Tales From Number 686

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 12 November 2022.

There was a moment, not too long ago, when I was looking ahead – but not looking forward – to the enforced break during play in November and December, and I commented to some friends that it was possible for us to be tucked in nicely behind the top two or three teams by the time we played at Newcastle United and for us to then solidify our position in the top four on our return to action after Christmas.

It’s quite likely that this was my opinion after the game in Austria. But look what has happened since. A shocking performance and a heavy defeat at Brighton, a narrow win over Dinamo Zagreb at home, another terrible showing at home to Arsenal, and a loss at Manchester City.

The fixture at St. James’ Park was always going to be a tough one, but it now became even more difficult. We were playing against a team that was now enjoying a real surge in performances and self-confidence, while we were limping along, beset with injury problems, floundering under a new coach, square pegs in round holes, desperate to get to the winter break and with “damage limitation” as a new buzz-word around town.

As the game approached, I would have gambled everything on a dour 0-0 draw, just to avoid the inevitable backlash. The last thing we needed was three consecutive league defeats to take us into almost seven weeks of introspection, self-doubt, worry and possibly decay.

A big game? Oh yes.

It was also a landmark game for me. This would be Chelsea game number 1,372. Now there’s nothing special about that number in itself, but it would mark a special moment in my recent “Chelsea history.”

The first game that I wrote up a detailed account of my match-day meanderings in a regular blog format was the Champions League Final on 21 May 2008. This was game number 687. For those who are half-decent at mathematics, hopefully a few numbers will drop into place. The game at St. James’ Park would exactly split the number of total matches that I have seen into two; 686 games without a blog, 686 games with a blog.

And, as luck would have it, a nice bit of symmetry too; my first game was against Newcastle, the last game would be against them. The added dimension of this moment is that it would come right on the start of the enforced winter break this season.

So, some numbers.

Game 1 : Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, 16 March 1974.

Game 686 : Chelsea vs. Bolton Wanderers, 11 May 2008.

Game 687 : Chelsea vs. Manchester United, 21 May 2008.

Game 1,372 : Newcastle United vs. Chelsea, 12 November 2022.

Let’s get going with match report 686.

I booked flights from Bristol to Newcastle ages ago. I gave myself a little wriggle-room, Friday night to Sunday night. It was a steal; just £60 return. The announcement of a 5.30pm kick-off on the Saturday evening ticked just about every conceivable box available, plus possibly some others that we were not even conscious of.

Three days and two nights in The Loony Toon?

Let’s gan, like.

I worked a 7am to 3pm shift on the Friday and picked up Lord Parky at 3.30pm. Not long into the drive down to Dodge to collect P-Diddy, Lordy realised that he was missing his credit card. I turned my car around and headed back.

We both found it odd that when we called back at his house, his partner Jill looked a little shocked to see us; a full-on marching band with majorettes were parading past, the small close had been decorated with flags and bunting, and there was a street party in full flow.

Jill looked embarrassed.

Parky soon found his credit card.

“Awkward this, Parky. Awkward.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll have words with Jill when I get back from Newcastle.”

I collected PD at 4.15pm, and we then got caught up in some slow moving over traffic over The Mendips but pulled into the Long Stay at Bristol Airport at about 5.15pm.

Check in was easy. A coffee to kill some time.

“You can be sure there will be someone we know on the flight.”

Lo and behold, as we walked towards our departure gate, we spotted the two Andys and Zippy from Trowbridge with Steve from Weston in the bar. I reminded Steve that the first time I had met him was on a return flight from Newcastle in 2015 and we then both caught an onward flight over to Porto a few hours later.

A downer was the £24 we had to pay for our hand baggage.

“EasyJet never charged that for Turin. Bollocks.”

My reputation as a logistical expert was in tatters.

The flight to Newcastle left a little late at 7.30pm but we touched down at Newcastle at 8.10pm, on time. We took a sherbet dab to our apartment in Benwell. Initially, PD was all for a couple of quiet pints in a local pub, but I had already completed some reconnaissance and there was nothing near. Some friends were already plotted up at a pub that we knew so, with a little gentle persuasion from Parky and little old me – I am serious – PD agreed that we would hit the town, er toon.

An hour after touching down on Tyneside, we were in a cab into the city.

What followed was one of the great Chelsea nights. We started in “Rosie’s” under the shadow of St. James’ Park, just two hundred yards away, with friends Gillian, Kev, Rich from Edinburgh and Matt from Perth in Australia, I had met his father Ian in Perth for the Chelsea game in 2018. We were then joined by Al and Daryl who had travelled up by train in the morning and also Steve from Salisbury who had taken a very early flight from Heathrow. Paul, Rob, Dave and Glenn, Jason and Cass joined us, then Andy from Trowbridge and Steve from Weston.

“That’s my fault for tagging where we were on Facebook.”

Paul told me that he had lived on Tyneside for a few years thirty years ago, and had visited family in Hexham on this trip. He admitted that it was the passion and euphoria of being in Newcastle when Keegan was manager that actually re-ignited his love for football and Chelsea in particular. I knew exactly what he meant. Keegan was regarded as a veritable Messiah when he played for them between 1982 and 1984, as detailed this season, and he absolutely re-energised the area when he became manager in 1992. I have told the story here how I accompanied my good friend Pete to three Newcastle away games in 1992/93; local games at Bristol City and Swindon plus a game at Brentford when I was in London for the weekend.

We tumbled down into the Bigg Market and enjoyed a pint or two in a surprisingly quiet “Wunder Bar.” We strode further down the gentle slope and into “Pop World” where I had promised to meet up with Donna and Rachel, newly arrived from Heathrow. Dave – “Rees the Fleece” – was there with a few more faces. More drinks, some sing-alongs, some friendly locals handed us shots and some Jaeger Bombs were inevitably downed. PD and I recreated “One Night In Turin” with some “Baileys” and a fine time was had by all. One of us managed to avoid the clutches of a mad local woman, no names, no pack drill. Not that there’s anything wrong with liaisons with local girls in The Bigg Market, cough, cough.

There was even a “Chelsea, Chelsea” chant towards the end that the locals ignored without incident. I wondered if this was the modern day equivalent of taking an end in the ‘seventies.

We caught a cab back to our digs at just after 2am.

I think.

It’s a bit shady.

Remarkably, there was no hangover on the Saturday morning. We all had a lie in but we were soon moving again. At about 11am, a later start than usual, we assembled together for a breakfast at the ‘Spoons on the quayside. The usual suspects, from the night before, soon joined us. A couple of pints soon rejuvenated me. We trotted along by the river and its bridges to meet up with Alan and Daryl, plus Nick and Robbie, at Akenside Traders which is always a hubbub of activity at any time of the day. The place was awash with Chelsea – too many to mention – and the beers continued. I wasn’t paying any attention to the Manchester City vs. Brentford game on TV, but just happened to watch as Brentford scored a ridiculously easy and ridiculously late goal to give them a superb 2-1 win.

From there, we strolled up to “Colonel Porter’s Emporium” and the merry-making continued. I bumped into Adam and some of his Eastern Blues.

Next, a cab up to St. James’ Park, and the Geordie driver was good value for money. He chatted about the Peter Beardsley and Kevin Keegan years; first as both players in 1983/84, then as player and manager in the “second coming” of the ‘nineties. Beardsley was a quality player. I have written before how I loved his trick, the “leg dangle” mid-dribble to put players off. I have never seen any other player do this.

“Have a good time, lads. But diven’t enjoy it too much, like.”

We caught the lift up to the upper level, and we went our separate ways. I had again swapped my ticket with PD so he could watch with Al, Gal, John and Parky. As ever, there were loads of Rangers in the concourse, but I wished that they didn’t sing their songs. At a Chelsea game? Sing our songs. Ta.

I made my way in. Night, of course had fallen by now. Outside the illuminated steel of the stadium, all was dark. The trip, thus far, had been near perfect, but now – alas – it was time for football to spoil it all.

But first, some history.

My “forty years ago” feature focuses on another away game against a team in black and white stripes and black shorts. On Tuesday 9 November 1982, Chelsea travelled to Meadow Lane for a League Cup tie against Notts County, the oldest professional team in the world who were formed in 1862. Unfortunately, Notts – their supporters call the team “Notts” and recoil at the city’s other team being called “Notts Forest” – beat us 2-0 with both goals being scored in the first-half. The gate was 8,852. At the time, Notts were in the First Division after being promoted at the end of the 1980/81 season.

Their one honour was the FA Cup in 1894. Oh, another claim to fame is that a Notts County supporter provided black and white shirts for Juventus way back in 1903. I must say that I love the fact that Juve chose to christen their new stadium in September 2011 with a friendly against Notts County. Amazingly, Notts drew 1-1. Sadly, the team now play in the National League at level five in the football pyramid.  From Turin to Dorking. What a fall from grace.

The usual routine of games at St. James Park took over.

“Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones.

“Blaydon Races” and I found it difficult to join in beneath my breath, it takes me back to my parents teaching me the words ahead of that first ever Chelsea game in 1974.

“Hey Jude” was a new addition, but we again hijacked it.

The locals had their own version anyway.

“La, la, la – la, la, la, la – la, la, la, la – Geordies.”

There were flags and banners in the Gallowgate. Amid the noise, it really felt like a whole city had been energised.

But first, a solemn moment. A poppy amid a sea of white mosaics, similar to us last week, appeared in the seats in the stand to my left, and the teams stood silent as “The Last Post” played.

Complete silence. Well done to everyone again.

Our team?

Mendy

Koulibaly – Chalobah – Azpilicueta

Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Kovacic – Hall

Gallagher – Mount

Broja

I had said all along that I doubted that Lewis Hall would maintain his place despite a decent show at Manchester City md-week.

Eddie Howe vs. Graham Potter.

That rarest of match-ups, two young English coaches, both coming from those hot beds of football, Bournemouth and Brighton. Please excuse my cynicism.

The match kicked-off.

The game took a while to get going and there was a verbal war in the stands to take the place of hostilities on the pitch. I was surprised with how quiet it all was in the vast home areas. A lot of my fellow Chelsea fans agreed :

“No noise from the Saudi Boys.”

“Where’s your famous atmosphere?”

“We’ve won it all, you’ve won fuck all, we’ve won it all.”

Sadly, we had to re-jig our square pegs after just seven minutes when Ruben Loftus-Cheek was injured, to be replaced by Thiago Silva with Dave shifting out wide.

Miguel Almiron, the in-form player, volleyed over after a cross from our right, but chances were very few and far between. As we struggled to get into the game, I had a look around. Next to me were three empty seats. A few empty ones behind me too. This was all the more galling since Gillian and Kev had been unable to secure tickets. All of the home areas looked absolutely rammed. This was a very mild night. One chap to my right was just wearing a short-sleeved polo shirt. Maybe he was that rare breed; a Geordie Chelsea fan. I remember I met one once.

A cross from the enterprising Hall found Armando Broja but his turn and shot ended with a simple save for Nick Pope. I bet the Rangers lot hated that.

Newcastle had much of the ball in that first-half but a mixture of poor final balls, dodgy finishing and desperate blocks from us denied them.

This was a poor game. Chelsea chances were at an absolute premium. I would like to say that we eventually grew into the game but we didn’t. At all.

Shite.

At half-time, Christian Pulisic replaced Dave. Did my eyes deceive me? No, Gallagher went to right wing-back. If we all hang around long enough, we’ll all get to play there.

Newcastle continued on the offensive with brave blocks from our defenders, plus a fine save from Mendy from close-in on Chris Wood. A snapshot from Sean Longstaff flew over our bar.

On the hour, a noisy “Carefree” from us. The home crowd were still pretty quiet, the noise levels only increasing when a move developed, the buzz increasing with their players’ penetration of our half. I remember the days when fans used to sing regardless of the action on the pitch.

Then, quite out of nowhere…

“Stand Up If You Love The Toon” and the loudness knocked my socks off.

That was more like it, Newcastle.

On sixty-five minutes, again out of the blue, a strong run from Pulisic ended up with the ball being pushed into the path of Gallagher who took aim and forced a fine flying save from Pope. It was our best chance of the game by a country mile.

With a quarter of the game to go, Almiron ran in from the right-hand touch line and appeared to me to be lining up a shot. The ball, though, fell nicely for Joe Willock, who swept it high past the dive of Mendy and into the goal.

Bollocks.

The home areas exploded.

“E-I-E-I-E-I-O – Up The Premier League we Go.”

We stood, silent, we had no answer.

“One-nil to the Saudi boys.”

Fackinell.

A triple substitution soon followed.

Marc Cucarella for Hall, a decent showing but no more.

Kai Havertz for Mason Mount, I hardly noticed him.

Hakim Ziyech for Armando Broja, another disappointment.

It was a lost cause. In the dying embers of a shocking performance, Mendy was sent into the attacking third to support a corner to no avail. It all got heated and nasty at the end, when a Geordie substitute was booked for interfering when we tried to take a throw-in. Both sets of players had to be separated at the final whistle.

This malicious mood continued after the game when we were exiting the stands, and were met with some posturing home fans underneath the Leazes End. The moment would probably have passed but we then heard the distinctive sound of police horses getting between the two sets of fans, a sight rarely seen these days, and a sound from a darker era.

The immediate post mortem was brutal.

“Fucking shit.”

Three league defeats in a row,

We walked into town amid some baying Geordies, who were quite adamant that they would become champions. I wasn’t so sure, but their euphoria was tangible. “Wunder Bar” was unfeasibly busy now, so we kept walking and walking into the craziness of a Newcastle night. I spotted three local girls, dolled up to the nines, short skirts of course, stop by a street corner and the loudest of the three took a video-selfie.

“We are the Geordies. The Geordie boot boys. For we are mental. For we are mad. We are the loyalest (sp?) football supporters. The world has eva had.”

I had to admre it.

Parky, PD and I returned to the quietness of “Colonel Porter’s Emporium” – more local ladies, lovely – and we darted into the historic “Crown Posada” and who should be in there but Alan and Daryl.

“Of all the pubs in Newcastle, you had to walk into this one.”

We supped a few more. We were all fed up with our performance but equally philosophical too.

Daryl and I spoke about our huge disinterest in the Qatar World Cup, but both spoke about the seminal book “All Played Out” by Pete Davies that detailed England and the 1990 Finals in Italy. The “all played out” of the title refers to the state of the English game going into those finals; antiquated stadia, the lingering stench of hooliganism and racism, out-dated playing and training methods, disinterest in football by the public at large, football as a niche sport loved only by nutters and – the silent majority to be fair – normal supporters, and a game without much of a future.

The tears from Paul Gascoigne changed all that and the game has not been the same since.

“Now it’s us who are all played out with World Cups, mate.”

We kept drinking.

A late-night kebab and chips and then a cab back to Benwell at about 1am. The night was finished.

On the Sunday, we licked our wounds early on. We caught a bus into the city and then a metro out to Whitley Bay, a first time visit for us all, where we enjoyed some sun, a walk along the seafront and some fish and chips in a friendly restaurant. Then, the train back to the airport and a wait until the 8.10pm flight home. No surcharge on the bags this time, phew. I eventually got in at about 11pm.

It had, of course, been a superb time on Tyneside but…

…fackinell, the football.

Some other stuff.

The game at St. James’ Park, pushed my visits to Newcastle United into the top ten of most visited away venues.

  1. Manchester United 26
  2. Liverpool 25
  3. Arsenal 24.
  4. Tottenham 23
  5. Everton 22.
  6. Manchester City 19
  7. Aston Villa 18
  8. Southampton 18
  9. West Ham 15
  10. Newcastle United and Stoke City 14

And in case anyone is wondering, the “won, drawn, loss” breakdown from those 1,372 games is as follows.

Games 1 to 686.

Won 386

Drew 169

Lost 132

Games 687 to 1,372.

Won 410

Drew 128

Lost 147

And, lastly, with 3,390 words for this one, it brings my total “wordage” to 1,734,583.

However, I’m exhausted. I never thought I’d say it, but I think I need this enforced break. And, to be honest, if the viewing figures of the last three match reports are anything to go by, so do you lot.

