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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Tales From A Night Of Ignition

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 15 August 2016.

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As soon as I reached the familiar surroundings of the upper tier of the Matthew Harding Upper, I was met by the odd sight of many green tin foil flags being brandished by my fellow supporters. It was a bit of a shock to the system.

“Green?” I asked Alan, who left the pub a little before the rest of us.

“The Italian flag, mate” replied Alan.

Ah yes. The Italian flag. It all made sense now. I looked over, past the green section and spotted silvery-white and red flags too. Once combined, the mosaic of an Italian flag was taking shape in the upper tier, while it seemed that fans – or at least some of them – in the lower tier had been given standard royal blue flags.

An homage to our new manager Antonio Conte.

I approved.

Conte would be the latest in a revered and respected group of Italians who have managed our club.

Gianluca Vialli. Claudio Ranieri. Carlo Ancelotti. Roberto di Matteo. Antonio Conte.

In addition, we have had our fair share of Italian players too, from the idolised Gianfranco Zola and Carlo Cudicini to bit-part players such as Pierluigi Casiraghi, Sam Dalla Bona, Christian Penucci, Gabrielle Ambrosetti and Marco Ambrosio.

It has always felt right, this Italian thing. The passionate azzurri playing with pride and passion in the royal blue of Chelsea. That there has been a strong Juventus link – Vialli, Casiraghi and now Conte – has made it all the more sweeter for me personally. It has evolved into a lovely subplot of my love affair with Chelsea over the past twenty years.

Back in the August of 1996, I welcomed Di Matteo and Vialli to Stamford Bridge with my very own “VINCI PER NOI” banner draped over the MHU balcony wall against Middlesbrough, and I ended that particularly wonderful season at Wembley against the same opponents with an Italian flag adorned with “FORZA AZZURRI” as we won our first trophy since 1971.

1996/1997 was a season with a distinctive Italian flavour.

And I wondered if the current campaign would be similarly seasoned.

As the first weekend of the Premier League got underway without us, all of my focus seemed to be on our new manager, our new don, our new capo, our new “Mister.” After the ersatz atmosphere of the US tour, suddenly I was thrust right into the venom of a bitter London derby against West Ham United and I wondered how the new man would get us playing.

This was the real deal, the real thing, the league opener, us against the world.

After a torrid day at work, it took a while for me to fully focus on the evening’s game as I drove up to London, but once inside Stamford Bridge, the anticipation was rising. I was getting back in the groove.

“What else you gonna do on a Monday evening?”

And the focus was certainly on Conte.

I have mentioned already that I have a particular phrase for the new manager Conte which sums him up.

“Quietly spoken but with eyes of steel.”

It seems apt. Tons of passion too. Passion by the bucket load. That is fine by me. Passion is good. Passion is a good thing. Bring it on Antonio.

Let’s get my Antonio Conte story out of the way early, although I have touched on it once before in these despatches.

Back in 1999, I attended my friend Tullio’s marriage to Emanuela in their home city of Turin. It was a fantastic day, and evening, and night, and one of the nicest weddings that I have ever attended. Many beers were quaffed by myself (I honestly think they had got the beer in especially for me) and when I woke the next morning, I always remember my bloodshot eyes looking back at me from my hotel bathroom mirror. The wedding had been on the Saturday, and on the Sunday afternoon, I was to attend the Juventus vs. Fiorentina game at the Delle Alpi. It was perfect timing really. It could not have been better.

Juve, with Thierry Henri playing for them – and Zinedine Zidane too, as a substitute – were a team of superstars and I watched high up in the stands, towards the home Curva Scirea, as Juve went a goal up. During the previous week, the same stadium had witnessed the visit of Manchester United in the Champions League semi-final, and the atmosphere during the game had not been great. But a win against bitter rivals Fiorentina would cheer the bianconeri after their defeat at the hands of Roy Keane et al. Sadly, the viola equalised late on. I had arranged with a local taxi driver to collect me outside the stadium at the final whistle in order to scoot me back to the city’s airport at the end of the game. I pondered if I should leave with a few minutes left in order to beat the crowds and possible traffic congestion. A little voice inside my head told me to hang on.

Right at the death, who else but Antonio Conte – an industrious box to box midfielder – popped up inside the Fiorentina area to fire home. I watched, delirious, as he raced over to the segment of travelling away fans and picked up the corner flag and brandished it towards them.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHotoVK13T4

It was a perfect end to my weekend in Turin. Immediately after, Conte gained a great deal of notoriety within the Italian media for his actions, since many thought it confrontational, while in Juve circles he gained a great deal of respect. Incidentally, Conte was the Juve captain in those days and his manager on that day over seventeen years ago? Carlo Ancelotti.

This is the Antonio Conte that I observed during the otherwise lacklustre Euros over the summer. This is the Antonio Conte that I want to see at Chelsea. Passion, fire, vigour, energy.

God knows we missed these qualities last season.

On the walk from the pub, I had checked my phone for the manager’s first starting eleven of the new season. Chelsea Football Club had described the formation as 4-1-4-1, with this team :

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Terry – Cahill – Ivanovic.

Kante.

Willian – Matic – Hazard – Oscar.

Costa.

It was no surprise to me that his much vaunted 3-5-2 was not chosen. The players – his players – were not in place for that yet. If this is his preferred option, it will be a while before the team is morphed to a new shape. It is always a balancing act of players and formations, form and function. I trust that the new man will manage the changes with his apparent studiousness and professionalism. I certainly liked what I had heard about him; his Mourinho-esque attention to detail, his obsessive devotion to the game, his management style.

It was a perfect evening for football. There was not a single cloud in the sky.

Eight o’clock was approaching fast.

By a strange quirk of fate, our first league game of 2016/2017 was another landmark game for me.

Just over two years ago, I had driven Glenn, Parky and PD in the Chuckle Bus up to Burnley for our away game at Turf Moor – the league opener – for my one thousandth Chelsea game. Here, in 2016, two years later, I had driven the same three friends up to London for our league opener against another team in claret and blue for game number 1,100.

A little coincidence there, for those that like them.

Let’s hope that this season ends in the same way as 2014/2015, eh?

(…incidentally, I don’t usually do predictions on here, but I had the top four for this new season as follows : 1 – Manchester City, 2 – Manchester United, 3 – Chelsea, 4 – Tottenham Hotspur).

Over in the far corner, three thousand away fans were sat and stood, with more than the usual number of flags. Maybe they made a special effort. Elsewhere, Stamford Bridge appeared full, save for a few late arrivals in the top rows of The Shed. Familiar flags were spotted.

Zola.

Tambling.

Ulster Blues.

Tim Rice.

As the teams entered the pitch, the mosaics in our end were furiously waved.

Three colours green.

Three colours white.

Three colours red.

“I tricolori.”

Maybe I need to buy myself a retro away scarf of 1973 red, white and green this season.

It was a grand old sight and I feverishly clicked away. I hoped that they would not be the most exciting snaps of the entire night. Flames were thrown up in front of the East Stand – just a little bit too much razzmatazz for my liking to be honest – and we watched as the teams went about their usual routines.

It was then time for Alan and myself to make some comments about the tin foil flags in our midst.

“Knowing Gary, he’ll be collecting these at the end of the game and will use them to wrap his Christmas presents.”

“Nah, he can wrap himself in these after his latest marathon. Or Snickers, or whatever they call it these days.”

Chelsea in the traditional blue, blue, white, and West Ham in their traditional claret and blue.

An opening game between two bitter rivals, just as in 2000 when Mario Stanic – remember him? – scored on his debut with a sublime volley, with a young Frank Lampard looking on.

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The game began – our season began – and we attacked the MH.  West Ham began on the front foot, but there was a noticeable increase in the intensity shown by our players. It was hardly a new set of players – far from it – as all were on our books last season apart from the new lad N’Golo Kante, but it was remarkable how we easily noted an extra desire, passion and zip.

Oh dear. I apologise now for the number of times I will write the words “passion” and “desire” this season.

Sadly, Kante was booked early on for a tackle on Andy Carroll.

I noticed how animated the new manager was. He had given up his grey training gear of pre-season for a dark grey suit, and black tie, and he certainly looked the part. His trademark stance seems to be him standing with one arm across his stomach, one hand up to his mouth, surveying all and sundry.

West Ham were soon into their tiresome tirade of Chelsea-obsessed songs.

“Fucking hell, sing some of your own songs, will you, it’s getting boring now.”

Although the formation was officially 4/1/4/1, I couldn’t really spot much of a difference from last season’s shape. Matic seemed to be alongside Kante. Maybe there was extra width. Hazard was soon twisting away from markers, turning on a sixpence, and creating chances. Diego looked keen, yet still showed his propensity to dribble, head-down, rather than bring another players in. Matic began well. Kante really took my eye though. Tons of energy, and there is not that Matic-like tendency to dawdle once in possession.

Touch, move, pass.

One, two, three.

Keeping the momentum going.

Of all people, Branislav Ivanovic, ghosting past his man, provided the first real chance for us this season, but his firmly-struck shot went narrowly wide of the near post, forcing a low save from Adrian.

We got in to the game.

Another Ivanovic shot was hardly worthy of the name.

We knew that Carroll would be a problem, but were also thankful that their star Dmitri Payet was only on the subs’ bench. Oh, while I am on the subject : “Achy Breaky Heart” at football.

Fuck off.

West Ham were stood in the Shed lower, but many chose to sit in the upper. There was not a great deal of noise from them.

Oscar went down after a clumsy challenge in the box, but neither Alan nor myself were too convinced that it was a penalty. Chances were at a premium to be honest. Diego was booked amid protests after. It was beginning to heat up.

Eden Hazard proved to be our talisman again and he burst through on goal but a fine shot was narrowly wide of the mark. How I love to see Eden tease his opponents. Often he slows and almost walks towards them, a hark back to the tricky tanner ball players much beloved in Scotland, the intricately skilled wingers such as Davie Cooper, Jimmy Johnstone, John Robertson, our own Charlie Cooke and Pat Nevin. Often Eden will almost lower himself, a crouch, in order to concentrate his thoughts on how to get past his marker. It is one of modern football’s most wonderful moments.

