Tales From The 677

Middlesbrough vs. Chelsea : 19 March 2022.

Our FA Cup quarter final tie at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium would necessitate our first visit to Teesside in over five years. PD and I had enjoyed the last one; we stayed the Saturday night and got to witness the joys of a night out in Middlesbrough before our narrow 1-0 win on the Sunday evening in late 2016. PD liked it so much that he has been using the photo of him in the first row of the away section as his cover photo on Facebook ever since.

This time, Parky was joining us. Although I swore blind that I’d never drive up and back to Middlesbrough ever again, after doing this for a match in 2008, due to a variety of reasons that are just too dull to explain here, I was damn well doing it again.

In the build up to this game, it still felt that we were at the centre of a massive storm. However, we did not help ourselves. The club’s pathetic request for the game to be played behind closed doors drew warranted disdain from all quarters. At a time when we should have been quietly going about our business, on and off the park, this just gave others the chance to label us negatively. It was a massive PR own-goal. Sometimes the actions of those at our club defy description.

After a tough few days at work – our office was hit with COVID and sickness – at last the weekend arrived. Parky and I are away season ticket holders but PD’s presence was in doubt. Thankfully, a spare became available from a usual source and the three of us were headed to Middlesbrough. We would be part of, surely, our smallest domestic away following in decades. There were games at Luton Town in the mid-‘eighties when away fans were effectively banned, but a few Chelsea – OK more than a few – still attended via a variety of means. I am unsure how many got in.

I also remember a game at Anfield in the autumn of 1994 when The Kop was closed and I believe our official away allowance was ridiculously small. I watched that game with a Liverpool mate in the main stand that night. From memory we only had about four hundred.

Around seven hundred were due to get in at Middlesbrough. Not for the first time did I feel blessed to be able to attend.

I am a lucky man.

Middlesbrough, eh?

Smoggy Land. The Smog Monsters. The Smoggies. Ironopolis. The huge ICI plant. The ‘Boro. Pak Doo-ik of North Korea scoring against the Italians in 1966. George Camsell and Wilf Mannion. Don Revie and Brian Clough growing up mere streets away from each other. The Ironsides. The 1973/74 promotion team of Jack Charlton. The white bar on the chest of their jerseys. The players Frank Spraggon, Alan Foggon and John Craggs. An industrial wasteland in the ‘eighties. John Neal and Tony McAndrew. The locking of the Ayresome Park gates in 1986. The team of Gary Pallister, Bernie Slaven, Stuart Ripley and Tony Mowbray. The play-offs in 1988. Juninho and Ravanelli. The Wembley games. The Zenith Data, the FA Cup, the League Cup. The Riverside. Roy Chubby Brown. Their League Cup win and the Europa Cup journey under Steve McClaren. The Transporter Bridge. Bob Mortimer. Chris fucking Rea. Club Bongo. The chicken parmo.

I called for PD at eight o’clock and LP just after. A journey of exactly three-hundred miles was ahead. My fellow travellers came armed with a few tins of cider for the trip north. I thoroughly enjoyed this drive. The weather was magnificent; clear blue skies to start, hardly a cloud appeared all day, dry roads, a great feeling of freedom. We stopped for some breakfast bagels at Strensham on the M5 at 9.30am and I was soon hurtling around Birmingham on the M42. The half-way point was reached as I neared the M1 just south of Nottingham. I stopped to refuel at Woodall Services, then headed straight up the A1. The road into Middlesbrough, with the North York Moors visible past Thirsk, and then the approach into Smoggy Land.

We chatted away. But there were the inevitable periods of silence when I was left alone with my thoughts.

The very first time that I saw us play Middlesbrough was that infamous play-off game at Stamford Bridge in 1988. I have detailed that game at legth previously.

My first sighting, though, was a little nearer home.

In 1986, Bristol Rovers were turfed out of their Eastville stadium, never to return, and began playing at Twerton Park, the home of Bath City. Before I returned to college in Stoke in that September, my school friend Steve coerced me to attend a Rovers game against Middlesbrough in the then Third Division. It was a midweek match and I believe less than 4,000 attended. ‘Boro themselves were going through a very rough time, the worst in their history, and were limping along financially from one game to another. I watched from a side terrace as ‘Boro won a decent game 2-1. The one thing that I remember from that night was that Graeme Souness – himself ex-Middlesbrough – and the new Rangers manager had been spotted in the seats above. That he had travelled down from Glasgow – probably by car in those days – on a scouting mission blew my mind. He was no doubt keeping an eye on Gary Pallister.

I hated Middlesbrough in 1988. They spoiled my life, or at least that summer. While many football fans were getting all loved up on ecstasy, I was depressed, so depressed, and fearing life in Division Two. Again.

I have only ever met three Middlesbrough fans outside of match days in my entire life.

My college mate Chris is from nearby Thornaby and I shared digs with him from 1984 to 1987. A distant branch of his family – “Dickens” – sponsored the ‘Boro shirt in those tough times of 1986. Keith was a work mate in Trowbridge at the time of the 1997 and 1998 Wembley games who got undue stick from me. Then, weirdly, there was a lad called Andy from Saltburn, who I first bumped into at a youth hostel in Washington DC in 1989, only for him to come strolling into a bar in Orlando a month later. This football world is a very small world indeed.

I was parked up at around 1.15pm. Not only was my spot equidistant between pub and ground, but also free. After a couple of text messages, we met up with two Chelsea mates in “The Resolution” – which we visited in 2016 – and formed a little Chelsea enclave in a solidly home crowd. It felt like the whole town was buzzing. ‘Boro were enjoying a decent season and were undoubtedly “up for the Cup” on this sunny day. Many ‘Boro lads were in their finery; the boozer was awash with Adidas trainers, Armani jeans, Paul & Shark tops, CP sweatshirts and the ubiquitous Stone Island patch was everywhere. But despite all this, the locals were welcoming.

We chatted to Matty – a dead friendly local from Darlington, er Darlo – and a few of his mates. Pride of place went to Robbie, yet to miss a ‘Boro game in forty-two years. That meant that he was at Twerton Park in 1986. Respect.

With an hour and a half to go, we set off for the stadium. It was only a twenty-minute walk. While the others headed inside for a bevvy, I circumnavigated the stadium for the first time. Statues of Camsell and Mannion proudly stand next to those very same gates from Ayresome Park that were locked by bailiffs in 1986 with the club’s future on a precipice.

I especially wanted a photo of the blue steel of the famous Transporter Bridge over the Tees. I was able to frame this impressive structure within the circles of a couple of public art installations that resembled dream catchers.

The ‘Boro faithful were dreaming of Wembley again as they rushed past me.

The waters of the river lapped the banks as the stadium was bathed in sun ahead of me. I slowly made my way to the away turnstiles. I passed a photo of old Ayresome Park on a section of the perimeter wall with a row of seats from the old stadium in front. Sadly, I never made it to Ayresome Park, nor Roker, and friends tell me it was a fearsome place in other decades; the play-off game in 1988 especially. With hindsight, the two stadia of Sunderland and Middlesbrough – despite being the two lesser clubs of the north-east behind Newcastle United – were far more impressive than St. James’ Park.

I made my way in and soon chatted to some of the 677.

DJ outside.

Al, Gal, Andy, Tim in the concourse.

Others inside the seats.

Waves and thumbs up to a few.

This was my fifth visit to the Riverside. It’s OK, but oh so bland. Five visits and three different sections for us away fans, being pushed east each time. Our small section was above a corner flag.

The other four games were easy wins. I hoped for one more.

Oh yeah, the game. Other matters had dominated my thoughts until then. The sun shone brightly before eventually falling behind the west stand roof. It was a warm evening on Teeside.

The PA was ridiculously excitable.

“The Chelsea team are now in the tunnel.”

Shocker.

“The ‘Boro team are now in the tunnel.”

Bloody hell. You need to get out more, mate.

As the teams entered, red and white shiny mosaics to my left. Lots of noise.

“Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag.”

The Chelsea team?

Mendy

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Silva – Sarr

Kovacic – Loftus-Cheek – Mount

Ziyech – Lukaku – Pulisic

There was applause for Ukraine. There was no silliness from the 677. Phew. Matty had told us all about the ‘Boro right back Isaiah Jones, who was evidently one to watch. Funnily enough, I remembered him from a Queen of the South vs. Hearts game I watched on BBC Scotland last season. Don’t ask.

So, Middlesbrough vs. Chelsea and 30,000 vs.677.

I was pleased to see ‘Boro still employing the white band on their jersey. It’s their thing.

The game began. It was warm enough for me to take off my coat and top; just a T-shirt would suffice until the second-half. I was stood next to PD and Parky. From getting out of my car at 1.15pm, I would be standing until well after the game, gone 7pm.

