Tales From The Hurting

Watford vs. Chelsea : 5 February 2018.

It was just past two o’clock. I had parked my car outside “The Milk Churn” which sits on the A350 just south of the small Wiltshire town of Melksham. It is a new boozer, no older than a couple of years, but is built to resemble an old rustic farmhouse, heavy on tiles, brick and wood. It is run by “Hall and Woodhouse”, a brewery based in the Dorset town of Blandford Forum. My grandfather used to work at the brewery before he left his home town of Wareham to head up to Frome. The pub has acted as a starting point, a base camp, for a number of our Chelsea matches of late. My place of work is opposite. As I joined PD and Parky at their table in the pub lounge, they welcomed me.

“You look a bit happier than last week.”

Last week, last Wednesday, had been a very stressful day at work, and the lads had noticed that I was still in “the zone” after a hectic 6am to 2pm shift. It had taken a good hour or so for me to stop thinking over a few work-related issues as PD drove to London for the Bournemouth game.

On this day, a Monday, I certainly felt a little more relaxed. I ordered some food, gammon steaks all round, and supped at a pint of “Peroni.”

I relaxed with each passing sip.

“Yes. On the face of it, a bit easier today. A bit worried that I’ve had a few chest pains at work this morning though.”

“Blimey, take care, mate.”

“Yeah, I will” I replied, but rather unconvincingly, bearing in mind the stresses that might be forced upon me during the evening’s match at Vicarage Road.

We tucked into our food, and the mood was rather quiet.

“Need to win this one tonight, lads.”

“Certainly do. Especially as Liverpool and Spurs drew yesterday.”

The 2-2 draw at Anfield had presented us the opportunity of going third if we could win at Watford. It was a challenge that I trusted the players to overcome. I did not see any of the game at Anfield. I believe that it was quite a humdinger. I had the best of intentions to watch the highlights on “Match Of The Day 2” on Sunday night, but I chose instead to continue watching an archived programme on the BBC i-Player detailing a storm which had caused havoc in Glasgow in 1968 but caused a rethink on the city’s plans to tear down tenements. This simple choice of viewing encapsulated my thoughts of football these days, or at least football not involving Chelsea Football Club.

Grainy images of Glasgow, social history, town-planning and architecture 1

The Kop, Klopp, Kane and Tottenham 0

After a relaxing lunch, PD set off for Watford. We were in the middle of a ridiculous stretch of nine games with not one of them being played on a Saturday.

Wednesday, Sunday, Wednesday, Monday, Monday, Friday, Tuesday, Sunday, Sunday.

It is a bloody good job that we didn’t draw Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup. I think that my head might have exploded.

I was able to grab a little sleep on the way up to Watford. PD was parked-up at about 5.15pm. Outside, the weather was bitterly cold. Knowing my dislike for large and impersonal superpubs, I managed to coerce the lads to pop into a local called “The Horns” where we enjoyed a pint apiece. It was a smashing boozer, evidently a venue for much music, and there was a permanent stage wedged into a corner. It had the feel of a Western saloon from the cowboy films of my childhood. Behind the till were hundreds of plectrums from live performances. There were musical memorabilia everywhere. But there was no hint that there was a topflight football match taking place a mile or so to the south.

We moved on to “The Moon Under Water” on Watford’s pedestrianised high street. Here was a different story. There was wall-to-wall Chelsea everywhere. I immediately thought back to our away game at Vicarage Road last season when a Michy Batshuayi goal gave us a late 2-1 win, but also where the same pub was reverberating to the short-lived “Antonio Conte does it better” chant before the game. We met up with Alan and Gary, calmly sat towards the rear, and we discussed the current ailments at our club.

I read out the team. I suppose there were two talking points. Marcos Alonso was not involved. Olivier Giroud was on the bench.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Zappacosta

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

The time soon passed. The air in the pub wasn’t exactly electric. A few of the younger element were trying to get some songs started in the main bar, but there were few takers. If anything, they annoyed me.

“As long as you buggers remember to sing in the stadium.”

We set off for Vicarage Road, a simple twenty-minute walk away, past the array of fast food joints, takeaways and restaurants of every hue. In previous visits to Vicarage Road, we have always arrived late and I have always headed straight in. On this cold night, I was able to have the briefest of wanders. Vicarage Road is certainly a cramped venue, wedged into side streets just outside the town centre. It’s a pleasant enough stadium.

We were down low, not far from the front. To my right, the Sir Graham Taylor Stand. To my left, the Elton John Stand. Tucked between the away end – we had around two thousand seats – and the side stand was the stadium’s “Sensory Room.” Despite us being the reigning champions, there were empty seats dotted around the stadium. As the teams entered the pitch, the Watford fans unveiled a large banner at their home end of club owner Gino Pozzo. Rather than provide banners for each and every Watford manager, this was obviously cheaper. They are up to ten – I think – since the Pozzo family took over in 2012. That’s going some. Compared to Watford, Chelsea under Roman Abramovich resembles a steady ship.

The game began. The away fans were in great voice. As ever one song dominated.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

He acknowledged our support for him straight away with some applause for us.

But from the very first few minutes of action, we really struggled to get a foothold in the game. There was a ball-to-hand heart-in-the-mouth moment as the ball struck Gary Cahill. Not long after, the irksome winger Gerard Deulofeu saw his snapshot hit the side netting. The warning signs were there. We were watching from the left of the goal and Gary Cahill was in my sights. I wanted to see how he performed up close. He seemed to marshal his team mates reasonably well at set pieces, but looked ill-at-ease in open play. Very often he played the ball to a Chelsea team mate who was heavily marked. He just does not exude any calmness. Watford came again. Troy Deeney was left unmarked at the far post at a corner but his studied prod at goal was well wide.

Our attacks, so obviously lacking a focal point, floundered time after time. Pedro was full of running but with nobody moving off the ball ahead of him, the resulting pass was often played back or square. We looked utterly impotent in attack. Victor Moses was often left in acres of space, but was reluctant to release the ball early. David Luiz tended to vary things a little, choosing to play balls to the feet of Eden and others, but often a ball was hoofed up field to our three midgets. The away end was getting frustrated.

A wild shot from Willian blazed over the bar. It was our only real effort on goal. Watford kept attacking and Thibaut’s goal was under threat.

The noise from the away section remained impressive.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

Although I was trying my best to encourage Tiemoue Bakayoko when he did something half-decent – “go on my son” – he was having a nightmare. He gave up balls so cheaply. His night and our night was soon to darken. After a foul on Etienne Capoue by Bakayoko and a yellow card, there was a lunge on Richarlison in the middle of the pitch. I have to admit, from our perspective, it looked like there had been a foul on Bakayoko, but as Richarlison stayed down, and players swarmed, there was that horrible moment of hurt as referee Mike Dean flashed a card at Bakayoko.

Off he went.

Fuck it.

Only thirty minutes had passed.

Antonio Conte was furious and had to be calmed by the referee.

After a few minutes of wondering how the manager would react, I was frankly amazed that he chose Cesc Fabregas to replace Willian. I thought about moving Luiz into midfield and going 4/2/3 or bringing on Danny Drinkwater. But what do I know? I’m just a transport planner for an office furniture company. The addition of the lightweight Fabregas seemed odd. Very odd. It felt harsh on Willian who can always be relied upon to put in a shift.

Our play did not improve. Just before half-time, a ball was played forward to the lively Deulofeu who touched the ball on. Out rushed Courtois and I just knew what was going to happen next. A touch, down he went, a nailed-on penalty. Two knobhead fans chose to walk past me just as Deeney took the penalty. I would have missed the save if there had been one. There wasn’t. The home crowd roared and we were one-down.

Shite.

There was a run and shot from Pedro in the inside-left channel, but it blazed well over. To be honest, a goal then would not have reflected the balance of play. Watford were full of running, full of pace, and were well-deserving of their lead. We looked devoid of confidence. There was nobody willing to take ownership of the ball and create. Down to ten men, we stared a second successive league defeat in the face.

The second-half began.

I was so happy that the away fans were trying our hardest to get behind the team. One song dominated. It was a song which, I always remembered, seemed to be aired specifically during the second-halves of games, and especially away games, when the team needed it. This game certainly fitted the bill.

“Amazing Grace” was given the full Chelsea treatment.

“CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.”

I was joining in. So were many others. But I looked around, and back, at others to see how many were actually joining in too. It was at about the 50% level at best. It sounded like more were singing. But those that were involved were keeping it going for a fair few minutes. I was sure that the noise was carrying and that the TV millions would hopefully be impressed. The home fans, by comparison, were ridiculously quiet. Despite winning, the folks to the left of me in the Elton John Stand hardly sung all night.

Modern football.

Despite a clash of heads with a Watford defender, Moses began to get a little more space in front of us down the Chelsea right. At last we were playing to our strengths; intricate passing, movement off the ball, a ball into space, a cross. Moses broke through, glided past a couple of defenders and played the ball across the six-yard box.

Guess what?

Nobody was there to meet it.

Chelsea were trying to get into the game, and there was a definite improvement as the second-half progressed. But at the other end, Watford again and again broke through. Shots curled past the far post. Thibaut was forced to strongly save on two occasions. They were out-gunning us.

We still kept singing though, we still kept going.

We spotted Olivier Giroud warming up on the touchline. One nasty little outbreak of Billy Ray Cyrus down to my left thankfully failed to gather momentum. With twenty-minutes left, the former Arsenal target man made his Chelsea debut. His beard appeared to have been trimmed a little. Good. Fucking good.

He went up for a header, which he won, and he began his journey from Arsenal wanker to Chelsea player. We urged the team on. All of a sudden, we looked more like a team. More options. More drive. More energy. We enjoyed a few half (quarter?) chances but the mood was rising.

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

Eden Hazard, in the same channel that Moses had ploughed earlier, flitted away from markers and suddenly looked like his old self. He buzzed into the box, and the ball reached Fabregas. This was our big chance, our big moment. The shot was weak, low and an easy save for the Watford ‘keeper.

The howls rang out from the away end.

Just after, Hazard – clearly buzzing now after his confidence-boost of a run earlier – collected the ball around twenty-five yards out, broke into a little space and guided a magical shot around the defender, using him as a block for the ‘keeper, and into the side of the goal.

We went ballistic.

GET IN.

The celebrations were wild and unfettered. Eden pointed towards us. We were back in the game. At that moment, oh the stupidity of it all, it felt to me like we would go on to win.

The Chelsea support roared again.

There was maybe ten minutes or so left.

“COME ON CHELS.”

Bizarrely – there was no explanation – the play returned to the other end. Another Watford effort slid past the far post. I then watched with growing concern as a fine Watford move spread across the box from right to left. I yelled, in vain, as a Watford player appeared to tiptoe into a danger area.

