Tales From Youngsters And Veterans

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 9 November 2019.

Like many match days at Stamford Bridge, this was a day that was devoted to meeting up with good friends just as much as cheering the team, and hoping for yet another league win. But it was also, of course, a day that Chelsea Football Club honoured those that have served our country. I am always pleased when we have home matches at Stamford Bridge over Remembrance weekends. Chelsea manage this day so well.

This home game against Crystal Palace came just four days over a complete year since the corresponding fixture in 2018/19, a relatively easy 3-1 win.

This one was a 12.30pm kick-off, a lunchtime kick-about.

It meant that I needed to leave home as early as was feasible in order to squeeze as much out of a Chelsea Saturday as was possible. I had set the alarm for 6am ahead of a planned 7am departure from my dormant Somerset village. Unfortunately, I awake anyway at just before 5am and could not get back to sleep.

I peeked out of my landing window; there was a frost, the first of the year. Winter was with us now.

I collected Simon, a work-colleague, and PD in Frome and then shot over to pick-up Parky. We were soon headed over Salisbury Plain and London was beckoning us. We usually speed past Stonehenge during its normal opening hours, but at around 8.15am the site was devoid of visitors. The historic stones stood alone on a blanket of delicately frosted grass. It was a striking sight. Sometimes I have to blink at the magnificence of our land. It is so easy to take such sights, and sites, so much for granted.

Simon works as a project manager at my place of work; he joined in 1995, I joined up in 2003. Whereas it is my job to deliver our products – office furniture – it is his job to oversee the installation programme.

I’m a Ruben Loftus-Cheek to his Tammy Abraham.

Kinda.

It stayed fine throughout our trip to London, though there were reports of rain to follow later in the day. Our pre-match was at an unusual venue for us, “The Oyster Rooms” which sits above Fulham Broadway.

Dennis and Kazuko, still buzzing from the Ajax game, were already in the bar when I arrived. I had joked with Dennis about them putting other travel plans on hold once they had experienced match day at Stamford Bridge; I was to be proved right. They were already planning on a return visit before the end of the season. The queue for the drinks was heavy. Eventually everyone was served. We were joined by Ben and Christina, husband and wife, from Louisiana. Ben and I first started chatting in Philadelphia in 2012 ahead of our game against the MLS All-Stars in Chester, Pennsylvania.

I was reminded that Ben was a passenger on the same bus, one of the four school buses that had been arranged to take us to the game, that I was on. It turned out to be quite a fateful journey. I had chatted to other supporters on that bus and these have become firm friends with them since; Karen from Connecticut, and Kathryn and Tim from Virginia. Well, what a shocker – Dennis was apparently on the same bus too. What a small world. That bus ride was such fun. Each of the four yellow buses took turns in overtaking in each other. Fans flicked Vs at each other. Then the Chelsea team bus made a brief and fleeting appearance as it sped past as we headed south on interstate I-95. What a laugh. Phantastic times in South Philly.

There had been little talk of the upcoming game, but we knew that it was likely that N’Golo Kante would step in to take the place of the suspended Jorginho, who – we are sure – took a yellow at Vicarage Road so he would miss the Palace game so he would be ready for Manchester City.

I appreciated that Dennis made a point of shaking Parky’s hand as he thanked him for his service. Both had served in the armed forces. Both were veterans. Indeed, Dennis was in for a treat, if that is the correct word in such circumstances. I am deeply proud of the way that our club goes about honouring our war veterans in the first week of November each year.

For this reason alone, I made sure that I was inside the stadium in good time.

I loved seeing the special banners that Dennis had reported seeing being fastened to the buildings behind the Shed End on a stadium tour during the week. To the left, a lovely photograph of some Chelsea Pensioners, their red tunics and black tricorn hats adding a different colour to Stamford Bridge for this particular match day. To the right, the simple “Chelsea Remembers” backed with poppies, and more red. With Chelsea in blue and white, and Crystal Palace in a ‘seventies-inspired away kit of white edged with blue and white, this day really was all about the colours of the Union flag.

The team news came through.

Indeed, N’Golo Kante came in for Jorginho. Emerson was in for Marcos Alonso. Pulisic kept his place, and quite rightly too.

But the big news, really, was that Reece James was in for Cesar Azpilicueta. Dave has been such a solid regular, almost an ever-present, in this team since 2012 that not seeing him in the line-up was an odd feeling. But after James’ excellent substitute appearance on Tuesday, plus the threat of Wilfrid Zaha, it was a decision that was wholly understandable.

Arrizabalaga

James – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Kante – Kovacic

Mount

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

Two Chelsea pensioners in scarlet lead the teams out, past a huge flag of a poppy and our club crest, and after the teams had gone through all of the pre-match presentations, we stood in silence as we remembered the fallen. Poppies fell against a simple white backdrop on the TV screen above the three-thousand away fans.

Right at the end, a lone voice from the away end.

“God Bless Them All.”

This was not expected, nor strictly something that should be supported, but I was OK with this. It added a dramatic, and unexpected twist, and certainly didn’t detract from the moment in my opinion.

The resulting lone shout of “wanker” from the Matthew Harding Lower immediately after was not so wise.

The game began.

Unsurprisingly, we began on the front foot and dominated so much of the early stages, with the visitors more than content to drop and soak up pressure. An early cross, excellent, from Reece James high up the pitch on the right flank hinted at a productive afternoon from the young defender. At times, I was annoyed that we did not utilise him more. At times he found himself in acres of space. I liked the look of Christian Pulisic, in that inside left position in the main rather than always hugging the line, who showed neat footwork from the off. A shot from him went wide early on. But soon after, Pulisic collected a pass from Willian and showed excellent skill in drifting past a last defender with a shimmy that Eden Hazard would have been pleased, but his shot was saved by the Palace ‘keeper Vicente Guaita.

One of the highlights of the first-half for me was a full-on, rather old-fashioned, race up the right touchline by Reece James. Not only did he show great control, real pace, and spirit, but he stayed on his feet throughout despite a couple of challenges that might well have sent others sprawling.

I was dead impressed.

A free-kick was awarded in a central position.

“Give it to Zouma. He needs shooting practice.”

In the end, the resulting effort from Willian drifted past the near post. Not long after, Emerson tested the Crystal Palace ‘keeper from a similar position, but again wide.

Despite our dominance, the atmosphere was hindered by the early kick-off; in a nutshell, not enough alcohol. A simple truth.

A free-kick from Mason Mount did not clear the wall.

Crystal Palace rarely enjoyed much of the ball at all. On a rare foray up field, they were awarded a free-kick down below us, but it was over hit and screamed past the far post.

“Awful.”

We carved out a couple of chances; a Pulisic header, and then a shot from Tammy Abraham that was blocked by right in front of the goal as the first-half minutes ran out.

There was a hint of deep irony that a full four minutes of added-time at the end of the first-half were signalled.

“Great. Where was that on bloody Tuesday night?”

Just before the break, a truly horrific pass from Kepa to Zouma, with an attacker breathing down his neck, had us all screaming and roaring . Sometimes his distribution is just awful. King Kurt had enjoyed a solid first-half in fact. A double tackle, sliding, perfectly timed, was one of the highlights. Or was that in the second-half? I forget.

It had been, generally, a good half but not a great one. Tammy’s movement was not great, but on a few occasions we did not spot the option of an early ball into space, over the top. There were positives in midfield with excellent play from Kovacic, always involved, and Mount, always running and closing down space.

As an aside, can anyone remember what football was like before pundits, and some supporters – not all, you know who you are – used the word “press” every five fucking seconds?

For goodness sake, talk about buzz words.

There was talk between Alan and little old me at half-time about the possibility of Frank being bold and taking off Tammy and replacing him with Michy at the break. Alan had spotted that Tammy’s body language had been a little “off” during the first forty-five minutes. He had, possibly, become frustrated with the service.

Lo and behold, seven minutes into the second-half, with a noticeable increase in speed of movement on the ball and off it, we watched as a great move unfolded. Lovely interplay between Kovacic and Willian – a simply wonderful flick into space, quite exquisite – played in Tammy. He steadied himself, and slotted home.

Just what he needed.

Lovely.

GET IN.

His face in the celebrations displayed a certain melancholy. The last shot that I took almost hinted at an apology :

“Sorry I haven’t scored before now.”

We hoped that the goal would jump start his confidence.

Elsewhere we began to show greater freedom, greater confidence and greater awareness of others moving off the ball. I loved the way that a player, usually Mason Mount, would “nibble” at a Palace player in an attempt to nick the ball. If the ball was not immediately won, very often the challenge caused the player in possession to miss-control and this tended to result in a second or even third Chelsea player winning the ball. This instilled momentum, and moves developed at pace.

It was excellent.

We improved as the second-half continued, and as the rain eventually arrived.

Pulisic drifted past some defenders and let fly from a central position. His rising drive was admirably saved by Guaita.

The visitors enjoyed around ten minutes just after the hour mark where our play was not quite so solid. There was a perfectly-timed block from King Kurt inside the box. Once or twice, but no more than that, Zaha had the better of Reece James. Generally, the youngster had enjoyed a very fine league debut. Early days, but he looks a very great prospect indeed.

Another shot from Pulisic. This time it flew over.

But the boy from Pennsylvania had impressed me again. He looked confident and keen to take players on.

Michy Batshuayi replaced Tammy Abraham.

With around ten minutes remaining, Pulisic controlled a long cross-field ball with ease and he worked it into Michy. His shot was blocked and as the ball ballooned up into a dangerous position inside the six-yard box, Pulisic was able to react quickly and nod he ball in.

GET IN.

I caught his joyous run and leap on film, snap, snap, snap.

Sadly, more “USA USA USA” claptrap.

The scorer was replaced by Callum Hudson-Odoi.

At the other end, Kepa continued his tradition of late lunges to his left to stop certain goals as a James McCarthy effort was wonderfully pushed around the post.

Was it his only save of note?

We thought so.

Chances still continued, with Willian – enjoying a really fine game as captain – and Batshuayi threatened the Palace goal.

Billy Gilmour was a late substitute for Mason Mount, who had been everywhere. I even saw him buying drinks for Chelsea supporters at half-time. He has an engine that would not be out of place at Silverstone, Monza or Monaco.

The minutes dried up.

It stayed at 2-0.

We improved as the game had developed. There were solid seven and eight of ten performances throughout the team. We were soon to learn on the drive home – into dark clouds and through more rain – that this would be our youngest-ever starting eleven since the Premier League began in 1992.

The kids are alright, as someone once said.

We laughed as Tottenham dropped points at home to Sheffield United as I drove along the A303 towards Stonehenge. Later, Arsenal lost too.

Good times. Again, we are London’s top club.

Later that evening, dried out at home, I watched the Service of Remembrance from the Royal Albert Hall, and the highlight, as ever for me, was the appearance of the Chelsea Pensioners. There was an extra special treat this year, though; an extended rendition of “The Boys Of The Old Brigade” with the fine voice of a lone Chelsea Pensioner leading the way.

It was brilliant stuff.

The boys of the old brigade.

The boys of the young brigade.

On this day, and hopefully in those days to come, Chelsea got it right.

 

Tales From The Eight Bells And Three Points

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 4 November 2018.

Another Sunday, another game.

I had dropped the lads off at West Kensington at around midday. The arranged “meet” on this sunny November Sunday was “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge. While I went off to park up, the lads – Glenn, PD, Parky – made their way down to the bottom end of the King’s Road by themselves. Once parked up just off Lillee Road, I walked over to West Brompton, crossing over the North End Road, amid many memories of previous Chelsea moments.

Drinks at “The Lillee Langtry” after beating United 3-0 to win the league in 2006. A triumphant drink in the very same boozer after the Champions League semi-final victory against Liverpool in 2008. A late night curry at the “Lily Tandoori” with friends from both coasts of the USA after a debilitating defeat to Inter in the Champions League in 2010. Calling in at “The Prince Of Wales” en route to Wembley with Parky for the 2012 FA Cup Final. Dropping in to “The Wee Imp” after a pizza at “Salvo’s” after a game with Leicester City in 2014 with a mate from Detroit, keen to show him the ultimate Chelsea post-game experience at the time.

And looming over everything was the towering mass of the Empress State Building, one of the iconic buildings that has coloured my Chelsea match-going experiences from 1974, and even before. Before I used to go to games, the triangular-shaped building was often spotted by myself in black and white action shots from Stamford Bridge. I would have spotted it in person away to my left from my seat in the West Stand Benches for the first time in real technicolour – suitably blue and white – at that first game. From The Shed, it looked massive, as did the huge mass of the Earls Court exhibition centre to its east. It was once the tallest building in London. I love it because it forms a constant link to my present-day Chelsea experience to those of my youth. It used to house M15 apparently. I always remembered that LBC used to broadcast from there. Now it is used by the Met Police. Maybe one of these days, we’ll get to experience a different pre-match vibe with a meal – and drinks – in the revolving restaurant at the top. That view must be sensational.

The huge Earls Court building – and Earl’s Court Two – is no more, bulldozed to make way for new residential and commercial buildings. I bloody loved the Art Deco façade of Earl’s Court. Such a shame it had to go. Of course, back in 2011, the club had fanciful ideas about us moving to a stadium on this site. So much for that idea.

The area opposite West Brompton tube has now been renamed West Brompton Crossing, the Prince Of Wales has closed and has been re-opened and a row of trendy shops have taken the place of more working class pubs, cafes, kebab shops and cab firms. Even “The Lily Langtree” was closed for a while. It has reopened again with a classier look and higher prices.

I caught the District Line train from West Brompton to Putney Bridge. It was a mighty odd feeling to be passing through Fulham Broadway without alighting. Putney Bridge is a lovely station – white tiles, green paint – and when I exited the train I looked back to the north and was still able to spot the Empress State Building. The stands at Stamford Bridge, annoyingly, were hidden by buildings.

