Tales From The Front Row

Chelsea vs. Derby County : 31 October 2018.

A Frank Fest.

During the day, I mentioned to a work colleague – fellow Chelsea fan Paul, who came up with us for the Huddersfield Town game last season – that I didn’t want the return to Stamford Bridge of Frank Lampard to dominate things too greatly throughout the evening’s game with Derby County. In 2017, Frank appeared at half-time against Swansea City, and everything on that day was nigh-on perfect. Tons of affection for Frank, flags in honour of him, and feelings between player and fans reciprocated nicely. He took the microphone, and his words were of love and appreciation. So, we have already experienced a “Frank Lampard Day” at Stamford Bridge, and I wasn’t too keen on things getting awkwardly out of control during the upcoming game. Frank was returning as a former hero, but as also a rival. The League Cup is not high on my list of priorities each season, but here was another game we needed to win. I had visions of it all going a bit OTT.

I said to Paul :

“We need to get behind our team. We need to win the game.”

But I knew how these things develop these days. I was sure that there would be songs for Frank Lampard throughout the game.

The Gang Of Five.

The Chuckle Bus was at capacity on the drive to London; PD, Sir Les, Lord Parky, Glenn and I were crammed inside as PD took over driving duties once again. There was the usual heavy traffic and we were not parked until around 6.30pm. There would only be time for a couple of liveners in “Simmons Bar” down at the bottom end of the North End Road, which was unsurprisingly busy, before the game. Of the five of us, only Glenn seemed super-excited about the evening’s match. Not that I was underwhelmed. Just not bitten by the same bug as Glenn. If anything, I was more excited about being able to watch the game from a slightly different perspective. As Derby County – some four thousand strong – had been given most of The Shed, Parky was bounced over to the West Lower. In a secret pact, the two of us had agreed to swap seats. I would be in row two of the West Lower, while he would be watching from my usual seat in row four of the Matthew Harding Upper. We decided to keep it a secret from Alan, PD and Glenn. In the bar, it was lovely to meet up with King Jim, among others, at a game again. Jim comes to the occasional match these days and it is always a pleasure to see him. There were people everywhere as I walked quickly towards Stamford Bridge. This was yet another full house at Stamford Bridge. Good efforts everyone.

Flags And Banners.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, the image of Frank Lampard on a banner – the same one as against Swansea City in 2017 – dominated the Matthew Harding to my left. It hung from the balcony, flanked by two other banners, although not all together at the same time.

“GOAL AFTER GOAL, GAME AFTER GAME” and “FOREVER A BLUE, FOREVER A LEGEND.”

And a legend he most certainly is. Our greatest ever player? Probably.

One Of Our Own.

Late on Tuesday night, just as I was finishing off my match report of the Burnley game, I heard through a Chelsea mate of mine that our former Chelsea player, youth team coach and manager Ken Shellito had sadly passed away. Ken had been a Facebook friend of mine for quite a few years, and although we rarely interacted, Ken seemed like a thoroughly decent man, and Chelsea through-and-through. I met him – very briefly – on two occasions. The first time was in 2008 after a CPO event in London when my friend Beth, from Texas – everyone knows Beth – and I enjoyed a few boozy hours in the company of some former players in a cosy boozer after the main event. Ken seemed overwhelmed by the attention and love that other fellow fans were showing him. He seemed humble and courteous. I only spoke to him for a few moments. I later saw him – maybe three years ago – in the Chelsea hotel before a game. Again, our meeting was fleeting. It is often said that had Ken Shellito not suffered a career-ending knee injury in the early ‘sixties, he would have been remembered as an England World Cup winner in 1966. Commentators from that era say his presence would have been assured. He was that good. In the end, he played just one game for England.

Growing up in the ‘seventies, I was aware of his presence at Chelsea as the youth team manager during our barren and financially-weakened years of 1975 to 1977. After Eddie McCreadie left our club before the start of the 1977/78 season – we were all mortified – the club turned to Ken Shellito to manage the team. Even though I was only twelve, I remember thinking that following McCreadie would be a tough act to follow. But our Ken did a reasonable job in his first season as we returned to the top flight for the first time since 1975. Pride of place were the two home victories against reigning English and European champions Liverpool. Everyone talks about the 4-2 FA Cup win in January, but just as impressive was the 3-1 league win in March, a game that I attended, and which fulfilled all my fantasies about Chelsea as unfancied underdog overcoming all of the odds. It was only my twelfth Chelsea game, but one which I wondered would ever be surpassed in terms of excitement and joy. I need not have worried, eh? In the following season, we suffered from the off and the club decided to sack Ken Shellito around the Christmas period. His Chelsea career was over. He spent many of the latter years in Malaysia with his wife Jeanie and young daughter. Until the end, he ran a training camp which I believe had links with Chelsea Football Club.

After the teams entered the pitch, and after there was a mention of Glenn Hoddle and his recent hospitalisation, and then the tragedy in Leicester involving the City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the players formed in the centre circle as an image of Ken Shellito was flashed up on the TV screens and we applauded the memory of both. It had been a horrid few days for us all.

I clapped heartily.

I knew him and yet I did not know him, but another loyal Chelsea servant and supporter has sadly passed.

Ken Shellito RIP.

The Team.

Manager Maurizio Sarri had unsurprisingly changed the Chelsea team for the visit of Derby County. In came a few squad players. Willy Caballero in goal. A back four of Davide Zappacosta, Andreas Christensen Gary Cahill and Emerson. A midfield three of Cesc Fabregas, N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic. Up front were Willian, Alvaro Morata and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

The Lowdown.

This was only my fourth game in the West Lower since its birth in 1997 and eventual completion in 2001. There had been previously been games against Coventry City in 2000, Leeds United in 2004 and Fulham in 2011. I was officially in row two, but the rows were staggered a little and I was effectively sat in the front row. I was as low down as I could possibly be. The view was far from great to be honest. It was lovely to see some players up close – in the first-half, Zappacosta, Loftus-Cheek and Kante especially – but I generally found it hard to concentrate as my perspective was so awful. Apart from a small wedge of around eight-hundred Chelsea fans in the south-east corner, where the away support is usually based, Derby had the entire end. In front of the Chelsea support, was a banner honouring Frank’s assistant.

“JODY MORRIS – CHELSEA THROUGH AND THROUGH.”

Jody’s story is pretty incredible. I remember seeing his debut in the 5-0 rout of Middlesbrough in 1996. He was quite a wild child in his youth. Who would ever have thought that he would develop into a respected coach? Certainly not me.

Soon into the game, a familiar face steadied herself, aided by a steward, and sat down in the front row a few seats away.

“Hiya Felicity.”

She looked fleetingly at me, but there was no reaction. She watched the entire game in silence, alone in her own world. Felicity used to watch the lads train at Harlington. She used to bring them cakes. I saw her, briefly, last season at a game and I was surprised to see that she still attends matches. I am sure she has some form of dementia, bless her, but it was a lift for me to see her still attending games, bedecked in her Chelsea coat.

I thought to myself : “Felicity. Chelsea through and through.”

Rammed.

The Shed was going to be the epicentre of any noise during the game. Derby had come in numbers. Four thousand? It seemed more like five thousand. They were making a din right from the start.

Derby have their own version of “the bouncy.”

“If you don’t fuckin’ bounce. If you don’t fuckin’ bounce you’re a red.”

They had one for Frank.

“Frankie Lampard is a ram. He hates Forest.”

And then one for us.

“Football in a library, tra la la la la.”

Déjà vu.

Here are some observations from our League Cup tie with Fulham in September 2011, which we narrowly won on penalties, and when I was also seated in the same section of Stamford Bridge.

“My seat was in row 6, all of the way down towards the Fulham fans in The Shed. I looked around and saw hundreds of unfamiliar faces. I heard a few foreign accents. I took a few photos of The Bridge from this new angle. I sat myself down – not much legroom – and prepared myself for a mind-numbingly quiet evening. It’s another cliché that the West Lower is one of more reserved parts of The Bridge. By the time of the kick-off at 7.45pm, the 3,500 away fans had all arrived and were singing their hearts out. The rest of the place took some time to fill up, but I was very pleasantly surprised to see few empty seats.”

“The Fulham fans were getting behind their team, singing a whole host of songs, some of which I had never heard before. In comparison, the West Stand was silent and the MHU barely murmured.”

“A few chances for both sides, but from my angle, I was struggling to make sense of the shape of the play.”

“If I am honest, I wasn’t enjoying the game. The Fulham fans were making too much noise and I was getting rather frustrated with the lack of support from the Chelsea fans around me. In the West lower, many couples weren’t even talking to each other, let alone getting behind the team via songs of encouragement. Despite the songs of derision cascading down on us from the away fans, I couldn’t bring myself to truly despise them, unlike the supporters of other teams. I tried to put myself in their shoes. It reminded me of life as a Chelsea fan in my youth, railing against the bigger teams, forever the underdog. Forever the underachiever.”

“The referee blew his whistle to end the 90 minutes and I inwardly groaned. I had been in purgatory for the whole game – surrounded by predominantly silent fans – and I was only able to yell out a few shouts of support on a few occasions throughout the duration.”

In 2018, seven years later, I experienced a lot of these same feelings.

The First-Half.

After only five minutes, I was able to watch at close-hand as Ruben Loftus-Cheek played the ball to Davide Zappacosta. His low cross was comically turned into his own net by Chelsea loanee Fikayo Tomori. As easy as that we were 1-0 up. We were all over Derby County in the first part of the game.

It was deathly quiet in the West Lower. To my right, the Derby fans mocked us.

“Shall we sing a song for you?”

Within five minutes, however, Derby had equalised. The lump that is Tom Huddlestone played the ball out to Jack Marriott and it looked to me like the angle was too acute. Imagine my surprise when he calmly slotted the ball past Caballero. The away fans bounced.

Martin Waghorn, a solid rock of a striker, fluffed his lines when through on goal, seemingly tripping over the ball and wasting a golden opportunity.

On twenty minutes, as a move developed, I held my camera to my eyes and snapped a rather blurry photograph – certainly not worth sharing – of Zappacosta as he blasted across the goal. I looked up to see that the ball had ended up in the net. Another Derby OG, this time from their skipper Richard Keogh.

I took a few photos as Ruben wiggled his way towards goal, moving the ball nicely, but his shot was wide. Willian then blasted over.

Soon after, just before the halfway mark, Mason Mount played a perfect ball across the six-yard box. Caballero was not close to it. Waghorn poked it home easily.

“Bloody hell, Chelsea.”

The away fans bounced again, and then aimed another dig our way.

“Shall we score a goal for you?”

I lost count of the number of times that Zappacosta, in acres of space, pleaded with his arms wide open to receive the ball from Christensen or Cahill. Often he was ignored. He is a basic player really, but he was again involved on forty minutes as he found himself inside the Derby box. Eventually the ball spun loose, and Cesc Fabregas was on hand to smash the ball in at Scott Carson’s near post.

Bloody hell, 3-2.

The highlight of the rest of the half was the magnificent way that Willian brought a high ball down with the subtlest of touches. It reminded me of Zola doing the same thing at Anfield in around 2003, when the Scousers in the Centenary Stand applauded him.

Banners.

At half-time, I checked out a few of the banners that I would not normally get a chance to see from my usual position in The Sleepy Hollow. I love the old “547 SW6” flag which pays homage to the old – and much-missed – HQ of the original Chelsea Supporters Club at 547 Fulham Road, which I used to frequent before home games until the mid-eighties. I still see one of the chaps who used to serve inside – Peter Kemp – at many away games, although we have never spoken. He is another who the “through and through” phrase could easily be applied. Behind and above me were banners from everywhere.

