Tales From A Stroll Down The Fulham Road

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 28 January 2018.

Our eighth out of nine games in the month of January saw a return to the FA Cup and a good old-fashioned battle with long-standing adversaries Newcastle United. On the drive up to London, we briefly chatted about the meek second-half surrender at Arsenal on Wednesday, but forward to the next run of games, and made transport plans for a few of them. There were a few moments lambasting the shocking mess of the VAR system, which stumbles from one farce to another with each game. Get rid of it now.

After having worked on eighteen of the previous twenty days, here was a much-needed day of rest, though it was my turn to drive after Glenn and PD took a turn at the wheel for the two previous games. But there were no complaints from me. Football acts as a release-valve as much today as it ever did. I ate up the miles and made good time. The weather was mainly mild but overcast.

Previous FA cup games against Newcastle United? There was an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley in 2000 of course. This was a fine game of football and should have been the final itself. Gus Poyet was the hero of the day with two headers after Rob Lee equalised for the Geordies. I remember their end resembled a huge bowl of humbugs. It was a fantastic game. By comparison, the 1-0 win over Aston Villa at old Wembley’s last-ever Cup Final was such a dull affair.

There was also a win against them at home in 2006, but that 1-0 win does not ring many bells. Once the draw was made, I immediately thought back to a game from 1996, when Newcastle United were riding high in the league – it was the season that saw them infamously over-taken by Manchester United – and when we had already beaten them 1-0 at home in a thrilling game in the December. In a third round tie at Stamford Bridge in January, we were winning 1-0 with a goal deep into injury time from Mark Hughes. Sadly, a stoppage-time equaliser from Les Ferdinand took the tie to a replay, which we famously won on penalties. We made it to the semi-final that year.

We popped into “The Goose” but I left for the ground a little earlier than the rest to take a few un-hindered photographs of the pre-match scene. Deep-down, I also wanted to feel a special FA Cup buzz around the stadium, but – apart from the nauseous presence of few more touts than usual trying to hawk tickets – there was little different to this game than others, except for maybe more than the usual amount of kids with parents and grandparents. I wondered who was more excited.

As I walked on past the old and new tube stations, the town hall and the CFCUK stall, I mused that the famous lyrics to the song by Suggs should now be updated :

“The only place to be every other Saturday lunchtime, Saturday tea-time, Sunday lunchtime Sunday tea-time, Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night and Friday night is strolling down the Fulham Road.”

I took a photograph of the fine frontage to the Oswald Stoll buildings, which have been part of the match day scene at Chelsea for decades. It houses veterans from the armed forces. I love that. It underlines the role of the army, navy and air force at Chelsea, in addition to the more famous pensioners from the Royal Hospital. During the week, I read that the foundation is thinking of building a new residence elsewhere, and there is the chance that they will offer Chelsea Football Club the chance to buy up some of the existing property adjacent to the existing West Stand. There will be no added capacity to the new Stamford Bridge, but simply more space for spectators to enter and exit the cramped footprint of the stadium. I guess the board needs to weigh up the options. Is it worth the added expense of buying up more land? Possibly. During the week, there had been a CPO meeting. Though I did not attend, I was pleased that the CPO board and the CFC board have never been closer.

For the people who constantly moan about our reduced presence as a major player in the transfer market, I’d suggest they need to re-value their thoughts. In the autumn of 2011, with the threat of us moving from Stamford Bridge to an unloved new build away from our ancestral home, we would not have worried too greatly about a few years of treading water on the pitch if our future at Stamford Bridge was secure.

I’m strongly behind the new stadium. I’ll say no more than that.

However, I do find it odd that Roman Abramovich has only been spotted at one Chelsea game this season; the win against Manchester United. I doubt if he is losing interest, but perhaps it has shifted its focus. I wondered if Roman is one of these people who obsesses about one thing at a time. A company acquisition. A football club. A football team. A new house. A yacht.  A stadium.

I had a vision of him locked away in a room in one of his properties, maybe not as obsessed as Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters” as his character builds devil’s mountain out of mashed potato and then debris, but with a 2018 mix of Hornby train sets, Meccano, and Lego bricks – and cranes, lots of cranes – working in unison to replicate the Herzog and De Meuron model.

Inside the current Stamford Bridge, the first thing that I noted was a void of a few hundred seats which were not filled in The Shed. As with Norwich City, The Geordies did not fully occupy their three-thousand seats. A 1.30pm Sunday kick-off is a test though. No surprises that it was not filled.

The manager had chosen a 3/4/3 again and re-jigged the starting personnel.

Caballero

Rudiger – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Drinkwater – Alonso

Pedro – Batshuayi – Hazard

For once, we attacked the Matthew Harding in the first-half; a Benitez ploy no doubt. The thought of a replay on Tyneside – two days off work for sure – filled me with dread. Absolute dread.

As the game began, the Geordies were making all the noise.

“New-casuhl, New-casuhl, New-casuhl.”

I’d suggest that they started the match with more pressing and more energy than us. Early on, we were concerned when Davide Zappacosta stayed down for a few minutes. Thankfully, he was able to run off his knock and was soon back to his barnstorming runs. On one occasion, he pushed the ball way past his marker and sent over a brilliant cross.

An Eden Hazard free-kick did not trouble the ‘keeper Karl Darlow.

There was a fine leap and header on by Hazard to Michy Batshuayi which took me back to the ‘eighties when the hanging-in-the-air leap of David Speedie often supplied Kerry Dixon with many a cushioned header.

There was a magnificent cross-field pass from Toni Rudiger; one of his specialities. He is surely deserving a regular run in the team. I see a fine player. At the other end, Wily Caballero managed to save from Jonjo Shelvey. Our play certainly looked a little off the pace. It felt like “advantage Toon” at the half-hour mark. We had not got into the game. The Stamford Bridge were quiet. But you knew that. Thankfully, this was to change.

A beautiful and flowing move involving a long pass from Pedro into the feet of Hazard, a touch to Marcos Alonso – a great appetite to join the attack – and the finest of passes to Batshuayi.

“Michy doesn’t miss from there” zipped through my mind. It was virtually an open goal with the ‘keeper lost.

Chelsea 1 Newcastle United 0.

GET IN.

This goal seemed to pump life into the crowd, the team and most especially Michy himself. For the rest of the half, his movement was better, and his appetite too. There was another excellent save from Wily down at The Shed, with our ‘keeper managing to fall quickly at his near post and block an effort from Gayle. A lovely shot from the left foot of Rudiger flew past the post. The game was opening up now.

Pedro and Hazard were hitting some fine form and the former found the latter with a great ball. Hazard picked out Batshuayi – “Nevin to Speedie to Dixon” – and the striker lashed the ball goal wards. There was an immediate groan as the shot was blocked by Jamaal Lascelles, but the noise quickly changed to that of hope and expectation as the ball spun high and over the ‘keeper.

“I like the look of this” I thought.

It dropped into the goal.

Chelsea 2 Newcastle United 0.

The game seemed won. Phew. No replay? I hoped not.

We had that strange experience of us attacking The Geordies and Parkyville in the second period.

The crowd were a little more involved. On two occasions especially. There was a loud and heartfelt “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” – louder than normal it seemed – and it certainly felt like a resounding show of support for him. Soon after, even louder, and with the entire ground appearing to join in there was this –

“STAND UP FOR THE CHAMPIONS.”

It was if these two chants were for the benefit of Roman and the board.

The only problem was that Roman was not present; he was up to his waist in mashed potato in the west wing.

Will manager Conte be here next season? I hope so but I doubt it. I hate modern football and I’ll say no more than that.

A shot from Pedro, and a beautiful volley from Alonso showed our intent as the second-half progressed. Newcastle fell away, but their support remained as belligerent as ever. There were two shots from distance from DD. It was all Chelsea. With twenty minutes remaining, we were given a free-kick after a foul on the useful Zappacosta, who we all agreed needs to start ahead of the ailing Victor Moses. I love his appetite.

This was in prime Marcos Alonso territory no doubt. There was a wait for a few moments. We held our breath. Three Chelsea players were in the wall, but the Spaniard struck the ball up and over. It was yet another prime free-kick from Alonso. The boy can certainly strike a ball.

Chelsea 3 Newcastle United 0.

Game most definitely over.

The rest of the game was notable for four significant substitutions.

72 minutes : Ross Barkley for Eden Hazard.

A home debut for our new midfielder. He looked strong and eager to impress. He had been the cover-star on the match programme, another retro one, this time from the ‘forties.

77 minutes : Ethan Ampadu for N’Golo Kante.

He immediately fitted in. Is he really only seventeen? Very soon, he played the ball of the game through to an onrushing Pedro. The lad looks the business, so loose and natural.

80 minutes : Callum Hudson-Odoi for Pedro.

A Chelsea debut, and his first three passes were on-the-money cross-field balls out to Zappacosta out on the right, now enjoying acres of space. All of a sudden, the future seemed brighter, rosier, more positive. Fantastic.

