Tales From L4

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 14 April 2019.

We were now in what some call the Business End of the season. The remaining games would quickly sort us out. Could we cling on to a top four position in the league? Could we reach yet another semi-final and another final? Would we, via either route, play Champions League football in 2019/2020? Or would we slump to a meek finish and “only” qualify for another Europa League campaign?

We would soon find out.

I suspect that I am not the only one who was dreading the trip to Anfield, for more than one reason. Liverpool had only lost once in the league all season and were vying for top spot with Manchester City. After the game in 2014 – how can it be almost five years ago? – they were after revenge. All week I kept saying to myself “I’d take a 0-0” draw. A goal-less draw? Too right. One more point for us, and two dropped points for them. And advantage City in the race for the title.

In the build-up to the weekend, a few things really focussed my mind on the game on Merseyside. On Thursday, I spotted that there was going to be a charity match in Dublin the following evening in order to raise funds for Sean Cox, the Liverpool supporter who was so badly injured by some Roma ultras outside Anfield last season. As I mentioned at the time, this awful incident hit home because Sean is the brother-in-law of a friend through work who I have known for sixteen years. My friend’s husband Marty was with Sean on that fateful evening in April of last season, and my friend – a client of ours –  has been giving me updates over the past twelve months of Sean’s – very slow – progress. It was a devastating incident for the whole family. But I have been pleased to hear of steady improvements in recent months. A game involving Liverpool legends and an Irish legends team at the Aviva Stadium was planned. I soon realised why my friend had an “out of office” on her email on Friday. In the evening, I sent her a little text to say that I hope that Sean enjoyed the upcoming game.

By that stage, on the Friday evening, work was behind me for the week and I was on my way to Basingstoke to see China Crisis, sons of Liverpool, once again. But football was still tugging away at my coat tails. As I stopped mid-route for a bite to eat, I checked my phone and saw that Tommy Smith, the former Liverpool captain, had passed away.

Liverpool was certainly starting to dominate the weekend.

After the China Crisis concert, I had a quick chat with Eddie Lundon, one of the band’s original two members, who I have got to know over the past few years through a mutual friend. Ed is a Liverpool season ticket holder and I wondered if he had heard about Tommy Smith. I felt awkward asking about him, in case he had not heard the news. But sad news travels fast and he had indeed heard about Tommy Smith. We chatted briefly and quickly about the Liverpool vs. Chelsea game. On the Sunday, he would be driving back from a gig on the Isle of Wight, thus missing the match. I could tell that he was displeased. He even mentioned it during the gig.

If I had more time after the concert, I would have liked to have shared a story about Tommy Smith with Ed.

A few years ago, Parky and I visited a few local pubs where Ron Harris was guest of honour, on two occasions alongside Peter Bonetti, Bobby Tambling and Charlie Cooke. They were superb evenings. A favourite yarn, told slowly and purposefully by Chopper, involved Tommy Smith. Ever since Emlyn Hughes broke Peter Osgood’s leg in 1966 in a game against Blackpool, the soon-to-be Liverpool defender was never flavour of the month at Chelsea. Apparently, Tommy Smith and Emlyn Hughes never saw eye-to-eye either, even when they were playing alongside each other in the Liverpool team of Bill Shankly in the early ‘seventies. A few years later in a game at Anfield involving Liverpool and Chelsea, Ron Harris “arrived late” as he crunched into Emlyn Hughes and wiped him out completely. While Hughes was writhing around on the floor in agony, and as his Liverpool team mates gathered around offering words of support, Tommy Smith sidled over to our Chopper and whispered these words:

“I’m beginning to like you, Mister Harris.”

He was a hard man, Tommy Smith, and this was praise indeed for our own enforcer.

RIP.

On the Saturday, I had a choice to make. My local team, Frome Town, on a run of three straight defeats, were at home to Hartley Wintney but I simply could not be arsed. I just could not stomach yet another insipid performance, yet another defeat and the inevitable relegation from the division. Even though the game was only four miles away, I stayed at home and cracked on with a few jobs. I have probably watched Frome more this season than any other year, but enough was enough.

Frome lost 1-0.

After eight successive seasons at “Level Seven” in the English football pyramid, relegation was a certainty. I was momentarily sad, but the comparison with Frome and Chelsea was brought into sharp focus. On the following day, I’d be travelling up to Liverpool, a good five-hour trip, and cheering on the boys. There was no way that I would not attend.

I had to be there.

By 9am on Sunday, the Chelsea 3 were on our way to Liverpool 4.

There was a lot of chit-chat between PD, Parky and little old me as I drove up past Bath and onto the M4 and then the M5. The potential trips to Lisbon, Frankfurt and Baku dominated everything. After a while, the jibber-jabber died down a little and I concentrated on getting us safely up to Liverpool. The weather outside was cold, the skies grey. We stopped at Strensham and also Sandbach. There were Liverpool replica kits everywhere. By about 1.30pm, I had reached a car-park right outside Goodison Park at the northern end of Stanley Park. We paid £15 and we were safe. The attendant positioned us right near the gates for a quick getaway.

“Are youse gonna be leaving right on the whistle?”

“Depends if we’re getting thumped.”

“Might be at half-time.”

Gallows humour.

It was odd being so close to Goodison Park on a non-match day. Just like Liverpool Football Club on the main approach to Anfield, up the long steady hill of Utting Avenue, Everton Football Club have decorated every available lamp post with a pennant. Without the need to rush, I had time to notice that there are Archibald Leitch motifs on the royal blue Everton ones and I approved. We had decided to drink at the Thomas Frost pub on Walton Road, a large and charmless Wetherspoons. It was a relatively safe haven, though. We quickly spotted a table of Chelsea fans – no colours, familiar faces, usual suspects – and we joined them. We were joined by a few other Chelsea supporters. Very soon the pub was packed.

90% Liverpool.

10% Chelsea.

But it was fine. There were random outbreaks of Chelsea sings, but none of the home fans were overly intimidating. They had other things on their minds. The Manchester City game was on the TV, and most of the Scousers were subdued. I bumped into Steve, who runs the Connecticut Blues in the US, and it was the first time that I have seen him for quite a few years. He had won a trip over to England – flying into Manchester, two nights in Liverpool, match tickets – along with four others. It was good to see him again.

Welsh Kev arrived on the scene, like me a dedicated driver for the day. While I was existing on “Cokes”, Kev was making use of free coffee-refills. His route up to Liverpool had mirrored ours.

“Loads of Liverpool replica shirts at the services.”

“Tell me about it” I replied.

They love a replica shirt, the Micky Mousers.

At about 3.30pm, we decided to catch a cab from outside the pub up to Anfield, thus saving valuable time. Both Everton’s and Liverpool’s two grounds are covered by the L4 postcode.

L4 Blue to L4 Red.

It sounded like a chess move. And it was all over in a few minutes. The cabbie – another “red” after the two “reds” we used on the day of the Everton match a month earlier – dropped us off on Walton Breck Road. We were now right in the very heart of all things red. I took a photograph of PD and Parky with the gleaming new main stand in the background before they shot off for one last beer in the away end. I took a walking tour around Anfield for the first time since the stadium had its mammoth new addition. I slowly walked past “The Twelfth Man” pub and then approached “The Albert“ pub right outside The Kop. My mind whirled back to last April. This was exactly the spot where Sean Cox was attacked.

I continued walking. The statue of Bill Shankly, fists clenched.

I honestly didn’t mind Liverpool in those days.

As I slowly moved from one vantage point to another, I had presumed that Manchester City had won. There was a noticeably subdued air underneath the towering stands. On some of the signage, there was the usual hyperbole associated with modern football, and with Liverpool Football Club especially. On a sign above an entrance to The Kop, the word “Songs” was crossed out. The word “Anthem” was highlighted instead. Then the words “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Then the words “Not a song. It’s who we are.”

Then the hook line “We are Liverpool. This means more.”

Well, that just didn’t scan.

File under “trying too hard.”

The new stand goes back forever. I can only imagine the amount of corporate hospitality areas entombed within it. The days of the “half-time gate” on The Kop are consigned to history. I remembered that one of the cabbies from last month mentioned to us that his season ticket mentions the word “client number” rather than “supporter number.”

I hate modern football, part 847.

However, I like the way that, instead of acres of steel cladding, much of the façade uses standard red brick, so typical of the local area’s tight terraced streets. I didn’t get a chance to spot the re-positioned Hillsborough Memorial, but I climbed the stairs – presumably a nod towards the terraces of the old Kop – and took a few photos. I walked past the line at the away turnstiles but noted one Liverpool fan shout out –

“You fucking rent boys.”

I – pardon the pun – walked on.

I met up with Eddie’s son Daniel – and my friend Kim – outside the Kenny Dalglish Stand, formerly the Centenary Stand, formerly the Kemlyn Road Stand, God I am showing my age. There was only time for a quick “hello goodbye” before we needed to head off into our respective areas. Eddie and his son have season tickets on the half-way line – a great “speck” in the local lingo –  in the lower tier of the Dalglish Stand. The Shankly Gates – forged in my home town of Frome – have been repositioned outside this stand, having moved from their original position alongside the original Hillsborough Memorial

On the façade of this stand, there was more hyperbole.

The word “badge” was crossed out and the word “honour” was used instead.

Then “for others it’s an emblem. For us, it’s an honour.”

Righty-o.

Time was moving on. I lined up at the away turnstiles. I bumped into some familiar faces. Lads from my local area had tried, like Steve from Connecticut, to get into the usual “Arkles” but for the first time ever it was “home fans only.” I suspect that on this day of all days, on the Hillsborough weekend, the landlord had decided to play it safe. After a quick bag check, I was in. I was tempted to save the green “bag searched” tag for the few Liverpool fans that I know.

“Here’s a souvenir from Anfield, since you fuckers never go these days.”

This would be my twenty-fourth trip with Chelsea in all competitions.

Our record is not great in this cross-section of matches, but better – much better – than it used to be.

Won 5

Drew 6

Lost 12

Our last loss at Anfield was the 4-1 defeat just after the 2012 FA Cup Final win against the same team when nobody could really be bothered. We had loads of empty seats at Anfield that night, a black mark in recent years.

The team?

I almost expected a false nine. It was a show of reticence from Sarri.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilcueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Hazard – Willian

A huge game for our Ruben and our Callum. But a huge game for all of us. I really do not know what Gonzalo Higuain made of Maurizio Sarri’s starting eleven. Higuain was Sarri’s boy. He worked with him at Napoli. I am not sure if the phrase “cherry-picked” is correct, but Sarri chose him above all other strikers in January. And he was on the bench.

