Tales From A Muggy Night

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 30 August 2022.

An away trip to Southampton early this season meant that we were repeating three of the last four away games of the last campaign in the first three matches of the current one.

Last season we lost to Everton 1-0; this season we beat them 1-0.

Last season we beat Leeds United 3-0; this season they beat us 3-0.

Last season we beat Southampton 6-0; surely not?

The Famous Five left Melksham at around 3.15pm. I was driving again, and my fellow passengers were PD, Parky, Sir Les and Glenn the birthday boy, celebrating his fifty-fifth birthday a day before he was to begin a new job.

Southampton away is a breeze. At around 5pm, I was parked up in the small car park outside the city’s Central train station.

The evening heat surprised me.

“It’s nice out” I said.

“It is yes, but put it away, someone will see it” replied Parky.

The others dashed off to “Yates” for a pre-match tipple while I decided to grab a bite to eat in a nearby Italian restaurant. There were a couple of familiar Chelsea faces in there – “alright, boys?” – and I soon sat down for a pizza. This is standard for me. I reckon we could play in Kazakhstan, Bolivia or Zimbabwe and I’d still order a pre-match pizza.

I joined up with the lads in the pub, but none of us were keen to stay for any longer. There was a quick “hello goodbye” to a few troops before we set off to walk the twenty minutes or so to the stadium. The three Norwegians – four actually, I neglected to mention Jon in the Leicester City report – had been spotted in the pub. A couple of local lads were there too.

“Good trip down, Chris?”

“Oh yeah, easy.”

“Did Les come with you?”

“Yeah mate. But with PD in the passenger seat and Les sat behind him, the car kept veering to the left. It took me three attempts to get out of Melksham.”

We were down at the stadium as early as 6.15pm. It felt odd being there so early. I had to sort out a ticket for Young Jake, who none of us had seen for ages. We thought that his last game with us was the Norwich City FA Cup game at Carrow Road in 2018. There was time to chill out a little and relax. I shot off to take a few shots of the stadium.

“It’s no San Siro but surely there’s the chance to take a few decent photographs?” I thought to myself.

There wasn’t.

St. Mary’s is as bland as bland can be.

Talking of the San Siro, we – PD, Parky and I – are booked to head over in October, but we will be staying in Turin for three nights and will be joined by Dave who now lives near Nice and was last seen before the Tottenham away game late in 2018. I will be driving in to Milan on the day of the game. A version of “The Italian Job” perhaps? In a Fiat Chucklecento maybe? No, too much of a tight fit for four of us. Why Turin? When I returned home from Chelsea on Saturday night, it seemed that all the cheap flights to Milan had gone. The accommodation looked expensive too. I have no qualms about returning to Turin once again; it’s my favourite Italian city and far more interesting that Milan. As for the other Champions League aways, we are not going to Zagreb but I suspect that a trip to Salzburg is likely.

This was my second game in two days. On the Bank Holiday Monday, I drove to Bath to see Frome Town wallop local neighbours Larkhall Athletic 4-0. With the upcoming game against West Ham now taking place on Saturday, I am forced to miss Frome’s home FA Cup tie against Tiverton Town.

Now is a good time to slip into the conversation my second memory of the 1982/83 season. On Saturday 28 August, Chelsea opened up our fourth consecutive season in the old Second Division with an away game at Cambridge United’s Abbey Stadium. Did I go? No. I was still at school and would only go to four games that season, the same as in the previous campaign. On that particular afternoon, Frome Town got my attention as I watched a 0-0 home draw with Wellington in the old Western League – “a terrible game” says my diary – but I would have been no doubt elated with a 1-0 win.

Chelsea finished mid-table in 1981/82 and only the most optimistic of Chelsea fans would have hoped that we would make a sustained promotion push in 1982/83. Our only real outlay throughout the summer had been the almost laughable acquisition of much-travelled Bryan “Pop” Robson, who was thirty-six when we bought him. I for one, was not impressed.

The team that day?

Steve Francis in goal. Gary Locke and Chris Hutchings the full backs. Micky Nutton and Micky Droy as centre-backs. Colin Pates, John Bumstead and Mike Fillery in midfield. Colin Lee, Clive Walker and Pop Robson upfront, with Paul Canoville as a substitute.

Interestingly, Pates, Chivers, Bumstead and Canoville are currently employed by Chelsea to this day as match-day hosts in the corporate areas.

Even more interestingly, my friend Daryl spotted Pop Robson near Red Square before the Champions League Final in 2008, presumably on some junket with a UEFA sponsor.

Our match winner forty years ago?

Bryan “Pop” Robson.

I was to eat my words, for one game at least.

The gate was 8,124, and I am sure that around half would have been Chelsea.

Back to 2022.

Jake soon arrived and there was the chance to chat to a few friends from near and far. The “Ticket Man” arrived on schedule at 7pm and we were in the stadium just after. Down in the darkened but spacious concourse, more chit-chat with some and a few “nods” to others. With plenty of time to kick-off, I swapped tickets with PD and sat next to Glenn towards the back of the away section, right behind the goal. I usually watch from down low so this made a nice change.

Glenn is often with us at Southampton. There were a few games at The Dell and he was also with us in August 2001 when we opened up the new stadium with a 1-0 win. I have seen all of our fourteen games against the Saints at St. Mary’s – minus the COVID ones – and I kept saying to the lads “we’ve only lost once down here, the Benitez spell in 2013.”

As we waited for the game to start, there were a few half-hearted flames in front of the stand to our left. A brass band appeared, walking towards us, left to right, and they played “Oh When The Saints” as a large banner surfed along from right to left.

I turned to Glenn and said “I always remember a game here in 1994 when you were excited about starting a chant in the away end.”

We were in the seats along the side and Glenn began bellowing “Dennis plays for England” which the rest of the Chelsea support joined in with. Glenn’s recollection was that Wisey scored a late winner. Looking back, it was actually Paul Furlong on eighty-nine minutes. Perhaps Glenn had mentally confused the two moments.

To my surprise, Billy Gilmour and Ethan Ampadu were among the named substitutes.

The team drew a few shocked reactions.

Mendy

Dave – Silva – Koulibaly – Cucarella

Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Mount

Ziyech – Sterling – Havertz

No Reece James, no Trevoh Chalibah, we presumed injured.

The teams entered. As at Leeds United, we played in dark blue socks and I wondered why. Surely we have some royal blue socks knocking about somewhere. The home team’s kit was a shocker. Hummel brought out some absolute killers back in the ‘eighties and Saints even had their copy of the half-and-half Denmark kit. This current shirt – predominantly white – misses by a mile. The shirt of the Keegan era would surely have looked better; predominantly red with a broad white central stripe rather than the current version. I wasn’t even sure I liked the white socks either. Very odd.

The home areas took ages to fill up and there were quite a few empty seats dotted around. I saw no unused seats in our allocation of around three thousand. We took a while to get going but the songs soon boomed around the away end.

It was a muggy night in the Northam Stand.

As is so often the case with away matches in Southampton, the home team enjoyed the best of the early exchanges. We then began to get a foothold on the game. The pitch, usually excellent, was worn in many places, as if it was a mid-season game.

Our chances, or half-chances, started to stack up. Raheem Sterling scuffed a shot right at the Saints ‘keeper Gavin Bazunu. A chance for Hakim Ziyech came and went. Sterling looked as lively as any player on the pitch and on twenty-three minutes, a lovely move down our left involving first Kai Havertz and then Mason Mount set up the central striker. Sterling appeared to lose control of the ball on the six-yard box but was the first to react as it spun loose. He stabbed the ball in and wheeled away in delight.

Phew.

I suspect that this is just the sort of goal that is practised ad infinitum on the practice pitches at Cobham; all movement, all together.

The away crowd soon responded.

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel.”

Not long after, Ziyech played in Havertz in the inside-left position. He got his shot in from an angle but the shot was hit right at the Saints keeper.

From that moment, our play drifted.

Just five minutes after we had scored, Dave decided to whack the ball out for a corner rather than play it back to Edouard Mendy to deal with. At the time, I understood that call.

What were we always told at school?

“Safety first.”

Sadly, the resulting corner fell to an unmarked Southampton player – Romeo Lavia – who was loitering with intent outside the box. He took one touch and lashed it home. Glenn was raging. Only a few minutes earlier he had spotted two Saints players unmarked at the back stick at a previous corner.

Of course the home fans roared.

Our play deteriorated as the home team became stronger. I lost count of the number of passes that Ruben Loftus-Cheek misdirected. One run out of defence by him seemed to be in slow motion.

“Ross Barkley is a big unit but even he had a burst of pace” I moaned to Glenn. “Ruben makes Micky Fillery look quick.”

Our midfield in general – without a midfield general – looked so poor. Dave was caught out of position on a couple of occasions. We had no bite. The only plus point was watching Thiago Silva scoop a few balls up and over the heads of the advancing opposition out to the right wing. I could watch that man play football for hours.

Glenn was getting frustrated further : “no tackles!”

There was an awful moment when I thought that I had been transported back to the early nineties under Ian Porterfield when there seemed to be a never-ending sequence of head tennis on the halfway line. This was rotten football.

With the home support energised, it turned into a temporary Pompey Hate Fest. Mason Mount was deemed public enemy number one.

With the half-time whistle approaching – “blow up ref, let’s regroup at the break” – a laughably poor attempt at a tackle by Jorginho failed dismally and Southampton advanced with speed and purpose. As the move progressed I repeatedly shouted two words :

“Too easy! Too easy! Too easy!”

The ball was smashed home after a fine move by Adam Armstrong.

Too easy.

Two-one to Southampton.

“Oh When The Saints” boomed around the home areas.

Fackinell.

The referee blew for half-time almost immediately.

I turned to Glenn at the break : “this has been a timid performance.”

We both wanted Tuchel to bring on Armando Broja for the miss-firing Havertz. Towards the end of the half-time break, with the grass getting an extra dose of water from the sprinklers, we spotted Tuchel chatting with Mateo Kovacic on the pitch. The manager then sat alone on the bench for a number of minutes.

I just found all of this a bit odd.

One presumes that he had said enough to the players in five minutes and didn’t need ten. Personally, I would have taken fifteen.

“Oh, before you go back out on that pitch, just be aware that there are supporters out there who have travelled down from the north of England, from the Midlands, from East Anglia for tonight’s game and they won’t get home until about 2am in the morning but will need to be up again for work within a few hours, knackered, and they will do it all again and again and again…”

I saw him studying some sheets in a folder.

It almost raised a wry smile.

“Never mind the first-half stats, pal, just fire some fucks into them.”

No real surprises, Tuchel replaced Loftus-Cheek with Kovacic.

“Kovacic, Our Croatian Man…”

Soon into the second-half, Southampton broke down our right and a shot from close in was blocked on the line by Cucarella. Mendy made a fine reaction save to tip over the follow-up effort.

The home fans really turned up the heat on Mason.

“You skate bastard. You skate bastard.”

“Mason Mount, we fucking hate you.”

We struggled to get things moving. Oh for a playmaker, oh for a Cesc Fabregas.

On the hour, there was a loud, proud and defiant “Carefree” from us followed by derisory applause from the home fans.

Sadly, our play stagnated further. I saw little movement off the ball and the mood in the away end was falling fast.

With twenty minutes or so left it was all change, three substitutions :

Ben Chilwell for Jorginho.

Armando Broja for Dave.

Christian Pulisic for Havertz.

I expected a ripple of applause for Broja from the home fans; there was nothing, the ungrateful sods.

