Tales From An Old Gold Adversary.

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Chelsea : 18 February 2017.

After two easy home wins against Peterborough United and Brentford in this season’s FA Cup, we were on our travels. I would have preferred a new ground – Huddersfield Town, Sutton United, Lincoln City, not Millwall – but the Football Gods had given us an away fixture at Wolverhampton Wanderers. This was fine by me. Our last visit was five years ago and, since then, a new stand has been built, so there would be something new to see. Wolves away is an easy drive for me too; after the arduous trek to Burnley last weekend, this would be easy.

I remembered our last game against Wolves in the F. A. Cup in the spring of 1994. Our game at Stamford Bridge – on TV, on a Sunday – was only our second FA Cup quarter final in twenty-one years, and the stadium was bouncing. Memorably, there were blue flares in The Shed before the game, and the old – and huge – original “Pride Of London” flag made its first-ever appearance that day. From memory, it was the biggest “crowd-surfing” flag ever seen at a London stadium at the time. The 2,500 Wolves fans were allocated a large section of the East Stand because the North Stand was recently demolished. I watched from the old West Stand as a Gavin Peacock lofted chip gave us a 1-0 win. We were on our way to an F.A. Cup semi-final for the first time since 1970 and – boy – how we bloody celebrated. We flooded the pitch afterwards; in fact it would be the last time thst I would walk on the hallowed turf. However, the one thing I really remember from that game was the noisy repetition of “The Blue Flag” which really became an immediate and legendary Chelsea song on that particular day. It had not really been sung much until then. On the Monday, at work, I could not stop singing it to myself. The photographs from that day show a much different Stamford Bridge and a much-changed support. Of course I miss it.

Twenty-three years later, the four of us (Parky, PD, Scott and myself) were in Wolverhampton over four hours before the game was due to commence at 5.30pm. We darted into the first pub we saw, The Wheatsheaf, and once inside, soon realised the errors of our ways. We didn’t mind that it was a home pub – there were Wolves shirts pinned to the walls and ceiling – but the clientele soon began to change. We stood to one side of the bar supping our pints and watched as a few Wolves lads came in. We wondered if they were in the “Yam Yam Army”. I was certainly being eye-balled by a young chap. You could tell they had us sussed. One bald lad sauntered in – blue Stone Island jacket – and we soon decided to cut our losses. A few minutes later we were settled in an “away fans only” pub – big gothic columns outside, formerly “The Walkabout” which we have visited before, now renamed and re-branded as a nightclub – and we could relax a little. There were a few Chelsea “faces” of our own on a table on the back wall, and a few more friends and acquaintances soon arrived. I had a laugh with a local copper about the previous pub.

“Didn’t you think it odd there were Wolves shirts there?”

“Yeah, but there are home pubs and there are home pubs. This one was a little – pause – tense.”

“Ha. Bet your arse was twitching like a rabbit’s nose.”

Songs were soon bellowing around the cavernous and dark boozer. There were only a precious few “away only” pubs in Wolverhampton and I was glad we had stumbled across one of them. We had heard that – quite a miracle – non-league Lincoln City had won at Burnley with a goal in the last minute of play. What a stunning result. At around 3.45pm, I left the others to it and departed for the stadium. Outside the pub was a sport shop owned by former player Ron Flowers. I walked past a pub called “The Billy Wright.” I wondered if another pub called “Slaters” was named after the former Wolves defender Bill Slater. I did wonder, in fact, if there were other such places in Wolverhampton, a town famous – only? – for its football team.

“Maybe it is all they have.”

Maybe in other streets there are the George Berry Tea Rooms, the Sammy Chung Bowling Green and the Kenny Hibbitt Bingo Hall.

In a previous edition, I briefly flitted through Wolves’ history.

Tales From The Old Gold And Black Country : 20 February 2010.

