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.”

IMG_9110

 

 

Tales From A Liverpudlian Pub Crawl

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 31 January 2017. 

It had been a horrid time for Liverpool Football Club. In addition to a loss at home to Swansea City in the league, they were ousted from the two domestic cups within a few days. Not only were they “out” but they were Micky Flanagan “out out.” As for us, after our easy win in the FA Cup on Saturday, we were careering towards a huge game at Anfield, and it was a game that had thrilled and excited me for weeks, especially since Liverpool’s league campaign had faltered over recent months. The Chuckle Brothers, with no European adventures this season, had decided to stay over on Merseyside for this midweek match. And after overnight stays in Middlesbrough and Sunderland already this season, this one had the potential to be the best of the lot. Parky, PD and myself were joined on our trip north by my old school mate Francis, who has been an occasional visitor to Chelsea games over the years. I had collected all of the lads by 6.30am and made slow progress underneath cloudy skies; the rain was incessant. Eventually the skies cleared. I dropped down into the city of Liverpool and was parked-up at our city centre hotel by 11.15am. The trip to Liverpool had taken a full five-and-a-half hours.

The idea was for Francis and myself to head off on a little tour around the city before joining up with Parky and PD – who was celebrating his fifty-fifth birthday – in the afternoon. Francis had recently visited the city with his daughter, but – like me – had hardly seen much of the place over the years. I knew the stadia, and the area around the revitalised Albert Dock, but not much in between.

“Let’s just have a pint in a pub, come up with a plan and take it from there.”

The game was to kick-off at 8pm. At just after 11.45am, the four of us were settled in a magnificent old pub with wooden panels, stained glass, a low ceiling – “Rigby’s” – and I had a little chuckle to myself.

“Good effort boys – over eight hours to kick-off.”

Well, the first pint hardly touched the sides. One pint became two, then three, then four. Francis and I and soon decided to postpone the walk around the city centre until next time. Behind the bar was a black and white photograph of Dixie Dean, and this initiated a lovely chat with the landlord – a mad-keen Evertonian – who was soon taking the piss out of his city’s rivals.

“Well, you won’t hear many Liverpool fans going to the match tonight who will be speaking English. Norwegian, Danish, Swedish maybe.”

The landlord traded stories and memories of games and players with us, and a couple of Evertonians – supping pints on their lunch break – joined in.

Brian Labone, Pat Nevin, Colin Harvey, Alan Ball, Tommy Lawton.

I mentioned how my father had visited Goodison Park during World War Two, and talk centred on Everton’s stadium for a while. I mentioned that I had once seen a game from the top deck of the main stand – when Robert Fleck scored in 1992 – and the landlord mentioned that he had seen a few games at Goodison during the 1966 World Cup. I mentioned Archibald Leitch, the structural engineer who had planned many of football’s stadia over one hundred years ago, including Goodison Park, Anfield and Stamford Bridge.

“Archibald Leitch’s office was in that red brick building opposite just a few yards away. You probably walked past it this morning.”

What a small world and, indeed, we had. I had spoken to Francis about its imposing façade as we had walked along Dale Street earlier.

As he disappeared into the other bar, he commented that I should read a book called “Engineering Archie” which detailed Leitch’s life.

“I’ve got it mate.”

He smiled and said “you’re good, you.”

I laughed.

To our left were two Liverpool supporters from Austria. To our left were two Liverpool supporters from Germany. The landlord was right.

As the beers were downed, the landlord told the story of how he had not seen Everton play for a few years due to his increasing dislike of the way the club was being run. But he then had the chance to go to a game with a mate who he bumped into a few months back. Guess which one? It was the game at Stamford Bridge back in the autumn when we annihilated them.

He pulled a face.

“Youse lot were amazing that day.”

Interestingly, he mentioned that the girls serving food and drink in the away section at Chelsea wore Dixie Dean T-shirts. A nice touch, I thought.

From Dixie Dean to Dixie Dean, a circle was completed.

Steve, newly-arrived from Lime Street, joined us and it was great to see him again. He has been working over in Vietnam for a few years but still makes it back for a few games each season. We remembered our time together in Tokyo for the 2012 World Club Championships and also the time in Philadelphia when we posed with the club banners on the city’s famous Rocky Steps. Before we left, the landlord posed us a question. Apparently, in around 1968 or so, Everton played Chelsea and all six half-backs in the game had surnames that began with the letter “H.” We quickly came up with Harris and Hinton for Chelsea, but had no hope of getting any of the Everton ones. This brain-teaser soon morphed into the old question of naming the seven Chelsea players from the ‘seventies with surnames beginning with “H.” We all chirped in.