83 minutes : Christian Atsu for Iscaac Hayden.

It was certainly nice to see and hear some warm applause for our former player, who never made it to the first-team. I bet we never got any credit for it on the TV commentary.

The game ended with a fine and free-flowing move from our penalty box all of the way through to a shot from Michy which the ‘keeper saved. By that time the away team were chasing shadows.

But the Newcastle fans kept their support of their team until the end and hardly any left. Top marks. I remembered back to 1983/1984 when, at the end of a completely one-sided 4-0 thumping, the Geordies kept singing, and were rewarded with applause from the home support.

In 2018, the reaction to the bonny lads was not full of such bonhomie :

“You’ve had your day out. Now fuck off home.”

Modern football, eh?

On Wednesday, the month ends with a home game with Bournemouth.

See you there.

 

Tales From A Chelsea Ramble

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 30 December 2017.

Our third game of Christmas, and our last match of 2017, was surely another “winnable” one against Mark Hughes’ visiting Stoke City. Back in September, an Alvaro Morata hat-trick helped secure a 4-0 away win in The Potteries, and although our performances since then have wavered at times, I was confident of a seventh consecutive home league win.

On the drive to London – Glenn was in charge of Chuckle Bus duties for the day – we had a little chat about our season thus far. There were few complaints. We are still enjoying our football, despite some of the negatives which swirl around our game at the moment.

We ran through a few of our success stories, player-wise, and top of the list was Andreas, who has warmed the hearts of all Chelsea supporters this season. The youngster has hardly put a foot wrong. He looks the finished article already. And, perhaps as he was not signed for a ludicrous sum in the summer, or perhaps because he has gone about his task quietly and efficiently, he has performed “under the radar” of many in the usually claustrophobic media. Elsewhere there are many positives; Eden continues to trick his way past players and add some Chelsea-esque panache to our play, N’Golo maintains his amazing abilities to close people down and keep us ticking and Dave is as consistent as ever and possibly our most-respected player. Thibaut rarely lets us down. Last season’s over-achievers Marcos and Victor might find their positions under threat in the next six months or so, but there is much to admire in their play. As a supporter, I always try to get behind players who may not be the most gifted, but those who try their damnedest in a royal blue shirt. I often reminisce on our championship season of 2016/2017 and the image Pedro keeps popping up. His first season in our colours was largely average, but he really stepped up under the tutelage of Antonio Conte. His relentless movement was a constant motif throughout last season. With Conte often choosing a 3-5-2 in this campaign, it is a damned shame that Pedro often misses out. Willian still seems to annoy many, but I have few complaints. Gary infuriates as only Gary can, and I am sure that Antonio might well nurse a little regret that Dave was not handed the captain’s armband at the start of this season. I like the look of Toni, and his game improves with each look. Alvaro may never toughen up in the same way that we would like, but he is a fine player and we need to persevere. Tiemoue has had a tough baptism, often looking lost, but he shows occasional promise. Danny has hit the ground running and I think will be a key fixture in our squad over the next few seasons. Cesc is a quality player, and we are lucky to have him in our squad. Davide is full of enthusiasm but often gets caught flat-footed and out-of-position. Michy is Michy, and I hope to God he tries harder than ever to fulfil his promise. He has a good eye for goal, but needs to expand his mind and expand his game. David, the forgotten man at the moment, is a crucial squad member and able to play in both midfield and defence. To lose him to another team in the January transfer window would do us no favours in my mind. Ethan, despite only a few appearances, is clearly a naturally-gifted footballer with much potential.

The four Chuckle Brothers splintered off on our arrival in London.

PD and LP chose “The Goose.”

Glenn and little old me had a more varied itinerary, which would include a few pubs on a ramble around the high roads and side streets of SW6. Outside the Copthorne Hotel, I met up with Ben, a work colleague from Germany. He is currently visiting London with two good friends – Jens and Walt – and it was a pleasure to welcome them to Stamford Bridge. We soon met up with another great friend, Kyle from Los Angeles, and it was fantastic to see him too.

I had last met Kyle at the same Copthorne Hotel back in the summer of 2016 when he was visiting London for the first time with his family; I drove up to London specially to see him for an evening’s meanderings around Stamford Bridge – alas no game – and we had a fine evening of recollections of summer tours to the US and more local affairs. I was pleased, so pleased, that he would be watching his first-ever game at Stamford Bridge in under four hours. The look of excitement on Kyle’s face as I ordered the first beers of the day was wonderful. And I need to make a special note of my friendship with Kyle. When I first started writing these match reports on the old Chelsea In America website around ten years ago, I was indebted to the support of some good friends – and from Kyle in Los Angeles and Steve in Philadelphia in particular – who prompted me to keep going and to continue with these rambling recollections of Chelsea games. Over the years – I first met Kyle in 2007 – we have shared some very fine times and many a laugh. His first game at Stamford Bridge was long overdue. He knew it and I knew it. I wanted to make his game as memorable as possible.

I had only met Ben once before, on a visit to our offices in around 2014, but we are in constant communication on a weekly basis. Often, our work-based emails contain some football chat. Ben, although living right on the border with Switzerland in the very south of Germany, is a lifelong Borussia Monchengladbach supporter. There have been many an email over the past few years in which he has updated me on the performances of Andreas Christensen. He has been my eyes and ears over in Germany. All has been positive.

Up in the bar area, there were some lovely moments with Ron Harris, Bobby Tambling, Kerry Dixon, Colin Pates and John Bumstead. The smiles were genuine, from both supporters and players alike. I explained to Ben and his friends how important Ron Harris and Bobby Tambling are in the history of our club.

For Ben, Ron Harris is Chelsea’s Berti Vogts.

Down in reception, I spotted Ken Bates, our erstwhile chairman. I could not resist a quick photograph. I had to get Glenn in on the picture. Kyle did the honours. As I approached him, he whispered :

“Oh, this looks like trouble.”

We had a few brief words, and he was pretty amicable, even when Glenn reminded him that he had sold off Benches tickets for the United game in 1985 for a tenner.

With typical abrasiveness, Ken replied “I should’ve charged more.”

I wish now that I had thanked him for setting up the Chelsea Pitch Owners in 1993. There has always been a love-hate relationship with many Chelsea supporters and Ken Bates, myself definitely included, but despite his gruffness and petty-mindedness, the formation of the CPO was an absolute masterstroke. I will always be in his debt for this far-sighted move some twenty-five years ago.

Via a quick stop at The Shed wall, and an homage to the image of Ron Harris – so that the German visitors especially could join some dots – we moved on to The Butcher’s Hook, where our club was formed all those years ago.

There then followed another Chris Axon history lesson – “Stop if you think you’ve heard this one before” – but with added resonance after our chance meeting with Ken Bates. I retold the story of the CPO, the attempted buy-out in 2011 and the “SayNoCPO” campaign; arguably the finest moment in the history of the supporters of our club.

No eyes were glazing over. Result.

On the matter of the new stadium, should anyone wish to keep up to speed with the progress – “or lack of” I hear some saying – there is no website better than Skyscraper City. For those suffering with what Simon Inglis has termed “stadiumitis” – like me – it is a fantastic resource. It will, thankfully, mean that I will no longer need to explain how there can be no huge, single end at the new stadium.

Here is a link to the thread about the new Stamford Bridge.

http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=1079233

96 pages of diagrams, videos, conjecture, analysis, debate, projections, timelines and more. While you are at it, there are threads detailing the new Spurs stadium – “should you feel the need” – and a relatively new thread devoted to a new stand at Selhurst Park and another one for a Riverside Stand upgrade at Craven Cottage – “ditto”.

We headed past the usual sights and sounds of a typical Chelsea Saturday.

On the walk, Kyle and myself spoke about the monstrosity of friendship scarves. With it, came a funny story about the transience of some US sport(s) fans, who often seem to chop and change teams at a moment’s notice. An alumni of UCLA, Kyle obviously follows them in all collegiate sports, though often he meets friends and acquaintances who follow UCLA in one sport but their bitter rivals USC in another.

Kyle : “They don’t even keep to that most basic of rules, of following one team.”

The laughter continued as we nipped into “The Elk” for the first time in years. As I explained to the visitors, we are truly blessed with boozers around Stamford Bridge.

“One of the reasons why we never wanted to leave this area. Even moving just one mile would be horrific.”

Walt kept mentioning throughout the day that virtually all stadia in Germany are out on the edge of towns and cities with hardly any bars nearby; I could tell that they were enjoying the close proximity of the twenty-five or so bars within a twenty-minute walk from Stamford Bridge.

Long may it continue.

Next up was a five-minute walk to The Mitre on Dawes Road; a pub that we used to frequent for the best part of a season in around 2002. Surprisingly, I seem to be the only one who can remember this. It must have been something they put in the drinks.

Our good friend John, with his son Chris, was celebrating his birthday out in the beer garden. The laughter and banter continued.

This was a fine time.

