Tales From The SW6 Derby

Chelsea vs. Fulham : 3 February 2023.

There was an air of anticipation bordering on excitement – but only just, I am fifty-seven after all – as we made our way up to London for the SW6 derby at Stamford Bridge. Who on Earth could have possibly forecasted such a big transfer spend-up during the winter transfer window? Certainly not me. The events of the previous few weeks had left many, including myself, in a whirl. We had already seen a few debuts in January but there would soon be more ahead. Players – the majority of whom were new names to me – were joining Chelsea Football Club at a rate of knots not seen since the transfer flurry in 2003 when we plundered the market for Glen Johnson, Adrian Mutu, Damian Duff, Hernan Crespo, Juan Sebastian Veron, Geremi, Wayne Bridge and Claude Makelele.

I had heard of all of them.

The signings of 2003, twenty-years on, were a different ball game.

Did it all make sense? Again, who knows? It may take a while, and the test of time, to evaluate if the massive financial outlay on players will have been a success.

Into the future we go.

But first, let’s take a look back at two games that are on the schedule for revisiting from forty years ago.

Saturday 22 January 1983 : Wolverhampton Wanderers 2 Chelsea 1 – 19,533

After the surprising 6-0 win against Cambridge United at Stamford Bridge, a week later we were on our travels. We were up against promotion hopefuls Wolves at Molyneux. This game drew a very healthy 19,533, although not as many as the recent 22,567 for the visit of Leeds United to the Black Country. These were decent gates for the time; excellent, in fact, for the Second Division and actually pretty decent when compared to First Division attendances that season. On the same day that we visited Wolves, just 9,946 saw Coventry City play Swansea City and 9,718 saw Notts County entertain Arsenal in the top flight.

Wolves’ famous old stadium was in a state of flux in those days. A massive ground redevelopment had stalled and it meant that, due to the eventual planned movement of the pitch, the one completed stand stood around fifty yards away from the nearest touchline. The huge South Bank still stood, as did the cranked main stand and the covered enclosure at the north side, and it looked altogether ridiculous. Molyneux was eventually completed in around 1993. In 2023, the once distant stand is the only structure remaining, and in fact the north enclosure has been replaced not once but twice.

I am sure that I wasn’t expecting the goal rush of the previous weekend to continue and Chelsea didn’t let me down, losing 1-2 with Colin Pates the lone scorer. That evening, I moped around Frome with some school friends, from an eighteenth birthday party to a variety of local hostelries. I suspect that the trials and tribulations of Chelsea Football Club was not high on my list of conversation topics.

On the same day, Derby County drew 3-3 at the Baseball Ground against Leeds United in front of 17,005. The main story of that game, though, involved the hooligan element of the travelling support who detached many of the seats in the away stand, the Osmaston Stand, and launched them at anyone within range. Why do I mention this? On the following Saturday, Chelsea were to play at the Baseball Ground in the fourth round of the FA Cup.

The song lyrics “anything you can do, I can do better” were surely ringing in the ears of Chelsea’s support on the way home from Molyneux that evening.

Saturday 29 January 1983 : Derby County 2 Chelsea 1 – 23,383

I had high hopes for this cup tie. I was absolutely sure that we would ease past Derby County, who were not enjoying a great season themselves, and we would then then be handed a plumb home draw in the next round. For some days, I was convinced we’d get Manchester United, the team supported by Rachel, the girl that had briefly appeared in my life before Christmas and who was still the object of my unrequited affections. From forty years on, this seems all rather pathetic and I suppose it was. But at the time communication between the two of us was minimal at best – I was an expert of furtive glances and occasional smiles, which I am pleased to report were always reciprocated when we passed each other – but a Chelsea vs. Manchester United cup tie would have definitely, I was sure, got us talking.

The lure of the FA Cup managed to entice large numbers to the Baseball Ground on this Saturday forty years ago and this was typical of the era. Derby’s league average for the whole season would eventually be 13,601 – there were only 8,075 present for our visit in the September – yet this tie drew almost 10,000 more. These were big numbers. Of the 23,383 present – I was not there – it is highly likely that Chelsea would have taken over 6,000.

The Baseball Ground, cramped twixt terraced streets, factories and industrial units, was a classic football stadium, famous for its ridiculously muddy pitches and tight stands. There were double-deck structures at each end, and the stands did not run parallel to the pitch.

Sadly, Kevin Wilson gave the home team a 1-0 lead in the first-half, but Mike Fillery equalised with twelve minutes to go. Alas, Wilson – who would sign for Chelsea in 1987 – grabbed a very late winner. And, yes dear reader, a sub-section of the Chelsea support dutifully copied their Leeds counterparts the previous week by lobbing seats everywhere, even on top of fellow Chelsea supporters on the terrace below if I am not mistaken.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

There is no doubt, no doubt at all, that in 1982/83 Chelsea Football Club was more famous, or infamous, for its hooligan support than its football. This was an altogether strange thing for me to have to handle, especially being so distant from the club geographically, and so distant from the heartbeat of the club, and fellow fans. It was a lonely existence to be honest. There was, of course, in the warped logic of a school playground or sixth-form common room, some sort of badge-of-honour kudos in Chelsea’s reputation, but at the same time I longed for us to get back into the top flight again.

1982/83 was turning into a desperate campaign, a nightmare in fact.

Oh, and guess what? I was to learn on the following Monday that Derby would play Manchester United at home in the fifth round.

Fackinell.

Let’s hop forward forty-years. I was up at the stadium just before 5pm. There was a little time to kill, so I took a few photos underneath the old Shed Wall, which can be one of Stamford Bridge’s most photogenic areas. I found myself by the repositioned photo of Gianluca Vialli, and touched his left boot for luck and in memory of the great man.

I had already seen on various social media platforms that Chelsea would be celebrating the Chinese New Year for the game against Fuham and I had to wonder why. The players would be – wait for it – wearing special pre-game training tops honouring the year of the rabbit, and as I walked around outside a couple of stands, red Chinese lanterns were regularly positioned. It was all very odd and rather pathetic.

Why were we honouring the Chinese New Year? Is it now a big thing among sports clubs the world over? I must have missed that memo. Let’s just thank our stars that American Independence Day is in the summer. What about South Korea? What about Venezuela? What about Rwanda? Will they get their moments too? I know we are a global brand – ugh – now, blah, blah, blah, but it left me cold. I wondered if we will soon be honouring other important dates in the calendar. What about the onset of Lent for starters and, specifically, Pancake Day?

Yes, Pancake Day. I had an idea. Chelsea should market supporters’ shirts for our next home game against Southampton with the words “I’m with this tosser” on the front. Someone contact the marketing department pronto.

As I left the West Stand forecourt, a Chelsea steward was going into a frenzy, yelling out “bag search on the table, bag search on the table” as if his life depended on it. I looked back one last time and saw a mass of hi-viz tabard-wearing stewards standing in a regulated formation – maybe a 7/5/3 with pushed-on wing-backs – and I wondered if our team against Fulham might be sporting a similarly over-loaded formation to get everyone a game.

I walked down the Fulham Road towards the CFCUK stall. Mark Worrall had put aside a book for me – “Come Along And Sing this Song” – which is an old-style football annual type book detailing 1983/84 (which I covered during the 2008/2009 season here) and looks a fine tome. I took a photo of the “Broadway Bar and Grill” – formerly the “King’s Head” and then “The Slug and Lettuce” – which, despite being a very handy pub at Chelsea, I have only ever entered a few times. There was a buzz that you don’t often get on match days. The signings had certainly energised the Chelsea support.

Pre-match was spent in “Simmon’s” with Parky, Andy and Sophie from Nuneaton, but also some friends from California; Tim and Hooman, who I had met on a number of occasions before. A surprise guest was BJ from Dallas who I last bumped into over in Michigan in 2016. It was a joy to see him again. He was with Emily, originally from Missouri but now living in Dallas too. We had a decent natter. It was her first visit to Stamford Bridge. She received the usual “if we lose, you’re not coming back” welcome from me. There was talk of the upcoming trip to Dortmund – not long to go now – but I also mentioned the home tie. I had recoiled in horror when I recently read that West Upper tickets for that game are on sale for £240.

Yes, that’s correct, £240.

What was that about the normal working man being priced out of football? At this rate, even the well-off are being priced out.

“A family day out at the football? That’ll be a thousand pounds please, thanks, enjoy your pizza.”

We checked the team on Sophie’s ‘phone.

“Ziyech playing? What? The fucker was meant to be in Paris, sipping champagne and smoking Gitanes tonight.”

I immediately wondered why Enzo Fernandez was not playing. But I then spotted, with some relief, that his name was given as simply “Enzo.”

He was to take Jorginho’s number five shirt.

It was great to see Reece James back.

“Hopefully not too soon though, eh?”

Andy was excited about the game. And although I was too – something I thought I’d not be saying a few weeks back, maybe after Forest –  I couldn’t help but say that, knowing Chelsea, it would be a 0-0 draw, “another false dawn.”

Andy gave me a very old-fashioned look before we then dived headlong into a chat into our shared Chelsea past and memories of Bolton 2005, Munich 2012 and Porto 2021.

I was in early. I had a quick chat with Oxford Frank – “not sure about the morals of all this, but I guess it’s not our money…well, it will be our money when our season tickets undoubtedly go up next season” – and a young lad behind me from Ukraine, draped in a yellow and blue flag, bless him.

The troops arrived. The ground slowly filled.

There was a montage of Dave on the front cover of the programme having recently totted-up his five-hundredth game for our beloved club. I checked the spelling of a couple of our new acquisitions then quickly forgot them. Noni Madueke was going to be a struggle for sure.  It annoys me that attendances are nowhere to be seen in this season’s match programme. They don’t always appear in newspapers. It is a pet peeve that seems to have developed since the COVID seasons. I don’t get it. It wasn’t so long ago that Chelsea used to add away team’s numbers to all games too. Is it me being cynical in thinking that by not publicising attendances, the myth of all games being sell-outs continues unabated?

A little more history about the SW6 Derby.

This would be the forty-fifth Chelsea vs. Fulham game at Stamford Bridge in all competitions – League, FA Cup, League Cup, Anglo-Scottish Cup – since our first encounter in 1911. In the previous forty-four, Chelsea had suffered just two defeats. No wonder Fulham hate us so much. Of course, we are so ambivalent to them. So much so that they hate it.

Despite our close proximity, a little under two miles between the two stadia, there simply hasn’t been any notable tit-for-tat rivalry on the pitch. Our lack of matches against Fulham in our formative decades is the main reason. Of those previous forty-four games, only twenty-two took place from 1905 to 2001. If anything, the rivalry has only ratcheted up in recent years, with the other sixteen games having taken place since 2001.

Is this, then, a new rivalry, having been dormant for over a century?

Possibly.

It wasn’t so long ago that the quiet neighbours were a main stay in the Premier League. Fulham enjoyed thirteen straight seasons in the top flight from 2001/2002 to 2013/14. There was a time, with them floundering in the basement, that I wondered if Chelsea would ever enjoy a local league derby ever again. I can remember the joy of March 2002 – it seems odd to admit this now – when I saw a derby against Fulham for the first time in eighteen years…a decent game, a narrow 3-2 win, a good atmosphere.

The team? OK, here we go.

Kepa

James – Silva – Badiashile – Cucarella

Gallagher – Enzo

Ziyech – Mount – Mudryk

Havertz

It almost felt like a new beginning.

Back in December, during that shite break, the names Benoit Badiashile, Enzo Fernandez – I did not watch any of the World Cup remember – and Mychailo Mudryk existed in another world.

Certainly not in London SW6.

Pre-game, two crowd-surfing tributes to Reece James dominated the two ends. It was a nicely-timed “welcome back” to our much-admired right back. There was also an odd, awkward, moment when the PA asked us to remember Jorginho, now passing sideways at Arsenal. I have never known that before. I don’t remember the PA asking us to remember Gordon Durie after he fucked off in 1991.

How odd.

Anyway, Jorginho. He had his moments. I never warmed to him particularly and his style was difficult to get excited about, but he put in some decent performances over the five years. We’ll miss the hop, skip and jump at penalties, eh?

“The Number 5 is dead, long live the Number 5.”

The game began. It was a mild night and I took my jacket off and placed it on a spare seat. Another full house, or near it. The pitch, parts of it, looked ropey, with it looking close to cutting up.

Immediately, I became flummoxed at the sight of us attacking the Matthew Harding and it took me a while to adapt.

I whispered to Clive “some team that, now…”

My eyes were soon settling on Mydryk and Enzo.

I now have two Argentinian friends in Buenos Aires – hello Victor, hello Vanesa – and we had been chatting about our new World Cup winner during the immediate pre-match. I like it that Enzo once played under Hernan Crespo at Defensa y Justicia, one of the city’s legion of professional clubs, and he reminded me a little, facially, of Juan Roman Riquelme. I have developed a little love affair with Argentina of late, and we have had a trickle of Argentine players since the madness of 2003. Apart from Veron, Crespo and now Enzo, Wily Caballero and Gonzalo Higuain have recently played for us. I also recollect the fleeting presence of Franco di Santo who I once saw score a goal for us in Dallas, the home of Emily and BJ.

The number five seemed to be playing quite deep, but I hoped he had a licence to roam.

Vamos Enzo!

After the first ten minutes, I had to admit that Fulham had probably started the livelier of the two teams despite a little activity down our flanks. Mydryk looked lively at the start but he certainly had no wide open spaces to exploit, like at Anfield, and he soon started to fade.

I soon spotted Emily and BJ down in Parkyville.

On nineteen minutes, our first real chance, and a super lob over the back line from Thiago Silva towards Kai Havertz, but his prod was stopped by Bernd Leno. The offside flag was raised anyway.

To Clive : “it’s actually nice to have an away team attacking us, rather than a side defending deep all the bloody time.”

Indeed, the away team were tight, putting us under pressure and attacking with intent. On twenty-four minutes, the unmarked Andreas Pereira spun and shot low at Kepa in the Shed End goal, but our ‘keeper responded so well to parry.

On the half-hour, at last we had some chances of our own, two in quick succession. Mudryk set up Havertz with a fine pass, but another offside. And then Mount set up Havertz came close again, but his first-time blast was wasteful, drawing groans as it flew high off his boot. On thirty-five minutes, there was a crunching tackle from Enzo in the centre-circle, and this was followed by a perfectly-weighted pass out to Hakim Ziyech, but his right-footed shot was blasted high and wide. That little cameo from the Argentine warmed me.

