Tales From November In August

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 26 August 2018.

Not so long after I picked up Parky from his Wiltshire village at around 6am on Saturday, my car slowed to allow a black cat, leaping from one hedgerow to another, to cross the narrow country lane. PD and I could not immediately decide if a black cat crossing one’s path was deemed as good or bad luck, though we feared the latter.

I thought about Sunderland’s relatively new, and quite ridiculous, nickname as being certified evidence that it was indeed bad luck, a warning of misfortune at best or something graver still at worst. The Black Cats was surely dreamt up by some marketing consultant for Sunderland so as to instil fear into their opponents.

Beware the Black Cats. Although not in their current third tier predicament.

The Black Cats. Destined to strike fear into Sunderland’s opposition.

Meow bloody meow.

But the message was clear. Black cats were definitely seen as a bad omen. It was just what I bloody needed at the start of our trip to Tyneside. I had not seen us win at St. James’ Park since 2009, and our last win up there was in 2011.

I needed all the good luck charm I could find.

And then, just moments after, it just got worse.

A single Magpie flew past.

Sunderland’s menacing Black Cats and Newcastle United’s sorrowful Magpie.

I felt like turning the car around there and then.

But I drove on. I wasn’t going to let such irrationality influence another, hopefully, memorable jaunt to the North-East.

My alarm had sounded at 4.15am, and I collected PD at 5.30am. It was safe to say that we were the only ones on the road. It did not seem five minutes ago since we were last headed to Bristol Airport, and then to Newcastle. Our last league game of last season was of course against the same opposition. The two fixtures were fifteen weeks apart, but in league football terms, just one hundred and eighty minutes apart.

At the airport, we faced a two-hour delay.

Bollocks.

The flight would eventually leave at around 10.45am.

Maybe we should have taken heed of the Black Cat and the Magpie after all.

Not to worry, we soon landed at the airport, took a cab into town and booked into our hotel down on the quayside, right under the darkened shadows of the green ironwork of the Tyne Bridge. We were out and about – “The Slug & Lettuce” – by about 12.45pm. The first three pints of the day – “Peronis” – did not touch the sides. We were soon joined by Andy, a friend from back home, and his good friend Russ, who is a Newcastle season ticket holder, and who we met back in May. Russ and Andy were in the army together, and I have known for a few years that Andy always stays with Russ when Chelsea play in the north-east. We then dropped into the “Newcastle Arms”, a first-time visit for me. Here was another delightful Geordie pub, stripped bare to expose its red brick, but with comfortable chairs and good food too. The plastered walls of dingy pubs of the past have long since been banished from this part of the Toon.

And it is a fantastic little area, right under the high arches of Newcastle’s famous bridge, full of pubs and bars, with rowdiness and laughter, with shrieking females and strutting lads, not so mad as the Bigg Market atop the hill, but a wonderfully evocative location.

On a whim, Russ invited us back to his local pub to continue the drinking session. We were more than happy to head out of the city centre. I, for one, didn’t want this trip to be a simple repeat of the one in May. We hopped into two cabs outside the “Akenside Traders”, and were soon “ganning” over the Tyne, into Gateshead, past Paul Gascoigne’s home town of Dunston and past the Metro Centre. After only ten minutes, we found ourselves in The Sun at Swalwell, where we met the landlord Dave, who quickly bought us a round of lagers.

We chatted to the locals, who were more than welcoming, and we had an absolute blast. We bloody loved it. I chatted to Russ about all sorts of football stories, and the beers and laughter flowed. There was an impromptu photo call with one of the locals, who proceeded to take off his shirt to expose his NUFC tattoos. Bit of a Geordie tradition that, I fear.

Dave, the landlord, was wearing a Bobby Robson shirt. Bless him.

Amid the laughter, there was one sad story. In 2014, two Newcastle United supporters – John Alder and Liam Sweeney – perished when the plane on which they were passengers was shot down over the Ukraine in a sickening act of terrorism. They were on their way to see their team play in New Zealand.

John Alder, who only missed one Newcastle United game in forty years, and who was affectionately known as “the undertaker” because of the black suit that he wore to games, often used to drink in “The Sun” at Swalwell.

RIP Bonny Lads.

Dave bought us a round of Sambucas as a leaving gift and we jumped back into a waiting cab to take us back into town.

At the Redhouse, we again met up with Kev, Gillian and Richard from Edinburgh– no strangers to these tales – and then Alan and Jo from Atherstone. We nipped over the road for a curry, and then the drinking continued at the “Akenside Traders” and then up the hill at the oddly named “Colonel Porter’s Emporium.”

We had been “on it” – and had valiantly stopped ourselves from falling “off it” – for around ten hours.

Although The Toon was still bouncing, we decided to call it a night at around 11pm.

On the Sunday, in an exact copy of May, we breakfasted at “The Quayside” pub. We were first joined by Foxy, from Dundee, who last appeared in these tales for the Barcelona away game, and it was a pleasure to see him again. He had only decided to come down to the game at 6am that morning. I was happy to offer him my one spare ticket. We were also joined by my work colleague Craig who, with his young son, had driven up from Wiltshire in the wind and rain on the day, a horrific journey which had taken him seven hours. Outside, the rain was lashing down. The difference between May and August was black and white.

Four more pints of lager to the good, I hopped into one of the two cabs that took us to the ground.

We took our seats way up in the upper tier of the Leazes End.

Everything was grey, the seats, the stadium, the steel of the roof, the city outside, the hills on the horizon.

We all had jackets on. It wasn’t ridiculously cold, but when the wind blew you knew about it. It was like November in August.

The kick-off approached. There had been changes from the Arsenal game.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante

Pedro – Morata – Hazard

Eden’s inclusion surprised me; Sarri had hinted that he would be rested further.

The Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop” thundered around the stadium, complete with images of Newcastle victories over us in recent seasons on the TV screens. This then gave way to Mark Knopfler’s “Local Hero”, a song which I find particularly stirring. I always remember that after England’s exit to West Germany in Italia ’90, as a precursor to our third/fourth place play-off against Italy in Bari, the BBC team aired a five-minute segment in which the rich and varied talents of the wunderkind Gascoigne were featured, and the instrumental “Local Hero” was chosen to illustrate it. It was as one of the most evocative pieces of imagery that I had ever seen. It captured my imagination in 1990, and hearing the same song, high up and above St. James’ Park in 2018 I was again stirred.

It was just a lovely moment. I stood and looked out over the grey rooftops of the ancient city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and breathed it all in.

Football.

Music.

Mates.

History.

Chelsea.

“It’s not a bad life is it, this?”

I had a little smile to myself, only for myself, but now shared with everyone.

The moment fair took my breath away.

Behind me, the yellow “away” flag fluttered past.

Memories of my first game up in Newcastle in 1984 when Kerry, Wee Pat and Speedo wore the famous “lemon” hoops.

This would be my eleventh trip to St. James’ but nothing compares to my first time.

This little clip brings the memories tracing back.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8yqG0IfPYI

In 2018, Chelsea were in all blue. We were far enough away from the kit for it to look semi-respectable. The Newcastle United kit this season jars a little too; thin stripes, not their style, and white socks too, not their usual black. It did not look right. It did not look like Newcastle United to me. I noted a surprisingly number of unoccupied seats in the directors’ box area of the main Milburn Stand, plus many empty ones in the top tier to our right. The locals’ displeasure with Mike Ashley is obviously continuing.

The game began. A kick on Eden Hazard in the first minute was not punished.

It was quickly evident that Newcastle were quite happy to sit deep. We absolutely dominated possession. With Jorginho and Hazard seeing a lot of the ball, we tried to cut in to the massed ranks of the thin-striped black and white shirts.

Ironically, the only effort that troubled either of the two goalkeepers came from the boot of Murphy, but his low speculative shot was ably saved by Arrizabalaga. A deep cross, into the corridor of uncertainty – which sounds to me like it should be in a hospital where doctors carry out gender-reassignment – from the trust right foot of Azpilicueta could not – quite – reach the not so trusty foot of Alvaro Morata.

We passed and passed. We passed and passed. It was rather one-paced, and not exactly thrilling. But the away fans were in very fine voice in the first thirty minutes of the game. But one song grated, as it always grates.

Rafa Benitez last managed us over five years ago.

If Chelsea fans really do not care about Rafa, why do they bloody sing about him to this day?

How about a song for the current manager or – shock horror – current players?

A song about Rafa, in 2018, is as fucking tedious as it gets.

We still controlled the game, with little quick triangles played in an attempt to create space, or at least a diversion, from which space could be gained. A Rudiger effort was well wide. Hazard curled one past the post. A Morata effort was driven wide. The Toon ‘keeper still had not made a save in anger.

Then, a rare Newcastle effort, a deep cross from a free kick, but Rondon headed well wide.

“Free header, though, Alan” I muttered.

On thirty-four minutes, the home fans eventually raised a song for their home town heroes.

“Newcasuuuuul, Newcasuuuuul, Newcasuuuuul.”

I had never known them so quiet.

In 1984, their mesmeric “Howay The Lads” sent shivers down our spines, and made our knees tremble. But on this drizzly August afternoon in 2018, this was post-modern support at its most timid, lukewarm and insipid.

A Pedro effort cleared the bar. But space was at an absolute premium. Only once did I remember us playing an early ball, out to Pedro, but nobody else reacted quick enough for us to seize an advantage by gambling and drifting past players. After some luxurious tip tap toe shuffling from Hazard, a Pedro shot at last made the Geordie ‘keeper make a save.  At half-time, despite us having so much of the ball, I did wonder if we would ever pierce their defence.

The second-half began with the script unchanged. If anything, Newcastle defended deeper still.

Kante often attacked his area of the pitch, but it seemed to me that this was – at the moment – like a square peg in a round hole. One of the best holding midfielders of his generation, worldwide, being asked to go into uncharted territories seemed odd to my layman’s eyes. In contrast, Jorginho was hardly asked to do much defending, but he acted as a metronome for our play – pass, pass, pass – and I noted that he grew a little frustrated with the lack of movement of his runners ahead of him. Azpilicueta shot at the ‘keeper. And then a heavy touch from Morata and the moment was lost.

On the hour mark, I spoke to Alan.

“This is like a game of chess, but we have too many pawns. We are missing knights, rooks and queens.”

We were missing movement off the ball. We were devoid of pace. Of course, they were closing down all space and suffocating us, but I wanted a little more craft, a little more vision, a little more magic. And we then seemed to stretch them, just as I had wanted. I suspect that the home team were tiring. Hazard and Alonso were now turning their men inside and out.

With twenty-five minutes to go, Olivier Giroud replaced Alvaro Morata.

Then Willian came on for Pedro. There is surely not much to choose between these two wide men.

Rudiger, who had been a calming influence alongside the more tempestuous Luiz, crashed a howitzer against the bar from the southern banks of the River Tyne.

The support turned up the notches.

It was only us making the noise.

The locals were not vocal.

With fifteen minutes to go, Hazard played in the raiding Alonso. From my vantage point – through my telephoto lens, “snap” – it looked like the trailing leg of a defender had stopped him in his tracks.

Penalty.

Eden Hazard flicked the ball past the ‘keeper’s dive and how we – and he – celebrated.

Alan Price : “They’ll have to come at us now like pet, man.”

Chris Donald : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

Without irony, the Geordies sung.

“Sing when you’re winning.”

Sickeningly, our lead – deserved, surely – only lasted a few minutes. Out on the right flank, an agricultural challenge by Yedlin on Giroud – from our vantage point some five miles away, it looked like a forearm smash, as much loved by Mick McManus and Kendo Nagasaki – and some Chelsea players appeared to stand like pillars of stone, waiting for a free-kick that never came. Yedlin whipped in a cross towards the near post and with David Luiz horribly flat-footed, substitute Joselu headed strongly past our kid to equalise.

“Bollocks.”

The home support at last roared.

The clock ticked on.

With three minutes remaining, a long searching (as in “slightly over hit”) ball found Giroud, who did ever so well to head the ball back towards Marcos Alonso on his wrong wing. He volleyed the ball through the legs of a defender and we watched, open mouthed, as the leg of Yedlin – karma – diverted it into the yawning goal.

“GETINYOUBASTARD.”

Newcastle United 1 Chelsea 2.

