Tales From Yahnited

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 April 2022.

Manchester United was going to be our last regular season away game in 2021/22. However, our appearance in the FA Cup Final brought it forward just over two weeks.

Chelsea : “What are you doing Thursday 28 April?”

United : “Nothing. Absolutely nothing, why?”

Chelsea : “Well, we have a problem with Saturday 14 May.”

United : “Go on.”

Chelsea : “Well, we reached the Cup Final.”

United : “Shut it.”

Our last three domestic away games, then, were to be Manchester United, Everton and Leeds United. Three trips up north to three football giants. Three trips to the former warring counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire.

Three colours : red.

Three colours : blue.

Three colours : white.

These days, the cities and teams reside in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and West Yorkshire. And hopefully, fingers crossed, I would be attending all three. I have not fared too well with home games this season, but by the end of 2021/22, I will have hopefully chalked up a full set of away games in the league, mirroring that of 2008/9 and 2015/16.

I booked a half-day holiday at work for the day of the game and also a half-day holiday on the Friday. I collected Sir Les in a pub car park opposite work at midday, then Parky, then eventually PD at just before 1pm. My route to Manchester then needed to take me home. The reason for this needs explaining. Two tickets for two friends up north had been sent to me on Monday but had not yet materialised. I was hoping that they would be waiting for me in my front porch. Alas it was not to be. I had already warned them that the tickets were unlikely to arrive in time for my departure up north at 1pm as our post usually arrives mid-afternoon. My text to them was still a horrible thing to have to do.

The Royal Mail 1.

The Ticket Man 0.

Bollocks.

Undeterred, I set off.

There was a different route to get up onto the motorway network; Writhlington, Bath, Saltford, Keynsham, Bristol. I was soon onto the M32, then the M4, the M5…

By the way, It has occurred to me that during my match report for the recent West Ham United game, I missed an open goal. Surely, somehow, I could have referred to myself as the ticket man on Fulham Broadway Station?

What a waste.

The trip north was filled with football talk.

On the Tuesday, I had attended the Frome Town vs. Bristol Manor Farm game at Badgers Hill. This was the Southern League Southern Division play-off semi-final over just one leg. I aimed to drag as many people along as possible in order to boost the gate. In the end, just one was able to make it. I watched in the seats of the main stand as Joe O’Loughlin, the raiding left-back, unleashed a right-footed bullet to put us 1-0 up. How we all celebrated that one. I was just messaging some friends with the words “WHAT A FUCKING GOAL” when Manor Farm equalised within a minute of our goal. Sadly, the away team scored two further second-half goals to win it 3-1. Well done to them. They now travel to Winchester City in the final. I was predictably saddened with this loss. “Gutted” to use the football equivalent. Frome had been flying high in the two COVID seasons which were then sadly abandoned, and had led from the front this season until March. I rue two tame derby draws against Larkhall. The gate on Tuesday was a quite remarkable 1,158. It showed how the club has grown over the last three years.

I will be there again, when I can, next season. I attended eighteen Frome Town games this season – seven away – and each one has been so enjoyable. The club has been revitalised and – yes – I am still hurting that we didn’t reach the play-off final. Ironically, the final will be between the teams that finished fourth and fifth this season. Our second place finish – with a league best four defeats all season – meant nothing.

I hated the play-offs in 1988 with Chelsea and I hate them now in 2022 with Frome Town.

My good mate Kev, Chelsea, bumped into me before the game as he is a board member of Manor Farm. He enjoyed chatting to the one person I had brought along, a certain Mr. Harris, and he gave me a mix-tape – with a slight football flavour – to take to Manchester.

So that got an airing.

I loved it.

I did, though, wonder if I was upsetting the Chelsea Gods by playing it. There were songs from Manchester-based The Stone Roses and The Fall within the twenty-odd tunes involved.

At least Mr. Harris got a mention in Laurel Aitkens’ “The Zigger Zagger Song.”

We stopped at “The Windmill” pub, just off the M6, for about the fourth time. It’s our base before getting to Manchester. The boys enjoyed a couple of pints.

It was soon time to leave the pub for the final approach to Old Trafford.

The “sat nav” changed its mind four times in about five minutes as I looked at the best way to reach our usual parking spot near Gorse Hill Park, which is around a fifteen-minute walk from Old Trafford. In the end, it dragged me in a wide arc to the west, through some ridiculously quiet country lanes, sending me close to United’s training ground at Carrington, before pushing me through Urmston. Before I knew it, I was joining the slow-moving match-going traffic heading north along the Chester Road. I crept past the abandoned sky blue art deco cinema – it annoys me every time I see it, I would love to see it saved – past those red brick houses, signs for parking – the match day buzz growing now – and then the light grey of the Old Trafford stands in the distance. I parked up and paid £10 to the usual people. There was a nip in the air. Jackets were fastened.

This was my twenty-sixth visit to Old Trafford to see us play United. There were two FA Cup semi-finals too.

The last was in August 2019; the 0-4 shellacking with Frank at the helm.

Since my first time of walking along the Chester Road to Old Trafford around twenty years ago, a few things have changed. Nearer the ground, there are a couple of new car dealerships and a large modern supermarket. But past The Bishop Blaize pub, I was glad to see the small knot of fast food outlets still going strong. Old Trafford itself has undergone monstrous redevelopment itself in the past twenty-five years – it isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing of stadia – and so it always gives me a warm glow to see these six or seven cafes still eking out a living. A link to the past. A link to our youth. It’s silly, but I hope they continue to thrive. The match day experience at Old Trafford would suffer if they were to disappear.

The Lou Macari chip shop is still there. After the work that Macari has done for the homeless in his adopted city of Stoke-on-Trent, I have a lot of respect for that man. Talking of Macari, if you call yourself a football fan and haven’t seen “Marvellous” you need to have a word with yourself.

We reached the forecourt, the famous forecourt – another link to the past, the Munich clock et al – at around 7.15pm. The ticket man handed over tickets to Deano.

There was just time for a photo to share on Facebook, with me outside the away turnstiles. There are certain games that require a little attention in the sartorial stakes and this was one of them.

United away : Vivienne Westwood shirt, Hugo Boss jeans, Hugo Boss top, Paul & Shark jacket and Adidas gazelles.

The caption?

“Tonight is my seventy-eighth Chelsea vs. Manchester United game across all competitions and venues. It takes them top just past Liverpool in my all-time list.

It is the only competition they will win this season.”

Without much fuss, I made my way in. The away segment of East Stand, formerly K Stand, is one of the oldest remaining parts of the stadium now. It reeks of ‘sixties concrete and pillars.

I simply could not have asked for a better viewing position. The much-enlarged disabled section at Old Trafford – very laudable – is at the front of the away corner, and so it means that our seats in “row two” were a third of the way back. Not only that, to my left was a clear view of the rest of the stadium; there was an abyss immediately next to me and then a gap before the home areas of the main stand, the South Stand. I had an even better than usual view of one of Old Trafford’s nicest features; the pitch is raised, as if indeed a stage, and the drop-off to the pitch surrounds always looks dangerously steep.

Old Trafford was quiet and not particularly full. Certainly in those areas to my left there were easily visible red seats. But our section had gaps too. Clearly this Thursday night fixture had proved to be problematic. We had heard rumours of “Glazers Out” protests but I had witnessed nothing before the game. The ground tried its best to fill up.

Just before the entrance of the teams, billowing sulphurous smoke emerged from the bowels of the South Stand. We presumed that a flare had been let off in protest.

The teams appeared from the tunnel in the south-east corner, below a “Glazers Out” sign held aloft by supporters.

Right. The game. The teams.

Chelsea lined up as below :

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Azpilicueta

James – Kante – Jorginho – Alonso

Mount – Havertz – Werner

The “fluid” system rather than the one with Lukaku in it. Right, kids?

Long gone are the days when I could reel off a United team.

This United team weren’t :

Schmeichel

Parker – Pallister – Bruce – Irwin

Kanchelskis – Ince – Robson – Giggs

Cantona – Hughes

Some bloke called Telles and some bloke called Elanga were playing for United, whoever they were. Cristiano Ronaldo, however, started.

The game – roll on drums – began.

What a start from us. We absolutely penned United into their own half and the home crowd, quiet before the game, were soon making negative noise.

The Chelsea faithful were first out of the traps too :

“Chelsea boys are on a bender. Cristiano’s got a coffee blender.”

…or something, I’m not sure.

I spoke to Parky :

“There’s some grass over there, left-hand side of the box, that marks the point where Ron Harris took out Eddie Gray in 1970.”

Unlike the first-half against West Ham on Sunday, we managed two efforts on target in the first seven minutes. A shot from Reece James and another from Timo Werner were saved well by De Gea.

It was all us. The action on the pitch and the noise off it.

Then, some scares came in quick succession. Bruno Fernandes, buzzing around from deep, looked to be their main threat and they had a little of the ball. A free-header from Fernandes was easily saved by Edouard Mendy, then an attempted bicycle kick from that man Ronaldo thankfully ballooned over.

But after this little blip, it was business as usual.

N’Golo Kante quickly shot at De Gea. We were playing so well. United were nowhere, nowhere at all. With Kante eating up space with two majestic and energetic runs from deep, he twice set up Kai Havertz with fine balls into space. The first resulted in a shot that was slashed against the side netting and the second was hit at an angle. The second move was undoubtedly the best of the game thus far.

There was a chant in honour of our Russian owner…the last days of the Roman Empire…but the United fans were so lethargic and apathetic that there was none of the usual boos that would normally accompany this.

We were especially dominant down our right with James making an absolutely marvellous return to the team. His cross was headed towards goal by Havertz, but this was again right at De Gea.

On thirty-eight minutes, an absolutely thunderous “Chelsea” – to the tune of “Amazing Grace” –  galvanised the entire away support.

Thinking to myself : “they must have heard that on the TV in London, Paris, New York, Munich.”

Did you?

It was almost total domination from Chelsea. The half-time talks and chats were all positive.

The second-half began and I was aware that both police and stewards had positioned themselves in front of the main stand and in the far corner where the “Glazers Out” sign had made a reappearance. The club were presumably expecting further rumblings of discontent.

The dominance continued on. A fine cross from Mason Mount just evaded Timo.

Ten minutes in, I honestly heard the first “Yahnited” chant of the night.

On the hour, a cross into the box from that man James was flicked on by Havertz. I saw two blue shirts unmarked at the far post. I gulped some Mancunian air. The slight wait. The trusted left boot of Marcos Alonso sent the ball low past De Gea and into the net.

GET IN YOU FUCKING BEAUTY.

The away end boomed.

You probably heard that in London, Paris, New York and Munich too.

Sadly, just like with Frome Town on Tuesday night, a goal was conceded just after we scored. We conceded possession and United pounced. A fine scoop up by Matic – one of their better players, I thought – found Ronaldo inside the box and grotesquely unmarked.

It had goal written all over it and other clichés. He brought the ball under control superbly and smashed it past Mendy.

Old Trafford woke up.

Ugh.

“Viva Ronaldo. Running down the wing. Hear United sing. Viva Ronaldo.”

What a disappointment.

“They’ve only had three attempts on goal, Gal.”

With twenty minutes to go, changes from the sideline.

Romelu Lukaku for Havertz.

Christian Pulisic for Werner.

Lukaku, to his credit, again repeated Sunday’s entrance by trying to sprint into spaces but was cruelly ignored by all.

I noted that Matic was booed off by us whereas Juan Mata – lovely player, lovely man, I sound like Alan Partridge – was warmly applauded.

We seemed to have corner after corner in that second-half.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

We conjured one last real chance. With ten minutes to go, Kante broke in the inside left position and played a fine ball into Mount. With a lovely understanding of his positioning and of others, he back-heeled to James.

There was a wait for the ball to reach him and for him to reach the ball.

We inhaled again.

The ball was crashed goal wards and it clipped the left-hand post.

We howled.

In the back of my mind, now, was the Football Gods completely fucking us over and allowing United an absolutely unmerited winner. There was indeed a late chance for Garnacho – who? – but Mendy saved well.

The draw felt like a loss.

Definitely.

Throughout thhis excellent game, Kante, Alonso and Silva had been magnificent but the real star was Reece James. Some of his close control was mesmerising, and his positional play superb. He really will be one of our very greats.

On Sir Matt Busby Way, Sir Les and PD indulged in a polystyrene tray of chips and curry sauce while I had a burger with onions. The food of the footballing Gods.

We made our way back to the car. Out on the Chester Road, the everything was moving quicker than usual. It was a tough old drive home but I eventually reached my house at 2.45am on Friday morning. The two tickets had still not arrived.

On Sunday, we’ll be heading up the same roads all over again.

I love a trip to Goodison. Who knows, it could – sadly – be my last.

I hope to see some of you there.

Tales From The Ticket Man

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 24 April 2022.

After our third consecutive home loss against Arsenal on the Wednesday, the phrase “our worst-ever home run” was heard a few times. With eleven goals conceded in just those three games, it certainly felt like it. Alas, there was no confirmation from anywhere if this was true, but I thought I’d take a look at the games that I, at least, had seen in the flesh. I brought up my “games attended spreadsheet” and ran a couple of filters.

Yes, there it was in all its damning glory.

I found it hard to believe, but I it became apparent that I had never before witnessed three consecutive home defeats at Stamford Bridge. And to be doubly clear, on this occasion the three losses against Brentford, Real Madrid and Arsenal were not only the sole three consecutive losses I had ever seen, but the only three consecutive losses that I had ever seen regardless of if the actual games were consecutive in “real time” too, not just games I had seen. A double whammy, if you will.

Bloody hell. It amazed me that I had never seen three in a row before. That I had been so lucky.

I didn’t attend many games in the truly abysmal seasons of 1978/79 and 1982/83 – two and four respectfully – but it truly shocked me that I had never personally witnessed three home defeats on the spin.

A grand total of eight-hundred and fourteen games at Stamford Bridge and only one run of three consecutive home losses.

Altogether now :

“Fackinell.”

Next up was another home game, this time against another London rival; West Ham United. This would be no easy fixture, nor any semblance of one. A defeat at the hands of David Moyes’ Irons in the autumn still smarts.

But before all that on the Sunday, I had a bonus game on the Saturday. Frome Town’s regular league season was to end with an away game at Lymington Town. I drove down to Hampshire and the last segment took me through the ethereal beauty of the New Forest – it’s unique scenery of yellow gorse, mossy shrub land and gnarled and ancient trees, and of course the wandering and unattended sheep and ponies – and then enjoyed a very entertaining 5-0 win for the visiting team. It was a glorious day out.

Early on the Sunday, I set off for London and the District Line Derby.

Very soon into the trip, with Mr. Daniels and Mr. Harris already on board, non-league football entered my head again. Our route took us past the current home of Trowbridge Town Football Club, now toiling in the Wiltshire League, a few levels below Frome Town who are at level eight in the football pyramid. Yet in 1981, Trowbridge Town played at level five – in the old conference – and were light years ahead of Frome who were entrenched in the Western League. In those days, Trowbridge were managed by former Chelsea player Alan Birchenall – “good lad, Birch, quite a character” chirped Mr. Harris – but since then the fortunes of the two teams have taken different trajectories. Such is life in our amazing football pyramid.

The football pyramid had recently witnessed a shocking fall from grace. Oldham Athletic – Chelsea’s first opponents in the newly-carved Premier League in August 1992, they did the double over us in 1993/94 – had just been relegated from the Football League.  The Latics had thus fallen from level one to level five in just under thirty years. There have been quicker descents – Bristol City in four years from one to four, Northampton Town rising those levels in five seasons and then falling those levels in five seasons too – but this one seemed particularly grotesque.

But we must cherish the fluidity of the pyramid. It is what makes English football.

With Mr. Parkins joining us soon after a drive through the town of Trowbridge, we were on our way.

The weather looked half-decent and the day lay stretched out in front of us.

The back-story to this game concerns a quest to get hold of five match tickets. I found out a while back that some good friends from Jacksonville in Florida were on their way over for the West Ham game. However, as their trip drew closer, things took a nosedive. Even though they had paid the club for tickets, the club were not releasing them.

No, I don’t understand it either.

So, from about two weeks out, I began searching some channels. Luckily, just in time, I was able to get hold of all five. Thanks to Gary, Ian, Calvin and Dan, the job was done.

For our personal merriment, Jennifer, Cindy, Brian, Anel and Eugene would be called The Axon Five for the duration of this trip.

In truth, it was as frantic a pre-match as I have had for a while. The plan was to meet up at Stamford Bridge at ten o’clock. Jennifer and Brian were able to meet a few of the players who take care of the corporate work at Chelsea on a match day. We met up just as Sir Bobby Tambling arrived. This was a lovely moment for the two visitors since they had first met Bobby in Charlotte for our friendly with PSG in 2015 and had subsequently bumped into him on a previous visit to SW6 too. In North Carolina, Bobby was persuaded to partake in what the Americans call “jello shots”, much to the amusement of the two Floridians.

