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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Tales From Friday Night Football

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 16 September 2016.

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Friday Night Moans :

When it was announced that, as part of the new multi-billion trillion gazillion Marillion Carillion TV deal with Sky last season, that there would be games on Friday nights in season 2016/2017, it will not surprise anyone to read that I was far from happy. I already despair at the thought of games such as the one at Middlesbrough later in the season, which will kick-off at 4pm on a Sunday, which in reality means that I will not be home until near midnight on that particular “day of rest.” Similar games have haunted us for years. Lunchtime kick-offs in Newcastle, Monday nights on Merseyside, you know the score. But this seemed different. Football on a Friday night. It seemed that the football authorities were seeking extra ways of making life even more difficult for the average match-day fan. It seemed almost cruel.

After a long week at work – I am up at 6am every day – I am usually crawling over the finishing line at 4pm on a Friday. And now I have to fend off tiredness, and drive along congested motorways in order to attend a football match on a Friday evening? It’s crap. And it’s another small step in the process of me saying “enough is enough” with modern football. That point may never come, but I am, like a few others I know, thinking along these lines. I love my football, my Chelsea, but there has to be a point when I say “hang on, they’re taking the piss, here.”

If we ever play a regular season game in Adelaide, Bangkok or Chicago, I will have given up on it.

I have, as a lovely counterbalance to the increasingly commercial and all-consuming Premier League, found myself attending non-league football, and specifically my local team Frome Town. In the past fortnight, there was an away day at Salisbury City in the F.A. Cup, and then two home games against Biggleswade Town and Dorchester Town. I have loved every minute of it. Whisper it, but it just might be my future.

Friday Night People :

Thankfully my good mate PD had kindly volunteered to drive up to Chelsea for the visit of Liverpool. He is usually awake before me – a 5am start during the week for him – but as he picked me up in Melksham, he said that he went to bed extra-early – 7.30pm – on the Thursday in preparation for the drive to London. Also on board the Chuckle Bus was Young Jake. We all expected a keenly fought game against Liverpool. A cracking game was anticipated.

Friday Night Traffic :

No surprises, the journey was long and arduous. The one-hundred-mile journey took a tiresome three hours exactly. I was yawning throughout. Thankfully, PD coped remarkably well. On approaching Hammersmith, a coach had broken down in the middle lane of the A4. Just what we bloody needed.

Friday Night Beer :

I just had time for a solitary beer before the game, in The Malt House at the end of Vanston Place. Until now, with me on driving duties for all of the five previous domestic games, I had vowed to stay on “cokes” in order not to risk drowsiness at the wheel. The single pint of “Kronenberg 1666” would surely hit the spot. I savoured my first Chelsea beer since Minneapolis in August. It tasted just fine.

Friday Night Teams :

We already knew that Antonio Conte would play the returning David Luiz in place of the crocked John Terry. Elsewhere there were no changes. Thibaut, Brana, Dave, Luiz, Cahill, Kante, Willian, Matic, Oscar, Hazard and Diego Costa were chosen against Klopp’s team of familiar and not-so familiar adversaries.

Friday Night People :

“The Malt House” is typical of a Chelsea pub these days. The front part houses a section where, even on a Saturday lunchtime, people, and they don’t even look like football match-goers, are enjoying meals at tables. The bar area is always cramped and busy, with nowhere to stand in comfort. I was starving, but baulked at the ridiculous price of bar snacks; £5 for a Scotch egg, £4.50 for a sausage roll. Out in the beer garden, the football followers were amassed. It is a cliché I know, but I know more people on a match day at Chelsea than I do on a night out in Frome. I chatted to Barbara and Denise, both nervous with worry about the game ahead, which was under an hour away now. There was also an enjoyable few minutes in the company of former Chelsea player Robert, who played around fifteen games for us between 1985 and 1987. One big family, everyone together. It is moments like this that make supporting Chelsea so special.

Friday Night Games :

This was, from memory, only the fourth Chelsea game to take place on a Friday, except for the obvious exceptions of games over Christmas and the New Year period, and possibly some in the dim and distant past.

Leading up to the match, there was talk among the Chelsea aficionados about previous Friday night games. Common consensus was that this would indeed be game number four. All three previous matches were in 1984. During that season, “live football” was introduced for the very first time, shared equally between the BBC and ITV. A grand total, five games were on a Friday night, five games on a Sunday afternoon. That was it, though; ten games for the entire season.

We played Blackburn Rovers at home in March, away at Manchester City in May (the first non-First Division match to be shown on live TV in the UK) and then, back in the top tier, at home to Everton in August. I didn’t attend any. In 2016, I would be a Friday Night Virgin.

Incidentally, I did attend a mid-season friendly on a Friday night in February 1986; a game at a very cold Ibrox, between Rangers and Chelsea, and strangely enough Robert and I spoke about that game. He played in that one, but my memories of it are very scant, with it being over thirty years ago, and me being half-cut on all-day drinking.

Friday Night Lights :

In the build-up to this game, it seemed that the club were treating it as something of a novelty. There was talk of a free bottle of “Singha”, but I was not able to partake as I reached the turnstiles too late for my voucher. Some people might regard this as a plus point. I was inside in time to see, at about 7.50pm, the advertised “pre-match entertainment” which the club had also advertised. The lights dimmed, and smoke started billowing in front of the East Stand. In the past – the distant past, the ‘seventies and ‘eighties – pre-match entertainment was a very hit and miss affair at Chelsea. I remember a couple of instances of the Police Dog Display Team (I think we must have been easily pleased in those days), a Marching University Band from Missouri – I know this sounds like a figment of my imagination, but the Marching Mizzou did a pre-game show at a Chelsea vs. Derby County game I attended in March 1975, and which I have detailed here previously – and a Red Devils parachute show against Tottenham in April 1985, in which one poor chap missed the pitch completely and landed on top of the West Stand.

Stamford Bridge was bathed in darkness as a heartbeat pulsed through the stadia’s PA system. Then, from searchlights positioned in front of the East and West Stands, blue and white lights danced across the Stamford Bridge turf.

My thoughts on this?

It looked OK, to be honest – in a happy clappy, “look! bright lights!” kinda way – but was rather out of place. This wasn’t a rock concert. It wasn’t the NBA. It wasn’t the NFL. It was a regular season football match. It might have worked at an end of season trophy presentation – “I wish” – but not for an ordinary league game.

File under “trying too hard.”