A huge celebration took place in the upper section, three-thousand strong, of the Leazes End. We had won our third consecutive league game of the season.

Nine points out of nine.

Well done, lads.

We met up outside the away end, and slowly walked down to the Quayside. The three of us were joined by Raymondo, who tends to favour Chelsea colours, unlike us. As we walked past Sunday evening revelers, lads full of bravado and beer and girls in short skirts and high heels, past bar after bar, a local man in his ‘seventies, spotted Raymondo and approached him. I looked back and saw him shake Raymondo’s hand, wishing us well this season.

Canny people, the Geordies, like.

 

 

At last we had beaten the Geordies.

And, for those upset with my comments about Rafa Benitez, here is a photograph of him walking alone.

 

 

Tales From Hammersmith Bridge To Stamford Bridge

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 18 August 2018.

Even though I had set my Saturday morning “first home game of the season” alarm as early as 6.30am, and even though I caught the first of two trains to take us up to Paddington from Frome station at 8.07am and although I left the last of four pubs that we chose to visit at just before 5pm, I still managed to miss the bloody kick-off.

That takes some doing, eh?

It would, if I was pressed, be something that I might term “Proper Chelsea.”

I remember that even on our greatest night in our history, I still only arrived at my seat in the Nord Kurv of Munich’s Allianz Stadium with barely more than five minutes to go until kick-off.

I usually manage to time it just right, often slipping into my seat a few minutes before the teams enter the pitch. Not on this occasion. There had been another fantastic pre-match pub crawl, but then a little delay at Earl’s Court, and then again as we climbed the steps at Fulham Broadway, when tempers ran a little high between both sets of fans. At just before 5.30pm, I grabbed a programme, shook Kerry Dixon’s hand outside the West Stand – he appeared to be in just as much a rush as I was – and made my way up to the Matthew Harding Wraparound.

Just after kick-off, I was in.

I had missed the pre-game show. Alan showed me the banner that had surfed over the supporters in The Shed Upper, a celebration of Roman’s fifteen years in charge and of the fifteen major trophies within that time span.

Other teams – no names, no pack drill – could only dream of such success.

I was back at Stamford Bridge for my forty-fifth season of match-going Chelsea support.

And it felt great.

As always, there was a quick scan of the Chelsea team – “same as at Huddersfield” – and a scan of the away support – “same as always Arsenal, more than the usual amount of replica shirts in their three thousand compared to, say, Spurs or West Ham.”

The ridiculous “Thrilling Since 1905” had thankfully disappeared from the signage at Stamford Bridge.

We were left with “The Pride Of London” and I can’t find fault with that.

I had mentioned to Glenn on the train journey to London that I fancied a Chelsea win. There was no real scientific theory behind this – the season is far too early for any real prognosis of our overall chances just yet – but I just had this feeling that we would be sending Arsenal away with their second successive league defeat of the season. The morning train ride into London had been a real pleasure. There were thoughts of the game, but also – of course – thoughts of meeting up with some good Chelsea people along the way too.

After a breakfast on Praed Street, we caught a train down to Hammersmith. Not for the first time, we had planned a pub crawl by the side of the River Thames. At just after midday, we met up with Kim and Dan, then settled in at The Old City Arms, right on Hammersmith Bridge, its green wrought iron just outside the pub windows. Andy and Phil joined us, and then Dave. The counties of Somerset, Wiltshire, Kent and Northampton shire were represented.

And we were then joined by the state of Michigan.

Erica and Victor – on a whirlwind European tour including a wedding (not theirs I hasten to add) in Frankfurt, and quick visits to Valencia and Paris – were in town for Chelsea and Chelsea only. I had met them both in Ann Arbor for the Chelsea vs. Real Madrid game in 2016 and we had stayed in touch ever since, and especially since they told me of their imminent visit to these shores. It was a pleasure to welcome them to our little tour party. In a week when La Liga announced its intention to play regular season games in the United States in the near future, it was fitting that Erica and Victor, bless ‘em, had travelled over land and sea to London to watch us. Another friend, Russ – who I had met for the first time in Perth in the summer – was also in town especially for Chelsea from his home in Melbourne.

And this is the way it should be.

For those of you who have been reading these match reports the past ten years, my views on all of this are well known. Like many Chelsea supporters in the UK – and I am basing this on those who I know, who are mainly match-goers, I don’t know many Chelsea who do not go to football – the idea of Chelsea playing a league game outside of our national, and natural, borders both saddens and repulses me.

My message is crisp and clear.

“You want to want to watch English football?”

“That’s great. Come to England.”

Of course, Richard Scudamore and his money-chasers at the Football Association originally proposed the “39th Game” in 2008, and – thankfully – the idea was shot down in flames by supporter groups the length and breadth of the country. This cheered me no end. I felt that the football community had said “no” in a forceful and coherent way. Of course, since then, all manner of US regular league games have been played out in the UK – er London, does any other English city exist in the minds of the average American? – and with each passing NBA and NFL game which takes place in our capital city, my spirits weaken. I have no doubt that the FA look on and rub their hands with glee. It will surprise nobody, I hope, to know that I am already boycotting the New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox baseball series at The Oval next June.

It would not feel right for me to attend. That’s just my personal choice. I’ve seen the Yankees play thirty times in The Bronx and nine times on the road. But the thought of seeing the Yankees playing in some sort of ersatz environment (I dread to think, I dread to think…) does nothing for me, and it would be supremely hypocritical.

Major League Baseball got the ball rolling with this concept – “sporting colonialism” – around twenty years ago with regular season games in Japan and then Mexico. It has been the American way. I made the point to Erica and Victor that US teams seem to hop around from one city to another at the drop of a hat (or at the hint of a new stadium), and so there seems to be an immediate disconnect between teams and supporters. There is an ambivalence to the fans. I do not seem to see too many NFL season ticket holders, for example, in the US campaigning against the loss of home games to London.

In England and in the UK, supporters are a lot more tribal, more political, more strident, and I bloody hope it continues.

My secret wish is that a couple of our football clubs – let’s name names, Liverpool and Manchester United – who have very politicised support bases and pressure groups (“The Spirit Of Shankly” and the “Manchester United Supporters Trust” to name two) will lead the way in fighting against any new proposals for “overseas games.”

I have always said that if the FA, and if Chelsea are implicit in their plans, decide to play a regular season game outside of England and Wales, then that will be the last straw for me.

An idle threat?

I am not sure. It would be a heart-breaking decision for me to turn my back on the love of my life, but nobody enjoys getting the piss taken out of them.

We will wait and see.

Down on the River Thames, we hopped from The Old City Arms to The Blue Anchor and then to The Rutland.

The pints were, of course, going down rather well. The time raced past.

Erica and Victor were staying near Earl’s Court, and they had tried to pop into a local pub during the morning. From their story, I believe that the pub was “The Courtfield”, which stands right opposite the tube station, and is one of the main “away” pubs at Chelsea. Victor was wearing a 2010/2011 home shirt, and he was advised by a policeman to avoid going in to the boozer as it was full of Arsenal. This totally shocked Erica and Victor. In the US, home and away fans in team colours mix easily and freely outside stadia and in nearby pubs. The cultural differences between sport in the UK and the US were spoken about once more. Victor, forced into a corner somewhat and maybe fearing all sorts of mayhem at Stamford Bridge, chose to wear a grey pullover over the Chelsea shirt instead.

There then ensued a little chat with Erica and Victor about “the cult with no name” and our ongoing predilection for designer clobber at football. As we stood overlooking the River Thames, watching rowers and paddle boarders, I gave the two visitors a crash course in the casual movement from 1977 to date. I looked over at the lads in our tour party and, quite fittingly, everyone was wearing football schmutter. In fact, we could not have been more colour-coordinated. But not a single Chelsea shirt, scarf or favour, save from a couple of very small pin badges.

“Less is more.”

But I then commented to Erica that if any other football fan – “in the know” as we say – were to walk past, they would immediately know that we were all going to football.

More beers, more stories, more Tales From The Riverside.

The idea was to head up to “The Dove” – the best pub of the lot – but time was against us. We caught the tube to West Kensington, and dived into “The Famous Three Kings” which was awash with Juventus Club Londra fans watching their game against Chievo.

I could not resist.

“Forza Juve, Vinci Per Noi.”

So, that was the pre-match. The big thrill for me was to see Erica and Victor enjoying themselves so much, and sharing jokes and laughter with my mates. In the four hours that they were with us, they sampled a great range of alcohol too; cider, bitter, lager, “Guinness”, and even a “Pimms”.

I hope they remembered the match.

In the opening salvos of the game, honours were pretty even. A couple of chances for us, and a couple for them. David Luiz, wearing plain black boots – weirdo – tried to lob Cech, but was unsuccessful. Thankfully, we did not have too long to wait. A beautifully weighted through ball from Jorginho picked out the run of Marcos Alonso down our left. He soon spotted the figure of Pedro to his right, in oodles of space, and his pass was perfection itself. Right in front of the Arsenal support, Pedro slipped a low ball past Petr Cech, the man in black.

One-nil to The Chelsea.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

I admired the touch and movement of Ross Barkley in the first moments of the game. He seems to have grown in stature over the summer; in self-confidence, in presence. He may yet be a fantastic buy. I always liked him in his first few seasons at Everton.

Aubameyang forced a save from Kepa Arrizabalaga.

I’ll just call him “Save.”

Then, a ridiculously easy chance for Aubameyang again, but he ballooned the ball over from a very central position. Our defence, it seemed, had not been introduced to each other before the game. Then, another rapid break into the Arsenal half. A long ball from Dave was played beyond the Arsenal line and Alvaro Morata was able to race away, twist past his marker and wrong foot Peter Cech. His finish looked easier than it was. He raced away to Parkyville and wildly celebrated.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

I must admit that I found it odd to see N’Golo Kante in a more forward position; it is a role that we are not used to see. How often have we seen him over the past two seasons patrolling that central section of the park, and causing a massive hindrance to opposing players? It is his role, his position.

On his day, he gets as close to his opponent as a wet shower curtain.

And now, within the manager’s new plan, he is asked to change his game, and I am not sure if we will see the best of him. In our old system of 3/4/3, I would imagine that a midfield “two” of Jorginho and Kante would have been ideal. But what do I know?

Next, another gilt-edged chance for Arsenal but another line fluffed. Mkhitarian repeated Aubameyang and the ball flew high over our bar.

“Phew.”

This was open a game as I had seen for a while.

Maurizio Sarri, bedecked in head to toe royal blue, was not as animated as the previous manager, but he studiously watched from the technical area and the bench. If you squint, and think “sepia”, he looks a little like Billy Birrell, our spectacled manager from both sides of the Second World War.

Morata forced a save from Cech.

While my concentration was devoted to demolishing a chicken katsu pie, its contents as hot as molten lava, I looked on as Mkhitarian popped a low shot past Arrizabalaga from outside the box after we gave up possession rather too easily. Then, horror upon horrors, a ball was whipped in from our left and Iwobi struck from close-in. Our defenders were not even close. It reminded me of the low crosses from which Manchester United often used to punish us twenty years or so ago.

So, all even at the break and many a scratched head in the Matthew Harding.

I popped down for a very brief chat with Big John in the front row.

“So, if we play a league game in the US, is that it for you, John?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

“It’s a pact then.”

We laughed.

The second-half began. With us attacking the Matthew Harding, the play stagnated a little. Ross Barkley broke through but Cech saved well. We needed an extra push. On the hour, Sarri decided to shake things up.

Mateo Kovacic for Ross Barkley (a shame, I though Barkley had been fine) and Eden Hazard for Willian.

We were treated, almost immediately, to some pure sparkle from Eden Hazard. He immediately looked the part. Mateo Kovacic instantly impressed too. In fact, I can rarely remember a more impressive home debut as a second-half substitute, Joe Allon excepted (you had to be there.)

He was all energy, full of movement, skillful in tight areas, and a lovely awareness of others.

OK, I was joking about Joe Allon.

Marcos Alonso and Eden Hazard lined up alongside David Luiz as a free-kick was awarded, but the Brazilian’s effort was saved by Cech.

On seventy-five minutes, Olivier Giroud replaced Alvaro Morata.

We seemed to tighten our grip on the game.

A chance for N’Golo. Over.

