Tales From Youngsters And Veterans

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 9 November 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kinda.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The team news came through.

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

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

Arrizabalaga

James – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Kante – Kovacic

Mount

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

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

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

“God Bless Them All.”

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

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

The game began.

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

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

I was dead impressed.

A free-kick was awarded in a central position.

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

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

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

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

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

“Awful.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

For goodness sake, talk about buzz words.

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

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

Just what he needed.

Lovely.

GET IN.

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

“Sorry I haven’t scored before now.”

We hoped that the goal would jump start his confidence.

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

It was excellent.

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

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

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

Another shot from Pulisic. This time it flew over.

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

Michy Batshuayi replaced Tammy Abraham.

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

GET IN.

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

Sadly, more “USA USA USA” claptrap.

The scorer was replaced by Callum Hudson-Odoi.

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

Was it his only save of note?

We thought so.

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

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

The minutes dried up.

It stayed at 2-0.

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

The kids are alright, as someone once said.

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

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

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

It was brilliant stuff.

The boys of the old brigade.

The boys of the young brigade.

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

 

Tales From Harry Potts Way

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 26 October 2019.

After Amsterdam, Burnley. The life of a football fan is certainly varied. With the game kicking-off at 5.30pm, there was the chance of a slight lie-in, but only slight. Burnley away is still a gargantuan trip. We did think about staying the night, especially after the exertions of the European soiree to Ajax, but nothing seemed to fit the bill location-wise nor price-wise. In the end, I decided to bite the bullet and drive up and back in one day.

Deepest Somerset to deepest Lancashire.

A round trip of four hundred and eighty miles.

Bolstered by a strong cup of coffee before I left home, I felt surprisingly fresh. After returning from Amsterdam late on Thursday evening, Friday at work was just horrific. It wasn’t particularly busy, it just seemed to drag on and on. But I slept reasonably well on Friday night. I was on the road at just before 9am. I collected PD and then Parky. It would be His Lordship’s first away game since Norwich City on that blissful summer’s day in August.

Burnley in late October was a different proposition.

For the first four hours or so, the rain lashed down under sombre grey skies. But there were reports of it brightening up later in the day. My pragmatic view was that I would rather have the rain and spray when I was fresh in the morning than when I was driving home, tired, after the game and long in to the night.

We stopped at Frankley Services on the M5 and Charnock Richard Services on the M6 just north of Wigan. At the first, we got soaked getting out of the car. At the second, the day suddenly became brighter and a lot more pleasant.

I turned east onto the M65 and headed up over the ridge of land that separates the M6 from the towns of Blackburn, Darwen, Accrington and Burnley.

At Clayton Le Moors, we settled in at a pub called “The Albion” for an hour or so. The City vs. Villa game was coming to an end, and there were a few locals gathered. Two lads wearing Burnley shirts were playing darts, while one Blackburn Rovers fan, wearing a replica shirt too, chatted to PD at the bar. There is certainly no love lost between Blackburn and Burnley yet the fans were sharing the same space with no issues. Clayton Le Moors is right on the boundary between the catchment areas of the two teams’ support. It felt that we were right in the middle of this very private and local Civil War in central Lancashire. Blackburn were playing locally themselves on this day of football; a derby of sorts at Preston North End.

We enjoyed our time in this large and welcoming pub. The prices were a lot more agreeable than those in Amsterdam. Here, two pints of lager and a pint of Coke came to just £8.10.

At about 4.15pm, I got back in the saddle. Ten minutes later, after relishing the wild and unrelentingly Northern landscape ahead of me, we were parked close to the Burnley bus station, itself only a fifteen-minute walk from Turf Moor.

By a strange quirk of fate, our game at Burnley in 2019 came just two days under a year since our game at the same venue in 2018.

At Charnock Richard and at Clayton Le Moors, the weather seemed fine. Once we exited my car in Burnley, it felt a whole lot colder.

“It’s always bloody freezing in Burnley.”

But it was great to be back. The town is a throwback to a different era, and without wishing to drown in worn out clichés, walking a few of its streets helped me escape back to a simpler age when football was at the very heart of this old mill town.

I love walking under the main stand at Goodison Park, my favourite away day experience these days. But a close second is the five-minute walk under the canal bridge on Yorkshire Street, along Harry Potts Way (named after the 1960 League Championship winning manager) to the unpretentious stands of Burnley Football Club. There are grafters selling scarves and badges. There are fast food shops. Many shops have signs in claret and blue. Fans rush past. Police on horseback cast an eye over the match day scene. Pubs overflow with claret and blue clad locals. Northern accents cut into the afternoon air. The faces of the locals seem to radiate a warmth for their club.

