Tales From The Burger Van

Everton vs. Chelsea : 1 May 2022.

Well, that was a bloody long way to go for a curry.

I had always thought that our match at Goodison Park would be a very tough fixture. In fact, leading up to it, I was telling everyone that was interested to know my opinion, and maybe some who weren’t, that I thought that we would lose at Everton. It was set up for it. A notoriously difficult place for us to get results of late, the Frank Lampard thing, an absolutely red-hot atmosphere, the fact that it would be “typical Chelsea”, the entire works. Coming out of Old Trafford on the Thursday, I said to the boys :

“Yeah, we’ve done really well tonight, but it will be much harder at Everton on Sunday.”

Everton harder than Manchester United? An away game against a team in the bottom three would be harder than one chasing a European place?

Oh yeah. Oh definitely.

There was a very early start to my Sunday. The alarm rang at 5am and I picked up PD at 6am and Parky at 6.30am. I planned in a little more slack than usual because, damn it, I was flashed on the way home from Old Trafford on Thursday evening. After years and years of no speeding offences, I was now looking at six points in around four months.

Three after Villa on Boxing Day.

Three – I presumed – after United.

Six points. Ugh. I would need to slow things down for a long time now.

At just after 9am, I navigated my way through the streets of Stafford to make an additional stop. Through my network of mates at Chelsea, an extra ticket in the Chelsea section had become available. It belonged to Alex, a Londoner who I often see in “The Eight Bells” but who has been residing in Stafford for around thirty years. When I heard about the spare, I quickly put two and two together. My pal Burger – aka Glenn – has himself been living in Stafford for almost twelve years since his arrival, with his wife Julie, from Toronto in the summer of 2010. I got to know the two of them on the US tours in 2007 and 2009 and we have become good friends over the years. A couple of texts were exchanged and, yes, Burger was in. I left it to Alex and Burger to sort out the ticket in due course.

I collected passenger number three and immediately called “The Chuckle Bus” an alternative name.

For one day only it was “The Burger Van.”

Lo and behold, there was quite a tale involved in the extra ticket. Burger and Alex had chatted and had arranged to meet up in a local pub. For years I have told Burger about Alex and Alex about Burger.

“You must know him. There can’t be too many Chelsea in Stafford.”

Well, it became apparent that the two of them used to drink – and probably still do – in another Stafford pub. After European aways, Burger would always bring home a friendship scarf from his travels at the behest of the barman. And Alex would always spot that a new scarf had appeared behind the bar and would ask the barman where it came from.

“Oh, from that bloke I told you about. You sure you don’t know him?”

They must have missed each other drinking in that pub on many occasions. They were like shadows haunting the pubs of Stafford. They even lived in the same area for a while. And all along, I had pestered both of them with tales of each other’s existence. Well, at last they had met, and I took a little pride that it had eventually been through me. They were only going to meet up to pass over the ticket over a single drink but they stayed for four.

Proper Chelsea.

On the drive north, we chatted how you never see club colours on show in cars on match days – or any other days for that matter – in England anymore. Tensions have generally cooled since the mad old days and yet you don’t even see a mini-kit on display. Those were all the rage thirty years ago. On this trip, covering almost five hours, I didn’t see one Chelsea nor Everton favour.

PD : “My old car used to be a shrine. By the rear window. Scarves. Cushions. Rosettes.”

It’s an odd one alright.

I was parked up in Stanley Park at around 10.30am with memories of the last league game of 2010/11 at Goodison when I had travelled up with Parky, Burger and Julie. That ended terribly, with Carlo Ancelotti getting the “Spanish fiddler” in the tunnel after the game. I wonder whatever happened to him?

While the three of them headed off to “The Thomas Frost” I began a little wander of my own. My friend Chris – the brother of Chelsea fan Tommie – is an Evertonian from North Wales who now lives near Newcastle. We had been talking about meeting up for a pint before the game in a pub called “St. Hilda’s” which is just a couple of hundred yards from “Thomas Frost”. Chris – and Tommie – gave me invaluable advice for my Buenos Aires trip in early 2020, and we owed each other a meet up. During the week, it dawned on me that this could be my last ever visit to Goodison Park, what with the threat of relegation and a new stadium by the river, and so I was determined to wring every ounce of football out of it. I asked Chris if the church that abuts the ground, St. Luke the Evangelist, was open on match days. I was told that the church hall next to it has an upstairs room devoted to Everton memorabilia. That would be perfect. I even had a working title for the blog worked out.

“Tales From St. Luke’s, St, Hilda’s And The School Of Science.”

The trouble was that Chris was currently waylaid on his cross-Pennine trek, courtesy of inefficiencies of the British rail network. Not to worry, I walked along Goodison Road, underneath the towering blue of the main stand, a path that my dear father may well have chosen on his visit to Goodison for a war-time friendly in around 1942 or so. It would be his only football game before Chelsea in 1974. I reached St’ Luke’s at around 11am and approached a couple of ladies that were seemingly guarding the entrance to the church hall, but were actually pedalling match programmes from a small table. It soon transpired that I had caught the both of them at a bad moment.

“You’ve got a bad mental attitude.”

“No, you have.”

“Let’s go outside.”

I could hardly believe my ears. These frail women were having a proper go at each other. It made me chuckle.

With hindsight, it set the tone of aggression that would mark the entire afternoon in and around Goodison Park.

After the dust settled, I was told that the room upstairs would only be open at 11.30am. I had twenty minutes to kill and so set off for Kirkdale train station? Why? My good friend Alan – another aficionado of Archibald Leitch, the architect of so many iconic football stands and stadia – had noticed a little homage to Leitch’s cross-hatch balcony walls at that station when he caught a train to Southport a few years ago after a game in Liverpool. I owed it to myself to go and take a visit myself.

The only problem was that there was a little drizzle in the air. I zipped up my Paul & Shark rain jacket, flipped the hood and set off. My mind wandered too.

In November 1986, on my second visit to Goodison – my second visit of 1986 in fact – at around that exact same spot where I crossed Goodison Road, a gang of around four scallies – early teens, no more – had begun talking to me well before the game began. They had soon sussed I was Chelsea and started to ask me a few questions. I was, it is true to say, a little wary. However, I must have a non-aggressive demeanour because the lads – after my initial reluctance to engage in a conversation – just seemed football-daft and chatted to me for a while. Thankfully they posed no threat. These weren’t spotters leading me to danger and a confrontation with older lads. We chatted about the game and all other associated topics.

“Where you from mate?”

“Is Nevin playing today?”

“What’s Chelsea’s firm called?”

“You going in the seats at the Park End?”

I remembered that they were from Kirkdale, just a twenty-minute walk from Goodison. I also remembered that these lads were on the prowl for free tickets which, a surprise to me, were sometimes handed out to local lads by Everton officials. A nice gesture.

Yes, I thought of those young lads. They’d be in their late ‘forties by now.

Bizarrely, we played at Anfield in December 1986 and, walking along the Walton Breck Road behind The Kop before the game, the same lads spotted me again and we had a little catch up. I never did find out if they were red or blue, or maybe a mixture of both.

I crossed County Road. This wide road inspired the name of one of Everton’s earliest gangs – “The County Road Cutters” – and the rain got worse as I crossed it. Would I regret this little pilgrimage to Kirkdale in the rain this Sunday morning? I wondered if my father had taken the train to Kirkdale all those years ago and if I was treading on hallowed ground.

I reached the station and headed down to the platform where “The Blue Garden” – sadly looking a little shabby and needing a makeover – was placed. The rain still fell. I took a few photographs.

I retraced my steps. I passed “The Melrose Abbey” pub, itself sadly looking a little shabby and needing a makeover. I was tempted to dive in – I saw a huge pile of sandwich rolls stacked on the bar ahead of the football rush – but decided against it. I was lucky in 1986 with some lads from Kirkdale and although time has moved on, I didn’t want to push my luck thirty-six years later.

On the walk back to Goodson the hulk of the main stand at Anfield could easily be seen despite the misty rain over Stanley Park. I approached Goodison again, a fantastic spectacle, wedged in among the tightly terraced streets of Walton. Ahead, things were getting noisy and getting busy. In the forty-five minutes that I had been away, the area beneath the main stand had become packed full of noisy Evertonians. Some were letting off blue flares. We had heard how some fireworks had been let off outside the Chelsea hotel. And now this. The natives were gearing up for a loud and confrontational day. I guessed that they were lying in wait for the Chelsea coach. I sent an image of the blue flares outside The Holy Trinity statue to Chris, still battling away in Rochdale. His reply suggested he wasn’t impressed.

“Kopite behaviour.”

Pungent sulphurous fumes filled my nostrils. Ex-player Alan Stubbs walked through to the main entrance. The atmosphere was electric blue. I hadn’t experienced anything like this at a game in the UK before apart from a European night or two at the top of Stanley Park. I was hearing Everton songs that I had never ever heard before. The home support was going for broke.

I must admit that it felt so surreal to hear Scousers singing “Super Frank.”

I entered the football exhibition at St’ Luke’s and was met by a black and white photo of Tommy Lawton. He would sign for us after the Second World War. It still baffles me that we bought two of the greatest strikers of the immediate pre and post-war era in Hughie Gallacher and Tommy Lawton yet didn’t challenge in the First Division at all.

Typical Chelsea.

Of course, the greatest of all was William Dean, or simply Dixie. He must have been some player. I snapped a few items featuring him. His statue welcomes visitors to Goodison on match days. I always used to love that he scored sixty goals in the 1927/28 season, just after the other sporting hero of that era Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs for the New York Yankees in 1927. That Dixie Dean should die at Goodison Park during a Merseyside derby just seems, in some ways – as odd as it sounds – just right.

Proper Everton.

I could – and should – have stayed longer in that attic at St. Luke’s but I needed to move on. I sadly realised that I wouldn’t be meeting Chris, not even for a pre-match handshake, so I headed away from the ground again. I battled the crowds outside. There was a line of police – Bizzies – guarding the main stand and it took me forever to squeeze through. I may or may not have said “scuse me mate” with a slight Scouse twang a few times. The songs boomed in my ears.

“The boys from the royal blue Mersey.”

Eventually I was free and raced over to “The Thomas Frost”, one of my least favourite football pubs. There was, according to the steward, no room at the main entrance. I simply walked over to a corner door, chatted to Darren from Crewe, and went in there. I eventually met up with PD, Parky, Burger but also Deano and Dave. The Old Firm match was on. There were plenty of Scottish accents in the crowd and I supposed they were ‘Gers fans down for the game.

Shouts above the noise of a frantically busy pub, pints being consumed, everything so boisterous.

This football life.

Chelsea songs too. To be fair, both sets of fans – Everton and Chelsea – were drinking cheek by jowl with no nastiness. Chelsea tend to side with Rangers. Everton tend to side with Celtic. I had noticed a box of Celtic programmes at St. Luke’s – but no Rangers ones – as if no further proof were needed. A potential tinderbox – Everton, Chelsea, Rangers, Celtic – was passing with no trouble at all.

We left for the ground. I remembered seeing Burger with his father outside Goodison for the away game in early 2015/16, another loss. I had travelled up with just Deano for that one. All these lives intertwined.

I was inside in good time. Yet again our viewing position was awful, shunted way behind the goal line. Since our last visit in December 2019 – guess what, we lost – a mesh had been erected between the two sets of fans between the Bullens Road and the Park End. Everton certainly missed a trick in around 1994 when the simple single tier of the Park End replaced the older two-tiered stand. There is a lot of space behind that stand. It could have been much grander. But I bloody love Goodison and I will be so sad when it is no more.

It’s the antithesis of the old Stamford Bridge, the first ground I fell in love with. Our home was wild and rambling, spread-out, away from the road, a land of its own, a land of undulating terraces, inside and out, of shrubs and trees, of turnstiles, of forecourts, of differing stands, of corrugated iron, of floodlight pylons, of vast stretches of green, of views of Brompton Cemetery, of Earls Court, of London.

Goodison was – and is – cramped, rectangular, uniform, encased and with only St. Luke’s church of the outside world visible from inside.

I loved and love both.

We were at the very front of the top tier.

We waited.

The noise increased.

“And if you know your history.”

It seemed that the whole day was about Everton. Yes, we were chasing a third place but it was all about them. And that was what scared me. I envisioned them fighting for everything, the dogs of war of the Joe Royle team of around 995 revisited.

“Z-Cars.”

Spine-chilling stuff. I closed my eyes and breathed it in.

As the teams entered the pitch from different entrances, flags and banners took over, and the heavy smell of the flares hit my senses once again. I spotted a flag in the Gwladys.

“We Are The Goodison Gang.”

What on earth was that? It sounded like a ‘seventies children’s TV programme.

Thomas Tuchel had chosen an eleven against Frank Lampard’s Everton.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Azpilicueta

Alonso – Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – James

Mount

Werner – Havertz

Alan : “Not the most mobile of midfield twos.”

There was a mixture of new and old names for Everton. I had heard good stuff about Anthony Gordon.

As for Seamus Coleman, wasn’t it time he retired and fucked off to run a pub in Cork?

