Tales From The Thick And The Thin

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 15 May 2016.

Even though we had gathered from near and far for the final game of this oddest of seasons to cheer on the boys one last time, to stand and applaud the astounding achievements of Leicester City, and especially their cheerful, funny and charismatic manager Claudio Ranieri, the huge presence of John Terry loomed over every moment. Our captain, dismissed at Sunderland the previous Saturday, would not be playing, but all of the talk – or at least a sizable chunk of it – in the pub beforehand was about his future.

In the words of Joe Strummer, “shall I stay or shall I go?”

As recently as last Wednesday, while we played out an entertaining draw at Anfield in the evening, there had been no move, no gesture from the club about his future. On Thursday, still nothing. Then, in the early afternoon of Friday 13 May, it was announced that the club, leaving it ridiculously late, had handed John Terry a lifeline and the chance of a one-year contract extension. Immediately, I felt joy and triumph, but then as we witnessed John’s tears at the Player Of The Season “do” on Friday, I personally wondered if the contract would ever get signed for a variety of reasons. There was an announcement that he would need to consider the deal. It looked like – guessing from outside – that his role in one final year in royal blue would be greatly changed, greatly diminished. The conjecture continued among friends on the Saturday and Sunday. Nobody was sure. I hated myself for thinking it, but I had a gnawing doubt about him returning.

There was rumour and counter-rumour, talk of brinkmanship, conspiracy theories and heaven-knows what else.

Regardless of John Terry, this would be Guus Hiddink’s last game in charge – unless a manager yet-to-be-named royally messes up and the Dutchman gets a third stint at the helm – and although there have been a few poor performances under his tutelage, Guus has steadied the ship since taking over before Christmas. We have steadily risen throughout his spell in charge. There have been a few memorable highlights. A fantastic win at Arsenal, an iconic draw against Tottenham, plus some notable victories elsewhere. As seasons go, it has been “interesting.”

I loved the US tour – a few days in Charlotte, North Carolina was the highlight – but not the bizarre aftermath when we seemed to self-destruct. Those days of autumn were, honestly, some of the oddest times I have experienced as a Chelsea supporter. Although the relegation seasons of 1974/1975, 1978/1979 and 1987/1988 were much worse, those maddening days under Mourinho, with the entire football world watching and laughing, were excruciating. Yet I loved the away jaunts to Portugal and Israel – Jerusalem was, well, my Jerusalem, the very best of 2015/2016 – and I enjoyed the bonhomie and camaraderie of my extended Chelsea family throughout the campaign. The simple pleasure of a lovely pre-match meal with Glenn and Dave before the Bournemouth home game, a riotous pre-match in Norwich with a cast of thousands, being able to watch the PSG home game alongside my mate JR from Detroit, and two lovely visits to Tyneside were some of the most memorable moments of this crazy season. But there have been others, too many to mention.

On this last day of the season, the fun continued on. In the hotel, it was lovely to see Beth, Tom and Andy from the US once again. It was the first time that my dearest and oldest Chelsea mate Glenn had met Andy since that night in Munich, when we met up after the game at “The Shakespeare” pub near the train station, and then shared his hotel room; a place to crash after the best night of our lives.

In The Goose, I had a good old chat with Paul – once of Knoxville, Tennessee but now living in Los Alamos, New Mexico – and also a brief chat with Austin from Houston, Texas.

Pints were shared.

“Friendship and football.”

There were a few Leicester City fans in The Goose. They were causing no harm and we let them be. Only at the end, after the beers stirred their vocal chords, did they start singing.

“Leicester City – Five Thousand To One.”

I wished a few my heartiest congratulations. I like two of the T-shirts that I saw them wearing :

“les-tah.”

“Dilly Ding Dilly Dong.”

One final walk down to Stamford Bridge.

Ah, I’ll miss this.

Unfortunately, I managed to get my timings all wrong and I sadly missed all of the pre-game pageantry. One last pint of “Peroni” in The Goose, and some elongated “goodbyes” to friends, resulted in me arriving at my seat in the Matthew Harding just as the teams were shaking hands with each other. I had therefore missed the guard of honour that the Chelsea players had bestowed on the new champions of England. A massive John Terry banner was being held aloft in The Shed, and I missed the chance to take a photograph of that too. The banner depicted JT in a typical pose, his right palm beating his heart, something that I noticed him doing around five years ago as a mark of solidarity with us fans. Along with the John Terry chest-pass, it is trademark. If and when the powers that be decide upon a John Terry statue at Stamford Bridge, I would suggest that it will be of his hand-to-heart pose. It certainly strikes a chord.

At times, the ensuing football match seemed nothing more than a side-show.

This would be my fifty-fourth game of the campaign. Although I have seen more games during four other seasons ( a 58, a 57 and two 55s), this would be my highest ever percentage. Fifty-four out of fifty-six.

96.4%

I don’t think that figure will ever be matched by myself again. I only missed the CL games in Kiev and Paris. Happy with that.

With the sun shining down, and the stadium packed to the rafters, but with my head full of thoughts about the craziness of the current season, with the close season looming, I found it difficult to get too involved with the game being played out before me.

Hiddink had chosen a strong team, but I was a little annoyed that Ruben was a substitute.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Cahill, Ivanovic, Baba – Fabregas, Matic – Pedro, Willian, Hazard – Traore.

We were wearing the new kit for the first time, and I really wasn’t impressed. I don’t mind the Adidas stripes down the sides of the main body of the shirt, but I think the collar looks messy, like someone has pulled it out of shape, and the lions all over the shirt look infantile.

Not for me.

The last Chelsea shirt I bought was in 2005.

I can’t see myself ever buying another one.

It wasn’t a bad game, and Chelsea began well. A nice move involving Willian, Matic and Pedro resulted in the ball just missing the target.

Leicester had their full three thousand, though I was a little dismayed to see many – too many – of their fans wearing blue curly wigs. Shocking.

On twenty-six minutes, there was a hearty round of applause for John Terry, and a sea of “number 26” cards were held aloft in the Shed Upper.

Vardy, the unlikeliest of heroes for Leicester this season, caused a couple of moments of panic in our defence.

Pedro then caused Kasper Schmeichel to scamper on all fours to keep out a loose ball, before Traore was unable to convert as the ball broke again. The Leicester City ‘keeper was certainly the busier of the two. It had been a decent enough opening period.

There hadn’t been a great deal of noise throughout the first-half. The Leicester City fans seemed a little subdued. Maybe it still hadn’t sunk in.

Soon into the second period, Hiddink replaced Pedro with Loftus-Cheek and Traore with Tammy Abraham.  On the hour, debutant Fikayo Tomori replaced Ivanovic, with Dave moving in to central defence alongside Cahill.

The game, which had quietened down with all of the substitutions, suddenly came alive. Eden Hazard, the shadow of the man against Liverpool thus far, raced past his markers and played in Abraham. The ball fell to Matic, who was upended just as he was looking to gather himself to shoot.

Fabregas slotted home.

One-nil to the former champions.

I had always fancied our chances in this game, and I was confident that we would hold on. Leicester tried to retaliate but their possession amounted to nothing. I joined in the applause as Riyad Mahrez was substituted by Ranieri with ten minutes to go. I remembered his goal against us in December on that night of “betrayal.” Sadly, just after, a Danny Drinkwater shot from way out – a blot into the blue – caught us all unawares and the game was tied at 1-1.

