Tales From The United Colours Of Football

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 April 2019.

There was definitely a different vibe going into the away game at Old Trafford compared to the match at Anfield a fortnight earlier. For the Liverpool game, it was all about damage limitation. With hindsight, a draw was a rather fanciful hope. Along with Manchester City, Liverpool have been head and shoulders ahead of the pack this season. A loss against Klopp’s team was almost inevitable. But an away game against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s miss-firing team was an entirely different proposition. Due to our lack of potency in front of goal, I was still pragmatic / pessimistic (delete where appropriate) about us scoring, so my prediction was a 0-0 draw. But this was a result that was far more difficult to call. On the drive up in the car – I won’t bore everyone into the early stages of rigor mortis, our drive up to Manchester United takes the same form as always – I explained my thoughts to P Diddy and L Parky.

“Hey, this could be a game where we play well and lose, or it could be a game where we play crap and win. We could lose three-nil or we could win three-nil.”

This was a familiar drive north indeed.

I was parked up at the usual place, a twenty-minute walk away from the famous crossroads on the Chester Road, where the match day experience at Old Trafford starts to crackle and to ignite. “The Bishop Blaize” pub, the row of take-aways, the Red Devils and Lou Macari fish and chip shops, the coming together of United fans from all parts of the city, the north-west, the United Kingdom, Europe and the world, the “Trafford” pub, the lights of the Lancashire Cricket Ground, the fanzine sellers, the off-licences, the match-day routines.

As I looked over at the “Trafford” pub, I was reminded of a few scenes set in and around Old Trafford during the film “Charlie Bubbles” that featured the recently departed actor Albert Finney – a local boy made good both in this film and in real life – and I remembered that the mock Tudor beams, still visible in 2019, were able to be spotted in the film too.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfFTeiV_ti4

This piece of film is from a match day in October 1966, and depicts the walk to Old Trafford – along what is now Sir Matt Busby Way – that Finney and his son took, ending up with a walk across the forecourt. The three of us were taking this exact same route in 2019. There is something warming about that. That the match featured fleetingly in the film was our away game at Old Trafford makes the clip even more poignant.

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I am adamant that Albert Finney was on the pitch before a United vs. Chelsea game in relatively recent times. Maybe the 2-2 FA Cup game a few seasons ago.

This would be my twenty-fourth away game at Old Trafford with Chelsea. That’s one more than the twenty-three that I have made with Chelsea to Anfield. But there have been two FA Cup semi-final visits too, against Liverpool in 2006 and Blackburn Rovers in 2007. On both of these occasions, we were in the Stretford End, mirroring the location of our support in the 1970 FA Cup Final replay. It is not known which end was Chelsea in the Khaki Cup Final of 1915.

2007 A

For the 2006 game, with Chelsea looking likely to dominate English football for a while, we produced stickers which were applied with liberal abandon on anything that we could find.

2006 A

I always rate the London derby with Tottenham as the biggest home game of the season, but I make our annual trip to Old Trafford as our biggest away game.

We have certainly had some history in this famous old stadium, certainly 1915 and 1970, but in recent years too.

Here are some moments from the previous ten league visits.

2008/09

Five minutes later I was on the forecourt, scene of much ‘naughtiness’ in days of yore. The new ‘United Trinity’ statue of Best / Law / Charlton was the new focal point. It’s a splendid statue actually, facing the one of Matt Busby, beneath the Manchester United sign on the East Stand. As I took a couple of photos, I noted one middle-aged bloke say ‘who is the bald one?’ I had great pleasure in answering him.

2009/10

And then it happened. A through ball from Kalou, the other sub, and Drogba was offside…but no flag…

”Go on my son.”

Drogba slammed the ball towards Van der Sar and the net rippled. Is there a more beautiful sight in football? That was it. We exploded. I screamed, then jumped up onto my seat and ended up in the row in front. Gary ended up two rows in front. I screamed and shouted “it was offside, it was offside – you beauty!”

The consensus was that, yes, Didi was offside, but we couldn’t care.

2010/11

I texted a curt “well done” to four United friends from back home at the final whistle and I was soon out on the forecourt, battling the gentle slope and the crowing United fans alike. Parky had been delayed in his exit; he had said that two United fans – not from England – had somehow got tickets in the away seats and had unzipped their jackets at the end of the game to reveal red shirts. A punch in the face from an enraged Chelsea fan was the response.

Not big, not clever, but totally understandable.

2011/12

A few years back, you would see banners which said “Exeter Reds”, “Devon Reds”, “Dublin Reds” and “Malta Reds” at away games. Today, it seems that you are now more likely to see “Urmston Reds”, “Salford Reds”, Sale Reds and “Clayton Reds.” It’s as if they are reclaiming Mancunia as their own. There always used to be a certain amount of “niggle” among local United fans and their fans from elsewhere in the UK. This is certainly true of Liverpool, too. There is a notion that out-of-town United fans are the glory hunters, forever besmirching the name of Manchester United. It was United who invented the derogatory nickname “day-trippers” which described the out-of-towners arriving en masse at Old Trafford, buying United paraphernalia and not really “getting” what United is about.

2012/13

Inside Old Trafford, we took our seats in row 24, in the side section where the 500 or so away season-ticket holders were allocated. There were familiar faces everywhere. Sadly, I soon spotted a section of around four-hundred seats in the away section which had not been sold. I have never known us not to sell our three thousand seats at Old Trafford ever before. It made me angry.

“The fcuking seats are fcuking red.
The fcuking fans are home instead.
The fcuking seats are full of air.
The fcuking seats are fcuking spare.”

2013/14

It didn’t take long for me to find my gaze centered on the twin figures of Jose Mourinho and David Moyes. Not long into the game, we sung Jose’s name and he flapped a quick wave of acknowledgement. A torrent of abuse from the Stretford End – “Fuck Off Mourinho” – was met by a wave too. Mourinho, hands in pockets, relaxed, was clearly revelling in the moment. He was on centre-stage at Old Trafford, enjoying the limelight, loving the drama. Moyes, in comparison, looked stiff and awkward. It can’t be easy for Moyes to have to face the mammoth north stand, with fifteen feet high letters denoting Sir Alex Ferguson, at every home game. I noted that Mourinho chose to wear a neat grey pullover with his Hackett suit; a style much favoured by Roberto di Matteo last season. The urbane Mourinho, like so many Europeans, can carry off the pullover and suit combination, but I often think that Englishmen wearing the same seem to resemble sweaty librarians or train spotters with personal hygiene deficiencies. Just think Sam Allardyce.

2014/15

Hazard was clean in on goal, but De Gea was able to save. The Chelsea choir looked away disconsolately, but roared the team on as a corner was rewarded. I held my camera still and waited for the ball to reach the box. In a flash, I saw Didier Drogba leap, virtually untroubled, at the near post. I clicked. The ball crashed into the net and the three-thousand Chelsea fans in the south-east corner screamed in ecstasy. I was knocked sideways, then backwards and I clung on to the chap next to me, not wanting to fall back and injure myself. If the goal was a virtual carbon copy of Didier’s leap and header in Munich, then so too were the celebrations. This time, though, I managed to keep hold of my glasses. The scenes were of pandemonium; away goals in big games are celebrated like no other. I steadied myself just in time to witness Didier and his team mates celebrating wildly in front of us. Euphoria.

I had one thought : “Munichesque.”

2015/16

We were simply over-run and out-paced and out-played. From Alan’s seemingly reassuring words about a rather reasonable start, it seemed that all of that pent-up angst and anger about their inability to play expansive and thrilling football in “the United way” was being unleashed, and for my eyes especially. Ivanovic, so often the culprit in this car-crash of a football season – but seemingly improved of late – was back to his infuriating form of August and September, allowing Anthony Martial a ridiculous amount of space, then seemed unwilling to challenge. Martial struck a low shot against Courtois’ near post and we watched as it spun across the six-yard box. Thankfully there were no United attackers in the vicinity. The home team continued to dominate, and Rooney shot from distance. Chelsea’s attacking presence was sadly lacking. Our breaks soon petered out. I wondered how on Earth John Terry had forced a save from De Gea while I was still outside in the Manchester night.

2016/17

I soon thought about the two men in charge of the respective teams. Compared to the sour-faced Mourinho – with that dismissive smirk never far away these days – our manager is a picture of positivity and light. Indeed, with Mourinho – totally unlovable at United – now ensconced at Old Trafford, I could not help come to a quick conclusion about our former boss.

He was looking for a job, and then he found a job, and heaven knows he’s miserable now.

2017/18

Beyond “The Bishop Blaize” pub, and hovering over the red brick terraced houses of Stretford were the glistening silver-grey roof supports of Old Trafford, and it took my breath away. Yes, I have seen it all before, but the sunlight made the cold steel so much sharper and it just looked other-worldly. We turned left at the gaggle of chip shops and onto Sir Matt Busby Way. It is such an inconspicuous approach to one of the world’s foremost football stadia.

“United We Stand. New issue. Out today.”

“Yer matchday scarf. Ten pound yer matchday scarf.”

Burgers with onions, burgers without, the noise of a match day, grafters, those old red, white and black bar scarves, selfies in front of the stadium, the Munich Clock, hot dogs, programme sellers, winter jackets, red and white United ski-hats, the Holy Trinity statue, scarves, the megastore, three policemen keeping an eye on things from their raised platform by the executive car park, accents from Ireland, fanzines, the well-heeled making their way to the corporate lounges, the guttural shout of “Red Army”, foreign accents, northern faces, northern scowls, North Face jackets, the occasional dash of blue.

Back to 2018/19…

On this day, thoughts were not only concerned with our game at Old Trafford. I was keeping a close watch on the City game at Burnley. Thank God for Sergio Aguero’s single strike. It was just what I wanted to see. Arsenal, meanwhile, were beating Spurs at their own game, contriving to lose 3-0 at Leicester City. This was opening up ever-so nicely for us. A loss for Tottenham on Saturday, a loss for Arsenal on Sunday. A win – a possibility – at Old Trafford would surely make us favourites for a top four finish.

Perfect.

While Parky and PD made their way in to the stadium, topping up the three pints they enjoyed at a pub just off the M6 an hour earlier, I had my usual walk around the forecourt. There was an image of Juan Mata high above the statue of Sir Matt Busby. I still fidget nervously when I see him in United red.

The entrance to the away turnstiles was now cordoned off with a barrier of solid United red separating us from the home fans. It was not too dissimilar to those red, white and black United bar scarves from the ‘seventies.

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A quick security pat down – no cameras at Old Trafford these days, my phone would have to suffice – and I was in. Up into the crowded bar, I had one thought on my mind.

“Is City still 1-0?”

“Yep.”

“Good, good.”

It was clear that we had a full house of three-thousand away fans. There were no gaps. There was no need for a 2013-style John Cooper Clarke rage about unused seats.

I bumped into Harry and Paul, both living in Yorkshire now, and there was a slight worry that Burnley had equalised. There is a photograph of myself on the internet with them, with my smile as broad as a Cheshire cat, as I had just heard that City had indeed managed to hold on to a narrow 1-0 win.

One away club regular was sadly missing. There was no Alan alongside Parky, Gal and myself. I soon texted him a “get well soon.”

The team was announced earlier, of course, and I was surprised that Eden Hazard was not being deployed as a false nine.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Willian – Higuain – Hazard

United’s team included the three former blues; Juan, Nemanja and Romelu.

Everywhere filled up. It was to be another massive attendance at Old Trafford. But things were subdued. These must be testing times for the United faithful; a false-dawn under the new manager perhaps, and that awful sense of betrayal, wanting City to win every game they play.

Oh well. Fuck’em.

The teams came onto the pitch from the corner and it was the first time that I have seen United this season in their black shorts. They opted for the more traditional white ones at both home games. It doesn’t look right. I have no idea why United took the decision to change it. Chit chat about kits came to the fore in recent days. There was a leaked image – as yet unconfirmed – of a truly horrific kit for Chelsea next season. I am sure everyone has seen it. It’s garbage. But it got a few of us thinking. Going into the fiftieth anniversary of the iconic 1970 FA Cup win at Old Trafford, it would be nice to honour that occasion with a one-season only kit of royal blue with yellow trim, including yellow socks.