I had visited Putney Bridge tube station on only one other occasion. I had come down to visit a mate in London in 1985 and we decided to watch a Fulham vs. Charlton Athletic game at Craven Cottage in the old Second Division. The gate was only about 6,000 from memory. It was a dire 0-0 draw. That served me right.

On all visits to Fulham since, I have driven my car and parked in Fulham or, usually, across the river in Putney itself.

I soon found the lads outside the Eight Bells, enjoying the beers and the craic. It is a super little pub. It has the feel of a pub on a village green, the centre of a little community, a local’s boozer. I am a big fan. Joining us were Kev and Rich from Edinburgh, Andy, Kim and Dan from Kent, plus Josh from Minneapolis and Dale from Chicago. It was a typically entertaining time. The pub was ridiculously busy, with Sunday roasts being served amid chatter and laughter. I had not met Dale before, but knew of mutual friends. We spoke momentarily how the future might pan out a few years down the line.

A management team of Frank Lampard and John Terry, anyone?

Best not get too giddy about that. Let’s enjoy the current regime. Let’s enjoy the moment. Whatever will be will be, as someone once said.

We called in for further bevvies at “The King’s Head.”

Alas, it was soon time to head off to the game.

“Bloody football. Getting in the way of a good time.”

We back-tracked to Putney Bridge tube and headed north to a more familiar station. We were soon at Fulham Broadway.

“Home.”

Inside the ground, Crystal Palace unsurprisingly had the standard three thousand. There were a couple of “CPFC” banners, which would mirror one of their chants. The team that manager Maurizio had chosen was the same eleven that walloped Burnley away last Sunday.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Willian – Morata – Pedro

Before the game, there was a minute of complete silence in memory of those who had perished in the Leicester City tragedy. Rarely have I seen, and heard – or not heard – Stamford Bridge so quiet on such an occasion. It was impeccably observed.

Crystal Palace were wearing a nod to their famous old kit of around forty years ago; the all-white with the red and blue sash across the shirts. I always think of Vince Hilaire when I see that kit. As Alan reminded me, in those days, following promotion in the 1978/1979 season, Crystal Palace were briefly known as “The Team Of The ‘Eighties.” Stop sniggering at the back. This epithet never ever looked like being a particularly prophetic description of Terry Venables’ team. In the following season – 1979/80 – Crystal Palace finished in thirteenth position. I would like to make some pithy comment about them still finishing one place about Tottenham that season, but as Chelsea were still toiling in the Second Division at the time I had best be quiet.

The visitors from South London have been something of a bogey team to us over the last few seasons. In our past five away games at Selhurst Park, we have lost two games. In that same period, we have lost two games to Palace at Stamford Bridge too. But, that said, we all expected a home win. No doubts. Surely our class would tell.

However, we were rather slow getting off the blocks. In the first quarter of an hour or so, the visitors arguably enjoyed most of the better attacking play. Of course, all eyes were on Wilfrid Zaha, and his pace was upsetting our defenders with a few trademark runs. Once in the box however, he tended to take a few extra over-indulgent touches. In one moment of play, his feet were chopping up and down on the ball like a dressage pony. The Palace fans, suitably impressed with their bright opening, then made fools of themselves.

“We’re just too good for you.”

Oh my aching sides.

A free-shot from Meyer ballooned over from the edge of our box. Soon after, David Luiz made a fantastic block inside our penalty area. Thankfully, I noted that the pacey Zaha was not being ably supported by his team mates. Throughout the game, I felt that their forwards were often ploughing lone furrows. Their play would not often mesh together. But we were being tested alright. We needed to up our game.

We began to get into the match. A couple of Antonio Rudiger cross-field passes out to the left-wing were inch perfect and were illustrative of our growing confidence. But there had been a few wayward passes too. The away fans were making some noise, but the home areas were pretty still and pretty quiet. On thirty minutes, the ball was worked in towards Pedro – who had already swapped wings with Willian on a couple of occasions – who had a couple of stabs at getting the ball into a good position. Alvaro Morata was the willing recipient and his neat turn resulted in the ball being poked home.

At last some noise. His joyful run…a hop, a skip, a jump…took him towards Parkyville

I was dead happy that the much-maligned Morata had scored another. I hoped that his resurgence would continue.

Not long after, a Willian goal was disallowed for offside. Morata then headed over. We had edged ahead and at half-time, despite not overpowering the visitors at any stage, all looked rosy. With Liverpool drawing at Arsenal, but with Manchester beating Southampton 6-1, we could at least secure a healthy second-place.

With the evening getting duskier and darker, the second-half began. Sadly, our defensive frailties were evident when Palace exploited a very high defensive line with a couple of quick passes.  Andros Townsend was able to run free, and his low shot easily beat Kepa in the Chelsea goal.

“Like a knife through butter.”

“Bollocks.”

At least I was stirred that following the equaliser, the Chelsea fans let out a very loud and defiant “CAREFREE.”

We toiled away for a further ten minutes, but needed the impetus provided by a couple of substitutions to fully get into the game. We had spotted Eden Hazard, especially, warming up in front of the East Stand, and it was with a smile that we saw Sarri talking to him and asking him to take his trackie top off.

It turned out to be a double substitution.

Alan and I had the briefest of discussions about the changes. We don’t always get it right, but this time we were spot on.

Mateo Kovacic for a slightly subdued Ross Barkley.

Eden Hazard for Willian.

Eden’s first real involvement lead to panic in the Palace penalty area. His free-kick from the Chelsea right avoided everyone, and Morata was able to control the ball as he waited – surprisingly free – at the far post. His low left-footed strike flew into the net. And how he celebrated. Hugs all around. Smiles for everyone. It was magical to see the Chelsea players celebrating down below us. Morata and Hazard then came together, and Eden excitedly shook his head like a child, with Alvaro embracing him, sharing his joy. What a gorgeous moment. There is something childlike, not childish, about our Eden. He simply loves playing football, and – my goodness – he is certainly flourishing under our new manager.

For a while, it was all about Eden. Almost immediately bringing others in to the game, Eden made such an impact. His ridiculously broad shoulders were proving to be broad enough to carry his underperforming team mates once more. A touch here, a shimmy there, a pass here, a run there. He immediately attracted extra attention, which in turn freed up important spaces elsewhere.

Not long after, a rapid move down our left resulted in a low cross from Marcos Alonso being slammed into the box. It flew past Hazard and was slightly behind Morata, but Pedro was on hand to whip the ball home. The game was surely safe now. The players raced over to our corner once more – how lucky we are – and the smiles were shared by players and fans alike. Pedro’s toothy green lit up the evening. He was beaming. A few hand gestures, a lick of his thumb – answers on a postcard – and a wave to the cheering gallery. Top man.

Cesc Fabregas replaced Jorginho – Alan and I got that one right too, three out of three – in the eightieth minute.

In the last minute of the game, the ball was won deep in the Palace half and was released early. Morata found himself in on goal. We waited for him to shoot, or to probably go left or right and prod home a la Fernando Torres in Catalonia in 2012. Instead, the striker chose to chip Hennessey, but the ‘keeper had read the signs. Morata groaned and so did we. The hat-trick would have to wait.

Chelsea 3 Crystal Palace 1.

This turned out to be an easy win.

I bloody hope that there are many more to come this season.

Safe travels to all those heading over to Belarus. My next game is the Everton match on Sunday.

I will see some of you there.

Tales From The King’s Road Club

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 10 March 2018.

After two tiring – in more ways than one – journeys to Manchester in the previous two games, the home match against Crystal Palace provided a chance for a more relaxing day at football. With our trip to Catalonia now getting very close, here was a nice little pre-cursor. The reason for this upbeat mood? Parky had booked us day return rail tickets which meant that there were no driving duties for me, and there was an added bonus of an elongated pub crawl down the King’s Road before the game.

Bloody perfect.

We caught the 7.56am train from Westbury, and the memories of previous Chelsea trips flooded back. Not much has changed at Westbury over the years. It could easily have been a scene from 1982, 1985, 1988 or 1991. There was plenty of chit-chat between the four of us – PD, Glenn, Parky and little old me – and the familiar stations of Pewsey, Newbury and Reading were reached in what seemed like no time at all. We were joined by another Chelsea supporter on the journey to London, a chap around the same age as us – maybe a little older – who must have spotted PD’s little Chelsea badges, or overheard our Chelsea-related chatter. He sat next to us and we soon got chatting.

“Are you going to the football?” he asked.

“Yeah. Chelsea Palace” I replied.

“Are you Chelsea or Palace?” enquired Glenn.

I smiled and said “he’s too well dressed to be a Palace supporter.”

“Oh, I’m a season ticket holder in the East Stand.”

I had spotted him on the platform at Westbury; waxed Barbour jacket, mustard cords, brogues. I had – erroneously – presumed that he was a rugby fan from his attire. How wrong I was.

“I’m part of a syndicate; three of us share a season ticket” Shane replied.

It transpired that he lives just outside Frome, in a little village called Chapmanslade. I was thrilled that there was another Chelsea season ticket holder from our neck of the woods. I was even more pleased that one of the syndicate lives in Great Elm, a village only one and a half miles away from my house. We chatted away and he told us a little about his past; like Parky he had been in the Army. Parky was in the Grenadier Guards. Shane was in the Coldstream Guards. But whereas Parky went to a local comprehensive, Shane was an Old Etonian. But he was Chelsea and that was good enough for me. And he went up in my estimations when he showed disdain for “egg- chasing.”

“Never judge a book by its cover” I thought to myself.

We chatted about our recent experiences of following our team in the recent weeks and months. There was indeed much to talk about. I am not sure why, but the talk turned to Mo Salah, and Shane asked us the name of “that other Egyptian, who played for Spurs, the one with the big nose.” We struggled to name him.

From the passenger sitting across from Shane – tapping away silently on his laptop – came the word “Mido.”

And I had a little smirk to myself.

I wondered if the chap was a Spurs fan. I wondered if he had been biting his lip during the previous thirty minutes, wanting to interrupt our Chelsea-centric chat, but fearful that he would be shot down in flames as a fan of the team from North London that we always seem to get the better of.

We pulled into Paddington at about 9.30am. The buzz of a day in London was apparent as we walked beneath the arched roofs of the fine old station. After a breakfast of champions, we caught the Bakerloo to Embankment and the District to Sloane Square. The military theme of the day continued as we walked past the former site of Chelsea Barracks, which Parky was familiar with, although during his stay in the army in the early ‘seventies he was based in nearby Pimlico.

I had planned a six-pub crawl, but we exceeded expectations. From just after 11am to around 4.30pm, we visited a total of ten hostelries either along – or just off – the famous King’s Road.

The King’s Road was always linked to the swinging ‘sixties and the swinging football team that went with it, but in all my years of going to Stamford Bridge, I have never walked its length before a game sampling its pubs and boozers. Most Chelsea match day pubs along the King’s Road have historically been located “over the railway bridge” in Fulham and I have very occasionally visited a few of those Chelsea staples, though – again – on very few occasions. Most of my – our – drinking has been in Fulham proper, the North End Road, Fulham Broadway and those pubs near the stadium.

We had spoken about a pub crawl down the most famous street in Chelsea for years. At last we were going to do it justice.

“The Fox & Hounds.”

Much to my annoyance, the first one that I had planned was closed. So although, we visited ten, it was something of a false ten. Or a false nine, maybe? Where have we heard that before?

“The Rose & Crown.”

This pub is described as “unpretentious” and I could not have summed it up better. When I walked into the pub, I was met by a pungent aroma of disinfectant, which is surely not the best of starts. Still, they sold “Peroni” and so I was happy. The boozer had a distinct ‘seventies feel to it. No frills, no thrills, but plenty of spills. I wondered, in all honesty, now such a downmarket boozer could exist in such a high rent location. The toilet door was reassuringly etched with many football scribbles  :

MFC.

Up The Boro.

CHELSEA.

MCFC.

WHUFC.

We moved on, and our route took us close to the Royal Hospital, the home of those famous scarlet tunics.

“The Phoenix.”

This was an unplanned stop, just off the King’s Road on Smith Street, but much-needed after the austerity of the first one. Another “Peroni” and – with Parky and PD sampling an “Estrella” apiece –  there were a few a few thoughts about Barcelona. To our left were three Chelsea supporters from Norway, who mentioned they were looking forward to seeing a Norwegian called Alexander Sorloth play for Palace. I had not heard of him.

“The Chelsea Potter.”

Here was a famous Chelsea pub, one that I have often heard mentioned in despatches. The single saloon was packed, and I would soon learn that it was packed with both Manchester United and Liverpool supporters, awaiting the start of the game from Old Trafford. As luck would have it, my stool at a high table was turned away from the TV screen. I did not bother to watch; I shunned it completely. Another “Peroni” helped numb the pain of United racing to a 2-0 lead. We had hoped for a draw.

“The Trafalgar.”

There are a quirky mix of building styles along this stretch of the King’s Road, and a mix of shops too. Parky was pleased to see that the Curzon cinema was still in business, although the art deco frontage suggested that it is now houses a Habitat department store too. Next door was a large blue-bricked boozer, and we dived into its dark and quiet interior. Yet another “Peroni” and it was only one o’clock or so.

“The Builders Arms.”

We walked north a few hundred yards and plotted up inside the elegant and classy interior of “The Builders Arms.” No “Peroni” so I chanced a pint of “Birra Moretti” which is not as crisp as my favourite. Here we went through the events at Manchester City the previous Sunday. For once, we were talking football. Glenn had watched Antonio’s press conference the previous day and I was pleased to hear that he had seemed, apparently, more relaxed and at ease.

