t report too much detail of the content and undermine Rick’s further tours, suffice to say that I heartily recommend them to anyone with a passion, like me, for social history, geography, football and a good yarn.

Rick painted a wonderful picture of the area before Chelsea Football Club was formed. And there were whimsical stories about the founding fathers, music hall performers, the club’s first official photographer, music studios, a local lad who became one of the first ball boys and the Moscow Dynamo game in 1945.

It was right up my street, or rather Fulham Road.

One of the same I guess.

I met up with the lads at “Simmons” and it was a real pleasure to see Dave once again. Dave now lives in the South of France with his good lady and their young lad – who, with perfect timing – was born a couple of hours before we won the league at West Brom in 2017. And no, Dave’s son’s name isn’t called Michy.

We last saw Dave on a good old pub crawl around the West End before the debacle against Tottenham at Wembley last season.

It was a joy to see him again.

One of our party was missing however, and it felt odd. Parky was recuperating in a Bath hospital after his hip operation on Thursday. After work on Friday, PD and I had visited him and he was doing well, and in fine form.

This is code for “we couldn’t shut him up.”

With or without Parky, everyone was having a blast. I met up with a few of the usual suspects for the first time of the season in “Simmons” and it felt great. It is a very popular little bar among people I know.

To tie things up nicely with Rick’s pre-game tour, the son of our former chairman Brian Mears was in attendance.

I walked to Stamford Bridge with Dave, and the fifteen-minute journey was riddled with ridiculous laughter.

Good times.

On the forecourt, I tussled with my conscience and for the first time ever, I chose not to buy a home programme. I have tended to only flick through them of late, even though they are a good read, but I have crossed the Rubicon. I gave up buying away ones a good few years ago. I haven’t bought the 2018 FA Cup Final programme, nor the 2019 Europa League programme.

There is only so much space in my house for Chelsea paraphernalia.

Ugh.

Once inside Stamford Bridge, I had a few moments to settle and prepare myself for the game, which until then, had hardly entered my thoughts.

I looked over at the away section and wondered where two supporters were located.

On the Friday, I had received a lovely message from my friend Simon, who is a Sheffield United supporter, and who I have known for over three decades. On my only visit to Bramall Lane in the autumn of 2006, I met up with him at his house and we drove in together. It summed up his take on the current regime, and really brought home how lucky we have been as Chelsea supporters over the last twenty-five years.

“Big match for us tomorrow. Unfortunately, I won’t be there. My brother Chris and nephew Archie will. Either me or Chris need to be around for Mum so it’s difficult for us to go on away trips together. As for the Blades, most fans are in agreement that these last few seasons have been the best ever, certainly in terms of the quality of football and also that Chris Wilder is our greatest ever manager. The season before Wilder was appointed 2015/16 was awful, I remember watching us lose consecutive home games to Bury and Colchester and we finished mid-table League 1. A couple of players from that season are still involved (Billy Sharp and Chris Basham). Before that we had all the Ched Evans stuff, supporters were falling out with each other and it really felt like we’d hit rock bottom. I remember seeing us go down to the old Div 4 in 1981 but this somehow felt much worse. So we’ve come a long way in a short period of time and the pride is back in the club. We’ve made a good start this season and so will be interesting to see how we go tomorrow. Hope you are well Chris and maybe we can meet up at Bramall Lane later on this season.

Best wishes, Simon.”

Since that match in 1994, the two clubs really have enjoyed mixed fortunes, eh?

The place slowly filled up, everyone took their seats. The away team were to be backed by a full three thousand. There weren’t too many away shirts dotted around the away section. I had walked past three Sheffield United fans a couple of hours earlier, each wearing the striped home shirt, looking like they had been refused entry from one pub and were on the search for another. They looked so forlorn. Neutral colours would have at least helped. Some people never learn.

The team was announced and – sadly – N’Golo Kante was missing. No place for Toni Rudiger either, still not match fit. It was a surprise that Tomori started, only his second game for us. Mason Mount was out wide again. Another start for Pulisic. Tammy leading the line.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic

Pulisic – Barkley – Mount

Abraham

I was a little disappointed that Sheffield United didn’t show up in their famous red and white stripes. Instead, they chose all white with red socks. Their most famous kit of all was the admiral one from 1976, with black edging on the red stripes. I mention this as it is a kit that my home village side Mells & Vobster United  – or at least the first team, the team I never quite managed to play for – used to wear in that same period too.

I can still see Alan Ford turning away, arm raised, after scoring a belting free-kick in around 1977 wearing the Sheffield United shirt.

There were a few banners adorning the away section.

One, half out of view – said “Hated, Adored” and I presumed that the part of the banner out of view said “Never Ignored.”

Stolen from Manchester United.

Must do better.

The game began, and the atmosphere was so-so. But we began well, with almost total domination of possession. It wasn’t as good a start as against Leicester City, but it wasn’t bad. A few chances came and went. There was an early repetition of the move which lead to our first goal against Norwich City with Christian Pulisic knocking the ball out to an overlapping Cesar Azpilicueta, but the firm cross evaded both the on-rushing Ross Barkley and Tammy Abraham. On twenty minutes, a very similar move earned dividends. Barkley won the ball, moved it to Pulisic and then it was played to Dave, who was deeper than before. His cross was headed down and towards goal by Tammy, and the Sheffield United ‘keeper Dean Henderson had great difficulty in gathering the ball. Under pressure from Pulisic, he could only knock it straight into the path of our young striker.

Playing for Bristol City a few seasons back, Abraham was known as “Tammy Tap In” and he lived up to his reputation.

Chelsea 1 Sheffield United 0.

GET IN.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Tammy’s celebratory run and slide in front of the away fans was just joyous. It was, of course, his first goal at Stamford Bridge.

Beautiful.

We continued to excel.

Ross Barkley was heavily involved in many of our attacks, ably supported by the passing of Jorginho and the runs into space of Kovacic, but very often Barkley simply moved the ball on rather than played an incisive ball into danger. I thought Mason Mount was quiet, and Pulisic struggled to get involved. Kovacic flashed a firm shot past the far post. Sheffield United themselves had a couple of quarter-chances. A quick turn and cross from Chris Basham almost resulted in a stooping headed goal from Callum Robinson

A meek shot into the wall from Ross Barkley free-kick summed up his half.

One moment frustrated us all. The fall fell to Jorginho, centrally positioned and within sight of the goal. Rather than look to fire an effort in on goal, he lofted a pass over the heads of everyone, including the intended Tammy, and the attack died. I commented to the lads that there just must have been something in Jorginho’s footballing DNA – after years of behaviour-inducing drills – to stop him from shooting.

The away fans were relatively quiet all first-half.

Alan and I spent a few moments chatting about the wonderful Ronnie Barker in “Porridge” and we quoted some pearls.

“What, from here?”

“With these feet?”

“It was a green one.”

“He’s doing rather well.”

On the pitch, we were in command, but drifting a little, hence the brief comedic diversion.

Thankfully, with two minutes to go before the break, Jorginho lofted another high ball towards the box and Tammy pounced after a blunder from two of United’s three centre-backs, and picked up a loose ball. He found space well, picked his spot and although the ‘keeper touched the ball, the pace beat him. It crept in, lovely stuff.

Chelsea 2 Sheffield United 0.

“That’s all Tammy has to do, just keep hitting the corners.”

I captured his run and jump on film too.

“Four goals in three starts – love it.”

And all was well with the world at half-time. Dave came over to join us, we took some photos, happy days indeed.

Sadly, the second-half began awfully, and it brought back shocking memories of last season. With less than a minute played, they moved the ball far too easily down our right flank. Enda Stephens wriggled past a non-existent challenge from Dave, and his pacey low cross was flicked home by Robinson. The away end erupted. They were back in it.

We sighed.

The away fans were now ignited and there was a slight whiff of “A gallon of Magnet”, one of the best football songs ever.

“You fill up my senses
Like a gallon of Magnet.
Like a packet of Woodbines.
Like a good pinch of snuff.
Like a night out in Sheffield.
Like a greasy Chip Butty.
Like Sheffield United,
Come fill me again.”