While PD and LP made a bee-line for the bar area inside the ground, I went off on a detour. I knew that I would only be allowed to take photographs using my ‘phone, and that the resultant match photographs would be quite poor, so I wanted to capture as much of the colour – or lack of it, this was Burnley after all – of the stadium. So my phone whirred into action. Every few yards, along the perimeter of three of the stands, I stopped to gaze at photographs of some key players in the football club’s history. I didn’t stop and look at every single one, but bizarrely all of the ones that I did stop to look at, I managed to name.

Jimmy McIlroy, Jimmy Adamson, Leighton James, Peter Noble, Steve Kindon, Billy Hamilton, Trevor Steven, Ian Britton.

I stopped my circumnavigation at Ian Britton. It is what I wanted to see. Ian Britton was my favourite Chelsea player from 1974 to 1981 and he famously went on to play for Burnley, scoring a key goal against Orient to keep them in the Football League in 1987. He sadly passed away in 2016 and I went to his funeral at Burnley Crematorium. It was only right that I paid my respects to him on this day.

Ironically, I had briefly chatted to his son Callum at half-time at the Southampton away game.

RIP.

Inside the cramped stands, I was met up with many friends and acquaintances. I still felt fresh despite the long day. I soon took my place, not far from where I watched the game the previous season, and alongside Gary, Parky and Alan. My seat was right on the aisle, right next to the home fans.

Since our last visit, the infill of the corners of the home end has been completed. However, there were gaps in the seats throughout the stadium.

The team?

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta.

Zouma.

Tomori.

Alonso.

Jorginho.

Kovacic.

Pulisic.

Mount.

Willian.

Abraham.

No surprises really. Good to see Pulisic get the start after his excellent cameo performance in the Johan Cruyff Arena.

Did I expect us to win? Yes. There, I said it. There is a confidence about us at the moment and long may it continue.

Jack Cork, now thirty, started for Burnley. It seems only five minutes ago since I saw him play for Chelsea against Club America on a blistering day in Palo Alto in the summer of 2007. It was the only time I did see him play for us. How time flies.

Standing behind me was a chap who I first saw at Norwich. Memorably, both of us were wearing pink polos at the time. We, of course, won our first game of the season that day. Since then, he has worn the same pink shirt at all of our away games.

Three pinks, three wins.

Commendable.

In the first portion of the game, I thought Burnley looked quite capable of getting behind us and causing problems. Dwight McNeil, on their left, was often involved and carried a threat with his pace and movement. On a few occasions, our defence needed to be on their collective toes to snub out a few Burnley attacks. But we looked capable too, and the midfield duo of Jorginho and Kovacic were soon clicking their fingers and prompting others into moving into space, and then sliding balls forward. Without over-emphasising the change from last season, there was a pleasing economy of movement at all times.

A touch, control, a look, a pass, a move continued.

And there was variety too; the occasional long ball, a diagonal.

On twenty-one minutes, and with Chelsea now in the ascendancy, Pulisic raided centrally after robbing Matt Lowton. He sped on, urged on by us in the away stand, but it looked like he was forced too far to his left. Showing real strength, he shimmied, and gained an extra yard. To my eyes, the angle was just too wide. He stretched to meet the ball and rifled a shot low past Nick Pope. We howled like banshees as the ball nestled into the net.

GET IN.

I watched as the young American raced over to the corner flag and dropped to his knees to celebrate.

“Well,” I thought “that is the photograph I should be taking.”

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

This was the American’s first goal for us. And it was a blinder.

Burnley then made a spirited effort to get back in to the game. A header from Ashley Barnes went wide from a corner. And then Erik Pieters forced a fine save from Kepa, the ‘keeper reacting well after the initial shot was deflected. Chances were piling up and at  both ends. Pulisic slashed in a shot which Pope was able to deflect away. In front of us, Barnes wasted a good chance from close in, heading wide once more.

Barnes was the bête noire of the Burnley team and many in my midst were letting him have it.

Another shot from Christian, a shot from Tammy. This was good stuff. All of the way through this first-half, I was involved, watching the movement of the players, looking at their body language, utterly part of it. It is – sadly – not always the case.

Just before the break, Willian pick-pocketed a Burnley defender, and released Pulisic, who made a bee-line for goal – this area of the pitch was fast becoming his very own Interstate – and he drove on. He had a final quick burst and his shot from outside the box took a wicked deflection and we were 2-0 up.

Lovely stuff.

I was aware that there was a get-together of some Chelsea supporters in Austin, Texas for this match, and that they were being featured in some sort of interactive TV show. I just imagined the scenes. It was, to be honest, coming together rather nicely for our US fans.

At half-time, I battled the packed concourse and only got back just in time to see the teams return to the pitch.

After eleven minutes of play, a corner to my right from Mason Mount was headed out, and from the second cross, Pulisic leapt and “back-headed” the ball up and over Pope. It was a fine header.

And Pulisic’s third of the game.

I quickly turned to Mr. Pink and enquired “Is that a perfect hat-trick?”

A left, a right, a header.

It was.

Fantastic.

