Tales From Three Stadia In Turin / Racconti Da Tre Stadi Di Torino

Juventus vs. Chelsea : 29 September 2021.

Are you ready to go to the match with me?

“Let’s go. Andiamo!”

It was just after four o’clock. This was a full five hours before the Juventus vs. Chelsea game was due to start at the Allianz Stadium in Continassa to the north of Turin’s city centre. But I was heading south. I had decided that I would undertake a magical mystery tour of the city’s footballing past before our second Champions League game of the autumn. I was ready to immerse myself once more in the city’s footballing heritage and in my football history too. I had sorted out the timings. I was sure it would all work itself out. I would have five hours to soak myself inside Turin’s story.

I was ready.

There was no need for a jacket or top. The weather in the Northern Italian city had been exemplary, a surprising antidote to the increasingly changeable weather back home. I set off out into the warm afternoon wearing the football staples of a polo, a pair of jeans and trainers. In my camera bag, in addition to my Canon SLR and lenses, was the small Sony camera that I had purchased specifically for Porto in May, just in case the stewards at the Juventus stadium were overzealous and would decide that my long lenses were unable to be taken inside. Also inside the bag was my passport, my match ticket and my proof of two vaccinations against COVID19.

My hotel was tucked into the narrow grid of streets to the immediate south and east of Turin’s Porta Nuova train station, and I walked a few hundred yards to the Marconi tube station. The city’s one tube line would serve me well. I caught the train to Lingotto, the site of the famous old Fiat factory with its test-track on the roof, so memorably featured in the wonderful “The Italian Job” from 1969. On my last visit to Turin in 2012, I had enjoyed a very fine meal at the rather posh restaurant on the roof terrace, and had walked around the test-track, a life-time wish fulfilled.

Lingotto was the nearest metro station to my first footballing port of call; Stadio Filadelfia which was around a mile or so to the west. However, when I checked the quickest way to reach this famous old stadium, I was mortified to see that there was no quick walking route from Lingotto.

Bollocks.

It was perhaps typical that my plans had quickly taken a turn for the worse. In the build-up to this away game, there had been much anxiety as I struggled to come to terms with what exactly I needed to do to get myself to Italy. There had been tests, forms, emails, pdf attachments, vouchers, and stress at every turn. For example, when I sat down to take my “pre-flight” lateral flow test at home on the preceding Sunday, I discovered that the liquid within the vial had leaked in transit and so I had to use the kit intended to be used in Turin for my flight home. This would mean that I would need to locate a chemist’s near my hotel to take my second test. What a palaver. Even on the seemingly straightforward drive from deepest Somerset to Stansted in the small hours of Tuesday, there was extra worry. With many garages short of fuel, I became obsessed at how fast my fuel gauge was fading. I was sure that I was OK for the trip to Stansted, but I needed to fill the car with petrol in readiness for my return trip on Friday evening. Four filling stations on the A303 had no fuel. Thankfully, Fleet Services on the M3 were open and fully stocked. There was a heavy sigh of relief. With a section of the M25 closed, I then ludicrously spent twenty minutes following diversion signs that then deposited me back to where I had left the M25 and I found myself heading west and not east. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Thankfully, I arrived at my pre-booked parking spot bang on my allotted start time of 4.45am.

Phew.

Undeterred, I returned to the Lingotto subway station and quickly took a train north – retracing my very recent steps – to Carducci Molinette. From here, the stadium was around a twenty-five-minute walk away. I made haste and sped westwards. My route took me over a wide bridge that rose over the train tracks into the city’s main station.

It was along these very tracks that I would have travelled on my inaugural visit to Turin in November 1987, the city bathed in a grey mist that would not disappear all day. I remember sitting alone in the great hall of the main train station and pinning some British football badges onto a board that I had constructed at home prior to my latest Inter-Railing extravaganza. I had bought several hundred football badges from a company in Blackburn and aimed to sell as many as I could at games in Italy and Germany to help finance my travels in Europe. The Juventus vs. Panathinaikos UEFA Cup game later that evening would be my first opportunity to test the water. I had high hopes for this venture, and was equally as excited about seeing Juve, my favourite European team, for the first time.

Why Juve? A quick re-cap. They were the very first “foreign” team that I remembered seeing on TV, a European Cup game in exotic Turin against Derby County in April 1973. I made friends with Mario on an Italian beach in 1975; a Juventus fan, I had found a kindred spirit. In 1981, at the same beach resort, I met his friend Tullio, also a Juve fan. We have been friends ever since. I last saw Mario in that home town in 2019. I last saw Tullio in London in 2018. But these are just the essentials. Our three lives have intertwined for decades now.

As I walked south on Via Giordano Bruno, I stopped at a small shop to buy a “Coke” as my throat was parched. The previous day had been a long one; up at midnight, a flight at 6.45am, a tiring walk from Porta Sousa train station to my hotel, and then two spells of drinking, the second one long into the night with friends old and new at “The Huntsman” on the main drag. I was awake, in total, for around twenty-five hours. The “Coke” gave me just the kick I needed as I approached Stadio Filadelfia.

This stadium was the home of the all-conquering Torino team of the 1940’s, Il Grande Torino, who were so cruelly killed in the Superga air disaster of 4 May 1949. Growing up in England, I had heard Superga mentioned many times. At first I presumed that Superga was a small town near Turin where the plane, returning from a friendly in Lisbon, had crashed. Only later did I realise that Superga was a hill right on the eastern edge of the city. I then, with a mixture of amazement and horror, realised that the plane had crashed into the rear of a basilica perched right on top of that hill.

I always say it was akin to the successful Arsenal team of the ‘thirties crashing into Big Ben.

On the bus from the Turin airport at Caselle on Tuesday morning, I was telling this story to Pete, who along with my great pal Alan (and a host of other familiar Chelsea faces including a fanzine editor, an erstwhile Chelsea media man, a former Headhunter and a porn star) had been on the same Ryanair flight as myself. Just as I mentioned Superga – “you probably can’t see it in this haze” – Pete immediately spotted it away in the distance.

“Is that it?”

Indeed, it was.

As I approached the stadium, which has recently been painstakingly updated after decades of neglect, the memories of a previous visit to Turin came flooding back. In May 1992, three college friends – Pete, Ian, Trev – and I drove through France to attend a Juventus vs. Sampdoria game at Stadio Delle Alpi. On the day after the game, we drove up to Superga on the forty-third anniversary of the crash. We spent some time there. I remember I took my father’s new, and huge, camcorder on this trip and I shot a few segments of our visit. After, we drove down into Turin and parked up outside Stadio Filadelfia and hoped that we could peek inside. In 1992, the terracing on three sides were still intact, if very overgrown. The old main stand was held up with scaffolding. But we were able to walk onto the famous pitch and we even found a football to kick around for a few joyful minutes. The goal frames were still intact. Goals were scored at La Filadelfia. What fun. We then sat on the east terrace in quiet contemplation; Superga in another haze in the distance, the old Fiat factory nearby, the stadium still surrounded by tight working class flats on three of its sides. I imagined the roar of the crowd in those halcyon days. We took it all in.

Then, out of nowhere, we spotted two middle-aged women appear on the far side underneath the faded burgundy of the antiquated main stand. They were carrying two wreaths, and strode slowly on to the pitch, before stopping at the centre-circle to place the flowers on the turf.

It remains one of my most special football memories.

Torino played at Stadio Filadelfia from 1926 to 1960 and then shared the larger Stadio Communale with Juventus from 1961 to 1990. For many years, as the two teams hopped around stadia in the city, it was hoped that Torino would eventually return to their spiritual home. A while back, I was truly saddened to see it was in a very poor condition. So imagine my elation when I recently found out that a startling metamorphosis has taken place. A new main stand has been constructed, and a new pitch has been sewn. It now houses 4,000, and in addition to housing the club HQ, it also hosts the club museum and the team’s youth teams play games on this most sacred of sites.

As I circumnavigated the stadium, I remembered how decrepit the place had become. Its resurgence since 2015 has been sensational. I chatted to a Toro fan as I walked around and took some photographs. He was even wearing a burgundy – officially pomegranate – T-shirt and I thought to myself –

“You can’t get much more Toro than that.”

There is another Torino story, and one that tends to give the city an air of sadness in terms of football, and specifically with regards to the Torino club. I recently read the excellent “Calcio” book by John Foot. One chapter concerned the life and subsequent death of the Torino player, a real maverick, called Gigi Meroni. He joined Torino in 1964 and soon became the idol of the team’s supporters. A skilful and artistic ball-player in the style of George Best – a flamboyant playboy off the pitch, much admired by both sexes – he was out with a team mate after a Torino home game in 1967. Crossing the road near his flat on Corso Re Umberto, he was hit by two cars. He sadly died later in hospital. Bizarrely, the driver of the first car lived thirteen doors down from Meroni on that very street, and idolised Meroni, even adopting the same hairstyle. Over 20,000 people attended the funeral. In a bizarre twist, in 2000 the Torino club appointed a new president; a native of Turin, an executive at Fiat. His name was Attilio Romero, who just happened to be the driver of the first car that had hit Meroni in 1967. On my walk to my hotel on the previous day, I had stopped by the memorial on Corso Re Umberto to pay my respects. With the Juventus tragedy at Heysel haunting many in the city, Turin certainly has its share of sadness.

It was approaching 5pm now and I walked a few blocks west. Next up was Stadio Olimpico, formerly Stadio Communale, and the current home of Torino. The two stadia are only a quarter of a mile apart. I walked past a bar where two friends and I had visited in 1989. This was another trip into Turin for a Juventus game with college friends. We caught a bus down to have a mosey around the stadium on a sunny Saturday morning before the game with Fiorentina on the Sunday and spent a couple of hours chatting and drinking and basically enjoying each other’s company. I was twenty-three, we had just won the Second Division Championship, and I was off to the US in the September. At the time, it seemed like a dream weekend in the middle of a dream summer, and it does even more so now. Bob was Leeds, Pete was Newcastle, I was Chelsea. But for that weekend we were all Juventus. I remember we all bought Juventus polos in the ridiculously small Juve store within a central department store.

Memories were jumping around inside my head now. I walked along Via Filadelfia and the years evaporated.

On my first visit in 1987, I arrived outside the home turnstiles as thousands of Juventus fans were singing and chanting a full three hours before they made their way inside the preferred home end of the Curva Filadelfia. I set up shop outside and sold around thirty badges – Chelsea and Liverpool the best sellers – before then plotting up outside the Curva Maratona, selling a few more, then heading inside to see Ian Rush and Juventus defeat Panathinaikos 3-2, but sadly get eliminated due to away goals. I remember the pink flares before the game, I remember the noise of the passionate bianconeri, I remember I was positioned in the very back row of the Maratona, right next to the main stand, Gianni Agnelli and all. Antonio Conte’s right-hand man Angelo Alessio scored one of the three Juventus goals that evening. It is a night I will never forget, my first European night, and my first visit to the home of Juventus, a sprawling stadium with those iconic curved goal stanchions, and the team with those baggy white shorts.

I remembered March 1988 and the visit of Internazionale, their masses of fans packing out the Maratona, while I proudly stood on the Filadelfia for the first time. Two banners in the Maratona : “WIN FOR US” and “RUSH – YOUR WIFE IS FUCKING.” Juve won that game 1-0 with a Marino Magrin penalty.

A visit in November 1988, my first flight into Europe for football, and I watched with my friend Tullio on the distinti as Napoli – with Diego Maradona at the very heart of its team in light blue shirts – defeated Juventus by the ridiculous score of 5-3. Tullio, aware that his Napoli friend Giorgio was in the Maratona, memorably wanted to leave at half-time when the visitors were already 3-1 up.

The game against Fiorentina in 1989, and the memory of piles and piles of the magazine “Guerin Sportivo” lying at the base of the Curva Filedelfia, intended to be claimed by home fans and then torn up as the teams entered the pitch. Instead, I gathered three different copies to take away from the game and to add to my collection. In those days, I would often buy “La Gazzetta” in Bath or “Guerin Sportivo” in London to keep up-to-date with Italian football. In 1988/89, I could probably rattle off most starting elevens of the dominant teams in Italy. In 2021/22, I struggle with the starting elevens of the main English teams.

I guess I have seen too much.

Also from that game, Roberto Baggio, of Fiorentina, getting sent-off in a 1-1 draw, but also the 2,000 strong visiting Fiorentina fans leaving early, possibly to avoid an ambush or perhaps to carry out an ambush en route back to the main station.

As with the scene that greeted me in 1987, there was masses of graffiti adorning the wall opposite the turnstiles. In 2021, all football related, and undoubtedly inflammatory against certain teams. In 1987, graffiti of a more political nature; the names Pinochet and Hess hinted at the rumoured right-wing bias of some dominant Juve supporter groups.  The old adage was Juve, Lazio and Inter right, Torino, Roma and Milan left though those rules seem to have diluted and changed in the subsequent years.

I turned the corner and peaked inside at the main stand. From our 1992 visit, I remember the four of us had sidled into the Stadio Communale unhindered – our version of “The Italian Job” – and had scrambled over to the main stand as easy as you like. The stadium was deserted, it was used occasionally for athletics, and I remember I even spent a few minutes sitting in the old directors’ box, possibly the seat used by either the owner Agnelli or the president Giampiero Boniperti.

As I turned north, with the turnstiles to the Curva Maratona in view, I remembered my very last visit to the stadium, in March 2009, with Chelsea. As you can imagine, what with my Juventus side-line, the meeting of the two teams was pretty much my dream tie. I remember I had gambled on Bristol to Turin flights – £37 – and I well remember my old boss coming into a meeting one morning to tell me “Juventus” when the draw was made. My gamble had paid off. While the unloved Delle Alpi was being demolished and then the new Juventus Stadium rebuilt on the same site, both Turin teams decamped to their former home, now remodelled and upgraded for the 2006 Winter Olympics. Now with a roof, and a deeper distinti – but bizarrely looking smaller than the Communale – around 3,000 Chelsea loudly supported the boys on a fantastic evening in Turin, a 2-2 draw enough for us to advance on away goals. It was, indeed, the game of my life.

By the way, the Juventus manager that night? Claudio Ranieri. I wonder what happened to him.

