Tales From The Beautiful South

Chelsea vs. Hull City : 16 February 2018.

During the pre-match chat ahead of the West Brom game on Monday, all was going well until I was reminded that we were playing Barcelona at home on the following Tuesday. Bloody hell, that made me gulp. As at 7.59pm on Monday, we were a team and club that appeared to be low on confidence. Antonio Conte’s honest admission that his team lacked “personality” at Watford seemed to sum things up succinctly for me. Thankfully, we brushed the hapless Baggies away without too much fuss on Monday, and we looked forward to a second home win of the week against Hull City in the FA Cup as the week progressed. However, there is no doubt that the looming shadow of Barcelona dominated my thoughts for a few days. On Thursday, we had to apply for tickets for the Camp Nou game.

Tickets were purchased. Roll on Tuesday 20 February – another gulp – and Wednesday 14 March – and another.

We will be there.

The working week finished, I was a relaxed and smiling soul as I met up with Parky and PD in the pub opposite work. I was not initially a fan of Friday games – all that travelling after a hard week at work seemed a nightmare at first – but as I drove the lads to London, the realisation that I could have a lie-in on Saturday morning was a lovely thought. Outside, it was a sunny and crisp afternoon. There was a nice vibe in The Chuckle Bus. The traffic slowed a little on the M4 and it took me a little shy of three hours to reach London.

I met up with Andy and Antony from Los Angeles, and a handful of a few more locally-based faces, in “Simmons Bar” at just before 6pm. It was a lovely pre-match. Everyone seemed so relaxed, but maybe it was just me. It’s always a pleasure to meet up with Andy, who helped form the famous or – infamous – “Orange County Hooligans” (who knew Americans could be ironic?) a decade or so ago. I have met his pal Antony at a couple of stateside shindigs. I first met Andy in Santa Monica in the summer of 2007. I had arrived at LAX with Cathy for our series of three games in Palo Alto and Los Angeles, and the plan was for Cathy, Beth, Andy and me to head a few miles inland to watch Hollywood United play in the evening. That was the plan. Sadly, we managed to get a little lost on the freeways of LA, and only arrived as the second-half was starting. We had just missed Frank Leboeuf playing the first forty-five minutes, which was particularly galling. I do remember a Hollywood United strike from distant being one of the best goals that I have ever seen. Thankfully, Leboeuf joined us all for a boozy question-and-answer session at the Chelsea pub a week later.

Andy and Antony were over for the Hull City and Barcelona home games – a whirlwind trip to Prague and Brussels was planned between the two matches – and Andy informed me that the Hull City match was his fifty-ninth Chelsea games, a superbly impressive figure.

“When I get to one hundred, I’ll retire” he said, far from convincingly.

I picked up a copy of the match programme, and in-keeping with other cup games this season, the front cover was based on a previous encounter with the opponents. This time, the season featured was 1981/1982. The memories flooded back; this was a season which marked going to games by myself for the first time, aged just sixteen. I remember one school friend being quite shocked that I was OK to head up to London by train on my Tod. I might have been a rather quiet and shy youngster, but travelling alone never scared me. In season 1981/1982, I subscribed to the home programme for the first time and I would always wait with great anticipation on the Monday or Tuesday for the programme to drop through the letter box. Invariably, I would devour every part of it. I always used to enjoy reading the pages from our past which were magnificently penned by Scott Cheshire. From these pages, I learned about players such as Tommy Law, Hughie Gallacher, Ken Armstrong, John Harris, Tommy Lawton and Vic Woodley, and my interest in our history was re-ignited.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I wondered again if the attendance would hold up. Clearly, as with West Brom on Monday, the away section was far from full. But generally, there was a good show. Only the top seven or eight rows of the East Upper – at the top corners – were not used. Deep down, what with our run of midweek games of late, I wondered if we would struggle to sell 32,000 to 35,000 tickets.

Another good show from our support.

With it being a Friday might game, there were many more children dotted around our area and it was great to see.

“I’d best tone down the swearing tonight.”

The team was a mix of fringe players, first team regulars and youngsters.

Willy

Toni – Ethan – Gary

Davide – Danny – Cesc – Emerson

Willian – Olivier – Pedro

In a repeat of Monday, the lights were dimmed and the teams then appeared. Hull City had around eight-hundred supporters.

The game began with a perfect start. A Hull City move broke down and Olivier Giroud pushed the ball on to Willian. Maybe a top-tier team would not back off, but Willian was able to shuffle the ball between his two feet and gain a clear view of the goal. He adeptly curled a fine shot into the goal. It was such a fine strike.

Only two minutes were on the clock.

The Hull accent is neither particularly well known, nor easy to do. Apart from the locals using “I nerr” – for “I know” – all the time, it has little distinguishing features. But Alan and me had a little stab at it.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

It was a perfect start, happy days.

The singing was good at the start, but I inwardly tut-tutted every time I heard the tedious “Steve Gerrard / Demba Ba” chant and the equally tiresome “Frank / 200“chant. Shouldn’t we be singing about current players? Certanly not about Liverpool players. I suspected, actually, that Lampard and Gerrard had been spotted in the TV studio above the MHL.

Willian was on fire in the first part of the match. The next chance fell to Giroud, staying onside, after Pedro shovelled a lovely over-the-top dink to him. He slammed the ball over. We were well on top, moving the ball well. As usual the crowd yelled our support of the manager, and the man in black was soon clapping us for our support. Let’s all hope that recent horrible blip will act as a stimulus for positive change. The debutant Emerson had begun well, showing an ability to seek out space down the left.

I wondered if his middle name was “Lake.”

Emerson Lake Palmieri.

I’ll get my coat.

On twenty-seven minutes, Cesc Fabregas received the ball from Giroud inside our half and played an inch-perfect lob ahead of the on-rushing Pedro. He caressed the ball with a lovely touch, bringing it down, and then steering it low into the goal. What another lovely goal. Superb.

Five minutes later, we built another attack, and again Giroud was involved. He passed to Willian, raiding at will, and he raced at the back-peddling Hull defence.

“They can’t live with us, Al.”

Indeed, they couldn’t.

Willian steered a low shot into the goal, just clipping the far post en route.

Alan had mention that he had bumped into Andy from Trowbridge on the walk to the stadium and Andy had said that he had us to win 4-0.

“Bet he’s getting excited now.”

Lo and behold, just before half-time, a poor Gary Cahill shot was not cleared and the ball fell to Emerson, who did well to send over a low cross towards the near post. Giroud was on hand to deftly tap home. Get in. It had been a fine show of finishing, and Hull had been blitzed.

“Andy is probably thinking we need to declare now.”

I wondered what was in store for us in the second-half. Alan was hoping that Callum Hudson-Odoi would play a large part in the proceedings. He was happy to see that the manager agreed. He replaced Pedro. As the second period began, I realised that Callum’s shirt number – 70 – was as good as it gets for a player called Hudson.

I have to say that the resulting forty-five minutes was a pale imitation of the first forty-five.  Hull began far brighter than us at the start of the second period. Ethan Ampadu was forced to clear off the line, but a braindead foul by Cesc inside the box gave Hull City a penalty.

All thoughts were on Andy and his 4-0 bet.

After a little delay, David Meyler slammed the ball at goal. Willy Caballero flung himself to the right and saved. The hero from the Norwich marathon had done the job once more. Alan and I cheered and smiled.

The bet was still on.

On the half-hour, youngster Kyle & Scott replaced Fabregas. Bloody hell, the kid looked young, with the frailest of frames and a haircut from the ’eighties or modern North Carolina.

“He looks about twelve, Alan.”

The youngster looked at ease though, showing no real signs of nerves at all.

I announced to Alan that “I’m going to call him Kyle & Scott.”

Alan smirked.

Silently, I wondered if he was good in the air.

The voice inside my head replied : “Yep, he’s a nice jumper.”

I’ll get my other coat.

Hull threatened our goal again, who were by far the better of the two teams in the first fifteen minutes of the second-half. Hudson-Odoi raced away and played the ball to Zappacosta, who had the chance to shoot, but instead chose to pass to Willian. His deliberation allowed defenders to recover and his shot was blocked. As the ball then spun loose, Zappacosta forced a low save from the Hull ‘keeper Marshall.

The bet was still on.

As the game drifted past, Alan and I waffled.

Alan : “I’ve seen it all now. The Hull ‘keeper wearing all green. Whatever next?”

Chris : “Not only that, the referee in all black. Stop the madness.”

We then realised that Willy Caballero was wearing all orange, thus clashing rather spectacularly with Hull’s predominantly amber kit. We remembered how such topics were feverishly debated by Brian Moore on “The Big Match”, often eclipsing any talk of tactics and styles of play. I blame Brian Moore for both Alan’s and my continued annoyance with kit clashes.

The minutes ticked by. Hull’s little period of possession had passed now, and we were again in the ascendancy.

I loved the way that with every Willian corner, two young lads sitting behind me were yelling at him, almost feverishly. It was great to see and hear. The noise had been pretty good in the first-half, but had lessened in the second.

