Of the many irritants involved with my recent footballing past, nothing continually manages to annoy me more than the Chelsea chant “We’ve won it all” which is sung with gusto by thousands, some of whom should definitely know better. I roll my eyes every time I hear it. I am pretty sure I have never sung it. The fact of the matter is that due to our meek 0-1 loss to Corinthians in Yokohama in 2012, there was still one prize remaining for us to claim. In those days it was known as the World Club Championships. Earlier, when it was a one-game final between the South American and European Champions, it was known as the Inter-Continental Cup. Now, rebranded again, it is known as the FIFA World Club Cup.
After our win in Porto last May, we were presented with the chance to have another stab at it. I openly hoped for a return visit to Japan; I loved my time there in 2012, an almost perfect trip. We waited and waited. There were rumours of the United Arab Emirates, there were rumours of Las Vegas. Talk about one extreme to the another, eh? In December, it was decided that the delayed 2021 World Club Cup would take place in Abu Dhabi in February 2022.
My immediate response was this.
But then I became slightly side-tracked with my boycotting of the Qatar World Cup of 2022, and pondered whether it would be hypocritical for me to go to Abu Dhabi. All things considered, I decided that Abu Dhabi was “on.” Initially, a few friends seemed interested too. In the end it boiled down to PD and myself. On the face of it we are an unlikely pairing, as different as chalk and cheese – with me a very soft brie – but we are good friends and I began preparing a list of things that we needed to sort out.
The worry of COVID19 tests, registration procedures, and the possibility of the pandemic flaring up again, and the risk of getting caught in Abu Dhabi, COVID-positive and thus forced to miss even more time off work ate away at me.
Heading into the last few days of 2021, I was still 50/50 about the whole damn thing.
Then the game dates were announced. Others began booking. I re-examined all the clutter that would get in the way of a trip to the Arabian Peninsula. The tests, the forms, the costs, the risks.
And then I did it. I booked our flights. We were on our way.
But did the stress, anxiety and worry disappear? No. Did they fuck.
However, with each passing week, things began to drop into place. I sought advice from a few good friends. Other friends sought advice from me, the fools.
The Alhosn App would haunt me for weeks.
Then at the Brighton game, I was aware that I was coming down with something unpleasant. It knocked me for six to be honest. I was off work for the best part of a week and I even missed the Tottenham league game, damn it. After the tests, it was found that I had been hit with a campylobacter infection. This, I have to admit, just got in the way of the last few things that I needed to do before the trip. These were a few dark days. It absolutely clouded my thinking and hindered my planning.
There was one last remaining worry too. We were off to Abu Dhabi on the first Monday in February. On the Saturday, we were set to play Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup. Like a few people I know, I didn’t attend the game. I just couldn’t risk catching COVID again at Stamford Bridge. But I still spent the day in SW6.
It was one of the oddest days. Because Parky and PD still wanted to attend, I drove them up but then occupied myself for a few hours. I fancied a walk, rather than sitting in my car for three or four hours, and so I meandered down through the deserted streets of Fulham to Craven Cottage. I arrived at the Johnny Haynes statue bang on 12.30pm, just as the game was kicking-off at Stamford Bridge.
How odd did that feel? Oh, very odd.
There were a few bouquets, wreaths and cards on the gate in front of the cottage in memory of the Fulham fan who had recently died at a game there. One card was from a close relative. It brought a tear to my eye.
With the score at 1-1 on ninety minutes, the game at Stamford Bridge went to extra-time.
But we had other plans. In order to meet pre-flight requirements, I had arranged for PD and I to have PCR tests at Heathrow at 5pm. With that in mind, the lads had arranged to leave on ninety minutes even if extra-time was required. Bless them. Just before 3pm, they joined me in my car. Despite a little problem tracing PD’s registration for the test, both PCR tests were taken and the three of us returned home.
It was indeed, one of the oddest days. Good job we eventually won.
Driving home, I was heard to mutter “would love Luton away, before they move to their new stadium, never been to Kenilworth Road.”
On the Sunday morning, texts came through to both of us. We were both negative.
I finished packing early on Monday morning and called for PD in Frome at 5am.
Rather than a flight from London, I had managed to save some money and fly from Manchester. The drive up went perfectly. I had parking booked from 9am. We arrived at 9.05am. There was a long wait to check in…always a nervous time, even in normal times, but our PCR tests were quickly glanced, our bookings reconfirmed, we were on our way. I spotted a few Chelsea fans that I knew in the line too. And, ominously, one Palmeiras fan.
I remembered the 25,000 Corinthians fans in Japan.
It was a lovely irony that we were setting off from City’s airport using their airline. It was even more delicious that other friends were setting off in a “Manchester City” liveried plane at Heathrow.
“Here’s what you could have won.”
The 12.35pm flight was delayed an hour. With the inherent four-hour time difference, we touched down at Abu Dhabi airport at around 12.30am in the small hours of Tuesday.
Glenn and I had spent a few hours in the same terminal building en route to watch Chelsea play in Australia in 2018. Who could have thought that I’d be returning to see us play in the desert in 2022? This almost mirrored my movements in 2012 and 2017. In 2012, I transited in Beijing en route to the 2012 games in Japan. Yet in 2017, I exited the Beijing airport to see us play Arsenal at the Bird’s Nest Stadium in 2017.
Funny game, football.
On arrival at the airport, we were ushered into a PCR testing area. It was all very simple and straight forward. I was impressed. We then caught a £20 cab over to our hotel, a journey that took half-an-hour. The impressive Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was floodlit as we drove past, certainly an impressive sight.
The “day one” story did not come to a clean and simple ending unfortunately. We arrived at our hotel a few blocks from Abu Dhabi’s beach at around 2am. The hotel had not noted my late arrival – although I had an email to say they had – and so only had us staying for five and not six nights. After six or seven calls to other hotels, the concierge managed to get us in for one night at a lovely five-star hotel.
At 3am, we fell asleep.
We woke to see that the infamous Alhosn App had been updated with our two negative test results.
This now cleared us for the game on Wednesday.
The Tuesday was spent relaxing at our original hotel. The management had upgraded us to a lovely suite on the fifteenth floor with a room each. Our rooftop pool was perfect and Paul wasted no time in soaking up some rays.
The view from the terrace summed up Abu Dhabi; white bricked houses and homes, mosques and minarets, high-rise apartments, sky scrapers in a business district on the horizon, the gulf and some man made islands too. We had a brief excursion to see the local beach. Our route took us past three or four expensive car dealerships; Bentley, Lotus and the like. But, like China, there were no advertisement hoardings anywhere. Acres of steel and glass, a modern city, but one that need seem so alien to me. I’d need a month to work it out.
There was a “Fado” Irish pub in our hotel and on the Tuesday night we met up with Della and Mick from Kent before Mike and Frank, veterans from Japan in 2012, strolled in at about 10pm. There were a group of around eight Chelsea fans I semi-recognised at another table. The two ladies of the night soon disappeared due to the lack of interest being directed at them. Pints of Peroni were at the £9 mark. Ouch.
“Another Peroni please.”
Tons of Chelsea stories, tons of Chelsea laughs. It was a great night.
Not so far away, Palmeiras had beaten the Egyptians 2-0. They were waiting for us in the final.
Wednesday was game day. After a late start – due to us both being sleep deficient and the alcoholic intake of the previous night – we welcomed Foxy down to our hotel. He, again, was a veteran of Japan 2012, and due to his life on the ocean waves was well versed to the ways of the UAE having spent many times in Dubai, though only a limited amount of access to Abu Dhabi. We loitered around the pool area and then zipped inside the adjacent restaurant where I had a very healthy pre-match meal of grilled chicken with a pear and blue cheese salad. It certainly differs from a Sunday roast at the Eight Bells or a Greggsfast on the A303.
The game was to begin at 8.30pm, and we wanted to ease into it. We caught a cab from our hotel at 5pm. By 5.30pm, we had gained entrance to the super sleek Dusit Thani hotel opposite the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium. The local Al Jazira football team plays at this stadium, but they had lost to our opponents Al Hilal from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia by the score of 6-1 on the Sunday. In the other second round game, Al Ahly from Egypt had beaten Monterrey of Mexico 1-0. By an odd twist, we had beaten Monterrey in our semi-final in 2012.
Al Jazira, Al Hilal, Al Ahly, Alhosin. We just needed Al Yankovic, Al Molinaro, Al Jarreau and Al Davidson to show up and we would be totally flummoxed.
We settled in at a quiet bar in the hotel. I met up with Robert, a Yorkshireman who once lived in Houston, but has flitted between Dubai and Baku in recent years – he is employed within the oil industry – and I last saw him out in Baku. I leisurely enjoyed two pints of Peroni although the prices were a little more expensive than at our hotel; up to £13 here.
Foxy spotted three lads sat at the bar opposite; their shirts were Celtic, Leeds United and Ajax. A lad with a Barcelona shirt was stood behind them.
“Brave or stupid.”
On the next table were two Saudi lads, timidly sipping two small glasses of lager.
“Bet this is like a trip to Benidorm for them.”
Now the moment of truth. At 7pm, we left the bar and walked over a pedestrian bridge, which went up and over a busy road, to get to the stadium. At the entrance gate, a check of the ticket, a check of my Alhosin App, and we were in. My small pocket camera was waved through too.
After all the worry and stress…my smiles were absolutely authentic.
I was happy. I mean, really happy.
It was 7.30pm. An hour to kick-off. My immediate goal was to try to find the stadium’s wifi password, but this was an impossible task. My data had run out and so I would be jettisoned from the outside world until I could hook back up with a hotel wifi. But not to worry. Life goes on, eh? In the concourse, there was a group of around twenty Muslims, including a few Chelsea supporters, kneeling on mats and praying to the west.
I got mine out and prayed for myself.
Our tickets placed us midway into a half in the lower tier of the northern side stand. The view was decent. Over the course of the hour, we spotted a few familiar faces; Scott, Roy and Margaret, Leigh and Darren. Later, I would spot the increasingly familiar face of Astrijd vlogging away a few seats to my right. Robert from Baku was close by. Dave Johnstone was spotted. Elsewhere in our section, there was a tremendous mix of people. Local Chelsea fans, Chelsea fans from further afield, Al Hilal fans – dressed in blue – and even fans of other competing teams. I won’t lie, it felt odd to be in and among the opposition. I tried to spot Chelsea fans that I knew from home in the lower tier behind the goal. No luck. Lots and lots of Chelsea flags though. Good work!
The consensus was maybe one thousand Chelsea from the UK. Maybe a few more.
At various moments we were treated to the stadium lights being dimmed and then spotlights flying around, but then a couple of morons asking us all to “make some noise.”
The British contingent stood with our hands in our pockets and muttered obscenities beneath our breath.
Using a few screeches from AC/DC as a scene setter seemed a very odd choice I have to say.
Soon, the kick-off was upon us.
Chelsea in all yellow. I loved that. Bollocks to Borrusia Dortmund. Al Hilal in all blue. The teams lined up. The end to my right housed the Saudi militants – perish that thought – and they put on a fine show with steamers and banners.
Christensen – Silva – Rudiger
Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso
Havertz – Ziyech
Facemasks were worn by many. Mine was on and off every ten minutes.
The game began and Al Hilal soon pounced on an early mistake but a weak shot caused Kepa no concerns.
