Tales From The Damned United

Leeds United vs. Chelsea : 21 August 2022.

We had to wait around eighteen years to attend a league game at Elland Road and we were then able to visit it twice in just shy of fifteen weeks.

Our last away game of 2021/22 and our second away match of 2022/23?

OK, so be it.

Let’s go to work.

In May, it was all rather rushed; a hard slog on the motorways of England after a half-day at work, and a quick meet-up at the pub before disappearing inside to witness a pretty decent night of football in front of the Leeds hordes.

This time was a little more relaxed. I was up at 5.45am and collected PD at 7am and then LP at around 7.20am. I stopped twice en route but arrived in the car park of “The Drysalters” on the Leeds ring road at 11.15am. The 240 miles had been covered in just four hours of driving. I was happy with that. The pub was allegedly scheduled to open at midday but it was already serving pints when we arrived. I soon spotted a couple of Chelsea acquaintances. Within a short time, the place was mobbed with both home and away supporters. It felt odd to be back so soon after the recent visit. Pints – double pints for the drinkers – were purchased and the weather outside was pleasant. Deano – from West Yorkshire, now Lancashire, but steadfastly Chelsea – soon arrived and joined us. I asked a copper to take a photo of us together.

“That’s ‘Crimewatch’ sorted” laughed Parky.

An Uber cab drew up outside and there was a bit of a commotion.

“Is that your pizza just arrived” I asked the two policemen.

Soon, Goggles from the Fulham branch arrived on the pavement.

“Alright Paul? Alright Parky?”

I still found it a little odd that this once “home fans only” pub now welcomed away fans, and that Chelsea songs were being heartily sung by a few. It wasn’t quite as noisy as in May though. The times have certainly changed over the last twenty years. Looking back to that game in May, I remembered the only trouble that we had encountered took place at Woolley Edge Services on the M1 after the game. Parky and I were drying our hands after using the facilities when we felt a splash of cold water directed at us from behind. Evidently, a Leeds fan must have spotted Parky’s little Chelsea badge on his polo shirt and had decided to take retribution after his team’s loss against a dreaded enemy.

Yeah, how times have changed.

Since my last Chelsea game against Tottenham last Sunday, I had seen two Frome Town games. There was a disappointing 3-3 draw at home to Willand Rovers in the league on Tuesday followed by a fine 3-0 away win at Buckland Athletic in the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup on the Saturday. The two footballing journeys of the weekend to Devon and West Yorkshire would total 650 miles – just over 1,000km for those reading in Ireland, the rest of Europe and Canada – and it is doubtful that I have ever driven further for two football games on consecutive days.

In May, I didn’t have time to attempt much of a look at Elland Road but, with tons of time to spare on this occasion, I set off with Deano at about 12.30pm. Deciding that the queues in the boozer were too long, PD and LP soon caught up with us. I walked past the stadium, past some stalls – there was already a healthy pre-match buzz – and up a footpath to a vantage point that looks down on the whole area.

Before a game in 1995/96, I had been drinking in the middle of Leeds with my Rotherham United mate Ian and his Leeds United pal from school days. We took a cab to Beeston and I remembered the short walk down that footpath, past the Old Peacock pub, and the grand old view that it afforded. I wanted to recreate a photo that I took before that game.

The walk up to Beeston was a good cardio-vascular workout for me. Once at the top, I positioned myself along a terraced street with the white steel roof supports of the huge East Stand in the distance. Down below, fans were winding their way down the footpath to the busy roads below. I took plenty of photographs. I was pleased with this. It set the scene nicely. Elland Road is a good three miles out of the busy city centre, and the vista afforded me from Beeston included lots and lots of greenery. Unlike stereotypical northern grounds such as Burnley and Blackburn Rovers, this stadium was never hemmed in among tight terraced streets. Beginning life as Leeds City, Leeds United then came to life in 1919 and have always played at Elland Road. It was an “out of town” ground before such stadia recently become de rigueur.

An odd fact; I always used to think that the home end – now the Don Revie Stand – from the ‘seventies and onwards was simply known as “The Kop” but only recently, the past few years, realised that it was known locally as The Gelderd End.

They love those classic white, blue and yellow bar scarves at Elland Road. They also love the iconic Admiral shirt from the mid-‘seventies. I must have seen a fair few before the game in May and I spotted many on this visit too.

Around Elland Road, street side electric boxes have been painted in various shades of white, yellow and blue depicting many of the club’s moments by local artist Andy McVeigh. Maybe that can be next season’s photo project.

I bumped into Deano outside the East Stand. This was once the largest capacity club stand in the UK, built during the 1992/93 season for the then champions, only for it to be overtaken by the other United along the other end of the M62 soon after. It holds some 17,000. I remember that at the 1995 FA Cup semi-final between Everton and Tottenham (4-1), there were Everton fans on three sides of the ground with all the Tottenham lot in the one stand.

I digress.

As fate would have it, I was sat – stood – in virtually the same place as in May. Last time, I was in seat 48 of the front row of the upper level of the main stand, the John Charles Stand. This time, I was in seat 50 of the same row. There was an empty seat so PD joined us.

The front five : Davidson, Phillips, Daniels, Parkins, Axon.

The sun was out and those opposite in the Jack Charlton Stand – the East Stand, the former Lowfields Stand and terrace, the family stand in the lower tier – must have felt that they were being baked alive. Everything was cool in the shadows of the away section.

Thomas Tuchel, unable to call on N’Golo Kante, selected the following team :

Mendy

James – Silva – Koulibaly

Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Gallagher – Cucarella

Mount – Havertz – Sterling

We would again be using falsies up front and it was all or bust.

Leeds? It pains me that I didn’t recognise many of the home team. Such is my fading awareness of football outside of SW6 these days that my knowledge of opponents’ teams is scant.

I bet I can name most of that 1991/92 team though.

From memory…

John Lukic in goal.

Mel Sterland at right-back, Tony Dorigo at left.

Chris Whyte in the middle. Who was the other centre-back? Dunno.

The famous midfield of Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister, David Batty and Gary Speed, God rest his soul.

Upfront, Brian Deane and Lee Chapman.

With Eric Cantona as a late addition.

Who was that bloody centre-back? No, can’t remember.

Ah, it has come to me. Chris Fairclough.

I am pretty sure that their squad was the smallest-ever to win a league title. And it was also the last team to lift the Football League version.

Dear reader : football did not start in 1992/93.

Back to 2022/23, thirty years on.

The teams lined-up.

“Marching On Together” boomed.

Chelsea were wearing navy socks. Answers on a postcard.

It was both a lively and a scrappy start to the game. We were attacking the old Kop, once the home of the most vociferous section of the Leeds support, but now playing second fiddle to the rabid hard-core to our right in the South Stand, or rather the Norman Hunter Stand. Raheem Sterling went close early on after good link-up play. Then two chances for the home team, Daniel James and Jack Harrison getting shots in on goal.

I am not convinced that we will ever see the best of Ruben Loftus-Cheek as a wing-back, but we found him coming into the box on an angle. Unfortunately, he dallied too long and the space evaporated and he was soon confronted by three Leeds defenders who halted his progress.

The noise from both sections of the crowd was impressive.

“Dambusters” was aired in the John Charles Stand.

“Father’s Gun” countered in the Norman Hunter Stand.

Is there much of a rivalry these days? The problem is that we just haven’t played them enough in the past twenty years for that classic, almost legendary, rivalry to have held firm all of the way through those years. It was bubbling along nicely in the ‘nineties when both clubs were jousting at the top table, but Leeds then got themselves relegated.

Let’s say it’s a dormant rivalry, awaiting to explode, awaiting ignition. The battles off the pitch kept the rivalry at such an intense level in past times. Those lads who stood toe to toe in the good old bad old days are probably grandfathers now and not involved. The new breed is aware of the history, but there is simply no recent history.

Leeds were full of energy and closed us down as soon as we had the merest sniff of the ball.

I was celebrating wildly on a quarter of an hour when Sterling slotted home after a pass from Cucarella but the goal was called back for off-side. I felt a proper divvy. I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

On twenty minutes, a fine move ended with Mason Mount poking a shot at the Leeds goal but their ‘keeper Illan Meslier reacted well to keep it out.

We were edging possession but were not creating a great deal. I thought that Conor Gallagher was possibly trying too hard to impress and he found it difficult to knit things together. It did not help that Jorginho alongside him seemed to be slowing things down as soon as we sensed a break. There was one moment when he received the ball just inside our half with no Leeds player ahead of him for a good five yards. On receiving the ball, he reverted to type with that cradling of the ball and a slow movement to turn towards his defence and playing the ball back. Safety first was always his mantra.

“Attack you fucker.”

Koulibaly seemed to be rather discombobulated at times. He was bamboozled with the quick turn of pace from an unknown Leeds attacker and grabbed the player’s shirt in desperation. He was suitably booked.

“Embarassing.”

Then, a fucking calamity.

A Thiago Silva back-pass to Edouard Mendy. Everything seemed to be in slow motion now. There was a dither. He lost possession when an attempt to dummy the Leeds attacker Brenden Aaronson backfired and the ball was thumped into an empty net from mere inches.

Fucksake.

Mendy’s frustration was mirrored by that of ours. And then some. We have seen this before, right? And we have all commented before.

“Kick it away! Safety first! Get rid!”

As the scorer wheeled away in ecstasy, my eyes were unavoidably drawn to the scene to my right in the South Stand. It was madness. In all my times of going to football, I can never remember seeing such a reaction to any goal being played out in front of me. Bodies were falling in every direction. Limbs everywhere. Screams. Ecstasy. Complete madness.

It was – actually – despite the horrible sinking feeling of conceding a killer first goal a magnificent sight.

A horribly magnificent sight.

Fackinell.

Shockingly, just two minutes later, we conceded a second goal. A whipped-in free-kick from the Leeds left found the perfect leap from Rodrigo. His bullet header found the back of the net with ease.

Fuck.

There was another predictable riot in the South Stand.

Limbs again. I drew my camera and reluctantly took a photograph or two; sometimes, a moment simply has to be captured. Ugh.

Thirty-seven minutes had elapsed. Some Chelsea supporters in the lower tier, I noticed, left and did not return.

“Thanks then…”

I turned to Parky.

“Mountain to climb.”

We didn’t create much in the rest of the half, a Cucarella effort barely troubling the Leeds custodian.

Only Sterling was a half-success. Havertz and Mount were so quiet.

As the second-half began, there was a change to the system but this only became apparent after a while. We played with a four at the back. A nice piece of skill from Loftus-Cheek in front of us allowed a Cucarella effort on goal and we hoped for an upturn in our play. Yes, we dominated possession but didn’t really create too much. On the two occasions that we were in on goal, one on one, we not only misfired but both chances were offside anyway.

On sixty-four minutes, changes.

Christian Pulisic for Gallagher.

Hakim Ziyerch for Jorginho.

We now had Pulisic, Ziyech and Sterling to run and twist their way into dangerous positions. In theory. This never looked like a decent game plan to this casual observer. We needed a focal point, a Broja.

Pah. What do I know?

A low shot from James was turned around his post by Meslier.

We continued to dominate but Leeds gave us no time to develop anything worthwhile. Our jousting thrusts needed to be augmented by an occasional hammer at the heart of the defence. But our artillery was without suitable weaponry. A towering leap by Koulibaly – occasionally excellent blocks making up for his malfunctioning sat nav – from a corner was easily claimed by Meslier.

Our play stagnated. Leeds never stopped running.

It was to get worse. A rapid break down their left and a cross from James, and Harrison picked up the pieces.

The ground exploded again.

May : Leeds United 0 Chelsea 3.

August : Leeds United 3 Chelsea 0.

Yet more Chelsea fans drifted away.

Earlier, we had goaded the home fans with “you’ve only got one song” but this was an empty sentiment.

We were being out sung, and how.

“We are Leeds. And we’re proud of you.”

“All Leeds aren’t we?”

“Marching on together.”

“And shoot the Chelsea scum.”

At times, the noise was electric.

It was bloody horrible. Here I was, stood exposed in the front row of the top section of the away end in full view of the tormenting home support. Loads of Chelsea had drifted away as the game progressed. Gaps appeared in the seats.

“Your support is fucking shit.”

I stood silent. We had no answer. Our pants were being pulled down here.

I looked over at the three thousand in the South Stand – where I once stood when it was the away section in 2001 – and I could not help but notice that virtually all were in their twenties, virtually all were lads – by design? who knows? –  and all were up for it. We do not have a section like that at Chelsea and haven’t had one for decades.

And we were fair game. We had no real response to the piss-taking. We were being schooled both on and off the pitch. This was truly horrific.

I’ve attended games where we have been gubbed before – the 0-4 loss at Old Trafford in Lampard’s first game was particularly painful, Daniel James involved then too – but this one felt like one of the worst.

A Cucarella block averted a fourth after an effort on goal from Rodrigo. If anything, the noise increased further with the Kop now being heard too.

Ben Chilwell replaced Mount.

Then, a second yellow for Koulibaly.

Off he went.

Bollocks.

Azpilicueta for Sterling.

I had lost interest by then. I just wanted to get back to my car. I wanted to scoff that waiting Ginster’s Cornish Pasty. I wanted out.