I spotted a handful – no more than twenty – Leicester fans get to their feet in the West Upper, but there were no handbags.

The funniest moment of the day? Hearing that Tottenham had lost 5-1 at Newcastle United. How we laughed.

The Chelsea fans – who had been generally quiet all game – were roused to honour Claudio Ranieri as the game continued on.

“One Ranieri, there’s only one Ranieri.”

Tammy Abraham caused us all to inhale quickly as he spun tidily and whipped a curler towards Schmeichel’s goal. It only narrowly missed the far post.

Referee Craig Pawson blew the final whistle of the 2015/2016 season and that was that.

A few fans – in fact more than a few – disappeared as soon as the whistle sounded, but many stayed. We applauded the Leicester team as they walked over to celebrate with their fans. The John Terry flag appeared at the Matthew Harding, draped over both tiers. I stood with Alan and Glenn as the team reappeared. John Terry, of course, lead them out. There was a noticeable gap between him, with his two children, and the rest of the squad. Suddenly it was all about him.

He was wearing a white training top, which made him stand out.

He beat his heart, he clapped us. He walked down to the MH and shook hands with a few fans, and handed out a shirt or two. There were calls of his name. He seemed to be very touched. There was still a gap, a respectful space, between John Terry and the rest of the players.

The sun shone down.

Glenn sped off for a burger from his favourite burger girl at “Chubby’s Grill.”

“See you back at the car.”

I shook Alan’s hand.

“Have a good summer. See you in Vienna.”

The players walked down to The Shed End. I had decided to stay on, to watch the last few moments of this ridiculous season. Neil Barnett then, unexpectedly I thought, announced that John Terry wanted to say a few words. I remembered JT’s rousing speech after the last game of the season against Blackburn Rovers before Munich in 2012. That was good, but this one was one for the ages.

He praised Claudio Ranieri and Leicester City for their deserved title win.

“I’m delighted Leicester have won it and I’m just glad Tottenham haven’t.”

He thanked us for our support in such a difficult season.

In many respects, at this stage this seemed like a “goodbye speech.”

He thanked us for sticking with us “frew the fick and the fin.”

“We’ll be back next year and we’ll be fighting for the title.”

This was music to my ears, the use of “we” and the notion that he would be with us.

With a new manager, new to the English game, having JT as a “bridge” between the old and new regimes would be priceless.

He thanked us for our support in an emotional few weeks.

His voice croaking now.

Oh boy.

I felt the emotion.

I looked up at the TV screen and he was holding back some tears.

He thanked Guus Hiddink, almost the forgotten man in all of this, and much applause from the fans.

“A great man.”

He praised the first team staff.

The crowd responded : “John Terry, we want you to stay.”

He then – his voice croaking a little more and I turned to one side, almost croaking too – said that the club and him wanted the same thing.

“I wanna stay. The club know that. The fans know that.”

There were words for the young boys, for Tammy, for Ruben, and then a few more words of thanks.

“Blue Is The Colour” began booming.

I watched, now confused beyond belief, wondering if John Terry would be playing for us again or not. For all of the positive words, the cynical me still wasn’t sure. I walked to an exit, but stood mesmerized, unable to leave Stamford Bridge, as I watched the man with the white training jersey shake hands with a few last well-wishers and then disappear down the tunnel.

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Tales From A Lesson In Double Dutch

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 December 2015.

Regardless of the current troubled predicaments of both teams, “United away” is always one of the very best Chelsea trips each season. Some would say it is the best of all. There is just something about visiting Old Trafford that never fails to stir the senses.

North against South.

Manchester against London.

Red against Blue.

As the day got underway, I was relishing the chance to be one of three thousand tightly-packed away fans in that sweeping corner, trying our best to be heard against the four-thousand United followers in the lower tier of “K-Stand” – I’m showing my age here – if not many more in all of the other home areas. It would surely promise to be a visceral treat for those of us who enjoy the noise and passion of a top-notch away fixture as much as the football played before us.

Old Trafford.

“The Theatre Of Dreams” as the advertising executives at Manchester United have called it.

Of course, there have been Chelsea defeats, but it was historically a venue which always used to be a pretty successful hunting ground for Chelsea Football Club in my youth.  Until 1970, it was the scene of our most famous match, our most famous win. And for many years we were undefeated in league games at Old Trafford and it annoys me to this day that I was present to see us relinquish that record on the last day of August in 1987.

From season 1965/1966 to season 1985/1986, we visited the home of Manchester United on thirteen occasions in the league and never lost once.

My first visit was in the spring of 1986, when two goals in front of us in the tightly-packed paddock sent us wild. The atmosphere that night was as visceral as I had ever experienced in my eighty Chelsea games to that point. A late Kerry Dixon winner sent us into ecstasy long before it was a staple drug of delight in Madchester. The natives were not happy that night. I can remember running the gauntlet back to our coach which was parked at the now long-gone Warwick Road train station. Fantastic memories from almost thirty years ago. You always remember your first time, right?

This would be my twenty-first visit to Old Trafford with Chelsea. In the previous twenty, my own personal record is five wins, six losses and nine defeats.

In my mind, it seems a better hunting ground than that. Maybe it is the strong memory of the emotion connected with those five wins (1986, 1986, 2005, 2010, 2013) which have altered my perception.

Regardless, as I collected Glenn and Parky at around 9am, I just knew that a classic day out was waiting for me.

Before we headed north on the busy motorway network, though, we diverted in to Bath for an archetypal post-Christmas spend-up. After a bite to eat, the three of us raided a few shops in the city’s crowded centre for some classic football clobber.

Two pairs of Adidas trainers, a Lyle and Scott Harrington jacket, a Paul & Shark hooded top and a pair of New Balance trainers were purchased between the three of us. I’ve noticed how New Balance are being worn more and more at football these days; a hark back to around 1985/1986 when they shared the limelight with the usual suspects. In one of the shops that we visited, there was a little banter with the two shop assistants.

Shop Assistant One : “Chelsea are not doing too well this season, eh?”

Chris : “Nah. Not too brilliant at the moment.”

Shop Assistant Two : “It could be worse. Could be United.”

Glenn : “We’re off to the game later this evening.”

Shop Assistant Two : “Oh right.”

Chris : “Who do you follow then?”

Shop Assistant Two : “United.”

This little exchange took me back somewhat. Although Chelsea are going through a ridiculously poor run of form, the United fan thought that his club were in a worse predicament.

But then I realised the mind set of many United supporters, who expect – nay, deserve – success.

I would like to think that Chelsea fans like Parky, Glenn and myself are a little more grounded, a little more pragmatic.

Shop Assistant One : “Predictions for tonight?”

Chris : “0-0 I reckon. I’d be happy with that.”

Regardless, purchases all bagged-up, we were on our way to the delights of Mancunia with an added spring in our step.

Sadly, the trip north – M4, M5, M6 and beyond – was yet another in the ever-growing list of horrific away journeys. A trip that should have taken three hours took over five. There were traffic delays every few miles. I had to divert through Stoke to avoid further problems on the M6. In the car, Parky had compiled a Northern Soul tape which was keeping us entertained. This was the stand out track.

“Moonlight, Music and You” by Laura Greene.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OE2H92jGoS0

Heaven.

