Tales From L4

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 14 April 2019.

We were now in what some call the Business End of the season. The remaining games would quickly sort us out. Could we cling on to a top four position in the league? Could we reach yet another semi-final and another final? Would we, via either route, play Champions League football in 2019/2020? Or would we slump to a meek finish and “only” qualify for another Europa League campaign?

We would soon find out.

I suspect that I am not the only one who was dreading the trip to Anfield, for more than one reason. Liverpool had only lost once in the league all season and were vying for top spot with Manchester City. After the game in 2014 – how can it be almost five years ago? – they were after revenge. All week I kept saying to myself “I’d take a 0-0” draw. A goal-less draw? Too right. One more point for us, and two dropped points for them. And advantage City in the race for the title.

In the build-up to the weekend, a few things really focussed my mind on the game on Merseyside. On Thursday, I spotted that there was going to be a charity match in Dublin the following evening in order to raise funds for Sean Cox, the Liverpool supporter who was so badly injured by some Roma ultras outside Anfield last season. As I mentioned at the time, this awful incident hit home because Sean is the brother-in-law of a friend through work who I have known for sixteen years. My friend’s husband Marty was with Sean on that fateful evening in April of last season, and my friend – a client of ours –  has been giving me updates over the past twelve months of Sean’s – very slow – progress. It was a devastating incident for the whole family. But I have been pleased to hear of steady improvements in recent months. A game involving Liverpool legends and an Irish legends team at the Aviva Stadium was planned. I soon realised why my friend had an “out of office” on her email on Friday. In the evening, I sent her a little text to say that I hope that Sean enjoyed the upcoming game.

By that stage, on the Friday evening, work was behind me for the week and I was on my way to Basingstoke to see China Crisis, sons of Liverpool, once again. But football was still tugging away at my coat tails. As I stopped mid-route for a bite to eat, I checked my phone and saw that Tommy Smith, the former Liverpool captain, had passed away.

Liverpool was certainly starting to dominate the weekend.

After the China Crisis concert, I had a quick chat with Eddie Lundon, one of the band’s original two members, who I have got to know over the past few years through a mutual friend. Ed is a Liverpool season ticket holder and I wondered if he had heard about Tommy Smith. I felt awkward asking about him, in case he had not heard the news. But sad news travels fast and he had indeed heard about Tommy Smith. We chatted briefly and quickly about the Liverpool vs. Chelsea game. On the Sunday, he would be driving back from a gig on the Isle of Wight, thus missing the match. I could tell that he was displeased. He even mentioned it during the gig.

If I had more time after the concert, I would have liked to have shared a story about Tommy Smith with Ed.

A few years ago, Parky and I visited a few local pubs where Ron Harris was guest of honour, on two occasions alongside Peter Bonetti, Bobby Tambling and Charlie Cooke. They were superb evenings. A favourite yarn, told slowly and purposefully by Chopper, involved Tommy Smith. Ever since Emlyn Hughes broke Peter Osgood’s leg in 1966 in a game against Blackpool, the soon-to-be Liverpool defender was never flavour of the month at Chelsea. Apparently, Tommy Smith and Emlyn Hughes never saw eye-to-eye either, even when they were playing alongside each other in the Liverpool team of Bill Shankly in the early ‘seventies. A few years later in a game at Anfield involving Liverpool and Chelsea, Ron Harris “arrived late” as he crunched into Emlyn Hughes and wiped him out completely. While Hughes was writhing around on the floor in agony, and as his Liverpool team mates gathered around offering words of support, Tommy Smith sidled over to our Chopper and whispered these words:

“I’m beginning to like you, Mister Harris.”

He was a hard man, Tommy Smith, and this was praise indeed for our own enforcer.

RIP.

On the Saturday, I had a choice to make. My local team, Frome Town, on a run of three straight defeats, were at home to Hartley Wintney but I simply could not be arsed. I just could not stomach yet another insipid performance, yet another defeat and the inevitable relegation from the division. Even though the game was only four miles away, I stayed at home and cracked on with a few jobs. I have probably watched Frome more this season than any other year, but enough was enough.

Frome lost 1-0.

After eight successive seasons at “Level Seven” in the English football pyramid, relegation was a certainty. I was momentarily sad, but the comparison with Frome and Chelsea was brought into sharp focus. On the following day, I’d be travelling up to Liverpool, a good five-hour trip, and cheering on the boys. There was no way that I would not attend.

I had to be there.

By 9am on Sunday, the Chelsea 3 were on our way to Liverpool 4.

There was a lot of chit-chat between PD, Parky and little old me as I drove up past Bath and onto the M4 and then the M5. The potential trips to Lisbon, Frankfurt and Baku dominated everything. After a while, the jibber-jabber died down a little and I concentrated on getting us safely up to Liverpool. The weather outside was cold, the skies grey. We stopped at Strensham and also Sandbach. There were Liverpool replica kits everywhere. By about 1.30pm, I had reached a car-park right outside Goodison Park at the northern end of Stanley Park. We paid £15 and we were safe. The attendant positioned us right near the gates for a quick getaway.

“Are youse gonna be leaving right on the whistle?”

“Depends if we’re getting thumped.”

“Might be at half-time.”

Gallows humour.

It was odd being so close to Goodison Park on a non-match day. Just like Liverpool Football Club on the main approach to Anfield, up the long steady hill of Utting Avenue, Everton Football Club have decorated every available lamp post with a pennant. Without the need to rush, I had time to notice that there are Archibald Leitch motifs on the royal blue Everton ones and I approved. We had decided to drink at the Thomas Frost pub on Walton Road, a large and charmless Wetherspoons. It was a relatively safe haven, though. We quickly spotted a table of Chelsea fans – no colours, familiar faces, usual suspects – and we joined them. We were joined by a few other Chelsea supporters. Very soon the pub was packed.

90% Liverpool.

10% Chelsea.

But it was fine. There were random outbreaks of Chelsea sings, but none of the home fans were overly intimidating. They had other things on their minds. The Manchester City game was on the TV, and most of the Scousers were subdued. I bumped into Steve, who runs the Connecticut Blues in the US, and it was the first time that I have seen him for quite a few years. He had won a trip over to England – flying into Manchester, two nights in Liverpool, match tickets – along with four others. It was good to see him again.

Welsh Kev arrived on the scene, like me a dedicated driver for the day. While I was existing on “Cokes”, Kev was making use of free coffee-refills. His route up to Liverpool had mirrored ours.

“Loads of Liverpool replica shirts at the services.”

“Tell me about it” I replied.

They love a replica shirt, the Micky Mousers.

At about 3.30pm, we decided to catch a cab from outside the pub up to Anfield, thus saving valuable time. Both Everton’s and Liverpool’s two grounds are covered by the L4 postcode.

L4 Blue to L4 Red.

It sounded like a chess move. And it was all over in a few minutes. The cabbie – another “red” after the two “reds” we used on the day of the Everton match a month earlier – dropped us off on Walton Breck Road. We were now right in the very heart of all things red. I took a photograph of PD and Parky with the gleaming new main stand in the background before they shot off for one last beer in the away end. I took a walking tour around Anfield for the first time since the stadium had its mammoth new addition. I slowly walked past “The Twelfth Man” pub and then approached “The Albert“ pub right outside The Kop. My mind whirled back to last April. This was exactly the spot where Sean Cox was attacked.

I continued walking. The statue of Bill Shankly, fists clenched.

I honestly didn’t mind Liverpool in those days.

As I slowly moved from one vantage point to another, I had presumed that Manchester City had won. There was a noticeably subdued air underneath the towering stands. On some of the signage, there was the usual hyperbole associated with modern football, and with Liverpool Football Club especially. On a sign above an entrance to The Kop, the word “Songs” was crossed out. The word “Anthem” was highlighted instead. Then the words “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Then the words “Not a song. It’s who we are.”

Then the hook line “We are Liverpool. This means more.”

Well, that just didn’t scan.

File under “trying too hard.”

The new stand goes back forever. I can only imagine the amount of corporate hospitality areas entombed within it. The days of the “half-time gate” on The Kop are consigned to history. I remembered that one of the cabbies from last month mentioned to us that his season ticket mentions the word “client number” rather than “supporter number.”

I hate modern football, part 847.

However, I like the way that, instead of acres of steel cladding, much of the façade uses standard red brick, so typical of the local area’s tight terraced streets. I didn’t get a chance to spot the re-positioned Hillsborough Memorial, but I climbed the stairs – presumably a nod towards the terraces of the old Kop – and took a few photos. I walked past the line at the away turnstiles but noted one Liverpool fan shout out –

“You fucking rent boys.”

I – pardon the pun – walked on.

I met up with Eddie’s son Daniel – and my friend Kim – outside the Kenny Dalglish Stand, formerly the Centenary Stand, formerly the Kemlyn Road Stand, God I am showing my age. There was only time for a quick “hello goodbye” before we needed to head off into our respective areas. Eddie and his son have season tickets on the half-way line – a great “speck” in the local lingo –  in the lower tier of the Dalglish Stand. The Shankly Gates – forged in my home town of Frome – have been repositioned outside this stand, having moved from their original position alongside the original Hillsborough Memorial

On the façade of this stand, there was more hyperbole.

The word “badge” was crossed out and the word “honour” was used instead.

Then “for others it’s an emblem. For us, it’s an honour.”

Righty-o.

Time was moving on. I lined up at the away turnstiles. I bumped into some familiar faces. Lads from my local area had tried, like Steve from Connecticut, to get into the usual “Arkles” but for the first time ever it was “home fans only.” I suspect that on this day of all days, on the Hillsborough weekend, the landlord had decided to play it safe. After a quick bag check, I was in. I was tempted to save the green “bag searched” tag for the few Liverpool fans that I know.

“Here’s a souvenir from Anfield, since you fuckers never go these days.”

This would be my twenty-fourth trip with Chelsea in all competitions.

Our record is not great in this cross-section of matches, but better – much better – than it used to be.

Won 5

Drew 6

Lost 12

Our last loss at Anfield was the 4-1 defeat just after the 2012 FA Cup Final win against the same team when nobody could really be bothered. We had loads of empty seats at Anfield that night, a black mark in recent years.

The team?

I almost expected a false nine. It was a show of reticence from Sarri.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilcueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Hazard – Willian

A huge game for our Ruben and our Callum. But a huge game for all of us. I really do not know what Gonzalo Higuain made of Maurizio Sarri’s starting eleven. Higuain was Sarri’s boy. He worked with him at Napoli. I am not sure if the phrase “cherry-picked” is correct, but Sarri chose him above all other strikers in January. And he was on the bench.

The stadium was packed to the rafters. Just before the teams came onto the pitch, the ridiculously deep-voiced Anfield announcer – who has been going for years and years – spoke of Tommy Smith and most Chelsea supporters joined in with a minute of applause.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone” boomed and Chelsea floated the yellow “Chelsea Here. Chelsea There” away flag. Then, the stadium settled and the announcer spoke of Hillsborough.

