Tales From A Long Hot Summer

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 5 August 2018.

Picture the famous opening sequence of “The Simpsons” and the scene where we see Bart in detention and writing on the chalkboard. Ahead of this match report, I am Bart Simpson and I am writing :

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

In the build-up to this game, there were the same feelings that I had experienced in recent years’ Community Shield games. In a nutshell, I was supremely underwhelmed by the prospect of having to schlep over to Wembley yet again for this seemingly regular curtain raiser. I remember getting pretty excited about my first one, way back in 1997 when – guess what? – we lost on penalties to Manchester United. And then we went to more and more and more and more. I can’t say I even enjoyed the few we have won too much.

We had set off early. Glenn’s mate from Berlin, Ulf, was with us, and as Glenn drove up the M4, I explained to him about the history of the Charity Shield and Community Shield. I told him that it hadn’t always played between the previous season’s champions and cup winners. In its early years, it was played between amateurs and professionals; what a novel concept. I had a vague recollection of Stamford Bridge holding a few of the first ones. I remember seeing photographs of us parading the FA Cup before the 1970 Charity Shield against Everton at Stamford Bridge. Images of our 1955 win are rarer. Our record is hardly one of legend :

1955 : won

1970 : lost

1997 : lost

2000 : won

2005 : won

2006 : lost

2007 : lost

2009 : won

2010 : lost

2012 : lost

2015 : lost

2017 : lost

Our thirteenth shield was one in which I felt an over-riding sense of duty to attend. I would have been riddled with guilt had I not bothered with it. At least it was just £20. But, really, it was all about seeing the chaps again and slowly, slowly getting back in to the swing of things.

On the drive up to London, we were only in the car for around thirty minutes when I became embroiled in a series of text messages regarding match tickets for future games. From that perspective, I was back into it. I love nothing more than planning away days, sorting out hotels, snapping up spare tickets and suchlike. Coming up, we have overnight stays in Huddersfield and Newcastle coming up.

It gets me out of the house, eh?

Glenn made good time. We were parked up at Barons Court at 11am. However, disruption of the Circle and District Lines messed up our plans to head up to Paddington for an abbreviated pub crawl. In the end, we took a cab from South Kensington. At least, it meant that we were able to give Ulf a little tour of West London. Our route took us right through Hyde Park. As we neared the Royal Albert Hall, I was reminded of my first ever visit to that wonderful venue back in June, just as the summer was warming up, when I saw Echo And The Bunnymen on a sultry Friday night. It was a fine gig – yet again one of my match reports includes music and football – and I even bumped into a Chelsea mate, quite unannounced, halfway through it. After the gig, I was slowly making my way back to the nearest tube when a couple of chaps who had been to the gig were chatting about where to go for a drink. I mentioned that there was a pub tucked away behind a main road, and – without really thinking – joined them as they crossed the road. I fancied one more pint for the road, but as I entered the pub, there was a moment of clarity when I realised the difference in football and music, or at least music on this particular occasion. With Chelsea, after a game, if I had bounced into a pub with two strangers we would have bought each other drinks and nothing would have been made of it. Here, there was a distinct difference. It would have felt odd joining these two strangers at the bar. I did an about turn and headed back to my hotel.

Just an example of the kinship that exists at Chelsea – and nothing else in my life is really comparable.

“Discuss.”

Our first stop was “The Sussex Arms”, much-loved by Chelsea fans from Reading, Swindon, Bristol and all-stations west who use Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s magnificent terminus as their gateway into London. A quick pint there and a chat with a few Chelsea season ticket-holders from my neck of the woods; a couple of villages in the shadow of the Mendips, Kilmersdon and Clutton. Then chat with Paul from Swindon and Paul from Reading, who spoke about his brief appearance on Arsenal Fan TV en route to Dublin.

From there, we marched up to a pre-Wembley favourite, “The Victoria” where I enjoyed the first domestic Peroni of the season. Outside, I chatted to Dan and Cliff. We had heard that we had sold virtually all of our 30,000 tickets but City had only sold around 20,000 of theirs. But it is what it is. I was sure that if the game had been held at Old Trafford, as a geographical equivalent, we would have struggled to sell 10,000. Cliff and I remembered the 2006 Community Shield at Cardiff against Liverpool when the red half was packed, and we barely had 15,000 in the stadium.

From there, a quick walk up to “Fountains Abbey” where Alan, Gary and Ed were drinking. Handshakes all round. The team were back together again. I spent a little time with my mate Jim, who I have got to know over the past few seasons, and who remains one of the wittiest people I know…on Facebook and in real life. He spoke of his growing Chelsea programme collection and of his long-suffering girlfriend Lisa.

I am not sure what the collective noun is for a group of fifty-year old blokes in polo shirts and shorts – a “stretch” maybe? – but in the heat it was the only way to go. And mighty fine we looked too.

From there, Parky, PD, Ed and I had time to pop in to the famous “Sports Bar” at Marylebone Station, where we bumped into five or six of The Usual Suspects – aka “the drinkers” – outside in the afternoon sun. I suspected that a few of them might struggle to make the match.

We caught the 2.27pm train, and I bumped into Rich who I last saw in Perth.

On the drive up to London, I promised not to mention Wembley Stadium and 1966 too much.

We were inside, high up above the south-east corner flag but thankfully out of the sun, with around five minutes to go. The timings were virtually the same as for the Cup Final in May.

Yes, it was a hot one alright. Ironically, Glenn and I had missed the height of the English summer while we were enjoying a very pleasant Antipodean Winter, but it has certainly been a very hot one this year. It was a summer, though, where I – somewhat predictably – failed to warm too much to the World Cup, for reasons that are probably well known by most. Was I thrilled by England’s progress to the semi-finals? If I am perfectly honest, “no, not really.” I generally gave the tournament a wide berth, though I did enjoy a few games. But wasn’t the Russian World Cup (and the one in Qatar) meant to be the one that a lot of people were dead against when the decision was announced in 2010?

FIFA collusion, Russian hooliganism, racism in the stands. I never ever really bought into it from the start. As for Qatar, and with it the disruption of the European leagues before and after, the horrible working conditions of many of the immigrants being used to build the stadia, and the fact of games being played in ridiculous conditions, well I am certainly boycotting that one in 2022.

Oh, and another thing FIFA. How come England are never mentioned as a host nation. Since 1966, Mexico will have held the competition three times (1970, 1986, 2026), the USA twice (1994,2026 – not bad for a country that has only really woken up to the World’s favourite sport in the past two decades) and Germany twice (1974 and 2006).

Feel guilty, FIFA?

No. I thought not.

Anyway, to sum it all up, in Sydney on the evening of Saturday 14th July 2018, while England played Belgium in the third/fourth place play-off, it was being shown in a crowded Irish pub, and both Glenn and I hardly watched more than ten seconds of it.

Club over country, or at least club over FIFA every time for me.

Down below us, I felt for the thousands of Chelsea supporters in the lower tiers, exposed to the bleaching sun. away to my left, there was a huge expanse of empty seats in the upper tier. Down below were the sky blue shirts of the City fans. The teams entered the pitch. Two flags were passed around the lower tiers.