It was now around 6.30pm and I needed to move on. But I liked the view of the Stadio Olimpico from the north. The marathon tower, which I believe was once known as the Mussolini Tower – the stadium was once known as Stadio Benito Mussolini – looks over the roofed stadium and there are huge sculptures by Tony Cragg, similar to those that I saw outside that wonderful art gallery in Baku in 2019. On my hurried walk back to Carducci Molinette – past joggers and cyclists and power-walkers, and folk practising tai-chi – I walked alongside a park that I remembered from my very first visit in 1987, saddened with Juventus’ exit from the UEFA Cup and not sure where – on what train – I would be sleeping that night.

Who would have possibly thought that thirty-four years later, I would be preparing myself for my third Juventus vs. Chelsea game of my life? Certainly not me. That season, Chelsea were relegated to Division Two.

We’ve come a long way baby.

And this was the crux of this whole trip. Despite this trip to Turin coming too soon in a COVID-confused autumn – the first away trip of the campaign – and with the pandemic still active throughout Europe, with all of the allied concerns and stresses, it was the lure of Chelsea playing Juventus that did it for me. I am not bothered about going to Malmo. A trip to St. Petersburg in December would be superb, but maybe too expensive and too “involved”. But Juventus? I just had to be there.

At around 7.10pm, I was headed into the city on the subway and the evening’s game was now in my sights. At every station, I expected more fans to join. But there were hardly any. Admittedly, the attendance would be clipped at around the 20,000 mark – we had allegedly sold 500 of our allotted 1,000 – but I just expected more fans to be on their way north. It was all very odd.

At around 7.30pm, I exited at Bernini station. Here, we had been told on the official Chelsea website, to take a shuttle bus to the stadium. Again, hardly any match-going fans were in the vicinity. The stadium was a good two and a half miles away. I began to worry. What if there was no bus? I toured around all points of the compass and eventually spotted a few likely match-goers at a bus stop. Phew. The bus took maybe twenty-five minutes to finally reach the stadium. Three young Chelsea lads in full replica-shirt regalia were sat close by.

Too noisy. Too full of it. Too eager. Too annoying.

God, I am getting old.

Just after 8pm, the bus deposited us at the northern end of the stadium and I made my way past a few street vendors selling fast food, panini, hot dogs, crisps, wurst, drinks, and also various Juventus trinkets. Outside the away turnstiles, a ring of police guarded our entrance. Ahead stood the two “A” frame supports that are effectively the sole remnants of the old Delle Alpi stadium which stood on the site from 1990 to 2009.

My first visit here was during that 1992 trip; we watched high up along the western side in the upper tier towards the home Curva Scirea. Sadly, the game with Sampdoria – Gianluca Vialli in attack – was a poor 0-0 draw. A couple of years earlier, of course, the stadium witnessed Gazza’s tears amid the tumultuous England vs. West Germany World Cup semi-final.

My only other game at the old Delle Alpi came on a Sunday after Tullio’s wedding to Emanuela on a Saturday in May 1999. Rather bleary-eyed from the excesses of the wedding reception, I caught a cab to the stadium and arranged with the cab driver to pick me up right after the game with Fiorentina, yes them again, and whip me up to Caselle to catch the flight home. Juventus had just lost to Manchester United in the Champions League semi-final the previous midweek, and the mood was a little sombre. I nabbed tickets in the other side stand, again near the Curva Scirea, and watched as Juventus – Zinedine Zidane et al – beat the hated Viola 2-1 with a very late goal from none other than Antonio Conte. Our former manager went into Juventus folklore that afternoon. After scoring, he ran towards the 1,000 or so away fans located, stranded, in the middle tier, and taunted them by pulling out the corner flag and waving it at them in a show of braggadocio.

The time was drawing on and there was a crowd waiting to enter the Allianz Stadium.

“Good job we have time on our side.”

I patiently waited in line, and spotted a few friends amid the Chelsea faithful. This was where it could have gone all so wrong. After I had picked up my match ticket at the city centre hotel at around 3pm – a police van parked outside just to keep us company – I returned to my hotel room. I almost put my passport to one side – “won’t need that again” – but then remembered that in Italy a passport is required at the turnstiles. Time was moving on but the line didn’t seem to be diminishing too quickly. Tempers were getting a little fraught. Just three stewards checking five-hundred passports. Police spotters – Goggles and his cronies – were loitering, and a few unidentified persons were filming our every move. It did feel a little intimidating.

A familiar voice :

“Hurry up. Only two euros.”

Eventually, I made it to the front of the huddle.

The first check married up my passport with my COVID19 pass, and then there was a temperature check.

OK so far.

Then a passport check against my match ticket.

OK.

Then a quick pat down and a very quick check of my camera bag.

OK.

Then, further inside, another passport and match ticket check.

OK.

I walked on, up the steps, a quick visited to use the facilities and I was inside at around 8.35pm.

“Good job I work in logistics.”

I made my way into the sparsely populated lower tier and chatted to a few friends. A quick word with Ryan from Stoke, with whom I had enjoyed some mojitos the previous night.

“Good night, wannit, Ryan?”

“Was it? Can’t remember getting in.”

I soon spotted Alan and Pete and made my way over to see them. We would watch the match from almost the same position as the November 2012 game.

At the time of that visit, the Allianz Stadium was known as the Juventus Stadium and had only opened in 2011. It was a horrible night, Chelsea suffered a lame 0-3 loss, and the game signalled the end of Roberto di Matteo’s short reign as Chelsea manager. I remember the sadness of the following morning and a text from a work colleague that informed me of the sudden news. Nine years later, I remember little of the game. I know we played with no real striker, a false nine, and Juventus were well worth their win. The loss would cost us our place in that season’s competition.

Oh well. We just sailed full steam ahead and won the Europa League in Amsterdam instead.

First thoughts?

It is a decent stadium. But it was odd to see it at half-strength. I had forgotten that there are odd corner roof supports that rise up and cause an irritating intrusion to an otherwise fine view of the pitch. The stands rise steeply. There are more executive areas on the far side, the East Stand, than on the adjacent West Stand. Down below us, the goal frame where – approximately – Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle saddened us in 1990 and where Antonio Conte scored in 1999 stood tantalisingly close.

The colour scheme is, of course, black and white, and there are three yellow stars – denoting Juventus’ 36 title wins – picked out in the seats of the southern Curva Scirea.

The trouble I have with the new pad is that it is still jettisoned out on the northern reaches of the city away from – in my mind – the club’s historical roots to the south of the city. I first fell in love with that amazing team of the ‘seventies of Zoff, Scirea, Gentile, Tardelli, Bettega, Causio, Cabrini et al…then Boniek, Platini, Laudrup, those Ariston shirts, the Stadio Communale, the old lady, the old team, the old club. Juventus at the Allianz Stadium – all flash, all corporate boxes, all show – just seems all rather false.

Modern football, eh?

My visits to the stadia of Turin was now updated.

Stadio Communale : 4 games, 1 visit inside on a non-match-day and 1 visit outside on a non-match day.

Stadio Delle Alpi : 2 games.

Juventus Stadium : 1 game.

Allianz Stadium : 1 game.

Stadio Olimpico : 1 game and 1 visit outside on a non-match day.

Stadio Filadelfia : 1 visit inside on a non-match day ( and at least 1 goal…) and 1 visit outside.

Five stadia, but only three sites. It’s a confusing story, isn’t it?

But there’s more. I helped to arrange a delivery of office chairs to Juventus on Corso Gaetano Scirea a few years ago. And only on the day before I left for Turin, I learned that a company that I use for express vans around Europe takes care of delivering VAR equipment around Europe for UEFA and had just delivered to Juventus.

Small world, eh?

The clock quickly approached the nine o’clock kick-off time. Just as the Juventus anthem was starting to be aired – “La Storia Di Un Grande Amore” – Alan whispered to me.

“Don’t want you singing along.”

I smiled.

“I know the words.”

“I know you do!”

As I changed lenses on my camera, I could not help lip-synching a little. Both teams appeared in blue tracksuit tops. The Champions League anthem played. I was surprised to see a few folk wearing Chelsea replica shirts in the home area to my left, beyond the plexi-glass. They were soon moved along, or out, I know not which.

As the game began, I could hardly believe the amount of Juventus fans wearing replica shirts. There has certainly been a sea change in Italian terrace fashion in the years that I have been attending games in Turin. Just as in England in the late ‘eighties and early ‘nineties, hardly anyone bothered with team shirts. In Italy, more than in the UK, it was all about the scarves in those days. Trends change, and there are more replica shirts on offer than ever before these days, yet a huge section of match-going regulars in the UK refuse to be drawn in. For the English connoisseur of football fashion, many look upon the Italians – “Paninaro, oh, oh, oh” – as excellent reference points in the never-ending chase for style and substance. Yet here we all were, a few of us decked out in our finery – Moncler, Boss and Armani made up my Holy Trinity on this warm night in Turin – yet the locals were going 180 degrees in the opposite direction and opted for replica shirts with players’ names.

Et tu Brute? Vaffanculo.

The Chelsea team?

We had heard that King Kante had succumbed to the dreaded COVID, while Reece James was injured. The manager chose an eleven that we hoped would fare better than in the miserable capitulation to Manchester City a few days previously.

Mendy.

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Ziyech – Havertz

Lukaku

The match began and we started decently enough. There was a stab at goal from inside the box by Roemelu Lukaku from a corner by Marcos Alonso but this did not cause the former Arsenal ‘keeper Wojciech Szcezsaczsaeisniey any anxiety. Soon into the game, the Chelsea loyalists in the tiny quadrant decided to go Italian and honour some of our former Italian greats.

“One Di Matteo, there’s only one di Matteo.”

“Gianfranco Zola, la, la, la, la, la, la.”

“Vialli! Vialli! Vialli! Vialli!”

There wasn’t even a flicker from the black and white fans to my left.

Then a memory from a night in Milan.

“Oh Dennis Wise scored a fackin’ great goal in the San Siro with ten minutes to go.”

We lost possession via Kovacic and Chiesa broke away in the inside right channel, but his speculative shot from an angle was well wide of the far post.

Chelsea enjoyed much of the possession in that first-half. Whereas City had been up and at us, pressurising us in our defensive third, Juve were going old school Italian, defending very deep, with the “low block” of modern parlance. And we found it so hard to break them down. It became a pretty boring game, with few moments of skill and enterprise.

I spoke to Alan.

“There’s not much space in their penalty box. In fact, there’s even less space when Lukaku is in it.”

Despite Romelu’s weight loss from his days at Manchester United, he still resembles the QE2 with a turning circle to match.

It just wasn’t going for us. Very rarely did we get behind the Juventus back line. Balls were played at Lukaku, rather than to him, and the ball bounced away from him on so many times. It seemed that he often had three defenders on him.

He was full of De Ligt.

At the other end, Federico Chiesa looked to be Juventus’ main threat, and a shot flashed wide. He followed this up with another effort that did not trouble Mendy one iota. A rising shot from Rabiot was well over. The former Chelsea player Juan Quadrado rarely got involved. Juventus were easily leading in terms of efforts on goal.

At our end, there were hardly quarter chances let alone half chances.

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

The players couldn’t hear us. This was a dull game, and getting poorer by the minute. At half-time, I received a text from Tullio, now living in Moncalieri, a few miles south of Turin, but watching in a Turin pub with friends :

“Boring.”

Tuchel replaced Alonso with Ben Chilwell at the break.

It is my usual modus operandi to mainly use my zoom lens once the action starts, but I often take a few panorama shots with my wide angle lens just at the start of the second-half just to vary things a little. Thus, once the Spanish referee instigated the restart, I lifted my camera and took one and then two shots of the stadium with the game being played out below it. The first photograph was of a Juventus break; the second photograph was of a Juventus goal.

And just like that, crash, bang, wallop, we were losing 1-0.

Fackinell.

The goal was conceded after just eleven seconds of play in the second-half. It was a wicked smash and grab raid by that man Chiesa. The goal shocked and silenced the away fans. In reality, I doubted very much that Juventus, with Bonucci on the pitch and Chiellini waiting in the wings, would let this slip.

We still created little.

On the hour, more substitutions.

Jorginho, Dave and Ziyech off.

Chalobah, Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi on.

Juventus, mid-way through the half, really should have put the game to bed when a long ball was cushioned by Cuadrado into the path of Bernardeschi, but his heavy touch put the ball wide.

The final substitution with a quarter of an hour to go.

Barkley on for Christensen.

We had all the ball but never ever looked like scoring. I just willed Callum to get his head down and get past his man but he rarely did. There was a lame header from Lukaku, and after Barkley – showing some spirit and a willingness to take people on – tee’d up Lukaku, the Belgian striker fluffed his chance close in on goal.

“We won’t score, mate.”

Late on, a lazy header from Havertz only bothered the ball boys and press photographers at the Curva Scirea.

It was, again, a rotten night in Continassa.

In the last few minutes, Chelsea supporters in the top tier had decided to throw beer on the Juve fans to my left, but ended up soaking myself and a few fellow supporters.

For fuck sake.

We made our slow, silent way out to the waiting fleet of around seven buses that took us back to the centre of the city. Sirens wailed as we were given a police escort, with blue lights flashing.

Did I imagine it, or did someone spray “Osgood Is Good” on one of the buses?

I chatted with a bloke who I had not seen before. He told me that of his seventeen trips to Europe with Chelsea, he had seen just three wins. I begged him to stay away in future.

It was, after the stresses of getting out to Turin in the first place, such a disappointing game. We all walked en masse back into the pubs and hotels of Turin. I chatted briefly to Neil Barnett as we slouched along Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, and we agreed –

“That was a hard watch.”

A chat with Cal.

“Fancy joining us for a beer at The Shamrock?”

“Nah mate. My hotel is just around the corner. I am off to bed.”

It was approaching 12.30am. I darted into a late night café and devoured a kebab, washed down with two iced-teas. It was my first real meal of the day.

It was time to call it a night.

My trip to Turin stretched into Thursday and Friday. On Thursday, there was a quick “tampone rapido” test at a nearby chemist, and thankfully I was negative. I met up with my work colleague Lorenzo and his wife Marina. Although they are both natives of Milan, this was their first ever visit to Turin, despite being in their late ‘fifties. I remarked to Lorenzo, an Inter fan, that it’s “because of Juventus isn’t it?” and he was forced to agree. That Inter / Juve “derby d’Italia” animosity runs deep.