“Don’t let him shoot.”

There was no tackle. There was no block. Janmaat shot. Janmaat scored.

Watford 2 Chelsea 1.

The hurt was palpable. I remained standing but inside I slumped to the floor. Thankfully there was no chest pains, just an emptiness.

Four minutes later, their star player Deulofeu was able to shoot after a short run at the heart of our defence.

Watford 3 Chelsea 1.

With that, many Chelsea fans decided to leave. A swathe of empty yellow seats soon appeared in front of me. I was fuming. Two lads motioned to me to let them pass. I did not move. They had to squeeze past me. I glowered at them. They glowered back.

Fuck them.

The night became even more bizarre. A lone spindly youth ran on to the pitch, I think from the side stand, and bounced up and down on the pitch, seemingly on the ‘phone to somebody. No stewards bothered with him. He stayed on the pitch, gurning like a fool, for what seemed like thirty seconds or more. With my eyes drilling in to him, I missed the build up to Watford’s fourth goal.

Watford 4 Chelsea 1.

Bloody hell.

In a show of defiance, the remaining Chelsea fans collectively thought “well, fuck this” and got behind the team once more.

“We love you Chelsea, we do. We love you Chelsea, we do. We love you Chelsea, we do. Oh Chelsea we love you.”

A half-chance from that man Giroud almost brought a cheer, but the game ended with no further incident.

But there here was still time for another round of “Antonio.”

And there was even a relatively loud “Three Little Birds” as the game ended.

At the final whistle, I watched as Antonio Conte darted down the tunnel. I honestly wondered if I would see him again as a Chelsea manager. I gathered my stuff, as stony faced as I have been for a while. Parky was surprisingly upbeat alongside me and for a few seconds I wanted him to be quiet, be still, be solemn. His obvious indifference to defeat annoyed me, but then I had to smirk as we met up with others and headed up the steep terrace. There was a chat with a few good people.

Mark from Hastings was fuming :

“Those people who left, I just don’t get it. Us losing should make them want to stay, to stay and cheer us on. What is the point in them leaving?”

I agreed. We smiled and shook hands.

Mark from Westbury put everything into some sort of perspective :

“We’ve seen worse, Chris.”

I smiled.

“Yes, we have mate. Not at Watford, though.”

It was Mark’s time to smile.

We were some of the last to leave.

There would be a time to evaluate the current dip in form at Chelsea at a later date, a later time. Maybe things will be crystal clear in my mind for the West Brom game, but I doubt it. These waters are muddied. And my mind is addled with the constant rumour and counter-rumour which surrounds this club, as ever.

At around 10.45pm, Parky, PD and me were sitting in a “Subway” on the Watford High Street. Although my jacket had kept me warm at the game, the winter chill had bitten hard on the walk back from the stadium. We silently devoured some food. The moment, oddly, reminded me of a late night snack in a small café in Rome after an equally shocking defeat. In Rome, we were able to look out on a piazza and monuments, and enjoy the moment. In Watford, we looked out on waste bins, concrete paving slabs and “Poundworld.”

“At least there were no chest pains.”

The hurt on a cold night in Hertfordshire was only mental, but it was real enough.

PD set off for home at 11pm. Thankfully, I managed to get some sleep once we left the M25 and hit the M4. We were back at “The Milk Churn” at 1am. I was home at 1.30am. I was asleep at 2am. The alarm would ring at 5am.

At 6am, co-workers would be asking me if I was at the game at Watford.

“Yep.”

The three of us agreed that we all needed a break from football. In the pub, even Gary had commented that he had enjoyed having the recent weekend off as it gave him some precious time to get a few things done away from Chelsea. At the moment, this football lark is hard and relentless. On players and fans alike. The next game is on Monday. There is time for a rest. There is time for a break. There will be time to re-focus and to re-charge the old batteries.

I’m going to enjoy it.

The race for second place will begin again soon enough.

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Tales From Under A Super Blue Moon

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 31 January 2018.

After two consecutive cup ties, we were back to the bread and butter of the League and a home game against Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth. We had already beaten them on two occasion thus far in 2017-2018. As we assembled in the pubs, bars and boozers around Stamford Bridge on another cold midweek night, there was a simple hope for three points, while maybe Tottenham and Manchester United could force a draw at Wembley. It was a night when we hoped to narrow the margins in the hunt for second place. As we met up with some friends, there was minimal talk of Emerson Palmieri and Olivier Giroud among our little group.

I once described Giroud – only last season – as “the doyen of every self-obsessed, hipster, bar-scarf wearing, micro-brewery loving, metrosexual, sleeked back hair, bushy bearded and self-righteous Arsenal supporter everywhere.”

I am happy to welcome any player into the fold at Chelsea but be warned that it might take be longer than usual with this player.

Still, I think I felt the same about Mickey Thomas, Graham Roberts and Ashley Cole. And things worked out perfectly well with those three.

The ex-Arsenal target man had appeared as a substitute at Swansea City the previous night, so there was no hope of a George Weah-like appearance from the wings against Bournemouth. I knew nothing of the acquisition from Roma, but hoped that it would give the occasionally jaded Marcos Alonso both cover and competition. Our transfer window had concluded with Michy Batshuayi heading off to Borussia Dortmund on loan. The upshot of all of this was that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang went from Dortmund to Arsenal.

And there was much wailing.

Fans so used to the club spending millions and millions in recent years were clearly not happy. Maybe we need to accept that we will be a little less-active in the transfer market over the next few seasons while the new stadium takes centre-stage. Initially, it was reported that Roman was going to pay for it himself, but then came news that costs had – surprise, surprise – spiraled and that the club was looking for outside investment. Regardless, we may well see a little austerity at Chelsea for a while, and our aims and aspirations might need to be tempered slightly.

So be it. I’m not going anywhere.

Personally, I was just happy that the latest transfer window was over. It is the time of the season that irritates me to high heaven. It is the mating season for the thousands of FIFA-loving nerds who come to life with all sorts of absurd and unlikely transfer options for our club. At least they will be quiet until the summer.

After another stressful day at work, the lager was hitting the spot in our now regular midweek jaunt down the North End Road. There was a relaxation that comes with being among great friends, old and new. The football was an afterthought. The game was hardly mentioned. It made me realise that there is no need for transfer activity among my friends, bless ‘em.

At the top of the stairs leading into the Matthew Harding Upper, there was a quick chat with Daryl, who had been in one of the pubs, but who I had not really spoken to. We summed up our frustrations with how the club is being run in a succinct and memorable couple of sentences.

“If the club said to us that we were in a rebuilding stage – the stadium and the team – and we were going to stick with the manager through all of it, I don’t think there would be many complaints. We’d aim to consolidate – top four, top six, whatever –  and there would be some notion of a plan.”

“That we could all buy into. Yes!”

If ever we needed a five or ten year plan it was now.

The rumours surrounding the manager would not go away, but in all honesty I try to ignore them. I rarely buy a paper these days. I do not suck at the nipple of Sky Sports News. I just concentrate on showing up at Chelsea games and try to support the lads in royal blue. I am tired of the rumours. I am tired of the negativity. I am tired of the bullshit. I am tired of the over-analysis. I am tired of the same old same old. I am tired of the nonsense. I am just tired of it all.

Clearly the manager is a decent coach and he has seemed a decent man over the time that he has been in charge. His last four domestic seasons have resulted in three championships for Juventus of Turin and one for Chelsea of London; this is no mean feat. And yet he has shown signs of frustration in recent months, and I would surmise that this is as a direct result of the atmosphere present in the club. Of course, nobody really knows how or why decisions are made among the corridors of power at Stamford Bridge and at Cobham, but my guess is that everything leads to uncertainty and doubt.

It was against the backdrop of rumour and counter-rumour that we assembled for the Bournemouth match. The team had been announced and without the injured Alvaro Morata, the loaned Michy Batshuayi and the unavailable Olivier Giroud, the manager was forced to play a team with no focal point.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Barkley – Hazard – Pedro

On the front cover of the programme were Eden and N’Golo, bearing a “Say No To Antisemitism” message. There was a large banner being held in the centre-circle for a good fifteen minutes before the teams took to the field. I looked over to the West Stand and spotted that Roman Abramovich’s personal bodyguard was stood in the back row of his box.

“Blimey, Roman is here” I chirped to Alan.

Alan replied that it was probably to do with the anti-Semitism theme for the night.

Yes, it probably was. And I saw no issue with that. While there are still morons who sing about Auschwitz following the club, there has to be a desire to remind everyone of this message. I just wished that Roman would appear at more than a handful of games these days. We need leadership, however understated.  Lo and behold, on page five of the programme, the owner had written a personal message about his desire to “create a club that is welcoming to everyone.”

The teams entered the pitch and they were forced to walk around the large circular banner, just as on a Champions League night.

Under a clear night sky – getting colder by the minute – a full moon appeared over the East Stand and it continued its arc as the game progressed. It was, apparently, a Super Blue Moon. In the spirit of the age, I wondered if this was the hallmark of an advertising guru, a brand salesman, taking nature to the next level.

“Get your Super Blue Moon sweatshirts, brochures and DVDs here.”

Nathan Ake appeared in the Milan-esque red and black of the visitors. I caught his wide smile on camera as he shook hands with former players.

As the players broke and sprinted to their respective ends, the Matthew Harding Lower roared –

“We Hate Tottenham.”

It seemed to be a reaction to the theme of the night.

The game began. Around 1,400 away fans. Ross Barkley in his league debut looked a bit lively at the start. Once or twice an early ball was pushed through to the attacking three. With our usual way of playing tending to resemble a game of chess of late, I have often harped on to Alan of late how I would like to see us mix things up a little, knocking the occasional early ball over the top, to encourage uncertainty in an opposition defence.

“Do they drop back, do they push up? Let’s mess with their heads. Let’s do things that they aren’t expecting.”

It was a rather timid and uneventful start to the game in all honesty. There was a desire from all of the front three to “make things happen” but with no real end result. The game moved on and the atmosphere was as timid as the action on the pitch. The away fans were soon having a dig.

“Is this The Emirates?”

I wanted the Matthew Harding to sing “Roman, give us a song.”

On nineteen minutes, the spectators applauded the memory of young Chelsea season ticket holder Jack Winter who had sadly passed away recently. A banner was held aloft in The Shed Upper.

There was a sublime piece of skill down below us in The Sleepy Hollow. A Bournemouth move had developed but there was a split second when the ball was equidistant from a few players. N’Golo Kante appeared to feint a challenge, and the Bournemouth player took the bait. The ball remained loose, in no man’s land, and Kante collected it, adeptly side-stepping a challenge and moving the ball on with the minimum of fuss. From there, a lovely move developed, with some excellent movement throughout the team. The ball was moved up the field and I watched in awe. The ball was played in from the right with a Zappacross but the ball was routinely hoofed clear. It was the highlight of the match thus far.

