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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Tales From A Stroll In The Dorset Sun

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 23 April 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

And then things went awry.

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

Bollocks. No pre-match giggles for me.

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

Job done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dorset has all the best names.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

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

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

“Rhubarb and custard” said Gary.

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

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

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

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

“Ha. Perfect timing mate.”

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

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

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

Leaving a Chelsea game at half-time?

Please fucking explain that to me.

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

This was a very poor show.

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

There was a song or two for JT.

“John Terry – We Want You To Stay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again. Embarrassing.

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

But not AFC bloody Bournemouth.

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

Equally embarrassing.

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

3-1, get in.

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

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

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

I joined in.

I had to.

It summed up everything.

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

Ugh, even writing it.

”Tottenham’s title hunt.”

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

“Beat fucking Tottenham.”

And I immediately noticed the exact words used.

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

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

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

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

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

The message was loud and clear.

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

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Tales From Lancashire And London

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 16 April 2016.

I was inside Stamford Bridge earlier than usual and it seemed to take ages to fill. There was one section, though, that would remain empty. Despite all of their recent successes, Manchester City were unable to fill the three thousand seats allotted to them. A large swathe of around six or seven hundred seats in the Shed Upper stayed empty. I’ve always had a grudging respect for City – especially when their supporters were tested in the lower divisions fifteen or more years ago  – but at times their current support is woeful. We always take three thousand to Manchester, except when there was a hastily re-arranged midweek game in 2012, and we too left five hundred unsold.

There was hardly a crackling atmosphere in the stadium beforehand. As kick-off grew nearer, the stands filled. There would be empty seats, but not many. I had managed to sort out two tickets for a couple of acquaintances – from the USA and Finland – in the West Upper, and I wondered what their match-day experience would be like. They would know what to expect though. Joni, formerly from Helsinki and now living in Austin, Texas, had watched from the whispering gallery before.

With about ten minutes to go before the game would kick-off at 5.30pm, Neil Barnett took to the microphone and said a few words regarding the sad loss of former midfielder Ian Britton. There was a black and white image of Ian on the large TV screen above the City fans in the far corner. I checked my match day programme, and indeed there was a small article regarding Ian’s death on page eleven. However, there had been considerable debate among the Chelsea support since Ian’s passing on 31 March, and rising disdain that black armbands were not worn at neither Villa Park nor the Liberty Stadium. It had transpired that the club had assisted Ian’s family financially with his care over the past few years, but there was still the feeling that the club had not acted quite correctly on the detail over the past two or three weeks.

As Neil finished his words, I joined in with a rousing show of remembrance for Ian, one of my most very favourite players. As the clapping died down, and the noise drifted away, it still felt that this was still not enough. There was talk of a minute’s applause on the seventh minute, but was that it? I wasn’t even sure if black armbands would be worn against City.

It still seemed a little disrespectful.

Ian Britton had played 289 games for Chelsea between 1972 and 1982. Someone had worked out that only thirty-three players had played more games for Chelsea Football Club than Ian Britton. Ian had played more games for us than Ray Wilkins. More games than Jimmy Greaves. More games than Tommy Baldwin. More games than Eidur Gudjohnsen.

At Ian Britton’s funeral it seemed that Chelsea had not done enough either.

It felt right that I should attend the funeral. I have often written about key moments in my life as a Chelsea supporter, and I have tried to piece together certain touchstones, or staging posts, along the timeline of my support of the club. Looking back, to my first game of March 1974, and the little article from “Shoot!” magazine that I carefully pinned to my bedroom wall featuring the dimpled smile of the young Dundonian, there is no doubt that I owed it to Ian Britton – and to the eight-year-old me – to attend Ian’s funeral. I have recently detailed why he meant so much to me, but to recap he was my favourite Chelsea player from 1974 to 1982. That was reason enough.

The funeral would take place at 3.30pm on Monday 11 April, meaning that it would be a long old day should I decide to drive up and back on the same day. Instead, I had other plans. On the Sunday, I drove up to Morecambe and stayed one night in The Midland Hotel, a recently renovated art deco masterpiece, looking out at Morecambe Bay. It felt odd that I would be enjoying the ambiance of a hotel that I have wanted to visit for years on one day, yet on the following day I would be paying my last respects to a hero of my youth. It felt strange. The highest high and the lowest low. On the Sunday evening, the western sky provided a magnificent panorama, with the sun setting across the bay. I raised a glass of “Peroni” to Ian Britton, as the sky turned from blue to orange, or maybe tangerine.

Chelsea blue, Dundee United tangerine.

“Bless you Ian.”

On the day of the funeral, I slowly edged along the seafront past the lovely statue of comedian Eric Morecambe, and headed south to Burnley. I was caught in a little traffic, but entered the grounds of Burnley Crematorium in good time. With around an hour to go before the funeral was due to start, people were already massing in the car park and outside the chapel. I quickly spotted Cathy and Dog, then Rodney, a fellow fan who I had not previously met in person, but who had very kindly kept in contact with me regarding the arrangements for the day.

On the lapel of my dark grey suit, I wore two badges.

Chelsea.

Dundee United.

The sun was out. There was a wind blowing. But it was a fine day.

Hundreds of Burnley fans had shown up in force. I spotted Brian Flynn, the former Burnley player. I had the briefest of chats with Neil Barnett, then a few words with a couple of Ian’s former Chelsea team mates.

There would be no official representation from Chelsea Football Club.

Just let that sink in one moment.

As we waited outside, more people arrived. More Burnley favours. I spoke to John Reilly, wearing a Dundee United scarf, who was a team mate of Ian during the 1982/1983 Scottish Championship winning team.

Ian’s team mates from the ‘seventies had done him proud.

Ray Wilkins, Graham Wilkins, Steve Finnieston, Clive Walker, David Stride, Tommy Langley, Kenny Swain, Garry Stanley, Paul Canoville. Chris Mears, the son of former chairman Brian, was also present.

And then, in the distance, the eerie lament of the bagpipes. The cortege had assembled outside Turf Moor at 3pm, where there is a lovely photograph of Ian Britton after scoring that goal in 1987 on a montage by the old stand wall, and it had now reached the leafy grounds of the cemetery. A row of black cars followed the hearse. Suddenly this all hit home. We were here to say goodbye.

I did not possess a ticket for the ceremony, so I chose to stay a respectful distance away from the cemetery and watched, silently, as the coffin was hoisted onto shoulders and in to the chapel. I bit back some tears and turned away, looking out at the bleak Lancashire hills.

Memories of that “Shoot!” clipping, memories of goals, memories of my childhood.

I turned back, and could not help but notice that some of the people that had previously been stood outside were walking towards the doors of the chapel. I wondered if there was room for a few more. Within a few seconds, I found myself standing at the rear of the chapel, alongside some heroes of my youth. I immediately felt a sense of guilt;

“Oh damn, I really shouldn’t be here.”

Outside there were hundreds, yet I was inside.

But I couldn’t leave. I was stood right next to Garry Stanley and Kenny Swain. I bowed my head.

The first few minutes belonged to “Blue Is The Colour.”

I silently mouthed the words.

The service lasted an hour and a quarter. It was a privilege to be present. There were a few wet eyes, I am sure, but it was an uplifting occasion. There was a photo – that photo from 1987, the most famous photo in the history of Burnley Football Club it seemed – at the front of the coffin. The funeral celebrant David Carson had been present at the Orient game in 1987. It gave the service a sense of authenticity.

Friends and family members shared memories of Ian. Throughout, his sense of humour and his positive attitude shone through. Ian’s great friend Mark Westwood told many stories of Ian’s early years at Chelsea. There was laughter as tales were shared. One episode gave me a wry chuckle. After a game at Luton Town, the Chelsea players were sat in the away dressing room, awaiting to catch the coach back to Stamford Bridge. Who should poke his head around the door, but comedian Eric Morecambe – yes, him again – and he immediately spotted young Ian Britton, who happened to be wearing a full length leather trench coat.

Morecambe quipped “are you standing up?”

This was met with laughter in the Luton dressing room in 1976 and in the Burnley crematorium in 2016. However, the comedian’s next line was better still.

“I’ve always wanted a full size leather wallet.”

Ian had won promotion with Chelsea in 1977, had won the Scottish Championship with Dundee United in 1983 and had scored the most important goal in the history of Burnley in 1987, but Ian had also been the butt of two Eric Morecambe jokes.

Life doesn’t get any better than that, sunshine.

Wonderful.

It was not a particularly religious ceremony and pop songs were played during the service.

“Day Dream Believer.”

Vicki Britton, Ian’s daughter-in-law, told stories of Ian’s devotion to his family and John Smith, a Burnley fan and close friend, really did a very fine job in sharing a lot of what made Ian so special. There were more laughs. It was a very nice ceremony.

“Saturday Night At The Movies.”

At the committal, we all stood. This is where it all got serious again.

Goodbye Ian.

“Simply The Best.”

After the service, we reassembled at Turf Moor, home of Burnley Football Club, where Ian had often been a guest on match days. His last appearance had only been a few weeks before he was admitted to the hospice where he spent the last couple of weeks. Hundreds were in attendance. I was able to chat, in a more relaxed fashion, with a few of Ian’s former team mates. I spoke briefly, my mouth suddenly dry, to Ian’s brother Billy and his son Callum. It was important that I passed on some personal thoughts. They were very grateful.

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I looked out at a quiet and silent Turf Moor, where I had enjoyed my one thousandth Chelsea game at the very start of last season. Who could possibly guess that I would be back so soon under wildly differing circumstances? There was a recollection, still vivid, of that pass from Cesc Fabregas to Andre Schurrle at the left-hand goal. It was the same goal where Ian Britton had scored against Orient in 1987.

There was clearly so much love for Ian Britton at Burnley Football Club. As we tucked in to a classic northern dish of meat and potato pie and mushy peas, the sense of place, of the club’s identity, really hit home. I think I have always had a little soft spot for Burnley – Leighton James, Brian Flynn – and I certainly hope that they get promoted this season so that I can pay a return visit to Ian Britton’s home for the past twenty-five years or more.

In a quiet corner, I spotted a small array of bouquets. In addition to one from Ian’s family, there was one from Burnley Football Club, there was one from Blackpool Football Club, there was one from Dundee United Football Club.

There was nothing from Chelsea Football Club.

Let that sink in too.