Soon into the game Al Ultra turned on his loud speaker and tried to stimulate the Al Hilal supporters around him to cheer the team on. It sounded so much like an imam and a call to prayer. It was such a surreal sound.
We grew into the game. It wasn’t a particularly hot evening. I was wearing jeans as were many others. Hakim Ziyech immediately caught my eye and looked to be keen and interested to set up chances for himself and others. Thiago Silva looked his usual composed self. Dave was often wide right, unmarked, but we often chose to ignore him. The chances began to stack up with Lukaku just missing out on passes and crosses. One strong run from him on twenty-five minutes impressed me. If only he could show such willingness to create opportunities for himself more often. Kovacic was running the midfield. We were well on top.
Our support was trying its best but we were easily out sung by the opposition.
Once or twice, Ziyech danced and weaved into the box from the right and attempted that “far post” bender” that he loves. Other shots were blocked. Our dominance continued. Al Hilal were not in it. They hardly escaped their half.
“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”
On the half-hour, Kovacic raced up field and released Havertz on the left. His first cross was blocked but on the rebound, he pushed the ball inside again. The cross hit an Al Hilal defender and the ball fell into the path of Lukaku who smashed it home from close range.
The goal was met by a guttural roar, from me especially.
I punched the air, then caught a few celebratory snaps.
I just couldn’t face questions at work the next week : “How did that third and fourth place play-off go, Chris?”
We looked more confident after that goal. It must have calmed us; players and fans alike. We needed another, but Al Hilal now threatened a little. Thankfully, we looked solid and their attacks misfired.
We had dominated possession; 62% Chelsea in the first-half.
At the break, N’Golo Kante replaced Jorginho.
Soon into the second period, Kai Havertz broke away down in front of us and kept running. He drew the ‘keeper and chipped the ball over him from inside the six-yard box. It clipped the post.
Another goal then would have steadied the ship. Sadly, the second-half was a mightily poor affair indeed. Al Hilal warmed to the challenge and threatened us on too many occasions for my liking. Our singing completely faded in the second-half. Their number seventeen Moussa Marega looked half-decent – a more mobile version of Lukaku – and he was aided in attack by Odion Ighalo, who used to play for Watford.
The move of the game brought me lots of pleasure though. A cross from Kante, after he ridiculously knocked the ball over the head of his marker, was headed back by Lukaku and Ziyech “faded” his shot to keep it down. The Al Hilal ‘keeper pulled off a fine save.
There was a magnificent block from Kepa on the hour mark; that man Marega’s shot was adeptly stopped by our young ‘keeper. Mohammed Kanno’s firm drive was then saved at full stretch by Kepa. The boy was keeping us in it.
There was worry and concern among all the Chelsea supporters now.
When Mason Mount replaced Ziyech with twenty minutes to go, there were boos around the stadium; although from The Netherlands and now playing for Morocco, he was obviously a local favourite.
A shot from the impressive Pereira went close.
“Come on Chelsea.”
Malang Sarr replaced Alonso, who had been his usual mixture of raiding wing play but defensive slips. Mount went close at the death, but that elusive second goal never came.
Thankfully, we held on.
Our possession had steadied out to 55% at the end.
It was a rotten second-half, but we had reached the FIFA World Club Cup Final. The gate was given as 19,751. I had said to PD that it seemed about half-full. The Al Hilal fans looked genuinely crestfallen. We just looked relieved.
PD and I slowly returned to the same bar as pre-match. We soon met up with Frank and Mike from New York. I met Dutch Mick too – also there in 2012 – and there was time for one last “Peroni” before PD and I caught a cab back to our digs.
We knew of several Chelsea fans who were flying over especially for the final; I was so pleased for them.
Now it was time to relax. And for a date with some camels.
My dear father was born on 16 December 1923, and I thought it quite apt that we were playing Everton at Stamford Bridge on his birthday. Everton’s Goodison Park was the only football stadium that my father, who was more into swimming, diving, tennis and badminton, ever visited before I came along. Since my first game in 1974, he was with me on many trips to Stamford Bridge, Ashton Gate and Eastville in Bristol and the County Ground in Swindon in my childhood and beyond.
In total, Dad saw Chelsea play around thirty times. And it was again quite fitting that his last ever game was against Everton bearing in mind his Goodison Park visit in around 1944. This last match took place on New Year’s Day in 1991. I had travelled by train to spend New Year’s Eve with some college mates and then met up with my parents in the West Stand before the match. Watching the game with us were a couple of family friends and a young lad Edward, about eight years of age, attending his very first Chelsea game. When one of those family friends passed away – Jack lived four doors away and reached the grand age of ninety-eight – Edward’s father spoke about that day in 1991 and it pleased me that Edward is still a Chelsea fan. For the record, despite us going ahead with a goal from Kevin Wilson, Everton equalised at The Shed End in the first-half via Graeme Sharpe. In the second-half, to my horror, Pat Nevin pushed the ball across the six-yard box and it deflected in off Jason Cundy. We lost 1-2. The gate was just 18,351. I was on the dole at the time, not even drifting, and the game summed up the gloom in my life at the time.
Everton have never been relegated from the top flight, unlike their neighbours across Stanley Park, and so it is not surprising that I have seen them play a fair few times; thirty-five games at Stamford Bridge, twenty matches at Goodison, a Cup Final at Wembley.
PD, my work-colleague Simon and I were on our way to game fifty-seven. Sadly, Parky was unable to join us. There was the usual midweek dip into “The Goose” and then “Simmons” and I could not help notice that both places were much quieter than usual. We had noted light traffic en route to London too. It certainly seemed that this “Lockdown / Plan B” was having a real impact on people’s ability to get out and about as per normal. In both pubs, talk was of COVID19, and there were very real concerns that this football season might be pulled out from under our feet, if only for a few weeks. In the back of my mind, there was the eerie memory that the very last game before lockdown in 2020 was our home game against Everton.
There were reports of three of our players being out with fresh cases of COVID19; Lukaku, Werner and Chilwell, though were other rumours too of a couple more. As we supped our drinks, I was genuinely expecting the news to break that our game against Everton would be postponed. Regardless, we walked to Stamford Bridge, and I slapped on a face mask just outside the West Stand forecourt. I wore it all the way to my seat as per the new advice though it was clear that I was in the minority.
Not only was Chelsea’s team depleted with injuries and now COVID19, but Everton’s too. We heard on the grapevine that there would be a couple of debuts for them. Over in The Shed, the best part of three thousand Evertonians were amassed. Elsewhere, as kick-off time rapidly approached, it was clear that thousands of seats that would not be filled. In The Sleepy Hollow alone, we were missing one or two. Alan was still away with COVID19 – he hopes to be back for Wolves – and the elderly chap who sits next to PD was also absent. Simon was taking Clive’s ticket alongside me. Thus, in our little section of five seats, two were empty. Our friend John sits in the same row but around fifteen seats along. Next to him were six or seven empty seats that were never occupied the whole game.
I looked around Stamford Bridge. Easily five thousand empty seats, probably more.
We learned that Callum Hudson-Odoi was out with COVID19 too.
So, the team?
Dave – Thiago – Rudi
Reece – Jorgi – Ruben – Marcos
Hakim – Christian – Mase
The Everton debutants were Jarred Branthwaite and Ellis Sims.
It was a very mild night in SW6. I didn’t bother with my coat which was draped over the back of my seat.
As is so often the case at home, we dominated early on and it continued throughout the first-half; for Manchester United and Leeds United, read Everton. We were soon peppering the Everton goal. A slick ball out to Reece from Jorginho set up our right wing-back, but his shot was sliced past the near post netting at The Shed End. Then came a low shot, wide, from Mount that should have hit the target. Ziyech looked keener than usual in the opening quarter and a lovely spin and turn – it drew gasps – and his pacey burst set up Pulisic with an opportunistic flick but Pickford was his equal.
The chances, pardon the pun, mounted up. I counted six in the first twenty minutes. A shot from Ziyech, two efforts from Reece, a free-kick from Alonso.
Everton rarely got out of their half.
Thiago Silva played a quarterback role again, teasing others to show for him, playing neat passes to feet and lofted chips out wide.
There was a nice little atmosphere brewing I felt. Everton had their standard selection and so did we.
“We don’t care what the red shite say…”
“Carefree wherever you may be…”
The chances continued at The Shed End.
I was enjoying an in-match chat with Simon, and we seemed to share a few opinions. After feeling distanced from football throughout all of last season, although there were frustrations that our almost total domination had not resulted in goals, I felt really involved in this game. It felt like I was back. I didn’t take nearly as many photos either; possible proof that I wanted to concentrate on the match being played out in front of me. I offered encouragement under my breath to our players, joined in with the chants, sang the praises of others.
It felt good.
We continued to dominate. Ziyech blazed over. Everton were defending so deep though and space was at a premium.
Rudiger found himself inside the penalty area and set up Mount just outside the six-yard box.
I was up celebrating the goal.
But Jordan Pickford saved it with a reactionary twitch of his leg.
I turned to Simon :
“Oh please God let this not be one of those games.”
I didn’t think Ruben Loftus-Cheek was looking particularly dominant. It also concerned me that I have started to call him “Rubes” during games. This must be akin to the “Chels” moniker that was always only ever used during games, but now seems to be hideously omnipresent.
With the end of the first-half approaching, there seemed to be warm encouragement from the stands.
I joined in a vibrant “CAM ON COWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”
As late as the forty-second minute, Everton struck at Mendy’s goal for the first time.
The half-time stats showed that we had enjoyed eighty percent of the ball.
As the second-half began, I spotted the increasingly more rotund figure of pantomime villain Rafa Benitez gesticulating on the touchline. I for one was pleased that the dull “we don’t care about Rafa” chant was not aired the entire match.
A song from 1984 : “Feed the Scousers, let them know it’s Christmas time.”
For some reason, that always makes me chuckle.
The chances for Chelsea did not occur at the same rate as in the first-half. And the atmosphere was generally quieter.
Efforts from Mount and Loftus-Cheek did not really bother Pickford.
On the hour, there was a guttural roar of support from the Matthew Harding but it was not to be often repeated.
The frustrations were rising all around me. Very often I realised that my head was in my hands.
“Nobody is a threat upfront, Si. Seems to me that the biggest problem with a False Nine is that nobody has the urgency to score. Everyone is too busy running around that nobody thinks it’s their responsibility to fucking shoot.”
It was just my frustration getting to me.
Don’t worry, BT and Sky won’t be calling on me for tactical analysis in the near future.
But the “running around” part of the plan had stalled and both Simon and I were getting annoyed with our strikers being unable to twist and turn a la Vialli or Crespo.
I decided it was time for an Alan impersonation.
I rocked forward and spoke to PD and Si :
“More fucking movement in a Burton’s shop window.”
On sixty-five minutes, Thomas Tuchel did things his way.
Barkley for Loftus-Cheek.
Saul for Alonso.
Pulisic was shunted back to wing back and for a few minutes at least, Saul was centrally placed up front.
I know his options were limited, but that really caught us all out.
On seventy minutes, a breakthrough. Barkley to James to Mount, and we watched as he bore in on Pickford’s goal from an angle. My camera was poised and ready.
I loved that. It looked like the points would be ours.