Bournemouth threatened occasionally.

This wasn’t much of a match.

With twenty-five minutes gone, we were sad to see Andreas Christensen leave the pitch – a strain of some description? – and our young starlet was replaced by Antonio Rudiger.

Things momentarily improved as Gary Cahill headed onto the top of the net from a corner. A cross from Alonso would undoubtedly have been perfection itself if a tall central striker been lurking; Hazard failed to connect. There was some occasionally pleasing play from Barkley. Alonso shaped to volley at the far post but a team mate chose to attack the ball too. The Spaniard headed wide just after.

As first-halves go, it was as poor as I had seen for a while. It was all very humdrum. Was this a sign of tiredness? This was the ninth game in January.

At the break, Neil Barnett introduced the two new acquisitions Palmieri and Giroud.

I applauded, just.

With that, the Super Blue Moon disappeared from my view as it hid above the West Stand roof.

As a metaphor for the evening’s events, it was pretty much spot on.

There was very little Super Blue about the game’s second forty-five minutes.

With us attacking the Matthew Harding, there was hope for a goal when Marcos Alonso steadied himself for a strike on the Bournemouth goal from a free-kick. It was close, but not close enough and Asmir Begovic was not called into action.

After just six minutes gone in the second period, Bournemouth sauntered through alarming gaps in our defence and the lively Callum Wilson slotted home. Ugh. We watched as the away team celebrated at the far end in front of the Cherries away support. This goal somehow inspired the Chelsea faithful to get behind the team.

“COME ON CHELSEA. COME ON CHELSEA. COME ON CHELSEA. COME ON CHELSEA.”

The noise generated from the supporters in the same stand as me brought me great pleasure. This was what supporting a team is all about. In adversity, noise. Great stuff.

Conte chose to replace Barkley – an uninspiring debut – with Cesc Fabregas. We hoped for a little more ingenuity and guile. The fans were still getting behind the team.

And then the lads and lasses in The Shed let me down.

They goaded the away fans with “Champions of England, you’ll never sing that.”

This was AFC Bournemouth here. They were in the bottom tier in 2010. Their ground holds less than 12,000. Truly, truly pathetic.

There seemed to be a tangible improvement in our play. Eden huffed and puffed and tried his best, but often ran into a wall of red and black. Antonio Rudiger crossed low but there was nobody in a danger area to tap home. We obviously missed a target man. A lovely ball found Eden, who forced a save, but was flagged offside anyway.

On sixty-four minutes, we went further behind. Bournemouth cut through our stagnant defence and Junior Stanislas slotted home after racing away from Cahill.

The away players again celebrated in front of their supporters.

Another “ugh.”

I then spent a few seconds watching, with increasing incredulity, as the Chelsea team walked back to their positions for the restart. Their body language was awful. They walked slowly, heads mainly down, silent. I focused on Gary Cahill. He did not speak. He did not talk to his fellow players. He did not engage with them. He did not encourage them. He did nothing to endear himself to me.

He simply dropped to his knees and tied his bootlaces.

For fuck sake, Gary.

I popped down to have a moan with Big John who shares the same opinions as me on many facets of supporting this great club.

“Shocking. No leadership.”

So true.

The manager brought on Callum Hudson-Odoi – wearing the very iconic number seventy, a Chelsea number if ever there was – to take the place of Zappacosta.

Just after, a run by Stanislas was not stopped and his low shot was touched past Courtois by Ake.

Chelsea 0 Bournemouth 3.

Bollocks.

I have to be honest, our defence at this time looked blown to smithereens. We were all over the place. But by the same token, this didn’t seem like a 0-3 game. They had simply taken their chances, whereas we had not enjoyed a cutting edge to our play and therefore – no real surprises – our attack was blunted. The rest of the game was played out against a decreasing amount of home supporters. There were tons of Super Blue seats on show with each passing minute.

We had a couple of late efforts, but the game petered out.

Ironically, the noisiest few salvos of support during the entire game occurred right towards the end of the match with thousands scurrying out to their respective homes.

On ninety-two minutes, Stamford Bridge roared.

“CAREFREE. WHEREVER YOU MAY BE. WE ARE THE FAMOUS CFC.”

I roared along with the rest. Bloody hell that felt good. It reminded me of years gone by when we made some noise irrespective of on-field glory.

I suppose that there were only around ten thousand – probably many less – present as the game came to its conclusion. It would be easy for me to make some comment about the fans who chose to leave early. That might upset a few people, eh? I am not so sure I care too much. Imagine if the game had finished with no fans present. What sort of message would that give the world?

So, yes. I stayed to the end.

However, you can be sure that there were a few Chelsea fans who would be making some snide remarks about “new fans” and “plastic fans” and “tourists” being the ones who left early. I am not so sure. There is a bit of a myth that “old school” supporters have always supported the team through thick, thin and thinner. Although we have enjoyed some fantastic periods of support, not always have Chelsea packed Stamford Bridge to the rafters in the way that we do know.

Think back to 1994, long before Stamford Bridge was inundated with tourists, day-trippers, new fans and the moneyed classes.

We had reached our very first cup final – the FA Cup no less – in twenty-two years. In our second-from last home game of the season, we played Coventry City on a Wednesday night, a mere ten days before our date with Manchester United at Wembley Stadium. Our capacity at Stamford Bridge that season – no North terrace – was around 29,000. Was our stadium packed to the rafters on that Wednesday evening, cheering the boys on to a fine finish to the season ahead of the Cup Final?

No. The gate was just 8,923.

We have come a long way, for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in the past few decades.

On the drive home, all was quiet. We didn’t even bother to listen to the rest of the results. I was sure, though, that the bitching and the moaning was lighting up the internet. And I am so fucking tired of all that too.

See you at Watford on Monday.

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Tales From Saturday Three O’Clock

Chelsea vs. Burnley : 12 August 2017.

On the train back to Marylebone Station last Sunday after our frustrating defeat at Wembley, I summed-up the importance of our opening game of the league campaign.

“Well, we have to win next week. Burnley at home. We have to do it. It’s a must-win. We’ll be OK. We’ll be back on track.”

Throughout the week, the lack of more signings by the club provided an increasingly noisy back-drop as some supporters grew increasingly stressed. Before a ball was kicked in anger, we were a club in crisis. I had to keep reminding myself that – while admitting our squad continued to look rather threadbare – there was still more than a fortnight left of the transfer window. On the drive up to London, we chatted about the rumours and counter-rumours. We discussed thoughts about what the first starting-eleven of the season would be. We wondered if Alvaro Morata would start. If so, would he start out wide?

But this was opening day, and although of course the up-coming football match dominated our thoughts, more than anything the day was about getting back in to the groove and, most importantly, meeting mates, drinking and moaning as a certain Nutty Boy once said.

Prior to meeting up with the chaps, I had to run around and sort out match tickets for the Burnley match and the Tottenham away game too. On my travels, I quickly popped in to the re-vamped megastore. It is certainly more spacious now, but I have heard fellow fans report that Nike have certainly got a stranglehold on merchandise, with little else on sale. I didn’t head upstairs to see the full range of stuff on show, so can’t fully comment, but the ground floor certainly lacked the usual variety of items. I’ve commented how much I admire the new home kit. Some people have commented that it is just lucky that an existing Nike template happens to evoke memories of our early 1970’s heritage. But, regardless, it fills the bill for me. The new tagline “We Are The Pride” was plastered on the megastore window. I wondered what other slogans were waiting for us inside the stadium.

Not everyone has been complimentary about our choice of kit supplier. After a decade with Adidas – sorry, adidas – I think it was time for a change. Everyone admires Adidas trainers, but some of their Chelsea kits have failed to impress me. Getting Nike on board at Chelsea takes me back to the heady days of casualdom in around 1984, and I have to say that my abiding memory of the benches – often representing a catwalk on most match days – was that Nike trainers were the trainer of choice for many. My memory of 1983/84 was of Nike Wimbledons – blue swoosh, obviously – as the most popular trainer at Chelsea. My first trainer was a Nike Wimbledon Supreme – £24.99 from Olympus Sports in Bath if I am not mistaken – and I always got the impression that Londoners favoured Nike more than northerners, who were more into Adidas. Just a personal memory. I might be wrong. It might have been that Adidas were a brand that I had grown up with and so those trainers didn’t register as much as the newer brands such as Nike, Diadora or, to a lesser extent, Puma. Anyway, fuck it, there’s my customary mention of 1983/84 out of the way.

Our pub of choice for opening day 2017 was “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington. I had met my friend Lynda, from New Jersey, who I last saw during the US tour two summers ago, down at the stadium. In the pub was Kev, on a fly-in and fly-out visit from his home in Edinburgh. He had left his house at 4.15am in the morning and was catching the 10pm back “up the road” from Gatwick later that night. Much respect to him for this long and tiring day in support of The Great Unpredictables.

Later, outside the West Stand, I overheard a Chelsea supporter say that he was flying in and out on the day from his home in Spain. Respect to him too.

To be honest, it was a joy to get the season off and running with a standard “Saturday Three O’Clock” kick-off. This would certainly help to reset our clocks correctly. This would be my forty-fifth season of attending Chelsea games and although I have missed a few opening games over the years, there is nothing quite like it. With a whole season spread out in front of us – with hopefully a few Euro aways to plan and relish – it was lovely to hear the boys’ laughter boom around the spacious boozer. It helped that Watford were putting on a good show against Liverpool on the televised game. I am lucky to have a fine set of Chelsea mates.

Soon in to the summer break, we had met up to pay our respects to Alan’s mother who had sadly passed away in May. On a sunny morning in South London, our little band of brothers had assembled to support Alan, and it was an honour to attend his mother’s funeral. His lovely mother was a Chelsea supporter of course. The club got a mention on more than a few occasions in the minister’s eulogy.

At a local pub, afterwards, Daryl and myself had a couple of moments discussing how our experiences supporting the club have enriched our lives in so many ways. On a small, but vitally important scale, it has provided a tight and reliable network of friends who can be relied upon, and which succors and comforts each other when needed. Sometime, this can be with a subtle and a – typically English – understated shake of a hand or the slightest of exchanges, or at other times in more obvious show of friendship. We may not all agree on everything, inside or outside of football, but our love of the club binds us in ways that I find staggering. On the pitch, the club has brought us moments of huge joy. Too many to mention. So much success. There have been truly stunning games at Stamford Bridge, at Wembley old and new, at Stockholm, at Bolton, at Munich, at Amsterdam, at West Brom. And it has allowed us to travel to a seemingly never-ending array of exotic locations throughout Europe and beyond.

