Tales From Stamford Bridge To Wembley

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 14 May 2022.

I am sure that I wasn’t the only Chelsea supporter who wasn’t a little fearful going into the 2022 FA Cup Final against Liverpool at Wembley. On the early morning drive into London – I collected PD as early as 6am – the feeling was of worry and impending doom. As has been proven by the league table – “the league table does not lie, it just sits down occasionally” – we are a fair distance behind both Liverpool and Manchester City this season, as we were last season and the season before it. Additionally, a defeat at the hands of the Scousers would mean a record-breaking third consecutive FA Cup Final loss. And that thought was just horrible too.

But, bollocks to all that, we were off to Wembley again and we kept ourselves contented with the usual badinage of wisecracks as I ate up the miles. I was hopeful that one of the great FA Cup Final weekends was upon us. We all live in hope, right?

But first, a walk down memory lane.

1972.

The first FA Cup final that I can ever remember watching took place in 1972. It was between Arsenal and Leeds United. My best friend Andy was an Arsenal fan, though I can’t honestly remember wanting them to win. I was a neutral. I can still remember a few bits about the day. I was six, coming up to seven, and already a mad-keen Chelsea supporter. I remember that it was the centenary of the first competition that took place in 1872, though of course not the actual one-hundredth final due to the wartime interruptions. I remember representatives of all of the previous winners parading around the perimeter of the old Wembley pitch with flags. I was proud to see the Chelsea flag. Leading up to the final, Esso were running a promotion celebrating the game. Collectible coins – to go in an album – were rewarded for petrol purchases. Suffice to say, I must have pleaded with my father to only fuel up at Esso for a few weeks. I still have the album, completed, to this day.

I remember Allan Clarke, from around the penalty spot, scoring with a diving header and David Coleman exploding “one-nil” as if the game was over at that exact moment. I can recall Mick Jones dislocating his shoulder as he fell awkwardly attempting a cross and hobbling up the steps to the royal box, bandaged like a mummy. Fifty years ago. Bloody hell. Looking back, this is the very first club game I can remember seeing live, though I am pretty sure the England vs. West Germany game just one week before it is the first full game I saw live on TV. Or at least the first I can remember seeing.

I think.

1973.

The FA Cup Final was huge in those days. It was the only club game shown live on TV – both channels – and would remain that way until 1983 apart from rare one-offs. On a trip to London in the autumn of 1973 we called in to see Uncle Willie, my grandfather’s brother, at either his house in Southall or at a nursing home at Park Royal (where my father would park for my first Chelsea game in 1974, but that is – and has been – another story.) After the visit, my father granted my wish to drive up to see Wembley Stadium. That I had not asked to see Stamford Bridge is surprising from fifty years away, but I am sure that my father would have been intimidated by the thought of traffic in those more central areas.

Wembley it was.

I can vividly remember sitting in his car as we wended our way up to Wembley. On that fateful cab trip to Wembley for the “aborted” FA Cup semi-final recently, I half-recognised the journey. I have always had a heightened sense of place and a recollection and memory of places visited in other times.

I remember Dad parking off Olympic Way and me setting eyes on the magnificence of the historic stadium. It sat on top of an incline, and the twin towers immediately brought a lump to the throat of the eight-year-old me. I remember walking up to the stadium, the steps rising to the arched entrances, the dirty-cream colour of the walls, the grass embankments. I veered left and possibly tried to peer down the tunnel at the East End, an end that would become known as the “lucky tunnel end” for FA Cup Finals over the next few decades. The stadium was huge. However, it needed a bit of a clean-up. It looked a bit grimy. But I loved the way it dominated that particular part of North London. The visit has stayed etched in my mind ever since even though I was only there for maybe twenty minutes.

“Come on Chris, we need to head home.”

I can almost picture my father’s worried look on his face, chivvying me on.

1997.

Our appearance in the 2022 FA Cup Final provided a perfect time to recollect our appearance in the much-loved 1997 FA Cup Final; the quarter of a century anniversary.

Here are my recollections.

The 1996/97 season was a beautiful one, but also a sad one. The death of Matthew Harding in October 1996 hit all of us hard, and the immediate aftermath was tough on us all. Remarkably, our spirits rose not so long after Matthew’s tragic death when we signed Gianfranco Zola from Parma. It felt like, in the same way that getting Mickey Thomas in 1984 completed that wonderful team, the signing of the Italian magician helped complete the team being assembled by Ruud Gullit.

The FA Cup run was the stuff of legends. I went to most games.

West Brom at home : an easy win, 3-0.

Liverpool at home : the greatest of games, losing 0-2 at half-time, we turned it round to triumph 4-2.

Leicester City away : a 2-2 draw, I watched on TV.

Leicester City at home : Erland Johnsen’s finest moment and a Frank Leboeuf penalty gave us a 1-0 win in extra-time.

Pompey away : a 4-0 win in the mist, I watched on TV.

Wimbledon at Highbury : 3-0, a breeze, Zola’s twist to score in front of us in the North Bank.

On the Thursday before the Cup Final itself, we watched Suggs perform “Blue Day” on “TOTP” and the pleasure it gave us all is unquantifiable. Everything was well in the world, or in my world anyway. In the January of 1997, I was given a managerial job in my place of employment, a bit more dosh to follow the boys over land and sea, and maybe even Leicester next time.

On the Saturday of the final, a beautiful sun-filled morning, Glenn drove to London with two passengers; our friend Russel, eighteen, about to sit his “A Levels”, and little old me. I was thirty-one with no silverware to show for years and years of devotion to the cause. We parked-up at Al’s flat in Crystal Palace, caught the train at the local station, changed at Beckenham Junction and made our way to “The Globe” at Baker Street via London Bridge. We bumped into a few familiar faces from our part of the world – can you spot PD? – and enjoyed a sing-song before heading up to Wembley Park.

Funny the things I remember.

Lots and lots of singing on the way to Wembley. We felt unbeatable, truly. Ben Shermans for Daryl and myself. Lots of Chelsea colours elsewhere. I had just bought a pair of Nike trainers and I had not worn the bastards in. They pinched my feet all day long. We posed for my “VPN” banner underneath the twin towers. However, I tried to hoist it once inside, using small sticks, but was immediately told to hand it all in at a “left luggage” section in the concourse. Our seats were low-down, corner flag. Unfortunately, I had a killer headache all bloody game.

The Roberto di Matteo goal after just forty-three seconds was insane. Limbs were flailing everywhere. Oh my fucking head.

The dismal 1994 FA Cup Final was recollected, briefly. For that game, we only had about 17,000 tickets and it seemed that all neutral areas were United. In 1997, all the neutral tickets seemed to be hoovered up by us. Not sure how that worked to this day. I remember virtually nothing about the game except for Eddie Newton’s prod home at our end to make it safe at 2-0.

When Wisey lifted the famous silver pot, twenty-six years of waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting were evaporated.

It was always going to be “Matthew’s Cup” and so it proved. At the time, it was the best day of my life. Since, I have had two better ones; Bolton in 2005 and then Munich in 2012. But for anyone that was supporting the club on Saturday 17 May 1997, it was a feeling that was pretty indescribable.

So I won’t even try. Just look at the fucking pictures.

After the game, I remembered to collect my banner but I don’t remember how we reached Fulham Broadway. It seemed that all of the bars around the stadium had closed. We weren’t sure if this was because there was no beer left or if the police had said “enough.” One image stays in my mind. The Fulham Road was still closed for traffic and a sofa was sat in the middle of the road. Thankfully, we de-camped to our pub of choice that season, The Harwood Arms, and Pat and his three “Sisters of Murphy” let us in.

If there is a more blissful photo of Chelsea fans from that day – Neil, me, Daryl, Alan, Glenn outside the pub – then I would like to see it. We made it back to South London via Earls Court and God knows where else. We watched the game, taped, when we reached Alan’s flat late that night. We fell asleep happy.

On the Sunday morning, the big man made us breakfasts. We all hopped into Glenn’s car and made our way back to Fulham with “Blue Day” playing on a loop the entire day. Both Alan and I took our camcorders for the parade. The film I have of us driving along Wandsworth Bridge Road, Chelsea bunting everywhere, is a wonderful memory of another time, another place, lost in time.

We plotted up outside the old tube station. The double-decker with Chelsea players stopped right in front of us. Photographs. Film. Everyone so happy. Fans wedged on shop roofs. Almost hysteria. Chelsea shirts everywhere. A wonderful weekend.

2022.

I made good time heading East. The roads were clear. As I was lifted over the Chiswick flyover, we all spotted the Wembley Arch a few miles to the north. Maybe it thrills the current generation in the same way the Twin Towers used to thrill others…

In the pub against Wolves, some friends from the US – step forward Chad, Josh and Danny – said we could kip in their AirB’n’B for the Saturday night. The plan was, originally, for me to drive up and back and therefore be unable to partake in a few bevvies. This kind offer solved that problem. But this wasn’t just any AirB’n’B…this was a little studio flat right underneath the old Shed Wall at Stamford Bridge.

“From Stamford Bridge To Wembley” was about right.

But first a magic breakfast at a café in Hammersmith.

Sausages, fried eggs, baked beans, bacon, hash browns, mushrooms, two rounds of toast and a mug of Rosie Lea.

I looked over at PD.

“I say this so often. Hope this ain’t the high spot of the fucking day.”

We weren’t sure.

I drove to Baron’s Court, parked up, then we caught the tube to Fulham Broadway. We soon bumped into the Minnesota Triplets. We left our bags in the apartment and set off. The Americans were waiting, nervously, for their tickets to arrive via royal mail post.

Time for a photo outside the Bovril Gate.

“From Stamford Bridge To Wembley.”

I had planned a little pub-crawl that mirrored the one in 2018 that we had enjoyed before our win against Manchester United. We made our way to London Bridge. “The Mudlark” next to Southwark Cathedral was closed, so at just after 11am we made our way to one of London’s glorious pubs “The Old Thameside Inn” where we met up with Russ from Melbourne, the Kent boys, Steve from Salisbury, Dan from Devon and the three Americans. The weather was red hot. There were the usual laughs. After an hour or so, we sought shade in “The Anchor At Bankside”, another riverside favourite.

Six pints of “Peroni” hardly touched the sides.

But we were still all loathe to talk about the game.

Thankfully, I had seen very few Liverpool supporters at this point; just one in fact.

At around 2.15pm, we set off for Wembley. A Jubilee Line train from London Bridge took us straight up to Wembley Park, a repeat of 1997.

I lost PD and Parky, and walked with Steve up towards Wembley for a while. Whether it was because of the abhorrent abundance of half-and-half scarves being worn by many, or the fact that the famous vista of Wembley from distance is no longer as spine-chilling as in decades gone by, or just…well, “modern football”; I was having a bit of a downer to be honest.

Wembley is now absolutely hemmed in by flats, hotels, restaurants. There is no sense of place about the new gaff at all.

After my issues with getting in against Palace, this one was easy. No searches, straight in. I took the elevators up to the fifth level, with no bloody Scouser sliding in behind me like at the League Cup Final.

We were in ridiculously early, at about 3.30pm or so.

I was so pleased to Les from nearby Melksham. He had ‘phoned us, distraught, at 6.30am and asked us to keep an eye out for a spare. His ticket had gone ten rounds with his Hotpoint washing machine the previous evening and was much the worse for wear. Thankfully, he kept the stub – there’s a stub? – and Wembley were able to reprint it.

As the seats filled up around us, a surprising number of friends were spotted close by.

The two Bobs, Rachel and Rob, Kev, Rob Chelsea, Dave and Colin.

I was, in fact, in a Wembley section that was new to me; the north-east corner of the top tier. This would be my twenty-fourth visit to Wembley with Chelsea apart from the Tottenham away games. Of the previous twenty-three, I had only been seated in the lower deck on five occasions. And the East/West split has provided vastly differing fortunes.

The West End 14 : Won 11 and Lost 3

The East End 9 : Won 4 and Lost 5

So much for the lucky “tunnel” end. The West End at new Wembley was clearly our luckier-end.

Pah.

The seats – the ones in our end, or at least the ones in the lower tier, would be baking, with no respite from the sun – took ages to fill up. It annoyed the fuck out of me that every spare foot of balcony wall in the Liverpool end was festooned with red flags and banners. Our end was sparsely populated.

Chelsea tend to go for geographical locations on our flags honouring fan groups in various parts of the UK and beyond.  Liverpool tend to go with white text on red honouring players and managers. Obviously, you never see St. George flags at Anfield, nor at Old Trafford for that matter.

The kick-off approached.

With about half an hour to go, we were introduced to a spell of deafening dance music from DJ Pete Tong, who was visible on the giant TV screens, seemingly having a whale of a time. The noise boomed around Wembley. This annoyed me. Rather than let fans generate our own atmosphere in that final build-up to the game, we were forced to listen to music that wasn’t football specific, nor relevant to anything.

It was utter shite.

“Pete Tong” infact.

With minutes to go, the Liverpool end was packed while our end had many pockets of empty red seats. Surely not the biggest ignominy of all? Surely we would sell all our Cup Final tickets? I had a worried few minutes.

The pre-match, the final moments, got under way.

The pitch was covered in a massive red carpet. Ugh. More bloody red.

I joined in with “Abide With Me” though many didn’t.

“In life. In death. Oh Lord. Abide with me.”

The only surprise was that said DJ didn’t mix it with a Balearic Anthem from the ‘eighties.

With the teams on the pitch, and Chelsea in all yellow – why? – it was now time for the national anthem. Again, I sang heartily along to this even though I am no fervent royalist. I wanted to be respectful and to add to the occasion.

With my awful voice booming out, I did not hear the Liverpool end booing it. But I was soon reliably informed by many that they were.

There was a time in the ‘seventies, at the height of the era of football fans revelling in being anti-social, that supporters often sang club songs over “God Save The Queen” but no team actually booed the national anthem at Cup Finals.

Liverpool seem to love doing it. It’s their “thing.” And while I can understand that some sections of the United Kingdom feel unloved and disenfranchised, it is this feeling among Liverpool Football Club supporters of them being “special cases” that grates with me and many. Do supporters of clubs from other currently and previously impoverished cities throughout England take such great pleasure in such “anti-Royal / anti-establishment” behaviour?