Have a great Christmas and see you at Stamford Bridge on 27 December for the Bournemouth game.

Tales From High Noon

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 6 November 2022.

After we traipsed back to the car on Wednesday after the win against Dinamo Zagreb, soaked with the rain, we were well aware of the tough task ahead of Graham Potter’s side before the break in proceedings. We were to play three tough, tough, tough games.

Arsenal at home in the League, Manchester City away in the League Cup and Newcastle United away in the League.

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

To be blunt, the Manchester City game didn’t bother me too much. I had, in reality, already conceded defeat. I just didn’t want us to be embarrassed. As for the two league games, I soon decided that I would be happy with two 0-0 draws. It was all about getting our feet over the line before the season closed down for a break of forty-five long days. If the 2022-23 campaign looked like an assault on Mount Everest, getting to the second weekend of November would be akin to arriving at a pretty significant base camp.

The home game with Arsenal was to kick-off at midday. This was a ridiculous time for a match. It harked back to times in the early to mid-‘eighties when worries about potential hooliganism forced the football authorities to foist such kick-off times on us all. On opening day 1984, for example, our most famous game against Arsenal in that era kicked-off at 11.30am.

But midday in 2022? Oh boy.

My alarm sounded at 4.45am. On a Sunday. A day of rest? Forget it.

My passengers were soon collected; PD and Glenn at 5.45am, Ron at 6am and Parky at 6.30am. As a matter of principle, I never like being late for any pick-ups. And nor does Ron in particular.

“I was only ever late for tackles.”

We were met with yet more horrific weather as we headed towards London. There was so much standing water on the roads that I wondered that if the torrents continued until kick-off, the game might be postponed. Such was our combined fear of getting turned over by Arsenal, a postponement wasn’t looked on as unfavourably as it might have been at another time.

I dropped the others off and then parked the car. The rain had subsided a little, but as I made my way down a deserted North End Road, stopping en route for a rare McBreakfast, my rain jacket was clinging to me, the rain reluctant to stop.

I joined the lads in “The Eight Bells” at just after 10am. We were in there for an hour. There was no talk of the game being called off. Alex – from last Saturday and Wednesday – joined us and was pleased to meet my fellow Chelsea mates at last. He called them “the Three Musketeers” and me “D’Artagnan.” I will not share what I called him. The usual laughs in the pub, the usual characters. It did feel bloody odd, though, to wish a few friends and regulars “Happy Christmas” as we squeezed out of the boozer.

Bollocks to Qatar 2022. It has ruined our season and it has ruined many lives.

We caught the tube to Fulham Broadway. It just seemed all along like a bloody ridiculous time for a game of football, London derby or not.

Forty years ago – to the exact day, Saturday 6 November 1982 – Chelsea had another home derby. We played Crystal Palace at Stamford Bridge in front of a relatively decent 15,169, but the game ended up as a dull 0-0 draw. I won’t detail the Chelsea team on this occasion but, for reference and as a comparison, let me list the Crystal Palace players; Paul Barron, Gavin Nebbeling, Jerry Murphy, Steve Lovell, Jim Cannon, Paul Hinshelwood, David Giles, Henry Hughton, Ian Edwards, Kevin Mabbutt and Vince Hilaire. I recognise all of these names forty years on, with the exception of David Giles, and if pressed I could probably write short pen pictures of them all. Of especial note is Kevin Mabbutt, a former Bristol City striker, whose brother Gary had gone from Bristol Rovers to Tottenham in 1982 and would soon be playing for England. Their father Ray used to play for Frome Town. I mention all of this because I know damn well that I would be hard-pressed to name many of the current Arsenal team that would be playing us on the same date in 2022. I don’t feel any pleasure in saying this. I guess it is a sign of my changing relationship with football and modern football in particular. Outside of Chelsea, I just don’t see much football these days. Oh well.

Glenn was using my ticket for this game as I had picked up a spare. For a change, I would be sat in Gate 17 at the Matthew Harding. It’s an odd section. It’s actually along the side of the pitch, an adjunct to the East Stand, and was built a few years after the Matthew Harding, and joined the two stands together. To be honest, it’s a great area to see the game. My seat was in the second row, just splendid. I soon spotted Mark Worrell a few rows behind me alongside Young Dave and Pav from Bath, heroes of Munich in 2012 and Amsterdam in 2013. I saw that club historian Rick Glanvill was a few seats away. I also spotted Johnny Twelve and his son in an even better viewing position in one of the middle tiers of the West Stand.

By the side of the pitch, former players Emmanuel Petit and Eidur Gudjohnsen. Oh dear, memories of that 2002 FA Cup Final against you-know-who.

As this would be our nearest home game to Remembrance Day, the Stamford Bridge stadium was set up to honour the memory of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. The large letters “Chelsea Remembers” usually occupy the corner of the pitch where I was now located but I was lucky in that this display was now in the opposite corner of the northern end of the stadium. It meant that I was still able to capture it all on camera. Above the Shed End, a banner stated “We Will Remember Them” and the crowd waited for the understated pageantry at kick-off. Two Chelsea pensioners placed wreaths, the players lined up on the centre-circle and “The Last Post” was played by a lone bugler. In The Shed, a sea of white mosaics appeared with a large red poppy in the middle. It didn’t feel right to photograph this, I let the moment pass, and kept my head bowed in silence.

The minute of silence was that. It was unerringly quiet. Well done to all.

Our team?

Mendy

Azpilicueta – Silva – Chalobah – Cucarella

Jorginho – Loftus-Cheek

Sterling – Havertz – Mount

Aubameyang

Their team? Who cares.

So, this was it then. A duel at high noon. A shoot-out between London’s two most decorated clubs.

Arsenal : 31 major trophies.

Chelsea : 28 major trophies.

This was my thirty-seventh game against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. Additionally, I have seen us play Arsenal at six further venues, the most of any club; Highbury, The Emirates, Wembley, Cardiff, Beijing and Baku.

The game began.

From this new vantage point, Stamford Bridge looked different, though obviously familiar. I didn’t like feeling cramped in with spectators to my front, back, left and right. In my usual seat, I have just bodies to my right and in front; to my left steps, a walkway behind. And I took an immediate dislike to the angry man to my left. He quickly annoyed me, telling a chap who was obviously having difficulty to find his correct seat to “fuck off” and soon labelling one of our players with a term that I thought had died a death in the ‘eighties.

On the pitch, Arsenal had begun much the brighter of the two teams and very soon the anger of one man spread to the anger of others. Attacking at will down below me, the chances started to pile up but the Arsenal finishing was errant and did not really trouble Edouard Mendy. An effort from Gabriel Martinelli – I recognised him – flew just over the bar.

We invited Arsenal on, but there was a horrific piece of goalkeeping from Mendy when he almost made a complete hash of passing the ball out of defence. I was reminded of a moment that took place the previous afternoon during the Frome Town vs. Tavistock game that I had watched with a few friends. We were already 2-0 down but we gifted the visiting team from Devon with a third when our ‘keeper made a mess of clearing and an attacker scored his third of his eventual four goals in a shocking 4-0 rout. It was, undoubtedly, the worst Frome Town performance that I had seen for years.

I kept looking at the clock, willing the time to pass quickly. There is no doubt that we had shown a reluctance to piece too many moves together but we were playing a little better than I had feared.

In the midst of strong Arsenal pressure, we enjoyed a rare break. Raheem Sterling ran at pace down our right before switching it to Kai Havertz on our left.

“Go on Havertz, be strong.”

The pace of the move slowed and Havertz methodically advanced. He spotted the run of Mason Mount but a shot was blocked.

Gabriel Jesus – I sadly recognised him too – headed a cross from Martinelli just wide of Mendy’s goal.

Chances were at a premium.

I wanted our support to roar the players on, but it saddens me to say that I could just hear the three thousand Arsenal fans and not us.

That very distinctive “Aaars-e-nal, Aaars-e-nal, Aaars-e-nal.”

The left-footed Odegaard reminded me of Mike Fillery, just the way he caressed the ball forward.

A poor finish from Havertz from a nice move down our right.

“That was a bloody back pass” I moaned.

At the break, there was relief that we were still in the game, despite Arsenal having more of the ball. But, I had to admit it to myself, neither ‘keeper was pressed into a save.

Arsenal still enjoyed more of the possession as the second-half began. Gabriel Jesus forced a near post save from Mendy. From the corner that followed, a slow cross towards to the near post. It seemed to be headed on from the view that I had, and the ball continued on unaided through a forest of players in the six-yard box.

I screamed.

“No!”

Then when the ball was pushed over the line :

“Fuck off!”

Sixty-three minutes had passed.

Then that horrible song.

“One nil to The Arsenal.”

A double substitution from Potter.

Conor Gallagher for the woeful Havertz.

Armando Broja for the equally poor Aubameyang.

I heard the jeering, booing, laughter of three-thousand Arsenal fans.

There seemed to be an immediate increase in our intensity, but for all of the energy of the two newcomers, it was all so disjointed. The Arsenal players were suffocating our midfield and the two in front of the back four – Jorginho and Loftus-Cheek – offered little.

The rain came again, damn it; not another soaking on a wet walk back to the car?

More Arsenal chances, our fight disappeared.

Two more changes.

Christian Pulisic for the almost invisible Mount.

Mateo Kovacic for the disappointing Loftus-Cheek.

Chances in the second-half? I can only think of one, a quick break from Sterling but his cross disappeared into the ether.

The angry man to my left early, and a fair few others left early too. It was a deeply disappointing game for us, and one that left us all wondering about our immediate future. Of our players, only Mendy – several decent saves – and Dave – a steady game in difficult circumstances – were exempt of any negative comments. The rest? Poor. Very poor.

Yes, we got drenched on the way back to the car, but maybe not quite so bad as on Wednesday. Everything was doom and gloom in the first few miles of our return journey.

And I don’t really know how to finish this one. In modern football, everyone reacts to the latest result as if that alone will define our season, our future. That can’t be right can it? I don’t know about Graham Potter. I can’t help feeling that he may not be an upgrade on Thomas Tuchel. But this ain’t his team, maybe not for a while.

The old banalities about time can be trotted out.

We’ll see. We’ll see.

In a moment of whimsy, after I had been back at home for an hour or so, I realised that the quintessentially English phrase “pottering” might well have summed up, cynically, our performance against Arsenal.

“to potter” : verb.

From the Oxford Dictionary : “to do things or move without hurrying, especially when you are doing something that you enjoy and that is not important.”

“Occupy oneself in a desultory but pleasant way.”

“I’m quite happy to potter about by myself here.”

Similar :

Do nothing much.

Amuse oneself.

Tinker about.

Do odd jobs.

Mess about.

Piddle about.

Piddle around.

Puddle about.

Puddle around.

Muck about.

Muck around.

Fanny around.

Footle about.

Footle around.

Lollygag.

Move or go in a casual, unhurried way.

So much for a shoot-out at high noon on this wet and weary day at Stamford Bridge. If it was a shoot-out, somebody must have given us a supply of blanks.

However.

Let’s give the new man a bit of time to sort things out. Rome wasn’t built in a day and other clichés. We were bloody excellent at the San Siro a few weeks ago. We are missing two key players. Maybe three.

On we bloody go.

No midweek trip to Manchester City for me so the next one will be another tough game up on Tyneside.

See you there.

Tales From One Over The Eight

Brighton And Hove Albion vs. Chelsea : 29 October 2022.

So this was it then. The ninth and final game of the month; a trip down to Sussex-by-the-Sea and a match against Graham Potter’s previous team Brighton & Hove Albion. Of the nine fixtures, six would be away from Stamford Bridge but despite this, as far as gathering results, this had been a fine month with six wins and two draws thus far. 

Brighton is a fair old stretch from Somerset.

Or rather, Lewes and Falmer. We wouldn’t be touching the actual city of Brighton.

I set off from my house at 7.45am, and I predicted that I’d be pulling into the car park at Lewes train station at around 11.30am. With me were P-Diddy, Lord Parky and Sir Les. Between the four of us, we have well over two hundred years of Chelsea support.

The weather forecast was decent. I packed a jacket but wasn’t sure that I’d honestly need it. Last season’s trip to the Amex was not a good memory for me. We drew 1-1, no problems with that, but as the game progressed I felt worse and worse. I just wanted to leave. It would transpire that I had caught a stomach bug and would be off work for a week. Grim memories.

1982/83 produced some grim memories too. My fortieth anniversary wallow in our worst ever season continues with a couple of games from that season.

On Saturday 23 October 1982, Chelsea played Charlton Athletic at Stamford Bridge in a Division Two fixture. All the talk leading up to this game focussed on the visitors’ imminent signing of the former European footballer of the year Allan Simonsen. The Danish international was out of favour at Barcelona after the signing of Diego Maradona from Boca Juniors. Spanish clubs at the time were only allowed to field two foreigners and he found himself down the pecking order behind Maradona and the German Bernd Schuster. In a move that I still find bizarre forty years later, he was due to sign for Charlton but the registration was delayed and his debut came a short while after. Looking back, it is hard to believe that the English Second Division in 1982/83 played host to two former European footballers of the year; Allan Simonsen from 1977, Kevin Keegan from 1978 and 1979. Before a crowd of 14,492, Chelsea won 3-1 with goals from John Bumstead, Pop Robson and a screamer from Colin Pates. That evening in Frome, my former love interest Julie made an appearance at a school disco on a brief return to the town and I probably uttered and stuttered less than ten words to her all night. That particular romance was over and I am still hurting now.

During the following midweek, Chelsea won 2-1 at Tranmere Rovers in the League Cup in front of 4,579 with a brace from the veteran Robson giving the club an easy aggregate win and a place in the next round.

Les had been over in Salzburg too, and as I ate up the miles we shared a few tales from Austria. My route took me up the M3, around the M25 and then south on the M23. One sight thrilled me; the road undulating over a series of hills as the South Downs lay ahead. It was just one of those moments that fill me with a sudden and odd burst of pleasure.

Football, travel, the combination of the two and the realisation that this lark is still a joy.

Parky shared a couple of songs from The Jam on his ‘phone as I drove into Lewes from the A27.

“News Of The World.”

“That’s Entertainment.”

As I promised myself, I reached Lewes train station car park bang on 11.30am. Just after, the four of us were drinking in “The Lansdown” pub which had just that minute opened. There were a few Chelsea already there. The first song on the pub’s juke box?

“That’s Entertainment.”

Talk about continuity.

There was a little chat with Cath, Dog and Mark, then another Mark, then Walt. Walt spoke how he wasn’t exactly overcome with enthusiasm for this game and I knew what he meant. Sometimes, you just don’t feel it. Since going away to Austria, I had been getting by on less than sleep than normal. When my alarm sounded at 6.30am – an hour earlier than on workdays, damn it – I just felt tired, so tired. The thought of driving seven hours to-and-from Brighton didn’t exactly have me brimming with excitement.

“But then you see the lads, share some laughs, take the piss out of each other, touch on the game, make plans for the day, reminisce, you’re soon back at it again…”

While the other three stayed inside, I was on my travels. It was glorious outside. From our fleeting glimpses of Lewes on the last few visits, it looked a lovely and historic town. I made my way over the river to a pub called “The John Harvey” where I was meeting up with my Brighton mate Mac and a few of his pals. A chap from Houston in Texas, Alex – a “Facebook” acquaintance – was on his way too, although he was clearly suffering from the same logistical trauma that we experienced between Munich and Nuremburg because he was originally waiting for me in the Lewes Road Inn in Brighton rather than Lewes, the town.

At around 1pm we all met up and we stood outside in the warm sunshine exchanging stories and laughs.

Alex is from Moscow but has worked in other countries for many years. He told a nice story of when he was working in Ireland in around 1992 and a moment that sparked an interest in Chelsea. He was in a bar, Chelsea were on TV, a live game I think, and he recognised someone he knew. It was Dmitri Kharin, our Russian goalkeeper, who he played football with as a teenager. He still had his ‘phone number and they spoke but I don’t think that the two of them ever met, certainly not at a Chelsea game.