The atmosphere had been pretty rotten until now, with few songs and chants. Fulham had sounded like West Ham what with their demands for us to stick our blue flag up our collective arses. At last the home crowd responded with a loud-ish “Chelsea, Chelsea” a la “Amazing Grace.”

There was a quick break from the visitors and with bodies in the box, they really ought to have scored; a long cross towards Willian was headed back but Kepa gathered.

In the final minute of the half, Benoit Badiashile – enjoying a good performance – brilliantly intercepted a pass and set up an attack. At last a perfectly-flighted ball from the foot of Ziyech found Havertz, but his studied touch saw the ball sadly strike the post. There was nobody close to touch in the rebound.

Clive : “Mount stood and watched. Lampard would have been racing in.”

It hadn’t been a great performance. There seemed to be a positive reaction to our showing at Anfield, but this one was drawing groans as the match developed. I don’t always do it, but I sent out half-time ratings in a WhatsApp group.

Kepa 7

James 5 – Silva 6 – Badiashile 7 – Cucarella 4

Gallagher 6 – Enzo 7

Ziyech 4 – Mount 5 – Mudryk 4

Havertz 5

At the start of the second-half, another debut ensued as Graham Potter sent on Noni Madueke to replace Mudryk on the left wing. His initial involvement was thrilling, with a great show of speed and a willingness to race away and dribble in any direction, like a footballing Forrest Gump.

To Clive : “maybe this will be it for the next few games, every second-half we get to see a new rapid winger thrilling us all.”

There was a cross from a relatively quiet James but Leno was able to claim the ball before Maduenke could pounce.

On the hour, Willian rolled back the years with a super direct run into our box down below us, but his effort was blazed over.

Clive : “man of the match so far.”

There was a horrible tackle on Peireira on Cucarella, but no red card after a VAR review.

Two more substitutions followed.

Dave for Reece.

Raheem Sterling for Ziyech.

Madueke was now able to run amok on the right wing.

To Clive : “to be honest, I think we are worse this half.”

There was a stupid foul that lead to a booking for Gallagher, then another fleet-footed run by Willian but a thankfully weak shot straight at Kepa. Those half-time ratings were dropping to fours and fives with only Enzo and Badiashile maintaining a decent level, although Sterling started decently.

On sixty-nine minutes, an optimistic lob from the half-way line from Aleksandar Mitrovic resulted in Kepa back-peddling but we were grateful that he stopped the ball high on the line.

We improved a little, with Enzo going close with a fine curling drive that flew past a post.

On seventy-five minutes, David Fofana substituted the very disappointing Mount, who was now sporting a haircut that must have been based on a certain Butt-Head from around 1994. I wondered if Dennis Bergkamp was available for a routine alongside him…

”Arsenal. You said Arsenal.”

To Clive : “how has Havertz stayed on?”

A shot from Gallagher – that I caught on film – flew past the post.

More groans.

Willian was widely applauded when he was substituted on seventy-five minutes, a fine servant over recent years for us.

On seventy-eight minutes, Fofana broke in well from the right and, after some decent footwork as he rounded Leno, was perhaps unlucky to see his shot blocked on the line.

Fackinell.

My biggest moan of the night? On at least one occasion in the first-half and two in the second-half, Chelsea players, I remember Mount and Gallagher, failed to get their corners past the first man. How is that possible? Nothing infuriates me more.

To the bloke behind me : “all that sky to hit…for fuck sake.”

Late on, we were cheered to see Ben Chilwell make a cameo appearance for the under-fire Cucarella.

It stayed 0-0. In the bar before, I was only semi-serious, but I suppose I knew deep down. I have been going to Chelsea too long now.

There was rowdiness from the Fulham fans on the walk down the Fulham Road as we walked past the CFCUK stall, on towards the “Broadway Bar and Grill”, and one mouthy lad must have barked this out five times :

“All that fuckin’ money and you still couldn’t beat us.”

Things were heated between a few individuals and several police were seen rushing to quell a few flashpoints. A few obvious tourists looked on in horror.

I must admit that I was getting annoyed with them, these Fulham fans, probably for the first time ever.

After well over a century, perhaps that rivalry is beginning to heat up a little.

A little mob of Fulham fans trotted off down the Fulham Road – I suspect the majority of their fans live more locally than us – and it seemed strange to thank that, perhaps, a few would be able to get home within a few minutes. I wondered if many lived on the Clem Atlee.

I made a quick exit and was soon heading west down the M4. I would get home at around 1.15am, my weekend over before it would begin. There would be no Frome Town game for me to relish on the Saturday; they had played on this Friday night too, a home game with Bishop Cleeve from near Cheltenham. At least Frome won 2-0.

A disappointing performance from Chelsea? Yes.

But I like the look of Enzo, who I hope can develop into the goal-scoring play-maker that we have missed for what seems like an ice-age. I think he showed enough promise in his first game for us for me to pin some hopes on him. He looked neat in possession, with no Jorginho-style dawdling, and his range of passing can hopefully set our runners free. The pre-match optimism seemed to have deserted everyone in the stadium by the end of the game, so whereas a nice win would have set us all up for a tough, but winnable, game at West Ham next Saturday, we now go gingerly into the future.

Cue clichés about “trusting the process”, the “long haul” et-bloody-cetera. Is Potter the man to lead us? Ah, that’s the $64,000 question. Or the $640,000,000 question these days.

See you in East London next Saturday.

Tales From The North By Northwest Corner

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 27 December 2022.

After a break of forty-five days, Chelsea were back in action. To be honest, compared to the extended hiatus due to COVID in 2020 and 2021, this had been a breeze. In fact, we had all agreed that after the Newcastle defeat, the third league loss in a row, we were clearly at a low ebb and so the enforced break came at just the right time. I know that I needed the rest too. The match at St. James’ Park was my twelfth in forty-one days.

Fackinell.

I didn’t watch a single second of the Qatar World Cup. Instead, the plan always was for me to get my football fix from watching my local team in November and December. However, due to Frome Town’s schedule getting hit with a few postponements, I only saw three games; a 4-1 home win against Slimbridge, a 0-1 defeat at Bashley and a 2-3 loss at Melksham Town. I did, however, attend a game up in Scotland in early December; a Queens Park match against Hamilton Academical that was played at their traditional Hampden Park home for the first time in a few seasons.

For the home game with Bournemouth we planned to be up in London at around midday. I had woken with not too much enthusiasm, and I must admit I felt a little guilty. Despite the fact that I hadn’t seen the team for a month or more, a home match against Bournemouth was hardly going to set the pulses racing. Such games are never a visceral assault on the senses, nor are any Boxing Day – which this effectively was – encounters these days, more’s the pity.

None of the passengers in my car were expecting too much from the game. We guessed it wasn’t set to be a feast of football. We just wanted a win, any win.

Three points was king.

But oh the guilt. I was only too aware that my enthusiasm was lacking and a dark cloud of guilt followed me up the A303 and the M3 into London. While PD and Parky began drinking at our usual hostelry, Glenn and I had decided to have a pre-game wander around Stamford Bridge and the local area. We found ourselves in the Copthorne Hotel way before the match day crowds would appear. The bar area was quiet. I spotted a favourite photograph on a wall, far from the madding crowd, and it is one that always brings a smile to my face.

I love this.

There is so much to take in.

The four players are John Boyle, Terry Venables, Ron Harris and Eddie McCreadie. The photo is from around 1965, and I always think that the photographer is about to get pelted with those recently formed snowballs. There are a couple of other players in the frame too. The pitch has evidently been cleared of snow and you just wonder what sort of a mammoth task that must have been. I have an image of the regular ground staff being augmented by a legion of apprentices, armed with brushes, rakes, spades and shovels, clearing the pitch in preparation of the upcoming game. I am sure that I can spy the traps of the greyhound racing beyond the players. The crush barriers on The Shed terrace are clearly those patented by Archibald Leitch, the Glaswegian architect responsible for so many of the old stadia in Britain, who not only designed stands and terracings, but crush barriers too. Those originals were eventually replaced in the mid-seventies by an altogether different design. I can see what might well be braziers, equally placed on the mid-terrace walkway, presumably lit with coal or wood to clear those walkways of snow and ice. And look at the Harlem Globetrotter shorts, which I remember, from colour photos in various publications, being red and red stripes. I can’t even imagine how Chelsea ended up with those.

Snow, striped shorts, snowballs and The Shed.

It’s a classic, eh?

Despite the brief appearance of some snow and some decidedly cold temperatures during the week before Christmas, this particular day was much milder, but with rain forecast to hit London later.

Glenn and I circumnavigated the stadium and I took a few photographs of the pre-match scene. We chatted a little about the club wanting to purchase the land currently owned by the Oswald Stoll Foundation, and we await further details of how all of that extra land might aid a stadium upgrade. If nothing else, it will surely assist in the thorny topic of entrance and egress.

There’s new signage atop the central column of the West Stand facade. God knows why.

We walked up the deserted King’s Road – admittedly the game was still four hours away – but bloody hell it was quiet. We stayed to the east of Stamford Bridge – Chelsea, not Fulham – and there was just no sign that there was a top-ranking game of football taking place half a mile away. Heading north to the Fulham Road, we stumbled across a previously unvisited pub, “The Sporting Page”, and we dipped in alongside four other drinkers. In my quest to visit every hostelry within two miles of Stamford Bridge, I had ticked another one off the list.

On our wander around the deserted streets of SW10, Glenn had admitted that he had been far from enthused about the game against Bournemouth and this made me feel a little better about myself…that I wasn’t in the boat alone.

We briefly touched on my retrospective of the 1982/83 season.

And so.

13 November 1982 : Barnsley 1 Chelsea 1 – 13,286.

My diary entry for this day starts with a brief synopsis of events at Oakwell.

“We were one-nil up at half-time so a bit fed-up we only drew 1-1. That’s our sixth draw this season. Gary Locke was sent off – pillock.”

Our goal was scored by Mike Fillery, who was probably our best player at the time and possibly the most adored. Born in Mitcham, he had come through the ranks and debuted during the end of the dreadful relegation season of 1978/79. He soon became a crowd favourite in the Second Division seasons that followed, where his stylish passing and scoring ability shone in many games. He was left-footed, and could piece together some lovely passes. He had a languid style, but was never one for a 50/50 tackle, and I can see him gliding around the pitch to this day.

20 November 1982 : Chelsea 1 Shrewsbury Town 2 – 8,690.

A week after, another Saturday, and my diary began with a depressing moan.

“How the hell can Chelsea lose at home to a snotty little team like Shrewsbury? That means that we have only won four games out of fifteen. And we are away to Rotherham next week. Oh dear. Please God don’t let Rotherham score six against us again. All I can say is that Chelsea must be shit.”

The seventeen-year-old me was clearly unimpressed. Indeed, this was a very poor result.  It was goal-less at half-time, and Colin Lee scored for us but the visitors nabbed two. Just as worrying as the result was the crowd figure. Although attendances had dipped to below 10,000 in the closing stages of the previous season – the nadir being 6,009 for the London derby with Orient – this was the first sub 10,000 gate of 1982/83. I remember being pretty depressed about the state of the club after this game and my previously positive spin on our squad seemed to be based on fantasy and not fact. I had been off school with mumps for a week too, so life was pretty depressing in late November 1982.

27 November 1982 : Rotherham United 1 Chelsea 0 – 8,793.

In the previous season, we had lost both games against Rotherham United by the horrific aggregate score of 1-10. We had lost 0-6 at Millmoor in October and then 1-4 at Stamford Bridge in March. The 0-6 loss is often cited as our most embarrassing defeat. I can understand that. In the circumstances, a narrow 0-1 loss in 1982/83 could almost be seen as a moral victory. Yes, dear reader, things really were that bad forty years ago. The game also marked the Chelsea debut of Mark Falco, on-loan from the hated Tottenham, and this was regarded as pretty much a low point in the credibility of the club. A loanee from Tottenham? Good fucking grief. My diary summed it up.

“A bit depressed about Chelsea. No promotion again.”

4 December 1982 : Chelsea 2 Burnley 1 – 8,184.

Out of nowhere, an upturn in my fortunes. Not only was a girl in the Lower Sixth, Rachel, showing interest in me – the fool – Chelsea managed to eke out a slender 2-1 victory against Burnley at Stamford Bridge. Goals from Micky Droy and David Speedie, both in the first-half, gave us three points and my diary even conceded that I was happy with the 8,184 gate as I had expected one of around 6,000. The game marked the home debut of Falco, and I can only imagine the horror. This time it was the turn for Colin Lee to get sent-off. But, the three points were all that mattered.

11 December 1982 : Middlesbrough 3 Chelsea 1 – 8,836.

My diary entries throughout the week detailed my futile attempts to summon up enough courage to ask Rachel out. A couple of words, exchanges, took place, but I am afraid my shyness had got the better of me. On the Saturday, Chelsea travelled up to a probably cold and hostile Ayresome Park where John Neal’s team lost 3-1 against his former club. Mike Fillery scored our solitary goal via a penalty. In the home team was former Chelsea youngster Paul Ward and in the ‘Boro team, future Chelsea midfielder Darren Wood. Amid my fluttering heartbeats, my diary ended with a blunt message.

“Chelsea sont merde.”

18 December 1982 : Chelsea 2 Bolton Wanderers 1 – 6,903.

On the Monday after the Middlesbrough game, at a Sixth-Form Disco, my shyness disappeared and all was good with the world. Rachel and I danced the night away. I always remember that as I tentatively approached her on the dance-floor for the first time, the bastard DJ started playing “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye, and there is no need for a punchline. Throughout the week, we chatted a little and exchanged Christmas cards.

On the day of the Bolton game, the last Saturday before Christmas, I was called in to assist at my father’s menswear shop in Frome. It was the first time that I had worked a shift in his shop. After a nervous start, I almost enjoyed it. I never really saw myself as a salesman. My father always had a little wireless tucked away on his desk in the small office and it would have been via this medium that I would have heard that Chelsea had scrambled a narrow 2-1 win against Bolton. The goals came from Colin Pates and an own goal. Bloody hell, a love interest and a Chelsea win. What on Earth was happening?

27 December 1982 : Queens Park Rangers 1 Chelsea 2 – 23,744.

On the Monday after the Bolton win, I had planned to meet Rachel in a pub in Frome with some friends, but she never showed up. Bollocks. My World caved in. I plucked up enough courage to ‘phone her the next evening but she was non-committal about future plans.

“Back to Chelsea, mate” I no doubt thought to myself. Rachel, in fact, favoured the hated Manchester United and there is no need for a punchline here either.

