Tales From New Year’s Eve

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 31 December 2016.

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

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

None of us.

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

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

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill.

Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso.

Willian – Costa – Hazard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1-0, phew.

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

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

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

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

1-1.

Game on.

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

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

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

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

2-1, phew.

Win thirteen?

Steady on.

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

2-2, bollocks.

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

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

I had to grab on a nearby barrier.

“Bloody hell, felt myself going there.”

Ha.

3-2, back on top once more.

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

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

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

It was a pure unadulterated Diegoal.

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

4-2, just beautiful.

So, this amazing run continues.

Thirteen.

Just magnificent.

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

1. Chelsea – 49 points.

2. Liverpool – 43 points.

3. Arsenal – 40 points.

4. Tottenham Hotspur – 39 points.

5. Manchester City – 39 points.

6. Manchester United – 36 points.

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

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

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

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

Yes, so do I.

Let’s go to work.

img_1530

Tales From The Top Of The Pyramid

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 26 December 2016.

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

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

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

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

Would we do it?

The mood in the Chuckle Bus was positive.

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

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

“Batshuayi and Fabregas – easy.”

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

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

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

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

Moments like that evidently stick with me.

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

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

The team news broke through and we were pretty shocked.

No Batshuayi.

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

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

It has never convinced me.

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

And if so, would we keep a clean sheet?

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

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

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

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

“BORN IS THE KING.”

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

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

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

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

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

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

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

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

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

Shortly after, I snapped away.

A Fabregas free-kick just cleared the bar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glenn wanted another one, to aid our goal difference.

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

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

Perfect.

Chelsea and Kensington 3 Bournemouth and Boscombe 0.

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

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

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

Let’s enjoy it.

img_1394-3

Tales From Friday Night Football

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 16 September 2016.

img_9488-3

Friday Night Moans :

When it was announced that, as part of the new multi-billion trillion gazillion Marillion Carillion TV deal with Sky last season, that there would be games on Friday nights in season 2016/2017, it will not surprise anyone to read that I was far from happy. I already despair at the thought of games such as the one at Middlesbrough later in the season, which will kick-off at 4pm on a Sunday, which in reality means that I will not be home until near midnight on that particular “day of rest.” Similar games have haunted us for years. Lunchtime kick-offs in Newcastle, Monday nights on Merseyside, you know the score. But this seemed different. Football on a Friday night. It seemed that the football authorities were seeking extra ways of making life even more difficult for the average match-day fan. It seemed almost cruel.

After a long week at work – I am up at 6am every day – I am usually crawling over the finishing line at 4pm on a Friday. And now I have to fend off tiredness, and drive along congested motorways in order to attend a football match on a Friday evening? It’s crap. And it’s another small step in the process of me saying “enough is enough” with modern football. That point may never come, but I am, like a few others I know, thinking along these lines. I love my football, my Chelsea, but there has to be a point when I say “hang on, they’re taking the piss, here.”

If we ever play a regular season game in Adelaide, Bangkok or Chicago, I will have given up on it.

I have, as a lovely counterbalance to the increasingly commercial and all-consuming Premier League, found myself attending non-league football, and specifically my local team Frome Town. In the past fortnight, there was an away day at Salisbury City in the F.A. Cup, and then two home games against Biggleswade Town and Dorchester Town. I have loved every minute of it. Whisper it, but it just might be my future.

Friday Night People :

Thankfully my good mate PD had kindly volunteered to drive up to Chelsea for the visit of Liverpool. He is usually awake before me – a 5am start during the week for him – but as he picked me up in Melksham, he said that he went to bed extra-early – 7.30pm – on the Thursday in preparation for the drive to London. Also on board the Chuckle Bus was Young Jake. We all expected a keenly fought game against Liverpool. A cracking game was anticipated.

Friday Night Traffic :

No surprises, the journey was long and arduous. The one-hundred-mile journey took a tiresome three hours exactly. I was yawning throughout. Thankfully, PD coped remarkably well. On approaching Hammersmith, a coach had broken down in the middle lane of the A4. Just what we bloody needed.

Friday Night Beer :

I just had time for a solitary beer before the game, in The Malt House at the end of Vanston Place. Until now, with me on driving duties for all of the five previous domestic games, I had vowed to stay on “cokes” in order not to risk drowsiness at the wheel. The single pint of “Kronenberg 1666” would surely hit the spot. I savoured my first Chelsea beer since Minneapolis in August. It tasted just fine.

Friday Night Teams :

We already knew that Antonio Conte would play the returning David Luiz in place of the crocked John Terry. Elsewhere there were no changes. Thibaut, Brana, Dave, Luiz, Cahill, Kante, Willian, Matic, Oscar, Hazard and Diego Costa were chosen against Klopp’s team of familiar and not-so familiar adversaries.

Friday Night People :

“The Malt House” is typical of a Chelsea pub these days. The front part houses a section where, even on a Saturday lunchtime, people, and they don’t even look like football match-goers, are enjoying meals at tables. The bar area is always cramped and busy, with nowhere to stand in comfort. I was starving, but baulked at the ridiculous price of bar snacks; £5 for a Scotch egg, £4.50 for a sausage roll. Out in the beer garden, the football followers were amassed. It is a cliché I know, but I know more people on a match day at Chelsea than I do on a night out in Frome. I chatted to Barbara and Denise, both nervous with worry about the game ahead, which was under an hour away now. There was also an enjoyable few minutes in the company of former Chelsea player Robert, who played around fifteen games for us between 1985 and 1987. One big family, everyone together. It is moments like this that make supporting Chelsea so special.

Friday Night Games :

This was, from memory, only the fourth Chelsea game to take place on a Friday, except for the obvious exceptions of games over Christmas and the New Year period, and possibly some in the dim and distant past.

Leading up to the match, there was talk among the Chelsea aficionados about previous Friday night games. Common consensus was that this would indeed be game number four. All three previous matches were in 1984. During that season, “live football” was introduced for the very first time, shared equally between the BBC and ITV. A grand total, five games were on a Friday night, five games on a Sunday afternoon. That was it, though; ten games for the entire season.

We played Blackburn Rovers at home in March, away at Manchester City in May (the first non-First Division match to be shown on live TV in the UK) and then, back in the top tier, at home to Everton in August. I didn’t attend any. In 2016, I would be a Friday Night Virgin.

Incidentally, I did attend a mid-season friendly on a Friday night in February 1986; a game at a very cold Ibrox, between Rangers and Chelsea, and strangely enough Robert and I spoke about that game. He played in that one, but my memories of it are very scant, with it being over thirty years ago, and me being half-cut on all-day drinking.

Friday Night Lights :

In the build-up to this game, it seemed that the club were treating it as something of a novelty. There was talk of a free bottle of “Singha”, but I was not able to partake as I reached the turnstiles too late for my voucher. Some people might regard this as a plus point. I was inside in time to see, at about 7.50pm, the advertised “pre-match entertainment” which the club had also advertised. The lights dimmed, and smoke started billowing in front of the East Stand. In the past – the distant past, the ‘seventies and ‘eighties – pre-match entertainment was a very hit and miss affair at Chelsea. I remember a couple of instances of the Police Dog Display Team (I think we must have been easily pleased in those days), a Marching University Band from Missouri – I know this sounds like a figment of my imagination, but the Marching Mizzou did a pre-game show at a Chelsea vs. Derby County game I attended in March 1975, and which I have detailed here previously – and a Red Devils parachute show against Tottenham in April 1985, in which one poor chap missed the pitch completely and landed on top of the West Stand.

Stamford Bridge was bathed in darkness as a heartbeat pulsed through the stadia’s PA system. Then, from searchlights positioned in front of the East and West Stands, blue and white lights danced across the Stamford Bridge turf.

My thoughts on this?

It looked OK, to be honest – in a happy clappy, “look! bright lights!” kinda way – but was rather out of place. This wasn’t a rock concert. It wasn’t the NBA. It wasn’t the NFL. It was a regular season football match. It might have worked at an end of season trophy presentation – “I wish” – but not for an ordinary league game.