This was the “sweet spot” of any pre-match at Chelsea.

A few beers to the good, still a couple of hours before kick-off, no worries in the world.

I said to Kyle : “This is where we want time to stand still really.”

How often I have thought this; that a game could be put back a few hours so we can just wallow in the fuzzy camaraderie of friendship and football.

The last sweet spot was back on the North End Road, and we met up with a few fine members of The Bing inside “Simmons Bar”; Alan, Gary, Daryl and Ed. I was so pleased that Kyle got to meet some really fine friends on his first visit to Stamford Bridge. There was astonishment on Kyle’s face when I invited Gary over to confirm that he has, indeed, missed just one Chelsea home game since 1976.

I can hear Kyle now : “that is unbelievable.”

We sauntered – sauntered I tell ya! – out of the last boozer and made our way to Stamford Bridge. In the busiest pre-match for a while, the team news had passed me by.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Drinkwater – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Pedro

I felt for the four visitors, who had hoped that Eden would start. It was obvious that the manager was saving him – and his bruised shins – for Arsenal away on Wednesday.

We had already heard that the Stoke City team would be hit with injuries, but nobody really expected such a weak B team. Seeing Charlie Adam on the pitch was a real shock, and it was a reminder of how much I disliked him. He has a pasty complexion, a barrel-chested physique and a receding hairline from the 1920’s– and possibly tuberculosis too. I had a feeling that he would soon be sneezing and coughing over Danny Drinkwater. Either that, or kicking lumps out of him.

Stoke had only brought around 1,400. It did not surprise me. The match began with the three German visitors down below me in the Matthew Harding Lower and Kyle right behind the Shed End goal.

Over in The Shed, the away fans could be heard, but only faintly.

“COME ON STOWKE, COME ON STOWKE.”

After just three minutes, a cross from a free-kick wide on the right from Willian was perfectly played for Toni Rudiger to leap high at the back stick and to head home. This was as clean a header as it gets. It was a fine goal. We could have not have asked for a better start.

The dream start continued. On nine minutes, Pedro wriggled himself into space out on the left side of Stoke’s penalty area, and after his cross was blocked, the ball spun up towards Danny Drinkwater. The midfielder controlled the ball with his thigh and then purposefully prodded the ball towards the Shed End goal. Time again seemed to stand still. We watched as the ball sailed through the air with the Stoke ‘keeper Jack Butland rooted to the ground. The net bulged and the stadium erupted. What a fine goal, hopefully Danny’s first of many. Perhaps over-burdened in the middle of midfield, Drinkwater’s signing surprised many, but he has to be a fine addition to our ranks. I can well remember the disdainful comments from many when we signed him from Leicester City.

Soon after, we had hopes for another goal, but Alvaro Morata – bursting through in the inside right channel – was sadly denied at the near post by Butland. Kyle was getting all of the action on a plate for him.

On twenty-three minutes, Willian passed to Pedro. With a sublime touch, he turned into space and despatched a low shot towards the far post, a goal that I was able to celebrate before many as I was directly in line with the ball’s trajectory.

GET IN.

Game over? Surely.

The Stokies in the away section responded with an audible dig in that particular twang of theirs.

“Thray-nell, and yeh still don’t seng.”

I had to agree. I could detect a few supporters trying to get things started in The Shed but it was all very piecemeal. In the Matthew Harding, there had hardly been a song in the first quarter of the game, despite our fine play. It is hardly worth me writing that neither the East nor West Stands were joining in; they hardly ever do.

So, the usual moan from me about the lack of atmosphere at Stamford Bridge.

Our dominance continued. We moved the ball around at will. Stoke, on a very rare attack, bundled the ball in via a break from Diouf, but the referee had signalled an offside.

At the break, we all dreamed of a cricket score, with memories of a 7-0 shellacking in our 2010 vintage. Their record at Chelsea in recent years has been simply shocking.

Thibaut was forced to throw his word search back into his goal and block a shot from Berahino as Stoke threatened in the first few minutes. Rather than see us push on and go hell-for-leather in search of more goals, there was a definite air of frustration among the Chelsea fans as Stoke attempted to get the tiniest of foot holds in the game. Nothing really materialised, but it stemmed our flow of intent and desire. Things fell a little flat.

Davide Zappacosta replaced Victor Moses.

Pedro flashed a shot wide.

In an eerily similar position to his chance in the first-half, Morata approached Butland – “you again” – but probably took an extra touch. Butland again blocked.

“Ugh.”

Another strike from Pedro was aimed goal bound but this time a save.

Tiemoue Bakayoko replaced N’Golo Kante. Legs were being saved for Wednesday. Michy Batshuayi replaced Alvaro Morata, who had not enjoyed the best of outings.

With twenty minutes remaining, Willian burst into the penalty box and was adjudged to have been sliced down by a Geoff Cameron. From my vantage point, it looked a soft one.

Willian himself took the penalty. A feint and the ‘keeper was easily beaten by Willian.

The 4-0 score line was a long time a-coming.

Still, the atmosphere was lukewarm.

Only an “Antonio” chant really brought the Matthew Harding together as one.

With two minutes remaining, Zappacosta pounced on a loose ball and smashed the ball low past Butland.

Chelsea 5 Stoke City 0.

Yes, that was better.

Throughout the game, Stoke City had been truly shocking. They offered hardly anything. In some respects, this was some sort of non-football.

Total dominance from one team.

Meek capitulation from the other.

Played out to a backdrop of pitiful noise.

Yes, we have been spoiled over the recent – how many, twenty? – years, and have handed some severe poundings to most teams at Stamford Bridge in that period. In the league alone, we have enjoyed these wins against a few of our main rivals –

Chelsea 6 Arsenal 0

Chelsea 6 Manchester City 0

Chelsea 5 Everton 0

Chelsea 5 Manchester United 0

Chelsea 5 Newcastle United 0

Chelsea 5 West Ham United 1

Chelsea 4 Tottenham Hotspur 0

Chelsea 4 Liverpool 1

In the circumstances, I suppose a 5-0 defeat of a weakened Stoke City team is regarded by many as hardly on the same scale.

Noise or no noise, we jumped past Manchester United into second place. On the drive back to the West Country, the Chuckle Bus was very happy to hear that Mourinho’s men had been held 0-0 by Southampton.

Second place was ours.

Good work boys.

I mentioned at the start of this piece that Andreas Christensen was operating “under the radar” at the moment. The same, could, quite possibly be said of Chelsea as we leave 2017 and look set to enter 2018. While the love-fest with Manchester City is still continuing – and with reason, let’s admit they are playing some lovely stuff – there still remains an obsession with Harry Kane and Tottenham, to say nothing of renewed interest in a Mo Salah-inspired Liverpool. As Mourinho continues to annoy those inside and outside of his Manchester United, the inevitable media circus which follows him around shows no signs of abating. Let the media focus on these teams. That’s no problem for me. And while there are still a few barbs being aimed at the manager by some pernicious buggers in the media, hoping to stir up a little hostility and unrest, I honestly see a calmness from Antonio Conte and a steely desire to keep in contention. There have been few managers in my time as a Chelsea supporter that I have liked more. I desperately want Roman Abramovich to keep a steady head and to give the manager as much time as he needs.

We are in a good place at the moment.

The new year promises much.

On we go, into 2018 and beyond.

IMG_2846 (3)

Tales From The King Power Stadium

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 14 January 2017.

The Chuckle Bus was on the road again. There had been a breakfast at a canal-side café in Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, a lunchtime drink at a pub with a roaring fire in Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire while watching a few moments of the televised Tottenham vs. West Brom game, and a further pub stop in the Warwickshire village of Wolvey. We were taking our time. The kick-off in Leicester was not until 5.30pm. There was no rush. In all honesty, the mood in the car was a little pessimistic. I think it shocked us.

The reason for our noticeable solemnity was due to the rumours flying around the internet, the radio and the TV about Diego Costa. There was no absolute ratification from Chelsea regarding the reasons for Costa not travelling to Leicester. But the rumours were rife. Was he genuinely injured? Was he seeking a change in China? Was he the centre of a media-led campaign to unsettle us? We didn’t know. We tried not to get sucked in to a maelstrom of negativity, but it was difficult.

In a nutshell, Diego Costa is currently at the peak of his game. If he was genuinely injured, no problems. If there were darker Machiavellian reasons for his absence, what a mess.

Either way, it darkened the mood considerably. After a loss at Tottenham ten days previously, we briefly considered a team affected by the loss of Diego, a subsequent second successive loss in the league in 2017 and storm clouds gathering ahead of tough games against Liverpool and Arsenal. Well, Liverpool anyway. I simply do not fear playing Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. The match at a hostile Anfield will be a different kettle of fish, or dustbin of cats.

But by the same token, we trusted Antonio Conte to enliven his troops against a Leicester City team which would be missing a few key players. Against the immobile rugby-players Huth and Morgan, I fully expected the three-pronged attack of Hazard, Pedro and Willian to turn them inside and out.

