Tales From Five From Five

Chelsea vs. Cardiff City : 15 September 2018

During the recent international break, England played matches against Spain on Saturday 8 September and against Switzerland on Tuesday 11 September. On both of those days, I did not see a single kick of the England games. Instead I chose to attend my local team Frome Town’s FA Cup matches against Winchester City, first at home – a 1-1 draw – and then the subsequent replay – a 1-2 loss – and that just about sums up my feelings about international football in the current climate. I would rather make the effort in supporting my local team, pay the money at the turnstiles, travel to games, feel connected, than gormlessly gawp at the international game in a rowdy pub full of people who would probably annoy me no end.

I feel like I am the footballing equivalent of a music lover with one of those yellow “Keep Music Live” badges on his rucksack.

To me, in 2018, football is all about the live experience.

And it always has been, ever since I was bitten by the bug – I hope there is no cure – in March 1974, at Stamford Bridge.

Or maybe even earlier still.

With help from my fellow Frome Town friend Steve, we worked out recently that my first Frome Town game was in the autumn of 1970, when I was aged just five.

Another game is worth talking about too.

In around 1971 or 1972 – I can’t be certain – my village team Mells and Vobster United won the Mid-Somerset League and I can vaguely remember watching the championship-decider on the Saturday. At school on the Monday or Tuesday, I was to learn that the team were to take part in the “Cup Final” at nearby Stoke St. Michael on a weekday evening. I can vividly remember excitedly pleading with my parents to take me to the game. My mother would undoubtedly have said, in that time honoured fashion, “wait until your father comes home”, as she prepared my tea after school. I can honestly remember saying the phrase “everyone is going to be there” – knowing full well that I was exaggerating somewhat – and then managing to persuade my father to drive the five or six miles towards the Mendip Hills to the nearby village, which was chosen as a neutral venue. There is no doubt that I would have taken my ball with me – I went everywhere with my white plastic football – and I can certainly remember the sense of pride and involvement in seeing my team at an away game. I can’t remember the opposition. But I am sure that Mells won the game, and hence “the double.” It is a memory which has remained with me for decades. It is, I am sure, where my passion of seeing live football, and supporting my team, was born.

Sadly, after a proud history of one-hundred and thirteen years, Mells and Vobster United are no more. Last season was their final tilt at glory. The news really saddened me. My grandfather played for the village team in the 1920’s, and I played a smattering of games for the reserves from 1978 to 1981. I always remember my first game, when I was only thirteen – playing against men more than twice my age – and being full of pride when I told my parents about it when I returned home. I had just shown up at “the rec” with my boots and my ball on a Saturday afternoon just intending to watch from the side-lines. The manager asked me if I fancied coming on as a “sub” during the game. I was not a very confident footballer – I would eventually slide out of the school first team and into the dreaded “B team” later that season – but I jumped at the chance. Fifty years after my grandfather represented the village, I was playing too. It was against Ashwick and Binegar. But there is no fairy-tale ending; I am sure that we lost.

At the end of May, I retraced my steps and stood for a few solitary minutes behind one of the goals at Stoke St. Michael’s football pitch, and my mind cartwheeled back to around forty-seven years earlier when my footballing journey had taken a massive step. It was the first time that I had been back since that evening with my parents – in Dad’s green Vauxhall Viva, and my football – and it was, of course, such a bittersweet moment.

This football life, eh?

Visits of Cardiff City to Stamford Bridge do not come around too frequently. This would only be the fifth time that I would be seeing “The Bluebirds” play at Stamford Bridge. And as the saying goes, you never forget your first time.

On the second day of October in 1976, a Chelsea team which included old hands Peter Bonetti, David Hay and Charlie Cooke, plus a smattering of youngsters including both Ray and Graham Wilkins met the visiting Cardiff City. For once, Ian Britton didn’t fill the number seven berth; that position was filled by Brian Bason.  Stalwarts of that promotion-winning campaign Ken Swain and Ray Lewington scored as we won 2-1 in front of a healthy 28,409. Lewi – recently assistant manager to Roy Hodgson at England –  didn’t score many, but his goal was a net buster from 30 yards. I can distinctly remember watching the action from the lower tier of the East Stand, with me peering over at the sizeable following from South Wales. I can definitely recollect punches being thrown at the Cardiff fans as they attempted to get at the waiting Chelsea fans as we walked past the old North Stand entrance after the game. I remember my father telling me –

“Always rough, that Cardiff lot.”

The match highlights – of which there were more than these three minutes – appeared on that evening’s “Match of the Day” with the trainspotter-esque squeals of John Motson accompanying the action.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sxspfc1NzBY

Since then, our meetings have been rare. I first saw Pat Nevin in a Chelsea shirt on a windswept and rainy Saturday afternoon at Stamford Bridge in 1983. There was no TV coverage of that game, so no match action is available, although there are a few grainy images of both sets of fans running at each other outside the North Stand – once again – on the internet – from a news programme – should anyone feel the need to get nostalgic. My next Cardiff game was the notorious 2010 Cup game, when hundreds of hours of film of the various members of the Soul Crew and the CHH – or the 388 as they are now apparently known – bouncing towards each other on the Kings Road and elsewhere resulted in banning orders for many.

The 2013 league game at Stamford Bridge – the season when Vincent Tan became public enemy number one in Cardiff for his desire to kit out the team in red and black rather than blue and white – passed without incident. I am no fan of Cardiff City – why should I be? – but at least their fans have the pleasure of seeing their team in the hallowed top flight wearing the correct colours this season.

In 2018, a sunny day in September welcomed both teams, and supporters, to Stamford Bridge once more.

In the build-up to the game – drinks in the Famous Three Kings and The Goose – I had unfortunately spotted a few people wearing the new third kit. Apparently, this design is meant to pay some sort of – non-ironic – homage to the tangerine and graphite kit from 1994 to 1996.

They have done a great job.

They have referenced the worst fucking Chelsea kit ever with a messy and insipid tribute.

Up close, the images of “Landon Tahn, Fackinell” are out of focus and made my eyes hurt.

It’s bloody shocking.

But Nike have surpassed themselves this season. The even more ridiculous checked warm-up gear featuring blue, red and white squares, is truly horrific. I wonder if it was intended to confuse the opposition by making their eyes twist out of shape.

Modern Football…you know the rest.

Amidst all of these negatives, a word of praise for the match programme this season. It is now £3.50, but seems a lot more stylish. There is a spine – like the European ones of recent memory – and the covers have a certain gleam to them. The cover for the Cardiff game features a stylised photograph of Kepa Arizabalaga, with an image akin to that of a sporting poster from the former Eastern Bloc, all angles and strength.

I approve, anyway.

There was no surprise that the boyos from Cardiff, the valleys and the Vale of Glamorgan took their full three thousand. But there was just one flag; the red, white and green of Wales with the legend Llanishen Bluebirds.

Over on the East Stand, a banner – from the West Ham game in March – remembered Ray Wilkins – RIP – who would have been 62 on Friday. A nice touch.

Maurizio Sarri made the slightest of changes to the team that had defeated Bournemouth; in came Olivier Giroud for Alvaro Morata and Pedro replaced Willian.

Yet more nonsensical flames and fireworks went with the entrance of the teams.

Good fucking grief.

The game began, and the Welsh legions were in good voice. Thankfully, we did not have to wait too long for the home support to get going, even though the noise was hardly stratospheric. We dominated the early moments, and Cardiff were happy to sit back and soak it all up. A Giroud header dropped onto the roof of the net. We kept moving the ball, with much of the play coming down both flanks. For two defenders, both Alonso and Azpilicueta certainly found themselves in high areas on many occasions. Another chance came and it was an Alonso cross which was headed wide by that man Giroud.

A leaping Bamba wasted a good chance from close in, misdirecting a header down rather than on target. Sadly, we did not heed this warning sign. A long cross from a free-kick found Morrison who easily out-jumped the back-peddling Alonso, who was the wrong side of his man. The ball was headed into the six-yard box, and the Chelsea defenders looked startled as the ball dropped. The tall Bamba pounced, nipping in to cause havoc amidst our defence. We looked as ill-equipped to counter the threat of high balls into our box as Amish kids at a gaming show.

The net rippled and the Welsh legions roared.

Bollocks.

“One nil to the sheepshaggers” sang the Cardiff City supporters.

Alan noted, and I agreed, that the shock of a goal conceded woke up both players and supporters alike. There was now a real sense of urgency from both.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

The stadium woke up.

We struck at Cardiff’s goal via Hazard and Kovacic. Our play improved. When needed, N’Golo Kante would shine. In exact copy of what happened against Bournemouth, he chased an attacker down from his usual right-midfield berth to a position just in front of the left-back Alonso. He accomplished it with such a minimum of effort that it had me purring.

What a player.

A curling effort from Pedro went close. Our chances were piling up. Pedro again, at his best, twisting and turning, leaving defenders in his wake.

My friend Rick, in Iowa, has a great nickname for Pedro.

“El colibri.”

The hummingbird.

It is a perfect description.

Yet another effort from Pedro.

Surely a goal would come.

Twenty minutes after the Cardiff goal, we watched a beautiful move develop. A Rudiger pass was left by Hazard so that Giroud could collect. A divine touch from the centre-forward played in Hazard. A delicious feint – “see you later, a bientot” – gave him space to move away from a marker.

As he broke on goal, my mind leaped into gear.

“Come on Eden. You are a fantastic player. But you are not a great goal scorer. To move on, to improve, to become an even better player, you need to get more goals. Come on. Score this.”

He drilled a low drive into the goal, as perfect a finish as there could ever be.

Chelsea were back in the game.

Just before half-time, we worked an opening down their right, and a subtle touch again by Giroud allowed Hazard to poke a ball home, albeit off a luckless Cardiff defender.

We were in front.

“YYYYYEEEEESSSSS.”

Tidy.

As the second-half began, with Chelsea attacking our end at the Matthew Harding, I fully expected more chances and more goals. After just five minutes, Mateo Kovacic – injured – was replaced by Ross Barkley, who immediately looked keen and involved.

After the constant activity in the last moments of the first-half, the second half took a while to warm up.

Cardiff rarely threatened our goal. But for all of our possession, we struggled to get behind their defence. As the game wore on, I kept thinking “2-1 is not enough.”

We needed that elusive third goal.

David Luiz, on more than one occasion, looked rather lackadaisical. How much better a player would he be with John Terry alongside him?

Pedro created some space and curled one wide. Then another from Pedro squirmed wide.

With twenty minutes remaining, Peds was replaced by Willian, and there was a hearty show of support for our little Spaniard.

The clock-ticked on.

A low shot from Reid narrowly missed the framework of our goal.

We again found it hard to create anything of any substance. Our chances all seemed to come in that first-half. We still bloody needed that third goal.

With ten minutes remaining, Willian charged into the box, but was scythed down by Bamba. A penalty was an easy decision for the referee to make.

Jorginho handed the ball to Eden.

Eden gave the Cardiff ‘keeper the eyes and planted the ball in the corner.

A hat-trick for Hazard.

Glorious.

A minute later, Willian created some space for himself and – despite a bobbling ball – crashed a fantastic curling effort past the hapless ‘keeper and into the goal.

His run towards us was just too good an opportunity to miss.

Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.

There was even an impromptu Brazilian dance-off twixt Willian and Luiz, all under the disbelieving gaze of Rudiger.

Late on, there was a fine full length save from Arizabalaga, but in truth the young lad had not really been troubled during the second-half.

There was more raucous applause as Davide Zappacosta replaced Eden Hazard, who had undoubtedly been the star of the show. His dribbles have always made us dribble, but on this occasion, his goals had been a very welcome addition to his armory.

So, another 4-1 win for Chelsea at home to Cardiff City; the same result as in 2010 and in 2013. They must be sick of us.

With Liverpool winning at Spurs 2-1, we needed that extra goal to prise our way onto the top of the pile.

Perfect.

I looked back on the game. The visitors were a poor team, but we had to persevere to get past them. Five wins out of five is a very fine start to the season, but I am not getting carried away at all with any of it. We still look frail defensively, while we honestly have not been tested by any of the tougher teams yet. I will reserve judgement for a few more matches.

No trip to Greece for me this upcoming week; stay safe those of you who are making the pilgrimage.

Next up for me is our away fixture in Deepest East.

See you there.

 

Tales From Flags, Flames And Four Out Of Four

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 1 September 2018.

Unlike the last home game against Arsenal, I was inside Stamford Bridge with time to spare. It was a sunny and warm afternoon in London. The team had been announced earlier with just the one change since the match at Newcastle United the previous weekend; Willian was in for Pedro. As I had commented last time, there is little to choose between the two.

In the wraparound of the MHU, I said “hello” to a few good friends and waited for the entrance of the teams. I was pleasantly surprised that Bournemouth had almost brought a full three thousand supporters. It helped make sure of another near capacity gate at Stamford Bridge. There was a wide “no man’s land” between the home and away sections of the Shed Upper, but all other areas were full. Bournemouth were maybe just three-hundred shy of the full allocation. With a capacity at the Vitality Stadium – it will always be Dean Court to me – of just 11,000, but with a large catchment area on which to draw, it is difficult to judge the size of the former Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic Football Club’s current support. But 2,700 away fans from a home gate of 9,000 supporters is a good return in my book.

It had been my turn to drive to London. This was my first drive to Stamford Bridge for a weekend game since the West Ham match in early April, almost five months ago. And it seemed like it. On the approach in to West London, high on the M4, I drove past Griffin Park, where Brentford would soon be playing former European Champions Nottingham Forest in a second tier game. A few hundred yards further on, we spotted their new stadium taking shape with the steel of the main stand now standing firm. Fair play to Brentford for keeping within a goalkeeper’s kick of their current home. I’m just glad I managed to visit Griffin Park with Chelsea five years ago. It would be lovely to see them in the top flight at some stage in the near future.

The pre-match had been very pleasant. First up, a two-hour stay in “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, with all the usual suspects. A few of the boys who went on out little pre-match pub crawl against Arsenal, when told of a similar plan against Liverpool, expressed a little concern.

“Blimey. I didn’t remember too much about that Arsenal game.”

“That’s the problem when you drink out of wet glasses.”

Glenn and I moved on to Earl’s Court and popped into a new pub for us, “The King’s Head”, which is tucked away in a quiet side-street behind Earl’s Court Road. In our quest to have a pre-match drink-up in every single pub within a three-mile radius of Stamford Bridge, we are crossing them all off at a fair rate of knots these days. We met up with our friend Russ, who we first met over in Perth in the summer. He was over for a fortnight – he is originally from Wokingham – and it was a pleasure to see him again. He runs the Melbourne Supporters Group and we spoke about the inherent problems in rewarding someone who travels 12,000 miles to see a game via the loyalty points scheme. It is always a toughie. There is no easy answer.

Russ was with a chap who lives, wait for it, in the Melbourne district of Chelsea, home to the Victoria League Division Three team which used to feature in the football pools coupons during the summers of my youth in the ‘seventies, and for whom every Chelsea fan in England used to support, even though they were consistently rubbish. I used to love pouring over those team names though; Chelsea, Dandenong, Geelong, Fitzroy. The memories came flooding back. Starved of football during those long hot summer of my childhood, I would consistently hunt out Chelsea’s latest result in Australia. When my Australian relatives visited in 1980, I was quite stunned when they saw some of the teams’ names – from the Brisbane area – and informed me that they were basically of Sunday League standard. You have to wonder why anyone would bet on such low grade football half a world away. The ‘seventies were odd times.

