Tales From A Wembley High.

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 22 April 2017.

We all knew how important this FA Cup semi-final was. We had suffered a recent blip in the league with two defeats out of the past four games and so we all realised that this game against Tottenham Hotspur – aka “that lot” – had the potential to make or break our season. A once seemingly impenetrable lead of ten points had been frittered away to a meagre four. A defeat – God forbid – at the hands of that lot at Wembley, we reasoned, would strike a horrible blow to our self-belief, while handing a lifeline to them.

No further build-up required. It was a massive match.

I woke early – again before the alarm – and unsurprisingly nervous. I was, if I am honest, full of trepidation. And this certainly felt odd. In recent years I have rarely felt so unsure of a Chelsea win and, with it, a grand day out from start to finish.

The four Chuckle Brothers – Lord Parky, PD, Glenn and myself – had travelled up by train once again. It brought back memories, thankfully briefly, of the train trip that we all took just a few days after my mother passed away for the League Cup semi-final against the same opponent just over two years ago. On that day, I didn’t feel much like football, but my friends famously pulled me through. We had set off from Frome at 8am, and were soon at the lovely and delightful Paddington Station. There is something quite wonderful about alighting at a grand terminus, especially on a football day out. We had not spotted fans of either team on the journey to London. I certainly expected to bump into groups of “them” throughout the day.

As we strode out across the busy concourse towards Praed Street, I pointed out the metallic bench seats where the four of us had slumped – silent, stony-faced, sad – after the away game at The Emirates in September, and we all remembered those fleeting moments of pain and worry. The bench really sticks in my mind. It is undoubtedly one my personal totems of this incredible season. It made me think of another football club and one with which our current manager is heavily linked. I always remember that during the ceremony to mark the opening of the new Juventus Stadium in 2011, a bench played a starring role, since the famous old club was formed by some youngsters who met by a bench in one of Turin’s main streets. A replica of that bench was floodlit, in the middle of the pitch, as all other lights were dimmed. It was a simple and fine image. It represented a pivotal moment in time for that club. I promised the boys that if we ever made it to the FA Cup Final in May, we would make a point of returning to sit on that same bench on the Paddington concourse – maybe as league champions – and remember how far this team has come. Imagine returning on the evening of Saturday 27 May after an FA Cup Final with some silverware in our back pockets. Sometimes it is easy to forget how far we have travelled in 2016/2017. After that game at Arsenal, it felt like we were down and out. We had a team in need of fresh blood. The mess of the previous season was set to continue. Our new manager had been found out. We were to face a long and testing season.

I had sorted out a little pub crawl. After scoffing a great breakfast outside the station, we were the first patrons to enter “Sawyers Arms” bang on 11am. We had already admitted to ourselves that we were all nervous about the game. Over a “Peroni”, the talk continued about the game. We all admitted that the result at Old Trafford had really been a “bad day at the office” especially when the news broke that a few players had been stricken with a stomach bug. The team had obviously been knocked sideways by the pre-match changes. In retrospect, everything looked out of kilter. But we were sure that the manager would be suitably prepared for the semi-final. Of course, the loss of Gary Cahill would be a tough one. We favoured Nathan Ake over Kurt Zouma and John Terry.

As we approached “The Sussex Arms” I spotted a gaggle of Herberts supping pints outside.

“Oh here we go. This could be them.”

As I got closer, I recognised a few familiar faces. Inside the dark boozer, I recognised even more. Many of the Chelsea fans from our neck of the woods had evidently decided to forego the bars closer to the station. I took my pint of San Miguel and chatted to one of the Swindon lads, Paul. Close by were lads from Melksham, Westbury, Trowbridge and Gloucester. Outside, the banter continued. None of us were overly confident. We were joined by three Chelsea lads from California – Tom, Brad and Mike, all in and out for just the one game – and we then headed off to the next pub on the list.

“The Victoria” is a cracking pub and I last visited it on the day of the 2012 FA Cup Final with Parky. The return visit in 2017 was, I will admit, a superstitious move by myself. But it is a fantastic boozer and it has retained its charm. A couple more drinks went down well. It was approaching 2pm.

We hailed a cab and darted off to “The Green Man” by Edgware Road tube. Daryl, Ed, Gary, Alan, John, Simon and Milo were already there, and the pub soon became swamped with many of the West of England Chelsea that we had met in “The Sussex Arms”. There was a moment when I looked up and each and every one of my London mates were chatting to lads from my part of England. It was a lovely moment. It encapsulated the buzz that I get out of following the team all over this country and beyond. All of us united by our love of Chelsea. All of us loving a beer. All of us loving a laugh.

The pub is nestled under the Westway and we were able to spot the Manchester City team bus that became stuck in traffic It was daubed with the club crest and a huge image of their players doing a “Poznan.”

I hope that Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Vincent Kopmany appreciated the variety of hand signals that welcomed their slow advance into London.

Believe it or not, we were yet to see any opposing fans. Not one. Or at least, none that were wearing club colours. Maybe a few had sidled past us at Paddington but we would not have known. We had spotted little knots of police at Paddington, but there had been no Spurs fans. We walked to Marylebone train station. On the ten-minute ride to Wembley Stadium train station, right next to the ground, I spotted my first two Spurs fans of the day. One of them overheard me say “oh, there’s one” and apologised.

“Sorry.”

That made me smile.

The team news had broken through and it surprised us. Completely.

Out went Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, in came Willian and Michy Batshuayi.

Wow.

As for Gary Cahill’s replacement, we were right. In came Nathan Ake.

Unlike in previous years, there was no last-minute struggle to get in before the kick-off. We were all in with plenty of time to spare. The four of us were high behind the west end goal. Just like in the 2009 and 2012 finals, we were in that small section right above the TV screen. More positive superstition. Wembley is huge, of course. We preferred to be up high, since the patterns of play are able to be followed easier. Nearer the pitch, it becomes difficult to get much of a perspective.

Overhead, a mixture of sun and cloud.

Hardly any flags and banners were on show. New stadium regulations had meant that flags over a certain size needed to be pre-registered and have fire-certificates, thus stopping most from being allowed in. The cynical view is that banners obstruct advertisements along the balcony walls. Only one winner there, I am afraid.

It was lovely to spot thirty Chelsea Pensioners sitting in the lower deck to my left.

A few songs boomed out of the PA. A white flag wended its way from left to right in the lower tier of the east terrace, a blue flag moved over the heads of our supporters down below us. As the teams entered the pitch, supporters in our end frantically waved thousands of royal blue flags, while the other end depicted “COYS” amid alternate white and navy sections.

The scene was set.

But first, a minute of applause as the football world remembered Ugo Ehiogu, the former Aston Villa and Middlesbrough defender, who had sadly passed away the previous day. He was a fine player. Both sets of players wore black armbands. Towards the end of the minute’s applause, we joined in chanting “Ugo” too.

We stood the entire game as did the majority around us and below us.

The match began and we started very well indeed. We thwarted an early attack which resulted in a corner but a fine Nathan Ake tackle set us off on a rapid attack of our own. A lovely touch from Michy set the raiding Pedro on his way. As he approached the penalty box, he was clumsily tackled by Toby Alderweireld. Barely three minutes had passed. A free-kick in “Willian territory.”

He steadied himself before clipping a fine shot just over the line of defenders. The net rippled and we roared. What a dream start and other clichés. The players raced over towards the side of the pitch, no doubt winding up both the opposing fans and also Mauricio Pocchetino, watching on like Rodney Bewes in a dark grey flasher mac.

I spotted a plane trailing an “ANTONIO ANTONIO” banner.

The pre-match worry had been temporarily lifted. For a while, we looked in control and at ease. Nathan Ake, bless him, looked particularly good. His movement is so natural. Sadly, this purple period did not last. A corner from Cristian Eriksen was cleared but he had a second bite of the cherry. A cross towards the near post was met by a stooping header from Harry bloody Kane, whose slight touch took the ball bouncing into goal way past the dive of Thibaut Courtois.

Ugh.

Game, as they say, on.

There wasn’t constant noise, but the atmosphere wasn’t at all bad. The slow and dirge like “oh when that lot go marching in” was matched by a few “carefrees.”  I was able to spot a few empty seats around and about but this was virtually a full house. There were little battles everywhere. N’Golo Kante was right in the middle of everything. I couldn’t work out why Son was playing at left-back. Victor Moses had a few trademark runs down that flank. That lot began to dominate and our defenders did well the repel their attacks. Luiz was at the centre of those blocks, ably aided by Ake to his left and Dave to his right.

Just before the break, the ball was pushed forward to Moses. He took a touch, but the poorly-timed challenge from Son immediately looked promising. After a split second, the referee Martin Atkinson pointed to the spot.

“Get in.”

We waited. It looked like Batshuayi wanted to take it. Silly boy. Thankfully, Willian grabbed the ball. There was a slight stall as he approached the spot. Hugo Lloris was already on his way to his left as Willian struck it to his right.

“Yes.”

We punched the sky. But whereas there was wild euphoria with his first goal, there was just relief with this one.

The French ‘keeper appeared to touch the ball outside of the box, but we were one hundred yards away. At the break, texts came through to say that the touch was outside the box.

But the mood was buoyant at the break. We were halfway to paradise.

Our old rivals started the second-half the brighter. Luiz was soon heading and blocking in fine style. As Eriksen was allowed a little space, Glenn uttered the immortal words “no, don’t let him” and at that moment, we let him float a superb ball in and Delle Alli was able to meet the bounce of the ball and prod it high past Courtois.

“Bollocks.”

Only seven minutes of the second-half were on the clock.

That lot then dominated for quite some time, though in all honesty rarely threatened our goal. Luiz headed cross after cross away. A strip of sun edged slowly towards the eastern side of the stadium as the game continued. Elsewhere the pitch was in shadow. The songs ebbed and flowed.

On the hour, our manager pulled the strings. Off came Willian the goal scorer and on came Eden Hazard. Off came Batshuayi and on came Diego Costa. After a bright start, Michy had been largely stranded up front as the game continued. I heaved a sigh of relief. What a bonus for us to bring on such quality from our bench. They still had most of the ball though, but again found it so difficult to get behind us or even through us. Our royal blue wall was not going to be easily breached. Time after time, their attacks petered out.

Cesc Fabregas then replaced Pedro, who had also started brightly but was beginning to fade. Very soon, we won our first corner of the game. The ball reached an unmarked Eden Hazard, lurking just outside the box. He took one touch and shot low, through a forest of legs, and we watched – on tenterhooks – as the ball continued unhindered into the goal.

GET. FUCKING. IN.

Our end boomed.

A quarter of an hour remained.

“And its super Chelsea. Super Chelsea FC. We’re by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen.”

This was the loudest that I think that I had ever heard us at the new Wembley Stadium.

Five minutes later, our two craftsmen combined inside the box. Fabregas twisted a ball back to Hazard from the bye-line, and Eden took a couple of touches as he ran across the pitch, just keeping the ball under control. The ball was pushed towards Nemanja Matic, some thirty yards out.

Smack.

The ball crashed in off the underside of the bar, Lloris beaten, the whole team beaten.

Our end roared once again.

Chelsea 4 Tottenham Hotspur 2.

Oh my bloody goodness.

At the other end, red seats started appearing. They had seen this all before. They were off home. In 2012 we administered their sixth consecutive semi-final defeat. Now, in 2017, we had given them their seventh in a row.

Incredibly, Hazard and then Costa came close in the final few moments. A Kane free-kick in the dying embers of a fantastic game was saved by Courtois.

At the final whistle, of course many more red seats visible now, the joy of reaching another FA Cup Final almost matched the joy of beating “that lot” in a hugely important game in this most incredible, mesmerising, entertaining and dramatic of seasons.

The players cavorted down below. The manager looked breathless. The twin staples “One Step Beyond” and “Blue Is The Colour” boomed.

“Sing Chelsea everyone.”

The return train trip into the centre of London was full of smiles. At a bar outside Marylebone station, we met up with more Chelsea pals. Outside the redbrick hotel opposite, we spotted the Manchester City coach. Apparently, the Chelsea team had stayed at the very same hotel the previous night. We caught the 10pm train home, and there was time for one last gin and tonic from the buffet. Looking back, I should have asked for a double.

We reached home at midnight. It had been another fantastic day.

On Tuesday, the show rolls on. There is no time to rest. Southampton at home. See you there.

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Tales From The Arthur Wait Stand.

