Tales From The Long Game

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 30 November 2019.

I was awake at 5am – yes as early as that – and I just knew that I would not be able to get back to sleep. Once I had checked my phone for any important social media occurrences – there weren’t – I was resigned to the fact that I had best get up well before my planned alarm call at 6.15am. This was not due to a ridiculously giddy, juvenile excitement induced by the thought of the West Ham home game. No, those days are – sadly? – gone. I’m fifty-four years old. I see Chelsea games every week. The simple fact was that I just couldn’t get back to sleep.

The reason for myself waking up, though, might be worth mentioning. I was in the middle of a dream, possibly one which was turning into a nightmare, with me on the way to meet a mate on our way to an airport ahead of a trip abroad, but one in which I had totally messed-up the timings. I was out by a couple of hours. I got an earful from my pal.

No wonder I woke up.

I spend my working day making sure that transport collections and deliveries are done on time and I devote much of my leisure time driving to and from cities, and a sizeable chunk of the remainder planning ahead for future trips, away days, holidays. For someone who fell in love with maps at an early age, has a degree in Human Geography and works in logistics, the notion of me missing a flight by a large margin was reason enough for me to wake in a cold sweat.

Fackinell.

I put the kettle on, and drank a leisurely coffee.

Eventually, the time came to leave my sleeping Somerset village.

On the way in to Frome to collect Simon and PD, the sky was still dark; black all but for a small slither of burnt orange above the Longleat estate to my west.

There was no Lord Parky for this trip; he was otherwise engaged.

Within the first five minutes of the two-and-a-half hour drive to London, we had vented about the game on Wednesday in Valencia. The penalty decision. The ridiculous booking for Kante. VAR. Always VAR. The air turned blue.

The air turned royal blue later on, at various stages in the journey, when we chatted briefly about the upcoming game.

“With no Tammy, Frank will obviously play Michy. Giroud has not got a look in this season. He obviously rates Michy over him.”

“Looks like Pedro is well out of it at the moment. Our two wide men, now – and for the foreseeable – are Pulisic and Willian.”

“At least we won’t be playing a false nine.”

I reached London at 10am.

On the short walk to West Brompton tube, I spotted a distant Stamford Bridge, or at least the roof supports of the Matthew Harding, enveloped in a wintry mist. It looked quite beguiling. Five hours later, I would be sat right underneath that very same section of roof. While I waited for the District Line train to take me down to meet up with Simon and PD (I had parked the car while they shot off to get the drinks in), I looked down the track, again a misty view and again very atmospheric, and saw it bend slightly to go through the tunnel. That same track would have taken me to Fulham Broadway on my very first game in 1974. I had a little moment to myself and remembered the joy of that very first visit.

The pre-match was totally spent within the very cosy confines of “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge as is so often the case these days. And as so often happens – to the point of cliché, right? – we were joined by pals from near and far; London, Stafford, Lancashire, Edinburgh, Toronto, Minneapolis, Los Angeles.

Before I knew it, Simon was swapping phone numbers with the Minneapolis contingent ahead of a possible trip to the US next summer with a mate who loves Prince. I told him the story of when Chelsea opened-up the glass and steel superstructure of the new Minnesota Vikings stadium in 2016 against Milan, and that when we scored the first goal of the game, “Let’s Go Crazy” was played. A nice touch.

As we were in the pub so early – 10.30am – I decided to allow myself some “Birra Moretti” before moving on to the standard “Cokes.” They were a nice treat. It was lovely to see everyone getting on famously, despite many having never met previously. Cesar from Los Angeles laughing with PD. Simon chatting to Eric from Toronto. Dean chatting with Ralph from Los Angeles. Cesar chatting to Kev from Edinburgh.

Around this time last year, Cesar and his son Sebastian flew over for the 0-0 draw at home with Everton but due to the complexities of that trip, we were not able to meet up. He was making up for it this time. Cesar just wanted to spend time in an authentic London boozer and “The Eight Bells” fitted this requirement perfectly well. He was knocking back pints of “London Pride” and ordered some fish and chips too. On this visit, he was with his wife and daughter too, but this is where the story travels along a strange tangent. His wife Lucy and daughter Kira are Manchester United supporters – a split family – and were keen to head up to the game at Old Trafford on the Sunday of this footballing weekend. After a few messages across the Atlantic, my good friend Rick, a United season ticket holder, was able to sort out two tickets for them, sitting together, just a few seats away from him via a mate who would not be attending the game.

That, everyone, is what football should be all about.

While Cesar – I’ll just call him Dave – was chatting to myself, his wife and the two children were outside, sitting at the pub’s bench seats on the pavement, along with some friends. Cesar and Lucy had travelled over with a couple, with their two boys, who are not Chelsea but who were with them for the holiday’s duration. Ralph and his wife and their two boys were going to the game too. They were enjoying the London sun. But I felt for them. From Southern California sun to an English winter. But they were wrapped up well.

In the pub, some lads were constantly singing a new song.

“We’ve got Super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

A solid 7/10 from me.

On the CFC website, there had been warnings about Chelsea supporters singing about “Pikeys.”

I’ll be honest; the first time that I had ever heard this word, which references the travelling community, was when we played Gillingham at home in the FA Cup in 2000. In my part of the world – there is a Gypsy camp just outside Frome, on Gyspy Lane no less – we used other words. And to be quite honest, they were always used in an equally derogatory manner. So perhaps it is right that the club has made this statement.

Times change, eh?

The team line up was announced and there were a few gulps.

Arrizabalaga

James – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Jorginho

Kovacic – Barkley

Pedro – Giroud – Pulisic

Our collective comments about players on the drive to London were evidently off the mark.

“What Do We Know Part 862.”

Inside the stadium, there was not too much of a London Derby vibe. There were the usual three thousand away fans, but the only public display of club colours that I could spot were on the two West Ham flags draped over the Shed balcony wall. There was the usual predominance of dark coats and navy jackets, with only occasional hints of claret and blue on rare scarves and jackets. And a decidedly similar story in all the home areas but with maybe a few more scarves.

I spotted a new banner on the hotel wall above The Shed. It was of the old Shed, maybe from the mid’- eighties or just after, and a better photo than the blurred image of spectators in The Shed from a similar date that was present until recently.

Flames and fireworks. The teams entered the pitch.

West Ham have a pretty decent home shirt this season, a reference to their 1976/77 shirt which I first remember seeing when they reached the 1976 European Cup Winners’ Cup final, a 2-4 loss to Anderlecht. But I think that the kit would have been improved with crisp white shorts. Anyway, it is better than ours, which hurts me to admit.

The game?

Do I have to?

Hold on to your hats. This won’t be enjoyable.

Admittedly, we began the game in reasonably fine fettle. We dominated the ball. West Ham rarely threatened. There had been an early cross from the left but a stretching Antonio skied his chance well over. Mason Mount, we think, probably shot a little too soon when presented with the ball in a good position on the edge of the box. His effort was tame and debutant David Martin easily saved. Within a few seconds of play we conjured up two efforts on the West Ham goal. Firstly, a cross from Reece James on the right deflected up and struck the near post and then a header from a leaping Kurt Zouma skidded down and wide from the header that followed.

After twenty minutes, Alan commented that West Ham had hardly entered our half, let alone offer a chance to test Kepa in the goal down below us at the Matthew Harding. However, a fine cross from the West Ham right from Fredericks evaded everyone and found the head of that man Antonio. His close header was right at Kepa but our often maligned ‘keeper reacted well to palm it away.

Throughout the first-half, the West Ham fans were constantly yelling about “Chelsea Rent Boys.”

Rent Boys. Pikeys.

I didn’t know whether to be outraged by it all or bored by it all.

At the other end, at The Shed, a hopeful shot from Kovacic bouncing bombed its way through to the West Ham ‘keeper who saved the initial shot and then kept out follow-ups from both Giroud and Pedro.

The first-half sputtered on.

It had decreased in quality as the forty-five minutes progressed. And the atmosphere was just rotten. Kovacic looked busy, but in the way that Arkwright is busy; dusting his shop counter, rearranging his tins of soup, re-writing shop signs and getting Granville to fetch his cloth, but without actually fucking selling anything.

There was an excellent cross from James that was right on the money but it evaded both Giroud and Pulisic. At that moment in time I found myself thinking “the Chelsea of old would have scored that” whether it be via the head of Drogba or the boot of Costa.

Ah, Olivier Giroud – yes I know he did not have much service – but the man hardly moved the entire half. He didn’t seem too keen to test his marker, to create space for others, to give himself to the team. Perhaps he expected it all to be gift-wrapped for him. It was a deeply frustrating performance from him and most of the others. Only James on the right looked up to the task of stretching play.

There was a feeling of “ho hum” at half-time.

Soon into the second-half, a West Ham move developed. I happened to mention “how is Robert Snodgrass still playing for a Premier League team?” when the player moved the ball from wide right into the middle, with West Ham gifted all the space they needed. The ball was pushed out to a raiding Aaron Creswell on their left. I immediately sensed danger.

“Here we go.”

With that, he turned past James way too easily, and slotted a low shot in at the far post.

Chelsea 0 West Ham United 1.

Fackinell.

It seemed impossible that we were behind. It had been a poor game but we had edged the chances, slim that they were. We kept huffing and puffing but did not look at ease in our own skin. From a corner, Kepa had to stretch and keep out a Fabian Balbuena header. It was another excellent save.

For the first time of the entire match, the Matthew Harding got our act together and sang as one. I looked up at the clock.

59 minutes.

Not fucking good enough. We are meant to be supporting Frank this season. But this does mean that we just defend him in discussions at work, among colleagues, with strangers, on the internet, in fucking cyber-space, but it also means that we are meant to support him at games too.

I repeat. Not fucking good enough.

On sixty-three minutes, Frank pulled the strings.

N’Golo Kante for Jorginho.

Willan for Pedro.

There was, however, another catastrophe at The Shed End. A cross from the West Ham right from Snodgrass evaded Zouma and Antonio bundled it home.

Oh bloody hell.

But then we learned that VAR was being used.

A good time for me to use the facilities. Off I trotted.

I heard a loud roar.

No goal.

I did not react.

On returning to my seat, I heard from Alan that there had been a handball.

Fair enough.

With twenty minutes to go, off came Giroud, but instead of Michy Batshuayi, on came Callum Hudson-Odoi.

A definite head scratcher that one, eh?

We were playing a “kinda” false-nine.

Our pre-match chat in the car on the way up had proved fucking worthless.

“What Do We Know Part 863.”

The away fans were still going.

“Come on you Irons.”

The mood around me was getting tetchy, at best, angry at worst. I was saddened to hear a few calling our players by the “C” word.

Sigh.

In truth, we did improve in the last twenty minutes and the industry of Kante was the main catalyst. What a player he is.

But never in the last portion of the game did I feel that we would grab an equaliser. A shot from Callum was hit high. We seemed to be over-stacked with options on the right but Willian and James spent too much time passing to each other rather than launching missiles into danger areas. When balls were played across, false nines and invisible targets were not hit. With each poor pass, the moans increased in volume.

“That helps, eh?”

The last chance of the ninety minutes fell to Pulisic who was set up by Kante, and his first touch seemed to give just the right amount of space to smash the ball in. We got our celebrations tee’d up. Alas his shot mirrored the mood of the afternoon. He slashed it wide.

Five minutes of extra time was signalled. A few people had begun drifting away before then. The extra minutes did not treat us well. We kept going but were met by a resolute wall of claret.

I thought to myself “we have not lost to these at home for ages” and my mind back-peddled. The last time was in fact in September 2002, but I was not present; I was on holiday in the Great Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. I can remember logging on to a friend’s computer to hear that we had lost 3-2. The last game in which I had witnessed a defeat in person against West Ham was the infamous 1-0 “Paul Kitson” game in 1998/99 which was our third and final loss of the season and seemed to feel like the end of our title challenge. In truth, we rallied again but an equally catastrophic 2-2 with Leicester City – “Steve Guppy” – put an end to our title challenge. However, if we had won both of those games, we would still not have been champions, as an inferior goal difference to Manchester United would have proved our undoing.