With a Chelsea tour to the US – sanctions permitting – being spoken about, it was a good time for me to host a few Chelsea fans from across the pond. Of course, Jennifer and Brian will be attending the friendly against Arsenal in Orlando, but I am not tempted. The other two rumoured cities are Las Vegas and Charlotte, again, ironically. As it stands, I shan’t be bothering to travel over for this tour. After experiencing Buenos Aires in 2020, my sights are focussed on slightly more exotic climes.

Well, South America and where ever Frome Town are playing to be precise.

While Jennifer and Brian set off to meet up with PD and Parky in “The Eight Bells”, I set off for “The Blackbird” at Earl’s Court to collect a ticket. I walked past “The Courtfield” – the one away pub at Chelsea these days, a good mile away from the ground, how we like it – but there didn’t seem to be too many West Ham inside. It was around 11.15am. As luck would have it, I bumped into another little knot of Chelsea supporters from the US; this time, the left coast, California. I had met Tom and Brad a few times before. This time they were with their wives and two friends too. It seemed that another couple of mates – Steve and Ian – were hosting some Chelsea tourists too. It was great to catch up with them once again.

I then set off for the bottom end of Fulham. At around 12.15pm, I eventually made it to “The Eight Bells” where another ticket was collected. Things were dropping into place nicely.

Yet Cindy, Anel and Eugene were yet to appear.

Tick tock.

We stayed about an hour or so. At last all of the five Floridians were together and we could relax. Brian spoke about how their local Chelsea pub on Jacksonville Beach – I must have cycled past it on my Virginia to Florida cycle trip in 1989 – was at last bursting to the seams for our Champions League Final in Porto. Such is life, eh? Everyone shows up for the big ones. We sat outside “Eight Bells” as it was heaving inside. I think the girls got a kick out of the “Home Fans Only” signs in the boozer’s windows.

After lots of laughs, we – reluctantly? – set off for the game. Outside the Peter Osgood statue, at about 1.40pm, the last ticket was gathered.

Cindy – her first Chelsea game – and Jennifer joined me in the MHU while the three lads took position in the MHL.

Phew.

The kick-off at 2pm soon arrived.

I had hardly had time to think about the game itself.

We heard that Andreas Christensen was injured pre-match and so Dave took a new position, in the left of a back three. Trevoh Chalobah returned.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Azpilicueta

Loftus-Cheek – Kante – Jorginho – Alonso

Mount

Werner – Havertz

There were, of course, the same spaces as for the Arsenal game and this elicited the same song from the away fans.

“Just like the old days, there’s nobody here.”

At least Chelsea conjured up a quick response this time.

“Just like the old days, you’re still fucking shit.”

That made me chuckle.

Three FA Cups and one European trophy.

Is that it West Ham?

There was a Ukranian flag on The Shed balcony wall; maybe a nod to their player Andriy Yarmolenko.

“Glory To Ukraine.”

Let’s hope so.

Further along, a much more light-hearted flag.

“East End Girls. Forever Blowing Bubbles.”

Ooh, matron.

The game began and I wish it hadn’t. What a shocking first-half, eh? It had to be one of the worst forty-five minutes I have endured for a while.

Alan nailed it.

“They have a big game Thursday. They don’t want to risk anything.”

Indeed. Declan Rice, Michael Antonio and Jarrod Bowen were all rested ahead of their Europa League semi-final against Eintracht Frankfurt, shades of us in 2019.

The visitors in claret and light blue sat behind the ball, closed space, and rarely threatened our goal. We looked half-paced and still tired from Wednesday. Our play was turgid, lethargic and without flair and imagination. We looked unable to think outside the box, nor to play inside the penalty box.

It was all so fucking dull.

And it was as if Wednesday hadn’t happened. There seemed no desire to win back our approval after the shocking defending against Arsenal.

Chalobah made an error in our half, allowing a rare West Ham attack, but soon recovered and enjoyed a good first period. Kante was full of running, but there was nobody moving to create anything. I lost count of the number of times we were in good positions to shoot but didn’t. The frustration in the stands was overpowering.

The game was so dull that I resorted to wondering why the floodlights were turned on during an early afternoon game in April.

The first forty-five minutes ended with neither side having a single shot on target. Surprisingly, knowing our support these days, there were no boos at all at half-time. Does that mean that season ticket holders tend not to boo?

Answers on a postcard.

I wondered what Cindy was making of it all, just a few yards away in row two of the MHU alongside Jennifer.

The pour souls.

Sigh.

The second-half got going and there seemed to be an immediate improvement. At long last, there were shots on goal. One from Timo Werner, a volley, was blocked but the actual sight of a player willing to take a chance – “buy a raffle ticket” – was ridiculously applauded. A blooter from Kante was similarly blocked. This was better, much better. The crowd responded. I looked over to see the two girls joining in with a very loud “Carefree.”

A fine strike from Chalobah – such great body shape – caused Lukasz Fabianski to make a fine save to his left.

The game had definitely improved. On seventy minutes, Ruben Loftus-Cheek set up Mason Mount but Fabianski was saved by another defensive block.

With fifteen minutes to go, wholesale changes from Thomas Tuchel.

Romelu Lukaku for a quiet Havertz.

Christian Pulisic for the energetic Werner.

Hakim Ziyech for the steady Loftus-Cheek.

We looked livelier. Lukaku looked eager to impress, but – for fuck’s sake – his sprints – sprints I tell ya! – into space were not spotted by those with the ball. That was about to change, thankfully. With about five minutes to go, a move found that man Lukaku breaking into the box. An arm from a West Ham defender seemed to pull him back. The referee Michael Oliver quickly pointed to the spot.

Then…blah blah blah…VAR…blah blah blah…a delay…the referee went to the TV screen…the yellow card became red.

There seemed to be a long delay.

Jorginho.

Alan : “skip?”

Chris : “yes, skip.”

He skipped.

The shot was tamely hit too close to Fabianski.

Groans, groans, groans.

I can’t really explain it, but I still had a strong notion – a sixth sense – that we would still grab a late winner.

Ziyech let fly from his usual inside-left position but the shot flew over.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

On eighty-nine minutes, the ball was played beautifully out to Marcos Alonso on the left. He played the ball perfectly in to the box, right towards Pulisic and the substitute sweep it in to a corner.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

Absolute pandemonium in the North-West corner.

I looked over to Cindy and Jennifer.

The American had scored in front of the Americans.

Superb. Magic. Fantastic. Magnificent. Stupendous.

Alan : “They’ll have ta cam at us nah.”

Chris : “Cam on moi li’ul doimuns.”

The final whistle blew.

A huge roar, smiles all around, absolutely bloody lovely. That was a hugely enjoyable end to a mainly mediocre game of football.

Altogether now : “phew.”

And the song remained the same :

“Just like the old days, you’re still fucking shit.”

Outside, I was the ticket man again, sorting tickets for Manchester United away, gathering tickets for Everton away…

It had been a good day.

…see you at Old Trafford.

Pre-Game Blue

A Late Late Show

From Jacksonville To Axonville

Tales From Block 9 And Gate 17

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 13 March 2022.

As a pre-curser to our game at home to Newcastle United on the Sunday, I followed my local team Frome Town to Bath for a derby with Larkhall Athletic on Saturday afternoon. This was a first-time visit to Plain Ham for me and my first Frome game since just after Christmas. Larkhall play at a picturesque ground atop a hill overlooking the city, and as I settled in to cheer on the Robins on a sunny but blustery afternoon, I chatted to a couple of friends.

“It’s weird. I usually use Chelsea as a break – a getaway – from the stresses of normal life, of work, of everything. Today, I am using Frome Town as a break from Chelsea.”

The noise concerning the sanctions against Roman Abramovich and all of the associated rumours were loud and showing no signs of abating.

I fancied keeping a low profile. It felt like that I would be easy prey for a few fellow Frome supporters who followed other clubs. It felt like I was walking around with a large target on my back. In the end, I got off quite lightly. A few lads even felt sorry for the predicament of us Chelsea fans; how we were getting punished for the sins of others. The game was a poor one; a 0-0 draw but we improved our lot as the team below us, Cirencester Town, lost. Our lead at the top of the Southern League Division One South was extended to two points.

On the Sunday morning, I awoke early with a classic, if not slightly uncomfortable, match day ahead of me.

The football Gods had shone on me favourably. My first-ever Chelsea game was way back in 1974 against Newcastle United, and by a nice quirk of fate, the actual forty-eighth anniversary was out by just three days.

Game 1 : Chelsea vs. Newcastle, Saturday 16 March 1974.

Game 1,340 : Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, Sunday 13 March 2022.

That Ron Harris was again joining Paul, Parky and myself on the trip to London made it all a bit sweeter. We were away by just after 7.15am for the 2pm kick-off at Stamford Bridge. I soon explained to Ron about the lovely synchronicity of the two games. In the programme from that first game, Ron was originally due to miss out in favour of young John Sparrow at left-back, who had debuted the previous Wednesday afternoon – the days of fuel shortages and the three-day week – against Burnley, but I memorably crossed his name out and replaced it with Chopper’s name. Ron was keen to see how the current Chelsea supporters were going to react to the news of the sanctions, the selling of the club, the whole nine yards. I was hoping that everyone would be respectful of our delicate position. To be honest, I wanted the game to pass with as little negative noise as possible.

As I drove through the Wiltshire village of Tilshead on Salisbury Plain, six armoured vehicles passed us. It brought everything into sharp focus. Despite our obvious thoughts about the safeguarding of Chelsea’s immediate and long-term future, everything of a football nature seemed to disappear as each of those trucks, carrying soldiers, passed us.

Salisbury Plain, if not the headquarters of the British Army then certainly its training ground and its playing field, is not far from our four West Country homes. I remember that as a child I would often see tanks in training on one stretch of the road between Warminster – a garrison town and Ron’s former home – and Chitterne. I remembered how, during the First World War the army commandeered the village of Imber and forced its inhabitants to flee so that the buildings could be used for street-fighting purposes. In the late ‘eighties, on that same Warminster to Chitterne road, it was easy to spot a newly built village that was said to resemble that of a Polish town since that is where it was thought that any battle in a potential World War Three would take place. Much of the recent war film “1917” was filmed on the Plain too. We wondered if those young British soldiers that had passed us would soon be sent to foreign lands, maybe not to Ukraine, but to bolster the NATO presence elsewhere.

It seems odd, and awful, to be writing about a potential World War Three in a Chelsea blog.

We made good time. I dropped PD and Parky off outside “The Eight Bells” at 9.30am and they disappeared off for a coffee outside Putney Bridge tube station while they waited for the pub to open at 10am. I dropped Ron off near Fulham Broadway and then shot off to park up at the usual place further north.

I walked back down the North End Road and called in to see Mark Worrall at the CFCUK stall opposite the Fulham Broadway tube station. Here, I picked up my free copy of “Tales From The Shed” that had gone to print recently and was now on sale. I am one of thirty-four Chelsea supporters to have submitted a piece on various aspects of the club. Marco gave me a special extension to detail my experience in Abu Dhabi when Chelsea – gasp – became World Champions. I know eleven of the other folk and I chatted briefly to a few of them during the day. The book is the latest of Marco’s “Gate 17” publications and acts as a fundraiser for the Stoll Foundation, which benefits from Chelsea’s charity work in the local area, including “The Big Sleep Out.”

Details are given at the end of this piece.

It is, of course, heartily recommended. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Down at “The Eight Bells” we then enjoyed a cracking pre-match yet again. The three of us were joined by Daima from San Diego – her first game, against the Geordies, just like me – plus Deano from Lancashire via Yorkshire, Rich from Edinburgh and four of the lads from Kent who often call in. We had a ball.

It actually felt rather odd to be back at Stamford Bridge once again. Due to a variety of reasons, I missed the Tottenham league match, the Plymouth FA Cup tie and the Lille Champions League game. My last match at Chelsea was the Chesterfield cup tie. The last game that I witnessed from my season-ticket seat was the Tottenham League Cup game way back on the fifth day of January. Since the Chesterfield game, there had been ten games at other venues. This Newcastle game seemed like a homecoming for me.

I settled in alongside Alan, Clive and PD in The Sleepy Hollow section of Block 9 and waited for things to develop.

I spotted “The Roman Empire” banner that had apparently drawn some negative comments from the media earlier in the day. Its presence summed up our predicament.

Were we to airbrush our current owner from our history? No, of course not.

Should the club have taken it down? That would have been disrespectful.

Should we have left it up? That could well have been seen as disrespectful too.

Oh what horrible muddy waters.

Down below, “Three” was still being advertised around the perimeter of the pitch.

Confused? So was I.

Since the news of the sanctions against Roman had broken just four days earlier, my head had been sent into a constant spin. I am sure that elsewhere it was a similar case. It was difficult to find lucid and straightforward commentary and insight.

It certainly felt like we were the whipping boys.

But I kept thinking back to the terrible summer of 1976 when Chelsea appeared to be going belly-up. I can remember one moment that I often think back on.

Before I disappeared into my bedroom – one that was quickly becoming a shrine to Chelsea Football Club – I can remember sobbing as I pinned a note up on my bedroom door.

“1974 : Division One. 1975 : Division Two. 1976 : nothing.”

It was a cry-for-help to my parents and, looking back, it was of course all rather embarrassing. My poor parents spoke to me about it the next day and tried to allay any fears of my beloved club disappearing, but of course these were just empty words as they had no real clue.

So, I have been there before.

My have parents passed away now, but maybe I need to see if I have any Blu Tack for a 2022 version.

I was worried about a repeat of Burnley with some unwanted chants taking place during a minute of applause for the people of Ukraine. I hoped that Chelsea would not be holding a similar minute before this game and immediately hated myself for it. Did I really want to see the reputation of the club being upheld instead of us all joining in for a minute for Ukraine? Sadly, yes. Again, I hated myself.

I had spoken to a few friends in the pub that I liked the idea of us wearing yellow shorts for this one game.

Blue shirts. Yellow shorts. United with Ukraine. A big message to the world. And a message to our support that chanting our current owner’s name during the minute of applause was not deemed acceptable.

Among all of this, there was a game to be played. I hadn’t thought much about it.

The teams appeared. Lo and behold, the Chelsea players were all wearing “3” on the shirts and a state of confusion reigned. At one stage, it looked like both sets of players were converging on the centre-circle and my fears about a “minute of applause” was going to come to fruition. In the end, they all backed away. There was the knee, but no more.

The game began. The Geordies, backed by three thousand, must have won the toss because we attacked the Matthew Harding, where Daima was watching from the opposite corner.

Oh, the team?

It looked like a back four, but was Hakim Ziyech playing right wing-back?

No, a four surely.

Mendy

Chalobah – Rudiger – Christensen – Sarr

Jorginho – Kante – Mount

Ziyech – Havertz – Werner

The fact that we were playing against Newcastle United, a club now bankrolled by the oil-rich but highly dubious Saudis, provided a dark undercurrent both before and during the game. I hoped that the possible, no probable, chanting from both sets of supporters would not darken things further.

The first-half was a pretty poor affair and had little real merit. An early shot from Andreas Christensen flew high into the crowd. A header from Antonio Rudiger soon after did not trouble Martin Dubravka in the Newcastle goal.

Thinking to myself : “In 1974, we were already one-up at this stage.”

The game settled but it didn’t really thrill. Unsurprisingly, we dominated but struggled to break down a resilient Newcastle team. There were slim pickings.

A long corner was aimed for a waiting Mason Mount but his speculative volley from way out flew high and wide. On twenty-eight minutes, I noted the best move of the match down our right but the end shot, from Werner, was always drifting wide.

While we were attacking, some supporters in the Matthew Harding Lower sung “Roman Abranomovich” but the general noise and commotion in that section meant that it was missed by the rest of the stadium; it had no chance to picked up and carried by others.

I was relieved.

I just didn’t want the negativity that would have accompanied it.

“We’re grateful Roman for everyting. But you’re not part of our future now. Let’s move on.”

On the half-hour, a Newcastle chance was spurned, and we held on.

The away fans sang : “Mike Ashley he’s coming for you.”

The Matthew Harding responded : “Boris Johnson he’s coming for you.”

The sun appearing overhead was a welcome addition to the afternoon, but the football itself didn’t really warm up at all.

The away fans were still chipping away at us.

The home fans rallied with a loud and defiant “Carefree” as the half entered the last ten minutes. Until then, the support had been subdued, tamed, thoughts elsewhere perhaps.

Efforts from Kai Havertz and Mount were hardly worthy of the name.

Right at the end of the poor first-half, we were soon roaring our approval of a magnificent save by Mendy from Miguel Almiron through a crowd of players.

The second period began.

On fifty-five minutes, a superb ball was lofted forward by Andreas Christensen but after a poor touch from Werner, the chance evaporated.