So, although Chelsea did the typical Chelsea thing of aiding Ian via financial support over the past few years – admirable, of course – they did not do other, smaller, respectful, subtle things on the day of the funeral.

Is that any surprise to anyone?

Chelsea flashing the cash, but fucking up the fine detail?

Not me.

Over the past few days leading up to the game with Manchester City, it had been a case of looking back at the past, assessing the present and anticipating the future. There had been Ian’s funeral and warm and fuzzy memories of the past when I had true admiration for my childhood idols. Those days seem distant. There had been a solemn appraisal of the current problems of the team, and with it the gnawing acknowledgement that I’d hardly like to spend much time in the company of too many of the current squad. I would even be pressed to name my current favourite Chelsea player if I was honest. There is, to coin that famous phrase from the goon Emenalo a “palpable discord” between the current players and myself. It would be too easy to class them all as pampered and cosseted mercenaries, but I find it increasingly hard to have any real affection for too many of the buggers. Far too many seem aloof and distant. Too many seem to be passionless automatons. Has anyone seen Thibaut Courtois smile? Has anyone seen Oscar laugh while playing football for Chelsea? Where is the joy, where is the passion, where is the fun in our team? As for the future, it didn’t take long for me to book up a flight to Vienna for what is likely to be new boss Antonio Conte’s first game in charge of Chelsea Football Club. It will be “game one” of season 2016/2017, and I will be there, revisiting the scene of John Spencer’s run and swerve and shot against Austria Memphis in 1994/95, which ranked as one of the very best Chelsea games in my life. It was a proper Chelsea Euro Away and I bloody loved it. Ah Vienna.

At the time – 1994 – with Chelsea on the up at last, European football returning for the first time in over two decades, and with exciting ground redevelopment on the horizon, I remember thinking “there is no better time to be a Chelsea fan. What a buzz.”

Now, as a comparison, in 2016, it seems that Chelsea fans would rather miss out on European football in the guise of the Europa League next season, and most seem underwhelmed to be renting Wembley for three years while Stamford Bridge is renovated further. The football team is better placed, surely, than in 1994, but still it seems that everything was so more enjoyable back then.

Anyone care to explain all that?

As the teams strode out on to the pitch, with billowing clouds overhead, and the sun shining down, we were set for a game between two teams that had, together, seriously underperformed during the current season. Regardless of Chelsea losing ten games – ridiculous enough – who could have imagined that City, backed by all that wealth and with such attacking riches, could have lost nine?

Crazy.

For Chelsea, Courtois was back in goal and at the other end Diego Costa was upfront.

In between, there were the usual suspects.

Thankfully, three games too late, Chelsea – and City – were wearing black armbands in memory of Ian Britton.

At The Shed, there were two new banners, in praise of Gianfranco Zola and Bobby Tambling. A nice touch.

On seven minutes, I began clapping in memory of Ian Britton, but I was seemingly alone.

I thought we had moments, little pockets, in the first-half, but Manchester City looked more dangerous. The free-spirited runs of Kevin De Bruyne and the fat-arsed Lesbian Samir Nasri caused us anxiety every time they broke. It was, incidentally, nice to see De Bruyne getting applauded as he walked over to take a corner within the first few minutes of the game, and to see him reciprocate. To reiterate, this is something Chelsea fans simply do not get enough credit for. Last season, Lampard, this season De Bruyne. It goes on.

We were unlucky to see Pedro’s shot slammed off the line by Otamendi, but further chances were rare as the first-half developed. Rueben Loftus-Cheek showed moments of good control and penetration, but elsewhere we found it hard-going.

Courtois did ever so well to thwart De Bruyne.

Still no smile though.

After a little cat and mouse, sadly some defensive frailties allowed Sergio Aguero to pounce on a De Bruyne cross.

City, in a horrific Stabilus lime kit, were 1-0 up.

At the break, I commented to near neighbour Dane “we’re not out of it.”

Tellingly, Dane replied “not yet, no.”

The game was over – and our second successive league defeat – just ten minutes in to the second half when another break caught us out. This time, Nasri played in that man Aguero, who never looked like missing.

He didn’t.

2-0, bollocks.

The game then died, and the atmosphere – which had never been great – died with it.

Up in the lofty heights of the West Upper, Joni was furious :

“Biggest problem I have is that I hear City fans. Not ours. What’s with that?”

Well, I think it is pretty standard across the board these days, no matter where you go. Quiet home fans, noisy away fans.

The second-half wearily continued with only rare moments of passion or fight.

A spirited run from Pedro.

A series of blocks by Mikel.

But, it was a sad old game.

With ten minutes remaining, Fernandinho raced through and was blocked by Courtois. A red card followed, and that man Aguero calmly slotted home the penalty past Asmir Begovic.

Chelsea 0 Manchester City 3.

Ugh.

This mess of a season continues and although I plan to attend the remaining five games, it will not be fondly remembered. Already, I am looking towards the future.

Vienna. Season 2016/2017. Game One.

It can’t come quick enough.

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Tales From A Heavy Loss And A Heavy Win

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 2 April 2016.

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I sometimes wonder what on Earth I am going to find to write about in these match reports, which now number over four hundred. What story? What angle? What back-story? With an upcoming game at Villa Park coming up, after a two-week break, I began thinking about possible subject matter. I was tempted to head off on a tangent and rant about my growing dissatisfaction with the way that certain parts of the football world is headed. I thought about several options. I was going to quote a few words from the recent edition of “When Saturday Comes” about the sense of a shared footballing history that people of my generation have, but does not seem to be prevalent today. And then, late on Wednesday evening, I spotted something on “Facebook” that turned my thought-processes upside down. I read that Ian Britton, one of my favourite all-time players – who I knew was battling prostate cancer – was in a poor way. The next few words struck me down.

“He’s not got very long.”

Oh my. How very sad. Thoughts whirled around in my head, and I must admit that there were a few tears. I braced myself for some imminently sadder news.

The very next day, the last day of March, we all learned that Ian Britton had passed away.

As we all get older, and as we all advance in years, it is an unavoidable truth that more of our idols, our peers, our friends, our close family members will pass.

In my time as a Chelsea supporter, I can remember the sadness of the Matthew Harding tragedy in October 1996 and the sudden death of Peter Osgood in March 2006. Of course, other players – and just as importantly fellow fans – have passed away too. It was only in November that we lost Tom, who sat next to us from 1997.

But the sadness that I felt on hearing that Ian Britton had died was as deep as any Chelsea loss. This one felt very personal. It hit me sideways.

It brought back memories of my childhood, when I was Chelsea daft, and doted on players. They were my absolute idols and my heroes. I can remember the very first time that Ian Britton came in to my consciousness. During the 1973/1974 season, I used to get “Shoot!” magazine and would always hope that there would be Chelsea players featured. One week, there was an article about two young Scottish youngsters – Ian Britton of Chelsea and Jim Cannon of Crystal Palace – finding their feet in the English game. I cut the article out and stuck it with drawing pins on the wall beside my bed, along with other Chelsea photographs. There was something about the photograph of the cheeky grin of the nineteen-year-old from Dundee that struck a chord. Those early recollections are slightly hazy. Ian’s debut had been against Derby County in December 1972, and although I have recently seen footage from that game, which involved a sparkling goal from Peter Osgood and a horrific miss from Derby’s Roger Davies, which I can remember, I have no recollection of Ian Britton’s substitute appearance.

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In truth, it took me a while for Ian Britton to become a common name. The fact of the matter is that in those days, my only exposure to Chelsea Football Club was via rare highlights on TV – when Ian would not always appear – and magazines such as “Shoot!” In my grandparents’ “Sunday Express” not every Chelsea game was featured since we ended up with the West of England edition, focussing on the Bristol teams and Plymouth Argyle.

Living in Somerset, I was in the Chelsea wilderness.

So, that “Shoot!” article proved totemic. As the 1972/1973 season gave way to the 1973/1974 season, I guess I became more and more aware of the young lad from Dundee, only five feet five inches tall, and with his trademark hair, and as my first Chelsea hero Peter Osgood departed early in 1974, I surely hoped that Ian Britton would play in my very first game in March 1974. Alas, he didn’t. At the start of the 1974/1975 season, Ian Britton was now my personal favourite. Again, he didn’t play in my next game against Tottenham, but I was very happy to see him play in my third-ever game against Derby County on a wet Saturday in March 1975.

Alas we lost 2-1, but I was excited to have seen my new favourite play.

The relegation team of 1974/1975 stalled in the Second Division in 1975/1976 but Ian was now a regular. I can remember being on holiday in Wareham, Dorset in August 1975 and being horrified to read on the back page of a Sunday tabloid that Manchester United were putting in a £600,000 joint bid for “starlets” Ray Wilkins and Ian Britton. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

In 1976/1977, Ian was a star as we took the Second Division by storm and gained promotion behind Wolves. I remember being upset – “gutted” in modern parlance – that Ian didn’t play in two of the three matches that I saw that season.

He was such an energetic and honest player. I loved his work rate and his attitude. He played wide, and had a lovely pass. He scored his fair share of goals. He was always so neat and tidy. For such a small player, he scored a fair few headers. I remember how giddy I was hearing him speak – yeah, I know, we were all football daft at one stage – on “The Big Match”, answering questions from Brian Moore about an Achilles injury.

He played through another relegation, then starred in 1979/1980 as we came so close to automatic promotion. I was so thrilled to see Ian score a match winner against Orient in March of that season, watching in the East Lower alongside my parents.

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As we became mired in the Second Division, other players caught my eye…Clive Walker, Mike Fillery…but Ian Britton was still a favourite. I last saw him play against Wrexham in October 1981. He left us in 1982 after 263 games in royal blue and signed for his childhood team – which I knew from that “Shoot” article in 1974 – of Dundee United. At that time, Dundee United had signed a few former Chelsea players – Peter Bonetti, Eamonn Bannon, Jim Docherty – and they became my Scottish team. While Chelsea were battling relegation to the old Third Division over Easter and then in to May of 1983, I was exhilarated to watch from afar as Dundee United won the Scottish Championship for the only time in their history.

It felt just right that Ian Britton had played a part. He played a couple of games for Arbroath, then played 106 games for Blackpool before finishing his career at Burnley, playing 108 games. At Turf Moor, he became a Burnley legend.