Christmas 1982 was a pretty dull one. However, I was pleased to be heading up to Stamford Bridge on 28 December for the Fulham game at Stamford Bridge. It would act as an emotional safety harness after my recent romantic rebuttal. However, the day before it we visited QPR for another West London derby. At Christmas 1981, we had won 2-0 on their plastic pitch, and – miracles at Yuletide – in 1982 we won again. The goals came from Clive Walker and David Speedie as QPR were beaten 2-1.

I always remember that the attendances on this particular day were monumental, and I was so pleased that football could still attract such numbers at a time when gates, not just ours, were plummeting.

These were the First Division games, and the attendance at St. Andrews really shocked me; it was almost three times their average.

Arsenal vs. Tottenham – 51,497 /average 24,153.

Birmingham City vs. Aston Villa – 43,864 / average 15,593.

Brighton vs. Southampton – 21,794 / average 14,673.

Ipswich Town vs. Norwich City – 29,596 / average 19,679.

Liverpool vs. Manchester City – 44,664 / average 34,836.

Luton Town vs. Watford – 21,145 / average 13,429

Manchester United vs. Sunderland – 47,783 / average 41,574.

Nottingham Forest vs. Coventry City – 24,487 / average 17,567.

Stoke City vs. Everton – 25,427 / average 16,631.

West Bromwich Albion vs. Notts. County – 17,756 / average 15,258.

West Ham United vs. Swansea – 23,843 / average 22,774.

In retrospect, they don’t look too large do they? But in 1982/83, the average gate in Division One was just 20,158. My diary noted that I hoped for 20,000 for the Chelsea vs. Fulham game on Tuesday 28 December 1982.

From a Christmas past, to a Christmas present.

We headed west to Stamford Bridge and the pubs of Fulham. We were soon back in familiar territory.

Down in deepest SW6, at “The Eight Bells”, we joined forces with PD and Parky, alongside Salisbury Steve. This pub was pretty quiet too. But it was good to be back. It is the epitome of the word “cosy”; wooden-panelled walls were festooned with old prints of old river traffic and old London scenes, tables, settles and chairs were squeezed miraculously in, a chalkboard described the food on offer, pint glasses and wine glasses were stacked above the bar, a Christmas tree twinkled in the corner. I half expected Bob Cratchit to hobble in and ask for a pint of porter.

Outside, the rain was falling. It was time to make a move.

We were inside Stamford Bridge with well over half-an-hour to go. The team was announced and it looked like a standard 4/3/3.

Kepa

James – Silva – Koulibaly – Cucarella

Zakaria – Jorginho – Mount

Sterling – Havertz – Pulisic

Before the game, we observed a minute of applause for George Cohen, a member of the England 1966 World Cup winning team who recently passed away.

RIP.

A quick scan around. A few empty seats. Around two thousand away fans. The night had fallen. The rain continued.

However, my pre-match vibe hadn’t really improved.

“We’re World Champions, but we’re half a team.”

A few agreed.

My match day companions in the North by Northwest corner of Stamford Bridge arrived.

John, Gary, Alan, PD, Clive, JD, Kev and Anna, Paul.

For the first time in ages, Glenn was down in The Shed. Since the rebuild in 1997, we all agreed that he had only seen a game down there once before; in the upper tier alongside Alan and myself for the Vicenza game on a rainy night in 1998. On this occasion, he was a few yards away from Parky.

Despite my negativity, we began brightly, less laboured than in recent games, and a thrusting run from deep from Christian Pulisic showed our intent. There was an early Bournemouth free-kick from Phillip Billings that Kepa easily saved. A strong low cross fizzed in from our right but there was nobody in the box to connect. Soon after, a header from kai Havertz did not worry Mark Travers in the Bournemouth goal. A fine ball in from Kalidou Kouilbaly set up Pulisic but as his shot was released, there appeared to be a shirt pull. Alas, no penalty was given. But this was a good positive start from us.

Soon after, on sixteen minutes, while Alan and I were abusing Clive for watching Arsenal on TV, a nice move developed. Mount to Raheem Sterling and a low skidder of a cross that had just enough legs and drift on it to reach Kai Havertz, who delicately prodded it home.

Phew.

The stadium, however, was hardly bubbling over with noise.  But things would improve ten minutes later when a move again developed down our right. A neat series of passes moved the ball on and Havertz kept the move alive. The ball was pushed back by Havertz to Mount and his sweetly-placed shot nestled inside the right-hand post.

Excellent stuff.

There were a few late chances for us as the first-half was played out, with Denis Zakaria looking a fine player in midfield and Thiago Silva as impressive as ever in defence. Travers saved well at the near post after a strong shot towards goal from Sterling. Another penalty shout for a foul on Havertz was waved away.

As the referee blew for the half-time whistle, I was full of praise.

“Nice one Chels. Well done.”

Alas, the second-half did not run along similar lines. After just eight minutes into the second period, a player went down on the far touchline. A quick scan of other players confirmed my darkest fears.

“It’s Reece.”

He walked off and we wondered how serious this latest setback would be. He was replaced by Dave.

A lovely move ended with a Zakaria shot being deflected over and we enjoyed a little pressure. On fifty-eight minutes Havertz forced his way into the box with a strong dribble but screwed his shot wide.

An effort from Mount, a wild shot from Pulisic, a header from Zakaria and that was about it.

We really faded in the last quarter, inviting them on, and barely able to maintain possession when needed. Too often our passes were mishit, too often we gave them too much space.

Some changes.

Conor Gallagher for Zakaria.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for Pulisic.

Trevoh Chalobah for Sterling.

A fine save, down low, from Kepa at his near post kept Bournemouth at bay, but they definitely finished the stronger. In their Denis the Menace colours, I half expected them to claim a goal to set up a nervous finale. Kepa certainly earned his colours late on. Thankfully, their menacing came to nothing.

Chelsea 2 Bournemouth 0.

We climbed to eighth.

I battled some awful weather along the M4 on the drive home, but thoughts were already on our next match.

“It’s great that we have a game at Forest next. It’s not a new ground, but it seems like it. A new experience. Our first visit in decades. Just what we need to keep our spirits up. And our interest.”

See you there.

xxx

Tales From High Noon

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 6 November 2022.

After we traipsed back to the car on Wednesday after the win against Dinamo Zagreb, soaked with the rain, we were well aware of the tough task ahead of Graham Potter’s side before the break in proceedings. We were to play three tough, tough, tough games.

Arsenal at home in the League, Manchester City away in the League Cup and Newcastle United away in the League.

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

To be blunt, the Manchester City game didn’t bother me too much. I had, in reality, already conceded defeat. I just didn’t want us to be embarrassed. As for the two league games, I soon decided that I would be happy with two 0-0 draws. It was all about getting our feet over the line before the season closed down for a break of forty-five long days. If the 2022-23 campaign looked like an assault on Mount Everest, getting to the second weekend of November would be akin to arriving at a pretty significant base camp.

The home game with Arsenal was to kick-off at midday. This was a ridiculous time for a match. It harked back to times in the early to mid-‘eighties when worries about potential hooliganism forced the football authorities to foist such kick-off times on us all. On opening day 1984, for example, our most famous game against Arsenal in that era kicked-off at 11.30am.

But midday in 2022? Oh boy.

My alarm sounded at 4.45am. On a Sunday. A day of rest? Forget it.

My passengers were soon collected; PD and Glenn at 5.45am, Ron at 6am and Parky at 6.30am. As a matter of principle, I never like being late for any pick-ups. And nor does Ron in particular.

“I was only ever late for tackles.”

We were met with yet more horrific weather as we headed towards London. There was so much standing water on the roads that I wondered that if the torrents continued until kick-off, the game might be postponed. Such was our combined fear of getting turned over by Arsenal, a postponement wasn’t looked on as unfavourably as it might have been at another time.

I dropped the others off and then parked the car. The rain had subsided a little, but as I made my way down a deserted North End Road, stopping en route for a rare McBreakfast, my rain jacket was clinging to me, the rain reluctant to stop.

I joined the lads in “The Eight Bells” at just after 10am. We were in there for an hour. There was no talk of the game being called off. Alex – from last Saturday and Wednesday – joined us and was pleased to meet my fellow Chelsea mates at last. He called them “the Three Musketeers” and me “D’Artagnan.” I will not share what I called him. The usual laughs in the pub, the usual characters. It did feel bloody odd, though, to wish a few friends and regulars “Happy Christmas” as we squeezed out of the boozer.

Bollocks to Qatar 2022. It has ruined our season and it has ruined many lives.

We caught the tube to Fulham Broadway. It just seemed all along like a bloody ridiculous time for a game of football, London derby or not.

Forty years ago – to the exact day, Saturday 6 November 1982 – Chelsea had another home derby. We played Crystal Palace at Stamford Bridge in front of a relatively decent 15,169, but the game ended up as a dull 0-0 draw. I won’t detail the Chelsea team on this occasion but, for reference and as a comparison, let me list the Crystal Palace players; Paul Barron, Gavin Nebbeling, Jerry Murphy, Steve Lovell, Jim Cannon, Paul Hinshelwood, David Giles, Henry Hughton, Ian Edwards, Kevin Mabbutt and Vince Hilaire. I recognise all of these names forty years on, with the exception of David Giles, and if pressed I could probably write short pen pictures of them all. Of especial note is Kevin Mabbutt, a former Bristol City striker, whose brother Gary had gone from Bristol Rovers to Tottenham in 1982 and would soon be playing for England. Their father Ray used to play for Frome Town. I mention all of this because I know damn well that I would be hard-pressed to name many of the current Arsenal team that would be playing us on the same date in 2022. I don’t feel any pleasure in saying this. I guess it is a sign of my changing relationship with football and modern football in particular. Outside of Chelsea, I just don’t see much football these days. Oh well.

Glenn was using my ticket for this game as I had picked up a spare. For a change, I would be sat in Gate 17 at the Matthew Harding. It’s an odd section. It’s actually along the side of the pitch, an adjunct to the East Stand, and was built a few years after the Matthew Harding, and joined the two stands together. To be honest, it’s a great area to see the game. My seat was in the second row, just splendid. I soon spotted Mark Worrell a few rows behind me alongside Young Dave and Pav from Bath, heroes of Munich in 2012 and Amsterdam in 2013. I saw that club historian Rick Glanvill was a few seats away. I also spotted Johnny Twelve and his son in an even better viewing position in one of the middle tiers of the West Stand.

By the side of the pitch, former players Emmanuel Petit and Eidur Gudjohnsen. Oh dear, memories of that 2002 FA Cup Final against you-know-who.

As this would be our nearest home game to Remembrance Day, the Stamford Bridge stadium was set up to honour the memory of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. The large letters “Chelsea Remembers” usually occupy the corner of the pitch where I was now located but I was lucky in that this display was now in the opposite corner of the northern end of the stadium. It meant that I was still able to capture it all on camera. Above the Shed End, a banner stated “We Will Remember Them” and the crowd waited for the understated pageantry at kick-off. Two Chelsea pensioners placed wreaths, the players lined up on the centre-circle and “The Last Post” was played by a lone bugler. In The Shed, a sea of white mosaics appeared with a large red poppy in the middle. It didn’t feel right to photograph this, I let the moment pass, and kept my head bowed in silence.

The minute of silence was that. It was unerringly quiet. Well done to all.

Our team?

Mendy

Azpilicueta – Silva – Chalobah – Cucarella

Jorginho – Loftus-Cheek

Sterling – Havertz – Mount

Aubameyang

Their team? Who cares.

So, this was it then. A duel at high noon. A shoot-out between London’s two most decorated clubs.

Arsenal : 31 major trophies.

Chelsea : 28 major trophies.

This was my thirty-seventh game against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. Additionally, I have seen us play Arsenal at six further venues, the most of any club; Highbury, The Emirates, Wembley, Cardiff, Beijing and Baku.

The game began.

From this new vantage point, Stamford Bridge looked different, though obviously familiar. I didn’t like feeling cramped in with spectators to my front, back, left and right. In my usual seat, I have just bodies to my right and in front; to my left steps, a walkway behind. And I took an immediate dislike to the angry man to my left. He quickly annoyed me, telling a chap who was obviously having difficulty to find his correct seat to “fuck off” and soon labelling one of our players with a term that I thought had died a death in the ‘eighties.

On the pitch, Arsenal had begun much the brighter of the two teams and very soon the anger of one man spread to the anger of others. Attacking at will down below me, the chances started to pile up but the Arsenal finishing was errant and did not really trouble Edouard Mendy. An effort from Gabriel Martinelli – I recognised him – flew just over the bar.

We invited Arsenal on, but there was a horrific piece of goalkeeping from Mendy when he almost made a complete hash of passing the ball out of defence. I was reminded of a moment that took place the previous afternoon during the Frome Town vs. Tavistock game that I had watched with a few friends. We were already 2-0 down but we gifted the visiting team from Devon with a third when our ‘keeper made a mess of clearing and an attacker scored his third of his eventual four goals in a shocking 4-0 rout. It was, undoubtedly, the worst Frome Town performance that I had seen for years.

I kept looking at the clock, willing the time to pass quickly. There is no doubt that we had shown a reluctance to piece too many moves together but we were playing a little better than I had feared.

In the midst of strong Arsenal pressure, we enjoyed a rare break. Raheem Sterling ran at pace down our right before switching it to Kai Havertz on our left.

“Go on Havertz, be strong.”

The pace of the move slowed and Havertz methodically advanced. He spotted the run of Mason Mount but a shot was blocked.

Gabriel Jesus – I sadly recognised him too – headed a cross from Martinelli just wide of Mendy’s goal.

Chances were at a premium.

I wanted our support to roar the players on, but it saddens me to say that I could just hear the three thousand Arsenal fans and not us.

That very distinctive “Aaars-e-nal, Aaars-e-nal, Aaars-e-nal.”

The left-footed Odegaard reminded me of Mike Fillery, just the way he caressed the ball forward.

A poor finish from Havertz from a nice move down our right.

“That was a bloody back pass” I moaned.

At the break, there was relief that we were still in the game, despite Arsenal having more of the ball. But, I had to admit it to myself, neither ‘keeper was pressed into a save.

Arsenal still enjoyed more of the possession as the second-half began. Gabriel Jesus forced a near post save from Mendy. From the corner that followed, a slow cross towards to the near post. It seemed to be headed on from the view that I had, and the ball continued on unaided through a forest of players in the six-yard box.

I screamed.

“No!”

Then when the ball was pushed over the line :

“Fuck off!”

