Tales From The Hurting

Watford vs. Chelsea : 5 February 2018.

It was just past two o’clock. I had parked my car outside “The Milk Churn” which sits on the A350 just south of the small Wiltshire town of Melksham. It is a new boozer, no older than a couple of years, but is built to resemble an old rustic farmhouse, heavy on tiles, brick and wood. It is run by “Hall and Woodhouse”, a brewery based in the Dorset town of Blandford Forum. My grandfather used to work at the brewery before he left his home town of Wareham to head up to Frome. The pub has acted as a starting point, a base camp, for a number of our Chelsea matches of late. My place of work is opposite. As I joined PD and Parky at their table in the pub lounge, they welcomed me.

“You look a bit happier than last week.”

Last week, last Wednesday, had been a very stressful day at work, and the lads had noticed that I was still in “the zone” after a hectic 6am to 2pm shift. It had taken a good hour or so for me to stop thinking over a few work-related issues as PD drove to London for the Bournemouth game.

On this day, a Monday, I certainly felt a little more relaxed. I ordered some food, gammon steaks all round, and supped at a pint of “Peroni.”

I relaxed with each passing sip.

“Yes. On the face of it, a bit easier today. A bit worried that I’ve had a few chest pains at work this morning though.”

“Blimey, take care, mate.”

“Yeah, I will” I replied, but rather unconvincingly, bearing in mind the stresses that might be forced upon me during the evening’s match at Vicarage Road.

We tucked into our food, and the mood was rather quiet.

“Need to win this one tonight, lads.”

“Certainly do. Especially as Liverpool and Spurs drew yesterday.”

The 2-2 draw at Anfield had presented us the opportunity of going third if we could win at Watford. It was a challenge that I trusted the players to overcome. I did not see any of the game at Anfield. I believe that it was quite a humdinger. I had the best of intentions to watch the highlights on “Match Of The Day 2” on Sunday night, but I chose instead to continue watching an archived programme on the BBC i-Player detailing a storm which had caused havoc in Glasgow in 1968 but caused a rethink on the city’s plans to tear down tenements. This simple choice of viewing encapsulated my thoughts of football these days, or at least football not involving Chelsea Football Club.

Grainy images of Glasgow, social history, town-planning and architecture 1

The Kop, Klopp, Kane and Tottenham 0

After a relaxing lunch, PD set off for Watford. We were in the middle of a ridiculous stretch of nine games with not one of them being played on a Saturday.

Wednesday, Sunday, Wednesday, Monday, Monday, Friday, Tuesday, Sunday, Sunday.

It is a bloody good job that we didn’t draw Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup. I think that my head might have exploded.

I was able to grab a little sleep on the way up to Watford. PD was parked-up at about 5.15pm. Outside, the weather was bitterly cold. Knowing my dislike for large and impersonal superpubs, I managed to coerce the lads to pop into a local called “The Horns” where we enjoyed a pint apiece. It was a smashing boozer, evidently a venue for much music, and there was a permanent stage wedged into a corner. It had the feel of a Western saloon from the cowboy films of my childhood. Behind the till were hundreds of plectrums from live performances. There were musical memorabilia everywhere. But there was no hint that there was a topflight football match taking place a mile or so to the south.

We moved on to “The Moon Under Water” on Watford’s pedestrianised high street. Here was a different story. There was wall-to-wall Chelsea everywhere. I immediately thought back to our away game at Vicarage Road last season when a Michy Batshuayi goal gave us a late 2-1 win, but also where the same pub was reverberating to the short-lived “Antonio Conte does it better” chant before the game. We met up with Alan and Gary, calmly sat towards the rear, and we discussed the current ailments at our club.

I read out the team. I suppose there were two talking points. Marcos Alonso was not involved. Olivier Giroud was on the bench.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Zappacosta

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

The time soon passed. The air in the pub wasn’t exactly electric. A few of the younger element were trying to get some songs started in the main bar, but there were few takers. If anything, they annoyed me.

“As long as you buggers remember to sing in the stadium.”

We set off for Vicarage Road, a simple twenty-minute walk away, past the array of fast food joints, takeaways and restaurants of every hue. In previous visits to Vicarage Road, we have always arrived late and I have always headed straight in. On this cold night, I was able to have the briefest of wanders. Vicarage Road is certainly a cramped venue, wedged into side streets just outside the town centre. It’s a pleasant enough stadium.

We were down low, not far from the front. To my right, the Sir Graham Taylor Stand. To my left, the Elton John Stand. Tucked between the away end – we had around two thousand seats – and the side stand was the stadium’s “Sensory Room.” Despite us being the reigning champions, there were empty seats dotted around the stadium. As the teams entered the pitch, the Watford fans unveiled a large banner at their home end of club owner Gino Pozzo. Rather than provide banners for each and every Watford manager, this was obviously cheaper. They are up to ten – I think – since the Pozzo family took over in 2012. That’s going some. Compared to Watford, Chelsea under Roman Abramovich resembles a steady ship.

The game began. The away fans were in great voice. As ever one song dominated.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

He acknowledged our support for him straight away with some applause for us.

But from the very first few minutes of action, we really struggled to get a foothold in the game. There was a ball-to-hand heart-in-the-mouth moment as the ball struck Gary Cahill. Not long after, the irksome winger Gerard Deulofeu saw his snapshot hit the side netting. The warning signs were there. We were watching from the left of the goal and Gary Cahill was in my sights. I wanted to see how he performed up close. He seemed to marshal his team mates reasonably well at set pieces, but looked ill-at-ease in open play. Very often he played the ball to a Chelsea team mate who was heavily marked. He just does not exude any calmness. Watford came again. Troy Deeney was left unmarked at the far post at a corner but his studied prod at goal was well wide.

Our attacks, so obviously lacking a focal point, floundered time after time. Pedro was full of running but with nobody moving off the ball ahead of him, the resulting pass was often played back or square. We looked utterly impotent in attack. Victor Moses was often left in acres of space, but was reluctant to release the ball early. David Luiz tended to vary things a little, choosing to play balls to the feet of Eden and others, but often a ball was hoofed up field to our three midgets. The away end was getting frustrated.

A wild shot from Willian blazed over the bar. It was our only real effort on goal. Watford kept attacking and Thibaut’s goal was under threat.

The noise from the away section remained impressive.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

Although I was trying my best to encourage Tiemoue Bakayoko when he did something half-decent – “go on my son” – he was having a nightmare. He gave up balls so cheaply. His night and our night was soon to darken. After a foul on Etienne Capoue by Bakayoko and a yellow card, there was a lunge on Richarlison in the middle of the pitch. I have to admit, from our perspective, it looked like there had been a foul on Bakayoko, but as Richarlison stayed down, and players swarmed, there was that horrible moment of hurt as referee Mike Dean flashed a card at Bakayoko.

Off he went.

Fuck it.

Only thirty minutes had passed.

Antonio Conte was furious and had to be calmed by the referee.

After a few minutes of wondering how the manager would react, I was frankly amazed that he chose Cesc Fabregas to replace Willian. I thought about moving Luiz into midfield and going 4/2/3 or bringing on Danny Drinkwater. But what do I know? I’m just a transport planner for an office furniture company. The addition of the lightweight Fabregas seemed odd. Very odd. It felt harsh on Willian who can always be relied upon to put in a shift.

Our play did not improve. Just before half-time, a ball was played forward to the lively Deulofeu who touched the ball on. Out rushed Courtois and I just knew what was going to happen next. A touch, down he went, a nailed-on penalty. Two knobhead fans chose to walk past me just as Deeney took the penalty. I would have missed the save if there had been one. There wasn’t. The home crowd roared and we were one-down.

Shite.

There was a run and shot from Pedro in the inside-left channel, but it blazed well over. To be honest, a goal then would not have reflected the balance of play. Watford were full of running, full of pace, and were well-deserving of their lead. We looked devoid of confidence. There was nobody willing to take ownership of the ball and create. Down to ten men, we stared a second successive league defeat in the face.

The second-half began.

I was so happy that the away fans were trying our hardest to get behind the team. One song dominated. It was a song which, I always remembered, seemed to be aired specifically during the second-halves of games, and especially away games, when the team needed it. This game certainly fitted the bill.

“Amazing Grace” was given the full Chelsea treatment.

“CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.”

I was joining in. So were many others. But I looked around, and back, at others to see how many were actually joining in too. It was at about the 50% level at best. It sounded like more were singing. But those that were involved were keeping it going for a fair few minutes. I was sure that the noise was carrying and that the TV millions would hopefully be impressed. The home fans, by comparison, were ridiculously quiet. Despite winning, the folks to the left of me in the Elton John Stand hardly sung all night.

Modern football.

Despite a clash of heads with a Watford defender, Moses began to get a little more space in front of us down the Chelsea right. At last we were playing to our strengths; intricate passing, movement off the ball, a ball into space, a cross. Moses broke through, glided past a couple of defenders and played the ball across the six-yard box.

Guess what?

Nobody was there to meet it.

Chelsea were trying to get into the game, and there was a definite improvement as the second-half progressed. But at the other end, Watford again and again broke through. Shots curled past the far post. Thibaut was forced to strongly save on two occasions. They were out-gunning us.

We still kept singing though, we still kept going.

We spotted Olivier Giroud warming up on the touchline. One nasty little outbreak of Billy Ray Cyrus down to my left thankfully failed to gather momentum. With twenty-minutes left, the former Arsenal target man made his Chelsea debut. His beard appeared to have been trimmed a little. Good. Fucking good.

He went up for a header, which he won, and he began his journey from Arsenal wanker to Chelsea player. We urged the team on. All of a sudden, we looked more like a team. More options. More drive. More energy. We enjoyed a few half (quarter?) chances but the mood was rising.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

Eden Hazard, in the same channel that Moses had ploughed earlier, flitted away from markers and suddenly looked like his old self. He buzzed into the box, and the ball reached Fabregas. This was our big chance, our big moment. The shot was weak, low and an easy save for the Watford ‘keeper.

The howls rang out from the away end.

Just after, Hazard – clearly buzzing now after his confidence-boost of a run earlier – collected the ball around twenty-five yards out, broke into a little space and guided a magical shot around the defender, using him as a block for the ‘keeper, and into the side of the goal.

We went ballistic.

GET IN.

The celebrations were wild and unfettered. Eden pointed towards us. We were back in the game. At that moment, oh the stupidity of it all, it felt to me like we would go on to win.

The Chelsea support roared again.

There was maybe ten minutes or so left.

“COME ON CHELS.”

Bizarrely – there was no explanation – the play returned to the other end. Another Watford effort slid past the far post. I then watched with growing concern as a fine Watford move spread across the box from right to left. I yelled, in vain, as a Watford player appeared to tiptoe into a danger area.

“Don’t let him shoot.”

There was no tackle. There was no block. Janmaat shot. Janmaat scored.

Watford 2 Chelsea 1.

The hurt was palpable. I remained standing but inside I slumped to the floor. Thankfully there was no chest pains, just an emptiness.

Four minutes later, their star player Deulofeu was able to shoot after a short run at the heart of our defence.

Watford 3 Chelsea 1.