“The stadium in Wolverhampton is right at the heart of the city and I like it. The long natural incline leading down from the town centre once formed the basis of the huge Kop until the ground was slowly – very slowly – remodelled in the ‘eighties. When I think of the Wolves of my childhood, not only do I think of players such as Jim McCalliog, David Wagstaffe and Derek Dougan, but I also I think of the idiosyncratic Molyneux stadium. There was the immense Kop to the right and the unique multi-spanned roof opposite. All of these individualistic stadia are long gone these days and it’s a shame. I can also hear the gentle burr of the ‘seventies ATV commentator Huw Johns telling of some action on the pitch. He had such an evocative voice and often commentated on Wolves games. Before my time, Wolves were the team of the ‘fifties – winning three league titles – and they captured the imagination of the nation with their unique set of friendlies against teams such as Honved. In their distinctive old gold shirts, they were some team, led by England captain Billy Wright. If the Munich air crash had not happened in 1958, catapulting Manchester United into the nation’s hearts, maybe Wolves would be a major player these days.”

By the time of my next visit, I was able to update on Molyneux’ expansion plans.

Tales From A Dark Night : 5 January 2011.

“Wolves almost went to the wall around 1985 as a result of their relegation to the old fourth division and debts caused by the messy redevelopment of their stadium. For many seasons, the Steve Bull Stand – built in 1979 and very similar to the Spurs West Stand of the same year – stood way back from the pitch, with the rest of the crumbling stadium unable to be rebuilt and moved to meet up with the new stand’s footprint. The three new stands were eventually completed in around 1993 and it’s a neat and compact stadium, with the iconic old gold used on stand supports and seats. It feels right. Alan and Gary had been talking to a Wolves fan as they waited for me to arrive and he told them that there were plans to build again, with the end goal being a 50,000 stadium. I guessed that relegation might halt such grandiose plans.”

I was looking forward to sitting in the upper deck of this new stand, which was still being built on my last visit. However, the Wolves of previous eras were dominating my thoughts as I walked past pub after pub of home fans, each one with bouncers outside.

The Wolves of the ‘fifties were indeed a grand team. And the game against Honved in 1954 – during our first league title season – was shown live on BBC; a very rare event in those days. Played under new floodlights, Wolves played the game in special shimmering old gold silky shirts to add to the drama. Many observers have credited the series of Wolves friendlies against Honved, Tel Aviv, First Vienna and Spartak Moscow as kick-starting a pan-European knockout competition. In the very next season, Chelsea were advised, of course, not to take part in the inaugural European Cup by the curmudgeons in the English FA. One can only imagine how spectacular the Wolves vs. Honved game seemed at the time. The Honved team included six of the Magyars who had defeated England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and again 7-1 in Budapest in 1954 including the legendary Ferenc Puskas. Watching on a TV in Belfast was a young lad called George Best, who chose Wolves as his team. The game must have had a similar effect on many; my next-door neighbour Ken is a Wolves fan and would have been a young lad in 1954.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxoI4AjgokU

Of course, Wolves were our nearest rivals back in that 1954/1955 season. A Billy Wright handball at our game at Stamford Bridge is the stuff, as they say, of legend.

Our paths memorably crossed during the 1976/1977 Second Division season too, when a 3-3 draw at Stamford Bridge was followed by a 1-1 draw at Molyneux. Wolves were promoted as champions that year, with Chelsea also going up just behind them. I wrote a few words about this during our last visit.

Tales From A Work In Progress : 2 January 2012.

“Alan and Big John were reminiscing about their visit to the same ground in April 1977 when our fans were officially banned, but around 4,000 fans still attended. A Tommy Langley goal gave us shares in a 1-1 draw and secured our promotion. Those were heady days. That was a cracking season. I only saw three games in our promotion push, but the memories of those games against Cardiff City (won), Bristol Rovers (lost) and Millwall (drew) are strong. On the day of the Wolves match, I can vividly remember running up the slope outside my grandparents’ house once I had heard that we had secured promotion and jumping in the air. But then the realisation that, as the lone Chelsea fan in my village, I had nobody to share my enthusiasm with.”