Sixty-three minutes had passed.

Then that horrible song.

“One nil to The Arsenal.”

A double substitution from Potter.

Conor Gallagher for the woeful Havertz.

Armando Broja for the equally poor Aubameyang.

I heard the jeering, booing, laughter of three-thousand Arsenal fans.

There seemed to be an immediate increase in our intensity, but for all of the energy of the two newcomers, it was all so disjointed. The Arsenal players were suffocating our midfield and the two in front of the back four – Jorginho and Loftus-Cheek – offered little.

The rain came again, damn it; not another soaking on a wet walk back to the car?

More Arsenal chances, our fight disappeared.

Two more changes.

Christian Pulisic for the almost invisible Mount.

Mateo Kovacic for the disappointing Loftus-Cheek.

Chances in the second-half? I can only think of one, a quick break from Sterling but his cross disappeared into the ether.

The angry man to my left early, and a fair few others left early too. It was a deeply disappointing game for us, and one that left us all wondering about our immediate future. Of our players, only Mendy – several decent saves – and Dave – a steady game in difficult circumstances – were exempt of any negative comments. The rest? Poor. Very poor.

Yes, we got drenched on the way back to the car, but maybe not quite so bad as on Wednesday. Everything was doom and gloom in the first few miles of our return journey.

And I don’t really know how to finish this one. In modern football, everyone reacts to the latest result as if that alone will define our season, our future. That can’t be right can it? I don’t know about Graham Potter. I can’t help feeling that he may not be an upgrade on Thomas Tuchel. But this ain’t his team, maybe not for a while.

The old banalities about time can be trotted out.

We’ll see. We’ll see.

In a moment of whimsy, after I had been back at home for an hour or so, I realised that the quintessentially English phrase “pottering” might well have summed up, cynically, our performance against Arsenal.

“to potter” : verb.

From the Oxford Dictionary : “to do things or move without hurrying, especially when you are doing something that you enjoy and that is not important.”

“Occupy oneself in a desultory but pleasant way.”

“I’m quite happy to potter about by myself here.”

Similar :

Do nothing much.

Amuse oneself.

Tinker about.

Do odd jobs.

Mess about.

Piddle about.

Piddle around.

Puddle about.

Puddle around.

Muck about.

Muck around.

Fanny around.

Footle about.

Footle around.

Lollygag.

Move or go in a casual, unhurried way.

So much for a shoot-out at high noon on this wet and weary day at Stamford Bridge. If it was a shoot-out, somebody must have given us a supply of blanks.

However.

Let’s give the new man a bit of time to sort things out. Rome wasn’t built in a day and other clichés. We were bloody excellent at the San Siro a few weeks ago. We are missing two key players. Maybe three.

On we bloody go.

No midweek trip to Manchester City for me so the next one will be another tough game up on Tyneside.

See you there.

Tales From One Over The Eight

Brighton And Hove Albion vs. Chelsea : 29 October 2022.

So this was it then. The ninth and final game of the month; a trip down to Sussex-by-the-Sea and a match against Graham Potter’s previous team Brighton & Hove Albion. Of the nine fixtures, six would be away from Stamford Bridge but despite this, as far as gathering results, this had been a fine month with six wins and two draws thus far. 

Brighton is a fair old stretch from Somerset.

Or rather, Lewes and Falmer. We wouldn’t be touching the actual city of Brighton.

I set off from my house at 7.45am, and I predicted that I’d be pulling into the car park at Lewes train station at around 11.30am. With me were P-Diddy, Lord Parky and Sir Les. Between the four of us, we have well over two hundred years of Chelsea support.

The weather forecast was decent. I packed a jacket but wasn’t sure that I’d honestly need it. Last season’s trip to the Amex was not a good memory for me. We drew 1-1, no problems with that, but as the game progressed I felt worse and worse. I just wanted to leave. It would transpire that I had caught a stomach bug and would be off work for a week. Grim memories.

1982/83 produced some grim memories too. My fortieth anniversary wallow in our worst ever season continues with a couple of games from that season.

On Saturday 23 October 1982, Chelsea played Charlton Athletic at Stamford Bridge in a Division Two fixture. All the talk leading up to this game focussed on the visitors’ imminent signing of the former European footballer of the year Allan Simonsen. The Danish international was out of favour at Barcelona after the signing of Diego Maradona from Boca Juniors. Spanish clubs at the time were only allowed to field two foreigners and he found himself down the pecking order behind Maradona and the German Bernd Schuster. In a move that I still find bizarre forty years later, he was due to sign for Charlton but the registration was delayed and his debut came a short while after. Looking back, it is hard to believe that the English Second Division in 1982/83 played host to two former European footballers of the year; Allan Simonsen from 1977, Kevin Keegan from 1978 and 1979. Before a crowd of 14,492, Chelsea won 3-1 with goals from John Bumstead, Pop Robson and a screamer from Colin Pates. That evening in Frome, my former love interest Julie made an appearance at a school disco on a brief return to the town and I probably uttered and stuttered less than ten words to her all night. That particular romance was over and I am still hurting now.

During the following midweek, Chelsea won 2-1 at Tranmere Rovers in the League Cup in front of 4,579 with a brace from the veteran Robson giving the club an easy aggregate win and a place in the next round.

Les had been over in Salzburg too, and as I ate up the miles we shared a few tales from Austria. My route took me up the M3, around the M25 and then south on the M23. One sight thrilled me; the road undulating over a series of hills as the South Downs lay ahead. It was just one of those moments that fill me with a sudden and odd burst of pleasure.

Football, travel, the combination of the two and the realisation that this lark is still a joy.

Parky shared a couple of songs from The Jam on his ‘phone as I drove into Lewes from the A27.

“News Of The World.”

“That’s Entertainment.”

As I promised myself, I reached Lewes train station car park bang on 11.30am. Just after, the four of us were drinking in “The Lansdown” pub which had just that minute opened. There were a few Chelsea already there. The first song on the pub’s juke box?

“That’s Entertainment.”

Talk about continuity.

There was a little chat with Cath, Dog and Mark, then another Mark, then Walt. Walt spoke how he wasn’t exactly overcome with enthusiasm for this game and I knew what he meant. Sometimes, you just don’t feel it. Since going away to Austria, I had been getting by on less than sleep than normal. When my alarm sounded at 6.30am – an hour earlier than on workdays, damn it – I just felt tired, so tired. The thought of driving seven hours to-and-from Brighton didn’t exactly have me brimming with excitement.

“But then you see the lads, share some laughs, take the piss out of each other, touch on the game, make plans for the day, reminisce, you’re soon back at it again…”

While the other three stayed inside, I was on my travels. It was glorious outside. From our fleeting glimpses of Lewes on the last few visits, it looked a lovely and historic town. I made my way over the river to a pub called “The John Harvey” where I was meeting up with my Brighton mate Mac and a few of his pals. A chap from Houston in Texas, Alex – a “Facebook” acquaintance – was on his way too, although he was clearly suffering from the same logistical trauma that we experienced between Munich and Nuremburg because he was originally waiting for me in the Lewes Road Inn in Brighton rather than Lewes, the town.

At around 1pm we all met up and we stood outside in the warm sunshine exchanging stories and laughs.

Alex is from Moscow but has worked in other countries for many years. He told a nice story of when he was working in Ireland in around 1992 and a moment that sparked an interest in Chelsea. He was in a bar, Chelsea were on TV, a live game I think, and he recognised someone he knew. It was Dmitri Kharin, our Russian goalkeeper, who he played football with as a teenager. He still had his ‘phone number and they spoke but I don’t think that the two of them ever met, certainly not at a Chelsea game.

We spoke about our first experiences of live football.

My mother and I with a bag of cherries at my first ever match, a Frome Town game in 1970.

Mac with his father at the old Goldstone Ground in 1966 when he was just five, and him being in awe of the whole event. But also a few years later in 1973, when he happened to be at the Brighton ground when newly arrived manager Brian Clough gathered together around thirty young boys outside the entrance and gave them a talk about how he wanted the team to play and, basically, his vision for the future.

Those memories, those feelings for football, these shared stories. Those emotions that get stirred. The friendships. Being among fellow supporters of the game, those that travel to support their team whenever they can. That shared bond.

Ah, football, you beautiful thing.

You beautiful game.

There was a brief mention of the local stadium, the home of Lewes Football Club, which was recently voted the greatest football ground in Britain. Its name is The Dripping Pan, which warrants a medal by itself. Maybe Frome Town will play there in an FA Trophy game one of these days. It looks a cracking venue.

Rush, rush, rush, I know needed to get my arse down to the Amex where I was meeting up with my mates Paul – Benches 1984 – and Andy – Black Bull 1989 – and Andy’s son before the game to sort out tickets. The weather was still warm, so I was able to drop a pullover and a light jacket in my car. A simple T-shirt would suffice.

Alex and I caught the 2.22pm train to Falmer and were soon waking up to the Amex.

I met up with my pals and there was just enough time for a quick photo outside. I had no time to go through the nonsense of yet another tiresome bag search, so I blindsided my way in past two stewards whose gaze was elsewhere.

It was the textbook move of a devious and cunning “false nine.”

Anyway, I was in.

I soon made my way to my seat, tucked to the right-hand side of the goal this year. I half-expected the surroundings of the Amex to rekindle those sickly feelings of last winter, but I was just glad to be healthy, and rejuvenated after a few “diet Cokes” in the two pubs.

Mac – soon spotted by me in the lower tier of the surprisingly large three-tiered stand to my left – had hoped that there would be no booing of Potter by sections of the home fans. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t. In fact, it’s pretty hard to imagine the Brighton fans booing anyone, Crystal Palace apart. They are a gentle bunch.

The team line-ups were shown on the TV screens at either end of the stadium.

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Cucarella

Pulisic – Kovacic – Loftus- Cheek – Sterling

Mount – Gallagher

Havertz

Or something like that.

An Italian flag floated over the heads of those in the home end opposite, marking the arrival of their new manager Roberto de Zerbi.

“Sussex By The Sea” on the PA. Some rainbow-coloured flags were waved on another “Rainbow Laces” day.

“Hey Jude” was aired and we hijacked it once again.

We were dressed in the “muted beige” third kit for the first time and you have to wonder why. Brighton were wearing a jersey with very broad stripes, and it just didn’t look right, with an odd yellow trim. Last year they played in blue shorts. This year they were in white shorts. That lack of an adherence to an established kit would annoy me.

The game began.

And how.

Brighton were breezy. They came at us as if their lives depended on it, and perhaps they did. Thiago Silva miraculously headed away two goal-bound efforts from Leandro Trossard and then the wonderfully named Pervis Estupinan right underneath the cross-bar just a few yards away from us.

A couple of minutes later, they came at us again with Silva being pick-pocketed by Trossard. A neat pass inside by Kaoru Mitoma set up Trossard to round Kepa with some footwork that Fred Astaire would have been pleased with and slot the ball home. This was a real hammer blow. The home fans bellowed as I saw the scorer gurn undeniable pleasure.

Fackinell.

It was all Brighton in that torrid first third of the first-half, and they enjoyed a fair few corners to augment their dominance. From one that was whipped in towards the near post, a Brighton player flicked it the ball on. Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s unfortunate knee-jerk reaction meant that the ball flew past a stranded Kepa.

The home stands were roaring again.

“You’re getting sacked in the morning.”

We had nowhere to hide.

I said to Gary “this could be a rout, this.”

At last, we enjoyed a spell of steadying the ship, with a little more possession. One fine move developed through the middle with Raheem Sterling setting up Conor Gallagher who shot directly at Robert Sanchez. His reaction save allowed the ball to fall for Christian Pulisic. However, he was unable to adjust and his volleyed effort flew past the near post.

The Chelsea support got it together in an effort to rally behind the team.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

But all was not well on the pitch. Marc Cucarella was having a torrid time, and the raids down the Brighton right were leaving him exposed time and time again. I wondered if he was the modern equivalent of Robert Fleck, playing well against us but not so great for us. But where was the cover? He was continually caught ought, but so too was Trevoh Chalobah by Estupinan down the Brighton left. I hadn’t seen our defence run ragged like this for ages.

But the shape seemed to be shapeless. From my far-from-ideal position in row two, it looked like the two appointed wing backs Sterling and Pulisic were never part of our defensive plan. Where were they?

They were so far forward in that opening spell that they might well have been promenading up and down on the Brighton seafront, and just about to dip into the Royal Pavilion. Or maybe having a flutter at the Brighton racecourse. Or re-enacting a few scenes from “Brighton Rock” or “Quadrophenia.” I can just see Pulisic as a bell-boy.

Had they been told to play so forward or were they too lazy to track back? It was a mystery. Answers on the back of a Donald McGill postcard.

Gallagher then glanced a header goal wards but Sanchez saved Brighton again. Then a Kai Havertz effort was tipped around the post.

Brighton hit a post.

Our play wasn’t worthy of the name at times.

“Is Mount playing” I asked Gary.

Just before half-time, we groaned as we witnessed a trademark break down our right with tons of space for Brighton to exploit. I leant forward to get a better view but wished I hadn’t. A low cross from Estupinan was drilled into the box where Chalobah slide to block but could only divert the ball past the hapless Kepa.

Fackinell.

Absolute gloom at the break.

Gary : “I’ll take 3-0 now.”

Indeed, the real worry was of more goals to follow, a cricket-score. Back in the West Country, Frome Town were losing too, 1-3 down at half-time in a derby at Paulton Rovers.

I had spotted that when Kepa sprinted out for a long ball in the first period, he appeared to pull up as if he had sprained something. He did not appear for the second-half, with Edouard Mendy appearing between the sticks at the other end. We moved to a back four with Loftus-Cheek slotting in at right-back. I was reminded of a line from Eric Morecambe.

“We’ve got all the right players. But not necessarily in the right positions.”

Skippy from Brisbane – last seen on these shores at Middlesbrough, but recently in Salzburg – suddenly appeared behind me and I shook his hand.

Not long after I whispered to Gary “get a goal now and we’re back in this”, Gallagher – possibly the best of a poor lot in the first-half – sent over a teasing cross for Havertz to head home powerfully at the far post.

Bosh.

I turned to Skippy : “You’re not going anywhere. You’re a good luck charm.”

Our form definitely improved, with Mount a lot more involved, pushing the team one. A half-chance for Havertz.

Just after the hour, two changes.

Ben Chilwell for Cucarella.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for the utterly woeful Sterling.