With that, many Chelsea fans decided to leave. A swathe of empty yellow seats soon appeared in front of me. I was fuming. Two lads motioned to me to let them pass. I did not move. They had to squeeze past me. I glowered at them. They glowered back.

Fuck them.

The night became even more bizarre. A lone spindly youth ran on to the pitch, I think from the side stand, and bounced up and down on the pitch, seemingly on the ‘phone to somebody. No stewards bothered with him. He stayed on the pitch, gurning like a fool, for what seemed like thirty seconds or more. With my eyes drilling in to him, I missed the build up to Watford’s fourth goal.

Watford 4 Chelsea 1.

Bloody hell.

In a show of defiance, the remaining Chelsea fans collectively thought “well, fuck this” and got behind the team once more.

“We love you Chelsea, we do. We love you Chelsea, we do. We love you Chelsea, we do. Oh Chelsea we love you.”

A half-chance from that man Giroud almost brought a cheer, but the game ended with no further incident.

But there here was still time for another round of “Antonio.”

And there was even a relatively loud “Three Little Birds” as the game ended.

At the final whistle, I watched as Antonio Conte darted down the tunnel. I honestly wondered if I would see him again as a Chelsea manager. I gathered my stuff, as stony faced as I have been for a while. Parky was surprisingly upbeat alongside me and for a few seconds I wanted him to be quiet, be still, be solemn. His obvious indifference to defeat annoyed me, but then I had to smirk as we met up with others and headed up the steep terrace. There was a chat with a few good people.

Mark from Hastings was fuming :

“Those people who left, I just don’t get it. Us losing should make them want to stay, to stay and cheer us on. What is the point in them leaving?”

I agreed. We smiled and shook hands.

Mark from Westbury put everything into some sort of perspective :

“We’ve seen worse, Chris.”

I smiled.

“Yes, we have mate. Not at Watford, though.”

It was Mark’s time to smile.

We were some of the last to leave.

There would be a time to evaluate the current dip in form at Chelsea at a later date, a later time. Maybe things will be crystal clear in my mind for the West Brom game, but I doubt it. These waters are muddied. And my mind is addled with the constant rumour and counter-rumour which surrounds this club, as ever.

At around 10.45pm, Parky, PD and me were sitting in a “Subway” on the Watford High Street. Although my jacket had kept me warm at the game, the winter chill had bitten hard on the walk back from the stadium. We silently devoured some food. The moment, oddly, reminded me of a late night snack in a small café in Rome after an equally shocking defeat. In Rome, we were able to look out on a piazza and monuments, and enjoy the moment. In Watford, we looked out on waste bins, concrete paving slabs and “Poundworld.”

“At least there were no chest pains.”

The hurt on a cold night in Hertfordshire was only mental, but it was real enough.

PD set off for home at 11pm. Thankfully, I managed to get some sleep once we left the M25 and hit the M4. We were back at “The Milk Churn” at 1am. I was home at 1.30am. I was asleep at 2am. The alarm would ring at 5am.

At 6am, co-workers would be asking me if I was at the game at Watford.

“Yep.”

The three of us agreed that we all needed a break from football. In the pub, even Gary had commented that he had enjoyed having the recent weekend off as it gave him some precious time to get a few things done away from Chelsea. At the moment, this football lark is hard and relentless. On players and fans alike. The next game is on Monday. There is time for a rest. There is time for a break. There will be time to re-focus and to re-charge the old batteries.

I’m going to enjoy it.

The race for second place will begin again soon enough.

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Tales From Two Halves

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 24 January 2018.

It has taken me a while to realise it, but I have an aversion to large and impersonal pubs. From now on, I am going out of my way to avoid them. The prices of the ales, ciders and lagers might be cheaper at a “Wetherspoons”, “Walkabout” or a “Yates”, but everything else about them leaves me cold. Many are on the site of former large shops and banks. Many of these “super pubs” are blandness personified; rectangular voids with no charm and no fun. And I realise that we have frequented a few of them in recent seasons; “The Moon Under Water” in Watford, “The Shakespeare’s Head” for Arsenal, “The Admiral of The Humber” in Hull, “The Thomas Frost” at Everton. The list goes on. I’m not a fan. So it was with a bounce in my step that I ascended the steps at Piccadilly Circus tube station at around 5.30pm. I had completed my homework and had hand-picked a traditional London pub for our pre-match drinks for the League Cup semi-final against Arsenal. Three weeks ago, we had alighted at the same stop and chosen “The Duke’s Head” on Denman Street. This time, we walked a minute further up Sherwood Street and turned into “The Crown.” It immediately took my fancy; busy, dark, a little cramped, but full of atmosphere and with attentive bar staff. We shuffled through the main bar and found a spare corner, and relaxed on some old leather seats under some dark wooden wall panels. The four of us – Young Jake, Oscar Parksorious, P-Diddy and I – settled in for an hour and-a-half of drinks and giggles. I’d be doing no driving this night; there would be the chance for a few pints of “Peroni.” We had already run through our opinions and thoughts about the upcoming game.

“I suppose Arsenal will be favourite. They’re at home after all.”

“Hope we play 3/4/3.”

“At least Sanchez has left. Always does well against us it seems.”

“Just hope there’s no extra time and penalties.”

Indeed. With a little foresight and planning, I had taken care of that most unloved of outcomes. Fearing the worst, and remembering well from the extended Norwich City replay the preceding week, I had taken some precautions. If the game at The Emirates would go to extra-time and then penalties, the game would likely finish at 10.45pm. We would not be back to the car until around midnight. A two-hour trip back to Melksham. A further thirty minutes to my house. I’d not get to bed until 2.30am. And I’d need to be up at 5am for work.

Screw that.

I had booked myself into the hotel opposite work for the night and looked forward, whatever the result, to an extra hour in bed. With the football only costing a tenner, I figured I could easily justify it. At times my life of late has involved only sleep, work and football. This would certainly be no exception.

This would be Young Jake’s first trip to The Emirates. I’ve only missed one; the time we took nine-thousand up there for the League Cup game in 2013. On this occasion, we were taking 5,500, and all four of us had been given tickets in Section 25, which would normally be a home area. I wondered if the facilities in the concourse would offer an improvement to the pokey confines of the away sector. The drinks were going down well. The pre-match banter was a fine antidote to further stresses at work. I shared some insider knowledge about the pub.

“Mozart played here when he was nine. In this very pub.”

For once, there was silence from The Chuckle Brothers.

“Anyway. Moving on.”

At seven o’clock we caught the tube north. It was, of course, a familiar ride now. We had travelled the same journey three weeks earlier. It annoyed me that there was an announcement that “this train will not be stopping at Holloway Road, next stop is The Arsenal.”

The Arsenal. I could hear Alan moaning at the mere mention of it.

“The Arsenal. Like it’s some sort of bloody institution.”

On the walk up through the rabbit warren at Arsenal tube, there were a few chants from both sets of fans. I spotted a Chelsea supporter with a blue “Patagonia” rain jacket. I was reminded of the catchy “Brightonia” banner at “The Amex” that I spotted last weekend, using the same font and logo.

There were a few – hardly loud – chants of playing football “the Arsenal way” but I was far from convinced. For all of their crisp-passing under the early Wenger years, the spectre of decades of dull and boring football has not drifted from my consciousness.

“Arsenal. Bloody hell. The only time they have been entertaining was when Eric Morecambe sneezed or coughed.”

The lights of The Emirates soon came into view. No doubt it will soon be named after some other corporate-brand; not even “The Reebok” is “The Reebok” anymore. Why Arsenal could not have at least used “Arsenal Stadium” in lights on the façade – some sort of permanent statement – is beyond me. Beneath “Emirates Stadium” were large graphics of Arsenal players from across the ages inter-locking arms. I suppose this was conceived as a nice idea, but I just saw a load of arses.

We were inside with about ten minutes to spare. So much for more space behind section 25; there was a huge line for the gents. It would have to wait until half-time. There was a dimming of the lights and a half-arsed light show. I looked around at all the empty seats in the upper tier.

Pauline and Mick were stood behind me.

“Bloody hell, a tenner and they still can’t fill it.”

I was to eat my words as it all filled-up after a while.

But I certainly realised that new spacious stadia thrill me as much as “super pubs.” Give me “The Crown” and Highbury – what a stadium – ahead of “Spoons” and “The Emirates” any day, any season, any year.

The team was missing Courtois and Morata, and the manager went with a 3/4/3 variant; no Michy Batshuayi, but Eden Hazard to play in a central but surely drifting role.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

The Three Amigos

The players entered the pitch. Behind the teams at the opposite end, an Arsenal flag bearing the rebranded gun emblem – now pointing to the right after decades of pointing to the left, bloody hell I need to get out more – moved slowly above the heads of the Arsenal hardcore. A flag featuring Charlie George was spotted. What a lanky dullard he was. He was no Peter Osgood for sure. In fact, he was the antithesis of Peter Osgood; North London dull and North London gormless. Proper Arsenal. In later life, he managed to cut off a finger while mowing his lawn. Don’t ask.

There are banners everywhere on the balconies at The Emirates, all signalling various degrees of self-love.

The game began and we began well despite a shot from Tiemoue Bakayoko which was well off target. Just after, a trademark lofted ball from Dave and a finely placed header from the diminutive Pedro beat David Ospina, but I had spotted an offside flag. We were well on top, and Arsenal had hardly offered an attack. On seven minutes, Kante played the ball to Pedro who in turn touched in to the path of Eden Hazard. His easy finish summed up our domination.

There were wild celebrations in Sections 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 and 25.

GET IN.

We were one up and playing well.

Sadly, our lead soon disappeared in the mild North London air. A corner dropped right onto the head of Nacho Monreal, but his header then unluckily struck Marcos Alonso, and from there the footballing Gods were not on our side. The ball ricocheted onto Toni Rudiger’s forehead and in. I looked around at the gurning Goons in the corporate tier above me and I felt sick.

But we still dominated, retaining the ball well and moving it crisply. Willian dragged the ball wide of the far post. A special word for Bakayoko who I thought performed very well throughout a dominant first-half. He put his foot in, he retained the ball, he moved it on, he pushed forward when space opened-up. Well done to him.

On the half-hour, Willian had a knock and sadly had to be substituted. Nobody had been warming up of course, but Ross Barkley was chosen to enter the fray for his Chelsea debut. I watched as he entered the field of play. I mused that there haven’t been many signings from Everton over the years. Only Duncan McKenzie and the great Tommy Lawton came to mind. I hoped that Barkley would not suffer the same fate as Lawton – much lauded and a stratospheric transfer at the time –  who was transferred to Notts County after just three seasons. His first few moments did not bode well. Xhaka went close with an angled free-kick after a Barkley foul on Koscielny. Worse was to come.

I rolled my eyes at the awful chant that the away supporters had up their collective sleeves :

“Viva Ross Barkley, viva Ross Barkley. He left the Scouse ‘cus they robbed his house, viva Ross Barkley.”

Well done. Well bloody done. I’m sure as a Scouser he would appreciate that one.

It’s like us singing something for Antonio Conte which takes the piss out of Italians.

He’s one of us now, lads. He’s one of us. Support him.

While I’m at it…

“We’ve won it all.”

Bloody hate that one too.