We all revelled in the great rush into space from Broja and his strength in twisting and turning past two players. He left them for dead before sending in a cross. This augured well for the rest of the game or so we hoped. In reality, despite his more aggressive movement and enthusiasm, his only other noticeable action involved a header near a post that never looked like troubling the ‘keeper. Kovacic added a little burst of energy too, but this soon petered out as moves slowed down and died. Pulisic looked remote and uninterested wide on the right. My recollection is of him hardly bothering to go past players, but my photographs would prove otherwise. How Ziyech stayed on all game is a mystery.

The minutes ticked by.

From a corner, Silva was in the right place at the right time. The ball hit him on the line.

I fully expected us to lose another goal.

3-1 would not have flattered them.

In a scene that was reminiscent of the Leicester game, Mendy appeared in the opposing box for a late corner or two.

When the ball was hoofed up field, one of my photographs completely captured our night, with Cucarella nervously falling to head the ball away, being pressured by a Saints attacker, the goal open and vulnerable.

I spent some of the last minutes of the game watching that fucking dachshund on the “Vitality” advertising boards trot around the stadium at roughly the same pace that our team had been doing all match.

The final whistle blew.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 1.

We got what we deserved, no doubt.

A posse of young Southampton fans to our right spent many a minute goading us as we waited to drift away into the night. I was pragmatic about it.

“Bollocks. Let them enjoy themselves, the little twerps.”

Some other Chelsea supporters were a little more hostile.

It was all a pantomime show to me.

In days gone by, there is no doubt that Chelsea would not have taken such a defeat well. Recriminations would have been enacted outside the stadium as fans would have sought revenge.

“We’re a right bunch of bastards when we lose.”

We all met up outside and slowly trudged back to the car. That walk always seems twice as long when we lose.

There was a small scale altercation.

A mouthy young Southampton fan wearing the hugely odd combination of a bar scarf and a Stone Island sweatshirt was heard to shout “Chelsea Rent Boys.” This was like a red rag to a bull to one or two in our support. The youngster escaped into the night with a warning.

All five of us were at a low ebb. There really were no positives from the night. Only two or three players had average performances.

On a muggy night in Southampton, we were the mugs.

We stopped off at the always-busy “McDonalds” at the bottom end of the A36 at about 10.30pm. A couple of lads enjoyed a burger. I downed the inevitable coffee. Outside, the air still warm, I got a little philosophical.

“We are so unused to defeats. Over the last twenty years, we have had a magnificent ride. It’s all been massively good fun. But remember that ninety per cent of people who go to football in this country have no hope of seeing their team win anything. That’s quite something really. That so many go just for the love of their team. Quite admirable really. Not saying we should not get concerned about defeats, but maybe we just need to re-focus our targets.”

That reset button might have to be adjusted again over the next few weeks.

The immediate reaction out there in Chelsea Land was split. Some want Tuchel gone. Some want to persevere.

Me?

I’m fucking looking forward to the San Siro in October I know that.

See you against West Ham.

Tales From A Typical Day At The Office

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 27 August 2022.

There is one positive that came out of last Sunday’s humiliating defeat at Elland Road. As I stood in the upper section of our away area until the referee blew his whistle, I was at a low ebb, deflated. But it struck me that at least the fortunes of this great club still mattered to me. I was still emotionally attached to Chelsea. In an era when I am still occasionally doubting my devotion to the cause – have I ever said I hate modern football? – the defeat against Leeds certainly made me smart. I hated conceding three goals. It felt like a triple kick in the bollocks. I also hated us being the target of the large-scale piss-taking from those lads in the South Stand.

I also found it harrowing that many fellow fans had left the away enclosure way before the final whistle. I reacted that this was a further slight on my team, my club. However, as we sloped back to the car last Sunday, I realised that my season, only three games in for me, had been reset.

I was emotionally locked-in again. I cared.

Our next game would be at home to Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City, a bête-noire for us in recent years. On the face of it, this was a rather mundane match, but one that was engendering a new level of importance for me.

As an aside, my local team Frome Town were playing pre-season promotion favourites AFC Totton at home at the same time. I have commented before that there might well become a time when I have to choose between an important Frome Town game and a run-of-the-mill Chelsea game. This wasn’t going to be that occasion.

Chelsea needed me and I needed Chelsea.

Chelsea vs. Leicester City it was.

As an hors-oeuvre to the game, the Champions League draw had taken place on Thursday evening. We had briefly discussed options outside “The Drysalters” in Leeds on the Sunday.

“Bloody hell. Imagine Celtic. It would be like a military operation. We’d have to collect our match tickets in Motherwell and be flown in by police helicopter.”

On Thursday morning, I sent a message to a few friends.

“Milan and Glasgow please.”

With the San Siro due to be replaced by a new state-of-the-art stadium in its current car park, a visit to Milan was undoubtedly priority “numero uno” for me. With Milan and Inter in the draw, we had a chance. Even though I watched Internazionale play against Empoli in 1987 and Bologna in 1990, I unfortunately missed the Chelsea Champions League games in 1999 and 2011 due to work commitments. There was an earlier friendly in 1995 against Milan too, but that was never on my radar.

Parky and I were at a Chelsea wedding reception – congratulations Gemma and Ludo – on Thursday evening and as we stopped at a pub close to the venue in Maidenhead, I finally checked my ‘phone and was so pleased that we had drawn Milan.

Bloody magnificent.

We just had to wait for the dates to be finalised. My only doubt involved Matchday 2; there was already someone away on holiday from our small office that week. Surely work wouldn’t bugger things up for me yet again?

Saturday arrived. Alan would be unable to attend the Leicester game – work buggering things up for him on this occasion – and so Glenn was able to take his ticket.

In the low countryside around Frome, everything was shrouded in mist. Tree tops pierced the white blanket. It was a stunning scene. Away in the distance, the hills past Trudoxhill and Chapmanslade stood like islands above a white foaming sea.

At road level, thankfully visibility was fine. As I drove east, my car was fully loaded.

The two Glenns and Ron at the back, Paul and me up front.

“Some five-a-side team, this.”

The weather was decent, the chit-chat provided a lovely back-drop to my driving. All was good in the world. Glenn – he has a ticket for Southampton away, on his birthday, on Tuesday – will be starting a new job next week and he is happy about that.

“You played at the San Siro in the ‘sixties, right, Ron?”

“Yeah, we got through on the toss of a coin.”

It sent a shiver down my spine when I realised that one of my passengers had played against Milan legend, their golden boy, Gianni Rivera.

The pattern for pre-match at Stamford Bridge is well set these days.

I drop the boys off on the Fulham side of Putney Bridge. I park up on Bramber Road and walk down to Fulham Broadway with Ron, who dives off to wait at the hotel bar until his corporate gig starts. I have a chat with a few early risers and then catch the two-minute train down to Putney Bridge before joining up with the lads in “The Eight Bells.”

At Steve Smyth’s stall, I picked up a copy of “Soccer The Hard Way” by Ron Harris. It’s pretty rare so I didn’t mind paying a fair bit for it. I’m friends with Steve, so he kindly gave me a decent reduction. In an ironic twist, Ron’s petrol money helped to pay for it.

In case any Americans are getting excited about the use of the word “soccer” in the title of the book, I need to comment that for a decade or so, from the mid-‘sixties to the mid-‘seventies, the word “soccer” often appeared in the UK media; on TV programmes, in books, in magazines. I have no explanation for this. In the school playground and in the workplace, pub and stadium, it was always football.

There was a nice chat with Marco and DJ outside the “CFCUK Stall“ and I then made my way south.

There was a breakfast in the café opposite the tube station at 11am. There’s just something about a fry-up (I don’t have many for those concerned) in a London caff on match days. It’s timeless. I checked my phone to see that the Footballing Gods had smiled on me. Everything was clear for Milan in early October. Zagreb was just too early for me to get my head around it and work is busy at the moment. Salzburg is a likely trip too.

We’re lucky people.

I decided that I would check Milan flights and suchlike when I returned home later that evening but knew that all of the cheap deals would have been snapped up quickly.

I thought back to the first-ever time that I saw Leicester City play us. It was early on in the 1982/83 season. I will detail that game later this season, but as a lead-in to my memories of that season, our worst-ever, I am heading back to Sunday 22 August 1982.

I was mid-way through the Sixth Form at Frome College and hardly relishing the final year. I would take “A Levels” the following June. Emotionally, I was rather low. I was lamenting the departure of my first-ever girlfriend Julie who had moved away to the Reading area not long after we first started going out. For those wondering, these two facts were not linked. Smiley face.

Her father had been working in Bath for the Ministry of Defence but had taken up a new position in Berkshire. I needed some cheering up and I had talked my parents into taking me up to Stamford Bridge for a family day a week before the season began. I remember that I had asked Julie if she fancied coming along for the day, my Dad picking her up en route, but her letter that declined the offer resembled a bullet to my heart. The end was nigh. Her family were more into rugby anyway. It would never had lasted. Another bloody smiley face.

I have a feeling that my parents went shopping while I spent a few hours at Stamford Bridge. My memories aren’t particularly strong. I certainly remember getting quite a few autographs; assistant manager Ian McNeil and players Gary Locke, new signing Bryan “Pop” Robson, Mike Fillery, Alan Mayes, Bob Iles, Colin Pates, Gary Chivers, and Peter Rhoades-Brown. I remember I ascended the upper tier of the East Stand for the first time and thought that the old stadium looked an absolute picture.

There were funfairs and sideshows dotted around the stadium and the highlight was a practice match at three o’clock.

As a pre-curser to that, and I have no recollection of this, I was probably chasing players for autographs :

“Sherriff Danny Arnold Wild West Demonstration.”

No smiley face.

Tickets for the upcoming home game with Wolves started at £3.50 and the most expensive were £7.

I bought a photo of the squad. I loved that Chelsea shirt. I still have it,

The one thing I do recollect is a small chat with Colin Pates, amazed by the turn out.

“God, if it’s like this now, what will it be like if we actually win anything?”

Two years later Colin found out.

I strolled into the pub at about 11.30am. The boys had been in there since opening time at 10am.

We were soon joined by Even, Ray and Hans from Oslo who have been relatively recent additions to my Facebook friends list, lured in by this very blogorama.

Thanks boys.

It was a pleasure to spend some time with them. They are over for a week or so and will be at Southampton on Tuesday and at the West Ham game next weekend. They have all been Chelsea since the early-‘seventies. Ray and Hans are season-ticket holders in the MHL, and from what I could work out sit relatively close to the Kent Boys – Kim, Andy, Dan, Graham and more – who were nestled around another table in the boozer.

“I’ll try to keep a look out for you.”

Ray and Hans come over for fifteen to twenty games every season.

Top class.

We were joined by Sophie – fresh from her enjoyable trip to Milan of all places – and Andy and then we all left for the game at two o’clock.

Parky made his way to join his pals in The Shed. PD, Glenn and I continued on to the familiar stairs of the Matthew Harding. Inside, we were joined by Gary – who sits a few yards away from me in the MHU but is within earshot of those sitting in The Shed Upper – and Clive.

So, alongside me was Glenn, then Clive, then PD.

The Famous Four.

A Saturday league game at three o’clock. Weekends were made for this.

A typical day at the office.

Let’s go to work.

