Tales From The SW6 Derby

Chelsea vs. Fulham : 3 February 2023.

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

I had heard of all of them.

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

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

Into the future we go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

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

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

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

Fackinell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, that’s correct, £240.

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

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

We checked the team on Sophie’s ‘phone.

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

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

He was to take Jorginho’s number five shirt.

It was great to see Reece James back.

“Hopefully not too soon though, eh?”

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

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

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

The troops arrived. The ground slowly filled.

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

A little more history about the SW6 Derby.

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

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

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

Possibly.

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

The team? OK, here we go.

Kepa

James – Silva – Badiashile – Cucarella

Gallagher – Enzo

Ziyech – Mount – Mudryk

Havertz

It almost felt like a new beginning.

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

Certainly not in London SW6.

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

How odd.

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

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

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

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

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

My eyes were soon settling on Mydryk and Enzo.

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

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

Vamos Enzo!

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

I soon spotted Emily and BJ down in Parkyville.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kepa 7

James 5 – Silva 6 – Badiashile 7 – Cucarella 4

Gallagher 6 – Enzo 7

Ziyech 4 – Mount 5 – Mudryk 4

Havertz 5

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

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

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

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

Clive : “man of the match so far.”

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

Two more substitutions followed.

Dave for Reece.

Raheem Sterling for Ziyech.

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

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

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

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

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

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

”Arsenal. You said Arsenal.”

To Clive : “how has Havertz stayed on?”

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

More groans.

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

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

Fackinell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A disappointing performance from Chelsea? Yes.

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

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

See you in East London next Saturday.

Tales From Two Wins

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 15 January 2023.

Leaving West London after the away game at Fulham on Thursday, I turned to PD and sighed as I said “at least we haven’t got to schlep all of the way up north for our next game, with it being an easy-to-reach home game against Palace.”

He agreed but then spoiled the mood a little as he mentioned a trip to Liverpool the week after.

We were undoubtedly going through a very tough spell. Not only had we been defeated in three consecutive games, there had also been the sad and traumatic passing of Gianluca Vialli the day after the first defeat. This was a short and difficult period in the history of Chelsea Football Club; eight days full of losses and loss. It was a horrible time.

As we headed towards Stamford Bridge we tried to be as positive as possible about the future, but I think we all knew that the day would be difficult. There would be undoubted sadness as the club paid its respects to our much-loved former Italian player and manager. This would be, I was sure, as emotional as previous similar days at Stamford Bridge when we remembered Matthew Harding in 1996, Peter Osgood in 2006 and Ray Wilkins in 2018.

The day began with a delay. Parky’s village was almost cut off from civilisation due to flooding on two roads but I was thankfully able to head off on a lengthy diversion to reach him. The rain was incessant in that first hour but thankfully the day brightened up and dried out.

We often talk about “must win games” but this one really was. Under-pressure Graham Potter’s charges really needed to triumph against Patrick Vieira’s team.

Was I confident? Only maybe.

Despite the delay at the start of the day, I was still able to drop PD and Parky on Fulham High Street just before 10am. I headed off to take a few photographs of the floral tributes and the mementoes left at the base of the large picture of Gianluca Vialli that had been moved from its usual position on the Shed Wall. This position is at the far left, position number one, and I have always like that. Many players have played more games and scored more goals for us, but very few have ever been as loved as Luca Vialli.

As I stopped by, my camera clicked a few times, but I then needed to stop all that and just be alone with my thoughts in silence. I adsmired the wreaths, the bouquets, the flowers. There were many Chelsea scarves and a few Italian flags. A woman approached and solemnly positioned a scarf on the floor. I noted a touching reference to the white vest that Dennis Wise aired after the 1997 FA Cup Semi-Final win against Wimbledon at Highbury imploring Luca to “cheer up” and this made me smile.

My eyes were moist in the biting winter air.

I met up with the usual suspects down at “The Eight Bells” at around 11am. There were the usual “Only Home Fans” signs back on the windows for this game.

Business as usual.

Unable and unwilling to share an alcoholic drink with PD, Parky, Rich and Matt, I took a leaf out of Andy and Kim’s book and got my kicks via a full English breakfast.

We left bang on 1pm, keen to witness all of the pre-match commemorations.

There were black and white photos of Luca on the way in. The match programme featured a lovely image of the man. Inside, many words were written about Luca.

I was in with half an hour to go before the 2pm kick-off and Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” was played again. I spotted all of the Chelsea players – split into the starting eleven and the substitutes – wearing black tops with “Vialli 9” printed on the back, with the font used being the same as on the 1996/97 shirts, a nice touch indeed.

My mind wandered.

During the last few years of my mother’s life, as she battled dementia with a cheery smile, I got into the very enjoyable habit of attempting to stimulate her mind by using a Chelsea-based word association game :

I would say a first name, my mother would add a surname.

“Ron”…”Harris.”

“Peter”…”Osgood.”

“Pat”…”Nevin.”

“Frank”…”Lampard.”

“Gianluca”…””Vialli.”

“Gianfranco”…”Zolo” (always Zolo, God that made me chuckle.)

I had a wistful smile to myself. Mum never got Luca’s name wrong.

We had been advised to be in for 1.40pm when some former team mates would honour Gianluca Vialli. Well, that time passed with no on-field ceremony and I wondered if it had all happened earlier.