The stadium was packed to the rafters. Just before the teams came onto the pitch, the ridiculously deep-voiced Anfield announcer – who has been going for years and years – spoke of Tommy Smith and most Chelsea supporters joined in with a minute of applause.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone” boomed and Chelsea floated the yellow “Chelsea Here. Chelsea There” away flag. Then, the stadium settled and the announcer spoke of Hillsborough.

The teams stood in the centre circle.

Mosaics filled the Dalglish Lower Tier and the entirety of The Kop.

“30 Years – 96.”

Not a word was spoken in that respectful minute by anyone.

For the youngest, Jon-Paul Gilhooley – Steven Gerard’s cousin – aged just ten, to the oldest, Gerard Baron, aged sixty-seven.

For the Hicks sisters.

For Kevin Williams, aged just fifteen, whose mother Anne was such a dominant force in the battle for justice.

For Tony Bland, the last to die, in 1993

For the 96 – RIP.

I have written about the tragedy of Hillsborough before. When I see footage of that day, there are soon tears.

Just one thing to add. Of the ninety-six deaths, only three were over fifty years of age. A staggering seventy-eight were less than thirty years old. Not only does this represent a staggering loss of humanity, of young lives not being able to blossom, but it also marks a snapshot in time, only thirty years ago, when the age of match-going supporters was noticeably younger than today. The average age of those who were killed was around twenty-five. In those days, going to football was a young man’s game. And that last comment was not meant to be sexist. Many more men went to football in those days. Of the ninety-six fatalities, eighty-nine were male.

Football has indeed changed in so many ways since April 15 1989.

The game began. If the key phrase before the match was “I’d take a 0-0 now” then another was undoubtedly “let’s not concede an early goal.”

As with every visit to Anfield, I became obsessed with the discrete clock tucked into the side of the Dalglish Stand. Like at Old Trafford, there are no large TV screens at Anfield, for which I am quite grateful. For all of the off-the-field corporate activity spinning out of control, it is reassuring to see that, at least during the game, it is all about the action on the pitch at these two great stadia in the north-west of England. There are no distractions. Our gaze is centered on the twenty-two players. I like that.

The home team dominated the early possession and a volley from Mo Salah bounced against the turf before nestling in Kepa’s arms. Dave seemed to be a little off the pace at the start but soon improved. After a while we began to build a few attacks. Eden Hazard was the busiest of our forwards, but he tended to plough a lone furrow upfront, often prone to drifting into his favoured inside left channel but with virtually no support. A lone cross from our Callum on the right did not reach anyone. A Hazard shot was easily saved by Alisson at his bear post. The heal of David Luiz thankfully deflected a Jordan Henderson effort wide. We were so close to the action. I watched the faces of the Chelsea defenders at corners. I shared their obvious anxieties.

Toni Rudiger went down and we feared the worst. He went off, then came back on immediately.

Our best chance of the first-half fell to Willian, raiding centrally. He kept moving the ball to his right, and I was begging for a drilled low shot across Alisson into the bottom left, but he kept moving the ball on. His shot spun well clear of the right-hand post. We were then exposed as a Salah sprint down our left was followed by a ball into Sadio Mane’s path, but his shot narrowly whizzed past the post.

Thirty minutes had passed and we were keeping them at bay. Pre-match, there were horrible thoughts of another Manchester City style bombardment. With five minutes of the first-half remaining, Rudi went down again. This time he didn’t move. Sadly, this time there was no miraculous recovery. He was replaced by Andreas Christensen (who some Chelsea fans still think played at Anfield in 2014. It was Tomas Kalas) and he looked a little nervy in the last five minutes of the first-half.

Over in the lower tier of the Dalglish Stand, I couldn’t help but notice something that I always pick up on during most visits to Anfield. In the area closest to the Anfield Road Stand – the one that we were sharing with some home fans – there seemed to be more red on show. My take on this is that in the more central areas of the lower tier, there are more season ticket holders. In the flanks of that stand, there are more “day trippers” (as the Liverpool hardcore calls them) and hence more people prone to visit the club shop and buy scarves, shirts, jackets and hats. I’d imagine that season ticket holders at most clubs tend not to go too overboard with club colours. Of all the stadia in England, I have always thought that this is more noticeable at Anfield than at any other ground.

I was stood with Parky, Gal and Alan. The Chelsea support had been sporadic throughout the first-half. I think we were all too nervous. The home support was certainly nervous. Fifty thousand of them honestly failed to get much of an atmosphere going at all.

There were nerves everywhere.

Right before the break, Kepa stretched late and made a super reflex save, but an offside flag had already been raised. In truth, our ‘keeper had not been as busy as I had perhaps predicted.

We had made it to half-time.

0-0.

“And breathe.”

The general consensus was that we had played reasonably well during the first period. Both Ruben and Callum had shown flashes, but were quiet. Kante and Hazard – no surprises really – had been our standout performers. Jorginho had largely been a bystander with only occasional offensive prods to team mates. The days of us Chelsea supporters singing a song in praise of him, and the manager, are long gone. At the break, I bumped into a Chelsea fan that I know through Facebook, a young lad called Bank, from Thailand, who was at his very first Chelsea away game. He had watched the Chelsea vs. West Ham United game last week and on Saturday was lucky enough to see a Mason Mount hat-trick as Derby County beat Bolton Wanderers 4-0. After the game, he waited to chat with Frank Lampard, and he had a truly wonderful time.

The second-half began. And still Anfield was quiet, so quiet.

The first five minutes passed.

“Let’s get to the hour.”

A minute later, the ball was worked inside our box to Henderson who clipped over a tantalising ball into our six-yard box. Mane rose with no Chelsea defender in sight, let alone touching distance, and his header easily found the net. If Rudiger had been on the pitch, would he have had such am unhindered leap? Perhaps not. He reeled away towards the corner, beneath that damn clock, and Anfield erupted. The noise roared around the stadium now.

One song kept going and going.

“We’ve conquered all of Europe.

We’re never gonna stop.

From Paris down to Athens.

We’ve won the fucking lot.

Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly.

The fields of Anfield Road.

We are loyal supporters.

And we come from Liverpool.

Allez, allez, allez.

Allez, allez, allez.

Allez, allez, allez.

Allez, allez, allez.”

It didn’t reach 2005 levels. But take it from me, it was loud.

It was to get worse. Liverpool hit a purple patch. A cross-field ball from Virgil Van Dijk sent over a cross-field ball to Salah, who cut in past Emerson and unleashed an impeccable laser into the top corner of Kepa’s goal. Anfield erupted again.

Bollocks.

Two goals had been conceded in the first eight minutes of the second-half. What the bloody hell does the fag muncher say to the players at half-time? I’d really like to know.

Gonzalo Higuain replaced our Callum.

Bizarrely, we then hit our best period of the entire game. A fantastic ball from Emerson was beautifully dolloped into the path of Hazard who took one touch and shaped to shoot. I’d say that every Chelsea supporter was poised to leap and scream. A goal looked the only option. Alas, the shot smacked against the base of the right hand post. We were crestfallen. Soon after, Willian clipped in an equally impressive ball into the danger area towards Hazard, but Alisson was able to save.

We then fell away again.

Ross Barkley replaced our Ruben.

Our attacking game petered out, and we rarely threatened the Liverpool goal again despite many Hazard dribbles – he takes a good photo, eh? – and the occasional shot from Higuain and Hazard.

It was not to be.

Liverpool deserved their win. They were more clinical. They were not at their best but they were, evidently, too good for us.

I have this horrible feeling that they might win it this season.

Fackinell.

On Thursday, the road to Baku continues with a home game against Slavia Prague.

I will see some of you there.

 

Tales From Black Saturday

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 24 November 2018.

There was a moment, soon into the second-half I think, when a Chelsea move broke down in a particularly pathetic and unsurprising way. A voice behind me in the lower tier at Wembley loudly bellowed in frustration :

“Come on you cunts!”

I knew that I had to say something, I knew that I could not let the moment pass. I calmly turned around and realised that the voice belonged to a lad in his early ‘twenties. In a quiet voice I spoke.

“They’re not cunts, mate, are they? They’re our players. They’re not cunts.”

There was not much of a reaction from the lad. I think my calmness shocked him a little. Maybe he was expecting a louder or more strident tone. However, a few moments later, the lad was uttering the same phrase.

I turned around again, and repeated virtually the same words all over again.

“I won’t say it again, mate. They’re not cunts.”

At that particular moment in time, with Chelsea losing 2-0 to our arch rivals, but in a stadium which was only two-thirds full, and with the Chelsea fans not exactly rallying behind the team, it all seemed to be rather bleak and grey, if not black. It had been a strange atmosphere from the off. There were yawning gaps in the top tier at Wembley, and despite the home team racing to an early lead, and peppering our goal throughout the first-half, the atmosphere was surprisingly tepid. Where was the red-hot buzz of a London derby? It was hardly in evidence. As the game continued, with very rare moments of the intensity from Chelsea players and fans that we are familiar with, the evening became quieter and quieter. There were only sporadic outbreaks of song. It was a most listless performance from the terraces, but which mirrored that of the team.

But fans calling our players “cunts”? I didn’t get it, and I never have. And I have to say I have heard the same name calling uttered by many Chelsea fans, some too close for comfort. It always makes me squirm. I suspect that my own personal view is not shared by everyone, but I still regard Chelsea players as heroes, as our heroes, as my heroes. We need to support them in their battles against our foes.

Our performance against Tottenham was poor, it was collectively poor, and whose fault that was is hard for me, as an outsider, to fathom. But it has always been my view – “oh you silly, old fashioned twat” – that we can run down our players outside of the ninety minutes, in private, but at the game there needs to be encouragement.

It’s all about supporting the team, right?

Maybe it isn’t.

These days, nothing seems straightforward to me. Or am I over-analysing it all?

I don’t know.

The day had begun as early as 6.30am with an alarm call. My initial thoughts were of concern.

“Hope we don’t get mullered.”

PD, Glenn and I assembled at Frome train station at 7.50am, but soon spotted that our connecting service to Westbury was delayed. Outside, a stranger spotted us looking troubled and asked if we needed a lift to the neighbouring town.

“My husband will be here soon. I am sure we can fit you in the back seat.”

“Oh that is great, thanks” uttered Glenn.

“He’s not a Spurs fan, is he?” I wondered.

We made it in time to Westbury, then waited for Parky to join us at Melksham. He has had a testing time since we last all met up a fortnight ago. After his fall at half-time against Everton, he was diagnosed with having a fractured eye socket, and was quite bruised. Then, last weekend he lost his father at the grand age of ninety. But nothing keeps Parky down. He is as resilient as they come.

On the train to Paddington, we were sat opposite a woman in her sixties who was from Bristol, and a Spurs supporter. The look on her face when we told her that we were a) going to Wembley and b) Chelsea fans was priceless. We had a good old chat as we headed east. I had to confine my thoughts to myself when she admitted that she followed Manchester United when she was younger. Originally from Ireland – the north, I believe, her accent was very feint, only hinting at its origin – she admitted that it was almost expected of you to be a United fan if you came from Ireland. I blame George Best.

