Tales From The John Charles Stand

Leeds United vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2022.

This was it, then. The long-awaited trip to Elland Road. My last visit was towards the tail end of the 2000/1 season, although the club’s last League visit was in 2003/4. I didn’t go to the League Cup game in December 2012; it came too soon after the jaunt to Japan. Of course, last season the game was behind closed doors, a phrase that I hope that we never have to hear ever again.

Was I looking forward to it?

“By heck as like” and other Yorkshire clichés.

As soon as the weekend had finished and the collapse against Wolves was behind me, I could not wait to be pounding the tarmac once more. I had booked two half days for this one. I left work at midday and deviated south to collect Parky and then PD. We set off from Frome at just before 1pm. It was a 7.30pm kick-off in West Yorkshire. Plenty of time.

It was mainly a decent enough trip north. There were rain showers to start but these cleared soon enough. The rest of the journey was spent with me gazing at a Simpsons sky and hoping that any ominous billowing and darkening clouds on the horizon would not ruin our trip. We stopped at Strensham, just south of Worcester, on the M5 at around 2.30pm and then at Woolley Edge, just north of Barnsley, at around 5pm. We then hit a fair bit of slow-moving traffic which meant that our arrival time at “The Drysalters” pub by Elland Road took place at 6pm rather than the envisaged 5.30pm. I dropped the boys off in the pub car park and soon found a cheap place to park nearby.

As I locked my car, a Leeds fan called out.

“Here we go again.”

I replied “yeah, maybe.”

“The Drysalters” pub is well known to me. I have parked in the car park on two occasions before. We soon spotted Deano, and his son-in-law Steve – a PNE fan – and also three lads from Wiltshire. The three amigos from Northampton were drinking outside in the sun too. There were Chelsea fans everywhere. This sort of scenario would not have happened in the ‘eighties or even ‘nineties when survival was the key pre-game buzzword. Next, Josh appeared with a pint of Diet Coke for me, along with his two mates from Minnesota, Chad and Danny.

A younger set of Chelsea fans were loudly singing the praises of Thomas Tuchel, Thiago Silva, Timo Werner and Edouard Mendy.

“He comes from Senegal.”

After just one drink apiece to quench our thirsts, we walked over to Elland Road.

Previous visits came to mind.

The first one came in early May 1987. One of my mates at college, Bob, was a Leeds United supporter and had visited Stamford Bridge with me to see a couple of games in 1985/86 and 1986/87. It was time for me to repay the honour. We travelled up by train from Stoke, had a couple of pints near the central station and watched Leeds beat West Brom 3-2 in their final home game of a Second Division season. The gate of 24,688 was their highest that season. What do I remember? The day began with an excellent pint of Sam Smith’s bitter in the pub beforehand. We watched with all the Leeds loons in the infamous South Stand. I remember a pitch invasion at the end and John Sheridan being carried on fans’ shoulders. And of course I remember them singing about us.

“Shoot the Chelsea scum.”

That season would end disappointingly for Leeds. They had already lost to Coventry City in an FA Cup Semi-Final at Hillsborough and they would go on to lose in the play-offs to Charlton Athletic.

My first visit with Chelsea was in September 1988 when both clubs found themselves in the Second Division again. I was working in the cold store of a local dairy and as was the case with my other long trips north by train that season – Stoke City and Manchester City too – I was coming off a night-shift. I remember struggling to stay awake on both legs of the journey to Leeds. We were yet to win a match after five games in the league and the match at Elland Road – with me watching in the South Stand, now given to away fans much to the consternation of the locals – would be a tough test. Thankfully, an early John Bumstead goal – off his ‘arris – and one from Gordon Durie gave us a surprising but deeply enjoyable win. I don’t remember any trouble at that game despite hundreds of Leeds fans milling around as we caught buses back to the station from right outside the away end.

Next up was a game in November 1995 in which I drove up from Somerset, met up with my mate Ian – Rotherham United – at Stafford and watched from the main stand using tickets that Bob, I think, had bought for us. It was a pretty decent performance and I believe I am correct in saying that it was the first time that Glenn Hoddle had switched to us playing with wing backs – Dan Petrescu and Gareth Hall – outside a back three – Erland Johnsen, David Lee and Michael Duberry – only for us to succumb to a late sucker punch from the boot of Tony Yeboah. I can’t recollect moving a muscle when Leeds scored that goal. Having a mate from South Yorkshire next to me probably disguised my allegiances.

A year later, in December 1996, a Sunday game – live on the TV – and a meek 0-2 loss to a Leeds United team that included Ian Rush. He even scored against us. We were pushed up into the quadrant of yellow seats by the South Stand for this and I can remember our away following was awful, maybe only around 1,000. It was a long old drive home that Sunday evening with work in the morning.

My final visit took place in April 2001. I had driven up with Glenn and had collected Alan at Stafford en route to save the boy some money. I often did that in those days. Leeds United were a force to be reckoned with at that time. We were back in the South Stand, played decently enough but lost 0-2 to two very late Leeds goals from Robbie Keane and Mark Viduka, with the goals coming in the final five minutes. A tidy roast at Brighouse after the game almost made up for our defeat.

With relegation threatening Leeds, I decided to make the most of my visit to Elland Road and sped off to take some shots of the stadium. If relegation follows in a few weeks, who knows when I would return. It really was hard to believe I was last outside the South Stand over twenty-one years ago.

Many home fans were wearing the iconic bar scarf from the ‘seventies. I have to say – and my pal Gary agreed with me at the game – that it still looks class. Those tri-colour bar scarves of Leeds United – white, yellow, blue – and Manchester United – red, white, black – and even us – red, green white – were fantastic. I remember the “smiley” badge too, a real ‘seventies classic. Gary and I would mention the Admiral kits. They defined the mid-‘seventies. And the numbered tie-ups on the socks. They were unique. I remembered the “Leeds United AFC” frontage to the West Stand. Bob and I were photographed outside there in 1987, me with a jade Marc O’Polo sweatshirt, one of my favourites, and of course it brought back memories of that classic scene from “Porridge” too.

I spotted a few columns of ‘seventies concrete as the South Stand disappeared around a corner. That a few pillars of brutalist architecture should please me so much is something that I don’t really want to dwell on too much, but it is a sure sign that on these away trips to altered stadia there is no doubt that I love seeing hints of a past.

“The Old Peacock” pub – as iconic a Leeds United sight if ever there was – is now temporarily renamed “The Bielsa” and I remembered walking down the hill towards it from Beeston for the 1995 game, deposited there in a taxi with Ian after a drink in the city centre. There’s a statue of Billy Bremner on the corner, with floral tributes all around. The East Stand is huge. It was built in 1993 on the site of the Lowfields Stand. For a short time, it was the largest stand in the United Kingdom, holding some 17,000, before being overtaken by Celtic and then Manchester United. I can remember the whole of Elland Road being shunted twenty yards to the north in around 1972 with the South Stand being built.

It was time to get inside.

There was a bag check outside the away turnstiles and my SLR was waved through. The old main stand, the West Stand, is now named the John Charles after the Leeds United – and Juventus, among others – centre-forward. I made my way upstairs…the steps were carpeted, as was the away bar area.

Carpets in the away end. In Yorkshire.

Whatever next?

I had a cracking seat. Parky, Gary, Alan and I were in the very front row of the upper section. Sadly, the shunting of the pitch in the early ‘seventies meant that those to my far right – geographically, not politically – were left with a shocking view of the pitch, way past the goal line. I had a great view and even I was behind it.

I spotted many familiar faces. It was lovely to see so many mates.

The sun was still out, catching the East Stand and making it come alive. I looked around. The Kop is now the Don Revie Stand. The East Stand is now the Jack Charlton Stand. The South Stand is now the Norman Hunter Stand. They still dote on that ‘seventies era. It is as if Howard Wilkinson’s League Championship in 1992 never happened. Oh wait, the away bar at Elland Road is called “Howard’s Bar” and that seems a mite disrespectful.

I would talk to Gary about that team during the game.

“Great midfield. Gary Speed, David Batty, Gary McAllister, Gordon Strachan. Had it all.”