The newly-introduced striker ran at the Brighton defence and shot low from the outside of the box but the ‘keeper was equal to it. Shots from Chilwell and Mount were easily dealt with. We kept pushing forward, but I was never convinced of any “Cardiff 1984” style comeback. Brighton were happy to defend and catch us on the break.

A Havertz shot was skied in front of us.

In the last ten minutes, two more changes.

Armando Broja for Pulisic.

Hakim Ziyech for Gallagher.

I looked over to my left and spotted my old pal Chopper from Greenwich Village in New York, veteran of many a trip to these shores to see us play. I hadn’t seen him for years.

The minutes clicked past and by now our away end resembled the arse-end of a wedding reception, with seats left empty and guests already on their way home, the best man speech long-forgotten, debris everywhere, people shuffling away with blank stares on their faces.

Up the other end, Mendy made a fine save to thwart Julio Encisco but Pascal Gross was on hand to tuck in the rebound.

Brighton 4 Chelsea 1.

Our ninth game in October had resulted in our first loss, and our first loss under Potter.

One over the eight had been too much for us; one game too many, too many beers at that wedding reception.

We slumped off home.

To complete a miserable afternoon of football, I checked my phone.

Paulton Rovers 3 Frome Town 2.

It was a long old trip home, but a short stop outside Shoreham for some food – “saveloy, chips and curry sauce please” – helped alleviate some of the doom and gloom.

I reached home at about 9.30pm.

Next up, a dead rubber game in the Champions league against Dinamo Zagreb, our position at the top of our group table already determined.

Into November we go.

LEWES

FALMER

Tales From Now And Then

Brentford vs. Chelsea : 19 October 2022.

I took a turn to drive for this Wednesday evening game at Brentford. I had worked another early shift – up at 4.45am, ah the joy – and met PD, Lord Parky and Sir Les in the pub car-park outside work just after 2pm.

It was a stunning afternoon. Oh that autumnal sun. I had booked a car-park space about half-a-mile from the stadium from 5pm so I needed to crack on and get up to London.

Here we all were, two-thirds of-our way through our nine game marathon in the month of October. Five down, this was number six, with three to go.

And, thus far, unbeaten too.

Stopping briefly on the A303 for a re-fuel of myself, the road was kind to me. Only in the very last segment, heading towards Kew Bridge from the south – a new way in – was there congestion. Not to worry, I was parked up a few minutes early.

Outside, a breeze.

The trip up had been a breeze too, but outside the wind was blowing and the trees were being whipped into shape. We set off, not for the stadium, but the “Bell & Crown” pub on the northern bank of the River Thames, just slightly downstream from Kew Bridge. Here, in the same pub where we had enjoyed an hour or so before Christmas in the League Cup, there was to be a gathering of the clans.

We made our way through the pub to the river terrace. Already waiting for us was a face from the past. Clive – or to give him his cherished nickname from his youth “Trotsky” – was waiting for us with his teenage son Frankie. Trotsky first came to my attention when I used to go and watch Frome Town in around 1980. He was at many games. And I knew that he was a Brentford fan. He moved away from Frome around twenty years ago and now lives in Launceston in Cornwall. I have met him at a couple of Frome Town games over the past few seasons. And, inevitably, we became friends on “Facebook” as is often the case. Trotsky and his son are Brentford season ticket holders and we arranged to meet up for a natter.

Soon into the evening, he pulled out a Frome Town scarf and the four Frome lads – himself, Frankie, PD and yours truly – posed for a photo.

I then back-tracked even further. I recently remembered that we must have first met in around 1976 on a caravan site in the shadow of The Mendips. Caravans were never the trendiest thing were they? When my father bought one in 1975, I was rather embarrassed by it all. Nevertheless, during the summer of 1976 we journeyed the short distance to Rodney Stoke and it soon became apparent that a chap that my father knew, a fellow Frome shopkeeper and probably a fellow member of the town’s Chamber of Commerce, was parked close by. Ken Secker would later become Frome mayor. He was Trotsky’s father. And I have some very feint memory of chatting to Trotsky, but it is no further than that; a vague shadow of a memory, nothing more. Even with my shyness at that age, I am sure we must have shared a few words.

Five decades on, we were chatting for sure on a fine autumn evening in West London.

Next to arrive was my pal Ben from Boston in Massachusetts, who arrived with a lad that I had not met before, Mike, who was proudly sporting a New York Yankee cap, and was originally from New York, but now lives on the outskirts of Boston. I had swapped tickets around so that I could sit next to Ben, the lucky beneficiary of a ticket that a friend could not use. Mike, sadly, was without a ticket for this game but at least he had one for the upcoming Manchester United game.

Three New York Blues visited us too, and I am not sure if they all had tickets.

Tickets for away games. It’s a shady subject isn’t it? It often grates among established – local, or at least from the UK – fans that an admittedly miniscule proportion of our away games get shared out among overseas supporters’ clubs. But that’s the way the club decides to allocate tickets, so there is little that can be done. I know there have been lengthy discussions about ticket distribution at fans’ forum meetings over the years.

Emotions often run high. Nothing is perfect. Everyone has an opinion though. How to reward loyalty? What a tough subject.

I remember, so very well, our first away game at Bournemouth in 2016. I know for a fact that not one ticket from the 1,200 that we were allotted went to any overseas club. But I do remember only too well that around ten people in the row behind me fucked off at half-time. I was seething at the sight of those empty seats.

I guess the lure of a couple of pints was too hard to resist.

Sigh.

I often try to help friends from the US obtain home tickets and it was a major struggle when the sanctions were brought in at the end of last season, but I was very happy to help. But away tickets are by definition so difficult to obtain. However, I will assist if I think it is deserved. If someone I don’t know from Badgercrack Nebraska asks me to get them an away ticket, especially if it is a first away game, or worse, a first-ever Chelsea game, I will politely decline.

Next to arrive were Nick and Kimberley from Fresno in California.

By now, Trotsky’s mind was blown.

“Wait. You have come all this way to see Brentford?”

We laughed.

It was true. Nick and Kimberley, who I first met in “The Pensioner” five seasons ago, almost to the day, were over for the football, but obviously Chelsea first and foremost. Sadly, their trip was to be curtailed as Nick’s mother had been taken ill. They would therefore, sadly, miss the United game on Saturday.

Trotsky was generally overwhelmed by our overseas support. I guess it is normal, now, in these modern times for foreign fans to latch on to Europe’s most successful teams. However, I told the story of how several of my US-based Chelsea mates helped support a lower-level team a decade or so ago. A few friends helped Frome Town raise £25,000 for a new stand to enable the club to remain in the Southern League. So, it’s not just top level teams that attract foreign fans. It’s level eight teams too.

Ben and Mike shot off early to try to rustle up a spare.

The pre-match chat continued. This was a very pleasant evening. If anything, the area south of Brentford’s new pad is even more swish than the Kings Road and parts of Chelsea.

It was time to walk the short distance to the snug stadium.

Outside, Paul from Swindon shouted over to me. He was with another long-distance acquaintance, who I quickly introduced to Kimberley and Nick.

“You two think California is a long way from London? Bank is from Bangkok.”

There was no bag search on entering the stadium. Myself and my notorious camera were in.

Last season, I watched from nearer the corner flag, along the side. This time I was further behind the goal and higher up. Excellent. It was lovely to see so many familiar faces before kick-off. We had two thousand seats for this one. Everyone would be used. Sadly, Mike was not one of those in attendance.

Graham Potter chose this side.

Kepa

Dave – Trevoh – Kalidou

Ruben – Jorginho – Conor – Marc

Kai – Mase

Armando

The lights dimmed, the stadium then pulsed with flashing strobes.

The teams entered.

“Hey Jude” was played and we soon hi-jacked it.

Brentford gave us three difficult games last season. We rode our luck in the two away games, then got mullered at Stamford Bridge. This one was a test for us no doubt.

The game began with Chelsea on top, but that soon changed.

Kepa made a fine early save down to our left from the always dangerous Ivan Toney. His central header was thankfully aimed straight at our in-form ‘keeper. The effort was tipped over.

Our chances were few and far between in that first part of the game. The home team, however, were looking to stretch us open with some incisive passing and intelligent running. On more than one occasion, it was our defensive acumen that was exposed.

Conor had begun brighter than most but he was sadly substituted by Mateo on fifteen minutes.

There was a shout from the home areas when Ruben tangled with Mbeumo. No penalty.

Not long after, Ruben got himself caught between two players as he attempted to clear the ball away up the line to safety.

“Ruben got sandwiched.”

Ben groaned.

“Corny, right?”

Not always dominant in the box, it was good to see Kepa come and punch a tantalising cross from the Brentford right. The ‘keeper, a hero in Milan and Witton, was again called into action. A long free-kick that was taken by the Brentford ‘keeper David Raya and the ball was inadvertently headed towards goal by Ruben. Frank Onyeka was lurking, but Kepa palmed his effort over. Rapturous applause again.

“He’s better than fucking Thibaut.”

But things weren’t great.

I turned to Ben.

“No threat up our right. No threat up our left. No threat in the middle.”

Kai was at his perplexing best, or worst, failing on a few occasions to be physical enough, nor as determined as he needed to be.

A shot from distance from Dave forced Raya to scramble down to his right.

I did like the look of young Armando on his first start. He kept running channels, chasing lost causes, an irritant to the defenders in the Brentford team. One determined run, with the striker out-chasing a marker and showing grim determination to push forward, ended up with a ball being flashed across the box. Kai was a yard short of reaching it.

“After Porto, I am not saying Kai had the world at his feet, but he hasn’t pushed on, has he?”

On this mild evening in West London, Mason was ridiculously quiet.

Just before the interval, a relatively quick break that was instigated by Armando’s harrying of a defender found Marc loitering on the edge of the box.

I screamed at him :

“Shoot. Shoot! SHOOT. SHOOT!”

He didn’t shoot.

Fackinell.

The ball was played out to Ruben whose shot was high and wide.

Sigh.

At the break, Brentford had enjoyed the better chances. I hoped for an improvement.

Soon into the second period, a tame header from Mbeumo – completely bloody unmarked – was gathered by Kepa.

The game stumbled along.

For some unfathomable reason, the “Dennis Wise” song was aired.

Why? Was he playing?

Seriously, let’s sing this when we are winning 6-0 but not at 0-0. Even worse was to follow. For a few minutes, the “that’s why we love Salomon Kakou” chant was sung, and it was probably the loudest chant all night.

Answers on a postcard.

On the hour, three substitutions.

Carney Chuklebrother for a poor Mason Mount.

Christian Pulisic for Marc Cucarella.

Raheem Sterling for Armando Broja.

I was amazed that Kai was still on the pitch. And a little annoyed that Armando had been replaced. He was one of our plus points.

Carney soon had a pacey run into the box down below us.

As the game continued, the three new players started to inject much-needed urgency. Space was at an absolute premium in the middle but Christian twisted and toiled with skill in search of an opening. A shot from Kai forced a point blank save from Raya.

At the other end, we warmed to intelligent play from Kepa who forced Toney wide and blocked the subsequent shot.

With ten to go, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang replaced Kai Havertz.

This game was wide open now. An optimistic shot from virtually the half-way line thankfully didn’t have the legs to beat Kepa. Brentford then hit the side netting with another shot.

Shots from Pierre-Emerick, Christian and even another blaster from Dave put the pressure on the Brentford ‘keeper. But I wasn’t convinced that we would get a winner, as blatantly undeserved as it would have been.

One last chance fell to Carney but his shot at the near post was saved well by Raya.

It ended 0-0.

Another clean sheet, if nothing else, but a far from “joined up” performance.

With this being a 7.30pm kick-off, I was away just before 10pm and I made very good time to get back to Melksham for midnight. I dropped the lads off and made my way home, getting home at 12.30am. I eventually made it to bed at 1.45am. I can never ever fall asleep as soon as I get home after these midweek flits to London.

4.45am to 1.45am.

Bloody hell.

“What?” I hear you ask, “no mention of 1982/83?”

There is no football to report from forty years ago but I was always going to mention a Stiff Little Fingers gig that I saw with a mate in Bristol on Sunday 17 October 1982, if only for the reason that I saw the same band in Frome on Monday 11 July 2022.

The show took place at the now defunct and demolished “Studio” and was the second time that I had seen the band in 1982. This latter gig was during the “Out Of Our Skulls” tour to promote their final album “Now Then.”

And I wondered how I could shoe-horn it in to this report, without it sticking out like a, er, stiff little finger. Then, after the game had ended, out in the concourse, a Chelsea supporter who I did not recognise approached me.

I looked a bit vague.

“Stiff Little Fingers.”

My mind whirled and it soon clicked. It was Richard, a friend on “Facebook” who I had not previously met. He was a big SLF fan too. And we briefly spoke about the band. It made me chuckle that so often I have bumped into someone and, seeing my look of befuddlement, they have uttered the word “Chelsea.” Yet here I was, at a Chelsea game, yet someone who I was unfamiliar with chose to say a band name rather than a football club name.

Thanks Richard. You helped create a far-more worthy final paragraph.

Well, almost a final paragraph.

Driving home, while the other three intermittently slept, I briefly thought about Stiff Little Fingers and their current line-up. Only two of the original four members remain – Jake Burns and Ali McMordie – but they are certainly still going strong. And I had a little chuckle about them being their own tribute act, maybe in the way that I see this current Chelsea team – not one of my favourites I have to be honest, not one that I feel a strong connection with – being a tribute act to the sides that I still adorn with love and admiration; the 1983/84 team, the 1996/97 team, the 2004/5 team, maybe the 2011/12 team.

Is that what I really feel?

Is this the phase that I am at?

God knows, it had been a long day.

See you against United.

Tales From A Muggy Night

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 30 August 2022.

An away trip to Southampton early this season meant that we were repeating three of the last four away games of the last campaign in the first three matches of the current one.

Last season we lost to Everton 1-0; this season we beat them 1-0.

Last season we beat Leeds United 3-0; this season they beat us 3-0.

Last season we beat Southampton 6-0; surely not?

The Famous Five left Melksham at around 3.15pm. I was driving again, and my fellow passengers were PD, Parky, Sir Les and Glenn the birthday boy, celebrating his fifty-fifth birthday a day before he was to begin a new job.

Southampton away is a breeze. At around 5pm, I was parked up in the small car park outside the city’s Central train station.

The evening heat surprised me.

“It’s nice out” I said.

“It is yes, but put it away, someone will see it” replied Parky.