File under “trying too hard.”

Friday Night Flags :

During this light show, a far more agreeable show was taking place in The Shed. The large “The Shed” banner, which I believe has been aired before, was joined by three smaller yellow banners. It was pretty effective, though I am not one hundred percent sure that the suits at the club completely understood the exact meaning and rhetoric of the words used.

img_9505-2

Friday Night Football :

Chelsea, in white track suit tops, and Liverpool, in black tracksuit tops, marched across the turf. The good guys and the bad guys. Neil Barnett had, prior to the pre-match “show,” welcomed our two new signings to the Stamford Bridge crowd. There was hearty applause for the returning David Luiz, and also for Marcos Alonso.

From the start, from the very first whistle, Liverpool looked more lively. Very soon, Thibaut Courtois was tested from outside the box by Daniel Sturridge, and we had our hearts in our mouths as he momentarily spilled the ball, which was hit straight at him, but then recovered before the ball was able to crawl apologetically over the line.

I always keep a look out for Philippe Coutinho when we play Liverpool, but on this occasion it was one of Klopp’s summer signings Sadio Mane – one in a never ending line of players who have gone from Saints to Sinners – who caught my eye. He looked lively, and linked well with others. In fact, the entire Liverpool team looked neat on the ball and hungry when hunting the ball down.

On a quarter of an hour, an infamous goal was scored at Stamford Bridge. The ball was slung in by that man Coutinho from a quickly taken free kick, and no fewer than four red shirted Liverpool players appeared to be completely unmarked on the far post. It is an image that is etched in my mind still. The four players were able to play a game of “Scissors, Paper, Stone” among themselves as the ball floated over. In the end, Dejan Lovren – another former Saint – won the right to prod the ball homewards.

We groaned a million groans.

Chelsea, in our rather feeble attempts to impose ourselves on the game, stumbled. Yet again we were one-paced. Matic – looking a little better this season to be honest – struggled to release the ball early. Oscar was humdrum. Willian fizzed around but ended up running across the pitch more often than not. Ivanovic – oh boy – always took an extra touch before attempting to cross.

Sturridge, as his style, skipped through and then selfishly shot from a ridiculously tight angle. The shot went off for a throw in. This player is so disliked by many at Chelsea, that it is hard to believe that he was part of our squad on that night in Munich.

The one exception to our underperforming players was N’Golo Kante, who stood alone, attempting to stifle any attacking intent within a twenty-yard radius of his diminutive frame. I was very impressed with his work rate and his desire. Where was this desire among the others?

I kept a special look out for David Luiz, and hoped and prayed that he would not commit any embarrassing moments on his return after two seasons in Paris. To be fair, he at least showed his worth as a ball-playing defender, with three fine balls to the feet of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard.

Efforts on the Liverpool goal were rare.

With ten minutes to go before the break, the ball broke into our half. David Luiz was under pressure from a Liverpool player, but with Thibaut Courtois unwilling to leave his six-yard box to collect a back pass, nor to communicate with Luiz, the ball was hacked off for a throw in. Liverpool dallied on taking the throw in, and referee Martin Atkinson urged it to be taken. Gary Cahill’s clearance unfortunately dropped right at a Liverpool player. He had time to touch the ball, and curl a superb shot up and over Courtois’ leap.

The scorer?

Jordan bloody Henderson, this generation’s Geoff Thomas.

The Scousers were buoyant again.

“Stevie Heighway on the wing.
We had dreams and songs to sing.
Of the glory, round the Fields of Anfield Road.”

And then their ditty about “History.”

Are they as obsessed with us as we are with them? It really is a close run thing.

However, there was certainly no denying it; Liverpool had deserved the lead, even though chances had been rare.

A Luiz header from a Willian corner just before the break hinted of a Chelsea revival.

As I made my way into the concourse at half-time, I looked up to see our first goal being dissected on TV by a Sky TV “expert” and although I could not hear the commentary, I could guess his words of mockery.

“It must be an easy job being an expert on TV, yet not having the balls to be a coach or a manager in your own right” I thought to myself, but not in so many words.

2-0 down to Liverpool at half-time brought back clear memories of the FA Cup in 1997.

“Bring on Sparky” said PD.

The second-half began, but there were no changes to Antonio Conte’s team.

No Mark Hughes. No Cesc Fabregas. No Michy Batshuayi. Nobody.

We certainly enjoyed more of the ball in the opening period. Hazard was full of running, and we were pressing for the ball with more determination. Ironically, it was the much maligned Nemanja Matic who helped our cause, exchanging passes and showing a rare turn of speed as he drove deep into the heart of the Liverpool box. He reached – miraculously – the by-line and picked out Diego Costa with a little flick.

Diego doesn’t miss those.

2-1 and Stamford Bridge was vibrant once more.

With thirty minutes of the game remaining, there was – at last – hope.

I hoped that the support would rally behind the team, providing a noisy backdrop to a fine recovery.

The noise never really materialised.

Diego shot straight at Mignolet as our play continued to improve.

Liverpool countered and, at the Shed End, Courtois was able to save from Coutinho and then substitute Origi’s shot. This latter save was quite magnificent.

The hoped-for rally never really materialised either. Conte made a bizarre triple substitution with eighty-three minutes on the clock.

This was late, way too late, surely?

Victor Moses for Willian, Cesc Fabregas for Nemanja Matic, Pedro for Oscar.

For a few moments, it looked like we were playing with three wingers; Moses on the right and both Pedro and Eden on the left, before Eden dropped inside.

Our only real chance, gift-wrapped for a deafening equaliser, was a free-kick on the edge of the box after Hazard was fouled. It took an age for Atkinson to sort out the wall and this added to the drama. Both David Luiz and Cesc Fabregas stood over the ball.

The ref’s whistle, and Cesc stepped up.

Typical of the night, the ball hit the wall and our hopes drifted away.

So, a first domestic loss for Antonio Conte.

Hopefully some lessons to be learned, and some home truths to be shared.

Friday Night Shite :

Exiting the stadium, pushed close against a sombre crowd, I overheard the most ridiculous comments being aired by my fellow fans. I know only too well that we had not played particularly well all game, and the first-half was – of course – very poor, but some of the nonsense I heard produced a mixture of displeasure and hilarity. Why do we – Chelsea fans, but football fans in general – veer from one extreme to the other so easily? When is there ever an even, balanced opinion? I glanced at my phone on the way out of London as PD drove west. The internet was evidently melting. A 2-1 loss at home to a pretty decent Liverpool team and fools were already on Conte’s case, and I even saw someone calling for his head.

Get a fucking grip.

We were five games into a new campaign, and old hardened supporters and new FIFA17 “experts” were already on Conte’s case. The man is at a new club, with a new team, in a new league, and he is being questioned by some of our own. Give the man some slack, please.

The night is young.

I remembered back to a game in September 2009. In our eighth game of that season, we lost 3-1 at Wigan Athletic and the team was under the orders of a new Italian manager.

New to the club, new to the team, in a new league.

Later in that very season Carlo Ancelotti won us the double.

I am not saying that we will be in the hunt for trophies at the business end of this season, but we have to show a little more restraint with our words of disdain, blame, antipathy and antagonism.

A club in disarray has never won anything.

On Tuesday, we play at Leicester City, but I will not be there. I haven’t bought a ticket; I won’t be travelling. I hope that those who have bought tickets will be there. It would be horrible to see a half-empty away section, especially since the away allocation sold out rather quickly.

My next game will be at Arsenal on Saturday. A cracking day out is planned. See you there.

img_9563

Tales From Vicarage Road

Watford vs. Chelsea : 20 August 2016.