With twenty minutes remaining, Olivier Giroud was replaced by Alvaro Morata. The former Hipster Gooner Knobhead was given a fine reception. He is well on his way along the Mickey Thomas path of redemption and acceptance. Danny Drinkwater kept a rising ball down and the driven shot was saved. I found it hard to believe that the score was still 4-0. The last chance of the game – very late on – fell to the game’s most lively player Willian, who advanced and curled a shot towards the goal. The ball spun off the far post, with the ‘keeper well beaten. Alan and I sighed, but soon laughed. Andy, I am sure, punched the air with joy.

Funny game, football.

The bet was won.

The game ended, and there was a hearty roar.

The PA announced that we had reached the FA Cup quarter finals for the thirteenth time in seventeen seasons. As I left the MHU, I realised how much we have owned this competition since 2007. It is time we won it again.

We had all witnessed a fine evening of football.

London 4 Hull 0.

It had been a beautiful night in The Beautiful South.

 

Tales From A Stroll Down The Fulham Road

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 28 January 2018.

Our eighth out of nine games in the month of January saw a return to the FA Cup and a good old-fashioned battle with long-standing adversaries Newcastle United. On the drive up to London, we briefly chatted about the meek second-half surrender at Arsenal on Wednesday, but forward to the next run of games, and made transport plans for a few of them. There were a few moments lambasting the shocking mess of the VAR system, which stumbles from one farce to another with each game. Get rid of it now.

After having worked on eighteen of the previous twenty days, here was a much-needed day of rest, though it was my turn to drive after Glenn and PD took a turn at the wheel for the two previous games. But there were no complaints from me. Football acts as a release-valve as much today as it ever did. I ate up the miles and made good time. The weather was mainly mild but overcast.

Previous FA cup games against Newcastle United? There was an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley in 2000 of course. This was a fine game of football and should have been the final itself. Gus Poyet was the hero of the day with two headers after Rob Lee equalised for the Geordies. I remember their end resembled a huge bowl of humbugs. It was a fantastic game. By comparison, the 1-0 win over Aston Villa at old Wembley’s last-ever Cup Final was such a dull affair.

There was also a win against them at home in 2006, but that 1-0 win does not ring many bells. Once the draw was made, I immediately thought back to a game from 1996, when Newcastle United were riding high in the league – it was the season that saw them infamously over-taken by Manchester United – and when we had already beaten them 1-0 at home in a thrilling game in the December. In a third round tie at Stamford Bridge in January, we were winning 1-0 with a goal deep into injury time from Mark Hughes. Sadly, a stoppage-time equaliser from Les Ferdinand took the tie to a replay, which we famously won on penalties. We made it to the semi-final that year.

We popped into “The Goose” but I left for the ground a little earlier than the rest to take a few un-hindered photographs of the pre-match scene. Deep-down, I also wanted to feel a special FA Cup buzz around the stadium, but – apart from the nauseous presence of few more touts than usual trying to hawk tickets – there was little different to this game than others, except for maybe more than the usual amount of kids with parents and grandparents. I wondered who was more excited.

As I walked on past the old and new tube stations, the town hall and the CFCUK stall, I mused that the famous lyrics to the song by Suggs should now be updated :

“The only place to be every other Saturday lunchtime, Saturday tea-time, Sunday lunchtime Sunday tea-time, Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night and Friday night is strolling down the Fulham Road.”

I took a photograph of the fine frontage to the Oswald Stoll buildings, which have been part of the match day scene at Chelsea for decades. It houses veterans from the armed forces. I love that. It underlines the role of the army, navy and air force at Chelsea, in addition to the more famous pensioners from the Royal Hospital. During the week, I read that the foundation is thinking of building a new residence elsewhere, and there is the chance that they will offer Chelsea Football Club the chance to buy up some of the existing property adjacent to the existing West Stand. There will be no added capacity to the new Stamford Bridge, but simply more space for spectators to enter and exit the cramped footprint of the stadium. I guess the board needs to weigh up the options. Is it worth the added expense of buying up more land? Possibly. During the week, there had been a CPO meeting. Though I did not attend, I was pleased that the CPO board and the CFC board have never been closer.

For the people who constantly moan about our reduced presence as a major player in the transfer market, I’d suggest they need to re-value their thoughts. In the autumn of 2011, with the threat of us moving from Stamford Bridge to an unloved new build away from our ancestral home, we would not have worried too greatly about a few years of treading water on the pitch if our future at Stamford Bridge was secure.

I’m strongly behind the new stadium. I’ll say no more than that.

However, I do find it odd that Roman Abramovich has only been spotted at one Chelsea game this season; the win against Manchester United. I doubt if he is losing interest, but perhaps it has shifted its focus. I wondered if Roman is one of these people who obsesses about one thing at a time. A company acquisition. A football club. A football team. A new house. A yacht.  A stadium.

I had a vision of him locked away in a room in one of his properties, maybe not as obsessed as Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters” as his character builds devil’s mountain out of mashed potato and then debris, but with a 2018 mix of Hornby train sets, Meccano, and Lego bricks – and cranes, lots of cranes – working in unison to replicate the Herzog and De Meuron model.

Inside the current Stamford Bridge, the first thing that I noted was a void of a few hundred seats which were not filled in The Shed. As with Norwich City, The Geordies did not fully occupy their three-thousand seats. A 1.30pm Sunday kick-off is a test though. No surprises that it was not filled.

The manager had chosen a 3/4/3 again and re-jigged the starting personnel.

Caballero

Rudiger – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Drinkwater – Alonso

Pedro – Batshuayi – Hazard

For once, we attacked the Matthew Harding in the first-half; a Benitez ploy no doubt. The thought of a replay on Tyneside – two days off work for sure – filled me with dread. Absolute dread.

As the game began, the Geordies were making all the noise.

“New-casuhl, New-casuhl, New-casuhl.”

I’d suggest that they started the match with more pressing and more energy than us. Early on, we were concerned when Davide Zappacosta stayed down for a few minutes. Thankfully, he was able to run off his knock and was soon back to his barnstorming runs. On one occasion, he pushed the ball way past his marker and sent over a brilliant cross.

An Eden Hazard free-kick did not trouble the ‘keeper Karl Darlow.

There was a fine leap and header on by Hazard to Michy Batshuayi which took me back to the ‘eighties when the hanging-in-the-air leap of David Speedie often supplied Kerry Dixon with many a cushioned header.

There was a magnificent cross-field pass from Toni Rudiger; one of his specialities. He is surely deserving a regular run in the team. I see a fine player. At the other end, Wily Caballero managed to save from Jonjo Shelvey. Our play certainly looked a little off the pace. It felt like “advantage Toon” at the half-hour mark. We had not got into the game. The Stamford Bridge were quiet. But you knew that. Thankfully, this was to change.

A beautiful and flowing move involving a long pass from Pedro into the feet of Hazard, a touch to Marcos Alonso – a great appetite to join the attack – and the finest of passes to Batshuayi.

“Michy doesn’t miss from there” zipped through my mind. It was virtually an open goal with the ‘keeper lost.

Chelsea 1 Newcastle United 0.

GET IN.

This goal seemed to pump life into the crowd, the team and most especially Michy himself. For the rest of the half, his movement was better, and his appetite too. There was another excellent save from Wily down at The Shed, with our ‘keeper managing to fall quickly at his near post and block an effort from Gayle. A lovely shot from the left foot of Rudiger flew past the post. The game was opening up now.

Pedro and Hazard were hitting some fine form and the former found the latter with a great ball. Hazard picked out Batshuayi – “Nevin to Speedie to Dixon” – and the striker lashed the ball goal wards. There was an immediate groan as the shot was blocked by Jamaal Lascelles, but the noise quickly changed to that of hope and expectation as the ball spun high and over the ‘keeper.

“I like the look of this” I thought.

It dropped into the goal.

Chelsea 2 Newcastle United 0.

The game seemed won. Phew. No replay? I hoped not.

We had that strange experience of us attacking The Geordies and Parkyville in the second period.

The crowd were a little more involved. On two occasions especially. There was a loud and heartfelt “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” – louder than normal it seemed – and it certainly felt like a resounding show of support for him. Soon after, even louder, and with the entire ground appearing to join in there was this –

“STAND UP FOR THE CHAMPIONS.”

It was if these two chants were for the benefit of Roman and the board.

The only problem was that Roman was not present; he was up to his waist in mashed potato in the west wing.

Will manager Conte be here next season? I hope so but I doubt it. I hate modern football and I’ll say no more than that.

A shot from Pedro, and a beautiful volley from Alonso showed our intent as the second-half progressed. Newcastle fell away, but their support remained as belligerent as ever. There were two shots from distance from DD. It was all Chelsea. With twenty minutes remaining, we were given a free-kick after a foul on the useful Zappacosta, who we all agreed needs to start ahead of the ailing Victor Moses. I love his appetite.

