Tales From Friends Reunited

Chelsea vs. Atletico Madrid : 5 December 2017.

The Chuckle Bus was London-bound once more, headed to Stamford Bridge for a third consecutive game and a Tuesday evening encounter with Atletico Madrid. Here was a lovely match to finish off our autumnal series in the competition that gets us all excited and dreamy. After Champions League clashes with the Mattress Makers in 2009/2010 and 2013/2014 (does anyone remember us playing Atletico at Highbury in the pre-season Makita at Highbury in 1994 too?), this seemed like an evening to re-acquaint ourselves with a familiar adversary and some old friends too.

Step forward Tiago.

Our one-season wonder from 2004/2005 was returning to Stamford Bridge in his capacity as assistant manager to Diego Simeone after finally hanging up his boots last season. I am not really sure why Jose Mourinho sold Tiago on to Lyon after just one championship season at Stamford Bridge. He was a classy player with an eye for goal. His equaliser on a famous night at Old Trafford was a belter. He featured in the semi-finals against us in 2014. He would now sit alongside the Argentinian Simeone, who himself played against us for Lazio in the 1999/2000 season.

Step forward Filipe Luis.

Another one-season wonder under Jose Mourinho, this defender flitted in and out of the Chelsea team of 2014/2015, and returned to Atletico the following season after a disappointing total of games played. He shared the same shocking hairstyle as Alexei Smertin and followed the same fate as the left-back Asier del Horno who also lasted just one season under Mourinho. Considering Chelsea’s predilection for dispensing the services of left-backs after a league win, it is quite a surprise that Marcos Alonso is still here.

Step forward Fernando Torres.

Once an Atleti wunderkind, the local boy from Fuenlabrada signed for Liverpool and then joined us in a blockbuster move in the January transfer window of 2011. Although I was always impressed with his work ethic, he struggled to win over many fans. He is remembered fondly by myself for that goal in Barcelona, that corner in Munich and that goal in Amsterdam. The roar which greeted his first-ever goal in the rain against West Ham is one of the loudest I have ever witnessed. I last saw him on the bench at Turf Moor in the first game of 2014/2015. It would be great to see him again.

In addition to Tiago playing against us in 2014, that Atletico team also included Thibaut Courtois and Diego Costa.

I wonder what ever happened to them?

We popped into “The Goose” for one and “Simmons Bar” for a couple. There were the usual familiar Chelsea faces in both pubs. I was pleased to be joined by Eric, still visiting from Toronto, and taking in his third match at Stamford Bridge in seven days and we chatted about his stay in London. We shared a few laughs when we mentioned the heightened expectation from legions of new fans, who only appear to be in it for the trophies. Eric spoke about the respect that he has for us – cough, cough – “old school” Chelsea fans who supported us through thick, thin and thinner.

“You were there when we were shit, right?”

“Well, at the time, I have to say, we all thought that we were alright. Honestly. For the most part, we thought we were doing OK.”

I was half-serious.

Eric understood the joke.

Thoughts turned to the evening’s game. When the draw was made way back in August, a brave man would have bet against Chelsea and Atletico Madrid making it out of the group, yet it was looking pretty likely that Simeone’s men, with just win from their five matches, would be likely to playing in the Europa League, save for a catastrophe for Roma against Qarabag. We were already guaranteed a passage into the knock-out phase in the new year. Whereas others were calculating whether or not it would be best to finish first or second, with likely opposition being compared, I was hoping for a win against Atletico for the sole reason that it would mean that our first game in February or March would be away. It is always advantageous to play away first. And I was thinking of the supporters just as much as the team. For the supporters, let us enjoy an away game first with no chance of a defeat from the first game spoiling our trip. For the players, let them enjoy home advantage in the second game, where extra-time might be needed.

However, as we took our seats in The Sleepy Hollow of the Matthew Harding, there was a certain strangeness to the evening’s mood. The four of us – Lord Parky, PD, Young Jake and me – had decided that we would be forced, reluctantly, to leave the game, regardless of the score, on eighty-five minutes to avoid the horrific traffic congestion caused by the partial closure of the M4 which had blighted our return trip against Swansea City the previous week.

“Let’s go 3-0 up and bugger off home, lads.”

Over in The Shed, the two thousand away fans were a riot of colour, if not noise. I was impressed that so many had travelled despite the miniscule chance of them progressing. Down on the pitch, the Atletico players were going through their drills in front of their fans, while the Chelsea players were doing the same in front of us. The stadium took for ever to fill, but it almost reached full capacity. Apart from a section in The Shed – a gap so that Chelsea fans were not immediately above the visitors – I had to search meticulously for empty seats. In our section, virtually every seat was full.

I commented to Alan –

“£35 for a Champions League game is pretty decent, to be fair.”

Antonio had mixed it up again, and I was surprised that he chose to play Davide Zappacosta out on the left in place of Marcos Alonso. Tiemoue Bakayoko was recalled in the place of Danny Drinkwater. Gary Cahill, the experienced captain, replaced Toni Rudiger.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Bakayoko – Zappacosta

Hazard – Morata

I was pleased to see both Filipe Luis and Fernando Torres starting for Atletico, resplendent in their red and white stripes.

The anthem, the march across the pitch, the handshakes.

It would be lovely, I think, if the march across the pitch for Champions League games could be kept in the new Stamford Bridge stadium. Let’s maintain that Chelsea tradition. It adds an extra lick of drama and anticipation on these wonderful nights. Keep the dressing rooms in the East Stand and keep the dignitaries in the West Stand.

Something to think about, Herr Herzog and Herr de Meuron.

There was a slight wait for the referee’s whistle and then the game began with their star striker Antoine Griezmann kicking-off, or kicking-back, or whatever it is called these days.

Griezmann must have just recently returned from his own stag party in Prague or Benidorm or Amsterdam; his best man must surely have cut his hair with an electric shaver, and it was only now starting to grow again. It looked bloody awful.

The game lacked a little intensity at the start. As players picked out team mates in pretty patterns but without much penetration, I thought back on all of these ridiculous links between Chelsea and Atletico Madrid that have developed in the very recent past. I recalled that in Italy, some clubs – in addition to heated rivalries with some teams – have “friendly” relationships with some clubs too. Napoli get on well with Genoa, I seemed to remember. In Europe, there is a little link up between Chelsea and Rangers, Chelsea and Lazio, Chelsea and Feyenoord, and in the pre-historic days of 1994/1995, a little band of TSV1860 Munich followed us around on our European trail. I wondered if we have witnessed the first tentative steps in a friendship between Chelsea and Atletico over the past few seasons. When they beat us, fairly and squarely, in 2014, I joined in thousands who applauded Atletico off the Stamford Bridge turf.

I remembered the story of how Newcastle United fans invaded the Basque city of Bilbao in the mid-nineties, and how they were taken in by the natives, who joined in with their drinking and carousing, to such an extent that a few Geordies mooted the idea of forming some sort of friendship between the two clubs’ supporters.

Then, it dawned on them.

“Wait a minute lads, they wear red and white stripes.”

A few chances were exchanged, and over the first twenty minutes I would suggest that the away team were marginally ahead on points. Then, we began to turn the screw. As with the game against Newcastle United, Alvaro Morata managed a few efforts on goal. One shot curled just wide of Jan Oblak’s post.

There was a “trademark” heavy-touch – I am being kind – from Torres in our box and the jeers rang out.

A lovely little bit of delicate close control from N’Golo Kante – what is “keepy-uppy” in French? – brought warm applause.

Eden Hazard began to dominate. Just how does he consistently manage to out-fox a marker with those 180 degree turns from a standing position?

Another good save from Oblak, again from Morata.

Hazard set up Zappacosta on the left, who cut back and fired a low shot goal wards. Oblak again pounced to push the ball away.

There was little noise in the stadium. A few chants, but not many. The two sets of fans in The Shed contrasted wildly.

Atletico – standing, participating and colourful, with flags, banners, scarves.

Chelsea – sitting, watching, being the modern English home football supporter to a T.

Although we were now dominating play, this was still a game that lacked any biting tackles nor rugged intensity. It was enjoyable stuff though. No complaints. Griezmann kept coming deep to pick up the ball, but was generally quiet. Sorry for the clichés, but Christensen was cool and calm again. Only Bakayoko looked out of sorts. Advantage Drinkwater at this stage of the season.

In the first few moments of the second-half, a Griezmann free-kick curled around our wall but Thibaut was able to save. Within a minute, a fine Hazard cross from the left was headed goal wards by Christensen who had leapt well. That man Oblak palmed over.

We were then treated to a sensational run from deep from Hazard, his speed and skill leaving defenders in his wake. Oblak saved again. We were playing some great stuff now, and Morata forced another save from the corner. We were raiding at will down the left with Zappacosta adding extra spice, and the ever reliable Moses on the right twisting and pushing to create crosses out of nowhere.

Filipe Luis then lazily guided a fine shot past Thibaut – hearts in mouths – but it rebounded back off the right post. Koke – another quiet one – headed the ball back towards goal but Thibaut was equal to it.

An Atletico corner soon followed.

I found myself saying “don’t let it drop.”

It dropped onto Torres’ header and his flick was headed in at the far post by Niguez.

“Bollocks.”

This goal was undoubtedly against the run of play. We had dominated until then.

“Bollocks.”

Fernando Torres was given an outstanding ovation when he was substituted by Simeone just after the goal was scored. He surely has a soft spot for us.

“The Atletico & Chelsea Supporters Association” : Patron Fernando Torres.

Pedro replaced the disappointing Bakayoko. Our terrier-like winger was soon in the game, fizzing past his marker and smashing a shot goal wards.

Oblak, save, sigh.

Christensen went close.

The intensity was increasing and Stamford Bridge warmed with noise.

It was all out attack now.

I looked across to PD, wondering if we would score before our eighty-five-minute escape hatch would open up.

We went close, with Moses, Hazard, Pedro and Fabregas all creating chance after chance.

Willian replaced Zappacosta.

“COME ON CHELS.”

Pedro moved to wing back, Willian played ahead.

