Tales From Constant And Quiet Efficiency

Chelsea vs. Everton : 27 August 2017.

What a difference one week makes. Prior to the game at Wembley, I was subdued, fearing the worst. In the pub, a couple of friends sensed that I was so quiet that they asked me if I was OK.

“Yeah, I’m alright.”

And I was alright. I was just concerned about what fate might befall us later on against Tottenham. I need not have worried, eh? What followed was one of the finest away games of recent memory and gave us our fourth consecutive win against Tottenham at Wembley (2012 5-1, 2015 2-0, 2017 4-2, 2017 2-1).

During the week, we then received one of the best-ever Champions League draws, placed in the same group as Atletico Madrid (oh Diego, a recent rival, and a new stadium), Roma (an oh-so familiar city for Chelsea but one of my favourites all the same) and Qarabag (the new country, new city, new team, new stadium and new experience we all crave). Thursday evening was spent booking myself on flights to Italy and Azerbaijan. Two back-to-back trips in late autumn will keep me dreamy-eyed for the weeks ahead. There is nothing like the group phase draw every August (last year excepted, cough, cough). We are so lucky for our football club to drag us to all points of the compass. The trip to Rome in October will be my third with Chelsea (Lazio 1999 and Roma 2008) but I also dropped in there on the way to Naples in 2012. There have also been a few trips in my youth (1986, 1987, 1990) and I love the city, one of the world’s greats. Baku is a different story. It will be a new experience for us all.

China Crisis once mused about “living a newer lifestyle and travelling everywhere.”

Yep. That sums it up for me.

So, going into our match with Everton, all – and I mean all – was right with my world.

There was a new pub for this pre-match. “The Atlas” sits in a quiet side-street, close to West Brompton tube. We once popped in during a pub-crawl in around 1999, but it has been under our radar since then. It was long overdue a visit. It is a gorgeous pub with wooden floors, a dark and cool interior, a great choice of ales and lagers, with a sun terrace. With Glenn driving his Chuckle Bus, I was – at last – able to enjoy the giggles of a pre-match drink for the first time for a while. The sun was beating down, the sky was a big bright and beautiful blue without hindrance of cloud, and a lot of the chat centered on plans for Europe.

But first, the chance to play “football bore” with Calvin.

“Just behind those new flats, no more than a hundred yards away, is where the Lillie Bridge FA Cup Final was played in the nineteenth century.”

Calvin’s eyes soon glazed over.

“Right, who wants a beer?”

It was almost one o’clock and time to move. Away from the shade, the heat of the sun surprised us. Away in the distance were the roof supports of the Matthew Harding.

Inside a sun-kissed Stamford Bridge, I spotted gaps in the away section. Everton had not sold out their three thousand; it was a few hundred shy of capacity. Surprisingly for a Chelsea game taking place during a bank holiday weekend all of the home areas looked absolutely rammed. A very good sign indeed.

With Cesc Fabregas returning, Antonio reverted to the familiar 3-4-3.

Thibaut.

Dave – Dave – Antonio

Victor – Cesc – N’Golo – Marcos

Willian – Alvaro – Pedro

Everton were wearing another terrible away kit. Two tone grey has never looked so uninspiring. Their new signing Gylfi Sigurdsson debuted. Wayne Rooney, the returning hero, unsurprisingly started too.

Our last defeat against Everton in the league at Stamford Bridge was way back in November 1994 and I have seen all of the subsequent fixtures. From the very first few moments of play, it looked very much like that we would be extending this Tottenham-esque unbeaten run to a huge twenty-four games.

We dominated the play early on, not allowing the visitors to settle. The usual protagonists and providers Willian and Pedro were all energy, causing worry within the away ranks. We moved the ball well, eking out a few chances with Everton off the pace. As the minutes passed by – ten minutes, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five – Everton chased shadows. Not only had Everton not threatened our goal, they had hardly crossed the half-way line. Wayne Rooney, always the butt of much abuse, began where he left off playing for Manchester United.

After a little noise as the game began, the away fans became beaten by the torpor of their team’s play and the blistering sun. The home support was quiet, too, though. Only a rousing “Antonio, Antonio” broke the apathetic mood. An optimistic over-head kick from Pedro, complete with face-mask, drew applause after some nice work by Morata. Shots peppered Pickford’s goal. Thankfully, our dominance was rewarded on twenty-seven minutes when a move down our right ended with a well-timed downward header by Morata allowing Fabregas, hemmed in, to poke the ball purposefully past the stranded Everton ‘keeper. At last the home crowd boomed and Fabregas reeled away, happiness personified, and raced over to the south-west corner, where he seemed to be waving to friends or family. The blue flags twirled along the West Stand touchline and all was well with the world.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds, la.”

This was not the mesmerizing show of last autumn, but this was still a fine Chelsea performance. With Everton defending deep, there was less space to exploit, but with Kante winning fifty-fifties, the stranglehold on Everton continued. We had to wait until thirty-three minutes had passed for Everton’s first shot at goal. It ambled miserably wide. Five minutes before the break, we could not fathom why the referee had allowed to play the advantage when a foul inside the box – from our viewpoint – should have been awarded with a penalty. The howls of derision from the stands continued as the move was not allowed to flounder. Dave whipped a ball back across the face of the Everton defence and Morata rose to guide the ball in.

Stamford Bridge boomed again.

The scorer rushed over to the corner. The players’ family and guests are housed in that corner suite behind the Shed Lower. More ecstatic celebrations. The flags twirled once more.

Chelsea 2 Everton 0.

Bearing in mind that the aggregate score in the two games last season was 8-0 to us, we certainly hoped for rich pickings in the second period.

Ex Chelsea and Everton winger Pat Nevin made a brief appearance on the pitch at the break; my favourite-ever player, it is always a pleasure to see him.

A pal had spotted that alongside Antonio Conte’s notes in the match programme, the editor had chosen to illustrate the page with a photograph from the game at Wembley. Lo and behold, there was little old me – face ecstatic, screaming – just yards away from the players, gripping my sunglasses tightly. It just sums up why we all love football so much – that ridiculous release of emotion – and nicely merges with my take on the events of the previous weekend.

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We began the second period as we had ended the first. And yet I was disappointed, still, with the lack of noise. It took us forever to get a loud “CAM ON CHOWLSEA” chant to reverberate around the stands. I looked over at the West Stand. Although the corporate second tier was completely full, the thin line of boxes in the third tier were hardly occupied at all. I squinted to see if Roman was present, just off-centre, in his box. He wasn’t. In fact, save for three or four souls in the front row of his block of seats, it was empty.

I sighed as I spoke to Alan :

“Pretty bad when there is hardly a soul in the owner’s box, eh?”

“Probably on his yacht, somewhere.”

“Yeah, but there should be someone in there all the same.”

Roman, or no Roman, we continued to shine. Pedro stroked one past the post and I had to restrain myself from jumping up and making a fool of myself. On the hour, a lovely low cross from Dave zipped across the box, but Morata seemed to sense that Pickford would reach it. The path of the ball eluded them both.

Bollocks.

Pedro went wide again. Victor Moses shot straight at the ‘keeper. By the time Antonio – surely sweltering in his trademark dark suit – began to ring the changes, we sensed that we were taking our foot off the gas. Everton had offered little offensive threat; for an apparently enriched team over the summer, they had been as grey and lifeless as their kit. The away fans did not utter a single song of anger, or otherwise, throughout the closing half-an-hour.

Bakayoko replaced Pedro.

Batshuayi replaced Morata.

Soon after entering the field, Michy played a ball square to Willian, who had spent the entire afternoon running endlessly, and Willian – quite odd to see – rolled his eyes up to the sky as he summoned up some energy from somewhere to reach the ball.

“FFS Michy, I’m knackered.”

Ha.

Lo and behold, as if apologetically, Everton at last bothered to threaten our goal. Firstly, the bulk of Ashley Williams dolloped a ball over and then one went wide of the post. A finger-tipped save from Courtois from Gueye turned out to be his only save of the entire ninety minutes.

Game twenty-four was won.

1994 seems a long time ago, but – there again – 1990 is even longer ago. Just ask Tottenham.

 

Tales From A Liverpudlian Pub Crawl

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 31 January 2017. 