We began brightly. We used space well as we attacked and the mood inside the away section was positive. There were songs from the start though none immediately, for Roman Abramovich. Matty had told us that their weak link was their goalkeeper Joe Lumley and he was getting tested early on. The home team responded with a few corners.

On the quarter of an hour, the ball broke to Hakim Ziyech down our right. I saw Mason Mount itching to be found.

“There’s the pass. Mason wants” I yelled and I am positive that my voice was heard.

Ziyech pushed the ball into space perfectly. Mount advanced and spotted the fine run of Romelu Lukaku. The cross was perfect, low and fast, right on the money. Lukaku swept it in.

Get in.

We were one-up early on and the 677 roared. I leant forward and shared some positive stuff with Eck.

“Perfect move that. A ball into space. A great run from Lukaku. We don’t do that enough.”

Of course Middlesbrough were guilty of leaving their defence exposed but it was so good to see us executing a classic counter-attacking move. Beautiful.

The home team did not lie down. They almost constantly attacked us down the right via that man Thomas. A few more corners, with Lukaku going all Drogba and heading away on one occasion.

There was a good election of songs emanating from the 677. We were holding our own.

On the half-an-hour mark, we watched as Mateo Kovavic broke purposefully in that urgent way of his. He spotted Mount, breaking square, and the ball was then pushed out to Ziyech. The winger came inside.

A shout from Eck.

“Hit it Hakim.”

He did. And how. The shot dipped and swerved and away from Clumsy Lumley and into the net.

GET IN.

Were we safe? It absolutely felt like it. Time for more celebrations and the continuation of more songs.

“Kovacic our Croatian man.
He left Madrid and he left Milan.
He signed for Frank, said fuck off Zidane.
He signed for Chelsea on a transfer ban.”

Lukaku almost made it three from close-in, but was denied after a ‘Boro defender cleared his goal bound shot off the line.

“How did that not go in?”

It had been a class first-half. Thiago Silva was calmness personified. Rudiger attacked every ball, and sometimes every defender, as if his life depended on it. Eck and I agreed that Mason hasn’t really pushed on this season in quite the way we had expected but was enjoying a fine game. The home fans were occasionally quiet and when these moments happened, we seized our chance to be heard.

It was a pleasure to see Shari and Skippy from Queensland in Australia around the half-time break.

“Bonzer.”

As the second-half began, my Lacoste top was zipped up. The night was getting a little cooler now. The second period promised much but delivered little. I fancied more goals from us, but we rarely hit the free-flowing stuff of the first forty-five minutes.

To be fair to the home fans, they dug in and absolutely sang their hearts out as the second-half got going. I think we were all impressed.

For a while, they sang a song and we did our version. They were our cheerleaders. Minus the pom poms.

But there were also reminders of 1997.

“When Wise Went Up.”

“One Di Matteo.”

And then a new one.

“We’re on our way, we’re on our way.
To Paris, we’re on our way.
Seven seater, car or train.
Tommy’s gonna fly the plane.
All I know is Chelsea’s on our way.”

And then as an answer to “Pigbag.”

“Fucking Useless.”

I remember little of the second-half apart from the banter between away fans and home fans, with the occupants of the BBC studio to our left getting a few hefty helpings too. I could hardly believe it when 677Steve in South Philly texted me to say that he couldn’t hear us on the TV broadcast.

Luke was leading a new chant :

“Chelsea’s got no money, we’re gonna win the Cup.”

Four substitutions from Tuchel.

Timo Werner for Pulisic.

N’Golo Kante for Kovacic.

Kenedy for Ziyech.

Harvey Vale for Lukaku.

Only in the last ten minutes were there audible chants for and against Roman.

Chelsea : “Roman Abramovich.”

Middlesbrough : “Fuck off Abramovich.”

Timo had a couple of late chances and as the game petered out, Mendy made his first real save of the night. The home team had been poor, but we had shown commendable spirit throughout.

The pounding that the club has received from outside of late has undoubtedly engineered a magnificent team spirit with Tuchel now a much loved, much admired and respected leader.

After a period of me struggling to warm to him, I am now resolutely a paid up member of Team Tuchel.

We are privileged to have him.

We slowly walked back to the car as the night grew colder still. The car park was grid-locked so we spent a while in a local “Pizza Hut” where we bumped into Roy – Brighton, Palace – and Margaret yet again. After almost six hours on my feet, I could relax. When I eventually set off at 9pm, the traffic was clear. While PD and Parky slept, I drove south. I was diverted on the M1 into the outer reaches of Leeds.

Ah, 1970.

I refueled my car at Tamworth Services. A couple of Red Bulls got me home.

I reached my house at around 2am.

It had been another good day.

Tales From The Champions Of The World

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 19 February 2022.

PD and I returned from Abu Dhabi on the Monday. I was back in work – dreading it – on the Tuesday but the week went pretty well. However, England was ravaged by Storm Eunice on Friday. It meant that our trip up to London for our game at Selhurst Park took ages; it seemed that all of the traffic that had been stalled on the Friday was now let loose. The flow was especially grim on sections of the M3 and parts of our trek across west London to south London.

I had picked PD up at 8am and it took me until 12.30pm to eventually reach a pub that was a stone’s throw from Crystal Palace’s home ground. That schlep across London took an hour. And throughout it we were on the lookout for a pub for a couple of drinks before the afternoon’s entertainment. Our route took us past Hampton to Kingston and on to New Maldon, Merton, Morden, Mitcham and eventually Norbury, home of our match-day mate Gary. Could we find a suitable pub? Not one that was open, and had suitable parking. We were about to give up when I spotted a Wetherspoon’s – never my first choice of hostelry, but needs must – and we darted inside just as the rain increased in strength. Some “Thatcher’s” for PD and Parky. Some “Pepsi Max” for me. We could relax a little. Roy – last seen in Abu Dhabi – came in and slotted in next to us.

There was, of course, plenty of chit-chat regarding our time away in the sun the previous week.

A few “Abu Dhabi add-ons” to mention.

Every Chelsea fan had behaved themselves. It’s not always the case on foreign shores. In fact, the only time that I personally saw any silliness – ironically – involved the replica-kitted “scarfers” of the Dubai Supporters Club at the end of the game. Thiago Silva had trotted over to the Chelsea corner and threw his shirt into their section. There ensued an almighty ruckus as fans fought for the royal blue jersey. I am sure I saw at least once punch being thrown.

Ah, the Chelsea corner. After the game, this was where the Chelsea players, quite rightly, celebrated with the fans. It was where 80% of the Chelsea support was positioned. But we noticed that Romelu Lukaku, scorer of two goals in Abu Dhabi remember, did not join in. Instead, he chatted quietly to members of the coaching staff a good thirty yards away. I found that odd. Really odd.

One more story and one little moment of last minute terror. Foxy, PD and I were up at 3am to catch a 4am cab over to the airport in readiness for our 7am and 7.30am flights home. At the check-in desk, the Etihad official caused PD and I a great deal of stress when he claimed that we were required to show a negative PCR test result from within forty-eight hours of the flight. Our tests had taken place on Friday morning, seventy-two hours earlier, as per Etihad’s ruling. There was now no requirement for a negative test travelling back to the UK; these regulations had changed on the Friday. You can imagine what was going through my mind. Thankfully, after he had a word with a colleague, he was able to let us on the flight. Our guess was that this was his first shift since the change in the ruling.

I smiled as he handed back our passports and gave us our boarding passes.

In my head : “you prick.”

Thankfully, the trip to Selhurst Park did not involve passport checks, PCR tests nor locator forms. After our little moment of calm in the pub, I drove the mile or so to my pre-paid parking spot outside a house on Bensham Manor Road. I had soon spotted the huge Crystal Palace TV transmitter up on the hill that overlooks the entire area and it brought back bad memories of my first-ever visit to Selhurst Park in 1989; attempting to go top of the table in late August, we were stuffed 0-3 by Charlton Athletic. During that game, from the terraced Holmesdale Road end, I kept looking up at that TV mast for some reason. It was something that I had never seen on the TV as it was on the wrong side to the camera position.

It was 2.15pm. Sadly, the rain continued on the walk to the away turnstiles. We sorted out a spare ticket for Orlin the Bulgarian in the wind and the rain. There were a few comments with a couple of lads who had been on our flights to and from Abu Dhabi.

“Bloody hell, a week ago the weather was a bit different, Chris.”

At last I was looking forward to being able to join in with the “We’ve won it all” chant, but – how typical – the Chelsea support had sprung a surprise on me. In the queue to get in, and then throughout the resulting damp afternoon, a new song dominated.

“Champions of the World, of the Word, Champions of the World.”

…to the tune of the KC and the Sunshine Band’s 1983 hit “Michael Essien.”

It took ages to get into the cramped away end. I got wetter and wetter. There was just time for a last-minute visit to the league’s worst-ever gents’ – “shallow end or deep end?” – and we found our seats in row seven with about ten minutes to go.