Elsewhere, we were edging it, with Rudiger and Christensen strong and dominant. However, the pondering Victor Moses was frustrating the absolute hell out of all of us. There were extra, and heavy, touches every time he received the ball. At the break, everyone around me was relatively happy. Arsenal had grown stronger as the half had developed but I think we had shown enough for us to be confident of progression. I wanted Eden to be involved more. But I was happy.

At half-time, the queue at the gents was still ridiculous. The khazi was smaller than in the away end. So much for a high quality and spacious stadium.

I suggested to Big John that “we’re the only team in London with a European Cup” ought to be replaced by “we’re the only team in London with some spacious fucking bogs.”

Well, the second-half.

Must I?

What a let-down.

Eden had a couple of bursting runs through the middle – on one occasion, slipping when it appeared that he had been tripped – but Arsenal were soon moving the ball around and causing problems. We seemed listless and without much direction. After twenty tiring minutes of playing second fiddle, the ball was worked through the Arsenal inside right channel. I looked up at the large scoreboard to my left just to check who was the Arsenal number twenty-nine when the very player – Xhaka – tucked home. I only saw the celebration, I only heard the roar.

BOLLOCKS.

On the TV replay, it appeared that we were undone by another bloody deflection, off the back leg of the hapless Rudiger.

Oh boy.

The second-half of woe continued. We were all stood of course, but there were only pockets of song. I expected more from 5,500 of our beered-up loyalists. I was well aware throughout the second period as I was watching, hands in pockets, bellowing out encouragement, joining in with song when I could, that I was watching the game with the combined weight of the clichéd opinions and criticisms of all of social media in all its glorious forms hanging heavy in my mind and on my shoulders. And all of the negative stuff seemed to dominate my thoughts. In days of yore, we just got behind the team and shared our thoughts with a few close friends. If there was a little negativity, it was tempered by a little humour and some gallows humour. These days I now have the sour-faced, overly-grave, doom-laden – and deadly bloody serious and truly bloody tedious – opinions of Loudmouth from Sidmouth, Knobhead from Knoxville, Tosser from Osset, Jackass from Jacksonville and Cocksocket from Nantucket ringing in my ears.

All that bloody negativity. Football was never meant to be like that. Not for a club that has enjoyed so much success in the past fifteen or twenty years.

I could not help but feel that there are just too many Chelsea fans in the world today and not enough Chelsea supporters.

I see nothing wrong with objective criticism. Why would I? But so much of it now just hints at spoiled and new – but not entirely – fans throwing toys out of prams at the merest hint of a sub-par performance.

It does my fackin’ head in.

Sigh.

But on the night, we had to face facts. Despite the constant prompting along the touchline from the always involved manager, Arsenal bossed us and they bossed the game. There was one memorable burst of energy down the right from Ross Barkley. Caballero saved with his leg in a typically unorthodox way from Iwobi. There was added spirit from substitute Zappacosta, in place of the poor Moses, and a few flashed crosses, but elsewhere we were lacking. Michy Batshuayi had replaced Pedro, but he did not get much service. And he still has the annoying tendency to turn into trouble.

What were we told at school?

“Play the way you are facing.”

Unless your name is Eden Hazard of course.

Michy isn’t. He needs to play to his strengths.

There was a rushed free-kick from Marcos Alonso and the ball is still circling above Heathrow waiting for clearance to land. We howled our agony. The Arsenal fans, so quiet in the close 2-2 draw on the third day of 2018, were making an uncharacteristic din.

We kept singing until the end, but it was not to be.

We met up outside and slouched out. We began our slow walk down the Holloway Road where I had once attended an open day at North London Poly in 1983. Studying at a college just a mile from Highbury? What was I bloody thinking? We walked on. The best cheeseburger of the season thus far lifted some of the gloom, and – thank heavens – we made good time on our return to Barons Court. PD headed west and I drifted off to sleep and even Parky’s incessant prattling could not stop me.

By 1.30am, I had fallen into a deep sleep in my hotel room, with the Chelsea subsection of the internet no doubt going into meltdown once again.

On Sunday, we gather together for another stab at Wembley.

See you there.

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Tales From Diamonds In The Mist

Brighton And Hove Albion vs. Chelsea : 20 January 2018.

This would only be our third ever league game at Brighton and Hove Albion. The other two matches were during our now distant dips into the old Second Division in 1983 and 1989. Now, newly-promoted into the top tier for the first season since 1982/1983, Brighton were about to host the current champions. On the face of it, this was another fantastic away game, and I hoped that the early kick-off– 12.30pm – would not spoil my enjoyment of the day; alas, there would be no chance of a pre-match or post-match get-together at a local boozer. Additionally, due to the awkward location of the stadium, we would need to plan our day with a great deal of care. But we’re good at that sort of thing. As Saturday approached, all was planned.

Parky and I attended our pre-season game at the Amex in August 2012, which marked the team’s first game in England since the glories of Munich and also the first appearance of Eden Hazard on these shores. To be honest, the game wasn’t fantastic. We went 1-0 up, only to lose 3-1, and it perhaps signalled that our season as European Champions would be no procession. On that day, around four thousand Chelsea supporters were given the top tier of the main three-tiered stand, and I was taken by the home team’s new stadium which had opened the previous season. At the time, a top tier was being added to the stand opposite. Once completed, I knew that it would look fantastic. As we set off for Sussex at 7am, I was certainly looking forward to seeing the updated stadium, now increased to a tidy thirty-thousand capacity. Back in 2012, there was panoramic views of the stadium and the rolling hills of the South Downs to the north.

In 2018, we would be locked in to the stadium – low down behind a goal – but I was sure that I’d enjoy the view.

There was so much damned negativity swarming around the team over the past few weeks, that I was just happy to be able to attend the game, try to ignore the moaning millions, and get right behind the team. And there was the added bonus of – virtually – a new stadium. This away trip would tick lots of boxes. I couldn’t wait.

It was Glenn’s turn to drive the Chuckle Bus and, no surprises, he made good time despite the grey and murky weather outside.

Past Warminster, through Salisbury, past Southampton and Portsmouth, past Chichester, then Arundel. We were parked-up in Patcham – just a couple of miles from the stadium – at our mate Walnuts’ bungalow. As in 2012, his wife Sue would drop us off at the stadium, and collect us too. Located at the site of the city’s university at Falmer which is a few miles to the north of the city centre, there is limited parking space at Brighton’s stadium.

On my infrequent visits to Brighton, I have always liked its charms. Pleasant housing estates are scattered over some surprisingly steep hillsides as they tumble down to the coast. The architecture is grand in some areas, yet quirky and eccentric in others. It’s a typical British seaside town with a definite twist. For decades, Brighton has always had a slightly decadent air. Think of “Brighton Rock” featuring our very own Richard Attenborough as “Pinky.” Think of businessmen taking mistresses away for a weekend of fun in Brighton. There certainly remains a laissez-faire attitude to this day. Nudist beaches by the marina, and a certain pride in its sexual freedoms. Politically, there is no place like it in modern Britain.

There was a memorable night out in Brighton on the Saturday before the history-making league game with Liverpool in 2003. Many of my current Chelsea mates were involved and we went down for the weekend. Some of us took the train to the horse racing at Lingfield Park on the Saturday afternoon – I had two winners – while others chose to visit the myriad of attractions by the beach. We then hit the town in the evening. What followed was a deeply memorable night of beers which included some impromptu fun and games with a couple of hen parties.

The bride to be : “I have a list of forfeits. One of them is to get a pair of underpants.”

Me : “Blimey. This is all very sudden.”

The bride to be : “Ha.”

Me : “I’m going to be missing some underwear though. I think we should swap.”

The bride to be : “Deal.”

It was with some deal of pleasure that the bride-to-be’s thong was acquired. In light of the importance of the Chelsea vs. Liverpool game on the following day – the winner taking the all-important fourth Champions League place – I christened it a “thong for Europe.”

In our bed and breakfast the next morning, Alan suggested that I should wear it as some sort of “good luck” charm.

I was ahead of him. I already was.

What a laugh.

Good old Brighton. I am still yet to have a wander around the town’s compact and eclectic central streets. I hope they stay up this season, so I can truly explore the area on future visits. There is certainly unfinished business in Brighton. For starters, I need to locate a missing pair of underpants.

Just like in 2012, there was light drizzle as we approached the stadium on a long slow walk, past the train station and with university buildings in every direction.

There was a large photograph of former goal-scoring hero Peter Ward on the curved façade of the main stand. The stadium was as I remembered it; crisp, clean, spacious.

I spotted the Bristol Crew and could not waste the opportunity for a rant.

“All the negativity around the club does my head in. For fuck sake, we’re a good team, let’s get behind the team and enjoy the moment.”

They assured me there would be no negativity from them.

“Proper job, my babbers.”

Inside, I soon started snapping away from my vantage point in the front row, right in line with one of the goalposts. The stadium is indeed excellent. I like the way that the corners have been infilled with quirky viewing galleries, and corporate boxes tucked into every spare space. The three-tiered main stand is surprisingly tall. It just looks the part. It’s no identikit stadium this one. The seats were padded, not that the three-thousand Chelsea would be sitting. The lads soon arrived; Alan, then Gary, then Parky. Just along the row were fellow Chucklers PD and Glenn. Gary reminded me that he had worked inside some suites within the main stand several years ago in his job as a French polisher.

Alan : “You polished some wooden tables, some wooden wall panels, some wooden cabinets, and you polished off hundreds of packets of biscuits.”

I watched as the players went through their routines. There was the first sighting of Ross Barkley in match-day uniform. I wondered if we would see his Chelsea debut. The away end slowly filled. The drizzle continued.

The team news surprised nobody, save for the goalkeeping change forced by a late knock to Thibaut. We were so pleased that Antonio Conte chose the 3/4/3 variant.

Caballero – Azpilicueta / Christensen / Rudiger – Moses / Kante / Bakayoko / Alonso – Willian / Batshuayi / Hazard.

There was a rousing “Sussex By The Sea” and the teams entered the pitch. In the away end, just behind me, a new bright yellow “crowd-surfing” banner – “Chelsea Here, Chelsea There” – made its first ever appearance. The iconic striker Cyrille Regis was remembered before the game began, just as much for his ground-breaking legacy as his footballing prowess I suspect, and there is nothing wrong with that. There was warm applause for the former England international.

A couple of seagulls soared inside the stadium. Perfect.

Despite a misty old day in Falmer, we wore the murky grey camouflage kit. There was still slight drizzle as the game began, and the roof above did not keep us remotely dry. I took a few early photos, and could not believe how monochrome everything looked. I hoped that our players could pick each other out.

I need not have worried at all. After just three minutes, Victor Moses advanced inside the box and played the ball back to the waiting Eden Hazard, who touched the ball to his right and lashed the ball home, across the Brighton ‘keeper Ryan.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

After another three minutes, the ball was played into Willian, who smacked a firm shot just inside the post. Being so low, I could not really appreciate the intricate passing which lead to the goal – there was a text from a pal in the US lauding its beauty – but I certainly knew from the moment that Willian struck the ball that a goal would result; I was right behind the trajectory of the shot. We were 2-0 up and purring. What a relief after our constipated efforts to score of late.