She feared for Tottenham against us.

“We haven’t been playing well and we’ve got players out.”

This made me a little more optimistic.

We had all said that we would settle for a point among ourselves.

There was talk of Roman Abramovich – she spoke with a rather bitter tone, what a surprise – and also talk of Tottenham finding it hard to compete against teams with “sugar daddies.”

We arrived in Paddington, under the impressive curves of the station roof, with an expectant air.

There is something about arriving in London by train.

Maybe my grandfather and Ted Knapton walked on that exact same platform in the ‘twenties on their way to Stamford Bridge.

I had planned another pre-match pub-crawl, centered on The Strand, and which I had been looking forward to, possibly even more than the football, for ages.

Since the last Chelsea match, England have taken centre stage, but not in my life. I have to admit that I have still not seen a single second of the games against the US and Croatia. Last Monday, I did not even know England were playing Croatia until someone in the US mentioned it on Facebook. Instead, as with the previous international break, I took in two Frome Town games. On the Saturday, I drove up to London to see the game against the Metropolitan Police – we lost 2-1 – and on the subsequent Tuesday, I watched as Frome lost 2-1 at home to the wonderfully named Swindon Supermarine.

My travels around the south of England with Frome occasionally involve a Chelsea connection – Nick Crittenden and Dorchester Town as an example – but my visit to Imber Court in East Molesey last weekend reunited me with three Chelsea stalwarts, and nobody was more surprised than me. As soon as I arrived at the home of the Met Police, I took a photograph of the two imposing floodlights at the covered end of the stadium. I posted the photograph on “Facebook.” Quick as a flash – the wonders of modern communication – my friend Neil, from nearby Walton On Thames but watching England play cricket in Sri Lanka, commented that the floodlights previously belonged to Chelsea.

I quickly gazed up at them and my mind did summersaults and cartwheels back through time to picture them standing proud at Stamford Bridge. These three ladies of the night – legs splayed, how brazen – were, I guessed, from the West Stand side, the last three to exist. The fourth one at Imber Court was a poor relation, a single spindle. I joked with some Frome pals that this last insipid one was from Loftus Road.

While Frome laboured on the pitch, often my gaze wandered to my left and I spent more than a few moments lost in thought as I imagined the sights that the two “ladies” had witnessed over the years at Stamford Bridge. I could so easily have been unaware of the link with Chelsea.

Yet there was more. Behind the goal to my right were a few football pitches. And I recognised the houses in the background from Chelsea magazines and programmes in the ‘seventies. I knew that we had trained at East Molesey – after Hendon, after Mitcham, before Harlington – and here it was. I wondered if the Chelsea players used the changing facilities in the Imber Court clubhouse. Just like Everton at Bellfield and Liverpool at Melwood, I always thought it odd that normal houses overlooked the players of Chelsea Football Club as they trained at Mitcham and East Molesey in the ‘seventies. Everything is under lock and key these days, behind security gates and put of reach.

After a bite to eat at Paddington, we began our march through London with a pint on the River Thames, on the Tattershall Castle, moored on the north bank of the river near Charing Cross.

“The only other time I have been here was with my Italian mate Mario before we saw Leverkusen win against Tottenham at Wembley two years ago. What a night that was.”

I was clearly looking for good luck omens.

We then walked to “The Ship & Shovel”, even closer to Charing Cross. This was the best pub of the day and quite unique; it straddles a narrow passageway, so looks like two separate pubs. We settled in the smallest of the two bars, and awaited the appearance of our good mate Dave, who we had not seen at Chelsea for the best part of two years. Dave now lives in France, and was back on a rare weekend to see friends and family. It was a joy – to use his lovely turn of phrase – to see him once more. He is now a father, and there is a magnificent Chelsea story here. Jared was born an hour or so before our Championship-winning game at The Hawthorns in 2017.

What a great sense of timing.

We had a blast in that little bar. It was fantastic to see him again. Dave was really pleased to see me; I owed him thirty quid. From  there, we walked up to the Coal Hole – a favourite of ours.

“Last time we were here? Before the 2-1 win against Tottenham two years ago.”

“You and your omens.”

Outside, there were Christmas shoppers, and a distinct chill to the air. It was a magical few hours.

From there, “The Lyceum”, “The Wellington”, “The Coach & Horses” and “The Marquis Of Anglesey.”

All of the pubs were full, and we were having a blast.

Seven pubs and another gallon of lager.

Happy daze.

Throughout all of this, we were sadly aware that Glenn and Dave did not have match tickets, such is the clamour for away tickets, and for Tottenham away tickets especially. But the day was all about meeting up and having a giggle. And a giggle we certainly had.

While we left Dave and Glenn to find a pub to watch the game on TV, PD, Parky and I nipped into a cab which took us to Marylebone and, from there to Wembley.

It’s all a bit of a blur to be honest.

Then a little tale of bad luck, maybe another omen. On the train to Wembley, I learned that a friend had two spare tickets, but time was moving on and there was no way to sort it all out. Glenn and Dave had been left stranded in the West End. There was no way they could reach Wembley in time. I received a text from another friend – a Chelsea fan visiting from LA, match ticket in hand – who had missed out on getting a train to London because someone had plunged in front of a train.

Another – hideous – omen.

We reached the away section at Wembley on a cold and dark evening in good time for once. There were handshakes with many in the concourse.

Parky and I met up with Alan and Gary near the corner flag, only a few rows from the front. To our immediate right was the aisle where we had rigorously and feverishly celebrated Marcos Alonso’s late winner – “oh look, there’s Parky’s crutch” – last August.

The teams soon appeared and Chelsea were oddly dressed in yellow.

The size of the gaps in the upper tiers shocked me. Red seats everywhere. It seems that the “thrill” of playing at Wembley has lost its appeal for Tottenham, but of course there must be a great deal of frustration felt about the lingering problems with their new stadium.

I shudder to think how our support might haemorrhage if we have to move to Wembley for three, four, five years.

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Morata – Hazard

Being only four or five rows from the front, my viewing position was poor. With the fumes of alcohol wafting around me, I knew that I was in for a tough time watching, and appreciating the finer points of what could turn out to be a fast paced game.

I need not have worried.

The football soon sobered me up.

Within just over a quarter of an hour, we were 2-0 down and we were fully expecting more goals to follow. After just eight minutes, Eriksen zipped in a free-kick which was headed in by Dele Alli. We watched silently as he celebrated in our corner. But I watched the fans in the home section, around twenty yards away; they didn’t seem ecstatic, and it shocked me. There were a few fist pumps, but it was all pretty tame.

Spurs were on fire to be honest – it hurts me to say – and were causing us all sorts of problems. A shot over, then a great save from Kepa.

“COME ON CHELSEA. GET IN THE FACKIN GAME.”

On sixteen minutes, the ball broke to Harry Kane, outside our box. With what seemed like virtually no back lift, he drilled a shot into the corner of our goal, low and purposeful. Kepa appeared unsighted and was motionless. Only at half-time – with Alan alongside me incandescent – would it become apparent that David Luiz moved to get out of the path of the ball.

The Spurs fans roared again, but there was not an almighty din befitting a 55,000 or 60,000 crowd.

We had a couple of chances, and I noted a slightly improved attitude. The Chelsea fans in the lower tier tried to get behind the team. There were small signs of recovery.

But we had to rely on Kepa to keep us in it. Another fine save – a quick reflex palm away – was roundly applauded.

Up the other end, at last a shot worthy of the name.

Hazard forced a save from Loris.

There were penalty claims, but the action was so far away…

There were long faces at the break.

Time for a few more photographs.

The second-half began and a shot from Willian was deflected over. We looked a little livelier and the away fans responded. But any thoughts of a Chelsea reaction to such a poor first-half were extinguished just ten minutes into the second period.

To my utter bewilderment / frustration / disbelief, Son was able to waltz through our defence like a hot knife through butter. His low shot was destined to go in.

Tottenham Hotspur 3 Chelsea 0

Oh bloody hell.

This was turning into a very dark day.

I thought back to our set up last season at Wembley against them. An extra shield in the middle with Kante, Bakayoko and Luiz, all superb on the day.

This season, we looked so lightweight.

The manager decided to change things a little. Ross Barkley replaced the ineffective Mateo Kovacic and Pedro replaced Morata. We were now playing without a spearhead, with the three diminutive attackers asked to swarm in and around the Spurs box. But Barkley impressed me straight away. His physical presence alone seemed to stiffen our midfield. Kante tried his best to win tackles and get things moving. But we then drifted a little and the game seemed lost.

With half an hour still to go, I looked around and saw many empty red seats in our section.

Respect to those who stayed to the end.

Funny how we take the piss out of Tottenham – especially – when they leave early and yet we do exactly the same.

Here we go again – “oh you silly, old fashioned twat” – but that isn’t what being a Chelsea fan is all about is it?

Is it?

The game continued.

Apart from the occasional song of defiance from myself and a few others, the noise dwindled in our end. But I have to say the home end was pretty quiet too. It was such a strange atmosphere.

Tottenham had a couple of chances to extend their lead. Thankfully no goals followed. With fifteen minutes to go, Sarri replaced Willian with Olivier Giroud.

With five minutes remaining, a cross from Dave was met with a high leap by the Frenchman and the ball was headed down and into the Tottenham goal. I didn’t even bother celebrating. Nobody did.

From memory, it was a little similar to the very first Chelsea goal I saw scored; an Ian Hutchinson header against Newcastle United in 1974; “up and downer” as it was described in the following game’s programme.

A Pedro goal – alas not, he blazed it over – would have made things a little interesting, but not for the hundreds of fans who had decided to head home before the final whistle.

Any ridiculous fantasies about the most improbable and unwarranted comeback in living memory amounted to nothing. At the final whistle – “see you Thursday” – we knew we were lucky that it had been kept to 3-1.

In the concourse, I met up with my good mate Andy from Nuneaton, who was at the game with his daughter Sophie. The frustration was there. We exchanged words. We weren’t happy. It had been a truly pitiful performance. Without heart. Without fight. It was so reminiscent of the 3-0 drubbing at Arsenal in 2016.

“I’m a big Conte fan, Andy. He’s a winner. We won the league, we won the Cup. Not good enough. Sacked.”

“I’m not convinced about this bloke, Chris. What has he won?”

“I keep hearing that the players are all very happy in training. All well and good. We play nice football. But sometimes you have to have players who can mix it.”

“He’ll be gone, mate. Even if someone like Allegri came in and won the league his first season, but then finished third the next, he’d be off too.”

We smiled and shook hands.

“Take care, mate.”