Friday Night Flags :

During this light show, a far more agreeable show was taking place in The Shed. The large “The Shed” banner, which I believe has been aired before, was joined by three smaller yellow banners. It was pretty effective, though I am not one hundred percent sure that the suits at the club completely understood the exact meaning and rhetoric of the words used.

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Friday Night Football :

Chelsea, in white track suit tops, and Liverpool, in black tracksuit tops, marched across the turf. The good guys and the bad guys. Neil Barnett had, prior to the pre-match “show,” welcomed our two new signings to the Stamford Bridge crowd. There was hearty applause for the returning David Luiz, and also for Marcos Alonso.

From the start, from the very first whistle, Liverpool looked more lively. Very soon, Thibaut Courtois was tested from outside the box by Daniel Sturridge, and we had our hearts in our mouths as he momentarily spilled the ball, which was hit straight at him, but then recovered before the ball was able to crawl apologetically over the line.

I always keep a look out for Philippe Coutinho when we play Liverpool, but on this occasion it was one of Klopp’s summer signings Sadio Mane – one in a never ending line of players who have gone from Saints to Sinners – who caught my eye. He looked lively, and linked well with others. In fact, the entire Liverpool team looked neat on the ball and hungry when hunting the ball down.

On a quarter of an hour, an infamous goal was scored at Stamford Bridge. The ball was slung in by that man Coutinho from a quickly taken free kick, and no fewer than four red shirted Liverpool players appeared to be completely unmarked on the far post. It is an image that is etched in my mind still. The four players were able to play a game of “Scissors, Paper, Stone” among themselves as the ball floated over. In the end, Dejan Lovren – another former Saint – won the right to prod the ball homewards.

We groaned a million groans.

Chelsea, in our rather feeble attempts to impose ourselves on the game, stumbled. Yet again we were one-paced. Matic – looking a little better this season to be honest – struggled to release the ball early. Oscar was humdrum. Willian fizzed around but ended up running across the pitch more often than not. Ivanovic – oh boy – always took an extra touch before attempting to cross.

Sturridge, as his style, skipped through and then selfishly shot from a ridiculously tight angle. The shot went off for a throw in. This player is so disliked by many at Chelsea, that it is hard to believe that he was part of our squad on that night in Munich.

The one exception to our underperforming players was N’Golo Kante, who stood alone, attempting to stifle any attacking intent within a twenty-yard radius of his diminutive frame. I was very impressed with his work rate and his desire. Where was this desire among the others?

I kept a special look out for David Luiz, and hoped and prayed that he would not commit any embarrassing moments on his return after two seasons in Paris. To be fair, he at least showed his worth as a ball-playing defender, with three fine balls to the feet of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard.

Efforts on the Liverpool goal were rare.

With ten minutes to go before the break, the ball broke into our half. David Luiz was under pressure from a Liverpool player, but with Thibaut Courtois unwilling to leave his six-yard box to collect a back pass, nor to communicate with Luiz, the ball was hacked off for a throw in. Liverpool dallied on taking the throw in, and referee Martin Atkinson urged it to be taken. Gary Cahill’s clearance unfortunately dropped right at a Liverpool player. He had time to touch the ball, and curl a superb shot up and over Courtois’ leap.

The scorer?

Jordan bloody Henderson, this generation’s Geoff Thomas.

The Scousers were buoyant again.

“Stevie Heighway on the wing.
We had dreams and songs to sing.
Of the glory, round the Fields of Anfield Road.”

And then their ditty about “History.”

Are they as obsessed with us as we are with them? It really is a close run thing.

However, there was certainly no denying it; Liverpool had deserved the lead, even though chances had been rare.

A Luiz header from a Willian corner just before the break hinted of a Chelsea revival.

As I made my way into the concourse at half-time, I looked up to see our first goal being dissected on TV by a Sky TV “expert” and although I could not hear the commentary, I could guess his words of mockery.

“It must be an easy job being an expert on TV, yet not having the balls to be a coach or a manager in your own right” I thought to myself, but not in so many words.

2-0 down to Liverpool at half-time brought back clear memories of the FA Cup in 1997.

“Bring on Sparky” said PD.

The second-half began, but there were no changes to Antonio Conte’s team.

No Mark Hughes. No Cesc Fabregas. No Michy Batshuayi. Nobody.

We certainly enjoyed more of the ball in the opening period. Hazard was full of running, and we were pressing for the ball with more determination. Ironically, it was the much maligned Nemanja Matic who helped our cause, exchanging passes and showing a rare turn of speed as he drove deep into the heart of the Liverpool box. He reached – miraculously – the by-line and picked out Diego Costa with a little flick.

Diego doesn’t miss those.

2-1 and Stamford Bridge was vibrant once more.

With thirty minutes of the game remaining, there was – at last – hope.

I hoped that the support would rally behind the team, providing a noisy backdrop to a fine recovery.

The noise never really materialised.

Diego shot straight at Mignolet as our play continued to improve.

Liverpool countered and, at the Shed End, Courtois was able to save from Coutinho and then substitute Origi’s shot. This latter save was quite magnificent.

The hoped-for rally never really materialised either. Conte made a bizarre triple substitution with eighty-three minutes on the clock.

This was late, way too late, surely?

Victor Moses for Willian, Cesc Fabregas for Nemanja Matic, Pedro for Oscar.

For a few moments, it looked like we were playing with three wingers; Moses on the right and both Pedro and Eden on the left, before Eden dropped inside.

Our only real chance, gift-wrapped for a deafening equaliser, was a free-kick on the edge of the box after Hazard was fouled. It took an age for Atkinson to sort out the wall and this added to the drama. Both David Luiz and Cesc Fabregas stood over the ball.

The ref’s whistle, and Cesc stepped up.

Typical of the night, the ball hit the wall and our hopes drifted away.

So, a first domestic loss for Antonio Conte.

Hopefully some lessons to be learned, and some home truths to be shared.

Friday Night Shite :

Exiting the stadium, pushed close against a sombre crowd, I overheard the most ridiculous comments being aired by my fellow fans. I know only too well that we had not played particularly well all game, and the first-half was – of course – very poor, but some of the nonsense I heard produced a mixture of displeasure and hilarity. Why do we – Chelsea fans, but football fans in general – veer from one extreme to the other so easily? When is there ever an even, balanced opinion? I glanced at my phone on the way out of London as PD drove west. The internet was evidently melting. A 2-1 loss at home to a pretty decent Liverpool team and fools were already on Conte’s case, and I even saw someone calling for his head.

Get a fucking grip.