We met up with Serena, who works for a furniture dealership in Turin, and she gave us a super little tour of a few of the palaces and piazzas of the city centre. We visited Palazzo Reale, the former royal palace of the governing Savoy family, and enjoyed an al fresco lunch in the September sun. We later visited Superga – of course – and Lorenzo loved it, despite the sadness. One last photo call at Monte Dei Cappuccini, and he then drove me back to my hotel.

In the evening, saving the best to last, Tullio collected me outside my hotel and picked up his mother en route to an evening meal at Tullio’s apartment in Moncalieri. Sadly, Tullio lost his father last year, so the evening was tinged with a little sadness. But it was magical to see his family again. His daughters Sofia and Lucrezia are into canoeing and rowing. At seventeen, Sofia – who practices on the nearby River Po – is a national champion in the under-23 age group.

We reminisced about our past and remembered the times spent on the beach in Diano Marina in those lovely days of our youth.

Ah, youth.

Juventus.

Maybe that’s it.

On Friday, it was time to leave Turin. It had been, “assolutamente”, a simply superb four days in the sun. At Caselle airport, there was time for one last meal – gnocchi, my favourite – and one last bottle of iced tea. There was a quick chat with a couple of the Juventus women’s team en route to an away game against Roma. And there was time for a raid on the Robe Di Kappa shop, that famous logo reminding me so much of the Juventus kits of yore. There was even a photo of Roberto Bettega in his prime behind the till.

I walked a few yards across the tarmac to board the waiting 3.30 plane home, and I spotted Superga away on the hill in the distance.

Until next time, Turin, until next time.

Stadio Filadelfia

Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino

Allianz Stadium

Postcards From Turin

Tales From Our Time In The Sun

Chelsea vs. Villareal : 11 August 2021.

There was a moment in The Harp bar in Belfast’s historic and beguiling Cathedral Quarter that will live with me for a while. Parky and I had met up with our good friends from Edinburgh Gillian, Kev and Rich at just after 2pm on the day of the game. We were then joined by old friends Daryl, Ed, Gary and Pete in our favourite Belfast bar. We loved the décor, the attentive staff, the choice of beers – including draft Peroni – and the excellent music. We had crowded around a couple of tables for a few hours and had been predictably catching up with each other after almost a year and a half apart. There was the usual flow of stories, jokes and laughter but also – in these rather odd times in which we have found ourselves – a few sobering tales of health issues, of how we tried to overcome the stresses of lockdown and a few fleeting mentions of Chelsea Football Club where time permitted. The time, of course, absolutely flew past. The kick-off between Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea and Unai Emery’s Villareal was at 8pm. We had decided to leave for Windsor Park at around 6pm, but I was hoping for some sort of suspension of time so that we could just enjoy this wonderful pre-match for a few precious moments more.

And then things improved further still. One of the bar staff decided to open the concertina windows that fronted onto the narrow street outside. The sunlight suddenly shone into the bar, and the late afternoon air immediately hit us.

It seemed that after our yearlong hibernation from watching Chelsea, we were now catapulted into a warm – and warming – future.

“After those dark, bleak months away from Chelsea, this is our time in the sun boys.”

It really was sheer bliss. We were all livened by the sun’s rays.

We got more beers in.

Perfect.

There was a time when the city of Belfast in Northern Ireland would have been a no-go for me. Even as recently as twenty years ago, it seemed a rather intimidating place, as it endeavoured to escape the shackles of its sectarian past. When I started travelling around Europe independently and also with friends, Belfast was simply a place too far. I can remember being genuinely scared of the city, a result of watching all of those awful images on TV in the ‘seventies of bombs and desolation. For a while, it seemed that every time I stayed up late on a Saturday night in the early ‘seventies to watch “Match Of The Day”, there would be harrowing film of a city under siege on the preceding news on BBC1. Names such as the Falls Road, the Shankhill Road, the Crumlin Road and Divis Flats have stayed in my consciousness from early those days.

Thankfully, times have changed. For a few years I have been promising myself a trip to Belfast – EasyJet run cheap flights from nearby Bristol – so there was a sense of real joy when it became apparent that Belfast would be hosting the 2021 UEFA Super Cup Final. I love the way that Chelsea has dragged me to some of the cities that I have always wanted to visit; Moscow, Jerusalem, Tokyo, Beijing…St. Petersburg is waiting in the wings.

What luck.

Not long after our – still – surprising journey to this Champions League Final and subsequent victory against Manchester City, it did not take me long at all to book flights and a hotel to Belfast. I managed to coerce Parky to join me. We would be in town for three long days. Compared to the stresses of last summer, this year has been a relative breeze at work but I have to admit the thought of a lovely Chelsea-fuelled break in Belfast has kept me going when things darkened a little.

I was, deep down, hoping to be something of a lucky charm for Chelsea. I have only ever attended one UEFA Super Cup before, the only one where we have been victorious; our first one in Monaco in 1998. I did not travel again to Monaco in 2012, nor Prague in 2013 nor Istanbul in 2019.

But Monaco 1998. What a trip.

As winners of the European Cup Winners’ Cup against Joachim Low’s Stuttgart, Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea were assured of a place in the subsequent Super Cup match against Guus Hiddink’s Real Madrid – winners of the European Cup against Juventus – in Monaco in August. Of course, in those days both finals were held on Wednesdays. We won in Stockholm on 13 May, then had to wait a week to see who we would be playing. It will surprise nobody that I was hoping that Juventus would be our opposition in Monaco. It would have been my dream matchup, even though we would have been ridiculously out-numbered by the Italians with Turin only a few hours away.  But just as we won in Sweden with a single goal from Gianfranco Zola, it was the Castilians who triumphed by the same score in Amsterdam with a goal from Predrag Mijatovic.

At the time of the game in Sweden, I was famously unemployed; I had lost my job the previous month. But by the time that August came around, I had moved into a very satisfying job in logistics, although those first few months were pretty frantic. But my employer granted me time off at the end of the month, so all was well. A company called Millwest – a Manchester sports travel firm, formerly Universal – had advertised a four-day coach trip to the South of France that included a night in nearby Nice for a decent price of £129. The match ticket was extra.

My mate Andy – who travelled to Porto with me in May this year – was the only one of my close Chelsea mates that fancied it. The season was two games old. I didn’t attend the opening 1-2 loss at Coventry City, but was at the following weekend’s 1-1 draw at home to Newcastle United. New players included Brian Laudrup, Pierluigi Casiraghi, Albert Ferrer and Marcel Desailly. It was a considerable upgrade to our squad.

Andy and I met up at a pub near Victoria around lunchtime on the Thursday ahead of the game in Monaco on the Friday evening. We boarded the coach and started talking to our travel companions. I think we semi-recognised a few from The Harwood Arms which was one of the hardcore pubs around that time. I remember a gaggle of lads from Highbridge in Somerset who had brought along a few flagons of the local “Rich’s” cider. One lad – Jamie – I see on odd occasions to this day. One of his crew was a lad who wasn’t really into football, attending his first-ever game, and bore an uncanny resemblance to serial killer Fred West. I remember a lad who was Tommy Langley’s cousin on the coach. Most were blokes. Virtually all in fact. Once in France, we stopped at the “Eastenders” wholesale drinks warehouse and stocked up on beer and cheese. The banter among new friends slowly faded away as we all fell asleep on the ten-hour drive south. We all occupied double seats. There was plenty of room.

Not long after waking on the Friday morning the coach broke down on the wide approach towards the coast. We were only shy of our destination by around twenty miles.  After a couple of nervous hours on the side of the motorway, we eventually limped into Nice. We sensed that the relationship between the drivers, an American and a Canadian, was already strained. Our surprisingly good quality hotel was on the western end of Promenade D’Anglais, the main road that hugged the beach. We were suitably impressed.

A quick change around lunchtime and then a bus into the town centre. Typically, we bumped into Jonesy from Andy’s home town of Nuneaton. We plotted up at a table and enjoyed some beer and pizza.

We later found ourselves outside a bar at the main station at Nice, where a decade or so earlier I had slept al fresco on my travels around Europe as I waited for an early morning train into Italy. Andy spotted Hicky in the distance, the first time I had seen him since the ‘eighties, a visitor from Thailand and at one time the nation’s most infamous football hooligan. We hopped on a train for the short twenty minute into Monaco.  The stadium is a stone’s throw from the train station.

The pre-match was memorable for Andy’s altercation with the Labour MP and Chelsea supporter Tony Banks outside the VIP entrance.

Previously, the Super Cup had been played over two legs.

1998 was the first year of it being played in Monaco where it resided until 2012. It was always held on the same weekend as the UEFA draws and I believe most draws were made in Monaco during that era.

Of course, the Monaco stadium is an odd creation. The pitch is famously above several stories of facilities including a basketball arena and a car park. It holds 16,000 but the gate on that night in 1998 was 11,589. My guess is that no more than one thousand Chelsea supporters were present. We were allocated the open away end with its nine high arches at the rear of the yellow seats.

It was a case of “sit where you like” and Andy and I chose to stand behind the goal.

Chelsea played in all blue, which was considered unlucky by many until we won the league at Bolton in 2005 in that colour combination.

I remember little of the game. I think the pitch was pretty bumpy and didn’t play true. Real Madrid had many more supporters than us at the opposite end; maybe four thousand. Real’s team included Roberto Carlos, Christian Panucci, Fernando Hierro, Clarence Seedorf and Raul. They were no mugs for sure. But we won it with a solitary goal from Gus Poyet in the eighty-third minute, a low strike at our end. I remember our new signing Brian Laudrup made his debut for us just after our goal.

At the time, it seemed we were invincible in the cup competitions.

1997 FA Cup

1998 Football League Cup

1998 European Cup Winners’ Cup

1998 UEFA Super Cup

After the game, Andy uttered the famous line…

“In a bar in Madrid right now, there’s an old Real Madrid fan who is saying” –

“Chelsea. They always beat us.”

We hopped onto a waiting train, triumphant. We enjoyed a few more beers before calling it a night.

In the morning, we were to learn that out on the promenade in the small hours of Saturday morning, Fred West had an altercation of his own with a woman who revealed herself to be a transvestite and then, if that wasn’t enough a shock for our Fred – after a little provocation from what I remember – drew a pistol and fired a few shots into the air. Fred West raced back to the safety of the hotel and according to Jamie when I saw him a few years back has not been seen at a game since.

On the Saturday, we dipped into Nice again for a few more beers and a bite to eat. These were simply super times. The Chelsea stories came thick and fast. This was all a bit like the second coming of Chelsea; we were all in love with the 1970/71 team and here we were witnessing a repeat in 1997/98.

We caught a cab back to the hotel and I can remember this moment as if it was yesterday.

A little boozy, light-headed with beers, the window open, laughter from my new-found friends alongside me, the Mediterranean sky overhead, the warm air brushing my cheeks, high on life, high on Chelsea, high on everything.

It was my time in the sun, and one that I was to repeat twenty-three years later.

Super.

But this was to be the briefest of away trips in reality. We left for the long return trip home during early afternoon on the Saturday.

Sadly, the coach broke down again near Marseille. A few lads needed to be back in the UK on the Sunday so got off and caught a cab to Marseille airport. There followed another frustrating wait for a few hours. Eventually we got going. I slept fitfully. I remember sitting in a French service station eating a dodgy sandwich around midnight when the news broke that one of the coach drivers had stormed off in a moody fit. I can recollect seeing him walking away with his little bag on wheels being towed behind him. We pleaded with him to return. One driver would not be able to get us to Calais in light of the driving regulations. Eventually he relented. On the approach to Calais there was a further fuel leak and the coach limped home. On the motorway back in Blighty, we pulled into a services and changed coaches. We arrived back in London at around 5pm on the Sunday, a good five hours later than planned.

It was, as we joked, a character-building trip and one that always brings a smile of happiness when Andy and I remember it.

Twenty-three years ago, though.

Fackinell.

Postcards From Monaco.

The trip to the 2021 Super Cup had begun for me with an early alarm at 2am in the small hours of Tuesday, the day before the game. I collected Parky at 4am. By 5am we had arrived at Bristol Airport. It was no surprise that we saw a gaggle of familiar Chelsea faces from the West of England on our 7am flight to Belfast International Airport. There were around thirty Chelsea on the flight which lasted less than an hour. Friends Foxy from Dundee and Rich from Edinburgh were waiting for us outside the terminal and we soon hopped into a cab to take us into the city. We were joined by Jason from Newport, who decided to swap his accommodation in favour of the last room that was available at our – cheaper – hotel just south of the city centre.

We set off on a walkabout.

Foxy had visited Belfast on many occasions and so walked and talked us through the city centre. Parky had first visited the city with the British army on two tours in the early ‘seventies. After an Ulster Fry breakfast in the Cathedral Quarter, we decided to head down to Sandy Row, something of a loyalist stronghold, and we dived into a pub called “The Royal” at just after 11am. It was packed, and packed with some very familiar faces. We supped the first beers of the trip and bumped into Daryl and Ed quite by chance. There were nearby murals of George Best, of Hurricane Higgins, of local factory workers, of normal Belfast folk, but also of Joe Bambrick – Linfield and Northern Ireland – who also played for us in the 1930’s. Playing for Linfield, he scored a staggering 286 goals in 183 games. We returned to the city centre for another beer in “Fibber Magees.”

Parky and I then embarked on a pre-paid black cab tour of the city. Our guide – a cabbie called Kieran – was wearing a Leeds United away shirt and was full of smiles when I noticed it.

“Are you Leeds?”

“No, Chelsea.”

The tour was supposed to last an hour, but it lasted two and a quarter hours. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The photographs show some of the sights that we visited. It was – of course – rather eerie to find myself walking along the Falls Road and the Shankhill. More learned and erudite students of the history of this particular part of the world are far better placed than myself to comment on Belfast’s sectarian past. Suffice to say, that afternoon will live long in my memory.

I leave this section of my Belfast story to the lead singer of Stiff Little Fingers, Jake Burns, to sum it all up :

“Well it’s lasted for so long now
And so many have died
It’s such a part of my own life
Yet it leaves me mystified
How a people so intelligent
Friendly, kind and brave
Can throw themselves so willingly
Into an open grave.”

Later that evening, we reassembled in the Cathedral Quarter – the area that we were to grow to love – at around 5pm.