We also met up with Chelsea fans Jason – from Derbyshire – and Pam – from Staffordshire.

It is always a fine boast that Chelsea supporters from London and the Home Counties always welcome with open arms supporters from other parts of England and the United Kingdom. Speaking as someone from Somerset, I know this to be true. Londoners would often take the piss out of my accent but never my support.

…it is only to the supporters from further afield that some take an irksome view.

“Discuss.”

There was talk of the Europa Cup draw which kept us all occupied on Friday afternoon and evening. I am going to just one of the three away games, against Vidi – the former Videoton – whose game against us will be played at Ferencvaros’ stadium in Budapest. Of all the football cities in Europe that I have not yet visited, the three “Bs” (Berlin, Bilbao and Budapest) are probably top of my list. In December, I will at last be visiting the home of Honved, Ferencvaros, Ujpest Dozsa, MTK, Ferenc Puskas, Nandor Hidegkuti and all those magical Magyars of old. It promises to be a fine trip. Time, eventually, I think to buy myself a retro Chelsea scarf from 1972. In the first pub, as if to pay homage to that era – and our trip to Hungary – Daryl had sported a bloody gorgeous Sergio Tachhini polo shirt sporting the three colours.

In front of the East Stand, large flags denoting the eleven starters were being waved frantically by a few of Chelsea’s ground staff. They then reassembled at both ends of the stadium. As the teams entered the pitch, flames erupted into the sky from along the East Stand touchline.

The flags I could just about stomach. But flames for Bournemouth? Good grief.

I longed for the days when the Stamford Bridge crowd could be relied upon, without any fuss, to generate enough atmosphere of our own.

Returnees Asmir Begovic, in fluorescent yellow and orange, and Nathan Ake were in the Bournemouth team.

Both teams were unbeaten.

We had watched parts of the Liverpool game at Leicester on TV in the pub at West Ken. A win there for the Mickey Mousers had out them on top with four wins out of four. In the build-up to the game, I had conjectured that we could possibly win against Bournemouth, against Cardiff City, and maybe even at West Ham. We could go into the game at home to Liverpool with six wins out of six, but I worried that Liverpool would be the real test. What a game that promises to be.

The game began.

Without much chance of being accused of over-exaggeration, it was all Chelsea in the first period of the first-half.

Everything was eerily similar to the game at St. James’ Park last Sunday. We dominated possession, and our opposition defended deeply but resolutely. I was really impressed with the away team to be truthful. Eddie Howe is a fine manager, and they are lucky to have him.

Down in Australia, I wondered if my cousin Paul would be conflicted. Chelsea is his team – I am the one to thank for that, see a previous tale – but he was born in Bournemouth and so does admit to keeping a keen eye on their results. I promised myself that I would not send him a Chelsea / AFCB half-and-half scarf. But you knew that.

Morata looked livelier than normal in the opening few salvoes, and a few nice moves were generated, but from an early stage, we knew that Bournemouth were well marshalled. A loose touch by David Luiz, sadly typical, was gobbled up by the lively Callum Wilson, who pushed the ball to Ryan Fraser. Annoyingly, Luiz had another chance to redeem himself, but chose not to tackle, but thankfully N’Golo Kante was on hand to chase the attack away.

A lovely deep pass from Luiz made up for his earlier aberration. Jorginho struck a shot wide.

In the first five, then ten, then fifteen, then twenty minutes of the game, the 2,700 away fans were the only ones making any noise.

Last week, I berated the Geordies for their support as being timid, lukewarm and insipid.

Now it was our turn.

As the kids say : “Hold my beer.”

Not a peep could be heard from the 37,000 Chelsea supporters. And I looked around at the faces in the stadium. Surely not everyone was a tourist, that most lampooned – at best – and disliked – at worst – of all Chelsea supporters in 2018.

“Is this a library?” sang the Bournemouth fans.

“Is this the Emirates?”

There was no retort.

Out sung by Bournemouth.

The cherries were on top.

Fucking hell.

I guess we have been spoiled, right?

When I was a child, before I went to school, and maybe for a few years after, I sometimes used to accompany my father on one specific little journey. My Dad was a shopkeeper – menswear – in our local town of Frome and there used to be half-day closing every Thursday. I used to love Thursdays – I feel the same way to this day, “one day to go to the weekend” – as it meant I would be able to spend time with Dad during the daytime. On occasion, he would announce to me “right, I’m off on my rounds, do you want to come?”

I would always say “yes.”

His “rounds” were visits by car to one or two outlying customers who could not always visit his shop in town. I remember Mrs. Doel in Maiden Bradley was a regular. After lunch, just Dad and I would head off through Frome to visit her in her little village a few miles to the south of Frome. I seem to recall that she might often reward me with a couple of sweets or a bar of chocolate. I would stick my plastic steering wheel with its suction cup on to the dashboard and we would set off. The highlight for me, every time, was the return journey when, on a relatively long and straight section of road, I would urge my father to “do fifty.”

This meant for my usually conservative and safe father – I suppose in those days, he would only hit forty miles per hour to save on fuel – to put his foot on the accelerator and aim for the heady speed of fifty miles per hour. With me used to my father driving at thirty through towns and villages, please believe me when I say that for a five or six-year-old boy to be driven at fifty miles an hour seemed simply exhilarating and almost supersonic. I know my father got a buzz out of it too.

These days, damn it, I drive at fifty miles an hour as a norm.

It feels mundane. It feels slow. There is no thrill.

All things are relative in this world.

In 1971, 50 mph was the most exciting feeling ever.

In 2018, 50 mph seems simply mundane.

I think that, at Chelsea, we need to get back to 1971.

On twenty-three minutes – I was keeping count – the Chelsea support at last responded with a song which was audible and sustained.

Twenty-three fucking minutes.

Every year I say it, but for 90% of our home games, the atmosphere gets worse and worse with each passing campaign. In some ways, though, modern football does not help. Decades ago when the shape and pattern, its physicality, of football was so different, the crowd were more likely to be on edge, involved, and more likely to feel that a song of support would help.

In 2018, much of our football involves watching Chelsea maintain the ball for long periods, and working out how our players can break through a packed defence. Although it is technically superior to the cut and thrust of the ‘seventies, ‘eighties and even ‘nineties, it helps to produce a different type of spectator. There are few crunching midfield tackles – a bona fide noise generator in days of old – and there are few surprise breaks, with a rise in noise at each touch. We watch players pass, pass, pass, we watch players close down space and shuffle positions, all within a thirty-yard band across the pitch. We sit on our hands and discuss tactics. We clap occasionally.

Regardless of the changing demographics in which many are turned off by some of the financial absurdities of football, the dying out of football as a working man’s game, the lack of youngsters going to football and the changing codes of behaviour in society, the patterns of modern football itself are not always conducive to the noise of old.

Anyway, suffice to say, until the twenty-third minute, the atmosphere at the Chelsea vs. Bournemouth game on the first day of September 2018 was the worst I had ever known.

On the half-hour, despite our dominance, a rapid Bournemouth break – cheered on by the away fans, see what I mean? – almost resulted in a goal against the run of play when a Rico cross was touched over by Wilson.

“Should be one down” I muttered.

At the other end, Morata and Kovacic had half-chances. In the closing moments, a fine run by Kante resulted in a cross from Hazard being met by the right foot of Alonso. His shot struck the post.

For all of our possession, it had been a little frustrating, but was my frustration a result of the morgue-like atmosphere in the stadium?

We had enjoyed tons of possession for sure, more than even we are used to, but I noted at times a lack of movement from the forwards, and even though Jorginho must have touched the ball every few seconds, I could not honestly remember him playing a killer ball. If anything, the two most incisive passes came from the defenders Rudiger and Luiz. Hazard and Willian had been involved but had – wonderful football phrase coming up – “flattered to deceive.” Alvaro Morata had not shone. And I am still not sure about us letting Kante roam. I am not convinced we will get the best out of him in a box-to-box role. But Jorginho is Maurizio Sarri’s man. He will choose him constantly I suspect.

Oh, by the way, Sarri in an ill-fitting Nike T-shirt must be the exception that proves the rule that all Italian men have an inherent sense of style that the World envies.

The second-half began with clear blue skies overhead still. It was a perfect afternoon in SW6.

After some majestic fleet-footed wizardry from Hazard in front of us, Alonso belted a strong shot from just outside the box, but former blue Begovic saved. Alonso was having a fine game, more involved offensively than Azpilicueta on the other flank. I don’t think that Marcos has been paying attention to the new system. He thinks he is still a marauding wing-back.

Incredibly, a Bournemouth corner fell at the feet of Nathan Ake but he somehow managed to push it over the bar.

“How the fuck did that not go in?”

Despite his early promise, and a few quarter-chances, it had been quite painful to watch Morata flounder in the second-half. His aerial challenges were not worthy of the name. He was replaced on the hour by the more physical Olivier Giroud. He immediately looked the business, his whole body language – “aggression” for the want of a better word – impressed. When he went up for a ball, it at least looked like he wanted to win the header.

Soon after, Pedro replaced Willian.

We noted an upturn in our fortunes. More pace. More direct. And, damn it, a little more noise too.

Mateo Kovacic was fighting hard to make his presence felt. He engineered a couple of efforts.

With twenty minutes remaining, Alonso played the ball inside to Pedro, who neatly made space to play a one-two with Giroud. The big Frenchman moved the ball back superbly into the path of Pedro, who took a further touch to edge into space past Ake. His low shot hit the corner perfectly. The roar went up and Pedro raced away to the far corner before carrying out a Crystal Palace North Stand 1976 Kung Fu kick at the corner flag.

Chelsea 1 Bournemouth 0.

Phew.

“He can certainly find the corners, Pedro. He is more of a goal threat than Willian.”

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Kovacic with just over ten minutes remaining. His big season this, I wish him well.

Another shot from Pedro. Saved.

With around five minutes to go, Alonso – involved again – slipped the ball into the path of Hazard, who easily slipped past challenges to drill the ball low past Begovic.

His little jump and fist pump, then smile with arms outspread, was a joy to watch. The players joined in with the celebration down below us in The Sleepy Hollow. I love to see everyone together.

Team Chelsea.

Antonio Rudiger joined in with the celebrations, but seemed to flick Eden’s ear, and Eden – far from playfully – struck back. Dave was able to be on hand to keep them apart. It was an odd moment. I’m sure it amounted to nothing.

We walked out into the warm evening with “Blue Is The Colour” ringing in our ears.

I liked the way that the substitutions seemed to open things up after the hour. I liked the way we kept going. I loved seeing Eden on form. Pedro was introduced just at the right time. It was, in the end, an impressive win.

So, Chelsea.

Four out of four.

Bloody hell.

On we go.

Tales From An End Of Season Lapse

Chelsea vs. Huddersfield Town : 9 May 2018.

Memories Of Dick Kryzwicki.

Huddersfield Town, the terriers, have been rare visitors to Stamford Bridge over the past few decades. Their last top flight season was way back in 1971/72, just as I was starting to get interested in football beyond the three words “Chelsea Football Club.” During that season, I can well remember pouring over the Football League tables in my grandfather’s huge Sunday Express newspaper, and noticing that Huddersfield Town were rock bottom of the table for what seemed like the whole season.

“They must be rubbish” I must’ve thought.

At that time, I used to be transfixed by the sound of some of those distant football clubs, and I used to go into a dreamlike state as I read out ones such as “Crewe Alexandra” and “Preston North End”. In those days, the editor of the sports sections used to print the entire name of each club, rather than the simpler abbreviated versions of today. Looking back, I seem to remember being struck with how similar some of the names were.

Bury and Burnley.

Southport and Stockport County.

And I was particularly taken by all of the towns, predominantly from the north, who I had previously not heard of, yet were now part-and-parcel of my Sunday routine.

Workington, Halifax Town, Barrow, Rochdale, Hartlepool, Oldham Athletic.

I recall nothing, in all honesty, about that Huddersfield Town team from the early ‘seventies. I always remember, though, the Huddersfield Town player Dick Kryzwicki featuring in the football cards of that era, and he sounded like the most exotic player ever. How different today, eh? Today’s Huddersfield Town squad alone contains surnames such as Kongolo, Kachunga, Sabiri, van La Parra, Zanka, Stankovic and Haderdjonaj.

We have come a long way since Dick Kryzwicki.

Huddersfield Town drifted around the lower reaches for a while, and our paths crossed during a fleeting moment during the 1983/84 season. That was the last time that Chelsea played them in the league before the game in Yorkshire this season. I have seen Huddersfield Town play at Stamford Bridge before, though, for a League Cup game in 1999/2000 and then two FA Cup games in 2005/06 and 2007/08.

As I missed the away game before Christmas due to work, I was hoping that they would stay up for another season, so that I could at least tick off another away ground with Chelsea.

1922 And All That.

For this, the last home game of the season, we travelled up to Chelsea in two cars. PD and Parky had left early along with one of PD’s neighbours, while I drove up with Glenn and my work colleague Paul, a Chelsea fan from Reading, now residing in Swindon. At Heston Services on the M4, we bumped into a coachload of away fans, a mixture of blue and white striped replica kits and the usual gaggle of Stone Island, MA Strum and Adidas wearing Herberts. I wanted to blurt out “hope you stay up” but I couldn’t be arsed to then have a tedious conversation about “well, apart from tonight, ha, ha, football eh, ha, ha.”

I wondered if any of these Huddersfield Town supporters had relatives who had witnessed their team’s FA Cup win in the 1922 FA Cup Final at Stamford Bridge, the last before Wembley. Kryzwickipedia tells me that Herbert Chapman was their manager, just before he led them to consecutive league wins in 1923/24 and 1924/25. Huddersfield Town also won the league in 1925/26, by which time Chapman had left for Arsenal, who he then led to huge successes in the ‘thirties.

So, three league wins on the trot for Huddersfield Town.

I still shiver when I remember how some Chelsea knobheads had taunted the home fans at the Arena Stadium before Christmas with “Champions of England, you’ll never sing that.”

Pie, Mash And Liquor.

After parking up near Queens Club, the three of us made a bee-line for the little food stand near the Oswald Stoll Buildings to try some of their pie and mash for the first time. I had heard good reviews. We weren’t disappointed. A crusty pastry beef pie, a dollop of mash that Richard Dreyfuss could have gone to town on, and some green parsley liquor certainly hit the spot. It was my first pre-game pie and mash at Chelsea since one on the Wandsworth Bridge Road in around 1995. I remember the one on the North End Road, now long since-closed.

Typical Chelsea.

We back-tracked a little, and dived into “Simmons Bar” on the North End Road, which was jam-packed full of the usual suspects. There was a little talk of the away trip to Newcastle at the weekend, and then the grand finale at Wembley soon after. We spotted a few away fans around and about, enjoying their first top-flight league visit in almost fifty years. God, I feel old. We spoke about the evening’s game a little. I had mentioned to a few people at work, semi-seriously, that it would be typical Chelsea – not “proper Chels”, God how I hate that phrase – to beat Liverpool and then drop points against Huddersfield. For those of a nervous disposition, please do not read further.