“Harris.”

“Hollins.”

“Houseman.”

“Hinton.”

“Hudson.”

“Hutchinson.”

“Are you sure there were seven?”

“How about Hosgood?”

We giggled.

We moved a few yards down Dale Street to pub number two, “The Vernon Arms” which oddly had a sloping floor. To our right there were two Liverpool fans from Dublin.

“No English accents.”

We had to laugh, the landlord from the first pub showed up on his break.

“It’s cheaper.”

The beers were certainly flowing now. We moved on to pub number three, “The Exelsior” and the drinking continued. We bumped into a couple from Dundee – Chelsea fans down for the game – and we soon found out that they knew our mate Foxy, he of the Dundee-based “Charlie Cooke Flying Squad.” Again, a comment about a small world is surely in order.

The next pub – just a few more yards along Dale Street – was “The Ship & Mitre.”

Here, it certainly felt like we were enacting The Pied Piper Of Hamelin, as we were joined by Kev, who loves his real ales and who sits very near me at Chelsea, and Jeremy, from Kansas, who I last saw in the US. More drinks, more laughs, oh bloody hell, what a giggle.

We asked Kev about the riddle involving the Chelsea players.

“Hosgood?”

We laughed again.

The Chuckle Brothers were in town alright.

Time was moving on. At around 7pm, we took two cabs up to Anfield; PD, Parky and myself in one, Francis and the Charlie Cooke Flying Squad in the other. The accumulative effect of a ridiculously long drinking session began to take its toll. There were a few fraught minutes when I thought that I had mislaid my match ticket. I made my blurry way over to “The Arkles” at about 7.15pm where I had hoped to meet up with a couple of friends. Sadly, they were nowhere to be seen. Francis suddenly appeared in the bar and we hurriedly wolfed-down a couple of large gin and tonics.

With only a few minutes to spare, I made my way in to the away end and finally edged my way along to meet up with Alan and Gary. The Kop was full of scarves and flags, but my attention was taken up by the huge new stand to our right which dwarfed the other three structures at Anfield. The dull grey roof sloped down in sections towards The Kop and the Anfield Road. The rain was sleeting down. It was a horrible night but the green carpet glistened. Our end was packed. Elsewhere, I could hardly see any empty seats.

It was time for me to quickly assess the team that Antonio Conte had chosen. Matic was selected alongside Kante. Willian had got the nod ahead of Pedro. Mark Clattenburg whistled the start of the game and it felt so odd to see Liverpool attacking The Kop in the first-half. In all of my years of attending games at Anfield – this was game number twenty-two – I could not remember many other matches that had begun in a similar fashion. One stood out, for all of the wrong reasons; that Louis bloody Garcia game in 2005. I tried my best to focus and concentrate on the action being played out in front of me. Liverpool certainly enjoyed a huge amount of early possession and I think that it surprised us all. The ball was moved across the pitch at will by Liverpool but to be truthful they rarely breached our defensive line nor exposed us.

Not long into our game, news filtered through that Arsenal were losing 2-0 at home against the might of Watford. Oh my aching sides.

We began to grow into the game. A run by Eden Hazard was abruptly stopped and we waited for the resulting free-kick. Willian stood over the ball. I took a photograph of him waiting. The referee whistled and David Luiz – not Willian – raced at the ball. His customary side-on strike caught everyone unawares. It certainly caught me unawares as he was too quick for my trusty camera. The ball dipped and curled at all the right places and made the net ripple, with Mignolet miles away.

My first thought; David’s first goal for us since his return.

This was followed a nano-second later with another thought.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

It was our first real effort on goal.

The three-thousand Chelsea supporters roared as Luiz reeled away and sprinted over to the Chelsea bench. Thousands of inhabitants of the new stand looked down in dismay.

Chances were at an absolute premium as the play continued. The ball zipped over the wet surface and although the two teams tried their best to engineer chances, the play was of great intensity but of little guile and craft. Liverpool again had most of the ball, but Thibaut Courtois was largely untroubled in front of The Kop.

Soon into the second-half, Firmino wasted a great chance for Liverpool, blasting high and wide.

