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.

IMG_8513

 

 

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.

IMG_5049

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.

10897979_10153219667777658_8155588837512746306_n

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.

IMG_4872

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. 

IMG_3606

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.

img_2072

Tales From The East End

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 24 October 2015.

So this was it, then. This was to be Chelsea Football Club’s last ever game at West Ham United’s Boleyn Ground, or Upton Park to give its more commonly used title. Next season, they vacate their century-old stadium within the cramped terraces of E13, and head off a few miles to the west and north to Stratford and the former Olympic Stadium.

The plan was to have one last look around the old place – hardly a personal favourite, in fact far from it – before going inside to join the three thousand royal blue loyalists. I had not ventured much past the main stand on Green Street in past years, not since the away end has flip-flopped from the South Bank to the North Bank in around 1993. That main stand, updated and enlarged in 2001, of course houses a ridiculous frontage consisting of a pair of Lego style towers. I wanted to have one last laugh at that. However, I also wanted to pop down to see the statue featuring West Ham’s 1966 heroes for the very first time before, I presume, it would take residency at their new home. I also wanted to rekindle a few memories – God only knows why – of a couple of visits to the South Bank, both heavy losses, in 1986 and 1988.

As I say, that was the plan.

I had missed the creditable draw in Kiev during the week. It was the first match that I had not seen thus far into the current season. I thought that we performed rather well in the Ukraine, especially in the first-half, and really should have put the game away. We tired in the second period and, in the end, were lucky to escape with a 0-0 draw. The reporting of an ambush by locals on a small group of Chelsea fans sickened me to the core. I was keen to hear from a few friends who had travelled of their experiences.

London was calling me.

I was relishing this one.

I left my home town relatively early at just after 7.30am. A long day lay in wait. Leaving so early meant that the M4 was clear.

It was a relaxing drive.

On the approach in to London, the last forty-five minutes maybe, I drove to the sound of New Order’s excellent new album “Music Complete.” The band from Manchester are back to their best. I can’t wait to see them – unbelievably for the first time – in Brixton in three weeks’ time.

Football and music.

Music and football.

New Order are a band – there are a few – that transcend both.

We were parked up at Barons Court at around 10.30am. PD, Parky and myself headed straight in to town on the District Line, but instead of joining up with one of many Chelsea pre-game rendezvous in various hostelries throughout the city, we had other plans. We alighted at Embankment, slap dash in the middle of the nation’s capital. There was to be no trip on the District Line from the West End to the East End on this occasion. Instead, the three of us caught a river bus from Embankment, just along from Westminster and the Houses of Parliament, to North Greenwich, adjacent to the O2 Arena, formerly the Millennium Dome.

Although the skies were grey, with no hint of sun, and the waters of the River Thames bleak, we thoroughly enjoyed our trip through the very centre of London. Of course, I snapped away like a fool. What did you expect? Oil paintings?

I have only ever taken a boat trip along the Thames once before, and that was with some US friends in 2002, when the trip was at a more leisurely pace and with a guide to hand. This one took around fifty minutes. And it was fantastic.

The Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Bridge, the Royal Festival Hall, the London Eye, Cleopatra’s Needle, the Oxo Building, the Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London Bridge, the Nat West Tower, The Gherkin, The Shard, The Walkie-Talkie, the GLC Building, The Tower Of London, Tower Bridge.

And then river boat sped around the broad sweep of the Thames, with that odd mixture of geometric architectural shapes appearing at first to our left and then to our right as our perspective changed.

Canary Wharf, and its financial towers, and then the slowly rising curves of the O2 Arena.

At just before midday, we were setting foot on the south side of the river. Twenty minutes later we found ourselves ordering pints of cider and lager in The Pilot public house a few hundred yards to the south east of the O2. In an area of massive urban renewal – huge blocks of concrete everywhere – this lovely pub was at the end of a row of old London terraced houses, allowed to remain amidst change.

We settled down and chatted about all sorts. We tracked others using our phones. Andy from Los Angeles – in town for just three days – was with others a mile or so away in a “proper” pie and mash shop in Poplar.

“We’ll do that next time. Not had pie and mash for years and years.”

There were a few Charlton Athletic fans in the pub – the Valley is around a thirty minute walk away – but, unsurprisingly, no Chelsea or West Ham fans. It was just pleasant to be doing something a little different at an away game.