Borussia Chelsea in yellow and black. Everton in old-style white socks, la.

I would later learn that Chris got in with five minutes to spare. He works in logistics too.

It was fifty-fifty for much of the first-half and although the Everton fans seemed noisy as hell in the first segment of the game, the noise fell away as the game progressed. I noticed that for virtually the entire first period, the denizens of the Park End to our left were seated.

“Just not good enough. Must do better.”

A save from Edouard Mendy from Demarai Gray was followed by a dipping shot from Mason Mount and this indicated a bright start. But thrills were rare. On eighteen minutes we witnessed an amazing piece of skill from Mount, juggling on the run, flipping the ball up, and bringing it out of defence. Sublime stuff. Just after, sublime play of a different kind when Antonio Rudiger recovered well to make a magnificent run to cover the right-wing thrusts from Everton with a great tackle.

I could not understand the chants from our end for Frank Lampard. We love the bloke, of course, but I thought all that was silly and miss-guided. We were struggling on the pitch. I was not sure how a song about Dennis Wise in Milan was helping the cause either.

Parky was annoyed too : “Is he playing?”

Another shot from Gordon, just wide.

This was dreary stuff.

Only a lovely run from deep from Ruben Loftus-Cheek enlivened the team and the fans. With each stride, he seemed to grow in confidence. It was a graceful piece of play, but one that begged the question “why doesn’t he do it more fucking often?”

There was a fine block from Thiago Silva late on in the half, but – honestly – was that it?

It was.

For the second-half, Tuchel replaced Jorginho with Mateo Kovacic and we hoped for better things.

Alas, we imploded after just two bloody minutes.

Oh Dave.

Our captain dithered and Richarlison pounced.

Everton 1 Chelsea 0.

Bollocks.

A little voice inside my head : “yep.”

Howls from the Chelsea sections of the Bullens Road. Yet again a moment of huge indecision in our defence had cost us dearly. When Tuchel came in last season, our defensive errors seemed to magically disappear. The current trend is so worrying.

Just after, Everton really should have been two goals to the good but Vitalii Mykolenko shot high and wide at the Gwladys Street.

We tried to get back into the game but the movement upfront was negligible. But, to be honest, there was more room on the Goodison Road at 12.30pm than there was in the Everton final third. We were met with block after block, tackle after tackle. They harried and chased like their lives depended on it. Which they probably did.

There seemed to be more than normal amounts of time-wasting. Richarlison went down for cramp twice, as did others. The away fans howled some more.

On the hour, we howled again as a Marcos Alonso cross picked out Havertz who did well to head on to Mount. His shot not only hit both posts but the follow up from Dave was saved – magnificently, I cannot lie – by Pickford.

From the resulting corner, a header was knocked on and Rudiger raced in to smash the ball goal wards but the ball hit Pickford’s face.

Fucksake.

The Evertonians seemed to relish a new-found love of England.

“England’s Number One, England’s, England’s Number One.”

We kept going, but I wasn’t convinced that we’d break them down. Two headers in quick succession from Kai and Timo amounted to nothing.

Tuchel made some substitutions.

Christian Pulisic for Dave.

Hakim Ziyech for Werner.

There was a little injection of skill from Pulisic, wriggling away and getting past a few challenges but there was no end product. We enjoyed another barnstorming run from Ruben, even better than the one in the first, but we lacked invention. Everton appeared to take time-wasting to a new level. A scally in the paddock on the far side simply shoved a ball up his jumper rather than give it back.

A hopeful but hapless blooter from Rudiger.

A rising shot from Ruben after a neat run again.

A shot from Gray was smashed just over the bar up the other end. I envisioned seeing the net bulge on that one.

The noise was loud now alright.

Seven minutes of extra time were played but we could have played all night long without getting a goal.

A scuffler from Kovacic proved to be our last effort but Pickford collapsed easily at the near post to smother.

The home crowd erupted at the final whistle and we shuffled out along the wooden floorboards.

Everton are still not safe.

I wonder if I will ever return to Goodison Park?

We met up outside and I summed up the game and the season.

“No cutting edge.”

I overheard an Evertonian from South Wales talking, rather exuberantly, to a friend as we walked back to the car.

“Best game I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been to a few.”

He was about the same age as me too, maybe a tad younger.

Bloody hell, mate.

I made good time getting out of Stanley Park, Queens Drive, then onto the motorways. I dropped Burger home and then headed, once more, to “The Vine” at West Bromwich. We were joined by Michelle, Dane, Frances and Steve, Chelsea supporters all.

I had honey and chilli chicken, chilli chips and a peswari naan.

It was indeed a bloody long way to go for a curry.

Next up, Wolves at home.

See you there.

This Is Goodison.

The Blue Garden.

Flags And Flares.

History, La.

Pre-Match.

The Game.

Tales From The Oak Road End

Luton Town vs. Chelsea : 2 March 2022.

On returning home from London after the Plymouth Argyle FA Cup match, I mentioned to the lads that I fancied Luton Town away in the Fifth Round. The very next morning, Luton were the first name out of the hat and we were the second.

Luton Town vs. Chelsea it was.

Although my head was full of Abu Dhabi stresses, I had a quiet chuckle to myself. At last, a draw that I was happy with.

Let me explain. There are some stadia that I never visited and never will; Ayresome Park, Roker Park and Burnden Park are three such examples. These are stadia that are long gone, but for whatever reason will remain without a tick against them in my list of football grounds that I have been lucky enough to visit. There are stadia that I have visited, but only after significant upgrades have taken place; Ewood Park, The Valley and Carrow Road come to mind. I never visited the original incarnations of these ones. Lastly, there are a few relatively famous stadia that I have never ever visited; Kenilworth Road, Portman Road and Meadow Lane head that list. I hope to eventually tick these, and others, off but time is running out. Additionally, there are plans for Luton to move out of their fabled old stadium too, so this was just right.

So, a new ground, a new away end, a new experience. I was genuinely looking forward to this one in a way that probably warranted me to sit myself down, pour myself a cup of tea and have a serious look at myself.

Those ground hopper genes keep rising to the surface and there’s not much I can do about it now.

Gulp.

PD had battled rotten weather and heavy traffic on the M25 and we had parked up in a tight terraced street around half a mile to the west of Kenilworth Road. The pre-paid parking space for six hours was less than a fiver. This gives a solid indication, I feel, of the area around the stadium. It’s decidedly low rent. More Old Kent Road than Mayfair. The journey had taken around three hours. It was 5pm. The kick-off was at 7.15pm. We wasted no time and set off by foot in the cold and in the drizzle.

Twenty minutes later, my coat rather wet, we arrived to see “Road Closed” signs at one end of the fabled Oak Road, home to the most idiosyncratic away turnstiles in the United Kingdom. A few Chelsea were milling about outside the entrance, a few stewards, a few policemen and policewomen. I shot off to take a few photographs of an alternative entrance.

Last year in the FA Cup, we played the same team at home in the same competition – a 3-1 win at home – but it would be Frank Lampard’s last match in charge. In the previous round, we had defeated Morecambe. And here I was, at Luton Town the following year, and taking a photograph of the Eric Morecambe Suite. The much-loved comedian, born Eric Bartholomew but named after his home town, was a big fan of Luton Town. I remembered with pleasure how he used to shoe-horn Luton Town gags into sketches.

Luton Town were a decent team at times in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. I used to love their orange, black and white colours. The kit with the vertical panels from the mid-‘seventies used to remind me of a “Liquorice Allsort”. The white Adidas kit of the early-‘eighties was a cracker too. There was a famous promotion campaign in 1981/82 in the old Second Division – when we watched from a distant mid-table position – that involved Luton Town and their local rivals Watford. This involved a definite difference in style between the two teams. Watford was “route one” under Graham Taylor, Luton were more entertaining and skilful under David Pleat. Luton prevailed as Champions, Watford came second.

In our last home game of that season, I travelled up to London and watched from The Shed as Luton Town beat us 2-1 in front of 15,044. It is memorable in my eyes, for two things.

Ken Bates had taken over from the Mears family the previous month and had decided to have some sort of “fun day” planned for this last game. From memory, this involved two things but there may have been more. Firstly, hundreds and hundreds of blue and white balloons were set off into the air before the game. It was quite a sight, but all a bit pathetic at the same time.

Balloons?

The sixteen-year-old me surely muttered “fackinell.”

Don’t ask me why, but the other item chosen to entertain us was…wait for it, wait for it…an electronic bull that was positioned in front of The Shed and spectators were invited to sit on and attempt to ride it. The rodeo had hit SW6. I can’t honestly remember if many took up the challenge. But one fan – a skinhead in T-shirt, jeans and DMs – kept us entertained for a few seconds before being thrown off at a very scary angle.

In 1981/82, this is how Chelsea entertained us.

You can add your own fucking punchline.

The other memorable thing from that game almost forty years ago – 1982 was a good year for me, lots more independent trips to Chelsea, the World Cup in Spain, my first-ever girlfriend – was the home debut of Paul Canoville. I had not been present at the infamous debut at Selhurst Park, but I was in The Shed as he came on in the closing moments of the game. I always remember his first-touch as if it was yesterday; a magnificent piece of ball control and spin that bamboozled his marker, and probably confused a few knuckle-draggers in The Shed who were probably about to pounce on him should the substitute err in any small way.

In 1987/88, Luton Town won their only silverware, beating Arsenal in the League Cup Final at Wembley. For that alone, I will always be grateful.

Believe it or not, the only other time that I have seen my club play Luton Town was in the FA Cup Semi-Final at Wembley in 1994. For many years, I simply couldn’t afford too many Chelsea games every season. And Luton were never high up on the pecking order. That was a cracking day out. Loads of Chelsea at Wembley. King Kerry being serenaded by us. Two Gavin Peacock goals. Bosh. Our first FA Cup Final in twenty-three years was on the cards, and with it – so important, this – the promise of a European adventure the following season since the other finalists Manchester United were to take place in the Champions League.

Of all the Chelsea summers, 1994 was absolutely one of the best.

Back to the 2022 FA Cup, and the ridiculous throw-back that is the Oak Road away end at Kenilworth Road. The two away entrances are positioned between houses on the terraced street. It’s an unbelievable set up. At Highbury, there was something similar, but much more grand. Outside we chatted to Adam from Norfolk, Tommie from Gwynedd, Charlotte and Paul from Somerset. The Chelsea support from the capital and the outlying counties had headed to Bedfordshire. There would be around 1,500 of us in deepest Luton on this rainy old evening.

The gates opened at 5.45pm and we were straight in. We navigated a set of steep steps and reached a platform that took us into the back of the stand, but firstly afforded views of terraced houses’ back gardens. And possibly a little more. Ahem. Was that someone’s bathroom?

“Do you have a vacancy for a back scrubber?”

Once inside, my camera went into overdrive. There was a mist in the air and I didn’t think that the floodlighting was particularly bright. It undoubtedly added to the atmosphere. It was odd to be finally inside a ground that I first became aware of in the mid-‘seventies. In previous visits – our last was in 1990/91 – the away support was based at the other end. As I scanned the ground, I could not help but see hundreds of Millwall fans invading the pitch, seats in hand, running at the police, the home fans, the whole bloody world. I loved the slightly cranked section of seats in the main stand that overlooked the away end, picked out in orange, adorned with flags, a few remembering Luton Town fans no longer alive. There was a Joy Division flag too.

I have only ever met one Luton Town fan. Atop the Mole Antonelliana in Turin, Rob and I were sightseeing in Turin after our game in 2009. We felt on top of the world, in more ways than one. We got chatting to a guy from England, a Luton fan, but one who was visibly upset with the club’s recent fate. They had been relegated below the Football League in 2008 after administration. I genuinely felt for the bloke. I thought of him on this night in Luton and wondered if he would be in the 10,000 attendance.

The stands were slowly filling. The rain still fell.

The night was about to take a turn in another direction.

I popped into the ridiculously cramped “away bar”, tucked down some stairs in a corner, and joined up with “The Bristol Lot”; Julie, Tim, Brian, Kevin and Pete. Parky was there too; what a surprise. He was talking to Mark from Westbury.

The news broke.

On the official Chelsea website, it was announced that Roman Abramovich was to sell the club.

I don’t remember what I was doing in July 2003 when Roman bought the club, but I will always remember where I was when I heard this news.

Luton.

It has to be famous for something I suppose.

The news wasn’t a surprise to me nor, I am sure, to many.

I spoke to Tim.

“I think, deep down, I have been fearing this moment for almost twenty years. Of course we will never exactly know how Roman accumulated his wealth, not his friendships along the way, but this has been gnawing away at me – on and off – for too many years. In the current climate, this comes as no surprise at all.”

There was a real sense of pride that all profits from the eventual sale would go towards the victims of the war in Ukraine.

I was pretty emotional when I read that Roman hoped, one day, to be able to visit Stamford Bridge once again.

Back up in the seats – blue and white, an echo of when the club decided to jettison their more famous colours in the ‘nineties – the Chelsea support was filling up the slight terrace. Seats had been bolted to the old terraces, with no re-profiling; the result was far from ideal.