However, I was getting frustrated with my slow progress.

News came through that Guus Hiddink was to employ a “false nine” in the game which was now getting close. With Diego Costa out through suspension, we presumed that Loic Remy was injured. Getting Radamel Falcao back on the pitch to score a winner at Old Trafford was beyond the stuff of fantasy.

In a similar scenario to that used by Mourinho at Tottenham, Eden Hazard was to be deployed in the furthest forward position. To be fair, the draw at Spurs was one of our most palatable performances of the season. For an old-stager such as me though, there is something decidedly odd about a “false nine.” It seems to rank up there with Peter Kay’s exclamations and protestations of “Cheesecake?” and “Garlic Bread?”

“False Nine?”

“Football with no striker?”

“False? Nine?”

It sounds like something that a transvestite might wear.

As I turned off the M60 and joined the Chester Road on that long familiar approach to Old Trafford, I reluctantly ‘phoned an old college mate, Rick, who had been waiting for me to arrive so that we could have a chit-chat before heading in to the game. Rick is a Manchester United season-ticket holder and lives in nearby Northwich. We had been looking forward to meeting up. Sadly, I advised that he should head on in.

“May the best team win and all that bollocks.”

Although we had left the city of Bath a few minutes before midday, we did not reach our allotted parking place – “a tennoh, please mate”- until around 5.15pm.

We quickly walked across Gorse Hill Park. Out on the Chester Road again, all was eerily quiet. Time was moving on and virtually everyone else was seated, or standing, inside the vastness of Old Trafford. It was a mild night as we walked as quickly as possible.

It seemed that the three of us were alone in the city of Manchester.

The red bricks. The Victorian streets. The car lights. The emptying pubs. The road signs for the neighbouring suburbs. The vast steel supports of the stadium roof. The colour red.

Manchester.

A couple of years ago, I went to see the great punk poet John Cooper Clarke, a native of the neighbouring city of Salford, in my home town of Frome, with a few good friends. Supporting him that evening was the poet Mike Garry, who went down equally well. One of Mike Garry’s most evocative poems is a tribute to the late TV presenter, journalist, and Factory record label owner Tony Wilson. DJ Andy Weatherall recently put this poem – “St. Anthony : an ode to Anthony H. Wilson” – to a dance beat and it has been in my head ever since. As a tribute to a much-revered impresario, the poem hits the spot. Hearing Garry’s emotional words, in a heavy and lazy Mancunian accent, put to music is perfect. Of course, it acts as an ode to Manchester itself. I love it. These football travels, these trips of faith and devotion, take me to some wonderful sporting cities. Surely Manchester is one of those.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LUE9PPiZ7W0

[A tip from this honest hardworking blogger; play this in the background as you read below. Don’t be passive. Engage.]

St. Anthony is the patron saint of things lost, of people missed. Everything about the poem seems very poignant for me and my 2015.

As I walked towards Old Trafford, one more time, Garry’s words resonated.

“Talk to me of Albion, of Anderton and of art.

Of The Arndale.

Alan Turin.

Acid House.

Alexandra Park.”

Past the Bishop Blaize pub, for once devoid of sound. United song master Pete Boyle had left for the game.

“Of Bez, the Buzzcocks, the bouncing bombs.

And the beautiful Busby Babes.”

Past the take-aways and the offies, and in to a very empty Sir Matt Busby Way. The grafters and the fanzine sellers were no more. How odd to be outside a football stadium after kick-off.

“Of Curtis.

Cancer, Christies, Catholicism.

Crack and Curt Cobain.”

We met up with Kev, from Edinburgh, who was waiting on my ticket. We quickly disappeared into the away section underneath the Munich clock. There were other Chelsea fans arriving late. We were evidently not the only ones. For the first time in ages, the away season ticket holders were in the curve, not down below to the left in the South Stand.

We had missed seven minutes. A quick “hello” to Alan and Gary. Apparently, it had been an eventful opening period. I heard how Juan Mata had struck the woodwork, but also how John Terry had gone close with a header. I took a few photographs. I tried to settle in. Everyone standing, everyone shouting. There seemed to be no seat unused as I looked across to the Stretford End, now partly corporate, its heart ripped out years ago, and then the towering North Stand. I looked across to where Rick would be watching, somewhere near the rear of the lower tier as it curved around. A quick run through the teams. I was pleased to see the steadying choice of Mikel alongside Matic, who – from memory – does well at Old Trafford. For the home team, I quickly spotted Bastian Schweinsteiger amid thoughts of that night, that penalty and that foreign city, whose name brings awful memories to this part of Manchester. How odd that one word can elicit such vastly differing emotions.

It was the first viewing of a few of these United players for me. To be frank, it just didn’t seem like a Manchester United team. With the two teams now being overseen by two Dutch managers, I pondered on what was before me. Guus Hiddink was playing without a striker and Louis van Gaal was playing Ashley Young at left-back. I had a feeling that my understanding of all of the traditional footballing rules were being tested.

To be honest, it looked double Dutch to me.

Pure football gibberish.

“Dance, Design, Durutti, Devotto.

Development of a dirty Northern city.

De La Salle.

Dignity.

And how in the end you hated all the pity.”

What then happened over the next ten minutes or so was horrible. We were simply over-run and out-paced and out-played. From Alan’s seemingly reassuring words about a rather reasonable start, it seemed that all of that pent-up angst and anger about their inability to play expansive and thrilling football in “the United way” was being unleashed, and for my eyes especially. Ivanovic, so often the culprit in this car-crash of a football season – but seemingly improved of late – was back to his infuriating form of August and September, allowing Anthony Martial a ridiculous amount of space, then seemed unwilling to challenge. Martial struck a low shot against Courtois’ near post and we watched as it spun across the six-yard box. Thankfully there were no United attackers in the vicinity. The home team continued to dominate, and Rooney shot from distance. Chelsea’s attacking presence was sadly lacking. Our breaks soon petered out. I wondered how on Earth John Terry had forced a save from De Gea while I was still outside in the Manchester night.

Tackles were thundering in from both sets of players.

The Chelsea crowd were in reasonable voice. Yet again I will make the point of how away fans are more prone to creating an atmosphere than the home fans. Old Trafford is no different. The game continued. I just wanted us to get to the break unscathed, so that Hiddink could fine-tune our performance.

At half-time, there were long faces in the Chelsea section. In reality, this was as poor a performance as we had seen all season. Maybe the first-half at Leicester was the worst, but this was not much better.

I wondered what we had lost. I wondered if a prayer to St. Anthony was needed.

“Saint Anthony – Saint Anthony,

Please come around.

Something is lost that can’t be found.

Oh talk to me.

Oh talk to me.

Of Gretton, God, Granada.

Hooky and Hannett.

And how the fighting just got harder.

Hamlet, Ibsen, The IRA.

Jesus Mary and Keith Joseph.

Joy Division.

Judaism.

The importance of the moment.”

I remembered back to my last visit to Manchester, the game with City in August. I reminisced how Parky and I had waited in the foyer of the Lowry Hotel and had observed the Chelsea players walk through to their awaiting coach. At the time they looked focussed. With hindsight, they looked joyless, without a spark. I remember, too, how Mourinho walked to the coach independently, away from the team. Now the separation seems important.

“Something is lost that can’t be found.”