Adelaide, Vancouver, Devon & Somerset, York, Perth Western Australia, East Belfast, Bermuda, Slovenia.

Just in front of The Sleepy Hollow, a banner which has recently been added.

“ONE93 KERRY DIXON.”

Not So Super.

Five minutes into the second period, came our noisiest chant of the game thus far.

“Super, super Frank. Super, super Frank. Super, super Frank. Super Frankie Lampard.”

The noise roared down from the Matthew Harding. Frank, obviously, turned and applauded. But he then signalled “enough, support them on the pitch.”

I agreed with Frank. It annoys myself and quite a few others how a sizeable section of the Chelsea support wastes no time at all – every bloody match – in singing about Frankie Lampard scoring against West Ham, Dennis Wise scoring against Milan and Demba Ba scoring against Liverpool. And yet there are few raucous songs in support of players actually playing.

And yet I thought back to September 2014 when we watched in horror as Frank Lampard played as a substitute for Manchester City against as at The Etihad. I cannot lie. I can’t hide the truth. I can’t hide from the sense of hypocrisy I felt. I did sing his name that day. We had, though, not been able to give him a proper send-off at the end of the previous campaign. His last game in Chelsea colours was the insipid 0-0 with Norwich City when he was substituted by Jose Mourinho at half-time. It was as an inglorious end to a Chelsea career as I have ever seen, certainly not befitting one of our all-time greats. He did not appear in the final game away to Cardiff City. So, in my defence, I think there were extenuating circumstances for the songs at Manchester City in 2014. I thought, as did many, that we had not said “goodbye and thank you” in a way that was correct. And here was an opportunity to show him some love. After all, we might not have seen him as a player ever again. That is my explanation for it. If you don’t agree, sue me.

But we said thankyou to him then, in the autumn of 2014. And we said thank you to him at Stamford Bridge in the January of 2015. And again in February 2017.

Enough was enough.

Suffice to say, I didn’t join in with the singing of his name during the game in October 2018. I’m not so sure I even sung before the game if I am honest.

The Second-Half.

Would more goals follow? I expected so. I had been impressed with Derby. We had played beneath ourselves, almost disinterested almost. We worked a few forays into the Derby box in the first part of the second-half but there was no cutting edge. On the hour, a Cahill header from a corner was palmed over by Carson. If I am honest, by now I was finding the game rather painful to watch. Everything was squeezed into a narrow field of vision. And we were hardly in exhilarating form.

David Luiz replaced Andreas Christensen.

Pedro replaced Ruben.

Marriott forced a fine save from Cabellero on a quick break. Mount then shot wide. Derby were still in it. There was a moment when the away fans reacted noisily and passionately to a shot, igniting the entire away end, and I longed for the days when our home fans were similarly partisan. Those days, the days when the atmosphere was venomous, seem so far away now.

Yeah, I know. A familiar story.

A great cross from Zappacosta – him again – found Morata in acres of space but his header was not worthy of the name. Another header from Morata went well wide. The same player then jumped with great body shape, twisting in the box to meet a Willian corner and getting a great deal of power on it – another photo too blurred to share, damn it – but Carson did well to save.

Two saves from Caballero kept us ahead. A hand was dabbed on a close effort from Keogh and he then smothered another Mount shot. Things were getting nervy now. An effort from Marriott was saved. Then the old warhorse David Newgent, a late substitute, shot across Caballero and I watched, painfully, as the ball seemed to be going in. Thankfully it hit the far post, and miraculously bounced back straight into big Willy’s arms.

Phew.

Not long after, the final whistle blew and we counted our blessings.

It been a strange old game. It had not been pretty. But, on Halloween, we were thankful it didn’t turn into a horror show.

Into the last eight we went.

Shots.

As I was watching from a different viewpoint, it would have been amiss of me not to take a greater share of photographs than usual. I took over two-hundred and fifty with most in concentrated bursts, and the majority before the game and then after. Here are a few from the match itself.

Frank & Jody.

There was the inevitable post-game hugs and handshakes between the players and management of both teams. All eyes were on two of our own.

Pictures.

A gallery of some of the images of the night. Down low, the immense height of the East Stand still staggers me. It was even more impressive when it was first built in 1974. There was no stand like it in England.

Postscript : 1985.

On the drive home in PD’s Chuckle Bus, I happened to mention a video clip to Glenn that I had revisited during the week but which was first aired on a “Facebook / Chelsea In The Eighties” group at the start of the year. In the quarter finals of the League Cup in the 1984/85 season, we drew 1-1 at home to Sheffield Wednesday. We then drew the replay at Hillsborough 4-4, and then beat them 2-1 in the second replay at Stamford Bridge. I didn’t attend any of those games, but I can remember watching the highlights of them all on TV. Wednesday were huge rivals with us in that period. At the end of the final game, there was a pitch invasion, such was the hysteria among our support in reaching a semi-final for the first time in thirteen seasons.

The video that I spoke about was a rare six-minute clip – never aired on TV – at the end of the game, when the cameras were left to roll and the immediate post-match euphoria was captured for eternity. It shows an edgy mass of lads – honestly, virtually no females – in The Shed, The Benches and the North Stand singing and chanting and taunting the away fans. It shows a few scuffles with the police, trying to keep order, and of a vibrant, excited and noisy Stamford Bridge. Nobody wanted to go home. The areas mentioned were full of lads. Jeans and jackets. Hardly any Chelsea colours, it was 1985. Lads standing on the fences. Attitude. A baying mass of humanity. Police horses trotting up and down in front of The Benches. And the noise was loud, as loud as hell. I quickly fumbled for my ‘phone and thankfully found the video. The commentator, who spoke briefly about wanting to see a few unruly Chelsea fans get hit by the truncheons of the Old Bill, was Peter Brackley, who recently passed away.

While Parky slept, and PD and Les were silent in the front, Glenn and I watched – intensely and intently – at the images from thirty-three years ago.

We were mesmerized.

“We’re going to Wembley. We’re going to Wembley. You’re not. You’re not.”

“You come all this way. And you lost. And you lost.”

We even caught a hearty rendition of Chelsea singing “You’ll never walk alone.”

It was a Chelsea song too in those days.

And all because we had reached a League Cup semi-final.

On the drive home, we had heard that we had drawn Bournemouth – again, same as last season – in the final eight, and I knew that if we were to be victorious in that game, the difference between 1985 and 2018 would be vast. And I understand that. In 1985, Chelsea Football Club was a different beast. In 2018, we are ridiculously successful. Reaching a League Cup semi really is no big deal.

But it would be bloody lovely to have some of that adrenaline, passion and boisterousness once again. Or just 50 percent of it.

We can dream, eh?

 

Tales From Pure Football

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 20 February 2018.

There is no bloody doubt about it. I simply cannot lie. When I awoke at just before 5am, my first thoughts were of the game against Barcelona, but these were not positive thoughts. I was so worried that our Chelsea – living up to my nickname of The Great Unpredictables this season – might suffer a calamitous humiliation at the hands of Messi, Iniesta, Suarez et al. Let us face the truth; Barcelona are a hugely talented football team.

“I’ll be happy with a 0-0” I told colleagues at work.

As the day progressed, this was my mantra; keep the buggers from scoring an away goal. Keep it tight. Maybe, just maybe, nab a 2012-style 1-0 win.

Ah, 2012.

That game seems so fresh in my mind, but it is almost six years ago. And there have been so many more. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen all our Champions League matches against the Cules from Catalonia at Stamford Bridge.

Let’s wander down memory lane.

5 April 2000 : This was a fine Chelsea team, but we were under performing in the league, and would go on to finish fifth. In the pub beforehand – in the front part of The Goose for a change, I can remember it to this day – we were pragmatic at best and pessimistic at worst. We seriously doubted our progress over the two legs of this quarter final. But what did we know? We stormed into a stunning 3-0 lead with all goals in an eight-minute spell during the first-half.  I remember racing up the steps behind my seat when the third one went in to expel some energy. Two came from from Tore Andre Flo and one from Gianfranco Zola. A goal from Luis Figo midway through the second-half took the smile off our collective faces. Fackinell, Chelsea. But what a night. The atmosphere crackled all night long. Superb.

8 March 2005 : We were 2-1 down from the first-leg and this was as good a game as any I have witnessed in forty-four years of Chelsea games. We repeated the feat of 2000, accelerating away to a 3-0 lead, but such was our dominance that all goals came in the first twenty-minutes. Stamford Bridge was again shaking thanks to goals from Eidur Gudjohnsen, Frank Lampard and Damian Duff. And then the game turned against us. A Ronaldinho brace – a penalty and then that gut-wrenching toe-poke – before the break meant it was advantage Barca. We roared the team on. A towering John Terry header from a corner (pictured) gave us the win and the place erupted. There have been few nights at Chelsea like that one.

22 February 2006 : The two clubs were drawn together in the knock-out phase, and this game was a tetchy affair. This was our first viewing of Lionel Messi – just eighteen – and the Argentine’s scuffle with Asier del Horno over in the corner of the Matthew Harding and the East Stand resulted in our full-back getting sent-off early in the game. But we re-grouped well and went ahead when Thiago Motta headed an own-goal from a Frank Lampard free-kick (pictured). Sadly, this was cancelled out by a John Terry own goal. Samuel Eto’o then headed a late winner. In the return leg in Catalonia, the two teams drew 1-1 and out we went.

18 October 2006 : We were becoming regular foes by now. This time, the two teams met in the autumnal group phase set of matches. A stunning solitary Didier Drogba goal gave us a narrow 1-0 win, and our striker celebrated in fine fashion down below us (pictured). After injuries to both Petr Cech and Carlo Cudicini at Reading four days earlier, this was a game in which Hilario started. To be fair to him, he pulled off a few great saves to see us hang on to the win.

6 May 2009 : We held out for a gutsy 0-0 in the first leg of the semi-final at Camp Nou, and travel plans were afoot among our little group of friends in the pub before the game. It felt like we were favourites to progress. We took the lead through a stunning Michael Essien volley after just ten minutes into the first-half. We held off Barcelona and their constant probing with a fantastic performance. Then came calls of conspiracy after penalty appeal after penalty appeal were turned down. The referee waving away the hand-ball against Gerard Pique sent me into meltdown. Barcelona were reduced to ten men with Eric Abidal sent-off for a clumsy challenge on Nicolas Anelka. We were heading to our second successive Champions League Final against Manchester United, this time in Rome. And then Andres bloody Iniesta scored with virtually their only shot on target with seconds remaining. This was heartbreak. Gut-wrenching, nauseous, sickening heartbreak. It felt like we would never ever win the Champions League.

18 April 2012 : Another heady night at Stamford Bridge. This was turning out to be the most bizarre of seasons, with us faltering in the league under Ande Villas-Boas before finding our feet under new gaffer Roberto di Matteo. But this was still a stunning Barcelona team, and our squad seemed to be aging together. We were blowing hot and cold. I held out little hope of us reaching the final if I am truthful. In another never-to-be-forgotten night at Stamford Bridge, Didier Drogba swept in a cross from Ramires at the near post just before half-time and the stadium exploded. We held on for the narrowest of wins, and with the return leg in Barcelona less than a week away, we began to dream.