Team news came through, and it was an unchanged eleven from Tuesday. I approved.

“The plan” went awry unfortunately. We didn’t leave the boozer until gone two o’clock, meaning that my planned walk down to the statue of Moore, Hurst and Peters – and Wilson – would disappear into the ether.

Unfortunately, mirroring the game in March, we were further delayed on the eastbound District Line from West Ham to Upton Park due to – again – “football crowds on the platform.” This was really frustrating. We were all restless as the train stalled for a few minutes at Plaistow. We walked up the shabby steps of Upton Park station for the final time and headed off to the game. We knew that we’d miss kick-off.

The Chelsea mantra of “one last pint” had struck again.

Bollocks.

We were funnelled down a familiar side street and soon entered the away end. We got in with around five minutes on the clock. I was just getting my bearings when Andy – Los Angeles – suddenly appeared next to me. Not only had he enjoyed some pie and mash, he had also visited one of the most infamous boozers in all of London, The Blind Beggar in Whitechapel, scene of gangster Ronnie Kray’s murder of rival gang member George Cornel in 1966.

Seat numbers were ignored by many as the late-comers just shuffled along the rows.

The Boleyn Ground.

Upton Park.

Our final game.

This would be my eleventh visit to the London Borough of Newham to see Chelsea play West Ham United. My first visit should have taken place on New Year’s Day 1986 – with both teams mounting a twin assault on the league title – but sadly I only reached Aldgate East tube station before hearing from fellow fans that the game had been called off due to a heavily frosted pitch.

My first visit was on Saturday 11 October 1986 – just over twenty nine years ago – and some details are remembered to this day.

There was a visit to Nathan’s Pie and Mash Shop on Barking Road, just behind the away end, and I can remember a West Ham supporter trying to illicit a conversation with me about the Hammers’ recent form. I was having none of it. I kept quiet. There was a clear singularity to my actions behind enemy lines that day; “don’t get sussed.” Although the match was “pay on the gate” (as usually they all were in those days, or at least, for the standing areas), we had to show our plastic Chelsea membership cards to be allowed access into the away enclosure, which was a tight and heavily partitioned area, full of metal obstructions and associated ugliness. I remember the away end being packed. I remember the heavy police presence. I remember Chelsea supporters being lugged out for swearing. I remember that bloody awful Chelsea Collection kit. What was Batesy thinking? I remember us going 3-2 ahead, but then letting the game slip away in the last five minutes, eventually losing 5-3.

268398_10150300607202658_898818_n

At the very end of the game, West Ham fans – from outside, to my left I think – threw a couple of flares into our end. The away support was 99% male. I remember being gutted to have lost. The Chelsea fans were given an escort – of some sort or another – because we were sent packing on a train west from Upton Park which did not stop until it reached Victoria. It meant that I had missed a connection to take me back home, but who mentioned anything about football fans being treated “normally” back in the ‘eighties? Certainly not me.

In 2015, although there were more females than in 1986, the Chelsea support was still predominantly male. As in 1986, colours were hardly worn.

With West Ham attacking us in the “Sir Trevor Brooking Stand”, I tried to settle. The Chelsea support was getting behind the team, with one particular favourite getting a good airing.

“Frankie Lampard scored two hundred…”

We probably edged the first portion of the game, but West Ham enjoyed the first real chance, with Begovic leaping high to palm Payet’s free-kick over. Sadly, the resultant corner was not cleared and Zarate’s low strike whipped past our ‘keeper and into the bottom corner.

Here we go again. Bollocks.

We tried to chip away at West Ham, who seemed happy to defend deep. We had a few half-chances. The mood in the away end was of grim resilience. I managed to capture on film – snap! – the moment of impact between ball and Kurt Zouma’s forehead as he rose to meet Fabregas’ corner. He headed down, but the ball was cleared.

Soon after, West Ham should have increased their lead as Lanzini broke, but thankfully his lofted effort just cleared our bar.

A chance at the other end; after good work from the tireless Willian, Fabregas’ fine low shot ploughed into the goal, only for our celebrations to be halted by the sight of the linesman’s yellow flag on the far side.