Our team seems to have lost a spark, a sense of vitality, the desire.

It hurts.

“Liam.

London.

Lust for Life.

Louis Louis.

Linnaeus Banks.

Manchester.

Music.

Marijuana.

Majesty.

And Karl Marx.”

Thankfully, Chelsea began with a lot more zest as the second-half began. Eden Hazard set up a chance for Pedro, who forced a fine save from De Gea. The follow-up shot from Azpilicueta was also blocked by De Gea. How we had not taken the lead still escapes me. The away support stepped it up a notch. At the other end, a sublime block by John Terry stopped Wayne Rooney advancing. Throughout the evening, Terry’s control of Rooney was a Chelsea highlight. On the hour, a sublime block from close range by Courtois kept the score goal-less; a cross from the artful Martial on the right had gifted Herrera a wonderful chance to score. With the Stretford End already celebrating, the ball ricocheted off Thibaut. Stupendous stuff indeed.

We were definitely improving as the game wore on. I noted a greater desire amongst our players. With United flooding our half, they left themselves exposed when Pedro played in a bursting Nemanja Matic.

This was our moment.

I brought my camera up to eye-level. With any luck I would capture a game-winner, just as I had memorably captured a Juan Mata strike grazing Phil Jones’ thigh on the way past De Gea in 2013.

I brought the camera up to my eyes. I was aware that Dave was alongside.

Snap.

The ball was struck high and wide.

“Fuck it.”

Another shot from Matic went wide.

Willian was replaced by Ramires with twenty minutes remaining. He had looked tired. Clearly not at his best, he had been consistently fouled all evening. His departure was no surprise. I noted how quiet the United crowd had become. I had expected more disdain, more barracking of van Gaal.

I commented to Gary how poor Wayne Rooney had been, fluffing his lines on two occasions in the second-half and prone to over-hitting some passes. I wondered about Mourinho’s pursuit of him in 2013. I thought that Terry and Zouma had performed well. Further forward, there had been more positive signs as the game progressed. Eden Hazard had proved to be less effective than at Tottenham but I thought that he had tried his best in a very difficult role. At times, he was too distant from a supporting cast. But this always going to be a tough assignment without a Diego Costa or a Loic Remy. Pedro had run his socks off all game. You had to look hard, but there were pluses.

“Tony talk to me of Sex Pistols, the substance, the streets, the sounds.

The sniffed and snorted, stolen, swigged multi million pounds.

And talk to me of the greatest ever Man United team.

Greg

Burns

Jones

Edwards

Robson and Roy Keane

Was it Best

Law

Charlton

Stiles and Eric Cantona?

Unknown Pleasures of the doubles and the trebles

Incantation from the stars.”

At the end of the game, there was a general feeling of relief from Parky, Alan, Gary and myself – stood in a line – and from Glenn, stood several rows in front.

A goal-less draw is what I had predicted and a goal-less draw is what we had witnessed.

We walked back to the car. It was not even 7.30pm. It seemed later. We were caught up in more slow-moving traffic as we joined the red surge around the M60 and then south, homeward bound.

We were now on twenty points.

“Halfway to paradise.”

To complete a full day of friendship and football, we stopped off for a curry in Walsall, not so far away from our League Cup away day a few months ago. The game had been discussed on the motorway. It was now time to relax and enjoy a madras, a jalfrezi, a pathia.

I eventually reached home at around one o’clock. Of course I had enjoyed the day. Others, watching further away, were apparently not so happy. What have we lost? Maybe they need to have a word with Saint Anthony too.

“Guus talk to me.

John talk to me.

Jose talk to me.

Roman talk to me.”

On the third day of January, we reassemble at Selhurst Park. See you there.

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>>Tales : A Lesson In Double Dutch.

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Tales From 2015/2016

Chelsea vs. Watford : 26 December 2015.

What were my expectations for this game? It would be easy to simply say “a win.” But in this most ridiculous of football seasons, where north is south and where black is white, it seems that I am constantly having to re-calibrate my hopes on a match by match basis. Here was another game that illustrated how this campaign has been turned 180 degrees. Watford, newly arrived in the top flight after an eight year hiatus and with a new manager to boot, were enjoying a recent burst in form, taking them up to the heady heights of seventh place in the table.

Chelsea, the Champions, were languishing in fifteenth position.

Yep.

This is 2015/2016.

Up is down. Big is small. Wet is dry. Bill Gates is Apple. Coke is blue. Puma has three stripes. The Confederates are from the North. The Pope is agnostic. A bear shits in a bathroom.

It is as difficult to unravel as an Agatha Christie whodunit with half the pages missing.

I had traveled up to London on a very mild but also a very grey and nondescript Boxing Day morning with Lord Parky and P-Diddy. My Christmas Day had come and gone with little cheer. Having lost my mother in February, the first Christmas without her warm smile was always going to be a tough one. My Christmas Day was somewhat of an emotional wasteland for me. As I drove towards London, its grey shadow lingered long in my thoughts. To be honest, I was struggling to conjure up too much enthusiasm for the game at Stamford Bridge against Watford. My thoughts were more focused on Monday’s away game at Old Trafford – always one of “the” trips each season – what with the current malaise affecting that particular club too. Add all of the conjecture about Mourinho joining United in to the mix, and you have a highly intriguing scenario.

Monday will be a cracking day out.

Prior to the game with Watford, I spent a couple of hours in the company of Peter, a pal now living in the United States. I last met him on his own turf, in Washington DC, for the game with Barcelona during the summer. We were joined by two Stamford Bridge game day virgins Chris and Kate – also from the US – all giddy with excitement about seeing the boys in the flesh in SW6 for the first time. I gave them a few insights into our club as we set off to meet up with the usual suspects in The Goose.

The pub seemed quieter than usual. As soon as we had settled, there was a roar as Stoke City went a goal up against Manchester United. A second soon followed. After United’s poor run of form, a trip to the Potteries is the last place that they would have wanted to visit. The stakes for Monday were raised further.

I met up with Jeff from Texas, who had just flown in that very morning. It was lovely to see him again. This was a similar scenario to our game at St. Andrew’s on Boxing Day in 2008 when Jeff and two friends had driven straight from Heathrow to Birmingham. This time, Jeff was with his wife, another Stamford Bridge game day virgin. In order to save money for this trip, Jeff – who is a school teacher – took on a second job throughout the summer, mowing lawns, possibly with a dog called spot. I heartily approved of this. It annoys me at times how so many of our US fans moan about not being able to travel to England to see us play – hell, some even moan about Chelsea not playing in their part of the country during US pre-season tours – so “fair play” to Jeff for working a second job to see us in England. It immediately reminded me of the story that my good friend Andy told about his schooldays. Andy would often go without school meals during the week in order to save money for the train fare down to London from his Midlands home to see Chelsea play at Stamford Bridge.

Top work from Andy in 1979 and top work from Jeff in 2015.

Outside the West Stand, and underneath Peter Osgood’s boots, I met up with three or four more acquaintances from the US, those that I have befriended through Facebook or met on pre-season tours, but these were only part of a bigger “Chelsea In America” ensemble – those who have been saving their lunch money over the past few years – and I was very happy to take a group photo of them all. There were a good few Stamford Bridge virgins among this little group too, although some were on a repeat visit.

