Tales From Classic Chelsea.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 4 February 2017.

I was not worried about this game. I was convinced that we would beat Arsenal. My optimism actually surprised me since I am not usually so gung-ho about matches against one of the top four, five or six. But this season, or more importantly at this moment of this season, I was not concerned one little bit. There is just something so inherently fragile about Arsenal. Their current form has dipped. Indeed, their last four visits to SW6 have all ended in defeat; we were aiming to make it five in a row.

The boys were keen to be in London as soon as possible. I awoke to the confirmation that we would be repeating the day’s game against Arsenal in Beijing during the summer. Sign me up for that. My mate Glenn is keen too.

Chelsea fans in move to China shock.

Everything was fine and dandy as I collected The Fun Boy Three for our second game in five days; a lovely week of beer and football was continuing. We re-capped on the alcohol-induced highlights from Merseyside, and prepared for another – but much shorter – drinking session. We spoke how quiet the January transfer window had been in general. For our club, most of our activity involved players leaving. We said goodbye to Oscar – OK, in December – and Jon Obi Mikel, bound for China. On the last few days of the window, we heard confirmation that Branislav Ivanovic was off to Russia. That goal against Brentford was indeed his parting gift to us. They will all be missed. But these adjustments represented a purging of the squad, and we hoped that the arrival of Nathan Ake would be mirrored by other loanees returning. I was not concerned that no major signing took place. It underlined how happy everyone was with the current squad.

I was parked-up at just before 10am. We marched past around forty souls waiting in line for The Goose to open its doors at 10am and made a bee-line for “The Chelsea Pensioner.” I had hopes to meet up with a few friends from near and far. I was not disappointed. I last bumped into George and Petr – both from the Czech Republic – at the first game of the season, the friendly in Vienna against Rapid. They were ecstatic at being in town for such a high-profile game. Andy – from California – and his trusty beige jacket soon appeared and a few laughs were shared. He was again in town for one game only and it’s always a pleasure to see him. I briefly chatted to a group of young lads from New York, all bedecked in Chelsea bar scarves, knocking back lager like it had gone out of fashion. I asked if they had heard of the New York Blues, and was surprised to hear that they hadn’t. My guess that they were enjoying the beer in “The Pensioner” so much as they would have been under the drinking age back in the USA. Andy wondered how they had managed to get tickets. There was around ten in their group. An older couple seemed to be their chaperones. We presumed that they had stumped up for some sort of corporate package. I had a little chuckle to myself when two of them unveiled Stone Island tops.

File under “ah, bless.”

Anyway, I wished them well. When I was a young kid, standing on The Shed, I always loved how I was welcomed into the Chelsea family even though I was from Somerset, and there has never been any kind of London-only elitism about our club. At least domestically. These days, there is a certain wariness among the Chelsea support about our overseas fans. But I can spot “proper” fans a mile off. It’s a shame that the bona fide ones are lumped into the same category as half-and-half scarf wearing fools and those silent ones who don’t engage in our football culture of singing at games.

We popped next door to “The Fox & Pheasant” and met up with a few other mates. Lunchtime games still feel odd. I remembered a similar game from 2014 ; Arsene Wenger’s one thousandth game and Chelsea 6  Arsenal 0. What a game. What a memory. We were on fire that day. I had mentioned that an early goal in 2017 would settle us and I silently wondered if a similar score line might follow.

There was no surprise that Nemanja Matic continued to partner N’Golo Kante. There was simply no room for Cesc Fabregas. Elsewhere, Pedro got the nod over Willian. It would be our strongest team for sure.

Neil Barnett spoke about Branislav Ivanovic and also Frank Lampard, who had announced his retirement from football during the week. A large Lampard banner hung proudly from the Matthew Harding as the teams strode onto the pitch. A montage of Frank Lampard moments were shown on the TV screen.

His exploits have been well documented in these match reports.

As I wrote in Mark Worrall’s book in 2013, when speaking about his goal at Villa Park which took him to a record-breaking 203 Chelsea goals, “his professionalism, his dedication, his spirit and his strength are much admired by all. We love him to bits.”

My favourite Chelsea player remains Pat Nevin. The most loved Chelsea player is probably Peter Osgood. But our greatest-ever player may well be Frank Lampard.

Enjoy your retirement, Sir Frank.

For once, Arsenal had a few flags. One simply stated “The Arsenal. Never outgunned.”

Yeah, right.

I wasn’t sure why Wenger had not chosen Welbeck or Giroud to give a little support to Sanchez upfront but I hoped that the little forward would not create havoc. We looked a little nervous during the first few minutes to be quite honest. Alex Iwobi pounced on some sloppy defensive play and sent a low shot towards Thibaut Courtois. It edged wide but only after the slightest of deflections. It was a warning sign that things might not go all our own way. Arsenal continued to move the ball around well. We then managed to get hold of the ball and our football began to shine. Gary Cahill rose unhindered at the far post but headed down and not towards the Arsenal goal.

There was a moment when the ball broke and both Eden Hazard and Pedro, out of position really, were running at the same Arsenal defender. I imagined a white flag being waved amid howls of pain.

On twelve minutes, we worked the ball out to Pedro and his magnificent cross was met by a high leap by Diego Costa. His powerful header crashed against the top of the bar. The ball spun up and seemed take forever to descend. Peter Cech was still scrambling back to his feet as Marcos Alonso sped in and headed the ball in. The crowd roared our pleasure. There was that early goal. Full credit to our left wingback to get his arse inside the box for a potential “second ball.”

One nil to Chelsea.

There was a break in play as Bellerin, laid asunder by Alonso’s challenge, was replaced by Gabriel.

Diego Costa caused the net to ripple with an angled drive.

We began to purr and enjoyed some gorgeous possession. Kante and Matic set a lot of our tone by winning plenty of loose balls, getting under Arsenal’s skin, tackling hard, then moving the ball quickly. We were relentless. This pace of ours was wonderful to watch. Eden Hazard was another on top form. One dribble out of defence was exceptional. Pedro buzzed around and never stood still. At the back, the chosen three were again playing supremely. Luiz was majestic, defending well, and releasing a few early balls for Diego. Dave was another who chased and tackled with such great desire. One Gary Cahill cushioned chest pass back to Thibaut surely had JT smiling in admiration.

I lost count of the amount of times that Arsenal were robbed of possession not by one Chelsea player but the contributions of two team mates working together.

Kante rushing to get close to Ozil, not actually tackling him or getting a touch on the ball, but putting the Arsenal player under so much pressure, that the subsequent heavy touch was pounced upon by Matic.

Chelsea hunting in packs; “unleashing the dogs” as a neighbour used to say to describe the Manchester United midfield of twenty years ago. Despite our dominance Courtois did well to push away a header from Gabriel, a defender so ugly that he makes Martin Keown look like a member of a boy band, and there was an even better save, low, to deny Ozil. It was a fine game of football.

The three thousand Arsenal supporters were very quiet. Apart from one “WWYWYWS?” there were a couple of monotone “Aaaaaaarsenal, Aaaaaaarsenal” dirges and that was about it.

Diego Costa continued to lead the line well as the second-half began. One shot was saved well by Petr Cech.