In a bar before the game, there was a typical mix of Chelsea faces from near and far. The usual suspects – Parky, PD, Daryl, Chris, Simon, Calvin, Milo, Ed, Duncan, Lol – were gathered around one table. Andy and Antony from California were back from their mini-tour of Europe and were joined by Sean from New York and Steve from Dallas. Friends from near and far. A spare ticket was given a good home. The banter was rife. After a good hour or so, Andy whispered in my ear :

“You realise that nobody is talking about the match?”

I smiled.

As I have said before : “the first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.”

There was simply too much other stuff to talk about, especially how many we would take to the away leg in three weeks. I had expected a sell-out of 4,850 but sales had allegedly been slower than expected. Maybe some supporters were waiting to see how the first-leg would pan out. In 2012, we took that number, but it was a semi-final. As ever, I regarded the away game as a test for us, a test to see how far we had come as a club.

By the way, the cynical me had a little thought for the millions of new Chelsea fans the world over who chose us primarily because our club could “guarantee” – probably their words and not mine – them Champions League football each season.

“This game’s for you.”

The bar was full for this game. Stood quietly at the bar for a while was former player Alan Hudson. A fine footballer for us in the early ‘seventies, he rarely finds anything good to say about us these days. I nodded a “hello” to him which he reciprocated, but that was about it. Most fellow fans were blissfully unaware who he was, or were going down the same path as myself. I remember seeing him in a pub in Stoke around ten years ago. To be fair to him, after a spell of ill health, at least he looked healthier than the last time I saw him.

There were groans of discontent when news of the starting eleven came through on mobile phones.

“No centre forward, fackinell.”

It was indeed a surprise.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

Sadly, Mike from New York was caught up in a personal battle to secure match tickets and was unable to join us. Andy was worried since whenever Andy and Mike meet up for a game, we always win.

I was inside the stadium with a good twenty minutes to go. I need not have worried about not seeing Mike from NYC; he was sat just ten feet away from me.

The away section would fill to only around two thousand, which was a huge surprise for arguably a club which are one of the biggest three clubs in the world. They usually bring three thousand, no questions asked. There seemed to be an absence of colour this time around too. Maybe the scarves and shirts were hidden under the darker coats and jackets. Not so many puffa coats as the Italians. Only a few flags on show. The stadium filled.

There were blue flags on every seat with blue and white bar scarves for those in the East Middle; nice to see the eight Chelsea Pensioners wearing them.

Red. White. Blue.

“Blue Is The Colour” played with ten minutes to go and the flags were waved…not by me, nor too many around me for that matter. The highest percentage of flag wavers were in the West Lower, maybe due to the dynamics of the demographic of that particular sub-section of support; a higher percentage of young’uns, a higher percentage of tourists, but a far lower percentage of cynical bastards like us in the MHU.

The teams entered the pitch.

In 2012, Cesc and Pedro were among the opposition.

Now we had to contend with Suarez, Rakitic, Ter Stegen, Umtiti, Roberto, Alba and Paulinho who were first time visitors to Stamford Bridge. Messi, Busquets, Iniesta and Pique were returning to SW6 once more.

Barcelona were in an untidy camouflage kit of burgundy. At least there was no bright yellow to remind me of 2009. I noted Lionel Messi and Eden Hazard embrace and maybe share a word.

“You stay here, Eden. Real Madrid are SHITE.”

The game began.

I snapped away like a fool as the game began but soon realised that I needed to slow down, and enjoy the football. The first few minutes were very promising for us, and the atmosphere was equally fine.

“ANTONIO” rang out and the manager showed his appreciation.

After a few minutes, Eden Hazard let fly with a rasping and rising shot which certainly energised the crowd. The noise was hitting fine levels. There were songs for Frank Lampard and John Terry; see my comments for the Hull City match. In the early period, it was Iniesta who was seeing more of the ball, and I wished that we could close him down. Rudiger went close with a header from a corner. This was a very bright start from us and I could not be happier. At the other end, Paulinho headed meekly wide from a Messi cross.

Ah, Lionel. I could not help but focus on the little man. His shirt seemed too large for him, and he shuffled around when not in possession, but I could not take my eyes off him.

After twenty minutes though, Barca had recovered and were now enjoying much of the ball. But there was resolute defending from everyone in royal blue. Messi was unable to find Suarez, nor anyone else. Willian burst from deep – the crowd roaring him on – before getting clipped. Alonso for once did not score from the centrally-located free-kick. This was fascinating stuff and I was loving it.

I popped down to have a quick word with Big John who sits a few rows in front of me. I told him that I had a bet on how long it would take him to shout :

“Come on Chelsea. They’re fucking shit.”

Alan was handing out the Maynards wine gums – always a lucky charm on these European Nights – and he was wearing his lucky Ossie badge on The King’s birthday. We had a fine spell of play on the half-hour and the crowd responded well. Hazard found Willian, who moved the ball on to his right foot and unleashed a gorgeous effort which slammed against a Barcelona post.

Head in our hands time.

But this was a lovely game and a pleasure to witness.

On forty minutes, the crowd sang “The Shed looked up and they saw a great star” – God Bless you, Ossie – and as the song continued, Willian struck the other post with another venomous effort.

Fackinell.

The support was now hitting the high volumes.

“Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.”

In the pub, Calvin and I had warned Texas Steve that the atmosphere at The Bridge is poor these days, but there are always games when we can rank with the best of them. Over in the far corner, the Cules were quiet. A Fabregas free-kick was cleared and Hazard volleyed over. We were playing so well – as a team – and I was so relieved. All this talk of the manager losing the dressing room and of players “downing tools” – my most hated, my most reviled phrase of the past two seasons – seemed just silly and just wrong.

The half-time whistle blew. Alan, quite correctly, noted that no trainer had been on the pitch, there had been few bad tackles, so that the assistant linesman had not signaled a single minute of added time. I think I have never seen that before. This was testament itself to the quality of football being played before our eyes.

Pure football.

And I bloody loved it.

Fine vibes at half-time. We should, undoubtedly, been ahead. Fantastic.

Soon into the second period, that man Andres Iniesta let fly from around the same patch of terra firma that produced heartache in 2009. The shot flew wide.

“Not this time sunshine, not this time.”

Luis Suarez – booed, of course – then went wide and forced a finger-tipped save on the floor from Courtois. It was a miracle that nobody was present in the six-yard box to pounce. The away team were enjoying tons of the ball but our defending was still a match for the trickery of Messi and the intelligence of Iniesta. N’Golo Kante was having a particularly fine game, and top marks for Antonio Rudiger too, who was enjoying a storming match.

Suarez – the villain for this match and many more – was the subject of a loud personal attack from the home support.

“Suarez – you’re a cunt.”

Quite.

The game continued.

There was half an hour remaining when Hazard, out wide, picked out the central Willian. He stopped the ball still. He then flashed away from his marker – such ridiculous acceleration – and thumped the ball low into the net.

Pandemonium in Stamford Bridge.

Magical, magical scenes.

Alan : “Hauran d’arribar a nosaltres ara.”

Chris : “Vine als meus petits diamants.”

Oh my oh my. The Great Unpredictables were at it again.

Now the noise really got going. I stood and roared. “Carefree wherever you may be we are the famous CFC.” This was surely the loudest so far this season. Fantastic.

“He hates Totnum and he hates Totnum.”

On the game went. Barcelona with the ball, Chelsea covering space and defending. A lot of their attacks were at virtually walking pace; it was all about moving the ball early. When they lost possession, they hunted in packs to retain it. I remember a ball being pushed into the path of Eden with four Barcelona players haring after him. Quite an image.

Sadly, with a quarter of an hour to go, a Chelsea defender deep in Parkyville chose to play the ball across the box.  We gasped. We feared the worse. It reached Iniesta. He played it back to Messi. The ball was slammed low into our goal.

Chelsea 1 Barcelona 1.

Bollocks.

Messi looked ecstatic and celebrated wildly in front of the hordes from Sabadell, Sant Cugat del Valles, Montcada I Reixach, Cornella de Llobregat and Vilassar de Dalt.

All the Chelsea nerds deleted their “Messi still hasn’t scored against Chelsea” memes.

There was a quick most mortem.

“Who played the ball across the box?”

“Dunno. Alonso?”

“Schoolboy error, fucking hell.”

The away support were still not too loud, but their upper tier was one bouncing mass.

A text from Glenn in Frome :

“Christensen FFS.”

Ugh.

Alvaro Morata came on for Pedro. Danny Drinkwater replaced Cesc Fabregas.

Unlike in 2009, thank high heavens there was no last minute heartache from Iniesta, nor anyone else. The assistant referee signaled three minutes, and these passed with no incident. This was indeed a lovely game of football. We had gone toe-to-toe with one of the finest teams of the modern era and we  – let’s again be honest – surely deserved the win. For all their possession, Barca had hardly caused Thibaut any worries. There was that daisy-cutter from Suarez, but little else. He had claimed a few high crosses, but had not been really tested. Willian had enjoyed a wonderful match, and on another day could have returned to his flat with the match ball. Every player had performed so well. Huge respect to the manager too. I hope Roman, watching from his box, took heed.

We assemble again, deep in Catalonia, and high at the Nou Camp, in three weeks.

“Anem a trebellar.”

Tales From The Working Week : Friday

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 12 May 2017.

Our week of work had begun with a win against Middlesbrough on Monday evening. This was a pleasing and reassuring performance; an easy 3-0 win – the second in succession – and it meant that we needed just one more win at West Brom on the Friday to secure our sixth League Championship. My Friday started well. The first four hours flew past. But then, as I noted hundreds of Chelsea supporters heading up to the West Midlands, the time slowed to a standstill. It was as if everyone else’s burst of freedom compared miserably to my last four hours of work. It seemed that I was the very last to head north. At 3.30pm, I eventually left work. As I reached the village where Parky lives – only a ten-minute drive away – “Three Lions” by The Lightning Seeds was booming out of my car. We were looking to bring the Premier League trophy home. It seemed wholly appropriate. Soon after, Glenn and PD arrived. Glenn had kindly agreed to drive up to The Hawthorns. We poised for a photo outside Parky Towers, with “Vinci Per Noi” fluttering in the breeze. There was a hint of rain in the air. At around 3.45pm, we set off.

“Let’s Go To Work.”

There was a threat of rain throughout the drive north and this added a little gloom to my thoughts of what might happen over the next few hours. For a few moments, I wasn’t optimistic, but I kept my feelings to myself. Elsewhere in the Chuckle Bus, the mood was good. I blamed it on the cider.

Glenn made good time, and we were soon turning off the M5 at around 6pm. As always, we use the parking facilities at the Park Inn – where I am reliably informed that Chelsea used to stay for their games at West Brom in days gone by – and we soon met up with a few familiar faces. We guzzled back two pints of lager and chatted to a plethora of fellow Chelsea fans. There were long lines at the bar. While I was waiting to give Parky a hand with his drinks, I spotted Kirk Brandon, lead singer from the ‘eighties bands Theatre of Hate and Spear of Destiny. I had known that he was a Chelsea supporter for a while and he was featured in a recent Chelsea magazine. I popped over to say a few words. I had only just recently seen him support Stiff Little Fingers in March in Bristol. We had arrived fashionably late to just catch the very last song “Do You Believe In The Westworld?” Little did I think that I would soon be chatting to him before a Chelsea game. I didn’t ask him if he had a ticket; I hoped he had. Many in the bar didn’t. Parky chatted away about his time in London in the ‘seventies, watching as many punk bands as he could. Kirk seemed genuinely pleased to chat to us. I mentioned to him that I am friends with SLF frontman Jake Burns – albeit only on Facebook, though our paths almost crossed in Chicago in the summer – and for a moment it was all a bit surreal. I sent Jake a little message to say that I had been chatting to his mate and he soon replied “good luck for tonight.”