“The Sydney Arms.”

On the short walk to the next pub, we were stunned to see the gorgeous warm stone of the surprisingly huge St. Luke’s Church, a hidden jewel. I had not seen it before. It was a lovely treat. The next pub was packed, and many eyes were watching the Ireland vs. Scotland rugby game from Dublin. Here, it was a pint of “Sagres”. There was a small amount of banter with a couple of Chelsea supporters. But this still didn’t seem like the world outside was aware that Chelsea were playing a mile or so down the road.

Out onto the King’s Road, we caught a cab to the next destination. To our right I spotted the benches on Dovehouse Green which I always remember being the meeting – and posing – place of the punks of my adolescence and beyond. In around 1984, I noted it was Carnaby Street for mods and the King’s Road for punks, though time was moving on for both of those cults.

“The World’s End.”

Any pub crawl down the King’s Road, surely has to encompass this pub. We all remember the iconic black and white photograph of Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti, high on a London double-decker bus, holding aloft the newly-acquired FA Cup with the Worlds End pub behind. Here was a pub that I had visited just once before – the opener against home in 1991 – but is now much changed, and effectively a restaurant and a pub no longer. But the hosts made us feel welcome. During his days in the army, Parky would often walk the length of the King’s Road and would end up in this pub. It was just excellent to be back. I was evidently starting to falter; just a bottle of “Peroni” this time. Just before we crossed the bridge into Fulham, we walked past Slaidburn Street, another location of a famous photograph or two from 1970. Decidedly working class in those days – how times change – this terraced street was festooned with the blue and white banners wishing Chelsea well in the FA Cup Final and a few iconic photographs were taken. I wondered how many residents were Chelsea fans today.

“The Jam Tree.”

Pub number eight was not particularly busy, but it is a boozer that I am sure a few of us visited on an end of season mini pub crawl in 2000. Another pint of “Peroni” please Parky. The game was still over ninety minutes away. I suspect a few of our more local fans – do we have many? – were setting foot outside to make their way to the game. There was talk of this pub featuring in the hideous “Made In Chelsea” TV show.

“The Imperial.”

Another classic Chelsea pub, and visited on a few occasions previously, though each time I visit the bar seems to be in a different place. I was reaching my limit, so went for a bottle of “Corona.” We sat in a quiet corner, but I soon spotted an old workmate from over twenty years ago. Roger now lives in Devon, and I saw him last at that crazy 5-4 League Cup win against Manchester United in the autumn of 2012 when we travelled up together. It was lovely to see him again. He was with his mate Andy, who I last saw in 1997 when he refereed a game at Warminster which involved a Peter Osgood select team including such players as Tommy Langley, Graham Wilkins and Jimmy Case. Where does the time go?

So, nine pubs. Phew. Of course, if I had any sense I would have made sure that we popped into “The Butcher’s Hook” on the club’s one-hundred and thirteenth birthday, to pay homage to where the club was formed.

Maybe next year.

Inside the stadium, I soon spotted Alan and Gary Buchmann who have seats in the same section as us. Sadly, their dear father Joe passed away last Sunday, aged ninety. Joe had been a season-ticket holder for simply decades, and I liked him a lot. I remember he used to give me a Christmas card every year, and on the very first one that he gave me – in December 2004 – he addressed it :

“To Chris and the Chelsea Boys. Chelsea will win the league this season.”

Prophetic words, indeed.

For the best part of twenty seasons we sat with him. We sadly lost our pal Tom in 2015. In 2018, we lost Joe. He was a lovely man, and although he did not attend a game over the past two seasons, he was always in our thoughts. One memory from three years ago is strong. It came after Willian’s last minute winner against Everton in February 2015 :

“I looked over at Joe, a few seats away, past Alan. Joe is around eighty-five and his face was a picture. He too was stood, arms out-stretched, looking straight towards me. We just looked at each other, our faces and our bodies were mirror-images of each other. Wide smiles but arms wider. It was a fantastic and magical moment. Chelsea smiles everywhere.”

I gave Alan and Gary a hug – “your father was a lovely man” – and took my seat.

The early-evening air was mild. There had been no gulps when we learned about Antonio Conte’s team selection, though there was a place for Gary Cahill.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

I was aware that there were a few trans-Atlantic friends visiting and there were mainly watching from The Shed Lower. I hoped that the Ohio Blues, the Atlanta Blues and the New York Blues enjoyed the next ninety minutes.

The crowd assembled, though our dear pal Alan was not with us. He had fallen on his way to work during the week and was housebound. Gut-wrenchingly, he will miss the soiree to Barcelona.

GET WELL SOON T.

Before the match began, there was a minute of applause for a former champion, a star from 1955, the ginger-haired Derek Saunders, who – like Joe – had reached the grand age of ninety.

RIP Derek.

RIP Joe.

After the defensive shackles against Manchester City last Sunday, there was much more – obviously – attacking intent against Crystal Palace. A shot from Kante was almost flicked into the Palace goal by Giroud. A Zappacosta effort caused Wayne Hennessey to drop to his knees to gather. There were two or three “sighters” from Willian. From a Crystal Palace corner, Christian Benteke was left alone behind a gaggle of players in the middle of the box, but he headed tamely over. Palace, of course, had won 2-1 against us in 2015/2016 and in 2016/2017. It was so good to see our man N’Golo back in our starting eleven once more. Maybe if he had played at City, our game plan might have been slightly different. Andros Townsend fired over.

But it was mainly Chelsea.

On twenty-five minutes, Willian collected the ball and moved effortlessly inside. His low shot took a slight nick off the defender Martin Kelly, and we were ahead. I hope that the transatlantic visitors in Parkyville enjoyed Willian’s celebrations.

From Alan : “THTCAUN.”

I replied : “COMLD.”

Not long after, a nice move increased our lead. The ball was swept into the box by Marcos Alonso. Willian hopped over the ball, after presumably receiving a shout from Eden Hazard, who set up Zappacosta to his right. It was hardly Pele to Carlos Alberto, and the shot took a deflection or two off the hapless Kelly, but it was a deserved second-goal. The celebrations from the players seemed a little sheepish, but that did not matter. The crowd roared its approval.

The Matthew Harding started singing :

“One Martin Kelly. There’s only one Martin Kelly.”

There was certainly not the nimble footwork of Gene Kelly from the Palace defender.

Giroud had been involved throughout the first-half and it felt so much better to have a focal point for our play. There had been some fine movement from all of our attacking players. Only a crazy touchline clearance from James Tomkins stopped our new striker from opening his account. Another Zappacosta effort was saved well by the Palace ‘keeper. A Hazard goal was ruled offside. But all was well at the end of the first-half.

We hoped for further goals to build confidence ahead of the game of the season against Barcelona, but the second-half was more arid despite a fair few Chelsea efforts.

In the first noticeable moment of the second-half, the Nowegian Sorlath crashed a shot against the post after a defensive lapse by Andreas Christensen. Willian went close after switching passes with Giroud. A Hazard effort was saved by Hennessey. Willian caused the Palace ‘keeper to scramble to his left to save from a central free-kick. Willian – the main threat – then created for Zappocosta and Giroud.

We were once again treated to some lovely up close and personal trickery from Eden Hazard. One sequence shows his control over ball and defenders alike.

As space opened up, a run down the left flank by Alonso found Giroud, who steadied himself, but his side-footed shot came back off the far post. It seemed his luck was certainly against him. He was replaced by Alvaro Morata with twenty minutes to go. Palace had a goal disallowed via Sorleth, but that was our signal to leave.

We needed to leave the boys to it in order to make sure our train connections worked. We gathered together and headed down to Fulham Broadway. A quick tube up to West Brompton allowed us to connect at Clapham Junction for our train home, which was taking the southern route via Salisbury. While we waited at West Brompton, we heard that Patrick van Aanholt had scored a late Palace goal. We had, apparently, squeaked it 2-1. At Clapham Junction, the narrow passages echoing to “Chelsea”, we raided the Cornish Pasty concession stand. A Palace fan chatted to us and wished us well on Wednesday. Rival football fan in fair-minded and generous comment shock. Whatever next?

Our train connections went well and we reached Westbury at 10.30pm. We soon caught a cab back to Frome.

It had been a fine day.

On Wednesday, Barcelona await.

I will see many of you out there.

 

Tales From An Afternoon Of Predictable Unpredictability

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 14 October 2017.

My eyes were firmly focussed on Andre Marriner, the referee, as the Crystal Palace supporters continued their euphoric and boisterous backdrop of noise, and as the last few seconds of the five minutes of added time ticked past. In those five minutes, rather than allowing a late reprise for Chelsea, it was the home team who enjoyed most of the possession. A few Chelsea fans around me had left minutes earlier. I waited for the final shrill toot of the whistle. Such was the noise from the Palace fans, I heard no whistle, but just the simultaneous movement of hand to mouth from Marriner, the celebratory thrust of Palace players’ arms into the air and the roar from the crowd at a raucous Selhurst Park.

There was deflation. Another three points dropped, Chelsea. Three losses out of just eight league games. Two consecutive losses. Losing to Manchester City was tough, of course, but we all knew that we had encountered a very fine team two weeks previous. But Crystal Palace were different; without a win in seven games and not even a single goal to their name. There was bewilderment within me, and all around me too. There was no point in trying to move away from my viewing position way down at the front of the dark and cavernous Arthur Wait stand. The aisle ways were full of exiting away fans. Besides, I wanted to see how many of the team, the squad, would come over to the away fans to acknowledge our patronage and support. A few moments passed. I saw a few murky grey Chelsea shirts head down to the players’ exit on the far side, tucked between the towering curved roof of the Holmesdale Road stand and the slight slope of the ancient main stand. Those players were gone, out of my consciousness for a few moments. I spotted four Chelsea players continue their handshakes with a few of the opposing victors in our half of the pitch, and waited to see who would decide to walk over to our corner. Surely the captain Gary Cahill. Surely Cesar Azpilicueta.

I picked up my camera from beneath my seat. An over-zealous steward had warned me not to take any more photographs after he saw me take a close-up of a haring Davide Zappacosta in the first few minutes of the second-half. By then, though, I had taken more than enough for my match day quota, shielded from prying eyes by Ed and Parky, my two blockers. There is an increasing war of nerves between myself and stewards at away games these days. With the game over, and the stewards drifting away, uninterested, I brought the camera up to my eyes, and waited for the remaining Chelsea players to walk over.

Marcos Alonso, Gary Cahill, Thibaut Courtois, Cesar Azpilicueta.

There were pained expressions from all four of them.

They clapped us. We clapped them. There were no boos. There had been no boos as the game had reached its conclusion. For some reason – I suspect they are plain and obvious – our away support tends not to lower ourselves to collective boos. Of course there had been a rising tide of moans and groans, accompanied by every Anglo-Saxon curse known to mankind, throughout the game from frustrated supporters, but there was nothing orchestrated on a larger scale. My view has always been the same. I go to watch Chelsea to support the team. I try to be as positive as possible. Of course my frustrations get the better of me at times, but I always do my damnedest to find positives where I can, and to encourage those who need it most. In all of my time as a Chelsea supporter – Crystal Palace was game number 1,155 – I can only remember booing a player once; Frank Leboeuf in 2000, down below me as he came over to receive a throw-in the Matthew Harding wraparound, when it was thought that he was one of the main perpetrators in needling out Gianlica Vialli as manager. I was not the only one who booed him on that occasion. Leboeuf, previously a crowd favourite, looked visibly shocked that so many were booing him. I immediately felt terrible. What a fucking twat I was. I vowed never to do so again.

By all means berate players, if deserved, in private chats in pubs, clubs, bars and cars, but never at a game. Always be positive. Always provide backing. That surely has to be one of the Chelsea fundamentals.

At Chelsea games, we are supporters, not critics.

Right?

I took a few photos of the four players, standing, immobile, their faces still distraught.

I wondered what was going through their minds. I wondered what words from Antonio Conte would be awaiting them on their return to the waiting changing room.

It had, from the very first few minutes, been a below-par Chelsea performance. The home team, managed by the old man Roy Hodgson – it was only ten weeks ago we bumped into him in Beijing at the Chelsea hotel – and coached by former favourite Ray Lewington, were first out of the traps, with Zaha and Townsend full of skill. An early goal, a Cabaye shot deflected in off the hapless Azpilicueta, surprised none of us. Whereas we all expected to win the game easily, I would hazard a bet that 95% of us knew that Palace would score their first goal of the league season against us. There was just something in our collective psyche that warned of this. That it only took eleven minutes was even more predictable. In my mind, before the game, my thoughts were –

“Concede an early goal, but win 3-1.”

How the Palace fans celebrated that league opener.

We slowly – slowly – got back in to the game as the first-half developed. A header by Tiemoue Bakayoko from a Cesc Fabregas corner was wildly celebrated and set off the September Song. However, a second goal from Palace, by the impressive Zaha, right before the break brought further gloom.

There were changes soon into the second-half with the very disappointing Michy Batshuayi going off to be replaced by the zip of Pedro. Charly Musonda then replaced the equally frustrating Willian. It was all change. Our attack had been invaded by mini-men. Eden Hazard was asked to lead the line, but at times the game totally evaded him. I kept thinking that if Hazard is truly to be regarded as one of the attacking greats of the modern game, then this is just the sort of match that he needs to grab by the horns and cause mayhem. He did nothing of note. Sure, Fabregas hit the bar, and Musonda volleyed over, but our play was erratic all day. We missed Kante, holding things in midfield. Oh how we missed Morata. Long diagonals to Zappacosta worked well, and he seemed pacey and engaged, but an equaliser never ever looked like coming. Our passing was off. We were second best in a few areas. In those closing moments, with the game stretched, Palace had further chances. Our support, mirroring the malaise of the players, was average at best. There is usually a good sing-song at Selhurst. On this day, it was all rather flat and lethargic. The lazy sexist comments aimed at Sian Massey, running the line, were just painful. Must do better.

