Tales From A Shocker

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 30 January 2019.

Another tough match report. Are you sitting uncomfortably? Let’s go.

At half-time, I went on a little wander to meet up with Parky and PD who had travelled down independently and were in fact staying the night in a Bournemouth town centre hotel. I soon found them, full of giggles and laughs, and we gave each other a hug. They had enjoyed a good old pre-match at the usual pub we frequent on visits to the town, and were not particularly bothered by our performance thus far. They had been sitting next to Alan and Gary towards the corner flag. My position had been towards the half-way-line of the stand along the side of the Vitality Stadium, in the back row all but one, and I had driven down with Young Jake. I bumped into a few other Chelsea mates during the break. I assured one set of friends that things would improve in the second period.

“We get one, we’ll get a few” and my comment was met with nods of agreement.

Well. That shows how much I know about football, or rather this current Chelsea football team.

Fackinell.

So, The Chuckle Brothers had taken two Chuckle Busses to Dorset. PD had collected Parky at around 10.30am and at around 12.30pm they were ensconced at “The Moon On The Square”, no doubt enjoying the freedom of a midweek drink-up, and they had unsurprisingly bumped into a few of the travelling Chelsea army during their six or so hours of guzzling. I left work at just after 4 o’clock, and collected Young Jake in Warminster half-an-hour later. He had taken a half-day holiday from his warehouse job in Salisbury. His last game was the Manchester City game when he took my ticket at the last minute. He was nice and excited to be ticking off another new away stadium. This was an ideal midweek away game for me. I didn’t have to leave work early. Just a sixty-mile drive. Perfect. Despite a pre-advised bottleneck on the main road into Bournemouth, I guessed that I’d be parked up outside the stadium in a private driveway at around 7pm. We stopped at Shaftesbury – a town which is home of the cobbled hill which was famously featured in the famous “Hovis” commercial of the mid ‘seventies – and grabbed a burger and some fish and chips, sustenance for the evening’s predicted cold weather. Just south of our pit-stop, the usual route was closed, so I was sent on a diversion south-east across the hills and fields of Cranborne Chase. It was a route that I have never taken before, but it was a fine drive, alongside lanes with high hedges, and little traffic. There were signposts for Melbury Abbas, Tarrant Gunville, Tarrant Hinton, Tarrant Launceston, Tarrant Monkton, Tollard Royal, Gussage St. Michael and Three Legged Cross. I have said it before; Dorset has the best names. We drove past several magnificent country pubs. On another day, with more time, we would have been tempted to stop I am sure.

We hit the expected traffic snarl-up on the main Salisbury to Bournemouth A338. But as expected, at just after seven o’clock, I edged into my pre-paid parking space on Littledown Avenue, just a five-minute walk from the stadium. Another Chelsea car was parked alongside me. This would be my sixth visit to the stadium that used to be called Dean Court. We have garnered three wins in the last three seasons. I have enjoyed them all. The floodlights at the Vitality Stadium are on four poles, how old-fashioned. It was a photo opportunity that I could not avoid. The weather was cold, but not drastically so.

To be honest, the Cherries of Bournemouth have been in my thoughts more this past year or so than in other times. We played them in the League Cup at the same stage in 2017 and 2018. They walloped us three-nil in January 2018 – three second-half goals, mmm – and I have been impressed with Eddie Howe’s team this season. Out in Australia, I was reunited with Uncle Brian, Bournemouth-born and a Bournemouth supporter and match-goer in his youth, who I had last seen on an evening in 1994 when I watched a Chelsea League Cup game at Dean Court with him and his brother Peter. His son, Paul, was born in Bournemouth but became a Chelsea supporter when he heard about my fanaticism for the club on a visit to England in 2008. Paul’s children and grandchildren support a mixture of Arsenal, Chelsea and Bournemouth. I know Paul has an understandable soft-spot for his home town team.

So, I have family ties on my mother’s side to Bournemouth.

But I have much stronger links on my father’s side. My father was born in Wareham on the Isle Of Purbeck. Dad did not grow up as a football fan and his childhood footballing memories are rare. I always remember him saying that Wareham’s kit consisted of a shirt consisting of brown and yellow halves, maybe like one of those mint humbugs, or perhaps a two-tone toffee, that might well be purchased in one of those old-fashioned sweet shops that are rare these days. His mother was a native of Parkstone, nearer Poole than Bournemouth, and it saddens me that I only have one very scant memory of her since she passed away when I was only two years old. But my father told me that his mother was a very passionate football supporter, and a very outspoken Labour supporter to boot, and I often wondered if my footballing passions came from her, maybe more so than my football-playing grandfather on my mother’s side, who liked football, but to no real degree.

Outside the away end, I met up with my friend Paul from nearby Poole – for whom I had a ticket – who I last saw in the summer of 2012 when he very kindly put my name on the guest list of a Buzzcocks gig in the musical venue that he helped run. On the night of the gig, we met up in a pub for a pint before heading off to the venue. It was a fantastic gig, the first time that I had seen the band, and it was an excellent night. I saw the same band with Parky last summer in Bath, another enjoyable night. With the recent sad passing of Pete Shelley, there will be no more.

A few years ago, my Canadian cousin Kathleen – whose grandfather Bill and my grandmother Gladys were brothers and sisters (they had the magnificent surname Lovelace) – shared the marriage certificate of my grandmother and grandfather. Well, lo and behold, not only was my grandmother Gladys living on Britannia Road in Parkstone at the time, her house was no more than a two-minute walk from the pub that we had visited, and my grandparents were married at St. Peter’s Church, which sits no more than fifty yards from the venue where we saw the gig. Who knows, my grandparents might have even had their reception in the pub itself.

In addition, my father’s cousin Julie – she went from an Axon to a Loveless through marriage, there is a lot of love in my family it seems – lived in Bournemouth and left my mother and myself a nice little sum in her will when she sadly passed away in 2004. It funded my first trip to the US with Chelsea, thus opening up a whole new chapter in my life, and I owe dear Julie so much.

So, yeah – Bournemouth, and Dorset. I have ties with the area.

There was a quick line at the turnstiles and after a bag check – “don’t tie that security band too hard, my leg will fall off” – I soon bumped into Alan and Gary. Alan was talking to Welsh Kev about the horrible thought of Liverpool winning their first title since 1990.

Alan had contingency plans : “I’m booking a flight to the furthest place away from England if they win. Tristan de Cunha looks the best bet.”

“Love it Al, never thought that I would hear the words Tristan de Cunha at a Chelsea away game.”

Tristan de Cunha I thought, sounded like a striker that Newcastle United might buy.

Paul had mentioned that Chelsea had gone through a morning training session at Poole Town Football Club. The team play in the same division as my local lot Frome Town and, having left their old stadium, now play on a make-shift pitch adjacent to a junior school that Paul’s granddaughter attends. The players – maybe not all of them – popped into the school apparently. A nice gesture, though I had to wonder why Maurizio Sarri was so keen to continue this practice. Surely there is no need for a training session on game days?

I was happy with my position high in the stand. My camera was poised.

Right, the team.

  1. Arizabalaga.
  2. Azpilicueta.
  3. Emerson.
  4. Jorginho.
  5. Rudiger.
  6. Luiz.
  7. Pedro.
  8. Kante.
  9. Higuain.
  10. Hazard.
  11. Kovacic.

For Bournemouth, Artur Boruc and no Asmir Begovic, but no Callum Wilson either. Nathan Ake was in their defence. Dominic Solanke was on their bench.

The ground took a while to fill. Is there a more unassuming football club in the top division than Bournemouth? They have a small and homely ground, are managed by a genuinely decent and softly-spoken manager, and seem to be ridiculously happy just to be there. Even their stadium is painted pretty pink, the corporate colour of the sponsor.

No threat?

…mmm.

“Sweet Caroline” was played on the PA before the game – it was played right after our defeat at The Emirates a few weeks back – and has somehow made its way from Fenway Park in Boston to these shores.

I despise it.

How is it remotely a song that is seen to be suited for football stadia?

Sigh.

The teams entered the pitch, Chelsea in dull grey and day-glo orange. While the Chelsea supporters to my left tussled with the bright yellow “CHELSEA HERE CHELSEA THERE” banner the home fans – those in the stadium – chimed in.

“You don’t know what you’re doing.”

As the flag disappeared down the seats, I noted that the red staff of the lion was on the wrong side. It had been hoisted completely upside down. A metaphor for the evening? We would find out later.

The game began with many empty seats in both home and away areas. I struggled to understand how we, as a club, can’t fill out every one of our 1,200 seats at a stadium just one hundred miles from Stamford Bridge. It surprised me to be honest, midweek game or not. In the concourse, at least, I had spoken to a few fans from my home area that had previously been unable to attend any of the three other games at the Vitality Stadium due to the dearth of tickets.

In the first few minutes, David Luiz was painfully struck in the face from a shot and he stayed down for a while. But Chelsea began the strongest, if measured in terms of possession. Within five minutes, most of the previously unoccupied seats in the home areas were filled.

The away support boomed : “Here For The Chelsea.”

An early chance, the first of the game, presented itself to a lunging Mateo Kovacic who just about reached a cross from Pedro. The header flew towards goal, but Boruc finger-tipped it on to the bar. It was, sadly, a stunning save.

We then dominated for long periods, with the trademark passing that we have got to love – cough, cough – this season. Amidst the constant passing, if not constant movement of our players, N’Golo Kante was excellent, tackling and breaking up play. I absolutely adore his economy of movement; how he can intercept a ball and touch the ball once but with absolutely the correct amount of firmness and direction that his next touch is in space, moving forward, effortless. He is a magnificent footballer. I promised myself that I would pay extra attention to Gonzalo Higuain, and I watched his off-the-ball movement and active participation throughout the first-half. I liked what I saw. He made a few blind runs, but a couple were offside, though the fault was with the passer rather than him, as there was often a delay after the optimal time to release the ball. He looked like he has goals in him. It is just difficult to gel immediately with a new set of players. There was no space in the areas that Higuain was attempting to exploit, but at least he was trying his level best to find pockets of space in preparation for a ball. Jorginho was breaking up play more than usual, and there were bursting runs from Emerson on the left. David Luiz attempted one or two long bombs from defence, and at least this meant there was a variation in our play. Too often this season we have only been interested in half-hearted attempts to pass the ball in the way that the manager craves.

Not too long into the game, someone must have heard that Tottenham were losing.

Out came a song, lamenting the joyful failure of them to win the top division.

“Spurs. Spurs Are Falling Apart Again.”

There was a shot from Pedro, a shot from Hazard, a shot from Dave. But all were easily cushioned by Boruc.

“Keep knocking on the door, Chelsea” I thought to myself.

The noise from the away support wasn’t great. Maybe our song sheets were upside too.

“Not a bad game, though, Jakey-Boy.”

I was sure a goal would come. I am, undoubtedly – unlike in life itself – an optimistic bugger when I go to games.

There was the slightest of chances for the impressive David Brooks after a move on their left but it amounted to nothing. We still kept trying to break through the two banks of eighteen. It was like trying to navigate a maze. Amidst our dominance, there were two lung-busting bursts right through the centre of the pitch, the first from the nimble Brooks and the second from Joshua King. The resulting shots did not threaten Kepa. Only towards the end of the first-half did the mood among our section of the away support get frustrated, with the usual moans about over-passing and the grey dullness of it all.