Save it for the ballot boxes, Liverpool fans.

Stop besmirching the name of your club and your city.

As Tracey Thorn once sang “narrow streets breed narrow minds” and there must be some awfully narrow streets around Anfield.

There were flames as the pre-match nonsense continued. It meant the opening minutes of the game was watched through a haze.

Those seats were still empty in our end.

FUCK.

We lined up as below :

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

James – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Lukaku – Pulisic

A big game for Trevoh. A big game for Christian. A massive game for Romelu. Happy to see Mateo starting after his gruesome injury at Leeds United.

Liverpool began very brightly, attacking us in the east, and at the end of the first ten minutes I was supremely grateful that they were not one, or more, in front. They peppered our goal. We were chasing shadows and other clichés. However, Chalobah did well to recover and thump a goal-bound shot from Luis Diaz away from inside the six-yard box after Edouard Mandy had initially blocked the shot. A rebound was flashed wide. At the end of this opening flurry, I counted five decent attacks from the men in red.

We were hanging on.

Thankfully, ten minutes later, all of our seats were now occupied.

That temptation of “one last pint” at Marylebone is always a tough one.

I have often thought that our current team lacks a little personality, undoubtedly compared to certain teams that we have known and loved over the years. It often feels the current crop are missing charisma – even Quaresma would be half-way there – and I really wanted the team to show some mettle and get back into this game. The Liverpool fans were by far the loudest in the opening quarter and I wanted us, the fans, to show some charisma too.

We improved, both on and off the pitch.

A decent move down the right, probably the best of the match thus far, involving James and Mount set up Pulisic but his delicate shot rolled just wide of the far post. Next up, Pulisic set up Alonso but Alisson blocked after a heavy first touch from our raiding wing-back,

Chelsea were now much louder while Liverpool had quietened down considerably. It became a cagier game in the last part of the first-half, but I thought it a good game. This is however based on the fact that we weren’t getting pummelled, that we were in it.

My worst, worst, nightmare was for us to lose…pick a number…3-0? 4-0? 5-0?

But this was fine. Silva was looking as dominant as ever. With him in the team, we had a chance right?

More of the same please, Chelsea.

Into the second-half, we blitzed Liverpool in the opening few minutes, mirroring what had had happened in the first-half, though with roles reversed.

A smart move allowed Alonso, always a threat to opposing teams in the opposition box, but so often a threat to us in our own box, drilled one wide. Pulisic then wriggled and weaved but Alisson again foiled him. The scorer against Arsenal in 2020 – a game I often forget about for obvious reasons – was getting into good positions but needed to find the corners.

The third of three decent chances in the first five minutes of the second-half came from a free-kick from a tight angle, with Alonso slamming a direct hit against the crossbar.

“Fucksakechels.”

The wing-backs were often the focal points, and we were finding space in wide areas. This was good stuff.

Diaz screwed one just wide.

“CAREFREE” absolutely boomed around Wembley.

A young lad standing behind me initiated a loud “Zigger Zagger”; good work, mate.

We were in this game. All along, I had toyed with the Football Gods by silently wishing for a penalty shoot-out win as revenge for this season’s League Cup Final defeat.

The game continued, but we couldn’t quite keep the attacks going. There were only half-chances. But I still thought it a decent tight game.

On sixty-six minutes, N’Golo Kante replaced Kovacic.

Diaz, again a threat, bent one wide of the far post.

A few players were looking tired now, as was I. My feet were killing me. With less than ten minutes to go, Diaz cut in on our left and slammed a shot against Mendy’s near post.

A largely ineffectual Lukaku was replaced by Hakim Ziyech with five minutes to go.

A deep cross from the horrible Milner, on as a substitute, evaded everyone and David Robertson hot the back post. Another curler from Diaz always looked like going wide. It is so weird that even from one-hundred yards away, the trajectory of shots can be surmised.

I guess I watch a lot of live games, eh?

The referee blew up for full-time.

My wish for penalties – down our end please – looked a strong possibility.

The red end sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before the first-period of extra-time and we prepared for an extra thirty-minutes of terror.

Football, eh?

More tired bodies on the pitch and up in The Gods. The two periods of fifteen minutes were not of high quality. Were both teams hanging on for penalties? Were we all?

We went close from a cross on the right but a Liverpool defender hacked it away before Pulisic could make contact. I loved how Kante chased down a Liverpool attack out on their right. What a player.

I painfully watched as Alonso just didn’t have the legs, try as he might, to match the pace of his marker as a ball was pushed past him.

Dave replaced Chalobah and Ruben replaced Pulisic.

The players were now dead on their feet and so was I.

Then, a bizarre substitution in the last minute of the game.

Ross Barkley for Ruben.

I think that I last saw him at Bournemouth, pre-season.

The referee blew up.

Another 0-0.

I got my penalties, and – thankfully – at our end too. I hoped that Liverpool would lose in the most tragic way possible.

Alas, alas…

We began OK with Alonso striking home. Then Thiago scored. Dave hit the post and our world caved in. I was dumbstruck as I saw more than a few Chelsea fans walk out. Wankers. We then exchanged goals – James, Barkley, Jorginho – with Liverpool but with their last kick, Sadio Mane’s strike was saved low by Mendy.

Hugs with the stranger next to me.

He beamed : “That’s for those that walked out.”

Sudden-death now.

Ziyech : in.

Jota : in.

Mount : saved.

Tsimikas : in.

We were silent. The Liverpool end roared. Red flares cascaded down onto the pitch. We trudged silently out, up to Wembley Park, a horrendous wait in a warm train, oh my bloody feet, and back – trying to rely on gallows humour to get us through – eventually to Earl’s Court for a few drinks and some food. It was our year in 1997 but not in 2022.

Nor 2021.

Nor 2020.

Three FA Cup Final defeats in a row. We have now played in sixteen of them, winning eight and losing eight. After our dominance from 2007 to 2012 – four wins – we need our fucking lucky West end back.

The three of us eventually got back to Fulham Broadway at about 10.30pm and met up with Josh, Chad and Danny.

From Wembley to Stamford Bridge, the return journey over, we fell asleep under The Shed Wall.

1997

2022

Tales From The Last Days Of Roman’s Empire

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 7 May 2022.

After the defeat at Goodison Park, the end-of-season run-in stared us in the face. Five games to go. Four league games and the FA Cup Final. Of the league games, three were at home with one away. It was all about finishing in the top four.

Over the past ten seasons, it is a goal that has been reached with a grinding regularity.

2012/13                Third

2013/14                Third

2014/15                First

2015/16                Tenth

2016/17                First

2017/18                Fifth

2018/19                Third

2019/20                Fourth

2020/21                Fourth

The two seasons of us not hitting a Champions League place stick out like two huge sore thumbs. It has been a pretty decent decade. And yet, the previous ten seasons were even more successful.

2002/3                  Fourth

2003/4                  Second

2004/5                  First

2005/6                  First

2006/7                  Second

2007/8                  Second

2008/9                  Third

2009/10                First

2010/11                Second

2011/12               Sixth

The past twenty years has clearly brought an incredible and sustained period of success for us all. But with the Roman Abramovich era coming to an end, there will be continued question marks about Chelsea Football Club’s ability to remain in the lofty positions that we have become accustomed. When questioned about all this by a few non-believers, my response was always the same :

“Ah, it won’t really matter. I’ll still go.”

The next step in our fight to remain at the top table was a home match with the old gold and black of Wolverhampton Wanderers.

In SW6, there were developments.

Late on Friday, a photograph of Todd Boehly outside Stamford Bridge, smiling contentedly, appeared on the internet. Early on the Saturday morning – the day of the Wolves match – the club issued an official statement.

“Chelsea Football Club can confirm that terms have been agreed for a new ownership group, led by Todd Boehly, Clearlake Capital, Mark Walter and Hansjoerg Wyss, to acquire the club.”

So this was it, then. The last days of the Roman Empire were here.

Ever since Roman decided to sell up on the evening of the Luton away game and after the introduction of sanctions were imposed on the club on the morning of our game at Norwich, I have of course been concerned about the immediate and long-term future of the club. Yet I have not had the time nor the patience to delve too deeply into all of the options that may or may not be available for the club.

I implicitly trusted the club to make the best decision.

In the meantime, there were games to attend. Players to support. Noise to be made. The home game against Wolves was no different.

Pre-match was pretty typical. I stopped for a breakfast at a lovely old-fashioned café opposite Putney Bridge station. There was a heady mix of laughter and banter with old and new friends from near and far in “The Eight Bells” at the bottom end of Fulham. Andy and his daughter Sophie – or Sophie and her father Andy, take your pick – joined us for the first time. It really pleased me to see them walk into the already crowded pub. There was plenty of dialogue about the past, present and future. Sharing our table were three lads from Minnesota – Chad, Josh, Danny – and my old pal Rich from St. Albans. Five or six of the Kent lads sat at the bar. Steve from Salisbury was with us again.

We made plans for next Saturday’s Cup Final.

It was a fine and sunny day in SW6. Jackets were not required. We made our way to the stadium. At Fulham Broadway, I spoke to Steve about the Chelsea supporter who had so sadly committed suicide in front of a train in the evening after the West Ham game two weeks’ earlier.

What a sad, sad tale.

Up at street level, I stopped for a chat with a few Chelsea characters outside the “CFCUK Stall” which is a required pit-stop for many on match days. On the walk to the West Stand forecourt, I spotted Steve and PD scoffing a quick burger to soak up some of the pre-match ales.

This would be another gate of around 32,000. I had managed to sort out three spares for a few people. Our match day companions Gary, Alan and Clive arrived.

Clive, without knowing it I am sure, sported the colours of the long-time rivals of Todd Boehly’s Los Angeles Dodgers. He was wearing a black and orange Fred Perry polo-shirt, the colours of the San Francisco Giants. Rob, who sits behind me, and has a passive interest in the Dodgers, suggested he should bring his Los Angeles cap to a game.

Let’s hope that this US / UK tie-up – if approved by the powers that be – proves to be fruitful. I have a baseball past and my comment at this stage – there will be more, no doubt, stay tuned – is this.

In 1955, the Brooklyn Dodgers won their first ever World Series.

In 1955, Chelsea won our first ever League Championship.

I like that fit. I have often said that if the Dodgers still played in Brooklyn, I would be a fan.

Let’s just hope that Boehly and his chums don’t decide to relocate us to the west coast. The town of Aberystwyth, despite it hosting our pre-season training camps there in the ‘eighties doesn’t really need a Premier League club does it?

I hadn’t clocked the teams on the TV screens, so as the players assembled down below it was time to work it all out.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Dave

Alonso – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – James

Pulisic

Werner – Lukaku

I liked the idea of us playing two up front.

How ‘eighties.

Albert from the row in front spotted Petr Cech, all alone, in the underused executive tier. I snapped him. Soon into the game, Dave – at home – somehow knew that Todd Boehly was a few seats along. I snapped him too. Like Roman, a proper scruffy get.

It was all Chelsea, attacking the Shed, in the first ten minutes with the visitors hardly getting the ball over the halfway line.

There were two half-chances in that opening flurry. A shot from an angle by Werner but saved by Jose Sa. Next up was a shot by Romelu Lukaku at the near post but he didn’t get enough on it. There was a little weave from Christian Pulisic and a curler that drifted wide. We were utterly dominant.

On twenty-three minutes, we applauded the memory of Kyle Sekhon.

Rest In Peace.

By the time of the half-hour mark, Wolves were slowly getting a foothold in the game. Their fans were doing their best too.

“Fight, fight – wherever you may be. We are the boys from the Black Country.”

Our play had deteriorated.

A Werner goal was called back for a push. I heard the whistle so didn’t celebrate. Just after, we were up and celebrating a goal and doing the whole “THTCAUN / COMLD” routine. After the ball seemingly missed everyone, the lone figure of Ruben Loftus-Cheek at the far post nimbly slotted the ball in from a difficult angle.

GETINYOU BASTARD.

After a good few seconds – thirty seconds? – the ref signalled a VAR check.

“Ah bollocks. These things always result in a disallowed goal, Al.”

The review took forever. God almighty, how is that possible? It should be done and dusted within a few seconds.

No goal.

Pantomime boos.

The play deteriorated further. If the first-half against West Ham was a shocker, this was worse. With a minute of play remaining, the best chance of the game went to Wolves. There was a super save from Edouard Mendy from Pedro Neto and then Leander Dendoncker followed up by thrashing the ball over the bar.

Then, at the other end, the ball was played into Lukaku and he did well to spin and shoot low but Sa saved. Then, another Wolves break and another shot blazed over.

There were moans from me with Oxford Frank at the break.

“Not sure if any of those players out there today could even be classed as mediocre.”

The second-half began with us attacking the Matthew Harding.

Werner went close in the opening minute and then Reece James went even closer with a direct free-kick when everyone was expecting a curling cross.

On fifty-one minutes, Lukaku did ever so well to hunt down a ball and win it from a defender. He appeared to be tripped right where the penalty area meets the goal line. Play carried on and I was bemused. Thankfully the dreaded VAR worked in our favour.

Penalty.

Lukaku, with a small break in his run, slotted home.

GET IN.

Another “THTCAUN / COMLD.”

There was a fine run from Werner down below me but with Lukaku screaming for the ball AND IN SPACE, Timo lazily misfired elsewhere.

We were suddenly on fire. Just two minutes after our goal, a lovely ball into space from Pulisic FOR LUKAKU TO RUN ONTO and a sweet and easy finish. Just bloody lovely. Lukaku sprinted away. I caught his jump. Happy with that. We were purring.

Chelsea Dodgers 2 Wolverhampton Midgets 0.

The MHL chanted to the West Stand.

“Boehly give us a wave. Boehly, Boehly – give us a wave.”

There was no wave.

Chances were exchanged. This was a much better half than the first. But it truthfully could not have been much worse. Thankfully the noise levels from our support rose too. With twenty minutes or so to go, there was indecision from Antonio Rudiger but Mendy saved well. A Chelsea break, but Sa saved well from Kovacic. A cheeky lob from Lukaku dropped onto the top of the net with Sa back peddling. We sung his name and he clapped back. If Chelsea is a conundrum this season, then our purchase of Lukaku is the biggest piece of the puzzle.