Eden versus his man. What will he do next?

I heard myself saying to Alan “how does he do that?” as he effortlessly swept past a defender. What a player he is when he is in the mood.

Diego fired over, but chances were still rare. It really was all Chelsea. West Ham were poor. They surprised me.

Late on in the first-half, Willian forced a save from Adrian from one of his trademark dead balls. Dave headed the resultant corner over.

All level at the break.

We were treated to Ricardo Carvalho at half-time..

We teased the away fans :

“Riccy Carvalho – he’s won more than you.”

No complaints at the interval.

PD, Glenn, Alan and myself – who sit all together – were happy with things.

I never like it when we attack The Shed in the second-half. It seems odd. Out of kilter. However, we were all howling with pleasure after Dave was bundled over just inside the box after a shot from Diego came back into play.

All eyes were on Eden as he placed the ball on the spot. For once, he blasted it high, and I am sure I was not the only one whose first thought was “oh no, he’s missed.”

We were 1-0 up and the stadium was alive.

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

Reggie : “Come on my little diamonds.”

We continued to press and Willian went close. West Ham, again, as if to ratify further, were nowhere.

For a while, we turned the tables on West Ham, and there was a prolonged Frank Lampard songfest.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

“He scored two hundred.”

It was lovely stuff.

Gary Cahill chased down a West Ham attacker and made a lovely defensive tackle. Alan and myself spoke how Conte’s intense training sessions over the summer may be bearing fruit already.

“Twelve months ago, he may not have been able to reach that.”

It was a good simple, clear sign that we were a far more focussed, fit and forceful team in this season’s opener. They were handing out free tins of “Carabao” before the game but I am sure that the team’s vim was not due to this new energy drink alone. Conte had got the team playing and how.

The game continued, again with only a few chances. Eden began to tire a little. Willian was having a quiet game. Matic slowed – if that is possible.

Payet, the danger man, came on.

With a quarter of an hour left, I remember thinking “bloody hell, Courtois has hardly had a single shot to save.”

Dave was adjudged to have raised a foot to Carroll, whereas it looked to us that the West Ham totem pole had stooped. From the free-kick, Payet forced a save from Thibaut. From the corner, we blocked the initial effort on goal, but the ball rebounded to ugly bald ginger goon Collins who slammed home.

Bollocks.

Alan : “from a free-kick that should not have been given.”

Ugh.

1-1.

Their first effort on goal.

Billericay Dickie, Dagenham Dave and Plaistow Patricia were making all the noise now.

“Arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks.”

Conte is not the typically cautious Italian and he soon replaced the quiet Willian with Pedro, always a willing worker.

Soon after, further attacking intent with two further substitutions; Batshuayi on for Oscar, who had shown a lot more bite than of late, and Moses on for the tiring Hazard.

This was the fabled 4/2/4, and we pushed and pushed. A forceful run from Moses, followed by a fine volley from Pedro, but his low shot flashed agonisingly past the far post.

Damn.

In the very last minute, a ball was pumped up to the new lad Batshuayi who managed to head on towards the waiting Diego Costa. Costa was a good thirty yards out, and had a lot to do, but West Ham seemed reluctant to close him down. With space ahead of him, Diego had time to stroke a shot towards goal. The ball hit the target and we erupted.

“Getinyoufuckingbeauty.”

Diego ran on down to Parkyville, but my photographs of his intense celebrations were too blurred, too fuzzy.

2-1 to us, oh you lovely man Diego.

It was not Tottenham last season but it was bloody close. The stadium echoed to an old favourite.

“And it’s super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC” and The Bridge was on fire.

A last chance – their second of the match? – fell to Carroll, but Thibaut fell on the ball and we could breath.

The whistle blew and we yelled our joy.

The manager’s emotional response to the winner was shown on the TV screens. Oh my goodness.

Ha.

This was a fine feeling alright. The boys were back in town and the new man Conte had pulled the strings to engineer a lovely win. “One Step Beyond” boomed and we bounced out of the stadium in very good spirits. The feel good factor was back. It felt oh-so good to be a Chelsea fan again.

Thanks Antonio, thanks boys.

A new love affair has been ignited. Let’s go.

See you all at Watford on Saturday.

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Tales From Albert Dock And Gwladys Street

Everton vs. Chelsea : 12 March 2016.

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It seems to be all about away games at the moment. Whereas home matches at an increasingly sterile Stamford Bridge are continuing to lose their appeal, trips to various away stadia still manage to thrill me. After trips to Southampton and Norwich, here was another classic Chelsea Away Day. Our FA Cup Quarter Final against Everton had all the hallmarks of a very memorable day out in support of The Great Unpredictables.

There was an invading army of six thousand and we were planning on making a day of it.

I collected the usual suspects; first PD, then Glenn, then Parky.

The Fab Four were heading to Merseyside in The Chuckle Bus.

“All aboard.”

As we headed north, the weather was magnificent – blue skies – and the day stretched out in front of us, expectant with moments to treasure.

We were loving the buzz of it all.

“Happy days, boys.”

Six thousand supporters. It was some number, yet there would be similarly large away supports at Old Trafford and The Emirates on Sunday too. Whereas league allocations are always locked at 3,000, at least domestic cup games can evoke times past when away supporters would often travel up to 10,000 strong for league games. For this, I am grateful for the FA Cup. There is nothing better than being in a strange town, and being able to support the club in such numbers.

At Chelsea, we love the FA Cup.

Although my ticket was marked £35, Everton had taken the decision to only charge Chelsea £30 for season ticket holders, to mirror the price they had charged their own season ticket holders; a fine gesture. Additionally, Chelsea had taken an additional £10 off all tickets. My ticket therefore only worked out at £20 plus a £1.50 booking fee.

£21.50 for a Cup quarter final.

Superb.

Of course, there has been a lot of talk in the media about the £30 cap on away tickets to be phased in over the next few seasons. This has been met with unilateral approval; without a substantial number of away fans acting as a catalyst to generate noise from home fans, the atmosphere at games in 2016 would be dead. Although the Football Supporters’ Federation has been campaigning for a few seasons for a “Twenty Is Plenty” limit, one wonders if the sight of ten thousand Liverpool supporters leaving en masse a month or so ago was the tipping point.

After Birmingham, the skies became full of cloud, but there was no rain, thankfully. As we continued to head further north, we replayed Parky’s mix of Northern Soul which served the four of us so well on the trip to Old Trafford just after Christmas.

One of the highlights this time was Judy Street’s “What.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmPb95SUZF0

Just before we passed over the Manchester Ship Canal, I commented to the boys that we had not seen a single Chelsea car, which surprised us all. Then, within a few minutes, my mate Andy passed us.

Onto the M62 and the excitement was rising.

A song from R. Dean Taylor : “A Ghost In My House.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jG700BojpH0

And one from the Just Brothers : “Sliced Tomatoes.”

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

Music and football, music and football, music and football, repeat to fade…

I headed in to town, down the hill past the huge red brick cathedral, and I was parked-up at the Albert Dock at around 1.45pm.

This mirrored the pre-match that Parky and I enjoyed last season prior to our surreal 6-3 win at Goodison. We headed in for a drink at a very busy “Pan Am Bar”, as in 2014. It was crowded, and ridiculously warm. We spun out for a little walk around the Albert Dock, and I found out from Glenn that his grandfather – like my father – had undergone his RAF training at nearby West Kirby on The Wirral. Before our game at Goodison in 2012, Parky and myself had paid it a visit.

We then popped into “Vinea”, a wine bar overlooking the dock. This was all very pleasant. Our party was joined by Kev, down from Edinburgh for the day, and newly arrived from Lime Street.

I ordered pints of “Warsteiner” and awaited for the next guests to arrive.

My friend Kim, visiting from Florida, arrived with her friend Eddie, who – apart from being an avid football fan, like us all – plays guitar in China Crisis, a band who I loved back in the ‘eighties, and who still tour to this day. I saw China Crisis just after I came back from Tel Aviv in November. The song “African And White” had a certain resonance that night. It was a fantastic gig. Kim – who has been working with the band recently – introduced me to Eddie after, and it was a pleasure to see them both once more.

Fate and ridiculous coincidence seem to play an increasingly large role in my life these days. Before the home game with Arsenal in the autumn, I had flippantly thrown the phrase “flaunt the imperfection” into a conversation with my mate Daryl – I forget the context – and Daryl immediately knew that I was referencing a China Crisis album. For a few minutes, we chatted in The Goose beer garden about the band. I had three of their albums; I was a fan and so was Daryl. He had seen them years ago in London. Lo and behold, I briefly mentioned this in my match report a few days after. One or two weeks later, I was chatting to Kim, and I remembered that she had seen China Crisis in concert recently. I wondered if she had read my Arsenal match report and had spotted my brief comment about the band; she hadn’t so I decided to send Kim the link. At this point, I was completely unaware that Kim was friends with the band. Imagine my surprise when Kim informed me that she was with Eddie at that very match.

Football and music, football and music, football and music.

For an hour, we were able to relax, old and new friends together, and talk about these two great passions of ours. Kim was especially keen to hear how the five of us had all met. Of course, Glenn and I go back to 1977. It’s a lifetime of friendship. I met PD on a train back from Cardiff City in 1984. I met Parky at work in 2000. I met Kev for the first time in Lisbon last season. Eddie, although a Liverpool a season ticket holder for thirty years – the old Kemlyn Road, now the Centenary Stand – was enjoying our tales of friendship and fandom. We spoke about games that we had both attended; the two games in 1986 at Stamford Bridge, Kerry getting injured in the FA Cup tie on a Sunday, then Kenny scoring the championship clincher in May. We spoke of ticket prices, the Liverpool protest on 77 minutes recently, and we occasionally spoke about the antipathy between the two sets of fans.