In 1986/1987, the Football League decided to move on from the much derided voting system for admitting non-league teams in to the league, and on the final day of the season, Burnley – Football League Champions in 1960 – were facing the prospect of being the first club to be automatically relegated from the league. Ian Britton scored – with a header – as Burnley overcame promotion hopefuls Orient. Burnley went 2-0 up with his goal, but let Orient back in at 2-1. History books will show that it was Ian Britton’s goal which kept Burnley safe.

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I can well remember seeing a huge photograph of Ian Britton from that game in 1987 as part of a mural on the main stand as I visited Turf Moor for the very first time in 2010. During that game, Ian made the half-time draw and he waved over to us, with that endearing cheeky smile of his. We responded with a chant from the ‘seventies –

“Ian – Ian Britton – Ian Britton on the wing.”

Later in 2010, I travelled down to Eastleigh with my mother to watch a Southampton Old Boys team take on the Chelsea Old Boys. Not only did I see Ian Britton play one last time, I also got to meet him for the very first time in the bar afterwards, and I do not mind admitting that I was uncomfortably giddy – for a forty-four-year-old man – as I chatted to Ian for a few moments. It was one of my Chelsea highlights. I found him to be very friendly and I really appreciated that he called me “Chris.” It meant a lot. That he was so personable. It was a lovely memory to take away from that day. I mentioned Dundee United. It was a lovely few moments.

As the sad news swept around the Chelsea family on Thursday and Friday, one thing became clear.

Nobody ever had a bad word to say about Ian Britton.

I made a vow to try to attend his funeral, even if it would mean that I would only stand outside the church or crematorium. These players – these special players, these special people – touch our lives in ways that people outside the football world can only vaguely understand.

So, with all of this Burnley claret and blue flowing around in my thoughts, I drove to Villa Park and was met with more of the same.

There was not a great deal of enthusiasm for this game with the doomed Villains. As Parky and Young Jake – his first game this year, his first trip to Villa Park – dropped in to the Witton Arms, I had decided upon a different pre-match. I have been visiting Villa Park since my first game in 1986, but for some reason I had yet to take a look at the nearby seventeenth century Aston Hall, which sits on a small hill overlooking Villa Park, and is but a ten-minute walk away. With Aston Villa’s future looking rather bleak, I wondered if this would be my last visit for a few seasons. It was high-time I paid a visit, however fleeting.

Whereas it might be debated about Aston Villa being a big club, despite their rich history, there is no doubt that Villa Park is a grand dame of English football stadia. There is red brick everywhere at Villa Park. On the walk to the away turnstiles on Witton Lane, I passed an old tramway shed, with another red brick building opposite. As I walked past the bleak concrete of the North Stand – which housed our support in the 2002 semi against Fulham – I was struck with how much room Villa have behind that goal. Should they ever wish to expand, unlikely at the moment, they could build a huge stand at that end, perhaps mirroring the huge Holte End to the south. When it was built, the Villa North Stand was the latest in modernity with its darkened executive boxes. At the time of my first visit, Villa Park was a very piecemeal stadium. The low Witton Lane, the huge Holte End terrace, the classic and ornate Trinity Road, the ultra-modern North Stand. Since then, all three stands have been altered and the North Stand is now the antique. Although there was an outcry from Villa fans when the unique Trinity Stand was bulldozed, at least Villa have kept the red-brick motif in the new builds.

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Back in 1991, when this photograph was taken, who new how the Taylor Report would systematically change how people thought about new stadia? Out with terraces, in with seats and executive areas. The charming Trinity Road entrance did not stand a chance.

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Ah, 1991. This was our last game of the season and I had traveled up by train for the game. It was memorable for being Bobby Campbell’s last game in charge. It had been another season of underachievement but the Chelsea hordes were going to make a day of it. I took my position in on the terraces, which had been recently seated. I remember seeing white socks again for the first time in six long years and hoping that this would be repeated in 1991/1992. The old Trinity Road Stand – with those lovely curved balconies – really was a treasure.

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At the end of the game, which we drew 2-2, a few Villa rapscallions raced on to the pitch, but Chelsea – there in huge numbers – soon chased them off. At the height of the rave culture, the pitch was awash with baggy Joe Bloggs jeans, Chipie sweatshirts, baggy pullovers and Umbro Chelsea shirts. Bobby Campbell, ironically I felt, was chaired off. It was a crazy day.

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The entrance to the Holte End brought back memories of our 1996 semi-final against United, when the Chelsea fans descended on Villa Park with balloons and banners and – in fact – I had not visited this south side of the stadium since. The steps, the stained-glass windows and the gables bow their heads in a nod towards the old Trinity Road stand.

Up the hill, and outside Aston Hall – a lovely structure built between 1618 and 1635 – I was able to take it all in. It really was a fine view, a gracious Villa vista. Aston Hall is constructed of red brick too. Everything blends in so well. I will no doubt be taking an increasing interest in various types of bricks over the next few seasons, on visiting stadia near and far, since our new proposed stadium is said to be using particular London brick – various shades, but generally a warm yellow – on all of its outside surfaces. I could not help notice that I have been approaching mighty Villa Park from completely the wrong direction in all of these years. For ease of access to the M5, I park to the north and head in past terraced streets and shops. It’s all rather tawdry. From the south, however, with Aston Hall and its pleasant park to the left, and with the Edwardian splendour of the large Holte pub ahead, Villa Park looks fearsome and yet aesthetically pleasing at the same time. It is just a shame that acres of ugly grey cladding blot the stand roofs.

But I think the new Stamford Bridge will be fine. No cladding there.

I sorted out some tickets outside the away turnstiles. As kick-off approached, I spotted Peter Bonetti over the road, looking good at seventy-four bless him. The troops arrived and we ascended the steps.

Last season, I missed our narrow win at Villa Park as my mother had been taken ill that morning. There was an air of melancholy inside me. There were haunting thoughts of that particular day. I remembered how my mother’s father had a soft spot for Villa, though I am sure that he had never visited Villa Park.

Villa Park was hardly half-full. Sure, we had sold our three thousand tickets, but elsewhere there were thousands of claret and sky blue seats clearly visible. I know their team are going through a really rough spell, mismanaged from board level down, but even so. The poor crowd really shocked me. I am sure that the advertised gate of 31,120 included thousands of “no shows.”

Guus Hiddink, I am sure, surprised many with his team selection. At last the kids, were being given their chance to shine. A Chelsea debut was given to the American Matt Miazga. I envisioned the Chelsea chatter boards among the various supporter groups in the US going into meltdown.

“Awesome” – Nate, New Jersey.

“Awesome” – Ian, Idaho.

“Awesome” – Calvin, California.

“Way To Go” – Grant, Georgia.

“Awesome” – Micky, Minnesota.

“Awesome” – Phil, Pennsylvania.

“Awesome” – Bubba, ‘Bama.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Miazga, Baba – Mikel, Fabregas – Pedro, Loftus-Cheek, Kenedy – Remy.

Scott Sinclair did not even make the Villa starting eleven. What a waste of a once promising career. I wonder if I will eventually see him playing alongside his brother Jake for my local team Frome Town.

The morning rain had stopped and the pitch was soon bathed in sunshine. Villa, heaven knows how, tested Thibaut with a few efforts, but we soon got in to a groove. Pedro, looking our liveliest player, tested Guzan then was offside soon after.

An injured Loic Remy was substituted by the forgotten man Alexandre Pato. The appearance of the Brazilian instilled a little life into the rather subdued Chelsea support. There was a little ironic cheering. I was just intrigued to see what he had to give the team.

Soon after, a lovely move gave us the lead; Mikel kept possession well and released Azpilicueta, who played in Loftus-Cheek. His low shot swept pass Guzan. Mikel’s fine play soon warranted his own chant from the travelling hordes.

A bizarre chance for Villa next, when Courtois saved from Gill, and then again as the ball bounced back off Ayew. Villa then kept their momentum going, but our defence coped well, with Miazga only rarely out of position. Baba drove in on goal but shot weakly. Kenedy promised much but, like Pedro at times, chose to either hang on to the ball or slipped on the wet surface.

Pato was bundled to the ground and the referee had no option but to give us a penalty.

Fair play to Pato for having the balls to step up and take it. His strong shot evaded the ‘keeper’s dive. He looked overjoyed as he ran away, jumping in the air in front of the half-empty Holte End.

The Chelsea support had an easy response to this :

“We were there when Pato scored.”

Awesome.

At the break, Oscar replaced Kenedy. We soon broke down the Villa left and Pato played in Oscar, who slid the ball to Pedro. It was a very fine goal. Gary remarked to Alan that it was very similar to Frank’s record breaker in 2013.

Villa, it has to be said, were bloody awful by now. They were demoralised and pathetic.

Their fans, those in the stadium, seemed to be a mixture of anger and disconsolation. Throughout, they bellowed “Villa Till I Die” – almost as if they were warming up for The Championship, since it is a proper Championship song, bellowed by the likes of Barnsley and Derby and Forest for years – and the Chelsea fans, to my surprise to be honest, applauded them.

Alan wondered if there would be a protest.

“Maybe they will stage a walk-in on seventy minutes.”

Ha.

Joleon Lescott was the target for much of the Villa fans’ ire, in light of a horrible piece of gloating a while back.

“Joleon Lescott – he’s got a new car.”

I piped up –

“Joleon Lescott – he wants a new face.”

Pato forced a save from Guzan, but Pedro slotted home from the tightest of angles. His kung-fu kick on the corner flag showed how excited he was. Who says our players do not care?

4-0 and I hoped for more. There was still half an hour to go.

The Chelsea crowd bellowed “catch the ball” to Courtois after he flapped at a high ball and I noted a rising air of disquiet among our ranks about our young ‘keeper’s attentiveness. I have noticed it too, of late. Too often he seems to resemble a fielder at third man, idling by his time thinking about tea, rather than being on his toes in the slips.

This was becoming an odd game though. Villa were so poor. And rather than push on, we seemed to be happy to play within ourselves. Another debutant, Jake Clarke-Salter, came on for Baba, who was pushed forward. He went close as the game dragged on.

Villa fans held up small placards with the words “Proud History, What Future?” but they honestly looked like white flags.

Alan Hutton was dismissed for a second yellow.

It was not Villa’s day or season.

Miazga had looked competent all game and Pato showed a neatness which I found gratifying. Elsewhere, Loftus-Cheek put in a sound performance. And Pedro too.

As I drove away, I didn’t take too much comfort in our win. A four goal triumph surely should have elicited greater joy?

No. It was only Villa.