But to be fair to Brighton, they did not cave in. They didn’t crumble. Despite virtually no discernible support from the home areas – there were no empty seats in the house – the home team launched a series of attacks on our defence.

A wild Wily Caballero challenge on Ezequel Schelotto was waved away by referee Moss. The way that he vacated his six yard box, racing out, the keeper was more like Wile E. Coyote.

Brighton certainly stretched us in the wide areas, and there were a number of crosses which were zipped into our box. Our defending, certainly in the central areas, was of top quality. There was fine positional play, plenty of blocks, and calmness under pressure.

Schelotto was proving to be a troublesome presence and when he pushed the ball past Tiemoue Bakayoko, the Chelsea midfielder stretched out a leg. I certainly thought that a penalty was going to be given, as did those around me. Moss again waved it away. This annoyed Schelotto, who was booked for dissent. As the referee beckoned the Brighton right-back towards him, the player intimated that the referee should walk towards him. I’ve never seem that before.

“Send him off for that ref.”

I repeated a request from the Norwich City cup replay on Wednesday as Schelotto teased Marcos Alonso :

“Don’t let him fucking cross.”

Alas, there was no hint of a tackle or block from Alonso and a fine cross. Thankfully, there was a sensational save from Caballero under his bar from the head of Tomer Hemed.

We all shouted out to him.

“Nice one Wily, son.”

The drizzle continued. Our support was so-so. Perhaps my position in the front row meant that any noise did not reach me, but I have known noisier away days.

But this was certainly a fine game, open and enjoyable. We went close with a few efforts at the other end. Eden Hazard was our catalyst, our diamond, and his close control was at times sensational. He was ably assisted by Willian, himself a box of tricks. It was lovely to see Bakayoko enjoy a steady game alongside N’Golo Kante. If I was to be critical, it would be of the two wide wing-backs who were gifting some space to the Brighton attackers.

Still, there were smiles at the break.

“Good stuff lads.”

The second-half began. There was a clash of heads involving Andreas Christensen who stayed down for a while. Brighton did not let up with their willingness to attack us, and we all thought that towering centre-back Davy Propper had scored with a firm header. The ball caromed back off the post with nobody in striking distance to touch home.

After his knock, Christensen had to be substituted. He was replaced by David Luiz.

Willian struck a magnificent free-kick – which everyone thought Luiz had taken with his first touch – and I managed to capture this on film. I was celebrating another fine goal, only to see ‘keeper Ryan saving superbly. It was indeed a stunning stop. At the other end, Caballero spread himself to block an effort from Schelotto. Brighton still came at us, though without the pace of the first-half. A word about Michy Batshuayi; strong in some areas, weak in others, it was a typical Michy performance. But – thankfully, rejoice! – there was no barracking of any player. Top marks to all.

With fifteen minutes to go, Davide Zappacosta replaced Alonso. Soon after, Willian picked out his partner in crime Hazard, who set off on a merry dance. He waltzed past several players and it looked to me that he soon realised that the only way for a goal to be scored was for him to continue on and on until he came within range. His run continued, before he decided to cut the ball back into the opposite corner. That was it, the game was won.

GET IN.

He danced over to the corner and a little leap was followed by a beaming smile. His play had been just magnificent all day long.

With ten minutes to go, and with the home crowd starting to thin a little, Charly Musonda replaced Willian. He looked up for it and was soon involved in Willian’s position wide on the right. With just one minute of normal time remaining, he picked out the run of Moses with a fantastic lofted ball. The ball was brought under immediate control and touched home. A slide from Victor and the away support were jumping.

Brighton & Hove Albion 0 Chelsea 4.

Blimey, it did not seem like a 4-0 win. I have to concede that the home team had battled well, and certainly did not deserve such a thumping. I fear for their survival this season, but I for one hope they survive. Like so many promoted teams of recent years, they lack a proven goal scorer. As for us, we rode our luck a little – it is a well-repeated phrase of mine that it is perhaps better to be lucky than it is to be good – but surely we deserved the win. Our play was at times fantastic.

And, let us not forget, another clean sheet too.

With its decadent charms, clean sheets are still a rarity in Brighton.

IMG_4041 (3)

 

Tales From Blue Crimbo At The Home Of The Holy Trinity

Everton vs. Chelsea : 23 December 2017.

With work finished for the year, and with a ten-day break to look forward to, most sane people would probably treat themselves to a little lie-in on the Saturday before Christmas. With my alarm ringing at 5am, I was soon reminded that sanity plays little part in the life of the foot soldiers of Chelsea’s away support. But this was an away trip that is right at the top of the list for me; not much comes close to Everton away. I can’t fathom why some in our support always deride Goodison Park. Admittedly the seats in the upper tier of the away stand are rather cramped, and there a few obtrusive roof supports, but I prefer its myriad of plus points.

There is surely much to admire. An historic stadium which has remained locked into a solidly working class environment from which our game was born. Two original Archibald Leitch stands, with the Bullens Road still maintaining the iconic cross-struts on the balcony. The Church of St. Luke’s still peeping from its corner between the shockingly huge main stand and the oddly-named Gwladys Street home end. The closeness of a few pubs. The walk along Goodison Road, full of hustle and bustle, one of the loveliest walks in football. The closeness of the pitch to the supporters. The teams coming onto the pitch to “Z Cars.” The sense that you are dipping into history.

There are two other personal stories which add an extra piquancy for me.

In around 1942, my father visited Goodison Park while undergoing training on an RAF base on The Wirral. It would be his only football game before he took me to Stamford Bridge in 1974.

In 1999, I took my then girlfriend’s son to his first-ever football game. It was a magnificent day and the nearest that I will ever get to taking a child of my own to a first-ever Chelsea game.

So, yeah – Goodison Park. It’s my favourite away stadium.

And still, hundreds of our supporters deride it as being a “shit hole.”

Get out you Philistines.

What are the alternatives? Of all the teams that are playing in England’s top division, we are bombarded with relatively bland new-builds.

Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Leicester City, Huddersfield Town, Brighton, Southampton, Stoke City, West Ham, Bournemouth and Swansea City.

There are a few stadia which have remained in situ, but with substantial changes in recent seasons involving three or four stands.

Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Watford, Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion.

There are two which have had changes to two of their four stands in the past twenty years.

Burnley and Crystal Palace.

And there is one which has experienced just one new stand over the past five decades.

Everton.

It is an anomaly in modern football, a reminder of a rich history, a simpler time, a reminder of my childhood, my youth, my footballing past. Once Everton eventually decamp to their planned new home over by the banks of the Mersey, I will feel rather sad.

I collected PD and Glenn in Frome at 6am, then zipped over to Parkyville to collect Lordy at 6.30am. Outside, there was nothing but darkness. We soon stopped for a breakfast at McChippenham.

Parky : “I’m bloody starving. I could eat a horse, and go back for the jockey.”

The other three had attended a Neville Staple concert in Frome the previous night, and they were all sleep-deficient. By the time I had hit the M5 just north of Bristol, two of the three were asleep. Day eventually broke at around 7.30am. I made good time on the well-travelled trip north despite long spells of fog. With Everton enjoying a little resurgence under Big Fat Sam and Little Fat Sammy, we all – reluctantly – agreed that we would be happy with a draw at Goodison. The league was City’s, we just needed to get our noses in front of United. I had heard that there was a fair few “spares” floating around for the game, and I immediately felt a twinge of guilt that I had not notified my mate Deano, a Chelsea fan who lives relatively close by, and who had visited Goodison with me in 2015. I wondered if he would be present. He doesn’t always get tickets for away games.

At bang on 10.30am, I snapped up one of the last “free” parking spaces on Utting Avenue which runs up to Anfield.

“Four and a half hours, boys. Happy with that.”

It was still misty. Visibility was only a few hundred yards. It added to the atmosphere, the old-time feel. I’m avoiding the use of the phrase “proper old school” in this match report, but it would certainly sum things up. On the walk to Goodison at the bottom of Stanley Park, the hulking mass of the new Anfield, only a quarter of a mile away, was lost in the mist. Glenn and I had an appointment at a nearby boozer, but after their dancing extravaganza of the previous night, it was as much that Parky and PD could do to simply reach Goodison.

“See you both inside.”

At about 11am, we walked into the “Thomas Frost” on Walton Road. It was a new away pub for me, and was full to the brim of both Everton and Chelsea supporters. Just inside the door was my mate Foxy and his dear mother. Foxy was visiting Liverpool as a fiftieth birthday present to himself. A Chelsea game was as good a reason as any to celebrate his birth.

I said to his mum “and it’s only right that you are here, because you were there too.”

And Foxy now had a personal Goodison memory of his own.

My father. His mother. Goodison. Perfect.

The pub was a typical “Wetherspoons”, large and impersonal, but with cheap beers. It was the first time that Foxy, Glenn and I had been together since our goodbyes in the hotel foyer in Shanghai in August. To celebrate, I supped at a lovely bottle of “Tsingtao”, clearly becoming one of my favourites. There were laughs with Foxy as there always are. He is off to Barcelona and I invited him to stay in our apartment. Happy days. In the Everton section of the boozer, I spotted many Christmas jumpers.

I cringed.

And to think that the cult of looking smart at football began in these pubs, these streets, these houses back in the late ‘seventies.

On the walk up to Goodison Park, we passed a few buildings which were clad in blue and clearly owned by Everton Football Club; a community centre, a school maybe? Perhaps their “school of science” moniker from their glory years wasn’t far off the mark.

“It’s just full of Bunsen burners, Foxy.”

I turned a corner and spotted a sign; “Everton Free School.”

What was I saying about a club locked into its local community?

At the Dixie Dean statue, I bid farewell to Glenn, Foxy and his Foxy mother, and departed on my own little circumnavigation of Goodison Park. I always like to do this, but did not have the time to do so before our euphoric 3-0 win last season. Ever few years, Everton give Goodison a proper spring-clean, and at the moment the main stand is clad in blue and with huge murals of some of their heroic number nines.

Joe Royle.

Graham Sharpe.

Dixie Dean.

Bob Latchford.

Dave Hickson.

Alex Young.

If I had my way, Tommy Lawton would have been featured too.

As ever, there is an Everton “timeline” which wraps its way around the stadium – or at least the three oldest stands – and this is well done, above the blue brick and turnstiles.

Recently, a friend – thanks Kev – mentioned to me that Alex Young (“The Golden Vision”, one of the lesser known Evertonians) was featured in an iconic film based on Everton Football Club from the ‘sixties. It’s a lovely little period piece, and features some great shots of old-time Goodison, plus the well-worn features of Brookside actor Bill Dean for good measure.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcAmE5GxGd0

I was quickly inside the Bullens Road after a quick security check. There was time for a chat with a few friends and the chance to wish them a “Merry Xmas.” Inside, I handed out a few Christmas cards. I need not have worried about Deano. Not only was he at the game, but he was sat right next to Parky, just two seats away from me.

“Chelsea World is a very small world – part 687.”

There were a few empty seats dotted around. Christmas shopping doesn’t get done by itself, does it?

I spotted that there were blue and white Chelsea Santa hats draped on every seat.

I groaned.

I am just bloody glad that the vast majority of the three-thousand away supporters chose not to wear them. Imagine if every single one of us wore them.

Three thousand Santa hats.