We set off for the ground. We were about to liberate the Premier League trophy.

It was a murky old night in West Bromwich. We marched past the hamburger and hot dog stalls. We bypassed the souvenir stalls. However, I had seen on a TV programme earlier in the season that Albion have produced a set of programme covers this season which feature albums and bands. Once I spotted six of their academy players lined up a la Madness, with the headline “One Step Beyond”, I knew I had to buy a copy. I quickly flicked inside. It looked a substantial read. In the centre of the programme was a complete set of programme covers from this year. Album covers by Blur, Bruce Springsteen, Oasis, Phil Collins and the Sex Pistols – plus others – were tweaked with a football twist. It was very effective. I especially liked the Sex Pistols cover. It was for their FA Cup tie against Derby County, but references an infamous loss that West Brom suffered against Woking many years ago, when Tim Buzaglo scored the winner.

“Never Mind The Buzaglos, Here’s The FA Cup.”

There were handshakes with many in the concourse – which oddly has wooden laminate flooring, interesting fact #574 – and then out into the seats. The cumulative intake of gallons of alcohol throughout the day had resulted in plenty of song. The four of us Chuckle Brothers were right behind the goal, down low. My camera would struggle focussing through the netting all evening. My pessimism had subsided – maybe it was the lager. Surely, so close, we would win this.

We had heard the team and although N’Golo Kante was not starting, we had no issue with Cesc Fabregas playing alongside Nemanja Matic. Elsewhere, the side picked itself.

In a previous edition, I have talked about the home supporters relatively new usage of the twenty-third psalm, and I spotted that the words were now stencilled on the low stand to our left.

“The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want. He makes me down to lie. In pastures green, he leadeth me, the quiet waters by.”

Only a few minutes before the game began, I received a text message from Dave – often featured in despatches – in France to announce the birth of his first child, a son, only an hour previously. What fantastic news. And this was on a day when my pal JR – in Detroit – was celebrating his son’s first birthday. The signs were good. We surely could not fail.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, the PA boomed out “Liquidator” and both sets of fans roared.

It was turning into an evening of songs and singers.

Our end was packed to the rafters. We had heard that many Chelsea had gambled on tickets in the home areas. This would be our first chance to win the league at an away ground since that momentous early evening game in Bolton in 2005. Tickets were like gold dust. But I loved the idea of Chelsea swarming the ground. Just like the old days.

And then the football began in earnest.

Chelsea, the all-blacks, were soon on the back foot when a looping header from Salomon Rondon caused Thibaut Courtois to back-peddle and tip over. Barely twenty seconds had elapsed. To our left, sharing the Smethwick End, the home fans were having an occasional dig at us – “WWYWYWS?”, how original – but were also singing about their two most hated local rivals.

“Oh wanky, wanky. Wanky, wanky, wanky Wanderers” for those to the west and “shit on the Villa” to those to the east. Birmingham City must feel peeved; “no song for us?”

After that initial threat, Chelsea dominated possession. But it was clear from our very first attack that West Brom were to defend deep, resolutely, and space in the final third was at a premium. We only had a succession of half-chances, maybe only quarter-chances. In the away end, the night of song continued as a new ditty aimed at our double Player of the Year was repeated again and again.

“N’Golo. Oh. Always believe in your soul. You’ve got the power to know – you’re indestructible. Always believing.”

It rumbled around for some time.

Altough not aired, I prefer this other one which will hopefully gain traction before now and the FA Cup Final.

“His name’s N’Golo. N’Golo Kante. He always wins the ball. His name’s N’Golo. N’Golo Kante. He always wins the ball. He wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball.”

The home team only occasionally threatened us, with the runs of James McLean drawing boos whenever he approached the away quadrant. It is safe to say he is not the most liked opposition player.

We tried to release Moses – “Is Vic there?” – but only occasionally did he get a ball across the box. We were dominating possession, but we were playing Chelsea Rules and not Arsenal Rules; we needed a goal. The West Brom players were targeting Eden Hazard and he was clumped several times.  Shots were blocked. Shots were miscued. At last a clean strike from Cesc, but it drifted past Ben Foster’s far post. Next up, Pedro unleashed a shot wide. It was all Chelsea, but with little to show for it. A rare Albion attack ended the first-half. It amounted to nothing.

The noise in the Chelsea section, loud at the start, had gradually subsided throughout the first-half.

“Can you hear the rent boys sing? Can you hear the rent boys sing? Can you hear the rent boys sing? We’ll sing on our own. We’ll sing on our own.”

I whispered – “we’re just nervous.”

At the break, out in the concourse, we were still confident of getting a victory.

“We’ll suck the ball in.”

I remembered back to Bolton in 2005 and we certainly struggled in the first-half during that momentous match. During this game in 2017, we had performed better, but only marginally. Oh where was Frank Lampard when you need him?

Soon in to the second period, Moses lost his marker and zipped a firm low shot at goal, but Foster reacted well to fingertip the ball away. Then a shot from a twisting Costa. It was backs-to-the-wall stiff for the Baggies. We watched, urging the boys on. Please let us, somehow, find a way through. Hazard struggled to produce much quality on the left. I kept urging Cesc to unlock the door. But our dominance was increasing. Surely we would score? The first fifteen minutes of the second-half flew past. I looked over to the scoreboard to my right.

“Fucking hell, an hour.”

We went close when a deflected shot squirmed wide. Another Moses shot. Another Foster save.

“For fuck sake.”

The nerves were starting to jangle now. Time moved on.

Seventy minutes.

Glenn turned to me –

“It’s not going to happen is it?”

I was stony-faced –

“No.”

A rare West Brom chance soon followed, when Rondon broke, but great defending saved the day. Then, just after substitute Nacer Chadli – ex-Spurs, oh no – was clear in on goal but stroked the ball wide of Thibaut’s far post. It was a sign for the away end to wake up and increase the volume.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” – how sweet the sound.

Seventy-five minutes.

A gamble from the manager. Willian replaced Pedro. Michy Batshuayi replaced Hazard. This surprised me, I have to be honest. Although Pedro had tired a little and although Eden was not at his best, the introduction of Batshuayi especially seemed a risk. He had begun his season well, with a smattering of goals against Bristol Rovers and Watford, but had rarely featured since. Over the next few minutes, the frustration grew as Batshuayi gave away one foul, then another, then another. A wild shot from Dave did not bother Foster.

This did not look good. The mood in the away end was detiorating. Not sombre, but just a little quiet. It looked like we would have to wait until Monday. I felt for Glenn, who would be working.

Eighty minutes.

“Bollocks.”

Just after, with more Chelsea possession, and the defence suitably packed, a ball was headed back towards Gary Cahill. His rushed shot from twenty yards, spun away into part of the penalty box which was free from defenders. Maybe, just maybe, the West Brom defenders switched off momentarily. We watched as Dave raced towards the ball and was just able to whip a ball in, hard and low. The action was only fifteen yards away from me. We watched as Batshuayi flung himself at the ball. For a split second, the ball was within the frame of the goal, but of course I had no idea if it would result in a late winner.

Twelve yards away from me, the ball rippled the side netting.

We went berserk.

I turned to the bloke to my left and we just roared and roared, jumping as one.

I was only able to utter one word.

“Batshuayi! Batshuayi! Batshuayi! Batshuayi!”

What a moment. The away end was a boiling pot of ecstasy. The noise was deafening. The relief flowed over all of us. I struggled to hop up on to my seat in order to photograph the scenes of wild abandon to my left. I was only able to take a couple of shots of David Luiz, his face pulsing with joy, arms out-stretched.

Hugs with Glenn.

I shifted over to see Alan.

“They’ll av’ta com at uz neow.”

“Cum on moi little dimunz.”

The rest of the game is a blur. Kurt Zouma replaced Moses, but the away end was bouncing in adoration of the manager and team.

“Antono, Antonio, Antonio!”

“We’re gonna win the league.”

“Campioni, campioni” – or at least, this is what it should have been – “ole, ole, ole” – a mixture of Spanish and Italian. How apt.

We bounced in a minute.

Over in the far corner of the Birmingham Road Stand – the home end – a few Chelsea fans were obviously causing havoc, and were lead out. We have all sat or stood in home areas over the years – I have done so at Everton, Liverpool, Leeds United and Arsenal among others – but it must be impossible to keep schtum when your boys have just won the league. For a few fleeting moments, The Hawthorns was transported to 1983.

There were five minutes of time added on.

At the whistle, I was slightly subdued. I then pointed to the sky.

“Thanks Mum, thanks Dad, thanks for game one in 1974.”

Game 1,140 had ended with us with our sixth league championship and our fifth of my lifetime. Our fifth in thirteen seasons.

Crazy. Just fucking crazy.

For half-an-hour or so, the players and management team raced over to join in our party. My eyes were on Antonio Conte. His face was a picture of joy. Elsewhere, the players were enjoying every second. I struggled to capture it all on film because hands were pointing, arms were waving, a line of OB were in the way. But I managed to capture a few nice moments. I loved that Antono Conte, John Terry, Pedro and then N’Golo Kante – his song booming – were given the bumps.

The bumps in Boing Boing Land.

Willian was serenaded with “his song” and he gleefully danced a little jig, his hands covering his mouth, as if sniggering.

This felt fantastic.

The pitch was flooded with Chelsea personnel. In the middle, Antonio Conte alongside Angelo Alessio – I remember seeing him play for Juve in the late ‘eighties – but also with a cast of thousands. Everyone involved. Everyone happy. Frank Lampard was somewhere, though I did not clock him. A song for Roman.

All of us, there.

Together.

Almost lost in the middle of everything was a small green flag :

“Premier League Champions 2016/2017.”

Get in.

We bounced out of the away end. Handshakes and hugs all round. We strolled down that old-style exit ramp which lead down to a nearby road. Time for another cheeseburger with onions.

It tasted champion.

At the Jeff Astle gates, I took one last memento of the night. As we drive past exit 1 of the M5 on every Chelsea trip north in the future, we will gaze east and spot the angled floodlights of The Hawthorns.

And we will smile.

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Back at the Park Inn, the mood was of relief but mainly of pride and joy. Two more pints, a gin and tonic. The Bristol lot gave me a little plastic cup of champagne. We posed with flags and banners. I was able to wear my “Chelsea Champions 2016/17” badge which Big John gave me on Monday.

It felt fantastic.

This felt better than in 2015. Miles better. It felt better than in 2006. I’d say it was on a par with 2010, only behind that evening at The Reebok in 2005. This one was just so unexpected. At the start of the season, there were probably four – maybe even six – teams that could win the league. I, perhaps optimistically, guessed that we would finish third. Remember, in 2015/2016, we finished tenth. After Arsenal – or ground zero – I would have been ecstatic with a top four.

But we did it. We won the bloody thing.

Fackinell.

Dedicated to those who shared 12 May 2017 with me :

Parky, Glenn G., PD, Nick H., John R., Mark Boswood., Zac, Big John, Kevin A., Kevin H., Ian, Long Tall Pete, Liz, Julie P., Tim P., Rich, Kev, Brian, Charlie, Tim R., Mark Barfoot, Callum, Jason, Carol, Welsh Kev, Alan, Gary, Pam, Becky, DJ, John C., Maureen, Allie, Nick, The Youth, Seb, Scott, Neil S., Andy, Sophie, Jokka, Chopper, Neil P., Glenn D., Mark C., Ludo, Rick, Steve, Burger, Julie F., Rob, Peter, Jim, Trizia, Paul, Dan, Millsy.