Throughout the game, Alan – bless him – had been tough on the defensive frailties of Marcos Alonso, who had often been caught out of position or ball-watching. With ten minutes remaining, an exquisite burst from Eden Hazard enabled him to drift easily past his marker and drill a low cross right into the box. Who else but Alonso arrived just at the right time to flick the ball through Peter Cech’s legs.

“Nuts.”

The Stamford Bridge crowd erupted as one. I jumped up and punched the air, then quickly looked back at Alan and we found ourselves smiling and pointing at one another.

The joy of the moment.

A late winner.

Against Arsenal.

Marcos Alonso.

Fackinell.

We were, believe it or not, top of the league.

We exchanged a few last chances but Arsenal disappeared off into the West London evening with no points in their first two games under their new manager. Yes, we had ridden our luck in the first-half, but thank heavens for Eden Hazard. Arsenal do not have anyone like him, and nor do many others. Let’s keep him for life.

We began the day with a breakfast at Praed Street and we finished it with an Indian on Praed Street.

We caught the 9.30pm train home, and the beers had taken their toll over the day, and a couple of us, ahem, rested our eyes.

We finally reached Frome at midnight.

It had been a top day.

See you at Newcastle next Sunday.

Tales From The Naughty Section

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 19 May 2018.

So, the last game of the 2017/2018 season.

The final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

It simply did not seem one whole year ago that the four of us were catching a train to Paddington to attend the 2017 Final. Where has the time gone? Where has it indeed? Life seems to be accelerating away, almost out of control at times, and shows no signs of slowing down. This would be my fifty-sixth game of the season – bettered only twice, 58 in 2011/2012 and 57 in 2012/2013 – and even the first one in Beijing in late July only seems like last month. It has been a demanding and confusing campaign, with many memories, and fluctuating fortunes. There was a crazy period in January and February when it seemed that I was heading up to London for football every midweek for weeks on end. It was a particularly tiring period. Looking back, it has not been a favourite season but I have enjoyed large chunks of it. We have rarely hit anything approaching the heights of last year when we took the football world unawares and stormed to a Championship. This season has been riddled with poor performances, the usual soap-opera of conflict between players, manager and board. And, of course, there has been a couple of moments of deep sadness. We lost two thoroughbred captains in Ray Wilkins and Roy Bentley. But in the depths of darkness, there have been glimpses of glory.

Chelsea Football Club. It seemed that all of human life was here.

Would the last game of the season, seemingly stacked against us, provide us with a day of silverware and joy?

We bloody well hoped so.

However, as we left St. James’ Park last Sunday, there was a genuine fear of us not only losing but losing heavily. Our performance on Tyneside was truly mind-boggling in its ineptitude, and I honestly feared for the worst. A repeat of 1994? God forbid.

The day did not begin well. Glenn, PD and little old me were stood, impatient, excited, on the platform of Frome train station, intending to catch the 8.07am to Westbury and then on to Melksham, where Lord Parky would join us, and to Swindon and eventually London. Glenn then noted that the train was running late. We needed to get to Westbury. So, we hopped into a taxi which took us over the state line and in to Wiltshire, despite the dopey cab driver declining our protests to “stop talking and drive faster” and idling his way through Chapmanslade and Dilton Marsh.

He was as annoying a person as I have met for some time.

“Going to the Cup Final, eh? Oh nice one. Don’t worry, I will get you there for twenty-to.”

“TWENTY PAST!”

“Oh, thought you said, twenty-to. Ha.Ha. I’d best hurry up. Ha ha.

“Stop talking and drive faster, mate.”

“Go on Chelsea. I hope they win. Ha ha. Do you think you will win? Ha?”

“Stop talking and drive faster.”

“I hate United you see. I’m a Liverpool fan.”

“Stop talking and drive faster.”

“Go on Chelsea! Ha ha.”

…this inane nonsense continued for what seemed like ages. Thankfully, we reached Westbury station with a few minutes to spare to catch the 8.22am train to Swindon.

Parky joined us at Melksham, we changed at Swindon, and arrived on time at Paddington at 10.14am. I love those arches at this famous old London station. It has played a major part in my Chelsea story. All of those trips to London – sometimes solo – from 1981 onwards. I remember sitting on a barrier, desolate, after the 1988 play-off loss to Middlesbrough, wondering if Chelsea would ever return to the top flight, let alone – ha – win anything.

That moment is a defining moment in my Chelsea life. That seems like five minutes ago, too.

Our 2018 Cup Final pre-match jolly-up was planned a week or so ago. At 10.45am, the four of us assembled at the “Barrowboy and Banker” outside London Bridge. There was talk of surprise guests. Glenn ordered the first round.

“Peroni please.”

I popped outside to take a shot of the pub and the modern towers on the north side of the river. I was just finishing the framing of a second photograph when I heard a voice in my ear.

“Those hanging baskets are lovely, aren’t they?”

My first, initial, thought?

“Oh bollocks, weirdo alert.”

A nano-second later, I realised who it was; my great friend Alex from the New York Blues, who I had arranged to meet at 11am. He quickly joined us inside. I had last seen him over in New York on a baseball trip in 2015. He kindly let me stay in his Brooklyn apartment for the 2013 Manchester City game at Yankee Stadium while he was visiting Denmark with his girlfriend.

“Still waiting for the special guest.”

Alex : “It’s not me? I’m mortified.”

The Chuckle Brothers roared.

Next through the door were Kim, Andy and Wayne – aka “The Kent Lot” – who have been stalking us on numerous pub-crawls now. We reminisced about the laugh we had in Newcastle last weekend.

“Get the beers in boys, don’t talk about the game.”

Next to arrive was former Chelsea player Robert Isaac, who had been chatting to Glenn about pre-match plans during the week. We occasionally bump into Robert at The Malthouse before home games, and it was an absolute pleasure to spend some time with him again. Robert is a Shed End season ticket holder and we have a few mutual friends. When he broke in to the first team in 1985, no player was more enthusiastically cheered; he had been the victim of a near-fatal stabbing at the Millwall League Cup game in September 1984.

I can easily remember a game in which he started against Arsenal in September 1985 when the entire Shed were singing :

“One Bobby Isaac. There’s only one Bobby Isaac.”

What a thrill that must have been for a young player who grew up supporting us from those very terraces.

Next to arrive was Lawson – another New York Blue – who I had last seen on these shores at the Cardiff City away game on the last day of the 2013/2014 season. He had been working some music events in Brighton on the two previous nights and was officially “hanging.” A pint of Peroni soon sorted him out. I have a lot of time for the New York Blues, and we go back a while. It is always a pleasure to welcome them to games over here.

We spoke a little about the difficulties of some overseas supporters getting access to tickets; Chelsea has tightened things across the board of late. I knew of a few – but no more than seven or eight – Chelsea mates from the US who were over for the game, and who had all managed to secure tickets from one source or another. There would be supporters’ groups meeting up all over the world to watch. Yet I know from a few close friends in the US that, often this season, the FA Cup has failed to draw much of a crowd at some of their so-called “watch parties.” I can feel their frustrations. I know only too well from the viewing figures provided for this website that the FA Cup reports, for a while now, have attracted significantly fewer hits than for regular league games. And it is especially low in the US, for some reason, usually a stronghold of support for these blogs. I can’t fathom it. It seems that the FA Cup, for those who have not grown up with it, nor have witnessed it at length, seems to exist in some sort of parallel universe.

And yet I would be sure that many of the FA Cup Final “watch parties” would be packed to the rafters.

Big game hunters? Maybe.

At last, the special guest, who I had kept secret from the three other Chuckle Brothers, just for the thrill of surprise on their faces as he walked through the door. As of last Sunday in Newcastle, Rich from Edinburgh was without a ticket. Luckily, our mate Daryl jumped in to get him one of the extra thousand tickets that had surfaced during the week.

There were hugs all around for Rich, who had quickly negotiated a couple of last minute flights to London. It was great to see him again.

We took our party, a dozen strong, over the road to “The Bunch of Grapes” under the shadow of The Shard. Here, we were joined by the final piece in the jigsaw, Dave, who had just missed us at the first pub. Dave is one of the “Benches 1984” reunion lads from the Leicester City home game not long in to the New Year. It was just fantastic to have so many good folks around me. It had been a very testing time for me at work during the week. My stress levels had gone through the roof. I certainly needed a little of my own space to “chill.”

And a lunchtime drinking session on FA Cup Final day with the dirty dozen was as perfect as it gets.

We then walked through the bustling Borough Market and rolled in to “The Old Thameside Inn” which is one of my favourite pubs in the whole of the city. The terrace overlooking the river was bathed in sunshine, and the drinking – and laughs – continued. It was great to see everyone getting on so well, although many had only met for the first time a few hours before.

“Don’t talk about the game though, for fuck sake.”

A few of us then split up, and some went on to meet others. The four Chuckle Brothers stopped momentarily in the market for some sustenance.

“Ein bratwurst mit sauerkraut und senf bitte.”

On Munich Day, it seemed wholly appropriate.

We then spilled in to “The Southwark Tavern” for one last tipple. The time was moving on, and we needed to head up to Wembley.

We caught the Jubilee line to Wembley Park, thus avoiding the Mancs at Wembley Stadium. This would afford a fantastic view looking down Wembley Way, which I remember visiting with Alex and a few other NYBs before the 2010 Portsmouth FA Cup Final.

The team news came through.

Antonio had decided to pack the midfield, but the scene was set for Eden Hazard to set Wembley alight. Gary Cahill, sensibly, had got the nod over young Andreas.

Thibaut

Dave – Gaz – Rudi

Vic – Cesc – N’Golo – Timmy – Marcos

Eden – Olivier

It was the same team – our strongest eleven, maybe – that had played so well against Liverpool a few weeks back. My spirits were raised a little, but time was moving on and we were still a while away.

Sadly, there were unforeseen delays up to Wembley Park, and we were struggling to make kick-off, let alone see any of the orchestrated nonsense that goes before any event at Wembley these days. Luckily, we had managed to avoid Manchester United fans throughout the day. On walking up Wembley Way, there was a little banter between a United fan and me, and I offered a handshake but his response shocked me :

“Fuck off, you Chelsea prick.”

I just laughed.

Close by, I bumped into another United fan, who was a little better behaved.

“Good luck pal.”

“And you mate.”

We slowly edged up and to the left, the clear blue sky above the arch bereft of any cloud cover. I scrambled towards our entrance.

We were some of the last ones in.

Tickets scanned.

Security pat-down.

Camera bag check.

Security tie threaded.

Five minutes to go.

Up the escalators.

The stadium was hazy from all of the smoke of the pre-match bluster.

We were inside just before United kicked-off.

Just like in Munich six years’ previously, we had arrived in the nick of time.

We were right at the back of the upper tier bar one row. The players seemed minute. In the rush to get in, my sunglasses had gone walkabout. This would be a difficult game for me to watch, through the haze, and squinting.

I hope that I would like what I would see.

The game kicked-off.

I looked around. Virtually everyone in our section, high up, were stood. There must have been some empty seats somewhere, but I could not see any.

But the haze was killing me. And the strong shadows which cut across the pitch. It made for some rather dramatic photographs, but it made viewing difficult.

Chelsea attacked the United hordes at the west end, which is our usual end. As ever, there were United flags – the red, white, black “Barmy Flags” standard issue – everywhere, and from everywhere.

On a side note, there is nothing as ironic as Chelsea fans in Chicago and Los Angeles – or Sydney or Brisbane – taking the piss out of United fans coming from Surrey.

As the kids say : “amirite?”

Down on the pitch, Eden Hazard was soon to be seen skipping away down the left wing, after being released by Bakayoko, and forced a low save from David de Gea at the near post. In the early part of the game, we matched United toe to toe. Although my mind was not obsessed with Jose Mourinho – my mind was just obsessed with beating United, fucking United – I could not resist the occasional glance over to the technical areas.

Antonio Conte – suited and booted. Involved, pointing, cajoling.

Jose Mourinho – tie less, a pullover, coach-driver-chic. Less animated.

There were some Chelsea pensioners seated behind the Chelsea bench; they must have been sweltering in their scarlet tunics.

The heat was probably playing its part, as most of the play was studied and slow. Both teams kept their shape. There was no wildness, nor a great deal of anything in the first twenty minutes. Olivier Giroud was moving his defenders well, and we were keeping possession, but it was an uneventful beginning to the game.