With a quarter of an hour to go, there were chants for Roman Abramovich from us. I joined in. It was a natural reaction to say a simple “thanks.” I certainly did not mean to be inflammatory or confrontational.

Kick-off approached. The two mascots appeared out of nowhere and took an unsurprising amount of abuse.

The teams appeared.

A couple of flags for Ukraine were dotted about.

I didn’t think the home fans were particularly noisy. I was crammed into my row, with Chelsea fans tight alongside me. Of course everyone was stood. My view of the pitch was again poor.

The team?

Kepa

Rudiger – Loftus-Cheek – Sarr

Hudson-Odoi – Jorginho – Saul – Kenedy

Werner – Lukaku – Mount

There were a few talking points here. Ruben at centre-back? Interesting. Kenedy at left-back? I have no idea when I last saw him play for us. From Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro to Chelsea at Luton is some journey. Lukaku starting? Goals please.

Interestingly, Luton Town stood, arms linked, and didn’t take the knee.

The rain still fell. It was a dark night.

The game was only two minutes old when the whole evening took a nosedive. A corner from their left and a header from a player at the near post. I didn’t see the ball go in. I certainly saw the reaction. Kenilworth Road erupted.

I groaned. On a night when this game was live on BBC1, just after the news about Roman Abramovich, the knives were being sharpened.

I heard Eric Morecambe’s voice.

“What do you think of it so far?”

In my head : “rubbish.”

And although the first-half wasn’t too special, I enjoyed in some bizarre way. The noise from the away support was certainly loud and constant. That always helps the “us against them” vibe. Sarr attempted a few balls inside their full back for Timo Werner. Mason Mount was a bundle of energy on the other side. It took a while for Ruben to settle. Despite their early goal, the game soon developed a pattern of Chelsea possession.

Luton swapped ‘keepers after an injury.

There was a header from Saul but little else in the opening quarter of the match. His effort stirred those nearby :

“If Saul scores, we’re on the pitch.”

Lo-and-behold, a run from Mount opened up the game and he passed to a raiding Werner. He miss-controlled but the ball ran to Saul on the edge of the box. I was right behind the course of the ball as his sweet right-footed strike curled low into the goal.

Get in.

I suggested a new song :

“If Saul scores, we’re on the piss.”

There was a third effort from Saul not long after, but this was tucked just wide of the near post, again after good work from Mount. A real dinger from Kenedy at an angle forced a save at full stretch from the Luton ‘keeper Isted.

On thirty-one minutes, the ground applauded the memory of local man, and Chelsea supporter, Jamal Edwards. The atmosphere had been rather feisty with name calling and jabs from both sections of support. Talk of rent boys, of Luton being – um – far from a pleasant place to live, the usual schoolyard stuff.

Mason played in Lukaku, on the edge of the Luton box, but his swipe was well saved by Isted at his near stick.

Despite our possession, we were hit just before the break. We were pushing up and Luton caught us on the hop. They cut through our midfield with a couple of quick passes, though when the final ball was pushed through to Harry Connick Junior, we all yelled “offside”. Alas, no flag was raised, and the American crooner coolly slotted past Kepa.

He raced off in celebration towards the noisy corner.

The lino on our left – running the line in front of a line of executive boxes, how horrible – then took tons of abuse. At half-time, we could hardly believe that the decision, reported back via text messages, had been correct. To be honest, it had been an exceptional decision. A speciality from Jorginho – “giving the ball away, almost the last man” – set up another Luton chance but a shot was weak and at Kepa.

One final effort in the first-half fell to Rudiger whose blast deflected off Lukaku but dropped tantalisingly over the bar.

At half-time, we were 1-2 down and it seemed like Pure ‘Eighties Chelsea.

Into the second-half, effort number four from Saul from distance but straight at the ‘keeper. From a corner, effort number five and a Zola flick at the near post that flew over. There was more and more Chelsea possession but, despite our domination, Luton were proving to be a tough nut to crack and other clichés.

On the hour a double-substitution.

Harvey Vale for Hudson-Odoi

Christian Pulisic for Kenedy

Saul trotted over to left-back.

Not long after, a magnificent ball from deep from the foot of Loftus-Cheek picked out the run of Werner in the inside-left channel. He brought the ball down well, and calmly slotted home. I have to admit to being lost in my own little world of wonder and worry about the club at that exact moment in time and hardly celebrated at all. There was deep relief though.

Get in.

We were halfway through the second-half.

“Cracking cup tie?”

You bet.

We went all Depeche Mode, never a bad move.

“Scoring in the Harding and scoring in The Shed.”

The noise was ramped up further. Songs for everyone. This was turning into a corker of a night out. But among all of the noise, there were some utterly crap chants too.

“Heathrow! Heathrow! Heathrow! Heathrow!”

Good grief.

And…ugh.

“You’re just a small town in Watford.”

I felt like going all Peter Kay.

“Town?”

“In Watford?”

Ruben was now settled in his new position and was often able to dribble, unhindered, out of defence. I prayed for a late winner. I didn’t fancy extra-time.

I joked to the bloke to my left : “if it goes to penalties, bring on Mendy.”

A shot from Vale was at Isted.

A lovely welcome accompanied the reappearance of Reece James who replaced Jorginho with fifteen minutes remaining. On seventy-eight minutes, a patient and precise move in front of me on our right eventually found Werner. A quick low cross. I saw nothing, but Lukaku had pounced.

Mayhem in the Oak Road.

Get in you bastard.

Roars from the Chelsea contingent. Limbs everywhere. I slid to my left and tried to get a few good photos of the celebrations. When I returned to my place, my camera bag, spare lens and glass case were loose on the terraces. I gathered them and re-joined Parky.

“Wondered where you got to.”

Thankfully we saw the game off, and slotted into the FA Cup Quarter Finals.

Again.

We walked slowly back to the car. Luton is surprisingly hilly. We bumped into Skippy from Brisbane, Martin from Gloucester, Ryan and Carl from Stoke.

Everybody there. Everybody unable to resist.

It had been a good night.

Tales From Porto : Part Three – Tears

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2021.

It was 9.54pm. As the referee’s whistle eventually blew after seven tortuous minutes, I snapped the view that confronted me in the north terrace of the Dragao Stadium. I wanted to capture the exact moment of us becoming European Champions, just like I had done in Munich in 2012, and also when we became English Champions at Bolton in 2005 too. An image of our fans captured for eternity. The roar that accompanied this moment was surely not as fierce as the one in the Allianz Arena just over nine years ago, but the emotions were similar.

We had done it.

The photo taken, I clambered down off the seat and started to whimper, my bottom lip succumbing to the emotion of the moment, and then I could not hold it any longer. I brought my hands to my face and wept for a few fleeting seconds. My emotions genuinely surprised me. In Munich I had slumped to the floor, absolutely overcome with daft joy and relief. There were tears for sure. Hell, even in Moscow – just before John Terry’s infamous penalty – I trembled too. In Porto, the tears were real, but I soon dried my eyes.

There was a slight thought about my own particular story since 10 October 2020.

I had recovered well from a series of mild heart-attacks. I was now witnessing the second most important moment in the history of Chelsea Football Club – Munich will never be eclipsed, surely? – and it was all too bloody crazy to rationalise.

Football. Fackinell.

All through this craziness, since the semi-finals, the one thought that had been spurring me on throughout the stress and worry of reaching Porto was this :

“If the fans of Arsenal, Tottenham and West Ham – the others don’t count – were pissed-off when we won the European Cup once, imagine what they’ll be like if we win it twice.”

Mister 33% was way off the mark.

In reality it was a breeze, a sweet-scented breeze of Portuguese delight softly sweeping up over the terracotta tiled houses from the Douro River.

My fellow fans were running down towards the pitch. There was a lovely melee in the area where I had been stood for three hours. I was soon joined by Luke and – such is the immediacy of the modern life – I wanted to share my moment of joy with the world. Aroha was nearby, and I asked her to take a photograph of the two of us. I think that the photo is worth a thousand words.

I posted the picture on “Facebook” at 9.59pm. The accompanying message was this :

“We’re The Only Team In London With Two European Cups”.

I then joked with Luke that we could now look Nottingham Forest in the eye. And we could at last look down on Villa.

My immediate thought, next, was of Aroha; carrying Luke’s baby. What a story, what a moment of joy for them both, knowing that their child – due in late July – was there in Porto when our club won our second European Cup.

A brief thought of the scorer.

It was all very apt. Kai Havertz, the COVID Kid, hit hard by the virus in the autumn – so much so that his first few appearances for us promised little, if anything – would be the one whose goal had been decisive, wearing number 29 on 29 May.

Perfect.

For ten minutes, everything was pretty much a Blue Blur. I was aware that the Chelsea players had run towards the fans in the western section of the north stand, between the goal frame and the corner flag. Fans were clambering over the seats to get to the front. I was again stood on the seat in front. I could not be any nearer the pitch. A few of us tried to free the official Champions League banner from its moorings but it was fastened solid.

I didn’t even notice the Manchester City players collecting their medals.

At 10.10pm, the victors stood in a line and slowly walked towards the waiting trophy. In Munich, the presentation was up in the main stand – I prefer that – but here the final act of the 2020/21 Champions League campaign took place on the pitch. I stood with my camera poised, making sure that I had a clean and uninterrupted view.

At 10.11pm, Cesar Azpilcueta hoisted the huge trophy into the air.

Blue and white tinsel – correction, royal blue and white tinsel – streamed everywhere. Fireworks flew into the sky. White smoke, not of surrender, but of glory drifted skywards.

A perfect scene.

The City fans had virtually all left the stadium, just as I did after the final whistle in Moscow. I did not relish their trip home to Standish, Stockport, Didsbury and Harpurhey.

It was time for some music.

“One Step Beyond” was especially poignant. We all remember how City mocked us by playing this tune after a victory against us at Eastlands in around 2010.

“We Are The Champions” of course. I am afraid to admit that this was the first single that I ever bought in early 1978. I grew to absolutely detest Queen as I became older, but this song does bring back a nice childhood memory; my blue house team won the school football tournament that year and our team sung this song after the final triumphant game against the red team.

In Porto, it had a new twist.

“We are the Champions…again.”

But oh those high notes that followed. Ouch.

“Blue Tomorrow” and a memory of our victory in the 2000 FA Cup.

For twenty minutes, we watched as the Chelsea players cavorted on the other side of the pitch. We begged them to bring the trophy over to us in our corner. We watched as the players indulgently took selfies of themselves with their wives and partners. We sang “over here, over here, over here” but it was all to no fucking avail. We were ignored.

At 10.30pm, Aroha, Doreen, Luke and myself set off for home. I took one final photograph of the scene and left the stadium.

I have always loved walking out of various football stadia with a win tucked in our back pockets. An away win on foreign soil cannot be beaten. Often the local police have closed, or blocked-off, roads so that we have a free march in the middle of deserted streets. I can especially recollect a lovely walk back to the nearest subway station on a balmy night in Lisbon in 2015.

Bouncing, bubbling, striding triumphantly, the occasional chant, the occasional song, the swagger of success, locals cowering – or so we hoped – behind windows.

In Porto, as triumphant as it all was, the walk back to the coach was tough. I had made a schoolboy error of wearing a new pair of Adidas trainers for the day and although I had worn them around the house and on a few shopping trips, I had not fully worn them in. My walk – uphill, damn it – back to our waiting coach was a nightmare. My feet were on fire. I hobbled along like Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.”

I took my seat in the coach, turned my phone on, and answered as many messages of congratulations as I could.

There was a sweet air of contentment, and an overwhelming feeling of befuddled bemusement.

I soon shared the astounding news that we were the first – and we will forever be the only – team to double up on wins in the European Cup (2012 and 2021), the Europa League (2013 and 2019) and the now discontinued European Cup Winners’ Cup (1971 and 1998).

I spoke to a couple of supporters about my mate Jaro’s take on the game.

In the few days before the match, he was adamant we’d win.

The first time? 19/05.

The second time? 29/05.

I guess that means that we will need to wait for the Gregorian calendar to be replaced by a new version so we can win it a third time on 39/05.

People were tired. People were weary. Eventually the coach set off for the airport. At 11.45pm, I shared my last photo of the day; the blue-lit interior of our coach on its thirty-minute drive back to the airport. There was complete silence. Not a sound.

I guess we reached the airport at just after midnight. We spotted a few disconsolate City fans milling around. Thankfully, the security checks did not take long. I loaded up on those gorgeous Portuguese custard tarts – pasteis de nata – and gobbled down some Gummi Bears for a quick sugar buzz. We waited until it was our turn to board.

I bumped into Andy and Sophie again, down by Gate 18.

Andy started talking :

“Chris, there’s a bloke, tonight – right – in Madrid…”

And I stopped him in his tracks.

I corrected him.

“Andy. There’s a bloke in a flat in Levenshulme. And he’s saying…Chelsea, they always beat us in Cup Finals.”

From the Full Members Cup at Wembley in 1986 – away you go, new fans, start Googling – to the European Cup Final at Estadio do Dragao in 2021. Artistic licence allows me to forget the League Cup in 2019. Right?