1970 is, after all, the catalyst for many of us.

But, here is the thing. I bet that there was not one single mention of the fiftieth anniversary of that tumultuous win against Leeds United in any of the brainstorming sessions at Nike over the past few months.

Anyway.

Khaki. Black shorts. Yellow socks.

It was time for the united colours of football in 2019 to get us all excited.

United – a blurring of red and black,

Chelsea – royal blue and white.

The game began.

First thoughts? Their side is huge. Our midfield is tiny. And United got off to a flier. Lukaku looked ready to run past a stagnant defence but Rudiger recovered to challenge and Kepa saved well. It seemed to be all United. They carved open a chance on eleven minutes, with Lukaku again involved. His dink towards Luke Shaw always looked like causing us trouble. His pass across the box was slammed home. Only when I was returning home a few hours later did I learn that it was scored by Juan Mata, on his birthday too. My eyes, I am sure, would have dropped to the floor immediately after the goal had rippled the Stretford End goal nets. The song that kept going for ages and ages at our FA Cup game in January – which I had not heard, really, at that juncture – was repeated.

“Ole’s at the wheel.

Tell me how good does it feel?

We’ve got Sanchez and Pogba and Fred.

Marcus Rashford – he’s manc born and bred.

Duh du, du du du du du

Duh du, du du du du du

The greatest of English football.

We’ve won it all.”

Fackinell.

The noise coming from the Chelsea section was good, though. We always raise our game at Old Trafford. The team, slowly, tried to get a foothold in the match. As ever, it was the tireless energy of N’Golo Kante and the ability to spin out of danger of Eden Hazard which were our main positives. A foul on Hazard resulted in a Willian free-kick but the chance was wasted. We had more of the ball, but could not do a great deal with it. We howled with displeasure when Hazard played the ball out to Gonzalo Higuain out on the right wing, with the entire pitch in his sight, but he was offside.

“Fucksake.”

I looked down at my feet again.

We attempted a few long-range efforts and a few half-chances came and went. But De Gea was untested. After a shaky start, with a few silly and mistimed tackles, Dave was warming to the task in hand. He stayed limpet-like close to opponents as many United attackers tested him. Alonso was putting in a good shift on the other flank, too. As the game developed, I could not help but think that this was a sub-par game in terms of quality, especially compared to some of the other mighty tussles between the two teams in this part of Manchester over the past twenty years.

A lot is made of modern football and the atmosphere getting worse and worse with every season. I have made that point on numerous occasions. Here was a case in point. Over seventy-thousand United fans, yet only a section in the far corner of our stand were really bothering. Nothing at all from the side stands, nor – awful this, really – from the Stretford End, which, by now, is a pale shadow of its former self. It is United’s “home end” in name only.

There was the singing-by numbers chant from us – “Just like London, your city is blue” – but that didn’t get much of a reaction.

They didn’t like this one though :

“Just like the Scousers, you live in the past.”

This riled them up a bit, and for a few moments, the noise was electric as three thousand away fans shouted “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” to the United fans above us. This was bloody fantastic. Both sets of fans going for it.

It was – briefly, so briefly – life-affirming stuff.

Passionate, loud, venomous.

“Come on Chelsea.”

Gary, meanwhile, had a new twist.

“Just like the Scousers, you live in Norway.”

Surprisingly, United didn’t take the game to us. Only a few efforts rained in on our goal. It was a humdrum game being played under light clouds. The hot weather of the previous weekend was nowhere to be seen. It was a day for jackets and jeans. The referee Martin Atkinson was not reacting to many rugged United tackles. The noise levels in our section were raised at every such occasion. Higuain was offside again.

A look to the skies this time.

With not much time remaining in a poor half, the ball bounced out to Rudiger, some thirty-five yards out. His body shape quickly cheered me.

I screamed “hit it.”

He hit it alright. The ball kept low and De Gea could only clumsily parry it. The ball bounced out to Alonso, who touched the ball past the clumsy United ‘keeper. We watched as it agonisingly bounced in off the far post.

We went fucking doolally.

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My name is Chris Axon and I am a goal addict.

It was just a perfect time to score. Tim, Julie, Brian and Kev – the oft-mentioned “Bristol lot” – were stood behind us, and had parked-up near the cricket ground. They ended up watching the last few overs of the Lancashire vs. Leicestershire game (they got in for free, not sure how that works, county cricket is an odd affair) and I had to make a comment about De Gea.

“If he was playing cricket, you wouldn’t put him in the slips, would you?”

I sensed that we had taken the wind out of United’s sails. We hoped for just one more Chelsea goal as the referee signalled the start of the second period.

We bossed the opening moments. Even Mateo Kovacic, poor in the first period, looked a better player. Kepa was rarely forced into action. There were bookings for Willian and Kovacic. But then a rash challenge on a United player by Kovacic made me wonder if Sarri would take him off.

“He’s lucky to stay on, Gal.”

But then Rudiger went down, and it was Christensen who came on.

Although the second-half was a much better performance – we honestly dominated, easily – it was also a frustrating one. Higuain was offside three or four more times. He was having a ‘mare. There was one moment, soon into the second-half when he broke over the half-way line, but it looked like he was running in treacle. Hazard was twisting and turning and getting into good positions, but how we missed a late-arriving midfielder – no names, no pack drill – to finish it all off. Too often the ball ended up at the feet of Kante or Willian, both who seemed shot shy.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek came on for Kovacic. But his first few touches were heavy. His shot, later in the game, cleared the Stretford End crossbar by an embarrassing amount. Pedro then replaced Willian. We still controlled most of the ball. Pedro shot wildly over too. But United had the best chance for the winner. Thankfully, Pedro was ideally placed on the goal-line – shades of Ashley Cole in Naples – to head away an effort from Rojo.

The referee signalled a ludicrous seven extra minutes. There was still time for Higuain to fluff his lines at the death.

I looked down at my trainers one last time.

At the final whistle, there was a massive cheer from the away end. It was a priceless point.

The natives were quiet on the walk over the forecourt and onto Sir Matt Busby Way. A few gobby United fans – no more than two or three – were doing their level best to antagonise the Chelsea fans walking cheek by jowl alongside. I heard one Chelsea fan whisper “stick together” but it never really looked like kicking-off. Parky, PD and little old me kept silent.

In the end, the two United youths threw a couple of wayward punches and were soon smothered by a few policemen.

Out on the Chester Road, the United fans were very subdued.

We made a very clean and quick getaway.

“Job done boys, job done.”

On the long drive home, both PD and Parky caught some sleep, no doubt dreaming of German beer and German food ahead of their trip to Eintracht Frankfurt on Wednesday. I am sure I saw them dribbling.

As for me, my next one is on Sunday against Watford.

See you there.

Tales From The Famous Three Kings

Chelsea vs. Huddersfield Town : 2 February 2019.

In the immediate aftermath of the 4-0 humiliation at Bournemouth on Wednesday, I was not particularly upbeat about the trip to London for the visit of lowly Huddersfield Town. There was not a chance of me swerving it, but I was hardly enthusiastic. I expected another limp performance, perhaps played out against a backdrop of toxic hostility. And then, on Thursday evening, my home area suffered a wintry downfall, and the mood darkened. With a foot of snow outside and with the roads and lanes around my village impenetrable – the Somerset County Council budget would only send its gritters onto the main roads – I was forced to miss work and stay at home. A few conversations took place between my usual match day companions about the chances of making it to London on Saturday. There was not much chuckling. At one stage, we presumed that the hostile roads would condemn us to staying at home while the match took place over one hundred miles to the east. London had hardly been affected; just a light dusting according to others. A fellow season-ticket holder who lives only a few miles away, but in an even more inaccessible location than me, had already declared “no football for us on Saturday.” We all feared the worst. And then on Friday evening, we all noticed a thaw and our spirits were raised a few notches. We decided to “reconvene at 7.30am” and weigh up our chances.

I set the alarm for 6.30am on Saturday and was soon up. The road outside my house still looked icy but it looked reasonable. I messaged Paul and the two Glenns.

“See you later.”

It took an age to defrost the car, but I nervously edged out of my driveway. I dropped the car onto the main road, and tried to pull away.

The wheels spun beneath me.

“Oh great.”

I knocked the car into reverse, managed to get a little traction, and steered it into a groove that had already been compacted by other cars.

“Now or never, Chris, let’s go.”

I cautiously pulled away.

It worked.

I was on my way to London.

“Phew.”

On this wintry day in the South of England, I hoped that Chelsea Football Club would be getting back into the groove too.

The roads were still rather dangerous as I nervously drove into Frome to collect PD and then Glenn. The road outside PD Towers was especially icy. I then made my way over to Parkytown, and he had walked a few hundred yards onto the main road so as not to endanger my safety by chancing the icy roads on the estate where he lived. We were soon breakfasting at Melksham in the local “McDonald’s” and it wasn’t long before I was up on the M4 and racing East on a perfect winter’s day. The fields were pristine, blanketed with snow. The sun shone. What a gorgeous morning. It was a shame that we had to talk about football.

Because talk about football we did. And let’s make no mistake, the second-half of football that we had witnessed in Dorset on Wednesday was bloody awful. We had our own little post mortem as I drove towards London. Despite bright sunshine outside, there were storm clouds inside.

On the Friday, with probably far too much time on my hands, I had carried out some research and painfully discovered the last 4-0 loss that I had personally seen for my own eyes.

“The 1994 FA Cup Final against United.”

The lads groaned. We had all been there.

None of us were relishing the game with Huddersfield Town. We were looking forward to seeing Gillian, Kev and Rich once again – on the 6am flight out of Edinburgh on a day trip – plus the rest of the gang but the football could wait. Regardless, at about 11.30am, we had all assembled at the “Famous Three Kings” – right next to West Kensington tube – which is just over a mile to the north of Stamford Bridge. There aren’t many more “Chelsea pubs” further north. It sits on the A4, the old Roman road which linked Bristol with London and which my father used to use on the Chelsea trips of my youth after joining it at Beckhampton – close to where he did his first month of training during World War Two at RAF Yatesbury – and then leaving it at Hungerford. When I worked in Chippenham, I worked right on the A4. I had crossed over it on my way to the M4 earlier in the day. It is my own personal Mother Road. I can’t seem to escape it, but nor would I want to. Anyway, it certainly felt a whole lot better to be in the “F3K” at 11.30am on a Saturday rather than 3pm on a Sunday.

We were all there.

Glenn, PD and I from Somerset. Parky from Wiltshire. Gillian, Kev and Rich from Lothian. Duncan, Lol, Daryl and Ed from Essex. Andy and Kim from Kent. Alan and Gary from London itself. Fifteen strong.

Unlike the Sheffield Wednesday game, there were no away fans. The pub filled up slowly with rugby fans ahead of the afternoon’s fixtures in the Six Nations, and quite a few were watching the Tottenham vs. Newcastle United game from Wembley before the egg-chasing took over. The pub has been voted London’s best sports bar the last three years and the bar was advertising itself as a venue to watch the following day’s NFL Final.

In the first twenty minutes of chit-chat, we put the world to rights.

We spoke about Maurizio Sarri, Jorginho, Eden Hazard, Gonzalo Higuain, the board, our managerial merry-go-round, the performances throughout the season, Carlo Ancelotti getting the push after finishing second in 2011, our style of play, Antonio Conte, our current defensive frailties. You can probably guess the tone.

I made a point about Antonio Conte.

“Seems to me a lot of our history is being re-written. Seems to me that this new manager’s style of football is seen by many as an antidote to “quote unquote” the counterattacking football of Conte, and Mourinho before him. But wait a minute. That gives the impression that under those managers we simply sat back, inviting teams on to us and then hitting them on the break, and were continually dull. That’s not how I bloody remember it. I remember tons of possession. When we won the league under Conte two seasons ago, were people moaning or even mentioning “counter-attacking” football? I’m not so sure. I know I wasn’t. The way some people talk, they speak of Sarri’s style of play as ultra-stylish, an antidote to the football we played under Mourinho and Conte.”