Well, by now, I could only imagine the “awesome shenanigans” taking place in Austin, TX – and elsewhere in the land of the free, plus six percent sales tax – as their boy shone on this cold day in Lancashire.

But then it got a little silly.

Possibly.

Here are my thoughts as a pragmatic and objective observer of all things Chelsea.

A large and noisy section of our support – which I would later learn included Suggs from Madness – spontaneously started chanting “USA USA USA USA.”

I didn’t join in.

But I am going to give the perpetrators the benefit of the doubt. My thoughts at the time were that this was all a bit ironic. A bit of a giggle. It was a typically English way of praising a player, a new addition, but also with a major dollop of sarcasm too.

If so, perfect.

The “USA” chant is such a dull and unimaginative addition to major sporting events, and I’d like to think that it was a side-swipe at that. If, however, there was no self-deprecation involved, no irony, no humour and that we are to be treated to “USA USA” every time our boy Pulisic performs then I fear for the future of mankind.

Only two minutes later, a lovely step-over from Willian in the inside-right channel on the edge of the box allowed an extra yard of space to shoot. His low effort was drilled low and found the far post perfectly. The net bulged.

GET IN.

Pulisic’ three goals had been – cough, cough, you know it is coming America – awesome.

Now this was just foursome.

FOUR BLOODY NIL.

Norwich : 3-2.

Wolves : 5-2.

Southampton : 4-1.

Burnley : 4-0.

Mr. Pink was beaming.

After the ludicrous 9-0 by Leicester City at Southampton the previous night, I wondered if we could get close. It seemed that it was one of those evenings where everything we hit resulted in goals.

Some substitutions, keeping it fresh.

Reece James for Marcos Alonso.

Olivier Giroud for Tammy Abraham.

Callum Hudson-Odoi for Willian.

Myself and everyone around me thought that Callum had been clipped and expected goal five to come our way from the resulting penalty. Of course, there was the usual tedious wait, the match-going fans out on a limb, left stranded. Jorginho picked up the ball and walked purposefully to the spot.

“Just give the pen, and let’s get on with it.”

But no. No penalty. And Callum booked for simulation.

Oh well.

Bizarrely, in a repeat of the Wolves game, we let in two late goals. First, a dipping smash from distance from Jay Rodriguez on eighty-six minutes. Then a deflected effort, not dissimilar to Pulisic’ second, from McNeil.

Burnley 2 Chelsea 4.

Oh crazy day.

I looked at Gary.

“It was 4-0 last season. We’ve got worse.”

We serenaded the management team as they all came over to clap us. It is lovely to be a Chelsea fan, right here, right now. May these times continue.

We headed back to the car and I was soon driving home on the long road south. We stopped at Charnock Richard again. To honour our boy Pulisic, we devoured some “Burger King” fast food, just as he would have wanted. Via two further stops for petrol and “Red Bull”, I kept driving and driving while the others slept intermittently.

I reached my house, eventually, at around 1am on Sunday morning.

It had been a fine morning, afternoon, evening and night.

On Wednesday, another magical evening under the Stamford Bridge lights is in the offing. It might only be the League Cup but it is Manchester United.

This will be the seventy-fifth time that I will have seen them play Chelsea, the most of any opposing team.

It is potentially a cracker.

I hope to see some of you there.

 

Tales From The Johan Cruyff Arena

Ajax vs. Chelsea : 23 October 2019.

It had been a surprisingly long and tedious journey to the stadium from Amsterdam’s Central Station – standing room only, everyone pushed together, all of us getting warmer by the minute, around fifty minutes all told including a change of trains en route – and at last the towering roof of the stadium appeared to my left. I was with PD, who I had travelled out with from Bristol the previous morning, and Alan and Gary too. The train stopped. We exited en masse. We were back at the site of our Europa League Final victory against Benfica in 2013. It was just after five o’clock in the evening and night was yet to fall.

There was the usual rush of adrenaline that accompanies the arrival at a stadium, especially a foreign stadium, especially the home stadium of Ajax, one of the most revered clubs of the European scene. We clambered down the steps and escalators at the station and were soon out into the cool of the evening. Everything was well signposted. Ajax straight ahead. Chelsea to the left. I stopped to take a few long distance shots of the stadium – some twenty-three years old now – and my gaze focused on the image of Johan Cruyff that welcomed all. The stadium was simply called the Amsterdam Arena in 2013, but since the passing of the Dutch master in 2016, the place has been re-named in his honour.

Johan Cruyff.

What a name.

What a player.