We were five games into a new campaign, and old hardened supporters and new FIFA17 “experts” were already on Conte’s case. The man is at a new club, with a new team, in a new league, and he is being questioned by some of our own. Give the man some slack, please.

The night is young.

I remembered back to a game in September 2009. In our eighth game of that season, we lost 3-1 at Wigan Athletic and the team was under the orders of a new Italian manager.

New to the club, new to the team, in a new league.

Later in that very season Carlo Ancelotti won us the double.

I am not saying that we will be in the hunt for trophies at the business end of this season, but we have to show a little more restraint with our words of disdain, blame, antipathy and antagonism.

A club in disarray has never won anything.

On Tuesday, we play at Leicester City, but I will not be there. I haven’t bought a ticket; I won’t be travelling. I hope that those who have bought tickets will be there. It would be horrible to see a half-empty away section, especially since the away allocation sold out rather quickly.

My next game will be at Arsenal on Saturday. A cracking day out is planned. See you there.

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Tales From A Night Of Hurt

Chelsea vs. Paris St. Germain : 9 March 2016.

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The second goal killed us. As soon as that ball was played through our defensive line out to Angel Di Maria, cutting us wide open, I had feared the worst. Sure enough, Di Maria’s low cross in to the box was touched home by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and our hopes were extinguished. The sight of the tall Swedish talisman reeling away, arms outstretched, towards the Chelsea fans in The Shed will haunt me for a while. It meant that we now had to win 4-2 to progress. It was an impossible task.

Most Chelsea fans remained silent, hurting inside, and as I looked over at a few PSG players celebrating in front of their contingent, I was hurting too.

However, within seconds of us conceding that killer goal, I spotted one middle-aged gentleman (and when I say middle-aged, let me confirm that this just means “older than me”), who immediately stood up, pulled a rather sour face, “tut-tutted” to his neighbours and headed for the exits.

Perhaps he had just that moment heard that his granddaughter was about to go in to labour and needed to shoot off to take care of his family’s needs. Perhaps he needed to set off at 9.10pm in order to catch the last train back to his home in Preston which left Euston at 10.15pm. Maybe he had felt a twinge of sciatica, that bloody sciatica, and couldn’t face being jostled in the melee for the tube at the end of the game, so needed to leave with time to spare. Maybe he needed to leave at that time in order to get back to his place of work in Croydon in time for the nightshift.

Maybe there were valid reasons for his sudden disappearance into the night.

Or maybe, just maybe, he was a twat.

For even though we had just conceded a goal which had almost certainly sealed our fate against Paris St. Germain, almost a year to the day to our exit in 2015 against the same opposition, there is surely no valid reason for deserting Chelsea Football Club with a full half an hour remaining. What sort of support is that? It made me despair. OK, it was hugely unlikely that we would score three times in the remaining portion of the game, but as fans we needed to stay and watch the match, and be there until the end. We were on TV. Millions would be watching in the UK and elsewhere. What sort of message would it send out if thousands of fans reacted in the same way as him? Seeing this chap leave so early made me question just what sort of Herberts our club attracts these days.

Alongside Alan and myself was my good friend JR, from Detroit, who had flown over on Tuesday and was leaving early on Thursday. His stay in London would equate to around just forty-six hours. Although he had shoe-horned a little trip down to a wet Craven Cottage on Tuesday for the Fulham vs. Burnley game, make no mistake that he was, as the song goes “here for the Chelsea.” Through a little luck which landed in our laps, I had managed to shift tickets around so that he could watch alongside us in the Matthew Harding Upper. As the weeks and then days had evaporated before us, JR’s excitement about watching a Champions League game at Stamford Bridge for the very first time was a joy to witness. He was last over for that fine week of football in 2011 which saw us defeat West Ham United and Tottenham – Torres’ first goal in the puddles and a late Kalou winner – and we have been the best of friends ever since.

Parky and myself had strolled in to The Goose just after 6pm, and it was a joy to see him once more. I had spent a lot of time with JR on the summer tour, especially driving up from Charlotte to DC one memorable Sunday, but Parky had not seen him since 2011. There was a fun pre-match in the pub, though talk of the game was limited. I introduced JR to a few of my Chelsea pals. Everyone was full of praise of his support.

“You’re over for just two days? Bloody hell.”

The San Miguels and the Peronis were hitting the spot.

We headed off early, in order for JR to experience the uniquness of a typical Champions League night in SW6. There was the usual buzz of excitement. We chatted excitedly on the walk down to The Bridge. Unfortunately, Mark Worrall must have just left the “CFCUK” stall; maybe next time. Back in 2011, I remember that I had photographed JR as he turned into the approach to Stamford Bridge – “captured for posterity” – as he set eyes on the stadium for the very first time. Almost five years later, we were walking the same steps.

Inside The Bridge, JR chatted with a few more friends. There were a few photographs. The kick-off was approaching.

Paris had a full three-thousand fans, split one third in the top corner, and two-thirds in the lower tier. They were, pre-match, rather quiet. There were scarves on show, individual flags, but no banners.

It was a relatively mild evening.

The team news was met with approval.

Courtois – Dave, Gary, Brana, Kenedy – Mikel, Fabregas – Willian, Hazard, Pedro – Diego Costa.

“Park Life” by Blur got the crowd singing along. The individual blue flags, mocked by the Scousers, were waved enthusiastically. Then, surprisingly, for the first time for a Champions League game at Chelsea, the lights were dimmed, and that electronic heartbeat boomed out.

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

What a dramatic sight.

A flag was hoisted in the Shed Upper; a strikingly simple silhouette of our trophy from May 2012.

I am sure that JR was on edge.

Champions League, under the lights, perfect.

And yet.

Among many thousands of other football supporters in the UK, I was saddened to hear of the clandestine meeting which took place recently involving representatives of a few of England’s top clubs with an apparent view to “improve” the current Champions League format. For anyone who knows me, and who gets bored with my dislike for certain aspects of modern football, I suggest you look away now. Although we can’t be sure, exactly, what was discussed in the meeting, two strong rumours soon circulated.

The first involved the guaranteed presence of a number of the largest clubs in Europe of a place each year and every year, regardless of performance the previous season. This makes me heave. It takes away the very essence of what makes European club football the envy of the entire world; that any team, given correct management and stewardship, can rise to the top if they get it right on the pitch. The thought of the same old bloated clubs – we know which ones – showing up every single season in the Champions League, and getting richer, through self-basting, makes me despair. I do not have the words which adequately describe the loathing that I have for Charlie Stillitano’s smug and despicable comment about “the Champions League not needing the likes of Leicester City” and nor should I need to.