At the other end, Moses scraped the outside of the post in a rare Chelsea attack.

Just before the hour, a deep cross from Henderson found Milner, only a few yards away from us in the away section. His header back across the six-yard box was subsequently touched home by Wijnaldum.

Bollocks.

I feared the worst, to be honest and kept glancing at the clock, willing the clock to keep moving on. We tackled and closed space. This really was a war of attrition. Kante won tackle after tackle.

With twenty minutes to go, Conte replaced Hazard with Pedro.

In one of his few forays into the Liverpool box, Costa was caught by Matip and – yes! – Clattenburg pointed to the spot. I can’t imagine what it must be like to step forward and take a penalty in front of The Kop, but sadly Diego shot weakly to Mignolet’s right – a very poor effort – and the ball was pushed away for a corner.

Fabregas replaced Willian in the closing moments and he added some steadiness amongst the frantic pin-ball. Both sets of fans were baying for a winner. Pedro, adding extra pace to our attacks, came close and then Firmino headed weakly at Thibaut. Batshuayi replaced Diego Costa.

The whistle blew. There was rapid confirmation that Arsenal had indeed lost against Watford, but also Tottenham had only garnered a draw at basement dwellers Sunderland. It had been a game that never really delivered its share of excitement, but it did not matter. We had increased our lead at the very top of the table to a massive nine points.

Outside in the cold night air, we all treated ourselves to burgers outside The Kop, before we piled in to the final pub of the day “The Valley” which sits at the end of Walton Breck Road as it meets Everton Valley. I can remember being marched en masse by the local “bizzies” past this big old pub on many occasions during the dark days of the ‘eighties. It looked a grim old place in those days and I always used to think that an ambush by battle-hardened locals was only a few seconds away. There were more drinks – more gin and tonics – and quiet chat among the four of us. It had been a fantastic pub crawl alright. Six pubs all told. We caught a cab back in to town, down the famous Scotland Road, and finally reached our hotel. There was time for one last nightcap, and a chat with two more Chelsea lads from Scotland, Andy and Graham, in the hotel bar.

After a long hard day it was time to call it a night.

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Tales From A Top Day In Manchester

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 3 December 2016.

It had been a truly horrible week for football.

There was the desperately sad news that the up-and-coming Brazilian team Chapecoense had been virtually wiped out after a plane taking them to a game in Medellin in Colombia had crashed. The football world was in mourning and rightly so. What sad news. The club will forever be linked to the names of Torino and Manchester United, fellow football clubs which also suffered air disasters; lives lost, teams destroyed.

Closer to home, there was the story involving the abuse of young footballers in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, which began with the brave claims by former apprentices at Crewe Alexandra, and continued throughout the week, ending with the gut-wrenching story of former Chelsea player Gary Johnson having suffered ritual abuse by a Chelsea employee, former scout Eddie Heath. I remember Gary Johnson well. He came in to the team around 1978/1979 and I can recollect seeing him score two goals against Watford in September 1979. To think that he had suffered years of sexual abuse while at my beloved club made me turn pale. Then there was the news that the club had seemingly tried to keep the news from going public by paying him off to the tune of £50,000.

These were two of the worst stories to hit football for years.

In the circumstances, our game at title rivals Manchester City seemed superfluous and of little relevance. However, on a personal level, I had just endured a tiring and stressful week at work, and certainly viewed the trip north as a gratifying distraction from the previous five days of toil.

As always, Chelsea Football Club often acts as a wonderful counter-balance to the humdrum of our daily routines.

At 6.30am I collected PD and we headed north. He too had endured a tough old week at work. We soon came to the conclusion that although a win would be unbelievably fine, a draw at Eastlands would suffice. I was under no illusions that this would probably be our toughest away game of the season. Manchester City are arguably the richest club in the world. They have one of the brightest managers in the world. And they are clearly blessed with some of the league’s star players.

This would be a tough nut to crack.

We picked up Dave en route at Stafford train station; the last time I did this was before the Gerrard “slip” game at Anfield in 2014. We reminisced and hoped for a similarly positive outcome. Dave was in agreement too, though; a draw would be just fine.