Just before half-time, Matic – already on a yellow – made a clumsy and needless challenge on Sakho, only a few feet from the right touchline. I sensed danger immediately. Matic walked away but I feared the worst. He was called back to receive a second yellow. In my mind, it was academic.

Matic was nothing but a fool.

Brainless.

In the ensuing melee by the touchline, two yellow cards were further brandished to complaining Chelsea players.

This again was brainless.

Did Diego Costa and Azpilicueta believe that their waling would reverse the referee’s decision?

This was just poor discipline.

The mood was dark at half-time. Down to ten men, a goal down, this was going to be a tough ask in the second period. There was a brief chat with Calvin about the perils of Kiev.

“We walked to the stadium. Tell you what, if it wasn’t for the army escort, we’d have got battered.”

Mourinho replaced Fabregas with Mikel. We didn’t notice it straight away, but the manager did not take his normal position in the technical area or in the dugout. We were not sure why.

Rather than succumb to continued West Ham pressure, we controlled much of the ball as the second half got underway. After ten minutes, Zouma managed to get on the end of Willian’s corner. The ball bobbled inside the area, and the Chelsea support sensed something. The ball fell, not ideally, to Gary Cahill, who managed to adjust slightly and smash the ball in.

Pandemonium in the North Bank. I was pushed forward, and clung on grimly to a few friends, rather than tumble on top of the person in front. Shins were bruised, but I remained on my feet. Sometimes having plastic seats in an area where people are standing all game is asking for trouble. I’m not sure why – maybe it is because of the shallow rake – but away fans’ celebrations at West Ham always look mad on TV.

How did we look?

Our faith restored, we roared the team on. Our players responded so well and continued to boss the game. It was indeed hard to believe that we were one man down. It was heart-warming stuff. The teams exchanged a few chances, but we remained ahead on points. Everyone around me was full of praise for Willian who worked relentlessly. It was sad to see, though, Eden Hazard unwilling to move in to space in that tight final third. Is his play simply due to a dip in confidence or are there other reasons for his collapse in form? Diego Costa seemed to be having an off-day too. Although we were enjoying possession, that final ball in to the danger area was missing.

Zarate was substituted, with Andy Carroll joining the fray.

The away crowd immediately chirped :

“Man or a woman? Are you a man or a woman? Man or a woman?”

As the game continued, we were more and more exposed down the West Ham left. A sliced clearance by JT was played back out to Creswell, who had time to spot Carroll in the middle. His prodigious leap over our defenders was oh-so predictable, as was the slow looping header which dolloped down and in, with Begovic caught in no man’s land. To be honest, it is doubtful if he had stayed on his line he would have saved it.

We slumped.

The home fans roared.

Throughout the game, of particular annoyance was the sound of them singing a ditty in praise of Dimitri Payet to the tune of “Achy Breaky Heart.”

For.

Fuck.

Sake.

Now they were in full voice.

I half expected the Chicken Run to start fucking line dancing.

We brought on Baba Rahman and Radamel Falcao late on, but despite the tireless energy of Willian inspiring the support, an equaliser never really looked likely.

The game was over.

And so was our last ever visit to the Boleyn Ground.

On the walk back to the long line at Upton Park tube, I chatted – I think you can call it a superheated conversation – with Mark from Westbury.

“It’s no good Mourinho blaming every one, and everything. The man needs to take responsibility. And the players too. Everyone. We need to stand up. All this of this blaming others…it probably gives the players the wrong message. He just has to prove that he is the manager that we know he has been and hope he still is.”

It was a long trip back to the familiar streets of West London and then our homes in the West of England.

Five losses out of ten league games.

That’s it. I’m not going to football ever again. I will see some of you at Stoke on Tuesday evening.

IMG_3794

Tales From The U.S. Capital

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 28 July 2015.

As I have mentioned previously, ten years ago I was in the US to see Chelsea play two of our three tour games that summer. This summer’s trip has a lot in common with that trip a decade ago. In 2005, I flew in and out of Charlotte and saw us play in Washington DC and New Jersey. This year, I flew in and out of Washington and see games in New Jersey, Charlotte and Washington DC.

Three locations are forever tied together in my personal history of following the boys over land and sea.

