Tales From The United Colours Of Football

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 April 2019.

There was definitely a different vibe going into the away game at Old Trafford compared to the match at Anfield a fortnight earlier. For the Liverpool game, it was all about damage limitation. With hindsight, a draw was a rather fanciful hope. Along with Manchester City, Liverpool have been head and shoulders ahead of the pack this season. A loss against Klopp’s team was almost inevitable. But an away game against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s miss-firing team was an entirely different proposition. Due to our lack of potency in front of goal, I was still pragmatic / pessimistic (delete where appropriate) about us scoring, so my prediction was a 0-0 draw. But this was a result that was far more difficult to call. On the drive up in the car – I won’t bore everyone into the early stages of rigor mortis, our drive up to Manchester United takes the same form as always – I explained my thoughts to P Diddy and L Parky.

“Hey, this could be a game where we play well and lose, or it could be a game where we play crap and win. We could lose three-nil or we could win three-nil.”

This was a familiar drive north indeed.

I was parked up at the usual place, a twenty-minute walk away from the famous crossroads on the Chester Road, where the match day experience at Old Trafford starts to crackle and to ignite. “The Bishop Blaize” pub, the row of take-aways, the Red Devils and Lou Macari fish and chip shops, the coming together of United fans from all parts of the city, the north-west, the United Kingdom, Europe and the world, the “Trafford” pub, the lights of the Lancashire Cricket Ground, the fanzine sellers, the off-licences, the match-day routines.

As I looked over at the “Trafford” pub, I was reminded of a few scenes set in and around Old Trafford during the film “Charlie Bubbles” that featured the recently departed actor Albert Finney – a local boy made good both in this film and in real life – and I remembered that the mock Tudor beams, still visible in 2019, were able to be spotted in the film too.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfFTeiV_ti4

This piece of film is from a match day in October 1966, and depicts the walk to Old Trafford – along what is now Sir Matt Busby Way – that Finney and his son took, ending up with a walk across the forecourt. The three of us were taking this exact same route in 2019. There is something warming about that. That the match featured fleetingly in the film was our away game at Old Trafford makes the clip even more poignant.

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I am adamant that Albert Finney was on the pitch before a United vs. Chelsea game in relatively recent times. Maybe the 2-2 FA Cup game a few seasons ago.

This would be my twenty-fourth away game at Old Trafford with Chelsea. That’s one more than the twenty-three that I have made with Chelsea to Anfield. But there have been two FA Cup semi-final visits too, against Liverpool in 2006 and Blackburn Rovers in 2007. On both of these occasions, we were in the Stretford End, mirroring the location of our support in the 1970 FA Cup Final replay. It is not known which end was Chelsea in the Khaki Cup Final of 1915.

2007 A

For the 2006 game, with Chelsea looking likely to dominate English football for a while, we produced stickers which were applied with liberal abandon on anything that we could find.

2006 A

I always rate the London derby with Tottenham as the biggest home game of the season, but I make our annual trip to Old Trafford as our biggest away game.

We have certainly had some history in this famous old stadium, certainly 1915 and 1970, but in recent years too.

Here are some moments from the previous ten league visits.

2008/09

Five minutes later I was on the forecourt, scene of much ‘naughtiness’ in days of yore. The new ‘United Trinity’ statue of Best / Law / Charlton was the new focal point. It’s a splendid statue actually, facing the one of Matt Busby, beneath the Manchester United sign on the East Stand. As I took a couple of photos, I noted one middle-aged bloke say ‘who is the bald one?’ I had great pleasure in answering him.

2009/10

And then it happened. A through ball from Kalou, the other sub, and Drogba was offside…but no flag…

”Go on my son.”

Drogba slammed the ball towards Van der Sar and the net rippled. Is there a more beautiful sight in football? That was it. We exploded. I screamed, then jumped up onto my seat and ended up in the row in front. Gary ended up two rows in front. I screamed and shouted “it was offside, it was offside – you beauty!”

The consensus was that, yes, Didi was offside, but we couldn’t care.

2010/11

I texted a curt “well done” to four United friends from back home at the final whistle and I was soon out on the forecourt, battling the gentle slope and the crowing United fans alike. Parky had been delayed in his exit; he had said that two United fans – not from England – had somehow got tickets in the away seats and had unzipped their jackets at the end of the game to reveal red shirts. A punch in the face from an enraged Chelsea fan was the response.

Not big, not clever, but totally understandable.

2011/12

A few years back, you would see banners which said “Exeter Reds”, “Devon Reds”, “Dublin Reds” and “Malta Reds” at away games. Today, it seems that you are now more likely to see “Urmston Reds”, “Salford Reds”, Sale Reds and “Clayton Reds.” It’s as if they are reclaiming Mancunia as their own. There always used to be a certain amount of “niggle” among local United fans and their fans from elsewhere in the UK. This is certainly true of Liverpool, too. There is a notion that out-of-town United fans are the glory hunters, forever besmirching the name of Manchester United. It was United who invented the derogatory nickname “day-trippers” which described the out-of-towners arriving en masse at Old Trafford, buying United paraphernalia and not really “getting” what United is about.

2012/13

Inside Old Trafford, we took our seats in row 24, in the side section where the 500 or so away season-ticket holders were allocated. There were familiar faces everywhere. Sadly, I soon spotted a section of around four-hundred seats in the away section which had not been sold. I have never known us not to sell our three thousand seats at Old Trafford ever before. It made me angry.

“The fcuking seats are fcuking red.
The fcuking fans are home instead.
The fcuking seats are full of air.
The fcuking seats are fcuking spare.”

2013/14

It didn’t take long for me to find my gaze centered on the twin figures of Jose Mourinho and David Moyes. Not long into the game, we sung Jose’s name and he flapped a quick wave of acknowledgement. A torrent of abuse from the Stretford End – “Fuck Off Mourinho” – was met by a wave too. Mourinho, hands in pockets, relaxed, was clearly revelling in the moment. He was on centre-stage at Old Trafford, enjoying the limelight, loving the drama. Moyes, in comparison, looked stiff and awkward. It can’t be easy for Moyes to have to face the mammoth north stand, with fifteen feet high letters denoting Sir Alex Ferguson, at every home game. I noted that Mourinho chose to wear a neat grey pullover with his Hackett suit; a style much favoured by Roberto di Matteo last season. The urbane Mourinho, like so many Europeans, can carry off the pullover and suit combination, but I often think that Englishmen wearing the same seem to resemble sweaty librarians or train spotters with personal hygiene deficiencies. Just think Sam Allardyce.

2014/15

Hazard was clean in on goal, but De Gea was able to save. The Chelsea choir looked away disconsolately, but roared the team on as a corner was rewarded. I held my camera still and waited for the ball to reach the box. In a flash, I saw Didier Drogba leap, virtually untroubled, at the near post. I clicked. The ball crashed into the net and the three-thousand Chelsea fans in the south-east corner screamed in ecstasy. I was knocked sideways, then backwards and I clung on to the chap next to me, not wanting to fall back and injure myself. If the goal was a virtual carbon copy of Didier’s leap and header in Munich, then so too were the celebrations. This time, though, I managed to keep hold of my glasses. The scenes were of pandemonium; away goals in big games are celebrated like no other. I steadied myself just in time to witness Didier and his team mates celebrating wildly in front of us. Euphoria.

I had one thought : “Munichesque.”

2015/16

We were simply over-run and out-paced and out-played. From Alan’s seemingly reassuring words about a rather reasonable start, it seemed that all of that pent-up angst and anger about their inability to play expansive and thrilling football in “the United way” was being unleashed, and for my eyes especially. Ivanovic, so often the culprit in this car-crash of a football season – but seemingly improved of late – was back to his infuriating form of August and September, allowing Anthony Martial a ridiculous amount of space, then seemed unwilling to challenge. Martial struck a low shot against Courtois’ near post and we watched as it spun across the six-yard box. Thankfully there were no United attackers in the vicinity. The home team continued to dominate, and Rooney shot from distance. Chelsea’s attacking presence was sadly lacking. Our breaks soon petered out. I wondered how on Earth John Terry had forced a save from De Gea while I was still outside in the Manchester night.

2016/17

I soon thought about the two men in charge of the respective teams. Compared to the sour-faced Mourinho – with that dismissive smirk never far away these days – our manager is a picture of positivity and light. Indeed, with Mourinho – totally unlovable at United – now ensconced at Old Trafford, I could not help come to a quick conclusion about our former boss.

He was looking for a job, and then he found a job, and heaven knows he’s miserable now.

2017/18

Beyond “The Bishop Blaize” pub, and hovering over the red brick terraced houses of Stretford were the glistening silver-grey roof supports of Old Trafford, and it took my breath away. Yes, I have seen it all before, but the sunlight made the cold steel so much sharper and it just looked other-worldly. We turned left at the gaggle of chip shops and onto Sir Matt Busby Way. It is such an inconspicuous approach to one of the world’s foremost football stadia.

“United We Stand. New issue. Out today.”

“Yer matchday scarf. Ten pound yer matchday scarf.”

Burgers with onions, burgers without, the noise of a match day, grafters, those old red, white and black bar scarves, selfies in front of the stadium, the Munich Clock, hot dogs, programme sellers, winter jackets, red and white United ski-hats, the Holy Trinity statue, scarves, the megastore, three policemen keeping an eye on things from their raised platform by the executive car park, accents from Ireland, fanzines, the well-heeled making their way to the corporate lounges, the guttural shout of “Red Army”, foreign accents, northern faces, northern scowls, North Face jackets, the occasional dash of blue.

Back to 2018/19…

On this day, thoughts were not only concerned with our game at Old Trafford. I was keeping a close watch on the City game at Burnley. Thank God for Sergio Aguero’s single strike. It was just what I wanted to see. Arsenal, meanwhile, were beating Spurs at their own game, contriving to lose 3-0 at Leicester City. This was opening up ever-so nicely for us. A loss for Tottenham on Saturday, a loss for Arsenal on Sunday. A win – a possibility – at Old Trafford would surely make us favourites for a top four finish.

Perfect.

While Parky and PD made their way in to the stadium, topping up the three pints they enjoyed at a pub just off the M6 an hour earlier, I had my usual walk around the forecourt. There was an image of Juan Mata high above the statue of Sir Matt Busby. I still fidget nervously when I see him in United red.

The entrance to the away turnstiles was now cordoned off with a barrier of solid United red separating us from the home fans. It was not too dissimilar to those red, white and black United bar scarves from the ‘seventies.

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A quick security pat down – no cameras at Old Trafford these days, my phone would have to suffice – and I was in. Up into the crowded bar, I had one thought on my mind.

“Is City still 1-0?”

“Yep.”

“Good, good.”