So, half-time and my wayward prediction for the second-half.

Oh boy.

What happened during the second forty-five minutes?

God only knows.

I was busy taking the third of only three wide-angle photographs during the game when I heard a roar from the home areas. Barely two minutes had elapsed. I had missed the goal, in reality, though the final shot is captured on my camera, but is not worthy enough to share.

Bloody hell.

Bournemouth 1 Chelsea 0.

The goal scorer? Josh King, apparently.

Someone once opined that “anger is an energy” but although there was much anger in the stand, there did not seem to be too much anger on the pitch, nor certainly any real energy from our players in attempting to battle through our set-back and stretch the defence, and run and run and run some more.

The mood in the away section worsened now.

The home fans were absolutely buoyant and it was not surprising.

Pedro set up a lovely run from Kante but the ball just evaded him. Where is Frank Lampard when you need him?

We didn’t really huff and puff, we just pushed the ball from hither and thither.

Of course we had much possession, but it led us up blind alleys. On one or two occasions, I saw Hazard break from a wide to central position, pointing behind him for the ball to be released to the overlapping Emerson. Emerson advanced but no ball was forthcoming. Instead, it seemed to me we wanted to spread the ball out to our right flank where Dave and Pedro, and then Willian as his replacement, whipped in an unending supply of poor crosses, the majority of which were low. Ironically, there had been a superb low cross from Dave in the first-half during our period of domination, but it missed everyone. But in the second-half his final ball was woeful. It was a motif for the whole second period. I felt sorry for Emerson, who at least showed willing. Our Eden was poor. If ever there was a game that he needed to gather by the scruff of the neck then this was it. But the whole team looked insecure and unsure of each other. After a reasonable start to the game, Jorginho greatly disappointed. Kovacic too.

Just after an hour of increasingly frustrating football, David Luiz attempted a clever pass but miss-controlled and the ball eventually fell to the breaking Brooks, who swiped the ball past Arizzabalaga after side-stepping a challenge from the recovering Luiz. He raced over to the corner and my stomach ached.

Bournemouth 2 Chelsea 0.

The home support now seized their chance for revenge : “Here For The Bournemouth.”

Quite.

The buggers.

This then roused the away support but I did not like the tone.

“You’ve won fuck all.”

Goodness sake, Bournemouth are a small club, with a small fan base, a minute stadium, with moderate means, and probably limited aspirations. They are quite benign, and no rival to us. They are, I am sure they will be the first to admit, over-achieving at this level. They are not an Arsenal, nor a Tottenham, nor even a Middlesbrough or a Leeds United. Mugging off their fans was a poor show. We are followed by some proper morons.

There was also the “we’ve won it all” dirge, which is plainly not true. Yokohama in 2012 is proof.

Sigh.

Right after the second goal, Higuain was replaced by Olivier Giroud. I could not believe it. I wasn’t expecting the manager to play two up front – “as if” – but I was surprised he had replaced his man. Anyway, like for like, blah, blah, the same shape, the same bloody shape as always.

“You don’t know what you’re doing” rained down at Sarri.

A lad behind me : “it’ll be 3-0 before 2-1.”

A chap commented : “it’ll never be 2-1.”

I turned around and nodded in agreement.

Did we create a single chance of note in that second-half? I think not. An advertisement for a medical product was flashed up on the TV screen.

“Kill The Pain.”

If bloody only, I thought.

Eight minutes later, another crisp and effective Bournemouth move was finished off with a clean finish from King, after being fed by Stanislas. Our defence was being cut to ribbons. Among all this obsession with passing in the attacking third and the – buzzwords coming up, brace yourself – “high press”, has the manager completely forgotten that defences win league championships?

Bournemouth 3 Chelsea 0.

The crowd turned venomous now.

I tried to condense my thoughts.

OK, Sarri was brought in to implement a new style of play, his methodology, his terms, and a part of me gets that. He needs time, his supporters say. But I have to say that he was under little pressure to win anything at Napoli. They hardly share Bournemouth’s aspirations, but there would have been more pressure at Juventus and the two Milan teams, serial winners one and all. Napoli have only won the league twice. Why not modify his ideas to make use of the players at his disposal right now – at this “half-way house” stage – to get results and then push on using his own players in the summer? I have to say, should things continue as they are, I doubt if he will have the luxury of a second season. If I totally backed his ideas – I have tried my best to comprehend his way of playing and I am far from convinced – I too could buy into his plan. But I still can’t warm to him, and I know how much results matter.

The players it seems are not on the same page. The reasons for this? I don’t know. Maybe they think they can see through him, just like a few key players who would go on to triumph in Munich saw through Andre Villas-Boas in 2011/12. At the moment, some supporters are against Sarri, while some are annoyed with some players, and some are angry with everyone. Some philosophical questions can be aired. Player power is OK if John Terry, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole do it but not if Eden Hazard, Willian and Pedro do it? I don’t know. Who does Sarri report to on a day-to-day basis? I don’t know. These are muddied waters.

Kovacic was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and I felt so sorry for him. Another ad on the TV screen, this time for greyhound racing at Poole.

“We’ve gone to the dogs tonight, already.”

Ruben looked up for the battle, but compared to the others on the pitch this was not an accomplishment worthy of much note. He dragged a shot wide of the far post. I looked over at the TV screen again and eighty minutes had been played.

“Come on ref, blow up, put us out of our fucking misery.”

Many had left at 0-3. A block of around forty seats to my left were empty. I could never leave early, I’m just a fool. There were four or five minutes of extra time, I wasn’t cold, I just wanted to go home. In the last very moment of the game, a cross from a free-kick out on our right was headed on – with not a challenge from any of our players – by substitute Charlie Daniels. We watched in agony as the ball looped up and over everyone and into the net.

Bournemouth 4 Chelsea 0.

Our hearts sank.

What a humiliation.

The whistle blew and I stood stunned.

Four nil.

I wondered if any players would step towards us. To be fair to us, we clapped them over. David Luiz, our only leader, walked slowly towards some Chelsea supporters down the front. He said nothing. His face said it all. He had eye-contact with a few, and tapped his chest – John Terry used to do this – and his body language just said “I’m so sorry.” It took guts to do that. I clapped him. Some players “get it” – or at least I hope they bloody do. Dave walked over but stopped a good ten yards away. Nobody else bothered.

My mind raced through time.

I quickly remembered my first-ever visit to Dean Court in the first few weeks of the 1988/89 season when we lost 1-0 to a team that was managed by Harry Redknapp. It was our first ever match with them, and they had just recently been promoted from the old Third Division after rising from the Fourth Division in the early ‘eighties. I certainly expected a Chelsea win. We were humbled 1-0 and, having not gone to the 6-0 shellacking at Rotherham United in 1981, it was – until then – my own personal “Millmoor” moment. I stood on the packed away terrace and, through a ridiculous viewing position – I can remember how packed it was to this day – looked on as we lost. The train trip home was a lonely affair that evening, and I drowned my sorrows with a few pints in a few Frome pubs. A personal nadir for sure.

But this?

This was ridiculous.

Bournemouth 4 Chelsea 0.

Only recently in one of these match reports, I had written this :

“I had reminded myself, from memory, that our last heavy defeat to any team in league football was a 1-5 reverse at Anfield in the autumn of 1996. As a comparison, we have put six goals past Tottenham in 1997, six against Manchester City in 2007, six past Arsenal in 2014, six past Everton in 2014, not to mention sevens against a few smaller clubs and even eight on two occasions. We have enjoyed the upper hand, in general, over many since that game at Anfield twenty-three years ago.”

As I exited the seats, we were one of the last to leave, I mentioned the Liverpool game – I did not go to that one – to two or three friends.

Sigh.

A four-goal defeat in the league was a long time coming, but it eventually came not against Manchester City, nor Liverpool, nor Manchester United nor Arsenal, nor Tottenham Hotspur, but bloody Bournemouth.

Altogether now : FACKINELL.

Outside, Jake – who had spent the last few minutes of the game rolling a cigarette – was puffing on it like his life depended on it.

“Bet Sarri, like you, is puffing on a fag right now mate.”

We reached our car, shell-shocked. We drove home, shell-shocked.

It had been a shocking night.

Tales From Saturday Tea Time

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 12 January 2019.

This was another 5.30pm kick-off and so PD, Parky and I took the train to London once again. One subject dominated our chat on the journey; the decision to hold the FA Cup tie against either Sheffield Wednesday or Luton Town at 6pm on Sunday 27 January.

Six o’clock on a Sunday evening.

What a ridiculous time.

“And there was much wailing.”

But, the FA had made another crazy decision to play an FA Cup game at a similar time some seventeen years earlier. In 2002, Fulham objected to their allocation for the first-choice venue of Highbury for our FA Cup Semi Final against them. So – and I still can’t fathom the madness of this – the FA chose to send both sets of fans up to Villa Park in Birmingham for a 7pm kick-off on a Sunday. And then, the deepest irony, Fulham failed to sell out, and in fact sold less tickets for the Villa Park game than their initial allocation at Highbury.

Altogether now : “For fuck sake.”

I don’t dislike Fulham Football Club one bit, but this has really tested me over the years.

5.30pm on a Saturday tea time is OK, there is at least Sunday to recover. In fact, it is rather agreeable as it allows for a good session in various pubs beforehand. But six o’clock on a Sunday is just wrong. At best, I would not return home until 11pm – 11.30pm is a more realistic prediction – and I would need to be up early for work the next day.

So, did I get a ticket when they went on sale on Thursday?

Yes, of course I did, but I partially hated myself for it.

File under “I am a twat” ( sub-section two thousand, nine-hundred and seventeen).

Maybe we can walk in after ten minutes, maybe we can turn our backs for the first five minutes, maybe we can produce banners. Some sort of protest would be good. But I won’t hold my breath on this. It would be nice, just once, for the club to see how much these mistimed kick-off choices affect the rank and file Chelsea support. I note that the Chelsea Supporters Trust wasted no time in condemning the time. Let’s see what transpires over the next fortnight.

It was the usual routine; a Paddington breakfast, a tube to Putney Bridge, into “The Eight Bells” for 11.30am.

We had decided to visit the southern tip of Fulham for the fourth time this season as a few friends from Scotland had sorted out tickets and had chosen the Premier Inn opposite the pub as their base. We had met John and Gary in a fantastic pub before our game at Sunderland in 2016 – “that Courtois save” – and had stayed in touch ever since. They touched down at Stansted at 11am and joined us in the cozy boozer at about 1.45pm. They were joined by their two mates Dave and Colin. All four are Heart of Midlothian supporters. It was fantastic to see John and Gary again. We sat chatting about all things football, though not all things Chelsea, and then moved on to “The Kings Arms” around the corner.

After a very enjoyable pre-match sesh we caught the District Line tube back up to Fulham Broadway.

As I have so often mentioned, my first-ever game was against Newcastle United in March 1974. First, my grandfather in 1920 – I think – and then my mother and myself in 1974. I am a third-generation visitor to Stamford Bridge, and doesn’t that sound good?