Cruyff, along with Netzer and Muller and Beckenbauer and perhaps Eusebio, was one of the very first European players that had caught my eye in the early ‘seventies. These players, revered by the football commentators and TV pundits of the day, stirred our senses. The Ajax team, which provided many of the Dutch side, were simply in a class of their own. They oozed style. Their football was fluid. The long-haired maestros played liquid football. Everything was so seamless. Those of a certain vintage will remember Cruyff guesting at Stamford Bridge in the autumn of 1978/79 when we played New York Cosmos. Cruyff also pitted his skills against us when we played the Los Angeles Aztecs in 1979/80. And he also guested for the little-known team DS79 in 1980/81. I had mentioned the DS79 game to my friends Mark and Paul – from England, now living in The Netherlands – when they took time out of their day to meet the four of us for a pint on Rembrandt Corner, away from the masses, earlier that afternoon. It was a game that most will have forgotten. His appearance at Stamford Bridge during three consecutive seasons was one of the oddities of those years. His name, perhaps because of this, was often linked with our club.

Back in those years – oh we were awful in 1978/79, millions of the new fans of today would not have touched us with a barge pole – I was always amazed that we were linked with Johan Cruyff, and Kevin Keegan of Hamburg too, even though we were playing in the Second Division. I suppose it illustrates the point that we have always been a glamour club, and have always been linked with some of the great players. When Keegan announced that he was leaving West Germany for Southampton in 1980, I am sure I wasn’t the only Chelsea supporters who felt snubbed.

I let the others walk on as I took it all in. After I had taken a couple of photos, I showed my ticket at the security check, but was then forced to hand in my SLR. My far from comparable phone camera would have to suffice for the game.

I met up with the others again and they told me that we were getting the lift up to the upper tier where the 2,600 Chelsea were to be housed. A female steward had seen PD limping and had walked straight over, bless her. We walked through some security gates, and took the lift up to the seventh floor. She told the funny story of how a few of the Ajax stewards had travelled to Lille a few weeks back, but had been met with hostility when the local police saw their yellow tabards.

We walked through the home concourse – an odd feeling – and joined up with our own.

I was more than happy that we were in the upper tier. For our game in 2013, we were stood in the lower tier behind the goal. At least we were watching the game from a different viewpoint. Memories of Fernando Torres and Branislav Ivanovic came flooding back. It was never on the same scale as Munich the previous season, but it was still a mighty fine night out in Europe.

I remembered one song from that night which never stood the test of time :

“Strippers and whores, Ivanovic scores.”

The “we won in Munich, Munich” chant never lasted too long either.

All these memories, what lucky souls we are.

2013

The stadium was as I remembered it. Two simple tiers, but a towering and presumably ridiculously heavy roof. Under the trusses were banners illustrating the many trophies that Ajax had won over the years. It was quite a haul.

I was aware that they had played at the much smaller De Meer stadium for the period of their huge successes in the ‘seventies. I had almost seen Ajax play for the first time in 1988 when I was on one of my badge-selling circuits around Europe. I plotted up at the Olympic Stadium, which PD and I had passed in a taxi from Schipol on the Tuesday morning, for the Ajax game with Young Boys Bern, but did not sell a single bloody badge. There were other stalls selling British football badges; the niche market that I had exploited in Italy was nowhere to be seen. I was gutted. Had I sold some, I might have chanced getting a ticket. As it was, I returned back into town with my tail firmly between my legs.

The younger element aired a relatively new, if not overly original, song.

“Tammy’s on fire. Your defence is terrified. Tammy’s on fire.”

As kick-off neared, the stands filled to bursting. There were hardly any seats not in use. There was the dimming of the lights, then a dramatic use of spotlights focused on the Champions League logo. It was time for both sets of fans to perform. The noise in the Chelsea end had been sporadic, but as the yellow “Chelsea Here Chelsea There” flag was hoisted over the heads of us in the central area, the chanting increased. I took a few photos through the flag. One shot, for some reason, turned the flag green. It was as if the haze of marijuana that had followed us around central Amsterdam was now clawing at us in the stadium.

The home areas were full of white and red mosaics.

One huge banner was draped at the opposite end.

“VASTBERADEN.”

Determined.

The teams entered the pitch. Chelsea would be wearing the all black kit, with a touch of Dutch – orange trim – for good measure.

The team, I guess, had chosen itself.

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Zouma – Alonso

Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Mount – Hudson-Odoi

Abraham

I looked around and spotted a few familiar faces, but there were many people that I did not recognise. Many had come over without tickets, lured by the city of Amsterdam and all of its usual charms and pleasures. PD and I had spent a leisurely few hours on a gentle pub-crawl around our hotel in the Vondel Park part of the city on the Tuesday. We had visited three bars, and in the second one, close to the Rijksmuseum, we chatted to the barman who was an Ajax season ticket holder and who would be at the game. He produced a photograph of Johan Cruyff on a visit to the pub. It seemed that we simply could not escape his presence. In the first bar that we visited in the city centre on the Tuesday night, there was an iconic photo of Holland’s greatest son in the classic kit. There was even an image of Cruyff welcoming visitors to the city’s “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.” Later that night, I had met up with plenty of the usual suspects in the Red Light District. The drinking continued long into the small hours. I am not saying it turned into a crazy night but I did witness Wycombe Stan buying a round. Good times.