By now, we ought to have been clear and with three points in the bag. But that elusive pass still eluded us. In the pub, with Andy and Rich, I had said that we were a team of runners – Pulisic, Werner, Kovacic, Ziyech, even Kante and Mount to an extent – but we missed someone that could hit those runners with a pass.

Come back Cesc Fabregas.

On seventy-nine minutes, we lost possession and Wolves – who had been improving steadily – broke with pace. Francisco Trincao dribbled and cut inside.

I uttered the immortal words “don’t let him shoot.”

He shot.

The flight of the ball seemed to befuddle Mendy. It didn’t befuddle me; I was right in line with its bloody flight.

2-1, fackinell.

They continued to run at us. I fully expected a goal a few minutes later but Trincao saw his shot deflected just wide of the goal. A toe-poke from Raul Jiminez went wide. We were hanging on here.

Two late substitutions.

Sarr for Dave.

Havertz for Lukaku.

Odd choices in hindsight. Should we not have packed the midfield?

A massive seven minutes of extra-time were signalled. The substitute Havertz shimmied and slid a shot just wide of the near post. We were apparently chasing a third goal when three points were all.

For a team not known for its attacking devil-may-care attitude, this was odd, it was out of control. Who was leading the team out there? Who were the talkers? Who was taking charge?

Sadly, nobody.

In the ninety-seventh minute…

Inside my head : “Why didn’t we clear it? Worried now. Has to be a goal. Cross. Header. Simple.”

We were crushed.

At the final whistle, boos.

Yes, it felt like a loss, of course it did.

Moans. Rants. Grumbles. Annoyance. Disbelief.

On my slow trudge through the crowds, behind the Megastore and onto the West Stand forecourt, I walked with one of my passengers to our car. Over the course of just five minutes, around ten fans said the same thing :

“We could have done with you out there today, Ron.”

It was a quiet drive home, but we soon put the result behind us, kinda. It was a gorgeous evening with the countryside as I headed west looking beautiful during the first blush of spring. That Manchester United were getting gubbed at Brighton certainly helped. Coming up in a seismic week, we have Leeds United away on Wednesday and Liverpool at Wembley on Saturday.

Odd times, but still good times. And don’t be told anything else.

Postscript :

On the Sunday morning, it was a typical time for me. A cuppa, some tunes, and the task of choosing and editing some of the one-hundred plus photos from the match to share on social media. I spotted the figure of Saul, late in the game, going up for a header.

What?

Was he playing?

Maybe I missed this late substitution.

I checked the match details. He had come on as a replacement for Marcos Alonso at half-time. Bloody hell. How is that possible for me to miss that? I hadn’t even been drinking. I honestly felt like I should head off for a lie-down in a quiet corner and ponder my very existence. Thankfully, two friends hadn’t noticed him either. I didn’t feel quite so foolish.

This match report is dedicated to Saul : Mister Invisible.

With just four games left now, every game is huge.

I will see some of you at Elland Road on Wednesday.

Come on Chelsea.

Tales From West View

Chelsea vs. Chesterfield : 8 January 2022.

Not long into the game, the six thousand supporters packed into The Shed, in both tiers, roared out as one :

“Carefree, wherever you may be, we are the famous CFC.”

It was just a shame that this loud and passionate outburst came from Chesterfield supporters.

For this was CFC vs. CFC and for the first time in decades. It was certainly the first time that I had seen us play Chesterfield, the Spireites, named after the town’s crooked spire, and it is not bloody surprising. We played them in the league in our first two seasons and then in the FA Cups of 1911/12 and 1949/50.

This was our first game against them, then, in seventy-two years.

This was the third round of the FA Cup too of course. What little romance that is left in modern football is found in these early rounds of the world’s oldest competition. It was also our fourth and final home game in just eleven days.

And I have a strong feeling that it was our first-ever home game against a non-league team in the FA Cup. I remember an away game at Scarborough in 2004; themselves had only just left the league, just like Chesterfield in fact.

One day, maybe, we will get to play a proper non-league team.

Weymouth. Spennymoor. Dulwich Hamlet. Frome Town.

Maybe.

I was looking forward to this one. It represented a little respite from the two huge games against Tottenham in the League Cup. That particular competition has faded of late, but it is surprising how important it has suddenly become since we were drawn against Tottenham in this season’s semi-final. I felt exactly the same three seasons ago. Whisper it, but part of me was just happy, so happy, that we had beaten Tottenham in that semi-final and, thus, the appearance in the final almost seemed like a bonus.

We’re weird creatures, eh?

A part of me was looking forward to seeing a game from the newly-created West View which is effectively the West Upper but now rebranded for a new clientele and a new pricing range set to kick in next season. In reality, having seen the prices being quoted for 2022/23, I knew that this would almost certainly be my last ever visit to the West Upper.

I was also looking forward to see a bubbling mass of six-thousand away fans amassed in The Shed. I was hoping they would bring some songs and an atmosphere, though I knew very well that the home areas would struggle to keep up with them.

The FA Cup though, eh? We have enjoyed such a wonderful record in this old competition of late that is has been rather difficult to comprehend the last two finals. It has to be said, though, that the Leicester loss in the rain in 2021 seemed an awful lot more depressing than the loss to Arsenal in the heat of August in 2020 which took place at the height of lockdown misery and alienation. I was over that loss within an hour. The Leicester defeat annoyed me for a week or so.

I love the way that I usually catch an early FA Cup game in August or September and then the competition rumbles along towards the back of my consciousness until the time for the third round draw before Christmas; it’s always there, but I don’t pay it too much attention, a bit like Millwall.

My two early games this season, as always, involved my local team Frome Town. There was a home game against local rivals Paulton Rovers in late August. A nice crowd of 398 saw the Robins win 3-1. In September, an even better crowd of 586 saw Frome defeat Conference South outfit Oxford City 2-1. This represented Frome’s first win in the FA Cup against a team from two divisions higher in the pyramid for around four decades. This second game was simply a magnificent encounter, full of quality football and tension, and I loved it to bits. Sadly, Frome went out to Bath City in the next round in an away fixture at Twerton Park – gate 1,473 – by the score of 0-5. I didn’t attend that one as I was at Chelsea versus Southampton.

The FA Cup 2021/22 – number one-hundred-and-fifty, I remember the centenary final in 1972 between Arsenal and Leeds United, the first one I ever watched – was now back in my life again.

As I left my house at ten to nine on Saturday morning I suddenly thought to myself “why the fuck am I leaving my house at ten to nine on Saturday morning?”

The game was to kick-off at 5.30pm.

We are nothing if not keen.

I collected PD and his son Scott, who I last saw on that fun-filled trip to Hull in the FA Cup at the start of 2020, and then made my way over to pick up Lord Parky. Chopper was making his own way up for this one; my next date chauffeuring Chelsea royalty will be for the Tottenham league game in a couple of weeks.

It was a horrible journey up to London. There was rain, rain and more rain. But at least the roads were relatively clear of traffic. I dropped the three passengers off outside “The Eight Bells” at ten to midday.

Three hours for a door to door service; happy with that.

It would be well over two-and-a-half hours before I would see the lads again.

Traffic lights on the North End Road meant that it took me a frustrating thirty minutes to reach my usual parking spot just off Lillie Road. We knew that the District Line was closed from Earl’s Court to Putney Bridge and so my plan was to simply walk to “The Eight Bells” rather than walk to Fulham Broadway and then get a bus to the pub. The rain was still falling and I so I waited for half-an-hour in my car before I heard the rain drops suddenly stall. At one o’clock, I made my way south.

Facing me were two of the largest housing blocks of the Clem Atlee Court, which looms over “The Goose” and “The Rylston” pubs and the numerous shops and cafes on the North End Road and Lillie Road. As I walked past one of its entrances, I wondered how many thousands of Chelsea supporters had grown up in this estate since it was built in the ‘sixties. It currently houses a massive twelve thousand people. It is, without a doubt, a last remaining bastion of working-class life in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, which has undergone immense gentrification since the ‘eighties. Perhaps the more pertinent term would be “yuppification”; no area of England was yuppified more than Fulham in the Thatcher era. It remains as one of the ten poorest estates in Britain.

But I love the way that I often spot Chelsea flags flying from some of the many balconies when I use the little cut through behind “The Goose” on my usual walk to Stamford Bridge. I have never felt threatened on this walk, though, even if it’s hardly a very salubrious part of the capital. It surely remains a bedrock of Chelsea support, though I am also sure that the vast majority of the twelve thousand are completely priced out of modern day football.

I always remember that I spent the entirety of 1983/84 on the dole but I was still able to attend eleven Chelsea games (thinking about it, this actually incorrect; I grabbed a job two days before the last game).

But I am sure that unemployment benefits are not enough these days to allow people to go to football at Chelsea, despite the club’s reduced prices for domestic cup games. And I suspect that those in lower paid jobs who live on the Clem Atlee are unable to attend many of our games either.

I walked past “The Rylston” just as the rain started again. I increased my pace. If nothing else, the one-and-a-half mile walk through deepest Fulham would give me a nice workout. My walking – so regular a year ago – has virtually stopped of late. I need to get back into that. The roads were understandably quiet, devoid of people. In fact, there were more abandoned Christmas trees on the wet pavements than pedestrians.

I was making good time, though a little wet. I stopped at “The Brown Cow” on the Fulham Road and positioned myself, and my jacket, beneath the heater in the ceiling. I ordered a “diet Coke” and dried out. A little time to myself. A little moment of calm before the day would develop. I moved on further down the Fulham Road and – despite the rain – I have to say I was enjoying my little walk.

The upmarket shops on this stretch of road were a million miles away from the stalls on the North End Road.

Same postcode, different lives.

I then dived in to “The Golden Lion” on Fulham High Street. It was quiet save for a few local lads watching the Millwall vs. Palace game on two large TV screens. Another “diet Coke” and another drying-out. I love the intimacy of London pubs. You might have noticed. And none are more intimate than “The Eight Bells”, the last port of call. I walked in at around two-thirty.

PD, Parky and Scott were sat in the far corner. Alongside them was Steve from Salisbury who sits near Parky in The Shed. Very soon into our chat, which would last until around a quarter-to-five, we were augmented by Julie and Tim from South Gloucestershire.

I kept to the “diet Cokes”. To be honest, I could not believe how quiet the pub was. It was half-empty. The lads soon told me that they had been chatting to a couple from Chesterfield, in the pub with their son, and how the son had been invited down to Cobham with hundreds of other Chesterfield academy players. Top work, Chelsea.

I spoke with Julie and Tim about Abu Dhabi. They had already booked flights. I had explained to PD and LP on the drive to London that I was only 50/50 about going. The stress of testing, the forms, the red tape, the risk of getting COVID – again – out there…it was weighing heavily on my poor mind. But chatting to them assuaged my worries a great deal.

Steve told of how, when Pulisic scored the second against Liverpool, he spotted Parky’s blue walking stick fly through the air. It was then quickly followed by Parky who, despite his dodgy leg, raced down the aisle and ended up on top of Steve in his row.

With no tube trains, we caught a 22 bus up the King’s Road. In slow-moving traffic, it passed Parson’s Green and Eel Brook Common before depositing us outside “The Imperial”, a mere five-minute walk away from Stamford Bridge. It felt odd to be approaching the ground from the east.

At around 5.10pm we started queuing to get into West View. Thankfully, the lines were short. Annoyingly, there seemed to be no lift. Parky and PD, both with gammy legs, really struggled with the ten flights of stairs. Parky had mentioned a lift that he had used on Wednesday, but there wasn’t one to be seen. Well, that’s just crap.

I wasn’t able to mooch around the bar areas before the game began due to the lack of time. To be honest, after a couple of minutes, I had seen enough. It’s all rather swish and sleek. But it resembled a posh cinema rather than a football stadium. I wasn’t able to peruse the food and drink options, but I am the last person who would ever get too excited about the quality and variety of food on offer at football. A game last two hours at the most. I hardly ever buy any food at games these days. I just don’t see the point.

We made our way to our four seats in row 23. We kept going and going; more steps for PD and Parky to climb. We ended up in the back row. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

It was some view from our seats. I had never been so high in the West Upper before. On my five or six previous visits, I had been, maybe, half the way up. My last visit was also an FA Cup tie, just over seven years ago, against Watford. We were midway into the half towards the Matthew Harding. I looked down and saw Alan in a thin sliver of terrace down below. We were so high that I only saw the lower tier of the East Stand.

The seats are padded, but not as luxurious as those at Arsenal. There are three huge TV screens at the front of the under hang of the roof, with smaller screens further in. I have never really bothered with TV screens while the game is in progress. I soon noticed that the TV feed was a couple of seconds slower than the game itself. I suppose they are fine for watching replays. With nobody behind me, I was able to stand for a massive chunk of the game; old habits and all that.

As soon as he reached our seats – there were empties to our left – Parky totally embraced the luxurious setting and led down on the concrete floor. I half-expected PD to feed him some grapes in the style of a Roman emperor.

Emperor Oscar Parksorius anyone?

I soon spotted plenty of youngsters in our immediate vicinity. Parky saw that a family with three youngsters, aged five to eight maybe, were in the row in front but the kids were having trouble seeing the pitch. There was space alongside us in the back row, so the kids were lifted up alongside us. It meant there was nobody, now, in their way in their former row. I was sure that many regulars had decided not to attend this one. In their place were those who maybe could not afford regular prices. It is often the way on FA Cup days.

So. West View. My thoughts?

The West Upper has always been an expensive part of the stadium. This season, general sale seats are a hefty £95. As a comparison, my seat in the MHU is knocked out for £65 on general sale; for me as a season ticket holder it equates to £46 per game. But for now, those wealthier Chelsea fans who can afford the current West View prices, and if the demographics of our support are correct we have a few, I suppose that £95 per game is affordable; it must be, we are always sold out.