The only plus point was that there was hardly a line at the train station. We were soon on the over ground train back to Marylebone, back to Paddington, back to Bath, back to Westbury, back to Frome, eventually at 12.45am.

Of course, the words that Andy and I shared in the eastern concourse at Wembley on Saturday evening were emotive and no doubt reactionary. But they summed up our immediate post-game frustrations. And I have witnessed the reactions of many supporters since the game finished. My thoughts are still being formed as I write.

There are those who say that Sarri is another Scolari.

There are those who say that our football this season is akin to The Emperor’s New Clothes.

There are those who say he needs time to shape a team in his own style.

Many bemoan the use of N’Golo Kante in his current role.

For the first real time this season, the tide of opinion is turning on Jorginho.

I will be honest. I still haven’t warmed to Maurizio Sarri and I can’t even really explain why that is.

I am sure he is a decent man, but I am still trying to work him out.

There just seems to be too many square pegs in too many round holes at the moment. Parts of our play this year have been excellent, but mainly against weaker teams. I am still trying to work out if our generally good run of results is due to the largely fine players that we have at our disposal or the result of this new methodology. To me, and a few others, there have been times when our play hasn’t been too dissimilar to the last campaign.

My thoughts on this season are rather confused and incomplete.

Like Sarri, I need time to work it all out.

 

 

In Memorium

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Richard Garry Parkins 1929 to 2018

 

Tales From Five From Five

Chelsea vs. Cardiff City : 15 September 2018

During the recent international break, England played matches against Spain on Saturday 8 September and against Switzerland on Tuesday 11 September. On both of those days, I did not see a single kick of the England games. Instead I chose to attend my local team Frome Town’s FA Cup matches against Winchester City, first at home – a 1-1 draw – and then the subsequent replay – a 1-2 loss – and that just about sums up my feelings about international football in the current climate. I would rather make the effort in supporting my local team, pay the money at the turnstiles, travel to games, feel connected, than gormlessly gawp at the international game in a rowdy pub full of people who would probably annoy me no end.

I feel like I am the footballing equivalent of a music lover with one of those yellow “Keep Music Live” badges on his rucksack.

To me, in 2018, football is all about the live experience.

And it always has been, ever since I was bitten by the bug – I hope there is no cure – in March 1974, at Stamford Bridge.

Or maybe even earlier still.

With help from my fellow Frome Town friend Steve, we worked out recently that my first Frome Town game was in the autumn of 1970, when I was aged just five.

Another game is worth talking about too.

In around 1971 or 1972 – I can’t be certain – my village team Mells and Vobster United won the Mid-Somerset League and I can vaguely remember watching the championship-decider on the Saturday. At school on the Monday or Tuesday, I was to learn that the team were to take part in the “Cup Final” at nearby Stoke St. Michael on a weekday evening. I can vividly remember excitedly pleading with my parents to take me to the game. My mother would undoubtedly have said, in that time honoured fashion, “wait until your father comes home”, as she prepared my tea after school. I can honestly remember saying the phrase “everyone is going to be there” – knowing full well that I was exaggerating somewhat – and then managing to persuade my father to drive the five or six miles towards the Mendip Hills to the nearby village, which was chosen as a neutral venue. There is no doubt that I would have taken my ball with me – I went everywhere with my white plastic football – and I can certainly remember the sense of pride and involvement in seeing my team at an away game. I can’t remember the opposition. But I am sure that Mells won the game, and hence “the double.” It is a memory which has remained with me for decades. It is, I am sure, where my passion of seeing live football, and supporting my team, was born.

Sadly, after a proud history of one-hundred and thirteen years, Mells and Vobster United are no more. Last season was their final tilt at glory. The news really saddened me. My grandfather played for the village team in the 1920’s, and I played a smattering of games for the reserves from 1978 to 1981. I always remember my first game, when I was only thirteen – playing against men more than twice my age – and being full of pride when I told my parents about it when I returned home. I had just shown up at “the rec” with my boots and my ball on a Saturday afternoon just intending to watch from the side-lines. The manager asked me if I fancied coming on as a “sub” during the game. I was not a very confident footballer – I would eventually slide out of the school first team and into the dreaded “B team” later that season – but I jumped at the chance. Fifty years after my grandfather represented the village, I was playing too. It was against Ashwick and Binegar. But there is no fairy-tale ending; I am sure that we lost.

At the end of May, I retraced my steps and stood for a few solitary minutes behind one of the goals at Stoke St. Michael’s football pitch, and my mind cartwheeled back to around forty-seven years earlier when my footballing journey had taken a massive step. It was the first time that I had been back since that evening with my parents – in Dad’s green Vauxhall Viva, and my football – and it was, of course, such a bittersweet moment.

This football life, eh?

Visits of Cardiff City to Stamford Bridge do not come around too frequently. This would only be the fifth time that I would be seeing “The Bluebirds” play at Stamford Bridge. And as the saying goes, you never forget your first time.

On the second day of October in 1976, a Chelsea team which included old hands Peter Bonetti, David Hay and Charlie Cooke, plus a smattering of youngsters including both Ray and Graham Wilkins met the visiting Cardiff City. For once, Ian Britton didn’t fill the number seven berth; that position was filled by Brian Bason.  Stalwarts of that promotion-winning campaign Ken Swain and Ray Lewington scored as we won 2-1 in front of a healthy 28,409. Lewi – recently assistant manager to Roy Hodgson at England –  didn’t score many, but his goal was a net buster from 30 yards. I can distinctly remember watching the action from the lower tier of the East Stand, with me peering over at the sizeable following from South Wales. I can definitely recollect punches being thrown at the Cardiff fans as they attempted to get at the waiting Chelsea fans as we walked past the old North Stand entrance after the game. I remember my father telling me –

“Always rough, that Cardiff lot.”

The match highlights – of which there were more than these three minutes – appeared on that evening’s “Match of the Day” with the trainspotter-esque squeals of John Motson accompanying the action.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sxspfc1NzBY

Since then, our meetings have been rare. I first saw Pat Nevin in a Chelsea shirt on a windswept and rainy Saturday afternoon at Stamford Bridge in 1983. There was no TV coverage of that game, so no match action is available, although there are a few grainy images of both sets of fans running at each other outside the North Stand – once again – on the internet – from a news programme – should anyone feel the need to get nostalgic. My next Cardiff game was the notorious 2010 Cup game, when hundreds of hours of film of the various members of the Soul Crew and the CHH – or the 388 as they are now apparently known – bouncing towards each other on the Kings Road and elsewhere resulted in banning orders for many.

The 2013 league game at Stamford Bridge – the season when Vincent Tan became public enemy number one in Cardiff for his desire to kit out the team in red and black rather than blue and white – passed without incident. I am no fan of Cardiff City – why should I be? – but at least their fans have the pleasure of seeing their team in the hallowed top flight wearing the correct colours this season.

In 2018, a sunny day in September welcomed both teams, and supporters, to Stamford Bridge once more.

In the build-up to the game – drinks in the Famous Three Kings and The Goose – I had unfortunately spotted a few people wearing the new third kit. Apparently, this design is meant to pay some sort of – non-ironic – homage to the tangerine and graphite kit from 1994 to 1996.

They have done a great job.

They have referenced the worst fucking Chelsea kit ever with a messy and insipid tribute.

Up close, the images of “Landon Tahn, Fackinell” are out of focus and made my eyes hurt.

It’s bloody shocking.

But Nike have surpassed themselves this season. The even more ridiculous checked warm-up gear featuring blue, red and white squares, is truly horrific. I wonder if it was intended to confuse the opposition by making their eyes twist out of shape.

Modern Football…you know the rest.

Amidst all of these negatives, a word of praise for the match programme this season. It is now £3.50, but seems a lot more stylish. There is a spine – like the European ones of recent memory – and the covers have a certain gleam to them. The cover for the Cardiff game features a stylised photograph of Kepa Arizabalaga, with an image akin to that of a sporting poster from the former Eastern Bloc, all angles and strength.

I approve, anyway.

There was no surprise that the boyos from Cardiff, the valleys and the Vale of Glamorgan took their full three thousand. But there was just one flag; the red, white and green of Wales with the legend Llanishen Bluebirds.

Over on the East Stand, a banner – from the West Ham game in March – remembered Ray Wilkins – RIP – who would have been 62 on Friday. A nice touch.

Maurizio Sarri made the slightest of changes to the team that had defeated Bournemouth; in came Olivier Giroud for Alvaro Morata and Pedro replaced Willian.

Yet more nonsensical flames and fireworks went with the entrance of the teams.

Good fucking grief.

The game began, and the Welsh legions were in good voice. Thankfully, we did not have to wait too long for the home support to get going, even though the noise was hardly stratospheric. We dominated the early moments, and Cardiff were happy to sit back and soak it all up. A Giroud header dropped onto the roof of the net. We kept moving the ball, with much of the play coming down both flanks. For two defenders, both Alonso and Azpilicueta certainly found themselves in high areas on many occasions. Another chance came and it was an Alonso cross which was headed wide by that man Giroud.

A leaping Bamba wasted a good chance from close in, misdirecting a header down rather than on target. Sadly, we did not heed this warning sign. A long cross from a free-kick found Morrison who easily out-jumped the back-peddling Alonso, who was the wrong side of his man. The ball was headed into the six-yard box, and the Chelsea defenders looked startled as the ball dropped. The tall Bamba pounced, nipping in to cause havoc amidst our defence. We looked as ill-equipped to counter the threat of high balls into our box as Amish kids at a gaming show.

The net rippled and the Welsh legions roared.

Bollocks.

“One nil to the sheepshaggers” sang the Cardiff City supporters.

Alan noted, and I agreed, that the shock of a goal conceded woke up both players and supporters alike. There was now a real sense of urgency from both.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

The stadium woke up.

We struck at Cardiff’s goal via Hazard and Kovacic. Our play improved. When needed, N’Golo Kante would shine. In exact copy of what happened against Bournemouth, he chased an attacker down from his usual right-midfield berth to a position just in front of the left-back Alonso. He accomplished it with such a minimum of effort that it had me purring.

What a player.

A curling effort from Pedro went close. Our chances were piling up. Pedro again, at his best, twisting and turning, leaving defenders in his wake.

My friend Rick, in Iowa, has a great nickname for Pedro.

“El colibri.”

The hummingbird.

It is a perfect description.

Yet another effort from Pedro.

Surely a goal would come.

Twenty minutes after the Cardiff goal, we watched a beautiful move develop. A Rudiger pass was left by Hazard so that Giroud could collect. A divine touch from the centre-forward played in Hazard. A delicious feint – “see you later, a bientot” – gave him space to move away from a marker.

As he broke on goal, my mind leaped into gear.

“Come on Eden. You are a fantastic player. But you are not a great goal scorer. To move on, to improve, to become an even better player, you need to get more goals. Come on. Score this.”