At the final whistle, relief.

I chatted to a few friends close by, and we all agreed about the amazing antics and booming noise from the home fans.

Grudging respect.

This, though, was a deafeningly poor show from us.

So much for us playing with falsies up front. We just looked like tits.

Tales From Under A Blue And Yellow Arch

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 27 February 2022.

My alarm sounded at 5.45am on the day of the League Cup Final. With all of the recent news from Ukraine that had sadly dominated everyone’s thoughts, I think it is safe to say that I was not wholly ready for the game at Wembley against Liverpool. I wasn’t particularly focussed. Far from it. The horrific scenes from Ukraine – and the national capital of Kiev specifically, a city that I had visited only three years ago with Chelsea – had dominated my thoughts for the previous few days. Football seemed a frivolous pursuit. In fact, my thoughts about the game were quite similar to those that I had felt for the 2015 League Cup Final against Tottenham. Just three days previously, I had lost my dear mother.

On both occasions, my mind was elsewhere, way elsewhere.

On that Sunday seven years ago, we travelled up to London by train. In 2022, we travelled up by car. I collected PD at 7am and Parky not long after. It would be our third drive to London in nine days, but only the second to involve a game.

Last Tuesday, the three of us had arrived in London at our usual parking space on Normand Road at around 5.45pm for the Champions League game against Lille, but PD – who had been feeling ropey during the last thirty-minutes of his drive to London – suddenly felt very ill indeed. He felt sick, experienced hot sweats but was also shaking with the cold too. Without too much thought, I knew we had to get him home. I jumped into the driving seat of his car and drove us back west. Our stay in London had lasted five minutes. Thankfully, PD improved a little on the drive home. By the time I eventually reached my house, the game at Stamford Bridge was approaching half-time. Our eventual two-nil win was met with a little indifference from me. I was more concerned about PD.

Bizarrely, this followed on from my “ghost” trip to London for the Plymouth Argyle game in which I didn’t go in. Two trips to SW6 but no football. My next game at Chelsea is against Newcastle United in a couple of weeks. I hope I make it to my seat.

We had decided to stay over in London. The Premier Inn near Putney Bridge would be our home for the Sunday night. From 10am until about 3pm, we knocked back some ciders and lagers in three local boozers; “The Eight Bells”, “The King’s Arms” and “The Golden Lion”. In the last pub, we bumped into the former Chelsea midfielder Alan Hudson, himself a participant in a League Cup final for Chelsea against Stoke City, almost fifty years ago to the day.

We were adamant that we would arrive on time for this match at Wembley. However, the tube line between Putney Bridge and Earl’s Court wasn’t operating. Instead, we bit the bullet and cabbed it – past Stamford Bridge – to Marylebone Station. It was no surprise to see a few stragglers, a few familiar faces, outside the sports bar as we exited the taxi. We soon squeezed onto the 3.45pm train to Wembley Park. What should have been a twelve-minute journey, took nearer thirty. Our carriage was full of Chelsea, including a couple of lads from home. All eyes were on the clock. Suffice to say, we again struggled to get into Wembley on time.

The game was due to start at 4.30pm.

We made our way around to the eastern end. At least there was no queue and a minimal security check. On the way in, a Scouser in his twenties squeezed-in behind Parky as he scanned his ticket. Old habits die hard, I guess. I uttered two choice words to him as we all ascended the escalator.

Time was against me.

Race, race, race.

I managed to reach my seat while the players of both teams were taking the knee.

Despite my alarm waking me at 5.45am, I was in with just five seconds to spare.

Bloody hell.

We had heard that Romelu Lukaku wasn’t chosen in the starting eleven while we were on the train. No surprise really. It would have been my choice too.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

Alonso – Kante – Kovacic – Azpilicueta

Mount – Havertz – Pulisic

I had consistently said to Chelsea mates, old school friends, work colleagues and the like that I expected us to lose this. Although our two league meetings were even games and hotly contested, it felt like we have gone off the boil of late. In fact, in Abu Dhabi I had prioritised the FIFA World Club Cup over this one. The Chelsea fans that I shared this with agreed with me.

The match began. Chelsea attacked the Scousers who were located in our usual end, an end that tends to be a “lucky” one for us.

The game was a cracker, eh?

On so many occasions, our recent Cup Final appearances at Wembley have tended to be dull affairs. But here was a contest that was at last an open and entertaining match for one and all.

It was a wild start to the game. Christian Pulisic was fed in by Dave. His snap shot was too close to the Liverpool ‘keeper with the unpronounceable first name. The chance went begging.

Liverpool then attacked at will. On one occasion, Mo Salah was closely marked by four Chelsea defenders. All eyes were on him, but elsewhere Liverpool were a threat.

It can be a sobering experience to watch Chelsea at Wembley. At home games, I have managed to get acclimatised to periods of quiet in The Sleepy Hollow. It’s not an ideal scenario but I’m used to it by now. Not many of the fifty or so spectators who sit near me get too involved. They have their moments, but these seem more fleeting as the years go by. At away games, it’s a different story. A far more uplifting experience. There’s nothing like cheering the team on in a packed and exuberant away section. At Wembley – and this has happened on far too many occasions for my liking – I soon get exasperated by those nearby who don’t support the team. Two lads in their early thirties alongside Parky were a case in point. No singing, no encouragement, no clapping. It was the same story with a couple in front. Nothing.

I couldn’t resist a loud “song sheets are available.”

Thankfully, a good group of singers to my left restored my faith in humanity.

Down below me, Mane headed well-wide from Alexander-Arnold. It felt like Liverpool were dominating much of the first twenty minutes, thirty minutes, but we managed the occasional counter-thrust. At no stage did I feel we would buckle to their attacks.

On the half-hour, we witnessed an amazing double-save from Edouard Mendy. First, a low shot from Keita was parried by a dive, and our ‘keeper then managed to reconfigure the neutrons, protons and electrons in his body to readjust his limbs and deflect Mane’s close-range effort over the bar. There were immediate memories of Jim Montgomery in the 1973 FA Cup Final.

It was a breath-taking piece of football.

The atmosphere, despite some good quality fare being played out on the Wembley pitch, was a little underwhelming. The Liverpool anthems “You’ll never walk alone” and “The fields of Anfield Road” occasionally boomed from the western end. “Carefree” was our main reply. In the big spaces of Wembley, it’s difficult to generate anything more intricate. The Mendy song, as an example, didn’t stand a chance.

Kai Havertz played in Pulisic, but his finish was again too close to Kelleher. A rising shot from Dave didn’t threaten the Irish ‘keeper either.

Chelsea were breaking nicely, with good mobility and a sense of freedom, and Havertz played in Mount just as the first-half was closing. His prod at goal was rather poor and the ball was sent wide. From a central position near the penalty spot, he really should have done better.

No goals at the break.

“Happy with that. Playing much better than I had predicted.”

The second-half began with Chelsea playing towards us in the eastern end of Wembley. A fantastic ball from Pulisic found the equally excellent run from Mount. The whole world seemed to stop. From inside the box, one on one with the ‘keeper, Mount struck.

The ball rebounded off the near post.

Fackinell.

Dave was injured, but on came Reece James to huge applause.

Another injury occurred when Keita and Trevoh Chalobah clashed in the middle of the pitch. From my vantage point high in the top tier, I had no real view of the incident. But Chalobah stayed down the longest.

The atmosphere was better now. Our end was showing some kind of unity.

“And it’s super Chelsea.”

A terrible clearance from Mendy allowed Liverpool to break in acres of space. The ball was worked to Salah who clipped the ball past the onrushing ‘keeper, trying to atone for his mistake. Thankfully, the reassuring figure of Thiago Silva appeared and hacked the ball away.

Not long after, a quickly-taken free-kick was pumped towards the area past our far post. A Liverpool header back across goal was headed in.

Ugh.

The Liverpool end roared.

There were red flares. They had scored the all-important first goal.

Our end was silent.

But then, after what seemed like an age, we saw that VAR was being called upon.

No goal.

Why? Was the first header from an offside position? Who knows.

A double substitution on seventy-three minutes.

Timo Werner for Pulisic.

Romelu Lukaku for Mount.

At around this time, the announcer at Wembley did something that I have never witnessed at a game in the UK before; he effectively did an in-game commercial for Carabao. Well, you can imagine my reaction.

Fackinell.

A cracking save by Mendy from Diaz drew more applause from our end. This was a really open game. Kante and Kovacic covered so much ground in our midfield. Alonso was always looking to stretch Liverpool’s right flank. Our defensive three rarely looked troubled. A ball was lobbed into the inside-left channel for Werner to attack. His fine cross was headed in by Havertz but – after a nano-second – we realised that an offside flag was raised.

Another magnificent save from Mendy kept us in it; a towering leap from Van Dijk was followed by a downward header but a stretching save kept it out.

Inside my head : “Mendy man of the match so far.”

Right at the death, Alonso did so well to shake off attention and rifle in a cross towards the near post but a shake of the leg from Lukaku and a flick was parried by Kelleher.

We had been standing for an hour and three quarters. We would be standing for thirty minutes more.

Extra time.

A magnificent ball in the channel from the excellent Chalobah found Lukaku, who advanced, stopped, settled himself and tucked the ball home.

We screamed. But then, the grim realisation that a flag had been waved.

Bollocks.

For Lukaku to score right in front of the Scousers would have been utterly perfect.

The night had fallen now, and the underside of the Wembley roof was picked out in yellow and blue in a show of solidarity with the people of Ukraine. The arch was yellow and blue too.

The game entered its final fifteen minutes.

My legs were aching and my throat was parched.

“Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea.”

A precise move involving Lukaku and Alonso in a tight area on our left allowed our much-maligned Spaniard to drill a pass to Havertz. His neat finish was soon flagged for offside too.

“God. Three times.”

Late on, Kepa replaced Mendy, a repeat of Belfast in August.

The game continued to its conclusion.

0-0.

The dreaded penalties. I didn’t like it that they were to be taken at their end.

“Munich was the other end though. And Belfast.”

“I fancy our chances here, Paul.”

There then ensued the best part of fifteen minutes of more drama. Pure drama? Maybe. They were all fantastic penalties to be honest. The agony continued after no misses in ten attempts. We went to sudden death. Kick after kick.

It went to 10-10.

Time for the two ‘keepers.

Alas, it was not to be.

Kelleher : hit.

Kepa : miss.

We fell silent once again.

The arch turned red.

We returned to Marylebone, then back to Fulham. Our last four domestic Cup Finals have ended in defeat now. I can hardly believe it.

Next up, Luton away in the cup that matters. I’ll see some of you there.


Tales From Simply A Superb Game

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 2 January 2022.

My run of football games over the festive period was continuing.

On the first day of 2022, following on from Frome Town’s 3-3 home draw with Melksham Town, it was time for another non-league match involving my local team. I travelled with my pal Fran over to nearby Paulton Rovers who had been enjoying a decent season themselves. This was one of those fabled games of two halves; in the first a rampant Frome attacked the end housing it’s sizeable travelling support and led with a fine goal from Kane Simpson. In the second-half, a different story as the home team dominated the game yet failed to really trouble the Frome goalkeeper. Frome weathered the storm and scored a late breakaway goal at the end via James Ollis to win 2-0. It kept the team at the top of the division down in level eight of the football pyramid. There was another large gate; 649 was more than four times the average Paulton Rovers attendance of 137. There must have been two hundred away fans. I enjoyed it.

But this was just a pre-curser, an hors-d’oeuvre, before the weekend’s main course.

On the second day of 2022, the last game of my Christmas schedule pitted Chelsea against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. However, as one run of games was ending, we were now overlapping into another sequence of games. Against Brighton, we embarked on a run of four home games in a space of just eleven days. I can’t ever remember a more condensed run of matches at Stamford Bridge.

Brighton followed by Liverpool followed by Tottenham followed by Chesterfield.

Of course, the build-up to the Liverpool game was dominated by Lukakugate. I suspected Machiavellian forces at work with the timing of the release in information of the interview. But oh Romelu, what were you bloody thinking? We waited to hear what the club’s response would be. Of course the most annoying thing about all of this was the fact that Lukaku had scored two in two games and had brought an extra element to our play against Villa and Brighton.

I hate negative noise around Chelsea Football Club. It spoiled my anticipation of the upcoming game a little. But Sunday soon came around.

I collected the same three passengers on the way up to London as for the Brighton game four days earlier; between the four of us in my car, there was a total of seven-hundred and ninety-five games and fourteen goals for Chelsea.

…cough…and I’ll say it again…cough.

There was very little traffic on the road to London. The weather was fine if a little grey. I dropped PD and Lord Parky at “The Eight Bells” and Ron at the bottom of Fulham Broadway. I was parked up bang on 11.30am. The journey had taken me around three hours again.

I walked down to Fulham Broadway tube station. There were a few minutes to wait for the southbound train and so I used the time to take a few photographs. I especially zoned-in on the old stairways that lead to the original station’s booking hall. The memories came flooding back. It’s a bit of a metaphor for Chelsea really. One station but split into two. The antiquated southern part is frozen in time along with my memories of the club before success and money – or money and success if our rivals are to be believed – while the northern part is slick and swish and functional. I used to love being squeezed right out onto the Fulham Road from those exit stairs that were only used on match days, and that I bet most new fans are not even aware of. But these days we walk out through the back of a shopping centre and past an entrance to a car park.

