Tales From The Opposite Corner

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 7 October 2018.

An away trip down to Southampton is an easy one for us. It is only a journey of around an hour and a half. At eight o’clock on a clear, if cold, Sunday morning, Glenn collected me. PD was already on board the Chuckle Bus. We headed for half an hour north and Parky joined us. Glenn then did a one-eighty turn south, soon heading over Salisbury Plain, close to Stonehenge, yet to be inundated with day-trippers.  Autumnal sun was lighting up the entire sky now. We journeyed on, and everything seemed well in our world. As we neared the city of Salisbury, we passed through an avenue lined with tall and proud trees, and then the road opened out and away in the distance, straight ahead, stood the classic tower of the city’s cathedral, piercing the blue sky. As we drive around the highways and byways of this green and pleasant land, this particular view of the tallest spire in England always takes my breath away.

Salisbury. Who would ever have thought that this historic city would ever play a part in the history of Chelsea Football Club? Any yet, following the poisoning of the former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the relationship between the United Kingdom and Russia has been severely tested since the incident in March, and has lead – most people have surmised – to Roman Abramovich seeking out domicile in Israel rather than continuing to live in London. What a strange world we live in.

“Southampton away” now takes a familiar shape. We park at the train station, devour a hearty breakfast at a nearby café, and then get stuck in to some beers before heading off to the stadium on the other side of the city centre. We were parked up at 9.45am, and we were soon tucking into a lovely fry-up along with a strong coffee or two. We then re-positioned ourselves outside in a sun trap, and got stuck into some lagers. The sun warmed us. It was a perfect Sunday morning. We were joined by some friends from our local area; around a dozen of us in total. Unsurprisingly, chuckles of various pitches and volumes rebounded off the concrete of the nearby walls and steps.

“Brilliant. Just like a European away.”

I think Glenn was exaggerating slightly, but we all knew what he meant.

Out in the open air, catching some rays, drinking a “San Miguel”, sharing a laugh with some mates, occasionally talking football – “we should win this one, eh?” was about as far as we got – and generally enjoying each other’s’ company. Real life problems, outside our football bubble, occasionally tried to enter my head, but it was easy to push them aside.

“Cheers, lads.”

It might not have been quite such a perfect Sunday in Southampton. Glenn and PD had missed out on tickets among the three thousand away supporters. We needed to think outside the box, or even the box office. Thankfully, Glenn knows a Southampton season ticket holder – I remember he once came with us to Stamford Bridge to see the Saints some twenty years ago – and two tickets were purchased in the home section, the Kingsland Stand, so all four of us were “good to go.” As at Swansea City in 2014, Glenn and I volunteered to sit among the home support, since – without putting too fine a point on it – PD admitted that he would find it hard to keep schtum for ninety minutes.

Southampton would be added to the list of away stadia where I have watched Chelsea from the home sections.

Bristol Rovers – 1975, 1976, 1980, 1981.

Bristol City – 1976.

Liverpool – 1992, 1994, 2008.

Everton – 1992.

Viktoria Zizkov – 1994.

Austria Memphis – 1994.

QPR – 1995.

Leeds United – 1995.

Arsenal – 1996.

Blackburn Rovers – 1995, 1995, 1996.

Barcelona – 2005.

Portsmouth – 2008.

Swansea City – 2014.

Southampton – 2018.

(…and not counting the friendlies at Rangers, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Swindon Town.)

There haven’t been that many in over 1,200 games. I’ve managed to live to tell the tale. Having a mate from Yorkshire – not a Leeds fan, I hasten to add – probably helped my cause in 1995. We lost that game 1-0, and I don’t think I was too quick to spring to my feet after Tony bloody Yeboah scored a late winner. I think his accent – drip-feeding the locals over the whole game – might well have saved me. After Wisey scored a last minute equaliser in a 3-3 at Highbury a year later, the four of us sitting in the last few rows of the West Upper could not contain ourselves. We jumped up – “giving it large” – and I even turned around and stared down the Arsenal fans behind me. I was lucky to get away without a slap on that occasion, methinks.

We caught a cab to St. Mary’s. While PD and LP turned left to join in with the Chelsea support in the Northam Stand, Glenn and I continued on and entered the Kingsland Stand. Our seats, in Block 28, were three-quarters of the way back, quite close to the corner flag, and diametrically opposite the Chelsea support.

I looked around. The supporters close by looked pretty harmless. I didn’t expect there to be any problem on this occasion.

Maurizio Sarri had finely-tweaked the team.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

No complaints from me.

Ryan Bertrand was the captain of the Southampton team.

The stadium took a while to fill, and there were odd gaps in the home section in the Chapel Stand to my right which ever filled. We were treated to more flames as the teams entered the pitch from the Itchen Stand opposite.

Southampton have disregarded their homage to the Kevin Keegan kit of 1980 to 1982 which they wore last season in favour of more traditional stripes. For the first time, we wore the new third kit.

Glenn : “You know what. From this distance, it looks half decent.”

Chris : “It looks better from two miles away.”

Glenn : “Looks bloody rubbish up close.”

Chris : “Up close, yes. Bloody awful.”

But I had to concede, it didn’t look as bad as I expected. But that isn’t saying too much. I absolutely loathed the God-awful tangerine and graphite kit of the mid-nineties, which the kit is said to reference. It was a minging kit.

If the ridiculous non-Chelsea colour scheme was ignored, there was still too much going on; two-tone grey stripes over-stenciled with a thin cross-hatch, panels here there and everywhere, a hideous badge in an over-sized shield, tangerine epaulets, and for some reason the tangerine of the collar was a different colour tangerine to the main body of the shirt, plus a hideous stone-washed look to the grey resulted in it just looking grubby.

Have I made myself clear? It was fucking hideous.

The game began, without hardly a ripple of noise or appreciation from the residents of Block 28. Over in the far corner, the Chelsea 3K were soon singing.

“Oh, oh oh, it’s Kepa.

You know.

He’s better than fucking Thibaut.”

With my zoom lens, I eventually spotted Alan, Gary, PD and Parky.

On the pitch, all was good. In fact, Glenn and I were blessed, being able to watch from close quarters as we dominated the opening portion of the game with mouth-watering possession football, and swift passing between all of our players. Whereas we struggled at West Ham a fortnight previously, we purred in the Hampshire sun. In that early period, with Hazard the main catalyst, shot after shot seemed to be blocked by Southampton limbs. An effort from Willian looped up onto the bar. Around me, I heard whispers of admiration every time that Hazard caressed the ball. In the pub, I commented to the lads that – unlike in previous seasons – we had no “hate figure” in our midst. No Diego Costa. No John Terry. No Ashley Cole. No Dennis Wise. No Vinnie Jones. I would be interested to see how the locals received us.

Two chaps – neutrals maybe – right behind us were in admiration of Hazard. I did well to bite my lip and not give the game away.

I looked around. There really was no noise from our area at all. Nothing. I looked behind me, and the sight made me smart. No more than five feet away was a gormless looking young chap – about twenty-two maybe – wearing, as brazen as you like, a navy blue Manchester United replica shirt.

I was speechless.

Altogether now; “what the fuck?”

I caught his eye, and mouthed “United?”

He nodded.

I scowled and returned to the game.

The phrase “football is dead” is often shared these days and here was damning evidence.

Inwardly, I thought to myself “there’s no way I am going to leave here without saying something to the prick.”

On the pitch, all was sweetness and light. We were playing some sublime stuff, some of the best of the season thus far. Our one-touch, maybe two-touch, stuff was creating havoc in the Saints’ final third. Surely a goal would come?

Well, with that, somehow – I don’t know how – Southampton pulled themselves up with their boot strings and carved out a few chances, mainly emanating down our right where Dave was often exposed. The best chance of the entire game fell to the home team. Nathan Redmond released Bertrand on the left and his cross from the goal-line was inch perfect, but Danny Ings somehow managed to get his bearings confused and made a great defensive clearance from six yards out.

By this time, at last, the home fans were making some noise.

“Oh when the Saints…”

Our stand was pretty quiet though, and to be honest only those home fans who shared the Northam Stand with the away supporters tried to show some support for their team. Everywhere else, people were quiet. I swear blind that the teenager sat next to me, wearing a Southampton home shirt, did not speak the entire game. In fact, it was if I was in the middle of a ridiculous sponsored silence.

“Football Is Dead Part 584.”

Our play was far the sharper. Ross Barkley won the ball off a Saints player and fed Hazard. He was level with us, and we were able to admire his quick snapshot which flew past the Saints’ ‘keeper.

Saints 0 Singers 1.

I looked over to see the away end bubbling away like a big bowl of soup.

With the Chelsea supporters in fine voice for the rest of the game, our section opposite was deathly quiet. I had not heard a single shout of support from any individual the entire game, and I wanted to make my mark and break the silence, if only to be able to get a bizarre kick out of being able to say I was the loudest supporter in Block 28 the entire game.

“COME ON SAINTS.”

Glenn giggled.

I wouldn’t have done this at Leeds United back in 1995, mind you.

There are limits.

More Chelsea shots were blocked. Giroud stumbled in the box but it did not look like a penalty.

At the break, we were 1-0 up and coasting on the South coast. It had been an enjoyable, if not particularly loud, first-half in Section 28.

Oriel Romeu, another Munich Boy, appeared for Southampton in the second-half, adding a little more solidity to their midfield. Over on the far side, Sarri was his usual sartorially-challenged self, while Gianfranco Zola was referencing his first ever Chelsea game (Blackburn 1996, see above) when he pleaded “please, not an XL shirt again” by wearing a rain-jacket which resembled a tent.

But on the pitch, we were looking as good as ever. However, the home team carved out a couple of chances, with Bertrand wasting the best of them. As the second-half continued, I was particularly pleased with the way that Toni Rudiger was defending; he hardly put a foot wrong. Elsewhere, Jorginho was finding others with regularity. Barkley was having a very fine game. Just before the hour, that man Hazard was fouled and we waited for Willian to signal his intent to his team mates. Throughout the first-half, I had spotted his signals at corners; one finger, two fingers, three fingers. Against Vidi on Thursday there had even been a thumbs down. The ball was curled over towards the far post and Olivier Giroud attempted a rather spectacular scissor-kick. The ball bounced through a forest of legs and Ross Barkley was able to score his first Chelsea goal with an easy tap in from inside the six-yard box. His joyous run and leap in front of the celebrating away fans were captured on camera.

Saints 0 Singers 2.

I have always rated Ross Barkley. We might just have found another great English midfielder. Let’s hope so. He has poise and strength. I desperately want him to succeed at Chelsea.

