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.

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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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Tales From Selhurst Park.

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 17 December 2016.

Our game at Selhurst Park would be our third game in just seven days; by the time I would return home from South London, I would have driven over 1,100 miles in support of the boys in blue. No complaints from me though; what else are you going to do on a Sunday lunchtime, a Wednesday evening or a Saturday lunchtime? For the second year in a row, I had decided to use one of those pre-paid parking spaces outside a private address. Last year, it worked a treat, despite the severe soaking we suffered walking to and from the stadium, and our win at Selhurst was an enjoyable day out. It was our first game of 2016, and it felt like we had turned the corner after the malaise of the autumn slump.

What a difference a year makes, eh? A year ago we had just lost at Leicester City and Jose Mourinho had been sacked. We were mired in the bottom five. Twelve months on, there is a beautiful and uplifting vibe in SW6. We were chasing our eleventh win on the trot, and with it, a ridiculous pre-Christmas lead of a massive nine points.

Just before I left home, I posted on Facebook.

“Let’s Go To Work, Antonio.”

“VINCI PER NO11.”

The roads were thick with fog as I collected PD, Parky and Young Jake. Over Salisbury Plain, I was forced to keep my speed down due to poor visibility. On the drive to London, although the driving conditions gradually improved, the fog never really lifted.

My GPS sent me through the backroads of South London, along unfamiliar streets and roads. This was a route right through the Chelsea heartlands of Tolworth, New Malden, Mitcham, and then south to Wallington to catch the A23 Purley Way up to Thornton Heath. It seemed to be a rather circuitous course, and as we finally parked up on Kynaston Avenue, I joked that I bloody well hoped that our route to the Palace goal would not be so messy.

We were parked-up at 11.45am. We were there. There was no time for a pre-match pint, unlike last year, when we dried out in front of a roaring fire at the “Prince George” pub.

The fog was hanging in the South London air. As we shook hands with a few mates outside the red-brick of the turnstiles to the Arthur Wait Stand, and knowing how “old school” Selhurst Park remains, there was a definite old-time feel to this. The floodlights were on, of course, and they only seemed to increase my awareness of how foggy it all was. I loved it to be honest. Love it or loathe it – and most people tend to belong to the latter camp – there is no doubt that Selhurst Park, representing football stadia in their natural settings, alongside terraced streets, local pubs, cafes and shops, strikes a chord with me. There was a large souvenir Chelsea only stall selling favours plotted-up right outside the away end. Two hi-vis jacketed policemen on horseback watched over us as we milled around outside. It’s terribly cramped at Selhurst. Once inside, you wait your turn until you have the chance to slowly sidle through the crowded concourse before entering the Arthur Waite Stand at its rear, its roof so cavernous and dark above, a mess of ugly steel supports, and the pitch can only be glimpsed, a thin line at the bottom of the steps.

Parky, Alan, Gal and myself were low down in row four, with PD just in front of us. The fog made visibility difficult. As the teams entered from the far corner – I have this image of the dressing rooms at Selhurst being temporary Portakabins to this day, I am sure I am wrong – I took a few photographs and soon realised that my haul on this footballing Saturday would be grainy and lacking the usual crispness.

If you squinted, Crystal Palace in their blue and red, and Chelsea in our all-white, resembled an ersatz El Classico homage : Palace as FCB, Chelsea as the Real deal.

As for the team, there were changes. Thankfully Eden Hazard was back in, with Willian keeping his place in the attacking trio with Pedro missing out. Nemanja Matic returned to take the place of Wednesday’s match-winner Cesc Fabregas.

The little knot of self-styled Holmesdale Ultras were doing their bit in the opening formalities, fervently waving their flags, and trying to get the rest of the home areas involved. The game began with Diego Costa playing the ball back to a team mate, and we were away.

I thought Wilfrid Zaha, running with intent, in front of us on the Palace right looked threatening in the first few moments. And Johan Cabaye looked at ease, picking up passes in front of the home defence, before playing intelligent balls through for the runners. A David Luiz free-kick, following a foul on Eden Hazard, was our first real attempt on goal; the ball bounced up off the wall and went for a corner. Soon after a ball was fizzed in from the Palace right and we gasped as Jason Puncheon stabbed the ball wide. Most of our attacking intent seemed to come down our left flank with the industrious Alonso linking up well with Nemanja Matic and Hazard. There was a little frustration with Matic and his inherent slowness. Alongside him, Kante was a lot more economic, releasing the ball with minimum fuss. One of the highlights of the first period was the incredible jump from Eden to control a high ball with consummate ease. He brought the ball down and moved on. All within twenty yards of me. I’m so lucky to see such skill week in, week out.