This was in prime Marcos Alonso territory no doubt. There was a wait for a few moments. We held our breath. Three Chelsea players were in the wall, but the Spaniard struck the ball up and over. It was yet another prime free-kick from Alonso. The boy can certainly strike a ball.

Chelsea 3 Newcastle United 0.

Game most definitely over.

The rest of the game was notable for four significant substitutions.

72 minutes : Ross Barkley for Eden Hazard.

A home debut for our new midfielder. He looked strong and eager to impress. He had been the cover-star on the match programme, another retro one, this time from the ‘forties.

77 minutes : Ethan Ampadu for N’Golo Kante.

He immediately fitted in. Is he really only seventeen? Very soon, he played the ball of the game through to an onrushing Pedro. The lad looks the business, so loose and natural.

80 minutes : Callum Hudson-Odoi for Pedro.

A Chelsea debut, and his first three passes were on-the-money cross-field balls out to Zappacosta out on the right, now enjoying acres of space. All of a sudden, the future seemed brighter, rosier, more positive. Fantastic.

83 minutes : Christian Atsu for Iscaac Hayden.

It was certainly nice to see and hear some warm applause for our former player, who never made it to the first-team. I bet we never got any credit for it on the TV commentary.

The game ended with a fine and free-flowing move from our penalty box all of the way through to a shot from Michy which the ‘keeper saved. By that time the away team were chasing shadows.

But the Newcastle fans kept their support of their team until the end and hardly any left. Top marks. I remembered back to 1983/1984 when, at the end of a completely one-sided 4-0 thumping, the Geordies kept singing, and were rewarded with applause from the home support.

In 2018, the reaction to the bonny lads was not full of such bonhomie :

“You’ve had your day out. Now fuck off home.”

Modern football, eh?

On Wednesday, the month ends with a home game with Bournemouth.

See you there.

 

Tales From The Nightshift

Chelsea vs. Norwich City : 17 January 2018.

2.00pm : I clocked out from work, what a relief. These past few days have been as manic as I can remember. Over the road to “The Milk Churn” for a quick bite to eat and a drink with PD before the drive to Chelsea. Alas, Parky would not be joining us.

2.45pm : PD pulled out of the pub car park and set off north onto the A350 and up onto the M4. For a little while, I managed to catch some “shut-eye” – I knew that sleep would be at a premium after the game as I would need to be up at just before 5am for work on the Thursday. The spectre of extra-time and penalties loomed large.

4.30pm : PD parked his trusty Chuckle Bus on Mulgrave Road. The weather was chilly and likely to get colder still as the evening would develop.

4.40pm : Into “The Goose” on the North End Road. Two pints of “Amstel”, and work was physically one hundred miles away but in reality a thousand miles away. It was time to relax. We enjoyed a lovely time chatting to Chelsea stalwarts Wycombe Stan and Tooting Pete, about their love of the club and of their first few reminiscences of their first games. Pete’s was in January 1966, a trip to Stamford Bridge with his neighbour when he was aged ten. From that day on, he was hooked. The pub seemed quiet. We soon heard why; there were widespread delays on the London Underground.

6.00pm : Down to “Simmons Bar” towards the ground and it was even quieter. Only one mate was there, Duncan, newly-arrived after ridiculous delays en route from his home in Southend. He mentioned that Daryl, travelling in from the city, needed to divert as far north as Willesden Junction. There was talk of trains stuck on the District Line. A few late arrivals entered the little bar as the evening drew on, but the place was so quiet. Two bottles of “Peroni” and memories with Duncan of games at Old Trafford, the Baseball Ground and the Goldstone Ground in the good old ‘eighties.

7.15pm : Ah, another retro programme cover. Nice work, Chelsea. This was from 1968/1969

7.30pm : On walking up the steps to the top tier of the Matthew Harding, the PA announced a delay in the kick-off time to 8pm to allow for the tube’s later arrivals. Oh great. This had all the makings of a later night. I posted on “Facebook” to that effect :

“Kick-off delayed until 8pm. Great. This has all the hallmarks of a 0-0 after extra-time and a 16-15 win on penalties. And me getting to bed five minutes after I should be waking up. Football. I loves it.”

7.45pm : Eventually the stadium started to fill, but it took ages. Norwich were supposedly bringing 6,000 and packing The Shed, yet vast swathes were empty. Something didn’t ring true. At last the troops arrived. Alan made it in. Daryl too. There were gaps in the very top corners of the East Upper, but elsewhere the home areas looked pretty full. With games stacking-up now, this looked like a very fine effort from our club. Top marks to all.

7.50pm : Time to check the Chelsea team. It was virtually the same team that had eked out that horrific 0-0 at Norwich ten days ago, but with Ethan and Dave in place of Toni and Gary.

7.55pm : The TV screens splashed images from our history as the kick-off approached. I always find myself singing along to “Blue Is The Colour.”

8.00pm : Kick-off, better late than never. Norwich, in the end, only had around 3,000 fans. A poor effort, really. The Norfolk club must have been out of pocket on that deal.

8.06pm : Danny Drinkwater shot wide as we began well. After the lethargy of the first game, it looked like Antonio had lit a fire under a few of the players. The away fans were singing in support of their team.

“Yellows! Yellows! Yellows!”

8.09pm : Kenedy lashed in a corner from in front of the empty seats of Parkyville and David Luiz rose to head towards the goal. It bounced just past the far post, and just before a Chelsea player could touch it home.

8.10pm : A Willian shot, wide. This was indeed a fine start. After just ten minutes, we had created more than in the entirety of the first game by the banks of the Wensum.

8.12pm : A fine piece of play by Tiemoue Bakayoko brought a pleasing rally of support for our under-fire midfielder. It was nice to hear. Well done to those who chose to support him.

8.14pm : Willy Caballero seemed to mistime his attempt to clear. The Norwich City attacker could not reach the ball in time. Phew.

8.19pm : A Davide Zappacosta cross allowed Michy Batshuayi to shoot but there was a block. The Chelsea crowd were as loud as could be expected. We sung in praise of the manager, who was standing throughout the game, as ever, pointing and gesticulating at his charges. I saw no diminution of his fight and passion on this particular night. And then we seemed to take our foot off the pedal a little.

8.25pm : Alan – “Come on, move about. You’re all slower than the District Line tonight.”

8.30pm : A shot from distance from DD saw the ball crash against the underside of the bar. Howls from the home fans.

8.31pm : Oh dear Michy. Our maligned striker gave the ball away in his own half and we watched, pain-stricken, as Nelso Oliveira sent a dipping shot onto our bar. It was the away team’s first real effort. But it certainly woke them.

8.35pm : The Norwich number nine then slashed wide. The home support was getting restless.

8.50pm : Gary commented at half-time “this has got 0-0 written all over it.” On the TV screen by the toilets, I spotted Gianfranco Zola as a halftime guest on the BBC. There was the memory of his back-heeled flick against the same opposition in an FA Cup replay in around 2002 – a game I sadly missed through work – and I realised that had I stayed in my usual position at half-time (standing against the barrier by the steps near my seat) I would have been in camera shot in the distance.

9.05pm : Michy gave away a silly foul, and the frustration rose again. It annoys me how he turns into trouble rather than play an easy ball. He then so often fouls. Soon after, he was annoying us again and Alan wanted him off.

9.15pm : Down below us, Willian worked the ball well to Kenedy, who raced away and crossed into the box. Who was there, awaiting its arrival, but Michy. He touched the ball in and the place roared. Get in you bastard. I looked at Alan and gave him an old-fashioned. How Michy enjoyed that.

IMG_3795 (2)

9.16pm : There was a loud – “ish” – “CAREFREE” from the Matthew Harding. Positive signs.

9.20pm : Almost a calamity down at The Shed End, when Caballero and a Chelsea defender came for the ball, colliding, and the loose ball was slammed against the post by James Maddison.

9.22pm : Pedro, storming into the box, went flying and I had no idea one way or the other. The referee booked him for diving.

9.24pm : DD gave the ball away carelessly and Maddison forced a sublime save from Wily Caballero. Top marks.

9.34pm : An excellent break by Willian, fantastic feet, and the lay-off to DD should have given us a second goal. It was fired over.

9.35pm : Oh dear Michy. A woeful shot from distance.

9.37pm : A shot from Bakayoko. More applause. Good to hear.

9.39pm : The away fans were pretty quiet to be honest, but we were just about able to discern a vaguely humorous chant from The Shed :

“If we score, we’re on the pitch.”

9.41pm : Antonio replaced Michy with Alvaro Morata and Ethan Ampadu with Andreas Christensen.

9.42pm : DD was not enjoying the best of games but he did ever so well to reach the goal-line and cut the ball back for Morata to head down, but the ‘keeper Gunn scrambled the ball away. Home fans began leaving. The end was surely in sight.

9.45pm : N’Golo Kante replaced Kenedy, who had played his best game for us. A good effort. Surely we would close this out.

9.47pm : Morata, stretching, just could not provide the final touch.

9.50pm : Willian could not get the ball out of his feet, and the elusive second goal went begging.