We continued to dominate but play opened up a little. There was more defensive strength from Rudiger. And David Luiz, too. His renaissance has been hugely enjoyable.

Alvaro Morata replaced Olivier Giroud and then Pedro took over from Willian. Then Mateo Kovacic replaced Barkley.

In section 28, still no noise.

The sponsored silence was going well.

We continued to push the ball around with ease.

But then, two Southampton chances to eat into our lead produced fantastic saves from Kepa. Redmond let fly from distance, but our young custodian leapt and finger-tipped over from right under the bar. He hasn’t the height of Big Pete or Big Nose, but if he has spring in his heels like that, who cares? Morata went close when he showed too much of the ball to the ‘keeper. I heard the grinding of three-thousands sets of gnashers from one hundred yards away. And then came the second super-save from Arrizabalaga; a similarly agile jump thwarted Ings. Sensational stuff, and we had great seats to see it all up close.

As the game was nearing completion, and as a Chelsea move was progressing, I was aware that the Chelsea supporters were singing out an “ole” with every fresh touch. I don’t usually like this. It seems overly arrogant. Maybe OK, if we are winning 6-0 but not before. The two neutrals behind me were not impressed.

“…mmm, don’t like that, taking the piss.”

Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass.

The ball was worked to Hazard and with that shimmying approach of his, he created a little space and passed to Morata. This time, there was no annoyance from the away fans. His finish was clean and simple. As he dispatched the ball, Glenn and I spontaneously rose to our feet and whooped a little.

“Great goal.”

The final whistle soon came.

Saints 0 Singers 3.

Glenn and I packed up and watched as the Chelsea players slowly moved over and clapped the away support. They didn’t seem to walk over too far towards the Northam Stand. Maybe the 3-0 win seemed too easy. It was certainly easier than the come-from-behind win of last season which brought more prolonged celebrations at the final whistle.

As I exited row BB, I spotted that the United fan – remember him? – was waiting alone near the exit. I couldn’t help myself.

I motioned towards him, pointing at the United shirt.

“What’s with all this?”

Almost apologetically, he threw his arms back and said “it’s football.”

My response? Take your pick.

  1. “Ah that is fine mate. I know that United are a great club and their tickets are hard to come by. “
  2. “Oh, you’re English. Presumed you were foreign. Not understanding the subtleties of fandom in England. Whatever.”
  3. “And what a game. Cheers mate.”
  4. “You’re a twat.”

He then repeated his first answer and I then repeated mine.

As I walked down the steps, a grinning Glenn was waiting for me.

“You had words, then?”

To be honest, I was surprised that a steward or a home supporter had not approached him to tell him to either put a jacket on and cover himself up, or maybe go into the toilets and turn it inside out. At Chelsea, it surely would have been dealt with differently. I am not an advocate of violence in any shape or form, but honestly. The chap was lucky not to get a slap. He showed complete disrespect for Southampton Football Club.

And it – as is obvious – infuriated me to high heaven.

“Football Is Dead” indeed.

Manufactured atmospheres. Flames and fireworks. Orchestrated flag-waving goal celebrations. Noisemakers. Painted faces. Jester hats. Noiseless fans. People as critics and not supporters. A fan base of nerds.

And now Manchester United shirts being worn at games not even involving them.

For fuck sake.

I momentarily thought back to a time in the mid-to-late ‘eighties when it was pretty difficult to obtain foreign football jerseys. Occasionally, such jerseys were worn on the terraces, although not to any great degree due to the rarity of them.

They had a certain cachet to them. They looked the business. But always foreign shirts. And maybe, at Chelsea, the occasional Rangers one.

In those days, in the era of Half Man Half Biscuit and their football-based singalongs, and The Farm, with their scally heritage, and the music-football crossover, it would be quite common to see bands sporting foreign shirts. I seem to remember that I wore a cotton Kappa Juventus shirt on the benches once or twice in around 1986. It was all part of the burgeoning, and rapidly changing, casual scene which enveloped many of us all those years ago.

But not one of us would have been seen dead in a fucking Manchester United shirt at Stamford Bridge.

Then. Or ever since.

To that div in Section 28, this match report is not dedicated.

And now, damn it – modern football – the dreaded international break and a fortnight of inactivity.

Our next game is against Manchester United.

I wonder if knobhead is going.

See you there.

 

Tales From The Rising Sun

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 6 May 2018.

Chelsea Football Club were formed in the upstairs room of the Rising Sun public house on London’s Fulham Road on 10 March 1905. Some one-hundred and thirteen years later, the main bar of the same pub, now named The Butcher’s Hook, was filling up slowly ahead of the Chelsea vs. Liverpool match, and I was alongside two friends from my home town in Somerset, Glenn and Francis. I had planned a little pub-crawl based around the stadium, but PD and Lord Parky chose to spend the pre-match in The Goose. Glenn, Francis and I had started off with a drink in the Copthorne Hotel – a gentle start to the afternoon at about 1pm, and a very brief chat to Ron Harris and Gary Chivers – before stepping over the road at the pub on the corner of Fulham Road and Holmead Road. I remember when it used to be called the Stamford Bridge Arms in the ‘eighties. I recalled one summer morning when I called in to the ivy-covered offices between the forecourt and the East Stand to get my membership card sorted for the upcoming season and seeing Robert Bates, our Ken’s son, stopping in for a lunchtime pint in the very same pub. On this occasion, decades later, while I supped on one of only two pints of lager that I was allowing myself, we spotted Steve Atkins, Chelsea’s Director of Communications, chatting to some others a few feet away. Jason Cundy was nearby too. It certainly felt like we were on a very important piece of terra firma.

Glenn had spoken to Francis about the day that he saw his first-ever game at Stamford Bridge in 1978, and how the forecourt has changed since then. And I can remember Francis and I posing for a photograph on the same forecourt in front of The Shed turnstiles ahead of the Chelsea vs. Liverpool match in 1991. That was Francis’ first-ever game at Stamford Bridge – a fantastic 4-2 win, we watched from the old West Stand seats – and he has seen quite a few Chelsea vs. Liverpool matches since, sometimes alongside me, sometimes elsewhere. For those who have not sussed it yet, Fran is a Liverpool fan – and a very fine close friend – and I am always happy when he is able to watch his team at Stamford Bridge.

In seven games from 1991 to 2012, he was yet to see a Liverpool victory.

1990/91 : Chelsea 4 Liverpool 2

1991/92 : Chelsea 2 Liverpool 2

1992/93 : Chelsea 0 Liverpool 0

1995/96 : Chelsea 2 Liverpool 2

2004/05 : Chelsea 1 Liverpool 0

2007/08 : Chelsea 3 Liverpool 2

2012/13 : Chelsea 1 Liverpool 1

1990/1991, 1991/1992, 2007/2008, 2012/2013 and 2017/18.

I was happy to have him alongside me once again. We joked about it in the weeks which lead up to this game. In the car on the way to London, PD had enquired of Francis what he did for a living.

“Trading standards, mate. Keeping an eye on con men, rogue traders, that sort of thing.”

“Scousers?” I suggested.

The Chuckle Bus roared.

After our little visit to where our club was born, we darted around a few more pubs on what was turning out to be a blisteringly hot day. We spent a pleasant thirty minutes in the crowded beer garden of “The Jam Tree” which was is known as one of the venues where “Made In Chelsea” is filmed. The pub was plainly cashing in on its fame; a burger was priced at £17. Next up was “The Imperial” along the King’s Road, and I was back on the Cokes, sadly. We bumped into our pal Dave, who had chanced upon a last-minute ticket. From there, brief stays in “The Rose” and finally “The Tommy Tucker” before heading along the Fulham Road to the stadium. With Tottenham losing at The Hawthorns, here was a fantastic chance for us to close the gap on both of the teams ahead of us.

(And still some Chelsea fans bemoan the fact that this has been – apparently – a poor season.)

Glenn had reeled-off the line-up in one of the pubs and it was almost the same starting eleven as at Swansea City, with the returning Alonso in for Emerson.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Bakayoko – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Hazard – Giroud

As we approached the West Stand – “thrilling since 1905” still grates – everything seemed normal. The sun was beating down. There were no clouds. Programmes were purchased. There was a buzz of expectancy. There were fans milling around, though we had not spotted – to our knowledge anyway – any away fans. These days, there is a relaxed air at most games. However, over the past couple of weeks, one incident outside a football stadium has shocked many. Before the Liverpool vs. Roma Champions League game at Anfield, and right outside The Albert pub, in front of The Kop, some Italian ultras carried out a seemingly unprovoked attack on one or two Liverpool supporters. We would later learn that one of them, a fan of around my age, was knocked unconscious and was in a subsequent coma. Imagine my horror when I was to learn shortly after that he is the brother in law of a work acquaintance – no, more than that, a good friend – that I have been talking to in Dublin for over fifteen years. Sean Cox is her husband’s brother. And although there has been untold Chelsea vs. Liverpool banter between the two of us over the years, as you can imagine, the chill of knowing that an act of wanton violence can have such a devastating effect on someone that I know was quite awful.

I spoke to my friend just after the return leg, and she seemed desolate. Such was the pain that her husband did not even bother to watch the match, something that he would never normally do. On at least one occasion, he has been at Anfield the same time as me. He is quite a Liverpool fan. How his future will develop, I can’t imagine.

Inside the sun-kissed stadium, everything was just perfect. As ever, there were three-thousand Liverpool supporters over in the away end, though just two flags; one praising Virgil van Dyke, the other with – surprise, surprise – five yellow European Cups.

Some chap called Michael Buffer, he of the “let’s get ready to rumble” boxing clarion call, read out the teams. It was just dreadful. It seemed so out-of-place. I cringed as the twat said “and in the blue corner.”

Fuck off.

Whoever at Chelsea thought this was a good idea needs shooting. Was it you, Steve Atkins?

A good ten minutes before kick-off, Neil Barnett spoke about Sir Alex Ferguson, and we clapped as an image of him appeared on the TV screens. Everyone at Chelsea wishes him well.

Then, with the players appearing on the pitch, a tribute to Roy Bentley appeared in The Shed. I briefly met Roy Bentley on three occasions, and he seemed a thoroughly lovely man, his deep Bristol burr providing lasting evidence of his birthplace, and who can remember his little jig in front of the Matthew Harding at the last home game of 2008/2009, which I reported on at the time :

“Before the players came back on, an extra special moment. Ron Harris, Dennis Wise and John Terry – three of the four trophy winning Chelsea captains – were on the pitch to honour the eighty-fifth birthday of the fourth, Roy Bentley, the championship winning captain of 1955. It was a truly magical moment. Roy Bentley is a lovely, lovely man and I was able to meet him briefly in November at the CPO. The photo I have with him is one of my most-prized Chelsea possessions. He was in great form. He did a little jig as he made his way to the Lower Tier of the Matthew Harding. He was hilarious and Ron, Dennis and JT were in stitches. We all were.