With two down and one to go on this tour, I left the clean, crisp and charming city of Charlotte at around 11am on the Sunday. I had breakfasted at a busy local restaurant with my good friend JR from Detroit and his family. I am still having gastronomic flashbacks and sugar rushes at the memory of the apple pancakes which I waded through. Another wonderful Chelsea road trip was ahead of me.

Charlotte to DC and another four hundred miles on the American road.

It was a perfect Sunday as we headed north-east. I ate up the miles in my…cough, cough…red Chevy. Oh the irony of driving around the US in the vehicular equivalent of a Manchester United shirt. JR and I chatted incessantly about all sorts on the long drive through North Carolina and Virginia. The time soon flew past. The first three hours seemed like thirty minutes. Others were travelling to DC by plane. Others by train. We were not the only ones travelling by automobile.

Around thirty minutes behind us, JR heard via our friend Janset that she was travelling up in a van with Paul Canoville, Mario Melchiot and a few more of Chelsea In America’s finest. JR also heard that the three from Iowa – Phil, Chris and Sam – were on the road too.

It seemed like a Chelsea edition of “Wacky Races”, but instead of Penelope Pitstop, the Anthill Mob and the Slag Brothers, this edition consisted of The Schmuckle Bus, The Cannersmobile 5000 and The Iowa Hot Rod – complete with blue smoke bombs. We later heard that Jeremy from Kansas was on the road too, but maybe he was taken out early in his Beardwagon by Dick Dastardly.

It is not known if Sergei and Dmitry from Badgercrack, Nebraska ever left the start line in their Facepaint Coupe.

The traffic began to slow, however. A trip that ought to have taken six hours eventually took eight. It was especially brutal north of Richmond on I-95. Thankfully a bottleneck cleared and the end was in sight. As we headed up over a gradual incline on I-395, a magnificent view greated me. Around three miles away stood the thin needle of the Washington Monument, the sun lighting up its west face, and with the white marble of the Lincoln Memorial to the west and the half-dome of the Capitol to the east. Down below us to the right was the monumental bulk of The Pentagon.

I was awestruck. It seemed that I had done all of my sightseeing in DC in a few seconds.

Within ten minutes we had arrived safely at our Hyatt Hotel just over the Potomac River from DC in Arlington, Virginia.

On the Sunday evening, Erin, JR and myself zipped in to DC for a bite to eat – my first burger of the trip – and then walked around the centrally located monuments of The Mall. Each one was floodlit and very photogenic. I took a few snaps, though only with my camera phone. I had neglected to pack my normal camera battery charger and was having a little OCD – obsessive Chelsea disorder – of my own. My number one task on the Monday would be to buy a new one. We had a lovely time, though. It brought back memories of my first time in DC, 1989, when I enjoyed a similar evening walking tour, which was provided free of charge by the youth hostel. There were also memories of that 2005 tour, with Roma, her two daughters and myself running through the sprinklers on those wide grass lawns to keep cool.

In 2015, the torrid summer heat of DC was fading quickly and it was a very enjoyable start to our time in DC. For the first time ever, I took an “Uber” to get back to our hotel.

Monday was another perfect day on this trip. I spent some time writing up “Charlotte” and then met up with Erin and JR again to visit the historic Ford’s Theatre, where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. This was the number one sight on my list for DC. I have luckily visited most of the other main sites on my other two trips. I have been a keen Civil War enthusiast for over twenty years, and one of my most memorable days in the United States was spent at the stunning Gettysburg Battlefield in 2010. Obviously, Lincoln was the most famous protagonist of all in the seismic war which battled states against states, even families against families, and which almost ripped America apart. To witness the exact place where his life was sadly ended was another interesting and yet emotionally raw experience. The tour guide set up the scene amazingly well – with sensitive comments about the atmosphere and sensory feel of that evening – and explained with fine detail how events unfolded during the hours leading up to the fatal shot.

At the end, we walked over the road outside the theatre, whose large size surprised me, to the house which contained the parlour where Lincoln eventually died from his gunshot wound some seven hours later.

I had to double-take at the sign outside the house which forbade visitors to take in firearms.

Or maybe it was America being ironic.

I certainly didn’t appreciate a sizeable shop adjoined to the house, selling a vast array of Lincoln souvenirs, a mere five yards away from where he exhaled his last mortal breath.

I hot-tailed to Dupont Circle to buy my battery charger; I could relax.