Everything was soon to change. Moses won a loose ball just inside our half, and he spotted Fabregas in space. Hazard was in the inside-right channel now, and Cesc spotted his run magnificently. Hazard’s first touch and his speed was sensational and he raced alongside Phil Jones. Just as he prodded the ball onto his right foot, just as he saw the white of de Gea’s eyes, the cumbersome Jones reappeared and took a hideously clumsy swipe at him.

Eden fell to the floor, crumpled.

We inhaled.

Penalty.

“GETINYOUFUCKER.”

There were wails from all around us that Jones should have been sent-off.

Regardless, he was just shown a yellow.

We waited and waited.

“COME ON EDEN.”

At last, the United players drifted away and the referee Michael Oliver moved to allow the penalty to be taken.

De Gea looked left and right.

Hazard with a very short run up.

Eyes left, a prod right.

Goal.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

At 5.37pm on Saturday 19 May 2018, Manchester United were royally fucked.

Meghan’s moment would come later.

These photographs show the goal and the celebrations.

Between the sixth and seventh photographs, I screamed and screamed.

Get in you bastard.

The game, really, floundered for a while, and the fact that United had no real response surprised me. What also surprised me was the lack of noise emanating from the 26,000 fans in the opposite end. I heard nothing, nothing at all. And although I am sure that United were singing, there was simply no audio proof. But I also saw no arms raised, nor clapping, to signal songs being sung, which I found just as strange. The Chelsea end was – or at least bloody well looked like being – a cauldron of noise, with both tiers singing in unison.

Our two previous finals against Manchester United were recalled.

That 4-0 loss in 1994, do I have to talk about it?

The 1-0 win in 2007, revenge for 1994 of sorts.

I remembered more noise in 1994 for sure.

The noise was a bit more sporadic in 2007.

But this was quieter still.

Modern football, eh?

United rarely threatened. The match drifted past Paul Pogba. Alexis Sanchez, the star for Arsenal against us last year, was quiet too, save for occasional corner kicks.

A Pogba shot from outside the box was well wide, but Courtois surely would have covered it.

After a little Chelsea pressure, Fabregas could only hit a free-kick against the wall. We were happy to sit back and let United pass into cul-de-sacs and into dead-end turns.

A Jones header dropped wide. Thibaut had hardly had a shot to save. It was not an afternoon for him to get his “Word Search” out, but not far off it.

Our midfield was strong – Kante on form, thank heavens – but the three defenders were even better. A couple of Rudiger challenges – strong, incisive – were magnificent and drew rapturous applause.

“Rudi, Rudi, Rudi, Rudi.”

At the break, we were halfway to paradise, but there was still a long way to go.

United, perhaps unsurprisingly, began on the front foot as the second-half began. The sun was starting to drop, causing more shadows to appear on the pitch, and it all became a lot clearer. Marcus Rashford – I can’t honestly believe how Mourinho chose to roast the young lad in his pro-Lukaku rant a few weeks back – was the first to trouble Thibaut, but his shot was easily saved. United pushed with more urgency now, but we generally defended with great shape and resilience.

Just after the hour, that man Phil Jones managed to get his constantly gurning head on to a free-kick and this drew a brilliant late, swooping save from Thibaut. The rebound was pushed home by Sanchez.

The Mancs roared, I stood silent.

Then, a split second after, we saw the raised flag for an offside.

Phew.

But the pattern had been set now, with United controlling possession but not really forcing us into compromising positions.

The Chelsea end were on it.

“And it’s super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC.”

But then, with twenty minutes to go, a tantalising run by N’Golo Kante deep into the United box released Marcos Alonso outside him. He seemed to take a touch that wasted time and allowed de Gea to close down the angles. A save was almost inevitable, with Victor Moses unable to dab in the rebound.

Courtois raced out to deny Rashford.

A save from Matic, who had been one of their better players.

From a corner in the last few moments, the hidden man Pogba suddenly rose unhindered and headed down and wide. We all breathed a heavy heavy sigh.

There were too very late substitutions;

Alvaro Morata for the tireless Olivier Giroud.

Willian for the spirited and game-changing Eden Hazard.

I watched with sorrow as Juan Mata came on to play a bit part; I am sad that we let him go, he should still be a Chelsea player.

The minutes ticked by.

The Chelsea end still kept going.

“CAREFREE.”

We thankfully enjoyed a fair proportion of the added minutes playing “keep ball” in the United half. Eventually, the referee blew up.

At just past 7pm on Saturday 19 May, a huge roar echoed around the east end of Wembley Stadium.

The FA Cup was ours once more. Our eight victories now put us in third place – equal with Tottenham – and behind only Arsenal and Manchester United.

1970 – Leeds United.

1997 – Middlesbrough.

2000 – Aston Villa.

2007 – Manchester United.

2009 – Everton.

2010 – Portsmouth.

2012 – Liverpool.

2018 – Manchester United.

Chelsea Football Club rarely get any praise for treating this historic competition with nothing but respect. We rarely play weakened teams, we treat it with earnest attention from round three onwards, and we play to win every game. It has seemed like a long old campaign this one; from the dull draw at Norwich – but what a great weekend away – to the elongated extra time and penalties in the replay, to the home games against Newcastle United and Hull City, to the away game at Leicester – which I missed due to being snowbound – and the semi-final against Southampton, to the final itself.

It has almost summed up Chelsea’s season.

A lot of troublesome opponents, a few dodgy results, a couple of fine performances, and ultimately, glory.

We watched the trophy being lifted, of course, but drifted away before the after-match celebrations took hold. We had, I guess, seen it all before. We walked – slowly, blissfully – up Wembley Way with another piece of Silverware in our back pocket. We caught the underground to Paddington, the train to Bath, the train to Westbury, the bus – a Chuckle Bus, of sorts – to Frome.

On the bus – the last logistical link of the season – were a few local girls who had been in Bath on a hen night. One of them saw my Chelsea flag, which is going to Alphie, the young lad I spoke about a while back – and she piped up.

“Did you go to the wedding?”

“Blimey, no. We’ve been to the Cup Final.”

She giggled and seemed excited.

“Ooh. Were you in the naughty section?”

Yes. I suppose we were. And proud of it.

Ha. The naughty section. Is that how some people think of football and football fans? How odd. How quaint. Fackinell.

It was an odd end to a pretty odd season.

So, what now?

Who knows.

There always seems to be trouble afoot at Stamford Bridge. There are constant rumours, counter-rumours, whispers, accusations, conspiracy theories, unrest, but – ridiculous, really – tons of silverware too. I hate the unrest to be honest. I would much rather a Chelsea of 2016/2017 with a quiet Conte charming us along the way, than a Chelsea of 2017/2018 and a disturbed manager at the helm. But who can blame him? This has turned into the very first year that he has not won a league championship. For the hard-working and intense Conte, that must have hurt.

But there seems to be a slight groundswell in support for Antonio Conte. I have always been in his camp. Winning the 2017 League Championship and the 2018 FA Cup Final is fucking good enough for me.

But oh Chelsea Football Club. It would be so nice, just for once, to win trophies in a harmonious way. As I was thinking about what to write for this last match report of the season, and the last one of my tenth season, I thought back to the last time that Chelsea Football Club seemed to be run in a harmonious way, with everyone pulling together, with the chairman and chief executive signing fine players with no fuss, with a well-liked manager, and loved players. I had to venture back to the wonderful season of 1996/1997 with Ruud Gullit as manager, with Gianfranco Zola as our emblem of all that is good in the game, and when – this is true – Chelsea were often cited as everyone’s second favourite team.

A perfect time? Our first silverware in twenty-six years?

Those days were mesmerizing and wonderful. And yet, within nine months, Ruud Gullit was sacked as Chelsea manager. As they say somewhere, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And never is that more true than at Stamford Bridge.

Sigh.

Thanks for everyone’s support throughout the season.

I sincerely hope that everyone has a fine summer and that we can all do this all over again next season.

I will see a few lucky souls in Perth, but first I need a bloody rest.

 

 

 

…and yes, it was revenge – again – for 1994.

Tales From Swansea Bay

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 28 April 2018.

Going in to the game at Swansea City’s Liberty Stadium, it honestly felt that everything had been decided. Manchester City were worthy champions, and – sadly – would be joined in next season’s Champions League campaign by Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. It seemed that we were destined to finish fifth. It seemed inevitable that Arsenal would finish sixth. At the other end of the table, West Bromwich Albion had been seemingly assured of a last place finish at the end of a miserable campaign. And as the league season entered the final three or four games, it has looked increasingly likely that Stoke City and Southampton would be relegated too.

All cut and dried, then? It certainly felt like it.

The end of the season has crept up on all of us, and the game in South Wales represented the last away game that I would be driving to this season. We are flying up to Newcastle – “Fly me to The Toon” – for the final match, so this trip represented the last Chuckle Brothers Road Trip of 2017/2018. With an early-evening kick-off at 5.30pm, it meant that we could stretch out and relax a little. We had left our little part of England at 9am under grey and threatening skies, and had packed coats and jackets to insulate us from expected wet and windy weather in Wales. There was a breakfast at McMelksham en route, and the journey went well, apart from the final few miles when the traffic heading in to Swansea itself almost came to a standstill. It is no Cardiff, but Swansea is a reasonable city. The area down by the marina continues to be marked with new building developments, and there is always The Mumbles, just a few miles to the east of the city centre. The skies overhead were brightening. At last, I slotted the Chuckle Bus in a car park overlooking the rocky headland of The Mumbles, with the vast expanse of Swansea Bay stretching out before us. We spotted a nearby pub, The White Rose, and were settled around a table in the dark and old-fashioned boozer at around 12.30pm. There was an homage to Dylan Thomas – Swansea born and bred – stenciled onto one of the pub windows alongside the holy trinity of Welsh insignia; a red dragon, a daffodil and a leek.

“Though they go mad they shall be sane.

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again.

Though lovers be lost love shall not.

And death shall have no dominion.”

The heavy prose made me smart. It wasn’t the most cheerful welcome to a pub that I had ever seen.

“Welcome to The Mumbles, bach.”

In fact, amidst the references to love, sanity and death, there was the same mood invoked by the great Pet Shop Boys song “Paninaro.”

Maybe Dylan Thomas was an unlikely hero of the Pet Shop Boyos.

I’ll get my coat/jacket.

Inside the pub, Glenn demolished some steak and chips, and I wolfed down a pint of Peroni. The Liverpool versus Stoke City game was on the lounge bar TV, and it was scoreless. Inside the gents’ toilets, there was evidence that some visitors from along the coast had previously called by.

“CCFC – SOUL CREW – WISH YOU WERE CARDIFF DONTCHA?”

We crossed the road, and were buoyed by the fact that the weather was really improving now. Whereas the previous pub was as old school as it gets, The Croeso Lounge was a modern and airy bar, and very busy. It seemed that a hen party had booked the upstairs area; while we supped on lagers, we admired the scenery.

The weather was improving still. Out across the bay, way in the distance, were the industrial buildings of the Tata steel works at Port Talbot, with smoke drifting into the sky and mixing with the low-lying clouds. But on this side of Swansea Bay, all was well. Locals were promenading along the seafront, and there was an almost Mediterranean feel to it. Hardly an Italian “passeggiata”, but all very pleasant in the early afternoon sun. We were joined in the Croeso Lounge by some friends from London – Callum, Reece, Pat, Viv – and this was a first-time visit to The Mumbles for them. We sat outside in the sun. It was bloody fantastic. We heard that Liverpool had only drawn with Stoke City. Deep down, I still thought that it would not matter, but football is a funny game as someone once said.

There was just time for a last pint in the third pub of the afternoon – The Kinsale – which was even more old-fashioned and darker than the first one. A rugby game from Cardiff was on the TV. We were the sole customers. We popped along the road for some fish and chips at “Yallops” and then set off for the Liberty Stadium. It was a good thirty minutes’ drive, allowing for traffic, and I was a little worried that we might miss the kick-off. I lead the way and Reece followed behind. We passed the St. Helens cricket and rugby stadium, right on the seafront, and there were memories of Gary Sobers knocking six sixes for Nottinghamshire against Glamorgan in 1968, and there was a quick peak inside; I spotted a large standing terrace, with crush barriers. There was an immediate pang of regret that there are no more of these terraces of my youth left in our sport; the South Stand at Molineux, the Kop at Anfield, the Holte End at Villa Park, the Copeland Road at Ibrox, the Shed at Stamford Bridge. All are gone and there is nothing left but memories.