I shook my head.

Conte’s football in the first part of 2016/17 was pulsating and passionate, and we were relentless in our hunting down of players in possession. The first-half against Everton in the autumn of 2016 remains, possibly, the most exhilarating half of football I have ever seen at Chelsea. The fans and the manager and the team were as one in those days. It was fantastic. So I’m not sure the negative take on Conte is particularly fair.

“At least Conte could change his game plan if he had to.”

The lads were chatting in small groups, enjoying each other’s company, spoiled only by a single Tottenham goal which would give them three huge points.

We mulled over the team.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Willian – Higuain – Hazard

“So, we know the substitutions then.”

“Pedro for Willian 65 minutes, Kovacic for Barkley 75 minutes, Giroud for Higuain 80 minutes.”

We laughed / groaned.

Chelsea Candid Camera At The F3K.

We caught the tube to Fulham Broadway. I always love this part of the day. There was a gaggle of Huddersfield Town youngsters in MA.Strum and CP on the District Line train from Earl’s Court, singing a version of “Dirty Old Town” but with virtually unintelligible lyrics, and with only the slightest hint of the original tune. I think that I was able to decipher “we’re going down, but we support the town” but I might have been way off, like a Morata offside decision. Outside on the Fulham Road, there seemed to be more than the usual number of touts trying to offload spares. I was sure that there would be discernible gaps in the home areas after Wednesday. Fanzine sellers, grafters selling scarves, hot dogs and hamburgers, the usual match day buzz. I took a smattering of photographs outside the West Stand. I have never really noticed it before, but I like the way that this entrance is still officially called “The Britannia Entrance”, named after the pub which used to sit on the corner of Fulham Road and Britannia Road. I like that. I remember that The Britannia Entrance being mentioned on tickets and in programmes when I first started going in the mid-‘seventies. I like that the club has not renamed it.

Huddersfield had about 1,100 maybe. They would not be the noisiest away fans this season.

The teams came on as the usual fireworks and flames flew up into the air.

I popped down to see Big John in the front row.

“After Wednesday, all of this looks especially misguided doesn’t it?”

In the cold light of day, it looked ridiculous.

Just get on with it for fuck sake. Just give us ninety minutes of football. Just like the old days. We’ll moan a bit. We’ll grumble. But it is our release from the daily grind, away from the strains of work, away from the pressures of family life. And we’ll sing and shout, or at least try to. We’ll support the team. We’ll do it ourselves. We don’t need the atmosphere to be enforced upon us. Just give us the fucking football. We don’t need bloody fireworks. This ain’t the Superbowl. This is fucking Chelsea on a cold winter afternoon.

The game began.

Huddersfield were in a fluorescent-kitted homage to the old – and hideous – Borussia Dortmund get-up of the late ‘nineties.

Thankfully, there was not the level of toxicity that I might have feared. No negativity to speak of. Though, if I am honest, there was not much of anything. It was all pretty quiet, except the away fans enquiring if Stamford Bridge resembled an institution where written matter, in the main, could be taken out periodically and then returned at a later date with the use of a token.

A Barkley shot got the game started, and then the beautifully-named Aaron Mooy headed over from close-in.

PD was not perturbed : “the ‘keeper would have got that.”

Following on from the first-half on Wednesday, if not the second, I again liked the movement from Higuain. An early shot from him after a nice Jorginho forward pass – yes, I know – was deflected wide. Kante was his usual ebullient self, tacking and prodding, and Jorginho played another forward ball – yes, I know. Shots from Hazard went close. Huddersfield were poor, but we knew that. With just sixteen minutes on the clock, and after a magnificent through ball from our man Kante, Higuain whipped the ball into the Shed End goal from an angle. It was not dissimilar to the effort that he had on his debut against Wednesday last Sunday. We roared, and the marksman ran down to the corner (he must have been tipped-off : “when you score, just run to the corners, the supporters like that, and Chris Axon can take a few photos”) and was instantly mobbed.

Gonzalo Higuain’s First Chelsea Goal.

There were efforts from Barkley – again – and Higuain – again. Ross seemed to be at ease with the ball, and was an early star. Huddersfield’s forays into our half were rare indeed. Just before the break, as a player was down injured, I – like many – went off to turn my bike around. As I climbed the steps into the MHU, I saw Dave being tackled and a penalty was signalled.

We waited. Eden struck. Get in.

Eden Hazard’s Penalty.

Immediately after, a long and scurrying run from Eden right into the heart of the Huddersfield defensive lines resulted in him falling to the ground inside the box but play was waved on.

“…mmm, can’t see the referee giving two pens in a minute.”

There was applause from the stands at half-time. The memory of the debacle in Dorset was starting to subside. It had been a good first forty-five minutes of football.

But we blossomed in the second-half.

There was an early effort from Willian which curled close and then a few scintillating turns and touches from Eden got us all excited. As our confidence rose, so did our support of the team (though it never really got past the 6/10 mark the entire afternoon). It was all Chelsea. With twenty minutes played, a pass from Barkley was caressed into space by Hazard and he moved the ball past the ‘keeper and slotted in from an angle. He did me proud by trotting over to The Sleepy Hollow.

Eden Hazard’s Second Goal Of The Day. 

Very shortly after, beautiful passing between Kante and Hazard set up Higuain some twenty-five yards out. It would be doing him a disservice to say that he swung his boot at it. But the ball sat up nicely and his strong, curling, shot dipped and crashed into the net. It was some goal. He raced over to see us, and the photos followed. Good lad. We would learn later that his swipe took a slight deflection, but this did not detract from the beauty of the effort.

Celebrations For Gonzalo Higuain’s Second. 

Before the game, I would have been happy with a 1-0 win. But here we were cruising at 4-0 with over twenty minutes to go.

“Time for a few more, Al.”

Well, Sarri pulled the rug from under our feet and all three late substitutions were surprises. First, off went Jorginho – yeah, I know – and on came Kovacic. A strong shot from him signalled his arrival. Callum Hudson-Odoi then replaced Hazard (on a hat-trick, boo!) and then Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Kante.

I was glad that Barkley stayed on. It was his best game for ages. And Willian, his confidence rising throughout, had a super second-half.

With four minutes remaining, a Willian corner was forcefully headed goal wards by David Luiz. I did not realise it at the time, but there was so much power on the header that the deflection off a defender merely changed its flight.

David Luiz Scores Our Fifth.

Five nil, get in.

This was a fine performance (I honestly feel that there should be asterisks throughout all of this : *Huddersfield) and it was certainly needed. It was just a pleasure to see us hit a bit of form. The Stamford Bridge crowd were certainly not singing “Maurizio” at the end, but it undoubtedly warmed the cockles of our hearts on a cold afternoon in London.

Trying To Catch 22.

Next Sunday, we might be shuddering up in Manchester when we go up against Pep Guardiola’s City.

I will see some of you there.

Tales From Wednesday On Sunday

Chelsea vs. Sheffield Wednesday : 27 January 2019.

Sunday Six O’Clock.

Our match in the fourth round of the FA Cup against Sheffield Wednesday was to begin at 6pm. This was just a ridiculous time for a game of professional football. As I have mentioned before, there was a part of me that just wanted to swerve it. But this was the Cup. It wasn’t just any game. Regardless, it had felt bizarre to be collecting PD and then Parky for a game on a Sunday and saying to both of them “good afternoon “as they slipped into my car. It felt bizarre to be heading to London on the M4 midway through the afternoon. And it felt bizarre to be entering the pub – “The Famous Three Kings” – at 3pm.

And it certainly grated to be watching a London derby between Crystal Palace and Tottenham on TV which had kicked-off at 4pm. Why the bloody hell that one could not have started later – virtually all the spectators would be back home by 10pm – and we could have had the earlier spot is beyond me. But it is further damning evidence that the Football Association only ever plays lip service to the needs of the match-going fan. Of course, I felt for the away supporters – six thousand strong – more than anyone who would not be back in South Yorkshire by midnight at the very earliest. The fixture was so very wrong on so many levels. I’m getting irate just typing this.

I always remember that in the middle of the match programme of my very first game in 1974, the programme editor had debated the spectacle of Sunday football, which had been trialed for a number of reasons that season, and there was a selection of letters from Chelsea fans both in the “for” and “against” camp. Those “against” often cited religious reasons – “the day of rest” et al – and so heaven knows what they would have thought about a Sunday evening kick-off.

But the three of us were there.

We decided that, should we be successful against Sheffield Wednesday, our favoured draw in the Fifth Round would be an away game at Doncaster Rovers, but please not at six o’clock on a Sunday please. We briefly mentioned Millwall. No thanks. There were comments about the scrapping between the ne’er do wells of Millwall and Everton the previous day. None of us bother with the fighting these days – well, I never did, what is the point of hitting someone who simply does not like the same team as myself?  – but we had to admit that Everton earned some Brownie Points for heading straight into the eye of the needle in “Deep Sahf.” Not many firms do that. But rather them than me. We have only played away at Millwall four times in my life and I have mitigating circumstances for avoiding all of them. In 1976, I was eleven. In 1984, I was scared shitless. In 1990, I was in Canada. In 1995, my car was knackered. Maybe next time, there has to be a next time, I will run out of excuses.

We met up with a few others, and settled to watch Palace humble Tottenham with two first-half goals. We took especial glee when Tottenham missed a penalty. I roared as if we had scored a goal in fact, and the pub roared alongside me. It wasn’t their week for penalties, was it? Over in the far corner of the pub was a group of well-dressed Sheffield Wednesday fans – virtually all males, but a few kids too – and I spoke to a couple of them. One lad had never visited Stamford Bridge before. How could he? He was about twenty years old, and their last visit was in the last few days of the twentieth century. It was never like this in the ‘eighties.

The ‘Eighties.

It seems odd now, and especially to our legions of new fans, but for two or three seasons the rivalry in the mid-‘eighties between Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday gave the matches between the two teams a very special edge. Sheffield Wednesday have always been a big club – the bigger of the two teams from the steel city – but in my first ten years of being a Chelsea fan, we never met since they were mired in the old Third Division. When they eventually won promotion to the Second Division in 1979, just as we were relegated from the First, we would play them incessantly for the best part of the next twenty seasons.

The rivalry built as Chelsea, with perfect dagger-in-the-heart timing, overcame all-season-long league leaders Wednesday on the very last day of the iconic 1983/84 season to become Second Division Champions, and the mutual dislike continued the next season as we were embroiled in a famous trio of games in the League Cup quarter-finals. I went to both the league games in 1984/85, but did not attend any of the League Cup games due to finances and travel limitations. But I certainly watched on with glee as we came back from trailing 3-0 at half-time to lead 4-3 at Hillsborough in the first replay – it was Paul Canoville’s finest hour – only for Doug Rougvie to scythe down a Wednesday player in front of our travelling support at the fated Leppings Lane to force a second replay. We won that game 2-1, and we were heading to our first semi-final of any description in thirteen long seasons. In those days, under the tutelage of Howard Wilkinson – before he was given his “Sergeant Wilko” moniker by the Leeds fans, with whom he won a League Championship in 1992 – Sheffield Wednesday were known for rugged defending, no frills, no thrills, route one football, a Northern Wimbledon. In 1983/84 and in 1984/85, our more skilful and entertaining football gave us a deserved edge. We had Pat Nevin. They had Gary Shelton. It was simply no contest in the entertainment stakes. Wednesday were Friday to our Crusoe, Watson to our Holmes, always subservient. We dominated them and they disliked us for it, though there was never a Leeds level of pure hatred.

They had good gates at Hillsborough though. I remember being annoyed when our league game at Hillsborough in 1984/85 attracted a whopping 29,000 but the return fixture down at Chelsea only drew 17,000. I remember feeling let down by my fellow fans. And annoyed with myself for missing the two League Cup games at Chelsea earlier that season. A few grainy photographs of that day, inside and out, are featured in this report.