It had been a horrid time for Liverpool Football Club. In addition to a loss at home to Swansea City in the league, they were ousted from the two domestic cups within a few days. Not only were they “out” but they were Micky Flanagan “out out.” As for us, after our easy win in the FA Cup on Saturday, we were careering towards a huge game at Anfield, and it was a game that had thrilled and excited me for weeks, especially since Liverpool’s league campaign had faltered over recent months. The Chuckle Brothers, with no European adventures this season, had decided to stay over on Merseyside for this midweek match. And after overnight stays in Middlesbrough and Sunderland already this season, this one had the potential to be the best of the lot. Parky, PD and myself were joined on our trip north by my old school mate Francis, who has been an occasional visitor to Chelsea games over the years. I had collected all of the lads by 6.30am and made slow progress underneath cloudy skies; the rain was incessant. Eventually the skies cleared. I dropped down into the city of Liverpool and was parked-up at our city centre hotel by 11.15am. The trip to Liverpool had taken a full five-and-a-half hours.

The idea was for Francis and myself to head off on a little tour around the city before joining up with Parky and PD – who was celebrating his fifty-fifth birthday – in the afternoon. Francis had recently visited the city with his daughter, but – like me – had hardly seen much of the place over the years. I knew the stadia, and the area around the revitalised Albert Dock, but not much in between.

“Let’s just have a pint in a pub, come up with a plan and take it from there.”

The game was to kick-off at 8pm. At just after 11.45am, the four of us were settled in a magnificent old pub with wooden panels, stained glass, a low ceiling – “Rigby’s” – and I had a little chuckle to myself.

“Good effort boys – over eight hours to kick-off.”

Well, the first pint hardly touched the sides. One pint became two, then three, then four. Francis and I and soon decided to postpone the walk around the city centre until next time. Behind the bar was a black and white photograph of Dixie Dean, and this initiated a lovely chat with the landlord – a mad-keen Evertonian – who was soon taking the piss out of his city’s rivals.

“Well, you won’t hear many Liverpool fans going to the match tonight who will be speaking English. Norwegian, Danish, Swedish maybe.”

The landlord traded stories and memories of games and players with us, and a couple of Evertonians – supping pints on their lunch break – joined in.

Brian Labone, Pat Nevin, Colin Harvey, Alan Ball, Tommy Lawton.

I mentioned how my father had visited Goodison Park during World War Two, and talk centred on Everton’s stadium for a while. I mentioned that I had once seen a game from the top deck of the main stand – when Robert Fleck scored in 1992 – and the landlord mentioned that he had seen a few games at Goodison during the 1966 World Cup. I mentioned Archibald Leitch, the structural engineer who had planned many of football’s stadia over one hundred years ago, including Goodison Park, Anfield and Stamford Bridge.

“Archibald Leitch’s office was in that red brick building opposite just a few yards away. You probably walked past it this morning.”

What a small world and, indeed, we had. I had spoken to Francis about its imposing façade as we had walked along Dale Street earlier.

As he disappeared into the other bar, he commented that I should read a book called “Engineering Archie” which detailed Leitch’s life.

“I’ve got it mate.”

He smiled and said “you’re good, you.”

I laughed.

To our left were two Liverpool supporters from Austria. To our left were two Liverpool supporters from Germany. The landlord was right.

As the beers were downed, the landlord told the story of how he had not seen Everton play for a few years due to his increasing dislike of the way the club was being run. But he then had the chance to go to a game with a mate who he bumped into a few months back. Guess which one? It was the game at Stamford Bridge back in the autumn when we annihilated them.

He pulled a face.

“Youse lot were amazing that day.”

Interestingly, he mentioned that the girls serving food and drink in the away section at Chelsea wore Dixie Dean T-shirts. A nice touch, I thought.

From Dixie Dean to Dixie Dean, a circle was completed.

Steve, newly-arrived from Lime Street, joined us and it was great to see him again. He has been working over in Vietnam for a few years but still makes it back for a few games each season. We remembered our time together in Tokyo for the 2012 World Club Championships and also the time in Philadelphia when we posed with the club banners on the city’s famous Rocky Steps. Before we left, the landlord posed us a question. Apparently, in around 1968 or so, Everton played Chelsea and all six half-backs in the game had surnames that began with the letter “H.” We quickly came up with Harris and Hinton for Chelsea, but had no hope of getting any of the Everton ones. This brain-teaser soon morphed into the old question of naming the seven Chelsea players from the ‘seventies with surnames beginning with “H.” We all chirped in.

“Harris.”

“Hollins.”

“Houseman.”

“Hinton.”

“Hudson.”

“Hutchinson.”

“Are you sure there were seven?”

“How about Hosgood?”

We giggled.

We moved a few yards down Dale Street to pub number two, “The Vernon Arms” which oddly had a sloping floor. To our right there were two Liverpool fans from Dublin.

“No English accents.”

We had to laugh, the landlord from the first pub showed up on his break.

“It’s cheaper.”

The beers were certainly flowing now. We moved on to pub number three, “The Exelsior” and the drinking continued. We bumped into a couple from Dundee – Chelsea fans down for the game – and we soon found out that they knew our mate Foxy, he of the Dundee-based “Charlie Cooke Flying Squad.” Again, a comment about a small world is surely in order.

The next pub – just a few more yards along Dale Street – was “The Ship & Mitre.”

Here, it certainly felt like we were enacting The Pied Piper Of Hamelin, as we were joined by Kev, who loves his real ales and who sits very near me at Chelsea, and Jeremy, from Kansas, who I last saw in the US. More drinks, more laughs, oh bloody hell, what a giggle.

We asked Kev about the riddle involving the Chelsea players.

“Hosgood?”

We laughed again.

The Chuckle Brothers were in town alright.

Time was moving on. At around 7pm, we took two cabs up to Anfield; PD, Parky and myself in one, Francis and the Charlie Cooke Flying Squad in the other. The accumulative effect of a ridiculously long drinking session began to take its toll. There were a few fraught minutes when I thought that I had mislaid my match ticket. I made my blurry way over to “The Arkles” at about 7.15pm where I had hoped to meet up with a couple of friends. Sadly, they were nowhere to be seen. Francis suddenly appeared in the bar and we hurriedly wolfed-down a couple of large gin and tonics.

With only a few minutes to spare, I made my way in to the away end and finally edged my way along to meet up with Alan and Gary. The Kop was full of scarves and flags, but my attention was taken up by the huge new stand to our right which dwarfed the other three structures at Anfield. The dull grey roof sloped down in sections towards The Kop and the Anfield Road. The rain was sleeting down. It was a horrible night but the green carpet glistened. Our end was packed. Elsewhere, I could hardly see any empty seats.

It was time for me to quickly assess the team that Antonio Conte had chosen. Matic was selected alongside Kante. Willian had got the nod ahead of Pedro. Mark Clattenburg whistled the start of the game and it felt so odd to see Liverpool attacking The Kop in the first-half. In all of my years of attending games at Anfield – this was game number twenty-two – I could not remember many other matches that had begun in a similar fashion. One stood out, for all of the wrong reasons; that Louis bloody Garcia game in 2005. I tried my best to focus and concentrate on the action being played out in front of me. Liverpool certainly enjoyed a huge amount of early possession and I think that it surprised us all. The ball was moved across the pitch at will by Liverpool but to be truthful they rarely breached our defensive line nor exposed us.

Not long into our game, news filtered through that Arsenal were losing 2-0 at home against the might of Watford. Oh my aching sides.

We began to grow into the game. A run by Eden Hazard was abruptly stopped and we waited for the resulting free-kick. Willian stood over the ball. I took a photograph of him waiting. The referee whistled and David Luiz – not Willian – raced at the ball. His customary side-on strike caught everyone unawares. It certainly caught me unawares as he was too quick for my trusty camera. The ball dipped and curled at all the right places and made the net ripple, with Mignolet miles away.

My first thought; David’s first goal for us since his return.

This was followed a nano-second later with another thought.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

It was our first real effort on goal.

The three-thousand Chelsea supporters roared as Luiz reeled away and sprinted over to the Chelsea bench. Thousands of inhabitants of the new stand looked down in dismay.