Wednesday Night In London Town.

It was obvious straight away that the attendance at Stamford Bridge was going to be way off a full house. I had seen cries of help on Facebook to try to shift many tickets, and as I looked around, there were blue seats everywhere. There was a gap of around five-hundred seats that the away team had not shifted for starters. There were swathes of empty seats in the top corners of both side stands. The gate – tickets sold – would be later given as 38,910, but I am confident that as few as 35,000 were inside, probably even less.

Changes.

The change of shape to a 3-4-3 was no surprise, though the omission of Eden Hazard – and maybe a couple of others – was. In came Willy Caballero, though at the time we did not know of an injury to Thibaut Courtois. In came Andreas Christensen for Gary Cahill, and perhaps Antonio Conte was undecided about his final three for the FA Cup Final, and so “game time” was important for the youngster who has recently been rested. Elsewhere, Willian and Pedro flanked Alvaro. Davide Zappacosta replaced Victor Moses. I have to be honest, the shape and the personnel did not overly worry me before a ball was kicked.

Roy And Ray RIP.

Banners for Roy Bentley and Ray Wilkins were paraded again before the kick-off, one at each end, as on Sunday. The one in The Shed was held taught, as if the rather shoddy display on Sunday needed a redux. All things considered, and I certainly do not mean to be mean-spirited, that should be the end of the banners being paraded at games now, though I like the idea of a permanent statue of Roy Bentley at Stamford Bridge. That would be just champion.

One Way Traffic.

Such was our dominance in the opening quarter of an hour, the away team – playing in a QPR style Dennis The Menace shirt – only managed to hoof the ball into our half on two occasions. Both timers, there was a faintly embarrassing purr of excitement from the 2,500 away fans, as I often witness when lowly opponents pump the ball into our half in FA Cup games.

“Smelling salts, please nurse, we have an attack.”

Alonso and Willian were the first to threaten the Huddersfield goal, and we totally dominated. In that first period though, unlike the noise generated on Sunday, all was meekly quiet at Stamford Bridge, save for a pretty constant “Huddersfield, Huddersfield” from the Yorkshire hordes in the corner. Rudiger volleyed wide. More chances followed. Eventually, but only after what seemed like an age, Huddersfield had other occasion forays into enemy territory. But their main adjective was to defend in numbers, since a solitary point would guarantee their survival. At Wembley, Tottenham kicked-off against Newcastle United.

A Chelsea win and a Tottenham defeat would be the stuff of legend on this night in London town.

That Man N’Golo.

All eyes were on N’Golo Kante as he ran and ran at the back-peddling ‘Uddersfield defenders, and for the second-home game on the trot, I was taken back to the Zola trickery against Liverpool in 2003, this time in the same corner too.

The man is our best player by far this season. I love him to bits.

There was a quick text from a mate in Detroit extolling his virtues.

“What a fucking work horse that Kante.”

Our play seemed to run out of ideas a little, and Pedro especially seemed prone to running into dead-ends and losing possession. Elsewhere, we seemed unable to reach the goal-line and cut back across goal. It is in my mind the most effective way to attack. I think it is in our English blood. Get it wide and cross. I always remember one of my Italian mates mocking me years ago.

“In England, if you have a penalty, you knock it out wide to the man on the wing who then crosses.”

I also remember a Bayern Munich fan on the morning of Sunday 20 May 2012.

“England are the masters at crossing the ball.”

The crowd were growing a bit restless.

Down below me, Big John was howling his usual “come on Chelsea, they’re fucking shit.”

Their goalkeeper Jonas Lossl was annoying the bejesus out of us with his ridiculous time-wasting at goal kicks, of which there were many. We ranted at referee Lee Mason, but it was all to no avail. On the touchline, Conte was very involved; pointing, gesticulating, cajoling, berating, encouraging.

The most pleasing effort on the eye came from Morata, who swept a fantastic cross on the volley, on the turn, right at Lossl. Morata, though, was not enjoying the best of games. His first touch was often heavy, and it annoyed me how he was often stationary when the play-makers were looking for movement. Furthermore, there was virtually no noise from the home stands and the atmosphere was all rather odd. The place, of course, should have been bouncing. In the last chance of the half, Kante released Morata, but his first touch took him wide, and the chance went begging as his ball in to the box evaded everyone, including Olivier Giroud, who was sat on the bench preening his beard. The referee blew up (if only) just before we were to take a corner, and the players and management team were livid.

At half-time, Tottenham were drawing 0-0, but sadly so were we.

The Morris Minors.

Jody’s all-conquering U18 squad were paraded around the pitch at the break. The boy has done good. Who would have guessed it? Jody was a rapscallion in days of old. Fair play to him.

There seemed to be a little more spring in our step as the second-half began, and Rudiger headed over from a Willian free-kick.

After You, Claude.

Then, horror upon horrors, everything fell apart. A strong Huddersfield tackle freed the ball and his was lumped forward for Laurent Depoitre to chase. What followed was catastrophic. The ball bounced and the striker stuck out a leg, Caballero blocked on the edge of the box, but fell, leaving Depoitre time to flick the ball over Antonio Rudiger, who had stumbled. What a bloody mess.

In all of my years of going to Chelsea, I don’t think I have seen an away goal celebrated with such wanton joy as by those bloody Huddersfield fans. They roared and roared. And I rued my comments about a draw.

I turned to Alan.

“At least we have forty minutes to reply.”

Conte’s mind acted fast. On came Olivier Giroud for Davide Zappacosta. Soon after, Pedro – disappointing on the night – was replaced by Eden Hazard. The mood among the home fans immediately changed. We were enlivened by the sight of our number ten. After five minutes, we were level. A low and searching cross from Dave fizzed across the six-yard box. Their defender Jorgensen swiped to clear, but the ball was struck right at Marcos Alonso who just adjusted his head slightly so the ball was directed back in to the goal.

Ha. What luck.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

Again, I was clock-watching, and there was about thirty minutes’ left. I was convinced that we would get an equaliser, somehow. Sadly, by this time, Tottenham were beating Newcastle United 1-0.

At last the crowd were in the game, with a loud and invigorating “CAREFREE” waking those sleeping in Brompton Cemetery.

Who’s Your Father, Referee?

The referee, still happy to let the Huddersfield ‘keeper take ages at goal-kicks, was in for relentless abuse from the home fans. (We might well be biased but) there seemed to be several fouls which went unpunished, and at least one occasion of an advantage not being allowed to play out. When a Huddersfield player was treated by the medical staff, the trainer slowly lolloped back across the pitch with the air of someone on a Sunday stroll, and the referee did nothing. There was time-wasting at every opportunity. Indeed, on the evening of Wednesday 9 May 2018, a new word entered the lexicon of English football. Elsewhere, there might well have been stone masons and free masons, but at Stamford Bridge, the referee was a proper cuntmason.

Willian drilled a cross across the box. An effort from Kante. Umpteen chances were created, and the home support was desperate for a winner, but the Huddersfield box was a forest of legs. The flicks and touches were not falling our way. There were just too many bodies in the way. It was like Brighton beach on a bank holiday.

Pinball Wizards.

With time ticking by – tick tock, tick tock – an almighty scramble took place in the Huddersfield penalty area. I have rarely seen such pandemonium. Bodies were flailing everywhere. It was like last orders in a Wetherspoons.

Shots, blocks, ricochets, tackles, loose balls, swipes, tussles. It was like pinball. The ball was eventually headed goal wards by Andreas Christensen, but Lossl wasted no time – FOR FUCKING ONCE – and managed to claw it away off the post.

Bloody Nora.

Eden Hazard really should have done better after moving the ball into space and letting fly, but his low drive was well wide.

At last, at bloody last, Mason booked Lossl for time-wasting.

Morata went close.

Six minutes of extra time were signalled and for the first time known to mankind, it was met with a warm round of grateful thanks.

The minutes evaporated, and things became desperate. There was one last chance. The away team had resulted in hoofing the ball away, but keeping their shape at the back. On this occasion, they sensed a half-chance and committed a few men forward. For the first time in the entire game, the play was stretched. Eden advanced, the final third at his mercy, but the play typically fizzled out.

Balls.

There was huge disappointment at the final whistle.

I was unaware that there was a “lap of appreciation” planned, but with work in the morning, we decided to leave. I guessed very few stayed inside to watch.

As I met up with Paul at the Peter Osgood Statue, I referred to my match programme, and soon realised that while we were now unable to catch Tottenham, we still had a very slim, possibly anorexic, chance to catch Liverpool, should Brighton beat them at Anfield, and we win on Tyneside.

I’ll drink to that. But there again, I’ll drink to anything on Tyneside.

The Long Road Home.

There was a little post-mortem when we all reassembled back at the car. It had, of course, been yet another match when we should have been clear winners. Our lack of a cutting edge, even with Giroud and Morata on the pitch, had cost us dear. Our last home league game of the season was all very anticlimactic. We were hit by a closure on the M4, and managed to get slightly lost – a metaphor for the season – and after I had dropped Paul off in Swindon, I eventually made it home at 2am. It had been a strange old night, and one which will not be remembered with a great deal of fondness.

However…clears throat…two games left. And two fantastic weekends ahead.

Life is good.

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Tales From The Heart Of Chelsea

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 8 April 2018.

I had just left work on Wednesday afternoon when my mobile phone flashed a horribly brief news update.

Ray Wilkins, my boyhood hero, our Chelsea captain, an England international, a Chelsea assistant coach, had died.

There were no immediate tears, but certainly an excruciating, horrible silent numbness. I drove home in a state of shock. I was as subdued as I can remember. Ever since we had all heard that Butch had suffered a heart-attack, and had been in an induced coma, we had of course feared the worst. The future did not promise too much hope, and with every passing day, I feared imminent news.

On Wednesday 4 April, it came.

Ray Wilkins. Just the name sends me back, somersaulting me through the decades to my youth, to a time when Chelsea probably meant more to me than I realised, and to the very first few moments of my fledgling support.

In season 1973/1974, Ray Wilkins had made his debut at the age of just seventeen as a substitute against Norwich City in the October. However, I have to be honest, living in Somerset, I don’t think that I was aware of his presence that campaign. I certainly can’t remember seeing him play in any of the – few – games which were shown in highlights on “Match of the Day” or “The Big Match.” In the March of 1974, I saw my first-ever Chelsea game. I like the fact that we made our debuts in the same season. The very letter which accompanied the match tickets for that Chelsea vs. Newcastle United match was signed by “Miss J. Bygraves” and this young girl would later become Ray Wilkins’ wife and mother to their two children. By that stage, my then favourite player Ian Britton had been playing for Chelsea a couple of seasons. In that first game, neither played, and I would have to wait a whole year to see my two boyhood idols play, sadly in a lacklustre 2-1 defeat by soon to be Champions Derby County. Chelsea were managed by Ron Suart at the time of that match, but soon after former defender Eddie McCreadie took over. Very soon, he spotted the leadership potential of Ray – or “Butch” as he was known – and made him captain at the age of just eighteen despite the presence of former captains Ron Harris and John Hollins being in the team. Those last matches of the 1974/1975 season were marked by the manager flooding the first team with youngsters; alongside Ray Wilkins and the comparative “veteran” Ian Britton were Teddy Maybank, John Sparrow, Tommy Langley, Steve Finnieston and Steve Wicks.

With the influx of youngsters, playing against the backdrop of the sparkling new East Stand, I hoped that the future was bright despite our eventual relegation. If anything, it all got worse. A cash-strapped Chelsea were unable to buy any players for a few seasons, and at one stage it looked like we would be forced to sell both Ray Wilkins and Ian Britton. We finished mid-table at the end of 1975/1976, and promotion back to the First Division seemed distant.

It is an odd fact that although I have taken thousands upon thousands of photographs at Chelsea games over the years, in the period from my first game in 1974 to the start of the 1983/1984 season I took just one. It marked the return of Peter Osgood with Southampton in March 1976, but instead of an image of Ossie, the camera is fixed upon the young Chelsea captain, leaning forward to shake hands with his Southampton counterpart Peter Rodrigues.

Ten seasons, twenty-seven Chelsea games, but only one photograph.

And that photograph is of Ray Wilkins. It seems, with hindsight, wholly appropriate.

For season after season, in those dark years of false hope, the threat of financial oblivion, of wanton hooliganism and occasional despair, our young captain seemed to be our one beacon of hope.

He was our Ray of light.

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At the end of that mediocre 1975/1976 season, I can remember being absolutely thrilled to hear that young Butch would be making his England debut.

At the remodelled Yankee Stadium in New York on Friday 26 May, Butch played a full ninety minutes against Italy, playing against such greats as Dino Zoff, Giacinto Facchetti, Roberto Bettega and Franco Causio. I can vividly remember seeing the highlights on the following day’s “World of Sport” (I specifically remember the blue padded outfield walls, and the dirt of the baseball diamond).

Butch had arrived.

That summer, I sent off to the “Chelsea Players’ Pool” – remember that? – and acquired a signed black and white photograph. It was pinned close to my Peter Osgood one. Two real Chelsea heroes.

The following season, Chelsea stormed to promotion with Ray Wilkins the driving force. The man was a dream. Equally gifted with both left and right feet, he had a wonderful balance, and a lovely awareness of others. He didn’t merely touch the ball, he caressed it. He made everything look so easy. There was a languid looseness to him. But he was no slouch. Although not gifted with lightning pace, he had the energy and guile to tackle when needed, but to break forward too. His long-range passing was his party-piece. I have no single recollection of one Ray Wilkins pass, but the buzz of appreciation – cheering, applause, clapping – that accompanied a searching Wilkins cross-field pass, perfectly-weighted to a team mate, is what sticks in my mind. And there were many of them. Those were the days when supporters used to clap a great pass. It doesn’t happen much these days.

And he just looked like a footballer. My Dad always commented how Butch had thighs like tree trunks. There was a certain confident strut to him. I always thought that it was a plus point that his legs were slightly – ever-so slightly – bowed, though not as noticeable as, say, Malcolm MacDonald or Terry McDermott. Many footballers did in those days. I am sure it was not in a ridiculous body-sculpting homage to him, but as I grew up, I noticed that my legs were slightly bowed too. Nobody ever took the piss out of me, and what if they did? I would have an easy answer.

“If it’s good enough for Ray Wilkins, it’s good enough for me.”

I am told he melted a few female hearts too. I remember a few girls at Oakfield Road Middle School mentioning Butch to me.

It must have been the stare from those dark brown eyes when Butch was at his most serious.

Back in the First Division, we finished mid-table in 1977/1978 under the tutelage of Ken Shellito. Before the thrilling 3-1 win over European Champions Liverpool in March 1978 (often over-looked in favour of the 4-2 FA Cup win over the same opposition a couple of months before), I was able to obtain Ray Wilkins’ autograph as he came on to the pitch for the kick-about at around 2.30pm. Access to the players at these moments were an added bonus to getting seats in the East Lower. In those days, I would rush over to the curved concrete wall, spending up to twenty minutes or more reaching over towards the players as they passed. To be so close to Ray Wilkins, within touching distance, as he signed by little black autograph book just thrilled me. Forty years on, just writing this, I am getting goose bumps.