In recent months, I have fallen in love with the short train ride from Fulham Broadway to Putney Bridge. With my driving duties completed, it represents a chance for me to relax a little knowing that I have again reached London without incident nor accident. I have never been a nervous nor anxious driver, but there is always a little bit of me that is relieved once I park up at Chelsea. We pass through Parson’s Green, a famous old Chelsea battleground for those that know and all that bollocks, and I love looking back at Stamford Bridge across the rooftops and then over to the buildings of Chelsea Harbour. The trip is over within four minutes but it’s now a favourite part of my Chelsea day. Putney Bridge is the cutest of stations. And of course I love the thought that within a minute of descending those wooden stairs I will be walking into the friendly and cosy “Eight Bells.”

Talking of which…

I spent from 12.30pm to 3.45pm with PD and Parky, but also with Jonathan, who I was not planning on meeting up with until I realised that he was sat a few seats away from me against Brighton. I sorted out a ticket for him for Liverpool there and then and we agreed to meet up. He came in just as I was about to launch into a plate of gammon, fried eggs and chips, as per PD and as per Parky. Of course, the others were the dedicated drinkers while I was the dedicated driver. PD, Parky and I ran through a few thoughts about Abu Dhabi; I hope to book flights soon.

Jonathan now lives in Tampa and we have a couple of mutual acquaintances that we know through the burgeoning presence of Chelsea fans in the US. Jonathan used to be a referee, and knows Phil from Iowa who is a referee too. I couldn’t escape Chelsea fans who were also referees; at the Paulton Rovers game, I bumped into Young Dave – as featured in the first couple of Mark Worrall’s books – and he runs the line at local games to this day.

Jonathan told me about a game that he officiated in back in around 1996; he was the linesman at a USA vs. England U17 game in Tampa. He mentioned a young starlet who played for England who was a Chelsea prodigy but – although great things were expected – never made the grade with us but instead played for Brighton. Jonathan couldn’t remember his name.

My brain started ticking over.

“Damn, I can picture him. His name is on the tip of my tongue. What I usually do is go through the alphabet.”

PD told Jonathan I’d eventually remember on the way home.

Well, I got there eventually. But I had to go right to the end of the alphabet.

“Zeke Rowe!”

Anyone remember him?

Outside there was a hint of drizzle but the air was still relatively mild. We made it inside Stamford Bridge at just gone four o‘clock. I soon spotted Liverpool players in a very dark red training top going through their pre-match routines. The sight made my hackles rise a little. They remain one of my three most disliked teams; Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool. It’s just the way it is.

This was to be the first-ever “safe standing” game to take place in the top flight of English football. We are in some sort of a four team trial I believe. In reality, of course, those with “rail seating” in the lower tiers of The Shed and the Matthew Harding have been “safe standing” since the start of the season. I am generally in favour of safe standing, though I find it odd that the Shed Upper has been given over to standing in addition to the two lower tiers at either end of the stadium. What I find unpalatable is that those season ticket holders in the three areas of the stadium now covered by “safe standing” were given no say whatsoever in the process. In a nutshell, they were not given the chance to move their season tickets over to another part of Stamford Bridge.

I stand at away games and I could probably ease into standing at Stamford Bridge all of the time with no real problem. But for many in the area of the Matthew Harding Upper where I reside, standing at games would been uncomfortable and painful. Bluntly, not an option. I am glad, therefore, that our tier remained as seating.

I also found it ironic that Liverpool were to be involved in the very first official “safe standing” game in the top flight.

The minutes ticked by.

The Chelsea team?

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

Alonso – Kante – Kovacic – Azpilcueta

Pulisic – Havertz – Mount

Lukaku was not even in the squad.

Just before the game kicked-off, the stadium resounded to a noisy rendition of “Champions of Europe, we know what we are” to remind our visitors of who is on that particular perch at this moment in time.

There was a rip-roaring start to the game. In the first ten seconds, I was buggering about with my phone and so – in all honesty – missed the initial challenge on Cesar Azpilicueta by Sadio Mane that lead to the latter receiving a yellow card. I looked down to see Dave sprawled no more than thirty-five yards from me.

On two occasions that the ball was played centrally into the Liverpool box, water splashed up from the turf and I wondered if a little too much water had been sprayed onto that particular area. There was an early exchange of chances in the first few minutes. A defensive mix-up allowed Mane to play a ball across the goal towards Mo Salah but Edouard Mendy was able to save. At the other end, Kai Havertz put pressure on Trent Alexander-Arnold and the ball broke for Christian Pulisic with only unknown Liverpool ‘keeper Caoieaihoieamhouin Kelleher to beat. However, our slight striker could not convert. In fact, the ‘keeper made a fine reaction save, scooping the ball away well.

After nine minutes, another defensive blip from a stooping Chalobah allowed the ball to run to Mane who rounded Mendy to score despite the presence of Dave’s lunge on the line.

Ouch.

Despite this, the noise levels remained high.

“He gave it to Demba Ba, Steve Gerrard, Gerrard.”

I hate us singing this when we aren’t even playing Liverpool, but on this occasion I joined in.

We kept going and it felt like we were dominating the game. There was a low shot from Mason Mount that was blocked. Then a trademark Chelsea move of the past four years or so; we all had our hearts in our mouths when a deep cross from Dave on the right was played towards Marcos Alonso on the left. Alas, Alonso was stretching just a little too much and the shot was wild.

I spoke to PD : “We ain’t playing too badly here.”

Mateo Kovacic was showing great energy in our two-man midfield, and alongside him N’Golo Kante was at his usual high standard of play.

Alas, on twenty-six minutes, an incisive move down the Liverpool left found Salah breaking inside the box. I pleaded for Alonso to get tighter, but a shimmy and a shake from Salah allowed him to drift past. From an acute angle, he opened up his body and slammed the ball twixt ‘keeper and post. I was in a direct line with the shot. There was, eerily, a moment of silence in Stamford Bridge. The Liverpool fans down the other end waited for the net to ripple, and then there was a further slight pause for the wall of noise from one hundred yards away to hit me.

Fackinell.

I had immediate visions of 0-4, maybe even 0-5.

Fair play to Salah for not celebrating in front of us.

The noise died a little.

But then the away fans sang out “Allez allez” and this resulted in a hugely impressive “Carefree” from Chelsea.

Bloody excellent.

With the half-time break approaching, a foul near the far goal line on Havertz by James Milner raised our hopes. We watched as Alonso sent the ball in, only for Kelleher to punch up and away. I had my camera up to my eyes from the free-kick and watched through my lens as the ball ballooned up. It was falling towards Kovacic but he had to back-peddle to accommodate the arrival of the ball. As it fell, he volleyed with his right foot. The ball flew goal wards. We watched open-mouthed. It crashed into the right hand post. A moment of pure drama followed. Would it bounce out or bounce in? It bounced down and across the goal. Only when the net nestled did we celebrate. It was the Scousers turn to be engulfed by a wall of noise.

Whatafuckinggoal.

My immediate response?

Essien, Barcelona.

I snapped the goal scorer’s triumphant race back towards the centre circle. The place was buzzing.

The goal also reminded a little me of the volley that John Terry scored in the same goal against Wigan when he had to quickly readjust his feet. But that was from a lot closer in. This Kovacic goal was something else.

But then…but then.

An audible groan when it was announced that VAR was poking its big fat nose into our moment of joy. We waited. What was it for? Nobody knew.

Thankfully, the goal stood.

But then, I noted Jordan Henderson berating the referee. That’s Jordan Henderson the Liverpool captain. This made my blood boil. The referee should have carded him for that. Prick.

Just three minutes later, and into stoppage time, a Toni Rudiger clearance was pushed on by Kante with the deftest of touches.

We watched. The boy Pulisic was one on one. He was through. That lovely moment of expectation. I wanted to see him drop a shoulder and drill it low towards the far post. Instead it bounced high and he chested it down before lobbing the ball in.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Stamford Bridge exploded.

I yelled and yelled. PD alongside me was shouting with both his arms raised. I reached down and took a few out-of-focus shots of the players celebrating. Many seconds later, I looked over at PD and he was still in celebratory mode, still in the same stance, still yelling, still cheering.

What bliss.

There’s always something special about two important goals being scored so close together. This was absolutely one of those moments.

Unbelievably, there was further drama in the minute or so left of the first-half. Alonso swept the ball over to Havertz who, despite close attention from a red defender, got his shot in from inside the box. The ball broke to Mason Mount but his shot was awkward and the ball rolled agonisingly past the far post.

There was just time for another ear shattering “Carefree.”

What an incredible match. What an incredible five minutes.

There was beautiful disbelief at the break.

Phew.

I couldn’t have been the only person who was warmly remembering the FA Cup tie against Liverpool almost twenty-five years ago? Two-nil down at half-time, on came Mark Hughes, we won 4-2. It remains as one of our very greatest games.

Twenty-five years ago, though? Fackinell.

Stamford Bridge was on fire then as it was in 2022.

Of course, the half-time whistle probably came at the wrong time and other clichés. Our momentum, not surprisingly, was so difficult to recreate. But the noise levels at the start of the second-half were surprisingly quiet. I wanted us to roar the team on to further glory.

For a player that we purchased as a defensive midfielder, Kante sure knows how to break forward with the easiest of pace changes; he glides, he turns, he keeps the ball moving, he passes. Once or twice in that early part of the second period he was an absolute joy.

A shot from Alonso flew over.

On the hour mark, one, then two then three saves from our man Mendy kept us in the game. The best by far was a magnificent reach after a speculative effort from distance from Salah. The Liverpool striker had decided to test our ‘keeper’s awareness. He’ll know better next time.

I was totally immersed in this game. It was a tantalising show from both teams. It was, frankly, a joy and a pleasure to be present.

On more than one occasion, after we were awarded corners, Rudiger and Pulisic turned to the supporters in the MHL to sing louder, stronger. They needed us.

A cross from Havertz and a volley from Pulisic was well-saved.

On seventy-minutes, a change in personnel and shape.

Jorginho for Chalobah.

We now had a three-man midfield, with just Havertz and Mount up top. Pulisic was moved to wing-back with Dave moved centrally. The American really grew into the game and proved to be a jinking, probing menace on the right. In one of the photos that I took of him, I noticed that he was smiling while in possession of the ball, probably looking at options. This rarely happens in modern football. More power to him. A shot from Christian, right winger, curled just over.

The whole team seemed to tire as one.

With ten minutes to go, we freshened things up further.

Callum Hudson-Odoi for Havertz.

We enjoyed the best of the last part of the game. Callum injected some good pace and was able, for once, to speed past his marker rather than dawdle and play within himself.

A shot from Mount, which followed up his blocked free-kick, whizzed towards the goal but Kelleher saved well. One last header always looked like going wide of the far post.

The final whistle blew.

2-2 on the second day of 2022.

Exiting the stairs, I simply said “superb game of football” to a few friends.

I said as much on “Facebook” with the extra comment :

“Lukak’who?”

Thankfully, this match was a good case of addition by subtraction. Nobody really knew what the next step in the Lukaku saga would be, but with a steep run of games coming up, including three against Tottenham in just eighteen days, this match provided a magnificence boost to our morale.

And yes, it was a simply superb game of football.

Fulham Broadway.

The Eight Bells.

Stamford Bridge.

Tales From The London Stadium

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 4 December 2021.

This was another early start. At 7am I called for PD and at 7.30am we collected LP. Another cold day was on the cards as I pointed my car eastwards. As with any other Chelsea trip, there was the usual early-morning sequence of chit-chat, laughs and piss-takes. Outwardly, my main conversation point to my two travelling companions was this :

“Never bloody seen us win at their new place.”

For it was true.

26/10/16 : League Cup – lost 1-2

6/10/17 : League – won 2-1 (I did not attend – work)

9/12/17 : League – lost 0-1

23/9/18 : League – drew 0-0

1/7/20 : League – lost 2-3 (I did not attend – behind closed doors)

24/4/21 : League – won 1-0 (I did not attend – behind closed doors)

Inwardly, I was humming a tune to myself, but I was not convinced that I would be able to remember the exact words later in the day if required.

The key word was “zangalewa.”

“Tsamina mina, eh, eh.

Edouard Edouard Mendy.

Tsamina mina zangalewa.

He comes from Senegal.”

After the really lucky win at Watford on Wednesday, everyone seemed to be of the same opinion ahead of our game with West Ham who were surprisingly flying high, albeit not from Stamford Bridge to Upton Park.

“Tough game coming up.”

Despite the undoubted strength of our overall squad, despite the fine managerial nous of Thomas Tuchel, despite our fine showing in several recent games, there were of course questions everywhere. But this is to be expected. We are still a learning team, a growing team, a team in embryo.

Despite our real worries about our fate in East London, we were on our way.

One of these days, the Premier League fixtures will be kinder to us for an away game at the former Olympic Stadium in Stratford. Of my three – soon to be four – visits, one has been a night game and three have been early kick-offs. We have a traditional East-End pre-match lined up to take place at some point in the future; a pint at “The Blind Beggar” and some pie and mash somewhere local. Time was against us on this visit, but one day we’ll do it.

