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.

11377360_10153360183102658_6247124301156700723_n

11235271_10153360220207658_6520028661981443290_n

10957752_10153360194212658_6253778694773791703_n

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.

IMG_0101

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.

IMG_9728

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.

IMG_9675

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.

IMG_9779

Tales From No Nay Never Land.

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 18 August 2014.

My first ever Chelsea game took place in 1974. I’ve detailed that match on a few occasions before. I don’t think it’s being too pompous for me to say that it changed my life. On that day in West London, I became part of Chelsea Football Club. The abiding memory of Ian Hutchinson’s high leap at the North Stand end and scoring past the Newcastle ‘keeper is a strong one.

IMG_9399

I occasionally wear the “Chelsea the Blues” scarf that my mother bought me after the game. I still occasionally flick through the tattered 5p programme. That game was a key moment in my life.

As the last few months of last season progressed, I kept calculating – and recalculating – if I would reach my one thousandth Chelsea game before the end of the 2013-2014 campaign. Sadly, we fell one match short. We just ran out of games. Our defeat against Atletico Madrid – match number 997 – meant that there would be no Champions League Final in Lisbon for me to celebrate my landmark moment. Games against Norwich City – 998 – and Cardiff City – 999 – left me hanging, stranded over the summer, awaiting news of our 2014-2015 fixture list. I wasn’t tempted with any of the pre-season friendlies. There would be European trips in the Champions League to savour instead. I’d best save my money for those. I didn’t fancy hitting one thousand against Real Sociedad in a home friendly either. Nope, I’d wait for the league opener. Our first league game of 2014-2015 would be it.

Number one thousand.

I silently hoped for a home match. I love my synchronicity and a game against Newcastle United – our opponents on 16 March 1974 – would have been perfect.

Alas not.

Burnley away it was and Burnley away it would be.

Not exactly Lisbon is it?

As the summer meandered by, with the World Cup in Brazil an enjoyable distraction (but nothing more than that) my focus gradually turned towards the opening weekend of the new season. Fate had dealt us travelling fans a rough hand. Our game – over two hundred miles from HQ – was to take place at 8pm on a Monday evening.

Sigh.

I booked a half-day as soon as the fixture change was announced, and waited.

Thoughts about the new season centered on our new players. How would they settle in? Which of the new acquisitions would we immediately “take to” and fully embrace as Chelsea players. For some reason, we regard some of our players as “more Chelsea” than others. Is there any fathomable reason for this? Is it due to personality rather than talent? Is there some secret unquantifiable element to some players’ psyche which endears them to us more than others? I wanted the new season to begin; I wanted to assess Diego Costa’s body language, Cesc Fabregas’ demeanour, Filipe Luis’ passion and Thibaut Courtois’ personality in addition to their playing strengths.

The summer of 2014 was imbued with a healthy dose of positivism in the Chelsea camp. There was a general feeling of hopeful optimism among the Chelsea ranks, both locally in the UK and elsewhere. There was a feeling that a fine new team was taking shape, with a healthy competition in all positions. Prolonged debates were held over the relative merits of our twin goalkeeping giants. Some loanees were brought back to the fold. Others were passed over. Meanwhile, Chelsea fans in Nerdistan were getting all sweaty at the thought of Didier getting his number 11 shirt back.

Predictions? I kept telling friends that we had a great chance to win the title for the first time in five years. My guess was that it would be between us and the new powerhouse in Manchester.

“Between us and City. Too close to call. But those two teams will be clear of the rest.”

Elsewhere, I was wondering if my passion – for the want of a better word – for football was subsiding a little. I always have these troublesome worries every summer; that the next season could be the one where football loosens its grip and I go off and live a more sedentary lifestyle. For example, I had already written off the twin games in the North-East this winter…too far, too much money, within one week of each other. I was thinking about knocking Man City on the head too; 4pm on a Sunday, stuff that. Due to a change in my working hours, plus the need to assist with the care of my mother who has dementia and arthritis, European and domestic midweek games might take a hit this year too. After all these years, there has to be a moment when Chelsea means that little bit less, doesn’t there?

Doesn’t there?

We’ll see.