We walked out to the waiting plane and it suddenly made sense. I need not have been too bothered about TUI’s colour scheme.

TUI – two-ey…if ever there was a clue that we were going to end up with our second European Cup, there it was.

The other company that covered Chelsea’s chartered flights was Jet2.

Say no more.

It was – to coin a phrase – written in the stars.

Our flight home lifted off at 2am.

I caught a little sleep, as did many. I had not eaten much the entire day, so I soon wolfed down the roast chicken dinner. The friendly air-hostess even gave me two extra puddings and that, sadly, is not a euphemism.

As I spoke to her about the day, I realised that my voice was deep and croaky. It was clear that I had been singing my heart out that evening. A silly sign that I had been immersed in the game, but it was further proof that I was now back.

We landed at Gatwick bang on 4am.

I had spent around sixteen hours in the spectacular city of Porto. Along with Athens, Stockholm, Munich, Amsterdam, Baku – and Monaco – our list of foreign fields that will be forever Chelsea continues to grow.

And get this.

Chelsea Football Club has now won more European trophies than the rest of London combined.

I was quickly through passport control, there was no baggage carousel, I caught the bus back to the car park. I made tracks at 5am. I stopped at Cobham Services on the M25 – a mere mile or so from our training centre – and demolished an espresso. A handful of Chelsea had similar ideas.

“European Champions only please.”

It was a chilled out drive home. I enjoyed a powernap for around forty minutes as I stopped at another services on the A303 at around 7am.

Not long after, I updated my “Facebook” status once more.

“Driving home, nearing Stonehenge. Absolute Radio on. “Teardrop” by Massive Attack.

Gone.

The perfect denouement to thirty hours of following Chelsea Football Club.”.

I called in to see Glenn, then Parky, then my Liverpool-supporting mate Francis. I eventually made it home at around midday.

I joked to all three of them :

“Bollocks to it, I’m only bothering with Cup Finals from now on.”

There was a brief mention of a potential Super Cup in Belfast in August. I had gambled on cheap flights from Bristol a month ago and the decision to go ahead would be with UEFA.

Season 2020/21 was the maddest ever. It was – overall – undoubtedly my least favourite season thus far. I had only seen us play twice. And yet, I had seen us in two Cup Finals. I had seen us win the biggest prize of all for the second time in our history.

But this will be the craziest part of all.

We will all assemble, God-willing, in mid-August to see our team play once again. For the vast majority of fans, people will see Thomas Tuchel in the flesh for the very first time. Normally there would be mutterings of “I hope the new coach gets off to a good start.”

And yet he has already won the bloody European Cup.

And Finally :

Two photos.

One from Porto in 2015 and a nod to the many fine folk who were sadly unable to travel to the game. This photo shows Gary, Alan, Kev and Parky alongside me on that fine bridge that dominates the central area and affords such a splendid view of the city. It has been my screensaver on my home laptop for many years.

One from my friend Donna. It’s probably one of the few photos that I have shared on here that I have not taken myself. It’s self-explanatory really. At last players and supporters as one.

Chelsea Football Club, Frank Lampard and Thomas Tuchel, its players and loyal supporters : I salute us all.

Very lastly, I have to mention that as I sat down in The Blue Room – where else? – on Monday evening to begin writing Part One, I grabbed a Depeche Mode CD and pressed play. It was one of three CDs in a set from 2004. I had no idea what track would be played first. You’ve guessed it. “Personal Jesus.”



Reach Out. Touch. Faith.

Tales From The Final Tie

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 15 May 2021.

Since We Last Spoke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

How?

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

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

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

But by the evening, the loss was glossed over.

Football still didn’t seem too important to me.

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

A small victory for me, and I needed it.

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

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

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

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

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

Was the world changing?

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

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

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

Then the pandemic struck. Damn you COVID19.

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

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

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

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

Thomas Tuchel?

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

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

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

I know what I found most enjoyable.

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

Pizazz? Style?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s talk about the FA Cup.

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

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

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

Fifty thousand people.

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

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

Fifty-thousand men.

It struck home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bugger me.”

“Trust Chelsea to mess it up.”

“Yes. Good old Chelsea.”

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

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

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

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

“Like a bloody river, Ted.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That goal, Ted.”

“What of it?”

“It looked offside to me.”

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

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

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

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

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

I laughed with them.

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

It has been my life.

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

“I have missed it badly.”

They both smiled.

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

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

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

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

No pressure, Chelsea.

Vic Woodley.

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

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

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

I vote for Vic Woodley.

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

We must pay a visit when normality returns.

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


1994 And 2021.

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

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

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

RIP Wycombe Stan.

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

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

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

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

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

In. Simple.

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

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

Result. In.

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

“I’ve had a good six months.”

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

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

A Chelsea Gallery.

The Game.

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

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

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

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

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

So, yes, the team.

Kepa.

James. Silva. Rudiger.

Dave. Kante. Jorginho. Alonso.

Mount. Werner. Ziyech.

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

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

Does anybody like it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I replied “a return air ticket to Istanbul.”

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

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

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

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

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

We play from the back.

And counter attack.

Champions of England. You made us sing that.”

Thankfully no mention of a high press.

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

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

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

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

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

Bollocks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“COME ON YOU BLUE BOYS.”

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

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

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

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

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

I heard a voice inside my head.

“Fucking hell, Chris, we’ve done it.”

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

A red rectangle…

VAR : CHECKING GOAL – POSSIBLE OFFSIDE.

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

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

A roar from the other end, no goal.

King Kenny wailed : “what has football become?”

I had no answer.

Has anyone?

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

Tales From A Home Banker

Chelsea vs. Everton : 8 March 2020.

It seems that for every single Chelsea vs. Everton match report, I trot out the same key statistic of them not beating us in a league game at Stamford Bridge since that Paul Rideout goal gave them a 1-0 win during 1994/95. That match turned out to be as equally an inauspicious start to the unveiling of the first new stand – the North – since the previous time in 1974/75 when Carlisle United defeated us 2-0 as the East Stand made it’s bow.

But this year. This year felt a little different. Although the entire club was buoyed by the excellent FA Cup win against Liverpool, Everton were undergoing a relatively bright spell under the control of our former manager Carlo Ancelotti. And it felt, to me at least, that a tough game was on the cards. But could the accumulative effect of twenty-four seasons of hurt for Everton in SW6 – I have seen them all, won thirteen, drew eleven – impinge itself once again on Everton’s collective psyche?

I bloody hoped so.

“Funny team Everton.”

And so while they have really suffered at Chelsea over the years, they have had the upper hand over us at Goodison Park for quite a while now.

Which Everton would show up?

I suppose, deep down, I knew all along.

My preparations for the Sunday afternoon match began the previous evening in a local vllage called Kilmersdon, where a fellow Chelsea season ticket holder – Sue – was celebrating a “surprise” birthday party. Her daughter Chelsea and husband Stuart sit in the same section of The Shed Lower as Parky, and although I do not know the family that well at all, I thought it would be the height of bad manners for me not to make an appearance. Our two villages are, after all, just four miles apart.

I strolled into the village pub, spotted the three of them, but also my old Chelsea mate Terry, from Radstock, a few miles further away. I have known Terry since the 1984/85 season when I used to very occasionally catch the Yeovil Supporters Coach to games. In truth, I think this only happened twice (vs. QPR in 1984/85 and vs. Arsenal in 1985/86) but I also remember the Yeovil coach calling in at Stoke so I could piggy-back a ride up to Old Trafford in 1985/86 too. I can remember taking him up to a few games c. 2003/4 when I worked in Chippenham. He used to have a ST in the Matthew Harding Lower. I had not seen Terry at Chelsea for years, but saw him at a “Buzzcocks” gig in Bath a couple of years ago in addition to one or two at “The Cheese And Grain” in Frome. We share the same tastes in a lot of music.

Very soon into our conversation, Terry enquired “did you hear about Swan?” and I immediately felt that I was in for some sad news. Swan was also from Radstock, and used to sit with us on the famous Benches from 1985 to maybe 1987. He was a bit of a lad, a Jack the lad even, and with his curly perm, moustache and heavy frame he used to resemble Ian Botham. He was a good lad, and was certainly on those three coach trips that I have mentioned. In 1986/87, his attendance tailed off, and none of us had seen him for ages. He used to work in an office in Bath, near the bus station, and I have a feeling that the last time I saw him was while he was on a lunch break in the city centre in around 1987.  We had heard he had gone to live up north; Leeds or Sheffield or somewhere.

Sadly, Terry was to tell me that Swan had recently passed away. This came as a real shock. He was surely no older than fifty-two or fifty-three. I texted Alan and Glenn, and a couple of other of the lads who sat with Swan in those halcyon days.

These photos show the unfurling of a Union Jack before our game with Tottenham in April 1985. Swan is at the back, sporting a grey, red and black Pringle if memory serves. Glenn is all smiles with the bubble perm, Alan is central with a ski-hat, as is Walnuts and Dave, while Rich is wearing an England one. In 1984/85 and 1985/86, ski hats were all the rage. And when I say benches, I mean concrete slabs. The Tottenham game was the first game that we had to endure those. But more of that another day.

In “The Jolliffe Arms” on Saturday, Terry and I raised a glass in memory of Swan.

Rest In Peace.

With the game against Everton kicking-off at 2pm, we had to be on our toes early on so that we could squeeze as much out of the day as possible. Glenn picked me up at 7.30am, and we were inside “The Eight Bells” in deepest Fulham at about 10.15am.

For the best part of three hours we had a blast. Tom was visiting from New York – sorry, New Jersey – and arrived in good time. He settled in seamlessly alongside PD amid tales of his planned trip to Cologne and Berlin after this little visit to London Town. On Saturday, he had seen Brentford dismantle Sheffield Wednesday 5-0. It would be bloody lovely if Brentford’s first season in their new digs could be in the Premier League.

Glenn joined us after parking his van.

Then the Jacksonville Four – Jennifer, Brian, Jimmy and Eugene – joined us. It is always a pleasure to see their smiling faces, even if Eugene was wearing a Boston Red Sox cap, and they were excited about being back in “The Eight Bells” once more.

From Jacksonville to Axonville.

Jimmy and Eugene had chosen Leyton Orient’s game against Cambridge United. I love it that Chelsea fans take a look at lower level football while in London. Top marks.Two lads from the days of Swan on The Benches arrived – Richard and Simon – and I noticed that our former player from the glory days of the early ‘seventies Alan Hudson was in the pub too. He very kindly stopped by for a photo call.

These photos show how much fun we had.

[inside my head : “fackinell, these Americans love their Chelsea scarves, eh?”]

Inside Stamford Bridge, Everton had their usual three thousand. We had learned that, perhaps unsurprisingly due to our large injury list, Frank Lampard had chosen the same starting eleven as against Liverpool, apart from young Mason Mount taking over from Mateo Kovacic.

Flags, flames.

The Evertonians took off their dull tracksuit tops to reveal their bright pink shirts.

Blimey.

I was surprised to see King Carlo on the touchline; I had presumed that he would have been banished to the stands after his recent indiscretion. Ten years on from the double season, Carlo stood ten yards from Frank. They had embraced on seeing each other and I remembered hearing Frank Lampard speak so sweetly about his former manager when he talked to a packed bar in Manhattan in 2015.

“Jose Mourinho is the greatest manager that I have played for, but Carlo Ancelotti is the nicest man that I have ever met in football.”

We began the game well, with Willian teeing up Mason Mount to volley from just outside the six-yard box. There was a fine reaction save from Jason Pickford.

Unlike most away fans who visit SW6, Everton were hardly a riot of noise.

In the first ten minutes, a first. The ball was hoofed clear and it made its way up to the very front row of The Sleepy Hollow. There were a few cheers, a few jeers, and I found myself getting far too excited about it.

“That’s the first ever time, right?”

There had been shots that had ended up in the more central portion of the Matthew Harding Upper, but no ball had reached the corner section.

Fuck, I need to get out more.

Not long after, a move developed down our left. Alan had just been out to turn his bike around, and I looked up and moved to let him sidle past. With that, in the corner of my eye, I saw that Mason Mount had smashed a goal home, the lower corner.

Boom.

Oh well, I don’t miss too many.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

The goal was replayed on the TV screen. It was, undoubtedly, a fantastic strike.

There had been a rare, weak, shot from Richarlison, but Barkley played Willian into space down the right but his shot, from an angle, was palmed away down low by Pickford.

On twenty minutes, a neat interchange of passes between Gilmour, Giroud and Barkley – with a slide-rule pass which pleased us all – sent Pedro racing free. He had both sides of the goal to aim for, and it always looked like he would score. He chose the right side and score he did.

GET IN.

Thankfully there was no VAR annulment.

After a shaky moment from King Kurt, Richarlison broke and Dominic Calvert-Lewin wasted a good chance as his effort bounced wide, past Kepa in his all-black Lev Yashin kit.

We were purring in that first-half.

Great stuff.

Five minutes into the second period, I watched as a long passing move developed. It seemed to me that there was not one wasteful pass, every movement of the ball was purposeful. Eventually, Barkley played it to Willian, still some twenty-five yards out. He, like Pedro for the second-goal, had time to choose which side of the goal to aim for. Both sides were unprotected. His low strike flew in to the right of Pickford.