And a special mention to those non-Chelsea supporters who wished me congratulations :

Sally, Leicester City.

Francis, Liverpool.

Jake, Newcastle United.

Ian, Rotherham United.

Rick, Manchester United.

Michael, Arsenal.

Tim, Leicester City.

Mimmo, Juventus.

Pete, Manchester United.

Mark, Cardiff City.

Rick, Portsmouth.

And – especially – for Harry Lotto, born 12 May 2016 and Jared Easter, born 12 May 2017.

Tales From Two Franks And The Jacks

Chelsea vs. Swansea City : 25 February 2017.

This was going to be Frank Lampard Day at Stamford Bridge. The club had announced that our magnificent midfielder – arguably our finest ever player – would be making an appearance at half-time during our match with Swansea City. There would be a celebratory programme too. It promised to be quite a day. I can well remember his last-ever appearance as a player at Stamford Bridge, in the colours of Manchester City, when he cut such a lonely figure on the pitch at the end of a game in January 2015. He looked desolate. Heartbroken. It would be fantastic to see him once again.

In “The Famous Three Kings” pub at West Kensington, a few of us were remembering another Frank. We had learned on Friday that one of our match-going crew had passed away the previous day. I first met Frank Portingale, a local builder from my town of Frome in Somerset, in the autumn of 1993 when I drove a few of the lads up to a Chelsea vs. Arsenal game. The next time that I remember seeing him was outside Wembley with PD in 1994. He loved his days out at Chelsea and he started going more regularly. From around 1996 to 2007, Frank was one of the gang, and we would take it in turns to drive up from Somerset. For a few years, we took two cars up from Frome. We were a solid bunch; Karen, Dave, Brian, Frank, Glenn, PD and myself. Frank came with us to Stuttgart in 2004 and Barcelona in 2005. He was at Bolton in April 2005 when the other Frank scored a brace to give us our first league championship in fifty years.

During that 2004/2005 campaign, Frank was there for the first and last games; a pre-season friendly at Oxford United’s Kassam Stadium, which coincided with Jose Mourinho’s first game in charge of the team, and a league game at St. James’ Park in Newcastle. These were stunning times to be a Chelsea supporter. It seemed like we were treading alien territory during that era; league titles and a real chance of Champions League glory seemed the stuff of dreams, but we were right in the mix. Heady stuff indeed. In between, there were many others of course. A game alongside the Thames at Fulham, and those games at the Reebok and Camp Nou. And Frank loved it all. The camaraderie, the beers and the laughs.

And there were many laughs with Frank. He would often bring up “Somerset Pasties” from a local Frome butcher for the lads at Chelsea. On that memorable trip to Barcelona, such was his desire to keep them secure, he locked some of his pasties in the hotel room safe. We all had a chuckle at that. Frank gave up his season ticket a few years back – he used to sit along from us in the Matthew Harding Upper – and it was with sadness that we all learned of his passing. He was generous to a fault, bless him, and I remember that he bought us all gold Chelsea rings after a game in 2004. A few years later, Frank built the front porch on my house and I guess there will always be a part of him in my life. Indeed, Frank will always play a role in our collective Chelsea memories.

Parky, PD, Glenn and myself raised our glasses.

“Frank.”

Thoughts slowly turned to the game.

Our little band of brothers have often questioned the desire of managers to play two essentially defensive-minded players at home games against lesser teams. On this occasion, Antonio had decided to relax things a little, pairing N’Golo with Cesc, and Nemanja dropping to the bench. Cesc has delighted us this season with his place in the squad enabling him to dip in and dip out of our line-up, but without complaint. Swansea City would be quite a test for us though; their form had improved over recent weeks. Elsewhere, the team picked itself.

Thibaut – Dave, David, Gary – Victor, N’Golo, Cesc, Marcos – Pedro, Diego, Eden.

With former Chelsea coach Paul Clement now in charge of the visitors – with midfield legend Claude Makelele alongside him – and with former midfielder Jack Cork playing for Swansea too, this was very much a day of reunions in SW6. It was apt that the visit of the Swans coincided with this day of praise for Frank Lampard since he played a handful of games at the old Vetch Field in 1995/1996.

It was an overcast day in London and rain was not far away. Swansea were ably supported by a full three thousand Jacks. A fine turnout in my book; OK, the city of Swansea is not too far away, but they are not known for their large travelling support.

Alan and myself wondered about the intensity that would be given to this one. Swansea were a team that we ought to beat easily. But we were sure that Antonio would fire the team up. It’s all about the league and there are just thirteen games left. It is all about the focus at this stage of the season. For once, I am not missing European football. Whatever will be will be in the FA Cup too. In fact, PD and myself boldly admitted in the car that neither of us would be devastated should we exit that competition at the next stage. Of course we want to beat United, but the league seems all important.

We admitted that the double is certainly “on” though. Heady days again in SW6? Maybe. Just maybe.

The game began.

We were bright in the opening exchanges. Pedro fired over the bar at The Shed End. Swansea seemed competent in moving the ball around but rarely threatened Thibaut at the Matthew Harding. In the middle of all of our creative scheming was the recalled Cesc, who has such a fine touch and an acute eye for a killer pass. Very soon he was picking out the runs of Diego and Eden. I was certainly impressed with our charging down of space, and our desire to get the “second ball.” Again, N’Golo seemed to be everywhere. We were enjoying another lovely game from him; I wonder if Claude was looking on longingly, despite his new affiliation. Once or twice, N’Golo lofted a sublime pass out to the waiting wings.

Claude : “Sigh. I wish I could have done that.”

On nineteen minutes, Eden initiated another move. In all honesty, it was a loose pass in to Diego who had to battle with a Swans defender. Thankfully, the ball was pushed out to Pedro on the right. He picked out the run of Cesc and the ball was bundled in, almost apologetically past the former Gooner Fabianski.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

Soon after, Fabianski made a superb reflex save from a Cesc volley. It really was sensational. Victor was stretching the game out and occasionally asked questions of the Swans defence. Eden was a little quiet. Pedro buzzed as Pedro does. We were totally dominating. N’Golo was in fine form. The boys were hunting in packs all over the Swansea midfield. In an attempt to avoid boredom, Thibaut hopped up on to the crossbar down below us and went through a fine gymnastic display – a handstand here, a somersault, then a fine tumble and dismount.

Then, after it was announced that a minute would be added on to the first-half for stoppages, N’Golo was wrongly – in my book, but I’m biased – adjudged to have fouled in the centre-circle. From Sigurdsson’s perfectly placed free-kick, Llorente – thinly linked with us last month – was able to jump unhindered past Thibaut. What poor marking.

Bollocks.

The half-time whistle sounded and, for once, there was not a mass exodus. This half-time show would rival anything that the NFL could muster. The Frank Lampard banner was held aloft by around twenty supporters in the middle of the pitch. After a fair wait, Neil Barnett introduced our Frank  to the waiting thousands. Dressed in a dapper black suit – brown shoes – he began a walk around the sacred turf. There was tumultuous applause, as expected.

After completing a circuit, Frank took the microphone from Neil and slowly walked, hand in pocket, looking very relaxed, towards us in the Matthew Harding. I felt privileged that he walked towards us; it was, after all, where he had his most emotional moment at Stamford Bridge. That penalty against Liverpool in 2008 will never be forgotten.

Frank spoke for around a minute, and thanked the club for allowing him this chance to say a few words. He thanked us repeatedly for all of our support. There was a brief moment when his bottom lip momentarily wavered and I am sure that the penalty in 2008 flitted through his mind. It was another emotional occasion to be honest. But Frank battled on and did well. It was another perfect Chelsea moment.

The second-half began. Eden blasted at Fabianski. Just after Diego set up Cesc, whose rising shot struck the bar with a loud thud. Surely a goal would come. But the visitors were providing dogged resistance. I missed the Dave “handball” and was not convinced that the Diego incident warranted a penalty either.

It seemed to be all Chelsea at this stage. I was convinced that we would get a winner, though. There is an innate confidence in the team this season. It’s a beautiful thing. With around twenty minutes’ left, Cesc played the ball to Pedro, who was allowed to run. He struck a tentative shot from around twenty-five yards, and I watched as it curled in at the far post.

Here was the goal we craved. Stamford Bridge erupted.

“GET IN.”

Pedro ran off and celebrated wildly with Cesc. Fantastic.

The main Swansea threat Sigurdsson forced Thibaut to save well from a free-kick. There was a moment of lazy and loose football – involving David and Gary – as the defence took a few sloppy touches. That it warrants a mention in this match reports just shows how rare these occasions are. Antonio surprisingly replaced Pedro with Nemanja, who quickly ran deep in to the Swansea box. His pull back to N’Golo was excellent. The finish was not so great; it was blasted over.

Claude : “As good as me.”

Soon after, Eden took his turn in dancing down the left and pulled the ball back for Diego to slam home. Diego had to adjust on his approach to the ball and it was a fine finish. Diego made a point of signalling over to Eden for pulling the ball back and the two hugged. The rest of the team soon joined in. In the resultant melee, Dave hoisted himself  onto his team mates. Smiles all over. The game was surely over and the three points had been won. Antonio brought on Kurt for Victor and Willian for Eden. Cesc went close at the end, but it stayed at 3-1.

It was another fine Chelsea win.

I turned to Alan :

“That one is for Frank.”

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Tales From Classic Chelsea

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 4 February 2017.

I was not worried about this game. I was convinced that we would beat Arsenal. My optimism actually surprised me since I am not usually so gung-ho about matches against one of the top four, five or six. But this season, or more importantly at this moment of this season, I was not concerned one little bit. There is just something so inherently fragile about Arsenal. Their current form has dipped. Indeed, their last four visits to SW6 have all ended in defeat; we were aiming to make it five in a row.

The boys were keen to be in London as soon as possible. I awoke to the confirmation that we would be repeating the day’s game against Arsenal in Beijing during the summer. Sign me up for that. My mate Glenn is keen too.

Chelsea fans in move to China shock.

Everything was fine and dandy as I collected The Fun Boy Three for our second game in five days; a lovely week of beer and football was continuing. We re-capped on the alcohol-induced highlights from Merseyside, and prepared for another – but much shorter – drinking session. We spoke how quiet the January transfer window had been in general. For our club, most of our activity involved players leaving. We said goodbye to Oscar – OK, in December – and Jon Obi Mikel, bound for China. On the last few days of the window, we heard confirmation that Branislav Ivanovic was off to Russia. That goal against Brentford was indeed his parting gift to us. They will all be missed. But these adjustments represented a purging of the squad, and we hoped that the arrival of Nathan Ake would be mirrored by other loanees returning. I was not concerned that no major signing took place. It underlined how happy everyone was with the current squad.

I was parked-up at just before 10am. We marched past around forty souls waiting in line for The Goose to open its doors at 10am and made a bee-line for “The Chelsea Pensioner.” I had hopes to meet up with a few friends from near and far. I was not disappointed. I last bumped into George and Petr – both from the Czech Republic – at the first game of the season, the friendly in Vienna against Rapid. They were ecstatic at being in town for such a high-profile game. Andy – from California – and his trusty beige jacket soon appeared and a few laughs were shared. He was again in town for one game only and it’s always a pleasure to see him. I briefly chatted to a group of young lads from New York, all bedecked in Chelsea bar scarves, knocking back lager like it had gone out of fashion. I asked if they had heard of the New York Blues, and was surprised to hear that they hadn’t. My guess that they were enjoying the beer in “The Pensioner” so much as they would have been under the drinking age back in the USA. Andy wondered how they had managed to get tickets. There was around ten in their group. An older couple seemed to be their chaperones. We presumed that they had stumped up for some sort of corporate package. I had a little chuckle to myself when two of them unveiled Stone Island tops.