We spoke about our first experiences of live football.

My mother and I with a bag of cherries at my first ever match, a Frome Town game in 1970.

Mac with his father at the old Goldstone Ground in 1966 when he was just five, and him being in awe of the whole event. But also a few years later in 1973, when he happened to be at the Brighton ground when newly arrived manager Brian Clough gathered together around thirty young boys outside the entrance and gave them a talk about how he wanted the team to play and, basically, his vision for the future.

Those memories, those feelings for football, these shared stories. Those emotions that get stirred. The friendships. Being among fellow supporters of the game, those that travel to support their team whenever they can. That shared bond.

Ah, football, you beautiful thing.

You beautiful game.

There was a brief mention of the local stadium, the home of Lewes Football Club, which was recently voted the greatest football ground in Britain. Its name is The Dripping Pan, which warrants a medal by itself. Maybe Frome Town will play there in an FA Trophy game one of these days. It looks a cracking venue.

Rush, rush, rush, I know needed to get my arse down to the Amex where I was meeting up with my mates Paul – Benches 1984 – and Andy – Black Bull 1989 – and Andy’s son before the game to sort out tickets. The weather was still warm, so I was able to drop a pullover and a light jacket in my car. A simple T-shirt would suffice.

Alex and I caught the 2.22pm train to Falmer and were soon waking up to the Amex.

I met up with my pals and there was just enough time for a quick photo outside. I had no time to go through the nonsense of yet another tiresome bag search, so I blindsided my way in past two stewards whose gaze was elsewhere.

It was the textbook move of a devious and cunning “false nine.”

Anyway, I was in.

I soon made my way to my seat, tucked to the right-hand side of the goal this year. I half-expected the surroundings of the Amex to rekindle those sickly feelings of last winter, but I was just glad to be healthy, and rejuvenated after a few “diet Cokes” in the two pubs.

Mac – soon spotted by me in the lower tier of the surprisingly large three-tiered stand to my left – had hoped that there would be no booing of Potter by sections of the home fans. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t. In fact, it’s pretty hard to imagine the Brighton fans booing anyone, Crystal Palace apart. They are a gentle bunch.

The team line-ups were shown on the TV screens at either end of the stadium.

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Cucarella

Pulisic – Kovacic – Loftus- Cheek – Sterling

Mount – Gallagher

Havertz

Or something like that.

An Italian flag floated over the heads of those in the home end opposite, marking the arrival of their new manager Roberto de Zerbi.

“Sussex By The Sea” on the PA. Some rainbow-coloured flags were waved on another “Rainbow Laces” day.

“Hey Jude” was aired and we hijacked it once again.

We were dressed in the “muted beige” third kit for the first time and you have to wonder why. Brighton were wearing a jersey with very broad stripes, and it just didn’t look right, with an odd yellow trim. Last year they played in blue shorts. This year they were in white shorts. That lack of an adherence to an established kit would annoy me.

The game began.

And how.

Brighton were breezy. They came at us as if their lives depended on it, and perhaps they did. Thiago Silva miraculously headed away two goal-bound efforts from Leandro Trossard and then the wonderfully named Pervis Estupinan right underneath the cross-bar just a few yards away from us.

A couple of minutes later, they came at us again with Silva being pick-pocketed by Trossard. A neat pass inside by Kaoru Mitoma set up Trossard to round Kepa with some footwork that Fred Astaire would have been pleased with and slot the ball home. This was a real hammer blow. The home fans bellowed as I saw the scorer gurn undeniable pleasure.

Fackinell.

It was all Brighton in that torrid first third of the first-half, and they enjoyed a fair few corners to augment their dominance. From one that was whipped in towards the near post, a Brighton player flicked it the ball on. Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s unfortunate knee-jerk reaction meant that the ball flew past a stranded Kepa.

The home stands were roaring again.

“You’re getting sacked in the morning.”

We had nowhere to hide.

I said to Gary “this could be a rout, this.”

At last, we enjoyed a spell of steadying the ship, with a little more possession. One fine move developed through the middle with Raheem Sterling setting up Conor Gallagher who shot directly at Robert Sanchez. His reaction save allowed the ball to fall for Christian Pulisic. However, he was unable to adjust and his volleyed effort flew past the near post.

The Chelsea support got it together in an effort to rally behind the team.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

But all was not well on the pitch. Marc Cucarella was having a torrid time, and the raids down the Brighton right were leaving him exposed time and time again. I wondered if he was the modern equivalent of Robert Fleck, playing well against us but not so great for us. But where was the cover? He was continually caught ought, but so too was Trevoh Chalobah by Estupinan down the Brighton left. I hadn’t seen our defence run ragged like this for ages.

But the shape seemed to be shapeless. From my far-from-ideal position in row two, it looked like the two appointed wing backs Sterling and Pulisic were never part of our defensive plan. Where were they?

They were so far forward in that opening spell that they might well have been promenading up and down on the Brighton seafront, and just about to dip into the Royal Pavilion. Or maybe having a flutter at the Brighton racecourse. Or re-enacting a few scenes from “Brighton Rock” or “Quadrophenia.” I can just see Pulisic as a bell-boy.

Had they been told to play so forward or were they too lazy to track back? It was a mystery. Answers on the back of a Donald McGill postcard.

Gallagher then glanced a header goal wards but Sanchez saved Brighton again. Then a Kai Havertz effort was tipped around the post.

Brighton hit a post.

Our play wasn’t worthy of the name at times.

“Is Mount playing” I asked Gary.

Just before half-time, we groaned as we witnessed a trademark break down our right with tons of space for Brighton to exploit. I leant forward to get a better view but wished I hadn’t. A low cross from Estupinan was drilled into the box where Chalobah slide to block but could only divert the ball past the hapless Kepa.

Fackinell.

Absolute gloom at the break.

Gary : “I’ll take 3-0 now.”

Indeed, the real worry was of more goals to follow, a cricket-score. Back in the West Country, Frome Town were losing too, 1-3 down at half-time in a derby at Paulton Rovers.

I had spotted that when Kepa sprinted out for a long ball in the first period, he appeared to pull up as if he had sprained something. He did not appear for the second-half, with Edouard Mendy appearing between the sticks at the other end. We moved to a back four with Loftus-Cheek slotting in at right-back. I was reminded of a line from Eric Morecambe.

“We’ve got all the right players. But not necessarily in the right positions.”

Skippy from Brisbane – last seen on these shores at Middlesbrough, but recently in Salzburg – suddenly appeared behind me and I shook his hand.

Not long after I whispered to Gary “get a goal now and we’re back in this”, Gallagher – possibly the best of a poor lot in the first-half – sent over a teasing cross for Havertz to head home powerfully at the far post.

Bosh.

I turned to Skippy : “You’re not going anywhere. You’re a good luck charm.”

Our form definitely improved, with Mount a lot more involved, pushing the team one. A half-chance for Havertz.

Just after the hour, two changes.

Ben Chilwell for Cucarella.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for the utterly woeful Sterling.

The newly-introduced striker ran at the Brighton defence and shot low from the outside of the box but the ‘keeper was equal to it. Shots from Chilwell and Mount were easily dealt with. We kept pushing forward, but I was never convinced of any “Cardiff 1984” style comeback. Brighton were happy to defend and catch us on the break.

A Havertz shot was skied in front of us.

In the last ten minutes, two more changes.

Armando Broja for Pulisic.

Hakim Ziyech for Gallagher.

I looked over to my left and spotted my old pal Chopper from Greenwich Village in New York, veteran of many a trip to these shores to see us play. I hadn’t seen him for years.

The minutes clicked past and by now our away end resembled the arse-end of a wedding reception, with seats left empty and guests already on their way home, the best man speech long-forgotten, debris everywhere, people shuffling away with blank stares on their faces.

Up the other end, Mendy made a fine save to thwart Julio Encisco but Pascal Gross was on hand to tuck in the rebound.

Brighton 4 Chelsea 1.

Our ninth game in October had resulted in our first loss, and our first loss under Potter.

One over the eight had been too much for us; one game too many, too many beers at that wedding reception.

We slumped off home.

To complete a miserable afternoon of football, I checked my phone.

Paulton Rovers 3 Frome Town 2.

It was a long old trip home, but a short stop outside Shoreham for some food – “saveloy, chips and curry sauce please” – helped alleviate some of the doom and gloom.

I reached home at about 9.30pm.

Next up, a dead rubber game in the Champions league against Dinamo Zagreb, our position at the top of our group table already determined.

Into November we go.

LEWES

FALMER

Tales From My San Siro Odyssey

Milan vs. Chelsea : 11 October 2022.

My San Siro odyssey began in August 1986.

Whereas my 1985 Inter-Rail jaunt around Europe took in many countries, from Italy in the south to Sweden in the north, the 1986 version – another solo-trip, another dose of me finding confidence through travel – was focussed on Spain, France, Italy and the Greek Island of Corfu. It was all about exploring the southern parts of Europe and the first fortnight or so encompassed Biarritz, Madrid, Barcelona, the Italian Riviera for a week, Pisa and Rome before I then spent around ten relaxing days in three locations on Corfu. After that had all finished, and on the return trip north, I wanted to stop off in Milan. In the three weeks or so that I had been away from Blighty, I had already visited Camp Nou in Barcelona and Stadio Olimpico in Rome. To miss out on the San Siro – or the Giuseppe Meazza as it is sometimes known – would have been foolhardy.

I caught the long overnight train – fourteen hours, the longest of the whole month – from Brindisi to Milano Centrale, arriving at 9am on a Thursday morning in early August.

Ah, Milano Centrale.

It brought back memories of my very first taste of Italy.

In 1975, on my first European holiday, my parents and I caught a train from London Victoria to Milan, another overnighter, on the way to Diano Marina in the Italian Riviera, and so the immense interior of this incredible station – Mussolini must have liked marble – thus witnessed my first ever steps on Italian soil.

A year later, another Italian holiday – this time to Lido di Jesolo near Venice – and another train to Milano Centrale. On this occasion, our onward leg was by coach and so we walked outside the station to pick up the connection. I was therefore able to witness the three huge halls that made up the station frontage. These were equally as impressive as the three semi-circular roof spans covering all of the train tracks.

By 1976, I had already chosen Juventus as my Italian and my sole European team but was of course aware of the two Milan teams who, in those days, were known in England as AC Milan and Inter Milan.

An Italian family had settled in my home village after the war and although they didn’t seem to be particularly into football, one of the brothers had a son, Adriano, who occasionally visited and he once told me that he favoured Milan. Incidentally, the mother in this family lived to a very grand age of 109. There must be something in that Italian diet.

My parents, on a whistle-stop visit to Milan on an Italian holiday in the ‘fifties had called in to see this family’s relations and my father often told the story of being given a few shots of the infamous grappa.

On a few visits to Italy, back to Diano Marina again and again to see my pal Mario, I became acquainted with more and more aspects of the Italian game. At that time, Inter were bigger than Milan – in terms of fan base – and the two clubs’ support tended to be split along socio-political lines.

Inter : middle class, to the right.

Milan : working class, to the left.

Oh, and I soon learned that “Inter Milan” was wrong, very wrong…either Inter or Internazionale and nothing else. At the time, Juventus were the dominant team but the two Milanese had sporadic success. Milan won a scudetto in 1978/79 but were then relegated to Serie B in 1979/80 due to a betting scandal and again in 1981/82 due to being, er, shite.

Which brings us nicely to 1982/83 again.

As I have mentioned previously, the visit of Leeds United to Stamford Bridge on Saturday 9 October 1982 absolutely captivated me. It stirred so much emotion. And it engendered such a sense of anticipation.

Chelsea versus Leeds.

Bloody fantastic.

Growing up, Leeds were a massive name. Just as I was getting into football, the big teams were Leeds United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea. Derby County were champions in 1972 but never really had the same clout as the others. Manchester United? No, a joke of a club on the decline. Manchester City? Off the radar.

With Leeds getting unceremoniously dumped into the old Second Division at the end of the 1981/82 season, throughout that summer I was kept buoyed with the thought that I would be – hopefully – able to see them play my beloved Chelsea at Stamford Bridge for the very first time.

The fixtures were announced. I would not have to wait too long. Unlike the Leicester City game in September when I travelled up by train, for the Leeds game I went up by National Express coach from Bath. This was a tiresome journey and I remember being relatively miserable about the whole experience. I think it was a bit cheaper than the train – my diary mentions the coach costing £5.50 – and it was all about saving money for football in those days.

I remember that some long lost Canadian cousins had recently dropped in on us – my father’s cousin from Vancouver – and I had been gifted an oversized Vancouver Whitecaps shirt as a present. I know I decided to wear it up to the Leeds United game. What do I remember of the day? I remember arriving at Victoria Coach Station and catching a tube to Fulham Broadway.

I distinctly remember this :

I was stood in the central aisle, and I noted a young lad in front of me. Maybe the same age, seventeen. He was smartly dressed. He was wearing some sportswear. Maybe some Adidas trainers. Actually, maybe some desert boots. Maybe a Slazenger pullover. Perhaps an Adidas rain jacket. Definitely some tight jeans. And I certainly remember thinking “mmm, that’s a new look, something different, bit like a mod but with a football twist.” I was certain that he was going to Chelsea. I don’t remember a pin badge though. And I remember him looking at me in my Vancouver Whitecaps shirt, and the thought went through my head that he was trying to suss out who I was, which team.

At that time, living in rural Somerset, I was blissfully unaware of the dress code that had enveloped urban cities such as Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and London but which had originated on the football terraces. There were skinheads, punks, headbangers, mods, but that was it as far as I was concerned.

Looking back, I am positive that my first ever sighting of a casual took place on the tube on the way to Chelsea and Leeds that day. I would later learn that on that very day, the warring factions – I am not sure if I had heard of the Leeds Service Crew in 1982 but it is quite possible – were chasing each other around Piccadilly Circus that lunchtime.

The programme memorably had this message emblazoned on the cover :

“Welcome to all Leeds United fans present today. Chelsea FC extend a warm welcome to the supporters of our distinguished visitors Leeds United. We hope you witness an exciting match and have a message for you – don’t be a mug, don’t be a thug – and help your club achieve greatness once again.”

I remember having a chuckle at this. There was no mention of a warning to Chelsea fans here. It would seem that we were an innocent party. I can just imagine Ken Bates mouthing the “don’t be a mug, don’t be a thug” to the programme editor.

“Yeah, that scans well. Put that in.”

I don’t remember much of the actual game and sadly I didn’t take my camera to games in those days. I absolutely remember the malevolent atmosphere though. I watched from my usual spot in The Shed, under the roof – just – and towards the tea bar. Leeds, I suppose, had around three thousand fans and the size of the gate really warmed me. It was 25,358, much more than I had expected and the third biggest of the day in the Football League. I remember Leeds in two central pens, nobody else on the bleak north terrace. But I remember that the northern segments of The Benches and the East Lower – what I would later learn to be the infamous Gate 13 – were absolutely rammed. It was as if the stadium had been tilted north and everyone had been squashed up against the north terrace. This gave me, an excitable youngster, the impression that the Chelsea fans just wanted to have a go at the Leeds lot.

There was one chant from The Shed that made me grimace :

“Did the Ripper, did the Ripper, did the Ripper get your Mum? Did the Ripper get your Mum?”

This was the Yorkshire version, not Jack of old London town.

The teams that day?

Chelsea : Steve Francis, Gary Locke, Chris Hutchings, Micky Droy, Colin Pates, John Bumstead, Tony McAndrew, Mike Fillery, Pop Robson, David Speedie, Clive Walker.

Leeds United : John Lukic, Trevor Cherry, Eddie Gray, Kenny Burns, Paul Hart, Gwynn Thomas, Kevin Hird, Aiden Butterworth, Frank Worthington, Frank Gray, Arthur Graham.

This would be my first sighting of David Speedie. There are some names in that Leeds team. The Gray brothers. Kenny Burns. I must admit that I have no recollection of seeing Frank Worthington but I am glad that I evidently did. He was one of football’s great mavericks. Please Google his goal for Bolton against Ipswich Town in 1979.