9.51pm : Norwich kept plugging away. As a move developed down their left. We were deep into the four minutes that the referee had added. With surely only seconds remaining, we were deep in Iniesta Time. I yelled out – loudly, and in pain – “STOP THE FUCKING CROSS.”

9.52pm : We didn’t stop the fucking cross. Jamal Fucking Lewis rose and headed home off the post. Christ on a velocipede. The worst-ever scenario had happened. Another thirty minutes. Bollocks.

9.53pm : A text from Glenn, watching on TV – “FFS.”

10.00pm : So, extra-time. The rain continued to fall. There was talk of a fourth substitute if needed. I looked around and there were thousands of empty seats, like Dodger Stadium after the seventh inning stretch. I missed the start of the “third period” – too busy turning my bike around – but as I took my seat, I was aware of an injustice. It seemed that we had a penalty claim turned down and Willian had been booked, like Pedro, for simulation. Alan and I were not aware if VAR – expletives! – was being used or not. What a bloody shambles.

10.09pm : Our fourth substitute of the night was Eden, who replaced DD.

10.10pm : More positive noise and the remaining 30,000 bellowed “COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.” The team needed us now. It was great to hear.

10.12pm : Two close saves by Gunn from Willian and then Morata kept Norwich in it. It looked like they were playing for penalties and who could blame them?

10.17pm : The fourth period began. I dreaded the thought of pens – delaying our getaway further – but I did not sense that we could score. Hazard weaved his way on a few occasions but was met by a wall of yellow.

10.19pm : A handball by a Norwich City defender was waved away.

10.23pm : Morata headed weakly from a Zappa cross.

10.25pm : A silly late challenge on Hoolihan by Pedro resulted in a second yellow. What a silly man. No complaints with that. But the outlook was looking bleaker than ever.

10.29pm : Morata burst into the box right down below us and I am sure I saw Zimmerman reach up and pull across Morata’s chest, and there was a loud shout for a penalty from us. No, the referee now booked Morata for a dive. I called the referee a very very bad name and I will go to hell. Morata, who had already showed a very short fuse after being tackled with no foul being rewarded in his favour, flared up at the ref and a red card followed. Despite the protestations of Eden and Dave, the referee – EXPLETIVE – would not budge. So, down to nine men. Fuck this.

10.33pm : A header from Klose was thankfully saved by good old Wily. The whistle soon followed. I joked “I don’t care who wins now, I just want to go home.”

10.38pm : With both teams watching in the centre-circle and the Chelsea management crouching on the touchline, it all began. Thoughts of Munich? Of course. But also thoughts of our last two penalty-shootouts at Stamford Bridge. At The Shed End in 2011, a loss to Everton in the FA Cup. Before that, in 2005, a League Cup loss to Charlton at the Matthew Harding. Each Norwich penalty taker was dutifully serenaded ; “Waaaaaaanker.”

10.39pm : First up was Willian. Scored. GET IN.

10.40pm : Oliveira for Norwich. Saved. GET IN YOU FUCKING BEAUTY. NICE ONE WILY MY SON. David Luiz for us, scored, oh you beauty.

10.41pm : Maddison. Scored. Ugh.

10.42pm : Dave. Scored. YES. Vrancic. Scored. Ugh.

10.43pm : N’Golo. Scored. YES.

10.44pm : Murphy. Scored. Ugh. ONE MORE TO WIN IT.

10.45pm : Eden. A slow approach. Scored. FUCKING GET IN.

Phew. A truly mad game of football was over. Eden hugged Wily and the night was done.

IMG_3890 (2)

We had found a way to win, despite the knobhead referee. I felt drained. There was time for a few customary “goodbyes, see you at Brighton” and we were on our way out. I was just glad to be on my way home. My day shift had ended at 2pm. The evening shift had lasted 2pm to 10pm. We were now well-and-truly into the nightshift. As PD and I walked up the North End Road I asked him :

“Are we getting a shift bonus for this?”

11.15pm : PD set off home. I was – thank heavens – able to get an hour of sleep as he battled the rain on the M4.

12.55am : I swapped into my car in the pub car park.

1.25am : I reached home sweet home.

The magic of the cup continues in ten days. Meanwhile…”see you at Brighton.”

Tales From The Mischief And More

Norwich City vs. Chelsea : 6 January 2018.

The Cup.

This would be my second F.A. Cup game of the season. My first was back in September when I drove the three hours down to the edge of Dartmoor to watch Frome Town narrowly edge a 2-1 win against Tavistock Town. I thoroughly enjoyed myself on that occasion in deepest Devon, despite getting well-and-truly drenched. Tavistock drew around 350 for that game, much higher than their usual gates, and it is an anomaly how some cup games capture the imagination of the fans and some simply don’t. As ever, Frome Town let me down in the next round with a meek loss at Heybridge Swifts in Essex. There would be no Frome Town versus Chelsea match this season…

The Host City.

On each of my previous visits to the Norfolk city of Norwich, I have always been taken by its charms; the castle, the cathedral, its history, its pubs, and the close proximity of its football club to its tight city centre. However, it involves a five-hour drive from our homes in the West of England.  On our last visit two seasons ago, I can remember saying to the lads that it was the sort of place that I could quite happily visit every other season. So, we have to be thankful that Norwich City managed to get themselves relegated during the 2015/2016 season, and that our names were drawn out of the hat for our first tie in this season’s FA Cup campaign. And like our last visit – a nervous game in which we had marked the tenth anniversary of Peter Osgood’s passing with banners before the match – we had soon decided to stay the night in a local hotel.

The Drive East And North.

On the long drive, there was much to discuss. I had collected PD at 7am, and we were then joined by Young Jake and Oscar Parksorius. For the first part of the journey, we chatted about the acquisition of Ross Barkley from Everton for the relatively modest sum of £15M. Long-time followers of this blogorama will know how I have always rated him. I always like the way he seemed to burst forth from midfield with the ball, in the style of Paul Gascoigne, seemingly equally confident with both feet. It is a slight cliché to say it, but he is great box-to-box player, with a good eye for a shot. Yes, of course, we need strengthening elsewhere in the squad, but I count it as some fine business by the club. In a nutshell, I like him as a player because he excites me on the ball. This can’t be said of some others. Let’s hope he regains his fitness and becomes a valued part of our squad.

As I ate up the miles, there were periods of grey and overcast weather, interspersed with a few bursts of sunshine attempting to break through. We passed through the flat lands of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk, and I admired the subtle shades of winter. Jake was full of questions about the city, its football club and previous visits. I mentioned Norwich City’s old ground, which was called “The Nest” and involved several hundred spectators perching on a high bluff which overlooked the ground and its low-level stands. We reached Norwich just after midday, booked into our hotel – time for a quick lager while we waited for a cab – and then headed into the city.

The Mischief.

I had done my homework. I had prepared a little pub-crawl for the four of us along a fifty-yard stretch of Wensum Street, which would hardly tax us on a day which was allegedly going to turn colder as the night fell. First up was the beautifully named “The Mischief” which dated from 1599. Although the Fleetwood Town vs. Leicester City game was being shown on a TV above our heads, we paid it little attention. This was Jake’s first-ever night away following the team. The banter soon started flying around. This was footballing heaven. There was nowhere on Earth I would rather have been than in the wooden paneled, wooden floor boarded rickety bar of The Mischief.

The Ribs Of Beef.

After an hour, we marched over the bridge spanning the River Wensum and entered the next pub on the itinerary, “The Ribs Of Beef.” Another lovely boozer, a little more opulent than the previous one, which was rather basic. I spotted a couple of familiar Chelsea faces. Within a few minutes, we were spotted too; Goggles from the Fulham OB, alongside his partner in crime from the Norwich Constabulary, popped in and engaged in a little banter with us.

“Not expecting any trouble are, you?”

“Not really. Just the weight of numbers of the away support warrants us being here.”

Indeed. Over four-thousand Chelsea fans would be attending the game at Carrow Road, which sits alongside a stretch of the same river a mile or so downstream. And the home club, eager to entice as many fans as possible had cut the admission price to just £15 and £10 for Old Age Parkys.

What a deal.

A couple more pints, the trusted “Peroni” this time, went down very well. Parky and I chatted to a couple of Norwich fans and we asked them a few questions about “The Nest.” I was impressed that Parky had evidently done some background reading ahead of the trip and was able to name the streets where the old ground had been based, which was relatively near the city’s train station. Jake was lapping all of this up. It was a shame to move on, but we edged a few yards closer to the city centre and entered the next pub.

The Lawyer.

“The Lawyer” was a larger boozer, and I was surely pleased that the place was far from rammed. We chatted to some local Chelsea fans – members of the Eastern Blues – and they made us very welcome. More pints of Peroni followed. The laughter was now bouncing off the walls. We rounded things off with a short apiece and then bundled ourselves out into the night at just before 5pm. It had been four hours of heaven and, after a couple of very hectic days of work for me, just what the doctor had ordered. Of course we all love the buzz of a rarely-visited city, a few beers, good friends, and football.

Carrow Road.