Magical, magical times.

Sadly, the elation of promotion in 1976/1977 and consolidation in 1977/1978 was followed by relegation in 1978/1979. During that campaign, we never looked like climbing out of the drop zone. It was such a depressing season. I went through a tough year at school too. It was not a good time in my life.

And I can always remember the pain that I felt during the very last time that I saw Butch play for us, a home game versus QPR in March 1979. It was a miserable day – we lost 3-1, some mouthy QPR fans were sat in front of us in the East Lower – but I was horrified to hear Ray Wilkins getting a fair bit of abuse from the Chelsea supporters around me. It was obvious that the team was at a low ebb, and perhaps too much was expected of our captain, who was still only twenty-two, but every mis-placed Wilkins pass drew loud boos and moans from those close by. Rather than support for a hero when he needed it there was derision. It made such an impression on me that I can remember the sense of betrayal that I experienced thirty-nine years later.

I only saw Ray Wilkins play twelve times for Chelsea, but from March 1975 to March 1979, he was ever-present in all the games that I saw. He wore the number eight shirt in every single one of them. I saw him score just one goal, against Blackpool, in 1975.

He was one of the most revered footballers in the Football League. He was an England regular. It thrilled me each time I saw him play for the national team. He was our sole England international from Peter Osgood in 1973 to Kerry Dixon in 1985. In 1979, he played his twenty-fourth game for England as a Chelsea player, thus beating his former manager McCreadie’s record as a Chelsea internationalist.

In 1979, despite appearing in the Chelsea pre-season team photograph, Ray Wilkins was sold to the hated Manchester United for £825,000. It was on the cards. I knew that we would never keep him. Chelsea certainly needed the money. But to Manchester United? This was just too much. There was a memory of a home programme from 1975 with Butch holding a Manchester United mug at his family home. Had he been hiding some dark secret from us all along?

In the following years, I watched from afar as Ray Wilkins played for the Old Trafford club. From 1979 to 1984, United were an under-achieving team under Dave Sexton and then Ron Atkinson. His goal against Brighton in the 1983 FA Cup Final was not celebrated by me.

It still hurt.

Thankfully, he never played for United against us.

And the nickname “Butch” never really followed him to Old Trafford.

He then moved over to Italy to play for Milan from 1984 to 1987.

I saw him play for England – as captain – at Wembley in November 1985 against Northern Ireland on a night which saw a young Kerry Dixon make his home debut, and on a night when the cry of “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” could memorably be heard at the tunnel end.

As the years passed, he played for Rangers and then QPR. I can recollect seeing him early in 1989/1990 at Stamford Bridge, and looking as classy as ever. He was only thirty-three. It would have been lovely to see him come back in West London to play for Chelsea and not QPR, who he later managed, but it was not to be. He then played on with other teams – Wycombe, Hibernian, Millwall, Orient – and then retired to manage Fulham. So near and yet so far.

There were the famous “Tango” commercials.

“Smashing.”

He was often the co-commentator on the Italian games which were shown on Channel Four.

“Hello everyone.”

He seemed so pleasant, so decent, so natural.

In 1998, Butch finally returned home to coach alongside Gianluca Vialli. He worked alongside Luiz Filip Scolari. He took charge for one game at Vicarage Road. He then memorably assisted Carlo Ancelotti – his Milan team mate – and helped us win the double. He was a steadying influence, and a much-loved member of the Chelsea family. His sacking by the club – I am guessing – might well have sent him towards a publicised alcohol addiction.

We felt numbed. For some alcohol is never the right answer, and alcoholism is a horrid disease.

But it felt as though Ray Wilkins has always been part of this club. The red devil mug from 1975 was obviously a red herring. He was not only a season ticket holder, but an away season ticket holder too. There were numerous sightings of our former captain at away grounds – I can recollect photos of him posing happily with some friends of mine – at various away sections, despite the fact that he could have spent those afternoons on the golf course, at home with his family, or out with friends.

It is a cliché, but he was one of us.

My good friend Glenn and I only bumped into him at Stamford Bridge a couple of months back. He was warm and friendly, happy to spend time with us, and I am blessed that I was able to see him one last time.

Just writing those words.

Oh my.

…the days passed. Wednesday became Thursday, Thursday became Friday. Friday became Saturday. Saturday became Sunday. Over these days, many stories were told of his decency and his humanity. But this all added to the sense of loss.

Sunday 8 April 2018 would be another emotional day for us all. On the drive to London, it seemed almost churlish to talk about our game with West Ham. We muddled our way through some conversations and predictions. At many moments, my mind was elsewhere.

We had set off from Somerset earlier than usual so that we could visit one of Parky’s old haunts from the days when he served in the army in the early ‘seventies. It was something of an anniversary. Forty-five years ago last Friday – 30 March 1973 – Parky stepped foot inside Millbank Barracks in Pimlico for the first time. An avid Chelsea fan despite being born near Arsenal’s stadium, Parky’s first Chelsea match was as a six-year-old in 1961. Being stationed so near to Stamford Bridge in Pimlico was a passport to football heaven. We had booked a table for 12.30pm at his then local “The Morpeth Arms”, which overlooks the river and the M16 building on the opposite bank.

But first, we popped in to “The Famous Three Kings” near West Kensington station at eleven o’clock for a quick pint and I made a toast.

“Ray Wilkins.”

We then tubed it to Pimlico, and had a lovely time in Parky’s old local. We met up with some pals from Kent and the nine of us had a relaxing and enjoyable time. During the two hours that we were in The Morpeth Arms, we spotted two boats heading west on the river which were bedecked in West Ham flags and favours. Often teams from London take a cruise down the river before a game at Chelsea. The game flitted into my mind, but only briefly, at the sight of the West Ham flags.

Glenn and I then split from the rest, and headed back to Fulham Broadway. In “The Malt House” we had arranged to meet up with pals from Bournemouth, Los Angeles, Jacksonville and Toronto. In the meantime, we soon learned that a main West Ham mob had caused a fair bit of havoc in The Atlas and The Lily Langtree, just half a mile or so away. There had been talk of them having a bash at The Goose too. We often frequent those pubs. I am glad we had avoided any nonsense.

It was lovely to meet up with the Jacksonville Blues once again; it was Jennifer and Brian’s first visit, though their pals Jimmy and Steve had visited Stamford Bridge before. Brian had presented me with a Jacksonville Blues scarf while I was over in Charlotte for the PSG game in 2015. It wins the prize as the Chelsea scarf with the finest design that I have seen, bar none. We met up with Tom from LA again, and bumped into Mick from Colorado too. There was a quick hello to Bill, a pal from Toronto who was over for the game. The famous Tuna from Atlanta was in town, but our paths just failed to connect.

“Next time, Fishy Boy.”

Overseas fans sometimes get a rough ride from certain sections of our support, but many are as passionate as fans from these isles. They have tended to add to my experience as a Chelsea supporter, not taken away from it.

There was horrible drizzle in the air. The Floridians were finding it a rather cold few days. But their enthusiasm for the game was bubbling over, or was it the alcohol?

On the walk to Stamford Bridge, we were soaked.

There was just time to pay a few moments of silent respect to the little shrine that the club had set up for Ray Wilkins. His photo had been moved along to a more spacious section of The Shed Wall. I was pleased to see the armband that John Terry had left was still in place. The photo of a young Butch in that darker than usual kit from 1977 made me gulp at the enormity of it all. The thought that both Ian Britton and now Ray Wilkins are no longer with us is – I will admit – a very difficult thing for me to comprehend.

I had a ticket in the MHL for this game – alongside Bristol Pete – and it was my first game there since Olimpiakos in 2008. But I was happy that I’d be getting a different perspective at a home game. We were stood, level with the crossbar and just behind the goal.

Very soon, it became clear that some fans in The Shed would be holding up a few banners, and I steadied my camera. The teams entered the pitch, and the spectators rose as one. There were no words from Neil Barnett – in hindsight, I suspect that he might well have decided that the emotion of the occasion would have got the better of him – and very soon both sets of players were stood in the centre circle. The TV screens provided some images, and the words Ray Wilkins 1956-2018 chilled me. We all applauded. Very soon, a blue flag passed over my head. I would later learn that it was a huge tribute to Butch, so well done to the club for producing it in such a short timescale. There was a chant of “one Ray Wilkins” and the clapping continued.

And then the applause softened, and the noise fell away. The game soon started, but my head was not really ready for it. All of that raw emotion squeezed into a few minutes had taken my focus away from the game. I tried my hardest to concentrate on the play, but I found it difficult. There was an extra constraint; I was not used to witnessing a home game from anywhere other than seat 369 in The Sleepy Hollow. I struggled with the perspective.

Antonio Conte had stayed with the choice of Alvaro Morata up front, and all was to be expected elsewhere on the pitch, apart from the return of captain Gary Cahill instead of Andreas Christensen. The first part of the game seemed pretty scrappy but Eden Hazard threatened with a low shot, and we hoped for further chances.

On eight minutes, there was more applause for Ray Wilkins. I spotted the image of the floral bouquet on the Chelsea bench.

“Blimey, that’s poignant.”

We feared the worst when Marko Arnautovic managed to get his feet tangled and Thibaut Courtois blocked from close range. It would be the visitors’ only real effort on goal during the entire first-half. I was so close to the action; the nearest I have been to the pitch at Chelsea for years. Being so low, both side stands seemed higher than ever. I wondered what the first-time visitors from Florida’s First Coast thought of their first visit to Stamford Bridge.

There was occasional neat passing in the final third, but our chances were rare. Already there was a feeling of nervous tension starting to rise within the massed ranks of the MHL, who were stood throughout. I can’t remember the last time the MHL and the Shed Lower sat throughout a game; a long time ago for sure. But there wasn’t a great deal of noise either. The usual shout of “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” was noticeably missing. On a day when I had flitted around Stamford Bridge – to the north, to the west, to the east, momentarily to the south – it felt that I was watching the match from the heart of Chelsea. The reduced capacity Shed is not the same place as it was in years past, and the MHL has usurped it in many ways as the epicentre of our support. I looked around and, although I did not spot many faces I knew, I certainly felt that I was in the heart of it.

The away fans were boring me rigid with their version of the Blue Flag, and their ridiculous nonsense about “no history.”

A beautiful move ended with a chance from Morata going just past the post. Then, another delicate move ended with Willian forcing a fine save from Joe Hart. With half-time beckoning, and with West Ham more than happy to sit deep, at last there was a reward for our possession. A short corner – which normally I detest – was played back to Moses. I remember thinking “this is usually Dave’s territory and he usually finds the head of Morata.” Well, Moses found the head of Morata and it was none other than Cesar Azpilicueta who managed to get the slightest of touches to stab the ball home – the crowd roared – before running away towards the away support and slumping to the floor.

Up in the MHU, Alan texted me : “THTCAUN.”

In the MHL, I soon replied : “COMLD.”

And that was that. A deserved one goal lead at half-time against an opponent that had rarely attacked, and I just wanted the second-half to produce some more goals. Our recent form has been abysmal. We desperately needed the three points.

Into the second-half and I was thrilled to be able to witness our attacks from so near the pitch, with the full panorama of a packed Stamford Bridge in view. It was a spectacular sight. Throughout the second-half, there were back-heels and flicks aplenty from several of our players – alas, most were to no avail and drew moans – but a deft touch from Eden Hazard set up Willian, who went close. There were more moans – and a growl of consternation from me – when a cross from the raiding Marcos Alonso was touched back by Morata into the path of Victor Moses. With no defender closing him down, and with time for him to concentrate on getting his knee over the ball, he panicked and thrashed the ball high over the bar.

“FORFUCKSAKE.”

We continued to create chances. Morata headed over from a corner, and had a goal disallowed for offside soon after. It looked close from my viewpoint, and it did not surprise me that the linesman had flagged.

In quiet moments, the West Ham ‘keeper was mercilessly taunted by the front rows of the MHL.

“England’s number four. England, England’s number four.”

“You’ve got dandruff, you’ve got dandruff, you’ve got dandruff. And you’re shit.”

…there’s a terrible pun coming soon, by the way…you have been warned.

We still dominated possession. From my viewpoint, all that I could see was a forest of bodies blocking our passage. As I said, there were many attempted “one-twos” and suchlike, but the West Ham defence did not have time for such frivolous play. They blocked, blocked, and hacked away to their hearts content. The groans were growing as the game continued. Hazard, always involved but unable to produce anything of note, was nowhere near his best. He lost possession way too often. His pass selection was off. There was the usual proto typical display of midfield greatness from N’Golo Kante, but elsewhere we struggled. Morata hardly attempted to pull his marker out of position. Moses was as frustrating as so often he is. Fabregas was not the creative influence we needed. Alonso ran and ran down the left flank, but the much-needed second goal just eluded us.

Moses sent a shot curling narrowly wide.

At the other end, the distant Shed, West Ham created a rare chance. A half-hearted header from Cahill was chased down by Arnautovic and he was allowed time to cut the ball back for the onrushing Chicarito – a recent sub – to score with a low shot at Courtois’ near post.

It was, I am sure, their first real shot on goal in the second-half.

“BOLLOCKS.”

There were around twenty minutes’ left.

We urged the team on.

At last, the first real stadium-wide chant roared around Stamford Bridge.

A rasping drive from Alonso forced a magnificent finger-tipped save from Hart, and the ball flew only a matter of feet past my left-hand side. The manager replaced Moses with Pedro, Morata with Giroud. There were shots from Hazard, but there were gutsy West Ham blocks. At the other end, I watched in awe as Kante robbed Arnautovic – showing an amazing turn of pace – inside the box. There was another lovely chase-back from Marcos Alonso to rob a West Ham player the chance to break. A fine looping high cross from Willian found the leap of Giroud, who jumped and hung in the air like a centre-forward of old. We were just about to celebrate the winner when we saw Hart – agonisingly – collapse to his left and push the ball away via the post. It was a simply stupendous save. He was head and shoulders their best player.

There you go. You’re welcome.

The game continued but there was no late joy. A meek header from Cahill and a wild swipe from an angle by Pedro did not bother Hart.

Sigh.

There were boos from inside the MHL at the final whistle.

I had the misfortune to time my exit just as the main slug of away support marched past the West Stand gates. I just walked through them all. Their further taunts of “no history” just raised a laugh from me. And there were moans, of course, once we all met up inside my car on Bramber Road long after the final whistle. As I drove us all home, we chatted about the game, a game that we should have won easily. Those moments when we lack concentration had hit us hard once again. We had our post-game post-mortem. We chose to keep our thoughts to ourselves. Elsewhere, of course, many other Chelsea fans were not so private. As ever, there was much wailing.

I had a sideways look at our current state of affairs.

“We finished tenth in 2016. If somebody had said that we would finish in fifth place and as champions over the following two seasons with Antonio Conte in charge, we would have been ecstatic with that.”

The boys agreed.

“Conte just got his seasons mixed up, the silly bastard.”

The inevitable gallows humour helped us in the immediate aftermath of yet another disappointing result.

It had been a strange day. A day of wild extremes. A day of immense sadness. A day of fine friendships. A day when The Great Unpredictables lived up to their name. A day of memories. A day of melancholy. A day of remembrance. A day of frustration. A day of contemplation.

Meanwhile, this most typical of Chelsea seasons continues.