It was clear that we had a full house of three-thousand away fans. There were no gaps. There was no need for a 2013-style John Cooper Clarke rage about unused seats.

I bumped into Harry and Paul, both living in Yorkshire now, and there was a slight worry that Burnley had equalised. There is a photograph of myself on the internet with them, with my smile as broad as a Cheshire cat, as I had just heard that City had indeed managed to hold on to a narrow 1-0 win.

One away club regular was sadly missing. There was no Alan alongside Parky, Gal and myself. I soon texted him a “get well soon.”

The team was announced earlier, of course, and I was surprised that Eden Hazard was not being deployed as a false nine.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Willian – Higuain – Hazard

United’s team included the three former blues; Juan, Nemanja and Romelu.

Everywhere filled up. It was to be another massive attendance at Old Trafford. But things were subdued. These must be testing times for the United faithful; a false-down under the new manager perhaps, and that awful sense of betrayal, wanting City to win every game they play.

Oh well. Fuck’em.

The teams came onto the pitch from the corner and it was the first time that I have seen United this season in their black shorts. They opted for the more traditional white ones at both home games. It doesn’t look right. I have no idea why United took the decision to change it. Chit chat about kits came to the fore in recent days. There was a leaked image – as yet unconfirmed – of a truly horrific kit for Chelsea next season. I am sure everyone has seen it. It’s garbage. But it got a few of us thinking. Going into the fiftieth anniversary of the iconic 1970 FA Cup win at Old Trafford, it would be nice to honour that occasion with a one-season only kit of royal blue with yellow trim, including yellow socks.

1970 is, after all, the catalyst for many of us.

But, here is the thing. I bet that there was not one single mention of the fiftieth anniversary of that tumultuous win against Leeds United in any of the brainstorming sessions at Nike over the past few months.

Anyway.

Khaki. Black shorts. Yellow socks.

It was time for the united colours of football in 2019 to get us all excited.

United – a blurring of red and black,

Chelsea – royal blue and white.

The game began.

First thoughts? Their side is huge. Our midfield is tiny. And United got off to a flier. Lukaku looked ready to run past a stagnant defence but Rudiger recovered to challenge and Kepa saved well. It seemed to be all United. They carved open a chance on eleven minutes, with Lukaku again involved. His dink towards Luke Shaw always looked like causing us trouble. His pass across the box was slammed home. Only when I was returning home a few hours later did I learn that it was scored by Juan Mata, on his birthday too. My eyes, I am sure, would have dropped to the floor immediately after the goal had rippled the Stretford End goal nets. The song that kept going for ages and ages at our FA Cup game in January – which I had not heard, really, at that juncture – was repeated.

“Ole’s at the wheel.

Tell me how good does it feel?

We’ve got Sanchez and Pogba and Fred.

Marcus Rashford – he’s manc born and bred.

Duh du, du du du du du

Duh du, du du du du du

The greatest of English football.

We’ve won it all.”

Fackinell.

The noise coming from the Chelsea section was good, though. We always raise our game at Old Trafford. The team, slowly, tried to get a foothold in the match. As ever, it was the tireless energy of N’Golo Kante and the ability to spin out of danger of Eden Hazard which were our main positives. A foul on Hazard resulted in a Willian free-kick but the chance was wasted. We had more of the ball, but could not do a great deal with it. We howled with displeasure when Hazard played the ball out to Gonzalo Higuain out on the right wing, with the entire pitch in his sight, but he was offside.

“Fucksake.”

I looked down at my feet again.

We attempted a few long-range efforts and a few half-chances came and went. But De Gea was untested. After a shaky start, with a few silly and mistimed tackles, Dave was warming to the task in hand. He stayed limpet-like close to opponents as many United attackers tested him. Alonso was putting in a good shift on the other flank, too. As the game developed, I could not help but think that this was a sub-par game in terms of quality, especially compared to some of the other mighty tussles between the two teams in this part of Manchester over the past twenty years.

A lot is made of modern football and the atmosphere getting worse and worse with every season. I have made that point on numerous occasions. Here was a case in point. Over seventy-thousand United fans, yet only a section in the far corner of our stand were really bothering. Nothing at all from the side stands, nor – awful this, really – from the Stretford End, which, by now, is a pale shadow of its former self. It is United’s “home end” in name only.

There was the singing-by numbers chant from us – “Just like London, your city is blue” – but that didn’t get much of a reaction.

They didn’t like this one though :

“Just like the Scousers, you live in the past.”

This riled them up a bit, and for a few moments, the noise was electric as three thousand away fans shouted “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” to the United fans above us. This was bloody fantastic. Both sets of fans going for it.

It was – briefly, so briefly – life-affirming stuff.

Passionate, loud, venomous.

“Come on Chelsea.”

Gary, meanwhile, had a new twist.

“Just like the Scousers, you live in Norway.”

Surprisingly, United didn’t take the game to us. Only a few efforts rained in on our goal. It was a humdrum game being played under light clouds. The hot weather of the previous weekend was nowhere to be seen. It was a day for jackets and jeans. The referee Martin Atkinson was not reacting to many rugged United tackles. The noise levels in our section were raised at every such occasion. Higuain was offside again.

A look to the skies this time.

With not much time remaining in a poor half, the ball bounced out to Rudiger, some thirty-five yards out. His body shape quickly cheered me.

I screamed “hit it.”

He hit it alright. The ball kept low and De Gea could only clumsily parry it. The ball bounced out to Alonso, who touched the ball past the clumsy United ‘keeper. We watched as it agonisingly bounced in off the far post.

We went fucking doolally.

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My name is Chris Axon and I am a goal addict.

It was just a perfect time to score. Tim, Julie, Brian and Kev – the oft-mentioned “Bristol lot” – were stood behind us, and had parked-up near the cricket ground. They ended up watching the last few overs of the Lancashire vs. Leicestershire game (they got in for free, not sure how that works, county cricket is an odd affair) and I had to make a comment about De Gea.

“If he was playing cricket, you wouldn’t put him in the slips, would you?”

I sensed that we had taken the wind out of United’s sails. We hoped for just one more Chelsea goal as the referee signalled the start of the second period.

We bossed the opening moments. Even Mateo Kovacic, poor in the first period, looked a better player. Kepa was rarely forced into action. There were bookings for Willian and Kovacic. But then a rash challenge on a United player by Kovacic made me wonder if Sarri would take him off.

“He’s lucky to stay on, Gal.”

But then Rudiger went down, and it was Christensen who came on.

Although the second-half was a much better performance – we honestly dominated, easily – it was also a frustrating one. Higuain was offside three or four more times. He was having a ‘mare. There was one moment, soon into the second-half when he broke over the half-way line, but it looked like he was running in treacle. Hazard was twisting and turning and getting into good positions, but how we missed a late-arriving midfielder – no names, no pack drill – to finish it all off. Too often the ball ended up at the feet of Kante or Willian, both who seemed shot shy.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek came on for Kovacic. But his first few touches were heavy. His shot, later in the game, cleared the Stretford End crossbar by an embarrassing amount. Pedro then replaced Willian. We still controlled most of the ball. Pedro shot wildly over too. But United had the best chance for the winner. Thankfully, Pedro was ideally placed on the goal-line – shades of Ashley Cole in Naples – to head away an effort from Rojo.

The referee signalled a ludicrous seven extra minutes. There was still time for Higuain to fluff his lines at the death.

I looked down at my trainers one last time.

At the final whistle, there was a massive cheer from the away end. It was a priceless point.

The natives were quiet on the walk over the forecourt and onto Sir Matt Busby Way. A few gobby United fans – no more than two or three – were doing their level best to antagonise the Chelsea fans walking cheek by jowl alongside. I heard one Chelsea fan whisper “stick together” but it never really looked like kicking-off. Parky, PD and little old me kept silent.

In the end, the two United youths threw a couple of wayward punches and were soon smothered by a few policemen.

Out on the Chester Road, the United fans were very subdued.

We made a very clean and quick getaway.

“Job done boys, job done.”

On the long drive home, both PD and Parky caught some sleep, no doubt dreaming of German beer and German food ahead of their trip to Eintracht Frankfurt on Wednesday. I am sure I saw them dribbling.

As for me, my next one is on Sunday against Watford.

See you there.

Tales From Pure Football

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 20 February 2018.

There is no bloody doubt about it. I simply cannot lie. When I awoke at just before 5am, my first thoughts were of the game against Barcelona, but these were not positive thoughts. I was so worried that our Chelsea – living up to my nickname of The Great Unpredictables this season – might suffer a calamitous humiliation at the hands of Messi, Iniesta, Suarez et al. Let us face the truth; Barcelona are a hugely talented football team.

“I’ll be happy with a 0-0” I told colleagues at work.

As the day progressed, this was my mantra; keep the buggers from scoring an away goal. Keep it tight. Maybe, just maybe, nab a 2012-style 1-0 win.

Ah, 2012.

That game seems so fresh in my mind, but it is almost six years ago. And there have been so many more. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen all our Champions League matches against the Cules from Catalonia at Stamford Bridge.

Let’s wander down memory lane.

5 April 2000 : This was a fine Chelsea team, but we were under performing in the league, and would go on to finish fifth. In the pub beforehand – in the front part of The Goose for a change, I can remember it to this day – we were pragmatic at best and pessimistic at worst. We seriously doubted our progress over the two legs of this quarter final. But what did we know? We stormed into a stunning 3-0 lead with all goals in an eight-minute spell during the first-half.  I remember racing up the steps behind my seat when the third one went in to expel some energy. Two came from from Tore Andre Flo and one from Gianfranco Zola. A goal from Luis Figo midway through the second-half took the smile off our collective faces. Fackinell, Chelsea. But what a night. The atmosphere crackled all night long. Superb.

8 March 2005 : We were 2-1 down from the first-leg and this was as good a game as any I have witnessed in forty-four years of Chelsea games. We repeated the feat of 2000, accelerating away to a 3-0 lead, but such was our dominance that all goals came in the first twenty-minutes. Stamford Bridge was again shaking thanks to goals from Eidur Gudjohnsen, Frank Lampard and Damian Duff. And then the game turned against us. A Ronaldinho brace – a penalty and then that gut-wrenching toe-poke – before the break meant it was advantage Barca. We roared the team on. A towering John Terry header from a corner (pictured) gave us the win and the place erupted. There have been few nights at Chelsea like that one.

22 February 2006 : The two clubs were drawn together in the knock-out phase, and this game was a tetchy affair. This was our first viewing of Lionel Messi – just eighteen – and the Argentine’s scuffle with Asier del Horno over in the corner of the Matthew Harding and the East Stand resulted in our full-back getting sent-off early in the game. But we re-grouped well and went ahead when Thiago Motta headed an own-goal from a Frank Lampard free-kick (pictured). Sadly, this was cancelled out by a John Terry own goal. Samuel Eto’o then headed a late winner. In the return leg in Catalonia, the two teams drew 1-1 and out we went.