The Chelsea team?

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger – Alonso

Fabregas – Jorginho – Barkley

Pedro – Morata – Hudson-Odoi

We enjoyed the larger portion of the ball in the first-half, though found it difficult to get either behind Manchester City or between them. We held the ball well and picked out passes. But it was soon evident that City were happy to soak up the pressure as we struggled to find killer balls in the scorching heat.

There was no noise from anyone in the Chelsea end. Everyone was sat. There was no sense of occasion or any discernible enjoyment either. I looked over at Ulf – “I’m not really a football fan” – and wondered what on Earth he made of it all.

The track suited Sarri – with his belly stretching the Nike training top – reminds me of the Kray Twins gone pub casual, and it is quite a harrowing image. Alongside him, Guardiola looked like his son, back from a night out with the lads.

City started with Riyad Mahrez. He would have been a good addition to our team. Oh well.

After just a quarter of an hour, we gave up possession way too easily and backed off from Sergio Aguero, allowing him to pick his spot and drill a low one past Caballero.

The first “bollocks” of the season.

We still had most of the ball – pass, pass, pass – but Caballero was called into action to rob Sane when he was clean through.

On the half-hour, Callum Hudson-Odoi, clearly one of our more eager performers, curled a shot over. He followed it up soon after with another shot. All eyes were on him. We see him as a great hope for this season.

“No pressure, son.”

The torpor was evident in the stands all around me. I had reached half-time without joining in with a single song, although to be honest, I can hardly remember a song in the first place.

At the age of fifty-three, I was turning into the football fan that I had always hated.

Sitting, not standing, silent not singing.

I kept saying to myself “it’ll be different in Yorkshire next Saturday.”

And of course it will be.

It was the Willy Caballero show in the second-half as a number of agile stops, blocks and saves stopped Manchester City from adding to their tally. However, on around the hour mark, a clinical pass found that man Aguero again and he was able to steer another low shot past Caballero to make it 2-0.

The City fans roared, and we slumped further into our seats.

On the hour, on came Danny Drinkwater and Willian (who had been serenaded during his warm up with virtually the first Chelsea song of note the entire day) in place of Fabregas and Hudson-Odoi.

Tammy Abraham replaced the lacklustre Morata, but in all fairness the Spaniard had received hardly any service the entire match.

At last a rare Chelsea song, the horrible “We’ve Won It All “ dirge.

And then, the inevitable –

“Champions Of Europe, You’ll Never Sing That.”

Victor Moses replaced Pedro.

At the death, Tammy went close, and then our boy Willy denied Aguero once more.

On another day, it could have been 4-0.

2018 : lost

Outside, waiting for the train at Wembley Stadium station, the sun was relentless. I can only imagine how horrific the playing conditions must have been. There had been several drink breaks during the game (as indeed there was for us before it).

Back at Marylebone, I chatted first to Neil Barnett, just back from a trip over to the US, and then Clive Walker, who still looks as fit and trim as ever.

Neil and I were both philosophical after a disjointed performance. But we knew that we have seen such riches in recent years, that it is not hard to feel that “after Munich, so what?”

“Doesn’t matter to me. I’ll still be there next week” I said.

Clive mentioned that he thought the game against Lyon would be vital to get more practice in before Huddersfield and the new league programme. But I have a feeling that the Sarri project might take a while to come to fruition.

Do we have the players to make it work? Watch this space.

See you all in West Yorkshire.

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Tales From Our Home City

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 6 August 2017.

The Football Association Community Shield. The Premier League Champions versus the F.A. Cup holders. A full house at Wembley on a sunny afternoon in the nation’s capital.

It sounds fantastic doesn’t it?

Well yes, in theory.

In practice, maybe not.

The trouble is that the Community Shield has become something of a wearisome burden these days; it’s akin to a practice run-through for a wedding or an interview for a job that you don’t really want. Or – even worse – a practice run-through for a wedding that you don’t really want. There is not much of a thrill these days. There was a certain “familiarity breeds contempt” at work here too. This would be my third consecutive Chelsea match featuring Arsenal. Never before have I seen the same opponent in three games back-to-back-to-back. This would also be my tenth Charity Shield / Community Shield in twenty-one seasons – oh, how blasé does that sound? – and, of course, it would be yet another traipse up to the new but derided Wembley Stadium. It would be – believe it or not – our seventeenth visit to Wembley in just over ten years.

So, taking all of this in to consideration, the general feeling among a sizeable section of the Chelsea support leading up to the game was of pained acceptance that this was a glorified friendly that we were almost duty bound to attend.

And yet, and yet. When I picked the Fun Boy Three up between 8am and 8.30am, I would not want to be going anywhere else. First and foremost, of course, the day would be all about seeing a few good mates once again after the summer break. A little banter, a catch-up, a gentle easing-in to the new season.

The meet was arranged for around 11.30am at “The Moon On The Mall”, a traditional and spacious London boozer on Whitehall, just a hundred yards to the south of Trafalgar Square. As I skirted the southern edge of the famous London landmark, I was taken back to my first-ever visit to London in 1972 — or rather the first I can remember – when we momentarily stopped off to see Nelson’s Column on the way back from the Tutankhamen exhibition at the British Museum. I remember being fascinated by the buildings, the tourists – the bloody pigeons – and that day came hurtling back into my consciousness. How right that we should be beginning the domestic campaign slap-bang in the middle of London; Chelsea’s home, Chelsea’s town, Chelsea’s city.

A couple of crisp lagers were quaffed and the boys chatted about the new signings, or lack thereof.

Lacoste Watch.

PD – royal blue

With it being a 2pm kick-off, we only had time for an hour’s revelry. My main agenda for the time in the pub was to not get all “China Wanker” in front of my mates. Glenn and myself did OK. We only mentioned our trip to Beijing and Shanghai fifty-three times. Good effort. Up to Marylebone, and away, the familiar twelve-minute mainline train to Wembley Stadium station. With it looking like our forced exile from the beloved Bridge would see us plot up at Wembley – post Tottenham – for three years or more, we are going to have to decide on a new routine for home games when we eventually move in as tenants in 2019 or 2020. A drink in central London before flitting up to Wembley could be the norm. It’s not as if we have a limited supply of pubs from which to choose. Watch this space.

The team news filtered through. I was surprised – but of course pleased – that Pedro had recovered from his horrible injury to start out wide. The rest of the team picked itself. New signing Morata would surely become the resident striker as the season progressed – alone or alongside Batshuayi – but for now he was on the bench.

3-4-3 it was in 2016/2017 and 3-4-3 it was for this game.

Thibaut

Dave – David – Gary

Victor – N’Golo – Cesc – Marcos

Willian – Michy – Pedro

The sun was beating down as we made the short walk up to the stadium. I noted that there was a seemingly thorough bag search taking place inside. I circumnavigated this by diving past the security. I see that – officially – cameras are banned from Wembley. I foresee a war of wits once we move in. I think I’d have a OCD breakdown if my trusty camera was not allowed inside the stadium during our tenancy.