After the euphoria of Monday’s dramatic win against a rather disappointing West Ham United, Saturday could not come quick enough. On the face of it – “although no team should be underestimated blah, blah, blah”- I for one was certainly hoping for another league win to get us off to a solid start to 2016/2017. I was on driving duties again, and picked up PD, Parky and Young Jake en route. The skies threatened with rain a little, but this would surely be a fine day. I was parked in our standard car-park at just after midday. All four of us looked at the skies and decided against jackets. As with last season, the pre-match drink-up was in the ridiculously busy “The Moon Under Water” Wetherspoon’s on Watford High Street. Alan and Gary were soon spotted and, while I slowly sipped on “Cokes” – deep joy – I watched with admiration from afar as the others kept returning from the rammed bar with plastic pint after plastic pint. Many other members of the Chelsea Away Club popped over to say “hello” and the time soon passed. Watford’s High Street is solid with pubs, bars, clubs, restaurant and fast food joints. One lot of Chelsea were over at “The Flag” near the station. And we were in “The Moon Under Water.” Watford fans were present but a minority.

This was Chelsea Central.

It didn’t take long for the place to be reverberating with Chelsea songs. I am sure that many of our foreign fans, possibly still to visit England for a game, have this notion that on every match-day at Stamford Bridge, every single pub is shaking to the rafters as Chelsea song after Chelsea song is bellowed out. It simply isn’t like this. Singing does happen, but it’s quite random and ad hoc. My local “The Goose” is noisy, but pre-match songs are quite rare these days. There is more condensed singing at away pubs – “The Arkell’s” outside Anfield, “The Shakespeare’s Head” on the way to Arsenal and “Yates” in Southampton’s town centre are three easy examples – but a lot depends on numbers. Often, with Chelsea in the minority, there are no songs, often there are no clues who we are. On this particular match day, amid the usual Chelsea standards, I quickly noted a new chant. It could hardly be termed a song, since it was very flat, with hardly a melody. I quickly made a note of the words.

“Antonio Conte. Does it better. Makes me happy. Makes me feel this way.”

The last few words sounded familiar – annoyingly familiar – but because there was no notable tune involved, I was struggling to name the song. It boomed around the pub and although I felt myself subconsciously joining in as I queued for my round, I really wasn’t convinced. Maybe it will grow on me.

After the game on Monday, in the car on the way out of Fulham, I suggested to my friends that Willian’s performance had been the only one that had been a little sub-standard. On the face of it, once the team news had come through on our phones, it seemed that Antonio Conte had agreed with me.

Pedro in for Willian, otherwise unchanged.

I passed this nugget of news to Parky, but he was sodden with cider and just smiled and gave me a big hug.

“Whatever” I said, smiling, “sorry for spoiling your drinking.”

It is a bloody good job that I wrested the troops out of the pub earlier than normal because we were met with a ridiculous wait at the away end. There was building work last season, but no delay. This season, all two thousand Chelsea fans were pushed like cattle towards a double doorway of no more than four feet wide, with four turnstiles located inside the stand. What a farce. Why not have four turnstiles built into the actual perimeter wall? Anyway, we made it inside.

Incidentally, a rather huge Watford fan had waltzed past us, bellowing some chant or another, as we waited rather impatiently to get inside. The Chelsea choir seized the moment and targeted him.

“You ate Dennis Wise, you ate Dennis Wise – you ate Dennis, you ate Dennis, you ate Dennis Wise.”

Unlike last season, shunted way to the left, we had good seats. Vicarage Road is a tidy stadium, and there is infill taking place on all four corners. The corner to our left was a work in progress.

Before I had time to think, the Evertonian “Z Cars” heralded the teams on the pitch, and with the home end opposite a riot of yellow, red and black flags, the scene was set.

Chelsea were in a rather neat all-white kit. It is much better than the sub-standard home kit, with the juvenile lions embedded into the knit, and a hundred times better than the black away kit. Overall, I have not been too impressed with the Adidas kits since they took over from Umbro in 2006/2007. I wonder if the standard 2016/2017 Nike template will continue into next season. It seems that every single one of Nike’s uniforms have the same colour shirts and shorts, with contrasting sleeves and socks. I wonder what horrors we have in store next season. Light blue sleeves maybe? Shudder.

Lacoste Watch.

Parky – white.

Chris – dark grey.

Let’s not deny it, for a very large part of this match, we were quite woeful, and it reminded me so much of some of our soporific performances last season, with little urgency and drive. Our game at Vicarage Road during the last campaign had been poor, although we had slowly improved during the second-half, but this was almost worse. As the game continued, I kept thinking back to my very effusive match report from Monday and wondered if my enthusiasm would now be looked at as rather premature and excessive.

If it was the same 4/1/4/1 as Monday, I would not have known, since Matic seemed unwilling to move from a deep midfield berth. The first-half was truly awful. The singing, which had been strong at the start, drifted away with each passing minute of inactivity on the pitch. Soon into the game, the skies darkened and misty rain gave way to a stronger shower.

“Good job we’ve all forgot our jackets.”

The floodlights flickered on. This was November in August.

To my left, I noticed that many Watford fans had vacated their seats in the Elton John Stand simply because the roof overhead did not fully extend over the seats. What a joke. I guess they watched from inside the concourse on TVs. Pathetic, really.

In the Chelsea dugout, I was transfixed with the animated cajoling of our new manager, who again looked very dapper in his suit and tie.

“A penny for your thoughts, Antonio.”

“And what do you think of the new song?”

“Yeah, me too.”

In all honesty, Watford could have been two-up at the break. A fine save by Thibaut Courtois from an angle kept Watford at bay early on. As the rain continued, play did not flow. Chelsea were ponderous in picking passes and movement off the ball was poor. Watford, without creating too much early on, seemed to be up for the fight more than us. The robust and spirited nature of our play on Monday was sorely lacking. Dare I say it, we looked tired. Kante buzzed around, attempting to bring other players in, but too often Ivanovic’ cross failed to get past the first man, Oscar failed to do anything constructive, Hazard failed to pick out Diego Costa, and Matic was just Matic. To my left, Gary was turning the air blue with every swear word known to mankind.

I turned to TBBM (“the bloke behind me”) and sighed “I’ve got this all season.”

Cahill did well to block a Watford shot. There was a call – from me anyway – for a back-pass after Gomes picked up the ball under pressure from Costa after a Watford defender seemed to have got a touch after the much-barracked former Tottenham ‘keeper initially spilled it.

A game of few chances and little joy, at half-time there were yawns the size of underground tunnels in the away end.

There were no positives from the first forty-five minutes to be honest. After the optimism of Monday evening, there was a noticeable deadening of our spirit. The singing had almost petered out completely.

It wasn’t good.

It wasn’t good at all.

With Chelsea attacking the away support, we hoped for better things as the game re-started. Eden Hazard fired wide, and we seemed to liven up a little. Sadly, after just ten minutes of the second-half gone, we were caught napping when Guedioura – who? – was able to cross from the Watford right. As three Chelsea defenders rose to head the centre away – all missing the flight of the ball completely – I immediately spotted danger as the ball dropped invitingly to a completely unmarked Watford player beyond the frame of the goal.

I uttered the immortal words “here we go” with a knowing sigh, and watched as Capoue brought the ball down and volleyed it high past Courtois.

Watford were one-up. Oh bollocks.

After the Watford celebrations and flag-waving had died down, we heard the home support for possibly the only time during the whole afternoon, as they sang in praise of their goal scorer.

Yep, you guessed, it – the Billy Ray Cyrus song. Fuck off.

The Antonio Conte song struggled to get going. It needs to change, somehow, for it to become more palatable.

We seemed to marginally improve, in terms of chances on goal, with Hazard and Matic going wide, but there was still a dullness to our body language. Watford turned overly physical in their efforts to hold on for the win. Frustrations boiled over on a number of occasions. An unlikely attacker almost created an opening when Ivanovic tempted Gomes out of his six-yard box, but the resulting cross in to the danger zone was cleared for a corner. A handball appeal, which I missed, was waved away.

With twenty minutes remaining, Antonio Conte replaced Pedro with Victor Moses. No complaints there.

Immediately, our play seemed to be more direct, more intense.

Moses enjoyed a spirited run down the left, which was met by a song from a few years back.