So, 1954/1955 and 1976/1977 and 1994/1995 – three instances when the two clubs have been thrown together. I wondered what 2016/2017 would bring. I approached the stadium from the south, and used the infamous subway, much beloved by home fans who used to ambush away fans in previous eras. It has something of the feel of “A Clockwork Orange” and it spawned the Wolves firm “Subway Army.”

I reached Molineux unscathed and rewarded myself with a cheeseburger.

There were Chelsea supporters milling around the Steve Bull Stand, whose lower tier would house 3,000 of our 4,500 supporters. But I headed on and took a few photographs of the stadium, which has changed so much over the past few decades.

It was soon clear that many away fans had been drinking heavily from London to the Black Country; the concourse in the lofty Stan Cullis Stand was soon full of Chelsea song and football-style rowdiness. One fan collapsed on reaching the final step, overcome with alcohol. Some younger lads could hardly stand. I made my way to our seats – black in this visitors’ quadrant, as opposed to old gold elsewhere – and I loved the view. A new perspective on Molineux. Many other away regulars had chosen seats in this section too. I noted that the Steve Bull Stand was so far from the pitch, but Molineux remains a neat stadium. We watched the sun disappear to our right and the air chilled.

Antonio Conte had chosen a relatively experienced team; our attacking options did not lack any punch. There was all change in the back three though, with the manager choosing John Terry, Kurt Zouma and Nathan Ake.

Begovic, Moses, Zouma, Terry, Ake, Pedro, Chalobah, Fabregas, Willian, Costa, Hazard.

Happy with that.

I liked the wordplay of the slogan on the balcony of the Stan Cullis Stand :

“This is our love and it knows no division.”

From Champions to the depths of Division Four, Wolves have seen it all.

The stadium took a while to fill, but with a few minutes to kick-off, the place was packed. Although Wolves play to gates of around 18,000 to 24,000 for most league gamers, this one would be a 30,000 capacity. Wolves used to play “Fanfare For The Common Man” before the teams entered the pitch, but we were treated – oddly – to “The Wonder Of You.” More than a few Chelsea fans joined in. That drink again. As the teams appeared, the PA played the customary “Hi Ho Silver Lining” and the place roared.

“And it’s hi ho – Wolverhampton.”

Soon in to the game, the Wolves fans to our right bellowed “The North Bank!” and it sounded like something from another era. The home fans were the first to be treated to a chance on goal when a loose header from Kurt Zouma allowed the unmarked George Saville a shot on goal. I sucked in some cold air and expected sure disappointment. Thankfully, his firm strike hit a post. The danger was still there, but again thankfully Andreas Weinmann ballooned over.

Just after, a fantastic pass from Fabregas found Willian in a central position, but he took a little too long to control the ball, and the chance was wasted. I sensed that Victor Moses had the beating of his opposing defender; an ugly tackle was clear evidence that he was a threat. Eden Hazard, despite plenty of willing support from the overlapping Pedro, was quiet. Nathan Ake oozed class and was easily the best of the three at the back. Kurt Zouma still looks so stiff. He did enjoy one “balls out” run deep in to the Wolves half though and – it reminded me of those barnstorming runs that Michael Duberry used to love. I have a feeling that King Kurt will one day score an absolute screamer following a typical run.

One fan in the Steve Bull Stand was clearly enjoying his five minutes of fame; he was spotted gesticulating to the away hordes, and he was soon singled-out.

“Who’s the wanker in the pink?”

(For those who remember, this is a famous chant from 1983 – even mentioned in “The Football Factory” by John King if memory serves – when the pastel-clad casuals from Portsmouth’s 6.57 arrived en masse on our North Terrace and one similarly-attired lad was picked out by the scallywags on The Benches. I know because I was one of them.)

Wolves were carving out occasional chances and Begovic saved low from Helder Costa (hair c. 1991). There were certainly grumbles throughout the first-half. I can only really remember another effort on goal; a cross from Moses was unable to be tucked in by the quiet Diego Costa. Wolves must have been annoyed as hell that their slight dominance did not result in a goal. But I was so confident that we had enough quality in our ranks to be victorious. What we did not want, almost as much as a defeat, was a horrible replay. But ours was a very patchy performance and we needed Antonio to fire up the troops.