Eddie : “When did it really start?”

Chris : “That Luis Garcia game. That bloody song about history.”

Eddie : “To be fair, you’ve given it to us since then.”

He was at Heysel and Hillsborough, and he shared a few harrowing tales from those two days. Heysel distressed him so much, that he has not traveled in Europe with his team since. I told him about my friend Mario, Juventus, having a ticket, but not travelling to the game due to an overload of school work that week. Incredibly, Eddie told me that the very first time that he had heard about the deaths at Heysel was when he was back at the airport before catching a flight back to the USA. I found that staggering. These days, the news would be all around the world in seconds.

Eddie was particularly fearful of Everton, with new backers, enjoying an imminent period of dominance in the city. Despite our different allegiances, we were getting on fine.

“Another beer?”

There was limited talk about the upcoming game, though all of us were confident that we could prevail against a typically hot and cold Everton team, whose supporters were starting to turn against the manager Martinez. We were subconsciously dreaming of a Wembley semi-final.

But maybe that was just wishful drinking.

Kev and the boys were talking about further away games at Bournemouth and Liverpool. We might be having a poor season, but these away days are still to be treasured.

Eddie spoke to Parky, the Chuckle Bus’ resident DJ, about music, sampling, and a few other related topics. Somewhere over the hill, past Everton and Anfield and Stanley Park, a game of football would be taking place very soon, but we were enjoying the chance to be together and talk – and laugh, there is always laughter – about football.

I suppose that you could call it a “Crisis Meeting.”

Sadly, we had to move on. Kim and Eddie set off to hunt down a cab, before taking their places in the lower tier of the Bullens Road stand at Goodison in the Chelsea seats. I drove up the hill towards the cranes at Anfield and found a very convenient place to park.

Just £6.

This was indeed a cheap day out.

The walk towards Goodison brought back memories of my first couple of visits in 1986.

We arrived with about twenty minutes to kick-off. I was looking forward to be able to watch the game, for once, without being stuck in the corner, and usually behind the goal line.

By a strange quirk of fate, my seat in row P was directly in front of Glenn and PD. Things were decidedly cramped in the rear rows of the upper tier, with little leg room among the tight wooden seats. Not that anyone was sitting of course. Everyone among the six thousand strong travelling army of Chelsea supporters was standing. I suppose that the split was 60% / 40% with most in the lower tier below. We had heard that the club had decorated each of the 6,000 seats with a Chelsea scarf; a nice touch. And there they were, neatly draped over the seat-backs.

On one side “Chelsea FC” and on the other “Over Land And Sea.”

Maybe the club expected us to hold them aloft, “YNWA”-style, to wind up the Everton fans.

…mmm, that was never going to happen.

So, there we were, perched at the top of the antiquated Bullens Road stand, loathed by some but loved by me, almost on the halfway line, with the haphazard struts and supports of the TV gantry blocking our view of the grand old main stand opposite. Alan and Gary were in the same row, but a few seats along. Their trip to Goodison, on the club coach, was free in lieu of them arriving late at Norwich City last week. The six thousand Chelsea fans were in fine voice.

Away to my right, the classic and old-fashioned Gwladys Street Stand was packed full of Evertonians. I love the way that the Leitch balcony has been left alone, bare, with no advertisements, and no hindrances. I love the way that the stand bleeds into the Bullens Road.

As the teams entered the pitch, I couldn’t even hear the “Z Cars” theme tune.

This felt like a proper cup tie, a proper game of football, a proper football stadium.

What followed was a proper let down.

Our team looked good on paper. Hazard was out, but some would argue that might be a blessing. At least we had Diego Costa, recovered from the PSG game, to lead the line. If he was playing, we would always have a chance of scoring.

We were in all white and attacked the Gwladys Street in the first-half.

A shot from Tom Cleverley was easily claimed by Thibaut early on, and I wondered if that early shot might set the scene.

How wrong I was.

It was such a poor first-half and I can barely recall more than three efforts on the Everton goal. An early effort from Kenedy flew over the bar. There was a Willian effort, charged down by a defender before it had travelled more than a few yards, and there was a free-kick from the same player right at the end of the half, which Robles tipped over. Apart from those two efforts, it was a football desert. As I kept looking up at the BBC commentator – Guy Mowbray? – I wondered what on Earth he had to talk about. We enjoyed a fair amount of the ball, but just looked so bloody lethargic.

Amid all of this, tackles were being ignored on one hand by Oliver, then punished with little rhyme or reason. It was a niggly game of football. The support in the upper tier quietened a little. No doubt they were still roaring downstairs, but I could not hear them.

The most disappointing aspect for me was our lack of movement off the ball. It was so frustrating. I urged Pedro on.

“Come on Pedro, move.”

At that moment – he must have heard me – he spun away from his marker into space and Fabregas played in a lovely ball. Sadly, he overrun the ball and the move petered out.

Everton hardly caused us any real danger, despite Ross Barkley parading the central area with a fine touch. An errant header from Lukaku was the only effort of note.

It was dire.

I wondered what the watching millions at home were thinking.

After the half-time break, in which a racehorse was bizarrely paraded around the perimeter of the pitch – “and I thought I had a long face” – Everton began the brighter, with a Funes Mori header flying over from a corner. Gary Cahill, after his Parisian walkabout on Wednesday, tackled Lukaku in a danger area with superb timing and composure.

As the game continued, the support grew weaker. Everton were quiet too. The game needed a spark. I lost count of the number of times that Matic advanced, taking too many touches, before playing a safe ball square. I lost count of the number of times Pedro cut back on himself. Fabregas offered little. And Everton hardly shone. Lukaku, the threat, seemed to be well marshalled by our central pairing.

Just before the hour, at last a good ball from Cesc found Diego Costa, who did ever so well to hone in on goal, and although he was forced wide, he managed to get a shot in on goal from a ridiculously acute angle. We were sure he had scored. The ball slowly ran across the goal line, virtually all six yards of it, but did not cross the line.

Bollocks.

Oscar came on for a quiet Willian.

We still struggled to break through. A few crosses from Pedro were not met by any threat from our attacking players. Oh for a Drogba or a Dixon. Our unwillingness to shoot really gets me. It eats away at me. Why don’t we do it? Why are we so scared to put our laces through the ball and to cause chaos in opposition defences?

It was the substitute Oscar who tamely lost possession in our attacking third, and we then watched – aghast – as the ball was worked out to Lukaku. With a deceptive turn of pace, he swept inside past Azpilicueta, Mikel, Cahill, Ivanovic, Terry, Desailly, Pates, Harris, McLaughlin, Hinton, Dempsey, Carvalho, Droy, Clarke, Elliot, Thome, Hogh, Wicks, Duberry, Sinclair, Leboeuf and Alex to strike a fine shot past Courtois.

Ugh.

There were just over ten minutes left and we were heading out of the cup.

At last the Evertonians made some noise.

“And if you know your history.”

History. That word again.

Remy for Matic.

“Come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea.”

Four minutes later, with our defence flat footed and half-asleep, Barry played in that man Lukaku again, and his low shot thundered past Courtois.

2-0.

No way back now.

The Gwladys Street were bumping now, making absolutely tons of noise. Although I was silent, annoyed, hurt, I had to admit that it was an impressive sight.

Ugh.

Over on the far side, after a flare up, I saw Diego Costa nudge his head against an Everton player.

“Silly bastard.”

He had to go. A second yellow was waved towards Costa, quickly followed by a red.

A few Chelsea began to leave.

Barry then was yellow carded for a silly challenge on Fabregas and was sent off for this second caution.

The forlorn figure of John Terry replaced Kenedy and played upfront for the final eight minutes.

At the end of the game, only four or five Chelsea players had the balls to come over and thank the travelling away support for our efforts. John Terry looked close to tears. Fabregas and Azpilicueta looked dejected. I knew how they felt.

Whereas we had to hold our hands up on Wednesday against PSG and admit that the better team had won, this game was so much more damning. We hadn’t been up for the fight. Hardly any player did well. It was a tragedy. It was a mystery.

Out in the Liverpool night, we gathered together and slowly walked back to the waiting car. The Evertonians were singing a favourite from 1984 :

“Tell me ma, me ma, to put the champagne on ice, we’re going to Wembley twice, tell me ma, me ma.”

A few youths had an impromptu “set to” on the main road – one lad was punched to the floor – but it soon died down. We walked, slowly on. I found myself walking next to an elderly Evertonian couple – “I mean we’ve been coming here since 1959” – and I wished them well at Wembley.

“I hope you win it.”

This was met with smiles and a word of thanks.

The lady, all bobble hat and teeth, then amazed me :

“I thought it was a good game, like, both teams kept attacking, they didn’t sit back.”

Sometimes, I truly wonder if I watch the same game as others.

It was a poor game and we were a poor team.

We said our goodbyes to Kev, and then edged out of the terraced streets of Anfield.

We stopped oft for a pint in one pub and then a curry in an Indian restaurant, just outside the city, near the rugby league towns of St. Helens, Widnes and Warrington. We had the briefest of post mortems over poppadums, pickles and pints. Then, the long drive home. The first signpost on the approach road of the southbound M6 always puts a shudder in to me after an away game in Liverpool.

“Birmingham 96 miles” – not even bloody half way.

While others dozed, I listened to music, music, music.

The football could wait.

I reached home at 1.30am.

It had been a long day.

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Tales From A Night Of Hurt

Chelsea vs. Paris St. Germain : 9 March 2016.

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The second goal killed us. As soon as that ball was played through our defensive line out to Angel Di Maria, cutting us wide open, I had feared the worst. Sure enough, Di Maria’s low cross in to the box was touched home by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and our hopes were extinguished. The sight of the tall Swedish talisman reeling away, arms outstretched, towards the Chelsea fans in The Shed will haunt me for a while. It meant that we now had to win 4-2 to progress. It was an impossible task.

