Tales From The Long Goodbye

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 21 May 2017.

If ever the old adage of “Chelsea is not just about football” was true, then it was certainly true for our last league game of the season against relegated Sunderland. And although there was chatter among some fans for us to achieve a Premier League record thirty wins, my mind was full of anticipation for the trophy celebrations at the end of the game. To be honest, I thought that the win was a foregone conclusion. Sunderland have finished bottom of the division for a reason. Label me, for once, as being blasé, but I am sure that I was not alone. There was also the emotion of John Terry’s last-ever appearance in a Chelsea shirt at Stamford Bridge. I wasn’t quite sure how that would play out, but it promised to be quite a day.

On the Saturday evening, I replayed John Terry’s speech at the end of our last game of the 2015/16 season, when he spoke of the team’s struggles throughout the campaign, but also of his desire to stay at Stamford Bridge for another year, and to indeed retire as a Chelsea man. On several occasions, his voice faltered. Always an emotional man, I honestly wondered how on Earth he would cope one year later. For us fans, a day of high emotion was on the cards. For him, it would be even more intense. I had a feeling that everything would be about our captain. There was a realisation that it would possibly overshadow, if that is possible, the trophy presentation. Oh well. Whatever will be will be, as they say in football circles.

While I was watching John Terry on “You Tube” on Saturday evening, many other Chelsea pals were at an event at Stamford Bridge which paid homage to Eddie McCreadie’s team of the mid- ‘seventies. It represented his first appearance at Chelsea since he was sacked in 1977 – infamously for allegedly asking the board for a company car – and it was a major coup. For decades, he had not ventured from his new home in Tennessee due to his fear of flying. It looked like a top night. For once, I looked on from afar, and lived vicariously through the photographs of others. Many of the players from that era had attended the event. Lovely stuff.

On the Sunday morning, an early start for The Chuckle Bus, I drove up to London for the last time this season. For the FA Cup on Saturday, Glenn is driving; I will be able to relax and enjoy a few pints ahead of a final hurrah at Wembley. Glenn and myself headed down to the ground early on. We made a bee-line for the hotel where I hoped to be lucky enough to bump in to Eddie Mac. We stayed for a while, met a few friends, but our former manager was elsewhere. Not to worry, I got to meet Steve Wicks – our “flaxen-haired pivot” as much-lampooned former programme editor Colin Benson described him during his second spell at the club from 1986 to 1988 – and it is always lovely to meet former heroes. I wondered if Eddie McCreadie would be on the pitch at half-time. I never ever saw him play for us. There was also a quick word of welcome to former manager Ken Shellito, now living in Malaysia. Brilliant.

As we headed back to meet up with the lads in “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, we noted that the club were handing out free match programmes. The sun was out. It was going to be a lovely day.

The usual faces had assembled in the pub for our final Chelsea home game of the season. I spotted several Juventus supporters in the little snug upstairs. They were assembling for their game against Crotone which would kick-off at 2pm. It would be a potential league decider. I couldn’t resist saying a few words to them in both Italian and English. It turned out that the boozer is the HQ of the Juve London Supporters Club. What a small world. They spoke of Antonio Conte and of Juan Cuadrado. The two clubs have shared many players and managers over the years, and that’s lovely for me. I showed them a photo on my phone of me at the Stadio Communale in 1988, and this was met with wide smiles. I bellowed “Vinci Per Noi” as I left.

We called in to “The Clarence” – news broke through that JT was starting –  and then made our way to Stamford Bridge, bumping into others en route. On the approach to the stadium, Fulham Road was adorned with signs declaring “The Home Of The Champions.” There already was an air of celebration in the air. The football match almost seemed an afterthought.

I briefly centred my thoughts on our team. I had presumed that JT might come on as a substitute, probably for Gary Cahill, so he could be on the pitch at the end of the game. Antonio Conte had obviously decided upon other plans. Elsewhere, a strong team, and with Fabregas instead of Matic and Willian instead of Pedro.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Terry, Luiz – Moses, Kante, Fabregas, Alonso – Willian, Costa, Hazard.

The hotel was being used as a canvas for two huge murals. To the left was a large image of John Terry and Antonio Conte in an embrace. To the right, the two words being uttered by them both :

“Thanks.”

“Grazie.”

Perfect.

Sunderland had brought down 1,500 from the north-east. It has been a Weary season for them. Their supporters looked like a sea of red-and-white striped deckchairs in the lazy summer sun. The minutes passed by. The usual pre-match Chelsea songs echoed around the packed stands.

It seemed that every seat was being used. Sadly, down below me in the Matthew Harding Lower, one seat was empty. After being recently hospitalised, Cathy was forced to miss her first Chelsea home game since 1976, and only her second one ever since that date. She was undoubtedly in my thoughts, and in the thoughts of others, throughout the day. I have known Cathy as a “Chelsea face” for decades, but only really got to know her via trips to the US in 2006 and 2007. Her support has known no bounds. I hoped that her next match would be at Wembley next weekend.

“Get well soon, Cath.”

The league season had begun with the silvery shimmer of the Italian flag in the Matthew Harding Upper. As the teams appeared on the touchline, The Shed unravelled its most ambitious project yet; yet more shimmering mosaics, horizontal blue and white, with a large image of John Terry centrally-placed, and with trophies in front. Then, a huge sign was draped over the balcony –

“THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING.”

There was another JT-themed flag in the Matthew Harding Lower below me. On the pitch, our captain led the team out with his two children Summer and George walking alongside him. It was a spectacular scene. The applause increased. Flames roared in front of the East Lower. Bathed in sunshine, a riot of colour, Stamford Bridge had rarely looked more photogenic.

The game had barely begun when the home crowd boomed “Antonio! Antonio! Antonio!” and the dapper Italian did a slow 360-degree salute to us.

Soon after, the crowd followed this up with a chant for Roman Abramovich. To my surprise, not only did the bashful owner smile and wave, he stood up too. Bless him. It is only right that we show him some love too.

Our game at the Stadium of Light in December was a 1-0 win – that Courtois save, wow – and had given us three vital away points. It seemed like a highly important victory at the time. It gave us belief heading in to Christmas. How odd that they could not break through on that night, but it only took them three minutes in the home game. A Sunderland free-kick resulted in a ball ending up at the feet of the unmarked Javier Manquillio – who? – at the far post. As John Terry scrambled to cover, the Sunderland player smashed the ball past Thibaut.

Oh bugger it.

There would not be another clean sheet for our ‘keeper.

On six minutes, the away fans in the far corner began singing in honour of their own club legend.

“One Bradley Lowery, there’s only one Bradley Lowery.”

I joined in, momentarily, but I was in the minority. The away fans sang away, bless them. At the end of the sixth minute, we were awarded a free-kick. Marcos Alonso slammed a curler against the bar and we watched with increasing incredulity as player after player passed the ball in and around the packed deck-chairs inside the Sunderland box.

The ball came out to Diego Costa, who shifted the ball to Eden Hazard, who moved it on to George Hilsdon. Then the ball was swept out to Jimmy Windridge, then to Tommy Law, then to Hughie Gallacher. A shot was blocked. Tommy Lawton pushed the ball to Tommy Walker, then to Roy Bentley. Another blocked shot. The ball fell to Ken Shellito, who shimmied past his marker, and touched the ball inside to Barry Bridges. A firm tackle robbed him of the ball, but John Hollins pounced and won the ball back. A fine move involving Clive Walker, Pat Nevin, Kerry Dixon, Gianluca Vialli and Claude Makelele set up Frank Lampard. His shot ricocheted into the path of John Terry, who swiped at the ball but could not connect. Eventually, the ball reached Willian who smashed the ball home.

Thank fuck for that.

Willian leapt in the air right in front of a gaggle of mates who were watching in the Shed Lower. The ground, unsurprisingly, roared.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

We went close on several other occasions and were in total control. Willian was right in the middle of everything, causing panic in the Sunderland box whenever he had the ball. John Terry caught a loose ball well but his shot was deflected away for a corner. It came from just outside the “D” of the penalty area. It could have been his crowning glory. He still, I am sure, has not scored from outside the box. Moses fired over. David Luiz went close. It was all Chelsea.

On twenty-six minutes, Jordan Pickford booted the ball off for a throw-in.

“Well, that was odd.”

It then all slotted in to place.

It was obvious that John Terry was to be substituted. I remembered back to 2015 and Didier’s last game when he was carried off by team mates. That seemed a little excessive, but seemed OK in the grand scheme of things. For John Terry, things were more contrived. He clapped us all, received hugs from his team mates and a few Sunderland players, including former blue Fabio Borini, and was given a guard of honour by his Chelsea team mates. Of course, the Chelsea crowd were lapping it all up. I was in two minds. A classy gesture or pure showbiz schmaltz? I am still undecided.

Ron Harris’ thoughts would be interesting to hear.

Regardless, he was given a fine ovation. He was, appropriately, replaced by Gary Cahill.

Alan, ever thoughtful, sent a video of the JT substitution to Cathy in her Middlesex hospital.

Willian, the constant danger, went close. For a while, it seemed implausible that we would not score a second goal. With Diego Costa on the periphery, however, we lacked a goal scoring touch inside the box. Diego was booked for a messy scuffle with John O’Shea, the lanky deck-chair attendant. Would it be one of those Diego games?

At the break, it was tied at 1-1 and we could hardly fathom it.

Sadly, Eddie McCreadie did not make it down to the pitch during the half-time break. Neil Barnett did mention him, though. He was watching from a box in the corporate tier of the West Stand. Additionally, we spotted Claudio Ranieri was sitting a few seats away from Roman.

The second-half began and it was much the same as before. Victor Moses took over Willian’s mantle and put in some lovely advances down the right. On the hour, at last we broke through. Eden Hazard drifted in from the left and effortlessly smashed the ball past Pickford.

We were 2-1 up. Get in.

The noise boomed again around Stamford Bridge. We were winning. Eden had just scored. Roman was happy. We were all happy.

“Carefree. Wherever you may be.”

Antonio was serenaded again. The 360 again. He then replaced Diego Costa with Michy Batshuayi. As he strode off, he too did a 360, but tellingly waved both hands to all four stands.

“He’s off to China then.”

When Pedro replaced Eden on seventy minutes, my eyes seared in to his skull and I begged him not to wave too. Thankfully, he didn’t.

Meanwhile, on Humberside, that lot were scoring five, six, seven. I wondered when they would be allowed to play their three extra games to allow them to be champions this season. At Anfield, Liverpool were winning, thus condemning Arsenal to fifth place. When we ended up in tenth place last season, there were no protests nor public outcry, nor a reduction in attendance figures. After Arsenal’s season – “fifth place, how dare they!!!” – expect the end of the world as we know it.

With around ten minutes to go, Pedro nipped in to head home after Cesc’s long ball was not gathered by Pickford. I was reminded of the same player’s rapid strike against Manchester United in the autumn. His gleeful little dance below me was joy itself.

Bizarrely, man of the moment Michy Batshuayi then scored two further goals in time added on for stoppages. Firstly, an opportunist toe poke from a fine pass from Pedro. He loved that. Soon after, wide on the right, he appeared to be offside and almost gave up the chase on a ball that was pumped in to space. He almost apologetically picked the ball up, strode forward and curled a fine shot past the luckless Pickford.

Chelsea 5 Sunderland 1.

The final whistle followed just after.

Just champion.

Unlike in previous seasons – even when we won it in 2015 – virtually nobody left the stadium. We waited patiently for the trophy presentation. But, I guess, many were waiting for John Terry too. The Sunderland fans gradually drifted away. Elsewhere, the stadium remained at capacity. We waited.