The spectators in the West Upper, one would imagine, are bona fide Chelsea supporters, and thus have a vested interest in the team and the game. There must be around 4,000 of them in the West Upper each match. However, from next season, West View season tickets will cost from £1,500 to £3,900 although I believe that all games are included. Let’s say we play thirty home games per season. For the £3,900 season ticket, that equates to a chunky £130 per game. I would imagine that not all 4,000 seats will be sold as season tickets and thus those left for game-by-game sale to members or the general public will probably be knocked out in excess of £150 per game.

And my point, really is this. Who can afford to pay £1,500 to a staggering £3,900 for a season ticket? Surely not most fans. Surely not those with families. Surely not your average Joe. I’d imagine that companies, in the main, will be buying those tickets, and employees will be hosting guests at most games as part of the corporate schmoozefest that has taken over parts of modern day football. And will those people be Chelsea fans? Not always. Will they be vested in the team and club? Maybe not.

West View seems to be an exact way to further reduce the ability for regular Chelsea fans to attend games. Revenues, if the club has got it right, might increase but surely the atmosphere will be quieter than ever. But most importantly, I feel for the 4,000 Chelsea fans who must be thinking that that they are being priced right out.

That can’t be a good thing.

Kick-off time soon arrived.

It was nigh on 5.30pm.

The lights were dulled, the teams entered the pitch. Chesterfield were in a change kit of all red.

From my vantage point, I soon spotted that the pitch was looking a little worn. These four home games in rapid succession were taking their toll.

A quick scan of the team.

Two debuts, and we seemed to get stronger – or at least more experienced – as we went from defence to attack. As the game began, I tried to work out the formation. You would think that with my sky-high view, which I honestly did not mind for a one-off game, the shape would be easy for me to fathom. Not likely.

Bettinelli was in goal. Christensen and Sarr were in the middle, but I guessed that Hall was in a three with them. Saul and Kovacic were the anchors in midfield. But that must have meant that Ziyech and Hudson-Odoi were the pushed-on wing backs. Pulisic seemed to float around, but strayed often to the right. Upfront was Lukaku and Werner drifted next to him.

The six thousand away fans were making a racket as the game began, and all were standing. The away team had an attack in the first few minutes and thus, officially, had begun brighter than Tottenham on Wednesday. However, they soon mirrored Tottenham’s start to that game. Kovacic broke and slipped the ball to Ziyech. His shot was parried but the ball fell to Werner who stabbed the ball in from a couple of yards.

I thought there might have been a hint of an offside; thankfully not.

Just six minutes had elapsed.

Alan in The Sleepy Hollow : THTCAUN.

Chris in West View : COMLD.

Unperturbed the away team still endeavoured to attack.

“Definitely a better start than Tottenham.”

However, we were creating some nice patterns in the final third with Ziyech the most noticeable. On eighteen minutes, Hudson-Odoi advanced and curled an exquisite shot from the angle of the penalty box into the far post. It was a stunning goal. Whereas my celebrations had been muted for the first with the threat of an offside, this one was loudly cheered by myself.

“Get in Callum.”

Two minutes later, Lewis Hall lost possession on the left flank but quickly won the ball back, a great recovery, and advanced before picking out the run of Lukaku. From inside the six-yard box, this was an easy finish.

The game appeared to be won on just twenty minutes.

“And relax.”

But the away fans were in party mode and were still singing.

“Jump around if you love the town.”

“I’m Spireite ‘till I die.”

And then a chant that aimed a dig at our scorer.

“Romelu Lukaku, he’s Inter Milan.”

Two very similar shots from Lukaku sadly didn’t trouble Sam Loach in the Chesterfield goal. They were two poor finishes.

There was a rare Chesterfield effort on our goal but Bettinelli was untroubled.

The atmosphere wasn’t great in the home areas. But I joined in with every hint of a song in the lofty heights of row twenty-three. I was glad that a surprising number of supporters took part too. On the pitch, there was good movement from Werner, Hudson-Odoi looked lively and Ziyech was creating good options as he danced and weaved into space. Pulisic was, by comparison, rather quiet. Hall, the debutant, was enjoying a fine, solid game.

However, he almost blotted his copybook on a superb debut by slicing a clearance into his net but Bettinelli came to the rescue.

With half-time approaching, a shot from Hall was parried and Christensen was on hand to adeptly loop a header over the ’keeper. It was a fine, cool finish.

At half-time, we were 4-0 up.

There were game recaps at the break on the myriad of TV screens in the stadium. The poxy video supporting the decision to clothe ourselves in Op Art zig-zags was shown. What with watching from so high up, plus the dizzy images on the screens, I might have been forgiven for losing my footing and joining Parky on the floor.

There were some changes for the second period,

Kai Havertz for Lukaku.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Kovacic.

Chances were exchanged in the first few minutes of the second-half. The reds were now attacking their six thousand followers in The Shed. “Carefree” with a northern twang sounded so odd.

On the fifty-fourth minute, Pulisic received the ball out wide and attacked. My thoughts were immediately this :

“Get inside the box, win a penalty.”

With that, he got inside the box and won a penalty.

Ziyech smashed it in.

I claimed the assist.

5-0.

I suppose “are you Tottenham in disguise?” is better than nothing.

Some further substitutions followed, and the game took on the appearance of a training session. It became a little hard work to be honest.

Harvey Vale for Pulisic.

Lewis Baker for Christensen.

Ross Barkley for Hudson-Odoi.

The game didn’t flow so well. Ruben and Ross flattered to deceive. The noise subsided further. Fraser Kerr shot wide in front of the travelling hordes at The Shed End.

With ten to go, Akwasi Asante was able to finish off a move after an initial shot was blocked. The away fans, unsurprisingly, went wild. Fair play to them. I had to keep reminding myself that they were a non-league team. The applause from sections of the home areas got louder; I joined in. I felt a bit of a prick, but there you go.

CFC 5 CFC 1.

The four of us slowly navigated the stairs and made our way back to the waiting car.

On the Lillie Road, at “The Anchor”, I bought and then devoured a saveloy and chips. Just behind the small shop, the towers of the Clem Atlee loomed. I wondered how many of the estate’s inhabitants had been tuned in to the game. And I wondered if any had been at Stamford Bridge.

Next up, a game at White Hart Lane. Tottenham away is not for the feint-hearted. I’ll see you there.

Tales From The Final Tie

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 15 May 2021.

Since We Last Spoke.

My match report for the home game against Everton in March of last year – a really fine 4-0 win – ended with a typical few words.

“Right. Aston Villa away on Saturday. See you there.”

Then, as we all know too dearly, life – and football – changed. The corona virus that had first been spoken about just after Christmas in 2019, almost in a semi-humorous way at the start, took hold and started claiming victims at an alarming rate. A global pandemic was on our hands. Very soon the United Kingdom was placed in lockdown, a situation that none of us could have ever envisioned witnessing in person during our lives.

Suddenly and without too much thought, football seemed of little real relevance to me.

The trials and tribulations of Chelsea Football Club in particular seemed small compared to the news appearing on my TV screen, on my phone and laptop. As friends found their own way of coping with the surreal nature of lock down, and then being furloughed from work, I quickly realised that football, Chelsea in particular, was way down my list of priorities.

I simply had other, more serious, issues to deal with. And this is how my thought process, my coping mechanism, remained for weeks and weeks. While others pushed for football to return I simply asked myself :

Why?

It was irrelevant, for me, to concern myself with millionaires playing football.

Eventually after a prolonged break, when the football season began again in the middle of June, I had become emotionally distanced from the sport and from Chelsea too. I had simply turned inwards, as did many; working from home, travelling as little as I could manage and trying not to impact – socially – on the outside world. I joked that I had been practising for this moment my entire life. Earlier in my life, I was the ultimate shy boy.

But the noisemakers in the game and the media were adamant that it would be a major moral boost for the nation to see football return.

How?

It just didn’t sit well with me, this notion of football to be seen as the great saviour. Other priorities seemed to overshadow it. I just could not correlate what I was hearing in the media about football and what I was feeling inside.

I will not lie, I absolutely hated watching the games on TV, with no fans, in silence, and I became more and more distanced from the sport that I had loved with each passing game. I watched almost with a sense of duty, nothing more. What had been my lifeblood – to an almost ridiculous level some might say, and with some justification – just seemed sterile and distant. I have very few memories of those games in the summer.

The FA Cup Final seemed particularly difficult to watch. On a hot day in August, I mowed the lawn, and even did some work in my home office for an hour or two, and then sat alone to see us score an early Christian Pulisic goal but then be over-run by a revitalised Arsenal team. That result hurt of course, and I was annoyed how some decisions went against us. The sad injury to Pedro – a fine player for us over five years – in the last kick of the game seemed to sum up our horrible misfortune that day. However, and I know this sounds funny and odd, but I was pleased that I was hurting. That I still cared.

But by the evening, the loss was glossed over.

Football still didn’t seem too important to me.

The one positive for me, and one which combines my own particular brand of OCD – Obsessive Chelsea Disorder – married with a possible smidgeon of shallowness, was the fact that I didn’t have to delete the games I had witnessed in 2019/20 from both my games spreadsheet and – gulp – this blog site.

A small victory for me, and I needed it.

Off the field, work was becoming particularly stressful for me. In August I came oh-so close to handing in my notice. The workload was piling up, I was battling away, and I was getting some worrying chest pains again.

In mid-September, the new season began and I openly hoped for a new approach from me. There was nothing up in the air here; we knew games would be played behind closed doors, we knew the score from the start. I renewed my NOWTV package to allow me to see most of our games. We began the league campaign at Brighton. For some reason, I didn’t see the game, I can’t remember why not. The first match I witnessed on TV was the home defeat to Liverpool.

It was no good. I could not deny it. I was as distanced as ever. The hold that Chelsea Football Club had on me for decades was under threat.

Conversely – at last some fucking positivity – as soon as my local team Frome Town started playing friendlies and then league games, I was in football heaven. I especially remember a fantastic pre-season friendly against Yeovil Town two days before Chelsea’s game at Brighton. A warm Thursday evening and a capacity 400 attendance, a fine game with friends, just magnificent. In September and October, I attended many a Frome Town game including aways at Mangotsfield United in Bristol – it felt so good to be back home in my living room uploading photos just an hour after the game had finished, a real positive – and on a wet night in Bideford in North Devon. Home gates were significantly higher than the previous season. There was a magnificent sense of community at the club. There had even been a tremendous crowd-funder to raise £25,000 in April to keep the club going. We even had a little FA Trophy run – before being expelled for refusing to play an away tie in an area with a high infection rate. Soon after, the club’s records for a second successive season were expunged and that early season flourish was put on hold until 2021/22.

But for a month, I was felling inexorably closer to Frome Town than to Chelsea. It seemed that my entire world was turning in on myself.

Was the world changing?

On Saturday 10 October it certainly did. For the second time in a few days I experienced chest pains. There had been a similar attack in my bed and breakfast in Bideford on Thursday morning. That drive home was horrible. I wanted to be brave enough to phone for a doctor. On the Saturday, I knew I had to act. I phoned the emergency services and – to cut a very long story to a quick few lines – I was whisked into a local hospital in Bath. On the Sunday, I was told that I had suffered a mild heart attack, and on Monday I underwent an operation to have two stents fitted into my heart. My Tuesday afternoon, I was home again.

I remained off work for five weeks, and slowly returned in stages. A half-day here, a half-day there. I remained calm throughout these weeks. I knew, deep down, that something had been wrong but being a typical bloke, decided to let things slide and hope for the best. Since then, I have improved my lifestyle; decaffeinated coffee – boo! – and healthier food, more exercise and all of the associated improvements that go with it.

With all this going on, Chelsea seemed even more remote. I was momentarily cheered when fans were allowed back inside Stamford Bridge, and that for a few hours we were top of the table after Leeds United were despatched. For a fleeting moment, it seemed that Frank Lampard, who had teased a very creditable fourth place finish in July out of his youngsters, was now able to similarly nurture his new signings too. But there had been failings in 2020/21 too. Our defence was at times calamitous. But I was solidly behind Frank all of the way. I really felt for him. Back in March, with Billy Gilmour the new star, we had enjoyed quite wonderful wins over Liverpool and Everton. There was positivity, hope and the future looked utterly pleasing.

Then the pandemic struck. Damn you COVID19.

In December and early January our form dipped alarmingly. I watched Frank’s interviews through my fingers. It was not pleasant viewing. It saddened me that so many rank and file Chelsea supporters, across all demographics – from old school fans in England to younger ones abroad – had seen fit to kindly forget the “I don’t care if we finish mid-table for a couple of seasons, let’s build a future with our youngsters” mantra in August 2019.

It got to the stage where I didn’t want Chelsea to simply win games but to simply win games for Frank.

I had returned full-time to work in mid-January. To their credit my employer has been first rate throughout my ordeal. While I was in the office on a day in late January, it was sadly announced that Frank Lampard had been sacked. I was numbed yet not at all surprised. I firstly hated the decision for reasons that are probably not difficult to guess. So much for long termism, eh Chelsea?

My interest in the exploits of Chelsea Football Club probably reached an all-term low. Or at least since the relegation season of 1978/79 when we were shocking throughout and I was being pulled away from football with a new interest in music and other teenage distractions.

Thomas Tuchel?

A nerdy-looking chap, skeleton thin, probably a diamond with Powerpoint and with a marginally worse hairstyle than me? I wished him well but football again seemed distant.

Our form improved but the football itself seemed sterile. I was still struggling.

On a Saturday in March, I debated whether or not I had time to go off on a ten mile walk to a local village and get back in time to watch play at Elland Road. I considered binning the football in favour of my new found enjoyment of walks in the surrounding winter Somerset countryside. In the end I compromised; I went for a walk on the Sunday.

I know what I found most enjoyable.

Of late, our form has really improved. Again, I haven’t seen every game. But we look a little more coherent, defensively especially. Apart from an odd blip, to be honest, the results since the new manager took over have been sensational even if many of the ways of getting those results have lacked a certain “I know not what.”

Pizazz? Style?

I’m being mean. The bloke has done well. I like his self-effacing humour, his humble approach. He has started to grow in me (Parky : “like a fungus”).