We were inside Stamford Bridge with a good twenty minutes or so to spare. John was alongside us in The Sleepy Hollow. It was his first visit to the “modern” Stamford Bridge since the rebuilding was completed in 2001. He was enamoured with our seats. We are truly blessed with our view.

But how the stadium has changed over the years. I can remember getting to Stamford Bridge really early before our game with Newcastle United in 1984/85 with the sole intention to take some photos with my little Kodak camera before any spectators were present. I walked up the steps at the back of The Shed and took several photos of a Stamford Bridge lying dormant. From memory, it was a bitterly cold day during a bitterly cold winter. But I am so glad that I took those photographs; I only wish that I had taken more of the old stadium over the years.

The Geordies were at their usual three thousand level despite a solid block of around one hundred and fifty left unused in a top corner. But this was a fine turnout from them.

There was the usual darkening of the lights before the teams entered. More flags, flames and fireworks, which are at least better suited to a 5.30pm kick-off than a midday one.

We half-expected another “false nine” role for Eden Hazard. And Maurizio Sarri did not disappoint :

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso.

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic.

Pedro – Hazard – Willian.

There was a reunion of former Napoli managers underneath the East Stand. But Benitez only flitted in and out of my consciousness; it is almost six years since he left us. If only those who claimed that they – still – don’t care about him would stop bloody singing songs about him.

Sigh.

I watched the Newcastle players down below me in a huddle on the pitch as the floodlights came on and the pitch was cleared of banners and the paraphernalia of the pre-match handshakes. It shocked me that I did not recognise many. Twenty years ago, I would have been able to spot a Warren Barton, a Robert Lee, a Temuri Ketsbaia, a Luis Saha, a Philippe Albert.

I have recently come to the conclusion that with so many overseas players – or specifically those signed from overseas teams –  in our game these days, my identification of them has dwindled. I still find it easier to note, identify and track a player that has bedded down in the English leagues for a while and then moves, than a player picked from a team in Europe and parachuted in to a team here. Back in the days of when I used to collect football cards as a child, my knowledge of teams’ players was encyclopedic. This continued as I started attending games, reading ‘papers and buying magazines. And it certainly continued as I subscribed to “Sky” for the best part of ten years.

But these days, I am rather lost, and have probably entered the most recent of “phases” that I briefly mentioned a few weeks ago.

I find it easier to remember a youngster from Torquay United or Tranmere Rovers who joins a Premier League team – I think my love of geography helps, in that I can pinpoint names to places – but I am floundering, if for example a Spaniard playing for an Italian team signs for another top team. There is just something untethered about these players. Give me a player like Chris Wood who played for Leeds United before joining Burnley and I might have a chance. So, unless I make the effort, they are just names to me. Most importantly neither myself nor virtually any of my Chelsea mates spend endless hours playing “FIFA” either, which would – I suppose – aid my knowledge of players, but there are just some things that are best left well alone, like Star War films, the books of J.K. Rowling, cruises and Jeremy Clarkson. Of course, if players take my eye when I see them play and have that something about them – that unquantifiable “je ne sais quoi” – then that makes them endear themselves to me and I track them.

But, Lascelles, Lejeune and Longstaff? Who?

The away team were playing with black socks, which made them look like the Newcastle of old rather than the white-socked team we played at St. James’ Park in late August.

The game began with Chelsea attacking the northern goal for a change.

There was the usual probing from us in the first portion of the match but without too much end product.

Then, on just nine minutes, David Luiz sent a ball from deep inside the Chelsea half into a space where Pedro was running. For so long I have asked that we send in an occasional early ball, just to keep the opposition back-line on their toes more than anything else. A team expecting us to pass through them all the time will not be expecting a long bomb. And this certainly was a long bomb from Luiz. It was sensational. Luiz played it with an almost nonchalant air, a sideways sweep. Pedro took the ball out of the sky and clipped it over the startled Newcastle United ‘keeper Martin Dubravka.

Whatabloodygoal.

At least I captured the celebrations if not the goal itself.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at wo’ now, like.”

Chris : “Howay Pet, come on m’little diamonds, like man.”

With Arsenal suffering a surprising loss at West Ham United in the early-kick-off (it had been “on” in the pub but we did not bother watching), here was a fantastic start to our game. If we won, we would go a healthy six points clear of them. All of us have been well aware that we have an intimidating amount of away games to endure in 2019 and that we have to win as many home games as possible.

We still have to play at Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and, to a lesser extent, Everton and Leicester City.

Tough games all.

But we did not capitalise and there was growing frustration as we struggled to get past a resolute back five. Our corners were especially poor. There were rare forays up-field from the Newcastle United players.

After half-an hour of huff and puff, Azpilicueta was fouled just outside the box and Willian floated in a cross which Luiz headed over.

There was a shot from Lejeune, but straight at Kepa. Salomon Rondon – “I know him!” – received a ball from Christian Atsu – “I know him!” – but he blazed over. Pedro shot meekly at the other end and then Perez did similarly at The Shed End. But the warning signs were there. With five minutes to go until half-time, a towering corner from Matt Ritchie was headed home by Ciaran Clark. It was a free header.

Bollocks.

The Toon Army went Loony.

It was a rare goal for The Geordies at Stamford Bridge.

I have seen the last thirty consecutive league encounters with Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge – this was game number thirty-one, undoubtedly the longest stretch out of all the games that I have seen – and they had won only two of those. In the pub, I chatted briefly to three Toonistas and it did not take them long to mention the two incredible Papiss Cisse goals that gave them their first win at Stamford Bridge in twenty-six years when they beat us 2-0 in 2012.

But that was it. One win since 1986.

A meek effort from Willian and then a wild volley from Ritchie brought the first-half to a close. It was a very mundane performance from us and there was much shaking of heads at half-time. Eden Hazard had been especially ineffective.

Early in the second-period, Kante set up Pedro but Dubravka spread himself well to block. We looked a little more dynamic during the opening moments of the second-half and Kante was the one driving the team on. But we only had half-chances. A Luiz air shot and a scuffed Pedro effort did not worry the Geordies’ goal.

On fifty-seven minutes, the ball was worked over to Willian after some sublime skill from Hazard. He stood, with two defenders blocking his sight of the goal. Not to worry, his trademark hippy-hippy-shake bought him a yard of space and his curling missile found the net, just clipping the post before making the net bulge.

Whatabloodygoal.

With over half-an-hour to go, we obviously hoped for more goals, or at least more efforts, and indeed effort. Pedro had gone close with another chip, but the Newcastle ‘keeper did enough. And although the manager rang the changes – Barkley for Kovacic, Hudson-Odoi for Pedro, Giroud for Hazard) – no further goals followed.

Sarri is under the microscope now, and his man Jorginho is not particularly loved among the Chelsea match-going support. I am still trying my best to work it all out, I am trying to get my head around his philosophy, I am trying to give him the benefit of doubt.

It worked in Italy. Can it work in England?

Time will tell.

For all of the negativity during the game, the match game ended with a 2-1 win for Chelsea which solidified our fourth-place position.

Outside Stamford Bridge on the Fulham Road, after collecting some tickets for some upcoming games, PD and I bit into a couple of hot dogs with onions – the best of the season – as light rain dampened the evening air. Opposite us were a line of seven away coaches, taking the Toonistas back to Ashington, Long Benton, Swalwell, Byker, Jesmond and Gateshead. They would not get back home until 2am or 3am.

I tipped my cap to them.

“One win since 1986, bloody hell.”

We made our way back to Paddington where we met up with Parky. Although the game had been difficult to watch – I think it was John who called it “turgid”, a good word – we now enjoyed a healthy six-point gap on Arsenal.

And we play at The Emirates next Saturday tea-time.

I will see some of you there.

Tales From The Three Wise Men

Watford vs. Chelsea : 26 December 2018.

There were times, probably quite some years ago now, when I used to get a considerable tingle with the thought of a Boxing Day game. A post-Christmas treat, there always seemed to be a certain something in the air, an unquantifiable buzz. Something different for sure. Growing up, Boxing Day crowds often used to be the biggest of the entire season. In some campaigns, way before my time, games were played on Christmas Day itself. That practice has long since passed. But in my youth, it would not be odd for Chelsea to play games on Boxing Day and the following day too. From my Ron Hockings’ bumper book of Chelsea games, I see that the last time this happened was in 1986/87 when we played at Southampton on 26 December and at home to Villa on 27 December (two wins which kick-started our season after a very poor first few months). In 1993/94, there was no Boxing Day game, but we played at The Dell on 27 December and at home to Newcastle the following day (a win against the Geordies similarly kick-started a season in which we were in the relegation places under Glenn Hoddle after the Southampton game, thank you very much Mark Stein.) This was the last time we played in consecutive days over Christmas. Our Boxing Day record of late has been exceptional; our last loss on the day after Xmas was a 4-2 defeat at the Valley in 2003. I can remember watching it at home on TV, in the last few weeks of me having Sky. So, here was a fine record to uphold as we made our way to Watford for the evening kick-off.

I was on driving duties and I collected the gruesome twosome, PD and LP, and we then treated ourselves to a Boxing Day lunch – OK, a late breakfast – at a canal side café in Bradford-On-Avon in Wiltshire. I ate up the miles and we were parked at our usual place at the bottom end of the A411 in Watford at about 3.45pm. As with last season, we dipped into “The Horns” pub for a few drinks. A local band were doing a sound check ahead of a tea-time gig and we decided to stay on to see if they were any good.

They played “Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)” at the sound check. A few levels were adjusted. The band were soon happy. If only football was as easy.

They began with “Message In A Bottle” and then replayed “Make Me Smile.”

“Bloody hell, PD, if they play ‘Message In A Bottle’ again, I’m fucking leaving.”

We stayed for ten more songs, I fell in love with the gorgeous lead singer – she possessed the voice of an angel and everything else to match – and it made for a lovely little start to the evening. We Three Kings then walked along the pedestrianised High Street, which was bedecked in Christmas lights, one bar after another. I am told it is quite lively on a weekend evening. We eventually settled at the packed “Moon Under Water” on the pedestrianised High Street, where many Chelsea faces were based. I was not even allowing myself a single lager, so for the second game in a row, I would be watching without alcohol. After four and a half pints of “Coke” I was bouncing off the walls of the boozer. We sadly learned that both Liverpool and Tottenham had won, yet Manchester City had lost at Leicester City. This made for grim reading. I predicted a dour draw against Watford. At least Arsenal were only drawing at Brighton.

We set off on the short walk to Vicarage Road. My good friend Lynda, now living in Brooklyn, was with us.

“When you were growing up in Pennsylvania, I bet you never envisaged yourself walking through the streets of Watford on Boxing Day.”

Lynda and her husband T had travelled up on the solitary Chelsea coach which had left Stamford Bridge at 4pm. T had stayed at Vicarage Road, where they were dropped-off, so he could watch the players go through their pre-match shuttles and routines. T coaches football in the US and I had visions of him with a notebook and pen, possibly even chewing on some dog ends.