18 October 2006 : We were becoming regular foes by now. This time, the two teams met in the autumnal group phase set of matches. A stunning solitary Didier Drogba goal gave us a narrow 1-0 win, and our striker celebrated in fine fashion down below us (pictured). After injuries to both Petr Cech and Carlo Cudicini at Reading four days earlier, this was a game in which Hilario started. To be fair to him, he pulled off a few great saves to see us hang on to the win.

6 May 2009 : We held out for a gutsy 0-0 in the first leg of the semi-final at Camp Nou, and travel plans were afoot among our little group of friends in the pub before the game. It felt like we were favourites to progress. We took the lead through a stunning Michael Essien volley after just ten minutes into the first-half. We held off Barcelona and their constant probing with a fantastic performance. Then came calls of conspiracy after penalty appeal after penalty appeal were turned down. The referee waving away the hand-ball against Gerard Pique sent me into meltdown. Barcelona were reduced to ten men with Eric Abidal sent-off for a clumsy challenge on Nicolas Anelka. We were heading to our second successive Champions League Final against Manchester United, this time in Rome. And then Andres bloody Iniesta scored with virtually their only shot on target with seconds remaining. This was heartbreak. Gut-wrenching, nauseous, sickening heartbreak. It felt like we would never ever win the Champions League.

18 April 2012 : Another heady night at Stamford Bridge. This was turning out to be the most bizarre of seasons, with us faltering in the league under Ande Villas-Boas before finding our feet under new gaffer Roberto di Matteo. But this was still a stunning Barcelona team, and our squad seemed to be aging together. We were blowing hot and cold. I held out little hope of us reaching the final if I am truthful. In another never-to-be-forgotten night at Stamford Bridge, Didier Drogba swept in a cross from Ramires at the near post just before half-time and the stadium exploded. We held on for the narrowest of wins, and with the return leg in Barcelona less than a week away, we began to dream.

In a bar before the game, there was a typical mix of Chelsea faces from near and far. The usual suspects – Parky, PD, Daryl, Chris, Simon, Calvin, Milo, Ed, Duncan, Lol – were gathered around one table. Andy and Antony from California were back from their mini-tour of Europe and were joined by Sean from New York and Steve from Dallas. Friends from near and far. A spare ticket was given a good home. The banter was rife. After a good hour or so, Andy whispered in my ear :

“You realise that nobody is talking about the match?”

I smiled.

As I have said before : “the first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.”

There was simply too much other stuff to talk about, especially how many we would take to the away leg in three weeks. I had expected a sell-out of 4,850 but sales had allegedly been slower than expected. Maybe some supporters were waiting to see how the first-leg would pan out. In 2012, we took that number, but it was a semi-final. As ever, I regarded the away game as a test for us, a test to see how far we had come as a club.

By the way, the cynical me had a little thought for the millions of new Chelsea fans the world over who chose us primarily because our club could “guarantee” – probably their words and not mine – them Champions League football each season.

“This game’s for you.”

The bar was full for this game. Stood quietly at the bar for a while was former player Alan Hudson. A fine footballer for us in the early ‘seventies, he rarely finds anything good to say about us these days. I nodded a “hello” to him which he reciprocated, but that was about it. Most fellow fans were blissfully unaware who he was, or were going down the same path as myself. I remember seeing him in a pub in Stoke around ten years ago. To be fair to him, after a spell of ill health, at least he looked healthier than the last time I saw him.

There were groans of discontent when news of the starting eleven came through on mobile phones.

“No centre forward, fackinell.”

It was indeed a surprise.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

Sadly, Mike from New York was caught up in a personal battle to secure match tickets and was unable to join us. Andy was worried since whenever Andy and Mike meet up for a game, we always win.

I was inside the stadium with a good twenty minutes to go. I need not have worried about not seeing Mike from NYC; he was sat just ten feet away from me.

The away section would fill to only around two thousand, which was a huge surprise for arguably a club which are one of the biggest three clubs in the world. They usually bring three thousand, no questions asked. There seemed to be an absence of colour this time around too. Maybe the scarves and shirts were hidden under the darker coats and jackets. Not so many puffa coats as the Italians. Only a few flags on show. The stadium filled.

There were blue flags on every seat with blue and white bar scarves for those in the East Middle; nice to see the eight Chelsea Pensioners wearing them.

Red. White. Blue.

“Blue Is The Colour” played with ten minutes to go and the flags were waved…not by me, nor too many around me for that matter. The highest percentage of flag wavers were in the West Lower, maybe due to the dynamics of the demographic of that particular sub-section of support; a higher percentage of young’uns, a higher percentage of tourists, but a far lower percentage of cynical bastards like us in the MHU.

The teams entered the pitch.

In 2012, Cesc and Pedro were among the opposition.

Now we had to contend with Suarez, Rakitic, Ter Stegen, Umtiti, Roberto, Alba and Paulinho who were first time visitors to Stamford Bridge. Messi, Busquets, Iniesta and Pique were returning to SW6 once more.

Barcelona were in an untidy camouflage kit of burgundy. At least there was no bright yellow to remind me of 2009. I noted Lionel Messi and Eden Hazard embrace and maybe share a word.

“You stay here, Eden. Real Madrid are SHITE.”

The game began.

I snapped away like a fool as the game began but soon realised that I needed to slow down, and enjoy the football. The first few minutes were very promising for us, and the atmosphere was equally fine.

“ANTONIO” rang out and the manager showed his appreciation.

After a few minutes, Eden Hazard let fly with a rasping and rising shot which certainly energised the crowd. The noise was hitting fine levels. There were songs for Frank Lampard and John Terry; see my comments for the Hull City match. In the early period, it was Iniesta who was seeing more of the ball, and I wished that we could close him down. Rudiger went close with a header from a corner. This was a very bright start from us and I could not be happier. At the other end, Paulinho headed meekly wide from a Messi cross.

Ah, Lionel. I could not help but focus on the little man. His shirt seemed too large for him, and he shuffled around when not in possession, but I could not take my eyes off him.

After twenty minutes though, Barca had recovered and were now enjoying much of the ball. But there was resolute defending from everyone in royal blue. Messi was unable to find Suarez, nor anyone else. Willian burst from deep – the crowd roaring him on – before getting clipped. Alonso for once did not score from the centrally-located free-kick. This was fascinating stuff and I was loving it.

I popped down to have a quick word with Big John who sits a few rows in front of me. I told him that I had a bet on how long it would take him to shout :

“Come on Chelsea. They’re fucking shit.”

Alan was handing out the Maynards wine gums – always a lucky charm on these European Nights – and he was wearing his lucky Ossie badge on The King’s birthday. We had a fine spell of play on the half-hour and the crowd responded well. Hazard found Willian, who moved the ball on to his right foot and unleashed a gorgeous effort which slammed against a Barcelona post.

Head in our hands time.

But this was a lovely game and a pleasure to witness.

On forty minutes, the crowd sang “The Shed looked up and they saw a great star” – God Bless you, Ossie – and as the song continued, Willian struck the other post with another venomous effort.

Fackinell.

The support was now hitting the high volumes.

“Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.”

In the pub, Calvin and I had warned Texas Steve that the atmosphere at The Bridge is poor these days, but there are always games when we can rank with the best of them. Over in the far corner, the Cules were quiet. A Fabregas free-kick was cleared and Hazard volleyed over. We were playing so well – as a team – and I was so relieved. All this talk of the manager losing the dressing room and of players “downing tools” – my most hated, my most reviled phrase of the past two seasons – seemed just silly and just wrong.

The half-time whistle blew. Alan, quite correctly, noted that no trainer had been on the pitch, there had been few bad tackles, so that the assistant linesman had not signaled a single minute of added time. I think I have never seen that before. This was testament itself to the quality of football being played before our eyes.

Pure football.

And I bloody loved it.

Fine vibes at half-time. We should, undoubtedly, been ahead. Fantastic.

Soon into the second period, that man Andres Iniesta let fly from around the same patch of terra firma that produced heartache in 2009. The shot flew wide.

“Not this time sunshine, not this time.”

Luis Suarez – booed, of course – then went wide and forced a finger-tipped save on the floor from Courtois. It was a miracle that nobody was present in the six-yard box to pounce. The away team were enjoying tons of the ball but our defending was still a match for the trickery of Messi and the intelligence of Iniesta. N’Golo Kante was having a particularly fine game, and top marks for Antonio Rudiger too, who was enjoying a storming match.

Suarez – the villain for this match and many more – was the subject of a loud personal attack from the home support.

“Suarez – you’re a cunt.”

Quite.

The game continued.

There was half an hour remaining when Hazard, out wide, picked out the central Willian. He stopped the ball still. He then flashed away from his marker – such ridiculous acceleration – and thumped the ball low into the net.

Pandemonium in Stamford Bridge.

Magical, magical scenes.

Alan : “Hauran d’arribar a nosaltres ara.”

Chris : “Vine als meus petits diamants.”

Oh my oh my. The Great Unpredictables were at it again.

Now the noise really got going. I stood and roared. “Carefree wherever you may be we are the famous CFC.” This was surely the loudest so far this season. Fantastic.

“He hates Totnum and he hates Totnum.”

On the game went. Barcelona with the ball, Chelsea covering space and defending. A lot of their attacks were at virtually walking pace; it was all about moving the ball early. When they lost possession, they hunted in packs to retain it. I remember a ball being pushed into the path of Eden with four Barcelona players haring after him. Quite an image.

Sadly, with a quarter of an hour to go, a Chelsea defender deep in Parkyville chose to play the ball across the box.  We gasped. We feared the worse. It reached Iniesta. He played it back to Messi. The ball was slammed low into our goal.

Chelsea 1 Barcelona 1.

Bollocks.

Messi looked ecstatic and celebrated wildly in front of the hordes from Sabadell, Sant Cugat del Valles, Montcada I Reixach, Cornella de Llobregat and Vilassar de Dalt.

All the Chelsea nerds deleted their “Messi still hasn’t scored against Chelsea” memes.

There was a quick most mortem.

“Who played the ball across the box?”

“Dunno. Alonso?”

“Schoolboy error, fucking hell.”

The away support were still not too loud, but their upper tier was one bouncing mass.

A text from Glenn in Frome :

“Christensen FFS.”

Ugh.

Alvaro Morata came on for Pedro. Danny Drinkwater replaced Cesc Fabregas.