We were parked up in good time. Although I had dressed for the Baltic – quilted jacket, and warm pullover, Timbers – the walk to the stadium was not as cold as I had expected.

The three sporting stadia in Leicester are clustered together to the south of the city centre; cricket’s Grace Road, rugby’s Welford Road and football’s King Power Stadium. They are all within a twenty-five-minute walk of each other. The latter, replacing Filbert Street, is a typical new build. A single-tiered identikit stadium. Replace the blue seats with red, and it could be Southampton’s St. Mary’s. It perfectly suits Leicester City, but it’s hardly an interesting site, or sight.

Our own beloved Stamford Bridge had been at the forefront of my mind since the last game. On Wednesday evening the local Hammersmith & Fulham Council met to vote on the planning application for our spectacular re-build.

At around 10pm it was announced that they had said “yes.”

What wonderful news.

I remembered the black days of autumn 2011 and the invigorating “Say No CPO” campaign, which defeated the club in their attempt to buy our shares, but which then forced the club to do a complete 180 degrees on a re-build at Stamford Bridge.

Just magnificent.

Thank you so much for listening Roman. And thank you so much for taking every care in choosing a team of architects that has produced such a breath taking and iconic design. I think the design, bearing in mind the considerable constraints forced upon it, is wonderful. It will break the mould of football stadia in this country. No copycat stadium for this club. Not everyone is a fan, but I feel that the detractors are focussing on the aerial view. But that misses the point. From street level, I believe that the structure – London brick, rising high, strong, iconic, unique – will be mesmirising. At night time, for an evening game, with the roof under lit, the stadium will be spectacular.

Of course the negative in all of this will be a hiatus at Wembley, in all probability, but compared to the dark days of the “Save The Bridge” campaign in 1986 – buckets outside The Shed End – and the attempted land grab in 2011, we should not be too disheartened. It is up to the club to be creative in its match day pricing during our seasons among the red seats at Wembley in order for us to maintain our level of support.  My real fear is of a mediocre team with sub 30,000 gates for lesser opponents.

No pressure, Antonio.

I rewarded myself for getting the lads to yet another game with a pint of lager. In the bar area below the steps to the stadium, there were the usual faces, and the Chelsea fans were in good voice. Yet more Aquascutum scarves.

A text came through on my phone : Frome Town were beating Redditch United 6-1. It soon became 8-1. My hometown team are currently enjoying their best ever season, a nine-game unbeaten run, and now their biggest win at that level. Good times indeed.

Back in the rarefied atmosphere of the Premier League, the main two results went against us; there were easy wins for Tottenham and then Arsenal.

The team was announced. Conte had opted for solidity with Nemanja Matic alongside N’Golo Kante.

We had seats down low by the corner flag. Just before kick-off – out of nowhere – my mate Tuna from Atlanta suddenly appeared, bouncing down the steps. What a small world.

This would be my first sighting of Leicester City this season; I had missed the 4-2 League Cup win and the 3-0 home victory in the league. On a dark evening, Gary and myself wondered why we were wearing black and not white. Thank goodness the home fans had not been issued with those damned noise-makers.

Not long in to the game, the away fans roared our support of a missing player.

“Diego, Diego, Diego, Diego, Diego,”

I approved.

The home team started on the front foot and Thibaut Courtois was called on to thwart an early attempt on our goal. We reacted superbly well to this early threat. After just six minutes, a cross from Cesar Azpilicueta reached Pedro. He was falling, under pressure, inside the box, but was able to touch the ball to Eden Hazard. The away section held our breath. A goal was on the cards. Eden played it out to Marcos Alonso, who smashed the ball past low Kasper Schmeichel.

Get in.

Wild celebrations, get off Tuna.

Leicester City responded well to be honest. Although Chelsea maintained high levels of possession, pushing the ball around well, the home team caused us a few problems. A ball from out wide often caused us concerns, but on every occasion, the defensive three plus the reliable Courtois were able to clear.

On ten minutes, the stadium lit up with mobile phone spotlights as a nod of support to former player – and now match day host – Alan Birchenall, who suffered a heart-attack on the previous Thursday. Birchenall once played for Chelsea, and one of his ports of call after leaving Leicester City was to manage Trowbridge Town from my neck of the woods back in their hay days, when they battled away in the Conference for a few heady seasons. The ups and downs of non-league football; Trowbridge Town are now many levels below Frome Town.

Mark Albrighton, Danny Drinkwater and that man Jamie Vardy looked dangerous at times. I was able to focus on Vardy’s battle with Gary Cahill; a good old-fashioned drama.

Over on the far side were two loved Italians; Claudio Ranieri and Antonio Conte.

The home fans to our left were engaged in a bit of banter with us. They were clearly enjoying their post-championship European campaign.

“Are you going to Seville?”

While we patiently played through our midfield, with Alonso overlapping well and enjoying a fine game, Leicester played the role of counter-attacker. Vardy caused more anxiety for Courtois. There were few chances for either side, though. A free-kick from Pedro failed to test Schmeichel just before the break.

Six minutes into the second-half, we struck again. A Willian corner from down below us was only partially-cleared and the ball fell invitingly to none other than Marcos Alonso. He swiped at the ball – using his left foot this time – and he kept the ball down well. A slight deflection steered it away from Schmeichel.

Bloody hell, Alonso again, get in.

I caught his joyous run down to our section on film.

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It was all Chelsea now, with everyone playing to their maximum. Kante seemed to win every 50/50. He was inspired. Matic was solid. Alonso and Moses were full of graft and running. Every time that Alonso received the ball, he was urged to “shoot” by the away faithful. What fun.

Gary Cahill had an outrageous overhead kick which surprised us all, and then Alonso had a big moment. The ball ballooned up in the air. At that moment in time, Alonso had two options.

“Do I hit it on the volley? Do I score my first-ever hat-trick since I was in Senorita Ramirez’ class in secondary school, that sunny day in Madrid, I can still see it now, Juan Martinez you did not stand a chance, you horrible little twat, the Chelsea fans will love me, it will make up for Tottenham, not my best game, yes I’ll plant this into the goal and the match ball will be mine. Or do I trap it and lay it off? Am I confident? Too bloody right I am. I’ll hit the fucker. Here I go.”

It whistled narrowly wide.

We were purring. I lost count of the one-touch angled passes played into space by Hazard, Pedro and Willian. It was spectacular stuff.

With twenty minutes to go, we scored a lovely third goal. More dogged perseverance from Moses, a clean and crisp ball from Kante, an impudent back-heel from Pedro. Willian reached the ball just before Schmeichel, and his lofted chip was headed home by Pedro.

3-0, get off Tuna.

More lovely celebrations in front of us.

Pedro had enjoyed another fantastic game for us. One moment sticks in my mind. After the third goal, he flung himself in front of a Leicester defender as he attempted to clear from just a few yards outside their penalty area. It summed up the spirit coursing through the veins of our whole team this season. Top marks.

Conte made some late change; Cesc Fabregas for Eden Hazard, Michy Batshuayi for Willian, Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Pedro.

It stayed at 3-0.

At the end of the game, the entire team walked over to us. The away support were bouncing in praise of the manager and his troops.

The memories of our match at the same stadium last season – that bleak night, Mourinho speaking of “betrayal” and his last-ever game as our manager – seemed from another age, another era.

In 2016/2017, there is a new leader of our team.

“Antonio, Antonio – Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

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Tales From On And Off The Pitch

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 31 January 2015.

I was in my own little spell of Chelsea Mania. The trip to SW6 for the long-awaited appearance of Manchester City would be my fourth visit to Stamford Bridge within just eight days. In addition to the three Chelsea home games, encompassing FA Cup, League Cup and League, there was also the Chelsea Pitch Owners AGM on the Friday.

I don’t always attend these meetings; in fact, the sad truth is that, until the tumultuous events of autumn 2011, I had not bothered too much with the CPO. However, following the club’s toxic handling of the attempted buy-out, I have eagerly awaited any news emanating from the CPO. Other shareholders, I am sure, have felt the same. It certainly galvanised the shareholders and caused all of us to re-focus our thoughts on Stamford Bridge. I attended the EGM in 2011 and also the AGM in 2012, when feelings were still feverish, but did not attend any others. Why did I bother this year? I was keen to hear if there had been any substantial updates on the rumoured expansion plans of the stadium and also to see how the CPO was faring in general terms.

Around one hundred and twenty shareholders, to my reckoning, attended the meeting in the plush surroundings of the Hollins Suite on the third floor of the West Stand. The meeting lasted just over an hour-and-a-half. To be honest, it was all relatively quiet and calm, with few moments of heated discussion. Dan Levine – journalist, Chelsea supporter and CPO shareholder – had requested to be allowed to post immediate updates from the meeting via Twitter and this was put to the vote. It was carried.

It was announced that one of the company’s biggest objectives was to nullify the impact of the over-selling of approximately 1,500 new shares in the period leading up to the football club’s attempted buyout in 2011; that figure will be reached within the next two months.