“Fanfare For A Common Man” was played on the PA, just like at Wolves. Then came the Leeds anthem “Marching On Together.” Despite my dislike of Leeds throughout my life, my friendship with Bob and Trev – mentioned in a Brentford game this season – means that I am afraid to admit that I knew the words to a few of the songs I would hear during the evening.

The teams entered the pitch.

Leeds in all white. Chelsea in all blue.

Stay still my beating heart.

Our team?

Mendy

Christensen – Rudiger – Chalobah

James – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Pulisic – Lukaku – Mount

Pre-match, I feared the worst. I need not have worried. We began so brightly and, with memories of Johnny B’s early goal in 1988, we were soon jumping around like fools. A fine move down our right and the ball was played in sweetly by Reece James for Mason Mount, shades of Frank Lampard at his peak, arriving at just the right time to strike the ball firmly past the Leeds ‘keeper Illan Meslier, aged twelve and three-quarters. Mase raced over to wind up the Leeds fans in the far corner.

Ha.

Alan and I resurrected our “THTCAUN / COMLD” routine.

We were playing some lovely expansive stuff and were finding lots of space out wide. We were playing one-touch football where we could, and I had to ask Alan for some smelling salts. To their credit, all of the Leeds fans in The Kop, the stand opposite and the South Stand – old habits die hard – were standing throughout, and contrasted wildly to the Everton fans in the Park End a couple of weeks ago.

“Marching On Together.”

We were purring, and Lukaku was much improved. His movement, his work rate, his involvement. It was good to see.

On around twenty-five minutes, Daniel James – a scorer in that horrible 0-4 loss at Old Trafford in 2019 – scythed down Mateo Kovacic, who up until that point was arguably our best player, and I told Gary “I reckon that’s a red.”

The referee had soon made up his mind.

Red.

Kovacic, full of running, could run no more. After trying to run off his injury, he was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

“That might mean less movement, Gal.”

But again I need not have worried. A super run from the sub soon after looked so graceful and it certainly cheered us.

From the Chelsea choir :

“Leeds. Leeds are falling apart. Again.”

There was a glancer from Lukaku on thirty-three minutes that narrowly missed the far post. This was heart-warming stuff indeed. The cross had come from the trusted boot of Reece out on the right, who was finding even more space to exploit. The exact same could be said of Marcos Alonso on the left.

In our packed section, we were at our Dambustering best.

“We all fucking hate Leeds.”

Kalvin Phillips then hacked down Christian Pulisic. This game was living up to the hype, an old-fashioned affair with pulsing runs from deep, mis-timed tackles, battles in key areas.

I turned to Alan : “remember that game at Chelsea in 1997 when they had two sent-off?”

When the home team was rewarded with a rare corner in front of me, I was surprised that the home fans didn’t respond with their old “Leeds! Leeds! Leeds! Leeds!” with associated chest beating. That must have fallen from grace since my last visit.

They had, instead, turned into a crowd of scarf-twirlers.

The game was halted for a good few minutes when it became apparent that there had been a medical emergency in the lower section of the away support to my left. Sadly, the home fans sung throughout and even dirtied their name further with a couple of offensive comments about “soft southern bastards.”

On a day that marked the anniversary of the Bradford Fire, this sadly reminded me of a typically shocking moment involving Leeds supporters in the autumn of 1986. Sixteen months after the fire at Valley Parade in May 1985, and with Bradford City hosting Leeds at the Odsal Stadium, some Leeds fans set fire to a chip-van high on the terracing at one end of the stadium.

To this day, I am left shaking my head.

Just at the end of the half, Trevoh Chalobah sent in a scuffler that went wide of the Leeds goal.

It was a fine first-half performance, but was I the only one who was a little worried that we hadn’t created more chances?

The second-half began with Chelsea even more on top and full of running against a Leeds team that were looking like they had already given up on the game, on survival, on life itself. But the home fans were still singing. To be fair, we couldn’t hear the other stands, but from the evidence from The Kop – no gesticulating, no clapping in unison, nowt – it as just the rabble to our right that were making the noise.

“The Yorkshire Republican Army. We’re barmy. Wherever we go. We fear no foe.”

Two chances showed our intent. A header from Lukaku was high, a volley from Loftus-Cheek went wide.

Then, on fifty-five minutes, a beautiful move involving Jorginho and Mount set up Pulisic on the edge of the box. He took a touch…I said out loud “he can find the corners” and my pulse quickened…

The low shot was perfectly struck, down low, to the left, “corners.”

GET IN.

The scorer almost grabbed a second, curling one just wide and as I found myself looking up at the TV screen to my right, both he and myself were pulling the same pained expression.

Next up, Lukaku – full of spirit – took on his marker and rifled just wide too. His play was getting better and better. Yet only as recently as just before the Wolves game had kicked-off, Oxford Frank and I had binned him off.

There were wildly loud renditions of “Que Sera Sera” – the “Wembley” version by us and not the “Father’s Gun” version by them – and then “Carefree.”

Carl from Stoke, down below me, turned up towards us and yelled :

“ONE MAN WENT TO MOW”

And we all followed.

This was a noisy old game.

I turned to Al : “To be fair, the South Stand haven’t stopped singing all night.”

We continued.

“We all hate Leeds scum. We all hate Leeds scum. We all hate Leeds scum. We all hate Leeds scum.”

Though this was tame stuff compared to the “witty” interchange about one of Leeds’ sons, but that’s not for here.

On seventy-eight minutes, a double substitution from Thomas Tuchel, who was now flavour of the month again.

Hakim Ziyech for Pulisic. The American had certainly enjoyed a fine game.

Dave for Reece. Saving our star man for the next game no doubt.

On eighty-three minutes, Mount robbed the ball and passed to Ziyech. He then found Lukaku inside the box. What followed was doggedness personified. Surrounded by Leeds defenders, he turned and tried to create an opening for himself. He moved the ball, eventually, onto his left peg and smashed the ball in.

BOSH.

Talk about drama.

His euphoria after was matched by all of us in the John Charles Stand.

I took about twenty-five photos of the move, the goal, the celebrations. I was exhausted as he was by the end of it all.

Fackinell.

Leeds were still singing at the end, but so were we.

“You’re going down. You’re going down. You’re going down. You’re going down. You’re going down.”

I remember only one Leeds effort on our goal in the entirety of that one-sided second-half, a header that was rising high before it left the bloke’s head. It was a deeply satisfying performance. And yet a little voice in my head kept saying –

“It’s only Leeds, mate.”

For the first time that I can remember at a domestic game in decades, we were penned in after the match had ended. After twenty minutes we were let out onto the streets of Beeston. On the walk back to the car, there was time for a tasty cheese burger with onions. It rounded off a wonderful night out in West Yorkshire.

I said to PD : “Makes it all worthwhile, nights like this. We travel some miles, we don’t always get the results, or sometimes it’s all a bit flat. This was bloody superb. A great night out.”

It also meant that I had accomplished a full set of league aways for only the third time in my life.

2008/9 : 19/19.

2015/16 : 19/19.

2021/22 : 19/19.

I eventually reached my home a few minutes after three o’clock.

Next up, the FA Cup Final at Wembley on Saturday.

Leeds United can only dream of such things.

1988

2001

2022

Tales From East Somerset To East Lancashire

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 5 March 2022.

We were in the midst of a run of away games at venues that could well be described as “old school.” After Selhurst Park and Kenilworth Road now came Turf Moor. Many in our support hate a trip to Burnley’s home and many dislike the team too. Under Sean Dyche, and over the past eight seasons of top flight football, the team has become known for its rather rudimentary and physical style of football. But I love a trip to this particular corner of East Lancashire. I especially love the approach up to the ground from the town centre. I have shared a few words about this walk in previous episodes so I won’t repeat myself again. Suffice to say, it takes me back to an older time, and that is no bad thing. And in this old mill town, football goes back a long way. Burnley Football Club have played at Turf Moor since 1883.

I had set off from East Somerset at 7.30am and had made perfect timing. As I turned onto the M62 from the M6, the road signs soon indicated that I was in the middle of the old football heartland of England. There were signs for Manchester and Leeds, but also for Blackburn and Bury, for Rochdale and Oldham, for Accrington and Burnley. On my last visit to Turf Moor in the October of 2019, our pre-match took us to a pub in Clayton Le Moors. On this occasion, I had highlighted a pub in Accrington. But this was not just any pub. My destination was “The Crown Inn” and what made this pub so special was that it was right outside one of the entrances to Accrington Stanley Football Club. We arrived bang on midday.