I ate up the miles, drifted around the Manchester orbital, and made my way through the red brick terraced streets of Denton and Gorton. We were parked up at about 11.15am. The weather was mild. The grey skies of Manchester were so familiar. The roof supports of the City stadium were away in the distance. It was a familiar walk along Ashton New Road, past the sparkling City training complex, possibly the most impressive sports facility of them all. Sheikh Mansour has certainly made his mark on this particular part of inner-city Manchester.

On every trip to the Etihad, there seems to be new décor splashed on the walls and spirals outside. City are no longer the club of locals; a display advertised supporters clubs from all over the world.

Timperley, Ancoats, Cheadle, Hyde but also Scandinavia, Malaysia, San Francisco and Ghana.

A quick chat with Kev from Edinburgh, and a few others, and then inside. There is the usual severe security check at City. I had to plead with the chief steward to allow me to take my camera in. I’d have to be a bit wary though; a game of cat-and-mouse would certainly take place.

We had heard that Cesc Fabregas was in for Nemanja Matic. It was our first team change in two months. We presumed an injury to Matic had forced Conte’s hand. It might have caught Guardiola by surprise; no doubt he was expecting the usual suspects.

There were many familiar faces in the middle tier at the Etihad. Everywhere I looked were friends from near and far. We may be – gulp – one of the biggest clubs in the world these days (this still sounds preposterous to me) but it is lovely that there is still a close-knit and homely feel to our support, especially at domestic away games.

Kev, Bryan, Julia, Tim, Tom, Ian, Kev, Tim, Maureen, Stan, Cathy, Dog, Becky, Fiona, Ronnie, Rob, Callum, Pam, the two Robs, Alex, John, Alan, Gary, David, Allie, Nick, Glenn, Karen, Alex, Adam, Nick, Paul; plus the supporters without names, those you only know on nodding terms. It’s great. The away club.

Last season at the corresponding fixture, there was Argentina ’78 style tickertape announcing the opening of the new third tier but as the teams entered the pitch just prior to the 12.30pm start, City’s support seemed quite subdued. The PA was loud and drowned out conversations. Down below however, in the shared lower tier, City flags were waved furiously. Elsewhere, empty seats were discernible. City’s support has always held strong, but it has been severely tested with the building of extra tiers. I have a feeling that the third tier at the other end, intended to bring a capacity up to around 62,000, might be shelved for the foreseeable future.

The minute of silence, announced in both English and Portuguese, for the dead of Chapecoense was perfectly observed.

What a tight and enjoyable first-half. City no doubt edged it but we played some super stuff at times. Very soon into the game, maybe after a quarter of an hour, I turned to PD and said “we’re doing OK here.” And we were. City were continually asking questions of us with their quick and nimble players De Bruyne, Silva and Aguera darting in and around our box, but we were able to hold firm.

Although the away support is split over three levels at City, we were all doing our best to rally behind the troops. There was even a raucous “OMWTM” up above, which we were happy to join in with.

I loved the way that David Luiz broke up many City attacks with an interception by head and foot; but not an agricultural hoof up field. Instead, a gently-cushioned touch to a nearby team mate. He was at his best. He has been tremendous since his two years away in Paris.

Eden Hazard came close from distance, with a low shot just missing its intended target. Our movement of the ball was pleasing me. We were keeping the ball, getting City to chase after us.

However, as the half continued, City caused us more and more problems. Aguero forced a fine save from Thibaut. Out wide, they were doubling up and exposing us. De Bruyne whipped in a few perfect crosses. We were getting edgy in the away end. Fernandinho headed home from a De Bruyne free-kick but was adjudged to be off-side.

“Phew.”

Aguero broke down below and Luiz challenged.

The home fans were incandescent with rage that the referee saw nothing. I bobbled nervously on tip-toe.

Another “phew.”

Victor Moses was cruelly exposed and Silva was able to run in behind him, but thankfully Gary Cahill threw himself and the kitchen sink at Aguero’s shot.

Another “phew.”

Just as the half was nearing completion, a Jesus Navas cross caused panic inside the box. This time, Cahill’s kitchen sink diverted the ball past Courtois and in to the net, a calamitous deflection. The City fans suddenly woke up. They had been ridiculously quiet – Everton standards – all game, but at last they were involved.

“We’re not really here. We are not. We’re not really here.”

Indeed.