Chances were at an absolute premium as the play continued. The ball zipped over the wet surface and although the two teams tried their best to engineer chances, the play was of great intensity but of little guile and craft. Liverpool again had most of the ball, but Thibaut Courtois was largely untroubled in front of The Kop.

Soon into the second-half, Firmino wasted a great chance for Liverpool, blasting high and wide.

At the other end, Moses scraped the outside of the post in a rare Chelsea attack.

Just before the hour, a deep cross from Henderson found Milner, only a few yards away from us in the away section. His header back across the six-yard box was subsequently touched home by Wijnaldum.

Bollocks.

I feared the worst, to be honest and kept glancing at the clock, willing the clock to keep moving on. We tackled and closed space. This really was a war of attrition. Kante won tackle after tackle.

With twenty minutes to go, Conte replaced Hazard with Pedro.

In one of his few forays into the Liverpool box, Costa was caught by Matip and – yes! – Clattenburg pointed to the spot. I can’t imagine what it must be like to step forward and take a penalty in front of The Kop, but sadly Diego shot weakly to Mignolet’s right – a very poor effort – and the ball was pushed away for a corner.

Fabregas replaced Willian in the closing moments and he added some steadiness amongst the frantic pin-ball. Both sets of fans were baying for a winner. Pedro, adding extra pace to our attacks, came close and then Firmino headed weakly at Thibaut. Batshuayi replaced Diego Costa.

The whistle blew. There was rapid confirmation that Arsenal had indeed lost against Watford, but also Tottenham had only garnered a draw at basement dwellers Sunderland. It had been a game that never really delivered its share of excitement, but it did not matter. We had increased our lead at the very top of the table to a massive nine points.

Outside in the cold night air, we all treated ourselves to burgers outside The Kop, before we piled in to the final pub of the day “The Valley” which sits at the end of Walton Breck Road as it meets Everton Valley. I can remember being marched en masse by the local “bizzies” past this big old pub on many occasions during the dark days of the ‘eighties. It looked a grim old place in those days and I always used to think that an ambush by battle-hardened locals was only a few seconds away. There were more drinks – more gin and tonics – and quiet chat among the four of us. It had been a fantastic pub crawl alright. Six pubs all told. We caught a cab back in to town, down the famous Scotland Road, and finally reached our hotel. There was time for one last nightcap, and a chat with two more Chelsea lads from Scotland, Andy and Graham, in the hotel bar.

After a long hard day it was time to call it a night.

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Tales From Firework Night

Chelsea vs. Everton : 5 November 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know – crazy days, eh?

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

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

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

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

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

There was applause.

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

A moment of solemn remembrance.

Perfect.

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

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

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

I love days like these.

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

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

“Bolasie – go home.”

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

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

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

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

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

“YEEEEEEESSSSSS.”

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

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

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

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

We were purring.

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

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

Chelsea 3 Everton 0.

Wow.

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

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

Quite magical.

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

Total domination.

Everton were simply not in it.

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

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

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

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

They agreed.

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

What a finish. It amazed me.

Chelsea 4 Everton 0.

Super stuff.

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

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

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

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

And still it continued.

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

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

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

Bosh.

5-0.

Oh my oh my.

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

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

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

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

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

“Leave it out, la.”

Batshuayi replaced Eden.

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

A perfect ten.

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

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

It remained 5-0.

Five bloody nil.

Superb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incredible.

Remember remember the fifth of November?

We certainly won’t forget the one in 2016.

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Tales From Albert Dock And Gwladys Street

Everton vs. Chelsea : 12 March 2016.

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It seems to be all about away games at the moment. Whereas home matches at an increasingly sterile Stamford Bridge are continuing to lose their appeal, trips to various away stadia still manage to thrill me. After trips to Southampton and Norwich, here was another classic Chelsea Away Day. Our FA Cup Quarter Final against Everton had all the hallmarks of a very memorable day out in support of The Great Unpredictables.

There was an invading army of six thousand and we were planning on making a day of it.

I collected the usual suspects; first PD, then Glenn, then Parky.

The Fab Four were heading to Merseyside in The Chuckle Bus.

“All aboard.”

As we headed north, the weather was magnificent – blue skies – and the day stretched out in front of us, expectant with moments to treasure.

We were loving the buzz of it all.

“Happy days, boys.”

Six thousand supporters. It was some number, yet there would be similarly large away supports at Old Trafford and The Emirates on Sunday too. Whereas league allocations are always locked at 3,000, at least domestic cup games can evoke times past when away supporters would often travel up to 10,000 strong for league games. For this, I am grateful for the FA Cup. There is nothing better than being in a strange town, and being able to support the club in such numbers.

At Chelsea, we love the FA Cup.

Although my ticket was marked £35, Everton had taken the decision to only charge Chelsea £30 for season ticket holders, to mirror the price they had charged their own season ticket holders; a fine gesture. Additionally, Chelsea had taken an additional £10 off all tickets. My ticket therefore only worked out at £20 plus a £1.50 booking fee.

£21.50 for a Cup quarter final.

Superb.

Of course, there has been a lot of talk in the media about the £30 cap on away tickets to be phased in over the next few seasons. This has been met with unilateral approval; without a substantial number of away fans acting as a catalyst to generate noise from home fans, the atmosphere at games in 2016 would be dead. Although the Football Supporters’ Federation has been campaigning for a few seasons for a “Twenty Is Plenty” limit, one wonders if the sight of ten thousand Liverpool supporters leaving en masse a month or so ago was the tipping point.

After Birmingham, the skies became full of cloud, but there was no rain, thankfully. As we continued to head further north, we replayed Parky’s mix of Northern Soul which served the four of us so well on the trip to Old Trafford just after Christmas.

One of the highlights this time was Judy Street’s “What.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmPb95SUZF0

Just before we passed over the Manchester Ship Canal, I commented to the boys that we had not seen a single Chelsea car, which surprised us all. Then, within a few minutes, my mate Andy passed us.

Onto the M62 and the excitement was rising.

A song from R. Dean Taylor : “A Ghost In My House.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jG700BojpH0

And one from the Just Brothers : “Sliced Tomatoes.”

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

Music and football, music and football, music and football, repeat to fade…

I headed in to town, down the hill past the huge red brick cathedral, and I was parked-up at the Albert Dock at around 1.45pm.

This mirrored the pre-match that Parky and I enjoyed last season prior to our surreal 6-3 win at Goodison. We headed in for a drink at a very busy “Pan Am Bar”, as in 2014. It was crowded, and ridiculously warm. We spun out for a little walk around the Albert Dock, and I found out from Glenn that his grandfather – like my father – had undergone his RAF training at nearby West Kirby on The Wirral. Before our game at Goodison in 2012, Parky and myself had paid it a visit.

We then popped into “Vinea”, a wine bar overlooking the dock. This was all very pleasant. Our party was joined by Kev, down from Edinburgh for the day, and newly arrived from Lime Street.

I ordered pints of “Warsteiner” and awaited for the next guests to arrive.

My friend Kim, visiting from Florida, arrived with her friend Eddie, who – apart from being an avid football fan, like us all – plays guitar in China Crisis, a band who I loved back in the ‘eighties, and who still tour to this day. I saw China Crisis just after I came back from Tel Aviv in November. The song “African And White” had a certain resonance that night. It was a fantastic gig. Kim – who has been working with the band recently – introduced me to Eddie after, and it was a pleasure to see them both once more.

Fate and ridiculous coincidence seem to play an increasingly large role in my life these days. Before the home game with Arsenal in the autumn, I had flippantly thrown the phrase “flaunt the imperfection” into a conversation with my mate Daryl – I forget the context – and Daryl immediately knew that I was referencing a China Crisis album. For a few minutes, we chatted in The Goose beer garden about the band. I had three of their albums; I was a fan and so was Daryl. He had seen them years ago in London. Lo and behold, I briefly mentioned this in my match report a few days after. One or two weeks later, I was chatting to Kim, and I remembered that she had seen China Crisis in concert recently. I wondered if she had read my Arsenal match report and had spotted my brief comment about the band; she hadn’t so I decided to sent Kim the link. At this point, I was completely unaware that Kim was friends with the band. Imagine my surprise when Kim informed me that she was with Eddie at that very match.

Football and music, football and music, football and music.

