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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