Tales From A Night With The Magyars

Chelsea vs. Vidi : 4 October 2018.

October had arrived, the leaves had started to change colour, the mornings were getting colder and the evenings were getting darker. It was time for our first home midweek game of the season, and the return to the much-maligned Thursday Night Football with a Europa League match with MOL Vidi, from the town of Székesfehérvár in Hungary.

I had worked an early shift and met up with The Brothers Grim, PD and Parky, at the Milk Churn for a bite to eat at three o’clock. I demolished a bowl of lamb stew, then hopped into the back seat as PD’s Chuckle Bus took the three of us east. What a luxury; I was even able to grab an hour of intermittent sleep as we zoomed up the M4. For a change, we spent almost two hours among old friends in The Goose rather than the usual midweek trot down to Simmons Bar. The two pints of Peroni were sadly served in plastic glasses – an abhorrence – but still went down a treat.

The pub seemed busy, and on the walk down to Stamford Bridge, I commented to the chaps that it felt like there would be a pretty decent turn out for our first-ever UEFA game against a team from Hungary. Of course, the club are to be commended for only charging us £20. There is no doubt that they have learned a lesson from previous campaigns and this seems to be a good pointer that they realise the need to provide competitive pricing for home matches. We all remember the sense of disappointment when just 24,973 saw our Champions League game – Mourinho’s first finale – in 2008. And gates for our last foray into the Europa League were a bit patchy too with games against Steaua Bucharest and Rubin Kazan averaging 30,000 in 2012/13. But although we had purportedly sold virtually all available tickets for the game against Vidi, I was sure that there would be some gaps with fans buying seats just for loyalty points.

Outside the West Stand, the frontage was adorned with Europa League banners.

I am sure a few elitists were thinking “sshh, please don’t advertise the fact”, and there is no doubt that this is undoubtedly UEFA’s secondary competition by some margin, but I am sure that the competition, if we stay in it long enough, will provide a few good trips and a few good stories to accompany them. A return trip to Baku – we half-heartedly watched Arsenal, playing in strange red shorts, win against Qarabag in the pub beforehand – would be a lovely reward at the end of this season, even though the logistics of getting to the game itself might prove both difficult and expensive. Oddly, by the time the “big” (cough, cough) teams drop into the competition in the New Year, it might have lost its allure a little.

Porto. Schalke. Roma.

“You again?”

Last time we played in this competition – a strange jamming together of the old and much missed ECWC and UEFA Cup – the theme colour was red. This time around it is orange. I wondered if FedEx, B&Q, or Terry’s Chocolate Orange were prominent sponsors.

On entering the stadium, there were swathes of empty seats but as kick-off approached, most areas filled up nicely. Behind the Shed goal, I spotted the brand name Hankook, a tyre company that is completely off my radar, and who only enter my consciousness when we dip into the Europa League.

Ah, their corporate colour is orange.

Got it.

The visitors – I remember them as Videoton – had brought a tidy 1,500 or so. We only took around 400 or so to PAOK a fortnight ago, so this was a good show. There were four Hungarian flags draped over the Shed balcony wall. It felt great to be hosting a Hungarian team at last at Stamford Bridge. Hungary are, or maybe were, one of the great football nations of Europe. They handed England the infamous 6-3 defeat at Wembley in 1953 (England’s first ever defeat at home to “foreign opposition”, excluding teams from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) and handed out a 7-1 defeat to England at the Nep Stadium a year later.

I can still see that drag back by Ferenc Puskas now.

My first memory of Hungary came in England’s campaign to qualify for the World Cup in 1982. I remember England losing in Switzerland in June 1981, but then watching on TV on the following Saturday as we dug out an unexpected 3-1 win, again at the Nep Stadium. As soon as we were drawn against Vidi, and after I had booked flights to Budapest, I soon found myself immersed in nostalgia, re-watching that very game on YouTube that very evening.

The three words “Trevor Brooking, stanchion” will bring smiles to those of us of a certain generation.

Then, in November of that year, I watched at Frome & District Youth Centre as a Paul Mariner goal took England to the World Cup Finals for the first time that I could experience and savour (I was too young to remember 1966 and 1970), back in the days when I cared.

Budapest in December is sure to be a blast. Do not be surprised if I spend a morning ground-hopping Ferencvaros, Ujpest, MTK and Honved’s stadia, although it is a shame that the famous Nep Stadium has gone the way of many of those imposing oval communist super stadia of yore, razed to the ground and rebuilt as a bland nonentity.

Maurizio Sarri had, not surprisingly, changed the personnel for this game.

Arrizabalaga

Zappacosta – Christensen – Cahill – Emerson

Loftus-Cheek – Fabregas – Kovacic

Willian – Morata – Pedro

It was a good enough team, but a team that had obviously not played together before.

The teams entered the pitch. The stadium was pretty full. The advertised gate of 39,925 hid around 4,000 no shows I reckon.

But this was a fine effort.

The match programme mentioned the two friendlies that we played against Hungarian teams Red Banner in 1954 and MTK in 1963.

The 1954 game featured stars of the Hungarian team Nandor Hidegkuti and Ferenc Kovacs. Interestingly, this game took place at 2pm on Wednesday 15 December 1954, and just two days after the more famous visit to Molineux of Honved to play Wolverhampton Wanderers under lights. Odd that the Honved game – so much is made of the game being floodlit – is often cited as a main catalyst for the first European Cup which began the following season (without champions Chelsea damn it), and yet our game against Red Banner is never mentioned.

That Wolverhampton media bias strikes yet again.

Regardless, the 1954 game is a beauty of times past.

Us in our championship season. John Harris. School kids skiving off school. 40,000 on a midweek afternoon. Blokes in ties. Stan Willemse. Cigarette smoke. The North Stand seats packed. The lights for the greyhounds. Frank Blunstone.

Beautiful.

It’s worth a watch.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrlt86APQG4

The Chelsea vs. Vidi game in 2018, sixty-four years after the Red Banner game, and another crowd of around 40,000, was a strange affair.

The visitors created the first real chance from a corner but Emerson was ably positioned to deflect a header over the bar. But, we were soon creating chances inside the Vidi penalty area, with Emerson and a mesmeric slaloming run in the inside left channel, and Kovacic the first to threaten. Soon after, Willian shot wide from well inside the box. Yet again, an opposing team were looking to defend deep and catch us on rare breaks. The away fans, who were not making a great deal of noise in their corner, only raised their levels when an excursion into our half took place.