But 1998/99. Just three losses but no title. It seemed we would never get closer.

I digress.

With over four minutes of the five minutes played, and the ball in our half – and with my camera tucked away in its bag already – Alan, Simon, PD and I edged our way out. For the first time in hundreds of home games, I left before the final whistle, albeit no more than three seconds.

There were grumbles-a-plenty on the descent down to ground level.

Outside, I overheard a young bloke wail “I took a day off for that shit.”

Fucking diddums.

We trotted back to the car; the extra few minutes meant that we were ahead of the curve on getting out of the packed West London streets. I pulled out of Barons Court onto the A4 and I cleared the Chiswick roundabout by 6pm.

The drive home took two hours and was mainly in silence.

Simon and PD periodically snoozed. There was an occasional traffic-jam but I made good time. The M3 was OK despite the partial closure of the M4 – it’s sister road – and it was a relatively clean escape.

All really was quiet.

We knew that we had not played well. There was no need for a huge post mortem.

But my head churned things over as I drove. I searched for some positives.

The aim this season has always been one of sustained growth. And we really should not judge everything on one game, nor possibly even a handful.

I thought some more.

One of the “in” phrases of late is “game management”; the killing of the game in its final period once ahead, or “seeing teams off” as it was known in the days of old.  Frank’s brief all along has been geared to “season management.” I see this as the management of all resources throughout the season to the best of his abilities.

“The long game.”

That was our brief too, right? As fans, to be supportive, to give him time, to lay off the heavy criticism. How often did I see the phrase “I don’t care if we finish tenth this season.”

And yet some fans are throwing the “C” word around in November with us in the top four, comfortably the top six? Do me a favour.

It’s not a one game show this. It has to be about managing the whole season, bringing in players at various times, looking at options, weighing up strengths and weaknesses, assessing each player’s abilities and attributes. It’s simply not about playing the same eleven players every game.

As I drove on, I knew full well that the internet would be full of supporters over-reacting, as is the way of the world these days, and airing self-inflated opinions. Once home, I did not bother delving too deeply into such tripe. It had been a long day. I didn’t need all that.  I simply uploaded some photos of the day – my camerawork was off too, it was one of those days – and then fell asleep, probably just as well, before our game was aired on “MOTD.”

There is a short video which was released by Chelsea Football Club just after the game, pitch side, and in it Frank Lampard spoke about the game.

This was my brief comment :

“For all those having a bit of a moan, listen to the man speak. Valid comments throughout. He will learn from his mistakes. Frank is intelligent and focused, rarely have I been more impressed listening to a football man talk about the game…”

I am already looking forward to the game on Wednesday at home to Aston Villa.

I trust that the club won’t go overboard with the return of John Terry. And I hope that the fans’ reactions strike the right tone.

On we go, on this franktastic journey.

See you there.

 

Tales From City, Chips And Gravy

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 23 November 2019.

At around 1pm – bang on target, just as I had predicted, have I mentioned I work in logistics? – I pulled into the car park of The Windmill pub just off the roundabout on the M6 which crosses with the A556.

Exit 19.

It did not seem five minutes since we were last there. It was, in fact, three months ago that we stopped for an hour or so as we met my old college mate Rick before the league opener against Manchester United. On this occasion, ahead of our enticing game with Manchester’s other team, we were stopping for considerably longer. I had enjoyed the trip north; grey skies, but no rain, a clear run. The usual three – PD, Parky and little old me – were joined by PD’s son Scott. This would be his first visit to Manchester, for football or for anything else for that matter. The drive was four hours in length, and we chatted intermittently about all sorts of shite. The game itself was touched upon but only fleetingly. We mentioned that it was likely that Frank Lampard would go for a little more robust midfield three than against other teams; Jorginho, Kovacic, Kante. But other topics of conversation were wide, and wild, and various. This is often the case. I have mentioned before that on match days we often treat the game itself as a discussion topic as if it was the eye of a storm – tranquil, peaceful, calm – while other games are voraciously discussed, with whirlwinds of memories cascading around of past matches and past battles, with the future games discussed at length too, with plans and itineraries debated ad nauseam.

We ordered drinks – three ciders and a diet Coke, no point in guessing which was mine – and studied the varied menu. For some reason that I cannot recall, one of the various “non-football” chats en route to the north-west was of types of food, maybe from our childhood, I can’t remember. I had mentioned steak and kidney pudding – home-made, with suet – and lo-and-behold, a steak and ale pudding was on the menu. PD and I ordered it. Parky chose lasagne. Scott chose ham, eggs and chips.

Is everyone still awake?

The suet pudding was crammed full of steak, the chips were authentic chip-shop style, the garden peas were sweet and juicy, and in typical Northern fashion, everything was set off with thick gravy.

Northerners love gravy.

It was bloody lovely.

Although the City stadium was twenty miles away, and we didn’t think that we would see anyone we knew, after an hour or so Mark from Slough spotted me and came over to sit nearby with two fellow Chelsea mates. I bump into Mark occasionally, but our paths do not cross too often. The most memorable occasion was in China when he was a late addition to the coach trip to the Great Wall of China that I had booked in 2017. Mark, like me, follows his local non-league team. For a few moments we bored the others rigid with stupefyingly dull talk of the two Towns, Frome and Slough, respectively.

After three diet Cokes and a large cappuccino, I was raring to go to the game.

We left there at just after 3.30pm. It was an oh-so familiar drive to the Etihad, and it took us right past the site of Maine Road. Now then, dear reader, I have already detailed two of my three visits to this much-loved old stadium in these reports before so it is appropriate that I complete the story with some notes from the away game in 1985/86.

I am nothing if not consistent.

In fact, on this occasion I am lifting some words straight out of my 1985 diary.

“Caught the 8.32am to Manchester. A pleasant journey through the usual South Cheshire towns. Arrived at Piccadilly at 9.30am. Saw football coaches pull up at the station, so hopped on one. A chap from Stafford had a natter; definitely remember him from the Chelsea vs. Sunderland train. Let inside at 10.30am. A 60p hot dog and up on to the small corner terrace. I suppose we had 2,000, maybe 2,500. A pretty poor turn out really. Chelsea had seats behind the goal. Didn’t see any of the lads. Chelsea began well, causing City’s defence many problems. In about the tenth minute, Speedie flicked the ball to Dixon who, by the penalty spot, calmly lobbed the ball over the ‘keeper. A super little goal really. Chelsea had a good spell, then City put in some long crosses but didn’t cause Eddie much of a problem. The game deteriorated in the last fifteen minutes of the half. I can’t honestly say the second-half improved at all. Only Canoville – on for Hazard – seemed to want to take the play to the home team. We were made to look very plain by a team that were not exactly high on confidence. The highlights were three great blocks by Eddie which saved us from a boring draw. I think he was our best player, always a bad sign. He didn’t put a foot wrong. We were kept in for a while. Spotted our firm waiting to my left as I boarded the bus back to the station. Spotted Winkle. Eventually back to the station for 2pm. A quarter-pounder. Caught the 2.42pm back to Stoke, getting back at 3.45pm. Many flared cords today. Even Chelsea.”

Some notes to add.

I was living in Stoke-on-Trent at the time. Far be it for me to suggest that its location slap-dab between the football “awayday” cities of Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester might have, perhaps, influenced my decision to live there for three years.

My proclivity to record fine detail of train times, and timings in general,  continues to this day. Did I mention I work in logistics?

The early kick-off? Probably, no undoubtedly, a result of our reputation at the time of being Public Enemy Number One, and on the back of the previous visit, in late 1983/84, which resulted in seven thousand Chelsea roaming Moss Side and taking unbelievable liberties.

I travelled alone and did not chat to any close friends. Sometimes it was like that.

Winkle. A young lad, a bit of a face, who was pointed out to me by Alan – probably – and who was in and around the firm at the time. I learned quite recently that he had passed away some time ago; a relatively young death, a heart attack I believe. He is often mentioned on a few chat sites.

Flared cords. After the bright sportswear of 1983/84, it all went a little undercover and muted in 1984/85, and even more so in 1985/86. I have recently seen reference to this period in terrace subculture as the “anti-suss” era. After the skinhead and boots era passed, and as casualdom took hold, it eventually dawned on the police that those lads in smart sportswear with expensive trainers and the wedge cuts were hooligans. Lads needed to divert further. Out came plain pullovers, darker trainers, black leather jackets, darker jeans. Less gregariousness, and still one step ahead of the authorities. In the north-west, and Leeds – always Leeds – this manifested itself in slightly flared cords and jeans, a new trend after tight and faded jeans of the early ‘eighties. In fact, it all looked – hugely ironically – quite mainstream. But the devil was in the details. Heavy Armani pullovers, Hard Core jeans, Aquascutum and Burberry, Berghaus and Boss.

Hot dogs and hamburgers. The fodder of football. Nobody asked for a salad at games in 1985, and nor do they do now.

The gate on that Saturday morning was just 20,104, but this was especially low because – I do not doubt – it was at such an early time. In addition, I have a feeling our allocation was all-ticket, a rarity for those days. That season was eventually won by Liverpool despite Manchester United going on a nine or ten game winning streak at the start. As if it needs stating again, no leagues are won in October nor November. Low gates predominated in our football at this period, a time when football hooliganism had scared many away. Those that went were often treated shamefully. Out of interest, the top ten average gates from that season are featured below.

  1. Manchester United – 46,322 (4)
  2. Liverpool – 35,319 (1)
  3. Everton – 32,388 (2)
  4. Manchester City – 24,229 (15)
  5. Arsenal – 23,813 (7)
  6. Newcastle United – 23,184 (11)
  7. Sheffield Wednesday – 23,101 (5)
  8. Chelsea – 21,986 (6)
  9. West Ham United – 21,289 (3)
  10. Tottenham Hotspur – 20,862 (10)

It always makes me giggle to see that West Ham’s highest ever league placing still resulted in a lower gate than ours.

“Where were you when you were shit?” they ask us.

We should sing this to them :

“Where were you when you were good?”

Enough of 1985/86.

I made my way through the city. The traffic flowed surprisingly well.

I always find it odd that Manchester is often abbreviated to “M’cr” on many road signs.

“T’ls F’rm M’cr” anyone?

I dropped the lads off outside The Etihad at about 4.15pm and then drove on to park up. For the first time ever, my away ticket had failed to materialise and so I had needed to call Chelsea the previous day for a reprint to be arranged. I soon collected it at the away end ticket office. We bumped into others; Deano from Yorkshire, the Bristol lot, Scott and Paul. Everyone excited about the game.

PD and LP were in the middle tier. Scott and I were up in the third tier. This added a little frisson of excitement for me; my first time in the lofty heights of Level Three since the stadium was expanded in 2015. Others were sampling the top tier too, and were equally looking forward to it.

My seat – as if I’d be seated, none of us were – was in row W, but this was only halfway back. The tier goes on forever. But due to the layering of tiers, and the steepness of the rake, the pitch honestly does not seem too distant.

We had heard horrible news from elsewhere; a Tottenham win, a Liverpool win, and my local team Frome Town had let a 2-0 lead in Portsmouth evaporate against Moneyfields, who themselves were down to ten men, conceding an equaliser in the final minute. It is not known how Slough Town did.

Frome at Moneyfields.

Chelsea at Moneyfields.

I’d be more than happy with a 2-2 in Manchester.

The team had been announced. No real, huge, surprises.

Arizzabalaga

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Zouma – Emerson

Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante

Pulisic – Abraham – Willian

Barkley and Pedro are way down in the pecking order now, eh? It is clear that Frank loves Willian. He is enjoying a fine season, again, after an indifferent start.

The night had fallen by kick-off time.

I waited as the minutes ticked by. Scott ascended the stairs after squeezing in a final lager. There were a surprising number of people that I knew settling down alongside me.  I had incorrectly presumed that most ASTs would have been located in the other levels. With no cameras allowed at The Etihad, I was planning to utilise my ‘phone and I therefore knew that my match photographs would be limited to broad panoramas. There was the usual audio visual countdown to kick-off, but how many times can the world hear Martin Tyler scream the word “Aguero!” without feeling slightly jaundiced by it all. Yeah, I know, even if that goal was a kick in the solar plexus for Manchester United and its millions of fans.