Sadly, the game ended 0-0 and was memorable for the outbreaks of fighting in the East Stand than the quality on show on the pitch.

I sloped off and ended up waiting at Victoria for an hour or so to catch a coach home. Some Tottenham fans had been at their game at home to Coventry City and we got talking. Once they heard I was Chelsea, they told me to watch out for Leeds fans as they were “nasty buggers” and I remember one of them eying up what I was wearing.

“Don’t worry, I think that you will be safe with that on.”

Let’s move on four years to 1986 and my short stopover in Milan. I bought a map at the station and walked down past La Scala Opera House to the grand cathedral – Il Duomo – in the city centre before walking to Cairoli and catching a tube to Lotto. The weather was super-hot and the walk to San Siro was tough going. I first thought that I wouldn’t be able to get in, but thankfully I soon found an open gate so sneaked inside. In those days, the stadium was just two-tiered, a huge concrete edifice. Childhood hero Ray Wilkins was playing for Milan at the time. Another couple of tourists were inside too. One of them took a photo of me looking ridiculously tanned after my stay on Corfu. San Siro was undergoing a transformation over the summer; plastic seats were being bolted onto the once bare concrete, at least on the steps of the lower deck. I took photos inside and out. It was a joy to be inside one of the palaces of European football. My diary tells me that I scrawled “Chelsea FC” on one of the green seats at the northern end. That doesn’t surprise me. I had scrawled the same on a fence at the stadium in Rome too.

I didn’t leave Milan that day until I took a train to Paris at around 7pm. There is no doubt that I would have spent a fair few hours at Milano Centrale, an activity that I would repeat many times over the next four years as I repeatedly returned to Italy. My diary noted that Milan was “not a fantastic place really” but I enjoyed being in this famous city, this famous football city, and of course the home of Italian fashion and the birthplace of the “paninari” a few years earlier.

Earlier in 1986, I had bought the Pet Shop Boys’ mini-album “Disco” and absolutely loved the song “Paninaro” :

“Passion and love and sex and money.
Violence, religion, injustice and death.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Girls, boys, art, pleasure.
Girls, boys, art, pleasure.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Food, cars, travel.
Food, cars, travel, travel.
New York, New York, New York.
New York.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Armani, Armani, ah-ah-Armani.
Versace, cinque.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

Armani, Armani, ah-ah-Armani.
Versace, cinque.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

I don’t like country-and-western.
I don’t like rock music.
I don’t like, I don’t like rockabilly or rock & roll particularly.
Don’t like much really, do I?
But what I do like I love passionately.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

You, you’re my lover, you’re my hope, you’re my dreams.
My life, my passion, my love, my sex, my money.
Violence, religion, injustice and death.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Don’t like much really, do I?
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
But what I do like I love passionately.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

What an anthem. In 1986, the paninaro look was definitely assisting the UK’s casual look to evolve. I had bought some deck shoes, a “Best Company” T-shirt and always had one eye on what was happening in Italy and on the terraces at Chelsea and elsewhere. It was a great time to be young and into football, music and clobber; the time of my life.

At San Siro in 1986, just for the record…red Kappa polo shirt, Adidas shorts and a pair of yellow espadrilles.

There is one more thing to add from my holiday in 1986. At Ipsos on Corfu, I shared a tent with a chap called Rob who owned a record shop in Sacramento in California. Every few months, he would visit London and buy up a ton of obscure music posters, T-shirts, and rare CDs and ship them out to the US to sell at hugely-inflated prices. It got me thinking. I cottoned on to the genius of selling rare items at a nice profit. Thankfully, I didn’t have to think too long. My post-college future was decided during that Inter-Rail trip of 1986. I would buy English football badges – the small, super small, circular ones – and travel out to Europe flip-flopping between games in Germany and Italy to sell them at games. For all of its problems with hooliganism, or being blunt because of it, I just knew that English badges would sell well in Europe.

I was itching to go. Sadly, I had one more year at college to endure.

Tick tock, tick tock.

1986/87 passed with Chelsea finishing in a lowly fourteenth place but I had fared better; I somehow passed my Geography degree with an Upper Second. However, my immediate future didn’t involve job fairs, interviews or further studies. My future was focussed on football.

Fackinell.

That summer I returned to work in a local dairy, as in 1984, to gather some sheccles together for more foreign travel. In September, I set off with two college mates – Ian and Trev, the same course – for another spin around Europe. On a Saturday evening in Rome in early September, after another visit to Stadio Olimpico, I stumbled across a booklet listing the Serie A fixtures for the season.

A quick scan of the fixtures : Inter vs. Empoli.

“Fancy it? Sunday.”

“Too right.”

We were headed up to Venice for an early morning visit, arriving at 6.30am. However, after a whirlwind walking tour, we were away at 9.45am and headed to Milan via a change at Vicenza. I had bought a copy of the famous daily sports paper “La Gazetta Dello Sport” to check some details about the game and tickets were on sale for L.10,000 or about five quid. The fervour being shown by a train full of Brescia fans en route to Padua – a local derby – astonished us. It was a fine pre-curser to our afternoon in Milan. We got in at 1.30pm and the game was to kick-off at 3pm. Perfect. We disappeared underground and took a metro to San Siro which was quite a way out. There was a free bus at Lotto to take us to the stadium. I had time to peruse the various grafters outside.

“No English badges. Great stuff.”

Italian ones were selling for L3,100 or about £1.50.

Our tickets positioned us above a small knot of Empoli fans in the southern end, the “Lions’ Den” section where Milan’s ultras congregated. We had reached our seats by entering near the northern end but the steady slope took us around the outside of the stadium to deposit us in the southern end. To my amazement, we sat on raw concrete. But I was not bothered. I was in football heaven.

The Alps were visible above the Inter fans in the north end. I loved all the banners.

“Boys.”

I think that was their main group.

“Boys San.”

Loved it.

Empoli? I knew little about them apart from that they were newly promoted. On the previous weekend, they had won 2-0 at home to Juventus, a huge shock at the time. On this day in sunny Milan, I watched on with great pleasure. This was my first professional football match outside of England, Scotland and Wales.

The San Siro would always have a place in my heart.

The Inter team that day included some stars; Walter Zenga, Giuseppe Bergomi, Alessandro Altobelli plus the two “stranieri” Daniel Pasarella and Enzo Schifo. It was an utter joy to witness Italian football in the flesh.

Aldo Serena and Altobelli gave Inter a 2-0 win in front of 42,672.

My diary notes “I am sure I can make a killing there with badges.”

Later that year, in November, I sold badges at Juventus’ Stadio Communale before an evening game against Panathinaikos in the UEFA Cup. I only sold 31 but it was a start. I was less fortunate in Mannheim and Munich in Germany. I was stopped by the police in Mannheim and also in Munich where I decided to foolishly chance my luck. I had sold 34 at Munich’s Olympic Stadium – going well – but I did not have a street trader’s licence – “reisegewerbekarte” – so was arrested and fined on the spot. However, a cop let me in to watch the last twenty minutes of the Bayern vs. Uerdingen game for free.

In February 1988, I was at it again.

My first game was at San Siro, and a friendly involving Milan and Steaua Bucharest on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Unbeknown to me, the Serie A games had been cancelled due to an Italy vs. Russia game in Bari on the Saturday but thank goodness Milan had sorted out a friendly. Milan were in full flow at this time with Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten leading the team to glory. I did OK at this game. The gate was only 14,000 but I sold 26 badges and 2 scarves. One bloke swapped his “Fossa Dei Leoni” badge for one of mine. There were a few nervous moments as several police cars drove past but I was not spoken to. I had decided to pitch myself near the to where the Lotto busses stopped. It seemed perfect. I was positioned just outside the San Siro “Trotter” arena; horse racing but with the jockeys in little buggies.

It is a mystery why I did not pay the £4 to attend the game. I guess that I was on a limited budget – I certainly ate frugally and infrequently while away for a month – and the whole point of me being in Italy was, firstly, to make some money. I walked away with £40 in my pockets, and a profit of about £25.

Small acorns and all that.

A week later, I was back at San Siro for the Milan vs. Sampdoria game. Here was the real test. Thankfully this went swimmingly well. Again, I didn’t go inside, but for a valid reason; it was a sell-out. At half-time I was stood outside the stadium with a few thousand others. I went on a wander across the vast car park and returned to hear the clamour as Milan’s second goal went in. They were to win 2-1. The attendance was 72,000 and I walked away with £125 and a profit of about £80. I had sold 80 badges and 7 scarves. Not bad for around four hours’ work. I was in heaven with thoughts of returning again. And again.

Before the game, probably against my better wishes, I had bought the monthly magazine “Forza Milan.” As a Juventus fan, it was a bad move, but I just wanted to immerse myself in Italian football. It really was a heady time to be a Milanista. It felt that their time had come. At the end of the 1987/88 season, they were crowned as champions for the first time since 1979. Silvio Berlusconi was in charge, Arrigo Sacchi and his famous “pressing” was getting the best out of his players. And Gullit and Van Basten were soon to be European Champions with The Netherlands in the summer.

Mamma mia.

Later that week, I did even better at Verona, selling 79 badges from a crowd of just 33,000 before and after a UEFA Cup game with Werder Bremen.

In the summer of 1988, I recorded an episode of “Rough Guide – Milan” with Magenta Devine and Sankha Guha (remember them?) and the travel guide totally encapsulated all that was rattling around my brain at the time. There is no doubt that I was deeply infatuated with all things Italian from the mid-‘eighties onwards.

My next trip to Milan, and San Siro, would be my last for thirty-two years. It came in September 1990, right after the momentous Italia’90 World Cup – when many English folk “rediscovered football”, stop sniggering at the back – and I had returned from an equally momentous ten-month holiday in North America. With English football back with a vengeance after some dark days, the time was right for me to head over with a freshly-acquired stash of English – and Scottish, Celtic in particular always sold well in Italy – badges.

It was a heady time for Italian football. The national team had threatened in the World Cup before falling to a Maradona-inspired Argentina in a semi-final. However, I always thought that it was club over country in Italy, even more so than in England.

The Serie A title was certainly shared around in this period.

1985 : Verona.

1986 : Juventus.

1987 : Napoli.

1988 : Milan.

1989 : Inter.

1990 : Napoli.

The second Sunday of the 1990/91 Serie A season saw me return to Milan for the Inter vs. Bologna game.

At the end of the day, I started my daily journal :

Milano Centrale, Sunday 16September 1990.

“Tutto Inglese e Scozzese. Quatro mila lire.”

My sales patter didn’t go on for long, but it certainly did the job. I must have repeated that phrase five hundred times in the six hours before the 4pm kick-off.

My diary reports a “perfect day” and it is certainly one that I look back upon with a great deal of pleasure. It was, simply, one of the best “non-Chelsea” days of my life. I had arrived at Milano Centrale at just before 8am. By 10am I had arrived outside the remodelled San Siro and – oh my goodness – I can well remember the sight of those monstrous red girders floating above the photogenic towers that had been added to the San Siro since my last visit eighteen months earlier.

Within an hour, I had sold 26 badges to a stall-holder, at a slight-knock down price of L.3,500 each. I had decided to up the price to L.4,000 per badge from my L.3,000 price in 1988. I stopped selling at 3.15pm in order to buy a ticket off a tout – I couldn’t miss this game – and I nabbed one for L.25,000 instead of L.20,000.

As it happened, I could afford it.

My one memory of this day is of ascending one of the helix shaped towers behind the South Curv and scrambling to a seat almost at the rear of the very back row of the third level. I stood up and spent what seemed a long time picking L.5,000, L.10,000, L.20,000 notes and even one L.50,000 note out of all four pockets of my jeans and adding them to the pile in my wallet.

That day I sold almost 200 badges. I even sold some on the slow walk back to Lotto without even trying; a lad had remembered me from before the game and stopped me to buy ten. By the time I had pulled the last note from my jeans, I had made £330 which equated to a profit of around £200.

I hope the tax man isn’t reading this.

The game was half decent. Inter had the three World Cup winners Klinsmann, Matheus and Brehme in their team. I noted that Bologna countered well. In the last minute, Alessandro Bianchi scored with a great volley in front of the “Ultras”, “Boys San” and “Vikings” in the home Curva Nord to give Inter a 1-0 win. The noise was utterly incredible even though the gate was only around 50,000. The other lot, Milan, were the bigger draw by far at the time. They were the “buzz” around the city.

On the following Sunday, I paid another visit to San Siro and another fine afternoon followed. This time it was Milan vs. Fiorentina. I didn’t go inside for this one. Outside, I sold just under one hundred badges. My diary notes that I soon sold out of Liverpool, Chelsea and Celtic – by far the best sellers in 1990 for reasons that might well be obvious – and so I did well to sell so many. I was outside the stadium when Milan scored their first goal – they went on to win 2-1 – but I left for the station well before the end as I had developed a bad headache. One thing of note; I had been chatting to an English guy from Rochdale who had stayed over from the World Cup with England. He was interested in selling badges too; he seemed a bit of a chancer, but I gave him the ‘phone number of the bloke in Blackburn who had provided me with the badges. He disappeared off to “blag” some tickets but I later saw him, crestfallen, having been picked up by plain clothes cops, his tickets nicked too.

What a plum.

Alas, my badge-selling days were over before they had really got going.

There is a sad end to all of this in fact. A few days after the greatest days in Milan, I was robbed while on a train from Zurich to Genoa – I was knocked out using CS gas I think, it was all the rage on Italian trains at the time, luckily my Inter-Rail Card and passport were untouched – and so I had to sheepishly make my way to Turin where my friend Tullio’s father lent me some money to get home.

I remember his father answered the doorbell, so surprised to see me.

“Ah Chris! Come va?”

“Cosi cosi.”

It was the biggest understatement of all time.

This story continues on though. In 1995, I met up with Pete, the chap who sold me all those badges at cost price – bless him – before a Chelsea game at Ewood Park. He treated me to a pub lunch and we spoke about our grafting days. He was a Liverpool supporter – he was there in Rome in 1977 and elsewhere too – and when I spoke about Milan, I mentioned the chancer I had met in 1990.

“Oh, Milan John?”

“You know him?”

“Yes. From Rochdale. I always wondered how he got my number.”

“Bloody hell, Pete, I gave it to him.”

It turned out that this bloke had stayed on in Milan and was now living with the woman who was running the newsagents on the platform at Milano Centrale. He often bought badges from Pete. To say I was fed-up was another understatement.

“Bloody hell. That could have been me. Could have met an Italian girl. Could have had badges sent out to me. What a bugger.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Milan : you could have made me.

Vaffanculo.

In February 1997, Chelsea played Milan in a friendly at San Siro and a few hardy souls went over to watch. We lost 2-0 in front of 8,756. I think both teams just needed a game. A few friends attended but there was no way I could go over.

In October 1999, Chelsea played Milan in the San Siro in the Champions League group phase. Unfortunately, I was unable to get time off work and so, sadly, missed it.

In March 2010, Chelsea played Inter in the Champions League quarter-finals. Again, work got in the way. I had just changed companies and I knew my new boss would have struggled without me in the office for three days and so I valiantly – stupidly? – decided that I would forego my chance to see us in Milan.

I have seen Chelsea play seven times in Italy – three against Juve, two against Roma, one against Lazio, one against Napoli, and not a single win – but a visit to San Siro with my beloved Chelsea was evading me like Tottenham’s relationship with silverware.

It was gnawing at me.

There were ongoing rumours, which gathered strength over the years, of both Milan teams moving into a new build which would rise in the car park where I had walked in 1988. This news depressed me. I saw the plans for the new place. They looked super-modern yet so bland. The drama of San Siro’s bulk was missing. Sigh.

Thankfully, our names were drawn in the same group this autumn and I could look forward, at bloody last, to a visit.

ANDIAMO!