Of late, our progress in the latter stages of the Champions League has been the most impressive part of our recent resurgence. And yet this competition has been haunting me all season long. In a nutshell, the thought of us reaching our third European Cup Final and – being selfish here, I know it – me not being able to attend is a nightmare.

(OK, not a nightmare. I know. I know 127,000 people have lost their lives due to COVID19. That is the real nightmare. I realise that. This is just football. Just football.)

I shrugged off last August’s FA Cup Final. I coped remarkably well with that. I soon decided that I could even stomach missing a second-successive one this year. But the thought of us lifting the big one for a second time and me – and others – not being there is bloody purgatory.

So, it was with a heady mix of genuine pride and impending sadness that accompanied the glorious sight of us beating a hideously poor Real Madrid side over two-legs to reach the final.

But that spectacle, or debacle, needs another chapter devoted to it. And it doesn’t seem right to talk too much about that at this time. In fact, going into the weekend I assured myself that I would not dwell too much about the 2021 European Cup Final. Let’s be honest here; the twin crushing of the hated European Super League and the farcical and immoral desire of UEFA to send 8,000 UK citizens to Portugal in the midst of a global pandemic warrants a book, a Netflix series even, all by themselves.

Let’s talk about the FA Cup.

For those readers of this blogorama who have been paying attention, I have been featuring the visit of my grandfather Ted Draper to Stamford Bridge for the 1920 FA Cup Final between Aston Villa, his team, and Huddersfield Town. This is a work of fiction since I only know that my grandfather once visited Stamford Bridge, but was never able to remember the game. Suffice to say, in the report of the home game against Liverpool last March, I continued the story.

After a break of fourteen months, a re-cap.

On Saturday 24 April 1920, on this very same site, if not this very same stadium – but certainly one which was in situ for the 1982 game, those lovely packed terraces – my grandfather stood on the great slug of the West terrace with his old school friend Ted Knapton alongside him. It was half-time, and the score between the two teams – Aston Villa, who he favoured, and Huddersfield Town – was 0-0. It had been an exhilarating game of football for my grandfather, though the spectacle of seeing fifty-thousand spectators in one sports ground had proved to be the one abiding memory that he would take away with him.

Fifty thousand people.

And virtually all were men, and so many had fought in the Great War.

My grandfather was twenty-five years old. He silently gazed out at the main stand on the far side, the open terraces behind each goal, and looked behind him at row after row of fellows in caps and hats, some with the colourful favours of the two competing teams. A claret and blue rosette here. A light blue hat there.

Fifty-thousand men.

It struck home.

My grandfather had just that week spotted a local girl, a few years younger than him, who was beginning work in the manor house of his home village. She was a young cook, with a lovely smile, and had caught his eye.

My grandfather was a rather quiet man. He looked out at all those faces. He did not speak to his friend Ted, but he – at Stamford Bridge on Cup Final day 1920 – had decided that the stadium, indeed the whole of England was full of men, and the thought of one of them asking the young cook out before he had a chance to utter a shy “hello” ate away at him.

He had survived the Great War. He lived in a great village and now this great spectacle had stirred him in a way that he had not expected.

“You had better get your act together, Ted Draper. On Monday at lunch time, I think I will ask Blanche if she would like to accompany me to next weekend’s village dance. I can’t be second in that race.”

I was so annoyed that I could not continue this story last season. The team did their part, defeating Manchester United in a semi-final, but of course there was no Cup Final Tale in which I could tie up rather conveniently tie up the end of my 1920 story on the centenary.

Thankfully, good old Chelsea, the team defeated Manchester City in this season’s semis to enable me to continue and to honour my grandfather again.

The quality of the play down below on the surprisingly muddy Stamford Bridge pitch deteriorated throughout the second-half. But Ted Draper, along with his friend Ted Knapton, were still enthralled by the cut and thrust of the two teams. The players, wearing heavy cotton shirts, went into each tackle with thunderous tenacity. And the skill of the nimble wide players caught both of their eye.

“Ted, I wonder what the crowd figure is here today. There are a few spaces on the terracing. I suspect it would have been at full capacity if Chelsea had won their semi-final against the Villa.”

“I think you are right. What’s the capacity here? I have heard it said it can hold 100,000.”

“Bugger me.”

“Trust Chelsea to mess it up.”

“Yes. Good old Chelsea.”

The crowd impressed them. But they were not too impressed with the swearing nor the quite shocking habit of some spectators to openly urinate on the cinder terraces.

“To be honest Ted, I haven’t seen any lavatories here have you?”

“I’m just glad I went in that pub before we arrived.”

The play continued on, and the crowd grew restless with the lack of goals. The programme was often studied to match the names of the players with their positions on the pitch. With no goals after ninety-minutes, there was a short break before extra-time, and more liquid cascaded down the terraces.

“Like a bloody river, Ted.”

After ten minutes of the first period of extra-time, Aston Villa broke away on a fast break and the brown leather ball held up just in time for the inside-right Billy Kirton to tuck the ball past Sandy Mutch in the Huddersfield goal.  There was a mighty roar, and Ted Draper joined in.

The Aston Villa supporters standing nearby flung their hats into the crowd and many of the bonnets and caps landed on the sodden floor of the terracing.

“Buggered if I’d put those things back on my head, Ted.”

There then followed a period of back-slapping among the Villa die-hards, and Ted Draper was very pleased that his team had taken the lead. The game stayed at 1-0, with both teams tiring in the last part of the match. The crowd stayed until the end, transfixed. There was just time to see the Aston Villa captain Andy Ducat lift the silver trophy on the far side. The teams soon disappeared into the stand.

With a blink of an eye, the game was done, the day was over, and Somerset was calling.

As the two friends slowly made their way out of the Stamford Bridge stadium, Ted Knapton – who favoured no team, but had picked the Huddersfield men for this game – spoke to my grandfather.

“That goal, Ted.”

“What of it?”

“It looked offside to me.”

“Not a chance, not a chance Ted. The inside-right was a good half-inch onside.”

“Ah, you’re a bugger Ted Draper, you’re a bugger.”

On Cup Final Day 2021, I was up early, a good ninety minutes ahead of the intended 8am alarm clock. One of my first tasks was to swab my mouth and nose. Now there’s a phrase that I never ever thought that I would utter on a Cup Final morn. Part of the protocol for this game, the biggest planned event to take part in the UK since lockdown in March 2020, was that all attendees should take a lateral flow test at an official centre from 2.15pm on Thursday 13 May. I was lucky, I was able to work a late shift on the Friday and I travelled to Street for my test. The negative result soon came through by email. We also were advised, though not compulsory, to take a test at home on the morning of the game and five days after the event in order for data to be gathered. A small price to pay.

This felt odd. To be going to a game after so long. I took some stick from a few people that saw me comment that my love of football was being rekindled.

“Chelsea get to two cup finals and all of a sudden Chris Axon loves football again.”

I laughed with them.

The joy of football had been rekindled because I was now able to see a live game. There are many ways for people to get their kick out of football. By playing, by writing, by watching on TV, by refereeing, by betting, by coaching, by fantasy leagues. By I get my kick through live football.

It has been my life.

I posted the carton with the vial containing my swab at Mells Post Office just after I left home at 10.30am. I was genuinely excited for the day’s events to unfold. Outside the same post office a few days earlier, I had announced to two elderly widows of the village – Janet and Ann – that I was off to the FA Cup Final a few days earlier.

“I have missed it badly.”

They both smiled.

And I realised that this final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup represented a final tie to my childhood – I am known around the village as a Chelsea supporter – and it also represented a nod to the tie that Chelsea Football Club has on me.

But did it really represent one last chance to bring me back in from the cold?

I know that I needed something to help me regain my love of the game before my dislike of VAR, obscenely-overpaid players, ever-changing kick-off times, blood-sucking agents, the continuing indifference to game-going fans despite the limp platitudes that might suggest otherwise, the threat of the thirty-ninth game, knobhead fans, the disgraceful behaviour of UEFA and FIFA in so many aspects of their stance on so many things (I have already decided I am not watching a single second of the Qatar World Cup) all combine in one horrible mixture to turn me away even more.

I have aired all this before. As well you know.

No pressure, Chelsea.

Vic Woodley.

On my way to collect Lord Parky, my sole companion on this foray back to normality, I passed near the village of Westwood. Until recently, I was unaware – as were many – that this is the final resting place of our former ‘keeper Vic Woodley. There is a group on Facebook that actively try to locate the graves of former players and on occasion headstones are purchased if there are unmarked graves. It is an admirable cause. Two Saturdays ago, I placed some blue and white flowers on the grave. Although it is open to debate, I would suggest that until 1955, Vic Woodley was our most successful player at Chelsea.

Hughie Gallacher was probably our most famous player, George Smith had played more games and George Mills had been our record goal scorer.

But Woodley had played 252 games for Chelsea and 19 for England. He was in our team for the Moscow Dynamo game in 1945 too.

I vote for Vic Woodley.

I soon passed The Barge pub, on the outskirts of Bradford on Avon where he was a landlord in later years.

We must pay a visit when normality returns.

Parky soon reminded me that he had heard of his Uncle Gerald, a Derby County fan, talk about Vic Woodley – who played thirty times for Derby before moving to Bath City – living locally when Parky was younger. Parky also recounted meeting a chap in nearby Melksham who had been at that Moscow Dynamo game just after the Second World War.


1994 And 2021.

I had collected Parky at 11am. His first task had been to replicate a photo of me setting off outside Glenn’s house in Frome before the drive to the 1994 FA Cup Final. I wanted a little comparison. Me at 28 and me at 55.

This would be my eleventh FA Cup Final that I will have attended. The twenty-eight year old me what have laughed at such a notion.

We had a lovely natter on the way up. We hardy stopped chatting. Sadly, neither Glenn nor PD could make it up but we promised to keep them in our thoughts. Our route took us towards High Wycombe before we doubled back on the M40. This was quite appropriate since a very well-known and popular supporter at Chelsea, Wycombe Stan, had recently passed away. He was well-loved by all and will be sadly missed at Chelsea. Stan has featured in these reports a few times. A smashing bloke.

RIP Wycombe Stan.

I had purchased a pre-paid parking slot for £20 only a ten-minute walk from the stadium. Traffic delays going in meant that we didn’t arrive much before 3pm, but it felt good, for once, to not have to race like fools to get in to a Cup Final. Those “last pints” on Cup Final day are legend.

The environs around modern Wembley Stadium are much different than as recently as 2007, the first final at the new place. Flats and hotels abound. It is very much a retail village first, a sporting venue second. We bumped into two Chelsea fans on the walk to the stadium. Gill B. said that the place was full of Leicester, that there were hardly any Chelsea present yet. I knew of two Leicester City season ticket holders who were attending the final and one had said that most of their fans were arriving on an armada of coaches. Gill R. wasn’t planning on meeting up with anyone, but as we turned a quiet corner, she shouted out : ”Chris!”

It was so lovely to see her. We chatted for quite a while, talking about the surreal nature of the past year, the sad departure of Frank, the whole nine yards. We both admitted we had not missed football as much as we had expected. Strange times.

At the southern end of what is now normally called “Wembley Way” – but was really called “Olympic Way” – the rather unsightly access slope has been replaced by steps, which I must admit remind me of an old style football terrace. But it is rather odd to see steps there. One supposes that crowd control has improved since the Ibrox disaster of 1971, but the straight rails, with no cross rails to stop surges, did bring a tremor to my memory banks. At least the steps do not immediately start near the stadium.

At the base of the steps, we scanned our match ticket and showed our test result email to Security Bod Number One.

In. Simple.

We neared the turnstiles at the eastern end – not our usual one – at around 3.30pm. Hardly anyone was around. We went straight in.

Thankfully, Security Bod Number Two didn’t react negatively to the sight of my camera and lenses.

Result. In.

For an hour and a half – the equivalent of a match – and by far the most enjoyable ninety minutes of the day, we chatted to many friends who we had not seen for fourteen months. I was driving, of course, so was not drinking. In fact, as I never drink at home, my last alcoholic intake was way back in September. But Parky, himself almost teetotal since June, was off the leash and “enjoying” the £6 pints. I updated many friends with the latest news regarding my health. I summed it up like this :

“I’ve had a good six months.”

There had been rumours of the whole game being played under constant rain. We were low down, row three and right behind the goal. If anyone was going to get wet, we were.

It was soon 5pm. A quick dash to the loo, things have improved since 1920. Within seconds I was spotting more familiar faces and I added to the gallery.

A Chelsea Gallery.

The Game.

The Cup Final hymn – Abide With Me – was sung and I sang along too. It is always so moving.

A quick look around. Most people in the lower tier. Team banners all over the south side of the top tier. A few people dotted around the middle tier and the north side of the top tier. Altogether surreal. Altogether strange. We had been gifted a Chelsea flag and a small blue bag was placed beneath the seat too. I didn’t bother to look in for a while. Time was moving on. I was starting to gear up for my first Chelsea game of the season and, possibly – only possibly – my last. Some fireworks, some announcements, the entrance of the teams. I spotted Prince William, a good man, and snapped away as he was introduced to the two teams.

“Oh bollocks. The teams. Who’s playing?”

I had been so busy chatting in the concourse that my mind had not given it a moment’s thought.

James in the middle three, Kepa in goal, Ziyech? Oh dear. I was amazed that Havertz was not playing. I was reminded last week that the young German’s first ever appearance at Wembley was in late 2016 against Tottenham. He came on as an eighty-sixth minute substitute for Bayer Leverkusen as they won 1-0. It was memorable for me too; I was there, tucked away among the Leverkusen hordes with my childhood friend Mario.

So, yes, the team.

Kepa.

James. Silva. Rudiger.

Dave. Kante. Jorginho. Alonso.

Mount. Werner. Ziyech.

I always say that I need a few games at the start of each season to get used to watching football again. To learn the habits, strengths and weaknesses of new players. To pace myself. To try to take it all in. Sadly, such a staggeringly low viewing position was of no use whatsoever. Everything was difficult. There was no depth. I really struggled.

And I really struggled with the latest dog’s dinner kit that the wonder kids at Nike have foisted upon us.

Does anybody like it?

