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 exited. 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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Tales From A Top Day In Manchester

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 3 December 2016.

It had been a truly horrible week for football.

There was the desperately sad news that the up-and-coming Brazilian team Chapecoense had been virtually wiped out after a plane taking them to a game in Medellin in Colombia had crashed. The football world was in mourning and rightly so. What sad news. The club will forever be linked to the names of Torino and Manchester United, fellow football clubs which also suffered air disasters; lives lost, teams destroyed.

Closer to home, there was the story involving the abuse of young footballers in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, which began with the brave claims by former apprentices at Crewe Alexandra, and continued throughout the week, ending with the gut-wrenching story of former Chelsea player Gary Johnson having suffered ritual abuse by a Chelsea employee, former scout Eddie Heath. I remember Gary Johnson well. He came in to the team around 1978/1979 and I can recollect seeing him score two goals against Watford in September 1979. To think that he had suffered years of sexual abuse while at my beloved club made me turn pale. Then there was the news that the club had seemingly tried to keep the news from going public by paying him off to the tune of £50,000.

These were two of the worst stories to hit football for years.

In the circumstances, our game at title rivals Manchester City seemed superfluous and of little relevance. However, on a personal level, I had just endured a tiring and stressful week at work, and certainly viewed the trip north as a gratifying distraction from the previous five days of toil.

As always, Chelsea Football Club often acts as a wonderful counter-balance to the humdrum of our daily routines.

At 6.30am I collected PD and we headed north. He too had endured a tough old week at work. We soon came to the conclusion that although a win would be unbelievably fine, a draw at Eastlands would suffice. I was under no illusions that this would probably be our toughest away game of the season. Manchester City are arguably the richest club in the world. They have one of the brightest managers in the world. And they are clearly blessed with some of the league’s star players.

This would be a tough nut to crack.

We picked up Dave en route at Stafford train station; the last time I did this was before the Gerrard “slip” game at Anfield in 2014. We reminisced and hoped for a similarly positive outcome. Dave was in agreement too, though; a draw would be just fine.

I ate up the miles, drifted around the Manchester orbital, and made my way through the red brick terraced streets of Denton and Gorton. We were parked up at about 11.15am. The weather was mild. The grey skies of Manchester were so familiar. The roof supports of the City stadium were away in the distance. It was a familiar walk along Ashton New Road, past the sparkling City training complex, possibly the most impressive sports facility of them all. Sheikh Mansour has certainly made his mark on this particular part of inner-city Manchester.

On every trip to the Etihad, there seems to be new décor splashed on the walls and spirals outside. City are no longer the club of locals; a display advertised supporters clubs from all over the world.

Timperley, Ancoats, Cheadle, Hyde but also Scandinavia, Malaysia, San Francisco and Ghana.

A quick chat with Kev from Edinburgh, and a few others, and then inside. There is the usual severe security check at City. I had to plead with the chief steward to allow me to take my camera in. I’d have to be a bit wary though; a game of cat-and-mouse would certainly take place.

We had heard that Cesc Fabregas was in for Nemanja Matic. It was our first team change in two months. We presumed an injury to Matic had forced Conte’s hand. It might have caught Guardiola by surprise; no doubt he was expecting the usual suspects.

There were many familiar faces in the middle tier at the Etihad. Everywhere I looked were friends from near and far. We may be – gulp – one of the biggest clubs in the world these days (this still sounds preposterous to me) but it is lovely that there is still a close-knit and homely feel to our support, especially at domestic away games.

Kev, Bryan, Julia, Tim, Tom, Ian, Kev, Tim, Maureen, Stan, Cathy, Dog, Becky, Fiona, Ronnie, Rob, Callum, Pam, the two Robs, Alex, John, Alan, Gary, David, Allie, Nick, Glenn, Karen, Alex, Adam, Nick, Paul; plus the supporters without names, those you only know on nodding terms. It’s great. The away club.

Last season at the corresponding fixture, there was Argentina ’78 style tickertape announcing the opening of the new third tier but as the teams entered the pitch just prior to the 12.30pm start, City’s support seemed quite subdued. The PA was loud and drowned out conversations. Down below however, in the shared lower tier, City flags were waved furiously. Elsewhere, empty seats were discernible. City’s support has always held strong, but it has been severely tested with the building of extra tiers. I have a feeling that the third tier at the other end, intended to bring a capacity up to around 62,000, might be shelved for the foreseeable future.

The minute of silence, announced in both English and Portuguese, for the dead of Chapecoense was perfectly observed.

What a tight and enjoyable first-half. City no doubt edged it but we played some super stuff at times. Very soon into the game, maybe after a quarter of an hour, I turned to PD and said “we’re doing OK here.” And we were. City were continually asking questions of us with their quick and nimble players De Bruyne, Silva and Aguera darting in and around our box, but we were able to hold firm.

Although the away support is split over three levels at City, we were all doing our best to rally behind the troops. There was even a raucous “OMWTM” up above, which we were happy to join in with.

I loved the way that David Luiz broke up many City attacks with an interception by head and foot; but not an agricultural hoof up field. Instead, a gently-cushioned touch to a nearby team mate. He was at his best. He has been tremendous since his two years away in Paris.

Eden Hazard came close from distance, with a low shot just missing its intended target. Our movement of the ball was pleasing me. We were keeping the ball, getting City to chase after us.

However, as the half continued, City caused us more and more problems. Aguero forced a fine save from Thibaut. Out wide, they were doubling up and exposing us. De Bruyne whipped in a few perfect crosses. We were getting edgy in the away end. Fernandinho headed home from a De Bruyne free-kick but was adjudged to be off-side.

“Phew.”

Aguero broke down below and Luiz challenged.

The home fans were incandescent with rage that the referee saw nothing. I bobbled nervously on tip-toe.

Another “phew.”

Victor Moses was cruelly exposed and Silva was able to run in behind him, but thankfully Gary Cahill threw himself and the kitchen sink at Aguero’s shot.

Another “phew.”

Just as the half was nearing completion, a Jesus Navas cross caused panic inside the box. This time, Cahill’s kitchen sink diverted the ball past Courtois and in to the net, a calamitous deflection. The City fans suddenly woke up. They had been ridiculously quiet – Everton standards – all game, but at last they were involved.

“We’re not really here. We are not. We’re not really here.”

Indeed.

At the break, I was praising a fine game, but others were surprisingly down beat. I thought we were in it. None of our players were playing poorly. I was hopeful for my predicted draw, but surely not much more. On the TV screen was former City goalkeeper Alex Williams, who was in goal back in 1984 for Pat Nevin’s infamous penalty miss. On the pitch was an inane competition involving Team Santa and Team Elf, but I can’t describe what it entailed as I avoided it. Such entertainment might go down well in American sports, but the cynical English avoid it and turn our collective backs.

The second-half began and for a while, City dominated. They broke at pace and caused us more problems. Sane fed in De Bruyne but Courtois saved well. Conte replaced Pedro with Willian, who soon shot wide. Some Keystone Cops defending allowed Aguero to nip in after a poor Alonso back-pass but Cahill was able to block. It felt we were certainly riding our luck. Everyone in the away end was standing. Who needs seats? The Chelsea support was good and earnest. We never stopped. Then, another moment of high drama, with De Bruyne striking the bar from only a few yards out. City were wasting chance after chance. Their fans were still pretty quiet though.

On the hour, Cesc Fabregas picked out Diego Costa with a sublime lofted ball that an NFL quarterback would have been happy with. Diego was one on one with Otamendi after he chested the ball in to space with a delightful touch. He advanced, sold Bravo a dummy, picked his spot and slotted home. We went berserk.