I was parked-up at Barons Court at bang on 10am. Our race out east involved three railway lines and changes at Green Park and Canary Wharf. We arrived at Pudding Mill Lane at bang on 11am. The walk to the away turnstiles took just ten minutes.

Just over four hours from PDs’s door to an Iron door.

Ideally, I wanted to circumnavigate the stadium for the first time to take some photos but we were soon funnelled into the away turnstiles. I had taken a photo of the ArcelorMital Orbit on the walk to the stadium, but it was a terribly flat photo. I had been hoping to take other photos of not only it but of the stadium too. Again, some other time maybe.

It was all rather ironic that I chose to wear a classic navy New York Yankee cap on this cold day in London. Back in June 2019, the Yankees played two “away” games against the Boston Red Sox at West Ham’s stadium and it was natural that many of my friends expected me to attend as I have been a long-distance admirer of the Bronx Bombers since 1990. But I wasn’t having any of it. As a vehement opponent of the “thirty-ninth game” or any variant of it, it would have been pretty hypocritical of me to watch the Yanks outside of North America.

We were inside with a long wait until kick-off and I was able to chat to many good people in the large concourse area outside the seating bowl.

It was fantastic to chat to Tommie and Kevin for the first time in a while. Both follow Wales over land and sea. They feel ill at ease contemplating a possible place in the finals of the Qatar World Cup. They feel conflicted should Wales win their two play-off games. Both dislike the idea of that nation hosting the tournament; the ridiculous heat, the lack of a local football culture, the obvious back-handers involved in the process of choosing that country, the deaths of migrant workers in the construction of the shiny new stadia, the human rights violations.

I feel for them.

Personally, I have decided to boycott watching the FIFA 2022 World Cup. It’s a personal choice. I recently decided not to watch any qualifiers either.

Talking of the Arabian Peninsula, I heard that a few fellow fans had already booked their passage to Abu Dhabi for the long awaited World Club Championships. This is now finalised for the first few days in February. I want to go. Under normal circumstances, my flight and accommodation would be booked. There are of course other outside influences to consider. A couple of The Chuckle Brothers are interested too. Let’s see how COVID behaves over the next few weeks.

I sense an incoming barrage of “whataboutery” questions heading my way.

Is it hypocritical of me to boycott Qatar but to embrace Abu Dhabi?

Possibly. I’ll do some research. I’ll get some answers. It might prove to be a difficult decision. It might be an easy one. This is what Tommie thinks about Qatar too.

…a voice from the gallery : “you OK on that soap-box, mate? You finished pontificating?”

Well. If you insist.

I saw that the Chelsea U-21 team again took part in the autumn group phase of the “EFL” Cup, which was originally known as the Associate Members Cup when it was originally floated back in the mid–eighties. For years and years, this was the sole preserve of teams in the third and fourth tiers of the professional pyramid and gave the competing teams the chance to reach Wembley Stadium. For a while this was known as the Johnstone Paints Trophy, and allowed Southampton to have a self-deprecating dig at us in recent years.

“Johnstone Paints Trophy – you’ll never win that.”

Premier League teams have been allowed to enter their U-21 teams since 2016 and I – and many others – are dead against this. I see no merit in it. It could potentially rob a smaller club of their day out at Wembley. In 1988, for example, Wolves beat Burnley 2-0 in the Sherpa Van Trophy in front of 80,000 supporters at a time when both clubs were floundering. As recently as 2019, over 85,000 saw Portsmouth beat Sunderland.

Seeing Chelsea U-21 at Wembley in a final would not thrill me; far from it. Despite us playing at nearby Bristol Rovers and Forest Green Rovers in the past month, I boycotted those two games. No interest, no point and just wrong in my book.

The two Robs appeared.

“Have you got the Mendy song sorted?”

I replied I wasn’t sure but I thought there was mention of the word “satsuma” somewhere within it.

I made my way up the steps to the upper level of the seating bowl. This was my first time back in over three years and I had forgotten how ridiculous a stadium it really is. I was in row thirty-six, so heaven knows what the view was like in row seventy at the rear. That vast amount of wasted space between the two end tiers is such an eyesore. For a one-time Olympic stadium, I am always struck with how undeniably bland it all is. The only unique feature about it is the upturned triangular pattern of the floodlights. The “running” track area is now claret-coloured, the one change since 2018.

On the balcony of the main stand, or at least the one with the posh boxes, which is the only one not named after a former player, a potted history of West Ham’s successes is listed.

The list does not extend too far.

FA Cup 1964

ECWC 1965

FA Cup 1975

FA Cup 1980

Not much of a list, really.

I said to Gary : “I am surprised they haven’t added ‘East 17 Xmas Number One 1994’ to it…”

To be honest, silverware-wise, Chelsea and West Ham were scarily similar for decades; only four major trophies apiece up until 1997. Since then, well…our two trajectories have differed.

We knew that Thomas Tuchel was still battling injuries but we had also heard that Reece James and Jorginho were to return.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Christensen

Alonso – Jorginho – Loftus-Cheek – James

Mount – Havertz – Ziyech

Still no sight of Romelu Lukaku in the starting eleven; we guessed he wasn’t 100% and was being eased back in.

Ex-Chelsea favourite Kurt Zouma was in the West Ham team.

Chelsea, in yellow and black, attacked the home end in the first-half and quickly dominated possession.

In the opening few minutes, the two sets of fans went with some tried and tested chants :

“From Stamford Bridge to Upton Park, stick your blue flag up your arse.”

“You sold your soul for this shit hole.

On six minutes, the mood in the stadium dramatically changed as an image of the murdered young boy Arthur Labinjo-Hughes was shown on the two giant TV screens. It seemed that everyone stopped to clap. What a terrible waste of a beautiful young life. I have rarely felt such sickening sadness and anger as when I saw, and heard, his sweet voice on the TV.

Bless you Arthur. Rest in peace.

Despite our dominance, West Ham were actually ahead on chances created in the first quarter of an hour, with one shot from Jarrod Bowen going wide and a free header from another who I thought was Mark Noble but then realised he wasn’t even playing. It is, after all, a long way from the pitch in the away end.

All of the noise seemed to be coming from us.

A well struck shot from Reece James was easy for Fabianski to hold.

“One shot on goal in fifteen minutes, Al. That equates to just six in the whole match.” My eyesight might have been shite, but my maths was up to scratch.

Another chance to the home team, but Mendy saved from Craig Dawson.

In the wide open space between the two tiers of Chelsea support, around twenty police were positioned.

“Most Old Bill I’ve seen inside an away ground for ages, Al.”

It had made me chuckle just before the match had started to see Goggles, the football-liaison officer at Fulham Police Station, chatting away to a known Chelsea hooligan, admittedly of yesteryear. It also made me laugh to see, at various stages of the match, all twenty police officers avidly watching the game, seated in a separate section, rather than eyeballing the crowd.

I called it The Goggle Box.

At last, another effort on the West Ham goal; on twenty-five minutes a very fine cross from James picked out the unmarked leap of Kai Havertz. Sadly, this was saved.

A corner followed, and then another. Mount crossed to meet the unhindered leap of Thiago Silva inside the box. His header forced the ball downwards and it bounced up and into the goal. The net rippled and the three-thousand Chelsea fans roared. The goal immediately reminded me of the first Chelsea goal that I ever saw in person, another “up and down” header from Ian Hutchinson in 1974.

Twenty-eight minutes had elapsed and all was well in the world.

“Maybe I will see us win here after all.”

We spotted Joe Cole and Gianfranco Zola, and Rio Ferdinand, out in the open, in front of the BT studio no more than thirty yards away.

Hakim Ziyech was involved in some nice flourishes, and the fleet-footed trio up front were causing West Ham more problems than they would have wished. There was still a reluctance for any of our team to take a pop at goal though. It was infuriating the hell out of Alan and myself. At last, an effort from distance from Mason Mount – nothing special to be honest – cheered us.

“Need to do more of that. Get players following up, it might squirm away from the ‘keeper, let’s keep firing shots in, deflections, touches, make the ’keeper work.”

Two more shots at the West Ham goal followed.

West Ham were still offering an occasional threat, though. Sadly, on forty minutes, an under-hit back pass from Jorginho put Edouard Mendy under all sorts of pressure. Knowing that our fine shot stopper is not gifted with even average distribution, we always wonder Why The Fuck do we seem obsessed in playing the ball back to him, especially when opposing teams are putting us under pressure in our third. It is fucking unfathomable. Well, surprise surprise, a heavy touch from Mendy followed, and as he saw himself lose control, he took a low swipe at that man Bowen.

It was a clear penalty.

Fucksake.

Lanzini smashed in the equaliser from the spot.

Only four minutes later, a fine move involving Ruben Loftus-Cheek pushing the ball out to Ziyech resulted in a long cross-field pass to Mount, unmarked, in the inside-right channel. His first time effort was incredible; a potent mixture of placement and power, the shot being cushioned with the side of his foot, but with so much venom that Fabianski did not get a sniff. It crept in low at the near post.

It was a fucking sublime goal.

There were generally upbeat comments at the break. The noise hadn’t been too loud throughout the half, but it is so difficult to get the away support – in two distinct areas – together to sing as one. I hardly heard the Mendy song, but on its rare appearance, the young bloke behind me was making a spirited effort to mangle every syllable in the entire song.

I kept quiet. I knew I would hardly be any better, satsuma or not.

At half-time, Lukaku replaced Havertz.

“Is it me, Al, or has he put on some weight? He was pretty trim when he returned from Italy.”

He must love Greggs’ steak bakes and sausage rolls. And their doughnuts and yum yums.

There was a little nip-and-tuck as the second-half began. Ten minutes in, Gal chirped “the next goal is massive.” Within a minute, West Ham broke with ease down our left and just before Bowen struck, I feared the worst and sighed “goal”; it was therefore no surprise to me to see the net ripple again, this time at the far post.

Bollocks.

Our Callum came on in place of Ziyech; a tad unlucky I thought, but maybe he was tiring. Callum began up front in a three and had a few nibbles. But ten minutes later, Alonso was replaced by Christian Pulisic, so Callum reverted to a left wing back. We enjoyed a little spell of around ten minutes when we looked to be knocking on the Irons’ door, but I have to say that the integration of a returning Lukaku – either unable or unwilling to shake off markers – was a problem. We enjoyed reasonable approach play but floundered in and around the box.

“Hit the fackin’ thing.”

Our efforts on goal hardly caused Fabianski to break sweat.

“Fackinell Chels.”

Callum’s reluctance to drift past his man was frustrating. On the rare occasions that he was in a good position to shoot, he declined.

Sigh.

With three minutes to go, and with a few Chelsea fans already trickling out of the away end, a relatively rare West Ham move found itself wide on our right.

Out of nowhere, Arthur Masuaku took a swipe at the ball, no doubt intending to send a cross into our box for the impressive Michail Antonio – much more agile than Lukaku – or anyone else who was nearby to attack. To our horror, the ball appeared to be sliced. It made a bee-line for the goal, and Mendy – expecting the cross – was caught out. His back-peddling and side-shifting was a terrible sight to see. Again that same net rippled.

The home fans, I have to say, made an absolute din.

Ugh.

With that, hundreds of Chelsea fans poured out of both tiers.

Alan, Gary, Parky and I stayed to the end, but I had packed away my camera long before the final whistle.

“Still not seen us win here.”

The Chelsea crowd shuffled out. Jason – another Chelsea fan from Wales – cheered me with a positive spin on things.

“Tough one but we move on mate” and a smile.

On the walk away from the stadium, there was honest annoyance but also a little pragmatism too.

“Should have won that. Fluke goal, the winner. A mate reckoned it deflected off Ruben’s leg. But we didn’t create enough clear chances. God, we miss Kante.”

As we walked on, the mood shifted further. Let’s not get too silly about this. Nobody likes losing but on this day, a day of two Arthurs, maybe a little perspective is needed.

Arthur Labinjo-Hughes.

Arthur Masuaku.

Do I have to spell it out?

The return trip out west went well. Pudding Mill Lane station was soon reached. It must be one of London’s hidden secrets; we never wait too long there. In the short line for the lift to take us up to the platform, a West Ham fan, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Bernie Winters, soon sussed that we were Chelsea but when he heard that we went to all the games could not have been friendlier.”

“Good lads.”

I finally took my photo of the ArcelorMital Orbit from the platform as we waited for a train to whip us back to Canary Wharf.

We were back at Barons Court for around 4pm. Our trip back to Wiltshire and Somerset was quick and uneventful, but one moment disrupted us.

“Liverpool just scored. Ninety-fourth minute.”

With Manchester City winning too, we suddenly found ourselves in third place. There will be no dishonour if this fledgling Chelsea team, still learning about itself and its manager – and vice versa – finishes third this season.

Personally, I’ve got my beady eyes on the World Club Championships. If we win that, the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy really won’t matter at all.

There is no midweek flit to Russia for me, so next up it’s the old enemy on Saturday.

Chelsea vs. Leeds United.

Salivate away everyone.

I’ll see you there.

Tales From A Long Game And A Long Day

Watford vs. Chelsea : 1 December 2021.