Those who read my thoughts in these match reports surely know how I would react to this.

Of course all of this talk of a restructuring of the Champions League is ironic to me at least, since it was the rumours of the “Big 8” – or whatever it was – forming a European Super League in around 1992 that coerced UEFA to form the current Champions League format, expanded from the much loved and missed European Cup straight knock-out format. The current format, involving more games, and more of a chance of the richest clubs to progress every year, was intended to satiate the desires of the likes of Real Madrid, Milan, Bayern Munich, Manchester United et al.

And yet, it would seem, they are still not happy.

Additionally, Stillitano’s naïve desire to compare the world football model – organic clubs rising and falling, relegation and promotion – to the closed shop nature of his own US system does not wash with me.

What is more beautiful than a Leicester City, a Parma, a Wolfsburg, a Dundee United, and a St. Etienne, climbing up and competing at the very highest of European competition?

That a representative of my club – step forward the loathed Bruce Buck – was at these meetings does not surprise me.

These fuckers know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

The second rumour – possibly even more heinous – of qualifying games taking place in the US (what a surprise Mr. Stillitano) would be the last straw for me.

Although it would tear me apart, I would walk away.

Frome Town would be my team, and I’d probably visit a few European cities and ground hop for a while. I was only recently looking at the city of Budapest and day-dreaming about watching games in that lovely Hungarian city on an extended break. Ferencvaros, Honved and MTK do not need the likes of Charlie Stillitano.

Straight after the Champions League anthem “The Liquidator” boomed around the stadium. The blue flags waved again. The atmosphere was rising.

“The crowd is in fine form” I said to JR.

The match began, and we were immediately wired in to every pass, every kick, every tackle. I could not resist focussing on the wildchild Ibrahimovic, or the wildness of the former idol David Luiz.

I thought we began reasonably well, but then failed to stop the impressive talents of PSG gain momentum. For a while, they dolloped balls into space and at the feet of their attacking players and we were nowhere. Ibrahimovic bundled the ball past Thibaut Courtois, but the German referee had spotted a flag for offside.

Phew.

Then, calamity. PSG pushed the ball out to Ibrahimovic, who had lost his marker Gary Cahill with consummate ease. It was, undoubtedly, a shock to see Cahill all at sea after an impressive run of form. From a wide position, a low cross found Rabiot, who found the net with ease.

We were 3-1 down on aggregate and needed to score twice to draw level – penalties, maybe – or three times to win on aggregate. Harking back to our friendly with PSG in Charlotte in the summer, I joked with JR :

“9-9 on penalties tonight, Thibaut to score the winner.”

Then, thankfully, Chelsea got back in to the game. Diego Costa was the main spark but Pedro made some intelligent runs, and Kenedy really impressed. Willian’s energy was good to see, but elsewhere Fabregas and Hazard struggled to make a difference. Mikel did what Mikel does. Collectively, we were improving.

Just before the half hour mark, the ball was won, and played forward to Diego Costa, who twisted and turned past his marker with a fantastic move of body and mind. He quickly dispatched the ball, with his weaker left foot, past Trapp in the PSG goal.

The Bridge boomed, and I felt JR shudder next to me.

We were back in it for fuck sake.

The noise increased and this was just wild blue heaven.

We played with a better tempo, and with more desire, and in my mind we bossed the last portion of the half. But how we yearned for a second goal. PSG were playing hardball though, and we were livid with some of the tackles going unpunished. The PSG fans were very quiet; surprisingly so. Their level of noise was simply not on the same scale as many other European visitors. We had a few chances – Fabregas, Costa – but a second goal did not materialise. PSG still looked comfortable on the ball, of course, but there were positive signs.

As we edged towards the break, my huge fear was that the momentum that we had built up over the preceding twenty minutes or so would now dissipate into the London air as half-time was reached.

In the second-half, there was an immediate flurry of activity down below us as we stormed the PSG box. In one crazy period of play, shots were blocked by limbs and torsos, and we were left breathless.

Just one goal would set us up for one of the great European comebacks.

Just one goal.

The play eased a little, and we sadly watched as Diego Costa, in discomfort, was forced to leave. Without him – he had been excellent at times – I wondered where on earth a goal would come from. I think everyone else thought the same. Bertrand Traore replaced him.

I thought back on the 1997/1998 European campaign when our strike force consisted of Mark Hughes, Gianfranco Zola, Gianluca Vialli and Tore Andre Flo.

In 2016, our main striker is augmented by Loic Remy and the youngster Traore. Falcao and Pato are not mentioned for obvious reasons. What a mess.

Eden Hazard, obviously injured, showed a little more desire and promise.

“Still half an hour JR, we can still do it. Two more goals, then extra time.”

Sadly, that ball out to Di Maria on sixty-seven minutes put an end to our hopes.

For the last twenty minutes or so, thankfully most spectators stayed to watch, but the war had been won, and there was no fight from players and fans alike. The play deteriorated. We were a pale shadow of the team that had ended the first-half so strongly. Throughout the game, Fabregas and Hazard were poor. For all of Pedro’s scurrying around, very rarely does he create anything. Even Willian was poor. The only bright spot for me was the performance of Kenedy in the first-half. Where Baba is nervous and reticent, Kenedy exudes confidence and spirit. We need to persevere with him.

It was not to be.

We lacked desire, sustained over ninety minutes, and our ailments of autumn came back to haunt us again. The hunger of previous Champions League campaigns – oh for a Terry, a Drogba, a Cole, a Lampard – was missing.

It hurt.

If our plans to relocate and rebuild are met with approval, this may well have been the current Stamford Bridge’s last ever Champions League night.

As we walked out on to the Fulham Road, I told JR to take one last look at it.

With a young baby on the way in the summer, it might be a while before JR returns. His next visit might witness a completely new stadium.

Parky, JR, and two of JR’s UK-based mates, the brothers Dan and Matt, met up with me back at “The Goose” for a pint and a reflection on what might have been. We ended up next-door for some pizza. It reminded me of the quiet and reflective post-mortem that we had over a curry after the loss to Inter in 2010, when we were again joined by visitors from the US.

It was approaching midnight as we said our farewells.

JR – of course – had loved the experience of his first ever Champions League night at Stamford Bridge.

“Safe travels mate, see you soon.”

On the drive home, I was pragmatic. Over the two legs, we were not good enough.