“Looks like he’s been on the sherry” chirped Alan.

He had been presented with a shirt with “Bentley” on the back, but he threw it into the crowd…shades of Mourinho.

God bless you, Roy.”

Underneath us in the Matthew Harding Lower, a large banner remembering Ray Wilkins was passed over the heads of fellow spectators. These have certainly been sad times at Chelsea Football Club.

There was a minute’s applause in memory of Roy Bentley, our first Chelsea Champion. And the Liverpool fans applauded and clapped too.

Thank you.

The match kicked-off with lots and lots of noise. Francis always reads these blogs and has noted my comments about a decreasing amount of atmosphere at home games with note. I told him that the noise was far better than normal. After all, this was Liverpool. The highlight of the first few minutes was a sublime cross-field pass to Victor Moses from Gary Cahill, which drew a warm “well I’ll be fucked” salvo of appreciation.

However, Liverpool seemed to edge the first part of the game, and Roberto Firminio caused Thibaut Courtois to save early on, but it was the keen and incisive Sadio Mane who caught the eye. He seemed to be involved in many of their attacks. Victor Moses sent over a teasing ball, but no Chelsea players could add the needed touch. Eden Hazard managed to tee-up Marcos Alonso in the inside-left channel but his powerful effort was straight at the Liverpool ‘keeper Loris Karius. There was a simply magnificent tackle by N’Golo Kante on Mane, and this drew great applause from the supporters. The noise had subsided slightly, but this was much better than the usual levels at recent games. Over in the far corner, I tried to get my head around a few new Liverpool songs, no doubt harking on about European adventures of yore. I honestly found it hard to decipher much of it.

Another Mane shot. Another Courtois save.

The sky was still cloudless. The sun had certainly risen well on this Sunday.

The Liverpool red is darker than usual this season. Very often, thankfully, it ran up against a deep royal blue wall.

The often chastised Tiemoue Bakayoko was enjoying a solid start to the game and I was really elated to hear some warm applause for even the most basic of plays from our often beleaguered midfielder.

That, my friends, is what being a Chelsea supporter is all about.

On the previous Monday, myself and around one hundred Chelsea supporters had attended an evening with Gianfranco Zola at a pub in Ascot. It was a fantastic evening. I remembered what the great – little – man had said about Eden Hazard. He had been asked how he could improve his game. Gianfranco said that he would ask him to release the ball earlier when in a deep position, and then really save his tricks and crisp passing for the final third, when everything matters. I could not have put it any better. In this game, as in so many others, there were spins and twists from Eden when he was barely over the halfway line. I wanted him to improve.

We then came close when a Moses cross was met with a dive and a header from Bakayoko, but it flashed wide. Soon after, on thirty-two minutes, the same player sent over a cross after doing well to make space in front of Parkyville. His cross was aimed at the large frame of Olivier Giroud. We watched as the big Frenchman rose and guided the ball home. It was not dissimilar to the Morata goal versus Tottenham.

The ground reverberated with noise.

I tried to spot where the scorer was running, and soon realised that he was headed over to the Chelsea bench, by-passing Antonio Conte, and aiming straight for David Luiz. The players hugged.

A nice touch.

Francis, who had chosen that moment to turn his bike around, appeared back in the top tier just as the whole stadium was roaring a very loud and very defiant “CAREFREE.”

Phew. Get in.

Cesc Fabregas whizzed a shot across goal. Mo Salah, quiet thus far, was booked for diving.

There were a few rousing choruses of “Antonio.”

Will he stay beyond this season?

Probably not. Another great manager chewed up and spat out by my club.

I hate modern football.

At half-time, I was more than happy with the game. We had not created a host of chances, but everyone was on their game, the sun was out, and the stadium was as noisy as it has been for a while.

The second-half began, and the game – damn it – became a real test of my nerves. Liverpool tended to dominate possession once again, but as Fran kept saying, were unable to do much with it. Moses, always a threat out on our right, fizzed a low ball across the box but I was not convinced if he had intended to shoot or cross. A more delicate ball in to the waiting Giroud might well have been a better ploy.

Maybe Gianfranco Zola had managed to get a message to Eden Hazard at half-time. One move in particular, captured on film and featured below – along with two other Hazardous Dribbles – was just breath-taking.

Although he was hemmed in by three red-shirts, he miraculously dribbled into them and out the other side before slamming a shot towards the Liverpool goal. It was saved, just. It reminded me of when Zola was hemmed in over in the south-east corner in his very last Chelsea appearance and slalomed between four or five Liverpool defenders.

From the resulting corner, Gary Cahill rose to head down and Toni Rudiger bundled the ball in but from a clearly offside position.

All eyes were on the clock now.

65 minutes.

72 minutes.

75 minutes.

Liverpool were given lots of space, and we defended deep, not allowing Salah or Mane any space to exploit. The three defenders were simply exceptional. Our performance mirrored that of our 2-1 win at Wembley versus Tottenham at the start of the season. The defence never looked troubled. Liverpool never really threatened us. We covered the pitch with great professionalism, and great desire. But I was still struggling with all of this.

I kept thinking to myself :

“This win will probably mean nothing. We will still probably finish fifth. This isn’t a cup tie. It isn’t a league title-decider. It isn’t a CL decider like that Zola game in 2003. It’s just a normal league game. But I love it that I am kicking every ball, heading every clearance, tackling every 50/50. This is a fucking great game. Blow up, ref!”

In the end, there were two late chances, one for the royal blues, one for the scarlets.

A high and deep cross from that man Victor Moses was aimed past the far post. Marcos Alonso, at a ridiculously tight angle, was underneath it, and let fly. The volley flew inches past the far post.

Then, Dominic Solanke – not applauded by any Chelsea supporter when he appeared on seventy-four minutes – saw a rather timid effort dollop over the bar.

Four minutes of added time were signalled.

As the last of these was reached, my protestations to the referee to “blow up you cunt” surprised even me.

At last, the final whistle blew.

GET IN.

My mate Rob, who sits a few rows back, soon appeared and we hugged and bounced for what seemed like ages.

“Loved that. Great game, Rob. Nervous as hell though.”

“It’s why we keep coming, mate.”

As we bounced out and down the Fulham Road, I made arrangements for Francis to attend next season’s game too.

Eight visits, no victories.

“A nice bit of history, la.”

All was well with the world as we headed home to Somerset and Wiltshire. The season has three games left, and all of them are Cup Finals.

See you on Wednesday.

Tales From Pure Football

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 20 February 2018.

There is no bloody doubt about it. I simply cannot lie. When I awoke at just before 5am, my first thoughts were of the game against Barcelona, but these were not positive thoughts. I was so worried that our Chelsea – living up to my nickname of The Great Unpredictables this season – might suffer a calamitous humiliation at the hands of Messi, Iniesta, Suarez et al. Let us face the truth; Barcelona are a hugely talented football team.

“I’ll be happy with a 0-0” I told colleagues at work.

As the day progressed, this was my mantra; keep the buggers from scoring an away goal. Keep it tight. Maybe, just maybe, nab a 2012-style 1-0 win.

Ah, 2012.

That game seems so fresh in my mind, but it is almost six years ago. And there have been so many more. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen all our Champions League matches against the Cules from Catalonia at Stamford Bridge.

Let’s wander down memory lane.

5 April 2000 : This was a fine Chelsea team, but we were under performing in the league, and would go on to finish fifth. In the pub beforehand – in the front part of The Goose for a change, I can remember it to this day – we were pragmatic at best and pessimistic at worst. We seriously doubted our progress over the two legs of this quarter final. But what did we know? We stormed into a stunning 3-0 lead with all goals in an eight-minute spell during the first-half.  I remember racing up the steps behind my seat when the third one went in to expel some energy. Two came from from Tore Andre Flo and one from Gianfranco Zola. A goal from Luis Figo midway through the second-half took the smile off our collective faces. Fackinell, Chelsea. But what a night. The atmosphere crackled all night long. Superb.

8 March 2005 : We were 2-1 down from the first-leg and this was as good a game as any I have witnessed in forty-four years of Chelsea games. We repeated the feat of 2000, accelerating away to a 3-0 lead, but such was our dominance that all goals came in the first twenty-minutes. Stamford Bridge was again shaking thanks to goals from Eidur Gudjohnsen, Frank Lampard and Damian Duff. And then the game turned against us. A Ronaldinho brace – a penalty and then that gut-wrenching toe-poke – before the break meant it was advantage Barca. We roared the team on. A towering John Terry header from a corner (pictured) gave us the win and the place erupted. There have been few nights at Chelsea like that one.

22 February 2006 : The two clubs were drawn together in the knock-out phase, and this game was a tetchy affair. This was our first viewing of Lionel Messi – just eighteen – and the Argentine’s scuffle with Asier del Horno over in the corner of the Matthew Harding and the East Stand resulted in our full-back getting sent-off early in the game. But we re-grouped well and went ahead when Thiago Motta headed an own-goal from a Frank Lampard free-kick (pictured). Sadly, this was cancelled out by a John Terry own goal. Samuel Eto’o then headed a late winner. In the return leg in Catalonia, the two teams drew 1-1 and out we went.

18 October 2006 : We were becoming regular foes by now. This time, the two teams met in the autumnal group phase set of matches. A stunning solitary Didier Drogba goal gave us a narrow 1-0 win, and our striker celebrated in fine fashion down below us (pictured). After injuries to both Petr Cech and Carlo Cudicini at Reading four days earlier, this was a game in which Hilario started. To be fair to him, he pulled off a few great saves to see us hang on to the win.

6 May 2009 : We held out for a gutsy 0-0 in the first leg of the semi-final at Camp Nou, and travel plans were afoot among our little group of friends in the pub before the game. It felt like we were favourites to progress. We took the lead through a stunning Michael Essien volley after just ten minutes into the first-half. We held off Barcelona and their constant probing with a fantastic performance. Then came calls of conspiracy after penalty appeal after penalty appeal were turned down. The referee waving away the hand-ball against Gerard Pique sent me into meltdown. Barcelona were reduced to ten men with Eric Abidal sent-off for a clumsy challenge on Nicolas Anelka. We were heading to our second successive Champions League Final against Manchester United, this time in Rome. And then Andres bloody Iniesta scored with virtually their only shot on target with seconds remaining. This was heartbreak. Gut-wrenching, nauseous, sickening heartbreak. It felt like we would never ever win the Champions League.