The game began with Chelsea attacking our end, the North Stand. The noise from the Ajax fans, especially those in the South Stand, was impressive.

In front of the lower tier, there were other banners illustrating the sub-culture of European football.

Amsterdam Casuals.

A Stone Island logo.

F-Side.

Perry Boys.

A mod logo.

I loved the goal nets; white with a central red stripe.

The Ajax kit has to be one of the greatest ever.

Talking of kits, I posed a question to Mark and Paul during our afternoon meet-up.

“Why do virtually all of the top Dutch teams have red and white kits?”

Ajax : red and white.

Feyenoord : red, white and black.

PSV : red and white.

Sparta Rotterdam : red and white.

Utrecht : red and white.

AZ Alkmaar : red and white.

Twente Enschede : red.

Any ideas?

Mark and Paul struggled to name any team in The Netherlands that plays in blue. You would think, with its reputation, that Amsterdam might have at least one blue team. Well, I have managed to find one. We played DWS Amsterdam back in the Fairs Cup in 1967/68 – losing on the toss of a coin – and they play in white and blue stripes, albeit in a very low league these days.

It was a very lively start to the match. Before the game, we had all uttered “we’ll take a draw now” and as the play flowed from end to end, it felt that it would be a night of goals. An early handball shout against Marcos Alonso was waived away, and we then got stuck into the game with Mason Mount looking loose-limbed and lively as he brought the ball out through the midfield on a few lovely bursts. One shot from him forced a low save from Andre Onana at his near post.

Fikayo Toomori looked a little edgy at the start of the game but certainly grew as the first-half continued.

On many occasions, Callum Hudson-Odoi found himself in favourable positions, running into parcels of space in the inside-left channel, but on nearly every occasion he seemed to choose the wrong option. He either held on to the ball too long, took an extra stride before shooting, played a ball to an unsuspecting team mate or poorly controlled a simple ball. His shooting was off too. With each error, we saw his frustration rise. That little patch of around twenty square yards of space at the angle of the penalty box seemed to be his very own, horrible, Bermuda Triangle. The frustration was shared by the fans in the away section.

We were all stood.

We sang when we could be heard.

Thankfully, the noise from the Southern end was subsiding.

Gary continually took the piss out of Daley Blind.

“You should stick to walking football, Blind.”

The game ebbed and flowed. I was not overly impressed with Ajax’ defence. They looked neither tight nor awake. Their attacks often petered out too. In the middle, Kovacic impressed me with his quick runs and intelligent passing.

With ten minutes of the first-half remaining, a cross from the Ajax right took a deflection and the Chelsea defence seemed unable to recover. The ball squirmed through to the six-yard box – “oh no” I uttered – and Quincy Promes prodded in. I must admit I quickly glanced over to see if the linesman on the far side was going to raise his flag but it stayed down.

The home fans made a bloody racket alright.

Bollocks.

We were 1-0 down.

But, wait.

After a while, we realised that there was going to be a Godforsaken VAR moment.

I will be honest, as honest as I can be. At that moment in time, such is my hatred of all things VAR that I remember thinking to myself “let it stand, for fuck sake, let it stand, I can’t be having with this nonsense impinging on so much of football.”

We waited. And waited.

No goal. Offside.

I did not cheer.

Alan and myself just looked at each other.

Alan : “I’m never going to cheer a VAR decision in our favour.”

Chris : “You and me both.”

Hundreds did cheer though.

Soon after, Dave made a beautiful tackle – the epitome of guts and timing – to thwart Promes. This drew marvellous applause from the away contingent. He may have endured a difficult start to this season but this was evidence that he still has a place to play during the current campaign.

The stats at the end of the first-half showed Ajax dominating possession by 56% to 44% but we had carved out more chances.

It was goal-less at the break, and we wondered how. Just before the game recommenced, “Three Little Birds” was played on the PA. This Ajax song was adopted by us in the latter stages of 2009/10 and it always takes me back to a hideously rainy night at Fratton when we won 5-0 and the away end sung it. Great memories.

“Cus every little thing…is gonna be alright.”

As the second-half began, I mentioned to Gary that I had seen Ajax play Chelsea once before; way back in the summer of 1993 in the Makita Tournament at White Hart Lane.

“Did you go to that Gal?”

“Yeah.”

It was, in fact, the first time that I had ever seen Chelsea play a foreign team. It was also Glenn Hoddle’s first game in charge. I had travelled up with Glenn from Frome, had met up with Daryl, and we watched as Chelsea drew 1-1 in normal time before winning 4-2 on penalties. The Chelsea team that day seems from another age.

Hitchcock

Hall – Johnsen – Sinclair – Dow

Donaghy – Hoddle – Wise – Peacock

Cascarino – Fleck

The Ajax team included Edwin van der Sar, Frank de Boer, Edgar Davids, Ronald de Boer, Finidi George and Marc Overmars. Within two years they would be European Champions under Louis van Gaal. It was a joy to see the Tottenham fans squirm as Glenn Hoddle played for us. It was the first of a two-game set on the Saturday, but while Glenn and Daryl stayed on to see Tottenham beat Lazio in the second game, I shot off to see Depeche Mode at Crystal Palace that evening. It was a perfect Saturday for me.