Just four minutes later, and – honestly – a ridiculously rare Everton attack resulted in a free-kick from wide on their left. Anthony Gordon played a magnificent cross into the oft-quoted “corridor of uncertainty” and debutant Branthwaite touched the ball past the stranded Mendy. Should he have come out? My first thoughts were “yes” but my position was some one hundred yards away. There is no doubt about the outstanding quality of the cross.
But the defending reminded me so much of our defending under Frank Lampard twelve months ago.
The Everton players celebrated maniacally in front of their fans.
It was another head in my hands moment.
There was no final ten-minute push and, if anything, we seemed to play within ourselves. A late Chalobah for Azpilicueta substitution didn’t add to our potency or our desire. From a Barkley corner, Silva rose well and forced a fine sprawling save from Pickford. A towering leap from Rudiger and a header that flew over. But it simply wasn’t to be.
It was a frustrating end to the game.
There were a few boos at the final whistle.
“Will the real Chelsea please stand up?”
I’ll go back to my words from a few games ago; we are still developing, we are still learning about each other. But the frustrations are real nonetheless.
Walking back to PD’s car, it struck me that this might be the last Chelsea game for a while if the Omicron variant continues to wreak havoc. I have a feeling our that our away game at Wolves on Sunday is under threat, and I did wonder if it might be a few weeks before I see another game at Stamford Bridge. Outside forces will govern our football for a while I think.
To be quite honest, despite the possible cessation of top flight football for a while, I am sure that all of the games will eventually be played.
But it is so ironic that on a night that I definitely felt that I was “one hundred percent back” Chelsea might be taken away from us all again.
I hope to see some of you at Molineux on Sunday.
For the record, here’s how Everton shape up in the list of my most-viewed opponents.
After the away game on Tyneside, I was going to miss the trip to Malmo, and so my next planned game was going to be Burnley at home. Then, sadly, I tested positive for COVID and was forced into self-isolation for ten days. I was lucky though. My symptoms were similar to a mild head cold, and I was easily able to work from home for a week. I was back into work, and the office, last Monday. The International break could not have happened at a more convenient time.
Instead of Chelsea, two games at Frome Town – the first before I tested positive, the second after I tested negative – gave me my football kick. The home games against Barnstaple Town and Plymouth Parkway were won 9-2 and 1-0, thus cementing my local team’s undefeated position at the top of the Southern League Division One South. When I am either unable or unwilling to attend Chelsea games in the future – I think I know deep down that it is coming – at least I have an exit strategy. But let’s not dwell too much on that right now.
Leicester City – away – was now primed for my first Chelsea game in three weeks.
I set the alarm for 5.45am. Many others throughout the Chelsea Nation had equally early starts. All over Facebook, two words dominated.
The idea was to collect PD at 7.30m, then Parks, and arrive at our usual spot just off Saffron Lane to the south of the King Power Stadium at around 11am.
Obviously I had not seen the two lads for a while. Like me, PD had succumbed to a mild variant of COVID since Newcastle. Parky had experienced a more painful COVID not long after Belfast and was still suffering, a little, from long COVID.
Sadly, Parky had lost his ninety-three-year-old mother last Monday. As I picked him up at 8am, we both shook his hand and offered him words of comfort.
Outside, there was drizzle in the air.
At Melksham, a breakfast, and then the drive straight up the Fosse Way to the middle of England. Although the roads were fringed with autumn colours, there was a grey murkiness outside. The Fosse Way remains my favourite road for an away game, though not on this occasion.
Although this would be my first Chelsea game for three weeks, I was suffering a little with a general malaise. Whether this was born out of my recent COVID attack – a re-focussing on priorities, maybe – I am not sure. In a nutshell, I was not as fired-up as I ought to have been. I just hoped that this feeling would turn out to be a little blip in my love of the game, of Chelsea, of this lifestyle.
I am fifty-six. I have seen over 1,300 Chelsea games. “We’ve won it all” (no, we haven’t). We won the European Cup last May in what turned out to be an emotionally-distanced cake-walk. That experience alone caused my brain to fry.
Clearly I am still struggling to get my pre-lockdown levels of passion, involvement, fanaticism – call it what you will – back.
I guess I am allowed the occasional off-day.
As I ate up the miles I was reminded of a drive up the Fosse Way, with my parents in early 1983, which was surely my most pointless journey ever. I was taking my “A Levels” in the June of that year and had applied to a few colleges, including Sheffield Polytechnic. As part of the process, I had to attend an interview up in South Yorkshire. The problem was that I was miss-firing in all three subjects and I was convinced that I wouldn’t get the necessary grades for a degree course in geography, nor did I particularly want to spend three years in Yorkshire should a miracle happen. The journey took forever. It was a bitterly cold day. The countryside was covered in the remnants of a snowfall. My poor Dad had taken a day off work to ferry me north. I hated every minute of the entire day.
What a waste of a day.
For the record; yeah, I did bomb my “A levels” but took them again in the November with a much better set of results.
1982/83 and 1983/84 were vastly different years for both myself and Chelsea Football Club.
I was parked up in Leicester at 11.05am and there would normally follow a trite remark from me about working in logistics.
I’m not one to disappoint.
It had been a mild start to the day in deepest Somerset, despite the drizzle, but things were a little colder in The Midlands. Not to worry, the fifteen-minute walk north warmed us a little and brought some colour to our cheeks. An elderly Leicester fan spoke to us for a few minutes.
“Chilwell is doing well, ain’t he? I didn’t rate him here.”
We were all soon inside the larger-than-usual concourse underneath the away stand. I spoke to a few friends and was happy to pass on the good news about my recent ill-health. I was getting back into the groove, step by step, fist bump by fist bump, handshake by handshake, smile by smile.
“Leicester away. What else yer gonna do on a Saturday?” or something like that.
We had far from great seats, sadly. Right in the corner, third row, even behind the goal line. One hundred and eighty degrees around the bowl of the stadium my friend Sally – former logistics colleague, I am sure her timings were bang on – was sat in the front row of The Kop, but in the corner too.
I expected a tight game. But hoped for a win.
“Absolute top pre-match analysis, that pal…fucksake.”
Romelu Lukaku was still unable to re-join the fold, but our starting eleven wasn’t half bad.
Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah
Chilweel – Kante – Jorginho – James
Hudson-Odoi – Havertz – Mount
The teams entered the pitch on the far side. Our away kit of yellow-black-yellow was to make an appearance for the first time this season. I found it amazing that the club had decided not to parade it previously; it is not unknown for an away kit to be worn even when there isn’t a clash in colours. As the players lined-up, I spotted the geometric shapes from the blue kit monstrosity mirrored in a chest panel on some black tracksuit tops.
“Now that’s not bad. That I can warm to. Everything in moderation. Less is more.”
Only the previous evening, I had watched a BBC programme about Bridget Rily, a leading light in the Op Art movement in the ‘sixties, and I was – naturally – reminded of the abomination that has currently happened to our home kit, shudder.
Generally speaking, I appreciated the paintings of Op Art – I think all of us at Frome College dabbled in geometric shapes during our art class in 1978/79, “another crap season” – but what place does it have on a fucking football shirt?
Eh? Tell me.
As I watched on Friday, I had stumbled upon with a far more agreeable design. If – and I mean if – an homage to Op Art was of absolute necessity, then why not a simple panel of Zigger Zagger mayhem, but everything else plain? Certainly the shorts needed to remain plain.
Whoever ordained the geometric pattern on the home shorts needs shooting.
So, lo and behold, the panel of slip-sliding squares (the kitchen floor after a night of excessive alcoholic intoxication?) on the plain black top not only met with my approval but had me wondering if I was absolutely in the wrong job.
The game began, and Borussia Dortmund attacked Sally and The Kop.
Despite an early start, the away choir had clearly been on it. Alcohol-inspired community singing rang out from the 3,300 in the expansive away corner; the seats go a long way back at Leicester. There was a little jabbing from both sets of supporters, with our left-back a natural target for the home fans, but then an uppercut onto the chin of the home fans :
“Ben Chilwell’s won a European Cup.”
We began ever so brightly.
And, yeah, the away kit looks fine. Not particularly “Chelsea” but that doesn’t seem to matter one iota these days.
The first chance arose when Jorginho took a quick free-kick from the middle of the pitch. The perfectly-flighted ball out to the left hand side of the penalty box was met by that man Chilwell. A touch to control, but the shot smashed against the top of the cross bar.
“Alonso would’ve volleyed that.”
It was end-to-end stuff in the first ten minutes, with a couple of lightning quick Leicester raids causing us concern, but we were equally strong in our attacking third.
Just on the quarter of an hour, we won a corner in front of Sally on our right.
Alan : “Get your camera out. Rudiger likes corners up here.”
I smiled. Indeed he does. Only on the drive up, we remembered his two headers here in 2020, just before lockdown struck. No surprises that none of us could remember the result up here in 2020/21.
“If a tree falls in a forest, but nobody sees it fall, does it make a sound?”
My camera was poised.
A Chilwell corner. On the money. A leap from Rudi. Click. I watched the ball drop into the net.
We were back, I was back, Rudi was back, Alan was beaming and so was I.
“That’s going in your blog.”
Ha, what joy.
Alan : “They’ll have to come at us naaaa.”
Chris : “ Come on my little diamonds.”
I was genuinely worried about this one. The Cup Final had been on my mind. But here we were a goal up already.
I found it odd that during the Chelsea choir’s early chants, the home fans did not respond with one song about the game in May.
“Did it mean nothing to you?”
The hero of that game, Kasper Schmeichel, made a super save from the unlikely boot of N’Golo Kante.
We were rampant.
Callum was clipped just as he was about to ping a shot on goal after cutting in from the left, and Mason Mount dipped the resulting free-kick over the wall but over the bar too.
A rare Leicester attack, and a tap in from Ademola Lookman, but the linesman’s yellow flag soon went up.
I looked over to the Chelsea section next to the home fans. In front, tied to the rails was a flag from Zurich and two from Bulgaria. My good friend Orlin, one of the strong Bulgaria contingent, had called by to say “hi” before the game. I last saw him in Porto, ah Porto. But I also spotted Jonesy, from nearby Nuneaton, in that section too. Over the course of the game, I spotted not only Jonesy, but Andy and Sophie – Porto, ditto – and also The Youth, Neil, Jokka and Chopper, all Nuneaton Chelsea. Good work everyone.
Leicester were nibbling away at us in the first part of the game, but the referee resolutely avoided bookings.
I liked the look of Jorginho, pushing the ball on as quickly as he could. Right from the off, Thiago Silva looked so cool, so calm, and his class immediately shone. Our passing was quicker and more incisive than is often the case. Our cross-field switches were inch-perfect. Havertz looked lively, Callum too. We were simply on top, in control, playing some gorgeous stuff.
Just before the half-hour mark, the ball was won on our right and pushed inside to Kante. He was allowed so much space and so simply did what anyone would; he advanced, and advanced, and advanced.
I watched as he took a swipe at the ball with his left foot. I’ll be honest, I did not immediately react. I – for some reason – thought the ball had drifted past the post and hit a supporting stanchion. But no, the roars of the away fans told me that he had hit the target.
I spoke to Gal : “Best we have played all season.”
We eased off a little as the break approached, but the singing certainly didn’t. Nobody can accuse us lot of only singing one song.
So many positive comments at the break. Lovely.