The second-half followed much the same pattern as the first.

There was untidy play from us, a few half-chances from the visitors, resolute defending from them and a Roman Abramovich chant half-way through the half from the MHL that was again lost in the general hubbub and not spotted by the rest of the support. I again heaved a sigh of relief.

I summed up proceedings to Alan in an embarrassingly poor way :

“Fucking shit, innit?”

But it was. This was a poor match. One to forget.

On the hour, Thomas Tuchel changed it around.

Mateo Kovacic for Mount.

Romelu Lukaku for Werner.

We huffed-and-puffed to no avail and, as happens on these occasions when I know that there are friends watching their first games at Chelsea, I was sad for Daima.

On the seventy-five-minute mark, a header from the leap of Havertz after a cross from Havertz gave us a false rush of hope. The header was easily claimed by Dubravka.

Fackinell.

Christian Pulisic replaced Sarr.

The game ambled along. We had almost given up hope. Clive disappeared off with a minute of normal time remaining.

Then, out of absolutely nowhere, a dream of a ball from Jorginho, who at last gets a mention right at the end of this report and not without good reason. He played a ball over the top and into space for the perfect run of Havertz.

One touch, a shot low.

Goal.

Stamford Bridge exploded.

I turned to my left and stared, eyes wide, at the yellow steps and double-punched my arms in a frankly disturbing way. I’d lost control. But fuck it. Seconds later I grabbed by camera to snap the celebrations.

You beauty.

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

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds, like.”

Incredibly, the same player almost made it two a few moments later when he raced through in the inside-right channel but saw his delicate chip knocked away by Dubravka.

The Geordies were silent. The final whistle blew.

An incredible ending to a very poor game had given us three more points. I was especially elated for Daima over in Block 16.

The players clapped us as they slowly walked around the pitch. I have usually departed by this stage, but I stayed momentarily to clap them too. It was one of those moments.

“Blue Is The Colour” never felt sounded so emotional.

“Cus Chelsea, Chelsea Is Our Name.”

Tales From The Shed.

The price for a limited edition version from the CFCUK stall on matchdays at Stamford Bridge is just £9, of which £5 goes to the Stoll Foundation.

This version can also be purchased via the eBay link at www.gate17books.co.uk – here there is also a 10% auto donation to the Alzheimer’s Society and £2 will also go to Stoll.

A standard paperback version of the book is also available worldwide via Amazon – sales via this platform will generate £2 per copy for Stoll.

This is the link for Amazon UK https://amzn.to/3tLUg0K

Additionally, I have a spare copy which I am happy to send to a fellow Chelsea supporter – or not as the case may be – as a prize. The competition? I have been thinking long and hard about this and I am stumped for a question. Therefore, I am going to turn the tables a little.

What question should I ask for this competition to win a copy of “Tales From The Shed”?

Let’s see how your minds and your imaginations work.

Please email me your answer…er, question…to : c.axon@talk21.com

Closing date : Friday 25 March.

Tales From West View

Chelsea vs. Chesterfield : 8 January 2022.

Not long into the game, the six thousand supporters packed into The Shed, in both tiers, roared out as one :

“Carefree, wherever you may be, we are the famous CFC.”

It was just a shame that this loud and passionate outburst came from Chesterfield supporters.

For this was CFC vs. CFC and for the first time in decades. It was certainly the first time that I had seen us play Chesterfield, the Spireites, named after the town’s crooked spire, and it is not bloody surprising. We played them in the league in our first two seasons and then in the FA Cups of 1911/12 and 1949/50.

This was our first game against them, then, in seventy-two years.

This was the third round of the FA Cup too of course. What little romance that is left in modern football is found in these early rounds of the world’s oldest competition. It was also our fourth and final home game in just eleven days.

And I have a strong feeling that it was our first-ever home game against a non-league team in the FA Cup. I remember an away game at Scarborough in 2004; themselves had only just left the league, just like Chesterfield in fact.

One day, maybe, we will get to play a proper non-league team.

Weymouth. Spennymoor. Dulwich Hamlet. Frome Town.

Maybe.

I was looking forward to this one. It represented a little respite from the two huge games against Tottenham in the League Cup. That particular competition has faded of late, but it is surprising how important it has suddenly become since we were drawn against Tottenham in this season’s semi-final. I felt exactly the same three seasons ago. Whisper it, but part of me was just happy, so happy, that we had beaten Tottenham in that semi-final and, thus, the appearance in the final almost seemed like a bonus.

We’re weird creatures, eh?

A part of me was looking forward to seeing a game from the newly-created West View which is effectively the West Upper but now rebranded for a new clientele and a new pricing range set to kick in next season. In reality, having seen the prices being quoted for 2022/23, I knew that this would almost certainly be my last ever visit to the West Upper.

I was also looking forward to see a bubbling mass of six-thousand away fans amassed in The Shed. I was hoping they would bring some songs and an atmosphere, though I knew very well that the home areas would struggle to keep up with them.

The FA Cup though, eh? We have enjoyed such a wonderful record in this old competition of late that is has been rather difficult to comprehend the last two finals. It has to be said, though, that the Leicester loss in the rain in 2021 seemed an awful lot more depressing than the loss to Arsenal in the heat of August in 2020 which took place at the height of lockdown misery and alienation. I was over that loss within an hour. The Leicester defeat annoyed me for a week or so.

I love the way that I usually catch an early FA Cup game in August or September and then the competition rumbles along towards the back of my consciousness until the time for the third round draw before Christmas; it’s always there, but I don’t pay it too much attention, a bit like Millwall.

My two early games this season, as always, involved my local team Frome Town. There was a home game against local rivals Paulton Rovers in late August. A nice crowd of 398 saw the Robins win 3-1. In September, an even better crowd of 586 saw Frome defeat Conference South outfit Oxford City 2-1. This represented Frome’s first win in the FA Cup against a team from two divisions higher in the pyramid for around four decades. This second game was simply a magnificent encounter, full of quality football and tension, and I loved it to bits. Sadly, Frome went out to Bath City in the next round in an away fixture at Twerton Park – gate 1,473 – by the score of 0-5. I didn’t attend that one as I was at Chelsea versus Southampton.

The FA Cup 2021/22 – number one-hundred-and-fifty, I remember the centenary final in 1972 between Arsenal and Leeds United, the first one I ever watched – was now back in my life again.

As I left my house at ten to nine on Saturday morning I suddenly thought to myself “why the fuck am I leaving my house at ten to nine on Saturday morning?”

The game was to kick-off at 5.30pm.

We are nothing if not keen.

I collected PD and his son Scott, who I last saw on that fun-filled trip to Hull in the FA Cup at the start of 2020, and then made my way over to pick up Lord Parky. Chopper was making his own way up for this one; my next date chauffeuring Chelsea royalty will be for the Tottenham league game in a couple of weeks.

It was a horrible journey up to London. There was rain, rain and more rain. But at least the roads were relatively clear of traffic. I dropped the three passengers off outside “The Eight Bells” at ten to midday.

Three hours for a door to door service; happy with that.

It would be well over two-and-a-half hours before I would see the lads again.

Traffic lights on the North End Road meant that it took me a frustrating thirty minutes to reach my usual parking spot just off Lillie Road. We knew that the District Line was closed from Earl’s Court to Putney Bridge and so my plan was to simply walk to “The Eight Bells” rather than walk to Fulham Broadway and then get a bus to the pub. The rain was still falling and I so I waited for half-an-hour in my car before I heard the rain drops suddenly stall. At one o’clock, I made my way south.

Facing me were two of the largest housing blocks of the Clem Atlee Court, which looms over “The Goose” and “The Rylston” pubs and the numerous shops and cafes on the North End Road and Lillie Road. As I walked past one of its entrances, I wondered how many thousands of Chelsea supporters had grown up in this estate since it was built in the ‘sixties. It currently houses a massive twelve thousand people. It is, without a doubt, a last remaining bastion of working-class life in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, which has undergone immense gentrification since the ‘eighties. Perhaps the more pertinent term would be “yuppification”; no area of England was yuppified more than Fulham in the Thatcher era. It remains as one of the ten poorest estates in Britain.

But I love the way that I often spot Chelsea flags flying from some of the many balconies when I use the little cut through behind “The Goose” on my usual walk to Stamford Bridge. I have never felt threatened on this walk, though, even if it’s hardly a very salubrious part of the capital. It surely remains a bedrock of Chelsea support, though I am also sure that the vast majority of the twelve thousand are completely priced out of modern day football.

I always remember that I spent the entirety of 1983/84 on the dole but I was still able to attend eleven Chelsea games (thinking about it, this actually incorrect; I grabbed a job two days before the last game).

But I am sure that unemployment benefits are not enough these days to allow people to go to football at Chelsea, despite the club’s reduced prices for domestic cup games. And I suspect that those in lower paid jobs who live on the Clem Atlee are unable to attend many of our games either.

I walked past “The Rylston” just as the rain started again. I increased my pace. If nothing else, the one-and-a-half mile walk through deepest Fulham would give me a nice workout. My walking – so regular a year ago – has virtually stopped of late. I need to get back into that. The roads were understandably quiet, devoid of people. In fact, there were more abandoned Christmas trees on the wet pavements than pedestrians.

I was making good time, though a little wet. I stopped at “The Brown Cow” on the Fulham Road and positioned myself, and my jacket, beneath the heater in the ceiling. I ordered a “diet Coke” and dried out. A little time to myself. A little moment of calm before the day would develop. I moved on further down the Fulham Road and – despite the rain – I have to say I was enjoying my little walk.

The upmarket shops on this stretch of road were a million miles away from the stalls on the North End Road.

Same postcode, different lives.

I then dived in to “The Golden Lion” on Fulham High Street. It was quiet save for a few local lads watching the Millwall vs. Palace game on two large TV screens. Another “diet Coke” and another drying-out. I love the intimacy of London pubs. You might have noticed. And none are more intimate than “The Eight Bells”, the last port of call. I walked in at around two-thirty.

PD, Parky and Scott were sat in the far corner. Alongside them was Steve from Salisbury who sits near Parky in The Shed. Very soon into our chat, which would last until around a quarter-to-five, we were augmented by Julie and Tim from South Gloucestershire.

I kept to the “diet Cokes”. To be honest, I could not believe how quiet the pub was. It was half-empty. The lads soon told me that they had been chatting to a couple from Chesterfield, in the pub with their son, and how the son had been invited down to Cobham with hundreds of other Chesterfield academy players. Top work, Chelsea.

I spoke with Julie and Tim about Abu Dhabi. They had already booked flights. I had explained to PD and LP on the drive to London that I was only 50/50 about going. The stress of testing, the forms, the red tape, the risk of getting COVID – again – out there…it was weighing heavily on my poor mind. But chatting to them assuaged my worries a great deal.

Steve told of how, when Pulisic scored the second against Liverpool, he spotted Parky’s blue walking stick fly through the air. It was then quickly followed by Parky who, despite his dodgy leg, raced down the aisle and ended up on top of Steve in his row.

With no tube trains, we caught a 22 bus up the King’s Road. In slow-moving traffic, it passed Parson’s Green and Eel Brook Common before depositing us outside “The Imperial”, a mere five-minute walk away from Stamford Bridge. It felt odd to be approaching the ground from the east.

At around 5.10pm we started queuing to get into West View. Thankfully, the lines were short. Annoyingly, there seemed to be no lift. Parky and PD, both with gammy legs, really struggled with the ten flights of stairs. Parky had mentioned a lift that he had used on Wednesday, but there wasn’t one to be seen. Well, that’s just crap.

I wasn’t able to mooch around the bar areas before the game began due to the lack of time. To be honest, after a couple of minutes, I had seen enough. It’s all rather swish and sleek. But it resembled a posh cinema rather than a football stadium. I wasn’t able to peruse the food and drink options, but I am the last person who would ever get too excited about the quality and variety of food on offer at football. A game last two hours at the most. I hardly ever buy any food at games these days. I just don’t see the point.

We made our way to our four seats in row 23. We kept going and going; more steps for PD and Parky to climb. We ended up in the back row. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

It was some view from our seats. I had never been so high in the West Upper before. On my five or six previous visits, I had been, maybe, half the way up. My last visit was also an FA Cup tie, just over seven years ago, against Watford. We were midway into the half towards the Matthew Harding. I looked down and saw Alan in a thin sliver of terrace down below. We were so high that I only saw the lower tier of the East Stand.

The seats are padded, but not as luxurious as those at Arsenal. There are three huge TV screens at the front of the under hang of the roof, with smaller screens further in. I have never really bothered with TV screens while the game is in progress. I soon noticed that the TV feed was a couple of seconds slower than the game itself. I suppose they are fine for watching replays. With nobody behind me, I was able to stand for a massive chunk of the game; old habits and all that.

As soon as he reached our seats – there were empties to our left – Parky totally embraced the luxurious setting and led down on the concrete floor. I half-expected PD to feed him some grapes in the style of a Roman emperor.

Emperor Oscar Parksorius anyone?

I soon spotted plenty of youngsters in our immediate vicinity. Parky saw that a family with three youngsters, aged five to eight maybe, were in the row in front but the kids were having trouble seeing the pitch. There was space alongside us in the back row, so the kids were lifted up alongside us. It meant there was nobody, now, in their way in their former row. I was sure that many regulars had decided not to attend this one. In their place were those who maybe could not afford regular prices. It is often the way on FA Cup days.

So. West View. My thoughts?

The West Upper has always been an expensive part of the stadium. This season, general sale seats are a hefty £95. As a comparison, my seat in the MHU is knocked out for £65 on general sale; for me as a season ticket holder it equates to £46 per game. But for now, those wealthier Chelsea fans who can afford the current West View prices, and if the demographics of our support are correct we have a few, I suppose that £95 per game is affordable; it must be, we are always sold out.

The spectators in the West Upper, one would imagine, are bona fide Chelsea supporters, and thus have a vested interest in the team and the game. There must be around 4,000 of them in the West Upper each match. However, from next season, West View season tickets will cost from £1,500 to £3,900 although I believe that all games are included. Let’s say we play thirty home games per season. For the £3,900 season ticket, that equates to a chunky £130 per game. I would imagine that not all 4,000 seats will be sold as season tickets and thus those left for game-by-game sale to members or the general public will probably be knocked out in excess of £150 per game.

And my point, really is this. Who can afford to pay £1,500 to a staggering £3,900 for a season ticket? Surely not most fans. Surely not those with families. Surely not your average Joe. I’d imagine that companies, in the main, will be buying those tickets, and employees will be hosting guests at most games as part of the corporate schmoozefest that has taken over parts of modern day football. And will those people be Chelsea fans? Not always. Will they be vested in the team and club? Maybe not.

West View seems to be an exact way to further reduce the ability for regular Chelsea fans to attend games. Revenues, if the club has got it right, might increase but surely the atmosphere will be quieter than ever. But most importantly, I feel for the 4,000 Chelsea fans who must be thinking that that they are being priced right out.

That can’t be a good thing.

Kick-off time soon arrived.

It was nigh on 5.30pm.

The lights were dulled, the teams entered the pitch. Chesterfield were in a change kit of all red.

From my vantage point, I soon spotted that the pitch was looking a little worn. These four home games in rapid succession were taking their toll.

A quick scan of the team.

Two debuts, and we seemed to get stronger – or at least more experienced – as we went from defence to attack. As the game began, I tried to work out the formation. You would think that with my sky-high view, which I honestly did not mind for a one-off game, the shape would be easy for me to fathom. Not likely.

Bettinelli was in goal. Christensen and Sarr were in the middle, but I guessed that Hall was in a three with them. Saul and Kovacic were the anchors in midfield. But that must have meant that Ziyech and Hudson-Odoi were the pushed-on wing backs. Pulisic seemed to float around, but strayed often to the right. Upfront was Lukaku and Werner drifted next to him.

The six thousand away fans were making a racket as the game began, and all were standing. The away team had an attack in the first few minutes and thus, officially, had begun brighter than Tottenham on Wednesday. However, they soon mirrored Tottenham’s start to that game. Kovacic broke and slipped the ball to Ziyech. His shot was parried but the ball fell to Werner who stabbed the ball in from a couple of yards.

I thought there might have been a hint of an offside; thankfully not.

Just six minutes had elapsed.

Alan in The Sleepy Hollow : THTCAUN.

Chris in West View : COMLD.

Unperturbed the away team still endeavoured to attack.

“Definitely a better start than Tottenham.”

However, we were creating some nice patterns in the final third with Ziyech the most noticeable. On eighteen minutes, Hudson-Odoi advanced and curled an exquisite shot from the angle of the penalty box into the far post. It was a stunning goal. Whereas my celebrations had been muted for the first with the threat of an offside, this one was loudly cheered by myself.

“Get in Callum.”

Two minutes later, Lewis Hall lost possession on the left flank but quickly won the ball back, a great recovery, and advanced before picking out the run of Lukaku. From inside the six-yard box, this was an easy finish.