Dennis Wise appeared with the 2016/17 Premier League trophy and slowly walked out to place it on the plinth, which was luckily placed at our end of the stadium. We were in prime seats. Dennis kissed the trophy and smiled the cheekiest of grins. Inexplicably, and to my surprise, my eyes became moist. It was Dennis – “The Rat” – who had hoisted the FA Cup at Wembley in 1997, the greatest day in my life at that time. I was sent reeling back in time, and I welled up. Oh how we celebrated at Wembley on that glorious day. Our club was a different beast in those days. In truth, it felt more like my club in 1997 than in 2017 for reasons which are far too profound for me to tackle at this moment in time. Suffice to say, it all felt a lot more personal and pertinent – and relevant – twenty years ago than now. In 1997, we were a tight bunch. We had been through it all. The FA Cup was a final reward for our years of penury. These days, any Tom, Dick and Harriet supports Chelsea and successes seem to be expected by many.

For those who were there, in 1997, I am sure my emotions are easily understood.

I gathered myself, wiped my eyes, and awaited the next stage of the trophy presentation.

Neil Barnett was the MC.

First up, a few squad members who had not featured, including Eduardo and Masonda. Then, the manager Antonio. What a reaction from the crowd. He looked euphoric. Then, each and every one of the first team regulars were announced. Special cheers for N’Golo, for Eden, for Dave (who had, remarkably, played every single minute of our league campaign this season.)

Then Gary Cahill. Big cheers.

Then John Terry’s face appeared on the TV screen. His bottom lip seemed to be quivering.

“Oh, for fuck sake John, keep it steady.”

The captain walked slowly towards the trophy. A pause. Both John and Gary picked it up. Another pause.

And then the joint lift of the huge trophy above heads.

More flames and tinsel.

GET IN YOU FUCKING BEAUTY.

  1. 2005. 2006. 2010. 2015. 2017.

How sweet it is.

The players were then swamped by wives, girlfriends, sons and daughters, plus the gentlemen of the press. The central area became crowded and too much was going on. We had a superb view of it all but I felt for the fans in The Shed.

“We sort out the pre-match display and are then the forgotten ones.”

The trophy was passed from player to player. We spotted the Sky team of Jamie Carragher, Gary Neville and Graeme Souness chat to Thibaut and Eden.

Inevitably, eyes turned towards John Terry. A montage of his most famous moments in our colours was featured on the TV screens. He stood, motionless, watching too. It looked like his bottom lip was going again. Neil gave him the microphone. His first act was to thank Steve Holland, off to pastures new with England, and he was given a fine reception. John Terry then walked past the photographers and spoke of the love that Roman Abramovich has for the club. For a moment, with John looking up at the owner in his executive area, speaking with such feeling, it resembled a footballing version of Romeo declaring undying love under Juliet’s balcony.

Roman’s name was again given a resounding roar. More embarrassed waves from the owner.

John then spoke of his love for the club, for us fans, but especially his love of his own family.

“I love you all” and his voice broke.

My eyes became a little moist. Good job I had my sunglasses on.

I then wondered if we had all lost the plot.

It’s only football, right?

Shankly was of course wrong. It’s not more important than life and death. What is?

And yet sport – football for me – does stir these incredible emotions. It is not to be laughed at. Football has given me some of my most amazing moments. I could only imagine what John was going through. His last day at his place of work for the past twenty years. A last goodbye.

I have only experienced something similar once before. My last visit to the old Yankee Stadium in 2008 – after twenty-three visits – left me a blubbering wreck. Heaven knows what I will be like when we move out in two years’ time. After around three-hundred and fifty games at Stamford Bridge, John had every right to be suitably moved.

Football has the power to touch us in so many ways and long may it continue.

I stood with Alan, Glenn and PD, our arms around each other’s shoulders.

It was a proud moment for PD; he had completed a full set of league games for the first time ever.

A hug for John Terry with Antonio Conte. A few words from the manager. A last few photographs of the captain in front of the Matthew Harding.

A wave to us.

And then a slow walk down to The Shed.

For many of our new fans, it must seem impossible for a Chelsea with no John Terry. But this club will continue. And we are in a supremely healthy position; the manager has formed a fine team ethos this season. And I know that many words have been written to describe John Terry, but my last comment for now is that during a potentially frustrating season for him, John has exemplified what a consummate professional he is by not giving the media a single story of negativity nor nonsense. For this reason alone, it has been one of his finest seasons. Bless him.

Who knows, he might even score the winner at Wembley next Saturday.

 

For Cathy.

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Tales From Goodison Park

Everton vs. Chelsea : 30 April 2017.

I know that it seems quite ridiculous and implausible now, but there might have been the slightest of chances that my team would turn out to be Everton and not Chelsea. Until I started school in the spring of 1970, I had not shown much of a liking for football, or so my parents were to admit to me later. However, at the village school, after only a few weeks if memory serves, I chose Chelsea. I have told this story many times before so I won’t waste much time on this but this was possibly on the back of our FA Cup Final win against Leeds United. It might have been because some school pals had mentioned that Chelsea were a good team. It might have been because I just liked the name. Let’s face it, Chelsea is such a warm and lovely word, isn’t it? It might have been because the first football game that I played in during the lunchtime kick about was for the Chelsea team. The exact reasons are lost in the mists of time and the midst of time. However, one thing is absolutely certain. My interest in football had been piqued in April and May 1970 and my life – a thunderous orchestral crescendo please – would never be the same again. But, think about it. Everton won the league in 1970. I wonder if they ever entered my consciousness?

As I get older and look back on a life of Chelsea support, I often think back on those early months and years. I am always looking for clues as to why Chelsea hit me and hit me hard. And I have since tried, on here and elsewhere, to piece it all together.

I always remembered that I ended up with a couple of booklets, given away in packets of cereal, which detailed a couple of football teams in the early-seventies. The teams? Chelsea and Everton. I remember opening out the booklets and pouring over the snippets of information, though I am sure that I must have had to ask for assistance from my parents with reading some of the longer words.

Chelsea were my team by then, of course – no turning back – but I can distinctly remember looking at the word Everton, maybe spelling it out and writing it in my thirst for knowledge. Chelsea and Everton. I wonder where it all could have ended. For decades, I presumed that these feint memories of these giveaway booklets would be just that. Then, amazingly, to mark our centenary in 2005, Chelsea brought out a memorabilia pack featuring many facsimile replicas of items from our history, including programmes, cigarette cards, club documents, and – yes, you have guessed it – a full colour copy of that little booklet from the early ‘seventies. I immediately recognised it – oddly, Ian Hutchinson was on the cover – and I was transported right back to my childhood.

On the evening before our game at Goodison Park, I dipped into the memorabilia pack once more, and turfed out the booklet. It dated from 1971. I did a Google search. Within a few clicks, my childhood had returned again. The booklets were featured in packs of Shredded Wheat. And there, right before my eyes, was the cover of the Everton one, with Alan Ball on the front. Eight teams were in the series, oddly named “Cup Soccer 71”; Arsenal, Chelsea, Derby County, Everton, Leeds United, Liverpool, Manchester United and Newcastle United.

And it got me thinking all over again about Chelsea and Everton. Around the time that the booklets were published, presumably before the FA Cup Third Round of January 1971, Peter Osgood had further embedded my love for Chelsea, but a year earlier it might have been oh-so different. If only my father had mentioned to me, in detail, that his only visit to a football stadium had been to Goodison Park during his World War Two training, my life might have turned out to be quite different.

But Chelsea I was in 1970 and Chelsea I am now.

And our game at Goodison Park on the last day of April in 2017 would be a real test. Someone somewhere – TS Elliot, which team did he play for? – once labelled April the cruellest month. April 2017 has certainly been a busy month, with seven Chelsea games, starting on the first day of the month and ending on the final day. For a while it looked suitably cruel. It began with two league defeats in four games against Crystal Palace and Manchester United. Then came salvation with two victories against Tottenham and Southampton.

With Tottenham still breathing down our necks, the thought of our game against Everton made me excited and nervous in equal measure.

Worry, worry, worry.

In The Chuckle Bus on the long four-hour drive to Merseyside, Glenn was very laid back, almost to the point of annoyance.

“We can only win our games. Don’t worry about them.”

I felt like slapping him around the noggin. Surely this approach, by not worrying about Tottenham and their threat to our sixth league title, is not how it should be done. To get maximum elation from any potential title win, surely one has to acknowledge all worst case scenarios? Glenn’s approach surprised me. Or maybe, me being me, I was taking this all way too bloody seriously.

I had made good time. I had started my collection of the boys at 8am. Just after midday, we stopped off at a Toby Carvery on Queens Drive and soon funnelled £8.95 worth of a Sunday Roast down our throats. At 1pm, I was parked up in Stanley Park, with both of the city’s football stadia close by. The huge new stand at Anfield dominated the skyline, but the equally dominant main stand at Goodison Park was just visible at the bottom of the gentle slope north.

The team?

As strong as it gets.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill.

Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso.

Pedro, Costa, Hazard.

I bloody love Goodison, again for reasons well documented in these match reports for many a season. With news that the club are to move to a new 50,000 capacity stadium at Bramley Moore Dock, a few miles to the north of the city centre, I may only have a few more visits left. There will be sadness on my last visit. A link to my father’s personal story will be extinguished.

Inside, up in the wooden floor boarded upper tier, Goodison looked very familiar. Back in 1971, I always remembered the semi-circles cut out behind both goals to stop rowdy spectators throwing objects at the players. Or – at least – making it more difficult for them to hit anyone should they chose to do so. The first Everton team that I ever remember – playing in white socks, which were brought back only recently – included players such as Howard Kendall, Gordon West, Jimmy Husband, Joe Royle and Alan Whittle.

With a few minutes to spare, I was able to pin my well-travelled “Vinci Per Noi” banner to the balcony wall, covering some of those famous Archibald Leitch cross-struts in the process. My plan was for Antonio Conte to spot it during the game, make a bee-line for it at the end of the match – with us victorious, obviously – and to point madly at it. He would hunt me down, phone me, arrange to meet up before the next home game at the Chelsea Harbour Hotel, and we would soon become close friends. I would holiday at his summer villa on the shores of Lake Como. We would talk about his time at Juventus. The 1996 Champions League Final in Rome. That goal against Fiorentina in 1999. We’d sip Peronis. We’d laugh at Jose Mourinho. He’d advise me on hair transplants. We’d have a right old giggle.

Alternatively, the banner would fall at the first gust of wind, be trampled on by those underneath, and would be ruined beyond repair.

You’re right. I do worry too bloody much.

The kick-off, at the odd time of 2.05pm, soon came around. There was a muted response from the Everton fans to the pre-match “Grand Old Team” which is sung in the style of Lily Savage, and even “Z Cars” seemed quieter than before. However – no surprises – the Chelsea fans around me and below me were in fine voice. We all knew how important this one was. We were all, unequivocally, up for it. Someone had mentioned that Everton had won their previous eight home games.

Worry, worry, worry.

We spotted the Everton supporters struggle to drape a large banner of Alan Ball – him again – from the top tier of the Gwladys Street. The display marked the ten year anniversary of his passing in April 2007.

Goodison Park has been a tough old venue for us of late, with only that crazy 6-3 win in 2014 to give us any joy. There have been four league losses and one FA Cup loss too.

There was hardly an empty seat in the house.

Everton in 1971 blue, white and white. Chelsea in 2017 black, black, black.

The game had a crazy first few minutes. Ross Barkley moved the ball to Dominic Calvert-Lewin (what is it with double-barrelled names in football these days?) and he rattled the base of Thibaut’s near post. The ball bounced up and thankfully Gary Cahill was able to beat Romelu Lukaku to the ball. Less than sixty seconds had passed. We then enjoyed a little pressure, with Cahill hitting a low raking shot from distance. Stekelenburg fumbled, but nobody was close enough to pick up the pieces. It was certainly a lively opening.