Brendan Rodgers made two substitutions at the break, and on came Maddison and Iheanacho. Edouard Mendy, not needed for most of the first-half, made a low save from Maddison, but the Chelsea attack were soon causing problems again. Hudson-Odoi did well and squirmed into the box before setting up Chilwell. Schmeichel made a magnificent save.
On the hour, Callum shaped well but curled one over the bar.
A double substitution from our manager.
Hakim Ziyech for Mount, Christian Pulisic for Havertz.
Mason had been one of our quietest performers I thought. Havertz had impressed. I was a little cautious.
…”mmm, two key players…the game ain’t won yet.”
The home team became a little stronger, and we had to rely on another stunning leap and save from our ‘keeper to foil a rising drive from Daniel Amartey. The home team dominated for a short period, but we were always a threat. The substitute Pulisic looked lively and went close from fellow substitute Ziyech’s cross. Both subs looked keen, looked energised, what do I know about football?
On seventy-one minutes, a wonderful quick break, with Leicester scampering around us, found Ziyech down in front of us on the right. A deft movement past a defender and the ball was played into space. Pulisic arrived with perfect timing and prodded the ball in.
3-0, game over.
Sadly, Jorginho was injured – replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, what a bench – and as he walked past us in the north-west corner, he was serenaded by all.
“That’s the World Footballer Of The Year, there, Gal.”
Those sorry days of Sarri are well behind him, and us, right?
Incredibly, we hit the back of the net on three further occasions late in the game, but the goals scored by Hudson-Odoi, Pulisic and James were all – rightly – chalked off for offside.
There was still time for another cracking save from our man Mendy.
I have commented of late that, despite our fine run of results, we seem to be several steps away from our potential. Well, this game hinted at that level. It reminded me of a game at Fulham in November 2004 when everything clicked and we began to seriously think about a league title.
It was a decent drive home, and we were cheered – to the point of laughter – at Manchester United’s 4-1 defeat at Watford.
Good old Claudio, eh? Loved at Chelsea, loved at Leicester and maybe Watford too.
We have a busy week ahead.
Juventus and Manchester United.
Do they get any bigger?
I will see some of you there.
Valerie Jayne Crespin : 24 April 1929 to 15 November 2021.
One weekend. One game on Saturday. One game on Sunday. An FA Cup game on Saturday. A Premier League game on Sunday. Two local derbies. One in Somerset. One in London. One four miles away. One a hundred and fifteen miles away.
Football was back.
This was my first footballing double-header in ages, and one which I was – of course – relishing. At work on the Friday, I could hardly believe my own ears as I repeatedly told colleagues that I really fancied us – “us” as in Chelsea, not Frome Town – to do really well at The Emirates and I genuinely meant it. Whisper it, but I even told a couple that I half-expected us to pump a fair few goals into Arsenal. This sort of over-confidence is rare, especially before an away game and especially at a ground where we haven’t always had it our own way in recent times.
It was with a beautiful feeling that I woke on Saturday morning with a near perfect football weekend ahead of me.
First up, a Frome Town vs. Paulton Rovers FA Cup Preliminary Round game. Last weekend, while I was at Chelsea, a local company sponsored the town’s league opener at home to Highworth Town by giving away free tickets to anybody who fancied it. A fantastic crowd of 867 duly attended; it was the fifth highest league crowd in Frome Town’s one hundred and seventeen year history and I was a little annoyed that I could not be part of it. A 1-0 win followed. I had arranged to meet up with a couple of old school friends for the FA Cup game against the local rivals from Paulton. We were treated to a very entertaining game of football. Frome went ahead with a sublime volley from Rex Mannings early in the game. Yet Paulton moved the ball well and came back into the match with a virtual carbon copy of Marcos Alonso’s sublime free-kick against Palace last weekend. The only difference was that the Frome ‘keeper made an effort to save it. Frome then dug in, and found a new resilience to win the game with two late goals from Jon Davies and James Ollis. The gate was a healthy 398. I even bumped into Glenn at the final whistle; he had strolled in late on after seeing another game across the road.
“See you tomorrow at ten.”
“Tomorrow” duly arrived. I collected PD and Glenn in Frome and set off for London. Unfortunately, Parky had contracted COVID19, quite possibly while at Stamford Bridge the previous weekend, and so was unable to attend. It was Glenn who picked up his ticket. I saw Parky briefly – at distance – during the week to collect the match ticket and the old soldier had been hit hard. But he was improving slightly as the week passed. I had both a Lateral Flow and a PCR Test early in the week; both negative, I was fine.
We were parked up at Barons Court tube station in West London at around 12.30pm. The classic green-tiled interior of the booking hall welcomed us. We always park here for Chelsea away games as its just off the A4. I remarked to PD that we didn’t always have great memories of walking up those steps after away games at West Ham, Arsenal and Tottenham. But I was still supremely confident. And it didn’t even worry me, which was worrying in itself.
Was this just because the returning hero Romelu Lukaku was set to play his first game for Chelsea since his move back to SW6 from Inter? Yes and no. We are already a decent team, but his presence should round off the team very nicely. It would, hopefully, banish the nerds into blathering on about “false nines” into the wilderness for a few seasons too. Bonus.
I saw Lukaku play a handful of times – four starts plus a handful of substitute appearances – in his first spell with the club. His last appearance was as a substitute against Aston Villa on a midweek game in early 2013/14. I chose just one photo to accompany that match report, as was my way in those days (it was in fact the first-ever fresh match report on this site) and it was of him, shielding the ball below me.
I last got up-close and personal with him three weeks later before a league game at Goodison Park. I happened to be outside the main entrance as he arrived in his car after going on loan at the club and I shook his hand and said “have a great season here, then come back to us next season, God bless you.”
He must have misunderstood my sense of urgency.
The three of us joined up with Alan, Gary and Daryl in “The Euston Flyer” not far from St. Pancras. I was gasping so treated myself to one refreshing “Peroni” before getting back onto some “Diet Pepsi”. I felt a bit awkward admitting to the lads that I fancied us strongly later in the day. It was, no doubt, a most un-Chelseaesque feeling. The Southampton versus Manchester United game was on TV. A huge cheer met the Saints’ goal, a lesser cheer for the equaliser. It was Glenn’s first meeting with the three lads from London since Everton at home in March of last year. There were a few Chelsea faces that I recognised in the boozer, conveniently placed before the short hop up to The Emirates.
I wanted to visit Highbury and take a few photos of the old Arsenal Stadium, so excused myself and left at around 3.15pm. Alas, this didn’t go to plan.
I alighted at Highbury & Islington tube and walked up the Holloway Road, but instead of diverting towards Highbury I made the mistake of heading towards The Emirates first – like a moth to a flame – which was a bit silly really. I was soon entrenched in a line at the slope behind the Clock End entrance and soon realised that to visit Highbury, I would have to go back out and then return again, and I wasn’t keen on two security checks.
“Maybe next time.”
We were kept waiting for twenty minutes. I didn’t particularly enjoy being among the replica-kitted Arsenal fans, but I kept quiet and waited in turn for a security pat down. Unlike Chelsea, there was no COVID19 passport check required and, after getting a body check with a scanner, I avoided eye-contact with the team at the “bag check” tables behind and waltzed in through.
Outside The Emirates, as it curves towards the away turnstiles, I could not help but notice that the signage on the stadium wall now looks really faded. Everything is a light pink and not a strong red. Those images of the interlinked Arsenal players seemed lacklustre. It was as if the Arsenal shirts had been washed in the wrong type of detergent. Inside the stadium, even the famously padded seats looked faded too.
The faded glory of a once proud club?
I hoped so.
Of course hardly anyone was wearing face coverings. On the London Underground, a good 95% of passengers were wearing masks. At the football, it was less than 5%.
I looked out at the undulating top tier and the middle tiers awaiting to be filled, then the gentle slope of the bottom tier and wondered about the safety of it all. Was The Emirates a giant petri dish in disguise? How safe were we? Only time would tell.
I bumped into loads and loads. This was the first proper domestic away since Bournemouth in February 2020. Everyone was greeting each other like long lost friends, which is of course exactly what we all were.
I was down in row six, in line with the six-yard box alongside PD, Gary and Alan. This was my fifteenth visit to The Emirates; I have seen every one of our league appearances at the new place, excepting the 2020/21 fixture of course. It must hurt many of those who, unlike me, never miss a game, to have their records blown to smithereens the past year and a half.
Damn you COVID.
We had heard that many Arsenal tickets had not been sold. There were gaps, but not swathes.
The rain that had been expected was thankfully nowhere to be seen. All three of us had left rain jackets in the car.
Our team was announced and it did not surprise me to see Lukaku in and Timo Werner out. A few raised eyebrows at Marcos Alonso in, though.
Antonio – Andreas – Dave
Marcos – Jorgi – Mateo – Reece
Kai – Romelu – Mase
Happy with that. Kante on the bench.
Arsenal’s team consisted of a few names that, due to my abandonment of TV football in 2020/21 could easily have been the names of TV repairmen, taxi drivers and hair-dressers. I fucking hoped that they would be playing like them too.
Pre-match, a few Chelsea warm ups from the terrace to get the vocal chords warmed up. Nothing from Arsenal.
Arsenal in an apparent nod to their 1998/99 kit – but looking a little too “Ajax” for my liking – and Chelsea in their Charlie Cairoli hand-me-downs of all blue.
Arsenal, as always, attacked the Clock End in the first-half and were first out of the traps but a shot from Emile Smith-Rowe, the chartered accountant, was easily dealt with by our man Mendy.
Sadly, the gentle rake of the lower tier and the fact that I am a proud short-arse meant that my view of the game was not great at all. I hardly saw any of the action down our right. I saw a lot of the backs of heads, but bugger all else. Only when the ball was in the other two-thirds of the pitch did I see enough. I felt a bit disjointed. At least the rain was holding off.
On a quarter of an hour, the ball was played into Lukaku who touched the ball back to Mateo Kovacic. He then spread the ball out to Reece James and we sensed danger. All eyes were on the wide man, but I suspect that the viewing millions at home were more likely tuned to the run into the box of Lukaku. The ball was played into the six-yard box to perfection and, amidst a bewildered group of window dressers, sous chefs and car mechanics, Lukaku struck.
One-nil to the European Champions.
Alan : “they’ll have to come at us now.”
Chris : “come on my little diamonds.”
The Chelsea crowd went berserk. Unable to focus on the celebrating players, I turned the camera on us. One image is of a beautiful gurning, exhilarated, beatific, orgasmic mess of humanity.
Ah, the joy of football.
It was back.
With no Chelsea goals in his first period with us, it was our new target man’s first Chelsea goal.
It is not known what Mateja Kezman nor Fernando Torres were thinking at that exact moment in time.
A header from Lukaku dropped over the bar.
Up the other end, the dance trio Xhaka, Saka and Lokonga combined but Mendy was not troubled.
We were dominating the game and the home fans knew it. The little group next to the away contingent behind the goal were trying to make some noise, but only when a ball was pushed through for the cycle courier to race on did the home crowd make any sustainable racket. Kieran Tierney in front of me seemed to have a lot of the ball but our defence was well marshalled. Efforts on our goal were at a minimum.
On thirty-four minutes, a magnificent move that started on our left but finished on our right, with Reece James free and in space and able to crash the ball past chat show host Leno.
The Chelsea 2 The Arsenal 0.