Seven minutes into the second-half, we were able to witness one of the very great Chelsea goals. And it was very much a typical – a classic – Chelsea goal. David Luiz cleared an Arsenal punt up field with a cushioned clearance towards Diego Costa. Facing his own goal and inside his own half, he did so well to flick the ball on, under pressure, to Eden Hazard. Eden, a few yards inside his own half, turned and set off. He raced away, his low centre of gravity allowing him to shake off challenges en route. One defender, Coquelin, spun off him like a drunken dancer, and as he continued his high-paced drive towards goal, there was widespread panic in the Arsenal defence akin to that experienced by children when they lose their mothers in supermarkets. We watched, hearts in mouths – me with my camera quickly brought up to my eye – and watched as he bore in on goal. It was a one-man onslaught. One final shake of the hips that Elvis Presley would have been proud, and Eden had slalomed the last two chasing defenders. He dinked the ball past the falling Cech and the Earth seemed to jolt off its axis.

I caught his beatific dance towards the far corner on camera, but inside my heart was pounding, and I felt myself smiling wide.

Click, click, click, click.

I hope that you like them.

At last, that stubborn old fucker Wenger brought on Olivier Giroud who must surely be the doyen of every self-obsessed, hipster, bar-scarf wearing, micro-brewery loving, metrosexual, sleeked back hair, bushy bearded and self-righteous Arsenal supporter everywhere. Sanchez had been remarkably quiet. On came Danny Welbeck too. Wenger, watching from the stands for this game, is now a parody of himself these days. He is surely losing his most devout fans at Arsenal. He’s just such an odd character. And I really mean odd. Just look at the way he has always celebrated goals. Not the natural outpouring of emotion of most football types; instead the delayed, queasy, fist-punch, that doesn’t fool anyone. I have a feeling for all of his alleged passion for football, I am sure he would rather be at home, sorting his socks alphabetically. He is the sort of person who eats his Sunday roast in order of nutrional value.

A cross into our box was met by Welbeck, and his strong downward header was surely headed for the goal. Not a bit of it. Thibaut dived low to his right and pushed the ball away. It looked world class to me. I instantly likened it to the Banks save against Brazil in 1970. It certainly looked similar. It was a stunning save.

In the closing moments, Antonio Conte replaced Pedro with Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard with Willian.

The applause rang out all around The Bridge.

Shortly after, in a moment of pure melodrama, Petr Cech made a complete hash of an attempted clearance. The ball darted straight towards Fabregas, who quickly lobbed the ball back towards the empty net. Time seemed to stand still yet again. Initially, I thought the chip was too high, but – no – the ball perfectly dropped into the goal. I roared again but watched as Cech turned in dismay. There was no celebration from the scorer against his former team. I felt for Cech – just a little – but not for long. What a surreal and farcical moment it was.

We were three-up and had therefore mirrored the infamous 0-3 score line at The Emirates in the autumn, a result which helped define our season, not that we knew it at the time. I still look back on the four of us, utterly distraught, sitting on a bench at Paddington Station, completely silent, and saddened by our display, unwilling to look too far into our future as the strongest memory – emotion wise – of our whole season this far.

Diego, who I thought was magnificent during the second-half, sadly blasted high after a fine run.

4-0 would have helped us forget the 0-3 further.

Kurt Zouma replaced the tireless Victor Moses and soon had a little run at the Arsenal defence himself. What a laugh this game was truly turning out to be.

Bizarrely, Arsenal scored. Giroud put down his skinny macchiato and headed in from close range.

3-1.

Oh well.

Our amazing season continues on. All of our players were simply sensational. Our crazy manager didn’t sit the entire time; he was a picture of constant involvement. He is such an endearing character. When Eden scored his phenomenal solo-goal, a beaming Roman Abramovich was briefly shown celebrating in his executive box. This was clearly the type of football that he has always wanted to see at Chelsea. And it is a brand of football that clearly makes me happy; skillful, high-tempo, passionate, emotional, relentless. It takes my breath away. I’d like to think it is a hark-back to previous styles of football played at Stamford Bridge. The ‘sixties, the early-‘seventies, 1976/1977, 1983/1984, 2004/2005.

Classic Chelsea.

Back in the car, we listened as Hull City beat Liverpool and quickly did some mathematics.

“If we win at Burnley and Liverpool beat Tottenham next weekend, we’ll be twelve points clear of them.”

I’ll drink to that. See you all at Turf Moor.

img_2698

Tales From The Top Of The Pyramid.

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 26 December 2016.

There was a time when Boxing Day crowds were the largest of them all. It was a general rule of thumb that the much-loved FA Cup tended to produce gates which were bigger than domestic League games, and that the crowds which poured through the turnstiles on December 26th each season tended to produce the highest attendance figures each year.

Of course, these days in the user-friendly, high-octane, internationally-branded, ultra-commercialised and well-loved world of English football – or at least the Premiership, the pinnacle at the top of the league pyramid – gates are usually sell-outs, with near-capacity crowds commonplace. These days, Boxing Day games are – sadly – just another game. Sure, there is the tingle of football the day after Christmas Day, but that extra-special buzz of the game being one of the biggest days of the season has largely gone.

The FA computer has tended to give us home games on recent Boxing Days. Our 2016/2017 appointment with Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth would be our tenth home game on Boxing Day in thirteen seasons (in 2010/2011, there was no game on Boxing Day.) This suits me. I’d rather travel to SW6 on the day after Christmas than have to drive to other points of the compass. On Boxing Day 2012, the computer paired us with Norwich City and I just could not be arsed. But I haven’t missed too many over the past twenty seasons. In 2014, I stayed at home and missed a home game with West Ham United, in order to spend a last Boxing Day with my dear mother.

Boxing Day 2016 gave us the chance to win a club-record twelfth consecutive league game.

Would we do it?

The mood in the Chuckle Bus was positive.

A few games back, I talked about the chance to win our five games against West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and Stoke City, but never really expected it to happen. But here we were on the cusp of twelve, maybe thirteen.

With Costa and Kante out, it seemed obvious to us who Conte would bring in.

“Batshuayi and Fabregas – easy.”

It seemed odd that we were playing at 3pm on a Boxing Day. Often our games are early kick-offs. In the pubs beforehand, it took a while for things to get busy. Ironically, we live three hours away, but have easier journeys in than Londoners on Boxing Day, with public transport so severely hit.

We popped into “The Goose”, “The Pensioner” and “The Fox & Pheasant.” There were drinks with friends from near and far.

Rob was celebrating the fortieth anniversary of his first-ever Chelsea match, give or take the odd day. Like me, Rob was eight when he saw us play for the very first time. His match was the iconic home game against local rivals Fulham in a Second Division fixture. The attendance that day has become more famous with every passing season. Although we won 2-0, the gate of 55,003 won all of the awards. As an eleven-year-old schoolboy, it amazed and thrilled me that my club could draw such numbers for a game in the second tier of English football. Ironically, it was our last-ever home gate of over 50,000. But it is typical of the size of crowd that was enticed to football stadia over the Christmas period.

Another example of this is a game that I attended, and again against Fulham, and which took place in December 1982. We were dire at the time, sinking fast towards the relegation zone, and previous home gates numbered 6,903, 8,184 and 8,690. The game against Fulham, who were enjoying a fantastic season, drew a gate of 29,797. I was ecstatic that we could pull such numbers. I can remember that I watched from The Shed – it was a 0-0 draw – and I can still remember standing out in the forecourt at the end of the game waiting for my parents to appear from their seats in the East Upper. Thousands of fellow fans streamed past before I spotted my parents. I was numbed – and again thrilled – that so many people could be lured from their warm and cosy homes to watch us in the second tier.

Moments like that evidently stick with me.

We were able to talk to a few friends from the US – John from Los Angeles, Nick from Fresno and Austin from Houston – and it’s always a joy to see their obvious enthusiasm. It would be Nick’s first-ever game at Stamford Bridge.

Chris 1974, Rob 1976, Nick 2016. It goes on.

The team news broke through and we were pretty shocked.

No Batshuayi.