I had only been stood at my seat for a minute when a horrendous gust of wind blew the rain in at us and I had to turn my back to the pitch to shelter myself.

Bloody hell. From Arabian sun to London storms. Welcome home.

This was the second game of a run of five games that placed Chelsea in five different competitions. This has to be a first, right?

Palmeiras : World Club Cup

Crystal Palace : Premier League

Lille : Champions League

Liverpool : League Cup

Luton Town : FA Cup

Alongside me were Gary and Alan. Gary lives two miles to the west of Selhurst Park. Alan lives two miles to the east. This was very much their local game.

I soon spotted that the much-maligned Palace “ultras” had been re-positioned in a central area in the lower tier of the home end to my left under the banner “Holmesdale Fanatics”; their little group could be easily spotted, dressed in black. To be frank, I heard bugger all from them all game.

That ship has sailed.

“Probably back to Poland” added Gary.

Crystal Palace were in their blue and red diagonal stripes. Chelsea in yellow and black.

The team?

Mendy

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger – Sarr

Jorginho – Kante

Ziyech – Pulisic – Havertz

Lukaku

Or something like that. Being so low down, discerning formations and patterns was almost impossible. With everyone stood, the far corner of the Holmesdale Road end was completely out of sight. When the ball disappeared into that area, I just hoped that Herr Havertz was doing OK. Years ago, watching football was always like this. Some games at Old Trafford, Goodison and Tottenham only offered up around 75% of the pitch, if that.

It was a full house in South London. The game began and the home team looked the brighter with Wilfred Zaha looking lively as he attacked from the inside-left channel. A shot from Michael Olise was sent low across our goal and thankfully the ball was wide of the far post. Palace were, of course, without Conor Gallagher, and it was just as well. The lad has played so well for them this season.

I hope that we pull back Gallagher, Billy Gilmour and Armando Broja for next season. It will be like three new signings. I look forward to that day.

I was on tip-toes, my neck straining every time we attacked the home end. A shot from Christian Pulisic didn’t trouble the Palace ‘keeper Vicente Guaita. The first-half began to develop an oh-so familiar pattern; possession-based football, over-passing, setting up to go back to go forward. There was no cut and thrust. Yet as I have said so often, with space in the final third almost non-existent, stretching Palace out was always going to be tough. On more than one occasion, a lofted ball towards Lukaku in the air was meet and drink to the Palace defence. In truth, Lukaku did not get close to anything.

At a ground that is rather infamous in our past – Paul Canoville, Easter Monday 1982 – at least there were no racist comments aimed at our under-performing striker. The worst that I heard all afternoon was Lukaku being called “Sack of Spuds” by Pink Shirt Frank behind me.

To say we laboured in that first-half would be an understatement.

But the Chelsea support, with a rich variety of songs, were magnificent.

At last I sang along :

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

Fackinell.

The highlight of the first forty-five minutes was that pile driver from – what? – thirty-five yards from Antonio Rudiger. What a strike. And what a save, too, from the Palace ‘keeper, pushing the ball out of the top left corner at the very last minute. This positive play was then matched by a lovely through-ball from Malang Sarr, surprising everyone, not least the flat-footed Palace defenders, that reached N’Golo Kante. However, his shot was too close to Guaita.

A shot from an angle from Lukaku was well-saved, but the out-of-touch Belgian was offside anyway.

And that was about it really.

Two memorable moments of play from Chelsea in forty-five minutes.

Champions of the World?

We looked like we would struggle to be the champions of Fulham at this rate.

At least with Edouard Mendy close by, we could serenade him with a song that has not been aired for a while due to his winning performance in the Africa Cup of Nations.

“Tsamina mina, eh, eh.

Edouard Edouard Mendy.

Tsamina mina zangalewa.

He comes from Senegal.”

This was followed by an “Eddie, Eddie – give us a wave” – shades of 1983/84 – and he duly reciprocated. Bless him.

Just before the break, the close-at-hand referee David Coote – sadly, he was not bald – waved away our justified claims for a foul on Pulisic. The ball broke and the home team stormed up field. Thankfully, Zaha was wasteful, drilling a low shot wide.

The linesman in front of us, who had been slow to keep up with play all through the half, was the nearest man in black and so he took the brunt of our anger.

“Linesman, you’re a James Blunt, linesman, linesman you’re a James Hunt.”

As he raced away, he waved his left hand as if to say “keep going, keep going.”

Pink Shirt Frank uttered “well, that’s us fucked in the second-half then.”

Yep. No decisions for us. Sigh.

The mood was pretty sombre at the break. Tons of possession. Not many shots that troubled anyone apart from the spectators. As per fucking normal.

A strange substitution for Palace at the break; Guaita was replaced by Jack Butland who used to be a footballer.

It was a tiresome start to the second-period and we often gave the ball away cheaply. It is worth noting that Lukaku was offering little. I spotted one moment, the ball on the half-way line maybe, Chelsea probing away, and Lukaku in among some defenders. What annoyed me that not only was he static, he was visibly resting on his standing leg, all his weight on his left foot. Surely an attacker, a central striker, needs to be on his toes at all times. If not twisting a marker out of position – clearly not Lukaku’s forte – then he should be at least ready to be alert and be “on his toes” in case, say, a deflected ball puts the ball his way. To say that Lukaku looked disinterested would be a mismanagement of the English language.

Fackinell.

Gary was more direct.

“Seen more movement in my bowels.”

The second-half rumbled on. Above, at least the rain had stopped and the sky was lighter. With fifteen minutes to go, Thomas Tuchel went for drastic change.

Marcos Alonso for Sarr.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Jorginho.

Mateo Kovacic for Kante.

Kovacic immediately set a new tempo. He launched himself at various Palace midfielders and won a few challenges. If he was wearing long sleeves, no doubt he would have rolled them up.

There was a new vibrancy, at last. A ball was played through to Lukaku, on the last man. His shot was parried by Buckland and Ziyech tapped in the rebound.

YESSSSSSSSSSSSSS!

I fell over myself, the fans around me were jostling for space as the scorer raced towards us, mayhem in the Arthur Waite. A blue flare landed at Ziyech’s feet.

GET IN.

Then. Whadya know. VAR. No goal.

The pressure continued. Havertz and a header.

The clock ticked away.

Eighty-nine minutes.

Marcos Alonso had the ball at his feet away on the far touchline, in front of the original Archibald Leitch Stand that closely resembles our old East Stand and which is featured on the front of “Hoolifan” from a few years back. He sent over a high and mighty cross and it landed past the back post. Or rather, it didn’t land at all. It met Ziyech’s left foot; as beautiful and calm a finish that anyone is likely to see. The ball was pushed through Butland’s legs and my camera told the story.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

This time, no offside, no flag from the linesman, nothing but pure celebration.

Oh football I love you.

More pandemonium in the Arthur Waite. I tried to stand on the seat in front to get some photos. I was elbowed in the face. Parky was grabbing hold of me to stop me from falling.

Roars.

Fists punching.

Chelsea going mad.

Bliss.

…”of the world, Champions of the World.”

Tales From The Arabian Peninsula

Chelsea vs. Al Hilal : 9 February 2022

Of the many irritants involved with my recent footballing past, nothing continually manages to annoy me more than the Chelsea chant “We’ve won it all” which is sung with gusto by thousands, some of whom should definitely know better. I roll my eyes every time I hear it. I am pretty sure I have never sung it. The fact of the matter is that due to our meek 0-1 loss to Corinthians in Yokohama in 2012, there was still one prize remaining for us to claim. In those days it was known as the World Club Championships. Earlier, when it was a one-game final between the South American and European Champions, it was known as the Inter-Continental Cup. Now, rebranded again, it is known as the FIFA World Club Cup.

After our win in Porto last May, we were presented with the chance to have another stab at it. I openly hoped for a return visit to Japan; I loved my time there in 2012, an almost perfect trip. We waited and waited. There were rumours of the United Arab Emirates, there were rumours of Las Vegas. Talk about one extreme to the another, eh? In December, it was decided that the delayed 2021 World Club Cup would take place in Abu Dhabi in February 2022.

My immediate response was this.

“I’m going.”

But then I became slightly side-tracked with my boycotting of the Qatar World Cup of 2022, and pondered whether it would be hypocritical for me to go to Abu Dhabi. All things considered, I decided that Abu Dhabi was “on.” Initially, a few friends seemed interested too. In the end it boiled down to PD and myself. On the face of it we are an unlikely pairing, as different as chalk and cheese – with me a very soft brie – but we are good friends and I began preparing a list of things that we needed to sort out.

But.

The worry of COVID19 tests, registration procedures, and the possibility of the pandemic flaring up again, and the risk of getting caught in Abu Dhabi, COVID-positive and thus forced to miss even more time off work ate away at me.

Heading into the last few days of 2021, I was still 50/50 about the whole damn thing.