To be honest, with players in motion the bizarre chequered pattern is not too discernible. It is only when players are still that the mess is fully visible. That the nasty pattern is continued onto the shorts without the merest hint of an apology makes it twice as bad. After getting it so right – sadly for one game – in 2020, the Nike folk thought that the yellow trim was obviously worth repeating.

Right. Enough of that. I’m getting depressed.

With only 12,500 fans of the competing clubs in the vastness of Wembley, it was so difficult to get an atmosphere going. For the first time in fourteen months, my vocal skills were tested. I joined in when I could. But it was all rather half-hearted.

The game began and we edged the opening spell quite easily with Mason Mount busy and involved. A couple of very early attacks down the right amounted to nothing. The rain was just about staying off.

Our loudest chant in the game thus far had been the statistically inaccurate “We’ve won it all”, a comment that Corinthians of San Paolo will note with a chuckle, as will the Saints of Southampton.

After a full quarter of an hour, an optimistic effort from Toni Rudiger flew tamely wide of the Leicester goal. A rare foray into our half saw a cross from Timothy Castagne for Jamie Vardy but Reece James blocked well. Chances were rare though. Mount advanced well but shot wide. An effort from Timo Werner replicated the curve of the arch overhead as his shot plopped into the area housing the Leicester fans.

We were clearly dominating possession but after a reasonable start we became bogged down with keeping the ball and trying to force our way in to Leicester’s well-drilled defence. I could almost hear the commentators describing the play. And it’s maybe a subtle new type of play too, possibly a side-effect of having no fans at games for over a year.

Watching on TV, and I admit I get so frustrated, I get bored to death of teams sitting back and letting teams pass in and around them. I watched some old footage from the ‘eighties recently, highlights of the 1982 and 1988 Scottish Cup Finals, and from the kick-off the teams were at each other. It was like watching a different sport. It was breathless, maybe not tactically pleasing, but it had me on edge and dreaming of another era.

Today there is just so much I can take of commentators talking about “the press, a low press, a high press, a high block, a low block, between the lines, transition, the counter, little pockets, passing channels.”

It seems that football is – even more – a sport watched by experts and critics rather than supporters. Yes, everyone seems more educated in tactics these days, but the repetition of some key phrases surely grates on me.

For the high priests of the high press, I sometimes wonder if they are even aware of how often they use this phrase during a normal match.

Players have always closed space and targeted weak spots, just as teams have in the past been happy to soak up pressure when needed. It just seems that teams do it all the time now. In every bloody game. And with no supporters in the stadium to inject some passion and intensity, I get drained watching training game after training game on TV.  

A few long crosses and corners from the right did not trouble Schmeichel in the Leicester goal. His father was in the Manchester United goal in 1994. It infamously rained that day and just around the half-way mark of the first-half, the heavens opened. The omens were against us. My camera bag got drenched, my jacket was getting drenched. The blue cardboard bag from Chelsea was getting drenched.

Someone asked: “what’s in the goody bag?”

I replied “a return air ticket to Istanbul.”

Tuchel hurried back to the bench to get a blue baseball cap from his goody bag. Not sure if he had a metal badge too, though.

For twenty minutes, my photos stopped. I couldn’t risk my camera getting waterlogged. Leicester had a few rare forays towards us at the eastern end. I liked the look of Thiago Silva. Bizarrely, of course, these were my first sightings of Werner, Ziyech and Silva in a Chelsea shirt.

The rain slowed and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was in no mood for a “Burnley 2017.” Around me, the rain had dampened the fervour of our support. Leicester were beginning to be heard.

“Vichai had a dream. He bought a football team.

He came from Thailand and now he’s one of our own.

We play from the back.

And counter attack.

Champions of England. You made us sing that.”

Thankfully no mention of a high press.

The last real chance of the half, a poor-half really, fell to Caglar Soyuncu but his effort dropped wide of the far post.

At half-time, there were mutterings of disapproval in a Chelsea support that had quietened down considerably. Throughout that first-half, neither team had managed a shot on goal. But I tried to remain positive. I was buoyed by the pleasing sight of blue skies in the huge rectangular window above us…I hoped the clouds would not return.

No changes at the start of the second-half. I prayed for a winner at our end, just yards away from me.

The first effort of the second-half came from the head of Marcos Alonso, a surprising starter for many, who rose to meet a cross from N’Golo Kante but headed too close to Schmeichel. Leicester showed a bit of life, some spirit, but it was dour football.

Sadly, this was to change. Just after the hour, the ball was pushed square to Youri Tielemens who advanced – unchallenged, damn it – until he was around twenty-five yards out. As soon as the ball left his boot, from my vantage point, I knew it was in. Not even Peter fucking Crouch could have reached it. The Leicester end erupted.

Bollocks.

Five minutes later, Christian Pulisic for Hakim Ziyech and Ben Chilwell – loud boos – for Marcos Alonso. Pulisic immediately added a little spice and spirit. He seemed positive. Two more substitutions, Callum Hudson-Odoi for Azpilicueta and Kai Havertz, the slayer of Tottenham, for Jorginho. Our attack had stumbled all game but with fresh legs we immediately looked more interested.

The Leicester fans were in their element, raucous and buoyant. We tried to get behind the team.

“COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.”

It didn’t exactly engulf the Chelsea end in a baying mass of noise.

Kante was strangely finding himself engaged as a supplier of crosses and one such ball was met by Chilwell but his strong downward header, coming straight towards me, was palmed on to his post by a diving Schemichel.

I was right in this game now; it had taken so long for us to get any momentum, but with time running out my eyes were on stalks, watching the ball and the players running – or not – into space.

“COME ON YOU BLUE BOYS.”

With eight minutes’ left, The Charge of the Light Brigade as Olivier Giroud raced on to replace a very disappointing Werner. It was the fastest any Chelsea player had run all game.

The Chelsea pressure increased. I didn’t even think about the stresses that might be induced should we score a late equaliser. But that’s good. I felt fine. No problems.

A delicate cross from James was knocked back to our Mase. He steadied himself momentarily and then let fly with his left foot. I was about to leap in joy. But Schmeichel flung himself to his left and clawed it out.

I called him a very rude name. Twice. Just to make sure he heard me.

In the closing minutes, a lofted ball – into space, what joy – found a rampaging Ben Chilwell. He met it first time, pushing it into the six-yard box. In the excitement of the moment, I only saw a convergence of bodies and then…GETINYOUFUCKER…the net bulge. I tried my damnedest to capture him running away in joy, but I needed to celebrate. I brushed past Parky and found myself in the stairwell. King Kenny virtually slammed me into the fence at the front – ha – but I kept my composure and snapped away. The results are, mainly blurred. A second or two later, I looked back and Kenny was screaming, his face a picture of joy, and the scene that I saw me was a virtual copy, with less people, of the aftermath of Marcos Alonso’s winner in 2017, a mere thirty yards further south.

I heard a voice inside my head.

“Fucking hell, Chris, we’ve done it.”

And then. Someone mentioned VAR. At first, I thought someone was being a smart-arse. Didn’t seem offside to me. Nah. And then I realised as I looked up at the large scoreboard above the Leicester City fans that the awful truth was for all to see.

A red rectangle…

VAR : CHECKING GOAL – POSSIBLE OFFSIDE.

My heart slumped. How often do these end up with the advantage being given to the attacking side?

Ironically, on the car drive in to London, both Parky and I quoted a recent game when Harry Kane’s toe was deemed to be offside and we both admitted that we felt for the bloke. When Chelsea fans are upset with a VAR decision is given against Tottenham, something is definitely up.

A roar from the other end, no goal.

King Kenny wailed : “what has football become?”

I had no answer.

Has anyone?

There is a chance that this might be my last report this season. It depends on how Chelsea Football Club looks after its own supporters’ hopes of reaching the Portuguese city of Porto in a fortnight.

Tales From Three Generations

Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest : 5 January 2020.

On the train back to Lewes on New Year’s Day, after our 1-1 draw at Brighton, Glenn set me a question to consider.

“Who did we play in the first game of the last decade, then?”

It got me thinking.

“2009/10, the double season…mmm, I don’t think it was an away game…”

It took me a few seconds, but the memory of the day – if not the opposition – soon came to me.

“I know. I can remember. We were at home in the FA Cup on Saturday 3 January. It was my mother’s eightieth birthday, and we had stayed at the hotel at Stamford Bridge on the Saturday night. Can’t remember the opposition, though.”

It was Watford and we won 5-0. And it would be my mother’s last visit to Stamford Bridge.

On this day of our game with Nottingham Forest, a day when Chelsea Football Club would be looking back fifty years to our first ever F. A. Cup win in 1970, it seemed right that I would be looking back ten years to a game in the F. A. Cup too. Season 2009/10 was my second full campaign of these match reports and here are a few notes from that lovely day.

“Mum has been to Chelsea many times before and I guess she has been to The Bridge around twenty-five times…mainly in the 1974 to 1979 period, when Dad would drive us up from Somerset twice per season. Mum also went to games at Bristol Rovers, Bristol City and Swindon Town. The last game that Mum saw at Chelsea was the Birmingham match in 2005, our centenary championship. Happy memories.

I peered out of our hotel room down at the old Shed wall, the winter sun lighting up the South London horizon beyond. A few fans were already clutching Megastore bags.

With the cold weather showing no signs of letting up, we sat in the hotel foyer / bar area from 11am to 2.15pm. It was a lovely time. The place gradually filled-up with Chelsea fans. My two mates Glenn and Parky arrived at about 11.30am and we sat in a cosy corner with Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti, chatting about all sorts. Peter was there with his daughter and grand-son. We spoke about our shoddy form of late, but we didn’t let it spoil our time.

We left the hotel, coats buttoned, scarves on. We battled against the crowd. The 6,000 away fans were out in force. The weather was brutal, but Mum wasn’t complaining. There was the usual ten-minute wait to get inside the MHU. We managed to take the lift up to the top tier. Mum is in good health, but six flights of stairs is too much (sometimes for me). Once inside the stadium, it didn’t seem so cold. A full Shed End of away fans, but only three paltry flags. They didn’t make much noise. No balloons.

The big surprise that Anelka wasn’t playing and I wasn’t sure of the formation…was it not a “Christmas Tree” (with Malouda and Joe behind Sturridge)? To be honest, after three early goals, I was far from caring…whatever formation it was, it was definitely working. What attacking options down the left with Ashley and Zhirkov and Malouda. I was very pleased that Sturridge scored his first goal for us, but the other two goals were scrappy. Not to worry – coasting. I think I counted just two Watford shots in the entire first-half.

At half-time, more congratulatory handshakes and kisses for my mother. Anna brought us some coffees and Russ gave some mince pies. It was a lovely feeling for Mum to meet my match day mates.

Loads more Chelsea pressure in the second period and what a strike from Frank – especially for Mum. I was really impressed with the cool finish from Sturridge for his second goal…very nice. We all thought it a shame that Carlo took the lad off when he was “on” for his hat-trick.

The Chelsea support was quiet and were only really roused after each goal.

I was so pleased when I glimpsed Mum singing along to “Chelsea, Chelsea” to the tune of “Amazing Grace.” How sweet the sound. She could teach a few JCLs a lesson or two.

Carlo made a few substitutions but it stayed at five. I shan’t make any further comments about our performance because – after all – it was only Watford. I was impressed with Sturridge and Zhirkov. JT seemed intent on going on more mazy runs in the attacking third. Maybe he’s a frustrated striker. I’m convinced that one day he’ll score a goal of the season contender from forty yards. Towards the end, our former left-back Jon Harley (he of the scuttling runs) came on as a Watford substitute and was given one of the noisiest songs of the game. That was a nice touch. The “referee has added on a further five minutes” announcement was met with frost-bitten groans.

We walked back to the car, stopping off for a good old-fashioned plate of pie and chips and a mug of tea on the North End Road. We eventually thawed out. On the drive back home to Somerset, we listened to the FA Cup draw and I was elated that we face an away jaunt to Preston. At last a new stadium to visit (well, actually a very old stadium, but a first-time visit for me.)”

So, 1970, 2010 and 2020 linked already.

But there is more.

Going back to the notes for the game with Everton last season, played on the one-hundredth anniversary of the cessation of hostilities in the First World War, I introduced the story of my mother’s father, my grandfather, and his link to Stamford Bridge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder if my grandad stood here.”

I like the fact that, in addition to the club’s official celebration of the 1970 victory in 2020, I am going to be having my own private centenary celebration of 1920 too. This was the first of three consecutive years that our beloved Stamford Bridge was chosen to host the final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup.

So, 1920, 1970, 2010 and 2020 all linked-up now.

I love the fact that I am the third generation of my family to have seen football at Stamford Bridge.

That feels just perfect.

As last season progressed, we were gifted three home ties in the F. A. Cup and so I was able to add to my flight of fancy concerning my grandfather. I include these below, taken out of the Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday and Manchester United match reports.

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

“No thank you. We have tickets.”

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

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

“No. No thanks. No – they are ours.”

His long-time pal chipped in :

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

“On the Fulham Road, as I stopped for a bite to eat at the al fresco café, I looked up at a tablet of stone containg words that commemorated a visit by the Duchess of Wessex to the Oswald Stoll buildings – for ex-servicemen – in 2009. It mentioned a respect for the “fortitude and resilience” of those soldiers of both World Wars. I looked up and saw the sepia figures – “ghosts” – of Ted Draper and Ted Knapton marching purposefully towards Stamford Bridge for the 1920 FA Cup Final.”