“Is this what it has come to?”

For. Fuck. Sake.

With Michy Batshuayi not chosen, this was another chance for the three amigos of Hazard, Pedro and Willian to harass, pester and worry the statuesque Evertonian defenders Phil Jagielka and Michael Keane.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

I still struggle with us not having a focal point for our attacks. I wonder what Bob Latchford is doing these days. We were surprised that Wayne Rooney was not playing. Upfront, Allardyce chose Lennon but there was no McCartney alongside him. Instead there was the much-admired youngster Calvert-Lewin and the silky Sigurdsson, who must be rueing his transfer to Everton, now that Allardyce and his “hoof it” tactics have replaced the more “school of science” approach of Ronald Koeman.

The mist still hung in the air. Ah, this was perfect. It had been a brilliant day thus far; all I would ever want from an away day in 2017. We waited for the game to start.

“Z Cars” heralded the two teams.

First thoughts : “God, that off-white kit of ours gets worse every fucking time I see it.”

Second thoughts : “Both teams are wearing white shorts. Brian Moore would be turning in his grave.”

At 12.30pm, the game kicked-off.

On the TV screens were the motif “#Blue Crimbo.”

We certainly dominated the early moments, buoyed by a beer-addled away support. The home fans were typically muted. We looked to play the ball in early to the front three, and Pedro was the first to threaten the Everton goal at the Gwladys Street, now named in remembrance of Howard Kendall, one of the Holy Trinity.

On ten minutes, we could hardly believe our eyes as a shot from Tiemoue Bakayoko and then Willian had shots cleared off the line by the old war horse Jagielka in quick succession. It would prove to be symbolic of the entire game. On several occasions in the first-half, we chose to hit a long diagonal to Marcos Alonso on the left, but his first touch was often lazy and laboured. I was begging for a first time cross to be whipped in.

“Here for the Chelsea, you’re only here for the Chelsea.”

This was a solid performance from us, and Bakayoko was working well with N’Golo Kante. Everton rarely threatened, despite the space that Sigursson found on a number of occasions. Everyone was defending well. Surely a goal would come.

“Feed the Scousers. Let them know it’s Christmas time.”

Victor Moses, the quieter of the two wing-backs, was fouled just outside the box. We waited for Willian to strike. Over it went. Bollocks.

We faded a little on the half-hour mark and Tom Davies – why do I like it that he plays with his socks hallway down his shins? – was able to pick up a ball, drive through midfield but his shot was wide. It was then Bakayoko’s chance to run from midfield. He strode right through the Everton half and passed to Pedro. I admired the lovely shape as he smacked the ball goal wards, but Jordan Pickford palmed over.

Just before half-time, Andreas Christensen uncharacteristically lost possession in front of the towering main stand and we watched, no doubt worried, as Calvert-Lewin drove into our box. He stalled, unsure of what to do, and the ever-reliable Azpilicueta blocked.

At the break, we were a little frustrated not to have broken the deadlock. After a little noise at the start, everything had died a little. I could not remember a song in praise or anger from the Evertonians the entire half. We could hardly believe that Big Sam had decided to take off the midfielder Davies in place of the bulky defender Williams. It seemed to re-enforce his battle plan.

Soon into the second-half, Pickford was soon called into action, saving well from a drive from Eden. The rebound fell to Alonso but Williams hacked it away.

The sun had now burned the mist away, but the only sunny part of the Goodison Park pitch was the Chelsea penalty area. We watched as Thibaut looked rather concerned as he shielded the sun from his eyes. He came for a cross from a rare Everton foray, confidently punched, and we heaved a huge sigh of relief.

We dominated fully now. Everton’s answer to receiving the ball from a clearance or a miss-placed pass was to simply hoof the ball up and away. I looked over at the Evertonians in the Park End and wondered how much of this they could stomach.

Eden Hazard was at the centre of everything. His change of pace, his slight of foot, his acceleration, his awareness of others was simply sensational.

Cesc Fabregas replaced Pedro. There was a slight change in shape.

I was a little annoyed with both wing backs. I spoke to Gary :

“Both Alonso and Moses seem to take forever to get going once they have the bloody ball. Zappacosta, who is not as good a player, at least gets out of the traps pretty damn quick.”

Hazard forced another excellent save from Pickford in the Everton goal. This was turning into “one of those games.”

With twenty minutes of the second-half gone, the locals behind the goal at last erupted in song. I almost feinted.

“EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TON. EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TOOOON. EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TON. EV-ER-TON. EV-ER-TON.”

Next home game, I hear that they are going to attempt to master four fucking syllables.

Michy Batshuayi replaced Willian, and was warmly applauded. The Chelsea support, to our immense credit, have not turned on him, and we realised that he might well turn out to be our saviour. His first fine touch was cheered by all.

“COME ON MICHY, SON.”

A Moses cross was headed – THUMP – against his own bar by Williams. This was just typical of our luck all day. I lost count of the number of crosses or shots which were deflected wide or over or blocked by a loose leg.

With the last throw of the dice, Zappacosta replaced Moses. One of his first crosses was sliced high into 2018.

A Rudiger strike went straight down Pickford’s throat. A daisy-cutter from Cesc was deflected away for a corner.

“How the fuckitty fuck have we not scored in this game?”

Then.

There is always a then.

An Everton corner from where the Bullens Road meets the Gwladys Street.

“Here we fucking go.”

Our nerves jangled. Our buttocks tightened. Our heartbeat increased.

A Sigurdsson corner evaded everyone apart from the head of Keane, who rose – nobody near him, for heaven’s sake – but thankfully thumped his header way over the bar.

There was a collective and profound sigh to be heard in both tiers of the away end.

Despite an added four minutes, our attacks petered out. At the final whistle, we were silent. There were no boos, and not a great deal of cheer either. As the players and manager came towards us, I heard a good level of support and that cheered me. Parky and I soon made our way out and waited for PD and Glenn to join us.

We were as philosophical as ever.

“We had said we would have been content with a point.”

“With just a little more luck, we would have won that two or three naught.”

“How awful were Everton, though?”

We hot-footed back to the car and were soon on our way south.

At Stafford, we stopped for some much-needed scran, and I was able to drive on, refuelled and replenished. We listened to the radio intermittently. An away win for Tottenham was met with subdued moans. The events at Leicester City were left to unfold by themselves; I simply did not have the stomach for it. The radio was turned off.

I eventually reached home at 9pm.

I clicked-on the TV.

Leicester City 2 Manchester United 2.

Ha.

“As you were boys.”

We are now at the halfway stage in our league season. Back in August, I predicted a championship win for Manchester City, with United finishing in second place and us in third. I think I predicted Spurs to finish fourth. As it stands, Chelsea will be right in the mix for an automatic CL berth, but I honestly think that we can pip United to second place. In one hundred and twelve years, we have only bettered that on six occasions. Sometimes it is perfectly fine to come second.

See you all on Boxing Day.

 

Tales From Friends Reunited

Chelsea vs. Atletico Madrid : 5 December 2017.

The Chuckle Bus was London-bound once more, headed to Stamford Bridge for a third consecutive game and a Tuesday evening encounter with Atletico Madrid. Here was a lovely match to finish off our autumnal series in the competition that gets us all excited and dreamy. After Champions League clashes with the Mattress Makers in 2009/2010 and 2013/2014 (does anyone remember us playing Atletico at Highbury in the pre-season Makita at Highbury in 1994 too?), this seemed like an evening to re-acquaint ourselves with a familiar adversary and some old friends too.

Step forward Tiago.

Our one-season wonder from 2004/2005 was returning to Stamford Bridge in his capacity as assistant manager to Diego Simeone after finally hanging up his boots last season. I am not really sure why Jose Mourinho sold Tiago on to Lyon after just one championship season at Stamford Bridge. He was a classy player with an eye for goal. His equaliser on a famous night at Old Trafford was a belter. He featured in the semi-finals against us in 2014. He would now sit alongside the Argentinian Simeone, who himself played against us for Lazio in the 1999/2000 season.

Step forward Filipe Luis.

Another one-season wonder under Jose Mourinho, this defender flitted in and out of the Chelsea team of 2014/2015, and returned to Atletico the following season after a disappointing total of games played. He shared the same shocking hairstyle as Alexei Smertin and followed the same fate as the left-back Asier del Horno who also lasted just one season under Mourinho. Considering Chelsea’s predilection for dispensing the services of left-backs after a league win, it is quite a surprise that Marcos Alonso is still here.

Step forward Fernando Torres.

Once an Atleti wunderkind, the local boy from Fuenlabrada signed for Liverpool and then joined us in a blockbuster move in the January transfer window of 2011. Although I was always impressed with his work ethic, he struggled to win over many fans. He is remembered fondly by myself for that goal in Barcelona, that corner in Munich and that goal in Amsterdam. The roar which greeted his first-ever goal in the rain against West Ham is one of the loudest I have ever witnessed. I last saw him on the bench at Turf Moor in the first game of 2014/2015. It would be great to see him again.

In addition to Tiago playing against us in 2014, that Atletico team also included Thibaut Courtois and Diego Costa.

I wonder what ever happened to them?

We popped into “The Goose” for one and “Simmons Bar” for a couple. There were the usual familiar Chelsea faces in both pubs. I was pleased to be joined by Eric, still visiting from Toronto, and taking in his third match at Stamford Bridge in seven days and we chatted about his stay in London. We shared a few laughs when we mentioned the heightened expectation from legions of new fans, who only appear to be in it for the trophies. Eric spoke about the respect that he has for us – cough, cough – “old school” Chelsea fans who supported us through thick, thin and thinner.

“You were there when we were shit, right?”

“Well, at the time, I have to say, we all thought that we were alright. Honestly. For the most part, we thought we were doing OK.”

I was half-serious.

Eric understood the joke.

Thoughts turned to the evening’s game. When the draw was made way back in August, a brave man would have bet against Chelsea and Atletico Madrid making it out of the group, yet it was looking pretty likely that Simeone’s men, with just win from their five matches, would be likely to playing in the Europa League, save for a catastrophe for Roma against Qarabag. We were already guaranteed a passage into the knock-out phase in the new year. Whereas others were calculating whether or not it would be best to finish first or second, with likely opposition being compared, I was hoping for a win against Atletico for the sole reason that it would mean that our first game in February or March would be away. It is always advantageous to play away first. And I was thinking of the supporters just as much as the team. For the supporters, let us enjoy an away game first with no chance of a defeat from the first game spoiling our trip. For the players, let them enjoy home advantage in the second game, where extra-time might be needed.

However, as we took our seats in The Sleepy Hollow of the Matthew Harding, there was a certain strangeness to the evening’s mood. The four of us – Lord Parky, PD, Young Jake and me – had decided that we would be forced, reluctantly, to leave the game, regardless of the score, on eighty-five minutes to avoid the horrific traffic congestion caused by the partial closure of the M4 which had blighted our return trip against Swansea City the previous week.

“Let’s go 3-0 up and bugger off home, lads.”

Over in The Shed, the two thousand away fans were a riot of colour, if not noise. I was impressed that so many had travelled despite the miniscule chance of them progressing. Down on the pitch, the Atletico players were going through their drills in front of their fans, while the Chelsea players were doing the same in front of us. The stadium took for ever to fill, but it almost reached full capacity. Apart from a section in The Shed – a gap so that Chelsea fans were not immediately above the visitors – I had to search meticulously for empty seats. In our section, virtually every seat was full.