The Victor Moses “Pigbag” was sung with far more gusto than the Antonio Conte “Chaka Khan” (for it was her song “Ain’t Nobody” which had been butchered that afternoon in Watford.)

Oscar, who had drifted over to the right wing, was then replaced by Michy Batshuayi.

Things improved further and the fans around me realised this. The support grew stronger.

The final change and Cesc Fabregas replaced the woeful Nemanja Matic. I turned to Alan –

“Bloody hell, that’s an attacking line-up alright.”

After only two minutes on the pitch, Fabregas daintily picked out Hazard outside the box. He moved the ball laterally and then unleashed a low shot on target. The much-maligned Gomes made a mess of his attempted save, only feeding the ball towards Batshuayi who was on hand to tuck the spilled ball into the net.

GET IN.

Our new young striker reeled away in ecstasy and we were back in it. Playing with two up had borne dividends. We had an extra striker in the six-yard box. It seems simple, but how often has this simple fact been ignored over recent seasons? I again turned to Alan.

“Mourinho would often change personnel, but he very rarely changed the shape. Credit to Conte. Game on.”

Everyone around me sensed a more adventurous Chelsea now. It seemed we were genuinely on top. We pressed forward, urged on by a support that had finally found its voice.

“Antonio Conte. Does it bet-tah.”

Ivanovic came close. It was all Chelsea. The noise cascaded down towards our heroes on the pitch.

A rare Watford attack broke down, and the ball fell to Cesc Fabregas. He instantly looked up and spotted an advanced Diego Costa, about to set off on a run into the Watford half. His clipped pass was perfect, dropping right between two bamboozled and befuddled Watford defenders, allowing Costa a clear run on goal. He aimed for goal and steadied himself. A touch to set himself up. I was on my toes now, awaiting the strike. He shot low. It flew in through the legs of Gomes.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.

Watford 1 Chelsea 2.

Pandemonium in the away end, pandemonium everywhere. Bodies flying this way and that. I steadied myself to photograph Diego’s beautiful celebrations – his second late match winner in two games –  but Parky grabbed hold of me and shook me hard. I managed to release myself to snap the team’s celebrations, and immediately after the away end was reverberating to a song about a Spaniard and his magic hat.

Beautiful.

I am not sure how we had done it, but we were winning a game in which, for a good seventy minutes, we had looked second-best. Over on the touchline, Conte had masterminded another masterstroke. I was full of admiration. Five minutes of extra-time were signalled but we would not let this slip. The team remained strong, energised, together. I was really impressed with Batshuayi and the striker could have made it 3-1 but his very neat turn and shot crashed back off the Watford bar.

The whistle went.

Phew.

Two wins out of two.

Phew.

On the walk back to the car, we were full of praise for the way that our Italian manager had changed things, in almost a carbon copy of the game on Monday. It is early days, of course, but it seems that we are all in for a fine time this season. Thankfully, we narrowly avoided a few spots of rain, which started up just after we reached the car, and again on the way back west along the M4. There would be no raining on our parade on this fine day of Chelsea glory. At Reading Services, we again avoided getting wet as we called in to collectively re-charge our batteries with our assault on “Fifty Shades Of Greggs” (OK, three – a sausage roll, a tandoori chicken baguette and a Philly Steak lattice; three down, forty-seven to go, watch this space, with no European travels this season, we have to find excitement where we can). Who should walk around the corner but two local lads that PD and myself know who had watched my local team Frome Town play at nearby Kings Langley, drawing 2-2. Frome have begun the season well, and I have seen them play twice already. Like Chelsea, Frome Town are in fourth place in their respective league, and I wished a few of the players well as they appeared from their coach on their way to refuel.

It capped off a fine day.

On Tuesday, we play Bristol Rovers in the latest incarnation of the League Cup, in what promises to be a noisy affair with four-thousand Bristolians taking over The Shed. I am sure that by the end of the evening, I will be sick to the death of “Goodnight Irene” being sung on a constant loop but I am relishing the chance to see a local team to me at Stamford Bridge for the very first time. There will be, undoubtedly, memories of games against them at Eastville flitting in and out of my head, and the resulting match report, all night.

I will see a few of you there.

IMG_9103

Tales From Four Games In One Day

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 5 March 2016.

“I just hope that – and it might be just me that thinks this – the whole day doesn’t slide by with people, fans and players alike, more concerned about the game against PSG on Wednesday. This game against Stoke has kinda snuck up on me to be honest and I’m a bit worried. It’s a game we can win, but I just hope we are all focussed.”

These were my words soon into the drive up to London for the visit of Stoke City. Without a doubt, the return leg of our Champions League tie with Paris St. Germain was certainly looming large. I think that the extra week between the two games has added to the sense of drama, and the tie couldn’t be more evenly poised. It promises to be a tremendous occasion.

But the game against Stoke City was in my sights now, and I was hopeful that this would be our main focus.

We had our first snow of the winter overnight, but there was just a residual dusting left on the fields around my home as I set off to collect the two Chuckle Brothers en route to SW6. We had just enjoyed two of the most enjoyable away games for a while, in Hampshire and Norfolk, and we were now set for two games at Stamford Bridge in five days. The games are coming along in bitesize chunks for me at the moment; two home, two away, three home, three away, three home, two away and now two at home.

The games against Stoke City and PSG would certainly be something to get my teeth into.

Elsewhere, three other games were occupying my thoughts. There was the lunchtime North London Derby. A draw was my preferred result for this one, though if there was to be a winner, my choice was going to be with Arsenal. For any game there are three points up for grabs and I always say that between rivals, a draw is always best, since one of the three points disappears into the ether. And of course, I am talking here as an advocate of Leicester City winning the league. A draw between Arsenal and Spurs would be fine by me. A Spurs win would invigorate them again, and – for fuck sake – we do not want to even think about Tottenham winning the league after fifty-five years. Even with an Arsenal win, I couldn’t see them having the mental strength to win the league. So, a draw for me please.

There was also Leicester City’s game at Watford in the evening. We’re all Leicester fans now, and a win there would be bloody superb. Even if we took out the Claudio Ranieri factor, who wouldn’t begrudge the Foxes a first-ever title. It would be the most sumptuous fairy story for decades and decades.

My mind was also on my local non-league team Frome Town and their home game against Biggleswade Town. A much-needed win would boost our chances of surviving in the seventh tier of English football.

So, four games.

And I was worried about focussing on one.

It was the usual busy build-up before the game, with meet ups with Chelsea fans from near and far. Down at the stadium, I picked up a programme, and was pleased with the retro cover, in the style of the 1969/1970 edition, in deference of the anniversary of Peter Osgood’s passing ten years ago. In and around the stadium, I chatted to friends from places as far flung as Atlanta, Edinburgh and Bangkok. It is always a treat to see the look of excitement on the faces of supporters who are not able to see the team quite as often as my usual cronies.  On the way back to The Goose from Stamford Bridge I couldn’t help but notice a swarm of yellow-jacketed stewards demanding that supporters showed them their tickets. I had never noticed this before, and it seemed out of place, almost rude. I couldn’t see the point of it. It was especially galling when touts – with plenty of bloody tickets – were plying their trade a few yards away. I approached a callow youth, entrusted with a loudhailer, and vented :

“Excuse me mate, I think it’s a bit off, asking for genuine supporters to show you their tickets. Why don’t you ask the touts to show you theirs?”

He mumbled something about plain clothes policemen monitoring them, but I simply did not believe a word of it. You can be sure that the same leeches will be out in force on Wednesday night.

In the pub, for once, the televised game was getting stacks of attention, although I only occasionally glimpsed at the score of the Tottenham vs. Arsenal match. The reactions of the Chelsea fans in the pub was interesting and a litmus test of loyalties. I entered the pub with Arsenal 1-0 up.

“Oh well, better than Spurs winning.”

While I chatted to Kev and Rich from Edinburgh, no noise at all accompanied Tottenham’s two goals, and I was simply not aware that they had scored on either occasion. Arsenal’s late equaliser, however, was met with a resounding cheer. There was little doubt that we were all thinking the same things.