“Great goal.”

Willian slid into the corner.

Knees down Mother Brown.

Just three minutes later, Willian took a short corner, then slung the ball into the box. Olivier Giroud, showing a cunning willingness to get tough and get dirty, threw a leg at the ball as it curled down and past the Everton defenders.

Chelsea 4 Everton 0.

Beautiful.

Everton might have been playing in pink, but they certainly weren’t pretty. Off the pitch, there was disappointment too. There hadn’t been a peep out of the travelling Evertonians all game, and now some began to leave the away quadrant.

But did we make tons of noise? Not really.

The game safe, Frank fluttered a few cards from the pack.

Reece James for Mason Mount.

Tino Anjorin for Willian.

Armando Broja – a first-team debut – for Olivier Giroud.

Once or twice, the Matthew Harding sang “Carlo! Carlo! Carlo! Carlo!” but it was a rather underwhelming show of support for our former manager to be honest.

There were a few late flurries from us, and Kepa got down well to smother a cross from Theo Walcott, but no more goals were added to the tally. However, there was much to admire from our team on this Sunday afternoon. Billy Gilmour was just so pleasing on the eye. I love the look of him. He has a great mix of balance, vision, fluidity and tenaciousness.

He also has a wonderful footballer’s name.

Great work, Chelsea. Great work.

The Everton horror show at Stamford Bridge continued for one more season at least.

Chelsea were, as ever, dominant.

Played : 25

Won : 14

Drew 11

Lost : 0

For : 48

Against : 17

Bloody hell. I guess this was always going to be a home banker after all. A great performance, a reassuring one, and a much needed fillip after a few doubts among our supporters of late. More of the same please.

Right then. Aston Villa away on Saturday. See you there.

Tales From A Proper To Do

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 22 February 2020.

This had every chance to be a perfect day. After the gloom and the negativity and the cloud of depression after the Manchester United home game the previous Monday, here was Tottenham at home, the old enemy, a chance to get back into the saddle – players and supporters alike – and to cement our position in the all-important top four, or top five, if the City “thing” takes its proper course.

Yes, Tottenham is high risk, but revenge certainly was in the air. The whole club felt aggrieved after the VAR-inspired debacle against United, and – I was feeling quite gung-ho – here was a fantastic chance to get some sort of revenge against, well, everything.

Yes, it was Tottenham. Year on year our biggest home game in my book. But they were depleted. Kane was out, Son was out, Eriksen was no more, I was not unduly worried. I was worried, for sure, about Bayern Munich on the following Tuesday (the third of three blockbuster home games in just nine days) but that would take care of itself.

That Tottenham were now managed by Jose Mourinho seemed to be a lot less important than it should have been. A couple of days before the game, a fleeting vision of our former manager came into my head and then quickly left with little fuss, no concern. We are all over him now. He is an afterthought.

The week came and went. The days after Manchester United took its toll. I was not in a great place, football-wise. Eventually, I wrote the Manchester United blog on the Thursday night after putting it off for at least one evening. It became a cathartic experience. I shared my thoughts as honestly as I could. It must have struck a chord because it became one of my highest-viewed blogs.

Thank you.

I was up early. I was travelling alone to London. The other three Chuckle Brothers were driving up in a separate car. My good friend Jaro from Washington DC, mentioned in the Newcastle United and Aston Villa home games this season, had adeptly coerced his employer to let him work in London for a couple of days to enable him to take in both the Tottenham and Bayern Munich games. I had sorted his Bayern ticket, the Tottenham one needed a little work, but was quickly sorted too. While I was getting ridiculously excited about Buenos Aires the past month, Jaro was imitating me, but he was obsessing about London. I wanted to extend the time I was to spend with Jaro on his trip and we highlighted the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust meeting after the game as a good way of adding to his SW6 adventure. I then decided on the Wednesday to book a hotel so I really could spend some quality time with him, and relax and have a few beers throughout the day. There was a room available in Jaro’s hotel. The perfect day was coming together.

Hence the two Chuckle Busses.

I left my home village at 7am. PD left Frome at 7am too, and we would all meet up four hours later. It did feel odd driving to London for football alone. But it made for a pleasant change. I sped over Salisbury Plain, some music adding to the sense of freedom. Not all of my musical choices are appreciated by the other Chuckle Brothers, cough cough. I was parked up at Barons Court bang on time at 9.20am. Within twenty minutes I walked into the hotel just off Earl’s Court Road, no more than two minutes from the tube station.

At just after 10am, we walked into “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge. My good pal Dave – “Benches 1984” – was already there and supping a pint. It was his first visit to this homely little boozer and he immediately fell in love with it. I did the introductions between Jaro and Dave – Warsaw, now DC, and St. Albans, now Northampton – and we shared some laughs.

Three or four Old Bill walked in – there had been a similar presence before the West Ham game back in November – and twenty minutes later some of our faces walked in too. Drinks were ordered, and they stood outside, mobile phones at the ready.

Tottenham, it seemed, were in town.

At about 11.15am, we caught the District Line train up to Fulham Broadway and the three of us dipped into “Simmons” to tie up with The Chuckle Brothers and a few more familiar faces. Jaro recognised a few from his last trip in December.

I spoke to Rob, the pal who walked out on Monday night with fifteen minutes to go. We just hoped that there would not be – please God, no – a repeat against Tottenham.

Beers were quickly quaffed. It was time to head up to the game. It was mild outside. Walking past Fulham Broadway, we heard the clop of police horses heading up towards the North End Road where we heard on the grapevine there had been a stand-off involving a little mob of Tottenham outside “The Goose.”

Outside the West Stand, I took a photo of a smiling Jaro. The holocaust memorial was hanging to the right of the main entrance; quite striking.

Jaro peeled off to go into The Shed Upper.

I was inside the Matthew Harding with a nice fifteen minutes or so to go.

The team?

Frank had decided to repeat the formation that worked so well at Tottenham in December. In came, especially, Marcos Alonso.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Chistensen – Rudiger

James – Kovacic – Jorginho – Alonso

Barkley – Mount

Giroud

Tottenham’s team included several players who meant absolutely nothing to me.

The teams emerged. Both teams were wearing blue tracksuits, but these were peeled off to reveal Chelsea royal blue shirts and Tottenham lily-livered white shirts.

The “six trophies” flag was passed over the heads of those in The Shed Upper, close to where Jaro would be watching.

The game kicked-off.

A little cat-and-mouse, a low shot from an angle by Lucas Moura – “I recognise him” – was easily saved by Big Willy. Chelsea began to grow. A shot from Mount was saved by Hugo Lloris. Ross Barkley had impressed in the first few forays and a strong shot from him was met with a lovely and warm round of applause.

“Come on Chelsea.”

After fifteen minutes, with Chelsea definitely the stronger, Jorginho worked the ball beautifully to Olivier Giroud. His shot, inside the box, drew a low save from Lloris with his feet. The ball rebounded to Ross Barkley. His shot dambustered against the post, and – we were all on edge now – the ball rebounded out once more. Again, it fell at a Chelsea player’s feet. Olivier Giroud touched it once to control it and then smashed it heavenly home.

Shot, save, shot, post, shot, goal.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBASTARD.

Yes.

Noise, and then some.

In 1974, my second-ever Chelsea game and my first ever Chelsea vs. Tottenham game, we went 1-0 up early on via a John Hollins penalty. Jaro’s first-ever Chelsea vs. Tottenham game had started similarly.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

We quipped about VAR…”shall we wait?”

Nah.

Definite goal.

We smiled.

It had the feel of Kerry at Highbury in 1984 about it. Everyone up, then up, then up again.

For once, the scorer forgot about the protocol of running to the corners – definitely a Chelsea thing – and Giroud fell on the floor as he headed towards the Chelsea bench. He was swamped by his team mates. Click, click, click.

Such joy, such noise.

I needed to be with Rob, who was sitting five yards away. I raced up the steps…gave him a hug and said.

“That goal was kosher, mate.”

At that exact moment, the stadium groaned and we saw…dumbstruck…that the goal was being reviewed for a possible offside.

We were both silenced. No words.

I leaned on the crush barrier at the base of the steps, my head bowed, Rob alongside me, almost a mirror image. Oh my bloody God.

After a few seconds…agonising seconds…THIS IS NOT FOOTBALL…the goal stood.

I hate…well, you know the rest.

A magnificent shot from Marcos Alonso almost made it two-nil. We were running at Tottenham with one Willy in and one Willy out. We were creating danger and finding gaps. Mason Mount was the catalyst, a great show of aggressiveness and determination. I liked Barkley and Kovacic too. Giroud was leading the line well. At times, I felt Reece James was not used enough. He often had tons of space.

The noise was alright. Not 2000 levels, nor 2010, but not bad.

“Quietest I have known Tottenham, Al.”

Tottenham had one or two chances, and from a quick corner, Davidson Sanchez’ back-header looped up and Caballero did ever so well to back pedal and tip over the bar. There was a last chance for the away team as Caballero got his angles wrong but the ball just bounced past the far post.

But we were well on top at the break.

The second-half began. And how. It was a dream re-start.

Giroud headed on to a raiding Mason Mount. My camera was in my hand. I captured his jinking run, and his lay-off to Ross Barkley. I oddly captured the ball, all by itself, on its way to the trusted left boot of none other than Marcos Alonso.

His shot.

My shot.

His goal.

Our goal.

GET IN.

The lovely jump – “I thank you” – by Alonso was followed by him getting mobbed by all.

“Scenes.”

Beautiful.

It felt that Marcos Alonso should never leave us, even if he only plays two games a season until he is fifty years old. Where can I sign that petition?

Just after the goal, Ross Barkley turned on a sixpence down below us and walloped a great effort towards the goal that Lloris did well to block high under the bar.

We were purring.

Good times.

But modern football is modern football and VAR will not go away.

Well, dear reader, I have a semi-apology. Just in the same way that I never clearly saw the Harry Maguire incident on Monday – ironically in the same part of the pitch – I did not really see the horrific challenge by Giovani Lo Celso on Dave. I saw the tackle, but not the fine detail. Others – ha – had a much clearer view.

VAR was signalled, no red card, I didn’t know how to react. The game continued.

This was a lovely game, and a nice atmosphere, everyone happy with our general play and with Mason Mount really doing well. Despite the face mask hinting at a need to be a little cautious, I thought Andreas Christensen had a very fine game indeed. Top marks.

A couple of friends were to text me later – during the course of the game – that the VAR team at Stockley Park admitted to getting the red card call wrong which I would find laughable if it wasn’t so sad.

Fucking hell.

Chaos theory.

Stop the world I want to get off.

Tammy Abraham replaced the excellent Olivier Giroud on seventy-one minutes. Soon after, Willian replaced Barkley. Both received fine applause as they left the pitch.

Mason looked exhausted, and we thought he might be replaced. With that, he had a lovely burst of energy and laid a pass on a plate for Tammy, only six yards out, but his touch was not robust enough. Lloris easily saved. He later went close himself, but just ran out of steam.

Next, a trademark swipe of a free-kick from Marcos Alonso, now revelling in this game. His beautiful effort smacked the crossbar. The whole goal frame shook.

Tottenham did have a fair run of the ball in the last twenty minutes, but never looked like being able to do anything with it. Their late consolation – a poor excuse of a goal, a Lamela shot that limply hit Antonio Rudiger’s leg to trickle past Caballero – gave the game a little edge, but we held on.

So, this season –

Tottenham Hotspur 0 Chelsea 2

Chelsea 2 Tottenham Hotspur 1

Franktastic.

Walking out, I posted on “Facebook” with a nod to Tottenham’s “Audere est Facere” motto.

“To do is to beat Tottenham.”

Bollocks to daring, we just do it.

Year after fucking year.

At the Peter Osgood statue, I met up with Jaro, who had clearly enjoyed the most perfect of experiences.

“Enjoy this mate. Soak it all up. These moments don’t come by too often. Let’s go get a beer.”

We retired to “The Atlas” and attended the CST meeting. Sadly, the representatives from the Metropolitan Police – who had been pencilled in for a Q&A session regarding the policing of Stamford Bridge – were ironically “otherwise engaged”.

Well it was Chelsea Tottenham, after all.

What a to do.

We stayed for a while, we chatted to a few good folk, then headed into town for some more “Peroni.”

It had, indeed, been a perfect day.

Tales From A Crossroads

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 17 February 2020.

There had been a break of sixteen long days between our last league fixture away to Leicester City and our home game with Manchester United. It was such a long break that it enabled me to travel to South America and back, but more of that later. And we were now faced with three top notch home games within the space of just ten days.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur.

Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich.

It felt like the start of the second-half of the season.

And how!

These were three huge matches.

Welcome back everyone.

I worked from 7am to 3pm, and then joined PD – the driver – Lord Parky and Sir Les for the drive to London.

“Bloody hell, lads, how long ago was the last home game? Arsenal, wasn’t it? A month ago? Feels like it, too.”