A few weeks ago, I saw one of my favourite bands Stiff Little Fingers in Bath. I enjoyed it, of course. However, I had only seen them in Exeter in April and I explained to my mate Pete that I was having trouble getting “up” for the gig. Two SLF gigs in four months had resulted in me questioning myself, and inevitably comparing my ability to get “up” for football. In a nutshell, I don’t ever want Chelsea to be a chore. Let’s see how this season goes.

At 2pm on Monday 18th August, I set off from my home town in Somerset. Alongside me were Glenn, PD and Parky. I allowed four-and-a-half hours to reach Turf Moor, sheltering beneath the bare moorlands of The Pennines. After only a few miles, PD selected one of a few compilation CDs that he had brought for the trip. Parky slipped it in the CD player. The first track?

“One Step Beyond.”

The others knocked back some ciders.

We were on our way.

In truth, it was a dreadful trip. Just shy of Birmingham, the signs on the M5 warned of slow-moving traffic ahead. For two hours, the traffic slowed. It was a grim trip North.

Accelerate – brake – slow down – stop – wait – moan – accelerate – brake – slow down – stop – wait – moan – accelerate– brake – slow down – moan – stop – wait – accelerate – brake – slow down – stop – wait – accelerate – brake – slow down – stop.

With each passing mile, I could see the pained expressions on my fellow travellers worsening and worsening.

“I can see why I don’t do too many away games now.”

We sighed when “I Don’t Like Mondays” was played not once, but twice, on two consecutive CDs.

Bristol Tim was ten miles ahead of us and advised us to avoid the M62 around Manchester. This always was my plan. Thankfully, the traffic quietened after the signs for Liverpool and then Wigan. I veered off on to the M65, past Blackburn, and the sudden release of a clear road resulted in me venting my pent-up frustration on my accelerator pedal. I almost took off on a brow of a hill. The music CDs were from the punk / ska / mod revival days of the ‘eighties and I wondered if a Stiff Little Fingers – yeah, them again – song would appear before Burnley.

They didn’t let me down. Racing past Accrington, I sang along to “At The Edge” and I smiled…

“It’s exams that count not football teams.”

I’ve only ever visited Burnley once before; that 1-0 win back in 2009-2010, when a John Terry header created headlines just as the Vanessagate story surfaced. In all honesty, that solitary trip to the heart of Lancashire was one of my favourite trips of that season. Our paths have rarely crossed in the league. Those two encounters in 2009-2010 have been our only games against Burnley since 1982-1983. Glenn and PD were yet to visit Turf Moor. Parky had been once.

At 7.30pm, I eventually parked up. It had been a tedious journey; if I’m honest, one of the worst in those forty-odd years.

Turf Moor was reached in around ten minutes. The weather had been changeable en route. At least the rain held off as we raced to meet Gary, who had tickets for Glenn and PD, outside the away end. Burnley, a small town of around 75,000, could well be the stereotypical northern town. Its grey stone buildings exude weather-beaten bleakness. Its mills have closed and it faces unemployment and austerity. Racial tensions have blighted the area’s recent social history. However, at the heart of the city, possibly binding it together is Burnley Football Club, league winners in 1920-1921 and 1959-1960. On the wall outside Turf Moor is a collage of former players. Just along from the away turnstiles is a fuzzy photo of ex-Chelsea midfielder Ian Britton, caught in an ecstatic pose after scoring a goal which helped keep the team in the Football League when they faced relegation in 1987. Ian Britton, after Peter Osgood left, became my favourite Chelsea player as a child and he is well respected by my generation. Meeting him after an old boys’ game in 2010 was a real thrill. Today he lives in Burnley and is fighting a battle against prostate cancer. Everyone at Chelsea wishes him well.

Gary was full of moans because the match programmes had all gone. He too, like hundreds of others, was snarled up on the M6 too. I said “hi” to a few mates and headed inside with only minutes to spare.

Despite the evening kick-off, some four thousand Chelsea foot soldiers had battled work commitments, family pressures and the motorway network.

We were there in force.

We had the entire David Fishwick Stand; a single-tiered structure dating from the early ‘seventies, full of surprisingly wide wooden seats. Parky and I were right behind the goal in the front row. I looked around and spotted a few mates. A nod here and there.