At the break, I was praising a fine game, but others were surprisingly down beat. I thought we were in it. None of our players were playing poorly. I was hopeful for my predicted draw, but surely not much more. On the TV screen was former City goalkeeper Alex Williams, who was in goal back in 1984 for Pat Nevin’s infamous penalty miss. On the pitch was an inane competition involving Team Santa and Team Elf, but I can’t describe what it entailed as I avoided it. Such entertainment might go down well in American sports, but the cynical English avoid it and turn our collective backs.

The second-half began and for a while, City dominated. They broke at pace and caused us more problems. Sane fed in De Bruyne but Courtois saved well. Conte replaced Pedro with Willian, who soon shot wide. Some Keystone Cops defending allowed Aguero to nip in after a poor Alonso back-pass but Cahill was able to block. It felt we were certainly riding our luck. Everyone in the away end was standing. Who needs seats? The Chelsea support was good and earnest. We never stopped. Then, another moment of high drama, with De Bruyne striking the bar from only a few yards out. City were wasting chance after chance. Their fans were still pretty quiet though.

On the hour, Cesc Fabregas picked out Diego Costa with a sublime lofted ball that an NFL quarterback would have been happy with. Diego was one on one with Otamendi after he chested the ball in to space with a delightful touch. He advanced, sold Bravo a dummy, picked his spot and slotted home. We went berserk.

“GET IN.”

There was my 1-1.

I grabbed my camera – redundant all game – and took a photo of Diego pointing towards the skies.

Fantastic.

This resembled a heavyweight boxing match now, with punches being thrown by both protagonists. Moses was full of running, and so too Willian, who thankfully chose to run at his defenders rather than across the field, as so often is the case. Conte had obviously instructed him to test City’s leaky defence. The noise in the away end increased.

“Hey Jude” was sung by both sets of fans at the same time.

On seventy minutes, the ball broke for Diego Costa who out-maneuvered a pensive City defender before slotting a perfectly-weighted ball – with just the correct amount of fade – in to the path of that man Willian. We watched, on our toes, hearts in our mouths, expectant, waiting. He advanced and struck early. I was able to see the course of the ball elude Bravo, hit the back of the net, catch a glimpse of the Chelsea fans in the lower tier explode, and then lose myself as I was engulfed by fellow fans, grabbing hold of me, pushing me, screaming praise. The players swarmed below me. There were riotous scenes everywhere.

2-1.

Fackinell.

I photographed Willian and Luiz in a solemn moment of remembrance, holding up black armbands, no doubt thinking of their fellow Brazilians.

This was fantastic stuff, but there was still twenty long minutes to go.

I became ridiculously nervy. I watched the clock continually. I became obsessed by it.

Around me, one name was dominating.

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

Diego slumped to the floor and for a few odd moments, was sat behind the City ‘keeper midway in the City half as play developed at the other end. I presumed he had cramp. He was replaced, not by Batshuayi but by Chalobah. City rang some changes too; the spritely Iheanacho and Clichy, the bulky Toure.

The clock was ticking. We were almost there.

This was a superb performance. Moses and Willian had run their socks off throughout the second-half, aided by the masterful Luiz and competent Cahill. Diego Costa had produced one of the great attacking performances; he had been quite unplayable. And there was still time for one more additional Chelsea dagger to the heart of City.

A long ball out of defence from Marcos Alonso picked out Eden Hazard. With so much space around him, he easily swept past a lone City defender and advanced. My camera was out now for good. I focused on him.

Click.

Click.

Click.

Click.

Click.

He swept the ball home and we exploded again.

I was grabbed by a million different hands, pushed sideways, forward and back, but was able – gasping – to capture the celebrations down below me. As always, the David Luiz leap of ecstasy on top of the pile of bodies, but also a Cesc Fabregas fist pump towards our fans.

Manchester City 1 Chelsea 3.

Oh my.

Soon after, a wild and reckless challenge by Aguero on Luiz left our defender sprawling.

Just as I turned to say to a friend that this felt one of the landmark away performances by Chelsea Football Club, all hell broke loose down on the far touchline. Players pushed each other, players swarmed around the referee, hands were raised. A Chelsea player appeared to walk back on to the pitch from the stands. What on Earth? As the dust settled, we counted up the players on the pitch. City were down to nine.

Rusholme Ruffians, indeed.

Alan whispered “can’t believe we didn’t get anyone sent off there.”

I agreed.

There was still time for Willian to drill at Bravo; possibly only our fourth shot on target all game long.

At last, the whistle.

Top.