The teams stood in the centre circle.

Mosaics filled the Dalglish Lower Tier and the entirety of The Kop.

“30 Years – 96.”

Not a word was spoken in that respectful minute by anyone.

For the youngest, Jon-Paul Gilhooley – Steven Gerard’s cousin – aged just ten, to the oldest, Gerard Baron, aged sixty-seven.

For the Hicks sisters.

For Kevin Williams, aged just fifteen, whose mother Anne was such a dominant force in the battle for justice.

For Tony Bland, the last to die, in 1993

For the 96 – RIP.

I have written about the tragedy of Hillsborough before. When I see footage of that day, there are soon tears.

Just one thing to add. Of the ninety-six deaths, only three were over fifty years of age. A staggering seventy-eight were less than thirty years old. Not only does this represent a staggering loss of humanity, of young lives not being able to blossom, but it also marks a snapshot in time, only thirty years ago, when the age of match-going supporters was noticeably younger than today. The average age of those who were killed was around twenty-five. In those days, going to football was a young man’s game. And that last comment was not meant to be sexist. Many more men went to football in those days. Of the ninety-six fatalities, eighty-nine were male.

Football has indeed changed in so many ways since April 15 1989.

The game began. If the key phrase before the match was “I’d take a 0-0 now” then another was undoubtedly “let’s not concede an early goal.”

As with every visit to Anfield, I became obsessed with the discrete clock tucked into the side of the Dalglish Stand. Like at Old Trafford, there are no large TV screens at Anfield, for which I am quite grateful. For all of the off-the-field corporate activity spinning out of control, it is reassuring to see that, at least during the game, it is all about the action on the pitch at these two great stadia in the north-west of England. There are no distractions. Our gaze is centered on the twenty-two players. I like that.

The home team dominated the early possession and a volley from Mo Salah bounced against the turf before nestling in Kepa’s arms. Dave seemed to be a little off the pace at the start but soon improved. After a while we began to build a few attacks. Eden Hazard was the busiest of our forwards, but he tended to plough a lone furrow upfront, often prone to drifting into his favoured inside left channel but with virtually no support. A lone cross from our Callum on the right did not reach anyone. A Hazard shot was easily saved by Alisson at his bear post. The heal of David Luiz thankfully deflected a Jordan Henderson effort wide. We were so close to the action. I watched the faces of the Chelsea defenders at corners. I shared their obvious anxieties.

Toni Rudiger went down and we feared the worst. He went off, then came back on immediately.

Our best chance of the first-half fell to Willian, raiding centrally. He kept moving the ball to his right, and I was begging for a drilled low shot across Alisson into the bottom left, but he kept moving the ball on. His shot spun well clear of the right-hand post. We were then exposed as a Salah sprint down our left was followed by a ball into Sadio Mane’s path, but his shot narrowly whizzed past the post.

Thirty minutes had passed and we were keeping them at bay. Pre-match, there were horrible thoughts of another Manchester City style bombardment. With five minutes of the first-half remaining, Rudi went down again. This time he didn’t move. Sadly, this time there was no miraculous recovery. He was replaced by Andreas Christensen (who some Chelsea fans still think played at Anfield in 2014. It was Tomas Kalas) and he looked a little nervy in the last five minutes of the first-half.

Over in the lower tier of the Dalglish Stand, I couldn’t help but notice something that I always pick up on during most visits to Anfield. In the area closest to the Anfield Road Stand – the one that we were sharing with some home fans – there seemed to be more red on show. My take on this is that in the more central areas of the lower tier, there are more season ticket holders. In the flanks of that stand, there are more “day trippers” (as the Liverpool hardcore calls them) and hence more people prone to visit the club shop and buy scarves, shirts, jackets and hats. I’d imagine that season ticket holders at most clubs tend not to go too overboard with club colours. Of all the stadia in England, I have always thought that this is more noticeable at Anfield than at any other ground.

I was stood with Parky, Gal and Alan. The Chelsea support had been sporadic throughout the first-half. I think we were all too nervous. The home support was certainly nervous. Fifty thousand of them honestly failed to get much of an atmosphere going at all.

There were nerves everywhere.

Right before the break, Kepa stretched late and made a super reflex save, but an offside flag had already been raised. In truth, our ‘keeper had not been as busy as I had perhaps predicted.

We had made it to half-time.

0-0.

“And breathe.”

The general consensus was that we had played reasonably well during the first period. Both Ruben and Callum had shown flashes, but were quiet. Kante and Hazard – no surprises really – had been our standout performers. Jorginho had largely been a bystander with only occasional offensive prods to team mates. The days of us Chelsea supporters singing a song in praise of him, and the manager, are long gone. At the break, I bumped into a Chelsea fan that I know through Facebook, a young lad called Bank, from Thailand, who was at his very first Chelsea away game. He had watched the Chelsea vs. West Ham United game last week and on Saturday was lucky enough to see a Mason Mount hat-trick as Derby County beat Bolton Wanderers 4-0. After the game, he waited to chat with Frank Lampard, and he had a truly wonderful time.

The second-half began. And still Anfield was quiet, so quiet.

The first five minutes passed.

“Let’s get to the hour.”

A minute later, the ball was worked inside our box to Henderson who clipped over a tantalising ball into our six-yard box. Mane rose with no Chelsea defender in sight, let alone touching distance, and his header easily found the net. If Rudiger had been on the pitch, would he have had such am unhindered leap? Perhaps not. He reeled away towards the corner, beneath that damn clock, and Anfield erupted. The noise roared around the stadium now.

One song kept going and going.

“We’ve conquered all of Europe.

We’re never gonna stop.

From Paris down to Stockholm.

We’ve won the fucking lot.

Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly.

The fields of Anfield Road.

We are loyal supporters.

And we come from Liverpool.

Allez, allez, allez.

Allez, allez, allez.

Allez, allez, allez.

Allez, allez, allez.”

It didn’t reach 2005 levels. But take it from me, it was loud.

It was to get worse. Liverpool hit a purple patch. A cross-field ball from Virgil Van Dijk sent over a cross-field ball to Salah, who cut in past Emerson and unleashed an impeccable laser into the top corner of Kepa’s goal. Anfield erupted again.

Bollocks.

Two goals had been conceded in the first eight minutes of the second-half. What the bloody hell does the fag muncher say to the players at half-time? I’d really like to know.

Gonzalo Higuain replaced our Callum.

Bizarrely, we then hit our best period of the entire game. A fantastic ball from Emerson was beautifully dolloped into the path of Hazard who took one touch and shaped to shoot. I’d say that every Chelsea supporter was poised to leap and scream. A goal looked the only option. Alas, the shot smacked against the base of the right hand post. We were crestfallen. Soon after, Willian clipped in an equally impressive ball into the danger area towards Hazard, but Alisson was able to save.

We then fell away again.

Ross Barkley replaced our Ruben.

Our attacking game petered out, and we rarely threatened the Liverpool goal again despite many Hazard dribbles – he takes a good photo, eh? – and the occasional shot from Higuain and Hazard.

It was not to be.

Liverpool deserved their win. They were more clinical. They were not at their best but they were, evidently, too good for us.

I have this horrible feeling that they might win it this season.

Fackinell.

On Thursday, the road to Baku continues with a home game against Slavia Prague.

I will see some of you there.

 

Tales From A Perfect Ten

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 8 April 2019.

On the day before our game with West Ham United – the Sunday – I was getting stir crazy at home and so decided to head out on a short drive to try out a new pub and a new Sunday Roast. My route south took me on a road that always reminds me of several trips that I used to take with my father. I soon found myself heading towards the village, ten miles away, of Maiden Bradley. My father used to be a shopkeeper, of menswear, in the local town of Frome. He would work six days a week, but Thursday was always “half-day closing” (Thursdays were always a favourite day of the week for me because Dad would always be at home when I returned from school, unlike his appearance at 5.30pm or so on all other days). On some Thursdays, Dad would announce to me that he was off “on his rounds” and this inevitably meant that during the school holidays, right after lunch, I would accompany him as he visited one or two customers who could not get in to town as often as they would normally hope. One such customer was Mrs. Doel who lived in Maiden Bradley. My father was a very safe driver, and I suppose this really means that he was a slow driver. He was never ever caught speeding. He would potter around at forty miles per hour on most roads. I suspect that the desire to save money by not eating up fuel was a main factor. However, as a special treat on these visits to Maiden Bradley, and where the road is particularly long and straight, with excellent visibility, he would – as a treat for me – get the car up to the seemingly blistering speed of fifty miles per hour. After the slower speeds that I was used to, fifty miles per hour seemed supersonic.

“Do fifty, Dad” I would plead.

And off we would go. It was even more enjoyable when I had my own plastic steering wheel to stick on to the plastic dashboard of his green Vauxhall Viva. I’d grip it, stare out of the windscreen and watch the trees and hedgerows, and oncoming cars, fly past.

It was one of my favourite father and son moments from my early childhood.

Of course, over the following years, fifty miles per hour was reached with increasing regularity, if not by my father, then certainly by myself. I often reach fifty miles per hour in the country lanes around my village without even thinking about it.

The thrill has long gone.

And on Sunday, as I thought ahead to the match on the following evening, I realised that the thrill of playing West Ham United had long gone too.

It wasn’t the same in 1984/85 and 1985/86, seasons that marked the first two occasions of seeing our rivals from the East End of London for the very first time. In those days, the identity of football clubs seemed to be stronger; West Ham were a tightly-knit club, with a very local – and famously violent – support, and their whole identity was wrapped up within the structure of an East End football club, the tightness of Upton Park, those ridiculously small goal frames in front of the packed and occasionally surging terraces, local players, Billy Bonds and all, pseudo-gangsters in the ICF, the whole nine yards. These days, their team consists of mainly foreign players – like most – and they play in a vapid and bland “super” stadium. When did the thrill wear off? Not so sure. I still – always – get “up” for a Tottenham game. But not necessarily a West Ham one. The game on Monday 8 April 2019 would, after all, be my twenty-fifth Chelsea vs. West Ham game at Stamford Bridge and my thirty-ninth in total. After that many games, in which we have generally had the upper hand, the thrill has dwindled.

And then Everton beat Arsenal 1-0 at Goodison Park late on Sunday afternoon and my interest levels increased. I quickly did the maths. We all did. Believe it or not, if we were to beat West Ham the following day, we would end up – and God only knows how – in the heady heights of third place.

Game – most definitely – on.

This was turning into a typically bloody ridiculous season even by Chelsea’s standards. We had lost games – Tottenham in the League Cup – where we had come away in a very positive frame of mind and we had won games – Fulham at home, certainly Cardiff City away – where we felt as though we had lost.

It was turning into another emotional roller-coaster.