Unlike in 2009, thank high heavens there was no last minute heartache from Iniesta, nor anyone else. The assistant referee signaled three minutes, and these passed with no incident. This was indeed a lovely game of football. We had gone toe-to-toe with one of the finest teams of the modern era and we  – let’s again be honest – surely deserved the win. For all their possession, Barca had hardly caused Thibaut any worries. There was that daisy-cutter from Suarez, but little else. He had claimed a few high crosses, but had not been really tested. Willian had enjoyed a wonderful match, and on another day could have returned to his flat with the match ball. Every player had performed so well. Huge respect to the manager too. I hope Roman, watching from his box, took heed.

We assemble again, deep in Catalonia, and high at the Nou Camp, in three weeks.

“Anem a trebellar.”

Tales From Tinsel Town

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 24 May 2015.

This was it, then. The last game of the season. To be truthful, it was a game in name only. With the league already won, the day was all about one particular moment which would happen at around 5.15pm.

The sun glinting off the Premier League trophy as John Terry lifts it high above his shoulders.

In fact, there was a part of me that wanted to fast forward through the actual match in order to just reach that point. Sure, there would be friends to meet and memories of the season to share along the way, but I just wanted to see the trophy back in SW6.

Best not to wish my time away though. Surely it would be best to relax and enjoy the day as it unfolded before me. That was the plan.

However, it was perhaps inevitable in this most difficult of seasons for myself, what with the recent loss of my mother overshadowing almost everything, that even this most potentially joyous of all days should be tinged with sadness.

On Wednesday, we sadly learned that one of the Bristol group, Clive, had sadly passed away. Although Clive was not in my immediate circle of close Chelsea friends, he was one of the many acquaintances that I have enjoyed talking to over the years, whether it was in The Goose or at any home or away game. That Clive lived in Bristol, relatively close to me in the West Country, meant that there was an empathy with him. He was a fine man, a very loyal Chelsea supporter and, for the want of a better phrase, one of the undoubted “good guys.” He has featured in these tales over the years as one of the un-named members of “the Bristol boys” and, to be honest, his unexpected passing hit me for six. Although the Chelsea family has lost a few well known supporters of late, Clive was the only one that I can honestly say that I knew. That he passed away on 19 May is an irony that was not lost on any of his close Chelsea friends. In the packed beer garden of “The Goose”, I had a quiet few words – a difficult few words – with Clive’s sons Kelvin and Rich. We raised a glass to their father and to my mother.

I had travelled up from the West Country for the final league game of the season with Southern Parky and Northern Dean. At the Chelsea hotel, The Copthorne, we had joined forces with a few good friends from the United States – Kathryn and Tim from DC, Tom from Los Angeles – and had met a first time visitor to Stamford Bridge, Jim, also from the DC area, too. Jim was over with his son CJ, and was supremely happy that I had managed to sort out a spare match ticket for him. On the way to “The Goose” we had stopped off at a ridiculously quiet “Malt House” for a pint and a chat about all things Chelsea. In “The Goose” the atmosphere was predictably boisterous.  The beer garden was rammed. Burger, Julie and Andy, veterans of many a Chelsea US tour, joined the celebrations. It was lovely.

The sun was shining and the championship was ours.

The beer tasted even better than usual. It was perfect, just perfect.

Sadly, we left the pub just a little too late for my liking. There was a typical melee at the turnstiles and I sadly missed the pre game presentation to the crowd of several members of the 2004/2005 championship squad. Alan, who was in early, was able to tell me that even William Gallas, probably the only ex-Chelsea player of recent memory who has received a tough time during his subsequent outings against us, was on show.

I was absolutely elated to see Tom alongside Alan. Tom is in his late ‘seventies and his health has not been too good of late. His presence was one of the high points of the day.

I noted that everyone had been given blue card mosaics and a royal blue flag to hold and wave before the teams had entered the pitch. Sadly, that infamous Chelsea tradition of “one last pint” had backfired further. I had missed all of that too.

Balls.

And so to the game.

Ah, the game. Yet again, all of the various pre match chats had managed to avoid the game itself. The first big surprise was that Eden Hazard, rumoured to be out due to the lingering side-effects of a dental operation, was playing. We had learned that this would be Didier Drogba’s last ever game for us and he was playing from the start. Also in was Petr Cech; would this be his last game, too? The back line in front of Big Pete was the standard four of 2014/2015, but Jose Mourinho chose Jon Obi Mikel – maybe his last game too? – alongside Nemanja Matic. The attacking three were Hazard, Willian and Cuadrado.

The traditionalist in me was just happy that the men in suits had not decided for our players to jettison the current playing kit for next season’s. It is always a pet peeve of mine. Dare I mention Moscow?

With the Chelsea support in fine form, I soon texted Jim from DC to see how he was doing.

“I’m in heaven.”

With the sun shining – perfect “Chelsea weather” – we began well and Drogba almost touched home a low Cuadrado cross at the near post. The crowd were vibrant and the party was on.

“We want you to staaaaaay. Petr Cech, we want you to stay.”

Two pieces of action involved our rampaging full-back / winger / battering ram Ivanovic. Firstly he tumbled in the box after a challenge but a penalty was not given and then, with a shot mirroring a similar effort against a recent opponent at home, a blistering drive from distance.

Sadly, despite having the majority of the ball, we conceded on twenty-six minutes. A corner was played in to the box and the ball’s path seemed to confuse and bewilder our entire defence. The ball bounced up,  just missing John Terry’s desperate attempt to intercept, allowing Stephen Fletcher to nod the ball down and in past Cech. To say we were stunned would be an understatement. The Mackems in the opposite corner, relatively quiet until that point, roared after a tantalising split second of silence; I suspected that they could not believe it either.

Bollocks.

Next, came a moment of pure theatre. Mourinho signalled for Diego Costa to replace Didier Drogba. The crowd began applauding our hero of Munich – and of course of many other moments too – but then we became aware of something strange. We saw Cech race out of his box and join the rest of his team mates in hoisting Didier up and carrying him, in a blue-shirted chariot, off the pitch. None of us had witnessed anything like this before. It was partly corny, partly magnificent. Didier turned, waved a palm to the stands, then took off his shirt once his chariot ride had finished. An embrace with Diego and Jose and his Chelsea career was over. I am still in two minds about his return to us, but here was a send off fit for a king. I have pictures of his last seconds as a Chelsea player on the Stamford Bridge pitch in 2012.

The pictures from 2015 seem more appropriate.

“Thanks Didier. You take care mate.”

Just after, Cuadrado tempted John O’Shea to lunge as he offered the ball as a prize. The lunge was ill-timed and the referee Lee Mason was left with no option. A penalty.

Diego Costa calmly stroked the ball in.

Unlike in 2005/2006 when our league campaign, after the title-clincher versus Manchester United, ended with two limp defeats, I was convinced that the 0-3 reverse at The Hawthorns would not be followed with another defeat here. We had, after all, another undefeated home record to defend. And there have been a few.

Sadly Cuadrado, enjoying his best game for us – “not hard” I hear you say – was injured and replaced by Loic Remy just before the break.

At the break, there was an air of disbelief around me when we heard that Stoke City were pummelling Liverpool 5-0. Oh dear, Stephen Gerrard, what a shame,  never mind.

We began the second half well, with Remy looking interested. A rare shot from Gary Cahill took us all by surprise. Willian went close too. Then, forty yards out, Hazard turned on a sixpence and ran in that unfettered way of his at Larsson. He gained a few yards and then played in Remy. The ball was moved sideways, then struck firmly. The shot was not particularly hard, but there was enough on it to evade Vito Mannone. I caught this third goal of the game on film too. The crowd roared again.

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

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

With a win now looking more likely, the crowd toasted Chelsea legends past and present. There was also a wave from the bashful owner in the middle tiers of the West Stand.

We heard that Newcastle United had managed to win and so their presence in the top flight would be assured for another season. Newcastle fans have their detractors ( I wonder what they make of Alan Pardew’s fine spell at Crystal Palace) but the Premier League is not the same without them.

Andreas Christensen replaced Mikel. We were coasting now and a bright line of stewards began to line the pitch as the seconds ticked away. We sealed the win when Remy appeared unmarked at the near post to delicately touch home a low cross from Matic. Another goal – the last of the season – on film, captured for posterity.

At the final whistle, hugs from the players.

Another win.

Job done.

The players returned to the sanctuary of the dressing rooms, and we waited. It seemed to take an eternity to construct the special stage on which the trophy was to be presented. Lucky me; not only would this be at our end of the stadium, unlike in 2005, but the players would be facing my way too. My memory card was full, so I spent a few moments deleting some unworthy photographs.

A fair proportion of the Sunderland fans, to their credit, stayed on to watch the post-game pageantry. With their safety assured only within the past week, perhaps they looked on and took some sort of vicarious pleasure in our superbly choreographed celebrations. In the very first few moments of the match, the away supporters in the lower tier had tossed around – if that is the correct phrase in the circumstances – an inflatable penis.  I couldn’t tell if an image of Mike Ashley’s face was added for good measure.

The wives and girlfriends walked on to a strange fenced-off area on the pitch in front of the West Lower. This gave Alan an easy laugh :

“That’s the John Terry area…”want, want, got, got, want, want, want, got…”

The minutes ticked by but eventually the stage was set. With Neil Barnett at the helm, players were announced, and cheers rang out. Although the Barclay’s corporate colour, and that of the stage and assorted props, is of a lighter blue than we normally see at Stamford Bridge, I was not too concerned.

I was hoping for a splash of red in the procedings, though. The presence of a smattering of Chelsea Pensioner scarlet always adds a sense of history and perspective to these occasions at Chelsea. Alas, the Royal Hospital was not represented.

As Jose Mourinho walked towards the platform, he looked towards Roman Abramovich and gave him a prolonged “thumbs up”and an extra wave.

“Thanks for having me back. Waitrose eggs never tasted better.”

There were extra-special cheers for Cech, Fabregas, Hazard, Drogba and Terry. Our captain, of course, was the last in line.

We waited.

With everything set, with the cameras poised, with 40,000 sets of eyes inside the stadium centered on the huge chunk of silver, with millions watching worldwide, with Kathryn, Tim, Andy and Jim watching too, our captain hoisted the 2014/2015 Barclay’s Premier League trophy high.

From above, royal blue and white tinsel cascaded down. There was tinsel in 2005, in 2006, in 2010 and at all of our Wembley cup wins too. It seems that where ever we go these days, blue and white tinsel is not too far away. Long may it continue. Great plumes of orange flame fired into the air from in front of the East Lower. Everywhere there were smiles. Soon, the players reassembled together for obligatory team photographs.

Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.

And then, Neil Barnett spoke :

“Didier wants a word.”

The crowd hushed as Didier took the microphone.