The city of Swansea is rather hilly, and the Liberty Stadium sits in a low valley alongside the River Tawe. There are dark wooded hills to the east, and terraced streets to the west, with houses layered on top of each other. Thankfully, the two cars were parked-up at the usual place just off the Neath Road at around 5.10pm. It was just right. We hot-footed it to the away end, and were met with some new signage.

“Eisteddle Croeso.”

This roughly translates as “welcome, be seated.”

We reached our seats just as the two teams entered the pitch.

I was happy with my timings. Job done.

Alan and Gary had called in at “Rossi’s” for some tidy fish and chips, which thankfully allows me to utter my usual “whose cod is that haddock?” line once again.

I expected a 3-4-3 but Antonio surprised me.

Courtois.

Rudiger – Cahill – Azpilicueta

Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Bakayoko – Emerson

Hazard – Giroud

All hint of sun had disappeared by the time of kick-off. There was nothing but grey in the rectangle of sky above us.

It disappointed me that there were spare seats around me – in quite some number – as the game began. I remember last season – at the start of the season, we struggled, Gary Cahill came in for some abuse, our season was yet to ignite – there were even more empty seats. What is it with Swansea? Does the Severn Bridge toll scare off so many of our supporters? I can’t fathom it, I honestly can’t.

“Swansea away? Can’t be bothered.”

Before I had time to think, we had picked up a loose ball and Eden Hazard drifted away from markers before pushing a ball out to Cesc Fabregas. Without breaking stride, the ball was clipped past Fabianski and into the gaping Swansea net.

Swansea City 0 Chelsea 1.

Tidy.

Only four minutes had passed.

There were brief thoughts of the 5-0 shellacking we administered to Swansea just over three years ago.

We had heard that both Southampton and West Brom had produced fine wins, and the pressure was now on the home team, and it showed. Their fans, always pretty noisy alongside us, grew more and more tense as the game progressed, and vehemently protested every decision which went against them. I think we always struggle with support at Swansea, and there wasn’t a huge amount of noise on this occasion either. There were, however, occasional chants of “Antonio” and it seems that a faction of the Chelsea support is happy to support him still. That’s good. Let’s support the manager and the players all the way to Wembley.

The home fans were indeed noisy at times.

“And we were singing.

Hymns and arias.

Land of my fathers.

Ar hyd y nos.”

They just couldn’t get enough.

On the pitch, we absolutely dominated during the first-half. We went close from a corner, and then Swansea defender Mawson hooked the ball on to the top of the Swansea crossbar as he found himself under pressure. A fine searching ball from Victor Moses out wide whizzed into the six-yard box, but was untouched on its path. It was begging for a Chelsea foot, leg, thigh, chest, head or Tommy Harmer bollock. It never came. There was constant probing from Chelsea, although we didn’t manage to break them down further. In all honesty, we didn’t use Olivier Giroud as much as we ought to. Eden Hazard looked keen and involved, and there was a song for him too.

But there was a strange atmosphere. It felt like the end of season game that it undoubtedly was.

The second-half began and there were a few half-chances exchanged. The noise from the away end never really came. Some rain had fallen, and the skies grew darker. Everything seemed colourless. The black seats of the stadium, the grey concrete of the roof, the cold grey steel of the supports, the black and white LG advertising boards. Even our royal blue seemed duller than usual.

At last a little noise from the away end :

“Speakfackinenglish, why don’t you speakfackinenglish?”

“Down with the West Brom, you’re going down with the West Brom.”

“We’ll never play you again.”

The home fans retorted :

“Carvalhal’s Black And White Army.”

Our play really deteriorated in the second period. Our chances were rare. A move involving Fabregas and Hazard almost gifted a chance to Moses at the far post, but the ball bobbled just beyond his lunge. Emerson, who had impressed, kept running and running into the Swansea City half, and all the way through it, he never seemed happy to have to use his right foot. In the end, he thumped the ball goal wards and drew a low save from Fabianski. In the final twenty minutes, Swansea peppered our goal with a fair few chances, but virtually every shot seemed to go down Courtois’ throat. We were certainly enjoying a charmed life. One effort from the impressive Andre Ayew flew narrowly passed the post and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I admitted to Gary that Swansea’s frustrated fans must have wondered how on Earth they had not managed an equaliser. There were late changes; Pedro for Fabregas, Willian for Hazard, Morata for Giroud. Swansea still threatened, but – thank heavens – we held on.

It was a dour win.

But it meant that we had now won four on the spin.

Phew.

We made our way up the hill towards our car, and I was soon heading east. We spotted a large billowing cloud of black smoke from beyond the stadium, and beyond the verdant wooded hills to the east. I wondered what on earth it could be. Out on the M4, the smoke was still rising. As we passed the mess of the Port Talbot steelworks, all pipes and foundries, chimneys, brick, steel, grime, the clouds ahead were dark and brooding. Behind me, through the twisted steel of industry, a vivid orange sunset lit up the sky above The Mumbles, right across Swansea Bay. The steep hills adjacent to the motorway hemmed me in. It added to the drama. To my left, the black smoke of a presumed fire shot straight up into the evening sky. At that moment, I wondered what else might appear in my vision. It was as dramatic a sky as I have seen this season. It made the rather insipid second-half pale by comparison.

We spoke about the game, but the discussion did not last long. However, after the pre-game thoughts about the top four and bottom three, perhaps I needed to readjust my feelings after all.

On this last road trip of the season, we just didn’t want to go home. On the outskirts of Cardiff, we enjoyed a pizza just off the M4, prolonging the day further.

I reached home at around midnight, shattered.

It had been a long day.

Tales From Saints And Singers

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 14 April 2018.

We were back at St. Mary’s for another Southampton vs. Chelsea match. An easy away game for most Chelsea fans, I haven’t missed a game at their new stadium, going all of the way back to the first match in August 2001. It seems like Southampton have always been in the top division, but they were out of it from 2005/2006 to 2012/2013. Our opponents, under new manager Mark Hughes, were entrenched in the relegation mire. Going into the game, we all agreed that this was a match that we surely had to win. Of course, we were in an awful run of form too. But we had to win it. We just had to. On the following Sunday, at Wembley, there would be an F. A. Cup semi-final against Southampton too. Wins in both games were so important, for reasons that are too obvious to spend too much time talking about.

The 12.30pm kick-off meant that there was little time for any lengthy pre-match drink. There were five of us in the Chuckle Bus, and it was Young Jake’s first visit to St. Mary’s with Chelsea. On the short drive down to Southampton, he asked a few questions about Southampton’s old ground The Dell. Over the past few weeks, I have added a new feature to this website in which I have posted seventy photographs – so far – of the changing face of Stamford Bridge.

https://caxonblog.com/chelsea-land/

As a way of explaining how unique The Dell was, I include a few photographs here – two from 1994/1995, one from 1995/1996 and three from 1996/1997 – and it certainly brings back some memories.

It is perhaps hard to believe, but these are the only away games that I saw at The Dell. Tickets always seemed to be difficult to get hold off in the days before I became a season-ticket holder, and a few of us only managed to get tickets for the latter two games via Matthew Le Tissier, who went to school in Guernsey with my pal Neil. The Dell was intimate alright. And it was nestled in among leafy streets and semi-detached houses, with no floodlight pylons to indicate a football stadium was in the vicinity. It would have been quite possible to have walked within twenty yards of The Dell and not realise that it was there. As an old romantic who dotes on stadia which are no longer with us, I miss The Dell.

St. Mary’s – a mile or so further east – is one of many bland and boring football stadia that have appeared over the past twenty years. I am sure many of Southampton’s supporters are annoyed that the close and intimate feel to The Dell has not at least been attempted at their new stadium. A more spacious stadium with a larger footprint equates to more income though.

I battled my way through the massed ranks of the Chelsea supporters in the dark concourse beneath the Northam Stand and headed up the steps into the seats.

“World In Motion” was on the PA, a fine choice.

It was soon apparent that I needed to take my coat off. It was already a warm afternoon, and we were not far from the front. It was fantastic to see Alan at a game, his arm still in a sling after his broken shoulder caused him to miss a few games. As Parky arrived on the scene, he noted one of his favourites from a few decades ago.

“The Saints Are Coming” by The Skids.

Kick-off approached.

The PA announcer urged the home crowd to “wave your flags” and “make some noise.”

I looked around and was pleased to see that hardly a seat in our section was unoccupied. Despite a dip in form since Christmas, the loyal three thousand had continued to attend each and every away game. This was reassuring to see.

The team?

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Fabregas – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Hazard

As ever, Saints had two from “Munich” – Ryan Bertrand (their captain, in fact) and Oriel Romeu.

The first-half was a pretty depressing affair. We controlled much of the game but without seriously testing the Southampton ‘keeper Alex McCarthy. Southampton’s attacks were rare. We poked a few balls into their penalty box, but there was no dynamism and little threat. Again there was a tendency to over-elaborate. On more than one occasion I was heard to yell “shoot” to Willian, Kante and Hazard, amongst others. I didn’t remember hearing it against Tottenham nor West Ham, but there was a rousing rendition of “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” not long into the game, and our manager responded briefly with a clap towards us. I looked over at him, aware that many fans have commented that he has not seemed anywhere as involved as last season. I spotted him, and he did show some level of engagement, urging the players on. But what a difference a year makers. Last year he was our leader, our charismatic manager, full of calmness and charm, and he became only our fourth championship-winning manager. I suspect we will never know the full extent of what has happened in the corridors of power at Stamford Bridge and Cobham in the intervening twelve months, but I can never forget his role last season. It ultimately saddens me to read and hear what some sections of our fans think of Antonio Conte now.

On around twenty minutes, a rapid break down our right flank which involved Ryan Bertrand caught us unawares. Our former left-back managed to race past Cesar Azpilicueta and clip a perfect pass back to Dusan Tadic from just inside the penalty box. Tadic was on his own, with Marcos Alonso trailing, and the Serbian rolled the ball in. The home crowd found their voice at last, and our heads in the away end dropped.

A typical piece of nonsense from Courtois annoyed us all. Instead of hoofing a ball clear, he ludicrously played it square to Dave, who was soon charged down right on the edge of the box. It was lucky that nothing more came of it. There had been similar foolishness from our lofty Belgian earlier; suffice to say he is not flavour of the month at the moment. However, he made amends with a double-save just before the break.

I remember saying to Gal :

“If a person who had never seen this sport was here today, they would think that the main objective of the game was to give the fellows in blue shirts out on the edge of the pitch the ball as often as possible.”

Alonso and Zappacosta must have had more touches than anyone.

A couple of Chelsea long-shots were deflected high and over the Southampton cross-bar as the half ended.

At half-time, with the sun beating down on the front section of the away terrace, there was a noticeable melancholy and lethargy as I looked around at my fellow supporters. It looked to me that we were almost resigned to yet another league defeat.

It seemed that we were at a low ebb.

Whether or not a few hundred half-time pints helped loosen inhibitions, but the second-half began with a fantastic barrage of noise cascading towards our players from the away section. One song dominated. It was a chant that I have always looked on as an away game speciality, and during the second-half of away games too. To the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

“CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.

CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.

CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.

CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.”

And we repeated it over and over and over.

I joined in, we kept it going, and I realised that I had not really sung too much up until then. My throat was so sore, so painful, but I kept going, just like in days of yore. All around me, others kept it going. It was life-affirming stuff. The chant went on and on. And it made me proud. Call me old-fashioned, but this is a mark of a true supporter. We might be supported, or followed, by millions around the world, but they’re worth nothing to me if they ever attend a Chelsea match and don’t sing and shout with all their might in games when the team needs it. Years ago, I often used to sing until I was hoarse. It used to happen to me all the time. Very often, perhaps following an evening game, I would appear at work the next day with my voice shot to pieces.

“Go to Chelsea last night, Chris?”

And I would nod.

The singing continued.

“YOU ARE MY CHELSEA.

MY ONLY CHELSEA.

YOU MAKE ME HAPPY WHEN SKIES ARE GREY.”

How this pleased me. I was hoping that my pals watching at home would hear us. The Chelsea of old. Underperforming but singing on.