This was just perfect. Burnley was only a ten-minute drive away. The pub looked warm and inviting. PD, PDs’s son Scott – on his birthday – and Parky ordered pints of lager, and I sipped at something a lot less alcoholic. It was time to relax for an hour and a half or so. A friend of a friend – David from Silverdale on Morecambe Bay, last seen at Anfield in late August – soon arrived and picked up a spare ticket.

I zipped outside to take a small selection of photos of the nearby Wham Stadium, a ground where I am yet to witness a game, looking neat and tidy in the winter sun. A local, who had been sitting in the pub when we arrived, walked past me on his way to watch Accrington’s away game at Portsmouth in a brand new hospitality suite that was opening for the very first time that day. He spoke to me about his joy of how the ground has been recently developed. The club has risen from the ashes after being turfed out of the Football League in the ‘sixties. He enthusiastically answered my question about the whereabouts of their old Peel Park ground which was evidently just a mile away.

“Where are you from, then?”

“Oh, Somerset. We’re Chelsea.”

“Are you going to the game?”

“Yeah.”

“Hope you beat those bastards.”

This was a view shared by a lad in the pub, who was drinking next to us with a mate. I had to ask of his allegiance.

“Are you Blackburn?”

“Oh aye. He’s a Knob Ender, like, but yeah.”

The fact that the two lads were watching Blackburn Rovers’ game at Craven Cottage – in SW6, of all places – was a clue, but nothing is ever a certainty in football.

In a space of five minutes, I had met supporters of Accrington Stanley, Blackburn Rovers and Preston North End. It was a perfect welcome to the area.

Back in 1888, all three clubs – plus the seemingly despised Burnley – were founder members of the Football League. It seemed just right that we should be drinking at the epicentre of the origins of the game in England.

All four clubs lie within twenty miles of each other. Bolton Wanderers, another inaugural member, are close by. The other seven clubs – Everton, Stoke City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa, Derby County and Notts County – are further afield.

At the end of our spell in the cosy pub, we wished each other well and the Blackburn fan said “I hope you beat them four nil.”

The short drive from Accrington to Burnley was a breeze. I must admit I love the sight of the naked Pennines to the north-east of the town and on this occasion they didn’t disappoint. I have noted before that other clubs might well be geographically more northern, but there is no club that is spiritually more northern that the one that resides along Harry Potts Way in deepest Burnley.

We nabbed what seemed like the last car park spot near the town centre and were soon walking towards Turf Moor. The cold wind almost cut me in two, but nearer the stadium, in among the terraced houses, the wind seemed to quieten. There has been a fair amount of gentrification of good old Turf Moor of late – a splash of paint here and there, the wooden seats in the away end have eventually been replaced, there are corporate tiers rising up above two of the corner flags and the Blackburn fan had warned us of every spare inch now being devoted to neon signage – but I liked how “Burnley Football Club”, in ‘sixties font, was still emblazoned on the old stand adjacent to Harry Potts Way.

There was time for one more drink in the awning adjacent to the away concourse and we then made our way to our seats in the away end. In that packed concourse, it again seemed that Aquascutum scarves were everywhere. It must have been the threat of the cold. As with my last visit, I was adjacent to the home fans, right behind the goal. A few very drunk youngsters stumbled in. I was stood next to Parky and Gary, but also Sophie – Porto 2021 – and her father Andy was two rows in front. PD and Scott were ten rows behind us.

The minutes ticked by.

The teams were shown on the two large TV screens in the corners.

Chelsea lined-up as follows :

Mendy

Chalobah  – Silva – Rudiger

James  – Jorginho – Kante – Saul

Mount – Havertz – Pulisic

Talking points? No room for Romelu Lukaku then, and I had no complaints. Saul at left wing-back? I trusted the manager.

The teams appeared. Chelsea wore the nasty and messy jade, orange and black. I suddenly felt nauseous.

There was an announcement from the PA that detailed a minute of applause for the people suffering in Ukraine. The teams stood in the centre circle. The scoreboard, the advertising boards, the balcony walls and the roof fascia all around the ground turned yellow and blue. I took a few quick photos and then joined in by clapping alongside thousands. I was far from pleased that hundreds of Chelsea fans decided at that moment – during the minute of applause – to yell out the name of our owner.

Sophie and I spoke.

“We’ve done ourselves no favours there.”

Indeed.

The timing of this support of Roman Abramovich was completely wrong. This was no time to roar his name. This was no playground pissing contest. This was a moment to show solidarity with the poor folk who were being shelled by Russian troops. It came over, I am sure, as a reaction against the minute of applause rather than a show of support for our owner. I just didn’t need it. Chelsea Football club didn’t need it. The locals a few yards from me were pretty livid. And I think they had a point.

Fackinell.

There were prolonged periods of debate about our recent funding between a few Chelsea fans standing nearby and some equally headstrong locals throughout the game. It was a sideshow that I didn’t warm to.

It was a dire first-half. In the first twenty minutes, Burnley – playing with light blue shorts at home just didn’t look right – easily carved out the better chances. Thankfully our defence were strong both individually and as a unit. As with the last visit – OK, not last season, that doesn’t count, I couldn’t even remember the score – Dwight McNeil looked dangerous on their right. Wout Weghorst is a big lump, eh? A cross from Aaron Lennon found Weghorst but that prince among men Thiago Silva was able to clear off the line. A few defensive headers at set pieces kept Burnley at bay.

Thankfully, Chelsea saw off the early Burnley pressure and saw more and more of the ball. However, a long shot from outside the box from Toni Rudiger, which the ‘keeper Nick Pope did well to smother at his post, was the only real effort on goal.

The locals to our left were noisy at the start of the game but neither Sophie nor myself could decipher much of it.

It’s funny how I sometimes pick on certain things during games. In that first-half, as we were positioned right behind the goal, it was so noticeable that on three or four occasions when Silva was bringing the ball out of defence, I noticed a channel of space right up the middle of the pitch – maybe five yards wide – with no players blocking a pass to a run from a player into space. Alas, there were no runners and thus no ball was pinged at pace into the final third. And if anyone could ping a crisp ball to feet it was Silva. It was so annoying. But this lack of movement encapsulated our play in that woeful first forty-five minutes. It was exasperating stuff.

With our goalkeeper only a few yards away, he was serenaded loudly with his own song.

“He comes from Senegal.”

Thankfully, the home team ran out of ideas and were pushed back by us.

Gary : “they’re playing for 0-0.”

Chris : “So are we, mate.”

On the half-hour, a ball was skied way high and Mendy had to time his leap to perfection. Sadly, he seemed to mist-time everything and his punch fell to Jay Rodriguez, but his shot was off target. We applied a little more pressure as the first-half came to its conclusion but created only half-chances.

In the crowded concourse, I crept past a few pals on the way to the miniscule gents. Our performance was summed up by myself in the briefest of ways.

“Shite, eh?”

The second-half began and how. Chelsea were now attacking us, the two and a half thousand members of the away army. With the second-half just three minutes old, I had a perfect viewpoint to watch Reece James collect the ball just outside the box with a defender immediately up against him. Some sublime skills – a beguiling mixture of twists and dummies – allowed him a spare yard. I expected a cross. Instead, the ball was drilled into the far corner, low at the post.

We erupted.

Reece beamed. His face was a picture as he raced off down to the far corner. We love our post-goal celebrations at the corner posts, eh?

Just five minutes later, a magnificent cross from the boot of Christian Pulisic was absolutely inch perfect, allowing Kai Havertz to leap and head in at the far post. Space was at a minimum. The header had to be as perfectly placed as the cross.

It was.

We roared again.

Two minutes later, we watched a cracking move involving Mason Mount, N’Golo Kante and James develop. A low cross was bundled home by Havertz from very close in.

Three goals in ten minutes. Bloody hell. Nobody could have expected such a blitz at the start of the half. Surely the game was safe? Maybe not. In 2019, we went 4-0 up with goals that included a perfect hat-trick from Pulisic, only for us to gift the home team two late goals.