On the Monday evening, I walked the mile or so up to the “Four Courts” pub which is where the local Chelsea supporters group in the DC area – “The Beltway Blues” – meet for matches. This was another long night. Just after I arrived at 7.30pm, Neil Barnet hosted another “Q & A” session with Bobby, Canners and Mario. I had heard most of the stories before, so sat in a quieter part of the large bar with JR and chatted with many other fans. It was another lovely evening, although not as manic as Charlotte. The usual suspects were present.

Andy kindly presented two “OC Hooligans” tour shirts for Parky and myself.

There was a photograph with Cath, Sambuca in hand.

Tim from Philly kindly gave me a few Yankee trading cards.

Photos with many good friends; some old, some very old, but some new.

I met up with Kathryn and Tim, good friends and two of the Beltway Blues, who I met on the bus taking us from Philly to Chester for the 2012 MLS All-Star Game.

I was impressed that Janset was wearing an original 1981-1982 shiny Le Coq Sportif shirt – one of my favourites – and I then gave her a crash course in the casual sub culture 1977 to date, which she really seemed to appreciate.

Many laughs, many smiles, many photographs.

But one thing was missing.

Talk about the game against Barcelona.

I definitely approved of this.

This simply mirrored what happens in my local, “The Goose” on the North End Road, on virtually all match days. As I have said before, Chelsea is what brings us together but the actual football takes up a surprisingly small amount of “talk time” on match days.

On my long and arduous drive down from West Virginia to Charlotte on the Friday, one town haunted me. As I set off early in the morning, a sign on I-81 said “Roanoke 202 miles.” For the next two hours I appeared to be driving in quicksand since the distances took forever to decrease.

“Roanoke 197 miles.”

“Roanoke 189 miles.”

“Roanoke 183 miles.”

“Roanoke 179 miles.”

“Roanoke 174 miles.”

Fackinell.

Well, late in the evening at “Four Courts” I met the chairman of the Roanoke Chelsea Supporters Club. Not only did this give me a wry smile, but it made me gasp. Roanoke is not a huge town – 97,000 according to my own personal information resource Akipedia – and yet it had its very own supporters group.

As the kids say these days –

“Mind. Blown.”

Two lads from London arrived late on the scene, just as the bar was calling last orders, and as I was thinking of heading back to the hotel. They had just come over for the one game on a quick “in and out mission.” We shared a couple of final beers. Then, Danny from Massachusetts and myself headed a few doors down for a gobsmackingly tasty Indian.

It was around 2.30am.

I needed to get back to the hotel.

In a slightly – only slightly of course – inebriated state I shuffled down Wilson Boulevard. I spotted a “7/11” and fancied a nightcap.

A beer?

A short?

Nope.

A “Reece’s Peanut Butter Ice Cream Cup.”

At 3am in Arlington, Virginia I was living the American dream.

I drifted off to sleep, dreaming of peanut butter, curried turnips, naan bread, Benetton rugby shirts and Torres’ goal against Barcelona in 2012.

On Game Day Number Three, I awoke with no hangover. This was a huge surprise. I am surprised that it didn’t make the papers. Rather than head back to “Four Courts”, a few of us were headed in to the city centre to meet my good friend Steve, who was travelling down to the evening’s game from his home in Philadelphia, but also Team Roma, which was already in DC, and taking a time out to show Super Shawn a few of the main tourist sites.

At around 12.45pm, I walked the short distance from Union Station to the Phoenix Park Hotel, where I met up with The Bobster and Steve. It was a pleasure to see Steve again, who I last met on a Friday afternoon in Manhattan last month as part of my baseball trip. In June we met at “McSorley’s” in the East Village, this time it was “The Dubliner” in DC.

Bizarrely, within minutes, three lads from home – two from Dorset, one from Scunthorpe – burst in to the bar and there were smiles all round. Even more strangely, I first met these chaps, and their oft-spotted “South Dorset Chelsea” Union Jack – out in Kuala Lumpur in 2011.

Now, it seems, we can’t stop bumping in to each other.

Even more incredibly, JR – who was visiting the American History Museum with Erin – had just bumped into Roma, Vanessa and Shawn a mile or so away.

Chelsea world – I have said it before – is such a small world.