“I don’t really know what to say…”

He spoke for a minute or so, about his two spells at the club, his thanks to Jose Mourinho, his love of his team mates and of us, the fans. There was also a kind and thoughtful word for Frank Lampard too. It was classy stuff.

I watched, with Dave, Alan, Gary and Tom, as the players walked past us. Their children accompanied them. I took special care in photographing John Terry and Didier Drogba with the trophy. Petr Cech too. Will we see him again in Chelsea orange or yellow or white? Probably not.

The players headed off to The Shed where Parky and others were dutifully waiting. It was a familiar scene this; for the fourth time in my life, the fourth time in eleven seasons, we were parading the championship trophy at The Bridge.

And yet, if I am honest, I was finding it difficult to fully embrace this particular triumph. This has been a tough period of my life. February was the toughest month of all. A lot of my focus over the past three months has been on other far more important matters. The football has been a backdrop to my life rather than the centrepoint. To be blunt, this championship season, running from Burnley in August – game one thousand – through the autumn and in to winter, then out the other side into spring, has been increasingly difficult for me to relate to. If it matters, this one has been the least enjoyable of the four championships that we have won in these past ten years. Yet I am sure that this is no surprise to any. Losing my mother in February has overshadowed everything this season.

But I am sure that I will come back stronger next season. I am already looking forward to a full pre-season in the US in July. There are games in New Jersey, in North Carolina, in DC. It will be the perfect start to a new campaign, with maybe slightly a different focus this time around. I am so looking forward to seeing some good – no, great – friends in all three American cities. I am also looking forward to reminding American fans that there is no real need to wear Chelsea scarves in ninety degree heat in the summer, nor is there any need to refer to Chelsea as “Chels” every five fucking seconds. It will be a great trip. Then there is the Community Shield at Wembley and a home friendly with Fiorentina. By the time of the opening league game of the season, I should already have five games behind me. This season, my mark was just forty-two games. From a high of fifty-eight in 2011/2012, this is a rather low total. Our early dismissals in two cup competitions clearly did not help. By the way, if it matters, our brief foray in the Champions League gave me my most treasured memory this season; drinking Morangoska cocktails in the packed side streets of Lisbon on a magical Monday night alongside some dear friends was truly magnificent, as was, in fact, the entire three days in that historic and charming city.

What of the future, then?

We are in a very strong position here. We have the best manager in England. We have an interested and involved chairman. We have a top-notch academy. We have a great youth team. We are Youth Cup winners again. We will strengthen the squad further in the summer. We seem to be keen to redevelop our Stamford Bridge stadium rather than move to a soul-less stadium elsewhere.

All is good.

What could possibly go wrong?

In closing my reports for 2014/2015, a few words of thanks to our players for keeping the desire to win throughout the season and, of course, thanks to many fantastic mates for supporting me through my dark days.

Thanks also for the support for CHELSEA/esque too.

It is appreciated.

See you in New Jersey.

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Tales From The Fosse

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 29 April 2015.

The league season was continuing with two away games on the trot. A trip to Arsenal on the Sunday would be followed by a trip to Leicester City on the Wednesday. A win at Arsenal would have set up a championship-decider at the King Power Stadium but it was not to be. This was always going to be an away trip to savour as it included that rare event, a new stadium. It was just a shame that it was now taking place on a midweek evening, when visits to stadia tend to be rather truncated affairs. My travel companions for this particular trip were Parky and Andy, both veterans of previous sojourns to a city that I had only ever visited once before for football, and only twice on any other occasion. I very much felt like the junior member. It is odd that I had only ever visited Filbert Street once – over thirty years ago in 1985 in fact – but I guess it was all down to circumstances. On previous occasions I presume that I was limited by financial constraints.

In truth, Parky was very lucky to be going at all. Due to the club’s cock-eyed decision to let tickets for this potentially key fixture to be sold with no loyalty points system in operation, Parky unfortunately missed out. I needed to ask for a favour from a transport company that I have been using for express loads around Europe for twelve years, based in Leicester, for an extra ticket. Within ten minutes of my call, Tim – the owner – had sorted me out a ticket in the home stand. On the basis that I could trust myself among the home fans rather than Parky, we agreed that it would be circumspect for him to have my ticket alongside Alan and Gary in the away corner. Everyone was happy.

I left half-an-hour early from work at 3pm. I gulped back a tin of Starbuck’s double espresso and we were off, headed north and through some splendid Gloucestershire towns and villages. Very soon in to the trip, I asked Andy a little trivia question.

“Why is the road that we are currently on relevant to tonight’s fixture?”

“Well, we’re on the Fosseway, aren’t we? An old Roman road.”

“Correct.”

“Ah, no idea.”

“Well, Leicester City’s first ever name was Leicester Fosse.”

I think Andy yawned.

Although it was a fine spring afternoon, with the Cotswolds looking resplendent and the sky dotted with small cumulus clouds, there were towering cumulonimbus clouds away on the horizon. I wondered if our trip to Leicester would eventually take place amid persistent rain, and the evening’s game against resurgent Leicester City too. As we circumnavigated round Coventry – by comparison I have seen us play there on five occasions – the weather was holding up but we became ensnared in some slow-moving rush hour traffic. The delays continued on as we headed north on the M69 to Leicester. It was a good thing that we had left Chippenham at 3pm. Any later and I would have been getting deeply frustrated.

At around 6.30pm, we were parked up on Shakespeare Street, around fifteen minutes to the south of the stadium. The Shakespeare’s Head at Arsenal on Saturday and Shakespeare Street in Leicester on Wednesday.

“2-0 or not 2-0; that is the question.”

We chatted about the evening’s game and whereas Andy and Parky were gung-ho about the result, I was predictably more cautious. Parky fancied a 3-1 win. Without Diego Costa, I honestly wondered where our goals would come from. Leicester City, of course, were in the middle of a fine resurgence, winning four crucial games on the bounce. Dead and buried a month ago, they were now looking a lot livelier. Four of their last five games were at home. Relegation was not the foregone conclusion it once was. I had this strange feeling that they might score first. The sun was still shining, but there was a chilling wind. The rain had held off, thus far.

“Fabregas is magic…”

I headed off to meet Tim, his young son Oliver and two of Tim’s workmates Rob and Stuart; nice to meet people that I have spoken to on the ‘phone for ages. They were all, obviously, Leicester fans. We enjoyed a chat and a refreshing beer in a modern pub called “The Local Hero.” Tim, and the others, was very worried that ex-Charlton and Liverpool left-back Paul Konchesky was playing. They predicted that he would be City’s weakest link.

At about 7.15pm, we set off for the stadium. Nearing the ground, I spotted the large electricity pylons and associated electricity sub-station that I had recognised from my visit to Filbert Street in February 1985. The station was just to the south of Filbert Street. It is just to the north of the King Power Stadium; the two sites are very close. I also spotted the new stand roof at Leicester’s Welford Road stadium too. I remember being escorted past that stadium, a very thin police escort at that, after the game at Filbert Street all those years ago.

Some comparisons.

Attendance.

1985 – 15,657

2015 – 32,021

Capacity.

1985 – 29,000

2015 – 32,500

Away fans.

1985 – 4,000

2015 – 3,000

Seat ticket.

1985 – £4.50 on day of game

2015 – £40 in advance

Club owners.

1985 – English

2015 – Thai and Russian

The Chelsea players.

1985 – English, Welsh, Scottish

2015 – Czech, Serbian, Spanish, English, Belgian, Brazilian and Ivorian

Heroes.

1985 – Dixon, Speedie, Nevin

2015 – Hazard, Terry, Diego Costa

Chelsea kit.

1985 – all yellow

2015 – all yellow

I spotted a couple of fellows wearing black and silver magicians’ hats outside the away end.

“He wears a magic hat…”

Another work friend, Sally, had been in contact throughout my trip north but our paths never crossed. Sally would be sat in the home end.

Sally to Chris : “I will be the one front row corner of the kop, tunnel side, going mental if we score.”

Chris to Sally : “when you score.”

I made my way in to the East Stand and quickly found my place. It was a great seat; Tim had done me proud. Not only was my seats “gratis” but it was in line with the penalty spot. I rolled my eyes when I saw a noise-maker waiting for me.

The 3,000 away fans, all stood, were at the far end of the East Stand. It was a neat stadium, slightly larger than its lookalike in Southampton. The teams entered the pitch. I had decided that my modus operandi for the evening would be polite applause for Leicester – and Chelsea if I could disguise it well enough. The Kop to my left housed the more vociferous home support. The corner next to me, with flags of varying quality pinned to the back wall, housed the noisiest of all.

As the game began, the sky was filled with a fearsome, billowing thundercloud. It was difficult to take my eyes off it. As the players scurried about, with the Chelsea kit mirroring the lemon of 1985, huge towers of rain were seen to fall in the distance. The clouds looked ominous. Sure enough, not long in to the game there was a rainstorm. Then, gradually, the sky turned from a mix of light lavender and moody grey to a lighter blue. The sun directly opposite me tinged the sky yellow and then orange and gold. It was a gorgeous sight.

“He could have signed for Arsenal…”

Leicester City definitely edged the first-half. The continual desire from us to maintain possession without real penetration left me frustrated. Soon in to the game, I realised that Cambiasso was their main cog. He stood out. He was very impressive. The home fans were shaking their noise-makers – “Clap Bangers” if you will – and were getting right behind their team. The songs were constant, with Leicester variations of “Cum On Feel The Noize” and “Yellow Submarine” reverberating around me. There was also, typically, “The Great Escape.” Then, a song which scanned perfectly :

“He’s magic, you know – Esteban Cambiasso.”

There were murmurings of pain from my neighbours when Andy King and then Robert Huth were substituted within the first twenty-five minutes. I almost – almost – felt for them. However, we failed to take advantage.

Our key players seemed to be subdued. A fine block from Petr Cech – always lovely to see him get a game in these last few weeks of his Chelsea life – kept us in the game, but Leicester were pressing hard. For once, Dave was getting turned down in front of me. In the last of three added minutes at the end of the first-half, Jamie Vardy breezed past Dave and sent a cross in to the box. Marc Allbrighton calmly swept the loose ball low past Cech.

Damn. I stood, a little later than the rest; I didn’t want to give the game away. I had photographed the goal and I now found myself, surreally, photographing the wild celebrations just yards away.

Chris to Sally : “told you.”

The mood was buoyant in the stands at the break. Ex-Chelsea forward Alan Birchenall, who hosts the corporate stuff at Leicester these days, introduced ex-England legend Peter Shilton to the half-time coffee-drinkers and programme-readers.

I wondered what the mood was like in the north-east quadrant.