On seventy-five minutes, the ball broke to Hazard after a defensive header, and he accelerated past his marker before slamming a low cross towards the six-yard box. I saw the ball flash into the goal, and missed the deflection from the Atletico defender Savic. It was the slightest of touches.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Eden celebrated down below us. His relief was shared by all of us.

“Phew.”

We hardly lose any games at home in Europe. Count’em.

The boys in blue were playing some great stuff now.

Morata headed on – a classic Chelsea counter – for Fabregas and Cesc advanced before squaring the ball back to our number nine, who was being chased by three defenders, but he fluffed his lines and Oblak saved.

“Bollocks.”

Michy replaced Morata.

“Tuck yer shirt in, son.”

Down below us, Eden danced away, and spotted the unmarked Willian. With the goal at his mercy he ballooned the ball over.

“Bollocks.”

With five minutes to go, we left.

“See you at West Ham, Al.”

What a strange sensation. In all of my years of attending games at Stamford Bridge – this would be game number 722 – I had only ever left a game early once before (Bolton at home, 1981, in case anyone is wondering. I needed to return to Earls Court to catch a bus home to Frome at 5pm. Thankfully we were 2-0 in that game.)

The streets were eerie and empty. It was wholly surreal.

Jake, PD and I walked briskly back to the car. Parky, bless him, was already there. There had been no loud cheer on our walk down Fulham Road.

It had finished 1-1.

We pulled away at 9.50pm, PD broke the land speed record and, at bang on midnight I was home. There had been no added drama at Stamford Bridge nor on the M4.

Job done.

IMG_2074

Tales From A Game Too Far

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 27 May 2017.

The F.A. Cup Final. The grand finale to the domestic season. Chelsea’s last game and my last game of 2016/2017. The final hurrah.

There is nothing quite like an F. A. Cup Final.

Or to be precise, there was nothing like an F. A. Cup Final.

Before we experienced wall-to-wall football on TV, before the Champions League skewed club priorities every season, back in the days of when the nation stopped as one and all the talk in the preceding week was about the game, the F.A. Cup Final was a truly magical event. When did the magic start fading? For me, it was when the game left the old Wembley Stadium, before it took temporary refuge at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff for six seasons, and then returned to the spanking new, but generally unloved, new Wembley.

The Cup still stirs emotions, but that magic – difficult to describe to anyone who never grew up in an England which only showed one club game of football live on TV each season – has long since gone.

But, after the season-long chase for the title which was undoubtedly the main focus – to the point of obsession – we were gifted the chance to end the campaign with further glory and further fun. Tickets were purchased, plans were made. This was going to be a fine end to the season.

And then, two events happened which changed everything.

Staying up late, as I often do, on Monday night, I watched – horrified – on TV as news filtered through regarding the atrocity which befell the proud city of Manchester. I felt sadness, pain and anger. I slipped into a disturbed sleep and awoke the next day to the news of the full extent of the carnage. What sorrow. Immediately, there was the realisation that the F. A. Cup Final would be under intense scrutiny as there was the risk for similar attacks on personal freedom. There was, of course, no way that I would not go.

However, there was more sadness. At work on the Tuesday morning, I received a message from my wonderful friend Alan. After the game against Sunderland on Sunday, we had said our goodbyes at “The Lillee Langtry” and as we headed home, he paid a visit to his dear mother in a South London hospital. Sadly, the message relayed the heart-breaking news that his mother had passed away that Tuesday morning.

I fell silent and felt a great deal of pain. I only met Alan’s mother once – in around 1996 or 1997 if memory serves – but she was a lovely South London lady, just as her son is a lovely South London man. I passed on my sincere condolences to Alan – an only child like myself, our friendship goes deep –  and our solid group of friends rallied support for Alan throughout the week. We hoped and prayed that he would be well enough to attend the game on Saturday.

There was a real feeling of relief, and happiness – if that is the right word – to hear on Friday that Alan would be attending.

This brought back some bittersweet memories for me of course. And it made me think. How very odd that my mother’s passing in 2015 was followed by a Chelsea Cup Final at Wembley Stadium, and that the first game after Alan’s mother’s passing would be a Chelsea Cup Final too. Two years ago, I needed to be around the greatest of friends to help me through the day. I am sure that Alan’s thoughts were along similar lines. And as he explained to me, his mother – who keenly followed all of our matches – would not have wanted him to have missed the game on behalf of her.

The football, at times, seemed irrelevant throughout the week, but as Saturday finally arrived, there was a new focus for all of us.

An intense lightning storm woke me at 3am during the night, followed by deafening thunder and a monsoon-like deluge. It was a dramatic start to the day for sure. I struggled to get back to sleep. Would Saturday be sunny, as forecast, or would the rain continue? With a Chelsea Football Club statement asking for no bags to be brought to Wembley in light of the terrorist threat, I pondered options for getting my camera into the stadium. Eventually I drifted back to sleep.

Glenn picked me up at 7.45am. He drove in to Frome to collect PD, who had also awoken amid the light show at 3am. On to collect Parky, a breakfast of champions at Bradford-on-Avon at 8.30am, and Glenn then headed east, London-bound for the last time this season.

We wanted to continue a theme for this season; a little pub-crawl in previously virgin territory. Yes, we knew that there would be songs and chants and revelry at a number of watering holes throughout the capital, but we opted for a little tranquility before joining forces with Alan and others later. From 11.30am to 2pm, we nestled ourselves within the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and sampled four pubs within a few hundred yards of each other; “The Wilton Arms”, “The Nag’s Head”, “The Star” and “The Grenadier.” We were in Belgravia, one of the most expensive pieces of real estate going. It felt right that we should be starting our day in Chelsea, although of course Stamford Bridge itself is in Hammersmith & Fulham. Each pub had hanging baskets outside, wooden interiors, tons of character, lots of history. The sun was out, LP’s and PD’s shorts were on, and the beer was certainly hitting the spot.

At “The Nag’s Head” we chatted to a Russian Chelsea fan from Moscow, living in London since 2004, and off to the match too.

Just as we arrived at “The Star”, two US Arsenal fans, wearing replica shirts – shocker – were just leaving. I reminded them of the Arsenal way : “remember to beat the crowds, stay until the end.” They laughed, but I’m not convinced they understood what I meant.

Four pints to the good, we headed up towards Paddington, where the London-based lads were waiting at “Fountains Abbey” on Praed Street.

A hug for Alan, and I was pleased to see that he was full of smiles. We chatted away and it was lovely to see that he had made the right decision. His dear mother, although probably in a little pain on Sunday night, had enquired how Chelsea had fared in our last game of the season. That simple question – his mother asking about the team – had probably swayed him further. There was no way that Alan would miss the Cup Final.

Ah, the final. Throughout the week, when the game flitted in to my head, I remained confident. I hadn’t been more confident leading up to a major final since the 1998 trip to Stockholm. It seemed that everyone shared similar thoughts. I chatted to Ed, who was one of the few who were mentioning the game itself. He had been confident, yet was beginning to worry as kick-off approached. I calmed him a little.

“Nah, we’ll win. We’re too good for them. No doubt. And there is no point feeling guilty about being confident. Listen, it’s what Liverpool fans in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties were, and what United fans around fifteen years ago were. They were great teams and their fans knew it. Nothing wrong with being confident.”

After five pints or more, I was even beginning to convince myself too.

In another moment – maybe when I was less confident – I spoke quietly to Glenn.

“Of course, you realise that if we lose to these fuckers, our next two games will be against them too; in July in Beijing and in August at Wembley.”

Shudder.

In light of the call to be inside the stadium an hour before kick-off, we headed off for the tube earlier than normal. No last minute flit to Wembley this time. In previous finals, we have often arrived just in time for the last few formalities. No chance of that this time.

We tubed it to Marylebone and caught the train north. Our carriage was mainly Chelsea. The few Arsenal fans spotted were wearing replica shirts in the main. Of course, many Chelsea were too – it’s a Cup Final tradition, I wore a 1970 replica in 1994 – but there was a noticeable difference before the two sets of fans. Of our group of ten, only Gary and John were wearing club merchandise.

Lacoste Watch :

Parky – white.

Ed – chocolate.

Chris – pale blue.

(Incidentally, I was wearing blue all over : blue shirt, blue jeans, blue trainers, blue rain jacket and even my aftershave came from a blue bottle. And there was blue language too of course.)

We arrived at Wembley Stadium station at around 4.30pm. Chelsea were all around. I suspect Arsenal were using the more traditional Wembley Park option. The sun was beating down. There was not much of a queue to get in. My camera, slung around my neck, was waved in, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Up the escalators and inside. Wembley looked vast and we were in with plenty of time to spare, located in the upper tier, above the “Frank Lampard corner flag.” Alan, Gary, Ed and Neil were about thirty seats away. There were a few familiar faces nearby. It is amazing how we always seem to find ourselves among friends. At each seat, there was a Chelsea flag and a Chelsea bar scarf. A young lad appeared in the row in front and he was wearing an authentic Benetton rugby top from the mid-‘eighties. If ever there was a garment which is much desired to this day from that golden age of football clobber, then this was it. It is the holy grail of casualdom. I once owned one, albeit for only a few weeks, and that is a tale which I will eventually tell when the mood takes me, and originals now fetch ridiculous sums. I told the kid that I wanted to kill him and he smiled.

At the Eastern end, a huge Arsenal banner hung from the rafters :

“History. Tradition. Class.”

I think they left out “pomposity.”

At our western end, a simpler message :

“Pride Of London.”

As the minutes ticked by, the stadium filled. Our end appeared to fill quicker. Glenn noted a new feature, a thin section of obviously corporate spectators in the upper deck above the Royal Box; no colours on show there. In the corporate middle tier, I reckoned that there was just as much blue as red, a positive sign. Wembley has recently tightened the rules on bringing flags and banners into the stadium and the arena looked less football-like because of it. It’s as if they are saying “leave the atmosphere to us.”

A huge FA Cup mosaic adorned the pitch. Young dancers sprung on to the pitch waving bar scarves.

“It wasn’t like this in 1997.”

Of course, the team picked itself. It was the team that I would definitely have chosen.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill

Moses – Matic – Kante – Alonso

Pedro – Costa – Hazard

The minutes ticked by.