I am surprised, actually – knowing how City like to “one step beyond” wind us up – that Frank Lampard’s goal against us in 2014 was not part of the countdown on the TV screens.

Yeah, Frank Lampard at Manchester City.

What the fuck was all that about?

At last, the final minutes. A huge City banner – “125 years” – welcomed the teams onto the pitch. To the side, an equally large banner declaring “This is our city.”

Blue Moon boomed.

As at many stadia, banners covered every inch of balcony wall. I am always bemused by the small flag to the left on the Colin Bell Stand that simply says “Reddish Blues.”

For the geographically-challenged, Reddish is a part of the Manchester conurbation.

In another universe, it might represent a small band of Mancunians who like United and City.

And it would be a very small band, marooned in Reddish for eternity.

Both clubs despise each other alright.

United and City.

Reds and Blues.

Munichs and Bitters.

A City most definitely not united.

A City divided.

I looked over at Frank Lampard, track suited, and wondered if he ever gave his bizarre stint as a City player much thought. Guardiola in the other technical area was casually dressed as always.

City in blue (with an odd hint of purple on the sleeves) shirts, white shorts and white socks. They seem to change that blending every year. I prefer them in the blue socks of my youth.

Chelsea in royal blue shirts, royal blue shorts, royal blue socks out of necessity.

If only City had kept to blue socks.

The game began.

I had mentioned in the pub, or the car, how City often start peppering our goal at The Etihad from the off. And it invariably involves Sergio Aguero. On this occasion, soon into the game, it was Kevin De Bruyne who flashed a low shot from an angle just inches past Kepa’s far post. I looked to the skies, or at least the towering stand roof above my head.

“Here we go again.”

But as the game developed, we showed no cowardice in taking the game to City. The last two league games at the same stadium had produced different game plans, but still the same result.

In 2017/18, Antonio Conte played ultra-defensively, lost 1-0, and lost many friends, despite it almost paying off.

In 2018/19, Maurizio Sarri attempted to play City at their own game and lost 6-0, one of the worst days out of my life, so thank you for that.

In 2019/20, Frank Lampard’s team played with great spirit, good movement, a fast tempo, and for a while it looked like we could pull off a wonderful victory.

A Willian shot from the inside the box in the inside-right channel missed Ederson’s far post by the same margin as the De Bruyne effort a few minutes earlier. Tackle for tackle, pass for pass, punch for punch we were matching them.

I focused on Tammy Abraham for a while. There always seems to be an element of doubt about how successful Tammy will be when he receives a ball. I am never sure of his intentions, and I am not sure if he is either. Did he really mean to keep possession or did he really intend to control it quickly and then distribute it to a team mate? Did he mean that flick? However, one scintillating feint and a quick turn into a sudden patch of space left his marker questioning his career choice. This was just wonderful.

“Well done, Tammy, son.”

Willian was full of intelligent running, sometimes the overlap option and often the underlap option, and saw much of the early ball. Christian Pulisic looked in fine form on the opposing flank. A shot from Fikayo Tomori went close.

A rare City foray into our box was met by not one but four Chelsea defenders lining up to block a goal bound shot. Magnificent.

With twenty minutes or so gone, Mateo Kovacic released a magnificent ball right into the heart of the City defence. It dropped majestically into the path of N’Golo Kante, who touched it on. I felt myself relax, as if I knew a goal was coming. I sensed that he only needed to poke it past a manically exposed Ederson.

He touched it, and it slowly rolled goalwards.

I remained remarkably calm.

Tammy followed it home.

City 0 Chelsea 1.

I was calm no more.

I exploded with noise.

This place has not been a happy hunting ground for us of late. We usually lose. Could we repeat those – magnificent – rare wins in 2013/14 and 2016/17?

Scott hoped so; he had bet £50 on us at 13/2.

City had been quiet all game, and were silent now.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

We looked imperious. City’s defence looked porous. We prodded and teased all over the pitch. This was a great game. I was loving it.

Out of nowhere there was a ridiculous “Fuck Off Mourinho” and I was pleased that very few joined in.

We were playing with skill, speed, purpose and pleasure.

But then.

We lost possession poorly and the ball was quickly threaded through to De Bruyne. A shot from outside the box drew the attention of three or four defenders willing to throw their bodies towards the ball, but on this occasion luck was not with us. A shot was cruelly deflected off a limb and Kepa was beaten.

City 1 Chelsea 1.

Fackinell.

The home team was roused and we gulped as a De Bruyne shot was slashed narrowly over. Just eight minutes after the first goal, Mahrez cut inside – past Pulisic and Emerson, both dumbfounded by the trickery – and we watched as his low shot nestled inside the far post.

The game had been turned on its head.

And now the score line had a sadly typical feel.

City 2 Chelsea 1.

Sigh.

Now City’s fans roared.

“City. Tearing Cockneys apart. Again.”

Our play grew nervous. Kamikaze back-passes, nervy touches. A shocking clearance from Kepa went straight towards that man Aguero – “here we fucking go” – but to our relief (not pleasure, this was not pleasurable) his shot struck the bar full on.

At the break I muttered some usual phrases from the earlier part of this season.

“Naïve defending. We need to know when to clear our lines, we are just inviting them on. Silly mistakes.”

The first quarter of the game, with us playing so well, had seemed like a cruel false dawn, a fib, a lie.

I bumped into some good pals at half-time and their smiles cheered me. It was great to see Dave from Brisbane, over for this and Valencia, again. In the toilets, I involuntarily began smoking for the first time since my schooldays.

Cough, cough, cough, cough.

Sadly, the second-half was a poor shadow of the high-tempo attack and counter-attack of the first period.

N’Golo – a real force of nature in our purple patch – struck at goal down below us but his shot was blocked. It would be our only goal bound effort for ages.

Reece James replaced Emerson, with Dave swapping wings.

“It worked last time, Scott.”

City came close at the other end. We were riding our luck. We found it hard to repel City, who were growing stronger with each passing minute.

Michy Batshuayi for Tammy.

Mason Mount for Jorginho.

A dipping effort from Willian caused a fingertip save from Ederson, but it seemed that we would never score. Mason Mount took responsibility for a very central free-kick in the dying minutes but the effort drifted well wide.

Sigh.

Just after, Raheem Sterling slotted home, but VAR ruled it offside. Nobody in the away end celebrated it, nor should they.

Fuck VAR.

It ended at approaching 7.30pm with our first league loss since the home game with Liverpool.

As I slowly began the slow walk down many flights of stairs, I muttered “no complaints” to many.

And there really were no real complaints.

In the grand scheme of things, we played OK, but no more. At times we were fantastic, at times not so. But City – “Stating The Bleeding Obvious Part 859” – are a very fine team. They are not firing on all cylinders just yet, but when they do…

There were steady 7/10s across the board.

I met the boys outside.

“At least we have pissed off ninety-five billion Liverpool fans this evening.”

We walked along Ashton New Road in the rain, in Raintown, as is so often the case.

Not the glory of 2014 nor 2016 this time.

At 8pm I began the long drive home.

I made good time as I headed south, stopping off at Stafford Services where we feasted on a ridiculous amount of junk food. Jason Cundy was spotted in the adjacent “Costa” though I did not have the energy to say hello.

The rain continued for hours. But I was cocooned in my car. I had no concerns, of the game nor my long drive home. We had seen worse, eh? I eventually arrived back home – no rain, now – at 12.30am, the day’s total mileage hitting 420 miles.

It had been a good day out.

I am not going to Valencia – safe travels to all – so the next instalment will feature the home match with West Ham United.

And I will see some of you there.

Talking of the ‘eighties…

Tales From Wet Watford

Watford vs. Chelsea : 2 November 2019.

…although I did not watch a single second of the game, I soon learned that England Rugby had mirrored Chelsea Football Club in failing to become World Champions in Yokohama.

There. That’s my first rugby reference for a few years out of the way.

This weekend was all about football. It was all about Watford away. This was an early evening kick-off at 5.30pm. This meant that I didn’t really need to leave at the crack of dawn or the crack of anything for that matter. I picked up PD at 11am and then made my way to collect Parky. All evidence suggested a stunning autumnal morning. For a while – over an hour – the fine weather continued. It was one of those mornings that made driving a pleasure. Bright skies, a sky bursting with differing cloud formations, the fields rimmed with various autumnal hues, leaves on the change. A perfect football day. The slip-up against Manchester United during the week had been confined to the past. The immediate future was all about league points, and away points, which we have regularly amassed since the loss at Old Trafford. We were looking for our fifth consecutive away win in the league.

I stopped for a coffee at the halfway point, Reading Services, but then the rain started. It was a horrible reminder of the previous weekend’s drive to Burnley.

Nevertheless, I was parked-up in our usual spot in Watford at just before 2pm. Unlike the mighty seventy-five games against Manchester United, this was only game number nineteen against Watford, and only my seventh away game, all since 2007, at Vicarage Road. I am a late bloomer when it comes to Watford.

As far as I have worked out thus far, the Hertfordshire town does not offer too much to the football visitor aside from the ridiculously well stocked High Street; many bars and restaurants, cafes and nightclubs sit cheek-by-jowl on this pedestrianised road and we have noted a new shopping centre that has risen at the southern end during our past few visits. We have generally fared well at Vicarage Road but the 4-1 shellacking in 2017/18 still hurts.

Our most famous match at Vicarage Road was – possibly – in 1981/82 (and my match day companion Alan would mention it during the game) when Chelsea supporters were on an away ban yet around three thousand Chelsea showed up, and the local police decided that it would be far wiser to let them all in to the stadium than have them roam around the town centre – pubs closed at three o’clock in those days – for hours on end.

On Tuesday night, it has been decided that Ajax will not be allowed in to Stamford Bridge after previous misbehaviour, but the Watford policy of 1982 will not be followed. We have all been warned to bring along photographic identification with our match ticket prior to entering Stamford Bridge.

They – the Dutch –  shall not enter.

It all seems a bit draconian to me. And with no away fans to stir up some energy and emotion in the stadium, we will probably witness the flattest ever atmosphere for a Champions League home game.

The Watford High Street might well have been crammed with pubs and bars, but we chose our usual hostelry right on the northern boundary. It would be our third visit to “The Horns” and two good friends were waiting for us.

Ollie and Julien, two proud Frenchmen from Normandy, had been in the pub since midday. As soon as I walked in, I welcomed them.

“Bonjour, mes amis.”

They were last with us for a pre-match drink at home to – ironically – Watford last Spring. In fact, the first time that I ever met Ollie, after being Facebook friends for quite a while, was before the Watford away game in 2016/17, just before Antonio Conte got it together with his 3-4-3.

We spent a fine hour and a half in their good company before they had to head off to sort out Julien’s match ticket. We delved back in to Ollie’s personal Chelsea story. I am always pleased to hear from our many overseas’ supporters about their individual journeys. They can be wide and varied. Ollie’s story began in around 1984, listening in to our football on the old Radio Two in his home village in Northern France. He was drawn in with talk of the atmosphere in and around our games, but also he hinted that the rowdier nature of our support beguiled him, as it did many at that time.

I agreed.

“There was an edge to football. It made for a raw atmosphere. But it was also pretty scary at times.”

Olllie’s first Chelsea match was at home to Sheffield Wednesday in August 1989. He just loves the club. And he has some fine credentials. He comes over three or four times every year. He is a familiar passenger on the crossings between Dieppe and Newhaven. We listened intently as he spoke of his deep passion for our club.

I joked with him.

“You are our most famous French fan.”

Tattoos were shown. PD and LP joined in.

Shirts were taken off.

I stepped nervously from one foot to the other.

“OK. Moving on.”

Regardless, it was magical to hear of his Chelsea past.

Conversely, any journey that begins “I started playing as Chelsea on FIFA” is not so well received.

Outside the weather had deteriorated significantly. We watched aghast as new customers entered the busy pub with their outer layers completely drenched. On the twenty-minute walk to Vicarage Road, past pubs teeming with people, we were drenched too. It was as bleak an afternoon that I can remember.