The plan was this :

A flight to Turin on the Sunday evening. By the time I had got to looking at flights after returning from Chelsea on a Saturday night, all of the cheap and timely flights to Milan had disappeared. Not to worry, I much prefer Turin to Milan. Three nights in a central apartment with PD and Parky. I would hire a car on the day of the game. A brief spell of sightseeing in central Milan then off to the match. A midnight flit back to Turin and then a flight home from the city’s Caselle airport on Wednesday evening.

I picked up PD at 11am on the Sunday morning and Lord Parky not long after. It was a fine drive to Gatwick. Despite the 4.40pm flight leaving an hour late, the pilot must have known a short cut as he clipped thirty minutes off the flight time. I had a window seat and particularly enjoyed the flight over the English Channel. I pondered how many thousands of articulated lorries I had sent over this small expanse of water since I began at my job in March 2003. From the air, I was able to easily see both coasts; France to the left, England to the right. I thought back to all those solo trips to Europe in my Inter-Railing days. What good times.

We landed at Caselle at 8.10pm. We took a cab to the city. By 9.12pm, I had navigated how to obtain our apartment keys and to enter our pad on Via Fratelli Calandra. Outside, misty rain. But our spirits were lifted when we spotted a small pizza place directly opposite. We sat ourselves inside on some high stools and ordered the first beers of the trip.

“Ichnusa” – from Sardinia – was first spotted by us in Rome in 2017, and here it was again. It was a fine lager. I had a pepperoni pizza – cheap, only eight euros – and all was well with the world. We slept soundly.

Monday was a lovely, lazy day. My two fellow Chuckle Brothers had only visited Italy once before – that Rome trip in 2017 – so Turin was new to them. I took them alongside the River Po, and spoke about the city a little. But I soon found my voice often drifting away to silence when I realised that they weren’t really taking it all in.

I’ll never make a tour guide.

We sat at a few cafes and ordered some cappuccinos. We got the nod that Callum was going to be in town for an hour or so en route to Milan so we caught a cab to Porta Susa train station. This was fine since it enabled me to scope out the Hertz car hire place that I would be utilising on the Tuesday. We all met up in a bar.

We wondered if we had indeed sold all 4,300 tickets. All we knew is that they had gone “off sale” so we hoped so. I spoke to Cal about my Italian pal Tullio who I have known since meeting him in Diano Marina, that town again, in 1981.

“I remember one Saturday morning, ahead of a Napoli game on the Sunday, in 1988…he drove over to meet some school friends after they had gone in to study. They were all labelled-up. Best Company sweatshirts. Timberlands. Sisley coats. Benetton. Lacoste. Jansport duffle bags. Even their school files were adorned with designer labels.”

“I need to up my game here.”

My Joe Bloggs denim shirt looked decidedly downmarket in comparison.

In the afternoon, we slurped a draught Ichnusa apiece in a bar directly opposite one of Turin’s must-see attractions. The National Cinema Museum is housed within the Mole Antonelliana, a building with a domed roof and spear-like tower. Rob and I went up the lift to the viewing gallery in 2009 and I was hoping to do the same this year. Alas, the lift was not working. Not to worry, I visited the film museum while PD and Parky supped on more Ichnusa.

What a joy.

And this was just right for me. During the first nervous months of lockdown in 2020, I really got into Italian films, especially those of the neo-realist school; step forward Rosselini, de Sica, Visconti, Fellini and Antonioni. I always loved “La Dolce Vita” but also really admired “Bicycle Thieves”, “Rome Open City” and the best of the lot “Two Women.” I also fell in love with Sophia Loren. Again.

The museum was stupendous. It was a visual treat. If you ever find yourself in Turin – I call it Italy’s hidden jewel – go. In fact, go now. Tell them I sent you.

That evening, we dropped into two familiar pubs on the main drag, Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II; “Six Nations” and “The Huntsman.” In the second one, we sat at the exact same table that we used on the night before the Juve game last season. Lo and behold, who should walk past but Andy – from the East Midlands I believe – who I last spent time with in Abu Dhabi. He too had flown into Turin.

As I always say : “Chelsea World is a very small world.”

Tullio popped in to see us for an hour or so. It was a joy to see him again. He was, alas, visibly hurting after Juventus’ continued failings under Massimilliano Allegri. I spoke about my previous visits to Turin.

I worked out this was visit number ten.

“No, wait. Eleven. I forgot your wedding.”

We smirked.

1987 : Juve vs. Panathinaikos.

1988 : Juve vs. Inter.

1988 : Juve vs. Napoli.

1989 : Juve vs. Fiorentina.

1990 : the “so so” moment.

1992 : Juve vs. Sampdoria.

1999 : Juve vs. Fiorentina – oh, and the wedding of Tullio and Emanuela.

2009 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2012 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2021 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2022 : Milan vs.Chelsea.

The evening was lovely. We rounded off the night with several shots of “Baileys” and God knows why. It was, as ever, a good night.

On the Tuesday, the day of the game, PD woke me at around 6.45am.  We walked to the Porta Nova train station and caught a cab to Porta Susa with blue skies overhead and the city of Turin looking as gorgeous as ever.

Sorting out the car took a few minutes, but I was soon heading east through the rush-hour traffic of Turin. It was slow going during the first half-an-hour. But we were soon on the A4 to Milan. It made me chuckle really. In my childhood, my father used to drive along a section of the A4 – Beckhampton to Hungerford – on numerous trips to Chelsea. On this A4 instead of signs for Fyfield, Marlborough, Savernake, Axford and Hungerford there were signs for Chivasso, Greggio, Vercelli, Novara and Galliate. To our left, the snow-capped peaks of the Alps were stunning.

This was no normal Chelsea away trip.

This was one of the very best.

We stopped briefly at a service station near Novara. I stacked up on coffee and snacks.

There was heavy traffic, again, just after a toll on the western outskirts of Milan. A journey that was due to take two hours was nearing one of three hours. But I knew we were closing in on our goal. My work colleague Lorenzo had highlighted the Lampugnano transport hub as the best place to park for San Siro. I was headed there, but first wanted to park up at San Siro because…well, because…it needs no explanation.

At around 11.30am, I briefly parked my black Toyota outside a stadium car park and took a few shots with my camera. The stadium looked even greater than I had remembered it. It was simply stunning. A dormant beast. Those cylindrical towers. Those slopes of concrete. Those roof beams. Spectacular. I was boiling over with emotion.

After six previous visits I was at last going to see us play here.

It was forever a standing joke about Milan that no matter what year you visited it, the roads were always in a state of upheaval due to metro extensions taking place. I am sure my parents mentioned this from their visit in the ‘fifties. Well, ironically, the lines are all fully extended now and completely finished, but on this day of all days there was a bloody tube strike.

At Lampugnano, we were therefore forced to catch a cab into the city. The taxi driver was a Milanista and resembled Zlatan Ibrahimovic. We were driven in past the striking new skyscrapers to the immediate north-west of the centre. We soon collected our match tickets at the Westin Hotel on Piazza della Repubblica. There were familiar faces outside. It was true; we had sold all 4,300 tickets.

Magnificent. Well done everyone.

We met up with fellow Somerset supporters Charlotte and Paul, Donna and Colby. A little sight-seeing was in order. I suggested a short hop north to Milano Centrale. This edifice did not disappoint. It was as stunning today as in 1975. While PD and Parky retired to the station bar, I gave the others a quick tour. I was reminded of the time – after the Milan game in September 1990 I think – when thousands of Inter fans returned from a game just as I had reached the outer hall. They were full of noise and of course the chanting echoed around the vast chamber to superb effect. I was also reminded, after a hot day walking the streets of Milan, how cool it was inside.

Yeah, Mussolini loved marble.

We walked south then caught a tube, bang on three o’clock when the strike ended, at Turati to Duomo. I had always walked this section, so exiting the metro stop and seeing the myriad towers of the city cathedral for the first time was another stunning moment. I never was a great fan of the city, but its two great cathedrals – Il Duomo and San Siro – are outrageously magnificent.

More photos. A beer in a bar. And a panini. When in Rome.Then a tube down to the area called Navigli, where several canals join and a vibrant bar scene has developed. It was where Chelsea were based on the Monday, and it is where many friends were based pre-match.

The place was mobbed. We didn’t venture too far. Many bars had run dry. Beers were on hold at the first place we queued. This was all a bit of a ball ache. Thankfully, PD and Parky had spotted a quieter bar near the nearest tube station so re-camped there. I waited for some friends – Georg and Petr from Prague, Eliot and Lawson from New York, then Sean from New York – and we had a relaxing natter. One more pint of “Warsteiner.” Just two pints was enough. I had to drive back to Turin after the game after all. Georg and Petr asked of our predictions and a 2-1 Chelsea win was a common response.

We set off for San Siro at around 6.45pm. Plenty of time? Think again.

The tube was rammed. But rather than changing at Cadorna onto the red line – which I was planning to do – everyone didn’t budge. At Cadorna, none of us could leave the compartment. We were therefore forced to stay on to Garibaldi. When a train pulled in, a young woman saw who – or rather what – was waiting to join her carriage and physically ran down the compartment.

Maybe she was a Tottenham supporter.

My route would have been eleven stops. This new route was sixteen stops. What a pain. It got worse. At Domodossola, hundreds of Chelsea fans were singing, chanting, banging the roof, creating havoc. For twenty minutes, we didn’t move. The Milan fans were getting irate.

“Because of you, we miss match.”

Corrective action was needed. It was around 7.45pm. We stepped outside and tried to get a cab. But this was hopeless. Hundreds of Chelsea got off here too. They disappeared into the night. At about eight o’clock, we realised we needed a Plan B.

“Right, back downstairs. Let’s see if the trains are running now.”

Bizarrely, the Milan fan that was so irate with all of us was still on the platform. This was odd. Eventually at around 8pm, a new train arrived. This was full of Milan fans; not a bad sign. They knew the timings. They were absolutely full of song too. And in good spirits. They loved our Cucarella chant and repeated it back to us. Most were wearing Milan colours, as had many that we had seen around the city. The dress-code of the late ‘eighties in Italy of jeans, green bomber jackets, scarves and boots – especially the Inter lot – was clearly no more.

There were many songs lauding the rossoneri and one linking interisti to “vaffanculo.”

Our “Oh Thiago Silva” was met with smiles.

Just as the train rumbled into the San Siro stop – newly built, or at least since my last visit – I turned to the nearest Milanista and said “good luck” and he smiled. We shook hands.

I had always approached San Siro from Lotto to the north so I was a little discombobulated.

We were marched west, right past where my car had been parked earlier, and we began the slow march in to the away section. Our ticket was cross-referenced with our passport. Further in, there was a predictable altercation with a couple of stewards who wanted me to take my pocket camera – I had left my SLR at home, I am no fool – back to “bus.”

Oh Christ. Here we go again.

There was no bus. My car was half-an-hour away.

I pleaded that it was just a “piccolo machina” and they thankfully let me in.

“But – no photo in stadio.”

I replied : “sure, OK!”

I thought : “Yeah, right, sunshine.”

It was about 8.40pm.

PD and Parky, hobbling, were allowed access to the lift. I tried to join them but was not allowed in. Instead, the slow ascent up the helix. It was fine, thank heavens. The old ticker wasn’t grumbling at all.

Inside, our area – the upper third tier, green zone – was near packed to capacity. I could go left into the centre or right to the end where I guessed there would be more empty seats. I chose right. After just five or six steps up, I spotted PD and Parky right next to the aisle.

4,300 Chelsea in one tier and we were together again.

Result.

Georg and Petr were just a few feet away too.

Relax.

This looked a full house; 75,000? Superb. Chelsea fans kept arriving, some way into the game. The stadium was as I remembered it. I looked over at the southern end and imagined myself there in 1987 and 1990.

What would the 1987 me have made of all this? Or the 1986 me for that matter?

1986 Chris : “Wonder if I will ever see Chelsea play here?”

2022 Chris : “Yes. Yes you will.”

1986 Chris : When?”

2022 Chris: “Not until 2022.”

1986 Chris : “2022? I’ll be an old man by then.”

2022 Chris : “Steady now.”

1986 Chris : “So, that must mean in European competition? That must mean we will win something?!”

2022 Chris : “We will win plenty.”

1986 Chris: “Tell me! No wait. Don’t. That will spoil the surprise.”

2022 Chris : “That’s my boy.”

Graham Potter, what a journey he is on, chose this team :

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Koulibaly

James – Kovacic – Jorginho – Chilwell

Mount – Sterling

Aubameyang

There was a mosaic…nothing great, just “Let’s Go Milan”; like something an American high school teacher might say to a basketball team. It hardly referenced Milan’s illustrious European pedigree or used words to inspire.

The lights dimmed a little. Then the anthem, the fluttering of the logo on the centre-circle. The teams lined up. Chelsea were to play in all white. I was just pleased that I couldn’t see the insipid jade green / light blue hoops.

To me, it referenced the all-white that we wore in 1966.

On more than one occasion, a thought fluttered inside me :

“Ron Harris has played here twice.”

The Milan kit looked virtually all black from row 88. It was a poor kit. I much preferred the 1988 version.

Ooh those white shorts and white socks, eh Ruud?

Just before kick-off, I couldn’t resist a short burst of venom.

“MILAN MILAN VAFFANCULO.”

And you Milan John, you can vaffanculo too.

The game began and Milan, attacking us in the North Curv – OK, it’s not a curve, but it’s what the Italians call an end – where the strongest over the first ten minutes or so. Leao danced and shuffled his feet a few times. I had a feeling that if we denied him, we would have a chance.

For all of the singing and chanting in Navigli and on the metro, I didn’t think we were in particularly fine voice.

After some exchanges, the game altered direction irrevocably on twenty minutes. Reece James threaded a fine pass into Mason Mount. Inside the box, the midfielder tried his best to get a shot away but his effort was booted clear by Tatarusanu. I was concentrating on his efforts to shoot so wasn’t looking specifically at Tomori’s rough intervention.

To our joy, the referee signalled a penalty. A huge roar from us. There were protestations from Milan, but the referee was unmoved. Jorginho, to his credit, walked away with the ball and stood yards from the melee of Milan players hounding the referee. Eventually, he approached the spot. Again, a long wait. Jorginho took forever. My camera was poised. Our midfielder took so long that I had visions of my lens retracting.

He approached the ball.

Click.

The ‘keeper went right.

The ball went left.

Shades of Munich.

GET IN.

My dear friend Alan was unable to travel out for this game but I heard his voice from afar.

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

Wow. We were 1-0 up at the San Siro.

But still one song dominated…

“Oh Dennis Wise…”

I smirked when I remembered another memory in Italy not so long after this Milan moment. In December 1999, I travelled out for the lacklustre 0-0 draw with Lazio. A certain left-back missed a sitter late on and this – admittedly short-lived – chant was sung :

“Babayaro. Missed a fucking great goal. With one minute to go. In the Olimpico.”

Anyone remember that?

I really don’t know how I missed it, but it soon became apparent that Milan were down to ten men. There was a little ripple of acknowledgement in our area; it seemed that I wasn’t the only one that had missed it. I suppose we were all too busy celebrating the penalty decision.

Superb.

Olivier Giroud headed wide down below us and Milan seemed upset and ill-at-ease.

A really fine move carved open the Milan defence on thirty-four minutes. Mateo Kovacic played a ball in to Mount, who flicked it beautifully wide and into space. We had the glorious sight of both Raheem Sterling and Pierre-Emerick Abameyang free and with just the ‘keeper to beat.

Surely?

Aubameyang slotted it low past the Milan ‘keeper.

He ran down into the corner and although I had missed taking a photo of the goal, at least I captured the joyous celebrations.

We were winning 2-0 at the San Siro.

OH MY FUCKING GOODNESS.

This was magnificent stuff.

There was a fine chance for Mount in the closing moments of the first-half. His nimble turn allowed him to poke a low shot goal wards, but the Milan ‘keeper got down low to turn it around the post.

On forty minutes, purely planned to the minute, around fifty huge flags behind the opposite goal were waved and their presence lasted for the rest of the game. It was some sight.