The next part of this FA Cup Saturday was about to unfold. And it is quite a story. Over a year ago, my good mate Rob took part in a short film which followed two football fans on a personal journey into the once elitist world of opera. Rob and Harry are Chelsea fans of a certain vintage and were not into opera at all. They were coerced by their pals Mike and Adam to attend various operatic shindigs, culminating in a performance of Giussepe Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the Royal Opera House, all the while being filmed along the way. It is a lovely film and won awards at the London Film Awards in 2016. Adam and Harry recently attended a film festival in LA too.

London.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QxaLMiHsUU

Los Angeles.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEI1PmgMLVA&t=328s

To cut a very long story short, Rob and Adam – Harry was on a family holiday so could not attend – were to join twenty other football fans from around the country in the singing of the traditional Cup Final hymn “Abide With Me.” I promised Rob that I would capture the moment with my camera; it is why I was so worried about getting the long lens inside the stadium. I spotted the group walk onto the pitch. My camera was ready.

Just before their moment, a montage appeared on the huge TV screens. As Eddie Newton and Sol Campbell were chosen to bring the FA Cup on to the pitch, a grainy clip of Eddie’s goal against Middlesbrough in 1997 was shown. An echo of a different era really. How time flies, eh?

The crowd quietened. I have noticed how “Abide With Me” seems to play less and less a role in the FA Cup Final these days. On my first visit in 1994, with my father having passed away the previous year, the words drew tears from myself as I sang along. Since then, on all subsequent visits, I have noted fewer and fewer fans joining in. Whether or not it was because of the events of Manchester or not, and the need to show a sense of community and shared kinship, on this occasion I sensed more than usual joining in.

As the words flowed, I joined in, and clicked away.

My thoughts were with Alan, just yards away.

Next up, the national anthem. Another show of solidarity. It was as loud that I can ever remember at Wembley.

The stadium was full now. A red-half and a less prominent blue-half. The two teams assembled on the centre-circle. Thoughts were now centred on the events of Monday night. At first there was applause but as the announcement continued, everyone hushed. I was very impressed. There followed a minute of complete silence in memory for those slain in Manchester.

RIP.

The game began. We stood, high up in row 22 of the top deck, for the entire game. Not everyone was stood, though. A fine long ball from David Luiz found Pedro but we failed to capitalise. For the next few minutes, we struggled to get a foothold. Arsenal looked livelier and more focused. N’Golo Kante struggled to keep the ball and we watched as an Arsenal move developed. A ball was slung in to our box. A clearance was knocked towards Alexis Sanchez who raised both arms and appeared to pat the ball down with his hands.

“Handball” thought everyone.

There was no referee’s whistle, nothing. Our players appeared to momentarily stop, but play continued. Sanchez slotted home.

“Well, that was good of you, you prick. It was handball, knobhead.”

But there was still no whistle.

The referee, oddly, raced over to the linesman.

“Not sure why he is doing that. He was only a few yards away from the handball.”

The referee and linesman chatted for a few seconds. I was absolutely adamant that the goal would be disallowed. It wasn’t. The referee pointed to the centre-circle. Disbelief all round. The Arsenal players seemed to not celebrate as if they were shocked too. Bollocks. Barely five minutes were on the clock.

During the first quarter, we really struggled and it was a huge surprise to us all. Where there had been fight and togetherness during the league campaign, here we looked listless and disjointed. We were slow in closing Arsenal’s attacking threat, and I lost count of the number of misplaced passes. As our play failed to live up to the standards set by the team this season, our support quietened. We were all in shock.

Sanchez set up Ozil, whose touch took him a little wide. His shot beat Courtois, but Gary Cahill’s nimble back-heal on the goal-line saved us from going 2-0 down. Then, Welbeck headed down and onto the post from a corner, and an Arsenal player was thankfully unable to follow it up.

We could have been 3-0 down. Heads were shaking all around me.

“When have we played as bad as this?”

“Arsenal away.”

We tried to rally.

“Come on Chelsea.”

We tried moving the ball into dangerous areas. To be truthful, Pedro was his usual energetic self and was our biggest threat of the opening period. Diego Costa had a couple of half chances. Eden struggled to get involved; I had hoped that this would be his final. Moses out on the right had a lot of the ball but struggled with the final ball. But it was our defensive frailty which caused us more worry. Matic was especially slow in covering ground and blocking.

Arsenal threatened further with Sanchez a huge threat. Courtois saved well from Xhaka.

With the first-half moving on, we improved slightly. Hazard fed in Pedro, but his shot from only fifteen yards out flew high over the bar and in to the packed Arsenal lower tier, full of jester hats, and face-paint too, no doubt. That was our best chance of the game thus far. But we were clearly second best.

Just before the whistle, we won a free kick on the edge of the box after Pedro’s heels were clipped. It was a perfect position for the left foot of Marcos Alonso. His effort sailed over, knocking the jester hat off an Arsenal fan in row Z.

At the break, neighbouring fans passed on news that the Arsenal goal should have been disallowed for offside in addition to the obvious handball. The ghost of David fucking Elleray lingers on.

Only one phrase dominated my thoughts at half-time :

“We can’t play as badly in the second half.”

I would have like to have been a fly on the wall inside our changing room during the interval. Thankfully, we started the second period a lot more positively. It roused the Chelsea support, who had been generally quiet as the first-half passed. A few shots from Pedro, Kante and Moses hinted at a fine reaction. The Chelsea support roared.

“Carefree.”

Pedro continued to be our biggest threat. We watched as he curled a fine effort just past the far post.

PD wanted Pedro to drop back and replace Moses at right back with Willian being brought on. I concurred. The manager had a different idea. On the hour, Conte replaced the very poor Matic with the much-lauded Cesc Fabregas. “The Magic Hat” reverberated around our end. He was met with boos from the the Goons of course. The Wembley pitch looked huge and we seemed unable to exploit its spaces. Bellerin tested Courtois from just inside the box, and our ‘keeper made the save of the match, pushing the ball out with outstretched arms. We roared our approval.

Down below us, Cesc shot wide. The minutes were ticking by.

With about twenty minutes remaining, Moses – who was having an up and down game – fell weakly inside the box. The referee judged a dive. It was his second yellow. Despite much protest, he left the field.

Twenty-eight thousand fans inside the stadium thought the same thought : “that’s fucked it.”

Willian replaced Pedro, who had arguably been our best player. He was soon involved down our right. Strangely, we looked more effective. A rare corner amounted to nothing, but then Willian crossed in to the box. For the first time all match, the Arsenal defenders were sloppy and indecisive. Diego took a touch and volleyed past Ospina.

“GET IN YOU BASTARD.”

Our end exploded. A moment of pandemonium mixed with real disbelief.

“How the bloody hell are we back in the game?”

Less than a minute later, that bearded knobhead Giroud sent over a cross which Ramsey headed in, past Courtois, a gaping goal an easy target.

Despair.

The Pompous Ones boomed with joy at the other end, and probably spilled their popcorn.

“Fuck.”

With time quickly disappearing, we tried to counter. David Luiz, who had supplied the attackers with a couple of excellent long passes, and who had been well-placed to head away several Arsenal efforts, went close with a header from an angle.

Bellerin, breaking with pace, could have sealed our fate but brushed a low shot wide. I turned around and sighed. This was too much.

In a position which mirrored his goal, Diego volleyed at Ospina. A yard either side of the ‘keeper and we would have miraculously levelled it again.

The clock ticked on.

Conte replaced Diego with Michy Batshuayi. Ozil hit the post at the other end. Luiz spent a fair portion of the last few minutes as a spare attacker.

It was simply not to be.

As the last few seconds ticked by, we slowly edged our way out.

The final whistle blew. We just wanted to leave, to get ourselves on the train back to the city centre. We should have, in hindsight, stayed to applaud the team, but we just wanted to get home. This was my forty-seventh game of the season and I felt exhausted.

Bizarrely, there were a few Arsenal fans in the line for the train. We wondered why they did not want to stay to see the trophy lifted. The magic of the cup, eh? In that line for the train – gallows humour to the fore, jokes helping us through – it appeared that we were in brighter spirits than the victorious Gooners. What an odd bunch they are. Maybe it was dawning on them that this would not be Wenger’s last game at the helm after all. How we laughed.

On the train, there was a fair bit of mainly good-natured banter between both sets of fans. A little knot of Arsenal kept singing in praise of Petr Cech, and it got boring. There was nothing malicious. However, they then decided – oh, you fools – to sing “WWYWYWS?” at us and this was met with a far more prickly response. The message was clear; you can take the piss out of our players, our club, but do not take the piss out of us, the fans. And do not, ever, sing that song to us.

Our support has never weakened. We have always shown up.

One Chelsea supporter stood up, and ranted at them, and it was powerful stuff. Although I can’t condone violence nor the threat of it, it certainly shut the fuckers up.

Very soon we sang :

“It’s gone quiet, over there.”

They had no answer.

Fuck’em.

We made our way back to Barons Court. The last tube journey of the season. We chatted to a few fellow fans. There was the briefest of post-mortems. One chap advocated using Cesc from the very start to open up the vast Wembley spaces. But, in hindsight, I would not have altered the starting eleven that the manager chose. It just seemed that it had been one game too far. Regardless of the farce of the first goal, we knew that we were well beaten. It had been a long day. At a service station on the A4, where Glenn and myself once bumped into Mark Hughes after a Chelsea game in 1998, we had an impromptu feast. The last food had been at breakfast. My mouth was as dry as a desert; a bottle of Coke has never tasted better. We were exhausted. I fell asleep on the drive home. Glenn made good time and I was back home before midnight.

It had been a long old day and a long old season. It ended with a poor performance, but we must not focus on that. It has been an exceptional campaign, hasn’t it? I must say that I have loved every damn minute of it; from the excesses of the US in the summer to the biting tundra of Ice Station Burnley, from the pubs of Sunderland and Liverpool to the bars around Chelsea, from the many highs to the few lows, from the Chuckle Bus and beyond, one step beyond, it has been one of the most rewarding seasons ever.

2016/17 : the numbers –

650 miles by train.