I am sure that the noise generated by our supporters in the first-half was up to its usual high standard for away games, but from where I was sat, the noise didn’t appear to be that great. It felt odd to be alone, away from so many mates.

There was an extra zip to our play as the second-half began. More urgency. More pressing. More determination. Just as I was wondering if all of this would continue and indeed amount to anything, Ivanovic clipped the ball in from a good position and Didier Drogba swivelled and swept the ball low past Schmeichel. Not only did I photograph the shot, but the exuberant run and slide from Didier which followed. Now I could hear the away fans. Andy, Parky and I had commented earlier how rare his goals have been this season.

I sat calmly, but I was so relieved.

Our play continued its metamorphosis as the second-half continued. Matic put in a sterling performance and was back to his best, closing space, making life difficult for his foes, and then maintaining possession well. The midfielders grew in confidence, none more so than Willian, who gave that man Konchesky a torrid time on our right. Didier was a new man, troubling the Leicester goal with a couple of efforts. I silently prayed for more Chelsea goals.

“But he said no, fuck that…”

With around ten minutes of play left, a Fabregas corner found the head of Cahill, but the block from Schmeichel fell nicely for none other than John Terry to stab the ball in from inside the six yard box.

I inwardly and silently screamed.

I had again captured the goal, or at least the loose ball in flight before JT intervened, and I now calmly snapped our leader’s delirious run and slide towards the corner. I really was perfectly placed.

“He passes with his left foot…”

Just four minutes later, the ball held up just on the edge of the Leicester City box for Ramires to magnificently slam the ball in to the goal with a perfectly controlled rising drive. Again, on film, and again his celebrations were but yards away and captured on film, though I am not sure why he stuck the ball up his shirt.

“He passes with his right…”

Leicester were now quiet and our support took over. The noise was great to hear. A massive bouncy took over the entire away end. There had been a very loud song for Willian during the second-half, but now one song took over on a repeated loop.

“And when we win the league again, we’ll sing this song all night.”

“Ooooooooooooooooooooooooh…Fabregas is magic. He wears a magic hat. He could have signed for Arsenal. He said oh no, fuck that. He passes with his left foot, he passes with his right. And when we win the league again, we’ll sing this song all night.”

The players, at the final whistle, walked over to the away fans.

Another momentous win and another fantastic evening.

I quickly made my way back to the waiting car. The natives were quiet. I felt their pain. A Leicester City fan wouldn’t let up on the Konchesky talk :

“He was voted the worst ever Liverpool defender, you know.”

After the game.

1985 – Police escort, scuffles everywhere

2015 – Normality

I reached Shakespeare Street. It was 10pm on the dot.

Andy and Parky were not far behind me. There was an immediate rush of pent-up joy as I explained how much I had enjoyed the match. Until then, my lips had been sealed. To be fair, the home fans around had been perfectly fine. There was no noticeable anti-Chelsea nonsense. They just supported their team and I think that they will genuinely stay up, a sentiment that I shared with Sally and Tim.

It was a slightly easier return trip back down The Fosseway, but I still didn’t get home until around 1.30am.

Still, there are no complaints from me.

This has been our season. We have dominated this league from our first game at Burnley in August and now we stand on the edge of greatness.

One more win, boys.

One more win.

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Tales From Salop

Shrewsbury Town vs. Chelsea : 28.10.14

Well, this was something different. This was something out of the blue. We were on our way to deepest Shropshire for a Capital One cup tie with Shrewsbury Town and a lovely added bonus; a new ground.

Mow that meadow.

But first, a frustrating journey. PD and I had left Chippenham at around 3.45pm. After battling the horror show of slow-moving traffic on the M6 en route to Manchester and then getting embroiled in an equally frustrating return on the M5 on Sunday, we found ourselves stuck in yet another traffic jam on the M5 near Gloucester. The two-and-a-half hour journey would be eventually stretched to three-and-a-half hours. On the last section of the trip on the M54 past Telford and then further west on the A5, the heavens opened.

It was a wet and sombre evening in Shropshire.

After navigating the town’s by-pass, we were parked-up at 7.15pm.

The rain still fell.

Coats on, zips fastened, hoods up, caps on.

Thankfully, the stadium – The New Meadow – was less than a ten minute walk away.

The original plan was to have a little meander around the town and pop in to a local hostelry to sample some of the pre-match atmosphere. This was a first-time visit. No previous trips to the picturesque Gay Meadow back in the grim old days for me; I had, in fact, only ever visited Shrewsbury once before, when I travelled up by train from a stag weekend in South Wales for a game at Old Trafford in 1987. These would be fresh fields, but sadly no local sightseeing on this occasion. Like Burnley in August, this would be the briefest of “in and out” trips with Chelsea.

Unlike Gay Meadow, which famously lay against a gentle bend of the River Severn in the centre of the town, the football club’s new stadium is out on the edge of the town, like so many of the new builds of late. There are single tiered stands on all four sides; all-seated of course, these days. The travelling army of around 1,600 Chelsea fans were located at the northern end. I was inside with ten minutes to spare. On the walk to my allocated seat, I bumped into many friends and acquaintances. Over the course of the evening, there would be many more. I know “it’s what we do and all that”, but it honestly heartened me, if not surprised me, to see that an awkward mid-week game, involving all sorts of hardships, had enticed so many of the loyal Chelsea hard core.

I searched for an equivalent.

How about this; 3,000 music fans from all over England attending a concert in Manchester one day and then 1,600 of them attending another concert by the same band in Shrewsbury two days later.

Would that happen?

I think not.

This was dedication from the Chelsea family of the very highest order; top work.

The rain still fell as the teams entered the pitch. There was a nice mix of youth and experience in our team. I was amazed to see Didier Drogba, captain for the night, playing his third game in eight days. Elsewhere, there were starts for Kurt “Monty” Zouma, Andreas Christensen – the debutant – and Nathan Ake.

The stands were packed. The home crowd were full of expectancy. The shrill blast of the referee’s whistle signalled the start of Shrewsbury Town’s biggest home game since, well, maybe we played against them in 2002-2003. The two triangular temporary stands, commissioned especially for the game, added around 600 to the gate, but those poor souls were the only spectators out in the open. Elsewhere, there was colour. The team’s ultras had pinned all of their banners against the back walls of the three home stands and I noted the chequered “Floreat Salopia” banner in the south stand.

“…mmm…I must Google that when I get the chance, must be something to do with Salop, the alternative name for Shropshire.”

Despite the buzzing atmosphere, the first-half was a tepid affair. Of course, Chelsea dominated possession, but Shrewsbury threatened on occasion. Petr Cech made the first significant save of the match, getting down low to turn an effort around his left post. The wet pitch was causing the players to lose their footing and spray accompanied every ball played along the ground. Two wasteful shots from Schurrle caused us to groan. Nathan Ake looked confident, but then was booked for a silly challenge in the opponents half.

“Silly. No need to be making rash challenges that far up the pitch.”

There was excellent backing from the Chelsea supporters throughout the half. One hearty rendition of “Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army (We Hate Tottenham)” went on for a while. There were all the usual favourites; songs for Dennis Wise, Peter Osgood and – er – Steven Gerrard.

There was typical banter between us and them too.

Them : “Salop. Salop. Salop. Salop.”

Us : “Here For The First Time.”

Them : “Where Were You When You Were Shit?”

Us : “Where Were You On Saturday?”

Them : “We Support Our Local Team.”

Us : “One Game A Season – You Know What You Are.”

Chelsea plugged away, but the wide players Salah and Schurrle found it difficult to break free. The home team played some decent football, to feet, but this was a game which desperately needed a goal. A fine move involving Didier and Salah set up Schurrle, but his headed attempt on goal was hardly worthy of the name.

At the half-time break, there were grumbles about our play among the Chelsea loyalists.

Me? I was just happy to be able to get some pent-up frustrations – from work, ugh – out of my system and be at ease…totally adrift and separate from the real world on Planet Chelsea.

I like it there.

The second-half brought a noted improvement. A few Chelsea half-chances were followed by a nice passing move which resulted in Salah knocking the ball in to Didier’s path. From inside the box, he calmly finished.

We roared.

It was time for another Didier slide and his third goal in as many games. His team mates joined in the celebrations right in front of us. We could almost smell their aftershave.

Next, Schurrle hit a fearsome shot from distance which the Shrewsbury ‘keeper Leutwiler tipped over. The Chelsea chances kept coming as the home team tired. Then a shot from Knight-Percival was deflected narrowly wide when it looked to my eyes like it was about to nestle inside the goal. The home fans were encouraged by this, no doubt. A rasper from Drogba tested Leutwiler. This was more like it.

It was time for more terrace banter.

Them : “We Support Our Local Team.”

Us : “You Support A Load Of Shit.”

Now then, dear reader, as soon as I heard this “witty” repost from the Chelsea fans, I knew that we were in trouble. Not only is it rather pathetic to take the rise out of a team in the fourth tier of English football, but I knew that the Footballing Gods would soon be punishing us for this.

Lo and behold, just moments later…

From a corner, the ball was headed down and Mikel could only tee up the substitute Mangan, who lashed the ball in from close range. It is fair to say that I have seldom heard 8,500 fans make as much noise. The home players and home supporters rejoiced.

It sparked us to life once more, however, and another nice move involving Schurrle and Oscar set up Willian out on the left. He toyed with the defender and sent in a bouncing bomb into the penalty box. Under pressure from Didier, the centre-back steered the ball past the diving Leutwiler with the deftest of headers.

I was amazed when it nestled in the goal.

Get in.

Now we celebrated.

The game continued and we thankfully avoided any last minute goals, unlike at Old Trafford on Sunday. At the final whistle, there was a mixture of pleasure and relief. I met up with PD and we returned back to the car. Within fifteen minutes, I was driving away from the stadium, past hundreds of match-goers who were returning to their cars and homes. It felt odd to be out and away so soon. Back in the car, we quickly chatted about the game. We had both enjoyed it. There was a special mention for Didier Drogba; his attitude and his efforts during the game were exemplary. He chased loose balls, he cajoled team mates and his spirit was infectious. It seemed that the days of old when his sometimes surly and lazy attitude in games such as this seemed a distant memory. Top marks to him.

We eventually got back on to the M6 – “for the second time in two days, hello Birmingham!” – and after a stress-free return, reached Frome at around 1am. On Saturday, four of us will be driving up for the Chelsea vs. Queens Park Rangers derby. Let’s hope that Diego Costa is fit for that one. I will make a concerted effort to not – yet – consult my British Book Of Poultry, nor use my binoculars, nor my calculator, but there could be goals, goals, goals.

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Tales From Old Trafford

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 26 October 2014.

Bluff And Double Bluff.