18 April 2012 : Another heady night at Stamford Bridge. This was turning out to be the most bizarre of seasons, with us faltering in the league under Ande Villas-Boas before finding our feet under new gaffer Roberto di Matteo. But this was still a stunning Barcelona team, and our squad seemed to be aging together. We were blowing hot and cold. I held out little hope of us reaching the final if I am truthful. In another never-to-be-forgotten night at Stamford Bridge, Didier Drogba swept in a cross from Ramires at the near post just before half-time and the stadium exploded. We held on for the narrowest of wins, and with the return leg in Barcelona less than a week away, we began to dream.

In a bar before the game, there was a typical mix of Chelsea faces from near and far. The usual suspects – Parky, PD, Daryl, Chris, Simon, Calvin, Milo, Ed, Duncan, Lol – were gathered around one table. Andy and Antony from California were back from their mini-tour of Europe and were joined by Sean from New York and Steve from Dallas. Friends from near and far. A spare ticket was given a good home. The banter was rife. After a good hour or so, Andy whispered in my ear :

“You realise that nobody is talking about the match?”

I smiled.

As I have said before : “the first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.”

There was simply too much other stuff to talk about, especially how many we would take to the away leg in three weeks. I had expected a sell-out of 4,850 but sales had allegedly been slower than expected. Maybe some supporters were waiting to see how the first-leg would pan out. In 2012, we took that number, but it was a semi-final. As ever, I regarded the away game as a test for us, a test to see how far we had come as a club.

By the way, the cynical me had a little thought for the millions of new Chelsea fans the world over who chose us primarily because our club could “guarantee” – probably their words and not mine – them Champions League football each season.

“This game’s for you.”

The bar was full for this game. Stood quietly at the bar for a while was former player Alan Hudson. A fine footballer for us in the early ‘seventies, he rarely finds anything good to say about us these days. I nodded a “hello” to him which he reciprocated, but that was about it. Most fellow fans were blissfully unaware who he was, or were going down the same path as myself. I remember seeing him in a pub in Stoke around ten years ago. To be fair to him, after a spell of ill health, at least he looked healthier than the last time I saw him.

There were groans of discontent when news of the starting eleven came through on mobile phones.

“No centre forward, fackinell.”

It was indeed a surprise.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

Sadly, Mike from New York was caught up in a personal battle to secure match tickets and was unable to join us. Andy was worried since whenever Andy and Mike meet up for a game, we always win.

I was inside the stadium with a good twenty minutes to go. I need not have worried about not seeing Mike from NYC; he was sat just ten feet away from me.

The away section would fill to only around two thousand, which was a huge surprise for arguably a club which are one of the biggest three clubs in the world. They usually bring three thousand, no questions asked. There seemed to be an absence of colour this time around too. Maybe the scarves and shirts were hidden under the darker coats and jackets. Not so many puffa coats as the Italians. Only a few flags on show. The stadium filled.

There were blue flags on every seat with blue and white bar scarves for those in the East Middle; nice to see the eight Chelsea Pensioners wearing them.

Red. White. Blue.

“Blue Is The Colour” played with ten minutes to go and the flags were waved…not by me, nor too many around me for that matter. The highest percentage of flag wavers were in the West Lower, maybe due to the dynamics of the demographic of that particular sub-section of support; a higher percentage of young’uns, a higher percentage of tourists, but a far lower percentage of cynical bastards like us in the MHU.

The teams entered the pitch.

In 2012, Cesc and Pedro were among the opposition.

Now we had to contend with Suarez, Rakitic, Ter Stegen, Umtiti, Roberto, Alba and Paulinho who were first time visitors to Stamford Bridge. Messi, Busquets, Iniesta and Pique were returning to SW6 once more.

Barcelona were in an untidy camouflage kit of burgundy. At least there was no bright yellow to remind me of 2009. I noted Lionel Messi and Eden Hazard embrace and maybe share a word.

“You stay here, Eden. Real Madrid are SHITE.”

The game began.

I snapped away like a fool as the game began but soon realised that I needed to slow down, and enjoy the football. The first few minutes were very promising for us, and the atmosphere was equally fine.

“ANTONIO” rang out and the manager showed his appreciation.

After a few minutes, Eden Hazard let fly with a rasping and rising shot which certainly energised the crowd. The noise was hitting fine levels. There were songs for Frank Lampard and John Terry; see my comments for the Hull City match. In the early period, it was Iniesta who was seeing more of the ball, and I wished that we could close him down. Rudiger went close with a header from a corner. This was a very bright start from us and I could not be happier. At the other end, Paulinho headed meekly wide from a Messi cross.

Ah, Lionel. I could not help but focus on the little man. His shirt seemed too large for him, and he shuffled around when not in possession, but I could not take my eyes off him.

After twenty minutes though, Barca had recovered and were now enjoying much of the ball. But there was resolute defending from everyone in royal blue. Messi was unable to find Suarez, nor anyone else. Willian burst from deep – the crowd roaring him on – before getting clipped. Alonso for once did not score from the centrally-located free-kick. This was fascinating stuff and I was loving it.

I popped down to have a quick word with Big John who sits a few rows in front of me. I told him that I had a bet on how long it would take him to shout :

“Come on Chelsea. They’re fucking shit.”

Alan was handing out the Maynards wine gums – always a lucky charm on these European Nights – and he was wearing his lucky Ossie badge on The King’s birthday. We had a fine spell of play on the half-hour and the crowd responded well. Hazard found Willian, who moved the ball on to his right foot and unleashed a gorgeous effort which slammed against a Barcelona post.

Head in our hands time.

But this was a lovely game and a pleasure to witness.

On forty minutes, the crowd sang “The Shed looked up and they saw a great star” – God Bless you, Ossie – and as the song continued, Willian struck the other post with another venomous effort.

Fackinell.

The support was now hitting the high volumes.

“Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.”

In the pub, Calvin and I had warned Texas Steve that the atmosphere at The Bridge is poor these days, but there are always games when we can rank with the best of them. Over in the far corner, the Cules were quiet. A Fabregas free-kick was cleared and Hazard volleyed over. We were playing so well – as a team – and I was so relieved. All this talk of the manager losing the dressing room and of players “downing tools” – my most hated, my most reviled phrase of the past two seasons – seemed just silly and just wrong.

The half-time whistle blew. Alan, quite correctly, noted that no trainer had been on the pitch, there had been few bad tackles, so that the assistant linesman had not signaled a single minute of added time. I think I have never seen that before. This was testament itself to the quality of football being played before our eyes.

Pure football.

And I bloody loved it.

Fine vibes at half-time. We should, undoubtedly, been ahead. Fantastic.

Soon into the second period, that man Andres Iniesta let fly from around the same patch of terra firma that produced heartache in 2009. The shot flew wide.

“Not this time sunshine, not this time.”

Luis Suarez – booed, of course – then went wide and forced a finger-tipped save on the floor from Courtois. It was a miracle that nobody was present in the six-yard box to pounce. The away team were enjoying tons of the ball but our defending was still a match for the trickery of Messi and the intelligence of Iniesta. N’Golo Kante was having a particularly fine game, and top marks for Antonio Rudiger too, who was enjoying a storming match.

Suarez – the villain for this match and many more – was the subject of a loud personal attack from the home support.

“Suarez – you’re a cunt.”

Quite.

The game continued.

There was half an hour remaining when Hazard, out wide, picked out the central Willian. He stopped the ball still. He then flashed away from his marker – such ridiculous acceleration – and thumped the ball low into the net.

Pandemonium in Stamford Bridge.

Magical, magical scenes.

Alan : “Hauran d’arribar a nosaltres ara.”

Chris : “Vine als meus petits diamants.”

Oh my oh my. The Great Unpredictables were at it again.

Now the noise really got going. I stood and roared. “Carefree wherever you may be we are the famous CFC.” This was surely the loudest so far this season. Fantastic.

“He hates Totnum and he hates Totnum.”

On the game went. Barcelona with the ball, Chelsea covering space and defending. A lot of their attacks were at virtually walking pace; it was all about moving the ball early. When they lost possession, they hunted in packs to retain it. I remember a ball being pushed into the path of Eden with four Barcelona players haring after him. Quite an image.

Sadly, with a quarter of an hour to go, a Chelsea defender deep in Parkyville chose to play the ball across the box.  We gasped. We feared the worse. It reached Iniesta. He played it back to Messi. The ball was slammed low into our goal.

Chelsea 1 Barcelona 1.

Bollocks.

Messi looked ecstatic and celebrated wildly in front of the hordes from Sabadell, Sant Cugat del Valles, Montcada I Reixach, Cornella de Llobregat and Vilassar de Dalt.

All the Chelsea nerds deleted their “Messi still hasn’t scored against Chelsea” memes.

There was a quick most mortem.

“Who played the ball across the box?”

“Dunno. Alonso?”

“Schoolboy error, fucking hell.”

The away support were still not too loud, but their upper tier was one bouncing mass.

A text from Glenn in Frome :

“Christensen FFS.”

Ugh.

Alvaro Morata came on for Pedro. Danny Drinkwater replaced Cesc Fabregas.

Unlike in 2009, thank high heavens there was no last minute heartache from Iniesta, nor anyone else. The assistant referee signaled three minutes, and these passed with no incident. This was indeed a lovely game of football. We had gone toe-to-toe with one of the finest teams of the modern era and we  – let’s again be honest – surely deserved the win. For all their possession, Barca had hardly caused Thibaut any worries. There was that daisy-cutter from Suarez, but little else. He had claimed a few high crosses, but had not been really tested. Willian had enjoyed a wonderful match, and on another day could have returned to his flat with the match ball. Every player had performed so well. Huge respect to the manager too. I hope Roman, watching from his box, took heed.

We assemble again, deep in Catalonia, and high at the Nou Camp, in three weeks.

“Anem a trebellar.”

Tales From The Class Of ’98

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 12 February 2018.

This was another working week which would begin and end with a Chelsea match. As with a memorable week last May, with a game against Middlesbrough on the Monday and a game against West Brom on the Friday, we were faced with two matches on the same two days. First up were The Baggies at home. We were desperate for a win to put an end to our little blip. A win would then see us nose ourselves ahead of Tottenham and into fourth place. The visitors were rock bottom of the Premier League. What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing, we hoped. Nothing at all.

“Three points are king tonight, lads.”

I didn’t honestly care if we would scrape to a 1-0 win. I just wanted a win to take some pressure off the manager, the players and not least us, the supporters. The two recent losses to Bournemouth and Watford had certainly been lingering heavily on everyone’s minds the past week. Not only a nadir, but a nadir oh dear.