8,000 miles by plane.

12,500 miles by car.

115,000 words.

7,500 photographs.

1 league championship trophy.

We went to work, didn’t we? Too bloody right we did.

Grazie mille Antonio.

Have a great summer everyone – and many thanks for your continued and precious support.

In memory of Eileen Davidson : 28 July 1931 to 23 May 2017.

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Tales From The Warm Afterglow

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 25 April 2017.

It was a surprisingly cold evening in SW6. There had been plenty of time for a couple of lagers in “The Goose” with the usual suspects, and the talk was all about our win over Tottenham in the semi-final on Saturday and the remaining games left for us this season. The huge 4-2 win had certainly warmed us all, and had given us renewed hope for the remaining games. In the beer garden, there was a glow from Saturday insulating us from the biting cold. We had six league games remaining. If we could eke out five wins, our sixth championship would be assured. It’s all about numbers at this time of the season.

Inside the stadium, Southampton had only brought 1,500, which I thought was pretty poor, considering that their tickets were pegged at £30. Just before the teams entered the pitch, the banners were out in The Shed again, with the words “Keep The Blue Flag Flying High” draped vertically down from the upper deck.

Our team was a strong one, with Gary Cahill returning and Cesc Fabregas starting.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill.

Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso.

Fabregas, Costa, Hazard.

Featured in the visiting line-up were two former Chelsea players, both of whom were in our numbers in Munich – Ryan Bertrand and Oriel Romeu.

Just before the game began, my pal Rob – who sits a few rows behind me in The Sleepy Hollow – told me that he had organised tickets for a neighbour and his son, who was attending his first-ever Chelsea game, to sit alongside him. Rob asked me to take a few candid photographs of the young lad during the game as a little memento of the evening. It was a pleasure to be able to do so. I explained to Bournemouth Steve, who was sitting alongside me, what Rob had asked me to do and he in turn suggested that I should shout up to him to get the lad to smile. However, not only would that spoil the shot that I was looking for, but I also added “nobody ever smiles at football, mate.” And it’s certainly at least half-true. At Chelsea games, we tend to look on with our faces being pictures of studied seriousness, often beset with worries, only smiling or laughing at irregular intervals.

“Sombre business this football.”

Not long in to the game, the shots of a suitably pensive Harrison were in the can. I hoped that he’d appreciate the photographs in his later years. It took me back, momentarily, to my first game in 1974. As I have mentioned before, despite my parents having taken many photographs of myself during my childhood, it is a little gripe of mine that there is no photographic record of my first-ever game at Chelsea. In fact, until I took my camera to games in 1983/1984, only one photograph from my first ten years of Chelsea games exists, and it came from a game against Southampton in 1976. It marked the return of The King, Peter Osgood.

Sadly, I don’t remember too much about this game. I recollect that we had to collect our tickets from the box office and I remember that former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson, who was by then working for BBC TV, was in front of us in the queue. I guess he was waiting for his press pass. Strangely, the Chelsea fans ignored him. My first-ever Chelsea photograph depicts the young Chelsea captain Ray Wilkins leaning forward in the centre-circle to shake hands with the referee at the start of proceedings.

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I have, sadly, no real memory of Peter Osgood’s play on that day over thirty-nine years ago, but I believe that I am correct in saying that there was a little bit of animosity towards him from The Shed during the game and he responded by flicking a V sign at them. My vague memory of the day is being churned-up seeing him playing against us. The game ended 1-1. Chelsea’s new number nine Jock Finnieston was our scorer.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MwRXqPoSZts

Back to our game with Southampton in 2017 and, thankfully, we did not have too long to wait for a goal. After just five minutes, a lovely long ball from Cesc found Diego Costa, who ploughed a lone furrow forward. I will be honest, I thought that Diego was undecided with what he would do. He held on to the ball – “too long, too long”  I moaned – but was then able to look up and perfectly cut a ball back towards Eden Hazard. His low shot screamed towards the far post, and in it went.

GET IN.

I was the target of some good-natured ribbing from the lads sitting nearby – “too long, ha” – and then Alan and myself enacted our usual opening goal routine.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

I had naively hoped that the opening period of the game would be marked by a relentless barrage of noise, effectively thanking the team for their hugely important win at Wembley, but even with a goal to cheer, the noise levels were not that special. To be honest, the spirited Southampton team caused us a few moments of concern as they fought hard for possession. They worked the ball well. But Chelsea were zipping the ball around too. It was an open game. There were groans after Eden Hazard blazed over after another delightful set-up from Diego from a pass from Fabregas.

On twenty-four minutes, a Southampton corner down below me was whipped in and it found Manolo Gabbiadini at the far post. His shot was thumped right at Courtois, but it was deflected by David Luiz in to the path of Romeu, who easily slotted home from very close range.

I rolled my eyes and envisioned an awakening from their post-Wembley slumber by Tottenham fans.

Bollocks. This was not part of the plan. I just hoped that the equaliser might generate a little more noise of support from the home areas. It did for a while.

A truly mesmeric run from the loved N’Golo Kante – at first winning the ball on the right wing and then pushing on past opponent after opponent – stirred us all. His penetrating run deep inside the box, which ended with a blocked cross from the goal-line, was just sublime.

Nemanja Matic – urged to “shoot!” by thousands – fired an effort at the Southampton goal but Fraser Forster was not worried.

Southampton continued to press, with the former players Romeu and Bertrand as good as any, and were especially dangerous at set pieces. The crowd grew nervous. There were a few dissenting voices aimed at Diego Costa as the first-half continued, which I thought was a little unfair. The frustration in the crowd grew.

One minute of injury-time was signalled. We forced a corner. It was played across the box and was cleared, but only as far as Kante. He floated a ball towards the far post and Marcos Alonso did well to head the ball back across the box. We watched as Gary Cahill flung himself at the ball and it bounced down and past Forster into the Shed End goal.

YES.

The Bridge responded with a boom of relief. He fell to his knees and then collapsed by the corner flag. I knew how he felt.

The first song from the PA at half-time was “That’s Entertainment” by The Jam.

“Something like that” I thought to myself, wondering if Messrs. Weller, Foxton and Buckler ever released a song called “Fuck entertainment, just give us a win.”

After only eight minutes into the second-half, Cesc Fabregas – playing very well – picked up a pass from Eden and floated a ball towards Diego Costa in a packed penalty box. Diego’s neat header seemed too easy. It dropped in to the goal. The crowd roared again.

We were winning 3-1. Get in.

After the applause had calmed down, I stood pointing towards one of the lads that had been giving Diego such a hard time. I stayed pointing – like Usain Bolt – until he eventually caught my eye. There were smiles from both of us. It was a lovely moment. I hoped that the third goal would calm our nerves. And I also hoped that Diego’s goal would galvanise his doubters over the final push of the campaign. We dominated now, but without causing too many problems for Forster in the Southampton goal. Kante, bearing down on Forster from an angle, forced a fine reflex save from the Saints’ keeper. Alonso’s long shot came to nothing. In the closing moments, there were further shots from substitute Pedro, on for Fabregas, and from Matic. Throughout the match, I thought that Fabregas, Kante and Luiz had been our finest players.

With five minutes’ remaining, the Stamford Bridge crowd rose as one to welcome John Terry on to the pitch as he replaced Victor Moses. His first touch, a side-footed clearance out of defence, was met with one of the loudest cheers of the night.

In the last minute of normal time, a sublime move down below us involving a tricky run from Diego, playing one-twos with first Pedro and then Eden Hazard, ended with Diego planting the ball in to the Southampton goal. It was just a beautiful moment. Diego raced away, cupping his ears, as if to say “where are the boos, now?” I followed suit, cupping my ears towards my mate in the row behind. More smiles, more laughter. The serious faces were no more.

Bizarrely, almost as an after-thought, Ryan Bertrand rose and guided a looping header past Thibaut into our goal and we ended up with a second 4-2 win in four days.

There was predictable joy as the game ended. “Blue Is The Colour” boomed around the stadium as Antonio Conte came on to the pitch to hug his players.

Five games left. See you at Goodison on Sunday.

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Tales From A Humdrum Town

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 16 April 2017.

I awoke early, and I will admit that I felt slightly agitated. I wasn’t particularly calm. My nerves were jangling. The massive game at Old Trafford had obviously dominated my thoughts as the Easter Weekend had approached. It not only represented our toughest remaining league fixture of the 2016/2017 campaign but there were some heavy sub-plots, too. We had already beaten Jose Mourinho’s new team twice this season, and by the law of averages alone, it would be no surprise for United to give us a tough old time. In fact, I was damned sure that Mourinho would be making sure that a third defeat of the season at the hands of our new man Antonio Conte would simply not happen. Jose, for all his faults, is no mug in these big matches. A draw – I reconciled – what be totally acceptable in the circumstances.

But we live for days like these, don’t we? The stakes were high. This was going to be one of the away trips of the season, or any season for that matter.

Before I set off, I began with a post on Facebook. I had arranged to meet up before the game with my old college friend Rick – a United season ticket holder for many a year, and like me, a fan of The Smiths – and with this in mind, I referenced one of the band’s iconic images. It came from a United away game in 2006 (a 1-1 draw, a Riccy Carvalho header) when I dropped in to visit a local landmark that was famously featured on the band’s “The Queen Is Dead” album of 1986.

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With the game resting heavily on my mind, I added a comment which hoped that our charming manager would prevail.

In fact, 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.

I collected The Chuckle Brothers and we headed north. The traffic was surprisingly light. The day had begun with clouds but sun too. Just north of Birmingham the rain started. By the time I pulled in to the car park of “The Windmill” pub just off junction 19 of the M6, the drizzle was continuing. This was going to be a typical football day out in rain town. I got a round in and looked up to see my pal Rick approaching. I had my opening line sorted :

“The rain falls hard on a humdrum town.”