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 3 January 2016.

The rain was falling. I had parked about a mile to the south-west of Selhurst Park. Parky, PD and myself quickly zipped up our jackets in preparation of a twenty minute walk to Crystal Palace’s stadium. After only a few minutes of walking along the tight terraced streets of Thornton Heath – not far enough out, nor leafy enough, to be in suburbia – our coats were sodden. We marched on. This was already feeling like a decidedly old-fashioned footballing day out.

Unlike the area to the north of the River Thames, which is where ninety percent of the stations on the London Underground are positioned, South London is served by a plethora of over-ground railway lines, criss-crossing their way through a part of London that few tourists see. Serving Crystal Palace’s home stadium are three stations; Norwood Junction, Selhurst and Thornton Heath. On this day though, with railway engineering works commonplace, I had decided to drive straight in.

This area of South London is dominated by the Crystal Palace TV mast, sitting high on a hillside to the north of the park which houses the National Athletics Stadium. On the very same site, F.A. Cup Finals were played from 1895 to 1914. There is, therefore, a great sporting history in an otherwise nondescript part of the capital. When I attended our victorious 1997 F.A. Cup Final, I always thought that it was rather fitting that my day had begun with Alan, Glenn and myself catching a train from the red brick Crystal Palace train station – close to Alan’s flat – which was just a few hundred yards from where teams had competed for the famous silver cup decades previously. Back in those days, there were no terraces as such, just a vast natural bowl, which allowed huge numbers to attend, with only a few thousand watching from wooden stands. In the 1913 final between Aston Villa and Sunderland, 121,919 attended. I am sure that the vast majority saw very little of the actual game. However, in those early days of football hysteria, it was surely enough to just be there. The only event that I have attended at this famous footballing location was a Depeche Mode concert in 1993, on the same day that I saw Chelsea play Ajax at Tottenham in the Makita.

We dipped into the Prince George pub and were met by a roaring log fire. We dried out and sipped at cold ciders and lagers. The pub, no more than a ten minute walk from the away turnstiles on Park Road, was mixed with both sets of fans. There were a gaggle of police outside, but there was no hint of trouble. I recognised a few Chelsea faces, and we chatted away. Back outside, the rain was heavier and the wind was howling.

Yes, this had the feel of a rather old-fashioned away game, no doubts.

We tried to avoid getting splashed by passing cars.

Ahead, there was a defiant “Carefree” being bellowed by a few youths.

Thankfully, we soon reached the Arthur Wait Stand, which sits alongside the touchline at Selhurst Park, housing three thousand away fans and six thousand home fans. It is a dark and unforgiving place, with very shallow terraces. It has great acoustics, but unfortunately affords one of the worst views in the current top division. Selhurst Park is a disjointed stadium. The main stand opposite is a Leitch original, very similar to the one at Fulham. To our right is the odd Whitehorse Lane stand, once a large terrace, but now truncated with just a few rows, but with executive boxes above. To our left, sits the two-tiered Holmesdale Road Stand, with its rather old fashioned barrelled roof. Here, there was a large terrace too. When Selhurst Park was in its prime, with terraces on three sides, it managed to hold 49,000 for an old Third Division game with rivals Brighton and Hove Albion. For many years, mirroring the old Crystal Palace Stadium, some of the current terraced areas were merely grass banks. There are talks of stadium redevelopment. I am hopeful that the Leitch original stays and the Arthur Wait is improved.

As I waited for Alan and Gary to join us, I was aware that there were a few residual visitors from across the pond who were attending the game. I wondered what they thought of the old-school charms of Selhurst Park compared to the sleek steel of Old Trafford. I had a feeling that they would be reveling in its tightness and its obvious grubbiness. Well, put it this way; I knew that I would be.

I had a quick chat with an old Chelsea mate Mark (1984 and all that) and I admitted that I was still worried about our predicament.

“I watched Match Of The Day all of the way through last night and it just seems that every team is doing OK apart from us and bloody Villa.”

At the half-way stage, nineteen games in, we were mired in the relegation zone. And Palace, winners at our place a few months ago, would be no pushover. The rain lashed down.

The clock ticked by and 1.30pm was soon approaching. The Palace anthem “Glad All Over” (don’t ask) reverberated around the creaking stands as the away fans countered. The weather was truly awful as the teams entered the pitch from the corner on the far side.

Diego Costa was back from his silly self-enforced exile. Cesc returned too.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Mikel, Fabregas – Willian, Oscar, Hazard – Costa.

I immediately sensed a little more aggression from within our black suited ranks; the tackles were seeming to go in stronger, the body language more positive. When we had the ball, we seemed to be keen to move the ball quicker. However, despite all of this, it was the home team – shorn of Bolasie and Cabaye, remember – who somehow managed to get more efforts on goal than us. Campbell and Zaha came close as we looked a little exposed. We certainly rode our luck a little during the first quarter of the game. However, my abiding memory of the opening period is of Thibaut Courtois claiming cross after cross, rather than being stretched and asked to make too many saves close to his body.

Eden Hazard took charge and cut in from his position wide on the left, before testing Hennessey with a low fizzer which went off for a corner. Soon after, Hazard limped off, to be replaced by Pedro, and there were voluble moans aimed at Hazard from the Chelsea section.

Maybe it was due to the sodden conditions, but the atmosphere inside the stadium was not great. The away fans, of course – it goes without saying – were knee deep in Chelsea songs, but elsewhere all was relatively peaceful. The Holmesdale Ultras were only occasionally heard. I found it very interesting that an early chant of “Jose Mourinho” from the back of our stand never really gathered momentum, and in fact, was soon overtaken with a much louder “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” salvo. It was as if the crowd were moving on.

Maybe, just maybe, we are all getting over Mourinho.

Pedro added an extra zest to our play and we started to improve. A fantastic sliding tackle by King Kurt on Zaha on the far side drew rapturous applause. Puncheon soon sliced wide. Courtois was still yet to make a save worthy of the name.

On the half-hour, Fabregas spotted the run of Diego Costa and played a ball from deep. Delaney, the Palace defender, misjudged his attempt to intercept and Costa was through. He advanced, but rather than shoot from an oblique angle, he selflessly played in Oscar, who was ably supporting. It was a simple tap in. The Chelsea Ultras exploded.

Get in.

“We are stayin’ up, say we are stayin’ up.”

Any noise from the home areas reduced further.

Palace immediately countered, but Lee blasted over from close in. I still waited for a Courtois save. Amidst all of this, I noted the calming influence of Jon Obi Mikel, whose plain but effective patrolling of the area in front of the veteran Terry and the exuberant Zouma was wonderful. Only once did he annoy me, when he did not spot Ivanovic free and in hectares of space on the right. A small moan, though. He was otherwise excellent. Dave, bearing down on goal from an angle, saw his thunderous shot parried by Hennessey. With the Chelsea supporters in increasingly good form, we looked a lot more at ease as the first-half continued.

Hell, we were winning. Confidence comes with that, I know, but this seemed a little different. It was more like the Chelsea of old, or at least 2014.

As the second-half began, I was rueing Selhurst’s poor sightlines. We were all stood, of course, but with even Chelsea attacking our end, I had to lean and twist to keep up with play. A pillar right in front of me spoiled too many ensuing photographs. A fine Mikel tackle was perfectly timed to avert a Palace break. Soon after, the murmurings of “Seven Nation Army” started away to my right. I immediately thought it was in praise of “Ooh, Pedro Rodriguez”, but no.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

Ah, this was great.

Hundreds joined in. Where it came from, who knows? It did seem slightly surreal to be honest.

However, there had been a healthy debate in front of me between two fans, who had differing opinions about Mikel, and once the chant grew, the pro-Mikel supporter joined in too. Excellent. Did I sing it? Of course.

Zouma went close with a header. We were now even more buoyant. The noise continued.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

“Jon Obi Mikel – he’s won more than you.”

“Jon Obi Mikel – he scores when he wants.”

This was a fine game now, and Palace worked an opening for Zaha, who forced Courtois to drop and smother. At last it was a save worthy of the name. On the hour, a fine passing move resulted in Oscar being pushed off the ball. The referee let play continue, and without a second’s thought, and with no real backlift, Willian drilled the ball high into the top right corner.

Boom.

The Chelsea section went into orbit as Willian slid down on to his knees in front of us.

2-0.

Game over? Maybe.

It was time for more song.

“We’re gonna win the league.”

In the middle, Mikel was having a blinder and, now, every touch of his was greeted with a cheer. I then wondered if, sadly, some among the Chelsea ranks were simply taking the piss out of our much maligned – and misunderstood, damn it – midfielder.

That simply won’t do.

Palace were finding it hard to cope with our intelligent passing and movement – which screamed “confidence!” at me – and Willian was able to skip past his marker. He played a relatively harmless ball in to the six yard box, but I was happy to see Hennessey make a mess of his attempts to gather. He merely pushed the ball in to the path of Diego Costa who happily banged the ball in. The net bulged.

3-0.

Costa looked well chuffed, and his performance had certainly warranted a goal. He had led the line well. More of the same please. There had been no boos for any player at Selhurst, and this surely needs to be the way forward now. Who knows where this season will end, but we need to be there, offering support at all times, cheering the boys on.

Still the songs continued.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

“We’re the boys in blue from Division Two.”

“Don’t worry about a thing.”

This was a lovely feeling. Chelsea back to the form of last season, and fine performances throughout. Thankfully the rain eventually petered out as the second-half came to its conclusion. Oscar, with a disappointingly lame shot, and Diego Costa, flashing over, failed to add to the score line, but I did not object one little bit. Extra goals would have simply spoiled the symmetry.

On day three of the New Year, three goals, three different scorers, three points and three little birds.

Everything is going to be alright.

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Tales From A Day Of History.

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2013.

Chelsea’s game at historic Villa Park was our last domestic away match of the season. Our encounter was the only Premier League game taking place on Saturday 11 May. The F.A. Cup Final between Manchester City and Wigan Athletic was set to kick-off at 5.15pm but, for some ridiculous reason, our game was not shifted with the rest of the programme to a Sunday. I can’t even begin to understand the reasoning for this; in fact, I have long given up on the FA’s ability to organise football in this country. I am sure that they would cite the Champions League Final being played on Saturday 25 May as reason enough to slot the Cup Final into a normal league programme, but why we had to share the billing with the Wembley final I do not know.

Despite a 12.45pm kick off in deepest Birmingham, I didn’t have to leave home too early. Unfortunately, Parky was still unable to accompany me to an away game. This has been a lonely old season for me on my travels around England for Chelsea’s away games. I have missed his company I must say. His last game outside of SW6 was the Community Shield game in August, ironically at Villa Park, when we lost to City. Since then, I have attended fourteen of the allotted nineteen away league games. I missed the games at Newcastle United, Sunderland, Norwich City, Everton and Liverpool. This would be my 54th. game of the season. It has been another arduous trek; I can’t say I have enjoyed it as much as I would have liked. I am sure none of us have. The away games at Arsenal and Tottenham in that gorgeous autumnal afterglow of Munich, with us four points clear, seem like they took place in another season altogether.

The road since the sacking of Roberto di Matteo in November has been rocky and there have seemed to have been hundreds of diverting and destabilising sub plots along the way. Having Rafa Benitez at the helm has been difficult. I have coped, in the main, by ignoring him.

Of course, at times our play has been breath-taking. Just think of some of the scores…eight against Villa, six against Wolves and Nordsjaelland, five against Manchester United, Leeds and Southampton. Our tricky trio of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar have given us sustenance in times of draught. Their play has been magnificent. Eden Hazard, after a slow start, has certainly come to life in the past three months. There have been many positives.

And so – here we were. After the disappointment of three dropped points against Tottenham on Wednesday – in which, ironically, we strengthened our league position by going two points clear of Arsenal and three clear of Spurs – we faced two remaining league matches in order to grind out the requisite three points to secure that modern Holy Grail, Champions League qualification.

As I set off at 9.30am, there was no over-riding feeling of Armageddon or Doomsday about our lunchtime encounter with Villa. I ate up the miles as I headed north to Birmingham. I turned off the M5 and drove past The Hawthorns, where a placard told the story of the next game to take place at West Bromwich Albion’s neat stadium.

Manchester United – Sunday 19 May.

I found it ironic that the graveyard for Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto di Matteo’s Chelsea stewardship will also witness the denouement of another manager’s club career.