Pedro was soon to be seen running centrally at some space at the heart of the Vidi defence in that slightly erratic style of his; like the weird kid at the school disco who dances unlike anyone else, limbs flailing in all directions. But he’ like others, was soon running into massed ranks of Hungarian defenders.

On a quarter of an hour, the ball was worked nicely into Morata who had found some space well. The ball fell to his left side, and with the ‘keeper already moving to his left, it seemed obvious to me – I was right in line with the ball and goal – that he should dink it into the net with his left peg. Instead, he chose to touch the ball on to his favoured right foot, and with the ‘keeper having narrowed the angle, the striker was forced to aim at a ridiculously small portion of the goal. He panicked and sliced it wide.

The first of many “fackinells” was heard in the Sleepy Hollow.

Shots and crosses were aimed towards goal with regularity, but their ‘keeper had not really been tested. He came and claimed crosses with ease. There was, as the first-half progressed, the annoying feeling that we were overindulging in too many ostentatious flicks, back heels and feints.

“Just drop your shoulder and hit the fucker” summed up our feelings.

Willian dolly-dropped a free-kick into the path of Morata but he was off balance and fell. I heard The Shed’s moans from one hundred yards away. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, not exactly impressing for most of the first-half, made a storming run into the box, and seemed to be chopped down inside the box. A penalty? Not a bit of it. The crowd were suitably raging. Alan and I spoke, not for the first time, about the goal line officials, or whatever it is they are bloody called. They rarely make a call on anything. I’d like to know how much they get paid for standing next to a pitch for ninety minutes and doing Sweet FA.

Rant over? Not quite.

I have always found it odd that the two goal line assistants – “assistant referees” – always position themselves in the same quadrant of the pitch as the linesmen, rather than the four “off pitch” officials being equally placed around the perimeter. It makes no sense to me, that.

A mix up between Christensen and Arrizabalaga almost allowed Nego to nip in and score, but the shot was poked wide. Vidi again broke into our half on thirty-minutes, with a good move exploiting acres of space in our previously untested defence. Thankfully, the presence of Gary Cahill did just enough to put off Nego who shot meekly at our ‘keeper after easily getting past Emerson. Just after, a poorly timed lunge by Cahill looked to the people sitting close to me – we had a very good view – to be a stonewall penalty. But the moment of concern had passed.

Throughout the first-half, the away fans had not been too involved, which surprised me. Our support was so-so. There was this annoyance that we were over-elaborating in front of goal. And we were certainly taking more touches than usual. But, of course, this team – with Fabregas and Loftus-Cheek involved for the first time together under Sarri – were playing together as a unit for the first time. I suppose it would be wrong to come down too hard. But there was tangible frustration as the first-half ended.

Not long into the second-half, Arrizabalaga managed to palm away a shot from the impressive Nego, and at last the away fans found their collective voices.

I often used to think back to the days when we would tend to put out a “B” team for League Cup games and often Frank Lampard would be rested. And I remembered how many times we would be drawing and so poor Frank was often brought on to provide extra quality. And I thought about our Eden. I thought back to Anfield last week, his substitute appearance changing the game so dramatically. Within a couple of minutes, he appeared on the touchline.

He replaced Pedro.

What an ovation for Eden.

Truly the man of the moment.

The chances still came and went as we tried to pierce the Vidi defence.

Ross Barkley came on for Loftus-Cheek. The jury is still out on our Ruben, from my perspective and that of others I know at Chelsea. I know that body language is not everything but he just looks too languid. Where is the urgency?

As he entered the pitch from under the East Stand, I watched Barkley trot over towards Kovacic, who had been raiding down our left with aplomb, and I observed Barkley make the “switch” gesture with his hands. Kovacic was having none of it, so Ross returned back to the right-hand side. I presume that Sarri had said to the substitute “see if he wants to switch, it is up to you to work it out.” I can’t believe that Kovacic would have blindly refused instructions. I like that; that the manager gives his players a little freedom. I have this fear that football – for so long a free-spirited and spontaneous sport – is getting too similar to gridiron football where every move seems to be choreographed ad infinitum.

Corner after corner, cross after cross. We kept trying. At one stage, it felt like it was like death by a thousand crosses. At one corner, I experienced something new at a Chelsea game. I was almost bored by the thought of another corner drifting aimlessly into the box, to be headed away yet again. The consistency of our misfiring was getting tedious.

But the runs of Kovacic were firing life into us, though, and he was linking well with others. One dribble from Eden was the stuff of pure fantasy. We began pushing more men into forward positions. A fine shot from Barkley raised our spirits. Morata was joined in the box by Hazard, Barkley, Kovacic and Willian. I hadn’t seen so many boys in blue in such a tight area since policemen started sniffing around Fred West’s patio.

Surely a goal would come.

With twenty minutes remaining, Eden – now switched over to the right – moved the ball to Barkley who passed to Fabregas. He lofted a great ball towards the run of Willian, whose careful knock-on set up Morata, arriving perfectly, to smash a volley past the Vidi ‘keeper. What a great goal.

Alan and I then, with the both of us laughing and sniggering uncontrollably, carried out the worst “They’ll Have To Come At Us Now / Come On My Little Diamonds” ever.

We had spoken about how strange the Hungarian language is. What the bloody hell does a Hungarian accent sound like?

Alan’s sounded Germanic. Mine sounded Latin.

Oh boy.

Regardless, we were ahead.

Phew.

Victor Moses – who? he? – came on for Willian.

Ross Barkley, impressing me, flicked a header against the bar from a Hazardous free-kick. But in the final ten minutes, Chelsea almost annoyed me. Vidi had shown the occasional threat. And rather than close the game down, we still attacked and attacked.

“Sarri is not your typical Italian manager, is he?”

One barnstorming run by Emerson petered out and we were left exposed. In the final five minutes, our defence looked tired and prone to catastrophe. Arrizabalaga saved down low, clawing away a shot from Kovacs, but for all of our worry, Vidi failed to exploit the tiredness in our ranks. Our defence, I have to admit, had been pretty ragged when tested throughout the night.