Then the game dates were announced. Others began booking. I re-examined all the clutter that would get in the way of a trip to the Arabian Peninsula. The tests, the forms, the costs, the risks.

And then I did it. I booked our flights. We were on our way.

But did the stress, anxiety and worry disappear? No. Did they fuck.

However, with each passing week, things began to drop into place. I sought advice from a few good friends. Other friends sought advice from me, the fools.

The Alhosn App would haunt me for weeks.

Then at the Brighton game, I was aware that I was coming down with something unpleasant. It knocked me for six to be honest. I was off work for the best part of a week and I even missed the Tottenham league game, damn it. After the tests, it was found that I had been hit with a campylobacter infection. This, I have to admit, just got in the way of the last few things that I needed to do before the trip. These were a few dark days. It absolutely clouded my thinking and hindered my planning.

There was one last remaining worry too. We were off to Abu Dhabi on the first Monday in February. On the Saturday, we were set to play Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup. Like a few people I know, I didn’t attend the game. I just couldn’t risk catching COVID again at Stamford Bridge. But I still spent the day in SW6.

It was one of the oddest days. Because Parky and PD still wanted to attend, I drove them up but then occupied myself for a few hours. I fancied a walk, rather than sitting in my car for three or four hours, and so I meandered down through the deserted streets of Fulham to Craven Cottage. I arrived at the Johnny Haynes statue bang on 12.30pm, just as the game was kicking-off at Stamford Bridge.

How odd did that feel? Oh, very odd.

There were a few bouquets, wreaths and cards on the gate in front of the cottage in memory of the Fulham fan who had recently died at a game there. One card was from a close relative. It brought a tear to my eye.

With the score at 1-1 on ninety minutes, the game at Stamford Bridge went to extra-time.

But we had other plans. In order to meet pre-flight requirements, I had arranged for PD and I to have PCR tests at Heathrow at 5pm. With that in mind, the lads had arranged to leave on ninety minutes even if extra-time was required. Bless them. Just before 3pm, they joined me in my car. Despite a little problem tracing PD’s registration for the test, both PCR tests were taken and the three of us returned home.

It was indeed, one of the oddest days. Good job we eventually won.

Driving home, I was heard to mutter “would love Luton away, before they move to their new stadium, never been to Kenilworth Road.”

On the Sunday morning, texts came through to both of us. We were both negative.

Get in.

I finished packing early on Monday morning and called for PD in Frome at 5am.

Rather than a flight from London, I had managed to save some money and fly from Manchester. The drive up went perfectly. I had parking booked from 9am. We arrived at 9.05am. There was a long wait to check in…always a nervous time, even in normal times, but our PCR tests were quickly glanced, our bookings reconfirmed, we were on our way. I spotted a few Chelsea fans that I knew in the line too. And, ominously, one Palmeiras fan.

I remembered the 25,000 Corinthians fans in Japan.

It was a lovely irony that we were setting off from City’s airport using their airline. It was even more delicious that other friends were setting off in a “Manchester City” liveried plane at Heathrow.

“Here’s what you could have won.”

The 12.35pm flight was delayed an hour. With the inherent four-hour time difference, we touched down at Abu Dhabi airport at around 12.30am in the small hours of Tuesday.

Glenn and I had spent a few hours in the same terminal building en route to watch Chelsea play in Australia in 2018. Who could have thought that I’d be returning to see us play in the desert in 2022? This almost mirrored my movements in 2012 and 2017. In 2012, I transited in Beijing en route to the 2012 games in Japan. Yet in 2017, I exited the Beijing airport to see us play Arsenal at the Bird’s Nest Stadium in 2017.

Funny game, football.

On arrival at the airport, we were ushered into a PCR testing area. It was all very simple and straight forward. I was impressed. We then caught a £20 cab over to our hotel, a journey that took half-an-hour. The impressive Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was floodlit as we drove past, certainly an impressive sight.

The “day one” story did not come to a clean and simple ending unfortunately. We arrived at our hotel a few blocks from Abu Dhabi’s beach at around 2am. The hotel had not noted my late arrival – although I had an email to say they had – and so only had us staying for five and not six nights. After six or seven calls to other hotels, the concierge managed to get us in for one night at a lovely five-star hotel.

Phew.

At 3am, we fell asleep.

We woke to see that the infamous Alhosn App had been updated with our two negative test results.

Such relief.

This now cleared us for the game on Wednesday.

The Tuesday was spent relaxing at our original hotel. The management had upgraded us to a lovely suite on the fifteenth floor with a room each. Our rooftop pool was perfect and Paul wasted no time in soaking up some rays.

The view from the terrace summed up Abu Dhabi; white bricked houses and homes, mosques and minarets, high-rise apartments, sky scrapers in a business district on the horizon, the gulf and some man made islands too. We had a brief excursion to see the local beach. Our route took us past three or four expensive car dealerships; Bentley, Lotus and the like. But, like China, there were no advertisement hoardings anywhere. Acres of steel and glass, a modern city, but one that need seem so alien to me. I’d need a month to work it out.

There was a “Fado” Irish pub in our hotel and on the Tuesday night we met up with Della and Mick from Kent before Mike and Frank, veterans from Japan in 2012, strolled in at about 10pm. There were a group of around eight Chelsea fans I semi-recognised at another table. The two ladies of the night soon disappeared due to the lack of interest being directed at them. Pints of Peroni were at the £9 mark. Ouch.

“Another Peroni please.”

Tons of Chelsea stories, tons of Chelsea laughs. It was a great night.

Not so far away, Palmeiras had beaten the Egyptians 2-0. They were waiting for us in the final.

Wednesday was game day. After a late start – due to us both being sleep deficient and the alcoholic intake of the previous night – we welcomed Foxy down to our hotel. He, again, was a veteran of Japan 2012, and due to his life on the ocean waves was well versed to the ways of the UAE having spent many times in Dubai, though only a limited amount of access to Abu Dhabi. We loitered around the pool area and then zipped inside the adjacent restaurant where I had a very healthy pre-match meal of grilled chicken with a pear and blue cheese salad. It certainly differs from a Sunday roast at the Eight Bells or a Greggsfast on the A303.

The game was to begin at 8.30pm, and we wanted to ease into it. We caught a cab from our hotel at 5pm. By 5.30pm, we had gained entrance to the super sleek Dusit Thani hotel opposite the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium. The local Al Jazira football team plays at this stadium, but they had lost to our opponents Al Hilal from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia by the score of 6-1 on the Sunday. In the other second round game, Al Ahly from Egypt had beaten Monterrey of Mexico 1-0. By an odd twist, we had beaten Monterrey in our semi-final in 2012.

Al Jazira, Al Hilal, Al Ahly, Alhosin. We just needed Al Yankovic, Al Molinaro, Al Jarreau and Al Davidson to show up and we would be totally flummoxed.

We settled in at a quiet bar in the hotel. I met up with Robert, a Yorkshireman who once lived in Houston, but has flitted between Dubai and Baku in recent years – he is employed within the oil industry – and I last saw him out in Baku. I leisurely enjoyed two pints of Peroni although the prices were a little more expensive than at our hotel; up to £13 here.

Foxy spotted three lads sat at the bar opposite; their shirts were Celtic, Leeds United and Ajax. A lad with a Barcelona shirt was stood behind them.

“Brave or stupid.”

On the next table were two Saudi lads, timidly sipping two small glasses of lager.

“Cheers lads.”

They smiled.

“Bet this is like a trip to Benidorm for them.”

Now the moment of truth. At 7pm, we left the bar and walked over a pedestrian bridge, which went up and over a busy road, to get to the stadium. At the entrance gate, a check of the ticket, a check of my Alhosin App, and we were in. My small pocket camera was waved through too.

After all the worry and stress…my smiles were absolutely authentic.

I was happy. I mean, really happy.

It was 7.30pm. An hour to kick-off. My immediate goal was to try to find the stadium’s wifi password, but this was an impossible task. My data had run out and so I would be jettisoned from the outside world until I could hook back up with a hotel wifi. But not to worry. Life goes on, eh? In the concourse, there was a group of around twenty Muslims, including a few Chelsea supporters, kneeling on mats and praying to the west.

I got mine out and prayed for myself.

Our tickets placed us midway into a half in the lower tier of the northern side stand. The view was decent. Over the course of the hour, we spotted a few familiar faces; Scott, Roy and Margaret, Leigh and Darren. Later, I would spot the increasingly familiar face of Astrijd vlogging away a few seats to my right. Robert from Baku was close by. Dave Johnstone was spotted. Elsewhere in our section, there was a tremendous mix of people. Local Chelsea fans, Chelsea fans from further afield, Al Hilal fans – dressed in blue – and even fans of other competing teams. I won’t lie, it felt odd to be in and among the opposition. I tried to spot Chelsea fans that I knew from home in the lower tier behind the goal. No luck. Lots and lots of Chelsea flags though. Good work!