The Chelsea choir were in fine voice.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, from a corner this time, rather than from the centre of our stand as in 2010, the home fans in the opposite stand held up claret and light blue mosaics:

“OUR TURF – BFC.”

The clouds were gathering overhead and the evening was turning murky.

Within seconds, the teams appeared.

The big news was that Thibaut Courtois was starting ahead of Petr Cech.

Elsewhere, Cesar Azpilcueta held off the challenge of Filipe Luis and started at left-back.

Cesc Fabregas lined up alongside Nemanja Matic, with a “three” of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Andre Schurrle, whose last competitive game was the World Cup Final.

From the Maracana to Turf Moor.

Upfront was the swarthy Diego Costa, our new number nineteen, looking trim and no doubt eager to impress.

To be honest, the pleasure of the first sightings of all these new Chelsea players was balanced by the realisation that my mate Alan, my away match companion for years now, was not at the game. He was unable to get time off work. He doesn’t miss many. It felt odd not seeing him.

It also made me feel sad for me to report to Parky that I did not know a single Burnley player. Long gone are the days when I could reel off the starting eleven of most teams in the top division, maybe even a few in the old second division. The Burnley team of my childhood featured players such as Leighton James, Frank Casper, Peter Noble and Bryan Flynn. They were a cracking team. I think I almost had a soft spot for them.

I have strong memories of that old open terrace at Turf Moor, packed with spectators, with those bleak moors behind. It is a shame that modern football stadia now separate the game and spectators from the immediate setting of the club. I always enjoyed seeing the buildings which abutted old Stamford Bridge, or the trees over in Brompton Cemetery. They added to the character of a stadium.

The game began. My view of the match was through the nets of the near goal. Despite the close proximity of several stewards I was able to snap away with impunity. A little drizzle fell.

Chelsea were roared on by the away contingent, virtually all standing.

A couple of chances were exchanged before the home team took the lead. Our defence was caught flat-footed and a ball was played into the box where the waiting Scott Arfield, given time to take a touch by the closest defender, drilled a rising ball hard past a possibly unsighted Courtois. I was right behind the path of the ball. The net rippled a mere fifteen feet away.

Turf Moor boomed.

This was not good. This was not how this was meant to be.

“Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea.”

The home support, with memories of an opening day victory over Manchester United in 2009, was laughing, but they were not laughing for long.

Within minutes, an attack resulted in Ivanovic drilling in a low cross which bizarrely evaded everyone, before rebounding off the base of the far post. Luckily for us, it fell right at the feet of the waiting Diego Costa who slashed it high into the net.

Phew.

Our new striker couldn’t have wished for a better start to his league career at Chelsea. The thoughts of Fernando Torres at this exact juncture would have been interesting to hear.

A blue flare was set off to my right.

Within minutes, another Chelsea goal.

Eden Hazard, afforded time and space, ran at the home defence before setting up Ivanovic. His pass in to the waiting Cesc Fabregas was met on the volley by our new Spanish midfielder. His fantastically weighted ball into the onrushing Andre Schurrle made me gasp. It was simply magnificent. It disrupted the time space continuum. It was sublime.  Schurrle slotted in and we were 2-1 up. In the away stand, we erupted.

I turned to a chap behind me:

“Whatafackinball.”

So mesmerised were the Burnley players by this incredible feat of fantasy football, which defied all spatial logic and temporal reasoning, that they suddenly found themselves in the 1930’s wearing heavy cotton shirts, chasing shadows in blue, and calling each other names such as Grimsdyke, Ogglethorpe, Sidebottom, Blenkinsopp, Eckersley, Butterworth, Snotter and Crump.

Never mind his Arsenal past; in one special moment, Cesc Fabregas had arrived.

For a while, we purred.

Diego Costa was then booked for a dive in the box, according to the referee, after he broke free.

Alan, watching in South London, texted me.

“Penalty that!”

Not to worry, a third goal was soon scored by a dominant Chelsea. A Fabregas corner evaded everyone and Ivanovic prodded in from close range.

3-1 and coasting.