Questions were asked from the floor regarding the plans to increase the capacity of Stamford Bridge. The CPO board confirmed that there had been no communication whatsoever between the football club and the CPO regarding this. So, no news on that score, unfortunately. I think that many in the room were hoping for progress on this, but alas not.

However, there had been consultation between the local council and 120 interested parties – stakeholders – including the CPO, regarding plans to upgrade the immediate area around the Stamford Bridge site. I, for one, was intrigued by this, since it shows a level of intent by the Hammersmith & Fulham council to develop the relationship between themselves and the football club. It hasn’t always been so. Any positive communication, of which this is a clear example, is to be lauded. It shows a desire by the council to work with Chelsea Football Club. Questions were asked about the size and scope of this possible improvement in the “streetscape” around Stamford Bridge, but very little detail was given. A brief mention of the planting of trees, benches and possible pedestrianized areas whetted my appetite (maybe it evoked memories of an urban geography course I took at college) but elsewhere such talking points were dismissed as being rather boring and not worthy of further elaboration. It was mentioned that Rick Glanvill – club historian and CPO shareholder – was counselled on a possible colour scheme for the area, and I had visions of Rick flicking through a book of pantone references, but there was little other detail. I was keen to ask about the geographical limits of this potential upgrade to the Stamford Bridge streetscape (I presumed it would stretch from the area outside the tube station along the Fulham Road to the railway bridge), but the moment soon passed and the discussion moved on.

There were questions about the selling of new shares, which carries on at a reasonable pace. The board reminded us that they took the decision to set up a “pay as you go” payment plan for those unable to lay out £100 in one hit. This was news to me, and a few others to be honest, but which was well received within the meeting. I raised the issue of overseas supporters and wondered if there had been a change in the geographical profile of new shareholders, since a desire to grow the share base around the world was mentioned at the 2012 AGM. I was pleased to hear that there had been an increase in supporters outside the UK buying new shares and I was keen to point out that, due to the vast size of our global support, this should be encouraged.

It was a good meeting and it was lovely to see a few familiar faces present. It still gives me great comfort to know that I am one of the 19,000 or so landlords of Stamford Bridge.

Chairman Steve Frankham’s statement can be found here :

http://www.chelseafc.com/fans/chelsea-pitch-owners/cpo-news/chairman_s-agm-statement.html

Details on how to buy shares are found here :

http://www.chelseafc.com/fans/chelsea-pitch-owners/buy-cpo-shares.html

It is worth noting that as I left Stamford Bridge after the meeting, I was approached by a tout who was asking after spare tickets for Saturday’s game.

Yep. This was going to be a big one alright.

It was my turn, once again, to drive to London. I travelled with Glenn and Parky. At Membury Services, just to the east of Swindon, we stopped at a Starbucks and Glenn spotted an old school mate – a Sheffield Wednesday fan – who was headed to their game at Reading with his wife. I remembered him from way back too, though I haven’t seen him around town for years. There was a time when Sheffield Wednesday was, briefly, one of our biggest rivals. The 1983-1984 Football League Division Two season has been detailed here before, but another mention will do no harm. In that wonderful campaign, six of English football’s big hitters found themselves in the second tier; Chelsea, Newcastle United, Manchester City, Leeds United, Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday. Although Leeds United’s promotion challenge, along with pre-season favourites Derby County, soon withered away, the other four battled for the top three places throughout the season. In the end, it was Manchester City who just missed out.

I wonder whatever happened to them.

During the next campaign, in addition to two feisty league games with Sheffield Wednesday, there were the classic three game set in the League Cup too. What a host of fantastic memories from thirty years ago. A trip to Hillsborough is long overdue.

Before hitting The Goose, we paid a quick visit to another Chelsea pub, a hundred yards further along the North End Road, The Old Oak. The place was rammed with Chelsea “of a certain generation” and we spotted a few mates. One day I’ll make sure I visit every single one of the many pubs which surround Stamford Bridge, although not in one day, unless Parky is buying.

We reached The Goose at around 3.30pm. A few of the lads had been “on it” since midday. The place was heaving. There were a few City fans dotted around. I was told that a few of them even had a little sing-song at the front of the pub. This is a very rare occurrence in The Goose. There was no trouble, though. In fact, their presence was probably the reason for a little spell of singing, which again is a rare event in The Goose.

There was no talk of Frank Lampard during the time I spent – ninety minutes – in the pub.

I reached the seats just as the teams entered the pitch. Again, the club had chosen to dim the lights in the same style as against Liverpool the previous Tuesday. Additionally, the four huge flags denoting out four European trophies hung proudly from the balcony of the MHU.

It was a lovely sight.

Forced to make changes, with no Fabregas and no Diego Costa, Mourinho chose Zouma ahead of Cahill and Remy ahead of Drogba.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Matic, Ramires – Hazard, Oscar, Willian – Remy.

There were four young’uns on the bench; Christensen, Loftus-Cheek, Ake, Brown.

The home crowd continued on in the same fashion from Tuesday against Liverpool, with greater noise levels than usual. Soon into the game, the MHL produced an x-rated ditty aimed at a Sky pundit who may not be allowed back to these parts ever again –

“Frankie Lampard – Your Cousin’s  A C**t.”

Although City brought a full three thousand, they were pretty quiet. I only remember one song of note –

“Champions of England, we know what we are.”

We countered with –

“Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that.”

This was entry-level banter and it never really got any better.

It was a rather tight first-half with chances at a premium. City probably had the best chances. Fernandinho shot wide, then Courtois was called in to action to save from Sergio Aguero. A John Terry error allowed Aguero a strike on goal, but the dangerous striker – always a threat in these games –  screwed wide. Elsewhere, there was passing and possession from both sides, but little penetration. A sublime tackle by Zouma on Aguero was given God-like status.

This boy looks good and – boy – we’ll let him know it.

With five minutes of the first-half to go, a fine deep cross from right to left by Ivanovic found Eden Hazard, who had stealth fully crept behind his marker. His first time cross was met by the unmarked Remy who slotted in from inside the six yard box.

Chelsea 1 Manchester City 0

Alan tee’d me up.

“Come On My Little Diamonds.”

There was an immediate thought of an eight point gap.

Ridiculously, we allowed City right back in to the game just before the break. City were allowed too much space down our right and Courtois, usually so trustworthy in the air, jumped but failed to stop a cross. The ball fell to Aguero who slammed the ball in and Silva dabbed past the stranded Courtois and the two Chelsea defenders standing on the posts.

Ugh.

If City had edged the first-half, they completely dominated the first part of the second period. City dominated possession and we constantly reshaped to soak up their probing. I was impressed with Ramires, ably closing down space and nibbling away at City attackers. Matic, too, was impressive. In contrast, this wasn’t one of John Terry’s best games. Alongside him, Zouma continued to shine.

With Chelsea starting to enjoy a little more possession, I spotted a familiar figure on the far touchline. Frank Lampard, track suit off, in City sky blue, stood next to his new manager Pellegrini.

Ugh.

Here we go, then.

He replaced Fernando.

Initially, I detected boos but these were soon drowned out by warm applause. No name calling – no “Super Frank” – like we experienced at City in the autumn, but just a growing number of Chelsea fans showing their pleasure in seeing an old friend by simply clapping. That this clapping soon morphed into a “Chelsea” chant was perfect. I was proud of my fellow fans. Well done.

I’ll be honest; I spent an inordinate proportion of my time during the remainder of the game keeping an eye on Frank.

My worry was obvious.

“Just put someone on Lampard” I whispered to Alan.

“Two if necessary.”

This was genuine concern amidst our nervous humour.

Please Frank – don’t score.

Mourinho rang the changes and on came Drogba, Cahill and Loftus-Cheek.

We kept them at bay. On at least one occasion, Frank gave the ball away.

“Good boy.”

With five minutes still to play, a few fans left. I was speechless. Not only were they missing the most crucial part of the game, they were also missing out on the chance to say thank you and farewell to one of our finest ever players.

“…mmm…maybe you were the ones booing. Best you leave, then.”

One last period of City pressure was repelled and the final whistle was met with relief all around me.

Phew.

Our first dropped points at home this season and a pretty dour performance. We shouldn’t complain, though. Robbed of two of his key players, this was typical Mourinho.

I watched as the players shook each other’s hands and there were embraces between others. All eyes were on Frank Lampard. He walked alone from The Shed towards us in the Matthew Harding. He clapped us and we reciprocated. No boos, no silliness.

I don’t know the intricacies of Frank’s departure from Chelsea, or the exact detail of his employment at New York City or his temporary deployment at Manchester City.

All I know is that at the away game in September and at the home game in February, on his long walk to say goodbye, there were no smiles from Frank.

He was sombre. He was alone with his thoughts.

He simply looked gutted – on both occasions – that it had to be like this.

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Tales From The Butcher’s Hook

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 5 October 2014.