The consensus was maybe one thousand Chelsea from the UK. Maybe a few more.

At various moments we were treated to the stadium lights being dimmed and then spotlights flying around, but then a couple of morons asking us all to “make some noise.”

The British contingent stood with our hands in our pockets and muttered obscenities beneath our breath.

Using a few screeches from AC/DC as a scene setter seemed a very odd choice I have to say.

Soon, the kick-off was upon us.

Chelsea in all yellow. I loved that. Bollocks to Borrusia Dortmund. Al Hilal in all blue. The teams lined up. The end to my right housed the Saudi militants – perish that thought – and they put on a fine show with steamers and banners.

Chelsea :

Kepa

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Havertz – Ziyech

Lukaku

Facemasks were worn by many. Mine was on and off every ten minutes.

The game began and Al Hilal soon pounced on an early mistake but a weak shot caused Kepa no concerns.

Soon into the game Al Ultra turned on his loud speaker and tried to stimulate the Al Hilal supporters around him to cheer the team on. It sounded so much like an imam and a call to prayer. It was such a surreal sound.

We grew into the game. It wasn’t a particularly hot evening. I was wearing jeans as were many others. Hakim Ziyech immediately caught my eye and looked to be keen and interested to set up chances for himself and others. Thiago Silva looked his usual composed self. Dave was often wide right, unmarked, but we often chose to ignore him. The chances began to stack up with Lukaku just missing out on passes and crosses. One strong run from him on twenty-five minutes impressed me. If only he could show such willingness to create opportunities for himself more often. Kovacic was running the midfield. We were well on top.

Our support was trying its best but we were easily out sung by the opposition.

Once or twice, Ziyech danced and weaved into the box from the right and attempted that “far post” bender” that he loves. Other shots were blocked. Our dominance continued. Al Hilal were not in it. They hardly escaped their half.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

On the half-hour, Kovacic raced up field and released Havertz on the left. His first cross was blocked but on the rebound, he pushed the ball inside again. The cross hit an Al Hilal defender and the ball fell into the path of Lukaku who smashed it home from close range.

The goal was met by a guttural roar, from me especially.

I punched the air, then caught a few celebratory snaps.

Phew.

I just couldn’t face questions at work the next week : “How did that third and fourth place play-off go, Chris?”

We looked more confident after that goal. It must have calmed us; players and fans alike. We needed another, but Al Hilal now threatened a little. Thankfully, we looked solid and their attacks misfired.

We had dominated possession; 62% Chelsea in the first-half.

At the break, N’Golo Kante replaced Jorginho.

Soon into the second period, Kai Havertz broke away down in front of us and kept running. He drew the ‘keeper and chipped the ball over him from inside the six-yard box. It clipped the post.

Bollocks.

Another goal then would have steadied the ship. Sadly, the second-half was a mightily poor affair indeed. Al Hilal warmed to the challenge and threatened us on too many occasions for my liking. Our singing completely faded in the second-half. Their number seventeen Moussa Marega looked half-decent – a more mobile version of Lukaku – and he was aided in attack by Odion Ighalo, who used to play for Watford.

The move of the game brought me lots of pleasure though. A cross from Kante, after he ridiculously knocked the ball over the head of his marker, was headed back by Lukaku and Ziyech “faded” his shot to keep it down. The Al Hilal ‘keeper pulled off a fine save.

There was a magnificent block from Kepa on the hour mark; that man Marega’s shot was adeptly stopped by our young ‘keeper. Mohammed Kanno’s firm drive was then saved at full stretch by Kepa. The boy was keeping us in it.

There was worry and concern among all the Chelsea supporters now.

When Mason Mount replaced Ziyech with twenty minutes to go, there were boos around the stadium; although from The Netherlands and now playing for Morocco, he was obviously a local favourite.

A shot from the impressive Pereira went close.

“Come on Chelsea.”

Malang Sarr replaced Alonso, who had been his usual mixture of raiding wing play but defensive slips. Mount went close at the death, but that elusive second goal never came.

Thankfully, we held on.

Our possession had steadied out to 55% at the end.

It was a rotten second-half, but we had reached the FIFA World Club Cup Final. The gate was given as 19,751. I had said to PD that it seemed about half-full. The Al Hilal fans looked genuinely crestfallen. We just looked relieved.

PD and I slowly returned to the same bar as pre-match. We soon met up with Frank and Mike from New York. I met Dutch Mick too – also there in 2012 – and there was time for one last “Peroni” before PD and I caught a cab back to our digs.

We knew of several Chelsea fans who were flying over especially for the final; I was so pleased for them.

Now it was time to relax. And for a date with some camels.

Tales From An Unclear Night

Brighton And Hove Albion vs. Chelsea : 18 January 2022.

Virtually at the end of the uploading process for the Manchester City blog, I reached an impasse. I had, all of a sudden, and with no hint nor warning, simply run out of storage space. Well, this was no bloody good. This was no bloody good at all. Was that it then? A run of over six-hundred and forty match reports to come to an abrupt end? No, not a chance of it. I quickly stumped up for the next bundle of space available, uploaded the last six photographs and kept on blogging.

This new plan will cost me £15 per month, plus there is an annual registration cost too. But it keeps me occupied, it keeps me focussed. I clearly get a deal of pleasure out of it all. With more photographs being published these days, the number of views has increased exponentially. Yet the number of visitors per year has stayed remarkably similar; at around the 11,000 mark, all of the way through from 2014 to the 2021 apart from the natural dip in numbers in 2020. I like it that even during the long fallow days of summer, there has always been at least one visit per day.

Bugger it, that has tempted fate, eh?

Manchester City on the Saturday was followed by Brighton on the Tuesday evening; another away game, another game to test our players’ resolve and us fans’ sanity.

This was going to be yet another long, long day. I was up at 4.45am in order to work an early 6am to 2pm shift. I drove back to Frome for just after 2.30pm where PD was waiting with Parky and Si for lift-off. It was already a bitterly cold day and I expected the temperature to drop further. For once, I had brought along a bobble hat and gloves. I usually avoid both, even on the coldest of days.

Gloves make the operating of my camera a ridiculous task.

And a bobble hat makes me look like a twat.

I posted on Facebook :

“Brr-brr-brr-Brighton, here we come.”

PD set off and the predicted travel time was around three hours to the little town of Lewes where we would then catch a train to Falmer. As we drove east in our little bubble of warmth, there was chat from Simon about Abu Dhabi. Simon has visited there a few times. He likes it. Both PD and I were to hear that maybe not all of our preconceptions of a frugal way of life on our visit might be correct. Some notions were to be in for a few re-evaluations. This was undoubtedly very reassuring to hear.

PD made as good a time as possible but there was the inevitable traffic as we hit a few blackspots. On the last few miles, a full moon appeared on the horizon, as if rolling along the ridge of the downs to the north of Brighton. At just past 5.30pm, we drove past the stadium. We were parked up at Lewes at around 5.45pm. Outside, the temperature had dropped several degrees. The Lansdowne Arms on the corner appeared to be overflowing with clientele, so we headed back to a boozer – “Fuego Bar” – that we had seen on the slow drive through the town’s narrow streets.

This was a rare treat for me, an away drink. I ordered pints of “Estrella” and we relaxed for an hour.

I soon made my mind up on the walk back to the car to don extra garments; twat or not, I needed that Boca Juniors bobble-cap. The gloves could wait. Just as we entered the train station, Clive – “Sleepy Hollow” – arrived just behind us.

Despite the first train not stopping due to having reached capacity, we dutifully waited an extra ten minutes or so for the next one. We pulled in to Falmer at around 7.30pm. There was an almighty scramble at the away gate and there was no time for stewards to bother with anything as frivolous as proof of COVID19 vaccination.

As with the last visit, on New Year’s Day 2020, I was tucked into one of the front rows behind the goal. In that game, our early goal was undone by an outrageous overhead kick which came from a late corner. For all of their nibbles against us, we are yet to lose to Brighton & Hove Albion in the league.

Before I knew it, the teams appeared to our left. Chelsea in yellow / black / yellow once again.

Our team, as follows :

Kepa

Dave – Thiago – Rudi – Marcos

Mase – Jorgi – Kova – Hakim

Romelu – Callum

I was to later learn that this was a 4-2-2-2 but I was oblivious at the time.

As is always the case, we attacked the other end in the first-half.

There was a rather slow start to the game, with only their diminutive winger Tariq Lamptey really catching the eye. On several occasions, he danced away from his marker and I wondered how we could cope with his pace. Brighton would not let us settle. Out players, seemingly still suffering from the City game, and the build-up of other games too, appeared lethargic, and altogether unable to free themselves of the home team’s attentions.

A delicate touch from Danny Welbeck set up Jakub Moder and I thought “goal” but the Polish player screwed it wide.

Phew.