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Tales From The Coach And Horses

Norwich City vs. Chelsea : 1 March 2016.

I can well remember being at work on the afternoon of Wednesday 1 March 2006 and opening up an email from my friend Daryl. In a brief sentence, he had written that Peter Osgood – my childhood hero – had been taken very ill at a family funeral in Slough, close to his native Windsor. Other emails and texts from close friends quickly followed. Within a very short space of time, my head began spinning as I tried to take in this horrible news. I remember one friend, Andy I think, commenting “it doesn’t look good.” That one phrase sent me reeling. I very soon feared the worst. My mind suddenly began preparing my body for some sad news. The announcement quickly followed.

Peter Osgood was dead.

He was only 59 years old.

There was a horrid sense of loss. It seemed to be so unfair. He was taken from us at a relatively young age. For a whole generation of Chelsea supporters, although the mid-‘sixties to early-‘seventies team was crammed full of fan favourites, there was only one Ossie. For me, like thousands of others, in the school playground, when I played football among mates, I was Peter Osgood. I had the number nine on my shirt. My mother had sewn a “home-made” number nine on my shorts to match. He was everything to me and many others.

Losing Ossie hurt so much.

That evening at Anfield, England played Uruguay in a friendly and there was a minute’s silence for Peter Osgood and also former England manager Ron Greenwood, who had died a few weeks earlier. Fittingly Joe Cole scored a last minute-winner.

The Chelsea community soon came together to remember Peter Osgood. There were emotional eulogies and resonating testimonials to one of our most cherished and admired footballers. On the following Saturday, I was so grateful that I was going to our away game at West Brom (I only went to half the aways in that season, so my attendance wasn’t guaranteed) so that I could grieve among friends. Before the game, we held up black and white photographs from 1970, and there was another minute of silence.

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Our next game was against Tottenham, and I wanted to honour Peter Osgood in my own way. I spent many hours producing a banner of Ossie’s face, based on that classic photograph of him at the Mitcham training ground in around 1972/1973. A few friends and myself posed with it in the beer garden of The Goose, before I unfurled it during the minute of applause for him before the game.

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William Gallas’ thunderbolt in the last minute sent us all delirious that afternoon. It was such an emotional day, and certainly a fitting send-off for our much-loved idol.

I was also proud and privileged to attend the memorial service at Stamford Bridge on Sunday 1 October, when around one thousand Chelsea supporters watched from The Shed as Peter Osgood’s ashes were laid to rest under the penalty spot. It was a very classy affair, fit for The King. The service was attended by Chelsea Pensioners and Grenadier Guards. Peter Kenyon, Ron Harris, Tommy Docherty and Peter Bonetti spoke of their former friend and colleague. It was a blustery and rainy day, and everyone there will remember how the sun shone just as the ashes were laid to rest.

In 2007, I took my Peter Osgood banner on tour in the USA, but after a long session after a game against Club America in Palo Alto, I carelessly lost it. I was dumbstruck with sadness when I woke up in my motel room, and realised that my pride and joy was missing. I had presumed that I had left it in a cab. I was gutted. Imagine my surprise when Mike, who runs the New York Blues, presented it to me at a baseball game in San Diego a few days later. I had evidently just left it pinned to a wall in the “Rose & Crown.” I thanked Mike, shrugged, and said :

“I guess that Ossie just didn’t want to leave the pub.”

Ten years on, these memories were recalled as our away game at Carrow Road drew near. As fate would have it, the tenth anniversary of Peter Osgood’s passing would coincide with a match against one of his former teams. In 1976/1977, Ossie played three times for Norwich City in the top flight, on loan from Southampton, who were alongside us in the Second Division.

And I had decided to mark the occasion by taking along my Peter Osgood banner too.

This was our second away game in just four days, and four of us had decided to make a trip out of it, due the long distances involved. I had booked a hotel near the stadium and I was really relishing the chance to relax and unwind in the fine Norfolk city. I would be treating it as a mini-Euro Away, but without time-differences, tear gas and Toblerones.

I collected PD as early as eight ‘clock and Parky soon after. The drive to Norwich, nine counties away, was just a few miles shy of 250 miles in length. And although league points were at stake, a lot of my thoughts were focused on Peter Osgood as I drove east through horrible driving conditions.

At around 10.30pm, my car slowly edged past Windsor and Slough.

I made slow progress around the M25 – constant rain, hideous – but then the weather brightened up just as the first road sign for Norwich came in to view as we exited the M11. I was able to relax further, and I enjoyed driving on the relatively-newly improved A11. It was a lovely road in fact. Norwich was in our sights, the music was blaring, and we were nearing the end of a five-and-a-half-hour drive.

At 1.30pm, we were parked up outside our hotel, and a few minutes later we joined up with Dave, the fourth member of the day’s Away Club, in a boozer just over the road called “The Coach & Horses.” Pints were quickly demolished, and a few Chelsea pals joined us. This was not planned, but the train station was only five minutes away. Within thirty minutes or so, it was plainly obvious that the pub would be one of the main Chelsea boozers of the day.

Via a tip-off from a mate, who had heard on the Chelsea grapevine that a few PSG tickets were back on sale, Dave was able to quickly call the box office and order a couple.

Job done.

The idea, originally, was to head off up the hill in to the centre of the city on a little pub crawl of our own, but we had heard rumours that many pubs, like at Southampton on Saturday, were for home fans only. We decided to cut our losses and stay put.

“Another San Miguel, please.”

We stood at the bar and chatted away, welcoming friends from near and far. The place became rammed. And yet the game seemed hours away.

I briefly chatted to Callum, who had taken the notion of marking the ten-year anniversary of Peter Osgood’s passing to the next level. He had brought along three five metre banners, spelling out “Ossie The King”, but was a little concerned about smuggling them in to the stadium. I wished him well.

I chatted to Tom.

“Terrible drive up, Tom. Horrible conditions. Wet, spray, and that was just inside the car.”

The only surprise was that none of the local constabulary, nor the fine upstanding gentlemen of the Fulham OB, had called to visit. Nobody within the pub was looking for trouble, for sure, and there was a lovely relaxed feel, but you might expect the police to call by, especially since it was only a ten-minute walk to Carrow Road. Hardly anyone was wearing Chelsea colours of course. On away days such as these, when it is all about blending in and not making a scene, I always wonder about the sanity of others – few in number to be fair – who smother themselves in Chelsea regalia, then wonder why they are not allowed in to pubs and, on very rare occasions these days, get the occasional “slap” from a wannabee hoodlum from the host city.

“Another San Miguel, please.”

Amid the banter and laughter, Peter Osgood filtered through my thoughts. Everyone has an Ossie story, and it has been wonderful reading about some of his escapades the past few days. I always remember a story that he told at an evening in Warminster in around 1997. Peter was in great form that night and this one story is not often shared. It went something like this.

“I was an Arsenal fan as a boy, to be fair, and when I was around fifteen I was playing for a team in my home town of Windsor called Spittal’s Old Boys. One day I had heard that Chelsea had sent a chap down, a scout, to watch me play, but I had already played a full game in the morning. I ended up only playing a half. I scored a couple. I thought I had done OK, but maybe not enough to impress the Chelsea representative. Believe it or not, ladies and gentlemen, he had been impressed with what he had seen, and had decided to sign me up for Chelsea there and then. Well, this was fantastic. Only half a game, and I was going to Chelsea. Fantastic.”

There was a pause, and I had an idea there would be a punchline.

“So, that just goes to show how easy it was, in those days, to sign for Tottenham.”

The crowd erupted in laughter. Nice one Os.

The pints were flowing, and the clock behind the bar appeared to be standing still. More fans arrived. We could hardly move. Laugh after laugh, pint after pint. Eventually, the time passed and it was time to move on. It was around 6.45pm.

We walked down to Carrow Road which sits alongside the River Wensum underneath a bluff of higher land to the west. There was a nod to a few familiar faces outside and then the bag check.

Camera – in.

Ossie flag – in.

Thankfully, inside, I soon saw that Callum had successfully smuggled the three large flags in.

PD appeared.

“Pint Chris?”

We were in our seats, nearer the front than usual, with time to spare, but Alan and Gary – who were travelling up on the official club coaches – were not in.

With kick-off approaching, the Peter Osgood flags were unwrapped and hoisted above heads.

“OSSIE

THE

KING”

It was time to unwrap my banner. Parky and myself easily persuaded our neighbours to hold it aloft, taught in the Norfolk air, for a few minutes.

I was more than happy. Job done.

Peter Osgood : RIP

The teams entered the pitch, and amidst the frantic folding of my banner, sorting out my camera for the ensuing game, thanking those around me and answering texts from friends in the USA that had seen my flag on TV, I unfortunately missed our opening goal.

Bloody typical.

The cheers of the Chelsea faithful were a heartening sound. Such an early goal – Kenedy, shot – was just what we had needed in our quest for three points and – whisper it – the heady heights of eighth place should we be successful.

Guus Hiddink had surprised a few people by including Kenedy and also Bertrand Traore. I was also a little surprised that Nemanja Matic had been recalled too.

As the game continued, the text messages kept rolling in. We live in such a small world these days. I was soon showing a young lad in front a video clip of the flag which was sent to me from Pablo in Pennsylvania.

Fantastic stuff.

Alan and Gary appeared, ten minutes in, having been delayed on their coach, thus missing the banners and, most importantly, the goal.

They were fuming, and quite rightly.

On the pitch, we occasionally played some nice football, with Eden Hazard involved in some attacks at the Norwich defence. Traore was involved too. In the stands, the Chelsea support was not setting the world alight. It was as if the long distances involved in getting to the game had made us tired and weary. A free-kick from Cesc Fabregas, and Ruddy – in pink – saved well. Just before the break, Traore played the ball in to Diego Costa, who carefully flicked the ball over Mr. Pink.

2-0, you beauty.

Game over?

Not a bit of it.

Norwich began the livelier in the second-half and journeyman Cameron Jerome had two early chances to score. His second effort flew off the top of the bar. The warning signs were there and the Chelsea support grew edgier.

The manager replaced Traore and Oscar with Mikel and Willian.

Shortly after a well-worked goal cut through our defence and Nathan Redmond firmly struck past the man in black, Thibaut Courtois.

2-1 and the game, sadly, was back on.

With the last quarter approaching, the Chelsea support grew even more agitated.

Baba replaced Kenedy.