“GET IN.”

There was my 1-1.

I grabbed my camera – redundant all game – and took a photo of Diego pointing towards the skies.

Fantastic.

This resembled a heavyweight boxing match now, with punches being thrown by both protagonists. Moses was full of running, and so too Willian, who thankfully chose to run at his defenders rather than across the field, as so often is the case. Conte had obviously instructed him to test City’s leaky defence. The noise in the away end increased.

“Hey Jude” was sung by both sets of fans at the same time.

On seventy minutes, the ball broke for Diego Costa who out-maneuvered a pensive City defender before slotting a perfectly-weighted ball – with just the correct amount of fade – in to the path of that man Willian. We watched, on our toes, hearts in our mouths, expectant, waiting. He advanced and struck early. I was able to see the course of the ball elude Bravo, hit the back of the net, catch a glimpse of the Chelsea fans in the lower tier explode, and then lose myself as I was engulfed by fellow fans, grabbing hold of me, pushing me, screaming praise. The players swarmed below me. There were riotous scenes everywhere.

2-1.

Fackinell.

I photographed Willian and Luiz in a solemn moment of remembrance, holding up black armbands, no doubt thinking of their fellow Brazilians.

This was fantastic stuff, but there was still twenty long minutes to go.

I became ridiculously nervy. I watched the clock continually. I became obsessed by it.

Around me, one name was dominating.

“Antonio. Antonio. Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

Diego slumped to the floor and for a few odd moments, was sat behind the City ‘keeper midway in the City half as play developed at the other end. I presumed he had cramp. He was replaced, not by Batshuayi but by Chalobah. City rang some changes too; the spritely Iheanacho and Clichy, the bulky Toure.

The clock was ticking. We were almost there.

This was a superb performance. Moses and Willian had run their socks off throughout the second-half, aided by the masterful Luiz and competent Cahill. Diego Costa had produced one of the great attacking performances; he had been quite unplayable. And there was still time for one more additional Chelsea dagger to the heart of City.

A long ball out of defence from Marcos Alonso picked out Eden Hazard. With so much space around him, he easily swept past a lone City defender and advanced. My camera was out now for good. I focused on him.

Click.

Click.

Click.

Click.

Click.

He swept the ball home and we exploded again.

I was grabbed by a million different hands, pushed sideways, forward and back, but was able – gasping – to capture the celebrations down below me. As always, the David Luiz leap of ecstasy on top of the pile of bodies, but also a Cesc Fabregas fist pump towards our fans.

Manchester City 1 Chelsea 3.

Oh my.

Soon after, a wild and reckless challenge by Aguero on Luiz left our defender sprawling.

Just as I turned to say to a friend that this felt one of the landmark away performances by Chelsea Football Club, all hell broke loose down on the far touchline. Players pushed each other, players swarmed around the referee, hands were raised. A Chelsea player appeared to walk back on to the pitch from the stands. What on Earth? As the dust settled, we counted up the players on the pitch. City were down to nine.

Rusholme Ruffians, indeed.

Alan whispered “can’t believe we didn’t get anyone sent off there.”

I agreed.

There was still time for Willian to drill at Bravo; possibly only our fourth shot on target all game long.

At last, the whistle.

Top.

We were euphoric. I waited to capture Conte and the team on their triumphant walk down towards us. Conte with a wide smile, hugging Cahill and Chalobah. The Chelsea fans were bouncing, breathless with joy. It had been a stunning performance. We slowly drifted out of the stadium.

A blonde, wearing Chelsea leggings, had been watching the entire game in front of us. She was one of the last to leave. I was just glad that Parky wasn’t with me.

Ha.

There were songs as we exited the stadium, and handshakes with many outside before we met up with Kev and Dave, who had watched all four goals from the very first row of the lower tier. We were all gasping for air. I bumped into Neil Barnett, the match-time host at Stamford Bridge, and I joyfully reminded him of the derisory comments that he had made about virtually all of the first team squad in Ann Arbor in the summer. For once he was silent.

We laughed.

We were both effusive with praise about our win – he agreed that it had been a landmark win – but also the ridiculous turnaround since Arsenal.

I was deadly serious as I looked him in the eye and said – “it’s a miracle.”

He agreed again.

“It is.”

We hugged and went on our way.

PD, Dave and I bounced back to the car. It was one of those moments. One of the great performances over the past few seasons.

This was not from the bottle; this was a special one.

It took forever to get out of the city, but the three of us were delirious. The Chuckle Bus had never been happier. We spoke of how wonderful football can be, and how lucky we had been to witness it.

“Bloody hell, it’s great when we go away from a game knowing that we will still be top tomorrow, even next Friday.”

“Superb.”

And with more hope than expectation I even said “you never know, Bournemouth might even take a few points off Liverpool tomorrow.”

We stopped off in Stafford for an amazing buffet at a Chinese restaurant, just a few minutes away from the M6. It topped off a brilliant day in support of The Great Unpredictables. We were so enamored by the place that we vowed to return. We began planning an FA Cup run involving away games against Stafford Rangers, Stoke City, Port Vale, Crew Alexandra and Macclesfield Town so we could keep returning.

What a laugh.

We said our fond goodbyes to Dave and I headed south, getting home at around 9pm, just in time for the first game on “Match of the Day.”

Perfect.

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Tales From The Riverside

Middlesbrough vs. Chelsea : 20 November 2016.

My last trip to Middlesbrough was eight years’ ago. On that day in the autumn of 2008, with Luiz Filipe Scolari in charge, we won 5-0 and it was a cracking performance. On that particular occasion, I made the stupid decision to drive up and back in the same day. Five hours up, five hours back, and only a few miles’ shy of a six-hundred-mile round trip.

“Never again, never again.”

Eight years later, I had soon decided that Middlesbrough would be an overnight stay, as would Sunderland a few weeks later.

Not long in to the long drive north, I confided to PD that I was really looking forward to the football. Now this might seem an odd statement, but very often – and it seems to be increasing all the time – it is the “other stuff” that I get excited about these days. The banter, the craic, the laughs, the camaraderie, the pub-crawls, the beers. The pleasure of being in a different stadium, a different city, every two weeks is part of the fun too. A chance to experience new things, new sights, new sites. And although there were the joys of an overnight stay in Middlesbrough – “stop sniggering at the back” – to look forward to, I can honestly say that the magnificence of our recent performances had got me all tingly. After the beautiful demolition of Everton, the dreaded international break had come at a particularly unwelcome time.

I just simply yearned to see us play again.

I am a rare visitor to Teesside. I never ever made it to Ayresome Park, and this would only be my fourth ever visit to ‘Boro’s new stadium on the banks of the River Tees alongside the famous Transporter Bridge. On my first two visits in 2002 and 2007, I stayed in Scarborough and Whitby. There had been three wins out of three. But I was not taking Middlesbrough lightly. If ever there was a potential Chelsea banana skin, this was it.

Five straight wins and then a tough trip to the North-East on a wet and cold Sunday afternoon? It had “Fyffes” written all over it.

I eventually pulled in to Middlesbrough at around 3.30pm on the Saturday afternoon. PD and I had enjoyed our trip north, listening to the Manchester United vs. Arsenal draw on the radio – happy with points dropped by both teams – and it did not take us long to be toasting “absent friends” in our hotel bar. Friends Foxy and Ashley from Dundee soon joined us as we tentatively made plans for the evening. There were cheers as Liverpool dropped points at Southampton, which meant that a win for us on the Sunday would mean that we would reclaim our top spot. A win for City at Palace was expected. We took a cab into town, and Harry bloody Kane scored a winner for Spurs at home to West Ham just as we were deposited outside “Yates.”