Diego Costa gave away a silly foul. After living life on the edge for what seems an eternity, his fifth booking eventually came.

Palace were causing us a few moments of concern. It clearly wasn’t all about us.

There didn’t seem to be the usual barrage of noise emanating from the away section this time. There were occasional songs and chants, but the team was causing moments of mild concern rather than reasons to celebrate.

The home team had a couple of chances. James McArthur headed wide, Puncheon wasted a free-kick.

Just as it looked like the half would end in a stalemate and hardly a real Chelsea chance on goal, Eden Hazard turned and kept the ball close as he cut inside. He played the ball out to Cesar Azpilicueta, who sent over a hanging cross into the box. Diego, a thin wedge of white sandwiched between two defenders, was first to the ball and met it squarely.

We watched, open-mouthed and expectant, as the ball dropped into the goal.

It was almost in slow-motion.

There was a split-second of delay before we celebrated.

Two immediate thoughts entered my mind.

Was it offside?

Bloody hell, a headed goal.

Crystal Palace 0 Chelsea 1 and thank you very much Diego Costa.

There was a little bubble of sunshine in the gloom and murk of a wintry South London at half-time. All was well with the world.

Was that it then?

With minimal effort, we had taken the lead against a troublesome Crystal Palace team. At that moment in time, we were on our way to our eleventh consecutive win, and we were nine points clear at the top.

It seemed – almost – too easy.

Well, we were soon to learn that nothing is easy. For the first period of play in the second-half, the home team put us under pressure, and it suddenly felt that we were in for a good old-fashioned battle. The Chelsea support had boomed with celebratory support after Diego’s goal, but we now realised the team needed a different tune. Whereas before there had been “we’re top of the league”, there was now a more supportive “come on Chelsea.” This was music to my ears. I love it when our support recognises that the team needs us and we respond accordingly.

The home support responded too, invoking the same chant that I noted the Bayer Leverkusen fans using at Wembley a month or so back.

“Tra La La La La La La – Crystal Palace.”

They’re so European, these Holmesdale Fanatics, the buggers.

Cabaye forced a smart save from Thibaut Courtois. The one defensive trademark of the second-half would be the towering Belgian rising high in a packed six-yard box to claim cross after cross. We rode a little home pressure, and then were back to our best, and the game opened up further. A blistering shot from N’Golo Kante forced a save from the Palace ‘keeper Wayne Hennessey.

Willian, not at his best, was replaced by Cesc Fabregas. Soon into his game, we serenaded him with his own song; he looked over to the Chelsea hordes and applauded.

The chances continued. It was a different game than in the first-half. Victor Moses zipped past a few challenges and caused Palace a few moments of discomfort. Alonso, from an angle, volleyed low but wide. It rustled the net and a few in our ranks thought it was a second. I spotted a Palace fan, sitting behind the goal, stand to his feet and mock our errant cheering. His only problem was that he was wearing a full-on green elf costume.

“Sit down, you prick.”

A weak Fabregas shot, and then a Benteke turn and shot was well-saved by Thibaut.

Ivanovic for Moses.

There were a few classic Chelsea masterclasses at Selhurst.

Kante snapping at the heels of various Palace players, and showing ridiculous energy levels.

The refreshed Hazard back to his best, running at speed, stopping on a sixpence, bringing others into the game.

The absolutely dependable Azpilicueta, the quickest of the back three, covering ground well, and blocking many Palace moves.

Alonso, up and down the left-flank, always involved.

Cesc Fabregas, only on the pitch for twenty-five minutes, but showing what an intelligent passer he can be.

And lastly, but not least, the relentless Diego Costa, in his current form as complete an attacker that we have seen at Chelsea; foraging, battling, fighting, shielding, thrusting.

Scoring.

The bloody referee Jon Moss – booed by us throughout for some odd decisions – had reckoned to an additional five minutes. It got a little nervy. Thankfully Andros Townsend skied a very late free-kick.

We had done it.

Eleven in a row.

Fackinell.

It was time for a festive celebration :

“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Oh what fun it is to see Chelsea win away.”

Very soon, the Chelsea players walked towards us and clapped. And very soon the focus was our Italian manager. As we serenaded him – “Antonio! Antonio! Antonio! Antonio! Antonio!” – he beamed a huge and endearing smile, before doing a little hand-jive, and then turning to say that the applause should really be for his players. It was just a lovely moment.