The others dashed off to “Yates” for a pre-match tipple while I decided to grab a bite to eat in a nearby Italian restaurant. There were a couple of familiar Chelsea faces in there – “alright, boys?” – and I soon sat down for a pizza. This is standard for me. I reckon we could play in Kazakhstan, Bolivia or Zimbabwe and I’d still order a pre-match pizza.

I joined up with the lads in the pub, but none of us were keen to stay for any longer. There was a quick “hello goodbye” to a few troops before we set off to walk the twenty minutes or so to the stadium. The three Norwegians – four actually, I neglected to mention Jon in the Leicester City report – had been spotted in the pub. A couple of local lads were there too.

“Good trip down, Chris?”

“Oh yeah, easy.”

“Did Les come with you?”

“Yeah mate. But with PD in the passenger seat and Les sat behind him, the car kept veering to the left. It took me three attempts to get out of Melksham.”

We were down at the stadium as early as 6.15pm. It felt odd being there so early. I had to sort out a ticket for Young Jake, who none of us had seen for ages. We thought that his last game with us was the Norwich City FA Cup game at Carrow Road in 2018. There was time to chill out a little and relax. I shot off to take a few shots of the stadium.

“It’s no San Siro but surely there’s the chance to take a few decent photographs?” I thought to myself.

There wasn’t.

St. Mary’s is as bland as bland can be.

Talking of the San Siro, we – PD, Parky and I – are booked to head over in October, but we will be staying in Turin for three nights and will be joined by Dave who now lives near Nice and was last seen before the Tottenham away game late in 2018. I will be driving in to Milan on the day of the game. A version of “The Italian Job” perhaps? In a Fiat Chucklecento maybe? No, too much of a tight fit for four of us. Why Turin? When I returned home from Chelsea on Saturday night, it seemed that all the cheap flights to Milan had gone. The accommodation looked expensive too. I have no qualms about returning to Turin once again; it’s my favourite Italian city and far more interesting that Milan. As for the other Champions League aways, we are not going to Zagreb but I suspect that a trip to Salzburg is likely.

This was my second game in two days. On the Bank Holiday Monday, I drove to Bath to see Frome Town wallop local neighbours Larkhall Athletic 4-0. With the upcoming game against West Ham now taking place on Saturday, I am forced to miss Frome’s home FA Cup tie against Tiverton Town.

Now is a good time to slip into the conversation my second memory of the 1982/83 season. On Saturday 28 August, Chelsea opened up our fourth consecutive season in the old Second Division with an away game at Cambridge United’s Abbey Stadium. Did I go? No. I was still at school and would only go to four games that season, the same as in the previous campaign. On that particular afternoon, Frome Town got my attention as I watched a 0-0 home draw with Wellington in the old Western League – “a terrible game” says my diary – but I would have been no doubt elated with a 1-0 win.

Chelsea finished mid-table in 1981/82 and only the most optimistic of Chelsea fans would have hoped that we would make a sustained promotion push in 1982/83. Our only real outlay throughout the summer had been the almost laughable acquisition of much-travelled Bryan “Pop” Robson, who was thirty-six when we bought him. I for one, was not impressed.

The team that day?

Steve Francis in goal. Gary Locke and Chris Hutchings the full backs. Micky Nutton and Micky Droy as centre-backs. Colin Pates, John Bumstead and Mike Fillery in midfield. Colin Lee, Clive Walker and Pop Robson upfront, with Paul Canoville as a substitute.

Interestingly, Pates, Chivers, Bumstead and Canoville are currently employed by Chelsea to this day as match-day hosts in the corporate areas.

Even more interestingly, my friend Daryl spotted Pop Robson near Red Square before the Champions League Final in 2008, presumably on some junket with a UEFA sponsor.

Our match winner forty years ago?

Bryan “Pop” Robson.

I was to eat my words, for one game at least.

The gate was 8,124, and I am sure that around half would have been Chelsea.

Back to 2022.

Jake soon arrived and there was the chance to chat to a few friends from near and far. The “Ticket Man” arrived on schedule at 7pm and we were in the stadium just after. Down in the darkened but spacious concourse, more chit-chat with some and a few “nods” to others. With plenty of time to kick-off, I swapped tickets with PD and sat next to Glenn towards the back of the away section, right behind the goal. I usually watch from down low so this made a nice change.

Glenn is often with us at Southampton. There were a few games at The Dell and he was also with us in August 2001 when we opened up the new stadium with a 1-0 win. I have seen all of our fourteen games against the Saints at St. Mary’s – minus the COVID ones – and I kept saying to the lads “we’ve only lost once down here, the Benitez spell in 2013.”

As we waited for the game to start, there were a few half-hearted flames in front of the stand to our left. A brass band appeared, walking towards us, left to right, and they played “Oh When The Saints” as a large banner surfed along from right to left.

I turned to Glenn and said “I always remember a game here in 1994 when you were excited about starting a chant in the away end.”

We were in the seats along the side and Glenn began bellowing “Dennis plays for England” which the rest of the Chelsea support joined in with. Glenn’s recollection was that Wisey scored a late winner. Looking back, it was actually Paul Furlong on eighty-nine minutes. Perhaps Glenn had mentally confused the two moments.

To my surprise, Billy Gilmour and Ethan Ampadu were among the named substitutes.

The team drew a few shocked reactions.

Mendy

Dave – Silva – Koulibaly – Cucarella

Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Mount

Ziyech – Sterling – Havertz

No Reece James, no Trevoh Chalibah, we presumed injured.

The teams entered. As at Leeds United, we played in dark blue socks and I wondered why. Surely we have some royal blue socks knocking about somewhere. The home team’s kit was a shocker. Hummel brought out some absolute killers back in the ‘eighties and Saints even had their copy of the half-and-half Denmark kit. This current shirt – predominantly white – misses by a mile. The shirt of the Keegan era would surely have looked better; predominantly red with a broad white central stripe rather than the current version. I wasn’t even sure I liked the white socks either. Very odd.

The home areas took ages to fill up and there were quite a few empty seats dotted around. I saw no unused seats in our allocation of around three thousand. We took a while to get going but the songs soon boomed around the away end.

It was a muggy night in the Northam Stand.

As is so often the case with away matches in Southampton, the home team enjoyed the best of the early exchanges. We then began to get a foothold on the game. The pitch, usually excellent, was worn in many places, as if it was a mid-season game.

Our chances, or half-chances, started to stack up. Raheem Sterling scuffed a shot right at the Saints ‘keeper Gavin Bazunu. A chance for Hakim Ziyech came and went. Sterling looked as lively as any player on the pitch and on twenty-three minutes, a lovely move down our left involving first Kai Havertz and then Mason Mount set up the central striker. Sterling appeared to lose control of the ball on the six-yard box but was the first to react as it spun loose. He stabbed the ball in and wheeled away in delight.

Phew.

I suspect that this is just the sort of goal that is practised ad infinitum on the practice pitches at Cobham; all movement, all together.

The away crowd soon responded.

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel.”

Not long after, Ziyech played in Havertz in the inside-left position. He got his shot in from an angle but the shot was hit right at the Saints keeper.

From that moment, our play drifted.

Just five minutes after we had scored, Dave decided to whack the ball out for a corner rather than play it back to Edouard Mendy to deal with. At the time, I understood that call.

What were we always told at school?

“Safety first.”

Sadly, the resulting corner fell to an unmarked Southampton player – Romeo Lavia – who was loitering with intent outside the box. He took one touch and lashed it home. Glenn was raging. Only a few minutes earlier he had spotted two Saints players unmarked at the back stick at a previous corner.

Of course the home fans roared.

Our play deteriorated as the home team became stronger. I lost count of the number of passes that Ruben Loftus-Cheek misdirected. One run out of defence by him seemed to be in slow motion.

“Ross Barkley is a big unit but even he had a burst of pace” I moaned to Glenn. “Ruben makes Micky Fillery look quick.”

Our midfield in general – without a midfield general – looked so poor. Dave was caught out of position on a couple of occasions. We had no bite. The only plus point was watching Thiago Silva scoop a few balls up and over the heads of the advancing opposition out to the right wing. I could watch that man play football for hours.

Glenn was getting frustrated further : “no tackles!”

There was an awful moment when I thought that I had been transported back to the early nineties under Ian Porterfield when there seemed to be a never-ending sequence of head tennis on the halfway line. This was rotten football.

With the home support energised, it turned into a temporary Pompey Hate Fest. Mason Mount was deemed public enemy number one.

With the half-time whistle approaching – “blow up ref, let’s regroup at the break” – a laughably poor attempt at a tackle by Jorginho failed dismally and Southampton advanced with speed and purpose. As the move progressed I repeatedly shouted two words :

“Too easy! Too easy! Too easy!”

The ball was smashed home after a fine move by Adam Armstrong.

Too easy.

Two-one to Southampton.

“Oh When The Saints” boomed around the home areas.

Fackinell.

The referee blew for half-time almost immediately.

I turned to Glenn at the break : “this has been a timid performance.”

We both wanted Tuchel to bring on Armando Broja for the miss-firing Havertz. Towards the end of the half-time break, with the grass getting an extra dose of water from the sprinklers, we spotted Tuchel chatting with Mateo Kovacic on the pitch. The manager then sat alone on the bench for a number of minutes.

I just found all of this a bit odd.

One presumes that he had said enough to the players in five minutes and didn’t need ten. Personally, I would have taken fifteen.

“Oh, before you go back out on that pitch, just be aware that there are supporters out there who have travelled down from the north of England, from the Midlands, from East Anglia for tonight’s game and they won’t get home until about 2am in the morning but will need to be up again for work within a few hours, knackered, and they will do it all again and again and again…”

I saw him studying some sheets in a folder.

It almost raised a wry smile.

“Never mind the first-half stats, pal, just fire some fucks into them.”

No real surprises, Tuchel replaced Loftus-Cheek with Kovacic.

“Kovacic, Our Croatian Man…”

Soon into the second-half, Southampton broke down our right and a shot from close in was blocked on the line by Cucarella. Mendy made a fine reaction save to tip over the follow-up effort.

The home fans really turned up the heat on Mason.

“You skate bastard. You skate bastard.”

“Mason Mount, we fucking hate you.”

We struggled to get things moving. Oh for a playmaker, oh for a Cesc Fabregas.

On the hour, there was a loud, proud and defiant “Carefree” from us followed by derisory applause from the home fans.

Sadly, our play stagnated further. I saw little movement off the ball and the mood in the away end was falling fast.

With twenty minutes or so left it was all change, three substitutions :

Ben Chilwell for Jorginho.

Armando Broja for Dave.

Christian Pulisic for Havertz.

I expected a ripple of applause for Broja from the home fans; there was nothing, the ungrateful sods.

We all revelled in the great rush into space from Broja and his strength in twisting and turning past two players. He left them for dead before sending in a cross. This augured well for the rest of the game or so we hoped. In reality, despite his more aggressive movement and enthusiasm, his only other noticeable action involved a header near a post that never looked like troubling the ‘keeper. Kovacic added a little burst of energy too, but this soon petered out as moves slowed down and died. Pulisic looked remote and uninterested wide on the right. My recollection is of him hardly bothering to go past players, but my photographs would prove otherwise. How Ziyech stayed on all game is a mystery.

The minutes ticked by.

From a corner, Silva was in the right place at the right time. The ball hit him on the line.

I fully expected us to lose another goal.

3-1 would not have flattered them.

In a scene that was reminiscent of the Leicester game, Mendy appeared in the opposing box for a late corner or two.

When the ball was hoofed up field, one of my photographs completely captured our night, with Cucarella nervously falling to head the ball away, being pressured by a Saints attacker, the goal open and vulnerable.

I spent some of the last minutes of the game watching that fucking dachshund on the “Vitality” advertising boards trot around the stadium at roughly the same pace that our team had been doing all match.

The final whistle blew.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 1.

We got what we deserved, no doubt.

A posse of young Southampton fans to our right spent many a minute goading us as we waited to drift away into the night. I was pragmatic about it.

“Bollocks. Let them enjoy themselves, the little twerps.”

Some other Chelsea supporters were a little more hostile.

It was all a pantomime show to me.

In days gone by, there is no doubt that Chelsea would not have taken such a defeat well. Recriminations would have been enacted outside the stadium as fans would have sought revenge.

“We’re a right bunch of bastards when we lose.”

We all met up outside and slowly trudged back to the car. That walk always seems twice as long when we lose.

There was a small scale altercation.

A mouthy young Southampton fan wearing the hugely odd combination of a bar scarf and a Stone Island sweatshirt was heard to shout “Chelsea Rent Boys.” This was like a red rag to a bull to one or two in our support. The youngster escaped into the night with a warning.

All five of us were at a low ebb. There really were no positives from the night. Only two or three players had average performances.

On a muggy night in Southampton, we were the mugs.

We stopped off at the always-busy “McDonalds” at the bottom end of the A36 at about 10.30pm. A couple of lads enjoyed a burger. I downed the inevitable coffee. Outside, the air still warm, I got a little philosophical.

“We are so unused to defeats. Over the last twenty years, we have had a magnificent ride. It’s all been massively good fun. But remember that ninety per cent of people who go to football in this country have no hope of seeing their team win anything. That’s quite something really. That so many go just for the love of their team. Quite admirable really. Not saying we should not get concerned about defeats, but maybe we just need to re-focus our targets.”

That reset button might have to be adjusted again over the next few weeks.

The immediate reaction out there in Chelsea Land was split. Some want Tuchel gone. Some want to persevere.

Me?

I’m fucking looking forward to the San Siro in October I know that.

See you against West Ham.

Tales From A Typical Day At The Office

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 27 August 2022.

There is one positive that came out of last Sunday’s humiliating defeat at Elland Road. As I stood in the upper section of our away area until the referee blew his whistle, I was at a low ebb, deflated. But it struck me that at least the fortunes of this great club still mattered to me. I was still emotionally attached to Chelsea. In an era when I am still occasionally doubting my devotion to the cause – have I ever said I hate modern football? – the defeat against Leeds certainly made me smart. I hated conceding three goals. It felt like a triple kick in the bollocks. I also hated us being the target of the large-scale piss-taking from those lads in the South Stand.

I also found it harrowing that many fellow fans had left the away enclosure way before the final whistle. I reacted that this was a further slight on my team, my club. However, as we sloped back to the car last Sunday, I realised that my season, only three games in for me, had been reset.

I was emotionally locked-in again. I cared.

Our next game would be at home to Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City, a bête-noire for us in recent years. On the face of it, this was a rather mundane match, but one that was engendering a new level of importance for me.