Glenn summed things up : “That will do nothing for the young lad’s confidence. He obviously doesn’t rate him.”

I told Austin of my feelings : “I’ve only just got my head around 3-4-3, I can’t get my head around this false nine stuff.”

It has never convinced me.

I wondered if it would be like ninety minutes of foreplay.

And if so, would we keep a clean sheet?

We walked along Fulham Road – from the East, it doesn’t happen too often – and it was magnificent to be out and about on such a crisp, bright and expectant Boxing Day.

Here was the buzz that I was hoping for. Fantastic.

As the day would progress, I would be keeping an eye on my local team Frome Town’s progress at home to Basingstoke Town in the seventh tier of our national game. It would be a good day for gates in that league too. Frome are currently in sixth place – a highest-ever league position in 112 years.

Bournemouth had brought a full three-thousand. There was a full house, or as near as could be expected. A few no-shows. The Peter Osgood banner in The Shed always seems more relevant over Christmas.

“BORN IS THE KING.”

Eddie Howe’s team are known for their football being played “the right way” but for the first fifteen minutes his players pushed, hacked, tripped and clipped anyone in royal blue. The ire of the home fans rose with each bad challenge. At last, Jack Wilshere was booked for an assault on Eden Hazard.

The atmosphere inside Stamford Bridge was typical of a Boxing day of late; morgue-like. A loud and proud chant of “Red Army” was repeated rhythmically from the far corner and the home support momentarily responded with song.

It was all Chelsea for the majority of the first quarter of the game, with Moses and Pedro creating chances, but with no real threat on goal. Bournemouth were unsurprisingly packing their defence, but on twenty-four minutes, we were treated to a little Christmas magic. Cesc Fabregas touched the ball to Pedro, who was hemmed in, with red and black shirts ahead of him. He twisted, created a little space and chipped the ball, with pace, up and over Artur Boruc. I watched open-mouthed as the ball hit the net.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

Just after, the loathed Wilshere broke into a little space inside our box and forced a fine save from Thibaut Courtois. For all of our attacking prowess over the past few months, Thibaut has been as good as any. In the match programme, there was a sublime photograph, taken at pitch level behind the goal, of his finger-tipped save at Sunderland.

Hazard broke from deep, twisting and turning like a snake, and was creating merry hell for Howe’s players. Just as impressive was Pedro, a picture of relentless motion, never still, always moving. We gasped as a loose ball on the edge of the box was met by a rabona from Hazard. The shot was aiming for the top corner but Boruc was able to claw it away. Wilshere then followed up from a blocked Bournemouth free-kick but thankfully his low shot was cleared. This was turning into a fine game of football. Matic was impressing me with his tackling and tracking. Willian was full of energy. There were, however, a number of times that a ball fizzed across the box yelling out for a Diego Costa touch.

Rob, the birthday boy, sits just a few rows behind me in the MHU, ironically on roughly the same piece of terra firma that he watched forty years ago, and he wanted me to take a candid photo of him on his anniversary.

“I want it you to take it without me knowing, au naturel.”

“Well, I’m not taking my clothes off for you or anyone, Rob.”

Shortly after, I snapped away.

A Fabregas free-kick just cleared the bar.

Just before half-time, the referee Mike Jones allowed Bournemouth to play the advantage after a foul, but after a shot was hit high and wide, he annoyed us all by giving them a free-kick too. Howls of derision were still ringing around the stadium as the resulting shot hit the wall.

At half-time, Frome were 0-1 down.

There were still crisp blue skies overhead as the second-half began. A typical run from Eden Hazard deep in to the Bournemouth penalty area caused Simon Francis to make a clumsy challenge. Eden calmly slotted the penalty home, low to Boruc’ left.

We were 2-0 up and coasting now. The atmosphere had not exactly been tense, but at last we could relax a little. The twelfth win in a row was on the cards. Our play remained high quality. Shots from Hazard, Moses and Willian came close. We hounded Bournemouth when they had possession, and broke with menace when we were able to steal the loose ball.

Although Hazard was showing – dare I say it – world class form, Pedro really caught the eye with his energetic display. Willian, though not able to create a great deal, was able to support his team mates well. Fabregas was a calming presence throughout. On more than one occasion I was mesmerized by our one-touch football. At the back, David Luiz was again exceptional.

The Shed, especially, had a great second-half, with a constant array of songs. On one or two occasions, their noise threatened to envelope the entire stadium. The Matthew Harding showed willing, but the spectators in the East and West Stand were still waiting for formal introductions to take place before joining in.

I’m certainly not a fan of the dirge-like “Chelsea Till I Die” song though; myself and a few mates always said that it used to be sung by middling teams from lower divisions. It’s hardly sung by any of the bigger teams. Let Birmingham City, Derby County and Ipswich Town have it. It’s not a Chelsea song. It was, if I am honest, the very first time that I can ever remember it being sung loudly enough at Stamford Bridge for me to hear it. Which is why I mention it now.

There was one lovely moment towards the end of the game. Fabregas had been fouled and fell right in the path of Eden. Rather than stop and await the referee’s whistle, Eden just flicked the ball over Cesc’s body. What a giggle.

In a rare attack from Bournemouth, substitute Afobe’s low shot was superbly blocked by Courtois. Every one of our damn players are playing at such a high level.

Time was moving on, and it looked like our domination was only being rewarded with two goals.

Glenn wanted another one, to aid our goal difference.

I turned to him and said “I am bloody convinced that we will score a late third.”

Lo and behold, a run from Pedro, the ball seemingly attached to his boots, ended up with a twist and a shot. The ball struck a defender and Boruc was stranded. The ball crept over the line, but there was that third goal.

Perfect.

Chelsea and Kensington 3 Bournemouth and Boscombe 0.

Chalobah had replaced Willian on 83 minutes, Aina had replaced Moses on 89 minutes, but Batshuayi only saw around five seconds of action after replacing Pedro on 94 minutes. It seemed almost cruel. But who are we to grumble? Our fears of the false nine were unfounded, and Antonio Conte continues to enchant us all with his team selections.

I can’t really believe that I am saying this, but let’s go for win number thirteen. Stoke City will present a different test, but with N’Golo and Diego back, I am confident.

Down in Somerset, Frome had managed to nab a 1-1 draw against Basingstoke. The gate was a fine 366, compared to a season average of 225. Elsewhere in that Southern League, on a day of mainly local derbies, a huge 2,033 saw Dorchester Town play Weymouth, and there were also similarly large gates at Leamington (805), Merthyr (784), Kettering Town (656). In fact, all games drew larger-than-normal crowds. Our national game is healthy, and no team is healthier right now than ours.

Let’s enjoy it.

img_1394-3

Tales From Firework Night.

Chelsea vs. Everton : 5 November 2016.

Everton have an atrocious record against us in the league at Stamford Bridge. We have not lost to them since Paul Rideout gave them a 1-0 win in November 1994, a game which marked the opening of the then North Stand. It is an unbeaten record which stretches back twenty-two consecutive seasons. If it wasn’t for our home record against Tottenham – twenty-six years unbeaten – then this is the one that everyone would be talking about.

So, we had that in our favour. The cumulative effect of all that misery would surely have some part to play on Everton’s performance; among their fans for sure, who must be well and truly fed-up with their trips to SW6 over the years. The Evertonians never seem to make too much noise at Chelsea. It is as if they have given up before the matches begin. But Everton would be no mugs. Ever since they jettisoned Roberto Martinez for Ronald Koeman, they have looked a far more convincing team.