Most Chelsea fans remained silent, hurting inside, and as I looked over at a few PSG players celebrating in front of their contingent, I was hurting too.

However, within seconds of us conceding that killer goal, I spotted one middle-aged gentleman (and when I say middle-aged, let me confirm that this just means “older than me”), who immediately stood up, pulled a rather sour face, “tut-tutted” to his neighbours and headed for the exits.

Perhaps he had just that moment heard that his granddaughter was about to go in to labour and needed to shoot off to take care of his family’s needs. Perhaps he needed to set off at 9.10pm in order to catch the last train back to his home in Preston which left Euston at 10.15pm. Maybe he had felt a twinge of sciatica, that bloody sciatica, and couldn’t face being jostled in the melee for the tube at the end of the game, so needed to leave with time to spare. Maybe he needed to leave at that time in order to get back to his place of work in Croydon in time for the nightshift.

Maybe there were valid reasons for his sudden disappearance into the night.

Or maybe, just maybe, he was a twat.

For even though we had just conceded a goal which had almost certainly sealed our fate against Paris St. Germain, almost a year to the day to our exit in 2015 against the same opposition, there is surely no valid reason for deserting Chelsea Football Club with a full half an hour remaining. What sort of support is that? It made me despair. OK, it was hugely unlikely that we would score three times in the remaining portion of the game, but as fans we needed to stay and watch the match, and be there until the end. We were on TV. Millions would be watching in the UK and elsewhere. What sort of message would it send out if thousands of fans reacted in the same way as him? Seeing this chap leave so early made me question just what sort of Herberts our club attracts these days.

Alongside Alan and myself was my good friend JR, from Detroit, who had flown over on Tuesday and was leaving early on Thursday. His stay in London would equate to around just forty-six hours. Although he had shoe-horned a little trip down to a wet Craven Cottage on Tuesday for the Fulham vs. Burnley game, make no mistake that he was, as the song goes “here for the Chelsea.” Through a little luck which landed in our laps, I had managed to shift tickets around so that he could watch alongside us in the Matthew Harding Upper. As the weeks and then days had evaporated before us, JR’s excitement about watching a Champions League game at Stamford Bridge for the very first time was a joy to witness. He was last over for that fine week of football in 2011 which saw us defeat West Ham United and Tottenham – Torres’ first goal in the puddles and a late Kalou winner – and we have been the best of friends ever since.

Parky and myself had strolled in to The Goose just after 6pm, and it was a joy to see him once more. I had spent a lot of time with JR on the summer tour, especially driving up from Charlotte to DC one memorable Sunday, but Parky had not seen him since 2011. There was a fun pre-match in the pub, though talk of the game was limited. I introduced JR to a few of my Chelsea pals. Everyone was full of praise of his support.

“You’re over for just two days? Bloody hell.”

The San Miguels and the Peronis were hitting the spot.

We headed off early, in order for JR to experience the uniquness of a typical Champions League night in SW6. There was the usual buzz of excitement. We chatted excitedly on the walk down to The Bridge. Unfortunately, Mark Worrall must have just left the “CFCUK” stall; maybe next time. Back in 2011, I remember that I had photographed JR as he turned into the approach to Stamford Bridge – “captured for posterity” – as he set eyes on the stadium for the very first time. Almost five years later, we were walking the same steps.

Inside The Bridge, JR chatted with a few more friends. There were a few photographs. The kick-off was approaching.

Paris had a full three-thousand fans, split one third in the top corner, and two-thirds in the lower tier. They were, pre-match, rather quiet. There were scarves on show, individual flags, but no banners.

It was a relatively mild evening.

The team news was met with approval.

Courtois – Dave, Gary, Brana, Kenedy – Mikel, Fabregas – Willian, Hazard, Pedro – Diego Costa.

“Park Life” by Blur got the crowd singing along. The individual blue flags, mocked by the Scousers, were waved enthusiastically. Then, surprisingly, for the first time for a Champions League game at Chelsea, the lights were dimmed, and that electronic heartbeat boomed out.

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

What a dramatic sight.

A flag was hoisted in the Shed Upper; a strikingly simple silhouette of our trophy from May 2012.

I am sure that JR was on edge.

Champions League, under the lights, perfect.

And yet.

Among many thousands of other football supporters in the UK, I was saddened to hear of the clandestine meeting which took place recently involving representatives of a few of England’s top clubs with an apparent view to “improve” the current Champions League format. For anyone who knows me, and who gets bored with my dislike for certain aspects of modern football, I suggest you look away now. Although we can’t be sure, exactly, what was discussed in the meeting, two strong rumours soon circulated.

The first involved the guaranteed presence of a number of the largest clubs in Europe of a place each year and every year, regardless of performance the previous season. This makes me heave. It takes away the very essence of what makes European club football the envy of the entire world; that any team, given correct management and stewardship, can rise to the top if they get it right on the pitch. The thought of the same old bloated clubs – we know which ones – showing up every single season in the Champions League, and getting richer, through self-basting, makes me despair. I do not have the words which adequately describe the loathing that I have for Charlie Stillitano’s smug and despicable comment about “the Champions League not needing the likes of Leicester City” and nor should I need to.

Those who read my thoughts in these match reports surely know how I would react to this.

Of course all of this talk of a restructuring of the Champions League is ironic to me at least, since it was the rumours of the “Big 8” – or whatever it was – forming a European Super League in around 1992 that coerced UEFA to form the current Champions League format, expanded from the much loved and missed European Cup straight knock-out format. The current format, involving more games, and more of a chance of the richest clubs to progress every year, was intended to satiate the desires of the likes of Real Madrid, Milan, Bayern Munich, Manchester United et al.

And yet, it would seem, they are still not happy.

Additionally, Stillitano’s naïve desire to compare the world football model – organic clubs rising and falling, relegation and promotion – to the closed shop nature of his own US system does not wash with me.

What is more beautiful than a Leicester City, a Parma, a Wolfsburg, a Dundee United, and a St. Etienne, climbing up and competing at the very highest of European competition?

That a representative of my club – step forward the loathed Bruce Buck – was at these meetings does not surprise me.

These fuckers know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

The second rumour – possibly even more heinous – of qualifying games taking place in the US (what a surprise Mr. Stillitano) would be the last straw for me.

Although it would tear me apart, I would walk away.

Frome Town would be my team, and I’d probably visit a few European cities and ground hop for a while. I was only recently looking at the city of Budapest and day-dreaming about watching games in that lovely Hungarian city on an extended break. Ferencvaros, Honved and MTK do not need the likes of Charlie Stillitano.

Straight after the Champions League anthem “The Liquidator” boomed around the stadium. The blue flags waved again. The atmosphere was rising.

“The crowd is in fine form” I said to JR.

The match began, and we were immediately wired in to every pass, every kick, every tackle. I could not resist focussing on the wildchild Ibrahimovic, or the wildness of the former idol David Luiz.

I thought we began reasonably well, but then failed to stop the impressive talents of PSG gain momentum. For a while, they dolloped balls into space and at the feet of their attacking players and we were nowhere. Ibrahimovic bundled the ball past Thibaut Courtois, but the German referee had spotted a flag for offside.

Phew.

Then, calamity. PSG pushed the ball out to Ibrahimovic, who had lost his marker Gary Cahill with consummate ease. It was, undoubtedly, a shock to see Cahill all at sea after an impressive run of form. From a wide position, a low cross found Rabiot, who found the net with ease.

We were 3-1 down on aggregate and needed to score twice to draw level – penalties, maybe – or three times to win on aggregate. Harking back to our friendly with PSG in Charlotte in the summer, I joked with JR :

“9-9 on penalties tonight, Thibaut to score the winner.”

Then, thankfully, Chelsea got back in to the game. Diego Costa was the main spark but Pedro made some intelligent runs, and Kenedy really impressed. Willian’s energy was good to see, but elsewhere Fabregas and Hazard struggled to make a difference. Mikel did what Mikel does. Collectively, we were improving.

Just before the half hour mark, the ball was won, and played forward to Diego Costa, who twisted and turned past his marker with a fantastic move of body and mind. He quickly dispatched the ball, with his weaker left foot, past Trapp in the PSG goal.

The Bridge boomed, and I felt JR shudder next to me.

We were back in it for fuck sake.

The noise increased and this was just wild blue heaven.

We played with a better tempo, and with more desire, and in my mind we bossed the last portion of the half. But how we yearned for a second goal. PSG were playing hardball though, and we were livid with some of the tackles going unpunished. The PSG fans were very quiet; surprisingly so. Their level of noise was simply not on the same scale as many other European visitors. We had a few chances – Fabregas, Costa – but a second goal did not materialise. PSG still looked comfortable on the ball, of course, but there were positive signs.

As we edged towards the break, my huge fear was that the momentum that we had built up over the preceding twenty minutes or so would now dissipate into the London air as half-time was reached.

In the second-half, there was an immediate flurry of activity down below us as we stormed the PSG box. In one crazy period of play, shots were blocked by limbs and torsos, and we were left breathless.

Just one goal would set us up for one of the great European comebacks.

Just one goal.

The play eased a little, and we sadly watched as Diego Costa, in discomfort, was forced to leave. Without him – he had been excellent at times – I wondered where on earth a goal would come from. I think everyone else thought the same. Bertrand Traore replaced him.

I thought back on the 1997/1998 European campaign when our strike force consisted of Mark Hughes, Gianfranco Zola, Gianluca Vialli and Tore Andre Flo.

In 2016, our main striker is augmented by Loic Remy and the youngster Traore. Falcao and Pato are not mentioned for obvious reasons. What a mess.

Eden Hazard, obviously injured, showed a little more desire and promise.

“Still half an hour JR, we can still do it. Two more goals, then extra time.”

Sadly, that ball out to Di Maria on sixty-seven minutes put an end to our hopes.