I had silly visions of 3-0, 4-0, 5-0.
At that stage it did look possible.
Sadly, in the last ten minutes of the half, the heavens opened. We remained in place, in defiance of the weather. I just had a T-shirt on. I tucked my camera away. I remained stood, and prayed for a respite.
James tangled with Saka. No penalty.
We were playing so well.
But the clouds were darkening overhead and Arsenal’s supporters must have been immersed in the gloom.
“Champions of Europe. We know what we are.”
The rain continued to fall throughout the half-time break and at the start of the second-half. We grimly stood on duty, and at least we were buoyed by a sterling performance from our team. The two goal scorers under Chelsea on the scoreboard were matched by two bookings for Arsenal.
“And when we win the league again, we’ll sing this song all night.”
A fine strike from Saka was tipped over by Mendy. It was his first real test. Were Arsenal equipped for a comeback? They only occasionally hinted that it might be possible.
Lukaku played the ball back to Mason but his shot was dragged wide.
On the hour, head tennis in our box and Holding the sixth-form tuck shop supervisor headed over, though I only saw it on the replay.
A third Arsenal booking, a swipe at the marauding Lukaku.
The rain stopped.
Kante for Kovacic.
The entire Arsenal support : “Fackinell.”
With a quarter of an hour to play, Mount slipped the ball in to a central Lukaku. It was a perfect ball. The striker headed at goal but Leno adjusted so well to tip the ball onto the bar.
A third goal would not have flattered us.
Ziyech for Mount.
Havertz went close.
“The silky German is just what we need. He won Chelsea the Champions League.”
Werner for Havertz.
We saw the game out. Arsenal just missed a cutting edge. They hardly created anything of note. Our lads were excellent and my positive pre-match thoughts were justified. I really enjoyed the physicality of Lukaku. The modern game seems to be drifting inexorably to a “non-contact” sport so there is something gratifying, something that stirs the senses and galvanises emotion, about a good old-fashioned one-on-one battle. It used to happen in midfield in days gone by. Now it tends to be a very rare event. Shades of Drogba and Costa? Oh yes.
We said our goodbyes, and the three from Frome slowly wandered down the Holloway Road before diving into our usual Chinese for a bite to eat.
The drive home was blissful. It was a joy to be back on the road after such a lovely away day.
I pulled in to my drive at just after 10.45pm, and saw the very last of Ian Wright – I think – and his damning assessment of Arsenal’s woes on “MOTD2.”
Next up, another cracking away game.
Liverpool away. Ah, these away days are the best. The absolute best.
Herbert And Some Herberts.
Storm Clouds Above.
The Clock End.
Marcos In The Rain.
A Shot Saved.
Late on Sunday night, I cheekily posted on “Facebook” :
“Catch Us If You Can.”
side note : sadly, the petri dish at Arsenal yielded two further victims to COVID19. Two of my featured pals succumbed to the virus since Sunday and another has lost his voice. I have taken a Lateral Flow Test, and await the result of a PCR too.
I don’t think it is too far-fetched to say that there have been few games – few occasions, few spectacles – in the history of Stamford Bridge that have matched our game against Crystal Palace on Saturday 14 August 2021. Sure, the first league games back at the old ground after the Great War and the Second World War must have been emotional affairs. And let’s not forget the gate of more than 100,000 against Moscow Dynamo in 1945 that unofficially signalled the start of a return to football in peaceful times. But this one was different. Everton at home in the early spring of 2020 seemed so distant and never in the history of English football has there ever been such a period of uncertainty and sadness.
Coming not long after my operation in October of last year, the twin games against Leeds United and Krasnodar were out of the question for me in my high-risk state. And I wasn’t really tempted by the home game against Leicester City in May either; I know that many were, and those that went thoroughly enjoyed it. But I wanted my first game back at HQ to be alongside all of my mates, all of my pals, and in a full house. Back with a vengeance, back to normality, back to life.
I returned from Belfast late on the Thursday and battled fatigue in my one day at work – Friday the thirteenth seemed wholly appropriate – but when I woke on Saturday morning, Belfast was still dominating my every thought. It felt as though it hadn’t worked its way out of my system just yet. Belfast was Chelsea game number 1,300 for me and I secretly wished that game number 1,301 wasn’t until the Sunday.
But beggars can’t be choosers, and a Saturday game it was.
I awoke at 6am, ahead of the alarm.
My first task of the new league season was to fill up the fuel tank of my car in a nearby village. As I walked into the shop to pay, I easily spotted a woman who I went to school with as a child. She was – if I am not mistaken – the first girl to ever give me a kiss, possibly when I was around seven years of age, and – again if my memory serves me correctly – this momentous occasion took place on the village recreation ground, in the long grass, no more than a quarter of a mile from where I am typing these notes. I see her around occasionally. I am sure she has forgotten all about me and I can’t say I blame her. The petrol station was, ironically, in the village of my first-ever girlfriend – summer 1982, aged seventeen – and as I set off on the trip to London I smirked about these romantic incursions into the day of me reacquainting myself with the love of my life.
I collected P-Diddy at 7.30am and I collected L-Parky at 8am.
Up the A303, into London, parked up near Queen’s Club at 10.15am.
For those regular readers, my pre-match routine for the opening league game of 2021/22 followed a familiar pattern. We started at “The Eight Bells” at the bottom end of the Fulham Road – Dave from Northamptonshire and Deano from Lancashire soon joined us – before we all decamped to “Simmon’s” at the bottom of the North End Road to join forces with Alan, Gary, Daryl, Ed, Andy and Sophie.
It was the first time that I had seen Alan since that Everton game nigh-on eighteen months ago. I sat alongside him and it felt so good.
On the walk to the second of the two pubs, I had briefly called by the CFCUK stall to say a few words to Marco. On that fateful day in October – with me in the emergency ward at a hospital in Bath – it was Marco, himself having recently suffered heart problems, that kept me going with a series of text messages. We shook each other’s hands and wished each other well. It was super to see him.
I am not going to comment every week on the clown’s clothing that Chelsea Football Club has decided to dress players in this season, but on the walk to the ground it did dawn on me that the 2020/21 shirt – the one that we wore in Porto – was hardly a Chelsea royal blue at all. It just seemed darker than it should be and rather muted with no vibrancy. It never really dawned on me before. I hardly saw anyone wearing this shirt in my home area this past season, and I don’t think I really noticed it in Porto, but it really jarred when I saw it on this particular day.
Maybe next year, we’ll get a clean and crisp royal blue shirt.
Don’t hold your breath.
As far as I could see, nothing had changed too much along the walk to Stamford Bridge, and I noticed that most fans were not wearing face-coverings outside the stadium. My bag was checked, I bumped into a few friends, my COVID19 passport was inspected outside the Matthew Harding and I joined that oh-so familiar queue before using a new style ticket-scanning machine and then…pause for effect…through the turnstiles…click, click, click…and I was in.
I ascended the six flights of stairs to the MHU, keeping to the left – my superstition – as always.
Inside the stand. I was home.
Greeting me was Clive, who has taken Glenn’s season ticket.
Glenn finally decided to give it up after twenty-four seasons. But Glenn hasn’t given up completely; he will still go to a game every month or so, depending upon his working patterns and availability of tickets. I have known Clive since around 2003, so he is a familiar face. I last saw him at a New Order gig in Bristol in July 2019.
With the new rail seating in The Shed, everything looked bluer.
I spent a few minutes or more chatting to various folk in The Sleepy Hollow who I had obviously missed the previous year and a half. Albert, who sits directly in front of me, shared an opinion which had great resonance with me. He too has been a ST holder since 1997.
“This football club has been a massive part of my life. But last season, I didn’t really care. Sometimes I’d be watching us play on TV and I would switch channels at half-time but instead of watching our game again, I’d continue to watch the new programme.”
I knew exactly what he meant.
I knew of many season ticket holders who hardly watched us on TV.
It just wasn’t the same.
The teams were announced.
No Romelu Lukaku. Not yet.
Chalobah – Christensen – Rudiger
Dave – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso
Mount – Werner – Pulisic
“Park Life” sounded on the PA. There were no crowd-surfing banners due to COVID19. The players, Chelsea in blue, Crystal Palace in Villareal yellow, entered the pitch but instead of walking over to the West Stand – a Chelsea trademark that I have grown to love – they stood on this occasion in front of the East Stand.
And then the two teams linked arms and stood on the centre circle. We were asked to silently remember those who had lost their lives during the global pandemic. On the TV screen around twenty-five names were listed, in groups of four, of Chelsea supporters who had passed away. At the end, a fleeting phrase flickered onto the screen and then faded as quickly as it had appeared.
One of the Chelsea supporters was Scott La Pointe. I first met Scott in Charlotte in North Carolina in 2015 when, along with his wife and two children, they joined in with some lovely pre and post-match socialising around the game with PSG. His young son Alex memorably entertained the troops with his endearing version of “Zigger Zagger”. It was clear that Scott was a family man who dearly loved both his family and Chelsea. I met up with them all, and many other from the Detroit supporters group of which Scott was a proud member, at Ann Arbor in Michigan the following summer. The game against Real Madrid – to this day the largest official crowd at any Chelsea game anywhere – must have been so special for Scott’s family. It was like a home game for them all. Sadly, not so long after this game, Scott was diagnosed with ALS / Motor Neurone Disease. Scott battled the disease with great strength and great dignity. This was painful for me since one of my Godparents, my uncle Gerald, died from the same disease in around 1988. Scott held out for Christmas 2020 and – amazingly – for the 2021 European Cup Final in Porto too. He watched from his bed in his house in the Detroit suburbs. I often messaged him on Facebook. His last message to me was on the day after the final.
“I really didn’t think I would be here to see yesterday’s match. I can’t tell you how excited I was for them to win. I love your pictures that you posted. Every time the camera went to the crowd, Jamie and I were looking for you. Cheers my friend!”
Scott sadly passed away not long after his forty-third birthday.
He will live on in the memory of all those who knew him.
He was loved by all.
Scott La Pointe : 6 June 1978 to 22 June 2021.
There were a few empty seats dotted about, but not many. The immediate build-up to the game against Patrick Viera’s Crystal Palace was somewhat overshadowed by the very late announcement that some season ticket-holders would not be able to watch from their usual seat in the MHL due to delays in the rail seating. The club must have known there was going to be a risk of this when they sold all other available seats. Surely they should have kept some to one side just in case.
Insert a comment about Chelsea being a well-run football club here :
Before the game began, we heard that Manchester United had walloped Leeds 5-1 at Old Trafford. My mind immediately raced back to forty years ago, opening day 1981, when Leeds lost 5-1 at newly promoted Swansea City, a result that was wildly celebrated at Stamford Bridge as I saw us beat Bolton 2-0. It was the first game that I had ever travelled to independently.
Forty bloody years ago.
Altogether now everybody : “Fackinell.”
Kudos, by the way, to our benign neighbours Brentford on their fine – very fine – 2-0 win against Arsenal the previous night. Fantastic stuff.
We began positively and absolutely dominated possession. Having not seen Palace play for much of the past eighteen months – I found myself not even bothering with “MOTD” in the latter part of last season – I hardly recognised anyone in the Palace team, which was well changed anyway from the last time I had clapped eyes on them. Former Chelsea prospect Mark Guehi took up a position in their defence. I had seen both of his appearances in our colours in the League Cup of 2019/20.