There were a few questions from the lads concerning my trip to Buenos Aires, but the conversation soon dried up and I took the chance to catch up on some sleep on the familiar drive to London. These Monday evening flits to London are typically tiresome, an imperfect start to the week, a tough ask. I enjoyed an hour’s shut-eye. PD made very good time and we were parked-up at the usual place by 5.30pm.

In “The Goose” – it was so good to briefly see Wycombe Stan who is not in the best of health – and in “Simmons” a few people enquired of my trip to Argentina. I could only utter positives about the whole experience. In fact, as I had initially feared when my trip came to fruition, the only negative about my week in Buenos Aires could well be that the modern day English football experience – watered down, moneyed, sedentary, muted, played-out – would pale, completely and utterly, by comparison.

Little did I know that on this night, against Manchester United, my first game back, there was to be such a brutal and harrowing comparison between the Primera Division in Argentina and the Premier League in England.

Argentina 2020 had slowly evolved over the past few years. Ever since I read the Simon Inglis book “Sightlines” in 2000, Buenos Aires was on my radar. As I explained in a recent tale, this wonderful book – concerning various sporting stadia throughout the world – was underpinned with regular chapters in which the author attempted to visit as many of Buenos Aires’ twenty-five plus professional football stadia in a crazy few days in 1999.

The four chapters were referred to as “Ciudad de los Estadios”.

I took “Sightlines” with me on my trip.

A few passages made me smile, a few passages made me think, a few passages made me question my own sanity, my own credibility.

“Maybe I am a train spotter at heart, ticking off the stadiums for no other reason than to say that I’ve seen them. The words of the American novelist Sinclair Lewis came to mind : ‘He who has seen one cathedral fifty times, knows something. He who has seen fifty cathedrals once knows nothing.’ “

“There are more football grounds in Buenos Aires than in any other city in the world. Not just dozens of ordinary grounds, however, but a whole string of major stadiums, each holding thirty, forty, fifty thousand or more spectators, all within a few square miles of each other. A comment in a Buenos Aires newspaper seemed to confirm as much. It read “we have more stadiums than public libraries. Never has so much knowledge of football been possessed by so illiterate a people.”

“Before I left for the airport, my wife kissed my furrowed brow. ‘Just go with the flow,’ she counselled. ‘It doesn’t matter if you don’t get to them all.’ What did she mean, not get to them all?”

“In 1869, Buenos Aires had 187,000 inhabitants. By 1914, there were over 1.5 million, a figure which would double over the next fifteen years. Most of the immigrants were European, so forming a neighbourhood football club was as natural as unpacking grandma’s pots and pans.”

“There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. I wish I had written that line. But the Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano got there first.”

“If there is one thing I love more than a good map it is a great stadium at the end of a long bout of map reading.”

With the kick-off at 8pm, there was more than ample time for a few drinks in both pubs, and some chat with some pals. I’d suggest that the inaugural winter break was originally met with the derision when it was announced for this season – “we need our football!” – but a lovely by-product of it was the chance for me to head off to exotic climes (my jaunt to Argentina was my first-ever holiday in search of winter sun in my entire life) and a few pals took the chance to explore other exotic locations. My break, I know, did me the world of good.

However, I did find it typically English that the subsequent FA Cup fifth round games then had to be squeezed into a midweek slot. Less games here, more games here. What a Jackie Brambles

The team news came through.

Still no Kepa.

Michy up front.

With no other options, Pedro and Willian – the old couple – were the wingers.

Caballero

James – Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Kovacic – Kante

Willian – Batshuayi – Pedro

We made our way to Stamford Bridge on a cold night. I bumped into Rick Glanvill, the club historian, outside the West Stand. We briefly mused about Buenos Aires. Quick as a flash, Rick mentioned Chelsea’s South American tour in 1929 when we played eight games in the Argentinian capital.

I was in with around ten minutes to spare. There was the usual dimming of the lights, some electronic wizardry and flames, followed by the derisory chant from the away section of “what the fookin’ hell was that”?

It was almost a year to the day since United beat us 2-0 in last season’s FA Cup. Since then, we drew at Old Trafford in the league last season, lost to them on the opening day of the season at Old Trafford this season and lost to them in the League Cup in October at Stamford Bridge. And they are a poor team. It felt right that we should get some sort of revenge on them. The last time we beat United was at the 2018 FA Cup Final.

Ciudad de los Estadios : Argentinos Juniors vs. Lanus, Friday 7 February 2020

I spotted two new banners.

In the East Stand, one for Frank Lampard : “Player. Manager. Legend.”

In The Shed : “Peter Bonetti, The Cat.”

Proud to say I put a few bob behind the latter one.

I was genuinely surprised that there was no minute’s silence, or appreciation, for Harry Gregg – a survivor of the Munich air disaster in 1958 – before the game began.

As always, we attacked the Shed in the first-half and I was generally rather pleased with our play for most of the first half. Our passing and movement – or movement and passing – was fine, and nobody impressed me more than Mateo Kovacic, whose drive from deep was very heartening. We had a little array of chances early on.

Two things to note.

Nemamja Matic and his shorts. Huge.

Harry Maguire and his boots. Yellow. Fucking yellow. Like fucking Bananaman. Ridiculous.

Sadly, N’Golo Kante pulled up in the first quarter of an hour and was replaced by Mason Mount.

The United fans, usually the noisiest season on season, were discernibly quiet. Maybe they were just as embarrassed about Maguire’s boots as I was.

But then the “Rent Boys” chant began and we all tut-tutted in faux outrage.

There was a bit of noise from us in the first part of the game, but nothing to write home about.

The incident between Maguire and Batshuayi on the far touchline passed me by to be honest. I saw a crunch of bodies, but the fine detail was lost. Up came a VAR moment on the scoreboard, but nothing was given. At the time, I had no clue as to who was the aggressor and who was the aggressed.

A lovely move right from our own box, involving yet more lovely passing and movement had us all purring, but a weak finish from Batshuayi – who had started promisingly – caused the first of a few groans throughout the night.

The Willian yellow card seemed appropriate. It looked like a dive from even one hundred yards away.

United, though not dominating at all, came into the game a little. Anthony Martial wasted their best chance of the game when he tamely shot wide of the far post after easily getting behind a defender.

In the dying embers of the first-half, Aaron Wan-Bissaka twisted Willian into oblivion and his snappy cross was glanced in by Martial, who had edged past his marker.

Bollocks.

Here we go again.

We were crestfallen.

Sadly, Batshuayi did not force a save from De Gea as he scuffed a shot from an angle.

Weak finishing and defensive lapses? Sounds like a broken record, doesn’t it?

Ciudad de los Estadios : Boca Juniors vs. Atlético Tucumán , Saturday 8 February 2020

So, a cruel blow had left us 1-0 down at the break. It seemed that we had been unlucky. We hoped for our luck to improve in the second-half. On came Kurt Zouma for Andreas Christensen, evidently injured in the closing moments of the first period.

Very soon into the second-half, a Willian corner – which cleared the first man! – was headed home by Kurt Zouma, down and low, De Gea no chance. He sped away to the far corner.

GET IN.

Back in it and deservedly so.

But wait. After a few moments, the dreaded VAR was signalled.

What for?

No idea.

We did not know.

After a little wait…”I don’t like this”…no goal.

So, celebrations nullified, the emotions deleted, I stood in a daze.

The annoying thing for me, here, is that the spectators / fans / customers in the stadium were shown a brief repeat of the goal in which I saw a United player sprawl to the floor. But at no time was there a clear and valid reason for the goal being disallowed being shared with those of us in the stadium.

We could only guess.

That cannot be right, can it?

This seemed to harm us, and our play did not flow. The mood among the home fans worsened. I am obviously too naïve to expect the Chelsea supporters to rally behind the team with a barrage of noise, to lift the players and to scare the living daylights out of United. Because it didn’t happen.

And here’s a startling comparison between England and Argentina. Those who read these reports will know that I often make a note of how long it takes for a stadium-wide chant or song to envelope the entire stadium. Often at Chelsea, it can take fifteen minutes – like in this game – or as long as half an hour or even more. In Argentina, in two of the three games, this moment came half an hour before kick-off.

Incidentally, in Argentina, there are songs, often long songs. In Europe we tend to go for short venomous chanting. I prefer the European model.

Ciudad de los Estadios : Racing vs. Independiente , Sunday 9 February 2020

United hit the post from a free-kick and from the ensuing corner, Maguire thumped a header down and past Caballero.

“Definition of a fucking free header, that.”

Bollocks.

These defensive lapses are the trademark of our season. Damn it.

Olivier Giroud, the forgotten man, replaced the miss-firing Michy. Just like with the introduction of Zouma, the substitution seemed to produce an instant hit. Mason shaped to cross from the right and I had spotted the movement of the substitute.

“Go on Giroud, feed him in, feed him in.”

The cross was on the money. An adept stooping header by the substitute, and we were back in it.

GET IN YOU BASTARDS.

Twenty minutes left. We can do this.

We waited for the restart.

Oh no.

Oh no.

VAR.

Fuck this.

A wait.

No goal.

No fucking goal.

We stood silent and still, our emotions having ran their course.

At least, I knew that it was for offside via the TV screen announcement. At least the folk in the stadium had been treated correctly. How nice of them.

In the scheme of things, fair enough.

But for all of these VAR decisions, how much have we lost?

How much?

I’d say nearly everything.

We go to football, not only to support our team, not only to meet up with mates, but for that prospect of losing it when a goal is scored.

That moment. Ecstasy. Limbs. The rush. The buzz. There is nothing like it.

That has been taken away from us in every single game we see.

Many of the spectators around me left. The Bridge seemed dead, lifeless, spent.

Back in Buenos Aires, my new pal Victor had smiled as he said “at least there is no VAR here.”

Even in Argentina, it is hated.

My good friend Rob apologised as he passed me, and would later comment on “Facebook.”

“I’ve never left a game early. Tonight, I realised what I’d worried about all season. Football is dead. I’ve left roughly fifteen minutes early. I didn’t even stand to celebrate Giroud’s goal. I don’t actually want to come to football anymore. VAR has done what my ex-wife tried to do for years. Put me off coming to football.”

My good mate Kev would comment on “Facebook.”

“I honestly believe that if we have a fiasco Saturday, even in our favour, that will be my last game. Munich all paid up, but it won’t matter. It’s not in the spirit of the game. If you’re in the house or the pub, I guess it’s great. If like us you’re match going, it’s diabolical.”

In the last seconds of the game, Mason Mount hit the post but by that time nobody fucking cared.

At the final whistle, or soon after, my comment on Facebook was this.

“Football. But with life drained out of it.”

And that is how I felt, and how many felt. It seems that football is trying its best to kill the golden goose. Football resurrected itself after the troubles of the ‘seventies and ‘eighties – although I miss the passion of those days, I don’t miss the violence – and football has been at the absolute epicentre of our national identity for ever and ever. England’s sport is not cricket, nor rugby, nor tennis, nor horse racing, nor boxing, nor hockey.

It’s football.

With all its flaws.

But VAR is killing it, and not even slowly.

The mood was sombre.

But it was more than that.

I was just numbed by the whole sorry mess.

There was disappointment, obviously, that we had succumbed to a poor United team. There is work to do, as we knew from day one. I’m right behind Frank, nothing has changed, there is no fresh news. I love him to bits. His post-match interview was as intelligent and brutally honest, frank, as ever. I want him to succeed so fucking much. The next two games are as huge as they get.

But the over-riding emotion centered on VAR. And that can’t be right. I hate it with a bloody passion.

Outside the West Stand, under the Peter Osgood statue, I met up with a chap – Ross – to receive a ticket for an upcoming game. Alongside him – blatant name drop coming up – was the Irish novelist Roddy Doyle, he of “The Commitments”, “The Van” and “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.” It was a pleasure to meet him.

We grumbled about VAR.

Roddy quipped about how scoring a goal is always likened to an orgasm, and now with VAR, even that pleasure is being taken away.

Imagine that, eh?

When is an orgasm not an orgasm?

Fackinell.

I replied.

“Well, with VAR and no orgasms, at least there are plenty of clean sheets.”

I walked back to the car.

A cheeseburger with onions at “Chubby’s Grill” and three – fucking three! – bars of chocolate could not dull the pain of VAR.

I slept like a baby on the way home.

It feels like I am at a crossroads. It seems almost implausible that I can even consider giving up football – Chelsea – but I simply cannot stomach another twenty years of VAR. It is as hideous a prospect as I can ever imagine, but I might – might – walk away.

God only knows I loathe much of modern football as it is. I always thought that it would be the dreaded thirty-ninth game in Adelaide, Beijing, Calcutta or Durban that might be the last straw, but the dynamic has changed since August.

Could I live without Chelsea? Of course I will always be a fan, a supporter, but how could I live without the sanctity of going to games? I shudder to think. Already, many mates go for a drink-up at Chelsea but don’t go in. Is that on the cards for me? I don’t know.

What would I do on weekends?

I’d go to see Frome Town.

I’d collect football stadia.

After all, I have stadiumitis and I have it bad.

The Maracana? Yes please.

The Azteca? Yes please.

Atletico Bilbao’s new stadium?