The sky turned darker, to match the mood, and there was a surreal quality of light as rain fell.

We countered relatively quickly. Some gorgeous control from Dave and an intelligent ball in to the box – the epitome of the word “dink” – resulted in a side-footed stab at goal from Tammy that was clawed away by Henderson, down low, and close to him. It was a brilliant save.

Sadly, this was a very rare attack for us in the second-half. The away team sensed that confidence was seeping out of every pore of our being and grabbed hold of the game. They moved the ball well, and we lacked leadership. We looked a poor team suddenly. A couple of chances were exchanged. On the hour, Barkley was replaced by Willian, and we hoped for a far better performance from the Brazilian than against Leicester City. Mount switched inside, surely a better position for him.

Our attacking play was immediately bolstered by a couple of energetic runs from Willian, but that didn’t last. Sheffield United looked the more likely to score and the atmosphere within the stadium became rather tetchy. A lone chance fell to Kurt Zouma but he headed over from a corner. I can rarely remember a half of football which included so many mis-placed passes from so many different players. It was a shock to the system; a visual clue that confidence was low.

Michy Batshuayi replaced the impressive Kovacic, and Billy Gilmour – surprisingly – replaced Tammy Abraham.

I caught Gilmour’s first touch on his debut; a header.

Our attacks stumbled along though. It wasn’t cohesive. I didn’t like the way sections of the crowd grew noisily restless with every miss-placed pass. Rather than a cheer of encouragement there tended to be noisy swearing.

Not good.

Not good at all.

We know our role this season, don’t we?

Shouldn’t we be supporting the lads a little better?

I think so.

Mount went close with a volley. At The Shed End, a timely block from Tomori and we reacted with our heads in our hands.

Fackinell.

Sadly, sadly, sadly the game ended as we had perhaps feared.

Another raid down our right, another “after you Claude” moment, and another whipped-in cross. I could not discern who managed to get the final touch – it was evidently Kurt Zouma – but the ball flashed high into our goal.

This time, the away fans really exploded.

Bollocks.

Another second-half meltdown had left us all rather shell-shocked. As I made my way out, alongside fellow fans who were pursing lips, shaking heads and muttering, I looked up and saw the away supporters enjoying their moment.

Remembering 1994, I clapped too and whispered “well played Sheffield United.”

There was the usual “Bramber Road to Barons Court Post Mortem” in the car, and we honestly wondered if the two late substitutions were wise, but I then reminded ourselves that Frank Lampard OBE has forgotten more about football than the three of us combined will ever ever know, so we quickly shut the fuck up.

To cheer me a little, I heard that my local team Frome Town had gone top of their division with a fourth win out of four, and to cheer us all up, we had heard that Parky was home from hospital.

It was turning into a good day after all.

Chelsea under Frank Lampard is clearly a work in progress. I am not going to waste any time, effort and words on those in our midst who are unnecessarily negative.

Let’s all move on positively.

I will see some of you at Molineux.

 

Tales From This Football Life

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 11 August 2019.

Exactly one year after our first league game of last season, we were on the road to a northern city once again. On the eleventh day of August in 2018, we assembled in Huddersfield for new manager Maurizio Sarri’s opener. That day felt like a huge step into the wide unknown, and a step outside of our comfort zone. It was meant to be intoxicating and different, with a new system, new players and a new approach. It wasn’t a bad day out at all to be honest. It was an easy win. At the end of that game though, I noted that the new manager did not walk over to us at the end of the game. I was to learn later that it was one of his many quirks and superstitions to never enter the pitch on game day.

What an odd fellow he was.

But one thing is for certain. If somebody had suggested that come the opening league game of the following season – and despite a third place finish, a domestic cup final appearance and a Europa League win – Frank Lampard would be our manager, there would have been widespread surprise and disbelief.

But this is football these days. Or, rather, this is Chelsea these days. Nothing is for certain, nothing seems constant, nothing seems ordinary.

Yes, dear reader, season 2019/20 was upon us with our beloved and admired former midfielder in charge and the general consensus within the Chelsea Nation was that it was time for the nonsense to stop. We just wanted a period of stability within the club. We wanted Frank Lampard to oversee a calm period. The transfer ban meant that for a year or so, we would have to look within ourselves – in more ways than one – and promote from our ranks. Again, the consensus was that we were OK with that, not that we had any choice.

Pre-season had been completed; seven games all told. I had managed to get to two of them; the wins in Dublin and Reading. My season opener against St. Pat’s was a full four weeks ago but it had felt like a short close season and time had soon passed.

The season was now upon us.

We were on our way.

It was going to be, inevitably, a long day on the road in support of The Great Unpredictables. I had woken one minute before my alarm clock at 7.30am – I suppose this loosely means that I was ready – and I collected PD and Glenn at 9.30am, and Parky at 10am. The first part of the journey was not devoted to football, but rather an update on various health issues that have affected the four of us, and some of our loved ones, over the summer. Thankfully, news was generally upbeat. Of the four of us inside The Chuckle Bus, I was able to report – perhaps – the healthiest news. I have been on a diet of late and am pleased with my progress.

And then we spoke about the football.

Many words were shared.

My take was this :

“Happy with the ‘keeper. Not sure about the defence, especially now that Luiz has gone. That might be a big loss. He’s experienced and a good presence. But – let’s be frank, or even Frank – if he didn’t want to fight to retain his place, then he is best away. We are over stacked in midfield. Some real talents there. Especially if Ross and Ruben step up. But our attack worries me. Not sure about either of the three central strikers. Giroud is half a striker. Michy is half a striker. Tammy is half a striker. Real worries exist.”

Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire.

There were periods of rain, periods of cloud, brief periods of sun.

Stupidly, I hadn’t packed a light rain jacket, only a thick coat from last season remained in my boot. I was horrified by my tactical naivety.

We glossed over the games so far. Typical heavy wins for City and Liverpool. A late, horrible, win for Tottenham. I hoped that Arsenal, never good travellers, might come unstuck at the day’s early game at Newcastle.

Staffordshire, Cheshire, Lancashire.

We recalled the horror show which had unfolded at West Ham; the VAR crimes on football, the frustration of ecstasy being denied, the ersatz pleasure of applauding an electronic decision, the mess of it all.

Fucking hell.

There had been delays en route, but this is nothing new on the M5 and M6. As with the previous two visits to Old Trafford, we called into The Beehive, just off junction nineteen of the M6. Waiting for us to arrive, at just gone 2pm, was my old college mate Rick, from nearby Northwich, and a long time United season ticket holder. It was a pleasure to see him once more. Since graduating in 1987 and going our separate ways, it was only the fourth time that we had seen each other, but it is always lovely to see a face from the past. We chatted about our summers, our thoughts on the immediate season, and about mutual friends from those grainy days in Stoke-on-Trent in the mid-‘eighties.

“To be honest, we were glad to see the back of Mourinho in the end.”

And we knew exactly how Rick felt.

I mentioned to Rick how the highlight of my summer was a weekend flit over to Italy three weeks ago, primarily to meet up with my oldest friend in the whole wide world Mario, who was visiting his father in the town on the Italian Riviera where I first met him in 1975. Mario has appeared within these reports over the years as an endearing token of how football can add so much to our lives through the people that we meet along the way. People are mistaken if they think that football is just about tactics, players, formations, counter-attacks, transition, blocks, presses and assists.

Football is about people. It’s about the fans. The ones we meet. The ones who provide humour and laughter. The ones who provide comfort and support. The ones that you just love meeting again and again.

It’s true with Rick. It’s true with Mario.

In Diano Marina, it was magical to step inside Mario’s family home for the first time since 1988, and to meet his father Franco – now a ridiculously healthy and busy eighty-four-year-old, but still suffering as a long time Genoa fan – for the first time since then. Since those days of my youth, I had met Mario, and stayed at his house, for the Bayer Leverkusen Champions League game in 2011, and then again in 2016 when we toured Stamford Bridge in the morning and saw Leverkusen win 1-0 against Tottenham in the evening.

What memories.