It was a wonderful to see the place packed to the rafters. Bizarrely, two central sections in the middle of both upper tiers were unused though. Maybe there was a problem with egress from these lofty locations. The tiers go on forever at San Siro. And the huge roof hovers over everything. There is hardly a more stunning stadium in the whole of Europe. It is certainly supremely photogenic.

I was in heaven.

I was so far up, I might as well have been.

At the break, disbelief in the North Curv.

Graham Potter made a change at the break.

Conor Gallagher replaced the really excellent Mason Mount. We guessed he was saving Mason for later games. I had liked the energy of Mateo Kovacic and the calming positional play of Jorginho in that first-half. To be fair, all our players had been magnificent.

An early, seemingly easy enough, chance came to Gallagher who rounded the ‘keeper after a fine forward run from Trevoh Chalobah but his effort went wide, striking the side netting amidst groans from the 4,300.

We were easily the more accomplished team as the half progressed. We had a few half-chances.

The manager rang some changes.

Cesar Azpilicueta for James.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Sterling.

Positions were moved around. I tried my best to work it all out.

Our possession football – cheered with many an “olé” – must have tired Milan out. We looked relaxed and purposeful in everything we did.

There was a strong run from Loftus-Cheek, at his best, but his pass to Aubameyang resulted in a miss-cue. But our chances greatly out-weighed those of the home team.

Two late changes.

Kai Havertz for Aubameyang

Marc Cucarella for Chilwell

The Milan fans raised the roof with ten minutes to go with the loudest chant of the night. If I had to choose, I would always go for Inter over Milan, but their fans really impressed me over the two games.

Our fans by now were only chanting sporadically. As far as I can recall, there was not one single moment when the entire tier was singing as one. It was almost as if this was too easy. Especially with Milan playing with only ten men. It was an odd feeling. I thought back to all those great players to have worn the red and black stripes over the past forty years and this current team, despite being the current champions, are surely a pale shadow of the great Milan teams.

Baresi. Costacurta. Baggio. Van Basten. Ronaldinho. Shevchenko. Donadoni. Maldini. Ancelotti. Rijkaard. Papin. Pirlo. Kaka. Nesta. Seedorf. Ibrahimovic. Inzaghi. Gullit.

Mamma mia.

The game ended.

Milan 0 Chelsea 2.

What a fantastic result.

On the drive up to London last week, ahead of the Milan home game, if somebody had said that we would win both games with an aggregate score of Chelsea 5 Milan 0, nobody would have believed it.

Certainly not 1986 Chris.

Fackinell.

We were kept in for about forty-five minutes at the end of the game. We popped into the nearby snack bar which was surprisingly still open and I devoured a lemon iced-tea. I was allowed access to the lift this time.

The three of us slowly made our way back to Lampugnano; it was a thirty-five-minute walk. Halfway back, quite a way from San Siro, two trucks were still selling food.

“A burger, an iced tea and a Red Bull.”

The first two were soon demolished. The third would be consumed on the drive back to Turin.

There was a little chat with a Chelsea fan. I commented that there just didn’t seem to be that wanton euphoria that no doubt was in evidence at the 1999 “Dennis Wise” game. That it was all a bit subdued.

We agreed that the two clubs were at different stages in 1999 and 2022.

1999 : Chelsea as European novices, Milan as European royalty.

2022 : Chelsea as seasoned European competitors, Milan as a faded club.

I made relatively good time on my return to Piedmont from Lombardy. I set off at 1am, I was parked up outside the apartment at 3am.

Wednesday was another relaxing day. I was up early, though, at 7am to return the motor at 8am. It had been a magnificent adventure along the Italian A4. We checked out of the apartment after a light breakfast. There was time for a few beers in the city centre and a magnificent meal to boot. Callum joined us and we shared a cab to Caselle in order to catch the evening flight home.

There was even time to nab a couple of bargains at the Robe di Kappa shop at the airport.

“Paninaro, oh oh oh.”

I thankfully fell asleep for an hour on the flight back to Gatwick.

One young Chelsea fan was full of enthusiasm about the game. There had been a noticeably large contingent of youngsters out there. This is fantastic to see.

“That was my first ever away game.”

“In Europe?”

“No, the first ever. I just can’t get access to tickets for away games.”

This amazed me.

But it amazed 1986 Chris even more.

“My first away game was Bristol Rovers. His is Milan? Mamma mia.”

I eventually got home – the M3 closed, part of the M4 closed – at 1am on Thursday morning.

Next up, Villa away on Sunday. See you there.

1987

1990

2022

Tales From Diego’s Return

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 8 October 2022.

This was undoubtedly a very fine day out in London. I enjoyed every bit of it. This is how it played out.

I had finished work at 5pm on Friday with the realisation that I had a busy few days ahead. I still had to finish the Milan blog. I then needed to drive the usual suspects to London on a day when the roads were likely to be much busier than usual due to the nationwide train strike. There would be the game itself. Then the return trip home. Then a write-up of the day’s blog after selecting and editing some photographs. A night’s sleep. And then some packing ahead of a trip to Gatwick on Sunday morning and then up, up and away to Italy.

It’s a great life as long as I don’t weaken.

By 7.20am I had collected PD, RH and LP. I didn’t stop en route to London. I wanted to crack on and arrive. The morning traffic was much thicker than the norm during the last fifteen miles. However, I was parked up at 10am. So far so good.

It was already a beautiful morning in London. There were cloudless skies overhead. Outside the stadium, I stopped underneath the old retaining wall of The Shed. On a weekend when our own “Italian Job” was dominating all of our thoughts, I stopped under the image of Gianluca Vialli, one of our most loved Italian players, and had a moment of appreciation. On the walk to Stamford Bridge, there had already been a fair few “hello mate” nods and handshakes to friends and acquaintances. There was the marvellous anticipation of a trip to Italy, not to mention the day’s game which was to involve the return of Diego Costa. That pre-match buzz was hitting me hard. And I was absolutely loving it.

I walked down to Putney Bridge in order to blow some cobwebs out of my system. It only took me twenty-five minutes. Saturday morning people, with a Fulham twist, were out-and-about, and I didn’t spot too many football-goers among the pedestrians, shoppers, cyclists and those enjoying the fine autumnal weather.

In “The River Café”, I enjoyed a fine fry-up, and then noticed a faded Juventus team photo from 1985/86 high on a wall. On exiting, I thanked the staff in Italian – a practice for Turin and Milan – and asked the young chap who was behind the counter if he was Juve.

He pulled a face.

“No. Milan.”

“OK. Tomorrow, I go to Turin.”

“Why?”

“Milan versus Chelsea.”

“But why are you going to Turin?”

“Oh, I have friends there.”

“I go on Monday to Milan.”

“For the game?”

“Yes, sure.”

“Buona fortuna.”

I didn’t fucking mean it of course.

I stayed in “The Eight Bells” with PD and LP for two hours. It was superb to see “Munich Mark” – with his son Luca, you can guess why he is called that – who we had not seen since Christmas 2019 on a pub crawl around Fulham. I memorably first met Mark and his mate Paul, who were living in The Netherlands, on the very last U-Bahn away from the stadium in Munich on that famous day in 2012. He now lives in Spain. We had a riot of laughs. It was great fun.

We caught a 414 bus just after two o’clock to Fulham Broadway and were soon inside the stadium.

At first, there were many empty seats dotted around but they were eventually filled despite some very late arrivals. We were to hear of friends experiencing drives that had taken two-and-a-half hours that would normally take forty-five minutes. My heart sank. Just how long would my return trip west take? I needed to be home as early as possible.

Bollocks.

The team that Graham Potter had chosen was clearly one that was formed with the game in Milan in mind. Not exactly a “B Team” but…

Kepa

Dave – Kouilbaly – Chalobah – Cucarella

Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Gallagher

Mount – Havertz – Pulisic

…or something like that.

At ten minutes to three, the usual musical countdown.

“London Calling.”

“Park Life.”

“Liquidator.”

As the teams arrived on the pitch, a sizeable segment of the home crowd serenaded the returning hero.

“Diego, Diego, Diego, Diego.”

The sun was beating down and the Wolves old gold shirts seemed to augment the ambiance. It was a gorgeous afternoon. I did wonder why on Earth the floodlights were on though. Answers on a postcard?

We attacked the Matthew Harding in the first-half. It still feels odd after all these years. Soon into the game, Conor Gallagher received the ball and my brain had not slipped into gear and I was surprised when the player turned towards us instead of moving towards the Shed End.

After just two minutes, a gentle prod by Gallagher slipped just wide of the far post. It was a bright start from us, especially with the floodlights on, but Wolves had a half-chance with a Daniel Podence header but this thankfully did not worry Kepa. We carved out a steady supply of chances for Kai Havertz, Jorginho and Christian Pulisic without causing their ‘keeper Jose Sa any undue concern down below us.

I, however, was concerned about his lavender uniform with orange boots.

Fackinell.

A brisk break from Wolves was halted with a well-timed tackle by Dave on the edge, but outside, of our penalty area. The resulting free-kick was well-saved at full stretch by Kepa.

I was happy with what I was seeing here. We seemed to be playing with a much greater freedom than during the closing period of Tuchel’s regime and Gallagher’s running and spirit epitomised this new looseness. There was some nice passing between players who seemed to be able to link up in a more colourful way. The interplay at times was excellent.

Down on the Chelsea left, Adama Traore splatted Pulisic to the floor in the absolute definition of a shoulder charge.

“And Traore has got a lot of shoulder to charge with” I said to Alan.

The attempts continued to roll in, or rather wide or over. Efforts from Mount and Loftus-Cheek were off target and I began to wonder if we would ever score. The atmosphere was pretty weak again, despite a nice barrage of noise at the start.

Diego Costa created a little space for himself on the right but nobody in the Wolves team had gambled to reach his cross.

There was ironic cheering from Wolves when the Matthew Harding got it together with a chant for the first time in a while. It wasn’t exactly loud; I am surprised that the away fans heard it at all.

A fine arching effort from Pulisic was adeptly tipped around the far post by Sa.

On forty minutes, a strong cross from Traore was headed over from just under the bar by Matheus Nunes. It was the best chance of the match thus far. Bloody hell.

The half-time break was approaching but Mount was able to send over a deep cross from our right towards the thin frame of Havertz who was positioning himself at the far post. He lept well to meet the ball and dolly-dropped it into a yawning net after Sa had been caught flat-footed.

It was a fine goal.

On Wednesday, this part of SW6 had witnessed an Aubameyang somersault. It now witnessed a Havertz slide.

One-nil at the break but Gary was still moaning.

“I think we are playing well, Gal.”

And so did several around me. I thought it was a refreshing performance with plenty of positives; good movement, clinical passing, a nice fluidity, with some strong defending when needed.

At the start of the second period, Wolves enjoyed much of the possession. But we then gained control again. Gallagher thumped in a hard and deep cross from the right but Havertz’ header looped over.

On fifty-three minutes, a delicious move ripped Wolves apart. Mount passed to Pulisic who then advanced steadily and returned the ball to Mount. With Pulisic continuing his run, Mount adeptly picked out his movement with a delightful slide-rule pass. Pulisic gathered the ball with the finest of touches and despite being forced wide, gently lifted the ball over the ‘keeper into the goal.

What a beauty.

Safe now, surely?

Not long after, with play down below us, the ball went out and Wolves decided to replace Diego Costa. The substitution could not have been better stage-managed. Our former, feared, striker shook Jorginho’s hand and then slowly walked around the touchline, clapping supporters on several occasions, as the Matthew Harding and then the entire stadium sang his name.

“Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego!”

Three seasons. Two league championships. Brilliant.

He was a bastard, but he was our bastard. How we have missed his nigglesome pilfering of defenders’ pockets these past five years. It was a treat to see him in SW6 once again, but I am not sure his stay at Wolverhampton will be for too long. It was just right that we were able to give a decent goodbye to him on this occasion, especially since we were unable to do so in 2017.

A few chances were exchanged as the teams continued a fine battle.

There was a raft of changes in the final twenty-five minutes.

Matteo Kovacic for Loftus-Cheek.

Armando Broja for Mount.

Reece James for Pulisic.

Hakim Ziyech for Havertz.

Carney Chukwuemeka for Gallagher.

The last substitute was making his debut and he immediately impressed with a pacey run from deep along the left flank in front of the sun-drenched East Stand.

I had earlier found myself staring at the East Stand, and I was momentarily lost in thought. Should Todd Boehly’s plan to redevelop the stadium gather strength, I am not convinced that it would pay to tear down this huge structure. Indeed, I am not sure how many more seats could be added to a new stand that by law cannot go any higher and whose footprint is limited by the railway line behind it and, thus, the already steep rake cannot change. Maybe I am just being selfish. The stand – that steel, those rivets, that concrete – was there for my very first game in 1974 and, apart from that Shed wall, it is the only thing left from those days. I stared again.

That roof, those balconies, those side screens…I looked all this during my first game…it is a link with that moment…I want it to remain until my last visit whenever that will be.

Sentimental twat aren’t I?

When Broja appeared, I mentioned “he needs a goal.”

In the ninetieth minute, a fine Kovacic pass found the young striker who jinked towards the penalty box.

“Hit it Broja.”

He did.

A lovely drilled shot flew into the goal just inside the far post. The Albanian international ran into Parkyville and the crowd roared again.

Chelsea 3 Wolves 0.

Ah, this was just lovely.

A great performance, some great goals, a nice boost for Tuesday’s game in Milan.

Super.

Outside, under the Peter Osgood statue, I met up with Andy from Michigan – formerly south-west London – who, way back in around 2010, started to to sew some seeds in my mind about starting my own self-contained blog about my football adventures and anecdotes rather than upload them to a bulletin board.

He is the one to blame for all this shite.

Good to see you, Andy.

In closing, I continue my look back at our worst-ever season forty years on.

My diary entry for Wednesday 6 October mentions a sixth-form football game away at Cannington near Bridgewater in the afternoon. We lost 5-2 and I apparently squandered three good scoring chances. I was “very disappointed.” I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever of travelling, nor playing, in this match. My memory is usually pretty decent. Maybe for Chelsea games only, eh? Later on in the day, I was pleased that Chelsea beat Tranmere Rovers in the League Cup 3-1 at Stamford Bridge. I was particularly enthusiastic about “Speedie Gonzalez” – well, that never caught on, did it? – nabbing two more goals. It was six in four games for him. Mike Fillery scored the other goal in front of just 7,982. I was hopeful that this win would bolster the gate for the visit of Leeds United on the following Saturday…”to around 20,000.”

In 1982, I was looking forward to a game involving 20,000.

In 2022, I am looking forward to a game involving 70,000.

Let’s go.

Andiamo.

I will see some of you in Italy.

Tales From A Long Day At The Start Of A Long Month

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 1 October 2022.

My alarm sounded at 6.45am.

Good morning universe.

Here I was, here we were, back in action after an enforced lay-off. Our last game was the home match with Salzburg some seventeen days ago. Yet in this new month of October we faced nine games in just twenty-nine days. The plan will be to try and attend all of them. We were to begin this manic month with a trip to Selhurst Park for a game with Crystal Palace.

My weekend had begun with yet another concert – my sixth in a summer and autumn of music – that involved an act that was around in 1982. On Friday, I saw Toyah perform at the local venue in Frome.

She had opened the set with “Good Morning Universe” and it was stuck in my mind as I drove home after the concert. And it evidently remained in my ahead until the next morning too.

Toyah was a huge name in the UK music scene from 1980 to 1982, but her stardom soon drifted. I had seen her perform to a pretty small crowd in Frome back in 2015, but her popular “Sunday Lunch” videos with husband Robert Fripp, since lockdown in 2020, have put her back into the public eye once again. For someone who is sixty-four, her show was full of energy. I enjoyed it. The venue was packed.

There was always a slight resemblance between Toyah and my first-ever girlfriend from the summer of 1982. Although I did not dwell too much on it at the time, it later dawned on me that Toyah had a lisp, and that my girlfriend had the slightest of lisps too. I was always so delighted that Toyah’s determination to overcome a speech impediment allowed her to fulfil her career path. Forty years on, my own speech impediment still rears its very ugly head at unsuspecting moments and I hate it now as I fucking hated it then.