At about 4.45pm we met up with friends from Yeovil and PD’s match ticket was sorted. There were ridiculous rumours floating around about Aston Villa beating Liverpool at home and Southampton winning at Manchester City. Sadly, these games ended up being won by the usual suspects. At least Arsenal dropped points at home to Wolves.

We were inside Vicarage Road good and early for a change. In the same way that it had not seemed possible that it had been ten full months that I had sat at the bar in “The Horns” – on Boxing Day 2018, hanging my coat on the “fighting octopus” beneath the bar, supping a lager – neither did it seem wholly believable that it was ten months that we had all last visited this now familiar away stadium, these same seats too, more or less. It seemed closer, maybe a few months back, not almost a whole year ago. All of these games, these away games, getting joined up – dot to dot – and I wondered how long all of these dots would continue to be joined. If Watford didn’t buck their ideas up, this sequence might not be continued next season.

Out in the ridiculously packed concourse at the top of the away seats, four fans were singing a previously unheard of song that referenced – painfully – David Luiz, Fikayo Tomori and the size of the latter’s manhood.

Good grief.

Thank heavens I never heard it during the game.

The minutes ticked by. Familiar faces everywhere.

“Z Cars” played on the PA, but it seemed out of place. Everton, yes. Watford, no.

The rain was still lashing down as the teams emerged from the Elton John Stand. There were considerable numbers of unoccupied seats in all home areas. As this was the nearest Watford home game to Remembrance Day, we observed a minute of silent appreciation, all players with their arms linked.

I bowed my head.

Sadly, some late arrivals in the away concourse needed to be “shushed.”

Our team lined up as below –

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic – Mount

Pulisic – Abraham – Willian

Watford have ditched the yellow and black stripes of last season and now wear yellow and black halves. I like neither.

We began attacking the home end. After just five minutes, we were in rapture. The ball was played back to Jorginho, quite deep, and without so much as a blink of an eye or a break in step, he played a curling, sweeping ball over the heads of a few Watford defenders and – right on the money – in to the path of Tammy Abraham, who was in a dead central location inside the box. Tammy met the ball just before it became within Ben Foster’s reach and he guided it over the Watford ‘keeper and into the now vacated goal. The net rippled. We roared. Tammy raced over to the goal-line in front of the home fans and slid on his knees.

What a bloody pass. What a bloody goal.

The away end roared some more.

The assist from Jorginho, utterly perfect in strength and trajectory, was the pass of the season thus far. And it was warmly appreciated by all. In the Norwich match report, I noted how our passes into the final third were much more varied than the claustrophobic monotony of last season. Here was proof. A ball swung in from deep, the defenders unable to cope, a striker waiting to pounce.

Boom.

It was some goal.

“Oh Tammy, Tammy. Tammy, Tammy, Tammy, Tammy Abraham.”

So, we were 1-0 up early on. Before the game, I had joked with a few mates how we were likely to be treated to another 4-1 or 4-2 away day goal fest. We dominated possession, but on the rare instances that Watford summoned up enough courage to attack us our defence looked in control. In fact, at times our defence looked too calm. I know we like to smother the ball and pass it out, but sometimes our tendency for Kepa, especially, to play balls to defenders who have opponents breathing the same air as them is inviting trouble. Sometimes an agricultural “hoof” up field is quite acceptable.

It really is.

I turned to Alan :

“This new rule about goal kicks being allowed to be played to defenders inside our box. It doesn’t mean that they have to every single time.”

There was a rare Watford poke at goal which was easily saved by Kepa.

Still the rain came down.

“Jorginho. Jorginho. Jorginho, Jorginho, Jorginho.”

Watford are not known for their support and I noted that I had not heard a single shout from their fans all game. Watford are such an inoffensive club. They are the chicken korma of the Premier League.  I waited and waited for a song from them.

I love to see Mason Mount running at defenders – he is so natural – and one such run resulted in a shot on goal. From the block, Tammy pestered the Watford goalkeeper but Foster saved well again. From a corner, a fine leap from Christian Pulisic forced a very fine acrobatic save from a back-peddling Foster.

All this before twenty minutes.

We were loving it.

Out of nowhere came a loud chant from within the travelling two thousand supporters in support of Gianluca Vialli, who is battling cancer. We all joined in.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

He was, of course, manager at Watford for a while after he left us in 2000.

Just in front of us, down towards the corner flag, there was a ridiculous few seconds of showboating between Kovacic and Jorginho. The ball was kept alive with a tantalising medley of flicks and kicks. It paid off, but I had to wonder if that sort of stuff should best be saved for when we are 4-0 or 5-0 up. Regardless, we got away with it.

There was another rare Watford attack, and a low shot from Gerard Deulofeu that whizzed past the far post. In truth, Kepa had been rarely tested.

We watched as Mount wriggled in from the left-wing, hopscotched past challenges, and then whacked a fine shot at goal. But the resolute Watford goalkeeper thwarted us once more, leaping high and touching the goal bound shot onto the bar. He had been, undoubtedly, our first-half nemesis.

I wished that Foster had fucked off to Gloucester in this shower of rain.

Reaching my seat at the end of the interval, I spotted Ollie and he came over to join us in row HH for twenty minutes or so.

Still the rain fell.

Deulofeu ran at our defence early in the second-half and he rolled the ball square to Andre Gray but a brave block by Kurt Zouma – no longer the nervous wretch of the first few games of the season – came to the rescue.

As the game developed along similar lines as the first-half, it seemed that Mateo Kovacic was everywhere; twisting and turning out of trouble, striding confidently with the ball, allowing others to move before passing to their feet. The away crowd soon rewarded this very fine masterclass in midfield dominance.

“Kovacic. In the middle of our pitch.”

Willian burst through the midfield and set up Mount with a perfect pass. Doctor Foster clinically removed the threat with yet another fine save.

Just after, a very similar run from Willian in the same area and the ball was dispatched out to Tammy right in front of us. His low cross into the six-yard box was prodded home by Pulisic. It was another lovely move. Tammy waited for his team mates to celebrate with him. I was pretty lucky to be able to snap away as the players swarmed a mere thirty-feet or so away.

“Ole, ole, ole, ole – Chelsea, Chelsea.”

Lovely.

Fun and games in the way end were then abruptly halted.

“USA. USA. USA. USA.”

No. Just no.

Kovacic, in the middle of his pitch, dribbled forward and set up Pulisic. Another great stop from Foster. We were attacking at will now, with Kovacic himself and then Tammy – twice – going close.

I was still – honestly – waiting for the first Watford chant of the day, as indeed were many more in our support.

“Watford – give us a song. Watford, Watford – give us a song.”

(a quick reality check. I am a fifty-four-year-old man detailing how one set of football supporters were goading another set of football fans into singing support of their team. Is this a reasonable thing to do? All a bit childish, innit? Yep. Guilty.)

With a quarter of an hour to go, how we all wished that Kovacic or Jorginho had “hoofed” the ball away, but instead the “to me, to you” nonsense inside the Chelsea box resulted in a challenge between Jorginho and Deulofeu.

The referee firstly seemed to signal a goal-kick.

Then, a delay.

Then, VAR.

Then, a delay.

It is of my opinion that there should be a twenty-second-time limit on VAR decisions. If nothing can be decided within twenty seconds, nothing is clear, therefore the original decision stands.

We waited.

And waited.

A cure for cancer was found, Parky bought a round, Brexit negotiations reached a conclusion, World poverty was no more, oil companies acknowledged climate change, Lenny Henry was funny again, Israelis and Palestinians signed a peace-pact, Donald Trump said something insightful and Tottenham won a trophy.

Then, a penalty.

A replay – just once – of the “challenge” was shown on the TV screen in the stadium.

The Chelsea crowd were incandescent.

“FUCK VAR. FUCK VAR. FUCK VAR, FUCK VAR, FUCK VAR.”

(a quick reality check…I am a fifty-four-year-old man…is this a reasonable thing to do? All a bit childish, innit? Yep. Guilty.)

Deulofeu rolled it home.

Game…as they say…on.

Despite this lifeline, many Watford fans decided to join those that had already left at 0-2.

Morons.

There was an instance, not long after the Watford goal, when some – many – in our section were shouting for VAR after a decision went against us.

For.

Fuck.

Sake.

The world is full of fucking idiots.

Michy Batshuayi came on for Tammy with two minutes to go, and spun himself in to space, but was thwarted.

Deep in injury-time, a free-kick to Watford was awarded around thirty-five yards out. Foster joined the attackers inside the box. Our nerves were being tested. I was tempted to use my sports-mode setting on my camera, but – always so superstitious – I remembered the United goal last Wednesday.

“Nah.”

The ball was sent in. The ball was flicked on. It found a Watford head – Foster, it had to be him – and the ball was, in my mind, goal bound.

We had fucked it up.

But no. We saw the jade green of Kepa lunge to the left and the ball was spooned away.

Phew.

With that, the referee blew the final whistle.

We had consolidated our place in the top four on top of a pretty pleasing performance.

And then we witnessed one of the highlights of the day. The players came over to thank us for our support and there were smiles aplenty. But all eyes were on Frank Lampard. He walked over, sedately at first, but with each photograph that I took, his emotions took over.

He smiled, he clapped, his eyes twinkled, his smile grew wider, his face was one of pride and joy.

It was – I’ll be honest – quite wonderful.

How good did this all feel?

It felt Franktastic.

NB : No trophies were won by Tottenham.

Tales From Level One And Level Eight

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 6 October 2019.

By a rather strange twist of fate in the odd world of the scheduling of football matches, the two teams to which I am most emotionally tied were playing within six miles of each other on the same weekend and just twenty-three hours apart.

Frome Town of the BetVictor Southern League Division South were at AFC Totton at 3pm on Saturday 5 October.

Chelsea of the Premier League were at Southampton at 2pm on Sunday 6 October.

These two divisions represent levels one and eight of England’s football pyramid.

Premier League, Championship, Division One, Division Two, National League, National League South, Southern League Premier South, Southern League Division One South.

As the weekend approached, the lure of seeing two football games became increasingly tempting. With a little more planning, I could have – at a push – stayed over in Southampton on the Saturday night, but that would have meant that I would have been unable to have a pre-match beer before the Chelsea game as I would need to drive home under my own steam. My pal Glenn had volunteered himself for driving duties for that game. It would mean a rare chance for a few pints before a game for me. That was too tempting to resist. Going in to Saturday, I carried out a few chores and soon decided that a trip south to Totton was too tempting to resist too.

So, a bit of a first here. I know that I have briefly touched upon the exploits of my local team on this site on several occasions (Frome Town were, after all, the first team that I ever saw live, in September 1970), but due to a couple of reasons that will become self-evident, I will include a little match report here.

This would be my fourth Frome Town game of 2019/20. There was an entertaining 1-1 draw with Evesham, a good 3-1 win against Barnstaple, but a poor 1-2 defeat against Slimbridge. All of these games were at home. The three crowds averaged around 220. Frome had enjoyed a fine start to the season, but had weakened recently. “Dodge” – as in Dodge City, our little nickname for this once wild town of The West – were still in third place. The game at AFC Totton, on the western edge of Southampton, would be my first Frome Town away game of the season. It’s only an hour and a quarter’s drive from Frome; straight down the A36, through Salisbury, easy. I was parked-up at 2.15pm ahead of the 3pm kick-off. It was £9 to enter. Their stadium has an impressive stand on one side, where I took a seat, a low cover opposite and open-air enclosures behind both goals. I soon spotted club crests for both AFC Totton and Southampton Football Club on the gate leading onto the pitch. AFC Totton occasionally hosts Southampton youth team fixtures. There is the tie-up. The pitch was exceptional in fact. I spotted a couple of Saints shirts during the afternoon.

Frome Town raced into a two-nil lead with goals from Rex Mannings and Joe O’Loughlin in the first quarter of an hour. Our play was quick and incisive. Just as I texted a mate back home to say “it’s all us”, we let in two quick goals. The second effort was superb; the nippy right winger cut in, Robben-esque, and dipped a magnificent curler high into the far corner. I was right behind the flight of the ball. I stood up to applaud. It was sensational.