Oh, we beat Tottenham 4-0 in the final on the Sunday, but I suppose that is a given knowing our history with “that lot.”

1993

The second-half continued. The intensity wasn’t at the previous levels, but it was still a good enough game. On the hour, a low corner down below us was met with a diving header from Edson Alvarez and we watched in horror as his effort grazed the far post.

Phew.

“COME ON CHELS.”

There was less attacking intent than in the first-half.

On sixty-six minutes, Christian Pulisic replaced Willian, who had toiled all night long. I remembered one phenomenal gut-busting run from deep to support an attack which left me breathless let alone him. Then Michy Batshuayi replaced Tammy Abraham who had not had the best of service. We did think that Callum was lucky to avoid being substituted.

With twenty minutes remaining, Pulisic gathered the ball and ran confidently at the Ajax defence. He cut in and sized up his options. His shot from outside the box was deflected up and right into the path of Batshuayi.

This is it, we thought.

This is fucking it.

His wild shot ballooned up over the bar and probably ended up in one of the city’s concentric canals.

Bollocks.

Behind me, an altercation between two fans about Michy.

“He should be burying them chances if he wants a place on the team.”

“Give him a break, he has only been on the pitch for ten minutes.”

Pulisic, looking lively on the left, again advanced with pace and intent. His pass to Batshuayi was returned to him, but he dragged the ball wide. With just four minutes remaining, we again worked the ball down the left flank. Mount to Pulisic, and a fine piece of skill to carve out a yard of space. His low cross was dummied by Alonso and the ball was rifled high – but not too high – by Michy into the roof of the Ajax net.

BOOM.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

The screams from myself and others were wild and unrelenting.

We yelled and yelled, it seemed that we were all as one, the same body shape, the same fists up punch.

The euphoria of a late winner in Europe. What can beat that?

The final whistle was met with wild applause from us all.

The Chelsea reprised the Bob Marley song.

“Cus every little thing…is gonna be alright.”

This was our equivalent of Manchester City playing “One Step Beyond” every time they beat us at their gaff.

This was a fine team performance. I was especially impressed with the four defenders, who looked in control and played as a unit, but kudos to all. All of a sudden, after losing our first game at home to Valencia, we now look to be favourites to go through with two of our last three games at Stamford Bridge.

They kept us in for a good thirty minutes or so, and the return trip to the city was interrupted by a few delays. But we were back in the claustrophobic hub of the city soon enough.

It had been, surely, one of our greatest nights in Europe.

2019

Tales From This Football Life

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 11 August 2019.

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

What an odd fellow he was.

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

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

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

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

The season was now upon us.

We were on our way.

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

And then we spoke about the football.

Many words were shared.

My take was this :

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

Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire.

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

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

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

Staffordshire, Cheshire, Lancashire.

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

Fucking hell.

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

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

And we knew exactly how Rick felt.

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

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

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

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

What memories.

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

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

What memories.

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

What memories waiting to happen.

This football life is a wonderful thing, eh?

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

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

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

“Of course, we could get walloped here.”

There were nods, silent nods.

“Bloody hell, be happy with a draw.”

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

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

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

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

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

We heard the team.

“Mason Mount in, big game for him.”

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

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

But it was Tammy.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Zouma – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic

Pedro – Mount – Barkley

Abraham

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

Neil Barnett breezed past.

“I’m happy with the team.”

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

“Every single one of us loves Alex Ferguson.”

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

I commented :

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

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

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

“Just like London, your city is blue.”

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

Our kit? You know the story. Shudder.

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

The away end “ooooohed.”

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

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

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

Rashford struck it high past Kepa.

We were 1-0 down.

Bollocks.

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

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

More of that all season long please.

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

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

“One-nil and you still don’t sing.”

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

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

“Offside.”

Thanks for that.

I hate modern football.

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

It was, clearly, one of those halves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Next goal is massive.”

There were no changes at the break.

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

I commented to Alan :

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

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

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

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

We were now 2-0 down.

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

Bollocks.

Olivier Giroud replaced Tammy.

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

The United fans went doolally.

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

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

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

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

Now, that was an odd sensation.

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

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

Fackinell.

My mind spun.

“That’s my biggest defeat up here.”

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

“Our biggest opening day loss in memory.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh Chelsea We Love You.”

It ended up getting a lot of likes.

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

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

Where else would I have rather been?

Nowhere.

 

Tales From Another Year

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 2 January 2019.

Another year, another Chelsea game. The evening match at home to Southampton represented the forty-seventh consecutive year that I would be watching my team play “live” and, as the evening developed, at times it felt like it too. Here is a report of Chelsea game number one thousand two hundred and twenty-six – and my five hundred and fortieth consecutive match report.