We waited for a while before we excited. There were many handshakes – “Happy Christmas” – to those stood close by. We made the point of shaking hands with the line of stewards who had been lining the segregation area between our noisy section and the docile home support. Chelsea fans in friendly behaviour shock. The walk back to the car was triumphant. I made the point of telling anyone who would listen that these three narrow 1-0 wins would surely frustrate and annoy the hell out of our title rivals. But it had revealed a great tenacity to our play.

3-0, 4-0, 5-0.

“Yes, we can win like that.”

1-0, 1-0, 1-0.

“Yes, we can win like that.”

I weaved my way south, and out onto the M25 before heading home. It had been a triumphant week. Over one thousand miles, entailing twenty-five hours of driving, just three goals, but nine magnificent points.

What a week. What a team.

In my match report for our game at Selhurst Park in the Spring of 2014, I weaved the lyrics to Sarf London boys Squeeze’s most loved song “Up The Junction” as an ode to that particular part of our nation’s capital. In Frome, after I had dropped the boys off, later in the evening, I combined a trip to see Chelsea in deepest South London with a gig by Squeeze front man Glen Tilbrook in the town’s concert hall.

It seemed right.

We now have a rest. It’s Christmas. A week off. We reassemble at Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day 2016 for the visit of Bournemouth.

“Eleven in a row” just doesn’t scan, so let’s make it twelve.

On we go.

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Tales From Nine In A Row.

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 11 December 2016.

The talk before the game was dominated by “the run.” We had beaten off eight consecutive opponents, and were now faced – in the eyes of some – with a five further games which seemed evidently winnable. Until we face Tottenham at White Hart Lane on the fourth day of the new year, there seemed to be a very real chance that we just might be able to stretch our run further. After the high noon appointment at Stamford Bridge with the in-form Baggies, our fixture list would continue on with two aways against lowly Sunderland and Crystal Palace and then two homes against Bournemouth and Stoke City.

To be honest, none of my close mates – in car and pub – expected us to win all five, which would mean a ridiculous thirteen consecutive wins, and in fact our pre-match chat tended to be one huge cliché all by itself.

“This one could be the hardest of the lot / West Brom are no mugs / let’s take one game at a time.”

We chatted about potential changes to our line-up. Would Luiz be fully fit? Would Matic automatically return? Would Pedro still edge out Willian?

There was also the grim realisation that a midday kick-off on a Sunday against an unfashionable team was just about the worst possible combination ever in order to generate any atmosphere at all.

We were in the stadium early. There were clear blue skies overhead. Unsurprisingly, West Brom only brought around 1,400 supporters. The manager had decided to go with the familiar starting eleven.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill.

Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso.

Pedro, Costa, Hazard.

Just before the teams came on the pitch, a fine tribute to Frank Lampard was unfurled in The Shed Upper. It depicted his iconic double-point to the heavens with the simple legend “Frank Lampard 211.”

The game began with a few pockets of seats still unfilled, but these were soon occupied. The low winter sun sent long shadows across the Stamford Bridge turf. On a few occasions, wide players in front of the East Stand had to hide the sun from their faces with both hands. Both managers were patrolling their technical areas.

The dapper Italian Conte, shiny hair and suited, softly-spoken but with passion aplenty, cajoling his players, a picture of constant encouragement mixed with urbane sophistication. Every inch a modern football man.

The Welshman Pulis, with his slightly Anglicised Newport accent and demonic eyebrows, looked a different creature sporting the attire of a dog walker rather than a football manager with his trademark baseball cap and tracksuit.

We began brightly enough with Diego Costa leading the way nicely with fine possession, taking him in and around the packed West Brom box. Down below us, he glided past defenders, appearing to dummy a rabona in order to confuse one poor soul. And then we seemed to lose our way a little. Chris Brunt shot wide past Thibaut Courtois’ goal. West Brom put together a few good spells of possession. It was as if – ugh – we were not focused, not energised, not “up for it.”

Stamford Bridge was eerily quiet. At times there seemed to be complete and utter silence. I could just about decipher a mating call from the away supporters in the far corner.

“You’re just a ground full of tourists.”

Quite.

Midway through the first-half, we had hardly had one single chance. There had been a low cross in to the box which had evaded all of our attackers, but no real strike on goal. The visitors had racked up three or four. Rondon, proving a handful for the slightly ill-at-ease David Luiz, managed a shot which flew past the far post. We were struggling, and it came as a surprise. Then the ball was played to N’Golo Kante who struck from thirty yards. The low shot took a deflection and slowly squirmed past Ben Foster’s near post.