For some reason, I kept thinking back to a game against Everton in Jose Mourinho’s first season with us. Almost to the day, twelve years previously, Everton had provided a tough test for us as we strode to top the division for the very first time that season. I remember a lone Arjen Robben strike at the near post at the Shed End after a sprint into the box. We won 1-0 that day and went top. The excitement in the packed stands was palpable. It was a great memory from 2004/2005. We would hardly look back the rest of that momentous season.

Fast-forward to 2016/2017. We went in to the game with Everton in fourth place and with a chance – albeit slim – to go top once again. However, once heavily-fancied Manchester City were at home to lowly Middlesbrough at 3pm, and I fully expected City to win that one.

But we live in a place called hope, and there was a chance that City might slip up.

We had heard that the team was again unchanged; no surprises there.

I was in the stadium at just after 5pm. I didn’t want to miss the club’s salute to the fallen, ahead of next week’s Remembrance Day.

There was a cold chill in the air, and we waited for the stands to fill. How different to the “pay on the gate” days of the old terraces, when the stadium would be virtually full a good half-an-hour before kick-off for the big games; this always added to the sense of occasion and the anticipation. There even used to be singing from the terraces before the teams came out.

I know – crazy days, eh?

The lights dimmed with about five minutes to go. Instead of the focus being singularly on Remembrance Day, the club had decided to celebrate Guy Fawkes’ Night with some fireworks being set off into the London night from atop the East and West Stands.

The air crackled to the sound of the detonations, and the night sky turned white.

It was over in a few moments, a few flashes.

The smell of sulphur lingered. For a few moments, Stamford Bridge seemed to be hosting a proper London Fog of yesteryear. I almost spotted Hughie Gallacher, a ghost from the foggy ‘thirties, appeal for a penalty, pointing with rage at a referee.

And then, the “Chelsea Remembers” flag, including two poppies either side of the club crest, appeared down below in the Matthew Harding Lower. The teams entered the pitch, with the striking scarlet tunics of two Chelsea Pensioners leading the way.

There was applause.

And then there was silence as the teams stood in in the centre-circle.

A moment of solemn remembrance.

Perfect.

At the shrill sound of the referee’s whistle, a thunderous boom from the stands.

I’m not sure, with hindsight, if it was right and proper to combine both a celebration of Firework Night and Remembrance Day. Did the former detract from the latter? I think so.

We had heard that, miraculously, Middlesbrough had equalised at Eastlands. The chance for us to go top was back “on.”

I love days like these.

The game began and there was hardly an empty seat in the house. Even at games which are advertised as “sold out” it is always possible to see a fair few empty seats. Not on this occasion. In the first few moments, we were able to be reunited with Romelu Lukaku, whose shoulders are as wide as the African tectonic plate. He had a few runs at our defence, but all was well in the vaunted back-three.

His partner upfront soon drew a comment from Alan alongside me :

“Bolasie – go home.”

We began playing the ball around with ease. I noted that even Gary Cahill now looked totally comfortable playing the ball out of defence.

The coldness of the early evening had resulted in a few players wearing gloves. Alan was soon grumbling.

“Short-sleeved shirts and gloves. What’s all that about?”

“Reminds me of me doing the washing up, Al.”

We were warming up to a sixty-second blitz. Out wide on the left, Eden Hazard received the ball. As is his wont, he took on a couple of Everton defenders and shimmied inside. A little voice inside my head doubted if he could score from so far out. I need not have worried one iota. A low shot beat Stekelenburg at the far post.

“YEEEEEEESSSSSS.”

I jumped up and bellowed my approval, and I soon spotted Eden run over towards the Chelsea bench, and then get engulfed by players. Conte was in and among them. What joy. I’m amazed how defenders allow Hazard to cut inside. Surely their pre-match planning was to show him outside.

In the very next move, Hazard played the ball into space for Pedro to run onto. His square pass evaded Diego, but Marcos Alonso was on hand to smash the ball home.

We were 2-0 up on just twenty minutes, and playing some wonderful football.

A lofted chip from Alonso picked out the late run of Victor Moses, whose hard volley crashed against the outside of the near post.

We were purring.

Our one touch football was magnificent. Everyone looked comfortable on the ball. Everyone worked for each other. There was so much more movement than in previous campaigns. It was as if a switch had been pressed.

A corner was swung in and Matic eased it on. The ball conveniently fell at the feet of the waiting Diego Costa. He wasted no time in slamming it in.

Chelsea 3 Everton 0.

Wow.

I leaned over and spoke to Alan : “I think we are safe now.”

Just before the break, Pedro worked an opening but shot wide. Then, well inside his own half, a sublime turn by the effervescent Pedro released Diego Costa. It seemed that every single one of us in the ground was on our feet and willing him on. He broke away, evaded his defenders, but shot wide when I had spotted a Chelsea player square. This was breathless stuff this.

Quite magical.

We were leading 3-0 and it so easily could have been 5-0.

Total domination.

Everton were simply not in it.

I commented to Alan, PD and Bournemouth Steve : “That’s one of the best halves of football I have ever seen here.”

This really was sublime stuff. A keenness to tackle, and to retrieve the ball, and an incredible array of flicks and touches to keep the momentum once in possession. We were unstoppable.

I noted that a fair few hundred Evertonians had vacated their seats after the third goal. Their creditable three thousand would dwindle further as the game progressed.

I spoke to Kev and Anna : “In all the time that Mourinho was in charge here, we never ever played free-flowing football as good as that.”

They agreed.

Soon in to the second-half, we were treated to another gem. Diego had already threatened the Everton goal on two occasions, but we were soon treated to another Hazard gem. He played a crafty one-two with Pedro, who back-heeled the ball in his path, and advanced. With that low centre of gravity, he just glided forward. This time, his left foot guided the ball just inside the Everton near post. The ‘keeper hardly moved.

What a finish. It amazed me.

Chelsea 4 Everton 0.

Super stuff.

Eden raced back towards his team mates, his tongue out, smiling, in a perfect moment. I noticed that all ten outfield players surrounded him in a close huddle. At the Shed End, Thibaut Courtois had hoisted himself on to the cross bar and had performed a handstand, with a back somersault on dismount. He was bored. It gave him something to do.

The Stamford Bridge crowd were on fire, and a new chant soon echoed around the stadium.

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

Simple but effective and so much better than that other one. The manager, raised his arms and clapped all four stands. It was his moment just as much as ours. Lovely stuff.

And still it continued.

A delightful back-heel from Eden and another lofted cross from Alonso resulted in a spectacular volley from Diego which was well saved by Stekelenburg.

I whispered to Steve : “Alonso has been fantastic – so much energy.”

On sixty-five minutes, Diego broke from the halfway line, showing great strength to race away from two markers, and strode on. He set up Eden who forced the ‘keeper to parry. The ball dropped at the feet of Pedro.

Bosh.

5-0.

Oh my oh my.

There was still twenty-five minutes to go and we were leading 5-0.

Oscar replaced Pedro, who received a standing ovation; he had been wonderful. Oscar dolloped a lovely ball for Diego to run on to, but the ball got stuck under his feet and the chance went begging. David Luiz volley from an angle forced Stekelenburg to tip over. Luiz had enjoyed another fine game. His series of “keepy-uppies” and a nonchalant pass to a waiting team mate drew warm applause.

And all through this demolition job, Antonio Conte did not sit for one minute. He paced the technical area, coaxing and cajoling his team to greater deeds. It was amazing to watch.

Everton were leggy and I almost felt sorry for them. They had been swept aside by a Chelsea whirlwind.

Conte, to my surprise, added Batshuayi to play alongside Costa. By this time, only a few hundred Evertonians were still in the stadium. I bet that they were not happy about us playing with an extra man in attack.