I commented to Alan –

“£35 for a Champions League game is pretty decent, to be fair.”

Antonio had mixed it up again, and I was surprised that he chose to play Davide Zappacosta out on the left in place of Marcos Alonso. Tiemoue Bakayoko was recalled in the place of Danny Drinkwater. Gary Cahill, the experienced captain, replaced Toni Rudiger.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Bakayoko – Zappacosta

Hazard – Morata

I was pleased to see both Filipe Luis and Fernando Torres starting for Atletico, resplendent in their red and white stripes.

The anthem, the march across the pitch, the handshakes.

It would be lovely, I think, if the march across the pitch for Champions League games could be kept in the new Stamford Bridge stadium. Let’s maintain that Chelsea tradition. It adds an extra lick of drama and anticipation on these wonderful nights. Keep the dressing rooms in the East Stand and keep the dignitaries in the West Stand.

Something to think about, Herr Herzog and Herr de Meuron.

There was a slight wait for the referee’s whistle and then the game began with their star striker Antoine Griezmann kicking-off, or kicking-back, or whatever it is called these days.

Griezmann must have just recently returned from his own stag party in Prague or Benidorm or Amsterdam; his best man must surely have cut his hair with an electric shaver, and it was only now starting to grow again. It looked bloody awful.

The game lacked a little intensity at the start. As players picked out team mates in pretty patterns but without much penetration, I thought back on all of these ridiculous links between Chelsea and Atletico Madrid that have developed in the very recent past. I recalled that in Italy, some clubs – in addition to heated rivalries with some teams – have “friendly” relationships with some clubs too. Napoli get on well with Genoa, I seemed to remember. In Europe, there is a little link up between Chelsea and Rangers, Chelsea and Lazio, Chelsea and Feyenoord, and in the pre-historic days of 1994/1995, a little band of TSV1860 Munich followed us around on our European trail. I wondered if we have witnessed the first tentative steps in a friendship between Chelsea and Atletico over the past few seasons. When they beat us, fairly and squarely, in 2014, I joined in thousands who applauded Atletico off the Stamford Bridge turf.

I remembered the story of how Newcastle United fans invaded the Basque city of Bilbao in the mid-nineties, and how they were taken in by the natives, who joined in with their drinking and carousing, to such an extent that a few Geordies mooted the idea of forming some sort of friendship between the two clubs’ supporters.

Then, it dawned on them.

“Wait a minute lads, they wear red and white stripes.”

A few chances were exchanged, and over the first twenty minutes I would suggest that the away team were marginally ahead on points. Then, we began to turn the screw. As with the game against Newcastle United, Alvaro Morata managed a few efforts on goal. One shot curled just wide of Jan Oblak’s post.

There was a “trademark” heavy-touch – I am being kind – from Torres in our box and the jeers rang out.

A lovely little bit of delicate close control from N’Golo Kante – what is “keepy-uppy” in French? – brought warm applause.

Eden Hazard began to dominate. Just how does he consistently manage to out-fox a marker with those 180 degree turns from a standing position?

Another good save from Oblak, again from Morata.

Hazard set up Zappacosta on the left, who cut back and fired a low shot goal wards. Oblak again pounced to push the ball away.

There was little noise in the stadium. A few chants, but not many. The two sets of fans in The Shed contrasted wildly.

Atletico – standing, participating and colourful, with flags, banners, scarves.

Chelsea – sitting, watching, being the modern English home football supporter to a T.

Although we were now dominating play, this was still a game that lacked any biting tackles nor rugged intensity. It was enjoyable stuff though. No complaints. Griezmann kept coming deep to pick up the ball, but was generally quiet. Sorry for the clichés, but Christensen was cool and calm again. Only Bakayoko looked out of sorts. Advantage Drinkwater at this stage of the season.

In the first few moments of the second-half, a Griezmann free-kick curled around our wall but Thibaut was able to save. Within a minute, a fine Hazard cross from the left was headed goal wards by Christensen who had leapt well. That man Oblak palmed over.

We were then treated to a sensational run from deep from Hazard, his speed and skill leaving defenders in his wake. Oblak saved again. We were playing some great stuff now, and Morata forced another save from the corner. We were raiding at will down the left with Zappacosta adding extra spice, and the ever reliable Moses on the right twisting and pushing to create crosses out of nowhere.

Filipe Luis then lazily guided a fine shot past Thibaut – hearts in mouths – but it rebounded back off the right post. Koke – another quiet one – headed the ball back towards goal but Thibaut was equal to it.

An Atletico corner soon followed.

I found myself saying “don’t let it drop.”

It dropped onto Torres’ header and his flick was headed in at the far post by Niguez.

“Bollocks.”

This goal was undoubtedly against the run of play. We had dominated until then.

“Bollocks.”

Fernando Torres was given an outstanding ovation when he was substituted by Simeone just after the goal was scored. He surely has a soft spot for us.

“The Atletico & Chelsea Supporters Association” : Patron Fernando Torres.

Pedro replaced the disappointing Bakayoko. Our terrier-like winger was soon in the game, fizzing past his marker and smashing a shot goal wards.

Oblak, save, sigh.

Christensen went close.

The intensity was increasing and Stamford Bridge warmed with noise.

It was all out attack now.

I looked across to PD, wondering if we would score before our eighty-five-minute escape hatch would open up.

We went close, with Moses, Hazard, Pedro and Fabregas all creating chance after chance.

Willian replaced Zappacosta.

“COME ON CHELS.”

Pedro moved to wing back, Willian played ahead.

On seventy-five minutes, the ball broke to Hazard after a defensive header, and he accelerated past his marker before slamming a low cross towards the six-yard box. I saw the ball flash into the goal, and missed the deflection from the Atletico defender Savic. It was the slightest of touches.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Eden celebrated down below us. His relief was shared by all of us.

“Phew.”

We hardly lose any games at home in Europe. Count’em.

The boys in blue were playing some great stuff now.

Morata headed on – a classic Chelsea counter – for Fabregas and Cesc advanced before squaring the ball back to our number nine, who was being chased by three defenders, but he fluffed his lines and Oblak saved.

“Bollocks.”

Michy replaced Morata.

“Tuck yer shirt in, son.”

Down below us, Eden danced away, and spotted the unmarked Willian. With the goal at his mercy he ballooned the ball over.

“Bollocks.”

With five minutes to go, we left.

“See you at West Ham, Al.”

What a strange sensation. In all of my years of attending games at Stamford Bridge – this would be game number 722 – I had only ever left a game early once before (Bolton at home, 1981, in case anyone is wondering. I needed to return to Earls Court to catch a bus home to Frome at 5pm. Thankfully we were 2-0 in that game.)

The streets were eerie and empty. It was wholly surreal.

Jake, PD and I walked briskly back to the car. Parky, bless him, was already there. There had been no loud cheer on our walk down Fulham Road.

It had finished 1-1.

We pulled away at 9.50pm, PD broke the land speed record and, at bang on midnight I was home. There had been no added drama at Stamford Bridge nor on the M4.

Job done.

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Tales From Games 1 & 1,166

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 2 December 2017.

In the tight area underneath the Matthew Harding Upper I bumped into a friend, Ollie, who comes over to a few Chelsea games every season from his home in France. The last time I saw him was in “The Arkles” outside Anfield last January. We shared a few words, he took a selfie of the two of us, and I thanked him for being one of the eighty or so people from around the globe who have taken the plunge and subscribed to these match reports. I apologised for occasionally being rather self-indulgent, knowing full well that I would again be doing so for this Newcastle United one.

As I have mentioned more than once, a Chelsea vs. Newcastle United game is always very special to me. The Geordies were the opponents for my very first Chelsea game way back in March 1974. And the sight of those famous black and white stripes appearing at Stamford Bridge always stirs my emotions. The Chelsea vs. Newcastle United game on Saturday 2 December 2017 was my 1,166th Chelsea match, but I have to say that the memories of game number one over forty-three years ago are still remarkably clear.

The drive up to London with my parents. Stopping off at Gunnersbury Park off the North Circular for a packed-lunch (I have a feeling that cheese and pickle sandwiches were inevitably involved). Catching the tube from the art deco styled Park Royal station in West London. The crowds at Earl’s Court tube station. The climb up the steps to reach the top of the West Stand. The match programme. The first view of the Stamford Bridge pitch. The Shed End and the blue and white scarves twirling. The East Stand, opposite, all exposed concrete and yet to open. The three Newcastle United fans in front of us in the West Stand Benches complete with black and white scarves. The substitute being announced as Ken Swain, and my immediate embarrassment of not having heard of him. Ian Hutchinson’s leap to head us into the lead. A “Topic” at half-time. Gary Locke carrying out sliding tackle after sliding tackle in front of us in the second-half. The appearance of Ken Swain as substitute. The joy of a Chelsea win. The slow walk up to the top of the West Stand at the end of the game and a look back, hoping that I would soon return. The “Chelsea The Blues” scarf that my mother bought me from one of those souvenir huts behind the West Stand. The treat of a hamburger and chips at the long gone “Wimpy” on Fulham Broadway before catching the tube back to Park Royal.

I remember so much. But more than anything, I can remember exactly what it felt like.

Those feelings are difficult to describe, but it always amazes me that for a few brief seconds, I am often sent whirring back in time to a Saturday afternoon of my childhood – I was eight, almost nine – and the power of recollection scares me.

Chants, laughter, grizzled old Londoners, shouts of the crowd, royal blue everywhere, the surrounding buildings, the large terraces, the dog track, the sense of place and the sense of belonging.

They say you never forget your first time, eh?

Certainly not me.

Since that very first game, Newcastle United have appeared as regular as clockwork in my Chelsea story. I have been present at the previous twenty-four league visits of the Geordies to Stamford Bridge dating back to the 1986/87 season. There is just something about them; it is as if I make a special effort for them, even in the days of when I only attended ten to twenty games each season.

And – oh boy – we have certainly enjoyed some hugely enjoyable games against them over the years.

However, knowing full well that Newcastle United were relegated two seasons ago, added to the fact that I don’t tend to watch much football at all on TV these days, I knew only too well that many of the visiting players would be virtually new to me. The problem is that many of Newcastle United’s current players come from foreign lands. If they were all from the British Isles, then I sense that I would be able to tie them to former teams in England, or to geographical regions. I think this is how my mind works, and how I manage to remember various players.

There are two easy examples.

Dwight Gayle, a late-developer, ex-Palace, went to Newcastle a couple of seasons ago.

Jonjo Shelvey, a Londoner, ex-Charlton, ex-Liverpool, ex-Swansea City, signed during the January transfer window in 2016 I think.

I’ve heard of Mbemba and Mitrovic but not many others. I guess a whole season of them playing in the division below has not helped.

For comparison, I thought back to those players from March 1974.

The difference is as clear as black and white.