For the last twenty minutes or so, thankfully most spectators stayed to watch, but the war had been won, and there was no fight from players and fans alike. The play deteriorated. We were a pale shadow of the team that had ended the first-half so strongly. Throughout the game, Fabregas and Hazard were poor. For all of Pedro’s scurrying around, very rarely does he create anything. Even Willian was poor. The only bright spot for me was the performance of Kenedy in the first-half. Where Baba is nervous and reticent, Kenedy exudes confidence and spirit. We need to persevere with him.

It was not to be.

We lacked desire, sustained over ninety minutes, and our ailments of autumn came back to haunt us again. The hunger of previous Champions League campaigns – oh for a Terry, a Drogba, a Cole, a Lampard – was missing.

It hurt.

If our plans to relocate and rebuild are met with approval, this may well have been the current Stamford Bridge’s last ever Champions League night.

As we walked out on to the Fulham Road, I told JR to take one last look at it.

With a young baby on the way in the summer, it might be a while before JR returns. His next visit might witness a completely new stadium.

Parky, JR, and two of JR’s UK-based mates, the brothers Dan and Matt, met up with me back at “The Goose” for a pint and a reflection on what might have been. We ended up next-door for some pizza. It reminded me of the quiet and reflective post-mortem that we had over a curry after the loss to Inter in 2010, when we were again joined by visitors from the US.

It was approaching midnight as we said our farewells.

JR – of course – had loved the experience of his first ever Champions League night at Stamford Bridge.

“Safe travels mate, see you soon.”

On the drive home, I was pragmatic. Over the two legs, we were not good enough.

We don’t lose many games at home in European competitions. It used to be a proud boast that, until Lazio in 2000, we had never lost one. Now, sadly, this defeat at the hands of PSG meant that we had now lost eight in our history.

Lazio 2000.

Besiktas 2003.

Barcelona 2006.

Internazionale 2010.

Manchester United 2011.

Basel 2013.

Atletico Madrid 2014.

Paris St. Germain 2016.

I’ve seen them all, and it hurts each time. There were also two draws, against Monaco in 2004 and Barcelona in 2009, which felt like defeats since we went out on away goals on those nights. And there was also the game against Real Zaragoza in 1995, which we won 3-1, but was not celebrated since we had lost the first-leg 3-0. Regardless, a European defeat at Stamford Bridge always feels so damning, so final. It feels especially hurtful in the first knock-out round, after a little break, before we can get a head of steam and push on.

However, Europe in general, has treated us well, despite the seemingly endless procession of bad luck from 2005 to 2009.

We have, after all, won all of the three major trophies.

And I have been blessed enough to have seen eighty-five European games at Stamford Bridge now, and my / our record is an impressive 56-21-8. Of course, I shouldn’t be too picky, but each of those eight defeats leave a memory which haunts.

But our European campaign in 2015/2016 is now over. We know that our final game of the season will either be at home to Leicester City on Sunday 15 May or at Wembley for the F.A. Cup Final on Saturday 21 May. On Saturday, we head up to Goodison Park to try to prolong this very odd season for one more week.

After all, what is the month of May without a Cup Final?

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Tales From 1905 To 2016

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 7 February 2016.

I love a good list. If it is football-related, even better.

A week or so ago, I stumbled across a little gem which I had originally seen a year or so ago. It was a complete list of the teams with the highest average home attendances, year on year, since the Football League’s inaugural season of 1888/1889 to the current day. The timing was impeccable; it came just in time for the visit of Manchester United. The Red Devils, in my lifetime, have topped the list of highest home attendances in what seems like nearly every season. They have dominated, much to the chagrin of their closest rivals. And yet I knew full well that Chelsea, especially in our early years, drew phenomenally large crowds at Stamford Bridge. I have touched on my desire to debunk the myth about Chelsea being a “small club with money” on a few occasions before and so it was with great relish that I studied this list once more.

Of course, there is a famous line about “lies, damned lies and statistics” but this particular statistical nugget provided a really intriguing insight into the growth of football, and football fandom, over a span of one hundred and fifteen seasons – of which I have attended games in forty-three of them – and helped to illustrate how certain clubs dominated certain eras.

Let’s start at the beginning.

For the first ten seasons, from 1888/1889 to 1897/1898, one club dominated the attendance record. That club was Everton, who finished with the highest average gate in every single one of those seasons, despite being league champions just once. During the very first season, the average attendance in the top division was 4,639, and Everton’s average was 7,260. By 1887/1898, the average had grown to 9,558, while Everton’s had swollen to a weighty 17,390.

Next up were Aston Villa, taking over Everton’s mantle as top drawers, with six straight seasons of league-leading averages. In 1898/1899, Villa’s average was a sizeable 23,045. In the league’s first twelve seasons, Villa were the first real powerhouse force, claiming the league five times. The early years of professional football in the late nineteenth century were dominated by teams from the Midlands and the North. For many years, the Football League did not consist of a single southern team.

Taking over from Aston Villa were Newcastle United, with three straight seasons of leading the league in average home gates, which mirrored three championships for the Geordies in the first decade of the twentieth century. The average on Tyneside in 1906/1907 of 33,235 dwarfed the top flight average of 15,526. Interestingly, my grandfather – the cricketer and footballer, from whom I think I received my sporting genes – was a young boy at around this time, and perhaps it is no wonder that, although he was not a fervent fan, if ever pressed, he always said that he used to follow the results of Aston Villa as a young lad, and also – to a lesser extent – Newcastle United, as he became a young man.

In to this new sport, with clubs jousting for attention, came Chelsea Football Club.

Chelsea, formed in 1905, were able to take part in the Second Division during 1905/1906. In that inaugural season, our home average was 13,370, compared to the divisional average of 13,429. That seems a reasonable start, yet this only tells half of the story. Most attendances at Stamford Bridge were around 8,000 to 10,000. But there were 25,000 present for the visit of Bristol City, who would end up as Second Division Champions, and 30,000 for the game against Glossop on Easter Bank Holiday Monday.

However, this is where the story comes alive.

The Chelsea vs. Manchester United game on Good Friday 1906 was watched by a staggering 67,000.

I have always been astounded by the size of this gate. It seemed to come, unannounced, out of nowhere. I have no evidence to back it up, but I’d suggest it created a new league attendance record at the time. It would be Stamford Bridge’s first colossal crowd. One can only imagine the frenzied activity around the pubs and saloons on the Fulham Road and the melee at each of the busy turnstiles as such a number of spectators feverishly entered the stadium, ascended the steps, and then saw the vastness of the Stamford Bridge arena from the top of the terracing. Both Chelsea and Manchester United were excelling towards the top of the table, and I can only imagine that the Easter crowd were drawn to watch two promotion hopefuls going toe to toe. I hope they all witnessed a fine game. It ended 1-1. However, Chelsea would not win any of our remaining five games in 1905/1906, finishing nine points away from Manchester United, who were promoted alongside Bristol City.

Of course, in those days, virtually all of the spectators would have lived in London and the Home Counties, travelling in by train, tram and charabanc. Unlike in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies – and later – there would have been no sizeable United following at Stamford Bridge. The mere thought of all of those people, all those lives touched by the sport of football, the enormity of it all makes me lose myself in thought. For many, perhaps, it would be their first ever football match. I wonder what they thought of it all. It must have been an amazingly potent and visceral experience. The sense of occasion, the colour, the cigarette smoke, the ribald laughter, the cheers from the crowd, the players.

67,000 in our very first season; what a start for the young pretenders.

Chelsea had made their mark.

Is this the end of this trip down memory lane? Not a bit of it.

It gets better.

In season 1907/1908, Chelsea were the team with the highest home league attendance with a hefty 31,965, almost double the First Division average of 16,809. It was our first season in the top flight. The young pretenders, despite finishing in an unremarkable thirteenth place, were setting the football world alight. By comparison, Arsenal were one place behind us, but their home average was a lowly 13,765.

In fact, from 1907/1908 to 1925/1926 – fifteen seasons, allowing for the hiatus enforced by World War One – Chelsea finished top of the averages on nine occasions. It would be our high water mark in terms of attendances. In 1919/1920, we finished third in the First Division but we topped the attendances with an average of 42,615, which – at the time – was an all-time record across all clubs. It was a heady time to be at Stamford Bridge, despite silverware eluding us. A particularly impressive season was 1925/1926 when we recorded a league leading high of 32,355 despite playing in the Second Division.

So, take a moment and suck all of that information in.

Chelsea were always a small club with poor gates? Not true.

In later years, other clubs’ periods of dominance were reflected in high average attendances. In the ‘thirties, Arsenal ruled, with nine consecutive seasons ahead of the pack with an impressive high of 46,252 in 1934/1935. Newcastle United – again – and then Tottenham Hotspur dominated in the immediate years after World War Two. Chelsea’s last season of topping the attendance chart was our Championship year of 1954/1955 with 48,260.

Interestingly, Manchester United did not register the league’s highest average until as late as season 1956/1957. The year after, of course, the supreme sadness of the Munich air disaster galvanized an entire nation and Manchester United have dominated attendances ever since. In the past fifty-nine seasons, they have finished with the highest home attendance some forty-eight times. Since 1966/1967, their dominance is especially marked; only five Liverpool seasons have interrupted their procession. For the past twenty-two straight seasons, United have finished in first place.

For as long as I can remember, they have always pulled the crowds.

My first Chelsea game was in 1974, yet it took me ten years until I saw those famous red shirts of United at Stamford Bridge for the very first time.  A grainy photograph from the West Stand benches takes me back.

On that occasion, just after Christmas 1984, the gate was 42,197 and we sadly lost 1-3. Alongside me on that day were Alan and Glenn, and we would be watching together some thirty-two years later. In those days of course, the open north terrace housed up to eight thousand away fans and United certainly brought thousands.

However, it was a black day for me; seeing United for the first time, yet losing.

Before I close this walk through the turnstiles of the past, here is a summary of teams that have finished with the highest average home attendance each season.

Manchester United – 48 times.

Everton – 13 times.

Arsenal – 12 times.

Newcastle United – 11 times.

Chelsea – 10 times.

Aston Villa – 7 times.