There was another “hi ho – Wolverhampton” and the second-half began.

With Chelsea attacking our stand, things began to brighten. There were speculative efforts from Zouma and Pedro and then Diego carved out a fine chance for himself but his strong shot hit the side netting. On sixty-five minutes, we were warmed by an excellent move involving Cesc, Diego, Hazard and then Willian. As he paused momentarily, I spotted Pedro racing in at the far post and I hoped that Willian had seen him too.

No need to worry; an inch-perfect cross was sent over to the far post and The Hummingbird jumped, hovered in mid-air, and headed home. There was an enormous roar and soon the away end was covered in a blue sulphurous haze of a flare – the second of the day, how 1994. Wolves tried their best to mount a counter but rarely threatened again and the home atmosphere died. In one surprisingly dramatic race, we watched as John Terry just about reached a through-ball a mere  nano-second ahead of an attacker.

Phew.

The away fans were now in good voice. This was much better. There were songs of Wembley.

Antonio made three late substitutions involving Dave, Kante (all Wolves fans : “ah, bollocks”) and Loftus-Cheek.

We enjoyed a few more chances; Willian slipped while inside the box, Fabregas shot wide and Zouma went close with a header.

In the final minute, a loose ball was slammed home inside the box by Diego Costa.

“Get in, game over.”

Into the last eight we went.

The temperature had greatly-dropped in the second-half, but after the tundra of Turf Moor, this was no real issue. There was a rare event of a police escort back in to the town centre. Such must be the problems in keeping home and away fans separated in Wolverhampton. The police were out in force and the “Yam Yam’s” day was over.

On the drive home, we wondered about the draw for the quarters, while looking ahead to the league game against Swansea City next Saturday.

It had been a fine day in the Black Country.

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Tales From 1986 And 2017.

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 4 January 2017.

What a huge game. Tottenham Hotspur, under-achieving thus far this season but recently hitting a good run of form and intent on enacting a massive revenge on a Chelsea team that, in addition to ending their title hopes in May, always seem to have the upper hand over their North London rivals. And then there was the side issue of Chelsea’s thirteen consecutive wins being extended by one all-important game.

They seriously do not get much bigger than this one.

Throughout the day at work, I kept thinking – and saying to others – “it should be a cracking game.”

PD drove for a change and we were parked up at Barons Court in good time. We caught the Piccadilly and Central lines to Liverpool Street where we met up with a rum assortment of Chelsea loyalists in The Railway Tavern at about 6.15pm. Time for a single pint. It was unsurprisingly boisterous and loud. We ended up catching the 7pm train up to White Hart Lane, along with two hundred other Chelsea fans, and the thirty-minute ride north was full of singing and bouncing. There were police accompanying us, how ‘eighties. Chelsea fans have a bad reputation for travelling on trains, but the banter and songs were light-hearted and benign.

Getting out of White Hart Lane station seemed to take forever. At the bottom of the steps were more police, with some on horseback. This again had the feel of a game from the distant past. The streets around the Tottenham High Road were dark, and the atmosphere was dark, too. The new Tottenham stadium, being built just a few hundred yards to the north of the current ground, is now starting to take shape, and there has been considerable progress since my visit last season. Cranes and huge blocks of concrete dominated our walk before the familiar West Stand came in to view. The clip-clop of horses’ hooves was joined by loud and random shouts of “Yids” from the Tottenham fans walking alongside me. The four of us – PD, Parky, Young Jake and myself – kept together, no stragglers. Ahead, we saw – and heard – the nearest we get to a battleground at away games these days. There is no aggro outside the away turnstiles at Anfield, Old Trafford, or other stadia, but at Tottenham there always seems to be an ugly edge. Tottenham fans turning right onto Park Lane are kept away from the away fans by a line of police and temporary barriers. There was pushing and shoving, bravado and gesturing, and the police were being tested. Shouts of “Yid Army” broke the London air. And then we spotted bottles and glasses being hoisted towards us. Jake, walking just behind me, was hit in the temple by a coin. No blood, keep moving. I shielded my eyes. I brushed past the security check and I was inside.