Some chap appeared on the pitch with a microphone and he spoke briefly about Gianluca Vialli, and then asked us to – ugh – “make some noise!!!” (with exclamation marks no doubt!!!) and the Matthew Harding quickly responded.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

But then, what a mood killer, the PA blasted this into oblivion with “Park Life” by Blur. This was then followed by “Liquidator” and I grumbled away to myself. On a day of remembrance, it would have been lovely to have some silence ahead of the appearance of the teams with the supporters themselves being left to their own way of getting an atmosphere going.

Modern football, eh?

The teams appeared. We were shown a short video of Gianluca Vialli, with a nice voiceover.

“From the day you stepped through the door you set the standard at this club and captured our hearts.”

Goals and games were recounted, two goals against Liverpool in the Cup, one at Old Trafford, four goals at Barnsley, two goals at Tromso. The trophies came.

“Dreams came true under your management and you achieved your dream of becoming a Chelsea legend.”

Those incredible European nights were remembered.

“But above all Luca, you were a wonderful man. Charming, respectful, determined. You had a heart of gold that touched so many. Now our hearts are broken, but how lucky we were to have known you. Luca, we love you and we miss you.”

My eyes were moist again.

I wondered if Luca ever spotted my “Vinci Per Noi” banner that I took to many games from the summer of 1996 as our club became besotted with Italian footballers.

The Chelsea and Crystal Palace players made their way to the centre circle, solemnly followed by some former Chelsea players, of whom only Mark Hughes and David Lee did I immediately recognise.

Two large banners appeared at both ends of the stadium. The Chelsea players were each wearing “Vialli 9” training tops. A minute of applause was heartfelt, loud and respectful.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

It was suddenly time to think about football. I had missed the team announcements so as the game started I pieced it all together.

“Kepa in goal, looks like a three of the new boy Badiashile, Silva and Cholobah, Hall way out left, Ziyech way out right, a midfield pairing of the immobile Jorginho and the very mobile Gallagher, Mount and Carney supporting Havertz…no wait, Ziyech is too far forward, must be a back four then. No, they are too wide. Let’s see how it plays out.”

There were clear blue skies overhead.

Alas no Alan nor Clive with us today so PD and I stretched out.

The game began.

8 minutes – a subdued atmosphere. I wasn’t sure if this was because of the inherent sadness before the game, the nervousness about our recent play or the fact it was an early kick-off.

9 minutes – there was a rather half-hearted “Vialli” chant that really only got going in earnest thirty seconds into the all-important ninth minute. It dawned on me that Luca last played for us almost twenty-five years ago and I wondered if this was the reason. Are those that loved him in his prime now priced out of attending Stamford Bridge? Or was it indifference? I didn’t want to contemplate all of this.

12  minutes – some decent stuff from Lewis Hall in an advanced role on the left, with a keen readiness to power past his defender.

14 minutes – we enjoyed a decent little spell with Hakim Ziyech showing a willingness to get involved and shimmy down the right wing.

17 minutes – complete silence. The moment lasted for quite a few seconds. It shocked me. No shouts from the crowd. Nothing.

18 minutes – no goal threats at all thus far with Chelsea enjoying more of the ball, but then Palace went close at the far post.

19 minutes – a fine shot from Michael Olise was superbly saved by Kepa and then a “star jump” from Kepa foiled Tyrick Mitchell.

22 minutes – at last an audible “Carefree” sounded out from the Matthew Harding.

24 minutes – a bout of head tennis in the Palace penalty area was followed by a strong swipe at goal by Thiago Silva but not only did his shot go wide, an offside flag was raised too.

27 minutes – a well-worked foray down our right brought purrs from the crowd but Mason Mount shot weakly at Vicente Guaita.

30 minutes – we had dominated the game but the visitors had easily had the best few chances.

31 minutes – so quiet.

32 minutes – a great deep cross from Ziyech, but Kai Havertz’ slow looper dropped just over the bar.

39 minutes – another good advance from Conor Gallagher, the ball ending up with a shot from Hall that flew just wide.

45 minutes – Kepa was called into action to tip a strong header from Jeffrey Schlupp over the bar, and we then broke and had a couple of late chances on the Palace goal that sadly misfired.

Thankfully there were no boos at half-time and there was even a little applause. I turned to PD and mused on the game thus far…

“We’re playing well, the mood among the fans around us seems to be reasonable, but is that because our expectations are really at not a very high level? You have to say, all our players today, they’re doing alright but are any of them more than a…”

I paused briefly, wanting to say 6, I thought briefly of saying 7, but I went with my gut reaction and said…

“6” just as PD said “6” too.

At the break, new signing Mykhailo Mudryk appeared on the pitch, draped in a Ukraine flag.

“All these runners, we just need a playmaker to hit them” I moaned for the ninety-fifth time since Christmas.

The second-half began.

53 minutes – there was a fine shimmy under pressure and cushioned lay-off from Badiashile that reminded me so much of Frank Leboeuf in his prime. The debutant was impressing me.

55 minutes – a fine punch away by that man Kepa from Wilfred Zaha. That was four great saves at least.

56 minutes – a shot down below us from Havertz but it did not worry the Palace ‘keeper.

58 minutes – the loudest “Vialli! Vialli!” chant of the entire day. Phew.

63 minutes – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for Carney Chukwuemeka.

65 minutes – a corner down below me, some passes twixt Gallagher and Ziyech, a strong cross towards the penalty spot and my camera clicked as several Chelsea players jumped. The ball flew goal wards and the net rippled. There followed a run of relief to the corner flag and by the time Havertz had been swamped by team mates, the MHL was bellowing “Vialli! Vialli!” The header was a downward dab that Luca would have been proud.

66 minutes – Alan and I exchanged “THTCAUN” and “COMLD” via Whatsapp.

69 minutes – Dennis Wise, San Siro, you know the song.