On the pitch, the team lined up with Edouard in goal, what seemed like a back four of Reece, Thiago Silva, Trevoh and Marc, a midfield of Ruben, Jorginho, Conor and Mase, with Havertz and Raheem up top. But it wasn’t always easy to see exactly who occupied what part of the pitch. Where’s my heat map when I need it? The Famous Four’s heat map was mainly four dots the entire first-half with one solitary excursion to the gents for Clive. Thomas Tuchel’s heat map must have been a single dot too, banished to the stands after the altercation with Antonio Conte after the last home game.

We attacked the Matthew Harding in the first-half. It always seems odd.

Early on, Raheem advanced centrally and rolled an absolutely perfectly-weighted ball into the path of Ruben – I expected a goal, I was up on my feet – but Leicester ‘keeper Danny Ward was able to recover and block well at his near post.

On twelve moments, we were awarded a penalty after a clumsy challenge on Ruben by Youri Tielemans – our 2021 FA Cup Final nemesis – and I was up on my feet again. For some reason, I immediately glanced around me and was shocked (shocked, I tell ya) to see that 90% of my close neighbours in the MHU were fully seated.

What? We have just been awarded a penalty! Good God. Has our support become that dull and unresponsive?

Ah, but maybe they knew something. After a few seconds, VAR was called into action. We waited with that dull ache of inevitably.

In the build-up, Kai had been spotted in an off-side position.

Those watching on TV at home – the important ones – probably had a much better view, and explanation, than us in the stadium.

We had definitely begun the better team, with Raheem buzzing about nicely, but then our play drifted and we lost a lot of intensity and Leicester came into the game.

I think I heard a “Dennis Wise is a wanker” chant from the Foxes. Answers on a postcard. I guess he wasn’t particularly liked when he played for them after leaving us.

On the half-an-hour, Marc wasted a corner on the far side and the ball was punted away. Conor then made a terrible lunge on Harvey Barnes in his own half. The youngster – again seemingly eager to impress –  had begun the game with a lovely crunching tackle, but I apparently missed a yellow that he had received earlier. This absolutely silly tackle was rewarded with a second yellow. While Clive fucked off to the little boys’ room, Conor fucked off to the dressing room.

Silly boy.

I lamented the fact that we were down to ten men for the second successive game and had mustered just one shot on goal in just over thirty minutes.

Next, Edouard jumped at a ball from corner and the appeared to fluff his lines completely. The ball was turned in but thankfully a foul on Mendy had been spotted.

On forty-two minutes, a ball dropped nicely for Reece but his powerful strike hit the angle of near post and cross-bar.

Two shots. Oh boy.

Next, a pass from Tielemans sliced through our last line and the advancing Jamie Vardy – his wife is a grass – scuffed his shot wide and this reminded me so much of the Kane miss a fortnight earlier.

This was a pretty poor performance from us. It was a pretty poor game. The atmosphere was not worthy of the name. Sigh.

I turned to Clive : “our link up play just doesn’t hurt anyone.”

Just before the half-time whistle, Dennis Praet was in on goal and there was a fear of impending gloom. Thankfully Edouard raced from his line and made a very fine save indeed.

At the break, the doom mongers were out, including me.

“0-0 – can’t see us scoring…”

One of the bright spots in the first forty-five minutes had been Trevoh’s solid showing. I said to Gal  “is Fofana really £70M better than Chalobah?”

As the second-half begun, I saw Dave in his number twenty-eight shirt, on the pitch. I missed the fine detail of the substitution. I soon worked out that Mason had been replaced and I realised that he had hardly played any part in the first-half. Weird times.

Dave played in a three with Reece and Marc moving to wing-backs.

After just two minutes of the second-half, the game changed. A very fine ball from Marc found Raheem in the inside left channel. A little shimmy, some space gained, and then a shot that was subtly deflected up and over the despairing leap of Ward in the Leicester City goal.

The crowd roared.

One-nil to Chelsea.

At last Stamford Bridge boomed.

“Sing when we’re winning? Yes.”

Soon after, another lucky deflection – this time on another Marc to Raheem pass – set things up nicely but his shot cannoned back off the far post with Ward well beaten.

I loved how Trevoh twisted in mid-air to stretch and head a dangerous cross out for a corner, his braids flying every which way.

A break from Ruben with Marc in acres of space outside him but he chose to continue on and attempt to beat a man, one of his “things” that annoys me. The ball was lost.

Half-way through the second period, we witnessed a fine move. Jorginho guided a ball out wide. Havertz, almost walking, played a ball forward into space down in Parkyville for Reece. His smart cross was zipped across the goal and Raheem was beautifully positioned to tap in.

Chelsea two-up.

Wow.

With no James Maddison, it was Harvey Barnes who was causing us a few problems. Not long after our second goal, he played a neat one-two with Vardy and smashed the ball past Edouard at his near post.

That wasn’t on the script. Fackinell.

This, then, set up a very nervy final quarter of the game.

There were worried looks in the Matthew Harding as the away team attacked our end. But it was a major plus that we possessed the calming influence of Thiago Emiliano da Silva in our defence. He was putting on another sublime performance. A sliding tackle on seventy-seven minutes was worth the admission money on its own. The applause boomed around the stadium.

I loved the way the home crowd got behind the team in those last nervy minutes.

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

There was a fine Mendy save from Barnes, down low.

Two substitutions :

Mateo for Jorginho.

Christian for Raheem.

These freshened things up nicely.

Late on, I spotted Ray and Hans in the MHL.

The most worrying moment occurred on eighty-two minutes when that man Vardy raced away and clear of Trevoh. Our last defender made a valiant effort to stop him, chopping high, but the ball ran on. He rounded Mendy but with a heavy touch. His slashed shot thankfully only hit the side netting.

Ben for Marc.

With continental-style whistling and the constant “CAM ON CHOWLSEA” combining for a deafening finish, Leicester broke through one last time. Ayoze Perez ran through and slammed a fierce shot goal wards. But Mendy had stayed tall, narrowing angles, closing free space, and the ball thundered against the underside of the bar.

Phew.

Four league games. Two wins. A draw. A loss. A solid start, nothing more.

I will see some of you at Southampton on Tuesday evening.

Gallery

Chelsea Norway

1982/1983

Tales From Both Sides Of The Ninian Park Gates

Cardiff City vs. Chelsea : 31 March 2019.

After away games in Ukraine and Scouseland we were now due to play our third consecutive away match on foreign soil. On the last day of March and the first day of summer we were headed over the Severn Bridge to Cardiff to play Neil Warnock’s Bluebirds. The Everton away game seemed ages ago. The Sunday trip into Wales could not come quick enough.

This was a drive of only seventy-five miles, a relatively brief excursion, but it would be a journey back into time too.

Let me explain.

There might have been the chance that our game at Cardiff City in 2019 might only have induced the slightest of mentions of our epic match at Ninian Park during the 1983/84 promotion campaign. I have already written about that encounter in two of these match reports already – during 2008/09, the twenty-fifth anniversary, and 2013/14, our last visit to Cardiff – and in normal circumstances I might have penned a brief mention. And then the Footballing Gods got involved. The match was moved to Sunday 31 March 2019, and it did not take me long to realise that this date would mark, exactly, the thirty-fifth anniversary of the 1984 game.

I mentioned the anniversary on a “Chelsea In The 1980s” page on Facebook during the preceding week and there were many replies, most of which seemed to centre on the crowd trouble that day rather than the game itself. But it was certainly a day that many recalled easily. And football hooliganism was often an inherent part of the day to day travails and travels of a Chelsea supporter in that era, and I suppose I should not have been shocked by the myriad of memories stirred by the mere mention of “Cardiff 1984”. There has always been a morbid fascination with hooliganism at football for many, much in the same way that violent films and TV series always stir some basic instinct among us. If “The Sopranos” was about opera singers and not New Jersey mobsters and if “Peaky Blinders” was about Birmingham milliners I suspect that viewing figures for both series would never have reached such stratospheric levels.

But more of 1984 later. You have been warned.

I set off for “Welsh Wales” – as we call it in Somerset, thus not confusing it with the local cathedral city of Wells – at just before eight o’clock. The usual Fun Boy Three of PD, Parky and little old me were joined by PD’s son Scott and Johnny, a local lad who we first met prior to the League Cup Final. It would be his first ever Chelsea away game. Tickets for this game seemed to be springing up all over the place. The media were in a shit-stirring mood and claimed that Chelsea fans were boycotting games after falling out of love with manager Sarri. I suspect that the glut of tickets for Cardiff City might well have been more to do with the game falling on Mothering Sunday.

Even football supporters – and hooligans and wannabe hooligans too – love their muvvers, just like the Kray twins.

The drive into Wales was so easy, though the fantastic weather of the previous day was nowhere to be seen. Heading over the Severn Estuary, it was all grey and cloudy. However, I was parked up on Mermaid Quay at just before 10am and we soon made the local pub “The Mount Stuart” our base. We devoured our various breakfasts and, while others got stuck into a variety of ciders and lagers, I made ample use of free coffee refills, as if I suspected that the upcoming game might induce torpor. There was a Cardiff Bay 10km race taking place and the pub was mobbed with runners ahead of the 11am start, but they soon vacated the large pub and we settled on high stools near the bar and overlooking the murky grey waters of the bay. Outside were flags of St. David and, in the distance, the cranes of commerce and trade.

A Cardiff City fan, John – Adidas gazelles and a Lacoste rain jacket – befriended us, and we chatted away about all sorts. Joining the dots, I think it is wise for me to assume that he had a chequered past as he knew of various names and events of days gone by, nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more. He remembered 1984. He spoke of the 2010 FA Cup game. But he was a friendly lad and was kind enough to take our team photo once we had been joined by fellow Chelsea fans Charlotte and Paul from Yeovil. I found it interesting that John mentioned that fans of Swansea City  – he called them “that lot” – and Cardiff City, especially in times when both teams existed further down the football pyramid, often had a second team, an English team. Again joining the dots, I reckoned his other team was Liverpool since he spoke highly of their 2001 FA Cup win in Cardiff against Arsenal and of “a mate” – oh yeah? – who went to Kiev for last May’s European Cup Final. His wife was taking part in the run. I think he was happy to have company while he waited for her return. We wished each other well.

We made tracks. I had arranged a parking place right outside the ground. In the middle distance I kept spotting the towering roof supports of the Millennium Stadium in the nearby city centre. It dominates the skyline.

There has always been something very special about spotting a football stadium.

In the late ‘sixties or early ‘seventies, I have a vivid memory of my father driving through Cardiff to visit relatives in Llanelli – in the days when the M4 in South Wales was still being built – and him pointing out the floodlights of Ninian Park. After Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road, Ninian Park was almost certainly the second football ground that I ever saw.

We were parked up at about 1.30pm. There was just time – but only just – for me to splinter away from the others and have a rushed walk around the new Cardiff City Stadium. I was unable to do so in 2014, when we similarly enjoyed a pre-match drink on Mermaid Quay but then left it very late in arriving at the game.

Outside the entrance to the away section on Sloper Road, police cars were parked up, with their blue lights flashing, and a fair few policemen were walking in a mob of Chelsea. The game had recently been elevated to a high risk “Cat C” ranking.

I walked on, and I soon spotted a feature which linked Cardiff City’s past with their future. The old Ninian Park used to sit on the northern side of Sloper Road. The new stadium sits on the southern side. I was heartened to see that the old Ninian Park gates – and their concrete surrounds – were not demolished but were moved en masse to form the basis of an entrance plaza (admittedly half-arsed and scruffy) into the new stadium.

I definitely approved.

And my mind returned to 1984, quite easily in fact.