He drilled a low drive into the goal, as perfect a finish as there could ever be.

Chelsea were back in the game.

Just before half-time, we worked an opening down their right, and a subtle touch again by Giroud allowed Hazard to poke a ball home, albeit off a luckless Cardiff defender.

We were in front.

“YYYYYEEEEESSSSS.”

Tidy.

As the second-half began, with Chelsea attacking our end at the Matthew Harding, I fully expected more chances and more goals. After just five minutes, Mateo Kovacic – injured – was replaced by Ross Barkley, who immediately looked keen and involved.

After the constant activity in the last moments of the first-half, the second half took a while to warm up.

Cardiff rarely threatened our goal. But for all of our possession, we struggled to get behind their defence. As the game wore on, I kept thinking “2-1 is not enough.”

We needed that elusive third goal.

David Luiz, on more than one occasion, looked rather lackadaisical. How much better a player would he be with John Terry alongside him?

Pedro created some space and curled one wide. Then another from Pedro squirmed wide.

With twenty minutes remaining, Peds was replaced by Willian, and there was a hearty show of support for our little Spaniard.

The clock-ticked on.

A low shot from Reid narrowly missed the framework of our goal.

We again found it hard to create anything of any substance. Our chances all seemed to come in that first-half. We still bloody needed that third goal.

With ten minutes remaining, Willian charged into the box, but was scythed down by Bamba. A penalty was an easy decision for the referee to make.

Jorginho handed the ball to Eden.

Eden gave the Cardiff ‘keeper the eyes and planted the ball in the corner.

A hat-trick for Hazard.

Glorious.

A minute later, Willian created some space for himself and – despite a bobbling ball – crashed a fantastic curling effort past the hapless ‘keeper and into the goal.

His run towards us was just too good an opportunity to miss.

Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.

There was even an impromptu Brazilian dance-off twixt Willian and Luiz, all under the disbelieving gaze of Rudiger.

Late on, there was a fine full length save from Arizabalaga, but in truth the young lad had not really been troubled during the second-half.

There was more raucous applause as Davide Zappacosta replaced Eden Hazard, who had undoubtedly been the star of the show. His dribbles have always made us dribble, but on this occasion, his goals had been a very welcome addition to his armory.

So, another 4-1 win for Chelsea at home to Cardiff City; the same result as in 2010 and in 2013. They must be sick of us.

With Liverpool winning at Spurs 2-1, we needed that extra goal to prise our way onto the top of the pile.

Perfect.

I looked back on the game. The visitors were a poor team, but we had to persevere to get past them. Five wins out of five is a very fine start to the season, but I am not getting carried away at all with any of it. We still look frail defensively, while we honestly have not been tested by any of the tougher teams yet. I will reserve judgement for a few more matches.

No trip to Greece for me this upcoming week; stay safe those of you who are making the pilgrimage.

Next up for me is our away fixture in Deepest East.

See you there.

 

Tales From The Mischief And More

Norwich City vs. Chelsea : 6 January 2018.

The Cup.

This would be my second F.A. Cup game of the season. My first was back in September when I drove the three hours down to the edge of Dartmoor to watch Frome Town narrowly edge a 2-1 win against Tavistock Town. I thoroughly enjoyed myself on that occasion in deepest Devon, despite getting well-and-truly drenched. Tavistock drew around 350 for that game, much higher than their usual gates, and it is an anomaly how some cup games capture the imagination of the fans and some simply don’t. As ever, Frome Town let me down in the next round with a meek loss at Heybridge Swifts in Essex. There would be no Frome Town versus Chelsea match this season…

The Host City.

On each of my previous visits to the Norfolk city of Norwich, I have always been taken by its charms; the castle, the cathedral, its history, its pubs, and the close proximity of its football club to its tight city centre. However, it involves a five-hour drive from our homes in the West of England.  On our last visit two seasons ago, I can remember saying to the lads that it was the sort of place that I could quite happily visit every other season. So, we have to be thankful that Norwich City managed to get themselves relegated during the 2015/2016 season, and that our names were drawn out of the hat for our first tie in this season’s FA Cup campaign. And like our last visit – a nervous game in which we had marked the tenth anniversary of Peter Osgood’s passing with banners before the match – we had soon decided to stay the night in a local hotel.

The Drive East And North.

On the long drive, there was much to discuss. I had collected PD at 7am, and we were then joined by Young Jake and Oscar Parksorius. For the first part of the journey, we chatted about the acquisition of Ross Barkley from Everton for the relatively modest sum of £15M. Long-time followers of this blogorama will know how I have always rated him. I always like the way he seemed to burst forth from midfield with the ball, in the style of Paul Gascoigne, seemingly equally confident with both feet. It is a slight cliché to say it, but he is great box-to-box player, with a good eye for a shot. Yes, of course, we need strengthening elsewhere in the squad, but I count it as some fine business by the club. In a nutshell, I like him as a player because he excites me on the ball. This can’t be said of some others. Let’s hope he regains his fitness and becomes a valued part of our squad.

As I ate up the miles, there were periods of grey and overcast weather, interspersed with a few bursts of sunshine attempting to break through. We passed through the flat lands of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk, and I admired the subtle shades of winter. Jake was full of questions about the city, its football club and previous visits. I mentioned Norwich City’s old ground, which was called “The Nest” and involved several hundred spectators perching on a high bluff which overlooked the ground and its low-level stands. We reached Norwich just after midday, booked into our hotel – time for a quick lager while we waited for a cab – and then headed into the city.

The Mischief.

I had done my homework. I had prepared a little pub-crawl for the four of us along a fifty-yard stretch of Wensum Street, which would hardly tax us on a day which was allegedly going to turn colder as the night fell. First up was the beautifully named “The Mischief” which dated from 1599. Although the Fleetwood Town vs. Leicester City game was being shown on a TV above our heads, we paid it little attention. This was Jake’s first-ever night away following the team. The banter soon started flying around. This was footballing heaven. There was nowhere on Earth I would rather have been than in the wooden paneled, wooden floor boarded rickety bar of The Mischief.

The Ribs Of Beef.

After an hour, we marched over the bridge spanning the River Wensum and entered the next pub on the itinerary, “The Ribs Of Beef.” Another lovely boozer, a little more opulent than the previous one, which was rather basic. I spotted a couple of familiar Chelsea faces. Within a few minutes, we were spotted too; Goggles from the Fulham OB, alongside his partner in crime from the Norwich Constabulary, popped in and engaged in a little banter with us.

“Not expecting any trouble are, you?”

“Not really. Just the weight of numbers of the away support warrants us being here.”

Indeed. Over four-thousand Chelsea fans would be attending the game at Carrow Road, which sits alongside a stretch of the same river a mile or so downstream. And the home club, eager to entice as many fans as possible had cut the admission price to just £15 and £10 for Old Age Parkys.

What a deal.

A couple more pints, the trusted “Peroni” this time, went down very well. Parky and I chatted to a couple of Norwich fans and we asked them a few questions about “The Nest.” I was impressed that Parky had evidently done some background reading ahead of the trip and was able to name the streets where the old ground had been based, which was relatively near the city’s train station. Jake was lapping all of this up. It was a shame to move on, but we edged a few yards closer to the city centre and entered the next pub.

The Lawyer.

“The Lawyer” was a larger boozer, and I was surely pleased that the place was far from rammed. We chatted to some local Chelsea fans – members of the Eastern Blues – and they made us very welcome. More pints of Peroni followed. The laughter was now bouncing off the walls. We rounded things off with a short apiece and then bundled ourselves out into the night at just before 5pm. It had been four hours of heaven and, after a couple of very hectic days of work for me, just what the doctor had ordered. Of course we all love the buzz of a rarely-visited city, a few beers, good friends, and football.

Carrow Road.

The football stadium is thankfully not far from the city centre. We strolled down the main drag – Prince of Wales Road – past a few less-inviting bars and boozers. At the bottom of the gradual slope was a pub called “The Compleat Angler” – as ever, full of Chelsea – and there were around a dozen police outside. We walked on, and made it to the away turnstiles with around ten minutes to spare. Like most English stadia, Carrow Road has been overhauled since the ‘eighties. It’s a neat enough stadium. It has a hotel wedged up against one of its corners, with some rooms overlooking the pitch. Our section, as ever, was along the side of the stadium, in its newest structure, a single-tiered stand opposite the tunnel. I looked around. The place was almost full. A section of seats in a corner stand were empty, not sure why. I soon joined the others in the front row, where there was a stretch of around twelve unused seats. Unlike at The Emirates on Wednesday, where my vantage point was down low but behind the goal, I really enjoyed the view from the front row at Norwich. We really were in prime seats. The teams entered the pitch and as the players warmed up, I scanned the team.

Caballero

Rudiger – Luiz – Cahill

Zappacosta – Drinkwater – Bakayoko – Kenedy

Willian – Batshuayi – Pedro

Norwich City were in their usual yellow and green. Chelsea, for reasons known only to those who drew up the sponsorship deal with Nike, were in the grey of the third kit. Am I the only person who thought that it was ridiculous for us to be playing a night game alongside the misty banks of the River Wensum in not only a mid-grey kit, but one which had a vague camouflage pattern hideously stenciled into its weave? If the players then found it difficult to spot team mates, it is hardly bloody surprising.

The First-Half.

We were soon treated to a few rousing choruses of “On The Ball, City” by the home fans, and the Chelsea support rallied a loud rendition of “Antonio.” Over on the far side, the Chelsea manager, bedecked in the bright blue of a Chelsea tracksuit, was easily spotted. His players, in a turgid first-half, encountered problems in spotting each other, camouflage or not. A Danny Drinkwater shot was hardly worthy of the name as both sides struggled to get much cohesion. After almost half-an-hour came the game’s first real shot of note, with Alex Pritchard, the liveliest player on the pitch, striking after a mishap by David Luiz.  Fair play to the home team; all of their players were covering ground, tracking back, and closing space as if their lives depended on it. Down in the front row, I was in a little world of my own, trying to encourage the players with individual shouts to those within earshot, while thankfully not being restrained by the stewards as I took many a photo. Down low, yards away, you really get an appreciation of the pace of the game these days.

And then, I was confused as to why some of the Chelsea support behind me were “ironically” cheering each consecutive pass. I knew I had enjoyed a few beers in the pre-match pre-amble, but what was all that about? I was to later learn that this pathetic sarcasm was aimed at Tiemoue Bakayoko.

That is just shocking.

I thought that the whole point of being a supporter was to support the team. Or is that a notion that is highly camouflaged these days too?

At the half-time whistle, there was much wailing. This had been, I hate to say it, a tepid game of football. Frustration among our support had increased as the game had continued. Willian and Pedro had tried their best to inject a little urgency into our game, but our play was so slow. Service to the isolated Batshuayi had been almost non-existent.