70 minutes – a fine forward pass – honest, I saw it – from Jorginho set up Aubameyang but he was foiled by Guaita’s advance.

74 minutes – Hall set up Aubameyang but a shot was blocked.

75 minutes – the left-back went down with yet another injury to hit us. He was replaced by Kalidou Koulibaly.

80 minutes – a good free-kick was worked with the resulting cross being just too heavy for Havertz to connect.

81 minutes – a fucking superb block by Silva, what a man.

85 minutes – a superb diving save from Kepa thwarted Chieck Doucoure’s effort from way out.

89 minutes – Dave for Kai Havertz and Mateo Kovacic for Jorginho.

90 minutes – Palace continued to pile on the pressure with seemingly endless crosses coming in from their right. This was a nervous time, no doubt.

95 minutes – “Vialli! Vialli! Vialli! Vialli!”

96 minutes – a fine block from Trevoh Chaobah.

At the final whistle, I pointed with fore-fingers to the sky.

Phew.

A win for us.

A win for Luca.

A win for Chelsea.

We were OK; in fact, more than that, this was a better performance than in the recent run of games, but there is such a long way to go during this campaign. The match against Palace was our nineteenth league game of the season; only the half-way stage.

But a win is a win is a win.

And talking of wins…

Forty years ago to the day – Saturday 15 January 1983 – in addition to lamenting the recent news about the break-up of Stiff Little Fingers on the previous Thursday and after withdrawing my applications to several universities on the Friday, I was elated that Chelsea had defeated Cambridge United 6-0 at Stamford Bridge. The goal scorers were Mike Fillery with two, Joey Jones, John Bumstead, Alan Mayes and an own goal. The gate however was a disappointing 7,808.

In 1983, all was doom and gloom at Chelsea and SLF were no more.

I need not have worried. Last year, Chelsea were crowned World Champions and I saw SLF play a gig in my home town of Frome.

Next, Anfield.

I’ll see you up there.

Tales From Home And Away

Fulham vs. Chelsea : 12 January 2023.

When I was driving home from Manchester City on Sunday evening, mid-way through the packet of Fruit Pastilles maybe, I realised that I had acquired a sore throat. In these days of COVID and an apparently vigorous new ‘flu strain, I was obviously fearing the worst. As I drove on, I thankfully didn’t experience any other ‘flu or COVID symptoms, and in fact the sore throat thankfully lessened as time passed. It soon dawned on me that it was all due to the singing that I had done during the game at the Etihad Stadium. In a way, it made me happy, it comforted me. It confirmed that my appearance at the game had not been merely passive. It meant that I had been actively involved in cheering the boys on.

It often used to be like this.

Sore throats after football.

Often at work after games the previous day, I would be ridiculed for my first few utterances. But it was part of football back then.

Turn up. Have a beer. Pay your money at the turnstiles. Cheer the team on. And on. And on. And on.

I suspected that many Chelsea supporters were experiencing sore throats after Manchester. What a show of force and resilience that indeed was.

Top fucking marks.

Next up was a game at Craven Cottage, down in deepest SW6, against our nearest rivals Fulham. This was a game from September that was postponed due to the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and would now take place on a Thursday evening in January.

My alarm woke me at 4.45am. I was to work a “flexi” shift from 6am to 2pm, then drive up to London with Paul and Glenn, PD and Parky, P Diddy and Lord Parky, my match day companions for much of the last five years and beyond.  

During my shift at work I told a few football fans (sic) that I feared the result and that we’d lose. I may have said that I fancied Willian to score, just to rub it in. Fulham were faring well this season. This would not be an easy game. The previous evening, I had delved into the record books as I prepared some thoughts about what I should include in this edition of the blog. I knew that our recent record against Fulham – London’s oldest club – was excellent in recent times, but our dominance over them stretched back decades.

Since a 0-2 loss at Stamford Bridge in October 1979, we had played Fulham forty times across all competitions and lost just once. We had won our last seven games against Fulham. I saw all this domination and it made me gulp. Not only did I feel that a Fulham win was long-overdue I had a sixth sense of it happening later in the day. I explained these figures to a couple in the office and said “and I reckon tonight they will beat us for the second time” but their expressions suggested that I was being overly-dramatic.

I thought to myself…”mmm, they don’t know Chelsea like I do.”

I had pre-booked a JustSpace spot outside a flat in Putney, just south of the bridge. I made good time, the roads were relatively clear. I dropped PD and Parky outside “The Eight Bells” at around 4.45pm. My parking spot was from 5pm. I reached it at 5.05pm. I work in logistics.

Normally at Fulham – from memory, every time except once since 2004 – we drink at “The Duke’s Head” in Putney, but we would return to our local “The Eight Bells” on this occasion because it was just easy to meet others there to hand over tickets. We are pretty familiar with this particular spot now, the area both sides of the river, and as I donned my baseball cap – New York Yankees – and zipped up my rain jacket – Victorinox – it felt nice and secure as I walked north towards Fulham.

St. Mary’s Church was floodlit as I passed. The apartments at Putney Wharf were illuminated blue – pretty sure David Luiz used to reside here – and Putney Bridge itself was floodlit too. Craven Cottage was hiding behind a slight bend in the river.

I would soon be in the warmth of “The Eight Bells”, our home away from home at Chelsea, er Fulham – the borough, not the football club, confusing isn’t it? – the past four years. I always presumed that the pubs in this neck of the woods were Fulham pubs on their match days, but the landlady recently confirmed that the three nearest boozers nearest Putney Bridge – the tube station, not the bridge, confusing isn’t it? – were designated as “away” pubs. Thus, “The Eight Bells”, “The Temperance” and “The King’s Arms” were all Chelsea pubs on this night.