On that Saturday thirty-five years ago, Glenn and I had met up at Wallbridge Café opposite the Frome railway station. Inside, I was met by a sobering site. There was one other Chelsea fan – Dave – but also a couple of Frome’s Finest, two lads who I knew were only coming along for a bundle; Gulliver, a fan of Manchester United, and Sedge, a fan of Arsenal. Alongside them was Winnie, a friend from my year at school, who was anything but a wannabe hooligan. We made our way to Wales by train. As we neared Newport, I remember peering out at the scruffy grass alongside the tracks as if it was yesterday. At Cardiff train station, I met up with another school friend, Rick – a Pompey fan, studying at a polytechnic in Pontypridd – who was lured to Cardiff for the game.

Glenn and I soon lost the others and made a bee-line for Ninian Park. We knew that there would be pockets of trouble at various locations in the city centre and en route to the stadium. We kept our heads down, and feared the prospect of locals approaching us and asking us the usual “got the time mate”? We surmised that it would be better to get inside the away end early. I always remember that I was, in fact, the very first Chelsea fan to pass through the “click click” of the away turnstiles. Having the entire away end to myself, if only for a fleeting few seconds, was a memorable moment. Opposite the huge Bob Bank loomed, a massive terrace which backed onto some railway sidings and whose roof was etched with a ginormous Captain Morgan advertisement. To my left the main stand. Straight ahead the roof of the home end. Throughout the game, Chelsea fans would end up in three sides of the ground. The weather that day was grey and overcast too.

I continued my walk around the Cardiff City Stadium. Since my only other visit in 2014, a new tier has been added to the stand nearest Sloper Road. It has the infamous red seats, and the less said about that the better. The stadium now holds a healthy 33,000. There was a poorly executed statue depicting Fred Keenor, the club’s captain in 1927 when, as any good schoolboy will know, Cardiff City took the FA Cup out of England for the only time. I liked the fact that the signage on the main stand is an exact replica of that used at Ninian Park. The same words, the same font, though oddly in light grey and not Bluebirds blue. But I approved of that too. It was another nice nod to the past.

On the way in to the away section, there seemed to be an over-bearing presence of OB, but the security searches were completed with the minimum of fuss.

After six coffees, I was still buzzing.

I made my way in, behind the goal this time, and took my seat alongside Alan, Gary and PD. The others were dotted around.

Mother’s Day had won. There were quite a few empty seats in both home and away sections.

The teams came on. The yellow and blue “Chelsea Here, Chelsea There” banner was held aloft to my right.

The game began without me knowing the team. I soon worked it out.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kovacic – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Willian

So, no Kante, no Hazard, no Hudson-Odoi.

Words failed me, and not for the first time. Our Callum was undoubtedly the talk of the town, the player on everyone’s lips, but Sarri could not find a place for him against lowly Cardiff City. I could not get inside Sarri’s head. I was befuddled.

The game began with a few half-hearted shouts of support from the Chelsea faithful. But it was a slow start to the match. Both Alan and I were surprised that the home fans were not getting behind their team. However, Saturday had been a particularly painful time for them with both Burnley and Southampton victorious. Perhaps they had simply lost the will to battle and fight. Their team were happy to let us have the ball. But Neil Warnock is a wily old sod.

“Let them have it. Save yourselves. They’ll soon tie themselves up in knots.”

It was a cold day. I was glad that I had my jacket. The first real chance of the game fell to Pedro who danced his way into a central position and curled an effort narrowly over the bar. Soon after, a similar effort from the home team – in all blue, the aberration of red shirts consigned to the rubbish bin of memory – just span past the far post.

I turned to Gary : “I think their effort was closer than Pedro’s.”

We had most of the ball, but did fuck all with it. Sound familiar? I noted that it took until twenty-five minutes for any chant of noise and menace to emanate from the away fans and a further five minutes for the whole end to be united in song.

Sigh.

It was dire, both on and off the pitch. I had to step in when one of the traveling party continually ranted about virtually every Chelsea player. I just wanted to see positive noise. That’s our role as supporters, right?

Did we have any other chances? I captured a Willian effort on goal from a free-kick. There was a scramble in which the derided Alonso failed to poke home. Cardiff rarely threatened.

“Oh God, this is awful.”

In 1984 it wasn’t much better.

We had been riding high since the timely addition of Mickey Thomas in January added the requisite amount of energy and skill to our promotion-chasing team. My previous game that season had been the iconic 1-1 draw at promotion favourites Newcastle United. Chelsea were the in-form team, closing in on leaders Sheffield Wednesday. We had gone into the game at Ninian Park high on confidence. Although Dale Jasper was a young debutant alongside captain Colin Pates we did not foresee any trouble in garnering three points. As the away end filled up, I was well aware of the dress code of the day. Many were wearing those blue and white Patrick cagoules.  There were Pringles and Nike Wimbledons everywhere. For the very first time, I had joined in too; a yellow, light grey and navy Gallini sweatshirt, a £10 purchase in Bath the previous weekend, though if I am honest Gallini didn’t really cut it. It is a brand that is rarely mention in the various “clobber” pages on the internet these days. However, I did see three of four other lads wearing the same top that afternoon in Wales. As the kick-off neared, outbreaks of violence erupted in a variety of locations all over the stadium.

Chelsea were in town.

However, at half-time we were losing 3-0. Just like in 2019, we had been dire. We were shell-shocked. We had been second-best throughout.

Cardiff City 3 Chelsea 0.

Altogether now –

Fackinell.

Back to life, back to reality. In 2019, there were whispers between Alan and myself that this game might well mirror the Everton match where we had been well on top in the first forty-five minutes but had not prised open the home defence. The worry was, undoubtedly, that there was only a couple of chances against Cardiff rather than the five or six against Everton. Alan slipped in the phrase “we’re on the road to nowhere” and I had reminded him that this phrase had aided me on the naming of a blog a few years ago for a game at Manchester City.

“Tales From The Road To Nowhere.”

Alan replied “You can call this one ‘Tales From Groundhog Day.’”

Within seconds of the restart, a cross from Harry Arter was excellently clipped in by Victor Camarasa.

“Groundhog Day!” yelped Alan.

We stood silent. It is a horrible feeling being in the bear pit of an away section with the home fans baying.

“One nil to the sheepshaggers.”

The away fans, rather than support the team, turned on the manager.

“We want Sarri out, say we want Sarri out.”

Oh great. I didn’t join in. I understood everyone’s frustrations, but surely with a team being 1-0 down and in need of encouragement, we needed to dig deep, real deep, and muster up some noise from the depths of our souls. I’ll say it again. That’s our role as supporters, right?

The Cardiff fans responded : “We want Sarri in.”

Oscar Wilde need not be worried.

Alan commented “it’s getting toxic.”

Indeed it was.

“FUCK SARRIBALL.”

I looked over to the bench. The manager must’ve heard. No reaction. Probably just as well.

Eden Hazard replaced Pedro on fifty-three minutes and the Belgian immediately lit up the pitch. A free-kick involving Willian playing the ball through Ross Barkley’s legs to David Luiz resulted in the wall being hit. The groans continued.

There was a strong shout for a Cardiff penalty after a messy challenge by Rudiger on Morrison. No whistle. Phew.

Our Ruben replaced – shock, horror – Jorginho, who had been quite terrible.

We dominated most of the ball now but despite countless wriggles and shimmies by Eden, Willian and others it looked like Cardiff’s back line would simply not be breached. I lost count of the times Alonso played the ball back rather than into the box. Frustration was everywhere. But I stood silent, not enjoying much of anything. I contemplated us winning all four home games, but easily losing all away games, here at Cardiff, at Anfield, at Old Trafford, at Leicester City. The thought of those two away games at Liverpool and Manchester United are certainly starting to cause me pain.

An effort from Willian went wide. The ineffectual Higuain shot meekly but was then replaced by Olivier Giroud.

Three substitutes used, but Callum stayed on the bench. Maybe Sarri was resting him for his next England game.

A cross from wide was whipped into the box but with Chelsea legs stretching out to meet the low ball, a Cardiff defender managed to reach the ball first. We were awarded a corner.

There were six minutes to go.

In 1984, Kerry Dixon stroked a low shot inside the post from outside the box and this was met with a roar of approval from the Chelsea hordes, but surely this was just a rogue consolation goal.

In 2019, the corner was played in by Willian. Alonso got a touch and – we breathed in expectantly – the ball reached Azpilicueta who headed home. I immediately sensed “offside” but there was no flag, no reaction, the goal stood.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

I turned to Alan.

“Bloody hell. Six minutes to go. Just like 1984. Maybe we’ll draw 3-3.”

A lucky escape at the other end. Another clumsy Rudiger challenge, but after a long deliberation, the referee only gave a yellow card. Was he the last man? It looked messy. Phew.

In 1984, with two minutes to go Colin Lee – the experienced striker now playing right back – found himself inside the six-yard box and bundled the ball home. Game well and truly on. The Chelsea crowd went doolally. We were losing 3-2 but the game sprang to life.

In 2019, there was praise for Chelsea, but the chants of “Maurizio” dried up around Christmas.

In 1984, on ninety minutes, a Cardiff defender handled the ball. A penalty.

Pandemonium.

Nigel Spackman slammed it home.

The away end erupted. Unfettered by seats, we jumped and shouted, and stumbled, and screamed, and hugged, and kissed. Our arms were thrusted heavenwards, our voices sang roars of triumph. As we marched out onto the bleak Cardiff streets, we were invincible.

In 2019, deep into stoppage time, a cross from Willian on the right perfectly found our Ruben. I snapped just as he lent forward and headed the ball towards goal. Just like in 1984 – all those years ago – the Chelsea end erupted. A leap from Ruben in front of me. I was screaming with joy. No chance of a photo.

Carpe diem.

Get in.

I did capture the aftermath.

Joy unbounded.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds, boyo.”

There’s nice, look you.

Smiles, relief.

And then Barkley shot wildly over.

Oh boyo.

And that was that.

Despite the win, we all knew that we had been quite awful for eighty minutes. It was truly woeful. It was like watching players walking through treacle.

Football, bloody hell.

In 1984, on the train back to Frome, we regrouped, but two of our party were missing. Dave and Gulliver had been nicked for something or other. It had to happen. They were to spend the night in a police cell. On that train ride home, with me sitting quietly in one of those old compartments, a lad appeared in the corridor and he was serenaded by those who knew him.

“Daniels is our leader. Daniels is our leader.”

It was PD.

It was the first time that I had ever met him.

He was dressed in jeans, DMs and full regalia. He was a fearsome sight.

I had mentioned this to PD when I had picked him up at eight o’clock.

“Me and Nicks and Andy thought that we’d go into the Cardiff end. We got in, looked around, this, that and the other, and soon left.”

Outside the away end, the 2019 party regrouped. We knew how poorly we had played. We were no fools. But we had won. At this stage in the season, three points is all. The traffic heading home was ridiculous. We were caught in an hour-long traffic jam just leaving the immediate area of the stadium. I slowly edged north and then south and then, eventually, west. I looked over at the roof of Cardiff City’s current home, the roof of the Millennium Stadium and imagined Ninian Park in between the two.

Thanks for the memories, Cardiff. I have a feeling that our paths will not be crossing next season.

On Wednesday, we play Brighton at Stamford Bridge, our first home game in bloody ages.

See you there.

The 1984 Game.

Many will be seeing this for the first time. Fill your boots.

Part One.

Part Two.

The 1984 Cast.

Chris – I still go to Chelsea, you lucky people.

Glenn – still goes to Chelsea.

Dave – he occasionally goes to Chelsea.