After an enjoyable European Away, there often seems to be a sense of anti-climax leading up to the next game. In London parlance this is often termed “after the Lord Mayor’s Show.” Not so on this occasion. A home derby against our oldest London rivals Arsenal, with memories still fresh in our minds of the 6-0 drubbing we gave them last spring, was enough to get the pulses racing.

I travelled up to West London with Lord Parky and Bournemouth Steve. Before the match, I needed to do some scurrying around to meet up with a few transatlantic supporters in a couple of pubs. For once, I would not make it to my usual base camp, The Goose. Parky joined me for a quick pint with some good friends from Southern California – some of the infamous OC Hooligans – at the Prince of Wales at West Brompton. John, Tom, Matt and Phil are “hooligans” in name only; they are some of the nicest bunch of supporters that the US has to offer. It’s always a pleasure to meet up with them. I collected a spare ticket and bade them a fond farewell. I then needed to head off down to the stadium, and my route took me past three pubs which we have frequented in the past; “The Atlas”, “The Harwood” and “The Lazy Fox” aka “The Fulham Dray.” I made a bee-line for “The Butcher’s Hook” and pushed through the crowded front bar.

Towards the rear of the pub, I met up with Leigh-Anne from Toronto, her boyfriend John and his brother Kevin. I had briefly met Leigh-Anne and John in NYC in 2012. I was able to assist in getting tickets for two of the three, while another of their acquaintances procured the third. They were suitably buzzing. Leigh-Anne and John had been in Barcelona during the week, and Kevin had been visiting a mate from Croatia in Milan. We live in a golden age of travel for sure. We’re lucky buggers.

It was lovely to be back in “The Butcher’s Hook” before a game. In addition to being the very location where our club was formed in 1905 – in the room above – it also brought back a lovely memory from 2004-2005. For our game against Birmingham City, my friend Glenn and I attended the match with two very special people; his grandmother and my mother. Before the match, we had enjoyed a lovely pre-match meal in “The Butcher’s Hook” and I was reminded of that very special day. It was wonderful that my mother, aged 75, was able to see Chelsea play in person during our first championship campaign in fifty years. We had all met Peter Osgood in the megastore too. It was a cracking day out.

I guzzled down another pint amidst rapid-fire conversation with the three Canadians about all things Chelsea. Before we knew it, kick-off was approaching fast. I warned Leigh-Anne, John and Kevin to finish off their drinks. It would be a shame to miss the start. Outside the weather was splendid; the gentle autumn sun meant that most were in shirt-sleeves.

At the turnstiles for the MHU, there was a large queue to enter. While we were in line, the stadium PA announced that due to “an incident” the game would be delayed for fifteen minutes. What luck for the three Canadians. I sent them a text; there was no need to rush.

“Start delayed 15 minutes due to an incident. Parky bought a round.”

There were a few rumours about flares being let off outside, but nobody was sure. So, possibly our first and only 2.20pm kick-off.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture. For some reason, I was reminded of the famous oil painting by Charles Cundall of the stadium for the Chelsea vs. Arsenal Division One match in 1935, a game which happened to host our largest ever “official” attendance of 82,905. The club constructed a special platform for the artist above the vast terracing above the north-west corner flag and the panorama depicted – or at least the view and the angle of the pitch – was quite similar to my particular view in 2014.

I have waxed lyrical about the charms of the old ellipsoid Stamford Bridge in the past. For all of its idiosyncratic awkwardness, with odd stands and crazy angles, I still miss it badly. The current Stamford Bridge, housing almost exactly half of the 82,905 of 1935, is obviously a fine stadium. There is something quite Chelseaesque about its four misaligned stands.  Chelsea has never been about conformance. There had always been an edgy dimension to us, even our stadium.

Ah, our stadium.

It has warmed me immensely to hear that the board of Chelsea Football Club, in addition to testing the waters of the local populace, businesses and council of Hammersmith & Fulham with regard to possible expansion of Stamford Bridge, have allegedly contacted the RFU with a tentative request to use Twickenham while The Bridge undergoes possible improvement.

This is very pleasing to hear. Stamford Bridge is our spiritual home; it makes us who we are in my honest opinion. It defines us. I am heartened that the board has acknowledged this. I wish them every success in redeveloping Stamford Bridge. Let the unpleasantness of the “CPO Autumn” of 2011 be a distant memory.

Who knows, maybe those plans for a 60,000 Stamford Bridge, first mooted by a smiling Brian Mears in 1972, might eventually come to fruition. And, intriguingly, maybe that 82,905 attendance record might just be eclipsed at the home of rugby union. Twickenham currently holds 82,000. Interesting times ahead, let’s hope.

At last the teams appeared. The nine “league ever-presents” were supplemented by Schurrle and Oscar. Arsenal, wearing a very light red, chose to attack the Matthew Harding and for a few seconds, my mind played tricks on me. It seemed like it was the second-half already. Arsenal were supported by three thousand away fans and, although I am unsure, I thought I heard chants from them suggesting that Cesc Fabregas should go away and fornicate.

Classy stuff.

No doubt about it, Arsenal dominated the first quarter of the game. They looked steady and composed in possession, while we struggled to put more than three passes together. We looked edgy and nervous. After a quarter of an hour, however, there were no shots on goal from either side. The memory of last season’s rout was suddenly fading. Arsenal looked a lot more at ease. The first real chance fell to Alexis Sanchez, but a brave Courtois block quelled any danger. Arsenal maintained the advantage. Then, slightly delayed, Courtois fell and sought medical attention. The Chelsea medical team attended our young keeper, while Chelsea fans in Nerdistan fell in love with Eva Carneiro all over again. After a few minutes of concern, Courtois was replaced by Petr Cech.

He received a magnificent reception.

I took a “comfort break” just as the heated exchange between the two managers took place on the touchline. I’m sure everyone enjoyed that, though.

…er, the pitchside scuffle, rather than the thought of me turning my bike ‘round.

On twenty six minutes, Eden Hazard set off on a mazy run which Alberto Tomba would have been proud. He slalomed his way into the box and a wild stab by Laurent Koscielny sent him tumbling. It was an obvious penalty.

Eden Hazard took his time and stroked the ball past Wojzciecjzh Szczszcesesncy.

1-0, get in.

I’ll be honest, the goal was slightly against the run of play, but we cared not. The Bridge roared with approval. Jack Wilshere tested Petr Cech with a run on goal but lost control just as our ‘keeper raced out to smother the ball.

There had been few clear chances in the first forty-five minutes. We were obviously content with a lead, but hoped for more Chelsea chances after the break.

In the interval, Bobby Tambling received his usual magnificent reception from one and all, apart from the 3,000 Arsenal fans, who serenaded him with “you were here when you were shit.”

Classy stuff.

Just after the break, Cazorla drilled a low shot just past Cech’s left post. I momentarily held me head in my hands.

Phew.

Chances were still at a premium. On the hour, Eden Hazard advanced and sent a low cross towards goal, only for Flamini to stab at it and deflect it on to the near post. Chelsea continued to close down space, pester the Arsenal player on the ball, and stifle their passing game. There was special praise for Oscar, not always the flavour of the month, who put in a tireless display. His relentless running, tackling – “nibbling” – and blocking set the tone for the rest of the team.

As the last quarter approached, the manager replaced Schurrle – again, off the pace – with the steadying influence of Jon Obi Mikel. Next, Diego Costa set off on an invigorating run which resulted in a crisp pass to Hazard, who had supported the marauding centre-forward, but whose shot flew over the bar. For all of Arsenal’s possession, they very rarely tested Cech.

The atmosphere was not brilliant, though there were times when the home faithful did their job. The “ole, ole, ole, ole” and the “Jose Mourinho” chants seemed to galvanise the support. With just over ten minutes remaining, Fabregas took control in the middle of the pitch and lofted a high ball over the sleeping Arsenal backline. Who else but Diego Costa darted free and just…just!…reached the ball before the Arsenal ‘keeper could clear. He chested it down and in one movement delicately lofted it over the beaten Szsczszceseszsncy.

Stamford Bridge went into orbit.

GET IN, 2-0.

I snapped away as he jumped and screamed in pleasure down in Parkyville. I hope that the North Americans were able to snap a few too.

Superb.

It was Diego’s ninth goal in seven league games.

And it was game over.

Ah, the absolute joy of being able to sing “One Team In London” without fear of being incorrect.

There was even disbelief and then sudden merriment as Diego da Silva Costa blazed over from six yards after a fine move down the right; the linesman thankfully, in the circumstances, ruled him offside.

At the end of the game, I met outside the Peter Osgood statue in order to sort out yet more tickets for other friends. By doing so, I had unwittingly missed a few scuffles down at Fulham Broadway which had resulted in a few punches being thrown between a few Arsenal and Chelsea followers.

So, let’s re-cap.

Seven games played.

Five points clear.

And…the international break.

Damn you.

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Tales From The High Road

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 28 September 2013.