I reached the pub just at 5.20pm. It seemed odd, I must admit, to see an “Only Away Fans” sign on a window. It was crowded, lots of the younger element, virtually no colours, all Chelsea. PD and Parky were sat close to our usual table with a few other friends. As I squeezed out at 6.30pm to hand over tickets, a young chap entered and exclaimed “small, innit?” and I replied “and getting smaller.” There was no space anywhere.

The mood in the pub was mainly boisterous with a few songs being aired. For once, I wanted to reach Craven Cottage in plenty of time. It is usually a struggle to reach kick-off time due to the comforts of “The Duke’s Head” and a slightly optimistic guess of how long it takes to walk through Bishop’s Park. On this particular evening, it was just a few hundred yards less than a mile. As we walked through the park, the bright floodlights came into view to the north and I could not resist stopping to take a few atmospheric photographs of the gnarled silhouetted trees and the gnarled masses walking purposefully to the match.

The area outside the away turnstiles is by far the best part of Craven Cottage and, along with the narrow street adjacent to the main stand at Goodison, is my favourite away day location for photographs and ambiance. The red brick, the signage, the historic cottage itself, the hawkers, the Haynes statue, the floodlights. It’s magical but, I guess, in only a way that a football fancier would really appreciate.

This spot is the definition of the phrase “Fulhamish.”

I was in at around 7.20pm. I spoke with a few friends and some – the fools – thought that we would win. My mouth went dry and I found it hard to answer their obvious optimism.

This was my first visit since March 2019, a 2-1 win. Since then, Fulham have been relegated, promoted to a COVID-hit season, relegated and promoted again. They are the ultimate “yo yo” team, or if their much-derided middle class support might say, a “yah yah” team (Peter York, 1981, thanks for that.)

At last the new Riverside Stand is functional for match days, if not fully. I have been keeping tabs on its slow progress for years. On this night, the lower section and the outer flanks of the upper tier were able to be used.

My mate Nick, born in Battersea, called over to say that he saw his first-ever game here, back in the ‘fifties, when many Chelsea supporters used to pop over to Craven Cottage when we were away. Joe Cole and Gary Cahill, with huge BT Sport mics, walked past and were serenaded.

It was announced that our new loan signing Joao Felix was starting.

Kepa

Chalobah  – Silva – Koulibaly

Dave – Kovacic – Zakaria – Hall

Mount – Havertz – Felix

Chelsea in those crappy Tottenham navy socks. Why?

Willian was starting for the home team.

PD and Parky made it in just before the game began, PD having trouble getting in on a ticket that initially appeared to be null and void. There were six of us squeezed into five spaces; PD, Parky, John, Gal and Al, with me somewhere in the middle. It was our version of a high press.

Fair play to Fulham. As with Manchester City, they honoured the memory of Gianluca Vialli before the game – there was a minute of applause – and I thank them for that. Previously dry, the evening’s only rain thankfully came and went very soon into the game.

It felt odd to be attacking the Putney End in the first period.

We started so well, with Joao Felix involved in most of our attacking thoughts. He had started the game so positively and his touch and urgency shone like a beacon in those first moments of the game. I counted three efforts on goal in the opening fifteen minutes alone. He also drew fouls from two separate Fulham players who were both booked. This was some debut. Shots from him, and others, flew at the Fulham goal.

Halfway through the first-half, this was an open game, and the Chelsea crowd were buoyant.

As with Cucarella at Goodison Park, though, I was a little picky with a song for the Portuguese signing being aired so soon in his Chelsea career. Others wait years.

“He came from Portugal. He hates the Arsenal.”

This was a remake of the Tiago chant from 2004; I suppose it is better than nothing. There is no doubt that Felix was the spark in our team and it was so good to see a player with a constant willingness to go forward. It was a jolt to our system. Other players – I am talking about you Mount, Ziyech, Havertz, Pulisic – must have looked on and thought “oh yeah I remember now.”

We had enjoyed most of the attacks on goal. Fulham had been neat but mainly on the defensive, with only an occasional attack worthy of the name.

Out of nowhere, a shot from Bobby Decordova-Reid smashed against our bar. Soon after, on twenty-four minutes, Willian wriggled inside the box and I spoke to John next to me.

“You know he’s going to bend one in, there you go.”

Sadly, I had a premonition about a Willian goal before the match but found myself calling the goal in real time too. It is a habit that I need to get out of. Maybe I should stay stony silent all game.

Willian wheeled away but did not celebrate. Top man.

Soon after, my phone lit up with images of myself being featured on BT’s coverage of the game.

I looked depressed, eh?

We kept attacking with shots from Felix, again, and Hall causing concern for Bernd Leno in the Fulham goal.

There was a piece of sublime skill from Thiago Silva towards the end of the first-half, a cushioned caress of the ball and a prod to safety, that only I seemed to spot. In the ‘eighties, it would have drawn applause, I am sure, from everyone in our end.

Late on in the half, a shot from Dave was deflected over after good combination play involving the new man Felix and a seemingly revitalised Havertz, and then Havertz set up Felix – yet again – but his shot was blocked from my view by a bloke in front of me. I had not got a clue how it avoided the goal.

So, the first-half, Chelsea with decent attacking, five efforts or so from Felix, but we looked naïve at the back. Grumbles at the break? Oh yes.