The football stadium is thankfully not far from the city centre. We strolled down the main drag – Prince of Wales Road – past a few less-inviting bars and boozers. At the bottom of the gradual slope was a pub called “The Compleat Angler” – as ever, full of Chelsea – and there were around a dozen police outside. We walked on, and made it to the away turnstiles with around ten minutes to spare. Like most English stadia, Carrow Road has been overhauled since the ‘eighties. It’s a neat enough stadium. It has a hotel wedged up against one of its corners, with some rooms overlooking the pitch. Our section, as ever, was along the side of the stadium, in its newest structure, a single-tiered stand opposite the tunnel. I looked around. The place was almost full. A section of seats in a corner stand were empty, not sure why. I soon joined the others in the front row, where there was a stretch of around twelve unused seats. Unlike at The Emirates on Wednesday, where my vantage point was down low but behind the goal, I really enjoyed the view from the front row at Norwich. We really were in prime seats. The teams entered the pitch and as the players warmed up, I scanned the team.

Caballero

Rudiger – Luiz – Cahill

Zappacosta – Drinkwater – Bakayoko – Kenedy

Willian – Batshuayi – Pedro

Norwich City were in their usual yellow and green. Chelsea, for reasons known only to those who drew up the sponsorship deal with Nike, were in the grey of the third kit. Am I the only person who thought that it was ridiculous for us to be playing a night game alongside the misty banks of the River Wensum in not only a mid-grey kit, but one which had a vague camouflage pattern hideously stenciled into its weave? If the players then found it difficult to spot team mates, it is hardly bloody surprising.

The First-Half.

We were soon treated to a few rousing choruses of “On The Ball, City” by the home fans, and the Chelsea support rallied a loud rendition of “Antonio.” Over on the far side, the Chelsea manager, bedecked in the bright blue of a Chelsea tracksuit, was easily spotted. His players, in a turgid first-half, encountered problems in spotting each other, camouflage or not. A Danny Drinkwater shot was hardly worthy of the name as both sides struggled to get much cohesion. After almost half-an-hour came the game’s first real shot of note, with Alex Pritchard, the liveliest player on the pitch, striking after a mishap by David Luiz.  Fair play to the home team; all of their players were covering ground, tracking back, and closing space as if their lives depended on it. Down in the front row, I was in a little world of my own, trying to encourage the players with individual shouts to those within earshot, while thankfully not being restrained by the stewards as I took many a photo. Down low, yards away, you really get an appreciation of the pace of the game these days.

And then, I was confused as to why some of the Chelsea support behind me were “ironically” cheering each consecutive pass. I knew I had enjoyed a few beers in the pre-match pre-amble, but what was all that about? I was to later learn that this pathetic sarcasm was aimed at Tiemoue Bakayoko.

That is just shocking.

I thought that the whole point of being a supporter was to support the team. Or is that a notion that is highly camouflaged these days too?

At the half-time whistle, there was much wailing. This had been, I hate to say it, a tepid game of football. Frustration among our support had increased as the game had continued. Willian and Pedro had tried their best to inject a little urgency into our game, but our play was so slow. Service to the isolated Batshuayi had been almost non-existent.

1984 And All That.

The highlight of the half-time break took place in the gents.

Let me rephrase that.

While everyone was grumbling about the ineffective performance on the pitch, I recognised a face from the past and the far-distant past at that.

“You’re Dave, aren’t you?”

“Hello, mate!”

Dave used to sit alongside Alan, Glenn, Leggo, Swan, Stamford, Rich, Simon, Mark and little old me in the back row of The Benches in 1983/1984 and 1984/1985. As memory serves, I last saw him at the away game in Barcelona in 2000, and – certainly – before that at the Luton Town semi-final at Wembley in 1994. It was fantastic to see him again. I walked him up to see Alan, who was sat a few yards away from us. We planned a get-together at the Leicester City game the following weekend. Be prepared for some “then and now” photographs.

The Second-Half.

The game continued. A few half-chances came and went, but our spirits were not flying high up in the sky. Norwich themselves threatened but Caballero’s goal was not really troubled. To his credit, Willian kept plugging away in that way of his, and although our general standard of play increased, we found it impossible to break through the massed ranks of yellow and green. The frustration was certainly growing with each passing minute and each failed attempt on goal. There was little creativity in our side without Cesc and Eden. I wondered if Danny and Tiemoue alongside each other was ever going to be conducive to wave after wave of Chelsea attacks. I wondered why Ampadu was on the bench. Questions, questions.

Antonio Conte made some late changes. On came Alvaro Morata for the luckless and listless Batshuayi. No doubt in the rows behind me, thankfully out of earshot, the moaners were up to their tricks. Charley Musonda took the place of Kenedy, who had struggled all game. The youngster injected some much needed enthusiasm to our play. I like the look of him. Zappacosta, of all people, went close as the game entered its death throes. In the last minute, Dujon Sterling made his debut in place of Pedro.

At the home of Colman’s, there was simply not enough time to see if Dujon looked mustard.

And on that note, I will call it a day.

The Post-Mortem.

We shuffled out of the stadium and into the night. Everyone around us had grim faces. We stopped off for a pint and a chat about the game that we had just endured. None of us like digging players out, but it had – no doubts – been a very poor game. It meant, of course, that there was yet another midweek game on the horizon. This should not be the cause of disapproval, but maybe – just maybe – all of these midweek flits to London are starting to take their toll. I am sure that I am not alone with these thoughts.

Maybe I should move to Pimlico.

The Drive South And West.

On the long drive home on Sunday morning – the skies clear of clouds, the weather magnificent – I inadvertently missed the turning for the M25 and ended-up on the North Circular, which added a few extra minutes to my travel time. To be honest, it was fine, and gave the passengers of The Chuckle Bus the chance to spot the new Tottenham stadium from a distance, and also Wembley – sitting proud and quite stunning on the top of that incline – and I wondered if my FA Cup journey would reach from Tavistock to the national stadium come May.

 

Tales From A Game Too Far

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 27 May 2017.

The F.A. Cup Final. The grand finale to the domestic season. Chelsea’s last game and my last game of 2016/2017. The final hurrah.

There is nothing quite like an F. A. Cup Final.

Or to be precise, there was nothing like an F. A. Cup Final.

Before we experienced wall-to-wall football on TV, before the Champions League skewed club priorities every season, back in the days of when the nation stopped as one and all the talk in the preceding week was about the game, the F.A. Cup Final was a truly magical event. When did the magic start fading? For me, it was when the game left the old Wembley Stadium, before it took temporary refuge at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff for six seasons, and then returned to the spanking new, but generally unloved, new Wembley.

The Cup still stirs emotions, but that magic – difficult to describe to anyone who never grew up in an England which only showed one club game of football live on TV each season – has long since gone.

But, after the season-long chase for the title which was undoubtedly the main focus – to the point of obsession – we were gifted the chance to end the campaign with further glory and further fun. Tickets were purchased, plans were made. This was going to be a fine end to the season.

And then, two events happened which changed everything.

Staying up late, as I often do, on Monday night, I watched – horrified – on TV as news filtered through regarding the atrocity which befell the proud city of Manchester. I felt sadness, pain and anger. I slipped into a disturbed sleep and awoke the next day to the news of the full extent of the carnage. What sorrow. Immediately, there was the realisation that the F. A. Cup Final would be under intense scrutiny as there was the risk for similar attacks on personal freedom. There was, of course, no way that I would not go.

However, there was more sadness. At work on the Tuesday morning, I received a message from my wonderful friend Alan. After the game against Sunderland on Sunday, we had said our goodbyes at “The Lillee Langtry” and as we headed home, he paid a visit to his dear mother in a South London hospital. Sadly, the message relayed the heart-breaking news that his mother had passed away that Tuesday morning.

I fell silent and felt a great deal of pain. I only met Alan’s mother once – in around 1996 or 1997 if memory serves – but she was a lovely South London lady, just as her son is a lovely South London man. I passed on my sincere condolences to Alan – an only child like myself, our friendship goes deep –  and our solid group of friends rallied support for Alan throughout the week. We hoped and prayed that he would be well enough to attend the game on Saturday.

There was a real feeling of relief, and happiness – if that is the right word – to hear on Friday that Alan would be attending.

This brought back some bittersweet memories for me of course. And it made me think. How very odd that my mother’s passing in 2015 was followed by a Chelsea Cup Final at Wembley Stadium, and that the first game after Alan’s mother’s passing would be a Chelsea Cup Final too. Two years ago, I needed to be around the greatest of friends to help me through the day. I am sure that Alan’s thoughts were along similar lines. And as he explained to me, his mother – who keenly followed all of our matches – would not have wanted him to have missed the game on behalf of her.

The football, at times, seemed irrelevant throughout the week, but as Saturday finally arrived, there was a new focus for all of us.

An intense lightning storm woke me at 3am during the night, followed by deafening thunder and a monsoon-like deluge. It was a dramatic start to the day for sure. I struggled to get back to sleep. Would Saturday be sunny, as forecast, or would the rain continue? With a Chelsea Football Club statement asking for no bags to be brought to Wembley in light of the terrorist threat, I pondered options for getting my camera into the stadium. Eventually I drifted back to sleep.