And then at work, on Monday, I had my personal roller-coaster too. I realised that a co-worker had not only booked the week off in which the Europa League semi-final first leg was to be played – potential trips to Lisbon or Frankfurt – but also the week of the bloody final too. My mood plummeted. We have a small team and I feared the worst.

Why the hell had I not booked the week of the final off in August or September?

It spoiled my pre-match if I am honest.

Talking of holidays, on the drive up to London with the usual suspects, Glenn and I reminisced about our trip to Australia last summer. We wondered how on earth it has taken Maurizio Sarri until April to start Callum Hudson-Odoi in a league game. Callum had laid on the cross for Pedro to score against Perth Glory back in July and seemed to be the talk of that rain-sodden town. His emergence into the first team ranks has been a slow process, eh?

There were drinks in the usual places with the usual faces. I told a few people of my “holiday problem” and although the saying is “a problem shared is a problem halved” I don’t think it helped. I just disliked myself twice as much for not booking the time off earlier. But it was a great pre-match. As often happens, Parky had the best line. On my way back from the gents, I managed to stumble a little as I headed up the stairs to re-join the lads.

Parky : ““That’ll be the biggest trip you’ll be going on over the next two months.”

We made our way to Stamford Bridge. On the cover of the match day programme was a photograph of Eden Hazard, a mixture of quiet confidence and a little coyness, his head bowed, not sure if he really wanted to be the focus of attention. It would turn out to be a prophetic choice of cover star.

The team?

I was generally in favour of the one that the manager picked. Glenn and I had wondered if he would prioritise the game in Prague on Thursday. It was difficult to tell. Our two bright hopes, Ruben and Callum were in. Excellent.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Higuain – Hazard

We guessed that the more Euro-savvy Alonso, Barkley, Pedro and/or Willian would start against Slavia.

For the first time that I can ever remember, Alan and Glenn had swapped seats. I was next to my mate from Perth; I was sat next to Glenn in the Sleepy Hollow.

It was the usual pre-match; “Park Life”, “Liquidator” and the flames and fireworks of twenty-first century football. “The Shed” flag crowd-surfed at the other end. By an odd quirk, it was an exact year since the Chelsea vs. West Ham game in 2017/18, but on that occasion the banners in The Shed sadly commemorated the life and death of Ray Wilkins.

One year ago.

Where does the time go?

RIP Butch.

Right from the kick-off, there was a sense of purpose in our play and we seemed to be able to move the ball ten percent quicker and twenty percent more intelligently. We didn’t seem to be over-passing. We seemed to be moving it at the right time. West Ham were, typically, still singing about the blue flag, from Stamford Bridge to Upton Park, and all that bollocks. They really need to update that one. Our shouts of encouragement were much better than against Brighton the previous Wednesday, but – for a London derby – not at stratospheric levels.

“Do fifty, Dad” seemed to fall on deaf ears.

There was an early free-kick for Emerson, who has never let himself down in his sadly limited starts thus far, but he arced it high and wide of Fabianski’s goal. There were passages of play which delighted us, with Kante and our Callum forming a good relationship on the right. A shot from N’Golo was fired over.

With around twenty-five minutes of the match played, Ruben played the ball square to Eden Hazard around fifteen yards inside the West Ham half. He set off for goal, a direct line, right into the heart of the box, no fear. We watched – mesmerised? dumbfounded? enraptured? – as his side-stepping dribble took him past a couple of floundering West Ham players, who hardly caught a sniff of his aftershave let alone a sight of the ball. There were seven or eight touches, no more, but the ball was moved with ridiculous speed. One final touch took him free – legs and limbs from the East End arriving so late to the party – and he clipped the ball in with a swipe of the left boot.

Oh my.

What a goal.

I watched as he raced towards the West Ham fans, and I was able to take a few photographs. I originally thought that Eden brought his forearms up to his face, mocking them and their “irons” trademark, but he was simply cupping his ears. His run mirrored that of Frank Lampard in late 2012/13.

Ronnie : “They’ll have to come at us nah.”

Reggie : “Cam on my little diamonds.”

It was a perfect crime from our perfect ten.

We were on song, on and off the pitch. Soon after, Eden found the run of Gonzalo Higuain with a fantastic ball but his fierce shot from an angle was tipped onto the post by the West Ham ‘keeper. In truth, his first touch allowed the ball to get away from him that extra few feet. But our chances were starting to pile up. Eden, from deep, played a long but piercing ball into Callum who skipped and shimmied in from the right wing – acres of space – and his equally strong shot was parried by Fabianski who was by far the busier ‘keeper. On the side-lines, Manuel Pellegrini – death warmed-up – looked even greyer if that is at all possible. The last chance of the half worthy of note fell to Higuain again. From a Kante cross, he brought the ball down to hit rather than attack the ball with his head. That extra half a second allowed a West Ham defender to block. Higuain looked shy of confidence. But it was a thoroughly impressive performance from us in the opening period.

Into the second-half, we prayed for a second goal to make it safe. West Ham have sometimes, only sometimes, provided moments of misery at Stamford Bridge – that hideous 0-4 defeat in 1986, the horror of hearing Julian Dicks’ scream as he scored against us in 1996, that gut-wrenching Paul Kitson goal in 1999 – and I was so aware of the fragility of a slender 1-0 lead.

Eden was the focal point of all our attacks and the centre of attention for those defenders whose job it was to stop us. I have a couple of photographs where he is being hounded by four defenders. How on earth does that feel, when four people are trying to stop a person doing their job? Oh wait a second. Trying to get a load of office furniture despatched when the trailer is running late, there are product shortages, the warehouse team are under-manned and the client is still deliberating about where they want the goods delivered? I guess that comes close.

Eden shimmied into space down below us and slammed a ball across the face of the goal. We “oohed” and “aahed”. It was a real pleasure to see Eden on fire. I commented to Glenn about his ridiculously broad shoulders and short legs. He is Maradona-esque in stature – “like a little eel, little squat man” as Bryon Butler memorably described him, another number ten – and one of the most sublime dribblers of the modern game.

Throughout the second-half, Ruben came into the game more and more. He has great strength in holding off defenders – a little like that man Mikel – and there were a few trademark runs right through the middle. Again, not a Sarri play, but still effective. Callum, on the other hand, tended to disappear a little as the game continued.

The crowd were nervy rather than loud. The evening continued.

West Ham carved a couple of chances down at The Shed as the rain started to fall. Lanzini forced a save from Kepa. The shot was at a comfortable height for our ‘keeper to easily save. Anderson then forced a save too. There was a weak finish at the other end from our Ruben. But then a weak defensive header from Rudiger – hearts in our mouths now – allowed the ball to sit up nicely and a powerful volleyed-drive from Cresswell narrowly missed its intended target.

“Inches” I said to Glenn.

A deep cross found Arnautovic but his goal-bound header was fortuitously headed on, and wide, by Emerson.

Nerves?

Oh yes.

“COME ON CHELS.”

The substitutes appeared.

70 : Ross Barkley for our Ruben.

76 : Olivier Giroud for Higuain.

85 : Pedro for our Callum.

Barkley to Giroud. A low shot at Fabianski. The ball ballooned over.

One more goal. Please.

Unlike the previous home game, virtually everyone was still in the stadium on ninety minutes. Just as it should be, eh?

In the very last minute, Barkley spotted that man Eden in a little space in the box and lofted a lovely ball right to him. I captured both the pass and the low shot from Eden on film. His drilled drive easily zipped past the West Ham ‘keeper.

Chelsea 2 West Ham United 0.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Game over. Third place was ours.

The night was all about Eden Hazard who, undoubtedly, was the star by some ridiculous margin. Rarely have I seen a more mature and pivotal performance from him.

He is the real deal.

Sadly, the Real deal will surely take place over the next few months.

On the drive home, the night continued to improve as I heard positive news from my manager regarding my future holiday plans. I am going to forgo the potential semi-final trip to either Germany or Portugal. But the final in Azerbaijan is on. We just need Chelsea to get there.

Next up, aways in Prague and Liverpool.

Safe travels to those going to Czechia.

I will see some of you on Merseyside.

Tales From The Birthday Club

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 10 March 2019.

A common phrase uttered by Paul, the two Glenns and little old me over the past few days, and certainly on the drive to London, was this :

“Wolves won’t be easy, mind.”

I have been impressed by Nuno Espirito Santo’s team all season. They have consistently garnered points from both home and away games. I was not in attendance at our 2-1 defeat at Molineux in early December, but at all other times their spirit, attacking zip and defensive tightness has been impressive. They would, I was convinced, be a tough nut to crack.

This was a special day.

Our game at Stamford Bridge would come on the one-hundred and fourteenth anniversary of the formation of Chelsea Football and Athletic Company. There was an early start – I left my village at 6.45am – to enable a busy pre-match. The other three made their way to “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge, but I headed for Stamford Bridge, arriving at just after 10am. It made a change to walk along the Fulham Road without being accosted by touts. I was too early for even them. In the Copthorne Hotel, I met up with a few of the supporters from the US who have been visiting these shores the past week or so. Not only were the Ohio Blues in town for this match, but a few other fans from the US too. I soon met up with Mike from the New York Blues who many people at Chelsea know. It was a pleasure to see him again. There were twenty-five more folk from the New York, Connecticut, Boston and Pittsburgh supporters’ groups attending the Wolves game. It’s always splendid to see some friends from over the water. The Ohio Blues were out in force and they were getting a major hit of adrenaline from being able to mingle informally with such Chelsea legends as Ron Harris, Bobby Tambling and John Hollins from our original “golden era” and those such as Colin Pates, Kerry Dixon, John Bumstead and Paul Canoville from “my era.”

While there were broad smiles from Andrew, Kristin, Steve, Billy, Clint, Rafa and Jessica as they posed with photos with our former players, there was a very pleasing birthday present for myself. None other than Pat Nevin appeared and chatted to his former team mates. I could not resist having a few words with Pat. From memory it was only the fifth or sixth time that I have spoken to him. The first time was before the Fulham match at Stamford Bridge in March 1984 when he signed my programme and this brief interchange took place.

Chris : “Blimey. I am taller than you.”

I am not taller than many.

Pat : “That’s not difficult.”

The next time would be on a rainy day in Moscow in 2008.

Anyone who knows me will know that Wee Pat is my favourite footballer – ever – bar none.

It was a thrill, a real thrill, to see him again.

A funny thing happened on the way to “The Eight Bells.” I needed, at some stage, to meet up with my friend Jason who had two Everton tickets for me. As I made my way to Fulham Broadway tube, we exchanged a few texts, but soon realised that our pre-match meanderings would be taking place in separate parts of Fulham. We arranged, then, to meet up after the game at the Peter Osgood statue to exchange tickets and monies. I made my way down on to the southbound platform, and as an incoming train approached and then stopped, who should be looking out, right by the door, but Jason. His carriage stopped right where I was standing. The doors slid open. We had no time to stand on ceremony. Out came wallets, out came tickets, out came three crispy twenties, job done.