There was still time for Morata to miss when set up by Eden.

The whistle blew.

Our second 1-0 win in the competition was met with sighs of relief rather than whoops of joy.

It had been one of those nights.

On Sunday, we are at Southampton and two of the team are going behind enemy lines. Stay tuned for further adventures of The Chuckle Brothers on this station.

 

Tales From The Heart Of Chelsea

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 8 April 2018.

I had just left work on Wednesday afternoon when my mobile phone flashed a horribly brief news update.

Ray Wilkins, my boyhood hero, our Chelsea captain, an England international, a Chelsea assistant coach, had died.

There were no immediate tears, but certainly an excruciating, horrible silent numbness. I drove home in a state of shock. I was as subdued as I can remember. Ever since we had all heard that Butch had suffered a heart-attack, and had been in an induced coma, we had of course feared the worst. The future did not promise too much hope, and with every passing day, I feared imminent news.

On Wednesday 4 April, it came.

Ray Wilkins. Just the name sends me back, somersaulting me through the decades to my youth, to a time when Chelsea probably meant more to me than I realised, and to the very first few moments of my fledgling support.

In season 1973/1974, Ray Wilkins had made his debut at the age of just seventeen as a substitute against Norwich City in the October. However, I have to be honest, living in Somerset, I don’t think that I was aware of his presence that campaign. I certainly can’t remember seeing him play in any of the – few – games which were shown in highlights on “Match of the Day” or “The Big Match.” In the March of 1974, I saw my first-ever Chelsea game. I like the fact that we made our debuts in the same season. The very letter which accompanied the match tickets for that Chelsea vs. Newcastle United match was signed by “Miss J. Bygraves” and this young girl would later become Ray Wilkins’ wife and mother to their two children. By that stage, my then favourite player Ian Britton had been playing for Chelsea a couple of seasons. In that first game, neither played, and I would have to wait a whole year to see my two boyhood idols play, sadly in a lacklustre 2-1 defeat by soon to be Champions Derby County. Chelsea were managed by Ron Suart at the time of that match, but soon after former defender Eddie McCreadie took over. Very soon, he spotted the leadership potential of Ray – or “Butch” as he was known – and made him captain at the age of just eighteen despite the presence of former captains Ron Harris and John Hollins being in the team. Those last matches of the 1974/1975 season were marked by the manager flooding the first team with youngsters; alongside Ray Wilkins and the comparative “veteran” Ian Britton were Teddy Maybank, John Sparrow, Tommy Langley, Steve Finnieston and Steve Wicks.

With the influx of youngsters, playing against the backdrop of the sparkling new East Stand, I hoped that the future was bright despite our eventual relegation. If anything, it all got worse. A cash-strapped Chelsea were unable to buy any players for a few seasons, and at one stage it looked like we would be forced to sell both Ray Wilkins and Ian Britton. We finished mid-table at the end of 1975/1976, and promotion back to the First Division seemed distant.

It is an odd fact that although I have taken thousands upon thousands of photographs at Chelsea games over the years, in the period from my first game in 1974 to the start of the 1983/1984 season I took just one. It marked the return of Peter Osgood with Southampton in March 1976, but instead of an image of Ossie, the camera is fixed upon the young Chelsea captain, leaning forward to shake hands with his Southampton counterpart Peter Rodrigues.

Ten seasons, twenty-seven Chelsea games, but only one photograph.

And that photograph is of Ray Wilkins. It seems, with hindsight, wholly appropriate.

For season after season, in those dark years of false hope, the threat of financial oblivion, of wanton hooliganism and occasional despair, our young captain seemed to be our one beacon of hope.

He was our Ray of light.

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At the end of that mediocre 1975/1976 season, I can remember being absolutely thrilled to hear that young Butch would be making his England debut.

At the remodelled Yankee Stadium in New York on Friday 26 May, Butch played a full ninety minutes against Italy, playing against such greats as Dino Zoff, Giacinto Facchetti, Roberto Bettega and Franco Causio. I can vividly remember seeing the highlights on the following day’s “World of Sport” (I specifically remember the blue padded outfield walls, and the dirt of the baseball diamond).

Butch had arrived.

That summer, I sent off to the “Chelsea Players’ Pool” – remember that? – and acquired a signed black and white photograph. It was pinned close to my Peter Osgood one. Two real Chelsea heroes.

The following season, Chelsea stormed to promotion with Ray Wilkins the driving force. The man was a dream. Equally gifted with both left and right feet, he had a wonderful balance, and a lovely awareness of others. He didn’t merely touch the ball, he caressed it. He made everything look so easy. There was a languid looseness to him. But he was no slouch. Although not gifted with lightning pace, he had the energy and guile to tackle when needed, but to break forward too. His long-range passing was his party-piece. I have no single recollection of one Ray Wilkins pass, but the buzz of appreciation – cheering, applause, clapping – that accompanied a searching Wilkins cross-field pass, perfectly-weighted to a team mate, is what sticks in my mind. And there were many of them. Those were the days when supporters used to clap a great pass. It doesn’t happen much these days.

And he just looked like a footballer. My Dad always commented how Butch had thighs like tree trunks. There was a certain confident strut to him. I always thought that it was a plus point that his legs were slightly – ever-so slightly – bowed, though not as noticeable as, say, Malcolm MacDonald or Terry McDermott. Many footballers did in those days. I am sure it was not in a ridiculous body-sculpting homage to him, but as I grew up, I noticed that my legs were slightly bowed too. Nobody ever took the piss out of me, and what if they did? I would have an easy answer.

“If it’s good enough for Ray Wilkins, it’s good enough for me.”

I am told he melted a few female hearts too. I remember a few girls at Oakfield Road Middle School mentioning Butch to me.

It must have been the stare from those dark brown eyes when Butch was at his most serious.

Back in the First Division, we finished mid-table in 1977/1978 under the tutelage of Ken Shellito. Before the thrilling 3-1 win over European Champions Liverpool in March 1978 (often over-looked in favour of the 4-2 FA Cup win over the same opposition a couple of months before), I was able to obtain Ray Wilkins’ autograph as he came on to the pitch for the kick-about at around 2.30pm. Access to the players at these moments were an added bonus to getting seats in the East Lower. In those days, I would rush over to the curved concrete wall, spending up to twenty minutes or more reaching over towards the players as they passed. To be so close to Ray Wilkins, within touching distance, as he signed by little black autograph book just thrilled me. Forty years on, just writing this, I am getting goose bumps.