Chances were at a premium, especially at our end, where there was a little banter between both sets of fans. An old favourite from 2005 was aired.

“We’ve got Abramovich, you’ve got a drunken bitch.”

Fabregas came close. We attacked with a little more conviction. Matic headed over from a Willian corner. Then Diego raced at the nervous Norwich defence, showing the guile and tenacity of last season, but his efforts were thwarted.

Some had to leave the game early to catch the 10pm train to London.

The nerves were jangling.

“Come on Chels!”

Norwich threatened again.

“Fackinblowupref.”

Relief at the final whistle, and knowing looks from everyone.

Phew.

Up to the giddy heights of eighth place.

Phew again.

This had been a rough and tumble affair, and reminded me a little of our more – what word can I use? – pragmatic performances of the latter part of last season. But, as we headed back to the centre of the pleasant city for a fine Chinese meal, we were just so grateful for three points. It had been an increasingly nervy affair and we agreed that the support was a little “off” too. It was an altogether odd evening on the banks of the Wensum. And how we would have loved to have seen a little more of the wonderful qualities of someone like Peter Osgood on show.

Bless him.

 

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Tales From St. Mary’s

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 27 February 2016.

I should dislike Southampton Football Club a lot more than I do. When I was a mere eight-year-old boy, they stole my childhood hero Peter Osgood away from Stamford Bridge a mere couple of weeks before my very first Chelsea match.

That is reason enough to carry a lifetime of dislike for them – hatred would, of course, be far too strong – surely?

Looking back at this event some forty-two years later, although I can well remember the sense of pain that I felt at the time, my memories are rather sketchy, not surprisingly. But here are the facts :

My first ever Chelsea game was on Saturday 16 March 1974. Peter Osgood’s last ever Chelsea game was on Saturday 29 December 1973, although he appeared in a friendly at Aberdeen on Friday 16 February 1974.

He left Chelsea a couple of weeks before my first-ever game.

How cruel.

In those formative years of my fledgling support for Chelsea, Peter Osgood was my favourite player, my hero and my idol. He was our charismatic goal scorer and the focus of my adoration. I’ve told the story before of how some family friends, who worked alongside Peter Osgood’s sister Mandy at an office in Windsor, managed to obtain a signed 8” by 10” black and white photograph of Ossie in around 1971 or 1972, and that the excitement of opening up that brown buff envelope containing the photograph was one of the most wonderful moments of my childhood. I still have the autograph of course. It is a treasured memento to this day. Incidentally, I recently spotted a photograph of Ossie’s sister Mandy planting an oak tree in a park in Windsor in memory of her brother, and it brought my childhood memories racing back.

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I once spoke to Peter Osgood about the signed photograph and he explained that Mandy was a fine footballer in her own right, and an England international to boot. He laughed when I suggested that she used to sport a fine pair of sideburns, too.

But in 1974, Southampton – and Peter Osgood – broke my heart.

I can vaguely remember the stories in the ‘papers and on the TV about the infamous fall out between our manager David Sexton, and a few of our star players – most notably Alan Hudson and Peter Osgood – and as the day of my first ever game approached, there was this horrible gnawing realisation that I would not be seeing Ossie play. Hudson’s last game for Chelsea was also against Liverpool in December 1973, and he was sold to Stoke City in the first few weeks of 1974. The 1970 and 1971 cup winning team was falling apart in front of my eyes, and – to my sadness – my hero Peter Osgood would be the next to leave. There are hints of an olive branch being pointed towards Ossie with his appearance in the Aberdeen friendly at Pittodrie and possibly a chance of reconciliation, but my idol was sold to Southampton for £275,000 in the first few days of March 1974.

I would never see Ossie play for Chelsea.

Although Chelsea’s 1973/1974 was far from impressive – we only just staved off relegation – it is with a certain amount of melancholy that I note that Ossie’s new club were duly relegated in the May. I am sure that this must have been a huge blow to Ossie, and I am sure that he wistfully looked on as Chelsea stayed up. With a cruel twist, I saw him play against us in March 1976 in a Second Division game, and can sadly remember the furore in the media about The Shed chanting an unsavoury song towards our former hero, and Ossie “flicking some Vs” back at them.

It wasn’t meant to be like this.

When Ossie returned for some games in 1979, our paths sadly never crossed, and his time as a Chelsea player ended with me never seeing him play in our club colours.

It is one of the few regrets that I have as a Chelsea supporter.

As we approached the tenth anniversary of Peter Osgood’s sad passing, how fitting that the Premier League fixture list should pair Southampton and Chelsea together.

For the first-ever time, we had decided to take the train to Southampton. The four of us – Parky, PD, Glenn and myself – met up at Westbury station and caught the 9.01am train down to Southampton Central. Other local blues Les and Graham were on the train too. Opposite us were four Bristolian Chelsea supporters. Throughout the day, we would bump in to many West Country Blues. It is one of the nicest attributes of Chelsea fans that Londoners very rarely take umbrage to Chelsea fans coming from other areas, unlike a couple of Northern teams that I could mention.

Soon into the trip, through rolling countryside, and then the spired city of Salisbury, Parky and PD opened up a couple of cans. I was just happy to share a few laughs as the day unfolded. It was time for me to relax. Leaving work on Friday, I was able to look forward to two fine away games within the space of just four days.

We rolled in to Southampton, breakfasted at a local café, and then joined up with many familiar Chelsea fans in “Yates’s” in the city centre. I am not particularly smitten with Southampton. Right outside the train station, there are a couple of brutal concrete tower blocks, more akin to those on show in the former communist cities of Eastern Europe, which hardly create a welcoming impression. The civic buildings and the Guildhall are fine, but the city centre seems jumbled.

As I worked my way through six pints of San Miguel, such matters disappeared from my mind.

I was able to relax, to chill out, to unwind.

It was important for me to just sit upstairs with Glenn, chatting and relaxing, rather than join in with others in the crowded ground floor, packed to the rafters, and scene of a Chelsea karaoke.

On the previous day, I had silently marked the first anniversary of my mother’s passing by taking some flowers to my parents’ grave, and I was in no mood for too much ribaldry before the game.

I remembered the time in 1981, when my mother and I watched a Southampton vs. Nottingham Forest game from the lower tier of the cramped bench seats in the East Stand at The Dell, lured by the chance to see another hero of my youth, Kevin Keegan, when a work colleague of my father gave us their two season tickets for the day.

Outside the weather looked cold. There seemed to be a biting wind. More than a few of the local police force were watching us. Only two of the central pubs allow away fans.

“Yates’s” was heaving. The lagers were going down well. Good times.

On the walk to St. Mary’s, I joked with Mick that it was lovely to see him holding hands with Pauline.

“It’s not romantic, Chris. I just needed to prise her out of the pub.”

We laughed.

St. Mary’s, positioned next to the River Itchen to the east, but hemmed in by industrial units to the south and two rusty gasometers to the north, is a rather bland stadium. It is no Dell.

There was not a lot of time to spare and I joined up with Alan and Gary in our seats just in time.

All of a sudden, among the beers, and the laughter and the song, it was time to pay attention to the actual match. Guus Hiddink, quietly going about his business and without the squealing histrionics of our previous manager, had chosen the same starting eleven that had defeated Manchester City the previous weekend. In the home team were former blues Ryan Bertrand and Oriel Romeu, both involved to varying degrees on a certain night in Munich in May 2012.

Southampton, winners at The Bridge earlier in the season, and finding their feet again under Ronald Koeman would be a tough proposition.

The Chelsea support, rising up from the darkened concourse in to the light of the stadium, were in fine voice from the start. However, an early injury to Pedro – improving of late – caused Hiddink to reconfigure. On came Oscar.

Chelsea seemed to control much of the possession during a rather tame first-half, yet Southampton were able to carve out the clearer goal scoring chances.

Thibaut Courtois seemed to be a little unsure of himself on a couple of occasions, and dithered once too often for my liking. Shane Long, the journeyman striker, headed over with our ‘keeper stranded. At the other end, the masked marksman Diego Costa went close. Southampton just seemed a little more dynamic in the final third. Whereas we passed the ball without a lot of purpose, the Saints seemed more clinical. Charlie Austin, the steal of the season, struck a firm shot past our post.

Sadly, on forty-two minutes, two defensive blunders resulted in us conceding. A high ball was weakly headed square by Baba Rahman, and Shane Long pounced. His rather heavy touch seemed, to my eyes, to be within reach of Courtois to race out and clear, but the tall Belgian seemed to react slowly. As he raced off his line, Long delicately clipped it in.

Our ten game unbeaten run in the league was under threat against a capable Southampton team. Our attempts on goal were minimal. It was a deserved lead for the home team at the break. At the interval, the ruthless Hiddink replaced Baba with Kenedy.

We slowly improved. Cheered on by the loyal three thousand, who have taken to singing about Frankie Lampard’s goal against West Ham in 2013 with ever-increasing zeal, we began stretching the Saints’ defence.

Mikel headed over.

Diego volleyed wide.

I said to Gary : “Although we have players in wide positions, we don’t really have wingers any more.”

A few tackles resulted in Martin Atkinson brandishing some yellows. Diego Costa looked like a man “in the mood” and some of his industry seemed to inspire others.

At the other end, a rare Southampton attack ended with a robust challenge on Austin by Cahill. From my position some one hundred yards away, it was clearly not a penalty.

Cough, cough.

Eden Hazard, finding pockets of space, played the ball out to a rampaging Diego Costa. He managed to pull the ball back to Cesc Fabregas, who advanced. He played the ball – almost lazily – in to the box, and I was right behind the course of the ball as it avoided a lunge by Hazard and a late reaction by Forster. It nestled inside the net and the Chelsea support screamed.

What a strange, odd, easy goal.

It had was a fine reward for our increasing urgency in the last portion of the game.

In the eighty-ninth minute, we won a corner and Willian – often unable to get his corners past the first man – sent over a fine ball with pace. The warhorse Ivanovic timed his jump to perfection and his thundering header crashed down past Forster.

Get in.

The Chelsea support again screamed.

Hiddink shored things up with the late addition of Nemanja Matic, and the game was safe.

On a day of late goals, we were more than grateful to hear that Leicester City had grabbed an 89 minute winner of their own.

Get in.

There were songs as we walked back towards the train station. This doesn’t happen too often. It seemed to underline the new sense of belief and happiness within our ranks at the moment.

We had time to relax before catching the train home. There was time for two more pints, and a lovely assessment of our resurgence, not only in the last quarter of the game, but over the past few months.