“It’s all about timing, Jase.”

I laughed as I hopped into the train as it carried me south.

For those who know Chelsea Football Club, this might raise a wry smile, as one of the opening scenes of the film “Sliding Doors” was filmed at Fulham Broadway.

Down at “The Eight Bells”, things were already in full flow. The lads had commandeered a table, roasts had been ordered for midday, and I sidled in next to Glenn and opposite PD and LP. The pub was full of Wolves fans and on my return to the table after ordering my food, I could not help talking to one chap in his sixties. He was wearing the old Wolves shirt from 1974.

“I used to love that shirt. Quality. Tell me, what do most fans think of the new kit? Too yellow?”

“Ah. Too yellow, ah.”

Glenn had been talking to a Wolves fan and his young daughter. Both had been at all their games this season. After a short while, the Ohio Blues arrived and squeezed in at an adjacent table. The Wolves fans were then politely asked to leave. I guess the bar staff wanted to look after their regulars. Most popped next-door to the roomier “King’s Head.” As he left, Glenn’s Wolves mate thanked him for “taking care of us.” This made me smile. They were proper football people. I have loads of time for them, like others, no matter who they support.

The food arrived.

Roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, parsnips, swede, thick gravy and horseradish sauce.

Ten out of ten.

On the TV, the roar went up as Burnley scored at an increasingly icy Anfield. Sadly, that story did not pan out as we would hope. The laughter roared as our US friends relaxed and enjoyed this most intimate of pubs. It was, I will admit, ridiculously busy. It was rammed solid. Getting up to go to the bar was like moving in a real-life Tetris puzzle. The Kent boys arrived. Kristen taught them the Ohio Blues song. Another little group of friends arrived and stood by the doors. “The Eight Bells” could surely not accommodate any more people if it tried. There was not a spare inch anywhere. What a blast.

“Shame we have to go to the game.”

…mmm.

The team news came through.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

We made our way up the steps at Putney Bridge tube and onto the northbound train. There was a blustery wind that almost blew my face into April. We said our goodbyes to the Ohio contingent who had been great companions over the past week.

Inside the stadium, three-thousand Wolves fans were in position. Overhead were clear blue skies. In the sheltered Stamford Bridge, the wind could not cut us in quite the same way. I was pleased to see that the visitors did not chose a change kit. I would be able to make up my own mind about the effectiveness of Wolves’ new kit colour. The pensioner in the pub was right. It was too yellow. Old gold is a very subtle colour. For too long, Wolves’ shirts were too bright, too lurid, too orange. But this edition was certainly off too.

“Must try better.”

In the first quarter of the game, such was the paucity of entertainment on show on the pitch that Alan and I talked through our plans for Kiev, and we also reviewed how our two respective local non-league teams are faring (Alan’s Bromley far better than my Frome Town). Suffice to say, we did not miss much.

It was all so damned slow.

Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass.

Like an idiot on “Mastermind.”

Added to the poor standard of play, it was a dreadful atmosphere. The away supporters chided us :

“Can you hear Chelsea sing? I can’t hear a fucking thing.”

In an effort to conjure up a goal from somewhere, Glenn, Alan and I took it in turns to repeat my move from Thursday evening and took turns to visit the toilets. Even the two lads in front joined in. It did not work. The Wolves team, boasting two towering centre-backs, defended deep from the off, and they simply did not allow us room to roam. We needed to get behind them, and we didn’t. Mateo Kovacic was especially useless. Pedro was all spins and juggles and twists but with no end product. Eden Hazard was quiet. Gonzalo Higuain had a couple of very vague half-chances. That was it, that was the first-half. Wolves hardly bothered attacking at all.

At half-time, I turned to Alan and said “that was dire.”

Sigh.

“If anybody was to mark our players in that half (and I always quote the Italian sports paper system of scores ranging from three to seven most of the time, rarely an eight nor certainly not a nine), nobody apart from Kante would get more than a three or a four. Kepa would be unmarked as he hasn’t touched the ball.”

Surely we could not play so poorly in the second period.

Hazard was fouled right on the line of the penalty box – a large shout went up for a penalty, my photo was inconclusive – but David Luiz slammed the free-kick at the wall.

After ten minutes of lackluster football, Wolves suddenly found their compass and Ordnance Survey map and charged forward after a timid Chelsea move petered-out. We were completely exposed as their two strikers raced into our half. Raul Jimenez was able to dink the ball – slow motion in full effect – over Kepa and into The Shed goal. The Wolves players huddled in front of their supporters who were, of course, somersaulting with joy.

Before the game I had expected a more open match and, with it, the chance for Chelsea to cut Wolves to threads in the spaces provided behind them. Well, that shows how much I know about anything. Wolves did exactly this to us. Damningly, horrifyingly, the goal came from their very first effort the entire game.

Bollocks.

There were two quick changes and on came the youth, moves which were met with approval from all.

Our Ruben for the awful Kovacic.

Our Callum for Pedro.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

Then, a miracle, Jorginho was replaced by Willian.

Kante withdrew a few yards. Hazard slipped inside alongside Loftus-Cheek. Pedro and Callum were out wide and saw a bit more of the ball. The substitutions breathed a little life into our support. A couple of shots tested the Wolves ‘keeper. There were efforts from Higuain and a curler from Willian. A flick on from a corner went past ten players in the Wolves six-yard box and also past a lunge from Higuain at the far post. But our play was poor. I lost count of the times that I looked up and saw a player looking for a pass but nobody – and I really mean nobody – bothered to shift their ‘arris and move into space, which surely has to be the most important aspect of this manager’s playing style. It was deeply disappointing and the crowd were restless, but quiet, an odd combination. Willian blasted two free-kicks which ricocheted back off the wall. A shot from Dave was blocked.

Frustration, frustration, frustration.

This really was turning into an unhappy birthday.

I could not see us scoring in a month of Sundays. The two central Wolves strikers had occasional breaks which thankfully petered out. There was another shot from Willian. Time was running out and quickly. We stepped up the pressure a little. Four minutes of extra-time were signaled.

“COME ON CHELS.”

On ninety-two minutes, with hopes fading fast – I felt for the US fans in the Shed Lower, a few of whom were watching their first-ever game at Stamford Bridge – Eden Hazard moved the ball square some twenty-five yards out. He looked up and took aim. His low shot traced its unhindered way through a packed penalty area. The ball nestled in to the far corner. It was the one moment of class of the entire sorry game.

GET IN.

Eden took the handshakes of thanks from his team mates and Kirsten waved a “Ohio Blues – Full Of Booze” scarf in The Shed.

Phew.

At last we roared but, despite some noise at last, there was no chance of a second. It had taken us ninety-two minutes to score one. There was little likelihood of us getting another.

It had been a poor game, but we had at least salvaged a point.

On Thursday, Chelsea Football Club play in Kiev.

I might bump into a few of you out there.

Давайте підемо на роботу.

Tales From The Famous Three Kings

Chelsea vs. Huddersfield Town : 2 February 2019.

In the immediate aftermath of the 4-0 humiliation at Bournemouth on Wednesday, I was not particularly upbeat about the trip to London for the visit of lowly Huddersfield Town. There was not a chance of me swerving it, but I was hardly enthusiastic. I expected another limp performance, perhaps played out against a backdrop of toxic hostility. And then, on Thursday evening, my home area suffered a wintry downfall, and the mood darkened. With a foot of snow outside and with the roads and lanes around my village impenetrable – the Somerset County Council budget would only send its gritters onto the main roads – I was forced to miss work and stay at home. A few conversations took place between my usual match day companions about the chances of making it to London on Saturday. There was not much chuckling. At one stage, we presumed that the hostile roads would condemn us to staying at home while the match took place over one hundred miles to the east. London had hardly been affected; just a light dusting according to others. A fellow season-ticket holder who lives only a few miles away, but in an even more inaccessible location than me, had already declared “no football for us on Saturday.” We all feared the worst. And then on Friday evening, we all noticed a thaw and our spirits were raised a few notches. We decided to “reconvene at 7.30am” and weigh up our chances.

I set the alarm for 6.30am on Saturday and was soon up. The road outside my house still looked icy but it looked reasonable. I messaged Paul and the two Glenns.

“See you later.”

It took an age to defrost the car, but I nervously edged out of my driveway. I dropped the car onto the main road, and tried to pull away.

The wheels spun beneath me.

“Oh great.”

I knocked the car into reverse, managed to get a little traction, and steered it into a groove that had already been compacted by other cars.

“Now or never, Chris, let’s go.”

I cautiously pulled away.

It worked.

I was on my way to London.

“Phew.”

On this wintry day in the South of England, I hoped that Chelsea Football Club would be getting back into the groove too.

The roads were still rather dangerous as I nervously drove into Frome to collect PD and then Glenn. The road outside PD Towers was especially icy. I then made my way over to Parkytown, and he had walked a few hundred yards onto the main road so as not to endanger my safety by chancing the icy roads on the estate where he lived. We were soon breakfasting at Melksham in the local “McDonald’s” and it wasn’t long before I was up on the M4 and racing East on a perfect winter’s day. The fields were pristine, blanketed with snow. The sun shone. What a gorgeous morning. It was a shame that we had to talk about football.

Because talk about football we did. And let’s make no mistake, the second-half of football that we had witnessed in Dorset on Wednesday was bloody awful. We had our own little post mortem as I drove towards London. Despite bright sunshine outside, there were storm clouds inside.

On the Friday, with probably far too much time on my hands, I had carried out some research and painfully discovered the last 4-0 loss that I had personally seen for my own eyes.

“The 1994 FA Cup Final against United.”

The lads groaned. We had all been there.

None of us were relishing the game with Huddersfield Town. We were looking forward to seeing Gillian, Kev and Rich once again – on the 6am flight out of Edinburgh on a day trip – plus the rest of the gang but the football could wait. Regardless, at about 11.30am, we had all assembled at the “Famous Three Kings” – right next to West Kensington tube – which is just over a mile to the north of Stamford Bridge. There aren’t many more “Chelsea pubs” further north. It sits on the A4, the old Roman road which linked Bristol with London and which my father used to use on the Chelsea trips of my youth after joining it at Beckhampton – close to where he did his first month of training during World War Two at RAF Yatesbury – and then leaving it at Hungerford. When I worked in Chippenham, I worked right on the A4. I had crossed over it on my way to the M4 earlier in the day. It is my own personal Mother Road. I can’t seem to escape it, but nor would I want to. Anyway, it certainly felt a whole lot better to be in the “F3K” at 11.30am on a Saturday rather than 3pm on a Sunday.

We were all there.

Glenn, PD and I from Somerset. Parky from Wiltshire. Gillian, Kev and Rich from Lothian. Duncan, Lol, Daryl and Ed from Essex. Andy and Kim from Kent. Alan and Gary from London itself. Fifteen strong.