Magical, magical times.

Sadly, the elation of promotion in 1976/1977 and consolidation in 1977/1978 was followed by relegation in 1978/1979. During that campaign, we never looked like climbing out of the drop zone. It was such a depressing season. I went through a tough year at school too. It was not a good time in my life.

And I can always remember the pain that I felt during the very last time that I saw Butch play for us, a home game versus QPR in March 1979. It was a miserable day – we lost 3-1, some mouthy QPR fans were sat in front of us in the East Lower – but I was horrified to hear Ray Wilkins getting a fair bit of abuse from the Chelsea supporters around me. It was obvious that the team was at a low ebb, and perhaps too much was expected of our captain, who was still only twenty-two, but every mis-placed Wilkins pass drew loud boos and moans from those close by. Rather than support for a hero when he needed it there was derision. It made such an impression on me that I can remember the sense of betrayal that I experienced thirty-nine years later.

I only saw Ray Wilkins play twelve times for Chelsea, but from March 1975 to March 1979, he was ever-present in all the games that I saw. He wore the number eight shirt in every single one of them. I saw him score just one goal, against Blackpool, in 1975.

He was one of the most revered footballers in the Football League. He was an England regular. It thrilled me each time I saw him play for the national team. He was our sole England international from Peter Osgood in 1973 to Kerry Dixon in 1985. In 1979, he played his twenty-fourth game for England as a Chelsea player, thus beating his former manager McCreadie’s record as a Chelsea internationalist.

In 1979, despite appearing in the Chelsea pre-season team photograph, Ray Wilkins was sold to the hated Manchester United for £825,000. It was on the cards. I knew that we would never keep him. Chelsea certainly needed the money. But to Manchester United? This was just too much. There was a memory of a home programme from 1975 with Butch holding a Manchester United mug at his family home. Had he been hiding some dark secret from us all along?

In the following years, I watched from afar as Ray Wilkins played for the Old Trafford club. From 1979 to 1984, United were an under-achieving team under Dave Sexton and then Ron Atkinson. His goal against Brighton in the 1983 FA Cup Final was not celebrated by me.

It still hurt.

Thankfully, he never played for United against us.

And the nickname “Butch” never really followed him to Old Trafford.

He then moved over to Italy to play for Milan from 1984 to 1987.

I saw him play for England – as captain – at Wembley in November 1985 against Northern Ireland on a night which saw a young Kerry Dixon make his home debut, and on a night when the cry of “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” could memorably be heard at the tunnel end.

As the years passed, he played for Rangers and then QPR. I can recollect seeing him early in 1989/1990 at Stamford Bridge, and looking as classy as ever. He was only thirty-three. It would have been lovely to see him come back in West London to play for Chelsea and not QPR, who he later managed, but it was not to be. He then played on with other teams – Wycombe, Hibernian, Millwall, Orient – and then retired to manage Fulham. So near and yet so far.

There were the famous “Tango” commercials.

“Smashing.”

He was often the co-commentator on the Italian games which were shown on Channel Four.

“Hello everyone.”

He seemed so pleasant, so decent, so natural.

In 1998, Butch finally returned home to coach alongside Gianluca Vialli. He worked alongside Luiz Filip Scolari. He took charge for one game at Vicarage Road. He then memorably assisted Carlo Ancelotti – his Milan team mate – and helped us win the double. He was a steadying influence, and a much-loved member of the Chelsea family. His sacking by the club – I am guessing – might well have sent him towards a publicised alcohol addiction.

We felt numbed. For some alcohol is never the right answer, and alcoholism is a horrid disease.

But it felt as though Ray Wilkins has always been part of this club. The red devil mug from 1975 was obviously a red herring. He was not only a season ticket holder, but an away season ticket holder too. There were numerous sightings of our former captain at away grounds – I can recollect photos of him posing happily with some friends of mine – at various away sections, despite the fact that he could have spent those afternoons on the golf course, at home with his family, or out with friends.

It is a cliché, but he was one of us.

My good friend Glenn and I only bumped into him at Stamford Bridge a couple of months back. He was warm and friendly, happy to spend time with us, and I am blessed that I was able to see him one last time.

Just writing those words.

Oh my.

…the days passed. Wednesday became Thursday, Thursday became Friday. Friday became Saturday. Saturday became Sunday. Over these days, many stories were told of his decency and his humanity. But this all added to the sense of loss.

Sunday 8 April 2018 would be another emotional day for us all. On the drive to London, it seemed almost churlish to talk about our game with West Ham. We muddled our way through some conversations and predictions. At many moments, my mind was elsewhere.

We had set off from Somerset earlier than usual so that we could visit one of Parky’s old haunts from the days when he served in the army in the early ‘seventies. It was something of an anniversary. Forty-five years ago last Friday – 30 March 1973 – Parky stepped foot inside Millbank Barracks in Pimlico for the first time. An avid Chelsea fan despite being born near Arsenal’s stadium, Parky’s first Chelsea match was as a six-year-old in 1961. Being stationed so near to Stamford Bridge in Pimlico was a passport to football heaven. We had booked a table for 12.30pm at his then local “The Morpeth Arms”, which overlooks the river and the M16 building on the opposite bank.

But first, we popped in to “The Famous Three Kings” near West Kensington station at eleven o’clock for a quick pint and I made a toast.

“Ray Wilkins.”

We then tubed it to Pimlico, and had a lovely time in Parky’s old local. We met up with some pals from Kent and the nine of us had a relaxing and enjoyable time. During the two hours that we were in The Morpeth Arms, we spotted two boats heading west on the river which were bedecked in West Ham flags and favours. Often teams from London take a cruise down the river before a game at Chelsea. The game flitted into my mind, but only briefly, at the sight of the West Ham flags.

Glenn and I then split from the rest, and headed back to Fulham Broadway. In “The Malt House” we had arranged to meet up with pals from Bournemouth, Los Angeles, Jacksonville and Toronto. In the meantime, we soon learned that a main West Ham mob had caused a fair bit of havoc in The Atlas and The Lily Langtree, just half a mile or so away. There had been talk of them having a bash at The Goose too. We often frequent those pubs. I am glad we had avoided any nonsense.