Rick smiled and we set about a good old natter about our respective football teams. Rick was with his eight year old son Frazer, who has just started going to games with his father. Rick had recently been in Brussels with 1,200 United fans for their game with Anderlecht. I told Frazer that over thirty years ago his father and myself played upfront in our departmental football team, with Rick as the elbows out battering ram and with me feeding off the scraps. I asked Rick what United thought of Mourinho. His answer was favourable, but he did mention that at times the entertainment value has only just surpassed that of the Van Gaal era. Before we knew it, the time was pushing on – 2.15pm – and we needed to be on our way.

The new A556 road – which was mid-construction for the City game in the autumn – helped our approach to Old Trafford. I was parked-up at the usual £10 garage at around 2.45pm. Just right. The rain was easing slightly but there always seem to be dishwater skies in Manchester.

We plodded off to the stadium. We met up with Big John on the way – “take a draw now” – and we were soon on the famous forecourt. I took a few photographs of the match-day scene. I know they sell half-and-half scarves at Stamford Bridge, but at Old Trafford it is on a different scale.

“Ten pound yer match day scarf.”

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, but I noted with sadness that there was a huge advertisement for one of United’s commercial partners – Aeroflot – right behind the statue of Sir Matt Busby. In fact, who else but United would place such a statue of their much-loved former manager right in front of their megastore?

We had heard rumours that Thibaut Courtois was out. We then heard talk that Cesc Fabregas was in.

“Going for it.”

At the turnstiles, I was met by an over-zealous team of stewards who stopped me from taking my camera inside. This is the second time that this has happened at Old Trafford and it meant I had to traipse around to a “bag drop” porta cabin behind the Alex Ferguson Stand. On the walk underneath the Stretford End, I noted many supporters holding those God-forsaken noise-makers, much-beloved at Leicester City and Fulham. I tut-tutted. Modern bloody football.

I eventually made it in with ten minutes to spare. The away support was strong in number and voice. Not so many women. Hardly any kids. Hardly any colours. Just a couple of divs away to my right with half-and-half scarves.

Not only was Courtois out, but Marcos Alonso too, apparently injured during the warm-up. This had resulted in a last minute shift of personnel which must have greatly disrupted everyone’s thoughts.

Begovic.

Zouma – Luiz – Cahill.

Moses – Kante – Matic – Azpilicueta.

Pedro – Costa – Hazard.

No Fabregas, then. Maybe just as well. I was surprised that Ibrahimovic was relegated to a place on the bench. I tried, briefly, to work out Mourinho’s game plan.

Old Trafford is a huge stadium these days. I am told they are looking to enlarge it further. Up, up and away, reaching up in to the sky.

To my right, the famous “Manchester Is My Heaven” banner.

A new song has been doing the rounds at United of late and the tune on which it is based, “I’m Into Something Good.” by Herman’s Hermits was played on the PA with a few minutes to go. There were banners everywhere – too many to mention. As the teams entered the pitch – a smudge of blue in the far corner – I spotted a forest of flags on sticks over to the opposite corner of the old “K Stand” just where Rick has his season ticket. Chelsea are trying to do the same in The Shed. Think The Kop, if you must, but on a smaller scale. To the left of the Stretford End – presumably the corporate section – I spotted hundreds of those damned noisemakers. They must have contained a message or a slogan, because many were being held aloft.

It probably said –

“I don’t really like football. I’m here on a freebie. I haven’t a clue.”

The two managers took their places in the technical areas. Antonio Conte chose to wear a baseball cap with his usual smart suit. It jarred. I wondered what on earth possessed him to do so. Ugh.

United were the first out of the traps. Marcus Rashford was allowed a run in on goal, with Luiz floundering, but screwed the ball well wide of Asmir Begovic’ far post. I grimaced and exchanged words with Alan. His reply summed up the mood of the hour :

“Please, please, please let me get what I want, this time.”

A Chelsea attack petered out, but we spotted a handball. Sadly, the referee Bobby Madley waved play on. Ander Herrera stroked an inch-perfect ball in to the path of that man Rashford. David Luiz was nowhere, and the United striker pushed the ball through Begovic’ legs. That horrible sight – the ball hitting the back of the net – was met with a huge roar from the home support. The game was but seven minutes old.

“Oh fuck.”

For a few moments, Old Trafford was a cauldron of noise.

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

We had spoken in the car of how, if asked to choose between a win against United in the league, or a win against Tottenham in the cup, all four of us chose the former, since the league is the more prestigious one to win. Now I was renegotiating with the Football Gods.

“A draw, please.”

United dominated the play. It wasn’t that they flooded our half every time that they won possession, it was just that with Rashford and also Lingard attacking at will, we just looked so fragile. On the far side, I really needed Victor Moses to assist Kurt Zouma. That looked a problem area straight away. Elsewhere, we struggled to get any sort of pattern to our play. Eden Hazard was marked to oblivion. We were struggling all over. After only twenty minutes, Conte decided to swap the wing-backs, with Dave disappearing over to the far side and Moses taking up a position in front of us.

Ashley Young went close on two occasions. Moses slipped inside the box, allowing Rashford to cross. Cahill watched as his headed block looped up and on to the bar.

Diego Costa was getting in to all sorts of bother with players and officials alike. I have spoken up for him over the past few weeks, but in this game, he seemed to be channelling everything towards confrontation rather than towards the team ethic. There were wails of protest from the Chelsea support every time that referee Madley gave a decision against us. However, I have to say that many of our tackles in that first-half were poorly timed and poorly executed. They summed up our performance. We couldn’t even tackle.

A shout from Gary : “Matic, you couldn’t pass water.”

In fact, our only shot at goal during the entire first period was a wild shot from distance from Diego Costa which went well wide. That came in about the forty-third minute. This just wasn’t good enough. In the closing seconds, Ashley Young shot wide again. Nobody, with the possible exception of N’Golo Kante, had played well during the first-half. A typically spirited run from him in the closing seconds of the half hinted at a better second-half of football.

But there were bleak faces in the Chelsea quadrant during the break. I tried to look for positives.

“Put it this way, surely we can’t play as bad in the second-half.”

The Chelsea players were out a good two minutes before the United players for the start of the second period. The Manchester United mascot Fred The Red was gesticulating to both sets of fans right in front of us for a few moments. Hand signals were exchanged. The mascot was trying to wind us up.

Another gem from Gary : “That’s Mourinho.”

The second period began. A United free-kick from out wide on the right appeared to be going off, and I thought the whole team had momentarily switched-off. United kept the ball alive and the ball eventually fell to Herrera. He took a swipe inside the box and we watched, aghast, as the ball took a wicked deflection and spun over Begovic, stranded forever. Only four minutes were on the clock.

This was awful. The United hordes boomed again. It seemed like 72,000 were gazing and smiling at each and every one of us. We were right in the firing line. Hateful stuff.

“With a nick nack, paddy whack, give a dog a bone, why don’t City fuck off home?”

We stood silent. We had been kicked in the bollocks. Bigmouth had struck again.

In those moments, there are really no places to hide. The lead down to four points. Tottenham chasing us. Sky TV and BT Sport would be salivating. Tottenham on Saturday. Panic on the streets of London. Sigh.

But then, out of nowhere, we responded. For ten, eleven, twelve minutes – maybe more – we sang and sang and sang.

“We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league.”

I kept looking around at my fellow fans and was pleased to see smiles among the defiance. It made me proud. We sang on. This seemed to inspire the United fans too, who themselves responded. The atmosphere was electric. Louder than bombs.

Sadly, on the pitch, everything was still flat. Conte replaced Moses with Fabregas and there was a change in formation. To be fair, we dominated possession for the rest of the game, but never really looked like scoring. Diego – sorry, but I have to single him out again – kept coming too deep. We needed him on the last man, ready to explode in to space. Pedro ran his socks off in the second-half and went close on two occasions, but still De Gea did not have a shot to save. Elsewhere we lacked any real cohesiveness. Hazard was the centre of most of our attacks but Mourinho knew what he had to do. The supporters’ coaches from Devon, Surrey, North Wales and Norfolk were parked in front of the United goal.

Matic was replaced by Willian. It was really nothing.

Lingard went close, hitting the side netting with a long-range effort and then the lively Rashford forced Begovic to block down low. Our passes went astray with scary regularity. The confidence had been knocked out of our side early on and we never ever recovered.

You know it is a bad day at the office when Fellaini bosses the midfield.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Kurt Zouma. I had lost the will to work out the formation by then.

We still never looked like scoring. In fact – let’s be blunt here – a goal would have flattered us. De Gea never made a save.

The final whistle signalled the end of a pretty miserable game. The lads made their way back to the car while I – oh deep joy – walked through thousands and thousands of United fans to reach the bag-drop. The rain was falling now. My shoes stepped through the puddles. The United fans were in full voice and I hated every minute of it as they brushed past me.

“Woke up this morning feeling fine. Got Man United on my mind. Jose’s got us playing the way like United should. Oh yeah. Something tells me I’m in to something good.”

I retrieved my camera. The heavens opened again. Splash. Splash. Splash.

As I bought a cheeseburger on Sir Matt Busby Way, I bumped into Neil Barnett, himself looking drenched with both weather and our poor showing. He quickly told me that Thibaut had allegedly been injured during the filming of an advertisement for the NBA. Oh bloody hell. We chatted away, then went our separate ways as the rain continued.

Splash. Splash. Splash.

I posted on Facebook once again : “Soaked to the skin. Worst cheeseburger of the season. Two hundred miles from home. Oh Chelsea we love you.”

I eventually reached the car, threw my soaked jacket in the boot, pulled out on to the Chester Road and headed south. Over the next four hours or more, we spoke about the game, our poor performance, our remaining games. As always, there is usually a prolonged chat when things do not go our way. If we win, the game is not dissected quite so much. The lads had heard the rumour about Courtois. We spoke about all sorts. Of the game, we concluded that Conte was undoubtedly rushed into making those last minute changes. With more time to think about things, maybe he would have chosen different personnel. We mentioned the recalled Nathan Ake. Maybe he should have played. It just looked to us like Conte was never at ease with his eventual team selection, nor were the players themselves.

We spoke about how odd it was, really, to see such a team as Manchester United, with its rich history of attacking flair, to be so happy to play spoilers. But that is not to take anything away from them. They did a job on us, no bloody doubt.