“Almost one hundred years ago, on Cup Final day 1920, my father Ted Draper and his long-time friend Ted Knapton made the slow ascent up the damp terraced steps – being jostled by other fans, some drunk already – at the rear of the great slug of terracing on the West side of Stamford Bridge. The air was expectant ahead of the Aston Villa vs. Huddersfield Town tie. It would be the only professional football match that my grandfather would ever attend. He had remembered, as a ten-year-old boy living in Somerset, how he had been astounded when told by others that a mighty crowd of 67,000 had attended a game at Stamford Bridge in Chelsea’s first-ever season in 1905/06. It confused him. How did a new club such as Chelsea suddenly have 67,000 supporters? And for a Second Division game too. It was an unheard of figure at the time and was the talk of the schoolyard for many a day. It had captured the imagination, wildly, of my dear grandfather. The visitors on that day in April 1906 were Manchester United and it was a promotion-decider of sorts. My grandfather was convinced that the vast number of spectators had been Chelsea fans, since Manchester was such a long way north, but how was it possible for so many to be lured to the new stadium? Chelsea had mainly played to crowds in the mid-teens throughout that inaugural campaign after that first-ever game at Stockport County. It was one of the biggest league crowds that England had ever seen, although FA Cup Final attendances at Crystal Palace sometimes reached six-figures. Apart from being a fan of the sport, my grandfather soon realised how magnificent it would be to part of such a spectacle and for many years he had daydreamed about being in a similar sized crowd.

In April 1920, he had his wish.”

We sometimes moan, as Chelsea fans, that we always seem to end up playing the same old teams in European competitions, and this often seems to occur in domestic cups too. This annoyance came to light when, for the second successive year, we were drawn at home to Nottingham Forest in the third round of the F. A. Cup. And, taking the biscuit this, the game would be played exactly one year later.

2018/19 : FA Cup Round Three – Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest, 5 January 2019

2019/20 : FA Cup Round Three – Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest, 5 January 2020.

Talk about Groundhog Day.

Additionally, we played the Tricky Trees at home in the League Cup in 2017/18 too.

We were in the boozer at just after 11am. Inside “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, all was quiet. The pub – a first visit for us this season – has had a recent re-fit, and it’s to our approval. There was a familiar clink of glasses as Parky, PD and I sat on the high bench seats and waited for others to arrive.

“Cheers.”

Dave from Wellingborough – one of the lads that I used to sit with on The Benches in 1984 and 1985 – soon arrived and it was a pleasure to see him again. Ironically, we bumped into each other for the first time in years at the F.A. Cup away game at Norwich almost two years’ ago. There was positive talk of our form so far this season, and there was talk of the special commemorative kit that Chelsea are using on this – hopefully long – F. A. Cup run this season. It is an almost exact replica of the blue, blue, yellow of the 1970 replay, and we all agreed that it looks the Mutt’s Nuts.

For those who don’t know (and I know many do, so please bear with me), the reason for the yellow trim is because both Chelsea and Leeds United played in white socks. In the first game at Wembley, Leeds were forced to wear the odd choice of Lancastrian red socks as we kept to the white. In the replay it was our turn to change; in came the yellow. To be honest, it could have been easy for us just to don some yellow socks, so fair play to the club for opting for matching yellow trim on the shirt and socks too. The kit re-surfaced for the 1972 League Cup Final too – minus the two blue rings on the socks – but has not been seen since.

Writing in these reports in the Spring of last season, I commented :

“Chit chat about kits came to the fore in recent days. There was a leaked image – as yet unconfirmed – of a truly horrific kit for Chelsea next season. I am sure everyone has seen it. It’s garbage. But it got a few of us thinking. Going into the fiftieth anniversary of the iconic 1970 FA Cup win at Old Trafford, it would be nice to honour that occasion with a one-season only kit of royal blue with yellow trim, including yellow socks.”

Looking back, I liked the fact that our kit in 1996/97 came with a little yellow trim for the first time ever. And we know how that season ended-up; our first silverware for twenty-six years, our first FA Cup since 1970.

We found ourselves talking about European trips. Dave mentioned an away game in Copenhagen in 1998. After the game, at the airport, he was feeling a little worse for wear, and was choosing some items for breakfast at the airport departure lounge. The cashier tallied up his purchases and he found himself a few “krone” short and so shouted over to a mate to see if he had any spare.

Dave heard a voice behind him.

“How much do you want mate? I’ll sort you out.”

Dave looked around and it was none other than Peter Osgood.

Just beautiful.

It seemed that 1970 was going to dominate the day. As if anyone needs reminding, my love of Chelsea Football Club began in April or May 1970, and I am wondering how many more bloody anniversaries will make an appearance in this edition.

Here’s one more.

In May 2000, we beat Aston Villa 1-0 to win the last-ever F. A. Cup Final at the old Wembley Stadium, and we will soon celebrate the anniversary of that triumph. Oh, and guess what? We played Forest at home in the Cup that season too.

Andy and Kim – the Kent lot – arrived unannounced, and the laughter was upped a few notches. They are off to Newcastle in a fortnight, like us, but were looking for tickets. I was glad to be able to assist with the search.

We caught the 28 bus down the North End Road and joined up with Alan and Gary in a very quiet “Simmons”.

Glenn, back in Frome, texted me :

“Chelsea – 9 changes, Forest – 10 changes.”

I replied :

“Chuckle Brothers – 1 change.”

There was just time for a last bottle of “Peroni” and we were off to the game. It was a mild day. We walked ahead of a few Forest fans, who were mulling over the inevitability of the changes announced by the Forest manager. Sadly, it is all about the Premier League these days, and promotion to it. But they seemed to have a “whatever will be will be” attitude. We hoped that our “B Team” would be better than Forest’s.

I bought three copies of the commemorative programme for friends, and caught the lift – like in 2010 – with PD, who struggles with stairs these days.

With not long to go to kick-off we were in. Alan and Gary were down in The Shed Upper for a change and I soon spotted them in row six. So, just PD and little old me in The Sleepy Hollow. There was a mix of usual season ticket holders and new faces which was good to see. I noted a smattering of children nearby which is a very rare sight in The Sleepy Hollow.

It usually resembles a SAGA day trip.

1920 returned to my thoughts.

He was inside Stamford Bridge now, and the enormity of it all hit home. The closeness of everything. The colours of the rosettes. The clamour for attention of the programme sellers, official and otherwise. The sellers of iced lemonade, of ginger beer, of cigarette salesmen. The shouts of the crowd. The Birmingham accents. The Yorkshire dialect. The smoke. The Londoners and the spivs, the touts, the brashness of the city. The musty aroma of overcoats. Caps, bonnets and hats. The swell of the crowd. The bands marching before the game. The huge advertisements adorning every spare inch of space, on hoardings at the back of the huge curve of the terrace, and on the backs of the houses on the Fulham Road. The appearance of the teams. The surge of those on the terrace as a chance goes close. The unstable nature of the terrace beneath the feet, of wooden risers and of mud and cinders. The clouds of dust. Pockets of cigarette smoke drifting over the spectators. The trees in Brompton Cemetery. The smoke rising from chimneys. The wounded Chelsea pensioners – that vivid splash of red – watching from the side of the pitch in antiquated wheelchairs, some without limbs, some without sight. My grandfather, wistful, lost for a moment, a flashback to Amiens or Ypres or Valenciennes.

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

Forest had 3,000, the same as last season.

The teams entered the pitch – yellow flames, how in keeping – with Chelsea wearing blue trackie tops over the shirts. But the yellow trim looked magnificent. Off came the tops, and we all fell in love with the iconic 1970 Chelsea kit all over again.

It was, quite simply, stunning.

It was a vision in blue and yellow.

Everything was beautiful. The old style crest, the very subtle sponsorship branding in blue, the yellow stripe on the shorts, the shade of yellow, the two blue stripes on the socks, even the font of the numbers. Oh, and the lack of players’ names?  Superb.

Not sure of the little yellow tab at the rear of the colour, though.

The team lined-up as below.

Caballero

James – Tomori – Christensen – Emerson

Jorginho – Barkley – Kovacic

Pedro – Batshuayi – Hudson-Odoi

Chelsea in blue and yellow, Forest in red and white.

They were soon singing “Champions of Europe, we won it two times.”

At 2.01pm, the game kicked-off.

For a change, we were attacking the North Stand in the first period. How ‘seventies.

“Come on Chelsea.”

In the first few minutes, Callum and Reece were dribbling down the right wing and I was dribbling all over my top as I looked on with awe at the amazing kit on show. I wasn’t paying attention, but PD was purring as Reece sent over a tantalising cross.

Before we knew it, Callum was played in by Pedro after a lovely interchange of play and found himself in the inside right channel, though with noticeably more space than in recent league games. He cut inside, picked his spot and rifled low past the Forest ‘keeper. After only six minutes, we were on our way to Wembley.

GET IN.

Very soon, a text from The Shed appeared on my dog and bone.

“THTCAUN.”

I replied.

“COMLD.”

We were all over Forest, and two more excellent crosses from the increasingly trustworthy boot of James caused panic in the Forest six-yard box. Alas, despite the lead, the atmosphere was unsurprisingly wank, and – like last season – the away fans were asking us if Stamford Bridge was a building in which books could be temporarily loaned out and then returned free-of-charge.

We had no reply really.

At least nobody retorted with “you’re just a shit Derby County.”

Ah, Derby. Because of last season, there was a largely indecipherable ditty about Our Frank and his former charges throughout the first half, but it is not worth any more comment.

Michael Dawson was booed by some in the home support, all very tedious.

Against the run of play, Forest were awarded a penalty when Fikayo Tomori was adjudged to have fouled a Forest striker. The tedious VAR was called into action and, lo and behold, no penalty but an offside instead.

“FUCK VAR” shouted Forest and I wholeheartedly agreed.

A shot from Tomori, a shot from Pedro, a shot from Barkley, a shot from Michy Batshuayi. Our chances were piling up. Behind, Jorginho the prompter was having a fine game. On around the half-hour mark, a lovely move set up a shot for Our Callum which was only half-saved by the ‘keeper and Ross Barkley was on hand to tap in with almost an involuntary action. Ross had already wasted a few early moments of possession, irritating some, so perhaps if he had time to think about his finish he might not have fared quite so well. We immediately stood up and applauded and, as I snapped away, there was no thought of a VAR involvement. It looked a perfectly sound goal to us in The Sleepy Hollow. Ross celebrated with his team mates below.

VAR?

No offside, well on. Goal.

“Surely it’s safe now, PD. Mind you, we were 2-0 up against Bradford City in 2015.”

Another cross from Reece, but a glancing header from Michy was sent just wide of the post. We had totally dominated the first-half, and it had been a breeze.

At the break, as I had predicted, we were treated to the appearance of five of the 1970 twelve.

Ron Harris.

Marvin Hinton.

Tommy Baldwin.

John Dempsey.

John Hollins.

Of course, sadly Peter Osgood, Peter Houseman and Ian Hutchinson are no longer with us, and Peter Bonetti is very poorly. PD made the point that it was a shame that there was no 1970 goalkeeping kit on show. Bearing in mind that The Cat is struggling with his health it would be a lovely gesture if this can be remedied. A “Bonetti kit” – green cotton gloves, too – with proceeds going to his medical requirements. It would sell I am sure. Over to you, Chelsea.

Of the remaining players, Eddie McCreadie and Charlie Cooke are in the US, and David Webb – the maverick – never seems to be invited to these sort of occasions, a real shame.

The second-half began. There was not quite the same drive and intensity as the first-half and I got the distinct impression that Forest were looking at this as some sort of training exercise. We created a few chances, though, with a header from Barkley after a fine dribble and cross from Hudson-Odoi grazing the post below Alan and Gary in The Shed.

From a Forest free-kick down below us, Ryan Yates rose in the six yard box to head home but, as he taunted us as he celebrated, the flag was raised for offside, which VAR upheld.

The crowd went mild.

Still the atmosphere was poor. Only a rousing “Stand Up If You Hate Tottenham” chant on the hour united the whole stadium. But that’s another chant that is over-worked these days.

Oh how the Forest fans loved it when Mason Mount – Derby County last season – replaced Kovacic on seventy minutes. He was roundly booed every time he received the ball. There was also an appearance for Tariq Lampty replacing Pedro, who might have been playing his last game for us if his clapping of all four stands was anything to go by. Lampteys number “48” took up the entire back of his shirt.

The game dwindled a little, but it was still Chelsea who dominated throughout. Late efforts from Batshuayi, Emerson and Hudson-Odoi did not increase the score. But this was as easy a win as I can remember.

Groundhog Day again, even the scores were the same.

2018/19 : FA Cup Round Three – 5 January 2019.

Chelsea 2 Nottingham Forest 0.

2019/20 : FA Cup Round Three – 5 January 2020.

Chelsea 2 Nottingham Forest 0.

Frank Lampard soon raced on to the pitch to thank us, but by then my mind was elsewhere, and I was pondering what sandwich to buy on the walk back to the car, and which away venues were up for grabs in the next round.

And I wondered what next as this homage to 1970 continues on in to the next stage; sideburns for the players, perhaps?

On the drive home, or at home, I found out that this was our twenty-second successive advancement into the Fourth Round. Now that is some achievement (the less said about what happened in 1998, when we were F. A. Cup holders, the better.)

Wembley – here we come?

It would be nice. We certainly like our fiftieth anniversaries and our centenaries at Chelsea.

Next up, we have a run of the mill league encounter at home to Burnley next Saturday. Before that game, I might even pop into the Megastore to purchase a pair of blue and yellow shorts for an Argentinian summer.

I have some missionary work to do in Buenos Aires.

 

Tales From A New Decade

Brighton And Hove Albion vs. Chelsea : 1 January 2020.

Another decade, another game.

Another game at a snotty kick-off time.

Last season, right after getting back from Budapest, I drove from Somerset to East Sussex and parked at Lewes train station and took the free train in to Falmer where Brighton play their games. It was a perfect arrangement. Talking to my good mate Mac – a long-standing Brighton season ticket holder – at our league game at Stamford Bridge in the early autumn, we found out that Mac and his mates drink in Lewes before games. It looked a fantastic little town. A nice mix of pubs in a good setting. We made plans for a lovely pub crawl before the away game on New Year’s Day. And then the knobheads got involved and ballsed it right up.

The kick-off was changed to 12.30pm.

I hate modern football.

Sigh.

“Maybe next season.”

Brighton is a pretty hefty away trip for The Chuckle Brothers. As a result, New Year’s Eve was a very quiet one for PD, Glenn, Parky and little old me; we all stayed in ahead of the 7.30am start on the first day of 2020.

We were up Brighton Early.

And this represented the first away game that all four Chuckle Brothers would be attending since the season opener at Old Trafford in August.