In that chat about Chelsea’s fortunes at work during the day, a work colleague had mentioned that someone on “Talk Sport” had mentioned that Chelsea were third out of three in the “West London League” and I mentioned that we were bottom of the same league in 1982/83 too.

Right, 1982/83, let’s go.

On Wednesday 12 January – forty years ago exactly – Chelsea played Huddersfield Town in an FA Cup third round replay at Stamford Bridge, just a mile and a half away from the current location of Chelsea Football Club’s first team. We won 2-0 with two late goals from John Bumstead, who didn’t get many, and Mike Fillery, who got more, in a match watched by a decent enough gate of 14.417. My diary that evening was surprisingly gung-ho, predicting that we would go to Derby County in the next round and win. I must have been light-headed and delirious.

Two minutes into the second-half at Craven Cottage in 2023, I captured the lone figure of Mason Mount taking aim with a free-kick against the backdrop of the inhabitants of the Hammersmith End. I watched the ball sweep goal wards. There was a mighty kerfuffle in the six-yard box as there appeared to be a save, a shot, a save, but then a goal given. I had no idea if the ball had crossed the line directly from Mount or via another player.

We were level.

I looked over to spot Alan’s face, a picture of determination and involvement. Loved that.

The Chelsea choir were suddenly in a playful mood.

“We are staying up. Say we are staying up.”

Sadly, Denis Zakaria fell to the floor in front of the dugouts and looked in considerable pain. He would play no more and was replaced by the less-than-appetising sight of Jorge Luiz Frello Filho, who currently has more names than fans at Chelsea right now. Zakaria – yet another injury, we must be experiencing our worst-ever run – looked utterly dejected as he limped around the pitch.

Worse was to come. Barely a minute or so after, Kalidou Koulibaly struck a firm ball at Felix’ upper body – “fuck was that?” – and the Portuguese player lost control. In attempting to rob Kenny Tete, he scythed him down, and a red looked likely.

Yes, a straight red.

A debut to remember for Joao Felix.

Collective brains whirled back forty years.

Chris : “Al, didn’t Joey Jones get sent off in his first game in 1982?”

Al : “Yes mate, Carlisle away.”

A little later.

Rob : “I bet Joey Jones didn’t have six shots on goal before he got sent off at Carlisle.”

Now we were up against it alright. A man down, I really wondered where our attacks would originate. But we kept going. There was a chance for Havertz breaking on the left but his shot was somehow blocked by Leno.

On seventy-three minutes, the former Manchester United winger Anders Pereira sent over a teasing cross that had Kepa beaten all ends up.

More commentary from me : “Kepa’s nowhere.”

Our ‘keeper came but misjudged the flight of the ball completely, leaving Carlos Vinicius to head into an empty net.

The vitriol aimed at Kepa was intense.

Immediately after, the away end sent out the equivalent of a “thumbs down” to the current ownership.

A Roman thumb, if you will.

“Roman Abramovich. Roman Abramovich.”

At the break, I had moaned to a friend who was standing behind me that I honestly wondered if the new owners have a clue about football. There are certain aspects about this new lot that shouts desperation. And maybe naivety too. Hopefully the season will improve and I will be completely wrong.

Then, a chant that has been heard sporadically over the years.

“We want our Chelsea back.”

I wondered which Chelsea this was.

The 1905 to 1954 Chelsea that won fuck all?

The 1971 to 1996 Chelsea that won fuck all?

Or maybe just the last twenty years of Chelsea that have won rather a lot?

Regardless, the mood in the Putney End was a feral one now, with shouts and chants raining down from behind. But amidst all of this, “Three Little Birds” made a very surprising appearance.

“Don’t worry about a thing ‘cus every little thing is gonna be alright.”

On seventy-nine minutes, Graham Potter changed things.

Carney Chukwuemeka for Chalobah.

Conor Gallagher for Kovacic.

Marc Cucarella for Hall.

Then, just after.

Hakim Ziyech for Mount.

We conjured up a couple of late chances for Havertz, but I think it is safe to say it was no surprise that we could not find the net.

For Fulham, our former player Nathaniel Chalobah came on in the last few seconds, thus missing his brother by around twenty minutes.

The final whistle blew.

Fulham 2 Chelsea 1.

I had sadly been right all along.

There were boos at the end, not from many, but from enough to make themselves heard.

“You’re not fit to wear the shirt.”

I was inwardly grimacing.

I’m still not a fan of booing after all these years.

At the end, I was keen to race back to my car. Both PD and Parky had struggled with walking the mile to the game and I did not want them to have to walk a mile and a half back to the car. I tried to leave quickly. I wasn’t able to pay too much attention to the interaction between players and our supporters. I was aware that a stern faced Mason Mount had the balls to come over to face the ire of some of our support. I believe, from comments that I would later hear, only Silva and Dave joined him. Many of my fellow supporters were yelling abuse, indiscriminately, though just as may were clapping the players off.

To boo or not to boo?

To clap or not to clap?

Answers on a postcard.

I raced back to Putney, walking close to the icy chill coming off the river. Walking over Putney Bridge, I overheard a middle-aged chap say to his friend :

“I guess I have seen some players down here over the years, but I think Willian is the best I have seen.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I thought back to Fulham’s last win against us, in March 2006, and walking over the exact same bridge, surrounded by jubilant Fulham fans – more so than in 2023 – and the memories were strong. Jose Mourinho oddly took off both Shawn Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole on just twenty-six minutes. Luis Boa Morte – who I had spotted on the touchline during the evening’s game, now a coach at Fulham – gave the home team their first win against us in twenty-seven years. Thankfully, the loss didn’t stop us winning the league in 2005/6.