Lukaku chose to wander over to the right, which meant that Dave had the onerous task of marking him. His physique demanded that I kept focussing on him. He is such a size. But Dave stuck close to him.

Eden Hazard was the next Chelsea player to go close, but after collecting a pass from Diego, he was forced wide by the Everton ‘keeper. His snatched shot rippled the side netting. We were definitely on top, and the Chelsea crowd were roaring the boys on. All three of our forward players were taking it in turns to run into space. Alonso on the left was often involved but had trouble in picking out players from out wide. Moses on the right was underused. There was a tendency to over-pass, but we were on top. Diego was holding the ball well.

The challenges were going in hard from both sides. After a Chelsea tackle was met with howls of anger from the Everton players close to the action, there was a classic from Gary :

“More fucking appeals than Blue Peter.”

Nemanja Matic strode forward and unleashed a low shot at the Everton ‘keeper.

Then, the next chance for Lukaku but his shot was dragged wide.

At the other end, Diego set himself up with a header, which bounced high off his head. The whole world seemed to momentarily stop as the ball came down. Unmarked, Diego snatched at it and ballooned it high into the packed stands.

Everton had their moments. I liked the look of Barkley but his impact was nulled by some great tackling from N’Golo Kante and Matic.

At the break, I was able to check that my banner was still in situ. Phew.

During the entire first-half, there had not been a single peep out of the Everton supporters.  I know that they are not known for their volume, but this was a pitiful showing. For a top seven club, not one single song. Shocking.

As always at Goodison, we attacked the Park End – ironically, the newest stand but easily the blandest– in the second-half. We were able to see how ridiculously close Eden Hazard was being marked by Idrissa Gueye. There was a lovely short corner – a Chelsea original – but Moses scuffed wide. Down below us, our raids were becoming more daring. There was nice play between Alonso, Hazard and Pedro. An hour had passed. At last, an Everton song. We plugged away.

A lone voice behind me :

“Don’t worry, it’s coming.”

I replied :

“So is Christmas.”

On sixty-five minutes, Pedro collected a ball from Matic. He turned and shifted the ball on to his left foot. From thirty yards out, he let fly. We watched and prayed that the white netting would bulge.

It bulged.

GET FUCKING IN.

Inside, I was boiling with joy, but I remained cool and snapped away, and hoped that the resulting flurry of photographs were not as blurred as I felt. I caught the pitch invader, mid jump, with Pedro, and snapped away as the ecstatic scorer – and the entire team – raced down to celebrate in front of the lower tier of the Bullens Road. I have not witnessed scenes of complete and unadulterated mayhem like that for ages.

Stay still my beating heart.

There were songs about winning the league, but Alan and I – at least – did not join in.

Lukaku curled a shot high and wide from a free-kick after a foul by Hazard on Barkley.

Hazard was able to eke out inches of space on the left, and he drew a foul from Gueye. We watched – me with my camera poised – as he whipped in a low cross. The Everton ‘keeper, perhaps distracted by those around him, could only fumble again. Captain Gary Cahill bundled the ball over. We erupted once more.

GET IN.

Again, I snapped away like a fool. Gary’s run was almost as euphoric as Pedro’s. There was no pitch invasion this time, but the wild scenes were the same. Cahill’s wonderful smile was captured on film by TV camera and by my camera alike.

There was a little worry as David Luiz fell to the floor after a previous knock took its toll. Not long after, the manager brought on Nathan Ake for Luiz, with Pedro being replaced by Fabregas at the same time.

Willian then replaced Hazard.

On eighty-six minutes, a pass from Diego Costa found Cesc Fabregas who picked out Willian inside the box, and the substitute effortlessly guided the ball into a virtually empty net. Now the game was certainly safe. The Chelsea section roared once more. I clicked away again.

The last photograph taken, I roared unhindered.

The lower tier down below me was a bubbling mass of humanity. Such scenes are a joy to behold.

At the final whistle, a triumphal roar, and then my eyes were focussed on Antonio Conte. He hugged all of the Chelsea players, and slowly walked over to join his men down below us, only a few yards away from the touchline. With just four games remaining, and our lead back to seven points, the joy among the team and supporters was palpable. Conte screamed and shouted, his eyes bulging. He jumped on the back of Thibaut Courtois. His smiles and enthusiasm were so endearing.

Altogether now – “phew.”

The songs continued as we slowly made our way out into the street. A message came through from my good friend Steve in Philadelphia –

“Chris, the image that just flashed on my screen was beautiful. A shot of a cheering Antonio Conte, cheering the away fans, with the Vinci banner in the background. Absolutely perfect shot.”

We reached the car, still bouncing, and I began the long drive home. It had been a fantastic afternoon at Goodison. We had inched closer. We discussed the game. All players had fought tooth and nail for the three points. Pedro had been excellent. Diego had held the ball up well, ran the channels, and had been his usual bundle of tricks. Captain Cahill was excellent. It had been a well-rounded performance after a few scares in the first-half. In the end, Everton were well beaten.

We listened to the Tottenham versus Arsenal game as we headed south, battling some typically slow traffic on the M6. Just north of Stoke-on-Trent, Spurs scored two quick goals. We sighed and we swore. The fuckers won’t go away will they?

With the lead back to four points again – “cat and mouse” – we now have to wait until Monday 8 May for our next game. By then, the lead could be just one point.

During the next week, the worrying will start all over again.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Tales From An Old Gold Adversary

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Chelsea : 18 February 2017.

After two easy home wins against Peterborough United and Brentford in this season’s FA Cup, we were on our travels. I would have preferred a new ground – Huddersfield Town, Sutton United, Lincoln City, not Millwall – but the Football Gods had given us an away fixture at Wolverhampton Wanderers. This was fine by me. Our last visit was five years ago and, since then, a new stand has been built, so there would be something new to see. Wolves away is an easy drive for me too; after the arduous trek to Burnley last weekend, this would be easy.

I remembered our last game against Wolves in the F. A. Cup in the spring of 1994. Our game at Stamford Bridge – on TV, on a Sunday – was only our second FA Cup quarter final in twenty-one years, and the stadium was bouncing. Memorably, there were blue flares in The Shed before the game, and the old – and huge – original “Pride Of London” flag made its first-ever appearance that day. From memory, it was the biggest “crowd-surfing” flag ever seen at a London stadium at the time. The 2,500 Wolves fans were allocated a large section of the East Stand because the North Stand was recently demolished. I watched from the old West Stand as a Gavin Peacock lofted chip gave us a 1-0 win. We were on our way to an F.A. Cup semi-final for the first time since 1970 and – boy – how we bloody celebrated. We flooded the pitch afterwards; in fact it would be the last time thst I would walk on the hallowed turf. However, the one thing I really remember from that game was the noisy repetition of “The Blue Flag” which really became an immediate and legendary Chelsea song on that particular day. It had not really been sung much until then. On the Monday, at work, I could not stop singing it to myself. The photographs from that day show a much different Stamford Bridge and a much-changed support. Of course I miss it.

Twenty-three years later, the four of us (Parky, PD, Scott and myself) were in Wolverhampton over four hours before the game was due to commence at 5.30pm. We darted into the first pub we saw, The Wheatsheaf, and once inside, soon realised the errors of our ways. We didn’t mind that it was a home pub – there were Wolves shirts pinned to the walls and ceiling – but the clientele soon began to change. We stood to one side of the bar supping our pints and watched as a few Wolves lads came in. We wondered if they were in the “Yam Yam Army”. I was certainly being eye-balled by a young chap. You could tell they had us sussed. One bald lad sauntered in – blue Stone Island jacket – and we soon decided to cut our losses. A few minutes later we were settled in an “away fans only” pub – big gothic columns outside, formerly “The Walkabout” which we have visited before, now renamed and re-branded as a nightclub – and we could relax a little. There were a few Chelsea “faces” of our own on a table on the back wall, and a few more friends and acquaintances soon arrived. I had a laugh with a local copper about the previous pub.

“Didn’t you think it odd there were Wolves shirts there?”

“Yeah, but there are home pubs and there are home pubs. This one was a little – pause – tense.”

“Ha. Bet your arse was twitching like a rabbit’s nose.”

Songs were soon bellowing around the cavernous and dark boozer. There were only a precious few “away only” pubs in Wolverhampton and I was glad we had stumbled across one of them. We had heard that – quite a miracle – non-league Lincoln City had won at Burnley with a goal in the last minute of play. What a stunning result. At around 3.45pm, I left the others to it and departed for the stadium. Outside the pub was a sport shop owned by former player Ron Flowers. I walked past a pub called “The Billy Wright.” I wondered if another pub called “Slaters” was named after the former Wolves defender Bill Slater. I did wonder, in fact, if there were other such places in Wolverhampton, a town famous – only? – for its football team.

“Maybe it is all they have.”

Maybe in other streets there are the George Berry Tea Rooms, the Sammy Chung Bowling Green and the Kenny Hibbitt Bingo Hall.

In a previous edition, I briefly flitted through Wolves’ history.

Tales From The Old Gold And Black Country : 20 February 2010.

“The stadium in Wolverhampton is right at the heart of the city and I like it. The long natural incline leading down from the town centre once formed the basis of the huge Kop until the ground was slowly – very slowly – remodelled in the ‘eighties. When I think of the Wolves of my childhood, not only do I think of players such as Jim McCalliog, David Wagstaffe and Derek Dougan, but I also I think of the idiosyncratic Molyneux stadium. There was the immense Kop to the right and the unique multi-spanned roof opposite. All of these individualistic stadia are long gone these days and it’s a shame. I can also hear the gentle burr of the ‘seventies ATV commentator Huw Johns telling of some action on the pitch. He had such an evocative voice and often commentated on Wolves games. Before my time, Wolves were the team of the ‘fifties – winning three league titles – and they captured the imagination of the nation with their unique set of friendlies against teams such as Honved. In their distinctive old gold shirts, they were some team, led by England captain Billy Wright. If the Munich air crash had not happened in 1958, catapulting Manchester United into the nation’s hearts, maybe Wolves would be a major player these days.”

By the time of my next visit, I was able to update on Molyneux’ expansion plans.

Tales From A Dark Night : 5 January 2011.

“Wolves almost went to the wall around 1985 as a result of their relegation to the old fourth division and debts caused by the messy redevelopment of their stadium. For many seasons, the Steve Bull Stand – built in 1979 and very similar to the Spurs West Stand of the same year – stood way back from the pitch, with the rest of the crumbling stadium unable to be rebuilt and moved to meet up with the new stand’s footprint. The three new stands were eventually completed in around 1993 and it’s a neat and compact stadium, with the iconic old gold used on stand supports and seats. It feels right. Alan and Gary had been talking to a Wolves fan as they waited for me to arrive and he told them that there were plans to build again, with the end goal being a 50,000 stadium. I guessed that relegation might halt such grandiose plans.”

I was looking forward to sitting in the upper deck of this new stand, which was still being built on my last visit. However, the Wolves of previous eras were dominating my thoughts as I walked past pub after pub of home fans, each one with bouncers outside.

The Wolves of the ‘fifties were indeed a grand team. And the game against Honved in 1954 – during our first league title season – was shown live on BBC; a very rare event in those days. Played under new floodlights, Wolves played the game in special shimmering old gold silky shirts to add to the drama. Many observers have credited the series of Wolves friendlies against Honved, Tel Aviv, First Vienna and Spartak Moscow as kick-starting a pan-European knockout competition. In the very next season, Chelsea were advised, of course, not to take part in the inaugural European Cup by the curmudgeons in the English FA. One can only imagine how spectacular the Wolves vs. Honved game seemed at the time. The Honved team included six of the Magyars who had defeated England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and again 7-1 in Budapest in 1954 including the legendary Ferenc Puskas. Watching on a TV in Belfast was a young lad called George Best, who chose Wolves as his team. The game must have had a similar effect on many; my next-door neighbour Ken is a Wolves fan and would have been a young lad in 1954.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxoI4AjgokU

Of course, Wolves were our nearest rivals back in that 1954/1955 season. A Billy Wright handball at our game at Stamford Bridge is the stuff, as they say, of legend.