It was midday and the traffic then stalled as I drove through the dowdy residential areas of Handsworth and Perry Bar. I received a text from Andy out in California, informing me that it was 4am and he was “on the road” to the Olde Ship in Santa Anna where his crew would watch the game. It re-emphasised how lucky I was to be able to attend in person.

“Don’t ever take all of this for granted, Chrissy-Boy.”

Thankfully, I was parked up on Willmore Road at 12.15pm and I then walked the fifteen minutes to Villa Park, with memories of drizzle last August when the area was over-run with the sky-blue followers of Manchester City.

I hadn’t dwelt too much on the make-up of the team which Benitez might chose, but one question dominated my thoughts –

“Will Frank Lampard start?”

I walked alongside a few Villa fans and I always find it interesting to “ear-wig” comments from other fans about Chelsea. I could tell that they were nervous. One son soon reeled off the Chelsea team that he thought might start to his father and I was suitably impressed. It proved that our players in our team are well known among the football world. Could I, in comparison, name many of the Villa players?

No. Quite clearly, no.

I had plans to take time out and photograph the red brick façade of the Holte End – which took its inspiration from the famous old stairs on the old Trinity Road Stand – but time was running out. I rushed pass the souvenir stalls and the fanzine sellers…”CFCUK” and “Heroes & Villains”…and there was a busy line at the away turnstiles. Thankfully, I was soon inside. Villa Park is one of the grand dames of English football stadia. Due to its central location it has often hosted F.A. Cup semi-finals. Chelsea played two consecutive semis at Villa Park in the ‘sixties, losing to Sheffield Wednesday in front of 61,000 in 1966 but beating Leeds United in front of 62,000 the following year.

This would be my fourteenth visit to Villa Park. We have enjoyed mixed fortunes over the years. Despite the size and scale of the stadium, it is not a particularly favourite away ground. I find the Villa fans to be ever so slightly too full of themselves.

I made my way up into the upper deck of the Doug Ellis Stand, formerly the single tiered Witton Lane stand, where I first ventured during two visits in 1986-1987.

There was drizzle at the start of the game; just like in August against City if memory served me correctly. I hoped for a different outcome. Alan was already in the seats; Gary arrived just before kick-off. We were right next to the wooden panels which divided the home and away spectators. The stadium seemed to be near capacity with only the executive seats in the mammoth main stand unfilled.

We took to the field in those awful black and yellow kits once more.

“OK boys, here we go.”

Of course, the sad truth is that we were pretty woeful in the first-half.

From the moment that Baker crudely tackled Juan Mata early on, it was clear that Villa were desperate for the three points. The Chelsea fans derided the home support.

“It’s so quiet, Villa Park.”

Chelsea were content to play the passing game, while Villa were looking to exploit the pace of their forwards and the apparent stiffness of our defenders. Agbonlahor – one of the few home players that I recognised – set off on a run at John Terry way down below us and the Chelsea captain just did enough to quell the danger. I didn’t fancy too many repeats of that, though.

On a quarter of an hour, Delph played the ball through to the physically impressive Benteke. I uttered the words “he’s the one to watch” just as he brushed past Cahill and deftly beat Petr Cech at the near post.

The Villa Park faithful roared.

It was their turn to mock us. The fellow residents of the Doug Ellis, mere yards away, turned towards us and chided us –

“It’s so quiet, over there.”

A claret flare was set off in the North Stand enclosure and the sulphurous fumes soon reached us. The Villa fans were in their element. After the Chelsea supporters begged of them to “speak fackin’ English” they responded.

“You all talk fanny over there.”

At least they can never ever taunt us with –

“Have you won the European Cup?”

On nineteen minutes, we stood and clapped along with the Villa fans in support of Stiliyan Petrov.

Down on the pitch, we were really struggling. Ramires was booked, Delph came close and Villa were in control. We looked tired, so tired. The isolated Demba Ba was only given scraps. However, a lofted ball from Mata found Ba inside the penalty box – alone, having evaded the offside trap, with only Guzan to beat – but his touch was heavy and the chance passed.

There was frustration and, at times, derision, in my midst. Although the Chelsea support was in good form at the start, at times during the first-half it was the quietest for some time. The rain gave way to bright sunshine, but our play was tepid and dull. Moses, especially, seemed to be lacking focus.

Then, a half-chance as Frank Lampard unleashed a free-kick at goal after Hazard was fouled. The shot was knocked onto a post by Guzan but was gathered before a Chelsea player could follow-up. These were testing times. It was also a physical battle. Referee Lee Mason brandished a yellow to Benteke for an assault on Azpilicueta. Then, a yellow card for Terry. Our thoroughly rotten first-half continued as Ramires – stupidly – tackled Agbonlahor with a high boot. His second yellow meant that we were down to ten men.

At the half-time break, all was doom and gloom in Birmingham. I personally saw no way out of this. It looked like it would be “5hit or bust” against Everton next Sunday.

“There’s no way we’ll win this, Gal.”

“The only way back into this is if they get a player sent-off too, Chris.”

We couldn’t even enjoy Amsterdam in the expected manner with the threat of a fifth-place finish on our minds. I thought of David Moyes’ awful away record against Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and United; how typical for him to get a first win in over forty games against these four teams in his very last Everton match.

Pah.

Thankfully, Benitez replaced the woeful Moses with David Luiz at half-time.

Villa – attacking the Holte End – began with several half-chances. With their pace, I really wondered if our rear-guard would hold firm. Our support was still quiet. I heard a bird sing in Aston Park.

Then, salvation. A raised foot by Benteke on Terry and – YES! – Mason showed the Villa frontman his second yellow.

“Not only are they down to ten men, Al; he’s their main threat.”

Game most definitely on.

Soon after, the ball was worked to Frank Lampard who was loitering just outside the box. He pushed the ball square – making life difficult for him, I thought – but crashed a left-footed screamer past Guzan in the Villa goal.

There is nothing better than seeing the net ripple.

It was goal 202.

It was the equaliser, in more ways than one.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

In the melee that followed, I was able to capture his run, his point skywards, his smiles, his moment. The Chelsea fans roared all around me; we were now unleashed. We were ecstatic to get the equaliser, but beside ourselves with elation for Frank to see his destiny fulfilled.

Bobby Tambling 202.

Frank Lampard 202.

With half an hour still to play, we roared the team on. With the fresher legs of David Luiz seeming to energise the players around him, we looked fresher and more confident. Villa, though, still had the occasional chance. After a Gary Cahill shot was blocked, Demba Ba followed up but the ball was again cleared from the goal line. To my eyes, some fifty yards away, I wasn’t convinced that the whole ball had crossed the line. Incoming texts – biased, of course – indicated that the ball was over, but it really was too close to call.

I fancied the day to end in our favour. I turned to Gary and said –

“Frank Lampard. Penalty. Five minutes to go.”

In truth, I was a little dismayed that I hadn’t captured Frank’s goal on film. A penalty would allow me to capture number 203 for sure.

John Terry collapsed on the floor and was clearly in pain. As he was stretchered off, I was truly saddened by the applause and cheers cascading down from the home sections of Villa Park. In all of my time watching live football, I don’t think I have ever seen a badly injured player being booed and jeered as he lay on a stretcher. We turned to the hundreds of nearby Villa fans and vented our dismay at their cruel and callous actions.

I turned to the bloke behind me, incredulous: “We never do that at Chelsea do we?”

That was it. I hoped we would score and send them down.

The chances came and went. Frank headed a chance well over and he looked very frustrated. Free-kicks from Mata and Luiz were poor. The minutes ticked by. Maybe we would have to hope for Stoke to beat Spurs on Sunday for Champions league qualification to be realised. Fernando Torres replaced Demba Ba. The last roll of the dice?

Then, the moment.

Luckily, I pulled my camera up to my eyes as Ashley Cole played the ball to Eden Hazard who skipped deep into the Villa box. I clicked as he pulled the ball back towards the onrushing Frank Lampard. With a rush of adrenalin which happens every so often at football, I watched through my lens as Frank swept the ball home.

I clicked again.

The net rippled.

The away section of Villa Park shook.

The 3,000 Chelsea fans uttered a guttural roar and I continued clicking as Frank was joined by Torres and Mata down below me. The rest of his team joined him and then many Chelsea fans jumped over the advertisement hoardings and engulfed our heroic scorer.

Frank had done it.

203.

It was an amazing turnaround to a game – and possibly a season – that was drifting away from us. How typical for Frank to single-handedly rescue our game in such breathtakingly dramatic style. That the record-breaking two goals should mean so much to our club was – perhaps, whisper it – written in the stars. They were two archetypal Lampard goals too; the blast from outside the box which swerved past the hapless ‘keeper and the classic run, perfectly timed, to meet the ball and sweep home.

The rest of the game was – as they say – a blur. Seven minutes of extra time added to the drama. Unfortunately, Eden Hazard was injured and was taken off. We were down to nine men. We withstood a late Villa rally.

It was time for one last rallying-call –

“We Know What We Are, We Know What We Are – Champions Of Europe, We Know What We Are.”

The referee eventually blew.

Everyone around me hugged and shook hands. Our joy was stratospheric.

Quickly, the players walked over to us…first Ash, then Nando, then Frank. The sun was bathing everyone in glorious light.

I snapped away as Frank smiled and laughed, spotting familiar fans in the lower tier, hugging his team mates. He was clearly relieved and overjoyed. I was so pleased for him.

Petr Cech hoisted Frank high on his shoulders and, as I continued snapping away, I fought back a tear.

How wonderful that Frank eventually beat Bobby Tambling’s Chelsea goal haul at the very ground where Bobby scored five for Chelsea against Villa way back in 1966.

Frank – a few words.

You have given me so many wonderful moments as a Chelsea supporter over the years, from the goals at Bolton for that first title in fifty years in 2005, to the emotional penalty against Liverpool in the Champions League semi-final in 2008, to the F.A. Cup Final winner in 2009, to the free-kick against Spurs at Wembley last season, to a penalty in Munich, to goals 202 and 203 at Villa Park in 2013. Your professionalism, your dedication, your spirit and your strength are much admired by us all.

We love you to bits.

On the drive home, I was blissfully happy. We had qualified for the Champions League – sure. But the over-riding feeling was of pride in Frank Lampard’s dramatic achievement on yet another momentous day in the club’s history.

…202…203…how about 204 in Amsterdam?

See you out there, Frank.

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Tales From One Of The Few.

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 8 May 2012.

So, the last domestic away trip of this roller-coaster of a season. I had booked two half-day holidays to cover my trip up to Anfield, from 1pm on Tuesday to 1pm on Wednesday. There is nothing worse than getting home from a long drive “up North” and having to get in to work after only four or five hours sleep. Unfortunately, my partner in crime Lord Parky informed me that his knee was causing him major pain and discomfort and he would not be able to accompany me on my long trip to Anfield. Suffice to say, I was sad to hear this news. He had been alongside me for all but two other domestic games this season – the aways at Wigan and Spurs – so he would be missed.

My working day was busy and I left a little late at 1.15pm. I quickly dived into the local “Tesco Express” to buy some provisions – I hate to use the term “junk food” – to keep me going. I chose to drive up on The Fosseway once again, before cutting down on to the M5 motorway at Birdlip. It was a magnificent spring afternoon to be honest. Just before I passed by “The Air Balloon” pub, I had a quick look west and the view was a beauty. The Vale of Severn was down below me, with undulating hills in the foreground and brooding Welsh Mountains away in the distance. The fields were enlivened with the bright yellow of oil seed rape. The sky was dotted with small fluffy clouds. Never has that vista seemed more breath-taking. I wish I could have stopped to take a photograph to share with everyone.

My musical accompaniment for the trip to Liverpool was the new album by Vince Clarke and Martin Gore – following on from the Depeche Mode theme of Wembley – which Parky had gifted me recently. It’s their first collaboration in thirty years and the techno-beats provided me with a perfect musical backdrop as I ate up the miles on the M5 and then the M6. With no Parky in the passenger seat, I was able to let my mind wander through memories of this season and dreams of the future. For once, I was not thinking too much about beer halls and bratwursts in Munich but of the possible joys waiting in store for the summer. Chelsea had – finally – confirmed the full US tour details and I was just finishing off my planning before booking flights. My plan is to arrive in Boston on Saturday 14 July, hire a car and tour New England (which is currently one of the parts of USA that I am relatively unfamiliar), before joining in with the madness of Chelsea in New York and then Philadelphia. I am avoiding Seattle due to financial reasons. I am avoiding Miami due to the need to be back at work on the following Monday. But two out of four ain’t bad. It mirrors my participation in the 2009 tour. It means I that I can also see Mets vs. Dodgers and Yankees vs. Red Sox baseball games, too. Throw in four days of “R & R” in New England and it’s pretty much a dream holiday for me. Oh – and the small matter of meeting up again with some good friends from various parts of the US.