Only on rare occasions did they have the better of us. They prevailed over us during our League Cup semi-final in 1990/91, when we assembled at noon on a Sunday – another silly time, see above – and the virtually silent crowd watched as we were ripped apart by the same free-kick routine within the same half of the first game. It was a massive anti-climax that one, especially having beaten Tottenham in the previous round, as mentioned in my previous match report. We did get some sort of revenge during the 1993/94 season when we beat them away in the FA Cup on the way to our first FA Cup Final in twenty-four years. But we don’t talk about that.

So, Wednesday. Yeah, we remember you well.

I can certainly remember chatting on many occasions to a lad called Dave during my time at college in Stoke, and he was a Sheffield Wednesday supporter, from Yorkshire, and we always kept it light-hearted, even when – after too many pints in our students’ union – he accosted me, semi-seriously, and said –

“You support a fascist football club.”

It was the era of racism, hooliganism, political extremism, the miners’ strike, Thatcher and Scargill, and Dave was – like many at my college, in fact – of a socialist persuasion, and I could not summon the energy nor wit to defend my club, so I just retorted –

“Yeah, and you support a fucking shit one.”

I remember he simply smiled and hugged me.

Those were the days.

Sheffield Wednesday. Bloody hell, where have you been? It reminded me of that school friend that I once had – not a close friend – but a protagonist for the same starting spot in the school football team, and a rival in a pathetic pursuit of the prettiest girl in class, who had suddenly moved a few miles and, as a result, had been forced to change schools. I’d see him every day for four years, then all of a sudden, nothing. You wonder what sort of life he was living. In the case of Sheffield Wednesday, it has been a case of life in a parallel universe with trips for them to Yeovil Town, Burton Albion, Southend United and Bristol City rather than trips to Manchester United, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint Germain for us.

Two Ghosts.

The three of us left the pub and caught the tube to Fulham Broadway. We changed onto the District Line at Earl’s Court. Standing on the platform waiting for the Wimbledon train always takes me back to my first visit to Stamford Bridge. I wonder if my grandfather and his pal stood on that same platform on their sole visit to Stamford Bridge in the ‘twenties. It is quite likely. Outside the Oswald Stoll Foundation, while PD and Parky went on to the stadium for another pint, I stopped for a bite to eat at the busy match-day pop-up café. Damn it, they were out of pie and mash, but I devoured a salt beef – and gherkin – roll, as I sat outside for a few moments. A slug of away supporters marched past, full of noise, but no maliciousness, singing the praises of former Chelsea youngster Sam Hutchinson, who was now a regular in their blue and white stripes. I looked up at a tablet of stone whose words commemorated a visit by the Duchess of Wessex to the Oswald Stoll buildings – for ex-servicemen – in 2009. It mentioned a respect for the “fortitude and resilience” of those soldiers of both World Wars. I looked up and saw the sepia figures – “ghosts” – of Ted Draper and Ted Knapton marching purposefully towards Stamford Bridge for the 1920 FA Cup Final.

The salt beef was thick and succulent, the gherkin was juicy, the brioche roll was soft. The evening was getting darker. I needed to move on.

Six Thousand.

I was inside Stamford Bridge at 5.30pm. Tottenham would soon be out of their second cup competition within the space of seventy-two beautiful hours. What a lovely hors-d’oeuvre before the main meal, a high tea at six.  For the second successive game, Parky was forced out of his seat in The Shed. For the second successive game, I let him swap with me. For the second successive game I was behind the goal in the Matthew Harding Upper. With hindsight, I was incorrect in saying that my last game in that section before Thursday was the 1995 game with Bruges. It was in fact a year later against, of all teams, Sheffield Wednesday, when their bright orange shirts matched the rust of the Lots Road gasworks that were visible in the distance behind the slowly rising Shed. Facing me was a wall of six thousand away supporters, already noisy. There would be no doubt that this would be their day, their noise would dominate. We had matched Tottenham on Thursday, but I doubted if we could counter the Wednesdayites on this occasion. There was a smattering of flags draped over The Shed Balcony. Their nickname is due to the part of Northern Sheffield where one of their first grounds was placed, Owlerton.

“Salisbury Owls.”

“Worksop Owls.”

“Chapeltown Owls.”

Walking up from the city’s train station in the middle of Sheffield to Hillsborough on that wintry day in 1984, I was surprised how far out I had to walk, a good three miles. In the pub, we had admitted that however lengthy and arduous a replay would be, we would nonetheless go. Hillsborough is still a classic stadium – my last visit was in 1996 when we toppled them off the top of the Premier League with a very fine 3-0 win – and it is such a shame that the name will always and forever be tainted with what happened on Saturday 15 April 1989.

I soon spotted the self-styled “Tango Man”, bare chested and tattooed, in the front row.

Two Teams.

The players were announced. In addition to Sam Hutchinson – admirably recovered from a seemingly-career ending injury in our colours – the Wednesday team included familiar names Keiren Westwood, Steven Fletcher and George Boyd. The Chelsea starting eleven included Willy Cabellero – on the cover of the programme – Ethan Ampadu in the deep midfield berth, Callum Hudson-Odoi on the right, and a debut for our new striker Gonzalo Higuain. Supporters of a nervous disposition must have been squirming at the sight of current boo boys Marcos Alonso and Willian appearing on the same flank. I spotted Gianfranco Zola pose for photographs with a couple of young lads sporting Cagliari scarves in the front few rows of the Matthew Harding Lower. I get that, I like that. Despite no apparent link with us, Cagliari – because of Zola – will always be linked with Chelsea. One day I might wear my royal blue and white Moscow Dynamo scarf to a game. In the upper reaches of the East were hundreds of empty seats. Also – incredibly so, I think – five corporate boxes in a row, stretching for fifty yards or more, were completely devoid of spectators, including the one belonging to our owner. On the pitch, on Holocaust Memorial Day, was a “Say No To Antisemitism” banner.

The First Forty-Five.

Songs about Blades dominated the first few minutes as the away team carved out an early chance, with Adam Reach hardly testing Caballero from an angle down below me. We could not believe that Westwood in the Shed End goal was wearing a dark kit, virtually the same as the outfield players’ uniforms. Brian Moore would be turning in his grave; he used to love a clash of kits to obsess about on “The Big Match.” It is no bloody wonder my generation struggles with the styles and techniques of modern day football. Instead of talking catenaccio, liberos, wingless wonders and total football, Brian Moore and Jimmy Hill were forever rabbiting about teams having the same colour socks.

We dominated the early stages, and Higuain – hair thinning to match his once considerable paunch – did well to engineer a shot which drifted wide of the far post from close in. Mateo Kovacic looked lively – for once, cough, cough – as he chased balls and tackled well.

With about twenty minutes played, the ball was played through to Reach by Fletcher, and Ampadu robbed him of the ball. The referee Andre Marriner pointed straight at the spot and I immediately doubted my sanity and football-spectating skills. Surely he had got the ball? While Ethan was down, clutching his shin, and with trainers on, it dawned on us that VAR was being called into action. Marriner was wrong, no penalty. With that Marriner gave himself a yellow card and booked himself in at his local “Specsavers.”

Not long after, a move inside their box came to an end when we lost the ball to a challenge, some hundred yards away from me. There was a delayed reaction from our players, the referee and our supporters alike, but Marriner signalled towards the spot. Was VAR used? I had no idea.

“Quite a week for penalties” I whispered to the chap to my right.

Willian seemed to offer the ball to new boy Higuain, but it was Willian who placed the ball above Ossie’s ashes. Another staccato step, another successful penalty to us.

Chelsea Sunday 1 Sheffield Wednesday 0.

Out came the chorus from The Shed.

“VAR is fookin’ shit, VAR is fookin’ shit.”

Quite.

For all of the online and offline moans about Callum Hudson-Odoi, there was a considerable buzz when he had the ball at his feet. Despite our ridiculous amount of possession, we struggled to create many more chances of note. There was little service to Higuain. The away fans had provided a fair proportion of the entertainment in the first-half. There was even a Sheffield version of the Derby County chant that Frank Lampard loves so much.

“If you don’t fookin bounce, you’re a Blade.”

It must be a Derbyshire and South Yorkshire thing.

The Second Forty-Five.

The first real action of the second-half almost embarrassed Caballero, who scrambled back to protect his near post when a, presumably, miss-hit cross from the Wednesday right caught him unawares. It was only their second effort on goal the entire match.

Soon into the second period, we were treated to some sublime skill from Willian, who killed a ball lofted towards him with the outside of his right foot, before a “now you see it, now you don’t” shimmy took him away from his marker. He created enough space to send over a cross but Alonso wasted the opportunity. There was a wild shot from Kovacic shot which almost hit the roof above my head. I did notice on two occasions in quick succession a massive gap in the middle of their defensive third – enough for a game of bowls – but neither Higuain spotted it, nor our midfielders ran into it. At times, we chose to play the ball to the nearest man, the easiest option, rather than hit a killer ball into space.

There was a header from Higuain, just wide.

But the play was opening up on both flanks now; we were simply going around Sheffield Wednesday’s Siegfried Line. Willian and Hudson-Odoi were becoming the main players. Indeed, on sixty-four minutes, a great ball from Andreas Christensen released our Callum, who brought the ball down perfectly and turned inside with an ease of movement that defies description. His finish was almost a formality.

Chelsea Sundaes 2 Sheffield Puddings 0.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Ampadu, and Kovacic was realigned deeper. Still the pace of Callum and Willian had Wednesday chasing shadows. I did like the look of their diminutive number ten Barry Bannan, though. He was their best player by a country mile.

Higuain was replaced by Giroud with ten minutes to go. Jorginho replaced the quiet – again – Ross Barkley.

A pacey run from Hudson-Odoi and the ball was played in to Willian. An alert one-two with Giroud and the ball was side-footed, but with a firm prod, past Westwood.

GET IN.

Chelsea 3 Sheffield Wednesday 0.

Wednesday’s children were full of woe.

At last a forward pass from Jorginho tee’d up Giroud in the box but his over-ambitious bicycle kick was shinned wide.

Throughout the game, I had been warmed by the words issuing forth from a young lad – no more than ten or eleven – who was sat right behind me and who gave his father a running commentary.

“What are you DOING Willian? Why don’t we shoot more? No wonder we don’t score enough goals. Come on Chels!”

At the end of the game, as easy a match as I could ever imagine, I gathered my things and turned. I caught the father’s eye and said –

“Love your boy’s take on the game. A perfect mix of enthusiasm and frustration.”

Round Five.

Into the last sixteen we went, into Round Five, it had been an enjoyable evening.

There was a definite case of “After the Lord Mayor’s Show” after Thursday, but we could ask for no more from our players. I bumped into the trail of away supporters as I made my way slowly down the Fulham Road. They seemed a bit subdued. It is not surprising. I did not envy their trip home. I would be home, God-willing, at around 11pm.

Outside the town hall, I overheard a bloke who was chatting to someone on the ‘phone. He was a middle-aged Wednesdayite and philosophical.

“It was a good day out, that’s all.”

On Wednesday, the cups behind us and on hold for a while, we reconvene on the South Coast at Bournemouth.

I will see the lucky ones there.

1984/1985 : Kerry Dixon On The Prowl.

1990/1991 : A Rumbelows Cup Anti-Climax.

1996/1997 : The Shed Rises As Sheffield Steel Goes Rusty.

2018/2019 : A Willian Spot Kick.

2018/2019 : A Free-Kick In Front Of The Wednesday Away Support.

2018-2019 : The Debutant.

2018/2019 : Burst.

2018-2019 : Pace.

2018-2019 : Nike Football.

2018-2019 : The Third Goal.

2018-2019 : A Winning Smile.

2018-2019 : Together.

2018-2019 : Duel.

 

 

Tales From The Cock Tavern

Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest : 5 January 2019.