The little band of fifteen Frome Town supporters changed ends at half-time. I chatted to a mate who I often see at Frome; Jamie is an exiled Arbroath fan, now fully behind Frome Town. We both explained how we would much rather watch Frome Town live rather than Premier League or international games on TV.

In the second-half, it was a lot scrappier, but the home ‘keeper was sent-off for handball outside the box. A central defender went between the sticks. Jon Davies smacked the resultant kick against the wall but was on hand to rifle home the rebound. With a 3-2 win, Frome rose to second in the table behind local rivals Paulton Rovers. The gate was 248, a common amount for this level. At the end of the game, all Frome players walked over to clap the travelling band of supporters, a good half of which I know, and shook hands with every single one of them.

Lovely stuff.

So, there you have it. Frome Town. Level Eight.

Who knows, one day when I feel the need, I might even set up a Frome Town website of my own. I could call it “Well Dodgey.”

People always remember when Mork and Mindy first appeared on TV in an edition of “Happy Days”. Followers of Frome Town – of which I know that there are a few in the US, lured in by my love of both Chelsea and Dodge – might look back and remember it gracing this website first.

Nanu fucking nanu.

Well Dodgey

On the Sunday, Glenn collected me at 8.45am. Well, he actually showed up a whole hour early – he got his times mixed-up – and we soon collected PD, PD’s son Scott, and Scott’s mate Dan, who featured in the League Cup Final tale from last season. In another report recently, I noted the sad demise of my local village team – Mells & Vobster United – but I am pleased to report that it has risen like a phoenix from the ashes to stake a place in the Mid-Somerset League Division Three. I can’t even begin to fathom at what level in the pyramid this represents. But this pleased me. My grandfather played for Mells & Vobster in the 1920’s. I made my debut for the reserves aged thirteen in 1978 and played a few more games in the ‘eighties. Dan is on the committee too. It’s all good stuff.

Another little quirk of fate. Dan is soon moving into a bungalow in Frome which is currently owned by a Chelsea couple – Dave and Karen, erstwhile match day travel companions of The Chuckle Brothers – and which was originally built by my grandfather’s brother Jack before he emigrated to Australia, whose grandson Paul I met out on tour with Chelsea on the Gold Coast last summer.

“Chelsea World Is A Very Small World” – Part 862.

Sadly, this particular Chelsea Away Day was soon hit with a problem. Skirting Salisbury, Glenn’s Chuckle Bus lost power and we stopped as he checked a few things. He turned the ignition again, but there was a puff of blue from the exhaust, and just like Tottenham Hotspur’s claim to be a top-ranking club, our journey went up in smoke.

Glenn had no choice but to dial for roadside assistance. The four of us took a cab into Salisbury and nimbly caught the 1013 train to Southampton Central. We then enjoyed our usual Southampton pre-match routine of a Full English and a few pints of “Peroni.” Sadly, Glenn was unable to report a quick fix and was on his way home on the back of a recovery vehicle. At least we soon sold his match ticket to a fellow fan.

The time soon passed. We caught a cab up to the stadium; PD has just had an operation on his leg, just like Parky – the missing warrior – and so he can’t walk too far. On the walk towards the stadium, we passed through a little tunnel which is bedecked in Southampton images and features their current marketing battle cry of “WE MARCH ON.”

In the darkened concourse under the away seats, I squirmed as I heard more than a few – youngsters, to my ears – singing the “Y” word to “The Famous Tottenham Hotspur.”

Twats.

We were inside with about fifteen minutes to spare. The usual seats, low down, row five, sunglasses on, the sun occasionally hot.

Outside And Inside

The team?

We were back to a 4/3/3.

I do like how Frank can mix it around. The big news was that our Callum was starting for the first time this season. And Jorginho was still anchoring.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Zouma – Tomori – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Mount

Hudson-Odoi – Abraham – Willian

I was stood alongside PD, Alan and Gary.

“We don’t often lose down here, Gal.”

We were the first team to play at this stadium in 2001 – a win – and, after ten subsequent league visits, we had lost just once in the league, a terribly weak capitulation under Rafa Benitez – who? – in 2012/13.

I had seen all of eleven games at St. Mary’s. It’s an easy away game for me, after all.

The flags waved – “WE MARCH ON” – and the jets of flame burst into the air in front of both main stands. We were last at St. Mary’s almost a year to the day ago; Sunday 7 October 2018. This was remembered by myself as a fine Chelsea performance, a 3-0 win, almost a high-point under Sarri. Ross Barkley and Eden Hazard were on fire. Even Alvaro Morata – who? – scored. Another repeat performance please.

Flags And Flames

The Chelsea choir were in good voice as the match began, and Chelsea – in all blue – were defending the goal in front of the 3,000 loyalists.

In the first few minutes, the home team looked eager. In fact, from the kick-off taken by Tammy, we lost possession and failed to stop a move developing. A rasper from Nathan Redmond flew narrowly over Kepa’s bar. Our game slowly improved. Marcos Alonso was often involved in setting up attacks, and we started to look capable of breaking into some areas that would hurt the home team. A low shot from distance from our Tammy, set up by our Callum, was easily saved by the Saints’ ‘keeper Angus Gunn.

With a quarter of an hour played, Callum spotted a burst from Tammy and played a lofted ball into the inside-left channel. The ‘keeper raced out to the edge of the box, but there was no AFC Totton style handball. Instead, Tammy lobbed the ball high – ridiculously high – into the air and over the ‘keeper and we then watched as the ball dropped right on the line. It had been up in the air so long that Tammy was able to sprint forward and watch from very close range as a Saints defender Maya Yoshida tried to hook the ball clear.

Was it a goal?

To me, it looked like it.

Tammy celebrated, a good sign.

No loathsome VAR required this time. Goal line technology to the rescue. A quick decision. A quick roar from the Chelsea faithful.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

I caught Tammy’s leap of gleeful celebration if not the goal.

Off to a good start, lovely stuff. The mood in the Northam Stand improved further.

There was the latest, of many, versions of the “Tottenham get battered song.”

In Baku, it started out as this :

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor.

Lyon and to Rome.

Tottenham’s got battered.

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

This season, the complexities were ignored and it soon became :

“Tottenham gets battered.

Everywhere they go.

Tottenham gets battered

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

It now seems to be this :

“Tottenham got battered 7-2 at home.

Tottenham got battered 7-2 at home,

7-2 at home”

We also aired Callum’s “Buffalo Soldier” song – with full intro, which not all of us know – and this soon morphed into “The Banana Splits.”

It’s all a bit messy.

“We’ve won it all” was – falsely – sung too.

As a few of us have mentioned, let’s win the World Club Championships before we can even think of singing that. And even then, it seems a pretty loathsome chant.

On twenty-four minutes, we engineered a great move again in the inside-left channel. We put the home team under pressure, and some slick passing from Jorginho and Willian found Mason Mount, who coolly slotted home. His celebration was caught on camera too. His hands were cupped over his ears; our Portsmouth-born pup was enjoying this. Two more efforts from Mount – one just over, one screwed well wide – were evidence of our upper hand.

But poor defensive play on the half-hour mark set us back. From a throw-in on our left, Yan Valery set off on a solo dribble past what seemed like – and was – half of our team. It was awful defending.

“After you, Claude.”

His astute low cross was prodded in by Danny Ings.

Fackinell.

“No clean sheet this week, either.”

The dangerous Redmond was put through but his shot hit the side-netting at Kepa’s near post. Thankfully, with forty-minutes played, Alonso found himself in acres of space on the left. He found Willian, who found Kante. I begged him to hit it to Gunn’s left, where I could see space. His shot hit a defender, and wickedly deflected to where I had originally hoped.

We were 3-1 up.

GET IN.

I captured the celebrations in the haze of the shadows at the Chapel Stand end.

Thankfully, Jorginho was able to clear a goal-bound shot on the edge of the six-yard box when Fikayo Tomori gifted the ball to Ings.

“Jorginho, Jorginho, Jorginho.”

His rebirth has been amazing. It shows, I think, how fickle us football supporters can be.

Egg on faces for some who chose to lampoon him last season? Sure.

It had been an open and eventful half of football. Surely there would be other goals? Pre-match, I had predicted a 3-0 win for us. I was hopeful for further efforts and chances. At times our expansive and high-energy football was a joy. It was a beautiful antidote to the over-passing under Sarri. It was so enjoyable.

The second-half began, with Chelsea attacking the away section. Our noise was good all game long. The home fans only really got behind their team when they scored. It was to be a poor showing from them.

A Braziliant run from deep from Willian was the first notable show of skill in the second period. His burst through the middle, eating up ground voraciously, was followed by a well-aimed pass to Callum, whose low shot across Gunn was deflected wide after a leg was flung out at the last minute.

There was a Southampton free-kick from James Ward-Prowse which failed to trouble Kepa. A rare shot from Yoshida was easily saved.

“His only save this half, PD.”

We were well in control of this game despite the quality of the first-half.

On eighty-minutes, some substitutions.

Mateo Kovacic for Mason Mount, who had run his royal blue socks off all game.

Christian Pulisic for Callum Hudson-Odoi, who had been a lively threat when we were purring.

With six minutes remaining, Michy Batshuayi replaced Tammy Abraham, who had enjoyed another sensational outing.

Eight goals this season.

Beautiful.

As the Chelsea hordes changed from singing “Is There A Fire Drill?” – tedious – to “Oh When The Saints Go Marching Out” – much better – we kept attacking as the home team tired.

“One Man Went To Mow” boomed around the away section as a fine move developed. Alonso kept the ball well on the far touchline. The song reached its conclusion.

“Ten men, nine men, eight me, seven men, six men, five me, four men, three me, two men, one man.”

To Jorginho. He waited for movement. A pass to Michy.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

Michy to Pulisic. A superb give and go. Michy in behind. A sublime touch from Pulisic. Michy in space.

A low shot through Gunn’s legs.

GET IN.

More celebrations, this time right in front of us.

Celebrations

AFC Totton 2 Frome Town 3

Southampton 1 Chelsea 4

A perfect double.

PD is never Willian’s biggest fan, but even he admitted that he had been exceptional all game.

“Man of the match for me, P-Diddy.”

Prince Willian

The whistle soon blew and we all waited for the players and management team to walk down towards us. More photographs. This was, I think, the most enjoyable part of the entire day, the entire weekend. Just as Frome Town’s players had joined in with the celebrations at the end of Saturday’s match, here were the rank and file of Chelsea Football Club joining forces to completely revel in the moment.

Frank’s hugs with his players and his smiles towards us?

Priceless.

We loudly serenaded our beloved manager.

“Super Frankie Lampard” and it felt good, it felt very good.

Frank and Friends

We left the stadium with a bounce in our step.

This was a fine win.

The day continued its take on “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” with another cab to the station, another train to Westbury, a car to Frome and the second van of the day to Mells.

It had been a very fine weekend.

We are sitting pretty in the league, we are in the mix in the Champions League, we play the worst Manchester United side that I can remember for a long time at home in the League Cup, Tammy is among the goals, the youngsters are the talk of the town, Frank is the gaffer and we are one.

Next up, Newcastle United at home in a fortnight.

I will see you there.

Tales From Our Chelsea

Chelsea vs. Brighton And Hove Albion : 28 September 2019.

The Saturday afternoon encounter with Brighton was our third home game of the week and our fourth consecutive home match. When did that last happen? I am struggling to remember.

Glenn, PD and little old me were seated in our favourite corner of our favourite Chelsea pub. We first walked in to “The Eight Bells” down in deepest Fulham almost a complete year earlier; it was the starting point of our “SW6 Pub Crawl” before the Liverpool game on Saturday 29 September 2018. And we immediately fell in love with it, as have many.