Outside the away end at Vicarage Road the brickwork of the stand rises only twenty feet. Once inside, and once the ridiculously cramped concourse has been navigated, the pitch is way below. I am not sure if it is because a lot of the paintwork in the stadium is black, but Vicarage Road always seems darker, more claustrophobic, than others. It always used to be an untidy stadium in the ‘eighties, with odd stands, shallow terracings some way from the pitch which emphasised its use as an occasional greyhound stadium. But it is a neat stadium these days, quite the right size for the club. To my left, the Sir Elton John Stand, to my right the Graham Taylor Stand. Our end was split between home and away fans. There is infill in the four corners. To my left, a sensory area for those unable to contend with a full-on match experience. In one corner a TV screen. In the opposite corner a corporate area – “The Gallery” – where the stadia’s floodlights were reflected, bending out of shape, in the large windows of the viewing boxes.

I suppose that there was no real surprises that Fag Ash Lil kept the same team that lost to Leicester City. It was, in Sarri’s eyes, his strongest eleven.

Arrizabalaga – Azpilicueta, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso – Kante, Jorginho, Kovacic – Pedro, Hazard, Willian.

Defenders apart, we are such a small team. I wasn’t quite sure how we would match up against the more physical Watford team who handed us a demoralising 1-4 defeat on bleak evening in February last season.

For once, the home end was not a swirling mass of flags as the teams entered the pitch for this 7.30pm kick-off. Watford are now kitted out in yellow and black stripes, for the first time, presumably a nod to their “Hornets” nickname. In my mind, Watford still needs a fleck of red in their home uniform.

The game began. We were close to the front and close to the corner flag. Not only were there occasional gaps in the stand to my left but in our section too. Not many, but enough to be discernible. In the first few moments, with Chelsea controlling possession, Pedro worked a fine opening, coming inside and using Willian, but flashed a shot wide of Ben Foster’s post. Kepa made a hash of a clearance amid howls from the Chelsea support, but no Watford player could capitalise. The Chelsea crowd were in good voice.

But then a song began which immediately caused me concern.

“The shit from Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see The Pope…”

I thought “oh fuck” and feared the worst.

Surely not, Chelsea.

The song continued. I didn’t join in. It surprised me how long it lasted…it was torture. Eventually we reached the denouement.

“Barcelona, Real Madrid.”

In that Nano-second, I felt like all of our collective lives flashed before us.

There might have been the odd “Y word” but the overwhelming sound was of people audibly shouting “sssssssshhhhhhh.”

Phew. We had passed the test. Phew again.

The ironic thing is that before the Raheem Sterling incident three weeks’ ago, the song would have ended in its usual fashion and the whole world would have continued on its way. But maybe it is correct that the song has had its day, or at least in its usual form.

Jorginho found Kavacic, who played the ball forward to Willian on the left. His pace set him free but was forced wide and rounded Foster, and his shot struck the outside of the near post. Watford retaliated with the widely booed Deulofeu allowing Doucoure to attempt a shot on goal but Jorginho superbly blocked. Another chance for Watford after a Rudiger error, but Doucoure shot high. Despite their chances, we were still dominating possession.

In front of me, all eyes were on David Luiz, who was involved more than most during the first thirty-minutes. He was often taking control of the ball. Sometimes his passes across the box drew derision from the fans around me. But he was the main passer out of defence, and usually his low balls found their targets. Against Deulofeu, he battled and battled. Going into the game, I had noted that as he fell to his knees to tie his bootlaces, many team mates made a point of walking over to him, to hug him or to shake his hands, sometimes just to touch him, a pat on the back here, a shake there. It felt like he was our talisman, an icon on the pitch for the super-superstitious Sarri.

It was Christmas after all.

But for all of our possession, and movement in the final third, the Watford defence was proving a very tough nut to prise open. It was all about finding pockets of space. But it was a tough task.

“There’s no cutting edge.”

How we longed for a late-arriving midfielder – Frank Lampard, cough, cough – to pounce on a ball played back from the bye-line. But we were hardly reaching the bye-line. This was constipated football with no signs of an outlet. It was as if there was a force field around the Watford goal and we could not penetrate it.

Intricate footwork from the effervescent Pedro allowed Dave set up Hazard who fluffed his lines right in front of the goal, mere feet away. Until that point we had created half-chances. We were turning the screw but I was still not convinced a goal would follow.

A fine Luiz block stopped Troy Deeney from scoring at the other end. Bizarrely, Watford were probably edging the goal-scoring chances.

Things had quietened down now. The home support was ridiculously subdued.

Sadly, Pedro was forced to leave the field with what looked like a thigh strain. He was replaced by Callum Hudson-Odoi, who was then volubly well supported by the away support. Soon after, a break reached Kovacic who advanced before releasing Hazard at just the right time. He was forced wide, like Willian earlier, but he saw enough of the goal once he had rounded Foster and slotted home.

Watford 0 Chelsea 1.

It was goal one hundred in Chelsea colours for our Eden. Team mates joined him and I watched him as his stocky frame jogged over to the bench to embrace Cesc Fabregas. He was full of smiles. It was splendid.

Half-time was just a few moments away.

We had learned that Arsenal had only scratched a 1-1 in Sussex. Suddenly, fourth place was ours.

Right after, Kepa smothered a close shot from Doucoure. From the short corner, we watched in agony as a high ball bypassed everyone and fell at the feet of the completely unmarked Pereyra who met the ball on the volley. It crept into the goal. There was nobody on the posts. Everyone were intent on clearing their lines, like the charge of the light brigade. It was criminal that nobody had picked him up.

Watford 1 Chelsea 1.

Forty-eight minutes had passed.

Bollocks.

The second-half began.

Now it was the turn of our attackers, those who often crowded the corner of the pitch in front of me and my camera, to be the focus of my attention. We moved the ball well in that corner, with Hazard, Hudson-Odoi and Willian often involved. A lofted ball from Luiz – did someone mention “quarterback” or did that phrase die with David Beckham’s retirement? – fell for Kante but he was unable to reach it. Our star David was involved in his own box, shoulder-charging away Deulofeu, much to the chagrin of the now roused home support. Goal scoring chances were rare in this opening third of the second-half.

Just before the hour mark, a cute chipped pass from Jorginho – hurrah! – played in Hazard. He appeared to be sandwiched twixt defender and ‘keeper. In the end he was  unceremoniously bundled over by Foster, who seemed to push him. The referee Martin Atkinson had an easy decision.

Penalty.

Our Eden waited and waited before sending the goalie to his left. Eden went the other way.

Watford 1 Chelsea 2.

Eden was now up to one-hundred and one Chelsea goals.

For much of his career at our club, Hazard’s tag line could well have been “Eden : Everything But The Goal”  but things are hopefully changing. And maybe for longer than just this season.

Chelsea were in full voice again.

Willian, who was steadily improving throughout the second-half scraped the post. Then Kante swiped at goal from outside the box, but his shot went narrowly wide. Although there were not huge amounts of quality on display, the game certainly had enough going on to keep my interest. I was enjoying it. With just one goal between the teams, there was always an edge to the game.

Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic on seventy-eight minutes. We needed to solidify the midfield.

A magnificent ball, a reverse pass, into the box from David Luiz – to whom, I cannot remember – was sublime.

A few more chances fell to Chelsea – punctuated by the substitution of Hudson-Odoi by Emerson, an injury? – came and went with both Willian and Hazard still both driving on deep into the night, and there was more action in our corner in the last moments. Out came the trusty Canon again.

Willian had been involved more and more in the last twenty minutes. On more than one occasion, I saw him breathing heavily, clearly exhausted. He had clearly put in a mighty shift. There is little to choose between Willian and Pedro, but for as long as the manager disregards Morata and Giroud, a decision does not need to be made. The trio of Hazard, Pedro and Willian will suffice. For now we can even call them The Three Wise Men.

Very late chances for Jorginho, Willian and Hazard, had they been converted, would have flattered us a little.

On this night in Watford, a one goal lead would suffice.

At exactly the midway point in the campaign, and after the penultimate game of 2018, fourth place is ours.

See you at Palace.

Tales From Ninety-Six Minutes

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 20 October 2018.

With the international break over – I watched Frome Town capitulate to Harrow Borough last weekend, thanks for asking – it was time for arguably the biggest match of the season. Say what you like about Manchester United, or the Forces of Darkness as I occasionally call them – but they are always a huge draw. Personally, I’d probably rate the visit of Tottenham as our biggest home game each season, but there is not much between them.

Just the three of us headed east to London early on Saturday morning; Parky, PD and little old me. There was early morning patchy fog as I headed through Somerset and Wiltshire, but the sun occasionally cleared. On the M4 in Wiltshire, the fog and mist descended again. Away in the distance, the view of a line of monochrome trees atop a slightly sloping horizon was so pure that I even got PD agreeing with me as to how stunning it looked.

The sun soon evaporated any moisture as we headed into Berkshire and beyond. It was to be a stunning day for football. We had set off at 7am so as to maximise pre-match drinking time. We settled on “The Goose” for ease more than anything else. As the other two shot on, I stopped to take a photo of a mackerel sky high above the old school flats of the Clement Atlee Estate just off the Lillee Road. These high-rise blocks of low-cost accommodation, hovering over The Goose, The Wellington and The Rylston pubs, must have housed thousands of Chelsea supporters over the years. I would not be surprised if some of the “North End Road mob” of the late-‘sixties and early-‘seventies were housed within. A friend of mine, Paul – now living in North Devon, and a Chelsea supporter – lived within one of the towers. There is a lot mentioned of “proper Chelsea” these days, and I often think, as I gaze up at the windows and balconies of the Clement Atlee, named after the leader of the Labour Party and the Prime Minister of the coalition government for a few years after the Second World War, that this is a good example. Occasionally, I see a Chelsea flag hanging from one of the balconies – there used to be a dusty and weather-beaten “Munich 2012” one a few years back – but I wonder how many inhabitants get to see Chelsea Football Club play these days.

Not so many as in the late ’sixties I’d guess.

In The Goose – I had limited myself to a couple of Peronis – and the beer garden outside, I spent a good hour talking to friends from far and near. There was, as is always the case, little talk of the game ahead.

Deano from Yorkshire, Welsh Kev from Port Talbot, the boys from Kent, Eck from Glasgow, the lads from Gloucester, the Bristol lot, Rich from Loughborough.

I was aware that several friends from the other side of the Atlantic were over for the game.

And we chastise United fans that don’t come from Manchester.

Oh, the irony.

It was a pleasure to meet up with Brad, now living in New York but originally from Texas, and his father who was attending his first-ever Chelsea game.

I say this to everyone : “if we lose, you ain’t coming back.”

Pride of place during this particular pre-match meet-and-greet went to my friends Leigh-Anne and John from Toronto, now married, and dipping into see us play again after a busy holiday in Ireland. I last saw them in DC in 2015. They were to announce the fact that Leigh-Anne was pregnant to all their friends back home – baby due in March – with a photo of them holding up a little Chelsea shirt outside the West Stand.

Now that, my friends, is proper Chelsea.

The time flew past. I supped the last few sips and headed to the ground.

We were sure that Olivier Giroud would start. It was a foregone conclusion.

He didn’t.

I hoped that man-of-the-moment Ross Barkley would start.

He didn’t.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Morata – Hazard

My main concern was that we might be out-muscled by Matic and Pogba in midfield.