We don’t lose many games at home in European competitions. It used to be a proud boast that, until Lazio in 2000, we had never lost one. Now, sadly, this defeat at the hands of PSG meant that we had now lost eight in our history.

Lazio 2000.

Besiktas 2003.

Barcelona 2006.

Internazionale 2010.

Manchester United 2011.

Basel 2013.

Atletico Madrid 2014.

Paris St. Germain 2015.

I’ve seen them all, and it hurts each time. There were also two draws, against Monaco in 2004 and Barcelona in 2009, which felt like defeats since we went out on away goals on those nights. And there was also the game against Real Zaragoza in 1995, which we won 3-1, but was not celebrated since we had lost the first-leg 3-0. Regardless, a European defeat at Stamford Bridge always feels so damning, so final. It feels especially hurtful in the first knock-out round, after a little break, before we can get a head of steam and push on.

However, Europe in general, has treated us well, despite the seemingly endless procession of bad luck from 2005 to 2009.

We have, after all, won all of the three major trophies.

And I have been blessed enough to have seen eighty-five European games at Stamford Bridge now, and my / our record is an impressive 56-21-8. Of course, I shouldn’t be too picky, but each of those eight defeats leave a memory which haunts.

But our European campaign in 2015/2016 is now over. We know that our final game of the season will either be at home to Leicester City on Sunday 15 May or at Wembley for the F.A. Cup Final on Saturday 21 May. On Saturday, we head up to Goodison Park to try to prolong this very odd season for one more week.

After all, what is the month of May without a Cup Final?

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Tales From Shawn’s Home Debut

Chelsea vs. Paris St. Germain : 11 March 2015.

I had been back at work for three days, and it had generally felt right for me to be back in the swing of things. The seemingly mundane routine of work had certainly helped my gentle and steady recuperation following the sadness of recent weeks. However, throughout Wednesday, I felt myself getting quieter and quieter as the hours passed. The quietness and the stillness were of course due to my mother’s funeral on the Thursday. The Wednesday evening game at Stamford Bridge between Chelsea and our new rivals PSG was of course still important, but much less so.

Much much less so.

Of course, it goes without saying, that I wanted us to reach the last eight of this season’s competition. For some reason, I had doubts that we would do so. There was just something about the law of averages; we got past them a year ago, it might be their turn this time. Our draw at the Parc des Princes was largely due to the excellent performance by our young ‘keeper. However, as the day progressed I was just aware that my focus was elsewhere. My mother’s funeral was looming over everything.

In addition to the emotion of Thursday, a great deal of my focus throughout Wednesday was centred on the safe arrival of my good friend Roma and her eight year old son Shawn, who had arrived at Heathrow during the morning, and were planning to meet me at West Brompton underground station at 6pm. I first met Roma in her home town of St. Augustine, Florida in 1989 and we were a long distance item for a few years. Our friendship has remained intact after all this time. On hearing of my mother’s passing, it filled me with joy when Roma, now living in Tennessee, told me that she would like to attend my mother’s funeral. I last saw Roma and Shawn in “Stan’s Sports Bar”, just after our friendly with Manchester City at Yankee Stadium in 2013; the two of them had to leave early to head home, while I stayed on for a few after match beers. Shawn had also witnessed our game with PSG at Yankee Stadium the previous summer too, and I have lovely memories of the two of them, plus Roma’s eldest daughter Vanessa, posing for a photograph with Paul Canoville after that game. Shawn has lovely curly locks, and I called him David Luiz Junior at the time. Now, in 2015, Shawn and Roma would be reunited with me, Chelsea, PSG and David Luiz once more.

Just like me, in 1974, Shawn’s first Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge would be at the age of eight. It felt right that the torch was being passed to another generation.

The stalwarts from my home area, Lord Parky and PD, travelled-up with me from Chippenham. I made good time and was parked up in a little over two hours. They disappeared to The Goose while I zipped over to West Brompton. Now, for my good friends in the US, some of you will have met Roma and her three children on many occasions over the past eleven seasons, since Roma has attended matches from every single one of Chelsea’s tours to the US. Roma even has “one up” on me, since I didn’t bother to attend any of the three games during the 2013 summer tour, but Roma and Vanessa visited DC for the Chelsea vs. Roma game. A few close friends also know that Roma’s time-keeping is – and I know Roma won’t mind me saying – rather errant. I received a message from Vanessa that Roma’s ‘phone wasn’t working, either. I had visions of waiting at West Brompton for…well, for quite a while.

Imagine my elation and relief when, at just before 6pm, I spotted Roma and Shawn outside the station. I gave them big hugs. From the South Bronx to West Brompton, our friendship was rekindled. Without any prompting from his mother, Shawn quickly said how sorry he was to hear of my mother’s passing.

I melted, and gave him another hug.

Until this point, I had only managed to secure one ticket – for Shawn, he would be sat next to me – for the evening’s game. Roma was going to watch in a pub or bar. However, soon after setting foot in The Goose, another ticket became available and – an extra bonus – we were able to move people around so that Roma and Shawn could sit together in the MHL.

What utter joy.

My good mate Tuna, who has been living in the US for around thirty years, had flown over from Atlanta for a few games and, of course, Roma and Tuna have met on many varied occasions, stemming as far back as the Chelsea vs. Roma game in Pittsburgh in 2004. It was lovely to see him in the pub, too.

Things were going well.

In some respects, this was all turning out to be a typical way for me to cope with my grief of recent weeks; I had spent a few hours over the previous week or so sorting tickets, planning to meet up with friends, planning itineraries, making ‘phone-calls, sending emails. There was a complex transfer of tickets planned for the Southampton game on the following Sunday, too, with the focus again on getting Roma and Shawn two seats together. All of this football-related activity was a lovely balance to the weightier issues also on my mind.

Chelsea therapy, if you will. Lovely.

Roma, Shawn and I departed from the pub in good time and I chatted about a few Chelsea-related items on the way down to the ground. I spent a few moments trying to explain the peculiarities of European games to Roma, the aggregate score, and the “away goals” scenario. Of course, there was also the threat of penalties. Roma was far from the naïve American though; she soon impressed me with a few comments about Harry Kane and his goal tally this year. Roma had previously visited The Bridge once before, for a Chelsea vs. Fulham derby in 2002. Roma watched many of the World Cup games in the summer on American TV. She has come a long way since that 2002 game.

Programmes were purchased and photographs were taken.