PD – still goes to Chelsea.

Nicks – still goes to Chelsea.

Andy – still goes to Chelsea.

Gulliver – now a Millwall fan, he goes occasionally and I see him around town occasionally for a chat.

Sedge – I see him around town occasionally.

Winnie – I see him around town occasionally.

Rick – a Pompey season ticket holder, now living in Portsmouth, and at the EFL Trophy game against Sunderland.

Tales From Our National Game

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 30 December 2018.

So, the last game of 2018. Whereas some teams were given a normal Saturday match, Chelsea Football Club ended the calendar year with a game on the Sunday at South London rivals – kind of – Crystal Palace. The game seemed typically out of sync at this odd time of year where nobody really knows what day it is, what to do, nor what day is coming up next. To add to the discombobulation, our game was kicking-off at midday. So, this was another early start for the Fun Boy Four. I set my alarm for 5.30am and was up not long after. I was on driving duties again, but I did not mind one iota. By 7.30am, the fellow Chuckle Brothers were collected and we were soon tucking into a McBreakfast at Melksham.

“Not very busy is it?”

“Not bloody surprising, who else is up at 7.45am on a Sunday?”

Saturday had been a big day football-wise. While I was watching my local team Frome Town capitulate to yet another league defeat at home to Tiverton Town, I was overjoyed to hear that Tottenham had surprisingly dropped points to Wolves at Wembley. Later that evening, we hoped that Arsenal could dent Liverpool’s charge to their first league title since 1990, but an early Arsenal lead was soon overtaken. On Saturday evening, myself and many looked at the bleakest of scenarios. With Manchester City suffering a recent tumble at Leicester, the thoughts of either Liverpool or Tottenham winning the league made many of us shiver.

For Chelsea fans like me, this is a “no-win” scenario. If pushed, and as much as it hurts, I would pick Liverpool over Tottenham. But – grasping at long straws – there is still the prospect of Manchester City, 2014 style, overhauling them both. Chelsea will not win the league this season; like many others, I am hoping that City find some form to pip the other two – hideous – contenders, preferably on the last day and with as much pain to both as possible.

Getting to Selhurst Park in South London from our base in the South-West of England is not the easiest of journeys. From my home, I headed east, then north, then east, then south-east, then north-east, then south-east, then south. At 10.30am, after a journey of three-and-a-half hours, I was parked on a pre-paid driveway within sight of the oddly-shaped barrelled roof of the Holmesdale Road stand, a mere ten-minute walk away. The first friend of many who we met throughout the day – Welsh Kev – caught up with us as we slogged up the hill past the main stand and the busy intersection at the top. The immediate area around Selhurst Park is surprisingly hilly. On this Sunday morning, there were no options to drink in local hostelries. The other three headed inside for a drink while I took a few photographs of a typical pre-match. The floodlights were on at 11am and the air – although mild – was full of an atmospheric glaze of mist. Down the Park Lane, police horses trotted back and forth. The away turnstiles at the bottom of the hill were busy. Programmes were hawked. Lottery tickets were sold. A few good friends walked past. A photograph of Alan and Daryl against the stark red-bricked backdrop of the low wall of the Arthur Wait Stand.

Some stadia are antique and charming – step forward Goodison Park, Craven Cottage and Fratton Park – but Selhurst Park does not thrill many. There are grandiose plans to completely redevelop the main stand – a virtual copy of the Archibald Leitch stand at Fulham, and of the old East stand at Chelsea – and turn it into a curving three-tiered edifice, with plenty of glass to honour the original palace which was dismantled at Hyde Park and rebuilt nearby at Sydenham Hill before being destroyed by fire in 1936.

Many would advocate the modernisation of the dark and cavernous Arthur Wait stand as quickly as possible too.

After bumping into many other friends and acquaintances outside the away turnstiles, there was a slight wait for a body search and bag check. In those few moments while I waited in line, and with the mist hanging heavily over the rising terraced houses of the immediate vicinity, and the chitter-chatter of the Chelsea supporters filling the air, a beautiful bonhomie, I found a new love for this enduring game of ours, still enticing thousands and thousands out of their warm houses every week of the season. Football truly is our national game in this historic and magical land of ours and nothing comes remotely close.

I love football like life itself.

The camaraderie. The banter. The friendships. The laughs. The trips. The players. The teams. The heroes. The stadia. The rivalries. The songs. The humour. The smiles. The tears. The routines. The superstitions. The drinks. The fads. The fashions. The clobber. The game itself.

It’s the bollocks.

There were fleeting thoughts of Selhurst Park which cascaded through my mind. There were images and recollections of previous encounters at the same ground going back into history; the iconic photo of Eccles being lead out by the Old Bill in front of the main stand in around 1969, an infamous game in 1982 involving a certain Paul Canoville, my first-ever visit to Selhurst in August 1989 when thousands of Chelsea descended on the Holmesdale Road after two wins out of two but were humbled 3-0 by a Charlton Athletic team which absurdly contained both Colin Pates and Joe McLaughlin in the centre of their defence, a dull 0-0 against Palace in 1991 when I watched from near the former grass bank in the corner between the Arthur Wait and the Holmesdale, the rain sodden League Cup quarter final in 1993, an equally misty evening in 1996 when we defeated Wimbledon in the FA Cup against a bellowing backdrop of noise from the Chelsea support, a win against Wimbledon in 1999 when I watched from the “Sainsbury’s End”, a Geremi free-kick beating Palace in a pre-season friendly in 2003, the first game in England of the Abramovich era, the recent losses, the recent wins, the constant chanting of “we’re top of the league” in 2014, getting soaked in 2016, and getting abruptly turned over by a previously pointless Palace in 2017.

This had the feel of a very old-fashioned football occasion.

Once inside, I struggled to shuffle through the crowds who were massed in that little area in the corner, where quite commendable dance music was booming out over Chelsea fans nursing plastic bottles of cider and lager, and with occasional community singing for good measure.

More familiar faces, more bonhomie.

The Arthur Wait Stand goes back forever. The view from the rear is horrific – I watched the 2003 friendly from this area, it is like watching the game from inside a post-box – and I am not surprised it is the reason why the font rows are always over-subscribed.

“Stand where you want.”

The team news had filtered through; Olivier Giroud was in, as was Ross Barkley.

Kepa

Dave – Toni – David – Marcos

N’Golo – Jorginho – Ross

Willian – Olivier – Eden

I shuffled down to row six and took my position alongside Gal and Parky. But Alan met me with some grave news. The wife of one of our extended band of Chelsea supporters had passed away overnight. I was silent with grief.

Oh my.

Oh bloody hell.

I stood, unable to think, unable to talk. What a cruel world.

My mind was spinning as the teams entered the pitch ten minutes later, and I struggled to get motivated. The teams lined up on the centre-circle and the PA announced that there would be a minute of silent remembrance for all of those Crystal Palace supporters that had passed away in 2018. This was a nice touch, and as the whole crowd stood still and in complete silence, around forty names were displayed on the TV screen above the executive boxes of the “Sainsbury End” to my right.

At the end, the names of the Chelsea players who were sadly taken from us this year was shown too, again a very fine gesture.

Roy Bentley.

Phil McNight.

Derek Saunders.

Ken Shellito.

And then, at the end, a photograph of Ray Wilkins.

My memory recalled that he played – fleetingly – for Crystal Palace too. I still find it hard to believe that Ray Wilkins is no longer with us. On this day, how raw, I remembered one other member of our Chelsea family who was no longer with us.

Rest In Peace.

In truth, I didn’t really feel much like football as the game began. Thoughts of our own, my own, immortality crept into my head.

Chelsea, in all yellow, attacked the Holmesdale Road in the first-half.

Almost immediately, without really thinking – my mind certainly was elsewhere – I found myself singing along to “The famous Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see the Pope” and my mind again went into overdrive, quickly equating what the outcome might be.

“Right, we didn’t sing the word on Wednesday at Watford and a lot of beer had been consumed. Nobody has had much to drink this morning; I can’t see it being sung today either.”

Thankfully, the Chelsea support had read the script perfectly.

“Barcelona, Real Madrid, Tottenham are a load of ssssssshhhhhhh.”

And then I felt like admonishing myself for honestly caring about a song when a good mate’s wife was no longer with us.

Fucking hell, football.

Being so low down, the action in front of the men in black, the Holmesdale Ultras, in the corner to my left was a mystery to me. I struggled to get in the game. At the Frome Town game on Saturday, I had revelled in being able to stand behind the goal at the club end and move to my left or right to get a better view. It felt natural. Here, hemmed in my seats and fellow fans, I was stuck in a poor-viewing position, and it did not help my enjoyment of the game. The pitch had been well-watered before the game and was slick. I wished that our passing was slick, too. For all of our possession – apart from a few early forays into our box, Palace were happy to sit back and defend deep – we struggled to hurt their defence.

Wilfred Zaha began as their main threat – a very nimble skip past three Chelsea challenges even drew muted applause from a few fair minded individuals in the Chelsea section – but as is his wont his role soon diminished.

Chelsea attempts on goal were rare throughout the first-half.

There was rising frustration with our reluctance to shoot.

“Bloody hell, shoot. The pitch is wet. If the goalie fumbles, we can pounce on the rebound.”

We were limited to a few speculative efforts. We had been especially hard on Jorginho, to either release the ball early or to shoot. With that, he took aim from distance and thumped a ball ridiculously high and wide of the target. This was met with howls of self-deprecating laughter.

“Ah, fuck it, you’re right, don’t bother next time.”

Ross Barkley was neat and tidy, economical in possession, moving the ball well. Eden Hazard tried his best to twist and turn, to run at players, to cajole others into action. Willian was under-used out on the right wing, a spare part. Olivier Giroud struggled to get involved. N’Golo Kante was everywhere, chasing balls, nicking possession, moving the ball early, just magnificent.

A foul on Hazard, surprise surprise, allowed Willie to clip a ball against the post, just beyond the dive of the Crystal Palace ‘keeper. Bizarrely, the referee gave a corner. From this, my view was blocked but Barkley hot the same post. Another effort from us forced a bona fide save from the ‘keeper Guaita.

A fine shot, from an angle, from Giroud which beat the ‘keeper was flagged for offside, but my view was impeded that I hardly saw the shot nor the flag.

At the break, there was a noticeable gloom amidst the Chelsea support in the murky twilight of Selhurst Park.

“We’ll win this, Gal.”

“0-0 I reckon Chris.”

As the half-time break continued, I turned my back to the choreographed Lycra nonsense of the Palace cheerleaders and the lame penalty shoot-out, and tried to spot a few friends in the crowd. I had already spotted Lynda and T from Brooklyn a few rows behind us before the game. In the depths of the Gents, I had bumped into Mick from Denver, over for just one game. Somewhere in the home section of the Arthur Wait was my work associate Ben, from Germany, who was visiting these shores again. To the day, it was a year ago that I welcomed him to Stamford Bridge for the Stoke City game, when with his friends Jens and Walt, we enjoyed a lovely pub-crawl around Fulham before the match.

The game recommenced with Chelsea on top.

After six minutes of action, with Palace massed in defence and closing our players down, we watched as Kante spotted an avenue of space, and ran from deep. For us in the Chelsea section, this was great viewing, as his run was in line with all of us. He ran past several blue and red shirts and a perfectly lofted ball – not sure from whom, my eyes were on Kante exploiting the gap – was chested into a yard of space and then the ball was turned low past Guatia. The ball just about rolled over the line.

“GET IN.”

We were treated to an N’Goalo.