Along with a league opener and a Boxing Day game, an FA Cup Third Round tie was historically one of the games of the season. But, I have to be honest that the home match against Nottingham Forest was simply not exciting me as it should. I, along with many foot soldiers, had originally hoped for an away game at a new stadium such as Accrington Stanley, Doncaster Rovers or Lincoln City. But no, we were given yet another home tie, and against a team that we only met as recently as last autumn in the 2017/18 League Cup competition.

So, the tricky trees were heading to Stamford Bridge once more, and as I picked the Three Chuckleteers up in the morning, the game was simply not getting me too excited.

The alarm had sounded at 6.15am – bloody earlier than a normal working day – because I wanted to be on the road nice and early. By 8am, I had collected two Glenns and one Paul. There was a slight frost, everything was a light shade of grey outside. By 10.15am I had dropped Parky and PD outside The Old Oak, where they hoped they would be able to grab an early pint. I parked up closer to the ground and walked down to Stamford Bridge with Glenn, where we hoped to spend some time with some of the US friends that have been featured in these match reports of late.

We walked past the usual smattering of ticket touts that have been part of the match day scene at Stamford Bridge for ever and ever.

They were certainly present as long ago as 1920, when the FA Cup Final itself was held at Stamford Bridge for the first of three times.

My grandfather, being careful not to walk into the onrushing crowds as he picked his way along the pavement from the Walham Green tube station to the main entrance of Stamford Bridge, was approached on several occasions by Cockney ticket touts, offering the chance to watch from the main stand. His ticket, and that of his friend Ted, had been given their general admission tickets by the Somerset Football Association in lieu of their role in the running of their local team Mells and Vobster United, for whom they had both played for a few seasons, along with my grandfather’s brother Christopher. My grandfather wondered how the touts had managed to get their hands on these tickets. It was a surprise to him. This was his first football match, and he was simply unaware that such tickets would be available.

“No thank you. We have tickets.”

“OK governor. You want to sell them to me?”

This confused and surely bemused my grandfather. He thought to himself, simplistically, “how would we get in without tickets?” and he paused for a while with a look on his face which probably was more serious than it really should have been.

“No. No thanks. No – they are ours.”

His long-time pal chipped in :

“We’ve come from Somerset for this match. Why would we give them to you?”

The tout uttered a couple of oaths and moved on.

In 2019, my responses to a few touts were not so wordy. I just shook my head and solemnly moved on.

We were at Stamford Bridge for 10.45am, a quite ridiculously early time. In the bar area of The Copthorne Hotel, we settled down with a couple of astronomically priced coffees – £4 apiece – and chatted to a couple of our former players. I like to do this two or three times a season; it makes a lovely change from the usual routine, and I usually bump into a few Chelsea friends while I am there. Ron Harris, who Glenn and I got to know when he lived in Warminster in the ‘nineties, but who moved away to live on the south coast for a while, now lives a mere ten miles from me. It was no surprise that Ron was there early. He always is the first to arrive.

“I’m only ever late for a tackle.”

It was the first time that I have seen him since his move.

Colin Pates, the captain of “my” Chelsea team of the mid-‘eighties chipped in :

“I heard the house prices have fallen since he moved.”

We sat there, chatting away, for a while. Bobby Tambling was another early presence, and then former players John Hollins, Tommy Baldwin, Paul Canoville, John Bumstead, Gary Chivers and Kerry Dixon arrived too. I won’t name names for obvious reasons, but a few of these former players were quite scathing of our recent play, and playing style. I found myself nodding in silent agreement.

I offered an opinion.

“If someone who had never seen a game of football ever before, and the game was not explained to them, and they watched us play, they would probably think that the aim of the game was getting the ball over to within ten yards of the white corner posts by using as many touches as possible.”

Alas, the first of my friends – Lynda from Brooklyn – arrived just after the players went on their way around the various corporate areas, but we still had a good natter about her stay. She has been lucky enough to see four Chelsea matches. Outside, at about 12.30pm, I bumped into the “London Is Blue” team again, and said I would join them later. PD and Parky had spent a while in “The Goose” rather than “The Old Oak” and had by now walked back up to “The Famous Three Kings”. Glenn had dived into “The Malt House” and had bumped into Dave and Karen from Frome. After wishing Lynda a safe journey back to the US after the game, I met up with Glenn, Karen and Dave in “The Cock Tavern.”

This was turning into a tale of five pubs.

I chatted to a few of the American visitors in the beer garden of “The Cock.”

It was the first time that they had met Glenn, so we recounted a little of our Chelsea story for their general amusement and bemusement.

“Yeah, met Glenn in 1977 when he joined his brother and me at Oakfield Road Middle School in Frome. We were one of only three or four Chelsea fans in our entire school, we were a rare bread. We always stopped and spoke about Chelsea when we saw each other at school over the years. Bumped into him on The Shed at the opening game of the season 1983. Went to our first game together at home to the Geordies in the November of that year.”

It then dawned on me.

“Talking of 1983/84, this pub is where I had my very first alcoholic drink at Chelsea, before we thumped Leeds 5-0 to win promotion.”

Ah, 1983/84. Here I go again.

I was eighteen. In previous visits to Stamford Bridge, the thought of going in to a pub was simply not relevant. Not only did I look young for my age, risking the humiliation of not being served, I was also usually broke. Very often I would not eat a single thing on these Chelsea trips to save money for the next one. I remember so much from that day. I certainly remember that this was the first occasion that I had travelled to a game with with PD, along with Glenn and two chaps from Westbury, Mark and Gary. My memory recalls a lager and lime. The pub filled up and I remember talking to a lad from Reading about some Chelsea characters, one of which I would later realise was Hicky. He also spoke about some Chelsea fans going over to the Iranian Embassy Siege in 1980 after a game, intent on “aiding” the release of the people inside, though how that might have manifested itself heaven only knows. The songs started up and “One Man Went To Mow” – which was the song of that season – was heartily roared. We all sat until “nine”, then exploded onto our feet on “ten.” We stood on the sofas, we sang our hearts out. The pub was a riot of noise. I felt as if I was coming of age, a Chelsea rite of passage. Skinhead fashions had been taken over by a new movement on the terraces, more so in that season than in any other at Chelsea. The weekend before, I had travelled to Bath to buy my first ever bona fide casual garment, a blue and white Pringle, which cost me £25 or one week’s dole. I wore that with my Chelsea shirt underneath. I felt the business. I belonged.

The team news came through. To my surprise, Cesc Fabregas was playing, and was captain too. After his apparent “wave goodbye” to the fans after Wednesday’s dull game, I had blithely assumed that his Chelsea career was over.

  1. Caballero.
  2. Zappacosta.
  3. Emerson.
  4. Fabregas.
  5. Christensen.
  6. Luiz.
  7. Hudson-Odoi.
  8. Barkley.
  9. Morata.
  10. Ampadu.
  11. Loftus-Cheek.

“Happy with that.”

Once inside the stadium, Alan and myself agreed that this was a potentially very attack-minded team. It would be good to see Ethan Ampadu in a more advanced position than in his previous starts. Alongside us was a young lad, visiting from New York, who worked for NBC sports. PD arrived a little late after his sesh with Parky and was soon cursing away, and Alan told the lad that maybe he could arrange for PD to get a job commentating on games for NBC.

“A colour commentator, I think you call it. This would just be the colour blue, though, fackinell.”

Forest had around four thousand. Their simple red/white/red is a surprisingly rare combination at Stamford Bridge these days. Their white collars looked like those starched ones from the Edwardian era. I am a big fan of the Nottingham Forest badge, which appeared years ahead of its time in 1977, but still has a lower-case “E” which infuriates me a lot more than it should.

The away fans were soon snorting derision at our lack of noise.

“Is this a library?”

“It’s just a ground full of tourists.”

They had a point. I thought that the atmosphere was bad on Wednesday, but this was even worse. It was, without a doubt, the quietest atmosphere at Stamford Bridge that I had ever witnessed.

We began – again – well but I hoped that we could carry it on for a longer amount of time than in other recent games.

Early half-chances came to us. A Fabregas shot, a Morata header, an Emerson free-kick. At least we were creating more than on Wednesday and moving the ball a little quicker. There was not, quite thankfully, a huge amount of frustration or cynicism in the home support. Morata appeared to go down way too easily to us, admittedly some one hundred yards away, and no infringement was judged to have been manifested on his frail body.

“Stay on yer feet, FFS.”

Forest goaded him with being a “poor Daryl Murphy” whoever Daryl Murphy is.

I turned to Alan.

“He’s a poor Brian Murphy, let alone Daryl Murphy.”

On the half-hour, a clumsy challenge of our Ruben resulted in an easy penalty decision. Unsurprisingly, Cesc stood up to take it. But his approach was too clever by far, and his poor low shot was ably pushed away by the Forest ‘keeper Luke Steele.

Bollocks.

Morata supplied Davide Zappacosta who cut in and smashed a shot goal wards, but Steele was equal to it. We enjoyed so much of the ball. I was pleased with the contributions from Ampadu, his body language is spot on. Fabregas was responsible for a few lovely forward passes. We were well on top.

After running for a ball down below us, our Ruben evidently injured himself and was substituted by Eden Hazard just before the break.

Forest were goading us with “WWYWYWS” but there was hardly a response from the Chelsea sections, apart from a few “YNFAs.”

They then rhymed “Aitor Karanka” with “Lampard’s a wanker” as the biggest rivalry in the East Midlands was transplanted to SW6.

Chelsea responded with songs about our Frank, which only remotely seemed relevant. Where were the songs about the current players? Still in the development process, I presume.

Forest sang a version of “Mull of Kintyre” ;”oh mist rolling in from the Trent.”

How 1977.

Ah 1977.

I find it hard to believe that of the three promoted teams in 1977, it was not the teams finishing in first and second place – Wolves and Chelsea – but the third-placed team Nottingham Forest who would surprise the football world with the League Championship in 1978 and then then the European Cup in 1979 and 1980. And all of this under the unique management skills of Brian Clough.

Clough – famously – rarely used to show up on the training pitch and would let his players play the game to their own devices. Of course he set the team up in a certain formation, but his view was this :

“You are all good players. I trust you. You are not stupid. You know how to defend. How to attack. Get on with it.”

He is at the other end of the football spectrum compared to the fastidious and studious style of many in modern football. I even suspect that there are dossiers produced by modern managers on how to tie bootlaces correctly. Clough was certainly of the “laissez-faire” school of man management. But bloody hell it worked. How he won the title in 1978 with journeyman players such as Kenny Burns, Ian Bowyer, Frank Clark, Larry Lloyd, Peter Withe and Martin O’Neil is certainly a mystery to me if not others.

Soon into the second-half, with thoughts of a midweek flit to the banks of the River Trent for the first time – for me anyway – since 1999, the game changed. The ball was played out to our Callum, who showed a classic piece of wing-play, a shimmy, before running past his marker. His low pass was magical, right into the path of Alvaro Morata who prodded the ball in from close range.

It was a money-shot from inside the six-yard box alright.

Get in.

Alan : “thay’ll have ta come at us naaa.”

Chris : “Come on me little diamonds, me ducks.”

It was then Callum’s chance himself to add to the score line, advancing with pace but forcing Steele to scramble away but with nobody on hand to force home the ball. Morata then suffered the miss of the century, touching the ball over from a mere four feet, but – thankfully for him – he was offside anyway.

“Obvs” as the kids say.

Not to worry, further stupendous wing play from our Callum – shackled by two defenders now – created a few spare feet of space which enabled him to send over a most remarkable deep cross which curved and dipped to hit Morata’s forehead and subsequent downward prod with perfection.

Get in.

There were late changes, with Dave replacing Morata, slotting in at left back to allow Emerson an advanced role. N’Golo Kante then replaced Cesc Fabregas, who hugged David Luiz before slowly walking off to tumultuous applause. I carried out the eulogy for this well-loved player a game too early, but it all still stands. One of the best passers of a ball I have seen at Chelsea. And I think we are definitely dispensing of his services too quickly. He is only thirty-one. But one supposes that he needs first team football, and being a bit-part player for someone such as Cesc is clearly not ideal.