This could be my last-ever visit to the current White Hart Lane. Spurs aim to de-camp in to their new stadium for the 2018/2019 season. Dependent upon the timing of our game, our game against them could be at Wembley.

I always remember my first visit.

Chelsea were promoted to the old First Division in 1984, but I did not attend our first two games at Tottenham – a 1-1 draw in 1984 and a 4-1 defeat in 1985 – so my very first visit to the home of our old rivals was in September 1986. It was a game that I attended by myself, travelling up by train from Somerset, and I remember a long old walk from Seven Sisters, up the High Road, and – typical of me – getting to the ground way ahead of schedule at midday, allowing me to take a smattering of photographs outside the ground before kick-off. There were no frills at football in those days. Red brick, boarded windows, no colour, no spare money for gentrification.

My diary entry from that day talks of queuing up in the rain and getting in as early as 1.20pm. I guess it was pay-on-the day. I noted the opposite North Stand – the Paxton Road – being pretty empty, especially the terrace at the front. The Shelf was more populated. The main West Stand too. Needless to say, our end was packed. I watched from the lower terraced area in the Park Lane. Usually, in those days, Chelsea would flood the seats behind that terrace too. I only knew a few Chelsea fans in those days and I spent the whole day by myself, not bumping into anyone, but just immersed in the whole atmosphere.

Just a simple relationship between my club and myself.

We went ahead after Wee Pat was fouled inside the box. New signing – and former Spurs midfielder – Micky Hazard slammed home the penalty. Just as we were singing “You Are My Chelsea” at full throttle, Pat worked the ball in for Hazard to slam home a second. Clive Allen – who would later have a cameo role at Chelsea in 1991/1992 – pulled a goal back from the spot. When Speedo put Kerry Dixon through, I lifted myself up on the crush barrier in front of me, and watched as he slotted the ball past Ray Clemence. It was a typical Kerry goal. I felt honoured to have witnessed our first league win at White Hart Lane since 1974.

In the final part of the game, we just sang and sang and sang.

“OMWTM.”

“Oh Chelsea we love you.”

And two songs which were typical of the time.

“We’ve got foreskins, we’ve got foreskins, you ain’t, you ain’t.”

“Tottenham boys, Tottenham boys, no pork pies or saveloys.”

The long walk back to Seven Sisters – no trouble, remarkably – was completed with a big bounce in my step.

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Chelsea 3.

You never forget your first time, eh?

The gate on that wet Saturday thirty-one years ago was just 28,202. I remember being disappointed, with the home turnout especially. We must have had 6,000 or 7,000 there. Which meant just 21,000 Spurs fans.

(For a sense of balance, the gate at Stamford Bridge for the return fixture, just before Christmas, was even worse : just 21,576. Sigh. This match has turned out to be the last game that I saw Spurs beat us at Stamford Bridge.)

We were inside with ten minutes to spare. Unlike in 1986, I bumped into many friends, possibly too many to remember. I noted an absurd over-abundance of Aquascutum scarves. Again, how ‘eighties. I love them though; I have one myself. I also had one in 1986, before it was stolen at Milano Centrale station a few years later. They are a terrace classic; the small check, the scarf wrapped around the face, just perfect.

White Hart Lane has retained its general shape since 1986. However, a large corner segment has been demolished, to allow for the new stadium, and has resulted in a reduced capacity of 31,500. Our away section was reduced to around 2,400 as a result.

As for our team, Antonio Conte made a couple of changes, with Nemanja Matic and Pedro returning. I was happy with the starting eleven.

Tottenham in white, navy, navy and Chelsea in royal, royal, white.

A blue and white battle.

Let’s go.

Eden Hazard was presented with the very first chance of the game, when Matic lofted a ball in to space for our Belgian wizard. He approached the goal at an angle, and we sighed as his low shot was scuffed wide of the far post.

Gary was not pleased : “He should’ve buried that.”

I defended Eden : “It was a tough angle, Gal.”