“A draw, great, come on Leicester, but Tottenham must not – MUST NOT – win the league.”

I was inside Stamford Bridge in good time. Around one thousand Stokies had left their houses in North Staffordshire and were ensconced in the away section. I spotted Brenda, the guest from Atlanta, up above me in the Matthew Harding Upper. I popped over to see her, but she looked petrified.

“I’m scared of heights. I daren’t move.”

I grimaced and replied :

“You’re scared of heights? So are fucking Arsenal.”

As the teams entered the pitch – or just after – a large “Osgood 9” banner appeared in the Shed Upper, with a lengthy banner, draped over the balcony wall, below :

“OUT FROM THE SHED CAME A RISING YOUNG STAR.”

I always went with the other words – “The Shed looked up and they saw a great star” – but top marks for effort.

Guus Hiddink was forced to rest Diego Costa as he had a niggle. Instead, the so-far impressive Bertrand Traore was picked ahead of Loic Remy, who was on the substitute bench along with Alexandre Pato. Matic was picked to play alongside Mikel, but no Fabregas, who Hiddink was presumably resting for Wednesday.

It was rather a cold day in SW6, and I noticed that the stadium took ages to fill up, but even after a good few minutes of play there were occasional gaps. The Shed upper, certainly, had a fair few empty seats dotted around. There were a couple of early renditions of “Born Is The King” but the atmosphere soon quietened to its usual muted levels.

My fears seemed to have been validated, as we lacked focus and really struggled to impose ourselves on the game. Stoke City, with the skilful Shaqiri catching the eye early on, have morphed into a more modern team these days, and do not really on the “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” style of football of Tony Pulis. Arnautovic looks a handful though. We toiled away in the first half, occasionally finding our rhythm, but it was our black-clad visitors who had the best of the chances. Thibaut Courtois saved well from Afellay. Then a fantastic ball from Diouf, with a perfect amount of fade, allowed Arnautovic to play in Diouf, who had supported the attack well, but his touch was heavy and the ball thankfully cleared the bar.

Willian fired wide soon after, but we were hardly threatening Jack Butland in the Stoke goal. Shaqiri, who had given Baba a torrid time in the league game in November, swept a ball in from the right, but Diouf again wasted a fine chance. In my book, we could have been 2-0 down.

With the first-half coming to its conclusion, Betrand Traore – a peripheral figure until then – received a pass from Nemanja Matic, and confidently swept past a defender before leathering it hard and true into the Stoke goal from around twenty yards out. It was a sweet strike, and Stamford Bridge roared its approval.

“Get in.”

At half-time, I read a few of the many pieces devoted to Peter Osgood in the match programme. It seems that my memory of Ossie’s Chelsea trial, recounted previously, was slightly askew, although the main gist was correct. Here are the words, then, of the great man himself :

“I got the forms back saying report to Hendon (Chelsea’s training ground at the time) on a Saturday morning about 11.30am. I said to Dick Foss “I’m Osgood, down from Windsor, is there any way I can play in the first half hour of the trial game because I’ve got a cup game for Spital Old Boys in the afternoon?” and he said “certainly.” And after half-an-hour I came off and it was “can you sign here?” And I’d actually signed for Chelsea. It was as simple as that.”

At half-time I heard that Game Three was going well; Frome Town were winning 2-0.

Into the second-half, and again our intensity was missing. Courtois parried an Arnautovic effort. The same striker then broke through in the inside left channel but was robbed of the ball with an exquisite tackle from Gary Cahill. It was simply sublime. However, just after, Cahill allowed Shaqiri a little too much space and we watched, nervously, as his low shot narrowly missed Courtois’ far post.

Cahill, in the thick of it at both ends, found himself free on the edge of the Stoke box and his fine turn and shot was saved by Butland.

Hiddink replaced Hazard – resting him, eyes on PSG – with Loftus-Cheek, and then Traore with Remy.

We were able to get players in wide positions – Oscar, Baba, Willian, even Mikel – but on many occasions there was nobody in the killing zone of the six yard box. How we missed Diego Costa.

Stoke, however, were constantly stretching us, and I was worried.

Oscar fell to the floor after a clumsy challenge by Muniesa but Clattenburg waved away the howls for a penalty.

Hiddink then caused Alan and myself to scratch our heads. He brought on Fabregas for Matic, and we were certainly not expecting that. It softened our midfield, but also exposed Cesc – surely a starter on Wednesday – to injury.

“Answers on a postcard.”

With the game entering its closing moments, my fears were again confirmed. A cross from the right by Shaqiri, ever-troublesome, was punched inadequately by Courtois. Disastrously for us, Diouf made up for his earlier misses and sent a header back in to the empty net.

Ugh.

The Stokies celebrated and we watched in silent annoyance. With that one equalising goal, Alan soon informed me that we had plummeted from a healthy seventh place to a much more mundane eleventh.

Ugh again.

Fabregas flicked an Oscar corner over from close range, but the final whistle soon blew.

A draw was undoubtedly – and sadly – a fair result.

“Not good enough today I’m afraid.”

Wednesday, evidently, was on everybody’s minds after all.

Back in the car, with Parky and PD, we slowly made our way out of London. I was so pleased to hear that Frome Town had hung on to get three points against Biggleswade. Survival now beckons. We heard snippets of the evening game on the radio as we drove back home. As we passed Reading, we punched the air as a Riyad Mahrez goal sent Leicester City on their way to a hugely important win at Watford. It reminded me so much of a win at Norwich in 2005, on a day when Manchester United only drew at Crystal Palace and we, ourselves, went five points clear of the pack.

Leicester’s goal cheered us no end.

They are now nine games away from history and I, among many millions more, wish them well.

“Anyone but Tottenham.”

On Wednesday, we reconvene again at Stamford Bridge for a potentially historic night of European football.

Under the lights.

A tale of two cities.

London and Paris.

“Let’s Go To Work.”

IMG_6239

Tales From The Magic Of The Cup

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 21 February 2016.

For the first time in ages, two cars from my home town of Frome in Somerset traveled up together for a Chelsea home game. In the Chuckle Bus, I drove up with Glenn, PD and Parky, while Martin and his fourteen year old son Morgan followed us as we headed towards London. I had bumped into Martin at the Frome Town versus Chippenham Town game on the Saturday, and we had arranged to travel up together, with Martin a little uneasy about navigating the streets of Hammersmith and Fulham in order to find a parking place.

I had thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Southern League fixture. Despite blustery conditions and a soft pitch, relegation-haunted Frome defeated high-flying local rivals Chippenham 1-0, and – all of a sudden – a precarious position in the relegation places didn’t seem to be so terminal. I had not seen my home town team play since a game against Cirencester in October, due mainly to a ridiculous procession of postponements, and I was genuinely excited at the prospect of watching a long-overdue home game. Frome had played six successive away games, getting fine draws in the last three, and were in desperate need of a win to spark a revival.

A new stand, providing cover for several hundred along one touchline – but not yet fully operational – is the latest in a line of ground improvements undertaken since 2012, and the stadium now looks more professional with each passing season.  I wandered down to the touchline at the start of the second half and could not help but notice that the cavernous roof amplifies the most subdued of conversations from the watching supporters. Once it is all completed, it could house a noisy section of the home support.

I approve.

Frome’s home ground now has substantial cover on all four sides. That we maintain our position in the seventh tier of English football is becoming more and more important to me. I have rediscovered a love of non-league football after the best part of two decades away, and as I have said before, it provides a lovely balance to my fanaticism for Chelsea.

In fact, as I awoke on the Sunday morning, I remembered my roar which met Frome’s winning goal against Chippenham. It was genuine and heartfelt. It made me reflect on things. I actually wondered if I would have trouble getting “up” for two important games on consecutive days.