See you all at Southampton.

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In memoriam.

Ray Wilkins.

14 September 1956 to 4 April 2018.

 

Tales From Games 1 & 1,166

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 2 December 2017.

In the tight area underneath the Matthew Harding Upper I bumped into a friend, Ollie, who comes over to a few Chelsea games every season from his home in France. The last time I saw him was in “The Arkles” outside Anfield last January. We shared a few words, he took a selfie of the two of us, and I thanked him for being one of the eighty or so people from around the globe who have taken the plunge and subscribed to these match reports. I apologised for occasionally being rather self-indulgent, knowing full well that I would again be doing so for this Newcastle United one.

As I have mentioned more than once, a Chelsea vs. Newcastle United game is always very special to me. The Geordies were the opponents for my very first Chelsea game way back in March 1974. And the sight of those famous black and white stripes appearing at Stamford Bridge always stirs my emotions. The Chelsea vs. Newcastle United game on Saturday 2 December 2017 was my 1,166th Chelsea match, but I have to say that the memories of game number one over forty-three years ago are still remarkably clear.

The drive up to London with my parents. Stopping off at Gunnersbury Park off the North Circular for a packed-lunch (I have a feeling that cheese and pickle sandwiches were inevitably involved). Catching the tube from the art deco styled Park Royal station in West London. The crowds at Earl’s Court tube station. The climb up the steps to reach the top of the West Stand. The match programme. The first view of the Stamford Bridge pitch. The Shed End and the blue and white scarves twirling. The East Stand, opposite, all exposed concrete and yet to open. The three Newcastle United fans in front of us in the West Stand Benches complete with black and white scarves. The substitute being announced as Ken Swain, and my immediate embarrassment of not having heard of him. Ian Hutchinson’s leap to head us into the lead. A “Topic” at half-time. Gary Locke carrying out sliding tackle after sliding tackle in front of us in the second-half. The appearance of Ken Swain as substitute. The joy of a Chelsea win. The slow walk up to the top of the West Stand at the end of the game and a look back, hoping that I would soon return. The “Chelsea The Blues” scarf that my mother bought me from one of those souvenir huts behind the West Stand. The treat of a hamburger and chips at the long gone “Wimpy” on Fulham Broadway before catching the tube back to Park Royal.

I remember so much. But more than anything, I can remember exactly what it felt like.

Those feelings are difficult to describe, but it always amazes me that for a few brief seconds, I am often sent whirring back in time to a Saturday afternoon of my childhood – I was eight, almost nine – and the power of recollection scares me.

Chants, laughter, grizzled old Londoners, shouts of the crowd, royal blue everywhere, the surrounding buildings, the large terraces, the dog track, the sense of place and the sense of belonging.

They say you never forget your first time, eh?

Certainly not me.

Since that very first game, Newcastle United have appeared as regular as clockwork in my Chelsea story. I have been present at the previous twenty-four league visits of the Geordies to Stamford Bridge dating back to the 1986/87 season. There is just something about them; it is as if I make a special effort for them, even in the days of when I only attended ten to twenty games each season.

And – oh boy – we have certainly enjoyed some hugely enjoyable games against them over the years.

However, knowing full well that Newcastle United were relegated two seasons ago, added to the fact that I don’t tend to watch much football at all on TV these days, I knew only too well that many of the visiting players would be virtually new to me. The problem is that many of Newcastle United’s current players come from foreign lands. If they were all from the British Isles, then I sense that I would be able to tie them to former teams in England, or to geographical regions. I think this is how my mind works, and how I manage to remember various players.

There are two easy examples.

Dwight Gayle, a late-developer, ex-Palace, went to Newcastle a couple of seasons ago.

Jonjo Shelvey, a Londoner, ex-Charlton, ex-Liverpool, ex-Swansea City, signed during the January transfer window in 2016 I think.

I’ve heard of Mbemba and Mitrovic but not many others. I guess a whole season of them playing in the division below has not helped.

For comparison, I thought back to those players from March 1974.

The difference is as clear as black and white.

Off the top of my head, this is what I can remember of their players –

  1. Iam McFaul the goalkeeper, sure he was caretaker manager for Newcastle at one stage, what an odd name, I think he was called Liam too.
  2. David Craig, the right back, struggling, but I remember his name.
  3. Frank Clark, the left-back, went on to manage Nottingham Forest.
  4. Terry McDermott, the creative midfielder, went on to play for Liverpool, before returning to Newcastle with Keegan in the ‘eighties, scoring against us in the away game in 1983/84.
  5. Pat Howard, big blonde centre-back.
  6. Bob Moncur, the captain, think he played for Sunderland too.
  7. Stewart Barrowclough, winger, later played for Bristol Rovers.
  8. Jim Smith, bit of a Geordie legend, but can’t remember too much about him.
  9. Malcolm MacDonald, one of their heroes, played for England, then Arsenal, managed Fulham in their 1982/83 season.
  10. John Tudor, I can picture his face, played a few more seasons for them I believe.
  11. Terry Hibbitt, brother of Kenny, skilful player, sadly passed away years ago.

It is unlikely, I think, that I will be able to remember as much depth about the current crop in years to come.

Due to the closure of the North End Road, I was forced to drive further east and then head down past Earls Court, where we noticed a few hundred Geordies at The Courtfield pub opposite the tube station. Due to the tiresome 12.30pm kick-off, the pre-match was as brief as I can remember; a single pint of “Peroni” in “The Atlas” with PD and Parky, plus Kev, Gillian and Rich from Edinburgh.

Inside Stamford Bridge, there were – as expected – a full three thousand Geordies, though only three flags.

There were a few empty seats dotted around.

Above The Shed End, a large mural of sixty supporters’ club banners appeared against Swansea City last Wednesday, though I was only now able to take a worthwhile photograph.

IMG_1810 (2)

Our team? Antonio juggled things a little, deciding to start Victor Moses on the right, while the rested Eden Hazard and Cesar Azpilicueta both returned. Danny Drinkwater played instead of Tiemoue Bakayoko. No place for the captain Cahill, nor the out-of-favour David Luiz.

Courtois – Rudiger, Christensen, Azpilicueta – Moses, Fabregas, Kante, Drinkwater, Alonso – Hazard, Morata.

On the far touchline, Rafa Benitez appeared back at Stamford Bridge for the first time since the divisive 2012/13 campaign. I hoped that there would not be much volume to the inevitable, and dull, “We Don’t Care About Rafa” chants which could well develop over the next hour and a half.

There is no doubt that the away team – players and fans – began the brightest. The three-thousand were soon into it.

“We are the Geordies. The Geordie boot boys.

Oh we are mental and we are mad.

We are the loyalist football supporters.

The world has ever had.”

I commented to Alan that they always bring three-thousand down to Stamford Bridge and we always take three-thousand up to St. James’ Park.

Respect.

However, we enjoyed a few passages of play and threatened at The Shed End. A lovely chest-pass from Eden to Morata – “reunited and it feels so good” – but a blast over.

After twelve minutes, Andreas Christensen was out-muscled to a high ball. Marcos Alonso’s pass back to Thibaut was pounced upon by a Newcastle player – Murphy, who? – and although our ‘keeper did well to block, the ball ran invitingly to Dwight Gayle who slotted home. I noted that the goal scorer hardly celebrated.

How odd.

The Geordies were not so reticent.

“New-cas-uuhl, New-cas-uuhl, New-cas-uuhl.”

There was a period of nervousness as the home crowd grew agitated with some jittery back-passes and clearances. Thankfully, our play soon improved. The home fans responded too. Very often we need to go a goal behind for our support to be stirred. I was so pleased. A magnificent lofted pass from Cesc Fabregas – almost playing the vaunted quarterback role of the Beckham era – was brilliantly controlled by Hazard, but his dink was well-saved by Darlow (who?).

We were stretching the Geordie defence at will and enjoyed a flurry of corners. Christensen, with a header, went close. On twenty-one minutes, a cross from Dave was aimed at the head of Morata. A Newcastle defender cleared, but the ball fell invitingly to Hazard, thankfully following up. His shot was hit towards the goal, and it bounced up and over the orange-clad goalkeeper.

We were back in it.

Our play improved, the noise improved. This was slowly evolving into a fine game of football, with Chelsea starting to dominate. Moses was always active down the right. This was a good reaction.

On thirty-two minutes, I rose from seat 369 and shot off to turn my bike around.

On thirty-three minutes, I heard a huge roar.

I don’t miss many.

On the PA – “and the scorer for Chelsea…Alvaro Morata.”

On thirty-four minutes :

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

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

Our dominance continued. We played some lovely stuff. Eden was a complete joy to watch.

Thibaut finished another word-search.

The ball was touched out of play and Rafa Benitez, looking frustrated, took a huge swipe at the ball. He sliced it and how we laughed.

At half-time, we were warmed by the appearance of Sir Bobby Tambling.

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As he walked past the away fans, Neil made a note that the Geordies were applauding.

“Respect.”

This was met with some muted applause from the Matthew Harding.

Andreas Christensen had us all purring when he went on a long dribble, before playing a perfectly-weighted ball to Victor Moses, just beating the off-side trap, but the cross just evaded Morata. I was impressed with Moses, who was often involved on the right. Kante and Drinkwater were playing well, Fabregas too. The star, though, was Eden, who was simply mesmerizing. He continually teased the Newcastle defence. He went close a few times. Morata seemed happy to have Eden alongside him, though on more than one occasion I just wished that he had a greater desire to stay on his feet.

A rare Newcastle effort flew past the post.

On seventy-three minutes, a clinical ball from Fabregas found Moses. He pushed the ball on, but was taken out by Ritchie – who? – and the referee pointed towards the spot.

“Nailed on.”

Up-stepped Eden.

A slight wait.

A chip.

A Panenka.

Chelsea 3 Newcastle United 1.

GET IN.

By this stage, we noted that Morata seemed exhausted, hardly testing his marker, barely walking. I was amazed that he stayed on. Instead, Conte chose to rest his star player ahead of the Atletico Madrid game on Tuesday, and it was Eden who was replaced by Willian. Bakayoko then replaced Fabregas. Cahill replaced Christensen.

I had to admire the away fans. They won a late corner and celebrated like it was an equaliser.

I wondered if those three Geordies from 1974 – in their ‘seventies now, no doubt – were in among them.

This was a great Chelsea win. After the away team’s initial period of dominance, we had soon extinguished their fire. Following the triumph against Swansea City, we had won our second successive league game. I want us to go on another winning streak over Christmas. Let’s see how far we can go.

Poor old Newcastle. They rarely profit from a trip to Stamford Bridge.

Those last consecutive 25 league games at Stamford Bridge make painful reading for the boys from the Tyne.

Chelsea wins – 16

Draws – 7

Newcastle United wins – 2

Following on from Wednesday’s tiresome trip home, we were caught in another jam, along the Fulham Palace Road, caused by the closure on the North End Road. After an hour of stagnant movement, at last we cleared the congestion and shot past the floodlights of Griffin Park as Brentford played out a local derby against Fulham.

On the radio, we listened in as Spurs dropped further points at Watford, while the FA Cup also got us thinking about potential opponents in Round Three.

It would be pretty magical for both Chelsea and Frome Town to play Hereford during the same season…

Tales From The Gang Of Four / 四人帮派故事

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 22 July 2017.

I remember when I first heard about our game in Beijing. We were hopping between some familiar pubs in the West End of London before our home game with Tottenham way back in late November. I was with Glenn, Parky and PD, plus a few Chelsea lads from Kent that we had bumped into en route. The news of the game suddenly popped up on social media. It immediately piqued our interest.

“Beijing. Fancy that Glenn?”

“Too right.”

There and then, Glenn and I mentally signed-up for a trip to China’s capital, secretly hoping that there would be a secondary game – maybe in Shanghai – too.

As the months passed, the game in Beijing dominated our thoughts – I can’t exactly remember when our opposition was announced as being Arsenal, but that seemed almost irrelevant. Eventually, the rest of the Chelsea tour took shape. After our game in China, we would play two games against Bayern Munich and Inter in Singapore. Glenn and myself chatted about options. Although it would be a long way to go for just one game, we soon realised that we were happy with just a Chinese holiday, with a few days in Shanghai after our stay in Beijing for the football. An onward flight to Singapore – another six hours of travel – would have added extra expense and lengthened our holiday. And although I am sure Singapore is a fine destination, it didn’t tick too many boxes for me. It has a reputation for being rather staid and bland, plus supremely expensive, and I wasn’t too enamoured about seeing two games in the same stadium. My dear parents had stayed in Singapore, after a few days in Hong Kong, on their round-the-world trip in 1991, and even they commented that it was a rather sober destination.

Back in March, I took the bull by the horns and booked us on a Finnair flight from Heathrow to Beijing via a small stopover in Helsinki. The price was pretty reasonable. Since then, the holiday took shape, and I loved how excited Glenn was getting with each passing week. We decided, indeed, to head down to Shanghai for three nights after Beijing – travelling by bullet train to save money, but to also add to the sensory experience. I just fancied seeing what China was all about. I booked a day trip to The Great Wall; regardless of the footy, this would make Glenn’s holiday since he has always wanted to visit this famous landmark, one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Hotels were booked, again at very reasonable prices; around £50 per night for single rooms. Lastly, there was the visa application process. A day trip up to London resulted in myself appearing in person at the visa application centre deep in the city, but despite sweaty palms and a beating heart, our completed forms were accepted, and we were on our way.

Our good friend Big John, who sits a few rows in front of us in the MHU, would be attending the game in Beijing too. Every time that we chatted at a game, our conversations would consist of these two phrases :

“How’s Glenn? Excited?”

“Excited? Like a dog with two dicks, mate.”

My mate Foxy, from Dundee, who I last saw at the Middlesbrough away game, just before Beijing was announced in fact, also decided to join us. He too was not bothered about Singapore; he had visited it many times before, but had not visited China. He was happy to join us in Shanghai after the game in Beijing too. Foxy would be able, also, to squeeze in an extra day to visit the famous Terracotta Army in the ancient city of Xi’an.

So, the plans were set in stone.

The days and weeks ticked by.

The League Championship was won. The FA Cup Final was lost. The long dull days of summer reached out in front of us.

My last act was to book the bullet train tickets, which only went on sale three weeks before the date of travel.

China. The mere mention of the word made me slightly light-headed. This would, surely, be one of my most wonderful adventures.

On the way over to Tokyo in December 2012, I had spent five long hours at Beijing airport – deep snow outside, a horrible meal inside – and I suppose that it didn’t realistically count as a proper visit. At the time, though, I remember being highly excited about being locked inside Sir Norman Foster’s huge sweeping terminal, just twenty miles from Tienanmen Square.

In July 2017, I would be able to – gulp – step outside.