Other weighty issues had dominated my thoughts after the Watford loss. The chest pains that I mentioned during the Watford match report thankfully subsided throughout the past week, but on Friday I popped into my local community hospital to book an appointment to see a doctor. I needed reassurance that there was no problem. After explaining the symptoms, I was given a few tests. I explained to a doctor that my late father had suffered a history of heart problems. Without further ado, the doctor decided to take no risks and sent me in an ambulance to Bath to undergo further tests.

As can be imagined, this was quite a shock. At the time, I felt relatively OK. But I was – I suppose – relieved that I was in good hands. Thankfully, after a couple of hours spent in the A&E department of Bath’s Royal United Hospital, and after my fourth ECG of the day and some blood tests, I was released with an all-clear. No abnormal heart condition. Just high blood pressure, but that can be treated. The conclusion – from myself anyway, and possibly from the medical staff too – was that I had suffered from too much stress at work. As I reached home that night, I promised myself to try to improve my health via diet and exercise. And not get overly-stressed at work. Writing this again now, I am sure it was all to do with work.

[ A voice from the gallery : “Are you not going to make a comparison between you lying on a hospital bed and a critical stage in Chelsea’s season? You like a metaphor.”

“Blimey. No. That’s a bit excessive. A bit gruesome. Nah. ]

The Chuckle Brothers were back in town.

“Here we go again, boys.”

It was a bitterly cold night in SW6. Glenn and I darted up to the stadium to meet up with a couple of friends. We briefly chatted to Ray Wilkins, a massive hero for us both in our childhood. During the day, Glenn had decided to throw caution to the wind and join me in an antipodean holiday in July, loosely based on our friendly with Perth Glory in July. We gabbled away with travel plans as the cold Winter air brought shivers.

Back in “Simmons” the clans had gathered. I quickly popped into “The Cock Tavern” to meet up with Al and his son Nate from Toronto, both attending a Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge for the very first time. Al has been following these reports for a while and wanted to meet up. Their enthusiasm about seeing us play was clearly evident. I used the well-worn line –

“Of course, if we lose, you’re not allowed to come back.”

Back in “Simmons” there was talk of the scrum down for away tickets for Barcelona. There was talk of the current ailments. There was support for the manager.

The temperature had dropped further as we walked to Stamford Bridge.

No surprises, the away end was full of empty seats. My guess was at about eight hundred at most. We were inside early, and I hoped that the empty seats in the home areas would eventually fill. Thankfully, in the main, the stadium filled. Yes, there were empty seats throughout the stadium, but no yawning gaps anywhere.

The team?

Thibaut.

Dave – Andreas – Toni

Victor – N’Golo – Cesc – Davide

Pedro – Olivier – Eden

Happy with that. Happy that the new boy Giroud was starting. Alvaro was on the bench, as was Emerson.

For all of the negativity surrounding the club of late, it was just lovely to hear “Blue Is The Colour” being played with five minutes to go. That song just makes me smile. It takes me right back to those formative tears as a Chelsea supporter. It strikes a real chord.

The lights darkened and the teams then appeared from the shadows. Over in the south-west corner of The Shed, a “FORZA CONTE” flag was held over bothy tiers. Very soon into the match, the home supporters rallied behind the manager.

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

This was never honestly going to be a noisy night but I was warmed by the support that was cascading down from the stands. This was music to my lugholes.

Let’s go to work.

Very soon into the game – within two minutes or so – Daniel Sturridge was forced to limp off after an early twist or strain of a muscle. The bloke looked dejected as he made his way down the tunnel. I almost felt sorry for him.

Over the first fifteen minutes, West Brom caused more problems to us than we did to them. They had a couple of meek efforts on Thibaut’s goal. We got out of it unscathed. We managed to get into the game with Pedro as lively as ever. Giroud was involved, showing a willingness to create space for others to find him, and linking up well with others.

The noise levels were still pretty good. We kept urging the team on. This was pleasing.

Dave sent in a couple of fine crosses into the West Brom box, and they almost paid off. Quick comparisons of Giroud with Morata and Batshuayi were hard to resist. The new boy looked more robust than Alvaro and had more guile than Michy. For a big man, his touch looked fine. The best chance of the game was gifted to Giroud by Hazard, but his side-footed effort was straight at the ‘keeper Ben Foster. Pedro was fouled, but a tame free-kick from Eden hit the wall.

With Chelsea looking to move the ball quickly after a West Brom attack, a defender pushed the ball on to Victor Moses. As one, I heard the entire Matthew Harding Stand mouth the word “attack”; it was almost Pavlovian. Sadly, the wing-back floundered further up field. How frustrating.

On twenty-five minutes, I whispered to Alan :

“We’re not playing too badly to be honest. Lots of possession, but not a great deal of incision.”

At that very moment, Eden turned and moved the ball on to Giroud, who subtly touched the ball into the path of Eden, who stroked the ball into the goal.

Blues 1 Baggies 0

GET IN.

Soon after, there was a daring overhead effort from Giroud at the far post. The new boy was certainly truing his hardest to endear himself to us. He was then sent sprawling onto the turf and ended up with a wide white bandage over his forehead. A header from the same player went wide. It was all Chelsea now. West Brom appeared to deflate. Jonny Evans was booked for a nasty, late tackle on Giroud, who writhed in agony in the centre-circle. He had been consistently fouled throughout the first forty-five minutes. At this rate, I expected him to appear at the start of the second-half with an eye patch, a neck brace and his arm in plaster.

What a treat for us all at the break. Neil Barnett announced that three of the players due to take part in a “legends” game against Inter in May were to appear together on the Stamford Bridge pitch.

Step forward Gianfrano Zola, Tore Andre Flo and Gianluca Vialli.

What memories.

They slowly walked towards us in the MH and I snapped away like a fool. Each were serenaded with their own songs. They lapped it up. My goodness, it is the twentieth-anniversary  of our wonderful ECWC triumph in Stockholm, one of my favourite seasons. It is hard to believe in these days of single-strikers and “false nines” that in 1997/1998 we had the considerable luxury of four strikers.

Gianfranco Zola

Gianluca Vialli

Tore Andre Flo

Mark Hughes

And five if we include Mark Nicholls.

Bloody hell, those were the days. A two-man attack. Beautiful. Let’s get to basics here; I’d much rather see two top strikers in a starting eleven for Chelsea rather than two top holding midfielders. Who wouldn’t?

That season, we were certainly blessed. And each of the four had their own qualities, and it was always interesting to see how Ruud, and then Luca, chopped and changed the front two.

Zola –  those amazing twists and turns, those dribbles, that appreciation of space, those passes to others, those goals.

Vialli – those blind-sided runs, the constant movement, the strength of that body, the willingness to run and run.

Flo – surprisingly skilful on the ground for a tall man, his touch was excellent and he weighed in with his share of goals.

Hughes – the last of his three seasons with us, but still useful for his strength in hold-up play, his galvanising effect on the team, and eye for a goal.

Glory days indeed. I loved that team and I idolised those players in a way that I simply do not do with the current squad. And I could probably write a book about the various reasons for that.

Gianfranco Zola, Tore Andre Flo, Mark Hughes, Gianluca Vialli, Dan Petrescu, Frank Leboeuf, Graeme Le Saux, Gus Poyet, Dennis Wise, Roberto di Matteo, Steve Clarke, Ruud Gullit.

If anyone had said to me in 1998 that, twenty years on, only one of those players mentioned would get into my team of greatest ever Chelsea players, I would have screamed madness.

The second-half began with a couple of scares at The Shed End, but a fine block from Dave and a poor miss by Rondon meant that we did not concede. An Evans header from a corner flew well wide. As with the first-half, we weathered the early storm – nay rain shower – and got into the game. At times Giroud seemed too eager to play the ball to team mates rather than maintain possession and battle on. Maybe the ghost of Diego Costa lingers on.

The manager chose to replace the battered centre-forward on the hour and on came Alvaro Morata. Things became a little nervy, and the crowd was well aware that we were still leading by the slenderest of margins. There was a nervousness in the stadium. Things were not falling our way. A fine move involving the twin threats of Eden and Pedro allowed Alvaro to blast at goal.

Just after, Moses worked the ball in to Cesc and his attempted flick deflected off a defender and in to the path of the wing-back who had gambled on the return pass. His finish was cool.

Pensioners 2 Throstles 0.

Moses was clearly boosted by this goal. If ever there is a “confidence player” in our squad at the moment, it is Victor Moses. He quickly followed up with a fine shot on goal.

With twenty minutes to go, Eden broke past his marker, right at the edge of the penalty area, and sent an unstoppable shot low into the goal. There was so much venom in his shot, that the ‘keeper did not move. Similar to his effort at Watford, he used the defender as a block for the hapless ‘keeper. He just didn’t see it.

Bouncy 3 Boing Boing 0.

A rasping shot from Morata brought a save from Foster. The Spaniard was lively in his thirty minutes on the pitch. More of the same please. There was another shot from Moses. It stayed 3-0.

We were back in fourth place.

Crisis over? Maybe.

Out on the Fulham Road, a hot dog and onions went down well, and we scampered back to the waiting car.

I messaged Al from Toronto.

“We won. You can come back.”

It had been a good night.

IMG_4821

 

Tales From The Highest High And The Lowest Low

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 31 October 2015.

While lining up at the crowded turnstiles underneath the Matthew Harding Stand, it was clear that many fans had miss-judged the weather. Here we were, on the very last day of October and the weather was gorgeous. Thankfully I had left my jacket in the car – I made do with just a long-sleeved shirt and pullover – but the sun was causing me a little discomfort. There were surely no complaints from the three visitors from Southern California that had joined us in The Goose ahead of the game. One of the three, John, had presented me with a lovely tee-shirt from the main Chelsea pub in Los Angeles – The Olde Ship in Santa Ana – and I was well aware that there would be a few keen Chelsea supporters assembling at around 4.45am on a Californian morning in this pub which, along with Legends in New York City, is the most famous Chelsea pub in the United States, to watch our game against Liverpool. John’s mate Andy had been alongside me at West Ham the previous weekend; this time it was the turn of John, Janset and Rich. We had also enjoyed the company of four of the New York chapter in the pub too; Mike, Frank, Eugene and Tim.

I remember saying to somebody, I do not remember who exactly, when questioned about the outcome of our lunchtime game, that I was convinced we would not lose. There had been positive signs – if you looked hard enough for them, baby steps and all that malarkey – in our two most recent games, and I was hopeful that the team would rebound after some poor performances this season with a key win.

Of course, the rumour mongers were out in force, and some sections of the media and the Chelsea support were talking about the game against Liverpool as the pivotal moment in Jose Mourinho’s future as manager. I found this odd, in the extreme. There would be, after all, an equally important match at home to Dynamo Kiev on the following Wednesday.