Our eventual fate in 2022/23 is not certain.

My parking slot was to end at 10.30pm. I reached my car at 10.25pm. I work in logistics.

My car was pointed north once more, and I headed over Putney Bridge for the second time of the day. What a strange old evening it had been. An evening at home, but away, in this little part of SW6. Within ten minutes, I was able to park up on Finlay Road as it cut across Fulham Palace Road. PD and Parky soon found me. I edged up towards the A4 and we were away.

It had been an eventful evening for sure. What with the sending-off for Felix, the injury to Zakaria, the Kepa miss-hap, and the ultimate defeat, contrasting chants in the away end, it had been a typically chaotic Chelsea night of pain. There were half-serious concerns about relegation – “no, we have too much quality” – and I openly question those who yearn for a year in the second tier (mainly to flush out certain demographics in our support it seems) because as many clubs have seen over the years, promotion is never guaranteed.

Well, promotion is never guaranteed unless your name is Fulham – but not necessarily for all clubs that play in Fulham, confusing isn’t it? – of course. Those buggers seem to get promoted at every opportunity.

I eventually reached home at 1.30am, but I am never the best for dropping off to sleep straight away. It was while I was at home in the small hours that I learned that our scorer was given as Kalidou Koulibaly. I would eventually drop off to sleep at 3am.

4.45am to 3am.

It had been a fucking long day.

On Sunday, we head back to SW6 for a home game with Crystal Palace with the “Eight Bells” as a home pub once again.

See you there.

Tales From A Huge Loss

Manchester City vs.Chelsea : 8 January 2023.

I have feared that I might have to write this particular match report for a while. Ever since we heard that Gianluca Vialli had left his post with the Italian Football Federation, and was then re-admitted to the Royal Marsden Hospital before Christmas, many of us suspected the worst. Alas, on the Friday morning after our home game with Manchester City, the saddest of news broke.

Gianluca Vialli had died.

I was told the news by a work colleague in our office. I put my hands to my face and sat silent for a few moments.

This was just horrible, horrible news.

I had mentioned Luca only a few days previously in my match report for the Nottingham Forest game; that memory from almost twenty-four years ago, a crowded car-park, a photograph, an autograph, the perfect gent.

In fact, I was rather sparing with my comments about Gianluca Vialli in that report. I sensed that he didn’t have long to live. Pancreatic cancer is an obstinate foe. I erred away from saying too much about the former Chelsea player and manager. I’ll be blunt; I didn’t want to tempt fate.

That I mentioned Gianluca Vialli, though, in my last match report written while he was alive seems right.

And it also seems right that the great man took his last breath in a hospital on Fulham Road, just a few hundred yards from Stamford Bridge.

Luca, how we will miss you.

Being a big fan of Italian football in the ‘eighties, I was aware of the curly-haired striker playing for Sampdoria of Genoa, and watched with interest as he took part in the European Championships of 1988 and the World Cup of 1990. The blues of Sampdoria, with Vialli the leading scorer, won their first and only title in 1991. My first actual sighting of the man took place when I travelled to Turin in May 1992 to see Juventus and Sampdoria eke out a 0-0 draw at the Stadio Delle Alpi. Sampdoria were only a few weeks away from a European Cup Final with Barcelona at Wembley and so put in a rather conservative performance.

Not long after the loss to Barcelona, Vialli moved to Juventus for a world record £12.5M. With Juve being my favourite European team, and with Italian football being shown that season on Channel Four for the first time, I was able to keep tabs on both the progress of him and the team. In 1995, Juve won their first Italian Championship since 1986. In late 1995, I saw Vialli play for Juventus at Ibrox against Rangers in a Champions League group phase game; the visitors won 4-0, with Vialli the captain, and a certain Antonio Conte playing too. I watched in the Broomloan Stand, in a home section, but very close to the travelling away support. The Italians were on fire that night.

At the end of that season, I watched the European Cup Final in a bar in Manhattan as Juventus beat Ajax on penalties in Rome. Just over a week later, I was over on the West Coast – I remember the location, Gaviota State Park – when a ‘phone call home resulted in me learning that Gianluca Vialli had signed for Chelsea.

It truly felt that the stars were aligning.

Gianluca Vialli was to play for Chelsea. Just writing those words twenty-six years or so later still gives me goose bumps.

Of course, that 1996/97 season has gone down in Chelsea folklore for both happy and sad reasons. In addition to Vialli, the summer of 1996 brought new signings Roberto di Matteo and Frank Leboeuf to augment the previous summer’s purchases of Ruud Gullit and Mark Hughes. Our Chelsea team was certainly looking like it could seriously challenge for honours. But first, tragedy, and the death of director Matthew Harding. We all wondered if this would redirect the club’s focus, but not long after, Ruud Gullit signed another top-ranked Italian Gianfranco Zola, and the rest is history.

Ironically, we were stumbling a little before Zola signed. Looking back, I think it is fair to say that Hughes and Vialli were a little too similar in many aspects of their game, and it was the addition of Zola, a play-maker in addition to being a goal scorer, that allowed the team to reach its full potential. Manager Gullit certainly jiggled line-ups around to accommodate all three strikers, and on one memorable occasion, we were able to witness Chelsea alchemy of the very highest order.

Losing 0-2 at half-time at home to Liverpool in the Third Round of the FA Cup in January 1997, Gullit brought on Mark Hughes in place of Scott Minto and the triumvirate of Vialli, Zola and Hughes caused havoc in a scintillating second forty-five minutes. A swivel and turn from Sparky on fifty minutes, a delicious Zola free-kick eight minutes later, then two from Vialli on sixty-three and seventy-six minutes. Stamford Bridge was buzzing and we didn’t want the game to end. It is many Chelsea supporters’ favourite ever game. It often gets mentioned here and I do not apologise for it.