The players walked a couple of paces towards us. There was still applause from the Arthur Wait stand. Marcos had tried his best, but had found little space out wide in order to play penetrating balls in. There had been the usual effort on this mild, but bleak, Saturday afternoon in South London for our Spanish left-back. Gary Cahill had a mixed game. There had been brave blocks and strong headers, but he often looked all at sea when the ball was played on the deck. As captain, he bore the defeat heavily on his shoulders. Thibaut walked closer, taking off his bright orange jersey, and eventually gave it to a fan in the crowd. He has never had all of the Chelsea support with him during his three seasons at Stamford Bridge, but our tall  Belgian often stays behind to thank us for our support. Does it mean anything? I think so. Alongside him was Cesar Azpilicueta, our Dave, his face showing the pain of defeat. It was an expression that was matched by myself. Everyone loves Dave. He had a typical 7/10 performance and was unlucky with his deflected own-goal. I wanted him to make a block on Zaha during his run into the box for the second goal, but for once his limpet-like man marking did not get him close enough to the Palace striker. Whereas others in the Chelsea support would be quick to castigate Azpilicueta, I was happy to give him some slack. He rarely lets us down.

Joining the four was Tiemoue Bakayoko, who took off his shirt and rolled it up before launching it into the away support. It landed in the grasping hands of a fan a few yards away. Without Kante alongside him, Bakayoko was asked to cover simply too much ground. Alongside him, Fabregas had a mixed game too, a few fine passes, a few crunching tackles, but the game then by-passed him at times.

The five players turned and retreated back across the pitch.

Crystal Palace 2 Chelsea 1.

Fackinell.

Let’s all admit it. We all presumed that we only had to show up at Selhurst Park to get three points. Going in to the game, on the drive up to London and through the terraced streets of South London – why is Selhurst Park such a bastard place to get to and from? – we were adamant that we would be victorious. With six games coming up in just eighteen games in October, here was a game that, even with a slightly weaker team, we should have surely won. There were no complaints from the four of us about the team selection prior to kick-off. But the manager must feel pain that his preparatory work amounted to nothing.

And it was complacency at its best, and worst, from many.

After the game, all the experts had their say – I say this with my tongue firmly in my cheek, of course, some of the post-game hyperbole was embarrassing – but there are a few truths which can’t be ignored.

Our lack of options up front, especially, must be a worry. I spoke to Ed during the game about the halcyon days of 1997/98 when our first team squad boasted Mark Hughes, Tore Andre Flo, Gianluca Vialli and Ginafranco Zola battling for places in attack. How times change, eh? Conversely, we have an over-abundance of central defenders, with Christensen, Luiz, Cahill, Azpilicueta and Rudiger vying for three places. Christensen has not put a foot wrong so far. Let’s see if the manager takes the plunge.

We have to trust the manager. He has proved to be a fine tactician in his short Chelsea career thus far. It’s time for a reaction from our beloved players. And what is better than a potentially classic Champions League game against Roma on Wednesday to look forward to. As we drove home on Saturday night, we quickly warmed to the excitement of another European night under the lights at Stamford Bridge.

We are lucky people. I can almost hear the anthem. See you there.

Tales From A Fool’s Paradise

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 1 April 2017.

We had whispered a final farewell to winter and spring was upon us. The clocks had sprung forward during the previous weekend, which was amid the most recent tedious international break, and the sun was shining down on a perfect Stamford Bridge. Just as in those black and white French films which seemed to feature regularly on BBC2 in the ‘eighties, when there was an extended period of complete blackness between one scene and another – signifying a time for reflection on what had just been witnessed – it seemed that Stamford Bridge was awakening from an enforced slumber and we were waking with it. A stretch here. A yawn there. A remembrance of the toils of winter before a final push towards the days of destiny in April and May.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture, as it often does in the first blush of spring.

It looked like paradise.

The pre-match had been busy.

Due to a section of the M4 being closed, I chose to divert via a more southerly route, and came in via Stonehenge, the A303, the M3 and past Twickenham. From BA11 it to SW6 it took me three and a quarter hours. Not to worry, The Chuckle Bus was providing laughs-a-plenty throughout. The game against Crystal Palace was the first of three games in a week. Travel plans had occupied our thoughts for a while. After Manchester City’s visit on Wednesday, we are staying the night in Bournemouth – just like a huge section of the Chelsea away support – and there are then away games at Manchester United and Everton to get excited about. Sandwiched in among these league matches, we have the FA Cup semi-final against “that lot”; Parky has us all booked-up for train tickets for that one. A rare break for me and I can’t bloody wait. There have also been long and sustained thoughts of foreign travel.

Part serious, part-whimsical, I told the boys on the drive up :

“You know what, I’m more focussed on our first European away game together in the autumn than I am about us being champions.”

How we have missed Euro aways this season; they are surely at the pinnacle of my experiences following this team over the past twenty-five years.

At just before midday, I joined the usual suspects at “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington. Our mate Bob was over from California and Dave was over from France. I quickly knocked down two pints of Peroni. But time was marching on.

We walked down the North End Road and briefly popped in to “The Cock Tavern” to quickly say “hello/goodbye” to a few friends over from various parts of the US. It was fantastic to see them all again – too many names, too little time – but I took great pleasure in seeing Dave meet up with several New York Blues again, since he used to live in that great city for a good few years. Clearly his smiles and laughter were mine too. Bloody fantastic.

In the packed pub – an old haunt of mine, it was the very first pub I had a beer at Chelsea – there were supporters from New York, Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Elsewhere, fans from Chicago and Fresno were around and about.

Many of the supporters’ groups within the US have set off on a life of their own, attempting to absorb Chelsea fan culture as best they can, but ultimately many cities always seem to have developed an overwhelming American twist. One supposes that this is to be expected. In some respects, the last thing that anyone wants to see is anyone trying too hard to fit in to a perceived notion of what it is to be a Chelsea fan.

But it’s the subtle things that I notice. I like to see US fans meeting us halfway; or at least attempting to learn of our history, our rituals, our style.

With the New York group, I always feel that there are enough ex-pats involved to still provide a distinct cultural backbone to their fandom, whether it be behaviour, attitude, humour, songs, clobber, or a general Chelsea sense of self-deprecation induced by many years of suffering. When the New York Blues show up at tour stops in the US, they get the beers in and they know the score. As an added plus for this particular Chelsea fan, I like it that not all of them are ritually bedecked in Adidas tat nor Chelsea scarves ad nauseam. I like the New York Blues. I have a lot of time for them.

Just before I left, I bumped into Frank from Queens. We always share some ribald banter each other with our support of the Italian teams Napoli – Frank – and Juventus – myself – and I couldn’t resist passing on a little morsel of news from my work. Over the next month or so, we have to plan to deliver four of five artics of office furniture to none other than Juventus Football Club.

Frank’s response – “awesome!” – was quickly followed by a big hug.

Love it.

The next stop took in “The Malt House.” I promise not to bore the living daylights out of everyone between now and the end of the season with talk of the summer tour, but four of us had a little chitchat about the trip to Beijing in July. Bob, Glenn and myself were able to meet up with Big John, and we had a fruitful thirty minutes. The flights, hotels and match tickets have been paid for. Next on the agenda is the visa application and plans for a visit to The Great Wall.

OK – enough!

Amid the busyness and business of this particular pre-match, I had not heard about the team news.

There was only one change in the starting eleven; in came Cesc Fabregas for Victor Moses, but obviously this was not a straight swap. Pedro was shifted to wing back, with Cesc pushed up to a place in the front three.

The away fans were initially the centre of our attention. They had arrived with many a flag and banner draped over the balcony. Most notably of all, around one hunded– mainly young – black-clad supporters (the self-styled Holmesdale Road Ultras) were placed right above the banners at the epicentre of their block. Alan and myself pondered why a club like Crystal Palace could easily designate a block of away tickets to a distinct set of fans yet Chelsea Football Club continually finds this simple task beyond their ken. Countless times over the past few seasons, members of the away season ticket scheme have ended up in poor areas at various stadia all over the country.

The ultras, if not everyone within the block of three-thousand, were soon making a racket. Their favourite was a chant that took me right back to my night with two thousand Leverkusen fans at Wembley last November.

“La la – la la la – la la – Crystal Palace.”

However, they soon fell silent. A gorgeous long range pass from Fabregas allowed Eden Hazard to gather and reach the goal-line in front of the Palace fans. He seemed to be gifted too much time to skip past his marker and pick out a team mate. I had spotted Diego Costa supporting the attack, so imagine my surprise when I saw Cesc arrive with Lampardesque timing to touch the ball high past Hennessey.

Only five minutes had passed and we were one-up.

Get in.

Not long after, just as I was extolling the virtues of our team ethic as Pedro charged down a ball and then David Luiz cleared – chatting away to Alan, but watching the play – I then suggested it would just be our bloody luck that, after all this praise, we would concede. We both watched, aghast, as Wilfried Zaha twisted among several Chelsea defenders and struck a fine shot past Thibaut to equalise.

Just as my words floated off into the afternoon air, Alan was able to say “like that.”

Bollocks.

Only two minutes later, we watched as Palace broke with pace and we were cruelly exposed. The once lampooned Christian Benteke ran at David Luiz, with N’Golo Kante too far away to challenge. After a poorly-timed Luiz nibble, the ball broke fortuitously for that man Zaha to play in Benteke, with our defenders at sixes, sevens, eights, nines and tens. With Courtois scrambling out to block, Benteke craftily lifted the ball over our ‘keeper and into the net.

One-nil up, two-one down, we were a terrace chant gone wrong.

In the away section, a red flare appeared behind the flags. The ultras were making even more noise now. If I am honest, it was an impressive sight. They might be lampooned by some, but I can’t fault their desire to make some vibrant noise in support of their team. There is a distinct possibility that they are more famous than their players these days, just in the same way that the social misfits who appear on Arsenal Fan TV are more famous than the Arsenal players at the moment. I know who I favour.

We were 2-1 down.

But only eleven minutes were on the clock; surely more goals would follow?

We enjoyed much of the ball during the rest of the half. We had tons of possession. Oodles of it. But there seemed to be a noticeable lack of incisiveness. I lost count of the number of times that a diagonal was played wide left to Marcos Alonso. This might have been part of Conte’s game plan, but it honestly felt like we were painting by numbers, without individual thought. I was too far away to spot a potential penalty appeal in our favour. Diego tried his best but was not finding space. A Luiz free-kick was wasted. Alonso fizzed a ball across the box but nobody was near. I brought my hands up to my head; it was a reaction that would be repeated again and again as the game progressed. Dave smashed over, Matic forced a finger-tip save from Hennessey, Luiz again wasted a free-kick. Pedro was up and down the right flank like a demon, perhaps – actually – covering too much ground. Elsewhere the bite was missing. Hazard was a little peripheral.

But Palace were defending well.

At the break we were 2-1 down. Damn.

Sadly, there wasn’t a great deal of noise at Stamford Bridge. There were pockets of song, but in general our supporters were losing too.

At the break, a few supporters were presented with their CPO shares and we were treated to a walk around by Celestine Babayaro, who graced our team from 1997 to 2005. He formed a great left-wing alliance with Graeme Le Saux for a few seasons.

We found it inconceivable that the first player to be booked by referee Craig Pawson was Diego Costa. Palace had been swiping at our players throughout the first-half. Diego stretched to reach a ball, but Hennessy reached the ball just before he could get a touch. Diego then had a shot blocked by Scott Dann, who stayed down for an eternity. He was eventually carried off.

Conte replaced Matic with Willian and we went to a four at the back. I bet Pedro never ever thought that he would play right-back when he joined us last year.

Despite us dominating the ball, Palace broke down our right and Zaha, their star player, forced a great save from Thibaut. They had a little period when they caused us a few worries. We kept attacking, moving the ball between our players, but again without a killing pass. I thought our final ball in to the box, from Marcos Alonso especially, was very poor. Balls were swept in low, but defenders cleared. Lofted balls were played deep, but with nobody in Chelsea blue near. A clear chance fell to Diego from a Hazard cross. His header not only lacked power but direction too. It landed, pathetically, yards wide.

The pass of the day from Fabregas between the centre-back and the right-back was a thing of beauty but it amounted to nothing.

The time passed. I had a little chat with Alan, thinking back to previous home games against Palace.

“Bloody hell mate, have we ever lost to Palace in the league in our memory? I remember the FA Cup game in 1976, but have they ever beaten us here?”

PD looked over and said “last season.”

“Oh bloody hell. Yes. Of course.”

Had I shoved the trauma of last season so far in to my memory that I had forgotten that 2-1 reverse?

Evidently so.

Michy Batshuayi entered the fray as a replacement for Alonso. Balls from out wide were continually whipped-in, but Palace players blocked everything.

At last – on about the eightieth minute – the whole of Stamford Bridge eventually united in a single song.

“About bloody time.”

Shots from Willian, Cesc and Pedro were saved by Hennessey, who was having a storming game. As the referee’s assistant signalled a massive seven minutes, we willed the team on. But, unlike in previous games, when I felt that a goal would definitely come, on this occasion I wasn’t convinced.

The seven minutes soon passed. In our last attack, we urged Thibaut to join the attack as we awarded a corner. He did so. Dressed in black, he lined up to challenge for the ball among the blues and yellows. It is always the oddest of sights. Typically, Hennessy punched the ball clear.

At the whistle, at least there were no boos. That would have been the last straw.