I escorted them down to the turnstiles for the MHL and then made my way into the stadium myself. It was earlier than normal, maybe 7.30pm, and there was no line at the gate. Inside there was a hug from Alan. PSG had brought around 2,500 maybe. Throughout the night, there seemed to be a split in their support; the rowdier elements with scarves and songs were stood in the lower tier, while those in the upper tier remained seated, and quieter.

Before I knew it, the stadium was bathed in blue, with thousands of the new-style, predominantly blue rather than chequered, flags being waved during several pre-match songs. It was a fine image. Just before the entrance of the teams, a new flag was held aloft in the MHL. The front cover of the match programme had been devoted to a message aimed at addressing the nasty incident in a Parisian metro station prior to the away leg.

“We Are All Blue # Equality.”

The same message was on the flag.

I quickly ran through the team.

Thibaut.

Dave – JT – Gary – Brana.

Matic – Cesc.

Hazard – Oscar – Ramires.

Diego Costa.

No Zouma, no Willian. In Jose we trust.

By now, several days after the game, no doubt that every kick of the ball will have been dissected a million times by a million experts. I am not going to say too much. It was clearly a game of football that was easily within our grasp of winning, yet we failed. Throughout the game, I was not my usual self. I hardly sang at all. Other things flitted in to my mind, and stayed.

Overall, the atmosphere wasn’t great. In fact, it was rubbish. Even the away fans weren’t particularly noisy. As I looked down at the spectators standing en masse in the Matthew Harding Lower, I wondered if young Shawn was able to see anything. I wondered where their tickets were. At times there was noise in that section; for Roma and Shawn, I wanted it to be rocking.

It wasn’t.

One song rang out loud and clear :

“Fcuk PSG.”

Not exactly our wittiest or most erudite moment, but I guess it summed things up.

In the first-half, PSG played some good stuff, with their attacking play occasionally stretching us. Of course the most important moment was the crunching tackle on Oscar by Ibrahimovic. To be quite honest, my focus was on Oscar’s outstretched leg going for the ball and I only really saw a coming together of limbs. I commented soon after to Alan that a split-second later, perhaps it could have been Oscar seeing red.

Regardless, off went PSG’s talisman. The portents were looking good.

A run by Diego Costa – a wonderful run actually, with him keeping the ball tight to his body amidst lunges by several defenders – was ended with a trip by Cavani, but I noted that the referee’s view seemed to be blocked and no penalty was given.

At the break, I wondered if it might stay at 0-0 and it would be a night of equality.

Willian replaced the very poor Oscar and soon tested Sirigu with a direct free-kick which surprised everyone.

On the hour, we had a massive escape. Our defence was caught upfield and the impressive Cavani ran clear and then rounded Courtois, only for his shot to hit the far post, although I was pleading for our defenders to hack it clear if it had been on target.

I kept thinking, as did millions worldwide –

“Bloody hell, which team has eleven?”

Players were being booked right, left and centre.

We rarely tested the PSG goal, but a corner on eighty-one minutes caused deliberation in their box. I snapped as Diego Costa swung a leg at a loose ball, but completely missed. Gary Cahill was close by to thump the ball home.

We were one-up with ten minutes to go. I snapped the run of Cahill into the arms of substitute Drogba, warming up on the far corner.

Zouma replaced Matic. Mourinho was solidifying the ranks.

PSG kept pressing and Courtois was able to beat out a couple of attempts. However, on eighty-six minutes, David Luiz rose at the near post to head home a corner.

Him. Of all bloody people. He had been booed by a section of our support all night. He celebrated wildly.

Extra-time, then. Great. With a big day ahead of me, this wasn’t going to plan.

Mourinho replaced Ramires with Drogba. Inwardly, I wasn’t happy. Drogba is hardly the player of old. I wondered if this was a wise move.

On ninety-six minutes, Thiago Silva’s leap for a high ball alongside Zouma was ill-timed and the ball hit his outstretched hand. It looked a penalty from my seat, but there is this theory among some Chelsea supporters about us and referees in Europe…

Although the referee pointed to the spot, there didn’t seem to be a reaction at all from the home crowd. It was a very weird sensation. It was as if we didn’t believe it.

Eden Hazard calmly rolled it home.

A roar.

Advantage Chelsea.

Possibly, probably, almost certainly undeserved, but advantage Chelsea.

Just after, an incredible, dipping free-kick from David Luiz was expertly tipped-over by Courtois.

As the second period of extra-time began, there was nervousness in the West London air. A corner for PSG was headed down and goal-ward by Thiago Silva, but Courtois dropped to his right and palmed it wide. It was a magnificent save. I was still praising his efforts when the resulting corner was lofted high and the very same Brazilian player connected. It looped up, and dropped in to the net, in horrible ghastly slow motion.

Advantage PSG.

There was no way back.

I gathered a few spare flags for young Shawn and said my goodbyes to the boys. It was not to be.

There would be no repeat of Munich in Berlin.

C’est la vie.

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Tales From Both Sides Of The River

Fulham vs. Chelsea : 17 April 2013.

I was able to leave work slightly earlier than usual at 3.45pm. Unfortunately, Parky was unable to attend once more. It would be me – just me – alone with my thoughts on the familiar drive to SW6. There was certainly much to dwell upon. Firstly, my mind was full of thoughts of my father. Wednesday 17th. April 2013 was, sadly, the twentieth anniversary of his passing. My father was taken ill while shopping in Frome during the afternoon of Friday 16th. April 1993. He sadly passed away at the Royal United hospital in Bath in the small hours of the following day. In truth, much of my grieving twenty years later had taken place on the Tuesday; virtually all of the tearful memories and the strongest emotions came from the Friday 16th. April 1993.

Dad wasn’t a massive football fan; his sports were swimming, diving and badminton. He once boxed in the RAF during World War Two. However, once I fell in love with Chelsea Football Club, he soon realised how much the club meant to me. That shouldn’t be taken lightly. I often hear stories of friends saying “my dad hated football and never took me to any games.”

Not so my father – and mother.

My Christmas present in 1973 – the best ever – was the news that my parents were going to take me to Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea. Oh my; just writing these words some forty years later brings it all back. That realisation that I’d be seeing my heroes in that iconic royal blue kit – in colour, for real, not on our black and white TV – made me so excited. As I have said before, I owe my parents so much.