The home fans were quiet now, with only the occasional song about “Bastard Rovers” to keep them warm.

Sophie joked that three goals in ten minutes had given us a false expectation as the second-half continued. As ten minutes and then twenty passed, we grew restless.

“Boring now, innit?”

I laughed.

With twenty minutes to go, Saul knocked a ball into the danger zone. James Tarkowski took a swipe in an attempt to clear but Pulisic was on hand to smash it in from inside the six-yard box. Thankfully there were no chants of “USA” – ironic or not – to accompany our fourth goal unlike in 2019.

Burnley 0 Chelsea 4.

Excellent.

We had now scored four goals on each of my last three visits to Turf Moor. That Blackburn fan in the pub would be happy.

Thomas Tuchel made some late changes to rest weary legs.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for James.

Mateo Kovacic for Kante.

Timo Werner for Mount.

“Bloody hell, Soph, Ruben is playing right back now.”

We saw the game out. I summed the game up in one sentence.

“First-half everyone was 5/10, second-half 8/10.”

We shuffled out into the dusk of a Burnley evening and there was the usual amount of posturing behind the guard of two police horses from the home fans as both sets of supporters headed under the bridge on Harry Potts Way. We made it back to the car in double-quick time; it was our quickest ever exit from the town centre. A smash and grab raid? Maybe. As I headed west towards the M6 on top of the ridge of high land on the M65, the views of the Ribble Valley beneath the hills to the north and the peaks of the Lake District further west were quite spectacular.

Burnley never lets me down.

Next up, a long drive east to Norwich City on Thursday.

“Thursday?”

“So am I, see you in the pub.”

Tales From Simply A Superb Game

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 2 January 2022.

My run of football games over the festive period was continuing.

On the first day of 2022, following on from Frome Town’s 3-3 home draw with Melksham Town, it was time for another non-league match involving my local team. I travelled with my pal Fran over to nearby Paulton Rovers who had been enjoying a decent season themselves. This was one of those fabled games of two halves; in the first a rampant Frome attacked the end housing it’s sizeable travelling support and led with a fine goal from Kane Simpson. In the second-half, a different story as the home team dominated the game yet failed to really trouble the Frome goalkeeper. Frome weathered the storm and scored a late breakaway goal at the end via James Ollis to win 2-0. It kept the team at the top of the division down in level eight of the football pyramid. There was another large gate; 649 was more than four times the average Paulton Rovers attendance of 137. There must have been two hundred away fans. I enjoyed it.

But this was just a pre-curser, an hors-d’oeuvre, before the weekend’s main course.

On the second day of 2022, the last game of my Christmas schedule pitted Chelsea against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. However, as one run of games was ending, we were now overlapping into another sequence of games. Against Brighton, we embarked on a run of four home games in a space of just eleven days. I can’t ever remember a more condensed run of matches at Stamford Bridge.

Brighton followed by Liverpool followed by Tottenham followed by Chesterfield.

Of course, the build-up to the Liverpool game was dominated by Lukakugate. I suspected Machiavellian forces at work with the timing of the release in information of the interview. But oh Romelu, what were you bloody thinking? We waited to hear what the club’s response would be. Of course the most annoying thing about all of this was the fact that Lukaku had scored two in two games and had brought an extra element to our play against Villa and Brighton.

I hate negative noise around Chelsea Football Club. It spoiled my anticipation of the upcoming game a little. But Sunday soon came around.

I collected the same three passengers on the way up to London as for the Brighton game four days earlier; between the four of us in my car, there was a total of seven-hundred and ninety-five games and fourteen goals for Chelsea.

…cough…and I’ll say it again…cough.

There was very little traffic on the road to London. The weather was fine if a little grey. I dropped PD and Lord Parky at “The Eight Bells” and Ron at the bottom of Fulham Broadway. I was parked up bang on 11.30am. The journey had taken me around three hours again.

I walked down to Fulham Broadway tube station. There were a few minutes to wait for the southbound train and so I used the time to take a few photographs. I especially zoned-in on the old stairways that lead to the original station’s booking hall. The memories came flooding back. It’s a bit of a metaphor for Chelsea really. One station but split into two. The antiquated southern part is frozen in time along with my memories of the club before success and money – or money and success if our rivals are to be believed – while the northern part is slick and swish and functional. I used to love being squeezed right out onto the Fulham Road from those exit stairs that were only used on match days, and that I bet most new fans are not even aware of. But these days we walk out through the back of a shopping centre and past an entrance to a car park.

In recent months, I have fallen in love with the short train ride from Fulham Broadway to Putney Bridge. With my driving duties completed, it represents a chance for me to relax a little knowing that I have again reached London without incident nor accident. I have never been a nervous nor anxious driver, but there is always a little bit of me that is relieved once I park up at Chelsea. We pass through Parson’s Green, a famous old Chelsea battleground for those that know and all that bollocks, and I love looking back at Stamford Bridge across the rooftops and then over to the buildings of Chelsea Harbour. The trip is over within four minutes but it’s now a favourite part of my Chelsea day. Putney Bridge is the cutest of stations. And of course I love the thought that within a minute of descending those wooden stairs I will be walking into the friendly and cosy “Eight Bells.”

Talking of which…

I spent from 12.30pm to 3.45pm with PD and Parky, but also with Jonathan, who I was not planning on meeting up with until I realised that he was sat a few seats away from me against Brighton. I sorted out a ticket for him for Liverpool there and then and we agreed to meet up. He came in just as I was about to launch into a plate of gammon, fried eggs and chips, as per PD and as per Parky. Of course, the others were the dedicated drinkers while I was the dedicated driver. PD, Parky and I ran through a few thoughts about Abu Dhabi; I hope to book flights soon.

Jonathan now lives in Tampa and we have a couple of mutual acquaintances that we know through the burgeoning presence of Chelsea fans in the US. Jonathan used to be a referee, and knows Phil from Iowa who is a referee too. I couldn’t escape Chelsea fans who were also referees; at the Paulton Rovers game, I bumped into Young Dave – as featured in the first couple of Mark Worrall’s books – and he runs the line at local games to this day.

Jonathan told me about a game that he officiated in back in around 1996; he was the linesman at a USA vs. England U17 game in Tampa. He mentioned a young starlet who played for England who was a Chelsea prodigy but – although great things were expected – never made the grade with us but instead played for Brighton. Jonathan couldn’t remember his name.

My brain started ticking over.

“Damn, I can picture him. His name is on the tip of my tongue. What I usually do is go through the alphabet.”

PD told Jonathan I’d eventually remember on the way home.

Well, I got there eventually. But I had to go right to the end of the alphabet.

“Zeke Rowe!”

Anyone remember him?

Outside there was a hint of drizzle but the air was still relatively mild. We made it inside Stamford Bridge at just gone four o‘clock. I soon spotted Liverpool players in a very dark red training top going through their pre-match routines. The sight made my hackles rise a little. They remain one of my three most disliked teams; Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool. It’s just the way it is.

This was to be the first-ever “safe standing” game to take place in the top flight of English football. We are in some sort of a four team trial I believe. In reality, of course, those with “rail seating” in the lower tiers of The Shed and the Matthew Harding have been “safe standing” since the start of the season. I am generally in favour of safe standing, though I find it odd that the Shed Upper has been given over to standing in addition to the two lower tiers at either end of the stadium. What I find unpalatable is that those season ticket holders in the three areas of the stadium now covered by “safe standing” were given no say whatsoever in the process. In a nutshell, they were not given the chance to move their season tickets over to another part of Stamford Bridge.

I stand at away games and I could probably ease into standing at Stamford Bridge all of the time with no real problem. But for many in the area of the Matthew Harding Upper where I reside, standing at games would been uncomfortable and painful. Bluntly, not an option. I am glad, therefore, that our tier remained as seating.

I also found it ironic that Liverpool were to be involved in the very first official “safe standing” game in the top flight.

The minutes ticked by.

The Chelsea team?

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

Alonso – Kante – Kovacic – Azpilcueta

Pulisic – Havertz – Mount

Lukaku was not even in the squad.