For an hour, we were able to relax, old and new friends together, and talk about these two great passions of ours. Kim was especially keen to hear how the five of us had all met. Of course, Glenn and I go back to 1977. It’s a lifetime of friendship. I met PD on a train back from Cardiff City in 1984. I met Parky at work in 2000. I met Kev for the first time in Lisbon last season. Eddie, although a Liverpool a season ticket holder for thirty years – the old Kemlyn Road, now the Centenary Stand – was enjoying our tales of friendship and fandom. We spoke about games that we had both attended; the two games in 1986 at Stamford Bridge, Kerry getting injured in the FA Cup tie on a Sunday, then Kenny scoring the championship clincher in May. We spoke of ticket prices, the Liverpool protest on 77 minutes recently, and we occasionally spoke about the antipathy between the two sets of fans.

Eddie : “When did it really start?”

Chris : “That Luis Garcia game. That bloody song about history.”

Eddie : “To be fair, you’ve given it to us since then.”

He was at Heysel and Hillsborough, and he shared a few harrowing tales from those two days. Heysel distressed him so much, that he has not traveled in Europe with his team since. I told him about my friend Mario, Juventus, having a ticket, but not travelling to the game due to an overload of school work that week. Incredibly, Eddie told me that the very first time that he had heard about the deaths at Heysel was when he was back at the airport before catching a flight back to the USA. I found that staggering. These days, the news would be all around the world in seconds.

Eddie was particularly fearful of Everton, with new backers, enjoying an imminent period of dominance in the city. Despite our different allegiances, we were getting on fine.

“Another beer?”

There was limited talk about the upcoming game, though all of us were confident that we could prevail against a typically hot and cold Everton team, whose supporters were starting to turn against the manager Martinez. We were subconsciously dreaming of a Wembley semi-final.

But maybe that was just wishful drinking.

Kev and the boys were talking about further away games at Bournemouth and Liverpool. We might be having a poor season, but these away days are still to be treasured.

Eddie spoke to Parky, the Chuckle Bus’ resident DJ, about music, sampling, and a few other related topics. Somewhere over the hill, past Everton and Anfield and Stanley Park, a game of football would be taking place very soon, but we were enjoying the chance to be together and talk – and laugh, there is always laughter – about football.

I suppose that you could call it a “Crisis Meeting.”

Sadly, we had to move on. Kim and Eddie set off to hunt down a cab, before taking their places in the lower tier of the Bullens Road stand at Goodison in the Chelsea seats. I drove up the hill towards the cranes at Anfield and found a very convenient place to park.

Just £6.

This was indeed a cheap day out.

The walk towards Goodison brought back memories of my first couple of visits in 1986.

We arrived with about twenty minutes to kick-off. I was looking forward to be able to watch the game, for once, without being stuck in the corner, and usually behind the goal line.

By a strange quirk of fate, my seat in row P was directly in front of Glenn and PD. Things were decidedly cramped in the rear rows of the upper tier, with little leg room among the tight wooden seats. Not that anyone was sitting of course. Everyone among the six thousand strong travelling army of Chelsea supporters was standing. I suppose that the split was 60% / 40% with most in the lower tier below. We had heard that the club had decorated each of the 6,000 seats with a Chelsea scarf; a nice touch. And there they were, neatly draped over the seat-backs.

On one side “Chelsea FC” and on the other “Over Land And Sea.”

Maybe the club expected us to hold them aloft, “YNWA”-style, to wind up the Everton fans.

…mmm, that was never going to happen.

So, there we were, perched at the top of the antiquated Bullens Road stand, loathed by some but loved by me, almost on the halfway line, with the haphazard struts and supports of the TV gantry blocking our view of the grand old main stand opposite. Alan and Gary were in the same row, but a few seats along. Their trip to Goodison, on the club coach, was free in lieu of them arriving late at Norwich City last week. The six thousand Chelsea fans were in fine voice.

Away to my right, the classic and old-fashioned Gwladys Street Stand was packed full of Evertonians. I love the way that the Leitch balcony has been left alone, bare, with no advertisements, and no hindrances. I love the way that the stand bleeds into the Bullens Road.

As the teams entered the pitch, I couldn’t even hear the “Z Cars” theme tune.

This felt like a proper cup tie, a proper game of football, a proper football stadium.

What followed was a proper let down.

Our team looked good on paper. Hazard was out, but some would argue that might be a blessing. At least we had Diego Costa, recovered from the PSG game, to lead the line. If he was playing, we would always have a chance of scoring.

We were in all white and attacked the Gwladys Street in the first-half.

A shot from Tom Cleverley was easily claimed by Thibaut early on, and I wondered if that early shot might set the scene.

How wrong I was.

It was such a poor first-half and I can barely recall more than three efforts on the Everton goal. An early effort from Kenedy flew over the bar. There was a Willian effort, charged down by a defender before it had travelled more than a few yards, and there was a free-kick from the same player right at the end of the half, which Robles tipped over. Apart from those two efforts, it was a football desert. As I kept looking up at the BBC commentator – Guy Mowbray? – I wondered what on Earth he had to talk about. We enjoyed a fair amount of the ball, but just looked so bloody lethargic.

Amid all of this, tackles were being ignored on one hand by Oliver, then punished with little rhyme or reason. It was a niggly game of football. The support in the upper tier quietened a little. No doubt they were still roaring downstairs, but I could not hear them.

The most disappointing aspect for me was our lack of movement off the ball. It was so frustrating. I urged Pedro on.

“Come on Pedro, move.”

At that moment – he must have heard me – he spun away from his marker into space and Fabregas played in a lovely ball. Sadly, he overrun the ball and the move petered out.

Everton hardly caused us any real danger, despite Ross Barkley parading the central area with a fine touch. An errant header from Lukaku was the only effort of note.

It was dire.

I wondered what the watching millions at home were thinking.

After the half-time break, in which a racehorse was bizarrely paraded around the perimeter of the pitch – “and I thought I had a long face” – Everton began the brighter, with a Funes Mori header flying over from a corner. Gary Cahill, after his Parisian walkabout on Wednesday, tackled Lukaku in a danger area with superb timing and composure.

As the game continued, the support grew weaker. Everton were quiet too. The game needed a spark. I lost count of the number of times that Matic advanced, taking too many touches, before playing a safe ball square. I lost count of the number of times Pedro cut back on himself. Fabregas offered little. And Everton hardly shone. Lukaku, the threat, seemed to be well marshalled by our central pairing.

Just before the hour, at last a good ball from Cesc found Diego Costa, who did ever so well to hone in on goal, and although he was forced wide, he managed to get a shot in on goal from a ridiculously acute angle. We were sure he had scored. The ball slowly ran across the goal line, virtually all six yards of it, but did not cross the line.

Bollocks.

Oscar came on for a quiet Willian.

We still struggled to break through. A few crosses from Pedro were not met by any threat from our attacking players. Oh for a Drogba or a Dixon. Our unwillingness to shoot really gets me. It eats away at me. Why don’t we do it? Why are we so scared to put our laces through the ball and to cause chaos in opposition defences?

It was the substitute Oscar who tamely lost possession in our attacking third, and we then watched – aghast – as the ball was worked out to Lukaku. With a deceptive turn of pace, he swept inside past Azpilicueta, Mikel, Cahill, Ivanovic, Terry, Desailly, Pates, Harris, McLaughlin, Hinton, Dempsey, Carvalho, Droy, Clarke, Elliot, Thome, Hogh, Wicks, Duberry, Sinclair, Leboeuf and Alex to strike a fine shot past Courtois.

Ugh.

There were just over ten minutes left and we were heading out of the cup.

At last the Evertonians made some noise.

“And if you know your history.”

History. That word again.

Remy for Matic.

“Come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea.”

Four minutes later, with our defence flat footed and half-asleep, Barry played in that man Lukaku again, and his low shot thundered past Courtois.

2-0.

No way back now.

The Gwladys Street were bumping now, making absolutely tons of noise. Although I was silent, annoyed, hurt, I had to admit that it was an impressive sight.

Ugh.

Over on the far side, after a flare up, I saw Diego Costa nudge his head against an Everton player.

“Silly bastard.”

He had to go. A second yellow was waved towards Costa, quickly followed by a red.

A few Chelsea began to leave.

Barry then was yellow carded for a silly challenge on Fabregas and was sent off for this second caution.