1984 And All That.

The highlight of the half-time break took place in the gents.

Let me rephrase that.

While everyone was grumbling about the ineffective performance on the pitch, I recognised a face from the past and the far-distant past at that.

“You’re Dave, aren’t you?”

“Hello, mate!”

Dave used to sit alongside Alan, Glenn, Leggo, Swan, Stamford, Rich, Simon, Mark and little old me in the back row of The Benches in 1983/1984 and 1984/1985. As memory serves, I last saw him at the away game in Barcelona in 2000, and – certainly – before that at the Luton Town semi-final at Wembley in 1994. It was fantastic to see him again. I walked him up to see Alan, who was sat a few yards away from us. We planned a get-together at the Leicester City game the following weekend. Be prepared for some “then and now” photographs.

The Second-Half.

The game continued. A few half-chances came and went, but our spirits were not flying high up in the sky. Norwich themselves threatened but Caballero’s goal was not really troubled. To his credit, Willian kept plugging away in that way of his, and although our general standard of play increased, we found it impossible to break through the massed ranks of yellow and green. The frustration was certainly growing with each passing minute and each failed attempt on goal. There was little creativity in our side without Cesc and Eden. I wondered if Danny and Tiemoue alongside each other was ever going to be conducive to wave after wave of Chelsea attacks. I wondered why Ampadu was on the bench. Questions, questions.

Antonio Conte made some late changes. On came Alvaro Morata for the luckless and listless Batshuayi. No doubt in the rows behind me, thankfully out of earshot, the moaners were up to their tricks. Charley Musonda took the place of Kenedy, who had struggled all game. The youngster injected some much needed enthusiasm to our play. I like the look of him. Zappacosta, of all people, went close as the game entered its death throes. In the last minute, Dujon Sterling made his debut in place of Pedro.

At the home of Colman’s, there was simply not enough time to see if Dujon looked mustard.

And on that note, I will call it a day.

The Post-Mortem.

We shuffled out of the stadium and into the night. Everyone around us had grim faces. We stopped off for a pint and a chat about the game that we had just endured. None of us like digging players out, but it had – no doubts – been a very poor game. It meant, of course, that there was yet another midweek game on the horizon. This should not be the cause of disapproval, but maybe – just maybe – all of these midweek flits to London are starting to take their toll. I am sure that I am not alone with these thoughts.

Maybe I should move to Pimlico.

The Drive South And West.

On the long drive home on Sunday morning – the skies clear of clouds, the weather magnificent – I inadvertently missed the turning for the M25 and ended-up on the North Circular, which added a few extra minutes to my travel time. To be honest, it was fine, and gave the passengers of The Chuckle Bus the chance to spot the new Tottenham stadium from a distance, and also Wembley – sitting proud and quite stunning on the top of that incline – and I wondered if my FA Cup journey would reach from Tavistock to the national stadium come May.

 

Tales From Saturday’s Boys

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 28 October 2017.

The Chuckle Bus bumped and swerved through picturesque tree-lined country lanes en route south from Salisbury to Bournemouth. There had been a road closure on the usual direct route, so Glenn – the driver – was forced into a Plan B. Sitting in the back of his VW Chuckle Bus, I was tossed around like a buoy on the ocean wave. I craved for dry land so I could steady myself.

It wasn’t a day out on the South Coast in the April sun of the two previous seasons, but The Chuckle Brothers were still happy to be on our way to Bournemouth on a pleasant autumnal morning for our tea-time encounter with the underperforming Cherries. We would be spending a lot of time in each other’s company over these last few days of October. There is a trip to Rome coming up for PD, Parky and myself. And the four of us had spent a very enjoyable evening together on the Friday night; for the third time in three years, we saw From The Jam in Frome’s much-prized musical venue, The Cheese & Grain (terrible name, great setting for music.) Over the past ten years or so, I have seen a fantastic array of gigs there; The Damned, Stiff Little Fingers, Glenn Tilbrook, Big Country, Toyah, Inspiral Carpets, The Blockheads, Hugh Cornwall and Grandmaster Flash. Not bad for a small town with a population of just 27,000. Famously, Frome hosted the Foo Fighters this year. It’s a town which continually punches above its weight and I bloody love it.

It was a brilliant gig, featuring the bass player from the iconic band The Jam, Bruce Foxton.

All the old favourites. The place was truly rocking.

“Saturdays boys live life with insults.
Drink lots of beer and wait for half time results.”

Yes. That’s us alright. The Saturday boys.

Once parked-up in Bournemouth, we only had to walk for five minutes before we found ourselves in the same pub as last season, The Moon On The Square. We walked past the hotel where the team, and a few lucky supporters, had stayed on the Friday night. We had missed another “walk in the park” by the players, but we were not too bothered.

We spotted a few of the usual suspects and sat ourselves down for around four hours of chat and laughter.

I was still feeling sea-sick from the voyage down on the Good Ship Chucklebus, so my first couple of pints were non-alcoholic.

An hour later, I was on San Miguel. Everyone was chilled and relaxed. There was a nice vibe.

The news that United had beaten Tottenham was met with a shrug off the shoulders, but Glenn observed that a win at Bournemouth would put us just a point behind Tottenham.

At 4.30pm, with other scores confirmed and with no real surprises, we caught cabs to the Vitality Stadium a mile or so to the north.

This was my second football match in the county of Dorset within five days. The day before our League Cup game with Everton, I drove down with my old friend Francis – school, five-a-side football, concerts, football – to watch my local team Frome Town play at Weymouth. Frome have been playing in the Evostik Premier – formerly the famous Southern League, once a rival to the Football League itself – for seven seasons now, but I was yet to visit Weymouth’s Wessex Stadium. It was a fixture that I was longing to tick-off.

We had a blast. A real blast. It seemed like a proper away game. We had both attended the reverse fixture at the start of the season, when a quick and skilful Weymouth handed Frome a crushing 4-1 defeat. The visiting away fans from the resort town on the Dorset coast bolstered the crowd to over 400.

The drive down took about an hour and a half. The fog thickened over the last few miles. We prayed that our first visit to their stadium would not end with a postponement. This would be a tough old game. Weymouth were on a six-game winning run. After a poor start, Frome have enjoyed a recent resurgence in the league.

But just the buzz of an away game was enough. I loved it.

Weymouth are a large club within the non-league scene. Somerset and Dorset are two counties which are certainly not known for their footballing heritage, but there are signs of growth. Yeovil Town, with a rich history and a county-wide catchment area was promoted to the Football League in 2003. For many years, The Glovers were the best-supported non-league team in the country. They were promoted to the heady heights of the Championship a few seasons ago – quite a story – but are now in the Second Division. I keep a look out for their results, nothing more than that. They remain my home county’s sole members of the Football League. To ignore them would be plain rude.

It could have been a very similar story for Weymouth over the past decade or so. They too have always been very well supported. Until Yeovil Town, their fierce rivals, joined the footballing elite, Weymouth too enjoyed a large catchment area. There were no Football League teams nearby. Exeter City was fifty miles to the west, the two Bristol teams were seventy miles to the north and Bournemouth was forty miles to the east. They have a neat stadium on the edge of town. It holds a creditable 6,600. They are a Football League club in terms of set-up, support and “clout.” Previous managers over the past fifteen years have included Steve Claridge and our own John Hollins.

We had passed through Dorchester, just fifteen minutes away from Weymouth – another sizeable club with better-than-average gates with a fine stadium – and I remembered my trip there in 2015 with Frome when a 1-1 draw was a fair result. I always remember that a “Chelsea XI” opened-up Dorchester’s new stadium in 1990.

When Weymouth visited Dorchester this season, over 1,500 attended.

In this footballing backwater of England, in a straight line from Yeovil through Dorchester to Weymouth, maybe there will be a continuing resurgence. I certainly hope so.

Francis and I enjoyed a pre-match lager in the club bar and then made our way into the seats of the impressive main stand. We shared some chips. The misty rain threatened. The pitch was greasy, but immaculate. It was a perfect night for football. High above the pitch, which has old-style covered terracing on the three other sides, we were able to watch unhindered as Jake Jackson prodded the ball home on eighteen minutes. Frome put in a fine performance for the rest of the game. Nobody had poor games. At half-time, we walked all around the stadium, and bumped into some of the forty or so away fans who had made the journey. Buoyed by cheap admittance prices for children – taking advantage of half-term – the attendance was a healthy 805. In the closing minutes, the home team threw everything at the Frome goal. Their ‘keeper twice came up for a corner. One Weymouth effort was cleared off the line. We were under the cosh. Another corner followed, deep in injury time, and the Weymouth ‘keeper volleyed straight at his Frome counterpart Kyle Phillips, who miraculously saved. What drama. But more soon followed as the ball broke and Frome substitute Darren Jeffries found the ball at his feet with the entire pitch ahead of him, with a chasing pack of Weymouth players, proper Keystone Kops, huffing-and-puffing behind him. From thirty yards out, he steadied himself and swiped at the empty net. We watched as the ball trickled over the line. It was hardly Fernando Torres in the Camp Nou, but it brought the same guttural roar from myself.

Weymouth 0 Frome Town 2 – bloody fantastic.

I honestly cannot remember a better Frome Town performance.

It had proved to be a hugely enjoyable first-visit to Weymouth. Driving away, I joked with Fran that it reminded me of my first-ever trip to Old Trafford in 1986 when Kerry nabbed a late winner.

You can’t beat a good away game, at any level.

The cab dropped us right outside the neat Bournemouth stadium. Its capacity is listed as 11,360. It seems even smaller. There was contradictory talk from a couple of locals during the day about the club’s plans to either enlarge the stadium or find a new location. The problem is that the ground is in the middle of a residential area. I’m not so sure it could cope with an extra ten thousand visitors on match days. To be frank, the current set-up is crying out for a return to terraces at both ends, increasing the capacity to around 15,000 and seeing if that would suffice. Of course, that will never happen. Maybe a new build, further out, is the logical conclusion.

We were inside with a good thirty minutes to spare.

The players were doing stretches and shuttle runs. After a while, I noted four of the substitutes – Ampadu, Cahill, Drinkwater, Christensen – laughing and smiling as they knocked the ball about between them.

Player unrest at Chelsea? No evidence of it there.

Clearly “bullshit.” Ask the manager.

The team?

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger

Zappacosta – Bakayoko – Fabregas – Alonso

Pedro – Morata – Hazard

Although my bag was thoroughly searched outside the turnstiles, and my camera waved in, my position in the second row, next to the exit – surrounded by stewards and police – made me wonder if I would quickly be told to put my trusty Canon away. Thankfully, I was able to snap away to my heart’s content.

One-nil to me.

The game began.

Chelsea in a reverse of the home kit.