Just before the game kicked-off, the stadium resounded to a noisy rendition of “Champions of Europe, we know what we are” to remind our visitors of who is on that particular perch at this moment in time.

There was a rip-roaring start to the game. In the first ten seconds, I was buggering about with my phone and so – in all honesty – missed the initial challenge on Cesar Azpilicueta by Sadio Mane that lead to the latter receiving a yellow card. I looked down to see Dave sprawled no more than thirty-five yards from me.

On two occasions that the ball was played centrally into the Liverpool box, water splashed up from the turf and I wondered if a little too much water had been sprayed onto that particular area. There was an early exchange of chances in the first few minutes. A defensive mix-up allowed Mane to play a ball across the goal towards Mo Salah but Edouard Mendy was able to save. At the other end, Kai Havertz put pressure on Trent Alexander-Arnold and the ball broke for Christian Pulisic with only unknown Liverpool ‘keeper Caoieaihoieamhouin Kelleher to beat. However, our slight striker could not convert. In fact, the ‘keeper made a fine reaction save, scooping the ball away well.

After nine minutes, another defensive blip from a stooping Chalobah allowed the ball to run to Mane who rounded Mendy to score despite the presence of Dave’s lunge on the line.

Ouch.

Despite this, the noise levels remained high.

“He gave it to Demba Ba, Steve Gerrard, Gerrard.”

I hate us singing this when we aren’t even playing Liverpool, but on this occasion I joined in.

We kept going and it felt like we were dominating the game. There was a low shot from Mason Mount that was blocked. Then a trademark Chelsea move of the past four years or so; we all had our hearts in our mouths when a deep cross from Dave on the right was played towards Marcos Alonso on the left. Alas, Alonso was stretching just a little too much and the shot was wild.

I spoke to PD : “We ain’t playing too badly here.”

Mateo Kovacic was showing great energy in our two-man midfield, and alongside him N’Golo Kante was at his usual high standard of play.

Alas, on twenty-six minutes, an incisive move down the Liverpool left found Salah breaking inside the box. I pleaded for Alonso to get tighter, but a shimmy and a shake from Salah allowed him to drift past. From an acute angle, he opened up his body and slammed the ball twixt ‘keeper and post. I was in a direct line with the shot. There was, eerily, a moment of silence in Stamford Bridge. The Liverpool fans down the other end waited for the net to ripple, and then there was a further slight pause for the wall of noise from one hundred yards away to hit me.

Fackinell.

I had immediate visions of 0-4, maybe even 0-5.

Fair play to Salah for not celebrating in front of us.

The noise died a little.

But then the away fans sang out “Allez allez” and this resulted in a hugely impressive “Carefree” from Chelsea.

Bloody excellent.

With the half-time break approaching, a foul near the far goal line on Havertz by James Milner raised our hopes. We watched as Alonso sent the ball in, only for Kelleher to punch up and away. I had my camera up to my eyes from the free-kick and watched through my lens as the ball ballooned up. It was falling towards Kovacic but he had to back-peddle to accommodate the arrival of the ball. As it fell, he volleyed with his right foot. The ball flew goal wards. We watched open-mouthed. It crashed into the right hand post. A moment of pure drama followed. Would it bounce out or bounce in? It bounced down and across the goal. Only when the net nestled did we celebrate. It was the Scousers turn to be engulfed by a wall of noise.

Whatafuckinggoal.

My immediate response?

Essien, Barcelona.

I snapped the goal scorer’s triumphant race back towards the centre circle. The place was buzzing.

The goal also reminded a little me of the volley that John Terry scored in the same goal against Wigan when he had to quickly readjust his feet. But that was from a lot closer in. This Kovacic goal was something else.

But then…but then.

An audible groan when it was announced that VAR was poking its big fat nose into our moment of joy. We waited. What was it for? Nobody knew.

Thankfully, the goal stood.

But then, I noted Jordan Henderson berating the referee. That’s Jordan Henderson the Liverpool captain. This made my blood boil. The referee should have carded him for that. Prick.

Just three minutes later, and into stoppage time, a Toni Rudiger clearance was pushed on by Kante with the deftest of touches.

We watched. The boy Pulisic was one on one. He was through. That lovely moment of expectation. I wanted to see him drop a shoulder and drill it low towards the far post. Instead it bounced high and he chested it down before lobbing the ball in.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Stamford Bridge exploded.

I yelled and yelled. PD alongside me was shouting with both his arms raised. I reached down and took a few out-of-focus shots of the players celebrating. Many seconds later, I looked over at PD and he was still in celebratory mode, still in the same stance, still yelling, still cheering.

What bliss.

There’s always something special about two important goals being scored so close together. This was absolutely one of those moments.

Unbelievably, there was further drama in the minute or so left of the first-half. Alonso swept the ball over to Havertz who, despite close attention from a red defender, got his shot in from inside the box. The ball broke to Mason Mount but his shot was awkward and the ball rolled agonisingly past the far post.

There was just time for another ear shattering “Carefree.”

What an incredible match. What an incredible five minutes.

There was beautiful disbelief at the break.

Phew.

I couldn’t have been the only person who was warmly remembering the FA Cup tie against Liverpool almost twenty-five years ago? Two-nil down at half-time, on came Mark Hughes, we won 4-2. It remains as one of our very greatest games.

Twenty-five years ago, though? Fackinell.

Stamford Bridge was on fire then as it was in 2022.

Of course, the half-time whistle probably came at the wrong time and other clichés. Our momentum, not surprisingly, was so difficult to recreate. But the noise levels at the start of the second-half were surprisingly quiet. I wanted us to roar the team on to further glory.

For a player that we purchased as a defensive midfielder, Kante sure knows how to break forward with the easiest of pace changes; he glides, he turns, he keeps the ball moving, he passes. Once or twice in that early part of the second period he was an absolute joy.

A shot from Alonso flew over.

On the hour mark, one, then two then three saves from our man Mendy kept us in the game. The best by far was a magnificent reach after a speculative effort from distance from Salah. The Liverpool striker had decided to test our ‘keeper’s awareness. He’ll know better next time.

I was totally immersed in this game. It was a tantalising show from both teams. It was, frankly, a joy and a pleasure to be present.

On more than one occasion, after we were awarded corners, Rudiger and Pulisic turned to the supporters in the MHL to sing louder, stronger. They needed us.

A cross from Havertz and a volley from Pulisic was well-saved.

On seventy-minutes, a change in personnel and shape.

Jorginho for Chalobah.

We now had a three-man midfield, with just Havertz and Mount up top. Pulisic was moved to wing-back with Dave moved centrally. The American really grew into the game and proved to be a jinking, probing menace on the right. In one of the photos that I took of him, I noticed that he was smiling while in possession of the ball, probably looking at options. This rarely happens in modern football. More power to him. A shot from Christian, right winger, curled just over.

The whole team seemed to tire as one.

With ten minutes to go, we freshened things up further.

Callum Hudson-Odoi for Havertz.

We enjoyed the best of the last part of the game. Callum injected some good pace and was able, for once, to speed past his marker rather than dawdle and play within himself.

A shot from Mount, which followed up his blocked free-kick, whizzed towards the goal but Kelleher saved well. One last header always looked like going wide of the far post.

The final whistle blew.

2-2 on the second day of 2022.

Exiting the stairs, I simply said “superb game of football” to a few friends.

I said as much on “Facebook” with the extra comment :

“Lukak’who?”

Thankfully, this match was a good case of addition by subtraction. Nobody really knew what the next step in the Lukaku saga would be, but with a steep run of games coming up, including three against Tottenham in just eighteen days, this match provided a magnificence boost to our morale.

And yes, it was a simply superb game of football.

Fulham Broadway.

The Eight Bells.

Stamford Bridge.

Tales From The Top In The Middle Of England

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 20 November 2021.

After the away game on Tyneside, I was going to miss the trip to Malmo, and so my next planned game was going to be Burnley at home. Then, sadly, I tested positive for COVID and was forced into self-isolation for ten days. I was lucky though. My symptoms were similar to a mild head cold, and I was easily able to work from home for a week. I was back into work, and the office, last Monday. The International break could not have happened at a more convenient time.