The forlorn figure of John Terry replaced Kenedy and played upfront for the final eight minutes.

At the end of the game, only four or five Chelsea players had the balls to come over and thank the travelling away support for our efforts. John Terry looked close to tears. Fabregas and Azpilicueta looked dejected. I knew how they felt.

Whereas we had to hold our hands up on Wednesday against PSG and admit that the better team had won, this game was so much more damning. We hadn’t been up for the fight. Hardly any player did well. It was a tragedy. It was a mystery.

Out in the Liverpool night, we gathered together and slowly walked back to the waiting car. The Evertonians were singing a favourite from 1984 :

“Tell me ma, me ma, to put the champagne on ice, we’re going to Wembley twice, tell me ma, me ma.”

A few youths had an impromptu “set to” on the main road – one lad was punched to the floor – but it soon died down. We walked, slowly on. I found myself walking next to an elderly Evertonian couple – “I mean we’ve been coming here since 1959” – and I wished them well at Wembley.

“I hope you win it.”

This was met with smiles and a word of thanks.

The lady, all bobble hat and teeth, then amazed me :

“I thought it was a good game, like, both teams kept attacking, they didn’t sit back.”

Sometimes, I truly wonder if I watch the same game as others.

It was a poor game and we were a poor team.

We said our goodbyes to Kev, and then edged out of the terraced streets of Anfield.

We stopped oft for a pint in one pub and then a curry in an Indian restaurant, just outside the city, near the rugby league towns of St. Helens, Widnes and Warrington. We had the briefest of post mortems over poppadums, pickles and pints. Then, the long drive home. The first signpost on the approach road of the southbound M6 always puts a shudder in to me after an away game in Liverpool.

“Birmingham 96 miles” – not even bloody half way.

While others dozed, I listened to music, music, music.

The football could wait.

I reached home at 1.30am.

It had been a long day.

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Tales From The Madness

Chelsea vs. Everton : 16 January 2016.

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THE FIRST HALF : pallid, boring, slow, inert, lethargic, quiet, lukewarm, tedious, frustrating, dull.

THE SECOND HALF : dynamic, rousing, intense, dramatic, noisy, warming, entertaining, heartening, emotional, breathless.

The third home game of the week paired us with Everton, in a game which certainly made me nervous. Although Roberto Martinez’ team often flatter to deceive – what a lovely football only phrase – we all knew too well that on their day, they can be a tough nut to crack. We only have to recall our away game in September and Steven Naismith’s finest hour.

Looking back though, our home record against the Evertonians is very healthy. Our last league defeat to them occurred way back in the late autumn of 1994, with a Paul Rideout goal giving Everton a win on a day when the then North Stand officially opened. Although we lost on penalties to Everton in an F.A. Cup replay in 2011, we were looking for our twenty-first league game in a row without defeat at Stamford Bridge against them. I had been present at all previous twenty games. They are familiar visitors.

It was a quick and easy commute to our place of pilgrimage, with myself back behind the wheel once again, and I was joined by Andy from Trowbridge in addition to Parky and PD. It was a perfect winter day. The fields touched by early morning frost, but blue skies overhead. A proper blue and white day in fact. The others dropped in to “The Oak” on the North End Road – one of the few remaining old school pubs left – while I headed down to meet up with Charles from Dallas, still in England and knee deep in the delights of London town. On the walk back up to “The Goose”, I made sure he called in to the “CFCUK” stall, where he picked up a copy of Mark Worrall’s book from 2013 “Making History Not Reliving It.”

It was a cold lunchtime in London, but not unbearably so. There was no bitter wind.

It was, again, a perfect day for football.

“The Goose” was as packed as I have ever seen it. It was crazy. The cricket was on the TV, and garnering a fair bit of attention. I introduced Charles to a few close friends, and wondered if he needed a crash course in the basics of our summer sport. A few quick wickets in Johannesburg in South Africa were met with raucous cheering in the pub. Meanwhile, Charles got stuck in to a plate of fish, chips and mushy peas. Another box ticked for him on his whirlwind tour.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I was rather astounded that Everton had brought a full three thousand. It doesn’t always happen. Last season, the number was around two-thousand. In that midweek game, almost a year ago, a very late Willian goal gave us three points. It is strange to think that at that stage Willian’s attributes were widely unrecognised by the majority of the match-going faithful, despite a loudly sang ditty in his name. I can remember thinking throughout the season that never had there been such a miss-match between Chelsea supporters’ love of a song and love of a player.

Guus Hiddink had fine-tuned from Wednesday. In came Nemanja Matic to sit alongside Jon Obi Mikel, allowing Cesc Fabregas to move alongside Pedro and that man Willian. Pedro’s presence in our team seemed to leave many cold. He reminds me of Florent Malouda, to be honest, in that he is ostensibly a wide man, yet seems to dislike running past his marker.

To my pleasant surprise, there were few empty seats in the stadium. Before the game, in “The Oak”, the lads had been approached by six Swedish tourists, nervously concerned about the validity of the tickets that they had bought off the internet. The tickets, for the West Lower, normally sell for around £50, yet these lads had paid £150 apiece for them. It annoyed me so much that they had paid out £600 extra between the six of them for these tickets.

Regardless, Stamford Bridge was full.

The game started slowly. Very slowly. It was not until the fifteenth minute that a well-worked move found Willian scampering down the right wing, but his shot was well saved by Tim Howard. Ross Barkley is one of the few bright hopes in the English game that I admire from afar, and his shot was well-blocked by Kurt Zouma, with Bryan Oviedo flashing the rebound wide.

This was pretty dire stuff in the main. Charles, for his second game at Stamford Bridge, had swapped ends and was watching in the lower tier of the Matthew Harding. With the atmosphere eerily quiet, I was desperate for the game and the atmosphere to improve. It took a full thirty-five minutes for the first significantly loud song to permeate the cold Stamford Bridge air.

Out of nowhere, “Amazing Grace.”

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

On the pitch, Chelsea were dominating possession no doubt, but movement off the ball was virtually non-existent. It was painful to watch. I lost count of the number of times Pedro played it back to Dave, or Brana played it back to Willian, only to push the ball further back. It really was dire. A lovely sliding tackle by Kurt Zouma – sure to become his trademark, in addition to a no-nonsense hoofed clearance – was almost a highlight for us. I was expecting a little more from Romelu Lukaku, but he was well-marshalled by Kurt Zouma and John Terry.

Just before half-time, an impressive turn by Kevin Mirallas took him past Kurt Zouma and his low shot was well struck, but equally well-saved by Thibaut Courtois.

At the break, I was pleasantly surprised that there were so few boos from the Chelsea stands. Booing is something I abhor. I just can’t stomach it. Although Chelsea had dominated, Everton seemed a little more dynamic in possession. But really, this was a tedious game of football. I was glad that my pre-match drinking had been kept to two coffees and a “Coke.” Sleep was not an option.

Soon in to the second-half, a strong run from Lukaku and I immediately sensed danger. We seem to cope poorly when balls are switched quickly to our flanks. Barkley moved the ball on to Baines. I muttered the words “low cross” to PD, and – ugh – the ball was whipped in. There was a blur of bodies and the ball ended up in the net.

“That had a goal written all over it” I mumbled.

Soon after, Barkley rattled the post after being set up by Mirallas. Things were looking shaky.

Oscar replaced the disappointing Matic. Again, I was surprised that there were no boos. At least that was pleasing.

However, a well-worked move from our visitors across our box resulted in a cross towards Mirallas, who swivelled and connected well. We were 2-0 down and the Evertonians in the far corner were bouncing and buoyant.

Chelsea 0 Everton 2.

I turned to PD.

“Well, we’ll never score two.”

“Nah.”

The away fans were now full of noise.

“Martinez said he’s not for sale and I was satisfied.

Chelsea want those kind of things that money just can’t buy.

I don’t care too much for money.

Money can’t buy me Stones, can’t buy you Stones.

Money can’t buy you Stones.”

Never known for their volume, I think it was the loudest that they have ever been at Chelsea. However, Chelsea then reacted. The stands reverberated to the sound of the supporters rallying and getting behind the team.

As it should be.

If we are winning, sing and cheer.

If we are losing, sing and cheer louder.