We met Gillian, Kev and Rich in “The Dirty Onion” – hugs. We were all together last in Newcastle in January 2020. It seemed so recent but also a lifetime away. From there, to “The Harp” and from there to “The Duke Of York” where we spotted the first of the yellow-clad supporters of Villareal. Daryl, Gary, Pete and Nick briefly dropped in, but exited after – like us – being rather annoyed with how long it was taking to get served. It was even poorer service in “The Morning Star” – a favourite of many – but as I joked with Rich, it was funny how my spirits had been lifted by just a few swigs of lager. We then stood outside a cracking pub – “Bittles Bar” – which reminded me of The Minerva in Hull, Belfast’s answer to The Flatiron in Manhattan. We then ended up at “Franklins Sports Bar” where the drinking continued long into the night. My pal Stephen – originally from Belfast – but living in New Orleans for twenty years called in with his wife Elicia and her parents.

Then the others drifted off and I was the last man standing.

There was a reunion with a few good friends, some Chelsea songs, some flag-waving.

At about 1am we were turfed out and I managed to find my way back to the hotel.

Outside the hotel, there was more chat with a couple of Chelsea lads and I then stumbled next-door to raid the adjacent chicken joint.

At 2am – awake for twenty-four hours – I called it a night.

Unfortunately, the scene that greeted me on Wednesday morning – game day – was of drizzle in the Belfast streets below my room on the sixth floor. In the distance, pinched between some tall buildings, the slopes of Black Mountain could be seen, but they were shrouded in cloud. Parky and Foxy were up before me, but I eventually met Parky in reception at around 11am. We put on rain jackets and ambled off to pick up our match tickets at the Europa Hotel. As every Chelsea fan in Belfast 2021 now knows, it is the world’s most bombed hotel (43 times according to yer man Kieran).

We inevitably bumped into many Chelsea faces in the fifteen minutes that we were at the Europa. Parky and I then sheltered in a restaurant – another fry up for me – and a lovely pub “The Spaniard” before our get-together in “The Harp” at 2pm.

Peroni, laughs, Peroni, banter, Peroni, chat.

We admitted to each other that we were just so relieved that Villareal had reached the final and not Manchester United. Belfast is a United stronghold. The Manchester club has had a certain affiliation with the Catholic community in the past – though not as strong as Celtic – and so the thought of United and Chelsea with its links to Rangers and, to a lesser degree Linfield, drinking in the same compact city centre drew gasps from us all.

As the afternoon grew older, we looked on as little groups of Villareal fans – their vivid yellow so prominent – stopped for photos beneath the neon signs opposite. It certainly was a photogenic hotspot. We then joked that it was the same fans on some sort of sponsored walk and that when we reached the stadium there would only be fifty inside.

After four hours or so of sublime Chelsea chat, we split up. Sadly, Gillian and Kevin were unlucky to get tickets in the UEFA ballot. Foxy and Rich had been luckier. But so much for heading off to the stadium at 6pm. We eventually left at around 6.30pm. It took us a few nervous minutes to get hold of a cab. But the cabbie was only able to take Rich, Parky and little old me as far as Sandy Row, which looked like a scene from the apocalypse with debris and broken glass littering the street. A good time had certainly been had by all. A police car blocked the road south.

So, out into the now seriously warm evening sun. We embarked on a thirty-minute walk down to Windsor Park which sits a mile or so to the south of the city centre. I enjoyed this. There was a certain old-time feel to it all, walking past decidedly working class terraced houses, the crowd being drawn to the football stadium as in times of yore.

We turned into Donegall Avenue, under a road bridge, a row of police watching us, yet more echoes of a distant past, and then the security checks. Thankfully, no issues with either the COVID19 passport nor my ticket. More familiar faces. Good people. Plenty of old school Chelsea. But then a silly altercation with a fellow fan who was sat in my seat. This all meant that despite waking up at around 10am, and the kick-off some ten hours away, I was only in position for the kick-off at 7.55pm.

Proper Chelsea.

I was behind the eastern goal in row G, but where was Parky? Maybe Chelsea in their infinite wisdom had decided to keep us apart despite me getting our tickets together in the same transaction. Who knows? Answers on a postcard.

Windsor Park holds 18,000 but its limit for this game was 13,000. Chelsea were given 2,000 tickets, Villareal had 1,500. Now I know this club comes from a city with a population of just 50,000 but that split doesn’t seem fair in this day and age. Surely all UEFA Finals should have an even spilt. The side stands – home to the UEFA ballot tickets – were predominantly Chelsea. In the end, it looked like slightly over 1,000 Villareal fans had made the journey. They were residing in half of the western end and in the two tiers of the side stand too. I remember the old Windsor Park. I remember England returning there in 1977 after a spell of Northern Ireland always playing their Home International games away from Belfast during The Troubles. For many years it was a ramshackle stadium, the double tiered north stand being the only modern structure. It has now been totally modernised, with white, blue, light green and dark green seats. It has rather ugly raised executive areas in the main south stand and an even uglier arrangement in – our – eastern end. But it suited UEFA for this game. I remember the Cardiff City stadium hosted Real Madrid and Sevilla in 2014.

So, I predictably missed all of the pre-game pageantry.

I had to quickly run through the team.

Mendy

Rudiger – Zouma – Chalobah

Hudson-Odoi – Kante – Kovacic – Alonso

Havertz – Werner – Ziyech

Villareal’s team included Capoue, ex-Tottenham, and Moreno, ex-Liverpool.

It seemed like every single one of their fans were wearing yellow.

Bless’em.

It is worth noting that in none of the bars and pubs, in none of the conversations among close friends and distant acquaintances did anyone…not one person…mention a “high press.”

So here we all were. The Chelsea away club transplanted to the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park. A row of Chelsea flags along the unused seats at the front of the east stand. Chelsea flags sporadically placed on balcony walls.

The simple efficiency of one that bore the words “Two Steps Beyond.”

We all knew what it meant.

The game began and Chelsea were immediately on top, and its fans too. The first segment of the game was played out in front of a noisy backdrop and one song dominated.

“Oh Roman do you know what that’s worth?

Kai Havertz is the best on Earth.

The silky German is just what we need.

He won Chelsea the Champions League.”

It was sung loudly and raucously for minutes on end.

Chelsea attacked the colourful Villareal fans in the western end. Behind them, the dull outline of the hills that surround Belfast squeezed in between the steel of the stands. A setting sun behind it all.

When the Spanish fans began to familiarise themselves with the sights of Belfast, perhaps they took solace in the bright yellow of the twin cranes of the Harland & Wolf shipyards. Was yellow the key colour of the moment? There was that rather oddly misaligned yellow piping on the Chelsea shirt and then shorts after all.

After five minutes, an in swinging corner from the slight Hakim Ziyech on our right found the predatory Timo Werner on the far post. He connected late, almost between the legs of his marker, and brought a great instinctive save from Asenjo in the Villareal goal. We were finding players in good wide positions and after a sweeping ball in from that man Havertz, the ball was won back by N’Golo Kante, the captain on the night, who thundered the ball wide.

Where was Parky, though? Couldn’t see him anywhere.

We were well on top. Kante was everywhere. Villareal were kept camped inside their half. On twenty-six minutes, after steady Chelsea pressure, the ball was played by Marcos Alonso out to Havertz on the left. His first time cross was hit low towards Werner, but was picked up by Ziyech behind him. He swept the ball fortuitously into the net, bouncing up and in, as if in slow motion.

Get in.

Chelsea 1 Villareal 0.

The players celebrated over in the opposite corner with the noise booming around Windsor Park.

Not long after, a rare Villareal break enabled players to find space inside our box but Dia was foiled by Edouard Mendy, who did well to block the effort on goal.

A Ziyech cross from the left found Alonso, but his snap shot was clawed out by Asenjo at the near post. Then a Ziyech free-kick caught Villareal out. It was perfectly played, dropping at the far post but the outstretched leg of Kurt Zouma just sent the ball crashing over the bar.

The goal scorer Ziyech went down after a challenge and was replaced by Christian Pulisic.

Right on the half-time whistle, a very good Villareal move enabled the ball to be hooked back towards the far post where Moreno met the ball with a thunderous volley. We gasped as the ball crashed against the bar, and bounced down a foot or so from the line.

Fackinell.

At the start of the second-half, Havertz went close at our end. But then Mendy slipped as he cleared and the ball fell to Moreno. Mendy thankfully redeemed himself, touching the ball onto the base of the far post. But the warning signs had been sounded and Villareal dominated much of the possession in the second half. The Chelsea fans grew nervy and quieter.

Just after the hour, Thomas Tuchel changed the personnel.

Jorginho for Kante.

Mount for Werner.

Christensen for Zouma.

Mendy saved at the near post from Estupinan. On seventy-two minutes, the Yellow Submarine cut through our rather static defence and Gerard Moreno slammed the ball in after a nice ball played back to him by Dia. The Villareal players celebrated in the yellow corner.

It was on the cards. No complaints.

Bollocks.

Right in front of me, in the inside left channel, Alonso received a ball, nestled it on his thigh, turned and volleyed. The ball only troubled the side netting. It was the last chance of the ninety minutes.

We moved rather reluctantly into an extra thirty minutes and I suspected that the extra pints that had been gleefully taken throughout the days drinking in the many city centre pubs may have had an adverse effect on the Chelsea support.  

In truth, the extra half an hour provided little thrills. Pulisic stumbled as he prodded a ball towards the Villareal goal and the ball apologetically bounced wide. In the second period, a twist and a shot from Mason Mount inside the box brought another fine save from the Villareal ‘keeper.

Just before the end of the extra thirty minutes, we looked over to the touchline and saw that Kepa was lining up to replace Mendy.

There was a mixed reaction in the Chelsea end. There were moans when we realised that the penalties were to be taken at the Villareal end.

So. The game continued, the night continued. All was dark above Windsor Park now.

All eyes on the penalty takers.

First-up Chelsea. Our support tried to put the fear of God into the Villareal players.

“We know what we are. Champions of Europe. We know what we are.”

Havertz. The hero of Porto. The new hero. An easy save. Bollocks.

Gerard the scorer in normal time. Goal.

Dave. A big penalty. A sweet strike. Goal.

Mandi. Saved not by Mendy, but by Kepa. Get in you bastard.

Alonso. A slip, but in. Goal.

Estupinan. Goal.

Mount. Goal.

Gomez. Goal.

Jorginho. Lots of nerves from us all. Would he hop and go right? No, a hop and left. Goal. Get in.

Raba. Goal.

Sudden death now.

Fackinell.

Pulisic. Goal.

Foyth. Goal.

Rudiger. Nerves again. Goal.

Albiol. My camera was poised. A strike. The Chelsea players blocked my view. I heard a roar. Saved.

GETINYOUBASTARDS.

The players ran towards Kepa in the yellow corner. The submarine was sunk in Titanic’s home city.

I looked for Jonesy, a veteran from Monaco, and we shared a special moment. We had been present at all of the “modern” European Chelsea victories in all those far flung places.

Monaco and Belfast, though; the most unlikely of twinned cities.

There was the usual post-game sequence of the modern age. The rather odd two-stage presentation of the cup. Firstly, the handing over of the cup to Dave and then a walk to the platform to join the waiting team mates.

The hoist, the silver ticker-tape, the screams of delight.

Athens 1971.

Stockholm 1998.

Monaco 1998.

Munich 2012.

Amsterdam 2013.

Baku 2019.

Porto 2021.

Belfast 2021.

Count’em up. Eight. Two of each. I like a bit of symmetry.

It’s lovely that the badge that I grew up with, the lion rampant and the two stars – celebrating 1970 and 1971 – now has an even deeper meaning.

And if the win in Monaco in 1998 was Realy super, the win in Belfast in 2021 was Villarealy super.

OK, enough of the shitty wordplay.

Outside, I met up with Rich. We waited for Parky to emerge from the crowds but soon gave up. We were to eventually find him tagged on to the end of a queue for hot dogs and hamburgers on the Donegall Road.

We walked back, slowly, to the busy area near our hotel, an area that was known as the Golden Mile in the dark days of the ‘seventies, just beyond the high-security of the city centre. A cheap and cheerful pizza, with Chelsea shouts and songs in the distance, and then bed.

It had been a good night.

On the Thursday, there was a visit to the area near the Titanic Museum, a hop-on and hop-off bus tour of the city and even a quick flit over to East Belfast to cram in another football stadium. The Oval is home to Glentoran, Linfield’s main rivals, nestling underneath Samson and Goliath, the twin cranes of the nearby dock area. It is so different to Windsor Park, but I loved it.

It was a perfect end to a magnificent three days in Belfast.

We caught the 10pm flight home and I was able to look down on the lights of the city as we soared high above. The memories will stay a long time.

Thank you Belfast. Thank you Chelsea.

Postcards From Belfast.



Tales From One Billy Gilmour And One Decent Scouser

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 3 March 2020.

In the pubs beforehand, there was not one Chelsea fan that I spoke to who thought that we would be victorious in the game with Liverpool.

“They’re so far ahead in the league that they can afford to play their first team, rather than rest players.”

“They’re light years ahead of us.”

“We’ll be lucky to get naught.”

“Expectation level is nine below zero.”

“Could be another Bayern.”

But complete and total negativity was not the order of the evening.

There were a couple of pluses.

In “The Goose”, Parky, PD and I chatted to some of the lads from our home area. Does anyone recollect the story of Sir Les, and a few others, getting stuck in a lift before a home game before Christmas? They were stuck in there for virtually the entire first-half. Well, I am pleased to report that Chelsea rewarded these fans with a corporate style package for the Everton home game which is coming up in Sunday.

Well done Chelsea Football Club.

There was also some good work from the club regarding the pricing of this FA Cup fifth round tie with Liverpool. Initially, as with previous seasons, it was announced that all FA Cup ties would be priced at £30. When Liverpool came out of the hat, the club decided to up the tickets to £40. There was an immediate uproar and the Chelsea Supporters Trust, alongside the original Supporters Club I believe, soon petitioned the club to re-think. Within twenty-four hours, there was a statement to the effect of the club getting it wrong and the price returning to the £30 level.

Well done again Chelsea Football Club.

We made our way down to Simmons to chat with the others. It wasn’t as busy as I had expected. As I waited for friends to arrive, I spotted that the 1970 replay – often a favourite at “Simmons” – was being replayed on the TV screens. It is still the fifth most viewed TV programme in the UK, ever.