Liverpool – 7 times.

Tottenham Hotspur – 6 times.

Manchester City – 3 times.

For those with an interest in all of this, here is a link to the website.

http://www.european-football-statistics.co.uk/attn/nav/attnengleague.htm

…from 1905/1906, I need to bring all of this up to date.

The weekend drew near, but although the lure of another Chelsea vs. Manchester United game – my thirty-fourth at Stamford Bridge – was exciting enough, the chance to meet up with my mates again was even more important. After three away games in north London and to the north of London, it would be good to be back home again in deepest SW6.

On the Saturday before the game, which marked the fifty-eighth anniversary of the previously-mentioned Munich air disaster, I was pleased to see so many of my fellow Chelsea supporters being respectful on “Facebook” with quite a few posting kind words and pictures in remembrance of those that were killed so many years ago. It really warmed me. It contradicted the still widely-held view that a lot of football followers are mindless hooligans.

This fact was touched upon during an hour or so spent at “The Bottlery”, near Earl’s Court, where I shared a couple of pints with Glenn and Dave. Glenn had volunteered to drive us up to Chelsea, and so this allowed me a few pints for a change. Dave was over from France, and was following up Wednesday’s evening of fun – cough – in Watford with a home game. Parky and P Diddy had diverted off to “The Goose” where they were launching into a gallon of cider apiece. So, on a perfect Sunday, Dave, Glenn and myself supped some beers, had a bite to eat, and talked about a few topics close to our heart. We spoke about Leicester City’s amazing season. It seems everyone wants them to win it. We touched on the protest among Liverpool fans at their game at the weekend. If pushed, I would walk out from a Chelsea game too, if all other avenues of discourse were blocked. We spoke of the away game in Paris. Dave is going, though is honestly not convinced that he knows why. We spoke about Hillsborough. The horror still haunts. We spoke about standing areas. Celtic will be a test case. We spoke about the redevelopment of Stamford Bridge. We were optimistic. We spoke about an exile at Wembley. We were pessimistic. We spoke about all sorts.

Intelligent football talk? If only the people who still think that we are knuckle-dragging oafs could have heard us.

We were having a lovely time.

We then sped over to a local pub, “The Pembroke”, where two visitors from California were waiting. Alex and Annissa were in town for a few days, and I had arranged to spend a bit of time with them before they watched their first ever Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge. They just wanted to experience an authentic pre-match with some of us regulars. The two of them watch most of our games at the famous “Olde Ship” in Santa Ana, California, and were full of giddy excitement at the thought of seeing Chelsea, and no doubt Manchester United. It certainly was a great game, on paper, for a Stamford Bridge debut. In an email exchange, I had written, tongue in cheek:

“See you in the pub. We’ll be the ones not wearing Chelsea shirts.”

We ordered some beers, and the chat accelerated away. They were so happy to be able to meet some old-school supporters.

After a few moments of getting to know each other, Annissa whispered to me “so why don’t you wear Chelsea shirts?”

“Oh gosh. How long have you got?”

We then gave the two visitors a crash course in a few Chelsea fundamentals. We spoke about how I first met Glenn at school in 1977 and on The Shed in 1983, and how I first met Dave in Los Angeles in 2007. We chatted about our usual routines on match day, the Chelsea pubs, which are sadly closing one by one. The days of ska at “The Imperial”. How skinheads and boots gave way to Adidas trainers and Lacoste polo shirts in the days of our youth. Talk of Gus Mears and Brompton Cemetery. The fact that Stamford Bridge, unable to be expanded in 2011, is now looking to expand by 18,000. The Banter. Pints. Memories of Munich. The three of us were taking the piss out of each other and everyone else. The two Californians were lapping it up.

In “The Goose” Arsenal were on the TV, but nobody was watching. With so many nearby pubs closing, the pub gets busier and busier with each passing game. Annissa and Alex purchased the iconic “Chelsea and Proud” pensioner pin badge. Their smiles were wide. I could tell they were loving it.

In among the laughter, there was a moment of farce.

My friend Alan had written to the club and had asked that an obituary for dear Tom be placed in a match programme. Alan had texted me on Friday to say that there would be a short piece, written by Alan, plus a photo of Tom, in the Manchester United programme on the Sunday. The photo chosen was a rather nice one, featuring Tom at the front, with Alan, Glenn and myself, behind.

Imagine our displeasure when we heard that the imbeciles at Chelsea had cropped Tom from the photograph completely, leaving just a head shot of Alan to accompany the obituary. I was fuming. Alan, after his initial exasperation, was still annoyed, but was sure that Tom would be finding the funny side of it.

What a bloody farce.

After a while, a few texts started coming in from those friends who had already purchased a match programme.

“Bloody hell, Alan, you looked fine at Watford.”

Annissa and Alex left early to catch the pre-game stuff. They had seats in the MHL, down below Alan, Glenn, P Diddy and myself, all seated together. To be honest, there had hardly been much time to pay attention to the team. Suffice to say, Guus Hiddink went with the same team that began against Watford; no place, again, for Eden Hazard.

I had predicted 0-0 for the game at Old Trafford in December. My prediction for the return game was the same.

The United fans, the men in black, were already singing by the time I reached my seat. They had brought a few more flags than usual. One with the Munich clock. One for the “Ralph Milne Ultras.” Ferguson’s most unlikely signing in 1988, Ralph Milne became something of a cult figure at Old Trafford. He is their Robert Fleck. Kinda. Milne sadly passed away in 2015 and his flag bore the tangerine and black of his former club Dundee United, with whom he won a Scottish championship medal in 1983.

So, the Ralph Milne Ultras.

Not everything in Planet Football makes sense.

With Stamford Bridge full to its current capacity of 41,000, it was time for the focus to turn to the game itself.

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Manchester United have reverted back to Adidas this season, and their red, white and black is deeply reminiscent of the kits that were worn by United in their under-achieving years of the mid-‘eighties. I have to say it is a classic kit. The three stripes looked at home.

Sadly, United got out of the traps the quickest. Chelsea seemed unable to stop their quick passing, and although I was trying my hardest to ignore how much possession they were enjoying, by the time they started to rack up corner after corner, it was obvious that we were second best. It still hurt to see the smiling face of Juan Mata in red. His delicious touch made it all the more difficult to watch. However, a Courtois save from Martial was thankfully the only time that our goal was seriously threatened in the opening period of play. We struggled to create anything of note. A shot from Diego Costa flew wide of the post. The United fans were, unsurprisingly, the loudest. In all honesty, it wasn’t much of a contest. The Chelsea support hardly sang a note. There had been loud shouts in honour of John Terry at the start, but it was as quiet a Chelsea vs. Manchester United game as I could remember. Although Kurt Zouma shows great promise, both Alan and myself wished that he had more confidence in his own ability to allow him other options than a quick hoof of the ball in to row Z.

We were warmed slightly with a couple of half-chances, but then United, in turn, threatened us too. The big bearskin of Fellaini met a corner, but he was thankfully off target. It was a decidedly humdrum affair. Towards the very end of the first period, a John Terry effort struck the arm of Blind. It didn’t seem to be “ball to hand.” From my viewpoint, it was hardly point-blank range. Surely Blind could have moved his arm away? Despite our howls of derision, no penalty was given.

At the break, all was quiet.

United continued where they had left off as the second-half began. This was tough to watch. Shots flew at Courtois.

Hiddink, admonished for using just one substitute at Watford, soon replaced the quiet Oscar with Eden Hazard. Then, Kurt Zouma fell awkwardly. A stretcher was soon called for, but it seemed to take a while for him to leave the pitch. We wondered what the problem was; it was not clear. It didn’t look good. I felt guilty for being negative towards him earlier. Gary Cahill was the easy replacement.

On the hour, the best move of the match. United worked the ball out to the left, where Borthwick-Jackson (who?) struck a low cross in to the box. Wayne Rooney touched it to Lingard, who seemed to be unhindered as he brought the ball under control and struck it past Courtois.

Ugh.

All was not good.

The home fans still sat silently. There seemed to be no will to generate much noise. I felt for Annissa and Alex down in the tier below.

We slowly created a few more chances. A Willian free-kick, and then a powerful volley from Ivanovic both tested De Gea. Fabregas was the next to threaten the United goal, but another fine stop from the United ‘keeper. Pedro replaced Matic.

There was only a slight response from the Chelsea support.

However, as the minutes ticked by, we enjoyed more and more of the ball. A few wayward efforts frustrated us. It seems churlish to knock Willian after his exemplary form in the first few months, but he seems to have faltered of late. Some of his corners and free-kicks were woeful.

Then, a hope of salvation.

There were an added six minutes.

The crowd at last responded.

“Come on.”

With the United defence massed behind the ball, Cesc Fabregas miraculously found an unmarked Diego Costa in the middle of the penalty area. I could hardly believe it. Time seemed to stand still. I immediately stood up, expecting a goal. Diego turned, rode the challenge of a defender and pushed the ball wide of De Gea. With me just about to go in to orbit, Diego coolly slotted home from an angle. At last The Bridge thundered. I turned to see Alan screaming right at me.

Get in.

Down below, a fist pump from Diego Costa, and a hug from John Terry, who had sauntered up field to add support to the attack. Stamford Bridge echoed to the sound of a relieved home support. And I bet Annissa and Alex were in heaven.

In the final minute, a lovely moment. Juan Mata was replaced by Herrera and Stamford Bridge rose, seemingly as one, to applaud our former number ten.

Just like in 1906, the game had ended 1-1, though I can only hope that the match that drew 67,000 all those decades ago was a far better game.

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Tales From The Clock End

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 24 January 2016.