Six huge league games are left. They are the undoubted priority. But we are four points clear of Tottenham and we have a better run in. We didn’t think that Spurs would win all six of their games. It’s certainly “advantage us” still, although it doesn’t bloody feel like it. We are not used to this. In 2005, 2006 and 2015 it was a procession. In 2010, it was us doing the chasing. We are not used to being the ones being chased. What difference does it make? Only time will tell.

However, in the final month or so of the season, the next game in the FA Cup might well define our campaign. Win, and we might just knock the stuffing out of Tottenham, the new media darlings. If we lose, it will be a different story.

See you at Wembley.

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Tales From North Staffordshire

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 18 March 2017.

This would be Chelsea’s eleventh visit to Stoke City’s stadium at the top of the hill. It is one of those stadia where I have seen all of Chelsea’s previous visits and although our away record against Stoke City was pretty reasonable at one stage, we have recently struggled, with three defeats in the past four games. Last season was particularly painful, with two losses in just eleven days. After our FA Cup game with Manchester United, all eyes were now firmly-focused on the Premier League. With an international break after the Stoke game, it was vitally important that we kept our momentum going, to maintain our gap at the top and to – well – just keep winning.

Although I try to keep a reasonable balance in these match reports, I am aware that there are a few times when I tend to get rather self-indulgent. Rather than reporting on the club, the team and its supporters, sometimes I delve into my own personal story; I have heard some supporters say that they enjoy all of this background stuff, but I am sure that there must be others who wonder what on Earth I am blathering on about. I spent three seasons – er, years – in The Potteries, when I was a student at North Staffs Poly in the ‘eighties. On all of the previous visits to the city covered by these tales, I have touched on various memories from my college life mixed in with my love for football in particular, and Chelsea – of course – at the centre of it all. There can’t be much left to say about my experiences in the city of Stoke-on-Trent from September 1984 to July 1987. But worry ye not, there will be a couple more during this one.

“Oh great” said 50%.

“Oh great” said 50%, sarcastically.

The weather was overcast as I drove PD, Parky and Scott north on the M5 and M6. I turned off onto the A500 – “the D Road” in the local vernacular – and soon breezed past Stoke City’s home ground on the hill at Sideway to my east. The Britannia Stadium has now been re-named the “Bet365 Stadium” since our last visit.

Yeah, I know. It will be a while before I stop calling it “The Britannia.”

Like last season, we spent a while in “The Terrace” pub, right opposite the playing fields of my old college. Although it is a good two miles away from the stadium, it is – crucially – the nearest pub to the Stoke-on-Trent train station. The pub was packed with Chelsea fans, and only Chelsea fans, and the ranks were swelled every twenty minutes or so as another train pulled in. I was able to park my car right outside the boozer.

“Talk about door to door service, lads.”

I was able to chat to a couple of local Chelsea fans. It brought back memories of my time at Stoke, when I became friendly with a few local lads who followed Chelsea and who used to occasionally pop into our local “The King’s Arms.” Memorably, they once stopped me from a potential roughing-up from some Chelsea fans from London. It was in 1986 or 1987, and I was walking in to Stoke from my house near the old Victoria Ground. I was wearing a T-shirt, purchased from the old Chelsea shop by the main gates at Stamford Bridge, which celebrated our new-found use of celery at games.

“Chelsea ICF – Inter Celery Firm.”

I breezed past some lads, and I heard one Cockney voice yell – aggressively – out “Chelsea ICF? What’s that about mate?” I suddenly feared the worse; that would be ironic, me getting roughed-up by a Chelsea fan, thinking I was possibly a West Ham fan wearing a shirt which took the piss out of Chelsea.  Thankfully, one of the local Stokies that I knew validated that I was Chelsea and a potential nasty situation was averted.

The West Brom vs. Arsenal game was on the TV, and the pub erupted as Arsenal conceded one and then two.

We left The Terrace at just before 2pm, allowing me plenty of time to get to my anointed parking place on a grass verge outside the stadium. Cars were parked everywhere; on bridges over the D Road, on pavements, on verges. It was quite feral. Up the path past the canal and the familiar sight of the stadium, high on the hill.

It was good to back in Stoke, among the familiar clipped accents of the locals.

Back in North Staffordshire.

Or “Nawth Staff’she” as they say in Fenton, Longton, Tunstall, Etruria, Hanley, Kidsgrove, Bentilee, Shelton and Trent Vale.

I remembered my very first visit to the city, during the summer of 1984. I recollected the interview that I had with a grizzled old lecturer at the poly, a local Stokie, sporting a Zapata moustache and an NUM badge, and who we later learned was a Port Vale supporter. During the interview, I mentioned that Stoke City used to have a chairman called Percy Axon – no relation, but I thought it was worthwhile mentioning, as I would – and I think that the bloke was amazed that I had heard of him. In his role as a local councilor, the lecturer had known Percy Axon. My surname is relatively rare and I am always amazed when I encounter it anywhere. We must’ve shared a laugh about it. I remember asking the interviewee, quite candidly I thought, what I needed to do in order to fail the interview, since I had been virtually offered a place despite far-from-impressive “A Level” results the previous November.

Just as candid, the lecturer, replied :

“Be obscene.”

I got it. I understood. It seemed Stoke needed me more than I needed Stoke.

Memorably, this very same lecturer took our very first “getting to know you” session in the September of that year. His opening line went down in our college folklore.

“So, bearing in mind you ended up in Stoke, how many of you fucked-up your A Levels?”

In the away end, slowly filling with the loyal three-thousand, we heard that Eden Hazard had fallen victim to an injury. Pedro was to play with Willian and Diego Costa. We also heard that Arsenal had capitulated further at The Hawthorns, losing 3-1. What a joke club. Every year the same old story.

Stoke is one of the coldest grounds going, but this was bearable. I had known worse. We were down low, row seven, right behind the goal. It wasn’t the greatest viewpoint but it made a change. I spotted the spire of St. Thomas at Penkhull just to the left of the Boothen End. For once, a stadium with some sort of view. It made a change not to be completely encased. I noted that the scoreboard to our right was no more; maybe the club is infilling that corner now.

The usual flurry or red and white-checked flags accompanied the two teams.

Chelsea in all blue.

“Come on boys.”

The place was virtually a sell-out; just a few empty seats in the home areas. I wondered if my pal Chad, newly-arrived from Minneapolis in the morning, had made it in. He had posted a picture on Facebook of him inside a cab, on his way to the stadium, with time running out.

Over on the touchline were Mark Hughes and Antonio Conte. The teams were living and breathing embodiment of the two managers. Stoke City, intimidating and physical. Shorn of Shaqiri and Bojan, they were more like the Tony Pulis model. Chelsea, now fully Conte-esque, stylish and cool, yet passionate too. The two contrasts could not have been greater.

We looked at ease in the first few moments, and the away crowd were in good voice. We were stretching the home side down both flanks. It was a fine start. Marcos Alonso was hacked twice by Arnautovic, and referee Anthony Taylor blew up for a foul, out wide on the edge of the box. This was Willian territory alright. We waited for the ball to be swung in to the far post, but to everyone’s surprise the ball was whipped in towards the near post. I didn’t have a clear view, but we eventually heard the roar of others in our end who had seen the net ripple.

“Get in, duck.”

Willian reeled away and was mobbed. We were ahead after only thirteen minutes. What a dream start.

Stoke had already put their formidable footprint on the game, with intimidation mixed in with some late and dangerous challenges. Diego Costa drew the considerable ire of the home crowd and was booed every time he touched the ball. He was then booked for a foul on Martins Indi, which produced an odd response from the Stokies.

“Your club’s embarrassing.”

Odd. Never heard that one before. I didn’t dwell on it.

We kept applying good pressure. Thankfully, others were stepping up to fill the void provided by Hazard’s absence. Defensively, we looked at ease. David Luiz was in control.

Completely against the run of play, Stoke caused a scare. A deep corner from their right was headed back in to the box and Martins Indi headed the ball past Thibaut. The home fans roared – “bollocks” – but after a few seconds the referee spotted the linesman flagging for an indiscretion. We waited, and the body language of the two officials looked good. The referee flagged for a free-kick to us. No goal. Phew. Though none of us knew what had actually transpired.

Sadly, not long after, the referee swayed in the favour of the home side as an innocuous challenge by Gary Cahill was deemed worthy of a penalty. We were furious, and figured that the referee was not 100% convinced that he had made the correct decision in cancelling the Martins Indi goal.

Walters smashed the ball in, and celebrated wildly, possibly gaining some sort of retribution from his darkest hour against us in 2013.

The game became scrappier, and it genuinely seemed that it was all down to the Stoke players. Costa was continually fouled, but still the home fans howled. One challenge on Diego made Antonio Conte jump into the air and stamp both his feet into the ground. Pedro fired over just before the break.

It was time for quiet but strong words from Antonio Conte during the interval.

“Keep going. Do not lose your nerves. Keep calm. Keep playing. We will win.”

Chelsea began the second-half well. We did indeed keep calm, no more so than Diego Costa who simply did not give in to more hard line tactics. He did not yield. He was strong in possession and kept others in the game. I lost count of the times we played the ball intelligently in and out of – and around, and in between – the scurrying Stoke players. Kante was everywhere again. I’m sure I spotted him atop the church spire at Penkhull, mending a clock face, during the second-half. Pedro cut in after a defensive error on the Stoke flank but Grant saved.

Still the Stoke players hacked away. I turned to Alan and said “I can’t see it staying with eleven versus eleven, mate.”

A free-kick was awarded to us after Pedro was fouled. Luiz waited, but it was Alonso who crashed the ball against the bar with a sweet left-footed strike.

Conte replaced with Moses with Cesc Fabregas. In the excitement of the closing quarter of the game, I hardly noticed the change in formation. An extra man in midfield added pressure and stress to the home team and the home crowd, who were remarkably quiet, save from a few trademark “Cum On Stowk” chants.

But this was an odd game. Despite our continued dominance, Stoke occasionally threatened. Although deep down, I fully expected a winner, there was still a chance that Stoke could nab an unwarranted winner of their own. Inside, I knew I would be happy and sad at the same time if it stayed at 1-1.