The game appeared to be won on just twenty minutes.

“And relax.”

But the away fans were in party mode and were still singing.

“Jump around if you love the town.”

“I’m Spireite ‘till I die.”

And then a chant that aimed a dig at our scorer.

“Romelu Lukaku, he’s Inter Milan.”

Two very similar shots from Lukaku sadly didn’t trouble Sam Loach in the Chesterfield goal. They were two poor finishes.

There was a rare Chesterfield effort on our goal but Bettinelli was untroubled.

The atmosphere wasn’t great in the home areas. But I joined in with every hint of a song in the lofty heights of row twenty-three. I was glad that a surprising number of supporters took part too. On the pitch, there was good movement from Werner, Hudson-Odoi looked lively and Ziyech was creating good options as he danced and weaved into space. Pulisic was, by comparison, rather quiet. Hall, the debutant, was enjoying a fine, solid game.

However, he almost blotted his copybook on a superb debut by slicing a clearance into his net but Bettinelli came to the rescue.

With half-time approaching, a shot from Hall was parried and Christensen was on hand to adeptly loop a header over the ’keeper. It was a fine, cool finish.

At half-time, we were 4-0 up.

There were game recaps at the break on the myriad of TV screens in the stadium. The poxy video supporting the decision to clothe ourselves in Op Art zig-zags was shown. What with watching from so high up, plus the dizzy images on the screens, I might have been forgiven for losing my footing and joining Parky on the floor.

There were some changes for the second period,

Kai Havertz for Lukaku.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Kovacic.

Chances were exchanged in the first few minutes of the second-half. The reds were now attacking their six thousand followers in The Shed. “Carefree” with a northern twang sounded so odd.

On the fifty-fourth minute, Pulisic received the ball out wide and attacked. My thoughts were immediately this :

“Get inside the box, win a penalty.”

With that, he got inside the box and won a penalty.

Ziyech smashed it in.

I claimed the assist.

5-0.

I suppose “are you Tottenham in disguise?” is better than nothing.

Some further substitutions followed, and the game took on the appearance of a training session. It became a little hard work to be honest.

Harvey Vale for Pulisic.

Lewis Baker for Christensen.

Ross Barkley for Hudson-Odoi.

The game didn’t flow so well. Ruben and Ross flattered to deceive. The noise subsided further. Fraser Kerr shot wide in front of the travelling hordes at The Shed End.

With ten to go, Akwasi Asante was able to finish off a move after an initial shot was blocked. The away fans, unsurprisingly, went wild. Fair play to them. I had to keep reminding myself that they were a non-league team. The applause from sections of the home areas got louder; I joined in. I felt a bit of a prick, but there you go.

CFC 5 CFC 1.

The four of us slowly navigated the stairs and made our way back to the waiting car.

On the Lillie Road, at “The Anchor”, I bought and then devoured a saveloy and chips. Just behind the small shop, the towers of the Clem Atlee loomed. I wondered how many of the estate’s inhabitants had been tuned in to the game. And I wondered if any had been at Stamford Bridge.

Next up, a game at White Hart Lane. Tottenham away is not for the feint-hearted. I’ll see you there.

Tales From Simply A Superb Game

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 2 January 2022.

My run of football games over the festive period was continuing.

On the first day of 2022, following on from Frome Town’s 3-3 home draw with Melksham Town, it was time for another non-league match involving my local team. I travelled with my pal Fran over to nearby Paulton Rovers who had been enjoying a decent season themselves. This was one of those fabled games of two halves; in the first a rampant Frome attacked the end housing it’s sizeable travelling support and led with a fine goal from Kane Simpson. In the second-half, a different story as the home team dominated the game yet failed to really trouble the Frome goalkeeper. Frome weathered the storm and scored a late breakaway goal at the end via James Ollis to win 2-0. It kept the team at the top of the division down in level eight of the football pyramid. There was another large gate; 649 was more than four times the average Paulton Rovers attendance of 137. There must have been two hundred away fans. I enjoyed it.

But this was just a pre-curser, an hors-d’oeuvre, before the weekend’s main course.

On the second day of 2022, the last game of my Christmas schedule pitted Chelsea against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. However, as one run of games was ending, we were now overlapping into another sequence of games. Against Brighton, we embarked on a run of four home games in a space of just eleven days. I can’t ever remember a more condensed run of matches at Stamford Bridge.

Brighton followed by Liverpool followed by Tottenham followed by Chesterfield.

Of course, the build-up to the Liverpool game was dominated by Lukakugate. I suspected Machiavellian forces at work with the timing of the release in information of the interview. But oh Romelu, what were you bloody thinking? We waited to hear what the club’s response would be. Of course the most annoying thing about all of this was the fact that Lukaku had scored two in two games and had brought an extra element to our play against Villa and Brighton.

I hate negative noise around Chelsea Football Club. It spoiled my anticipation of the upcoming game a little. But Sunday soon came around.

I collected the same three passengers on the way up to London as for the Brighton game four days earlier; between the four of us in my car, there was a total of seven-hundred and ninety-five games and fourteen goals for Chelsea.

…cough…and I’ll say it again…cough.

There was very little traffic on the road to London. The weather was fine if a little grey. I dropped PD and Lord Parky at “The Eight Bells” and Ron at the bottom of Fulham Broadway. I was parked up bang on 11.30am. The journey had taken me around three hours again.

I walked down to Fulham Broadway tube station. There were a few minutes to wait for the southbound train and so I used the time to take a few photographs. I especially zoned-in on the old stairways that lead to the original station’s booking hall. The memories came flooding back. It’s a bit of a metaphor for Chelsea really. One station but split into two. The antiquated southern part is frozen in time along with my memories of the club before success and money – or money and success if our rivals are to be believed – while the northern part is slick and swish and functional. I used to love being squeezed right out onto the Fulham Road from those exit stairs that were only used on match days, and that I bet most new fans are not even aware of. But these days we walk out through the back of a shopping centre and past an entrance to a car park.

In recent months, I have fallen in love with the short train ride from Fulham Broadway to Putney Bridge. With my driving duties completed, it represents a chance for me to relax a little knowing that I have again reached London without incident nor accident. I have never been a nervous nor anxious driver, but there is always a little bit of me that is relieved once I park up at Chelsea. We pass through Parson’s Green, a famous old Chelsea battleground for those that know and all that bollocks, and I love looking back at Stamford Bridge across the rooftops and then over to the buildings of Chelsea Harbour. The trip is over within four minutes but it’s now a favourite part of my Chelsea day. Putney Bridge is the cutest of stations. And of course I love the thought that within a minute of descending those wooden stairs I will be walking into the friendly and cosy “Eight Bells.”

Talking of which…

I spent from 12.30pm to 3.45pm with PD and Parky, but also with Jonathan, who I was not planning on meeting up with until I realised that he was sat a few seats away from me against Brighton. I sorted out a ticket for him for Liverpool there and then and we agreed to meet up. He came in just as I was about to launch into a plate of gammon, fried eggs and chips, as per PD and as per Parky. Of course, the others were the dedicated drinkers while I was the dedicated driver. PD, Parky and I ran through a few thoughts about Abu Dhabi; I hope to book flights soon.

Jonathan now lives in Tampa and we have a couple of mutual acquaintances that we know through the burgeoning presence of Chelsea fans in the US. Jonathan used to be a referee, and knows Phil from Iowa who is a referee too. I couldn’t escape Chelsea fans who were also referees; at the Paulton Rovers game, I bumped into Young Dave – as featured in the first couple of Mark Worrall’s books – and he runs the line at local games to this day.

Jonathan told me about a game that he officiated in back in around 1996; he was the linesman at a USA vs. England U17 game in Tampa. He mentioned a young starlet who played for England who was a Chelsea prodigy but – although great things were expected – never made the grade with us but instead played for Brighton. Jonathan couldn’t remember his name.

My brain started ticking over.

“Damn, I can picture him. His name is on the tip of my tongue. What I usually do is go through the alphabet.”

PD told Jonathan I’d eventually remember on the way home.

Well, I got there eventually. But I had to go right to the end of the alphabet.

“Zeke Rowe!”

Anyone remember him?

Outside there was a hint of drizzle but the air was still relatively mild. We made it inside Stamford Bridge at just gone four o‘clock. I soon spotted Liverpool players in a very dark red training top going through their pre-match routines. The sight made my hackles rise a little. They remain one of my three most disliked teams; Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool. It’s just the way it is.

This was to be the first-ever “safe standing” game to take place in the top flight of English football. We are in some sort of a four team trial I believe. In reality, of course, those with “rail seating” in the lower tiers of The Shed and the Matthew Harding have been “safe standing” since the start of the season. I am generally in favour of safe standing, though I find it odd that the Shed Upper has been given over to standing in addition to the two lower tiers at either end of the stadium. What I find unpalatable is that those season ticket holders in the three areas of the stadium now covered by “safe standing” were given no say whatsoever in the process. In a nutshell, they were not given the chance to move their season tickets over to another part of Stamford Bridge.

I stand at away games and I could probably ease into standing at Stamford Bridge all of the time with no real problem. But for many in the area of the Matthew Harding Upper where I reside, standing at games would been uncomfortable and painful. Bluntly, not an option. I am glad, therefore, that our tier remained as seating.

I also found it ironic that Liverpool were to be involved in the very first official “safe standing” game in the top flight.

The minutes ticked by.

The Chelsea team?

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

Alonso – Kante – Kovacic – Azpilcueta

Pulisic – Havertz – Mount

Lukaku was not even in the squad.

Just before the game kicked-off, the stadium resounded to a noisy rendition of “Champions of Europe, we know what we are” to remind our visitors of who is on that particular perch at this moment in time.

There was a rip-roaring start to the game. In the first ten seconds, I was buggering about with my phone and so – in all honesty – missed the initial challenge on Cesar Azpilicueta by Sadio Mane that lead to the latter receiving a yellow card. I looked down to see Dave sprawled no more than thirty-five yards from me.

On two occasions that the ball was played centrally into the Liverpool box, water splashed up from the turf and I wondered if a little too much water had been sprayed onto that particular area. There was an early exchange of chances in the first few minutes. A defensive mix-up allowed Mane to play a ball across the goal towards Mo Salah but Edouard Mendy was able to save. At the other end, Kai Havertz put pressure on Trent Alexander-Arnold and the ball broke for Christian Pulisic with only unknown Liverpool ‘keeper Caoieaihoieamhouin Kelleher to beat. However, our slight striker could not convert. In fact, the ‘keeper made a fine reaction save, scooping the ball away well.

After nine minutes, another defensive blip from a stooping Chalobah allowed the ball to run to Mane who rounded Mendy to score despite the presence of Dave’s lunge on the line.

Ouch.

Despite this, the noise levels remained high.

“He gave it to Demba Ba, Steve Gerrard, Gerrard.”

I hate us singing this when we aren’t even playing Liverpool, but on this occasion I joined in.

We kept going and it felt like we were dominating the game. There was a low shot from Mason Mount that was blocked. Then a trademark Chelsea move of the past four years or so; we all had our hearts in our mouths when a deep cross from Dave on the right was played towards Marcos Alonso on the left. Alas, Alonso was stretching just a little too much and the shot was wild.

I spoke to PD : “We ain’t playing too badly here.”

Mateo Kovacic was showing great energy in our two-man midfield, and alongside him N’Golo Kante was at his usual high standard of play.

Alas, on twenty-six minutes, an incisive move down the Liverpool left found Salah breaking inside the box. I pleaded for Alonso to get tighter, but a shimmy and a shake from Salah allowed him to drift past. From an acute angle, he opened up his body and slammed the ball twixt ‘keeper and post. I was in a direct line with the shot. There was, eerily, a moment of silence in Stamford Bridge. The Liverpool fans down the other end waited for the net to ripple, and then there was a further slight pause for the wall of noise from one hundred yards away to hit me.

Fackinell.

I had immediate visions of 0-4, maybe even 0-5.

Fair play to Salah for not celebrating in front of us.

The noise died a little.

But then the away fans sang out “Allez allez” and this resulted in a hugely impressive “Carefree” from Chelsea.

Bloody excellent.

With the half-time break approaching, a foul near the far goal line on Havertz by James Milner raised our hopes. We watched as Alonso sent the ball in, only for Kelleher to punch up and away. I had my camera up to my eyes from the free-kick and watched through my lens as the ball ballooned up. It was falling towards Kovacic but he had to back-peddle to accommodate the arrival of the ball. As it fell, he volleyed with his right foot. The ball flew goal wards. We watched open-mouthed. It crashed into the right hand post. A moment of pure drama followed. Would it bounce out or bounce in? It bounced down and across the goal. Only when the net nestled did we celebrate. It was the Scousers turn to be engulfed by a wall of noise.

Whatafuckinggoal.

My immediate response?

Essien, Barcelona.

I snapped the goal scorer’s triumphant race back towards the centre circle. The place was buzzing.

The goal also reminded a little me of the volley that John Terry scored in the same goal against Wigan when he had to quickly readjust his feet. But that was from a lot closer in. This Kovacic goal was something else.

But then…but then.

An audible groan when it was announced that VAR was poking its big fat nose into our moment of joy. We waited. What was it for? Nobody knew.

Thankfully, the goal stood.

But then, I noted Jordan Henderson berating the referee. That’s Jordan Henderson the Liverpool captain. This made my blood boil. The referee should have carded him for that. Prick.

Just three minutes later, and into stoppage time, a Toni Rudiger clearance was pushed on by Kante with the deftest of touches.

We watched. The boy Pulisic was one on one. He was through. That lovely moment of expectation. I wanted to see him drop a shoulder and drill it low towards the far post. Instead it bounced high and he chested it down before lobbing the ball in.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Stamford Bridge exploded.

I yelled and yelled. PD alongside me was shouting with both his arms raised. I reached down and took a few out-of-focus shots of the players celebrating. Many seconds later, I looked over at PD and he was still in celebratory mode, still in the same stance, still yelling, still cheering.

What bliss.

There’s always something special about two important goals being scored so close together. This was absolutely one of those moments.

Unbelievably, there was further drama in the minute or so left of the first-half. Alonso swept the ball over to Havertz who, despite close attention from a red defender, got his shot in from inside the box. The ball broke to Mason Mount but his shot was awkward and the ball rolled agonisingly past the far post.

There was just time for another ear shattering “Carefree.”

What an incredible match. What an incredible five minutes.

There was beautiful disbelief at the break.

Phew.

I couldn’t have been the only person who was warmly remembering the FA Cup tie against Liverpool almost twenty-five years ago? Two-nil down at half-time, on came Mark Hughes, we won 4-2. It remains as one of our very greatest games.

Twenty-five years ago, though? Fackinell.

Stamford Bridge was on fire then as it was in 2022.

Of course, the half-time whistle probably came at the wrong time and other clichés. Our momentum, not surprisingly, was so difficult to recreate. But the noise levels at the start of the second-half were surprisingly quiet. I wanted us to roar the team on to further glory.

For a player that we purchased as a defensive midfielder, Kante sure knows how to break forward with the easiest of pace changes; he glides, he turns, he keeps the ball moving, he passes. Once or twice in that early part of the second period he was an absolute joy.

A shot from Alonso flew over.

On the hour mark, one, then two then three saves from our man Mendy kept us in the game. The best by far was a magnificent reach after a speculative effort from distance from Salah. The Liverpool striker had decided to test our ‘keeper’s awareness. He’ll know better next time.

I was totally immersed in this game. It was a tantalising show from both teams. It was, frankly, a joy and a pleasure to be present.

On more than one occasion, after we were awarded corners, Rudiger and Pulisic turned to the supporters in the MHL to sing louder, stronger. They needed us.

A cross from Havertz and a volley from Pulisic was well-saved.

On seventy-minutes, a change in personnel and shape.

Jorginho for Chalobah.

We now had a three-man midfield, with just Havertz and Mount up top. Pulisic was moved to wing-back with Dave moved centrally. The American really grew into the game and proved to be a jinking, probing menace on the right. In one of the photos that I took of him, I noticed that he was smiling while in possession of the ball, probably looking at options. This rarely happens in modern football. More power to him. A shot from Christian, right winger, curled just over.

The whole team seemed to tire as one.

With ten minutes to go, we freshened things up further.

Callum Hudson-Odoi for Havertz.

We enjoyed the best of the last part of the game. Callum injected some good pace and was able, for once, to speed past his marker rather than dawdle and play within himself.

A shot from Mount, which followed up his blocked free-kick, whizzed towards the goal but Kelleher saved well. One last header always looked like going wide of the far post.

The final whistle blew.

2-2 on the second day of 2022.

Exiting the stairs, I simply said “superb game of football” to a few friends.

I said as much on “Facebook” with the extra comment :

“Lukak’who?”