During the several days of build-up to the Manchester United vs. Chelsea match at Old Trafford, there seemed to be constant rumours in the media and among fellow Chelsea supporters concerning the fitness of Diego Costa. Would he be fit or would he not? There were fears about his delicate hamstring injury, but some Chelsea fans were of the opinion that this was a smoke screen used by Jose Mourinho and the club in order to stay “one step ahead” of the opposition, with our new striker likely to undergo a Lazarus-like improvement before our game at Old Trafford. There was also a shady report of a stomach bug too. The home match against Maribor on Tuesday, which I missed, provided further problems and confusion. Loic Remy, Diego Costa’s likely replacement at Old Trafford (should his injury prove scare prove to be justified – “wink wink”) managed to injure himself, thus ruling him out of the game in Manchester. Didier Drogba, Remy’s replacement on Tuesday, then played around seventy minutes himself. Would Jose Mourinho have played Didier for such an elongated spell, knowing full well that he would likely be his Hobson’s Choice of a starter on Sunday? From one perspective, it appeared “odds-on” that Diego Costa would be miraculously recover and start against United. On the long and familiar drive north to Old Trafford, the talk in the car was almost devoid of football chat, but on the rare occasions that we mentioned the game ahead, the main talking point was centred on Diego Costa.

“Would he or wouldn’t he?”

Parky and PD, my fellow travellers on the five hour car journey were gung-ho about our chances, but as we swung around the orbital motorway to the south of Manchester, I was a little more pragmatic.

“To be honest, I wouldn’t be too upset with a draw. I just want to avoid defeat.”

Manchester United, top-heavy with summer signings, was a team of unknown risk in my eyes. Sure, their defence was prone to silly errors and could be harmed by our tricky offensive players, but they possessed a combustible cocktail of attacking options themselves.

However, I was surprisingly confident as I drove into Manchester. I’m sure we could cause them problems. Even without Diego Costa.

Under The Munich Clock.

We were parked-up at around 2.30pm. We paid the requisite £10 to a weather-beaten local, who resembled the third Chuckle Brother, to park outside a garage on the road which leads from the Chester Road to Old Trafford cricket ground.

“Are you lads Chel-seh?”

“Yeah, mate.”

“I want you to win today.”

He reached out to shake my hand.

“City?” I asked.

“I’m blue through and through, me.”

Within twenty minutes, we had walked through the park and then past more parking spots, then past The Bishop Blaize pub – with songs from inside – and then past the chippies at the crossroads. These sights – and sites – were oh-so familiar by know. The red brick of the houses, the red scarves of the United fans, the towering white steel of the stadium behind. Down on the forecourt, we waited for a few moments on the off-chance of bumping into some friendly faces. Alan and Gary soon appeared, fresh from the official coach trip which left Stamford Bridge at 9am. There had been trouble on the trains, apparently, with another mate – Dave the Hat – forced to travel up to Sheffield and across from there. Tickets were handed over for future games. The forecourt, as always, was a volatile mix of United and Chelsea. Squabbles only tend to happen after the games at Old Trafford these days, though. With the Munich clock looking down on the hub-bub of activity below, we decided to head inside. It was 3.15pm.

In Previous Episodes.

This would be my twentieth Manchester United vs. Chelsea away game, and my eleventh consecutive away league fixture. It all started, for me, on an electric night at Old Trafford in April 1986, when a Kerry Dixon brace gave us a breath-taking 2-1 win, with four thousand Chelsea fans crammed into the pens in front of “K Stand” – as it was called in those days – with thousands of belligerent United fans right behind us, glowering, gesticulating and screaming support of their team.

Their shrill shouts of “United! United! United!” is a very strong memory, some twenty-eight years later.

Since then there have been tons of memories. Two odd – recent – games are fresh in my mind. In the opening period of the 2011-2012 season, we travelled north under Villas-Boas. Although we lost 3-1, there were lots of positives on that sunny afternoon; I can never remember a game where we had lost, yet the fans had departed the stadium in such a positive mood. Then, last season, we witnessed a very dour performance – from both teams – and a 0-0 draw, with Jose Mourinho electing to play without a recognised striker.

Strange ways in deepest Manchester.

As I waited for an announcement of our team, I wondered if Mourinho would spring a surprise on us again. Last season, Andre Schurrle was the one man asked to run from deep and pose the biggest offensive threat. Who would be asked to lead the line this time?

The South-East Corner.

I took my place, high up in the corner quadrant of the away section. I tut-tutted as I sidled past a family of four, each wearing a half-and-half scarf, calmly sitting and observing.

“Tourists” I mumbled silently to myself.

Of course, as I have said before, Chelsea has thousands of passionate and committed supporters the world over, who truly “get” what Chelsea is all about, but why do so many others who attend in person have to be such divs?

Answers on a postcard.

There was noise from the crowded bar areas below, but all was quiet within the stadium, which seemed to take forever to fill. At last, the Chelsea team appeared – in their jade warm-up gear, how 1986 – and I quickly scanned the ten outfield players.

“No Diego Costa.”

There were looks of dismay on the faces of my companions in the south-east corner.

“Up to you then, Didier, son.”

I was momentarily subdued. Could our returning hero stand up to two games in six days? We would soon find out. As kick-off approached, the stands filled and the noise-levels rose. The United PA tried its best to rouse the locals.

“Dirty Old Town.”

The Chelsea choir dipped into its songbook. The players appeared from the tunnel in the south-west corner. We were ready.

The First-Half.

I was pretty content with our performance in the opening forty-five minutes. From the start, it seemed that we were confident in possession and resolute in defence. I noted that our use of Didier Drogba was now different than in previous years. Before, we would knock balls into channels or over the top and ask our marauding Ivorian to use his speed and strength to strike fear into opposing defences. Now, he was being asked to come deeper and retain the ball in order to set up runners off him. Our play was a little more compact. A lot depended on our midfield three, or five. Eden Hazard was at times unplayable in the first-half. One shimmy dumbfounded two United players in a gorgeous moment of play. Matic harried and blocked and then supported his team mates with a number of surging runs. Oscar and Fabgregas, though, seemed adrift. It was a pleasing first half, but with only two golden chances. The lively Januzaj played in Robin van Persie who found himself in on goal, but Thibaut Courtois blocked superbly. At the other end, in front of the Stretford End, Oscar reached the by-line, and pulled the ball back to Didier Drogba. His low shot was blocked by the legs of De Gea. United had peppered our goal at regular intervals throughout the first period, but we were largely untroubled. It was odd to see Juan Mata in United red, in person, against us.

The North-West Corner.

I had been in contact with a newly-acquainted friend from Orlando in Florida during the day; we had hoped to meet up outside, but Kim and her friend Jenna were firmly ensconced in one of Old Trafford’s hospitality lounges by the time I had arrived at the stadium. They were watching from way up in the north-west corner, in one of the quadrants that were “infilled” around eight years ago. I wondered how Kim was coping in a sea of United. I wondered if she could hear us singing. I wondered how her day was going; I bet she would rather swap her seat to be among us a hundred yards away and a hundred feet lower.

The Second-Half.

We began brightly, with Hazard again leading the charge. At the other end, Fellaini wasted a good chance by skimming a shot wide. Hazard was clean in on goal, but De Gea was able to save. The Chelsea choir looked away disconsolately, but roared the team on as a corner was rewarded. I held my camera still and waited for the ball to reach the box. In a flash, I saw Didier Drogba leap, virtually untroubled, at the near post. I clicked.

The ball crashed into the net and the three-thousand Chelsea fans in the south-east corner screamed in ecstasy. I was knocked sideways, then backwards and I clung on to the chap next to me, not wanting to fall back and injure myself. If the goal was a virtual carbon copy of Didier’s leap and header in Munich, then so too were the celebrations. This time, though, I managed to keep hold of my glasses. The scenes were of pandemonium; away goals in big games are celebrated like no other.

I steadied myself just in time to witness Didier and his team mates celebrating wildly in front of us.

Euphoria.

I had one thought.

“Munichesque.”

I then had a thought about Tuesday night and Didier’s penalty, hit to the left, which so resembled his winning penalty in Munich. I playfully wondered if his role now was to just replay these two historic moments from “that night” on a constant loop for the rest of the season.

“And Drogba, with his twelfth near post header of the season…”

Kim sent me a text; the two of them had screamed with delight at Didier’s goal and were now being treated like Ebola victims in the North-West Upper.

We continued to impress, with Matic being especially dominant.

I received a text from Steve in South Philadelphia :

“On comes Mikel, Mourinho’s closer.”

In baseball, with a team winning late on, a coach brings in a steady and reliable pitcher – “a closer” – to keep things tight and maintain the advantage. Closers tend to have nerves of steel. It was typical Mourinho. He replaced the subdued Oscar.

Juan Mata was clapped by the Chelsea contingent as he too was substituted. Ivanovic, who had enjoyed a physical battle with De Maria all game, broke in to the United box, but his cross come shot flashed past the far post. The impressive Willian, bundles of energy, went close. As the game wore on, we tended to drop deeper and deeper and our energy levels dropped. United kept probing. I had memories of a late equaliser in 1997 at the Stretford End. Ugh.

Schurrle replaced Hazard, then Zouma replaced Willian.

Four minutes of extra time.

Then, a “coming together” of bodies down our right and Ivanovic, already booked, was adjudged to have tripped De Maria. From over one hundred yards away, it looked like Brana had clipped him. He was given a second yellow and was dismissed.

“Come on Chelsea.”

The delivery from the free-kick found the leaping mop of Fellaini, but Courtois blocked. The ball fell advantageously to Van Persie who lashed the ball in.

Fcuk.

Old Trafford roared and I watched, sick to the stomach, as the scorer ripped off his shirt and threw it into the Stretford End as if it was a match winner.

Twenty seconds later, the referee blew.

1-1.

Within seconds, the away fans reminded everyone –

“We’re Top Of The League.”

Outside on the forecourt, there were police horses and scuffles.

We quickly raced back to the waiting car. I was at my pragmatic best. Although it was disappointing to give up a goal in the last twenty seconds, a draw meant that we had gone six points ahead of Manchester City, who remain our closest title rivals. I must admit that I was warmed with the thought of millions of United fans happy to draw at home with us. I edged out into the dark Manchester night and began our five hour drive home. After the familiarity of Old Trafford, we reconvene at a new stadium, Shrewsbury Town, on Tuesday.

I’ll see you there.

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Tales From A House Divided

Chelsea vs. Schalke 04 : 17 September 2014.

Since last season’s midweek forays east on the M4 to Stamford Bridge, my working day has changed to 7am to 3.30pm. This basically means that I have more time, and hopefully a less stressful drive, to reach The Goose – er, Stamford Bridge – but it means I’ll be lucky to get four hours’ sleep before the alarm rings the following morning. I guess this can be called taking the smooth with the rough.