Unlike the Sheffield Wednesday game, there were no away fans. The pub filled up slowly with rugby fans ahead of the afternoon’s fixtures in the Six Nations, and quite a few were watching the Tottenham vs. Newcastle United game from Wembley before the egg-chasing took over. The pub has been voted London’s best sports bar the last three years and the bar was advertising itself as a venue to watch the following day’s NFL Final.

In the first twenty minutes of chit-chat, we put the world to rights.

We spoke about Maurizio Sarri, Jorginho, Eden Hazard, Gonzalo Higuain, the board, our managerial merry-go-round, the performances throughout the season, Carlo Ancelotti getting the push after finishing second in 2011, our style of play, Antonio Conte, our current defensive frailties. You can probably guess the tone.

I made a point about Antonio Conte.

“Seems to me a lot of our history is being re-written. Seems to me that this new manager’s style of football is seen by many as an antidote to “quote unquote” the counterattacking football of Conte, and Mourinho before him. But wait a minute. That gives the impression that under those managers we simply sat back, inviting teams on to us and then hitting them on the break, and were continually dull. That’s not how I bloody remember it. I remember tons of possession. When we won the league under Conte two seasons ago, were people moaning or even mentioning “counter-attacking” football? I’m not so sure. I know I wasn’t. The way some people talk, they speak of Sarri’s style of play as ultra-stylish, an antidote to the football we played under Mourinho and Conte.”

I shook my head.

Conte’s football in the first part of 2016/17 was pulsating and passionate, and we were relentless in our hunting down of players in possession. The first-half against Everton in the autumn of 2016 remains, possibly, the most exhilarating half of football I have ever seen at Chelsea. The fans and the manager and the team were as one in those days. It was fantastic. So I’m not sure the negative take on Conte is particularly fair.

“At least Conte could change his game plan if he had to.”

The lads were chatting in small groups, enjoying each other’s company, spoiled only by a single Tottenham goal which would give them three huge points.

We mulled over the team.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Willian – Higuain – Hazard

“So, we know the substitutions then.”

“Pedro for Willian 65 minutes, Kovacic for Barkley 75 minutes, Giroud for Higuain 80 minutes.”

We laughed / groaned.

Chelsea Candid Camera At The F3K.

We caught the tube to Fulham Broadway. I always love this part of the day. There was a gaggle of Huddersfield Town youngsters in MA.Strum and CP on the District Line train from Earl’s Court, singing a version of “Dirty Old Town” but with virtually unintelligible lyrics, and with only the slightest hint of the original tune. I think that I was able to decipher “we’re going down, but we support the town” but I might have been way off, like a Morata offside decision. Outside on the Fulham Road, there seemed to be more than the usual number of touts trying to offload spares. I was sure that there would be discernible gaps in the home areas after Wednesday. Fanzine sellers, grafters selling scarves, hot dogs and hamburgers, the usual match day buzz. I took a smattering of photographs outside the West Stand. I have never really noticed it before, but I like the way that this entrance is still officially called “The Britannia Entrance”, named after the pub which used to sit on the corner of Fulham Road and Britannia Road. I like that. I remember that The Britannia Entrance being mentioned on tickets and in programmes when I first started going in the mid-‘seventies. I like that the club has not renamed it.

Huddersfield had about 1,100 maybe. They would not be the noisiest away fans this season.

The teams came on as the usual fireworks and flames flew up into the air.

I popped down to see Big John in the front row.

“After Wednesday, all of this looks especially misguided doesn’t it?”

In the cold light of day, it looked ridiculous.

Just get on with it for fuck sake. Just give us ninety minutes of football. Just like the old days. We’ll moan a bit. We’ll grumble. But it is our release from the daily grind, away from the strains of work, away from the pressures of family life. And we’ll sing and shout, or at least try to. We’ll support the team. We’ll do it ourselves. We don’t need the atmosphere to be enforced upon us. Just give us the fucking football. We don’t need bloody fireworks. This ain’t the Superbowl. This is fucking Chelsea on a cold winter afternoon.

The game began.

Huddersfield were in a fluorescent-kitted homage to the old – and hideous – Borussia Dortmund get-up of the late ‘nineties.

Thankfully, there was not the level of toxicity that I might have feared. No negativity to speak of. Though, if I am honest, there was not much of anything. It was all pretty quiet, except the away fans enquiring if Stamford Bridge resembled an institution where written matter, in the main, could be taken out periodically and then returned at a later date with the use of a token.

A Barkley shot got the game started, and then the beautifully-named Aaron Mooy headed over from close-in.

PD was not perturbed : “the ‘keeper would have got that.”

Following on from the first-half on Wednesday, if not the second, I again liked the movement from Higuain. An early shot from him after a nice Jorginho forward pass – yes, I know – was deflected wide. Kante was his usual ebullient self, tacking and prodding, and Jorginho played another forward ball – yes, I know. Shots from Hazard went close. Huddersfield were poor, but we knew that. With just sixteen minutes on the clock, and after a magnificent through ball from our man Kante, Higuain whipped the ball into the Shed End goal from an angle. It was not dissimilar to the effort that he had on his debut against Wednesday last Sunday. We roared, and the marksman ran down to the corner (he must have been tipped-off : “when you score, just run to the corners, the supporters like that, and Chris Axon can take a few photos”) and was instantly mobbed.

Gonzalo Higuain’s First Chelsea Goal.

There were efforts from Barkley – again – and Higuain – again. Ross seemed to be at ease with the ball, and was an early star. Huddersfield’s forays into our half were rare indeed. Just before the break, as a player was down injured, I – like many – went off to turn my bike around. As I climbed the steps into the MHU, I saw Dave being tackled and a penalty was signalled.

We waited. Eden struck. Get in.

Eden Hazard’s Penalty.

Immediately after, a long and scurrying run from Eden right into the heart of the Huddersfield defensive lines resulted in him falling to the ground inside the box but play was waved on.

“…mmm, can’t see the referee giving two pens in a minute.”

There was applause from the stands at half-time. The memory of the debacle in Dorset was starting to subside. It had been a good first forty-five minutes of football.

But we blossomed in the second-half.

There was an early effort from Willian which curled close and then a few scintillating turns and touches from Eden got us all excited. As our confidence rose, so did our support of the team (though it never really got past the 6/10 mark the entire afternoon). It was all Chelsea. With twenty minutes played, a pass from Barkley was caressed into space by Hazard and he moved the ball past the ‘keeper and slotted in from an angle. He did me proud by trotting over to The Sleepy Hollow.

Eden Hazard’s Second Goal Of The Day. 

Very shortly after, beautiful passing between Kante and Hazard set up Higuain some twenty-five yards out. It would be doing him a disservice to say that he swung his boot at it. But the ball sat up nicely and his strong, curling, shot dipped and crashed into the net. It was some goal. He raced over to see us, and the photos followed. Good lad. We would learn later that his swipe took a slight deflection, but this did not detract from the beauty of the effort.

Celebrations For Gonzalo Higuain’s Second. 

Before the game, I would have been happy with a 1-0 win. But here we were cruising at 4-0 with over twenty minutes to go.

“Time for a few more, Al.”

Well, Sarri pulled the rug from under our feet and all three late substitutions were surprises. First, off went Jorginho – yeah, I know – and on came Kovacic. A strong shot from him signalled his arrival. Callum Hudson-Odoi then replaced Hazard (on a hat-trick, boo!) and then Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Kante.

I was glad that Barkley stayed on. It was his best game for ages. And Willian, his confidence rising throughout, had a super second-half.

With four minutes remaining, a Willian corner was forcefully headed goal wards by David Luiz. I did not realise it at the time, but there was so much power on the header that the deflection off a defender merely changed its flight.

David Luiz Scores Our Fifth.

Five nil, get in.

This was a fine performance (I honestly feel that there should be asterisks throughout all of this : *Huddersfield) and it was certainly needed. It was just a pleasure to see us hit a bit of form. The Stamford Bridge crowd were certainly not singing “Maurizio” at the end, but it undoubtedly warmed the cockles of our hearts on a cold afternoon in London.

Trying To Catch 22.

Next Sunday, we might be shuddering up in Manchester when we go up against Pep Guardiola’s City.

I will see some of you there.

Tales From The Final Shot

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 24 January 2019.

This season has, thus far, been quite the mixed bag hasn’t it? Our last three games perfectly exemplify this; an encouragingly optimistic performance, but a loss against Tottenham at Wembley, a very dull home win against Newcastle United and then a limp and depressing defeat at Arsenal. Overall, in these three games, we would be scored as “must do better – much better” and the mood of the Chelsea support was in negative territory. How would we perform against Tottenham in the League Cup semi second leg? Would our play take us back into the positive for the first time in a while?

When we realised that we had been drawn against “that lot” – it seems ages ago now – my thoughts were this.

“At home, a one-off tie, we could beat them. But over two legs, I don’t fancy our chances.”

But things change. Our spirited first game a fortnight ago swung the balance our way. I sensed we’d beat them. When we heard that our bitter rivals had lost Kane and Ali to injury and Son to the Asia Cup, our spirits were lifted further.

As I left work at 3pm, my mood was worryingly optimistic.

It was a typical midweek pre-match. PD had driven Parky and little old me to London, and we had enjoyed the North End Walk, which links The Goose and Simmons Bar. There were tons of familiar faces in both and even the same faces in both; it seems a common choice on match days to combine drinks at the two hostelries. There was a noticeably buoyant and expectant air in both pubs. It felt fine. It felt good. Guest of honour was Pete, originally from North London, but now living in San Diego, and lucky enough to get his hands on a ticket at the last minute for the game. I last saw him in DC for the Barcelona friendly in 2015. I am sure Pete will not mind me mentioning that he is Jewish, and he soon showed me – rather coyly – his Chelsea kippah, which he produced from his breast pocket.

We both laughed.

“…mmm, best not wear that tonight mate, might get the wrong reaction.”

We laughed again.

I reminded him of the flight I took to Tel Aviv in 2015.

“I looked up and saw that the chap sitting in front of me was wearing a Manchester United skull cap. Fucksake. Then I spotted a woman to my left, across the aisle, one row ahead, was breastfeeding her infant. So I had a tit in front of me and a tit to my left too.”

Pete gave me an old-fashioned look.

“True story.”

There was just a little team talk.  I wasn’t confident that Maurizio Sarri would begin with Olivier Giroud, and neither was Simon but Daryl thought that he would.

In the build up to the semi-final against Tottenham, I was well aware of our two previous encounters with them at the same stage of the competition.