It was lovely to meet up with the Jacksonville Blues once again; it was Jennifer and Brian’s first visit, though their pals Jimmy and Steve had visited Stamford Bridge before. Brian had presented me with a Jacksonville Blues scarf while I was over in Charlotte for the PSG game in 2015. It wins the prize as the Chelsea scarf with the finest design that I have seen, bar none. We met up with Tom from LA again, and bumped into Mick from Colorado too. There was a quick hello to Bill, a pal from Toronto who was over for the game. The famous Tuna from Atlanta was in town, but our paths just failed to connect.

“Next time, Fishy Boy.”

Overseas fans sometimes get a rough ride from certain sections of our support, but many are as passionate as fans from these isles. They have tended to add to my experience as a Chelsea supporter, not taken away from it.

There was horrible drizzle in the air. The Floridians were finding it a rather cold few days. But their enthusiasm for the game was bubbling over, or was it the alcohol?

On the walk to Stamford Bridge, we were soaked.

There was just time to pay a few moments of silent respect to the little shrine that the club had set up for Ray Wilkins. His photo had been moved along to a more spacious section of The Shed Wall. I was pleased to see the armband that John Terry had left was still in place. The photo of a young Butch in that darker than usual kit from 1977 made me gulp at the enormity of it all. The thought that both Ian Britton and now Ray Wilkins are no longer with us is – I will admit – a very difficult thing for me to comprehend.

I had a ticket in the MHL for this game – alongside Bristol Pete – and it was my first game there since Olimpiakos in 2008. But I was happy that I’d be getting a different perspective at a home game. We were stood, level with the crossbar and just behind the goal.

Very soon, it became clear that some fans in The Shed would be holding up a few banners, and I steadied my camera. The teams entered the pitch, and the spectators rose as one. There were no words from Neil Barnett – in hindsight, I suspect that he might well have decided that the emotion of the occasion would have got the better of him – and very soon both sets of players were stood in the centre circle. The TV screens provided some images, and the words Ray Wilkins 1956-2018 chilled me. We all applauded. Very soon, a blue flag passed over my head. I would later learn that it was a huge tribute to Butch, so well done to the club for producing it in such a short timescale. There was a chant of “one Ray Wilkins” and the clapping continued.

And then the applause softened, and the noise fell away. The game soon started, but my head was not really ready for it. All of that raw emotion squeezed into a few minutes had taken my focus away from the game. I tried my hardest to concentrate on the play, but I found it difficult. There was an extra constraint; I was not used to witnessing a home game from anywhere other than seat 369 in The Sleepy Hollow. I struggled with the perspective.

Antonio Conte had stayed with the choice of Alvaro Morata up front, and all was to be expected elsewhere on the pitch, apart from the return of captain Gary Cahill instead of Andreas Christensen. The first part of the game seemed pretty scrappy but Eden Hazard threatened with a low shot, and we hoped for further chances.

On eight minutes, there was more applause for Ray Wilkins. I spotted the image of the floral bouquet on the Chelsea bench.

“Blimey, that’s poignant.”

We feared the worst when Marko Arnautovic managed to get his feet tangled and Thibaut Courtois blocked from close range. It would be the visitors’ only real effort on goal during the entire first-half. I was so close to the action; the nearest I have been to the pitch at Chelsea for years. Being so low, both side stands seemed higher than ever. I wondered what the first-time visitors from Florida’s First Coast thought of their first visit to Stamford Bridge.

There was occasional neat passing in the final third, but our chances were rare. Already there was a feeling of nervous tension starting to rise within the massed ranks of the MHL, who were stood throughout. I can’t remember the last time the MHL and the Shed Lower sat throughout a game; a long time ago for sure. But there wasn’t a great deal of noise either. The usual shout of “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” was noticeably missing. On a day when I had flitted around Stamford Bridge – to the north, to the west, to the east, momentarily to the south – it felt that I was watching the match from the heart of Chelsea. The reduced capacity Shed is not the same place as it was in years past, and the MHL has usurped it in many ways as the epicentre of our support. I looked around and, although I did not spot many faces I knew, I certainly felt that I was in the heart of it.

The away fans were boring me rigid with their version of the Blue Flag, and their ridiculous nonsense about “no history.”

A beautiful move ended with a chance from Morata going just past the post. Then, another delicate move ended with Willian forcing a fine save from Joe Hart. With half-time beckoning, and with West Ham more than happy to sit deep, at last there was a reward for our possession. A short corner – which normally I detest – was played back to Moses. I remember thinking “this is usually Dave’s territory and he usually finds the head of Morata.” Well, Moses found the head of Morata and it was none other than Cesar Azpilicueta who managed to get the slightest of touches to stab the ball home – the crowd roared – before running away towards the away support and slumping to the floor.

Up in the MHU, Alan texted me : “THTCAUN.”

In the MHL, I soon replied : “COMLD.”

And that was that. A deserved one goal lead at half-time against an opponent that had rarely attacked, and I just wanted the second-half to produce some more goals. Our recent form has been abysmal. We desperately needed the three points.

Into the second-half and I was thrilled to be able to witness our attacks from so near the pitch, with the full panorama of a packed Stamford Bridge in view. It was a spectacular sight. Throughout the second-half, there were back-heels and flicks aplenty from several of our players – alas, most were to no avail and drew moans – but a deft touch from Eden Hazard set up Willian, who went close. There were more moans – and a growl of consternation from me – when a cross from the raiding Marcos Alonso was touched back by Morata into the path of Victor Moses. With no defender closing him down, and with time for him to concentrate on getting his knee over the ball, he panicked and thrashed the ball high over the bar.

“FORFUCKSAKE.”

We continued to create chances. Morata headed over from a corner, and had a goal disallowed for offside soon after. It looked close from my viewpoint, and it did not surprise me that the linesman had flagged.

In quiet moments, the West Ham ‘keeper was mercilessly taunted by the front rows of the MHL.

“England’s number four. England, England’s number four.”

“You’ve got dandruff, you’ve got dandruff, you’ve got dandruff. And you’re shit.”

…there’s a terrible pun coming soon, by the way…you have been warned.