The crowd was in a boisterous and jubilant mood. The time for venom and heated passion will come against more hated rivals.
There was intelligent use of space and we always seemed to have a spare man to stretch the Palace defence. Chances for Dave and Christian Pulisic hinted at a game of goals. There was a further chance from Mateo Kovacic.
There was a succession of corners from our left with Mason Mount pumping the ball in but with mixed results.
Just as we found an attack being thwarted by a foul on Mount just outside the box, I overheard Alan and Clive in a general discussion about a few players. I memorably heard Al say “Alonso worries me” and I silently smiled as I saw the Spaniard place the ball in readiness for a shot on goal.
“Bloody hell Al, that’s tempting fate. This is Alonso territory.”
With that, I snapped as the ball was whipped up and over the wall, curving perfectly away from Vicente Guaita. I saw the spinning ball, through my lens, nestling in the goal. The ‘keeper did not bother moving.
I jumped to my feet – GET IN – and smiled at Alan.
One-nil to the European Champions.
The noise levels then hit stratospheric levels.
On my feet – “Champions Of Europe. We Know What We Are.”
We were back.
And this was perfect Chelsea weather. Memories of opening day wins in recent years against too many teams to mention.
We seemed to be missing an aerial threat in the Palace box, but no doubt the returning Lukaku would remedy that ailment.
A free-kick from Mason hit the wall, but we extended our lead just before the break. A fine move, with Dave setting up Mount with a fine return pass, which lead to the ball being sent low into the box. The ‘keeper got something on the cross but the ball fell to Pulisic, who twisted his body to prod the ball home.
Two-nil to the European Champions.
A late chance for Timo Werner hit the side-netting and we went into the break well on top. In fact, up to the point of our second goal, I could only remember one very rare Crystal Palace attack that soon fizzled out down below me in the area of the pitch that I will forever call Hazardous.
Never could I remember such a dominant first-half performance or rather such a poor opponent (edit : the first-half against Everton in 2016 was exceptional, but Everton were not so woeful as Palace, surely?)
In the back of my mind I was hoping for at least two more goals – maybe more – in the second-half. A trademark volley from Alonso went close.
I noted that – strangely – the song of the night in Belfast, the Belinda Carlisle ditty, was noticeable by its absence in the Stamford Bridge sun. Its time will come again I am sure.
A very rare attack was easily stubbed out by the Chelsea defence. They really were poor. I loved the way that the midfield pairing of Jorginho and Kovacic kept things ticking over in the middle of the park. Werner was in his usual “one step forward, two steps back” mode, looking great one minute and then mediocre the next. Pulisic twisted and turned. He needs a run of games, but I have a feeling that Tuchel is going to rotate a few players behind Lukaku this season. It will be interesting to see how Havertz develops. I really have my eye on him.
Just before the hour, the ball was played to Trevoh Chalobah. He had space to run into, and maybe buoyed by the home crowd chanting “shoooot”, he let fly with a sweet and low rocket. I managed to capture this goal too. The shot was aimed to perfection, just clipping the base of the far post before nestling inside the net.
I also caught the players hugging the excited youngster.
Joyous scenes, eh?
I remember my mate Tom, in his home city of Minneapolis for the Milan game in 2016, coming up with the “He’s Chalobah!” (as in “He fell over!”) chant for Trevoh’s brother Nathaniel.
Let’s get it going again.
I was hoping for more goals but the manager – still without a song, in truth we hardly know him – made some substitutions.
James for Dave.
Havertz for Pulisic.
Emerson for Alonso.
A rare Palace attack on goal – the only one? – from the old warhorse Christian Benteke was easily saved by our man Mendy.
The game ended 3-0.
It was a fine performance, hardly any negatives, but it was only Palace.
I’d score myself 7/10; not as overblown with emotion as others, but I did join in with a fair few songs. I think the football came second to seeing everyone again on this particular day. I am sure that football is still trying to win its way back into my heart if I am honest. But I am equally sure that this will improve with each game and I am bloody sure that I will soon be back to my March 2020 groove before long.
I just need a couple of tough away games to sort myself out and to get myself focused.
What’s that I hear you say?
Arsenal away and then Liverpool away?
OK. Let’s go. Mow those fucking meadows.
The Sleepy Hollow : Season 2021/22 – Chris, Alan, Clive, PD & Gary.
My match report for the home game against Everton in March of last year – a really fine 4-0 win – ended with a typical few words.
“Right. Aston Villa away on Saturday. See you there.”
Then, as we all know too dearly, life – and football – changed. The corona virus that had first been spoken about just after Christmas in 2019, almost in a semi-humorous way at the start, took hold and started claiming victims at an alarming rate. A global pandemic was on our hands. Very soon the United Kingdom was placed in lockdown, a situation that none of us could have ever envisioned witnessing in person during our lives.
Suddenly and without too much thought, football seemed of little real relevance to me.
The trials and tribulations of Chelsea Football Club in particular seemed small compared to the news appearing on my TV screen, on my phone and laptop. As friends found their own way of coping with the surreal nature of lock down, and then being furloughed from work, I quickly realised that football, Chelsea in particular, was way down my list of priorities.
I simply had other, more serious, issues to deal with. And this is how my thought process, my coping mechanism, remained for weeks and weeks. While others pushed for football to return I simply asked myself :
It was irrelevant, for me, to concern myself with millionaires playing football.
Eventually after a prolonged break, when the football season began again in the middle of June, I had become emotionally distanced from the sport and from Chelsea too. I had simply turned inwards, as did many; working from home, travelling as little as I could manage and trying not to impact – socially – on the outside world. I joked that I had been practising for this moment my entire life. Earlier in my life, I was the ultimate shy boy.
But the noisemakers in the game and the media were adamant that it would be a major moral boost for the nation to see football return.
It just didn’t sit well with me, this notion of football to be seen as the great saviour. Other priorities seemed to overshadow it. I just could not correlate what I was hearing in the media about football and what I was feeling inside.
I will not lie, I absolutely hated watching the games on TV, with no fans, in silence, and I became more and more distanced from the sport that I had loved with each passing game. I watched almost with a sense of duty, nothing more. What had been my lifeblood – to an almost ridiculous level some might say, and with some justification – just seemed sterile and distant. I have very few memories of those games in the summer.
The FA Cup Final seemed particularly difficult to watch. On a hot day in August, I mowed the lawn, and even did some work in my home office for an hour or two, and then sat alone to see us score an early Christian Pulisic goal but then be over-run by a revitalised Arsenal team. That result hurt of course, and I was annoyed how some decisions went against us. The sad injury to Pedro – a fine player for us over five years – in the last kick of the game seemed to sum up our horrible misfortune that day. However, and I know this sounds funny and odd, but I was pleased that I was hurting. That I still cared.
But by the evening, the loss was glossed over.
Football still didn’t seem too important to me.
The one positive for me, and one which combines my own particular brand of OCD – Obsessive Chelsea Disorder – married with a possible smidgeon of shallowness, was the fact that I didn’t have to delete the games I had witnessed in 2019/20 from both my games spreadsheet and – gulp – this blog site.
A small victory for me, and I needed it.
Off the field, work was becoming particularly stressful for me. In August I came oh-so close to handing in my notice. The workload was piling up, I was battling away, and I was getting some worrying chest pains again.
In mid-September, the new season began and I openly hoped for a new approach from me. There was nothing up in the air here; we knew games would be played behind closed doors, we knew the score from the start. I renewed my NOWTV package to allow me to see most of our games. We began the league campaign at Brighton. For some reason, I didn’t see the game, I can’t remember why not. The first match I witnessed on TV was the home defeat to Liverpool.
It was no good. I could not deny it. I was as distanced as ever. The hold that Chelsea Football Club had on me for decades was under threat.
Conversely – at last some fucking positivity – as soon as my local team Frome Town started playing friendlies and then league games, I was in football heaven. I especially remember a fantastic pre-season friendly against Yeovil Town two days before Chelsea’s game at Brighton. A warm Thursday evening and a capacity 400 attendance, a fine game with friends, just magnificent. In September and October, I attended many a Frome Town game including aways at Mangotsfield United in Bristol – it felt so good to be back home in my living room uploading photos just an hour after the game had finished, a real positive – and on a wet night in Bideford in North Devon. Home gates were significantly higher than the previous season. There was a magnificent sense of community at the club. There had even been a tremendous crowd-funder to raise £25,000 in April to keep the club going. We even had a little FA Trophy run – before being expelled for refusing to play an away tie in an area with a high infection rate. Soon after, the club’s records for a second successive season were expunged and that early season flourish was put on hold until 2021/22.
But for a month, I was felling inexorably closer to Frome Town than to Chelsea. It seemed that my entire world was turning in on myself.
Was the world changing?
On Saturday 10 October it certainly did. For the second time in a few days I experienced chest pains. There had been a similar attack in my bed and breakfast in Bideford on Thursday morning. That drive home was horrible. I wanted to be brave enough to phone for a doctor. On the Saturday, I knew I had to act. I phoned the emergency services and – to cut a very long story to a quick few lines – I was whisked into a local hospital in Bath. On the Sunday, I was told that I had suffered a mild heart attack, and on Monday I underwent an operation to have two stents fitted into my heart. My Tuesday afternoon, I was home again.
I remained off work for five weeks, and slowly returned in stages. A half-day here, a half-day there. I remained calm throughout these weeks. I knew, deep down, that something had been wrong but being a typical bloke, decided to let things slide and hope for the best. Since then, I have improved my lifestyle; decaffeinated coffee – boo! – and healthier food, more exercise and all of the associated improvements that go with it.
With all this going on, Chelsea seemed even more remote. I was momentarily cheered when fans were allowed back inside Stamford Bridge, and that for a few hours we were top of the table after Leeds United were despatched. For a fleeting moment, it seemed that Frank Lampard, who had teased a very creditable fourth place finish in July out of his youngsters, was now able to similarly nurture his new signings too. But there had been failings in 2020/21 too. Our defence was at times calamitous. But I was solidly behind Frank all of the way. I really felt for him. Back in March, with Billy Gilmour the new star, we had enjoyed quite wonderful wins over Liverpool and Everton. There was positivity, hope and the future looked utterly pleasing.
Then the pandemic struck. Damn you COVID19.
In December and early January our form dipped alarmingly. I watched Frank’s interviews through my fingers. It was not pleasant viewing. It saddened me that so many rank and file Chelsea supporters, across all demographics – from old school fans in England to younger ones abroad – had seen fit to kindly forget the “I don’t care if we finish mid-table for a couple of seasons, let’s build a future with our youngsters” mantra in August 2019.
It got to the stage where I didn’t want Chelsea to simply win games but to simply win games for Frank.
I had returned full-time to work in mid-January. To their credit my employer has been first rate throughout my ordeal. While I was in the office on a day in late January, it was sadly announced that Frank Lampard had been sacked. I was numbed yet not at all surprised. I firstly hated the decision for reasons that are probably not difficult to guess. So much for long termism, eh Chelsea?
My interest in the exploits of Chelsea Football Club probably reached an all-term low. Or at least since the relegation season of 1978/79 when we were shocking throughout and I was being pulled away from football with a new interest in music and other teenage distractions.
A nerdy-looking chap, skeleton thin, probably a diamond with Powerpoint and with a marginally worse hairstyle than me? I wished him well but football again seemed distant.