That stadium in Braga with a rock face behind one goal?

I still have a few stadia to see in Budapest.

A return to Buenos Aires? Yes. After all, that art deco tower – pure Flash Gordon – at Huracan warrants a trip all by itself.

Yes. I like this.

But life without Chelsea?

Fucking hell.

If – and it is obviously a massive “if”- I decide to walk away, it will be the right decision and the correct decision…

Don’t cry for me.

If anybody feels as desperate as me, please sign this.

https://www.change.org/p/the-premier-league-remove-the-use-of-the-video-assistant-referee-var-from-premier-league-football?recruiter=false&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=psf_combo_share_initial&utm_term=psf_combo_share_initial&recruited_by_id=21029800-5279-11ea-8486-eb0cd2d9b781&utm_content=fht-19272164-en-gb%3Av13

Tales From Three Seasons In One Day

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 1 February 2020.

We were parked up on Shakespeare Street, a red-bricked terrace street about half a mile from the King Power Stadium, at about 10.15am. I have been parking here for all the visits to Leicester City ever since my first visit to their new stadium in 2015. For many years, I never made it to Leicester. My first visit was during 1984/85 – more of that later – but for the next thirty years I didn’t make it, for various reasons. Before I was a season ticket holder, I was never sure of a ticket. Since I became a season ticket holder, I wasn’t always able to attend due to financial constraints, circumstances and then personal choice. I was on holiday in the US for our FA Cup game in 2004, I was trapped in my village after a sudden snowfall for our FA Cup game in 2018. For our League Cup game a few seasons back, I simply chose not to go.

But Shakespeare Street serves us well. It is to the south of King Power Stadium, so after the game it affords relatively quick access onto the city’s ring road and then further escape routes. I was tipped off about it by my friend Tim, who I have known – through work – since 2003. Tim and I had arranged to meet at “The Counting House” pub before the game and I quickly texted him to let him know I was already parked up.

We had set off from Frome at 7am. It was a fine trip up from the south-west of England. It was great to have Parky with us again. From Mells to Frome to collect PD, to Bradford-on-Avon, to Holt for Parky, through Melksham, past Chippenham, past Malmesbury, past Cirencester, past Bourton-on-the-Water, past Stow-on-the-Wold, through Moreton-in-Marsh, through Wellesbourne, past Warwick, past Coventry, to Hinckley.

And Leicester.

A straight line.

Along the Fosse Way, the Roman road, to see Roman’s legions in the heart of England.

It is one of my favourite roads.

Under the familiar railway bridge, PD and Parky strode slowly on. The sun caught the iron of the bridge against the rich blue of the sky above. It was cold, but not bitterly so. We reached “The Counting House” at 10.45am and it was already open. It was packed, predominantly with Chelsea. We sat outside.

One single pint of lager apiece, not much time nor need for anything else.

Tim and his son Oliver soon arrived, last featured in these reports for the 2015 game. We chatted a little about football, a little about work, a little about football again.

Tim’s company has recently taken some office furniture for us down to Geneva which would eventually end up at the UEFA HQ in Nyon.

Oliver was trusted with taking the photographs.

“You’re not charging me are you? I know what your father is like.”

Another work acquaintance – a fellow P&O work colleague – Sally then arrived and it was lovely to see her once again. Sally covered me while I was on holiday to see Chelsea in the US in 2009 and although we have both left P&O we have kept in touch. I have not seen her since 2009. Where does the time go? And who could possibly have predicted that both of our teams would have become league champions in the ensuing years.

After Chelsea’s twin successes in 2004/5 and 2005/6, success was in no way guaranteed. That we have won the league on three further occasions is magical. For Leicester City to have won it in 2015/16 is beyond words.

I gave Sal a hug.

At just before midday, Tim, Oliver and I set off.

There was talk of the old ground, Filbert Street, just a few hundred yards to the north. In the 2015 match report, I mentioned the 1985 visit.

“I spotted the large electricity pylons and associated electricity sub-station that I had recognised from my visit to Filbert Street in February 1985. The station was just to the south of Filbert Street. It is just to the north of the King Power Stadium; the two sites are very close. I also spotted the new stand roof at Leicester’s Welford Road rugby union stadium too. I remember being escorted past that stadium, a very thin police escort at that, after the game at Filbert Street all those years ago.”

By some odd quirk, the game in 1985 was on Saturday 2 February. The two games almost exactly collided.

Yes, I have strong memories of that match in 1985. In fact, I always have vivid and intense memories of those first one-hundred Chelsea games that I attended.

I travelled alone, by train, from Stoke to Derby and then a change of trains to Leicester. A solitary walk to Filbert Street and its gorgeously lopsided stands; two huge, two miniscule. I had plenty of time on my hands. I circumnavigated the ground, nestled alongside terraced streets. I met Glenn inside, in the seats alongside the pitch; he had travelled up from Frome with a Crystal Palace fan, though in the subsequent years neither of us can remember his name. We had loads there. It kicked-off in the top tier of the double-decker behind the goal. There were pockets of Chelsea inside the home areas, no doubt intending to “mix it.” Chelsea in the yellow Le Coq Sportif. Eddie Niedzwiecki in a red jersey. We drew 1-1, an early Gary Lineker goal but David Speedie equalised with a penalty. After the game, there was indeed a minimal police escort, but a lot of Chelsea kept peeling off to front up with mobs of locals. Those narrow terraced streets, like at so many old grounds, were so difficult to police. Passing a park, now Nelson Mandela Park, I looked back to see fights breaking out everywhere. I remember standing on a platform at the station, saying “goodbye” to Glenn as he headed back to Frome, while I waited for a train back to Derby. The atmosphere in the train station was still feral a good hour after the game. There was still a huge malevolent buzz in the air.

A different era.

Outside the King Power, I bumped into the two Neils from Nuneaton. Thoughts of the 1984/85 era came to our minds again. On the previous day, I was stunned and saddened to hear that Dale Jasper – a Chelsea player in 1983/84 and 1984/85 – had passed away at the early age of just fifty-six.

It was a shocking piece of news.

Because Dale Jasper only played a few games, around fifteen, and because he was so young at the time, he will always remain encapsulated in my memory as “young Dale Jasper”, even though he was eighteen months older than me.

A few close friends were choked when we heard the news on Friday.

One of the 1983/84 team – my dream team, my dream season, my favourite ever year – was no longer with us. And it seemed impossible that young Dale Jasper was the first of the gang to die.

There was a lovely eulogy to Dale Jasper by Pat Nevin on the official CFC website. Pat, like me, likened him to Glenn Hoddle. In an era of rough and tumble, the lithe Jasper could certainly control a ball and “ping” a pass. I saw his debut, the iconic and infamous 3-3 at Ninian Park in 1984, and he was also present at the equally iconic and equally infamous game at Highbury later that year. He played in the “Canoville” game at Hillsborough, the 4-4, in 1985, but also gave away two penalties in the League Cup semi-final at Roker Park in the same League Cup campaign.

Dale Jasper certainly packed a lot into his short Chelsea career.

He later played for Brighton & Hove Albion and Crewe Alexandra.

He was on the same Facebook group as myself. I occasionally “liked” one or two of his comments, though we were not Facebook friends. I just wanted to share the love for a player that I admired, albeit briefly.

The two Neils and I spoke about Dale Jasper.

RIP.

These photos from inside and outside Filbert Street show the double-decker, shared between home and away fans, and Wee Pat racing over to sign an autograph for some lucky Chelsea fan.

In 2015, I sat away from the rest of the Chelsea support.

“Due to the club’s cock-eyed decision to let tickets for this potentially key fixture to be sold with no loyalty points system in operation, Parky unfortunately missed out. I therefore needed to ask for a favour from Tim for an extra ticket. Within ten minutes of my call, Tim sorted me out a ticket in the home stand. On the basis that I could trust myself among the home fans rather than Parky, we agreed that it would be circumspect for him to have my ticket alongside Alan and Gary in the away corner. And I was in Tim’s seat, incognito. Everyone was happy.”

That was a great game – remembered for an incredible sunset – and I was, fortuitously at the right end to capture celebrations of our three second-half goals. It was a fantastic night. That fifth title was within touching distance.

Back to 2020, I made it inside the stadium – no more than fifteen yards away from my seat in May, but behind the corner flag this time – with about fifteen minutes to go.

I approached Alan and Gary.

“Alright lads? Been a tough week.”

For not only had the Chelsea family lost Dale Jasper on Friday, we also lost Chris Vassallo on Wednesday. I only knew Chris over the past five years; I seem to remember chatting to him in Tel Aviv in 2015 for the very first time. But every time we brushed past each other, he would offer his hand and say “alright, Chris” and I would do the same. He seemed a lovely bloke. Always there. As kick-off approached, I looked hard to see if I could spot his close friends Ali and Nick. I spotted them, quite a few rows back, and patted my chest.

The teams arrived.

I took a photo and posted it on “Facebook.”

“Remembering Chris and Dale. Let’s go to work, Chelsea.”

The big news was that Kepa was no longer our ‘keeper. In came Willy Caballero. I was quite surprised that Tammy Abraham had been declared to be match-fit. Pedro retained his place ahead of Willian. Another slight surprise.

Caballero

James – Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Kante – Mount

Pedo – Abraham – Hudson-Odoi

What a fine first-half. In fact, very soon into it, I commented to Alan “much better than last season’s game” which was truly, truly horrific.

The low winter sun was causing Kasper Schmeichel a few problems as Chelsea dominated the game from the off. We passed well, and used the flanks. The away crowd were right in to the game from the off, with plenty of noise booming around the north-east corner. There was the usual expected “bants” between both sets of fans, though the geezer in the adjacent Leicester section with the drum needed to be constantly reminded of his “hobbies”.

Frustratingly, there was an “air shot” from Callum Hudson-Odoi and this drew moans and groans from all. This seemed to affect his confidence a little, and his play was a little within himself. A cross from our left from Dave then just evaded Tammy Abraham. More groans. But then, lovely, an immediate chant of support.

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

Top marks.

Despite Callum’s troubles on our right, Reece James took up the gauntlet. He was soon attacking at will down that flank after being released by various team mates. One sumptuous cross into the danger area was just perfection but Tammy read it slightly late.

A ball was played in, by Pedro I think, and Tammy twisted inside the box. There was a slight hint of a trip. He was certainly sprawled on the turf.

After a while, the Chelsea crowd – not Alan, not Gary, not me, not Parky – screamed.

“VAR. VAR. VAR. VAR.”

Give me strength.

After the usual lengthy delay, the call did not go our way.

The Chelsea crowd changed their tune.

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

Alan looked at me and I looked at Alan.

“They can’t have it both ways, Al.”

Sigh.

“Fuck me, how do these morons find their way to work in the mornings?”

I can only hope that these people, if they voted on the European Union referendum in 2016, voted with a little more conviction and a little less fickleness than with which they now vote for VAR.

Midway through the half, the Chelsea noise diminished slightly, there was a classic Leicester City chance for Jamie Vardy but Caballero saved brilliantly well. It was their sole chance thus far. Pedro was involved often in this period, and one halting run ended up with a subtle lob towards goal, but Schmeichel back-peddled well and tipped over. Callum was trying to get into the groove. But one step forward, two steps back. The diagonal from Rudiger, and from others, to Reece and Callum was a common occurrence.

There was a hint of rain, but mainly the sun shone.

We kept driving at the Leicester defence. Reece James was solid, he had focus, and he was our finest player of the half. Another cross from Reece, right on the money, and another whisker away from Tammy. A rushed shot from Callum ballooned over the bar. More groans.

But the home team were now coming into the game. Efforts from them caused a little worry for our defence.

There was a classic chance for Vardy just before the break.

“Here we go.”

Amazingly, he fluffed his lines.

Just after, a Leicester City corner was met by a strong unchallenged leap by Hamza Choudury, but his equally strong header was down but wide.

Phew.

In the first minute of the second-half, a corner to Chelsea from the same side of the ground as the Leicester effort before the break. Mason Mount hit it deep, and the ball fell at virtually the same place as the Leicester cross. Rudiger rose, repeated the Choudhury downward header, but this time the ball ended up in the goal.

GET IN.

Alan : “Thay’ll ‘ave ta come at us nah.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

There was a magical reflex save from close in by Caballero from Ben Chilwell – arms and legs at all angles – but Leicester were back in this game.

As Harvey Barnes l approached, I yelled.

“Don’t let him come inside ya.”

With that, he did. The shot took a deflection and it curled and spun past the dive of Oor Wullie.

Bollocks.

Barnes’ little pirouette in front of us made me ill.

I turned to Al.

“Game of two halves.”

We were letting our hold slip in this half and our attacking play quickly slowed.

On 56 minutes, Dale Jasper’s age, I hoped for a chant in his honour.

There was nothing, nothing at all. There had been nothing all game.

No words.

Ten minutes later, a cross from the Leicester City rose high, and I watched Caballero react to it. He watched the ball fall and he raced, unsure of himself, towards it, but it fell way in front of him. I watched as he raced back. The ball was recycled – is that the buzz word these days? – and it fell at Ben Chilwell’s feet. He slammed it home. Caballero was close to it, but not close enough. I am, if I am honest, not sure if he had not carried out his wild sortie he would still have saved it.