We reached our seats high up in the south-west corner – a new part of the stadium for me – with ten minutes to spare. The Grenfell Choir were in the middle of singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and a couple of club-coloured “For Grenfell” banners were being passed along the Chelsea and Arsenal lower tiers.

Such a tragedy.

There were gaps all over at this stage, but as kick-off time approached, seats were filled. There were still some noticeable gaps at kick-off, however. So much for a sell-out.

On the referee’s whistle, the huge stadium fell silent – completely silent – in remembrance of the souls who perished in the Grenfell fire. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea was remembered in the borough of Brent. Two communities united.

The game began. There was no roar. There was no crescendo of sound. The game began with a whimper. In addition to the players trying their damnedest to attain match fitness, so were the fans. Again, we were in all blue. The white socks will debut for me next week against Burnley. But the kit looks bloody lovely. The royal blue is just perfect. We began comfortably and enjoyed a little early possession. We looked comfortable on the ball. David Luiz became our main play maker in the first quarter of an hour, knocking the ball ahead for Batshuayi, or out to Alonso and Moses. Arsenal then seemed to get a grip on the game and looked the more dominant, making advances down our right flank especially. Welbeck’s header was easily saved by Courtois, and then new signing Lacazette was allowed time to pick a corner and curl a fine effort which bounced back of the post.

One young lad, buoyed by too many lagers or too much Colombian marching powder, was constantly urging us to get involved in some community singing. He was constant. I’m sure he will come good as the season progresses, but he was in danger of peaking way too soon.

He was just too much.

“On your own mate.”

A rasping “Zigger Zagger” then took hold from a few rows below him and we all joined in.

“That’s how to do it, pal.”

The game then faded a little.

But Kante looked match fit and eager. He ate up the ground and looked the same player who cheered us so much last season. David Luiz was calmness personified. Pedro looked fit and agile. Alonso was getting plenty of space down the left. Elsewhere, there was not much. Batshuayi found it hard going. The ball does not stick to him too much, eh? As the old cliché goes, his second touch is a tackle. He needs to toughen up still. Willian was not involved. Fabregas was marginal. Moses was frustrating.

The atmosphere, as to be expected really, was dreadful. Little pockets of noise threatened to develop but we had to wait until an enforced stoppage – Mertesacker injured – for the Chelsea choir to get things together.

At last Wembley boomed.

“We’re the only team in London with a European Cup.”

We then dominated possession for the remainder of the first-half. A fantastic ball from Willian, arched diagonally across the Wembley pitch, found the darting Pedro, who took a touch before forcing Petr Cech to save.

But still there was hardly a murmur from the crowd. Chelsea were quiet and Arsenal worse.

Willian was alleged to have dived inside the Arsenal box. It took place about three miles from where I was sat. I could not tell.

Two American kiddies in the row behind were annoying the fuck out of me as the game progressed. Constant chitter-chatter. Constant opinions. I was not sure if they were Chelsea; I suspect not. At one point, one of them blurted out –

“Chelsea suck.”

The chap next to me fidgeted. I quickly turned around and glowered.

“Just remember where you are mate.”

A cushioned flick and back-header from David Luiz to Courtois drew sumptuous praise from the Chelsea hordes. It was almost the highlight of the first period.

At half-time, no goals, and not too many thrills.

Many supporters were still in the bar or the toilets when the second-half began. A corner on the far side by Willian was cleared, but only as far as Gary Cahill, who headed the ball forward. Victor Moses – arguably our poorest player until that stage, and probably still smarting from the Cup Final – was able to sweep the ball past Cech.

“GETINYOUFUCKER.”

He dived headlong onto the Wembley pitch and was mobbed by Michy and then the rest of the team.

Phew.

The goal seemed to calm us a little and we enjoyed a little spell. Kante was again in the middle of it all. He has, thank heavens, hit the ground running this season. We enjoyed a couple of chances, but then Arsenal countered. A Luiz block saved our skins.

With around a quarter of an hour to go, Antonio replaced Michy with Morata. He received a fine reception.

Substitute Walcott played a fantastic ball in to the penalty box but thankfully no Arsenal player was able to connect. It was the ball of the game. Soon after, Thibaut produced the save of the game, flinging himself high to his right and finger-tipping a long shot from Xhaka around the post. It was simply stunning.

Then, Willian surpassed Walcott and floated a fantastic ball in to the path of Morata. Sadly, it was slightly too long. A stretching Morata could only deflect the ball wide.

Ten minutes to go.

We watched as a coming together of Pedro and Elneny resulted in both players lying prostrate. We thought nothing of it. The time passed. Pedro was still down. As he rose to his feet, referee Truly Madly Deeply waved a red card at Pedro.

“Answers on a postcard.”

From the ensuing free-kick, we watched as the Chelsea defence back-peddled en masse. There was a massive sense of doom. I guess we have just watched too much football. We knew. Substitute Kolasinac rose with not a care in the world and headed in, past Courtois.

Oh fuck.

For the first time in the game – honest, honest, honest – the Arsenal end sung something that was able to be heard at our end.

Give yourselves a biscuit.

Antonio had replaced Alonso with Antonio Rudiger just prior to the sending off. He now brought on Charly Musonda for Willian. Arsenal attacked our box in the final ten minutes, but thankfully our defence held firm. A Morata header from a Fabregas free-kick flew past the post. I’m pretty sure that a goal then, late on, would have been absolutely roared. But, alas, it was not to be.

Ugh.

At the final whistle, it ended 1-1.

Penalties.

And a new format.

And plenty of Abba song titles.

I am sure plenty of computer programs, capturing all sorts of empirical data, have been run over the past few seasons with the conclusion that the team taking the second penalty are disadvantaged. And indeed I am sure it is a laudable attempt to reduce the impact of pure chance, the flick of a coin, on the outcome of penalties. But the rank and file support at Wembley Stadium were clearly not impressed.

I commented to the bloke beside me –

“If the penalties are at their end, we’ll lose. If they are at our end, we’ll win.”

They were at their end. Oh great. The sense of foreboding was palpable.

We waited.

Gary Cahill – boom, get in you beauty.

Theo Walcott – goal, bollocks.

Nacho Monreal – goal, prick.

We then collectively groaned as we saw Thibaut loitering towards the penalty spot. I remembered his penalty against PSG in Charlotte but – again – we knew. We bloody well knew.

The ball soared way over the bar.

Alvaro Morata – wide, bollocks.

Many Chelsea left.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – goal, prick.

Olivier Giroude – goal, fuck.

We had lost the Community Shield again. I have seen us play in ten and we have only won three.

We gathered our belongings and slowly shuffled out. A little post-mortem. No team was overly dominant on the day. We obviously need to make some more signings. It had been a middling performance. Definitely room for improvement. But everything is now focused on the all-important opener against Burnley and we all know it.

At Barons Court tube station, on the walk to my waiting car, I was the ultimate philosophical pragmatist.

“Hey lads, Arsenal would swap the FA Cup and the Community Shield for our League Trophy in an instant.”

The boys agreed.

I drove home, the game a fading memory.

“Good day out apart from the football.”

“As always.”

“Yep. As always.”