He was mobbed by his team mates and with good reason. The run and finish was quite exceptional.

I turned to Parky.

“Who passed to him?”

“Luiz.”

“Ah excellent.”

I looked at Alan.

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

Over Christmas, I had re-watched the famous clip of Tommy Doc in the press box at Stamford Bridge after a Chelsea goal when he uttered his famous phrase –

“Go on my little diamonds. They’ll have to open out now.”

We had joked about how we managed to get it all wrong, all arse about face, but agreed that our little superstition would continue on regardless. I am sure Docherty would not object, it is not like we are paying him royalties.

Was there a reaction from the home side? Not at all.

The game rumbled on but still with little likelihood of us increasing our slender lead. The noise around us was quiet, but louder towards the rear. A couple of efforts, from Willian – out of sorts in this game – and Barkley peppered the Crystal Palace goal. The long lost, and probably forgotten, Connor Wickham came on for Palace. There was another disallowed goal for Giroud, who cleanly converted a Willian pass, but then injured himself in the process. He was replaced by Alvaro Morata, cue lots of hilarious “bants.” We still waited for Palace to “come at us now.”

Eden walked towards us and, on hearing his name being bellowed, clapped and gave us a thumbs-up.

Two late substitutions followed; Emerson for Willian (an odd game for our number twenty-two, he really struggled to get involved) and Mateo Kovacic for Barkley (“he’s not given the ball away much, but he hasn’t done much with it”).

A wild shot from Palace went the same way as the Jorginho effort an hour earlier. But things were now getting nervy in the away section. If we could hang on, we would be a mighty five points ahead of Arsenal. In the last five minutes, Palace at last found their compass and their attacking boots. That man Wickham thankfully slashed a rising ball over after a headed knock-down.

Four minutes of extra time were signalled.

My eyes were on referee Craig Pawson.

With a cheer, he blew up and the game was won.

There is a common phrase, possibly “proper Chelsea” – please God, not “Proper Chels” – and maybe even Chelsea-esque which is doing the rounds these days and it is this :

“Bloody hell, we made hard work of that.”

And dear reader, without more quality in front of the goal, we will hear this phrase again and again.

The players came over to see us, but Sarri did not join them. He likes to keep his distance, which I find a little odd. Alonso threw his shirt into the crowd and there were waves from Luiz and a defiant “Keep the Faith” from captain Dave.

Job done.

We slowly made our way to the top of the stand, and dived in to use “the facilities” one last time. The gents’ toilets at Selhurst are rather primeval, and you need a certain constitution to use them. There were jokes about having to wear Wellington Boots, and to avoid the deep end, but as I descended into hell, I met Alan coming up the steps and he chirped :

“I enjoy potholing.”

That made me chuckle.

Outside, as we gathered together and turned to set off up the slope, Ben from Germany suddenly appeared with his two mates. It was perfect timing. They had attended the darts on Thursday, the Fulham game on Saturday and had now seen Chelsea play once more. It was great to see them again. I had been certain that I would bump into them some when during the day.

We trudged back to the car, and I then headed slowly north and our escape route took us tantalisingly close to Stamford Bridge. Over Wandsworth Bridge, the Thames looking greyer than ever, and then up towards Fulham Broadway. We stopped for food on the North End Road – “can’t keep away” – and I pointed the car west for one last time in 2018.

As I deposited Parky, Glenn and PD off at each of their homes, I said the same thing to all of them.

“Thanks for your friendship this year. See you on Wednesday.”

It has been a great year again. I remember gasping earlier this week when I saw one Chelsea fan describe it as “difficult”; well fuck that, we won the FA Cup in May.

Turning inwards, a word of real appreciation for those of you who continue to support me in my efforts with this website. Just before Christmas – on Christmas Eve no less, almost perfect timing – I was happy to see that I had reached one hundred thousand views since I set this all up in the summer of 2013. And, over the next few hours, last year’s total of 23,847 views will surely be eclipsed (currently on 23,835) although total visitors this year is down.

In those five years, I have seen the UK viewing figures increase and that means a lot to me. Originally on the “Chelsea In America” website from 2008, I have witnessed a decrease in views from the US, but levels have grown elsewhere. I like that. So, thanks to all once more.

For those interested – who does not like a list? – here is the Top Ten.

  1. USA – 41,409
  2. UK – 38,568
  3. Canada – 2,471
  4. Australia – 2,018
  5. Ireland – 1,197
  6. India – 1,002
  7. Germany – 965
  8. Indonesia – 841
  9. Belgium – 679
  10. France – 606

Here’s to 2019. I hope that everyone stays healthy and happy. After a particularly stressful year for me – in a nutshell, work – I am looking forward to a more relaxed twelve months ahead. It really is all about staying healthy and well. Everything else really is gravy.

I will see some of you at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.

Tales From Benny’s First Game

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 3 October 2015.

This was our homecoming after three games on the road at Walsall, Newcastle and Porto. It would also be our last game for a fortnight, with another international break looming. After the disappointment of our game in Portugal – the stinging defeat on the pitch allied with the spate of robberies off it – I was hopeful that the game against Southampton would put us back on track.

No, let’s be honest and exact here, this was a game we had to win. I knew that the Saints, continuing their fine play from last season under Ronald Koeman would be no pushover, but I was adamant that we could – and should – prevail.

However, my main focus as I drove up to London with Parky and Bournemouth Steve was centred upon seeing my close friend Ian and his young son Ben, who would be watching from the East Lower. It would be Benny’s first ever Chelsea game; a present for his eighth birthday during the late summer.

Ian and I go back to 1984, when we found ourselves on the same human geography course at North Staffs Poly in Stoke. Our friendship slowly grew over the three years, aided by our love of football and music, and was solidified on a trip around Europe on a three week Inter Rail holiday in the September of 1987. Ian was with me, memorably, on my first ever European football match, an Internazionale vs. Empoli game in the San Siro. During that trip we also visited the Bernabeu, Camp Nou and Munich’s Olympic Stadium. Our first afternoon in London after that Inter Rail trip was spent at Stamford Bridge – a good 2-2 draw with Newcastle United, Paul Gascoigne and all – and this was Ian’s first game at Chelsea.

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Ian has watched a few more games with me at The Bridge since. In our thirty plus years of friendship, football has never been too far away.

Ian is from South Yorkshire and a lifelong Rotherham United fan. Ian was at one of the most infamous games in Chelsea’s history; our 6-0 loss at Millmoor in the autumn of 1981. A few of my close Chelsea mates were there too, though I wasn’t. I can remember playing a school football match on that particular day, strangely on a Saturday afternoon, and coming in at half-time in our match to find the boys three-nil down at Rotherham. I can distinctly remember – always an optimist – thinking to myself that we would come back to win 4-3 with Alan Mayes scoring the winner. Sadly it was not to be. For those newish Chelsea fans who think that our current run of poor form entitles them to proudly boast that they can claim that they were there when we are “shit”, watch this and think again.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nZfwdx9zLA

In 2015, we are League Champions, League Cup Winners, in the Champions League and one of the top twenty clubs on the planet.

In 1981, we were a struggling Second Division team, with no trophy of any description for ten years.

Later in the season, the same Rotherham United beat us 4-1 at Stamford Bridge.

Compared to 1981, 2015 doesn’t even come close.

Since leaving college, Ian and I met up again in 1989 for our never-to-be-forgotten adventure in North America; cycling down the East coast, visiting city after city, living some sort of American dream. We drove down through France for a Juventus vs. Sampdoria game in 1992. Ian now lives in Fareham, close to Portsmouth, with his wife Maria – I was the best man at his wedding in 2006 – and their two boys Tom and Benny. Both boys have teams; Tom is Arsenal, Ben is Chelsea. Once I managed to secure match tickets for the Saints match, I am sure that Ben has been so excited. But so was I. I couldn’t wait to meet up with him for the game.

We had arranged to meet up at the Peter Osgood statue at 1.30pm. It was magical to see them both, smiling and full of anticipation of the day ahead. Benny was wearing a blue and white bar scarf, and it made my day. During all of our years of friendship, who on earth would have predicted that Ian’s son would be a Chelsea fan.

Lovely.

We spent an hour in the hotel foyer. I am not honestly sure if Ben will remember too much of his first ever Chelsea game, nor the people that he met, but I made sure that I took enough photographs to help. Although it seemed that a camera was always on hand to take key photographs of my formative years, it is one of my big regrets that neither of my parents took any photographs of my first Chelsea game in 1974.

We chatted with Bobby Tambling, as always a lovely man, and it was good to look back on the summer tour in the US. I explained to Ben that Bobby scored 202 goals for Chelsea and Ben’s face was a picture. Coming from Hayling Island, Bob explained how everyone naturally presumed that he would play for Portsmouth after his impressive English schoolboy career. Instead, they made no offer, and despite an approach from Wolves, Bobby ended up at Stamford Bridge.

There were photographs with John Hollins, and Ben predicted a 10-0 win for Chelsea, and our former captain and manager loved the optimism.

There was a prolonged chat with former captain Colin Pates concerning his current job at the Whitgift School in Croydon, where he spotted the potential in a young Victor Moses, and also a few words from Colin which answered Ian’s enquiry about how difficult it was to make the transition from player to another trade.

“Put it like this. It’s like being at the best party you have ever been to. Then someone comes along and says it’s over.”

Ian and I knew exactly what he meant.

I commented back, looking at Ian –

“Colin found it so difficult, that he ended up playing for Arsenal.”

Colin and Ian laughed.

However, I chose not to talk to Colin about the Rotherham game in 1981, since he had played in that game. Neil Barnet called by and reminded us that it was Petar Borota’s last ever game for the club. What a wayward player he was, but loved by all. Bless him.

Paul Canoville joined us and I explained that this was Ben’s first-ever game. Paul spent a good few minutes with the three of us, welcoming Ben to the Chelsea family, and entertaining Ian with anecdotes from his various travels over the past summer.

I really appreciated the time that these three former players took in spending time with young Ben. And I am sure that Ian got a kick out of it too. Outside the main reception, there was time for a team photo with Ron Harris.

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Back in The Goose, it was lovely to see Alan and Gary again after their tribulations in Porto. I also bumped into a cheery Stan, too, and he seemed unperturbed, and showing no signs of distress after temporarily losing his passport. It was a sublimely beautiful Saturday evening and it was hard to believe that it was October now. The team news came through via various ‘phone updates.

John Terry was back.

Parky bought a round of amaretto shots and we then set off for the Bridge.

Southampton opted for the smaller away allocation for this fixture; around 1,500.

After the initial sparring, we were awarded a free-kick to the left of the Southampton goal. Willian swung in a looping free-kick which bamboozled Stekelenburg in the Saints goal. The ball struck the far post and rippled the net. For what seemed the umpteenth time already this season, we had scored with a free-kick from the left, and this was yet another one from Willian. He ran off to the East Stand and I can only imagine how excited young Ben must have been. Ian Hutchinson scored after ten minutes in my first game in 1974 and Willian did exactly the same for Ben in 2015.

Alan and myself attempted the Hampshire burr of cricket commentator John Arlott as we went through our “come on my little diamonds / they’ll have to come at us now” routine.

Chances were rare. Oscar and Eden Hazard struggled to find the target. Southampton burst through our ranks on several occasions. Sadio Mane was booked for diving. On more than one occasion, the alert Asmir Begovic saved our blushes.

However, a certain amount of sleepiness in our defence allowed Pelle to chest down for Davis to strike a low drive past Begovic.

At the break, Nemanja Matic replaced Ramires.