We were euphoric. I waited to capture Conte and the team on their triumphant walk down towards us. Conte with a wide smile, hugging Cahill and Chalobah. The Chelsea fans were bouncing, breathless with joy. It had been a stunning performance. We slowly drifted out of the stadium.

A blonde, wearing Chelsea leggings, had been watching the entire game in front of us. She was one of the last to leave. I was just glad that Parky wasn’t with me.

Ha.

There were songs as we exited the stadium, and handshakes with many outside before we met up with Kev and Dave, who had watched all four goals from the very first row of the lower tier. We were all gasping for air. I bumped into Neil Barnett, the match-time host at Stamford Bridge, and I joyfully reminded him of the derisory comments that he had made about virtually all of the first team squad in Ann Arbor in the summer. For once he was silent.

We laughed.

We were both effusive with praise about our win – he agreed that it had been a landmark win – but also the ridiculous turnaround since Arsenal.

I was deadly serious as I looked him in the eye and said – “it’s a miracle.”

He agreed again.

“It is.”

We hugged and went on our way.

PD, Dave and I bounced back to the car. It was one of those moments. One of the great performances over the past few seasons.

This was not from the bottle; this was a special one.

It took forever to get out of the city, but the three of us were delirious. The Chuckle Bus had never been happier. We spoke of how wonderful football can be, and how lucky we had been to witness it.

“Bloody hell, it’s great when we go away from a game knowing that we will still be top tomorrow, even next Friday.”

“Superb.”

And with more hope than expectation I even said “you never know, Bournemouth might even take a few points off Liverpool tomorrow.”

We stopped off in Stafford for an amazing buffet at a Chinese restaurant, just a few minutes away from the M6. It topped off a brilliant day in support of The Great Unpredictables. We were so enamored by the place that we vowed to return. We began planning an FA Cup run involving away games against Stafford Rangers, Stoke City, Port Vale, Crew Alexandra and Macclesfield Town so we could keep returning.

What a laugh.

We said our fond goodbyes to Dave and I headed south, getting home at around 9pm, just in time for the first game on “Match of the Day.”

Perfect.

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Tales From The Riverside

Middlesbrough vs. Chelsea : 20 November 2016.

My last trip to Middlesbrough was eight years’ ago. On that day in the autumn of 2008, with Luiz Filipe Scolari in charge, we won 5-0 and it was a cracking performance. On that particular occasion, I made the stupid decision to drive up and back in the same day. Five hours up, five hours back, and only a few miles’ shy of a six-hundred-mile round trip.

“Never again, never again.”

Eight years later, I had soon decided that Middlesbrough would be an overnight stay, as would Sunderland a few weeks later.

Not long in to the long drive north, I confided to PD that I was really looking forward to the football. Now this might seem an odd statement, but very often – and it seems to be increasing all the time – it is the “other stuff” that I get excited about these days. The banter, the craic, the laughs, the camaraderie, the pub-crawls, the beers. The pleasure of being in a different stadium, a different city, every two weeks is part of the fun too. A chance to experience new things, new sights, new sites. And although there were the joys of an overnight stay in Middlesbrough – “stop sniggering at the back” – to look forward to, I can honestly say that the magnificence of our recent performances had got me all tingly. After the beautiful demolition of Everton, the dreaded international break had come at a particularly unwelcome time.

I just simply yearned to see us play again.

I am a rare visitor to Teesside. I never ever made it to Ayresome Park, and this would only be my fourth ever visit to ‘Boro’s new stadium on the banks of the River Tees alongside the famous Transporter Bridge. On my first two visits in 2002 and 2007, I stayed in Scarborough and Whitby. There had been three wins out of three. But I was not taking Middlesbrough lightly. If ever there was a potential Chelsea banana skin, this was it.

Five straight wins and then a tough trip to the North-East on a wet and cold Sunday afternoon? It had “Fyffes” written all over it.

I eventually pulled in to Middlesbrough at around 3.30pm on the Saturday afternoon. PD and I had enjoyed our trip north, listening to the Manchester United vs. Arsenal draw on the radio – happy with points dropped by both teams – and it did not take us long to be toasting “absent friends” in our hotel bar. Friends Foxy and Ashley from Dundee soon joined us as we tentatively made plans for the evening. There were cheers as Liverpool dropped points at Southampton, which meant that a win for us on the Sunday would mean that we would reclaim our top spot. A win for City at Palace was expected. We took a cab into town, and Harry bloody Kane scored a winner for Spurs at home to West Ham just as we were deposited outside “Yates.”