Our form improved but the football itself seemed sterile. I was still struggling.
On a Saturday in March, I debated whether or not I had time to go off on a ten mile walk to a local village and get back in time to watch play at Elland Road. I considered binning the football in favour of my new found enjoyment of walks in the surrounding winter Somerset countryside. In the end I compromised; I went for a walk on the Sunday.
I know what I found most enjoyable.
Of late, our form has really improved. Again, I haven’t seen every game. But we look a little more coherent, defensively especially. Apart from an odd blip, to be honest, the results since the new manager took over have been sensational even if many of the ways of getting those results have lacked a certain “I know not what.”
I’m being mean. The bloke has done well. I like his self-effacing humour, his humble approach. He has started to grow in me (Parky : “like a fungus”).
Of late, our progress in the latter stages of the Champions League has been the most impressive part of our recent resurgence. And yet this competition has been haunting me all season long. In a nutshell, the thought of us reaching our third European Cup Final and – being selfish here, I know it – me not being able to attend is a nightmare.
(OK, not a nightmare. I know. I know 127,000 people have lost their lives due to COVID19. That is the real nightmare. I realise that. This is just football. Just football.)
I shrugged off last August’s FA Cup Final. I coped remarkably well with that. I soon decided that I could even stomach missing a second-successive one this year. But the thought of us lifting the big one for a second time and me – and others – not being there is bloody purgatory.
So, it was with a heady mix of genuine pride and impending sadness that accompanied the glorious sight of us beating a hideously poor Real Madrid side over two-legs to reach the final.
But that spectacle, or debacle, needs another chapter devoted to it. And it doesn’t seem right to talk too much about that at this time. In fact, going into the weekend I assured myself that I would not dwell too much about the 2021 European Cup Final. Let’s be honest here; the twin crushing of the hated European Super League and the farcical and immoral desire of UEFA to send 8,000 UK citizens to Portugal in the midst of a global pandemic warrants a book, a Netflix series even, all by themselves.
Let’s talk about the FA Cup.
For those readers of this blogorama who have been paying attention, I have been featuring the visit of my grandfather Ted Draper to Stamford Bridge for the 1920 FA Cup Final between Aston Villa, his team, and Huddersfield Town. This is a work of fiction since I only know that my grandfather once visited Stamford Bridge, but was never able to remember the game. Suffice to say, in the report of the home game against Liverpool last March, I continued the story.
After a break of fourteen months, a re-cap.
On Saturday 24 April 1920, on this very same site, if not this very same stadium – but certainly one which was in situ for the 1982 game, those lovely packed terraces – my grandfather stood on the great slug of the West terrace with his old school friend Ted Knapton alongside him. It was half-time, and the score between the two teams – Aston Villa, who he favoured, and Huddersfield Town – was 0-0. It had been an exhilarating game of football for my grandfather, though the spectacle of seeing fifty-thousand spectators in one sports ground had proved to be the one abiding memory that he would take away with him.
Fifty thousand people.
And virtually all were men, and so many had fought in the Great War.
My grandfather was twenty-five years old. He silently gazed out at the main stand on the far side, the open terraces behind each goal, and looked behind him at row after row of fellows in caps and hats, some with the colourful favours of the two competing teams. A claret and blue rosette here. A light blue hat there.
It struck home.
My grandfather had just that week spotted a local girl, a few years younger than him, who was beginning work in the manor house of his home village. She was a young cook, with a lovely smile, and had caught his eye.
My grandfather was a rather quiet man. He looked out at all those faces. He did not speak to his friend Ted, but he – at Stamford Bridge on Cup Final day 1920 – had decided that the stadium, indeed the whole of England was full of men, and the thought of one of them asking the young cook out before he had a chance to utter a shy “hello” ate away at him.
He had survived the Great War. He lived in a great village and now this great spectacle had stirred him in a way that he had not expected.
“You had better get your act together, Ted Draper. On Monday at lunch time, I think I will ask Blanche if she would like to accompany me to next weekend’s village dance. I can’t be second in that race.”
I was so annoyed that I could not continue this story last season. The team did their part, defeating Manchester United in a semi-final, but of course there was no Cup Final Tale in which I could tie up rather conveniently tie up the end of my 1920 story on the centenary.
Thankfully, good old Chelsea, the team defeated Manchester City in this season’s semis to enable me to continue and to honour my grandfather again.
The quality of the play down below on the surprisingly muddy Stamford Bridge pitch deteriorated throughout the second-half. But Ted Draper, along with his friend Ted Knapton, were still enthralled by the cut and thrust of the two teams. The players, wearing heavy cotton shirts, went into each tackle with thunderous tenacity. And the skill of the nimble wide players caught both of their eye.
“Ted, I wonder what the crowd figure is here today. There are a few spaces on the terracing. I suspect it would have been at full capacity if Chelsea had won their semi-final against the Villa.”
“I think you are right. What’s the capacity here? I have heard it said it can hold 100,000.”
“Trust Chelsea to mess it up.”
“Yes. Good old Chelsea.”
The crowd impressed them. But they were not too impressed with the swearing nor the quite shocking habit of some spectators to openly urinate on the cinder terraces.
“To be honest Ted, I haven’t seen any lavatories here have you?”
“I’m just glad I went in that pub before we arrived.”
The play continued on, and the crowd grew restless with the lack of goals. The programme was often studied to match the names of the players with their positions on the pitch. With no goals after ninety-minutes, there was a short break before extra-time, and more liquid cascaded down the terraces.
“Like a bloody river, Ted.”
After ten minutes of the first period of extra-time, Aston Villa broke away on a fast break and the brown leather ball held up just in time for the inside-right Billy Kirton to tuck the ball past Sandy Mutch in the Huddersfield goal. There was a mighty roar, and Ted Draper joined in.
The Aston Villa supporters standing nearby flung their hats into the crowd and many of the bonnets and caps landed on the sodden floor of the terracing.
“Buggered if I’d put those things back on my head, Ted.”
There then followed a period of back-slapping among the Villa die-hards, and Ted Draper was very pleased that his team had taken the lead. The game stayed at 1-0, with both teams tiring in the last part of the match. The crowd stayed until the end, transfixed. There was just time to see the Aston Villa captain Andy Ducat lift the silver trophy on the far side. The teams soon disappeared into the stand.
With a blink of an eye, the game was done, the day was over, and Somerset was calling.
As the two friends slowly made their way out of the Stamford Bridge stadium, Ted Knapton – who favoured no team, but had picked the Huddersfield men for this game – spoke to my grandfather.
“That goal, Ted.”
“What of it?”
“It looked offside to me.”
“Not a chance, not a chance Ted. The inside-right was a good half-inch onside.”
“Ah, you’re a bugger Ted Draper, you’re a bugger.”
On Cup Final Day 2021, I was up early, a good ninety minutes ahead of the intended 8am alarm clock. One of my first tasks was to swab my mouth and nose. Now there’s a phrase that I never ever thought that I would utter on a Cup Final morn. Part of the protocol for this game, the biggest planned event to take part in the UK since lockdown in March 2020, was that all attendees should take a lateral flow test at an official centre from 2.15pm on Thursday 13 May. I was lucky, I was able to work a late shift on the Friday and I travelled to Street for my test. The negative result soon came through by email. We also were advised, though not compulsory, to take a test at home on the morning of the game and five days after the event in order for data to be gathered. A small price to pay.
This felt odd. To be going to a game after so long. I took some stick from a few people that saw me comment that my love of football was being rekindled.
“Chelsea get to two cup finals and all of a sudden Chris Axon loves football again.”
I laughed with them.
The joy of football had been rekindled because I was now able to see a live game. There are many ways for people to get their kick out of football. By playing, by writing, by watching on TV, by refereeing, by betting, by coaching, by fantasy leagues. By I get my kick through live football.
It has been my life.
I posted the carton with the vial containing my swab at Mells Post Office just after I left home at 10.30am. I was genuinely excited for the day’s events to unfold. Outside the same post office a few days earlier, I had announced to two elderly widows of the village – Janet and Ann – that I was off to the FA Cup Final a few days earlier.
“I have missed it badly.”
They both smiled.
And I realised that this final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup represented a final tie to my childhood – I am known around the village as a Chelsea supporter – and it also represented a nod to the tie that Chelsea Football Club has on me.
But did it really represent one last chance to bring me back in from the cold?
I know that I needed something to help me regain my love of the game before my dislike of VAR, obscenely-overpaid players, ever-changing kick-off times, blood-sucking agents, the continuing indifference to game-going fans despite the limp platitudes that might suggest otherwise, the threat of the thirty-ninth game, knobhead fans, the disgraceful behaviour of UEFA and FIFA in so many aspects of their stance on so many things (I have already decided I am not watching a single second of the Qatar World Cup) all combine in one horrible mixture to turn me away even more.
I have aired all this before. As well you know.
No pressure, Chelsea.
On my way to collect Lord Parky, my sole companion on this foray back to normality, I passed near the village of Westwood. Until recently, I was unaware – as were many – that this is the final resting place of our former ‘keeper Vic Woodley. There is a group on Facebook that actively try to locate the graves of former players and on occasion headstones are purchased if there are unmarked graves. It is an admirable cause. Two Saturdays ago, I placed some blue and white flowers on the grave. Although it is open to debate, I would suggest that until 1955, Vic Woodley was our most successful player at Chelsea.
Hughie Gallacher was probably our most famous player, George Smith had played more games and George Mills had been our record goal scorer.
But Woodley had played 252 games for Chelsea and 19 for England. He was in our team for the Moscow Dynamo game in 1945 too.
I vote for Vic Woodley.
I soon passed The Barge pub, on the outskirts of Bradford on Avon where he was a landlord in later years.
We must pay a visit when normality returns.
Parky soon reminded me that he had heard of his Uncle Gerald, a Derby County fan, talk about Vic Woodley – who played thirty times for Derby before moving to Bath City – living locally when Parky was younger. Parky also recounted meeting a chap in nearby Melksham who had been at that Moscow Dynamo game just after the Second World War.
1994 And 2021.
I had collected Parky at 11am. His first task had been to replicate a photo of me setting off outside Glenn’s house in Frome before the drive to the 1994 FA Cup Final. I wanted a little comparison. Me at 28 and me at 55.
This would be my eleventh FA Cup Final that I will have attended. The twenty-eight year old me what have laughed at such a notion.
We had a lovely natter on the way up. We hardy stopped chatting. Sadly, neither Glenn nor PD could make it up but we promised to keep them in our thoughts. Our route took us towards High Wycombe before we doubled back on the M40. This was quite appropriate since a very well-known and popular supporter at Chelsea, Wycombe Stan, had recently passed away. He was well-loved by all and will be sadly missed at Chelsea. Stan has featured in these reports a few times. A smashing bloke.
RIP Wycombe Stan.
I had purchased a pre-paid parking slot for £20 only a ten-minute walk from the stadium. Traffic delays going in meant that we didn’t arrive much before 3pm, but it felt good, for once, to not have to race like fools to get in to a Cup Final. Those “last pints” on Cup Final day are legend.