“Leave it out, la.”

Batshuayi replaced Eden.

It had been a perfect display from Eden. He had been simply unplayable.

A perfect ten.

We applauded him as loudly as anyone that I can remember in living memory.

Moses cut inside and Stekelenburg fumbled, but the ball stayed close to him. John Terry replaced Gary Cahill and soon played a superb faded ball through with his left foot, but we were flagged for offside.

It remained 5-0.

Five bloody nil.

Superb.

Maybe the club should have saved some fireworks for the end of this particular game. It would have ended the evening’s entertainment perfectly.

There had been a gathering of the clans in the pubs around Stamford Bridge before the game; Dave the Hat from France, Kevin and Richard from Edinburgh, Bob from California. I am sure that they, and everyone else, had loved every damn minute of it.

On the drive home, PD, Parky and myself were euphoric. Rarely had we played better. Sure, there have been more dramatic games of football, and more hard-fought victories, often resulting in silverware, but this one was so special. Everton had hardly had an attempt on goal the entire game. They are no slouches, but we could have won 8-0.

As I drove into the night, with fireworks exploding into the sky, I was reminded of a few other games where I had come away from Stamford Bridge, thinking “that was almost perfect.”

A 6-0 against Newcastle United in 1980 with two old-fashioned wingers and a beautiful “feel good factor” which lasted for weeks. The football had been wonderful.

A 4-0 against Newcastle United in 1983, when the John Neal team produced a near-perfect performance. Newcastle had been favourites for promotion but we were so dominant that day.

A 5-0 against Middlesbrough in 1996, and a fantastic show of one-touch football under Glenn Hoddle. A game which got the media talking and which made me feel energised for many weeks.

Since then, of course, we have enjoyed ridiculous riches, and I can rattle off many memorable games at Stamford Bridge. Three against Barcelona, a few against Liverpool, a few against Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United. But there was not a dramatic change in our playing style in any of those games.

But those three from 1980, 1983 and 1996, and the one against Everton on Firework Night 2016, seemed different; they signified that there was something fresh happening, that we had set new benchmarks for the future.

Incredible.

Remember remember the fifth of November?

We certainly won’t forget the one in 2016.

img_0336

Tales From The New Blueprint.

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 30 October 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a giggle.

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

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

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

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

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

“A win would be fantastic.”

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

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

A mixture of wild celebration and “howthefuckdidhedothat?”

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

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

Saints 0 Sinners 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a strike.

The away end roared.

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

Click, click, click.

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

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

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victor Moses blasted a pile-driver right at Forster.

There were a few late changes from the manager.

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

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

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

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

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

“Another clean sheet, chaps.”

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

And a hugely important win.

The top five teams are now tightly-packed.

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

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

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

Four wins. Four clean sheets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is going to be a great season.

img_0225

Tales From A Simple Saturday.

Chelsea vs. Burnley : 27 August 2016.

Oh dear. How soon people forget. It wasn’t long into the journey to Stamford Bridge that – despite our struggles against most teams last season – I was heard to comment that I expected us to easily win our game against Burnley, despite their recent surprising 2-0 win against Liverpool. This was based on the assumption that our manager Antonio Conte had managed to reverse the malaise of the previous campaign, which in itself was based on a handful of pre-season games, a narrow win against Bristol Rovers, and two equally close victories in two league games. Two league games. My – our, the other three Chuckle Brothers shared my view – new found optimism in all things Chelsea was, really, based on our performances in just two league games.

After such a troublesome season in 2015/2016, I wondered if my optimism was misguided. Was I overdosing on positive-thought? Surely, there are no games in the top division these days which should be taken as lightly as I evidently was taking this one? The others had predicted theirs scores, and I don’t usually join in with these parlour games. I jokingly retorted “7-0”, not wishing nor wanting to be taken seriously.

As the day unfolded, I was to find out if all of this new-found confidence in the manager and team was warranted.

There was something strikingly satisfactory about the game against Burnley. It would start up a three-day bank holiday weekend and it was a three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. There is just something about this; the traditional kick-off time for all football games in the United Kingdom before the TV companies got their grubby hands on the TV schedules, sending fans off around the country to witness ridiculous games at ridiculous times in ridiculous places.

3pm, Saturday, simple.

Glenn and myself had our own little pub-crawl before the game. We started off with a quiet drink in the newly re-opened “Wellington” on Haldane Road, tucked away behind the busy North End Road. We recently heard that the landlords at “The Goose” (our regular pub, in the main, since around 1999, apart from a few months of exile in “The Mitre” and the “Fulham Dray”), were to leave at the end of September and I suppose there will be a chance we will move on too, if the new incumbents do not run the pub in the way that we have been accustomed with Lorraine and Reg.

We spoke about the transfer policy of the club, or lack thereof.

I almost feel that everyone within the Chelsea Nation feels – roughly – the same way about all of this, so I have nothing much to gain from sharing my own particular views.

Ake, Bamford, Christensen, plus twenty-three others, an A to Z of confusion and mess.

I just hope that Kurt Zouma – the last on the A to Z, but the first in my mind – recovers as soon as possible this autumn. Most fans recognise that we need extra bodies in defence, but if Kurt can recover soon, and it is the biggest worry that he will not, we might – just might – be able to get through all of this without spending typically silly money on a panic buy. Daryl and myself spoke about this on Tuesday. This was before the promising Ola Aina had a knock.

I mentioned to Glenn it is the strangest thing that with all of our Italian managers, dating back to 1998, we have never bought a tried and tested Italian defender, apart from the short-lived and unsuccessful loan of Christian Panucci in 1999. You would have thought that an Italian manager at Chelsea would love a trusted defender from his own country. They know how to defend, those Italians.

In The Goose, there was a cast of thousands, seeping out from the bar and into the packed beer garden. There was the usual alcohol-induced banter, apart from me, a miserable bastard on “Cokes.” Daryl was knocking out a nice line in new Chelsea badges, while Gary was chatting away to two South London “sorts” and was the subject of much piss-taking.

“They’re from my area, Chris; Croydon.”

“Oh nice – are you talking about chip shops you all frequent?”

Wayne pointed at Gary and said “he’s quite the magnet, isn’t he?”

“Yeah,” I said. “You’ll always find him near a fridge.”

There were a few – around twenty – claret-and-blue clad away fans in the beer garden, minding their own business. We wondered if, given that the most away fans pay for away games is now £30, they would take their full 3,000 allocation.

Glenn and I also called in to “The Malthouse,” just as the team came through on our phones, before continuing our walk to the stadium. We had heard on the grapevine that the “Lillie Langtry” at West Brompton had recently re-opened, and I noticed that the pub on Fulham Broadway previously known as “Brogan’s” has re-opened, or re-branded as they say these days, as “McGettigan’s.” It is a pub that I have only ever visited once and I don’t know of anyone that goes there. Odd. I guess we all have our favourites. If “The Goose” fails to impress, we might need to find alternatives.

As for the starting-eleven, Antonio Conte had kept Oscar instead of Fabregas and this surprised me, especially after his assists at Watford.

Courtois.

Brana – Gary – JT – Dave.

Kante.

Willian – Matic – Oscar – Hazard.

Diego.

There were a few spots of rain as we waited in line at the turnstiles this would soon pass. Inside, a quick glance over to The Shed, and only 1,500 Burnley fans.

Oh well, I have to remember how small the town of Burnley actually is. It has a smaller population – 73,000 – than places such as Bath, Gloucester and Eastbourne.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, Neil Barnett said a few nice words about Ian Britton, who sadly featured in these match reports last season.

I applauded his memory but the vast majority decided not to.