In the previous week or so, I had been in contact with my friend Mac, who spends half his life in England and half his life in the Czech Republic, or Czechia as it likes to be called these days, and he was planning to meet us at some stage. While we waited, some other friends and acquaintances had decided to visit the cosy boozer too. First, Alex and Pat – Stafford and London – and a few of their mates arrived. Then, Mark – now living in Zoetermeer in The Netherlands – and Kelly – High Wycombe – arrived and sat down beside us for a chat. Seeing Mark always evokes a special memory for Glenn and I. We first met Mark on the last U-bahn train back into the centre of Munich on that special night in 2012. Gary, mentioned in dispatches in the Grimsby Town report – from Perth in Australia –  joined us, and soon launched into a plate of bangers and mash. At some stage in the proceedings, Brian – Northampton – sat close by too. It was a real gathering of the clans. There had been plans to meet up with Dale – Chicago – and Ollie – Normandy – but they never made it.

At about 11.30am or so, Mac burst into the pub.

“The Seagulls have landed.”

Yes, dear reader, Mac is a Brighton supporter. I have already detailed how Mac and I became friends in these match reports, but a brief summary.

May 2013, “Foley’s”, West 33 Street, Manhattan. I was in New York for the Manchester City friendly, and Brighton had just lost to Crystal Palace in the play-offs. It was me hearing Mac talking about those games that initiated a reaction from me – partial smile, partial grimace – which in turn lead to this from his then girlfriend.

“You’re not Palace, are you?”

“Chelsea.”

We immediately clicked. Two football-mad blokes in a foreign city. Sometimes distance from England makes the memories of the game and the impact of the game on our lives stronger, clearer, more profound. Or was that just the beer? Regardless, we just loved chatting about the game and we shared some laughs.

It was lovely to see him again; the last time was before our game in December 2017 in “The Goose.” Mac was with some fellow Brighton followers Gary and Barry, and a couple more of his friends joined later.

While I chatted to the three Brighton supporters, Glenn and PD were chatting away to Mark and Kelly and at times they were making so much noise that I had trouble concentrating. The cosy corner was becoming our very own Chuckle Land.

Good times.

We did our usual flit along to the “King’s Arms” and spotted a fair few Brighton fans drinking in this much larger pub. The Sheffield United vs. Liverpool game was on TV. Despite a screen only ten feet away, we gave it scant attention. But we certainly howled when the Blades’ ‘keeper let a shot slither through his legs to give Liverpool a late win. We talked football, we talked about VAR, we spoke about the good old bad old days. We made plans to meet up in Lewes ahead of the return game on New Year’s Day in deepest Sussex.

It was soon time to head off to Stamford Bridge. We hopped on the northbound District Line at Putney Bridge and soon alighted at good old Fulham Broadway. For the fourth time in just twelve days, I was home.

After the odd, and obviously embarrassing, appearance of the Eden Hazard banner at the Liverpool game, it was reassuring to see the correct Frank Lampard one being carried over the heads of those down below us in the lower tier.

It was neither warm nor cold, neither overcast nor sunny. There were three thousand away fans at The Shed End. We had heard that, sadly, N’Golo Kante was out for us.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Tomori – Alonso

Jorginho – Barkley

Willian – Pedro – Mount

Abraham

No huge thoughts about the line-up. In Frank We Trust and all that. But I was a little surprised that Ross Barkley started again. It is interesting how Mason Mount has been played in a wide berth this season; I expected him to join the log-jam in the centre. Maybe Frank rates him that highly that he needs to shoe-horn him into the starting eleven regardless. No problems with Fikayo Tomori starting. He has really impressed of late. I can hardly remember any serious errors at all. More of the same please.

The game began. The away team were in all black, the default colour for alternate kits these days in the same way that yellow shirts seemed to be de rigueur in the ‘seventies.

In the pub beforehand, Mac was rather effusive about Graham Potter, the new Albion manager, and his new way of playing, which seems to be a lot more attack-minded and entertaining than that of Chris Houghton. So, the three of us that had been privy to these comments expected that the away team might have a go at us. In the first-half, for starters, how wrong we were. The first period was totally dominated by ourselves. Brighton rarely entered our half. However, despite all of our possession, at half-time the mood among the home sections was of quiet frustration.

In the first part of the game, there were shots from Jorginho, Abraham and Willian. Typically, a couple of these were blocked. On a quarter of an hour, a sweet cross from Mason Mount was met by Tammy Abraham, but the effort touched the goal frame and the chance was gone.

As Brighton began to be more adventurous, I really enjoyed seeing Mason Mount make an energetic burst down below me in the corner when he spotted that a Brighton player had miss-controlled slightly. He immediately sniffed out the chance to make a challenge, a tackle, and we applauded him as he won a throw-in. The run-down was indicative of his energy and enthusiasm. Some of our more established players please take note.

Neal Maupay caused us the first moment of concern, bursting through the middle, but Kepa read the situation well and ran to block on the edge of his box, using his chest rather than attempting to thwart the attack with his hands.

All of our attempts seemed to be fastidiously blocked. Willian had his usual three or four shots on goal. The best chance came from a cross on the Chelsea left from Marcos Alonso. He carefully picked out Ross Barkley and – cliché coming up – put it on a plate for him. His perfect cross towards the six yard box was met first time by Barkley, but the volley was straight at Brighton ‘keeper Mat Ryan.

The home fans howled in agony.

It was the story of the first-half.

Pedro was set free but fluffed his lines, and Alonso skied another late chance. We had peppered the Brighton goal all half, but the game was scoreless. Throughout the first period, the noise was hardly great, it was hardly average. The away fans provided most of the noise, as per usual. Ross Barkley endured a poor half with little real impact.

As the second-half began, we hoped for better things.

Thankfully, after just five minutes of play, with Chelsea attacking us in the Matthew Harding, defender Adam Webster made a hash of an intended back pass to his ‘keeper. Mount pounced, and Webster clumsily tried to rob our raiding midfielder. The penalty was nailed on.

Surely?

Not these days.

VAR. We waited. Brighton players stood around the referee. The penalty decision was upheld. Shocker.

Annoyingly, some Brighton players still kept chattering away to the referee. Under the circumstances, a quick yellow to the noisiest complainer should have been used. Backchat after VAR? A booking. Bloody good job supporters don’t get yellow cards, though, eh?

Jorginho took the ball, despite Barkley and Pedro being on the pitch.

Is everyone keeping up?

Me neither.

A run, a skip, and the ball was placed into the goal.

Blues 1 Blacks 0.

GET IN.

We kept on the front foot. A fierce effort from Pedro was saved by Ryan, Tammy went close. But then Brighton came to life a little, attacking us in the way that perhaps we had expected from the off. The visitors’ best chance came from an in swinging corner, their first of the entire match, taken from in front of their supporters, and the delivery was headed down by Dan Burn and the ball bounced up onto the Chelsea crossbar.

We sighed a collective “phew.”

Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced Pedro and then there was a Sarri-esque substitution with Mateo Kovacic replacing the under-firing Ross Barkley. Callum began on the Chelsea left, and it was his confident run from a deep run into a central area that allowed a pass towards Willian. The winger, often the subject of much wittering and complaining from some in our midst, advanced before a trademark shimmy to gain a yard of space. His slash past Burn was deflected in at the near post.

Blues 2 Blacks 0.

GET IN.

I looked at one of Willian’s chief detractors in the eye.

Surely the game was safe now? It absolutely felt like it. There was one extra golden chance, when Tammy attempted a subtle dink over the Brighton ‘keeper from inside the penalty box but the chance went begging.

At last a home win, at last a clean sheet, and there was relief from us all. As we made our exit, the sight of Frank Lampard walking on the Stamford Bridge turf and clapping, his arms above his head, was a welcome sight. This is an evolving motif of this season, at Stamford Bridge, and it is a lovely development. A simple act, but it brings so much warmth.

Let’s hope we all have more to cheer, to applaud, in games to come.

There is a positive vibe at Chelsea at the moment. It seems that our Chelsea has been handed back to us on a silver salver.

And it feels good.

Safe travels to all those heading over to Lille for the game on Wednesday.

My next game is on this side of the English Channel, just.

See you at Southampton.

Tales From The Return Of The Blades

Chelsea vs. Sheffield United : 31 August 2019.

Sheffield. My first memories of Sheffield football involved United and not Wednesday. Back in the early ‘seventies when I first became enchanted by football, and all that went with it, it was Sheffield United who were involved in the top flight while their bitter rivals and near neighbours Sheffield Wednesday were playing football in the old Second and Third Divisions.

Names such as Tony Currie, Trevor Hockey and Alan Woodward starred for the Blades in that period. They were a mid-table team and, at times, an entertaining team. In those days, Wednesday – even though they were the bigger of the city’s two clubs, with a few more trophies and a larger stadium – were off the radar for me. Wednesday’s plight mirrored that of Aston Villa who were also loitering in the middle two divisions in that era too.

Although Chelsea played Sheffield United at regular intervals in the ‘seventies, we did not meet throughout the ‘eighties. Instead, Wednesday became one of our biggest rivals in that decade. We met United a few times in the ‘nineties, but our last meeting was in the 2006/7 season.

In all of this time, I have only ever seen them play at Stamford Bridge on three occasions, and there has only ever been one trip for me to Bramall Lane.

The first time that I saw Chelsea play Sheffield United at Stamford Bridge came in season 1991/92 in the fifth round of the FA Cup. I remember that Daryl and I spotted David Lee and Robert Fleck enjoying pre-match pints in “The Stargazey” – alas no more – on the Fulham Road before the game. But don’t worry, they weren’t playing. We won a nondescript game 1-0 with a goal from Bobby Stuart. However, the most memorable part of the entire day took place in a pub in Camden several hours after the game had ended when myself and a couple of college mates, enjoying a quiet pint, noticed an influx of United’s lads – the Blades Business Crew – who were evidently playing cat and mouse with Chelsea and also Sheffield Wednesday who, remarkably, had been playing a league fixture at Highbury that very same day. Thankfully, we managed to sidestep any problems that arose that evening, albeit narrowly. The escapades that took place that night have been well documented elsewhere. It was, evidently, quite an evening.

The most famous Chelsea vs. Sheffield United game of the past three decades, however, was the final match of the 1993/94 season. Chelsea, under Glenn Hoddle, had struggled in the first part of the campaign, adapting to a more expansive and possession based style of football – ring any bells? – but had enjoyed a resurgence after Christmas. We had, monumentally, reached our first FA Cup Final since 1970 too. The home game against Sheffield United was to be our final preparation for the Cup Final. All of our focus was on that game. It was, however, to be the final day of The Shed. We had heard that the club was to demolish the famous old terracing during the summer in preparation for new developments.

I remember travelling up with Glenn, meeting up with Daryl and maybe a couple of others in “The Stargazey” but then deciding at the last minute to get tickets in the East Stand Upper rather than stand on The Shed for the last ever time. I remember that it was raining heavily and there would have been no guarantee of cover in The Shed. So, in one of my most shocking Chelsea decisions ever, I chose not to experience The Shed on its final day. I still shudder at this ludicrous choice twenty-five years on.

“What was I thinking?”

As the North Stand terrace had been demolished around Christmas 1993, the only place left to house the away fans was the East Upper. Lo and behold, Glenn and I found ourselves just a few rows in front of the large and boisterous Sheffield United contingent. The Blades were threatened with relegation, though from memory were unlikely to go down as they were several places above the drop zone. Other teams were in the mix too and it never really dawned on me that relegation would be an option for them. Famously, Everton were right in the mire. Jostein Flo – Tore Andre’s older brother – put the away team 1-0 up and the away fans bellowed “The Blades are staying up.” Jakob Kjeldberg equalised, but Glyn Hodges quickly restored the lead. This was looking good for Sheffield United.

“Now you’re gonna believe us…the Blades are staying up.”

But this was anything but good for us. We had lost 2-1 at home to Coventry City the previous Wednesday evening at Stamford Bridge – in front of a miserable 8,923, maybe everyone was saving their hard-earned for Wembley – and now we were losing to a poor team on the Saturday. It was hardly good preparation for Wembley. Then, miraculously Mark Stein – the season’s unlikely hero – scored in the seventy-fourth minute and again on ninety to give us a dramatic 3-2 victory. Elsewhere none other than Bobby Stuart – or Graham Stuart, now that he had left us – had scored for Everton to give them a late win at home to Wimbledon, and – much to my sadness – we soon realised that Mark Stein’s late winner, a poacher’s goal in front of The Shed, had relegated Sheffield United.