Glenn picked me up at 7.45am. He drove in to Frome to collect PD, who had also awoken amid the light show at 3am. On to collect Parky, a breakfast of champions at Bradford-on-Avon at 8.30am, and Glenn then headed east, London-bound for the last time this season.

We wanted to continue a theme for this season; a little pub-crawl in previously virgin territory. Yes, we knew that there would be songs and chants and revelry at a number of watering holes throughout the capital, but we opted for a little tranquility before joining forces with Alan and others later. From 11.30am to 2pm, we nestled ourselves within the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and sampled four pubs within a few hundred yards of each other; “The Wilton Arms”, “The Nag’s Head”, “The Star” and “The Grenadier.” We were in Belgravia, one of the most expensive pieces of real estate going. It felt right that we should be starting our day in Chelsea, although of course Stamford Bridge itself is in Hammersmith & Fulham. Each pub had hanging baskets outside, wooden interiors, tons of character, lots of history. The sun was out, LP’s and PD’s shorts were on, and the beer was certainly hitting the spot.

At “The Nag’s Head” we chatted to a Russian Chelsea fan from Moscow, living in London since 2004, and off to the match too.

Just as we arrived at “The Star”, two US Arsenal fans, wearing replica shirts – shocker – were just leaving. I reminded them of the Arsenal way : “remember to beat the crowds, stay until the end.” They laughed, but I’m not convinced they understood what I meant.

Four pints to the good, we headed up towards Paddington, where the London-based lads were waiting at “Fountains Abbey” on Praed Street.

A hug for Alan, and I was pleased to see that he was full of smiles. We chatted away and it was lovely to see that he had made the right decision. His dear mother, although probably in a little pain on Sunday night, had enquired how Chelsea had fared in our last game of the season. That simple question – his mother asking about the team – had probably swayed him further. There was no way that Alan would miss the Cup Final.

Ah, the final. Throughout the week, when the game flitted in to my head, I remained confident. I hadn’t been more confident leading up to a major final since the 1998 trip to Stockholm. It seemed that everyone shared similar thoughts. I chatted to Ed, who was one of the few who were mentioning the game itself. He had been confident, yet was beginning to worry as kick-off approached. I calmed him a little.

“Nah, we’ll win. We’re too good for them. No doubt. And there is no point feeling guilty about being confident. Listen, it’s what Liverpool fans in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties were, and what United fans around fifteen years ago were. They were great teams and their fans knew it. Nothing wrong with being confident.”

After five pints or more, I was even beginning to convince myself too.

In another moment – maybe when I was less confident – I spoke quietly to Glenn.

“Of course, you realise that if we lose to these fuckers, our next two games will be against them too; in July in Beijing and in August at Wembley.”

Shudder.

In light of the call to be inside the stadium an hour before kick-off, we headed off for the tube earlier than normal. No last minute flit to Wembley this time. In previous finals, we have often arrived just in time for the last few formalities. No chance of that this time.

We tubed it to Marylebone and caught the train north. Our carriage was mainly Chelsea. The few Arsenal fans spotted were wearing replica shirts in the main. Of course, many Chelsea were too – it’s a Cup Final tradition, I wore a 1970 replica in 1994 – but there was a noticeable difference before the two sets of fans. Of our group of ten, only Gary and John were wearing club merchandise.

Lacoste Watch :

Parky – white.

Ed – chocolate.

Chris – pale blue.

(Incidentally, I was wearing blue all over : blue shirt, blue jeans, blue trainers, blue rain jacket and even my aftershave came from a blue bottle. And there was blue language too of course.)

We arrived at Wembley Stadium station at around 4.30pm. Chelsea were all around. I suspect Arsenal were using the more traditional Wembley Park option. The sun was beating down. There was not much of a queue to get in. My camera, slung around my neck, was waved in, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Up the escalators and inside. Wembley looked vast and we were in with plenty of time to spare, located in the upper tier, above the “Frank Lampard corner flag.” Alan, Gary, Ed and Neil were about thirty seats away. There were a few familiar faces nearby. It is amazing how we always seem to find ourselves among friends. At each seat, there was a Chelsea flag and a Chelsea bar scarf. A young lad appeared in the row in front and he was wearing an authentic Benetton rugby top from the mid-‘eighties. If ever there was a garment which is much desired to this day from that golden age of football clobber, then this was it. It is the holy grail of casualdom. I once owned one, albeit for only a few weeks, and that is a tale which I will eventually tell when the mood takes me, and originals now fetch ridiculous sums. I told the kid that I wanted to kill him and he smiled.

At the Eastern end, a huge Arsenal banner hung from the rafters :

“History. Tradition. Class.”

I think they left out “pomposity.”

At our western end, a simpler message :

“Pride Of London.”

As the minutes ticked by, the stadium filled. Our end appeared to fill quicker. Glenn noted a new feature, a thin section of obviously corporate spectators in the upper deck above the Royal Box; no colours on show there. In the corporate middle tier, I reckoned that there was just as much blue as red, a positive sign. Wembley has recently tightened the rules on bringing flags and banners into the stadium and the arena looked less football-like because of it. It’s as if they are saying “leave the atmosphere to us.”

A huge FA Cup mosaic adorned the pitch. Young dancers sprung on to the pitch waving bar scarves.

“It wasn’t like this in 1997.”

Of course, the team picked itself. It was the team that I would definitely have chosen.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill

Moses – Matic – Kante – Alonso

Pedro – Costa – Hazard

The minutes ticked by.

The next part of this FA Cup Saturday was about to unfold. And it is quite a story. Over a year ago, my good mate Rob took part in a short film which followed two football fans on a personal journey into the once elitist world of opera. Rob and Harry are Chelsea fans of a certain vintage and were not into opera at all. They were coerced by their pals Mike and Adam to attend various operatic shindigs, culminating in a performance of Giussepe Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the Royal Opera House, all the while being filmed along the way. It is a lovely film and won awards at the London Film Awards in 2016. Adam and Harry recently attended a film festival in LA too.

London.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QxaLMiHsUU

Los Angeles.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEI1PmgMLVA&t=328s

To cut a very long story short, Rob and Adam – Harry was on a family holiday so could not attend – were to join twenty other football fans from around the country in the singing of the traditional Cup Final hymn “Abide With Me.” I promised Rob that I would capture the moment with my camera; it is why I was so worried about getting the long lens inside the stadium. I spotted the group walk onto the pitch. My camera was ready.

Just before their moment, a montage appeared on the huge TV screens. As Eddie Newton and Sol Campbell were chosen to bring the FA Cup on to the pitch, a grainy clip of Eddie’s goal against Middlesbrough in 1997 was shown. An echo of a different era really. How time flies, eh?

The crowd quietened. I have noticed how “Abide With Me” seems to play less and less a role in the FA Cup Final these days. On my first visit in 1994, with my father having passed away the previous year, the words drew tears from myself as I sang along. Since then, on all subsequent visits, I have noted fewer and fewer fans joining in. Whether or not it was because of the events of Manchester or not, and the need to show a sense of community and shared kinship, on this occasion I sensed more than usual joining in.

As the words flowed, I joined in, and clicked away.

My thoughts were with Alan, just yards away.

Next up, the national anthem. Another show of solidarity. It was as loud that I can ever remember at Wembley.

The stadium was full now. A red-half and a less prominent blue-half. The two teams assembled on the centre-circle. Thoughts were now centred on the events of Monday night. At first there was applause but as the announcement continued, everyone hushed. I was very impressed. There followed a minute of complete silence in memory for those slain in Manchester.

RIP.

The game began. We stood, high up in row 22 of the top deck, for the entire game. Not everyone was stood, though. A fine long ball from David Luiz found Pedro but we failed to capitalise. For the next few minutes, we struggled to get a foothold. Arsenal looked livelier and more focused. N’Golo Kante struggled to keep the ball and we watched as an Arsenal move developed. A ball was slung in to our box. A clearance was knocked towards Alexis Sanchez who raised both arms and appeared to pat the ball down with his hands.

“Handball” thought everyone.

There was no referee’s whistle, nothing. Our players appeared to momentarily stop, but play continued. Sanchez slotted home.

“Well, that was good of you, you prick. It was handball, knobhead.”

But there was still no whistle.

The referee, oddly, raced over to the linesman.

“Not sure why he is doing that. He was only a few yards away from the handball.”

The referee and linesman chatted for a few seconds. I was absolutely adamant that the goal would be disallowed. It wasn’t. The referee pointed to the centre-circle. Disbelief all round. The Arsenal players seemed to not celebrate as if they were shocked too. Bollocks. Barely five minutes were on the clock.

During the first quarter, we really struggled and it was a huge surprise to us all. Where there had been fight and togetherness during the league campaign, here we looked listless and disjointed. We were slow in closing Arsenal’s attacking threat, and I lost count of the number of misplaced passes. As our play failed to live up to the standards set by the team this season, our support quietened. We were all in shock.