I met up with his wife Gabi, and their football-mad boys Ruben, Nelson and Valentin. They reminded me of us in 1979,1980,1981…absolutely smitten with football, the teams, the players, the history, the colours, the fans.

In Diano Marina, I walked on the section of beach where Mario and I first kicked a ball to each other in 1975, and we re-created a photograph from that summer in his father’s garden, which abuts the Mediterranean Sea, and with a ball always close by.

What memories.

And we thought of potential Champions League match-ups in 2019/20 involving Chelsea, Bayer Leverkusen (Mario and two of his sons are season ticket holders, Ruben the lone Borussia Dortmund fan) and Juventus (Mario is a long time Juve fan, he had a ticket for Heysel, it is a story told before) and we thought of return visits to London and Leverkusen.

What memories waiting to happen.

This football life is a wonderful thing, eh?

At just after 3pm, we said our goodbyes and set off in our two cars. As the driver, no beers, no Peronis, I wanted to be fresh. There were still clouds overhead. I prayed for no rain, but the forecast was gloomy.

The new A556 link road zoomed us onto the M56, and I found myself navigating the familiar Manchester Orbital once more. At about 3.45pm, we were parked up at the usual garage off Gorse Hill Park. This would be my twenty-fifth visit to Manchester United with Chelsea. In all of the previous twenty-four, I had seen us win just five games; 1985/86, 1986/87, 2004/5, 2009/10 and 2012/13.

We had whispered it among ourselves within the first hour or so of the day’s journey.

“Of course, we could get walloped here.”

There were nods, silent nods.

“Bloody hell, be happy with a draw.”

The rain was holding off. The others had light jackets, I just wore a sombre black Benetton – how ‘eighties – polo.

We were soon at Old Trafford, and the same old approach to the famous stadium. Some United fans aired a new song.

“Harry Maguire. Harry Maguire. He fucked off Leicester for Manchester. His head’s fookin’ massive.”

We dived inside pretty sharpish amid taunts of “Chelsea Rent Boys.”

There were handshakes and nods of acknowledgement with many of the travelling three thousand. I immediately sensed a noisier crowd, a far more enlivened crowd, a happier crowd. The Frank Lampard effect? Oh yes.

We heard the team.

“Mason Mount in, big game for him.”

On the way up in the car, Glenn had asked me who I would start up front.

“I’ll trust Frank, but Giroud has the experience for places like this. I’d start him.”

But it was Tammy.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Zouma – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic

Pedro – Mount – Barkley

Abraham

It was lovely to see Alan and Gary again. The away club was back together for another season of sunshine and smiles, rain and agony. I stopped to chat to a few in the away quadrant. Our seats were in a similar spot to last season.

Neil Barnett breezed past.

“I’m happy with the team.”

The rain was holding off. Old Trafford looked the same, apart from one or two new banners.

“Every single one of us loves Alex Ferguson.”

I chatted to JD, who had posted on Facebook earlier that he was a little underwhelmed by it all. He aired a few of my pet peeves – VAR, the farce of Baku, a support base that is full of irksome divs – and I tended to agree with him.

I commented :

“When they announced Frank as the manager, I got a proper buzz, but that seems to have worn off a bit. It’s all the other shite that goes with it.”

But JD is a good man and his humour will see him through.

As kick-off time approached, our section was full of support of the new manager but one song dominated, a song from our last visit.

“Just like London, your city is blue.”

United were back to their usual white shorts this season, but with a muted red shirt.

Our kit? You know the story. Shudder.

The game began and as usual we attacked the Stretford End. It soon dawned on me that United were doing the defending, they were letting us dominate. How different from days gone by when the midfield would be a warzone, with tackles flying in, and attacks jumping to life when advantage had been gained. United let us play. And we looked good. We played coherently with confidence. After only four of five minutes, a corner was not cleared and Tammy received the ball, spun nicely and unleashed a waist-high drive which bounced back in to play off the far post with De Gea beaten.

The away end “ooooohed.”

A Kurt Zouma error allowed Martial a shot on goal but the effort did not bother Kepa.

We were bossing the game. Barkley looked at ease. Kovacic was winning the ball and moving it on. We definitely had the advantage. A cross from Dave, a shot from Mason Mount. It was going well.

Then, on eighteen minutes, Jorginho swiped at a United attacker but play was moved on, and with Rashford advancing at pace into the box – and with me fearing the worst – a horrible lunge from Zouma gave the referee no option but to award a penalty.

Rashford struck it high past Kepa.

We were 1-0 down.

Bollocks.

We hadn’t allowed the United cheers to subside before we got behind the team, though.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

More of that all season long please.

United, strengthened in spirit and desire after the goal, now dominated for a little spell, though they did not create too much of note.

But Zouma looked at sixes and sevens. He looked clumsy and awkward, like me in front of a woman. His limbs don’t seem to be programmed correctly. The fans around me noticed it too. But we kept the support up.

“One-nil and you still don’t sing.”

It is a mystery how United have the most vociferous away support of any in the top flight yet their home games at Old Trafford tend not to fizz these days. The quietness even shocked me. I almost wanted the bastards to make some noise.

United had the ball in the net a second time though every man and woman in the stadium surely realised that the player was a few yards offside. But on came the VAR review and a huddle of sweaty nerdicians in Stockley Park got to work.

“Offside.”

Thanks for that.

I hate modern football.

Mount chose to pass rather than shoot and there was little weep of frustration. But we kept attacking. A shot from Barkley drew a messy save from De Gea and the rebound was not cleared. Jorginho’s follow-up effort was blocked for a corner. The best chance of the closing moments fell to an unmarked Emerson, who picked up a cross by Jorginho that just evaded the leap of Mount. His swipe hit the same post as Tammy’s effort in the first five minutes.

It was, clearly, one of those halves.

At the break, the mood in the camp was positive.

“How are we losing?” was a common question asked.

I certainly had few complaints, though if I was to be picky, I would look at our A to Z.

Tammy Abraham – I wanted him to move his marker more, be more cunning, be more devilish, be stronger.

Kurt Zouma – I wanted him to look more relaxed, to trust himself more, to look more at ease, to gel.

For old times’ sake, The Baku Half-Time Moaners club was revived as I chatted to Welsh Kev, though to be truthful we had little to moan about. On my way back to my seat, I stated the bloody obvious.

“Next goal is massive.”

There were no changes at the break.

Overhead, the clouds were classic Mancunian. November in August. Tupperware skies.

I commented to Alan :

“Those clouds have more rain in them and this game has more goals in it.”

The second-half began mildly, with no team dominating. Our chances were rare.

On fifty-eight minutes, Christian Pulisic replaced Ross Barkley, who had enjoyed a mixed game and was certainly starting to tire. Pulisic, from Hershey in Pennsylvania, is touted for great things. I have only seen highlights of him, I do not have the time to endlessly gorge on football, but he looks the business. If he can make that tract of land down the left wing his own in the same way that Eden Hazard did from 2012 to 2019, we will all be very happy.

Sadly, on sixty-seven minutes – and with Tammy pole-axed in United’s box – a very quick counter resulted in our defenders scampering around like chickens having glimpsed the pointed ears and bushy tail of a fox enter their coop. A cross from the right from the boot of Andreas Pereira was inch-perfect, but Dave will be unhappy that Martial reached the ball before him. He poked it past Kepa.

We were now 2-0 down.

No way back? Nah. We looked out of it.

Bollocks.

Olivier Giroud replaced Tammy.

Just a couple of minutes later, we were 3-0 down. I must admit that I missed the long pass out of defence from Paul Pogba which lead to Rashford running unhindered through our defence and poking the ball past a hapless Kepa. In the split second that my mind wandered, I found myself looking at the horrific Chelsea tattoo on the shin of a nearby supporter but don’t worry my concentration levels will increase as I get match fit. I saw the neat finish alright. Fuck it.

The United fans went doolally.

There is a problem at Old Trafford. From the curve of the away section, spectators have an unimpeded view of the home supporters down below us, especially in the paddock in front of the old main stand. Their faces were of delirium. They were bloody loving it. I felt ill.