That’s right. Ever.

During the few days leading up to the evening’s game, it dawned on me that the last time we played Liverpool at home in the cup was the famous 1997 game. Many of my generation mention the 1978 third round win – 4-2 – when an average Chelsea side surprisingly defeated the then European Champions. I was not at that game, but can remember the joy of hearing about our win as the news came through on the TV. Next up, in the story of games in the cup at Stamford Bridge between the two teams, was the equally memorable 2-0 win in 1982. Chelsea were a Second Division team that season, and Liverpool were again European Champions. I was at that one. And I have detailed that game on here before. It was seismic. What an afternoon.

Next up was a fourth round tie in 1985/86 that we lost 2-1 which is probably best remembered for Kerry Dixon injuring himself and, probably, not quite being the same player ever again.

It’s worth noting that we haven’t played at Anfield in the FA Cup for decades.

The last time was in 1966.

Then came the fourth round tie on Sunday 26 January 1997.

It is a game that evokes wonderful memories among most Chelsea supporters; it was a real “coming of age” moment for club, team and fans alike. Chelsea, under new manager Ruud Gullit, were still finding our collective feet under the talisman and Dutch legend. During the league in 1996/97, we had lost 5-1 at Anfield in the autumn but a Roberto di Matteo strike gave us a deserved 1-0 on New Year’s Day. In October we had suffered the sadness of the loss of Matthew Harding. We were winning more than we were losing, but by no great margin. Liverpool were a better team than us in 1996/97. They would go on to finish fourth, we were to finish sixth. We had easily defeated First Division West Brom at home in the third round.

We – Glenn, my mate Russ and little old me – watched the Liverpool game unfold from the last few rows of the Matthew Harding Lower. It was a terrible view to be honest, the overhang meant that we watched the game through a letterbox.

Chelsea started with Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli up front. We played with Scott Minto and Dan Petrescu as wing backs. Liverpool fielded players such as David James, Jamie Redknapp, John Barnes, Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore. They were a tough team. But, with us having the home advantage, it was evenly matched. Or so we thought. With Liverpool attacking the temporary seats in The Shed in the first-half they soon galloped to a 2-0 lead after just twenty-one minutes. I think it was McManaman who missed an easy chance to make it 3-0. Chelsea were out of it, and the atmosphere in Stamford Bridge had quietened severely after the early promise.

It was as flat as I had ever experienced.

At half-time, Gullit replaced Scott Minto with Mark Hughes, went to a 4/3/3 formation, and Sparky proved to be the catalyst that sparked a revolution. He turned and smashed a long range effort in on fifty-minutes.

“Game on.”

Then Gianfranco Zola slammed in an equaliser eight minutes later.

The atmosphere was red hot by then.

Despite the gate being just 27,950, the place was booming.

Gianluca Vialli scored on sixty-three and seventy-six minutes – euphoria – and we ended up as 4-2 winners. Liverpool, their fans all along the East Lower in those days, did not know what had hit them.

I would later watch that second-half on grainy VHS again and again and again.

Up until that point, my two favourite Chelsea games – out of the then total of two hundred and sixty-five – were the FA Cup games in 1982 and 1997.

Lovely memories.

That win over Liverpool in 1997 gave us confidence and with further games against Leicester City at home (I went), Pompey away (I couldn’t get tickets) and Wimbledon in the semi-final at Highbury (I was there) we marched triumphantly towards Wembley for the 1997 FA Cup Final with Middlesbrough. And through it all, Matthew Harding’s presence was with us all.

Heady and emotional moments?

You bet.

My friend John, a lecturer at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, arrived at about 6.30pm. I last saw him at Ann Arbor for the Real Madrid game in 2016. He was visiting London, Liverpool and Manchester for a few days with some students who were on a “Soccer: Media, Art & Society” course that would go towards their various degrees.

“Soccer: Media, Art & Society.”

Yeah, I know. What a course. Where can I sign up? It sure beat the “Cultural Geography” and “Transport Geography” sub-courses I took at North Staffs Poly from 1984 to 1987.

John was keen for me to talk to his six students – three lads, three lasses – for a few minutes about football, its heady sub-culture, its fads and fancies. I enjoyed it, though I can’t see myself as a lecturer in the near future, not without a bit more practice anyway, and not without a script.

I briefly mentioned the story of my grandfather attending a match at Stamford Bridge, and how I genuinely think it could well have been the 1920 FA Cup Final, one hundred years ago this year.

I hoped that the atmosphere would be good for them on this night in SW6. I always remember a League Cup semi-final in 2015 between the two teams and the noise was sensational all night. I hoped for a repeat. Apart from John, who comes over every season, this was the students’ first ever game at The Bridge.

At about 7.15pm, I downed the last of my two small bottles of “Staropramen” and headed off to Stamford Bridge.

There were six thousand Scousers in the area, though I was yet to see one of them. I guess they were doing their drinking in the West End and Earl’s Court.

Alan and I soon realised that the place was taking an age to fill up. There were yawning gaps everywhere. Even with ten minutes to go, we wondered if the paranoia over the Corona Virus had deterred many from travelling into The Smoke.

“Chelsea will be the death of me.”

The team news came through.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Zouma – Alonso

Gilmour – Kovacic – Barkley

Willian – Giroud – Pedro

So, Kepa back in, an enforced change in personnel, a rather aged front three, and a start for young Billy Gilmour.

Like the 1997 game, this was live on BBC1.

I spoke to a few friends close by in that period before the pre-match rituals kick in and, again, nobody was hopeful.

Nobody.

Within the last few minutes, the place suddenly filled to capacity.

There was more 2020-style pre-match nonsense. The lights dimmed, almost darkness, fireworks, the teams appeared.

Blues vs. Reds.

South vs. North.

Chelsea vs. Liverpool.

(In the slightly off-kilter parlance of the modern day: “Chels vs. Red Scouse.”)

As the floodlights returned to full strength, I spotted white socks. As the tracksuit tops were taken off, I spotted the dogs’ dinner of the normal 2019/20 kit. Where was the promised 1970 kit, the beautifully understated blue with yellow trim?

Where the fuck was it?

My heart sank.

It seems that Chelsea Football Club – two steps forward, one step back – had been less than truthful about our 1970 kit.

Who thought that we would be wearing it throughout this season’s FA Cup campaign?

Everyone?

Yeah, thought so.

What a fucking disgrace.

So, this season – three kits, and one kit to be worn just once.

I only bought the shorts, and I am yet to wear them, but I felt for those significant others who bought the range. They shot off the shelves, didn’t they?

And, the sad thing is, I was really looking forward to seeing us in that kit once again.

I vented on “Facebook.”

And here are a few responses :

Michelle : So wrong I’m sure it was marketed as an FA Cup kit ! The club have taken the fans for mugs yet again,

Lottinho : Absolute joke. Pathetic on the club. Strictly for £££.

Karn : It’s bollocks. Still, glad I bought it though – lovely shirt.

Alex : As predictable as it is disappointing

Kelvin : So cynical how Chelsea avoided making that clear when they were marketing it.

Jake :  All about the money, mate. That was a class kit

Lee : Utter bastards

The game began.

Liverpool were an instant reminder of another team in all red from last Tuesday. I silently shuddered. The away team, with a heady handful of familiar players but also a couple of unfamiliar ones, began the livelier and moved the ball in and around our defence. There was an early, relatively easy, save from Kepa following a strike from Sadio Mane. But at the other end, The Shed, Willian drove at the defence and forced a good save from Adrian in front of the Liverpool hordes.

They had their usual assortment of flags, including one of Bill Shankly who – I cannot lie – I used to love to hear talk about football was I was a mere sprog.

The game heated up.

A Willian corner from our left was glanced on my Dave, and the ball spun wide. Only on the TV replay were we able to see how close both Olivier Giroud and Antonio Rudiger got to adding a decisive touch.

Liverpool, despite their large numbers, were relatively quiet and it surprised me.

We enjoyed a great little spell. Ross Barkley thumped centrally at goal, but Adrian saved.

A lovely flowing move, instigated by the poise of young Billy Gilmour, cruising through a pack of red shirts before coolly releasing Pedro, resulted in a fierce shot from Willian, but Adrian was again able to save well.

“Gilmour. Excellent there, Al.”

This was turning, early, into some game. It had all of our full and undivided attention. I wondered what John was making of it in the West Upper.

After twelve minutes, I leaned over towards PD.

“Open game, innit?”

There was a reassuring nod of agreement from him and also Alan alongside me.

Barely after me commenting, the game stepped up a gear. Attempting to play the ball out of defence, we put pressure on the wall of red. Barkley forced a slip and the ball fell to Willian. His optimistic shot flew at Adrian, but whereas just thirty seconds before he had saved well, this time the ball bounced off him, and flew into the goal.

GET IN.

Willian danced away and in front of the livid Liverpudlians.

Livid Liverpudlians. Is there any other type?

Stamford Bridge was bouncing. What joy.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds, la.”

Could we make it three out of three in the FA Cup against reigning European Champions?

1978, 1982 and 2020?

We were going to give it our best shot by the looks of it.

The game continued to thrill, and we could – ever so slightly – begin to enjoy it all with that slender lead.

Gilmour, getting into it, tackling hard, kept the ball alive and helped win a free-kick after a foul on Ross Barkley. A fine effort from Marcos Alonso sailed narrowly wide.

On around twenty minutes, pure pinball in the Chelsea box as shot after shot tested Kepa. A double save, a save, another save. All within a few seconds. It was dramatic and glorious stuff, though in the light of day two of the shots were hit straight at him.

What a game.

Mane, the biggest Liverpool threat by some margin, wriggled through our defence like a little eel and forced another excellent save from Kepa who was, dramatically, the centre of attention. Williams made a poor effort to connect with the rebounded shot. We had survived another scare.

A lot of the standard Chelsea and Liverpool songs were getting aired towards the end of the first-period and it absolutely added to the occasion.

“Fuck off Chelsea FC, you ain’t got no history.”

“Steve Gerrard Gerrard, he slipped on his fucking arse.”

There was gutsy defending from our players, and this was turning into a rather old-fashioned game of football with a lovely balance of cut and thrust, raw energy and honest attacks. Pedro was as involved as anyone, and after a few early miss-fires, was causing all sorts of problems. Giroud was a one man battling-ram. But the undoubted star of the first-half was young Billy Gilmour. Billy the kid was everywhere. An absolutely stunning performance.

Mateo Kovacic was injured, to be replaced on forty-two minutes by the fresh legs of Mason Mount.

Liverpool, after a string start, were visibly starting to become less of a threat.

As the first-half came to a close, I had a question for Alan.

“Wasn’t Lalana in the Teletubbies”?

At the break, all was well with the world. Previously worried faces had changed. There was a lovely buzz in the air.

On Saturday 24 April 1920, on this very same site, if not this very same stadium – but certainly one which was in situ for the 1982 game, those lovely packed terraces – my grandfather stood on the great slug of the West terrace with his old school friend Ted Knapton alongside him. It was half-time, and the score between the two teams – Aston Villa, who he favoured, and Huddersfield Town – was 0-0. It had been an exhilarating game of football for my grandfather, though the spectacle of seeing fifty-thousand spectators in one sports ground had proved to be the one abiding memory that he would take away with him.

Fifty thousand people.

And virtually all were men, and so many had fought in the Great War.

My grandfather was twenty-five years old. He silently gazed out at the main stand on the far side, the open terraces behind each goal, and looked behind him at row after row of fellows in caps and hats, some with the colourful favours of the two competing teams. A claret and blue rosette here. A light blue hat there.

Fifty-thousand men.

It struck home.

My grandfather had just that week spotted a local girl, a few years younger than him, who was beginning work in the manor house of his home village. She was a young cook, with a lovely smile, and had caught his eye.

My grandfather was a rather quiet man. He looked out at all those faces. He did not speak to his friend Ted, but he – at Stamford Bridge on Cup Final day 1920 – had decided that the stadium, indeed the whole of England was full of men, and the thought of one of them asking the young cook out before he had a chance to utter a shy “hello” ate away at him.

He had survived the Great War. He lived in a great village and now this great spectacle had stirred him in a way that he had not expected.

“You had better get your act together, Ted Draper. On Monday at lunch time, I think I will ask Blanche if she would like to accompany her to next weekend’s village dance. I can’t be second in that race.”

Almost one hundred years later, the players of Chelsea and Liverpool reappeared on the pitch. Could our lively form continue into the second-half? We bloody hoped so, but there was another enforced change early on. Willian, injured – oh our bloody injury list – was replaced by Jorginho, and there was a shift of Mason Mount out wide.

The game continued with the same noisy support cascading down from the stands. The Matthew Harding seemed particularly up for it, no doubt aided by some interlopers from The Shed who had been displaced by the northern hordes. The game had lost little of its attraction in the first half. On the hour, a fine cross field ball from Dave opened up the Liverpool defence but Mount was scythed down. I honestly thought that the position of the resulting free-kick would be too central, too flat. But to my surprise, Mason dug one out. Sadly, the fine effort bounced on top of Adrian’s bar.

So close.

On the hour, too, a loud and beautiful chant was aired for the very first time.

“One Billy Gilmour. There’s only one Billy Gilmour.”

Just three minutes later, with Chelsea defending, Pedro – bless him – nipped in to win the ball and Giroud jumped so well to move it on. The ball fell at the feet of Ross Barkley, still in his own half. I reached for my camera.

“Here we go.”

I sensed a huge chance.

Barkley ran on, and on, and with Pedro in acres to his right, I half-expected a slide rule pass. But he kept running, despite being chased by two defenders, and with one recovering defender goal side. He kept going. A shimmy, a shot – CLICK.

Adrian was beaten.

A goal.

Oh get in you bastard.

I was full of smiles, but clicked away. I had only recently mentioned to Alan that “I bet Barkley would love to score tonight.”

His slide was euphoric.

Up the fucking Toffees, up the fucking Chelsea.

Chelsea 2 Liverpool 0.

Just beautiful. The goal had come at just the right time. Liverpool had been clawing their way back into it a little.

Another lovely chant was bellowed from the lungs of the Matthew Harding Lower.

“One decent Scouser. There’s only one decent Scouser. One decent Scouser.”