Our 1971/1972 semi-final was just before my time, not as a Chelsea fan per se, but I certainly can’t recall the build-up nor the two games themselves at all. After all, I was only six. I since learned that we overcame Tottenham, and that the first-leg was quite a game. A poke-in from Ossie followed by The King giving the away fans a “V”, a first-ever goal in our colours from Chris Garland and a Johnny Hollins penalty. We drew the second-leg 2-2 and progressed to the final. But we don’t talk about that.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7m68Fvvlyk

In 2001/2002, we beat Tottenham 2-1 at Stamford Bridge with a brace from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, the first one a prod past Kasey Keller down below me, the second an absolute screamer at The Shed, and I certainly remembered that match. We then reconvened at White Hart Lane two weeks later and I was able to hook up a portable TV to watch while I worked the evening shift at a portakabin in Trowbridge. But we don’t talk about that.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2drkUtSCj4

Two other games are worthy of note I think.

In 1990/1991, this time at the quarter final stage, we again drew Tottenham in the League Cup. This was a classic game, but only insomuch that it is, without doubt, the most one-sided 0-0 that I have ever seen. I watched from the West Stand seats, a bit of a treat really since I was on the dole that season, but towards the Spurs fans in the curving North Stand. Graeme Le Saux was absolutely on fire that night, and I had a prime position to see him roast the Spurs defence time after time. It was one of those games when you thought “we’ve got a real talent here”. Even though I travelled back by train that night, and therefore would not have seen the TV highlights anyway, this game has gone down in Chelsea history because the scheduled TV programme was cancelled due to the outbreak of the Gulf War and action from the game was never aired. That night, Baghdad came under a horrendous attack, but it paled into comparison to the blitzkrieg we had rammed into Tottenham a few hours earlier. It’s likely very few have seen these rare highlights, recently unearthed by a chap on a Facebook group that I am in. I love the involvement of the crowd and the noise from this game. Just 34,000 were officially present, but it was a common view that Ken Bates massaged the crowd figures in those days. Just what we needed, really. From a period that opposing fans refer to when lambasting our historical attendances, the bloody Chelsea chairman was making out we had less fans at games than we actually did. Nice one, Ken, you silly old duffer. Anyway, fill yer boots.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwqOjP2s58c

One more Chelsea / Tottenham midweek memory. With the signing of Gonzalo Higuain – never saw that one coming, cough, cough – and the thought of him possibly starting the game, many of us remembered the signing of George Weah in the 1999/2000 season. On a memorable evening, he had jumped off a plane at Heathrow and then appeared a few hours later to score the only goal of the game against Tottenham in the league. It was very much a case of “mmm, how shall we beat Tottenham this time?” It was fantastic. George Weah and his white boots, what an impact player for us in those last few months of that season. In 2019, we have witnessed another Milan to Chelsea loan signing, but alas there was no chance of another “Hig-Whea-in” winning goal.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egOgvkpHgF4

For this game, Tottenham had around four thousand in The Shed. This meant Parky was forced to buy a seat elsewhere. I decided to swap with him so he could watch alongside Alan and PD, while I took his seat in a central area of the same tier. As I took position, I realised that it was the first time that I had watched a game from behind the goal in the MHU since Bruges at home in 1995. It cunningly gave me a new vantage point for my photographic endevours.

And it was some view.

I loved the team that Sarri had chosen. In came Emerson, Barkley and Giroud.

Kepa

Dave – Rudi – Geezer – Emerson

N’Golo – Jorginho – Ross

Peds – Olivier – Eden

I got chatting to Vince, a season ticket holder for decades, who was with two friends, sitting to my immediate right. I warned him of my habit of taking photographs and hoped it would not spoil his enjoyment of the night. Surprisingly, the seat to my left was empty. It looked a full house, but if you looked hard enough there were odd seats not being used.

More dimmed lights and firework and flames. At night games, it adds to the drama, but what next I wonder? Thank God the club hasn’t implored us to turn our phone torches on prior to the entrance of the teams. You heard it here first, sigh.

The teams came on. I love the sense of drama as they walk across the pitch to the West Side. No Premier League flag getting in the way this time. A straight and purposeful walk to the other side of the pitch. And I was staring down the four thousand Tottenham fans. They were, awfully, in our Shed, but somehow the sight of a solid block of away fans – flanked by several hundred empty seats on each side – gave the evening a proper “Us Versus Them” feel.

Whisper it, but it gave the game an added drama. Three stands us, one stand them, just like the old days, but swung around one-hundred-and-eighty degrees.

There was not one single Tottenham flag on show.

The game began.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

Spurs were weakened on paper, and they began weakly on the grass too. We began well, bossing it, and got better. A divine full body shimmy from David Luiz suggested that he was full of confidence, and I only hoped that the others shared his positivism. We absolutely dominated the first five, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. We moved the ball quickly, but into danger areas with more urgency than recent memory. For once, I noted that Jorginho was not hogging the ball. For once, it was not solely about him. We moved the ball long and short, and runners were hit. Once or twice, Eden played deep-seated playmaker and propelled lasers to the feet of a wide man. This was good stuff indeed, and the crowd – that vital component – were involved from the off.

I was enjoying my little chats with Vince. We delved into a few previous games. Bruges in 1971 and in 1995. That Le Saux game in 1991. The flat semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday – which followed the Spurs tie that year – at noon on a Sunday when we were undone by the same bloody free-kick routine – John Sheridan? – on two occasions. Another infamous game. Fackinell Chelsea.

Throughout the first-half, there were no end of rugged and miss-timed challenges on our players, which the referee Martin Atkinson shrugged off, and the home crowd bellowed and roared our disapproval. Each time the referee chose not to card a Spurs player, the otherwise quiet and bespectacled lad to my left exploded with a tirade of abuse; top notch swearing in fact. It was the sole time he seemed to get involved. There was no roaring of support for any of our players from him. He seemed an odd character. But more of that later.

Tottenham’s main song of the night was clearly one intended to entice a response from us, or at least some in our ranks.

“We sang it in France.

We sang it in Spain.

We sing in the sun and we sing in the rain.

They’ve tried to stop us and look what it did.

Cos the thing I love most is being a ***.

Being a ***.

Being a ***.

The thing I love most is being a ***.”

But we are made of stern stuff and we did not lower ourselves.

There was no Y-Word-Nonsense from Chelsea’s three stands.

Well done us. Again.

However, as the game progressed, I was rather worried that for all of our dominance, we had not really tested their ‘keeper Gazzaniga. But Tottenham had rarely ventured into our half.

“Where’s Chris Garland when you need him?” I chirped to Vince.

On the half-hour mark, a Hazard corner from our left ended up bouncing towards Kante, some twenty yards out. He steadied himself, arms balanced, and did well to keep his shot down. Somehow it squeezed through a packed box, and we were 1-0 up and level in the tie. The crowd roared and the players quickly raced back to our half.

Game on.

From Alan : “THTCAUN”.

To Alan : “COMLD.”

A replay would show how the ball had miraculously travelled betwixt the legs of three opposing players.

I wonder if the French word for “nuts” or “megs” was uttered by our man.

I turned to Vince : “The mention of Chris Garland did it.”

The Bridge was buzzing now.

The crowd roared N’Golo’s song at a home game for the first time that I can remember.

“Ngolo – ohh!

Kante will win you the ball.

He’s got the power to know.

He’s indestructible.

Always believe in.”

Pure gold.

There was a close chance for Giroud, but his legs seemed to become tangled.

Ten minutes after the first goal, a fantastic move involving crisp passes from Barkley, Hazard, Pedro and Azpilicueta meant that Spurs were a little slow to spot the movement of Hazard, who appeared in the box as if by magic – like Mr Benn –  to calmly steer the ball home.

More wild noise, bloody fantastic.

I turned to Vince :

“Spurs are not bloody singing now.”

The game opened up further. A heavy Pedro touch meant that a fine run was wasted, and there were blocked shots as we piled on the pressure. There were only rare Tottenham attacks. Luiz played the ball out to his wide man Emerson with aplomb on many occasions. In the last moment of the first-half, Hazard was tackled from behind by Alderwiereld – I was not convinced – but befitting the rest of the first-half, no action was taken.

Vince : “one of the best halves of football we’ve seen down here for ages.”

The second-half began with “Where’s Wally” to my left nowhere to be seen. However, he eventually ambled back to his seat and – I am afraid that I am not exaggerating here – for a good eighty percent of the second-half he stared at his phone as he reeled off text message after text message, rarely looking at the game for minutes on end. And it really wound me up. It shouldn’t, should it? But it did. It is a miracle of self-restraint that I chose not to bite and say something bitterly sarcastic to the prick.

The first few minutes passed and – just as I thought to myself “mmm, Eriksen has been quiet, bet he misses his usual targets”- the ball was whipped in by Danny Rose, an early substitute, from their left and Llorente prodded home.

The away fans roared now, and a Star of David was spotted being fluttered like a red rag to a bull in the Shed Upper.

The game opened up again. This season, there would be no extra time if scores were level over both games and the game would go straight to penalties. We begged for a third goal on the night. And to be fair, we certainly gave it our best shot, if not one that hit the target.

Over the next forty minutes there was shot after shot. Giroud wriggled free and lashed an effort low but Gazzaniga saved at the near post down below me. Giroud, – undoubtedly under threat with Higuain on board – had not created much for himself up until then, but his presence had allowed others to make use of space around him.

The home crowd urged the players on. I will be honest, I was especially loud – “rasping” – and aimed my voice towards Wally to my left, but there was no reaction from the twat. He had the sort of face that was begging out for a slap, glasses or no glasses, and even though I am not a violent person…mmm, my voice fades into the ether, best not say anything, I’m honestly not a violent person, but…

Unbelievably, Jorginho and Kante were booked despite the rotten Tottenham challenges, and the reaction of Sarri to a bad tackle resulted in him getting a yellow too.

“Good lad.”

Llorente messed up a great chance from close in, and there was much wailing at the Tottenham end.

We attacked again. Great play from Hazard and Emerson. A shot from Pedrio.

Moura then hit the side netting and the away fans roared just as the Chelsea fans roared when Kerry Dixon hit the side netting in 1991 (have you watched the clip yet? Go on…)

And then Dave was carded too.

Three Chelsea players carded. And not one opposing player. This seemed bloody ridiculous. This brought Wally to life and he again spewed out some fuckwords into the evening air at the referee.  But there were still no signs of support for his team.

Back to your texts, lad.

Willian replaced Pedro, who had stretched his marker all night.

My favourite part of the game, in one way, took place on the East Stand touchline. There was a foul on a Chelsea player – Kante I think –  but many players continued, and Kante himself had clearly not heard the whistle (or maybe he had, wink), and he made a firm but fair tackle, leaving a Tottenham player on the floor and clasping his shin. It was sheer poetry. This certainly galvanised our support further.

At last a Tottenham booking; Sissoko, and much sarcastic cheering.

“COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.”

Hazard pelted one in from outside the box and it missed the target by inches. He repeated this shortly after, but another chance went begging. Mateo Kovacic replaced the tiring Barkley, who had begun well but was fading. We still pushed on. There were further chances though. Another messy effort from Giroud at the far post had us all frustrated, but worse was to come.