My father attended many games with me over the years. His last one was against Everton on the first day of 1991. As I drove past Swindon on the M4, I remembered a game from January 1988. My father finished work in Frome and drove home to collect my mother and I to take us all to Swindon for Chelsea’s Simod Cup (aka Full Member’s Cup ) game against Swindon Town at their County Ground stadium. At the time, we were plummeting towards the First Division’s relegation zone while Swindon was a Third Division side. We were caught up in traffic, however, and found it difficult to find a parking place. The plan was for my parents to sit in the main stand while I joined 2,000 Chelsea in the cramped corner terrace. We were so late arriving that I heard the roars from the home crowd celebrating Swindon’s second goal as I was still trying to get in.

“Oh great. This is going to be a great night.”

In the end, we lost 4-0. We were awful, even though our team contained stalwarts such as Kerry Dixon, Steve Clarke, Colin Pates, John Bumstead and Tony Dorigo; good players one and all. I remember chants of “Hollins Must Go, Hollins Must Go, Hello, Hello” all night long. It was a dire night and it was a grim fore-telling of our eventual fate come May.

We were kept inside for ten minutes while the local hoodlums were pushed away from the stadium. I looked around the terraces where we had been stood all evening. Twenty yards away, looking out of place amongst hundreds of young Londoners, were my mother and father. I trotted over to greet them. It seems that they had arrived too late to gain entrance to the main stand; they had not bought tickets beforehand, we hadn’t thought it necessary. In those days, paying on the day was the norm. My parents had informed the club officials that they were Chelsea supporters and so, unbelievably, had been led around the pitch by stewards and put inside the away pen.

I think if I had seen them, I would have thought “oh no, what have they done now?”

Twenty-five years on, the image of my Mum and Dad, dressed in his suit, with a sheepskin coat, still brings a smile to my face.

Later that season, they were in The Shed for the Charlton Athletic game. But that’s another story for another time.

I stopped at Reading services on the drive east. As I returned to my car, I strangely noticed the incessant roar from the traffic hurtling towards London on the eastbound carriageway of the M4 motorway. I was thrilled by it. I smiled. It reinforced my love of travel, of moving, of visiting new and old places, the constant desire to see new cities, new landscapes, new towns, new villages, new people. There is still romance in travel; from seeing the ocean as a four year old boy – the wonder of that vast body of water – to visiting foreign lands in my middle years. I never want it to stop.

During the last hour of my journey, this was enforced further as I attempted to put some plan in place in order to visit Old Amsterdam for our potential participation in the Europa Cup final and New Amsterdam for our friendly at Yankee Stadium. I have already block-booked that fortnight from work; now for the intricate fine tuning…schedules, dates, hotels, flights, just lovely.

My pre-match plans for the evening’s game at Craven Cottage actually stemmed from my visit to Yankee Stadium in July. After the Chelsea game in Philly, I returned to NYC to catch a Yankees vs. Red Sox game before I returned home. In “Stans Sports Bar” that evening – before and after the game – I got chatting to Britt, an American who was over from London, visiting NYC with friends. I was wearing a CFC T-shirt and she soon announced she was a Fulham season-ticket holder. We exchanged email addresses and promised to meet up for a pint during the season. We had arranged to meet that night at The Spotted Horse in Putney at 6.45pm.

On the approach into London, high on the elevated M4, I was again mesmerized by the panorama of London’s skykline which was particularly clear in the early evening sun; Harrow On The Hill to the north, the Wembley Arch, the Post Office Tower, Canary Wharf away in the distance, a quick glimpse of The Shard, the hills around Clapham to the south. Up close were the new high-rises at Brentford, the old art deco buildings, the Lucozade sign, the floodlights of Griffin Park, Earls Court and Olympia.

Travel. I love it.

I soon drove around the Hammersmith roundabout and down the Fulham Palace Road. No need to turn off along Lillee road this time; I was heading south to Putney, not east to Stamford Bridge. As I drove on, I caught glimpses of the floodlight pylons at Fulham’s classic stadium to my right. At the Golden Lion pub I saw a sign which stated that access was for FFC season ticket-holders or membership card holders only. I was stuck on Putney Bridge for a while as neon-clad cyclists, cars and London buses jostled for position.

Just after 6pm, I was parked up.

Walking past a few pubs by the River Thames – The Half Moon, The Duke’s Head – I soon realised what a lovely pre-match this would be. There is nothing quite like a game of football at Fulham. I looked up and saw a modern red bus crossing Putney Bridge. It wasn’t the old classic shape of a Routemaster, but it was still an iconic sight.

I needed sustenance and so looked for options. Unlike my expensive meal in Turin in November, there was no gastronomic treat for me this time. I ended up with a typical football meal of chicken and chips. Bloody hell, even KFC even sounds like a football club.

I reached The Spotted Horse at 6.30pm. Britt soon appeared and it was lovely to see her again. She was with her bloke Chris – an armchair Liverpool fan – and we had a quick catch up. As I quaffed a pint of Peroni, we chatted about all sorts. In addition to being a Fulham season ticket holder, she also follows Saracens rugby union. She is originally from DC and we spoke about that area’s sports teams. In fact, it was a similar conversation that I have had with various US guests to Stamford Bridge over the years. It felt almost liberating to be chatting to a fan of a rival team though. I had promised myself not to have too many digs at Fulham during the evening; I almost succeeded. In truth, Britt summed things up when she said –

“You don’t care about us, though, do you?”

Broadly she was correct, though I have a little soft spot for Fulham, which I am sure winds most Fulham fans up further. It’s true though. Long may the SW6 derby continue in the top flight.

Before we left The Spotted Horse, I briefly mentioned my father and we toasted him.

“Cheers Dad.”

There was talk of Peter Osgood, my first game, a Chelsea vs. Fulham game from 1982, a game from 2002, the banter was flying, it was super.

We then moved onto an even better pub – The Coat & Badge – and I had another pint while talking to more US Fulham fans. I had to stop and think –

“Shouldn’t I be talking to Chelsea fans? What will my mates think?”

To be honest, I was revelling in the change of scene, seeing new people, new places. I spoke to a Fulham fan from Philly and he was baffled by our club’s decision to sack Roberto di Matteo. To be truthful, I was stuck for words. I couldn’t – still – validate Roman’s decision. I also chatted to a girl – another American – about her experiences watching Fulham and living in London. Her accent suggested she was from The South, but I recognised a few cadences which lead me to believe she was from North Carolina or Georgia. To be honest, her accent was very similar in places to that of Mary-Anne from Knoxville Tennessee. I decided that I had to quell my inquisitiveness and so I asked her if she was from North Carolina or Georgia.

“Yes! North Carolina, Tennessee.”

“Ah, I thought so…you sound like a friend from Knoxville.”