Thankfully, this match was a good case of addition by subtraction. Nobody really knew what the next step in the Lukaku saga would be, but with a steep run of games coming up, including three against Tottenham in just eighteen days, this match provided a magnificence boost to our morale.

And yes, it was a simply superb game of football.

Fulham Broadway.

The Eight Bells.

Stamford Bridge.

Tales From Tier One And Tier Eight

Chelsea vs. Brighton And Hove Albion : 29 December 2021.

Over Christmas 2021 and into New Year 2022, I was planning to attend six games. The over-riding question mark over these games was of course COVID19. Let’s have a re-cap.

22 December : Brentford vs. Chelsea – check.

26 December : Aston Villa vs. Chelsea – check.

27 December : Frome Town vs. Melksham Town – still on.

29 December : Chelsea vs. Brighton And Hove Albion – still on.

1 January : Paulton Rovers vs. Frome Town – still on.

2 January : Chelsea vs. Liverpool – still on.

So, after the fine win at Villa Park on Boxing Day, I was a third of the way through this feast of festive football.

Thus far the Football Gods were defeating the Covid ones; long may it continue.

Next up was a widely anticipated local derby involving a home game for my local non-league team Frome Town and local rivals Melksham Town. Back in August – the Bank Holiday Monday – I attended the away game and was happy with a 3-0 win for Frome in front of a fine gate of 491. Frome Town’s home attendances have been exceptional this season, averaging over four-hundred, and this is in comparison to an average of around two-hundred a few seasons ago, before COVID19, before abandoned seasons, before lockdown. In a nutshell, the people of Frome have massively backed the local team, quite possibly to the detriment of some of the local professional teams. All along, I was telling friends that the local derby with Melksham could well break the one thousand mark. The team’s first league game of the season against Highworth Town drew a massive 867 although there is a sizeable asterisk against this game as a local company paid for all attendees to watch the game for free. However, against Oxford City in the FA Cup in September, the gate was a hefty 586. It was agreed that the Melksham Town game would easily draw 600, probably 700 and possibly even more. In the back of my mind, I was holding out for one thousand.

On the morning of the game, in a wet but mild Frome town centre, I met up with two of the “Villa Park Five” and we embarked on a mini-pub crawl involving five of the town’s pubs.

PD, Glenn and I would help to bolster the attendance. I have known Glenn to attend the occasional Frome Town game with me over the past ten years but PD is a very rare visitor to Badger’s Hill. In some familiar watering holes we spoke about Villa the previous day and a little about the upcoming game later.

As we walked towards the main turnstiles, there was a queue of around forty people at around 2.30pm with still half-an-hour to kick-off. This, believe me, is unheard of.

Once inside, I stood with my usual Dodge pals Louise, Steve and Fran. I was told, proudly by Fran, that he had entered by the very rarely used second turnstile, wherever that is.

I looked around. There were people everywhere. There were even people sitting in the small cluster of open air seats next to the fully packed main stand. That never happens. What a lovely sight.

“Easily a thousand.”

This match, though on a much smaller scale of course, reminded me of my “guess the gate” game at Stamford Bridge in my childhood and youth. These days, this would be a pretty dull game; every game is a 40,000 sell-out. But from the late-‘seventies to the early-‘nineties, our crowd capacity was around the 45,000 mark. More importantly, our gates varied wildly, often within the same month, often the same week. However, the wildcard in our gates involved the club – a bearded chairman is usually quoted – shaving off thousands in order to keep money from the taxman. This made the guesstimating a little difficult. But, let’s take an example; Chelsea vs. Leeds United for the promotion decider in April 1984. Previously, our highest gate was 35,147 against Sheffield Wednesday. I think I can remember talking to the lads on the car ride to the Leeds game – PD and Glenn again – that the attendance would easily breach the 40,000 mark. In fact, the publicised gate of 33,447 fooled nobody at all. The place was rammed. I am sure it reached 40,000. But at virtually all home games in that period, I tended to not “guess the score” but “guess the gate” and I am sure I wasn’t alone.

Back to 2021 and back to Frome Town.

In a wet and blustery first-half, Frome looked sluggish and succumbed to a goal in the thirty-fourth minute. It hadn’t been much of a first-half. A real shame for the bumper crowd. While I was queuing for half-time beers in the busy clubhouse – seventy-five in the line at the bar, bloody hell – the game had evidently re-started and I was told that Melksham had doubled their lead.

A Frome fackinell was muttered as I waited for beers.

On fifty-five minutes, crowd favourite Jon Davies pulled a goal back with a shot lashed in from twenty yards. Frome were reacting well and the crowd were getting behind the team. On seventy-three minutes, an equaliser from Rex Mannings was met with wild cheers. We were back in this. To our horror, just three minutes later the visitors scored again on a rare break. In the first-half, we were sheltered under the roof along the side of the pitch. In this second-half we were amassed with hundreds of others in the packed Club End.

Towards the end, the PA announced the attendance.

1,103.

Bloody superb.

The noise levels increased. Frome hit the post. Unbelievingly, in the ninety-third minute, Alex Hallett slotted home, though from my vantage point – low down, behind many – I didn’t see the ball go in, I just saw the reactions of the players and spectators nearer the pitch.

Get in.

The place erupted.

What a lovely afternoon. Not only an entertaining game and a frankly unreal attendance, but also a few hours among people who I hadn’t seen for a while. I lost count of the number of people that said “hello Paul” to PD. Frome maintained pole position in the Southern League Division One South, down at level eight in the football pyramid.

Back in one of the two pubs that we would continue our drinking, there was a little reference to Chelsea.

“1,103 today.”

“Maybe PD, Glenn and I were the three.”

“Back in 1976 – forty-five years ago to the day in fact – Chelsea played at home to Fulham in the Second Division and the gate was 55,003.”

I remembered how my mate Alan always says “I was the three.”

55,003 in 1976.

1,103 in 2021.

It’s a toss-up which has made me prouder.

The rather inclement weather that had spoiled the game at Frome to a degree was in evidence as I set off from my house at around 11.15am on the morning of the Brighton game. I soon called in to collect PD in Frome. Thankfully, the blustery wind and rain had abated by the time I reached the next passenger. A soggy Chopper is a horrible thought. I had been hoping to take him to the Leeds United game a few weeks ago – 1970 and all that – but he had made his own way up to London on the Friday.

Ron soon told us of a nice incident that had happened during that game though. Midway through the game, he was summoned to the boardroom and was introduced to former Leeds United player and manager Eddie Gray. The former winger apparently travels to all of Leeds’ away games, looking after some executive club members, and I suppose this mirrors the job that he carries out at Elland Road. The two former combatants must have enjoyed a few fine words.

Ron told of us of a gig that both attended “up north” a few years back. Gray stepped forward and presented Ron with a small gift.

“This is a stud that they have just been finally able to remove from my knee from the 1970 FA Cup Final.”

Ah, that tackle. After giving David Webb the run-around at Wembley, Dave Sexton chose to let the Chelsea captain man mark Gray at Old Trafford. Chopper did not disappoint.

Incidentally, I always find it hard to believe that Eddie Gray – at thirty-six years of age – took part in the afore-mentioned game at Stamford Bridge in April 1984. He was their player-manager at the time.

We collected Parky at about 12.15pm and we were on our way. Thankfully, the traffic wasn’t too busy and I made good time on my way in to London. At around 2.30pm I deposited PD and Parky outside “The Temperance” at the bottom of Fulham High Street. They would soon be knocking back a few pints at “The Eight Bells.” I dropped Ron off at the bottom of the North End Road and he made his way to the stadium.

I parked-up in my usual spot, then made a leisurely walk down to Stamford Bridge where my friend Ben from the Boston Blues enjoyed a little chat with a few former players. I then caught the tube down to Putney Bridge and joined PD and Parky – and also my friend Andrew, once of the New York Blues but now living in Brighton of all places – in the cosy confines of “T8B” which was full of its usual regulars. Andrew would be sitting alongside me in The Sleepy Hollow. PD, Parky and I were starving so we each indulged in a burger and chips. My good pal Mac – a Brighton season ticket holder – arrived with two, then three, of his friends and sat alongside us.

At the same time it was a busy yet relaxed pre-match and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Brighton lads spoke to me about their manager Graham Potter. They had started to get a little irritated with the way that Brighton would always seem to play conservatively and without risk, and that many fans were wishing that there was a change of plan. Only a few times in recent years have Brighton “gone for it.” Mac recollected that when they travelled to Manchester City in the early weeks of 2019/20, Potter had thrown caution to the wind, and although Albion had lost 4-0, Mac had loved it. It was an interesting comment. It brought make an eerie reminder of Frank Lampard at Old Trafford the same season. I didn’t enjoy that one quite so much. But we chatted about how so many teams “shut up shop” these days; I told them that I longed for the days when football didn’t resemble a game of bloody chess.

One of Mac’s friends – Chris from Somerset, confusing isn’t it? – asked me what my preconceptions were of Graham Potter.

I felt like saying that I knew more about Harry Potter. The Brighton manager surely has to be one of the most unassuming men in the modern game.

With the kick-off at 7.30pm, it was time for us to set off. It was a stupidly mild evening in old London town as PD, Andrew and I turned into the West forecourt and waved an “adios” to Parky as he wended his way to The Shed.

Here was the team :

Mendy – Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger – James, Jorginho, Kovacic, Pulisic – Hudson-Odoi, Lukaku, Mount.

This was again a case of Thomas Tuchel having to shuffle an increasingly depleted pack of cards. But, on paper at least, it did look a half-decent team. Of course, we would miss the energy of Kante and the crafted calmness of Thiago Silva. Sadly, Ben Chilwell is gone for the season, while others are clearly not at full fitness levels. But a “plus” had to be the presence of Romelu Lukaku in the starting line-up. We just had to engineer a way of getting the ball up to him, or for him to attack. That was our huge task as the clock ticked towards kick-off.

The two teams appeared in what looked like a training game from c. 1987 with Chelsea in royal blue and the visitors in an all jade Chelsea Collection number. Brighton had a solid three-thousand in their half of The Shed, but not one flag nor banner. Must do better.

On a day when it was announced that John Terry was returning to the club in a coaching role at the academy – a move that really surprised me – a large “Captain. Leader. Legend.” Surfed over the heads in the home section of the Shed Upper.

Right, the last game of 2021, another bloody crazy year in the history of Chelsea Football Club, but one which turned out to be so typical of modern day Chelsea. For much of 2021 it was the same old song; supporter unrest, managerial problems, silverware, big name signings, glimpses of success, supporter unrest, repeat to fade.

Would I have it any other way? Yes, probably.

However : [clears throat]

“Let’s Go To Work.”

As usual, we attacked The Shed in the first-half. A few early forays hinted at good things. However, the first piece of action got the pulses racing was a full throttle race down our left involving former Chelsea youngster Tariq Lamptey and our man Reece James. Thankfully, that particular tussle ended in our favour.

The boisterous away fans went for an early dig.

“Tariq Lamptey, he left ‘cus you’re shit” and how we laughed.

After an early effort from Callum Hudson-Odoi, Lamptey attacked and struck a shot that did not bother Edouard Mendy. But their right back was looking effervescent. A corner from our right was not cleanly gathered by Robert Sanchez in the Brighton goal, and Cesar Azpilicueta swung a leg and the resulting shot cannoned off the near post. The ball bounced away and James swung it in again. However, a header from Antonio Rudiger was easily saved by the Brighton ‘keeper.

A clean move involving a run and pass from Mateo Kovacic to Romelu Lukaku set up Mason Mount but his shot was saved by Sanchez.

Sadly, we spotted that James was rooted to the turf on the half-way line. He was completely still. We all feared the worst. His walk off, supported to of Chelsea’s medical team, was the slowest I have ever seen. He was replaced by Marcos Alonso.

A Mason Mount corner was swung in and the ball perfectly met the free leap from Lukaku. The ball went crashing down and past Sanchez.

Get in.

After his excellent performance at Villa, it felt that he was the man of the moment.

There was a tough tackle in the midfield and the away fans did not like it.

“You dirty Northern bastards” caused a smirk from Andrew and myself in The Sleepy Hollow.

Brighton had caused us a few moments during the first-half and they had grown stronger as the game developed. Apart from our opening half-an-hour, we had drifted. The atmosphere wasn’t too special. The night was mild, on the pitch and off it.

“We’re hanging on a bit here” I said to PD.

However, I thought that Andreas Christensen had enjoyed a fine half, often intercepting and tackling with aplomb. It was just typical that he had taken a knock and was replaced at the break by Trevoh Chalobah. Our injury woes were getting worse.

Brighton kept up their pressure from the first-half. A cross from Solly March was met by Jakub Moder and his effort dropped – just – over the bar. Shots followed from Alexis Mac Alister and the very impressive Yves Bissouma.

Ten minutes into the second-half, at last, the home crowd got it together and a loud “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” enveloped the stadium. Just after, there followed a rare Chelsea attack. Hudson-Odoi broke from deep and advanced. Mount was in a good position, racing away too and square, and Callum decided to pass rather than shoot. The pass was poor and a defender intercepted. The howls of derision boomed around the Matthew Harding. Brighton immediately attacked and the atmosphere was suddenly red hot. Mendy blocked Mac Allister and Rudiger blocked Maupay. Other chances came and went for Brighton. We had nothing in response.

I messaged Mac : “Your boys are doing you proud.”

Lamptey was nicely applauded by us when he was substituted with half-an-hour to go.

Just after, N’Golo Kante replaced Hudson-Odoi.

We hoped that this would steady the ship. And this seemed to be the case. We even enjoyed a few half-chances with headers from Rudiger and Chalobah giving us a little hope for a second goal that would give us some security. There were further half-chances, nothing more, from Lukaku and Kante.

But I was surely not the only one who was half-expecting a late Brighton equaliser.

Four minutes of added injury time were to be played at the end of the ninety.

After just one of these, Marc Cucarella dropped a cross onto the head of a rising Danny Welbeck and the ball nestled in at the far post.

The players – far from jaded – raced away, the away hordes jumped and jumped, a blue flare was thrown onto the pitch. This was their moment.

Sigh.

We sloped away amidst comments of “this feels like a loss” and “they deserved that.”

Just as I was nearing my car, with PD and Parky already waiting, Nice Guy Kenny spotted Chopper walking alongside me and asked for a photo with his young niece. At least one Chelsea supporter left SW6 with a nice feeling.

Nobody likes dropping points of course. And this is a testing time for us all. But there is no doubt that our once vaunted squad is currently stretched. The immediate over-reaction by sections of our support was to be expected these days. All was rosy after Villa Park. One game later, not so.

I made good time on my return and I was home just after midnight.

Next up, Paulton Rovers away and Liverpool at home.

On we go.

Tales From The Top In The Middle Of England

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 20 November 2021.

After the away game on Tyneside, I was going to miss the trip to Malmo, and so my next planned game was going to be Burnley at home. Then, sadly, I tested positive for COVID and was forced into self-isolation for ten days. I was lucky though. My symptoms were similar to a mild head cold, and I was easily able to work from home for a week. I was back into work, and the office, last Monday. The International break could not have happened at a more convenient time.

Instead of Chelsea, two games at Frome Town – the first before I tested positive, the second after I tested negative – gave me my football kick. The home games against Barnstaple Town and Plymouth Parkway were won 9-2 and 1-0, thus cementing my local team’s undefeated position at the top of the Southern League Division One South. When I am either unable or unwilling to attend Chelsea games in the future – I think I know deep down that it is coming – at least I have an exit strategy. But let’s not dwell too much on that right now.

Leicester City – away – was now primed for my first Chelsea game in three weeks.

I set the alarm for 5.45am. Many others throughout the Chelsea Nation had equally early starts. All over Facebook, two words dominated.

“And Leicester.”

The idea was to collect PD at 7.30m, then Parks, and arrive at our usual spot just off Saffron Lane to the south of the King Power Stadium at around 11am.

Obviously I had not seen the two lads for a while. Like me, PD had succumbed to a mild variant of COVID since Newcastle. Parky had experienced a more painful COVID not long after Belfast and was still suffering, a little, from long COVID.

Sadly, Parky had lost his ninety-three-year-old mother last Monday. As I picked him up at 8am, we both shook his hand and offered him words of comfort.

Outside, there was drizzle in the air.

At Melksham, a breakfast, and then the drive straight up the Fosse Way to the middle of England. Although the roads were fringed with autumn colours, there was a grey murkiness outside. The Fosse Way remains my favourite road for an away game, though not on this occasion.

Although this would be my first Chelsea game for three weeks, I was suffering a little with a general malaise. Whether this was born out of my recent COVID attack – a re-focussing on priorities, maybe – I am not sure. In a nutshell, I was not as fired-up as I ought to have been. I just hoped that this feeling would turn out to be a little blip in my love of the game, of Chelsea, of this lifestyle.

I am fifty-six. I have seen over 1,300 Chelsea games. “We’ve won it all” (no, we haven’t). We won the European Cup last May in what turned out to be an emotionally-distanced cake-walk. That experience alone caused my brain to fry.