And although I dislike the chant of the same name, we both agreed that we had “won it all.”

In a moment of clarity among everything, we came to the conclusion that if Chelsea Football Club were to win nothing for the next twenty-six years (1971 to 1997, cough, cough), we really could not complain. And we genuinely meant it. Let us not forget that we have enjoyed riches beyond our wildest dreams over the past twenty years.

1997       FA Cup

1998       ECWC, League Cup, Super Cup

2000       FA Cup

2005       League, League Cup

2006       League

2007      FA Cup, League Cup

2009       FA Cup

2010       League, FA Cup

2012       European Cup, FA Cup

2013       Europa Cup

2015       League, League Cup

2017       League

Nineteen trophies in twenty years. Fackinell.

And as the month of May gave way to June and July, and as I thought hard about the club, my mates, and the entire football experience, I wondered if I have stumbled into a latest phase of personal Chelsea support.

Let me explain.

If my childhood, up to the age of 16, say, could be classed as the first phase – my formative years, besotted with the club, but with limited access to games – and from 16 to 30 as the next phase – my support building, home and away games in England, my network of Chelsea fans increasing , but with no trophies – and if from the age of 30 to 50 could be classed, you will love this, as “The Golden Age” – European travel, trophies, a new stadium, travel to North America and Asia, Munich – then maybe this new phase will equates to some sort of chilled-out alternative post-modern era of a more relaxed level of support. I’m fifty-two now. I can’t be an angry young man for ever, can I? I think my passion is still there, but maybe it is starting to wane. Or, more importantly, my reasons for attending so many Chelsea games has changed imperceptibly. Maybe, below the surface, all of the nonsense linked to modern day football is slowly eroding my love of the game in general. Who knows what the next twenty years will bring? Will there be another Munich? If not, will it matter? At this stage, at this moment, I’d suggest not. Just being able to go to football, for me, might prove to be enough. Many are denied this privilege. But I am aware of how the successes of the past two decades has affected my general mood and attitude. And I know that I am not alone with these thoughts.

That said, the memory of myself jumping around like a loon when Michy Batshuayi toe-poked Dave’s cross past Ben Foster at The Hawthorns last season has proved to me that my passion will last a long time yet.

We caught the tube down to Stamford Bridge. Parky, bless him, had gone through an operation on his left foot on the Tuesday and his mobility was limited. The short journey brought back lovely memories of my visits to Chelsea in those formative years, when I used to peak out of the tube train at the litter strewn grass which abutted the old and rambling North Stand terrace. A single glimpse at that huge floodlight pylon base in the north-west corner certainly used to get my pulses racing.

The team news came through.

Courtois

Cahill – Luiz – Rudiger

Alonso – Kante – Fabregas – Azpilcueta

Boga – Batshuayi – Willian

The tube trip had only lasted a quarter of an hour. The sun was out. It was a leisurely walk out of the Fulham Broadway station – for the first time for some of us, we usually walk from various pubs – and Stamford Bridge was beckoning us.

Burnley had only brought 1,400 or so. Before we knew it, the teams were walking out, accompanied by the now annoying bursts of flames in front of the East Stand.

Just. Give. Me. The. Football.

The Herberts in the top tier of The Shed unravelled an Italian flag and an English flag either side of a “Forza Conte” banner.

Season 2017/18 began.

At intermittent intervals along various balconies, slogans were noted.

“We Are Blue.”

“We Are Chelsea.”

“We Are London.”

“We Are Everywhere.”

Two massive banners were draped on the Bates Motel.

“From The World” – featuring players from Belgium, France, England and Brazil against a backdrop of most of the countries of the globe

“We Are Chelsea – featuring – very oddly – Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand, so to complete the total global coverage. File under “trying too hard.”

We get the message. Surprisingly, the Nike swoosh was not splattered on every square inch of royal blue.

But the new kit looked perfect.

There were no complaints with the first few moments of the new campaign. Rudiger was soon involved and looked neat. A Burnley attack ended with a header which Courtois easily saved. The support did not really get too involved; not to worry, this was the first game of the season, we would hopefully soon warm up.

After a quarter of an hour, we warmed up alright. Gary Cahill ran with the ball, but ended up chasing it as his touch let him down. A lunge at a Burnley defender ended up with howls of protest from the visitors, and without any deliberation a red card was brandished. This moment of play took place down the other end. I was, therefore, not particularly well-sighted. But of course, it goes without saying, the fans around me were furious. It has to be said that there was hardly a Chelsea player protesting. That said it all.

Gary Cahill, his first league game as bona fide captain in his own right, sheepishly walked off.

Ten minutes later, a cross from the Burnley right picked out Sam Vokes. His jump and volley caught us unawares. If anything, the ball was either scuffed, or took a deflection off the leg of Luiz. Either way, the ball spun towards the goal, with Thibaut scrambling in vain.

At the time, it seemed Courtois had moved late.

Chelsea 0 Burnley 1.

The away fans made some noise.

“Burn-a-lee, Burn-a-lee, Burn-a-lee.”

A goal down and with ten men, our championship defence was rocking. There were heated words between Thibaut and David when Courtois chose not to come for a high ball. The confrontation, thankfully, ended with a hug. But we were clearly and undeniably rattled. We struggled to put any worthwhile moves together. Only Willian showed any creativity. The noise floundered too.

I do not get any ounce of joy in reporting that Batshuayi was a huge disappointment. His ball retention – big moments for him, the whole world watching – was abysmal. Of course I do not know if he was told to stay central by the management, but his movement was non-existent. On too many occasions, he was stuck in front of the goal, immobile, rather than varying it. Not once was he lined up on the back stick, waiting for a cross, with the whole goal in his sights. Surely a big striker needs to attack crosses from wider positions. He looked half the player that I had seen in Beijing.

On thirty-nine minutes, a move developed down our right and the previously combative N’Golo Kante lost the raiding movement of Stephen Ward, who lashed a ball past Courtois from an angle.

Bloody hell, we were 2-0 down.

To my left, unbelievably, a section of the MHU began chanting “Diego.”

To my pleasure, a much louder chant of “Chelsea” drowned it out.

A few minutes later, we conceded yet again. A deep cross from the Burnley right dropped on to the head of Vokes, with our defence split. According to the banner at The Shed End, “we are everywhere” but Luiz and Christensen were nowhere near the fucking ball. Of the three goals, this was the bitterest pill to swallow. Our defensive frailties from previous years came home to haunt us. Hundreds rose from their seats, and I hoped it was for a half-time beer rather than a tube or bus home.

Luiz grew frustrated – with his own form possibly – and was lucky to not get booked for remonstrating with referee Craig Pawson.

There were boos in our section at the half-time whistle and although I am sure that some were directed at the referee, I know our support only too well. I am convinced that a large percentage was aimed at the players. There is a season-ticket holder who sits nearby who is always the first to boo at such occasions and I made a point of looking at him, as a marker for the mood of the moment. His scowling face – which resembles a cat’s arse at the best of times – was to be seen booing the team. I am absolutely sure of it.

Prick.

It had been, quite possibly, the worst display of defending I had seen at Stamford Bridge in a single half since my first game in 1974.

There were echoes, too, of Arsenal away last season.

“At this bloody rate, I’ll take 0-3 at full-time.”

I clearly expected a tough old second-half, though in the concourse at the interval I was full of – ridiculous – optimism.

“We’re about to see the greatest comeback ever. We’re going down to nine men, but we’ll still bloody win.”

Not long into the second-half, a long-range effort from Marcos Alonso brought a magnificent save from Heaton. To be fair, it was all Chelsea now, despite the numerical disadvantage. Batshuayi, still frustrating us all, was replaced on the hour by Alvaro Morata. Within minutes, he was chasing a ball down the channel and stretching the Burnley defence. A quick snapshot was fired over, but the intent was there. Alonso, from a free-kick, then drew another fine save from Heaton. The impetus was with us.

“Just one goal” I pleaded.

The tackles crashed in on Chelsea players, and the noise in the stadium increased. The referee was clearly public enemy number one. Thankfully, to everyone’s credit, hardly anyone had left the stadium. After only ten minutes on the pitch, Morata threw himself at a magnificent Willian cross and headed home. It had been that trademark “wriggle, move, cross” from Willian, and the ball was right on the money. Morata gathered the ball from the net, and roared. Bollocks to all of that “Number Nine Shirt Jinx” shite.

The noise level increased further.

Just after, Willian fed in the run of Christensen and his low angled shot had beaten Heaten, and was going in, but the goal-poaching instincts of Morata worked against us. I was already up and celebrating, but noticed the raised flag on the far side.

Offside. Bollocks.

N’Golo – along with Willian, our best performer – slammed a shot narrowly wide. Luiz seemed to have no end of efforts. The momentum was with us for sure. We kept moving the ball around, trying to expose gaps.

“Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea.”

With ten minutes to go, a loose challenge by Fabregas resulted in a second yellow. Another red. Bollocks. His first yellow had been for a silly reaction to a free-kick given against him; clapping the referee is never wise. He looked dejected, as we did.

Down to nine men. I wondered if my half-time prediction might be right.

Throughout the resurgent second-half, the Stamford Bridge crowd often rallied loudly behind the manager :

“Antonio. Antonio. Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

A shot from Morata produced another save. Then, with just two minutes remaining, a lofted ball was beautifully headed on by that man Morata and dropped perfectly for David Luiz to slam home.

Chelsea 2 Burnley 3

What a comeback. The crowd upped the volume further.

Four minutes of extra-time were signalled.

In virtually Burnley’s only effort on goal in the entire second period, Brady struck a post from a free-kick right on the edge of our box.

We attacked and attacked – Charly Musonda replacing the substitute Christensen – but our efforts fell short.

At the final whistle, it seemed that the whole crowd – to a man, woman, child – rose to sing in praise of a thoroughly heart-warming second-half display.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.

Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.

Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.

Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

I was dead proud of my club at that moment in time. Noise in the face of adversity. I loved it.

There was the strangest of feelings, of moods, of atmospheres as we made our way along the Fulham Road, Fulham Broadway and the North End Road. The befuddlement and dismay of the first-half had been almost replaced by pride and appreciation of our second-half performance. In the car, one of Glenn’s mates had texted him to say that there had been – allegedly – disorder within the Chelsea squad due to the way that Diego Costa had been treated, but it seems that there was no evidence to back this up.

“Bloody hell, that performance in the second-half did not look like it was from a team in disarray. It looked like we were playing for each other. Bloody great second-half.”

But, of course, it had been – over the entire game – a humiliating defeat. And Roman does not like humiliation. The defeat might just intensify the search for new signings. It should, ironically, trigger some activity. It might – who knows? – be our “Arsenal 2016” moment of the current season.