Eden Hazard, struggling to make an impact, was scythed down and we worried if he was able to continue. He must surely be the most hacked player in England. We improved slightly as the first-half came to an end, but the West Brom goal had not been troubled. There had been two David Luiz free-kicks from distance, but both of these did not cause Ben Foster concern.

It had been a quiet, frustrating half.

As the whistle blew, there were a few boos, but I am sure that this was a reaction to the time-wasting tactics employed by the West Brom manager and team. We have seen it before with Tony Pulis’ teams in the past. It is both tedious and mean-spirited.

Bobby Tambling was on the pitch at half-time and we had heard on the grapevine that Frank Lampard was watching too; I was sure these two Chelsea greats would enjoy a catch-up later in the day.

We hoped that Conte would inspire his troops with a rousing half-time team talk. It had been a while since we had played so listlessly.

It felt odd to see us attacking The Shed in the second-half.

From a central position, another David Luiz free-kick, and this one caused Foster to scramble across and keep out, although the referee Mike Dean – looking ridiculous in a bright cerise shirt – failed to spot the touch and gave a goal-kick.

Chances were still at an absolute premium. Space was nowhere to be seen in the packed and well-marshaled West Brom defence. Whereas they had enjoyed a few forays into our half in the first period, they were content to sit and defend throughout the second forty-five minutes. This was a typical away performance for lesser teams coming to The Bridge. Just after the hour, Willian replaced Pedro and immediately injected a little more directness to our play. He shimmied inside and tested Foster. Very often we were massing players out wide, but once the ball was played in to the box, we were low on numbers. How we missed a late-arriving Frank Lampard to slot home. With fifteen minutes to go, Cesc Fabregas replaced Victor Moses, who had not had his best of games. The substitutions gave us fresh legs, and we seemed to be galvanised. The momentum was certainly with us.

I kept thinking (silently) “we’ll win this 1-0 with a late goal.”

Foster fell on a loose ball after a Fabregas corner. Chances were still ridiculously rare.

But this was still an interesting game to me. I kept encouraging the team. I kept discussing with Alan how we could break them down. It was an exercise in patience for both the fans and the team. It was a proper tactical battle.

And then.

And then the ball was pushed forward by Fabregas for Diego Costa to chase. Some twenty out, and close to the West Stand side line, our number nineteen put pressure on Gareth McAuley. Diego picked his pocket and raced on. He bore in on goal, steadied himself and shot high past Foster. The net rippled and Stamford Bridge boomed.

GET IN.

What a goal by Diego.

He raced down past the frantic celebrations in The Shed Lower, jumping with joy, before almost disappearing into the crowd in the corner.

This was a phenomenal goal. Diego had no right to score from there. But score he did.

Top man.

He is playing at such a high level these days. He looks trimmer than ever, chases every rogue ball, brings others into the game. It took a while for me to warm to him to be honest, but he is – as the saying goes – unplayable at the moment. Fantastic stuff.

In the closing moments, we never looked like letting West Brom back in to the game. Marcos Alonso struck a rising shot over the bar, and Branislav Ivanovic – this season’s closer – came on to replace Eden.

At the final whistle, a mixture of elation and relief. I was right about winning 1-0. Phew.

Outside, and underneath the Peter Osgood statue, I met up with two brothers – Robert and James – who were visiting from the US. It was their first ever visit to these shores, and of course their first-ever visit to SW6. Robert had watched from the Matthew Harding Lower, but James had been the lucky one, watching from the Shed Lower. He was bubbling with satisfaction after being so close to not only Diego’s goal but also to his celebratory run to the corner.

So, we had done it. We had eked out a narrow 1-0 win against a stubborn West Brom team. With hindsight, it might turn out to be a key result this season, not only in terms of points gained, but as a valued learning exercise of how to keep going against a team offering little.

On the drive home, there was further satisfaction as Liverpool dropped points at home to West Ham United, while Tottenham lost at Old Trafford. After Manchester City’s shock capitulation at Leicester City, this had been a fine weekend.

Mind the gap.

In previous autumns we have enjoyed Champions League trips to foreign climes. On Wednesday, we have a 2016/2017 version of these midweek excursions; The Chuckle Bus will be headed north to the tired and Weary city of Sunderland for a midweek battle against the division’s bottom club. We have an overnight stay all sorted. The delights of Newcastle and Sunderland await and I am sure that I won’t be the only one hoping for ten in a row.

I can’t wait.

See you there.

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