I certainly felt sorry for Willy, who until then had been more than fine.

But I did turn to Alan and say :

“I am sure Kepa would have stayed in his six-yard box.”

And I absolutely felt sorry for Frank, his gamble – which is what it certainly was – had backfired.

Oh these defensive lapses, Chelsea.

Fucksake.

There was another fine Caballero save. This drew some praise.

[Inside my head] : “We seem to have run out of ideas. Maybe we need to lump it to Rudi again.”

Seven minutes after we went behind, Dave was fouled on our left. Mason Mount floated it in. This was another long, deep cross, and Toni Rudiger rose again. Unlike the first goal, a sudden downward stab, this was a lofted floating lob that dropped wonderfully into the yawning goal, with Schmiechel nowhere.

We celebrated that one truly, madly, deeply.

Get in.

Frank Lampard rang some changes.

Kovacic for Jorginho.

Willian for Pedro.

Then, very oddly.

Barkley for Abraham.

Well, answers on a postcard.

Gary and I quickly discussed false nines and we didn’t like it.

“Regardless of the formation, every team still needs a goal scorer.”

Then, I felt dirty for even thinking it…

[Inside my head] : “Surely this isn’t a Mourinho-esque swipe by Frank at the board for not backing him in his search for an elastoplast striker in the January window?”

“Nah.”

Our play ran out of ideas. Willian did well at first then dipped. Barkley struggled. In the last few minutes, the home team were gifted two golden chances.

A Johnny Evans header, wide.

Phew.

A shot from Harvey Barnes, wide.

Phew.

Then, the ball was played in to our box and Rudiger seemed to turn and flick his hand towards the ball. Everyone around me feared the absolute worst, we honestly did.

No penalty.

Phew.

At the final whistle, some positives surely.

A good game, a point apiece was a fair result. Leicester City are no mugs, a fine team. Drawing at the team in third place is absolutely alright.

On the way out, I chatted to a few mates. Our first-ever Winter break is upon us. Mark is off to Las Vegas, Scott is off to Australia. I am not honestly sure where Chelsea are ending up – a place in the sun surely? – but I am off too.

I am off to Buenos Aires on Tuesday for some sun and some football.

We reconvene in over two weeks for the visit of Manchester United.

See you there.

Postscript : 1985 / 2015 / 2020 Updated.

Attendances.

1985 – 15,657.

2015 – 32,021.

2020 – 32, 186.

Capacities.

1985 – 29,000.

2015 – 32,500.

2020 – 32,312.

Away Fans.

1985 – 4,000.

2015 – 3,000.

2020 – 3,000.

Seat Tickets.

1985 – £4.50 on day of game.

2015 – £40 in advance.

2020 – £30 in advance.

Club Owners.

1985 – English.

2015 – Thai and Russian.

2020 – Thai and Russian.

The Chelsea Players.

1985 – English, Welsh, Scottish.

2015 – Czech, Serbian, Spanish, English, Belgian, Brazilian and Ivorian.

2020 – Argentinian, English, Danish, German, Spanish, French and Italian.

Heroes.

1985 – Dixon, Speedie, Nevin.

2015 – Hazard, Terry, Diego Costa.

2020 – Kante and two others to be decided upon on a weekly basis.

Chelsea Kits.

1985 – all yellow.

2015 – all yellow.

2020 – black and orange.

Chelsea Songs.

1985 – “You’re gonna get your fucking heads kicked in.”

2015 – “Champions of England, you’ll never sing that.”

2020 – “Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that.”

After The Game.

1985 – Police escort, scuffles everywhere.

2015 – Normality.

2020 – Normality and a cheeseburger with onions.

1985

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

2015

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

2020

Parky, Gary, Alan and myself featured after our first goal.

https://www.chelseafc.com/en/videos/v/2020/02/01/_-antonio-rudiger-brace-earns-chelsea-a-point-on-his-100th-blues-Zxa2w0ajE6xzyOKeMoOqaZEbI7CrShWt?fbclid=IwAR0-UYXfbmQWYffN3oyCA_Jej4c_llJAMztwJ8_ak-cCf6CH8_76MA9Iijg

 

Tales From The Minerva

Hull City vs. Chelsea : 25 January 2020.

The third game in eight days was another away day in the North of England. After gliding past Nottingham Forest in the third round of the FA Cup, we were drawn against Hull City who are enjoying – or not – a middling season in The Championship.

On my four previous visits to Kingston upon Hull, I had driven up and back from each and every one of them on the day of the game. But it’s a tough, tough ask. It’s around a ten-hour return trip by car. For this game we decided to stay the Saturday night. As the weekend quickly approached, the trip took over my thoughts. There was plenty to keep me pleasantly occupied.

I needed to plan a pub crawl, probably based around the marina. On my last visit to Hull during the 2016/17 season – the match report was titled “Tales From A Day Of Sobriety” – I had left Parky and PD in a large “Spoons” in the city centre, while I pottered off on a little walk around the city centre and the marina. I spotted a few pubs and I made a mental note of their whereabouts. I hoped for a larger, more expansive, tour this time around.  There would be no sobriety on this visit.

I was also looking forward – with a kind of schoolboy giddiness – to seeing us in our beautiful blue and yellow FA kit once again.

And there was the matter of the hotel that I had booked. I had sorted out some digs close to City’s KCOM Stadium for the princely sum of £29 for two rooms. I was intrigued, for the want of a better word, how that would pan out.

The game? That would take care of itself.

Let’s go to Hull.

My alarm was set for 4.30am on Saturday morning and I woke a few minutes ahead of it. After a strong coffee, I was ready. This was going to be another long day, but it would be a day that we live for. I fuelled up nearby and collected the father-and-son combination of P-Diddy Daddy-O and Scott at 6am.

Everything was dark until we stopped at Strensham Services on the M5 for a McBreakfast at 7.30am. From then on, the day slowly broke. I made excellent time and the morning flew past. I rarely drive up the M1 for football and I was enjoying the change of scene. After passing East Midlands Airport on the A42, I spotted the familiar cooling towers to the east at Ratcliffe on Soar as I joined the M1 and these signalled, to me anyway, that my journey to “The North” was in full flow. There would be cooling towers-a-plenty on the road to Hull.

Unlike the M6 to the west of the midlands which is predominantly flat, the M1 undulates as it takes everyone north. It’s not a photogenic road. For miles upon mile, the motorway is flanked by huge distribution warehouses, retail parks, the flattened hills of former coal-mining areas, and cooling towers. Past Mansfield, past Chesterfield. Signposts for the footballing cities of Sheffield and Leeds.

There were bittersweet memories of my second and third visits to see Chelsea play at Hull City.

In January 2014 – my match report was titled “Tales From A Road Less Travelled” – I collected friends Andy, Alan and Seb in the midlands en route – and headed up to Hull. The game resulted in a standard 2-0 win for Chelsea, but marks the last game that I attended before my mother became incapacitated through rheumatism. By the time of the next visit in March 2015, barely a year later, my mother had sadly passed away and it was my first away game since her death. On that visit, a 3-2 win on our way to a title, I felt rather numbed by everything. I called that one “Tales From The Beautiful North” and it summed up my melancholy mood. It was a delicate, tender blue day. Memories, no doubt, raced back to the half-term holiday of October 1973 when I first visited Hull with my parents, a day trip from visiting friends in Grimsby, a ferry over the Humber from New Holland, the huge bridge far from completed.

Bridges and elevated sections took us over the rivers which would eventually drift into The Humber. We veered off onto the M18. As we hit the M62, my eyes focussed on the far horizon in several directions. A bleak vista was dominated by cooling towers and wind turbines. It all started to resemble a bleak scene from a sci-fi film.

The winds howl over these flat lands.

Another bridge took us over the wonderfully named River Ouse. Out and away, Hull was not too far now. I drove on past the huge Humber Bridge, the World’s longest until 1998, and I was soon on Clive Sullivan Way, named after a rugby league icon.

In the pub on Tuesday, my pal Tim from Bristol spoke of his last visit to Hull in 2016. If anyone remembers, it was our first game of the long unbeaten run, win after win after win. But on that day, just as he reached the city’s inner suburbs, he spotted a rag and bone man, with cart and horse, like a latter day “Steptoe & Son.” He then spotted a bare-chested man riding a horse through the streets.

Bloody hell, a real city on the edge.

As I drove through the surprisingly wide streets of Hull, I found myself behind a van carrying scrap. I half expected Dublin-style horses to gallop past.

Welcome to Hull.

At around 10.30am we had reached base camp, our hotel on Anlaby Road.

Well. What can I say? It was a pub, with rooms, but hardly worthy of a single star, not so much a hotel as a notel. I soon posted my thoughts on “Facebook.”

“Well, our £7.50 a night hotel has lived down to expectations.”

Much banter followed.

We booked in, and at 11am the barman poured the first pints of the day for us. Friends much further south were yet to set off. You can’t say that we aren’t keen.

There was a little chat with a couple of locals. The pub had openened at 10am, one silent chap was already on his second or third pint. Another grisly local warned us –

“There was some fighting in town last night, Chelsea.”

But we ignored him.

I fiddled with my camera bag, making sure my match ticket was secure.

He looked over and said :

“Ha, is that your first-aid kit?”

Now that made me laugh. All part of the spice of life, eh? Indeed, the place was starting to grow on me.

Like a fungus.

Outside, I took a photo of PD and Scott in front of a chalkboard of the week’s coming attractions, blank apart from karaoke on Sunday. I was just surprised that karaoke was spelled correctly.

At about 11.45am we caught a cab into town.

The cab driver was gruff.

“I fucking hate Chelsea.”

I feared that he might be a Leeds United fan. But no, far from it. In spite of a northern accent, he was from Fulham, a Fulham fan, but living in Hull for forty years. I felt that life had dealt him a tough hand of cards. From the cosmopolitan bustling city of London to the dustbowl of Kingston upon Hull, until recently one of the UK’s forgotten cities.

“I go and watch City a bit. It’s sold out today, isn’t it? Only £12.”

I was warming to him now, it’s funny how football can break down barriers.

We dropped into the second of the day’s seven pubs. It was a familiar haunt. We had visited “The Admiral Of The Humber” in 2015 and 2016. PD was hoping to spot a local that he had chatted to on both occasions. In 2016, there was a funny anecdote.

The Hull City fan had spoken about a visit of Newcastle United, when the very same pub was mobbed by visiting Geordies. They very soon started singing a song, aimed at him, based on the fact that his grey beard and glasses made him resemble an infamous person in Britain’s recent past.

“One Harold Shipman, there’s only one Harold Shipman.”

He smiled as he re-told the story of how he remonstrated with them, and how this resulted in the Geordies buying him drink after drink.

“I love that about football, the banter” he joked.

Alas, no Harold Shipman this time. A couple of Chelsea supporters dropped in, but it was mainly “locals only.” It was a lovely Saturday afternoon mixture of football lads in designer gear, scarfers, a chap in a Dukla Prague away kit, and a table full of overly-made up middle-aged women that do lunch, dinner, tea, an evening meal and breakfast if you ask them nicely.

The three of us were now getting stuck into our second and third pints and the laughter was booming. We chatted about our hotel.

Chris : “I was a bit concerned when all the windows in your room were wide open. I wondered if it meant that the room needed some fresh air. That it would have been otherwise musty.”

PD : “That was to let the rats out.”

Chris : “No, that was to let them in.”

On a wall inside the pub, getting busier and busier now, was a copy of The Housemartins’ “Hull 0 London 4” album.

As the jokes continued, PD and Scott were grinning themselves to death.

At 1pm, we hopped into another cab to embark on the next stage of the pub crawl.

“The Minerva” was to be the highlight of the day and we stayed a good hour. On rather a different scale, it reminded me of The Flatiron Building in New York; a squeezed building, triangular in shape, it sat right on the quayside looking across the river to Lincolnshire. As soon as we arrived, three fellow Chelsea supporters arrived too, faces familiar, names unknown. The pub was a joy. Little rooms, a couple of snugs, a good selection of ales and lagers, antique décor, and it looked like it served excellent food too. The further you went away from the tip of the building, more rooms kept appearing. On a wall was a framed copy of one of Spencer Tunick’s “Sea of Hull” photo shoots which kick-started Hull’s year as the UK’s “City of Culture” in 2017.

I just thought everybody was blue with the cold in Hull.

I could have stayed in “The Minerva” for hours. But I wanted to pack as much in as possible. We still had a few more to visit; “The Barrow Boys”, “The Humber Dock”, “Bar 82” and lastly a real ale pub called “Furley” where I bumped into Kev who sits around ten feet away from me in “The Sleepy Hollow.”

Phew. Seven stops on this pub crawl. It was just right. Perfect even. Friendly locals, no trouble, what it is all about. The pubs and bars on the cobbled streets near the marina were excellent.

“Hull on Earth?”

No.

Or, as the locals would have pronounced it : “nurrrr.”

I like Kingston upon Hull. There, I said it.