In the build-up to the holiday, I bought a couple of guide books to the cities of Beijing and Shanghai. I also purchased a fine piece of travel writing by Rob Gifford called “China Road” which, although published in 2007, contained a lot of pertinent historical information about the changes which have been experienced in the great nation – empire – of China over the years. His book details his travel from east – Shanghai – to west on route 312, and he interspersed his modern day experiences along its length with fascinating sections about China’s rich and interesting past. Within the opening chapter, Gifford referenced “The Grapes Of Wrath” and also “On The Road” and so I immediately knew that I’d be on to a winner. There was so much to take on board though. I felt like I was only skimming the surface of China. Thankfully, help was at hand. In the very last week, we were lucky to see TV programmes devoted to Beijing’s Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army, and a re-run – from 1997 – of a Michael Palin travel documentary involving a rapidly changing China. Memorably, his short stay in Shanghai involved him looking out past the tug boats and barges on the Huangpo River at the new builds across the water in Pudong. In 2017, that same view is much changed and I could not wait to see the updated view in person.

China. This mysterious nation, the world’s most populous at 1.3 billion, and one which was changed by the hard hand of Mao Zedong from 1949 until his death in 1976, and has since been bitten hard by capitalism, but which is still a one party state. This complex behemoth of the east would surely bewitch and beguile me.

Visiting from the far more liberal and relaxed west, I would be an occidental tourist.

The days evaporated. We were on our way.

I collected Glenn in Frome at 5am on Tuesday 18 July. We had a perfect drive up to Heathrow, an easy flight to Helsinki, and a pretty reasonable flight over Finland, Russia, Mongolia and we landed at Beijing International airport at around 7.30am on Wednesday 19 July. I remembered the terminal from my visit in 2012. It was wonderful to be back. We quickly made our way through the immigration checks and hailed a cab to take us to our city centre hotel. It was early morning rush hour. My eyes – not tired – were on stalks. My first observations on that hour long cab ride? –

Road signs in Chinese and also English.

Car registration numbers with western style letters.

No advertisement hoardings along the road sides, nor on street corners, nor anywhere.

Shiny Western cars – Audis, BMWs, VWs – alongside unknown Chinese makes.

Cars weaving in and out, hardly bothering with indicators.

Huge high-rise apartments. Like Moscow. Almost brutal.

A clogging urban haze enveloped the city, making visibility difficult.

Massive skyscrapers – some under construction – in the financial district to the east of the city centre.

Traffic. Traffic. Traffic.

We arrived at our hotel, paid the cab driver – 129 yuan, or around £15, get in – and I practiced the only words of Chinese that I had learned.

“Xiexie” is pronounced like a gentle, soft sneeze, and I thought it was difficult to get it right. The cabbie seemed OK with it.

The hotel was rather dated, but suited our needs. It didn’t seem particularly busy. For this reason alone, I suspect, we were upgraded to a suite apiece on the seventh floor. Downstairs, we bumped into Cathy, who was staying in our hotel too. She had arrived via Warsaw an hour before us. Cathy had already booked a couple of local tours. The three of us hoisted the first beers of the trip – the crisp and tasty Tsingtao – before disappearing upstairs to our suites for some power naps.

In the late afternoon, Glenn and myself slapped some sunscreen and mozzy repellent on, and marched out along Qianmen Street. Unlike in 2012, Tienanmen Square was just a ten-minute walk away. The first few minutes were difficult. The heat was stifling. We walked on. We reached the square at its southern edge, alongside the imposing Mao mausoleum. The square was very impressive and it took my breath away. I could not – honestly – believe that I was there. It is, allegedly, the largest public square in the world. In the middle, a large column, surrounded by red flags. They were not Chinese flags, with gold stars, but plain red ones. The effect was stunning. To the east and west, two huge authoritarian buildings, the one to the west the largest building I think I have ever seen. And to the north, the dark red – almost vermilion – walls of the Forbidden City. In the centre, just about discernible, the face of Mao Zedong.

Gulp.

We were in China. In Beijing. In Tienanmen Square.

Not surprisingly, there were thoughts of that ridiculously iconic image of the lone student protesting against an army tank in 1989. In those protests, hundreds were slain in the very square in which I was stood. The world whirled around me. In my thoughts leading up to this trip, I reached right back to my earliest memories. Before Chelsea even. Pre-1970. My earliest memories. Before I went to school in 1970, my father used to return home from his shop in Frome for lunch every week day – apart from Wednesday, market day – and we used to have lunch (the biggest meal of the day in those days, how times change) while listening to “The World At One” on the radio. Although this takes me back to the age of three or four, I can always remember the exotic sounding names of various places and people to this day and how I used to love the way the announcer pronounced them. For a while, it was something I listened in for.

Mao Zedong.

Chiang Kai-Shek.

Hi Chi Minh.

I was joining up some pretty old dots on my life-journey on this trip for sure.

We took some photos – there would be hundreds more – but the ones from that very first evening in Tienanmen Square will remain very precious to me. On the walk back across the vast space, we kept bumping in to a family from Glasgow and it soon became apparent that the husband was Rangers, and Chelsea. He was visiting his son, who had been studying Mandarin at a local university since September. He loved the city and wished us well. Without a word of warning, he started singing “Blue Is The Colour” and we joined in.

The red flags were flying above us but, for a while, Beijing was blue.

Foxy, newly arrived from Dubai, was booking in as we strode back in to the hotel. It was fantastic to see him again.

That evening, Cathy joined us in the bar for a beer and we ended up across the road in a local restaurant. The portion sizes were huge – oh, and cheap – and we had a fantastic feast. The food was, actually, remarkably similar to the Chinese we are used to back in England. For some reason, I expected marked differences.

Sweet and sour pork, Kung Pao chicken, spicy prawns, fried rice, sweetcorn soup – in a huge bowl – and of course Peking Duck.

And bottles of Tsingtao.

Bang on.

Foxy, Glenn and myself walked a mile or so east and then north and found ourselves in the main shopping street of Beijing – all the Western shops you can think of, plus more – and soon settled for bottles of Yanjing adjacent to a street market. Just a few yards away were stalls selling scorpions, skewered and fried, grubs, and all sorts of oddities. I was glad that I was not hungry. Wanting one last beer, we marched on to an Irish bar, only because it seemed that bars and pubs were very rare in central Beijing. We sat in the dark boozer, sipping at cool beers, and chatted about various things, with the whole of Beijing within our sights. Funnily enough, I had spotted only one sports jersey of any description during the first five or six hours in the city. One Chinese lad was spotted wearing – oddly – an Atletico Madrid shirt. Not only were there no Chinese team jerseys being worn, nor were there any foreign teams’ jerseys. Nor – tellingly – any US team paraphernalia that still seems de rigueur in most cities around the world.

On the Thursday, Foxy, Glenn and myself assembled at around 9am, gulped down a couple of expensive coffees in the hotel and set out on our very own version of Mao’s long march.

We visited Tienanmen Square. We visited the Forbidden City. For each separate part of the vast area – thousands upon thousands of rooms – there were lines for tickets. We decided on just the main courtyard and the Meridian Gate, which overlooked Tienanmen Square to the south. The haze spoiled the view but it did not matter too much. We made sure we hydrated throughout. While seated on a bench within the first courtyard, Foxy tapped me on the shoulder and pointed quickly.

A mother was holding her daughter up as the youngster peed in to a rubbish bin.

“You don’t see that outside Buckingham Palace, Foxy.”

We took photographs of the vast walls, the golden pagoda roofs, and the innate stillness, despite the crowds. Outside, the surrounding moat thankfully cooled the air. Everywhere were green-shirted army guards and black-shirted security guards. It was a fascinating walk. We walked south and spotted the huge modern curve of the national centre for performing arts. We sought sanctuary from the heat for an hour. Inside, there was a small art gallery. We stopped for a light snack. The main auditorium housed opera. Within an hour we had experienced ancient and modern Beijing. We walked on, heading towards the serene Temple of Heaven, maybe a mile or so to the south. However, we were soon side-tracked.

One of Beijing’s most beguiling features are its hutongs; single-story working class dwellings which surround the central area, and which – I am amazed – have not yet been bulldozed away in the name of progress. We spent an idyllic hour wandering past houses, motorcycle repair shops, grocery stores, cafes, clothes shops, fishmongers, butchers, all the time having to move out of the way of bicycles, tuk-tuks, scooters, mopeds, and some of the most ridiculously small cars on the planet. Overhead electricity cables swayed low over side-alleys.

At the lovely, peaceful Temple of Heaven we were virtually the only Westerners. The deep midnight blue of the roof contrasted well with the white marble of the steps. We were mesmerized by its beauty.

We caved in – I for one was exhausted now – and caught a tuk-tuk back to our hotel. Of course we almost collided with various people on bicycles and scooters, but – hey – nobody was killed. Back at our digs, Glenn reliably informed us that we had walked nine miles during the day. I almost feinted.

That evening, we disappeared over to our local restaurant – “the freak show is back” – and gobbled more local cuisine. I tried the Peking Duck – when in Rome, eh? – and very nice it was too. Not crispy as we have in the UK, but simply roasted. It hit the spot. At around 9pm, the three of us met up with Big John, newly arrived at his hotel, only a ten-minute walk from our accommodation. We began with a beer on the terrace overlooking central – hazy – Beijing, but soon disappeared inside as the rain began to fall. We had a few bottles of Tsingtao, plenty of laughs, and we made plans for the rest of our stay.

The Gang Of Four had finally assembled.

On the Friday, we had arranged to meet up at John’s hotel at 10am. The temperature had decidedly cooled, thank heavens. There was a “McDonalds” next to his hotel, and – let’s be truthful – I soon came to the realisation that I could not survive for nine days of Chinese food only. I dived in for a breakfast. It hit the spot. We dived in to a cab and headed off on the elevated inner ring-road to the east of the city to collect our match tickets. It was a simple transaction, but a relief to have them in our hands.

We then headed further out towards the Danshanzi district. I had highlighted the 798 Art District as a venue that I fancied visiting; I didn’t expect it, but – bless ‘em – the other three fancied it too. It was delightful. The sight of many old military industrial units, factories and warehouses, the whole area now houses a rather off-the-wall arty area featuring galleries, cafes, bars, shops, venues, but also a few businesses; I spotted both a Volkswagen HQ and an Uber HQ abutting its periphery. It was an interesting area. The relics of its industrial past were left to provide a somber backdrop to the modern artworks on show – rusting pipes, darkened towers, tall brick chimneys, red brick buildings. Many of the artworks were funky and humorous. Graffiti was allowed, unlike – presumably – elsewhere in the city. We stopped at two cafes and enjoyed beers in both, along with wide-ranging Chelsea chat. The second café was housed in a former train station – an old-style loco outside – and was named after the Ace Café, formerly a bikers’ café on the North Circular in London, which I had read about on the internet only a couple of months previously. The area was certainly atmospheric. At times it felt that we were walking through an Anton Corbijn photoshoot for a Depeche Mode album. It was as if the Chinese state had detailed this little parcel of land for avant garde expression, well away from the city centre, the masses, the rest of the city.

“Here. You can express yourself here.”

I loved it.

We assembled again – Cathy too – in the evening, and headed north. We had been tipped-off by…um, someone we met wearing an ironic green Mao uniform and smoking a Gauloises cigarette in the 798 District and answering to the name Agent 1905…that the Chelsea team were staying in a hotel adjacent to the Birds Nest Stadium. We dressed accordingly – smart, er, casual – and hoped to be able to meet up, however briefly, for a chat with either the management team or the players. Luckily, our route – never to be forgotten – swept us past a floodlight Forbidden City, with an illuminated Mao looking down on us, and out on one of the five-lane boulevards which then joined up with an elevated expressway, past modern hotel blocks as we zoomed north. The night had now fallen. It was an intoxicating ride. We soon spotted – to our right – the red and gold of the Birds Nest Stadium and the cool blue of The Water Cube, both used during the impressive Beijing 2008 Olympics.

We were deposited right outside the hotel. We spotted barriers to our left, with local Chelsea supporters awaiting the arrival of the team coach from a training session. Inside, in the large lobby, were more Chelsea fans. We waited outside. Nobody approached us; I think we were under the radar. We spotted former England manager Roy Hodgson arrive with a couple of colleagues. We called out his name – he is a decent football man – and he seemed genuinely happy to be spotted. His eyes twinkled. A local lad, wearing an Arsenal shirt was roughly manhandled away from the area. Soon, the Chelsea coach arrived just yards away from where we stood and the players quickly entered the hotel. It was pandemonium inside. Lots of shrieking. I think a fair few players stopped to sign autographs, but we really could not see what was happening. After a while, the security people were forcibly pushing back the frenzied Chelsea supporters. It was all done and dusted within four or five minutes.

Upstairs, in an open area, we spotted the staff signing various items laid out on tables. I seized the moment. I drifted past a hotel worker and slowly – I’d say nonchalantly if I meant it – walked up some wide stairs. A photo of Antonio Conte – boom. Before I was chased away, I edged forward.

“Antonio.”

He looked up and I approached…thinking, “oh bollocks, what shall I say to him?”

“Grazie mille.”

He smiled, almost bashfully, and said – as quiet as you like – “prego.”

With that, a Chelsea club official asked who I was. I suspect that he didn’t know who Agent 1905 was, so I said “just a fan.” He politely asked me to leave. We were to find out, later that evening, that the club were hosting a Q and A with some local supporters – complete with lanyards et al – and I suppose this is par for the course these days. I found it typical that Antonio and the players were signing, in addition to the usual shirts, a couple of Yokohama tyres.

Downstairs, Cathy, John, Glenn, Foxy and myself spent a good few hours chatting about Chelsea and football in general. It was a lovely time, actually. We spotted Carlo Cudicini walk past and take his seat a few yards away alongside several other coaching staff, including Antonio’s assistant Angelo Alessio. I took a photo of Carlo with Cath and Glenn. I spoke to Angelo – can I call him that? – about me being a Juve fan too and seeing him play in Turin in the late ‘eighties. He seemed very amicable. A lovely moment. Around eight of the Chelsea staff were in this little group, and they stayed together for around an hour. Of course, we hoped that Antonio might join them, but he never did. This was at around 10.30pm I guess. The chap that had shooed me away appeared with a bagful of Chelsea 2017 Asia Tour badges. A nice gesture on the face of it, but how nice would it have been for the club to recognise those who had traveled out from the UK on this trip. Just a five-minute session with a few players? That would have been superb. On the US tours, it is only the US based fans who ever get to meet the players at any formal event.

But, it is what it is. For a couple of hours, sharing the same space as a few Chelsea faces, it felt lovely. And I mentioned this to Cathy. That it was lovely how we all still got excited, like kids in a sweet shop, about chatting to Carlo Cudicini, for example. May I never lose that childlike awe of meeting our heroes.

So. What about this season? Prior to setting off for China, the internet was in meltdown about our lack of new signings. Within days, the signings of Rudiger and Bakayoko calmed things. Just before leaving, Morata was snatched from Real Madrid. We chatted a little about the transfer dealings and the much-debated academy process. There are many different opinions here and I have always tried my best to be a fan and a supporter rather than a tedious expert. If I was an expert on football, I wouldn’t spend forty hours a week shipping office furniture around the globe. Opinion is clearly divided. Some lambast our academy – and Emenalo, especially, though many can’t even pronounce his name correctly – and the clear lack of youngsters making the first team whereas others have a different approach, backing the club to an extent, and realising that the academy is there, in the main, to provide a professional career for the lads who come through the ranks. Where do my thoughts lie?