Conte replaced Nemanja Matic with Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Fresh legs.

He was soon involved. He unknowingly played a one-two with himself, a la Kante at West Ham, and forced a corner. There were just a few minutes’ left. Cesc thumped a high ball in. Luiz, a little off-balance, was only able to prod it goal wards but with no real menace. Thankfully, a poor clearance by Pieters set up Gary Cahill. The entire away end was on tip-toes. Gary thrashed it high past Grant and the hexagons of the white netting were stretched and contorted as the ball flew in.

“FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.”

What a roar. What mayhem high on the hill. The players raced over to my left. I yelled. We pushed and shoved. A forest of arms and fists punched the air. Some fans ended up in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

There was the winner.

Stoke City 1 Chelsea 2.

There was still time for Diego – what a performance during that second-half – to strike the base of Grant’s left post and for Loftus-Cheek to go close too. As a fitting ending, Bardsley was sent-off for a second yellow (a foul on Diego, what a shocker.)

We counted down the injury-time.

The whistle was greeted by a massive roar of relief by the Chelsea faithful.

Very soon the crowd were singing “We’re gonna win the league” and I joined in, and then quickly stopped. Not yet, Chris, not yet. It was one of those games where you just shake hands and embrace everyone and anyone around you, just to magnify the moment and to cherish it too. We watched as the players celebrated and I snapped away as Antonio Conte, the mad man, walked towards the Chelsea crowd, his fists pumping, completely losing himself in the moment, his face a picture of ecstasy.

Football can do this.

It is fucking wonderful.

Outside we were bouncing. More handshakes and hugs.

I kept repeating the phrase “season defining.”

At that moment, it felt like we were on the cusp, though there were still ten games left.

The shout went up again.

“We shall not be moved. We shall not, we shall not be moved…”

Outside in the North Staffordshire night, I joined in, weakening…I could not resist. 

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Tales From My Second Home

Chelsea vs. Hull City : 22 January 2016.

Sunday at half-past-four. What a bloody annoying time for a game of football.

The lads had been deposited in The Goose – “see you later” – while I had to pick up some tickets for a couple of future away games down at the stadium. We were in town ridiculously early – midday – but with a little time to kill, I thought I would spend a while with my trusty camera and take a smattering of photographs of Stamford Bridge. This would be our first home game since the announcement that the local council had approved the plans for the rebuild, and it made sense for me to pay homage to Stamford Bridge’s current hotchpotch of stands, irregular angles and unique aspects. The new stadium will be very different of course; there will be one design, one style, one theme, one vision. The current stadium, built between 1972 and 2001, is typical of many stadia in England at the moment. There have been piecemeal additions over the years and although the interior hints at a common design, the overall result – especially from the outside – would suggest otherwise.

As I walked down behind the East Stand, now a grand old lady of forty-three years of age, I was struck with how little room had originally been set aside for extra-curricular activities such as restaurants, bars and corporate suites.  From the rear, it reminded me of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, with all of its skeletal construction, heating pipes, air-conditioning units, roof supports and associated infrastructural necessities all on show. Although this stand won a few architectural awards in its day – London had never seen a three-tiered stand of such size and scale before – it remains rather ugly from the rear. My memory from watching games inside the East Stand – especially the East Upper – is of how cramped everything was behind the scenes. And yet, when the current stadium is razed to the ground in just a few years’ time, I will miss the East Stand more than any other. When I saw my first-ever game at Chelsea in 1974, watching from the wooden benches of the West Stand enclosure, the East Stand was still being built opposite. It dominated Stamford Bridge in those days in a way that is difficult, now, to imagine. It dwarfed all other parts of the ground, and certainly the adjacent low and rambling North Stand terrace and Shed End. I watched football from the East Lower from 1974 to 1980 with my parents – a total of thirteen games – and it will always have a place in my heart.

As I continued my walk around the outside of The Bridge, I remembered “Drakes” on the corner of the Matthew Harding Stand – now re-named the Champions Club – and how it was the sole domain, when it opened up in 1994, of CPO shareholders only, and how Glenn, Alan and myself used to frequent it for a pre-match meal and pint. It used to be remarkably quiet and an enjoyable place to meet-up. In around 1996, it was opened up for club members and suddenly became ridiculously busy, and we soon moved on to The Harwood for our pre-match festivities.

The outside of the West Stand is vastly different to the East Stand. All of its pre-match function rooms are concealed in a huge wall of brick, but I have to say it would hardly win any design awards. It serves a purpose I suppose, but I am not a huge fan. I love the way that the Peter Osgood statue always casts a shadow on its lower reaches.

The Shed End is lost within the guts of the Chelsea offices, the apartment block and the Copthorne Hotel. From the forecourt, Stamford Bridge doesn’t even resemble a football stadium any more.

How everything has changed over the past twenty years. It is one of my big regrets that I didn’t take as many photographs – both outside and inside – of the old Stamford Bridge in its last few years as I ought. How I wish I had captured those little kiosks embedded within the supporting wall of the Shed terrace as it swept its way around to the East Stand. Or those huge floodlight pylons. Or the corrugated iron of the away turnstiles behind the West Stand. Or the dark and moody walkways which ran behind the main body of The Shed terrace. Or the steps leading down from the top of the West Stand to those extra turnstiles within the stand before you reached the benches. Or the unique angled aisles of the old West Stand. Or the Bovril Gate, a gaping hole, in the large Shed terrace. Or that exit walkway that lead down at an angle behind the West Stand. Or those fading advertisements which were etched on to the rear of the shops on the Fulham Road. All of those images, lost and gone forever, but my memory of the old place remains strong.

Stamford Bridge really was – and is, and hopefully shall be in the future – my second home.

There was a couple of drinks in “The Goose” where Daryl and myself chatted with Mick, a fellow-Chelsea supporter who we had not seen for quite a while, possibly for the first time in ten years. We remembered a lovely trip to Rome in 1999 for the Lazio game and how we were drinking brandies in Piazza Venezia at an ungodly hour as early morning risers were coming in for their “wake me up” espressos. After that game, we somehow found ourselves getting a lift back to the centre of Rome on the same coach as Ron Harris and Peter Osgood. I had forgotten, but Mick said that he had sat next to Ossie on the coach and what a lovely memory for him.

We watched on a TV screen as an image of Diego Costa arriving at the stadium was shown. And just like that, Diego was back in the fold, and the China crisis was over. The game had been discussed but only very briefly throughout the day. I think it is very fair to say that three points against Hull City was absolutely expected. On the Saturday, we had been enlivened by Swansea’s surprising lunchtime win at Anfield and then, in the evening, points had been shared between Manchester City and Tottenham. The fact that Manchester United had dropped points at Stoke City seemed inconsequential.

The team was announced.

Courtois.

Cahill, Luiz, Azpilicueta.

Alonso, Matic, Kante, Moses.

Hazard, Diego Costa, Pedro.

Daryl and myself then had another drink in “The Malt House” before heading in to the stadium. I peered into The Broadway Bar & Grill and uttered an obscenity as I saw that Arsenal had taken a 1-0 lead at home to lowly Burnley. On walking towards the MH turnstiles, a fan announced that Burnley had miraculously equalised. I gave him a hug. By the time I had reached my seat, my mood had completed a 180 degree switch; Arsenal had scored a ridiculously late winner.

Not exactly a Carlsberg weekend, but maybe a Carlsberg top weekend.

Within the very first few seconds, Diego Costa raced on to a long ball from David Luiz and belted a low shot just past the Hull post.

It’s hard to believe that Tom Huddlestone is still playing football; he seems to have been around for ages. However, much to my chagrin, he seemed to be at the heart of a lot of Hull’s moves. I was soon getting annoyed at how much space we were giving him.

“Come on. Get on him. He’s their playmaker.”

His shot narrowly missed Thibaut’s post.

Hull City had brought around 1,200 fans, but were hardly noisy. Neither were we. In fact, it was ridiculously quiet.

Not long in to the game, Gary Cahill rose for a high ball, but only connected with Ryan Mason. Both fell to the floor. Both seemed immobile for a while. There was genuine concern as players from both teams swarmed around their two team mates. The minutes ticked by. Thankfully Gary Cahill stood, then walked off to the side line. Ryan Mason had evidently fared worse as a stretcher took him off for attention. The entire stadium rose as one to clap him off. Chelsea fans in laudable behaviour shock.

The extended delay seemed to affect Chelsea more than Hull City, who enjoyed a little spell. Marcos Alonso saw his effort from outside the box take a wicked deflection and dip alarmingly, but the Hull ‘keeper was able to scramble back and tip over. In all honesty, Chelsea were enjoying a lot of the ball, but were finding it difficult to break Hull down. Eden Hazard, very often the main threat, seemed to have a lot of the ball, but kept being forced wide. Pedro was quiet. Moses was often used, but wasn’t at his best. Still the atmosphere was morgue like. At times, I am sure there was complete silence.

Harry Maguire, who sounds like a petty criminal from a ‘sixties film – “I never did nuffink, see” – forced a fine save from Courtois.

This was not going to plan at all.

Bollocks.

A weighty nine minutes of injury time was added to the first-half. Can anyone remember anything longer? Not me.

The silence continued, a few disappeared off for half-time pints.

Sigh.

Then, with time running out, Moses was able to get behind Hull’s defence and send over a low ball. It miraculously ended up at the feet of Diego Costa who calmly slashed the ball home.

Chelsea 1, Hull City 0, thank fuck.

Diego danced over to Parkyville. Of all the people it had to be him. The Chelsea team mates mobbed Diego. What a moment.

Not long in to the half-time interval, Neil Barnett – in hushed tones – spoke of the recent death under highly suspicious circumstances of the Chelsea supporter Carl O’Brien. He spoke of how Carl once worked on the ground staff at Stamford Bridge, and how he attended games at Chelsea for decades. An image of Carl appeared on the large TV screens, and Neil spoke of the planned minute of applause which was to commence on fifty-five minutes. It would mark Carl’s age on his passing. Fifty-five; it is a very Chelsea number, but it represents a terribly young age to be taken from us. Carl was one of probably hundreds of Chelsea supporters who I knew by face only, and who float in and out of my life at various stages, various moments, various games. I remember first spotting him on a terrace in Zaragoza way back in 1995 when the Spanish police decided to baton charge us. He was a tall chap, with long hair; quite distinctive really. I can remember seeing him only a few months ago at Stamford Bridge. According to the eulogies, he was a gentle giant, a lovely man. I just hoped that the minute of applause on the fifty-fifth minute would be well-respected. I also hoped that it wouldn’t get lost in, for example, a cacophony of abuse being aimed at the referee, or maybe even a rousing song or chant, which would cloud the moment.