File under “ah, bless.”

Anyway, I wished them well. When I was a young kid, standing on The Shed, I always loved how I was welcomed into the Chelsea family even though I was from Somerset, and there has never been any kind of London-only elitism about our club. At least domestically. These days, there is a certain wariness among the Chelsea support about our overseas fans. But I can spot “proper” fans a mile off. It’s a shame that the bona fide ones are lumped into the same category as half-and-half scarf wearing fools and those silent ones who don’t engage in our football culture of singing at games.

We popped next door to “The Fox & Pheasant” and met up with a few other mates. Lunchtime games still feel odd. I remembered a similar game from 2014 ; Arsene Wenger’s one thousandth game and Chelsea 6  Arsenal 0. What a game. What a memory. We were on fire that day. I had mentioned that an early goal in 2017 would settle us and I silently wondered if a similar score line might follow.

There was no surprise that Nemanja Matic continued to partner N’Golo Kante. There was simply no room for Cesc Fabregas. Elsewhere, Pedro got the nod over Willian. It would be our strongest team for sure.

Neil Barnett spoke about Branislav Ivanovic and also Frank Lampard, who had announced his retirement from football during the week. A large Lampard banner hung proudly from the Matthew Harding as the teams strode onto the pitch. A montage of Frank Lampard moments were shown on the TV screen.

His exploits have been well documented in these match reports.

As I wrote in Mark Worrall’s book in 2013, when speaking about his goal at Villa Park which took him to a record-breaking 203 Chelsea goals, “his professionalism, his dedication, his spirit and his strength are much admired by all. We love him to bits.”

My favourite Chelsea player remains Pat Nevin. The most loved Chelsea player is probably Peter Osgood. But our greatest-ever player may well be Frank Lampard.

Enjoy your retirement, Sir Frank.

For once, Arsenal had a few flags. One simply stated “The Arsenal. Never outgunned.”

Yeah, right.

I wasn’t sure why Wenger had not chosen Welbeck or Giroud to give a little support to Sanchez upfront but I hoped that the little forward would not create havoc. We looked a little nervous during the first few minutes to be quite honest. Alex Iwobi pounced on some sloppy defensive play and sent a low shot towards Thibaut Courtois. It edged wide but only after the slightest of deflections. It was a warning sign that things might not go all our own way. Arsenal continued to move the ball around well. We then managed to get hold of the ball and our football began to shine. Gary Cahill rose unhindered at the far post but headed down and not towards the Arsenal goal.

There was a moment when the ball broke and both Eden Hazard and Pedro, out of position really, were running at the same Arsenal defender. I imagined a white flag being waved amid howls of pain.

On twelve minutes, we worked the ball out to Pedro and his magnificent cross was met by a high leap by Diego Costa. His powerful header crashed against the top of the bar. The ball spun up and seemed take forever to descend. Peter Cech was still scrambling back to his feet as Marcos Alonso sped in and headed the ball in. The crowd roared our pleasure. There was that early goal. Full credit to our left wingback to get his arse inside the box for a potential “second ball.”

One nil to Chelsea.

There was a break in play as Bellerin, laid asunder by Alonso’s challenge, was replaced by Gabriel.

Diego Costa caused the net to ripple with an angled drive.

We began to purr and enjoyed some gorgeous possession. Kante and Matic set a lot of our tone by winning plenty of loose balls, getting under Arsenal’s skin, tackling hard, then moving the ball quickly. We were relentless. This pace of ours was wonderful to watch. Eden Hazard was another on top form. One dribble out of defence was exceptional. Pedro buzzed around and never stood still. At the back, the chosen three were again playing supremely. Luiz was majestic, defending well, and releasing a few early balls for Diego. Dave was another who chased and tackled with such great desire. One Gary Cahill cushioned chest pass back to Thibaut surely had JT smiling in admiration.

I lost count of the amount of times that Arsenal were robbed of possession not by one Chelsea player but the contributions of two team mates working together.

Kante rushing to get close to Ozil, not actually tackling him or getting a touch on the ball, but putting the Arsenal player under so much pressure, that the subsequent heavy touch was pounced upon by Matic.

Chelsea hunting in packs; “unleashing the dogs” as a neighbour used to say to describe the Manchester United midfield of twenty years ago. Despite our dominance Courtois did well to push away a header from Gabriel, a defender so ugly that he makes Martin Keown look like a member of a boy band, and there was an even better save, low, to deny Ozil. It was a fine game of football.

The three thousand Arsenal supporters were very quiet. Apart from one “WWYWYWS?” there were a couple of monotone “Aaaaaaarsenal, Aaaaaaarsenal” dirges and that was about it.

Diego Costa continued to lead the line well as the second-half began. One shot was saved well by Petr Cech.

Seven minutes into the second-half, we were able to witness one of the very great Chelsea goals. And it was very much a typical – a classic – Chelsea goal. David Luiz cleared an Arsenal punt up field with a cushioned clearance towards Diego Costa. Facing his own goal and inside his own half, he did so well to flick the ball on, under pressure, to Eden Hazard. Eden, a few yards inside his own half, turned and set off. He raced away, his low centre of gravity allowing him to shake off challenges en route. One defender, Coquelin, spun off him like a drunken dancer, and as he continued his high-paced drive towards goal, there was widespread panic in the Arsenal defence akin to that experienced by children when they lose their mothers in supermarkets. We watched, hearts in mouths – me with my camera quickly brought up to my eye – and watched as he bore in on goal. It was a one-man onslaught. One final shake of the hips that Elvis Presley would have been proud, and Eden had slalomed the last two chasing defenders. He dinked the ball past the falling Cech and the Earth seemed to jolt off its axis.

I caught his beatific dance towards the far corner on camera, but inside my heart was pounding, and I felt myself smiling wide.

Click, click, click, click.

I hope that you like them.

At last, that stubborn old fucker Wenger brought on Olivier Giroud who must surely be the doyen of every self-obsessed, hipster, bar-scarf wearing, micro-brewery loving, metrosexual, sleeked back hair, bushy bearded and self-righteous Arsenal supporter everywhere. Sanchez had been remarkably quiet. On came Danny Welbeck too. Wenger, watching from the stands for this game, is now a parody of himself these days. He is surely losing his most devout fans at Arsenal. He’s just such an odd character. And I really mean odd. Just look at the way he has always celebrated goals. Not the natural outpouring of emotion of most football types; instead the delayed, queasy, fist-punch, that doesn’t fool anyone. I have a feeling for all of his alleged passion for football, I am sure he would rather be at home, sorting his socks alphabetically. He is the sort of person who eats his Sunday roast in order of nutrional value.

A cross into our box was met by Welbeck, and his strong downward header was surely headed for the goal. Not a bit of it. Thibaut dived low to his right and pushed the ball away. It looked world class to me. I instantly likened it to the Banks save against Brazil in 1970. It certainly looked similar. It was a stunning save.

In the closing moments, Antonio Conte replaced Pedro with Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard with Willian.

The applause rang out all around The Bridge.

Shortly after, in a moment of pure melodrama, Petr Cech made a complete hash of an attempted clearance. The ball darted straight towards Fabregas, who quickly lobbed the ball back towards the empty net. Time seemed to stand still yet again. Initially, I thought the chip was too high, but – no – the ball perfectly dropped into the goal. I roared again but watched as Cech turned in dismay. There was no celebration from the scorer against his former team. I felt for Cech – just a little – but not for long. What a surreal and farcical moment it was.

We were three-up and had therefore mirrored the infamous 0-3 score line at The Emirates in the autumn, a result which helped define our season, not that we knew it at the time. I still look back on the four of us, utterly distraught, sitting on a bench at Paddington Station, completely silent, and saddened by our display, unwilling to look too far into our future as the strongest memory – emotion wise – of our whole season this far.

Diego, who I thought was magnificent during the second-half, sadly blasted high after a fine run.

4-0 would have helped us forget the 0-3 further.

Kurt Zouma replaced the tireless Victor Moses and soon had a little run at the Arsenal defence himself. What a laugh this game was truly turning out to be.

Bizarrely, Arsenal scored. Giroud put down his skinny macchiato and headed in from close range.

3-1.

Oh well.

Our amazing season continues on. All of our players were simply sensational. Our crazy manager didn’t sit the entire time; he was a picture of constant involvement. He is such an endearing character. When Eden scored his phenomenal solo-goal, a beaming Roman Abramovich was briefly shown celebrating in his executive box. This was clearly the type of football that he has always wanted to see at Chelsea. And it is a brand of football that clearly makes me happy; skillful, high-tempo, passionate, emotional, relentless. It takes my breath away. I’d like to think it is a hark-back to previous styles of football played at Stamford Bridge. The ‘sixties, the early-‘seventies, 1976/1977, 1983/1984, 2004/2005.

Classic Chelsea.

Back in the car, we listened as Hull City beat Liverpool and quickly did some mathematics.

“If we win at Burnley and Liverpool beat Tottenham next weekend, we’ll be twelve points clear of them.”

I’ll drink to that. See you all at Turf Moor.

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Tales From Hertfordshire

Watford vs. Chelsea : 3 February 2016.

We were parked up at just before 6pm. There was a chill to the air and I was expecting the night to get colder still. The pedestrianised Watford High Street was eerily quiet, and the many large pubs which lined the wide street seemed to be largely devoid of punters. On Facebook, it seemed that the Chelsea faithful were located in just two pubs; “The Flag” near the town’s train station, and the central “Moon Under Water.” We aimed for the latter.

It was full of Chelsea. On walking to the packed bar, I was able to spot many friends and acquaintances. Pints in hand, Parky, PD and I headed over to meet up with the other members of the Away Club. The ever-present Alan and Gary were joined by Dave, back visiting us again from his home in the South of France. Beers were sunk, stories told, plans were forged for upcoming games.

I chatted to Noel, who lives so close to Milton Keynes Dons’ stadium that he was able to walk to and from the game on Sunday. I’ve only ever been able to do that once in my life, back in 1985, when I lived ten minutes away from Stoke City’s old ground. We both agreed that it is a very strange sensation.

“All these Chelsea fans were in my local, I couldn’t get to the bar.”

Noel’s “Bletchley Blues” flag is seen everywhere. I can even remember photographing it in Kuala Lumpur in 2011.

The pub did house a few odd looking locals, but Chelsea were in the ascendency. A few songs rung out.

The furore following John Terry’s frankly surprising statement, seemingly unprovoked, about the club’s reluctance to offer him a deal for 2016/2017 has obviously been one of the hot talking points since Sunday. We briefly touched on it. Was it a bargaining tool for John Terry to shame the club in to action, or just the stark admittance that this was the beginning of the end for him in Chelsea colours? A few of us thought that Terry, in the interests of team harmony, should have kept quiet. The last thing that the team wants is a John Terry sideshow between now and May. Of course, the crux of the matter is that on form and leadership alone, he should be offered a new deal. Replacing him, our heartbeat since 2004, will be almost impossible. However, it is everything else that is murky and unclear. His motives. His character. His misdemeanours. Not everything is black and white. Nor blue and white. Let us not forget how he was sorely tempted to become a Manchester City player in the summer of 2009. John Terry has always been a surprisingly complex character for someone who is, on the surface, a fundamentally old-fashioned blocker and tackler and an unreconstructed leader of men. I have a feeling that this story will run for a while yet.