Next Sunday, I might put some money on us to do well against Tottenham. It would be typical Chelsea for us to dig out a result there.

See you at Wembley.

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Tales From Goodison Park

Everton vs. Chelsea : 30 April 2017.

I know that it seems quite ridiculous and implausible now, but there might have been the slightest of chances that my team would turn out to be Everton and not Chelsea. Until I started school in the spring of 1970, I had not shown much of a liking for football, or so my parents were to admit to me later. However, at the village school, after only a few weeks if memory serves, I chose Chelsea. I have told this story many times before so I won’t waste much time on this but this was possibly on the back of our FA Cup Final win against Leeds United. It might have been because some school pals had mentioned that Chelsea were a good team. It might have been because I just liked the name. Let’s face it, Chelsea is such a warm and lovely word, isn’t it? It might have been because the first football game that I played in during the lunchtime kick about was for the Chelsea team. The exact reasons are lost in the mists of time and the midst of time. However, one thing is absolutely certain. My interest in football had been piqued in April and May 1970 and my life – a thunderous orchestral crescendo please – would never be the same again. But, think about it. Everton won the league in 1970. I wonder if they ever entered my consciousness?

As I get older and look back on a life of Chelsea support, I often think back on those early months and years. I am always looking for clues as to why Chelsea hit me and hit me hard. And I have since tried, on here and elsewhere, to piece it all together.

I always remembered that I ended up with a couple of booklets, given away in packets of cereal, which detailed a couple of football teams in the early-seventies. The teams? Chelsea and Everton. I remember opening out the booklets and pouring over the snippets of information, though I am sure that I must have had to ask for assistance from my parents with reading some of the longer words.

Chelsea were my team by then, of course – no turning back – but I can distinctly remember looking at the word Everton, maybe spelling it out and writing it in my thirst for knowledge. Chelsea and Everton. I wonder where it all could have ended. For decades, I presumed that these feint memories of these giveaway booklets would be just that. Then, amazingly, to mark our centenary in 2005, Chelsea brought out a memorabilia pack featuring many facsimile replicas of items from our history, including programmes, cigarette cards, club documents, and – yes, you have guessed it – a full colour copy of that little booklet from the early ‘seventies. I immediately recognised it – oddly, Ian Hutchinson was on the cover – and I was transported right back to my childhood.

On the evening before our game at Goodison Park, I dipped into the memorabilia pack once more, and turfed out the booklet. It dated from 1971. I did a Google search. Within a few clicks, my childhood had returned again. The booklets were featured in packs of Shredded Wheat. And there, right before my eyes, was the cover of the Everton one, with Alan Ball on the front. Eight teams were in the series, oddly named “Cup Soccer 71”; Arsenal, Chelsea, Derby County, Everton, Leeds United, Liverpool, Manchester United and Newcastle United.

And it got me thinking all over again about Chelsea and Everton. Around the time that the booklets were published, presumably before the FA Cup Third Round of January 1971, Peter Osgood had further embedded my love for Chelsea, but a year earlier it might have been oh-so different. If only my father had mentioned to me, in detail, that his only visit to a football stadium had been to Goodison Park during his World War Two training, my life might have turned out to be quite different.

But Chelsea I was in 1970 and Chelsea I am now.

And our game at Goodison Park on the last day of April in 2017 would be a real test. Someone somewhere – TS Elliot, which team did he play for? – once labelled April the cruellest month. April 2017 has certainly been a busy month, with seven Chelsea games, starting on the first day of the month and ending on the final day. For a while it looked suitably cruel. It began with two league defeats in four games against Crystal Palace and Manchester United. Then came salvation with two victories against Tottenham and Southampton.

With Tottenham still breathing down our necks, the thought of our game against Everton made me excited and nervous in equal measure.

Worry, worry, worry.

In The Chuckle Bus on the long four-hour drive to Merseyside, Glenn was very laid back, almost to the point of annoyance.

“We can only win our games. Don’t worry about them.”

I felt like slapping him around the noggin. Surely this approach, by not worrying about Tottenham and their threat to our sixth league title, is not how it should be done. To get maximum elation from any potential title win, surely one has to acknowledge all worst case scenarios? Glenn’s approach surprised me. Or maybe, me being me, I was taking this all way too bloody seriously.

I had made good time. I had started my collection of the boys at 8am. Just after midday, we stopped off at a Toby Carvery on Queens Drive and soon funnelled £8.95 worth of a Sunday Roast down our throats. At 1pm, I was parked up in Stanley Park, with both of the city’s football stadia close by. The huge new stand at Anfield dominated the skyline, but the equally dominant main stand at Goodison Park was just visible at the bottom of the gentle slope north.

The team?

As strong as it gets.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill.

Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso.

Pedro, Costa, Hazard.

I bloody love Goodison, again for reasons well documented in these match reports for many a season. With news that the club are to move to a new 50,000 capacity stadium at Bramley Moore Dock, a few miles to the north of the city centre, I may only have a few more visits left. There will be sadness on my last visit. A link to my father’s personal story will be extinguished.

Inside, up in the wooden floor boarded upper tier, Goodison looked very familiar. Back in 1971, I always remembered the semi-circles cut out behind both goals to stop rowdy spectators throwing objects at the players. Or – at least – making it more difficult for them to hit anyone should they chose to do so. The first Everton team that I ever remember – playing in white socks, which were brought back only recently – included players such as Howard Kendall, Gordon West, Jimmy Husband, Joe Royle and Alan Whittle.

With a few minutes to spare, I was able to pin my well-travelled “Vinci Per Noi” banner to the balcony wall, covering some of those famous Archibald Leitch cross-struts in the process. My plan was for Antonio Conte to spot it during the game, make a bee-line for it at the end of the match – with us victorious, obviously – and to point madly at it. He would hunt me down, phone me, arrange to meet up before the next home game at the Chelsea Harbour Hotel, and we would soon become close friends. I would holiday at his summer villa on the shores of Lake Como. We would talk about his time at Juventus. The 1996 Champions League Final in Rome. That goal against Fiorentina in 1999. We’d sip Peronis. We’d laugh at Jose Mourinho. He’d advise me on hair transplants. We’d have a right old giggle.

Alternatively, the banner would fall at the first gust of wind, be trampled on by those underneath, and would be ruined beyond repair.

You’re right. I do worry too bloody much.

The kick-off, at the odd time of 2.05pm, soon came around. There was a muted response from the Everton fans to the pre-match “Grand Old Team” which is sung in the style of Lily Savage, and even “Z Cars” seemed quieter than before. However – no surprises – the Chelsea fans around me and below me were in fine voice. We all knew how important this one was. We were all, unequivocally, up for it. Someone had mentioned that Everton had won their previous eight home games.

Worry, worry, worry.

We spotted the Everton supporters struggle to drape a large banner of Alan Ball – him again – from the top tier of the Gwladys Street. The display marked the ten year anniversary of his passing in April 2007.

Goodison Park has been a tough old venue for us of late, with only that crazy 6-3 win in 2014 to give us any joy. There have been four league losses and one FA Cup loss too.

There was hardly an empty seat in the house.

Everton in 1971 blue, white and white. Chelsea in 2017 black, black, black.

The game had a crazy first few minutes. Ross Barkley moved the ball to Dominic Calvert-Lewin (what is it with double-barrelled names in football these days?) and he rattled the base of Thibaut’s near post. The ball bounced up and thankfully Gary Cahill was able to beat Romelu Lukaku to the ball. Less than sixty seconds had passed. We then enjoyed a little pressure, with Cahill hitting a low raking shot from distance. Stekelenburg fumbled, but nobody was close enough to pick up the pieces. It was certainly a lively opening.

Lukaku chose to wander over to the right, which meant that Dave had the onerous task of marking him. His physique demanded that I kept focussing on him. He is such a size. But Dave stuck close to him.

Eden Hazard was the next Chelsea player to go close, but after collecting a pass from Diego, he was forced wide by the Everton ‘keeper. His snatched shot rippled the side netting. We were definitely on top, and the Chelsea crowd were roaring the boys on. All three of our forward players were taking it in turns to run into space. Alonso on the left was often involved but had trouble in picking out players from out wide. Moses on the right was underused. There was a tendency to over-pass, but we were on top. Diego was holding the ball well.

The challenges were going in hard from both sides. After a Chelsea tackle was met with howls of anger from the Everton players close to the action, there was a classic from Gary :

“More fucking appeals than Blue Peter.”

Nemanja Matic strode forward and unleashed a low shot at the Everton ‘keeper.

Then, the next chance for Lukaku but his shot was dragged wide.

At the other end, Diego set himself up with a header, which bounced high off his head. The whole world seemed to momentarily stop as the ball came down. Unmarked, Diego snatched at it and ballooned it high into the packed stands.

Everton had their moments. I liked the look of Barkley but his impact was nulled by some great tackling from N’Golo Kante and Matic.

At the break, I was able to check that my banner was still in situ. Phew.

During the entire first-half, there had not been a single peep out of the Everton supporters.  I know that they are not known for their volume, but this was a pitiful showing. For a top seven club, not one single song. Shocking.

As always at Goodison, we attacked the Park End – ironically, the newest stand but easily the blandest– in the second-half. We were able to see how ridiculously close Eden Hazard was being marked by Idrissa Gueye. There was a lovely short corner – a Chelsea original – but Moses scuffed wide. Down below us, our raids were becoming more daring. There was nice play between Alonso, Hazard and Pedro. An hour had passed. At last, an Everton song. We plugged away.

A lone voice behind me :

“Don’t worry, it’s coming.”

I replied :

“So is Christmas.”

On sixty-five minutes, Pedro collected a ball from Matic. He turned and shifted the ball on to his left foot. From thirty yards out, he let fly. We watched and prayed that the white netting would bulge.

It bulged.

GET FUCKING IN.

Inside, I was boiling with joy, but I remained cool and snapped away, and hoped that the resulting flurry of photographs were not as blurred as I felt. I caught the pitch invader, mid jump, with Pedro, and snapped away as the ecstatic scorer – and the entire team – raced down to celebrate in front of the lower tier of the Bullens Road. I have not witnessed scenes of complete and unadulterated mayhem like that for ages.

Stay still my beating heart.

There were songs about winning the league, but Alan and I – at least – did not join in.

Lukaku curled a shot high and wide from a free-kick after a foul by Hazard on Barkley.

Hazard was able to eke out inches of space on the left, and he drew a foul from Gueye. We watched – me with my camera poised – as he whipped in a low cross. The Everton ‘keeper, perhaps distracted by those around him, could only fumble again. Captain Gary Cahill bundled the ball over. We erupted once more.