So, on April Fool’s Day, we had dropped a clanger. This was a very surprising defeat. After we had all met up back at the car, it did not take long for us to thrash through our thoughts of the game. It wasn’t as if any player had performed particularly poorly, it was just that not enough had enjoyed those little moments of top quality.

I was the fool for thinking that our big week of football would begin with three easy points.

And I won’t be making that mistake again in a hurry.

On Wednesday, we face Manchester City at home in a game that could define our season; a Chelsea win, and our position will look a little more secure.

See you there.

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Tales From Selhurst Park

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 17 December 2016.

Our game at Selhurst Park would be our third game in just seven days; by the time I would return home from South London, I would have driven over 1,100 miles in support of the boys in blue. No complaints from me though; what else are you going to do on a Sunday lunchtime, a Wednesday evening or a Saturday lunchtime? For the second year in a row, I had decided to use one of those pre-paid parking spaces outside a private address. Last year, it worked a treat, despite the severe soaking we suffered walking to and from the stadium, and our win at Selhurst was an enjoyable day out. It was our first game of 2016, and it felt like we had turned the corner after the malaise of the autumn slump.

What a difference a year makes, eh? A year ago we had just lost at Leicester City and Jose Mourinho had been sacked. We were mired in the bottom five. Twelve months on, there is a beautiful and uplifting vibe in SW6. We were chasing our eleventh win on the trot, and with it, a ridiculous pre-Christmas lead of a massive nine points.

Just before I left home, I posted on Facebook.

“Let’s Go To Work, Antonio.”

“VINCI PER NO11.”

The roads were thick with fog as I collected PD, Parky and Young Jake. Over Salisbury Plain, I was forced to keep my speed down due to poor visibility. On the drive to London, although the driving conditions gradually improved, the fog never really lifted.

My GPS sent me through the backroads of South London, along unfamiliar streets and roads. This was a route right through the Chelsea heartlands of Tolworth, New Malden, Mitcham, and then south to Wallington to catch the A23 Purley Way up to Thornton Heath. It seemed to be a rather circuitous course, and as we finally parked up on Kynaston Avenue, I joked that I bloody well hoped that our route to the Palace goal would not be so messy.

We were parked-up at 11.45am. We were there. There was no time for a pre-match pint, unlike last year, when we dried out in front of a roaring fire at the “Prince George” pub.

The fog was hanging in the South London air. As we shook hands with a few mates outside the red-brick of the turnstiles to the Arthur Wait Stand, and knowing how “old school” Selhurst Park remains, there was a definite old-time feel to this. The floodlights were on, of course, and they only seemed to increase my awareness of how foggy it all was. I loved it to be honest. Love it or loathe it – and most people tend to belong to the latter camp – there is no doubt that Selhurst Park, representing football stadia in their natural settings, alongside terraced streets, local pubs, cafes and shops, strikes a chord with me. There was a large souvenir Chelsea only stall selling favours plotted-up right outside the away end. Two hi-vis jacketed policemen on horseback watched over us as we milled around outside. It’s terribly cramped at Selhurst. Once inside, you wait your turn until you have the chance to slowly sidle through the crowded concourse before entering the Arthur Waite Stand at its rear, its roof so cavernous and dark above, a mess of ugly steel supports, and the pitch can only be glimpsed, a thin line at the bottom of the steps.

Parky, Alan, Gal and myself were low down in row four, with PD just in front of us. The fog made visibility difficult. As the teams entered from the far corner – I have this image of the dressing rooms at Selhurst being temporary Portakabins to this day, I am sure I am wrong – I took a few photographs and soon realised that my haul on this footballing Saturday would be grainy and lacking the usual crispness.

If you squinted, Crystal Palace in their blue and red, and Chelsea in our all-white, resembled an ersatz El Classico homage : Palace as FCB, Chelsea as the Real deal.

As for the team, there were changes. Thankfully Eden Hazard was back in, with Willian keeping his place in the attacking trio with Pedro missing out. Nemanja Matic returned to take the place of Wednesday’s match-winner Cesc Fabregas.

The little knot of self-styled Holmesdale Ultras were doing their bit in the opening formalities, fervently waving their flags, and trying to get the rest of the home areas involved. The game began with Diego Costa playing the ball back to a team mate, and we were away.

I thought Wilfrid Zaha, running with intent, in front of us on the Palace right looked threatening in the first few moments. And Johan Cabaye looked at ease, picking up passes in front of the home defence, before playing intelligent balls through for the runners. A David Luiz free-kick, following a foul on Eden Hazard, was our first real attempt on goal; the ball bounced up off the wall and went for a corner. Soon after a ball was fizzed in from the Palace right and we gasped as Jason Puncheon stabbed the ball wide. Most of our attacking intent seemed to come down our left flank with the industrious Alonso linking up well with Nemanja Matic and Hazard. There was a little frustration with Matic and his inherent slowness. Alongside him, Kante was a lot more economic, releasing the ball with minimum fuss. One of the highlights of the first period was the incredible jump from Eden to control a high ball with consummate ease. He brought the ball down and moved on. All within twenty yards of me. I’m so lucky to see such skill week in, week out.

Diego Costa gave away a silly foul. After living life on the edge for what seems an eternity, his fifth booking eventually came.

Palace were causing us a few moments of concern. It clearly wasn’t all about us.

There didn’t seem to be the usual barrage of noise emanating from the away section this time. There were occasional songs and chants, but the team was causing moments of mild concern rather than reasons to celebrate.

The home team had a couple of chances. James McArthur headed wide, Puncheon wasted a free-kick.

Just as it looked like the half would end in a stalemate and hardly a real Chelsea chance on goal, Eden Hazard turned and kept the ball close as he cut inside. He played the ball out to Cesar Azpilicueta, who sent over a hanging cross into the box. Diego, a thin wedge of white sandwiched between two defenders, was first to the ball and met it squarely.

We watched, open-mouthed and expectant, as the ball dropped into the goal.

It was almost in slow-motion.

There was a split-second of delay before we celebrated.

Two immediate thoughts entered my mind.

Was it offside?

Bloody hell, a headed goal.

Crystal Palace 0 Chelsea 1 and thank you very much Diego Costa.

There was a little bubble of sunshine in the gloom and murk of a wintry South London at half-time. All was well with the world.

Was that it then?

With minimal effort, we had taken the lead against a troublesome Crystal Palace team. At that moment in time, we were on our way to our eleventh consecutive win, and we were nine points clear at the top.

It seemed – almost – too easy.

Well, we were soon to learn that nothing is easy. For the first period of play in the second-half, the home team put us under pressure, and it suddenly felt that we were in for a good old-fashioned battle. The Chelsea support had boomed with celebratory support after Diego’s goal, but we now realised the team needed a different tune. Whereas before there had been “we’re top of the league”, there was now a more supportive “come on Chelsea.” This was music to my ears. I love it when our support recognises that the team needs us and we respond accordingly.

The home support responded too, invoking the same chant that I noted the Bayer Leverkusen fans using at Wembley a month or so back.

“Tra La La La La La La – Crystal Palace.”

They’re so European, these Holmesdale Fanatics, the buggers.

Cabaye forced a smart save from Thibaut Courtois. The one defensive trademark of the second-half would be the towering Belgian rising high in a packed six-yard box to claim cross after cross. We rode a little home pressure, and then were back to our best, and the game opened up further. A blistering shot from N’Golo Kante forced a save from the Palace ‘keeper Wayne Hennessey.

Willian, not at his best, was replaced by Cesc Fabregas. Soon into his game, we serenaded him with his own song; he looked over to the Chelsea hordes and applauded.

The chances continued. It was a different game than in the first-half. Victor Moses zipped past a few challenges and caused Palace a few moments of discomfort. Alonso, from an angle, volleyed low but wide. It rustled the net and a few in our ranks thought it was a second. I spotted a Palace fan, sitting behind the goal, stand to his feet and mock our errant cheering. His only problem was that he was wearing a full-on green elf costume.

“Sit down, you prick.”

A weak Fabregas shot, and then a Benteke turn and shot was well-saved by Thibaut.

Ivanovic for Moses.

There were a few classic Chelsea masterclasses at Selhurst.

Kante snapping at the heels of various Palace players, and showing ridiculous energy levels.

The refreshed Hazard back to his best, running at speed, stopping on a sixpence, bringing others into the game.

The absolutely dependable Azpilicueta, the quickest of the back three, covering ground well, and blocking many Palace moves.

Alonso, up and down the left-flank, always involved.

Cesc Fabregas, only on the pitch for twenty-five minutes, but showing what an intelligent passer he can be.

And lastly, but not least, the relentless Diego Costa, in his current form as complete an attacker that we have seen at Chelsea; foraging, battling, fighting, shielding, thrusting.

Scoring.

The bloody referee Jon Moss – booed by us throughout for some odd decisions – had reckoned to an additional five minutes. It got a little nervy. Thankfully Andros Townsend skied a very late free-kick.

We had done it.

Eleven in a row.

Fackinell.

It was time for a festive celebration :

“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Oh what fun it is to see Chelsea win away.”

Very soon, the Chelsea players walked towards us and clapped. And very soon the focus was our Italian manager. As we serenaded him – “Antonio! Antonio! Antonio! Antonio! Antonio!” – he beamed a huge and endearing smile, before doing a little hand-jive, and then turning to say that the applause should really be for his players. It was just a lovely moment.

 

We waited for a while before we exited. There were many handshakes – “Happy Christmas” – to those stood close by. We made the point of shaking hands with the line of stewards who had been lining the segregation area between our noisy section and the docile home support. Chelsea fans in friendly behaviour shock. The walk back to the car was triumphant. I made the point of telling anyone who would listen that these three narrow 1-0 wins would surely frustrate and annoy the hell out of our title rivals. But it had revealed a great tenacity to our play.

3-0, 4-0, 5-0.

“Yes, we can win like that.”

1-0, 1-0, 1-0.

“Yes, we can win like that.”

I weaved my way south, and out onto the M25 before heading home. It had been a triumphant week. Over one thousand miles, entailing twenty-five hours of driving, just three goals, but nine magnificent points.

What a week. What a team.

In my match report for our game at Selhurst Park in the Spring of 2014, I weaved the lyrics to Sarf London boys Squeeze’s most loved song “Up The Junction” as an ode to that particular part of our nation’s capital. In Frome, after I had dropped the boys off, later in the evening, I combined a trip to see Chelsea in deepest South London with a gig by Squeeze front man Glen Tilbrook in the town’s concert hall.

It seemed right.

We now have a rest. It’s Christmas. A week off. We reassemble at Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day 2016 for the visit of Bournemouth.

“Eleven in a row” just doesn’t scan, so let’s make it twelve.

On we go.

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Tales From The Arthur Wait Stand

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 3 January 2016.

The rain was falling. I had parked about a mile to the south-west of Selhurst Park. Parky, PD and myself quickly zipped up our jackets in preparation of a twenty minute walk to Crystal Palace’s stadium. After only a few minutes of walking along the tight terraced streets of Thornton Heath – not far enough out, nor leafy enough, to be in suburbia – our coats were sodden. We marched on. This was already feeling like a decidedly old-fashioned footballing day out.

Unlike the area to the north of the River Thames, which is where ninety percent of the stations on the London Underground are positioned, South London is served by a plethora of over-ground railway lines, criss-crossing their way through a part of London that few tourists see. Serving Crystal Palace’s home stadium are three stations; Norwood Junction, Selhurst and Thornton Heath. On this day though, with railway engineering works commonplace, I had decided to drive straight in.

This area of South London is dominated by the Crystal Palace TV mast, sitting high on a hillside to the north of the park which houses the National Athletics Stadium. On the very same site, F.A. Cup Finals were played from 1895 to 1914. There is, therefore, a great sporting history in an otherwise nondescript part of the capital. When I attended our victorious 1997 F.A. Cup Final, I always thought that it was rather fitting that my day had begun with Alan, Glenn and myself catching a train from the red brick Crystal Palace train station – close to Alan’s flat – which was just a few hundred yards from where teams had competed for the famous silver cup decades previously. Back in those days, there were no terraces as such, just a vast natural bowl, which allowed huge numbers to attend, with only a few thousand watching from wooden stands. In the 1913 final between Aston Villa and Sunderland, 121,919 attended. I am sure that the vast majority saw very little of the actual game. However, in those early days of football hysteria, it was surely enough to just be there. The only event that I have attended at this famous footballing location was a Depeche Mode concert in 1993, on the same day that I saw Chelsea play Ajax at Tottenham in the Makita.

We dipped into the Prince George pub and were met by a roaring log fire. We dried out and sipped at cold ciders and lagers. The pub, no more than a ten minute walk from the away turnstiles on Park Road, was mixed with both sets of fans. There were a gaggle of police outside, but there was no hint of trouble. I recognised a few Chelsea faces, and we chatted away. Back outside, the rain was heavier and the wind was howling.

Yes, this had the feel of a rather old-fashioned away game, no doubts.

We tried to avoid getting splashed by passing cars.

Ahead, there was a defiant “Carefree” being bellowed by a few youths.

Thankfully, we soon reached the Arthur Wait Stand, which sits alongside the touchline at Selhurst Park, housing three thousand away fans and six thousand home fans. It is a dark and unforgiving place, with very shallow terraces. It has great acoustics, but unfortunately affords one of the worst views in the current top division. Selhurst Park is a disjointed stadium. The main stand opposite is a Leitch original, very similar to the one at Fulham. To our right is the odd Whitehorse Lane stand, once a large terrace, but now truncated with just a few rows, but with executive boxes above. To our left, sits the two-tiered Holmesdale Road Stand, with its rather old fashioned barrelled roof. Here, there was a large terrace too. When Selhurst Park was in its prime, with terraces on three sides, it managed to hold 49,000 for an old Third Division game with rivals Brighton and Hove Albion. For many years, mirroring the old Crystal Palace Stadium, some of the current terraced areas were merely grass banks. There are talks of stadium redevelopment. I am hopeful that the Leitch original stays and the Arthur Wait is improved.