Before the others arrived, we enjoyed each other’s’ company. It was the first time all three of us had been together since Philly in 2012. Food was ordered, the beers flowed and we spoke about a wide range of topics, including the plans for the new stadium. Steve is yet to visit Stamford Bridge and we spoke, seriously, about concocting a robust yet devious plan to appease Steve’s wife Terry into allowing him a visit.

“Steve. You are an architect. That is reason alone.”

Roma, Vanessa and Shawn arrived at 4pm, clearly exhausted after walking around the city for a few hours. They sat and cooled off. It was lovely to see them again.

Outside, we had spotted many more Barcelona shirts than those of Chelsea. This was no surprise, since Barcelona can genuinely lay claim to be one of the big three global names alongside Real Madrid and Manchester United. Steve wondered if we are far away from their level. This was a question which I didn’t really answer, though I suppose we are undeniably one of the fastest rising stars of the modern football scene. I still, honestly, struggle to come to terms with our surge in popularity over the past ten years.

Others joined us. Rick and Beckie from Iowa. JR and Erin. Dennis and Dre from Seattle. The clans were gathering. Again, the game was hardly mentioned.

Roma met up with a family from her home town in Tennessee, who were in town for the game, but who were – gasp – Barcelona fans. Roma had coached the two young lads, resplendent in Barca shirts, in the local AYSO league. I explained that I was a Chelsea season ticket holder and, without thinking, soon said that I was “at Camp Nou in 2012.”

I then sheepishly admitted to Roma that this was not the most tactful of things to say. We all laughed though. And I think I laughed the longest.

They left to spend time together, and made their way independently to the stadium by car.

Despite warnings of lengthy travel times by car to Fed-Ex Field, which sits on the very edge of the DC conurbation in Maryland, the three of us booked an Uber car to take us to the game. We left at around 6.15pm. The game was to begin at 8pm. We envisaged reaching the stadium at 7pm.

For an hour and thirty minutes we sat with increasing tension as the driver – a cricket enthusiast from India – edged east. While we moaned about the traffic, the minutes ticked by. On the very last section – a mile or so out – we noticed many passengers leaving their drivers to battle on and walk the final distance. We counted the number of replica shirts. It was split something along the lines of 90% Barcelona / 10% Chelsea. Now, I know that the afore-mentioned casual subculture hasn’t really permeated into the US sporting psyche just yet, but even if some Chelsea fans were eschewing club colours, as is the tendency in SW6, this still represented an overwhelming bias in favour of Barcelona.

We wondered if the game would sell out the huge home of the Washington Redskins, which was once the largest in the National Football League. Ever since we heard that the magical skills of Lionel Messi would not be present, I personally thought that the attendance would suffer. As we edged ever closer, touts lined the approach roads offering tickets.

At 7.45pm, we arrived. There was still a ten minute walk – uphill, damn it – to the large and aesthetically messy stadium. On the final few hundred yards, we heard the national anthem from inside. The briefest of bag checks, and we were in. With ridiculous good fortune, we were inside in time for the kick-off. The stadium was not full, but I knew only too well how many were still outside in cars.

Due to my rushed arrival, I took a while to settle.

Again, the usual scan of the team, a scan to see if there were many friends close by, a scan of the setting and a scan of the replica shirts. It was easy to see that Barcelona greatly outnumbered us in the stadium, unless the Chelsea fans had followed the lead of Rick (Lacoste), Steve (Ralph Lauren), JR (Lacoste) and myself (Monclair).

The stadium was more or less as I remembered it from 2005 when we watched Chelsea beat DC United 2-1 with goals from Duff and Crespo in front of 25,000. It wasn’t a bad match to be fair, and we watched from the same eastern end behind the goal as in 2015. Ten years ago, I had driven to the game – no traffic – and had given a brief interview with a local TV station before the game, when the main question seemed to be about the perceived inadequacies of the local MLS team compared to the all-conquering visitors. When we went 1-0 down, I wondered if the interviewer was re-writing his script for his postgame analysis. I remember being scalded by a “soccer Mom” for knocking in to her when Duffer equalised. It emphasised to me how important it is to have segregation at football games. Sharing the same space with fans supporting opposing teams is always a problem, due mainly to the passions involved in our sport.

Chelsea in all white. I like that strip.