The game continued, but we were never in danger of conceding any silly late goals. Hazard was rather quiet. Emerson enjoyed a few late runs. We peppered the Forest goal with a few shots from distance.

The referee blew and into the next round we went.

Phew.

As I slowly made my way out of the Sleepy Hollow, I watched Cesc Fabregas make a solitary walk towards us in the Matthew Harding. My camera was by now tucked away, so the moment is unable to be shared. But I applauded him as he strode on the Stamford Bridge turf as a Chelsea player for one last time.

He has been magical for us.

He waved to the left. He waved to the right.

We could have sung his song all night.

Tales From The Home Of Our Delight

Chelsea vs. Everton : 11 November 2018.

The Eleventh Hour Of The Eleventh Day Of The Eleventh Month.

No matter where I am on the eleventh of November, I always stop and have a reflective two minutes in silence, away from anyone, to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for the benefit of future generations. I am usually at work. I usually walk over to the quietness of the company car park and stand alone with my thoughts. It was with a great deal of anger – plus frustration and sadness – that I let myself get wrapped up with work last November, it pains me to say it, thus missing the two minutes of silence. I vowed to myself to never let it happen again.

One Hundred Years.

Fate transpired for 2018. And I am careful to use the right words here. There is no reason to blithely thank our participation in the Europa League, but it just seemed right that our game against Everton should take place on Sunday 11 November, a date which would mark the end of the First World War in 1918. For whatever reason, and I can list a few, I have always linked the early history of Chelsea Football Club with the First World War. If I was not to mark the one-hundred-year anniversary of the very first armistice day in my home village, Stamford Bridge would be as good a place as any.

Our First Decade.

Chelsea Football Club were formed in 1905. The First World War commenced on 28 July 1914. At the end of the 1914/15 season – in which Everton were the Division One Champions – it was decided to halt professional football in England and Wales, although not in Scotland. The FA Cup was also stopped after that season as the war gathered speed throughout Europe. However, not before Chelsea took place in our first ever FA Cup Final on Saturday 24 April 1915, against Sheffield United at Old Trafford. We lost 3-0 and, due to the large number of servicemen in the crowd it will be forever known as the “Khaki Cup Final.” By the time football recommenced after the hostilities, Chelsea had not played competitive football in four of its first fourteen seasons. The link with the armed forces took several forms. From the earliest moments of our existence, the team were known as “The Pensioners”, named after the inhabitants – former servicemen – of the Royal Hospital. Many of the country’s new recruits would have travelled to the battlegrounds of Belgium and France via the nation’s capital and then to the channel ports. In my mind, at least, the First World War, London, the soldiers, and Chelsea Football Club will always be indelibly linked.

A Somerset Village.

Just as I always link Chelsea Football Club with the First World War, I have always sensed that the conflict has played an important part in how I feel about my home village. My mother was born in the same house, right in the centre of the village of Mells, just opposite the Talbot Inn, that my grandfather was born in 1895. And the First World War has wrapped itself around my village for decades.

Edwin Meredith Draper.

I called my mother’s father “Grandad Ted.”

He served in the British Army during the “Great War” in the ambulance service, ferrying the injured from the trenches to field hospitals as a driver. After the war, he returned to his home village to be a gardener in the manor house now owned by the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, where he would meet my grandmother who served as a cook in the same house. My grandfather rarely spoke of his life as a soldier in the Great War. I still have his medals. I remember him speaking of how he stayed at a French family’s house for a while after the end of the war. He spoke highly of the German soldiers that he met. He did not seem to be blighted too much by his experience. I remember his only physical scars were from the marks left on his skin by the leeches which inhabited the water-ridden trenches. I have no doubt that there were mental scars, but my grandfather was a quiet, private, and occasionally stern, man and I do not doubt that he chose not to air too many really personal feelings.

My dear grandfather is pictured in the series of three black and white photographs below.

Dulce Et Decorum Est.

I never studied the war poets at school, but I have become familiar with the writings of Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon over recent years. The reason for this is simple. I have been inspired by my village. Mells was often visited by Sassoon over many decades – the Manor House would often host a variety of bohemian characters from London – and I have tried to read a little about him. So much was his love of the village of Mells that in a quiet corner of St. Andrew’s churchyard, a simple gravestone marks Sassoon’s final resting place.

As an aside, I always remember that in a Chelsea magazine from around 2004, the editor chose to illustrate a story about the Chelsea players and club staff who are buried in Brompton Cemetery with a stock photograph of a gravestone. Imagine my surprise when I spotted that the photograph chosen was of Siegfried Sassoon’s headstone. I have featured a poem by Sassoon in these match reports before (Remembrance Day 2012, Chelsea vs. Liverpool), but a poem by Wilfred Owen was brought to my attention recently. It is so honest in its grim commentary of the trenches that it always makes me smart when I read it.

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.”

Edwin Lutyens.

There is a further link between my village and the First World War. Edwin Lutyens, the great architect who left his mark on the world with buildings from England to India, often stayed at the Manor House. In addition to designing the Cenotaph in Whitehall, the war memorial in Mells was also designed by Lutyens. It is a stunning piece of work. And it includes a piece of writing which always makes me misty-eyed and reflective.

“We died in a strange land facing the dark cloud of war and this stone is raised to us in the home of our delight.”

Images of men, young boys too, breathing heavy, gasping at air, calling out to friends, calling for “mother”, imagining views of childhood, the stony path to the village school, the cobbles on the pavement in front of the village shop, the church bells of St. Andrew’s, the hay in the fields, the sunset over the woods on the hills, the cry of the cuckoo. One last breath. One last image.

“The home of our delight.”

There was one last personal gift from Lutyens to the people of Mells. In the village church, a wonderful statue of Edward Horner stands proud, featuring the only child of the Horner family, killed in action during the First World War. The statue was designed by Alfred Munnings, but the plinth is by Lutyens and it has many similarities to the large block of slightly-angled marble of The Cenotaph.

Thomas Frederick Axon.

Dad called his father “Pop” so I called him “Grandad Pop.” From memory, he would have enlisted in his home town of Wareham in Dorset and he experienced army life in India – for sure – but I also remember the exotic sounding city of Baghdad being mentioned. He passed away in 1971 so my memory of his war tales are very scant. Thankfully, there were no injuries from the conflict. I have strong memories to this day of the time I spent with “Grandad Pop.” After the First World War, he would later marry and move to Frome, and then to Mells. Growing up, both sets of my grandparents were only a bare minute away. We all lived under the shadow of St. Andrew’s church tower.

Silence.

I had left Mells, past the pub, past my grandparents’ old home, the churchyard, the gravestones and the war memorial at 6.20am. By 7am I had collected PD, Glenn and Parky. Just before 10am, we were inside “The Eight Bells” near Putney Bridge, sipping clandestine beers ahead of the official opening time. We had planned the day’s activities around the service of remembrance which was due to take place at the nearby Fulham War Memorial at 11am. Soon, friends Peter, Liz and Charlie called in to the pub; unknown to us, they had the same plan. Alan soon joined us. Then the Kent lads. Then Diana and Ian – from Chicago – dropped in. We walked over to the churchyard of All Saints Church just as the parade, which had started at Parson’s Green, arrived. It was perfect timing.

There were representatives from the army, local dignitaries, a band, even some Mods on scooters bringing up the rear with Union Jacks flying.

Alongside us all was Parky, wearing medals from his stay in the army in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties.

As we neared eleven o’clock, we stood in complete silence. The crowd numbered maybe four hundred. Above were clear blue skies. The orange and yellow and russet of autumn hemmed us all in. It was a perfect Sunday morning in London. But thoughts drifted. To foreign fields. To a distant land.

I thought of my two grandfathers.

Abide With Me.

After the two minutes of complete silence, the introduction to “Abide With Me” was played by the brass band. I began strongly but began to fail, the words were obviously not as entrenched in my mind as I had perhaps envisioned. A gentleman to my left handed me the order of service and I shared it with Alan. We sang along. Under the words was a depiction of the famous game of football played between enemy lines at a war time Christmas. With the hymn being the “Cup Final” hymn, this was a very nice touch.

There were two further hymns. The first one was unfamiliar. The second one was a favourite.

“I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

 

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.”

Shudder.

I felt privileged to be present.

Friends First, Football Later.

We returned to the pub. Josh and Chad and a few of their fellow Chelsea fans from Minnesota had arrived. There was talk of the game, briefly, in Belarus, but the Everton game was hardly mentioned. We wolfed down Sunday Roasts, and just enjoyed the chance to be with each other again. Diana and Ian were last featured in these reports for our game with Manchester City last season. They were wisely combining the two staples of British life – football and music – on their trip. There were ska festivals, Trojan nights, and a UK Subs gig. Wise choices all. Chad had followed up his trip to Belarus with a trip to see his “other” team York City play at Swindon Town the previous day.

I set off early with Diana and Ian to sort out tickets. Although married, they would be watching at opposite ends of the Stamford Bridge stadium; Diana in the upper tier of The Shed among fellow Evertonians, Ian in the front row of the Matthew Harding Lower alongside my friend Pam.

Stamford Bridge.

Once inside the stadium, early for once, I was able to relax a little and put everything into some sort of perspective. Although I was hoping for a Chelsea win against Everton – although far from “expecting” it – there seemed that other weightier matters were surely important. This indeed was an important day, an important occasion. And I thought again of my grandfather, Ted Draper.

My grandfather was a good sportsman. He played football for Mells and Vobster United and cricket for Mells. I remembered the black and white photographs of both sides, taken in around 1925, on show in his bedroom when I was a child. He was, apparently, the star of the cricket team, and after studying the scorebooks from that era – priceless items – I can vouch for this. However, a family friend would not be afraid to tell me that he had a mean temper on a cricket pitch. Quiet off the pitch, a bit of a demon on it. A familiar story for many I suppose.

For all of his adventures on both football and cricket pitches, though, there is one sporting story involving my grandfather that I have been enchanted about for decades. Once I chose Chelsea as my team in 1970, I can remember Grandad Ted telling me that he once visited Stamford Bridge with his great friend – and fellow Mells sportsman – Ted Knapton. It was, I am pretty convinced, the only football stadium that he ever visited.

My grandfather, however many times I pressed him, could not remember the teams involved though. But I know that he said he favoured Aston Villa – possibly a first love – as a child, and then latterly Newcastle United – through a friend. And I have often wondered if the two Teds, because of their association with Mells football, were gifted tickets for the 1920 FA Cup Final at Stamford Bridge between Villa and Huddersfield Town.

I am no detective, but that might be the answer.

Heaven knows, I have visualised his visit to Stamford Bridge in the ‘twenties so many times.

The train trip from Frome railway station to Paddington. A bite to eat in a nearby café. The underground to Walham Green Station. The crowds of people along the Fulham Road. The closeness of everything. The colours of the rosettes. The clamour for attention of the programme sellers, official and otherwise. The sellers of iced lemonade, of ginger beer, of cigarette salesmen. The shouts of the crowd. The Birmingham accents. The Yorkshire dialect. The smoke. The Londoners and the spivs, the touts, the brashness of the city. The lines at the turnstiles. The musty aroma of overcoats. Caps, bonnets and hats. The swell of the crowd. The bands marching before the game. The huge advertisements adorning every spare inch of space, on hoardings at the back of the huge curve of the terrace, and on the backs of the houses on the Fulham Road. The appearance of the teams. The surge of those on the terrace as a chance goes close. The unstable nature of the terrace beneath the feet, of wooden risers and of mud and cinders. The clouds of dust. Pockets of cigarette smoke drifting over the spectators. The trees in Brompton Cemetery. The smoke rising from chimneys. The wounded Chelsea pensioners – that vivid splash of red – watching from the side of the pitch in antiquated wheelchairs, some without limbs, some without sight. My grandfather, wistful, lost for a moment, a flashback to Amiens or Ypres or Valenciennes.