Southampton bossed the early moments of the second period. They are a fine team these days and they continually exposed the increasing self-doubt within our team. Then came a major talking point. Fabregas played in Falcao, who stretched to go past the Southampton ‘keeper, but fell. A penalty was not given, but the referee added insult to injury and booked Falcao for simulation. Our Colombian beat the Stamford Bridge turf in frustration.

The visitors were on the front foot now and several periods of Keystone Cops defending from our back line began to turn an already edgy Stamford Bridge crowd over the edge. With too much ease, Mane broke through after we lost possession, twisting past the recalled Terry to score.

Pedro replaced Willian.

There were boos.

Hazard, so obviously lacking any sort of confidence, gave the ball away and Southampton broke with pace. There was a feeling that this break would result in another goal. The ball was played outside to Pelle, who struck a low shot past Begovic from an angle. It was no more than Southampton deserved.

1-3.

Bollocks.

To my dismay, many spectators decided to leave.

Fuck them.

The substitute Matic was replaced by Loic Remy.

More boos.

I was just surprised that consistently underperforming Fabregas managed to avoid the manager’s axe yet again. Of all the disappointments this season, Cesc must rank as one of the biggest. Despite us losing 3-1, and despite hundreds of Chelsea supporters having vacated their seats, I was really pleased with the way that most Chelsea fans responded.

First of all, though, I noted a few hundred Chelsea fans in the Matthew Harding Lower singing – to my annoyance – “we’re fucking shit” and I really am lost for words to explain that.  However, a far greater number throughout both levels of the MH really got behind the team with rousing renditions of several Chelsea favourites. The noise boomed around Stamford Bridge and I so hoped that the watching millions around the globe could hear us.

Although we came at Southampton towards the end, a goal never really looked like coming.

So, no surprises, at the final whistle, there were loud boos.

We’re in a bad moment, no doubt.

We’re in a bad moment together and we’ll hopefully get out of it together too.

If we lose a few of our number along the way, so be it.

I have no logical reasons for our current malaise and I am not sure that many fellow Chelsea fans do either. We are a team so obviously low on confidence, and without that elusive “spark.” However, as I said to one or two others on the walk back to the car, it doesn’t really matter.

“I’ll be here next game, and the one after.”

However, it saddened me to receive a text from Ian later in the evening to say that Ben cried his eyes out at the end of the game.

At the age of eight, my first game, I would have done the same.

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Tales From Another European Semi-Final

Chelsea vs. Basel : 2 May 2013.

There was a nice, cool vibe leading up to our Europa League semi-final second leg against Basel. For the first time in my spectating life, Chelsea had already done the hardest part by winning the first leg away from home. On all other occasions, things have been a little trickier.

A quick resume of previous semi-final encounters in which we played away first?

Yes, why not.

1994-1995 Real Zaragoza – lost
1997-1998 Vicenza – lost
1998-1999 Real Mallorca – lost
2003-2004 A.S. Monaco – lost
2007-2008 Liverpool – drew
2008-2009 Barcelona – drew

So, this was new ground for me. Uncharted territory, if you will. For many of our hundreds, thousands, millions of new fans, there has only been life at the top table as a Chelsea fan; participation in the Champions League has been second nature for us over the previous ten successive seasons bringing a massive increase in our global recognition. However, for many years, even competing in any type of European football was seen as a holy grail. From an infamous defeat to Atvidaberg in the ECWC in 1971, we waited patiently for the next European night. Thankfully, it finally came against Viktoria Zizkov in 1994, but only after a wait of twenty-three long years.

Put it this way. I was twenty-nine years of age before I saw us play in any UEFA match.

Oh boy.

So, naturally, there has been a certain amount of teeth-grinding by myself at some of the comments aired by some Chelsea fans recently about the trivial nature of the much-maligned Europa League. However, this has been a personal voyage for me since we were knocked out of this season’s Champions League campaign by Shakhtar in December. On that night, when we beat Nordsjaelland but Shakhtar still went through, I was initially upbeat about our participation in the Europa League. Since then, my feelings have waivered a little, but as the final in Amsterdam has loomed nearer and nearer, thoughts have been more positive again. The extra round of games in this competition – the dreaded “Round of Thirty-Two” (which sounds like the biggest round of beers ever) – stretched out this competition further, but after the defeats of Sparta Prague, Steaua Bucharest and Rubin Kazan, only one game remained.

A few weeks ago, I booked up flights from Bristol to Schipol in readiness of Chelsea reaching the final in Amsterdam but took out an “insurance bet” on Basel beating us to minimise my loss if we didn’t make it. In fact, there were so many Chelsea fans betting on Basel to win the tie, I’m surprised that the police weren’t suspicious of illegal betting practices.

The first-leg went our way – we were back on the main ITV channel, Luiz scored a cracker, things were looking good – and so there was a certain amount of relaxation going in to the return leg.

I set off for London town just after 4pm and the voices of Chelsea fans Paul Weller and then David Gahan helped prolong the air of relaxation as I ate up the miles heading east.

I reached The Goose at 6.45pm. Outside in the beer garden, there were friends mingling.

I can imagine Paul Weller writing about the scene which greeted me.

“A police car and a screaming siren.
Pneumatic drill, Napoli Frank’s laughter.
Lord Parky wailing, a stray dog howling.
The clink of glasses and the joy of drinking.
That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment.
A smash of glass, the sunlight fading.
A team photo, the excitement rising.
The boys together, polo shirts and trainers.
The fear of defeat and a kick in the balls.
I say that’s entertainment, that’s entertainment.”

Just time for one pint; my trusted Peroni went down well, too well, but I didn’t fancy risking another one. There was a nice mixture of friends old and new. Orlin from San Francisco, with his fellow Bulgarian Evo – living in Ealing now – was rubbing shoulders with Napoli Frank and Dartford Dave. The Kaminskis from Pittsburgh were also present. These six would be sitting – no, standing of course – in the first row of The Shed Lower.

“I’ll be sure to take of photo of you all.”

Keith, from New Jersey, was also in the beer garden. He was with his friend Fernanda who has been living in England for nine months. This would be her first ever Chelsea game, her first ever football match. With a name like Fernanda, I wondered who her favourite might be.

The walk down to Stamford Bridge was lovely. There was nothing but a clear blue sky overhead. The sun hit the stone of the Hammersmith & Fulham Town Hall and gave it a golden sandy hue. There was noise and colour all around me. I turned to my left and again the sun had highlighted the towering West Stand to perfection. With massive banners from last season’s twin triumphs adorning its yellow stoned walls, it, looked a picture. I’m sure I saw the Peter Osgood statue blink in the sunlight.

Alexander : “Any spare ticket, please…come on Chelsea!”

Sergei : “I want go home Russia. I miss my Babushka.”

Alexander : “We Chelsea now.”

Sergei : “Oh boyski.”

On the wait to ascend the steps leading up to the MHU turnstiles, I found myself alongside Tim Rolls and Rick Glanvil. There was talk of Frank Lampard. Rick seized the moment and asked a trivia question.

“So, Frank has scored 201 goals for Chelsea. How many has he scored against our last four league opponents in the league this year…United, Spurs, Villa and Everton.”

The answer?

A staggering 36.

Amazing.

I made my way up the stairs…always to the left, one of my match-day superstitions, then out into the seats. A near full house, but Basel didn’t completely fill up their 3,000 spots. I can’t grumble though; I didn’t travel to Basel for the first game. In fact, only around 1,000 Chelsea did.

So – team news.

Ryan in for Ash. Brana alongside Cahill. Luiz pushed up alongside Fat Frank. Ramires out right. Moses out left. Torres in for the cup-tied Ba.

I had difficulty in remembering any of the Basel team from the first leg; this was not helped by seven of their team having surnames which began with the letter S.

Shostakovich, Solzenitzen, Socrates, Sinatra, Schumacher, Spielberg and Strauss.

Some team.

In the first chance of the game, Basel – playing in white – almost got off to a dream start when Stella – sorry, Strella – shot wide. At the other end, Lampard reacted quickly but hit the upright. On 17 minutes, Fernano Torres hit a bobbler, but it was saved by the goalkeeper. On 25 minutes, that man Stella – sorry, Strella – raced into the box and beautifully met a perfect cross on the volley. It was a magnificent strike and it whizzed past Cech’s far post. Their big number nine was looking a handful for Cahill…Ivanoviv…Luiz…whoever was closest.

Away in the opposite corner, the Basel fans were in good voice. Elsewhere, the Chelsea faithful were sporadic inn their support. This clearly didn’t feel like one of “those” magical European nights. I joked with Alan that next Wednesday’s encounter with Tottenham was more likely to be akin to a Champions League semi-final than a run-of-the-mill league game.

Gary Cahill made a quite magnificent tackle as Basel again threatened. At The Shed End, Ramires shot at the goalkeeper from only six yards out after good work from Moses down the left. This wasn’t a great Chelsea performance. There was a disjointed feel to our play and we missed the intelligence of Juan Mata. I lost count of the number of crosses which ended up in acres of space at the far post, away from any Chelsea players. The six visitors in the front row of The Shed would have had good sightings of all this. Our choice of ball in the final third was poor. Basel broke though again, only for Petr Cech to make a fantastic save from Sinatra – sorry, Salah.

Just before the break, Fernando Torres did ever so well to come inside from his inside-left position, only to hit a shot high and wide.

Oh boy.

Our profligacy would cost us. Right on the very stroke of half-time, Socrates – sorry, Stocker – played in Sinatra – sorry, Salah – who stroked the ball past a stranded Cech. We had been caught sleeping. The Basel fans bounced in unison; a very fine sight. To be honest, Basel had probably edged it in the first-half. At the break, the scoreboard told the story of the game thus far –

Chelsea – 8 shots
Basel – 10 shots

“Never mind, Al. I’m sure that the Chelsea fans will decide to stand all of the way through the second half and roar the team on.”

“Yeah, in a parallel universe, mate, millions of light years away.”

“It’s a bit like Vicenza in 1998, mate. 1-0 down, we need to bounce back.”

Ah, Vicenza, April 16th 1998. It was one of the greatest nights that I have enjoyed as a Chelsea supporter. We had lost the away leg on a rainy night in northern Italy 1-0. In the return game – with Chelsea deciding to play in all yellow – we went a further goal down on the night. It was looking awfully bleak. Then, miraculously, a goal from Gus Poyet gave us hope before half-time. In the second-half, with the 34,000 capacity crowd roaring us on (comparable to Bruges 1995), a fantastic cross from Vialli was headed home by Zola and then Mark Hughes turned and volleyed in a low shot to send as absolutely delirious.

It truly was heart-stopping stuff.

Those were the days…

Colin Pates was Neil Barnett’s guest at half-time. He was on the pitch with his two sons. Neil started to say a few words about our much-loved former captain.

“When Colin retired from football…”

(He should have said…”he played for Arsenal”)

…”he became sports master at Whitgift School. And who was his star centre-forward? Victor Moses.”

I had read about Victor Moses’ life story during the summer…how he had witnessed both of his parents being killed in Nigeria, then came to England as an asylum-seeker, settling in South London with relatives, then playing football with Patesy at Whitgift.

It is some story.

I bet Colin is so proud.

The second-half began and I was pragmatic. I said to Alan ; “we always play better in the second-half at home.”

I was to be proved right.

After 49 minutes, Eden Hazard went on a fantastic run deep into the heart of the Swiss defence. The ball found Frank Lampard who blasted towards the goal. The Basel custodian saved, but couldn’t gather the ball. The on-rushing Torres was able to pounce and fired the ball high into the net. Parity on the night was restored, but we were ahead on aggregate.