I was so proud. Fabregas attempted a very audacious flick with his back heel, which looped up towards goal, but Howard tapped it over. Soon after, a long ball from Cesc was aimed, hopefully, towards Diego Costa. A calamitous mix-up between Phil Jagielka and Howard allowed the ball to roll free. Diego swooped and slotted the ball in to an empty net.

Game on. The crowd erupted and Diego pumped his fist towards the MHL.

Barely two minutes later, the ball was worked between Fabregas and Costa, with the former taking a speculative shot at goal. A deflection took it the despairing dive of Howard.

2-2.

The Bridge roared again.

Kenedy replaced the poor Pedro.

We were attacking at will now, with the crowd fully involved, and fully supporting the team. Diego stretched at a cross from Dave, but was too far away to connect. Sadly, our number nineteen was hurt in a challenge and was replaced by Loic Remy with ten minutes remaining.

Still the noise echoed around The Bridge.

“And its super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC.”

Mikel, another fine game from him, blasted wide. This was a pulsating game and we watched nervously as that man Mirallas broke through on goal, but Courtois blocked well. In the last minute of normal time, an Everton corner was cleared, but as substitute Deulofue swung a ball in, the Chelsea players appeared to be ball-watching. At the far post, another substitute Ramiro Funes Mori stretched to hook the ball in.

2-3.

“Fuck.”

The Everton players again ran over to their fans in the far corner.

I turned to Alan and said “this season doesn’t want to go away, does it?”

We had played well for so much of the second-half, but how typical of our season that our efforts would go unrewarded. I felt unsurprisingly low. To my annoyance, a notable number of Chelsea supporters upped and left, despite the PA announcing a hefty seven minutes of extra time.

Insert comment right here :________________________________________

However, the noise continued and we urged the boys on. Willian struck a shot which flashed wide. We never ever gave up. As the clock-ticked by, the crowd were on tenterhooks.

With surely not long left, a long ball was pumped forward. I spotted that John Terry was up, supporting the attack. I snapped as Ivanovic headed on. I missed the most delicate of touches from Oscar, but as the ball fell towards John Terry, an unlikely recipient, I snapped as he attempted the most ridiculous of flicks with his heel. I watched, mesmerized, as the ball was touched by Howard, but the momentum could not stop the ball flying up and in to the goal.

The stadium gulped and then quickly roared.

I remained remarkably calm and snapped away as John Terry, boiling over with emotion, ran towards the supporters in the MHL. I watched as he stepped in to the crowd, then snapped further as he became engulfed by fans and team mates alike.

“Bloody hell, Chelsea, we did it.”

My photos complete, I looked over and saw Alan, his face contorted with joy.

I had a little moment to myself, crouching, breathing it all in. It was hardly a Munich moment, but I was just acknowledging how utterly amazing this wonderful game of football can be. What heights of emotion it can bring. I was in awe of the game itself – football, you beauty – as much as the goal.

It was a stunning end to a ridiculous game of football.

As a few friends chatted to me as we breathlessly spoke about the match, I had one recurring thought :

“And that is for the knobheads who left at 3-2.”

After a mundane and tedious first-half, the second-half was simply exceptional. There was a lovely mix of surprise, joy and relief on the Fulham Road as I walked back to the car. It certainly felt like a win. And although we gained only one point, I was hopeful that it would represent so much more. It might just give our team and club a little more belief and, that elusive commodity, a little more confidence. 3-3 draws in the top division seem all the rage of late, and this one will live long in the memory banks.

I exchanged messages with Charles, who I would later learn that night was right in line with John Terry’s leap into the Matthew Harding Lower, and who was able to catch the madness on film. I was so pleased that his four thousand mile journey to London had been worth it.

To complete a fine day of football, I soon learned that my local team, mired in a relegation place in the Southern League, had won a tough away game with a goal in the ninetieth minute.

It was one of those days.

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Tales From The Great Unpredictables

Everton vs. Chelsea : 12 September 2015.

With the game petering out in the final few minutes, I spoke to Gary, wanting reconfirmation that our start really was as bad as it appeared. I knew that our imminent 3-1 loss to a tight Everton team would be our third loss in this nascent league campaign, but my poor mind was struggling to believe that we had only played just five games. Losses at City and at home to Palace, then this one. But surely it wasn’t three losses out of five. My mind back-peddled. What were the other two? A win at The Hawthorns and a draw on the opening day against Swansea City.

Five games.

But I still wanted to be convinced.

“Three losses out of five games, innit Gal?”

“Yes, mate.”

Three losses out of five.

Fackinell.

I stood, with my hands in my pockets, leaning against the wall of the upper tier in the Bullens Road stand at Goodison. Fate had decried that Alan, Gary and myself would occupy the first three seats in row D, thus giving us a far from perfect view, way behind the goal line, of the day’s game.

I had seat “0001” and so was presented with the worst view of all, with the corner flag on the far corner out of view, behind the stand wall.

Yet this was the least of my problems.

I absolutely love returning to Goodison Park season after season, for reasons that I have enlarged upon during many other match reports. The poor view was not a problem in the first-half, since all three of us shuffled along a little, taking up empty spaces in our row. Throughout the second-half I had decided on a different solution; I merely stood on the plastic seat – there was nobody behind me, nobody that I would be annoying – and this afforded me a fine view of the game. It meant I could snap away every few minutes with my camera. The Goodison Park pitch, angled towards me, and backed by those lovely Leitch stands of old, was at times covered in sun, at times coloured in a brooding shadow.

At the final whistle, there were no boos from the Chelsea faithful, a few shy of the allotted three thousand. The shouts of anguish had increased after the third goal had been scored, but thankfully there had been no mad, and bad, exodus after the third Everton goal. I was looking for small crumbs of comfort on another bleak day following the Great Unpredictables. At least our support had stayed firm until the end. There had been defiant shouts of support throughout the game, but it was not one of the noisiest away crowds of recent memory.

I said my goodbyes to my two closest friends in the Away Club, the ever-present Alan and Gal, and wished them well on their travels back to South London.

“See you Wednesday.”

Gary had awoken at 3.30am for this game, before catching a night bus to Stamford Bridge in order to catch an official Chelsea coach up to Everton. It would be a long, and painful, trip home for them both.

I spotted an acquaintance from Texas, who I had last seen during the summer tour, and sidled over to him. I offered a hand to shake, but was unable to engage in a conversation at all. My face must have looked a picture. Neil Barnett was with him, and we shook each other’s hands, again without words being exchanged. It seemed – ridiculous I know – that nothing needed to be said, nor could be said. Neil and myself both had our Marlene Dietrich “I vont to be alone” faces.

Three defeats out of five.

It kept ringing in my ears.

Outside, I soon met up with Dean, who had traveled up for the game with me from deepest Somerset. There was no Parky on this trip; an early evening Madness gig in Bristol had meant that he was unable to attend. We walked, quietly, away from Goodison Park, and back to our waiting car on Utting Avenue, the long and familiar road which rises up from the city by-pass towards Anfield. The Evertonians alongside us were full of it, and quite rightly. Their team had soaked up our possession, and had ripped us to shreds with three fine goals.

We had set off at just after 7am with a rather guarded approach towards the day’s game. We were just desperate for us to grab a result, silence the critics, and begin an upward trajectory towards better times.

Yet this was never going to be an easy one. Everton are one of the grand dames of English football – exactly the same number of league championships as Chelsea and Manchester City combined – and despite a change in manager after the Moyes era, they have proven to be tough opponents of late. There was a time when Everton’s league positions used to lurch from one extreme to the other (15th in 2002, 7th in 2003, 17th in 2004, 4th in 2005, 11th in 2006), but they have been a consistently-placed team within the top third for many a season.

However, our results against them in recent seasons have been rather “hot and cold” and this last defeat follows this pattern.

2011-2012 : Everton 2 Chelsea 0

2012-2013 : Everton 1 Chelsea 2

2013-2014 : Everton 1 Chelsea 0

2014-2015 : Everton 3 Chelsea 6

2015-2016 : Everton 3 Chelsea 1

A graph of these recent five games would resemble the Loch Ness Monster.

Down, up, down, up, down.

So, it was never going to be an easy one.

There was plenty of chat in the car on the way north, of our current malaise, of previous Chelsea experiences, but also of other topics.