Of course, it would be lovely, bloody lovely, to see a Chelsea team populated with our own academy players. No doubt. There is always a tangible connection with our own boys. But this is not 1977. Our team does not contain the likes of Clive Walker, Tommy Langley, Ian Britton, Ray Wilkins and Gary Locke. In 1977, we were cash-strapped and in the Second Division. Now, in 2017, forty years on, we are cash rich and a buying club.

I tried to put my thoughts into words. I tried to explain things as best I could after a few pints of Stella Artois.

“At this exact moment in time, the manager – perhaps the whole club – has a vision about where the team is going and what style of football it is looking to use, involving an exact mix of various types of players, with various degrees of skills and experience. We have a squad, a base of players. To add to that, do we select from just the relatively young set of academy players we have, which might number just twenty or thirty – at this exact time – or do we look elsewhere, at potentially hundreds of players currently employed by other teams?”

Answers on a postcard.

Roy Hodgson ambled past and, now all of us a little chattier due to the beer intake, posed with him as his colleague took a few photographs of us with him. I like Hodgson. Woefully out of his depth at times, but still a decent man. I told him, boozily I suspect, how his eyes lit up when we had called out to him outside the hotel.

“Blimey, someone recognizes me.”

Foxy asked me to take one last photo of him with Carlo.

“Do you still drive motorcycles?”

“Yes.”

“Which ones?”

“Harley Davidsons.”

It was time to head home. We ordered a cab and returned back to our respective hotels. Glenn, using his phone, provided the soundtrack. On came “The Liquidator”, “Blue Is The Colour” and a smattering of ska and reggae from the ‘seventies. As we whizzed past the lights of the skyscrapers of central Beijing, one song got us all singing, Ken Booth’s “Everything I Own.” It was a surreal few moments. My childhood raced up to meet me once more. A song from 1974. The year of my first Chelsea game.

“If there’s someone you know
That won’t let you go
And taking it all for granted?
You may lose them one day
Someone takes them away
And you don’t hear the words they say.

And I would give anything I own
I’d give up my life, my heart, my own
And I would give anything I own
Just to have you back again
Just to talk to you words again
Just to hold you once again.”

It had been a fine night.

On Saturday 22 July our season was to begin. I thought back to the first game of last season, the completely dire defeat at Rapid Vienna. What a shocker that was. I hoped for a better start in 2017. I had the chance for a little lie-in and did not get up until around 10am. It was a gentle start to the day. Thankfully, the weather was again cooler than Wednesday and Thursday. In many ways, it resembled a typical Chelsea Saturday. But it was a strange mixture of a standard Saturday game with a midweek kick-off time. The game was to start at 7.45pm.

Instead of the Gang of Four consisting of Lord Parky, PD, Glenn and myself and the day beginning with a breakfast in either McMelksham, McChippenham or McFleet, it began with a breakfast in McBeijing. Foxy, Glenn and myself then toured a local shopping mall. Next door to each other, on maybe the third floor, were two shops selling MLB and NHL gear. This really surprised me. This was not some key city-centre shopping mall, but yet here were two US-themed stores. It made me wonder why I had not seen anyone wearing a New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox or Los Angeles Dodgers cap, to say nothing of an NHL team cap. I was still keeping score and, until the day of the game, the number of football shirts spotted thus far had numbered –

Arsenal 3.

Atletico Madrid 3.

Chelsea 2.

Barcelona 1.

We were trying to work out – to put it bluntly – if Beijing was a sports town. We weren’t so sure.

Within the shopping mall, there were Timberland, Fila, Umbro, Kappa, Adidas and Nike stores. The prices were comparable to home, so there was no chance of picking up too many bargains. Outside, on a side street, was a little boutique which sold mainly women’s items, but with a little section for men. We could not resist a peek inside. We poured over a selection by Moncler, Vivienne Westwood, Victorinox and Armani but although the prices were quite reasonable, my goodness the sizes were small. All along, we were chatting about football.

Football and clobber. What Saturdays were made for.

We met up with John at 4pm and again caught a cab. They were so cheap that we did not use the subway throughout our entire stay. We were dropped off right outside the stadium. We were assailed by a number of touts, waving bunches of 100 yuan notes at us. We were not sure if they were buying or selling at the start but we soon realised that they had tickets to sell. I was annoyed to see red shirts in the majority. I then realised that we were probably outside the southern Arsenal end. We spotted a few locals selling Chelsea shirts – at knock-off prices – and we leered over them, taking a couple of photographs. The stall holders must have thought that we were on the lookout for fakes, as they soon bagged their wares and disappeared. I was surprised at the complete lack of a black market economy in Beijing, especially outside the stadium. If only other cities were the same.

We posed with my “VINCI PER NOI” flag in a couple of locations. At the second one, in the middle of a long expanse of open promenade to the west of the stadium, we were told to put the banner away by some very down-at-heal looking security types. I think they were also on litter duty. Talking of which – there might be nine million bicycles in Beijing, but there is certainly no litter. If only other cities were the same. We also posed with Foxy’s lovely “Charlie Cooke’s Flying Squadron” flag, marking the Dundee-based fans who support Chelsea. We enjoyed a nice relaxing wander between the Cube and the Birds Nest. A few beers were taken. John, who is around six feet seven clearly won the prize for “most photographed.” I will never forget the look on a young Chinese boy’s face – no older than three – who looked up at John in stages, his mouth growing wider and wider. A look of comic-book astonishment. So funny. For a few moments, a local TV crew were in attendance and some Arsenal fans began chanting. My guess that this would not be a sell-out. The stadium held 85,000 and there clearly were not 85,000 milling around. We hoped for a reasonable gate. The ticket prices were pretty steep though; £82 for a lower tier seat. After a minimal bag check, we were in.

My camera too – phew.

We were inside at 7pm. Scott and Mark chatted to us at the Chelsea merchandise stall. Punky Al and Stan drifted past. Glenn and I bought a tour t-shirt apiece at 230 or around £26. I was able to utter the immortal phrase –

“230. Chinese dentist.”

Parky would have been proud of me. Glenn groaned.

He soon perked-up : “Gonna be wearing this in the pub first game of the season.”

I have to say that the stadium did not look too full when we first arrived. Arsenal were up the other end. There were not many in the top tier. We guessed at around 40,000 maybe. All of the Chelsea supporters had been issued with the God-forsaken thunder sticks, which many were feverishly bouncing together, in addition to a Chelsea-themed fan – again for clacking together to make noise – the like of which we have had once, just once, at Stamford Bridge.

What’s wrong with just clapping?

Both teams were out doing training drills when we got in. The place filled-up. The lower tier was virtually full at kick-off. From the outside, especially when illuminated from within, the Birds Nest Stadium is stunning. The strips of dull grey steel wrap themselves around the inner shell of the structure, and the effect is wonderful. From the inside, it’s a fine stadium, but an athletics stadium. The pitch is too far from the spectators, a problem that West Ham United are now experiencing in their new pad. But whereas London’s Olympic Stadium is a relatively wide and shallow stadium, Beijing’s version is at least tall, steep and intimidating. The three tiers reach up into the sky and the roof curves high and then low. Of course, Herzog and De Meuron are tasked with designing our new stadium. I am sure that the only thing to say at this stage is that, like the Birds Nest, it will be iconic, unique and designed to the highest standard. I, for one, can’t bloody wait.

“Blue Is The Colour” was played by the PA, and I was impressed that so many locals knew the words. Of course, virtually all were wearing Chelsea gear, fake or not. There were not so many Nike shirts in the stadium. We were then treated to “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer with the Arsenal fans singing along. Is that a Gooner song, now? Bloody hell.

The teams were announced.

Antonio Conte had chosen a very strong starting eleven.

Courtois.

Dave. Luiz. Cahill.

Moses. Kante. Cesc. Alonso.

Pedro. Batshuayi. Willian.

Arsenal included Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mertesacker, Ramsey, Monreal, Xhaka, plus new boy Laazette. If it matters. Which it doesn’t.

For some reason, there were plenty of boos for Kenedy. We had no idea why. No idea at all. Did he play for a team in China at some stage in his career? We were completely flummoxed. The Arsenal fans – thunder sticks too – produced two crowd-surfing flags. Our two were bigger. Before the game began, Carlo and Hilario paraded the League trophy, while at the other end the FA Cup was on show. The weather was great; it wasn’t sticky at all.

The game, and our season, began.

We began very brightly indeed, attacking the southern goal away in the distance. The Chelsea fans around us were well-involved, chanting from the start. Cathy, who was sat next to me, waited for her moment. There was a sudden lull.

“10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

Cathy was away, and Glenn, John and myself joined in. Surprisingly, not many turned around to look. Cathy continued on.

“Zigger.”

“OI.”

“Zagger.”

“OI.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

We continued to play well, full of energy. Arsenal looked sluggish. This was such a difference to Rapid Vienna last summer. Pedro was full of tricks on the left. We were dominating and carving out a few chances. A Moses shot was saved by Ospina. The locals in our end were going for it, no doubt aided by those bloody thunder sticks.

“Clap clap – clap clap clap – clap clap clap clap – Chelsea.”

Willian drove hard into the heart of the Arsenal box but his shot flew past the far post. Our support was certainly into the game. They loved cheering us on when we attacked. At times the whole lower tier seemed to be chanting together. I turned to Cathy and whispered :

“Hate to say it, but they’re noisier than in the US.”

Michy Batshuayi, with a trim haircut, went close on two occasions.

The new kit looked wonderful, although we were spared a complete 1970 re-boot because of the blue socks. I noticed – as did many – how much the pitch was cutting up. Quite poor, really.

Midway through the first-half, the ball was pumped forward for Pedro. From memory, the ball fell in no man’s land, but Ospina clattered into Pedro. It immediately reminded me of Schumacher’s horrific foul on Battiston in the 1982 World Cup. He was down for some time, but was replaced by Jeremie Boga, a forgotten man. He looked eager.

We continued to dominate. There seemed to be lots of shots but mainly weak finishes. Batshuayi struck but the goal was ruled offside. The Chelsea players seemed annoyed at that.

On thirty-one minutes, the Chelsea fans – or a small section of them – donned Antonio Conte face masks and, in unison, started singing “Antonio Antonio Antonio.” Again, we were completely flummoxed. We were to later learn during the night that this was to celebrate the manager’s birthday on 31 July.

“OK.”

John commented : “the noise is good, they just need to work on the melody.”

As the first-half continued, and despite occasional Arsenal attacks, Thibaut Courtois did not have a save to make really.

The lively Willian controlled the ball wide on our left and danced into the box. As he struck a right-footed curler, I snapped. I watched as the ball evaded the lunge of the ‘keeper and we went 1-0 up. There was a loud roar. Soon after, a lovely solo goal from Batshuayi gave us a wholly deserved 2-0 lead. On the rare occasions that Arsenal threatened, they over passed. I remember an excellent block by Gary Cahill – who lead the team out – plus there was the usual solid stuff from David and Dave. Kante was his usual smothering self. This was great stuff indeed. At last, right at the end, Thibaut made a save.

Only Willy Caballero came on at the break.

We were now attacking our end and this seemed to enthuse our support even more. Although the fans were limited to a few songs, the whole end was singing together.

“CHAMPIONES – CHAMPIONES – OLE OLE OLE.”

“CHELSEA – CLAP CLAP CLAP.”

It was still all us. There was tons of play down our left. After a pass from Fabregas, there was a fine pull back from Alonso to Michy on the edge of the box. His crisp swipe flew past the ‘keeper. Oh, how he enjoyed that one.

3-0 and game over. We were surprised that there were still no immediate subs. Antonio Conte was as animated as per usual on the side-lines. He is worth the admission money alone, these days.

The local fans began singing in unison, but the chant did not register with us.

“What are you singing?”

“Subio” – or something similar – was the word being sung and it translated as “one more (goal).”

“CHAMPIONES – CHAMPIONES – OLE OLE OLE.”

Arsenal came into the game a little, but we were never really under threat. Conte rang some changes as the game continued.

Kalas, Christensen, Clarke-Salter, Tomori, Scott, Pasalic, Kenedy – more booing – Baker and Remy all played.

Pre-season is an odd-time. A sighting of Remy here, a sighting of Kalas there. Will they play a part in our future?

Answers on a postcard.

The all royal blue kit ended up virtually navy blue with the perspiration of the players.

The boos for Kenedy seemed to affect him; he looked rattled and struggled to get involved. Boga, among the other subs, looked pacey. One for the future, maybe?

Lewis Baker produced a fine effort right at the end from a free-kick – I’m tempted to say Arsenal’s wall was far from great – but the shot was well saved.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

Job done.

Glenn, especially, looked so thrilled to have witnessed this, his first Chelsea game outside of Europe. It had been a pleasure to be there with him. There seemed to be some sort of presentation at the end of the game, and the players certainly looked pleased with their endeavors as they slowly walked down to our end to applaud the fans.

It was again surreal to see and hear so many Chinese supporters singing along to “Blue Is The Colour” at the end of the game.

We slowly walked outside. We were all very happy with the performance and result. We looked fit. We looked hungry. All positives really. The only negative was Pedro’s injury. The official crowd was given as 55,000; we were pretty pleased with that. I’d say the split was around 50/50.

50% Chelsea, 50% knobheads.

Outside, the stadium was lit from underneath with warming orange and red. It looked simply stunning. I wonder if our new pad will be lit similarly with blue (suggestion – only when we win).

We waited for Foxy, who along with his flag, had watched from the other side of our half.

Avoiding the immediate rush for cabs, we retired back to a local restaurant. It seemed that nobody spoke English, but we were thankfully aided by a lad from the US who had recently graduated from a university in South Dakota but who was visiting to set up his own travel guide company. He had been at the game too. He helped us order some lamb and chicken skewers, rice and noodles but only 2.6 percent beer. We all agreed that it had been a perfect evening. Apart from the 2.6 percent beer.

At around midnight, we caught a cab back to our hotel, the roads clearer, the buildings still immense, the city huge, the holiday not even halfway through.

Ahead, there would be a simply unforgettable trip to The Great Wall Of China, a five hour journey on a bullet train, the historic city of Shanghai, with its history of trade and commerce – a different beast to the more conservative Beijing – and the towering skyscrapers of Pudong.

But that is another story.

 

 

Tales From Bristol, Bath And London

Chelsea vs. Bristol Rovers : 23 August 2016.

The last time that I saw Bristol Rovers play was in February 1993 when I was lured to Bath – my nearest city and the place of my birth – to see the visit of Tranmere Rovers and, more specifically, Pat Nevin, in the second tier of English football, which was then called the First Division of the Football League. This was a season when I didn’t attend too many Chelsea games in the latter part of the season, since I was saving for a bumper trip to the US in the autumn of 1993, but I managed to gather enough money together to drive to Bath on a bitterly cold afternoon to watch my favourite ever player play one more time. Since I was supporting Pat, I took my place in the sparsely-populated away end at Twerton Park – Rovers’ home from 1986 to 1996 – among the Tranmere fans, and watched, with my extremities getting colder and colder as the game progressed, with decreasing interest in a game that neither excited me or even mattered too much. The home team won 1-0, thus pleasing the vast majority of the 5,135 crowd, but it did not save them from relegation that season. I looked on, disconsolate, as Pat Nevin struggled against the Bristol Rovers defence and I was left wondering how such a gifted player was now playing in the yellow and green away colours of Tranmere Rovers.