As I waited for Alan and Gary to join us, I was aware that there were a few residual visitors from across the pond who were attending the game. I wondered what they thought of the old-school charms of Selhurst Park compared to the sleek steel of Old Trafford. I had a feeling that they would be reveling in its tightness and its obvious grubbiness. Well, put it this way; I knew that I would be.

I had a quick chat with an old Chelsea mate Mark (1984 and all that) and I admitted that I was still worried about our predicament.

“I watched Match Of The Day all of the way through last night and it just seems that every team is doing OK apart from us and bloody Villa.”

At the half-way stage, nineteen games in, we were mired in the relegation zone. And Palace, winners at our place a few months ago, would be no pushover. The rain lashed down.

The clock ticked by and 1.30pm was soon approaching. The Palace anthem “Glad All Over” (don’t ask) reverberated around the creaking stands as the away fans countered. The weather was truly awful as the teams entered the pitch from the corner on the far side.

Diego Costa was back from his silly self-enforced exile. Cesc returned too.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Mikel, Fabregas – Willian, Oscar, Hazard – Costa.

I immediately sensed a little more aggression from within our black suited ranks; the tackles were seeming to go in stronger, the body language more positive. When we had the ball, we seemed to be keen to move the ball quicker. However, despite all of this, it was the home team – shorn of Bolasie and Cabaye, remember – who somehow managed to get more efforts on goal than us. Campbell and Zaha came close as we looked a little exposed. We certainly rode our luck a little during the first quarter of the game. However, my abiding memory of the opening period is of Thibaut Courtois claiming cross after cross, rather than being stretched and asked to make too many saves close to his body.

Eden Hazard took charge and cut in from his position wide on the left, before testing Hennessey with a low fizzer which went off for a corner. Soon after, Hazard limped off, to be replaced by Pedro, and there were voluble moans aimed at Hazard from the Chelsea section.

Maybe it was due to the sodden conditions, but the atmosphere inside the stadium was not great. The away fans, of course – it goes without saying – were knee deep in Chelsea songs, but elsewhere all was relatively peaceful. The Holmesdale Ultras were only occasionally heard. I found it very interesting that an early chant of “Jose Mourinho” from the back of our stand never really gathered momentum, and in fact, was soon overtaken with a much louder “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” salvo. It was as if the crowd were moving on.

Maybe, just maybe, we are all getting over Mourinho.

Pedro added an extra zest to our play and we started to improve. A fantastic sliding tackle by King Kurt on Zaha on the far side drew rapturous applause. Puncheon soon sliced wide. Courtois was still yet to make a save worthy of the name.

On the half-hour, Fabregas spotted the run of Diego Costa and played a ball from deep. Delaney, the Palace defender, misjudged his attempt to intercept and Costa was through. He advanced, but rather than shoot from an oblique angle, he selflessly played in Oscar, who was ably supporting. It was a simple tap in. The Chelsea Ultras exploded.

Get in.

“We are stayin’ up, say we are stayin’ up.”

Any noise from the home areas reduced further.

Palace immediately countered, but Lee blasted over from close in. I still waited for a Courtois save. Amidst all of this, I noted the calming influence of Jon Obi Mikel, whose plain but effective patrolling of the area in front of the veteran Terry and the exuberant Zouma was wonderful. Only once did he annoy me, when he did not spot Ivanovic free and in hectares of space on the right. A small moan, though. He was otherwise excellent. Dave, bearing down on goal from an angle, saw his thunderous shot parried by Hennessey. With the Chelsea supporters in increasingly good form, we looked a lot more at ease as the first-half continued.

Hell, we were winning. Confidence comes with that, I know, but this seemed a little different. It was more like the Chelsea of old, or at least 2014.

As the second-half began, I was rueing Selhurst’s poor sightlines. We were all stood, of course, but with even Chelsea attacking our end, I had to lean and twist to keep up with play. A pillar right in front of me spoiled too many ensuing photographs. A fine Mikel tackle was perfectly timed to avert a Palace break. Soon after, the murmurings of “Seven Nation Army” started away to my right. I immediately thought it was in praise of “Ooh, Pedro Rodriguez”, but no.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

Ah, this was great.

Hundreds joined in. Where it came from, who knows? It did seem slightly surreal to be honest.

However, there had been a healthy debate in front of me between two fans, who had differing opinions about Mikel, and once the chant grew, the pro-Mikel supporter joined in too. Excellent. Did I sing it? Of course.

Zouma went close with a header. We were now even more buoyant. The noise continued.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

“Jon Obi Mikel – he’s won more than you.”

“Jon Obi Mikel – he scores when he wants.”

This was a fine game now, and Palace worked an opening for Zaha, who forced Courtois to drop and smother. At last it was a save worthy of the name. On the hour, a fine passing move resulted in Oscar being pushed off the ball. The referee let play continue, and without a second’s thought, and with no real backlift, Willian drilled the ball high into the top right corner.

Boom.

The Chelsea section went into orbit as Willian slid down on to his knees in front of us.

2-0.

Game over? Maybe.

It was time for more song.

“We’re gonna win the league.”

In the middle, Mikel was having a blinder and, now, every touch of his was greeted with a cheer. I then wondered if, sadly, some among the Chelsea ranks were simply taking the piss out of our much maligned – and misunderstood, damn it – midfielder.

That simply won’t do.

Palace were finding it hard to cope with our intelligent passing and movement – which screamed “confidence!” at me – and Willian was able to skip past his marker. He played a relatively harmless ball in to the six yard box, but I was happy to see Hennessey make a mess of his attempts to gather. He merely pushed the ball in to the path of Diego Costa who happily banged the ball in. The net bulged.

3-0.

Costa looked well chuffed, and his performance had certainly warranted a goal. He had led the line well. More of the same please. There had been no boos for any player at Selhurst, and this surely needs to be the way forward now. Who knows where this season will end, but we need to be there, offering support at all times, cheering the boys on.

Still the songs continued.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

“We’re the boys in blue from Division Two.”

“Don’t worry about a thing.”

This was a lovely feeling. Chelsea back to the form of last season, and fine performances throughout. Thankfully the rain eventually petered out as the second-half came to its conclusion. Oscar, with a disappointingly lame shot, and Diego Costa, flashing over, failed to add to the score line, but I did not object one little bit. Extra goals would have simply spoiled the symmetry.

On day three of the New Year, three goals, three different scorers, three points and three little birds.

Everything is going to be alright.

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Tales From South London

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 18 October 2014

On the drive in to London, as we neared West Drayton or Colnbrook, Parky flicked through a few of the CDs that he had brought along for the day. Once a Squeeze greatest hits selection was chosen, I knew that their songs would provide the backdrop for the day, which would primarily be spent in the band’s back garden of South London. Before we knew it, there was talk of The Sweeney doing ninety ‘cus they’ve got the word to go to catch a gang of villains in a shed up at Heathrow. It all seemed very apt.

Soon there would be talk of Wandsworth and Clapham.

London – or at least the Southern part of it – stretched out before me as I climbed up on to the Hammersmith flyover. After a two week hiatus, it was good to be back in town. And my thoughts of the day would eventually be recorded here on paper; my chills and thrills and spills.

After a swift pint in the “Prince of Wales”, we caught the over ground train at West Brompton, which then took us tantalisingly close to Stamford Bridge, before stopping at Imperial Wharf. One of the alternatives to our new stadium plans of 2011, the area is now overflowing with new apartment blocks. We crossed the River Thames at Chelsea Harbour.

The trip to Selhurst Park last spring was still fresh in my mind; it made me wince. It was, in my mind anyway, our worst performance of 2013-2014, as limp and disjointed a showing as I can remember. With rumours of Diego Costa being absent for the afternoon’s rematch, I briefly wondered if our attack would be equally ineffective this time.

We changed trains at Clapham Junction and caught the 1.11pm to Thornton Heath. There were vivid memories of my trips to Chelsea in 1988-1989, when I used to stay with mates in Woking and travel in by train. Very often, my mates – friends from college, lured to London for employment, – would often join me for a post-game pub crawl around the West End. We would catch the train back from Waterloo around midnight, and as soon as we pulled in to Clapham Junction, one of us – it was usually me – would serenade the carriage accordingly:

I never thought it would happen
With me and the girl from Clapham
Out on the windy common
That night I ain’t forgotten.
When she dealt out the rations
With some or other passions.
I said “you are a lady”
“Perhaps” she said. “I may be.”

We alighted at Thornton Heath in order to prise Andy and Darren out of “The Railway Telegraph”, before heading up to Norwood Junction to meet other friends. The pub was full of Chelsea, with a healthy cluster of OB settled outside, keeping their beady eyes on proceedings. Andy, the leader of the OC Hooligans (yep, them once more) was in town for one game and one game only. It was a pleasure to see him once more. Once away from the pub, I asked a policeman for directions to Thornton Heath. We envisaged a fifteen minute walk.

We moved in to a basement 
With thoughts of our engagement
We stayed in by the telly 
Although the room was smelly.
We spent our time just kissing
The Railway Arms we’re missing
But love had got us hooked up
And all our time it took up.

The four of us began our walk to Norwood Junction. The weather was overcast but horribly muggy. We soon started to boil. As we walked on and on, we canvassed opinions from a local. It became obvious that the policeman should not have been trusted. We headed back on ourselves, amid consternation from Andy – from Los Angeles – who just wasn’t used to the English habit of walking.

I got a job with Stanley
He said I’d come in handy
And started me on Monday
So I had a bath on Sunday.
I worked eleven hours
And bought the girl some flowers
She said she’d seen a doctor 
And nothing now could stop her.

Lo and behold, we found ourselves at Selhurst station, and we sighed. Our detour had wasted twenty minutes of our valuable pre-match drink up. Darren tried to soothe our minds by saying that it was better to have a crap pre-match and a great game than vice-versa. With thoughts of the game in March, I agreed. Still, Norwood Junction was out of view. We trundled on.

I worked all through the winter 
The weather brass and bitter
I put away a tenner 
Each week to make her better.
And when the time was ready 
We had to sell the telly
Late evenings by the fire
With little kicks inside her.

While I was on holiday in Albufeira last May, I bumped into some Crystal Palace youth players and I promised myself to buy the match programme – for once – to see if I could spot any names and faces. One of the lads was a Chelsea supporter, from Sutton, and I wondered if he was experiencing mixed emotions on this particular match day. I wondered where his loyalties were lying. I presumed that as he was on the books of Crystal Palace, there would be a tremendous upsurge in confidence around the whole club, at every level, should they defeat the league leaders. But I tried not to think about that.

This morning at four fifty 
I took her rather nifty 
Down to an incubator
Where thirty minutes later
She gave birth to a daughter
Within a year a walker.
She looked just like her mother
If there could be another.

Eventually, we caught the number 75 bus to take us the last half a mile. It was about 2.15pm. This would be a very quick “hello goodbye.”

And now she’s two years older
Her mother’s with a soldier
She left me when my drinking
Became a proper stinging.
The devil came and took me
From bar to street to bookie
No more nights by the telly
No more nights nappies smelling.

At last, the bus stopped and we bundled off. As we approached the boozer, we noted a few friendly faces heading towards Selhurst Park. At least there would be more room in the pub for us. At last we stepped inside “The William Stanley.” We were almost an hour late, but we had arrived. We could relax.

Alone here in the kitchen
I feel there’s something missing
I’d beg for some forgiveness 
But begging’s not my business
And she won’t write a letter
Although I always tell her
And so it’s my assumption 
I’m really up the junction.

The four of us guzzled pints of Kronenburg, and then met up with Alan, Gary, Daryl and Cath. The pub was emptying. Within ten minutes, we were on the short walk to Selhurst Park.

Once inside the stadium, it was obvious that most of the away supporters had spent more than our ten minutes inside various boozers. The mood was raucous. The hoolifans (copyright Martin King) were out in force. Amid the stadia’s old-fashioned features and cramped gangways, the buzz was tangible. Home games at Chelsea might attract a wide range of social strata, but away games remain the predilection of our traditional working class hard-core of old.

Especially Crystal Palace away.

My seat was at the very rear of the lower section of the Arthur Waite Stand. Back in the ‘eighties, the lower section was standing only. In truth, the lower section would be standing only in 2014 too, albeit with the added intrusion of plastic seats getting in the way. The stand was dark and cavernous; good acoustics, though. Sadly, the rake of the terraces remained shallow and it meant that I spent some of the game on tip-toes as I strained to watch the game unfold. At times, I was unable to see any of the action in the far left corner, down where the Palace Ultras provide a noisy backdrop to the games at Selhurst.

There was a near capacity crowd as the teams lined up. Chelsea were in all yellow again. I quickly scanned the team. Diego Costa was indeed out, to be replaced by Loic Remy. The league ever-presents in 2014-2015 now stood at eight; Courtois, Brana, Dave, JT, Gary, Matic, Cesc and Hazard.

There was a lively start to the game with Campbell forcing a low block from Courtois within the first two minutes. At the other end, a free-kick was awarded to us and there was a little delay as the referee moved the wall back. This, as always, heightened the sense of drama. Oscar clipped the free-kick up and over the wall and it spun across Speroni’s goal before nestling in the far corner.

We were 1-0 up after just six minutes and Alan gave me a massive bear hug.

“Come on my little diamonds” I gasped.