“Well, that has spoiled the taste of my next beer.”

“Yates” was pretty empty. There were a few other Chelsea inside, but all was quiet. We sat at a table overlooking a pedestrianised street, deep in the city centre. In two hours, I just saw two people walk past.

“Lloyds” was next and a lot livelier. More beers. More laughs.

As the night deteriorated further, Ashley and Foxy headed on back to the hotel at around midnight, but PD and I kept going. We stayed a while in one pub – a local told me that it was “the roughest pub in Middlesbrough” – but it seemed OK to me. I could hear Parky’s voice :

“It was the kind of pub where the bouncers throw you in.”

Lastly, we visited the infamous “Bongo Club” but soon realised that we were reaching the end of our night.

We sniffed out a late-night takeaway, and avoiding the local “chicken parmo” speciality, scoffed some late night carbohydrates before getting a cab home.

Back in my hotel room – Room 101, I had to laugh – I set my alarm for a 9am breakfast.

The time was 3.38am.

“Oh fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.”

It had been a bloody enjoyable night. Ten hours of drinking. Where did the time go?

Answers on a postcard.

You know when you have had a proper skin full the night before, when you wake up the next morning and there is not the faintest memory of an overnight dream. During the working week, my first waking moments are often coloured by the dreams I had experienced while asleep. A memory here, a vague thought there, maybe a recollection of some sort of sequence of events. Well, at 9am on Sunday 20 November, there was simply nothing.

A complete blank.

“Too drunk to dream.”

Oh boy.

We breakfasted, then headed out. As I was on driving duties, I would be on “Cokes” for the rest of the day. In truth, after just five hours’ sleep, I was hanging. At least there was no discernible hangover. I was just tired. It was going to be a long day.

In “The Pig Iron” near the train station we had our first match day drinks. It was another very cheap pub, but there was a rather unpleasant smell in the bar. A few Chelsea were present. But there were also a few local lads, sporting their finest livery, and I was quite happy to move on.

Back to “Yates” and it was a lot livelier, with many Chelsea arriving over the next few hours. Friends Kev and Gillian arrived from Edinburgh. I was gulping down the “Cokes” and eventually started feeling a little more awake.

I whispered to a few fellow fans “I can safely say that Middlesbrough has lived down to expectations.”

Other Chelsea fans had stayed the night in Newcastle, Durham, Whitby. They had possibly made the wisest choices. To be fair, although the town was hardly full of much architectural or cultural delight, the locals were very friendly. In one of the boozers the previous evening, I had even encountered a ‘Boro fan who admired John Terry.

I wished that the gents toilets in “Yates” were better though.

“It’s got a shallow end and a deep end.”

It was 3pm and we caught a cab to the stadium. It was a bleak and damp afternoon in Teesside. We bumped into a few friends and then headed inside. The away fans are now along the side. We had sold out long ago; three-thousand at Middlesbrough on a Sunday in November was indeed an excellent showing.

We had turned-up. Would the team?

There was a fair bit of noise in the concourse and in the away section. There was an air of invincibility. The Liverpool draw had definitely given us a bounce to our step.

We had heard that the team was unchanged yet again.

In Conte we trust.

PD and myself were right down the front in row one. It would be a different perspective for me. I had a constant battle with a steward though; he didn’t like my camera.

The teams soon appeared, with Chelsea wearing a charcoal grey training top over the unlovable black away kit.

Before kick-off, there was a perfectly-observed minute of silence for the fallen. I had noted that around thirty soldiers, in camo fatigues, had been given a block of seats in the end adjacent to us. As the teams broke, the noise boomed around the stadium. To my left, in the area where away fans were once housed, there was a section of the home crowd who were waving flags; it was, I suppose, their “ultra” section, though I am not sure if they would call themselves that.

We stood the entire match.

“Oh, my feet.”

Middlesbrough certainly have an awful home shirt this season, with that silly low swoosh come sash on the players’ stomachs. It reminded me of ice hockey’s greatest ever player Wayne Gretzky, who always used to tuck the right-hand side of his shirt in, leaving the left-side loose.

Anyway, as shirts go, this one is pants.

Middlesbrough started the strongest I thought. It looked like their left-winger was going to be a constant source of irritation for us. On two occasions he slipped past Cesar Azpilicueta. With a front row vantage point, it was fascinating to see the physical battle of the two as they raced together, arms flailing, legs pumping. Negredo had the first real chance of the game, but his low centre evaded everyone.

Eden Hazard was unceremoniously clumped from behind and he remained down, worryingly, for a while.

Both sets of fans were in fine voice. Middlesbrough had a few of their own songs, but their local dialect made deciphering the words difficult for some.

“What are they saying?”

I was able to assist :

“We’ve got some shit fans, but yours are the worst.”

For a while, both sets of fans seemed to be overlapping the same tune with different lyrics. The old ‘Boro favourite “Papa’s got a brand new pigpag” easily segued into “Victor Moses.”

It was a rather slow start for us, but gradually we began to turn the screw. Midway through the half, we were well on top. Middlesbrough’s spell of possession seemed ages ago. Just before the half-hour mark, Moses played in Pedro who was only about ten yards out. I expected him to score. He slammed the ball high, but Victor Valdes flung his arm up, and finger-tipped the ball over.

“What a save.”

Negredo rose well, but headed wide, but Chelsea were now dominating possession despite few real chances. Moses, enjoying a lot of the ball, blazed over.

The weather sharpened and my feet got colder and colder. There were a few spots of rain. Up went my hood.

Victor Valdes went down after a challenge, and it looked like he would be needing attention. I seized the moment. With half-time approaching, I decided to beat the half-time rush.

While in the gents in the under croft at the Riverside Stadium at around 4.47pm on Sunday 20 November 2016, I heard a roar above.

“Is that us?”

“Dunno.”

News travelled fast : Diego Costa.

There was a mixture of elation and despair.

“Bollocks, I’ve come all this way and I missed the goal.”

I quickly re-joined PD.

“Good goal?”

“A tap in from a corner.”

The half-time whistle blew immediately after.

At half-time, Chelsea were buoyant.

“We are top of the league. Say we are top of the league.”

As the second-half started, I couldn’t help but notice that there were two or three Middlesbrough fans in the section to my left constantly pointing and gesturing at some Chelsea fans in the away section close to me. A couple were going through the age old “you, outside!” malarkey. I suspect that their new-found bravery was quite probably linked to the fact that thirty soldiers were standing behind them.

The noise continued, but became murky with taunts and counter-taunts of “a town full of rent boys” and “Adam Johnson, he’s one of your own.”

Ugh.

It was still 1-0 to us, and as the game continued, I was convinced that Middlesbrough would equalise.

David Luiz was enjoying another fantastic game for us, heading cross after cross away, and then passing out of defence intelligently. On one occasion, he hopped and skipped past one challenge, before finding Diego Costa with a beautiful cross. His perfectly-weighted header set things up for Pedro, who smashed a volley past Valdes, but we watched as the ball agonizingly crashed down from the bar.

Moses then thrashed over again.

“Need a second goal, PD.”

We were still the better team, but there were moments when Middlesbrough threatened. Traore wasted a good opportunity and blazed over, but soon after Negredo raced forward and we held our breath. A low shot was battered away by Thibaut Courtois, his first real save of note during the game to date.

I was still worried.

As the clock ticked by, 1-1 haunted me.

Conte made some changes in the final ten minutes; Chalobah for Pedro, Ivanovic for Moses, Oscar for Hazard.