Our little prince N’Golo Kante replaced Jorginho with twenty minutes remaining and I guess that Lampard just wanted to give him “minutes.”

Lo and behold, despite our best efforts to stem the tide and to, maybe just maybe, grab a goal ourselves, the fates contrived against us, and just after an odd moment. Jose Mourinho must’ve been spotted in a TV studio because a sizeable proportion of the United support in the nearby main stand and “Stretty” spotted him and serenaded him

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

Now, that was an odd sensation.

With that, United broke – supremely well – and Pogba ran and ran and ran. His cute pass to substitute Daniel James set the debutant up, though he needed two bites of the cherry.

A deflection hindered Kepa and we were 4-0 down.

Fackinell.

My mind spun.

“That’s my biggest defeat up here.”

“The biggest loss to them since the 1994 FA Cup Final.”

“Our biggest opening day loss in memory.”

But most of the Chelsea support stayed to clap the boys off. Frank Lampard approached and clapped us too. He had looked the part the entire game, suited and elegant in the technical area, although he did retire up to the seated area in the stand at 3-0.

The four of us regrouped and began the walk back to the car, up the famous forecourt, where I watched one United lad swagger across, smile wide, and bounce right into the middle of us. I half expected someone to get a clump, but there was no “afters.”

There was the usual “Hollow Hollow Hollow” and yet more “Chelsea Rent Boys” schoolyard chants. We kept together, kept our heads down, looked after each other, moving slowly out.

A few United fans, talking among themselves, said that they had been lucky to get four. I had to agree. It didn’t feel like a 4-0 throughout the match, although at the end I felt it certainly did.

Crossing the main road, I spoke about our attacking options.

“I’m not sure Frank knows who is his best striker. I hope he soon decides. If it is Tammy, then he needs time to embed himself in the team, to work with his team mates, to know when to move, to know when to go.”

The game – yes, I know it is only the first one – worried me.

“I just don’t think we’ll score enough goals this season.”

We walked past supporters’ coaches headed for North Wales, for Fife, for Devon.

In the car, we heard Frank Lampard speak intelligently, with clarity, with a little humility, with calmness.

I expected nothing less really, but it was wonderful to hear someone talk so much sense.

Stuck in traffic, I posted a selfie of the four of us in my car, smiles wide and defiant.

“Oh Chelsea We Love You.”

It ended up getting a lot of likes.

The drive home went well, maybe those tedious trips south after games at Manchester United are a thing of the past.

I was back home at 11.30pm, a little bruised, but still proud to have been at Old Trafford.

Where else would I have rather been?

Nowhere.

 

Tales From Third Place

Chelsea vs. Watford : 5 May 2019.

At around 7.30pm on a clear and sunny but occasionally chilly evening, Glenn dropped me off outside my house. It had been another excellent day out in London with some fine friends. For Glenn, it was sadly his last game of this ridiculous season. I reached over and shook his hand and thanked him for driving for the second home game in a row. We very briefly exchanged thoughts about the manager once more. I thought back to the very first match of the season and I smiled as I said the word “Perth.” How can the campaign be almost over? How can that game that Glenn and I attended in Western Australia in late July seem like it only happened a month ago? Time and life is accelerating away far too damn quickly for me, for all of us.

Glenn had collected me at 7am. PD was already riding shotgun, and Lord Parky joined us soon after.

Both PD and Lord Parky were rather tattered and torn after their European travels in the week. Due to a delayed flight from Cologne, they did not get home until 4.30am on Saturday morning. They were both – as the saying goes – “hanging.” It was such an odd feeling to be watching their activities via Facebook on Wednesday and Thursday, with me being confined to barracks, working the late shift in Melksham. But by forgoing the semi-final – I don’t always make European semi-finals, Madrid 2014 certainly springs to mind – at least I had engineered some time off for the potential trip to Baku for the final.

Yes, it was an odd one alright. PD, Parky and little old me have been joined at the hip for most of this season and it was strange not to be over there in Frankfurt. It reminded me of an occasion, which sticks very vividly in my mind, from my early teen years when my parents, my grandparents and I squeezed into my father’s Renault and drove down to visit relatives in South Somerset. It hadn’t been a particularly long journey. But at the end of, it while my father tried to locate a place to park, my mother – who had been sitting alongside me – got out of the car and walked behind the car as it drove away, in order to pre-warn the relatives that we had arrived. I looked back at my mother, now separate from the main party, and it felt odd. That all happened almost forty years ago. Why do I mention it? I don’t know. It was if a connection had been lost, that my mother was now adrift, that she was on her own.

Forty years on, I never ever thought I would be referencing it to a Chelsea game in Frankfurt, but there you go.

Just before 10am, we entered the now familiar surroundings of “The Eight Bells” once again. The bar staff recognised us. It is soon becoming my local, one hundred miles from home. We were joined by Ollie and Julien from Normandy. I have known Ollie for a few years and we bump into each other at occasional games here and there. He is well known in the Chelsea family. It was lovely to see him again. I had not previously met Julien, his cousin, and it gave me a chance to reel off a few loosely remembered phrases from French “O level” in 1981.

I thanked Ollie for being one of the first few subscribers to this blogarama. We chatted about our love of “old school” stadia and we are both looking forward to the trip to Bramall Lane next season. I’m pretty happy with Sheffield United and Norwich City’s promotion to the top flight. We have already spoken about staying over in those cities next season, depending upon kick-off times. Elsewhere in the Football League pyramid, there were some sobering developments. Somerset’s only Football League team Yeovil Town were returned to non-league football after a spell of sixteen years in the Football League, rising to one single season in the Championship in 2013/14. A sadder tale involves the world’s oldest professional club, Notts County, who joined Yeovil Town in the second relegation spot. It does not seem so long ago that while Chelsea were toiling in the Second Division, Notts County were enjoying a few seasons – 1981/82, 1982/83 and 1983/84 – in Division One. We were last in the same division in 1991/92. A college pal, Craig, went to the Notts game at Swindon Town on the Saturday. I felt for him.

Why mention this?

I remember Notts County getting promoted ahead of us in 1980/81 when our season fell away dramatically after Christmas. And now they will be playing non-league football next season. A lot of newer Chelsea fans have a dig at people like me, always harking back to the days when Chelsea Football Club were under-performing and that these days are, by comparison, nothing to get too overemotional about. But I don’t care. Chelsea’s history in those bleaker years have coloured my opinions over the past twenty-five years of sustained success.

And that ain’t going to change.

We were then joined by John, Kev and Rich, from Edinburgh, all Hearts supporters. I have a lot of time for all three of them. On the Saturday, John had taken his two-year-old grandson to Tynecastle for the very first time. The pictures on Facebook had made me smile. The young lad fared better than the Jambos who lost 1-0 to Steve Clarke’s Kilmarnock. Then the Kent lads showed up. It was all very pleasant. The pints of “Grolsch” were hitting the spot. I laughed as I turned to John and said “bollocks to the football, let’s just stay here.”

Ah, the football. After Tottenham’s calamitous performance against Bournemouth the previous afternoon – two sendings off and a late winner from Nathan Ake – we were now in a position where two more wins would secure us automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League.

Oh what a crazy bloody season.

In previous conversations, we had been worried about getting points at Leicester City, and Watford would hardly be easy pickings. But two wins. Just two wins. It seemed achievable, and yet…

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

As is the case these days, the last home game of the season gives the commercial team at Chelsea Football Club a chance to display the new home kit for the forthcoming season, despite the fact that we will no doubt revert to the 2018/19 design for the games against Eintracht Frankfurt and Leicester City. As for the potential final in Baku, I am hoping for a repeat of 2012 and 2013 – when kits from those seasons were used – and not 2008, with a kit which was destined to bring back awful memories throughout the following campaign.

So. The 2019/20 Chelsea kit.

Have you got a minute?

I didn’t spot too many supporters wearing the new shirt on the walk to Stamford Bridge. I, like many, have spent the past few weeks fearing the worst, ever since a photograph of a new design was shared on the internet.

My thoughts?