Bliss.

Incredibly, from a Liverpool corner, Rudiger headed strongly out and Pedro – bless him – picked up the pieces, and his little legs went into overdrive. I reached for my camera once more.

“Here we go.”

His legs pumped away, but as he ate up the ground I sensed he was tiring. His shot, after a long run, lacked placement and Adrian easily saved.

In the last segment of the match, with Liverpool fading, Giroud capped a very fine performance indeed by forcing himself to reach a lovely pass from Dave, strongly fighting off challenges, but Adrian was able to touch the effort onto the bar and down.

Liverpool were chasing a lost cause now. Late substitutions Firmino and Salah added nothing.

It was Chelsea who finished the stronger, with shots from Mount and Giroud continuing to test Adrian. Gilmour had a quieter second-half, but one dribble late on made us all so happy.

“One Billy Gilmour.”

Indeed.

Reece James replaced the fantastic Giroud in the final few minutes.

The final whistle signalled the end.

“One Step Beyond.”

It had been a game for the ages.

As we bundled down the steps, and onto the Fulham Road, everything was fine in our world.

Into the last eight we went.

Yet another FA Cup appearance? It’s a possibility.

In 1920, the FA Cup Final stayed at 0-0, and Aston Villa – much to my grandfather’s approval – won 1-0 in extra-time with a goal from Billy Kirton.

However, as my dear grandfather Ted Draper travelled back by train with his pal that evening, back to beautiful and bucolic Somerset, he had another match on his mind.

On the Monday, he met with his new love, and nervously chatted.

He would later marry Blanche in the summer of 1925. My mother Esme would arrive in 1930, and the rest, as they say in Liverpool, is history.

Tales From Wet Watford

Watford vs. Chelsea : 2 November 2019.

…although I did not watch a single second of the game, I soon learned that England Rugby had mirrored Chelsea Football Club in failing to become World Champions in Yokohama.

There. That’s my first rugby reference for a few years out of the way.

This weekend was all about football. It was all about Watford away. This was an early evening kick-off at 5.30pm. This meant that I didn’t really need to leave at the crack of dawn or the crack of anything for that matter. I picked up PD at 11am and then made my way to collect Parky. All evidence suggested a stunning autumnal morning. For a while – over an hour – the fine weather continued. It was one of those mornings that made driving a pleasure. Bright skies, a sky bursting with differing cloud formations, the fields rimmed with various autumnal hues, leaves on the change. A perfect football day. The slip-up against Manchester United during the week had been confined to the past. The immediate future was all about league points, and away points, which we have regularly amassed since the loss at Old Trafford. We were looking for our fifth consecutive away win in the league.

I stopped for a coffee at the halfway point, Reading Services, but then the rain started. It was a horrible reminder of the previous weekend’s drive to Burnley.

Nevertheless, I was parked-up in our usual spot in Watford at just before 2pm. Unlike the mighty seventy-five games against Manchester United, this was only game number nineteen against Watford, and only my seventh away game, all since 2007, at Vicarage Road. I am a late bloomer when it comes to Watford.

As far as I have worked out thus far, the Hertfordshire town does not offer too much to the football visitor aside from the ridiculously well stocked High Street; many bars and restaurants, cafes and nightclubs sit cheek-by-jowl on this pedestrianised road and we have noted a new shopping centre that has risen at the southern end during our past few visits. We have generally fared well at Vicarage Road but the 4-1 shellacking in 2017/18 still hurts.

Our most famous match at Vicarage Road was – possibly – in 1981/82 (and my match day companion Alan would mention it during the game) when Chelsea supporters were on an away ban yet around three thousand Chelsea showed up, and the local police decided that it would be far wiser to let them all in to the stadium than have them roam around the town centre – pubs closed at three o’clock in those days – for hours on end.

On Tuesday night, it has been decided that Ajax will not be allowed in to Stamford Bridge after previous misbehaviour, but the Watford policy of 1982 will not be followed. We have all been warned to bring along photographic identification with our match ticket prior to entering Stamford Bridge.

They – the Dutch –  shall not enter.

It all seems a bit draconian to me. And with no away fans to stir up some energy and emotion in the stadium, we will probably witness the flattest ever atmosphere for a Champions League home game.

The Watford High Street might well have been crammed with pubs and bars, but we chose our usual hostelry right on the northern boundary. It would be our third visit to “The Horns” and two good friends were waiting for us.

Ollie and Julien, two proud Frenchmen from Normandy, had been in the pub since midday. As soon as I walked in, I welcomed them.

“Bonjour, mes amis.”

They were last with us for a pre-match drink at home to – ironically – Watford last Spring. In fact, the first time that I ever met Ollie, after being Facebook friends for quite a while, was before the Watford away game in 2016/17, just before Antonio Conte got it together with his 3-4-3.

We spent a fine hour and a half in their good company before they had to head off to sort out Julien’s match ticket. We delved back in to Ollie’s personal Chelsea story. I am always pleased to hear from our many overseas’ supporters about their individual journeys. They can be wide and varied. Ollie’s story began in around 1984, listening in to our football on the old Radio Two in his home village in Northern France. He was drawn in with talk of the atmosphere in and around our games, but also he hinted that the rowdier nature of our support beguiled him, as it did many at that time.

I agreed.

“There was an edge to football. It made for a raw atmosphere. But it was also pretty scary at times.”

Olllie’s first Chelsea match was at home to Sheffield Wednesday in August 1989. He just loves the club. And he has some fine credentials. He comes over three or four times every year. He is a familiar passenger on the crossings between Dieppe and Newhaven. We listened intently as he spoke of his deep passion for our club.

I joked with him.

“You are our most famous French fan.”

Tattoos were shown. PD and LP joined in.

Shirts were taken off.

I stepped nervously from one foot to the other.

“OK. Moving on.”

Regardless, it was magical to hear of his Chelsea past.

Conversely, any journey that begins “I started playing as Chelsea on FIFA” is not so well received.

Outside the weather had deteriorated significantly. We watched aghast as new customers entered the busy pub with their outer layers completely drenched. On the twenty-minute walk to Vicarage Road, past pubs teeming with people, we were drenched too. It was as bleak an afternoon that I can remember.

At about 4.45pm we met up with friends from Yeovil and PD’s match ticket was sorted. There were ridiculous rumours floating around about Aston Villa beating Liverpool at home and Southampton winning at Manchester City. Sadly, these games ended up being won by the usual suspects. At least Arsenal dropped points at home to Wolves.

We were inside Vicarage Road good and early for a change. In the same way that it had not seemed possible that it had been ten full months that I had sat at the bar in “The Horns” – on Boxing Day 2018, hanging my coat on the “fighting octopus” beneath the bar, supping a lager – neither did it seem wholly believable that it was ten months that we had all last visited this now familiar away stadium, these same seats too, more or less. It seemed closer, maybe a few months back, not almost a whole year ago. All of these games, these away games, getting joined up – dot to dot – and I wondered how long all of these dots would continue to be joined. If Watford didn’t buck their ideas up, this sequence might not be continued next season.

Out in the ridiculously packed concourse at the top of the away seats, four fans were singing a previously unheard of song that referenced – painfully – David Luiz, Fikayo Tomori and the size of the latter’s manhood.

Good grief.

Thank heavens I never heard it during the game.

The minutes ticked by. Familiar faces everywhere.

“Z Cars” played on the PA, but it seemed out of place. Everton, yes. Watford, no.

The rain was still lashing down as the teams emerged from the Elton John Stand. There were considerable numbers of unoccupied seats in all home areas. As this was the nearest Watford home game to Remembrance Day, we observed a minute of silent appreciation, all players with their arms linked.

I bowed my head.

Sadly, some late arrivals in the away concourse needed to be “shushed.”

Our team lined up as below –

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic – Mount

Pulisic – Abraham – Willian

Watford have ditched the yellow and black stripes of last season and now wear yellow and black halves. I like neither.

We began attacking the home end. After just five minutes, we were in rapture. The ball was played back to Jorginho, quite deep, and without so much as a blink of an eye or a break in step, he played a curling, sweeping ball over the heads of a few Watford defenders and – right on the money – in to the path of Tammy Abraham, who was in a dead central location inside the box. Tammy met the ball just before it became within Ben Foster’s reach and he guided it over the Watford ‘keeper and into the now vacated goal. The net rippled. We roared. Tammy raced over to the goal-line in front of the home fans and slid on his knees.

What a bloody pass. What a bloody goal.

The away end roared some more.

The assist from Jorginho, utterly perfect in strength and trajectory, was the pass of the season thus far. And it was warmly appreciated by all. In the Norwich match report, I noted how our passes into the final third were much more varied than the claustrophobic monotony of last season. Here was proof. A ball swung in from deep, the defenders unable to cope, a striker waiting to pounce.

Boom.

It was some goal.

“Oh Tammy, Tammy. Tammy, Tammy, Tammy, Tammy Abraham.”

So, we were 1-0 up early on. Before the game, I had joked with a few mates how we were likely to be treated to another 4-1 or 4-2 away day goal fest. We dominated possession, but on the rare instances that Watford summoned up enough courage to attack us our defence looked in control. In fact, at times our defence looked too calm. I know we like to smother the ball and pass it out, but sometimes our tendency for Kepa, especially, to play balls to defenders who have opponents breathing the same air as them is inviting trouble. Sometimes an agricultural “hoof” up field is quite acceptable.

It really is.

I turned to Alan :

“This new rule about goal kicks being allowed to be played to defenders inside our box. It doesn’t mean that they have to every single time.”

There was a rare Watford poke at goal which was easily saved by Kepa.

Still the rain came down.

“Jorginho. Jorginho. Jorginho, Jorginho, Jorginho.”

Watford are not known for their support and I noted that I had not heard a single shout from their fans all game. Watford are such an inoffensive club. They are the chicken korma of the Premier League.  I waited and waited for a song from them.

I love to see Mason Mount running at defenders – he is so natural – and one such run resulted in a shot on goal. From the block, Tammy pestered the Watford goalkeeper but Foster saved well again. From a corner, a fine leap from Christian Pulisic forced a very fine acrobatic save from a back-peddling Foster.

All this before twenty minutes.

We were loving it.

Out of nowhere came a loud chant from within the travelling two thousand supporters in support of Gianluca Vialli, who is battling cancer. We all joined in.

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

He was, of course, manager at Watford for a while after he left us in 2000.

Just in front of us, down towards the corner flag, there was a ridiculous few seconds of showboating between Kovacic and Jorginho. The ball was kept alive with a tantalising medley of flicks and kicks. It paid off, but I had to wonder if that sort of stuff should best be saved for when we are 4-0 or 5-0 up. Regardless, we got away with it.

There was another rare Watford attack, and a low shot from Gerard Deulofeu that whizzed past the far post. In truth, Kepa had been rarely tested.

We watched as Mount wriggled in from the left-wing, hopscotched past challenges, and then whacked a fine shot at goal. But the resolute Watford goalkeeper thwarted us once more, leaping high and touching the goal bound shot onto the bar. He had been, undoubtedly, our first-half nemesis.

I wished that Foster had fucked off to Gloucester in this shower of rain.

Reaching my seat at the end of the interval, I spotted Ollie and he came over to join us in row HH for twenty minutes or so.

Still the rain fell.

Deulofeu ran at our defence early in the second-half and he rolled the ball square to Andre Gray but a brave block by Kurt Zouma – no longer the nervous wretch of the first few games of the season – came to the rescue.

As the game developed along similar lines as the first-half, it seemed that Mateo Kovacic was everywhere; twisting and turning out of trouble, striding confidently with the ball, allowing others to move before passing to their feet. The away crowd soon rewarded this very fine masterclass in midfield dominance.

“Kovacic. In the middle of our pitch.”

Willian burst through the midfield and set up Mount with a perfect pass. Doctor Foster clinically removed the threat with yet another fine save.

Just after, a very similar run from Willian in the same area and the ball was dispatched out to Tammy right in front of us. His low cross into the six-yard box was prodded home by Pulisic. It was another lovely move. Tammy waited for his team mates to celebrate with him. I was pretty lucky to be able to snap away as the players swarmed a mere thirty-feet or so away.

“Ole, ole, ole, ole – Chelsea, Chelsea.”

Lovely.

Fun and games in the way end were then abruptly halted.

“USA. USA. USA. USA.”

No. Just no.

Kovacic, in the middle of his pitch, dribbled forward and set up Pulisic. Another great stop from Foster. We were attacking at will now, with Kovacic himself and then Tammy – twice – going close.

I was still – honestly – waiting for the first Watford chant of the day, as indeed were many more in our support.

“Watford – give us a song. Watford, Watford – give us a song.”

(a quick reality check. I am a fifty-four-year-old man detailing how one set of football supporters were goading another set of football fans into singing support of their team. Is this a reasonable thing to do? All a bit childish, innit? Yep. Guilty.)

With a quarter of an hour to go, how we all wished that Kovacic or Jorginho had “hoofed” the ball away, but instead the “to me, to you” nonsense inside the Chelsea box resulted in a challenge between Jorginho and Deulofeu.

The referee firstly seemed to signal a goal-kick.

Then, a delay.

Then, VAR.

Then, a delay.

It is of my opinion that there should be a twenty-second-time limit on VAR decisions. If nothing can be decided within twenty seconds, nothing is clear, therefore the original decision stands.

We waited.

And waited.

A cure for cancer was found, Parky bought a round, Brexit negotiations reached a conclusion, World poverty was no more, oil companies acknowledged climate change, Lenny Henry was funny again, Israelis and Palestinians signed a peace-pact, Donald Trump said something insightful and Tottenham won a trophy.

Then, a penalty.

A replay – just once – of the “challenge” was shown on the TV screen in the stadium.

The Chelsea crowd were incandescent.

“FUCK VAR. FUCK VAR. FUCK VAR, FUCK VAR, FUCK VAR.”

(a quick reality check…I am a fifty-four-year-old man…is this a reasonable thing to do? All a bit childish, innit? Yep. Guilty.)

Deulofeu rolled it home.

Game…as they say…on.

Despite this lifeline, many Watford fans decided to join those that had already left at 0-2.

Morons.

There was an instance, not long after the Watford goal, when some – many – in our section were shouting for VAR after a decision went against us.

For.

Fuck.

Sake.

The world is full of fucking idiots.