My journey took me past the towns of West Bromwich, Wolverhampton and Stoke-on-Trent. Memories of those three away games this year; a hopeful draw, a hard-fought win and a woeful defeat in AVB’s last game. The landscape of England is littered with similar football memories, eh? I was aware that Ben from Boston was making his way up to Liverpool for his first-ever away game and I told him to check out the supremely clear view of Manchester from the towering Thelwall Viaduct, rising high over the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal. I was making great time and I have to say, even though I was going slightly crazy without Parky’s voice alongside me, I was loving every minute. I know some folks hate driving, but I love it. I love every part of it, from the scenery, to the geography of England, from the road-side sights, to the stops at service stations and the minutiae of a long distance football follower.

It’s what I do.

Working in transport, I have inherited a feverish tendency to check out the names of the articulated trucks which shudder past. I’ve used many of the companies in my job, of course, and I suppose it is only natural for me to relate to these monsters of the road as I travel the length of England.

Gerry Jones Transport – ah, yes, I remember that troublesome tail-lift delivery down in area 38 in France.
P&O Ferrymasters – wonder if he’s heading up to Liverpool on the night crossing to Dublin.
DHL – the rivals, the hated rivals.
Ntex – ah Tony, the operations manager, the Arsenal fan, not so chatty now are you?

Oh dear. The madness was setting in.

As I edged towards the city of Liverpool, thoughts suddenly turned towards the football. There is, of course, a very strong chance that had Chelsea lost the Cup Final on Saturday, this trip to the delights of Merseyside may well have been a trip too far for me. If I had known that Parky was not going to be able to make it, maybe the probabilities would have been further stacked against this trip. Who knows? We’ll never know. All I know is that I reached Queens Drive at around 4.45pm and I was relishing the game; game number 56 in this bizarre season. This represented a record for me in fact. It meant that my previous “bests” of 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 had been bettered by one game. Blackburn will be 57, Munich will be 58. It had taken me until the Queens Drive to witness my first Liverpool shirt of the day. Most strange.

As I approached Anfield, I was in a dilemma, though. After the festering animosity between the two clubs being heightened by the Wembley Cup Final, I was a little more wary for my safety. Stories of lone Southerners getting picked off by gangs of scallies are, of course, the stuff of legend, especially during the dark days of the late ‘seventies and early ‘eighties. There was a reason why hardly any clubs brought much away support to Liverpool in the ‘seventies. It was a tough old city and outsiders sporting different colours were given a notoriously rough ride. The Scousers love of a Stanley knife is well known.

“Have you met Stanley?”

I’ve had a couple of near escapes at Liverpool. I was chased at Lime Street after an Everton game in 1986, for example. I was lucky to get away unharmed on that occasion. Of course, things have generally calmed down now, but I was still wary. I was faced with a choice of chancing free roadside parking around 20 minutes from Anfield or secure £10 parking closer in. It was still only 5pm, so I drove around the block for a few moments trying to decide. My little journey took me past the Anfield Road stand and down the hill towards Goodison Park. For the first time, I noticed the grey murky waters of the Mersey to my west. I eventually decided to go for the safe option; I duly paid £10 and then headed up the hill towards Anfield. Outside “The Arkles” I spotted a police van. I killed a little time outside the stadium, but things were desperately quiet. Ben was now in the city centre, so I decided to head back to “The Arkles” to await his arrival. There was some sort of sure inevitability about me entering this famous old pub on the corner of Arkles Lane and Anfield Road.

“…just like a moth to a flame.”

It has historically been “the” away pub for trips to both Liverpool and Everton, though I am sure it has seen a share of the action in days gone by. Images of scallies running invading Mancunians and Cockneys around the red-bricked terraced streets before during and after games at Anfield in the late’seventies bring a chill to the bone. In those days, The Kop was the home to the fan, the “Annie Road” was the home to the scally and the hooligan element, resplendent in wedge haircut, drainpipe jeans, Adidas Trimm Tabs and Peter Storm rain jackets.

Not to worry, I peered inside the pub and spotted a couple of familiar faces. Dessie was leading the singing, Tom was quietly drinking a lager. Chelsea had taken over the side room and there seemed to be no bother. Outside, I had noticed that the boozer was now guarded by three police vans. Alan and Gary soon arrived, carrying two pints apiece. Ben arrived at about 6pm. Tom and I had spoken a little about the on-going CPO debate; like me, he was present at the two most recent meetings. We both believe that Fulham Council desperately want Chelsea to remain in their borough. The most recent statement by them surely proves that.

The Chelsea songs were continuing and despite a few songs which tested our welcome, Team Dessie thankfully decided not to air the infamous “Murderers” chant. I heaved a sigh of relief. Not to worry, though – the lager was only being served in plastic glasses.

At 7pm, Ben and I decided to leave and I took Ben (rather reluctantly, I felt…) on a circumnavigation of Anfield. I pointed out the spot where I once shook hands with Fabio Capello before the CL semi-final of 2007. Oh, those CL games – how amazing they were. They are, most probably, the main reason why we have developed as massive rivals over the past seven years. To be honest, it felt strange for me to be at Anfield on a May evening and only a mundane league game to anticipate. I lead Ben down towards the chippies on Walton Breck Road, then past the old ship’s mast from the SS Great Eastern which acts as a flag post next to The Kop. Past the impressive Bill Shankley statue, then onto the wasteland where I took an atmospheric shot of a haunted-looking Ben, against a back drop of urban blight and dereliction.

“Welcome to Liverpool, soft lad.”

I did my best to give Ben a guided tour – “there used to be a half-time gate here, the Shankly Gates were forged in my home town” – but I sensed that Ben was uneasy about being surrounded by so many red shirts. As a Yankee fan in Boston, he should be immune to it all by now. We waited outside the away turnstiles for a little. I noted many foreign fans – easily distinguished by the ubiquitous friendship scarves and an overabundance of Liverpool paraphernalia. They love their scarves, the Scousers. It’s not really a Chelsea thing. It’s more of an Arsenal thing in London, to be honest. I suppose that the Scousers feel forced to adorn scarves so that they can take part in the ritual singing of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before each game. It wasn’t always like this. In the days of my youth, when I used to listen to Bryon Butler and Peter Jones (do any of the expats remember them?) on Radio Two’s coverage of those Liverpool nights in Europe, “YNWA” would spontaneously erupt during the games on many occasions. For a young kid, listening on a small radio under the bedclothes, it was hauntingly beautiful. These days, “YNWA” seems to be part of the choreographed Anfield package; played at the start of the game on the PA, then sung at the very end of the game by The Kop. Wave that scarf high, be part of the Anfield Experience. I preferred the spontaneity of yester year.

Inside the away end, the signs were not good. I realised that hundreds of seats were going to be unused; a complete section of maybe 1,000 in the corner untouched. Elsewhere, I could sense that the mood amongst the home fans was pretty sombre. There was no pre-match buzz, no sense of occasion. In truth, this has been a disappointing season for them and the F.A. Cup Final defeat made their failings all the more apparent. I took plenty of photographs of the Chelsea players in their pre-match routines. Anfield is cavernous; the dark reaches of The Kop go back way in the distance. It held 30,000 when it was in its prime (with no gangways or walkways – when you were in, you were in) but it now holds around 12,000. It’s still pretty impressive. I once stood on The Kop – the old Kop – in 1992 and it was an amazing old stand. It was the day we won at Anfield in the league for the first time since around 1937. What a day – what a game. When I have enough time, I’ll tell you all about it one day.

The entrance of the teams. A last chance for me to look around. Our away following was poor; maybe around 1,200. However, I did note empty seats in the home areas; not many, for sure, but around 2,000 dotted around in several main sections. It was a night when I would be part of Chelsea lowest league away support for years and years. Had we lost the Cup Final, I dread to think how few would have attended.

Our team was a mix of the young and the willing, the old and the tested. Whatever will be will be.

As the teams lined up and then broke, Gerry Marsden did his bit.

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v…type=2&theater

What a disappointing game to mark the last away game of the league season.

Despite his poor showing at Wembley on Saturday, Luis Suarez (he of the Depeche Mode song in his honour) was soon buzzing around and causing our entire defence a whole host of problems. After just 7 minutes, he spun clear but shot narrowly wide. A back heel from Suarez but Andy Carroll shot wide. However, the noise levels were pretty low. The away fans taunted the natives with –

“Where’s your famous atmosphere?”

I feared for Torres, marked by Jamie Carragher, in front of 12,000 baying Scousers in The Kop. Sturridge had a run and his shot was deflected wide. From the following corner, Ivanovic almost repeated his goal from 2009, but his header struck the right post.

Then Suarez struck. A run deep in to our box and the ball was played back into the hapless Essien, who could not avoid scoring an own goal. He slid into the goal and held his head in his hands. One of the images of the season. Soon after, another JT slip let in Jordan Henderson who adroitly side-footed past Ross Turnbull. Now the natives were roaring. Thankfully, we didn’t revert to the “Murderers” chant and, instead, sang a new one –

“It’s never your fault, it’s never your fault. Always the victim, it’s never your fault.”

In the circumstances, pretty restrained stuff, Chelsea. Good to hear.

Soon after, Ross Turnbull did well to tip a Suarez chip over, but Liverpool scored a demoralising third when Agger headed in from close range.

“Fcuk off Chelsea FC – you ain’t got no history.”

This was hurting now. Andy Carroll forced a superb save from Turnbull. All around, our players were misfiring. Essien was toiling and it hurt to see him play. Romeu, so impressive when we were playing well, was off the pace in this poor performance. However, a quick break at the other end and Fernando Torres struck the bar from a ridiculously tight angle. If that had gone in, how pleased we would have been.

How pleased he would have been.

A chance for Liverpool now – a lob by that man Carroll, rejuvenated after Wembley – hit the bar. Then, calamity…from our viewpoint, Ivanovic just stood his ground with Carroll breathing down his neck, but the referee Kevin Friend decided that it was a penalty. Terrible decision. JT argued with the referee, while Torres looked ruefully on. Thankfully, Downing’s daisy-cutter slapped against the post.

Half-time. Oh boy. What a shocker.

“I’d take 3-0 now, Gal.”

In truth, it could have been 6-2 at half-time. In this season of high-scoring results between the top teams, I feared the worst.

Surprisingly, we grabbed a goal back on 50 minutes when an in swinging Florent Malouda free-kick was touched home by Ramires. Thoughts of a surprise come-back flickered through our minds, but we showed the same level of ineptitude as in the first half. On the hour, the game was over when a poor clearance by Ross Turnbull ended up at the feet of Shelvey. He took a touch, then drove it straight into the empty goal. It was another goal that I was right behind the flight of this season.

Liverpool 4 Chelsea 1.

If it stayed like this, we would have experienced our heaviest league defeat in 16 years. The previously biggest defeat was a 5-1 reverse at the same ground during the nascent growing pains of Ruud Gullit’s stewardship in the autumn of 1996.

Wait a second. Let’s think about that. Our heaviest league defeat in 16 years. That just goes to show how Chelsea have played since 1996. What an amazing period for us. In recent memory this season, United have lost 6-1, Arsenal have lost 8-2…yet our biggest defeat in 16 years was 4-1? Pretty damn amazing.

In truth, the rest of the game was memorable only for a few bursting runs from substitute Romelu Lukaku and the resilience of Ryan Bertrand at left-back. Elsewhere, we were shoddy and shocking. Lukaku headed straight at Reyna from inside the box. At 4-2, it would have matched our 4-2 defeat against City in 2010. Two more chances came and went for Andy Carroll. A header from Agger flew past the far post. At times our defending was comical, like something that the Keystone Cops would have been embarrassed to be linked with. However, despite the baying thousands in The Kop and the Main Stand, let’s reflect on this game and the previous one; an F.A. Cup win over a meaningless 4-1 defeat every time please.

I wasted no time in hurrying out at the end. There was only a short wait at the car park and I was soon on my way home. For once, I had beaten the traffic – a lot of the home fans had waited behind to see the Liverpool players perform a lap of honour.