We had a reasonable start, though further chances did not happen. Slowly, Tottenham gathered momentum. Whereas I had been quite positive of our play – “Cahil is playing well, Gal” – it quickly dawned on me that Spurs were playing better than us. Luiz was way off target from a free-kick. A venomous strike from Eriksen – Gary : “Fuck off, Tin Tin” – narrowly went wide. I thought it was in.

There was the usual to-and-fro from both sets of fans.

Tottenham : “WWYWYWS?”

Chelsea : “WE WON SIX-ONE AT THE LANE.”

That shut the fuckers up. They never bloody learn.

A new song, or two.

“Did you cry at Stamford Bridge?”

“You won the league in black and white” (although I used to hate it when Arsenal taunted us with this very same ditty.)

A wild shot from Diego Costa flew high and wide, possibly aimed at the Godzila-sized bite taken out of the north-east corner.

Spurs were definitely on top now. There were a few silly challenges by our players. We seemed to be slower in possession. We were exposed down our flanks. Courtois saved from Dier.

This was quiet for a London derby though. The early songs had died. It was shockingly quiet.

As the end of forty-five minutes was signalled, I just wanted us to reach the break and for Conte to galvanise his troops. Sadly, Tin Tin was allowed time to dink a ball in to our area. An unchallenged Dele Alli was able to rise and steer a header past Courtois.

FUCK.

We were a goal down just before the bloody break.

We were then treated to a full five minutes of Billy Ray Cyrus.

Shite song. Shite lyrics. Shite club.

Chas and Dave. Billy Ray Cyrus.

Fuck off.

I was positive at half-time, though, that we would be able to get a goal back. I’m always hopeful. To be honest, we began pretty well at the start of the second-period. There was a shot from Diego Costa, and then a rushed half-chance for Eden Hazard, who headed wide under pressure from a Spurs defender.

In the tenth minute of the second-half, there was further misery. Alonso made a mess of a challenge and the referee waved the advantage. Eriksen, out wide again, looped in another long cross. Alli at the far post, with a carbon copy of his first goal, made it 2-0.

It felt like that there was no way back now.

We didn’t step up our game.

Conte replaced Alonso – who had struggled – with Willian, with Pedro switching to a wing-back.

Fabregas – roundly booed by the home fans – for Kante.

The game continued on but with few further chances. To be quite honest, it wasn’t as if Tottenham had ripped us apart. Far from it. We just looked off the pace. The goal just before the break was a real killer.

Batshuayi for Moses.

Matic was as good as any on the night, breaking up play, patrolling the space, shuffling the ball on to others. But Eden was quiet, often coming ridiculously deep to retrieve the ball. Diego was often out wide. It was an altogether sub-Conte performance.

A fair few Chelsea left before the end. The final whistle was met with a roar from the home support, and we quickly left. Thankfully, there was no silliness outside. We were back on the train south within no time. A hot pasty on the forecourt at Liverpool Street helped warm us up. Back through London by tube, back to Barons Court, and a rapid return west on the M4.

So, the thirteen game run did not evolve into fourteen. The best team won on the night. It’s no big deal.

Our recent league record against Tottenham is still stupidly magnificent.

Won 29

Drew 20

Lost 5

I sincerely hope that we get to visit old White Hart Lane one more time. It would be apt that our last game there would result in a Chelsea win. However, I am bloody sure that Spurs’ fans would not agree.

I just don’t think they’d understand.

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Tales From Stratford.

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 26 October 2016.

There was no doubt about it; there was a definite edge to this one. All of the ingredients were there. A cup game under lights between two rival teams – and supporters – plus the added intrigue of our first-ever visit to a stadium which has been in the news all season. The football world has looked on from outside with bewilderment at the mess which has surrounded West Ham’s move to their new stadium. Not only has there been sporadic outbreaks of old-fashioned hooliganism outside the ground, but outbursts of fighting inside the stadium, between West Ham fans no less, too. Additionally, there has been a sense of alienation among the West Ham faithful at the awful atmosphere, and the poor sight-lines within the stadium. It has been, thus far, a tough move away from the intimate and well-loved Upton Park.