Barcelona in Catalan yellow and red stripes, with blue shorts and yellow socks.

The pitch seemed small and very close to the stands. Of course an NFL pitch is relatively narrow. It was not a stadium that I could easily like. It just appeared to be rather ugly, with executive boxes in the middle tiers, upper tiers sectioned off, brutal concrete everywhere. I bet that the Redskins will be building a new one before we know it. The new generation of NFL stadia seem a lot sleeker than this one.

So. Our team.

In goal was Thibaut, the hero of Charlotte.

In defence, Dave at left back, Kurt Zouma and Gary Cahill in the middle, Ivanovic on the right.

In the midfield two, Matic and Magic Hat.

In the three, Oscar, Hazard and…who? I didn’t recognise the chap. Ah, Kenedy.

Washington is as good a place as any for a chap called Kenedy to debut.

Up front, looking mean and menacing, Diego Costa.

Sadly, Roma, Vanessa and Shawn did not make the kick-off. I hoped they would soon be in. Again, as in Charlotte, and as in most US games, “our end” was full of supporters of the other team. I know that segregation is a prickly issue in America, but it can’t be hard to designate – say – one thousand Chelsea tickets to the Iowa Blues, the New York Blues, the North Texas Blues, the Beltway Blues, the Boston Blues, the Motor City Blues, the Roanoke Blues, the Badgercrack Blues et al, and then two thousand to other Chelsea fans fans to bolster that key segment of support. It was clear early on that the two main singing sections were too spread out, and with a horrible mix of Barcelona fans and “quieter” Chelsea fans too.

We began well I thought. An early Zouma header tested Ter Stegen. Matic seemed to impress straight away, winning tackles and prodding the ball intelligently. Although Messi and Neymar were missing, one familiar face and major irritant was playing.

Luis Suarez. I disliked you then and I dislike you now.

I wonder if the Suarez and Ivanovic subplot might continue.

A header from goal machine Mikel, a shot from Oscar. Barcelona were second best in the opening minutes. A magnificent run and dribble, leaving the entire Catalan nation in his wake, enabled Eden Hazard to dance in to the Barcelona box and calmly prod the ball low and into the goal.

Fantastic.

Barcelona countered, but our defence and Courtois especially were able to withstand any attempts on goal. Suarez was always a looming presence, though, and I like the look of Rakitic.A Chelsea free-kick taken by the involved Oscar rattled the bar. We were definitely on top.

Thankfully, Roma, Vanessa, and Shawn appeared alongside Bob and myself. The traffic had been awful. In addition to an ugly stadium, the Redskins also chose an ugly location for their new home.

Despite taking the lead, the Chelsea support in the area where we were based was at best piecemeal. We tried, but to be honest I soon gave up. My throat was still smarting from Charlotte. Every time a Chelsea song – and there was a nice variety – got going, it was drowned out by the annoying single grunt of “Barca!”

There were four FCB fans in front of me. There were two quiet Chelsea fans behind me. It was going to be an uphill struggle off the pitch.

The football was still of a good quality. Diego Costa should have scored after being set up by the neat Fabregas, but his shot was drilled wide. It seemed that Suarez was our main irritant, but Courtois did well to smother his few strikes on goal.

At half-time, we were happy.

Jose made two changes at the break with a Brazilian themed double substitution.

Wilian and Ramires for Oscar and Kenedy.

Soon into the second period, there was a repeat of my 2005 altercation, when a Barcelona fan and I had a few choice words. It was so pithy as to be unworthy of repeating.

I noted that I could see hardly any empty seats. Even the skyboxes appeared packed.

On the pitch, Diego came close, but then Suarez – why did it have to be him? – managed to lift the ball over the advancing Courtois. In a scene reminiscent of Anfield in 2005, the ball was hacked away by Zouma, but after the referee had already signalled a goal. Of course, all of the Chelsea had varying views of the incident. My view – over one hundred yards away – was perfect.

No goal.

1-1.

So…we then watched as Barcelona took over. And I got more and more irritated by the Barcelona fans around me. Having the enemy so close…breathing on me…might be OK in American sports, but it makes me feel uneasy. I’m no hooligan, but my tempers rose with each of their mocking chants.

We had to endure “BARCA / CHELSEA / BARCA / CHELSEA / BARCA / CHELSEA.”