The journey, with LP and PD alongside me for the second time in five days, still took three hours though; damn the traffic. We were in the pub for 6.30pm; time for a couple. It was pleasing to see several faces from back home for the second successive home game. In addition to PD and myself from Frome, there were Parky, Andy and Cooky from Trowbridge, Graham and Rob from Melksham and Mark from Westbury. Rob smiled as he told me:

“I’ve only stepped out into the beer garden, but I’ve ended up in the West Country.”

While we were supping our lagers, the news came through that Didier Drogba was playing.

Big surprise.

I was informed of the rest of the starting eleven and my honest, immediate, reaction was this:

“Drogba? The weakest link.”

Although it seems like a sacrilegious act writing those four words, it was a commonly held view. My immediate mates had a little pow-wow. Like many, we had presumed that the manager might rest the in-form Diego Costa ahead of the league game at Manchester City on Sunday, but I’d imagine that most were expecting to see Loic Remy starting, especially since he impressed on his brief goal-scoring debut on Saturday. There were puzzled looks in the pub. Maybe the manager knew something that we didn’t.

[a shout from off-stage : “of course he fucking does, he’s the Chelsea manager, you tit!”]

I pondered it all further. Ever since the re-signing of Didier, my mind has been far from satisfied as I tried to evaluate the pros and cons of the move. He was certainly a once feared striker, certainly a strong character in the dressing room, certainly an experienced head and certainly a modern Chelsea legend. But something jarred. Again I’ll be blunt and honest; I would have much preferred our last ever remaining memory of Didier to be that penalty in Munich.

Never go back.

Unlike the legions of Chelsea fans that only saw the positive aspects of Didier’s game, I also remembered the negatives. The pathetic diving in order to gain free-kicks in the first few seasons, the attitude, the pouting and the posturing and the half-hearted approach in some of the lesser games towards the end of his career. Here was a complex conundrum for me to understand. After jettisoning Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard – both unable to entice contracts from the club – why was Didier Drogba given the green light to return?

His return troubled me then, and it troubled me still. I guess, in Mourinho’s defence, Drogba was seen as a reliable third striker – “been there, done that” – in a period when our striking options seemed to be built on sand. Was Lukaku staying? Was Torres staying? Was Ba staying? Who could we get as cover for the seemingly injury-prone Diego Costa? Could the youngsters be trusted?

We left the pub on a warm September evening and hoped that Drogba would bag a hat-trick and send us all home with our collective tails between our legs, eating humble pie and promising to never again question Jose Mourinho.

After all of these European campaigns, there is still something special about Champions League nights in SW6, even though the experience now seems to include more and more tourists who happen to find themselves at a football match without understanding or buying in to the widely-held view that supporters are there to participate rather than just attend. Outside the West Stand, underneath the Peter Osgood statue, there was a cast of thousands; a broad spectrum of well-heeled voyeurs, with programmes clutched to their chests, friendship scarves hanging around their necks, and with tickets being scrutinised for validity. Chelsea Football Club enjoys the support of thousands of passionate fans in all parts of the world. It is a sad fact of life that many of the overseas visitors to Stamford Bridge cannot be mentioned in the same breath.

I raced by, and soon found myself among more familiar faces in the brief line for the MHU.

Up in my seat, I took stock. I immediately spotted the new floodlights, rather awkwardly placed on the roofs of both end stands. They shone bright, but they were ugly. They disrupted the norm. I took an immediate dislike to them.

This was the third time that we had played the blue and whites from Gelsenkirchen in eight seasons. Last season, in November, we had beaten them 3-0 at The Bridge the day after Guy Fawkes’ Night. I remember walking away from that game feeling rather bored by the whole evening, despite the resounding win. I hoped for a better post-game feel in 2014. The German fans, many holding Nord Kurv scarves, were already in fine voice and I just knew, damn it, that it would be the visitors from The Ruhr who would be singing throughout the game.

Marie-Chantal from Lyon, Jan from Oslo, Kevin from Baltimore, Paolo from Brindisi, Roz from Cape Town, Kyong from Seoul and Pablo from Valencia just wouldn’t be able to compete.

It was another good show from Schalke. Even though they had visited us less than twelve months ago, they still brought around 1,400.

Another near capacity stadium, save for a few hundred empty seats – again – in the “no go” zone in The Shed. Filipe Luis in for Dave, and the midfield jiggled again. Schalke included the vaunted Draxler and the valuable Huntelaar.

The anthem.

It was brilliant to have the Champions League with us once more.

I quickly commented to Alan;

“They’re sponsored by Gazprom, right?”

There were Gazprom advertisement boards surrounding the pitch.

“Yep.”

We gave each other an old-fashioned look, and images of UEFA’s top brass, business executives, hotel rooms and brown envelopes flitted momentarily in to view.

The Germans, wearing the same muted green and black as in 2013, were under immediate pressure from a forceful Chelsea. After only eleven minutes, a lovely pass from Eden Hazard found an advancing Cesc Fabregas, who slotted the ball home. The Stamford Bridge faithful roared while Marie-Chantal, Jan, Kevin and co, stood and clapped, awkwardly looking around to ascertain the correct code of conduct.

There was an immediate chant from the terraces;

“Are you watching Arsenal?”

Defeated in The Ruhr the previous night, the Gooners were now being taunted about the one that got away.

For the next twenty minutes, Chelsea had most of the ball, but didn’t cause the Schalke defence too much concern. A Drogba header here, a Hazard shot there. I felt that we weren’t going for the jugular; that we were playing within ourselves. Then, on thirty-six minutes, the best move of the game thus far. Ivanovic, playing further up field this season in my mind, reached the by-line and hooked the ball back towards a waiting, and unmarked, Fabregas, but his shot was wild and flew over the bar. There was a collective groan from the home support, while in the West Upper, there was a groan from Roz when she realised alcohol is not served at Champions League games.

Despite being behind, the away fans were relentless in their support for their team. Our support was shocking, despite both the spectators in the MHL and The Shed Lower standing the entire half, which is usually a sure sign that they were collectively “up” for it. Occasionally, the fans in these areas attempted a song, but the others were generally reluctant to follow their lead. Not a single song was heard from the two side stands.

There were hushed comments about Drogba’s performance; it was average at best.

Courtois was asked to produce a fine save from Boeteng. Then as the first-half closed, Draxler was allowed to run unhindered past several Chelsea defenders – “after you Fritz” – before sending a low shot past the post. There was a look of pure anguish on his face as he realised how close he had been to equalising.

I read the programme during the break; the 1994/1995 European campaign is set to be featured throughout this season’s UEFA home programmes. We’d best have a long run; we reached the semi-final in the ECWC that season.

Bloody hell. Twenty years ago. This was the season when we were but Chelsea European novices and every away game was a huge adventure; Jablonec, Vienna and Zaragoza for yours truly.

What fantastic times.

The second-half began. It was more of the same from an apparently jaded Chelsea. Chances were rare. Hazard blazed over. There was growing concerns that the Germans were edging back in to the game. John Terry was booked for shooting at goal after the referee had given a free-kick for an apparently loose challenge, amidst boos from the home support.

On the hour, Didier was narrowly wide.

Then, a rapid Schalke break, with Chelsea all at sea, and players and fans feeling aggrieved for a foul on Fabregas in the build-up. I sensed danger throughout the advance.

My comments to PD as Huntelaar was played in were succinct;

“They’ll score here…told ya.”

Then, something that warmed me. An immediate, loud and passionate response from the Matthew Harding.

“Carefree, wherever you may be.”

The Bridge was shaking with noise for a few blissful moments.

“That’s more like it” I thought.

“Wow” exclaimed Marie-Chantal.

“Awesome” shouted Kevin.

With Drogba looking a shadow of himself, we inevitably started to discuss his performance. It was almost inevitable that I would end up taking extended, studious and contemplative looks at his play throughout the night. He looked slower than the Drogba of old, and it was obvious that his general play was missing several attributes of Drogba in his prime. It felt absurd at times to be talking so bluntly about a loved player – for that is what he is – after just one game but we knew that our views were shared by many.

As he was subbed, I admitted to Alan;

“Drogba, no more than four out of ten tonight.”

And it felt wrong again.

Sigh.

Mourinho, now chasing for a winner, had replaced Ramires with Oscar, now brought on the fifth cavalry in the form of Diego Costa and Remi. Alongside Drogba, Willian was substituted. Almost immediately, Costa looked hungry and involved. Remy’s header was cleared off the line. We were begging for the winner. Two dropped points against Schalke could prove costly. In Maribor, Sporting Lisbon were 1-0 up.

Damn it.

Things were getting desperate. The crowd urged the team on. On two separate occasions, Mourinho had to run and scramble after the ball after it had left the field of play; Jose as ballboy.

Hazard shot over after good work from Diego Costa. Then, a cross from wide found a stretching Eden Hazard, completely unmarked, but his prod was remarkably saved by Neustadter in the Schalke goal. In was quite a final onslaught – too little too late – but a couple of headers in the last few moments did not worry the German goal.

At the final whistle, there was thankfully no boos, but there was many a grumble from the spectators in and around me. On the walk out into the London night, I overheard many share comments similar to the ones expressed by Alan, PD and myself. I cringed as I felt myself agreeing with them.

“Remy should have played.”

“Drogba’s past it.”

“Didn’t attack’em enough.”

“Two dropped points.”

“Blame Mourinho for that.”

I searched for positives. I grasped at the idea of this being a wake-up call ahead of the trip to Manchester City on Sunday.

“This will hopefully bring us down a peg and help to concentrate our minds.”

“At least it sets up the away game at Lisbon. Adds a bit of bite to it.”

“At least they only drew.”

Outside a chip shop, Andy from Trowbridge spotted PD and me, and we must have been looking decidedly glum. He called out and imitated Mourinho at Arsenal in 2007 –

“Chin up, come on, chin up, remember that? Chin up! Remember Cambridge and Rotherham and Swansea. Come on!”

We met up with Parky back at the car. He was seething at the lack of support from the people in his section of The Shed.

“All bloody tourists. Nobody sang. Crap.”

So, the evidence from Parky’s Shed End backed up the commonly held view among Chelsea’s hardcore that on Champions League nights, there is a real chasm between the regulars and the once or twice a lifetime visitors. I take no pleasure in reporting this. And I’m not being particularly xenophobic, either. A silent one from Guildford is just as prevalent as a silent one from Gothenburg these days. Either way, a divided house is not good.

It’s not good at all.

With road works on the M4, it was another tiring three hour journey home.

Mile after mile, mile after mile.

Home at 1.30pm, sleep at 2am.

The alarm clock would soon be ringing.

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