Our paths memorably crossed during the 1976/1977 Second Division season too, when a 3-3 draw at Stamford Bridge was followed by a 1-1 draw at Molyneux. Wolves were promoted as champions that year, with Chelsea also going up just behind them. I wrote a few words about this during our last visit.

Tales From A Work In Progress : 2 January 2012.

“Alan and Big John were reminiscing about their visit to the same ground in April 1977 when our fans were officially banned, but around 4,000 fans still attended. A Tommy Langley goal gave us shares in a 1-1 draw and secured our promotion. Those were heady days. That was a cracking season. I only saw three games in our promotion push, but the memories of those games against Cardiff City (won), Bristol Rovers (lost) and Millwall (drew) are strong. On the day of the Wolves match, I can vividly remember running up the slope outside my grandparents’ house once I had heard that we had secured promotion and jumping in the air. But then the realisation that, as the lone Chelsea fan in my village, I had nobody to share my enthusiasm with.”

So, 1954/1955 and 1976/1977 and 1994/1995 – three instances when the two clubs have been thrown together. I wondered what 2016/2017 would bring. I approached the stadium from the south, and used the infamous subway, much beloved by home fans who used to ambush away fans in previous eras. It has something of the feel of “A Clockwork Orange” and it spawned the Wolves firm “Subway Army.”

I reached Molineux unscathed and rewarded myself with a cheeseburger.

There were Chelsea supporters milling around the Steve Bull Stand, whose lower tier would house 3,000 of our 4,500 supporters. But I headed on and took a few photographs of the stadium, which has changed so much over the past few decades.

It was soon clear that many away fans had been drinking heavily from London to the Black Country; the concourse in the lofty Stan Cullis Stand was soon full of Chelsea song and football-style rowdiness. One fan collapsed on reaching the final step, overcome with alcohol. Some younger lads could hardly stand. I made my way to our seats – black in this visitors’ quadrant, as opposed to old gold elsewhere – and I loved the view. A new perspective on Molineux. Many other away regulars had chosen seats in this section too. I noted that the Steve Bull Stand was so far from the pitch, but Molineux remains a neat stadium. We watched the sun disappear to our right and the air chilled.

Antonio Conte had chosen a relatively experienced team; our attacking options did not lack any punch. There was all change in the back three though, with the manager choosing John Terry, Kurt Zouma and Nathan Ake.

Begovic, Moses, Zouma, Terry, Ake, Pedro, Chalobah, Fabregas, Willian, Costa, Hazard.

Happy with that.

I liked the wordplay of the slogan on the balcony of the Stan Cullis Stand :

“This is our love and it knows no division.”

From Champions to the depths of Division Four, Wolves have seen it all.

The stadium took a while to fill, but with a few minutes to kick-off, the place was packed. Although Wolves play to gates of around 18,000 to 24,000 for most league gamers, this one would be a 30,000 capacity. Wolves used to play “Fanfare For The Common Man” before the teams entered the pitch, but we were treated – oddly – to “The Wonder Of You.” More than a few Chelsea fans joined in. That drink again. As the teams appeared, the PA played the customary “Hi Ho Silver Lining” and the place roared.

“And it’s hi ho – Wolverhampton.”

Soon in to the game, the Wolves fans to our right bellowed “The North Bank!” and it sounded like something from another era. The home fans were the first to be treated to a chance on goal when a loose header from Kurt Zouma allowed the unmarked George Saville a shot on goal. I sucked in some cold air and expected sure disappointment. Thankfully, his firm strike hit a post. The danger was still there, but again thankfully Andreas Weinmann ballooned over.

Just after, a fantastic pass from Fabregas found Willian in a central position, but he took a little too long to control the ball, and the chance was wasted. I sensed that Victor Moses had the beating of his opposing defender; an ugly tackle was clear evidence that he was a threat. Eden Hazard, despite plenty of willing support from the overlapping Pedro, was quiet. Nathan Ake oozed class and was easily the best of the three at the back. Kurt Zouma still looks so stiff. He did enjoy one “balls out” run deep in to the Wolves half though and – it reminded me of those barnstorming runs that Michael Duberry used to love. I have a feeling that King Kurt will one day score an absolute screamer following a typical run.

One fan in the Steve Bull Stand was clearly enjoying his five minutes of fame; he was spotted gesticulating to the away hordes, and he was soon singled-out.

“Who’s the wanker in the pink?”

(For those who remember, this is a famous chant from 1983 – even mentioned in “The Football Factory” by John King if memory serves – when the pastel-clad casuals from Portsmouth’s 6.57 arrived en masse on our North Terrace and one similarly-attired lad was picked out by the scallywags on The Benches. I know because I was one of them.)

Wolves were carving out occasional chances and Begovic saved low from Helder Costa (hair c. 1991). There were certainly grumbles throughout the first-half. I can only really remember another effort on goal; a cross from Moses was unable to be tucked in by the quiet Diego Costa. Wolves must have been annoyed as hell that their slight dominance did not result in a goal. But I was so confident that we had enough quality in our ranks to be victorious. What we did not want, almost as much as a defeat, was a horrible replay. But ours was a very patchy performance and we needed Antonio to fire up the troops.

There was another “hi ho – Wolverhampton” and the second-half began.

With Chelsea attacking our stand, things began to brighten. There were speculative efforts from Zouma and Pedro and then Diego carved out a fine chance for himself but his strong shot hit the side netting. On sixty-five minutes, we were warmed by an excellent move involving Cesc, Diego, Hazard and then Willian. As he paused momentarily, I spotted Pedro racing in at the far post and I hoped that Willian had seen him too.

No need to worry; an inch-perfect cross was sent over to the far post and The Hummingbird jumped, hovered in mid-air, and headed home. There was an enormous roar and soon the away end was covered in a blue sulphurous haze of a flare – the second of the day, how 1994. Wolves tried their best to mount a counter but rarely threatened again and the home atmosphere died. In one surprisingly dramatic race, we watched as John Terry just about reached a through-ball a mere  nano-second ahead of an attacker.

Phew.

The away fans were now in good voice. This was much better. There were songs of Wembley.

Antonio made three late substitutions involving Dave, Kante (all Wolves fans : “ah, bollocks”) and Loftus-Cheek.

We enjoyed a few more chances; Willian slipped while inside the box, Fabregas shot wide and Zouma went close with a header.

In the final minute, a loose ball was slammed home inside the box by Diego Costa.

“Get in, game over.”

Into the last eight we went.

The temperature had greatly-dropped in the second-half, but after the tundra of Turf Moor, this was no real issue. There was a rare event of a police escort back in to the town centre. Such must be the problems in keeping home and away fans separated in Wolverhampton. The police were out in force and the “Yam Yam’s” day was over.

On the drive home, we wondered about the draw for the quarters, while looking ahead to the league game against Swansea City next Saturday.

It had been a fine day in the Black Country.

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Tales From Our Rejuvenation

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 23 October 2016.

We all remember where we were when we heard that Matthew Harding had died. For a generation of Chelsea supporters, it is our Kennedy moment.

On the morning of Wednesday 23 October 1996, I was at work in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, in a factory’s quality assurance office. I had not been present at the previous evening’s League Cup tie at Bolton, where we had lost 2-1. I tended to mainly go to just home games in those days. In fact, another sport was occupying my mind during that week as I was in the midst of watching my New York Yankees playing in a World Series for the first time since 1981. I had listened to the League Cup game on the radio before catching a few hours’ sleep before waking at around 1am to watch Game Three from Atlanta. The Yankees won that night, and after the game had ended at around 4am, I squeezed in a few more hours of sleep before waking at 6am for a 7am start at work. While setting off for work that morning, I briefly heard a mention about a helicopter crash involving Chelsea fans returning from Bolton. It was possibly just a rumour at that stage. With me being rather sleep deficient, I possibly wasn’t giving it the gravity that it deserved.

At around 8am, the news broke that Matthew Harding had been aboard the helicopter, and that he had been killed, along with the fellow passengers. I was full of sudden and overwhelming grief. I had been so impressed with Matthew since he had arrived on the scene at Chelsea in around 1993, and saw him as “one of us.” I remember I had seen him on a Sunday morning politics programme just a few weeks before, lending his support to the New Labour campaign. He seemed to be perfect for Chelsea’s new vision; young and enthusiastic, one of the people, but with a few bob to spare for our beloved club. It almost seemed too good to be true.

Soon after I heard the news, I received a phone-call on the office phone from a friend and journalist, who lived locally in Chippenham, and who had – with Matthew’s assistance – written a book about Chelsea’s 1994 FA Cup Final appearance and consequent European campaign the following season (“Blue Is The Colour” by Khadija Buckland). Within seconds, we were both in tears. My fellow co-workers, I think, were shocked to see such emotion. Khadija had only spoken to Matthew on the phone on the Monday. My head was in a spin. I was just devastated.

I had briefly met Matthew on one or two occasions, but I felt the loss so badly. I remember shaking him by the hand in The Gunter Arms in 1994, the night of the Viktoria Zizkov home game. My friend Glenn and myself watched from the Lower Tier of the East Stand that game, and I remember turning around, catching his eye in the Directors’ Box, and him giving me a thumbs up. His face was a picture of bubbly excitement. I am pretty sure that I met him, again briefly, underneath the East Stand, after a game with Bolton in 1995, when he appeared with Khadija, and we quickly shook hands before going our separate ways. In those days, both Glenn and myself would take Khadija up to Stamford Bridge where she would sell copies of her book in the corporate areas of the East Stand.

We all remember, too, the outpouring of emotion that followed on the Saturday, when Stamford Bridge was cloaked in sadness as we brought bouquets, and drank pints of Guinness in memory of Matthew, before a marvellously observed minute of silence took place before our game with Tottenham. The Spurs fans were magnificent that day. We won 3-1, and the victory seemed inevitable. It had been the most emotional game of football that I had ever witnessed. Later that Saturday night – in fact in the small hours of Sunday morning – I watched as the Yankees came from 2-0 down to win the World Series 4-2. At the end of that sporting day / night doubleheader, I was an emotional wreck. It had been a tough week, for sure. Sadness and joy all tumbling around together. Later, my mother sent a letter of condolence to Matthew’s widow Ruth, and I have a feeling that she replied.

I remember how happy a few friends and I were to see Ruth Harding in a Stockholm park ahead of our ECWC Final with Stuttgart in 1998.

Matthew would have loved Stockholm. He would have the triumphs that he sorely missed over the past twenty years. He would have loved Munich.

As our game with Manchester United, and the return of you-know-who, became closer and closer, I thought more and more about Matthew. And I was enthralled that the club would be honouring him with a specially crafted banner which would be presented to the world from the stand which bears his name.

Tickets were like gold dust for this one.

It promised to be a potentially epic occasion.

I had missed a couple of our most recent games – both the matches against Leicester City – and nobody was happier than myself to be heading to Stamford Bridge once again.

We set off early. In the Chuckle Bus – Glenn driving, allowing me to have a few beers – there was caution rather than confidence. Despite the fine performance against Leicester last weekend, Mourinho’s United would surely be a tough nut to crack. I am sure that I was not alone when I predicted a 0-0 draw.

“Just don’t want to lose to them.”