Chelsea Fundamentalism.

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

I had a second wind now, and my throat wasn’t hurting quite so much. A couple of shots from Hazard and Willian hinted at better things.

And then it all went Pete Tong.

On an hour, a long free-kick from James Ward-Prowse looked like missing everyone, but it landed past the far post and was remarkably volleyed home by Jan Bednarek, whoever he is.

“Oh bollocks.”

The crowd roared again and the Southampton players raced over to the far corner. I looked around and spotted a few empty seats in our section. Maybe they had disappeared off to turn their bikes around, but I suspected that the lure of Southampton’s city centre pubs was too much for some. Almost immediately, my admiration of my fellow fan took a battering. Several began singing “we’re fucking shit” and I just turned around and gave the perpetrators a Premium Class A Glower.

I was inwardly fuming.

How pathetic.

The manager made some changes.

Pedro for Zappacosta.

Giroud for Morata.

There was, apparently, a change in shape but I was too busy in supporting the team to notice. There seemed to be an immediate reaction. On seventy minutes, Alonso delivered an early ball into the Saints’ box from a relatively deep position. Giroud used all of his physical strength to get to the ball before his marker and he headed the ball firmly down and past McCarthy.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 1.

GET IN.

The away crowd roared, and we were – unbelievably – back in it. A clenched fist from Giroud signalled his intent.

Just four minutes later, Willian jinked into the box from the Chelsea left. His low bouncing ball across the box found the unmarked Hazard. His first touch killed the ball dead, and there was a beautiful moment of anticipation – I always call it a Platini moment after his touch in the 1984 European Championships set up a slight delay in the eventual shot – before he slammed it home.

Now we really celebrated.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 2.

“A Bishop Desmond.”

All eyes were on Eden as he raced back. He turned and pointed towards the badge. A little moment that made me think a million things at once.

“That might shut the people up who think you are off.”

“But a lot of fans want you to “Quote-unquote” fuck-off to Madrid anyway.”

“Easy to point at the badge, wonder what you really think.”

“Don’t you dare disappear off to Madrid after pointing at the badge.”

“Just crack on, less of the nonsense, and work hard for a winner.”

After just another three more minutes, we were awarded a free-kick in prime Willian territory. Rather than play the ball in towards the players assembling in the box, he played it out to Hazard. A dink into the box was headed up by Alonso under pressure, then it was Christensen’s’s turn to keep the ball alive with another header. The ball fell towards none other than Giroud.

We inhaled and prepared to yell.

He slammed it home.

I brought my camera down momentarily and yelled along with three thousand others.

I then caught the slide from Giroud just as a photographer at the other end did the same, and – not for the first time this season – the photograph would later find its way onto the official Chelsea website. And there I am, still and focused among the lunacy, next to Gary and Parky, who ended up with a bump on his head after the bloke behind him landed on top of him. Look at the joy on our faces.

Ecstasy in the away end.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 3.

What a comeback.

“Two nil and you fucked it up” echoed around the stadium. I was amazed how a few of our players kept a straight face.

There was still time for a couple of fine Courtois saves – making amends for his earlier brain dead indiscretions – but we held on. With four minutes remaining, Victor Moses replaced Eden Hazard. Many fans in the away end serenaded Eden with his own song.

“EDEN. EDEN EDEN. EDEN EDEN. EDEN EDEN HAZARD.”

I turned around and barked “you two-faced bastards.”

I was half-serious.

Gary laughed anyway.

We bounced out of the ground, just happy to see Chelsea win an unlikely game of football. We tried to remember the last time that we had come back from a 0-2 deficit in the league. The five of us struggled but news came through that it was, evidently, away to Charlton Athletic on the opening day of 2002/2003. We were bouncing that day too.

We stopped off for a few pints on the drive home, extending the day, going over the game, chatting about our immediate future and the matches ahead.

It had been a fine day out.

No midweek jaunt to Turf Moor for me on Thursday so my next one is Southampton at Wembley on Sunday.

See you there.

 

Tales From Camp Nou

Barcelona vs. Chelsea : 14 March 2018.

Some moments in time…

Bristol Airport / Tuesday 13 March / 0700.

I had set the alarm for 3am in preparation to collect PD at 4.30am and then Parky at 5.00am. But, in reality, I had woken at 1.45am and could not get back to sleep. I was evidently buzzing with excitement. After picking up the lads, it was obvious that the others were buzzing too. I headed out through Bath and some narrow countryside lanes as day broke. We were parked-up at 6am. Check-in was easy, and we were soon able to relax. We were on our way. Not surprisingly, there were a few Chelsea fans from our part of the world on the same flight as us. A Chelsea fan – I forget his name – from Falmouth. Kev from Port Talbot. Emma from Bridgewater. A few Chelsea supporters from Wincanton. Plus several more, all with West Country accents. There were not as many as on the early-morning flight for the 2012 game, but still a healthy presence. I just knew that “2012” would be on my mind continually over the length of our trip. There was only a small amount of talk about the game on the Wednesday. We had a chance, of course we did. But if I was a betting man my money would have been on the home team. The flight was due to depart at 7.30am. It left around twenty minutes late.

On the flight, I tried to catch up on a little sleep. But I also flicked through a “Lonely Planet” pocket guide to Barcelona to whet my appetite. Additionally, in my build-up to the trip to Catalonia, I had worked my way through Colm Toibin’s “Homage To Barcelona” and although I struggled with the density of prose, it certainly helped me appreciate some of the history of the city. Before my first trip to Camp Nou with Chelsea in 2000, I had devoured Jimmy Burns’ monumental “Barca” and this proved a perfect “hors d’oeuvres” to that trip. This time, I wanted to read a little about the city rather than the football club. The city has at various times enjoyed periods of opulence and then decline as a major port and a centre of commerce. There have been highly-charged politics, and anarchy, throughout its history. There has been stunning architecture. The city has enjoyed a status rivalling Paris as a centre for the arts in the past two centuries. Antoni Gaudi, Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso have called the city their home. As the trip approached, I wanted to devote a little of my forty-eight hours in Barcelona to a little of the city’s history. I had visited Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in 2012 and I had spotted a few of his wonderful and dreamlike buildings on that trip too. We had seen the wide spread of the city’s architecture on a bus top tour prior to our game at Camp Nou in 2005. I fancied something different this time. I delved a little deeper, and centered on Joan Miro. His paintings appealed; I can’t say why. They looked other-worldly. I realised that he had designed the iconic “Espana ‘82” poster for the World Cup of thirty-six summers ago and there was the reference point that I needed. On the Wednesday, I had my itinerary set. For others, I knew that a day of bar-hopping would suffice. But this would be my fourth trip to the city with Chelsea, and sixth in total, and I wanted to try something different. I wanted my visit to Barcelona in 2018 to be “more than a pub.”

Aeroport de Barcelona El Prat / Tuesday 13 March / 1045.

Our mate Foxy, from Dundee, was waiting for us as we swept through the security checks at the arrivals hall. As we walked towards the metro station – quite a walk – my eyes were set on the hills that circled the city. Way north, the peaks were stunning, and a little like the rounded peaks of Montserrat. The view bewitched me.

La Soca 2/ Carrer de Mallorca / Tuesday 13 March / 1600.

There was a metro ride into the city, a couple of beers in a bar while we waited to be allowed in to our apartment of Carrer de Floridablanca, and then a bar-hopping walk to where we needed to collect our match tickets. There were more Catalonia flags draped over balconies than in 2012. Our tickets were rightfully collected. We could relax further. Opposite, we spotted a street-side bar – number four of the day – and decided to order some crisp “Estrellas.” Very soon, we were joined by some good friends; Jason, the two Bobs, and Andy. Others joined us. We had a great natter. I enjoyed it immensely. A proper discussion about the current state of the club with some wise old heads. And yes, of course, the beer was going down well, some would say too well.

Eclipse Bar At W Hotel Barcelona / Tuesday 13 March / 2200.

After our lengthy spell at “La Soca 2” we dived into two more bars on our way back to our apartment. As workers made their way home after completing their duly grind, we must have looked an incongruous sight, laughing and giggling as we walked past them. There was a quick change of clothes at about 7pm, and we then hailed a cab to take us down to a restaurant on a little point of land overlooking one of the city’s beaches. Inside “Pez Vela” the fish soup and mussels were gorgeous, if not particularly filling. We were joined by Kev and Rich from Edinburgh, our partners in crime in Rome, and we then made our way up to the bar high up inside the W Hotel, just above the restaurant, which is shaped like the sail of a ship. There were simply incredible views looking back towards the city, with lights as far as the eyes could see. It was a brilliant moment. The drinks were still flowing, and we were clearly on a mission. We were joined by a couple of Chelsea fans from Stoke. More drinks. There was a certain inevitability that things were going to career out of control as the night continued. We split into three groups, with Foxy and Parky heading back to the apartment, PD and Kev and Rich heading back to the city, while I disappeared into a time vortex with Ryan and Jack from Stoke. The Estrella gave way to gin and tonics. One of the Stokies bought some champagne. Oh my goodness. The alcohol had taken its toll, and while the two Stokies were able to head inside “Pacha”, I was refused entry – the horror of seeing me on the dance floor after a gallon of Estrella was thankfully aborted – and the lads sent me off in a cab to their hotel, since I had given my apartment keys to PD. As nights go, it had certainly been messy.

O’Barazal Restaurant / Carrer de Blasco de Garay / Wednesday 14 March / 1330.

After finding my way back to the apartment at around 10am, there was just time to have a “what the hell happened last night?” post-mortem with the others. Ironically, despite the apartment having four bedrooms, only Foxy and Parky managed to make it back the previous night. Miraculously, I had no hangover. The others soon set off into the city, and I knew that there would be another momentous drinking-session ahead, so I politely declined. I needed to recharge my phone batteries – zero charge – and my own personal batteries too – just over zero. After an hour or so, I set off on a walk south towards the Montjuic hill which overlooks the city. I was enticed into a busy little restaurant and enjoyed a lovely long and leisurely lunch; a hearty tuna salad, some bread and tomatoes, and then some lamb cutlets, chips and grilled vegetables.

Joan Miro Foundation / Wednesday 14 March / 1500.

I made my way up the hill, through a square which reminded me of Montmartre. Yet more Catalan flags. And lots of yellow ribbons tied to trees and streetlamps. I made my way inside the Miro art gallery, and wandered through the various rooms. I so wanted to see the original of the poster from the 1982 World Cup; I was defeated. There wasn’t even one on sale in the shop. But I had a lovely time, and I enjoyed seeing the sculptures outside in the open air which were able to be framed against the cityscape to the north; the houses nestled into the hills, the TV tower at Collserola, the huge church at Tibidabo – the Barcelona equivalent of Turin’s Superga – and the fading sun. From one viewpoint, I was able to locate the mid-grey mass of Camp Nou, its ‘fifties concrete shell topped with a series of fluttering flags. Thoughts of 2012 once more. But also thoughts from 1986, too, when I travelled around Europe on an Inter-Rail pass, and stopped off in Barcelona, primarily to visit the stadium. I remember thinking that there was nothing like it in the world; certainly there was nothing comparable in the United Kingdom. It was huge. And stunning. I was over-whelmed. Of course, it is very much an aged stadium these days. But it is so impressive in size, in mass, in grandness. It just makes my jaw drop every time. On my descent down in to the city, I passed five or six teenagers knocking a football around between them. They were all Spanish. Two of them were wearing Chelsea shirts. I certainly would not have seen this in 1986. I gave the two lads a thumbs up and they smiled back.

The Daily Telegraph / Carrer de Paul Claris / Wednesday 14 March / 1900.

It was time to meet up with the lads, but I wasn’t sure if they were heading back to the apartment to pick up tickets, and change into warmer gear before the game. A text from Kev told of their location and I was on my way. I walked from the apartment through the bustling city as night fell, with many people wearing FCB scarves, and past the sublime floodlit curves of a Gaudi building on the main shopping street of Passeig de Gracia. I spotted the restaurant where I had met up with a former work colleague – a Barcelona socio – before the game in 2012. The memories of that night would not go away. PD and Parky – with Kev, Rich and Gillian – had evidently spent their day on a lengthy drinking session, and as I joined them inside the small and dark pub, I was pleased to see Daryl and Gary with them. There was time for one pre-match beer and a single shot. I was itching to leave and head off to the game. We left at about 7.30pm.