As an aside, my local team Frome Town were playing pre-season promotion favourites AFC Totton at home at the same time. I have commented before that there might well become a time when I have to choose between an important Frome Town game and a run-of-the-mill Chelsea game. This wasn’t going to be that occasion.

Chelsea needed me and I needed Chelsea.

Chelsea vs. Leicester City it was.

As an hors-oeuvre to the game, the Champions League draw had taken place on Thursday evening. We had briefly discussed options outside “The Drysalters” in Leeds on the Sunday.

“Bloody hell. Imagine Celtic. It would be like a military operation. We’d have to collect our match tickets in Motherwell and be flown in by police helicopter.”

On Thursday morning, I sent a message to a few friends.

“Milan and Glasgow please.”

With the San Siro due to be replaced by a new state-of-the-art stadium in its current car park, a visit to Milan was undoubtedly priority “numero uno” for me. With Milan and Inter in the draw, we had a chance. Even though I watched Internazionale play against Empoli in 1987 and Bologna in 1990, I unfortunately missed the Chelsea Champions League games in 1999 and 2011 due to work commitments. There was an earlier friendly in 1995 against Milan too, but that was never on my radar.

Parky and I were at a Chelsea wedding reception – congratulations Gemma and Ludo – on Thursday evening and as we stopped at a pub close to the venue in Maidenhead, I finally checked my ‘phone and was so pleased that we had drawn Milan.

Bloody magnificent.

We just had to wait for the dates to be finalised. My only doubt involved Matchday 2; there was already someone away on holiday from our small office that week. Surely work wouldn’t bugger things up for me yet again?

Saturday arrived. Alan would be unable to attend the Leicester game – work buggering things up for him on this occasion – and so Glenn was able to take his ticket.

In the low countryside around Frome, everything was shrouded in mist. Tree tops pierced the white blanket. It was a stunning scene. Away in the distance, the hills past Trudoxhill and Chapmanslade stood like islands above a white foaming sea.

At road level, thankfully visibility was fine. As I drove east, my car was fully loaded.

The two Glenns and Ron at the back, Paul and me up front.

“Some five-a-side team, this.”

The weather was decent, the chit-chat provided a lovely back-drop to my driving. All was good in the world. Glenn – he has a ticket for Southampton away, on his birthday, on Tuesday – will be starting a new job next week and he is happy about that.

“You played at the San Siro in the ‘sixties, right, Ron?”

“Yeah, we got through on the toss of a coin.”

It sent a shiver down my spine when I realised that one of my passengers had played against Milan legend, their golden boy, Gianni Rivera.

The pattern for pre-match at Stamford Bridge is well set these days.

I drop the boys off on the Fulham side of Putney Bridge. I park up on Bramber Road and walk down to Fulham Broadway with Ron, who dives off to wait at the hotel bar until his corporate gig starts. I have a chat with a few early risers and then catch the two-minute train down to Putney Bridge before joining up with the lads in “The Eight Bells.”

At Steve Smyth’s stall, I picked up a copy of “Soccer The Hard Way” by Ron Harris. It’s pretty rare so I didn’t mind paying a fair bit for it. I’m friends with Steve, so he kindly gave me a decent reduction. In an ironic twist, Ron’s petrol money helped to pay for it.

In case any Americans are getting excited about the use of the word “soccer” in the title of the book, I need to comment that for a decade or so, from the mid-‘sixties to the mid-‘seventies, the word “soccer” often appeared in the UK media; on TV programmes, in books, in magazines. I have no explanation for this. In the school playground and in the workplace, pub and stadium, it was always football.

There was a nice chat with Marco and DJ outside the “CFCUK Stall“ and I then made my way south.

There was a breakfast in the café opposite the tube station at 11am. There’s just something about a fry-up (I don’t have many for those concerned) in a London caff on match days. It’s timeless. I checked my phone to see that the Footballing Gods had smiled on me. Everything was clear for Milan in early October. Zagreb was just too early for me to get my head around it and work is busy at the moment. Salzburg is a likely trip too.

We’re lucky people.

I decided that I would check Milan flights and suchlike when I returned home later that evening but knew that all of the cheap deals would have been snapped up quickly.

I thought back to the first-ever time that I saw Leicester City play us. It was early on in the 1982/83 season. I will detail that game later this season, but as a lead-in to my memories of that season, our worst-ever, I am heading back to Sunday 22 August 1982.

I was mid-way through the Sixth Form at Frome College and hardly relishing the final year. I would take “A Levels” the following June. Emotionally, I was rather low. I was lamenting the departure of my first-ever girlfriend Julie who had moved away to the Reading area not long after we first started going out. For those wondering, these two facts were not linked. Smiley face.

Her father had been working in Bath for the Ministry of Defence but had taken up a new position in Berkshire. I needed some cheering up and I had talked my parents into taking me up to Stamford Bridge for a family day a week before the season began. I remember that I had asked Julie if she fancied coming along for the day, my Dad picking her up en route, but her letter that declined the offer resembled a bullet to my heart. The end was nigh. Her family were more into rugby anyway. It would never had lasted. Another bloody smiley face.

I have a feeling that my parents went shopping while I spent a few hours at Stamford Bridge. My memories aren’t particularly strong. I certainly remember getting quite a few autographs; assistant manager Ian McNeil and players Gary Locke, new signing Bryan “Pop” Robson, Mike Fillery, Alan Mayes, Bob Iles, Colin Pates, Gary Chivers, and Peter Rhoades-Brown. I remember I ascended the upper tier of the East Stand for the first time and thought that the old stadium looked an absolute picture.

There were funfairs and sideshows dotted around the stadium and the highlight was a practice match at three o’clock.

As a pre-curser to that, and I have no recollection of this, I was probably chasing players for autographs :

“Sherriff Danny Arnold Wild West Demonstration.”

No smiley face.

Tickets for the upcoming home game with Wolves started at £3.50 and the most expensive were £7.

I bought a photo of the squad. I loved that Chelsea shirt. I still have it,

The one thing I do recollect is a small chat with Colin Pates, amazed by the turn out.

“God, if it’s like this now, what will it be like if we actually win anything?”

Two years later Colin found out.

I strolled into the pub at about 11.30am. The boys had been in there since opening time at 10am.

We were soon joined by Even, Ray and Hans from Oslo who have been relatively recent additions to my Facebook friends list, lured in by this very blogorama.

Thanks boys.

It was a pleasure to spend some time with them. They are over for a week or so and will be at Southampton on Tuesday and at the West Ham game next weekend. They have all been Chelsea since the early-‘seventies. Ray and Hans are season-ticket holders in the MHL, and from what I could work out sit relatively close to the Kent Boys – Kim, Andy, Dan, Graham and more – who were nestled around another table in the boozer.

“I’ll try to keep a look out for you.”

Ray and Hans come over for fifteen to twenty games every season.

Top class.

We were joined by Sophie – fresh from her enjoyable trip to Milan of all places – and Andy and then we all left for the game at two o’clock.

Parky made his way to join his pals in The Shed. PD, Glenn and I continued on to the familiar stairs of the Matthew Harding. Inside, we were joined by Gary – who sits a few yards away from me in the MHU but is within earshot of those sitting in The Shed Upper – and Clive.

So, alongside me was Glenn, then Clive, then PD.

The Famous Four.

A Saturday league game at three o’clock. Weekends were made for this.

A typical day at the office.

Let’s go to work.

On the pitch, the team lined up with Edouard in goal, what seemed like a back four of Reece, Thiago Silva, Trevoh and Marc, a midfield of Ruben, Jorginho, Conor and Mase, with Havertz and Raheem up top. But it wasn’t always easy to see exactly who occupied what part of the pitch. Where’s my heat map when I need it? The Famous Four’s heat map was mainly four dots the entire first-half with one solitary excursion to the gents for Clive. Thomas Tuchel’s heat map must have been a single dot too, banished to the stands after the altercation with Antonio Conte after the last home game.

We attacked the Matthew Harding in the first-half. It always seems odd.

Early on, Raheem advanced centrally and rolled an absolutely perfectly-weighted ball into the path of Ruben – I expected a goal, I was up on my feet – but Leicester ‘keeper Danny Ward was able to recover and block well at his near post.

On twelve moments, we were awarded a penalty after a clumsy challenge on Ruben by Youri Tielemans – our 2021 FA Cup Final nemesis – and I was up on my feet again. For some reason, I immediately glanced around me and was shocked (shocked, I tell ya) to see that 90% of my close neighbours in the MHU were fully seated.

What? We have just been awarded a penalty! Good God. Has our support become that dull and unresponsive?

Ah, but maybe they knew something. After a few seconds, VAR was called into action. We waited with that dull ache of inevitably.

In the build-up, Kai had been spotted in an off-side position.

Those watching on TV at home – the important ones – probably had a much better view, and explanation, than us in the stadium.

We had definitely begun the better team, with Raheem buzzing about nicely, but then our play drifted and we lost a lot of intensity and Leicester came into the game.

I think I heard a “Dennis Wise is a wanker” chant from the Foxes. Answers on a postcard. I guess he wasn’t particularly liked when he played for them after leaving us.

On the half-an-hour, Marc wasted a corner on the far side and the ball was punted away. Conor then made a terrible lunge on Harvey Barnes in his own half. The youngster – again seemingly eager to impress –  had begun the game with a lovely crunching tackle, but I apparently missed a yellow that he had received earlier. This absolutely silly tackle was rewarded with a second yellow. While Clive fucked off to the little boys’ room, Conor fucked off to the dressing room.

Silly boy.

I lamented the fact that we were down to ten men for the second successive game and had mustered just one shot on goal in just over thirty minutes.

Next, Edouard jumped at a ball from corner and the appeared to fluff his lines completely. The ball was turned in but thankfully a foul on Mendy had been spotted.

On forty-two minutes, a ball dropped nicely for Reece but his powerful strike hit the angle of near post and cross-bar.

Two shots. Oh boy.

Next, a pass from Tielemans sliced through our last line and the advancing Jamie Vardy – his wife is a grass – scuffed his shot wide and this reminded me so much of the Kane miss a fortnight earlier.

This was a pretty poor performance from us. It was a pretty poor game. The atmosphere was not worthy of the name. Sigh.

I turned to Clive : “our link up play just doesn’t hurt anyone.”

Just before the half-time whistle, Dennis Praet was in on goal and there was a fear of impending gloom. Thankfully Edouard raced from his line and made a very fine save indeed.

At the break, the doom mongers were out, including me.

“0-0 – can’t see us scoring…”

One of the bright spots in the first forty-five minutes had been Trevoh’s solid showing. I said to Gal  “is Fofana really £70M better than Chalobah?”

As the second-half begun, I saw Dave in his number twenty-eight shirt, on the pitch. I missed the fine detail of the substitution. I soon worked out that Mason had been replaced and I realised that he had hardly played any part in the first-half. Weird times.

Dave played in a three with Reece and Marc moving to wing-backs.

After just two minutes of the second-half, the game changed. A very fine ball from Marc found Raheem in the inside left channel. A little shimmy, some space gained, and then a shot that was subtly deflected up and over the despairing leap of Ward in the Leicester City goal.

The crowd roared.

One-nil to Chelsea.

At last Stamford Bridge boomed.

“Sing when we’re winning? Yes.”

Soon after, another lucky deflection – this time on another Marc to Raheem pass – set things up nicely but his shot cannoned back off the far post with Ward well beaten.

I loved how Trevoh twisted in mid-air to stretch and head a dangerous cross out for a corner, his braids flying every which way.

A break from Ruben with Marc in acres of space outside him but he chose to continue on and attempt to beat a man, one of his “things” that annoys me. The ball was lost.

Half-way through the second period, we witnessed a fine move. Jorginho guided a ball out wide. Havertz, almost walking, played a ball forward into space down in Parkyville for Reece. His smart cross was zipped across the goal and Raheem was beautifully positioned to tap in.

Chelsea two-up.

Wow.

With no James Maddison, it was Harvey Barnes who was causing us a few problems. Not long after our second goal, he played a neat one-two with Vardy and smashed the ball past Edouard at his near post.

That wasn’t on the script. Fackinell.

This, then, set up a very nervy final quarter of the game.

There were worried looks in the Matthew Harding as the away team attacked our end. But it was a major plus that we possessed the calming influence of Thiago Emiliano da Silva in our defence. He was putting on another sublime performance. A sliding tackle on seventy-seven minutes was worth the admission money on its own. The applause boomed around the stadium.

I loved the way the home crowd got behind the team in those last nervy minutes.

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

There was a fine Mendy save from Barnes, down low.

Two substitutions :

Mateo for Jorginho.

Christian for Raheem.

These freshened things up nicely.

Late on, I spotted Ray and Hans in the MHL.

The most worrying moment occurred on eighty-two minutes when that man Vardy raced away and clear of Trevoh. Our last defender made a valiant effort to stop him, chopping high, but the ball ran on. He rounded Mendy but with a heavy touch. His slashed shot thankfully only hit the side netting.

Ben for Marc.

With continental-style whistling and the constant “CAM ON CHOWLSEA” combining for a deafening finish, Leicester broke through one last time. Ayoze Perez ran through and slammed a fierce shot goal wards. But Mendy had stayed tall, narrowing angles, closing free space, and the ball thundered against the underside of the bar.

Phew.

Four league games. Two wins. A draw. A loss. A solid start, nothing more.

I will see some of you at Southampton on Tuesday evening.

Gallery

Chelsea Norway

1982/1983

Tales From The Last One Of Seventy-Three

Chelsea vs. Watford : 22 May 2022.

It’s pretty difficult to sum up what I wanted from this last game of the season. Such events can often be inherently strange affairs; often there is nothing to play for, nothing to fight for, and these games are invariably played out in sunshine, thus giving the matches the feel of summer friendlies, or training games.

Against Leicester City on the preceding Thursday, I had said “if I don’t see you on Sunday, have a good summer” to a few friends.

And, I suppose, this was the main raison d’etre for turning up for the visit of relegated Watford. It was important to wish friends and faces, brothers and sisters, fellow fans and fellow obsessives, the best of summers until the start of the next season. Of course, to support the team one last time is a given, right?

Maybe not.

A couple of weeks back, I spotted a few “can’t wait for this season to end” posts from near and far. There was an online altercation with a fan a few thousand miles away who even stated this before the FA Cup Final had taken place. I wasn’t having that. Talk about entitled new fans. That just about summed up our current predicament with some of our brood.

Sigh.

We are supporters. That is our name and that is who we are. Sometimes this is lost amongst the hubbub of social media chit-chat. Sometimes we take on the air of tactical geniuses, of football gurus, of experts on this and that. I am not so sure this is different now than before.