I began the day early. This was going to be a long one. I had everything planned out. As with last season’s trip to Arsenal, there would hopefully be a little pub crawl for the four of us from the Somerset and Wiltshire border, ahead of meeting up with more friends nearer kick-off. This would be my tenth trip to Arsenal’s new stadium. For the vast majority of those games, and a couple at Highbury too, the meet would be at “The Shakespeare’s Head” at Holborn. Last season, after Parky and I went on an enjoyable walk on the north bank of the Thames in Chiswick and Hammersmith, we arrived late, just as the pub was reaching a Magic Hat crescendo. This year, we would be aiming for a walk through the West End before joining the massed ranks of the Chelsea Loyalists. It was going to be a fine day out.

The actual football itself worried me of course. I am sure that I wasn’t alone with those thoughts.

As I set off at just before 8am, I turned the car radio on. I was automatically tuned to Radio Two, and a Sunday morning show was playing a musical version of “The Lord’s Prayer.” On a day when I might be seeking for divine intervention in the quest for goals and points, I thought that this was quite apt.

The Chuckle Bus was fully laden for the trip to the capital. PD and myself in the front. Glenn and Parky in the back. When I had picked up PD, we both agreed on one thing.

“I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

Whisper it, but I was almost expecting us to get gubbed.

“I can see us losing 3-0.”

Glenn, who was coming with me to Arsenal for the first time since those two back-to-back FA Cup games in 2003 and 2004, was much more upbeat.

“Nah, we’ll do ‘em.”

The roads were quiet. We parked at Barons Court and rode the dark blue Piccadilly Line in to the West End. The pubs were relatively quiet, but it made a nice change to be seeing a different part of the city. Our ramble took us slowly east.

“The Sussex.”

“The Round Table.”

“The White Swan.”

“The Sun.”

“The Shakespeare’s Head.”

We were able to relax and enjoy each other’s company. Football was only part of the equation. Each of the first four pubs were cosy and full of character. “The Round Table” is a particular favourite of mine, its reputation slightly tarnished only because it brought back memories of Tottenham away last year, when we assembled there prior to heading north to N17. We stumbled across a few familiar faces in “The Sun” – off the beaten track really, quite a surprise – and then headed off to the last pub of the day, which – unlike the others – is far from cosy. Outside, my work colleague Bruno was waiting for me. It was just a minute or so before 2pm.

Bruno : “Hey, you’re on time.”

Chris : “We work in logistics, mate.”

Bruno is from Fortaleza in northern Brazil and had been working alongside me in our office in Chippenham and then Melksham since late Spring. He, typically, is a devoted football enthusiast. While studying in Portugal, he played for a lower level football team, somewhere in the Portuguese footballing pyramid, and his eighteen year old brother is currently on trial with us here in England. His team back home in Brazil is Palmeiras, from San Paolo, the city which hosts our 2012 World Club Championship opponents Corinthians. I was tickled to hear that Bruno has nothing but bad things to say about Corinthians. I heard a whisper that he had a slight inkling towards Arsenal, but I think it is fair to say that since we have been sharing the same office, my devotion to the Chelsea cause has inevitably worked a little magic on him. Throughout the week, I had semi-seriously joked that his life would change on Sunday 24 January 2016.

“Your life will never be the same, Bruno.”

Bruno studied for his Master’s degree at Bath University – he has loved being in England – but was yet to see a football match of any description while over here. Luckily, a ticket became available at the very last minute from a good mate, and so I was very happy to be able to invite him along. The timing really was perfect. His last day of work with us was on the preceding Friday and his flight back to Brazil would be on the Thursday. His wife had left for Brazil a week or so ago. This really would be a royal blue send off. There was just the worry about sending him away from Arsenal with a fine Chelsea performance. I knew that he would enjoy the experience of being in and among three thousand of us, but the actual match result was not so clear.

Regardless, I soon introduced Bruno to a smattering of my match-going companions in the large and noisy pub. Very soon, the boozer was reverberating with a few Chelsea songs. I could see that Bruno was impressed.

“I can see why this takes up so much of your life, mate.”

We were stood next to Alan and Gary. I casually mentioned that Gary has missed just one home game since 1976…”Sheffield United at home, 1992, Jason Cundy scored, we lost 2-1, chicken pox”…and this blew Bruno away.

“Fantastic.”

As always, Arsenal away brings back memories of 1984. I spoke to Bruno about that momentous day, and showed him a YouTube clip of Kerry scoring in front of a packed Clock End.

“Our first game back in the top flight in five years.”

“You were there, right?”

“We were all there, Bruno. And there is an entire book, in which I have written a few words, devoted to that one game.”

By the end of our hour or so in the pub, Bruno was asking about membership and season tickets.

I had a little chuckle to myself.

The team news came through.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Matic, Mikel – Oscar, Fabregas, Willian – Diego Costa.

Inside the tube, full of Chelsea, there were songs, one after the other.

“Make way for the champions…”

Bruno was full of smiles.

On the walk from Arsenal tube station – I was a little dismayed that I didn’t have enough time to show Bruno the classic art deco stands of Highbury – there were a few more Chelsea songs, but these soon petered out as we got closer to the towering stadium.

There was that odd little Arsenal chant as we walked up and over the railway lines.

“What do you think of Tottenham?”

“Shit.”

“What do you think of shit?”

“Tottenham.”

“Thank you.”

“That’s alright.”

Away in the distance, an altercation between rival fans, an echo from the past.

A shove, a punch, a stand-off, a kick.

There was time for one last photograph of Bruno and myself outside the Clock End, and we were inside.

We only reached our allotted seats with a few seconds to spare. As usual, I was positioned midway back, firmly behind the corner flag, alongside the usual suspects. Glenn was in the front row. PD was further back. Bruno towards the rear. The sky was full of low cloud. The air was still and mild. This seemed like a typical footballing day in the capital. A grey day on the surface, but full of colour – red, white, blue – underneath. The undulating upper tier of Arsenal’s stadium matched my thoughts of the day thus far. There had been lovely highs in the five pubs with good friends, but now my thoughts were full of worry about the ensuing ninety minutes.

Our play from the offset looked calm and assured. I was quickly impressed. There was efficiency in our movement and passing. This was as good a start as I could ever have hoped. I am not sure if the mind plays tricks, due to the fact that the stands are so far from the pitch at The Emirates, but there always seems to be tons of space down our right at Arsenal’s new stadium. Ivanovic and Willian were soon exploiting it.

Chances were traded, but there were no real threats on either goal.

While I waited to hear any noise from the home support, our corner quadrant was full of noise. Of course, I lament the atmosphere in the home areas of Stamford Bridge on virtually a weekly basis, so I can’t be hypocritical and say too much. However, the silence at The Emirates shocked me. Yes, home areas are usually quiet at most stadia these days, but Arsenal seem to continually set the bar high – or low – and it gets worse with every passing season.

A fine move found Willian inside the box, but his volley was wildly off target. However, it hit an Arsenal defender, allowing him a second bite of the cherry. Petr Cech – I’m over him, by the way – easily blocked Willian’s snatched follow-up.

Soon after, Willian played the ball in to space, dissecting the Arsenal line, and Mertesacker felled Diego Costa. There was a slight delay, but in my mind I was hoping that the much-maligned Mark Clattenburg would show a red card. He didn’t let me down. Get in. The Chelsea contingent roared. This was going too well. Bizarrely, Wenger took off Giroud.

A few minutes later, the ball ricocheted out to Ivanovic, lurking in space on the right. He wasted no time in punching the ball low in to the box, and I had a perfect view as Diego Costa met the ball perfectly. The ball crashed in to the net, past Cech, 1-0 to the champions.

The south-eastern section of the Clock End erupted. I punched the air continually. Such joy.

“He’s done it again.

He’s done it again.

Diego Costa.

He’s done it again.”

This soon morphed into the more sinister –

“He’s done you again.

He’s done you again.

Diego Costa.

He’s done you again.”

Arsenal never really threatened us in the rest of the first-half. Our defenders were supremely solid, no more so than the captain, who was simply dominant. We had a few chances. A towering header from Ivanovic was headed off the line. This was fantastic stuff. Our section was in full voice, almost embarrassingly so. Elsewhere, the residents of the Emirates – middle-class, middle-of-the-road, middling – were deadly silent.

Arsenal’s best chance of the half fell to Flamini – I struggled to acknowledge that he was still playing for them – but his flick was well over. Arsenal appeared to be missing a cutting edge, as always.

I briefly met up with Bruno at the break.

“Enjoying it, mate?”

“I know you hate the word, Chris, but…awesome.”

The second-half was a different affair. There was less noise from the away fans as the game carried on. I think the nerves were increasing as the minutes passed by. Soon in to the second period, Fabregas, who was enjoying his best game for ages, danced in to the box. He was upended, and bounced into the air. I felt that Fabregas overdid it.

Wenger brought on Alexis Sanchez. Chances were still at a premium. Courtois was hardly troubled. Mikel was enjoying another masterclass in controlled containment, and alongside him Matic was playing better than usual. Only his distribution let him down at times. Diego Costa, the Arsenal irritant, was replaced by Loic Remy. We watched the clock on the far side. Inside, I was surprisingly confident that we would hold on. Eden Hazard replaced the excellent Oscar.

In the last part of the game, the defenders seemed tired and dropped further and further back. Our sporadic breaks up field soon ran out of steam. Remy’s touch had deserted him; he was poor.

An almighty scramble followed as Thibaut dropped a cross at the feet of several Arsenal players. The ball was frantically hacked away. A couple of half-chances for Arsenal were blocked. Courtois, at last, had a real save to make, falling to his left to save from Monreal. At the other end, Willian broke free but scuffed his low shot wide.

Five minutes of extra time.

Then four.

Then three.

Then two.

Then one.

The whistle.

Glenn was right.

We did’em.

We all met up after the game. Bruno, the boy from Fortaleza, had bloody loved it. The mood was buoyant. Glenn, especially, was full of smiles.

The Arsenal support was obviously glum as they headed back to Middle Earth.

The seven of us headed back to civilisation. On the tube, our faces were full of smiles. The red and white scarfed Gooners had their heads buried in their programmes. Their misery was our joy.

Ten visits to the Emirates in the League with Chelsea, and our record is excellent.