GET IN.

Again, I snapped away like a fool. Gary’s run was almost as euphoric as Pedro’s. There was no pitch invasion this time, but the wild scenes were the same. Cahill’s wonderful smile was captured on film by TV camera and by my camera alike.

There was a little worry as David Luiz fell to the floor after a previous knock took its toll. Not long after, the manager brought on Nathan Ake for Luiz, with Pedro being replaced by Fabregas at the same time.

Willian then replaced Hazard.

On eighty-six minutes, a pass from Diego Costa found Cesc Fabregas who picked out Willian inside the box, and the substitute effortlessly guided the ball into a virtually empty net. Now the game was certainly safe. The Chelsea section roared once more. I clicked away again.

The last photograph taken, I roared unhindered.

The lower tier down below me was a bubbling mass of humanity. Such scenes are a joy to behold.

At the final whistle, a triumphal roar, and then my eyes were focussed on Antonio Conte. He hugged all of the Chelsea players, and slowly walked over to join his men down below us, only a few yards away from the touchline. With just four games remaining, and our lead back to seven points, the joy among the team and supporters was palpable. Conte screamed and shouted, his eyes bulging. He jumped on the back of Thibaut Courtois. His smiles and enthusiasm were so endearing.

Altogether now – “phew.”

The songs continued as we slowly made our way out into the street. A message came through from my good friend Steve in Philadelphia –

“Chris, the image that just flashed on my screen was beautiful. A shot of a cheering Antonio Conte, cheering the away fans, with the Vinci banner in the background. Absolutely perfect shot.”

We reached the car, still bouncing, and I began the long drive home. It had been a fantastic afternoon at Goodison. We had inched closer. We discussed the game. All players had fought tooth and nail for the three points. Pedro had been excellent. Diego had held the ball up well, ran the channels, and had been his usual bundle of tricks. Captain Cahill was excellent. It had been a well-rounded performance after a few scares in the first-half. In the end, Everton were well beaten.

We listened to the Tottenham versus Arsenal game as we headed south, battling some typically slow traffic on the M6. Just north of Stoke-on-Trent, Spurs scored two quick goals. We sighed and we swore. The fuckers won’t go away will they?

With the lead back to four points again – “cat and mouse” – we now have to wait until Monday 8 May for our next game. By then, the lead could be just one point.

During the next week, the worrying will start all over again.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Tales From The Warm Afterglow

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 25 April 2017.

It was a surprisingly cold evening in SW6. There had been plenty of time for a couple of lagers in “The Goose” with the usual suspects, and the talk was all about our win over Tottenham in the semi-final on Saturday and the remaining games left for us this season. The huge 4-2 win had certainly warmed us all, and had given us renewed hope for the remaining games. In the beer garden, there was a glow from Saturday insulating us from the biting cold. We had six league games remaining. If we could eke out five wins, our sixth championship would be assured. It’s all about numbers at this time of the season.

Inside the stadium, Southampton had only brought 1,500, which I thought was pretty poor, considering that their tickets were pegged at £30. Just before the teams entered the pitch, the banners were out in The Shed again, with the words “Keep The Blue Flag Flying High” draped vertically down from the upper deck.

Our team was a strong one, with Gary Cahill returning and Cesc Fabregas starting.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill.

Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso.

Fabregas, Costa, Hazard.

Featured in the visiting line-up were two former Chelsea players, both of whom were in our numbers in Munich – Ryan Bertrand and Oriel Romeu.

Just before the game began, my pal Rob – who sits a few rows behind me in The Sleepy Hollow – told me that he had organised tickets for a neighbour and his son, who was attending his first-ever Chelsea game, to sit alongside him. Rob asked me to take a few candid photographs of the young lad during the game as a little memento of the evening. It was a pleasure to be able to do so. I explained to Bournemouth Steve, who was sitting alongside me, what Rob had asked me to do and he in turn suggested that I should shout up to him to get the lad to smile. However, not only would that spoil the shot that I was looking for, but I also added “nobody ever smiles at football, mate.” And it’s certainly at least half-true. At Chelsea games, we tend to look on with our faces being pictures of studied seriousness, often beset with worries, only smiling or laughing at irregular intervals.

“Sombre business this football.”

Not long in to the game, the shots of a suitably pensive Harrison were in the can. I hoped that he’d appreciate the photographs in his later years. It took me back, momentarily, to my first game in 1974. As I have mentioned before, despite my parents having taken many photographs of myself during my childhood, it is a little gripe of mine that there is no photographic record of my first-ever game at Chelsea. In fact, until I took my camera to games in 1983/1984, only one photograph from my first ten years of Chelsea games exists, and it came from a game against Southampton in 1976. It marked the return of The King, Peter Osgood.

Sadly, I don’t remember too much about this game. I recollect that we had to collect our tickets from the box office and I remember that former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson, who was by then working for BBC TV, was in front of us in the queue. I guess he was waiting for his press pass. Strangely, the Chelsea fans ignored him. My first-ever Chelsea photograph depicts the young Chelsea captain Ray Wilkins leaning forward in the centre-circle to shake hands with the referee at the start of proceedings.

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I have, sadly, no real memory of Peter Osgood’s play on that day over thirty-nine years ago, but I believe that I am correct in saying that there was a little bit of animosity towards him from The Shed during the game and he responded by flicking a V sign at them. My vague memory of the day is being churned-up seeing him playing against us. The game ended 1-1. Chelsea’s new number nine Jock Finnieston was our scorer.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MwRXqPoSZts

Back to our game with Southampton in 2017 and, thankfully, we did not have too long to wait for a goal. After just five minutes, a lovely long ball from Cesc found Diego Costa, who ploughed a lone furrow forward. I will be honest, I thought that Diego was undecided with what he would do. He held on to the ball – “too long, too long”  I moaned – but was then able to look up and perfectly cut a ball back towards Eden Hazard. His low shot screamed towards the far post, and in it went.

GET IN.

I was the target of some good-natured ribbing from the lads sitting nearby – “too long, ha” – and then Alan and myself enacted our usual opening goal routine.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

I had naively hoped that the opening period of the game would be marked by a relentless barrage of noise, effectively thanking the team for their hugely important win at Wembley, but even with a goal to cheer, the noise levels were not that special. To be honest, the spirited Southampton team caused us a few moments of concern as they fought hard for possession. They worked the ball well. But Chelsea were zipping the ball around too. It was an open game. There were groans after Eden Hazard blazed over after another delightful set-up from Diego from a pass from Fabregas.

On twenty-four minutes, a Southampton corner down below me was whipped in and it found Manolo Gabbiadini at the far post. His shot was thumped right at Courtois, but it was deflected by David Luiz in to the path of Romeu, who easily slotted home from very close range.

I rolled my eyes and envisioned an awakening from their post-Wembley slumber by Tottenham fans.

Bollocks. This was not part of the plan. I just hoped that the equaliser might generate a little more noise of support from the home areas. It did for a while.

A truly mesmeric run from the loved N’Golo Kante – at first winning the ball on the right wing and then pushing on past opponent after opponent – stirred us all. His penetrating run deep inside the box, which ended with a blocked cross from the goal-line, was just sublime.

Nemanja Matic – urged to “shoot!” by thousands – fired an effort at the Southampton goal but Fraser Forster was not worried.

Southampton continued to press, with the former players Romeu and Bertrand as good as any, and were especially dangerous at set pieces. The crowd grew nervous. There were a few dissenting voices aimed at Diego Costa as the first-half continued, which I thought was a little unfair. The frustration in the crowd grew.

One minute of injury-time was signalled. We forced a corner. It was played across the box and was cleared, but only as far as Kante. He floated a ball towards the far post and Marcos Alonso did well to head the ball back across the box. We watched as Gary Cahill flung himself at the ball and it bounced down and past Forster into the Shed End goal.

YES.

The Bridge responded with a boom of relief. He fell to his knees and then collapsed by the corner flag. I knew how he felt.

The first song from the PA at half-time was “That’s Entertainment” by The Jam.

“Something like that” I thought to myself, wondering if Messrs. Weller, Foxton and Buckler ever released a song called “Fuck entertainment, just give us a win.”

After only eight minutes into the second-half, Cesc Fabregas – playing very well – picked up a pass from Eden and floated a ball towards Diego Costa in a packed penalty box. Diego’s neat header seemed too easy. It dropped in to the goal. The crowd roared again.

We were winning 3-1. Get in.

After the applause had calmed down, I stood pointing towards one of the lads that had been giving Diego such a hard time. I stayed pointing – like Usain Bolt – until he eventually caught my eye. There were smiles from both of us. It was a lovely moment. I hoped that the third goal would calm our nerves. And I also hoped that Diego’s goal would galvanise his doubters over the final push of the campaign. We dominated now, but without causing too many problems for Forster in the Southampton goal. Kante, bearing down on Forster from an angle, forced a fine reflex save from the Saints’ keeper. Alonso’s long shot came to nothing. In the closing moments, there were further shots from substitute Pedro, on for Fabregas, and from Matic. Throughout the match, I thought that Fabregas, Kante and Luiz had been our finest players.

With five minutes’ remaining, the Stamford Bridge crowd rose as one to welcome John Terry on to the pitch as he replaced Victor Moses. His first touch, a side-footed clearance out of defence, was met with one of the loudest cheers of the night.

In the last minute of normal time, a sublime move down below us involving a tricky run from Diego, playing one-twos with first Pedro and then Eden Hazard, ended with Diego planting the ball in to the Southampton goal. It was just a beautiful moment. Diego raced away, cupping his ears, as if to say “where are the boos, now?” I followed suit, cupping my ears towards my mate in the row behind. More smiles, more laughter. The serious faces were no more.

Bizarrely, almost as an after-thought, Ryan Bertrand rose and guided a looping header past Thibaut into our goal and we ended up with a second 4-2 win in four days.

There was predictable joy as the game ended. “Blue Is The Colour” boomed around the stadium as Antonio Conte came on to the pitch to hug his players.

Five games left. See you at Goodison on Sunday.

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Tales From North Staffordshire

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 18 March 2017.

This would be Chelsea’s eleventh visit to Stoke City’s stadium at the top of the hill. It is one of those stadia where I have seen all of Chelsea’s previous visits and although our away record against Stoke City was pretty reasonable at one stage, we have recently struggled, with three defeats in the past four games. Last season was particularly painful, with two losses in just eleven days. After our FA Cup game with Manchester United, all eyes were now firmly-focused on the Premier League. With an international break after the Stoke game, it was vitally important that we kept our momentum going, to maintain our gap at the top and to – well – just keep winning.