Peter, Chris, Kate, Su, Tim and Dan posed with Howard, Marion, Ralph, Richie, Arnold, Al, Fonzie, Joanie, Chachi, Potsie and Pinkie. Laverne and Shirley were still in the pub.

Happy days.

After taking the photo, I repeated something that I always say to first-time visitors –

“And if we lose today, you’re not fucking coming back.”

Some would be at Old Trafford on Monday too, the lucky bleeders.

Inside Stamford Bridge – I was in early – both sets of players were going through their re-match drills. Unsurprisingly, Watford brought their full three thousand.

Neil Barnett introduced Guus Hiddink to the Stamford Bridge crowd and he drew a fine reception. Hiddink seems a good man, a steadying influence after the storm which accompanied Mourinho’s closing months, and if memory serves he was well-liked by all of the players during his tenure in 2008/2009.

I whispered to Alan : “When we sang ‘we want you to stay’ to Guus at Wembley in 2009, who would honestly have thought that we would be welcoming him back almost seven years later. And that he would be replacing Mourinho.”

The team was virtually unchanged from the win against that very poor Sunderland team. Gary Cahill replaced Kurt Zouma.

Chelsea dominated the first quarter of an hour with the opposition, in all black, hardly crossing the halfway line. An early chance for Diego Costa from inside the six yard box was headed over. I wondered if the watching guests from the US – in the Shed Lower, Parkyville – would be rewarded with a first-half goal. We came close with a couple of efforts and the mood inside The Bridge was good, although the atmosphere was not great. Watford then seemed to awake from their slumber. They perhaps subconsciously remembered that they were, statistically, the better team. They came to life with Ighalo looking dangerous on two occasions.

Watford, famously sticking two fingers to the football world, and playing a traditional 4-4-2, had originally seemed content to hump long balls forward towards Ighalo and Deeney. It had been a nod towards their own particular footballing heritage under Graham Taylor in the ‘eighties when their rudimentary long ball game was a particular component of that footballing era. In those days, the two strikers were Ross Jenkins and Luther Blissett. Even in the more traditional ‘eighties – before we had heard of “false nines”, “double pivots”, “transition phases”, “attacking mids” and “tiki taka” – Watford’s style of play was the most basic of all. I always thought that it contrasted, ironically, so well with the more pleasing football played by their great rivals Luton Town under David Pleat. Both teams romped to promotion from the Second Division in 1981/1982, when we were still trying to harness the very unique talents of Alan Mayes in our own 4-4-2 variant.

Watford were indeed posing us problems, and our midfield – Fabregas in particular – was finding it hard to shackle their movement. However, rather against the run of play, a corner from in front of the US guests found the high leap of John Terry at the far post. The ball bounced down, not specifically goal wards, but towards where Diego Costa was lurking. A quick instinctive spin and the orange ball flew high in to the net past Gomez.

The crowd roared as Diego reeled away, accepting the acclaim from the crowd, and especially those in Parkyville. Throughout the game, there had been no significant boos for any player to be honest. Perhaps there was just the slightest murmurs of disdain for Costa when the teams were announced. But nothing on the scale of the previous game, which the media took great pleasure in highlighting. Maybe the protest at the Sunderland match was well and truly behind us now. I am pleased, if this is the case. Under Hiddink, we need to move on.

Oscar came close, but then Watford attacked us again. A free-kick was deflected over and from the resultant corner, Matic was correctly adjudged to have hand-balled inside the box. Deeney converted, low past Courtois.

“Here we go again.”

Just before the half-time whistle, a fine run by Pedro down the Chelsea left was followed by a low cross which just evaded the late run of Diego Costa.

It had been a frustrating half. Our early dominance had subsided and we were back to questioning various aspects of our play.

There was a surprising substitution at the break, with Hiddink replacing the admittedly lackluster (aka “shite”) Fabregas with none other than Jon Obi Mikel.

Soon into the second period, Watford peppered our goal with two shots in quick succession. Capoue was foiled by Courtois and then a follow-up was bravely blocked. I thought to myself “under Mourinho, one of those would have gone in.” Sadly, just after I was to rue my thoughts. The ball found Ighalo on the left, but hardly in a particularly dangerous position. To be honest, I was quite surprised that he had decided to shoot. I looked on in horror as his shot deflected off a defender and into the empty net, with Courtois off balance and falling to his left.

We were losing 2-1.

“Here we go again.”

To be fair, we upped our play and began to look livelier. A key move began in inauspicious circumstances, though. Watford played a long ball out to their left and Ivanovic had appeared to have lost his man. However, with grim determination and resilience – the Brana of old – he recovered remarkably well. A sturdy tackle halted the Watford attack. Brana played the ball simply to Oscar. Oscar passed to Willian. Our little Brazilian livewire played – probably – the pass of the season into the box, and into the path of Diego Costa, who was thankfully central. He met the ball and adeptly cut it past the despairing dive of Gomez.

2-2.

The crowd roared again. Diego Costa ran towards the sidelines. My photographs captured the joy on the faces of the fans in the East Lower, but also the look of – what? Disdain? Annoyance? Umbrage? – on Costa’s face as he turned towards the Matthew Harding and remembered the boos against Sunderland.

Regardless of the politics of booing, we were back in the game.

After capturing both of Diego’s goals on film, I clasped my camera and wondered if I might be able to photograph a possible third.

We went close on a couple of occasions, and it honestly felt as if a winner was on the cards. Watford were offering little now. It was all Chelsea. Hiddink brought on Hazard for Pedro. Thankfully there were no boos. We need to move on. Dancing and moving in that mesmeric way of his, Hazard soon got the bit between his teeth with a couple of dribbles down below me. He was clattered by Behrami, and referee Marriner quickly pointed towards the spot.

Phew.

Here would be my third Diegoal of the afternoon.

Here would be a deserved winner.

Hazard needed treatment and the penalty was delayed.

We waited.

Alas, Oscar decided to take the kick and his dramatic slip resulted in the ball being ballooned high over the Watford bar.

The Stamford Bridge crowd groaned.

Then it was Watford’s turn to go close at the other end. It was a pulsating game of football, if not the most technically brilliant. Apilicueta was maliciously scythed down but the Watford miscreant was not red carded. Then, so stupid, a wild tackle by Diego Costa – also on the half way line – resulted in a yellow. I half-expected a red. It would mean that Costa would not be joining us at Old Trafford on Monday. It undoubtedly took the shine off a much better performance from Diego Costa, who was back to – almost – his best. Mikel, by the way, was exceptional in the second-half. It was his shot, late on and from a good thirty yards out, which whizzed past Watford’s post in the last meaningful moment of the game.

I had to be honest.

As a game of football, I had enjoyed it. It was a decent game.

As a Chelsea fan, however, there are still questions to be asked of our troubled team.

Back in the car, my views were shared by my two mates.

“Not a bad game. Should have won it.”

Before I knew it, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim were soon fast asleep. I drove on, eating up the miles. Thankfully I made good time and I was back home by 7.30pm, with my mind now realigned towards Old Trafford.

Oh, and Southampton, where Arsenal were being dicked 4-0.

Yep.

This is 2015/2016.

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Tales From Work

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 19 December 2015.

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

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

“Let’s Go To Work.”

Work.

It made me think.

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

Chelsea? I’d rather be in Philadelphia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We grumbled about Michael Emenalo.