Instead of Chelsea, two games at Frome Town – the first before I tested positive, the second after I tested negative – gave me my football kick. The home games against Barnstaple Town and Plymouth Parkway were won 9-2 and 1-0, thus cementing my local team’s undefeated position at the top of the Southern League Division One South. When I am either unable or unwilling to attend Chelsea games in the future – I think I know deep down that it is coming – at least I have an exit strategy. But let’s not dwell too much on that right now.

Leicester City – away – was now primed for my first Chelsea game in three weeks.

I set the alarm for 5.45am. Many others throughout the Chelsea Nation had equally early starts. All over Facebook, two words dominated.

“And Leicester.”

The idea was to collect PD at 7.30m, then Parks, and arrive at our usual spot just off Saffron Lane to the south of the King Power Stadium at around 11am.

Obviously I had not seen the two lads for a while. Like me, PD had succumbed to a mild variant of COVID since Newcastle. Parky had experienced a more painful COVID not long after Belfast and was still suffering, a little, from long COVID.

Sadly, Parky had lost his ninety-three-year-old mother last Monday. As I picked him up at 8am, we both shook his hand and offered him words of comfort.

Outside, there was drizzle in the air.

At Melksham, a breakfast, and then the drive straight up the Fosse Way to the middle of England. Although the roads were fringed with autumn colours, there was a grey murkiness outside. The Fosse Way remains my favourite road for an away game, though not on this occasion.

Although this would be my first Chelsea game for three weeks, I was suffering a little with a general malaise. Whether this was born out of my recent COVID attack – a re-focussing on priorities, maybe – I am not sure. In a nutshell, I was not as fired-up as I ought to have been. I just hoped that this feeling would turn out to be a little blip in my love of the game, of Chelsea, of this lifestyle.

I am fifty-six. I have seen over 1,300 Chelsea games. “We’ve won it all” (no, we haven’t). We won the European Cup last May in what turned out to be an emotionally-distanced cake-walk. That experience alone caused my brain to fry.

Clearly I am still struggling to get my pre-lockdown levels of passion, involvement, fanaticism – call it what you will – back.

Sigh.

I guess I am allowed the occasional off-day.

As I ate up the miles I was reminded of a drive up the Fosse Way, with my parents in early 1983, which was surely my most pointless journey ever. I was taking my “A Levels” in the June of that year and had applied to a few colleges, including Sheffield Polytechnic. As part of the process, I had to attend an interview up in South Yorkshire. The problem was that I was miss-firing in all three subjects and I was convinced that I wouldn’t get the necessary grades for a degree course in geography, nor did I particularly want to spend three years in Yorkshire should a miracle happen. The journey took forever. It was a bitterly cold day. The countryside was covered in the remnants of a snowfall. My poor Dad had taken a day off work to ferry me north. I hated every minute of the entire day.

What a waste of a day.

For the record; yeah, I did bomb my “A levels” but took them again in the November with a much better set of results.

1982/83 and 1983/84 were vastly different years for both myself and Chelsea Football Club.

I was parked up in Leicester at 11.05am and there would normally follow a trite remark from me about working in logistics.

I’m not one to disappoint.

It had been a mild start to the day in deepest Somerset, despite the drizzle, but things were a little colder in The Midlands. Not to worry, the fifteen-minute walk north warmed us a little and brought some colour to our cheeks. An elderly Leicester fan spoke to us for a few minutes.

“Chilwell is doing well, ain’t he? I didn’t rate him here.”

We were all soon inside the larger-than-usual concourse underneath the away stand. I spoke to a few friends and was happy to pass on the good news about my recent ill-health. I was getting back into the groove, step by step, fist bump by fist bump, handshake by handshake, smile by smile.

“Leicester away. What else yer gonna do on a Saturday?” or something like that.

We had far from great seats, sadly. Right in the corner, third row, even behind the goal line. One hundred and eighty degrees around the bowl of the stadium my friend Sally – former logistics colleague, I am sure her timings were bang on – was sat in the front row of The Kop, but in the corner too.

I expected a tight game. But hoped for a win.

“Absolute top pre-match analysis, that pal…fucksake.”

Romelu Lukaku was still unable to re-join the fold, but our starting eleven wasn’t half bad.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

Chilweel – Kante – Jorginho – James

Hudson-Odoi  – Havertz – Mount

The teams entered the pitch on the far side. Our away kit of yellow-black-yellow was to make an appearance for the first time this season. I found it amazing that the club had decided not to parade it previously; it is not unknown for an away kit to be worn even when there isn’t a clash in colours. As the players lined-up, I spotted the geometric shapes from the blue kit monstrosity mirrored in a chest panel on some black tracksuit tops.

“Now that’s not bad. That I can warm to. Everything in moderation. Less is more.”

Only the previous evening, I had watched a BBC programme about Bridget Rily, a leading light in the Op Art movement in the ‘sixties, and I was – naturally – reminded of the abomination that has currently happened to our home kit, shudder.

Generally speaking, I appreciated the paintings of Op Art – I think all of us at Frome College dabbled in geometric shapes during our art class in 1978/79, “another crap season” – but what place does it have on a fucking football shirt?

Eh? Tell me.

As I watched on Friday, I had stumbled upon with a far more agreeable design. If – and I mean if – an homage to Op Art was of absolute necessity, then why not a simple panel of Zigger Zagger mayhem, but everything else plain? Certainly the shorts needed to remain plain.

Whoever ordained the geometric pattern on the home shorts needs shooting.

So, lo and behold, the panel of slip-sliding squares (the kitchen floor after a night of excessive alcoholic intoxication?) on the plain black top not only met with my approval but had me wondering if I was absolutely in the wrong job.

The game began, and Borussia Dortmund attacked Sally and The Kop.

Despite an early start, the away choir had clearly been on it. Alcohol-inspired community singing rang out from the 3,300 in the expansive away corner; the seats go a long way back at Leicester. There was a little jabbing from both sets of supporters, with our left-back a natural target for the home fans, but then an uppercut onto the chin of the home fans :

“Ben Chilwell’s won a European Cup.”

We began ever so brightly.

And, yeah, the away kit looks fine. Not particularly “Chelsea” but that doesn’t seem to matter one iota these days.

The first chance arose when Jorginho took a quick free-kick from the middle of the pitch. The perfectly-flighted ball out to the left hand side of the penalty box was met by that man Chilwell. A touch to control, but the shot smashed against the top of the cross bar.

“Alonso would’ve volleyed that.”

It was end-to-end stuff in the first ten minutes, with a couple of lightning quick Leicester raids causing us concern, but we were equally strong in our attacking third.

Just on the quarter of an hour, we won a corner in front of Sally on our right.

Alan : “Get your camera out. Rudiger likes corners up here.”

I smiled. Indeed he does. Only on the drive up, we remembered his two headers here in 2020, just before lockdown struck. No surprises that none of us could remember the result up here in 2020/21.

“If a tree falls in a forest, but nobody sees it fall, does it make a sound?”

My camera was poised.

A Chilwell corner. On the money. A leap from Rudi. Click. I watched the ball drop into the net.

“YES.”

We were back, I was back, Rudi was back, Alan was beaming and so was I.

“That’s going in your blog.”

Ha, what joy.

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

Chris : “ Come on my little diamonds.”

I was genuinely worried about this one. The Cup Final had been on my mind. But here we were a goal up already.

I found it odd that during the Chelsea choir’s early chants, the home fans did not respond with one song about the game in May.

“Did it mean nothing to you?”

The hero of that game, Kasper Schmeichel, made a super save from the unlikely boot of N’Golo Kante.

We were rampant.

Callum was clipped just as he was about to ping a shot on goal after cutting in from the left, and Mason Mount dipped the resulting free-kick over the wall but over the bar too.

A rare Leicester attack, and a tap in from Ademola Lookman, but the linesman’s yellow flag soon went up.

I looked over to the Chelsea section next to the home fans. In front, tied to the rails was a flag from Zurich and two from Bulgaria. My good friend Orlin, one of the strong Bulgaria contingent, had called by to say “hi” before the game. I last saw him in Porto, ah Porto. But I also spotted Jonesy, from nearby Nuneaton, in that section too. Over the course of the game, I spotted not only Jonesy, but Andy and Sophie – Porto, ditto – and also The Youth, Neil, Jokka and Chopper, all Nuneaton Chelsea. Good work everyone.