Usually I dread a mid-week away game at West Ham, but at least the drive was easy. I had collected the troops at 3.30pm and we were parked-up at Barons Court at 6pm. Until this season, the route to West Ham United would have involved staying on the District Line for over an hour, and a journey encompassing twenty-three tube stations. It is one of the most tedious train trips. On the last two visits, we have missed the kick-off due to congested traffic flow nearing the final stop.

I got the chaps to pose for a photograph, clutching the most sought-after away ticket of the season, outside Barons Court tube, and we then dived down the stairs to begin our journey to Stratford. We changed at Notting Hill Gate, and then sped along the Central Line.

We arrived at Stratford train station just before 7pm. This was a definite improvement on the painful schlep out to Upton Park. Strangely, I had spotted only one West Ham fan en route. The tube is usually full of them.

At Stratford, a quick handshake with Kenny and Rob who had evidently been on our train, and then a quick look to see which way we had to head. Outside into the mild London night and we followed the crowd, keeping close together. For a while we walked, I noted, in a diamond formation, with myself at the base, Parky and PD to my flanks and Glenn at the tip. It made me chuckle.

There was a certain boisterousness in the air. Occasionally, West Ham fans would bellow out “Irons!” and it sounded like a mating call.

Soon, we spotted the electric blue neon of the London Aquatic Centre, and then the lofty sculpture to its left – the oddly-named ArdelorMittal Orbit – which was glowing a deep red. Taking as a duo, it was a good enough effort to create a claret and blue welcome to West Ham’s new home. Beyond – quite a walk away by the look of it – was the illuminated London Stadium, a dash of white on the horizon.

Thus far, there was no trouble.

At Upton Park, it eventually became an easy away ground to negotiate ever since they moved away fans from the South Bank to the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand. Out of Upton Park tube, past the market, past the Queens pub, then over the road and through some Chelsea-only side streets, with plenty of police on hand in case there was ever any trouble. There never was.

Here, in Stratford, at the site of the 2012 Olympics, everything was vastly different. For one thing, we were in unfamiliar territory. And it was night time.

But to be fair, this was easy. There was no trouble, no mobs, no nonsense.

I spotted Jonesy, and caught him up. He had a different tale to tell. A few of them had been quietly drinking in a West Ham pub, maybe half-a-mile away, and had witnessed a mob of West Ham attacking the Old Bill.

We walked on.

“Irons!”

We approached the stadium, walking underneath the twisted metal of the Orbit statue, then past a long line of punters at the match-day ticket office. A friend, Maggie, grabbed me by the hand and said “nice to see someone we know – nobody is wearing colours” and she was right. As we veered towards the security check outside entrance D, it dawned on me that nobody was wearing colours; no Chelsea scarves, no Chelsea shirts, no Chelsea jackets, no Chelsea caps, no Chelsea hats. It was hardly surprising.

I hadn’t seen many home fans wearing too much other.

It had only taken us twenty minutes to reach the away end from Stratford.

Inside the packed concourse, there were Chelsea songs at last.

PD and Glenn shot off to their seats in the very front row of the lower block 119, whereas His Lordship and myself ascended to midway back in the upper tier 218.

And here was my real problem with West Ham’s new stadium. In truth, I was never a fan of the aesthetics of the former Olympic Stadium – quite bland, quite dull – but as it became apparent that the oft-quoted “football refit” had resulted in away fans being split in two tiers, it did not take me long to tell friends that I had spotted a problem.

The bottom tier seemed to be ridiculously isolated from the upper tier. Surely there would be a segregation issue here, especially since there would be home fans sharing the lower tier too. And then as the season began, we heard rumours that segregation inside the stadium – surprise, surprise – was a major problem. And wait – there’s even more. Police were not patrolling the inside of the stadium due to radio communication issues.

In my mind, right from the off, surely it would have been better to allocate away fans with a single block of tickets in a thoroughly-segregated upper tier, which is what happens at Sunderland and Newcastle. This would keep all away fans together in an area which would be easier to marshal.