Clearly I am still struggling to get my pre-lockdown levels of passion, involvement, fanaticism – call it what you will – back.

Sigh.

I guess I am allowed the occasional off-day.

As I ate up the miles I was reminded of a drive up the Fosse Way, with my parents in early 1983, which was surely my most pointless journey ever. I was taking my “A Levels” in the June of that year and had applied to a few colleges, including Sheffield Polytechnic. As part of the process, I had to attend an interview up in South Yorkshire. The problem was that I was miss-firing in all three subjects and I was convinced that I wouldn’t get the necessary grades for a degree course in geography, nor did I particularly want to spend three years in Yorkshire should a miracle happen. The journey took forever. It was a bitterly cold day. The countryside was covered in the remnants of a snowfall. My poor Dad had taken a day off work to ferry me north. I hated every minute of the entire day.

What a waste of a day.

For the record; yeah, I did bomb my “A levels” but took them again in the November with a much better set of results.

1982/83 and 1983/84 were vastly different years for both myself and Chelsea Football Club.

I was parked up in Leicester at 11.05am and there would normally follow a trite remark from me about working in logistics.

I’m not one to disappoint.

It had been a mild start to the day in deepest Somerset, despite the drizzle, but things were a little colder in The Midlands. Not to worry, the fifteen-minute walk north warmed us a little and brought some colour to our cheeks. An elderly Leicester fan spoke to us for a few minutes.

“Chilwell is doing well, ain’t he? I didn’t rate him here.”

We were all soon inside the larger-than-usual concourse underneath the away stand. I spoke to a few friends and was happy to pass on the good news about my recent ill-health. I was getting back into the groove, step by step, fist bump by fist bump, handshake by handshake, smile by smile.

“Leicester away. What else yer gonna do on a Saturday?” or something like that.

We had far from great seats, sadly. Right in the corner, third row, even behind the goal line. One hundred and eighty degrees around the bowl of the stadium my friend Sally – former logistics colleague, I am sure her timings were bang on – was sat in the front row of The Kop, but in the corner too.

I expected a tight game. But hoped for a win.

“Absolute top pre-match analysis, that pal…fucksake.”

Romelu Lukaku was still unable to re-join the fold, but our starting eleven wasn’t half bad.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

Chilweel – Kante – Jorginho – James

Hudson-Odoi  – Havertz – Mount

The teams entered the pitch on the far side. Our away kit of yellow-black-yellow was to make an appearance for the first time this season. I found it amazing that the club had decided not to parade it previously; it is not unknown for an away kit to be worn even when there isn’t a clash in colours. As the players lined-up, I spotted the geometric shapes from the blue kit monstrosity mirrored in a chest panel on some black tracksuit tops.

“Now that’s not bad. That I can warm to. Everything in moderation. Less is more.”

Only the previous evening, I had watched a BBC programme about Bridget Rily, a leading light in the Op Art movement in the ‘sixties, and I was – naturally – reminded of the abomination that has currently happened to our home kit, shudder.

Generally speaking, I appreciated the paintings of Op Art – I think all of us at Frome College dabbled in geometric shapes during our art class in 1978/79, “another crap season” – but what place does it have on a fucking football shirt?

Eh? Tell me.

As I watched on Friday, I had stumbled upon with a far more agreeable design. If – and I mean if – an homage to Op Art was of absolute necessity, then why not a simple panel of Zigger Zagger mayhem, but everything else plain? Certainly the shorts needed to remain plain.

Whoever ordained the geometric pattern on the home shorts needs shooting.

So, lo and behold, the panel of slip-sliding squares (the kitchen floor after a night of excessive alcoholic intoxication?) on the plain black top not only met with my approval but had me wondering if I was absolutely in the wrong job.

The game began, and Borussia Dortmund attacked Sally and The Kop.

Despite an early start, the away choir had clearly been on it. Alcohol-inspired community singing rang out from the 3,300 in the expansive away corner; the seats go a long way back at Leicester. There was a little jabbing from both sets of supporters, with our left-back a natural target for the home fans, but then an uppercut onto the chin of the home fans :

“Ben Chilwell’s won a European Cup.”

We began ever so brightly.

And, yeah, the away kit looks fine. Not particularly “Chelsea” but that doesn’t seem to matter one iota these days.

The first chance arose when Jorginho took a quick free-kick from the middle of the pitch. The perfectly-flighted ball out to the left hand side of the penalty box was met by that man Chilwell. A touch to control, but the shot smashed against the top of the cross bar.

“Alonso would’ve volleyed that.”

It was end-to-end stuff in the first ten minutes, with a couple of lightning quick Leicester raids causing us concern, but we were equally strong in our attacking third.

Just on the quarter of an hour, we won a corner in front of Sally on our right.

Alan : “Get your camera out. Rudiger likes corners up here.”

I smiled. Indeed he does. Only on the drive up, we remembered his two headers here in 2020, just before lockdown struck. No surprises that none of us could remember the result up here in 2020/21.

“If a tree falls in a forest, but nobody sees it fall, does it make a sound?”

My camera was poised.

A Chilwell corner. On the money. A leap from Rudi. Click. I watched the ball drop into the net.

“YES.”

We were back, I was back, Rudi was back, Alan was beaming and so was I.

“That’s going in your blog.”

Ha, what joy.

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

Chris : “ Come on my little diamonds.”

I was genuinely worried about this one. The Cup Final had been on my mind. But here we were a goal up already.

I found it odd that during the Chelsea choir’s early chants, the home fans did not respond with one song about the game in May.

“Did it mean nothing to you?”

The hero of that game, Kasper Schmeichel, made a super save from the unlikely boot of N’Golo Kante.

We were rampant.

Callum was clipped just as he was about to ping a shot on goal after cutting in from the left, and Mason Mount dipped the resulting free-kick over the wall but over the bar too.

A rare Leicester attack, and a tap in from Ademola Lookman, but the linesman’s yellow flag soon went up.

I looked over to the Chelsea section next to the home fans. In front, tied to the rails was a flag from Zurich and two from Bulgaria. My good friend Orlin, one of the strong Bulgaria contingent, had called by to say “hi” before the game. I last saw him in Porto, ah Porto. But I also spotted Jonesy, from nearby Nuneaton, in that section too. Over the course of the game, I spotted not only Jonesy, but Andy and Sophie – Porto, ditto – and also The Youth, Neil, Jokka and Chopper, all Nuneaton Chelsea. Good work everyone.

Leicester were nibbling away at us in the first part of the game, but the referee resolutely avoided bookings.

I liked the look of Jorginho, pushing the ball on as quickly as he could. Right from the off, Thiago Silva looked so cool, so calm, and his class immediately shone. Our passing was quicker and more incisive than is often the case. Our cross-field switches were inch-perfect. Havertz looked lively, Callum too. We were simply on top, in control, playing some gorgeous stuff.

Just before the half-hour mark, the ball was won on our right and pushed inside to Kante. He was allowed so much space and so simply did what anyone would; he advanced, and advanced, and advanced.

I watched as he took a swipe at the ball with his left foot. I’ll be honest, I did not immediately react. I – for some reason – thought the ball had drifted past the post and hit a supporting stanchion.  But no, the roars of the away fans told me that he had hit the target.

Fackinell.

I spoke to Gal : “Best we have played all season.”

We eased off a little as the break approached, but the singing certainly didn’t. Nobody can accuse us lot of only singing one song.

So many positive comments at the break. Lovely.

Brendan Rodgers made two substitutions at the break, and on came Maddison and Iheanacho. Edouard Mendy, not needed for most of the first-half, made a low save from Maddison, but the Chelsea attack were soon causing problems again. Hudson-Odoi did well and squirmed into the box before setting up Chilwell. Schmeichel made a magnificent save.

On the hour, Callum shaped well but curled one over the bar.

A double substitution from our manager.

Hakim Ziyech for Mount, Christian Pulisic for Havertz.

Mason had been one of our quietest performers I thought. Havertz had impressed. I was a little cautious.

…”mmm, two key players…the game ain’t won yet.”

The home team became a little stronger, and we had to rely on another stunning leap and save from our ‘keeper to foil a rising drive from Daniel Amartey. The home team dominated for a short period, but we were always a threat. The substitute Pulisic looked lively and went close from fellow substitute Ziyech’s cross. Both subs looked keen, looked energised, what do I know about football?

On seventy-one minutes, a wonderful quick break, with Leicester scampering around us, found Ziyech down in front of us on the right. A deft movement past a defender and the ball was played into space. Pulisic arrived with perfect timing and prodded the ball in.

3-0, game over.

Sadly, Jorginho was injured – replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, what a bench – and as he walked past us in the north-west corner, he was serenaded by all.

“That’s the World Footballer Of The Year, there, Gal.”

Those sorry days of Sarri are well behind him, and us, right?

Incredibly, we hit the back of the net on three further occasions late in the game, but the goals scored by Hudson-Odoi, Pulisic and James were all – rightly – chalked off for offside.

There was still time for another cracking save from our man Mendy.

I have commented of late that, despite our fine run of results, we seem to be several steps away from our potential. Well, this game hinted at that level. It reminded me of a game at Fulham in November 2004 when everything clicked and we began to seriously think about a league title.

It was a decent drive home, and we were cheered – to the point of laughter – at Manchester United’s 4-1 defeat at Watford.

Good old Claudio, eh? Loved at Chelsea, loved at Leicester and maybe Watford too.

We have a busy week ahead.

Juventus and Manchester United.

Do they get any bigger?

I will see some of you there.

Valerie Jayne Crespin : 24 April 1929 to 15 November 2021.

Goal One : Rudi’s Leap.

Goal Two : N’Goalo.

Goal Three : Teamwork.

Tales From A West London Affair

Brentford vs. Chelsea : 16 October 2021.

I needed that recent international break. After seven Chelsea games in just twenty-one days, involving almost twenty-one thousand words here, for once I was most relieved that there would be a fallow period of a fortnight with no match.

(Things I never thought I’d write #127.)

Last weekend was still spent watching football though. I drove into Oxfordshire to see Frome Town recover from conceding an early goal to wallop Didcot Town 5-1 in the FA Trophy. This almost made up for the 5-0 defeat suffered at the hands of Bath City in the FA Cup, a game that took place at the same time that we played Southampton. By the way, an infinitesimally small amount of time was spent weighing up the chances of me attending a local derby at Bath as opposed to the Saints in a run-of-the-mill league game at Stamford Bridge. It was a no contest to be honest.

Frome Town has been good to me of late, but Chelsea is still number one in my affections.

The away league match at Brentford had been a long time coming. Seventy-four years in fact. Yes, dear reader, the last time that the two West London clubs met in a league encounter was in March 1947. Our meetings with the red and white striped Bees from along the A4 have been ridiculously rare. Aside from friendlies, the two clubs had only met on fourteen previous occasions. There was a flurry of games before the outbreak of the Second World War and in the first of these seasons – 1935/36 – Brentford ended up as the top team in London.

Since those halcyon days, Brentford have toiled away in the lower reaches of the Football League. If I am honest, apart from Ray and Graham Wilkins’ father George and our own Ron Harris, I would be hard pressed to name any of their players apart from those in the current team.

Do Bradley Walsh and Rod Stewart count?

In the grand scheme of things, our relatively recent meetings with Brentford in the FA Cup campaigns of 2012/13 and 2016/17 represent a real flurry of activity.

On the same day that we became European Champions in Porto, Brentford swept past Swansea City in the play-off final to gain promotion to the top tier, and I for one – when I heard the news in the stadium before our game – was very happy. I love the football pyramid, I love the rise of smaller teams (Wigan, Blackpool, Bournemouth in recent years) and I love visiting new stadia. Driving in to London on the elevated section of the M4 over the past five years, we have watched how the new Brentford Community Stadium has risen, not so far from Griffin Park, and the arrival of Brentford in the Premiership was just perfect.

With the game moving to a 5.30pm kick-off, we salivated at the prospect of a Hammersmith to Chiswick River Thames pub-crawl before the game. Yet for weeks and weeks, only Parky and I were guaranteed match tickets. Then, what luck, two tickets became available from a couple of friends who could not attend, thus allowing PD and Glenn to join us. Glenn quickly volunteered to drive. Plans were drawn up, pubs were checked out, a parking slot opposite the new stadium was sorted.

This was going to be a cracker.

But then (I have warned that these days there is often a “but then”) one of my mates caught COVID19 – nothing too horrible, it soon passed – but it meant that I needed to take a PCR test in Bath the day before the game. My very real fear was that I would be informed of a positive test result en route to London and would then be forced to self-isolate in Glenn’s van while the others made merry. It didn’t bear thinking about. My contingency plans for the day now included freeing up my ticket, if needed, to enable my good friend Daryl to attend in my absence should the need arise.

Heading into London at around 10.30am, up on the M3 before it drops down into Twickenham, Glenn was playing a few songs from The Jam in his van.

One song struck a chord.

“That’s Entertainment” is much loved. It charted in 1983 after the band split, and I have always loved its lyrics, an homage to melancholy days in humdrum England, a nod to working class life and culture. The mundane is celebrated, almost embraced. Paul Weller’s words drifted over the semi-detached houses of the outer reaches of south-west London.

“A police car and a screaming siren.”

The skies had darkened a little since we had left our homes and for the past twenty minutes there had been rain. We hoped the wet weather would not last.

“The screech of brakes and the lamplight blinking.”

Glenn drove on and I wondered if the day’s events would turn out to be mundane – surely not – or magnificent and memorable. Again I thought of the millions of Chelsea fans who would be wishing that they were the lucky ones with a match ticket on this day in West London.

“That’s entertainment.”

There had been no PCR test result thus far in. I pondered my day ahead. I would be controlled by outside forces.

“Lights going out and a kick in the balls.”

No, let’s be positive here. I had experienced no symptoms. No symptoms at all. My mood cheered with each of Weller’s squeezed together lines.

“Opening the windows and breathing in petrol.”

The Jam coexisted alongside Chelsea Football Club for me in those exciting and yet horrible adolescent years and here they were again.

“Football, music and clobber” was it Mr. Weller?

“That’s entertainment.”

Glenn drove on into Richmond, up to Chiswick and we were parked up, more or less on time, at around 11am.

There had been a few messages to and from Daryl. We had decided that he would be best placed to look for other entertainment; he was off to see Guernsey’s match down in South London against Chipstead, his non-league team’s first away game since January 2020.

From around 11.30am to around 4.30pm, we visited five pubs on the northern bank of the River Thames, replicating a pub-crawl that Parky and I first enjoyed before an Arsenal away game in 2015. With each pub, we bumped into more and more friends and acquaintances. At “The Blue Anchor” we were joined by the two Robs, then Luke, Aroha and Doreen – the last time that I have seen all three since Porto, smiley face – and we then sauntered next door to “The Rutland Arms”. We joined forces with Rob Three, Feisal, Brian, Pete and a few more at “The Dove”, and I chatted to Nick and James – Dublin, 2019 – out on the small terrace overlooking the river. By the time we had reached “The Old Ship”, the party was almost twenty strong. It seemed that we were not the only ones who had come up with the idea of this most wonderful of pub crawls. Around the corner at “The Black Lion” were five or six familiar faces from our local area who had honed in on this idyllic spot in West London.

That’s entertainment.

We had sat alongside a few QPR fans at the “Blue Anchor”, no doubt heading off to see their team, and eventually lose, at Craven Cottage. We all thought how odd it was for the Met Police to sanction all of West London’s four teams to play – against each other – on the same day.

On several occasions, I spoke in hushed tones about how fearful I was of the game at Brentford. It had all the hallmarks of a Chelsea banana skin. I likened it to our game in the autumn of 2011 – one week away from being ten years ago exactly – when we went to newly-promoted neighbours QPR and lost 1-0. I am sure I was not the only one in our ever-growing party, or worldwide, who had this fear of defeat. Brentford had certainly settled with ease this season. They would be no pushover. Their fans would be, er, buzzing.

The lager was hitting the spot. But time was moving on. Just as we were thinking about mustering the troops together to head west to our pre-paid parking spot on the A4, I received a text message. I nervously looked.

“Negative.”

Phew.

“You shall go to the ball.”

We said our goodbyes as others worked out their best ways to travel the two miles or so to the game. We shoehorned nine of us into Glenn’s Chuckle Bus and off we went. I wasn’t sure about getting a cab nor travelling on buses, and there were no slashed seat affairs.

This was a West London affair and we were on our way.

We were soon parked up. Luckily, the stadium was just a ten-minute walk away. I was just so relieved that we had the sense, after surely a gallon of lager, to leave the Thames side pubs in good time, and that we could now relax and enjoy our walk all of the way around the grey cladding of the stadium and reach the away turnstiles in good time. It was around 5pm.

Good job I work in logistics.

Once inside the away concourse, virtually the first person that I bumped into was Daryl.