The Chelsea choir aired an old favourite from the late ‘eighties.

“OLE, OLE, OLE, OLE – CHELSEA, CHELSEA.”

With the team on top, the noise continued with loud songs of support for heroes past and present; Frank Lampard, Dennis Wise, Peter Osgood, Willian, Diego Costa.

With the new ‘keeper in earshot…”Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut!”

A quick nervous wave was cheered by the away fans.

The oddest moment of the entire night was the continued sight of the blue-shirted number 8 playing for Chelsea; the slight body of Oscar. On many occasions, my mind quickly saw Frank Lampard, so engrained is he in my football memory.

I met up with a few of the usual suspects at the break.

“A few more goals, boys?”

“I’m confident.”

Parky had predicted a 4-1 win.

“I fancy six.”

“Definitely more goals to come.”

Sadly, the second-half was a let-down. The undoubted highlight was the fine leap and finger-tipped save from our young ‘keeper which stopped Blenkinsopp from scoring. The noise fell away and at times Turf moor was silent. Jose Mourinho rang the changes with Willian and Mikel replacing Oscar and Schurrle.

The two sets of fans exchanged a volley of antagonistic, lame and predictable chants at each other as the game wore on.

“Where were you when you were shit?”

“Here for the Chelsea, you’re only here for the Chelsea.”

“We support our local team.”

“You’ve had your day out, now fcuk off home.”

“Your support is fookin’ shit.”

It was abuse by numbers and the home fans soon gave up, preferring to turn their attention to their most hated, local, rivals.

“And it’s no nay never.
No nay never no more.
Till we play bastard Rovers,
No nay never no more.”

Didier Drogba had sprinted past me – a mere ten feet away – at the start of the second-half and the sight of him, so close, thrilled me. Indeed, all eyes were on our returning hero throughout his warm-up and subsequent appearance as a late substitute for Eden Hazard. One sublime touch and volley wide was a hint of his prowess, though if I am honest, I was as surprised as anyone to see him return to Chelsea.

At the final whistle, I watched as the management team, with the substitutes, walked across the pitch. They acknowledged our support. There was a shake of the hand from Mourinho for Diego Costa. Torres and Costa shared a joke. Petr Cech, smiling too, bless him. Didier threw his shirt in to the crowd and there was a mad scramble.

Outside, we assembled.

“We’re top aren’t we?”

“Yeah, top, deffo.”

We walked back to the waiting car amidst subdued locals. Ahead, another long journey was waiting.

Thankfully a sudden downpour on the M6 amounted to nothing. My spirits dived when I saw a sign for Birmingham (not even half-way home) :

100 miles.

The roads were quiet. Only fools – and Chelsea fans – are out in the small hours of Tuesday mornings.

Eventually I reached home at 3am.

Here’s to game 1,001.

The Story So Far : 

Played – 1,000

Won – 578

Drew – 227

Lost – 195

For – 1,817

Against – 934

IMG_9359

Tales From A Night Of Adulation.

Chelsea vs. Galatasaray : 18 March 2014.

This was a long day. I was up at 4.45am in order to do a rare 6am to 2pm shift at work. I collected Lord Parky, sorted a few priorities out at home and then set off for London at 4pm. We were beset with the usual traffic problems on nearing London. While others were already enjoying pre-match liveners in The Goose, Lord Parky and his designated driver were battling the M4 motorway. Just after 7pm, we made it into the pub. These midweek jaunts to HQ don’t get any easier. No drinks for me, but I believe Parky wolfed down a couple.

So, was this game all about the returning hero Didier Drogba?

At times, it certainly felt like it.

I tried to focus on the game.

With a little more composure in front of goal out in Istanbul – the story of our season, surely – this Champions League tie would have been over before this second-leg. In truth – although I wasn’t underestimating the threat of Galatasaray, blah, blah, blah – I was positive about our chances. I hadn’t seen too much to worry me in the away leg.

So – Didier Drogba.

What to say? As I have stated before, in many ways I wouldn’t have objected too much if the precious moments of Didier Drogba scoring that header and that penalty in Munich were the last memories that I would have of our former goal scorer and club icon on a football pitch.