At last there was the hint of richer pastures when Lukaku set up a shot for Azpilicueta that Sanchez was able to save.

Brighton’s front three just seemed a lot more agile and energised than our counterparts.

The Chelsea crowd were relatively subdued after the opening salvos were fired.

“You can stuff your fuckin’ seagulls up yer arse.”

I spotted one little passage of play that got me purring in remembrance of another coastal city whose home team play in blue and white stripes. The ball was in our half, ten yards inside the touchline with space suddenly opening up ahead. Yet unlike in Porto in May, there was no Mason Mount to spot the run of Timo Werner, and of course there was no Timo Werner. In fact there was nobody at all. And there was simply nobody ready to exploit all of that lovely space.

I muttered an oath to myself.

The home terraces bellowed :

“Champions of Europe. You’re ‘avin a laugh.”

Just before the half-hour mark, in the far corner, Kante set up Ziyech.

I yelled out :

“Hit the fucking thing.”

With hardly any backswing, he let fly and the ball, to all of our surprise, flew into the goal at the near post.

Fackinell.

Watching through the netting of the near goal, the celebrations certainly looked rather muted.

“What’s up hon?”

Anyway, bollocks to that, we were celebrating wildly.

GET IN.

Another assist for me.

This goal didn’t fool anyone though. This had been rather poor fare. The one exception, as always, was the indomitable Kante. However, after being left stranded on the ball on more than one occasion, with no players showing, Alan was moved to comment “Robinson Crusoe’s got more mates.”

At the break, time for a little wander and some photos. Nice to see Andy, a Chelsea fan from Brighton, who I used to hang around with in The Black Bull in 1988/89. I think the last time I saw him was the Villa Park semi-final in 1996.

Soon, very soon, into the second-half Welbeck really should have done a lot better after being slotted in at an angle, but his shot was forever sliced wide. Towards the hour, we were playing some soporific stuff and the home team grew stronger still. A flowing move down their left then set up Mac Allister but his shot was deflected. However, Kepa readjusted ever so well to parry past the post.

“Albion, Albion.”

From the corner, Mac Allister struck a firm cross in and Adam Webster – “after you Claude” – headed the ball powerfully past what seemed like the entire Chelsea defence.”

Fackinell.

Dear reader, I will be honest. My feet were freezing. My face was freezing. I knew that I was in for a long wait to get back onto a train, any train, for Lewes, and I knew that I would not be home until late, very late. I was so disenchanted with our lacklustre performance that even after realising that only sixty-five minutes had elapsed, I just wanted the game to end. And I can honestly say that I have never ever felt that at a game, with such a long time still to go, ever before. I am not proud to admit that. Of course I am not.

The night grew colder.

“Ice cold in Amex.”

I just wanted to go home.

The sky was clear but this was a very unclear night in West Sussex. Nothing really made sense. Most of our players had been woeful; maybe apart for King Kante, Kepa the ‘keeper and the high-spirited Dave, who at least looked like he cared.

Why were the three substitutions so late? Not a clue.

Havertz for Lukaku.

Kovacic for Jorginho.

Werner for Hudson-Odoi.

There were boos as Lukaku was replaced. He had done nothing, his body language poor, but his service had been worse.

We did have a little sting in our tail with Werner looking half-decent, but by then I just wanted out. A horrific finish by Kovacoc, blazed way over, summed it all up.

Not good enough, Chelsea.

We hung around a little in the concourse to let the crowds subside a little. In the toilets, Chelsea were mouthing off at Chelsea. It was all rather churlish and childish.

“It’s the tactics” grunted one chap.

“I like the green ones” replied Parky and a tense moment was rendered obsolete as folk laughed.

We waited. One last drink for a few. At Falmer station, thankfully some stewards quickly spotted Parky’s stick and PD’s limp; we were escorted quickly to the platform ahead of the others, thus probably saving us an extra forty-five-minute wait.

We returned to Lewes at 10.45pm, but were then soon hit with extra delays on the A27. We were forced back north through rural West Sussex and as I tried to sleep with my head against the car window, PD eventually drove home via the M23, the M25, the M3 and the A303. I eventually got to sleep on my sofa at 2.45am; I couldn’t even be arsed to go upstairs.

04.45am to 02.45am.

I had had my fill.

Sadly, I must have picked up a bug somewhere on that night out in Brighton. For a few days, I was unable to do anything much. And It meant that I was just unable to attend the Tottenham home game.

The Game.

Pete, Alan, PD, Andy, Chris, Parky, Walnuts & Andy.

Tales From Us And That Lot

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 5 January 2022.

I have to say that I was a lot more confident going into the first of three games against Tottenham Hotspur in just eighteen days after the Liverpool match than I was before it. That tussle on the second day of the year really helped to settle my nerves; we were good weren’t we?

This would be our fourth League Cup semi-final against Tottenham.

I have no recollection of the one in 1971/72. I would have been six years old. We went through after a Chris Garland inspired second-leg at Chelsea.

I can easily remember the one in 2001/2. Shudder. We won the first-leg 2-1 at The Bridge but I was working a late shift on the day of the return leg. I remember bringing in a portable TV to watch the game while I was at work in our portacabin outside the main warehouse of a company in Trowbridge. We lost 1-5 and I have never been more miserable after watching a Chelsea game on TV. The thought of having to come face to face with my Tottenham-supporting manager the next day was the stuff of nightmares.

In 2018/19, there was a much a nicer memory as we went through on penalties, David Luiz scoring the winner, in the second leg at Chelsea.

Three previous ties. Two wins with the second leg at home. One loss with the second leg away. Well, you can imagine my thought process.

There was just the three of us in The Chuckle Bus for this game. PD collected me outside work and we were parked-up in SW6 bang on two hours later. While my co-passengers visited “The Goose” I popped to the Italian restaurant two doors down on the North End Road.

I had only been sat at my table for a minute when the door opened and my good friend Andy walked in. What a nice surprise. He had visited it recently and fancied a return. Andy often features in these march reports; most memorably mentioned during the Porto trip last May. We both ordered pizzas and had a cracking natter for an hour or so. Andy is going to Abu Dhabi, and of course I hope to join him. Andy mentioned the pre-season game at Bournemouth that we both attended in the summer. Andy brought up the team on his ‘phone. We could hardly believe that Danny Drinkwater and Davide Zappacosta played, to say nothing of Baba Rahman. We briefly spoke about Romelu Lukaku. I personally wanted a line to be drawn under the whole shebang. Time to move on.

It was a cold old night on the border of Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea. PD had gone into the ground early and I joined him at around 7.15pm. Parky, ousted from the Shed Lower, would be watching in the West View.

I looked over at The Shed. There they were. Tottenham. There’s just something about them. And I am sure they feel the same way about us. Probably more so these days.

Our home record against “that lot” is still bloody magnificent, and of course I am not letting the moment pass without mentioning it once again.

Since December 1990, it goes something like this.

Won fucking loads, drew some others, lost just once.

The magic numbers were in fact 23-13-1.

I suppose that in the circumstances, I should not have been too worried. The weight of all that history, and misery – “misstory” – must be a heavy yoke for Tottenham to carry on their trips to Stamford Bridge.

The lights were dimmed at around 7.40pm just as I shot off for a last minute visit to turn my bike around. When I came back, and peered out through the exits, the lights were being slowly turned back on. I settled down next to PD, Clive and Alan and readied myself for the evening’s entertainment.

Lukaku was on the pitch. As his name was mentioned in a run-through of the team, there were no boos at all, just a hint of applause. I was happy with that.

As the game began, it took me a good few minutes to work out if my first thoughts on the shape changing to an old-fashioned 4-4-2 were correct, or was Hakim Ziyech really a very very very pushed-on wing back?

No, I was right the first time.

Kepa Arriabalaga in goal.

A back four of Marcos Alonso, Antonio Rudiger, Malang Saar and Cesar Azpilicueta.

The wide players in midfield were Mason Mount and Hakim Ziyech, with Jorginho and Saul in the middle.

Up front were Romelu Lukaku and Kai Havertz.

For all of the advantages of other formations, there is something about a 4-4-2. It’s the system I grew up with – although 4-3-3 was the first system I ever played, way back in 1975 – but there is a nice solidity about it.

There was an unsurprisingly loud and unwelcoming noise aimed at the 4,500 away fans in The Shed.

“Champions Of Europe, You’ll Never Sing That.”

They were soon up and running with their couple of songs which hark at their Jewish identity but now seem to be a little out of place.

Fuck’em.

Well.

This is what we did alright.

In the first five minutes, too.

Signor Alonso has his detractors, but he magnificently nipped in to steal the ball before it reached a Tottenham defender on our left. He played a perfect pass in to Herr Havertz who slammed the ball goal wards. His effort took a deflection off a Tottenham defender – I cared not who – and the ball ended up inside the goal, to be followed not so long after after by the scorer and his team mates.