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

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

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

Yes, that was the real conundrum of the day.

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

More questions than answers.

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

But here was my last word before the game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the clock ticked, the stadium filled up.

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

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

“He would, wouldn’t he?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where were you when we were shit?”

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

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

I wish I knew the answer.

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

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

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

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

I almost expected a second goal.

“It’ll get nervous then, Al.”

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

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

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

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

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

At the final whistle, there was relief.

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

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

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

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

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Tales From Wembley

Chelsea vs. Everton : 30 May 2009.

So, the final on Saturday had all of Britain glued to their TV sets. I am sure they weren’t disappointed.

Well done Diversity – worthy winners.

…bad luck, Susan Boyle!

I jest…

With the Champions League Final taking place on the Wednesday, the media coverage of this year’s FA Cup Final has been very low-key. The fall-out to United’s non-performance in Rome was still being discussed everywhere on Friday. Our game with Everton wasn’t getting much of a mention.

For the record, this was Chelsea’s ninth Cup Final. We were losing finalists in 1915, 1967, 1994 and 2002, but winners in 1970, 1997, 2000 and 2007. My life as a Chelsea fan began with the 1970 win versus Leeds, though I remember nothing of the game…it was the discussions in the school playground after which led me to choose Chelsea…surely more success would follow. If only I knew!

I am sure everyone is aware of our lack of success in the league from 1955 to 2005. Growing up as a kid in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, I had to endure year after year of taunts from friends as Chelsea flitted in and out of the top two divisions. It was a tough upbringing and not even the FA Cup could bring me any respite. In fact, we were even worse in the cup than the league. From our appearance in the 1970 final to our next appearance in a final in 1994, we did not reach one single FA Cup Final. As a comparison, here is a list of the London teams who reached the FA Cup Final in this period.

1971-Arsenal
1972-Arsenal
1975-Fulham and West Ham
1978-Arsenal
1979-Arsenal
1980-Arsenal and West Ham
1981-Tottenham
1982-Tottenham and QPR
1984-Watford
1987-Tottenham
1988-Wimbledon
1990-Crystal Palace
1991-Tottenham
1993-Arsenal

Doesn’t that make grim reading? Look at some of those teams…Fulham! QPR! Wimbledon! In this period of time, my team Chelsea did not even reach one FA Cup semi-final!

Yes it was as bad as that.

Every year, I watched the FA Cup Final on TV in early May and wondered if I had not read the small print on my Chelsea Fan Contract…years of under-achievement guaranteed. Throw in three relegations for good measure, too…what a period in our history.

A terrible 0-4 defeat to Manchester United in the 1994 Final rubbed salt in the wound, but all of this hardship – 26 years with no trophies – was forgotten on a never-to-be-forgotten day in 1997 when we beat ‘Boro 2-0 and celebrated like never before. I still get goose-bumps at the thought of that wonderful weekend. In fact, immediately after this game, for quite a period, I felt as if my relationship with my club had been irretrievably changed…I was now supporting a successful team and my brain and body did not know how to cope. I felt very odd. For so long, we wore the “no trophies but passionate support” mantle as a badge of honour and now…I don’t know…it seemed different, somehow.

Wembley 1997 was up there with the very best though…only behind Bolton 2005 in my book.

All these dates in our history…

And here’s more history – as you know, I have been harking back to 1983-84 all season and for this final game, my mind went back to May 1984. After the game against Barnsley, I did something very silly – I went and got myself a job in a local dairy. I hated the first few days to be honest…I was forever humming words from a Smiths’ song…”I was looking for a job and then I found a job and heaven knows I’m miserable now.” Our last game was at Grimsby but I was not going…I had made no plans, though I suppose with my first ever job starting on the Thursday, I could have gone up by train. Not to worry – I had enjoyed a good run in 1983-1984; a best ever eleven games.

Two other strange echoes from 1984…

Everton reached the FA Cup Final and the European Cup Final was held in Rome.

Back to 2009. On Thursday, over a period of an hour, my Cup Final Weekend plans took a hammering…first we were to learn that Saturday evening’s Depeche Mode gig was cancelled and then we heard that Friday’s Morrissey gig was cancelled too!

Gutted!

I was going to stay with Alan for the weekend, but these plans changed…I would now be going up with Karen, Dave, Glenn and PD.

The Frome Five set off at 8am and it was already a lovely sunny morning. Unfortunately, PD is not renewing his season ticket next season but all of my other mates are doing so. There wasn’t too much chat about the Final on the way up…the only thing I remember discussing was the likelihood of Mikel coming in for Ballack…and the likelihood of Everton packing their midfield, leaving only Saha up front.

“And he’s rubbish” I said.

We marked the likely starting line-up’s performances this season.

Cech 6
Bosingwa 6
Cole 7
Terry 7
Alex 8
Mikel 6
Essien 6
Lampard 9
Malouda 6
Drogba 7
Anelka 8

Nearing London we hit some bad traffic caused by a crash by Twickenham. We reversed down the motorway slip-road along with many more cars ( quite illegal ) and headed in via some back roads around Heathrow and then the M4. We were parked up by 10.15am, but were behind schedule. The others were meeting in a pub at Marble Arch, but we had our usual breakfast in Fulham. We walked to West Brompton – that breeze was nice! – and caught the tube to Marble Arch. Then a quick walk up to The Duke Of York where the rest of the lads were now based. We arrived at 11.45pm.

What a pre-match…fantastic times!

Simon, Milo, Rob, Gary, Alan, Daryl and Ed were already there. And…Neil?

The first bit of good news involved Neil who was originally unable to get a ticket. His nephew Ed had fatefully bumped into a bloke at a gym on Thursday who “knew someone who knew someone” who had a spare. An hour later, Neil was booked on a flight from Guernsey. I was made up for him.

Detroit Bob had been in touch and he was sat around the corner with a pint of Strongbow…I first met him in Chicago in 2006. I introduced him to the boys and I downed a pint of Staropramen. Russ from Frome showed up and he had a ticket from a mate working at ITV. Then Mike and Alex from New York rolled in, minus Chopper, who was ill in bed.

I pinned my Peter Osgood flag up against the pub window and a few photos were taken. The sky was clear, the sun was shining and the beers were going down smoothly. I chatted to Mike, Bob and Alex, but felt a bit bad about it. All of these friends from America can’t be ignored, but I hardly spoke to Alan and Gary, for example. A special word for these two stalwarts. It has been a long season and the game at Wembley would be my 55th game, matching my total number of games in 2007-2008. However, Alan and Gary had been to all 59 games. A fantastic performance.

Lacoste Watch

Daryl – canary

Alex had been lucky enough to go to the Boca vs. River Plate game in Buenos Aires and he regaled me with amazing stories from that game. We spoke a little about the summer tour…Mike and Bob are doing all four, Alex just Baltimore. I had brought the visitors from The States a little gift from Somerset – a little bottle of scrumpy cider apiece.

Good times.

Walnuts and Whitey showed up – alas without tickets – and then Andy and Smithy.

With everyone now assembled, I ushered everyone together and took a few photos of The Bada Bing Firm, with invited guests! The only absentees were Parky, who was getting hammered at The Bridge, and San Francisco Pete, who never made it to the pub despite promptings!