The environs around modern Wembley Stadium are much different than as recently as 2007, the first final at the new place. Flats and hotels abound. It is very much a retail village first, a sporting venue second. We bumped into two Chelsea fans on the walk to the stadium. Gill B. said that the place was full of Leicester, that there were hardly any Chelsea present yet. I knew of two Leicester City season ticket holders who were attending the final and one had said that most of their fans were arriving on an armada of coaches. Gill R. wasn’t planning on meeting up with anyone, but as we turned a quiet corner, she shouted out : ”Chris!”
It was so lovely to see her. We chatted for quite a while, talking about the surreal nature of the past year, the sad departure of Frank, the whole nine yards. We both admitted we had not missed football as much as we had expected. Strange times.
At the southern end of what is now normally called “Wembley Way” – but was really called “Olympic Way” – the rather unsightly access slope has been replaced by steps, which I must admit remind me of an old style football terrace. But it is rather odd to see steps there. One supposes that crowd control has improved since the Ibrox disaster of 1971, but the straight rails, with no cross rails to stop surges, did bring a tremor to my memory banks. At least the steps do not immediately start near the stadium.
At the base of the steps, we scanned our match ticket and showed our test result email to Security Bod Number One.
We neared the turnstiles at the eastern end – not our usual one – at around 3.30pm. Hardly anyone was around. We went straight in.
Thankfully, Security Bod Number Two didn’t react negatively to the sight of my camera and lenses.
For an hour and a half – the equivalent of a match – and by far the most enjoyable ninety minutes of the day, we chatted to many friends who we had not seen for fourteen months. I was driving, of course, so was not drinking. In fact, as I never drink at home, my last alcoholic intake was way back in September. But Parky, himself almost teetotal since June, was off the leash and “enjoying” the £6 pints. I updated many friends with the latest news regarding my health. I summed it up like this :
“I’ve had a good six months.”
There had been rumours of the whole game being played under constant rain. We were low down, row three and right behind the goal. If anyone was going to get wet, we were.
It was soon 5pm. A quick dash to the loo, things have improved since 1920. Within seconds I was spotting more familiar faces and I added to the gallery.
A Chelsea Gallery.
The Cup Final hymn – Abide With Me – was sung and I sang along too. It is always so moving.
A quick look around. Most people in the lower tier. Team banners all over the south side of the top tier. A few people dotted around the middle tier and the north side of the top tier. Altogether surreal. Altogether strange. We had been gifted a Chelsea flag and a small blue bag was placed beneath the seat too. I didn’t bother to look in for a while. Time was moving on. I was starting to gear up for my first Chelsea game of the season and, possibly – only possibly – my last. Some fireworks, some announcements, the entrance of the teams. I spotted Prince William, a good man, and snapped away as he was introduced to the two teams.
“Oh bollocks. The teams. Who’s playing?”
I had been so busy chatting in the concourse that my mind had not given it a moment’s thought.
James in the middle three, Kepa in goal, Ziyech? Oh dear. I was amazed that Havertz was not playing. I was reminded last week that the young German’s first ever appearance at Wembley was in late 2016 against Tottenham. He came on as an eighty-sixth minute substitute for Bayer Leverkusen as they won 1-0. It was memorable for me too; I was there, tucked away among the Leverkusen hordes with my childhood friend Mario.
So, yes, the team.
James. Silva. Rudiger.
Dave. Kante. Jorginho. Alonso.
Mount. Werner. Ziyech.
I always say that I need a few games at the start of each season to get used to watching football again. To learn the habits, strengths and weaknesses of new players. To pace myself. To try to take it all in. Sadly, such a staggeringly low viewing position was of no use whatsoever. Everything was difficult. There was no depth. I really struggled.
And I really struggled with the latest dog’s dinner kit that the wonder kids at Nike have foisted upon us.
Does anybody like it?
To be honest, with players in motion the bizarre chequered pattern is not too discernible. It is only when players are still that the mess is fully visible. That the nasty pattern is continued onto the shorts without the merest hint of an apology makes it twice as bad. After getting it so right – sadly for one game – in 2020, the Nike folk thought that the yellow trim was obviously worth repeating.
Right. Enough of that. I’m getting depressed.
With only 12,500 fans of the competing clubs in the vastness of Wembley, it was so difficult to get an atmosphere going. For the first time in fourteen months, my vocal skills were tested. I joined in when I could. But it was all rather half-hearted.
The game began and we edged the opening spell quite easily with Mason Mount busy and involved. A couple of very early attacks down the right amounted to nothing. The rain was just about staying off.
Our loudest chant in the game thus far had been the statistically inaccurate “We’ve won it all”, a comment that Corinthians of San Paolo will note with a chuckle, as will the Saints of Southampton.
After a full quarter of an hour, an optimistic effort from Toni Rudiger flew tamely wide of the Leicester goal. A rare foray into our half saw a cross from Timothy Castagne for Jamie Vardy but Reece James blocked well. Chances were rare though. Mount advanced well but shot wide. An effort from Timo Werner replicated the curve of the arch overhead as his shot plopped into the area housing the Leicester fans.
We were clearly dominating possession but after a reasonable start we became bogged down with keeping the ball and trying to force our way in to Leicester’s well-drilled defence. I could almost hear the commentators describing the play. And it’s maybe a subtle new type of play too, possibly a side-effect of having no fans at games for over a year.
Watching on TV, and I admit I get so frustrated, I get bored to death of teams sitting back and letting teams pass in and around them. I watched some old footage from the ‘eighties recently, highlights of the 1982 and 1988 Scottish Cup Finals, and from the kick-off the teams were at each other. It was like watching a different sport. It was breathless, maybe not tactically pleasing, but it had me on edge and dreaming of another era.
Today there is just so much I can take of commentators talking about “the press, a low press, a high press, a high block, a low block, between the lines, transition, the counter, little pockets, passing channels.”
It seems that football is – even more – a sport watched by experts and critics rather than supporters. Yes, everyone seems more educated in tactics these days, but the repetition of some key phrases surely grates on me.
For the high priests of the high press, I sometimes wonder if they are even aware of how often they use this phrase during a normal match.
Players have always closed space and targeted weak spots, just as teams have in the past been happy to soak up pressure when needed. It just seems that teams do it all the time now. In every bloody game. And with no supporters in the stadium to inject some passion and intensity, I get drained watching training game after training game on TV.
A few long crosses and corners from the right did not trouble Schmeichel in the Leicester goal. His father was in the Manchester United goal in 1994. It infamously rained that day and just around the half-way mark of the first-half, the heavens opened. The omens were against us. My camera bag got drenched, my jacket was getting drenched. The blue cardboard bag from Chelsea was getting drenched.
Someone asked: “what’s in the goody bag?”
I replied “a return air ticket to Istanbul.”
Tuchel hurried back to the bench to get a blue baseball cap from his goody bag. Not sure if he had a metal badge too, though.
For twenty minutes, my photos stopped. I couldn’t risk my camera getting waterlogged. Leicester had a few rare forays towards us at the eastern end. I liked the look of Thiago Silva. Bizarrely, of course, these were my first sightings of Werner, Ziyech and Silva in a Chelsea shirt.
The rain slowed and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was in no mood for a “Burnley 2017.” Around me, the rain had dampened the fervour of our support. Leicester were beginning to be heard.
“Vichai had a dream. He bought a football team.
He came from Thailand and now he’s one of our own.
We play from the back.
And counter attack.
Champions of England. You made us sing that.”
Thankfully no mention of a high press.
The last real chance of the half, a poor-half really, fell to Caglar Soyuncu but his effort dropped wide of the far post.
At half-time, there were mutterings of disapproval in a Chelsea support that had quietened down considerably. Throughout that first-half, neither team had managed a shot on goal. But I tried to remain positive. I was buoyed by the pleasing sight of blue skies in the huge rectangular window above us…I hoped the clouds would not return.
No changes at the start of the second-half. I prayed for a winner at our end, just yards away from me.
The first effort of the second-half came from the head of Marcos Alonso, a surprising starter for many, who rose to meet a cross from N’Golo Kante but headed too close to Schmeichel. Leicester showed a bit of life, some spirit, but it was dour football.
Sadly, this was to change. Just after the hour, the ball was pushed square to Youri Tielemens who advanced – unchallenged, damn it – until he was around twenty-five yards out. As soon as the ball left his boot, from my vantage point, I knew it was in. Not even Peter fucking Crouch could have reached it. The Leicester end erupted.
Five minutes later, Christian Pulisic for Hakim Ziyech and Ben Chilwell – loud boos – for Marcos Alonso. Pulisic immediately added a little spice and spirit. He seemed positive. Two more substitutions, Callum Hudson-Odoi for Azpilicueta and Kai Havertz, the slayer of Tottenham, for Jorginho. Our attack had stumbled all game but with fresh legs we immediately looked more interested.
The Leicester fans were in their element, raucous and buoyant. We tried to get behind the team.
“COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.”
It didn’t exactly engulf the Chelsea end in a baying mass of noise.
Kante was strangely finding himself engaged as a supplier of crosses and one such ball was met by Chilwell but his strong downward header, coming straight towards me, was palmed on to his post by a diving Schemichel.
I was right in this game now; it had taken so long for us to get any momentum, but with time running out my eyes were on stalks, watching the ball and the players running – or not – into space.
“COME ON YOU BLUE BOYS.”
With eight minutes’ left, The Charge of the Light Brigade as Olivier Giroud raced on to replace a very disappointing Werner. It was the fastest any Chelsea player had run all game.
The Chelsea pressure increased. I didn’t even think about the stresses that might be induced should we score a late equaliser. But that’s good. I felt fine. No problems.
A delicate cross from James was knocked back to our Mase. He steadied himself momentarily and then let fly with his left foot. I was about to leap in joy. But Schmeichel flung himself to his left and clawed it out.
I called him a very rude name. Twice. Just to make sure he heard me.
In the closing minutes, a lofted ball – into space, what joy – found a rampaging Ben Chilwell. He met it first time, pushing it into the six-yard box. In the excitement of the moment, I only saw a convergence of bodies and then…GETINYOUFUCKER…the net bulge. I tried my damnedest to capture him running away in joy, but I needed to celebrate. I brushed past Parky and found myself in the stairwell. King Kenny virtually slammed me into the fence at the front – ha – but I kept my composure and snapped away. The results are, mainly blurred. A second or two later, I looked back and Kenny was screaming, his face a picture of joy, and the scene that I saw me was a virtual copy, with less people, of the aftermath of Marcos Alonso’s winner in 2017, a mere thirty yards further south.
I heard a voice inside my head.
“Fucking hell, Chris, we’ve done it.”
And then. Someone mentioned VAR. At first, I thought someone was being a smart-arse. Didn’t seem offside to me. Nah. And then I realised as I looked up at the large scoreboard above the Leicester City fans that the awful truth was for all to see.
A red rectangle…
VAR : CHECKING GOAL – POSSIBLE OFFSIDE.
My heart slumped. How often do these end up with the advantage being given to the attacking side?
Ironically, on the car drive in to London, both Parky and I quoted a recent game when Harry Kane’s toe was deemed to be offside and we both admitted that we felt for the bloke. When Chelsea fans are upset with a VAR decision is given against Tottenham, something is definitely up.
A roar from the other end, no goal.
King Kenny wailed : “what has football become?”
I had no answer.
There is a chance that this might be my last report this season. It depends on how Chelsea Football Club looks after its own supporters’ hopes of reaching the Portuguese city of Porto in a fortnight.