“Well, that has spoiled the taste of my next beer.”

“Yates” was pretty empty. There were a few other Chelsea inside, but all was quiet. We sat at a table overlooking a pedestrianised street, deep in the city centre. In two hours, I just saw two people walk past.

“Lloyds” was next and a lot livelier. More beers. More laughs.

As the night deteriorated further, Ashley and Foxy headed on back to the hotel at around midnight, but PD and I kept going. We stayed a while in one pub – a local told me that it was “the roughest pub in Middlesbrough” – but it seemed OK to me. I could hear Parky’s voice :

“It was the kind of pub where the bouncers throw you in.”

Lastly, we visited the infamous “Bongo Club” but soon realised that we were reaching the end of our night.

We sniffed out a late-night takeaway, and avoiding the local “chicken parmo” speciality, scoffed some late night carbohydrates before getting a cab home.

Back in my hotel room – Room 101, I had to laugh – I set my alarm for a 9am breakfast.

The time was 3.38am.

“Oh fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.”

It had been a bloody enjoyable night. Ten hours of drinking. Where did the time go?

Answers on a postcard.

You know when you have had a proper skin full the night before, when you wake up the next morning and there is not the faintest memory of an overnight dream. During the working week, my first waking moments are often coloured by the dreams I had experienced while asleep. A memory here, a vague thought there, maybe a recollection of some sort of sequence of events. Well, at 9am on Sunday 20 November, there was simply nothing.

A complete blank.

“Too drunk to dream.”

Oh boy.

We breakfasted, then headed out. As I was on driving duties, I would be on “Cokes” for the rest of the day. In truth, after just five hours’ sleep, I was hanging. At least there was no discernible hangover. I was just tired. It was going to be a long day.

In “The Pig Iron” near the train station we had our first match day drinks. It was another very cheap pub, but there was a rather unpleasant smell in the bar. A few Chelsea were present. But there were also a few local lads, sporting their finest livery, and I was quite happy to move on.

Back to “Yates” and it was a lot livelier, with many Chelsea arriving over the next few hours. Friends Kev and Gillian arrived from Edinburgh. I was gulping down the “Cokes” and eventually started feeling a little more awake.

I whispered to a few fellow fans “I can safely say that Middlesbrough has lived down to expectations.”

Other Chelsea fans had stayed the night in Newcastle, Durham, Whitby. They had possibly made the wisest choices. To be fair, although the town was hardly full of much architectural or cultural delight, the locals were very friendly. In one of the boozers the previous evening, I had even encountered a ‘Boro fan who admired John Terry.

I wished that the gents toilets in “Yates” were better though.

“It’s got a shallow end and a deep end.”

It was 3pm and we caught a cab to the stadium. It was a bleak and damp afternoon in Teesside. We bumped into a few friends and then headed inside. The away fans are now along the side. We had sold out long ago; three-thousand at Middlesbrough on a Sunday in November was indeed an excellent showing.

We had turned-up. Would the team?

There was a fair bit of noise in the concourse and in the away section. There was an air of invincibility. The Liverpool draw had definitely given us a bounce to our step.

We had heard that the team was unchanged yet again.

In Conte we trust.

PD and myself were right down the front in row one. It would be a different perspective for me. I had a constant battle with a steward though; he didn’t like my camera.

The teams soon appeared, with Chelsea wearing a charcoal grey training top over the unlovable black away kit.

Before kick-off, there was a perfectly-observed minute of silence for the fallen. I had noted that around thirty soldiers, in camo fatigues, had been given a block of seats in the end adjacent to us. As the teams broke, the noise boomed around the stadium. To my left, in the area where away fans were once housed, there was a section of the home crowd who were waving flags; it was, I suppose, their “ultra” section, though I am not sure if they would call themselves that.

We stood the entire match.

“Oh, my feet.”

Middlesbrough certainly have an awful home shirt this season, with that silly low swoosh come sash on the players’ stomachs. It reminded me of ice hockey’s greatest ever player Wayne Gretzky, who always used to tuck the right-hand side of his shirt in, leaving the left-side loose.

Anyway, as shirts go, this one is pants.