As I watched the singer on stage in Frome, my mind kept catapulting me back to summer and early autumn some four decades ago.

Here comes another seamless slide into 1982/83.

My reflective look at “the worst season of them all” continues with two Second Division games from forty years ago.

On Saturday 18 September, Chelsea played Oldham Athletic at Stamford Bridge. This game was notable as marking the debut of firebrand striker David Speedie who we had acquired from Barnsley for £80,000 in the previous May. I honestly cannot remember why his first start was delayed. The new boy got off to a flier, scoring two with a goal in each half. The attendance was 10,263. I remember being disappointed with this gate but philosophical too. In those days, such a gate was often reached by a few of the smaller clubs in the then First Division. My diary noted that I was “pleased that we thrashed Oldham 2-0” and I doubt that I was being ironic. A win, any win, in those forlorn days was definitely a thrashing. Trust me.

A week later, Chelsea travelled up to Hillsborough to play Sheffield Wednesday, who were always one of the bigger and more-fancied sides in the division at that time. The team remained unchanged from the Oldham game. The youngster Steve Francis in goal. A back four of Micky Nutton, Gary Chivers, Micky Droy and Chris Hutchings. A midfield of Mike Fillery, John Bumstead, Tony McAndrew and Paul Canoville. The striking partnership of Colin Lee and David Speedie upfront. The new season’s starting striker Pop Robson was already – ominously – relegated to a substitute role. A pretty decent attendance of 18,833 assembled for this game. Sadly, the home team went ahead after just twelve minutes and scored two more goals in the second period before two late Chelsea strikes from Fillery and Lee probably gave the result a much closer ending than it deserved.

I can confirm that I was at home that afternoon, listening to the score updates on Radio Two, because I can remember what was happening elsewhere at other games in England on that particular afternoon. It turned out to be a Saturday for the record books. As always, the striking music that heralded “Sports Report” at five o’clock, followed by the measured tones of James Alexander Gordon as he read out the day’s results, was the highlight of the afternoon. The Scot’s raising or falling intonation would allow the listener to know the result even before the scores were completed. He was a master of his craft.

“Sheffield Wednesday – rising – three, Chelsea – falling – OH SHIT WE’VE LOST – two.”

On this particular day, throughout the Football League, it was raining goals. We have not witnessed the like of it in English football ever since. The First Division led the way. In its eleven games, a mammoth fifty goals were scored.

Aston Villa 2 Swansea City 0

Brighton 1 Birmingham City 0

Coventry 4 Everton 2

Liverpool 5 Southampton 0

Manchester United 0 Arsenal 0

Norwich City 1 West Brom 3

Notts County 0 Ipswich Town 6

Stoke City 4 Luton Town 4

Tottenham 4 Nottingham Forest 1

Watford 8 Sunderland 0

West Ham 4 Manchester City 1

Meanwhile, in Division Three, Doncaster Rovers walloped Reading 7-5 at home. However, one Reading player scored four and still ended up on the losing team. His name? Kerry Dixon.

Chelsea’s start to the new campaign had been fair-to-middling. Nothing more. After seven league games, we had won two, drawn three and lost two. It was hardly inspiring stuff from a team that had finished in twelfth position the previous season. But they were my team, my club, and I loved them dearly. On the near horizon was a trip to Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea play Leeds United and, even forty years later, the thrill of the anticipation of that match still resonates.

As I have often documented, a trip to Crystal Palace’s stadium, deep in the hinterlands of South London, is always a troublesome one. I had been monitoring the best way in for a few days and all of the technical aids at my disposal were adamant that after collecting PD and Glenn, and finally, Lordy, the quickest route would be along the M4. So, this was what I did. Lordy was picked-up at 8.30am, but on nearing Swindon, our world caved in. There was a diversion ahead and so I was forced first south and then north of the motorway along smaller roads. It probably cost us an hour.

At Reading Services, I reset my sat-nav and it was sending me right into the heart of London rather than around the M25.

I drove on.

The route in was familiar. It took me along the A4, up to the junction with the North End Road, past those familiar Chelsea match day pubs. It even took me along Lillee Road, only a few yards from where I normally park for home games. But then, with the realisation that the national train strike had forced thousands onto the road network, our plans were hit hard again. Our slow drive through Fulham took the best part of an hour. We were not aided by some very slow changing temporary traffic lights just before Wandsworth Bridge. Eventually, around five-and-a-half bastard hours after leaving sleepy Somerset, we were parked up at my JustPark spot on Woodville Road with the massive TV pylon that dominates that hilly part of South London clearly visible yet still over two miles away. This huge structure was the tallest in London until as recently as 1990. We had given up on getting a drink before the game, but as we headed towards the already overflowing “Prince George”, we spotted a few friends drinking on the pavement outside a small jerk chicken café. We crossed the road to join them.

Rachel from Devon and Donna from Somerset were there. Rob from South West London was there, but without his mate Bob who was in Somerset watching his local team Waltham & Hersham in the FA Cup against Taunton Town. He has evidently reached that key stage – “local non-league team over Chelsea” – before me but I know that time will come for me too.

Drinks were guzzled. A blue flare was let off on the pavement outside the pub opposite. PD and Parky shot off to collect a ticket. Glenn and I set off just before 2.30pm to sort out tickets too.

By 2.40pm, I was in the queue for the Arthur Wait.

“Makes a bloody change to get to a game at Selhurst Park and it’s not pissing with rain.”

There was the usual bag check. While I waited in line, I spotted a listing of “prohibited items” on a poster next to the turnstile. Featured was an image of a camera with a “detachable lens” and the cold sweats came on. I had memories of the last encounter with Crystal Palace, at Wembley, and we all know how that ended. Thankfully, my camera was allowed in.

I shuffled through the packed concourse.

Selhurst Park. If it didn’t exist, you’d have to invent it.

However, for all of its cramped inefficiencies, people would soon lament its passing should it ever be replaced by a single-tiered stadium – “soul-less bowl” is the go-to phrase, eh? – either on the same site or elsewhere.

Each stand is different. Opposite our viewing area is the main stand, an Archibald Leitch original, eerily similar to the Johnny Haynes Stand at Fulham, and thus, the old East Stand at Stamford Bridge. To the right, the slight tier of seats of the Whitehorse Lane Stand, with ugly executive boxes above. In the corner between the two stands is the platform where Bex and his cohorts appeared in the original “The Firm” film from 1989. To the left, the steep two-tiered Holmesdale Road Stand, with its curved roof, a throwback to the Edwardian era but the newest of all the current stands. The Arthur Wait Stand was once all standing, and it remains a dark and brooding beast of a stand. The three thousand Chelsea fans, as always, were to be based here, though this hasn’t always been the case. The sightlines aren’t great. In fact, with my position in row eight, down low, I soon decided early on to try not to snap too many photos since my view of the game would be so poor.

A few friends spoke of similarly difficult journeys to the stadium. As kick-off approached, I spotted many clusters of empty seats in the home stands. Palace surely have a more local fan base than us, but I suppose the train strike must have had an adverse effect on numbers. It is a pet peeve that not all attendances are published either online or in the Sunday ‘papers these days. It has all changed after all of those games without fans in the nightmarish seasons of 2019/20 and 2020/21. Not even Chelsea’s home programme includes attendance figures anymore. So, maybe we’ll not know the official attendance for a while, anyway.

This annoys the fuck out of me.

My spreadsheet has half-empty columns.

And what is a world with half-empty columns, eh?

Kick-off approached. The teams entered from that far corner. It suddenly dawned on me that we would be wearing that God-awful away strip. Overhead, there were clouds but there was no hint of rain. I was glad that a rain jacket was left back in the car. I was wearing a subtle-coloured Marc O’Polo sweatshirt; an homage to one I that bought in 1986 or so when that particular brand was much-loved by football fanciers at the time. If the 1986 version was apple green, this one was more mint.

There was a minute of silence in remembrance of Queen Elizabeth II and this was followed by a hearty rendition of “God Save The King.”

This, of course, was Graham Potter’s first league game in charge.

In a “Costa Coffee” on the walk to the stadium, I had briefly spoken to fellow-fan Andy about the switch.

“Is Potter an upgrade on Tuchel?”

I just shrugged my shoulders, unsure.

The game kicked-off and it was clear that we were playing four at the back.

Kepa

James – Fofana – Silva – Chilwell

Jorginho – Kovacic

Then God knows what…

Sterling – Havertz – Aubameyang – Mount

From my position down low, it wasn’t clear.

The game began and we dominated the first – er – seven, count’em, minutes. Thiago Silva was our main pass master, touching the ball often, and looking to play balls in to others. However, the home team had hardly touched the bloody ball when Wesley Fofana gave up possession too easily and the ball quickly found Jordan Ayew. I watched in horror as his perfectly whipped-in cross dropped perfectly at the foot of Odsonne Edouard and Kepa was beaten. Sadly, I caught this goal on camera, but thankfully the image is too blurred for my stringent quality assurance department to allow it to be shared.

It was a killer cross. But where was our defence? Answers on a postcard.

Michael Olise impressed me with his direct play in front of me, but it was Eberechi Ebe who then forced Kepa into action.

With a quarter of an hour gone, we had no attempts on target. Then, an easy header looped up easily into Vicente Guaita’s reach.

Gal was getting annoyed with Aubameyang, though to be fair, the striker had not received much service. It’s difficult when players from rivals find themselves at Stamford Bridge. I know full well that I am going to find it hard to warm to Aubameyang. Is it irrational? Who knows? Gal, from his words – that were certainly annoying the bloke behind me – it will be longer for him to approve of the former Arsenal striker.

Put it this way, at this moment in time, Gal rates Mark Falco more than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

There was a header from Mason Mount that flashed wide of the near post.

Halfway through the first period, I leant forward to chat to Calvin : “this is all a bit boring mate.”

Sterling hit the base of a post but I think the move was offside anyway, as was another that quickly followed.

This was hardly inspiring stuff.

The sun was out by now and it was surprisingly hot on this October afternoon.

The central section of around four hundred of their “ultras” – yeah, I know – were now jumping up and down to a chant that was so loud that I couldn’t hear it.

They looked like they were doing some sort of silent flash mob thing.

Bless’em.

(I know they are doing their best to get the atmosphere going, God knows we need it in this bloody country, and they are easy targets…but why just can’t people get behind their teams without this fucking contrived nonsense?)

In their defence, they did produce a few banners in the first-half about the lack of fan involvement in our national game but I am not sure who this was aimed at.

I hope there are similar banners throughout Europe as we rush headlong into the monster of the Qatar World Cup.

There next followed some confusion and more than a little worry. One on one, Silva appeared to hold back Ayew. The defender was booked. VAR then signalled a possible red card. Having not seen the apparent swipe of the ball by Silva’s hand, this was all a bit difficult to work out. Anyway, panic over, no red card.

“Think we got away with that” I said to John, two seats along.

With around ten minutes of the first half remaining, a fine move brought us some cheer. A diagonal found the leap from Silva – strangely well-advanced – and his header found Aubameyang. His quick turn, a swivel, and a shot was exquisite.

GET IN.

The bloke behind might well have ruffled Gal’s hair.

I am sure it wasn’t, but it felt like Aubameyang’s first touch.

It certainly seemed to me that it was an unlikely goal. Unsuspected. Out of the, er, blue.

Chelsea roared : “How shit must you be? Our number nine scored.”

In the closing moments of the half, a back-pass to Gaita was punished with a direct free-kick inside the box. More anguish from the under-performing Mount as his shot cleared the near post. There had been a lovely loose run from Havertz, drifting with ease, past several defenders and I was prepared to celebrate one of the great goals but the shot drifted wide of the far post.

There was time for a quick photo-call with Lordy at half-time.

Soon into the second-half, Potter replaced Jorginho with Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

His slow trudge across the pitch suggested to me – maybe it was just me, I am sure it was – that he realised that he had eventually been found out.

We had a couple of half-chances as the game continued; Chilwell over, a shot blocked from Havertz. Sterling was as lively as anyone, but our link-up play was a little too laboured for my liking, and the away crowd was getting a little frustrated.

As for the defenders, James was the star. I hardly noticed Wilfred Zaha at all.

An upturn in our form was mirrored in the Arthur Wait.

“On when the blues go steaming in, oh when the blues go steaming in, I want to be in that number, oh when the blues go steaming in.”

“Oh when the blues.”

“Oh when the blues.”

“Go steaming in.”

“Go steaming in.”

“I want to be in that number, oh when the blues go steaming in.”

“Oh when the blues.”

“Oh when the blues.”

“Go steaming in.”

“Go steaming in.”

“I want to be in that number, oh when the blues go steaming in.”

It was deafening. Top work everyone.

This was followed by an equally loud “Ten men went to mow.”

Lovely stuff.

With twenty minutes, two superb saves from Kepa, foiling Zaha on both occasions.

On seventy-six minutes, a double switch.

Conor Gallagher for Havertz.

Armando Broja for Aubameyang.

The play creaked along.

A look towards Alan.

“Shite, mate.”

He nodded.

I spent some moments preparing an epitaph to post on “Facebook” at the final whistle.

On eight-five minutes, a final substitution.

Christian Pulisic for the poor Mount.

The epitaph was nearing completion.

“That was a hard watch. Milan must be quaking in their boots. At least Frome Town won.”

Just at that moment, maybe two seconds later, a sideways push of the ball from Pulisic to Gallagher.

A touch, a shot.

I watched the ball fly into the goal despite what looked like a valiant attempt by Guaita to claw it over. His fingertips could not deny us a goal.

I roared.

The away end roared.

Fackinell.

Alan : “they’ll have to come at us now.”

Chris : “come on my little diamonds.”

For the second time in eight months, a last minute goal at Selhurst Park had sent us into a frenzy.

At the final whistle, Gal and his nemesis – at it like hammer and tongs in that feisty encounter in the first-half – embraced with smiles.

I thought to myself : “get a room, lads.”

This was a fortuitous win, no doubt. I am not going to enthuse too much about it. I have to say that I am particularly worried about our two games against Milan over the next week or so, but I am filled with a huge sense of anticipation too.

Maybe not as much as the Leeds game in 1982 but you catch my drift I am sure.

In reality, more than a few friends have admitted that if we do drop into the Europa League, at least we might get some good trips out of it.

“The final is in Budapest” Calvin had reminded me.

But it’s just the fear of getting humiliated against Milan that I fear most. Nobody wants that. They should be two huge games. I honestly can’t wait.

With traffic locked, we popped into a cheap and cheerful “Chicken Cottage” – they evidently love their chicken in around Selhurst Park – to let the flow ease up a little and eventually left Thornton Heath at 6.15pm. Via another diversion on the A303, I eventually reached home four hours later.

I had picked PD up at 8am. I had dropped him off at 10pm.

Just in time for “Match of the Day.”

Just right.

Next up, one of the Italian greats.

Chelsea versus Milan at Stamford Bridge.

I’m off to practice some Italian swear words.

See you on Wednesday evening.

Postscript :

The BBC recently took the shocking decision to drop the reading out of all of the classified football scores on Radio Five Live at five ‘clock every Saturday.

Words fail me.

Tales From The Changing Of The Guard

Chelsea vs. FC Red Bull Salzburg : 14 September 2022.

We were in a period of change.

Not only in the little – or not so little – world of Chelsea Football Club, but in the wider world too.

The last game that I witnessed was the home win over West Ham United on Saturday 3 September. We then witnessed an historic week. On the Tuesday, I reached home with seconds to spare to watch our Champions League game at Dinamo Zagreb on my laptop. We began well, pretty positive thoughts, but then conceded via the home team’s first attempt on goal. We simply did not react. What followed for the rest of the match was pretty turgid stuff. We laboured without inspiration and fight. It was horrible to watch. I felt for the loyalists – a fair few who I knew – who had followed the team to Croatia. We allegedly sold just six-hundred or so tickets; it looked far fewer on TV. It was as poor a performance as I had seen for a while; in particular the second-half horror show from substitute Hakim Ziyech must rank as one of the worst personal performances for a few years.