Let’s reconvene at Stamford Bridge on Saturday afternoon and get this season started.

As for Arsenal, they can go fourth and multiply.

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Tales From The Red Seats

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 2 August 2015.

What is the old saying?

“Familiarity breeds contempt.”

For the Football Association’s season opener this certainly seems to be the case. Long gone are the days when a trip to Wembley Stadium elicited a warm glow for myself and thousands like me. We are, as another old saying goes, a victim of our success. This would be Chelsea’s ninth such game – Charity Shield, then Community Shield – since 1997, and our eleventh in total. The 1955 game (beating Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge in front of just 12,802) is hardly ever spoken about. The 1970 game (losing to Everton at home, with a gate of 43,547, and Stamford Bridge never looking more sun-kissed) is on the outer reaches of modern Chelsea fans’ awareness. From 1997 though, our appearance in this game – first as F.A. Cup winners and then, get used to it world, as league champions – has been a regular event.

However, as of 2015, it is the one game every season that is starting to pall.

With the summer trip to the United States behind me, and with the league opener against Swansea City not far away, I was trying my hardest to get “up” for our Community Shield game against Arsenal. Of course it would be great to see a few Chelsea mates for the first time of the summer, but as for the game itself, I was struggling. There seemed to be a common understanding among fellow fans that a game against local rivals would add a little excitement to the game. There was talk of a “mark” being set for the season. There was also to be the strange sight of Petr Cech in Arsenal colours. Despite all of this, I was still having difficulties.

It was almost as if I was travelling to Wembley under some sort of strange sense of duty, which sounds rather pompous and silly. But, by the same token, there was no chance of me ever missing it.

“You’ve got me Chelsea, you’ve got me.”

I collected His Lordship at 9.30am. The domestic season was up and running.

On the drive to London, I chatted to Parky about the summer tour, which was over way too quickly, but left me with many lovely memories. Funnily enough, despite the joy of meeting up with a host of old and new Chelsea friends and the three games themselves, I think that the resounding memory for me is the time that I spent on The Great American Road. In my twelve days away, I covered 1,962 miles in my hire car, and the vast majority came in that massive “V” which I cut into the heart of America, travelling from New York City down to Charlotte in one trip and then from Charlotte back up to Washington DC the next. There were journey times of eleven hours and of eight hours respectively, with memories from each to last until the cold winter months and beyond. There was even one song – “Uma Thurman” by Fall Out Boy – which will forever be synonymous with my US trip of 2015, since I could not escape it, no matter what radio station I found. The summer tour also had other totems. The tour beers were “Shock Top”, “Rolling Rock”, “Blue Moon”, “Yuengling” and “Corona.”

From a football perspective, the theme was “penalties.”

And Bobby Tambling.

Good times, good times.

As we rose steadily on the elevated section of the M4, I glanced north and spotted the Wembley arch, clearly visible and with the late morning sun picking it out perfectly against the blue North London sky. We were soon parked at Barons Court. At about 12.30pm we met up with Alan, Gary, John and Dave at The Tyburn near Marble Arch. The last time that I was in this pub, and my last visit to Wembley in March, I was in my own little world of sadness.

As I sipped on a pint of San Miguel, I genuinely felt that a new season would help me move on from the grief which took over the closing months of 2014-2015.

Alan and Gary left for the game at about 1.45pm. Dave, Parky and myself stayed on for – you have guessed it – “one last beer.” We then had to hotfoot it to Marylebone to catch the 2.28pm train. It would be a fight to make kick-off. We never learn, do we? We bumped into the rumbustious crew from Trowbridge and Westbury on the fifteen minute train journey – “Parky!” – and it was great to see them again. To be honest, they would be the only familiar faces that we would see all afternoon. Maybe others were finding it hard to get “up” for this game too.

Inside the stadium concourse, I spotted Alan and Gary behind me.

“Got waylaid, son.”

We reached our seats just as the game kicked-off.

Phew.

We had super seats; row four of the upper tier, on the Royal Box side, midway inside the “Chelsea half.”

With people still lining up for beers in the area outside, the stadium was not remotely full at the start. However, after ten minutes, things were looking better and seats were filling up. It was obvious, though, that there were more empty red seats in our western end than in the Arsenal end. It was also noticeable that the Arsenal supporters in the lower tier were standing, whereas Chelsea were sitting. As an indicator of which set of fans were more “up” for the game, Chelsea were coming in a poor second.

I sighed.

The team contained few surprises, but we guessed that Costa was being protected in light of his recent injury scare in Maryland. Loic Remy deputised

It was immediately disconcerting to see Petr Cech in the monstrosity of an Arsenal kit.

Wembley Stadium was bathed in sunlight, with its huge and cumbersome roof supports causing strong shadows. It is a huge stadium, but I am still finding it a difficult stadium to admire. I still can’t believe that such a complex array of under structure does not support a sliding roof. It is a little ironic that the designing and building process for the new stadium – which took seven long years to be completed – was headed from 1997 to 2001 by none other than Ken Bates. That Chelsea Football Club might be moving in to Wembley for three years while Bates’ “Chelsea Village” is razed to the ground is doubly ironic.

There were few Chelsea banners on show.

One Arsenal banner caught my eye. The standard “Believe” had a yellow ribbon tied around the “I” which alludes to their bespoke F.A. Cup Final song. Quite clever.

I thought Chelsea began reasonably well, but then played second fiddle to a more energised and incisive Arsenal team for most of the first-half. I looked over at the Arsenal team which flashed up on the scoreboard. I must have reached that part of my Chelsea Life-Cycle which results in me being increasingly indifferent to players on opposing teams. In an identity parade, I would be hard-pressed to name Monreal, Bellerin and Coquelin.

It’s all about Chowlsea these days.

As I watched play develop before me, with Walcott finding Oxlade-Chamberlain, there was a clear moment when Dave saw enough of the ball to make a clearing tackle. That crucial moment passed and the Arsenal player struck an unstoppable riser past Courtois into the net. The Arsenal thousands roared, while we sat silently.

Until that point, it had been a relatively quiet affair of the pitch. While Arsenal made some noise, Chelsea retorted :

“Stand Up For The Champions.”

We did our best to get the singing going, but our section was unsurprisingly docile.

It was typical that while we clapped and applauded Petr Cech – though not ridiculously so – Cesc Fabregas was booed by his former Arsenal family every time he touched the ball.

Pathetic, really.

We found it difficult to get our game going in the first-half. To be fair, Willian was our main threat, moving well and more inclined to attack directly than in the past. I lost count of the times Ivanovic failed to deliver a cross by hitting the outstretched leg of his full back.

Two chances fell to Ramires. A shot went narrowly wide, but then a more glaring error. With the goal at his mercy, he headed over from a Remy cross. To be truthful, the ball was slightly too high for him. Or maybe he jumped too soon. It was a clear chance though. Elsewhere we struggled. A goal-line clearance from Ivanovic, with archetypal Goon Mertesacker breathing down his neck, stopped a second goal.