A blue flare was let off around ten rows in front and the fumes were a vivid reminder that we were back in business. However, Gary Cahill was soon showing the same geographical awareness that we had shown on our lengthy walk from Thornton Hearth to Norwood Junction, allowing Campbell to lob over. With Matic covering a lot of ground, he was making up for his woeful performance last season. Fabregas was picking passes into supporting team mates. We were playing some lovely stuff. Willian fired over.

A fine run from Bolasie reminded us that Palace were an occasional threat. Thankfully his shot was screwed wide.

The Chelsea choir were in fine voice, with the “Steve Gerrard” song being chanted with gusto. Ah, that 3-3 draw at Selhurst Park followed our 2-0 win at Anfield. I was surprised no Palace fans joined in. Their main song gathered momentum –

“CPFC. CPFC. CPFC, CPFC, CPFC.”

After a few refereeing decisions went our way, this changed to –

“Shit referee. Shit referee. Shit referee, shit referee, shit referee.”

As far as lyrics go, Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford needn’t worry.

A Chelsea song was aimed at other rivals further north and further east –

“We hate those bastards in claret and blue.”

Of course, Crystal Palace used to wear these colours too, way back in the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies. In fact, few clubs have had as many kit changes as Palace over the years.

Now it was our turn to use the same tune to goad Palace –

“Shit football team. Shit football team. Shit football team, shit football team, shit football team.”

Our position of comfort seemed in jeopardy when a silly lunge by Azpilicueta scythed down Jedinak right in front of the referee. The Palace fans whooped as he was shown the red card. Mourinho re-jigged, replacing Willian with Filipe Luis. Incredibly, Palace were then reduced to ten men when Delaney was given a second yellow for holding back Remy.

Ten versus ten.

The Chelsea support, concerned that our lead would be jeopardised, roared.

We had heard that Manchester City had walloped Tottenham 4-1, so we just needed us to hang on to the win. The first-half had been mainly positive, with a few fine periods of play, though there was an annoying doubt in my mind that Palace might threaten in the second period.

We looked at ease in the opening minutes of the half, and a fine move through the heart of the Palace defence resulted in a series of one-twos, which finally fed in Fabregas who slotted home.

2-0.

It was a stunning goal.

We roared again.

I watched as Fabregas raced towards the baying three thousand supporters in the Arthur Waite. It was party time once more. Hazard went close, but our weighty possession didn’t provide too many other scoring chances. A perfectly-timed tackle by Cahill was one of the highlights of the game. In the stands, with ten minutes left to play, it was time for us to nick the song of the day and to give it new life.

“We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league.”

This lasted five minutes, then six minutes, then seven minutes, then eight minutes. When Palace cut through our defence to score, we hardly paused.

“We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league.”

Thankfully, the merest hint of an embarrassing draw was averted and we held on. The singing continued as the players thanked us for our support. Only four walked towards us though; must do better. John Terry, Chelsea captain for the five-hundredth time, walked right up to us, though. It was a lovely moment.

We walked back to Norwood Junction and – with great relief – I slumped in a seat on a train headed for London Bridge. Until that point, I had been on my feet for around five hours. Our route back in to the centre of London took us past The Den. At London Bridge station, under the iconic Shard skyscraper, around seventy riot police formed a formidable sight on the station concourse. Had there been an act of terrorism, or was an apocalypse close? No, Millwall had just played at home. I guess such scenes at London Bridge are common on Saturday afternoons.

Our lengthy meanderings continued as we made our way back west, via Westminster, and a pint in The Zetland Arms at South Kensington.  As we got back on the District Line train, headed for Earl’s Court, we passed two inebriated Chelsea fans – faces familiar, names unknown – who bellowed once more –

“We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league.”

It had been another good day.

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Tales From The Tortuous Mediocrity

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 29 March 2014.

At last, here was a change to my typical match day routine. This trip to London South had been planned a few weeks ago. By car, Crystal Palace is notoriously difficult to reach. So, we had decided to travel up by train. It was an easy decision. I was relishing this one. It was a chance for me to travel to a game without pounding the tarmac. And it was a chance to unwind and let other worries, which have been quite considerable over the past two months, subside.

This match – placed just before the soiree to Paris – was going to be a good one.

We caught the 8.37am from Melksham and changed at Swindon. The journey to Paddington would only take a further hour and thirty minutes. While Parky launched into a four-pack of lager, I enjoyed a cappuccino. Old habits, I guess, die hard. I have, if I’m honest, never been a fan of drinking too early on a Saturday morning. As we hurtled through the Wiltshire and Oxfordshire countryside, I was reminded of a time when my Chelsea trips were dominated by train travel. I thought back to the years from 1981 to 1991. Apart from occasional trips to Stamford Bridge in my father’s car, football meant train travel. Ah, 1981 to 1991…the years when I cut my teeth as a Chelsea fan, following the team whenever I could. In those ten years, I went from sixth form to college to sporadic unemployment and poorly-paid employment and eventually I was able to afford a car at the relatively late age of twenty-six.

I used to love going by train to be honest. If it wasn’t so expensive these days, I would do so more often. This was my first trip to London by rail, I think, since the F.A.Cup Semi-Final in 2009. We laughed as we remembered what had happened on the Paddington platform after the game; Parky had a disagreement with a Millwall fan. Let’s leave it there. In his youth, Parky often managed to get embroiled in other similar “disagreements” with other fans too. There was further laughter when he re-told (for maybe the twentieth time) the story of a “disagreement” with some Cardiff fans in around 1970 and Parky hiding for a few minutes in a skip full of mail bags.

First class.

As we darted past Reading, I got all misty-eyed as I remembered my first-ever girlfriend who disastrously moved away from Frome after seeing me for only three weeks (“was it something I said?”) when her father changed jobs. On every Chelsea trip in the 1982-1983 season, and those after it, the train took me within a mile of her house in the village of Charvil, but I just looked on, disconsolate and with a lump in my throat, from the train window.

“So near and yet so far.”

Anyway, she was more of a rugby fan. She didn’t have a clue about football. It would never have worked out.

We crossed the River Thames a few times and were soon headed into London. Going back to thoughts about the early-‘eighties, as I approached Paddington station – Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s mighty terminus at the end of his glorious Great Western Railway – I remembered some graffiti which was sprayed on a brick wall under the Westway.

“I am an angry passionate soul crying out in the midst of this tortuous mediocrity.”

In those years of teenage angst, unrequited love, school day malaise and Second Division Football, those words struck a chord with me. I always used to look out for it. There was genuine sadness when I looked for it, yet it was no more, in maybe around 1986.

“Another rebel bites the dust.”

However, the way things work out, the writer of said graffiti is probably a stockbroker or a financial analyst in the city these days.

I, of course, am still an angry passionate soul.

We arrived at Paddington at 10.40am. Although we were playing Crystal Palace later in the afternoon, I had another game on my mind. My first task of the day was to head down to Stamford Bridge to collect seven tickets for myself and various friends for the game at Parc des Princes on Wednesday. We caught the District Line and whereas Parky alighted at West Brompton, I stayed on until Fulham Broadway. Despite a sadly predictable tense few moments at the ticket window in which the club official made me feel uncomfortable as I handed over the seven completed declaration forms (“do you know all these people?”, “do you have their addresses?”, “you could have found these forms on a train”, “have you got their season ticket cards?”), I was eventually handed seven tickets.

Phew. I could relax. I texted my six mates –

“Tickets in hand.”

I bounced back to West Brompton. There was time for a couple of pints at the “Prince of Wales” with Lord Parky and Dave (“We’ll Just Call You Azpilicueta.”) We were joined by two young Chelsea lads – Max and James – who had also just collected tickets for Paris. The five of us then caught the over ground train down to Clapham Junction, where we changed trains again. As we crossed the River Thames for the third time of the day, there was a frisson of excitement. Even for a seasoned traveller like me, an unexpected view of London very often cheers me. There was a mix of Palace and Chelsea fans on the train. Some Palace fans advised us to alight at Selhurst and not Thornton Heath. We spoke briefly with a chap from New York, who was attending the game with a Chelsea-supporting mate. He admitted to being a little wary of talking to us; we weren’t wearing colours of course, so he wasn’t sure if we were Palace or Chelsea. Maybe he was expecting some sort of “Green Street” scenario. We invited him to come and join us for a few bevvies, but he decided against it. We walked through the sunny South London streets, the stands of Selhurst Park playing hide-and seek to our left. Just after 1pm, we reached our target; the William Stanley at Norwood Junction. The pints were soon flowing. The pub was mainly Chelsea and the pub was soon playing host to a few choice songs.

“We Are The Chelsea So Fcuk All The Rest.”

All of the usual suspects were there.

I had visited this boozer on one occasion before, for a pre-season game against Palace in the summer of 2003. It was, I think, the first game in the UK of the Roman Abramovich era. Thousands of Chelsea descended on the quiet streets of South London that day; it was, in fact, my last visit to Selhurst Park. On that occasion, we won 2-1. I remember a Geremi free-kick, but little else apart from the blistering summer sun. I didn’t attend our last visit to Selhurst; a win during the first few weeks of the Mourinho era. Although I am rapidly approaching a thousand Chelsea games, I have only visited Selhurst Park on five previous occasions. Strangely, more games have featured Crystal Palace’s two tenants Charlton Athletic and Wimbledon, than Palace themselves.

My very first visit to Selhurst was in August 1989; a midweek game against Charlton Athletic, in the days when their Valley stadium was unable to be used. We had begun the 1989-1990 with a couple of wins and a draw. I was soon off to the US for a year’s travel, and decided at the last minute to attend. It was going to be my big send-off. There was an added dimension to this game; should we win, we’d go top. How big a deal was this? Well, in all of my time of supporting Chelsea Football Club, I had never ever seen us at the top of the Football League. I travelled to London that day, almost a quarter of a century ago, in hope that I would be leaving England for America with us in first position.

On that Tuesday night, we lost 3-0 to a Charlton Athletic team which included our former defensive tandem Joe McLaughlin and Colin Pates, and I was crestfallen.

So much for a big send-off.

Now – that was Proper Chelsea.

Goodbye England.

In the William Stanley, there was much talk of Paris, but not much of Palace. Rob adapted their “We’re Palace, we’re Palace” chant.

“We’re on our way to Paris.

To Paris.

To Paris.

We’re on our way to Paris.

To Paris.

To Paris.

Whooooooooaaaaaaooooowwww – whooooooooooaaaaaaoooowwww.”

I was enjoying this. Drinking at football. I should do this more often.

Then, bizarrely, just after 2pm, the pub closed.

“What?”

As we left, we serenaded the locals –

“Portugal, Portugal We Are Coming.

Portugal, Portugal I Pray.

Portugal, Portugal We Are Coming.

We Are Coming In The Month Of May.”

Max popped over the road and bought some tinnies for our slow ascent up the hill towards Selhurst Park. Although the terrain is different, the immediate area is similar to Highbury; humdrum terraced houses, quite plain, with little hint of a sport stadium nearby. We found ourselves amid a noisy group of Chelsea fans and a police escort soon arrived. We edged away, and then found ourselves behind a baiting mob of Palace fans.

“We are the Holmesdale.”

There was only posturing and no hint of violence.

Our American friend would have been fine.

Selhurst Park has changed, as have most of London’s football theatres, over the years. I can vividly remember open terraces at each end in the early ‘seventies, though only a few years earlier, there were only grassy banks. The main stand has remained mainly unchanged since the ‘twenties and other stands been built, one at a time, quite unrelated. It isn’t a particularly classy stadium. It fits in well among the nondescript houses which surround it. The Crystal Palace TV tower, on the hill to the north, is the sole landmark of note. Incidentally, the location of several F.A. Cup Finals at the turn of the twentieth century is a mile or two to the north; the site in fact, of the Crystal Palace athletics arena.

Inside the Arthur Wait Stand – dark and cramped – the three thousand Chelsea fans were in good voice before the arrival of the teams. It was a fine sunny day. I was stood with Alan and Gary, as always. This was a very local game for both. Alan, from Anerley, lives just two miles to the north-east. Gary, from Norbury, lives just two miles to the north-west.

Crystal Palace, then, is their local team.

Gary : “I hate this lot more than Tottenham.”

I didn’t believe him…

London has so many teams of course. It is too simple and too easy to say that Arsenal and Tottenham have the north, West Ham has the east and Chelsea have the south. Rivalries, boundaries and catchment areas overlap. I’ve always viewed Chelsea’s old heartland to be Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea to the north of the river and Battersea, Tooting, Wandsworth and Clapham to the south. As Londoners moved to the suburbs and satellite towns, our support is now more likely to come from Reading, Slough, Wembley, Kingston-on-Thames, Crawley, Guildford, then Brighton, Oxford, Northampton and Swindon.

I’ve only ever met two Crystal Palace fans; I’d imagine their support is more local. I have no axe to grind with them; they have been a minor irritant over the years. Only an F.A. Cup defeat in 1976 and a League Cup defeat in 1993 sticks in my craw.

However, add the afternoon of Saturday March 29th 2014 to this list.

I am not going to dwell too long on the failings of Chelsea against Crystal Palace. Just like some of the supporters, was the focus on the imminent game in the Champions League? We wondered this after the poor performance against Aston Villa when our minds might have been clouded with thoughts of Galatasaray. If so, inexcusable. We knew that Tony Pulis’ team of journeyman would be up for the battle. They have slowly improved since he took over from Ian Holloway. In my mind, my thoughts were mixed. I expected us to win, though I couldn’t eradicate a haunting vision of a defeat to a Palace team, which would greatly reduce our chances of another league title.

The team appeared to be strong; surely David Luiz and Nemanja Matic would provide strength to our midfield?

The rather odd sight of a dozen or so lycra-clad cheerleaders welcomed the two teams onto the pitch. Just before, an eagle had swooped from goalmouth to goalmouth. How very American. Our friend would definitely have approved.