Middlesbrough had a few late surges, but our magnificent defence held firm.

At the final whistle, I clenched my fists and roared, along with three-thousand others.

It had been a war of attrition this one. The recent flair only appeared fleetingly, despite much possession. Middlesbrough looked a pretty decent team, but lacked a spark in front of goal. We knew we had passed a firm test on a cold evening on Teesside. Six league wins on the trot, and – most incredibly – not one single goal conceded. The noise emanating from the Chelsea fans as we squeezed out of the gates at The Riverside and into the cold night was a reflection of our lofty position but also in honour of our ability to eke out a narrow win when needed.

Diego Costa’s goal made it four wins out of four for me at Middlesbrough and – amazingly – I have never seen us lose to them home or away.

A cheap and cheerful burger outside the away end helped restore my energy and I slowly joined the legions of cars heading south. I managed to keep any tiredness at bay and the drive home, eventually getting in at 11.45pm, was remarkably easy.

It had been a decent weekend in Middlesbrough.

Tottenham – you are next.

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Tales From The New Blueprint

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 30 October 2016.

In the pub before the game, we felt sure that Antonio Conte would revert to the same team that had mullered Manchester United a week previously. I suppose that the only question mark was over Pedro; would Willian get the nod?

“Nah, keep Pedro in. He has deserved it.”

And there, in an instant, was a good example of how far we had travelled in such a short period of time. It really wasn’t so long ago that respected friends of mine were questioning what Pedro gave to the team. Think back on those games against Liverpool and then Arsenal when we looked like a pale shadow of ourselves. Think about the under-fire Pedro. And think about Gary Cahill, too. Think back to only a few games ago when poor Gary was being blamed for virtually every goal that we had conceded, the breakdown of the defence, the falling value of the pound, the Syrian refugee crisis and more. And think how pilloried Nemanja Matic has been over the recent and the not so recent past; stretching back to the dark days of autumn 2015, he has often been the “boo boy” among the chattering, twittering and twattering classes of “social media.” Thibout Courtois is another one; lambasted by some for his reluctance to come for crosses and to dominate his box. For a while back there, certainly at half-time at Arsenal, the immediate future looked as bleak as the horrid tower block that greeted us outside Southampton Central train station, where I had parked up as early as 10.30am.

At Arsenal, I worried deeply about the task ahead of new manager Conte. Since then, we have enjoyed a dramatic improvement.

With three straight wins in the league campaign, against Hull City, Leicester City and Manchester United, and with no goals conceded, but with our goals steadily increasing (“2,3,4” – it sounded like the introduction to a punk song), we swept into Southampton’s St. Mary’s Stadium intent to stay among the tight group at the top of the table.

One of these days, I’ll truly get to explore Southampton. After leaving PD and LP to the noise of “Yates”, Glenn and myself had headed off to check out the marina, a twenty-minute walk to the south, but we soon heard that Alan, Gary and Daryl were settled in the “Bier Garten” bar. We soon joined them. There were Bavarian blue and white diamonds everywhere; we re-created our own little Mini-Munich and enjoyed a few beers and some good laughs, the highlight being Alan reciting, word for word, “Rappers’ Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang.

“You see, I’m six foot one, and I’m tons of fun
When I dress to a T.”

What a giggle.

The team was announced as we had predicted; the same as against United.

We made our way to the stadium; only a twenty-minute walk. We were soon inside. The away end was packed; no more the nonsense of Swansea, when so many decided not to travel. We have gone for seats at the front of the away end this season; Parky soon joined Alan, Gary and myself in row E. PD and Glenn were within distance, in row B.

With hardly a cloud in the sky, the stadium looked a picture. The teams entered the pitch and there was a minute of silence for the fallen. It would be the Southampton’s last home game before Remembrance Sunday.

Ryan Bertrand and Oriel Romeu – in the team and on the bench on that night in Munich – were in the opposing team, who had enjoyed a fine run of form of late. They would certainly be no pushovers.

Glenn had confided “I’ll be happy with a draw” and I almost agreed.

“A win would be fantastic.”

It was a very lively start with both teams attacking down the flanks and asking questions of each other’s defensive qualities. Dusan Tadic looked a skilful bugger out on Southampton’s right and for a while it looked like Marcos Alonso would be in for a torrid afternoon. Romeu lobbed a shot at Thibaut Courtois but he was not troubled.

We were already spreading passes around with ease, and a move built steadily. Eden Hazard pushed the ball out to Victor Moses out on the right. Hazard moved in to the box to receive the ball back. From our angle, down low and far away, it looked ridiculously tight. Hazard stopped, cut back on himself and tucked the ball in.

A mixture of wild celebration and “howthefuckdidhedothat?”

It was a joy to see Thibaut leap and punch the air as the goal was scored. I almost expected him to do a hand-stand and a back-flip.

It wasn’t a “thirty seconds Pedro” but it was good enough.

Saints 0 Sinners 1.

We continued to the play the ball with confidence, looking to play in Eden as often as we could, and often attempting the long cross-field ball to an unmarked Moses.

The Chelsea support had again enjoyed a hearty pre-match in Southampton; the support was strong and belligerent. The songs were varied.

I still think that mocking of medium-sized clubs with “Champions of Europe – You’ll never win that” a little of-the-mark, though. Having a dig at Tottenham, Arsenal and West Ham is fair game. Southampton and Hull City, not so.

Southampton, by contrast, were ridiculously quiet. I was disappointed that they didn’t air their “Johnstone Paint Trophy” chant.

After a while, Southampton managed to get a foothold. For a while, they enjoyed some possession. Courtois saved from the impressive Tadic. We countered with efforts from the two wide men, Hazard and Moses. A lovely ball from deep from Luiz had found Eden; he can certainly pick a lovely pass. Just before the break, Forster blocked an effort from Costa.

It had been a good half of football. Matic had been especially impressive, looking a lot more mobile and willing to venture forward than in a more recent, conservative, past. Alonso had settled, linking well with others. Luiz had hardly put a foot wrong

We started strong in the second period. Neat passing was the key, but with good movement off the ball. Southampton were getting swamped in midfield. The momentum was certainly with us. Alonso flashed wide, and then came a moment of magnificence.

Diego Costa gathered the ball from Eden Hazard about twenty-yards out. Southampton had given him two much space. He looked up, realised that he was in range and struck a sweet and sensual shot – right towards me – which curled in and beyond the late dive of Forster. It was as if the shot was especially for my eyes only; I was able to follow the curve and the trajectory. It left me breathless.

What a strike.

The away end roared.

Inside I exploded, but as Diego yelled and ran towards us, I knew I had to act fast.

Click, click, click.

The Chelsea players – a blur of blue – celebrated wildly in front of us. Moses jumped on top of Diego, the others screamed their pleasure.

At the other end, Courtois jumped up on to the crossbar and performed a gymnastics display.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

A few weeks back, a two-nil lead against Manchester United didn’t seem enough. On this occasion, two goals to the good, it seemed that the game was as good as over.

Ten minutes of the second-half had gone, and we were in control.

At times we purred in the second-half. The interplay between Diego and Eden – possibly the very fulcrum of potential success for us this season – was a joy to watch. Victor Moses, so full of running and energy, took aim and hit a low drive towards goal. Forster, usually such a dependable ‘keeper, could only scramble a block. The ball fell to Eden, who touched it to Diego, who set up Pedro, but he just couldn’t find his footing to knock it goal wards.

Southampton to their credit kept plugging away and a fine move resulted in a Bertrand cross, which Charlie Austin headed over.