Thankfully there were no flames being thrown up in to the air from in front of the East Stand as the teams emerged. I looked over to see if Roman Abramovich was present. He had watched the Rovers game on Tuesday, with Andre Shevchenko sitting a few seats in front, but he was not able to be spotted for this game.

“Typical JCL, picking and choosing his games.”

It was a perfect afternoon for football.

For the second successive home league game, our opposition was in claret and blue. We hoped that Burnley would go the way of West Ham.

The pre-match drizzle had given the pitch an extra zip, and we were soon celebrating. With the game not even ten minutes old, Nemanja Matic released Eden Hazard inside his own half. He had the entire right flank of Burnley’s defence at his mercy and he drove on in to acres of space. He teased and toyed with his markers, but effortlessly drifted inside with his trademark drop of the shoulder and softly curled a beautiful low shot beyond the dive of goalkeeper Tom Heaton. As the team gathered around him to celebrate, he was soon to thank Diego Costa for a run which took the attention of other defenders away from his own run. It was textbook stuff.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

We were then treated to a period of sumptuous football from Chelsea, if not a little over-indulgent on occasion. Both Willian, stopping, then darting past his marker, on the right, and Hazard, gliding with 2014/2015 ease past everyone, were the main stars going forward, but that man Kante soon impressed me with his energy, work rate and industry. It would turn out to be a masterclass from him.

Burnley were simply not in it.

Hazard again went close. A Gary Cahill volley, which reminded me of that scissor-kick goal from JT at The Shed a few years back, was deflected for a corner. Dave went close. A Terry header was at Heaton.

With Kante anchoring the midfield, Matic was able to move further up the field. He needs to be teased out of his defensive shell. He needs support from everyone to reach his 2014/2015 level, when he was magnificent. Maybe we can help him. Support him. Cheer him on. That’s our job, right?

Fair play to their fans, though. From mid-way through the first-half for a good fifteen minutes, they supported their team well. They sang non-stop, presumably about the hated Blackburn Rovers, and it was a fine performance. I didn’t catch much of it, nor – more to the point – was able to decipher it, save for their most famous song.

“And it’s no nay never.

No nay never no more.

Till we play Bastard Rovers.

No never no more.”

I am sure that all of the other songs and chants uttered in thick Lancastrian were similarly aimed at the fans and players of Blackburn Rovers.

Songs about how the Burnley Womens’ Institute regularly get more gold medals in the Lancashire frock making competition than that of Blackburn. Chants about how the “Pig and Whistle” darts team in Burnley whip the arse of Blackburn’s “Red Rose” pub every year. Ditties extolling the virtues of the fair maidens of Burnley as opposed to the gin-addled whores of Blackburn. It’s a local vibe in that part of East Lancashire, alright.

Fantastic play between Willian and Oscar set up Diego, who shot low, and Heaton was able to parry. There was a little frustration, certainly within me, that our domination – total – was not being rewarded. Thankfully, we were soon to be rewarded with a deserved second goal. Diego had time to play a lateral ball out wide to Willian, who quickly assessed the situation. He moved the defender out of his way with a shake of the hips, then guided a low shot towards Heaton’s far post. It was a beautiful goal. It was what we had deserved.

Bloody lovely stuff, Chelsea.

Burnley – let me say – had been poor and it was not until the forty-second minute that they attempted a shot on goal. Scott Arfield, who had scored against us on that drizzle-filled day in Burnley in 2014 – ah that pass from Fabregas to Schurrle still warms me – banged in a low shot which fizzed past Thibaut Courtois’ far post.

At the break, all was well. We had played some sumptuous stuff at times. It could easily have been 4-0 at the break. Maybe my “7-0” would not be such a stupid remark after all.

As the second-half began, it was more of the same. High intensity everywhere across the midfield, and constant forays into the Burnley defence. Burnley were twisted this way and that. They probably didn’t know what day of the week it was. Diego failed to hit the corners of the goal after a fine passing move found him in the box. Heaton, a fine young goalkeeper, kept thwarting our efforts with a few fine saves. From a pin-point Willian corner, Hazard volleyed at goal, but Heaton saved well, down low, after probably seeing the ball late. John Terry blazed over, from inside the six-yard box, and we all wondered “how.”

Hazard broke in on goal once more, but another fine Heaton save, damn it.

Kante continued to impress during the second-half. It seems sacrilegious to even write these words, but this small, slight player, so much like Makelele in many respects, could even turn out to be a better player than our former midfield legend. I have mentioned it previously, but I love the way he wastes not one second of time in moving the ball on. He covers space, he tackles, he blocks, he hustles, he harries, he chases, he destroys. He is bloody magnificent.

Typically, a mere minute after I said to Alan “Kante has not put a foot wrong all day” he miss-played a simple pass to Diego.

The exception that proves the rule? Possibly.

With the end of the match approaching, I could hardly believe that Burnley had managed to keep it to 2-0. There was the usual flurry of late changes. With Willian having played well all game, he was given a good ovation when he was replaced by Victor Moses. Soon after Michy Batshuayi and Pedro replaced Diego and Hazard; much applause for them too.

Batshuayi made room for himself well, but blasted over, wildly. He needed ice in his veins at that last crucial moment. It looked like a third goal would be elusive.

At the death, I applauded the fact that Mark Clattenburg – never flavour of the month at any time of the year – allowed play to continue after a late challenge on Oscar by Tarkowski. Batshuayi played the ball out to a raiding Pedro. Burnley were wide-open.

“We’ll score here” I whispered to Alan.

A few touches from Pedro, and a perfect ball was played towards the on-rushing Moses, who prodded the ball home perfectly.

Alan and myself, smiles as wide as the gaps in Burnley’s defence, looked at each other with glee.

Three goals, three points and a perfect day.

It seemed that my pre-match concerns about being overly-confident were wide of the mark. Burnley, for all their huff and puff, were poor. They did not have a single effort on target the entire game. Thibaut has surely never had an easier day at the office.

Although the noise from the home sections did not match the quality of football on the pitch, thankfully Chelsea did not bother with that Conte chant from Watford – hopefully resigned to a place in the list of “Chelsea One Hit Wonders” – and Burnley, God bless’em – didn’t do a Billy Ray Cyrus.

There was another feel-good vibe as we slipped back to our car. Parky was even waiting for us on Lillie Road with a pizza for us to share.

Three games, nine points, simple.

Top of the league, having a pizza.

Good times in SW6.

IMG_9322 (2)

 

Tales From A Night Of Ignition.

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 15 August 2016.

IMG_8900 (2)

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

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

“The Italian flag, mate” replied Alan.

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

An homage to our new manager Antonio Conte.

I approved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the focus was certainly on Conte.

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

“Quietly spoken but with eyes of steel.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God knows we missed these qualities last season.

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

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Terry – Cahill – Ivanovic.

Kante.

Willian – Matic – Hazard – Oscar.

Costa.

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

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

Eight o’clock was approaching fast.

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

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

A little coincidence there, for those that like them.

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

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

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

Zola.

Tambling.

Ulster Blues.

Tim Rice.

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

Three colours green.

Three colours white.

Three colours red.

“I tricolori.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

224335_10150241072557658_4202786_n

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Touch, move, pass.

One, two, three.

Keeping the momentum going.

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

We got in to the game.

Another Ivanovic shot was hardly worthy of the name.

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

Fuck off.

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

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

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

Eden versus his man. What will he do next?

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

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

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

All level at the break.

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

We teased the away fans :

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

No complaints at the interval.

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

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

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

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

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

Reggie : “Come on my little diamonds.”

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

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

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

“He scored two hundred.”