Michy Batshuayi came on for Tammy with two minutes to go, and spun himself in to space, but was thwarted.

Deep in injury-time, a free-kick to Watford was awarded around thirty-five yards out. Foster joined the attackers inside the box. Our nerves were being tested. I was tempted to use my sports-mode setting on my camera, but – always so superstitious – I remembered the United goal last Wednesday.

“Nah.”

The ball was sent in. The ball was flicked on. It found a Watford head – Foster, it had to be him – and the ball was, in my mind, goal bound.

We had fucked it up.

But no. We saw the jade green of Kepa lunge to the left and the ball was spooned away.

Phew.

With that, the referee blew the final whistle.

We had consolidated our place in the top four on top of a pretty pleasing performance.

And then we witnessed one of the highlights of the day. The players came over to thank us for our support and there were smiles aplenty. But all eyes were on Frank Lampard. He walked over, sedately at first, but with each photograph that I took, his emotions took over.

He smiled, he clapped, his eyes twinkled, his smile grew wider, his face was one of pride and joy.

It was – I’ll be honest – quite wonderful.

How good did this all feel?

It felt Franktastic.

NB : No trophies were won by Tottenham.

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.

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Tales From Work

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 19 December 2015.

On most mornings, prior to myself leaving my home to collect the usual suspects en route to football, I invariably post on “Facebook” some sort of Chelsea-related message allied with the phrase “Let’s Go To Work.”

This reflects the rather business-like nature of football these days. It underlines the sense of focus that is required to progress at the top level of football. Over the past few seasons, especially under Jose Mourinho, I have considered it to be most apt. It is the phrase that the Milanese allegedly use, on occasion, rather than a standard greeting such as “good morning.” It cements the predominant work ethic in Italy’s industrial north. I can’t separate this from the old Italian saying “Milan works, Rome eats.” And while other teams and clubs have been doing a lot of eating recently – growing flabby and lazy, lacking focus and determination – Chelsea Football Club has been working hard.

“Let’s Go To Work.”

Work.

It made me think.

To be quite frank, as I stumbled around in the early-morning, for once, a trip to support my beloved Chelsea – never usually a chore – actually seemed like a work day. The decision by the board to dispense with the services of manager Mourinho on the afternoon of Thursday 17 December had meant that, in my mind, the game with Sunderland would not be an enjoyable event. In recent memory, there had been the toxic atmosphere of Rafa Benitez’ first game in charge after the sacking of Roberto di Matteo. I suspected something similar three years on. Yes, this seemed like a work day. A day when my appearance at Stamford Bridge was expected. It was part of my contract. There would be no chance of phoning in for a “sicky”. I had no choice but to don my work clothes, collect fellow workmates and “clock on.”

Chelsea? I’d rather be in Philadelphia.

There was even a small part of my mind that was glad that I had a duty to collect Glenn and Parky and to drive them to London. I was also glad that my local team Frome Town were away, at Kettering Town. Who knows what thoughts might have been racing through my mind had this just been about Chelsea and me, with the Robins playing a home game just three miles away.

In all honesty, it is very unlikely that I would forgo a Chelsea home game for a Frome Town game, but that the fact that I was even thinking these thoughts is pretty significant.

I collected Glenn and on the drive over the border from Somerset to Wiltshire, we spoke about the troubles and travails of Chelsea Football Club. There was talk of player power, a lack of summer signings, Mourinho’s intense and relentless demands, and dissension in the ranks. Not many stones were left unturned. There was concern that there would be boos for some players. There was never a chance that this would be part of my modus operandi for the day. I recalled, with Glenn, the one moment in my life that I had booed a Chelsea player. Back in 2000, the board chose to sack the loved Gianluca Vialli, and “player power” – yes those words again – was muted as the main reason for his demise. In the much-used phrase of the moment, Vialli had “lost the dressing room.” Frank Leboeuf was seen as one of the main instigators. In the home game which followed Vialli’s demise, against St. Gallen, as Leboeuf came over to retrieve the ball from a ball boy, a section of the crowd collectively decided to let him have it. I momentarily joined in the booing. If people think that I like Mourinho, I simply loved Vialli. However, the look of disbelief on Leboeuf’s face – of bewilderment and shock – quickly made me rue my actions. There would be no more boos from me.

As I have often said, “it’s like booing yourself.”

But I knew that there would be boos for some Chelsea players later in the day. And although it would not be for me, I wasn’t pompous enough to say that others would be wrong to vent however they felt fit. I usually grumble if there are boos at half-time if there has been a poor performance, but this day would be a bit different.

There were rumours of some players under-performing on purpose. I was not sure of the validity of these rumours, but this would not stop a certain amount of negative noise. I wondered if players would be individually targeted. Or would there be a blanket booing?

“Is that fair though? Not all players should be tarred with the same brush.”

I quickly listed those who I believed should be exonerated from any talk of players conniving against Mourinho.

“Willian stands alone, fantastic season. No problems with him. John Terry has tried his best, as always. And you can’t complain about the two ‘keepers Courtois and Begovic. Zouma too. And Dave. No complaints there. Even Ivanovic, who has had a pretty crap season, but nobody could accuse him of not trying. Cahill and Ramires, not the best of seasons, but triers. Pedro borderline, not great. Remy always tries his best. No complaints with Kenedy. You can’t include Loftus-Cheek as he hasn’t played too much.”

I then spoke of the others. If there was some sort of clandestine plot, then these under-performing players would be my main protagonists, based purely on lack of fight and application.

“No, the ones that you have to wonder about are Hazard, Fabregas, Diego Costa, Matic and even Oscar. Those five. So it’s only those five in my book.”

We very quickly spoke about our options for a new manager. Glenn made a very insightful comment about the world of top class football managers.

“Maybe there will be some sort of reaction against Chelsea. These managers obviously speak to each other. If they see that Mourinho didn’t last, maybe they will shy away from it. Too much a poisoned chalice. Too much pressure.”

Inside the pub, and outside in the beer garden, the troops assembled from near and far. The weather was mild for December. And the debate about Mourinho was mild too. Several of us spoke in little groups about the state of the nation. And all of it was level-headed and intelligent. It was good stuff, and I only wish that I could remember more of it to share here.

Rather than limit the discussion to a stand-off between Mourinho and players, which undoubtedly the media seem to want to focus on, we broadened it to include the whole club, embracing the various strands of its operation. We spoke about the ridiculous tour to Australia and the Far East right on the tail of last season. We chatted about a poor pre-season and questioned why the players were flown in to our three games in the US from a base in Montreal in Canada. We moaned about Mourinho’s increasingly weary outbursts and his tendency to blame others. For sure, his complex character was discussed. We questioned a very ineffectual set of summer signings. I condemned the over-long obsession with John Stones. We were annoyed with our manager’s continued reluctance to play our heralded youngsters.

“What has Loftus-Cheek got to do to get a game?”

“Say what you like about Benitez, but at least he played Ake.”

We grumbled about Michael Emenalo.

“Out of all the wonderful players that have come through this club over the past twenty years, surely we could find someone of greater credibility and standing than Emenalo. Our club, the director of football and other key positions, should be stacked full of former players.”

There was one point that took a few minutes to discuss.

“What I don’t understand, is that if Mourinho was having problems with some key players – maybe those five named above – why did he constantly pick them?”

Yes, that was the real conundrum of the day.

Fabregas was only recently dropped, yet has struggled for months. Matic awful all season long. Costa has lacked focus. Hazard has either suffered a horrendous drop in confidence – quite possible – or has not been up for the fight. Either way, he was rarely dropped. Oscar has not shown the fight.

More questions than answers.

The gnawing doubt in the back of my mind was that, despite his former prowess in cajoling the best out of his players, Mourinho had lost that gift. It’s possible.

But here was my last word before the game.

“Regardless of the relationship between Mourinho and the team, on many occasions it seemed to me that the players were simply not trying. And that doesn’t just mean not running around like headless chickens, but not moving off the ball, not tracking back to offer cover for the defenders, not working for each other. They have been cheating us. The fans. Inexcusable.”

That was where the “palpable discord” existed in my mind. Between players and fans.

However, before we knew it, the beers were flowing and our little group of Chelsea lifers from London, Essex, Somerset, Bristol, Wiltshire and Edinburgh were smiling and laughing.

At around 1.45pm, it was announced by Chelsea FC that former boss Guus Hiddink would be rejoining us. I reverted to old habits on “Facebook.”

“Welcome Back Guus. Let’s Go To Work.”

I was inside Stamford Bridge a little earlier than usual. Glenn was in earlier than me and had commented that some players had been booed when the teams were announced for the first time at about 2.15pm.

The team? Much the same as before, but without the injured Hazard.

As the clock ticked, the stadium filled up.

I was pleased to see that the Mourinho banners were still up behind both goals. To drag them down would have been unforgiveable. It was clear that he would remain a presence, spiritually, at our stadium for years.

IMG_4807 (2)

In the match programme, John Terry said that there had not been any player power. In the words of Mandy Rice-Davies :

“He would, wouldn’t he?”

Just before the teams entered, the teams were announced again.

Yes, there were boos. But there were claps and applause too.

The last three names to be announced – 22 : Willian, 26 : Terry, 28 : Azpilicueta – drew most applause, quite thunderous. Zouma was applauded well. I was saddened to hear Ivanovic booed. Others clearly did not share my view of him. Unsurprisingly, Fabregas, Matic and Costa were booed, though of course not by a large number. Many had chosen to stay silent. After all, the naming of the players at this stage every home game is usually met with varying degrees of indifference.

To be honest, as the game began, the backlash was not as great as I had feared. Maybe, just maybe, we are getting too used to all of this. Too used to the serial sackings. Too used to ups and downs and the slash and burn mentality of the current regime. I certainly didn’t feel the venom of the 2012 sacking of Di Matteo.

There can be no doubt that Roman Abramovich, watching alongside Hiddink and also Didier Drogba in his box in the West Stand, had agonised long and hard about the dismissal of Mourinho. For a moment, I had thought that we would ride it out, but no. In the end, there was an inevitability about it all.

The ground was rocking in the first few minutes in praise of our former manager. As we attacked The Shed, I joined in almost without thought.

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

With an almost eerie sense of timing, Branislav Ivanovic rose to head home a Willian corner as the name of Mourinho continued to be sung. In reality, from Sunderland’s perspective, it was that bad a goal that we could have conceded it. An unchallenged header. As easy as that.

We were 1-0 up after just five minutes. There was a roar, but this soon died down.

Soon after, with Chelsea playing with a little more spring to their step, a loose ball fell at the feet for Pedro to smash high in to the Sunderland net. After both goals, the name of Jose Mourinho rung out.

The Matthew Harding, capturing the moment, the zeit geist, burst in to spontaneous song.

“Where were you when we were shit?”

Self-mocking but sarcastic and poisonously pointed, it summed things up perfectly.

Oscar, undoubtedly much improved than during all previous appearances this season, was enjoying a fine game. His long run deep in to the Sunderland box, with the defence parting like the Red Sea, was sadly not finished with a goal. Elsewhere there was more high-tempo interchange, and our play was noticeably more cohesive. How is that possible after months of a more conservative approach?

I wish I knew the answer.

Sunderland hardly crossed the halfway line. It was virtually all one way traffic. Diego Costa, a little more involved in a central position, came close on two occasions.

Our visitors began the second-half with a lot more verve. However, from a counter-attack, Pedro – also showing a lot more zip – raced away before playing in Willian. He touched the ball forward but the Sunderland ‘keeper Pantilimon took him out. We waited as former Chelsea full-back Patrick van Aanholt was attended to, but Oscar coolly despatched the penalty. Again a burst of applause, but this soon died down. In truth, the game continued on with very little noise.

To be honest, a silent protest is difficult to ascertain at Stamford Bridge, since many home games are played out against a backdrop of sweet-wrappers rustling and birds chirping.

Soon after substitute Adam Johnson, booed for other reasons, sent in a free-kick and Courtois could only watch as his parry was knocked in by former Chelsea striker Fabio Borini. Sunderland then took the game to us, and went close on a few occasions. Shots from Borini and the perennial Defoe whizzed past our far post.

I almost expected a second goal.

“It’ll get nervous then, Al.”

Oscar shimmied to make space and hit a fine curler just past the post. Oscar was turning in a really fine performance. We briefly discussed his Chelsea career. He has undoubted potential – skillful, a firm tackler – but that potential is yet to be reached.

It is worthwhile to mention that there was not wide scale booing throughout the game. I was happy for that. However, when Mikel replaced Fabregas and Remy replaced Costa, boos resounded around The Bridge. I looked on as Costa slowly walked towards the Chelsea bench. He looked disgusted. He made a great point in looking – scowling, almost – at all four stands as he walked off. No doubt the noise had shocked him.

It was, if I am honest, as visceral as it got the entire day.

Ramires came on for Oscar. There were no boos. Maybe the Stamford Bridge crowd were changing their opinions, being more pragmatic, more forgiving.

There were a few late chances, with one being set up by a run from Jon Obi Mikel deep in to the Sunderland box. Yes, it was one of those crazy days.

At the final whistle, there was relief.

Out on the Fulham Road, there were still cries of “Jose Mourinho” but the mood was lighter than before the game.

Back in the car, we were just so happy with the three points and that another tough day was behind us. We quickly recapped on the day’s events, but then looked forward to the next couple of games, when we can hopefully continue some sort of run. It worked out rather well with Guus Hiddink in the latter months of 2008-2009, so let’s hope for a similar scenario.

On hearing that unfancied Norwich City had beaten The World’s Biggest Football Club, I went back on “Facebook” one last time.

“Van Gaal out. He never even won the league last season.”

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Tales From The Sloaney Pony

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 28 October 2012.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

Four words to get the pulses racing.

After our two marvellous wins at Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, I was relishing this one – of course – and was fearless, despite our poor performance in Donetsk on Tuesday.

Sunday couldn’t come quick enough. Saturday was a blur.

Overnight, winter had arrived. The clocks went back an hour and the temperature had dropped. Despite the potential luxury of an extra hour in bed, I was up and at’em on Sunday morning.

There is always something special about going to football in October, with the trees changing colours and the first breath of winter giving the air a chill. In fact, it caught me unawares. Like a rabbit caught in the headlights, I stood in my bedroom for a good ten minutes, befuddled and confused, trying to work out the best combination of shirt/pullover/top/jacket to wear for the first cold trip of the season. I eventually chose a white polo shirt. I then pinned my Remembrance Day poppy on a navy blue pullover and I was away.