Out on the M6, the music was on and by the time I had stopped to refuel with a pasty, a sandwich, some crisps and some “Cokes”, I can honestly say the game was drifting out of my consciousness. I was in cruise control mode now, enjoying the night driving, enjoying the music, enjoying my own company. I drove past the Chelsea supporters coach; Alan and I exchanged texts. The journey south is a familiar route. I must know every bump in the road. I eventually reached home at a fraction before 2am. The rain was now falling and I just wanted to get inside to bed.

It was a bad day at the office. Let’s hope that games 57 and 58 are not similarly bleak.

Bryon Butler : The Voice Of My Childhood.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WEPbRoA5Usw

“Maradona, turns like a little eel, he comes away from trouble, little squat man… comes inside Butcher and leaves him for dead, outside Fenwick and leaves him for dead, and puts the ball away… and that is why Maradona is the greatest player in the world.”

From the days when commentators were wordsmiths.

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Tales From Underneath The Arch.

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 5 May 2012.

During the preceding week, I was trying my best to nurture positive thoughts and the appropriate amount of anticipation ahead of the F.A. Cup Final. I will admit that I was genuinely struggling. For starters, there is no doubt whatsoever that the role of the F.A. Cup Final in the football calendar is at an all-time low. I have commented about the reasons for this on many occasions. Suffice to say, the accelerating importance of both the League and the Champions League, the huge amount of football games on TV these days, the playing of semi-finals at Wembley, the abolition of second replays, the playing of the Final itself before the league season itself has finished and the general mismanagement of The Cup by the Football Association over the years are the main reasons why we are in this current situation.

This current state of affairs leaves fans of a certain age, like me, in a bit of a predicament.

I yearn for the Cup Final Days of my youth when the world – or at least my world – would virtually stop on the second Saturday in May. Those days were wonderful. The first F.A. Cup final I remember was the centenary game of 1972 when a diving Alan Clarke header gave Leeds a 1-0 win over perennial finalists Arsenal. And the memories from the next ten years are still rich to this day. In those days, we only had three TV channels, yet BBC1 and ITV both showed the Cup Final, with saturated coverage starting from around 11.30am through to 5.30pm. It was the only club game shown “live” on TV. It was a football enthusiast’s heaven. I always favoured the BBC’s coverage, but would often channel hop to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. The heady years of Cup Finals in my mind were from 1972 through to 1983 – from the ages of 7 to 18 – and of course, Chelsea were in involved in none of them. The nearest we got to the Twin Towers in that period were the quarters in 1973 (Arsenal) and 1982 (Spurs.)

Those defeats still hurt to this day.

So – anyway – you get the picture. Despite the elation of reaching another Wembley final, part of my psyche was labouring under the burden of the fact that things would never be the same as they were in those heady days of my youth. It was tough going, but I was trying my best to get my head around it all. To be honest, the fear of losing to Liverpool was helping to concentrate my addled mind. I was getting there. I could almost see the crescent of the Wembley Arch.

And then Chelsea Football Club fcuked it up. They completely disrupted my thoughts on the Friday with the news that they (and I use the term “they” wisely) had officially bid for the site of the Battersea Power Station. Now then, I am yet to be totally persuaded that my club needs to vacate our home of 107 years, but that is not the point. The point is that the club announced this massive piece of news on the eve of The Cup Final. My Friday afternoon at work in Chippenham was spent thinking about the pros and cons of Hammersmith & Fulham over Wandsworth, Stamford Bridge over The Samsung Arena, North versus South, District Line over Northern Line, old versus new, home versus new home.

To be honest, I was livid.

But yet – how typical of Chelsea F.C. to misjudge the mood of the moment. The club, the fans and the team needed to be together ahead of the Cup Final with Liverpool, yet here they were – obviously still smarting from the CPO defeat in November – quite relishing the chance to bully a point across. Rather than focussing my mind on the game at Wembley, my mind was poisoned by the thought of myself attending the last ever game at Stamford Bridge in maybe six or seven years.

Oh boy.

Thankfully, when I awoke at around 6.30am on Cup Final Saturday, my mind was clearer and focussed on the day ahead. This was good news indeed. I took a while to decide what to wear; this is always a tough part of each match day for me…all those shirts, all those options…but even more so on Cup Final Day. I opted for the lime green of a Lacoste long-sleeved polo and the muted grey of a CP top. I knew that Parky would be similarly attired. The last time I wore a Chelsea shirt to a Cup Final was in 1994 when I wore – hoping for a repeat – a 1970 replica shirt. But more of 1994 later.

I pulled out of my drive at around 8.45am and a Depeche Mode CD was playing. The closing notes of one song ended…a pause…then –

“When I’m with you baby, I go outta my head – and I just can’t get enough, and I just can’t get enough.”

And then my brain started whirring.

“Just can’t get enough” – yep, that’s about right. I certainly can’t get enough of Chelsea. And then I remembered that Liverpool are one of the several teams who have purloined this song from under our noses and I wondered if I would rue my day beginning in this way. I remember the Scousers singing this at The Bridge in the autumn and I shuddered. A repeat at Wembley? No thanks.

Parky – yellow Lacoste polo and grey Henri Lloyd top – was collected at just after 9am and we were on our way. I had pinned two Chelsea chequered flags to my car and I was keen to see if any other Chelsea cars were similarly attired as we drove up the M4. Surprisingly, on the drive east, we only saw two other Chelsea cars – and a Liverpool mini-bus. A car glided past and I spotted a bloke with an Arsenal replica shirt at the wheel. I smirked and he tried to ignore me. By the way, can anyone explain to me why that Arsenal vs. Norwich game could not have been played on the Sunday, along with all of the League fixtures? We were sharing the billing on just another football Saturday and it wasn’t right, damn it.

We reached Chelsea at 11am and – for some reason – I wanted to drive past Stamford Bridge before parking up. In truth, the place was pretty quiet, save for Bob The T-Shirt’s stall already at work. I imagined the area being full of non-attendees come 5pm.

We began with a quiet pint at “The Prince Of Wales” at West Brompton. There was drizzle outside as we caught the tube to Edgware Road. Nearing Notting Hill, however, Andy Wray sent me a text and advised that he was at “The Victoria” at Paddington. That was perfect timing and we quickly changed our plans. Several pubs in the Paddington area seemed to be overflowing with Liverpool fans. At just after 1pm, we met up with Andy, Ben, Dave Chidgey and a couple more Chelsea fans in the cosy confines of “The Victoria.” I spoke briefly to a Chelsea fan from Vancouver. Poor Ben was suffering with a hangover. I hoped he could recover quickly. Talk was of the new Battersea Stadium and of Munich. We then caught a cab to “The Duke Of York” where the lads were already enjoying a pre-match. The pub seemed quieter than for the semi-final and previous Cup Final visits. Ben commented that the main talk inside the boozer was still of Munich. Notable absentees were Simon, Milo and Daryl – all Munich-bound, and working on Brownie Points for the day. I chatted with Ben and Andy outside. The weather was mixed. I was glad I had my jacket with me. Talk was varied. Ben spoke about the Boston Blues and Andy spoke of The Olde Shippe. It was difficult to track my mood; to be truthful, I just wanted to get up to Wembley ahead of schedule and enjoy the moment.

Andy went off with Alan and Gary at about 3.45pm. Ben came along with Neil, Ed, Parky and little old me just after. We caught the 4.15pm from Marylebone and the packed train was full of Chelsea, united in song. The carriage was rocking. Ben had recovered from his previous night’s carousing with Cathy and Kerry Dixon and was joining in like a veteran. It was great to see him leading a few choice chants. I began one song –

“If you’re standing on the corner…”

We soon pulled into Wembley Stadium and met up with a drunken band of Chelsea fans from Trowbridge, singing songs about slums and dead cats. The rain was holding off. It was a grey and decidedly dull day, though. Unfortunately, there was a horrendous delay at turnstile L at the western side of the stadium. I’m afraid to say that this caused me to miss – again! – the traditional Cup Final hymn “Abide With Me.” Our seats were in block 538, row 24. Up and up we went.

Row 24 was the very back row. Seat 363 was just to the south side of the goal. In truth, we were only around 15 yards from our dead-central position at the 2010 Cup Final.

OK, here we go. A quick scan. The Liverpool balcony was bedecked with red banners and easily out-did our end. Had somebody forgot to bring the eight to ten permanent banners at Stamford Bridge? There were small blue flags by each seat, but not many waved these. I had my cameras at the ready. I was annoyed with myself for missing the build-up, but at least I was in for the entrance of the teams.

With the two teams lined up, the Liverpool fans were still bellowing out “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” I was worried that the old habits of the ‘seventies, when Cup Final teams often sung over the national anthem, might be resurrected. Oh dear, how correct I was.

As “God Save The Queen” began, all that could be heard were the boos from the Liverpool end. However, the Chelsea fans soon out-sung the boos and the stadium was roaring by the time the last few words were being sung –

“Send Her Victorious, Happy And Glorious, Long To Reign Over Us – God Save The Queen.”

Were the boos by the Liverpool fans some sort of retaliation for the “Murderers” chants by some foolish Chelsea fans at the Spurs semi-final? Yes, for sure – but that only tells part of the story. Both Liverpool the city and Liverpool the football club see themselves as some sort of a free-spirited and anti-establishment utopia, railing against the perceived prejudices of the rest of England. They are pro-Liverpool, but anti-everything else. They are no big fans of the London government – especially a Conservative government which they still abhor for the Hillsborough aftermath, the London media, the FA. They evidently see the Royal Family as part of this picture. I have read that the Scousers were not happy that the Royal Family were not more supportive in 1989. And so it goes on. The over-whelming sense of ills being acted out against them.

There was a banner which was held aloft for a few seconds before the game began, which referenced Hillsborough once more –

“Expose The Lies Before Thatcher Dies.”

Into this mix comes Chelsea Football Club. The blue versus the red. The southern club with money but no history. The club with a history of right-wing support . The devil incarnate. Blue rag to a bull.

This Cup Final was always going to be a tinderbox in the stands.

Speaking personally, I did my best to ignore the “Murderers” chants by those around me and decided to support the team in as positive way as I could. This was my eighth cup final and it seems strange, knowing how dominant Liverpool were in my youth, that this was our first one against them. I had a further scan before kick-off and I was dismayed to see a few pockets of unused seats in our end. We had been given 25,000 seats for this game. I briefly thought back to that 1994 Cup Final when we lost 4-0 to Manchester United. We only received 17,000 for that game and yet I can well remember that we didn’t even have 17,000 members in those days. My dear friend Glenn wasn’t a member that season, but had applied for his 1994-1995 membership early. As a result, his name was put into a raffle for the last few Chelsea tickets and was overjoyed when Chelsea called him on the ‘phone to say he had been successful.

It made me realise how far we have come in eighteen years.

Less than 17,000 members in 1994.

More than 25,000 season ticket holders in 2012.

What will we be in 2030? Or – more pertinently – where will we be?

Maybe there is some sanity in Chelsea’s desire to move out of Stamford Bridge.

I put these worrying thoughts to one side as I turned my complete attention to the 2012 F.A. Cup Final. There were no surprises in the Chelsea line-up; Didier was leading the line, ready to add to his phenomenal haul of goals under the arch. I was surprised to see Craig Bellamy in the Liverpool team ahead of Andy Carroll.

Chelsea dominated possession in the first part of the game. This did not surprise me. If we were underdogs for Munich, surely we were the slight favourites for this one? We were the team in form, whereas Liverpool were floundering several places below us in the league table.

We did not have to wait long for a goal. Juan Mata was allowed time and space in the centre of the pitch and played a magnificent ball into the path of the advancing Ramires. It was eerily similar to Camp Nou. This time, there was no chip, but a low drive at Reina’s goal. Before we knew it, we were 1-0 up and the Chelsea end erupted. I was shouting like a loon, but steadied myself to capture a few of the celebrations away down below.

Wow.

Soon after, Ivanovic did well to block a Bellamy effort which was certainly goal bound. This was a cagey game, though, with few chances. A fine dribble by Salomon Kalou deep in to enemy territory petered out. Long shots from Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Kalou did not worry Reina. We rarely looked in danger, though, and I was very content to see that Luiz Suarez was having a quiet game. Downing and Bellamy were buzzing around, but our defence was in control. In the middle, our trio of Mikel, Lamps and Ramires were covering space and not allowing Gerrard much time to impose himself on the game.