I even found myself joining in, waving the white flag of surrender.

Ugh.

From behind me –

“Mourinho never beats Barca.”

A worry as Diego Costa appeared to be hurt. Please not his hamstring. He was substituted, and replaced by Falcao. On sixty-five minutes, Sandro – linked with us recently – stepped past Moses, who had been one of a flurry of substitutes from both teams on the hour – and curled a sublime shot past Courtois’ outstretched dive.

The stadium erupted, and the four Barcelona fans in front screamed.

“Count to ten Chris, count to ten.”

We somehow worked some chances. An acrobatic volley from Falcao is still in the air as I write, maybe over Florida by now. Ramires, taking a touch too many perhaps, shot well wide. The minutes ticked by. Moses did ever so well down in front of us, but his drilled centre evaded everyone. Our support rallied and we hoped for an equaliser.

The gate was announced as 79,000.

Bloody fantastic.

It could turn out to be our biggest attendance all season long.

Roma, bless her, was shrieking wildly throughout the second half.

“Let’s Go Chelsea” followed by that crazy smile.

With just five minutes remaining, Willian sent over a teasing centre, but the ball was knocked vertically. It seemed to take forever to come down, but a magnificently-timed leap by Gary Cahill met the ball before others could pounce. The ball looped – a la Ivanovic in Amsterdam – up and down before nestling inside the goal.

“YESYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.”

The joy was palpable. It was a friendly, but this meant so much.

Willian and Moses had a very late chance to win it, but inexcusably managed to jump for the same ball on the far post. A late Barcelona chance flew past the post.

2-2.

More penalties.

With perfect timing, Brian from Charlotte spotted me on his way out for a comfort break, and smiled as he said :

“Screw the penalties, let’s go to the pub.”

It was the line of the night.

So, the penalties at our end this time. Everyone stood. I varied my approach as I photographed each one.

Iniesta – Barcelona, goal – a photo of the TV screen behind me : 0-1.

Falcao – Chelsea, goal – a photo of the TV screen at the other end : 1-1.

Halilovic – Barcelona, miss – a photo of the TV screen at the other end : 1-1.

Moses – Chelsea, goal – a photo of him through the crowd : 2-1.

Pique – Barcelona, miss – a photo of the TV screen behind me : 2-1.

Ramires – Chelsea, goal – a photo of the TV screen at the other end : 3-1.

Sandro – Barcelona, goal – a photo of him through the crowd : 3-2.

Remy – Chelsea, goal – a photo of him through the crowd : 4-2.

We roared. Winning a friendly had never been this important.

Fantastic.

As Gill and Graeme, a few rows in front, almost exploded with joy, I too was pumped. My pleasure almost surprised me.

Only a friendly, right?

The post-match celebrations and presentations were over remarkably quickly. Thibaut was handed the man of the match trophy – a pint of Guinness and a packet of pork scratchings – and gave a rather embarrassed “thumbs up” to the camera.

The FCB fans had sloped off. I looked around to see if I could see some friends. Everyone was disappearing into the night, keen to leave by train and car.

Outside, I said my fond farewells to Roma, Vanessa and Shawn.

I slowly walked past the slowly-exiting cars, teetering down the shallow slope of the exit road. There seemed to be more Chelsea fans on the walk back to a local train station than I had expected. Maybe the Barcelona fans really had left quickly. At the station, a wait for a ticket, then a wait to board the train. The crowds reminded me of Munich. At least these ones were air-conditioned. I found myself talking to a Chelsea fan on the train, thus missing my stop. I alighted at the next one, which was conveniently located opposite “Four Courts” and unwittingly extended the night.

Here were all the usual suspects again, plus a couple of Chelsea fans from Toronto – Leigh-Anne and John – who had been hoping to see me all day. That I should bump into them in the last few seconds of the day – after extra-time and penalties if you like – was just perfect.

More beers, more photos, more laughs.

And then sadly, a few goodbyes.

A few of us popped next door for a kebab and one last beer.

Andy, Brad, Shaun, The Bobster, Leigh-Ann, John, little old me.

It was around 2am.

The last and final scene of this magnificent and memorable US Tour was being played out.

On Sunday, it’s back to England and back to London and back to Wembley.

And bloody Arsenal.

How boring.

IMG_1538