This would be my thirty-second Chelsea vs. Manchester United league game at Stamford Bridge. My first one came in our first season back in the top flight after a five-season break – I like to think of it as our “this relationship is going nowhere and we need a bit of space” phase – when I assembled with 42,000 others just after Christmas Day in 1984. I don’t know about anyone else, but I was super-excited. After my first game in 1974, Chelsea then played seven of the next ten seasons in Division Two, and my sightings of top teams was severely limited. It seems incredible these days, but from March 1974 to August 1984, I only ever saw us play seven home games in Division One.

Newcastle United – 1974

Tottenham Hotspur – 1974

Derby County – 1975

Aston Villa – 1977

Liverpool – 1978

Tottenham Hotspur – 1978

Queens Park Rangers – 1979

(…it would appear this random sample would support my theory of Tottenham being the biggest game each season in my mind.)

December 1984, with me on the benches with Alan and Glenn, and a few other close friends, and the visit of Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United. It was a huge game. We were doing well in the league, and United were in the mix too. There was an expectant buzz before the game, and we were in The Benches early, as always, and watched the large and sprawling North Stand fill up with United fans.

“Not as many as Liverpool earlier this month” I remember thinking at the time.

These days, we are so used to inflated gates with clubs being scared to death to publish actual “bums on seats” at games, instead going for the number of tickets sold. It is why Arsenal always announce gates of 60,000 despite swathes of empty seats in the latter years of the Wenger reign. In those days, it was the exact opposite. Why pay tax on the income generated by 45,000 if you can announce the figure as 35,000? Nobody would ever check. So, in those days with that cunning old fox Ken Bates in charge, there were many times when we scoffed at some of the gates which were announced. In May 1984, Stamford Bridge was packed to see us beat Leeds United to clinch promotion but the gate was only 33,000.

“Yeah right, Batesy.”

Sitting in The Benches in those days, I always used to keep a check on the top row of the East Stand. If every seat was taken, I expected a 42,500 capacity figure to be announced.

Very often it wasn’t.

Sadly, we lost 3-1 that day and I was as disappointed as I had felt for a good few years as I exited Stamford Bridge and took the train back to Somerset. It was our first big loss at home after promotion the previous year and the little doubts about our place in the new world order were beginning to peck away.

Our home record against United used to be bloody awful, and yet paradoxically our league record at Old Trafford was excellent; from 1966/677 to 1987/88 we were unbeaten in thirteen league matches, a very fine record. And we have intermittently nabbed good wins at Old Trafford in the past thirty years.

Our home form has certainly improved.

From that game in December 1984, we lost eight out of seventeen league games at Stamford Bridge.

Since 2002, we have lost just one of sixteen.

For once, I was confident – not even quietly confident – of a Chelsea win.

“God knows where our goals will come from, but I am sure we’ll win.”

It has been a mystery to me why the movers and shakers at Adidas decided to jettison the classic Manchester United red / white / black in favour of a red / black / red this season. It was a classic kit. Why the change? All I know is that none of the United fans that I know have bothered to mention it. Perhaps they haven’t noticed.

After the usual “Park Life” and “Liquidator” segment gave way to the flag waving and flame-throwing bollocks of the immediate pre-match, the teams appeared.

United oddly chose to wear white shorts for this one match. But the kit still looked a mess.

A new Eden Hazard flag – simplicity itself – surfed over the heads of those in the tier below me.

I looked around. Ken Bates or no Ken Bates, nobody could lie about the attendance for this one. It was a full-house for sure.

Except for a few of the boxes in the West Middle.

Empty.

The mind boggles why these tend to be empty every game.

Another TV game. The nation, and parts of the world, was ready.

The game began and there was a decent buzz in the stadium. I only rarely looked over to spot Mourinho and Sarri. The red of the United substitutes was very light, almost pink. Liverpool have gone darker, United have gone lighter. Anything to distance themselves from each other. By comparison, there was more immediate noise at the Liverpool home game, but everyone was in the boozers, all fifty-two of them, for much longer three weeks ago. These lunchtime starts are usually quieter affairs.

United were singing, as they always do, in the far corner, but Chelsea had the best of the opening period of the game. There was far greater fluidity from our ranks. Hazard was hacked down by Young, but no card was shown. Soon after, Eden was fouled just outside the box, but Willian curled the free-kick way over the bar. United had a little spell; it made a change to see them in our box. Lukaku headed wide. It would be the last that we would see of him for a while.

At the other end, we dominated again.

On twenty minutes, we won a corner. Willian struck a firm cross over towards the penalty spot where Toni Rudiger rose, seemingly unhindered and at will, to thump a header past De Gea. Again, I had a clear view of its trajectory. I knew that it was a goal straight away.

BOOM.

Blue / Blue / White 1 Red / White / Red 0.

Alan – in a Mancunian Red Army accent : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Chris – in a Cockney Reds accent : “Come on my little diamonds”

Young chipped away at Hazard again; this time a card.

Next up, a sublime pass from Rudiger – lofted from afar – caught the run of a raiding Alonso, but the defender’s first touch was heavy as De Gea approached.

A similar lofted pass from David Luiz was so well disguised, none of his team mates went for it.

“That ball had a moustache and false glasses on it, Al.”

For virtually all of the first-half, while Juan Mata was involved in occasional bursts and a couple of dead-balls, the other two former Chelsea players Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku struggled to get involved at all. Matic was his usual ambling self and of little consequence. And Lukaku, sporting ridiculous XXXXL shorts – “If Gary was wearing those, he would have to have turn-ups” quipped Alan – was hardly noticeable. I was mesmerized, though, by the size of Lukaku. His arse must have a postcode all to itself. How times change; when he first joined Chelsea, I wanted him to bulk up a little as he didn’t seem to have the physical prowess to dominate defenders. Bloody hell, since those days, he has bulked up quite considerably. He must eat at every greasy spoon, twenty-four-hour truck stop and all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant between Bournemouth and Tyneside.

It was lovely to see Juan Mata applauded by the home support as he took his first corner over in the far corner. I would expect nothing less, to be honest. Mata is a class act, and will always be a blue in my eyes. There was no show of love or appreciation for Matic and Lukaku.

The play continued to pass Lukaku by. He seemed slow and disinterested, and of no consequence.

In fact, he looked like the biggest pile of shite to be seen on TV from a location in West London since Lulu the elephant had stage fright in the Blue Peter studio.

The first-half came to an end, with Chelsea well in control, but without creating a great deal of chances. It gives me no comfort nor pleasure to report that Alvaro Morata was his usual self; playing in name only. Not much movement, not much guile, not much anything really.

In the much-improved programme, there was time to dip into the contents. Oddly, the Red Banner game that I covered a couple of games back was featured in depth; I learned that the game, on a Wednesday afternoon in 1954, was shown “live” on the BBC.

A Pat Nevin column detailing his love, like mine, of the Manchester music scene, was excellent. Pat has a musical column in the programme this season, similar to his piece in the old “Bridge News” of the mid- ‘eighties and it is well worth reading. There have been a couple of excellent pieces on the internet about Wee Pat of late.

After reading one of them during the morning, Glenn – who was missing the game due to work – sent me a message to say that “Pat is just like you.”

I half-guessed what he meant.

I presumed that there would be a comment about the Cocteau Twins.

“I like driving. I can listen to music. And think about football.”

Sadly, there was no hope of me playing for Chelsea Football Club nor going out with Clare Grogan, so that is where the comparison ends.

The second-half began. Early on, Morata would frustrate us further. A Jorginho through ball set him up, he did all the right things, but then meekly shot wide.

With us in charge, but desperate for a second to wrap things up, I hoped the miss would not haunt us.

David Luiz, raiding in the inside-left position, supported the attack and did well to exchange passes with Eden, but his shot was deflected for a corner. I loved the bursting runs of Kovacic which continued to breathe life into our play.

The game then, sadly, changed.

With ten minutes of the second-half played, Kepa did ever so well to push out a firm strike from Mata, but the ball was kept alive. The ball was dolloped back inside the box and although Luiz got a head to the ball, I sensed danger – “they’ll score here” – and it fell to Martial who nimbly poked it home.

London 1 Manchester 1.

Bollocks.

United roared, singing some song about Liverpool, if my hearing was correct.

Chelsea then seemed to crumple. Matic started dominating the midfield and Mata looked influential. Lukaku roamed from his central position and caused problems. Suddenly, we looked half the team we were in the first-half.

I grew more annoyed with Alvaro Morata.

Every player has a trademark play – the John Terry chest-pass, the Frank Lampard thumbs up run, the Eden Hazard 180 degree turn, the manic Pedro run, the Willian burst, the David Luiz feint – but it seems to me the Morata speciality is holding the back of his head after yet another half-hearted jump at a high ball.

“FUCKSAKE.”

David Luiz seemed to be having a hit and miss game, but I lost count of the times his fantastic interceptions stopped United causing further damage. One run to shield the ball away from the lump of Lukaku was sublime.

A Luiz header went close from a Willian free-kick. The flight of the ball was almost perfect, but the stretching Luiz just had too much to do. But his leap was well-timed. His was an increasingly important role in the game.

Ross Barkley then replaced Kovacic. A round of applause for both.

Kante – not as involved as I would like if I am honest – then let fly outside the box but De Gea scrambled the ball away.

This was a tight game, if not high on real quality. Eden had been shackled all afternoon, often with three players hounding him, but we hoped his moment of genius would come.

Then, seventy-three minutes, a calamity. Luiz mistimed an interception out wide (there had been other similar ones during the game where his timing was spot-on) and this allowed the mercurial Mata to set up Rashford, then Martial. Moving the ball quickly out of his feet, he effortlessly struck a low shot right into the bottom corner of our net.

Nike 1 Adidas 2.

The United hordes roared again.

“U – N – I – T – E – D, United are the team for me.”

And then a song which United have taken on board as a badge of honour over the past fifteen years or so :

“Who the fuck are Man United, as the reds go marching on, on, on.”

Their thought process must be this : ”as if anyone should question who United are.”

It honestly boils my piss when I hear our fans singing this.

It’s their fucking song these days.

“Chelsea Till I Die” is another one. Hardly ever sung at a Chelsea game of any description, home or away, at any time. A song of Football League teams. A dirge much beloved by smaller clubs. A song which seems to have found a firm footing among our overseas fans, though God knows why.

Please stop it.

Immediately, Pedro replaced Willian. Soon after, Olivier Giroud took over from the non-existent Morata.

But he mood had certainly darkened around me. Just like in 1984, we were about to be handed our first big home defeat of the season. And I had a flashback to the Tottenham game last Spring, when an early goal at The Shed was eventually wiped out and overtaken.

Eden became a little more involved. The intensity rose.

I spoke to Alan.

“Barkley to get a goal.”

The referee signaled a whopping six minutes of extra-time.

Hope, however small, existed.

The clock ate up the minutes. A few fans decided to leave.

With time surely running out, Dave swung in a high and deep cross towards the far post. I snapped as David Luiz climbed a step ladder to jump higher than two United defenders. We watched as the ball slowly looped towards the far post.

The ball struck it.

The disbelief.