Emerson, finding great energy from somewhere, flew past Aurier and sent over a peach of a cross towards a leaping Giroud. His effort cleared the intersection of post and bar. I actually turned around and double-stamped in absolute frustration.

…”mmm, I haven’t done that before” I self-consciously thought to myself.

So, penalties.

I said to Vince :

“Simple. If it is up there, we’ll lose. If it is down here, we’ll win.”

Thankfully, it was at the Matthew Harding.

Great for us, great for the fans, great for me, great for my camera.

We waited.

Tottenham :  Eriksen – IN.

Chelsea : Willian (currently one of the boo boys, please don’t give them extra ammunition to have a go at you) – IN.

Tottenham : Lamela – IN.

Chelsea : Azpilicueta (didn’t like his over-enthusiastic run up) – IN.

Tottenham : Dier – OVER.

Chelsea : Jorginho (that stop, like at Huddersfield) – IN.

Tottenham : Moura – SAVED.

Chelsea : Luiz (a hero from the spot in Munich, another long run up, initiated by a Jonny Wilkinson-style stop, sorry about the rugby reference) – IN.

Stamford Bridge roared once more.

GET IN.

It was the final shot.

The final shot of the game.

A shot to get us into the final.

And my final shot of the action.

The penalties had taken place and we had done them four by two.

Phew.

Hugs with Vince.

“See you at Wembley.”

David Luiz had been featured on the programme cover and it was fitting that he had brought us home. He had enjoyed a great match along with Hazard, Rudiger, Pedro and – of course – the loved Kante. But Luiz was the centre of attention as “One Step Beyond” boomed around Stamford Bridge. I glanced over to The Shed, and many had quickly disappeared.

It was a beautiful sight indeed.

I slowly made my way to the exit and outside the West Stand one song dominated.

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

And indeed it fucking had.

It had been…clears throat…a great night.

On Sunday, another cup competition awaits.

See you there.

 

Tales From The Three Wise Men

Watford vs. Chelsea : 26 December 2018.

There were times, probably quite some years ago now, when I used to get a considerable tingle with the thought of a Boxing Day game. A post-Christmas treat, there always seemed to be a certain something in the air, an unquantifiable buzz. Something different for sure. Growing up, Boxing Day crowds often used to be the biggest of the entire season. In some campaigns, way before my time, games were played on Christmas Day itself. That practice has long since passed. But in my youth, it would not be odd for Chelsea to play games on Boxing Day and the following day too. From my Ron Hockings’ bumper book of Chelsea games, I see that the last time this happened was in 1986/87 when we played at Southampton on 26 December and at home to Villa on 27 December (two wins which kick-started our season after a very poor first few months). In 1993/94, there was no Boxing Day game, but we played at The Dell on 27 December and at home to Newcastle the following day (a win against the Geordies similarly kick-started a season in which we were in the relegation places under Glenn Hoddle after the Southampton game, thank you very much Mark Stein.) This was the last time we played in consecutive days over Christmas. Our Boxing Day record of late has been exceptional; our last loss on the day after Xmas was a 4-2 defeat at the Valley in 2003. I can remember watching it at home on TV, in the last few weeks of me having Sky. So, here was a fine record to uphold as we made our way to Watford for the evening kick-off.

I was on driving duties and I collected the gruesome twosome, PD and LP, and we then treated ourselves to a Boxing Day lunch – OK, a late breakfast – at a canal side café in Bradford-On-Avon in Wiltshire. I ate up the miles and we were parked at our usual place at the bottom end of the A411 in Watford at about 3.45pm. As with last season, we dipped into “The Horns” pub for a few drinks. A local band were doing a sound check ahead of a tea-time gig and we decided to stay on to see if they were any good.

They played “Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)” at the sound check. A few levels were adjusted. The band were soon happy. If only football was as easy.

They began with “Message In A Bottle” and then replayed “Make Me Smile.”

“Bloody hell, PD, if they play ‘Message In A Bottle’ again, I’m fucking leaving.”

We stayed for ten more songs, I fell in love with the gorgeous lead singer – she possessed the voice of an angel and everything else to match – and it made for a lovely little start to the evening. We Three Kings then walked along the pedestrianised High Street, which was bedecked in Christmas lights, one bar after another. I am told it is quite lively on a weekend evening. We eventually settled at the packed “Moon Under Water” on the pedestrianised High Street, where many Chelsea faces were based. I was not even allowing myself a single lager, so for the second game in a row, I would be watching without alcohol. After four and a half pints of “Coke” I was bouncing off the walls of the boozer. We sadly learned that both Liverpool and Tottenham had won, yet Manchester City had lost at Leicester City. This made for grim reading. I predicted a dour draw against Watford. At least Arsenal were only drawing at Brighton.

We set off on the short walk to Vicarage Road. My good friend Lynda, now living in Brooklyn, was with us.

“When you were growing up in Pennsylvania, I bet you never envisaged yourself walking through the streets of Watford on Boxing Day.”

Lynda and her husband T had travelled up on the solitary Chelsea coach which had left Stamford Bridge at 4pm. T had stayed at Vicarage Road, where they were dropped-off, so he could watch the players go through their pre-match shuttles and routines. T coaches football in the US and I had visions of him with a notebook and pen, possibly even chewing on some dog ends.

Outside the away end at Vicarage Road the brickwork of the stand rises only twenty feet. Once inside, and once the ridiculously cramped concourse has been navigated, the pitch is way below. I am not sure if it is because a lot of the paintwork in the stadium is black, but Vicarage Road always seems darker, more claustrophobic, than others. It always used to be an untidy stadium in the ‘eighties, with odd stands, shallow terracings some way from the pitch which emphasised its use as an occasional greyhound stadium. But it is a neat stadium these days, quite the right size for the club. To my left, the Sir Elton John Stand, to my right the Graham Taylor Stand. Our end was split between home and away fans. There is infill in the four corners. To my left, a sensory area for those unable to contend with a full-on match experience. In one corner a TV screen. In the opposite corner a corporate area – “The Gallery” – where the stadia’s floodlights were reflected, bending out of shape, in the large windows of the viewing boxes.

I suppose that there was no real surprises that Fag Ash Lil kept the same team that lost to Leicester City. It was, in Sarri’s eyes, his strongest eleven.

Arrizabalaga – Azpilicueta, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso – Kante, Jorginho, Kovacic – Pedro, Hazard, Willian.

Defenders apart, we are such a small team. I wasn’t quite sure how we would match up against the more physical Watford team who handed us a demoralising 1-4 defeat on bleak evening in February last season.

For once, the home end was not a swirling mass of flags as the teams entered the pitch for this 7.30pm kick-off. Watford are now kitted out in yellow and black stripes, for the first time, presumably a nod to their “Hornets” nickname. In my mind, Watford still needs a fleck of red in their home uniform.

The game began. We were close to the front and close to the corner flag. Not only were there occasional gaps in the stand to my left but in our section too. Not many, but enough to be discernible. In the first few moments, with Chelsea controlling possession, Pedro worked a fine opening, coming inside and using Willian, but flashed a shot wide of Ben Foster’s post. Kepa made a hash of a clearance amid howls from the Chelsea support, but no Watford player could capitalise. The Chelsea crowd were in good voice.

But then a song began which immediately caused me concern.

“The shit from Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see The Pope…”

I thought “oh fuck” and feared the worst.

Surely not, Chelsea.

The song continued. I didn’t join in. It surprised me how long it lasted…it was torture. Eventually we reached the denouement.

“Barcelona, Real Madrid.”

In that Nano-second, I felt like all of our collective lives flashed before us.

There might have been the odd “Y word” but the overwhelming sound was of people audibly shouting “sssssssshhhhhhh.”

Phew. We had passed the test. Phew again.

The ironic thing is that before the Raheem Sterling incident three weeks’ ago, the song would have ended in its usual fashion and the whole world would have continued on its way. But maybe it is correct that the song has had its day, or at least in its usual form.

Jorginho found Kavacic, who played the ball forward to Willian on the left. His pace set him free but was forced wide and rounded Foster, and his shot struck the outside of the near post. Watford retaliated with the widely booed Deulofeu allowing Doucoure to attempt a shot on goal but Jorginho superbly blocked. Another chance for Watford after a Rudiger error, but Doucoure shot high. Despite their chances, we were still dominating possession.

In front of me, all eyes were on David Luiz, who was involved more than most during the first thirty-minutes. He was often taking control of the ball. Sometimes his passes across the box drew derision from the fans around me. But he was the main passer out of defence, and usually his low balls found their targets. Against Deulofeu, he battled and battled. Going into the game, I had noted that as he fell to his knees to tie his bootlaces, many team mates made a point of walking over to him, to hug him or to shake his hands, sometimes just to touch him, a pat on the back here, a shake there. It felt like he was our talisman, an icon on the pitch for the super-superstitious Sarri.

It was Christmas after all.

But for all of our possession, and movement in the final third, the Watford defence was proving a very tough nut to prise open. It was all about finding pockets of space. But it was a tough task.

“There’s no cutting edge.”

How we longed for a late-arriving midfielder – Frank Lampard, cough, cough – to pounce on a ball played back from the bye-line. But we were hardly reaching the bye-line. This was constipated football with no signs of an outlet. It was as if there was a force field around the Watford goal and we could not penetrate it.

Intricate footwork from the effervescent Pedro allowed Dave set up Hazard who fluffed his lines right in front of the goal, mere feet away. Until that point we had created half-chances. We were turning the screw but I was still not convinced a goal would follow.

A fine Luiz block stopped Troy Deeney from scoring at the other end. Bizarrely, Watford were probably edging the goal-scoring chances.

Things had quietened down now. The home support was ridiculously subdued.

Sadly, Pedro was forced to leave the field with what looked like a thigh strain. He was replaced by Callum Hudson-Odoi, who was then volubly well supported by the away support. Soon after, a break reached Kovacic who advanced before releasing Hazard at just the right time. He was forced wide, like Willian earlier, but he saw enough of the goal once he had rounded Foster and slotted home.

Watford 0 Chelsea 1.

It was goal one hundred in Chelsea colours for our Eden. Team mates joined him and I watched him as his stocky frame jogged over to the bench to embrace Cesc Fabregas. He was full of smiles. It was splendid.

Half-time was just a few moments away.

We had learned that Arsenal had only scratched a 1-1 in Sussex. Suddenly, fourth place was ours.

Right after, Kepa smothered a close shot from Doucoure. From the short corner, we watched in agony as a high ball bypassed everyone and fell at the feet of the completely unmarked Pereyra who met the ball on the volley. It crept into the goal. There was nobody on the posts. Everyone were intent on clearing their lines, like the charge of the light brigade. It was criminal that nobody had picked him up.

Watford 1 Chelsea 1.

Forty-eight minutes had passed.

Bollocks.

The second-half began.