“Wow. You got a ticket then mate!”

Fantastic.

“Yeah, it would appear that rocking horses do occasionally go to the toilet.”

We had evidently not been the only little group of Chelsea fans enticed into West London hostelries for a few bevvies. The singing in the concourse was loud, and it continued into the stadium itself.

I knew what to expect of the Brentford Community Stadium. A few years back, as a certified stadium buff, I subscribed to updates from Brentford Football Club as their new stadium took shape. This mirrored my fascination with its steady growth with each trip in to see a game at Chelsea. Imagine my shock when, presumably because of my free subscription to these stadium updates, I started to receive offers to become a Brentford season ticket holder at the new place.

Easy now.

It’s a decent stadium. Every inch of available space has been used, and the stands abut roads and railway lines. Sound familiar? The stadium holds 17,250. The main stand dominates everything, but its upper reaches are an ugly mix of dull grey roof trusses and unsightly executive areas. I like the way that the tower of the Kew Pumping Station can be glimpsed between the main stand and the western home terrace, a much slighter structure. The roof drops down drastically at two of the corners. The seats are multi-coloured – no doubt to give the impression of them being filled even when they aren’t – but as kick-off time approached it was clear that this would be another full house.

Our away take was around 1,600.

Thankfully many faces that I recognised were in. Behind me was Rob Three, who was joined at various times by H, and then Des, who seemed intent on popping up in every section in the entire away end at various intervals of the entire match. A special mention for Clinton and his son Bailey who were stood a few rows behind me. Hailing from Stirling in central Scotland, Bailey played football during the morning before they flew down to Gatwick in the afternoon and then took a cab to Brentford. There was Luke in the front row of the top section, joining in with the chanting, arms spread. I spotted Daryl in the front row behind the goal. Faces everywhere in fact.

We knew there would be changes due to injuries and as the kick-off approached, the team was flashed on the TV screen which was perched rather precariously atop the main stand roof.

Mendy

Sarr – Christensen – Chalobah

Chilwell – Kovacic – Loftus-Cheek – Kante – Azpilicueta

Werner – Lukaku

I was alongside Alan, Gal and Parky in a jam-packed quartet in row five.

“They shall not pass.”

My first thoughts as the game began were two-fold.

Firstly, after games where we had been rather reticent at the start, I was just so pleased that we were able to take the game to Brentford in the first five, ten, fifteen minutes.

Secondly, bloody hell, we were making a racket. From a good few minutes before kick-off, and into those first twenty minutes, the noise from the 1,600 Chelsea fans in the north-eastern corner was non-stop.

“That’s more like it.”

And I couldn’t believe how quiet the home fans were. It shocked me.

As the two managers, Thomas Frank and Thomas Tuchel, cajoled their troops from the side-lines, the Chelsea choir let it rip.

“Super Chelsea FC.”

“We are the Champions, the Champions of Europe.”

“Timo Werner.”

But the loudest and – ahem – proudest (?) chant was directed at the referee, Anthony Taylor.

Look away now if you are easily offended.

“You’re a James Hunt, you’re a James Blunt, and you’ll always be a Stephen Hunt, you’ll always be a Berkshire Hunt, Taylor, Taylor.”

It seemed to go on forever.

It might sound stupid, even childish, but this chant reinforced the notion that despite modern football’s desire to cleanse and sanitise the current football experience, the faces in the away section, cheering loudly and at times with profanity, have been the heartbeat of the club for decades. In short, unlike at some home games, it felt that the right fans were at this game.

The every-gamers, the loyalists, the ones with one thousand, two thousand Chelsea games to their names, the faces you know, the names you might not know, the drinkers, the thinkers, the old school, the Shed, the North Stand, Gate Thirteen, The Benches, the Matthew Harding, The Shed Lower.

Chelsea on tour.

We dominated the play and Ruben Loftus-Cheek looked like he wanted to take the game by the scruff of the neck. One strong run through the middle was enjoyed by us all. The new boy Sarr looked decent, and didn’t look out of place. The hustle and bustle of Kovacic and Kante, the Kryptonite Kids, ensured that loose balls were charged down and Brentford could not develop many passing routines.

However, after a series of Brentford corners and free-kicks, the home team obtained a foothold. A high ball in from their right was kept alive by their attackers, and the ball fell to Mbeumo whose volley ricocheted back off the near post. From here, the ball was shielded by Ruben before Kovacic took it away from the defensive third with the Brentford team having left many up field. The ball was played wide to Werner. His low cross was turned in by Lukaku, but he had strayed – diabolically – offside.

Bollocks.

We regained control and a Kovacic free-kick threatened Raya in the home goal. A shot from Timo just swept past the post. It was all Chelsea, but there was frustration in the away end as our domination often petered out. Right on the stroke of half-time, a breakthrough came. A sustained spell of pressure, pegging the home defence back, resulted in a cross from Dave. Lukaku got something on it, and the ball dropped invitingly for Ben Chilwell. His volley was well controlled – not unlike the goal against Southampton in that respect – and the ball flew into the net.

Brentford 0 Chelsea 1.

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

Phew.

The night had fallen by the time the players returned onto the pitch for the start of the second-half. Whereas the first-half belonged to us, if only in terms of possession despite the goal, the second-half absolutely belonged to Brentford, and I wondered how or why they were allowed to dominate us for such long periods. This was the Brentford that I had been expecting to see all along, and at last the home fans were involved too.

Tuchel replaced Kovacic with Mason Mount half-way through the half. Lukaku wasted a golden opportunity after a Werner shot was blocked. Lukaku’s blast over the bar was met with groans and wails.

Brentford, by then, were warming to the task of getting back into the game. The previously quiet Toney looked lively, and Mbeumo saw his weak shot hit the left-hand post. Mendy was being called into action to safeguard our slender win, and he rose to the challenge magnificently.

Our ‘keeper was able to smother a shot as Ghoddos attacked from an angle and, oh Ghodd, we watched in pain as the ball was kept alive by a few desperate Brentford tackles. Thankfully, Chalobah was suitably switched-on to be able to hack a resultant shot off the line.

Brentford were making a racket now.

“About time.”

Next up a point blank save from Jansonn; the man Mendy was having an immense game.

Fackinell.

By now, our nerves were being strained and pulled and stretched in all different directions. Kai Havertz had replaced Lukaku and I felt that our attacking options had effectively been turned off.

Hang in there, boys.

Reece James for Dave.

At the death, an overhead kick from Norgaard drew an incredible reflex save from our goalkeeper. Mendy reacted so quickly, his fingers touching the ball over the bar.

This drew immediate and loud applause from us.

Just who is the five o’clock hero? Dunno, but Edouard Mendy was the seven o’clock one.

At last the final whistle.

This was hardly a classic, we knew that. Our play promised great things in the first quarter of the game, no doubt. But we just couldn’t switch through the gears when we needed to. Credit goes to Brentford for a great second-half performance, and – let’s be honest – they deserved a point.

I checked the scores again. A Manchester United loss at Leicester City. Liverpool had won at Watford. A Manchester City home win against Burnley.

But, it was true, we were top of the league. Gulp. At present we are surely a team whose total value is less than the sum of its constituent parts.

I posted, almost hard to believe in the circumstances, on Facebook :

“Catch Us If You Can.”

The way this season is going, it might take me until May to work out if this current Chelsea team are any good. And by then, who knows, we might even be League Champions.

See you on Wednesday.


Tales From Beneath The Whispering Gallery

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 19 September 2021.

I have said it before and I suspect that I will say it again and again; to me Tottenham is our biggest away game. It’s certainly the one that I look forward to more than no other. It has history. It has substance. It has animosity. It has hate. With Chelsea flying high, and Tottenham faltering, I couldn’t wait to set off for their new spanking stadium that soars over the more down-at-heel shops and houses on the Tottenham High Road and its associated neighbouring streets.

But first an FA Cup tie.

Yes, dear reader, this was another weekend of football that was to give me the twin gifts of League and Cup.

I assembled at Frome Town’s ground Badgers Hill for the 3pm kick-off on the Saturday for a game against National League South outfit Oxford City, a team that we had recently played in the same step of the football pyramid. Since then, the Hoops have advanced one step, while the Robins have descended one.

What transpired was a stunningly perfect afternoon of FA Cup football, played out under a mottled sky, warming sunshine and with a really gratifying attendance of almost six hundred spectators. Frome soaked up some steady pressure in the first-half and an Oxford goal was called back for offside. Two stunning breakaway goals by James Ollis and Joe O’Loughlin gave the home team a surprise 2-0 lead at the break. Frome then improved further, with more attacks, more efforts on goal. But just at the very moment that my mate Francis uttered the immortal words “they look like scoring” and I replied “you’re right” – they did.

Despite an increasingly nervous last quarter of an hour, manager Danny Greaves’ side held on to win 2-1.

My friend Steve, the newly-crowned club historian, believed this to be Frome’s first win in the Cup against a team two divisions higher than us since a 1984 win against Bath City.

So, into the Third Qualifying Round we go. I remember watching Frome Town play against Team Bath at the same stage around ten years ago; a 2-2 draw at home, a heavy 0-4 loss away, at Bath City’s Twerton Park.

We would await the draw on Monday with keen interest.

I collected PD and Parky at 9.15am on the Sunday morning and pointed my Chelsea Blue Chuckle Wagon eastwards. We tend to break up the journey with a Greggs breakfast – being on a diet ain’t easy with all of the miles we travel for football – just before the A303 meets the M3. The woman serving us at Popham Services – Eddie Large in drag – has got to know our ugly faces the past two seasons and there is usually a little football banter while we order baps, baguettes and slices. She’s a Liverpool fan. Yes, you can only imagine.

Just as I slid the car away, PD announced :

“Jimmy Greaves has died, then.”

Oh no. What sad news. I know that he had been ill for some time.

“Did he pass away today? Bloody strange if he did, what with Tottenham playing Chelsea.”

I ate up the miles, and we were parked up at Barons Court tube at 11.45am; as quick and as easy a journey in as I can remember. We would eventually hope to catch the 3pm over ground service from Liverpool Street up to White Hart Lane, but we didn’t particularly care to be surrounded by coke’d up wannabes in the pubs that cluster around that station for a few hours, drinking out of plastic glasses and under the eye of the OB. I fancied somewhere different. We changed from the Piccadilly to the Central at Holborn, then alighted at St. Paul’s.

We made “The Paternoster” our base for a couple of hours or so. In a break from the light drizzle and then steady showers, I sped outside for twenty minutes to take a few photographs of Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece. I looked up at the huge and impressive dome, and remembered tales of The Whispering Gallery. I had been past St. Paul’s Cathedral once or twice by bus in recent times, but the last time that I had actually stood outside it was on a family trip to London in 1981. While my parents and an aunt toured inside the cathedral, I just walked to Stamford Bridge. It seemed the most logical thing to do in the circumstances.

From one cathedral to another.

I can distinctly remember reading the Jimmy Greaves autobiography “This One’s On Me” around that same time and, thinking back, it was undoubtedly the first footballer’s autobiography that I ever read. I can remember reading how he hated his time in Milan after his forced move from Chelsea. His decline into alcoholism was quite harrowing for a sixteen-year-old to read.

I wasn’t going to have a single beer, but I bought a single “Peroni” to toast his memory.

“Oh, he did die today. How uncanny.”

There was a photograph on the internet of Jimmy Greaves, from around maybe fifteen years ago, being presented pitch side at Stamford Bridge. I must have been there, yet – alas – I have no recollection of it.

Outside, the rain, but only a few spots. At 2.40pm, we whizzed up to Liverpool Street, and then found an empty carriage at Liverpool Street for the last leg of the journey. It was the earliest that we would be arriving in N17 for ages. On the twenty-five-minute journey, PD surprised us all and began chatting to some Tottenham fans. Parky and I kept our silence. To be fair, they were decent lads and we wished each other well, although I am sure none of us fucking meant it.

I wanted to take a few photographs of the stadium, so excused myself. Let’s not waste any time here; the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is a stunner, an absolute beauty, surely the finest football stadium in Europe. That it sits cheek by jowl alongside the same fried chicken joints, nail shops, kebab houses and grimy pubs as the old White Hart Lane gives the place a very odd feeling, as uneven a setting as there is ever likely to be. It might be on The High Road, but it overlooks The Low Road.

Simple black and white images of Jimmy Greaves MBE appeared on the outside and inside of the stadium. His presence was everywhere. Again, how odd and yet fitting that he should pass away on the day of the derby between his two main teams. I was reminded of Dixie Dean passing away at Goodison during the Merseyside derby in 1980.

I whirled away, bumped into some Chelsea acquaintances from Bristol and New York on the High Road, then spun around to enter the away turnstiles in the north-eastern corner.

Just as I entered the away concourse, there was an almighty commotion and I couldn’t quite work out what was occurring.

United were winning 2-1 at West Ham, but there was a late penalty for the home team. Noble then missed. Bollocks.

How’s that for a match report?

This was Parky’s first visit to the new place. I looked at the towering South Stand and could hardly believe how high it extended.

The troops arrived.

Alan, Gary, Foxy and Drew from Dundee, Margaret and Pam, Calvin, Becky and Cath. There were a few chats with many of the usual suspects.

Turin dominated.

I had succumbed on Friday to a four-day trip to the home city of Juventus for our game in a couple of weeks’ time.

I chatted with Patrick, then Ali and Nick, then Alan, then Tim. There were differing levels of understanding of what testing and procedures were required. It would, no doubt, be a stressful time over the next week or so. Preparations for Porto proved to be a drain on my brain and I am sure Turin will be too.

“Mendy’s out.”

Bollocks.

The stadium filled. I couldn’t work out if the seats are all muted slate grey or a dull navy. Regardless, virtually all were filled. We were in row four, right down the front, not far from our spot in the 2019/20 season.

It shows how disconnected we were last season that neither Alan nor Gary nor myself could remember how we did at Tottenham last season.

“Draw, wannit?”

One of the former players being interviewed for the in-house TV Channel was Gary Mabbutt, his Bristol twang taking me back to when he used to play for Bristol Rovers, then Tottenham, then England.

Gary : “Good player, Mabbutt.”

Chris : “His father, Ray, used to play for Frome.”

The team was announced. Not only no Mendy, but no Kante either.

Kepa

Rudiger – Silva – Christensen

Dave – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Lukaku – Havertz

Just before kick-off, that same image of Jimmy Greaves appeared on the TV screens in the four corners of the stadium, high above the pitch. Both sets of fans roundly and solidly applauded his memory.

He was loved by the fans of both clubs and the whole of the football world.

Jimmy Greaves was the greatest ever goal scorer produced by the English nation.

I remembered that in 2019, Martin Peters – unlike Greaves, a player in the 1966 World Cup Final – was similarly remembered.

Glenn Hoddle appeared out of nowhere and was given a fine reception by the 3,000 Chelsea fans in the corner as he walked around the edge of the pitch.

The game began. Tottenham attacked our northern end. With them playing in navy socks this year, we were allowed to wear our white socks. I approved. I soon found myself being distracted a little by all of the constant messages being blitzed across the various balconies. Supporters clubs from all over the world were featured. One made me double-take.

Baku Spurs.

Baku? Bloody hell. Probably just one bloke with a Tottenham mouse mat.

There is no denying it. Tottenham were quicker out of the traps than us in the first quarter of the game. We plodded along, and struggled to link passes through our midfield, whereas the home team looked sharper and created a little more.

With the home crowd singing “Oh when the Spurs”, Tottenham were given a central free-kick. The singing continued as the build-up seemed to take forever. Harry Kane was to take it. The singing grew louder.

“Fuck, if he scores now, after that song as a pre-curser, this place will bloody explode.”

He hit the wall.

Phew.

A rapid break in the inside right channel involving Mason Mount got us on our toes – the rail seating is excellent at Tottenham, I was able to lean forward on many occasions – but after a messy one-two with Lukaku, the chance was spurned, pardon the pun.

This was a tight game, and the home team were edging it. Havertz looked out of sorts, and on too many occasions Tottenham were able to cut through us. However, the away support was full of all the old favourites which we love to air in this particular part of North London.

“We’re the only team in London…”

“We won 6-1 at The Lane…”

“And the shit from The Lane…”

Alas, the players were not as entertaining. Tottenham managed a few set pieces, but corners were steadfastly headed away by various defenders. It was all a little underwhelming. After Tottenham – players and fans alike – were found to be bellowing at any perceived Chelsea foul or piece of wrong-doing, the noise levels increased. Gary had his usual response.

“Fackinell. More appeals than Blue Peter.”

Kepa saved well at the feet of the raiding Son, and was injured. Thankfully he recovered. Then an errant back-pass by Rudiger had only just been despatched in time by Kepa. Only a couple of shots from distance – wide and blocked – were forthcoming from the Chelsea attack the entire half. Their ‘keeper Hugo Loris had hardly had a shot to save.