It had taken me two-and-a-half hours to drive up to Watford from Melksham. We were parked up at the northern end of Watford’s pedestrianised high street and were soon ordering drinks at the bar inside “The Horns” public house. It was around a quarter to five on another cold winter day. The match was due to kick-off at 7.30pm, the second of three games in the London area within seven days. I was driving to all of them; a total of 670 miles.

Just as I had arrived in Watford, a text from a long, lost mate.

Jesus from California was in town. Parky and I first met him at a game at Goodison Park in May 2011 – the Carlo Ancelotti sacking debacle – but he was a major fixture in that amazing 2011/2012 season when his university sent him on an internship to London for a few months. We met him a few times at Stamford Bridge, but also at Manchester City, Fulham, Arsenal and Napoli. He went to the Champions League games at Benfica and Barcelona too. But then he returned to Calexico and, despite me trying to get him to head back to Chelsea, his studies ended and his new business venture started, and getting away was proving difficult.

The years passed.

A month or so ago, he told me he was heading over – without match tickets – for the games at Watford and West Ham.

Fackinell.

PD and Parky sipped on Stellas while I sipped a Diet Coke. We eagerly awaited his arrival. It was all a bit ironic really, since I had two extra tickets in my wallet but which were already promised to another. We waited for Andy to arrive at “The Horns” too. Sadly, he was running late.

At around 5.30pm, Jesus and his mate Rafael arrived. What a joy to see him again. A hug and handshakes. They had been down near Vicarage Road in a pub called “The Red Lion”, trying to source a ticket or two. There was a rushed update on our lives – and football – but I explained that they really needed to head down to the main Chelsea pub, “The Moon Under Water”, and put the feelers out for spares. They set off at about 6pm.

Andy was caught in traffic so I arranged to see him outside the ground.

Suddenly, it was all about tickets.

There is absolutely no doubt that the football public are mad for football once again; for away games especially so. The buzz of away games far outweighs home matches. We all love them.

This was going to be a long day. I was up at 4.45am to enable me to get in to work to do a very early 6am to 2pm shift. We were glad we had set off at just after two o’clock. We had been caught in some heavy traffic as we wended our way around the notorious M25 and Andy was stuck in that same slug of traffic. Apart from the delay on the London orbital, it was a painless drive up to Hertfordshire; the highlight being the sight of two intense rainbows as we drove through rain clouds on the M3.

Ahead, dark grey brooding clouds. Behind, an intense yellow wash over the clouds in my rear view mirror. Above, multicolours.

We set off – coats buttoned, that winter chill was a frightener – at around 6.30pm. We arrived at Vicarage Road just before 7pm. I stayed outside and left PD and Parky to get inside. There was no news of tickets for Jesus, nor any news from Andy battling the M25.

I positioned myself right under the sign at “The Red Lion” and waited for news.

The match-goers rushed past, the short walk from the pubs of central Watford almost over. I love that little walk; it’s absolutely packed full of cafes, restaurants and take-aways of every variation and from every nation. There was a wide variety of spectators too. Young and boisterous youngsters. Middle-aged men with coat collars turned up with scarves tight against necks, the cold biting away. Couples. Little groups. Many solo figures. Folk walking with stares down at the pavement and road, watching out for any uneven bumps. Watford scarves, but hardly any Chelsea colours. A few familiar faces.

“Alright Zac?”

“Hello Dan.”

“Hello Mark, alright mate?”

“Hi Paul.”

The floodlights were turned away from these faces but the light they gave off helped illuminate the night. Hot-dog stands. Gulps from tins. The neon signs of the last couple of take-aways. The quick shuffle of feet. Kick-off approaching.

At last a text from Andy. He was parking up and would be around ten minutes. I kept looking at my watch. This was our first of nine games in December. It was looking like I’d miss the first few minutes of the first one.

At 7.25pm, he arrived with his son, full of apologies.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry. You’re here.”

I squeezed into the away end with the match clock showing “1.11” having elapsed.

I found my seat next to Al, Gal and Parky my pal.

Phew.

The next few minutes were spent acclimatising myself to everything though I was soon aware that we were enjoying none of the ball on the pitch.

Alan : “you ain’t missed much.”

This was my eighth visit to Vicarage Road. I quickly spotted a rainbow effect in the Elton John Stand to my left. Multicolured T-shirts in deference to the diversity campaign had been placed on all of the seats. However, this highlighted – more than ever – how many of the available seats were empty. And not everyone was wearing the T-shirts. I am not surprised. Donning a T-shirt over a chunky jacket would not have been the easiest task. The two sunsets of the M3 had evidently followed me up and around the M25 and down the A411 to Watford.

No news from Jesus.

I looked at the team, evidently floundering on the pitch against a Watford team looking decidedly waspish in their yellow and black hoops.

From “The Horns” to the Hornets and it looked like we were getting stung. Mendy was soon called into action.

Yeah, so, the team.

Mendy

Rudiger – Christensen – Chalobah

Azpilicueta – Loftus-Cheek – Saul – Alonso

Mount – Havertz – Pulisic

“No Lukaku, then Gal.”

With many key players unavailable, Thomas Tuchel had been forced to shuffle the pack.

Then it all became rather surreal. Play was stopped with about eleven minutes on the clock and everyone’s attention was drawn to the upper tier of the small Graham Taylor Stand to our right. It was clear that a spectator was receiving some medical attention. I am sure in previous seasons this would have taken place with no break in play but in today’s climate, the game was stopped for a few minutes and then the referee led the players off.

There was a row going on close by; a couple had arrived a little late and it seemed that others were in their seats. Some stewards were trying to quell another intra-Chelsea squabble a few rows behind.

Stingray was stood next to Tombsy, talking gibberish to himself as is his wont.

We stood around, not wholly sure of how the evening would continue. As minutes passed, a few folk nearby were quickly redrawing their plans on how to get home. Andy and Tombsy were thinking hard about leaving the game early in order to catch trains to their homes in the north. Dave was thinking about an early exit too. We were fine; we had my car parked up and ready to be used whenever we needed it. The minutes ticked by.

Gallows humour, of course, was to the fore.

“With the start we had, not unhappy we had to go off.”

The short chap helping the Watford ‘keeper Daniel Bachmann warm-up again caught Gal’s eye.

“Oh Danny DeVito, oh Danny DeVito, oh Danny DeVito, oh Danny DeVito.”

For those of you who know Gal, this song was more than ironic.

Al : “Gary doesn’t do irony, mate.”

Word got out that there had been a cardiac arrest. With my heart-attack of last October, you can imagine the thoughts that were running through my mind. The person receiving attention was seemingly taken away and the crowd mildly applauded.

Half-an-hour passed before the teams re-appeared. We then had the odd sight of both sets of players warming up again. Even more bizarrely, Watford made a substitution, with Danny Rose coming on. The ex-Tottenham full-back was roundly booed for the rest of the night.

The game restarted with Watford continuing their domination.

Bluntly, we weren’t in it.

Then, out of nowhere on eighteen minutes, a break in front of us, and Mason Mount slammed a shot from a very acute angle against the near post.

“That was our first attack, Al.”

The game continued on, and I sighed as I said to Alan “we have hardly put four passes together mate.”

Watford were more aggressive and we lacked intensity off the ball and quality on it. Saul was reliving his nightmare debut.

“Shades of Bakayoko up here” lamented the bloke behind me.

Oh God, that performance by Bakayoko in that 4-1 loss in 2018.

Shudder.

Over on the touchline, managers old and new.

Claudio Ranieri.

Thomas Tuchel.

I adapted the song of the moment.

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. A stupid baseball cap. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

But the trademark cap was exchanged for a ski hat on this particular night. Ranieri chose the same. Ranieri edged the sartorial battle though, if only because Tuchel’s trackie bottoms looked like they had shrunk in the wash.

On the half-hour, at last we looked like ourselves. A long searching ball from Rudiger found the galloping Alonso. His first touch flummoxed his marker and he switched the ball inside to Havertz, surprisingly free. He decided not to shoot, but instead played the ball square to Mason Mount. He smashed the ball in.

Get in.

He celebrated down in front of us. There was the usual tumble of bodies towards the base of the terrace.

Limbs.

“There’s the four passes, Al.”

There was euphoria but also the knowledge that this was absolutely against the run of play.

Mendy saved well from a low drive from an angle from Rose five minutes later. Sadly, just before half-time, the very disappointing Loftus-Cheek lost the ball and Watford moved the ball quickly and with purpose.

“I don’t like this” I said to Gal, almost impersonating Graham Taylor’s most famous line without even meaning to. Emmanuel Dennis advanced and slotted home.

Bollocks.

There were five, I think, extra minutes of time to be played at the end of the half. The half should have ended at 8.15pm. It came to a halt at around 8.55pm.

“Well, that was crap.”

During the break, Tuchel rang the changes.

Thiago Silva for Our Saul.

Chalobah moved into midfield alongside Ruben.

Thankfully, we began brighter in the second period and Silva’s calming influence shone as brightly as the Vicarage Road floodlights. But it comes to something when a common or garden shoulder charge by Havertz gets a round of applause from the away faithful.

Mendy rushed out to intercept a ball but crashed into Tom Cleverley. The ‘keeper was down for a while. There were concerns for his health, but the break in play allowed a new chant to be aired in his honour.

I’ll be honest, I had not heard it before and was both shocked and surprised how many supporters knew it. It was a bloody tough one to work out though. I got the “Edouard Mendy” bit and the “he comes from Senegal” bit but the rest was a mesmerising flow of undecipherable syllables.

It got louder and louder.

I felt like a spare prick at a wedding.

John Redwood mouthing the Welsh national anthem?

No, not that fucking bad.

At least I joined in with the clapping.

With Mendy recovered, the medical team then turned their attention to Chalobah, lying prostrate on the halfway line.

“Fuck sake. This game won’t finish until 11pm.”

Hakim Ziyech replaced Chalobah. The reaction around me was of disbelief to be honest. We needed to toughen up the midfield. We wondered why Ross Barkley wasn’t chosen.

There was a brief chat about the team.

“Nobody has done well tonight really, but Havertz has done the most. At least he has showed for the ball, moved the ball on, an odd dribble.”

Another substitution, Romelu Lukaku for Dave, so the very quiet Pulisic shifted to wing-back.

Within three minutes, a cross from Mount on the left and the ball was flashed into the net. The strike was hit right at the ‘keeper but with just too much pace. But I just saw a confluence of blue in the box; I had no idea who had tucked it in.

As I tracked the celebrations, I realised – gulp, humble pie please waiter – none other than Ziyech receiving the adoration of others.

Get in.

The rest of the game resembled a battleground. I can hardly remember a game in which so many players were on the floor receiving treatment. This was a game that truly did not want to end.

One last Watford chance, a thunderous free-kick from Juraj Kicka was flicked over by Edouard Mendy and this ensured a noisy replaying of his song.

Six extra minutes.

Fackinell.

At last – at last! – the whistle.

“Got out of jail there, mate.”

“Lucky as hell.”

“How did we win that?”

“How much do we miss Kante?”

We slowly walked back to the car, stopping off on the high street for a dirty hot kebab.

Perfect.

I eventually got home at 1.30am.

It had been a long game and a very long day.

4.45am to 1.30am.

But job done and on we go. I am amazed we are still leading the pack. If pressed – high – I still think we will finish third behind City and Liverpool. But we’ll see.

Oh, by the way, Jesus and Rafa got in.

West Ham away next. It won’t be easy. See you there.

Outside.

Inside.

Tales From The Club With Two Stars

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 25 September 2021.

Just another Saturday? Hardly.

Even without the added weight of Porto, this was always going to be one of the games of the season. The current European Champions versus the current English Champions. Undoubtedly the biggest game in club football over the weekend, not just in England, but the entire World, was due to kick-off at 12.30pm at Stamford Bridge. And that was the only downer; that such a big game was being played at such an awful time. Well, I hope that the watching millions in Malaysia, Japan, The Philippines et al appreciated the match goers getting up at silly o’clock for them.  I am not so sure the TV viewers in North America were quite so excited; in California this meant a 4.30am kick off. Ouch.

The biggest game in the entire world. That’s quite something. When you grow up with a football club and try to get to as many live games as is physically, economically and geographically possible – why? That doesn’t need an explanation does it? – sometimes it is easy, too easy, to take the match day experience for granted. The grizzled old “every-gamers” can be a curmudgeonly lot at times, and we can sometimes forget to realise how excited those fans who only get to see us live once in a blue moon – sorry, poor analogy that – when the moons align – ditto – and they too join the match-going crowds at Stamford Bridge or elsewhere.

But this never felt like any other game.

I had been relishing it all week. City are a well-established team, tutored by the Catalan Pep Guardiola, and worthy champions in three of the last four seasons. They are still the team to beat this season. Although Chelsea has made great strides – leaps – the past eight months since Frank Lampard was jettisoned in favour of the Teutonic teacher Thomas Tuchel, we are still a work in progress, a team finding its feet, its optimum way of playing, its groove.

And I will say it once again. We are a team that is in a building phase, yet we are European Bloody Champions.

Weird ain’t half of it.