However, if this is his last few months as a Chelsea player, the difference between his send-off and that of Frank Lampard’s could not be more marked.

Thankfully, Watford’s Vicarage Road is only a twenty minute walk away from the town centre. The difference in the feel to the surroundings between our last game, in Buckinghamshire, and this one, in neighbouring Hertfordshire – just thirty miles away as the crow flies – could not be greater. On Sunday afternoon, there were wide roads, a modern stadium, purpose built restaurants, wide open spaces. On this Wednesday evening, there were narrow terraced streets, with a stadium nestled in among the fabric of a town, with hardly an inch to spare.

But I enjoyed the contrast.

Dave and I laughed at the ridiculously long lines at each and every fish and chip shop en route to the stadium.

“Oh, they love their battered haddock in deepest Watford.”

We were soon outside the away entrance, which had evidently had a lick of paint since my last visit in 2009. The whole place looked a lot smarter. There were more familiar faces everywhere I looked. The concourse inside the away stand was still ridiculously cramped, but that had been freshened up too. I suppose Vicarage Road is like a smaller version of Selhurst Park, cramped and intimate, with the turnstiles at street level high above the pitch below, in some sort of natural dip in the land. Vicarage Road holds just over 20,000 now, and is a neat enough stadium. The three rather odd structures to the left of the away end were demolished and replaced by a new structure in 2014.

It is named after Watford’s former chairman and most famous fan Sir Elton John.

Along the black rear wall, running the entire length of the stand, there are words to one of Reg Dwight’s most famous songs.

“You can tell everybody this is your song. It may be quite simple but now that it’s done. I hope you don’t mind. I hope you don’t mind. That I put down in words. How wonderful life is while you’re in the world.”

It is not known if Watford thought about stenciling in “Saturday night’s alright for fighting” above the away seats.

There were plenty of moans from myself and others regarding our seats. There are around seven hundred people in Chelsea’s away season ticket scheme, of which Parky, Alan, Gary and I are all members. This is my tenth such season. In our annual application process, we indicate to Chelsea whether or not we would prefer seats in the front, rear or middle of the respective away allocations. Generally, we get our seats in the desired area; the middle. On this occasion, not only were we around eight rows from the front, but we were way beyond the touchline in the bottom corner. What a bloody joke.

Oh well, at least I’d get a good view of Willian hitting the defender on the near post at every corner.

As the teams entered the pitch, the opposite end, the home Rookery Stand, was awash with yellow and black flags. I presume this is a Watford “thing” insomuch that fans are encouraged to bring them to games, rather than Watford giving them out for free at each home game. Watford seem to have jettisoned the colour red in their kit these days, which is a bit odd since over half the seats at Vicarage Road are coloured red.

There was surprisingly no place for Eden Hazard.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Mikel, Matic – Willian, Fabregas, Oscar – Diego Costa.

Although we looked comfortable on the ball in the opening moments, chances were not forthcoming. We moved the ball around, but Watford were proving to be a tough nut to crack. Like so many teams these days, they were working hard for each other, and tackling hard. Watford suddenly looked the more likely to score, with several good passages of play, and our defenders looked nervous and edgy, with the twin threat of Ighalo and Deeney causing us concern. From such close quarters, I was impressed with how John Terry is able to twist and move to block his attacker. Only rarely was he embarrassed on the floor.

We were drifting, though, with no real urgency in anyone’s play. Courtois did well to keep out a strong header from Prodl and then saved again from Capoue. The mood inside the away end, or at least the bottom corner, was of growing concern. It seemed to some that it would be a case of damage limitation from Hiddink.

Then, our best chance. The ball was played up to a snarling Diego Costa, who controlled the ball well, and sun away, in that devilish way of his, before dragging a low shot wide.

This seemed to inspire the Chelsea faithful. And although, there was noticeable support for John Terry from within our ranks, we chose to sing a song in praise of our other modern day legend as the first-half drew to a close. For many a minute, we sang and sang and sang.

“Frankie Lampard.

Frankie Lampard.

Frankie Lampard.

[PAUSE]

Oh Frankie Lampard scored two hundred against the Pikeys.”

At half-time, my phone quickly alerted me to the fact that Frank, watching in New York City, had commented on social media about this, thanking us for the support. I was also informed that one of the 2,200 had been texting Frank throughout the chanting too.

At times like that, it really does seem that we are all in it together.

I noted an immediate increase in intensity in our play in the second-half. Apart from a fine block tackle, Fabregas had been largely missing in the first period. However, he set up Oscar, whose shot was saved. Mikel thundered in from the rebound but his shot was blocked too. Watford countered with a couple of attacks, but I wondered where a goal was coming from. I kept thinking of a last minute Salomon Kalou winner in 2007. I wondered if we would have to wait as long as that.

I was very frustrated when Diego Costa broke down the left, but only Oscar was in a dangerous position. Many yards behind, three midfielders were hardly busting a gut to join the attack. It seemed to be a perfect metaphor for the evening.

The frustration grew.

Watford’s home support was pretty tame.

“Watford FC” soon segued in to “Fuck PSG.”

Oscar shot wide from a Costa pass. A clean strike from the otherwise unimpressive Matic was hit straight at Gomes. Another shot from Oscar. Our chances were slowly piling up, but nobody seemed to be too impressed.

Watford’s players were wilting at the merest hint of a challenge from the Chelsea players. Alan was not impressed.

“You lot go down quicker than Elton John’s chauffeur.”

With twenty minutes to go, at last a substitution, with Eden Hazard replacing Matic. A lovely passing move ended up with a firm strike from Ivanovic testing Gomes, who saved well. Then, we had a great view of Willian teasing his marker, and getting an extra yard to play in Hazard, but his touch was heavy and the chance passed us by.

Then, with time marching on, the best chance of the entire game. John Terry ran at the defence – memories of a winner at Burnley just after the Vanessa Perroncel story broke, could he do it again? – but rather than shoot, he passed to Hazard. His cross was met well by Diego Costa. His header appeared destined to make the net ripple. Memories of Salomon Kalou in 2007. We gulped, we stretched on our tiptoes. Gomes clawed it away.

“What a save. Fackinell.”

And it was. It was a stunning save.

I turned in disbelief.

Ugh.

The game offered no more chances, no more drama. It was an off night for us. Many had felt unfulfilled. For large parts of the game, I suspect that many had hoped for a little bout of narcolepsy to kick in. It hadn’t been exciting. It was a disappointing let down.

“Three points tonight would have got us up to eleventh. Bollocks.”

There was quite a wait for us in the lower section of the away end. With only a very small exit, it took ages for the 2,200 away fans to disperse. Parky and I soon met up with PD, and we then joined the thousands heading back in to town. It seemed everyone was making the same trip, through the tight terraced streets, with cars squeezed together on the pavements, and past several fish and chip shops, fried chicken shops, many Indian restaurants, kebab shops, Chinese takeaways and pubs. Everything for a night out, it seemed. There was even a seedy sauna. In fact, just before we were back on the High Street, there was a Gentlemen’s Club called “Diamonds And Strings”, with several girls poised outside. As the three of us brushed past, one thrust a flier into my hand, advertising a Wednesday event called “Fantasy Night.”

Fantasy night?

“How about Chelsea finishing in the top half of the table this season?”

That’ll do me. Where do I sign up? How much to get in? How much will that cost?

In PD’s car, there was the briefest of summaries of the players’ performances.

“I think Mikel was as good as any to be honest. Zouma and Terry solid, Dave too. Ivanovic a little bit off tonight. Courtois didn’t have much to do. Fabregas bloody rubbish. Matic too slow. Willian off the pace a bit. Diego Costa tried his best to be fair. Oscar OK. Played better when Hazard came on.”

Just as PD made had made great time on the drive up to Watford – barely over two hours covered the 111 miles from a pub car park outside Melksham to a car park just north of the Watford High Street – he did even better on the return drive. I was home by 12.30am.

It hadn’t been the best of evenings following the team, but it never feels like a waste of time nor money. If or when it does, a part of me will be lost forever.

Manchester United at home on Sunday.

See you there.

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Tales From A Litmus Test

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 16 August 2015.

It was around 8.30am. Parky and I were briefly summarising our start to the season, and our hopes for our game at Manchester later in the day. I was being truthful when I told him that I wasn’t looking forward to the day as I ought to be. There was no specific reason, but I suspect that the fear of defeat was breathing heavily down my neck. Was there anything else, more sinister perhaps, to be the reason for my melancholy about another trip north? I honestly wasn’t sure. I know that I have often spoken about the thoughts that I have regarding my level of support for Chelsea Football Club and the – whisper it – inevitably that it might start to wane. As I entered the M4 on the slip road a few miles to the north of Chippenham, I admitted to Parky “that moment will come.”

Like King Canute and the incoming tide, once that moment strikes, there will be little I will be able to do to stop it. As I headed north, with the weather turning sunny one moment and cloudy the next, I wondered if the day, and the key encounter with one of our biggest title challengers, might prove to be some sort of litmus test for my support over the coming season.

I was ready to be tested.

Of course the football season of 2015/2016 was only in its infancy, but there were already thoughts about the madness of modern football, with all of its associated nonsense. At Chelsea, of course, in addition to the dropping of – shock horror – home points against Swansea City, we had to endure the fall out of the “Eva-Gate” revelations during the rest of that first week. Sometimes, I just have to shake my head at the antics of those connected with football. Sometimes I wish it really was “only a game.” As the week unfolded, with respective factions taking pot shots across the bows, I watched from behind my sofa, through my fingers held up to my face, just as many children of my generation apparently did when “Doctor Who” was shown on TV. Oh to be a psychiatrist with Jose Mourinho as a patient, trying to understand his complex personality. Is everything that he does stage managed to perfection? Is everything part of some grand Machiavellian plan? Does he have an “edge” on everyone? Is this desire to lay blame elsewhere a natural or manufactured trait?

In an email to some pals on the Friday, I jested that I would ensure that I was given a parking ticket in Manchester on the Sunday, so that it would give Mourinho something to get the media talking about rather than the inadequacies of his players during a possible defeat against City.

Yes, it had been a crazy first week of the season alright. There had been some daft knee-jerk reactions from parts of the media – lauding Claudio Ranieri after two wins, castigating Dick Advocat after just two losses, even niggling away at Louis Van Gaal after just three shots on goal – but the media’s obsession with Eva Carneiro just about tipped me over the edge. Thankfully, acting as a lovely balance against the madness of modern football and its obsession with the cult of personality, I watched my local non-league team Frome Town eke out a creditable 1-1 draw with a very impressive Merthyr Town side on a lovely Wednesday evening. It stirred my spirits and I almost enjoyed it as much as the Chelsea game against another Welsh side, Swansea City, a few days before.

As an aside, it irritated me that Carneiro was erroneously portrayed as a club physio on at least one BBC news report. The corporation should know better.

Additionally, I have never been able to fathom the hold that Carneiro has on some of our support. Have these people never seen a woman before?

Back to the football.

The trip north – oh so familiar over the past ten years – was going well, but I was still not getting that match day tingle. We drove past The Hawthorns, scene of our last domestic away game in May, and a three-nil defeat which meant little. Up on to the M6 and the traffic was fine. We spotted a Manchester City car, boasting a sticker for the Weymouth Blues. The skies cleared and I ate up the miles. It was a familiar drive in to the city of Manchester and one which has almost become automatic for me; the Manchester Orbital, past Old Trafford, past Salford Quays, past the Salford Lads Club, right in to the city centre.