The team that Mourinho had selected had been met with a general degree of pleasure in the sunny beer garden. It was now time to get behind them.

I made it inside with around five minutes to spare. The match programme featured a photograph of a stern John Terry on the cover, red poppy woven in to his shirt. Down below me in the Matthew Harding Lower, the “Chelsea Remembers” flag – featuring club crest flanked by poppies – was being held aloft centrally. The players entered the pitch.

The sun beat down, causing small and defined areas of bright sunlight on the pitch.

I was supremely hopeful that this would be a Chelsea day to remember.

Soon in to the game, the ball was played down into an area of intermittent light and shade in front of the Liverpool fans. We had encountered a small section of the away support at Heston Services; with their jagged accents and penchant for tracksuit bottoms (not shell suits please, nobody wears them anymore, not even scallies) they were easily spotted. They love their trackie bottoms, the Scousers. For the club that kicked-off the casual subculture in 1977/1978, their standards have certainly dropped over recent years.

Trackie bottoms and YNWA scarves.

Tut tut.

We held on to the ball for quite a few moments and the ball was played purposefully between several Chelsea players. One moment – iconic, to be honest – immediately came back to me. In our history-defining game against Liverpool in May 2003, with a place in the Champions League at stake, and with a young and successful Russian billionaire ready to pounce, Gianfranco Zola entered the fray as a late substitute. His magical dribble in that far corner, beating off challenges from what seemed like the entire Liverpool defence, was a sublime last memory of the little magician. It would be his last ever appearance in our colours; ironically it was the first game in which we wore our 2003/2004 and 2004/2005 “Fly Emirates” shirt from “Umbro.” How odd that his last appearance for us would be in a shirt that we would eventually wear on that fateful day in Bolton in 2005. If only he had been with us on that day.

Anyway, I digress.

The ball was passed to Cesar Azpilicueta, deep in an area that I sometimes call “Zola Land”, and our solid defender picked out the run from Ramires perfectly. His diving header sent the ball low past Mignolet in to the Liverpool goal. I was right behind the flight of the ball.

It was a superb goal.

Needless to say the packed stands of Stamford Bridge roared. I jumped up, yelling, screaming face to face with those next to me.

A fantastic start. I was hoping for further goals.

It was 12.49pm.

I stood, arms outstretched, and joined in the deafening wall of wild sound engulfing the stadium.

At 12.51pm, my ‘phone rang. It was from my friend Ian, whose young son had attended the Southampton home game four weeks previously. My initial thought was that he was calling me to say that young Ben was happy that we had begun the game so well. Then, my second thought brought a different reaction and a sense of foreboding. Ian’s mother has been suffering with cancer for the best part of twelve months. I steadied myself.

I blocked out the noise of the crowd with my right palm, and answered.

I was saddened to hear that Ian’s mother had passed away just two hours earlier.

I was unable to fully hear, so I dashed out and spoke to Ian from the quieter concourse. Supporters were still arriving as I spoke to Ian for a few moments. I can’t remember what we said to be honest. It was all a blur. I passed on my condolences, no doubt, but there were tears from Ian and I felt numb.

I re-entered the seats and I was in a horrible daze.

My mother was taken from us in February and now Ian – my best friend – has lost his dear mother, who I last saw on Ian’s wedding day in 2006, on the last day of October.

2015 I hate you.

I didn’t speak for many minutes, the game continued on down below me, but I could not concentrate. I sat in solitude among over forty thousand, and sent a few texts to a few of Ian’s friends. My mind was elsewhere.

To be so high at 12.49pm and so low at 12.51pm was such an awful feeling.

Ugh.

As I began to look up and take a little interest in the match, it seemed that Liverpool were enjoying more of the ball, but each and every one of their attempts on our goal were – thankfully – right down Asmir Begovic’ throat. Right on half-time, a lack of pressing meant that the ball found Coutinho in space. As he shaped to shoot, I sensed a goal.

1-1.

All was quiet at the break. My head was still elsewhere.

Soon in to the second-half, the woeful Eden Hazard was replaced by the fresh legs and zest of the boy from Fluminense Kenedy. He immediately impressed with some one-touch football and a shot on goal. We were enjoying our best spell. Willian, the one current player excused from the negative comments being directed towards our team, continued to be our most determined player. His willingness to close down and enforce errors on Liverpool was commendable. There was a desire within Ramires too.

Lucas, who was seeing a lot of the ball in the middle, had already been booked, and appeared to scythe down Ramires in the centre circle. I am not as strong a believer in conspiracy theories against us as many others, but even I was questioning the marital status of Clattenburg’s parents after that. The Stamford Bridge crowd howled their displeasure.

Mikel, who was doing OK in my book, was withdrawn for Fabregas.

Oscar – having a hot and cold game, nay season – won the ball well with a great tackle and spotted Mignolet off his line. His speculative lob from fifty yards was almost inch perfect, but the Liverpool ‘keeper back-peddled and tipped it over.

With that chance gone, Liverpool heaved a sigh of relief and then dominated as we lost our shape. The introduction of Falcao did not fool anyone.

Two late goals from Coutinho – again – and from substitute Benteke sealed our fate.

Our defending was awful for both goals. We were pulled apart.

On Halloween, here was a horror show of defensive miscreants.

To my utter disdain, more than a handful of Chelsea supporters left after the second goal, with a full twenty minutes of play left. When I mentioned this frankly despicable fact to the chap in front, his reply was spot on.

“Keep walking.”

After the Benteke goal, even more left.

Sigh.

At the end of the game, all was quiet. I slowly walked out on to the Fulham Road, my gaze focussing on the red portions of the half-and-half scarves on show. It turned my stomach.

I am usually in a rush to get back to the car, but I can never remember an occasion when my strides have been so heavy and so slow walking up the North End Road. It truly was a depressing and demoralising old day. The football, though, only counted for a small portion of my sorrow. I met up with Parky at the car. He too, was sad to hear that Ian’s mother had passed away. He had met Ian, just the once, ironically, at my mother’s funeral in March. We were soon on our way home, facing a bright autumnal sun fading fast in the west.

At Twickenham, there was a rugby game taking place.

In Egham, close-by, just around the M25, Frome Town were playing a FA Trophy tie.

We avoided the football on the radio as I drove home after another dispiriting Chelsea performance. We were melancholy. In truth, I was still reeling from the phone call from Ian. There was an attempt to grasp at straws of comfort. Despite the exodus of a couple of thousand fans after both goals, thankfully at the final whistle, Stamford Bridge was not a sea of empty blue seats. Most fans had stayed until the end. There were hardly any boos. I am thankful for that.

We are in this together, and we share the pain together.

See you on Wednesday.

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Tales From A Game And A Half

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 8 November 2014.

6.30am on a Saturday morning. Outside, there was darkness and silence. The rest of the world was asleep. However, the invigorating feeling which greeted the thought of a Chelsea away day was coursing through my veins. Not just any away game of course.

It was our return to the scene of the crime.

The afternoon of Sunday 27 April 2014 will live long in our collective memories.

In Liverpool, it is a date that they wish to forget.

Our 2-0 win, a stirring and resolute performance in the face of a local population that had seemingly crowned Liverpool as Champions with games still to play and with allied fawning from the media, derailed the Anfield team’s bid for their first League Championship since 1990.

It was, I’m sure, most Chelsea supporters’ most cherished memory of last season.

Schadenfreude never tasted so good.

However, during the first two months of the 2014-2015 season, the fortunes of the two protagonists had changed immeasurably; Chelsea were now dominant league leaders, Liverpool were dishevelled chasers. Although I was confident of a strong Chelsea performance, there was still a nagging and niggling doubt that there might be revenge in the air, as distant as it might have seemed to some, perhaps in the guise of a dish served cold’; perhaps like a bowl of cold scouse.

I collected Lord Parky at 7am and headed north once again; I soon realised that we would be completing our four league away days in Manchester and Merseyside within the first eleven games of the season. I expected the result at Anfield to be closer to the 1-1 draws recorded in Manchester than the 6-3 shellacking that we gave Everton.

At 11am, I was driving through familiar streets around Liverpool’s stadium. Just like at Old Trafford, street parking had tightened and there were “permits only” signs wherever I looked. In the end, I chose to pay £10 and parked in a secure site a few yards from Goodison Park. There were lovely memories of that Saturday afternoon in August.

Six goals. Phew.

The heavens opened on the short walk through Stanley Park, no longer the site of a proposed new Liverpool stadium. At the top of the steady incline, the Anfield floodlights were already on. We dived into a crowded “Arkels” and soon met up with around ten Chelsea faces from our part of the world. They had driven up in a mini-bus. Soon, the atmosphere became rowdier, with Chelsea songs to the fore. The closest pub to the away section, this pub has long been the “away” pub at Anfield, though home fans are admitted too. At times the atmosphere is a little tense, but I’ve rarely seen tempers flare. The locals seemed brow-beaten in the face of so much Chelsea noise.

They needed no reminding, but one song kept repeating…

“Steve Gerrard, Gerrard…”

I first visited “The Arkels” way back in 1992. It is a story worth re-telling.

In 1991-1992, Chelsea was struggling under Ian Porterfield and a decent run before Christmas had soon petered out. On the first day of February, I drove up to Liverpool on a ridiculously foggy Friday evening with my mate Francis for the Liverpool versus Chelsea game on the Saturday afternoon. I had visited Anfield on four previous occasions – a draw and three defeats – but this would be a seismic weekend for Francis; a Liverpool fan, this would be his first ever visit. On the Friday night, we stayed with friends in the city and then enjoyed a couple of beers in a local pub before setting off for the ground. I already had my ticket, procured during the previous weeks from Chelsea. On the previous Wednesday, Liverpool had beaten Arsenal and – all of a sudden – had found themselves back in the hunt for the league championship behind Manchester United and Leeds United. Francis, my mate Pete and I were dropped off near Anfield at around 2.15pm; the plan was for Pete and Francis to stand on The Kop.

However, the streets around Anfield were milling with people. Bizarrely, we bumped into an old college acquaintance – a Scouser with the unforgettable name of Johnny Fortune – and our heart sank when he barked at Pete :

“The Kop’s full.”

I could hardly believe it. Our plans had been hit by a wave of optimism by the Liverpool fans, enticed to Anfield in vast numbers after the midweek win. Not a spare ticket was to be had anywhere.

“Bollocks.”

Without dwelling on it, I quickly thrust my ticket for the away section in the Anfield Road into Francis’ hands.

“Take it.”