This won’t be pretty.

PD was on driving duties again. I met up with him, Parky and Glenn in the pub car park opposite my place of work just after 3pm. It had been my first, tiresome, day back at work after an eleven-day break. The highlight was procuring my ticket for the League Cup semi-final at Wembley when they went on sale at 7am. I was not sure if I was being particularly negative, but it certainly felt that the football authorities were up to their conniving best in 2019 already. I remember not so long ago, there would be a full fixture list on New Year’s Day, with only one or two games displaced to the following evening. On New Year’s Day 2019, there were just three Premier League games. The following day, there were six, including ours. So rather than have all day to devote to football, with no rushing around like fools, fans of twelve clubs were forced to travel to games after work. To me, it just didn’t seem right. It felt like we were being short-changed.

However, let it not be said that I don’t enjoy a challenge; I still managed to hit three pubs, admittedly all along the North End Road.

In “The Goose” we sat by the executive boardroom – the disabled toilet – and we chatted to a good dozen or so of the usual suspects. It was not particularly busy. On the day that we had paid Borussia Dortmund a fee of some £58M for the American wunderkind Christian Pulisic, I turned to Glenn and said

“You have to wonder if signing an American Christian right-winger is going to work out.”

The others moved on to “Simmons” but I shot in to “The Cock Tavern” where I had a pretty good feeling that a few friends from afar would be drinking. There was a group of around thirty fans from all over the US in London for the Palace and Southampton games – backed by the “London Is Blue” podcast team – and I had met a few of a previous tour group before last season’s miserable Tottenham game in the same pub. As I walked through a very packed bar, sure enough there was the sound of a few American accents, and a fair few Chelsea scarves – a tell-tale sign that overseas fans were present – so I sensed that I had guessed correctly. There was even one chap wearing a Chelsea hat, but with also what appeared to be a massive Chelsea security blanket, the like of which I have never seen before. I soon met Mike from Tacoma for the first time and he followed me out to the beer garden where the main tour party were based. At Selhurst Park on Sunday, they had sat – quietly, without colours – in a block in the home section of the Arthur Wait. At this game, they would be in the East Middle.

“Blimey, I’ve only ever sat there once.”

It was great to reacquaint myself with a few old friends and to meet some new Chelsea fans for the first time.

I replayed the American Christian right-winger line and got even more of a blank response than I did from Glenn in the first pub.

Of course we chatted about all things Chelsea and I honestly could have stayed there all night. Steve from Seattle had been touring around the south-west the previous few days and must have been very close to my home village at one stage. I am not sure what was the catalyst for the conversation, but I spoke to Brandon and his girlfriend, from Minneapolis, about the Champions League games in Moscow and Munich. I admitted that I am probably, currently, on my tenth stage of being a Chelsea fan – maybe a topic for another “Tale” – but I had to admit that “really, after Munich, nothing really matters.”

I have an inkling that they knew what I meant.

My friend Natalie from Kansas City, who sat alongside me at the famous 6-0 thrashing of Arsenal in 2014, followed me a few yards along to “Simmons” and she met Parky again, the poor girl. She used to work for the MLS team the New England Revolution and was looking forward to seeing Chelsea play in Boston later this season, a game that I have already ruled myself out of. Time was moving on, though, and there was only time for one rushed bottle of “Nastro Azzurro.” At 7.25pm, we needed to hotfoot it to the ground. Nat was watching from the dreaded West Upper.

I reached my seat with about five seconds to spare before the game kicked-off. It is a good job that I work in logistics.

Fair play, a midweek game or not, Stamford Bridge was full to capacity once more. In the other corner, close to where the tour party were based, there were only 1,400 away fans.

Our team lined up as below :

  1. Arrizabalaga.
  2. Azpilicueta.
  3. Alonso.
  4. Kante.
  5. Rudiger.
  6. Luiz.
  7. Jorginho.
  8. Barkley.
  9. Morata.
  10. Hazard.
  11. Willian.

Talking of Munich, Oriel Romeu was in but Ryan Bertrand was out.

It had been a bitter day but Stamford Bridge did not seem quite so raw as I had expected.

The match began.

Southampton were in their traditional red and white stripes of course, but I had to have a double-take a few weeks back when I saw the team play an away game in two-tone red stripes, evidently their third kit. If ever there was an example of a football club taking the piss, this was surely it.

First kit : red and white stripes.

Second kit : yellow and blue.

Third kit : red and red stripes.

As so often happens, we began quite brightly but soon fell away. An early free-kick set up Alonso, but his effort slammed against the wall. A shot from Barkley, making a yard of space nicely, was blocked. For what seemed like the first time in ages, a long ball from Dave was aimed at Alvaro Morata but this great ball was headed meekly at the Saints goalie Angus Gunn (who?). Southampton gave the – false – impression that they were going to make a game of it with efforts from Ward-Prowse and Ings, but we then took a stranglehold of the game. But, I have to say, this was not a great spectacle at all. I lost count of the number of times that the ball was swept back along the defensive four, while the attacking players hardly tested their markers with neither runs into space nor incisive passing.