I was cutting this one a bit fine. Despite leaving home in good time, I only reached Seven Sisters tube station at midday. The Tottenham vs. Chelsea game was due to start in just forty-five minutes. I ascended the elevators and steps and soon found myself on the Tottenham High Road. The warm September weather surprised me; I threw my rain jacket behind my shoulder and began walking north. This was a well-travelled path for me. And for thousands of Chelsea fans like me.

One of my favourite passages of Chelsea prose over the years came from the pen of the venerable Chelsea scribe Scott Cheshire. After another F.A. Cup Semi-Final replay defeat against Arsenal in 1952, closely following on from the same scenario in 1950, I remember his words as he described the long and painful walk south from White Hart Lane, a Wembley Cup Final appearance having just evaporated in the spring air once more. In 1952 remember, Chelsea had not one item of silverware to our name while Arsenal were the great London rivals with trophies aplenty. Scott Cheshire spoke of the depressing familiarity of Chelsea failure as he trudged through puddles alongside hundreds of other typically disheartened Chelsea fans. The sense of longing and the yearning for a trophy struck a chord as I read his evocative words in the mid-‘nineties. It seems that every time I repeat my walk to White Hart Lane, past the Turkish cafes, the colourful Asian clothes shops, the hardware stores, the supermarkets, the pubs and the eastern European convenience stores, I am walking with Scott Cheshire and all of those hopeful Chelsea fans from a greyer time over sixty years ago.

The day had begun with a cursory flick through a few Facebook updates. The match in London N17 was clearly the main event. There were a few references to the publicity in the media about the continued presence of the “Y” word at Tottenham games. A couple of classic lines from a Nick Love film were popular too. I wonder why.

“Up and at em! Early start for Y word away!”

“Time to rise and shine. Spurts away beckons, see some of you at that wonderful part of London!”

“What else are ya gonna do on a Saturday. Tottenham away. Love it!!”

“Off to cheer on the only London club to win the European cup.”

“Off out to catch a rattler to meet up with some of the chaps for a couple before going on to cheer on London’s first and finest against the Ys.”

“What else ya gonna do on a Saturday? I know what I’d rather do! Tottenham away… luv it!!”

“En route to Three Point Lane.”

“Very soon I’ll be off to our biggest away of the season. Tottenham away.”

“Tottenham oy vey. Love it.”

I entered the fray –

“The Biggest Away Game Of The Season. Why? Tottenham. That’s Why.”

After the faux rivalry of Fulham the previous Saturday, this was the real deal, the main event. I have detailed our ridiculous dominance over our bitterest rivals since 1990 many times before; to go over old ground seems pointless.

Just like Tottenham.

As I headed north – “head down, avoid eye-contact, be wary” – police sirens wailed and a phalanx of police vans raced past. I wondered what was going on a mile or so to the north. A Tottenham versus Chelsea encounter, even after all these years, still has an edge. Old habits die hard. There may not be the widespread violence of the ‘eighties, but the intense dislike – yes, hate, even – is still there. It is now standard form for the main body of Chelsea to meet at The Railway and The Hamilton Hall down at Liverpool Street and then travel up to Northumberland Avenue. For me, travelling up from Somerset, the early kick-off made this a non-starter. I wasn’t worried. On the drive to London, my head was full of thoughts of Swindon last Tuesday, the War Zone at Tottenham and Steaua Bucharest away on the following Tuesday, to say nothing of the game in deepest Norfolk the following weekend.

Four consecutive away games; tick, tick, tick, tick.

I reached the corner of the High Road and Park Lane at 12.25pm. There were a few familiar faces in and amongst the Spurs fans, but I had no time to dwell. I skirted past a couple of police vans and soon joined the short line outside the entrance to the away section of White Hart Lane; prison blocks have been more architecturally appealing. Tottenham, of course, have been given the green light to build a new stadium just a hundred yards or so to the north of their current stadium. My conscience was pricked slightly; that’ll be three London team with new stadia, while Chelsea will be limited to 41,500. Will we be left behind, struggling to compete against the larger, potential, attendances at Arsenal, Spurs and West Ham? In October 2011, should I, and the other CPO shareholders, have meekly surrendered our certificates to the club so that they could earnestly begin a search for a new home? The answer is still no. I hear rumours, just whispered at the moment, of the Hammersmith & Fulham council desperately trying to entice the club into redeveloping the Stamford Bridge site and the club, again, whispered rumours, being slightly more willing to listen than in the past. I have a feeling that this one will run and run, like a Jesper Gronkjaer dribble. My stance on this has not wavered.

I, like many more Chelsea fans – as per the recent Chelsea Supporters Trust survey – believe that tradition and history, and that difficult to describe notion of “community and brotherhood” are just as important as an overpowering lust for silverware. Staying at Stamford Bridge is wrapped up in all of this.

I soon met up with Alan and Gary and we took our seats. There was little time for chat. The players soon appeared on the pitch. Chelsea, for the first time in a while, were back to wearing white socks at White Hart Lane. Spurs have changed their kit yet again. Last year’s all white kit has now given way to white / navy / navy. As a kid, it was always white / navy / white. Every two or three years, it seems that Spurs try a different combination. It would drive me crazy. What was I saying about tradition?

We reviewed the team. Would Ramires be playing wide right with both Lamps and Mikel starting? The three thousand Chelsea fans were in good voice as the match began. I always remember White Hart Lane, back when they longed to beat us, as having a very hostile atmosphere. In truth, the Spurs support before the whistle seemed subdued. I commented to a fellow fan that it is ironic that Fernando Torres is now many Chelsea supporters’ favoured striker.

“It’s a case of addition by subtraction.”

With Lukaku out of the picture, Torres’ stock has now risen.

The match began.

Down on the touchline, in the technical area, Jose stood, hands in pockets. He ignored the home fans’ shouts of “sit down Mourinho.” Villas-Boas, so often the fidgeting, crouching figure while at Chelsea, was nowhere to be seen. At times, it is hard to believe what has happened to Villas-Boas since the summer of 2011. He was lauded at the start. He looked the business. We were behind him. His demise was catastrophic. I still think he’ll be a good manager; hopefully not at Tottenham. Going in to the game, I was concerned. Spurs have been performing well – one of the form sides. We, however, had undoubtedly struggled. In reality, I would have been content with a point; Alan and Gal agreed.

We played well in the first quarter of an hour. What this really means is that we had more of the ball than I had expected. We weren’t subjected to raid after raid of home pressure. The home crowd were quiet. The away fans not so.

“We won 5-1, Wembley.”

“We won 6-1, at The Lane.”

“You got battered, in Seville.”

The Willian song, repeated again and again.

It was seemingly going well.

Then, a quickfire break by Tottenham down their left. A pass from Eriksen to Soldado, who played in Sigursson. He took a touch and I willed John Terry, slightly out of position, to get a block as he lunged forward. The Spurs player rode the tackle and delicately flicked the ball past Cech.

Groan. Here we go again. We always seem to concede first at Tottenham. The home crowd came to life. All four parts of the ground soon joined in with a rendition of “Oh When The Spurs.”

It was loud. Very loud.

An Ivanovic block from Paulinho saved us further blushes just after.

Spurs dominated the rest of the half. We just didn’t gel. Oscar was particularly poor, with awful first touches and wayward passes. But the whole team seemed to be off the pace. The one highlight of the first-half was an exquisite chipped pass, with perfect fade, from David Luiz into the path of a raiding Ramires down the right flank. A Hazard shot – I was right behind it – was goal bound, but a home defender blocked. Tackles were starting to test the referee and Townsend was booked for diving. It was turning into a predictably tetchy affair. Spurs again cut through our defence like a hot knife through butter but Paulinho – I last saw him in Tokyo, the bugger – scraped the near post from inside the box. At the break, time for quiet contemplation.

I wished that we had played the ball earlier to Torres. I explained to Gary –

“Not hitting it at his chest, Gal, but just hit it into the space behind the central defenders. We haven’t done that once yet.”

Over to you Jose. Work your magic in the away dressing room.

Either Hazard or Oscar, in my opinion, could easily have made way for Juan Mata. Instead, Mikel was substituted, with Ramires dropping in alongside Frank.

Soon after the restart, Fernando Torres did ever so well to turn and beat a couple of Spurs defenders down the right flank – running towards us in the Park Lane – before sliding in a low pass, which unfortunately Oscar just failed to reach. The Spaniard soon became embroiled in a personal duel with Vertongen. He was soon booked for a foul, though I presumed that the referee Mike Dean had shown him the yellow card for placing his hands on Vertongen’s face.

Torres was now on fire and a gorgeous jink and strong run past Dawson meant that he only had Lloris to beat; his shot was blocked. Soon after, a long ball from Luiz was expertly chested down by Torres into the path of Mata who shot home, but the goal was disallowed for offside. A daisy-cutter from Frank soon followed. We were playing well, with intelligent passing making life difficult for a faltering Spurs team. Mata was heavily involved.