Off the top of my head, this is what I can remember of their players –

  1. Iam McFaul the goalkeeper, sure he was caretaker manager for Newcastle at one stage, what an odd name, I think he was called Liam too.
  2. David Craig, the right back, struggling, but I remember his name.
  3. Frank Clark, the left-back, went on to manage Nottingham Forest.
  4. Terry McDermott, the creative midfielder, went on to play for Liverpool, before returning to Newcastle with Keegan in the ‘eighties, scoring against us in the away game in 1983/84.
  5. Pat Howard, big blonde centre-back.
  6. Bob Moncur, the captain, think he played for Sunderland too.
  7. Stewart Barrowclough, winger, later played for Bristol Rovers.
  8. Jim Smith, bit of a Geordie legend, but can’t remember too much about him.
  9. Malcolm MacDonald, one of their heroes, played for England, then Arsenal, managed Fulham in their 1982/83 season.
  10. John Tudor, I can picture his face, played a few more seasons for them I believe.
  11. Terry Hibbitt, brother of Kenny, skilful player, sadly passed away years ago.

It is unlikely, I think, that I will be able to remember as much depth about the current crop in years to come.

Due to the closure of the North End Road, I was forced to drive further east and then head down past Earls Court, where we noticed a few hundred Geordies at The Courtfield pub opposite the tube station. Due to the tiresome 12.30pm kick-off, the pre-match was as brief as I can remember; a single pint of “Peroni” in “The Atlas” with PD and Parky, plus Kev, Gillian and Rich from Edinburgh.

Inside Stamford Bridge, there were – as expected – a full three thousand Geordies, though only three flags.

There were a few empty seats dotted around.

Above The Shed End, a large mural of sixty supporters’ club banners appeared against Swansea City last Wednesday, though I was only now able to take a worthwhile photograph.

IMG_1810 (2)

Our team? Antonio juggled things a little, deciding to start Victor Moses on the right, while the rested Eden Hazard and Cesar Azpilicueta both returned. Danny Drinkwater played instead of Tiemoue Bakayoko. No place for the captain Cahill, nor the out-of-favour David Luiz.

Courtois – Rudiger, Christensen, Azpilicueta – Moses, Fabregas, Kante, Drinkwater, Alonso – Hazard, Morata.

On the far touchline, Rafa Benitez appeared back at Stamford Bridge for the first time since the divisive 2012/13 campaign. I hoped that there would not be much volume to the inevitable, and dull, “We Don’t Care About Rafa” chants which could well develop over the next hour and a half.

There is no doubt that the away team – players and fans – began the brightest. The three-thousand were soon into it.

“We are the Geordies. The Geordie boot boys.

Oh we are mental and we are mad.

We are the loyalist football supporters.

The world has ever had.”

I commented to Alan that they always bring three-thousand down to Stamford Bridge and we always take three-thousand up to St. James’ Park.

Respect.

However, we enjoyed a few passages of play and threatened at The Shed End. A lovely chest-pass from Eden to Morata – “reunited and it feels so good” – but a blast over.

After twelve minutes, Andreas Christensen was out-muscled to a high ball. Marcos Alonso’s pass back to Thibaut was pounced upon by a Newcastle player – Murphy, who? – and although our ‘keeper did well to block, the ball ran invitingly to Dwight Gayle who slotted home. I noted that the goal scorer hardly celebrated.

How odd.

The Geordies were not so reticent.

“New-cas-uuhl, New-cas-uuhl, New-cas-uuhl.”

There was a period of nervousness as the home crowd grew agitated with some jittery back-passes and clearances. Thankfully, our play soon improved. The home fans responded too. Very often we need to go a goal behind for our support to be stirred. I was so pleased. A magnificent lofted pass from Cesc Fabregas – almost playing the vaunted quarterback role of the Beckham era – was brilliantly controlled by Hazard, but his dink was well-saved by Darlow (who?).

We were stretching the Geordie defence at will and enjoyed a flurry of corners. Christensen, with a header, went close. On twenty-one minutes, a cross from Dave was aimed at the head of Morata. A Newcastle defender cleared, but the ball fell invitingly to Hazard, thankfully following up. His shot was hit towards the goal, and it bounced up and over the orange-clad goalkeeper.

We were back in it.

Our play improved, the noise improved. This was slowly evolving into a fine game of football, with Chelsea starting to dominate. Moses was always active down the right. This was a good reaction.

On thirty-two minutes, I rose from seat 369 and shot off to turn my bike around.

On thirty-three minutes, I heard a huge roar.

I don’t miss many.

On the PA – “and the scorer for Chelsea…Alvaro Morata.”

On thirty-four minutes :

Alan : “They’ll have to come at worselves now, like.”

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

Our dominance continued. We played some lovely stuff. Eden was a complete joy to watch.

Thibaut finished another word-search.

The ball was touched out of play and Rafa Benitez, looking frustrated, took a huge swipe at the ball. He sliced it and how we laughed.

At half-time, we were warmed by the appearance of Sir Bobby Tambling.

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As he walked past the away fans, Neil made a note that the Geordies were applauding.

“Respect.”

This was met with some muted applause from the Matthew Harding.

Andreas Christensen had us all purring when he went on a long dribble, before playing a perfectly-weighted ball to Victor Moses, just beating the off-side trap, but the cross just evaded Morata. I was impressed with Moses, who was often involved on the right. Kante and Drinkwater were playing well, Fabregas too. The star, though, was Eden, who was simply mesmerizing. He continually teased the Newcastle defence. He went close a few times. Morata seemed happy to have Eden alongside him, though on more than one occasion I just wished that he had a greater desire to stay on his feet.

A rare Newcastle effort flew past the post.

On seventy-three minutes, a clinical ball from Fabregas found Moses. He pushed the ball on, but was taken out by Ritchie – who? – and the referee pointed towards the spot.

“Nailed on.”

Up-stepped Eden.

A slight wait.

A chip.

A Panenka.

Chelsea 3 Newcastle United 1.

GET IN.

By this stage, we noted that Morata seemed exhausted, hardly testing his marker, barely walking. I was amazed that he stayed on. Instead, Conte chose to rest his star player ahead of the Atletico Madrid game on Tuesday, and it was Eden who was replaced by Willian. Bakayoko then replaced Fabregas. Cahill replaced Christensen.

I had to admire the away fans. They won a late corner and celebrated like it was an equaliser.

I wondered if those three Geordies from 1974 – in their ‘seventies now, no doubt – were in among them.

This was a great Chelsea win. After the away team’s initial period of dominance, we had soon extinguished their fire. Following the triumph against Swansea City, we had won our second successive league game. I want us to go on another winning streak over Christmas. Let’s see how far we can go.

Poor old Newcastle. They rarely profit from a trip to Stamford Bridge.

Those last consecutive 25 league games at Stamford Bridge make painful reading for the boys from the Tyne.

Chelsea wins – 16

Draws – 7

Newcastle United wins – 2

Following on from Wednesday’s tiresome trip home, we were caught in another jam, along the Fulham Palace Road, caused by the closure on the North End Road. After an hour of stagnant movement, at last we cleared the congestion and shot past the floodlights of Griffin Park as Brentford played out a local derby against Fulham.

On the radio, we listened in as Spurs dropped further points at Watford, while the FA Cup also got us thinking about potential opponents in Round Three.

It would be pretty magical for both Chelsea and Frome Town to play Hereford during the same season…

Tales From The Arkles

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 25 November 2017.

This was our third away game in just eight days. After visits to the Black Country and Azerbaijan, it was now the turn of Merseyside. With a tea-time kick-off at 5.30pm, I was able to enjoy the luxury of a little lie-in before driving the Chuckle Bus north. I collected PD, then Glenn, then Parky. The weather worsened as we headed north on the M5 and then the M6. This would be my twenty-third trip to Anfield with Chelsea. Bizarrely, it would be my first-ever trip with Glenn, my oldest Chelsea mate. His last visit to Anfield was way back in November 1985; that famous 1-1 draw, with 1,000 Rangers fans in their own special section on the Kemlyn Road. On that occasion, he traveled-up from Somerset with the Yeovil supporters on their coach. I had arrived by train from Stoke. We had both been at the game in May 1985 too. Again, he traveled up by coach from Frome and I trained it from my college town.

…all those years ago…we were only twenty and eighteen…yet here we were, repeating the same steps in 2017.

We had parked-up on Utting Avenue, that wide road which shoots off from the city’s ring road, Queens Drive, to the Anfield citadel at the top of the hill. We were headed for “The Arkels” – one of the most famous “away pubs” on our travels with Chelsea – where I had arranged to meet up with a few chaps. There was not the wicked wind of Baku, but it was still a cold afternoon. The rain had momentarily stopped, but a Turner-esque storm cloud was looming in the distance, the fading yellow sun offering a last blast of light as the night fell.

I was reminded of a photograph that I took of the same pub after my very first visit to Anfield in that May 1985 game, which ended with a 4-3 win for the reigning league champions.

The same pub, thirty-two years apart.

We slipped inside “The Arkels” at around 3.15pm. It was frantically busy. It is not an “away fans only” pub – both Liverpool and Chelsea fans rubbed shoulders, but it was the away fans making all of the noise. The landlord welcomed the away fans to his boozer using a microphone.

“Enjoy your visit lads, sing some songs, but please don’t stand on the furniture.”

Although things often used to get a little tense at Liverpool over the years, this particular pub is always welcoming. The locals watched with strained ambivalence as the Chelsea lads sang song after song. I am not convinced that United fans are given equal billing as us. A little gaggle of lads from our home area were already there and The Chuckle Brothers joined them. I spotted my mate Rob and also three good pals from the US. Brian from Chicago was back from his travels to Baku and he was joined by J12 and his wife, and also Cruzer and his wife and daughter.

J12, Jenny, Cruzer, Abigail and Ava all live in Los Angeles.

From La La Land to La Land.

We were in the little room to the left of the bar. It brought back a memory from January 1992 where, on my first ever visit to “The Arkels”, I had found myself drinking at the exact same table. I retold the events of that day to the visitors from across the pond.

I’d like to think that it is worth sharing again here.

I was with my old school mate Francis for the Liverpool versus Chelsea game and it would be a seismic weekend for him; a Liverpool fan, this would be his first ever visit. On the Friday night, we had stayed with friends – my college mate Pete and his Evertonian wife Maxine – and then enjoyed a couple of beers in a local pub on the Saturday lunchtime before setting off for the ground. I already had my ticket, procured during the previous few weeks direct from Chelsea. In those days, I am sure that you could show your membership card at Stamford Bridge, pay your money, and get handed an away ticket. No internet. No loyalty points. It was as easy as that. On the previous Wednesday, Liverpool had beaten Arsenal and – all of a sudden – had found themselves back in the hunt for the league championship behind Manchester United and Leeds United. Francis, Pete and I were dropped off near Anfield at around 2.15pm; the plan was for Pete and Francis to stand on The Kop.

However, the streets around Anfield were milling with people. Bizarrely, we bumped into an old college acquaintance – a Scouser with the unforgettable name of Johnny Fortune – and our heart sank when he barked at Pete with incredulity :

“The Kop’s full.”

I could hardly believe it either. Our plans had been hit by a wave of optimism by the Liverpool fans, enticed to Anfield in vast numbers after the midweek win. Not a spare ticket was to be had anywhere.

“Bollocks.”