Won 4

Drew 4

Lost 2

Goals 14-9

I wished Bruno well as we alighted at Kings Cross.

“Take care mate, safe travels, stay in touch.”

It had been a good day.

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Tales From The Arthur Wait Stand

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 3 January 2016.

The rain was falling. I had parked about a mile to the south-west of Selhurst Park. Parky, PD and myself quickly zipped up our jackets in preparation of a twenty minute walk to Crystal Palace’s stadium. After only a few minutes of walking along the tight terraced streets of Thornton Heath – not far enough out, nor leafy enough, to be in suburbia – our coats were sodden. We marched on. This was already feeling like a decidedly old-fashioned footballing day out.

Unlike the area to the north of the River Thames, which is where ninety percent of the stations on the London Underground are positioned, South London is served by a plethora of over-ground railway lines, criss-crossing their way through a part of London that few tourists see. Serving Crystal Palace’s home stadium are three stations; Norwood Junction, Selhurst and Thornton Heath. On this day though, with railway engineering works commonplace, I had decided to drive straight in.

This area of South London is dominated by the Crystal Palace TV mast, sitting high on a hillside to the north of the park which houses the National Athletics Stadium. On the very same site, F.A. Cup Finals were played from 1895 to 1914. There is, therefore, a great sporting history in an otherwise nondescript part of the capital. When I attended our victorious 1997 F.A. Cup Final, I always thought that it was rather fitting that my day had begun with Alan, Glenn and myself catching a train from the red brick Crystal Palace train station – close to Alan’s flat – which was just a few hundred yards from where teams had competed for the famous silver cup decades previously. Back in those days, there were no terraces as such, just a vast natural bowl, which allowed huge numbers to attend, with only a few thousand watching from wooden stands. In the 1913 final between Aston Villa and Sunderland, 121,919 attended. I am sure that the vast majority saw very little of the actual game. However, in those early days of football hysteria, it was surely enough to just be there. The only event that I have attended at this famous footballing location was a Depeche Mode concert in 1993, on the same day that I saw Chelsea play Ajax at Tottenham in the Makita.

We dipped into the Prince George pub and were met by a roaring log fire. We dried out and sipped at cold ciders and lagers. The pub, no more than a ten minute walk from the away turnstiles on Park Road, was mixed with both sets of fans. There were a gaggle of police outside, but there was no hint of trouble. I recognised a few Chelsea faces, and we chatted away. Back outside, the rain was heavier and the wind was howling.

Yes, this had the feel of a rather old-fashioned away game, no doubts.

We tried to avoid getting splashed by passing cars.

Ahead, there was a defiant “Carefree” being bellowed by a few youths.

Thankfully, we soon reached the Arthur Wait Stand, which sits alongside the touchline at Selhurst Park, housing three thousand away fans and six thousand home fans. It is a dark and unforgiving place, with very shallow terraces. It has great acoustics, but unfortunately affords one of the worst views in the current top division. Selhurst Park is a disjointed stadium. The main stand opposite is a Leitch original, very similar to the one at Fulham. To our right is the odd Whitehorse Lane stand, once a large terrace, but now truncated with just a few rows, but with executive boxes above. To our left, sits the two-tiered Holmesdale Road Stand, with its rather old fashioned barrelled roof. Here, there was a large terrace too. When Selhurst Park was in its prime, with terraces on three sides, it managed to hold 49,000 for an old Third Division game with rivals Brighton and Hove Albion. For many years, mirroring the old Crystal Palace Stadium, some of the current terraced areas were merely grass banks. There are talks of stadium redevelopment. I am hopeful that the Leitch original stays and the Arthur Wait is improved.

As I waited for Alan and Gary to join us, I was aware that there were a few residual visitors from across the pond who were attending the game. I wondered what they thought of the old-school charms of Selhurst Park compared to the sleek steel of Old Trafford. I had a feeling that they would be reveling in its tightness and its obvious grubbiness. Well, put it this way; I knew that I would be.

I had a quick chat with an old Chelsea mate Mark (1984 and all that) and I admitted that I was still worried about our predicament.

“I watched Match Of The Day all of the way through last night and it just seems that every team is doing OK apart from us and bloody Villa.”

At the half-way stage, nineteen games in, we were mired in the relegation zone. And Palace, winners at our place a few months ago, would be no pushover. The rain lashed down.

The clock ticked by and 1.30pm was soon approaching. The Palace anthem “Glad All Over” (don’t ask) reverberated around the creaking stands as the away fans countered. The weather was truly awful as the teams entered the pitch from the corner on the far side.

Diego Costa was back from his silly self-enforced exile. Cesc returned too.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Mikel, Fabregas – Willian, Oscar, Hazard – Costa.

I immediately sensed a little more aggression from within our black suited ranks; the tackles were seeming to go in stronger, the body language more positive. When we had the ball, we seemed to be keen to move the ball quicker. However, despite all of this, it was the home team – shorn of Bolasie and Cabaye, remember – who somehow managed to get more efforts on goal than us. Campbell and Zaha came close as we looked a little exposed. We certainly rode our luck a little during the first quarter of the game. However, my abiding memory of the opening period is of Thibaut Courtois claiming cross after cross, rather than being stretched and asked to make too many saves close to his body.

Eden Hazard took charge and cut in from his position wide on the left, before testing Hennessey with a low fizzer which went off for a corner. Soon after, Hazard limped off, to be replaced by Pedro, and there were voluble moans aimed at Hazard from the Chelsea section.

Maybe it was due to the sodden conditions, but the atmosphere inside the stadium was not great. The away fans, of course – it goes without saying – were knee deep in Chelsea songs, but elsewhere all was relatively peaceful. The Holmesdale Ultras were only occasionally heard. I found it very interesting that an early chant of “Jose Mourinho” from the back of our stand never really gathered momentum, and in fact, was soon overtaken with a much louder “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” salvo. It was as if the crowd were moving on.

Maybe, just maybe, we are all getting over Mourinho.

Pedro added an extra zest to our play and we started to improve. A fantastic sliding tackle by King Kurt on Zaha on the far side drew rapturous applause. Puncheon soon sliced wide. Courtois was still yet to make a save worthy of the name.

On the half-hour, Fabregas spotted the run of Diego Costa and played a ball from deep. Delaney, the Palace defender, misjudged his attempt to intercept and Costa was through. He advanced, but rather than shoot from an oblique angle, he selflessly played in Oscar, who was ably supporting. It was a simple tap in. The Chelsea Ultras exploded.

Get in.

“We are stayin’ up, say we are stayin’ up.”

Any noise from the home areas reduced further.

Palace immediately countered, but Lee blasted over from close in. I still waited for a Courtois save. Amidst all of this, I noted the calming influence of Jon Obi Mikel, whose plain but effective patrolling of the area in front of the veteran Terry and the exuberant Zouma was wonderful. Only once did he annoy me, when he did not spot Ivanovic free and in hectares of space on the right. A small moan, though. He was otherwise excellent. Dave, bearing down on goal from an angle, saw his thunderous shot parried by Hennessey. With the Chelsea supporters in increasingly good form, we looked a lot more at ease as the first-half continued.

Hell, we were winning. Confidence comes with that, I know, but this seemed a little different. It was more like the Chelsea of old, or at least 2014.

As the second-half began, I was rueing Selhurst’s poor sightlines. We were all stood, of course, but with even Chelsea attacking our end, I had to lean and twist to keep up with play. A pillar right in front of me spoiled too many ensuing photographs. A fine Mikel tackle was perfectly timed to avert a Palace break. Soon after, the murmurings of “Seven Nation Army” started away to my right. I immediately thought it was in praise of “Ooh, Pedro Rodriguez”, but no.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

Ah, this was great.

Hundreds joined in. Where it came from, who knows? It did seem slightly surreal to be honest.

However, there had been a healthy debate in front of me between two fans, who had differing opinions about Mikel, and once the chant grew, the pro-Mikel supporter joined in too. Excellent. Did I sing it? Of course.

Zouma went close with a header. We were now even more buoyant. The noise continued.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

“Jon Obi Mikel – he’s won more than you.”

“Jon Obi Mikel – he scores when he wants.”

This was a fine game now, and Palace worked an opening for Zaha, who forced Courtois to drop and smother. At last it was a save worthy of the name. On the hour, a fine passing move resulted in Oscar being pushed off the ball. The referee let play continue, and without a second’s thought, and with no real backlift, Willian drilled the ball high into the top right corner.

Boom.

The Chelsea section went into orbit as Willian slid down on to his knees in front of us.

2-0.

Game over? Maybe.

It was time for more song.

“We’re gonna win the league.”

In the middle, Mikel was having a blinder and, now, every touch of his was greeted with a cheer. I then wondered if, sadly, some among the Chelsea ranks were simply taking the piss out of our much maligned – and misunderstood, damn it – midfielder.

That simply won’t do.

Palace were finding it hard to cope with our intelligent passing and movement – which screamed “confidence!” at me – and Willian was able to skip past his marker. He played a relatively harmless ball in to the six yard box, but I was happy to see Hennessey make a mess of his attempts to gather. He merely pushed the ball in to the path of Diego Costa who happily banged the ball in. The net bulged.

3-0.

Costa looked well chuffed, and his performance had certainly warranted a goal. He had led the line well. More of the same please. There had been no boos for any player at Selhurst, and this surely needs to be the way forward now. Who knows where this season will end, but we need to be there, offering support at all times, cheering the boys on.

Still the songs continued.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

“We’re the boys in blue from Division Two.”

“Don’t worry about a thing.”

This was a lovely feeling. Chelsea back to the form of last season, and fine performances throughout. Thankfully the rain eventually petered out as the second-half came to its conclusion. Oscar, with a disappointingly lame shot, and Diego Costa, flashing over, failed to add to the score line, but I did not object one little bit. Extra goals would have simply spoiled the symmetry.

On day three of the New Year, three goals, three different scorers, three points and three little birds.

Everything is going to be alright.

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