Carrer de la Maternitat / Wednesday 14 March / 2048.

We had taken the subway from Passeig de Gracia, and we had heard whispers that Chelsea supporters should alight at Palau Rieal, which was to the north of the stadium. This surprised me somewhat because the away section sits at the south-east corner of the stadium. At Les Corts, further south and east, we decided to follow many Chelsea supporters and headed out into the night. What followed was three-quarters of an hour of madness. Rather than be allowed to enter at the nearest gate to our section, as in 2012, we were diverted back towards Les Corts, up a quiet side street, around a hospital, and then – after a good twenty-minute detour – we spotted the entrance for Chelsea supporters to the north-east of the stadium. It honestly seemed like we were being diverted in order to cause as much annoyance as possible. On the walk, I passed a bar where I had a post-game beer in 2012. A Chelsea fan told us that Olivier Giroud was playing. This surprised me a little; would we get hurt being a little more expansive? But at least it met with the approval of most. We set off down a narrow street, but were held back for ticket checks on two separate occasions. Here, the blue-clothed police were in charge. There were rising tensions among the group of around seventy Chelsea fans who were pressing to get in. As we walked on, we heard the pre-match Barca anthem filling the air. In front of us, Camp Nou was a huge wall of concrete. It seemed that we would never scale it, neither physically nor metaphorically. Eventually, we made it down to the final barrier, manned by stewards with green tabards. There was a further ticket check. But maybe just three or four turnstiles for the six-thousand fans. What a farce. There were still lots of pushing and shoving – to say nothing of swearing – but to be honest after such a long day spent by many in pubs and bars, the absolute majority of away fans were well-behaved. Thirty years ago, I think there might have been a different story. My camera was allowed in after the briefest of checks.

Just as we were walking through, there was a roar from inside. It was too loud for a Chelsea goal. We were losing one-nil and we weren’t even anywhere near the away section yet. The word came through that Messi had scored. Bizarrely, we now had to scale a rickety bridge in order to reach the ramps of the stadium. My only thought was that its presence allowed the movement of vehicles – cars, but also the emergency services – below it, but I simply wondered why we had to clamber over it. Why could we not have just walked through? My guess was that Spain is not used to six-thousand away fans, and this is the best solution that the mighty FC Barcelona could muster. It was laughable at first. But as we started to ascend the fifteen or twenty steps, the damned structure began rocking. There were maybe fifty fans on it, and we were all in a rush to get inside, and for a split second – with my balance threatened – I honestly thought that I was going to fall. I am sure I was not the only one. Losing 1-0, a huge ramp ahead of us, we walked on. I was with PD, slowly ascending the ramp which – another 2012 memory – we had gloriously descended six years previously. Parky was away in the distance and we lost sight of him.

Camp Nou / Wednesday 14 March / 2100.

Although hundreds were behind us, still clambering up the ramps and steps to the away tier at the top, it seemed – at first – implausible that the two of us would find a spare space to watch the game. The stadium was as I remembered it; we hovered over it, rather than felt part of it. We were so high. Chelsea fans were stood in the aisles. Eventually I spotted the smallest of spaces, around five rows from the rear. We shuffled along. We were in. Phew. So, an echo from 2012. We had conceded an early goal. I scanned around. Andres Iniesta was playing, damn. We were in Real Madrid white. Our support spread out to my left and to my right. It was a highly impressive following. I hoped that everyone who had travelled had got a ticket. Or at least those without tickets had fatefully met those who had tickets but who had chosen to watch the game in city centre bars. A chap next to me told of how Messi had scored his goal from the tightest of angles. I wondered how on earth it was possible. Chelsea seemed to be playing OK in the five minutes that I was able to see. Eden Hazard cut in from the right, but his shock was blocked. With twenty minutes of the match gone – and with us in the stadium itself for just five minutes – we then lost the ball on the halfway line. A couple of challenges did not win the ball back and Messi was able to advance. He drew defenders towards him. I spotted the run on the far side from Ousmane Dembele. And so did Messi. I feared the worst. His shot flew past Thibaut Courtois and we were 2-0 down. Fuck. But this was a pretty similar position that we were in six years ago apart from the fact that we now needed to score two goals to progress and not just one. Courtois kept us in the game, saving well from Luis Suarez. We kept attacking, with a shot from Marcos Alonso drawing a save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen. I lost count of the number of times I imagined a ball to Ramires in the inside-right channel. A shot from N’Golo Kante slithered across the box, but was well wide. Just before the break, Giroud was fouled outside the penalty area, and we waited and waited for Marcos Alonso to strike. Sadly, his pacey effort clipped the outside of the post. We had it all to do in the second-half.

The mood among the Chelsea fans as the team entered the pitch at the start of the second-half was pretty buoyant. As the lads waited for the home team to appear, we serenaded them.

“You are my Chelsea. My only Chelsea. You make me happy when skies are grey. You’ll never notice how much I love you. Until you’ve taken my Chelsea away…”

It was stirring stuff. Courtois then had a brain freeze and passed in error to Suarez. Thankfully, he redeemed himself. But we were far from happy with the lanky Belgian’s performance thus far. But we pressed on, and were rewarded with twenty minutes of impressive football. Willian was our best player by some margin, spinning away from danger, running free, showing great energy, as always. Hazard, it pains me to say it, was not of the same standard. There were few direct runs at the defence, but rather silly flicks and square passes. He did not rise to the occasion. Kante was magnificent in the middle, closing and tackling, giving the ball to team mates. There were contrasting fortunes on the wings. Moses was his usual frustrating self, losing possession too easily, and unable to drift past his man. On the near side down below us, Alonso was given tons of space for some reason and kept bombing on and into pockets of space. But for all of our fine football, time was running out. Bizarrely, three people in the row in front left with half-an-hour to go.

Did they not believe in miracles?

Alonso, on the end of another raid into their box, was just about to pull the trigger when Samuel Umtiti stopped him with a sublime tackle. Just after, the same player was spread-eagled by Gerard Pique after a fine move involving Willian, Hazard and Giroud and the whole away section – that thin slice on top of the concrete bowl – were incandescent with anger. Popcorn, coins and water bottles were thrown up in the air and down towards the Barcelona fans in the tier below. Another shot from Alonso; another block.

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

The clock ticked on.

A hurried clearance from Andreas Christensen was intercepted by Jordi Alba and his touch found Suarez. Out of nowhere, came an unmarked Messi, and – I absolutely feared the worst now – after a couple of pushes of the ball in to space, a shot was slammed low into our goal. Only on the replay were we able to spot that, like his first goal, the ball had travelled through Courtois’ legs.

Game over.

Our little resurgence had been for nothing. We were out. And hundreds of Chelsea fans, fearful of a lock-in, decided to leave.

Courtois saved from a Paulinho header. There was a double substitution from Antonio Conte; Davide Zappacosta for Victor Moses and Alvaro Morata – heavily booed – for Olivier Giroud. As the game continued, the away sector thinned out further. The introduction of Pedro for Hazard brought the loudest chant of the night from the 92,000 home fans.

“Pedro…Pedro…Pedro…Pedro.”

To be fair to the home fans, apart from the last two or three minutes, they had all stayed late into the game. But this was not a noisy night from them; it very rarely is. Toni Rudger slammed a header against the bar from a corner, but it was soon time for the final whistle.

Barcelona 3 Chelsea 0.

Tuesday had been a messy night.

Wednesday was a Messi night.

We waited and waited in the forlorn hope of spotting Parky. We both sent him text messages, but my worry was that his ‘phone did not have enough charge. PD and I were some of the very last to leave. We began the slow descent back to earth. Not the euphoria of 2012 this time; I was reminded more of the misery of 2000. We had almost reached the last exit ramp when we were brushed aside by many stewards, who we presumed were answering a call for assistance due to some sort of altercation between the two sets of fans. There had been pro-Spain chants on the walk from Les Corts before the game, during the match, and now once more at the end.

“Barcelona. You’ll always be Spain.”

Although it was a rather boorish chant, I am sure that this would generally be classed as “football banter” even in these times. I didn’t sing it, I had no need, but this all seemed too strange for words. Was this the reason for the melee down below us? We weren’t sure. We met up with a father and son who had hinted that some Chelsea fans had held a Spanish flag towards the home fans leaving the stadium. This all seemed rather silly an excuse for the stewards to rush past us. We were only to hear later that those self-same stewards had then decided to batter Chelsea fans – one presumes largely innocent – with batons. To reiterate, we had seen nothing with our own eyes. But I had to wonder, later, why stewards were issued with batons. It was an unsavoury end to the night for sure.

We clambered over the rickety scaffold of before and I was saddened to see one elderly lady stricken with terror after her ordeal.

There was still no sight nor sound of Parky.

PD and I traipsed on, past the antiquated building of La Masia, which houses the headquarters of Barcelona’s famed academy. There were Chelsea supporters dotted about in every bar that we passed. No hint of trouble. Everyone drowning their sorrows. We decided to let the crowds disperse and get a cab back to the apartment. But there was still a worry about Parky.

L’abus Restaurant / Carrer de Joan Guell / Wednesday 15 March / 2345.

We spotted a small café, and needing some food, we darted in, saying a quick “hello” to three Chelsea fans by the door. We ordered a bottle of ice-cold “Estrella” apiece, and the taste was sublime. We devoured a plate of ham, eggs and chips apiece. Just the ticket. By some quirk of fate, we were back at Les Corts once again, and we soon hopped into a cab. The journey back to the apartment would only take ten minutes.

When we were only two minutes away from our destination, PD received a surprising call from our friend Mark from Westbury. Mark had just reached his apartment, along with two friends. The sight that greeted him was just amazing. Who should be sat – slumped – outside his apartment door but Parky. Unknown to us, Mark had booked an apartment across the landing from us – a mere eight feet away – and had obviously been startled to see Parky outside it. Even more amazing was that Parky had remembered the apartment address.

We collapsed in a fit of laughter.

We then collapsed in to our beds.

It was time for some sleep.

Tales From The King’s Road Club

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 10 March 2018.

After two tiring – in more ways than one – journeys to Manchester in the previous two games, the home match against Crystal Palace provided a chance for a more relaxing day at football. With our trip to Catalonia now getting very close, here was a nice little pre-cursor. The reason for this upbeat mood? Parky had booked us day return rail tickets which meant that there were no driving duties for me, and there was an added bonus of an elongated pub crawl down the King’s Road before the game.

Bloody perfect.

We caught the 7.56am train from Westbury, and the memories of previous Chelsea trips flooded back. Not much has changed at Westbury over the years. It could easily have been a scene from 1982, 1985, 1988 or 1991. There was plenty of chit-chat between the four of us – PD, Glenn, Parky and little old me – and the familiar stations of Pewsey, Newbury and Reading were reached in what seemed like no time at all. We were joined by another Chelsea supporter on the journey to London, a chap around the same age as us – maybe a little older – who must have spotted PD’s little Chelsea badges, or overheard our Chelsea-related chatter. He sat next to us and we soon got chatting.

“Are you going to the football?” he asked.

“Yeah. Chelsea Palace” I replied.

“Are you Chelsea or Palace?” enquired Glenn.

I smiled and said “he’s too well dressed to be a Palace supporter.”

“Oh, I’m a season ticket holder in the East Stand.”

I had spotted him on the platform at Westbury; waxed Barbour jacket, mustard cords, brogues. I had – erroneously – presumed that he was a rugby fan from his attire. How wrong I was.

“I’m part of a syndicate; three of us share a season ticket” Shane replied.

It transpired that he lives just outside Frome, in a little village called Chapmanslade. I was thrilled that there was another Chelsea season ticket holder from our neck of the woods. I was even more pleased that one of the syndicate lives in Great Elm, a village only one and a half miles away from my house. We chatted away and he told us a little about his past; like Parky he had been in the Army. Parky was in the Grenadier Guards. Shane was in the Coldstream Guards. But whereas Parky went to a local comprehensive, Shane was an Old Etonian. But he was Chelsea and that was good enough for me. And he went up in my estimations when he showed disdain for “egg- chasing.”

“Never judge a book by its cover” I thought to myself.