Chelsea countered with a lung-bursting run from Pedro, who then played in Eden. How often have we seen him cut in from the left and strike home? Sadly on this occasion, he low shot was too near Forster. At the other end, a looping header from Steve Davis, dropped on top of the bar.

At last some noise from Southampton – some banter from them about West Ham. We responded with “Play Up Pompey.”

They didn’t care : “We’re all going on a European Tour.”

Victor Moses blasted a pile-driver right at Forster.

There were a few late changes from the manager.

Willian for the tireless Pedro; warm applause for Pedro, a song for Willian.

The bearded Brana for Moses; a loud and resonant cheer for Victor.

Michy for Diego; songs of love and devotion for our main striker. He was back to his best.

It finished 2-0, and this was a mighty fine performance. Southampton were not without merit, but they could not cope with our organisation, our spirit, and some top class performances from all of our main men.

Of course it helps to have superb players, but Conte has got them playing for each other.

“Another clean sheet, chaps.”

Fantastic stuff. We all played well. Kante was a little quiet, but only by the slightest of margins. It was a hugely enjoyable game.

And a hugely important win.

The top five teams are now tightly-packed.

  1. Manchester City – 23.
  2. Arsenal – 23.
  3. Liverpool – 23.
  4. Chelsea – 22.
  5. Tottenham – 20.

It’s always a long slog back to the train station at Southampton, but the Chelsea fans were buoyant as we slowly marched back to the waiting car. On the first day of winter, the future is far from bleak. There was a new song about Azpilicueta but it was too difficult to latch on to. Back in the car, I spoke about the upcoming week.

“It’s fantastic that Conte can now focus on Everton on the back of four superb wins. There will be no soul-searching about deficiencies. No worry about having to find a way to change the system. Just the desire to keep it positive. Keep playing this new way. Just keep the confidence levels high. Have Monday off. Come back on Tuesday and keep the unit together. Keep them smiling. Keep us smiling.”

Four wins. Four clean sheets.

It all started at Arsenal, when the manager replaced Cesc Fabregas and replaced him with Marcos Alonso, and went to a three. It was met with much-head scratching at the time, but at that low point, Conte – with hindsight – may well have instantly changed our whole season. With hindsight, it was inspired.

“3-0 down, I need something new, why not change it now.”

It was a brave thing to do, eh? Since then, he has been totally vindicated.

Since then, it has been remarkable, hasn’t it?

Antonio Conte’s new blueprint for our future looks damn good to me.

We move on. There is a lovely mood in the club and on the pitch and on the terraces right now. Kudos to the manager for changing the system so seamlessly, and just as much love and respect goes to all of the players too. They have responded so well.

This is going to be a great season.

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Tales From A Sunday In Swansea

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 11 September 2016.

For once, I was in with quite a while to spare. The kick-off was over half-an-hour away. On the pitch, the Chelsea players were in the middle of their warm-up drills, chatting away, looking at ease. I soon spotted the wild hair of David Luiz. He looked a little subdued to be honest. Despite rumours of him being selected in the team, he was to take a place on the bench. While the players moved over to a more central area to take shots at Asmir Begovic, there was a song for our returning centre-half / defensive midfielder.

“Oh David Luiz, you are the love of my life…”

The blue Carabao training gear looks slightly better than the hideous yellow, but only slightly.

I captured Luiz taking a shot at goal, with him looking away at the last minute, something of his trademark. Inside, I purred.

But there would be no place for David Luiz in the starting eleven against Swansea City on this Sunday in September. Ever since the news broke through that Chelsea were in talks to re-sign our former player, I have warmed to the idea of having him back in the fold. Yes, his defensive frailties are well known, and this is what concerned me most. I’ll not lie, I was quite stunned when I heard the news. We all remember the glee that we felt when PSG stumped up fifty million big ones just before his disastrous World Cup in 2014. Why on Earth would we want him back? And then I remembered that our new man in charge Antonio Conte favours a 3-5-2, or at least he has done in the most recent past. I started thinking about football formations, team shapes, and for many an hour I was lost in my own little world, conjuring up images of tactics board after tactics board, arrows pointing this way and that way, formations, formations, formations.

I thought back to the 1995/1996 season when Glenn Hoddle embraced a 5-3-2 – or was it a 3-5-2? – for the very first time, with Dan Petrescu and Terry Phelan as pushed-on wing backs, and a trio of central defenders, which varied a little, but tended to consist of David Lee, Michael Duberry and Steve Clarke.

This formation was relatively short-lived at Chelsea, but it produced a few thrilling performances. The FA Cup winning team of the following season was a more predictable 4-4-2, but there were three central defenders famously used against the aerial bombardment of Wimbledon in the semi-final. So it is a formation that we have experienced before. Anyone who knows me will know that I am not an expert on formations and tactics. It’s not really my thing. But I thought of David Luiz, playing in a defensive three, alongside two more robust central defenders, and I wondered if he could be our version of Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci, who caught my eye in the euros in France, spreading passes around with ease. Think of David Luiz being Frank Leboeuf with hair, and lots of it. The thought of Luiz, however, in just a flat back four scared me a little.

I then heard talk of 3-4-3 formations and I threw my tactics board out of the window.

Formations come and go. The standard 4-4-2 at Chelsea – ah the memories of Jimmy and Eidur – gave way to Mourinho’s 4-3-3 for a while before the 4-2-3-1 gained favour. There was also the famous 4-3-2-1 “Christmas Tree” though hardly used by us.

It begs the age old question, does a manager fit players around a formation or a formation around players? Over the next few months, I suspect we will see Conte trying out a few variations. It might be some time before he is settled. It took Claudio Ranieri most of his first season at Chelsea to figure it all out. At the moment Antonio Conte favours a 4-1-4-1.

It seems incredible to me, really, that so few teams play with more than one attacker. The days of Jimmy and Eidur, and certainly Kerry and Speedo, seem light years away. Maybe we’ll see its return one of the days.

David Luiz, in his second spell with us, would be wearing squad number thirty. This got me thinking about the past too. We first experienced squad numbers in the 1993/1994 season, the second campaign of “Sky TV” and all of its hideous mixture of subsequent pros and cons. Until then, there was something special about the simple 1-11 shirt numbering system. I didn’t like the idea of messing with it. It all seemed too American for my liking. And we also had to suffer players’ names on the back of shirts too. More finicky changes. More commercialism. More shite. Groan.

Very soon into 1993/1994, our Danish central defender Jakob Kjeldbjerg was given shirt number thirty-seven, and a little part of me died.

“37?”

“Bloody hell, the world has gone mad.”

In today’s parlance – “Against Modern Football.”

In the good old days, the system was simple.

  1. Green shirts. Big gloves.
  2. Right-back. Always. No questions asked.
  3. Left-back. Always. Easy. For some reason, he always had “an educated left foot.”
  4. Midfield dynamo. Think John Hollins. Billy Bremner. Tended to be on the short side, don’t ask why, just accept it.
  5. Centre-back. Blocker. Man mountain. The leap of a salmon. Strength of a shire horse, brains of a rocking horse. Tackle first, ask questions later. Think Micky Droy, Steve Wicks, Joe McLaughlin.
  6. Centre-back. But the more skilful one of the two. Think Alan Hansen. Marvin Hinton.
  7. Right-winger. Again, for some reason, a short-arse. Think Steve Coppell, Ian Britton, Jimmy Johnstone. Pat Nevin. A skilful bugger, prone to mazy dribbles. And falling over.
  8. Box to box midfielder. The fulcrum of the midfield. Think Nigel Spackman in 1983/1984.
  9. The centre-forward. The most iconic number ever. Peter Osgood, Tommy Lawton, Jackie Milburn, Alan Shearer, Kerry Dixon. Goal scorer supreme. Dream maker.
  10. A smaller, more agile, version of the centre-forward, playing off the number nine. David Speedie. Why am I referencing 1983/1984 here? Too easy. Ah, think Peter Beardesley, but not for too long, that boy was hardly a looker.
  11. Left-winger. And for some reason, a lanky bugger. Peter Houseman, Peter Barnes. Davie Cooper as the exception.