The away fans went deathly quiet.

It was a game that we wanted to win for sure, with Wembley coming up, but it was horrible to witness at close hand the absolute sadness being experienced by the Blades fans. Some younger fans were in tears.

It was the first time that they had been in the bottom three all season.

It was a bizarre experience. And, I’ll be honest, I really felt for them.

Glenn and I sloped away, quiet too.

My pre-match activity for the game in 2019/20 involved more history. I joined up with twelve other Chelsea supporters who had signed up for Rick Glanvill’s historical walk along the Fulham Road. Rick is the official club historian and is heavily involved at Chelsea, having written the official book celebrating our centenary in 2005 – what timing, what a year – and writes for the match programme to this day.

From 11pm to 12.30pm, Rick effortlessly guided us from the Fulham Town Hall to Stamford Bridge – the bridge, not the stadium – and from 1905 (and before) to 2019. It was a thoroughly entertaining ride through our history, with fascinating insights into key moments in our formation and subsequent decades. It’s probably best that I don’t report too much detail of the content and undermine Rick’s further tours, suffice to say that I heartily recommend them to anyone with a passion, like me, for social history, geography, football and a good yarn.

Rick painted a wonderful picture of the area before Chelsea Football Club was formed. And there were whimsical stories about the founding fathers, music hall performers, the club’s first official photographer, music studios, a local lad who became one of the first ball boys and the Moscow Dynamo game in 1945.

It was right up my street, or rather Fulham Road.

One of the same I guess.

I met up with the lads at “Simmons” and it was a real pleasure to see Dave once again. Dave now lives in the South of France with his good lady and their young lad – who, with perfect timing – was born a couple of hours before we won the league at West Brom in 2017. And no, Dave’s son’s name isn’t called Michy.

We last saw Dave on a good old pub crawl around the West End before the debacle against Tottenham at Wembley last season.

It was a joy to see him again.

One of our party was missing however, and it felt odd. Parky was recuperating in a Bath hospital after his hip operation on Thursday. After work on Friday, PD and I had visited him and he was doing well, and in fine form.

This is code for “we couldn’t shut him up.”

With or without Parky, everyone was having a blast. I met up with a few of the usual suspects for the first time of the season in “Simmons” and it felt great. It is a very popular little bar among people I know.

To tie things up nicely with Rick’s pre-game tour, the son of our former chairman Brian Mears was in attendance.

I walked to Stamford Bridge with Dave, and the fifteen-minute journey was riddled with ridiculous laughter.

Good times.

On the forecourt, I tussled with my conscience and for the first time ever, I chose not to buy a home programme. I have tended to only flick through them of late, even though they are a good read, but I have crossed the Rubicon. I gave up buying away ones a good few years ago. I haven’t bought the 2018 FA Cup Final programme, nor the 2019 Europa League programme.

There is only so much space in my house for Chelsea paraphernalia.

Ugh.

Once inside Stamford Bridge, I had a few moments to settle and prepare myself for the game, which until then, had hardly entered my thoughts.

I looked over at the away section and wondered where two supporters were located.

On the Friday, I had received a lovely message from my friend Simon, who is a Sheffield United supporter, and who I have known for over three decades. On my only visit to Bramall Lane in the autumn of 2006, I met up with him at his house and we drove in together. It summed up his take on the current regime, and really brought home how lucky we have been as Chelsea supporters over the last twenty-five years.

“Big match for us tomorrow. Unfortunately, I won’t be there. My brother Chris and nephew Archie will. Either me or Chris need to be around for Mum so it’s difficult for us to go on away trips together. As for the Blades, most fans are in agreement that these last few seasons have been the best ever, certainly in terms of the quality of football and also that Chris Wilder is our greatest ever manager. The season before Wilder was appointed 2015/16 was awful, I remember watching us lose consecutive home games to Bury and Colchester and we finished mid-table League 1. A couple of players from that season are still involved (Billy Sharp and Chris Basham). Before that we had all the Ched Evans stuff, supporters were falling out with each other and it really felt like we’d hit rock bottom. I remember seeing us go down to the old Div 4 in 1981 but this somehow felt much worse. So we’ve come a long way in a short period of time and the pride is back in the club. We’ve made a good start this season and so will be interesting to see how we go tomorrow. Hope you are well Chris and maybe we can meet up at Bramall Lane later on this season.

Best wishes, Simon.”

Since that match in 1994, the two clubs really have enjoyed mixed fortunes, eh?

The place slowly filled up, everyone took their seats. The away team were to be backed by a full three thousand. There weren’t too many away shirts dotted around the away section. I had walked past three Sheffield United fans a couple of hours earlier, each wearing the striped home shirt, looking like they had been refused entry from one pub and were on the search for another. They looked so forlorn. Neutral colours would have at least helped. Some people never learn.

The team was announced and – sadly – N’Golo Kante was missing. No place for Toni Rudiger either, still not match fit. It was a surprise that Tomori started, only his second game for us. Mason Mount was out wide again. Another start for Pulisic. Tammy leading the line.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic

Pulisic – Barkley – Mount

Abraham

I was a little disappointed that Sheffield United didn’t show up in their famous red and white stripes. Instead, they chose all white with red socks. Their most famous kit of all was the admiral one from 1976, with black edging on the red stripes. I mention this as it is a kit that my home village side Mells & Vobster United  – or at least the first team, the team I never quite managed to play for – used to wear in that same period too.

I can still see Alan Ford turning away, arm raised, after scoring a belting free-kick in around 1977 wearing the Sheffield United shirt.

There were a few banners adorning the away section.

One, half out of view – said “Hated, Adored” and I presumed that the part of the banner out of view said “Never Ignored.”

Stolen from Manchester United.

Must do better.

The game began, and the atmosphere was so-so. But we began well, with almost total domination of possession. It wasn’t as good a start as against Leicester City, but it wasn’t bad. A few chances came and went. There was an early repetition of the move which lead to our first goal against Norwich City with Christian Pulisic knocking the ball out to an overlapping Cesar Azpilicueta, but the firm cross evaded both the on-rushing Ross Barkley and Tammy Abraham. On twenty minutes, a very similar move earned dividends. Barkley won the ball, moved it to Pulisic and then it was played to Dave, who was deeper than before. His cross was headed down and towards goal by Tammy, and the Sheffield United ‘keeper Dean Henderson had great difficulty in gathering the ball. Under pressure from Pulisic, he could only knock it straight into the path of our young striker.

Playing for Bristol City a few seasons back, Abraham was known as “Tammy Tap In” and he lived up to his reputation.

Chelsea 1 Sheffield United 0.

GET IN.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Tammy’s celebratory run and slide in front of the away fans was just joyous. It was, of course, his first goal at Stamford Bridge.

Beautiful.

We continued to excel.

Ross Barkley was heavily involved in many of our attacks, ably supported by the passing of Jorginho and the runs into space of Kovacic, but very often Barkley simply moved the ball on rather than played an incisive ball into danger. I thought Mason Mount was quiet, and Pulisic struggled to get involved. Kovacic flashed a firm shot past the far post. Sheffield United themselves had a couple of quarter-chances. A quick turn and cross from Chris Basham almost resulted in a stooping headed goal from Callum Robinson

A meek shot into the wall from Ross Barkley free-kick summed up his half.

One moment frustrated us all. The fall fell to Jorginho, centrally positioned and within sight of the goal. Rather than look to fire an effort in on goal, he lofted a pass over the heads of everyone, including the intended Tammy, and the attack died. I commented to the lads that there just must have been something in Jorginho’s footballing DNA – after years of behaviour-inducing drills – to stop him from shooting.

The away fans were relatively quiet all first-half.

Alan and I spent a few moments chatting about the wonderful Ronnie Barker in “Porridge” and we quoted some pearls.

“What, from here?”

“With these feet?”

“It was a green one.”

“He’s doing rather well.”

On the pitch, we were in command, but drifting a little, hence the brief comedic diversion.

Thankfully, with two minutes to go before the break, Jorginho lofted another high ball towards the box and Tammy pounced after a blunder from two of United’s three centre-backs, and picked up a loose ball. He found space well, picked his spot and although the ‘keeper touched the ball, the pace beat him. It crept in, lovely stuff.

Chelsea 2 Sheffield United 0.

“That’s all Tammy has to do, just keep hitting the corners.”

I captured his run and jump on film too.

“Four goals in three starts – love it.”

And all was well with the world at half-time. Dave came over to join us, we took some photos, happy days indeed.

Sadly, the second-half began awfully, and it brought back shocking memories of last season. With less than a minute played, they moved the ball far too easily down our right flank. Enda Stephens wriggled past a non-existent challenge from Dave, and his pacey low cross was flicked home by Robinson. The away end erupted. They were back in it.

We sighed.

The away fans were now ignited and there was a slight whiff of “A gallon of Magnet”, one of the best football songs ever.

“You fill up my senses
Like a gallon of Magnet.
Like a packet of Woodbines.
Like a good pinch of snuff.
Like a night out in Sheffield.
Like a greasy Chip Butty.
Like Sheffield United,
Come fill me again.”

The sky turned darker, to match the mood, and there was a surreal quality of light as rain fell.

We countered relatively quickly. Some gorgeous control from Dave and an intelligent ball in to the box – the epitome of the word “dink” – resulted in a side-footed stab at goal from Tammy that was clawed away by Henderson, down low, and close to him. It was a brilliant save.

Sadly, this was a very rare attack for us in the second-half. The away team sensed that confidence was seeping out of every pore of our being and grabbed hold of the game. They moved the ball well, and we lacked leadership. We looked a poor team suddenly. A couple of chances were exchanged. On the hour, Barkley was replaced by Willian, and we hoped for a far better performance from the Brazilian than against Leicester City. Mount switched inside, surely a better position for him.

Our attacking play was immediately bolstered by a couple of energetic runs from Willian, but that didn’t last. Sheffield United looked the more likely to score and the atmosphere within the stadium became rather tetchy. A lone chance fell to Kurt Zouma but he headed over from a corner. I can rarely remember a half of football which included so many mis-placed passes from so many different players. It was a shock to the system; a visual clue that confidence was low.

Michy Batshuayi replaced the impressive Kovacic, and Billy Gilmour – surprisingly – replaced Tammy Abraham.

I caught Gilmour’s first touch on his debut; a header.

Our attacks stumbled along though. It wasn’t cohesive. I didn’t like the way sections of the crowd grew noisily restless with every miss-placed pass. Rather than a cheer of encouragement there tended to be noisy swearing.

Not good.

Not good at all.

We know our role this season, don’t we?

Shouldn’t we be supporting the lads a little better?

I think so.

Mount went close with a volley. At The Shed End, a timely block from Tomori and we reacted with our heads in our hands.

Fackinell.

Sadly, sadly, sadly the game ended as we had perhaps feared.

Another raid down our right, another “after you Claude” moment, and another whipped-in cross. I could not discern who managed to get the final touch – it was evidently Kurt Zouma – but the ball flashed high into our goal.

This time, the away fans really exploded.

Bollocks.

Another second-half meltdown had left us all rather shell-shocked. As I made my way out, alongside fellow fans who were pursing lips, shaking heads and muttering, I looked up and saw the away supporters enjoying their moment.

Remembering 1994, I clapped too and whispered “well played Sheffield United.”

There was the usual “Bramber Road to Barons Court Post Mortem” in the car, and we honestly wondered if the two late substitutions were wise, but I then reminded ourselves that Frank Lampard OBE has forgotten more about football than the three of us combined will ever ever know, so we quickly shut the fuck up.

To cheer me a little, I heard that my local team Frome Town had gone top of their division with a fourth win out of four, and to cheer us all up, we had heard that Parky was home from hospital.

It was turning into a good day after all.

Chelsea under Frank Lampard is clearly a work in progress. I am not going to waste any time, effort and words on those in our midst who are unnecessarily negative.