That would soon change.

I turned to Gary : “Well, they can’t play as well as that in the second-half.”

I returned a little late at the break and missed the restart.

“Kante on? Who’s off? Mount?”

As much as we all love Mason, he had not enjoyed a great half at all. In came our tigerish tackler to replace him. I couldn’t quite work out how the new addition would fit in alongside Jorginho and Kovacic, but soon into the second-half I didn’t care.

There soon followed a sublime piece of football that had me purring. Thiago Silva pinged a wonderful ball into space for the on-rushing Marcos Alonso. It cut out everyone. A trademark volley at an angle from the left wing-back was superbly saved by the cat-like reflexes of Loris.

“That’s more like it Chels. Come on!”

The Chelsea pressure mounted. A few corners were whipped in just in front of us by that man Alonso. One more corner was then aimed centrally, from the other side of the pitch, and the silver hair of Silva was seen to rise above all those around him and the ball flashed past Loris into the Tottenham goal.

FUCKINGGETIN.

The goal on film, I remained steady to capture his exuberant run towards the Chelsea fans who had now been let loose into a wild orgasmic frenzy of arms and legs, or “limbs” as the kids say. Such joy. Such happiness.

This is why we go to football.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Donna and Rachael suddenly appeared in front of us after having disappeared a few minutes before the break for some bevvies. They had missed the first goal. But they did not miss the second one. Just after Dier blocked a shot from Alonso on the goal-line, a shot from distance from N’Golo – it could only be termed, at its most optimistic, as “speculative” – took a wicked deflection off Dier. The ball spun goal wards, hit the base of the post nearest us, and we watched – eyes on stalks, balancing on toes – as the ball skewed itself over the line and into the goal.

Laugh? I almost bought a round of drinks.

Oh that was beautiful.

“Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happened again.”

Kante looked, of course, so bashful. Bless him.

Just twelve minutes into the second-half, and we were now well on top. The home fans were now completely muted.

The whispering gallery had been moved from inside the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral to the top tier at Tottenham.

One of the many messages flashed all over the LED displays on the balconies at Tottenham mentions the Spurs Skywalk. This takes the unfortunate supporter out onto the roof, where – if they look well – they can just make out the East Stand at Stamford Bridge, the home of the only club in London with not one, but two, European Cups.

I thought to myself :

“Those Tottenham players had best book themselves onto that skywalk. It’ll be the highest they will ever fucking get.”

Kante was everywhere and I mean everywhere. The whole team had been revitalised by his appearance at the start of the second period. Elsewhere, we suddenly had runners, and our attacking performance reached lovely levels.

A lone shot from the hidden, or hiding, Kane was well saved by Kepa. Silva, our man of the match, was foiled by Loris, who was easily the Tottenham man of the match. Yet more saves followed from Alonso – again! – and Timo Werner, a late substitute for Havertz. Lukaku enjoyed a late surge, running centrally on a few occasions at the disillusioned Tottenham defence, twisting and turning, turning defenders’ legs into jelly, Dier and Romeiro pleading for salvation, but Loris foiled both him and Kovacic. The Croatian was one of the stars of that second period. We were on fire.

If it had been the Bernabeu, white handkerchiefs would have been waved.

There was even time for a “Bouncy Bouncy” : how 2013.

Right at the end, with many of the home fans having decided that “enough was enough”, the ball was picked up and Timo Werner did ever so well to pull the ball back for Rudi to pick a corner and drill the ball in.

Tottenham 0 Chelsea 3.

The crowd erupted once more.

There was another ridiculously jubilant run by the scorer to our corner, and with Jorginho absolutely pissing himself, the photos were a joy to snap.

I turned to Gary again.

“We top?”

“Yeah.”

Parky and I met up with PD, who had enjoyed a great view in the back row of our section, and we slowly walked away from the ground. I overheard someone say “three league wins out of three here” – oh, it wasn’t a draw last season? – and maybe it is time to well-and-truly rename the new gaff Three Point Lane.

The Stadium.

The Game.

Us.

Our exit strategy was the same as at Christmas 2019; find a fast-food place for a chicken burger and wait for the crowds to disperse. We caught the 7.48pm train from White Hart Lane back into town, and the carriage was full of moaning Tottenham fans. A heavily made up woman with lips that looked like they had been filled with air was the main noisemaker :

“Right. I’ll say it. Don’t care. We are shit. We just gotta acclimatise ourselves into realising we ain’t that good.”

I looked at PD. Parky looked at me.

I whispered : “She’s got a point.”

Unlike Tottenham.

On we go, Villa next, see you there.

The End.

Tales From The Arsenal Petri Dish

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 22 August 2021.

One weekend. One game on Saturday. One game on Sunday. An FA Cup game on Saturday. A Premier League game on Sunday. Two local derbies. One in Somerset. One in London. One four miles away. One a hundred and fifteen miles away.

Football was back.

This was my first footballing double-header in ages, and one which I was – of course – relishing. At work on the Friday, I could hardly believe my own ears as I repeatedly told colleagues that I really fancied us – “us” as in Chelsea, not Frome Town – to do really well at The Emirates and I genuinely meant it. Whisper it, but I even told a couple that I half-expected us to pump a fair few goals into Arsenal. This sort of over-confidence is rare, especially before an away game and especially at a ground where we haven’t always had it our own way in recent times.

It was with a beautiful feeling that I woke on Saturday morning with a near perfect football weekend ahead of me.

First up, a Frome Town vs. Paulton Rovers FA Cup Preliminary Round game. Last weekend, while I was at Chelsea, a local company sponsored the town’s league opener at home to Highworth Town by giving away free tickets to anybody who fancied it. A fantastic crowd of 867 duly attended; it was the fifth highest league crowd in Frome Town’s one hundred and seventeen year history and I was a little annoyed that I could not be part of it. A 1-0 win followed. I had arranged to meet up with a couple of old school friends for the FA Cup game against the local rivals from Paulton. We were treated to a very entertaining game of football. Frome went ahead with a sublime volley from Rex Mannings early in the game. Yet Paulton moved the ball well and came back into the match with a virtual carbon copy of Marcos Alonso’s sublime free-kick against Palace last weekend. The only difference was that the Frome ‘keeper made an effort to save it. Frome then dug in, and found a new resilience to win the game with two late goals from Jon Davies and James Ollis. The gate was a healthy 398. I even bumped into Glenn at the final whistle; he had strolled in late on after seeing another game across the road.

“See you tomorrow at ten.”

“Tomorrow” duly arrived. I collected PD and Glenn in Frome and set off for London. Unfortunately, Parky had contracted COVID19, quite possibly while at Stamford Bridge the previous weekend, and so was unable to attend. It was Glenn who picked up his ticket. I saw Parky briefly – at distance – during the week to collect the match ticket and the old soldier had been hit hard. But he was improving slightly as the week passed. I had both a Lateral Flow and a PCR Test early in the week; both negative, I was fine.

We were parked up at Barons Court tube station in West London at around 12.30pm. The classic green-tiled interior of the booking hall welcomed us. We always park here for Chelsea away games as its just off the A4. I remarked to PD that we didn’t always have great memories of walking up those steps after away games at West Ham, Arsenal and Tottenham. But I was still supremely confident. And it didn’t even worry me, which was worrying in itself.

Was this just because the returning hero Romelu Lukaku was set to play his first game for Chelsea since his move back to SW6 from Inter? Yes and no. We are already a decent team, but his presence should round off the team very nicely. It would, hopefully, banish the nerds into blathering on about “false nines” into the wilderness for a few seasons too. Bonus.

I saw Lukaku play a handful of times – four starts plus a handful of substitute appearances – in his first spell with the club. His last appearance was as a substitute against Aston Villa on a midweek game in early 2013/14. I chose just one photo to accompany that match report, as was my way in those days (it was in fact the first-ever fresh match report on this site) and it was of him, shielding the ball below me.

I last got up-close and personal with him three weeks later before a league game at Goodison Park. I happened to be outside the main entrance as he arrived in his car after going on loan at the club and I shook his hand and said “have a great season here, then come back to us next season, God bless you.”

He must have misunderstood my sense of urgency.

The three of us joined up with Alan, Gary and Daryl in “The Euston Flyer” not far from St. Pancras. I was gasping so treated myself to one refreshing “Peroni” before getting back onto some “Diet Pepsi”. I felt a bit awkward admitting to the lads that I fancied us strongly later in the day. It was, no doubt, a most un-Chelseaesque feeling. The Southampton versus Manchester United game was on TV. A huge cheer met the Saints’ goal, a lesser cheer for the equaliser. It was Glenn’s first meeting with the three lads from London since Everton at home in March of last year. There were a few Chelsea faces that I recognised in the boozer, conveniently placed before the short hop up to The Emirates.

I wanted to visit Highbury and take a few photos of the old Arsenal Stadium, so excused myself and left at around 3.15pm. Alas, this didn’t go to plan.

I alighted at Highbury & Islington tube and walked up the Holloway Road, but instead of diverting towards Highbury I made the mistake of heading towards The Emirates first – like a moth to a flame – which was a bit silly really. I was soon entrenched in a line at the slope behind the Clock End entrance and soon realised that to visit Highbury, I would have to go back out and then return again, and I wasn’t keen on two security checks.

“Maybe next time.”

We were kept waiting for twenty minutes. I didn’t particularly enjoy being among the replica-kitted Arsenal fans, but I kept quiet and waited in turn for a security pat down. Unlike Chelsea, there was no COVID19 passport check required and, after getting a body check with a scanner, I avoided eye-contact with the team at the “bag check” tables behind and waltzed in through.

Outside The Emirates, as it curves towards the away turnstiles, I could not help but notice that the signage on the stadium wall now looks really faded. Everything is a light pink and not a strong red. Those images of the interlinked Arsenal players seemed lacklustre. It was as if the Arsenal shirts had been washed in the wrong type of detergent. Inside the stadium, even the famously padded seats looked faded too.

The faded glory of a once proud club?

I hoped so.

Of course hardly anyone was wearing face coverings. On the London Underground, a good 95% of passengers were wearing masks. At the football, it was less than 5%.

I looked out at the undulating top tier and the middle tiers awaiting to be filled, then the gentle slope of the bottom tier and wondered about the safety of it all. Was The Emirates a giant petri dish in disguise? How safe were we? Only time would tell.

I bumped into loads and loads. This was the first proper domestic away since Bournemouth in February 2020. Everyone was greeting each other like long lost friends, which is of course exactly what we all were.

I was down in row six, in line with the six-yard box alongside PD, Gary and Alan. This was my fifteenth visit to The Emirates; I have seen every one of our league appearances at the new place, excepting the 2020/21 fixture of course. It must hurt many of those who, unlike me, never miss a game, to have their records blown to smithereens the past year and a half.

Damn you COVID.

We had heard that many Arsenal tickets had not been sold. There were gaps, but not swathes.

The rain that had been expected was thankfully nowhere to be seen. All three of us had left rain jackets in the car.

Our team was announced and it did not surprise me to see Lukaku in and Timo Werner out. A few raised eyebrows at Marcos Alonso in, though.

Edouard

Antonio – Andreas – Dave

Marcos – Jorgi – Mateo – Reece

Kai – Romelu – Mase

Happy with that. Kante on the bench.

Arsenal’s team consisted of a few names that, due to my abandonment of TV football in 2020/21 could easily have been the names of TV repairmen, taxi drivers and hair-dressers. I fucking hoped that they would be playing like them too.

Pre-match, a few Chelsea warm ups from the terrace to get the vocal chords warmed up. Nothing from Arsenal.

Arsenal in an apparent nod to their 1998/99 kit – but looking a little too “Ajax” for my liking – and Chelsea in their Charlie Cairoli hand-me-downs of all blue.

Arsenal, as always, attacked the Clock End in the first-half and were first out of the traps but a shot from Emile Smith-Rowe, the chartered accountant, was easily dealt with by our man Mendy.

Sadly, the gentle rake of the lower tier and the fact that I am a proud short-arse meant that my view of the game was not great at all. I hardly saw any of the action down our right. I saw a lot of the backs of heads, but bugger all else. Only when the ball was in the other two-thirds of the pitch did I see enough. I felt a bit disjointed. At least the rain was holding off.

On a quarter of an hour, the ball was played into Lukaku who touched the ball back to Mateo Kovacic. He then spread the ball out to Reece James and we sensed danger. All eyes were on the wide man, but I suspect that the viewing millions at home were more likely tuned to the run into the box of Lukaku. The ball was played into the six-yard box to perfection and, amidst a bewildered group of window dressers, sous chefs and car mechanics, Lukaku struck.

One-nil to the European Champions.

GETINYOUBASTARDS.

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

Chris : “come on my little diamonds.”

The Chelsea crowd went berserk. Unable to focus on the celebrating players, I turned the camera on us. One image is of a beautiful gurning, exhilarated, beatific, orgasmic mess of humanity.

Ah, the joy of football.

It was back.

With no Chelsea goals in his first period with us, it was our new target man’s first Chelsea goal.

“Romu, Romelu, Romu, Romelu, Romu, Romelu, Romelu Lukaku.”

It is not known what Mateja Kezman nor Fernando Torres were thinking at that exact moment in time.

A header from Lukaku dropped over the bar.

Up the other end, the dance trio Xhaka, Saka and Lokonga combined but Mendy was not troubled.

We were dominating the game and the home fans knew it. The little group next to the away contingent behind the goal were trying to make some noise, but only when a ball was pushed through for the cycle courier to race on did the home crowd make any sustainable racket. Kieran Tierney in front of me seemed to have a lot of the ball but our defence was well marshalled. Efforts on our goal were at a minimum.

On thirty-four minutes, a magnificent move that started on our left but finished on our right, with Reece James free and in space and able to crash the ball past chat show host Leno.

The Chelsea 2 The Arsenal 0.

Magnificent.

I had silly visions of 3-0, 4-0, 5-0.

At that stage it did look possible.

Sadly, in the last ten minutes of the half, the heavens opened. We remained in place, in defiance of the weather. I just had a T-shirt on. I tucked my camera away. I remained stood, and prayed for a respite.

James tangled with Saka. No penalty.

We were playing so well.

But the clouds were darkening overhead and Arsenal’s supporters must have been immersed in the gloom.

“Champions of Europe. We know what we are.”

The rain continued to fall throughout the half-time break and at the start of the second-half. We grimly stood on duty, and at least we were buoyed by a sterling performance from our team. The two goal scorers under Chelsea on the scoreboard were matched by two bookings for Arsenal.

“And when we win the league again, we’ll sing this song all night.”

A fine strike from Saka was tipped over by Mendy. It was his first real test. Were Arsenal equipped for a comeback? They only occasionally hinted that it might be possible.

Lukaku played the ball back to Mason but his shot was dragged wide.

On the hour, head tennis in our box and Holding the sixth-form tuck shop supervisor headed over, though I only saw it on the replay.

A third Arsenal booking, a swipe at the marauding Lukaku.

The rain stopped.

Kante for Kovacic.

The entire Arsenal support : “Fackinell.”

With a quarter of an hour to play, Mount slipped the ball in to a central Lukaku. It was a perfect ball. The striker headed at goal but Leno adjusted so well to tip the ball onto the bar.

A third goal would not have flattered us.

Ziyech for Mount.

Havertz went close.

“The silky German is just what we need. He won Chelsea the Champions League.”

Werner for Havertz.

We saw the game out. Arsenal just missed a cutting edge. They hardly created anything of note. Our lads were excellent and my positive pre-match thoughts were justified. I really enjoyed the physicality of Lukaku. The modern game seems to be drifting inexorably to a “non-contact” sport so there is something gratifying, something that stirs the senses and galvanises emotion, about a good old-fashioned one-on-one battle. It used to happen in midfield in days gone by. Now it tends to be a very rare event. Shades of Drogba and Costa? Oh yes.

We said our goodbyes, and the three from Frome slowly wandered down the Holloway Road before diving into our usual Chinese for a bite to eat.

The drive home was blissful. It was a joy to be back on the road after such a lovely away day.

I pulled in to my drive at just after 10.45pm, and saw the very last of Ian Wright – I think – and his damning assessment of Arsenal’s woes on “MOTD2.”

Next up, another cracking away game.

Liverpool away. Ah, these away days are the best. The absolute best.

Herbert And Some Herberts.

Guns.

Super Dave.

Cross.

Head.

Joy.

Reflections.

Storm Clouds Above.

The Clock End.

Hands.

Out.

Marcos In The Rain.

A Shot Saved.

Serious Business.

Late on Sunday night, I cheekily posted on “Facebook” :

“Catch Us If You Can.”

side note : sadly, the petri dish at Arsenal yielded two further victims to COVID19. Two of my featured pals succumbed to the virus since Sunday and another has lost his voice. I have taken a Lateral Flow Test, and await the result of a PCR too.

Fingers crossed. See you at Anfield? I hope so.