The ball cannoned out and Rudiger headed towards goal.

The anticipation.

David De Gea magnificently saved.

The agony.

Ross Barkley was on hand to smash the ball in.

The pandemonium.

The noise.

Chelsea 2 Manchester United 2.

By this time, I was at the top of the steps to my immediate right and I snapped away as Ross Barkley celebrated wildly. I felt my head spinning.

I was light-headed.

I grabbed hold of the hand rail in front of me and steadied myself.

Such joy.

I looked over to see Al and Bournemouth Steve shouting, smiling and pointing.

Alan’s face says it all.

All around me, there seemed to be another wave of noise and then, I wasn’t sure why, a loud “FUCK OFF MOURINHO.”

I immediately thought that this was a little distasteful. Yeah, I know the bloke is – now – a knob head but there were some good times too.

We tried to piece together what had happened, and over in the tunnel, there was a lot of handbags being thrown. Players on the pitch were pushing and shoving each other.

I didn’t care.

The whistle went and it had seemed like a win. After the ninety-sixth minute goal conceded against Liverpool, this was a lot more enjoyable. And Ross Barkley, our token Scouser, making all those Mancunians miserable now?

“Sound, la.”

Unbeaten in nine league games, a nice round dozen in total, we are doing just fine.

And Brad’s father enjoyed the game so much that he soon asked around for a spare for Thursday against BATE Borisov.

He will be sitting, apparently, two runs in front of me.

I’ll see him there.

 

Tales From Fulham High Street And Fulham Road

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 29 September 2018.

So, this was it. The big test. The much-anticipated visit of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, with their six league victories out of six. On the train journey up to London, we all spoke about how excited, and yet nervous, we were ahead of the game at 5.30pm. We chatted briefly about our come-from-behind win against the same opposition at Anfield three days previously. We knew we had ridden our luck a little. But that game highlighted two things to me.

One – we are a vastly different team when Eden Hazard plays. He makes us tick.

Two – our support should never be maligned again. Although I did not attend the game on Wednesday, I was absolutely elated to see that we had taken around five thousand up to Liverpool. And it seemed to me that the younger element of our support – for a while, it seemed we had missed out on a generation – made up a large proportion of those travelling. Maybe those that cannot always get tickets for Anfield in the league decided to travel up on a weekday evening, not always the easiest of logistical operations. Top marks to everyone who travelled. You made me proud.

In the first of the six pubs that we visited before the match, I admitted to Andy from Kent that I was actually enjoying the nervousness of the game with Liverpool.

“To be honest, we have enjoyed so much success over the recent ten years or more, that sometimes we take it for granted, all of this, game after game, especially at the Bridge, regardless of the opposition. But because they – Liverpool – have started so well this season, and because we know what they can do to teams, I’m nervous, but I’m enjoying that emotion. It feels good.”

I had meticulously planned another pub crawl a few weeks back, and I had fastidiously reviewed my plans. We were all relishing another Chuckle Bros Pub Crawl.

After a breakfast at Paddington, though, the disruption caused by the closure of the District Line meant that we chose to head down to our designated meeting point by cab. We headed to the most southerly part of Fulham, right where the bend of the Thames is at its flattest, and made it our home for almost five hours.

I have often mused about the geographical reach of “Chelsea pubs” on match days, and in the lead up to the game, I thought again about what constitutes a Chelsea pub and what doesn’t. My very first pub was The Cock back in 1984, and my mind went on a temporal and geographical journey as I remembered previous seasons and previous sessions.

1984 : The Cock, still going strong.

1985 : The George, alas no more, now an Estate Agents at the junction of the North End Road and Fulham Road.

1986 : The Stamford Bridge Arms, aka the Cross-Eyed Newt, originally the Rising Sun, and now The Butcher’s Hook.

1987 : The Black Bull, now The Pensioner.

1988 : The Fox And Pheasant and The King’s Arms, now the Broadway Bar & Grill, previously The Slug & Lettuce.

1991 : Finch’s, way up the Fulham Road, long closed.

1992 : The Stargazy, alas no more, on the Fulham Road.

1994 : The Harwood Arms, our old regular, on Walham Grove.

Since then, our boozing has taken us to new territories.

North : The Finborough, The Ifield – now closed, The Pembroke, The Courtfield – now an away pub – The Blackbird, O’Neils – now renamed – and The King’s Head, The Lillie Langtry, The Imperial, The Atlas and The Prince Of Wales.

South : The White Hart, now a Thai restaurant, Brogan’s, The Black Rose, formerly The Britannia, then the So Bar and now a hideous cocktail bar, The Jam Tree, formerly the Nell Gwynne, The Beer Engine, formerly The Wheatsheaf, The Hand And Flower, no more, The Imperial, The Morrison, formerly the Lord Palmerston – closed – The Rose, The Chelsea Ram, The Tommy Tucker, formerly The Pickled Pelican, Simmon’s Bar and the White Horse on Parson’s Green, aka “The Sloaney Pony.”

East : The Gunter Arms, The World’s End, The Chelsea Potter.

West : The Oyster Rooms, The Fulham Dray – closed – The Barrowboy – closed, The Mitre, The Malt House, formerly the Jolly Maltsters, The Wellington, The Rylston, The Goose, The Elm, The Old Oak, The Clarence, The Seven Stars – closed – The Colton Arms and The Famous Three Kings.

Fifty-two Chelsea pubs, and all bona fide Chelsea pubs too.

On this day, we would be stretching the southern limits. Just off Putney Bridge tube, we first spent a while in the cosy “Eight Bells” which is often used by Chelsea en route to Craven Cottage. We were joined by “the Kent lot” and also Foxy and Drew fae Dundee. We watched as West Ham went 2-0 up against United. Ho ho ho. Next up, “The King’s Arms” – a bit plusher, but actually cheaper rounds – and then the quite unique interior of “The Temperance”, and a few Chelsea were inside. Over the road, we dipped into “The Golden Lion”, where more Chelsea were located, though I doubt if many of the faces on show were off to the game.

As Parky commented “if the devil could cast his net.”

Over the road, the Fulham High Street, to the swanky “King’s Arms” and we were the only football fans there. In fact, we were virtually the only blokes there.

“Nice scenery, lads.”

Lastly, like homing pigeons, we could not resist heading north up the Fulham Road towards Stamford Bridge and we popped into The Durell Arms for one last guzzle.

No football fans in this one either. Rugby fans. Swerve.

So, I’m not convinced that these six additions could really be classed as “Chelsea” pubs; if anything they are Fulham pubs. After walking for a while, we clambered on board a bus which deposited us right outside Fulham Town Hall. It had been a riotous laugh but it was now time to think about the imminent game.

With eight pints of lager sloshing around between my ears, I kept thinking “concentrate you bastard, concentrate.”

We all made it inside with around ten minutes to spare. It was still a stunning day. Stamford Bridge was crowned with a cloudless sky. It was a perfect evening for football. Maurizio Sarri’s team selection carried no surprises. Thankfully, Antonio Rudiger’s knock at West Ham was not serious enough to stop him playing. It was the starting eleven, I think, that most people would have chosen.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilcueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

For all of our fears concerning the threat of Liverpool, based on their excellent start to the season, I gained a certain amount of solace from the fact that their midfield three consisted of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum; hardly world beaters in my book. However, it was in defence and attack where Liverpool would surely make life difficult for us. Their “fab three” of Firmino, Salah and Mane could, in theory, give our defenders a torrid time. And their defence, much-improved from previous campaigns, look more like a cohesive unit these days.

Over in the far corner were three-thousand away fans; a mixture of scallies from Scotland Road, Koppites from Kirkby, Gobshites from Guildford and half-and-half scarfers from halfway around the world. Just before the two teams entered the pitch, the away fans draped a “Justice For Grenfell” banner over the balcony wall of the Shed.

The two teams entered the pitch.

It would be the forty-fourth time that I would be watching Liverpool at Stamford Bridge.

The classic blue versus red.

Liverpool are sticking with a darker-than-usual shade of red this season. It is almost a blood red, much different than the lighter hues of recent memory.

The game began, and before we had time to catch our collective breaths, Liverpool were on the front foot and creating chances. Two fell to our former bit-part-player Mo Salah, but he must’ve put his boots on the wrong feet. First an easy shot at Kepa and then a ridiculous blast high and very wide. Next up, Mane followed the wildness with a wide effort of his own. It was certainly advantage to the visitors, as I had quietly feared, but Chelsea then started to create some chances of our own. Raiding down the left, wearing the 17 shirt, it is easy for the mind to play tricks; is that Eden Hazard from 2012, or the bustling Mateo Kovacic from 2018? Either way, both players looked lively.

On twenty-five minutes, a fine move – quick passes – saw a ball played by Kovacic out to the feet of Hazard in his trademark inside left position. My initial thoughts were this :

“That’s a pretty tough angle, he has a lot to do there.”

I need not have worried one iota. Rather than come inside and strike across the ball with his right foot, he looked up and aimed a low shot at goal with his left peg. It would be our first real shot on target. But it was enough. The ball, miraculously, sped just past the fingertips of Allison and nestled into the far corner of the Liverpool goal.

“GETINYOUBASTARD.”

Arms were lifted high into the sky and a guttural roar swallowed Stamford Bridge whole.

We were 1-0 up. Over one hundred yards away, I could just make out Hazard being engulfed by his team mates, and within easy range of the away fans.

It seemed that at that exact moment in time, Eden Hazard was carrying the entire football club. Since his formidable World Cup with Belgium, and his excellent start to the season, his name has been on everyone’s lips. There have been doubts among many at Chelsea over the last few years about his true value, and ultimately his ranking among the very best, but it seems he can do no wrong in these opening games of 2018/2019.

Playmaker, provider, and now goal scorer. It seems that it is all about Eden.

It would not surprise me to see him out on the pitch with ten minutes to go before kick-off with a microphone in hand running through the teams nor after the game taking the goalposts down.

Liverpool immediately countered, and only resolute defending from the central partnership of Luiz and Rudiger stopped the visitors from equalising. We had all expressed doubts about our defence, our weakest link in so many eyes, but I was so pleased to see strength and togetherness, rigidity and power.

We had heard that Manchester City had beaten Brighton before the game, but that seemed to be an irrelevance. Everything was about Chelsea.

Into the second-half, chances were exchanged.

At The Shed End, our goalkeeper – who had not really been called upon to make a save of note – slung himself down to his right to push aside a low shot from Mane. There was thunderous applause from the home faithful.

Our chances were rare, but after a quickly taken free-kick, we were all on our feet to watch as Hazard raced clear of the high line of defenders, but we watched in agony as Allison managed to spread himself and ensure the ball hit a part of his frame before bobbling up and over his goal.

The minutes ticked by.

Olivier Giroud was replaced by Alvaro Morata, but I still sensed that Hazard was our only goal threat. Xherdan Shaqiri replaced the ineffectual Mo Salah for the visitors. Within minutes of coming on, he steered a good chance wide of Kepa’s goal.

Liverpool were applying constant pressure now. We were all clock-watching. We had to thank David Luiz, playing his finest game for us this season and probably since 2016/2017, as he cleared a Firmino header off the line. This was real backs to the wall stuff now.

Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic, his best game for us.

A Shaqiri free-kick was well saved by Kepa.

With five minutes remaining, Milner was replaced by Daniel Sturridge. I remembered his last appearance at Stamford Bridge as a hapless member of a doomed West Brom team and the almost pitiful injury which forced his early exit from the game.

The clock kept ticking.

“COME ON CHELS. KEEP GOING BOYS.”

In the eighty-ninth minute, the ball broke to Sturridge. Without so much as a single second of thought, he instinctively struck a firm and yet slightly curling laser which flew over our flailing ‘keeper and into the highest portion of the goal.

We were silenced.

Tales From Life In A Northern Town

Huddersfield Town vs. Chelsea : 11 August 2018.

The new league season was upon us. The disappointment of last Sunday’s Community Shield loss was quickly swept under the carpet and all thoughts centered upon our away game at Huddersfield Town. This was a perfect start for me personally. I only missed two league games last season – both due to work – and these were the two trips to Huddersfield and Burnley. I was certainly upset to miss the Huddersfield game just before Christmas because I had never seen Chelsea play there before, either at Leeds Road or their new stadium. In fact, I had only ever visited the town en route to a couple of games at Elland Road in the late ‘eighties. As Huddersfield flirted with relegation for a while, I was pulling for them to stay up. I desperately wanted to cross another ground off, in that worryingly train spotter style of us football supporters. In the circumstances, I loved the fact that the often temperamental league fixtures computer had churned out an ideal match for us to get the ball rolling.

Saturday 11 August : Huddersfield Town vs. Chelsea – 3pm.

It was bloody perfect.

We decided to stay the Saturday night too. I wondered if they might last more than two seasons. This might be my only chance to visit the town for a while. It would give me the chance to have a little poke around the former mill town. A chance to get under its skin. The other lads – Glenn, PD, Parky – hardly needed any persuading. Tickets were purchased, hotels were booked.

We set off from home at 6am. The traffic was light. We drove right through the heart of England and as we neared our destination, the road signs on the M1 were a reminder of a time when we were playing teams in a lower division.

“Leicester, Derby, Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley, Leeds.”

It was the ‘eighties all over again.

The weather had kept fine. It was a reasonable drive. I ate up the 240 miles and we were soon knocking back the first pint of lager in “The Crown Hotel” in the town centre.

Mission accomplished.

The pub was a mix of Saturday shoppers, home fans and a smattering of Chelsea supporters, with only one wearing colours. We stayed two hours and it was a lovely time, apart from the fact that Tottenham, in a lurid green strip, won 2-1 at Newcastle United in the televised game.

We had obviously dissected our chances for the new season during the five-hour drive in the morning. The general consensus was that we thought it might take a while for the new manager to get his players to fully understand the high tempo and high press style of football he wanted. We were pragmatic and philosophical. If it took a few months, even a whole season, so be it. As for predictions, I thought we might struggle to finish in the top four, and hinted at a similar position to last season. Unsurprisingly, I chose Manchester City to win it again, with Liverpool a reluctant pick as runners up. Then, perm any two from Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and us. My gut feeling was a repeat of last season; fifth.

We left the boozer at just after two o’clock, with a nice warm buzz from the four pints of lager. We didn’t go mad; we wanted to be able to savour the game. On the walk to the stadium, a mile or so to the north, the vibe was certainly of a typical Northern town. There was occasionally ornate stonework on some of the larger shops and civic buildings, but all in that rather dull cream hue which is typical of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Nearby, there were old mill buildings and canals. The flow of home supporters in their light blue and white shirts guided us to the stadium. I noted the reintroduction of the Umbro diamonds on their shirts; this time as a trim to the cuffs, unlike the piping which used to adorn the sleeves of our Umbro kit from 1977 to 1981. Hardly any away fans were wearing colours.

Oranges, pinks, light blues, greys, racing greens, dark blues, lime greens, whites, the light beige and cream of Huddersfield stone.

The garb of a typical away fan in the UK in 2018.

In its day the current Huddersfield Town stadium, which opened in 1994, was seen as quite a departure from the more mundane new builds. It originally had just three sides I seem to remember – the away end came at a later stage – and its arched roof trusses were quite unique. A couple of work colleagues, who had visited the stadium on a number of occasions with Swindon Town, had warned me that it was looking rather tired after almost a quarter of a century and was overdue a lick of paint. In fact, I was totally impressed with it. It looked every inch a fine stadium, not unlike the new builds at Bolton and Brighton, and it certainly pleased me. It was nestling beside a hill, festooned with trees. It was a fine sight.

Just half a mile further north is the site of the team’s former Leeds Road stadium, which was a sizeable ground in its day, with its famous Cowshed stand along one side. It was the home of the league championship in three consecutive years from 1925 to 1927, before the manager Herbert Chapman sullied his reputation by joining Arsenal.

It is also, regrettably, the sight of a very sad day in the history of Chelsea Football Club. On the first day of October in 1983, Chelsea won 3-2 at Huddersfield Town, but the day will be remembered when a young student from Stroud in Gloucestershire, Richard Aldridge, was killed during a fracas after the game when he was hit over the head with a pool cue. He was an innocent, sadly caught up in a typical moment of stupidity which was sadly all too prevalent in those days.

A lot of nonsense has been written about football hooliganism over the years, but I am afraid this incident shamefully spotlights the insanity of a large part of it.

Richard Aldridge, a Chelsea supporter and a student from the west of England, attending a game due to his love of football.

The parallels with me are just too scary for words.

RIP.

Thankfully, in 2018, everything was super-relaxed. There was a little good natured chat with some of the locals as we neared the stadium. We talked to many friends in the bar area outside the stadium, which is cut into the hillside. It was great to be back amongst it once more. There is nothing like an away game with Chelsea.

The minutes ticked by.

We had tickets in row F, just behind the goal. The attendance would be around 25,000. We had 2,500 away fans.

The minutes ticked by.

The team had been announced earlier.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz- Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Pedro – Morata – Willian

The skies were clear overhead. A fine day. Not oppressively hot. Just right.

The players entered the pitch.

2018/2019 was just minutes away.

The yellow, yellow, blue of our away kit looked simply stunning. It is a winner. I wish I could say the same for the flecked nonsense of the home kit.

Ross Barkley kicked off the new campaign.

My fear was of 0-0 draw from which no assumptions could be drawn for the season ahead, rather like the Villas-Boas opener at Stoke in 2011.

Over the course of the first quarter of an hour, I quickly spotted that the Chelsea players were very quick in releasing the ball to others. This really was high tempo. It was if the ball was a hot potato. More than two touches and there would be a scalding pain.

Touch, touch, pass. Touch, touch, pass. We were moving the ball into space with Ross Barkley and Pedro especially involved. It was interesting to see N’Golo Kante in a more attacking role. He was afforded a fair bit of space. This was a fine start.

Throughout the opening section of the game, the home fans were making a right racket. Sadly, they were aided by those bloody hideous cardboard noisemakers and there was one monotonous drum in the home half of the end that we were sharing. But there was noise, and the Huddersfield fans should be commended for that.

Willian looked lively on the left, but it was our new ‘keeper from Athletic Bilbao who was forced to make the first real save of the afternoon. He handled a long shot with ease. The home team went close again, and then we enjoyed a little spell.

The Chelsea support was trying its best to counter the noise of the home fans.

“He came from Napoli.

He said fuck off City.

Jorginho – wha – oh.

Jorginho – wha – oh – oh – oh.”

Oh well, at least it is better than the infamous Morata one.

With half-time approaching, Willian raced past his full back and played a ball into the box. Beyond the angle of the six-yard box, the ball ended up in the vicinity of N’Golo Kante. His quick reaction guided the ball goal wards, but not before looping up after hitting the turf.  To everyone’s surprise – not least N’Golo Kante – the ball nestled in at the far post.

Get in you bastard.

Shortly after, Alan and I enjoyed the first “THTCAUN / COMLD” of the new season.

Right after, in virtually the next move of the match, Huddersfield hit the post after a flick-on at a corner fooled everyone.

Just before half-time, Ross Barkley – who had looked nimble and involved – passed to Marcos Alonso with a lovely back heal. Just as the Spaniard was about to let fly, Schindler took him out with an ugly tackle.

Penalty.

The locals were far from happy.

We waited an age.

Jorginho slowly approached, sold the goalkeeper Hamer a ridiculous dummy. It was so convincing that the ‘keeper hopped in to a cab to take him to Halifax.

Jorginho simply slotted the ball into the empty net.

We were winning 2-0.

Love it.

At the break, all was positive in the packed away end. We had hardly peppered the home goal with efforts – far from it – but we were just happy to be ahead. In the first-half, I was impressed with David Luiz. Does the phrase “calm efficiency” seem right? Whatever, welcome back David.

Chelsea dominated the opening exchanges of the second period, with Willian and Alonso getting behind the right full back in front of the main stand time after time. But chances were at a premium. Morata’s movement improved and space opened up a little. A deep corner from Willian was met with a fine leap from the impressive Rudiger, but Hamer dropped to push the ball past his post. From another Willian corner, Rudiger was again involved, with his header teeing-up an overhead swipe from Alonso which skimmed the Huddersfield bar.

It seemed to be all Chelsea.

After a foul on Morata, an Alonso free-kick was smacked too centrally and too high of the target.

On sixty-eight minutes, Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Ross Barkley.

The most bizarre part of the entire game took place right in front of us when our new keeper touched a header over.

“Goal kick” said the referee.

The natives grew even more restless.

A wild shot from substitute Depoitre hardly troubled Arrizabalaga, our new kid in the box.

On seventy-five minutes, Eden Hazard replaced Willian. He looked energised and “up for it” in the fifteen minutes that he was involved. A trademark run deep into the home third set up a square pass to Pedro, who clipped his shot past Hamer.

Huddersfield Town 0 Chelsea 3.

Game, set and match.

I loved the fact that Pedro went straight to Eden and hoisted him up onto his shoulders.

Victor Moses then replaced Pedro. He had been one of our stars. Always running, always smiling, I am a big fan. Another trademark run from Eden was ended with a rugged challenge, and then after yet another run deep into their final third, the ball was played out to Morata who should have at least hit the target.

No further goals followed.

So. That was easy, eh?

My pre-match worries were ill-founded. The boys done good. I especially liked Luiz, Kante and the quiet efficiency of the new boy Jorginho. I also liked the way that our new ‘keeper was actively shouting instructions at corners and free-kicks.

Thibaut who?

The players thanked us for our support, but the new manager Maurizio kept his distance, as did Gianfranco Zola.

Let’s hope we can build on this steady start to the season.

After the game, we wandered back in to town and enjoyed some relaxing drinks at four different pubs and bars, of admittedly varying standards. We ended up in a part of town which was worryingly called the Beast Market.

“Sounds like a nightclub.”

The evening ended with pizza and Peronis in a nearby Italian restaurant. We were sat next to a Huddersfield Town season ticket holder – I have a feeling that his wife was used to him talking football with strangers – and he spoke about his aspirations for the new season. He was hopeful that his team could stay up, but was just enjoying the ride to be honest. I thought it was noticeable that although he had gone to see two England games in Italia ’90, he too had struggled to get too wrapped up in this summer’s World Cup.