We hoped for a masterful Mourinho tongue-lashing at the break. He replaced Loic Remy with Radamel Falcao. We hoped for good things. Oscar soon replaced Ramires, and I immediately noted a bigger desire from him to attack the defensive lines. On a couple of occasions, he drifted inside and past his markers with ease. More of the same this season please.

On the hour, a second glaring miss of the match. Fabregas played in Eden Hazard, our player of the moment, and we fully expected him to rifle a shot low past Cech. Instead, his shot immediately rose high and flew over the crossbar. Such a rare piece of shoddy finishing from Eden shocked us all.

Fackinell.

A free-kick from Oscar – one of many which we were awarded in the final quarter – forced a save from Cech in the Arsenal goal. It probably looked more difficult than it was. The Arsenal thousands roared.

Kurt Zouma replaced Dave at left-back. That surprised me. On the other flank, Ivanovic was continuing to flounder.

As the game progressed, we never really looked like equalising. The atmosphere was deadening, though few Chelsea fans had decided to leave, which was a good sign.

Victor Moses replaced Terry, and Mourinho re-jigged things. Moses’ pace was not utilised and the equaliser proved elusive. Falcao had chased a few scraps, but his service was not great.

In the closing minutes, Arsenal had a couple of chances to increase their lead.

To be truthful, it hadn’t been a very entertaining match. We had looked a little sluggish, with our key players unable to match the creativity in key areas shown by Arsenal. At the final whistle, the Arsenal fans feverishly waved their red and white flags as if they had won a cup final.

Yes, I know, I sound bitter don’t I?

I was well aware that this reaction would be typical of the Chelsea supporters.

A win, and an important marker for the season ahead in a vital showcase game.

A loss, and an irrelevant result in little more than a friendly.

At the queue for the train back to Marylebone, there was a little chat among a few of us about the possibility of Chelsea using Wembley as a temporary home for several seasons should our planning application for the complete overhaul of our stadium be accepted. For some, Wembley would be a preferred option. For me, coming to London from the south-west, I think I would prefer to use Twickenham. Wembley, in my opinion, should not be used for club games, though you can be very sure that the Football Association would readily accept Roman’s millions for three seasons. It would also, perhaps forever, take away what remaining buzz of excitement that I get from visiting Wembley with Chelsea, if we were to play eighty games there in three years. There are also logistical problems getting in and out of central London. It would extend my day by an extra hour at least. The atmosphere isn’t great at Wembley. How would it cope with 50,000 Chelsea fans? I am not sure. Would we be able to get it jumping? It would be tough.

There is also the painful sight of Chelsea playing home games in a stadium of 90,000 red seats.

Ken – could you not have chosen a more neutral colour?

Royal blue, maybe?

To be fair, despite my moans about added travel time, we were back at Barons Court by 6.30pm.

On the way home, I glanced north once more. The Wembley arch was only just visible now, barely distinguishable against the early evening cloud.

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Tales From The Underdogs

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 12 August 2012.

The weather on the oh-so familiar drive up the M5 to Birmingham was horrendous. The near constant rain was painful enough, but the inclement driving conditions resulted in the traffic slowing right down to the speed of a Florent Malouda dribble. As a result of the delays, our pre-game plans of popping into the Crown and Cushion for a couple of pints of Red Stripe were knocked into touch.

I didn’t park up until 12.50pm.

It didn’t seem that long ago that Parky and I had last visited this particular part of Birmingham; the 4-2 win against Aston Villa seemed like yesterday. Ah, a lovely Torres goal too, I seem to remember.

We were parked to the north of Villa Park; the end allocated to the City fans. I expected the area to be inundated with them. To be honest, it was surprisingly quiet. There was a mixture of Chelsea and City fans milling around in the warm drizzle. It soon became apparent that many fans had expected warmer weather. Many were wearing shorts with trainers and plimsolls, with no rain jackets for cover.

It appeared to me that the drizzly conditions had travelled south with the thousands of Mancunians.

It was typical Manchester weather.

As we approached the stadium, we spotted a gaggle of familiar faces sheltering under the slight overhang of the Doug Ellis Stand. It was good to see them all once again. The others were off to sit in the two-tiered Holte End (the home end at the stadium), while I was by myself in the upper tier of the Doug Ellis. Just as I was finding my bearings, none other than Lovejoy walked past. I hadn’t seen him for almost two years. I was wondering if I’d see him at football ever again.

My seat was in the second row from the rear of the upper deck, down at the south end, behind the goal line. It soon became apparent that the 42,000 capacity was not going to be tested on this particular match day. I spotted large gaps in both tiers of the Holte End. Chelsea had been entitled to over 13,000 tickets for this game, but it was clear that we were a few thousand short of that figure. As kick-off approached, there were just as many gaps in the City sections. City had fans on three sides; the main west stand, the north stand and about a quarter of the Doug Ellis.

It was easy for me to think back to the one game that this scenario reminded me of; our 1996 F.A. Cup semi-final against the other Manchester team, in the days when Gullit and Hughes played for us and Cantona and Beckham played for them. I used to love attending F.A. Cup semi-finals en masse at these neutral venues. I loved the idea of 20,000 Chelsea fans taking over large swathes of other clubs’ stadia. And it preserved the thrill of Wembley for the Cup Final itself. How I wish the F.A. would revert to this, but I know it will never happen again.

Chelsea had both tiers of the Holte End for that game and, as luck would have it, our seats were in the very first row of the upper tier. I immediately seized this opportunity and decided to make a banner to hang over the balcony wall.

Over a week, I painstakingly made my “Ruud Boys” banner, featuring the smiling face of our dreadlocked hero who had so thrilled us in his first season.

The Chelsea fans were out in force on that Sunday in the spring of 1996. Our end was festooned with banners, streamers and balloons as the teams entered the pitch. I always remember that the United sections filled up really slowly and I am pretty sure that there were empty seats throughout the game. Just before the break, that man Gullit leapt at a cross and headed us into a lead.

Oh, how we celebrated that one.

Sadly, two defensive errors – and some unfortunate injuries to key players – allowed United to recover and win 2-1. Wembley would have to wait for one more season.

However, the story continues.

The sight of the Chelsea fans packing out the Holte End in a riot of colour must have been spectacular. There are many photographs of us from that day. One in particular was used in two publications.

One photographer down at pitch level took a photo of my Ruud Boys flag and it was used by “Action Images” to illustrate a piece on Chelsea’s influx of foreign players in a copy of “Total Football” later during that year.

It gets better.

The former Wimbledon striker Dean Holdsworth once had an affair with glamour model Lindsey Dawn MacKenzie. At a game at Selhurst Park in the 1996-1997 season, the Chelsea fans were full of rude comments about this romantic liaison. In the “Daily Sport” newspaper – that beacon of journalistic integrity – the following day, there was a photo of Lindsey Dawn MacKenzie (baring all) with a headline to the effect of “How dare Chelsea fans be rude to both Dean and me.”

The editor chose to illustrate her tirade at the Chelsea fans with a picture of some Chelsea fans, set just behind a large photograph of Lindsey Dawn and her quite substantial charms.

The photo that the editor chose was from the Villa Park semi-final. It was the photo of my Ruud Boys flag. Or rather, a close-up photo of Glenn and me (looking, strangely, straight at the camera).