The atmosphere was hardly noisy. It all seemed a little too easy. The Liverpool fans were not singing too loudly either. There was a strange feeling to the evening.

At half-time, our intelligence was insulted with a feeble attempt at entertainment and I won’t even bother explaining it.

As the teams re-entered the pitch, the Liverpool fans held their scarves aloft and sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” but even that felt half-hearted. Parky had disappeared for a beer at the break, but hadn’t made it back. The second-half began with a couple of chances for both teams. Kalou set up Ashley Cole but his shot was blocked. There was ludicrous penalty appeal by Gerrard. However, right after, a fantastic move had us all buzzing. Jon Obi Mikel played in Frank Lampard and he, in turn, slotted in a slide-rule pass into Drogba. He found himself in roughly the same area as against Arsenal in the semi of 2009 and Spurs in the semi in April. A touch, a shot, a goal. The ball was slotted in with fantastic precision at the hapless Reina’s far post and we erupted once more.

Didier has done it again.

He raced over to the far corner and I again steadied myself for snaps. His little victory jig was magnificent. Oh, how he loves playing at Wembley. Four goals in four Cup Finals. Phenominal.

Parky finally re-appeared, having been drinking a beer with Whitey when Didier’s goal had given us a hopefully unassailable lead. He didn’t look sheepish, he didn’t care. Good old Parky.

“And It’s Super Chelsea.
Super Chelsea F.C.
We’re By Far The Greatest Team the World Has Ever Seen.”

Another strong dribble from Kalou, but he shot over. A Lampard free-kick. This was all Chelsea and I was silently dreaming of more goals. Juan Mata set up Didier but he only hit the side-netting. The Chelsea choir was now in full voice. How it must have hurt the Liverpool legions to hear songs of European Cup Finals.

“Che Sera Sera.
Whatever Will Be Will Be.
We’re Going To Germany.
Che Sera Sera.”

It was the loudest Chelsea chant I have heard at new Wembley.

And then the game changed. Bosingwa lost the ball and Downing fed the ball in to Andy Carroll, the Liverpool substitute. Carroll twisted John Terry one way and then the other before rifling the ball high past Petr Cech.

The red East end roared.

Game on.

The last thirty minutes seemed to be all Liverpool. Steven Gerrard, previously marginal, was seeing much more of the ball and Carroll looked a threat. Petr Cech did ever so well to get down low to turn a Suarez shot past the post. Raul Meireles took the place of the tiring Ramires. Then Dirk Kuyt replaced Bellamy. The last throws of the dice. The final fifteen minutes.

Our celebrations were proving to be overly optimistic and premature. This was now an intensely nervous affair. Liverpool moved the ball around and we were shuffling around to repel their advances. In a way, it was Camp Nou all over again, with di Matteo’s Italian heritage putting us in good stead to quash any attacks.

On 81 minutes, Liverpool had a spare man out on the right and a great cross found the head of Carroll. I expected the equaliser. In a sudden blur of activity, we saw the header parried by a falling Cech, but we heard a roar and the subsequent run of Carroll away from the goal, celebrating again. The linesman was running away from the goal-line, his flag low. I was confused; was it a goal? Was it blocked? If it wasn’t a goal, how did it happen?

It wasn’t a goal. It was a miracle. Another Chelsea miracle.

How we love that East goal at Wembley. After the Juan Mata goal versus Tottenham, the Cech save against the Scousers. Football is indeed a matter of inches.

Just amazing.

In the final moments, Liverpool shots were either off target or bravely blocked by Chelsea defenders. It was indeed Camp Nou Mark Two. I couldn’t enjoy this though. Just like in 1973, when I sat on my grandfather’s lap watching Leeds United attack Sunderland’s goal again and again, I was clock-watching like never before. We got to 89 minutes…just like Liverpool to score then, Hillsborough and all.

Five minutes of extra time.

Still we chased and defended bravely.

At last – I watched as Phil Dowd held his whistle to his lips and blew.

Chelsea F.C. – 2012 F.A. Cup Winners.

The Liverpool players looked on as Chelsea gathered together in their half and performed a “Ring Of Roses” dance. Around me, there were smiles. Parky was in tears. The Chelsea players slowly came towards us. Didier, shirtless, led the slow advance but was soon joined by his cavorting team mates. I was relieved and happy. This was Chelsea’s seventh F.A. Cup success. The first one, in 1970, was probably the reason why I became a Chelsea fan, though the real reasons are lost in time. I have been present at all six other wins. We love Wembley and we love this cup.

Magnificent.

The Liverpool players climbed the stairs, but most of their fans had left.

How proud I was to see that line of players in royal blue slowly ascend the steps, then disappear from view…tantalisingly…then arrive on the balcony.

The cup was lifted and we roared again.

Very soon, “Blue Is The Colour” boomed around the echoing Wembley arena.

https://www.facebook.com/video/video…50888885852658

In the last closing bars of the song, I looked up at the scoreboard at the opposite end of the stadium. Just as Ossie, Chopper and co were singing “Cus Chelsea, Chelsea Is Our Name”, the cameraman picked out a young Chelsea fan. He reminded me of me, circa 1972.

Now it was my turn to wipe away the tears.

Down below me, we were in party mode. It was gorgeous.

The champagne, the dancing, the smiles, the joy…the small details.

David Luiz hogging the cup as if it was his own.

Juan Mata grabbing Fernando Torres’ arm and hoisting it up, Torres looking bashful and embarrassed.

John Terry beating his chest.

Frank looking delirious.

The cup looking larger than usual and glinting like never before.

The songs –

“Blue Day.”

“One Step Beyond.”

“The Liquidator.”

“Blue Tomorrow.”

Parky and I were one of the very last to leave the stadium. I was tired and emotionally drained. I had been stood outside the pub, on the train, at the game, my feet were on fire. We met up with Cathy and showed each other a few photos from the day. She had been right down the front, I had been right down the back. In between the two of us, thousands of Chelsea fans, thousands of memories. I spotted Andy and Ben. What stories they would have to tell their friends back home. I commented that we would be running the gauntlet at Anfield on Tuesday night.

We caught the last train out of Wembley Park at 8.30pm with the arch behind us now, lit from below and looking magnificent.

At last I could sit. I was so tired, so drained, but so happy. A Liverpool fan from work sent me a text containing a few words of congratulations, saying that the best team had won, but debated that the Cech save was really a goal. My reply to him?

“Luis Garcia.”

We made our way through central London and alighted at Earls Court. A few minutes later, we were welcomed at “Salvo’s” and were soon toasting Chelsea Football Club on another miraculous victory in this ridiculous season. Salvo mentioned that Roberto di Matteo, visiting with his blind sister back in 1996, once enjoyed a meal at his little restaurant. I reckon that Salvo should erect a plaque – a nice bug blue one – above the entrance to “Dall’Artista”to signify this.

It was now 10.30pm and we needed to return home. As we slowly walked back to the car, a Chelsea post-Cup Final karaoke was taking place in The Tournament. We peered in to see a huddle of fans standing on tables, bellowing out an Elvis Presley classic –

“I’ll guess I’ll never know the reason why
You love me like you do.
That’s the wonder.
The wonder of you.”

A few minutes later on the elevated section of the M4, I couldn’t resist a glance to the north. And there it was – the Wembley arch, illuminated still, signalling the location of our most recent triumph.

Didier’s second home.

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Tales From The Last Chelsea Weekend Of Season 2009-2010.

Chelsea vs. Portsmouth : 15 May 2010.

When I was growing up back in the ‘seventies, the only three teams to win The Double were Preston North End, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. I always used to think that the chances of any team replicating these feats were pretty remote. Back in those days, the FA Cup was won by a wider selection of teams than the current era of The Big Four. It was with some amazement when I looked on as Liverpool won the double in 1986 ( and winning the league at The Bridge in the last game of the season to boot. )

Since then, it’s all got a bit crazy.

Manchester United won their first double in 1994 ( and beat us in the FA Cup Final ). Arsenal again won it in 1998 and United won their momentous treble in 1999. Arsenal then repeated winning both League and Cup in 2002 ( and guess who they beat in the Final? ). With all of the power in English football now being narrowed to three or four financially potent clubs year on year, I can only see Doubles becoming more commonplace.

Time, then, for Chelsea Football Club to make our mark.

Throughout the week – what a week, one of the best ever – with my mind full of the thought of being Champions once more, I was buzzing with excitement not only for the FA Cup, but for thoughts of The Double.

The Double.

Just the sound of it makes me go all light-headed.

We had the day planned perfectly – the tickets, the pubs, the logistics, the accommodation, the timings – and when I left work on Friday, the whole weekend lay ahead…a tantalising thought.

FA Cup Final Day 2010 began for me with my ‘phone alarm sounding at 6am. After a few minutes of deliberation, I decided to keep the lucky Henri Lloyd polo theme going – navy blue, this weekend. I left at bang on 7am and I soon received a text from His Lordship.

“Buzzin mate. Are we there yet?”

The last five seconds of a Depeche Mode song came to an end on the CD player and then the familiar synthesised opening sequence of their version of “Route 66” started. The route from my home to Wembley Stadium is becoming my own version of The Mother Road these days. The UK version though – west to east – not the US one, headed west from Chicago to LA, more than three thousand miles all the way.

In three years, this would be Chelsea’s eighth visit to the sparkling and shiny new Wembley.

We live in interesting times, alright.

The weather wasn’t sure. It couldn’t make up its mind. I collected Parky from his house – three Chelsea flags on posts on the front lawn – and flew a similar flag from my rear window.

We were on our way.

The weather brightened but then soon clouded over. Parky opened up a can of Fosters at 8.30am and he toasted our club as we headed past the Madejski at Reading. The mood in the car was super-confident and we were both buzzing. Just a wonderful feeling of anticipation pervaded our conversation. We were parked-up at Chesson Road, just of the North End Road, at 9.30am and soon met up with two visitors from six thousand miles away. Bob Clark and Andy Wray were in town, visitors from The Golden State, and we met up at Bob’s hotel. We then caught a red London bus up to Marble Arch – a lovely route past Harrods and Hyde Park Corner – and we reached The Tyburn at about 10.30am. The sun was out and the vibes were perfect.

Several members of The Bing – Daryl, Ed, Rob, Neil and Alan – had just arrived and we greeted each other and ordered breakfasts and pints. There were a couple of Pompey fans in the pub and I wished them the best of luck.

“I think we’ll need it” said one.

We then sauntered up to The Duke Of York and stayed there from 11.30am to 1pm. The place was busier than previous years and again we spotted a few Pompey fans. Two ladies of a certain age were ridiculously attired in bizarre headwear ( one had an Appache head dress on ) and they both had the Full Monty of Pompey shirts and scarves. It’s all well and good supporting your team in the club colours, but there’s no need to look like Christmas trees. We looked on aghast. A few more troops arrived – Mike and Steve, then Alex, from the New York Chapter.

Lacoste Watch

Parky – lemon
Bob – navy blue
Millsy – white
Daryl – royal blue

Deano was inside the boozer and he had a spare. I made a few phone calls but couldn’t shift it. I’m not sure if it was used or not. I was going easy on the beer intake and didn’t fancy missing the pre-match this year. Andy left us and made his way to The Green Man at Wembley. At about 1pm, we agreed to make a move and we walked the half-mile to Baker Street tube.

We passed quite a few pubs and each one had an assortment of Chelsea fans spilling out onto the pavements. And there, opposite the tube at Baker Street, was the daddy of them all… The Globe. There were about 300 Chelsea out on the pavement, ringed by police, celery flying. We spent our pre-match in 1997 at The Globe, but it gets too manic for our liking. The tourists on the double-decker busses were looking on and I wondered what was going through their minds.

We caught the tube up to Wembley Park, the tube station which sits at the northern end of “Wembley Way” ( or rather Olympic Way to give it the correct title. ) I thought back to my first ever visit. I am not sure of the exact timings, but I am pretty confident that in around 1972 or 1973 ( before my first game at The Bridge in fact ), I managed to talk my father into visiting Wembley Stadium after we had paid a visit to an uncle in Southall. In those days, Olympic Way wasn’t pedestrianised and so my father, in his Vauxhall Viva, parked up outside one of the many warehouses and exhibition halls and we walked up to the grand old stadium, site of so many incredible football games from its debut in 1923. I remember scampering around, walking up to the base of the Twin Towers, like it was yesterday. The abiding memory is of the dirty cream colour of the towers and the battle-ship grey of the stadium walls. It was certainly in need of a lick of paint, but it looked wonderful. It had presence, even to a seven year old.