We still dominated possession. From my viewpoint, all that I could see was a forest of bodies blocking our passage. As I said, there were many attempted “one-twos” and suchlike, but the West Ham defence did not have time for such frivolous play. They blocked, blocked, and hacked away to their hearts content. The groans were growing as the game continued. Hazard, always involved but unable to produce anything of note, was nowhere near his best. He lost possession way too often. His pass selection was off. There was the usual proto typical display of midfield greatness from N’Golo Kante, but elsewhere we struggled. Morata hardly attempted to pull his marker out of position. Moses was as frustrating as so often he is. Fabregas was not the creative influence we needed. Alonso ran and ran down the left flank, but the much-needed second goal just eluded us.

Moses sent a shot curling narrowly wide.

At the other end, the distant Shed, West Ham created a rare chance. A half-hearted header from Cahill was chased down by Arnautovic and he was allowed time to cut the ball back for the onrushing Chicarito – a recent sub – to score with a low shot at Courtois’ near post.

It was, I am sure, their first real shot on goal in the second-half.

“BOLLOCKS.”

There were around twenty minutes’ left.

We urged the team on.

At last, the first real stadium-wide chant roared around Stamford Bridge.

A rasping drive from Alonso forced a magnificent finger-tipped save from Hart, and the ball flew only a matter of feet past my left-hand side. The manager replaced Moses with Pedro, Morata with Giroud. There were shots from Hazard, but there were gutsy West Ham blocks. At the other end, I watched in awe as Kante robbed Arnautovic – showing an amazing turn of pace – inside the box. There was another lovely chase-back from Marcos Alonso to rob a West Ham player the chance to break. A fine looping high cross from Willian found the leap of Giroud, who jumped and hung in the air like a centre-forward of old. We were just about to celebrate the winner when we saw Hart – agonisingly – collapse to his left and push the ball away via the post. It was a simply stupendous save. He was head and shoulders their best player.

There you go. You’re welcome.

The game continued but there was no late joy. A meek header from Cahill and a wild swipe from an angle by Pedro did not bother Hart.

Sigh.

There were boos from inside the MHL at the final whistle.

I had the misfortune to time my exit just as the main slug of away support marched past the West Stand gates. I just walked through them all. Their further taunts of “no history” just raised a laugh from me. And there were moans, of course, once we all met up inside my car on Bramber Road long after the final whistle. As I drove us all home, we chatted about the game, a game that we should have won easily. Those moments when we lack concentration had hit us hard once again. We had our post-game post-mortem. We chose to keep our thoughts to ourselves. Elsewhere, of course, many other Chelsea fans were not so private. As ever, there was much wailing.

I had a sideways look at our current state of affairs.

“We finished tenth in 2016. If somebody had said that we would finish in fifth place and as champions over the following two seasons with Antonio Conte in charge, we would have been ecstatic with that.”

The boys agreed.

“Conte just got his seasons mixed up, the silly bastard.”

The inevitable gallows humour helped us in the immediate aftermath of yet another disappointing result.

It had been a strange day. A day of wild extremes. A day of immense sadness. A day of fine friendships. A day when The Great Unpredictables lived up to their name. A day of memories. A day of melancholy. A day of remembrance. A day of frustration. A day of contemplation.

Meanwhile, this most typical of Chelsea seasons continues.

See you all at Southampton.

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In memoriam.

Ray Wilkins.

14 September 1956 to 4 April 2018.

 

Tales From Up’Anley Duck

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 12 January 2012.

I awoke on Saturday morning with a mixture of feelings. Outside, the weather was dark and depressing. I had negative thoughts about the entire day to be quite truthful. After the Swansea defeat on Wednesday, I knew that a redoubtable Stoke team would be looking to heap further misery on the club. And then there were all of the churned-up feelings about the politics of it all; the board, the manager and the supporters were seemingly at odds with each other and emotions were tugging my heartstrings in a hundred different directions. And yet, I knew that there was nowhere that I would rather be on this particular winter’s day. The city of Stoke-on-Trent was my home for the best part of three years, from September 1984 to July 1987. I studied human geography at North Staffs Polytechnic, which was based in the city. For many personal reasons, I always enjoy returning. So, I decided to make the best of the day out in Staffordshire, but I did wonder what my state of mind might be in when I would eventually return. There was no doubt about it; this could be a bad day. A very bad day.

My Facebook status summed things up –

“Off to Stoke. In the cold. In the rain. We know what we are, alright.”

I left home at 10am, with a 150 mile trip to the middle of England ahead of me. I soon texted my partner in crime Alan, who was travelling up on one of the official Chelsea coaches with Gal.

“Duck Kerouac.”

He responded –

“Tom Robinson.”

I was “on the road” to the city where the word “duck” – as a term of endearment – is used at an alarming rate. Alan was on the “2-4-6-8 Motorway.”

I tuned in to the Danny Baker show on five live – if there’s a better programme on the airwaves, I am yet to find it. Baker used to host the original “606” programme when it was first broadcast in around 1991. At the time, it was natural for that programme to follow on from the launch of a thousand and one fanzines just a few years earlier; it gave normal fans the platform to air grievances, but to share anecdotes about the quirkiness of being a football supporter. I remember back in those days, Baker would hardly mention any of the day’s games, nor would supporters care. Talk instead was of comedic moments from fans’ pursuit of their teams, sightings of footballers in unusual places, bizarre pre-game rituals, favourite kits, banter and humour. If anything, Baker actively discouraged the general public from phoning and taking about specific games because – for the 99.9% of listeners who would not have seen the game – it would have been a waste of time. How I wish that ruling was prevalent today; the current “606” show with Mark Chapman and Robbie Savage dwells too much on specific incidents in specific games.

I drove through Bristol, with no signs of the overcast weather lifting. At 11am, I eventually made it up onto the M5; it had been a slow start to the journey.

I randomly selected a CD; a collection of songs by Tears For Fears, a band from Bath – my birthplace – that I used to admire back in the days of my time in Stoke. In those first few weeks of finding new friends at college, Tears for Fears acted as a cornerstone for me.

“I’m from near Bath – where Tears For Fears are from.”

The other two cornerstones were sport-related.

“I’m from Somerset – yep, we’ve got a great cricket team.”

“I’m not from Chelsea – I’m from Somerest.”