Imagine the scene.

Glenn was sitting with his workmates during a tea break when one of them opened up the middle pages of his “Daily Sport” to exclaim –

“Hey, Glenn – there’s a picture of you and Chris Axon next to Lindsey Dawn MacKenzie here!”

The Chelsea and Manchester City teams entered the arena from that quirky tunnel towards the corner of the main stand. I guess this was a conscious decision by the Villa club, who were lambasted for replacing the much loved Trinity Road stand with a brutal structure, to maintain certain elements of the old stand. The curved panelling of the original Leitch balcony has been replicated, too.

Chelsea were in the royal blue of old, while City wore a new away kit of Torino pomegranate. The guests of honour were the former city winger Mike Summerbee and none other than our very own Ron Harris. I saw Ron sharing a joke with several of the Chelsea players as he was introduced to them.

The game began and it was clear that di Matteo was staying with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1, with Mikel and Lamps in the withdrawn roles, and Ramires out right, Hazard out left, Mata in the middle. With our influx of new players, I wondered if the manager was wondering about testing the old conundrum of whether teams should be system based or player based.

Should the formation dictate which players to use or should the players force the formation? One suspects that the answer, like a lot of things in life, is a muddy compromise.

The rain had ceased and Manchester City created a flurry of early chances. Petr Cech was in the thick of it and was soon covering himself in glory as he repelled several City efforts. With time, though, we began to make inroads as the game progressed. Eden Hazard took a few nice touches, but then drew instant laughter from the City hordes when he cut inside but tripped over his feet as he attempted a back-heel to Ashley Cole. I’m sure we’ve all done that in our time on the football pitch; I know I have.

I must admit, I didn’t know too much about Eden Hazard before we became linked with him. My knowledge of his attributes is due to a typical search on YouTube; I was mightily impressed. I just hoped that there wasn’t another selection of Eden Hazard clips on YouTube involving him falling over himself, clipping balls Gronkjaer-esque into row Z of the stands at Lille, losing possession after one touch, missing clear chances and setting up opponents’ goals with lazy back-passes.

Two chances in quick succession raised our hopes; a flowing move involving Mata and Ramires allowed Fat Frank to shoot straight at the City ‘keeper and then Hazard cut inside before shooting low.

It then occurred to me – in a lovely moment of self-awareness – that after three games of varying involvement, I was now right back in to the football. After the surreal experience in New York, the boozy song-fest of Chester and the docile frustration of Brighton, I was now kicking every ball, making every tackle, shouting words of encouragement and getting more and more involved with every passing minute.

This turned out to be the most important moment of the entire afternoon for me.

There may come a time when I suddenly lose this passion for Chelsea, but I knew at around 2pm at Villa Park that it wouldn’t be this season; European Champions or not, there are still games to attend, games to win and songs to be sung.

“Come On You Blue Boys.”

With the first half coming to a close, we were rewarded for our slight improvement in play with a goal against the general run of play. What a lovely finish from Fernando Torres, who deftly flicked the ball over the ‘keeper from Ramires’ through ball. I celebrated wildly – yes, I was back – and still managed to capture several shots of El Nino reeling away towards the Chelsea fans in the upper deck of the Doug Ellis. Another goal for him at Villa Park. I maintained my proud record of seeing every Fernando Torres goal in the flesh, from Stamford Bridge to Old Trafford to Camp Nou to Villa Park.

I hope that continues.

I spotted Mick and Della a few yards away from me and I walked over to say “hi” just as the Ivanovic tackle happened. My first reaction was that it was a tough decision; replays on the TV in the bar area at half-time suggested that Kevin Friend got it right. Down to ten men, I doubted that we would be able to hold off a physically tough City side. Up front, Tevez and Aguero looked the business.

I had more words with Mick and Della at the break; they had thoroughly enjoyed their time with Ron Harris in New York and it was great to see them once again.

At the start of the second half, Mancunian drizzle and then Mancunian goals. A couple of lax defensive clearances allowed the ball to fall to Kolo Toure. He smashed it goal wards and I was right behind the path of the ball. I said “goal” as soon as it left his foot.

The City fans, who had swelled their numbers considerably during the first-half, now roared. Their version of “Hey Jude” was deafening to be fair. I wondered if there had been traffic problems for the City fans on their trek south down the M6 from Ancoats, Hyde, Droylesden and Longsight.

A sweet strike from Tevez and a flick from Nasri got them singing again. This now looked like “damage limitation” for us. I wanted Friend to blow up straight away. As Daniel Sturridge warmed up, he took tons of abuse from the City fans in the main stand.

“One greedy bastard, there’s only one greedy bastard.”

That’s ironic, eh? Half of City’s team are only there for the sheikh’s millions.

Oh well. It is what it is.

It was sad to hear the Chelsea support so quiet. Even when we were 1-0 up, the noise was no more than a murmur.

Must do better.

I thought back to the game at Yankee Stadium. The only three English shirts I saw at the stadium which were not Chelsea belonged to two Manchester City supporters and one Manchester United fan. I was expecting more to be honest. I was certainly expecting shirts to be worn by a few Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal fans in a sad attempt to wind us up. There is nothing sadder than that, in my opinion. However, the sight of the two City shirts certainly made me double-take; outside of Manchester, sightings are rare. In NYC, I decided to take the “good cop, bad cop” approach.

To City Fan #1 – “You’re at the wrong game mate”

This resulted in the City fan puffing his chest out and giving me a look of aggression.

To City Fan #2 – “Congratulations on the title…at least you’re not a red.”

This resulted in the City fan looking confused and befuddled at my – honest – compliments.

Late on, a Daniel Sturridge shot was only parried by Pantilimon and the other substitute Ryan Bertrand pounced. We roared again. Could we rise up from the dead and snatch a draw? Despite a late charge, including big Pete coming up for a corner, it was not to be.

In truth, City could have scored again at the death but Sergio Aguero screwed the ball wide in front of a virtual open goal. With us a man down throughout the second-half, a 3-2 loss was no big deal. Outside, Parky was sage like and philosophical, sharing the opinion that there were several plus points to take from the game.

With a lot of the City fans still inside, our escape route north and then west to the M6 was clear of traffic and, aided by some classics from the Stranglers, we made good time on the drive south.

Throughout the game, I had soon realised that City were the new target for all clubs in the division this season. They are a formidable team – solid in the right areas, with many attacking options. I also realised that it certainly felt “right” for Chelsea – or at least “my” Chelsea – to be classed as the underdogs once more. I’d guess we are third favourites for the league, behind the two Manchester clubs, but I can deal with that. After all, I dealt with it – and the club certainly dealt with it – against Barca and Bayern.

It’s no big deal. I quite like it. After all, a goal scored by the underdogs is celebrated five times as loudly as a goal by the favourites.

I won’t deny that there are the inevitable concerns about our team at this very moment in time. But let’s give everyone time to adapt to each other, to let the newcomers settle, to give the manager his six months to sort out his formation and his methodology. With the possible triumvirate of Hazard / Mata / Oscar feeding Fernando Torres, we could be in for quite a ride.