We – SF Bob, NY Mike, NY Steve, NY Alex and myself – slowly walked towards the stadium, the arch dominating the skyline. The arch is obviously much higher, but nothing can beat the Wembley towers for visual impact in my mind. All that history, all those memories from 1923, 1953, 1970, 1997 and more. The White Horse Final, Sir Stanley Matthews, Ian Porterfield, Bobby Stokes, Alan Sunderland, Ricky Villa, the Scousers scaling the walls in 1986, Robbie Di Matteo…

Outside the imposing Bobby Moore statue, which overlooks the whole area, I briefly met my Pompey mate Rick and his excited eight year old son Matthew. From the darkness of our sixth form days when our teams were in Divisions Two and Three to an FA Cup Final together. What a wonderful moment as we smiled and shook each others hands.

Then, inside the stadium and the walk up to the top level…I was saddened to see that none of the escalators were working. I was wondering if the Tory governmental cuts were already having an effect. We had seats right behind the west scoreboard, as central as it is possible to get. I was inside at just after 2pm. I scrambled down to the front of the upper tier and painstakingly tied “VINCI PER NOI” to the balcony. I didn’t think either team had many flags and banners and I wondered why none of the large Chelsea banners which are ever-present at The Bridge had made it to North London. Looking back, my banner may well have been the longest Chelsea banner present. It was it’s first appearance at Wembley, actually. I hoped Carlo might spot it. At the other end, more Pompry fans were inside early and I noted a couple of their flags –

“Against All Odds.”

“You Can’t Break Our Spirit”

“PFC 6.57”

The sun was shining now, but the place was quite subdued. There was none of the manic noise of 1997. I looked around and thought about how football has changed in my lifetime. When I was growing up, it was all about the atmosphere and the songs, the sense of belonging, the sense of making our own noise. In 2010, each fan was given a flag to wave, but the atmosphere seemed contrived. My mate Alan said as much to me as we chatted, waiting for our other mates to arrive. It’s a familiar irritant – the football may be better, but not the singing. Maybe we’re getting complacent. I don’t think the vastness of the new stadium at Wembley helps.

Unlike last year against Everton, when we arrived late and missed all of the pre-match – I swore never to be so disrespectful to the FA Cup Final ever again – I was able to sit back and take it all in. My match day companions Alan and Tom were in too. At about 2.45pm, the marching band appeared and a young female singer beautifully sang the Cup Final hymn.

“Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.
The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee.
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Hold now your cross before my closing eyes.
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks and Earth’s vain shadows flee.
In Life. In death. Oh Lord – abide with me.”

I love this hymn and my bottom lip is usually quivering during the singing of this. However, in 2010, it seemed nobody else shared my sense of occasion and hardly anyone was joining in. This is again different to Cup Finals past. I remember bellowing it out in Cardiff in 2002. Oh well. Thankfully, once the teams entered the field and were presented to Prince William, lots joined in with “God Save the Queen.”

The Chelsea team provided no surprises for us. The new kit looked fine, at least from a hundred yards away. The pitch looked awful. All of my mates were alongside me now. We hoped for no repeat of Louis Saha. At kick-off, I noted many empty seats and some remained unused all game. The attendance was around 1,000 below capacity.

What a crazy first-half.

Chelsea enjoyed so much of the ball and constantly tried to move the ball into the danger areas. Our attacks were frequent and our chances came regularly. The Chelsea fans were in reasonably good voice but were not able to sing together as one unit. Portsmouth were not as loud as I had expected, despite their more rigorous flag-waving. Shots reigned in on the Portsmouth goal – and I almost lost count. A Frank shot flashed wide, then he saw a shot graze the angle of bar and post and Didier Drogba had two attempts blocked by James. On a rare break up field, a Portsmouth shot was diverted and Petr Cexch pulled off one of the saves of the season. Stupendous stuff from Big Pete.

Our support was heavily reliant on the “Campeones” chat and at times we were in good voice.

Ashley Cole had a great run deep into the Pompey box and he set up Salamon Kalou who was waiting in the area, just outside the six yard box and the whole goal at his mercy. We got ready to celebrate. He shot, but it hit the bar and the groan was heard all over the South-East. Soon after, JT hit the bar with a brilliant header. On 38 minutes, Didier hit a swerving shot which David James clawed the ball onto the bar, but the ball bounced tantalisingly close to the goal line. I envisaged the TV crews going into meltdown to see if the ball crossed the line. Texts were adamant that it was a goal, though later in the day, texts had the opposite view. Soon after, Didier hit the post again. This was just ridiculous.

Chelsea 5 Portsmouth 0 – if only!

It seemed that lots of spectators were late in getting back to their seats for the start of the second half, the corporate areas especially.

The first period of the second-half was rather worrying. Our domination had subsided and Pompey were enjoying a marked improvement in fortunes. Our end was quiet.

Michael Ballack was injured and was replaced by Juliano Belletti. It seemed that he had only been on the pitch for a few seconds when he had lost his man. My mate Alan sensed the danger and shouted –

“Don’t dive in! Don’t dive in!”

Belletti made an awful challenge and referee Chris Foy had no choice but to point towards the spot.

I decided not to take a photo of the penalty which followed – some kind of superstition I think. Thank heavens Peter Cech kicked the ball away with his trailing leg as he dived to he left. Seeing the ball bounce away is an image that will live long in my memory. That got us bouncing and the Chelsea end began roaring the team on.

“And it’s super Chelsea – Super Chelsea FC.”

Soon after Cech’s fantastic save, a free-kick was awarded and we waited for Drogba.

How he loves Wembley.

I steadied my aim and held the camera, zoom lens to the max.

As he shot, I snapped. We all saw the ball drift in to the goal off the far post and we erupted in a wild roar. Alan and myself grabbed each other and bounced.

“They’ll have to come at us now – Come on my little diamonds.”

For a moment, I felt dizzy, with blood rushing through my body – what a buzz.

Our end was did a bouncy and reminded everyone who was champions.

Soon after, Kalou shot wide and it hadn’t been his best of days. He was substituted by Joe Cole. Didier was put through, one on one, but James made another great save. The ball rebounded back to Joe Cole but his shot was subsequently blocked. We peppered the Pompey goal, but we had a scare of our own when a rare Portsmouth attack ended up with the ball being struck low across the six yard box. Thankfully no attackers were near.

A new Chelsea song –

“We’re Making History.”

Late on, we moved forward again and Joe Cole took the left back wide with a great run off the ball. Frank Lampard was able to exploit the space left and he drove into the box. Frank was fouled and we held our breath again. This time I was a little more willing to capture everything on film.

I snapped just before Frank scuffed the penalty wide. It was typical of Frank’s game as he had not enjoyed the best of performances really.

I thought Alex had been magnificent, covering space so well. Big Pete with two fantastic saves. John Terry solid at the back. The inevitable Drogba Wembley goal.

Towards the end, a few hundred fans in the top tier began clapping and urged everyone not to worry.

At the final whistle, I was quite dazed.

We then stood back and tried to take it all in. It was the same feeling as 2009. Just lovely to see everyone so happy.

The Portsmouth fans – and Uncle Avram – were warmly applauded. They received their medals.

We then waited for our heroes in blue. John Terry seemed to want to share centre-stage with the rest of the team and there was quite a wait until everyone was in position. For the sixth time in our ever-growing history, the Football Association Challenge Cup was tied with blue and white ribbons and for the sixth time, a Chelsea captain raised it high.

Snap. Snap. Snap.

The air was filled with silver and blue streamers and – almost immediately, perfectly – “Blue Is The Colour” filled the North London air. This lovely song immediately transports me back to my youth – maybe to around 1972, when houghts of The Double would have been just silly. We all joined in, singing every word, loving the shared experience.

“Cus Chelsea – Chelsea Is Our Name.”

Then, the Black Eyed Peas –

“I’ve Got A Feeling – Tonight’s Gonna Be A Good Night.”

You bet.

Next up – “One Step Beyond” and the stands were vibrating as 25,000 Chelsea fans bounced.

We made our way back to the Duke Of York and had a lovely relaxing time, drinking, chatting. I had a few more beers and Parky bought me a gin and tonic.

A double – of course.

We caught a cab back to Earl’s Court and ended-up at Salvo’s. After a little deliberation, we decided not to head back to The Bridge, but instead stay for a few hours at this homely Italian restaurant, much beloved by us all. Bob, Parky, Steve and Mike were then joined by Rob, Andy, Sophie and Woody – then Danny. We drank some Peronis and watched the Cup Final replayed on about three different channels – in English, in Italian, in Spanish. We chatted about the season, but also about the future and we raised our glasses to our great club.

We each had some food and it was a lovely, relaxed time. I had visions during the week of throwing beer down my neck in celebration of our historic win, but it in all honesty it was all rather sedate and civilised.

As we said our goodbyes at about midnight, Salvo appeared with a bottle of champagne and sprayed us all with it. It was a crazy gesture – I was stunned – but we were all cowering as the champagne ended up all over our designer clothes. It was a funny and spontaneous end to quite an amazing season.

In a scene reminiscent of Baltimore in the summer, Bob, Parky, Rob and myself settled down to a night in a crowded hotel room. We slept fitfully through the night and by 8am, we were all awake.

On the Sunday, I was still in a Blue Daze.

We had breakfast – The Breakfast Of Champions – and made our way to The Bridge. Inevitably, we found ourselves with the New York Blues, then Pete from San Francisco – and then even more inevitably we ended up in The Imperial – Matthew Harding’s preferred pub – on the Kings Road. We had some more drinks and watched the Chelsea coaches leave the West Stand entrance. At about 1.20pm, we popped outside and waited on the pavement for our heroes to appear.

The first bus appeared over the bridge and I began snapping.

There it was, emblazoned on the bus.

“The Double 09-10.”

At last, it had all sunk in.

Oh boy.

The busses slowly approached us and my camera clicked away. Rob was upstairs getting great video film of the players’ wild celebrations. JT and Frank were at the front and it was magical to see the looks of excitement and joy on their faces.

The front of the bus passed me and I just looked up at the rest of the players, Chelsea scarves knotted around their necks.

“Come On My Boys – Come On My Boys – Come On My Boys.”

Back in the pub, there was Cathy and Mo, who were there right from the very start.

What a blast.

What a weekend. What a week. What a month. What a season.

The best pre-match ever in Baltimore, the last minute winners at Stoke and Burnley, the trip to Madrid, men against boys at The Emirates, the Watford game on my Mum’s birthday, the disappointment of Inter, the car drive home from Ewood Park, the Wednesday night in Portsmouth, the phenomenal trips to Old Trafford and Anfield, the 8-0 against Wigan, the Cup Final, the goals, the goals, the goals.

Our most successful season ever.

Chelsea Football Club – I salute you.

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Tales From Wembley.

Chelsea vs. Everton : 30 May 2009.

So, the final on Saturday had all of Britain glued to their TV sets. I am sure they weren’t disappointed.

Well done Diversity – worthy winners.

…bad luck, Susan Boyle!

I jest…

With the Champions League Final taking place on the Wednesday, the media coverage of this year’s FA Cup Final has been very low-key. The fall-out to United’s non-performance in Rome was still being discussed everywhere on Friday. Our game with Everton wasn’t getting much of a mention.

For the record, this was Chelsea’s ninth Cup Final. We were losing finalists in 1915, 1967, 1994 and 2002, but winners in 1970, 1997, 2000 and 2007. My life as a Chelsea fan began with the 1970 win versus Leeds, though I remember nothing of the game…it was the discussions in the school playground after which led me to choose Chelsea…surely more success would follow. If only I knew!

I am sure everyone is aware of our lack of success in the league from 1955 to 2005. Growing up as a kid in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, I had to endure year after year of taunts from friends as Chelsea flitted in and out of the top two divisions. It was a tough upbringing and not even the FA Cup could bring me any respite. In fact, we were even worse in the cup than the league. From our appearance in the 1970 final to our next appearance in a final in 1994, we did not reach one single FA Cup Final. As a comparison, here is a list of the London teams who reached the FA Cup Final in this period.