And I thought about my support of Chelsea, my support of Frome Town, and how the two can co-exist. I didn’t dwell too much on it. I didn’t want it to drag me down or spoil my day, but it did make me think. Chelsea will always come first, but I have to acknowledge how my enjoyment of seeing my home town, which continues to punch above its weight both culturally and sportingly, grows and grows with each year.

I saw my first ever “proper” football match at Frome Town in 1970 and, as time marches on, who is to say that when I reach my latter years I will be returning “home” to Frome Town with increasing regularity?

I am not so sure that the Chuckle Bus will be rolling to Stamford Bridge when I reach my ‘eighties.

Maybe, there will be a conversation which might take place in the year 2046.

“Have you got your ticket for the Frome Town versus Chelsea FA Cup tie, Chris?”

“I’ve got bloody two. One in each end. I just don’t know which one to fackin’ use.”

Before joining up with the usual suspects in The Goose, Glenn and myself enjoyed a small pub crawl of our own, taking in “The Cock And Hen” (where I had my first-ever alcoholic drink at Chelsea in 1984 : Leeds 5-0, oh yes) and then over the road in “The Malt House.”

We chatted about the team, of course, but also turned the conversation on ourselves, and spoke about how things have, in a subtle way, become a little more chilled-out and reflective since a night in Munich almost four years ago. We are both thoroughly enjoying this season, and as Glenn said, it reminds him of the Ruud Gullit era when we just couldn’t be guaranteed what result Chelsea would provide each game. He smiled as he told the story about a conversation between him and some acquaintance that he bumped in to recently in town.

“Don’t suppose you are seeing Chelsea much this season?”

“Sorry?”

“This season. Chelsea.”

“Of course I am. You think I only go when we are winning?”

Glenn looked at me and rolled his eyes.

“Some people just don’t get it do they, Chris?”

“Indeed they don’t.”

In “The Goose” I was relieved to hear that the Chelsea programme had, at the second attempt, managed to combine the correct photograph of dear Tom with Alan’s touching eulogy.

There was a little talk of Alan and Gary’s trip to Paris. Thankfully, after various concerns, the whole event passed with no real incident, and they both seemed to enjoy themselves. It had been a fine, mature performance from us, and sets things up beautifully for the return leg in March.

Fair play to West Ham United for taking seven thousand to Ewood Park for their FA Cup tie, which we halfheartedly watched in the pub. For a team with little silverware, there is obviously a desire among their support to cheer their team all of the way to Wembley. I fancy them to do well in the competition this year.

The magic of the cup certainly exists for them.

I was inside Stamford Bridge with time to spare.

In and around our usual seats, there were many unfamiliar faces. Some regulars had evidently decided to stay at home to watch the game on the Beeb, but it was pleasing to see some youngsters dotted around. One little lad, sitting down below Glenn, was one of the youngest supporters that I have seen in our section for ages; he was no more than five, replica shirt on, excitement raging.

I had heard whispers than Manchester City had returned some of their allocation, but it was evidently too late in the day to sell them on to Chelsea supporters. A block of around five hundred in the Shed Upper were empty. This surprised me to be honest. Surely a club with aspirations on being one of the major players in not only English football, but across Europe too, could have done better. I immediately thought back to our FA Cup game on a similar Sunday in 2014, when we took close on 6,000 up to the Etihad. In 2016, City had brought barely 2,500 down to London.

It was a poor show.

Alan commented that he found it surprising. When City plummeted down through the Football League a while back, residing in the third tier for one season in 1998/1999, they managed to keep a sizeable support base. And now, with success commonplace, they were struggling to show up in numbers for the FA Cup’s tie of the round.

There were stories of course of City’s sour-faced manager Manuel Pellegrini playing a purposefully weakened team – with a key Champions League tie in Kiev in midweek – and as I scanned the line-ups, there could not be a greater contrast. Chelsea’s starting eleven was completely unchanged from the PSG game, while City’s team contained few first-teamers, a couple of fringe players, plus many youngsters that I had not previously heard of.

Garcia, Garcia, Adarabioyo, Celina, Ineanacho, Faupala.

It sounded like a Latino version of “Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub.”

The news that we were fielding a very strong team was met with the “thumbs up” in the boozer beforehand. It emphasised yet again how seriously we take the competition. With the FA floating the idea of abandoning cup replays – and thereby scraping yet more luster from the tradition of the world’s oldest football competition – at least we could hold our head up high. Over the past twenty years, we have continually fielded strong teams, and played to full houses at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup. Last season’s patchwork team against Bradford City was a rare deviation from the Chelsea way.

The FA Cup? We take it seriously.

Of course, in this strangest of seasons, the cup represented our strongest chance of silverware. As the game began, on a mild afternoon, I hoped for a safe passage into the hat for the quarter final draw at 6pm.

City appeared before us in a ghastly highlighter yellow away kit and began the game slightly livelier, with Faupala breaking away and causing Thibaut Courtois to save low at the near post. Despite a stronger team, on paper, there was already nervousness among the home fans. Gary Cahill collapsed on the grass, and we feared the worst. With Kurt Zouma out for months, and John Terry out too, the last thing that we wanted was another defensive problem. Thankfully, he soon recovered.

Soon after, a delightful interchange between Cesc Fabregas and Pedro resulted in a shot which bounced back off the far post with Caballero well beaten.

Around me there was little noise. The City fans sang the occasional ditty, but in general things were rather tame. The game, despite occasional flashes, was struggling to ignite. We were enjoying possession, but – well, you know the rest.

Thankfully, with ten minutes to go in a rather disappointing first-half, a lovely Chelsea move carved City apart. Fabregas was allowed space to flick a ball outside to Eden Hazard, who had been rather quiet until then. His pinpoint cross was headed home by a completely unmarked, but masked, Diego Costa. It was a goal of crisp simplicity. At last, Stamford Bridge flickered to life.

Phew.

City, despite an early flourish, had not made major inroads into our defence, so it was with a fair degree of surprise that they equalised in the very next move. The ball was played down the right, and one of the Pugh twins pushed the ball in to the box. Cesar Azpilicueta, back-peddling, covering ground, re-positioning under pressure, could only kick the ball against Faupala, and the ball ricocheted in.

Bollocks.

The City youngsters, a blur of yellow, celebrated right in front of the Chelsea fans in the far corner.

We came close with efforts from Pedro and Willian, but we were level at the break.

Daryl joined us at half-time. He was evidently sitting close by, not in his usual season ticket seat, but was hopeful that there was a spare seat near us, since the people that he was sitting alongside were evidently getting on his “thruppeny bits” with their constant moaning and grumbling.

“Where do these people come from?”

I had my own problems. I was now sweating on a potential replay, which would put the kibosh on our planned jaunt to Norwich in ten days’ time. I have taken two days’ holiday, and booked the usual suspects in to a hotel for that one. A replay at Eastlands would royally bugger those plans up.

A Chelsea win please, oh footballing Gods.

Meanwhile, there was no magic of the cup for Tottenham, 1-0 losers at home to Palace.

It was a lively start to the second-half, thankfully, and within three minutes Willian collected a pass from Eden Hazard, and adeptly struck a low shot past Caballero at the far post.

“Get in.”

2-1 and the trip to Norwich was on again.

The crowd were buoyed again, and the players seemed keener to attack at will. A Hazard cross was deflected towards Gary Cahill who took a swipe at the ball. It slammed in to the net, too low and – ironically – too close for the ‘keeper to adjust and block.

3-1 and more noise.

Songs of Wembley and of Frankie Lampard…scoring two hundred…against the pikies.

Some of our play was wonderful to watch, albeit against a team of rusty fringe players and youngsters with too many vowels in their names. Pedro particularly took my eye, with his energy and enthusiasm. His spins and runs were almost Willianesque. On many occasions, Fabregas played that killer ball, the one which dissects centre-back and full-back. When played correctly, it is so pleasing to watch. Of course, it only works if the runner trusts the player in possession to pass. So often under Mourinho, that trust seemed to be missing. Of course, confidence helps, but for a while our play was fantastic. There were signs that we were back to our best.

Baba, after a fine game in Paris, continued to race up and down the left flank at will. Where there was concern, there are now glimmers of hope.