The notion of honouring Stamford Bridge on the home shirt is not a ridiculous idea. Way back in 1995, Umbro took the decision to go for a panoramic shadow print of Old Trafford on the Manchester United home shirt. I wasn’t a huge fan, but it sold by the thousands, and millions. At the time, we all joked that it was the nearest many United fans would get to Old Trafford.

Stamford Bridge has – let’s be honest – rather a hotchpotch selection of stands. The East Stand is probably the most iconic – the most recognisable – but the three newer ones are of varying heights, with differences in sizes, in shape, in impact. So, dear reader, if I was given the brief to design a new Chelsea shirt embodying our home since 1905, I may well have chosen other sights and motifs.

The Peter Osgood statue, on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1970 FA Cup Final triumph – when The King scored in every round – would be a good place to start. A subtle shadow print of a single image over the chest perhaps. Or if the mantra of “less is more” is not adhered to, and the brief was for multiple images, then how about the ivy on The Shed Wall, or the Gatling Gun weather vane from atop the East Stand? How about the “Chelsea Football Club” signage on the wall between The Shed and the West Lower, which in itself is a nod to the wording used on the old Leitch East Stand which welcomed supporters to Stamford Bridge for decades?

Or how about a single panoramic image – as subtle as possible – of that often-referenced sweeping black and white panorama from the ‘twenties?

Well, instead of this, the design team chose – as far as I can muster – repeated images of circular roof trusses, roof supports and side screens.

And not just a few subtle dabs here and there. The ramshackle design covers the entire shirt. It appears that random geometric shapes have been thrown together.

It is – let me be clear here – fucking hideous.

The blue of the shorts looks to me, from my subsequent match photos, to be a slightly darker hue than the main body of the shirt. And although the decision was to, thankfully, maintain the classic white socks, the design seems to be a year late. The current 2018/19 kit design is meant to reflect the 1983/84 kit, but next season’s socks are closer to the 1983/84 style than this season. And whereas both new shirts and shorts are solidly blue – albeit in three different tones – the socks have a red band, therefore not tying it in with either shorts or socks. Oh, apart from an oddly-placed red stripe under the rear of the collar. Additionally, the images of the rectangles and circles that make up the design appear to be smudged. Not crisp. Not clear. As a metaphor for the way parts of the club operates, it is – however – perfect.

It’s a bloody mess.

Why should I care, though?

Well, the sad fact is that I do care. It looks like a dog’s dinner. It looks like the sort of children’s pyjamas that are on sale in the bargain aisle at “Asda.” And, if the reaction of the vast majority of Chelsea supporters that I interact with is to go by, it is rated as one of the worst ever. And that means, ergo, that Nike won’t be getting the desired sales returns that they might have hoped. Which defeats the bloody object of designing a new kit in the first place.

I hate modern football part 259.

On the pitch down below me, Watford surprised us all with their attacking verve in the first-half. They were by far the more enterprising of the two teams. They buzzed about us like proper hornets in their waspish shirts. The highlight from our players was a truly magnificent save from Kepa as he flung himself to his right to tip over a Troy Deeney drive. The away fans in their yellow and black were enjoying their team’s early dominance. We, however, struggled to get a foothold on the game. Sadly, N’Golo Kante was injured within the first ten minutes and we missed his drive in the first-half. He was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Although I did not see the game on Thursday, many mentioned that he was our best player in Frankfurt. Gerard Deulofeu managed to find space to threaten our goal and shots were fired in from outside the box. We really struggled, and rarely carved out chances.

There was, at last, a nice little give and go between Gonzalo Higuain and Pedro. The Spaniard’s drive flashed past the far post.

There was an penalty shout for a foul on David Luiz. I wasn’t convinced.

At the break, although I am sure the people that I bumped into didn’t all offer this blunt, and hardly erudite, opinion, but the general consensus was :

“Fucking shit.”

Thankfully, the second-half was a vast improvement.

I am not normally a huge fan of short corners at all. However, after Eden Hazard forced a save from the Watford ‘keeper Ben Foster, the subsequent corner was played short to Pedro. Hazard clipped the return into the six-yard box and our Ruben rose virtually unchallenged.

A strong downward header, and we were one up.

Hazard blasted at Foster. We were all guns blazing now.

Two minutes later, another Hazard corner on the far side, but this time a direct approach. Another free header though, this time from the head of Luiz.

Two up and coasting.

Those three points were looking good.

This was more like it, Chelsea. With the confidence of a two goal cushion, our play looked a lot more appetising. There was one surging run from our Eden – possibly the last that I will ever capture on film at Stamford Bridge – which had the Watford defence back peddling and questioning their choice of career.

We went close with efforts from Pedro, Loftus-Cheek and Higuain. The dangerous Deulofeu would not be quietened at the other end. He slammed a low shot wide of the far post.

With fifteen minutes to go, Higuain – who had attempted a few tricky passes to others – saw a hint of space and lost his marker. He was set free inside the box by the excellent Pedro, and the Argentinian – we share the same shit barber – dinked a delicate lob over the ‘keeper.

Chelsea 3 Watford 0.

Game over. Almost.

Watford hit the bar. They deserved a goal to be fair.

Olivier Giroud came on for Higuain and contrived to bugger up a couple of chances. In the very last minute, Dave gave the captain’s armband to Gary Cahill, who replaced David Luiz. His season has been a painful one. It was lovely to see him in Chelsea blue one last time.

He’s won it all, you know.

A last jink from Eden and a last shot on goal.

It did not matter. A three-nil win was the final result.

Meanwhile, up in Huddersfield, the home team had – somehow – managed to hold Manchester United to a 1-1 draw. On the way home, all but the driver caught up on some sleep, and as we woke we heard that Brighton had drawn 1-1 at Arsenal.

That was it. The others had committed hari kari and Chelsea Football Club were guaranteed Champions League football in 2019/20.

What a bloody crazy season.

On Thursday, we take on Eintracht Frankfurt and some of their ten thousand-strong travelling army.

I will see some of you there.

I’ll be the one not wearing pyjamas.

Tales From A Perfect Ten

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 8 April 2019.

On the day before our game with West Ham United – the Sunday – I was getting stir crazy at home and so decided to head out on a short drive to try out a new pub and a new Sunday Roast. My route south took me on a road that always reminds me of several trips that I used to take with my father. I soon found myself heading towards the village, ten miles away, of Maiden Bradley. My father used to be a shopkeeper, of menswear, in the local town of Frome. He would work six days a week, but Thursday was always “half-day closing” (Thursdays were always a favourite day of the week for me because Dad would always be at home when I returned from school, unlike his appearance at 5.30pm or so on all other days). On some Thursdays, Dad would announce to me that he was off “on his rounds” and this inevitably meant that during the school holidays, right after lunch, I would accompany him as he visited one or two customers who could not get in to town as often as they would normally hope. One such customer was Mrs. Doel who lived in Maiden Bradley. My father was a very safe driver, and I suppose this really means that he was a slow driver. He was never ever caught speeding. He would potter around at forty miles per hour on most roads. I suspect that the desire to save money by not eating up fuel was a main factor. However, as a special treat on these visits to Maiden Bradley, and where the road is particularly long and straight, with excellent visibility, he would – as a treat for me – get the car up to the seemingly blistering speed of fifty miles per hour. After the slower speeds that I was used to, fifty miles per hour seemed supersonic.

“Do fifty, Dad” I would plead.

And off we would go. It was even more enjoyable when I had my own plastic steering wheel to stick on to the plastic dashboard of his green Vauxhall Viva. I’d grip it, stare out of the windscreen and watch the trees and hedgerows, and oncoming cars, fly past.

It was one of my favourite father and son moments from my early childhood.

Of course, over the following years, fifty miles per hour was reached with increasing regularity, if not by my father, then certainly by myself. I often reach fifty miles per hour in the country lanes around my village without even thinking about it.

The thrill has long gone.

And on Sunday, as I thought ahead to the match on the following evening, I realised that the thrill of playing West Ham United had long gone too.