In the packed “Eight Bells” at the bottom end of Fulham, we were all enjoying a lovely, yet brief, pre-match. I had booked a table for five at 10am. PD and Parky were on time. After I had parked the car, I bumped into Kev and Rich on the District Line train as it pulled into Putney Bridge. We joined the fray at 10.20pm. It would leave us barely ninety minutes of “pre-match” but we were not fazed. Kim, Dan, Andy and the Kent boys (including three brothers, the Loaders, a load of Loaders) were already ensconced in the corner, and the three late-comers sidled in alongside. I was driving, so on Diet-Cokes. But that’s fine. The laughs ripped through the cosy pub. We chatted with enthusiasm about the upcoming game, and the pub was noisier than usual. There was a real buzz to the place. One of the most overworked words in modern parlance – along with shenanigans, are you paying attention America? – is “proper”, so excuse me if I lazily use it here.

The “Eight Bells” is a proper football pub.

It is so old school, traditional, working class, call it what you will, that of the one hundred or more Chelsea fans squeezed inside, or overflowing onto the seated area outside, there was not one single woman. I realised this as I walked through as we exited at just after 11.45pm. To be truthful it shocked me. I am all for the fairer sex attending games, but the complete lack of females took me by surprise. To be blunt, I was shocked.

We caught the train, and we were soon walking along the Fulham Road. Rain had been threatening to make an appearance, but thus far all was fine. On the West Stand forecourt, scarves bearing the name of a company – I won’t bother saying which one – and the two club crests were being handed out by a few happy smiley types, who were also trying to persuade the match-goers to take a concertina’d noise-maker too.

I walked by and said “no, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

This ain’t fucking Disney World, this ain’t Fulham, this ain’t Leicester.

As club historian Rick Glanvil pointed out as he walked alongside me they were even the wrong bloody colour; light blue, but light blue was the corporate colour involved.

Fuck that.

Anyway, suffice to say, I did not spot one single noisemaker inside the stadium.

Good work everyone.

As the teams took to the pitch – I have to say I miss the walk towards the West Stand – two flags floated above the heads of spectators at both ends of the stadium; a simple outline of the European Cup in The Shed, the “Pride of London” one in the MHL now adorned with two yellow stars.

I absolutely love that the club badge that I grew up with from 1971 to 1986 – with two stars either side of the lion rampant – has now developed a new meaning. If I had my way, this old lion would be reinstated in favour of the 2005 badge which already looks a little jaded.

It was our best badge.

I can well remember visiting a menswear shop in the nearby town of Warminster with my father in around 1971 or 1972. I had already been gifted a plain blue cotton shirt, but there was nothing to signify that it was “Chelsea.” While my father was talking business with the shop owner, my gaze was fixed on what looked like iron-on patches of a few football crests on display way above the counter. The Arsenal gun, the Tottenham cockerel, the Liverpool bird. I looked at a patch with a lion with “CFC” below and wondered if that was the Chelsea badge. On walking back to my father’s car, I mentioned the badges to him, and to my great surprise and undoubted joy, he marched me back into the shop and bought me the Chelsea patch badge. My mother would affix to my royal blue shirt, but alas it was soon to fade. There must be hundreds of Chelsea fans from that era with a faded Chelsea badge on their shirts.

It’s nice that those two stars, signifying the twin cup successes in 1970 and 1971, now represent the grander triumphs of 2012 and 2021.

Proper.

The minutes soon ticked by to kick-off.

Our team was with a new formation, albeit that which took command in the second-half during that heady game at Tottenham last Sunday.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – James

Alonso – Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante – Dave

Werner – Lukaku

One suspects that there were few complaints about this line up and personnel at kick-off. Be honest with yourself here. It was OK for me, though the duo up front was obviously a gamble as they had only played together in the Wednesday game against Villa late on.

The game began and I wish it hadn’t.

I soon wished that the coach bringing the City players into town had not been able to be refuelled and was stuck on the M25 near Watford. There had been a sudden mania for filling up cars with diesel and petrol amid rumours of a lack of tanker drivers being able to re-fil bunkers of fuel at garages all over the UK. We had witnessed a few queues on the way into London that very morning.

But no. The City players were at Stamford Bridge and were soon running amok. They absolutely bossed the first-half. Jack Grealish, the pantomime villain, was enjoying tons of the early ball down below us, and the energy and running of the City players made our movements look insipid and half-paced. While Tuchel had gone back to the ‘nineties with a twin pairing up front, Guardiola had gone the other way, backing into the future with a false nine in the guise of the diminutive but nimble Foden.

They shook us to our foundations in that first forty-five minutes.

Although we goaded the City entourage with songs from Porto, the City players did the fans’ talking on the pitch. They buzzed around like fireflies, and put us under immense pressure once we had the ball.

Alas, we did not show the same willingness to close them down.

In days of old I would shout “put’em under” and I am resisting to shout the ridiculously over-used word “press” with every sinew in my body. But they did. They pressed us all over the pitch as if it was going out of fashion, and God I wish that phrase would. They hunted in packs like the great United midfield of Beckham, Scholes, Keane and Butt. They were relentless.

Early on, maybe five minutes into the game, a ball was launched forward and Romelu Lukaku rose to head it at an angle in the general vicinity of Timo Werner. But it didn’t work, nor did it really come off for the rest of the game.

I turned to Al :

“What did I just see? A big central striker trying to play in a slighter second striker? Can you explain that to me, mate? I have a vague memory, but…”

City gathered momentum and our attacks were rare. Timo Werner bent a forward run to perfection on fifteen minutes to receive a ball from the trusted left boot of Marcos Alonso, and the German prodded the ball in to Lukaku but his effort was blocked. There would be not much else to give us hope and sustenance in that arid first half.

City were penning us in and we were lacking ideas on how to attack once we had the ball. The midfield three that had rampaged at will against Tottenham looked tired and weary. The front two upfront were stranded.

“I’ll take a draw now.”

Sadly, just on the half-hour, Reece James was forced to leave the field. He was replaced by the calming presence of Thiago Silva. After being substituted in Porto, it was ironic that he would now enter the pitch in this game with City.

“Champions of Europe. You’ll never sing that.”

For all of City’s possession, and it was impressive, Mendy was virtually untroubled. A mixture of wayward shooting from City and some excellent blocks, often from close in, from many Chelsea defenders meant that the game continued without a goal. There was City corner after City corner. A wild finish from Rodri just before the break summed up City’s profligacy.

We were really struggling. There was a massive gap between the midfield three and the two upfront. Nobody was breaking to support.

“Lukaku’s second touch is a tackle.”

City’s defenders had hardly been turned all of the first-half; all of the play was in front of them. This was too easy for them.

It had been a really poor half.

“Have we had a single shot on goal? I can’t remember one.”

It was time for a technical master class from our manager at half-time. While fellow supporters chatted with worried expressions in the stands, I hoped that Tuchel was conjuring up a change of system, or at least a change in attitude.

“Tell you what, Guardiola is going to be gutted, annoyed even, they are still without a goal at the break.”

Chelsea needed to change things around.

What would I have done?

No idea. I am a mere supporter.

Over to you, Tommy, lad.

Sadly, and seamlessly, City’s dominance absolutely continued in the first opening minutes of the second period.

At last an invigorating run from Timo down our right brought a ray of hope.

Al : “Need something like that to get the crowd involved.”

The noise from the Matthew Harding had been sporadic; loud at times, but not often enough.

Not long after, Grealish wriggled free in the inside-left channel and buzzed a low shot just past the far post. The deflection earned a corner which was taken short. Sadly, the inevitable happened. Gabriel Jesus was able to turn and prod the ball home inside a packed Shed End goa. From the northern end, I was unable to pick out an apparent deflection. It appeared to be in slow motion.

But the goal was on the cards.

The City legions boomed :

“We’re not really here.”

Mendy did so well to tip a shot from Grealish past the post.

An Alonso corner summed up our afternoon; it didn’t clear the first man but when the ball ended up at the feet of a tired N’Golo Kante, the French midfielder could only shuffle the ball all of the way back to Mendy.

“Fackinell Chels.”

Silva cleared off the line.

“Fackinell Chels.”

On the hour, Kai Havertz for Kante. I focussed on his chiselled features as he took position up front on the left and dreamed of Porto.

Back to a 3-4-3 formation.

I was up celebrating a Lukaku tap in from an early Havertz ball, but the German had strayed into an offside position.

Bollocks.

On sixty-seven minutes, our first shot on goal. But this would be an Alonso free-kick, in prime territory, that hit the wall. Soon after, at last, a bursting run from Kovacic warmed our spirits, but it all petered out rather too predictably.

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

Edouard Mendy was keeping us in the game, or so we naively hoped, with a succession of fine saves. To be truthful, all of the defenders in that central three had been excellent; no complaints. It was just our attacking players that had struggled all day long with the tenacity and hunger of the away team.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced the very poor Jorginho with a quarter to go. The noise increased as the crowd sensed that a sudden late upsurge in our play might entice a slightly unwarranted goal from someone in our midst. Despite some nice flourishes and a little more bite and energy from our Ruben that had been sadly missing, the late substitute just couldn’t ignite the team. The other substitute, Havertz, had offered little.

Mendy made one last save, a super one at that, from that man Grealish, but the game was done, the game was over.

City had totally deserved the win. A hundred thousand post-mortems would suddenly be happening at once all over the world. But the manager is no fool, no simpleton, and he will be soon at work to identify what decisions, including his own, engendered such a poor performance.

Don’t worry. We are in good hands.

We reconvened in the austere beer garden at “The Goose” to meet up with Kev and Rich before their evening return from Gatwick to Edinburgh.

Poor Kev’s last three visits to Stamford Bridge – Bournemouth, West Ham and now Manchester City – have all ended up as 0-1 Chelsea losses.

Imagine what Tottenham fans must feel like.

We headed home, philosophical, but pleased that both Manchester United and Liverpool had dropped unexpected points. However we couldn’t disguise how poorly we had played. On a day when the United Kingdom scurried around in search of fuel, it certainly seemed that Chelsea had been served two-star petrol, while City had been issued turbo-charged four-star.

Before I returned home, I was pleased to be able to fill my tank at my local garage in preparation for my early morning jaunt to Stansted on Tuesday for my, hopeful, flight to Turin.

I just need to get a negative reaction to a lateral flow test.

Juventus lie in wait.

I will see some of the famous five hundred out there.

Andiamo.

Tales From The Mother Road

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 11 September 2021.

It is a familiar motif from these match reports – I am tempted to say “stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before” – of games from the early part of our campaigns that I usually need a few matches to get back into the swing of things. I was doing fine this season. I was acclimatising reasonably well, I was getting back into live football, the games were seemingly important once again and even my vocal chords were coping. It all felt a little different this season, though. Our forced absence from the game for so long was playing heavily on my mind and I suppose the crux of it concerned my fears that I wouldn’t get the pre-COVID19 buzz back.

But here was a real test. After seeing Chelsea Football Club play just seven times in five-hundred and thirty-eight days (an average of one every seventy-six days), I was now about to embark on a burst of five games in just fifteen days (an average of once every three days for those who failed CSE Maths). This represented, in my mind at least, a test, a litmus test, for my enthusiasm. I certainly hoped that this spell of five games in London would rid me of the considerable disconnect that has hounded me since March 2020.

We all live in a place called hope, right?

I woke again way before the alarm, and gathered my tickets, trinkets, passes and thoughts ahead of the 10.30am departure. A new car, a new Chuckle Bus, was parked on my drive-way and this would be its first journey of note, its maiden voyage with me at the helm and it’s first trip up my version of Route 66 – in fact, Route A303 would be very apt as it arrived with just 303 miles on the clock – to London SW6.

It would be its first trip along the Mother Road.

I collected PD and Parky in good time.

There was talk of these upcoming games (the printing-off of some of the tickets at home was proving to be a far from a straightforward task) and some matches even further out. Just like holidays, I get a great deal of pleasure in planning these games, especially the away games, and these sometimes awkward tasks feed into my Obsessive Chelsea Disorder. Tottenham was almost complete, Brentford was a work in progress, but Newcastle was sorted. More of those three trips later. Turin, Malmo and Saint Petersburg away games were taking a back seat. Not that I would plan on all three anyway, but travel within Europe was so much “up in the air” right now – or not, as the case might be – that I wasn’t wasting energy on plans for those three destinations just yet.

One potential destination that had ruled itself out of my plans was Tokyo. It had recently pulled out of hosting the World Club Championships in December, and I was now hearing that maybe Las Vegas or maybe Qatar would step in like some gallant knight in shining armour. This was met with growls of disapproval from me. I am not a fan of Vegas. And even less of a fan of Qatar. From one extreme from the other. From “anything goes” to “strictly forbidden.”

Such was my feeling of abhorrence when Qatar was handed the 2022 World Cup a few years back, that I made the conscious decision not to watch a single second of the finals on TV. And I just recently decided not to watch any more of the qualifiers too. So, the recent International break absolutely passed me by. I may have lost England forever.

In the circumstances, the lingering presence of Qatar in talk of the World Club Championships focussed my mind further. I would be a hypocrite to avoid Qatar in 2022 as some sort of moral crusade – stop sniggering at the back – and yet blithely sign up to watch Chelsea in Qatar in December. So, let’s see how that all pans out.