The league season is almost upon us.

Wigan awaits.

I’m ready.

Let’s go.

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Tales From The Phony War

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 8 August 2010.

My home for most of my life has been a small Somerset village, some 110 miles from HQ, and this has been the starting point for the vast majority of my Chelsea journeys. During the week I had worked out that I had travelled – roughly, and including air miles – 275,000 miles in support of Chelsea since my first game in 1974 and the amount knocked me for six. I disbelieved this figure and so I recalculated, but it remained the same. That equates to a vast amount of travelling time, petrol, oil, tyres, driving hours, Depeche Mode songs, post-game post-mortems, tins of Red Bull, lines at passport control, cups of coffee, motorway service station comfort breaks, train tickets and British Rail buffet stops.

My home village has the limestone Mendip Hills to the west, the Roman city of Bath and The Cotswolds of Gloucestershire to the north, the market town of Frome and the stark chalk uplands of Salisbury Plain to the east and the undulating Somerset farmland to the south, with the Dorset beaches beyond. It’s hardly a football hotbed.

Apart from inside my head.

The World was sleeping as I awoke and I soon gathered my thoughts for the first trip of the new campaign. The weather looked uncertain and mirrored my thoughts of the game ahead…this would be my fifth Chelsea vs. Manchester United Community Shield game and all have been at Wembley. We were tied at 2-2 and this one would be the decider. We had struggled to find our form in the few games of the pre-season, but United seemed to be more advanced in their preparations. I liked the look of their new player Hernandez

At 7.45am, my car left the sleeping village behind and I set off for my Game One of Season 2010-2011. No pre-season games for me this summer.

Echo And The Bunnymen were on the car CD player as I headed through the old mill town of Bradford On Avon to collect Lord Parky, his step-daughter Claire and her boyfriend Kris.

“Stab a sorry heart
With your favourite finger
Paint the whole world blue
And stop your tears from stinging
Hear the cavemen singing
Good news they’re bringing.”

I travelled up the A4 as Claire and Kris flicked through the “hard copy” version of my online photographs, detailing the events of the previous season. I had noted that the album had begun with a simple photograph, taken outside The Duke Of York pub in August 2009, of a pint of Staropramen and the Chelsea vs. Manchester United Community Shield match ticket resting against it. The last photo in the album was a half-full glass of Staropramen, again taken outside the same pub, but after the F.A.Cup Final in May 2010. I’m heavy on metaphors these days, but it seemed to sum up last season perfectly…at times it was difficult to believe, but our glass really was half-full – rather than half-empty – all of the way through last season.

I was a soon parked and we caught the tube from West Brompton, with the steel supports of the Matthew Harding Stand roof in the distance. The smell of the tube always takes me back to my childhood, on those first few wondrous visits to Chelsea with my parents. This time, though, we headed away from The Bridge, north on the district line to Notting Hill Gate, then a change on the central to Marble Arch. By 11am we were tucking into the first fry-up of the new season and, by 11.30pm, we were back at a sun-kissed Duke Of York once again.

We spoke about our respective summers and, to be honest, my one has been strangely muted. The time has flown past and yet, looking back at the months of June and July, I don’t seem to have done anything special. Of course, this is always a period of my year when my credit card heaves a sigh of relief after some intensive spending in the name of Chelsea Football Club and I generally try to keep my expenditure to a minimum. There will be home and away games, hopefully in a few far flung locales, to pay for over the coming season.

The euphoria of the closing weeks of 2009-2010 is still vivid in my mind and it seems that last season still hasn’t drained out of my system yet. Maybe that’s a good thing, since I don’t ever want to forget the joy I felt at Wembley or on the parade the following day, two trophies to the good. They were truly magical times in my Chelsea life. I can still feel the buzz I felt walking out of Anfield, one win away from being champions, three months on. There was a sense, too, of not wanting this summer to end, since I couldn’t face the possible eroding of our title by a resurgent Manchester United or us getting knocked out of the FA Cup. I guess I wanted to prolong the spell of us being – big breath – Double Winners. The summer of 2010 has been the first time we could boast such an honour. These are heady times which should not be easily relinquished.

Can we not stay forever in a perpetual close-season with my beloved Chelsea at the very pinnacle of English football? A ground-hog summer.

So, there has certainly been a sense during the past month or so that I am not yet quite ready for the commencement of yet another season…that I haven’t yet reached the stage where I am feverishly awaiting Game One. This troubled me, but I came to the conclusion that this is natural…this would be, after all, my 38th season of watching Chelsea in the flesh, so to speak. I haven’t felt jaded exactly, but something was amiss.

A strange feeling.

With a double in our locker, where else can this club go? Would I only be satisfied, come May, with a treble, or at very least a Champions League trophy?

Questions, questions.

If I am honest, it made me remember my personal feelings during the summer of 1997, when – for the first time ever – I found myself supporting a Chelsea that had just won a major trophy for the first time in my supporting-life. It felt that my relationship with my club – the great under-achievers, the misery-makers, the perpetual losers – had changed and I scrabbled around, trying to evaluate who I was now in a relationship with…that unloved, ugly duckling was now a coveted princess and it feel odd.

Andy, Ronnie and Fiona were outside the boozer and all three had been in South Africa for a few games. However, we hardly spoke about the World Cup. We certainly didn’t waste much time chatting about England’s inadequacies. I found the tournament pretty boring. It was a joy to see the South African nation – or at least the footy fans in the townships – so overjoyed to have the World’s top teams on their doorsteps, even though the grounds seemed to be devoid of these very same fans. In my mind, this was a very odd World cup, in terms of the spectators inside the stadia. Fans of competing nations seemed not to be allocated designated areas, which negated the noise they were able to generate, which of course was further reduced by the constant drone of those hideous vuvuzelas. And it drove me crazy – my own personal football hell in fact – to see the TV cameramen honing in on every ludicrously attired “fan” ( not only facepaint, but stupid hats and even “comedy” glasses ). This reached a low point when I spotted two English fans, not long from the end of the Germany debacle, attired in replica kits and face paint, seeing each other on the stadium screen and suddenly bursting into smiles and laughter, waving at the camera, not a care in their simple worlds.

England were 4-1 down…my face was as long as a Tottenham league trophy drought…and these loons were smiling and giggling like pre-pubescent schoolgirls. Quite sickening.

Yet again I was reminded that football these days attracts a different breed…that some fans that I grew up with – passionate, devoted, loyal – have been flushed out of a lot of football stadia.

Midway through the tournament, I replayed a tape of a documentary of England’s crazy assault on the World Cup in the summer of 1990. It portrayed a mad few weeks involving 5,000 loyalists living in dodgy campsites on Sardinia surviving on Italian beer and English hope, getting treated like idiots, but smiling through regardless, the team of Peter Shilton, David Platt and Des Walker, images of Gazza’s tears, Sir Bobby Robson, Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle, the terrace anthem of “Let’s All Have A Disco” and that iconic New Order song “World In Motion”, coolly crossing the football / music divide. I longed for those days…when football was followed by football fans alone, not people drawn in by a variety of other reasons. Hardly any corporates, no wannabee wags, no hangers-on.