Once at Chelsea, we splintered in to two groups. PD, his son Scott and Parky shot off to The Goose, while Glenn and myself headed down to the stadium. I met up with good friends Andy, John and Janset from California, and Brad and Sean from New York, over for the game, and trying to combat jetlag with alcohol and football.

It was a splendid pre-match and the highlights were personalised book signings from both Bobby Tambling and Kerry Dixon. Glenn was able to have quite a chat with Colin Pates, and it is always one of the great joys of match days at Chelsea that our former players are so willing to spend time with us ordinary fans. It really did feel that we were all in this together, “Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army” for sure. Into a packed “Chelsea Pensioner” (now taking over from “The Imperial” as the place to go for pre-game and post-game music) for a beer and then along to “The Malthouse” for a couple more. We chatted to former player Robert Isaac – a season ticket-holder like the rest of us – once more and shared a few laughs.

A couple of lads recognised Glenn and myself from “that night in Munich” and it was bloody superb to meet up again and to share memories of that incredible day in our lives. We had all caught the last train from the Allianz Arena at around midnight, and we were crammed together as the train made its painfully slow journey into the centre of Munich. They were Chelsea fans – ex-pats – now living in The Netherlands, and it was great for our lives to cross again after more than four years.

With a few pints inside me, I was floating on air as I walked towards The Bridge.

The match programme had a retro-1996 season cover, with Matthew featured prominently. The half-and-half scarves were out in force, and I aimed a barb at a dopey tourist as I made my way through to the turnstiles.

The team had been announced, by then, and Antonio Conte had kept faith with the same team that had swept past Leicester City.

So far this season, our usual 4-2-3-1 has morphed into 4-2-4 when required, but here was a relatively alien formation for these shores; a 3-4-3.

Conte was changing things quicker than I had expected.

Thankfully I was inside Stamford Bridge, in the Matthew Harding, with plenty of time to spare. The United fans had their usual assortment of red, white and black flags. There was a plain red square, hanging on the balcony wall, adorned with Jose Mourinho’s face. It still didn’t seem right, but Jose Mourinho was not on my mind as kick-off approached.

The stadium filled. There was little pre-match singing of yesteryear. We waited.

The balcony of the Matthew Harding had been stripped of all other banners, apart from two in the middle.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

I noted the phrase “Matthew Harding – One Of Our Own” stencilled on the balcony wall too. That was a nice touch; I hope it stays.

Of course, should the new Stamford Bridge come to fruition, the actual stand will be razed to the ground, but surely the club will keep its name in place.

Without any fuss, a large light blue banner appeared at the eastern edge of the Matthew Harding Lower. It was stretched high over the heads of the spectators and slowly made its way westwards.

It depicted that famous image of Matthew leaping to his feet at a pre-season game in the summer of 1996.

MATTHEW HARDING

ALWAYS LOVED

NEVER FORGOTTEN

There was no minute’s silence, nor applause, the moment soon passed, but it suited the occasion very well. There was no need for excessive mawkishness much beloved by a certain other club. Matthew would have hated that.

The teams appeared, but my pals in the Sleepy Hollow did not; they were still outside as the game began. To be fair, I was still settling myself down for the game ahead – checking camera, checking phone, checking texts – as a ball was pumped forward. It fell in the middle of an equilateral triangle comprising of Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and David De Gea. Confusion overcame the three United players. In nipped the raiding Pedro, who touched the ball square and then swept it in to an open goal, the game just thirty seconds in.

The crowd, needless to say, fucking erupted.

The players raced over to our corner and wild delirium ensued. It was like a mosh pit.

Shades of Roberto di Matteo in the Matthew Harding Final of 1997? You bet.

This was a dream start.

Alan, PD and Scott appeared a few moments later. There were smiles all round.

I was so pleased to see us a goal up that the next few minutes were a bit of a blur. The crowd soon got going.

“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”

Luiz jumped with Ibrahimovic and the ball sailed over Thibaut Courtois’ bar.

Eden Hazard – his ailments of last autumn a distant memory – drove one past the United post. So much for a dour and defensive battle of attrition that myself and many others had predicted.

After around ten minutes, it dawned on me that I had not once peered over to see what Jose Mourinho was doing. Apart from taking a few photographs of the two managers, the men in black, on the touchline with my camera, I did not gaze towards Mourinho once the entire match.

This was not planned. This was just the way it was.

I loved him the first-time round, but grew tired of his histrionics towards the end of his both spells with us. When he talks these days, the Mourinho snarl is often not far away; that turned-up corner of his lip a sign of contempt.

My own thought is that he always wanted the United job.

Conte is my manager now.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

Twenty minutes in, a little more Chelsea pressure forced a corner. Hazard centered, and the ball took a couple of timely touches from United limbs before sitting up nicely for stand-in captain Gary Cahill to swipe home.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Two bloody nil, smelling salts please nurse.

Gary ran over to our corner and was again swamped with team mates.

United had the occasional chance at The Shed End, but our often criticised ‘keeper was in fine form.

A swivel and a shot from Diego Costa was blocked by a defender.

At the half-time whistle, all was well in the Matthew Harding.

Neil Barnett introduced Matthew’s three children to the crowd, along with former legend Dan Petrescu. We clapped them all as they walked around the Stamford Bridge pitch. The travelling Manchester United support duly joined in with the applause and this was a fine gesture. Of course, such disasters have united both clubs over the years.

Like Tottenham in 1996, respect to them.

As the second-half began, Alan and PD were showing typical Chelsea paranoia.

“Get a third and then we can relax.”

Although I was outwardly smiling – we were well on top – I agreed.

Juan Mata joined the fray at the break, replacing Fellatio, who had clearly sucked in the first-half.

Soon into the half, the little Spaniard came over to take a corner down below us and we rewarded him with a lovely round of applause. I still respect him as a person and player. He will always be one of us.

The second-half began with a few half-chances for Chelsea, and a few trademark Courtois saves thwarting United. Just past the hour, a lovely pass from the revitalised Nemanja Matic played in Eden Hazard. He dropped his shoulder, gave himself half a yard and curled a low shot just beyond, or below, the late dive of De Gea.

Three-nil, oh my bloody goodness.

Thoughts now of the 5-0 romp in 1999 when even Chris Bloody Sutton scored.

It was time to relax, now, and enjoy the moment. Every time Courtois and Ibrahimovic went up together for a cross, I had visions of their noses clashing in a football version of the rutting of stags, bone against bone.

We continued to dominate.

Ten minutes later, we watched with smiles on our faces as N’Golo Kante found himself inside the box with the ball at his feet. He sold a superb dummy with an audacious body swerve and cut a low shot past the United ‘keeper to make it four.

Chelsea 4 Manchester United 0.

Conte, who must have been boiling over with emotion, replaced Pedro with Chalobah, Diego Costa with Batshuayi and Hazard with Willian.

Willian, after losing his mother, was rewarded with his own personal song.

The noise was great at times, but – if I am honest – not as deafening as other demolition jobs of recent memory.

Courtois saved well from Ibrahimovic, but the game was over.

“Superb boys – see you Wednesday.”

There was a lovely feeling of euphoria as we bounced away down the Fulham Road.

There was a commotion over by the CFCUK stall, and we spotted Kerry Dixon, being mobbed by one and all. The excitement was there for all to feel.

“One Kerry Dixon.”

Back at the car, we had time to quickly reflect on what we had seen.

“It’s hard to believe that Arsenal, when we were dire, was just four weeks away.”

Sure enough, we were awful on that bleak afternoon in North London. I am almost lost for words to describe how the manager has managed to put in a new system, instil a fantastic work ethic, and revitalise so many players. It’s nothing short of a miracle really. Antonio Conte has only been in charge of nine league games, but he has seemingly allowed us to move from a crumbling system to a new and progressive one in just three games.

What a sense of rejuvenation – from the man who once headed the Juve Nation – we have witnessed in recent games. The three at the back works a treat. Luiz looks a much better defender than ever before. Cahill is a new man. Dave is as steady as ever. Courtois has improved. On the flanks, Alonso has fitted in well, but Moses has been magnificent. Matic is back to his best. Kante is the buy of the season. Hazard is firing on all cylinders. Pedro and Willian are able players. Diego is looking dangerous again. It’s quite amazing. And the manager seems happy to blood the youngsters.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

A fantastic result to honour a fantastic man.

The five teams at the top of the division are now separated by just one point.

All of a sudden, there is confidence and enjoyment pulsating through our club.

Matthew would certainly approve.

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Tales From Friday Night Football

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 16 September 2016.

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Friday Night Moans :

When it was announced that, as part of the new multi-billion trillion gazillion Marillion Carillion TV deal with Sky last season, that there would be games on Friday nights in season 2016/2017, it will not surprise anyone to read that I was far from happy. I already despair at the thought of games such as the one at Middlesbrough later in the season, which will kick-off at 4pm on a Sunday, which in reality means that I will not be home until near midnight on that particular “day of rest.” Similar games have haunted us for years. Lunchtime kick-offs in Newcastle, Monday nights on Merseyside, you know the score. But this seemed different. Football on a Friday night. It seemed that the football authorities were seeking extra ways of making life even more difficult for the average match-day fan. It seemed almost cruel.

After a long week at work – I am up at 6am every day – I am usually crawling over the finishing line at 4pm on a Friday. And now I have to fend off tiredness, and drive along congested motorways in order to attend a football match on a Friday evening? It’s crap. And it’s another small step in the process of me saying “enough is enough” with modern football. That point may never come, but I am, like a few others I know, thinking along these lines. I love my football, my Chelsea, but there has to be a point when I say “hang on, they’re taking the piss, here.”

If we ever play a regular season game in Adelaide, Bangkok or Chicago, I will have given up on it.

I have, as a lovely counterbalance to the increasingly commercial and all-consuming Premier League, found myself attending non-league football, and specifically my local team Frome Town. In the past fortnight, there was an away day at Salisbury City in the F.A. Cup, and then two home games against Biggleswade Town and Dorchester Town. I have loved every minute of it. Whisper it, but it just might be my future.

Friday Night People :

Thankfully my good mate PD had kindly volunteered to drive up to Chelsea for the visit of Liverpool. He is usually awake before me – a 5am start during the week for him – but as he picked me up in Melksham, he said that he went to bed extra-early – 7.30pm – on the Thursday in preparation for the drive to London. Also on board the Chuckle Bus was Young Jake. We all expected a keenly fought game against Liverpool. A cracking game was anticipated.

Friday Night Traffic :

No surprises, the journey was long and arduous. The one-hundred-mile journey took a tiresome three hours exactly. I was yawning throughout. Thankfully, PD coped remarkably well. On approaching Hammersmith, a coach had broken down in the middle lane of the A4. Just what we bloody needed.

Friday Night Beer :

I just had time for a solitary beer before the game, in The Malt House at the end of Vanston Place. Until now, with me on driving duties for all of the five previous domestic games, I had vowed to stay on “cokes” in order not to risk drowsiness at the wheel. The single pint of “Kronenberg 1666” would surely hit the spot. I savoured my first Chelsea beer since Minneapolis in August. It tasted just fine.

Friday Night Teams :

We already knew that Antonio Conte would play the returning David Luiz in place of the crocked John Terry. Elsewhere there were no changes. Thibaut, Brana, Dave, Luiz, Cahill, Kante, Willian, Matic, Oscar, Hazard and Diego Costa were chosen against Klopp’s team of familiar and not-so familiar adversaries.