That I was lured to Bath for a Bristol Rovers game all those years ago was pretty typical of many like-minded souls from my local area around that time. When Bristol Rovers were forced out of their traditional Eastville Stadium, their temporary exile in the Roman and Georgian city of Bath at the home of Bath City resulted in many football fans in the Frome area adopting Rovers as a second team, or even a first team. There is no doubt that Rovers’ support – traditionally the northern areas of Bristol and neighbouring parts of Gloucestershire – took on new characteristics in that ten years of alternative domicile. Their demographics definitely shifted east. I know of several local lads who now support Rovers ahead of other, larger, teams, and I think their base in Bath for ten years sparked this. I remember watching a couple of other games at Twerton too; against Middlesbrough in 1986 and Notts County in 1988. It was a poor ground to be honest, but suited Rovers’ needs.

Growing up, the two local football teams to me were Bristol City and Bristol Rovers. My father always contended that City were always a second division team and Rovers, the scrappy underdog, a third division team. I hardly knew any supporters of the two Bristol teams. They must have existed, but it wasn’t until I began middle school in the autumn of 1974 that I met one.

On my very first day at Oakfield Road Middle School in Frome, I happened to sit opposite Dave, a lad from Frome, whose roots were in Bristol. It is very likely that some of the very first words that we said to each other were of our two football teams. I was Chelsea and he was Rovers. I had been to my very first Chelsea game in the March of that year, but I quickly learned that Dave had been to many Rovers games over the previous few seasons. In 1973/1974, Rovers had won promotion to the Second Division – I can still hear Dave extolling the virtues of the “Smash and Grab” striking partnership of Alan Warboys and Bruce Bannister – and he was full of stories of games at the endearingly ramshackle Eastville Stadium, especially involving the rough and tumble which used to accompany football in those days. We used to talk about our two teams. We even used to draw detailed drawings of Eastville and Stamford Bridge – both were oval, both had hosted greyhound racing – and our friendship grew and grew.

In the autumn of 1974, I played in my first-ever 11-a-side football match; it was a house match, Bayard – blue – versus Raleigh – red – and both Dave and myself were in the Bayard team.

We won 2-0, and I opened the scoring with a left-footed volley, while Dave followed up with the second goal as we won 2-0.

As football debuts go, it was damned perfect.

Bayard 2 Raleigh 0.

Chris 1, Dave 1.

Chelsea 1, Rovers 1.

Blue 2 Red 0.

The next season – around March 1976 if memory serves – the two of us were selected, as mere ten year olds, to play in the school team against a team from Bath, the only two from our year to be selected. It was a proud moment for me, yet – looking back with hindsight – it probably represented the high water mark of my footballing career. I would never reach such heights again, eventually dropping to the “B team” by the time I reached the age of fourteen, right at the end of the 1978/1979 season, unsure of my best position, and riddled with a lack of confidence in both myself as a person and as a player. Dave turned out to be a far more rounded footballer – a combative midfielder with a good pass – and played football at a reasonable level for many years. My mazy runs down the wing soon petered out against tougher opposition.

I will say something, though – and I was only speaking to Dave about this a couple of months ago after a “From The Jam” gig in our home town – there was a ridiculous chemistry between the two of us on a football pitch, which probably stemmed from the hours we played with a tennis ball in the schoolyard. I was a right winger and Dave played in midfield. We seemed to be able to read each other’s minds.

I would play the ball to Dave, set off on a run, and he would find me. After a while of this – time after time, game after game – it almost got embarrassing.

Dave agreed.

“Baker – our games master – would say “what is it with you two?””

Good times.

No, great times.

Leading up to our League Cup tie against Bristol Rovers, I was in contact with Dave, though was sorry to hear that he would not be attending. I had to bite my lip from uttering the classic schoolboy line “shall I get you a programme?”

This would – hopefully – be a fun evening for myself, perhaps for Dave, and for the others from my home area who are afflicted with Chelsea and Rovers devotion.

As I caught a glimpse of the local BBC TV news bulletin at 6am on the day of the game, there was a brief mention of the game at Stamford Bridge. The graphic came up on the TV screen :

“Chelsea vs. Bristol Rovers”

I shuddered and had a second look. It brought back immediate memories of when the two clubs were in the same division – the old second division – on a few occasions in my youth. But more of that later.

After another torrid day at work, I collected the Chuckle Brothers and we were on our way. Talk was all about the game at the start of the drive to London. A few friends would be in the Rovers end. News came through that a lot of Rovers’ fans had made a day of it and had been on the ale all day. This was brewing up nicely. A Chelsea game of course, but a game with a lovely local interest for us all. Whisper it, but Glenn often used to go and watch Rovers with his brother and a few other Frome rapscallions from 1986 to 1993, but he has since seen the light and now regards Rovers as an afterthought; a fling which had no long-lasting meaning.

Bristol Rovers. The Pirates. The Gas. The blue half – or maybe quarter – of Bristol, and therefore more palatable to me than Bristol City. Rovers spent most of their existence in the second and third divisions, before cascading down to the fourth division in the early-eighties along with their hated city rivals. Whereas City have enjoyed a little more success of late, Rovers were relegated from the Football League as recently as 2014. It was Dave’s worst ever moment. However, successive promotions have now hoisted Rovers back in to the third tier. Things are looking up for The Gas, a relatively recent moniker from the ‘eighties, which originated firstly as “Gasheads”, a derisory term from the City end of town, since an old gasometer used to stand over Eastville. The Rovers fans have now adopted it as a badge of honour.

Some stories to tell.

Of my first-ever twenty Chelsea games, four were against Bristol Rovers, at Eastville.

Because so much of who I am as a Chelsea supporter stems from my childhood passion for the team, I always say that my first one hundred games are the bedrock of my devotion. I can remember distinct details, most probably, from all of my first one hundred games. And as I am about to demonstrate I can certainly remember oodles from my first twenty.

Game 5 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 29 November 1975.

My first-ever Chelsea away game, and I can distinctly remember waiting outside my grandparents’ house in my local village for a lift to take my mother and I to the game. My father, a shopkeeper, was unable to get time off, but he had arranged for one of his customers, a Rovers season-ticket holder from near Cranmore, to take us to the game, along with his wife and daughter. I can remember the drive to Bristol, and the chat with the attractive blonde girl – a couple of years older, phew – to my right. I always remember she wore a blue satin jacket, edged in tartan.

“Blue for Rovers, tartan for the Bay City Rollers.”

Mum and myself took our seats in the main stand, and I loved being able to see Eastville in the flesh, at last, after all of Dave’s diagrams and related details. Chelsea wore the lovely old Hungarian red, white, green, and we won 2-1, despite Bill Garner getting sent off. I remember the angled flower beds behind the Tote End goal. There were outbreaks of fighting in the stadium. It was a fantastic first away game. The gate was a pretty healthy 16,277. Oh – I also remember a Chelsea fan getting a little too interested in my mother – awkward – and I remember seeing the very same bloke at Ashton Gate later in the season, this time with my father on the scene. My mother and I would have a knowing glance and smile at each other.

Game 9 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 5 October 1976.

I always remember that my parents and I travelled up to see the Chelsea vs. Cardiff City game on the Saturday, and were amazed to read in the programme that our away game at Eastville, originally planned for later that autumn, had been brought forward to the following Tuesday. Tickets were hastily purchased – again in the main stand – and this time it was a full family carload that left my village after my father had picked me up outside my school on the way home from work. Both my parents and, from memory, my grandfather (his only Chelsea game with me) watched us on an autumnal evening in Bristol. I remember Dad got a little lost nearing the ground, but that was the least of our troubles. We lost 2-1 after getting it back to 1-1. Chelsea in red, red, blue. My first midweek game. More crowd trouble. A gate of 13,199. Despite the sad loss, we were promoted at the end of the season,

Game 16 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 23 February 1980.

An iconic game, for all the wrong reasons. On my travels around the country with Chelsea, I bump in to many of our fans from the West of England. It seems that every single one of them, to a man, was at this game. We were riding high in the second division after relegation in 1978/1979, and I was relishing the visit to Eastville to see a good Chelsea team against a mediocre Rovers eleven. I watched from the main stand yet again, and was thrilled to see my friends Glenn – yes, the very same – and his brother Paul, with their grandfather, watching from a few rows behind me. There was untold fighting before the game, with Chelsea in the Tote End, and police horses in the Tote End too. It was pandemonium. On the pitch, a below-strength Chelsea team (Bob Iles in goal, for starters) lost 3-0 to a fine Rovers performance. The crowd was a feisty 14,176. There must have been 4,000 Chelsea there. Debutant Dennis Rofe was sent off. Tony Pulis – yes, him – scored for Rovers. It would eventually cost us our promotion place at the end of the season and we would not recover until 1984. A grim day.

Game 19 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 14 March 1981.

This was a poor season and this was a poor game. This time, my father and two school friends stood on the small terrace in front of the main stand. We were drifting towards a lowly position in the second division while Rovers were on their way to relegation. The atmosphere, for want of a better word, of the previous season, had dissipated. The stand on the other side of the pitch – where I had watched a couple of speedway matches in 1977 and 1978 – had been burned down the previous summer and the gate was just 7,565. We were woeful. We lost 1-0. I remember Micky Droy playing upfront in the last ten minutes and hitting the bar with a header. A dire afternoon of football.

So, those paying attention will realise that of the last three times I have seen us play Bristol Rovers, we have lost every one.

In 2016, bizarrely, it was time for revenge.

We didn’t see many Rovers fans on the M4. I expected an armada. It was just a trickle. Most were already in the pubs and hostelries of London. A former boss, up for the game with his two sons, texted me to say they had been asked tom leave The Goose. No trouble. Just, I guess, for safety’s sake.

I was parked-up at about 6.30pm. The ridiculously warm London air hit me hard. It was like a sauna. PD, Parky and Glenn had chosen shorts. I wish I had done the same. In The Goose, there were a residual few Rovers fans, but everything was quiet. It was not as busy as I had expected. We had heard that some of the 4,000 were drinking at Earl’s Court, quite a common occurrence these days.

The team news broke.

Begovic – Dave – Cahill – Brana – Aina – Matic – Cesc – Pedro – Moses – Loftus-Cheek – Batshuayi.

A mixture. A chance for some to shine. We presumed Ruben would play off Michy.

The air was thick and muggy on the walk down the North End Road, along Vanston Place and up the Fulham Road. There were Rovers fans about – in their iconic quarters – but there was no hint of 1980-style nastiness.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I was more than happy with the crowd. Only a few rows at the top of the East Stand remained empty. For some reason, like Liverpool in 2015, the away fans had the western side of the upper tier of The Shed, in addition to the whole of the bottom tier. Only three flags; a poor effort to be honest.

It was clear from the onset – and no real surprise to anyone – that the good people of Frenchay, Easton, Yate, Pucklechurch, Mangotsfield, Kingswood, Fishponds and Bradley Stoke would be making all the noise.

Very soon I heard the familiar sound of the Rovers’ theme tune.

“Irene, Goodnight Irene.

Irene, Goonight.

Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene.

I’ll see you in my dreams.”

More bloody silly flames were thrown up in to the air from in front of the East Stand as the teams entered the pitch. For a League Cup game. In August. Do me a favour, sunshine.

Chelsea in blue, Rovers in yellow.

The game began. It was still ridiculously warm.

It was all Chelsea for the first part of the game. With Moses and Pedro out wide, and Ruben alongside Batshuayi, we moved the ball well, and – cliché coming up – the Rovers players were chasing shadows. Chances piled up in the first twenty minutes with shots from all areas. Batshuayi dragged his shot wide after a fine move, and Ruben drove a low drive hard against the far post. In The Shed, the away fans were singing away.

“I’ll see you in my dreams.”

Rovers hardly threatened. They put together a crisp move featuring over twenty passes, but got nowhere.

On the half-hour, Loftus-Cheek played in Matic, and his ball in to the box was deflected towards the waiting Batshuayi; he swivelled and lashed it high past Steve Mildenhall in the Rovers’ goal.

Fred Wedlock : “CHTCAUN.”

Billy Wedlock : “COMLD.”

Soon after, a cross from Dave was played right across the goal and Victor Moses had the easiest job to touch it home.

It was 2-0 to us, and we were well on top.

But, no. Just before the break, Rovers swept in a fine ball from a free-kick in front of the East Stand and Peter Hartley rose to head the ball past Asmir Begovic, who until that point had not been tested.

The Rovers end ignited and, no bias, the version of “Goodnight Irene” that greeted their goal was truly deafening. Good work, my luvvers.

They then aimed a ditty at City and Glenn and myself thought about joining in.

“Stand up if you hate the shit.”

City call Rovers “Gas Heads.”

Rovers call City “Shit Heads.”

It’s all very colloquial in Brizzle.

Ellis Harrison then went close with a header.

Thankfully, we soon restored the lead when Batshuayi turned in a Loftus-Cheek pass, again from close range. It was good to see us getting behind defenders and hitting the danger areas.

We lead, then, 3-1 at the break.

It was still a sultry and steamy evening as the second-half began. It was Rovers, though, who began on the front foot and a deep run by their bearded talisman Stuart Sinclair caused us problems. A clumsy challenge by Pedro – yeah, I know – gave the referee an easy decision. Harrison dispatched the penalty with ease.

Rovers soon started singing Billy Ray Cyrus. Fuck off.

We rather went to pieces, and for the next twenty minutes, the away team held the upper hand. Their reluctance to attack for most of the first-half was cast aside and they caused us a few problems. Moses twisted and turned but shot wide. Then, the loose limbed Harrison unleashed a fine shot from distance which Begovic did well to turn over. It was becoming quite a competitive match.

We slowly got back in to our stride, but our finishing was quite woeful. I watched Ruben Loftus-Cheek as our moves developed, but his movement was non-existent. On more than one occasion, I was begging him to make an angle, to lose his marker, to create space, but he did not do so. I guess that instinct is not inside him.

Dave Francis would have found Chris Axon in 1976, no problem.

Thankfully, Rovers began to tire in the final quarter. By then, almost ridiculously, the manager had brought on Eden Hazard for a poor Pedro, John Terry for Ola Aina – sadly injured – and then Oscar for Loftus-Cheek. Our play was invigorated again, but no further goals followed, despite Michy bundling the ball in after good work from Hazard; sadly he was offside.

The away end was still bristling.

“We’re Bristol Rovers, we’ll sing to the end.”

Batshuayi had impressed me throughout the game. He is strong, does not lack confidence, is mobile and has a good first touch. I have a feeling he will be among the goals this season. It was a pretty reasonable game, save for our second-half dip, and I am sure that the travelling Bristolians enjoyed themselves. I was in contact with Dave throughout the match, and I am sure he was proud of his team, and supporters.

However, for the blue and white quarters – the travelling Gas Heads – it was “Goodnight Vienna.”

We set off home, on the M4, along with thousands of others heading west. At Reading Services, the Rovers fans outnumbered us, but they were in good spirits. After delays at a couple of spots on the journey home, I eventually pulled into my drive at 1.15am. These midweek games, Chuckle Brothers or no Chuckle Brothers, do not get any easier.

It had been thirty-five years since my last Chelsea game against Rovers. I wonder if I will ever see another one.

If so, I’m looking forward to it already.

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