Of course we went on to win the FA Cup Final in the May of that year, our first trophy since 1971, and the appearance of Gianluca Vialli as a very late substitute for Zola resulted in the whole end yelling the great man’s name.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

Things never stay the same, though, at Chelsea and before we knew it, Ken Bates had dismissed Ruud Gullit after just a year and a half in charge, and chose Vialli to take on the role of player-manager. I’ll be honest, I was a little concerned, but I need not have been. In a glorious period supporting my team, Vialli won the 1998 League Cup, the 1998 ECWC, the 1998 UEFA Super Cup, the 2000 FA Cup and the 2000 Community Shield.

There has been greater success since, but I absolutely loved the vibe around the club from 1996 to 2000 – “the Vialli years” –  and it is probably my favourite period supporting the club, although as a one-off season 1983/84 will never be beaten.

We came so close in 1998/99, only trailing eventual champions Manchester United by four points, but finishing third. If only we had won and not drawn our two games against United, we would have been champions, and the barbs aimed at us in 2005 would have been less prolific.

There was a lovely mix of characters at Chelsea in that era. We played some superb football at times. Ruud called it “sexy”, but I think under Vialli it became a little “cheeky” with a mix of expansive football, quick breaks, rapid-fire passing, with quality everywhere. What do I mean by “cheeky”? Think back to October 1999, Chelsea beating Manchester United 5-0, with Wisey winding up Nicky Butt. That’s what I mean.

There was style and swagger, those two Chelsea cornerstones.

As a player, I loved Vialli’s power, technique, movement, work ethic and goal scoring prowess.

As a manager, I loved his cheerfulness, his honesty, his diligence, the way he called the players his “chaps.”

I loved his big Italian tie, his sweatband, his grey pullover, his penchant for wearing a watch over his cuffs.

I’ll admit it.

He was a man’s man.

We all loved him.

Again, Chelsea being Chelsea, nothing stays the same and amidst rumours of player power, Ken Bates sacked Vialli as manager in September 2000.

I had seen the great man’s first game as a Chelsea player at Southampton in 1996 and I had seen his last game as manager at Newcastle in 2000.

Thank you Luca. We had a blast.

Vialli – I believe – continued to live in London after his departure and also had season tickets at Stamford Bridge for some, if not all, of the subsequent years. In doing a little research for this edition, I was able to plunder some photographs from a midweek game at Stamford Bridge against West Bromwich Albion on 12 February 2018. At halftime, Neil Barnett paraded three stars from the late ‘nineties and it was a glorious occasion.

My eyes were set on Gianluca Vialli. I am pretty sure it was the first time that I had seen him since he left us in 2000.

My match report from that night is called “Tales From The Class Of ‘98” and features these words.

“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 season of our 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 those players.

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.”

As I looked at other photos from that evening, I gulped when I saw a photo of my friend Glenn and little old me in the hotel before the game with Ray Wilkins, who would pass away less than two months later. That night took on a new resonance for me.

Going in to the FA Cup tie at Manchester City, the focus in my mind shifted. Rather than get obsessed, and down-hearted, about a potentially tough game I realised that the whole day was now about being one of the lucky ones to be able to share our collective love for a much-respected footballer and, above all, man.

And the tributes poured in on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Not one soul said anything negative about Gianluca Vialli. He was truly loved, so loved.

Sunday arrived and I collected PD and LP and a long day lay ahead. I set off from home at just before 9am. By 12.30pm, we were ordering three roast beef Sunday lunches at “The Windmill” pub at the Tabley interchange off the M6. Two hours were spent thinking a little about the game later that afternoon but also about our recent sad loss.

My 1982/83 retrospective features, fittingly, an FA Cup game. On Saturday 8 January 1983 – forty years ago to the day – we played Huddersfield Town from the Third Division at Leeds Road. We eked out a 1-1 draw with much-maligned striker Alan Mayes equalising in the second-half. The gate was a very decent 17,064, which came just after a season-leading gate of 18,438 for a home derby with Bradford City. In those days, FA Cup Third Round gates would often be the largest of the season for many clubs, barring local derbies such as this one. I miss those days when “the Cup” was truly special.

It took the best part of an hour to reach the stadium. The expected rain hadn’t really amounted to much, but on the slow drive past City’s old stomping ground and other familiar sights, the bright winter sun reflected strikingly on the steel of new buildings and the red brick of old. In the distance, dark moody clouds loomed ominously. The quality of light was spectacular.

I dropped off PD and LP outside the away end at around 3.30pm and soon parked up. I made my way over the long footbridge that links the smaller City stadium to the main one. I had previously made a mistake in saying that I had seen only Arsenal at seven stadia. Manchester City tie that record; Stamford Bridge, Maine Road, Wembley, The Etihad, Villa Park, Yankee Stadium, Estadio Dragao. If you count the old Wembley and the new Wembley separately, they take the lead with eight.

Another bloody trophy for them.

As soon as I reached the concourse at Level Three – the top tier – there were shouts for “Vialli.”

I have to say that our support for this game blew my socks off. I originally thought that with the game taking place at 4.30pm on a Sunday, and on the back of us taking over 5,000 to the stadium for a League Cup tie in November, there would be no way that we would sell our allocation of 7,500 tickets.

But sell them we did.

Absolutely fantastic.