The plan…ha!…was to leave between 1.30pm and 1.45pm so I could get in to the stadium in good time to put up my Peter Osgood banner. One drink lead to another and we eventually left for Marylebone at just before 2pm. On the walk to the station, I chatted to Rob about the game in Baltimore and he was keen to go. He had been drinking amoretto all day…”Amoretto, Chelsea Amoretto” was sung with gusto!

Massive crowds at the station forecourt and a frustrating time. The station echoed to Chelsea songs. Good vibes, but let’s get going! We eventually got through and got into an empty carriage. The train didn’t move for ten minutes as the carriage filled-up. We pulled away at about 2.30pm, but thank heavens, it’s only a ten minute trip. I had awoken at 6.45am with a sore throat, but I didn’t care.

I led the singing with a classic “Zigger Zagger” ( oh, my throat! ) and the carriage was rocking.

On the quick walk up to the stadium, I noted only Chelsea fans heading towards the game. Just a gaggle of Evertonians – ticketless, miserable – heading in the opposite direction. It was now 2.50pm and so much for my plans! Quickly inside and up several escalators, bumping into Andy from Trowbridge and Fun Time Franky from Frome at the top. In the two minutes inside Wembley, Frank had managed to lose his ticket. Nightmare!

I heard the national anthem – I was fed up I had missed all of the pageantry this year – and made my way into my seat in row 11 of section 544 high above the far corner flag. There were eight of us in a row. Great seats. I glanced around. I had got in at 2.55pm. I wouldn’t be able to pin my Ossie flag up…not yet anyway. I noted the balcony in the Everton end absolutely festooned with flags, yet our balcony was only a third-covered. Our big flags though – JT, Frank, Matthew Harding – were out in force. I saw that Mikel was playing…good.

At 3pm I took a photo of Saha and Fellaini waiting for the kick-off whistle.

After 12 seconds, I took a photo of the ball being pumped upfield.

After 25 seconds, misery.

What a start. Oh boy. Here we go. We’ll have to do this the hard way. So be it. To be fair to everyone, we didn’t panic and stroked the ball around confidently. I had no doubts that we would win. I sent a text message out to a few people to this effect.

Malouda was getting lots of space down the left and after a fine cross, Drogba lept with no challenge from the defenders. I was perfectly positioned to see the ball drop straight into the Everton goal…I was watching the trajectory of the ball and it was a joy to behold.

Get in! I grabbed my camera and took two impromptu shots of Glenn and Daryl. They are classics!

We continued to dominate for the rest of the half and our support, out sung by the Evertonians, grew louder. It was definitely a case of “game on!”

During the interval, I grabbed my Peter Osgood flag and marched down to the front. I carefully threaded some string and hung the flag up, high above the NW corner flag. I sent a few texts out and asked people to keep an eye out for it. Way across the stadium in the lower tier, Mike from New York took a photo of it. Pete from San Francisco, too. I kept scanning the crowd to see if I had missed anything, any detail, any flag or banner…I couldn’t help but notice a block of about 25 empty seats in the Chelsea upper tier on the other side to me. I’d love to know how and why they never got sold. Very strange.

Everton came back into the game a little after the break, but our defence was rarely troubled. Essien had been replaced by Ballack and our dominance continued. With about twenty minutes to go, the ball broke to Frank and I wanted him to move it out to Malouda. What do I know? He stumbled, regained his balance and unleashed a belter past Howard.

The net bulged.

The Chelsea end, yellow and blue, erupted. I tried to take a few snaps of Frank celebrating, but the lens found it difficult to focus with all of the arms in the way. Hugs with Tom and Glenn. We were back in front in a repeat of the semi-final…1-0 down, 2-1 up. Lovely.

Soon after Lamps was booked for a silly dive – the only blot on another exceptional performance by him. JT may be our captain, but I think this season Frank has become our leader. The Malouda whizzbang shot looked like it didn’t cross the line, but it apparently did. Not to worry.

We waited for Howard Webb to blow the final whistle and it was a lovely moment when we heard that shrill sound.

I then took many more photos of the following thirty minutes…during the course of the day, I took around 275…I will put a lot of these on my Facebook page.

It was odd to see us playing in yellow, but on that perfect sunny day in North West London it just made it even more special.

“Yellows!”

What a wonderful time we had, clapping and singing, shouting our praises. I like to think that the appearance of Peter Osgood made all the difference – it was but a fleeting appearance as my flag had to be taken down as it was spoiling the view of the denizens in the Club Wembley seats.

JT lifted the cup and I snapped away. Silver and blue streamers floated down from the sky.

Snap, snap, snap.

“Blue Is The Colour” echoed around and, unlike 1984, the acoustics were very very loud. I love that song. Then “Blue Day” – memories of 1997. Then “The Liquidator” – the place rocking now. Lastly, “One Step Beyond” – I look back and there are Simon, Daryl, Alan and Gary doing a Nutty Boys Shuffle, with Milo doing a “Britain’s Got Talent” solo dance in the row in front.

Hilarious. Smiles all around.

At about 5.30pm, we eventually left, but I lost the others, too busy texting somebody or other. Out in the sun, smiles from Chelsea and songs from Everton. Detroit Bob bumped into me and then I found myself right behind Russ in the queue for the train. Good times. Russ had a ticket in the Everton end and had to bite his lips on many occasions.

The three of us caught the 6.15pm train back to Marylebone. I said to Bob that it was deathly quiet…I began singing

“We won the cup, we won the cup – ee-aye-adio, we won the cup.”

Apart from Bob, not a single Chelsea fan joined in.

“You should be ashamed!” I said. Not a flicker. Is this the club we have become?

We met up at the Duke Of York at 6.45pm…two more pints of Staropramen…lots of hugs and handshakes. Chelsea historian Ric Glanville was there – always a pleasant chap – and I had a few words. Chopper joined us and he was his usual ebullient self. Still blue skies overhead. However, Glenn and myself had a big dilemma. Our drive home was waiting for us at West Brompton. Damn! We finished our pints and shook hands with everyone.

“Love ya.”

We sloped off at 7.15pm. Detroit Bob was with us and he was headed down to The Bridge. By the time we had reached Marble Arch tube, he had talked us into crashing at his hotel on the North End Road…let the pub crawl continue! Glenn spoke to his wife Sara and all was cool. We took a 74 bus down to Earl’s Court and popped into The Prince Of Wales and then The Lillie Langtry where we met Dutch Mick and his crew. It was still only 8.30pm. We caught a bus down to The Bridge, expecting the place to be jumping.

What a let down. We popped into Frankie’s – formerly The Shed Bar – and there were only about twenty people inside. We had a beer and left. The whole of the Fulham Road appeared quiet and subdued.

A big disappointment! In 1997, the place was buzzing…there was a sofa in the middle of the road at Fulham Broadway I remember.

By this time, Glenn was past it, so we tucked him up for the night in Detroit Bob’s hotel, then back to The Lillie for a couple more. We ended up, inevitably, at Salvo’s at 11.30pm. More Peronis, more pizza, the game highlights on TV…Bob was still yakking but I was getting tired. As a nightcap, Salvo poured us out some grappa on the house and we eventually left at 2am.

It had been a great day.

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Tales From The Second City

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 21 February 2009.

That was more like it.

The games are coming thick and fast now and I didn’t have too much time to dwell on the first game under the tutelage of Guus Hiddink. I think he is the nineteenth Chelsea manager in my lifetime. They come and go.