Now it was the turn of our attackers, those who often crowded the corner of the pitch in front of me and my camera, to be the focus of my attention. We moved the ball well in that corner, with Hazard, Hudson-Odoi and Willian often involved. A lofted ball from Luiz – did someone mention “quarterback” or did that phrase die with David Beckham’s retirement? – fell for Kante but he was unable to reach it. Our star David was involved in his own box, shoulder-charging away Deulofeu, much to the chagrin of the now roused home support. Goal scoring chances were rare in this opening third of the second-half.

Just before the hour mark, a cute chipped pass from Jorginho – hurrah! – played in Hazard. He appeared to be sandwiched twixt defender and ‘keeper. In the end he was  unceremoniously bundled over by Foster, who seemed to push him. The referee Martin Atkinson had an easy decision.

Penalty.

Our Eden waited and waited before sending the goalie to his left. Eden went the other way.

Watford 1 Chelsea 2.

Eden was now up to one-hundred and one Chelsea goals.

For much of his career at our club, Hazard’s tag line could well have been “Eden : Everything But The Goal”  but things are hopefully changing. And maybe for longer than just this season.

Chelsea were in full voice again.

Willian, who was steadily improving throughout the second-half scraped the post. Then Kante swiped at goal from outside the box, but his shot went narrowly wide. Although there were not huge amounts of quality on display, the game certainly had enough going on to keep my interest. I was enjoying it. With just one goal between the teams, there was always an edge to the game.

Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic on seventy-eight minutes. We needed to solidify the midfield.

A magnificent ball, a reverse pass, into the box from David Luiz – to whom, I cannot remember – was sublime.

A few more chances fell to Chelsea – punctuated by the substitution of Hudson-Odoi by Emerson, an injury? – came and went with both Willian and Hazard still both driving on deep into the night, and there was more action in our corner in the last moments. Out came the trusty Canon again.

Willian had been involved more and more in the last twenty minutes. On more than one occasion, I saw him breathing heavily, clearly exhausted. He had clearly put in a mighty shift. There is little to choose between Willian and Pedro, but for as long as the manager disregards Morata and Giroud, a decision does not need to be made. The trio of Hazard, Pedro and Willian will suffice. For now we can even call them The Three Wise Men.

Very late chances for Jorginho, Willian and Hazard, had they been converted, would have flattered us a little.

On this night in Watford, a one goal lead would suffice.

At exactly the midway point in the campaign, and after the penultimate game of 2018, fourth place is ours.

See you at Palace.

Tales From Under The Christmas Lights

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 19 December 2018.

The final leg of the Budapest, Brighton and Bournemouth trilogy was taking place. PD picked me up from work at 3pm and we were soon on our way.

By an odd quirk of fate, we played Bournemouth at home in the quarter final of the League Cup on Wednesday 20 December 2017. Here we all were, almost a year on, replaying the same game. On the journey up to London, I had trouble remembering last season’s score.

“What was it? 2-0? 2-1?”

PD and LP weren’t sure either.

The three of us were in town again for yet another Chelsea home game (for the record, number 752 for me), but I admitted to my travelling companions that I was hardly very enthusiastic about it all. There was that odd mixture of “duty” for me to attend, and the worry of “guilt” should I have decided not to go.

But I was there, and we met up with one group of friends at “The Goose” – good to see Dave from Brisbane again after meeting him in Perth for the first time in July – and another group in “Simmons” – including Alex from NYC once more. A couple of beers managed to get me into the spirit.

Outside the West Stand, which was adorned with thousands of white Christmas lights again, I stopped by the Peter Osgood statue. The chance to take a selection of photographs of the King of Stamford Bridge at Christmas time against a glittering backdrop was difficult to resist. I had only taken a couple of photographs, when I was aware of two blokes standing close to me. One of them decided to “chat.”

“This your first visit to Stamford Bridge then, mate?”

I detected a definite sarcastic tone to his voice. I was guessing that he had swallowed the hackneyed view of tourists bringing cameras to Stamford Bridge, and as a result, not helping the atmosphere by constantly taking photographs. I looked like a sitting target. But it took me great pleasure to reply, in a deadpan voice.

“I’m a season ticket holder, mate.”

This took him back somewhat. But his friend would not be silenced. In an equally sarcastic tone, he asked if I always brought my camera to games.

“Yep. I take loads of photos.” And smiled.

They were defeated.

“Fair play to you, mate.”

“Cheers.”

Yep. I’m a season ticket holder. I take photos at games. But I also cheer and shout and try to get behind the boys. These activities are not mutually exclusive.

Rant over. As the kids say.

Inside Stamford Bridge, the place looked to be near capacity. A fantastic effort by all, especially in the week before Christmas.

The team was a mixture of first team regulars and those just outside the first choice eleven.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Christensen – Emerson

Kovacic – Fabregas – Barkley

Loftus-Cheek – Giroud – Willian

There were more fireworks and flames as the teams entered the pitch; it heightened the atmosphere a little, and seemed to be more fitting than at a midday kick-off.

On the previous night, Burton Albion and Manchester City had reached the semi-finals. I shuddered at the thought of a midweek trip to The Etihad in January; that trip would necessitate at least half a day off work, and would certainly test my support. Burton would be easier and a dream draw; a new stadium at last. I remembered our semi-final against Wycombe Wanderers in 2007 and wondered if there might be some sort of repeat. Over in North London, Arsenal were meeting Tottenham. The semi-finals were calling.

The game began with a nice little buzz in the stands and on the pitch. We began well, with tons of movement and passing. Willian was involved with one or two efforts. Ross Barkley tested the Cherries’ goalkeeper Artur Boruc too. We were certainly on the front foot.

The away support, not many shy of 3,000, were far from loud but were getting behind their team, which had former blue Nathan Ake in their side.

“Come on Bournemouth, come on Bournemouth.”

Some Chelsea supporters chose to repeat this, but with a twist.

“Fuck off Bournemouth, fuck off Bournemouth.”

Blimey. Telling Bournemouth to fuck off is like telling your gran to fuck off. They are the most benign and inoffensive football club. Giroud was often involved in the first period, often as provider in addition to finisher. The away time rarely threatened with just a lone effort from Callum Wilson going wide.

There was a little tendency to overpass, and I longed for an occasional early ball to cause havoc in the Bournemouth half. An effort from Giroud fizzed in. On the half-hour, a lightening break which was a lovely reminder of us at our best under Antonio Conte, resulted in Willian going close, but a Boruc save. At the other end, Mousset threatened our goal.

I am always keen to spot players’ trademarks.

I have often mentioned the John Terry chest pass, the Frank Lampard thumbs up run, the David Luiz full body jump dummy to one side, the manic Pedro run, the Willian burst, the Hazard 180 degree turn.

I now realised that the Ross Barkley trademark is the dragging of the ball back while reversing, using the studs to shuffle the ball backwards.

It was goal-less at the break. Meanwhile, over in Holloway, Tottenham were 1-0 up with a goal from Son.

“He always shines on TV” I muttered to Alan and Alan glowered at me in return.

Into the second-half, our dominance continued. A storming run from Loftus-Cheek brought the crowd into the game, and a shot went narrowly wide. Ten minutes into the second forty-five, Pedro replaced Willian. Soon after, Eden Hazard replaced Barkley. We evidently needed to require on the mercurial talents of our Belgian magician. The Bournemouth substitute Ryan Fraser added some pace down the Bournemouth left and on a few occasions the ball fizzed around our penalty area, but luckily there was nobody in the right position to prod home.

At around the seventieth minute, the game became stretched with more space available. At the other end, there was an appeal for a Bournemouth penalty when the ball struck Dave, but from my absolutely perfect position ninety yards away, it was plainly not a penalty.

The Chelsea pressure continued. Hazard set up Loftus-Cheek with an audacious flick, but Ruben’s low cross went begging. A low shot from Hazard was tame and Boruc easily saved.

David Luiz replaced Andreas Christensen with ten minutes to go.

With the clock ticking, and with Spurs now 2-0 up at Arsenal, our domination paid off. Bodies were massing down our left-wing as Pedro advanced before playing the ball to Eden. The ball was returned to Pedro, and the ball somehow found Hazard who smashed at the goal. The ball was deflected, but the pace enabled the ball to crash into the net.

A “whoop” from me as I then snapped away like a fool. I had missed the David Luiz celebration in the same corner against Manchester City, but the players made up for it this time. Emerson had chosen to leave the ball for Eden as the ball was played back by Pedro in the build-up to the goal and the two players spun away together in some sort of mating dance, eyes popping, smiles wide, arms outstretched.

There is nothing like a late winner, even in the League Cup. The Stamford Bridge crowd roared.

With two minutes remaining, Eddie Howe brought on Jermain Defoe. As he sprinted on to the pitch, I leaned forward and spoke to the lads in front.

“Not that word. Not that word.”

They smiled.

In previous years, the entrance of the former Tottenham player would have elicited a knee-jerk response from sections of the home crowd and the Pavlovian spouting of a word which has been on everyone’s mind since Budapest last week. But, fair’s fair, there was nothing. Nothing at all. After Brighton at the weekend, we had passed another test.

Good stuff, Chelsea.

In the last couple of minutes, Boruc made two fine stops, the second a sublime save from Olivier Giroud, an absolute stunner. The referee had signalled four minutes of extra-time. I packed up my camera and grabbed the match programme, and made my way to the exit on ninety-four minutes. But the game did not want to stop. Into five minutes of added time, we gave away a free-kick on the edge of the box. Everyone who was leaving stopped and we watched, nervously. Boruc raced up from his usual position. The ball was played in, but was not cleared. The ball was sent on a ricocheting journey around the box, like pinball, but thankfully the ball was not slotted home. I was expecting a Bournemouth player to slam it in.

Soon after, the whistle blew.

Phew.

Into the semi-final we went.

I recently mentioned the euphoric scenes which greeted our win against Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup quarter final in 1985, when the Stamford Bridge stadium was bouncing with shouts of “we’re going to Wembley, we’re going to Wembley, you ain’t, you ain’t” aimed at our great rivals from South Yorkshire. Nobody wanted to leave the ground. The place was jumping.

In 2018, we reached our thirtieth semi-final since 1985 – almost one per season – and we slid out, with hardly a sound after the initial roar at the final whistle.

Success, eh?

I slept on the way home. When I awoke, somewhere on Salisbury Plain, probably near Stonehenge, the lads told me that we had drawn Tottenham in the semis.

“Bollocks.”

Let’s all hope it is a repeat of the 1972 semi-final and not a repeat of the 2002 one.

On Saturday, it is back to Stamford Bridge – home game number 753 – for the visit of Leicester City.

I will see you there.

 

 

“The Shed looked up and they saw a great star.

Scoring goals past Pat Jennings from near and from far.

And Chelsea won, as we all knew they would.

And the star of that great team was Peter Osgood.

Osgood, Osgood, Osgood, Osgood.

Born is the King of Stamford Bridge.”