Although I try to keep a reasonable balance in these match reports, I am aware that there are a few times when I tend to get rather self-indulgent. Rather than reporting on the club, the team and its supporters, sometimes I delve into my own personal story; I have heard some supporters say that they enjoy all of this background stuff, but I am sure that there must be others who wonder what on Earth I am blathering on about. I spent three seasons – er, years – in The Potteries, when I was a student at North Staffs Poly in the ‘eighties. On all of the previous visits to the city covered by these tales, I have touched on various memories from my college life mixed in with my love for football in particular, and Chelsea – of course – at the centre of it all. There can’t be much left to say about my experiences in the city of Stoke-on-Trent from September 1984 to July 1987. But worry ye not, there will be a couple more during this one.

“Oh great” said 50%.

“Oh great” said 50%, sarcastically.

The weather was overcast as I drove PD, Parky and Scott north on the M5 and M6. I turned off onto the A500 – “the D Road” in the local vernacular – and soon breezed past Stoke City’s home ground on the hill at Sideway to my east. The Britannia Stadium has now been re-named the “Bet365 Stadium” since our last visit.

Yeah, I know. It will be a while before I stop calling it “The Britannia.”

Like last season, we spent a while in “The Terrace” pub, right opposite the playing fields of my old college. Although it is a good two miles away from the stadium, it is – crucially – the nearest pub to the Stoke-on-Trent train station. The pub was packed with Chelsea fans, and only Chelsea fans, and the ranks were swelled every twenty minutes or so as another train pulled in. I was able to park my car right outside the boozer.

“Talk about door to door service, lads.”

I was able to chat to a couple of local Chelsea fans. It brought back memories of my time at Stoke, when I became friendly with a few local lads who followed Chelsea and who used to occasionally pop into our local “The King’s Arms.” Memorably, they once stopped me from a potential roughing-up from some Chelsea fans from London. It was in 1986 or 1987, and I was walking in to Stoke from my house near the old Victoria Ground. I was wearing a T-shirt, purchased from the old Chelsea shop by the main gates at Stamford Bridge, which celebrated our new-found use of celery at games.

“Chelsea ICF – Inter Celery Firm.”

I breezed past some lads, and I heard one Cockney voice yell – aggressively – out “Chelsea ICF? What’s that about mate?” I suddenly feared the worse; that would be ironic, me getting roughed-up by a Chelsea fan, thinking I was possibly a West Ham fan wearing a shirt which took the piss out of Chelsea.  Thankfully, one of the local Stokies that I knew validated that I was Chelsea and a potential nasty situation was averted.

The West Brom vs. Arsenal game was on the TV, and the pub erupted as Arsenal conceded one and then two.

We left The Terrace at just before 2pm, allowing me plenty of time to get to my anointed parking place on a grass verge outside the stadium. Cars were parked everywhere; on bridges over the D Road, on pavements, on verges. It was quite feral. Up the path past the canal and the familiar sight of the stadium, high on the hill.

It was good to back in Stoke, among the familiar clipped accents of the locals.

Back in North Staffordshire.

Or “Nawth Staff’she” as they say in Fenton, Longton, Tunstall, Etruria, Hanley, Kidsgrove, Bentilee, Shelton and Trent Vale.

I remembered my very first visit to the city, during the summer of 1984. I recollected the interview that I had with a grizzled old lecturer at the poly, a local Stokie, sporting a Zapata moustache and an NUM badge, and who we later learned was a Port Vale supporter. During the interview, I mentioned that Stoke City used to have a chairman called Percy Axon – no relation, but I thought it was worthwhile mentioning, as I would – and I think that the bloke was amazed that I had heard of him. In his role as a local councilor, the lecturer had known Percy Axon. My surname is relatively rare and I am always amazed when I encounter it anywhere. We must’ve shared a laugh about it. I remember asking the interviewee, quite candidly I thought, what I needed to do in order to fail the interview, since I had been virtually offered a place despite far-from-impressive “A Level” results the previous November.

Just as candid, the lecturer, replied :

“Be obscene.”

I got it. I understood. It seemed Stoke needed me more than I needed Stoke.

Memorably, this very same lecturer took our very first “getting to know you” session in the September of that year. His opening line went down in our college folklore.

“So, bearing in mind you ended up in Stoke, how many of you fucked-up your A Levels?”

In the away end, slowly filling with the loyal three-thousand, we heard that Eden Hazard had fallen victim to an injury. Pedro was to play with Willian and Diego Costa. We also heard that Arsenal had capitulated further at The Hawthorns, losing 3-1. What a joke club. Every year the same old story.

Stoke is one of the coldest grounds going, but this was bearable. I had known worse. We were down low, row seven, right behind the goal. It wasn’t the greatest viewpoint but it made a change. I spotted the spire of St. Thomas at Penkhull just to the left of the Boothen End. For once, a stadium with some sort of view. It made a change not to be completely encased. I noted that the scoreboard to our right was no more; maybe the club is infilling that corner now.

The usual flurry or red and white-checked flags accompanied the two teams.

Chelsea in all blue.

“Come on boys.”

The place was virtually a sell-out; just a few empty seats in the home areas. I wondered if my pal Chad, newly-arrived from Minneapolis in the morning, had made it in. He had posted a picture on Facebook of him inside a cab, on his way to the stadium, with time running out.

Over on the touchline were Mark Hughes and Antonio Conte. The teams were living and breathing embodiment of the two managers. Stoke City, intimidating and physical. Shorn of Shaqiri and Bojan, they were more like the Tony Pulis model. Chelsea, now fully Conte-esque, stylish and cool, yet passionate too. The two contrasts could not have been greater.

We looked at ease in the first few moments, and the away crowd were in good voice. We were stretching the home side down both flanks. It was a fine start. Marcos Alonso was hacked twice by Arnautovic, and referee Anthony Taylor blew up for a foul, out wide on the edge of the box. This was Willian territory alright. We waited for the ball to be swung in to the far post, but to everyone’s surprise the ball was whipped in towards the near post. I didn’t have a clear view, but we eventually heard the roar of others in our end who had seen the net ripple.

“Get in, duck.”

Willian reeled away and was mobbed. We were ahead after only thirteen minutes. What a dream start.

Stoke had already put their formidable footprint on the game, with intimidation mixed in with some late and dangerous challenges. Diego Costa drew the considerable ire of the home crowd and was booed every time he touched the ball. He was then booked for a foul on Martins Indi, which produced an odd response from the Stokies.

“Your club’s embarrassing.”

Odd. Never heard that one before. I didn’t dwell on it.

We kept applying good pressure. Thankfully, others were stepping up to fill the void provided by Hazard’s absence. Defensively, we looked at ease. David Luiz was in control.

Completely against the run of play, Stoke caused a scare. A deep corner from their right was headed back in to the box and Martins Indi headed the ball past Thibaut. The home fans roared – “bollocks” – but after a few seconds the referee spotted the linesman flagging for an indiscretion. We waited, and the body language of the two officials looked good. The referee flagged for a free-kick to us. No goal. Phew. Though none of us knew what had actually transpired.

Sadly, not long after, the referee swayed in the favour of the home side as an innocuous challenge by Gary Cahill was deemed worthy of a penalty. We were furious, and figured that the referee was not 100% convinced that he had made the correct decision in cancelling the Martins Indi goal.

Walters smashed the ball in, and celebrated wildly, possibly gaining some sort of retribution from his darkest hour against us in 2013.

The game became scrappier, and it genuinely seemed that it was all down to the Stoke players. Costa was continually fouled, but still the home fans howled. One challenge on Diego made Antonio Conte jump into the air and stamp both his feet into the ground. Pedro fired over just before the break.

It was time for quiet but strong words from Antonio Conte during the interval.

“Keep going. Do not lose your nerves. Keep calm. Keep playing. We will win.”

Chelsea began the second-half well. We did indeed keep calm, no more so than Diego Costa who simply did not give in to more hard line tactics. He did not yield. He was strong in possession and kept others in the game. I lost count of the times we played the ball intelligently in and out of – and around, and in between – the scurrying Stoke players. Kante was everywhere again. I’m sure I spotted him atop the church spire at Penkhull, mending a clock face, during the second-half. Pedro cut in after a defensive error on the Stoke flank but Grant saved.

Still the Stoke players hacked away. I turned to Alan and said “I can’t see it staying with eleven versus eleven, mate.”

A free-kick was awarded to us after Pedro was fouled. Luiz waited, but it was Alonso who crashed the ball against the bar with a sweet left-footed strike.

Conte replaced with Moses with Cesc Fabregas. In the excitement of the closing quarter of the game, I hardly noticed the change in formation. An extra man in midfield added pressure and stress to the home team and the home crowd, who were remarkably quiet, save from a few trademark “Cum On Stowk” chants.

But this was an odd game. Despite our continued dominance, Stoke occasionally threatened. Although deep down, I fully expected a winner, there was still a chance that Stoke could nab an unwarranted winner of their own. Inside, I knew I would be happy and sad at the same time if it stayed at 1-1.

Conte replaced Nemanja Matic with Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Fresh legs.

He was soon involved. He unknowingly played a one-two with himself, a la Kante at West Ham, and forced a corner. There were just a few minutes’ left. Cesc thumped a high ball in. Luiz, a little off-balance, was only able to prod it goal wards but with no real menace. Thankfully, a poor clearance by Pieters set up Gary Cahill. The entire away end was on tip-toes. Gary thrashed it high past Grant and the hexagons of the white netting were stretched and contorted as the ball flew in.

“FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.”

What a roar. What mayhem high on the hill. The players raced over to my left. I yelled. We pushed and shoved. A forest of arms and fists punched the air. Some fans ended up in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

There was the winner.

Stoke City 1 Chelsea 2.

There was still time for Diego – what a performance during that second-half – to strike the base of Grant’s left post and for Loftus-Cheek to go close too. As a fitting ending, Bardsley was sent-off for a second yellow (a foul on Diego, what a shocker.)

We counted down the injury-time.

The whistle was greeted by a massive roar of relief by the Chelsea faithful.

Very soon the crowd were singing “We’re gonna win the league” and I joined in, and then quickly stopped. Not yet, Chris, not yet. It was one of those games where you just shake hands and embrace everyone and anyone around you, just to magnify the moment and to cherish it too. We watched as the players celebrated and I snapped away as Antonio Conte, the mad man, walked towards the Chelsea crowd, his fists pumping, completely losing himself in the moment, his face a picture of ecstasy.

Football can do this.

It is fucking wonderful.

Outside we were bouncing. More handshakes and hugs.

I kept repeating the phrase “season defining.”

At that moment, it felt like we were on the cusp, though there were still ten games left.

The shout went up again.

“We shall not be moved. We shall not, we shall not be moved…”

Outside in the North Staffordshire night, I joined in, weakening…I could not resist. 