Oh Chelsea, what a mess.

As the following day began, there were a couple of messages waiting for me in a WhatsApp group. Both were asking for the club not to react by giving Tuchel the boot. To this observer, while acknowledging that our form has been patchy for ages, our troubled manager was presumably involved in gathering the new purchases over the summer and therefore should be allowed to sort out his team over the next few months. Not for the first time, I was advocating long term-ism over “slash and burn” at Stamford Bridge.

Less than three hours later, while I was sitting in a planning meeting at work, my manager Matt passed on the news “Tuchel sacked” and I barely reacted. Deep down it was no real surprise. I quickly focused on office furniture deliveries to Munich, Cork and other cities throughout Europe rather than thinking about Chelsea winning in cities throughout Europe.

It’s not that I hadn’t seen this before.

The only shock was that the new regime had seamlessly continued the firing policy that had been so ingrained under Roman Abramovich since 2003.

At least Roman gave Ranieri a whole season to prove himself.

Hot shot Boehly, faster on the trigger, had given Tuchel just seven games into the new season.

I love the phrase that someone conjured up recently to describe Chelsea Football Club of late; “Chaos & Cups” – and am annoyed I never thought of it – as it perfectly sums up modern Chelsea.

Before we had time to dwell too much on who our next manager might be, the following day provided another shock.

During Thursday 8 September, there were reports that HRH Queen Elizabeth II was in grave health. Only on the Tuesday, the new prime minister Liz Truss had met with the Queen at Balmoral. Yet, as I watched on the evening news, with the BBC broadcaster Huw Edwards already wearing a black tie, the nation and the Commonwealth prepared for some sad news. I was watching as Edwards calmly announced that the monarch had passed.

I am no huge royalist – or at least not of the flag waving type – but I am no republican either. However, my real sadness as I watched the TV for the next hour or so genuinely surprised me. This was something that I could not easily brush off nor let pass without gentle reflection. I had my own thoughts, my own period of remembrance.

I was numb for a while, but then life slowly creaked on.

It was soon announced that the football would be off at the weekend, though. No trip to Fulham beside the Thames, nor no second prize of a Frome Town game either. So be it.

In my life I saw the Queen twice. The first time, way back, was at Windsor Great Park, when I watched from afar with my parents and an aunt and an uncle; there was some sort of parade, I was only around three, it is all very blurred. My father took some equally blurry film of the occasion. But I can remember being absolutely thrilled that a queen, The Queen, was in the same field as me.

In 1977, I went with my mother to see Her Majesty on a walkabout in Bath during the Silver Jubilee celebrations. I was only a few yards from her as she walked past, and if I remember correctly, my red, white and blue hooped shirt was spotted on the local BBC news that evening. A couple of again blurry photos remain from that day.

I was undoubtedly a royalist in 1977, and then in 1981 for the Royal Wedding. Since then, my feelings have changed. But now is not the time to bore everyone.

I know this; the Queen was well loved, well respected, and I absolutely admired her.

Meanwhile, on the Friday, back on Planet Football, Chelsea appointed the Brighton manager Graham Potter as the new man at Stamford Bridge.

Everything was changing.

Wags were commenting “two prime ministers, two monarchs and two Chelsea managers within three days.”

Quite.

Change in Downing Street, change at Buckingham Palace, change at Stamford Bridge.

I honestly haven’t bothered to read too much about the reasons behind the Tuchel sacking. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. It’s in the past.

An unwillingness to join in fully in the recruitment of new players? A worsening relationship with the existing players? Personal problems? The break-up of his marriage? A reluctance to play young players? Who knows?

I will say this. It took me a really long time to warm to the bloke; too long probably. Despite the win in Porto, I didn’t really have a bond with him, unlike with Lampard and Conte to name but two. But the way he kept the club going during that crazy period of sanctions last season was undeniably magnificent. While nobody else at the club was willing to utter a single word – the board were as weak as I had suspected all along – Tuchel bonded us all together and it was truly the stuff of legend.

Please allow me a moment of hyperbole; it was almost Churchillian.

I loved his comment about him driving a seven-seater to Europe if needed.

Thanks for your efforts Thomas Tuchel. I felt I never really got to know you. But thank you for the Champions League in Porto, the Super Cup in Belfast and the World Club Cup in Abu Dhabi.

The ironic thing is that even if we had won both domestic cups last season, and the FA Cup in 2021, he would still be gone.

Chelsea. Fackinell.

It was announced that our up-coming game against Red Bull Salzburg would be taking place, as planned, at 8pm on Wednesday 14 September. Time to re-focus, maybe, and start thinking about the future.

Graham Potter, eh?

Will he turn out to be the English version of Andre Vilas-Boas, himself a rated young manager, touted for great things, yet to fail? Or will he oversee a bright spell in the fortunes of our beloved club? Only time will tell, eh?

However, by the morning of the trip up to The Smoke for the Salzburg game, I was already pissed-off with the amount of Harry Potter references.

Do fuck off.

I worked a very early shift to get away at two o’clock for this one. Alongside PD in the front, Simon joined us, a colleague from work, and heavily involved in those deliveries in Cork and Munich. I think this was his first game with us since that away game at Brighton last season. I was wedged into the back seat, a defensive three, with Chopper and Parky to my flanks.

Despite some misty rain when I woke at 4.45am, the weather now was bloody superb. We chatted about upcoming games. October will be so, so busy. Chelsea are due to play nine games and PD, Parky and I hope to be at all nine. We are now booked-up for the away games in Milan and Salzburg. Following hot on October’s tail, we are flying up to Newcastle for the last match before the break. That game has been confirmed for 5.30pm; just perfect.

Chris : “We’ll just stay down by the quayside for that one. Big old sesh ahead.”

PD : “And get a cab up to the hill to the ground.”

Parky : “Cab? Ambulance!”

We all howled.

Simon and I chatted a little about work, but that soon slowed.

Two nights earlier, Parky and I had popped into Bristol to see yet another band that were around forty years ago. Altered Images were excellent. Parky and I are not alone among my Chelsea mates to have seen them this year. Ah, 1982.

Continuing my reflections on our 1982/83 season, our next two games in that historic season were both away from home.

On the evening of Wednesday 8 September 1982, we played at the Baseball Ground against Derby County. The game was lost 0-1. The gate was just 8,075, a very poor attendance to be honest. Only seven years earlier, Derby County had been English champions and had beaten Real Madrid 4-1 in the then European Cup the following autumn. They had fallen just like Chelsea.

On Saturday 11 September, there followed another away game against a big club now languishing in the second tier. We played at St. James’ Park against Newcastle United, boosted by the signing of former European footballer of the year Kevin Keegan. His transfer from First Division Southampton to Newcastle really was the talk of the summer. It was huge news. As a result, a massive gate of 29,084 gathered to see a 1-1 draw with Colin Lee grabbing our goal but they then equalised. The Newcastle team included Mike Channon, Imre Varadi and Chris Waddle too. My diary notes that “The Big Match” – now on Saturday nights – surprisingly showed the goals what with the game being in the Second Division. Seeing Chelsea on the TV in that era was such a rare event

The traffic was light and PD was parked up at our usual spot at 4.30pm.

We had three-and-a-half hours to enjoy before kick-off.

PD and Parky popped into “The Goose” while the others popped down to Stamford Bridge. Atop the West Stand, the Union flag was at half-mast. There were a couple of images of the Queen on LED displays.

I took a photograph or two.

With Peter Osgood in the background, I wondered if I could get away with commenting “The King and The Queen” without offending anyone. Simon and I spent a very pleasant time in the Copthorne Hotel with a few friends. Outside, the sun beat down. It was a ridiculously lovely early-evening in London.

Simon and I retraced our steps and joined up with Alan and Daryl in “Simmons” which was surprisingly quiet. We were joined by Andy, Simon, Chris, Nick, Deano, Gal, then PD and Parky. I allowed myself two pints of “Estrella”, my first alcohol in over two months.

Talk touched on the Tuchel sacking rather than the appointment of Potter.

“Apart from the four or five Tottenham games and all the Liverpool games” – oh, and the semi in Madrid – “our play over the past twelve months has been poor.”

Chat about football and all the more important things in our individual lives continued. Laughter, as always, wasn’t far away.

At work in the morning, a work colleague had asked me if was looking forward to the evening’s game.

I was brutally honest.

“Not really.”

It was going to be a long, long day and it was unlikely that I would get any sleep in the back seat of PD’s car, but now I had absolutely warmed to it all. Being among friends had cheered me. The football would take care of itself, eh? Outside, we bumped into Ludo, for the first time since attending his wedding reception three weeks earlier.

“Parky had said you weren’t coming tonight, now you are married.”

Ludo smiled. We gave him a hug and we departed for the ground.

The place soon filled up. I was expecting more away fans; there were no more than five-hundred. Apparently they had walked in silence from Earls Court as a mark of remembrance for The Queen. That was lovely. Well done them.

I wasn’t really sure what form the pre-match would take.

But as kick-off approached, there were no songs, no “Parklife”, no “Liquidator.” Just silence. The players went through their paces down below us. Over on The Shed balcony, a parade of Union Jack flags flanked a banner simply stating “RIP YOUR MAJESTY.”

Just before the teams appeared, two Chelsea pensioners laid wreaths on the pitch in readiness for the minute of silence.

The Austrian flags held up a large black banner in the Shed Lower : “ IN MEMORY OF QUEEN ELIZABETH II.”

As the teams lined-up, out from nowhere, the crowd sang “God Save The King” and I joined in.

Very soon, the teams gathered on the centre-circle; Kepa, in the team, had to race from his goalmouth to join in.

A peep from the referee’s whistle.

Everyone stood in silence for one minute.

Unlike at Anfield the previous night when the referee could only allow just over twenty seconds of Liverpool Football Club’s self-proclaimed “period of remembrance”, this was pristine.

At the end of it, I wanted to catch Alan’s eye and tell him “that’s what you call an impeccable silence” but as he turned towards me, he said :

“That’s what you call an impeccable silence.”

We smiled.

Our team?

I had seen the names on the screen but as the players lined-up I was a mite confused.

Anyway, Kepa again between the sticks.

What looked like a back four of Cucarella, Silva, Dave, Reece.

Then further forward we had Jorginho and Kovacic in the middle.

Mount too.

Upfront were Sterling, Havertz with Aubameyang in the middle, at last a focal point.

But soon into the game, I was further confused. At times it looked like a three at the back with Sterling as the pushed-on left wing-back. At least I was toying with the right number of players on the pitch. I hope that there is no truth in those pernicious rumours about Todd Boehly wanting to try a 4/4/3 formation.

If so, God help us.

The new manager Graham Potter was introduced to the crowd. The applause was hardly deafening.

The game began with Chelsea attacking The Shed.

The Salzburg grey reminded me of the Barcelona colours from that classic in 2005.

It was a full house. It seemed we are still managing to get the pricing right. It was £35 for us in The Sleepy Hollow, though the £70 tickets were snapped up in West View. It staggers me that people will pay such sums. Oh boy.

Football, the working man’s ballet?

Not anymore.

We penned Salzburg into their own half for every minute of the first twenty minutes. Unlike in Zagreb, Aubameyang – with Zorro mask – was in on goal early on and elected to shoot. It flew over. There were a few half chances as we began well, showing more willingness to pass early and pass forward. On twenty-one minutes, the crowd applauded Thomas Tuchel on account of the win in Porto in 2021.

It had been all us, but their ‘keeper Philipp Kohn had not made a single save. Just after the minute’s applause, though, the first effort on goal but this was an easy catch for him.

There was a block on a shot from Aubameyang.

Reece James beat his man and drilled a low cross the penalty area but sadly no Chelsea player had gambled.

On twenty-six minutes, the away team enjoyed their very first attack but it amounted to nothing.

The atmosphere was unsurprisingly muted.

There were a couple of Chelsea half-chances, but nothing of note. A shot from Sterling was blocked, an effort from Mount was blazed over.

On forty minutes, another rare Salzburg attack when a curler from Benjamin Sesko forced Kepa into a fine save down low.

At The Shed, an odd deflection from an Aubameyang cross and a Kovacic header. The chance passed.

It had been a pretty forgettable first forty-five minutes.

In fact, the absolute high spot was, on reflection, the timing of my visit to the little boys’ room during that odd intermission when the officials sorted out their FIFA Playstation headsets.

The half-time stats stated 72% possession and eleven efforts. I remembered less.

Soon into the second-half, a fine rapid move down our right involving a burst from James and a ball to a raiding Mount caught the Austrian defence on the back foot. A low cross from Mount wasn’t cleared. In fact, a defender deflected the ball on, just passing the waiting Aubameyang. It whipped past another defender and ended at the feet of Sterling. He controlled the ball, rolled his studs on it, then curled it powerfully home.

GET IN.

Did we power on? No, not really.

On the hour, the loudest chant of the night : “Carefree” rolled around the four stands.

A fine lofted pass from Jorginho set up Havertz but he fluffed his lines.

On sixty-seconds, Potter made some changes.

Armano Broja for Aubameyang.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for a very quiet Havertz.

Soon after coming on, Broja was released and broke in from a wide position but I that felt a challenge put him off. He shot wide.

With fifteen minutes remaining, Salzburg broke down their right. We appeared stretched. At first I thought that Emperor Silva’s slide was timed to perfection, but alas not. Junior Adama rode the challenge, collected the ball and advanced. His slide rule cross was easily turned in past Kepa by Noah Okafor.

Bollocks.

Cucarella set up James from a free-kick but he walloped it high and wide.

By now, I was literally sitting forward, not exactly on the edge of my seat because space would not allow it, but alert and involved, I could not help but think that if I had been watching at home, I would probably have been stretched out on the sofa, my attention possibly elsewhere. I am simply not a TV fan these days. Football has to be live for me now.

There was a flurry of late substitutions.

Conor Gallagher for Kovacic.

Hakim Ziyech for Dave.

Sterling played in Ziyech who crossed for Broja to bite at the near post but Kohn blocked well.

Lastly, Christian Pulisic for Sterling.

By now, I had completely lost track of the shape and who was playing where. God only knows what Boehly made of it.

Then, with time running out, a deep cross from Ziyech found Broja who headed the ball back across the box. The ball was kept alive only for our Albanian international to smash a loose ball over.

Finally, a hopelessly weak header from that man Ziyech close in had us all grumbling.

Fackinell.

In a period of change, both our lack of potency in front of goal and our charitable tendencies in defence seem difficult to budge.

On the walk out, I was annoyed with two smiling and laughing young female supporters, bedecked in Chelsea scarves, presumably not caring one iota that we were now bottom of our group with just one point from two games. I then glowered at a lad in his early ‘twenties who – laughing with a mate – proclaimed “Tottenham are better” and he soon got the message.

All three were visitors to these Isles. There are always many overseas visitors to HQ for these European games, more so than standard league matches. I welcome them. But maybe some should be asked to complete a due diligence test on arrival at the turnstiles.

I am only half-joking.

We met up back at the car and PD set off for home. I managed to drop off to sleep, no doubt dreaming of those last minute misses. I eventually got home at just after 1am. It had, indeed, been a long day.

In the match programme, there was a nice piece by Rick Glanvill concerning the Queen, the royal family and its links with Chelsea Football Club.  It was rumoured that the Queen’s grandfather, George V and her father, King George VI, were both Chelsea followers. The nearest football club to Buckingham palace is, after all, Chelsea. The first football match that the Queen watched was Chelsea’s war time Cup final with Millwall in 1945.

I have a spare programme. Who wants one?

A Chelsea player met the Queen at the British Embassy in Rome, but was really taken aback when the Queen commented : “Ah the famous Italian international footballer.”

Who was he?

Answers to : c.axon@talk21.com.

Let’s hope this garners more entrants to my last competition when just one person bothered to respond. I am going to limit it to overseas followers please. Chelsea programmes are a bit easier to get hold of in the UK. No due diligence test required. Good luck.