We chatted about our recent experiences of following our team in the recent weeks and months. There was indeed much to talk about. I am not sure why, but the talk turned to Mo Salah, and Shane asked us the name of “that other Egyptian, who played for Spurs, the one with the big nose.” We struggled to name him.

From the passenger sitting across from Shane – tapping away silently on his laptop – came the word “Mido.”

And I had a little smirk to myself.

I wondered if the chap was a Spurs fan. I wondered if he had been biting his lip during the previous thirty minutes, wanting to interrupt our Chelsea-centric chat, but fearful that he would be shot down in flames as a fan of the team from North London that we always seem to get the better of.

We pulled into Paddington at about 9.30am. The buzz of a day in London was apparent as we walked beneath the arched roofs of the fine old station. After a breakfast of champions, we caught the Bakerloo to Embankment and the District to Sloane Square. The military theme of the day continued as we walked past the former site of Chelsea Barracks, which Parky was familiar with, although during his stay in the army in the early ‘seventies he was based in nearby Pimlico.

I had planned a six-pub crawl, but we exceeded expectations. From just after 11am to around 4.30pm, we visited a total of ten hostelries either along – or just off – the famous King’s Road.

The King’s Road was always linked to the swinging ‘sixties and the swinging football team that went with it, but in all my years of going to Stamford Bridge, I have never walked its length before a game sampling its pubs and boozers. Most Chelsea match day pubs along the King’s Road have historically been located “over the railway bridge” in Fulham and I have very occasionally visited a few of those Chelsea staples, though – again – on very few occasions. Most of my – our – drinking has been in Fulham proper, the North End Road, Fulham Broadway and those pubs near the stadium.

We had spoken about a pub crawl down the most famous street in Chelsea for years. At last we were going to do it justice.

“The Fox & Hounds.”

Much to my annoyance, the first one that I had planned was closed. So although, we visited ten, it was something of a false ten. Or a false nine, maybe? Where have we heard that before?

“The Rose & Crown.”

This pub is described as “unpretentious” and I could not have summed it up better. When I walked into the pub, I was met by a pungent aroma of disinfectant, which is surely not the best of starts. Still, they sold “Peroni” and so I was happy. The boozer had a distinct ‘seventies feel to it. No frills, no thrills, but plenty of spills. I wondered, in all honesty, now such a downmarket boozer could exist in such a high rent location. The toilet door was reassuringly etched with many football scribbles  :

MFC.

Up The Boro.

CHELSEA.

MCFC.

WHUFC.

We moved on, and our route took us close to the Royal Hospital, the home of those famous scarlet tunics.

“The Phoenix.”

This was an unplanned stop, just off the King’s Road on Smith Street, but much-needed after the austerity of the first one. Another “Peroni” and – with Parky and PD sampling an “Estrella” apiece –  there were a few a few thoughts about Barcelona. To our left were three Chelsea supporters from Norway, who mentioned they were looking forward to seeing a Norwegian called Alexander Sorloth play for Palace. I had not heard of him.

“The Chelsea Potter.”

Here was a famous Chelsea pub, one that I have often heard mentioned in despatches. The single saloon was packed, and I would soon learn that it was packed with both Manchester United and Liverpool supporters, awaiting the start of the game from Old Trafford. As luck would have it, my stool at a high table was turned away from the TV screen. I did not bother to watch; I shunned it completely. Another “Peroni” helped numb the pain of United racing to a 2-0 lead. We had hoped for a draw.

“The Trafalgar.”

There are a quirky mix of building styles along this stretch of the King’s Road, and a mix of shops too. Parky was pleased to see that the Curzon cinema was still in business, although the art deco frontage suggested that it is now houses a Habitat department store too. Next door was a large blue-bricked boozer, and we dived into its dark and quiet interior. Yet another “Peroni” and it was only one o’clock or so.

“The Builders Arms.”

We walked north a few hundred yards and plotted up inside the elegant and classy interior of “The Builders Arms.” No “Peroni” so I chanced a pint of “Birra Moretti” which is not as crisp as my favourite. Here we went through the events at Manchester City the previous Sunday. For once, we were talking football. Glenn had watched Antonio’s press conference the previous day and I was pleased to hear that he had seemed, apparently, more relaxed and at ease.

“The Sydney Arms.”

On the short walk to the next pub, we were stunned to see the gorgeous warm stone of the surprisingly huge St. Luke’s Church, a hidden jewel. I had not seen it before. It was a lovely treat. The next pub was packed, and many eyes were watching the Ireland vs. Scotland rugby game from Dublin. Here, it was a pint of “Sagres”. There was a small amount of banter with a couple of Chelsea supporters. But this still didn’t seem like the world outside was aware that Chelsea were playing a mile or so down the road.

Out onto the King’s Road, we caught a cab to the next destination. To our right I spotted the benches on Dovehouse Green which I always remember being the meeting – and posing – place of the punks of my adolescence and beyond. In around 1984, I noted it was Carnaby Street for mods and the King’s Road for punks, though time was moving on for both of those cults.

“The World’s End.”

Any pub crawl down the King’s Road, surely has to encompass this pub. We all remember the iconic black and white photograph of Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti, high on a London double-decker bus, holding aloft the newly-acquired FA Cup with the Worlds End pub behind. Here was a pub that I had visited just once before – the opener against home in 1991 – but is now much changed, and effectively a restaurant and a pub no longer. But the hosts made us feel welcome. During his days in the army, Parky would often walk the length of the King’s Road and would end up in this pub. It was just excellent to be back. I was evidently starting to falter; just a bottle of “Peroni” this time. Just before we crossed the bridge into Fulham, we walked past Slaidburn Street, another location of a famous photograph or two from 1970. Decidedly working class in those days – how times change – this terraced street was festooned with the blue and white banners wishing Chelsea well in the FA Cup Final and a few iconic photographs were taken. I wondered how many residents were Chelsea fans today.

“The Jam Tree.”

Pub number eight was not particularly busy, but it is a boozer that I am sure a few of us visited on an end of season mini pub crawl in 2000. Another pint of “Peroni” please Parky. The game was still over ninety minutes away. I suspect a few of our more local fans – do we have many? – were setting foot outside to make their way to the game. There was talk of this pub featuring in the hideous “Made In Chelsea” TV show.

“The Imperial.”

Another classic Chelsea pub, and visited on a few occasions previously, though each time I visit the bar seems to be in a different place. I was reaching my limit, so went for a bottle of “Corona.” We sat in a quiet corner, but I soon spotted an old workmate from over twenty years ago. Roger now lives in Devon, and I saw him last at that crazy 5-4 League Cup win against Manchester United in the autumn of 2012 when we travelled up together. It was lovely to see him again. He was with his mate Andy, who I last saw in 1997 when he refereed a game at Warminster which involved a Peter Osgood select team including such players as Tommy Langley, Graham Wilkins and Jimmy Case. Where does the time go?

So, nine pubs. Phew. Of course, if I had any sense I would have made sure that we popped into “The Butcher’s Hook” on the club’s one-hundred and thirteenth birthday, to pay homage to where the club was formed.

Maybe next year.

Inside the stadium, I soon spotted Alan and Gary Buchmann who have seats in the same section as us. Sadly, their dear father Joe passed away last Sunday, aged ninety. Joe had been a season-ticket holder for simply decades, and I liked him a lot. I remember he used to give me a Christmas card every year, and on the very first one that he gave me – in December 2004 – he addressed it :

“To Chris and the Chelsea Boys. Chelsea will win the league this season.”

Prophetic words, indeed.

For the best part of twenty seasons we sat with him. We sadly lost our pal Tom in 2015. In 2018, we lost Joe. He was a lovely man, and although he did not attend a game over the past two seasons, he was always in our thoughts. One memory from three years ago is strong. It came after Willian’s last minute winner against Everton in February 2015 :

“I looked over at Joe, a few seats away, past Alan. Joe is around eighty-five and his face was a picture. He too was stood, arms out-stretched, looking straight towards me. We just looked at each other, our faces and our bodies were mirror-images of each other. Wide smiles but arms wider. It was a fantastic and magical moment. Chelsea smiles everywhere.”

I gave Alan and Gary a hug – “your father was a lovely man” – and took my seat.

The early-evening air was mild. There had been no gulps when we learned about Antonio Conte’s team selection, though there was a place for Gary Cahill.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

I was aware that there were a few trans-Atlantic friends visiting and there were mainly watching from The Shed Lower. I hoped that the Ohio Blues, the Atlanta Blues and the New York Blues enjoyed the next ninety minutes.

The crowd assembled, though our dear pal Alan was not with us. He had fallen on his way to work during the week and was housebound. Gut-wrenchingly, he will miss the soiree to Barcelona.

GET WELL SOON T.

Before the match began, there was a minute of applause for a former champion, a star from 1955, the ginger-haired Derek Saunders, who – like Joe – had reached the grand age of ninety.

RIP Derek.

RIP Joe.

After the defensive shackles against Manchester City last Sunday, there was much more – obviously – attacking intent against Crystal Palace. A shot from Kante was almost flicked into the Palace goal by Giroud. A Zappacosta effort caused Wayne Hennessey to drop to his knees to gather. There were two or three “sighters” from Willian. From a Crystal Palace corner, Christian Benteke was left alone behind a gaggle of players in the middle of the box, but he headed tamely over. Palace, of course, had won 2-1 against us in 2015/2016 and in 2016/2017. It was so good to see our man N’Golo back in our starting eleven once more. Maybe if he had played at City, our game plan might have been slightly different. Andros Townsend fired over.

But it was mainly Chelsea.

On twenty-five minutes, Willian collected the ball and moved effortlessly inside. His low shot took a slight nick off the defender Martin Kelly, and we were ahead. I hope that the transatlantic visitors in Parkyville enjoyed Willian’s celebrations.

From Alan : “THTCAUN.”

I replied : “COMLD.”

Not long after, a nice move increased our lead. The ball was swept into the box by Marcos Alonso. Willian hopped over the ball, after presumably receiving a shout from Eden Hazard, who set up Zappacosta to his right. It was hardly Pele to Carlos Alberto, and the shot took a deflection or two off the hapless Kelly, but it was a deserved second-goal. The celebrations from the players seemed a little sheepish, but that did not matter. The crowd roared its approval.

The Matthew Harding started singing :

“One Martin Kelly. There’s only one Martin Kelly.”

There was certainly not the nimble footwork of Gene Kelly from the Palace defender.

Giroud had been involved throughout the first-half and it felt so much better to have a focal point for our play. There had been some fine movement from all of our attacking players. Only a crazy touchline clearance from James Tomkins stopped our new striker from opening his account. Another Zappacosta effort was saved well by the Palace ‘keeper. A Hazard goal was ruled offside. But all was well at the end of the first-half.

We hoped for further goals to build confidence ahead of the game of the season against Barcelona, but the second-half was more arid despite a fair few Chelsea efforts.

In the first noticeable moment of the second-half, the Nowegian Sorlath crashed a shot against the post after a defensive lapse by Andreas Christensen. Willian went close after switching passes with Giroud. A Hazard effort was saved by Hennessey. Willian caused the Palace ‘keeper to scramble to his left to save from a central free-kick. Willian – the main threat – then created for Zappocosta and Giroud.

We were once again treated to some lovely up close and personal trickery from Eden Hazard. One sequence shows his control over ball and defenders alike.

As space opened up, a run down the left flank by Alonso found Giroud, who steadied himself, but his side-footed shot came back off the far post. It seemed his luck was certainly against him. He was replaced by Alvaro Morata with twenty minutes to go. Palace had a goal disallowed via Sorleth, but that was our signal to leave.

We needed to leave the boys to it in order to make sure our train connections worked. We gathered together and headed down to Fulham Broadway. A quick tube up to West Brompton allowed us to connect at Clapham Junction for our train home, which was taking the southern route via Salisbury. While we waited at West Brompton, we heard that Patrick van Aanholt had scored a late Palace goal. We had, apparently, squeaked it 2-1. At Clapham Junction, the narrow passages echoing to “Chelsea”, we raided the Cornish Pasty concession stand. A Palace fan chatted to us and wished us well on Wednesday. Rival football fan in fair-minded and generous comment shock. Whatever next?

Our train connections went well and we reached Westbury at 10.30pm. We soon caught a cab back to Frome.

It had been a fine day.

On Wednesday, Barcelona await.

I will see many of you out there.