Hazard was fouled centrally and we wondered if he or Willian would take the free-kick.

Eden struck and sent it goal wards. Caballero appeared to be stuck in cement.

4-1.

“Yes.”

I now had dreams of cricket scores, or at least hockey scores. After four, I always start dreaming.

Hiddink replaced Costa and Pedro with Traore and Oscar.

Demichelis was adjudged to have fouled Traore down below us – a little harsh to be honest – but Oscar tamely hit the penalty kick at the City ‘keeper, who palmed it away.

It stayed 4-1.

Mikel, with another steadying performance (“it’s my ball, and you are not taking it off me”) was replaced by Matic, and he was given a standing ovation. Whereas there were elements, possibly, of sarcasm at Crystal Palace, the singing of his new song, and the warm applause meted towards him, proved to me how much he means to large segments of the Stamford Bridge crowd.

Even Glenn, never his biggest fan, has warmed to him of late.

Traore, neat in possession and confident too, struck the post, but then was luckier when he flicked on an Oscar cross, which looped up and over the hapless ‘keeper and in to the only unguarded two square feet of the entire goal.

5-1.

Job well and truly done.

To be fair to the travelling City fans, virtually all of them stayed until the end, and I commend them for that.

Back at the car, we learned that we had been paired with an away trip to Goodison Park for the quarter final tie.

Six thousand tickets up for grabs? Who’s in?

I know that I am. It’ll be some occasion. My favourite away ground and an invading army of Chelsea fans.

Superb.

[…incidentally, Daryl’s annoying neighbours left with ten minutes to go. The magic of the cup only goes so far, it seems]

IMG_5910 (2)

Tales From My Football Timeline

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 18 April 2015.

For the first time in ages, I spent a Saturday morning at work in Chippenham. However, with the Chelsea vs. Manchester United game not kicking off until 5.30pm, I was still able to finish at midday and reach London in good time. Glenn had collected PD and Parky en route. I then took over and headed in to London.

If I am honest, I was slightly nervous about the early-evening game. Without Diego Costa to cause panic and concern in the United ranks, and with a few key players hitting a dry spell, I was very wary that we just might be catching an in-form United at the wrong time. I soon commented to my three companions that a draw would suffice. A win would be lovely, of course, but I was aware that we were not, collectively, setting the bar too high. We were becoming as pragmatic as our manager.

“A draw against United this weekend and a draw at Arsenal next weekend and we can start thinking that the league really is ours.”

The game at Stamford Bridge, however, was not the only football match troubling me. My local team Frome Town had lost on the previous Wednesday to a gut-wrenching last minute goal at local rivals Paulton Rovers and with two games left of the season, were only three points clear of relegation from the Southern League. A little part of me toyed with the notion of watching the first-half of the Slough Town vs. Frome Town game before heading in to London.

I decided against it. Who the hell watches halves of football games? Not me.

Heading east along the M4, the weather was magnificent. It was a lovely day for football. I spotted a few Reading scarves and immediately dismissed the afternoon’s FA Cup Final as unimportant, and not worthy of further thought. This, in a nutshell, shows how the importance of that once revered competition has decreased.

The game at 5.30pm would be my thirty-third Chelsea vs. Manchester United match at Stamford Bridge, dating back to a Saturday just after Christmas in 1984 – Glenn was with me on the benches, and I am sure many readers were there too  – when I set eyes on those famous red shirts for the very first time.

Thirty-three games. It’s quite a number. I have only seen the reds of Liverpool more often than the reds of Manchester at The Bridge. Interestingly – or not, as the case may be – a split of the first sixteen games and the second sixteen games against United reveals a seismic shift in results.

1984 to 2002.

Chelsea wins : 3

Draws : 5

Manchester United wins : 8

2002 to 2014.

Chelsea wins : 9

Draws : 5

Manchester United wins : 2

The two losses against United in that second period are quite recent too; a Champions League defeat in 2011 and a League defeat in 2012. For quite a while at Stamford Bridge, we have held the upper hand.

Among the wins, two stand out.

The 5-0 annihilation in 1999.

The 3-1 title-clincher in 2006.

Two of the happiest of days in almost forty-five years of supporting Chelsea.

Where does the time go?

Where did the time start?

I am sure that I am not the only Chelsea supporter who often thinks back upon the first few moments of our support and attempts to discover the defining moment when Chelsea became our team and our club. I’ve personally tied this down to a moment in my primary schoolyard in the first few weeks of spring term 1970 and those events have been detailed here before. As I have been coming to terms with the events of the past two months, there have been many hours spent thinking back on my childhood years.

Another trip down memory lane coming up everyone.

I am sure that I am not alone in my quest to attempt to assemble some sort of time-line of devotion, possibly involving memories of certain early games, conversations with friends, TV clips, pictures, favourite players and the like, which aid us to remember those critical moments when Chelsea became our team.

After my first game in 1974, it’s easy, remarkably easy. Before that, things get a little blurred.

Of course, some of my earliest memories involve Chelsea’s appearances on TV and of other games too. Knowing my parents, it is very likely that I was not allowed to stay up to watch “Match of the Day” on Saturday nights on BBC1 in the first few years of my growing love of football – let’s say 1970 to 1972 – because of the 10pm start. My TV-watching in these years was, I think, limited to watching ITV’s “The Big Match” on Sunday afternoons. Yes, the memories of this are clearer. I even have feint recollections of a sun-drenched Stamford Bridge in the days of the old East Stand, prior to its destruction in the summer of 1972. The earliest football game per se that I can ever remember seeing is the 1972 FA Cup Final, when an Alan Clarke header gave Leeds United a 1-0 win over Arsenal. Which is the first Chelsea game that I can remember watching? I’m pretty sure that it is the Chelsea vs. Leeds United home opener in August 1972 – with me, just over the age of seven – when 51,000 crammed in to a three-sided Stamford Bridge to see a 4-0 win, no doubt abetted by the fact that Leeds’ goalkeeper was injured and was replaced by Peter Lorimer. Typically, Peter Osgood scored.  In that season, I can also remember the Chelsea vs. Arsenal FA Cup game in March 1973, when there was an incredible buzz in the village school leading up to the match. Peter Osgood’s screamer in that game won the goal of the season that year. I also remember seeing the highlights of the replay on the nine o’clock news the following midweek, after pleading with my parents to allow me to stay up later than normal to watch. I can remember the sadness of defeat from that evening forty-two years ago.

I also recollect the very last game of that season, which involved the visit of Manchester United to Stamford Bridge. After the scenes of chaos at the Leeds game – which must have involved trying to force 41,000 into two end terraces – it was decided to limit the attendance at Stamford Bridge to a more reasonable figure. From memory, 44,000 still assembled for the United game. I am sure that it was not the first time that I had seen United on TV, but it is the first United match that I can remember – which is the point here – seeing. Both teams were struggling that season, but the large attendance was mainly due to the fact that it would be Bobby Charlton’s last ever game for Manchester United. Although Chelsea won that afternoon – Peter Osgood again, scored – my abiding memory is of the hullabaloo surrounding Charlton. I can distinctly remember the Stamford Bridge crowd – no doubt bolstered by thousands of visiting United fans, maybe not all wearing red favours – singing “We all love you Bobby Charlton.”

I am sure that this song was sung at the village school on the Monday, possibly by the younger children watching us older boys playing football on the school yard. I am also positive that a few of us re-enacted Peter Osgood’s goal in that game too, when he almost stumbled as he forced the ball over the line. His “to camera” shrug of the shoulders, as he was kneeling in The Shed End goal, was impersonated by me for sure.

I was lucky enough to meet Peter Osgood on several occasions and I was very honoured to be able to shake Sir Bobby Charlton’s hand as he brushed past me at Old Trafford last season.

Two iconic players from my early football world remembered.

Bless them both.

A Chelsea vs. Manchester United match first appeared on my football timeline, then, in April 1973.