I left home in good time to collect Andy and Parky from their homes in Trowbridge by 8.45am. Not too much to say about Trowbridge. It’s the county town of Wiltshire, but is pretty bland. Hugh Cornwall of The Stranglers lives nearby and has recently written a song tacking the Mick out of it. There is a sizeable Chelsea support in the town though.

Loads of banter on the drive up the M5 yet again…I’ve lost count how many times I have driven along this route for an away game this season. Barring an inevitable CL semi at Anfield, this would be for the last time, though. Stopped at Strensham for a coffee…loads of Villa milling around. Villa’s support does reach down the M5 corridor towards Bristol. I was meeting up with Bob from Fremont in California, who had reached Birmingham in good time by train and was already in The Yew Tree at 10.30am. Every time I drive to Villa, I head past The Hawthorns and arrive from the north…I got trapped south of Villa Park after a game in 1994 and vowed “never again.” Villa Park nestles between Aston Park and the cloverleaf intersection of the M6 and the Aston Expressway which we Brits call “Spaghetti Junction”. Birmingham is our Motor City, the old heart of our ailing car industry…and I can’t stand the place to be honest. So – anyway, I was parked up just before 11am, and my quick getaway route all sorted.

Parky – on crutches still – was moaning about the long walk to the pub and so I told him to wind his neck in! We noted the blue skies above the terraced streets and industrial units of Whitton. I had a jacket on and, despite a breeze, the weather was surprisingly warm. Eventually, The Yew Tree emerged like a vision on the horizon. It was opposite a canal, of which there are many in Birmingham.

Parky and Andy got the beers in – their payment for my driving – and I located Bob nursing a pint of lager in a sunny room next to a conservatory. Cathy and Dog were outside. We only had an hour or so before we needed to move on to the stadium. One of my football passions has always been stadia design and history. The doyen of this is Simon Inglis, who first brought out his “bible” ( “The Football Grounds Of England And Wales” ) on the subject around 1985. I have the third edition, enlarged to include Scotland, which came out in 1996, plus three more books by him too. I knew Bob was keen to read up on Archibald Leitch ( yep, him again ) and so I lent him two of my four Inglis books to read while he is over here. Simon Inglis is a Villa fan too, so it seemed only right that I should hand over the books on this particular day. I remember Inglis lamenting the demise of the ornate Trinity Road stand in around 1996. Bob has been bitten badly by the Chelsea bug…his first game was in Palo Alto. I remember briefly chatting to him in the pub before that game in 2007, but he has since flown over to Europe four times since to see the team. We chatted about a range of things – including plans for the tour in the summer, plans for Juventus on Wednesday – and the beers went down well. It was soon time to leave for the game.

The Chelsea section was the northern end of the Doug Ellis stand. There was quite a line at the turnstiles. I spotted Dave Johnstone and had a quick chat. I said I’d try to get something to him for CFCUK about my own personal story of why the impeding trip to Torino means so much to me. He seemed pleased. This will be my CFCUK debut. Looking forward to it I must say.

Whereas Bob, Andy and Parky ( not to mention a few more mates ) were in the lower tier, Alan, Gary and myself were way up in the Gods. Three more people ( Roy, Ian and Kevin ) who were at the pub in Palo Alto were close by. Bob was actually two rows from the front and I was two from the back. I got to my seat just before kick-off.

Villa Park looked a picture, bathed in the winter sun. I took my jacket off – phew.

My thoughts the entire game were that we were still playing with Anelka wide in a standard 4-3-3, but I have since read Hiddink’s comments about us having an extra man in midfield ( presumably he meant Kalou ). I was convinced that Anelka was wide left the entire game…OK, apart from his goal. Did anyone else think we were playing 4-4-2? We certainly began well, lots of possession. The Chelsea support appeared to be invigorated too, with constant noise. I have to say I was disappointed by Villa’s support.

When Frank received the ball on 19 minutes, I was convinced that he would struggle to do much with the ball as he was hemmed in by two defenders. I should have relaxed – Frankie danced away from his markers with a superb shimmy and put through a slide-rule pass for “Doves” to dink in. That was a fantastic goal – another one for the boy Anelka. The players celebrated down below and I quickly grabbed my camera from my back to snap away. I have the roar from Ballack captured on film. I like our movement in the first-period with plenty of thrust provided by Bosingwa and Kalou down below me. Villa had a few chances of course. I captured Ashley Young’s free-kick on film, the ball just leaving his foot on a swerving trajectory towards the goal. It rattled the bar and thankfully our usual nemesis Heskey couldn’t convert. The game ebbed and flowed…it was a nice game of football.

I noted a few banners on the balcony at the Holte End…”AVFC Our Obsession” and “The Holte End – The 12th Man.” These are in a similar vain to out banners at Chelsea. A nice touch I think. You may not have seen it on TV, but there is a permanent message on the balcony at the North Stand…it details about twenty words uttered by the commentator when Tony Morley crossed for Peter Withe to score the winning goal in the 1982 European Cup Final. Again, a nice touch. At half-time, a platoon of soldiers, just back from Afghanistan, were welcomed onto the pitch and they walked the perimeter, shaking hands with fans from both sides. I expected them to get to our section and for the first one to ask “right – where’s Lovejoy?” Bob was about six seats away from Lovejoy and reported that he stayed awake all game.

Soon into the second-half, my good mate Alan pointed out past the North stand, to my right and said “blimey – looks like even the mascots have given up on the game.” The two Aston Villa mascots ( lions – no doubt called Rory and Leo I suspect ) were seen walking across the Villa car park…as bizarre a sight as I have seen for ages, like something from a Dom Joly TV show. I had to capture it on film – and once I get the photograph, I will run it as a caption competition. My submission is –

“Right, I’ll see you back home. Don’t forget the shopping – a tin of baked beans, some washing up liquid, a wildebeest and a couple of gazelles.”

Roars of laughter.

Villa had more of the game in the second-half and I had to note that on many occasions our central three of Mikel, Ballack and Lampard were too close to each other. We seemed unable to exploit space out wide. However, I thought Deco did OK when he came on. Villa had a few half-chances but their finishes were poor. JT had a great game alongside Alex, especially when they were faced with both Carew and Heskey.

Loads more photographs of the team celebrating together in front of the delirious away fans at the end of the game, too.

Well happy with the result. Fine singing from us, too.

I met up after with all my mates outside The Cap And Gown pub. Andy, Parky and myself were headed home, but the other members of The Bing ( Alan, Gary, Daryl, Simon, Milo, plus associate member Bob ) were off into the city centre for some beers. We will all meet again on Wednesday for the Juventus game. It was very warm on the trot back to the car – February for heavens sake! I overheard a few Villa fans grumbling to each other and inwardly smiled.

We were very happy to hear that the Goons had dropped points at home. The weather was beautiful as we raced south. What a nice day out. Just time for a solitary beer at The Black Horse in Trowbridge and we arrived just as United scored. We watched for half-an-hour, the pub full of plastic United fans. Parky looked like he was looking for an excuse to give a United fan some verbal, so I excused myself and left just before Ronaldo gave them the 2-1 win.

United will win the league this season, but I think we can push on and finish second.

I have waited thirty-four years to say this…”Juventus next.”

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