It wasn’t the same in 1984/85 and 1985/86, seasons that marked the first two occasions of seeing our rivals from the East End of London for the very first time. In those days, the identity of football clubs seemed to be stronger; West Ham were a tightly-knit club, with a very local – and famously violent – support, and their whole identity was wrapped up within the structure of an East End football club, the tightness of Upton Park, those ridiculously small goal frames in front of the packed and occasionally surging terraces, local players, Billy Bonds and all, pseudo-gangsters in the ICF, the whole nine yards. These days, their team consists of mainly foreign players – like most – and they play in a vapid and bland “super” stadium. When did the thrill wear off? Not so sure. I still – always – get “up” for a Tottenham game. But not necessarily a West Ham one. The game on Monday 8 April 2019 would, after all, be my twenty-fifth Chelsea vs. West Ham game at Stamford Bridge and my thirty-ninth in total. After that many games, in which we have generally had the upper hand, the thrill has dwindled.

And then Everton beat Arsenal 1-0 at Goodison Park late on Sunday afternoon and my interest levels increased. I quickly did the maths. We all did. Believe it or not, if we were to beat West Ham the following day, we would end up – and God only knows how – in the heady heights of third place.

Game – most definitely – on.

This was turning into a typically bloody ridiculous season even by Chelsea’s standards. We had lost games – Tottenham in the League Cup – where we had come away in a very positive frame of mind and we had won games – Fulham at home, certainly Cardiff City away – where we felt as though we had lost.

It was turning into another emotional roller-coaster.

And then at work, on Monday, I had my personal roller-coaster too. I realised that a co-worker had not only booked the week off in which the Europa League semi-final first leg was to be played – potential trips to Lisbon or Frankfurt – but also the week of the bloody final too. My mood plummeted. We have a small team and I feared the worst.

Why the hell had I not booked the week of the final off in August or September?

It spoiled my pre-match if I am honest.

Talking of holidays, on the drive up to London with the usual suspects, Glenn and I reminisced about our trip to Australia last summer. We wondered how on earth it has taken Maurizio Sarri until April to start Callum Hudson-Odoi in a league game. Callum had laid on the cross for Pedro to score against Perth Glory back in July and seemed to be the talk of that rain-sodden town. His emergence into the first team ranks has been a slow process, eh?

There were drinks in the usual places with the usual faces. I told a few people of my “holiday problem” and although the saying is “a problem shared is a problem halved” I don’t think it helped. I just disliked myself twice as much for not booking the time off earlier. But it was a great pre-match. As often happens, Parky had the best line. On my way back from the gents, I managed to stumble a little as I headed up the stairs to re-join the lads.

Parky : ““That’ll be the biggest trip you’ll be going on over the next two months.”

We made our way to Stamford Bridge. On the cover of the match day programme was a photograph of Eden Hazard, a mixture of quiet confidence and a little coyness, his head bowed, not sure if he really wanted to be the focus of attention. It would turn out to be a prophetic choice of cover star.

The team?

I was generally in favour of the one that the manager picked. Glenn and I had wondered if he would prioritise the game in Prague on Thursday. It was difficult to tell. Our two bright hopes, Ruben and Callum were in. Excellent.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Higuain – Hazard

We guessed that the more Euro-savvy Alonso, Barkley, Pedro and/or Willian would start against Slavia.

For the first time that I can ever remember, Alan and Glenn had swapped seats. I was next to my mate from Perth; I was sat next to Glenn in the Sleepy Hollow.

It was the usual pre-match; “Park Life”, “Liquidator” and the flames and fireworks of twenty-first century football. “The Shed” flag crowd-surfed at the other end. By an odd quirk, it was an exact year since the Chelsea vs. West Ham game in 2017/18, but on that occasion the banners in The Shed sadly commemorated the life and death of Ray Wilkins.

One year ago.

Where does the time go?

RIP Butch.

Right from the kick-off, there was a sense of purpose in our play and we seemed to be able to move the ball ten percent quicker and twenty percent more intelligently. We didn’t seem to be over-passing. We seemed to be moving it at the right time. West Ham were, typically, still singing about the blue flag, from Stamford Bridge to Upton Park, and all that bollocks. They really need to update that one. Our shouts of encouragement were much better than against Brighton the previous Wednesday, but – for a London derby – not at stratospheric levels.

“Do fifty, Dad” seemed to fall on deaf ears.

There was an early free-kick for Emerson, who has never let himself down in his sadly limited starts thus far, but he arced it high and wide of Fabianski’s goal. There were passages of play which delighted us, with Kante and our Callum forming a good relationship on the right. A shot from N’Golo was fired over.

With around twenty-five minutes of the match played, Ruben played the ball square to Eden Hazard around fifteen yards inside the West Ham half. He set off for goal, a direct line, right into the heart of the box, no fear. We watched – mesmerised? dumbfounded? enraptured? – as his side-stepping dribble took him past a couple of floundering West Ham players, who hardly caught a sniff of his aftershave let alone a sight of the ball. There were seven or eight touches, no more, but the ball was moved with ridiculous speed. One final touch took him free – legs and limbs from the East End arriving so late to the party – and he clipped the ball in with a swipe of the left boot.

Oh my.

What a goal.

I watched as he raced towards the West Ham fans, and I was able to take a few photographs. I originally thought that Eden brought his forearms up to his face, mocking them and their “irons” trademark, but he was simply cupping his ears. His run mirrored that of Frank Lampard in late 2012/13.

Ronnie : “They’ll have to come at us nah.”

Reggie : “Cam on my little diamonds.”

It was a perfect crime from our perfect ten.

We were on song, on and off the pitch. Soon after, Eden found the run of Gonzalo Higuain with a fantastic ball but his fierce shot from an angle was tipped onto the post by the West Ham ‘keeper. In truth, his first touch allowed the ball to get away from him that extra few feet. But our chances were starting to pile up. Eden, from deep, played a long but piercing ball into Callum who skipped and shimmied in from the right wing – acres of space – and his equally strong shot was parried by Fabianski who was by far the busier ‘keeper. On the side-lines, Manuel Pellegrini – death warmed-up – looked even greyer if that is at all possible. The last chance of the half worthy of note fell to Higuain again. From a Kante cross, he brought the ball down to hit rather than attack the ball with his head. That extra half a second allowed a West Ham defender to block. Higuain looked shy of confidence. But it was a thoroughly impressive performance from us in the opening period.

Into the second-half, we prayed for a second goal to make it safe. West Ham have sometimes, only sometimes, provided moments of misery at Stamford Bridge – that hideous 0-4 defeat in 1986, the horror of hearing Julian Dicks’ scream as he scored against us in 1996, that gut-wrenching Paul Kitson goal in 1999 – and I was so aware of the fragility of a slender 1-0 lead.

Eden was the focal point of all our attacks and the centre of attention for those defenders whose job it was to stop us. I have a couple of photographs where he is being hounded by four defenders. How on earth does that feel, when four people are trying to stop a person doing their job? Oh wait a second. Trying to get a load of office furniture despatched when the trailer is running late, there are product shortages, the warehouse team are under-manned and the client is still deliberating about where they want the goods delivered? I guess that comes close.

Eden shimmied into space down below us and slammed a ball across the face of the goal. We “oohed” and “aahed”. It was a real pleasure to see Eden on fire. I commented to Glenn about his ridiculously broad shoulders and short legs. He is Maradona-esque in stature – “like a little eel, little squat man” as Bryon Butler memorably described him, another number ten – and one of the most sublime dribblers of the modern game.

Throughout the second-half, Ruben came into the game more and more. He has great strength in holding off defenders – a little like that man Mikel – and there were a few trademark runs right through the middle. Again, not a Sarri play, but still effective. Callum, on the other hand, tended to disappear a little as the game continued.

The crowd were nervy rather than loud. The evening continued.

West Ham carved a couple of chances down at The Shed as the rain started to fall. Lanzini forced a save from Kepa. The shot was at a comfortable height for our ‘keeper to easily save. Anderson then forced a save too. There was a weak finish at the other end from our Ruben. But then a weak defensive header from Rudiger – hearts in our mouths now – allowed the ball to sit up nicely and a powerful volleyed-drive from Cresswell narrowly missed its intended target.