Get in you bastard.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds. Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit, yap, yap, bunny, bunny.”

It seemed perfect that the Chelsea celebrations involved the blue-clad players celebrating inside the goalmouth with the away fans looking closely on in misery.

Chelsea in front, and in front of their fans too.

On the balcony wall of The Shed, the simple words : “Pride Of London.”

Gertcha.

Well, this was a cracking start to the game. In the myriad of Chelsea victories at Stamford Bridge against “that lot” I always have a little chuckle to myself about “how will we beat them this time?” and this match was off to a perfect start.

However, Havertz appeared to injure himself in the process of scoring and was off the pitch for a while.

We purred in that first-half and they hardly threatened at all.

I must admit it looked odd to see our former manager patrolling the opposition technical area, and looking pretty fed-up too, from the first few minutes.

A shot from Havertz was easily saved by the Tottenham ‘keeper.

Next up were blocked shots from Mount and Saul, who was enjoying a very fine half, and then Ziyech set himself up nicely but his left-footed curler was off target.

The opposition rarely got out of their half.

There was a lovely piece of recovery after a Tottenham attacker broke and avoided an offside trap. Ziyech was able to nibble and pinch the ball away. The threat was over.

On the half-hour, Alan and I couldn’t believe how Rudiger wasn’t able to pounce after a Ziyech corner was helped on its way by a Tottenham defender. From our perspective, it looked like a goal waiting to be struck. His eventual effort was blocked.

Soon after, a strong run from Lukaku – who indeed had been warmly encouraged thus far – resulted in a free-kick out on the right. Ziyech, right in the action again, punched a ball towards the six-yard box. Fortuitously I snapped just as one Tottenham defender headed the ball against another, and the ball flew into the net.

Get in.

At that point in the proceedings we wondered if the first goal had been credited as an own goal too.

Two OGs?

“Oh, let’s beat them like this.”

How Spursy.

I turned to “the bloke behind me” (copyright “When Saturday Comes” 1986) :

“He never misses from there.”

Oh my aching sides.

The players, almost embarrassingly, ran over to congratulate Ziyech. Well, they had to run somewhere. They could hardly run to the Tottenham player, whoever he was.

Next came, the ultimate piss-take.

“Tottenham, give us a song. Tottenham, Tottenham, give us a song.”

Not sure I have heard that before, or at least not in the way it was intended, enticing them to join in our fun. Top marks.

We tried to stifle a little laughter when Lukaku had an awful first touch on the centre circle and resembled an out-of-control express train as he sprinted to retrieve the ball before it went out for a throw-in. He failed. The terrace wags were soon on his case.

“He can control it further than I can fucking kick it.”

“His second touch is a tackle.”

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

But then, a golden chance. A beautifully flighted ball from that man Ziyech dropped right on the head of Lukaku but his purposeful downward header guided the ball just past the far post.

Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda.

A goal there, three at the break, would have killed the game, killed the tie, helped to evacuate The Shed and would have led to forty-five minutes of arsenic-laced mickey-taking and tom foolery, and maybe even Micky Fillery.

But it had been a most excellent first-half. We were neat and purposeful, and seemed to over-run them in all areas of the pitch. Did they have a shot on goal? Hardly. Did Kepa make a real save? I think not. Stars of the half were Ziyech, Saul, Havertz and maybe even Alonso too.

As the second-half began, I settled in my seat but had missed the substitution announcement. It took me a few seconds to realise that Timo Werner had replaced Havertz.

The opposition were all over us in the first minute, then the second, third and fourth. Their manager had obviously fired some fine words into their shell-likes in the break. But we never really looked too troubled in this period. If anything, I hoped it would create chances for us to counter-attack at will.

On fifty minutes, a shot from them at a free-kick, but Kepa was able.

It annoyed me – saddened me even – to see three Italian flags being waved among the away fans. That was us. That was Zola, Vialli, di Matteo, that was Ranieri, that was Ancelotti, that is Jorginho. Damn you.

This game was more of a contest now. But our chances still dominated. Ziyech should have done better after a very fine move linking Werner and then Lukaku. I have to say the thought of a Lukaku and Werner partnership started to thrill me a little.

Saul was enjoying this game and we were enjoying seeing him play so well. There was a cheeky back-heeled volley, but I turned to Al and said :

“He’s no Zola.”

On the hour, I watched Werner as he collected the ball, opened his body up and attacked his marker. His pace took him past and he let loose a powerful strike that oh-so narrowly missed the far post.

“Three-nil and it’s all over, mate.”

There was a very rare outing of the “William song”; because, well, that lot, eh?

Lukaku set up Ziyech and he zipped the pass of the night towards Werner on the edge of the box. He chose to lift the ball over the ‘keeper but an outstretched arm defeated him. It was a fine save. Not long after, Ziyech blasted over from an angle.

“He could’ve brought that down, Al.”

We begged our heroes for one more goal. Just one.

I must say that I thought it was a little premature to be singing “Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happened again” so let’s save that for White Hart Lane. Fingers crossed, eh?

Some late substitutions.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Saul.

Mateo Kovacic for Mount.

Christian Pulisic for Ziyech.

Down in the far corner, a Tottenham substitute tied Christian Pulisic up in knots and his shot was, thankfully, well-saved by Kepa at full stretch on the floor. The ball was unceremoniously hacked clear. This was followed immediately by a much-desired counter-attack, involving Ruben, but a pass to Lukaku only resulted in a corner.

A free-kick in prime Alonso territory. Alas not. His shot only troubled the wall.

One last change.

Harvey Vale for Dave.

It was Vale who helped to combine neatly with others to set up the last chance of the match for that man Lukaku, but his shot was tame and hit centrally.

It’s finely balanced at 2-0.

One more goal would have meant that our trip to White Hart Lane next week would be one of lick-lipping eagerness. As it stands, it will be a little more difficult.

But we are suddenly in a good place again. The doom mongers have quietened down. We’ve got Lukaku back in the fold. Players are returning. We are on the march.

Next up, Chesterfield in the FA Cup and my first-ever visit to “The West View.”

For further updates, stay tuned to this channel.

Tales From A Long Game And A Long Day

Watford vs. Chelsea : 1 December 2021.

It had taken me two-and-a-half hours to drive up to Watford from Melksham. We were parked up at the northern end of Watford’s pedestrianised high street and were soon ordering drinks at the bar inside “The Horns” public house. It was around a quarter to five on another cold winter day. The match was due to kick-off at 7.30pm, the second of three games in the London area within seven days. I was driving to all of them; a total of 670 miles.

Just as I had arrived in Watford, a text from a long, lost mate.

Jesus from California was in town. Parky and I first met him at a game at Goodison Park in May 2011 – the Carlo Ancelotti sacking debacle – but he was a major fixture in that amazing 2011/2012 season when his university sent him on an internship to London for a few months. We met him a few times at Stamford Bridge, but also at Manchester City, Fulham, Arsenal and Napoli. He went to the Champions League games at Benfica and Barcelona too. But then he returned to Calexico and, despite me trying to get him to head back to Chelsea, his studies ended and his new business venture started, and getting away was proving difficult.

The years passed.

A month or so ago, he told me he was heading over – without match tickets – for the games at Watford and West Ham.

Fackinell.

PD and Parky sipped on Stellas while I sipped a Diet Coke. We eagerly awaited his arrival. It was all a bit ironic really, since I had two extra tickets in my wallet but which were already promised to another. We waited for Andy to arrive at “The Horns” too. Sadly, he was running late.

At around 5.30pm, Jesus and his mate Rafael arrived. What a joy to see him again. A hug and handshakes. They had been down near Vicarage Road in a pub called “The Red Lion”, trying to source a ticket or two. There was a rushed update on our lives – and football – but I explained that they really needed to head down to the main Chelsea pub, “The Moon Under Water”, and put the feelers out for spares. They set off at about 6pm.

Andy was caught in traffic so I arranged to see him outside the ground.

Suddenly, it was all about tickets.

There is absolutely no doubt that the football public are mad for football once again; for away games especially so. The buzz of away games far outweighs home matches. We all love them.

This was going to be a long day. I was up at 4.45am to enable me to get in to work to do a very early 6am to 2pm shift. We were glad we had set off at just after two o’clock. We had been caught in some heavy traffic as we wended our way around the notorious M25 and Andy was stuck in that same slug of traffic. Apart from the delay on the London orbital, it was a painless drive up to Hertfordshire; the highlight being the sight of two intense rainbows as we drove through rain clouds on the M3.

Ahead, dark grey brooding clouds. Behind, an intense yellow wash over the clouds in my rear view mirror. Above, multicolours.

We set off – coats buttoned, that winter chill was a frightener – at around 6.30pm. We arrived at Vicarage Road just before 7pm. I stayed outside and left PD and Parky to get inside. There was no news of tickets for Jesus, nor any news from Andy battling the M25.