1971-Arsenal
1972-Arsenal
1975-Fulham and West Ham
1978-Arsenal
1979-Arsenal
1980-Arsenal and West Ham
1981-Tottenham
1982-Tottenham and QPR
1984-Watford
1987-Tottenham
1988-Wimbledon
1990-Crystal Palace
1991-Tottenham
1993-Arsenal

Doesn’t that make grim reading? Look at some of those teams…Fulham! QPR! Wimbledon! In this period of time, my team Chelsea did not even reach one FA Cup semi-final!

Yes it was as bad as that.

Every year, I watched the FA Cup Final on TV in early May and wondered if I had not read the small print on my Chelsea Fan Contract…years of under-achievement guaranteed. Throw in three relegations for good measure, too…what a period in our history.

A terrible 0-4 defeat to Manchester United in the 1994 Final rubbed salt in the wound, but all of this hardship – 26 years with no trophies – was forgotten on a never-to-be-forgotten day in 1997 when we beat ‘Boro 2-0 and celebrated like never before. I still get goose-bumps at the thought of that wonderful weekend. In fact, immediately after this game, for quite a period, I felt as if my relationship with my club had been irretrievably changed…I was now supporting a successful team and my brain and body did not know how to cope. I felt very odd. For so long, we wore the “no trophies but passionate support” mantle as a badge of honour and now…I don’t know…it seemed different, somehow.

Wembley 1997 was up there with the very best though…only behind Bolton 2005 in my book.

All these dates in our history…

And here’s more history – as you know, I have been harking back to 1983-84 all season and for this final game, my mind went back to May 1984. After the game against Barnsley, I did something very silly – I went and got myself a job in a local dairy. I hated the first few days to be honest…I was forever humming words from a Smiths’ song…”I was looking for a job and then I found a job and heaven knows I’m miserable now.” Our last game was at Grimsby but I was not going…I had made no plans, though I suppose with my first ever job starting on the Thursday, I could have gone up by train. Not to worry – I had enjoyed a good run in 1983-1984; a best ever eleven games.

Two other strange echoes from 1984…

Everton reached the FA Cup Final and the European Cup Final was held in Rome.

Back to 2009. On Thursday, over a period of an hour, my Cup Final Weekend plans took a hammering…first we were to learn that Saturday evening’s Depeche Mode gig was cancelled and then we heard that Friday’s Morrissey gig was cancelled too!

Gutted!

I was going to stay with Alan for the weekend, but these plans changed…I would now be going up with Karen, Dave, Glenn and PD.

The Frome Five set off at 8am and it was already a lovely sunny morning. Unfortunately, PD is not renewing his season ticket next season but all of my other mates are doing so. There wasn’t too much chat about the Final on the way up…the only thing I remember discussing was the likelihood of Mikel coming in for Ballack…and the likelihood of Everton packing their midfield, leaving only Saha up front.

“And he’s rubbish” I said.

We marked the likely starting line-up’s performances this season.

Cech 6
Bosingwa 6
Cole 7
Terry 7
Alex 8
Mikel 6
Essien 6
Lampard 9
Malouda 6
Drogba 7
Anelka 8

Nearing London we hit some bad traffic caused by a crash by Twickenham. We reversed down the motorway slip-road along with many more cars ( quite illegal ) and headed in via some back roads around Heathrow and then the M4. We were parked up by 10.15am, but were behind schedule. The others were meeting in a pub at Marble Arch, but we had our usual breakfast in Fulham. We walked to West Brompton – that breeze was nice! – and caught the tube to Marble Arch. Then a quick walk up to The Duke Of York where the rest of the lads were now based. We arrived at 11.45pm.

What a pre-match…fantastic times!

Simon, Milo, Rob, Gary, Alan, Daryl and Ed were already there. And…Neil?

The first bit of good news involved Neil who was originally unable to get a ticket. His nephew Ed had fatefully bumped into a bloke at a gym on Thursday who “knew someone who knew someone” who had a spare. An hour later, Neil was booked on a flight from Guernsey. I was made up for him.

Detroit Bob had been in touch and he was sat around the corner with a pint of Strongbow…I first met him in Chicago in 2006. I introduced him to the boys and I downed a pint of Staropramen. Russ from Frome showed up and he had a ticket from a mate working at ITV. Then Mike and Alex from New York rolled in, minus Chopper, who was ill in bed.

I pinned my Peter Osgood flag up against the pub window and a few photos were taken. The sky was clear, the sun was shining and the beers were going down smoothly. I chatted to Mike, Bob and Alex, but felt a bit bad about it. All of these friends from America can’t be ignored, but I hardly spoke to Alan and Gary, for example. A special word for these two stalwarts. It has been a long season and the game at Wembley would be my 55th game, matching my total number of games in 2007-2008. However, Alan and Gary had been to all 59 games. A fantastic performance.

Lacoste Watch

Daryl – canary

Alex had been lucky enough to go to the Boca vs. River Plate game in Buenos Aires and he regaled me with amazing stories from that game. We spoke a little about the summer tour…Mike and Bob are doing all four, Alex just Baltimore. I had brought the visitors from The States a little gift from Somerset – a little bottle of scrumpy cider apiece.

Good times.

Walnuts and Whitey showed up – alas without tickets – and then Andy and Smithy.

With everyone now assembled, I ushered everyone together and took a few photos of The Bada Bing Firm, with invited guests! The only absentees were Parky, who was getting hammered at The Bridge, and San Francisco Pete, who never made it to the pub despite promptings!

The plan…ha!…was to leave between 1.30pm and 1.45pm so I could get in to the stadium in good time to put up my Peter Osgood banner. One drink lead to another and we eventually left for Marylebone at just before 2pm. On the walk to the station, I chatted to Rob about the game in Baltimore and he was keen to go. He had been drinking amoretto all day…”Amoretto, Chelsea Amoretto” was sung with gusto!

Massive crowds at the station forecourt and a frustrating time. The station echoed to Chelsea songs. Good vibes, but let’s get going! We eventually got through and got into an empty carriage. The train didn’t move for ten minutes as the carriage filled-up. We pulled away at about 2.30pm, but thank heavens, it’s only a ten minute trip. I had awoken at 6.45am with a sore throat, but I didn’t care.

I led the singing with a classic “Zigger Zagger” ( oh, my throat! ) and the carriage was rocking.

On the quick walk up to the stadium, I noted only Chelsea fans heading towards the game. Just a gaggle of Evertonians – ticketless, miserable – heading in the opposite direction. It was now 2.50pm and so much for my plans! Quickly inside and up several escalators, bumping into Andy from Trowbridge and Fun Time Franky from Frome at the top. In the two minutes inside Wembley, Frank had managed to lose his ticket. Nightmare!

I heard the national anthem – I was fed up I had missed all of the pageantry this year – and made my way into my seat in row 11 of section 544 high above the far corner flag. There were eight of us in a row. Great seats. I glanced around. I had got in at 2.55pm. I wouldn’t be able to pin my Ossie flag up…not yet anyway. I noted the balcony in the Everton end absolutely festooned with flags, yet our balcony was only a third-covered. Our big flags though – JT, Frank, Matthew Harding – were out in force. I saw that Mikel was playing…good.

At 3pm I took a photo of Saha and Fellaini waiting for the kick-off whistle.

After 12 seconds, I took a photo of the ball being pumped upfield.

After 25 seconds, misery.

What a start. Oh boy. Here we go. We’ll have to do this the hard way. So be it. To be fair to everyone, we didn’t panic and stroked the ball around confidently. I had no doubts that we would win. I sent a text message out to a few people to this effect.

Malouda was getting lots of space down the left and after a fine cross, Drogba lept with no challenge from the defenders. I was perfectly positioned to see the ball drop straight into the Everton goal…I was watching the trajectory of the ball and it was a joy to behold.

Get in! I grabbed my camera and took two impromptu shots of Glenn and Daryl. They are classics!

We continued to dominate for the rest of the half and our support, out sung by the Evertonians, grew louder. It was definitely a case of “game on!”

During the interval, I grabbed my Peter Osgood flag and marched down to the front. I carefully threaded some string and hung the flag up, high above the NW corner flag. I sent a few texts out and asked people to keep an eye out for it. Way across the stadium in the lower tier, Mike from New York took a photo of it. Pete from San Francisco, too. I kept scanning the crowd to see if I had missed anything, any detail, any flag or banner…I couldn’t help but notice a block of about 25 empty seats in the Chelsea upper tier on the other side to me. I’d love to know how and why they never got sold. Very strange.

Everton came back into the game a little after the break, but our defence was rarely troubled. Essien had been replaced by Ballack and our dominance continued. With about twenty minutes to go, the ball broke to Frank and I wanted him to move it out to Malouda. What do I know? He stumbled, regained his balance and unleashed a belter past Howard.

The net bulged.

The Chelsea end, yellow and blue, erupted. I tried to take a few snaps of Frank celebrating, but the lens found it difficult to focus with all of the arms in the way. Hugs with Tom and Glenn. We were back in front in a repeat of the semi-final…1-0 down, 2-1 up. Lovely.

Soon after Lamps was booked for a silly dive – the only blot on another exceptional performance by him. JT may be our captain, but I think this season Frank has become our leader. The Malouda whizzbang shot looked like it didn’t cross the line, but it apparently did. Not to worry.

We waited for Howard Webb to blow the final whistle and it was a lovely moment when we heard that shrill sound.

I then took many more photos of the following thirty minutes…during the course of the day, I took around 275…I will put a lot of these on my Facebook page.

It was odd to see us playing in yellow, but on that perfect sunny day in North West London it just made it even more special.

“Yellows!”

What a wonderful time we had, clapping and singing, shouting our praises. I like to think that the appearance of Peter Osgood made all the difference – it was but a fleeting appearance as my flag had to be taken down as it was spoiling the view of the denizens in the Club Wembley seats.

JT lifted the cup and I snapped away. Silver and blue streamers floated down from the sky.

Snap, snap, snap.

“Blue Is The Colour” echoed around and, unlike 1984, the acoustics were very very loud. I love that song. Then “Blue Day” – memories of 1997. Then “The Liquidator” – the place rocking now. Lastly, “One Step Beyond” – I look back and there are Simon, Daryl, Alan and Gary doing a Nutty Boys Shuffle, with Milo doing a “Britain’s Got Talent” solo dance in the row in front.

Hilarious. Smiles all around.

At about 5.30pm, we eventually left, but I lost the others, too busy texting somebody or other. Out in the sun, smiles from Chelsea and songs from Everton. Detroit Bob bumped into me and then I found myself right behind Russ in the queue for the train. Good times. Russ had a ticket in the Everton end and had to bite his lips on many occasions.

The three of us caught the 6.15pm train back to Marylebone. I said to Bob that it was deathly quiet…I began singing

“We won the cup, we won the cup – ee-aye-adio, we won the cup.”

Apart from Bob, not a single Chelsea fan joined in.

“You should be ashamed!” I said. Not a flicker. Is this the club we have become?

We met up at the Duke Of York at 6.45pm…two more pints of Staropramen…lots of hugs and handshakes. Chelsea historian Ric Glanville was there – always a pleasant chap – and I had a few words. Chopper joined us and he was his usual ebullient self. Still blue skies overhead. However, Glenn and myself had a big dilemma. Our drive home was waiting for us at West Brompton. Damn! We finished our pints and shook hands with everyone.

“Love ya.”

We sloped off at 7.15pm. Detroit Bob was with us and he was headed down to The Bridge. By the time we had reached Marble Arch tube, he had talked us into crashing at his hotel on the North End Road…let the pub crawl continue! Glenn spoke to his wife Sara and all was cool. We took a 74 bus down to Earl’s Court and popped into The Prince Of Wales and then The Lillie Langtry where we met Dutch Mick and his crew. It was still only 8.30pm. We caught a bus down to The Bridge, expecting the place to be jumping.

What a let down. We popped into Frankie’s – formerly The Shed Bar – and there were only about twenty people inside. We had a beer and left. The whole of the Fulham Road appeared quiet and subdued.

A big disappointment! In 1997, the place was buzzing…there was a sofa in the middle of the road at Fulham Broadway I remember.

By this time, Glenn was past it, so we tucked him up for the night in Detroit Bob’s hotel, then back to The Lillie for a couple more. We ended up, inevitably, at Salvo’s at 11.30pm. More Peronis, more pizza, the game highlights on TV…Bob was still yakking but I was getting tired. As a nightcap, Salvo poured us out some grappa on the house and we eventually left at 2am.

It had been a great day.

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