Without dwelling on it, I quickly thrust my ticket for the away section in the Anfield Road into Francis’ hands.

“Take it.”

There was no way that I was going to allow Francis to miss out on his first ever Anfield game. Fran was almost stuck for words, but I shooed him away and told him to enjoy the match. Pete and I, once we had realised that there was no way in for us, retreated back to “The Arkels”, where we took our seats in the same corner where we were standing and sitting in 2017, drank a lager apiece and half-halfheartedly watched an England rugby international.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry when the news came through that Vinnie Jones had put Chelsea ahead. Liverpool then equalised. With half-time approaching, Pete and I finished our pints and walked past the Kemlyn Road Stand and found ourselves on the Walton Breck Road behind The Kop. The idea was to get some chips. At the half-time whistle, we suddenly noticed that one gate behind The Kop was opened and several – ten, maybe fifteen – Liverpool fans exited the stadium, crossed the road, bought some chips, then returned back inside the stadium.

Pete looked at me. I looked at Pete. No words were needed. We approached the gate. For those who knew the old Anfield, the gate was by the ship’s mast, in the south-west corner. Pete knocked on the gate.

“Alright, lads?”

In we went. In we fucking went. We silently ascended the steps and soon found ourselves among 15,000 Scousers on The Kop. I looked at Pete, smirking.

“Fucking get in.”

Anfield was not a friendly place, neither on nor off the pitch. And here I was, stood right among the enemy on the famous Kop. On the pitch, our form at Anfield was shocking. Save for a lone F.A. Cup win at Anfield in around 1965, Chelsea had not won at the home of Liverpool Football Club since 1937.

Yep, that’s right : 1937.

Fifty-five sodding years.

I watched from The Kop and Francis, the Liverpool fan, watched from the Chelsea section as a Dennis Wise goal gave us a 2-1 win. When Dennis scored, a low shot from an angle, my heart exploded but I – of course – stayed silent. What indescribable joy. We even missed a late penalty too. The locals were far from happy. I can remember one grizzled old chap spitting out a few words of consternation:

“Come on Liverpool. We can beat dese. It’s only Chelsea.”

Inside, I purred with happiness. And I was, deep down, supremely happy to have stood on the old Kop – even though it only amounted to only forty-five minutes – before it was bulldozed two years later.

At the end of the game, Pete and I raced around to meet up with Francis by the Shankly Gates and my first words were –

“We got in.”

I think it is very safe to say that Francis was very relieved.

“Our first win since 1937 and we got in for free.”

Ironically, in the circumstances, Francis had thoroughly enjoyed himself despite his team’s loss. He commented that the Chelsea fans never stopped singing, never stopped cheering. On more than one occasion, he found himself singing along too; I guess that he was caught up in the emotion of it all. One Chelsea supporter kissed him when Wisey scored. Also – fantastic this – Fran was deeply moved by Micky Greenaway’s urging of fellow fans to get behind the team with his demonic “Zigger Zagger” chant as he walked back and forth. It had been, Francis exclaimed, an incredible afternoon.

The years have flown past since.

I limited myself to two pints of San Miguel, sadly served in plastic glasses. The pub was bouncing with noise from around thirty Chelsea youngsters in the far room. I shared another couple of other stories with the US visitors. I told how my father had watched his only game of football – that is, before his trip to Chelsea with me in 1974 – during his WW2 training on The Wirral at Goodison Park, the equally impressive stadium at the bottom of Stanley Park, no more than a fifteen-minute walk away. I then whispered to J12 and Jenny about that infamous aspect of football on The Kop which the locals termed “a hotleg.”

The pub was thinning out. I re-joined The Chuckle Brothers in the back bar. A few idiots were standing on the sofas. At about 4.45pm, we set off, past the four of five police vans parked right outside the boozer.

I remembered how I had shaken hands with the then England manager Fabio Capello before our 2007 CL semi-final as we crossed the road, past the souvenir stalls, past the tight terraced streets.

The Kemlyn Stand of 1985 became the Centenary Stand in 1992. It is now the Kenny Dalglish Stand in 2017. There is now a car park behind the Anfield Road, where once there were houses, and only just recently a fan-zone. There are, I believe, plans to enlarge Anfield further at this end.

Inside, the Chelsea team were already on the pitch, going through their drills.

The team?

A very solid 3-5-2.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Drinkwater – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Hazard – Morata

The three in the middle – the former Leicester City champions plus the new boy Tiemoue – were chosen to dampen the threat of Liverpool’s attacking options. The creativity would have to come from Eden Hazard.

“No pressure.”

The minutes ticked by. A large flag floated over the heads of the Scousers in the lower tier to my left. No end of flags and banners waved in The Kop.

A bittersweet flag – “Iron Lady” – caught my eye. It honoured the memory of the late Anne Williams and her relentless fight for justice after her son Kevin was killed at Hillsborough in 1989.

Thankfully, I am pleased to report only a very short blast of the loathsome “Murderers” chant from the away section all day.

The teams entered the pitch.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

I expected a lot more noise. It was four times as loud at the infamous Champions League encounter in 2005; that match had, I am sure, the loudest atmosphere at any game that I have witnessed in the UK.

To my immediate right, a Chelsea banner was held aloft. A blue flare was set off and the smoke drifted up towards the mountainous new main stand to my right.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

Philippe Coutinho kicked-off.

Game on.

As so often happens, Liverpool dominated the first twenty minutes. Every game at Anfield seems to start in this fashion. Yet they rarely score. This game was no different. In previous seasons, it is so often Coutinho who impresses, but it was Mo Salah who caught the eye. His nimble footwork seemed to dazzle me, if not our defenders, who were more than able to close him down and stop him making a killer pass to others.

A few Liverpool passes zipped into our box, but we defended well, without any signs of panic or concern.

As the minutes ticked by, I gazed up at the rather old-fashioned scoreboard – no flashy TV screens at Anfield, nor Old Trafford – and commented to Gary :

“Over the years, I don’t think I have consistently watched the time pass on a scoreboard more than the one here.”

Gary agreed.

Tick tock, tick tock.

Liverpool struggled to make any real progress despite having much of the ball. At the other end, Eden began a dribble into a danger zone which was eerily similar to his goal at the end of the 2015/2016 season. A shot from outside the box similarly followed. On this occasion, Mignolet scrambled the ball away for a corner. Not so long after, a simply sublime 180 degree turn on a sixpence and a trademark dribble set up Danny Drinkwater, who could not quite get enough of the ball as Mignolet raced out.

Elsewhere, there were mixed performances. Sadly, Bakayoko really struggled to get in to the game at all. Davide Zappacosta seemed a little overawed. But Andreas Christensen was cool and magnificent. N’Golo Kante was N’Golo Kante; enough said. Hazard was the star though. He was on fire. There were a few Hazard and Morata link-ups, but nothing like at West Brom the previous Saturday.

Eden then set up Zappacosta with a teasing lay-off reminiscent of Pele and Carlos Alberto for Brazil in 1970. Unfortunately, the Italian’s rising shot was palmed over. From the corner which followed, an almighty scramble resulted – penalty box pinball – and there were a few swipes at the Liverpool goal without an end result.

For the record, Daniel Sturridge was having a very quiet game. It is hard to believe that he was a Chelsea non-playing substitute on that night in Munich. How things change.

A free-kick from Alonso flew past a post.

Just before the break, that man Salah shimmied, and curled one just past Courtois’ far post. It had me worried, anyway. It was Liverpool’s only worthwhile effort thus far.

At the break, Glenn shouted up to me from row two.

“We won’t lose this.”

“Nah.”

Hazard tangled with James Milner – the world’s most tedious footballer – on the edge of the box. No decision from Oliver the referee.

Oliver had given us a laugh when he had slipped and stumbled on the halfway line. The Chelsea choir did not waste much time.

“Are you Gerrard in disguise?”

Generally, though, the crowd were quiet. The home fans especially. And although everyone on The Kop was standing, as were the Chelsea fans, the Liverpool fans alongside us in the Annie Road were seated quietly.

Sigh. The lack of noise genuinely surprised me.

Sturridge had a weak effort in front of The Kop. Liverpool had begun better in the second period, but the raiding Zappacosta put in a couple of testing crosses from the right. No Chelsea player was able to connect, save for a ball which bobbled up on to Morata’s chest and flew wide.

“John Terry would have scored that.”

He loved a chest pass, did JT.

Courtois saved well in front of The Kop.

Away to our right, Antonio asked Willian, Fabregas and Rudiger to warm up.

On sixty-five minutes, Liverpool worked the ball in to our box and an attempted clearance from Bakayoko only teed up Oxlade-Chamberlain who touched the ball to Salah.

That horrible moment when you just bloody well know that a goal will be conceded.

“Bollocks.”

Salah guided the ball past Thibaut.

“Bollocks.”

To his credit, our former player did not celebrate.

After an age, Conte made a change. We struggled to work out why it was Drinkwater and not the very poor Bakayoko who was replaced by Fabregas. However, a lot more creativity immediately warmed us. Morata suddenly looked livelier. A few wonderful passes almost paid off.

Pedro replaced Tiemoue.

Tick tock, tick tock.

We stepped it up. I kept saying to the lad with a Mancunian accent to my left –

“We’ll get a goal.”

The away support was warmed by our increased urgency. Another cross from Zappacosta was zipped in. Right in front of me, Alonso met the ball at knee height with a volley. I snapped my camera as his effort flew over. It could have been the best goal that he would ever score. It could have been the best photograph that I would ever take. In the end, both shots were consigned to the delete folder.

Sigh.

With seven minutes remaining, Willian replaced Zappacosta. We kept pushing, with Hazard and Fabregas the main assailants. The Chelsea support roared the team on.

With five minutes to go, Willian received the ball in the inside-right channel. He had a man outside, but pushed on. He chose to send over a teaser towards the far post. The ball seemed to hang in the air for ever. I watched, mesmerized, by the spinning ball. It fell out of the night sky, above the clawing hand of Mignolet, and into the top corner of the goal. As it rippled the net, some nameless photographer at The Kop end snapped his camera.

My mouth is open. My eyes are wide.

No words are necessary.

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Pandemonium in the Annie Road.

GETINYOUFUCKER.

A scream and a shout. Arms everywhere. I clambered onto my seat – “please do not stand on the furniture” – and caught the blissful celebrations just yards away. What a moment. The goal was nothing more than we deserved.

In the final moments, a magnificent save from Courtois from Salah was met with thunderous applause.

The final whistle blew.

It was our third consecutive 1-1 at Anfield.

I suppose we should have no complaints, but I cannot help but think that if the game had continued for another five minutes, we would have found a winner from somewhere.

It had taken forever to drive up to Anfield – a few minutes’ shy of five hours – and it took an equally long time to retrace our steps. There was slow-moving traffic on Queens Drive, heavy rain on the M6, and a 50 miles per hour speed limit too.

At a Balti House in West Bromwich, we enjoyed some curries while watching our game on “Match Of The Day.”

“Willian, did you mean to shoot?”

“Of course.”

We weren’t so sure.

After setting off at 9.45am, I was back home at 2am. It wasn’t as far as Azerbaijan, but bloody hell it felt like it.

On Wednesday, we return home to Stamford Bridge to play Swansea City.

See you there.

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