I positioned myself right under the sign at “The Red Lion” and waited for news.

The match-goers rushed past, the short walk from the pubs of central Watford almost over. I love that little walk; it’s absolutely packed full of cafes, restaurants and take-aways of every variation and from every nation. There was a wide variety of spectators too. Young and boisterous youngsters. Middle-aged men with coat collars turned up with scarves tight against necks, the cold biting away. Couples. Little groups. Many solo figures. Folk walking with stares down at the pavement and road, watching out for any uneven bumps. Watford scarves, but hardly any Chelsea colours. A few familiar faces.

“Alright Zac?”

“Hello Dan.”

“Hello Mark, alright mate?”

“Hi Paul.”

The floodlights were turned away from these faces but the light they gave off helped illuminate the night. Hot-dog stands. Gulps from tins. The neon signs of the last couple of take-aways. The quick shuffle of feet. Kick-off approaching.

At last a text from Andy. He was parking up and would be around ten minutes. I kept looking at my watch. This was our first of nine games in December. It was looking like I’d miss the first few minutes of the first one.

At 7.25pm, he arrived with his son, full of apologies.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry. You’re here.”

I squeezed into the away end with the match clock showing “1.11” having elapsed.

I found my seat next to Al, Gal and Parky my pal.

Phew.

The next few minutes were spent acclimatising myself to everything though I was soon aware that we were enjoying none of the ball on the pitch.

Alan : “you ain’t missed much.”

This was my eighth visit to Vicarage Road. I quickly spotted a rainbow effect in the Elton John Stand to my left. Multicolured T-shirts in deference to the diversity campaign had been placed on all of the seats. However, this highlighted – more than ever – how many of the available seats were empty. And not everyone was wearing the T-shirts. I am not surprised. Donning a T-shirt over a chunky jacket would not have been the easiest task. The two sunsets of the M3 had evidently followed me up and around the M25 and down the A411 to Watford.

No news from Jesus.

I looked at the team, evidently floundering on the pitch against a Watford team looking decidedly waspish in their yellow and black hoops.

From “The Horns” to the Hornets and it looked like we were getting stung. Mendy was soon called into action.

Yeah, so, the team.

Mendy

Rudiger – Christensen – Chalobah

Azpilicueta – Loftus-Cheek – Saul – Alonso

Mount – Havertz – Pulisic

“No Lukaku, then Gal.”

With many key players unavailable, Thomas Tuchel had been forced to shuffle the pack.

Then it all became rather surreal. Play was stopped with about eleven minutes on the clock and everyone’s attention was drawn to the upper tier of the small Graham Taylor Stand to our right. It was clear that a spectator was receiving some medical attention. I am sure in previous seasons this would have taken place with no break in play but in today’s climate, the game was stopped for a few minutes and then the referee led the players off.

There was a row going on close by; a couple had arrived a little late and it seemed that others were in their seats. Some stewards were trying to quell another intra-Chelsea squabble a few rows behind.

Stingray was stood next to Tombsy, talking gibberish to himself as is his wont.

We stood around, not wholly sure of how the evening would continue. As minutes passed, a few folk nearby were quickly redrawing their plans on how to get home. Andy and Tombsy were thinking hard about leaving the game early in order to catch trains to their homes in the north. Dave was thinking about an early exit too. We were fine; we had my car parked up and ready to be used whenever we needed it. The minutes ticked by.

Gallows humour, of course, was to the fore.

“With the start we had, not unhappy we had to go off.”

The short chap helping the Watford ‘keeper Daniel Bachmann warm-up again caught Gal’s eye.

“Oh Danny DeVito, oh Danny DeVito, oh Danny DeVito, oh Danny DeVito.”

For those of you who know Gal, this song was more than ironic.

Al : “Gary doesn’t do irony, mate.”

Word got out that there had been a cardiac arrest. With my heart-attack of last October, you can imagine the thoughts that were running through my mind. The person receiving attention was seemingly taken away and the crowd mildly applauded.

Half-an-hour passed before the teams re-appeared. We then had the odd sight of both sets of players warming up again. Even more bizarrely, Watford made a substitution, with Danny Rose coming on. The ex-Tottenham full-back was roundly booed for the rest of the night.

The game restarted with Watford continuing their domination.

Bluntly, we weren’t in it.

Then, out of nowhere on eighteen minutes, a break in front of us, and Mason Mount slammed a shot from a very acute angle against the near post.

“That was our first attack, Al.”

The game continued on, and I sighed as I said to Alan “we have hardly put four passes together mate.”

Watford were more aggressive and we lacked intensity off the ball and quality on it. Saul was reliving his nightmare debut.

“Shades of Bakayoko up here” lamented the bloke behind me.

Oh God, that performance by Bakayoko in that 4-1 loss in 2018.

Shudder.

Over on the touchline, managers old and new.

Claudio Ranieri.

Thomas Tuchel.

I adapted the song of the moment.

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. A stupid baseball cap. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

But the trademark cap was exchanged for a ski hat on this particular night. Ranieri chose the same. Ranieri edged the sartorial battle though, if only because Tuchel’s trackie bottoms looked like they had shrunk in the wash.

On the half-hour, at last we looked like ourselves. A long searching ball from Rudiger found the galloping Alonso. His first touch flummoxed his marker and he switched the ball inside to Havertz, surprisingly free. He decided not to shoot, but instead played the ball square to Mason Mount. He smashed the ball in.

Get in.

He celebrated down in front of us. There was the usual tumble of bodies towards the base of the terrace.

Limbs.

“There’s the four passes, Al.”

There was euphoria but also the knowledge that this was absolutely against the run of play.

Mendy saved well from a low drive from an angle from Rose five minutes later. Sadly, just before half-time, the very disappointing Loftus-Cheek lost the ball and Watford moved the ball quickly and with purpose.

“I don’t like this” I said to Gal, almost impersonating Graham Taylor’s most famous line without even meaning to. Emmanuel Dennis advanced and slotted home.

Bollocks.

There were five, I think, extra minutes of time to be played at the end of the half. The half should have ended at 8.15pm. It came to a halt at around 8.55pm.

“Well, that was crap.”

During the break, Tuchel rang the changes.

Thiago Silva for Our Saul.

Chalobah moved into midfield alongside Ruben.

Thankfully, we began brighter in the second period and Silva’s calming influence shone as brightly as the Vicarage Road floodlights. But it comes to something when a common or garden shoulder charge by Havertz gets a round of applause from the away faithful.

Mendy rushed out to intercept a ball but crashed into Tom Cleverley. The ‘keeper was down for a while. There were concerns for his health, but the break in play allowed a new chant to be aired in his honour.

I’ll be honest, I had not heard it before and was both shocked and surprised how many supporters knew it. It was a bloody tough one to work out though. I got the “Edouard Mendy” bit and the “he comes from Senegal” bit but the rest was a mesmerising flow of undecipherable syllables.

It got louder and louder.

I felt like a spare prick at a wedding.

John Redwood mouthing the Welsh national anthem?

No, not that fucking bad.

At least I joined in with the clapping.

With Mendy recovered, the medical team then turned their attention to Chalobah, lying prostrate on the halfway line.

“Fuck sake. This game won’t finish until 11pm.”

Hakim Ziyech replaced Chalobah. The reaction around me was of disbelief to be honest. We needed to toughen up the midfield. We wondered why Ross Barkley wasn’t chosen.

There was a brief chat about the team.

“Nobody has done well tonight really, but Havertz has done the most. At least he has showed for the ball, moved the ball on, an odd dribble.”

Another substitution, Romelu Lukaku for Dave, so the very quiet Pulisic shifted to wing-back.

Within three minutes, a cross from Mount on the left and the ball was flashed into the net. The strike was hit right at the ‘keeper but with just too much pace. But I just saw a confluence of blue in the box; I had no idea who had tucked it in.

As I tracked the celebrations, I realised – gulp, humble pie please waiter – none other than Ziyech receiving the adoration of others.

Get in.

The rest of the game resembled a battleground. I can hardly remember a game in which so many players were on the floor receiving treatment. This was a game that truly did not want to end.

One last Watford chance, a thunderous free-kick from Juraj Kicka was flicked over by Edouard Mendy and this ensured a noisy replaying of his song.

Six extra minutes.

Fackinell.

At last – at last! – the whistle.

“Got out of jail there, mate.”

“Lucky as hell.”

“How did we win that?”

“How much do we miss Kante?”

We slowly walked back to the car, stopping off on the high street for a dirty hot kebab.

Perfect.

I eventually got home at 1.30am.

It had been a long game and a very long day.

4.45am to 1.30am.

But job done and on we go. I am amazed we are still leading the pack. If pressed – high – I still think we will finish third behind City and Liverpool. But we’ll see.

Oh, by the way, Jesus and Rafa got in.

West Ham away next. It won’t be easy. See you there.

Outside.

Inside.