And there we have it. Growing up in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, this was the accepted numbering system. Liverpool buggered it up, as is their wont, in around 1977 when Ray Kennedy, a skilful left-sided midfielder, was given a number five shirt. I can still feel the sense of betrayal and confusion to this day. Phil Thompson slid into a number four shirt, and for a while, this was the one exception. Then it became the norm for central defenders to take a number four shirt – paging Colin Pates – and at Chelsea, this resulted in John Bumstead wearing number six. It is at around this time that Western Civilisation began to fall apart, and we all know why.

I blame Ray Kennedy.

Thinking about the numbering system of old, the simple one to eleven, I quickly ran through the Chelsea team to face Swansea City and came up with this.

  1. Thibaut Courtois.
  2. Branislav Ivanovic.
  3. Cesar Azpilicueta.
  4. N’Golo Kante.
  5. John Terry.
  6. Gary Cahill.
  7. Willian.
  8. Nemanja Matic.
  9. Diego Costa.
  10. Oscar.
  11. Eden Hazard.

Admit it, it looks strange but quite perfect at the same time doesn’t it?

And no names on the jerseys.

And no “Yokohama Tyres.”

Perfect.

As the minutes passed by, and as the players disappeared down the tunnel, the away end seemed to take forever to fill.

Swansea is an easy away game for The Chuckle Brothers and myself. Our pre-match drink, in the same bar as last April, down by the marina, soon followed the two-hour drive from our homes on the Somerset and Wiltshire border. We were joined by a mate from Atlanta, Prahlad, who was over on business for a while, and who was supremely excited to be able to go to a Chelsea away game. A mate had not been able to attend, and so I arranged for Prahlad to pick up his ticket. Both parties were happy with the result. Incidentally, Prahlad has been working up on Merseyside for a few weeks, and I wondered if his name was changed to “Soft Lad” once the locals realised that he was a Chelsea fan.

The minutes ticked by.

I was sat – stood – alongside Parky, Alan and Gary. PD and Young Jake were right at the front, below us and behind the goal, awaiting to be captured on TV camera. Prahlad was over on the other side of the goal in the lower section of Chelsea support.

I had received a photograph on my phone from another mate from the US, John – from LA, over on business too – but his view was from the other end. His decision to attend the game – his first Chelsea away game in England, er Wales – was a last minute affair, and he had missed out on tickets in the Chelsea allocation. Instead, he had managed to pick up a front row seat from the Swansea City ticket exchange at face value. I quickly spotted him. It reminded me of the time Glenn and I watched from the home end in 2013/2014.

At kick-off, there was an empty seat to my immediate left, and an empty seat in front of me. I got the impression, as I looked around, that there were many empty seats in our section.

This was really galling.

Of course, now that every single away ticket in the Premier League is set at £30, it is obvious that many Chelsea supporters are simply buying tickets without attending the actual game, stacking up loyalty points for the big games along the way, and perhaps offloading them if they can.

This can’t be right, can it?

Sure, buy a ticket, but only if you can be sure of passing it on to someone who needs it.

As the game progressed, many seats remained unused, yet poor John was having to slum it in the home end, away from his Chelsea brethren, and our support must’ve looked poor to the home fans and those watching on in TV Land.

I am surprised that we were not treated to a chant – “sell all your tickets, you didn’t sell all your tickets” – from the locals.

This was a black and white show at the small but trim Liberty Stadium. Swansea, having jettisoned their particularly neat Adidas in favour of a poor Joma kit – were in all white and we were in our all-black abomination.

Why weren’t we wearing blue?

I refer you to my “Against Modern Football” comment and its associated moans above.

Alan and Gary had travelled down from London on one of the official coaches and had, as with last season, enjoyed some fish and chips outside the stadium before the game. Alan was so contented with his food that he took a photograph.

[AWFUL ANNUAL “WHOSE COAT IS THAT JACKET?”JOKE WARNING, ADVANCE WITH CAUTION]

I looked at it and said –

“Whose cod is that haddock?”

[THIS VERY SAME LINE WILL BE REPEATED NEXT SEASON TOO. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED]

I’ll get my coat.

Er, jacket.

We played well in the first-half, and for a fleeting moment I thought that we would see a repeat of our dominant 5-0 win in 2014/2015.

Soon into the game, the dire Conte chant was aired, but it thankfully did not reappear all game.

Willian, out on the right, teasing away in his number seven jersey – sorry, number twenty-two – caused Fabianski to make strong saves. We were attacking down the left flank too, with Eden Hazard looking lively. On eighteen minutes, a spell of Chelsea pressure allowed Diego to work the ball to Ivanovic. He let fly with a fierce shot, but the ball was not cleared. Oscar did well to gather under pressure and lay off to Diego Costa. His shot was perfectly placed to Fabianski’s left.

One-nil to us, happy days.

Eden Hazard is simply unplayable when he sweeps in from the wide left position, leaving defenders in his wake, and he drove hard into the box. Sadly his shot was saved by the Swans’ ‘keeper. Despite our dominance, the Chelsea support was rather subdued in my mind.

The home support is strong in the side section to our left, but elsewhere the Liberty Stadium is not particularly intense.

Chances came and went for us, and surely a second goal would kill Swansea off. Dave went close. Kante was everywhere. Swansea rarely threatened Thibaut’s goal.

Diego, bless him, drew the ire of the home fans with every tackle, every challenge. He soon became their pantomime villain. He would be booed by the Swansea fans every time he had the ball. Unbelievably, Diego managed to plant the ball wide of the goal when only a few yards out. From our end, we simply could not fathom how he had missed, nor how a Chelsea player had failed to get a touch.

There was a little “Wales” / “England” banter during the first-half, but that bored me rigid.

The only meaningful attempt by Swansea on our goal took place in the closing minutes ofv the half, when Dave allowed Gylfi Sigurdsson to much space, but thankfully his firmly-hit shot fizzed past out far post.

In many a conversation at the break : “we should’ve scored a second.”

As the second-half started, the tackles continued to come in thick and fast. It was turning to a feisty affair. Diego, continually booed, seemed to be inspired by this depth of hatred towards him, and twisted and turned past opponents as he continually broke with the ball at his feet. At times he hangs on to the ball, but here he seemed to release others at just the right time.

Then, a calamity.

A Swansea counter attack and a long reaching ball played across the edge of the box. Courtois, living a quiet life until then, raced out and fouled Sigurdsson just inside the area. Was his judgement at fault? I think so. It was no guarantee that the Swansea player would score.

The same player thumped the ball past Courtois from the penalty.

The home fans roared.

“And we were singing.

Hymns and arias.

Land of my fathers.

Ar hyd y nos.”

Bollocks.

More bollocks just three minutes later when Gary Cahill was caught as he struggled to control a pass from John Terry. He was robbed by Leroy Fer, and could only watch as the Swansea player raced on and somehow bundled the ball past Courtois, after the ‘keeper initially partially stopped the first effort. From my position over seventy yards away, it looked like Cahill was at fault. The referee, Andre Marriner, was much closer to the action than me…

More hymns and bloody areas, the Welsh national anthem, and “I can’t help falling in love with you.”