No pressure, Vegas.

We only stopped at Fleet Services for a quick pit-stop en route from Somerset to London, but from then on in, we became embroiled in some nasty traffic. It usually takes me three hours from door to door (my door to the door of The Eight Bells in Fulham) but it took me just over four hours on this occasion.

I dropped PD and Parky at West Brompton, then about-turned to park my car just off Lillie Road. Then a quick flit by tube to Putney Bridge. Job done.

I had booked a table for 1.30pm, and the hosts had very kindly kept it for us when we arrived an hour later.

I met up with Mark, from Norwich, and his son Matt. We had been talking during the build up to this game how our first Chelsea match in 1974 was the very same one; Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, 16 March 1974. We are the same age. We both live out of town. A few nice similarities in fact. He is the first Chelsea fan I have ever met whose first match was the same as mine. I was quite thrilled when Mark shared a couple of previously unseen on-line photographs from that day forty-seven years ago. We chatted and reminisced about tons of Chelsea games, especially from the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, and we found ourselves finishing off each other’s sentences on a few occasions as the memories and reference points interweaved and overlapped. That’s always a good sign.

I have to admit to being taken aback on a few occasions during our lovely conversation when I spotted a rather stern looking fellow, with a mop of white hair looking up at me from the other side of the bar.

Oh, it was me in a pub mirror.

The passing of time, and all of its crimes, is making me sad again.

Note to self : must smile more.

Kim, Andy, Dan and the Kent lads arrived and it was the first time that we had seen them since last year. It was superb to spend time together once again; around a dozen of us in our cosy corner of The Eight Bells, all meeting up again, trying our best to prove that football is real life, and not a TV programme. I totally understand that many can’t attend live football due to finance and geography, but it seems that so many these days do not make the effort. Is modern football now a diet of watching games on TV in pubs, streaming at home, fantasy football and betting accumulators?

At Putney Bridge tube station, there were a group of boozy and cheerful Villa fans. One chap, of a certain age, approached me and told me that he liked my yellow Adidas SL76 trainers. Thirty-five years ago, the conversation might well have been different.

“You got too much for us today. Think you’ll beat us 3-0.”

I concurred. It was my prediction too.

At Fulham Broadway tube, the lad at the Krsipy Crème stand spotted my Boca Juniors T-shirt and asked if I was from Argentina.

My colours on this day of football were yellow and blue, in-keeping with the current Chelsea offering, but without me looking too much like a Billy Smart’s Circus reject.

There was further talk of South American football with Clive in The Sleepy Hollow. A few months before my visit to Argentina last year, he had visited Brazil, and had caught an itoxicating Flamengo game at the Maracana. He highly recommended Brazil. The World Club Championships in Brazil has a nice ring to it. Chelsea at the Maracana? Where do I sign up for that beauty?

From 1993 to 2016, my desire to witness new sporting stadia outside of Europe was clearly focussed on North American baseball stadia; twenty-one major league and four minor-league. I have a feeling in the future my focus will now be on South American football.

We had heard that ten-men Tottenham had succumbed to three late goals at Crystal Palace – how we laughed – but a Cristiano Ronaldo brace had helped Manchester United beat Newcastle. All of this fizzled away into insignificance as our collective thoughts focused on the game against Villa.

The sun was out despite some clouds, and the extra hours of drinking meant there was a bubbly atmosphere as kick-off approached.

The teams entered onto the beautiful green lawn. A new Mason Mount flag surfed below me.

I checked the team.

The inclusion of Saul Niguez surprised everyone, possibly none more so than him himself.

It seemed an oddly thrown together team, but one which was representative of the pressures put on members of our squad during the international break. No Mount. No Dave. But an injured Kante too.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

Hudson-Odoi – Kovacic – Niguez – Alonso

Ziyech – Lukaku – Havertz

Romelu Lukaku was to play in his first game as a Chelsea player at Stamford Bridge since a substitute appearance against the same team in August 2013. All the rail-seating was in now. The banners around the pitch lay heavy with the early evening humidity. “The “knee” drew boos but then louder applause. The game began.

A few early Chelsea raids acted as mere foreplay for the full-on end to end session that followed. The game was a cracker. A zipped-in corner on our left from Callum avoided everyone but hit a knee, I think, of a defender and bounced up onto the bar at The Shed End. The first thing of beauty that I noted was a deep and high ball from the cultured boot of Thiago Silva which dropped perfectly and pleasantly at the feet of the advancing Marcos Alonso. People talk of a deep-lying midfielder pinging balls like a quarterback, but here was Silva doing the exact same. It reminded me of Ruud Gullit and then Frank Leboeuf doing similar.

It turned out to be a precursor to an even better ball from Mateo Kovacic. Breaking away in that busy style of his, he spotted the advanced Romelu Lukaku. A magnificently-placed ball, cutting right between two scuttling Villa defenders, and curving and dropping into the exact place that both Kovacic intended and that Lukaku had expected, landed perfectly. Lukaku sized up the options, turned Tuanzebe’s limbs into a pretzel and dispatched a low shot past Steer into the Villa goal.

It is fair to say that The Bridge boomed.

Lukaku raced past Parkyville, and led on the floor, facing the sky.

At last we had a finisher in our midst, not a finisher in the mist, out of sight, lost.

A magnificently noisy and rude “Carefree” enveloped the entire stadium.

Bliss. Absolute bliss.

But Villa, who had already enjoyed a few moves into our half, were not put out and only a sublime save, low and late, from Mendy at his right post from a Watkins drive saved us. Halfway through the first-half, and with Villa vibrant, Saul Niguez surrendered possession and that man Watkins rounded Mendy. A goal looked on the cards, but Silva is an experienced fellow and he nimbly recovered to block the shot admirably.

Our Saul was struggling with the pace and tenacity of the early exchanges.

“Our Saul, you say? More like a fackin’ arsehole. Wake up you caaaaaaaaant.”

I turned to Clive :

“Well, they’ve had their chances.”

This was a good game, possibly a great game. I was involved, and I appreciated the moment. It was an intriguing game of football, but one which was causing Chelsea increasing problems.

On thirty-three minutes, our man Mendy threw himself to save a rocket from Mings, but was able to scramble to his feet to push away the follow-up from Konsa. These saves were simply sublime. They sent me spinning back to Wembley 1973 and the Jim Montgomery double-save.

This was becoming a disconnected and disjointed performance from us with only occasional flourishes. Ziyech was quiet. Saul was getting over run in midfield. There were only flashes from Havertz. Lukaku was hardly fed anything save the pass for the goal.

Callum Hudson-Odoi was again a disappointment. It was as if the well-worn football phrase “flattering to deceive” was invented for him and for him only. On several occasions he was presented with a few one on ones, but inevitably chose a soft option.

I moaned to Clive : “I wasn’t a great winger, but when I received the ball, my one thought was to get past my marker, not look behind me.”

It was Villa who grew in confidence as the first-half progressed and by the time we all reached the interval, there was a mixture of relief and worried expressions in The Sleepy Hollow.

“We should be 3-1 down. Villa must feel robbed.”

Lo and behold, Thomas Tuchel – still without a song, I still feel I don’t know him too well – spotted the obvious and replaced Saul with Jorginho at the break. It would be a move that we all wanted and that would help to solidify our position in the second-half.

Just four minutes into the second period, Lukaku lost possession but then harassed and harried Tuanzebe and the ball was rushed to Mings whose attempted back pass to Steer was ably intercepted by Kovacic. He doesn’t often find himself in such forward positions, but his finish was impeccable. It had something of the Pedro about it; an instinctive and incisive flick past Steer, and in off the far post it went.

GET IN.

Initial thoughts : “bloody hell, Villa must be spitting feathers.”

But the relief was palpable. We were now 2-0 up and able to consolidate things. A Havertz drive slid past the far post. Thankfully, the Villa offensive was not as potent in the second-half.

On fifty-eight minutes, I was poised to clap in memory of the wonderful comedian Sean Lock, a regular at Stamford Bridge for years, who sadly passed away recently. At the start of the dedicated minute, not many joined in, but thankfully at the end the applause was taken up by many. It extended past the minute mark. The Matthew Harding then started our own song of remembrance :

“One Sean Lock, there’s only one Sean Lock.”

Bless him. He was one of my modern day favourite comedians.

The game continued, and thankfully most of the visitors’ shots on goal were tame, and often at Mendy. Our crowd was surprisingly buoyant for a decidedly average performance. But we were leading, and I suppose that helped.

Stating The Bloody Obvious #716.

To be fair to them, the Villa fans were pretty noisy throughout the game, and even though they are not known for being particularly vociferous, I had to admit that I was impressed with their performance. The three thousand strong block virtually stayed en masse, despite the game going against them.

The devilish McGinn was running things for Villa, his spirit and energy mirroring that of our Kovacic.  I was really enjoying this battle. As, I think were most. There didn’t seem to be a dull moment. The supporters were enjoying it too, and there was even one rare moment of appreciation of a strong tackle by a Villa player on one of our lot. Is this the new normal? To be fair, this isn’t too uncommon. Great saves by opposition ‘keepers, tackles by opposing players, even the occasional goal against – only as long as we are winning – have been clapped in the past.

On the hour, another change.

Dave for Kai.

Dave to right wing back, Callum to outside left, down in the Hazardous Area below me. Again, he was all flicks but with no real finished product.

“Thing is Clive, he doesn’t have to beat his man over five yards. He has twenty yards to run into. Knock it past him, and kill him for pace.”

The Matthew Harding had twice goaded into getting The Shed to sing in the first half with no response. An attempt to get The Shed involved – this is invariably met with a defiant “Carefree” – again fell on deaf ears. Midway through the second-half, when The Shed did finally get involved, an audible noise able to be heard, the Matthew Harding Lower jumped in.

“We forgot that you were here.”

Not sure what The Shed thought of that, nor ironically if they even heard it.

Former Chelsea player Bertrand Traore was given a nice reception as he came on as a substitute for Ings. A shot of his from distance was deflected narrowly wide.

Alonso had a trademark dig at an angle down below us, but his daisy-cutter fizzed wide.

Villa’s attacks grew weaker and without much intent.

Their fans still sang, but the Liverpool “Allez!Allez! Allez!” needs to be dumped. Sharpish.

Werner, the forgotten man right now, got a late run out, with Tuchel no longer willing to witness the advanced Hudson-Odoi anymore. By now, the game was being played out in a strange murky twilight, the sun long gone, the floodlights on, a hint of autumn in the air.

In the last moments of the game, a typically positive run from Dave down the right was followed by an inch perfect pass into the feet of Lukaku. A slight adjustment, and then –

BAM.

The ball flew past Steer.

Chelsea 3 Aston Villa 0.

Lukaku, attitude and / or arrogance on show, jogged over to our corner, and gave me – and others – a fine photo opportunity. Like the man himself, I don’t miss that easy an open goal.

CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. CLICK.

At last, after the stern face, Lukaku smiled.

The ref soon blew up.

This had been a hugely enjoyable game. Villa had certainly surprised me though. Absolutely no way they deserved to lose 3-0. As we left the stadium, I shared these thoughts with PD.

“There must be few occasions over the years where an away team has come here and lost 3-0, yet the Chelsea supporters know deep down that they deserved more.”

The top three performers were undoubtedly Mendy for his excellent saves, Kovacic for his growing command of the midfield, his sublime assist and his beauty of a goal and Lukaku, two shots two goals, Goodnight Vienna.

We met up with Parky back at The Anchor fish bar on Lillee Road.

“Saveloy and chips mate, please, open.”

The drive home was a lot less stressful than the trip to London. It was a blissful trip back to Wiltshire and Somerset. I loved this day out. And I am so pleased to be able to report that I am rapidly getting my appetite for the game back.  

Game one of five down, superb, very enjoyable. Zenit on Tuesday, my first European Night at Chelsea since that tough loss to Bayern in 2020. Then Tottenham away – “love it” – and one of the games of any season. Then Villa again in the League Cup (that might be the one that tests me) and lastly a possible season-deciding game against City. I suspect we will give them a few reminders of Porto, don’t you?

Good times. Let them roll. Let the Mother Road lead us back to London time and time again.

See you Tuesday.

Goal One.

Goal Two.

Goal Three.

Tales From Under A Pure Blue Sky

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 28 August 2021.

Before we get too deep into this, give yourself a point if you either uttered or thought this line after the game at Anfield :

“I would have settled for a draw before the game.”

Everyone? Everyone gets a point. Everyone apart from Arsenal. Thought so.

This was a cracking day out. A long day, but deeply pleasurable. It almost had it all.

I had set my alarm for 7.30am but was awake at 6.45am. No point trying to go back to sleep. I needed to fuel up again, and on the short four-mile drive to the nearest garage, I briefly found myself doing eighty miles an hour through the Somerset back-roads. Proof, if anything was needed, that I was keen to get “on the road” and on my way to Liverpool for this one. Our fine start to the season, admittedly against far from high calibre teams, had got me chomping at the bit for this mouth-watering fixture at Anfield. It would be twenty-eight months since my last visit, a weak 2-0 defeat in April 2019.

I collected PD and Glenn in Frome bang on 9am.