“Knoxville is my home!”

“Damn…I should have gone with my hunch and said Knoxville…would have freaked you out, right!”

At 7.30pm, it was time to depart. We had a fantastic walk across Putney Bridge, with Britt leading the way, nothing getting in her way. It was quite an aerobic workout. I again commented that there is something quite therapeutic and hypnotic about walking towards a football stadium with thousands more.

It was a lovely spring evening as we strode through Bishop’s Park. The Oxford and Cambridge boat race starts on the river at Putney Bridge of course. It’s a lovely part of the world.

I wished Britt and Chris well – “may the best team win and all that bollocks” – and then turned towards the red brick of the away turnstiles where more familiar faces were everywhere I looked.

I soon bumped into two lads from Melksham, near where I work; “no Parky, mate?”

I looked down at my phone…what was the time?

1955.

A good year.

Up into the seats and I was soon alongside Alan and Gary and Kev from Bristol.

We were lower down than usual. Not far from the pitch. Excellent.

Before I had time to blink, the teams were on the pitch, walking across from the cottage to my right. Chelsea were in all blue. Although I love the design of our kit this year, I still think the blue is not dark enough, not vivid enough, too light, too muted. There was to be no show of hostility that we saw at Griffin Park as Benitez strode across the pitch. I quickly ran through the team. John Terry back, Ivanovic at right-back, Lamps back, Moses in, Torres in. I looked at the Fulham team to see if Duffer was playing, but didn’t spot him.

Let’s go to work.

This was a game that we simply had to win to stay in the hunt for a top four place in the league. We all knew that. But it wouldn’t be easy. The last two visits to Craven Cottage were draws.

Gary mentioned that he had seen some American Fulham fans on the tube on his journey from work. I can see the attraction, what with the pleasant setting of Craven Cottage, plus the former US players such as McBride, Bocanegra, Dempsey, Keller and Johnson who have represented Fulham recently. I wonder if those Fulham fans were aware of Fulham’s first batch of American players in the ‘thirties; the often forgotten trio of Lou Schattendorrf, Farmer Boy O’Malley and Chuck Rosencrantz III.

Fulham began strongly, much to our chagrin, and we heaved a massive sigh of relief as Ruiz volleyed over from close in. We weren’t playing well and a Karagounis effort bounced against the top of the bar. There were murmurs of disquiet in the away end. I looked around the trim stadium. I noted small pockets of empty seats, but it was near capacity. The Chelsea choir decided to start mocking our neighbours with a few choice ditties –

“We don’t hate you – ‘cus you’re 5hit.”

“Michael Jackson – he’s one of your own.”

“Nonce for a statue. You’ve got a nonce for a statue.”

I felt that Dimitar Berbatov was their main threat, yet we seemed to be offering him too much space. He was often unmarked. A few half-chances came and went, but it clearly wasn’t a great start by Chelsea.

The Chelsea fans were in good voice, though, with a variety of songs being aired. I could hear some sort of noise emanating from the Hammersmith End – where Britt and Chris were watching – but I couldn’t decipher it. I never heard once their usual “We are Fulham, fcuk Chelsea” song once.

On the half-hour, with frustrations rising, the ball was played square to David Luiz, some thirty-five yards out. Many fans behind me simultaneously yelled “shoooooot!” and I am sure this was mirrored in bars all over the world. Luiz touched the ball once, it sat up for him, and he unleashed a curling, dipping, thunderbolt which crashed into Mark Schwarzer’s goal.

Oh boy.

What a cracker. Schwarzer was beaten before he could move.

The Chelsea end roared.

In truth, the goal had come against the run of play. Until then, we had looked disjointed.

Just after, Emanuelsen had the ball under his spell, looked up and painstakingly aimed a shot at the far post. I was right behind the path of the ball and expected a goal. From the middle of the six yard box, Petr Cech stretched low and touched the ball out for a corner. It was a phenomenal save. Just after, a lovely flowing move out from defence found Torres in space and in the inside-right channel. His shot was crashed over and we sighed.

A shot from Berbatov went wide, a Lampard free-kick went close. Just before the break, the previously quiet Juan Mata floated a cross towards the far post and John Terry, making a great blind run, was able to rise and head home. How he celebrated that one.

With us 2-0 up, we were able to breath a massive sigh of relief. A Ruiz penalty claim was waved away by Mike Dean. We had ridden our luck, but the two goal cushion meant there were smiles at half-time.

Soon into the second-half, with the pressure seemingly off, we were able to relax and sing. The Putney End, which seems to have excellent acoustics, was rocking to a fantastic foot stomping and hand clapping rendition of a song from Munich.

“We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe.”

The place was rocking. What noise.

To be honest, despite the awful anniversary, this was turning into a just magnificent evening down by the banks of the Thames. The jokes were coming thick and fast between Alan, Gary and myself, the boys were winning 2-0 and the Chelsea fans all around me were turning in the best vocal performance of the season.

The majority of Chelsea’s play seemed to be coming down our right flank, with Torres putting in a great night’s performance, full of energy and application. I was able to capture a lot of Hazard’s dribbles on film. The team were creating more chances and the fans were responding. A great Torres cross almost resulted in a goal, but Mata was unable to connect.

A Moses curler forced a fine save from Schwarzer. From the corner, Torres flicked on Mata’s delivery and John Terry made sure, heading it in from beneath the bar. The Chelsea fans in the Putney End believed that Nando had scored and so soon serenaded him. John Terry smiled at us and pointed towards Torres, while Torres dismissively waved away the adulation. Texts soon confirmed that it was JT’s goal.

Whatever.

Fulham 0 Chelsea 3.

Time for more song.

“Amsterdam, Amsterdam – we are coming.
Amsterdam, Amsterdam I pray.
Amsterdam, Amsterdam – we are coming.
We are coming in the month of May.”

Towards the end of the game, the Chelsea fans began looking ahead towards Sunday and our game at Anfield by warming up with a smattering of Liverpool songs. This was almost Mourinho-esque…with games won, he would often change the focus, ask players to conserve energy and start to think about the next challenge. Alas there is no Anfield for me on Sunday but I am not disappointed. With all of the noise about Benitez which will undoubtedly dominate the day, I am happy missing it.

There was a cooling wind coming off the Thames as I hurriedly walked back through Bishop’s Park. The lights alongside the river created flickering reflections on the water. It was a lovely scene. The Chelsea fans were still in good voice. The Fulham fans, who must have been taking part in an odd oath of silence since half-time, were unable to be heard.

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