Back in Frome, Glenn and myself finished off the day with a few more drinks, with more reflections on our fine time among good friends, and then, finally, a late night curry.

It had been a wonderful away day.

On Tuesday evening, we reassemble at the home of Norwich City, another of Peter Osgood’s clubs, and our most famous number nine will again be in our thoughts once more.

See you there.

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Tales From The Holy Land

Maccabi Tel Aviv vs. Chelsea : 24 November 2015.

This was a unique game for me. For the first ever time, I had decided to attend more than just one of the autumnal group phase away games. Until now, my forays in to foreign lands have been limited to one game before Christmas – due to financial constraints and annual leave limitations – but on the evening of the Champions League draw in August, I soon followed up an EasyJet booking to Porto with one to Tel Aviv.

Games like this do not come our way too often.

As the weeks passed, my sense of anticipation grew steadily, although there were several moments of self-doubt, too. I would be attending a game in Israel, a country which has had a history of internal strife with different factions inside its borders and external conflict with its immediate neighbours. Conversations took place with trusted friends – fellow travellers – and these issues were discussed. Yes, there were concerns, but at no point did I think about staying at home. Then came the events in Paris on the evening of Friday 13 November, and my mind became agitated with all sorts of worries for my safety. I am sure that I was not the only one. My worries, thankfully, slowly decreased again.

In the pub before the game with Norwich City at the weekend, my good friend Alan mentioned that he had booked himself on a day tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem for the day after the game. I quickly followed suit.

I was going to Israel. I was going to Tel Aviv, to Haifa, to Jerusalem, to Bethlehem.

This would surely be one of the trips of my lifetime.

Three days of work (Chelsea in Haifa), rest (the beaches of Tel Aviv) and play (the Holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem).

This would be one for the ages.

My trip to the Holy Land began in the small hours of Tuesday 23 November, the day of the game. I had booked myself on the 7am flight out of Luton, which would get me in to Ben Gurion airport at 2pm. This is not normal for me; I usually have a night in a foreign city to acclimatise, but I would be staying on after until Thursday evening to compensate. As I drove west through neighbouring counties, with the rain lashing down outside, all was surprisingly calm. I think that I was subconsciously trying to put my security and safety fears to one side. Thoughts flitted in and out of my mind.

I thought about our only ever previous trip to Israel, which came only a month or so after the awful attacks in the United States in the September of 2001. On that occasion, several first-team regulars chose not to fly to Israel, and came under considerable scrutiny. My view at the time was that I had great empathy with those who chose not to fly out. For the players that were husbands and fathers, I could understand why they felt they should not go. Marriages could have been threatened if a player and his wife disagreed on this. It was a tense time. Other Chelsea fans were not so forgiving. As far as I can recollect, a very small away contingent – around 150 – followed the team out for the game against Hapoel Tel Aviv, which we lost 2-0.

On a personal level, there was a story too.

My dear father, who I have often mentioned in these tales of my Chelsea life, was in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. Back in the celebrated 2011/2012 season, I managed to involve part of my father’s wartime history during two match reports. For the away game at Everton in the February of 2012, I wrote about my father’s training at RAF West Kirby on The Wirral at the very start of his RAF career. For the away game in Naples, just ten days later, I wrote about my father’s stay in Naples in 1944, when he was billeted at the San Carlo Opera House for six months. In the space of ten days, I had covered two landmark locations in my father’s wartime story. There were other locations that my father visited, including Algeria and Malta, but my father’s very first overseas posting was – yes, you have guessed it – in the city of Jerusalem in July 1944. Not for the first time in my Chelsea travels, I would be walking in my father’s footsteps.

Like myself, Dad was an avid photographer and as I look back on his life and the many wonderful memories that I can easily recollect, one of the biggest gifts that he has been able to provide me with is a small photograph album which contains an image of his squadron badge on the inside cover – Squadron 283 “Attende Et Vigila” – and around one hundred of his war time photographs, taken in locations as diverse as Maison Blanche in Algeria, Taormina in Sicily and Marseilles in France.

Prior to my departure to Israel, I easily hunted out this precious set of photographs and focussed on the ones at the very start of Dad’s story, when he was just twenty-one years of age.

The album contains fascinating photographs of the garden of Gethsemane, the Dome of the Rock, the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Rock, Arch of Ecce Homo, St. David’s Tower, the Wailing Wall, Via Dolorosa, Damascus Gate, the tomb of Jesus, the Temple area and a panoramic view of the whole city. Interestingly, also, there is a fabulous photograph of my father and his eventual best man Hank, sitting on the roof of the Abyssinian Consulate, in RAF regulation shorts, but bare-chested and seemingly enjoying the view, with their smiles wide.

There is also a single photograph of my father, with Hank and three other friends, at Hadera in the September of 1944. Hadera is near the cost, between Tel Aviv and Haifa and I therefore deducted that my father would have entered and exited Israel – or Palestine as it was called until 1948 – through the ancient port of Haifa.

By October 1944, the photographs were of Naples and my father had moved on.

One photograph among those mentioned piqued my interest.

Via Dolorosa.

Maybe because of the Italian sounding name. Maybe because it was a named street – in Dad’s pen, beneath the photograph – rather than just a “street in Jerusalem.”

It stayed in my mind.

At Luton Airport, I soon met up with Kev from Edinburgh, who was with us in Porto not so many weeks ago. He too had booked himself on to the tour of the holy cities on the Wednesday. It was around 5am on a cold winter morning in Bedfordshire, and we would soon be jetting off to a sunny city on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. However, both of us were suddenly a little confused and ill at ease.

“Why are we doing this?”

“I dunno mate.”

“Me neither.”

The flight lasted around four and a half hours. There were only a few fellow Chelsea supporters on the trip. We were greatly outnumbered by many orthodox Jews, in their distinctive black hats, skull caps, black jackets and white shirts, some travelling alone, some with their families. Here was proof that this would be a Chelsea away like no other. With my eyes getting tired, I was thankfully able to catch up on some sleep. We flew over Germany, Hungary and beyond. Refreshed, I was then also able to read sections of the guide book to Israel that I had bought a fortnight previously, but which had been untouched until now.

Of course, the book confirmed several thoughts about Israel. I was reminded of its complex and confusing political history. I tried to understand the geography. My guide book focussed on Israel, with only a minimal mention of the Palestinian lands of the West Bank and the infamous Gaza Strip. And then there was the religious aspect. If any city can claim to represent the cradle of religious beliefs it is Jerusalem. But as soon as I thought that I was getting to grips with a particular train of thought, the words on the page in front of me would flow away on some bizarre tangent and I would have to go back and re-read the section again. Many a moment was spent trying to understand the complexities of the Jewish religion. I was still trying to unravel the notion of the Jews as a race or a religion, or both, when I was met with the conundrum of secular Jews. And then there was the equally baffling notion that not all Arabs living in Israel were Muslim (only 83%, with 9% Christian and 8% Druze.) This was getting all too confusing, but made me all the more excited to think that I would soon be able to see all of this for myself. Then things got a little strange.

I looked up and noted that the chap in front of me was wearing a Manchester United skull cap. I sighed. Then I noted that the Jewish woman to my left was breastfeeding her infant.

There was a tit in front of me and now one to the left.

Oi vey.

I resumed a little sleep and woke with only an hour to go. The flight had zoomed by. At Ben Gurion airport, passport and custom checks were quick and easy. Kev and I hopped in to a waiting cab. We were on our way in to Tel Aviv. The immediate scenery did not look to dissimilar to a city in Southern Spain at first glance, with modern roads and high-rise apartments. As we delved into the city, though, things became more alien.

“Kev, why are we here, mate?”

A pause.

A solemn answer.

“Not sure.”

My first thoughts about the city of Tel Aviv were of contrasts. Modern shops and cars, but shabby buildings. We drove on. Suddenly, the atmosphere changed significantly. Buildings were more modern, the shops sleeker. We spotted the Mediterranean Sea to our left. We reached our hotel, overlooking the city’s small marina, at around 3pm. We soon met up with Alan, who had travelled out the previous day. A serious drinking session had taken place among those Chelsea fans already in town, but I knew that this would be a day of few drinks, such were the time constraints involved. I freshened up, then set off for a local bar, overlooking the sandy beach.

We placed our sunglasses on as we slowly walked past towering palm trees towards the twin bars of “Jessica’s” and “Mike’s Place.”

The weather was fantastic. That first beer would go down well.

“Chelsea away. Love it.”

We bumped in to a few familiar faces at “Jessica’s” and sat inside for a couple of “two for one” dark Tuborg ales. The sun, a huge ball of flame, was setting over the sea – it disappeared so quickly – and we just revelled in the moment.

This was just perfect.

In all honesty, I could have stayed there for a few more hours, but we needed to move on. Big John, who was staying in a hotel around a mile to the south, had arranged for a coach to take around forty of us up to Haifa.

On the walk to the hotel, we spotted Millsy and two mates, shorts on, sandals on, beach towel over their shoulders, licking at ice-creams. It was a surreal sight, and not one that usually accompanies Chelsea in Europe. They were heading off to get the train north to Haifa.

We set off a little later than planned, at around 5.30pm, by which time night had almost fallen, and we were snared in rush hour traffic for a while. The coach was full of familiar faces, but there was little chat or revelry as we slowly moved north. It was so quiet, in fact, that it almost seemed like we were on our way back from a game. The dark evening outside and whispered conversations inside. I don’t think that this was because we were nervous; more likely that the sustained drinking session of the previous night was still affecting some.

The game didn’t kick-off until 9.45pm local time. It seemed that we were going to arrive in Haifa way too early. However, a journey which should have taken an hour took two. We were deposited outside the sleek and photogenic Sammy Ofer Stadium in the southern outskirts of Haifa at around 7.30pm. Around fifteen of us were still without match tickets though. After a little walk out to the main road, Kev and I managed to flag down a cab and we hopped in. The taxi driver hardly spoke a word of English and there were a few moments of concern as we tried to tell him where the Chelsea ticket collection hotel was based. Thankfully, his GPS kicked in and we were headed in to town on a twenty minute ride which would cost us eighty shekels or around £15.

Once the cab driver realised that we were in town for the football, he began annoying us both.

“Chelsea bad (smile), yes?”

“Arsenal good (smile), yes?”

“Chelsea not so good (smile), yes?”