“Inches” I said to Glenn.

A deep cross found Arnautovic but his goal-bound header was fortuitously headed on, and wide, by Emerson.

Nerves?

Oh yes.

“COME ON CHELS.”

The substitutes appeared.

70 : Ross Barkley for our Ruben.

76 : Olivier Giroud for Higuain.

85 : Pedro for our Callum.

Barkley to Giroud. A low shot at Fabianski. The ball ballooned over.

One more goal. Please.

Unlike the previous home game, virtually everyone was still in the stadium on ninety minutes. Just as it should be, eh?

In the very last minute, Barkley spotted that man Eden in a little space in the box and lofted a lovely ball right to him. I captured both the pass and the low shot from Eden on film. His drilled drive easily zipped past the West Ham ‘keeper.

Chelsea 2 West Ham United 0.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Game over. Third place was ours.

The night was all about Eden Hazard who, undoubtedly, was the star by some ridiculous margin. Rarely have I seen a more mature and pivotal performance from him.

He is the real deal.

Sadly, the Real deal will surely take place over the next few months.

On the drive home, the night continued to improve as I heard positive news from my manager regarding my future holiday plans. I am going to forgo the potential semi-final trip to either Germany or Portugal. But the final in Azerbaijan is on. We just need Chelsea to get there.

Next up, aways in Prague and Liverpool.

Safe travels to those going to Czechia.

I will see some of you on Merseyside.

Tales From Lime Street

Everton vs. Chelsea : 17 March 2019.

Saturday Night And Sunday Morning.

We were slightly delayed touching down at Heathrow on Saturday evening after our four-day jamboree in Kiev. There had been high winds, and much rain, in England while our stay in Ukraine had been relatively mild with clear skies and startling sun. We had been truly blessed. But our Air France plane needed to enter the stacking system over South-East England as the winds caused delays in landing. As we circled above London, I commented to my two travelling companions L-Parky and P-Diddy that we had gone through the whole of Saturday without knowing a single football result. We eventually hit terra firma at about 7.30pm. Into the car an hour later, we then began the homeward journey. PD soon fired up his moby to check on the scores. I had forgotten that the FA Cup had shared the billing with the Premier League. Manchester City had squeaked past Swansea City in the cup. There were no games that had affected our position in the league.

Thankfully, the rain soon stopped on the drive home. I dropped Parky off at about 10.30pm, PD at 10.45pm, and I was home at 11pm.

At 11.25pm, I wrote the inevitable “just got in” post on Facebook.

“Kiev. The final reckoning; four days, five goals, a “few” drinks, almost nine hundred photos, one chicken Kiev and thousands of memories. The photos won’t get shared until Monday evening as we are off to Everton tomorrow. Thanks to those who walked alongside me. You know who you are.

Kiev. You were bloody fantastic.”

At 7.25am the next morning, there was another post on Facebook.

“Up early for another couple of days away following The Great Unpredictables.

Let’s Go To Everton.”

On The Road.

I had woken at 6.45am. It felt like I had only slept for an hour. I soon realised that Wolves had beaten Manchester United the previous evening. The news had completely passed me by until then. I guzzled down a black coffee before setting off for Liverpool. There was no Parky with us on this away day. After collecting PD at 7.45am, I made my way over to Warminster to collect Young Jake who was Parky’s late substitute. It would be another new ground for him. I fuelled up at Yarnbrook – petrol for the car, a double-espresso for me – and headed through Trowbridge, Bradford-on-Avon and skirted past Bath. It was a familiar route north. Thankfully it was a mainly dry drive. There was a McBreakfast at Strensham with another coffee. At Stafford, I was feeling exceptionally drowsy and so bought two Red Bulls. The hangover from Kiev was real, but the caffeine kept me going, six hits all told.

It all paid off. I gathered a second wind and was fine for the rest of the day.

I made the oh-so familiar approach into Liverpool, and was soon parked up at The Liner Hotel which would be the base for our stay. Yes, dear reader, I had long ago decided that driving five hundred miles in one day after the exertions of Kiev would be foolhardy. I was parked-up at about 1pm.

Despite this being St. Patrick’s Day – celebrated in this city more than most in England – I had been lucky enough to get a great a price for this hotel, which soon impressed us with its stylings and ambiance. Checking in time was 2pm so we headed over to a boozer that I had researched a few weeks back.

A Pub On The Corner.

“Ma Egertons” was a comfy and cosy little pub, with just a snug and a saloon, and it boasted a reasonable selection of ales, cheap prices and the locals were friendly. A high percentage of Scousers that I have met in real life have been fine, just fine. This might not be a popular opinion among our support but I cannot lie. There were a few Evertonians sitting close by and they did not bother us. The pub faces the rear doors of the Liverpool Empire and its walls were covered in photographs of those that had walked the boards over the years. My distaste of large and impersonal super pubs has been aired before. This one was just up my street or Lord Nelson Street to be precise. Three pints of lager went down very well. We were joined by Alan and Seb, father and son, from Atherstone in the Midlands who had travelled up by train. There was some talk about our current ailments – club, ownership, team, spirit, hunger, manager – and it all got too depressing for my liking. I just wanted to enjoy the moment.

My pre-match thoughts were simply this.

“Goodison Park has often been a tough venue for us, but Everton are shite.”

I am expecting a letter from Sky to appear on my doormat any minute for me to join their team of football pundits. Such bitingly perceptive analysis surely needs a wider audience.

We checked into the hotel and caught a cab up to Goodison. Despite the cabbie wearing a royal blue sweatshirt, he was a “red”. The cab fare was less than a tenner. Bargain.

The Old Lady.

Now then, anyone who has been reading these journals of my life on the road with Chelsea since 2008 will know how much I love – adore even – Goodison Park. If we had more time, and with this being Jake’s first visit, I would undoubtedly have completed my usual clockwise patrol around the four stands. But the desire was to “get in” so I followed suit. We met up with Deano, newly arrived back in Blighty after a couple of months in India. He was with Mick, also from Yorkshire, who has popped into these reports a few times of late.

With the plans to move into a new stadium – at Bramley Moore Dock – in around 2023, there will not be many more visits to this architectural delight at the northern end of Stanley Park.

Maybe four more.

So here are a few photographs to augment this match report. On a previous visit to Goodison, there was a lone image of Alan Ball displayed from the balcony of the Gwladys Street balcony. On this day, pre-match, images of Dixie Dean, Alex Young, Joe Royle, Bob Latchford, Graeme Sharpe and Duncan Ferguson – “the number nines” – were displayed above some twinkling mosaics.

Of course, I would have preferred an image of Tommy Lawton too.

In the cramped concourse, a rare treat for me; a bottle of lager. I chatted to the Bristol lot, our memories still fresh from our break in Ukraine.

Another Life.

Just as I started school in the spring of 1970, Everton won the League Championship on 1 April and Chelsea won the FA Cup on 29 April. My memory, as I have detailed many times before, is of the name “Chelsea” being bandied about in the schoolyard and I was consciously or subconsciously – who knows? – attracted to the name.

It so easily could have been Everton.

I could so easily be an Everton fan.

After all, Goodison Park was the only stadium that my father had ever visited until I came along. It would have felt right, in some ways, for Dad to encourage an Evertonian future for me.

At such a young age, I had no real control of my life choices.

I wasn’t even five.

But then along came Peter Osgood and I was Chelsea for life.

But in April 1970, my life witnessed another “Sliding Doors” moment for sure.

Those Final Moments.

While we have “Park Life” and “The Liquidator” before games at Chelsea – and “Blue Is The Colour” (and “One Step Beyond” if the moment requires it) after games – at Everton we are treated to a couple of Toffee-coloured tunes.

“And it’s a Grand Old Team to play for.”

“Z-Cars.”

I always think the first one is sung by Lily Savage. It does sound rather camp.

The second one is class, pure class.

It always gets me excited for the game ahead. Those drums and pipes, the extended introduction, the sense of anticipation, the glimpse of the players emerging from the ridiculously tight tunnel.