There was no way that I was going to allow Francis to miss out on his first ever Anfield game. Fran was almost stuck for words, but I shooed him away and told him to enjoy the game. Pete and I, once we had realised that there was no way in for us, retreated back to “The Arkels”, where we took our seats in a corner, drank a lager apiece and half-halfheartedly watched an England rugby international.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry when the news came through that Vinnie Jones had put Chelsea ahead. Liverpool then equalised. With half-time approaching, Pete and I finished our pints and walked behind the Kemlyn Road Stand and found ourselves on the road behind The Kop. The idea was to get some chips. At the half-time whistle, we suddenly noticed that one gate behind The Kop was opened and several – ten, maybe fifteen – Liverpool fans exited the stadium, crossed the Walton Breck Road, bought some chips, then returned back inside the stadium.

Pete looked at me.

I looked at Pete.

No words were needed.

Pete approached the gate. For those who knew the old Anfield, the gate was by the ship’s mast, in the south-west corner. Pete knocked on the gate.

“Alright.”

In we went.

In we fucking went.

We silently ascended the steps and soon found ourselves among 15,000 scousers on The Kop. I looked at Pete.

“Fucking get in.”

Anfield was not a friendly place, neither on nor off the pitch. And here I was, stood right among the enemy on the famous Kop. On the pitch, our form at Anfield was shocking. Save for a lone F.A. Cup win at Anfield in around 1965, Chelsea had not won at the home of Liverpool Football Club since 1937.

Yep, that’s right : 1937.

Fifty-two sodding years.

On that Saturday in February 1992, I watched from The Kop and Francis, the Liverpool fan, watched from the Chelsea section as a Dennis Wise goal gave us a 2-1 win. When Dennis scored, a low shot from an angle, my heart exploded but I – of course – stayed silent. What joy. We even missed a late penalty too. The locals were far from happy. I can remember one grizzled old chap spitting out a few words of consternation:

“Come on Liverpool. We can beat dese. It’s only Chelsea.”

Inside, I purred with happiness.

At the end of the game, Pete and I raced around to meet up with Francis by the Shankly Gates and my first words were –

“We got in.”

Francis was relieved.

“Our first win since 1937 and we got in for free.”

Ironically, in the circumstances, Fran had thoroughly enjoyed himself despite his team’s loss. He commented that the Chelsea fans never stopped singing, never stopped cheering. On more than one occasion, he found himself singing along too; I guess that he was caught up in the emotion of it all. I’m sure he said one Chelsea supporter kissed him when Wisey scored. Also – fantastic this – Fran was deeply moved by Micky Greenaway’s urging of fellow fans to get behind the team with his demonic “Zigger Zagger” chant. It was, Francis exclaimed, an incredible afternoon.

I agreed.

At 2.15pm, I left Parky, Cooky, Ash, Andy, Sir Les, and the other members of the Trowbridge Chelsea crew, and walked the three hundred yards to take my place in the Anfield Road. I was surprised how few were inside; 1992 it was not.

Alan and Gary, fresh from their enjoyable trip to Slovenia, soon joined me in row 22, high above the goal. The Chelsea players were soon on the pitch, going through a few set drills. Long gone are the days when the players would appear on the pitch for ten minutes and nonchalantly ping balls to each other. These days every routine is planned and precise.

I spotted Diego Costa.

Phew.

I was quietly confident. Chelsea was flying high. Liverpool was the opposite.

Let’s go to work.

None other than Gianfranco Zola, commentating on the game, walked in front of the main stand and was rightfully serenaded by the three thousand faithful. I can well remember a game I attended at Anfield in 2002 when our little magician was playing out on the wing on the touchline by the Centenary Stand. A ball was booted high into the air and he killed it with one sublime touch; even the Scousers applauded it. The man was a genius.

The time seemed to suddenly race by and the stands filled-up in the blink of an eye. The teams entered the pitch behind two members of the British Army. I wondered if there would be time for the usual Liverpool anthem. Sure enough, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” rattled around Anfield, though not with as much noise and fervour as in other visits. Then, thankfully, there was an impeccably observed minute of silence for the fallen.

The referee’s whistle.

Mario Balotelli touched the ball to a team mate.

Game on.

There was an initial period of free-running from the midfielders of both teams. Emre Can, a face I bluntly did not recognise, tested Thibaut Courtois with a shot which was deflected wide. I remember that Liverpool began the game in April very brightly, but failed to pierce our defence. This time around, they scored with only eight minutes gone. Liverpool were gifted too much space and the ball was played to Can once again. His speculative thump from twenty-five yards was headed for goal – I was right behind its flight – but the ball deflected off a Chelsea defender ( I was unsure if it was John Terry or Gary Cahill) and therefore wrong-footed Courtois. The ball nestled in the net and Anfield erupted.

“Rather they scored now than in the last ten minutes, Gal.”

Chelsea responded magnificently. A spell of pressure in front of The Kop. Two corners. On the second one, John Terry rose unhindered and headed towards goal. Mignolet parried but only knocked the ball in to the path of a blue-shirted assailant. Everything happened so quickly, but I saw the ‘keeper make a diving attempt to keep the ball from going over the line. The Chelsea fans around me roared, but I was unsure. I could only truly celebrate when I saw the referee and then the players running back towards me.

My immediate thought?

“Luis Garcia. Same part of the goal. Revenge. Get in. Come on you blue boys.”

Liverpool then threatened; a Balotelli goal was offside, a block by Gary Cahill. Coutinho, who always looks threatening, forced a save from Courtois. But, in an open game, Chelsea continued to move the ball well. Matic, as ever, was covering huge amounts of ground and our play was intelligent and forceful. Liverpool were getting stretched. Diego Costa shot over. A couple of Eden Hazard’s shots were blocked. There was a slight hint of Chelsea’s play being overly-elaborate.

Very often a call came up from the away section : “shoot!”

Total domination from Chelsea in the closing section of the first-half sadly brought no further goals. I was still confident though. It had been a fine first-half.

In the second-half, yet more impressive running from Hazard set up the rampaging Diego Costa, whose overhead kick flew over. Then a chance for Liverpool in front of The Kop; Sterling forcing a save, down low, from the reliable Courtois. Hazard’s turn again to run at a bewildered Liverpool defence, but we felt he held on to the ball a little too long; it is a flaw of his play. Eden needs to know when to release the ball. The resulting shot was blocked.

Willian, on for Ramires, found the advancing Cear Azpilicueta, who danced past Coutinho on the far touchline and took my advice to “get in the box Dave.” He flicked the ball in to the danger area and after Mignolet could only partially parry, the ball fell enticingly in to the path of the waiting Diego Costa.

I was right behind the path of this one too.

Our new goal-scoring icon slammed the ball low.

The net rippled.

2-1.

YEEEEEEESSSSSSSS.

The Chelsea crowd reacted brilliantly. For a few seconds, we all lost it. Arms pumping, faces gurning, hearts pumping, voices loud.

Alan : “Dey’ll ‘ave to come at us now……”

Chris : “Come on my little diamondsssssssss.”

It was no more than Diego Costa deserved. He was a constant thorn in Liverpool’s side all afternoon. One turn and run in front of the Centenary Stand, fighting off the challenge of two defenders, was a pure joy to watch. Liverpool’s home support, rather than attempting to cheer their team on, remained quiet. Our defence remained in control. I lost count of the number of times that balls were headed clear. Towards the end of the game, both Liverpool players and Liverpool fans alike responded loudly when a goal-bound shot seemed to strike a Chelsea defender. I was one hundred yards away. I was none the wiser.

In the last period, mindful of Robin Van Persie’s late equaliser at Old Trafford, the Chelsea support grew edgier and edgier. I kept looking at the old fashioned clock in the corner of The Kop. The minutes ticked by. Didier Drogba came on. Finally, Filipe Luis came on. The final kick of the game was a failed clearance from Mignolet which spun off for a Chelsea corner. The referee then blew.

A roar from the Chelsea section of the Anfield Road.

This was another enormously professional Chelsea performance. There were smiles aplenty all around me. Lovely stuff.

I soon met up with Parky and we bounced our way through Stanley Park, past the down –beaten Liverpool fans waiting for their coaches to take them back to Worcester, Bristol, North Wales, Birmingham and beyond.

“They must hate us up here, Parky.”

In 1992, we had to wait fifty-two years for a league win at Anfield.

In 2014, we have enjoyed two in seven months.

Good times in darkest Liverpool.

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Tales From An Evening At Chelsea

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 6 April 2011.

Late on Tuesday evening, my Italian friend Mario sent me a greeting on Facebook, saying that he would be watching “the derby” on TV on Wednesday. This confused me a little, but he elaborated further –

“The Derby of England.”

Ah – that made sense now. In Italy, they always call any Juventus vs. Internazionale game “il derby d’Italia” in light of the nation-wide fan base of those two giants. Mario now lives in Germany and, during our little online chat we briefly talked about meeting up should Chelsea get past Manchester United. Mario lives in Bergisch-Gladbach, no more than 60 miles away from Gelsenkirchen – the home of Schalke 04 – and the thought of meeting him for the first time in 23 years thrilled me. When we first met, way back in 1975 (he is actually my oldest friend, anywhere), who would have thought that Mario, the Juventus fan, would be watching my team in European competition on TV – and not vice versa.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

I had booked a half-day holiday, but this just meant that I had to squeeze in 8 hours work into 4 on Wednesday morning. I was very busy and didn’t think too much about the game. My closest work colleague, Mike, is a United fan and it was on his computer that we saw the Champions League pairing of our two teams a few weeks ago. We quickly shook each other’s hands and wished each other the “best of British.”

I picked up Lord Parky and then raced home. A change of clothes later and we were on our way, heading east on the A303 and M3 for a change. The weather was truly glorious. We stopped for soft drinks in a little village on Salisbury Plain just before we shot past Stonehenge. We made great time. As we drove through Bagshot Heath, with the yellow gorse bushes so vibrant, we put some Depeche Mode on the CD player and all was well with the world. I learnt to drive relatively late – in 1991, when I was 26 – and I always seemed to be playing Depeche Mode tapes in my car on those first long journeys to Stamford Bridge in the 1991 to 1993 period. In those days, my pilgrimages to The Bridge were solitary affairs. My mate Glenn didn’t go to Chelsea too often in those days – he had other distractions – and so I would tend to drive up from Frome alone. Hearing those Depeche Mode songs brought back memories of bombing around the M25 on my way to Chelsea, to be entertained by players such as Andy Townsend, Vinnie Jones and Bobby Stuart. I used to bump into Alan occasionally, but more often than not, would go to Chelsea alone. I met Daryl in 1992, though, and used to meet up with him in the 1992-1993 season. When things were going badly – under Ian Porterfield, they often did – at least we had the Yankees to talk about.