A horrible tackle by Vertongen on Ramires brought us all to our feet. He was easily becoming the villain of the piece. From the resulting Mata free-kick, played with perfect strength and position, the Spurs back line seemed to freeze, allowing John Terry to launch himself and guide the ball in past Lloris at the near post.

Pandemonium in the Chelsea section.

I pumped my left arm continually, then glanced down to see the Chelsea players following JT into the near corner.

My camera was ready; click, click, click, click, click, click. A lovely mess of fans’ fists and ecstatic Chelsea players’ faces.

Mourinho brought on Schurrle for a quiet Hazard. Torres again did ever so well to shimmy away from markers and lay the ball into the path of the German substitute, but Lloris again thwarted a near certain Chelsea goal. This was evolving into a cracking game of football.

With around ten minutes remaining, with Chelsea well on top, the on-going feud between Vertongen and Torres came to a head. A ball was pumped towards Torres and the two protagonists leaped for the ball. From my viewpoint, there seemed to be little contact, save for the flailing of arms, which is to be expected in any airborne challenge. If anything, Vertongen’s right arm seemed to catch Torres in the face. Both players went down, but the Spurs defender stayed down. Both sets of fans were baying. We knew that both players were on a yellow. When Alan suggested that Torres was in greater danger, I could hardly believe my ears.

What had he done? I had witnessed nothing untoward.

Mike Dean brandished a yellow towards the crowd of players. Some of the away fans presumed that it was for Vertongen. Fearing the worst, I knew that it was aimed at Torres. It soon became a red. We howled our displeasure. Fernando could not believe it. He took ages to slowly walk off the pitch. There was a genuine level of support for our number nine from the three thousand away fans. I think that this was his best game – OK, his best 36 minutes – in a Chelsea shirt by far.

However, it still irked that our hopes were dashed so cruelly.

“Well, we won’t score now Gal.”

Thankfully, two long range efforts from Sigurdsson and substitute Defoe blazed wide and over Petr Cech’s goal. A loss would have been unbearable. A draw was, in the circumstances, well deserved.

Walking south along the High Road once more, there was an overwhelming feeling of pride in that second-half performance. Our team is still evolving, but here was a great standard for us to aim for in all subsequent games. I was soon heading home, listening to the demise of both Manchester teams on the radio, and I was quick to reflect that an away point at the league leaders (yeah, I know) was becoming greater and greater by the minute.

It had been a good day.

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Tales From Within

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 25 November 2012.

I travelled up to London fearing the worst. This was surely going to be one of the darkest Chelsea days. In light of Roberto Di Matteo’s sacking after the Juventus game, I was overcome with dread and I could hardly raise much enthusiasm for the day ahead at all. Thankfully the awful weather had subsided – the drive up to London with my friend Steve was thankfully clear of teeming rain – but I was expecting a nasty mood inside Stamford Bridge. Tensions were certainly running high among the Chelsea support. I predicted the most volatile atmosphere that I would have ever experienced in almost thirty-seven years of visits to Stamford Bridge.

Robbie was out, Rafa was in and the Chelsea board were in for a rough old time.

At this point, my story takes an abrupt and startling deviation.

As I write these words, I am not sure if it is common knowledge that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich met a small group of supporters at Stamford Bridge before the game in order to judge the mood of the club’s support since the sacking of Robbie in the small hours of Wednesday morning.

I was one of that group.

I’ll not spend time detailing how I ended up in Roman’s office at 2.30pm on Sunday 25 November 2012, but I will certainly write a few words which I hope will help to explain why that day was like no other in all of my forty-seven years.

Six other Chelsea fans and I sat around a large table with owner Roman Abramovich and his right-hand man, Chelsea director Eugene Tenenbaum.

The little group of us had no game-plan. And I certainly didn’t want to go into the meeting with a set list of questions. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if we would be limited to just talking about the sacking of Robbie or if we were going to be allowed carte blanche. To be truthful, neither Roman nor Eugene mentioned any protocol. We were simply allowed to speak our minds. I was going to see where the meeting went and shoot from the hip. As I think back, my inputs into the meeting were statements rather than questions, but I wanted to see how Roman and Eugene reacted to them. After the introductions were done, the meeting began and I surprised myself by launching the meeting with a warning for Roman.

“I just want to say how much we appreciate all that you have done for this football club. That is beyond question. But you have to realise that there a lot of upset supporters here today because of what has happened this week. When I awoke in my hotel room in Turin on Wednesday morning and heard the news, I could hardly believe it. Because of this, you may see and hear some things in the stadium today that might shock you. The atmosphere will be pretty tough.”

Roman listened intently to all of our opinions and questions. I am sure that he understood the gist of what we were all saying. However, he responded 99% of the time in Russian and Eugene listened and translated for us. After a while, my next comment regarded how the outside world sees us.

“Some fans say they don’t care about what others think, but I have to say that it matters immensely to me how Chelsea Football Club is perceived. This club means the world to me. And I hate to see it perceived in a negative way. There are some people who think that this football club is run in a” – I paused and chose my words carefully – “foolish way.”

The dialogue was incredibly candid. I have promised myself that I will not share Roman’s responses and I hope fellow fans can understand this stance. As the meeting turned to a lengthy and incredibly insightful discussion about managers, I had to comment about something which has often troubled me. It was too good an opportunity to waste.

“There is a school of thought which says that you need to change the manager every two years to keep things fresh. And that’s OK. But every time Chelsea appoints a big name manager…Scolari, Ancelotti, Villas-Boas, the club says…’this is the manager for the next three or four years’ and yet he lasts just six months. I’m not sure if Roman understands this phrase, but the club seems to have a ‘slash and burn’ policy when it comes to appointing managers.”

The meeting was incredibly informal. I found it fascinating to witness Roman’s body language. My last major statement concerned the stadium. There had been talk about the thorny issue of moving away from our ancestral home and I knew that I had to put my views across the table. I caught Eugene’s eye and looked at him as I solemnly spoke.

“I hope that you realise you completely misjudged the mood of the supporters last autumn and you got the CPO bid completely wrong.”

Outside, I knew there were protests and placards, chants and anger. It felt totally surreal to be deep in the inner sanctum of Chelsea Football Club.

I’m still coming to terms with it twenty-four hours later.

Looking back, with hindsight, I certainly wish that I had asked two questions –

“Who are your football advisors?”

“Why did you invite us here?”

The meeting lasted around an hour. We had all found it very worthwhile – of course! – and as we descended the lift and departed to join the other supporters congregating outside the West Stand, I had to pinch myself.

“Did that really just happen?”

The rest of the day is a blur. The caustic atmosphere that I had expected didn’t really amount to much. Sure, there was booing as the teams came onto the pitch, and it was certainly loud, but there were the usual lulls when the crowd resorted to its usual levels of docility. I had not heard that Dave Sexton, our much-loved manager, had passed away and so I was certainly shocked and saddened to hear of his passing. There was a sustained period of applause in his memory. Sexton was the manager who took charge of the team for my very first Chelsea game way back in 1974.

Rest in Peace.

As the game was played out before me, I kept thinking back to the meeting. To be honest, I did feel compromised. Going into the meeting, I could not understand the reasons why the club had dispensed with Roberto Di Matteo’s services and I was angry with our ludicrous policy of hiring and firing managers to the point of absurdity. After hearing the explanation for the brutal sacking – which again, I apologise for not being able to share publicly – my views of Roman and the board had softened.

And I felt very uncomfortable.

Had I fallen for the earnest and reasoned justification put forth by our owner and his, at times, quiet and shy demeanour? I wasn’t sure. I know that I didn’t feel right. I was surrounded by forty thousand disgruntled Chelsea supporters and yet my once strident set of opinions had been compromised by what I had heard in the meeting. I had to balance the two contrasting views. I’d like to think I am a fairly balanced person. I’d need time to fathom it all out.

Watch this space.

Chelsea fans heartily sang out our former manager’s name during the sixteen minutes and I joined in, clapping the entire time. I wanted to show solidarity with my fellow fans. Rafael Benitez, away on the far touch line – dressed in a dull blue suit – stood in the technical area and it just didn’t seem right.

But I couldn’t boo him. That would be, in my mind, one step too far.

It wasn’t much of a game was it? Thankfully, Manchester City seemed to be a pale shadow of the team which ripped us apart during the first twenty-five minutes of the corresponding fixture last season. That was a game in which we registered the eventual champions’ first league defeat of the season. For once, our troubled defence seemed to play a far more controlled game. This was most welcome. It was a start; from little acorns and all that. If anything, it was the players ahead of them who under-performed. Fernando Torres, typically, skied our best chance of the game, blasting high from fifteen yards in the second-half. In truth, Joe Hart was hardly troubled all game. City’s chances were a little more forthcoming, but the game ended 0-0.

I was happy with that. A defeat would have been too hard to bear.

And on this most tumultuous and yet fragile of days, this is where I will finish.

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