The weather was overcast and there had been rain at various periods. We drove past The Hawthorns, the site of our last win, and then the Bescott Stadium, where we play Walsall within two weeks. We were making fine time.

However.

At around 10am, with the rain steadily falling, there was a moment of drama for the both of us when the car in front began slowing rapidly, but I was able to drive past unhindered. There had been a shunt several cars ahead and the traffic was stalled in the outside lane. In my rear view mirror, as I drove on, a car careered on to the hard shoulder after hitting a car that had slowed too.

It was a lucky escape.

We drove on, with the sky hinting at a sunnier day ahead.

As we drove up Utting Avenue just before 11am, I spotted one of the last “free” parking spaces.

I spoke to Dean.

“We’re on time. We’ve got free parking. And we’re alive. Time for a drink.”

We joined a pub full of Chelsea supporters in “The Arkells”, the pub of choice for many at Everton, ironically only a few hundred yards from Anfield. It is highly likely that I have had more visits to “The Arkells” over the last ten years than visits to my local village pub.

On the wall, in a dark corner, was a faded photograph of the last Liverpool team to win the league championship in 1990.

You would think that the owner would take it down, not wishing to draw attention to it.

Scousers, eh?

On the walk to Goodison, two yellow cranes loomed over the steel of the new stand at Anfield, growing quickly behind the existing structure, with the huge roof truss balanced above the existing stand. The top row in the upper tier of the new stand will be ridiculously high. Liverpool are nobody’s favourites within the Chelsea support, but a part of me is pleased that they are redeveloping Anfield rather than looking to move.

Outside the main stand at Goodison, I was so pleased to be able to give Dog a warm embrace after his spell away from Chelsea. He was with Cath and Becky; it was a real joy to see the three of them once more.

Fantastic.

Outside the reopened “Winslow Hotel” – with a lovely Dixie Dean pub sign – a few Evertonians were defiantly screeching “Money Can’t Buy You Stones.”

That road underneath the old main stand at Goodison still remains one of my favourite match day locations in 2015. That my father once visited that same street in around 1942 – his only visit to a football stadium until my first game in 1974 – makes my continued visits all the more meaningful.

Ah, Goodison.

Lampooned and chastised by many, but I continue to love its old charms.

I have been lucky enough to have watched Chelsea games from three sides.

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1985-1986 : The Park End.

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1992-1993 : The Main Stand.

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2004-2005 : The Bullens Road.

Only the Gwladys Street remains unvisited. I once made it in to the old Kop at Anfield for a Chelsea game in 1992, so maybe one day I will set foot in the Everton home end to complete the set.

I met up with Alan and Gary with fifteen minutes to go, high above the enclosure below, with the wooden steps of the Bullens Road stand reminding me of its age, and uniqueness.

The team.

With Thibaut out, in came Begovic.

Ivanovic still at right back, Zouma in with JT.

Mikel recalled alongside Matic.

Fabregas pushed forward with Hazard and Pedro.

As the teams entered the pitch, the stirring “Z Cars.”

Another lovely moment to savour.

First thoughts as the game started were positive. We seemed to be dominating possession, which is the first obvious stepping stone to greater deeds ahead. At the time, the injury to Muhamed Besic after around ten minutes seemed of little importance to anyone within the Chelsea ranks. However, the peroxide white hair of substitute Steven Naismith – as the replacement – caused a few of us to step anxiously from one foot to the other.

“He seems to enjoy scoring against us, this one.”

I was cheered when a couple of timely interceptions by Ivanovic were loudly applauded by us. This was good to witness. We were there to support the team, irrespective of players’ form. The negative comments could wait until after, in bar or internet chat-room, surely. Supporters should, in my book anyway, be there at games to provide a platform of positive noise to spur our players on.

Despite enjoying possession – but with only Pedro showing any real urgency – we succumbed to two goals within just five painful minutes.

A cross from young Galloway was perfectly weighted for Naismith – yes, him – to nod past Begovic, arriving late and unmarked.

It was a huge body blow.

“Here we go again.”

The Chelsea support rallied, and were warmed by two spectacular saves from Begovic.

However, with Ivanovic backing off, a long range laser from Naismith from outside the box fired Everton into a 2-0 lead.

And now the negative noises rumbled around the Bullens Road.

“Fackinellivanovic.”

We had dominated, but were losing 2-0.

I wanted to tell Gary that “they have only had two shots” but there were those two saves too.

Everton, then, it was obvious to all were deservedly in front.

Azpilicueta hit the side netting, but our play was oh-so laboured, with the usual suspects – Hazard, Fabregas, Costa – quiet.

Out of nothing, the ball was played square to Matic. I was right behind the flight of the ball as our Serbian touched it forward and then unleashed an unstoppable blooter past Howard.

2-1.

Back in it.

Our play improved

Surely we would get an equaliser.

Soon into the second-half, Mikel was sacrificed as Kenedy entered the fray. Fabregas dropped back alongside Matic, where – truth be told – he played an even more withdrawn role in more ways than one. Mikel had been one of our better players to be fair but I understood why Jose changed it.

A few chances for Everton ensued and the Chelsea supporters continued to bemoan our play. The support became more disjointed. However, the Everton fans, despite seeing their team winning, were ridiculously quiet.

Falcao replaced Pedro.

Again, Pedro been one of our better players. A more worthy substitution in my book would have been the misfiring Hazard.

A back-pass by JT to Begovic was not rewarded with an Everton free-kick, which let us off the hook.

Only rarely did we threaten the Everton defence, where young John Stones looked remarkably comfortable alongside Jagielka. I can see why a bright future is forecast for him. Hazard only buzzed past his marker on a few occasions. A header from Falcao, a run and heavy touch from Costa.

These were rare chances.

Willian for Fabregas.

I couldn’t fathom the new formation, but I didn’t waste time trying.

I was focussed on the game, trying to will the boys on.

Further calamity, however, as Barkley – I think –played in Naismith in the inside right position, and he beat Begovic with a low drive. That his run was not picked up by anyone was typical of our defensive frailties all season long.

At last the Everton support roared.

In the closing minutes, all was quiet in our section.

Truth be told, I was lost in thought, trying to put some sort of reasoning or rationale behind our ridiculous start to the season.

I won’t lie, I hated it.

I hated losing.

So many players under performing, so little fight, so little enjoyment. I do not have any FA coaching badges, nor am I a sport psychologist. I’ve never even played FIFA, so what chances have I got to come up with any reason for all this?

I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Like a shy and awkward teenager at a school disco, I just can’t put my finger on it.

All I can do is to pay little attention to those who have lots to say and yet say nothing, and to look after my own little group of respected and cherished Chelsea mates. Sometimes the noise and nonsense espoused by some Chelsea supporters is just not worth the bother.

But, oh boy.

Three defeats out of five.

It still keeps ringing in my ears.

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Tales From Life

Chelsea vs. Everton : 11 February 2015.

As the minutes ticked by, late in the game, my thoughts splintered along two different paths. One thought encompassed the fact that Manchester City, winning by a large margin at Stoke City, would now only be five points behind us. Our inability to convert chances to goals against Everton would result in an entertaining but fruitless 0-0 draw. From a position of power, there would be an unwelcome intrusion of doubt, now, in our ability to stay at the top of the table. The other thought, more fanciful, with diminishing strength with each passing minute, would be that Chelsea would, somehow, manage to strike a late winner, and maintain that healthy and possibly insurmountable seven point lead over our newest title rivals.

The clock kept advancing; the time moved on, the night grew older.

With only four minutes remaining, a thunderous strike from Nemanja Matic took the slightest of deflections off Branislav Ivanovic. The ball flew hard into the net. Stamford Bridge erupted and our salvation was complete. As the stands roared with noise, I captured the run of Ivanovic towards the corner flag below. The powerful defender had scored another huge goal. The stadium was rocking. We were back to a seven point gap. Then, a look of concern on his face – captured through my lens – forced me to glimpse up and across towards the lone linesman on the far side.

A raised flag. Bollocks.

We slumped in our seats.

The five point gap came back in to my thoughts.