The two teams exchanged efforts on goal in the first ten minutes of the second-half. Huddlestone was still a main threat for Hull.

On fifty-five minutes, with the ball in a neutral area, Stamford Bridge celebrated the life of Carl O’Brien. Many stood, including myself.

“God bless, Carl, memories of Zaragoza in the sun.”

At the end of the minute, I realised that the Shed had held up a banner in memory of him too.

The game continued, but with the visitors dominating for a while. PD was feeling the frustration of an eerily quiet Stamford Bridge, often joining in alone with chants emanating from other parts of the stadium. I joined in too, but it’s difficult to keep it going when there are only two or three singing in a section of several hundred.

This was turning into a proper struggle, both on and off the pitch.

I must’ve thought “we need a second” many times.

Conte replaced the ineffectual Hazard with Cesc Fabregas and Pedro with Willian with twenty minutes to go. I struggled to see if there was a slight adjustment to our formation and after trying to see where Fabregas fitted in I gave up. To be fair, both additions revitalised us a little.

Willian was upended after a fine run down below me. We waited for Cesc to take the free-kick. His delivery was Postman Pat perfect and Gary Cahill rose unhindered inside the six-yard box to head home.

There was that second goal.

Phew.

Gary ran over to our corner, fell to the floor, and was then mobbed by his team mates.

The joy was palpable.

Just after, Fabregas – running the show now – fed a sublime ball through for Diego. We expected a third goal, but his shot was blocked by the ‘keeper.

Michy Batshuayi then replaced Diego, and the Stamford Bridge crowd rose again.

At last there was some noise worthy of the occasion.

“Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego!”

This was clearly not a memorable Chelsea performance, but if ever we needed to win ugly, with Diego Costa we certainly have the man to do it.

And with points being dropped by three of our main rivals, our hard-fought win had put us eight points clear.

Catch us if you can.

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Tales From New Year’s Eve

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 31 December 2016.

On the last day of 2016, Chelsea Football Club were going for our thirteenth consecutive league win. A run that began way back on the first day of October at Hull City has surprised, entertained and thrilled us along the way, and now the red-and-white striped shirts of Stoke City were our next opponents. A game on New Year’s Eve is a relatively rare event. In over forty years of going to games at Chelsea, this would only be my fourth such game. All of these have been at Stamford Bridge. The last one was a dreadful 1-3 defeat at the hands of Aston Villa in 2011.

It was a miserable end to that particular year. Who could have possibly guessed how that 2011/2012 season would end?

None of us.

The pre-match routine for the Stoke City game mirrored that of the Boxing Day match with Bournemouth. Parky, Glenn, PD and myself. Me driving. Pints in “The Chelsea Pensioner” and then outside “The Fox & Pheasant.” Banter. Drinks. Songs. Laughs along the way with pals from both sides of the Atlantic. Whereas there had been clear, crisp skies on Boxing Day, here was a more typical winter’s day in London; dampness, greyness and cloying fog. It was as if it was made to order for the visiting Americans.

As for the team, we knew that Pedro would be out, and that Kante and Costa would undoubtedly return. We pondered about Fabregas. Antonio Conte decided to retain him.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill.

Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso.

Willian – Costa – Hazard.

The tried and tested 3-4-3. It’s hard to believe that we toyed with playing a 4-4-2 variant at the start of the season. This 3-4-3 seems to have been with us forever such is how natural it all seems.

Unsurprisingly, Stoke City brought only 1,500 down from The Potteries. Neil Barnett made a point of welcoming back both Mark Hughes and Eddie Niedzwiecki, players from two of the most-loved Chelsea seasons of them all (Sparky in 1996/1997 and Eddie in 1983/1984). There was also a mention for former blue Glen Johnson and former Matthew Harding season-ticket holder Peter Crouch. There was a rare start for Crouch. With him alongside the diminutive Xherdan Shaqiri, it brought back memories of a game decades ago when Micky Droy stood alongside Ian Britton for photographic effect.

Shaqiri – so small that his arse rubs out his footprints – looks out of place on the pitch. But he is a lovely footballer. Elsewhere in the Stoke team were familiar foes Charlie Adam, Joe Allen and Ryan Shawcross.

And Stoke certainly had more of the game in the first-half, at least to my eyes. Their biggest threat came via corners and free-kicks, and we had to be at our best to keep them at bay. With Eden Hazard relatively quiet, our play lacked a little sparkle. We had a few pot-shots at goal, but nothing of note. The stadium needed wakening. It was pretty quiet.

I loved the way that David Luiz, charging out of defence to cut out a lofted ball, was able to replicate a John Terry trademark chest pass. The ball landed right at the feet of a team mate. Lovely stuff.

Stoke still caused us problems, with Shaqiri and Adam going close. Our play was a little slower than usual. Where there had been players taking a couple of touches, now the same players were taking extra touches. It slowed our play down. Victor Moses was often alone out on the right wing in acres of space. Our play tended to develop down our left. It often felt that Moses’ role was just to stretch the Stoke defence out, regardless of whether or not he received the ball. He must’ve felt like a spare prick at a wedding.

Just after half-an-hour, Cesc Fabregas thumped a corner into the box and Gary Cahill was able to jump high and head in. It was, ironically, a goal more synonymous with that of our visitors.

1-0, phew.

Mark Stein was introduced to the crowd at the break, and he was warmly applauded by both sets of fans, having played for both teams in his career. In the match programme, there was a feature on “Steino” and he recollected the red-hot atmosphere at Stamford Bridge for our famous victory against Bruges in 1995. Never had 28,000 – our then capacity – made so much noise at The Bridge.

There was also a simply fantastic photograph of Stoke City’s visit to Stamford Bridge in 1963, featuring 48 year old Stanley Matthews and 18 year old Ron Harris. The gate? Only 66,199. Another Second Division attendance too.

File under “Debunking The Chelsea Were Never A Big Club Theory.”

The second-half began, and in the most dramatic of ways. A ball was pumped into our box, that man Crouch headed down, and Martins Indi somehow managed to react the quickest of all, stabbing home despite being surrounded by three or four Chelsea players. Now that was a typical Stoke City goal.

1-1.

Game on.

At last the Chelsea crowd got involved, realising that the team needed a helping hand. Shots started to pepper the Stoke City goal.

As the ball was worked out to Victor Moses, I found myself commentating.

“Go on Victor, get past him, get behind him my son, whip it in.”

Whip it in he did. Hazard cushioned the ball for Willian to hit home.

2-1, phew.

Win thirteen?

Steady on.

Five minutes later, the stubborn visitors caused us problems in our box, and when the ball was played out to Diouf, I immediately sensed fear. Lo and behold, the ball was whipped into the box and Peter Crouch stabbed it home.

2-2, bollocks.

This was breathless stuff now, and within a minute, Cesc Fabregas played in Willian with a beautiful ball, and our Brazilian livewire ruthlessly blasted high past Grant in the Stoke goal. He again ran over to the far corner to celebrate with fans and team mates. Celebrations were equally manic in my little section of the stadium.

Smiling faces, pulses racing, eyes wide in ecstasy, fists pumping, shouts of joy.

I had to grab on a nearby barrier.

“Bloody hell, felt myself going there.”

Ha.

3-2, back on top once more.

Antonio Conte replaced Fabregas with Nemanja Matic, with a nod to tightening things, but the game still continued to entertain. A super break involving the twin threats of Willian and Hazard allowed Diego Costa a clear shot on goal, but he surprisingly blasted over. It had been another wonderful performance from Diego; chasing lost causes, hounding defenders, holding off challenges, touching the ball to team mates, leading the line.

Branislav Ivanovic replaced Victor Moses, who had been much more involved in the second-half. Nathaniel Chalobah took over from Willian.

There was still time for one last hurrah. A seemingly innocuous throw-in was chased down by Diego Costa, who caused mayhem for Shawcross and Martins Indi. Showing fantastic strength, he held off a challenge, and slammed the ball into the net with a left-footed swipe. It was a goal of his own making. It was all his.

It was a pure unadulterated Diegoal.

Now it was his turn to fist pump, and for his eyes to explode with joy. He ran towards the corner flag and replicated Pedro’s Kung Fu kick from Boxing Day before being mobbed by all of his nine other outfield players. It was a lovely picture of solidarity and togetherness.

4-2, just beautiful.

So, this amazing run continues.

Thirteen.

Just magnificent.

At the half-way stage of the season, everything is looking rosy.

1. Chelsea – 49 points.

2. Liverpool – 43 points.

3. Arsenal – 40 points.

4. Tottenham Hotspur – 39 points.

5. Manchester City – 39 points.

6. Manchester United – 36 points.

There is then a ridiculous nine point gap to Everton, but then the other thirteen clubs are differentiated by just fifteen points. The numbers do not lie. It’s looking good, but we are only halfway to paradise.

The Chuckle Bus returned back to the shires of Wiltshire and Somerset. The four of us all had New Year’s Eve drinking to be done. My evening was spent at Frome Town Football Club, where I saw my first-ever football match way back in the autumn of 1970, a full four years before my first Chelsea game. It seemed appropriate. It was a great night and it ended a roller-coaster year for me, for us all.

As 2017 begins, there are two eagerly-awaited away games to attend. On Monday, Frome Town play at local rivals Chippenham Town, and then on Wednesday – on a different scale this one – Chelsea visit the N17 badlands to play Tottenham. They will be up for revenge after our last two games – remember them, ha? – but I’d like to think that we have a little revenge in store too.

Remember that 5-3 defeat on the very first day of 2015?

Yes, so do I.

Let’s go to work.

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