Let’s all move on positively.

I will see some of you at Molineux.

 

Tales From Out East

Norwich City vs. Chelsea : 24 August 2019.

The three-day August Bank Holiday had arrived and it would begin with a lunchtime match at Carrow Road in the Norfolk city of Norwich. This would be our most easterly league match of the domestic season, and – for us in the south west of England – it meant that it would entail a five-hour trek through nine counties. I have driven up and back to Norwich on the same day on a couple of occasions, but those days are gone. As soon as the date of the game was confirmed, my hopeful booking of a Saturday night at a hotel a mere ten minutes’ walk from the ground came to fruition. There was no need to cancel and re-book. We were on our way.

And the three of us – LP, PD and little old me – were well happy. Norwich is a cracking city and we have enjoyed some good times there in recent memory.

I had left the office at 5pm on Friday evening with a skip in my step. We had managed to get through a busy two-week period at work, I was looking forward to the weekend ahead, and on a personal note, I had managed to lose a little more weight. I was the lightest for over three years. I have been a little inspired by a couple of good people among my Chelsea friends who have shed – pardon the pun – many pounds over the past year or so. A few weeks of eating sensibly and eating moderately had paid off and it felt great.

I was in a good place.

On Saturday morning, the alarm sounded at four o’clock. It would be a long day. I collected PD at 5am and Parky soon after. This weekend would be a bittersweet moment for Parky, and indeed for all three of us, since he is going in – at long last – on Thursday for his long-awaited hip operation. He will be in hospital in Bath for a few days, and out of action, football-wise, for five or six games.

So we’ll miss the old bugger, that is for sure.

If there was a lot of traffic on England’s roads on Saturday morning, we didn’t see much of it. Leaving so early, we were ahead of the game. The M4, especially, was super-clear. We stopped for a “Harry Ramsden’s” breakfast on the M11, pretty close to Stansted Airport where a few European adventures have started, and we bumped into four lads from our local area who were breakfasting too. And this was where the diet went off the rails for one day only. These football excursions are notorious for junk food. It is difficult to ask for a salad after a heavy away defeat.

Soul food is sometimes the only answer.

Just to the east of Cambridge there were signs for Babraham and then The Wilbrahams. I wondered if I might see a sign for Abraham. I rolled into the hotel car park in Norwich at about 10.15am. Luckily, we were only a five-minute walk from the “Coach & Horses” pub where we spent a good few hours before the “Peter Osgood Ten Year Anniversary” game in 2016. There were familiar faces in the packed beer garden. Although it was only mid-morning, the heat from the sun was relentless.

Talk turned to the game and the mood was of objective pragmatism.

“I’ll be honest; I’ll take a draw now. This won’t be easy. We just must not lose.”

There were doubts about N’Golo Kante’s fitness. That really would be a huge miss. In the beer garden, Parky met up again with the other lads from Wiltshire that we had seen earlier; Sir Les and Stretch from Melksham, plus two lads from Swindon who I first spotted in Baku and then en route to Dublin at Bristol Airport. PD and I sat with Julie and Tim from Bristol. The beers were going down well, but I was keen to head off to Carrow Road and be there in plenty of time. One of the security staff advised us of the route to the stadium and his accent was a thing to behold.

“Take a right down Stracey Road” seemed to have about twenty syllables and parts of it sounded like a whimpering dog. Norwich, like Bristol, is an urban accent that sounds decidedly rural. But we were on our way.

And it was turning out to be a cracking day in Norfolk.

Inside the stadium, fans were slowly filling up the yellow and green seats. Whoever chose these club colours for the team all those years ago did well. The vast fields which were visible on the roads in to the city, and certainly at this time of year, were painted with these most agricultural of hues and tones. Flags had been arranged on the seats in the home Barclay’s Stand to our right. I prepared myself for a photo opportunity. I reached our seats, just three rows from the front – but row B, work that out – and nodded a few “hellos” to distant acquaintances and shook hands with others. Glenn, watching at a bar in Frome, messaged to say that Pedro had been injured in the warm up and would consequently be subsequently replaced by Ross Barkley.

So here was the team :

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Zouma – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic

Mount – Barkley – Pulisic

Abraham

The kick-off time of 12.30pm approached. The Chelsea section of three thousand filled up. Our usual match day chants reverberated around the whole stadium as the minutes passed. I spotted Danny, originally from nearby Cambridge, but now a long-time resident of Massachusetts, and I called him over for a photo. Thankfully we were all in the shade; those in two of the home stands were going to be baked in the August sun. A special mention for Leigh, who was in the middle of a long weekend break with his loved ones in Bournemouth. On match day, Chelsea came calling and he made the four-hundred and sixty return trip to see us play.

“Top marks.”

With a couple of minutes remaining, the locals waved their colourful flags both sides of a large “Pride of Anglia” banner.

I commented to Gary :

“Bloody hell, they like their replica shirts here, don’t they?”

We were, of course, stood all match.

From the left : Alan, Gary, Parky, me.

Let’s go to work.

Many words have been spoken about our crisp white away shirt this season, but I soon fell in love with the socks; all blue with a simple red and white band. Classy. It reminded me of those blue socks that we sometimes used to wear at certain away games; Tottenham in 1987, when we wore blue / white / blue sprang to mind.

I spotted a few Norwich City fans wearing their jarring red away shirt. It looked horrible and seemed to be completely ill-judged.

Yellow. Green. Red.

No.

We began very brightly. Christian Pulisic had already seen some of the early ball, and when we broke at pace, a nice cross-field ball from Mason Mount fed the American on the right wing. He gathered the ball with ease and spotted the overlap of Cesar Azpilicueta. His long cross fell conveniently at the feet of Tammy Abraham who screwed it low past Tim Krul in the Norwich City goal. It was an excellent move and an excellent goal, and a real antidote to the tedious football of last season. How Tammy celebrated his first Chelsea goal. It was his well-cushioned lay-off in his own half that had released the ball to Mount. It was an exceptional team goal.

“Oh Tammy Tammy. Tammy Tammy Tammy Abraham.”

We roared his name.

Beautiful.

Sadly – and I hope that this is not a phrase that I will be repeating throughout this season – we soon conceded a soft goal. Our lead in fact lasted just three minutes. Norwich wriggled their way through our defence, with Emi Buendia allowed space. The ball was pushed out to Teemu Puuki and his low cross was turned in at the near post by Todd Cantwell, the ball nut-megging Kepa.

Fackinell.

The club anthem “On The Ball City” was bellowed by those to our right and it was quite a sound. Two goals in six minutes, a crackling atmosphere, what next?

We took control. In fact, we played some lovely football. Mount was often involved and it was the young midfielder who received a neat ball from a more central Pulisic, took a touch or two to glide past his defender and his finish, slightly curled, in to the goal was a joy to behold.

The young man was among the goals again and we loved his celebration in front of us all. I hope that I will not tire of the Frank Lampard comparisons as the season develops.

Seventeen minutes had passed, and the home team had rarely touched the ball since their goal. I liked the way that there was a variety in our attacks. Sometimes an overlap from wide and a traditional delivery in to the box. Sometimes some crisp passing on the deck. Sometimes a cross from deep.

From a corner, taken short, Ross Barkley played it way back to Emerson. His deep cross was met by a stooping header from Andreas Christensen, who forced a very fine point blank save from Krul. We were all over them. Shots from Barkley – neat but not overly productive – and Abraham kept the pressure on the home team. A nice run from Kovacic but he could not get his shot away. Jorginho took too many touches before being able to shoot.

There was a chant for Jorginho and hopefully his days as Maurizio Sarri’s poster boy are now forgotten.

We were bossing the game, but on the half-hour the match changed again. Norwich played through us from deep, and our defensive frailties were exposed once again. At the end of a crisp move, the ball was slid through to their main threat Puuki, whose low drive crashed past Kepa.

Ugh.

It was a poor goal to concede, and our young ‘keeper will be upset that his touch was not stronger.

“He needed stronger wrists there, Gal.”

I didn’t like the musical accompaniment to both of the home team’s goals. This is, horribly, standard practice at many stadia these days. Please keep it away from Stamford Bridge. Please let us be trusted to generate our own atmosphere.

Soon after, a quickly taken Norwich free-kick by Buendia resulted in an ugly, but effective, save from Kepa who did well to save the rebound from Grant Hanley. We then returned to our attacking patterns and there were a couple of late chances, including a blocked Pulisic effort after a deep ball from Barkley.

At the break, it was all square. It seemed that the home team had only enjoyed a handful of chances, whereas we had dominated.

Soon into the second period, a fine ball from Jorginho found Pulisic in the inside right channel. He possibly took one too many touches and the angle worked against him. His low shot rippled the side netting. The game drifted a little and I felt that it became a little scrappy. The team were not as dynamic as in the first-half. I hoped for no Leicester-style fade. The sun was still beating down though. There was no air. I was glad that I was watching from the cooler shadows.

We worked a fine opening for Emerson after some crisp and incisive passing, and our impressive Brazilian found himself in the same position as he did against United at Old Trafford. This time, his effort stayed low and Krul easily saved. A shot from Barkley was saved by Krul. Although chances were rarer during this second period, we were still dominating. In a rare Norwich attack, the ever-dangerous Puuki shimmied into space inside our box but hit straight at Kepa. The ‘keeper then released the ball early, rolling it to Barkley. He passed it square to Kovacic who – beautifully – slid the ball in to the path of a central raid from Abraham. He shifted the ball on to his right and hit a low belter past Krul.

I took a photo just after the impact and it is one of those shots where, in the follow through, his whole body is airborne.

Whack.

Oh how we celebrated that, and how Tammy did too. He jumped high and was soon mobbed by his team mates.

The Norwich manager was heard to utter “Farkenell.”

We had our noses in front once again and we were threatening our first league win of the season.

“OH TAMMY TAMMY.”

We did get the ball in the net again, but it looked like a foul on Krul to be honest. Hardly anyone in the Chelsea section celebrated.

It went to VAR.

How tedious.

Two loud chants from the away end.

“FUCK VAR.”

“What the fuck is going on?”

No goal.

A strong run from Godfrey – “do you think I might be excused?” – resulted in a slight scare, and then the same player rattled the Chelsea bar from the resulting corner. In the last action of an entertaining game, Barkley shot from distance but the ball slid past the near post.

At the final whistle, there was a mixture of relief and joy. All eyes were on Tammy. He looked drained but ecstatic. A heady mixture.

It was indeed a day of Wilbrahams, Babrahams and Abrahams after all.

And then the focus was on Frank Lampard, looking neat in a navy polo and track suit, as he hugged his players and slowly strode over to us. We didn’t get this engagement with Sarri last season. In Norwich, here was a really special moment. I used to love the fist-pumping and maniacal stares from Antonio Conte, and this was the Lampard version. His wide smile celebrated our first league win of the season, and his first win as the Chelsea manager.

It was bloody lovely.

We took our time leaving Carrow Road. There were a few pitch side chats. I was impressed with Mason Mount, and all three of our goals were absolute beauties. I think that Mateo Kovacic has been one of our most consistent players and he again played well, breaking up play and grinding away in midfield. There are defensive question marks, but we knew that.

We walked back to the hotel, freshened-up and donned a change of clothes. We took a quick cab up to “The Ribs Of Beef.” This is a cracking pub on the banks of the River Wensum that we visited in 2017/18. It’s a beauty. We got stuck in to some Peronis, and – quite unintentionally, but perfectly – met up with Tim and Julie again, and they became an honorary Chuckle Bother and Chuckle sister for the evening. We happily celebrated a late – late! – winner for Crystal Palace at Old Trafford, and the post-match giggles continued as we devoured some curries at a nearby Indian.

Good times, good people.

It was a blast.

There was a G&T nightcap in the hotel bar, but at just after 10pm – and after being awake for eighteen hours – it was time to call it a night.

I slept well.

Our next game is on Saturday at three o’clock at home to Sheffield United, but – before that – we have the most exciting day of the summer.

The Champions League draw will take place at 5pm next Thursday.

Happy days.