Leicester were nibbling away at us in the first part of the game, but the referee resolutely avoided bookings.

I liked the look of Jorginho, pushing the ball on as quickly as he could. Right from the off, Thiago Silva looked so cool, so calm, and his class immediately shone. Our passing was quicker and more incisive than is often the case. Our cross-field switches were inch-perfect. Havertz looked lively, Callum too. We were simply on top, in control, playing some gorgeous stuff.

Just before the half-hour mark, the ball was won on our right and pushed inside to Kante. He was allowed so much space and so simply did what anyone would; he advanced, and advanced, and advanced.

I watched as he took a swipe at the ball with his left foot. I’ll be honest, I did not immediately react. I – for some reason – thought the ball had drifted past the post and hit a supporting stanchion.  But no, the roars of the away fans told me that he had hit the target.

Fackinell.

I spoke to Gal : “Best we have played all season.”

We eased off a little as the break approached, but the singing certainly didn’t. Nobody can accuse us lot of only singing one song.

So many positive comments at the break. Lovely.

Brendan Rodgers made two substitutions at the break, and on came Maddison and Iheanacho. Edouard Mendy, not needed for most of the first-half, made a low save from Maddison, but the Chelsea attack were soon causing problems again. Hudson-Odoi did well and squirmed into the box before setting up Chilwell. Schmeichel made a magnificent save.

On the hour, Callum shaped well but curled one over the bar.

A double substitution from our manager.

Hakim Ziyech for Mount, Christian Pulisic for Havertz.

Mason had been one of our quietest performers I thought. Havertz had impressed. I was a little cautious.

…”mmm, two key players…the game ain’t won yet.”

The home team became a little stronger, and we had to rely on another stunning leap and save from our ‘keeper to foil a rising drive from Daniel Amartey. The home team dominated for a short period, but we were always a threat. The substitute Pulisic looked lively and went close from fellow substitute Ziyech’s cross. Both subs looked keen, looked energised, what do I know about football?

On seventy-one minutes, a wonderful quick break, with Leicester scampering around us, found Ziyech down in front of us on the right. A deft movement past a defender and the ball was played into space. Pulisic arrived with perfect timing and prodded the ball in.

3-0, game over.

Sadly, Jorginho was injured – replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, what a bench – and as he walked past us in the north-west corner, he was serenaded by all.

“That’s the World Footballer Of The Year, there, Gal.”

Those sorry days of Sarri are well behind him, and us, right?

Incredibly, we hit the back of the net on three further occasions late in the game, but the goals scored by Hudson-Odoi, Pulisic and James were all – rightly – chalked off for offside.

There was still time for another cracking save from our man Mendy.

I have commented of late that, despite our fine run of results, we seem to be several steps away from our potential. Well, this game hinted at that level. It reminded me of a game at Fulham in November 2004 when everything clicked and we began to seriously think about a league title.

It was a decent drive home, and we were cheered – to the point of laughter – at Manchester United’s 4-1 defeat at Watford.

Good old Claudio, eh? Loved at Chelsea, loved at Leicester and maybe Watford too.

We have a busy week ahead.

Juventus and Manchester United.

Do they get any bigger?

I will see some of you there.

Valerie Jayne Crespin : 24 April 1929 to 15 November 2021.

Goal One : Rudi’s Leap.

Goal Two : N’Goalo.

Goal Three : Teamwork.

Tales From A Love Story

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 14 August 2021.

I don’t think it is too far-fetched to say that there have been few games – few occasions, few spectacles – in the history of Stamford Bridge that have matched our game against Crystal Palace on Saturday 14 August 2021. Sure, the first league games back at the old ground after the Great War and the Second World War must have been emotional affairs. And let’s not forget the gate of more than 100,000 against Moscow Dynamo in 1945 that unofficially signalled the start of a return to football in peaceful times. But this one was different. Everton at home in the early spring of 2020 seemed so distant and never in the history of English football has there ever been such a period of uncertainty and sadness.

Coming not long after my operation in October of last year, the twin games against Leeds United and Krasnodar were out of the question for me in my high-risk state. And I wasn’t really tempted by the home game against Leicester City in May either; I know that many were, and those that went thoroughly enjoyed it. But I wanted my first game back at HQ to be alongside all of my mates, all of my pals, and in a full house. Back with a vengeance, back to normality, back to life.

I returned from Belfast late on the Thursday and battled fatigue in my one day at work – Friday the thirteenth seemed wholly appropriate – but when I woke on Saturday morning, Belfast was still dominating my every thought. It felt as though it hadn’t worked its way out of my system just yet. Belfast was Chelsea game number 1,300 for me and I secretly wished that game number 1,301 wasn’t until the Sunday.

But beggars can’t be choosers, and a Saturday game it was.

I awoke at 6am, ahead of the alarm.

My first task of the new league season was to fill up the fuel tank of my car in a nearby village. As I walked into the shop to pay, I easily spotted a woman who I went to school with as a child. She was – if I am not mistaken – the first girl to ever give me a kiss, possibly when I was around seven years of age, and – again if my memory serves me correctly – this momentous occasion took place on the village recreation ground, in the long grass, no more than a quarter of a mile from where I am typing these notes. I see her around occasionally. I am sure she has forgotten all about me and I can’t say I blame her. The petrol station was, ironically, in the village of my first-ever girlfriend – summer 1982, aged seventeen – and as I set off on the trip to London I smirked about these romantic incursions into the day of me reacquainting myself with the love of my life.

I collected P-Diddy at 7.30am and I collected L-Parky at 8am.

Up the A303, into London, parked up near Queen’s Club at 10.15am.

Bosh.

For those regular readers, my pre-match routine for the opening league game of 2021/22 followed a familiar pattern. We started at “The Eight Bells” at the bottom end of the Fulham Road – Dave from Northamptonshire and Deano from Lancashire soon joined us – before we all decamped to “Simmon’s” at the bottom of the North End Road to join forces with Alan, Gary, Daryl, Ed, Andy and Sophie.

It was the first time that I had seen Alan since that Everton game nigh-on eighteen months ago. I sat alongside him and it felt so good.

On the walk to the second of the two pubs, I had briefly called by the CFCUK stall to say a few words to Marco. On that fateful day in October – with me in the emergency ward at a hospital in Bath – it was Marco, himself having recently suffered heart problems, that kept me going with a series of text messages. We shook each other’s hands and wished each other well. It was super to see him.

I am not going to comment every week on the clown’s clothing that Chelsea Football Club has decided to dress players in this season, but on the walk to the ground it did dawn on me that the 2020/21 shirt – the one that we wore in Porto – was hardly a Chelsea royal blue at all. It just seemed darker than it should be and rather muted with no vibrancy. It never really dawned on me before. I hardly saw anyone wearing this shirt in my home area this past season, and I don’t think I really noticed it in Porto, but it really jarred when I saw it on this particular day.

Maybe next year, we’ll get a clean and crisp royal blue shirt.

Don’t hold your breath.

As far as I could see, nothing had changed too much along the walk to Stamford Bridge, and I noticed that most fans were not wearing face-coverings outside the stadium. My bag was checked, I bumped into a few friends, my COVID19 passport was inspected outside the Matthew Harding and I joined that oh-so familiar queue before using a new style ticket-scanning machine and then…pause for effect…through the turnstiles…click, click, click…and I was in.

I ascended the six flights of stairs to the MHU, keeping to the left – my superstition – as always.

Inside the stand. I was home.

Phew.

Greeting me was Clive, who has taken Glenn’s season ticket.

Glenn finally decided to give it up after twenty-four seasons. But Glenn hasn’t given up completely; he will still go to a game every month or so, depending upon his working patterns and availability of tickets. I have known Clive since around 2003, so he is a familiar face. I last saw him at a New Order gig in Bristol in July 2019.

With the new rail seating in The Shed, everything looked bluer.

I spent a few minutes or more chatting to various folk in The Sleepy Hollow who I had obviously missed the previous year and a half. Albert, who sits directly in front of me, shared an opinion which had great resonance with me. He too has been a ST holder since 1997.