The game began. We struggled to get a foothold. Long balls were played forward, but passes were poor and our ball retention worse. We struggled to get Eden Hazard involved. The Palace team were over us like a rash. Our support appeared to wane. After a quarter of an hour, I looked around at my fellow supporters and was dismayed to see only around one in five joining in with a chant. However, a fine Gary Cahill tackle brought a raucous response from the away support and I hoped for better things. Alas, chances were at a premium. It was sad to see Frank Lampard playing so poorly.

There was only sporadic noise from the away end.

“Attack! Attack! Attack, attack, attack!”

At half-time, I disappeared off for a beer; I needed an artificial stimulant to keep me buoyed. The fare that we had served thus far was very poor. Down in the toilets, one young Chelsea fan uttered the immortal lines –

“I’ve only seen us lose two games.”

A few of us replied –

“What – this season?”

“No –ever.”

This was met with a barrage of light-hearted abuse.

I bumped into Parky and we chatted. The second-half began and I chatted to a couple more friends. Noticeably, in the one hundred Chelsea fans who were guzzling the last few dregs of their halftime beers, only one was wearing a replica shirt.

Proper Chelsea.

Then, a groan. News soon came through that we had conceded a goal. With a heavy heart, I took my place alongside Alan and Gary, the local lads.

“John Terry – own goal.”

There had been the introduction of Oscar for Luiz at the break, and Salah came on for Lampard. Our support quietened further. We found it so difficult to break Palace down and we didn’t use our flanks at all. At times, our play was tortuous and mediocre. Our support didn’t rally.

A John Terry header flew over the bar. It was a rare chance.

Demba Ba replaced Andre Schurrle. Speroni foiled Hazard. Torres wasted another opportunity. There was dwindling hope among the away support. Instead, irritation and frustration, then a horrible realisation that we were going to lose and our league title hopes were going to die in the South London sun. It was a horrible, dull feeling. Bizarrely, Palace could have increased their lead in the final ten minutes. Jerome, breaking, hit the post. A second goal would not have flattered them. At the end of the game, we quietly exited. Outside, words were exchanged among a few friends.

Parky, Dave and I were then denied entrance to a couple of pubs – “regulars only” – and so we jumped on a train back to civilisation. We chatted over a beer in a pub at Victoria – north of the river, Chelsea Land, home – and were our usual pragmatic selves. After all these games, I don’t find it too difficult to stay as realistic as I can after another testing defeat. Despite the loss, it was a fine day out.

And next week, at least we’ll have Paris.

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Tales From My Chelsea Family Tree

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 14 December 2013.

As strange as it seems for me to write these words, this was only my sixth sighting of Crystal Palace as a Chelsea supporter. During my teens and ‘twenties when my ability to attend matches was hampered by lack of money, there were some teams that I wittingly or unwittingly avoided. Admittedly our paths didn’t cross every season, but given the choice of travelling up from Somerset to see the boys play Tottenham or Palace, there would have been only one winner. My first-ever game was an away encounter at Selhurst Park in the autumn of 1991; a dull 0-0. There has only ever been one other visit to Selhurst Park for me to see us play Palace; a pre-season friendly in 2003 when the Arthur Waite Stand was overrun with a huge Chelsea army excited at seeing one of the first games of the Roman Abramovich reign. In fact, another odd statistic; I’ve visited Selhurst Park on five occasions, but only two games have involved Palace. The other three games were against their tenants Charlton Athletic (1989) and then Wimbledon (1996 and 1999).

So, this would only be my fourth Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace game at Stamford Bridge. I can remember the game in November 1992 when I watched on the Shed, uncovered, in spitting rain, with my mate Daryl. Our respective paths had crossed a year or so earlier as fans of baseball – the Yankees in particular, Daryl produced a Yankee fanzine and I contributed on occasion – but it only became apparent a year or so into our limited communication that we were both Chelsea fanatics. We arranged to meet up for a pint in The Black Bull before that game over twenty-one years ago and we have become the very best of friends since. I met Daryl’s brother Neil a month or so later for another game. It’s fascinating to me how these Chelsea friendships are forged. Daryl, Neil and I hope to celebrate our fiftieth birthdays watching baseball in New York in 2015. Meeting new fellow fans in that era was rare; at the time I usually travelled up from Frome by myself, meeting only Alan on occasion, and most commonly in the Black Bull. In those days, Gary used to call by occasionally. There were other acquaintances, but many have fallen by the wayside.

I remember introducing Daryl to Glenn at the Makita at White Hart Lane in 1993, then Alan a year or so later. For the 1994 F.A. Cup Final, Daryl and I watched the game together. The following season, we travelled to Prague and Zaragoza together. In Prague, we bumped into long-time Chelsea stalwart Andy from Nuneaton and friendships blossomed.

With each passing game, my number of match-going Chelsea mates grew one by one. One day I might sit down and type out a chronological chart of when friendships began.

A Chelsea Family Tree, if you will.

Glenn 1983.

Alan, Walnuts, Leggo, Mark and Simon 1984.

Gary 1988.

Daryl and Neil 1992

Andy and Neil 1994.

Jonesy and The Youth 1995.

Ironically, Daryl and Neil would not be in attendance for this one; instead, they were back in Guernsey to celebrate their father’s 70th. birthday.

I collected Glenn (from 1983, though we first met in 1977) at 8.45am and soon picked-up Parky (2000) too. Glenn always berates me for not wanting to talk too much about the football on the drive to Chelsea, but on this occasion there was lots to talk about. Players were discussed, performances analysed, games examined. There was hope that we could despatch Crystal Palace and stack up three points ahead of the pre-Christmas showdown with Arsenal.

Before the usual pre-match in The Goose (a friend since 1999), all three of us made a quick pilgrimage to the “CFCUK” stall to purchase Mark Worrall’s new Chelsea book. Detailing the first ten years of “The Roman Years”, it contains many anecdotes from Chelsea regulars, a selection of photographs and a forward by Sir Frank Lampard. My small contribution details the day of Frank’s 202nd and 203rd goals at Villa Park.

“Only £16.99, HURRY UP.”

It was a lovely pre-match in The Goose. The Manchester City vs. Arsenal game was garnering a fair bit of attention and yelps of approval greeted the City goals. Some may say that a draw would be the best result, but I just wanted a heavy Arsenal defeat so that their season could start its inevitable implosion in December 2013 rather than March 2014. I personally think that the league is City’s to lose. Being brutally honest, if we are not to win it – a tough ask, let’s admit it now – I would rather the title ended up at City rather than Arsenal.

There was chat with Rob (2005), Sophie (2000), Barbara (2011) and Eva (2012). Tim (2009) and the Bristol Boys were nearby.

As the goals rattled in at Eastlands, the laughter increased. A great time.

Rob warned that although the Crystal Palace “ultras” come in for a lot of stick, they would make a lot of noise.

And fair play to them. This would be their first visit since they were gubbed 4-1 in the 2004-2005 Championship season – WHEN EVEN MATEJA KEZMAN SCORED TWICE – and I was sure they would enjoy their visit regardless of the result. I’ve lost count of the number of games I have seen this season when Selhurst Park appears to be rocking, yet the only fans seemingly involved are the little knot of 200 “ultras” in the bottom corner of the Holmesdale Road End. They appear to be “miked” too.

I mentioned this to Alan.

“Of course” he replied. “The TV love that, miking the fans that make a racket, making out the atmosphere is loud throughout the stadium.”

On ascending the steps to the upper tier, confirmation that two very late goals had been exchanged in Manchester.

City 6 Arsenal 3.

Let the implosion commence.

As we entered the seats, I was given a Christmas card from Joe (1997) who sits nearby with his son Gary. Joe is now eighty-five. We love him to bits.

There have been few Chelsea versus Crystal Palace “classics” but the one game that always seems to grab the attention of my generation came in 1976 during our F.A. Cup campaign. As a struggling Second Division team, we were drawn at home with Malcolm Allison’s Third Division Crystal Palace in the fifth round of the cup. This fixture really captured the imagination of the London public and, with Stamford Bridge’s vast terraces able to withstand the demand, over 54,000 attended. Sadly, we lost 3-2 but it is an afternoon that I can easily recount some 37 years later.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7M6pRs5PHF4

Just after the first two Palace goals, thousands of Chelsea teenagers can be heard singing “Chelsea aggro, Chelsea aggro, ‘ello, ‘ello.”

With Chelsea chasing the game, the atmosphere is clearly electric. The old Stamford Bridge, full to bursting, was a grand old stadium in its time. The sight of The Shed holding almost twenty thousand spectators is just gorgeous.

Peter Taylor went on to play for Tottenham. I never liked him.

I had a quick run through the team and two players stood out; Michael Essien, despite having a nightmare two weeks ago, was back alongside Ramires and David Luiz was partnering John Terry. Further forward, Juan Mata, Willian and Eden Hazard were asked to provide ammunition for the recalled Fernando Torres.

Very soon into the game, the three thousand Palace fans were working their way through their own very distinctive repertoire of songs. They were bellowing them out. It was pretty impressive stuff. Maybe I was wrong; maybe Selhurst is rocked by more than those two hundred self-styled “ultras” in that bottom left corner of their home end.

They taunted us : “Is this a library?” and then “Here for the Palace, you’re only here for the Palace.”

We replied : “Here for the season, you’re only here for the season.”

The away team were fighting for every ball under new boss Tony Pulis. However, after only a quarter of an hour, Willian sensed an opportunity to run at goal. His positive dribble took him close and he sent a low shot towards Speroni. The Palace ‘keeper’s dive turned the ball onto the post only for Fernando Torres to pounce on the rebound.

1-0 Chelsea

Alan and I did our usual routine.

You know the score.

Immediately after, the Palace fans ignored the deficit and rallied behind their team. Well done them. It reminded of us when we were…er…shit.

We then hit a little purple patch with some lovely play from a strong Torres run and then a Mata touch enabling Ivanovic to strike at goal. His shot scraped the far post. This was good stuff. Maybe more goals would follow. Even the home crowd were getting involved.

A London derby with noise. Just like 1976. Luvverly jubberly.

Until then, Palace had only enjoyed rare opportunities to attack. Sadly, just before the half-hour mark, a Palace move down our right resulted in a ball being whipped in for an unmarked Chamakh to volley home.

We fell silent and the Palace fans bounced in unison. It was a celebration typical of fans from Istanbul, not Croydon.

I turned to Alan : “I don’t care what anyone says. That’s impressive.”

Thankfully, we regained the lead soon after.

Eden Hazard, relatively subdued until then, glided past his marker and passed to an unmarked Ramires. Our little midfield dynamo looked up, aimed and fired a curler into Speroni’s goal.

2-1 Chelsea. Phew.

At the break, Danny Granville – Stockholm 1998 and all that – was on the pitch with Neil Barnett. Thousands upon thousands of new Chelsea fans in the West Upper scratched their heads.

In the second-half, Crystal Palace were clearly more aggressive than in the opening forty-five minutes. Our midfield were left chasing shadows and the frustration among the home support grew with each passing minute. Palace raided our goal, but thankfully neither Nicky Chatterton nor Peter Bloody Taylor was on hand to score. Petr Cech was able to smother and repel all of the efforts on his goal. Still the Palace fans sang.

Essien, though clearly not at his best, stayed on as Juan Mata was replaced by Oscar. Our chances had dried up and we were hanging on. Palace were surprising us all. There was a ridiculous scramble at The Shed End on seventy-five minutes, but continued shots at goal were thwarted by desperate defending by the Chelsea rear-guard. A header then flashed past the post. Cech’s goal was leading a charmed life.

And all around me, instead of generous support for Chelsea in our twenty minutes of need, there was little singing and little encouragement.

At one point, after a welcome period of positive Chelsea play, out of over one hundred spectators in our little section, Alan noted only Big John, Alan and myself clapped.

Welcome to Stamford Bridge 2013.

In the last ten minutes, Andre Schurrle replaced Willian and then Demba Ba replaced Torres. This really surprised me. Although there was little defensive options on the bench available to him, Mourinho chose to make offensive rather than defensive changes. Rather than bring on Lamps as extra cover, Jose chose other options. I quickly remembered an infamous game from only last season.

At Reading with us winning 2-1, Rafa Benitez replaced Torres with Ba rather than shore up the defence. We let in an equaliser.

At home to Palace in 2014, with us winning 2-1, Jose Mourinho replaced Torres with Ba rather than shore up the defence. I hoped there would be no equaliser.

Our nerves were jangling. We were still hanging on. There was still no noticeable show of support for the boys.

There were two late Chelsea chances at the Matthew Harding. The ball was played through towards Ramires but, with only Speroni to beat, the little Brazilian fluffed his kick. Whereas I sighed in silent frustration, I looked quickly to my left where there were howls of indignation and anger being aimed at Ramires by many in the MH Upper.

These fuckers had hardly sung a note of support for the team all afternoon, yet their faces were contorted with rage at Ramires’ miss and were heaping abuse towards our own players on the pitch below.

Soon after, another Chelsea chance came and went. There was an almighty scramble after substitute Schurrle played a lovely wall pass with Ba, but shot right at the Palace custodian. The rebound came to Ba, but Speroni again saved. A further rebound was sliced wide by the suddenly hapless Rami.

I grimaced as fellow supporters in the MHU spewed vitriol once more.

With four minutes of extra time signalled, I commented to Alan that we were still looking to attack. This was a very different approach to the Mourinho team of ten seasons ago when a tight, nervy game would be notable for ball retention among the back four rather than forward passes.

Despite one more Palace chance, we survived.

However, such was the dreadful atmosphere during the last ten minutes, it honestly felt like we had lost.

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