As I drove through Gloucestershire, my mood was brightened. I realised that several of the songs perfectly summed-up the current confusion amongst Chelsea fans –

“The Hurting.”

“Shout.”

‘Change.”

“Mad World.”

Tears for Fears’ first album “The Hurting” was coloured by the band’s involvement in primal therapy – and I thought back on some of the album’s other song titles and how they would be the ideal fit for the current Chelsea situation –

“Suffer the children.”

“Start of the breakdown.”

“Watch me bleed.”

…maybe we should have a group primal therapy session in the away section of the Brittania Stadium later in the day.

“Shout, shout – let it all out. These are the things I can do without. Come on…Chelsea.”

Just south of Birmingham, a few fields were dusted with snow. I soon drove past West Brom’s ground; the final straw in the league careers of Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto di Matteo. At the intersection of the M5 with the M6, at last a few splashes of blue above the clouds.

Things were looking up.

As I turned into the A500 at 12.45pm, I noticed a group of policemen in a lay-by, on motorbikes, in cars, on the look-out for Chelsea coaches and cars. With the Britannia Stadium on a high ridge of land to my right, I drove on up to the city centre in Hanley.

And here’s the inevitable history lesson. During the industrial revolution, the area now known as The Potteries consisted of several independent towns; Stoke, Fenton, Longton, Hanley, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Burslem, Tunstall and Kidsgrove. Pottery was the dominant industry, although the area was endowed with a local coalfield which ably provided the fuel to fire thousands of bottle kilns. First canals and then railways ferried china clay in and pottery out, to markets throughout the UK, Europe and further afield. The names Wedgewood, Minton and Spode became world famous and put the area on the map. It was a hive of frantic activity, a real industrial hotspot.

In 1925, five of the towns – Stoke, Hanley, Burslem, Fenton and Longton – came together to form the city of Stoke-on-Trent, although the slightly aloof town of Newcastle remained separate. My first few weeks in Stoke were spent trying to decipher the local geography and the local accent alike. The biggest anomaly of all was that the de facto city centre, housing the large department stores, library, theatres and bus station, was in the centrally-located town of Hanley. I lived in Stoke, the southern-most of the five towns. Stoke had the train station, the polytechnic and Stoke City Football Club. The town centre of Stoke was only marginally bigger and busier than my local town of Frome. The most northerly town of Burslem housed the city’s lesser football team, Port Vale.

As Chelsea Football Club now reside in the upper echelons of the football stratosphere these days, I am sure that millions of our global fan base has never even heard of Port Vale. If they have, I’m sure that many are unaware that the club is located in Stoke-on-Trent, even less that it is in Burslem.

On my previous visits to the city with Chelsea, I have tended to re-visit my more familiar haunts to the south in Stoke and ‘Castle. This time, I decided to head into Hanley.

Or – in the clipped and peculiar vernacular of the locals –

“Ah’m gooin’ oop’Anley, duck.”

By 1pm, I was parked up and was soon outside in the biting wind, stumbling around the city centre, attempting to recognise landmarks from a quarter of a century ago.

To my surprise, it was a bit hazy. I found my way to The Tontine pub and dipped in out of the cold. As students, we had to be wary of which pubs were “student-friendly” and quite a few pubs in both Stoke and Hanley were anything but “student friendly.” The Tontine was our safe haven on our nights out in Hanley, which tended to end up in a large multi-floored nightclub called “The Place.”

In The Tontine, I ordered a pint of lager (“lahh-geh”) and was surprised how cheap it was.

“Two qued fefty, duck.”

The long narrow pub hadn’t changed much in the 25 years since my last visit. I noted a few Stokies talking to a couple of Norwegian Stoke fans who were in town for the game. The world gets smaller and smaller, doesn’t it? In my time in the city, the locals were very insular and local to their town. I was reminded of a story which one of our lecturers told in an attempt to explain the colloquial nature of the Stokies’ mindset.

One of his aunts was touring America and she found herself on a local radio phone in. The radio presenter asked where the woman was from, since the accent completely threw him.

“Ah’m from Longton, duck.”

Not only did the woman presume that the presenter had realised she was from England, she didn’t even bother with the city name of Stoke-on-Trent, which the poor bloke might – just might – have heard of.

Seeking clarification, he quizzed her further…maybe he thought she was from Canada or Australia –

“OK. Where’s that?”

She replied, nonchalantly – “near Fenton, duck.”

The QPR v. Spurs game was on TV, but I gave it scant regard. I thought back to my time in the solidly working class and industrial city. Football dominated my thoughts. Over the three years in Stoke, I probably went to around ten Stoke games. In two of the years, in fact, I lived in a terraced house only twenty yards from the Victoria Ground. However, in November 1985, thoughts were of a game further afield; how “un-Stoke.”

Around ten friends and I travelled down to Wembley on an official Stoke City coach for the final World Cup qualifier for the 1986 Finals in Mexico. England had already qualified, but there was a chance that England’s opponents Northern Ireland could qualify too if they could muster a draw at Wembley.

However, I had another reason. It would mark Kerry Dixon’s home debut for England.

I had to be there.

Kerry had broken in to the England squad on the summer tour of Canada and Mexico, but had yet to play at Wembley. I don’t remember the trip down to London at all, save for the fact that it was a strange mix; half Stokies, half students from the poly, most of which I knew. Two friends – Nigel and Trevor – were from “Norn Iron” and were gung-ho about their team’s chances.

We all had standing tickets in the “home” end (the tunnel end) at the old Wembley. What a thrill to see Kerry Dixon, in a plain white shirt, play at Wembley on that misty night. Chelsea used to go en masse to England home games in those days and as the game developed, there were quite a few chants of “Chelsea – clap, clap, clap – Chelsea – clap, clap, clap – Chelsea – clap, clap, clap” in that home end. Of course, I joined in. It felt like Chelsea had taken over the entire end. It was a magical feeling.

Untouchable.

England fielded players such as Peter Shilton, Kenny Sansom, Paul Bracewell, Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle. Gary Lineker lined-up along side Kerry in a traditional 4-4-2. The captain on the night was Ray Wilkins. Sadly, it wasn’t a great night for Kerry, who missed a couple of good chances, which are shown in the following clip (with apologies for the sighting of a Juventus-era Michel Platini in the TV studio…)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ESdUZAdO24

The game ended 0-0 amidst jeers of “It’s a fix, it’s a fix, it’s a fix.” At least Trevor and Nige were happy.