Friday Night People :

“The Malt House” is typical of a Chelsea pub these days. The front part houses a section where, even on a Saturday lunchtime, people, and they don’t even look like football match-goers, are enjoying meals at tables. The bar area is always cramped and busy, with nowhere to stand in comfort. I was starving, but baulked at the ridiculous price of bar snacks; £5 for a Scotch egg, £4.50 for a sausage roll. Out in the beer garden, the football followers were amassed. It is a cliché I know, but I know more people on a match day at Chelsea than I do on a night out in Frome. I chatted to Barbara and Denise, both nervous with worry about the game ahead, which was under an hour away now. There was also an enjoyable few minutes in the company of former Chelsea player Robert, who played around fifteen games for us between 1985 and 1987. One big family, everyone together. It is moments like this that make supporting Chelsea so special.

Friday Night Games :

This was, from memory, only the fourth Chelsea game to take place on a Friday, except for the obvious exceptions of games over Christmas and the New Year period, and possibly some in the dim and distant past.

Leading up to the match, there was talk among the Chelsea aficionados about previous Friday night games. Common consensus was that this would indeed be game number four. All three previous matches were in 1984. During that season, “live football” was introduced for the very first time, shared equally between the BBC and ITV. A grand total, five games were on a Friday night, five games on a Sunday afternoon. That was it, though; ten games for the entire season.

We played Blackburn Rovers at home in March, away at Manchester City in May (the first non-First Division match to be shown on live TV in the UK) and then, back in the top tier, at home to Everton in August. I didn’t attend any. In 2016, I would be a Friday Night Virgin.

Incidentally, I did attend a mid-season friendly on a Friday night in February 1986; a game at a very cold Ibrox, between Rangers and Chelsea, and strangely enough Robert and I spoke about that game. He played in that one, but my memories of it are very scant, with it being over thirty years ago, and me being half-cut on all-day drinking.

Friday Night Lights :

In the build-up to this game, it seemed that the club were treating it as something of a novelty. There was talk of a free bottle of “Singha”, but I was not able to partake as I reached the turnstiles too late for my voucher. Some people might regard this as a plus point. I was inside in time to see, at about 7.50pm, the advertised “pre-match entertainment” which the club had also advertised. The lights dimmed, and smoke started billowing in front of the East Stand. In the past – the distant past, the ‘seventies and ‘eighties – pre-match entertainment was a very hit and miss affair at Chelsea. I remember a couple of instances of the Police Dog Display Team (I think we must have been easily pleased in those days), a Marching University Band from Missouri – I know this sounds like a figment of my imagination, but the Marching Mizzou did a pre-game show at a Chelsea vs. Derby County game I attended in March 1975, and which I have detailed here previously – and a Red Devils parachute show against Tottenham in April 1985, in which one poor chap missed the pitch completely and landed on top of the West Stand.

Stamford Bridge was bathed in darkness as a heartbeat pulsed through the stadia’s PA system. Then, from searchlights positioned in front of the East and West Stands, blue and white lights danced across the Stamford Bridge turf.

My thoughts on this?

It looked OK, to be honest – in a happy clappy, “look! bright lights!” kinda way – but was rather out of place. This wasn’t a rock concert. It wasn’t the NBA. It wasn’t the NFL. It was a regular season football match. It might have worked at an end of season trophy presentation – “I wish” – but not for an ordinary league game.

File under “trying too hard.”

Friday Night Flags :

During this light show, a far more agreeable show was taking place in The Shed. The large “The Shed” banner, which I believe has been aired before, was joined by three smaller yellow banners. It was pretty effective, though I am not one hundred percent sure that the suits at the club completely understood the exact meaning and rhetoric of the words used.

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Friday Night Football :

Chelsea, in white track suit tops, and Liverpool, in black tracksuit tops, marched across the turf. The good guys and the bad guys. Neil Barnett had, prior to the pre-match “show,” welcomed our two new signings to the Stamford Bridge crowd. There was hearty applause for the returning David Luiz, and also for Marcos Alonso.

From the start, from the very first whistle, Liverpool looked more lively. Very soon, Thibaut Courtois was tested from outside the box by Daniel Sturridge, and we had our hearts in our mouths as he momentarily spilled the ball, which was hit straight at him, but then recovered before the ball was able to crawl apologetically over the line.

I always keep a look out for Philippe Coutinho when we play Liverpool, but on this occasion it was one of Klopp’s summer signings Sadio Mane – one in a never ending line of players who have gone from Saints to Sinners – who caught my eye. He looked lively, and linked well with others. In fact, the entire Liverpool team looked neat on the ball and hungry when hunting the ball down.

On a quarter of an hour, an infamous goal was scored at Stamford Bridge. The ball was slung in by that man Coutinho from a quickly taken free kick, and no fewer than four red shirted Liverpool players appeared to be completely unmarked on the far post. It is an image that is etched in my mind still. The four players were able to play a game of “Scissors, Paper, Stone” among themselves as the ball floated over. In the end, Dejan Lovren – another former Saint – won the right to prod the ball homewards.

We groaned a million groans.

Chelsea, in our rather feeble attempts to impose ourselves on the game, stumbled. Yet again we were one-paced. Matic – looking a little better this season to be honest – struggled to release the ball early. Oscar was humdrum. Willian fizzed around but ended up running across the pitch more often than not. Ivanovic – oh boy – always took an extra touch before attempting to cross.

Sturridge, as his style, skipped through and then selfishly shot from a ridiculously tight angle. The shot went off for a throw in. This player is so disliked by many at Chelsea, that it is hard to believe that he was part of our squad on that night in Munich.

The one exception to our underperforming players was N’Golo Kante, who stood alone, attempting to stifle any attacking intent within a twenty-yard radius of his diminutive frame. I was very impressed with his work rate and his desire. Where was this desire among the others?

I kept a special look out for David Luiz, and hoped and prayed that he would not commit any embarrassing moments on his return after two seasons in Paris. To be fair, he at least showed his worth as a ball-playing defender, with three fine balls to the feet of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard.

Efforts on the Liverpool goal were rare.

With ten minutes to go before the break, the ball broke into our half. David Luiz was under pressure from a Liverpool player, but with Thibaut Courtois unwilling to leave his six-yard box to collect a back pass, nor to communicate with Luiz, the ball was hacked off for a throw in. Liverpool dallied on taking the throw in, and referee Martin Atkinson urged it to be taken. Gary Cahill’s clearance unfortunately dropped right at a Liverpool player. He had time to touch the ball, and curl a superb shot up and over Courtois’ leap.

The scorer?

Jordan bloody Henderson, this generation’s Geoff Thomas.

The Scousers were buoyant again.

“Stevie Heighway on the wing.
We had dreams and songs to sing.
Of the glory, round the Fields of Anfield Road.”

And then their ditty about “History.”

Are they as obsessed with us as we are with them? It really is a close run thing.

However, there was certainly no denying it; Liverpool had deserved the lead, even though chances had been rare.

A Luiz header from a Willian corner just before the break hinted of a Chelsea revival.

As I made my way into the concourse at half-time, I looked up to see our first goal being dissected on TV by a Sky TV “expert” and although I could not hear the commentary, I could guess his words of mockery.

“It must be an easy job being an expert on TV, yet not having the balls to be a coach or a manager in your own right” I thought to myself, but not in so many words.

2-0 down to Liverpool at half-time brought back clear memories of the FA Cup in 1997.

“Bring on Sparky” said PD.

The second-half began, but there were no changes to Antonio Conte’s team.

No Mark Hughes. No Cesc Fabregas. No Michy Batshuayi. Nobody.

We certainly enjoyed more of the ball in the opening period. Hazard was full of running, and we were pressing for the ball with more determination. Ironically, it was the much maligned Nemanja Matic who helped our cause, exchanging passes and showing a rare turn of speed as he drove deep into the heart of the Liverpool box. He reached – miraculously – the by-line and picked out Diego Costa with a little flick.

Diego doesn’t miss those.

2-1 and Stamford Bridge was vibrant once more.

With thirty minutes of the game remaining, there was – at last – hope.

I hoped that the support would rally behind the team, providing a noisy backdrop to a fine recovery.

The noise never really materialised.

Diego shot straight at Mignolet as our play continued to improve.

Liverpool countered and, at the Shed End, Courtois was able to save from Coutinho and then substitute Origi’s shot. This latter save was quite magnificent.

The hoped-for rally never really materialised either. Conte made a bizarre triple substitution with eighty-three minutes on the clock.

This was late, way too late, surely?

Victor Moses for Willian, Cesc Fabregas for Nemanja Matic, Pedro for Oscar.

For a few moments, it looked like we were playing with three wingers; Moses on the right and both Pedro and Eden on the left, before Eden dropped inside.

Our only real chance, gift-wrapped for a deafening equaliser, was a free-kick on the edge of the box after Hazard was fouled. It took an age for Atkinson to sort out the wall and this added to the drama. Both David Luiz and Cesc Fabregas stood over the ball.

The ref’s whistle, and Cesc stepped up.

Typical of the night, the ball hit the wall and our hopes drifted away.

So, a first domestic loss for Antonio Conte.

Hopefully some lessons to be learned, and some home truths to be shared.

Friday Night Shite :

Exiting the stadium, pushed close against a sombre crowd, I overheard the most ridiculous comments being aired by my fellow fans. I know only too well that we had not played particularly well all game, and the first-half was – of course – very poor, but some of the nonsense I heard produced a mixture of displeasure and hilarity. Why do we – Chelsea fans, but football fans in general – veer from one extreme to the other so easily? When is there ever an even, balanced opinion? I glanced at my phone on the way out of London as PD drove west. The internet was evidently melting. A 2-1 loss at home to a pretty decent Liverpool team and fools were already on Conte’s case, and I even saw someone calling for his head.

Get a fucking grip.

We were five games into a new campaign, and old hardened supporters and new FIFA17 “experts” were already on Conte’s case. The man is at a new club, with a new team, in a new league, and he is being questioned by some of our own. Give the man some slack, please.

The night is young.

I remembered back to a game in September 2009. In our eighth game of that season, we lost 3-1 at Wigan Athletic and the team was under the orders of a new Italian manager.

New to the club, new to the team, in a new league.

Later in that very season Carlo Ancelotti won us the double.

I am not saying that we will be in the hunt for trophies at the business end of this season, but we have to show a little more restraint with our words of disdain, blame, antipathy and antagonism.

A club in disarray has never won anything.

On Tuesday, we play at Leicester City, but I will not be there. I haven’t bought a ticket; I won’t be travelling. I hope that those who have bought tickets will be there. It would be horrible to see a half-empty away section, especially since the away allocation sold out rather quickly.

My next game will be at Arsenal on Saturday. A cracking day out is planned. See you there.

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Tales From A Night Of Hurt

Chelsea vs. Paris St. Germain : 9 March 2016.

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The second goal killed us. As soon as that ball was played through our defensive line out to Angel Di Maria, cutting us wide open, I had feared the worst. Sure enough, Di Maria’s low cross in to the box was touched home by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and our hopes were extinguished. The sight of the tall Swedish talisman reeling away, arms outstretched, towards the Chelsea fans in The Shed will haunt me for a while. It meant that we now had to win 4-2 to progress. It was an impossible task.

Most Chelsea fans remained silent, hurting inside, and as I looked over at a few PSG players celebrating in front of their contingent, I was hurting too.

However, within seconds of us conceding that killer goal, I spotted one middle-aged gentleman (and when I say middle-aged, let me confirm that this just means “older than me”), who immediately stood up, pulled a rather sour face, “tut-tutted” to his neighbours and headed for the exits.

Perhaps he had just that moment heard that his granddaughter was about to go in to labour and needed to shoot off to take care of his family’s needs. Perhaps he needed to set off at 9.10pm in order to catch the last train back to his home in Preston which left Euston at 10.15pm. Maybe he had felt a twinge of sciatica, that bloody sciatica, and couldn’t face being jostled in the melee for the tube at the end of the game, so needed to leave with time to spare. Maybe he needed to leave at that time in order to get back to his place of work in Croydon in time for the nightshift.