It was lovely stuff.

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

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

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

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

Payet, the danger man, came on.

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

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

Bollocks.

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

Ugh.

1-1.

Their first effort on goal.

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

“Arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks.”

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

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

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

Damn.

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

“Getinyoufuckingbeauty.”

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

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

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

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

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

The whistle blew and we yelled our joy.

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

Ha.

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

Thanks Antonio, thanks boys.

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

See you all at Watford on Saturday.

IMG_8951 (2)

Tales From A Long And Winding Road.

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2016.

There was a moment, not long in to the trip north, when the heavens opened and a spell of intense rain fell. The sky darkened, to an almost surreal dark green hue, and the light diminished. The spray from the cars ahead made visibility a struggle. I heaved a heavy sigh. After the second-half slow-down, and eventual capitulation at Sunderland, I had already made it quite clear that I was not relishing the long trek up to Liverpool for a Wednesday night game. I had picked up an annoying cough since just before the weekend, and as I battled the rain and the spray and the darkness, I kept barking every few minutes. There was a hint of a headache. I was not in a good place. If the rain continued on, this would surely turn out to be one of the most tedious away trips of them all.

I had taken a half-day holiday, and alongside me were Young Jake and Old Parky. They could both tell that I was getting stressed at the thought of another four hours on the road. Up on Merseyside, a few friends would be waiting for me. Jason had flown in to Liverpool from Dallas the day before, especially for the game, and I had managed to get him a ticket in the away end. It would be his first-ever Chelsea away match. If I was feeling sorry for myself a little, I was certainly feeling for him too. Let’s be honest, after our poor show at Sunderland, I think most Chelsea supporters – apart from those ridiculously optimistic ones, of which I know around four – were fearing the worst against a Liverpool team that, on their day, could shine. Jason would also be missing John Terry too, banished to some excruciating nether world. I was also mindful that our end might possibly be full of empty seats. I had memories of our 4-1 loss at Anfield on the Wednesday after we beat them in the 2012 Cup Final, when our end had swathes of empty seats. Our end was maybe only half-full. As far as first away games went, for Jason this could well be a most rotten one.

Thankfully – and I really was thankful – at around Cheltenham, the sky miraculously cleared and the sun eventually started to burn its way through the layers of foggy cloud.

By the time I had reached Birmingham, the day was turning out to be very pleasant.

I had become suddenly, yawningly, tired though. At Hilton Park Services, just out of Walsall, I decided to have a thirty-minute power nap. Jake and Parky were banished into the services as I reclined the seat. I closed my eyes. I was away. Only my bloody coughing woke me. Feeling instantly refreshed, I made light work of the remaining ninety miles or so. These away trips can be so tiring. Thankfully, I was pencilled in to do a late shift starting at 2pm on the Thursday; there would be no doubt that I would be sleeping for England once I would eventually return.

We were parked up near Albert Dock at just after 4.30pm, some five hours after I left work in Melksham. We met up with an excited Jason at a bar adjacent to “The Beatles Story” in the Albert Dock complex. I last saw him when he came over for a game in SW6 in 2013. He was having a fine time in Liverpool; he had popped up to have a look around Goodison Park on the Tuesday. This was the same bar that we chose for pre-match beers before the Everton cup game; it serves excellent Warsteiner lager.

“Four pints please.”

As at Everton, we were joined by Kim and Eddie, and it was lovely to see them both again. As before, music and football dominated the chat. We spoke about places for Jason to visit on the Thursday, and a few ideas were suggested. We chatted about The Beatles. Eddie was rather taken aback when it transpired that the five of us – Kim, Parky, Jake, Jason and myself – were not really fans of Britain’s greatest ever pop band. Coming from Merseyside, and a musician himself, his astonishment was real.

What a tragedy. What a mystery.

Time was moving on and I wanted to make sure that I was parked-up in good time. I wanted to make sure that Jason wasn’t rushed on his first visit to Anfield, and – more importantly – got to squeeze as much as possible into his two hours with the Chelsea hard-core.

Our walk through a housing estate would have caused me a severe anxiety attack back in the ‘eighties, but there was thankfully no antagonism or nastiness from any loitering youths. Strangely enough, we found ourselves on Robson Street, near the very bus stop that I had first alighted at Anfield on my first trip in May 1985, over thirty-one years ago. I easily remembered walking down the terraced road, with the almost mystical Kop at the bottom of the street. In 1984/1985, I only went to five away games due to finances, and the visit to Anfield was one of the highlights for sure. Liverpool were European Champions in 1984 and reigning League Champions too. They were in their pomp. Growing up as a child in the ‘seventies, and well before Chelsea fans grew tired of Liverpool’s cries of history, there were few stadia which enthralled me more than Anfield, with The Kop a beguiling wall of noise.

No gangways on The Kop, just bodies. A swaying mass of humanity.

Heading up to Liverpool, on an early-morning train from Stoke, I was excited and a little intimidated too. Catching a bus up to the stadium outside Lime Street was probably the nearest that I came to a footballing “rite of passage” in 1985. I was not conned into believing the media’s take that Scousers were loveable so-and-sos. I knew that Anfield could be a chilling away ground to visit. Famously, there was the “Cockneys Die” graffiti on the approach to Lime Street. My first real memory of Liverpool, the city, on that murky day over three decades ago was that I was shocked to see so many shops with blinds, or rather metal shutters, to stave off robberies. It was the first time that I had seen such.

The mean streets of Liverpool? You bet.

We walked down Venmore Street – I am adamant it was the same street I walked in 1985 – with the new main stand dominating Anfield. It will be a huge structure once completed, adding 10,000 more to the stadium’s capacity. There has been extensive housing clearance around the stadium for a while. Venmore Street has grassy areas now, and only The Albert pub underneath the new stand has been left standing, solitary, for ages, it’s terraced neighbours razed to the ground.

Back in 1985, the local scallies – flared cords and Puma trainers by the look of it, all very 1985 – were prowling as I took a photograph of the old Kop.

280530_10150303622767658_5384288_o

Back in 1985, traveling down to Chelsea from Stoke, I was well aware of the schism taking place in the casual subculture at the time. Sportswear was giving way to a more bohemian look in the north-west – flares were back in for a season or two – but this look never caught on in London.

I always maintained that it was like this :

London football – “look smart.”

Liverpool and Manchester football – “look different.”

We walked around past The Kop – and mirrored the route that I undoubtedly took in 1985.

The Centenary Stand, in 2016, was the site of the Kemlyn Road Stand – complete with newly-arrived police horses – in 1985. You can almost smell the gloom. Note the mast of the SS Great Eastern, which still hosts a fluttering flag on match days to this day.

279448_10150303622907658_5982373_o

We were now outside the site of the old away end at Anfield. Back in 1985, the turnstiles were housed in a wall which had shards of glass on the top to deter fans from gaining free entry. Note the Chelsea supporters’ coach and the Sergio Tacchini top.

272055_10150303623067658_1859073_o

To complete this visit down memory lane, and to emphasise how bloody early I was on that Saturday morning in May 1985 – it was an 11.30am kick-off to deter excessive drinking and, ergo, hooliganism – here is a photograph of an empty, waiting, expectant Anfield. I guess that this photograph of the Chelsea squad in their suits was taken at an hour or so before kick-off. This is something we never see at games now; a Chelsea team inspecting the pitch before the game. I suspect that for many of the players, this would have been their first visit to Anfield too. Maybe that half-explains it.

266645_10150303623262658_7820773_o

Incidentally, we lost that game at Anfield 4-3, but it was a fantastic Chelsea performance. The attendance, incidentally, was only 33,000 – way below capacity at the time. Maybe we should take to inquiring of the Scousers “Where were you when you were good?”