“There but for the grace of God, go I.”

In later years, whenever I stood on The Shed, as part of that unhindered mass of terrace that originally swept all around the stadium, including the small paddock in front of the old East Stand, I had a wonderful feeling of being a physical part of the history of the club. Of a link with the past. I miss that terrace. It was immense, in more ways than one.

“I wonder if my grandad stood here.”

The Colour Red.

We knew what was coming. There has been a new appetite to honour the fallen in recent years. Possibly since the relatively recent war in Afghanistan, maybe even from 9/11; a resurgence to remember those injured or killed in battle and to acknowledge those who serve. Was there such a show of remembrance, say, when we played Everton on Remembrance Sunday in 2007? My diary entry from that day would suggest not.

The red poppy is the omnipresent symbol of Remembrance Day. But for this Chelsea fan, the scarlet tunic of the Chelsea Pensioner – with tricorn hat, black boots, medals – is the image that makes me tingle.

Before the kick-off, members of the armed forces carried a huge banner with the image of the poppy to the centre circle.

In the north-east corner, not far from Ian, stood the white letters “CHELSEA REMEMBERS.”

With the spectators naturally quieting now, two Chelsea pensioners strode onto the pitch and placed two poppy wreaths on to the centre circle.

The two teams stood in silence.

We all stood in silence.

And again my mind wandered.

Uncle Fred.

Although my two grandfathers lived through the Great War, and I have told their stories here, the last relative who completes my own First World War story, was sadly not so lucky.

My gran’s young brother, Francis “Fred” Hibberd served in the Somerset Light Infantry in the 1914-1918 war. He was killed, tragically, in the last few days of conflict. His face, in a large photograph, loomed over my grandparents’ living room for as long as I can remember. It upset my gran, Blanche, terribly. He was the only “close” relative of mine who was killed in the First World War. In the past few years, I happened to find a letter – written while he was recuperating from an illness – posted to my great-grandmother from a hospital in Hollywood, Northern Ireland in October 1918. It was, probably, the last letter he ever wrote. When I realised what I had stumbled upon, my heart wept. Yet I felt so privileged to be able to hold it and read it. He would soon be posted abroad one last fateful time…

In November 2014, I attended a service at the nearby village of Buckland Dinham – his home, my gran’s home, just three miles from where I sit – in which hornbeam trees were planted to commemorate the men from the village who did not return from the front.

It was a humbling experience.

“It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country.”

I am not so sure, and I am not so sure if my gran and her sister Laura and brother Geoff were ever sure, either.

Rest In Peace.

Red, White, Blue.

Chelsea in blue. Everton in white. And the Chelsea Pensioners in red.

Ross Barkley, our former Toffee, did not make the cut.

There had been negative comments about Ruben and Ross against BATE on Thursday. But both are runners, if nothing else, and there was simply nowhere to run on Thursday. It was a poor game, eh?

Eden returned.

The game began.

It looked like Everton had taken more than the usual three-thousand as their support stretched further along The Shed than usual. But I have noticed the emergence of some new executive boxes in the last few rows of The Shed Lower in recent weeks (not unlike the boxes which were there in 2001) so I imagine that this has resulted in fewer seats available for the away fans in that part of the tier. It is my only explanation.

I thought that Richarlison might prove to be a bit of a handful, but Everton never really bothered us much in the first-half. The diminutive Bernard went close for the visitors but the first part of the game struggled to whet the appetite. It was a messy start with mistakes and errors everywhere. For once, the Evertonians were making a fair old din, though not on the same scale as others. They have never been the loudest.

A free-kick to us just outside the box, and although David Luiz was standing close by, and Willian looked set to strike, we watched as the left-foot of Marcos Alonso swept the ball narrowly wide.

It continued to be a messy game.

On the half-hour, with the ball having been played out of the Chelsea half, and the crowd so quiet, Luiz turned cheerleader and waved his hands in the air to the Matthew Harding. The crowd replied with the loudest noise thus far. A nod from Luiz shortly after showed his approval.

On forty minutes, Willian spotted another good run from Alonso and chipped the ball over to him. It looked an impossible task, but Alonso not only reached the ball, but his volley was on target, stinging the hands of the England international Jordan Pickford.

“Great football.”

I did not see the “coming together” of Toni Rudiger and Bernard. The reaction of others lead me to believe that our defender had been dealt a bad blow by the referee; both players were booked.

At half-time, I chatted with John from California, his first visit in the Matthew Harding after a lifetime of tickets in The Shed. He too had been tempted by lower level football on the Saturday. He had watched QPR take on Brentford in the cosy confines of Loftus Road. He commented that the pre-match ceremony had included the listing of every QPR and Brentford player killed in the First World War.

A nice touch.

The second-half began with a little more quality. Luiz – rather hot and cold in the first forty-five minutes – allowed Hazard to set up a chance for Morata. Pickford was able to scramble it away. Then the visitors came into the game. Kepa Arrizabalaga was at full stretch to tip over a Gylfi Sigurdsson effort. Bernard then stumbled and missed an easy chance from close in. Eden had been quite quiet in the first-half but as players tired, he seemed to get stronger. Willian went close with an angled shot. Hazard tested Pickford from distance.

In the stands, things were pretty quiet.

Fabregas for Jorginho.

Pedro for Willian.

I had a vision.

“Barkley to come on and score the winner in the last minute” I said to Alan.

Down below us, Hazard set up Alonso whose low drive just clipped the far post. Ian must have had a great view of that one; it must have been straight at him.

Out on the other flank, Dave sent in a low cross and Morata poked it home.

“GET IN.”

I was up celebrating, but soon realised that he was offside.

“Bollocks.”

Into the last ten minutes, Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic. Very soon, there were misplaced passes and cheers from the Evertonians. His shot from a ridiculous angle and distance drew groans from everyone. He had a ‘mare to be honest.

Everton had defended well. But they had not troubled us. We played within ourselves, and were lacking quality in the box.

It ended 0-0.

Injury Time.

Just after the break, I received a message from my friend Luke, who sits and stands near Parky in the Shed Lower. Parky had stumbled and had grazed his head, and was being tended to in the medical centre. Glenn shot off to find him, thus missing the rest of the match. After realising that Parky needed to take it easy, Glenn walked slowly with him back to the car.

The old soldier had fallen, but there were friends to stand alongside him.

 

Tales From The Naughty Section

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 19 May 2018.

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

The final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

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

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

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

We bloody well hoped so.

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

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

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

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

“TWENTY PAST!”

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

“Stop talking and drive faster, mate.”

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

“Stop talking and drive faster.”

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

“Stop talking and drive faster.”

“Go on Chelsea! Ha ha.”

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

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

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

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

“Peroni please.”

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

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

My first, initial, thought?

“Oh bollocks, weirdo alert.”

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

“Still waiting for the special guest.”

Alex : “It’s not me? I’m mortified.”

The Chuckle Brothers roared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big game hunters? Maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ein bratwurst mit sauerkraut und senf bitte.”

On Munich Day, it seemed wholly appropriate.

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

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

The team news came through.

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

Thibaut

Dave – Gaz – Rudi

Vic – Cesc – N’Golo – Timmy – Marcos

Eden – Olivier

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

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

“Fuck off, you Chelsea prick.”

I just laughed.

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

“Good luck pal.”

“And you mate.”

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

We were some of the last ones in.

Tickets scanned.

Security pat-down.

Camera bag check.

Security tie threaded.

Five minutes to go.

Up the escalators.

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

We were inside just before United kicked-off.

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

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

I hope that I would like what I would see.

The game kicked-off.

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

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

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

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

As the kids say : “amirite?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eden fell to the floor, crumpled.

We inhaled.

Penalty.

“GETINYOUFUCKER.”

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

Regardless, he was just shown a yellow.

We waited and waited.

“COME ON EDEN.”

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

De Gea looked left and right.

Hazard with a very short run up.

Eyes left, a prod right.

Goal.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

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

Meghan’s moment would come later.

These photographs show the goal and the celebrations.

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

Get in you bastard.

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

Our two previous finals against Manchester United were recalled.

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

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

I remembered more noise in 1994 for sure.

The noise was a bit more sporadic in 2007.

But this was quieter still.

Modern football, eh?

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

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

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

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

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

“Rudi, Rudi, Rudi, Rudi.”

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

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

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

The Mancs roared, I stood silent.

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

Phew.

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

The Chelsea end were on it.

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

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

Courtois raced out to deny Rashford.

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

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

There were too very late substitutions;

Alvaro Morata for the tireless Olivier Giroud.

Willian for the spirited and game-changing Eden Hazard.

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

The minutes ticked by.

The Chelsea end still kept going.

“CAREFREE.”

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

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

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

1970 – Leeds United.

1997 – Middlesbrough.

2000 – Aston Villa.

2007 – Manchester United.

2009 – Everton.

2010 – Portsmouth.

2012 – Liverpool.

2018 – Manchester United.

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

It has almost summed up Chelsea’s season.

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

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

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

“Did you go to the wedding?”

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

She giggled and seemed excited.

“Ooh. Were you in the naughty section?”

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

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

It was an odd end to a pretty odd season.

So, what now?

Who knows.

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh.

Thanks for everyone’s support throughout the season.

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

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

 

 

 

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

Tales From The Likely Lads And Lasses

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 13 May 2018.

On the evening of Sunday 13 May, at various moments and locations – exiting St. James’ Park, at a pub in the city centre, in a cab back to the airport, on the plane back to Bristol – one phrase kept reoccurring, time and time again, spoken by ourselves and many others :

“Fantastic weekend, apart from the football.”

And it’s a bloody good job that these match reports, ten years old now, are never ever just about the football.

We went in to the match with Newcastle United with an outside chance – a 10 per cent shot at the very most – of playing Champions League football next season, but only if Liverpool lost and we won, but we came out of it as demoralised as I can remember for some time. It was truly abject .

But, it never is just about Chelsea Football Club.

And rather than obsess about a very poor performance, I’m using this last league report of the season as an homage to a great weekend away with great mates in a fine city, and as a tribute to the lads – and lasses – who share my weekends, and weekdays, with the love of our lives.

For once the league computer had dealt us a tidy hand. With our last league game of the season announced as an away game against Newcastle United, a date that we knew would not change, I just sat and waited for EasyJet to announce its summer 2018 flight schedule. Way back in late September, I pounced.

Saturday 12 May : Bristol – 8.35am, Newcastle 9.20am.

Sunday 13 May : Newcastle 9.45pm, Bristol 10.30pm.

Tickets were just £55.

The four Chuckle Brothers would be on our way to Geordieland.

I was up at 4am, and quickly packed ahead of collecting PD and Glenn at 5.30am and then Parky at 6am. I guided my car in and around Bristol in the early morning hush, and was parked-up bang on time at 7am. At the bar were fifteen Chelsea faces from Trowbridge, Melksham and Swindon. A few others from further afield – Wincanton, Teignmouth – were spotted too. In total, around twenty-five Chelsea were en route north. It was no surprise that so many were there. Who can resist a trip to The Toon? As we waited to board, Paul from Swindon spotted a fellow-passenger who had won the FA Cup in two consecutive years as a manager? Who was it? Have a guess.

The flight to Newcastle only took forty-five minutes, and we were full of laughter. I was feeling merry and I had only had a coffee at the airport.

We took the metro in to town, through some familiar stops, and then walked down the steps past The Bridge Hotel pub to the Quayside.

It was fantastic to be back.

As I have so often said, Newcastle United plays an important part in my Chelsea story. My first game was at Stamford Bridge against them in 1974, and my first away trip of note – aside away games against the two Bristol teams from 1975 to 1981 – was the equally famous and infamous trip to St. James’ Park in 1984. This would be my tenth visit to Newcastle with Chelsea; many have visited more times than me, but for many years the twin constraints of money and distance were against me.