Maybe there were valid reasons for his sudden disappearance into the night.

Or maybe, just maybe, he was a twat.

For even though we had just conceded a goal which had almost certainly sealed our fate against Paris St. Germain, almost a year to the day to our exit in 2015 against the same opposition, there is surely no valid reason for deserting Chelsea Football Club with a full half an hour remaining. What sort of support is that? It made me despair. OK, it was hugely unlikely that we would score three times in the remaining portion of the game, but as fans we needed to stay and watch the match, and be there until the end. We were on TV. Millions would be watching in the UK and elsewhere. What sort of message would it send out if thousands of fans reacted in the same way as him? Seeing this chap leave so early made me question just what sort of Herberts our club attracts these days.

Alongside Alan and myself was my good friend JR, from Detroit, who had flown over on Tuesday and was leaving early on Thursday. His stay in London would equate to around just forty-six hours. Although he had shoe-horned a little trip down to a wet Craven Cottage on Tuesday for the Fulham vs. Burnley game, make no mistake that he was, as the song goes “here for the Chelsea.” Through a little luck which landed in our laps, I had managed to shift tickets around so that he could watch alongside us in the Matthew Harding Upper. As the weeks and then days had evaporated before us, JR’s excitement about watching a Champions League game at Stamford Bridge for the very first time was a joy to witness. He was last over for that fine week of football in 2011 which saw us defeat West Ham United and Tottenham – Torres’ first goal in the puddles and a late Kalou winner – and we have been the best of friends ever since.

Parky and myself had strolled in to The Goose just after 6pm, and it was a joy to see him once more. I had spent a lot of time with JR on the summer tour, especially driving up from Charlotte to DC one memorable Sunday, but Parky had not seen him since 2011. There was a fun pre-match in the pub, though talk of the game was limited. I introduced JR to a few of my Chelsea pals. Everyone was full of praise of his support.

“You’re over for just two days? Bloody hell.”

The San Miguels and the Peronis were hitting the spot.

We headed off early, in order for JR to experience the uniquness of a typical Champions League night in SW6. There was the usual buzz of excitement. We chatted excitedly on the walk down to The Bridge. Unfortunately, Mark Worrall must have just left the “CFCUK” stall; maybe next time. Back in 2011, I remember that I had photographed JR as he turned into the approach to Stamford Bridge – “captured for posterity” – as he set eyes on the stadium for the very first time. Almost five years later, we were walking the same steps.

Inside The Bridge, JR chatted with a few more friends. There were a few photographs. The kick-off was approaching.

Paris had a full three-thousand fans, split one third in the top corner, and two-thirds in the lower tier. They were, pre-match, rather quiet. There were scarves on show, individual flags, but no banners.

It was a relatively mild evening.

The team news was met with approval.

Courtois – Dave, Gary, Brana, Kenedy – Mikel, Fabregas – Willian, Hazard, Pedro – Diego Costa.

“Park Life” by Blur got the crowd singing along. The individual blue flags, mocked by the Scousers, were waved enthusiastically. Then, surprisingly, for the first time for a Champions League game at Chelsea, the lights were dimmed, and that electronic heartbeat boomed out.

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

What a dramatic sight.

A flag was hoisted in the Shed Upper; a strikingly simple silhouette of our trophy from May 2012.

I am sure that JR was on edge.

Champions League, under the lights, perfect.

And yet.

Among many thousands of other football supporters in the UK, I was saddened to hear of the clandestine meeting which took place recently involving representatives of a few of England’s top clubs with an apparent view to “improve” the current Champions League format. For anyone who knows me, and who gets bored with my dislike for certain aspects of modern football, I suggest you look away now. Although we can’t be sure, exactly, what was discussed in the meeting, two strong rumours soon circulated.

The first involved the guaranteed presence of a number of the largest clubs in Europe of a place each year and every year, regardless of performance the previous season. This makes me heave. It takes away the very essence of what makes European club football the envy of the entire world; that any team, given correct management and stewardship, can rise to the top if they get it right on the pitch. The thought of the same old bloated clubs – we know which ones – showing up every single season in the Champions League, and getting richer, through self-basting, makes me despair. I do not have the words which adequately describe the loathing that I have for Charlie Stillitano’s smug and despicable comment about “the Champions League not needing the likes of Leicester City” and nor should I need to.

Those who read my thoughts in these match reports surely know how I would react to this.

Of course all of this talk of a restructuring of the Champions League is ironic to me at least, since it was the rumours of the “Big 8” – or whatever it was – forming a European Super League in around 1992 that coerced UEFA to form the current Champions League format, expanded from the much loved and missed European Cup straight knock-out format. The current format, involving more games, and more of a chance of the richest clubs to progress every year, was intended to satiate the desires of the likes of Real Madrid, Milan, Bayern Munich, Manchester United et al.

And yet, it would seem, they are still not happy.

Additionally, Stillitano’s naïve desire to compare the world football model – organic clubs rising and falling, relegation and promotion – to the closed shop nature of his own US system does not wash with me.

What is more beautiful than a Leicester City, a Parma, a Wolfsburg, a Dundee United, and a St. Etienne, climbing up and competing at the very highest of European competition?

That a representative of my club – step forward the loathed Bruce Buck – was at these meetings does not surprise me.

These fuckers know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

The second rumour – possibly even more heinous – of qualifying games taking place in the US (what a surprise Mr. Stillitano) would be the last straw for me.

Although it would tear me apart, I would walk away.

Frome Town would be my team, and I’d probably visit a few European cities and ground hop for a while. I was only recently looking at the city of Budapest and day-dreaming about watching games in that lovely Hungarian city on an extended break. Ferencvaros, Honved and MTK do not need the likes of Charlie Stillitano.

Straight after the Champions League anthem “The Liquidator” boomed around the stadium. The blue flags waved again. The atmosphere was rising.

“The crowd is in fine form” I said to JR.

The match began, and we were immediately wired in to every pass, every kick, every tackle. I could not resist focussing on the wildchild Ibrahimovic, or the wildness of the former idol David Luiz.

I thought we began reasonably well, but then failed to stop the impressive talents of PSG gain momentum. For a while, they dolloped balls into space and at the feet of their attacking players and we were nowhere. Ibrahimovic bundled the ball past Thibaut Courtois, but the German referee had spotted a flag for offside.

Phew.

Then, calamity. PSG pushed the ball out to Ibrahimovic, who had lost his marker Gary Cahill with consummate ease. It was, undoubtedly, a shock to see Cahill all at sea after an impressive run of form. From a wide position, a low cross found Rabiot, who found the net with ease.

We were 3-1 down on aggregate and needed to score twice to draw level – penalties, maybe – or three times to win on aggregate. Harking back to our friendly with PSG in Charlotte in the summer, I joked with JR :

“9-9 on penalties tonight, Thibaut to score the winner.”

Then, thankfully, Chelsea got back in to the game. Diego Costa was the main spark but Pedro made some intelligent runs, and Kenedy really impressed. Willian’s energy was good to see, but elsewhere Fabregas and Hazard struggled to make a difference. Mikel did what Mikel does. Collectively, we were improving.

Just before the half hour mark, the ball was won, and played forward to Diego Costa, who twisted and turned past his marker with a fantastic move of body and mind. He quickly dispatched the ball, with his weaker left foot, past Trapp in the PSG goal.

The Bridge boomed, and I felt JR shudder next to me.

We were back in it for fuck sake.

The noise increased and this was just wild blue heaven.

We played with a better tempo, and with more desire, and in my mind we bossed the last portion of the half. But how we yearned for a second goal. PSG were playing hardball though, and we were livid with some of the tackles going unpunished. The PSG fans were very quiet; surprisingly so. Their level of noise was simply not on the same scale as many other European visitors. We had a few chances – Fabregas, Costa – but a second goal did not materialise. PSG still looked comfortable on the ball, of course, but there were positive signs.

As we edged towards the break, my huge fear was that the momentum that we had built up over the preceding twenty minutes or so would now dissipate into the London air as half-time was reached.

In the second-half, there was an immediate flurry of activity down below us as we stormed the PSG box. In one crazy period of play, shots were blocked by limbs and torsos, and we were left breathless.

Just one goal would set us up for one of the great European comebacks.

Just one goal.

The play eased a little, and we sadly watched as Diego Costa, in discomfort, was forced to leave. Without him – he had been excellent at times – I wondered where on earth a goal would come from. I think everyone else thought the same. Bertrand Traore replaced him.

I thought back on the 1997/1998 European campaign when our strike force consisted of Mark Hughes, Gianfranco Zola, Gianluca Vialli and Tore Andre Flo.

In 2016, our main striker is augmented by Loic Remy and the youngster Traore. Falcao and Pato are not mentioned for obvious reasons. What a mess.

Eden Hazard, obviously injured, showed a little more desire and promise.

“Still half an hour JR, we can still do it. Two more goals, then extra time.”

Sadly, that ball out to Di Maria on sixty-seven minutes put an end to our hopes.

For the last twenty minutes or so, thankfully most spectators stayed to watch, but the war had been won, and there was no fight from players and fans alike. The play deteriorated. We were a pale shadow of the team that had ended the first-half so strongly. Throughout the game, Fabregas and Hazard were poor. For all of Pedro’s scurrying around, very rarely does he create anything. Even Willian was poor. The only bright spot for me was the performance of Kenedy in the first-half. Where Baba is nervous and reticent, Kenedy exudes confidence and spirit. We need to persevere with him.

It was not to be.

We lacked desire, sustained over ninety minutes, and our ailments of autumn came back to haunt us again. The hunger of previous Champions League campaigns – oh for a Terry, a Drogba, a Cole, a Lampard – was missing.

It hurt.

If our plans to relocate and rebuild are met with approval, this may well have been the current Stamford Bridge’s last ever Champions League night.

As we walked out on to the Fulham Road, I told JR to take one last look at it.

With a young baby on the way in the summer, it might be a while before JR returns. His next visit might witness a completely new stadium.

Parky, JR, and two of JR’s UK-based mates, the brothers Dan and Matt, met up with me back at “The Goose” for a pint and a reflection on what might have been. We ended up next-door for some pizza. It reminded me of the quiet and reflective post-mortem that we had over a curry after the loss to Inter in 2010, when we were again joined by visitors from the US.

It was approaching midnight as we said our farewells.

JR – of course – had loved the experience of his first ever Champions League night at Stamford Bridge.

“Safe travels mate, see you soon.”

On the drive home, I was pragmatic. Over the two legs, we were not good enough.

We don’t lose many games at home in European competitions. It used to be a proud boast that, until Lazio in 2000, we had never lost one. Now, sadly, this defeat at the hands of PSG meant that we had now lost eight in our history.

Lazio 2000.

Besiktas 2003.

Barcelona 2006.

Internazionale 2010.

Manchester United 2011.

Basel 2013.

Atletico Madrid 2014.

Paris St. Germain 2015.

I’ve seen them all, and it hurts each time. There were also two draws, against Monaco in 2004 and Barcelona in 2009, which felt like defeats since we went out on away goals on those nights. And there was also the game against Real Zaragoza in 1995, which we won 3-1, but was not celebrated since we had lost the first-leg 3-0. Regardless, a European defeat at Stamford Bridge always feels so damning, so final. It feels especially hurtful in the first knock-out round, after a little break, before we can get a head of steam and push on.

However, Europe in general, has treated us well, despite the seemingly endless procession of bad luck from 2005 to 2009.

We have, after all, won all of the three major trophies.

And I have been blessed enough to have seen eighty-five European games at Stamford Bridge now, and my / our record is an impressive 56-21-8. Of course, I shouldn’t be too picky, but each of those eight defeats leave a memory which haunts.