Incidentally, while at the Frome Town match on Wednesday, I was rather taken aback when my friend Steve announced that the very first Frome Town game that I had seen – with my mother – was neither in 1971 nor 1972 as I had first thought but, in all probability, as early as 1970, when I was just five. Let me explain. During a summer holiday at a Dorset caravan site, I often played football with a former Bristol Rovers player called Mike Brimble, who was now playing for Frome. My father didn’t tend to like kicking a ball around with me – I remember he often used to “toe poke” the ball, which I didn’t approve of – ha – but I spent many hours kicking the ball to-and-forth with this chap from the adjacent caravan. There is no doubt that, during the kick-abouts with Mike, on hearing that I was a Chelsea supporter, that he would have mentioned our cup win against Leeds United that spring. And there is no doubt that this would have left a lasting impression on me.

After a week or so, my mother took me to see Frome Town play…we lost heavily…and I can remember to this day the little conversation I had with Mike at the end of the game.

“Nice to see you could make it Chris.”

I was so happy that he remembered my name.

I always thought that it was in 1971 or 1972, but Steve told me on Wednesday that Mike’s last season for Frome was 1970-1971. So, that game – with my mother – was undoubtedly as early as early autumn 1970.

1970 was obviously a defining year in my life.

It was the year that I chose Chelsea Football Club and it was the year that I saw my very first football match.

My football timeline had begun.

While out in the full-to-overflowing beer garden of The Goose, Alan and I spoke about these early moments in our football, er Chelsea, life. The first game that Alan can remember seeing on TV was the 1970 FA Cup Final.

1970.

I’d bet that many Chelsea fans’ timelines began in this year.

1970 and Peter Osgood. One and the same.

I mentioned to Alan about the nervousness that I had with the Frome Town game. His local team, Bromley, were on the brink of promotion from the Conference South to the Conference. We hoped for a triple of wins during the next few hours; Bromley, Frome Town and Chelsea. A text from a Frome Town follower in California – yes, really – informed me that Slough were 1-0 up against Frome. I groaned. He then texted me to say that the team three points below Frome, Arlesey Town, were a goal up at the high-flying Truro Town. I groaned again. If it stayed like this, it would all go to the last game of the season and relegation would be a distinct possibility.

Elsewhere in the beer garden, there were mixed thoughts about the upcoming game. Some were positive, some were cautious. We prayed for a fit Loic Remy leading the line. When we heard that Didier Drogba had been chosen, our spirits sank a little. At 36, he is not the man of 2012. I reconfirmed my view that a draw would be good enough for me.

Then, better news…Frome town had equalised at Slough Town.

“Yes.”

Then, just after 4.30pm, came some wonderful news.

Truro City 2 Arlesey 1 .

I punched the air.

Fantastic. In the end, Frome drew 1-1 and Arlesey lost 3-1.

Safe, barring a deluge of goals next Saturday, for another season. Bromley, meanwhile, had beaten Weston-Super-Mare 3-0. Beautiful.

Outside the West stand, I took a long-overdue photograph of Alan in front of the Peter Osgood statue.

We were inside with fifteen minutes to spare. The United hordes were already in good voice. I noted two flags playing on the point of United fans being “Manchester Born & B(red)” as if they have to constantly state, to the point of tedium, about Manchester being their territory and not City’s. Anyway, the United fans always put on a good show and they didn’t disappoint, singing loudly, in the first-half especially.

There was nothing but pure blue skies overhead. Despite the bright sun, there was a cold wind which blew in and around Stamford Bridge throughout the game. As the sun lowered, changing shadows formed different geometric shapes across the pitch and the towering East Stand.

So, the team.

Courtois – Dave, JT, Cahill, Ivanovic – Zouma, Matic – Hazard, Fabregas, Oscar – Drogba.

The big news was King Kurt alongside Matic, with Fabregas pushed forward. We presumed Jose wanted to toughen up that area, with a nod towards the improving Fellaini.

The first-half was a mainly frustrating affair. We began well, but United soon started pushing the ball around, and I lost count of the number of times that our right flank was exposed. Ivanovic, the former centre-back, tends to drift inside too often for my liking. Ahead of him, Oscar provided little cover. United peppered our goal with a few long range efforts, but thankfully their shooting was amiss. I noted how deep Wayne Rooney was playing. We gave him, and others, too much time and space. I longed for our midfield to get closer. It was Rooney who struck a shot against the back stanchion of the goal, and it looked to me – and the away fans – that it was a goal. I looked at Alan in disbelief.

As Juan Mata, much loved during his relatively short spell with us, walked over to take a corner down below us, the Matthew Harding stood and clapped generously. It was a fantastic moment. I am trying hard to remember the last time we gave a former great a hard time.

A run by an energised Fabregas deep in to the penalty box at the Shed End raised our spirits. But, our chances were rare. Drogba battled on, but often his touch ran a yard too short or too long for the supporting midfielders. United continued their dominance of the ball, and only rarely did our midfielders bite at their heels. The atmosphere was good, though. The underperforming Chelsea team was thankfully not matched by the support in the stands.

We roared the boys on.

With the half-time interval in sight, John Terry broke up another United move and fed the ball to Fabregas, who in turn passed to Oscar, now central. As soon as Oscar adeptly back-heeled the ball in to the path of a raiding Hazard – a magnificent touch – I sensed a goal. Eden calmly advanced and slotted the ball in to the United goal.

Inside, my body buzzed. There was only one thing for it. There is a walkway right behind where I sit and I leapt up the three steps to my right, took off my sunglasses, and just jumped up in the air continually for a few seconds.

Joy unbounded.

…while thinking “I bet I look like a right twat, I’m almost fifty, not five, but what a bloody goal.”

There were smiles of relief everywhere and The Bridge boomed.

“We’re top of the league.”

At half-time I sent a text to a mate ;

“Bit lucky. Only got closer to them in the last quarter. Cesc looks a bit livelier. Great goal. Utd have too much space down our right. But…halfway to paradise.”

Into the second-half, the first big chance fell to us. Matic won the ball and played the ball on for Drogba. I immediately wished for a time machine that could send Didi back to his powerful and absurdly potent form of five years ago, fearing that Smalling would easily deal with him. To be fair, Didier assembled just enough strength to stab a ball at De Gea, despite Smalling’s attentions. The ball took a bizarre path towards goal, deflecting off both United players, but landing just too far past the far post for the on-rushing Hazard to control. In the end, he did so well to get any attempt in on goal. Bizarrely, his flick touched the ball up on to the bar.

Zouma grew throughout the game. His war of attrition with Fellaini was pure box office. Ramires replaced  Oscar. Juan Mata did not create too much for United; good lad.

Falcao, not firing on all cylinders, cut in on goal in a similar to position to Hazard’s goal, but his powerful shot rose and hit the side netting. The atmosphere remained noisy throughout the second half, but there was incredible tension as the game grew older. United still dominated. Chelsea constantly defended well. It was, no doubt, a typical Mourinho performance. I would have liked to have seen more attacking verve, of course, but our time for that had passed. The salad days of autumn are over; it’s now all about putting meat on the plate.

Juan Mata received a fantastic and heartfelt round of sustained applause as he was substituted.

United continued to attack. Shots were dealt with. Nerves were continuing to be frayed.

The last meaningful moment caused immediate concern. Herrera and Cahill met in a corner of our penalty box. From over a hundred yards away, it looked a penalty, to Glenn, to Alan, to me. However, miracles happen and the referee Mike Dean – who had been the target of increasing levels of abuse from the home fans as the game continued – waved it away.

Four minutes of extra time.

We waited, but with fantastic noise continuing to boom around the packed stands.

The final whistle.

Euphoria.

I captured a few shots of players hugging, smiling, and enjoying the moment.

“One Step Beyond” boomed out.

After clapping us, they began to walk away, but John Terry dragged them back and, in a tight line facing the Matthew Harding, they stood.

Their joy was our joy. United in triumph.

One step closer. Ten points clear. Mind the gap.

There was another notch on my football time line.

IMG_9896