At least none of the buggers were dressed as Teletubbies, unlike two unfortunates in 2015.

So, rather than a second goal for us, and the chance to go four for four, and sit atop the table, we were now 2-1 down.

Crazy.

We continued to attack. I looked over at the manager, seemingly about to self-detonate at any moment. He urged, he cajoled, he bellowed, he shouted, he gestured. He was stood the entire game.

Oscar curled one towards to goal, but Fabianski did well to arch his back and tip over. Diego went down just outside the box. Maybe even I am beginning to think the same way as others; his fall looked too easy. The referee waved play on. The Chelsea end was livid.

Oscar headed weakly at goal.

Conte changed things.

Cesc Fabregas replaced the shuffling Nemanja Matic.

Victor Moses replaced Willian.

I genuinely expected us to equalise.

Within five minutes, constant Chelsea pressure paid off. Oscar played in Ivanovic, who glided past his man and shot right down below me. The ball caromed off a defender and looped high towards the far post. Diego Costa – who else? – was waiting for the ball to fall. Time was precious and he soon decided that he could not wait any longer. He jumped, swivelled, and hit an overhead shot goal wards. The ball hit a Swansea defender, but its momentum carried the ball over.

“GETINYOUBEAUTY.”

2-2.

Pandemonium in the North Stand.

This was all we deserved.

I could not fault our spirit to keep going, to keep pressing, to keep attacking.

The game ended in a frenzy of chances. Diego forced a fine save from Fabianski after a gliding run from Hazard.

Hazard then took one for the team after losing possession to Barrow. He chased the advancing Swansea attacker and cynically pulled him back. A goal then would have killed us.

Two final chances to us – Fabregas, Moses – did not test the Swansea ‘keeper and it stayed 2-2.

Despite my honest pleasure in seeing us fight back to get a share of the points, there was a definite sense of dissatisfaction that such long periods of domination over the entire game did not give us three points.

We met up after the game.

Prahlad had certainly enjoyed himself.

But oh those missed chances.

And oh those empty seats.

I bumped in to John on the walk back to the car. He had enjoyed himself too – behind enemy lines – but I didn’t have the stomach to tell him that there were many empty seats in our end.

It was a fine evening as we drove back towards England, the sun fading, the evening drawing in, music on, chatting away, another match, another day on the road following the boys, with thoughts of other games on the horizon.

I watched “Match Of The Day 2” later in the evening and it was obvious that myself and Andre Marriner were wrong on both occasions. Gary Cahill was fouled in the build-up to their second goal. Diego Costa had been fouled outside the box too. Bollocks and bollocks again.

On Friday, we play Liverpool and the top of the table is beckoning.

I’ll see you there.

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Tales From Vicarage Road

Watford vs. Chelsea : 20 August 2016.

After the euphoria of Monday’s dramatic win against a rather disappointing West Ham United, Saturday could not come quick enough. On the face of it – “although no team should be underestimated blah, blah, blah”- I for one was certainly hoping for another league win to get us off to a solid start to 2016/2017. I was on driving duties again, and picked up PD, Parky and Young Jake en route. The skies threatened with rain a little, but this would surely be a fine day. I was parked in our standard car-park at just after midday. All four of us looked at the skies and decided against jackets. As with last season, the pre-match drink-up was in the ridiculously busy “The Moon Under Water” Wetherspoon’s on Watford High Street. Alan and Gary were soon spotted and, while I slowly sipped on “Cokes” – deep joy – I watched with admiration from afar as the others kept returning from the rammed bar with plastic pint after plastic pint. Many other members of the Chelsea Away Club popped over to say “hello” and the time soon passed. Watford’s High Street is solid with pubs, bars, clubs, restaurant and fast food joints. One lot of Chelsea were over at “The Flag” near the station. And we were in “The Moon Under Water.” Watford fans were present but a minority.

This was Chelsea Central.

It didn’t take long for the place to be reverberating with Chelsea songs. I am sure that many of our foreign fans, possibly still to visit England for a game, have this notion that on every match-day at Stamford Bridge, every single pub is shaking to the rafters as Chelsea song after Chelsea song is bellowed out. It simply isn’t like this. Singing does happen, but it’s quite random and ad hoc. My local “The Goose” is noisy, but pre-match songs are quite rare these days. There is more condensed singing at away pubs – “The Arkell’s” outside Anfield, “The Shakespeare’s Head” on the way to Arsenal and “Yates” in Southampton’s town centre are three easy examples – but a lot depends on numbers. Often, with Chelsea in the minority, there are no songs, often there are no clues who we are. On this particular match day, amid the usual Chelsea standards, I quickly noted a new chant. It could hardly be termed a song, since it was very flat, with hardly a melody. I quickly made a note of the words.

“Antonio Conte. Does it better. Makes me happy. Makes me feel this way.”

The last few words sounded familiar – annoyingly familiar – but because there was no notable tune involved, I was struggling to name the song. It boomed around the pub and although I felt myself subconsciously joining in as I queued for my round, I really wasn’t convinced. Maybe it will grow on me.

After the game on Monday, in the car on the way out of Fulham, I suggested to my friends that Willian’s performance had been the only one that had been a little sub-standard. On the face of it, once the team news had come through on our phones, it seemed that Antonio Conte had agreed with me.

Pedro in for Willian, otherwise unchanged.

I passed this nugget of news to Parky, but he was sodden with cider and just smiled and gave me a big hug.

“Whatever” I said, smiling, “sorry for spoiling your drinking.”

It is a bloody good job that I wrested the troops out of the pub earlier than normal because we were met with a ridiculous wait at the away end. There was building work last season, but no delay. This season, all two thousand Chelsea fans were pushed like cattle towards a double doorway of no more than four feet wide, with four turnstiles located inside the stand. What a farce. Why not have four turnstiles built into the actual perimeter wall? Anyway, we made it inside.

Incidentally, a rather huge Watford fan had waltzed past us, bellowing some chant or another, as we waited rather impatiently to get inside. The Chelsea choir seized the moment and targeted him.

“You ate Dennis Wise, you ate Dennis Wise – you ate Dennis, you ate Dennis, you ate Dennis Wise.”

Unlike last season, shunted way to the left, we had good seats. Vicarage Road is a tidy stadium, and there is infill taking place on all four corners. The corner to our left was a work in progress.

Before I had time to think, the Evertonian “Z Cars” heralded the teams on the pitch, and with the home end opposite a riot of yellow, red and black flags, the scene was set.

Chelsea were in a rather neat all-white kit. It is much better than the sub-standard home kit, with the juvenile lions embedded into the knit, and a hundred times better than the black away kit. Overall, I have not been too impressed with the Adidas kits since they took over from Umbro in 2006/2007. I wonder if the standard 2016/2017 Nike template will continue into next season. It seems that every single one of Nike’s uniforms have the same colour shirts and shorts, with contrasting sleeves and socks. I wonder what horrors we have in store next season. Light blue sleeves maybe? Shudder.

Lacoste Watch.

Parky – white.

Chris – dark grey.

Let’s not deny it, for a very large part of this match, we were quite woeful, and it reminded me so much of some of our soporific performances last season, with little urgency and drive. Our game at Vicarage Road during the last campaign had been poor, although we had slowly improved during the second-half, but this was almost worse. As the game continued, I kept thinking back to my very effusive match report from Monday and wondered if my enthusiasm would now be looked at as rather premature and excessive.

If it was the same 4/1/4/1 as Monday, I would not have known, since Matic seemed unwilling to move from a deep midfield berth. The first-half was truly awful. The singing, which had been strong at the start, drifted away with each passing minute of inactivity on the pitch. Soon into the game, the skies darkened and misty rain gave way to a stronger shower.