The Team.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

We had jettisoned the blue socks of Kiev to go all yellow.

Everton these days play in white socks just as they did in 1970.

Yellow Fever.

Yet again, I found myself behind the goal-line at Goodison, but with a clear unimpeded view of the pitch from the second row of the Upper Bullens Road. There were no fans allowed in the first row. Alongside me was Tombsie, one of those who I see everywhere yet don’t really know at all, and he was with his son. He was clearly another fan of Goodison Park.

“Proper stadium.”

We bossed the first-half, no doubt. Our early movement was fine. Ross Barkley – booed, obviously – was neat, and Jorginho was excellent. As ever, the energy of Kante was wonderful to witness. We were all over them. There were a couple of early chances for Eden Hazard, twisting and turning – and if I am honest, probably hogging the ball too much for Maurizio Sarri’s liking – and finding pockets of space everywhere.

Eden Hazard was soon peppering the Everton goal at the Gwladys Street. A shot low after a snake-like wriggle inside the box at the near post forced a late save from Jordan Pickford. Another low drive from a feint further out rattled the other post with the ‘keeper well beaten.

It was, simply, all us.

A magnificent lofted ball from Jorginho found the fine run of the lurking Higuain but the Argentinian was not supported by any team mate and the chance went begging.

After this very bright start, the game settled to a gentler pace. But Everton seemed to be totally lacking confidence, concentration, class and cohesion.

At last a chance for Everton, but Calvert-Lewin drove the ball well over.

There was a head-scratching moment at the other end when Barkley nimbly danced past some defenders with some footwork that Fred Astaire would have liked, but his attempted cross or shot was sliced into thin air.

“What the hell happened there?”

Shots from both Jorginho and then Barkley were fired straight down Pickford’s throat.

Our strikes on goal were mounting up, but – we know our football – so were the concerns among the away contingent that we could well pay for our wasting of these good chances.

Another shot for Everton but Gomes fired one straight at Kepa.

The Chelsea chances were drying up now, and Pedro should have fared better after freeing up some space wasted a good chance, striking the ball wide from a central position. From a Sigurdsson free-kick, an Evertonian header not cleared the bar but the roof if the Park Lane Stand.

Pedro then had two chances. A prod wide, and then – after creating some space with one of his trademark spins and dribbles – a shot which he narrowly dragged past the right-hand post.

The whistle blew for half-time. It had been all Chelsea. We had been all over Everton like a rash.

They had been hit with an attack of yellow fever.

Yellow Bellies.

Within the first two minutes of the re-start, the mood of the game completely changed. Calvert Lewin drilled a long ball into the six-yard box from out wide and there seemed to be a lot of ball-watching. Soon after, Kepa reacted well at the near post to deflect an effort over.

With just four minutes of the second-half played, our afternoon on Merseyside collapsed. From a corner in that lovely part of Goodison that marks the coming together of the two remaining Archibald Leitch stands, Calvert-Lewin met the incoming ball firmly. Kepa did well to block it, but Richarlison – until then, a spectator – turned the ball in. He reeled away and I felt sick.

Everton 1 Chelsea 0.

BOLLOCKS.

At last the Evertonians made some noise, so quiet until then.

The home team, though not creating a great deal, found themselves in our half more now. I had this quirky and whimsical notion that with them attacking a lot more, the game would open up more and we might, just might, be able to exploit some open spaces. But our chances were rare. A rushed slash from Alonso which only hit the side netting summed up our efforts.

We were, visibly, going to pieces.

There were no leaders cajoling others and nobody keen to take ownership of the ball. It reminded me of a similarly painful showing – a 0-2 defeat – at the same ground seven years earlier under the tutelage of Vilas-Boas.

The mood in the away section was now turning venomous.

PD alongside me was hurling abuse every thirty seconds.

I stayed quiet.

I was just hurting.

Just after the hour, there were piss-taking roars as Ross Barkley was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

Then Olivier Giroud replaced the increasingly immobile Higuain.

Just after, a rash tackle took place inside the Chelsea penalty area. It was up the other end and my sightlines were not great. But it looked a nailed-on penalty. Alonso was the guilty culprit and PD almost exploded with rage.

We waited.

Sigurdsson struck low, Kepa saved, but the rebound was tucked home by the Icelandic midfielder.

Everton 2 Chelsea 0.

BOLLOCKS.

Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced the now ineffective Jorginho.

We had a little flurry of attacking activity with our Callum coming inside nicely and flashing a shot at Pickford but the England ‘keeper tipped it over.

It had been – severe cliché warning – a classic game of two halves.

And we had been hung, drawn and quartered by our lack of guile, togetherness and steel. Our confidence had seeped out of every pore as each minute passed by. And there was a shocking lack of courage and passion.

We had been yellow-bellied incompetents.

Sigh. I have done a lot of sighing this season.

My comment as we slowly made our way out of the wooden top tier summed it all up.

“Sarri’s team talk at half-time must have been fucking diamond.”

We walked down Walton Lane and caught a cab – another “red” – on the junction of the road that bends towards Anfield. We headed down into the city centre, tails well and truly between our legs.

And I knew that there would be a meltdown taking place everywhere. I was just too tired for all of that. New fans, old fans, arguments, talk of disarray, bitter comments, questions of loyalty, a civil war in the camp.

Sigh.

A sub par season? Yep. Compared to the past ten or fifteen years. But my love of this club keeps me going.

I am no football snowflake.

Lime Street.

I found myself outside Lime Street station for the very first time – incredibly – since a game at Anfield in December 1987. On every single visit to Merseyside with Chelsea since that game – all forty-two of them – I have enjoyed pre-matches either up at the pubs near the two stadia, around Albert Dock, or at a couple of locations nearer the river.

Please believe me when I say that Lime Street after games at both ends of Stanley Park in the ‘eighties was as an intimidating place for away fans as any location in England. In those days, we would be kept waiting inside the grounds – allowing home supporters to regroup in the city centre – and we would be walked down to Lime Street en masse. There were even, possibly apocryphal, tales of scallies in flats with air rifles taking pot shots at Mancunians.

Around the station, it would often be a free-for-all.

I remarked to Jake that on my very first visit to Goodison Park, in March 1986, I was chased by some scallies from Lime Street to the National Express Coach Station just around the corner. I was with two college mates – Pete and Mac – and we managed to jump onto a coach headed for Stoke and Stafford just before the lads caught us.

It was a very narrow escape.

The memories of Lime Street returned. It felt so odd to be walking around an area for the first time in over thirty-two years. The large and imposing St. George’s Hall – images of Bill Shankly and his hubris back in 1974 and then the Hillsborough campaigners in more recent times – was floodlit in green for St. Patrick’s Day.

Memories of the area returned.

The infamous graffiti on a bridge on the slow approach to Lime Street : “Cockneys Die.”

Catching a bus up to Anfield in May 1985 and attempting to put on a Scouse accent so not to be spotted as an away fan.

On a visit to Goodison Park later in 1986, I remember seeing that the Cocteau Twins were in concert at the nearby Royal Court Theatre. I was sure that night that Pat Nevin would have stayed up in Liverpool to attend. I remember travelling back to Stoke, totally gutted that I had not realised that my favourite band were in town.

So many memories.

Jake and PD piled in to a local chippy. We tried our best to dodge the locals who were flitting between boozers. Shenanigans – one of the most over-worked words in the US these days, but quite appropriate on a St. Patrick’s Day in Liverpool – were in full force. Being three Chelsea fans among a sea of red, blue and green Liverpudlians and Evertonians on St. Patrick’s Day in Liverpool city centre is a potentially high risk activity.

PD retired for the night.

Kiev and Liverpool had taken its toll.

Into “Ma Egerton’s” for one last pint, and – for me – my first ever bowl of Scouse.

Unlike the football, it warmed me.

It was an early night for me too. Over the road to the hotel, and a relaxing evening watching the Real Betis vs. Barcelona game, a rare treat for me. I very rarely watch football on TV.

We now have a break from Chelsea for a long fortnight and I think I need it.

After Ukraine and England, Wales next.

See you in Cardiff.