“Leicester good (smile), yes? Jamie Vardy good!”

“Ferguson good (smile), yes?”

“Wenger good (smile), yes?”

“Mourinho not so good (smile), yes?”

I whispered to Kev…”the fucker ain’t getting a tip at this rate.”

As we neared the city centre, we drove past a throng of local Chelsea fans, all bedecked in all types of royal blue, with Israeli Chelsea Supporters banners and scarves on show. I thought that I recognised my mate Dom from New York who was in town for the game. With our tickets firmly in our hands – phew – at around 8.15pm, we walked back to the bar where the locals had been spotted. Bizarrely, the place was like a bar after a gunslinger had visited. They had all just left.

We backtracked to another bar, where we quickly sipped another dark Tuborg with Kev, from London, who sits near me in the MHU. The three of us then caught a cab – no football chat from the cab driver this time, thank heavens – and back to the environs of the stadium. The place was heaving with the yellow and blue of the team from Tel Aviv. With a capacity of 30,000 I presumed that it was chosen as a venue ahead of Maccabi’s own Bloomfield Stadium, which holds half that number.

Kev summed it up.

“It’s like Hearts playing at Celtic Park. Different city, main rivals. Crazy.”

There were about forty-five minutes to the kick-off, so we had a little time to take it all in. I love the hustle and bustle of match-going crowds, especially in foreign lands, and Israel was no different. There was little chanting outside, but I could tell that the locals were exhilarated to host the English Champions. We each bought a couple of – straight, not circular – bagels for ten shekels, but they were a tough chew. Outside the stadium, there is a rather graceful statue of a young woman in flowing robes holding a dove, and the night lights reflected off its shiny metallic surfaces. In the distant, spotlights shone high in to the night, and a full moon shone down on the stadium, which is shrouded in old gold metallic cladding. It is a stunning sight. My camera whirled into action.

We approached the turnstiles by the away sector. I was dreading a repeat of Porto, when my camera was not allowed entry. Thankfully, after a very quick glance in to my camera bag – “no bottles”? – and a cursory pat down, we were in.

A hot dog with sauerkraut, ketchup and mustard went down well, and we took up our seats in the lower tier. Although sleek and visually appealing outside, the two-tiered stands were quite mundane once inside. It was “sit/stand” where you like, so Kev and I shuffled up next to Alan and Raymondo – who had spent their pre-match at a bar in a local shopping centre – alongside Brighton Tony’s group. Above me, a set of familiar flags were draped over the balcony wall.

Ontario Canada (Burger and Julie).

Hastings Chelsea (Mark).

Hayes Chelsea (Kenny).

Studham Loyal (Ronnie).

Badgercrack Nebraska (Sergei and Dmitry).

Down at the front, easily spotted due to their near unanimous wearing of Chelsea replica shirts (not really our “thing” on tour in Europe), were a gaggle of around forty young local fans. To our immediate right was a larger section of local fans too.

Skull caps and Chelsea scarves.

One chap even had a Chelsea / Tottenham half-and-half scarf.

The irony.

We had apparently sold around one thousand tickets for this game, but my take was that around a third of these were to Israelis.

It was a warm night, and designer polos with shorts were the order of the day. On the far side, the more vociferous home fans were making a din. Fair play to them, this was their big night. The teams entered the pitch and the whole stadium held up plastic yellow and blue mosaics. It was a fine sight. The Champions League anthem was played, and a middle-aged chap to our left held up a Tottenham Hotspur scarf towards us.

Fuck off.

Two banners were on show at the north end.

“Ultras Tel Aviv.”

“Maccabi Fanatics.”

I was reminded of how the two common names of Maccabi and Hapoel came in to fruition in Israel. Nothing as simple as “United” or “City” in Israel; these two addendums derived from the political stance of the clubs at their inception. Teams featuring Maccabi stem from the Liberal party, those with Hapoel from the Labour party. Of the fourteen teams in the Israeli first division, all but three contain either of these two words.

There was also a banner crying out for attention.

“Europe Wake Up! Zionism Is Not A Crime!”

All of a sudden, the game was upon us.

Begovic.

Azpilicueta – Terry – Cahill – Baba.

Matic – Fabregas.

Willian – Oscar – Hazard.

Diego Costa.

Within the first few minutes, an unmarked Maccabi player – Iglebor – evaded all defenders and headed over from a central position inside our box. In truth, he should have scored. It was soon apparent that the pitch was cutting up very easily and divots soon started appearing all over. We seemed to enjoy attacking down our right, with Dave heavily involved. This suited me since this is where the Chelsea fans were settled.

Snap, snap, snap.

We enjoyed the majority of the ball, as ever, but we wondered if our shot shy attacker Diego Costa would cause the Tel Aviv ‘keeper much activity.

On twenty minutes, Willian sent over a corner. Gary Cahill rose high, possibly using a defender as a step ladder, and headed goal wards. Radkovic reacted incredibly well but could only push the ball on to a post. Cahill’s momentum carried him forward and he stabbed the ball home.

Get in.

His run towards us was captured on film and it was lovely to see all of the team join him.

We continued to dominate the game. Again we could be accused of over-passing, though. That incisiveness, so missing this season, is still not with us. Eden Hazard, on the back of a warming performance against Norwich City, seemed lost. We had a few attempts on goal. A shot from Fabregas, and one from Willian. An extravagant bicycle kick from Diego, a ball played in to Hazard but his jump and stretch mistimed. On one memorable occasion, with Chelsea attacking hard, Baba was further up the left flank than Diego Costa.

“Get in the box, Costa!”

We were winning, but the mood in the away end was hardly euphoric. There wasn’t too much noise either, save from a few rousing verses of “Willian.”

In the closing moments, the lump of Israeli rock that is Tal Ben Haim kicked out at Diego Costa – I was unsighted – and the ridiculously young looking referee from Turkey produced the red card. Ben Haim – I can never remember warming him to him as a Chelsea player – slouched off the field, his misery complete.

If I am honest, once the second-half began, I found myself losing interest. Chelsea were now attacking the far goal, and I was starting to get increasingly tired. I occasionally sat in my seat and rested my legs. I started to think of how many hours sleep that I would be getting ahead of our trip to Jerusalem on the Wednesday, when we would be leaving our hotel at 7.15am. I was so glad that I had not been drinking.

“Leave here at midnight, maybe 12.30am, a two hour journey, back at 2.30am, maybe sleep at 3.00am, up at 6.00am. Three hours. Bollocks.”

A fine save from Begovic was warmly applauded by the Chelsea ranks. A close-range volley from Dave was well saved, and then Begovic was at his very best again. Despite the one man advantage, Chelsea were far from impressive. As the night drew on, I began dreaming of my hotel bed.

The home fans put on a fine show, with both ends taking it in terms to rally behind their teams, as shouts of “Maccabi” bounced back to and forth.

Pedro replaced a very lacklustre Hazard.

“No more than 4/10 tonight. You can be one of the top ten players in the entire world, but if your confidence is shot, it means nothing” I said to a chap nearby.

Sadly, John Terry crumpled to the floor and was stretchered off. I watched him as he left the field; I could tell he was in pain. There was no clenched fist salute to the away fans, a sure sign that he was troubled.

“God, just what we need with Tottenham on Sunday.”

He was replaced by Kurt Zouma.

A free-kick in “Willian Territory” had us all hoping and praying. He did not disappoint. A curling effort dipped over a weak wall and in to an unguarded net.

2-0.

The game was safe now and we could relax.

In Portugal came the surprising news that Kiev were winning.

Shortly after, a fantastic deep cross from the somewhat maligned Baba Rahman was headed home by Oscar. Towards the end of the game, I eventually met up with Dom, from NYC, albeit for just a few words. He had travelled over with no ticket waiting for him, but one of the local Israelis had sorted him out.

Our victory was complete when Kurt Zouma headed easily past Rajkovic from an Oscar header.

4-0.

It matched the result in the home leg.

If Willian made all of the headlines with another excellent goal allied to a typically bullish performance, I thought that Cesar Azpilicueta was also outstanding, combining a fine defensive display with many forceful runs at his opposing full-back. Diego Costa was as frustrating as ever, but – overall – this was a decent enough showing.

Job done troops.

However, I was a little dismayed that only two or three of the players made much of an effort to thank the travelling Chelsea supporters for our efforts. Only Gary Cahill and Asmir Begovic appeared to go out of their way to walk a few steps towards us.

This wasn’t Watford. Or Leicester. Or Southampton.

This was Tel Aviv, for fuck sake, boys.

Disappointing.

Thankfully, the coach driver made great time on the return trip. I was back in my bed just after 1.30am. It had been a long, long day.

I dropped off to sleep.

On the Wednesday, I stumbled out of bed after just over four hours’ sleep. A shower soon revitalised me. With the work behind us, it was now time to rest and play. While the team no doubt headed home to Blighty straight after the game, and some fans were not far behind them, I still had two days left. A quick breakfast at the hotel was followed by a mini-bus calling to take us to Jerusalem and then Bethlehem. It would be a day that would be the highlight of the trip; who says it is only about the football? Not me.

Our tour guide, a chap who lived on a kibbutz in a winery called Ossi, was soon detailing facts about Tel Aviv, Israel, and then Jerusalem as we drove east and up towards the hills. We were caught in a little traffic on the busy road, which was occasionally lined with the metal shells of army vehicles, no doubt in remembrance of lives lost in previous periods of conflict. We stopped for a much needed coffee just as all three of us were starting to nod off. It revived us instantly. A Chelsea fan from Hillingdon, Suk, was on our mini bus and we had a little chat about the game. He had been one of the few at the 2001 game in Tel Aviv. I was honestly surprised at how many minarets, indicating the site of mosques, were visible on the drive in to the city. Up to 20% of the population of Israel are Muslims, and here was the proof. Before we knew it, we were heading past the 9/11 monument on the outskirts of Jerusalem before heading in from the north, past the impressive British Military Cemetery. We were soon parked up on Mount Scopus, which affords a magnificent panoramic view of the seven hills of Jerusalem. What is it about cities built on seven hills? Rome is the same. They say that Bath, my place of birth, is too.

Jerusalem looked spectacular.

I spoke to Kevin, reminding him of the conversation that we had shared on several occasions on the previous day regarding our visit to Israel.

“Right. That is why we are here.”

We looked down on the city once more.

I was in awe.