It’s just louder.

Against a backdrop of possible indifference to this last game of the season, the day certainly gave me a timely reminder of how lucky us regular match-goers are. We are incredibly lucky. We get to see our team play each week, maybe twice a week, whereas the vast majority of our global support base – pick a number, one hundred million? – will never see the team in the flesh. It’s easy to scoff at our foreign fans, too easy, but I know for a fact that many of my most cherished Chelsea friends live overseas, and their knowledge of the club and their understanding of what makes Chelsea tick is to be admired.

Some, admittedly, don’t get it.

Their loss.

This was a 4pm kick-off, but I was up early. The alarm sounded at 5.45am. I collected PD at 6.45am, then Chopper, then Parky. We stopped for a couple of breakfast rolls at “Greggs”on the A303 – thankfully the regular server, Sweet Caroline, a bloody Liverpool fan, was not in – and I was soon depositing PD and Parky outside “The Temperance” on the Fulham High Street at 9.30am. They would pop into a nearby café for a coffee before “The Eight Bells” opened up at 10am. I parked up and walked to Stamford Bridge with Chopper. We were there that early that not even Marco’s “CFCUK” stall was set up. There was a chat with Steve at his programme stall. Marco appeared and I took a photo of Marco and Chopper, knowing full well that Marco often likes to post photos of former players on match days on his various social media feeds.

Chopper and I turned left to walk into Stamford Bridge via the entrance to the West Stand. My mind back-tracked. On that exact piece of terra firma, in 1974, I had turned into Stamford Bridge with my parents for the very first time. It was another sunny day. My first game. My first walk up those terraced steps into the West Stand.

“Home.”

I have said it before, but that moment in time – over forty-eight years ago – is etched in my mind forever and ever and ever. That I was repeating it alongside Ron Harris, who played on that day – I mentioned it to him – was particularly poignant. I took a photo of a smiling Chopper with the statue of Ossie in the background.

It will probably turn out to be one of my favourite ever Chelsea photographs.

I back-tracked and caught the tube away from Stamford Bridge – always an odd sensation – and was soon in “The Eight Bells.” We were joined by friends from all over. With the help of a few accomplices, I had been able to sort out spares for a few fans from the US. I enjoyed a good, very good, “state of the nation” chat with Cal who I have known for a good few years now. I always remember seeing him on that long walk to the stadium in Munich before the game – I wasn’t sure that I shared his gung-ho enthusiasm – but also in the concourse immediately after we had all been ushered out of the Nord Kurv, the last to leave, smiles and handshakes, the best of times. We spoke, briefly, about the stresses and the madness of the Porto game too.

Memories to last a very long time.

PD and Parky were in the middle of an extended drinking sesh and the laughter was booming. Dave from Northampton called in for a drink, a couple of the US visitors called in to collect tickets, Josh from Minnesota – still here from the FA Cup Final, stranded with COVID but now able to squeeze in one extra game – was with us. Johnny Twelve and his wife Jenny called in. Andy and Sophie from Nuneaton. The Kent boys, at the bar, roaring with laughter in the background.

All the world in one place.

I loved it.

At around 3pm, we caught the tube to Fulham Broadway for the last time of the season. We encountered some Watford fans. What an odd bunch. I will leave it there. Outside the steps to the Matthew Harding, we sorted one last ticket and I made my way in.

After Leicester City not filling their 3,000 spaces on Thursday, Watford showed them up. A full three-thousand and the highest percentage of replica shirts from any team all season. Bless’em.

Over in The Shed, I spotted wires that would be used to hoist a huge banner over the heads of supporters. I was primed for that exact moment.

Jenny settled in next to me in The Sleepy Hollow. Johnny Twelve was a few seats behind. We waited for the final few moments before the game would begin. Of course, elsewhere there were a few games that would be getting our attention too.

Manchester City at home to Aston Villa. A win please, City.

Liverpool at home to Wolves. Anything you can do, Wolves, would be greatly appreciated.

Norwich City vs. Tottenham. Could they do the ultimate “Spursy” and lose, thus finishing fifth?

Down in The Shed, things were stirring.

The huge mural of current and former players, managers, catchphrases and moments was stunning. And huge. What an effort.

A critique?

Not so sure Jody Morris really deserves a place despite his iconic celebration against United in 1999 and his work with the academy.

Lovely to see Micky Greenaway featured.

Not sure why Frank Lampard and John Terry are featured twice.

Personally, I would have loved to see that famous photo of Hughie Gallacher, pointing.

Hopefully, everyone reading this can name all of the faces featured. If not, sort yourself out.

The teams entered the pitch.

Our starting eleven?

Edouard

Dave – Long John Silva – Rudi

Reece – Saul – N’Golo – Kenedy

Hakim – Kai – Mase

Kenedy was a surprise start. I noted Saul this time; it gave me a warm feeling that Al admitted that he hadn’t noticed him playing the second-half against Wolves too. We were pleased to hear that Ben might be getting a few minutes off the bench.

The game began with us attacking The Shed End. We began relatively brightly with a couple of efforts from Havertz and Saul.

Very soon into the game, we heard that Wolves were 1-0 up at Anfield.

Oh the joy.

I looked over to see Roy Hodgson, his last ever game as a manager, and alongside him the former Chelsea midfielder Ray Lewington. Seeing them on the bench reminded me of a chat that I initiated on “Facebook” during a particularly desolate spell last season.

I find it odd, with the half-way line being off-centre in relation to the tunnel and dug-outs at Stamford Bridge, that Chelsea don’t sit in the northern one since it clearly offers a better all-round view of the pitch. The current away dug out, in fact, currently sits right on the half-way line, whereas the Chelsea one is way off-centre.

This is especially strange since Chelsea have the northern changing rooms. It would make sense for them to have the northern bench too. Back in the ‘seventies, Chelsea originally had the northern dug-outs. I am not sure why it changed.

The current location of the Chelsea dugout being so off-centre has never made sense to me.

In next seasons tales, I aim to provide a thorough review of the location of soap dispensers in the Matthew Harding bogs. Stay tuned.

In the eleventh minute, a fine ball from Kenedy on the left was nicely aimed towards Kai Havertz who could not miss, unmarked and with the goal at his mercy.

I thought, perhaps, he might have been offside, the Watford defence having seemingly stopped.

We enjoyed a few more chances, but the high spot of the middle section of the first-half was a perfectly executed sliding tackle from behind by Saul, hooking the ball away nicely from a Watford player. The same player then shot from outside the box. There was a Mount header. But then Watford enjoyed a little of the play as the first-half continued. There was a save from Mendy after a rare attack on our goal.

It was far from a great game, this. Watford wilted a little and we looked tired. A few more chances came our way, the best falling to Havertz, raiding from the left but his rising shot clipped the top of the bar.

Elsewhere, Manchester City were losing 1-0 at home to Villa and Liverpool were drawing 1-1 at home to Wolves. It was still advantage City.

Although we were winning, this was mundane stuff. I wondered if we were to get our real thrills from games taking place away from SW6.

The second-half began. Soon into the game, on the forty-ninth minute, we joined in applause in remembrance of Scott Conlon, a season-ticket-holder, who had recently passed away. I had spotted a small blue and white wreath at Peter Osgood’s feet in front of the West Stand before the game. A banner was hoisted in his memory in The Shed Upper.

RIP.

Watford created a few chances in the opening part of the second forty-five and Mandy needed to be at his best to save a low shot from Joao Pedro.

We shuffled about without causing much harm. Mount was guilty of trying to dribble through a forest of legs once too often. We were a mess of miss-hit passes.

It was pretty dull stuff. I stifled some yawns.

Thomas Tuchel made some changes.

Malang Sarr for Kenedy.

Ross Barkley for Rudiger.

Rudiger was warmly applauded as he left the pitch. He has been undoubtedly outstanding for us the past eighteen months or so. And even though I was utterly impressed with his letter of goodbye – a great deal of emotion, humour and intelligence – I am not going to get overly emotional about him leaving. We made him. I wish him well. And let’s hope for a fine replacement in the summer.

Barkley injected a good burst of urgency and Ziyech attempted his trademark “cut in and shoot” once or twice.

On seventy minutes :

“God. There’s still twenty minutes’ left.”

It was almost a plea for help.

Elsewhere, grim news filtered through; City were now losing 0-2 to Villa.

FORFUCKSAKE.

We were one Liverpool goal at Anfield for this all ending horribly.

Then, crash bang wallop.

Two goals in as many minutes at City. The games were a little out of synch but on eighty-three minutes at Stamford Bridge, the noise erupted.

“COME ON CITY. COME ON CITY. COME ON CITY. COME ON CITY.”

Of the two evils, City seem quite angelic.

There was a fine shot from Barkley, but an equally fine save from Daniel Bachmann in the Watford goal.

“He did always have a fine shot on him.”

The game sparked to life, or at least three games together.

The news came through that Manchester City had gone 3-2 ahead against Aston Villa, managed – gorgeously by Steven Gerrard – and the Stamford Bridge crowd roared.

“Steve Gerrard, Gerrard. He slipped on his fucking arse. And gave it to Demba Ba. Steve Gerrard, Gerrard.”

Watford scored – I missed it, I was making notes on my mobile ‘phone – and nobody cared fucking less.

The chant continued seamlessly…

“…and gave it to Demba Ba. Steve Gerrard, Gerrard.”

Then came the loudest “Carefree” of the whole day.

Surreal. Bizarre. To the outsider quite unexplainable. To us, normal. Fuck’em.

Ben Chilwell came on for Mason Mount.

Mount was voted our player of the year. An odd choice, I think. For chunks of this season, his career has stalled. My vote would have been for Thiago Silva. Chilwell received a fine reception from us of course.

The noise was still bowling around The Bridge.

Amid all of this schadenfreude, Reece James danced and jinked just outside the box on the far side. My camera was poised…click, click, click. He “toe’d” over a perfect ball for Ross Barkley to stoop and conquer. His strong header was parried by Bachmann but its pace continued it over the line.

GET IN YOU FUCKING BEAUTY.

My immediate thoughts, as he ran and jumped towards me : “that’s one happy Evertonian.”

Phew.

Chelsea 2 Watford 1.

What a breathless end to an otherwise mundane afternoon.

Rather than stay on to see the players and the management on their lap of appreciation, I had to drive precious cargo home. I made my way over to collect Chopper outside the hotel. Everyone was staring for updates on their phones.

It was over.

In the end, Liverpool’s two late goals at Anfield were to be worthless.

What a crazy season, eh? Such highs – Belfast, Abu Dhabi, World Champions, Tottenham, always Tottenham, four times this season, the drive to Newcastle, Luton, Middlesbrough, a trip to Turin but not the result – and lows – the two domestic Wembley finals, the car ride to Norwich on the day we heard about the sanctions, the worry of it all – but a season that marked my return to football and football’s return to me.

Last season, I saw just two Chelsea games.

In 2021/22 I saw fifty-five Chelsea game.

In 2021/22 I saw eighteen Frome Town games.

Seventy-three games. I have never seen more in one football season.

I need to get out more.

As I walked under The Shed Wall, I spotted Chopper reach up to his Chelsea Football Club tie and un-do the knot. He rolled the tie up and placed it ceremoniously inside his jacket pocket.

Here’s to seeing it again in August.

Have a good summer.

Tales From Yahnited

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 April 2022.

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

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

United : “Nothing. Absolutely nothing, why?”

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

United : “Go on.”

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

United : “Shut it.”

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

Three colours : red.

Three colours : blue.

Three colours : white.

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

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

The Royal Mail 1.

The Ticket Man 0.

Bollocks.

Undeterred, I set off.

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

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

What a waste.

The trip north was filled with football talk.

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

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

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

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

So that got an airing.

I loved it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The caption?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right. The game. The teams.

Chelsea lined up as below :

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Azpilicueta

James – Kante – Jorginho – Alonso

Mount – Havertz – Werner

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

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

This United team weren’t :

Schmeichel

Parker – Pallister – Bruce – Irwin

Kanchelskis – Ince – Robson – Giggs

Cantona – Hughes

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

The game – roll on drums – began.

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

The Chelsea faithful were first out of the traps too :

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

…or something, I’m not sure.

I spoke to Parky :

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you?

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

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

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

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

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

GET IN YOU FUCKING BEAUTY.

The away end boomed.

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

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

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

Old Trafford woke up.

Ugh.

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

What a disappointment.

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

With twenty minutes to go, changes from the sideline.

Romelu Lukaku for Havertz.

Christian Pulisic for Werner.

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

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

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

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

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

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

We inhaled again.

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

We howled.

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

The draw felt like a loss.

Definitely.

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

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

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

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

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

I hope to see some of you there.

Tales From The Ticket Man

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 24 April 2022.

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

Yes, there it was in all its damning glory.

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

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

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

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

Altogether now :

“Fackinell.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, I don’t understand it either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet Cindy, Anel and Eugene were yet to appear.

Tick tock.

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

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

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

Phew.

The kick-off at 2pm soon arrived.

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

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

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Azpilicueta

Loftus-Cheek – Kante – Jorginho – Alonso

Mount

Werner – Havertz

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

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

At least Chelsea conjured up a quick response this time.

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

That made me chuckle.

Three FA Cups and one European trophy.

Is that it West Ham?

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

“Glory To Ukraine.”

Let’s hope so.

Further along, a much more light-hearted flag.

“East End Girls. Forever Blowing Bubbles.”

Ooh, matron.

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

Alan nailed it.

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

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

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

It was all so fucking dull.

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

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

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

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

Answers on a postcard.

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

The pour souls.

Sigh.

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

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

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

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

Romelu Lukaku for a quiet Havertz.

Christian Pulisic for the energetic Werner.

Hakim Ziyech for the steady Loftus-Cheek.

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

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

There seemed to be a long delay.

Jorginho.

Alan : “skip?”

Chris : “yes, skip.”

He skipped.

The shot was tamely hit too close to Fabianski.

Groans, groans, groans.

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

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

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

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

GETINYOUBASTARD.

Absolute pandemonium in the North-West corner.

I looked over to Cindy and Jennifer.

The American had scored in front of the Americans.

Superb. Magic. Fantastic. Magnificent. Stupendous.

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

Chris : “Cam on moi li’ul doimuns.”

The final whistle blew.

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

Altogether now : “phew.”

And the song remained the same :

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

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

It had been a good day.

…see you at Old Trafford.

Pre-Game Blue

A Late Late Show

From Jacksonville To Axonville