“This football club has been a massive part of my life. But last season, I didn’t really care. Sometimes I’d be watching us play on TV and I would switch channels at half-time but instead of watching our game again, I’d continue to watch the new programme.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

I knew of many season ticket holders who hardly watched us on TV.

It just wasn’t the same.

The teams were announced.

No Romelu Lukaku. Not yet.

Mendy

Chalobah – Christensen – Rudiger

Dave – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Werner – Pulisic

“Park Life” sounded on the PA. There were no crowd-surfing banners due to COVID19. The players, Chelsea in blue, Crystal Palace in Villareal yellow, entered the pitch but instead of walking over to the West Stand – a Chelsea trademark that I have grown to love – they stood on this occasion in front of the East Stand.

And then the two teams linked arms and stood on the centre circle. We were asked to silently remember those who had lost their lives during the global pandemic. On the TV screen around twenty-five names were listed, in groups of four, of Chelsea supporters who had passed away. At the end, a fleeting phrase flickered onto the screen and then faded as quickly as it had appeared.

BLUES FOREVER

One of the Chelsea supporters was Scott La Pointe. I first met Scott in Charlotte in North Carolina in 2015 when, along with his wife and two children, they joined in with some lovely pre and post-match socialising around the game with PSG. His young son Alex memorably entertained the troops with his endearing version of “Zigger Zagger”. It was clear that Scott was a family man who dearly loved both his family and Chelsea. I met up with them all, and many other from the Detroit supporters group of which Scott was a proud member, at Ann Arbor in Michigan the following summer. The game against Real Madrid – to this day the largest official crowd at any Chelsea game anywhere – must have been so special for Scott’s family. It was like a home game for them all. Sadly, not so long after this game, Scott was diagnosed with ALS / Motor Neurone Disease. Scott battled the disease with great strength and great dignity. This was painful for me since one of my Godparents, my uncle Gerald, died from the same disease in around 1988. Scott held out for Christmas 2020 and – amazingly – for the 2021 European Cup Final in Porto too. He watched from his bed in his house in the Detroit suburbs. I often messaged him on Facebook. His last message to me was on the day after the final.

“I really didn’t think I would be here to see yesterday’s match. I can’t tell you how excited I was for them to win. I love your pictures that you posted. Every time the camera went to the crowd, Jamie and I were looking for you. Cheers my friend!”

Scott sadly passed away not long after his forty-third birthday.

He will live on in the memory of all those who knew him.

He was loved by all.

Scott La Pointe : 6 June 1978 to 22 June 2021.

There were a few empty seats dotted about, but not many. The immediate build-up to the game against Patrick Viera’s Crystal Palace was somewhat overshadowed by the very late announcement that some season ticket-holders would not be able to watch from their usual seat in the MHL due to delays in the rail seating. The club must have known there was going to be a risk of this when they sold all other available seats. Surely they should have kept some to one side just in case.

Insert a comment about Chelsea being a well-run football club here :

Before the game began, we heard that Manchester United had walloped Leeds 5-1 at Old Trafford. My mind immediately raced back to forty years ago, opening day 1981, when Leeds lost 5-1 at newly promoted Swansea City, a result that was wildly celebrated at Stamford Bridge as I saw us beat Bolton 2-0. It was the first game that I had ever travelled to independently.

Forty bloody years ago.

Altogether now everybody : “Fackinell.”

Kudos, by the way, to our benign neighbours Brentford on their fine – very fine – 2-0 win against Arsenal the previous night. Fantastic stuff.

We began positively and absolutely dominated possession. Having not seen Palace play for much of the past eighteen months – I found myself not even bothering with “MOTD” in the latter part of last season – I hardly recognised anyone in the Palace team, which was well changed anyway from the last time I had clapped eyes on them. Former Chelsea prospect Mark Guehi took up a position in their defence. I had seen both of his appearances in our colours in the League Cup of 2019/20.

The crowd was in a boisterous and jubilant mood. The time for venom and heated passion will come against more hated rivals.

There was intelligent use of space and we always seemed to have a spare man to stretch the Palace defence. Chances for Dave and Christian Pulisic hinted at a game of goals. There was a further chance from Mateo Kovacic.

There was a succession of corners from our left with Mason Mount pumping the ball in but with mixed results.

Just as we found an attack being thwarted by a foul on Mount just outside the box, I overheard Alan and Clive in a general discussion about a few players. I memorably heard Al say “Alonso worries me” and I silently smiled as I saw the Spaniard place the ball in readiness for a shot on goal.

“Bloody hell Al, that’s tempting fate. This is Alonso territory.”

With that, I snapped as the ball was whipped up and over the wall, curving perfectly away from Vicente Guaita. I saw the spinning ball, through my lens, nestling in the goal. The ‘keeper did not bother moving.

I jumped to my feet – GET IN – and smiled at Alan.

One-nil to the European Champions.

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

The noise levels then hit stratospheric levels.

On my feet – “Champions Of Europe. We Know What We Are.”

We were back.

And this was perfect Chelsea weather. Memories of opening day wins in recent years against too many teams to mention.

We seemed to be missing an aerial threat in the Palace box, but no doubt the returning Lukaku would remedy that ailment.

A free-kick from Mason hit the wall, but we extended our lead just before the break. A fine move, with Dave setting up Mount with a fine return pass, which lead to the ball being sent low into the box. The ‘keeper got something on the cross but the ball fell to Pulisic, who twisted his body to prod the ball home.

Two-nil to the European Champions.

A late chance for Timo Werner hit the side-netting and we went into the break well on top. In fact, up to the point of our second goal, I could only remember one very rare Crystal Palace attack that soon fizzled out down below me in the area of the pitch that I will forever call Hazardous.

Never could I remember such a dominant first-half performance or rather such a poor opponent (edit : the first-half against Everton in 2016 was exceptional, but Everton were not so woeful as Palace, surely?)

In the back of my mind I was hoping for at least two more goals – maybe more – in the second-half. A trademark volley from Alonso went close.

I noted that – strangely – the song of the night in Belfast, the Belinda Carlisle ditty, was noticeable by its absence in the Stamford Bridge sun. Its time will come again I am sure.

A very rare attack was easily stubbed out by the Chelsea defence. They really were poor. I loved the way that the midfield pairing of Jorginho and Kovacic kept things ticking over in the middle of the park. Werner was in his usual “one step forward, two steps back” mode, looking great one minute and then mediocre the next. Pulisic twisted and turned. He needs a run of games, but I have a feeling that Tuchel is going to rotate a few players behind Lukaku this season. It will be interesting to see how Havertz develops. I really have my eye on him.

Just before the hour, the ball was played to Trevoh Chalobah. He had space to run into, and maybe buoyed by the home crowd chanting “shoooot”, he let fly with a sweet and low rocket. I managed to capture this goal too. The shot was aimed to perfection, just clipping the base of the far post before nestling inside the net.

3-0.

Magnificent.

I also caught the players hugging the excited youngster.

Joyous scenes, eh?

I remember my mate Tom, in his home city of Minneapolis for the Milan game in 2016, coming up with the “He’s Chalobah!” (as in “He fell over!”) chant for Trevoh’s brother Nathaniel.

Let’s get it going again.

I was hoping for more goals but the manager – still without a song, in truth we hardly know him – made some substitutions.

James for Dave.

Havertz for Pulisic.

Emerson for Alonso.

A rare Palace attack on goal – the only one? – from the old warhorse Christian Benteke was easily saved by our man Mendy.

The game ended 3-0.

It was a fine performance, hardly any negatives, but it was only Palace.

I’d score myself 7/10; not as overblown with emotion as others, but I did join in with a fair few songs. I think the football came second to seeing everyone again on this particular day. I am sure that football is still trying to win its way back into my heart if I am honest. But I am equally sure that this will improve with each game and I am bloody sure that I will soon be back to my March 2020 groove before long.

I just need a couple of tough away games to sort myself out and to get myself focused.

What’s that I hear you say?

Arsenal away and then Liverpool away?

OK. Let’s go. Mow those fucking meadows.

The Sleepy Hollow : Season 2021/22 – Chris, Alan, Clive, PD & Gary.

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.