Sanchez set up Ozil, whose touch took him a little wide. His shot beat Courtois, but Gary Cahill’s nimble back-heal on the goal-line saved us from going 2-0 down. Then, Welbeck headed down and onto the post from a corner, and an Arsenal player was thankfully unable to follow it up.

We could have been 3-0 down. Heads were shaking all around me.

“When have we played as bad as this?”

“Arsenal away.”

We tried to rally.

“Come on Chelsea.”

We tried moving the ball into dangerous areas. To be truthful, Pedro was his usual energetic self and was our biggest threat of the opening period. Diego Costa had a couple of half chances. Eden struggled to get involved; I had hoped that this would be his final. Moses out on the right had a lot of the ball but struggled with the final ball. But it was our defensive frailty which caused us more worry. Matic was especially slow in covering ground and blocking.

Arsenal threatened further with Sanchez a huge threat. Courtois saved well from Xhaka.

With the first-half moving on, we improved slightly. Hazard fed in Pedro, but his shot from only fifteen yards out flew high over the bar and in to the packed Arsenal lower tier, full of jester hats, and face-paint too, no doubt. That was our best chance of the game thus far. But we were clearly second best.

Just before the whistle, we won a free kick on the edge of the box after Pedro’s heels were clipped. It was a perfect position for the left foot of Marcos Alonso. His effort sailed over, knocking the jester hat off an Arsenal fan in row Z.

At the break, neighbouring fans passed on news that the Arsenal goal should have been disallowed for offside in addition to the obvious handball. The ghost of David fucking Elleray lingers on.

Only one phrase dominated my thoughts at half-time :

“We can’t play as badly in the second half.”

I would have like to have been a fly on the wall inside our changing room during the interval. Thankfully, we started the second period a lot more positively. It roused the Chelsea support, who had been generally quiet as the first-half passed. A few shots from Pedro, Kante and Moses hinted at a fine reaction. The Chelsea support roared.

“Carefree.”

Pedro continued to be our biggest threat. We watched as he curled a fine effort just past the far post.

PD wanted Pedro to drop back and replace Moses at right back with Willian being brought on. I concurred. The manager had a different idea. On the hour, Conte replaced the very poor Matic with the much-lauded Cesc Fabregas. “The Magic Hat” reverberated around our end. He was met with boos from the the Goons of course. The Wembley pitch looked huge and we seemed unable to exploit its spaces. Bellerin tested Courtois from just inside the box, and our ‘keeper made the save of the match, pushing the ball out with outstretched arms. We roared our approval.

Down below us, Cesc shot wide. The minutes were ticking by.

With about twenty minutes remaining, Moses – who was having an up and down game – fell weakly inside the box. The referee judged a dive. It was his second yellow. Despite much protest, he left the field.

Twenty-eight thousand fans inside the stadium thought the same thought : “that’s fucked it.”

Willian replaced Pedro, who had arguably been our best player. He was soon involved down our right. Strangely, we looked more effective. A rare corner amounted to nothing, but then Willian crossed in to the box. For the first time all match, the Arsenal defenders were sloppy and indecisive. Diego took a touch and volleyed past Ospina.

“GET IN YOU BASTARD.”

Our end exploded. A moment of pandemonium mixed with real disbelief.

“How the bloody hell are we back in the game?”

Less than a minute later, that bearded knobhead Giroud sent over a cross which Ramsey headed in, past Courtois, a gaping goal an easy target.

Despair.

The Pompous Ones boomed with joy at the other end, and probably spilled their popcorn.

“Fuck.”

With time quickly disappearing, we tried to counter. David Luiz, who had supplied the attackers with a couple of excellent long passes, and who had been well-placed to head away several Arsenal efforts, went close with a header from an angle.

Bellerin, breaking with pace, could have sealed our fate but brushed a low shot wide. I turned around and sighed. This was too much.

In a position which mirrored his goal, Diego volleyed at Ospina. A yard either side of the ‘keeper and we would have miraculously levelled it again.

The clock ticked on.

Conte replaced Diego with Michy Batshuayi. Ozil hit the post at the other end. Luiz spent a fair portion of the last few minutes as a spare attacker.

It was simply not to be.

As the last few seconds ticked by, we slowly edged our way out.

The final whistle blew. We just wanted to leave, to get ourselves on the train back to the city centre. We should have, in hindsight, stayed to applaud the team, but we just wanted to get home. This was my forty-seventh game of the season and I felt exhausted.

Bizarrely, there were a few Arsenal fans in the line for the train. We wondered why they did not want to stay to see the trophy lifted. The magic of the cup, eh? In that line for the train – gallows humour to the fore, jokes helping us through – it appeared that we were in brighter spirits than the victorious Gooners. What an odd bunch they are. Maybe it was dawning on them that this would not be Wenger’s last game at the helm after all. How we laughed.

On the train, there was a fair bit of mainly good-natured banter between both sets of fans. A little knot of Arsenal kept singing in praise of Petr Cech, and it got boring. There was nothing malicious. However, they then decided – oh, you fools – to sing “WWYWYWS?” at us and this was met with a far more prickly response. The message was clear; you can take the piss out of our players, our club, but do not take the piss out of us, the fans. And do not, ever, sing that song to us.

Our support has never weakened. We have always shown up.

One Chelsea supporter stood up, and ranted at them, and it was powerful stuff. Although I can’t condone violence nor the threat of it, it certainly shut the fuckers up.

Very soon we sang :

“It’s gone quiet, over there.”

They had no answer.

Fuck’em.

We made our way back to Barons Court. The last tube journey of the season. We chatted to a few fellow fans. There was the briefest of post-mortems. One chap advocated using Cesc from the very start to open up the vast Wembley spaces. But, in hindsight, I would not have altered the starting eleven that the manager chose. It just seemed that it had been one game too far. Regardless of the farce of the first goal, we knew that we were well beaten. It had been a long day. At a service station on the A4, where Glenn and myself once bumped into Mark Hughes after a Chelsea game in 1998, we had an impromptu feast. The last food had been at breakfast. My mouth was as dry as a desert; a bottle of Coke has never tasted better. We were exhausted. I fell asleep on the drive home. Glenn made good time and I was back home before midnight.

It had been a long old day and a long old season. It ended with a poor performance, but we must not focus on that. It has been an exceptional campaign, hasn’t it? I must say that I have loved every damn minute of it; from the excesses of the US in the summer to the biting tundra of Ice Station Burnley, from the pubs of Sunderland and Liverpool to the bars around Chelsea, from the many highs to the few lows, from the Chuckle Bus and beyond, one step beyond, it has been one of the most rewarding seasons ever.

2016/17 : the numbers –

650 miles by train.

8,000 miles by plane.

12,500 miles by car.

115,000 words.

7,500 photographs.

1 league championship trophy.

We went to work, didn’t we? Too bloody right we did.

Grazie mille Antonio.

Have a great summer everyone – and many thanks for your continued and precious support.

In memory of Eileen Davidson : 28 July 1931 to 23 May 2017.

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Tales From A Wembley High

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 22 April 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh here we go. This could be them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry.”

That made me smile.

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

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

Wow.

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

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

Overhead, a mixture of sun and cloud.

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

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

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

The scene was set.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugh.

Game, as they say, on.

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

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

“Get in.”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

“Bollocks.”

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

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

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

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

GET. FUCKING. IN.

Our end boomed.

A quarter of an hour remained.

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

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

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

Smack.

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

Our end roared once again.

Chelsea 4 Tottenham Hotspur 2.

Oh my bloody goodness.

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

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

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

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

“Sing Chelsea everyone.”

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

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

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

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Tales From The Cup

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 13 March 2017.

Here was my mindset for this game.

“An evening game on a Spring weekday. This almost feels like a European home game. We are so used to those in March, April and May. Manchester United at home in the FA Cup. But it’s all about the League this season. This game feels odd. Whisper it and with caution, but it almost feels like an inconvenience. It’s not my fault that the FA Cup has lost its gloss. Blame the FA for that. Semi-finals at Wembley. The final being played during the season. The final being played on the same day as league games. The final being played at 5.30pm. Wembley Stadium has lost its appeal and it has lost its mystique. Wembley being used for the play-off finals. Wembley hosting Arsenal and Tottenham’s European games. We can also blame the Champions League and the shift in prestige to that competition. We can blame the FA for belittling the FA Cup with sponsorship and commercialism. We can even blame Chelsea too. We have won it in four of the new Wembley’s ten finals. The rush of adrenalin that used to accompany those 1997, 2000 and 2002 FA Cup runs seem an ancient memory. Blame our success.”

But this was Manchester United and Jose Mourinho. Plenty of anticipation there, right?

“Yes, of course.”

This game almost seemed more about beating United – and Mourinho – than the FA Cup.

After a torrid day at work, there was the release of getting away, and driving to my freedom. But the worry of work, I will freely admit, stayed with me throughout the evening. I had been swamped at work the previous Monday, and it was the sole reason why I was reluctantly forced to miss my third game of the season against West Ham United.