The roads were super-quiet as I dropped down over Salisbury Plain, past Stonehenge, through Salisbury and its wonderful spire, past the football cities of Southampton and Portsmouth, past Chichester, past Arundel and its impressive castle – where the cricket season always used to start with a game between a Duke of Norfolk XI and a touring team, not sure if it still does these days – and then towards the undulating South Downs and the coastal towns of Littlehampton, Goring, Worthing, Lancing, Shoreham and Hove. I kept peering to my right to see if I could catch a glimpse of the sea, but everything was out of sight, elusive, mist and sea fog combining to paint everything a subtle grey.

Our game at Luton Town on New Year’s Day in 1980 was drawing a few references on Facebook according to Glenn as I ate up the one hundred and forty miles.

“3-3 draw, right?”

Forty years ago.

“When we were young.”

And I realised that these games of my youth seemed to hold greater resonance than other, recent, games. And I didn’t even go to that one.

Any others worth remembering?

The game on New Year’s Day in 1991; at home to Everton, a 1-2 loss with Pat Nevin playing for the visitors. The importance of this? The last game that both of my parents and myself attended together. We were in the West Stand seats, not so far away from the first game together in 1974.

The one five years ago; that horrific 3-5 loss at White Hart Lane which surely put an end to Jose Mourinho’s more attack-minded ideas in the first part of the 2014/15 season. Lessons were learned that day, and apart from a goal fest at Swansea, our football became tighter and less expansive for the rest of that season. Mourinho. Wonder what ever happened to him?

At 11am, I arrived on time in Lewes. It was just as I remembered it; Tudor houses on the high street, a smattering of cosy pubs, cobbled alleyways, cramped streets, even the train station looked like something out of an Ealing Comedy-era film. I half-expected a steam train to pass through the multi-platformed station. I yearned for a pub crawl.

“Maybe next season.”

We soon alighted at Falmer; it is barely a five-minute journey from Lewes. PD and LP headed off to the away end. Glenn and I made a beeline for a bar outside the East Stand. We met up with Mac and one of his mates bought us pints.

“Top man, cheers.”

I like that Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club is all about community. The bar outside the stadium – as is the bar in the away end – sells solely “Harvey’s” lagers and ales. Their brewery is in Lewes. A fine touch. It was grand to share some chat with Mac and his pals again. Unfortunately, as is so often the case these days, the talk was largely dominated by VAR.

Bleurgh.

We mentioned the 1970 replica shirt that Chelsea would soon be selling as an acknowledgement of the fiftieth anniversary of the second most iconic game in our history. I loved that one of Mac’s friends – I am sure that he will not mind me saying that he must be in his ‘seventies – commented that replica shirts should only be worn by players on the pitch.

“I knew I liked you.”

I commented that many of my mates, hardly any of whom buy replica shirts, have highlighted the blue with yellow-striped shorts as key purchases for holidays in Spain, Turkey, Florida and Thailand this summer. They will fly off the shelves, no doubt. I love the idea, as do many evidently, of a plain T-shirt (not cheap, just plain, you know the score) and football shorts in Majorca, Bodrum, Orlando and Koh Samui. For English football fans of a certain disposition, this is classic bar clobber.

The “elderly” Albion fan reminded us all that Brighton had never beaten Chelsea, in league nor cups. I replied that in the two league games that I had seen at their new stadium in 2017/18 and 2018/19, Brighton had generally played well and had been rather unlucky to lose both.

Mac mentioned that the al fresco bar was open as early as 9am.

Glenn warned me : “God, don’t tell the others. We would have to have left at 5.30am.”

I laughed.

“Right, time to go Mac. Stay up, let’s plan for Lewes next season.”

Inside the away end, many were guzzling pints of “Harvey’s.”

I made my way to our seats. Another great location; we were in the second row. After my Arsenal photographs, I was hoping for some half-decent ones this time too.

For the third visit in a row, the stadium was enveloped in mist. This muted the blue of the stadium. But I was reminded how much I like this new build; each stand is linked, but each stand is different. Sloping roofs, different tiers, various levels, curved roof trusses, quirky viewing platforms, infilled corners. It’s a joy.

The teams entered the pitch and the locals heartily joined in with “Sussex By The Sea.”

“So put your best leg forward, my lads.
And time each ball you see.
If you sing the old song.
Well you can’t go wrong.
Of Sussex By The Sea.”

It’s not as stirring as “Z Cars” at old-style Goodison but it does have a certain charm.

I ran through our starting eleven.

Arrizabalaga

James – Zouma – Rudiger – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Kante – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

There were more than a few spares knocking about on Facebook leading up to this game, and there were a few seats unoccupied near us as the game began. I know that it was New Year’s Day and all, but we should be packing Brighton away 100%. It’s so close to our heartland.

Chelsea in the black and orange.

Mmm. I just hoped that the players were easier to pick out by their team mates on this misty and murky – graphite? – afternoon than I could manage. At least the tangerine socks were a reference mark.

Murkiness or not, I soon spotted Mac in his seat behind the Brighton bench with a couple of the lads we had met before the game.

The match began with us attacking the home fans at the northern end.

We looked confident, and played the ball with ease, but it was the home team that enjoyed the first effort on goal with a shot that rattled wide of Kepa’s post. Heading into the tenth minute, and after we had toyed with the Brighton defence on a couple of forays down our left, we won a corner on our right. Willian dropped a cross on to Kurt Zouma’s head – it was a fine leap – and his knock-down allowed Tammy to stab at the ball. His effort was blocked by Aaron Mooy but Captain Dave was on hand to swipe at the ball from very close range.

GET IN.

I caught his leap on film, easy.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Our next chance fell to a raiding Tammy Abraham, but with Willian pleading for the ball, he chose to shoot. The effort was deflected off target. I nabbed that shot on film too, easy pickings.

Brighton’s towering defender Dan Burn looked in huge discomfort after a challenge with young Reece James and was stretchered off.

We seemed to dominate the game but with few clear chances. I liked the directness of Christian Pulisic, who returned to the fray after missing a couple. These Christmas games – I am counting the Tottenham one – are tiring for fans and players alike, so it is no wonder there has been a little squad rotation. Kante looked good, Mount not so. Zouma and Rudiger coped with everything that was thrown at them, though Toni had a right old go at Kurt after the latter decided to head a deep cross out for a corner. We didn’t hear a shout and we were yards away. A bit naughty that, Toni. I don’t think Kurt did anything wrong at all.

And it was quiet enough to hear a shout. By God was it quiet. Not only from the home fans but from us too. We had 3,000 there – more or less – and there were a couple of noticeable instances during that first-half when it seemed the entire stadium was taking part in a sponsored silence.

During the second sustained silence, I couldn’t take it any longer.

I bellowed “COME ON CHELSEA” and people probably heard me in Glyndebourne, Rottingdean, Ditchling and Walmington On Sea.

It certainly caused the colony of seagulls that were permanently perched high on the roof truss to my right no end of fluster. Four of them flew off and into each other, three others fell off their perch, and two others shat on the spectators in the tiers below.

Truly, the lack of noise was shocking. When I finally decide to give up in “X” years’ time – the cumulative effect of the “drip, drip” negatives of ridiculous kick-off times, knobhead fans, VAR bullshit, 39th game rumours, World Cups in Qatar, players on weekly wages that I could possibly retire on, et-bloody-cetera – the first-half at Falmer will be nestled in there somewhere.

I just looked around and wondered how so many fans, supporters, devotees, loyalists could make such little noise.

Inside my head : “Estudiantes versus Defensa Y Justicia in Del Plata can’t come fucking quick enough.”

On the pitch, a rare shot on goal from the home team caused us to worry.; a swipe from distance from Leandro Trossard was one-handed away by Kepa.

Phew.

Pulisic kept running at the home defence and I remember a couple of efforts in that first-half.

As the game re-started, Pulisic again looked eager and dangerous, twice running directly at the home defence and causing problems. A Reece James effort was deflected for a corner. The industrious Kante – one blind-sided run was fantastic but not spotted – struck at goal but did not trouble Mat Ryan, and for a while it looked that we would increase our lead.

I noticed the similarity between Lewis Dunk and the really stupid one – Neil – from “The Inbetweeners.”

After a beer or two at half-time, and with Chelsea attacking us, thankfully the noise increased a little.

“Here for the Chelsea.”

Another bloody chant I can’t stand.

“We’ve won it all.”

Ditto.

“You’re just a shit Crystal Palace.”

The fact that this hints that there is a good Crystal Palace out there somewhere makes this chant redundant.

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

On the pitch, the minutes ticked by and we began to fade, while Albion grew stronger. We were begging for a second goal to make it safe.

On sixty-five minutes, the manager surprisingly replaced Pulisic with Callum Hudson-Odoi and not long after, Mount was replaced by Mateo Kovacic. It seemed that we were going for the point; pragmatic football, how Mourinho. Whatever did happen to him?

A Brighton free-kick way out on the right was hit low into the box, and after a couple of bobbles, the ball ended up six yards out with a Brighton player about to pounce.

“This is it. Bollocks.”

Thankfully the shot from Aaron Connolly was miraculously clawed away by Kepa, who tends to specialise in these low swoops to his left and right. It was a top class save and was warmly applauded.

With six minutes of time to go, and with many around me whispering concerns that we were deteriorating badly, and very likely to concede, a corner was lobbed into the box. Dunk rose in a similar position to Zouma in the first-half but the header ended up further out, and bouncing. Substitute Alireza Jahanbakhsh rose to the challenge and carried out a ridiculous bicycle lick which surprised everyone and flew into the net.

Bollocks.

The home support made a right racket.

A raiding Hudson-Odoi lifted a curler just over the bar and we groaned three thousand groans. Tammy was having a mixed game, playing well in patches, as if his confidence ebbs and flows at will. His hold up play can be good at times, but he needs to build on that. I liked the look of Reece James, and he will get much better. We kept trying to score a second, but it was Kepa who saved our blushes with another excellent save late on from Neal Maupay, this time stopping a shot with his left boot.

Phew.

At the end, there was applause for the team but everything was muted, and toned down a little. Toni Rudiger noticeably shooed away our applause with a palm raised as if to say “not worthy” (pictured).

But this was a fair result. I have to be honest, I quite enjoyed it, and I am not honestly sure why. We seldom played as well as in parts of recent games, yet I still loved the experience of an away game, the thrill of an early goal, the cut and thrust, the closeness to the pitch.

After, we killed time with a beer or two in the roomy away concourse to let the train station queues die down. The consensus was certainly “fair result”. I never really get too involved on “social media” immediately after a game but a comment by a Chelsea supporter in which the performance was termed a “debacle” certainly stirred me to comment.

You can guess my thoughts, eh?

A new decade, but no debacle.

At about 3.45pm, we caught the train back to Lewes. On the drive home, we stopped at Arundel for a leisurely – two hours, how European – meal with a drink or two. There was a little chat about the game, in the train, in the car, in the pub. This project is still on course, Frank is learning as he goes, just as we had known from day one. There will be mistakes, but this is to be expected. Frank is no fool. I am confident.

“Nothing to see here.”

Of course, we loved it that Tottenham lost at Southampton, and we did not mind one iota that Manchester United lost at Arsenal.

We ended the day in fourth place and five points clear of the rest.

As the other three slept, I drove on and on and on. I reached home, eventually, at just after 9pm. We had all agreed that it had been a top day out.

Next up, Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup and thoughts of 1970, where it all began for many of us.

See you there.

 

Tales From The United Colours Of Football

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 April 2019.

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

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

This was a familiar drive north indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2007 A

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

2006 A

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

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

Here are some moments from the previous ten league visits.

2008/09

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

2009/10

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

”Go on my son.”

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

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

2010/11

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

Not big, not clever, but totally understandable.

2011/12

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

2012/13

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

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

2013/14

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

2014/15

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

I had one thought : “Munichesque.”

2015/16

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

2016/17

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

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

2017/18

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

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

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

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

Back to 2018/19…

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

Perfect.

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

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

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

“Is City still 1-0?”

“Yep.”

“Good, good.”

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

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

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

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

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Willian – Higuain – Hazard

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

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

Oh well. Fuck’em.

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

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

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

Anyway.

Khaki. Black shorts. Yellow socks.

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

United – a blurring of red and black,

Chelsea – royal blue and white.

The game began.

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

“Ole’s at the wheel.

Tell me how good does it feel?

We’ve got Sanchez and Pogba and Fred.

Marcus Rashford – he’s manc born and bred.

Duh du, du du du du du

Duh du, du du du du du

The greatest of English football.

We’ve won it all.”

Fackinell.

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

“Fucksake.”

I looked down at my feet again.

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

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

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

They didn’t like this one though :

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

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

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

Passionate, loud, venomous.

“Come on Chelsea.”

Gary, meanwhile, had a new twist.

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

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

A look to the skies this time.

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

I screamed “hit it.”

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

We went fucking doolally.

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s lucky to stay on, Gal.”

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

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

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

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

I looked down at my trainers one last time.

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

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

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

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

We made a very clean and quick getaway.

“Job done boys, job done.”

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

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

See you there.

Tales From The Famous Three Kings

Chelsea vs. Huddersfield Town : 2 February 2019.

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

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

“See you later.”

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

The wheels spun beneath me.

“Oh great.”

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

“Now or never, Chris, let’s go.”

I cautiously pulled away.

It worked.

I was on my way to London.

“Phew.”

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

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

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

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

“The 1994 FA Cup Final against United.”

The lads groaned. We had all been there.

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

We were all there.

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

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

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

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

I made a point about Antonio Conte.

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

I shook my head.

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

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

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

We mulled over the team.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Willian – Higuain – Hazard

“So, we know the substitutions then.”

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

We laughed / groaned.

Chelsea Candid Camera At The F3K.

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

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

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

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

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

In the cold light of day, it looked ridiculous.

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

The game began.

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

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

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

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

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

Gonzalo Higuain’s First Chelsea Goal.

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

We waited. Eden struck. Get in.

Eden Hazard’s Penalty.

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

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

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

But we blossomed in the second-half.

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

Eden Hazard’s Second Goal Of The Day. 

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

Celebrations For Gonzalo Higuain’s Second. 

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

“Time for a few more, Al.”

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

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

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