What pure moments they were.

As we all know, the Chelsea faithful were given one last chance to see Didier back at his former stomping ground. And that can’t be a bad thing, can it? For those unable to witness our win in Munich live, it would be churlish of anyone to deny them this last chance to say a simple “thank you Didi.” However, as I thought about this game during the preceding few days, I was very aware of Didier’s chequered past in the colours of Chelsea Football Club. For every game where his brutal strength and sheer determination won us countless games, there were games where he sulked and pouted. For every thunderous header, there was the laughable dive after the merest hint of contact. For every smile, there was a scowl. As my mate Daryl said in an exchange towards the end of the 2004-2005 season, “no player has split the Chelsea support over recent years as Didier Drogba.”

And how right he was.

In those first couple of seasons, Drogba was on one hand a laughing stock (a commentator once wondered why a footballer with the physique of a heavyweight boxer could fall to the ground after the slightest of challenges like a ballerina) and on one hand a hero. In those first two years, our number 15 was the conundrum. Then, something happened. From season 2006-2007 on, our number 15 became our number 11 and his attitude visibly improved. The theatrics and the risible play-acting decreased. Instead, all of his energies were channelled towards improving his contribution to the team. The change was magnificent. What was the cause of this? I do not know. However, I have always suspected that John Terry took him out for an evening meal, just the two of them, and a few home truths were shared.

“Didi – you have the chance to be the best striker in world football. You have all the gifts. You have strength, power, speed, touch, energy. Please stop the diving. It is hurting the team. Please stop the histrionics. Please stop the pettiness. Let’s move forward together.”

From 2006-2007, we all noticed a change. The following two years – ironically, with no championships – there was a widening appreciation of Didier. We warmed to him. He gave his all. He became easier to like. Good times.

And then there was Moscow.

Moscow could have been the end of Didier Drogba at Chelsea. I wasn’t the only one who tussled with some mixed up emotions after his selfish implosion against Manchester United in the rain of the Luzhniki Stadium. There were many who wanted to more of him besmirching our name and sabotaging team morale. After John Terry’s penalty miss on that night, one can only wonder what one-to-one chat took place in the changing room that night. Maybe it’s best that we don’t know. With time, Drogba eventually worked his way back into most of our collective hearts. But, no doubt, for some the bridge had been burned. There would be approval of his goals, but no love for the person. Even as recently as the 2011-2012 season, Drogba was serving up a mixed-bag of performances. There was the prima donna one week, the hero the next. There was a general consensus of Drogba being “a big game player.” The Wembley games came and the Wembley goals were scored.

And then there was Munich.

Munich embellished the legend, and maybe the myth, of Drogba. That game alone cemented his place in our history.  Although there were other stellar performances on that momentous night, it was all about Didier.

The equalising header. The foul for the penalty. The match-winning penalty.

His city. His stadium. His cup.

And now it was our chance to say, despite all of his flaws –

“Thank you.”

For those of us who were lucky enough to see the game in Istanbul, we had already experienced that odd sensation of seeing Didier playing against us. And it was strange. To be honest, his performance that night was hardly the stuff of legend; he was kept subdued by our Chelsea defenders. A similar performance at Stamford Bridge would be just fine.

Inside the stadium, it was a riot of colour. The three thousand away fans in the allotted section– brightly clad in Galatasaray orange and red – were surely augmented by thousands of London-based Turks in the home areas. Even before the entrance of the teams, they were bellowing their support. Scarves were lofted – with the names of their two main ultra groups in addition to the team name – and the bouncing began. As is so often the case for European home games, the away fans were going to be as much the focus of my attention as the players on the pitch. We had all been given the usual blue and white flags and these were waved with gusto during “Blue Is The Colour.”  Not by me though; I was too busy pointing my camera through 360 degrees.

The teams entered the pitch. And I have to admit it; all eyes were on Didier. I was happy that I captured the moment that Didier spotted the orange “Drogba Legend” banner, now repositioned in the MHU, and pointed in appreciation. As the teams lined up, the evocative CL anthem echoed around the stadium’s four packed stands. Then, to my left, a new flag…a massive square of royal blue, with the Europa / UEFA Cup picked out in white…it was draped down into the MHL. Then, far away in the opposite corner, the Champions  League / European Cup trophy.