It was Fernando Torres’ twentieth goal of the season.

Only three minutes had passed when Victor Moses was able to follow up his own shot after it was initially saved to make it 2-0 on the night and 4-2 on aggregate. There is nothing like two quick goals to stir the emotions; such was the case on this night in SW6. The crowd were now back in this game and the songs rang out.

“We know what we are. We know what we are. Champions of Europe. We know what we are.”

The most memorable piece of skill on the night caught us all unawares. Frank Lampard pushed the ball on to David Luiz. Although he was some thirty yards out, he looked up and decided to unleash a dipping, curling masterpiece. I followed its trajectory as it flew goalwards. As the net rippled, the stadium erupted. It was another Luiz masterstroke.

“Getinyoufcukingbeauty.”

I pulled my camera up to my head and quickly shot a succession of photographs of the ecstatic Luiz as he ran towards us in the north-west corner.

Eyes bulging.

Hair flying.

Heart racing.

Screaming.

And that was just me.

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

We were now 5-2 up and surely Amsterdam-bound.

Just after Luiz’ stunner, Frei unleashed an incredible shot which rattled against Cech’s bar and drew applause from those around me in the MHU. Cech saved again, then Hazard’s delicate lob caused concern for Basel. It was, in all honesty, a fine game.

The Basel fans were in good voice, still. Although they are based in the German-speaking section of Switzerland, the antics of their fans was more akin to the Italian ultras. They bounced, they sang, they held their scarves aloft. They then had a lovely dig at us, singing in perfect English –

“Sing when you’re winning. You only sing when you’re winning.”

We chuckled at that. Top marks.

With the game now irretrievably lost, the Swiss fans had one last treat in store for us. They unfurled a large blue and red striped banner – almost Barcelona-esque – and then lit several pink and blue flares. It was a magnificent sight. Their fans were hidden among the billowing smoke; something that I always think looks wonderful.

Like something from another world.

The Chelsea faithful had a response, though.

Seeing the seven or eight bright candle-like flares burning bright, the MHL bellowed –

“Happy birthday to you.
Happy birthday to you.
Happy birthday dear Basel.
Happy birthday to you.”

In the last few minutes, Nathan Ake made his home debut. I had a little chuckle to myself; my nickname for many years among school friends was Acky.

At last, Acky plays for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

With the game won, several left the stadium before the end of the game. It wasn’t like this in the Champions League.

At the final whistle, I momentarily punched the air, but – I can’t fool myself – I knew that it wasn’t the same. However, we had deserved the win on the back of our second-half show and I wasn’t complaining. Of course, we are so spoiled these days. Coming right after the biggest night in our history, there is no doubt that this cup run has felt a little underwhelming. And yet, we all know that if we had gone even five years without silverware, we would be ecstatic about reaching a major final.

Ask Arsenal.

“One Step Beyond” boomed out and I smiled. We had another European final – only our fifth in 108 years – to celebrate.

Good times.

“Amsterdam, Amsterdam, We Are Coming.”

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Tales From The Fortress

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 30 November 2008.

Fortess Stamford Bridge – yeah, big joke, eh?

I’ll try to keep things nice and concise for this report, but will be referring back to 1983 at least once, and to Friday a few times too.

Fasten your seat belts – it’s gonna be a rough ride.

A late start from Frome, where we had sleet and snow as we departed at 10am. I had watched the highlights of Saturday’s games on “Match Of The Day” and rarely had the weather at all of the games been so bad. The poor souls at Sunderland looked frozen. As we teared past Stonehenge, I did wonder what weather the Gods would throw at us again. I’m fed up with all of this football in the rain. Sad to report that Dave and PD aren’t getting much work still – this, along with the utterly depressing performance from the boys on Wednesday, gave the trip up to London a bleak feel. Even six hours before kick-off, we were all fearing the worst.

Anyway, into the café on the Lillee Road and a gorgeous fry-up again. Now then, the first reference to Friday. For the first time in my life, I attended an official Chelsea Football Club function – the 2008 CPO Luncheon at the Hilton, Park Lane…Beth always goes and she coerced me into going this year. We met up at Stamford Bridge at 9.15am and – until we departed our separate ways at 11pm – had a fantastic time. I won’t mention every minute detail, but my mate Glenn, from Frome, was a big Marcel Desailly fan ( he favours Milan, too – the poor misguided soul ) and so I presented Glenn with a signed “Desailly 6” photograph I had for him. He was well chuffed.

Into “The Goose” at 12.45pm and a few pints of lager. Some of you will remember that we bumped into Pat Nevin, amongst others, in Moscow…well, I knew that Wee Pat would be at the CPO Lunch and so I got him to personally sign two 8 by 10 photos of Pat with both Alan and Daryl. This was a surprise for my two mates, so they were pleased too. I must have around ten to fifteen close Chelsea mates, but I would describe Alan, Daryl and myself as the Inner Circle…between the three of us, all the important decisions are made!

To be fair, the mood in the boozer was quite subdued. The Bordeaux game was the topic of conversation. I guess any team is only as good as their last performance and ours was flat and lifeless. So – lots to groan and moan about. Daryl voiced the opinion that getting Eidur back from Barca wouldn’t be a bad move come January…a fine idea. Rob arrived and was full of chat about France…he had met up with Alan and Gary out there. After a shedful of beers one night, they found themselves drinking the almond liquor amoretti.

After six of these, Rob was leading the singing of “Chelsea Amoretti.”

The pub got busier and busier. I was wary I had to meet Beth at some stage…I owed her some money, £20 of which was for a bet I had lost with her. I had bet her that she would show at least one former Chelsea player at the lunch on Friday her new silver CFC belly button ring. The plan didn’t work and, despite a plan I had hatched with Clive Walker, Beth won her bet. Beth was doing a mini pub crawl by the sounds of it and I eventually met up with her in La Reserve, where she was enjoying a quiet drink with Mark Coden ( if that is possible…)

Into the ground nice and early for once, thus avoiding problems at the turnstiles.

Arsenal had the usual 3,000, but only two flags…a poor show. One of them was quite simple and effective – The Arsenal – but I knew this would wind Alan up as he hates the way Arsenal are sometimes referred to in this manner, like as if they are The Bank Of England or The Royal Family or something. For virtually all of their history Arsenal Football Club have hosted some of the most pragmatic and boring football teams to come out of these Isles…only since Wenger took over, in 1996, has the more expansive style of football been evident. Tell that to the JCL Gooners in America…they were called Lucky Arsenal in the thirties because they only did “enough” to win, nothing more…1-0 To The Arsenal is about right. The football Arsenal played in my childhood and youth was dire, with Liam Brady a rare entertainer.

A nice atmosphere to start – this is more like it…the extra hour in the various bars and pubs that surround Stamford Bridge on match days seemed to have a nice effect. In between Chelsea attacks, I spoke to Alan about some of the events on Friday…the highlights were nice chats with Paul Canoville, Bobby Tambling, Ken Shellito, Ken Monkou, Colin Pates and Tommy Hughes. I think I worked out I managed to say a few words to 19 of the 63 former players present. I batted .332 – pleased with that!

I thought we were fine in the first half and played the nicer stuff. After a barrage of abuse at the start, Gallas got away quite lightly really. However, it was so funny when there seemed to be a bizarre reaction when Bosingwa’s fine cross was put into his own net by Djourou – it seemed that the whole ground thought that Gallas had scored. There were almost boos when we heard that #20 and not #10 had scored! Hilarious. Even more hilarious was Alan’s off the cuff comment…”when it comes to crosses, I’m like a midget nymphomaniac…I like them low and hard.”

To me, the formation resembled 4-4-2, rather than 4-4-3, with Deco very withdrawn and Kalou quite central. What did anyone else think? Although we were playing some reasonable football, I was concerned that the Chelsea players weren’t getting very close to the Arsenal midfielders. Thought Fabregas was being given too much respect. Why not man mark him? He was always going to be their main threat.

At half-time, I noted in the programme that Chelsea have recently tied up a deal with Los Angeles Futbol Club in which training programmes will be set up with Chelsea, plus coach-exchanges. They will be known as LAFC Chelsea. They play in Simi Valley. Anybody heard of this club before?

Of course, we all know what happened after the break. We did let Arsenal have a bit more of the ball, but at 1-0 I still didn’t see a real threat from them. The first goal did look a bit close to being offside from my position – admittedly many yards away – and this was borne out on TV. The calls went against us, no doubt. But we threw the game away in three crazy minutes. I was standing the entire time – evidence I wasn’t happy.

Too many players had poor games – Deco especially, but nobody came out with too much credit. However, fair’s fair – again thought Ivanovic played well. A solid performance from the man with the 1980 haircut. We had a good viewpoint of Terry’s awful two-footed challenge which should have resulted in a red. He’s having a patchy spell right now, no doubts.

At this point, I go back to Friday night – and also 1983-84 again. I had a lovely few words with Colin Pates, the captain of that fabled team and I made the point to him that in those days the fans weren’t experts on formations or playing systems – we just had ten pints in the pub beforehand and sung our hearts out. Colin laughed and agreed that there really wasn’t too many tactics in those days. A far more simple era really, though we didn’t realise it at the time. Players played – supporters supported. Easy.

Now then – excuse me while I get on my soap-box here. I have often lamented – at length – the decreasing levels of our home support of late. At times, I get so frustrated with the lack of effort, I honestly feel like only going to away games. With Chelsea 2-1 down to Arsenal ( Arsenal FFS! ), not only did our team not react in the right way, the home support simply did nothing. It’s like my car at the moment – the turbo is broken – and we just couldn’t get that extra boost…I was putting my foot to the floor, but not getting a response. My mate Daryl has commented to me today that we all thought that the Carling Cup Final in February was a low point, but yesterday was just as bad.

It grieves me like you can not imagine.

I noted the three lads – in their forties, been going for years, been sat behind them since 1997, but they rarely sing – just sat, arms crossed, not even talking, let alone singing and clapping. I leaned forward and said –

“Is there any chance you lads can start putting your hands together and supporting this team of ours?”

Albert turned around, annoyed with me, claiming he does support the club.

“Yeah, whatever mate, whatever.”

Of course, I felt bad about it on the drive home, but please tell me – who is right?

Managers manage. Players play. Supporters support.

We support – we don’t spectate.

Of course, things got very frustrating and Deco became the poster boy for the hate and derision raining down from the stands around me. I have a rule here – and I try my hardest to keep to it. When a player miss-hits a pass, or skies a shot, I try my damned hardest to say nothing, to stay silent. Not the fans around me – in the last horrible twenty minutes, with the noise getting louder and louder with every poor pass, I had to wonder what was going through the collective minds of those around me. If they truly love the club, why the hate towards certain players. One guy behind me was truly venomous. It made me feel sick.

On one occasion, JT lofted a lovely pass into the pass of Ash down below me and not one clap…not one. These people make more noise when players play badly than when we play well.

Can someone please explain that to me? I just think us Chelsea fans have been spoilt rotten and as soon as a defeat is on the cards, suddenly implode. We can’t cope. We blame referees. We blame the coach. We pick on players. We behave like petulant kids.

Not my Chelsea.

Back in 1983-84, my fourth game of the season was a horrible 1-0 defeat a home to Manchester City…twenty five years ago on Wednesday.

In 1983-84, I was gutted we lost. In 2008-2009 I am gutted we have lost our support.

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