Soon after, another errant challenge by Gareth Barry – a player that is so boring that I am amazed he has never played for Arsenal – resulted in a long-overdue second yellow of the night. Everton were down to ten men, but I was pragmatic enough to realise that the likely result of this would be even more resourceful defending from the Everton back-line, rather than an advantage to us.

Five points.

The free-kick which resulted from the Barry challenge on Willian was pumped into the Everton box. It was cleared by a defender, but only reached as far as Willian, in space and unmarked. With little time for any other option, he swiped at the ball, endeavouring to keep the ball low. Through a crowded penalty area, taking the slightest of deflections, the ball flashed past Tim Howard and into the net.

I screamed. We all screamed. The noise was louder than ever. With camera raised, I snapped. I could feel the whole upper tier bouncing and vibrating beneath me. It is the reason these photographs are occasionally blurred.

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Willian – that was surely something.

The gap was back to seven.

Photographs completed, I simply turned to Alan and our faces were full of wild joy. I looked to my right and a fellow fan was leaning towards me, arms out, screaming. I reciprocated. I looked over at Joe, a few seats away, past Alan. Joe is around eighty-five and his face was a picture. He too was stood, arms out-stretched, looking straight towards me. We just looked at each other, our faces and our bodies were mirror-images of each other. Wide smiles but arms wider. It was a fantastic and magical moment.

Chelsea smiles everywhere.

Seven points.

Despite my thoughts about our lead being reduced to just five points, this had been a very enjoyable game of football. Sure, our team missed the clinical finishing of Diego Costa, but elsewhere there had been an awful lot to admire. I kept saying to PD that I simply could not fault a single player. Everyone had been excellent. Rather than get too troubled with the lack of goals, I had simply admired the play of all eleven on the pitch and, regardless of the end result, knew that I had witnessed a fine team performance.

However, I am positive that my perspective on the evening’s football in SW6 had been greatly affected by the events of the previous few days. Let me explain.

On the day of the Aston Villa match, with Parky and myself set to travel to Birmingham for a long-awaited away game after three home games on the trot, my dear mother was admitted to hospital in Bath. Saturday afternoon and Saturday evening was spent worrying about my mother’s health rather than getting too wrapped up in events at Villa Park. I was in the Accident & Emergency Department of the Royal United Hospital in Bath when Eden Hazard opened our scoring on Saturday and I was in Parky’s front room when Villa equalised and when Brana gave us the lead. A win at Villa Park was welcomed, but my thoughts were elsewhere. I was able to visit my mother later on Saturday evening and was relieved to hear – and see – that she was responding well to a course of antibiotics, while both nurses and doctors calmed me with positive news. Mum continued her rehabilitation on Sunday. What a relief.

On Monday, however, another twist.

After work in Chippenham, I drove over to visit my mother in hospital. As I drove past Bath race course, then down the steep and narrow Lansdowne Lane, I was relishing to see my mother’s smiling face once more. Just after 4pm, I noted that traffic was halted ahead of me. I waited. I saw a couple of cars reverse and head through a housing estate. The road was obviously blocked ahead of me. I followed suit, but just happened to glance past where a bus had stopped. I was saddened to see a young chap, plainly distressed and agitated, pacing the road and talking on his mobile phone. Then, a horrific sight. I saw a woman, lying on her side, amid debris. Sadly, I also saw a rug or blanket seemingly covering a body completely. My heart sank. I looked up and saw another person on the phone, in tears. As I slowly drove to the hospital, police cars and ambulances flew past. My head was spinning. An accident – maybe involving the bus – had only just happened. I immediately remembered that I had stopped off, for around five minutes, in Chippenham for a sandwich wrap, some crisps and a drink. I had been annoyed at the length of the queue in the shop. Looking back, those five minutes might have saved my life. After visiting my mother – more improvement, more smiles – I listened to the radio on the drive through Bath and the breaking news was that four people – four! – had been killed when a tipper truck careered out of control down Lansdowne Lane.

I was numb. I needed to talk to someone, so I ‘phoned a work colleague.

Five minutes.

I slept uneasily on Monday night.

My mother continued to improve on Tuesday. On Wednesday, I was required to meet a doctor around midday, so I booked a half-day of holiday. The doctor confirmed that Mum had experienced a mild bout of pneumonia, but was well on the road to recovery, with a discharge likely to happen by the weekend. What relief.

I drove to Parky’s, met up with Young Jake for his first game of the season, then we all piled in to PD’s Chuckle Bus as he drove to London. It was time for me to relax. It had been a tough few days. I slept for an hour; I guess I needed it.

We were in the pub by 4.30pm.

“And relax.”

And it was a relaxing time in The Goose. Friends showed concern for my mother, but also for me, following the road traffic accident. It was lovely to see my mate Orlin, just in from his home in San Francisco, and en route to his home city of Sofia before dropping in to Paris on his way home again next week. Orlin is a member of the UEFA away scheme and our paths often cross in a variety of exotic locations; Tokyo, Istanbul, Turin, Bucharest.

And Fulham.

There were, typically, moments of roaring laughter, but also moments of quiet contemplation.

A friend – The Youth  – spoke earnestly with me and with great understanding about aging parents, dementia and care. It was good to talk with someone who can relate to my circumstances; he lost his father only recently. At times of need, my Chelsea Family are always there for me, rain or shine, just like we are always there for the team.

The simple fact should never be forgotten.

On this day, more than others, I was able to stand back and take a wide-angled look at life, football, the whole 110 yards. In The Goose, among friends, I liked what I saw.

As an aside, I was reminded of that ridiculous statement, claimed as an original by Bill Shankly, but possibly purloined from a US football coach, about football being more important than life or death. Although I understand the underlying message, it is of course, utter nonsense.

Life, death, football, in that order.

Inside the stadium, I think Alan was surprised to see me. In the circumstances, a half day holiday worked just fine. Sadly, one of our match-going friends, Tom, isn’t so well and there was concerned conversations among a few of our near neighbours. Warm wishes go to him.

Everton had brought around two thousand; around a thousand had been returned. Their season has been a strange one; one of promise unfulfilled. The 6-3 game at Goodison in the warm August sun was a crazy game of football. There would be no repeat on a cold night in February.

It was a fine game of football, however. New signing Juan Cuadrado, wearing Carlo’s old number 23 shirt, started alongside Willian and Eden Hazard in midfield, with Loic Remy up top. Matic was paired with Ramires. Mourinho elected to chop and change his defenders again; in came Zouma, out went Cahill. Between the sticks, in came Petr Cech. I was glad to see Mourinho rotating slightly. Over the course of the whole season, nothing can replicate game-time for our squad members.

I liked the way that our midfield three ran at Everton in the first-half, often changing positions along the line. The Tottenham loanee Aaron Lennon was roundly booed. We peppered the Everton goal early on, but Petr Cech did well to save from Lukaku. A crunching tackle by Kurt Zouma on the returning Romelu Lukaku, down in front of me, was simply wonderful theatre. I was thrilled by the dominating presence of Nemanja Matic, who patrolled the middle of the park in a regal fashion, breaking up play, tackling, then turning and opening up the Everton defence with clever passes and strong dribbles. Cuadrado looked sharp. We just needed a goal. Remy and Terry went close, but the game remained without goals at the break.

At half-time, Frank Sinclair walked the pitch and it was time for Alan’s sublime and irresistible impression of Frank Sinclair’s mother :

“My bwoy Franklyn.”

In the concourse, I bumped into another mate from the west coast of America; Pete, once of San Francisco, now in Seattle and the proud father, at the age of forty-eight, for the first time. It was lovely to see him again.

In the second-half, more pressure from Chelsea, with Hazard and Willian in devilish form, spinning away from markers, causing panic everywhere. Tim Howard was enjoying a brilliant game, thwarting many of our strikes on goal. Off the pitch, the noise was encouraging without being too loud. Everton were quiet.

With Chelsea on top by quite a margin, it came as a blow to the stomach to see a cross from the Everton left pick out an unmarked Lukaku inside the Chelsea six-yard box. Here was an Everton goal surely?

Miraculously he missed. To be exact, miraculously Petr Cech saved.

It was a stunning block.

With twenty minutes to go, Remy and Cuadrado – both had played well – were replaced by Didier Drogba and Cesc Fabregas. Everton rang the changes too. Substitute Mirallas went close.

With four minutes to go, the game came alive.

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