In contrast, South Africa seemed plastic and alien to me. On too many occasions, I looked at the reactions on the faces of the spectators after goals were scored and I very rarely saw people “losing it” – that rabid shriek of joy which so often has been uttered by football fans through the years, followed by wild ungainly leaps, often into the arms of strangers, then hugs and kisses, then the panting afterglow. In 2010, I noted polite applause from people who looked like they had just gate-crashed a wedding only to find they had missed out on the buffet and were now fighting over cold leftovers.

The Staropramen was going down well. We were clustered in small groups on the pavement, re-acquainting ourselves after three months “off.” Rob had been on a diet and was looking good, Parky was jabbering away to anyone who would listen, the sun was beating down and I could feel my forehead heating up. Lots of laughs with old friends. The conversation was varied. Not only about football. Fred Perry polo shirts and old-school Adidas trainers were to the fore. I noticed that it was much quieter than May’s Cup Final though. A few of my mates – The Bada Bing Firm – were still on holiday. Gill’s friend Gerry, complete with his trusty guide-dog was sat in the group, too. Four United replikids showed up, but they didn’t stay long…there was no animosity but they were soon flushed out and they left us in peace.

Lacoste Watch

Walnuts – peach

We set off for Marylebone and caught the mainline train up to Wembley Stadium, the carriage rocking with song. As we ascended the steps at the station, I first spotted Dog and then Cathy a few feet ahead…last August, we had caught the same train too.

On the short walk from the station to the stadium, we sensed an altercation a few yards away – some glares, a few words, a stand-off, then a brutal attack leaving a United fan on the road, blood gushing from his forehead. We witnessed something similar on this exact same stretch of road against Villa in April, yet no police to be seen. I was just glad that no young children had witnessed it. To be truthful, the attack was swift and lots of people may not have noticed, but it was a reminder that the dark side of football is always there.

Yet again the soul-less interior of Wembley Stadium saddened me as we ascended the elevators. I’ve commented before about the complete lack of décor inside the walkways and forecourts where food is served and souvenirs sold. It’s all so bland – like the inside of an airport, not our national stadium. There is no clue as to where you are – no photos from previous games, no unique signs, nothing. I’ve just begun re-reading a book about the building of Baltimore’s Camden Yards and it acted as a counterpoint to Wembley. The Orioles’ ball park is quirky, homely, finely-detailed, well-planned and ultimately loved…I just find Wembley so disappointing aesthetically.

We reached our seats and Gianfranco Zola, plus United’s Bobby Charlton, were being presented to the two teams. We had tickets high up in row 23 of the upper deck, six of us in a row…myself, Parky, Rob, Tom, Gary and Alan.

I noted quite a few empty seats and not so many flags as in previous Wembley appearances. United sported a flag which was virtually the same as a Liverpool one from around 1993, aimed at Manchester when United won their first title in 26 years –

“Form Is Temporary, Class Is Forever.”

This time, I guess, it was United having a pop at us.

In the first few minutes, United booed our three English lions, so we reciprocated by cheering all of our boys with every touch. I soon spotted that Frank Lampard was playing with the waistband of his shorts flipped over – this time exposing a belt of red – in the same style as the Umbro shorts from 2003-2005 when he always appeared to play with a white belt.

The game began with thrusts from both sides and Rooney seemed to be buzzing around, his bald head getting more pronounced with each passing season. Scholes was playing deep, out of the reach of our midfielders, and he was having a lot of the ball. Then a cross and Ivanovic threw himself at the ball but Van Der Sar saved brilliantly. It seemed we had most of the possession, but chances were even. Gary was his usual passionate self, his tirades of abuse aimed at Scholes drawing many old-fashioned looks from his new neighbours, presumably unused to such venom.

The singing began reasonably OK, but soon subsided. At times, the atmosphere was deathly. Still lots of empty seats, including the Club Wembley section.

Then a Scholes pass, a Rooney cross and our defence was wide-open. Valencia slammed it in and the United end, bathed in sunshine, came to life.

Groans all around, but I felt a goal would come in the second period. I thought it had been an open game, with most of our purposeful attacks coming through Ashley Cole and Florent Malouda. Frank was playing deep and wasn’t too involved.

At half-time, no surprises to hear the programmes had sold out. Another great performance from the FA. Back in my seat for the rest of the break, I noted two hideous twenty foot mascots being paraded behind each goal, but these were met with admirable indifference by both sets of fans. I soon received a text message from Burger, now living on this side of the Atlantic, and I soon spotted his large flag.

The second half developed along similar lines, but with the crowd showing even less willingness to create any noise. Maybe it was the warm summer sun. Shots from Essien and Malouda whizzed past United’s goal, but our approach play seemed to be more laboured. Anelka was dropping deep, as his wont, but he really needed to be leading the line. I still felt a goal would come, though.

Then, another rapid United break and we found ourselves 2-0 down, that man Hernandez causing the United end to roar with approval. Lots of Chelsea left and that annoyed me.

The pass of the day – from Yuri? – carved open the United defence but Sturridge shot tamely. We dug in and played with more conviction. Yossi Benayoun came on – I noted Burger’s flag in the background from the TV feed on the giant screen – and he looked lively. We had a few half-chances and eventually a goal came once a Sturridge shot had been parried into the path of Kalou. Parky’s crutches flew into the air and I dived for cover.

“Come On Chels.”

I then fancied our chances to equalise, but the depressing figure of Berbatov The Undertaker sealed a 3-1 win for United with a deft flick over Hilario.

I didn’t think it was a 3-1 game, but perhaps I’m ever the optimist. There were certainly negative comments being aired on the return to the pub, but I tried my best to remain philosophical amongst the sour words. We didn’t appear 100% match fit, but let’s hope all is resolved by next weekend. We need Drogba firing on all cylinders, we need the strangely subdued Lampard in the thick of it, we need Essien fitter. I thought Ashley Cole was up and down the flank like his life depended on it and seemed to be highly energised. Ivanovic never disappoints, does he? It was a 6/10 performance from Chelsea overall.

And the only vuvuzela I heard was from the United end.

I think that the first month of the season often feels like a phoney war, with teams fighting to get players healthy, with new formations being tested, with the international break upsetting the rhythm of the early weeks and the weather being tough on everyone. I always say we need a month – by the middle of September – for players and fans alike to be back up to 100%. By then, we ought to have a clearer idea.

We won’t be far away.

We called in for a couple or drinks at the pub, then made our way back to West Brompton and home. The first Red Bull of the season was downed and we were on our way back west.

Irritatingly, Sky TV have recently chosen Eric Cantona to headline their new promotional campaign ( a logical choice given half of United’s fan base only stretch their “support” of their club to more than a Sky prescription ), and it was his face which seemed to be on every advertising poster on the drive out of London.

…now that’s just rubbing it in.

I got home at 9.30pm after another 220 miles on the clock…and my spirits were lifted when I read on Sky Sports News that Jose Mourinho had called off his lusty chase of Ashley Cole.

Next week the season starts for real.

Let’s go to work.

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