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Tales From My Second Home

Chelsea vs. Hull City : 22 January 2016.

Sunday at half-past-four. What a bloody annoying time for a game of football.

The lads had been deposited in The Goose – “see you later” – while I had to pick up some tickets for a couple of future away games down at the stadium. We were in town ridiculously early – midday – but with a little time to kill, I thought I would spend a while with my trusty camera and take a smattering of photographs of Stamford Bridge. This would be our first home game since the announcement that the local council had approved the plans for the rebuild, and it made sense for me to pay homage to Stamford Bridge’s current hotchpotch of stands, irregular angles and unique aspects. The new stadium will be very different of course; there will be one design, one style, one theme, one vision. The current stadium, built between 1972 and 2001, is typical of many stadia in England at the moment. There have been piecemeal additions over the years and although the interior hints at a common design, the overall result – especially from the outside – would suggest otherwise.

As I walked down behind the East Stand, now a grand old lady of forty-three years of age, I was struck with how little room had originally been set aside for extra-curricular activities such as restaurants, bars and corporate suites.  From the rear, it reminded me of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, with all of its skeletal construction, heating pipes, air-conditioning units, roof supports and associated infrastructural necessities all on show. Although this stand won a few architectural awards in its day – London had never seen a three-tiered stand of such size and scale before – it remains rather ugly from the rear. My memory from watching games inside the East Stand – especially the East Upper – is of how cramped everything was behind the scenes. And yet, when the current stadium is razed to the ground in just a few years’ time, I will miss the East Stand more than any other. When I saw my first-ever game at Chelsea in 1974, watching from the wooden benches of the West Stand enclosure, the East Stand was still being built opposite. It dominated Stamford Bridge in those days in a way that is difficult, now, to imagine. It dwarfed all other parts of the ground, and certainly the adjacent low and rambling North Stand terrace and Shed End. I watched football from the East Lower from 1974 to 1980 with my parents – a total of thirteen games – and it will always have a place in my heart.

As I continued my walk around the outside of The Bridge, I remembered “Drakes” on the corner of the Matthew Harding Stand – now re-named the Champions Club – and how it was the sole domain, when it opened up in 1994, of CPO shareholders only, and how Glenn, Alan and myself used to frequent it for a pre-match meal and pint. It used to be remarkably quiet and an enjoyable place to meet-up. In around 1996, it was opened up for club members and suddenly became ridiculously busy, and we soon moved on to The Harwood for our pre-match festivities.

The outside of the West Stand is vastly different to the East Stand. All of its pre-match function rooms are concealed in a huge wall of brick, but I have to say it would hardly win any design awards. It serves a purpose I suppose, but I am not a huge fan. I love the way that the Peter Osgood statue always casts a shadow on its lower reaches.

The Shed End is lost within the guts of the Chelsea offices, the apartment block and the Copthorne Hotel. From the forecourt, Stamford Bridge doesn’t even resemble a football stadium any more.

How everything has changed over the past twenty years. It is one of my big regrets that I didn’t take as many photographs – both outside and inside – of the old Stamford Bridge in its last few years as I ought. How I wish I had captured those little kiosks embedded within the supporting wall of the Shed terrace as it swept its way around to the East Stand. Or those huge floodlight pylons. Or the corrugated iron of the away turnstiles behind the West Stand. Or the dark and moody walkways which ran behind the main body of The Shed terrace. Or the steps leading down from the top of the West Stand to those extra turnstiles within the stand before you reached the benches. Or the unique angled aisles of the old West Stand. Or the Bovril Gate, a gaping hole, in the large Shed terrace. Or that exit walkway that lead down at an angle behind the West Stand. Or those fading advertisements which were etched on to the rear of the shops on the Fulham Road. All of those images, lost and gone forever, but my memory of the old place remains strong.

Stamford Bridge really was – and is, and hopefully shall be in the future – my second home.

There was a couple of drinks in “The Goose” where Daryl and myself chatted with Mick, a fellow-Chelsea supporter who we had not seen for quite a while, possibly for the first time in ten years. We remembered a lovely trip to Rome in 1999 for the Lazio game and how we were drinking brandies in Piazza Venezia at an ungodly hour as early morning risers were coming in for their “wake me up” espressos. After that game, we somehow found ourselves getting a lift back to the centre of Rome on the same coach as Ron Harris and Peter Osgood. I had forgotten, but Mick said that he had sat next to Ossie on the coach and what a lovely memory for him.

We watched on a TV screen as an image of Diego Costa arriving at the stadium was shown. And just like that, Diego was back in the fold, and the China crisis was over. The game had been discussed but only very briefly throughout the day. I think it is very fair to say that three points against Hull City was absolutely expected. On the Saturday, we had been enlivened by Swansea’s surprising lunchtime win at Anfield and then, in the evening, points had been shared between Manchester City and Tottenham. The fact that Manchester United had dropped points at Stoke City seemed inconsequential.

The team was announced.

Courtois.

Cahill, Luiz, Azpilicueta.

Alonso, Matic, Kante, Moses.

Hazard, Diego Costa, Pedro.

Daryl and myself then had another drink in “The Malt House” before heading in to the stadium. I peered into The Broadway Bar & Grill and uttered an obscenity as I saw that Arsenal had taken a 1-0 lead at home to lowly Burnley. On walking towards the MH turnstiles, a fan announced that Burnley had miraculously equalised. I gave him a hug. By the time I had reached my seat, my mood had completed a 180 degree switch; Arsenal had scored a ridiculously late winner.

Not exactly a Carlsberg weekend, but maybe a Carlsberg top weekend.

Within the very first few seconds, Diego Costa raced on to a long ball from David Luiz and belted a low shot just past the Hull post.

It’s hard to believe that Tom Huddlestone is still playing football; he seems to have been around for ages. However, much to my chagrin, he seemed to be at the heart of a lot of Hull’s moves. I was soon getting annoyed at how much space we were giving him.

“Come on. Get on him. He’s their playmaker.”

His shot narrowly missed Thibaut’s post.

Hull City had brought around 1,200 fans, but were hardly noisy. Neither were we. In fact, it was ridiculously quiet.

Not long in to the game, Gary Cahill rose for a high ball, but only connected with Ryan Mason. Both fell to the floor. Both seemed immobile for a while. There was genuine concern as players from both teams swarmed around their two team mates. The minutes ticked by. Thankfully Gary Cahill stood, then walked off to the side line. Ryan Mason had evidently fared worse as a stretcher took him off for attention. The entire stadium rose as one to clap him off. Chelsea fans in laudable behaviour shock.

The extended delay seemed to affect Chelsea more than Hull City, who enjoyed a little spell. Marcos Alonso saw his effort from outside the box take a wicked deflection and dip alarmingly, but the Hull ‘keeper was able to scramble back and tip over. In all honesty, Chelsea were enjoying a lot of the ball, but were finding it difficult to break Hull down. Eden Hazard, very often the main threat, seemed to have a lot of the ball, but kept being forced wide. Pedro was quiet. Moses was often used, but wasn’t at his best. Still the atmosphere was morgue like. At times, I am sure there was complete silence.

Harry Maguire, who sounds like a petty criminal from a ‘sixties film – “I never did nuffink, see” – forced a fine save from Courtois.

This was not going to plan at all.

Bollocks.

A weighty nine minutes of injury time was added to the first-half. Can anyone remember anything longer? Not me.

The silence continued, a few disappeared off for half-time pints.

Sigh.

Then, with time running out, Moses was able to get behind Hull’s defence and send over a low ball. It miraculously ended up at the feet of Diego Costa who calmly slashed the ball home.

Chelsea 1, Hull City 0, thank fuck.

Diego danced over to Parkyville. Of all the people it had to be him. The Chelsea team mates mobbed Diego. What a moment.

Not long in to the half-time interval, Neil Barnett – in hushed tones – spoke of the recent death under highly suspicious circumstances of the Chelsea supporter Carl O’Brien. He spoke of how Carl once worked on the ground staff at Stamford Bridge, and how he attended games at Chelsea for decades. An image of Carl appeared on the large TV screens, and Neil spoke of the planned minute of applause which was to commence on fifty-five minutes. It would mark Carl’s age on his passing. Fifty-five; it is a very Chelsea number, but it represents a terribly young age to be taken from us. Carl was one of probably hundreds of Chelsea supporters who I knew by face only, and who float in and out of my life at various stages, various moments, various games. I remember first spotting him on a terrace in Zaragoza way back in 1995 when the Spanish police decided to baton charge us. He was a tall chap, with long hair; quite distinctive really. I can remember seeing him only a few months ago at Stamford Bridge. According to the eulogies, he was a gentle giant, a lovely man. I just hoped that the minute of applause on the fifty-fifth minute would be well-respected. I also hoped that it wouldn’t get lost in, for example, a cacophony of abuse being aimed at the referee, or maybe even a rousing song or chant, which would cloud the moment.

The two teams exchanged efforts on goal in the first ten minutes of the second-half. Huddlestone was still a main threat for Hull.

On fifty-five minutes, with the ball in a neutral area, Stamford Bridge celebrated the life of Carl O’Brien. Many stood, including myself.

“God bless, Carl, memories of Zaragoza in the sun.”

At the end of the minute, I realised that the Shed had held up a banner in memory of him too.

The game continued, but with the visitors dominating for a while. PD was feeling the frustration of an eerily quiet Stamford Bridge, often joining in alone with chants emanating from other parts of the stadium. I joined in too, but it’s difficult to keep it going when there are only two or three singing in a section of several hundred.

This was turning into a proper struggle, both on and off the pitch.

I must’ve thought “we need a second” many times.

Conte replaced the ineffectual Hazard with Cesc Fabregas and Pedro with Willian with twenty minutes to go. I struggled to see if there was a slight adjustment to our formation and after trying to see where Fabregas fitted in I gave up. To be fair, both additions revitalised us a little.

Willian was upended after a fine run down below me. We waited for Cesc to take the free-kick. His delivery was Postman Pat perfect and Gary Cahill rose unhindered inside the six-yard box to head home.

There was that second goal.

Phew.

Gary ran over to our corner, fell to the floor, and was then mobbed by his team mates.

The joy was palpable.

Just after, Fabregas – running the show now – fed a sublime ball through for Diego. We expected a third goal, but his shot was blocked by the ‘keeper.

Michy Batshuayi then replaced Diego, and the Stamford Bridge crowd rose again.

At last there was some noise worthy of the occasion.

“Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego!”

This was clearly not a memorable Chelsea performance, but if ever we needed to win ugly, with Diego Costa we certainly have the man to do it.

And with points being dropped by three of our main rivals, our hard-fought win had put us eight points clear.

Catch us if you can.

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