The shining gold semi-circle of the Temple Mount dominated the vista before me, but this would be off limits on this trip, as non-Muslims are not allowed to enter. My father, in 1944, had visited it, but times had changed since then. I gazed down at the various locations as Ossi pointed out their part in the complex and interesting story of Jerusalem. For the first of many moments throughout my stay, I began questioning what I was hearing. The Temple Mount is allegedly where Mohamed ascended from earth to heaven, a fact that was alien to me before this trip. So, in addition to being the city where Jesus Christ was crucified and rose again – the epicentre of all Christianity – this was Mo Town, too.

And yet, my thoughts on all of this were swirling around me.

I have never mentioned my faith, nor my religious thoughts, in these Chelsea tales ever before – why should I? – and I very rarely talk about such topics with anyone but my very closest friends. But on a visit to the Holy Land, it seems churlish for me to keep my thoughts to myself. My parents took me to church every Sunday throughout my childhood and although I rarely attend these days, I usually pray each night…a few words…and so I guess that I would be called a Christian. I’m certainly spiritual.

However, my rational nature always tends to disrupt my thoughts concerning religious fundamentalism and I can see through the vast majority of the religious bombast which sadly dominates some areas of various faiths.

I knew that my travels through Jerusalem might make me feel uneasy as the day progressed.

Back in the coach, we glimpsed the arid bleakness of the Sinai Desert to the east. I could have stayed looking out at its ethereal bleakness for ages. Then, sadly, the time just went too quickly for me to take everything in. In only ten minutes, the coach drove past the Garden of Gethsemane, the Kidron Valley, the city of David, various churches, a huge Jewish cemetery, all interspersed with a rapid fire commentary. By the time that we had stopped to park near the Jaffa Gate to the west of the ancient walled city, I was in need of a few moments to take it all in.

But there was no time to rest. We began our walking tour of the cramped ancient city.

At times my memories of bible studies at primary school and Sunday school fought with images and lines from “The Life Of Brian.”

“Now you listen here. He’s not the Special One. He’s a very naughty boy.”

We spent around four hours in Jerusalem. We visited the Armenian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter, and finally the Jewish Quarter. Soon into the tour, we were taken down narrow cobbled streets, with shops selling all kinds of wares and souvenirs. As I spotted a few tacky T-shirts (“Guns & Moses”) I was reminded of my father’s comments about Jerusalem. He was expecting a spiritual enlightening, but instead was dismayed at the amount of “tat” being peddled. Seventy-one years later, it was a lot worse.

I kept looking out for Via Dolorosa. Ossi kept mentioning it. As the day unfolded, it came to light that this was the route taken by Christ as he carried his cross to the site of his crucifixion at Calvary. More of that later.

We passed a little enclave of Ethiopian Jews, and visited their very small church, then stopped at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is where – it is alleged – Christ was crucified. My father had visited here in 1944. This is odd, because I always presumed that Calvary – “there is a green hill far away without a city wall” – was some distance from Jerusalem, but here it was, right in the heart of the old city.

I was overwhelmed by the various facts which Ossi regaled us with. We saw a slab of marble which was used as a resting place for the body of Christ. People were stooping to kiss it and touch it. I wasn’t so sure. My faith was being sorely tested.

All the time my camera was recording these amazing images.

Then, outside, a piece of pure drama.

While Kev, Alan and myself rested outside the large and imposing church, and while we had a little discussion about our beliefs, or lack of them, a microphone was broadcasting a call to Islamic prayer. Then, a little group of Jewish pilgrims carried a cross into the little square and a rabbi began saying a few words too.

Muslim and Jewish prayers were taking place simultaneously outside the church where it is alleged that Jesus Christ was crucified.

Some moment.

Our tour continued around and down, through increasingly small and cramped streets. We entered the Muslim Quarter. Shops seemed busier, the pathways narrower. At last, we entered Via Dolorosa. Ossi spoke about the fourteen Stations of the Cross which marked the half a mile or so that Christ carried his cross, and which today is marked by Via Dolorosa, although the original street would have been many feet below the current level.

So, this is why my father was so specific.

I had kept an image of my father’s photograph of Via Dolorosa on my camera’s memory card. As we walked down, I kept referring to it. I wanted to replicate that image. I would soon be rewarded.

IMG_4172 (2)

IMG_4425

So, here were two images taken by my father and by myself, some seventy-one years apart.

Dad was 21 and I am 50.

71.

Spooky, eh?

As we continued along Via Dolorosa, Ossi came to a point where pilgrims were placing their hands on a stone on a wall to our right. Ossi didn’t sound too convincing as he explained that this is where Jesus Christ touched this very wall. And yet the original street was several feet below us. Call me agnostic on that one. It suddenly dawned on me that I was far less excited about walking the same street as Jesus Christ as walking the very same street that my father had visited in 1944.

We found ourselves at the base of the hill. We were asked to place our goods and chattels through a metal detector and then found ourselves outside the Western Wall. Again, my father had visited here. Alan, Kev and myself donned special souvenir “kippahs” and walked towards the holy wall, which actually abuts the Tomb of the Rock.

It was surreal to visit such a famous and spiritual location.

I honestly can’t remember if I prayed for a win at Tottenham on Sunday.

We made our way back up the hill, through the Jewish Quarter, which tended to contain a greater proportion of newer buildings, before stopping for a bite to eat. While eating, one of our tour party spotted my Chelsea US Tour T-shirt and commented that he was present at our MLS All-Star Game in Chicago in 2006. I responded that I was there, too. What is it I have said about Chelsea World being ridiculously small?

There was one final look over the rooftops of Jerusalem’s sacred centre, and we then retraced our steps up to the Jaffa Gate.

Our little mini-bus then headed south, passing a variety of more modern, and rather sturdy, buildings before things started to get a little tense. We were headed for Bethlehem, which is situated just inside the West Bank. Call me naïve, but I stupidly presumed that Ossi would stay on the bus and we would disappear into Bethlehem for an hour or so before returning to Jerusalem.

It soon became evident that I was wide of the mark, like a Radamel Falcao volley.

Oh no, nothing as easy as that.

Our mini-bus would park on the Israeli side of the security wall, constructed in 2000, and the ten of us were to walk over to the West Bank, where we were to be met by a Palestinian.

Ossi : “Yes, you will meet your guide there. His name is Osama.”

Inside the mini-bus, you could have heard a pin drop.

“Fackinell.”

Ossi : “I will not join you. I will go back to the Western Wall to pray for your safe return.”

He turned to us and smiled. He was likable chap, in his ‘seventies, with a splendid comb-over which resembled a skull-cap, but on this occasion he was laughing alone. We fidgeted a little, then set eyes on the thirty foot security wall which wended its way for quite a considerable way in to the distance.

Gulp.

Ossi pointed us towards a metal fence and we passed through a series of walkways before walking across an expanse of concreted open land. In to the next set of gates, then down a narrow path, to be greeted by a smiling Osama. The ten of us quickly darted into two waiting vehicles, which then drove us – rather quickly – through the narrow streets of Bethlehem. There was a vastly different vibe here. Osama, who was only the driver and not the guide, pointed out two young boys in front of us.

“These Palestinian boys are bad. They throw stones at Israeli police cars.”

We were met by a fantastic guide called George – a Palestinian Christian – who guided us through the various chambers and rooms of the Church of the Nativity, which is a conglomeration of three churches on the very spot, allegedly, where Jesus Christ was born. There was no stable, only caves. We were way underground and mired in Christianity; up to our eyes in the most famous story of them all. To be frank, George was a more compelling and believable guide than Ossi and he listed a whole host of – possible, only possible – pieces of evidence which backed up the notion of a holy birth on that exact spot over two thousand years ago.

Again, my religious side was battling my rational side and I wasn’t sure which would come out on top.

After the visit was over, we darted into a souvenir shop, then sped back towards the security fence. Bethlehem is ridiculously hilly and the buildings perch precariously on the hill tops. Osama walked us up to the gates and pointed us onward. As we crossed “no man’s land”, many Palestinian migrant workers were heading back after a day’s toil in Jerusalem. What happened next, was pure farce.

We found ourselves in a hall, maybe a holding area, and were met with some unmanned turnstiles. There was no way to get through. We spotted a large sliding door, and after a little deliberation, pulled it back, not quite expecting what would greet us. It was another holding area. And more unmanned turnstiles. One chap decided to push his way through, but there seemed to be no way through. And he was stuck. We were all stuck. We had no idea what to do. Go back? What would greet us? After about three or four minutes, at last a voice called out and we piled through the last turnstile, putting our cameras and wallets through a security scanner. More migrant workers walked past. I avoided eye contact, just for safety sake. At last, we spotted Ossi.

We scrambled into the waiting van, and headed back in to Jerusalem.

“Out of my comfort zone there, boys. Don’t mind admitting it. Away games at Tottenham and West Ham will be easy compared to that.”

We were back to the relative comforts of Tel Aviv by 5.45pm.

“Tell you what, Tel Aviv looks bloody normal compared to what we have seen today.”

Back at our hotel, the three of us met up with Tony – now living in my home town of Frome – and we set off for a meal and some beers. Who should spot us but Suk, and we aimed for “Mike’s Place.” We enjoyed a great meal and chatted about Chelsea, Israel and all sorts. I had forgotten, but Suk reminded us that “Mike’s Place” was attacked by a suicide bomber – from Britain – in 2003, and three unfortunate souls were killed. We moved on to another bar, with the laughter flying around, before calling it a night at around midnight.

Alan and Kev were off to the airport in the morning and so, after another fine breakfast, I had some time to kill. I changed into some shorts and headed down to the beach. It was just after 10am, but the sun was already warm. I swam in the Mediterranean Sea and relaxed on the beach. Never before had there been a Chelsea trip quite like this one. The water was lapping at the sandy beach behind me as I remembered all of the family holidays that I had enjoyed with my parents in various Italian resorts, and the sound of the water slowly rolling over the sand brought back a host of memories.

A light lunch was followed by a relaxing time back at the hotel as I waited patiently for four other friends – Pauline, Digger, Fiona, Ronnie – to return. Together, we took two cabs to the local train station before heading back to the airport. Before I knew it, I was looking down on the lights of Tel Aviv, and they slowly disappeared from view as we headed west over the Mediterranean.

The football had only taken up a small part of my three days in The Holy Land. However, I was just so thankful that the football – no, Chelsea – had taken me to see such a scintillating part of our world.

Thank you Israel.

Shalom!

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