My first memory of Newcastle, the town – or toon – was as a child of around seven years of age watching “Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads” starring James Bolam and Rodney Bewes. Strangely enough, I have found myself watching a fair few repeats of late, and it brings back some rich memories of my childhood, the opening sequence especially, featuring old terraced streets and hideous new tower blocks as metaphors for contrast and change. Even then, I was critically aware of cities around the UK, the local accent, the local flavour, the sense of place, their history.

I can remember watching the very first episode in 1973 – it was a reprise of “The Likely Lads” from the ‘sixties – when the two pals meet again by chance in a darkened train carriage. They had both left Newcastle to join the army, but Bewes had wriggled out of it, leaving Bolam jettisoned and alone. Once Bolam realised who he was sharing a compartment, there was a strong reaction :

“You bastard.”

And this was met with stern words from my parents, and I often watched further episodes secretly since some TV shows were deemed too “colourful” for one so young.

Now, I find it odd that James Bolam was the only real Geordie featured; everyone else exhibited a generic “northern accent” although Bewes and Brigit Forsyth made good stabs at the Geordie lilt.

The series theme tune still haunts :

“Whatever happened to you? Whatever happened to me? What became of the people we used to be?”

The most famous episode involves the two of them trying to avoid the result of an England game so they can watch the highlights later in the evening. Two years later in 1975, Bolam starred in “When The Boat Comes In” – a grim post World War One tale of social unrest, unions, class, and poverty set on Tyneside – and again the sense of place dominated my thoughts.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Gritty. Working class. Northern. Football mad.

A proper Loony Toon.

Saturday was just fantastic. We darted in and out of several bars from lunchtime to night time.

“The Redbarn.”

“The Pitcher And Piano.”

“The Slug And Lettuce.”

“Akenside Traders.”

“The Crown Posada”

“Colonel Porter’s Emporium.”

The Somerset and Wiltshire contingent were reunited again at the “Pitcher And Piano”, which sits right on the Quayside, next to the Millennium footbridge, and opposite the Baltic Art Gallery, with our apartment just beyond. Our good friend Kev and then our equally good friend Deano joined us, and a superb afternoon evening of beers, laughter, and chit-chat ensued, with us bumping into the Kent lot yet again. The day was panning out just as we had hoped. We bumped into Donna, Rachel and Rob – only on “nodding terms” for me until now – and they followed us from bar to bar.

Chelsea here, Chelsea there.

There were a few attractions along the way.

“Where have those two girls from Middlesbrough gone?”

The drinking continued.

“And a bottle of Peroni for me, please.”

We kept to The Quayside. It is such an evocative location, the deep gorge running through the heart of the city, and with bridges every hundred yards or so. It is one of my favourite places in all of the United Kingdom. We were last there together for the last away game of 2015/2016 when we played down the coast at Sunderland.

“And a bottle of Peroni for me, please.”

In “The Akenside Traders” there were stag parties singing, hen parties dancing, girls with shot trays weaving in and out of us all, tons of boisterous laughter, and the place was packed.

It was only 6pm.

“Bloody hell, what is it going to be like at midnight?”

In “Colonel Porter’s Emporium” a DJ played some fantastic music.

“Ain’t Nobody” by Rufus and Chaka Khan.

1984 again.

There was some Chelsea chat among the beers – “where has it all gone wrong?” – but that didn’t stop us all having a blast.

“Don’t think I’ve seen so many Lacoste polo shirts.”

Glenn entertained us all with an impromptu dance routine in which he utilised some props; namely the contents of a nearby umbrella stand.

One minute, Gene Kelly.

One minute, Mary Poppins.

You had to be there.

No – really – you had to be there.

In “The Crown Posada” we chatted to some local Newcastle United lads and they were warm and friendly. This was my favourite bar of the lot; a long and narrow Victorian boozer but with a high ceiling. There were stained-glass windows and evocative black and white prints of the city covering the walls. It oozed character. It was fantastic.

“Canny, but.”

Beer. Football. Mates. Laughs.

It had been a bloody perfect night out in The Toon.

On the Sunday, we checked out of our apartment, but not before realising that the away tier of St. James’ Park could be spotted, just past the Earl Grey Monument, at the top of the town. Everything is so immediate in Newcastle. There was just time for a photo of Deano, PD, Glenn and Parky on the apartment balcony, where a pigeon was quietly nesting.

Parky : “That thing was bloody pissed-off this morning, mind.”

PD : “Why?”

Parky : “I had its eggs for breakfast.”

We strolled down to another pub – “The Quayside” – and this was another fine building; no doubt an old warehouse in days of yore, it probably remained derelict for decades, but was now restored, with more high ceilings, exposed beams, red bricks, and endless coffee refills. Alan, Gary, Daryl, Ed and Rich joined up with us, and we relaxed in the sun. It was another fine time.

Deano is originally from Yorkshire and he chatted to a friend from Huddersfield, who looked awfully familiar.

“Aren’t you?” we both said…

I had met Mick at Manchester airport en route to Istanbul with Chelsea in 2014. There were a gaggle of Yorkshire Chelsea fans outside in the sun. We seem to have a fair few from Yorkshire. It is always odd, to me, to hear Chelsea fans with Yorkshire accents. Deano, on Saturday afternoon, had stayed in our apartment for a while to watch the Castleford vs. St. Helens rugby league game.

“Castleford are the reason that I support Chelsea, Chris…in 1970, my father told me that I couldn’t support Leeds.”

The 1970 FA Cup Final has a lot to answer for. I have heard of Chelsea fans from Yorkshire supporting us in 1970 because of football reasons – “anyone but Leeds” – but this was the first time that the hatred of Leeds’ rugby league team being used as a catalyst for support.

(The FA Cup answer was Keith Burkinshaw, Tottenham manager in 1981 and 1982)

We caught a cab up to the stadium, past those solid, grey buildings of Grey Street. There were memories of Glenn and I being walked along these same streets in 1984, when the welcome was decidedly colder than in 2018.

We were deposited outside The Gallowgate, and we walked past the familiar sights of St. James’ Park. Immediately outside are many new apartment buildings. The town is certainly thriving now. Everywhere we looked were the famous black and white jerseys. We took a lift up to the top of the world, or rather, the away section at St. James’ Park.

One steward made me giggle.

“Aye, everyone says, like, they have a great time here, and we are friendly, but if youse want it, ye can find it.”

It was the Geordie version of the Wealdstone Raider.

“If you want it. I’ll give it yer.”

So, the last league game of 2017/2018.

It would be my thirty-sixth league game out of thirty-eight. I sadly missed games at Huddersfield Town and Burnley due to work. It would be my fifty-fifth Chelsea game of the season.

St. James Park looked as huge as ever. It was a stunning day, and I could see for miles.

Some wind turbines away in the distance. Some yellow cranes at Tynemouth. And closer to home, the green of the Tyne Bridge, the Earl Grey monument, the Baltic Art Gallery, and a pigeon nesting on the balcony of 182 Baltic Quays,

The team contained one or two surprises.

Thibaut Courtois

Cesar Azpilicueta – Andreas Christensen – Gary Cahill

Victor Moses – N’Golo Kante – Ross Barkley – Tiemoue Bakayoko – Emerson Palmieri

Olivier Giroud – Eden Hazard

There was no “Blitzkrieg Bop” this season, but before the teams entered the pitch, we were treated to the classic “Blaydon Races”, a song that my father taught me ahead of my first game in 1974, or was it for the Liverpool vs. Newcastle United FA Cup Final a couple of months later?

“Ah – me lads. Ya should have seen us gannin’.

Passing the folks along the road, just as they were stannin’.

All the lads and lasses there. All the smilin’ faces.

Gannen’ alang the Scotswood Road.

To see the Blaydon Races.”

Then, “Local Hero” by Dire Straits. I have to be honest, it took me twenty minutes to realise that we were wearing the new kit. What a monstrosity it is. I like the idea of basing it on the iconic 1983/84 kit, but the shirt is just awful.

The game?

If it wasn’t for Thibaut Courtois, we would have been three-nil down at half-time, at least. We were shocking. The home team swarmed around our players every time that we had the ball, and we looked tired and listless. The manager – I am always worried when he wears a tracksuit and not a suit – began by encouraging the players, but soon gave up once the first goal went in. Shelvey and Diame – robbing Kante in the build-up – forced superb saves from Courtois in the first fifteen minutes.

On twenty-three minutes, Courtois did ever so well to claw out a Murphy lob from a Ritchie cross, but Gayle tapped in.

The home support boomed and we sat in shocked silence.

The pattern continued.

I remember one instance of Eden Hazard breaking in the inside-left channel with no less than five Newcastle United players running after him. The home team were full of energy and passion. And this was a team who, I am lead to believe, had been in holiday mode since their safety was assured a while back. The first-half continued on and I do not remember a single attempt on the Newcastle goal. Ross Barkley showed a neatness at times, but then quickly faded.

Our support started off in good voice, but one chant annoyed the fuck out of me.

If fans really “don’t care about Rafa”, I would fucking suggest that they don’t continue to sing songs about him five years since he left Chelsea.

Move on, boys and girls, lads and lasses.

Shelvey – their playmaker – went close again, and further chances flew past our goal frame.

At half-time, there were obvious moans everywhere I looked. I have never seen Alan look so quiet and disconsolate.

We seemed to improve slightly after the break, but Emerson annoyed me with his unwillingness to burst past his defender and get into some space behind. We are so high at St. James’ Park, so maybe we see space where there isn’t any, but we hardly attacked out wide all afternoon, or at least in a way that got the defenders back-peddling and worried. A Barkley cross from our right was whipped in, and the otherwise subdued Giroud did well to manufacture a deft touch. The Newcastle ‘keeper Dubravka – who? – tipped it over. We sensed that we were back in the game. I remembered our far from impressive record at Newcastle United over the past few years, but there was a great comeback to draw 2-2 on my last visit in 2015.

We were heartbroken when a poor Bakayoko clearance only reached as far as Shelvey. His long-range drive was touched home by Perez.

Fuck.

Some Chelsea left.

“Thanks for your support.”

Just after, a rare Chelsea attack, and the ball was worked in to Barkley who seemed destined to score and put us back in to the game. He seemed to hesitate slightly and the shot was blocked.

And just after that, a Shelvey free-kick was volleyed back by Lejeuene – who? – and Perez touched home again.

Newcastle United 3 Chelsea 0.

Goodnight Vienna.

More Chelsea “supporters” left.

We only attacked sporadically, and despite using three substitutes, we never ever looked like scoring. A shot from Pedro is still rising over the Town Moor. Our performance left us all confused and jaded. It was as dire a performance as I could ever remember. Courtois was the only one who had played OK. And there is an FA Cup Final next.

Our lack of desire and intensity beggared belief.

In the last few minutes, my pal Jason from Dallas appeared behind me, and shared our pain. He then joined us as we slowly marched around the stadium. We drifted past the listed buildings of Leazes Terrace; these were able to be spotted in the ‘fifties when that side of the stadium was an open terrace. It is the reason why the stadium has such a lop-sided appearance as that stand is unable to be raised any higher. We joked with a couple of locals, but they weren’t happy as Rafa Benitez might well be off before the next season begins. Football fans are never happy, eh?

We ended up down on The Quayside once again. There was time for a bite to eat, and a few last drinks, and a last look at the arse-end of many a stag and hen party.

This was Jason’s fourth Chelsea game in England and he had flown in from Gothenburg in Sweden on the day of the game. We last saw him at an away game at Anfield in 2016. It was great to see him once more, and we chatted feverishly about the worrying tendency of the North American colonisation of Europe via regular season NBA, NFL, NHL and now MLB games.

I abhor these.

They are a version of the hated “Game39” and I will boycott them all, even if it means avoiding the New York Yankees in London next summer.

We caught a cab up to the airport, and caught the 9.40pm flight back to Bristol.

The 2017/2018 season was over, and we had finished fifth.

It seemed about right.

Our next game – the grand finale – is at Wembley when we meet Manchester United in the FA Cup Final.

…just writing those words, just writing those words.

I hope to see many of you there.