So, twenty years ago, my trips to The Bridge were somewhat lonely affairs. This was a big contrast to today, of course. Over the past twenty seasons, I have accumulated Chelsea fans at an ever-increasing rate and I’m in a great position to have so many mates from near and far. I seem to be collecting acquaintances of a Chelsea persuasion as quickly as we have garnered trophies since 1997. I wonder if the two are linked.

It certainly seems to be a small world with Chelsea right now, with the internet bringing us ever closer. As we approached London – magnificent blue skies overhead, the best day of the year by far – I spoke to Parky about the newest Chelsea friend I had met on Facebook. It turned out that this bloke used to live no more than 100 feet away from me, in the next street, when I was at college in Stoke. How about that? Small world alright! On the M4, we passed an executive coach from Manchester and we both peered in as we drove by. United. No colours. But United.

We were parked-up at 4.30pm and – for a change – we decided to try a new restaurant, rather than walk the half a mile to Salvo’s. We dipped into “Ole Mexico” on the North End Road and had a couple of cold beers and a selection of spicy food. We were the only ones in there, but the décor was great and the food excellent. Then, a few minutes later, we were back in The Goose and Mark and Kerry from Westbury were at the bar.

“What are you drinking, lads?”

Outside in the beer garden, there were groups of friends chatting away and enjoying the late afternoon sun. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Blue Heaven. It was a day for jackets to be discarded and for more summery attire.

It’s Been A Long Time – Crocodile Watch Is Back.

Jokka – sky blue
Chris – buttermilk

We worked out that the towns of Frome, Westbury, Trowbridge and Melksham were represented by twelve Chelsea fans. Happy with that. It was a marked difference to my solo trips in 1991 where I might bump into a couple of local lads in The Black Bull if I was lucky. Plenty of chat with Alan, Gary, Daryl, Neil, Rob, Simon, Ed, Milo and then Tim from Bristol. Les from Melksham was after a lift to Old Trafford next Tuesday.

“No worries, son.”

Neil was off to Thailand on the Thursday and was taking out a complete Chelsea kit for a school team in a village way up in the north-east of the country. Spreading the word, spreading the gospel. We heard the team news; Drogba and Torres upfront, with Zhirkov in place of the struggling Malouda. No complaints really, though we knew that the loss of David Luiz would be huge. To be fair, we didn’t talk too much about the game. The weather was still lovely; great vibes.

I set off for the ground a bit before the rest as I wanted to take a few photographs of the match day experience outside the stadium for a change. I bought a programme and took some shots of the Champions League banners hanging down either side of Ossie.

Peter Osgood – The King Of Stamford Bridge.

In the match programme, there were a few pages detailing the famous 21-0 aggregate win against the tinkers, tailors and candle-stick makers of Jeunese Hautcharage in 1971. Ossie scored eight goals over those two games.

I was in the ground at 7.30pm and it always feels strange to see the top five rows of the MHU empty for home CL games. The United fans were in a typically boisterous mood. As always, I scanned the balcony for new United flags and I wasn’t disappointed.

“Forza United”

“MUFC – Poland – On Tour”

“One Love – MUFC”

“Sent To Me From Heaven”

“United & City – Joined By Geography – Separated By Success”

“Once More Than England – MUFC – World Champions Twice”

“Viva John Terry”

Alas, the flag which said “Half Our Asian Fans Used To Like Liverpool In The 80’s” was missing. The banner berating England is typical of the United match-going hard-core. Ever since the Beckham fiasco in 1998, United have grown apart from the national team, even to the point of singing “Argentina” when Gabriel Heintze was in their team. You never get a MUFC flag at England games.

I’m not bothered by this. Personally speaking, I’m more club than country myself.

Anyway, the Mancs were making a racket. The “Viva John Terry” chant was getting a solid airing – that big white flag was draped from the balcony all night – and when Neil Barnett read out the teams, John Terry’s name got a massive cheer from the United fans.

We countered with songs of Doubles and England Captains.

School ground high-jinks played out on a larger stage, with a global TV audience listening in.

Mario was right – “The Derby of England.”

As the teams entered the pitch, I again went mad with the camera. That’s just a photogenic moment, the teams walking past the CL flag. John Terry led the team out, but Frank Lampard looked particularly animated, gazing at the MHU as the two massive flags passed each other, pumping his fists at the supporters.

It would be Frank’s 500th game for Chelsea Football Club.

A magnificent achievement for – possibly – our most valuable player ever.

I always remember where I was when I heard that Frank had been signed by Chelsea. I was on holiday in NYC, June 2001, and I had phoned Glenn, from deep in the bowels of Penn Station. I remember being pleased, but shocked at the price. Ten years on, money well spent.

At kick-off, there was a lovely pinkie / violet hue to the sky. We began well and took the game to United in the first ten minutes. Fernando Torres had two early chances, a lunge at a cross and then a neat run and shot at Van der Sar. On 18 minutes, Ramires played a gorgeous ball into Drogba in the inside-right position. He unleashed a screamer which the United ‘keeper touched over.

Then, United had a great spell, with Rooney causing havoc. He is some player when he is on form. On 23 minutes, a long ball over the top and Jose Bosingwa was caught napping. Ryan Giggs – who was playing for United twenty years ago – neatly spun past the Chelsea right-back. I clearly saw Rooney unmarked – I was in direct line with the ball which Giggs played – and the resultant shot crept in off the far post. It was a great spot by Giggs, but where was our marking? It was a surreal moment – it seemed to happen in a vacuum, no Chelsea participation, the deathly hush from us as it bounced over the line. Sickening. Even more sickening was the roll on the pitch and then the celebratory salute which Rooney provided for the MHL.

Rooney had taken loads of abuse from the whistle and he must have loved it.

The United fans raised their volumes and we didn’t retaliate. As the game grew older, the Chelsea support lessened and lessened. United’s midfield – not great on paper – closed us down and it felt like we were second to every ball.

I commented to Alan – “we’ve got nobody grabbing the game by the balls.” Our midfield, Ramires apart, was woeful. Lampard was missing. Essien was poor, too, and only had one surging run down the left to show for his efforts. Zhirkov too – poor. Upfront, Drogba and Anelka were struggling to hit it off. Our laboured approach was too slow for Torres.

Then, just before the break, Drogba struck a cross cum shot into the box from the left. It was aimed at Torres, but the ball continued on untouched until it struck the far post at knee height, with Van der Sar beaten. The ball rebounded out to Frank, who smashed the ball goal wards. I was up celebrating – had to be a goal! – but the United ‘keeper miraculously kept it out. I had immediate memories of Luis Garcia at Anfield in 2005. Was it over?

It wasn’t. The Bridge collapsed with frustration.

Moans and grumbles at the break – we’re good at that.

Neil Barnett briefly brought Gianfranco Zola out onto the pitch at the break and it is very likely that 5,000 Chelsea fans shouted “get yer boots on, Franco!” Ed came down to talk to me at half-time and we agreed that we couldn’t be as bad in the second-half.

Soon into the second period, Didier did ever so well to keep fighting for a ball on the far touch line and zipped over a great cross, but Ramires headed over. After another poor Lampard corner – yes, I know, I’ve said it a thousand times – the ball was played back in and Drogba attempted an overhead kick which flew narrowly over. All of our other shots – usually from distance – ended up being aimed straight at Van der Sar.

Sure, we had a lot of the ball, but we never looked convincing. Apart from an offside goal and a few rare breaks, United were content to defend, which was quite unlike them. Torres was trying his best, but with poor service. Balls were pumped up to Drogba, but there tended not to be much interplay between our front two. Even in this one game, Drogba was splitting our support…some were applauding him, some were not so keen. At the back, at least JT was playing like a man possessed once again. He is having his best season for a while. He’d get my vote for Player of the Year.

On 70 minutes, Carlo changed things, with Anelka and Malouda on for Drogba and the very disappointing Zhirkov. Soon after, I captured that great Torres header on film. He arched his back and strained to reach the ball, looping it up and over Van der Sar on purpose. But what a save from their ‘keeper. Oh boy. More frustration.

On 81 minutes, typical Chelsea. Four players – Essien, Malouda, Cole and Lampard – stood by a free-kick. In a scene which reminded me of the bizarre plays in American football, three of them ran over the ball on dummy runs and Frank Lampard struck the ball – guess! – straight at Van der Sar.

Brilliant. Let’s do that again.

That was all captured on film too.

Mikel on for Bosingwa. Essien – just like in Moscow 2008 – moved to right-back.

Our shooting was rubbish. In fact, I lost count of the number of shots which meekly ended up bobbling along the ground, straight at the Manchester United goalie. On 86 minutes, Nani – the substitute – had a break and we all thought “oh no, two-nil, that’s it”, but he took one touch too many and Petr Cech was able to smother the ball. Looking back, Cech didn’t have to make many saves.

Then, it all went crazy in the last ten minutes. Nicolas Anelka headed over from close range and then followed it up with a weak shot at the near post. On 90 minutes, the game’s defining moment; the ever busy Ramires burst through the middle and ran with the ball alongside Evra. I was just anticipating a shot, when he fell to the floor. It happened so quickly of course, but – trying desperately hard not to be biased here – it looked a certain penalty. I glanced at the onrushing referee.

No.

The Bridge, remembering the Barcelona debacle of 2009, howled in anger but I just stood motionless, speechless, mortified. Words would fail me. I stood silent. Immediate texts from unbiased Chelsea fans confirmed that it was a penalty.

The final moment of irony – Torres booked for a dive in the box, just yards away from me.

Stamford Bridge – the place where Champions League penalty appeals die.

As I left my seat – “see you Saturday” – my mood was strangely not of doom and gloom. I quickly thought about the other games – Tottenham… out of it… Inter… out of it… Shaktor… out of it. We had not played well, but we had only lost 1:0. We must go to Old Trafford next Tuesday and give it our all. We’re still in this. It’s only half-time.

Walking out onto the Fulham Road, though, the mood amongst my fellow fans annoyed me. There was constant bitching – no doubt continuing on all over the internet still – but for 95% of the game, 34,000 Chelsea fans had been heavily out sung by 3,000 United fans. Where was our support? Where was it? It made me seethe.

I tried to be positive, though – at Old Trafford, there will be 3,700 die-hard away fans out-singing the home fans. You mark my words.

As I met up with Parky along the North End Road, I mused that this had been a game of inches. In the first-half, that Rooney shot went in off the far post, while that deft Drogba effort came back off the post.

Inches.

It got me thinking, you know…posts and Chelsea vs. Manchester United Champions League games – it makes you wonder doesn’t it?

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