It was 1.45pm and I needed to drive the two miles south to the stadium. I decided to drive past my old faculty building on Leek Road. However, the traffic was horrendous. I slowly made my way down the hill from Hanley and I soon crossed over Cauldon Canal, with one of the last remaining bottle-shaped kilns alongside it. Ahead of me was a large open space of land which was formerly the site of a large pottery. Beyond, red brick terraced houses, then industrial units, then the open wasteland up on the hill. Pretty, it certainly wasn’t.

I was taken aback by the amount of new buildings which had sprung up on the old football and hockey pitches at the polytechnic, which was renamed Staffordshire University a while back; we had a “Sports & Recreation Studies” faculty – or shortened to “Sport & Rec” or, mockingly, “Fruit & Veg” – and we had a healthy rivalry with Loughborough University. A bit like Ohio and Michigan, Auburn and Alabama, UCLA and USC (he said sarcastically.) A new sports centre for the University had been built and was named after the city’s most famous son Sir Stanley Matthews, a native of Hanley, who played for Stoke in two spells from 1931 to 1965. He was Europe’s first player of the year and played until the age of 51. A real legend, believe me.

As the traffic slowed just outside the old entrance to the Leek Road campus, I spotted hundreds of Chelsea fans, newly arrived at the nearby train station, awaiting buses to take them to the game. I spotted a few faces – Aggie, Callum, Tim – and it was a weird sensation. A personal space, to me, had become a shared space for many Chelsea fans. It couldn’t have been stranger if the same people had been spotted outside my village shop.

By 2.40pm, I was parked up on the grass verge of a road to the south of the Britannia. The cold wind was unrelenting as I quickly walked towards the bright features of the stadium, over another canal, the past never far away. There’s surely not a more inhospitable location for a ground in all of England. Like a fortress, The Britannia stands indignantly on that ridge of high land, its inhabitants ready to wail at visitors.

“We are Stoke, we are Stoke, we are Stoke” they yell.

On its day, it’s a red hot – and white – atmosphere.

The Chelsea section, three thousand strong, took up three-quarters of the south stand. The Brittannia Stadium is a strange one architecturally; two stand-alone structures, but two stands joined. I stood alongside Al and Gal in the second row of the upper tier, just to the right of the goal.

I scanned the team and noted the changes since Wednesday. Great to see Petr back, that’s for sure.

I looked across to the main stand, in two-tiers, unlike the rest of the stadium, and set well back from the pitch. There was Tony Pulis, in trademark baseball cap, alongside Rafa Benitez, already cajoling the Chelsea players with his strange selection of hand jives. Most importantly of all, I checked to see his tie colour.

Check.

And then I saw a sight which warmed my heart and made me proud; high on the roof above the Boothen End –

“The Boothen End Sponsored By Staffordshire University.”

…excellent.

We certainly weathered the Stoke storm in the first-half. A Kenwyne Jones effort after just 7 minutes whizzed wide of the far post when we were all expecting a goal. A succession of Stoke corners caused us to be fearful, but everyone was repelled. Branoslav Ivanovic was showing great positional sense with no signs of suffering from his performance on Wednesday. A shot from Lamps on 24 minutes raised our spirits. Frank began to impose himself from deep and was the instigator of a few attacks. Hazzard and Mata buzzed around. Another shot from Frank, but Ramires couldn’t follow up.

I commented to Gary about the two defeats against QPR and Swansea. My succinct summing up was met with agreement –

“To be honest, Gal, we created tons of chances and in 9 out of 10 times, we would have won both games.”

The home fans seemed surprisingly quiet. Chelsea were full of song and with – thankfully – not much negative noise. With a look at the clock, I suggested to Gal that a “goal would be nice.”

What a brilliant own goal from John Walters, as ordered right before half-time, under pressure from Demba Ba.

“Get in!”

It was cold, but not as cold as our first-ever visit to the stadium in 2003 for our FA Cup game. Alan and I agreed that, in comparison, the weather was positively balmy. That Sunday afternoon ten years ago was the coldest I have ever been watching Chelsea.

A rasping shot was gloriously tipped over by Petr Cech on 53 minutes, but Stoke thought they had been awarded a penalty just after. Thankfully, an offside was given instead. We breathed a sigh of relief. We got into our stride and continued to exploit the spaces as Stoke attempted to get back in the game. From a corner, that man Walters headed blindly into his goal with Frank right behind him. We exploded with joy again, but nothing compared to look of biss on Frank’s face as he beamed a massive smile as he spun around and shared his joy with the away fans.

It was a lovely moment.

Next, a chop on Mata and a penalty.

“Give it to Walters” chimed Gal.

Frank drilled it high past Begovic and we roared again.

194 goals for Frank Lampard. Fantastic stuff. The goal was filmed on hundreds of smart phones. Just after, with the away end booming, Frank almost reached 195 but couldn’t quite reach the rebound of a shot.

After a little provocation, the Stoke fans finally made some noise, showing commendable qualities in getting behind their team when losing.

Well done Stoke.

The game was wrapped up when Juan Mata fed in the excellent Hazard, who unleashed a swerving bullet into the top corner of Begovic’ net. I was right behind the course of the ball and detected the slightest of deflections.

4-0? Beyond my wildest dreams.

It still didn’t save Benitez, though. The loudest chant of the day was his. However, at least I didn’t detect any booing of Torres when he replaced Ba.

The game was due another comedic twist when substitute John Terry felled Walters inside the box. The troubled Walters blasted over and we howled with laughter.

“Walters – Man of the match. Walters, Walters – Man of the match.”

“Johnny Walters – He scores when he wants.”

I hurriedly rushed down to my waiting car amidst hundreds of quiet Stokies. The “feast and famine” football was continuing and Chelsea Football Club was playing games with my addled brain. I pondered the notion of only attending every other game; satisfaction guaranteed surely?

I wondered about the welcome that Walters might get from his wife as he returned home later that evening.

“Hi love. Did you have a good game?”

Within three minutes – I love Stoke, especially leaving it – I was back on the M6.

Happy days.

Tears For Fears know fcuk all.

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