But our European campaign in 2015/2016 is now over. We know that our final game of the season will either be at home to Leicester City on Sunday 15 May or at Wembley for the F.A. Cup Final on Saturday 21 May. On Saturday, we head up to Goodison Park to try to prolong this very odd season for one more week.

After all, what is the month of May without a Cup Final?

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Tales From The Coach And Horses

Norwich City vs. Chelsea : 1 March 2016.

I can well remember being at work on the afternoon of Wednesday 1 March 2006 and opening up an email from my friend Daryl. In a brief sentence, he had written that Peter Osgood – my childhood hero – had been taken very ill at a family funeral in Slough, close to his native Windsor. Other emails and texts from close friends quickly followed. Within a very short space of time, my head began spinning as I tried to take in this horrible news. I remember one friend, Andy I think, commenting “it doesn’t look good.” That one phrase sent me reeling. I very soon feared the worst. My mind suddenly began preparing my body for some sad news. The announcement quickly followed.

Peter Osgood was dead.

He was only 59 years old.

There was a horrid sense of loss. It seemed to be so unfair. He was taken from us at a relatively young age. For a whole generation of Chelsea supporters, although the mid-‘sixties to early-‘seventies team was crammed full of fan favourites, there was only one Ossie. For me, like thousands of others, in the school playground, when I played football among mates, I was Peter Osgood. I had the number nine on my shirt. My mother had sewn a “home-made” number nine on my shorts to match. He was everything to me and many others.

Losing Ossie hurt so much.

That evening at Anfield, England played Uruguay in a friendly and there was a minute’s silence for Peter Osgood and also former England manager Ron Greenwood, who had died a few weeks earlier. Fittingly Joe Cole scored a last minute-winner.

The Chelsea community soon came together to remember Peter Osgood. There were emotional eulogies and resonating testimonials to one of our most cherished and admired footballers. On the following Saturday, I was so grateful that I was going to our away game at West Brom (I only went to half the aways in that season, so my attendance wasn’t guaranteed) so that I could grieve among friends. Before the game, we held up black and white photographs from 1970, and there was another minute of silence.

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Our next game was against Tottenham, and I wanted to honour Peter Osgood in my own way. I spent many hours producing a banner of Ossie’s face, based on that classic photograph of him at the Mitcham training ground in around 1972/1973. A few friends and myself posed with it in the beer garden of The Goose, before I unfurled it during the minute of applause for him before the game.

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William Gallas’ thunderbolt in the last minute sent us all delirious that afternoon. It was such an emotional day, and certainly a fitting send-off for our much-loved idol.

I was also proud and privileged to attend the memorial service at Stamford Bridge on Sunday 1 October, when around one thousand Chelsea supporters watched from The Shed as Peter Osgood’s ashes were laid to rest under the penalty spot. It was a very classy affair, fit for The King. The service was attended by Chelsea Pensioners and Grenadier Guards. Peter Kenyon, Ron Harris, Tommy Docherty and Peter Bonetti spoke of their former friend and colleague. It was a blustery and rainy day, and everyone there will remember how the sun shone just as the ashes were laid to rest.

In 2007, I took my Peter Osgood banner on tour in the USA, but after a long session after a game against Club America in Palo Alto, I carelessly lost it. I was dumbstruck with sadness when I woke up in my motel room, and realised that my pride and joy was missing. I had presumed that I had left it in a cab. I was gutted. Imagine my surprise when Mike, who runs the New York Blues, presented it to me at a baseball game in San Diego a few days later. I had evidently just left it pinned to a wall in the “Rose & Crown.” I thanked Mike, shrugged, and said :

“I guess that Ossie just didn’t want to leave the pub.”

Ten years on, these memories were recalled as our away game at Carrow Road drew near. As fate would have it, the tenth anniversary of Peter Osgood’s passing would coincide with a match against one of his former teams. In 1976/1977, Ossie played three times for Norwich City in the top flight, on loan from Southampton, who were alongside us in the Second Division.

And I had decided to mark the occasion by taking along my Peter Osgood banner too.

This was our second away game in just four days, and four of us had decided to make a trip out of it, due the long distances involved. I had booked a hotel near the stadium and I was really relishing the chance to relax and unwind in the fine Norfolk city. I would be treating it as a mini-Euro Away, but without time-differences, tear gas and Toblerones.

I collected PD as early as eight ‘clock and Parky soon after. The drive to Norwich, nine counties away, was just a few miles shy of 250 miles in length. And although league points were at stake, a lot of my thoughts were focused on Peter Osgood as I drove east through horrible driving conditions.

At around 10.30pm, my car slowly edged past Windsor and Slough.

I made slow progress around the M25 – constant rain, hideous – but then the weather brightened up just as the first road sign for Norwich came in to view as we exited the M11. I was able to relax further, and I enjoyed driving on the relatively-newly improved A11. It was a lovely road in fact. Norwich was in our sights, the music was blaring, and we were nearing the end of a five-and-a-half-hour drive.

At 1.30pm, we were parked up outside our hotel, and a few minutes later we joined up with Dave, the fourth member of the day’s Away Club, in a boozer just over the road called “The Coach & Horses.” Pints were quickly demolished, and a few Chelsea pals joined us. This was not planned, but the train station was only five minutes away. Within thirty minutes or so, it was plainly obvious that the pub would be one of the main Chelsea boozers of the day.

Via a tip-off from a mate, who had heard on the Chelsea grapevine that a few PSG tickets were back on sale, Dave was able to quickly call the box office and order a couple.

Job done.

The idea, originally, was to head off up the hill in to the centre of the city on a little pub crawl of our own, but we had heard rumours that many pubs, like at Southampton on Saturday, were for home fans only. We decided to cut our losses and stay put.

“Another San Miguel, please.”

We stood at the bar and chatted away, welcoming friends from near and far. The place became rammed. And yet the game seemed hours away.

I briefly chatted to Callum, who had taken the notion of marking the ten-year anniversary of Peter Osgood’s passing to the next level. He had brought along three five metre banners, spelling out “Ossie The King”, but was a little concerned about smuggling them in to the stadium. I wished him well.

I chatted to Tom.

“Terrible drive up, Tom. Horrible conditions. Wet, spray, and that was just inside the car.”

The only surprise was that none of the local constabulary, nor the fine upstanding gentlemen of the Fulham OB, had called to visit. Nobody within the pub was looking for trouble, for sure, and there was a lovely relaxed feel, but you might expect the police to call by, especially since it was only a ten-minute walk to Carrow Road. Hardly anyone was wearing Chelsea colours of course. On away days such as these, when it is all about blending in and not making a scene, I always wonder about the sanity of others – few in number to be fair – who smother themselves in Chelsea regalia, then wonder why they are not allowed in to pubs and, on very rare occasions these days, get the occasional “slap” from a wannabee hoodlum from the host city.

“Another San Miguel, please.”

Amid the banter and laughter, Peter Osgood filtered through my thoughts. Everyone has an Ossie story, and it has been wonderful reading about some of his escapades the past few days. I always remember a story that he told at an evening in Warminster in around 1997. Peter was in great form that night and this one story is not often shared. It went something like this.

“I was an Arsenal fan as a boy, to be fair, and when I was around fifteen I was playing for a team in my home town of Windsor called Spittal’s Old Boys. One day I had heard that Chelsea had sent a chap down, a scout, to watch me play, but I had already played a full game in the morning. I ended up only playing a half. I scored a couple. I thought I had done OK, but maybe not enough to impress the Chelsea representative. Believe it or not, ladies and gentlemen, he had been impressed with what he had seen, and had decided to sign me up for Chelsea there and then. Well, this was fantastic. Only half a game, and I was going to Chelsea. Fantastic.”

There was a pause, and I had an idea there would be a punchline.

“So, that just goes to show how easy it was, in those days, to sign for Tottenham.”

The crowd erupted in laughter. Nice one Os.

The pints were flowing, and the clock behind the bar appeared to be standing still. More fans arrived. We could hardly move. Laugh after laugh, pint after pint. Eventually, the time passed and it was time to move on. It was around 6.45pm.

We walked down to Carrow Road which sits alongside the River Wensum underneath a bluff of higher land to the west. There was a nod to a few familiar faces outside and then the bag check.

Camera – in.

Ossie flag – in.

Thankfully, inside, I soon saw that Callum had successfully smuggled the three large flags in.

PD appeared.

“Pint Chris?”

We were in our seats, nearer the front than usual, with time to spare, but Alan and Gary – who were travelling up on the official club coaches – were not in.

With kick-off approaching, the Peter Osgood flags were unwrapped and hoisted above heads.

“OSSIE

THE

KING”

It was time to unwrap my banner. Parky and myself easily persuaded our neighbours to hold it aloft, taught in the Norfolk air, for a few minutes.

I was more than happy. Job done.

Peter Osgood : RIP

The teams entered the pitch, and amidst the frantic folding of my banner, sorting out my camera for the ensuing game, thanking those around me and answering texts from friends in the USA that had seen my flag on TV, I unfortunately missed our opening goal.

Bloody typical.

The cheers of the Chelsea faithful were a heartening sound. Such an early goal – Kenedy, shot – was just what we had needed in our quest for three points and – whisper it – the heady heights of eighth place should we be successful.

Guus Hiddink had surprised a few people by including Kenedy and also Bertrand Traore. I was also a little surprised that Nemanja Matic had been recalled too.

As the game continued, the text messages kept rolling in. We live in such a small world these days. I was soon showing a young lad in front a video clip of the flag which was sent to me from Pablo in Pennsylvania.

Fantastic stuff.

Alan and Gary appeared, ten minutes in, having been delayed on their coach, thus missing the banners and, most importantly, the goal.

They were fuming, and quite rightly.

On the pitch, we occasionally played some nice football, with Eden Hazard involved in some attacks at the Norwich defence. Traore was involved too. In the stands, the Chelsea support was not setting the world alight. It was as if the long distances involved in getting to the game had made us tired and weary. A free-kick from Cesc Fabregas, and Ruddy – in pink – saved well. Just before the break, Traore played the ball in to Diego Costa, who carefully flicked the ball over Mr. Pink.

2-0, you beauty.

Game over?

Not a bit of it.

Norwich began the livelier in the second-half and journeyman Cameron Jerome had two early chances to score. His second effort flew off the top of the bar. The warning signs were there and the Chelsea support grew edgier.

The manager replaced Traore and Oscar with Mikel and Willian.

Shortly after a well-worked goal cut through our defence and Nathan Redmond firmly struck past the man in black, Thibaut Courtois.

2-1 and the game, sadly, was back on.

With the last quarter approaching, the Chelsea support grew even more agitated.

Baba replaced Kenedy.

Chances were at a premium, especially at our end, where there was a little banter between both sets of fans. An old favourite from 2005 was aired.

“We’ve got Abramovich, you’ve got a drunken bitch.”

Fabregas came close. We attacked with a little more conviction. Matic headed over from a Willian corner. Then Diego raced at the nervous Norwich defence, showing the guile and tenacity of last season, but his efforts were thwarted.

Some had to leave the game early to catch the 10pm train to London.

The nerves were jangling.

“Come on Chels!”

Norwich threatened again.

“Fackinblowupref.”

Relief at the final whistle, and knowing looks from everyone.

Phew.

Up to the giddy heights of eighth place.

Phew again.

This had been a rough and tumble affair, and reminded me a little of our more – what word can I use? – pragmatic performances of the latter part of last season. But, as we headed back to the centre of the pleasant city for a fine Chinese meal, we were just so grateful for three points. It had been an increasingly nervy affair and we agreed that the support was a little “off” too. It was an altogether odd evening on the banks of the Wensum. And how we would have loved to have seen a little more of the wonderful qualities of someone like Peter Osgood on show.

Bless him.

 

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