Our initial plans had been adjusted as Parky was still laid low with COVID19. We called in to see him and he handed over tickets for Anfield as if they were atomic waste; face masks on, gloves on, everything at a distance. Sadly, Parky would be absent, and so would Alan and Gary too.

Regardless, the Frome Three headed north, diverting into Melksham for our first match day McBreakfast for months and months and months.

I headed north.

A familiar route, though less travelled these days.

My last trip up the M5 for football was for Hull City in January 2020. My last trip up the M6 for football was for Everton in December 2019.

Driving north, the three of us enjoyed a lovely chat about the state of our club and team at the moment. Many positives. Too many to mention.

With this being a bank holiday weekend, we predictably hit a few areas of traffic congestion.

One of my favourite vistas on my travels around this Sceptered Isle with The Great Unpredictables is from the Thelwell Viaduct. On this particular day, the high-rises of Manchester’s city centre were clearly visible to the east. Beyond Saddleworth Moor and its notorious history. Ahead, Winter Hill – appearing so close, despite being twenty miles away – with the home of Bolton Wanderers nestling a few miles to the south. To the west, the cooling towers and bridges at Runcorn, but the almost mythical city of Liverpool out of sight.

Football Land.

I had earmarked an arrival at Liverpool – or to be precise the car park outside Goodison Park, the blue-half of the city – at 2pm. In the circumstances, my arrival at 2.20pm was half-decent. Happy with that.

A short walk away, past the Dixie Dean statue, was The Abbey pub, which was to be our base for around two hours. Already inside were Kev and Rich, veterans from Belfast, and I had kept their arrival a secret from PD and Glenn. It was a nice surprise for my Somerset Chuckle Brothers. Next to arrive was Deano, just a short hop down from Silverdale near the Lake District. To complete the group, Kim, ex California, ex Florida and now a resident of Crosby a mere ten-minute drive away. The pub was a new one for me; I have walked past it many times en route to and from Goodison. It was a decent boozer. There were three other Chelsea fans on a nearby table. The locals were fine. The prices were cheap. Everything was good. On the way up, we chuckled as Arsenal lost again, and lost without scoring again.

They said that The Titanic would never sink.

Full steam ahead, Arteta, and fuck the icebergs.

We made the short walk up through Stanley Park – the scene of much aggro, hooliganism, violence and associated nastiness in previous decades – and I have to say it was a surprisingly lovely walk. It was the first time I have walked to Anfield from the north for a game. The sun was out, a clear blue sky, and there were Victorian features to the park which made it all very pleasant.

Was I really in Liverpool?

The shining mass of the new stand at Anfield that peered over the trees to the south confirmed that indeed I was.

There was the quickest of security pat downs outside the away turnstiles and we were in at 4.50pm.

I was almost blinded by the sun as I walked into the lower tier of the Anfield Road Stand – “The Annie” as the locals call it – and I quickly found our seats.

Row five, equidistant twixt the six and eighteen yard boxes. Ideal.

It was a familiar view, this. This would be my twenty-fifth visit to Anfield with Chelsea. There have been the same number of visits to see us at Manchester United but, what with the two FA Cup Semi-Finals in 2006 and 2007, Old Trafford slightly edges past Anfield.

I spotted a few friends. PD, taking Parky’s ticket, was alongside me. Also alongside me were the empty red seats that would have been occupied by Gary – COVID positive – and Alan – COVID negative, but unable to make it – and it felt odd not having them alongside us.

Anfield took a while to fill. There were no COVID19 checks again this week.

I could not have been the only Chelsea supporter who thought “if I don’t catch it at Anfield, I won’t catch it anywhere”…

Pre-match songs included “Ring of Fire”, “Heroes” and “The Fields Of Anfield Road.”

Chelsea broke into song as the afternoon progressed.

One song dominated :

“Champions Of Europe…You Know The Rest.”

Out on the pitch, the game’s undercard was The Battle Of The Shit Training Tops.

Chelsea won it easily.

The clock ticked towards to the kick-off at 5.30pm.

The Liverpool PA announcer’s ridiculously deep and monotone voice announced a few items in that dead pan voice of his. Think Ringo Starr but at several levels lower.

The team was almost the same as the one that started against Arsenal.

Mendy

Rudiger – Christensen – Azplicueta

Alonso – Kante – Jorginho – James

Havertz – Lukaku – Mount

The teams came on, Chelsea first, then Liverpool. The line-up. The Kop was ready with its myriad of DIY banners, and of course, their scarves.

The away end was virtually a scarf-free zone.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Not as loud as on many previous occasions.

Must do better.

It annoyed the fuck out of me to see a couple of Chelsea / Liverpool scarves in our cramped away section. These fuckers evidently didn’t bother reading the small print in their Chelsea contract.

Liverpool and Chelsea. Two league wins apiece thus far. This was a game that I had been relishing all week. I predicted a 2-2 draw.

Romelu Lukaku took the kick-off before the pre-game “knee” and I hoped that it would not be the last time that he would be out of synch.

The game began.

As always, we attacked The Kop in the first-half.

Not surprisingly, Liverpool came out of the traps firing on all cylinders and other clichés. Their youngster Harvey Eliott looked neat and purposeful in the opening moments. His shot was knocked wide. Mason Mount fired over from the edge of the box. The next chance of the game came down the Liverpool right as Terence-Trent Darby-Alexander-Arnold pumped a long ball into our box that Jordan Henderson reached, but could only prod the ball wide with what appeared to be his heel.

It was an even start.

Liverpool were aggressively closing down our defenders but the ball was moved with pace out of areas that would hurt them.

I grimaced every time Mo Salah came at us. He was a very real threat for sure. A Van Dijk header at the far post was blocked.

Despite our regular utterings of “Champions Of Europe” there was, surprisingly, no usual retorts from the home support about our lack of “history.” This was a real surprise. This is their usual stock, almost Pavlovian, answer to any of our chants that either praise our successes or mock them. Maybe they are learning their history lesson after all these years.

It was, in fact, refreshing to hear no “Murderers” chanting from our section either.

Had the lockdown affected us all that much?

After some dogged perseverance from Marcos Alonso underneath the dreaded Anfield Clock, we won a corner.

Reece James pumped the ball in towards the near post. I snapped as Kai Havertz – already showing silky sweetness in attack – leapt. I watched, and snapped again, as the ball looped up and over everyone into the far corner of the box.

GET IN!

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

In truth, I had no idea how the ball had ended up in the net. I wasn’t even sure that Havertz had touched it last. Was it a defender’s head that had looped it on? I simply did not know. It all happened so quickly.

The scorer was announced as Havertz.

How did he manage it? It was from the corner, at least, of the six-yard box? I was flummoxed. What a goal.

People mention “The Catch” in baseball and everyone knows it’s Willie Mays at The Polo Grounds. “The Try” in rugby union, and it’s the Barbarians at Cardiff. “The Save” in football and it’s Gordon Banks against Pele in Mexico in 1970.

Now we have “The Header.”

It defied physics and football. He had his back to the goal, his back to the ‘keeper, his back to everyone. His flick managed to twist the ball up and over everyone in a perfect parabola. In the end, it dropped into the goal amidst so much space that it was almost unkind on Liverpool.

It was an absolute beauty.

A couple more Chelsea half-chances strengthened the air of positivity – if not euphoria – in the Chelsea end.

“Shall We Sing A Song For You?”

Playground stuff really, but you could tell the locals didn’t like it.

There were often long balls from Liverpool, in a red kit oddly trimmed with salmon pink, looking to catch us on the back foot.

Edouard Mendy anticipated an early ball and raced to clear with Mo Salah – or was it Michael Angelis from “The Liver Birds” and “Boys From The Black Stuff” – lurking menacingly.

A delightfully constructed passage of play down the inside light channel, allowed Lukaku to feed in Mount but his shot was brushed wide.

Firmino was hooked by Klopp to be replaced by Jiota.

Three minutes of extra time.

“Come On Chels.”

A Liverpool corner from their left.

Madness ensued.

A knock on. Matip managed to loop the ball up into the air. Both Mendy and Alonso went for the ball. Matip again, and onto the bar. By this time, I was already befuddled. Bodies swarming the six-yard box, a mere twenty-five feet away from me. A shot, blocked on the line – twice – then hacked away.

Phew.

Alas, alas, alas…a late VAR review, and the bloody inevitable result.

A Liverpool roar. In the confusion, a red to Reece James, which I missed amidst the madness, and a yellow to Rudiger.

That man Salah.

A swipe at the ball.

Goal.

1-1.

Bollocks.

PD : “We’re up against it now.”

A yellow for our ‘keeper.

Chaos on the pitch.

The Liverpool support, which had grown quieter throughout the first period, suddenly erupted.

At half-time, which immediately followed, there was a mixture of disbelief and anger in the away end. Of course, the strange thing is that even though I was so close to the action that lead to the penalty, the viewing millions had a much better view of everything than me.

The consensus was that the penalty was right to be given as the hand stopped a goal, but the ball was blasted at James from two yards and hit his thigh first.

Had the world gone mad?

How could that be a red?

We girded our loins at the start of the second-half and of course Thomas Tuchel made the inevitable changes.

He took off the unlucky Havertz and replaced him with Thiago Silva who bolstered the defence. The injured Kante was replaced by Mateo Kovacic.

We strapped ourselves in for a difficult forty-five minutes.

Five at the back – in reality – with three in midfield and the lone Lukaku upfront.

But I have to say that whenever we broke away, Alonso was up and down that left flank as if his life depended upon it.

What we hoped for was a defensive master class.

And that is exactly what transpired.

Liverpool, of course, dominated the ball, but we defended with such regimen and aplomb that I was only worried about our line being breached on a few, rare, occasions. Everyman played his part. Dave was sensational, the incoming Kovacic tackled, covered, and occasionally raided, but I thought Silva was magnificent.

Calm, assured, reliable.

A great performance.

Rudiger made a few rash decisions but more than made up for it with his steely determination. A super game from Christensen too. Jorginho was solid, and worked tirelessly.

As for Mendy. Utterly superb.

Soon into the second-half, I said to PD.

“Look at us.”

We were identical. Arms folded, one arm up, hand clenched and nested beneath our noses.

Classic art critic poses, as if we were studying a Turner, a Picasso, a Hopper.

Of course, we were witnessing a master class in defending.

We were, let’s make no qualms about it, sensational. There were echoes of Porto if I am honest. And just like that night in Portugal, I became obsessed with that bloody Anfield Clock.

55 minutes, 60 minutes.

PD was watching it too.

Salah to Jiota, a header. Over.

A long shot from Van Dijk, a daisy cutter, and Mendy scrambled to save. As similar save from Fabinho. A parry from a Robertson volley from distance.

The first-part of the second-half seemed to take forever, and then as the Liverpool chances grew less frequent, the time sped along nicely.

A rare attack, initiated by a strong break from Alonso, eventually enabled Mount to loft a ball in to Lukaku but his shot was blocked.

If I am honest, Lukaku struggled a little against Matip and Van Dijk, but his was a thankless task in the second-half. Van Dijk has fast feet, and on this occasion Lukaku had relatively slow feet. Let’s hope his feet won’t be the stumbling block to his progress this season.

The clock ticked on.

Sixty-seven minutes, thirty seconds.

“Half-way through the half PD.”

“I was going to wait until seventy.”

That man Lukaku then linked so well with Kovacic but his shot was weak and at the ‘keeper.

This was tense stuff.

A Liverpool break and the ball fell to Salah, centrally positioned. I had a mental image of him rolling into the corner, to Mendy’s right, my left, and The Kop going berserk. But his pathetically weak shot – shades of Pat Nevin against Manchester City in 1984 –  rolled apologetically to Mendy’s left, my right, and the chance passed.

Eighty minutes.

It was a joy to see many Liverpool fans head for the exits.

Eighty-five.

Trevoh Chalobah – surely he should come from Manchestoh with a name like that – replaced the tiring Jorginho.

Ninety.

An extra three, just like on forty-five.

We held on.

Ten Men Went To Mow.

Magnificent.

The away end was jubilant, but as at Arsenal last Sunday, I noticed only stern and serious faces on the Chelsea players. This shows amazing self-control. I am not so sure that we would have been quite so reserved under other managers.

Because make no mistake, a 1-1 draw at Anfield is a bloody fine result and us supporters almost regarded it as a win.

Walking back to Goodison, out through Stanley Park, the quietness of the home fans was a joy.

We had set our marker for the season with this result.

Lovely.

My exit route out of the city took my car right alongside the stands on the Bullens Road at Goodison park.

After the Annie Road at Liverpool, we now found ourselves on the Gwladys Street at Everton.

I made a quick exit, out onto the East Lancs Road, then the M57, then the M62, then the M6.

We stopped a few miles down the M6 in well-heeled Cheshire, now solidly in United territory.

“I love it how, through football, us three lads from Somerset can suddenly find ourselves in a curry house in Knutsford at ten o’clock on a Saturday night.”

The Eastern Revive on King Street did us proud.

I made it home at just after 1.30am in the small hours of Sunday.

It had been a good day.

Anfield.

The Header.

Gallery.


Chelsea at Anfield.

Played : 25

Won : 5

Drew : 7

Lost : 13

For : 26

Against : 39