“Good job we’ve all forgot our jackets.”

The floodlights flickered on. This was November in August.

To my left, I noticed that many Watford fans had vacated their seats in the Elton John Stand simply because the roof overhead did not fully extend over the seats. What a joke. I guess they watched from inside the concourse on TVs. Pathetic, really.

In the Chelsea dugout, I was transfixed with the animated cajoling of our new manager, who again looked very dapper in his suit and tie.

“A penny for your thoughts, Antonio.”

“And what do you think of the new song?”

“Yeah, me too.”

In all honesty, Watford could have been two-up at the break. A fine save by Thibaut Courtois from an angle kept Watford at bay early on. As the rain continued, play did not flow. Chelsea were ponderous in picking passes and movement off the ball was poor. Watford, without creating too much early on, seemed to be up for the fight more than us. The robust and spirited nature of our play on Monday was sorely lacking. Dare I say it, we looked tired. Kante buzzed around, attempting to bring other players in, but too often Ivanovic’ cross failed to get past the first man, Oscar failed to do anything constructive, Hazard failed to pick out Diego Costa, and Matic was just Matic. To my left, Gary was turning the air blue with every swear word known to mankind.

I turned to TBBM (“the bloke behind me”) and sighed “I’ve got this all season.”

Cahill did well to block a Watford shot. There was a call – from me anyway – for a back-pass after Gomes picked up the ball under pressure from Costa after a Watford defender seemed to have got a touch after the much-barracked former Tottenham ‘keeper initially spilled it.

A game of few chances and little joy, at half-time there were yawns the size of underground tunnels in the away end.

There were no positives from the first forty-five minutes to be honest. After the optimism of Monday evening, there was a noticeable deadening of our spirit. The singing had almost petered out completely.

It wasn’t good.

It wasn’t good at all.

With Chelsea attacking the away support, we hoped for better things as the game re-started. Eden Hazard fired wide, and we seemed to liven up a little. Sadly, after just ten minutes of the second-half gone, we were caught napping when Guedioura – who? – was able to cross from the Watford right. As three Chelsea defenders rose to head the centre away – all missing the flight of the ball completely – I immediately spotted danger as the ball dropped invitingly to a completely unmarked Watford player beyond the frame of the goal.

I uttered the immortal words “here we go” with a knowing sigh, and watched as Capoue brought the ball down and volleyed it high past Courtois.

Watford were one-up. Oh bollocks.

After the Watford celebrations and flag-waving had died down, we heard the home support for possibly the only time during the whole afternoon, as they sang in praise of their goal scorer.

Yep, you guessed, it – the Billy Ray Cyrus song. Fuck off.

The Antonio Conte song struggled to get going. It needs to change, somehow, for it to become more palatable.

We seemed to marginally improve, in terms of chances on goal, with Hazard and Matic going wide, but there was still a dullness to our body language. Watford turned overly physical in their efforts to hold on for the win. Frustrations boiled over on a number of occasions. An unlikely attacker almost created an opening when Ivanovic tempted Gomes out of his six-yard box, but the resulting cross in to the danger zone was cleared for a corner. A handball appeal, which I missed, was waved away.

With twenty minutes remaining, Antonio Conte replaced Pedro with Victor Moses. No complaints there.

Immediately, our play seemed to be more direct, more intense.

Moses enjoyed a spirited run down the left, which was met by a song from a few years back.

The Victor Moses “Pigbag” was sung with far more gusto than the Antonio Conte “Chaka Khan” (for it was her song “Ain’t Nobody” which had been butchered that afternoon in Watford.)

Oscar, who had drifted over to the right wing, was then replaced by Michy Batshuayi.

Things improved further and the fans around me realised this. The support grew stronger.

The final change and Cesc Fabregas replaced the woeful Nemanja Matic. I turned to Alan –

“Bloody hell, that’s an attacking line-up alright.”

After only two minutes on the pitch, Fabregas daintily picked out Hazard outside the box. He moved the ball laterally and then unleashed a low shot on target. The much-maligned Gomes made a mess of his attempted save, only feeding the ball towards Batshuayi who was on hand to tuck the spilled ball into the net.

GET IN.

Our new young striker reeled away in ecstasy and we were back in it. Playing with two up had borne dividends. We had an extra striker in the six-yard box. It seems simple, but how often has this simple fact been ignored over recent seasons? I again turned to Alan.

“Mourinho would often change personnel, but he very rarely changed the shape. Credit to Conte. Game on.”

Everyone around me sensed a more adventurous Chelsea now. It seemed we were genuinely on top. We pressed forward, urged on by a support that had finally found its voice.

“Antonio Conte. Does it bet-tah.”

Ivanovic came close. It was all Chelsea. The noise cascaded down towards our heroes on the pitch.

A rare Watford attack broke down, and the ball fell to Cesc Fabregas. He instantly looked up and spotted an advanced Diego Costa, about to set off on a run into the Watford half. His clipped pass was perfect, dropping right between two bamboozled and befuddled Watford defenders, allowing Costa a clear run on goal. He aimed for goal and steadied himself. A touch to set himself up. I was on my toes now, awaiting the strike. He shot low. It flew in through the legs of Gomes.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.

Watford 1 Chelsea 2.

Pandemonium in the away end, pandemonium everywhere. Bodies flying this way and that. I steadied myself to photograph Diego’s beautiful celebrations – his second late match winner in two games –  but Parky grabbed hold of me and shook me hard. I managed to release myself to snap the team’s celebrations, and immediately after the away end was reverberating to a song about a Spaniard and his magic hat.

Beautiful.

I am not sure how we had done it, but we were winning a game in which, for a good seventy minutes, we had looked second-best. Over on the touchline, Conte had masterminded another masterstroke. I was full of admiration. Five minutes of extra-time were signalled but we would not let this slip. The team remained strong, energised, together. I was really impressed with Batshuayi and the striker could have made it 3-1 but his very neat turn and shot crashed back off the Watford bar.

The whistle went.

Phew.

Two wins out of two.

Phew.

On the walk back to the car, we were full of praise for the way that our Italian manager had changed things, in almost a carbon copy of the game on Monday. It is early days, of course, but it seems that we are all in for a fine time this season. Thankfully, we narrowly avoided a few spots of rain, which started up just after we reached the car, and again on the way back west along the M4. There would be no raining on our parade on this fine day of Chelsea glory. At Reading Services, we again avoided getting wet as we called in to collectively re-charge our batteries with our assault on “Fifty Shades Of Greggs” (OK, three – a sausage roll, a tandoori chicken baguette and a Philly Steak lattice; three down, forty-seven to go, watch this space, with no European travels this season, we have to find excitement where we can). Who should walk around the corner but two local lads that PD and myself know who had watched my local team Frome Town play at nearby Kings Langley, drawing 2-2. Frome have begun the season well, and I have seen them play twice already. Like Chelsea, Frome Town are in fourth place in their respective league, and I wished a few of the players well as they appeared from their coach on their way to refuel.

It capped off a fine day.

On Tuesday, we play Bristol Rovers in the latest incarnation of the League Cup, in what promises to be a noisy affair with four-thousand Bristolians taking over The Shed. I am sure that by the end of the evening, I will be sick to the death of “Goodnight Irene” being sung on a constant loop but I am relishing the chance to see a local team to me at Stamford Bridge for the very first time. There will be, undoubtedly, memories of games against them at Eastville flitting in and out of my head, and the resulting match report, all night.

I will see a few of you there.

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