White – white – blue.

We dominated possession in the first-half, with Zappacosta overlapping well down the right, and Morata freeing himself from the attentions of the Bournemouth defenders, who of course included our very own Nathan Ake. The steward next to me said that he hasn’t set the world alight since his move to Dorset. In goal was Asmir Begovic and he was much busier of the two ‘keepers. Pedro slashed high after a run into space, but this was our only real chance of the first fifteen minutes. The Chelsea support started in good voice. Saturday boys bemoan the movement away from traditional 5.30pm kick-offs, but love the fact that it results in more beers and more boozy songs. Bournemouth’s attacks were rare and David Luiz, especially, always seemed to do enough to keep trouble at bay. He was ably supported on his flanks by Rudiger and Azpilicueta.

A miss-kick by Begovic ended up at the feet of Eden Hazard, who set up Alvaro Morata, but he inexplicably shot wide when the entire Chelsea support of 1,200 were seemingly celebrating the net rippling.

The home fans to my left chortled :

“You thought you had scored, you were wrong, you were wrong.”

It was the loudest they would be all evening.

Just after, a Luiz shot was blocked and Morata bundled the ball in, only for an offside flag to be raised.

Another chorus of “You thought you had scored, you were wrong, you were wrong.”

The Chelsea choir belted out some old classics throughout the first period; there were songs for Matthew Harding, Dennis Wise and Salomon Kalou.

Bakayoko, his hair now a ridiculous shade of blue, was not as involved as I would have liked. The game was passing him by. And Eden was having a quiet one. Another chance fell for Moata, but Begovic saved well. Although we were dominating play, there was a spark missing. There were no groans at half-time, but we knew we had to step up in the second period.

With Chelsea attacking “our goal” in the second-half, I was able to witness as close hand the speed and skill of our attacking threat. On fifty-one minutes, a mistake by a Bournemouth player was pounced upon by Hazard. He advanced on goal, shot with unnerving accuracy at the near post with his left foot and we roared as the net finally rippled.

GET IN.

Eden’s run towards us – tongue out, slide, swagger – was caught on film.

I moaned at Eden’s inability to grab the game at Selhurst Park by the scruff of the neck, but he had done so under the floodlights at Bournemouth. The celebrations on the pitch were mirrored by us just yards away. I love the fact that the pitch is so close to the fans at the Vitality.

However, rather than push on, we allowed the home team a few half-chances as the game wore on. The appearance of substitute Callum Wilson was heralded by the home support as the second coming of Christ. I wondered what he had in store for us.

A lovely ball by Hazard, sometimes playing deep, in the centre, set up Pedro but his return pass was blasted over by Eden.

Into the final quarter, I kept thinking “bloody hell we are making hard work of this.”

Danny Drinkwater replaced Pedro for his league debut.

Michy Batshuayi replaced Morata.

A similar run to Hazard’s goal found him deep inside the Bournemouth box but his movement ended up being blocked by resolute defending. He then set up Fabregas, in close, but his shot was blasted over from an angle.

Willian replaced Hazard with five to go and looked willing to punish the home team further. His sudden bursts are the last thing that tiring defenders need late in the game. However, as the minutes ticked by, I almost expected a late equaliser. Bournemouth, to their credit, kept going and in the last few minutes a shot was easily saved by Thibaut. It would be, I was to learn later on “MOTD” his only save the entire game. We deserved to win, no doubt, but a 1-0 margin is always a nervous ride. I immediately likened it to our narrow 1-0 at Middlesbrough last season.

After the Roma draw, I hoped for three consecutive wins. Thankfully, we got them.

Ah Roma.

The eternal city awaits.

Andiamo.

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Tales From New Year’s Eve

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 31 December 2016.

On the last day of 2016, Chelsea Football Club were going for our thirteenth consecutive league win. A run that began way back on the first day of October at Hull City has surprised, entertained and thrilled us along the way, and now the red-and-white striped shirts of Stoke City were our next opponents. A game on New Year’s Eve is a relatively rare event. In over forty years of going to games at Chelsea, this would only be my fourth such game. All of these have been at Stamford Bridge. The last one was a dreadful 1-3 defeat at the hands of Aston Villa in 2011.

It was a miserable end to that particular year. Who could have possibly guessed how that 2011/2012 season would end?

None of us.

The pre-match routine for the Stoke City game mirrored that of the Boxing Day match with Bournemouth. Parky, Glenn, PD and myself. Me driving. Pints in “The Chelsea Pensioner” and then outside “The Fox & Pheasant.” Banter. Drinks. Songs. Laughs along the way with pals from both sides of the Atlantic. Whereas there had been clear, crisp skies on Boxing Day, here was a more typical winter’s day in London; dampness, greyness and cloying fog. It was as if it was made to order for the visiting Americans.

As for the team, we knew that Pedro would be out, and that Kante and Costa would undoubtedly return. We pondered about Fabregas. Antonio Conte decided to retain him.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill.

Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso.

Willian – Costa – Hazard.

The tried and tested 3-4-3. It’s hard to believe that we toyed with playing a 4-4-2 variant at the start of the season. This 3-4-3 seems to have been with us forever such is how natural it all seems.

Unsurprisingly, Stoke City brought only 1,500 down from The Potteries. Neil Barnett made a point of welcoming back both Mark Hughes and Eddie Niedzwiecki, players from two of the most-loved Chelsea seasons of them all (Sparky in 1996/1997 and Eddie in 1983/1984). There was also a mention for former blue Glen Johnson and former Matthew Harding season-ticket holder Peter Crouch. There was a rare start for Crouch. With him alongside the diminutive Xherdan Shaqiri, it brought back memories of a game decades ago when Micky Droy stood alongside Ian Britton for photographic effect.

Shaqiri – so small that his arse rubs out his footprints – looks out of place on the pitch. But he is a lovely footballer. Elsewhere in the Stoke team were familiar foes Charlie Adam, Joe Allen and Ryan Shawcross.

And Stoke certainly had more of the game in the first-half, at least to my eyes. Their biggest threat came via corners and free-kicks, and we had to be at our best to keep them at bay. With Eden Hazard relatively quiet, our play lacked a little sparkle. We had a few pot-shots at goal, but nothing of note. The stadium needed wakening. It was pretty quiet.

I loved the way that David Luiz, charging out of defence to cut out a lofted ball, was able to replicate a John Terry trademark chest pass. The ball landed right at the feet of a team mate. Lovely stuff.

Stoke still caused us problems, with Shaqiri and Adam going close. Our play was a little slower than usual. Where there had been players taking a couple of touches, now the same players were taking extra touches. It slowed our play down. Victor Moses was often alone out on the right wing in acres of space. Our play tended to develop down our left. It often felt that Moses’ role was just to stretch the Stoke defence out, regardless of whether or not he received the ball. He must’ve felt like a spare prick at a wedding.

Just after half-an-hour, Cesc Fabregas thumped a corner into the box and Gary Cahill was able to jump high and head in. It was, ironically, a goal more synonymous with that of our visitors.

1-0, phew.

Mark Stein was introduced to the crowd at the break, and he was warmly applauded by both sets of fans, having played for both teams in his career. In the match programme, there was a feature on “Steino” and he recollected the red-hot atmosphere at Stamford Bridge for our famous victory against Bruges in 1995. Never had 28,000 – our then capacity – made so much noise at The Bridge.

There was also a simply fantastic photograph of Stoke City’s visit to Stamford Bridge in 1963, featuring 48 year old Stanley Matthews and 18 year old Ron Harris. The gate? Only 66,199. Another Second Division attendance too.

File under “Debunking The Chelsea Were Never A Big Club Theory.”

The second-half began, and in the most dramatic of ways. A ball was pumped into our box, that man Crouch headed down, and Martins Indi somehow managed to react the quickest of all, stabbing home despite being surrounded by three or four Chelsea players. Now that was a typical Stoke City goal.

1-1.

Game on.

At last the Chelsea crowd got involved, realising that the team needed a helping hand. Shots started to pepper the Stoke City goal.

As the ball was worked out to Victor Moses, I found myself commentating.

“Go on Victor, get past him, get behind him my son, whip it in.”

Whip it in he did. Hazard cushioned the ball for Willian to hit home.

2-1, phew.

Win thirteen?

Steady on.

Five minutes later, the stubborn visitors caused us problems in our box, and when the ball was played out to Diouf, I immediately sensed fear. Lo and behold, the ball was whipped into the box and Peter Crouch stabbed it home.

2-2, bollocks.

This was breathless stuff now, and within a minute, Cesc Fabregas played in Willian with a beautiful ball, and our Brazilian livewire ruthlessly blasted high past Grant in the Stoke goal. He again ran over to the far corner to celebrate with fans and team mates. Celebrations were equally manic in my little section of the stadium.

Smiling faces, pulses racing, eyes wide in ecstasy, fists pumping, shouts of joy.

I had to grab on a nearby barrier.

“Bloody hell, felt myself going there.”

Ha.

3-2, back on top once more.

Antonio Conte replaced Fabregas with Nemanja Matic, with a nod to tightening things, but the game still continued to entertain. A super break involving the twin threats of Willian and Hazard allowed Diego Costa a clear shot on goal, but he surprisingly blasted over. It had been another wonderful performance from Diego; chasing lost causes, hounding defenders, holding off challenges, touching the ball to team mates, leading the line.

Branislav Ivanovic replaced Victor Moses, who had been much more involved in the second-half. Nathaniel Chalobah took over from Willian.

There was still time for one last hurrah. A seemingly innocuous throw-in was chased down by Diego Costa, who caused mayhem for Shawcross and Martins Indi. Showing fantastic strength, he held off a challenge, and slammed the ball into the net with a left-footed swipe. It was a goal of his own making. It was all his.

It was a pure unadulterated Diegoal.

Now it was his turn to fist pump, and for his eyes to explode with joy. He ran towards the corner flag and replicated Pedro’s Kung Fu kick from Boxing Day before being mobbed by all of his nine other outfield players. It was a lovely picture of solidarity and togetherness.

4-2, just beautiful.

So, this amazing run continues.

Thirteen.

Just magnificent.

At the half-way stage of the season, everything is looking rosy.

1. Chelsea – 49 points.

2. Liverpool – 43 points.

3. Arsenal – 40 points.

4. Tottenham Hotspur – 39 points.

5. Manchester City – 39 points.

6. Manchester United – 36 points.

There is then a ridiculous nine point gap to Everton, but then the other thirteen clubs are differentiated by just fifteen points. The numbers do not lie. It’s looking good, but we are only halfway to paradise.

The Chuckle Bus returned back to the shires of Wiltshire and Somerset. The four of us all had New Year’s Eve drinking to be done. My evening was spent at Frome Town Football Club, where I saw my first-ever football match way back in the autumn of 1970, a full four years before my first Chelsea game. It seemed appropriate. It was a great night and it ended a roller-coaster year for me, for us all.