I collected Young Jake in Trowbridge, Wiltshire’s county town, at 11am and we headed north to the M4 and then east to Chelsea Town.

This would be Jake’s first sighting of Manchester United and he was clearly “buzzing.” Due to Chelsea’s liking of Second Division football in the days of my childhood and youth, my first sighting of the famous red shirts took place as late as December 1984, when I was halfway through my nineteenth year. In fact, from the day of my first ever Chelsea game in 1974, the two teams’ paths only crossed on two occasions in the league at Stamford Bridge until that fateful day ten years later. In the first of these ten seasons, 1974-1975, Manchester United found themselves in Division Two while we were toiling in the top flight. In the next two seasons, it was our turn to play in the second tier. In 1977-1978 and 1978-1979, our paths crossed momentarily. Then from 1979 to 1984, Chelsea were back amongst the dead men of the Second Division.

In December 1984, I joined a season-high attendance of 42,000 who assembled on a cold post-Christmas afternoon and watched aghast as United romped to a 3-1 win. This was standard for many years; for ages, Chelsea did well at Old Trafford and United won the spoils at Stamford Bridge. From around 1967 to 1987, we were undefeated at Old Trafford. United’s ascendency over us at HQ only really lilted in 2002, after years of domination. I can still taste the bitterness of those 3-2, 4-1 and 3-0 defeats in 1994, 1995 and 2002, to say nothing of the 5-3 F.A. Cup defeat in 1998 and the Champions League loss in 2011.

However, over the past ten seasons, we have been undefeated against United at Stamford Bridge in the league. I chatted about some of these games with Jake as the rain started to increase. There have been some crackers; the undoubted highlight being the 3-0 championship decider in 2006. Thank you William Gallas, thank you Ricardo Carvalho and thank you Joe Cole. You wait fifty years for a league championship and then two come together. Superb stuff.

Of course, the best ever memory was from that incredible day in the autumn of 1999 when a rampant Chelsea defeated the treble winners 5-0. What a magnificent performance under the tutelage of Gianluca Vialli. There have been few more pleasurable afternoons in deepest SW6. Bloody hell, even Chris Sutton scored that day. Remember him?

No, I thought not.

At Reading Services, I spotted a chap wearing a New England Patriots shirt and my hackles rose. He was off to Wembley for the annual NFL game. I only heard about this match on the Saturday; the media has been strangely muted about this year’s encounter. I noted that the London Saracens rugby union team played a regular league game in Brussels last weekend. Where will it all end?

I know where it will end.

Chelsea playing a regular season game against Norwich City in Shanghai.

By which time, this particular Chelsea fan will have taken a damn good look at the way football has gone and may well have decided to hang up his boots. I’m fine with watching friendlies in the US and Asia, I’m fine with World Club Championships in Japan, but the regular season is sacrosanct.

Mess with that, dear Football Association, and you might well have lost me, and millions like me.

We rolled into London, the rain thankfully halted, at 1.30pm. Jake sought refuge in The Goose, but I headed down the North End Road and the Fulham Road to Parson’s Green, where I had arranged to meet up with Mike from the NYBs. On my way, I dipped into a betting shop and put a tenner on us to win 5-0.

It has happened before, it could happen again.

I dreamt of a £1,500 treasure chest.

I walked past the site of the former George pub and was dismayed to see that it now houses an estate agent. The George used to house the CFC Yeovil branch on match days back in the mid-’eighties and a few of us from Frome used to spend many an hour with them. Good people. I hardly see any of them these days. I only commented recently that the total of seven regular Chelsea attendees from Frome, all season ticket holders, has withered to just myself.

I walked past Fulham police station just as “Goggles” – one of the local policemen who are always present at Chelsea games, from London to Birmingham to Turin to Donetsk – left the building with four others. The wind was chilling the air, but my warm jacket was doing its job.

The White Horse pub, right on the northern edge of Parson’s Green, is a famous old Chelsea watering hole. I haven’t frequented it for years and years – 1995 to be exact – but it’s a lovely pub. As it is just off the King’s Road, it has always attracted a certain type of clientele. Back in the early ‘eighties, social commentator Peter York dubbed the pretty young things who live in Kensington & Chelsea “Sloane Rangers.” In Chelsea football circles, the White Horse was always called “The Sloaney Pony.” I spent a nice time there, supping my usual one pint of lager; this time it was a crisp Budvar. Mike was giddy with enthusiasm at the thought of seeing the team play once more. His last game was in Miami. I met up with a couple of his UK-based mates and we had a good laugh. Mutual friends were referenced and humorous stories were told. Yet again, the up-coming game was ignored. We spoke, instead, about trips to Munich and Barcelona, the summer tour and Japan.

Stamford Bridge is only a ten minute walk away, past Eelbrook Common and the Pelican pub. I was soon on Fulham Road, outside the West Stand, where a Chelsea brass band was playing “Land Of Hope And Glory”, “Amarillo” and “Blue Is The Colour.” I lost count of the number of tourists I saw with Chelsea / United scarves.

I was in the stadium early. It was too early, in fact. It was 3.30pm. I didn’t know what to do.

The stadium, as always, took a while to reach capacity and I suddenly realised that there were no pre-match songs emanating from stands like in days of old. This is another match day tradition which has slowly died out since the end of the terracing. I remember the days when…oh never mind.

The Chelsea team was unsurprisingly unaltered from the fine win at White Hart Lane. United’s defence interested me; surely we could attack them in the middle, to exploit the pairing of Ferdinand and Evans. Further upfront, Rooney and Van Persie worried me. But this was a game that we could win and win well.

5-0 will be fine, please.

After Neil Barnett had announced the teams, in that rather loud and irritating way of his, he called for silence. Both sets of fans were asked to acknowledge the life of former Manchester United and England winger John Connelly, who had recently passed away.

A short but steady period of applause resounded around the stadium.

United had their usual three thousand and the lower tier, at least, stood the entire game. The home areas eventually were filled to capacity. I tried to spot any empty seats and it was difficult. We were treated to a bona fide full house at last. Maybe we’re getting too used to sight of United and too used to the big games, but the pre-match buzz was sadly lacking inside the stadium. I felt it outside, in the pubs and in the streets, but inside, there was a strange quietness.

The teams entered the pitch. The United contingent had begun singing with a few minutes to go, but we drowned them out. The place was suddenly rocking.

“We know what we are.
Champions of Europe.
We know what we are.”

There were the expected venomous catcalls from the home stands aimed at Rio Ferdinand as the match began, though thankfully none of a racist nature. I’m personally getting bored with it all and it’s time to move on.

Well, what a game. After last season’s rollercoaster 3-3 draw, who could have thought that we could be in for another tumultuous ninety minutes of drama and intrigue, goals and calamity, ecstasy and misery?

After just three minutes, United had struck down our left flank, with Ashley Cole horribly out of position. The arch predator Van Persie struck a shot against Petr Cech’s near post and the ball cannoned in off a hapless David Luiz. And my £1,500 bounty had been blown to smithereens. I gazed skywards, sighed and then muttered something to myself which probably mirrored 95% of what the Chelsea crowd had been singing at Rio Ferdinand.

Soon after, Ferdinand walked over towards us in the north-west corner to receive a ball from David De Gea. The boos cascaded down on him. However, nobody closed him down and he had time to initiate a move down the United left which again caught Cole woefully out of position. The ball cut through our defence like a hot knife through butter. A low cross, a Van Persie shot.

2-0 to United and the game had hardly started.

I looked on as I saw Ferdinand punch the air.

A horrible feeling.

Midway through the first-half, with Chelsea seemingly chasing shadows, Alan leaned over and summed it up.

“They’re better than us. No point disguising the fact. We’re not in it.”

I had to agree.

Every time United broke, we were sent into a tense period of panic. Although Andrei Kanchelskis, Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs were not playing, this was so reminiscent of the rapid thrusts of the United team from the mid-‘nineties. Alan then made another telling point.

“Our wide men in midfield aren’t providing extra cover on the flanks.”

I had visions of more United goals. It was so imperative that we nabbed a goal before the break, or else I could see United running away with the game in the second-half.

The away fans were bellowing – that bloody awful Cantona song always annoys me – as United punched deep into our defence and we were reeling on the ropes. And then, miraculously, we found our feet and retaliated. I had commented to Alan that “we haven’t even had a corner.”

With that, the rest of the first-half was Chelsea corner after Chelsea corner.

They must have heard me.

De Gea was tested with a dipping and swerving Luiz free-kick, which the ‘keeper chose to save with his feet as he scrambled across his goal. This then set the tone for the rest of the half. De Gea’s goal lived a charmed life as headers from Cahill and then Torres were saved. We kept pushing and the crowd responded. This was more like it.

Just before the break, we were awarded a free-kick. Every outfield United player crowded into the penalty area, forming a formidable barrier to Juan Mata. I clicked my camera just as the little Spaniard clipped the ball past the tight huddle of intertwined red and blue shirts and into the goal.

It was an inch-perfect strike and the ball caressed the side netting as it entered the waiting goalmouth.

Stamford Bridge shook as the 38,000 home supporters roared.

Phew. We had scored that all important goal before the break.

Game most definitely on.

At the break, Neil Barnett appeared by the tunnel with a little girl and he announced that she was watching her first-ever Chelsea game. Her face appeared on the large TV screen above the United fans just as Neil told the story of her father scoring at Old Trafford in 1996. I quickly computed that little Amelia’s father was none other than Gianluca Vialli. As Luca was seen nut-megging the United ‘keeper, the memories flooded back. I am sure this was Luca’s first official return to the Chelsea fold since he was unceremoniously sacked in September 2000, though he is a season ticket-holder to this day.

He remains one of my very favourite Chelsea heroes.

The Juventus background, the cheeky smile, the cashmere cardigans, the self-effacing humour, the hilarious use of cockney phraseology, the goals and the glory.

A proper gentleman, a lovely man, a funny guy, a true Chelsea legend.

Ah, we loved Vialli.

One memory always brings a smile to my face to this day. After a game at Nottingham Forest in 1999, my then girlfriend Judy – who had a massive crush on Luca – and I waited for the players to board the team coach in the Forest car park. I took a few photos of the players as they were being mobbed by the crowd, but I then realised that Judy was missing. After a few moments, I looked up to see her standing right next to Luca by the door to the coach. She had simply sidled up alongside him and had held his left hand for a few seconds as he signed autographs with his right hand. He then realised what was going on and gave Judy a smile, and then signed her hand.

Judy bounced over to show me, her face beaming.

She didn’t wash her hand for a week.

The United players were first to appear back on the pitch after the break. I wondered what extra words of encouragement Di Matteo was imparting to the team. Di Matteo is from the same stock as Luca; calm, modest and a gentleman. I struggle to think he gets overly irate about anything. This was a big test for him, though. We waited for the Chelsea eleven to reappear.

The second-half was a travesty.

We began with gusto, as we attempted to prise gaps in the United defence. After some sustained Chelsea pressure, the impressive Oscar clipped the ball in to the six yard box where a seemingly unmarked Ramires was able to head the ball home.

He doesn’t score many, but when he does…

Now the stadium almost went into orbit.

The United fans fell silent as the Chelsea legions bellowed –

“You are my Chelsea.
My only Chelsea.
You make me happy when skies are grey.
You’ll never notice how much I love you.
Until you’ve taken my Chelsea away.
LA LA LA LA LA
LA LA LA LA LA
OH OH OH OH OH
OH OH OH OH
OH OH OH OH OH
OH OH OH OH
Until you’ve taken my Chelsea away.”

Stamford Bridge was the loudest it had been since that date with Barcelona last spring.

But then, just as we were in the ascendency, smelling blood, our game plan was forced to change. A quick United break, Ashley Young through on goal, with Ivanovic giving chase. Within a blink of an eye, a tangle of legs and Young was sent sprawling.

It was a clear red, even allowing for David Luiz in the vicinity. It was unlikely that Luiz would have covered.

Damn it.

Chicarito, who scored against us at home last season, came on for United. Di Matteo brought on Azpilicueta.

It got worse.

Fernando Torres, who was tending to hold the ball a little too long for my liking, set off on a run deep at the heart of the floundering United defence. I didn’t think that he would be able to get past the defenders, so it was with relief when Evans hacked him down. I then wondered if Evans had been booked (he hadn’t) and if the referee would send him off for the second offence.

Imagine our horror when Clattenburg decided that it had been a dive from Torres. This was a second yellow and so, Torres was given his marching orders. Torres looked heartbroken. I was speechless. The United fans gleefully waved him off the pitch. After last season’s miss at Old Trafford, I really felt for him. He acts as a totem of all that is wrong about Chelsea in the eyes of many opposing fans.

We were down to nine men with twenty minutes to play.

With the crowd galvanised against Clattenburg and the opposition alike, the noise levels stayed high and the atmosphere was certainly intense. However, United soon seized their chance to strike. Van Persie wiggled one way and then the other before striking low at Cech’s goal. The ball squirmed away from his grasp and spun slowly towards a post. No United players were on hand to poke it home but the ball was knocked back into the crowded box by Raphael. Chicarito – it had to be him – prodded the ball in after coming back from behind the goal line. Incoming texts suggested that he had been offside when he delivered the final coup de grace. However, the area was so crowded and the ball in was so quick, that it was not readily apparent in my eyes at the time.

With the odds heavily stacked against us, an equaliser seemed impossible. We never gave up the fight, though. Our nine men gamely searched for that illusive goal. A fine example of this was a scintillating run by the impressive Eden Hazard deep into the United box.

The game continued on with five minutes of extra time, but it wasn’t our day.

All around me, Chelsea fans were moaning about Clattenburg, but I really wanted to get home and watch the match highlights on TV before I made up my own mind.

By 10.45pm, I was moaning too.

There were defensive lapses during the game for sure. David Luiz can be world class and class clown in the same passage of play. Our defence misses John Terry. Against United, frailties will always be exposed. But we showed a lot of fight and courage in that middle third of the game. I saw promising signs. Against Arsenal, Tottenham and United we have gathered six points. Both United and us will be in the mix at the top end of the table come May.

And on Wednesday, we meet again.

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