Inside the stadium, with the new upper tier peering over all, I was pleasantly surprised how many Chelsea fans were already in attendance. My worries of an embarrassingly small “take” were proving to be unfounded. In the concourse, I introduced Jason to a smattering of the loyalists. The mood among us was not great.

“I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

Hiddink had tweaked the team since Saturday.

Begovic – Baba, Mikel, Cahill, Azpilicueta – Matic, Fabregas – Pedro, Hazard, Willian – Traore.

Eddie, the Liverpool supporter – he has a season ticket in the Kemlyn, er Centenary Stand – was convinced that Klopp would put out a “B” team ahead of their Europa League Final, but it looked pretty strong to me. It included the England’s most boring international of recent memory, the plodding James Milner.

The Chelsea fans were assembled, and the home fans too.

Liverpool supporters always mock our plastic flags at Stamford Bridge, and they poke fun at our supposed plastic and manufactured atmosphere. Well, just before the teams came out on to the pitch, we were treated to “We Will Rock You” in an effort to get the locals energised and I rolled my eyes.

The teams.

Red.

Blue.

The atmosphere heightened.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

I looked around. Familiar faces everywhere and not too many empty seats. A fantastic effort on a Wednesday night.

Liverpool, as they always seem to do at Anfield, began very brightly and that man Coutinho seemed to be everywhere. I really like him. He’s a fine player. We were immediately concerned about Baba’s waywardness – “Have you turned your GPS on Baba?” bellowed Alan – but through a mixture of poor finishing, and strong defending we survived the early onslaught. Sturridge was wasteful early on with a ridiculously high free-kick, and we loved that. We never really warmed to him at Chelsea, and since joining Liverpool, there has been no love lost. Soon into the game, we rounded on him.

“Chelsea reject.”

Rather than smile it off, he pulled a stern face, and encouraged us to sing up, waving his hands in mock encouragement. He was the target of our abuse for ages.

“Well this is going to end one of two ways” I laughed.

Begovic was particularly active, saving well, but many of their shots were right at our ‘keeper. A heavy touch from Firmino when through was met by howls of derision. Our goal was, if I am honest, living a rather charmed life. Chances from Lallana and Lovren were wasted. After around twenty minutes, we kept possession for a lovely spell, and seemed to get a foothold in the game, as so often happens at Anfield. We began to get Eden Hazard involved, and how he warmed to the task. He danced and weaved past defenders with ease and came close with a long shot that Mignolet saved. Our support was strong throughout the opening period, and grew noisier, while poking fun at the docile home fans.

“Where’s your famous atmosphere?”

A blue flare was set off to my right, and the away end was filled with sulphurous fumes. I spotted a banner in praise of John Terry.

“Sign him up, sign him up, sign him up.”

We were on top now, and playing some lovely stuff. Matic was the Matic of old, breaking play up and moving the ball on. We grew stronger with every tackle won. What a Jekyl and Hyde season. Why were we not so fired up against Sunderland?

The ball broke to Eden Hazard, who waltzed out wide, and then exchanged a pass with Baba, before cutting in, like a slalom skier, and dancing past innumerable Liverpool defenders – I use the term with a little reticence, since none of them bothered to put in a tackle – and slotted home, the ball nestling just inside the far post

One-nil to Chelsea and The Kop go mild.

Fantastic. What a sublime goal. He’s having a goal of the season contest all to himself as this campaign closes. We celebrated wildly.

Ah, this game could turn out to be alright in the end.

Traore, full of running, but with a tendency to cut back on himself rather than push on, then came close to making it 2-0. Baba, playing better now after a shaky start, was in place to hack away after a timely block.

One-up at the break and time for a photo with Jason, who was watching right down the front.

At half-time, Star Wars paratroopers and a dance routine.

First, Queen and now Star Wars. This was turning into a “Room 101” evening for me.

Queen, shite, Star Wars, shite.

The second-half, with Chelsea attacking the loud and proud away fans, will be remembered by myself for the number of times that Eden Hazard, looking every inch, every centimetre, the player who so beguiled us last season, took flight and attacked the cowering Liverpool defenders. I brought my camera up to my eyes and captured several of his wonderful flights of fancy.

The puff of the cheeks, the body getting ready to explode with pace, the eyes wide open and in focus, the acceleration past a defender, the sudden stop, the change of direction, a feint, the move again, the flick, the touch, the energy.

It was truly mesmerising.

Baba of all people went close.

I thought of two mates in the US.

Steve, soon heading off to see a Liverpool vs. Chelsea pairing, of sorts, in Pennsylvania; Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole now team mates at LA Galaxy, playing at Philadelphia Union.

JR, his wife Erin expecting the birth of their first child and the birth very imminent. If we could hold on for an unexpected win, and the baby was born on Wednesday 11 May, maybe they might be tempted to name the baby Eden.

Sturridge was having a ‘mare in front of The Kop. Maybe we had got to him after all.

This was turning into a great game of football. We broke at will on a few more occasions, and Pedro – the latest of our masked men – should have done better on two occasions.

Mikel was coolness personified as he chested down a cross before releasing a great ball out.

“Jon – Obi – Mikel” sang our support, with no hint of irony.

To be honest, there had not been the all-out songfest in praise of John Terry that some had perhaps expected.

Liverpool slowly clawed their way back, but the noise was quiet. I remembered my first visit to the same stadium in 1985. We had all been brought up on the notion of Anfield being red hot, but I remember coming away all those years ago being very underwhelmed.

Kenedy came on for a quiet, again, Willian. He began in a blaze of glory with a spectacular dribble, but faded.

News came through that Sunderland were beating Everton.

Newcastle United and Norwich City were no more.

The Chelsea choir were celebrating :

“He’s going down, he’s going down. Rafa’s going down.”

So much for my bloody cough. Despite the risk of irritating my throat further, I was joining in with all of the songs; there is no rationality to it, is there?

Baba blocked an on-target Coutinho effort.

Traore came close before being replaced by debutant Tammy Abraham. The play swayed from end to end, with both teams looking to score. Abraham, clean through, could not finish. Pedro was wasteful again. I was convinced that we would hang on for a win – for you, Jason, for you JR – but with extra-time being played, a cross from the Liverpool left was parried by Begovic, but we watched aghast as the ball fell for a Liverpool player to head home.

Bollocks.

At least it wasn’t Sturridge.

The Liverpool fans were now noisy as hell and I wondered where they had been all game. Of course the goal hurt, and I think our play definitely deserved a win, but I would have taken a draw before the game, as would many. I had thoroughly enjoyed the game. What a surprise. It had been a cracker. And Eden Hazard; at times, unplayable.

Outside in the concourse, we said our goodbyes.

Parky, Jake and I walked back to the waiting car, at the top of the hill, equidistant between the two football cathedrals of Goodison and Anfield. Out onto the East Lancs road, around the city and the long trip south.

And it was a long trip south. We were diverted off the M6 on two separate occasions, and I took a silly error-ridden detour through Birmingham city centre. It was a proper Chelsea-themed magical mystery tour.

The evening’s game at Anfield would represent only the second time in my life that I had completed all away league games in a single season.

Nineteen out of nineteen.

I did it in 2008/2009 and I have done it in 2015/2016.

I dropped the lads off, feeling so tired now, driving on auto-pilot. This long and winding road – The Away Club 2015/2016 – finally ended as I turned into my drive at 3.45am on Thursday.

It was time to sleep.

 

For Harrison Patrick Lotto, future Chelsea supporter, born 12 May 2016.

IMG_7488