As 2017 begins, there are two eagerly-awaited away games to attend. On Monday, Frome Town play at local rivals Chippenham Town, and then on Wednesday – on a different scale this one – Chelsea visit the N17 badlands to play Tottenham. They will be up for revenge after our last two games – remember them, ha? – but I’d like to think that we have a little revenge in store too.

Remember that 5-3 defeat on the very first day of 2015?

Yes, so do I.

Let’s go to work.

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Tales From The Top Of The Pyramid

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 26 December 2016.

There was a time when Boxing Day crowds were the largest of them all. It was a general rule of thumb that the much-loved FA Cup tended to produce gates which were bigger than domestic League games, and that the crowds which poured through the turnstiles on December 26th each season tended to produce the highest attendance figures each year.

Of course, these days in the user-friendly, high-octane, internationally-branded, ultra-commercialised and well-loved world of English football – or at least the Premiership, the pinnacle at the top of the league pyramid – gates are usually sell-outs, with near-capacity crowds commonplace. These days, Boxing Day games are – sadly – just another game. Sure, there is the tingle of football the day after Christmas Day, but that extra-special buzz of the game being one of the biggest days of the season has largely gone.

The FA computer has tended to give us home games on recent Boxing Days. Our 2016/2017 appointment with Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth would be our tenth home game on Boxing Day in thirteen seasons (in 2010/2011, there was no game on Boxing Day.) This suits me. I’d rather travel to SW6 on the day after Christmas than have to drive to other points of the compass. On Boxing Day 2012, the computer paired us with Norwich City and I just could not be arsed. But I haven’t missed too many over the past twenty seasons. In 2014, I stayed at home and missed a home game with West Ham United, in order to spend a last Boxing Day with my dear mother.

Boxing Day 2016 gave us the chance to win a club-record twelfth consecutive league game.

Would we do it?

The mood in the Chuckle Bus was positive.

A few games back, I talked about the chance to win our five games against West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and Stoke City, but never really expected it to happen. But here we were on the cusp of twelve, maybe thirteen.

With Costa and Kante out, it seemed obvious to us who Conte would bring in.

“Batshuayi and Fabregas – easy.”

It seemed odd that we were playing at 3pm on a Boxing Day. Often our games are early kick-offs. In the pubs beforehand, it took a while for things to get busy. Ironically, we live three hours away, but have easier journeys in than Londoners on Boxing Day, with public transport so severely hit.

We popped into “The Goose”, “The Pensioner” and “The Fox & Pheasant.” There were drinks with friends from near and far.

Rob was celebrating the fortieth anniversary of his first-ever Chelsea match, give or take the odd day. Like me, Rob was eight when he saw us play for the very first time. His match was the iconic home game against local rivals Fulham in a Second Division fixture. The attendance that day has become more famous with every passing season. Although we won 2-0, the gate of 55,003 won all of the awards. As an eleven-year-old schoolboy, it amazed and thrilled me that my club could draw such numbers for a game in the second tier of English football. Ironically, it was our last-ever home gate of over 50,000. But it is typical of the size of crowd that was enticed to football stadia over the Christmas period.

Another example of this is a game that I attended, and again against Fulham, and which took place in December 1982. We were dire at the time, sinking fast towards the relegation zone, and previous home gates numbered 6,903, 8,184 and 8,690. The game against Fulham, who were enjoying a fantastic season, drew a gate of 29,797. I was ecstatic that we could pull such numbers. I can remember that I watched from The Shed – it was a 0-0 draw – and I can still remember standing out in the forecourt at the end of the game waiting for my parents to appear from their seats in the East Upper. Thousands of fellow fans streamed past before I spotted my parents. I was numbed – and again thrilled – that so many people could be lured from their warm and cosy homes to watch us in the second tier.

Moments like that evidently stick with me.

We were able to talk to a few friends from the US – John from Los Angeles, Nick from Fresno and Austin from Houston – and it’s always a joy to see their obvious enthusiasm. It would be Nick’s first-ever game at Stamford Bridge.

Chris 1974, Rob 1976, Nick 2016. It goes on.

The team news broke through and we were pretty shocked.

No Batshuayi.

Glenn summed things up : “That will do nothing for the young lad’s confidence. He obviously doesn’t rate him.”

I told Austin of my feelings : “I’ve only just got my head around 3-4-3, I can’t get my head around this false nine stuff.”

It has never convinced me.

I wondered if it would be like ninety minutes of foreplay.

And if so, would we keep a clean sheet?

We walked along Fulham Road – from the East, it doesn’t happen too often – and it was magnificent to be out and about on such a crisp, bright and expectant Boxing Day.

Here was the buzz that I was hoping for. Fantastic.

As the day would progress, I would be keeping an eye on my local team Frome Town’s progress at home to Basingstoke Town in the seventh tier of our national game. It would be a good day for gates in that league too. Frome are currently in sixth place – a highest-ever league position in 112 years.

Bournemouth had brought a full three-thousand. There was a full house, or as near as could be expected. A few no-shows. The Peter Osgood banner in The Shed always seems more relevant over Christmas.

“BORN IS THE KING.”

Eddie Howe’s team are known for their football being played “the right way” but for the first fifteen minutes his players pushed, hacked, tripped and clipped anyone in royal blue. The ire of the home fans rose with each bad challenge. At last, Jack Wilshere was booked for an assault on Eden Hazard.

The atmosphere inside Stamford Bridge was typical of a Boxing day of late; morgue-like. A loud and proud chant of “Red Army” was repeated rhythmically from the far corner and the home support momentarily responded with song.

It was all Chelsea for the majority of the first quarter of the game, with Moses and Pedro creating chances, but with no real threat on goal. Bournemouth were unsurprisingly packing their defence, but on twenty-four minutes, we were treated to a little Christmas magic. Cesc Fabregas touched the ball to Pedro, who was hemmed in, with red and black shirts ahead of him. He twisted, created a little space and chipped the ball, with pace, up and over Artur Boruc. I watched open-mouthed as the ball hit the net.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

Just after, the loathed Wilshere broke into a little space inside our box and forced a fine save from Thibaut Courtois. For all of our attacking prowess over the past few months, Thibaut has been as good as any. In the match programme, there was a sublime photograph, taken at pitch level behind the goal, of his finger-tipped save at Sunderland.

Hazard broke from deep, twisting and turning like a snake, and was creating merry hell for Howe’s players. Just as impressive was Pedro, a picture of relentless motion, never still, always moving. We gasped as a loose ball on the edge of the box was met by a rabona from Hazard. The shot was aiming for the top corner but Boruc was able to claw it away. Wilshere then followed up from a blocked Bournemouth free-kick but thankfully his low shot was cleared. This was turning into a fine game of football. Matic was impressing me with his tackling and tracking. Willian was full of energy. There were, however, a number of times that a ball fizzed across the box yelling out for a Diego Costa touch.

Rob, the birthday boy, sits just a few rows behind me in the MHU, ironically on roughly the same piece of terra firma that he watched forty years ago, and he wanted me to take a candid photo of him on his anniversary.

“I want it you to take it without me knowing, au naturel.”

“Well, I’m not taking my clothes off for you or anyone, Rob.”

Shortly after, I snapped away.

A Fabregas free-kick just cleared the bar.

Just before half-time, the referee Mike Jones allowed Bournemouth to play the advantage after a foul, but after a shot was hit high and wide, he annoyed us all by giving them a free-kick too. Howls of derision were still ringing around the stadium as the resulting shot hit the wall.

At half-time, Frome were 0-1 down.

There were still crisp blue skies overhead as the second-half began. A typical run from Eden Hazard deep in to the Bournemouth penalty area caused Simon Francis to make a clumsy challenge. Eden calmly slotted the penalty home, low to Boruc’ left.

We were 2-0 up and coasting now. The atmosphere had not exactly been tense, but at last we could relax a little. The twelfth win in a row was on the cards. Our play remained high quality. Shots from Hazard, Moses and Willian came close. We hounded Bournemouth when they had possession, and broke with menace when we were able to steal the loose ball.

Although Hazard was showing – dare I say it – world class form, Pedro really caught the eye with his energetic display. Willian, though not able to create a great deal, was able to support his team mates well. Fabregas was a calming presence throughout. On more than one occasion I was mesmerized by our one-touch football. At the back, David Luiz was again exceptional.

The Shed, especially, had a great second-half, with a constant array of songs. On one or two occasions, their noise threatened to envelope the entire stadium. The Matthew Harding showed willing, but the spectators in the East and West Stand were still waiting for formal introductions to take place before joining in.

I’m certainly not a fan of the dirge-like “Chelsea Till I Die” song though; myself and a few mates always said that it used to be sung by middling teams from lower divisions. It’s hardly sung by any of the bigger teams. Let Birmingham City, Derby County and Ipswich Town have it. It’s not a Chelsea song. It was, if I am honest, the very first time that I can ever remember it being sung loudly enough at Stamford Bridge for me to hear it. Which is why I mention it now.

There was one lovely moment towards the end of the game. Fabregas had been fouled and fell right in the path of Eden. Rather than stop and await the referee’s whistle, Eden just flicked the ball over Cesc’s body. What a giggle.

In a rare attack from Bournemouth, substitute Afobe’s low shot was superbly blocked by Courtois. Every one of our damn players are playing at such a high level.

Time was moving on, and it looked like our domination was only being rewarded with two goals.

Glenn wanted another one, to aid our goal difference.

I turned to him and said “I am bloody convinced that we will score a late third.”

Lo and behold, a run from Pedro, the ball seemingly attached to his boots, ended up with a twist and a shot. The ball struck a defender and Boruc was stranded. The ball crept over the line, but there was that third goal.

Perfect.

Chelsea and Kensington 3 Bournemouth and Boscombe 0.

Chalobah had replaced Willian on 83 minutes, Aina had replaced Moses on 89 minutes, but Batshuayi only saw around five seconds of action after replacing Pedro on 94 minutes. It seemed almost cruel. But who are we to grumble? Our fears of the false nine were unfounded, and Antonio Conte continues to enchant us all with his team selections.

I can’t really believe that I am saying this, but let’s go for win number thirteen. Stoke City will present a different test, but with N’Golo and Diego back, I am confident.

Down in Somerset, Frome had managed to nab a 1-1 draw against Basingstoke. The gate was a fine 366, compared to a season average of 225. Elsewhere in that Southern League, on a day of mainly local derbies, a huge 2,033 saw Dorchester Town play Weymouth, and there were also similarly large gates at Leamington (805), Merthyr (784), Kettering Town (656). In fact, all games drew larger-than-normal crowds. Our national game is healthy, and no team is healthier right now than ours.

Let’s enjoy it.

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