Alonso to Barkley to Luiz to Jorginho to Rudiger to Luiz to Azpilicueta to Jorginho to Kante to Alonso to Luiz.

Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass.

I was sure that I might receive the ball at one stage.

This was football by numbers, with the players seemingly handcuffed into playing a rather tedious variant of football the like of which I was struggling to find any merit in. It was tough going. At last, a neat lofted pass from Rudiger found Eden Hazard but his full-blooded swipe hit the Southampton ‘keeper in the face and the chance was wasted. An Alonso effort through a ridiculous forest of legs went wide. A Morata shot was deflected wide. There had been a few lofted passes from David Luiz, but none seemed to reach their targets. Eden was quiet. Only Kante seemed to have any urgency.

Willian – not involved to be honest – was injured and was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

Glenn had disappeared for a while and came back with an assortment of confectionary – “I’ve had a hot dog too” – and the game was so poor that this is worthy of a mention.

There were audible boos at half-time.

It was time to vent.

I turned to Alan : “we haven’t seen this sort of football at Chelsea for ages.”

I’m a pretty patient person and I knew that this version of football would take a while to gel, but this was teeth-grinding stuff. It was truly dire. And the atmosphere, of course – obviously – was morgue like.

Into the second-half we went. I was not sure it would be a bountiful journey.

Stuart Armstrong (who?) left fly from outside the box and Kepa scrambled down to turn it around the post. We grew a little, but only marginally, with a little dance and shot from Hazard which was aimed too closely to Gunn. We needed a lift and that was it; the crowd responded a little, but the noise was barely at the 5/10 level.

Ward-Prose hit Battersea Power Station with a rogue Southampton effort and then Jorginho – bloody hell, smelling salts please nurse – hit a riser from outside the box, but it was an easy save for the bearded debutant custodian.

“Bearded debutant custodian.”

Do I get points for that?

An audacious back-heel over on the far touch line from David Luiz – the London Is Blue team must have had a great view of it – found a Chelsea team mate, and the crowd responded with a burst of noise. As Alan commented to me, it is often a single bit of spontaneity that can lift a crowd. And I am not sure that there is too much spontaneity about Chelsea at the moment. I have this dreaded fear that football is headed the way of other sports where choreographed training plays are re-enacted ad infinitum on the pitch with players not allowed to show any individual spontaneity or – for the want of a better word – wit.

I love football that is breathless, off-the-cuff and passionate.

This fucking wasn’t.

On sixty-eight minutes, an ineffectual Barkley was replaced by Cesc Fabregas who played in a more forward role than in other appearances for Chelsea. Not long after, the best passage of play in the entire game involving Hazard and Fabregas set up Morata, who was on the shoulder of the last man. I sensed that he was in, and bound to score. His shot was captured on film, but as soon as the ball hit the back of the net, I soon equated that “yes, he was offside.”

“Of course he bloody was.”

Fabregas played a delightful pass to Morata, raiding in the inside-left channel, but the under-fire Spanish striker’s rather meek effort was well saved by Gunn. Morata was not getting much service throughout the game but it did not seem to matter; this lad could miss one or ten with equal ease.

Ugh.

There were a couple of long shots from Alonso as the game drifted into its final few minutes. The Southampton box became more and more packed. This was simply not to be. There were boos at the final whistle.

Well, that doesn’t help anyone does it?

As I exited the stairs, I spotted Tim, who had been in “The Cock Tavern” before the game and I vented further.

“When the Sarri career comes to an end in maybe ten years, I really do wonder if the Napoli era will be his high-water mark, when he happened to find himself in charge of the right blend of players at the right time, with no real pressure to win anything.”

I am, dear reader, still finding it difficult to warm to the bloke.

On the walk back to the car – the mood among the support was bleak – we heard that Cesc Fabregas had appeared to say his “goodbye” at the end of the game as he strode around the Stamford Bridge pitch looking emotional. A move to Monaco is apparently imminent. He has been a very fine servant for this football club. He may have spent eight years at Arsenal but his five seasons here have resulted in two league title wins, plus two other domestic trophies. I still remember his pass to Andre Schurrle in his first Chelsea game at Burnley, which happened to be my one thousandth, and that sublime disguised pass lit up that particular evening.

He wore a magic hat and he will always be one of us.

You’re a good man Cesc. You’re absolutely Fabregas.

We leave the league well alone over the next two games. We play in the FA Cup at home to Nottingham Forest on Saturday – did someone mention banana skin? – and then Tottenham in the League Cup on Tuesday. The season continues at a pace now. It is no place for the weak nor the meek.

Into the year we continue to go.