I was stood alongside LP in the middle of the top tier, alongside Rob, in front of Pete, close to the Two Ronnies, while PD was in the middle tier. I was just glad to be watching from a different part of the South Stand and to not have hundreds of locals jabbering away at us all game long.

The place filled up. My ticket cost just £25, a good deal.

The team was announced.

Kepa

Chalobah – Humphreys – Koulibaly – Hall

Gallagher – Jorginho – Kovacic

Ziyech – Havertz – Mount

And some new names on the bench too.

City? A mixture of youth and experience, no Haaland.

So, a debut from Graham Potter for young Bashir Humphreys.

Shall I do the inevitable line about the manager asking if he was “free” for the game on Sunday?

Nah.

Kick-off approached, the players took to the field, I soon noted the players assembling on the centre circle.

“Ah, fair play City.”

There was an announcement from a voice saying that “Manchester City was sad to hear…” but I then lost the rest of the message as the Chelsea end applauded and sang.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

There were images of Luca on the two corner screens; black and white images, that cheeky smile.

Bless him.

It is a mark of how I assumed that we would perform in this match that I thought that, all things considered, we had a pretty decent start to the game. Both teams began brightly. But on each of our rare forays into the City half (is it me, or does the City pitch look huge?) we quickly ran out of steam, with no target man to hit.

On nine minutes – as requested – the 7,500 strong away army chanted again.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

Not too long after, a mightily impressive “OMWTM” rang out and I liked the fact that a few old school types sat down at around the “eight” mark. It always was better when we all got up on ten.

The City fans must have looked on in awe.

They then had the audacity to sing “YSIFS” and I groaned.

I wondered if the fixture was reversed and there was a 4.30pm kick-off in London, how many City would come down? Not 7,500 I am sure. In the FA Cup of 2015/16, City had brought barely 2,500 down to London on Sunday 21 February. Get my point?

On the pitch, City gained the upper hand.

After twenty-three minutes played, Rob and I were worried about a City free-kick about twenty-five yards out.

Me : “I don’t like this.”

Rob : “Especially Mahrez.”

Me : “There you go. Great goal.”

Sigh.

I will be honest, I didn’t see the handball from Kai Havertz that led to a VAR decision going City’s way not long after. Julian Alvarez struck from the resultant penalty.

In the back of mind : “at least we won’t suffer the ignominy of losing four consecutive FA Cup Finals this year.”

Sigh.

Chelsea were now chasing shadows.

On thirty-eight minutes, I saw a move cut its way through our defence.

“Oh that’s too easy.”

Phil Foden pushed the ball in from close range.

Game over.

Sadly, many Chelsea fans upped and left. This was my worst nightmare; our away end full of empty seats on national television. At the break, my friend Su from Los Angeles, made her way down to watch the rest of the game with Rob, LP and me.

“It’s character building this. By the time I see you again, you will be twice the woman you are now.”

It could have been more. We were awful and in so many different ways. I felt so sorry for the debutant Humphreys, who must have wished that he was needed in haberdashery or to look after Mrs. Slocombe’s pussy.

At the break, changes.

Denis Zakaria for Kovacic, surprisingly poor.

David Datro Fofana for Ziyech, truly awful.

But there were other appearances too, and my heart began to swell. Virtually all of the Chelsea supporters that had left after the third goal thankfully returned. Unbelievable stuff. Well done each and every one of you.

Proper Chelsea.

Good God, on fifty-five minutes Mason Mount shot at goal, deflecting wide, and I even caught the bugger on film.

On sixty-three minutes, more changes.

Omari Hutchinson for the ever dreadful Ziyech.

Carney Chukwuemeka for Mount.

Hutchinson showed a lot more confidence than on his meek appearance on Thursday. The new Fofana looked decent too.

On seventy-three minutes, another change.

Azpilicueta for Jorginho, the slow-moving and irksome irritant.

I found it hard to focus on anything really. The game seemed an irrelevance. The four of us kept our spirits up with gallows humour. Around us, there were loud songs for Thomas Tuchel and Roman Abramovich.

With five minutes to go, a foul by Kalidou Koulibaly gave City their second penalty of the game.

Manchester City 4 Chelsea 0.

Sigh.

With that, an exodus started but we stayed to the final whistle.

It was, in the end, all rather predictable. However, the mood in the away end was defiant throughout. The shouts in memory of Vialli were loud, and sung with passion, while there was anger and frustration at the current regime.

We left.

A chap with his daughter remained upbeat and suggested a surreal ending to this season and a very strange one in 2023/24.

“We win the Champions League but get relegated this season.”

“Ha” I replied…

”Real Madrid and Bristol City one week, Juventus and Rotherham United the next. Love it.”

On the walk back at our car I overheard a woman – a local City fan – talking to her husband and daughter.

“City fans singing about Chelsea’s support being effing shit…well, it wasn’t was it?”

“Thanks” I said.

She smiled.

I made good time as I wriggled out of the city.

How long did it take me?

“A pasty, two small Double Deckers and half a packet of Fruit Pastilles.”

The rain stayed away as I drove south and I made good time. We didn’t dwell too much on the defeat. But it certainly felt as if we were now supporting a different team and club, almost unrecognisable in fact. And that is not good.

As the reaction to another defeat hit social media, I was reminded that this was our first exit in the Third Round of the FA Cup since that shocking 3-5 defeat by Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in January 1998; our first game since 1970 as FA Cup holders. We were 0-5 down at one stage. But I still loved that 1996 to 2000 team. Oh for some of that spirit in 2023.

I reached home at 11.15pm. It had been a long, emotional, and sad day.

Next up, a local derby at Craven Cottage. See you there.