The twin trophies.

Fantastic.

I trust that there will be one coming soon to commemorate Athens and Stockholm too.

The holy trinity.

As the game began, I was relaxed. There was no real fear of us exiting from the competition amid scenes of embarrassment and dismay. There were no frayed nerves. After just four minutes, we took the lead. Neat play from Eden Hazard found Oscar and the ball was played in to Samuel Eto’o. Our striker took just one touch before slamming the ball past the Galatasaray ‘keeper Muslera. Eto’o ran off, gleefully smiling, with The Shed in rapture. A few celebratory leaps and he was then mobbed by his team mates.

“Samuel Eto’o, Samuel Eto’o – Hello, Hello.”

We were up 2-1. Surely there was no way that we’d mess this up.

I was very content with our performance as the first-half progressed. We chased loose balls, put our opponents under pressure and moved the ball intelligently. Galatasaray were quiet. As they were attacking the Matthew Harding, that man Drogba came under scrutiny, but his involvement was minimal. An optimistic overhead kick and a skybound free-kick were the sum of his efforts.

A free-kick from the right by Frank Lampard was met by John Terry, whose perfectly-timed run had surprised us all. Sadly his fine volley narrowly flew over the bar. Of all JT’s goals, most have been close headers and prods from inside the six yard box. We await his first screamer.

Just before the break, a corner from Frank Lampard was again met by a free-running John Terry. His header was saved, but Gary Cahill was on hand to smash the ball in to the roof of the net.

2-0 Chelsea.

More celebrations in front of The Shed. Great stuff. We relaxed a little further.

At the break, the much-loved Tore Andre Flo toured the Stamford Bridge pitch and he received a particularly warm reception. His indiscretion of playing a handful of games for Leeds United has been forgotten. It was great to see him again.

As the second-half began, it was the Galatasaray fans who were – sadly – making all of the noise. They were indeed quite a sight. Rhythmic bouncing, shrill whistling, fervent chanting – they had it all. A quite mesmeric run from Eden Hazard, reminiscent of a piss-taking dribble from Pat Nevin in his prime, went on forever, but the final pass to Oscar was ill-judged. His shot was saved. For a while, the Chelsea crowd were quiet. Then, for no apparent reason except for perhaps the humiliation of being out sung yet again, the home support awoke from its stupor and produced an unexpected and very solid display for a good fifteen minute period.

“We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea – and Leicester.

We all follow the Chelsea.

On to victory.”

A Frank Lampard header from an Oscar cross proved to be one of only a few chances that we carved out. I felt that we were playing within ourselves; why not? Galatasaray were clearly one of the poorest teams we had seen in the latter stages of Europe’s biggest prize for some time. The noise still rang out from the home areas.

We sang a very loud “Carefree.”

This was great to hear.

“And it’s super Chelsea.

Super Chelsea F.C.

We’re by far the greatest team.

The world has ever seen.”

This was as loud as I have known it for quite a while. As far as I am concerned, Chelsea can win all of the trophies in the world and we can suck up millions of new fans far and wide, but if we – as Chelsea fans – aren’t rocking Stamford Bridge to its foundations every fucking game, we’ve failed.

More of the same please.

A few late chances came and went. The highlight of the closing stages was an audacious flicked back-heel from Eden Hazard which allowed Fernando Torres, a late substitute, to shoot. Nando’s effort sadly didn’t match the quality of the pass. Hazard was the star of our show once more, but Willian’s drive and energy again warmed me.

Without really being aware of what I was doing, I joined in with a chorus praising Didier Drogba. Old habits die hard, eh? To be truthful, this was as easy a Champions League game as I can remember. At the final whistle, there was a roar, but deep inside I knew that sterner challenges lie ahead.

As Didier Drogba walked over to the Galatasaray fans with a few team mates, I wondered how he would choose to end his night. He walked towards the centre-circle, stopped and applauded those still in the stadium. We repaid him with warm thanks and sang his name one last time.

Within a few short seconds, he had disappeared down the tunnel.

The night was over.

Image