Middlesbrough started the strongest I thought. It looked like their left-winger was going to be a constant source of irritation for us. On two occasions he slipped past Cesar Azpilicueta. With a front row vantage point, it was fascinating to see the physical battle of the two as they raced together, arms flailing, legs pumping. Negredo had the first real chance of the game, but his low centre evaded everyone.

Eden Hazard was unceremoniously clumped from behind and he remained down, worryingly, for a while.

Both sets of fans were in fine voice. Middlesbrough had a few of their own songs, but their local dialect made deciphering the words difficult for some.

“What are they saying?”

I was able to assist :

“We’ve got some shit fans, but yours are the worst.”

For a while, both sets of fans seemed to be overlapping the same tune with different lyrics. The old ‘Boro favourite “Papa’s got a brand new pigpag” easily segued into “Victor Moses.”

It was a rather slow start for us, but gradually we began to turn the screw. Midway through the half, we were well on top. Middlesbrough’s spell of possession seemed ages ago. Just before the half-hour mark, Moses played in Pedro who was only about ten yards out. I expected him to score. He slammed the ball high, but Victor Valdes flung his arm up, and finger-tipped the ball over.

“What a save.”

Negredo rose well, but headed wide, but Chelsea were now dominating possession despite few real chances. Moses, enjoying a lot of the ball, blazed over.

The weather sharpened and my feet got colder and colder. There were a few spots of rain. Up went my hood.

Victor Valdes went down after a challenge, and it looked like he would be needing attention. I seized the moment. With half-time approaching, I decided to beat the half-time rush.

While in the gents in the under croft at the Riverside Stadium at around 4.47pm on Sunday 20 November 2016, I heard a roar above.

“Is that us?”

“Dunno.”

News travelled fast : Diego Costa.

There was a mixture of elation and despair.

“Bollocks, I’ve come all this way and I missed the goal.”

I quickly re-joined PD.

“Good goal?”

“A tap in from a corner.”

The half-time whistle blew immediately after.

At half-time, Chelsea were buoyant.

“We are top of the league. Say we are top of the league.”

As the second-half started, I couldn’t help but notice that there were two or three Middlesbrough fans in the section to my left constantly pointing and gesturing at some Chelsea fans in the away section close to me. A couple were going through the age old “you, outside!” malarkey. I suspect that their new-found bravery was quite probably linked to the fact that thirty soldiers were standing behind them.

The noise continued, but became murky with taunts and counter-taunts of “a town full of rent boys” and “Adam Johnson, he’s one of your own.”

Ugh.

It was still 1-0 to us, and as the game continued, I was convinced that Middlesbrough would equalise.

David Luiz was enjoying another fantastic game for us, heading cross after cross away, and then passing out of defence intelligently. On one occasion, he hopped and skipped past one challenge, before finding Diego Costa with a beautiful cross. His perfectly-weighted header set things up for Pedro, who smashed a volley past Valdes, but we watched as the ball agonizingly crashed down from the bar.

Moses then thrashed over again.

“Need a second goal, PD.”

We were still the better team, but there were moments when Middlesbrough threatened. Traore wasted a good opportunity and blazed over, but soon after Negredo raced forward and we held our breath. A low shot was battered away by Thibaut Courtois, his first real save of note during the game to date.

I was still worried.

As the clock ticked by, 1-1 haunted me.

Conte made some changes in the final ten minutes; Chalobah for Pedro, Ivanovic for Moses, Oscar for Hazard.

Middlesbrough had a few late surges, but our magnificent defence held firm.

At the final whistle, I clenched my fists and roared, along with three-thousand others.

It had been a war of attrition this one. The recent flair only appeared fleetingly, despite much possession. Middlesbrough looked a pretty decent team, but lacked a spark in front of goal. We knew we had passed a firm test on a cold evening on Teesside. Six league wins on the trot, and – most incredibly – not one single goal conceded. The noise emanating from the Chelsea fans as we squeezed out of the gates at The Riverside and into the cold night was a reflection of our lofty position but also in honour of our ability to eke out a narrow win when needed.

Diego Costa’s goal made it four wins out of four for me at Middlesbrough and – amazingly – I have never seen us lose to them home or away.

A cheap and cheerful burger outside the away end helped restore my energy and I slowly joined the legions of cars heading south. I managed to keep any tiredness at bay and the drive home, eventually getting in at 11.45pm, was remarkably easy.

It had been a decent weekend in Middlesbrough.

Tottenham – you are next.

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