Our pre-match was well away from Stamford Bridge, in The Colton Arms near Queens Club. I remembered that our one previous visit was before the crazy 3-3 with United on an icy day in early 2012, with Villas-Boas (remember him?) still in charge. Two pints of “Birra Moretti” went down well. The pub was cosy and it was good to momentarily unwind for a while. There were brief memories of other FA Cup games with United at Stamford Bridge. The horrid memory of being 0-5 down to them in 1998 still haunts me to this day.

We bumped into some pals on the walk to the stadium.

“Seen any United?”

“None.”

“Wonder where they are drinking. Up in town, maybe. Six thousand of the buggers. They will be noisy tonight, alright.”

The four of us made our way in to the stadium.

PD, Alan, Walnuts and myself.

As we reached our seats, there were plumes of dry ice wafting around the touchlines.

“Fuck knows what all that is about.”

I looked towards The Shed, and there they all were. The dark wall of United’s away support, with only occasion hints of scarlet. The banners were out in force.

“Edinburgh Reds.”

“Bring On United.”

“Mockba 2008.”

“Buxton Reds.”

“Jose Mourinho’s Red Army.”

“I may be a wage slave on Monday but I watch United when they play.”

I knew of course that they would be in good voice. Even the truest bluest Chelsea supporter, blue-tinted spectacles and more, must surely acknowledge that United’s away support ranks right up there in terms of noise, variety of songs and balls out swagger. The massed ranks of United from near and far were already making a din. I recalled previous eras. The Red Army of the ‘seventies. The Cockney Reds and the Inter City Jibbers of the ‘eighties. The Men in Black. The whole story. On a night of Conte and Kante, six thousand similarly-named fuckers were making their presence felt in The Shed. There is, of course, a great irony when Chelsea fans around the world take the piss out of United fans not living in Manchester. I knew of at least three Chelsea fans from the US who were in the stadium. I used to dislike – is hate too terrible a word? – United more than any other, but other clubs nurture strong feelings of contempt too, and for different reasons.  But although I still have little time for United fans who watch only from their living rooms, I have a grudging respect for those who go, support, sing and bawl.

The news of the team had filtered through to us. A strong team for sure. A team based on the League campaign. But no room for Pedro nor Cesc.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill – Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso – Willian, Costa, Hazard.

There was no Ibrahimovic and that was a good thing. Although he has surprised me with his prowess this season, I still loathe him and it irritates the bejesus out of me when fellow Chelsea supporters call him “Zlatan” or “Ibra”. Less of the sycophancy you fucknozzles. He is not our player.

Rashford was playing up front instead and 35,000 Chelsea fans yawned at another Mourinho mind game.

There was the now familiar darkening of the lights and the Stamford Bridge lighting technicians put on a show for the sell-out crowd and the watching millions – we hoped – at home.

I remembered back on the Chelsea vs. Manchester United match in October when – long in to the game – I suddenly realised that I had not purposefully looked over to Jose Mourinho once. On this occasion, soon into the game, I watched both managers in their technical areas, and I realised how our affections have done a 180 degree turn as dramatic as those of Eden Hazard.

The king is dead, long live the king.

There is something classic about the blue, blue, white and the red, white, black of a Chelsea versus United game. In all their visits, I have never known United to wear anything else. Both of the Adidas kits were festooned with the biggest numbers seen on sports jerseys since the 1970’s Irish rugby team.

In the opening quarter, United seemed on top. They were more dynamic, more focussed. They moved the ball well. A very early chance for Rojo was headed over. Then Mkhitaryan went wide. The fans around me were on edge.

The United fans were standing and singing.

There was a “Na na hey hey” from them – not heard that one before – and a “Hey Jude” from us.

It was up to our creative genius to single-handedly get us involved. A sublime turn – on a sixpence – from Eden Hazard left Smalling wondering why and how he ever left Fulham. Eden sprinted away, with defenders fearful of diving in, and he skipped deep in to the box. His low drive was ably finger-tipped away by De Gea. The noise followed as the dormant Stamford Bridge crowd awoke.

“What a run.”

From Willian’s corner, Gary Cahill did well to change shape to connect. The ball seemed destined to go in, but De Gea again clawed it away. It was a stunning save.

We were back in this now, and our play vastly improved. There was a beguiling battle between the lofty Pogba and Kante, our diminutive destroyer of dreams, if only in terms of physicality. It seemed Kante was on top throughout.

United seemed to be intent on fouling our men whenever the chance arose. Herrera was booked, but the tackles still came thick and fast.

Eden Hazard fired over. He was our main threat. United knew it.

Jones crashed into Hazard, and we were amazed that a booking did not follow. With the crowd still baying, Herrera then quickly fouled Eden from behind, and the noise level increased. The referee Michael Oliver had clearly had enough and the second yellow for Herrera was quickly followed by a red.

“Off you go, knobhead.”

The Stamford Bridge crowd roared.

I looked over at Mourinho, and there was that familiar false smile as if to say “I know what you are all doing, it’s all a big conspiracy.”

There had been loud cries of “Fuck Off Mourinho” from the home areas already in the game. I cringed when I heard that to be honest. He’s not our favourite grouchy Portugueser right now, but that was not warranted.

Mkhitaryan was replaced by Fellaini. Walnuts bellowed “Hair Bear Bunch” and I giggled. It’s something when you are known for your hairstyle rather than your footballing abilities. Isn’t that right, Paul Pogba?

This was turning into a compelling game of football, but even during the match, work concerns kept flitting in to my head.

“Concentrate on the football you twat.”

The half ended with us well in control but I wondered if the reduction in their numbers would make United even more difficult to break down, as is so often the case. Courtois had hardly been forced to make a save. Moses was full of running and Willian full of ingenuity.

In the concourse, I watched a TV screen to see that Frank Lampard, among others, was discussing Mourinho and Conte coming together after the sending off. It felt odd that Frank was so close, but yet so far away.

I watched as Peter Houseman was remembered during the half-time break – it would soon be the fortieth anniversary of his tragic death – as his sons and grandsons walked the pitch. I remembered their last appearance; was it really ten years ago?

“One Peter Houseman, there’s only one Peter Houseman.”

I always thought that he never ever looked like a footballer. In the age of sideburns and moustaches, long hair and fringes, Peter Houseman looked like a librarian, a draughtsman or a geography teacher, bless him.

Not long in to the second-half, with Chelsea attacking the Matthew Harding, N’Golo Kante – finding himself involved in an attacking position quite frequently now – steadied himself and, although with Pogba close by, rattled a low strike past De Gea’s dive. The ball nestled in the corner and we went doolally.

“YES.”

We bristled with fine play for a while, moving the ball from wing to wing, intent on tiring United.

Then, a potential calamity. David Luiz jumped and mistimed a clearance, leaving Rashford with acres of space. He advanced, steadied himself, and I was convinced that he would level it. His low shot was blocked by Thibaut.

“Fantastic save.”

Chelsea created chance after chance as the half progressed. We were relentless. Dave had two long-range efforts. Willian went close. Costa headed wide from close-in. At one stage I had to remind myself that Pogba was even on the pitch. United were – cliche warning – chasing shadows by now, but I was very wary that one goal would change things dramatically. With another hard day at work on the Tuesday, I obviously feared extra-time, penalties, then getting home at 2am.

United created nowt.

Everyone in the media seems to be fawning over Mourinho’s United of late – I would say that, wouldn’t I? – but there doesn’t seem to be too much identity in the United team at the moment. And there doesn’t seem to be too much steel nor too much style either. It is a very sub-par United team compared to the ones of previous eras such as those of 1994, 1999 and – fuck – 2008.

Conte replaced Willian with Cesc Fabregas. We hoped he could open up the close spaces in and around the United box. There was one United attack of note remaining; Fellaini rose to an insane height and headed down, but Pogba could not pounce.

Conte replaced the tireless Moses with Zouma, and then Costa with Batshuayi. The four minutes of injury time only delayed United’s exit.

The final whistle went and we were through to our twelfth FA Cup semi-final in the past twenty-four seasons.

In the first of those (Wolves 1994, detailed only recently), we invaded the pitch and were euphoric. In 2017, we clapped, put our hands in our pockets, and exited.

Sigh.

Not far down the Fulham Road, we learned that we had been paired with Tottenham in the semi-finals.

My immediate thoughts were of dread – “imagine losing to that lot, is hate too strong a word?” – but then I let reality sink in.

“We’re by far the best team in English football this season. Why worry?”

After a customary cheese burger with onions at “Chubby’s Grill”, I grabbed PD by the arm and said –

“On to Saturday, now, and a bigger game. Stoke away in the league.”

Suddenly, the league became the important focus again.

I reached home at 1am, and briefly watched a post-match interview with the Manchester United manager, who – in all seriousness, with no hint of irony – claimed that Paul Pogba had been, unequivocally, the best player on the pitch.

Well, well, well.

I just had one solitary thing to say to that :

“Fuck off, Mourinho.”

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