I parked up at midday, four hours after collecting Parky.

Out in to the bright Mancunian sun, surrounded by the familiar red brick, I suddenly got the kick that I was hoping for.

Chelsea away in a northern city, four hours to kick-off, boom.

The buzz was back.

Fantastic.

Parky and myself spent an hour or so enjoying a couple of bottles of beer apiece in the bar of The Lowry Hotel, right in the heart of the city, overlooking a narrow “cut” of The River Erwell as it winds its way out to Salford and beyond. We had visited this hotel before our famous win at City in the 2013/2014 season – one of the best away days of recent memory – and I suppose it was the superstitious part of me that made me want to revisit. Just as we were about to leave, I spotted the black and gold of an Ellison coach pull up outside the main entrance. This was a sure sign that Chelsea, as I had hoped, had been staying in the hotel. We loitered around for a while, despite the overzealous questioning of a few hotel staff, and were able to wish the players well as they quietly walked through the lobby in their white Adidas tracksuits and on to the waiting coach.

Chris : “Good luck, Eden.”

Parky : “Score two for me today, Eden.”

There was no response, no eye-contact, from him, nor the others. They looked, as you probably might expect on such an important day, focussed and serious. From another direction, came the suited Mourinho, again deadly serious. He looked straight ahead as I wished him well. A gaggle of fans, no more than ten, were waiting outside and only John Terry and Diego Costa had stopped to sign and pose for photographs.

Back at the city centre car park – no word of a lie – a young attendant was sheepishly waiting by my car and handed me a £25 parking ticket.

“I blame Mourinho and his bloody team talk Parky.”

Bollocks.

“Is that a bad omen, Parky? Shall we bugger off home now?”

We were caught in a little traffic, but were parked up in our usual place – a £5 spot at a car wash on the Ashton New Road – only ten minutes from the stadium.

Since the last visit of almost twelve months ago, another Sunday afternoon game, Manchester City’s stadium had been enlarged by a further seven thousand seats, with a high third tier now sitting on top of the south stand. The San Siro style exit ramps still exist at the sides, but the new stand has an encased look, with dull grey cladding at the bottom and windows above. It hardly adds to the aesthetic appeal of The Etihad. Down below, many familiar Chelsea faces were milling around. I met up with Alan and Gary. Alan handed me my match ticket, plus the one for West Brom the following Sunday. It was just after three o’clock. There were handshakes and a few grimaces.

“Take a draw today, son.”

More than one acquaintance admitted that Mourinho had been “a bit of a tit” regarding his outburst against Carneiro and Fearn.

There was ample time for a meet and greet with a few more friends in the bar area of the concourse of the middle tier. Inside the stadium, I was immediately met with the sight of five huge banners, held aloft by helium balloons, yet tethered by some folks at pitch level, announcing the new tier on the south stand. There was quite a festive feel. The new structure would bring the capacity up to around 55,000.

Two things to note.

City have been quite crafty in allowing away supporters into the new top tier too. The support, three thousand strong (at £58 a ticket, no less), was now split in to three tiers, thus making it rather difficult for all of us to synchronise the singing. I always thought that slicing our away section in to two at City resulted in a sub-standard noise level. With three thin sections, piled high upon each other, it would be even more difficult to get our support together.

As I have said before, I have always linked City and Chelsea historically; loyal, yet undervalued support, a sprinkling of trophies over many years, now powerhouses in the new order, with foreign investment bringing new levels of success and expectation. I will watch with great interest to see if City manage to fill those extra 7,000 seats on a weekly basis, what with our new stadium plans taking shape at the moment. It’s a litmus test for City, and maybe one for us too.

The team was announced.

Begovic – Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta – Matic, Fabregas – Willian, Hazard, Ramires – Diego Costa.

The loud PA stoked up the home support, with various players featuring on the TV screens – “I play for you” – interspersed with the faces of fans – “I sing for you.”

“I play for you.”

“I sing for you.”

“I play for you.”

“I sing for you.”

“I play for you.”

“I sing for you.”

I remember commenting on something similar last season.

As the teams entered the pitch, the banners moved infield, and streamers cascaded down on to the pitch from the excited Citizens in the new tier above. With so many sky blue and white streamers filling the air, it reminded me of Argentina 1978.

Alan, Gary and I were in the middle of the middle tier, but right next to the home support.

“Lovely.”

The Chelsea support stood the entire game, which is nothing new.

From the whistle – Diego Costa to Willian – I was in to it.

Reports of my demise had been exaggerated.

Sadly, we lost possession straight away and a sublime ball from David Silva reached the run of Sergio Aguero. We held our breath, but Asmir Begovic saved well.

At the other end, Diego Costa fell in the box but I was unsighted. Down in front of us, City were coming at us at will, but Begovic saved magnificently on two separate occasions from the tormentor in chief Aguero. Our possession always looked like it would soon be coming to an end. A rare Matic header was our only effort which caused Hart to save. City were in the ascendency. Another Aguero chance went begging and as I looked across at the baying City fans, one chap was signalling “it could be 4-0.”

I silently agreed.

Just after the half-hour, the ball found Aguero yet again and he edged himself past Gary Cahill to fire City in front, the ball agonisingly coming off the inside of the far post.

We threatened momentarily, but City had dominated the first period. Our play was laboured and slow. Hazard was quiet. Fabregas, save for a couple of rare tackles, woeful. There were few positives.

Then, in the closing minutes, pure comedy.

An injured Gary Cahill needed attention in the goal mouth down below.

“Oh no.”

On came two unknown Chelsea assistants, scurrying like mad, and attended to our defender. The home sections of the stadium erupted in mirth.

“Sacked in the morning, you’re getting sacked in the morning.”

Only the hardest of Chelsea souls could not find that just a little amusing. I caught Alan having a little smirk to himself. In the lower tier to my right, the City fans were singing “Eva, Eva, Eva.”

After us singing Frank Lampard’s name last season and City singing Eva Carneiro’s name this season, this was getting pretty surreal.

What next?

Chelsea singing the praises of Eddie Large?

Next to receive attention was Diego Costa, clumped by a City defender, but away in the other half. Again, I was unsighted. As he walked off, head bandaged, he seemed to be overly agitated and Ivanovic – I think – had to steer him away from a City player.

At the break, there was the grim realisation that it could have been 4-0 to City. There were long faces everywhere I looked. After dismissing City as a main threat for our title before the season, I was having to re-evaluate, but yet a little voice inside my head kept saying “this is only the second game, don’t judge just yet.”

At the start of the second period, it was announced that Kurt Zouma was coming on as a substitute. My immediate thought was that Mourinho was looking to strengthen the midfield and maybe take off Ramires, put Zouma alongside Matic, and move Fabregas forward.

No. I got that wrong.

Kurt Zouma replaced John Terry.

What?

I had to think back to see if JT had received a knock. That was Gary Cahill injured before the break, surely. I just couldn’t compute that John Terry had been substituted.

Thankfully, much to our surprise, we enjoyed an upturn during the first part of the second-half. The increase in aggression and passion quickly inspired the away contingent to rally. We did our best to support the boys.

A break found Fabregas down below us in the inside-left channel and his lofted pass found Ramires, who controlled the ball and stabbed the ball past Hart. There was an instant roar of approval, but then the gnawing realisation that a linesman had flagged for offside. The City fans alongside us became animated and agitated. They mocked us for our false joy. I just looked across at them and mocked them similarly.

“Alright, calm down for fuck sake.”

Our play had improved since the first-half. Our chances on goal were rare, but we had definitely stepped up a gear.

Mourinho then replaced Ramires, one of the biggest improvements in my mind, with the much-maligned Juan Cuadrado. I am sure that there was a communal shake of the head among the Chelsea supporters inside the stadium and out. Our winger was much-heralded when he signed for us in February for around £24M. Since then, he has disappointed in nearly all of his subsequent games. There is a little part of me who thinks that Mourinho sees him as the 2015 version of Tal Ben Haim, a player so suspiciously “un-Chelsea like” in quality as to warrant the view that Mourinho only bought him, and kept picking him, as a mark of bitterness towards the lack of funds afforded him by the board.

Or is that me being too cynical?

With twenty minutes remaining, and the game delicately poised, a fine move – our best of the match – involving Eden Hazard and Diego Costa almost brought dividends. Diego lost his marker and played in Hazard, who made space well with a typical body shake, but Hart saved well.

We groaned a million “fackinells.”

Radamel Falcao, booed by City for his past season in Salford, entered the fray, replacing Willian, who had begun to tire. There were calls, tongue in cheek, for Falcao to replace Cuadrado. I was always told that it is not advisable to make substitutions before defending a corner. Falcao’s first three seconds of match action resulted in Kompany rising high above Ivanovic.

Bollocks.

2-0.

No way back now.

Insult was added to injury in the last five minutes when Fernandinho fired home from an angle. The home fans exploded in untold glee.

3-0.

Ugh.

In the dying embers, Diego Costa hit the post.

The City fans were in their element.

“Champions of England, you’re having a laugh.”

At the final whistle, a couple of the lads in front of me reached over to shake hands with the City supporters with whom they had been enjoying some good old-fashioned banter throughout the game. It was good to see. Despite a gut-wrenching defeat, I was deeply proud that not many Chelsea fans left before the end of the game.

I met up with Parky outside.

“That’s our second successive 3-0 away league defeat, Parky.”

Parky was with Kev, from Edinburgh, who last featured in these tales on our trip to wonderful Lisbon last autumn. I had managed to get a ticket for Kev before the game, and despite the loss, was full of thanks. Parky, maybe getting a little carried away, was looking forward to relegation and games against Bristol City and Cardiff City.

“Steady on, Parky, it’s not that bad mate.”

Our walk back to the car was alongside joyous sky-blue clothed locals. It was a strange feeling, to be honest. Despite the shifting sands of club rivalries, I still find it hard to genuinely hate City.

I ask you. If Chelsea fall short this season, would you rather that Arsenal, United, Liverpool or Tottenham won it?

Nah.

I wondered what Frank Lampard, in New York, thought about it all.

As with many trips to Manchester, music was in my thoughts throughout the trip. I had opened up the day on Facebook with a few lines from New Order :

“I feel so extraordinary.
Something’s got a hold on me.
I get this feeling I’m in motion.
A sudden sense of liberty.”

After a painful defeat, with home more than five hours away, I quickly decided upon a new update.

On this particular Sunday, it was now time to quote another Manchester son :

“Trudging back over pebbles and sand.”

On the drive south, with parts of the Chelsea supporter base no doubt going in to meltdown, Parky and myself were soon relaxing, enjoying each other’s company and looking forward to the next few games. As we sped past The Hawthorns, we made plans for our pre-match next Sunday. As Parky drank his ciders, I sang along – badly – to some music from the grim old ‘eighties.

I ate up the miles.

I was my usual philosophical self. It had been a tough game, but I was just so proud to be part of it. Hats off to those who continue to travel, to support, to keep the faith. I was so relieved that I had enjoyed the match day experience. I need not have been worried. Maybe the players had failed their test, but at least I had passed my own personal litmus test. I was happy for that at least.

After setting off for Manchester at 7.30am, I reached home at 11pm. It had been a long, tiring day.

Thankfully, I just missed our game on “Match Of The Day 2.”

Next Sunday, a Chelsea goal at West Bromwich Albion will be roared like a goal from our ne’er do well past. The noise will be deafening and the earth will shake.

See you there.

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