We asked him about Leeds United, the wicked witch of West Yorkshire, and – yes – he did regard them as a very special foe. They still dominate the support in that part of the world, and – yes – he couldn’t stand them.

Eerily, he knew the Huddersfield Town fan that had killed the youngster from Stroud way back in 1983.

We chose a few words to sum up the absurdity of it all.

Sigh.

We caught cabs back to the hotel and the night was over.

Our next game is at Stamford Bridge against Arsenal.

I will see many of you there.

Tales From Game 5/38

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 17 September 2017.

In the build-up to this game, it felt like the majority of my thoughts about Arsenal could be filed under a “familiarity breeds contempt” headline. Not only would this be my fourth Arsenal game in nine matches – Wembley, Beijing, Wembley, Stamford Bridge – but there is just something about them. In reality, there has always, been contempt for them, it’s just that the regular sight of them every other game since May has just sharpened things a little. But there is also, thankfully – and just like their North London rivals, I forget their name right now – something about Arsenal these days which always, without fail, manages to raise a laugh.

From Wenger’s one thousandth Arsenal game resulting in a 6-0 win for us, to the sight of thousands of empty seats at Arsenal home games, to the beyond-parody morons on Arsenal Fan TV, to the annual capitulation after Christmas, to the obsession with fourth place, to the train-spotter tendencies of their fan base to Wenger’s steely resolve not to buy players in areas of the team that blatantly need strengthening, there is always something laughable happening in N5.

I’ve written in excess of twenty Chelsea vs. Arsenal match reports over the past ten seasons, and just when you think that there is nothing left to ridicule, they come up with a stonker. Seeing thousands upon thousands of Cologne fans doing as they pleased in all areas of the Emirates on Thursday was comedy gold.

“After you Hans.”

“Thanks Claude.”

On the drive to London, the four Chuckle Brothers were pretty confident of a home win. Our last few matches have produced warming performances, whereas Arsenal have shown only mid-table form. Wenger’s band of undesirables did not seem to pose too much of a threat. We thought about the team. We presumed that Eden Hazard would start. We guessed that Antonio Conte would chose the London derby experience of Victor Moses over the bullish ex-Torino right back Zappacosta. I expected Fabregas to start. And although there was an argument to leave Antonio Rudiger in the team, I was convinced that the manager would start with Gary Cahill. He is, after all, the club captain.

After the terrorist attack on the District Line at Parsons Green – just a few hundred yards south of Stamford Bridge – on Friday, the last thing that I wanted to see on the North End Road was police tape and police cars, and a street bereft of pedestrians. Although the threat of another attack had not really been on my mind as the game had approached, some doubts started to roll in. However, we soon learned that there had recently been a fatal road accident on that familiar stretch of road. Even though we were headed, again, to The Atlas, our old haunt of The Goose was forced to close.

The usual suspects were on the raised terrace at The Atlas, knocking back lagers, and finding ways to laugh at Arsenal.

The support among my friends for a place in the team for Gary Cahill was thin.

Over Stamford Bridge, a helicopter was spotted and it brought back memories of high-profile games in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties when hooliganism was the main threat on a match day. Whenever other London clubs visited Stamford Bridge, a whirring police helicopter hovering over the stadium was a vivid memory. As I walked down to the stadium, the terrorist threat briefly entered my mind once again. Outside the Fulham Town Hall, two police vans were blocking the road, as they have done for every game this season and for some games last season.

It would be the first game, that I can remember, to be played under a critical terrorist warning.

There were the usual bag searches outside the stadium, and I was inside with probably the best part of half-an-hour to spare. Rather than worry and concern, here were smiles and excitement ahead of the game.

“Keep calm and carry on.”

You bet.

The team news was announced. No Eden Hazard, despite cameos at Leicester and on Tuesday. Upfront, Willian would play. Fabregas over Bakayoko. Moses over Zappacosta. And – tellingly – Cahill over Rudiger.

Arsenal? The usual assortment of physically dyslexic defenders, bearded metrosexuals and foreign bit-part players that I am only vaguely familiar with.

Thankfully, the excellent Sanchez was only on the bench.

Over in the distance, the away section was filling up, fronted by – surprisingly – a Football Lads Alliance flag. Dotted in and around the away end were little clusters of Arsenal fans wearing replica shirts. It is quite a rare sight at Chelsea, especially with London teams. It was almost as if the replikids were herded together by some bizarre force field. Four together in the second row. Three together there. Three together there. I was just surprised that not many red and white bar scarves were on show.

“Proper Arsenal.”

Ha.

The stadium soon filled.

The last time we lost at home to this lot was in the autumn of 2011 in the days of Villas-Boas; a Van Persie hat-trick and a 5-3 loss. We didn’t expect anything like that in 2017.

The game began and, not long into it, the home supporters howled at the away fans.

“Where were you on Thursday night?”

As an aside, what a wonderful sight it was on Thursday. Thousands of passionate, noisy and raucous away fans enjoying themselves, without much bother nor hooliganism nor violence. They were intimidating – every away fan loves the “wow” factor – but well-behaved. It’s surely a blueprint for the way football supporters should be allowed to support their team.

Chelsea began sprightly enough and for the first ten to twelve minutes, we completely dominated. We advanced on Petr Cech’s goal and caused concern in the Arsenal defence. A couple of efforts from close-in were hacked away. Everything was well with the world.

I spotted a suited John Terry in one of the boxes in the middle tiers of the West Stand. Try as I might, I couldn’t see Roman in his box.

As Alvaro Morata chased a ball over on the far side, an image of Peter Osgood – tall, slim and with dark hair – wearing a similar kit, the royal blue, the number nine, the white stripe on the shorts, came to mind.

Lo and behold, not more than thirty seconds later, Glenn leaned over and whispered to me –

“Morata looks a bit like Osgood, doesn’t he, in that kit?”

We laughed.

Then, from nowhere, Arsenal broke through our defence at will and, in a couple of minutes, threatened Thibaut’s goal on two occasions, both with breaks down our left by Bellerin. Welbeck rose to glance a header wide of the far post. Lacazette struck at Courtois.

Arsenal, pushing forward now, had a fine spell and Klasinac fired low at Courtois. The away fans, never the loudest at Chelsea, were making all the noise now.

“Shall we sing a song for you?”

We responded :

“WTOTILWAEC.”

On twenty minutes, Fabregas played in Pedro in a central position. He was clean through on goal. Sometimes Pedro looks like he wants to move in every direction when he receives the ball, and as he set off towards Cech, I wasn’t convinced that he would keep cool. He took an extra touch and Cech was able to beat the ball away.

It was to be our best – possibly only – chance of the first-half. Arsenal definitely grew stronger. Throughout the team there seemed to be hesitancy in possession, no more so than in the back three, where our natural movement of the ball was lacking. Gary Cahill looked nervous and awkward. The crowd sensed we were fading. Even the tireless Kante found it difficult to get a foothold in midfield. There were too many silly back-flicks from Willian, who was getting muscled off the ball. Morata, full of movement at first, ploughed a lone furrow upfront.

Another chance for Arsenal with Aaron Ramsey advancing into our third and swiping a shot which cannoned back off the far post. With Thibaut scrambling, Lacazette thankfully shanked it over from only six or seven yards out.

At the break, we could easily have been 2-0 or 3-1 down.

With the Arsenal fans making – surprisingly – a fair bit of noise in the first-half, I was reminded of a couple of tales which were joyfully passed on to me by my mate JR in Detroit. Now, we all know that Arsenal are not known for their volume and variety of songs. This trait has reached the US too. A few years back, the local Chelsea and Arsenal supporters’ groups in the Detroit metropolitan area used to share the same pub. The Arsenal set of fans were predictably known for their reluctance to join in with songs and banter across the bar. On one occasion, in maybe around 2012, JR printed off some Arsenal song sheets – with bona fide and legitimate Arsenal songs such as “She wore a yellow ribbon” and “1-0 to The Arsenal” – and handed them out, stony-faced, to the Gooners.

They failed to get the joke. Nor were humiliated into a witty response. What a surprise.

JR also told the story of the difference between the two sets of fans on a morning when the two teams played at separate times. Chelsea – the Motor City Blues – were full of song in the first TV game, but as JR stayed on to watch the televised Arsenal game, he noted with glee that the Arsenal fans all showed up with their laptops, hardly spoke to each other during the game, and spent the duration tapping away on their laptops, presumably sharing some hideous FIFA chit-chat with similarly-minded geeks.

What an image.

However, I have a horrible feeling that lurking out there among our global fan base are thousands of Chelsea fans who exhibit similar habits on match days.

God, I hope I am wrong.

Antonio changed things a little for the second-half. Off went Pedro and on came Tiemoue Bakayoko. Fabregas was pushed forward to play behind Morata and alongside Willian. Petr Cech received a fine round of applause from the Matthew Harding. As Alvaro Morata drifted over to our side of the pitch, I spoke to Alan and Glenn :

“That boy needs to grow some sideburns.”

David Luiz was booked for an overhead attempt on goal. Sigh. However, we were at least creating chances, and Willian released a shot which Cech easily saved. Morata, chasing long balls, was treated poorly by the referee Oliver, and received a booking for what looked like a shoulder charge.

Bakayoko had a fine second-half, and he reminded me of Michal Essien in his prime; winning the ball, pushing away from tackles and striding forward.

Now, a worry. Alexis Sanchez replaced Lacazette.

Then, relief, Antonio brought on Eden Hazard for the lack-lustre Willian. Over in the south-west corner, a pristine new flag was flying proudly; in the black, yellow and red of his national flag, the “Garden Of Eden” looked fantastic. I wondered if its debut would signal an Eden match winner. I am so lucky to witness most of Eden’s attacking moves right in front of me in the north-west corner. He soon had us salivating.

Throughout the game, and in the second-half especially, David Luiz was excellent, reading the play so well, putting his foot in, winning headers, bringing others in to the game. Stirring stuff.

On seventy-five minutes, a free-kick from Zhaka was headed in by Mustasfi, but the goal was disallowed for offside. How poor to be flagged offside at a corner. In a pub in Detroit, laptop lids covered in Star Wars stickers were slammed shut.

We laughed as a Gooner raced on to the pitch to celebrate, and was carted off by the stewards.

A weak shot from Fabregas did not threaten. Eden went on a mesmerizing run and after pushing the ball into a central position, shot straight at Cech.

That was the chance.

On the far side, a 50/50 ball in front of the managers, and Luiz swiped at Kolasinac.

“Oh, that’s a bad tackle” I said to Alan.

Off he went.

Fuck.

Thankfully, we held on for the point.

What a strange feeling as we left Stamford Bridge. It felt like a loss, and I suppose that is only natural. We finished first last season, they finished fifth. The players were far from their best and the atmosphere was flat. Oh for a noisy London derby. Can we play Tottenham next week?

Altogether now :

“Sigh.”

We avoided the Manchester United vs. Everton game on the radio.

“Everton always lose there. They’d might as well give United the points by direct debit, and save everyone the bother.”

The two Manchester teams are at the top of the division. However, after five games, we sit in third place with the whole season ahead of us.

“Keep calm and carry on.”

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