I mentioned this, but with more succinctness and with many more swear words, to Jason who was two rows in front. He agreed.

I looked around.

Lots of empty seats. Such a wide open stadium. Not a football stadium.

“Thank heavens we don’t play here.”

The empty seats never did fill up as kick-off approached. There would be around ten thousand empty seats on the night. Conversely, I did not spot a single empty seat in our 5,200 allocation, which was probably split something like 1,700 downstairs and 3,500 upstairs.

We hadn’t spoken too much about the actual game on the drive up. We had heard that Michy Batshuayi and John Terry were playing. We wondered if John would play centrally in the back three.

Antonio Conte had mixed youth and experience. It was a typical Chelsea approach to the early rounds of League Cup football.

Asmir Begovic.

David Luiz – John Terry – Gary Cahill.

Cesar Azpilicueta – N’Golo Kante – Nathaniel Chalobah – Ola Aina.

Willian – Michy Batshuayi – Oscar.

The PA pumped “Bubbles” before the teams came out and then faded at the “fortunes always hiding” line to allow the home fans their big moment. It was loud, I’ll given them that.

The teams entered the pitch. The Chelsea fans were in good voice. The scene was set.

I did note that the manager had jettisoned his usual neat black suit for blue Chelsea gear.

I guess nobody had bothered to tell him the dress code for the night –

“No club colours.”

He was casual, but not in the way that some of our away support was; I just hoped his approach to the match wasn’t casual either.

The PA then repeated “Bubbles” again just before the kick-off and I groaned; nothing like overdoing it, eh?

I had a quick thought blitz through my mind.

“A sterile stadium and manufactured atmosphere. I hate modern football.”

I simply could not believe how far the directors’ box was from even the nearest touchline; it must’ve been fifty yards. The subs and management team were a good thirty yards from the same touchline. It is no wonder that Conte and Bilic stood in their respective technical areas all evening.

We began well to be honest, moving the ball around well. We had a couple of chances. First from John Terry at the near post and then from a Kante shot.

The mood in the away sections would soon change.

West Ham won a corner down below us – OK, some thirty yards away – and the cross was headed away, but only as far as Mark Noble out on the West Ham left. His cross was played in with pace and was met unchallenged by a perfectly-timed leap and header from Cheikhou Kouyate. The ball screamed past Begovic.

With this, the home areas boomed. The West Ham players gleefully celebrated at the near corner flag, and we were met with quote a surreal scene as both sets of fans goaded each other – separated by fifteen feet of open space – while bubbles from a machine drifted around in the background.

The West Ham fans to my left in the upper tier then began antagonising us and I tried my best to ignore them.

We reminded them of the poor show from them :

“They’re here, they’re there, they’re every fackin’where, empty seats, empty seats.”

They responded with the oh-so tiresome “WWYWYWS?”

The banter was flying now and our “You’ve won fuck all” soon morphed into a new Chelsea song –

“WE’VE WON IT ALL.”

And so we had.

Ha.

On the pitch West Ham then dominated the rest of the first-half. Our goal lived a rather charmed life as Michail Antonio drilled a shot wide. Manuel Lanzini then misfired on the half-hour mark.

John Terry was grimly exposed for pace when one-on-one with a West Ham attacker and it was horrible to see. Elsewhere, Oscar was especially poor, quick to pull out of tackles and awful in possession. Aina and Chalobah did their best but were not aided by the more experienced players on show. Kante was not at his best. Batshuayi did not get the early ball, nor the late ball for that matter; his service was poor. At the back, we looked nervous. It was a pretty grim story all round. Thank heavens for the excellent Begovic between the posts who kept us in it with a few fine saves and blocks.

In the closing moments of a dire half, Oscar found Batshuayi inside the box. From around one-hundred and fifty yards away, it looked an easy chance. But from twenty yards, it proved otherwise. Batshuayi shot high and over the bar.

Ugh.

At half-time we expected changes.

“And please – no extra time and penalties.”

I needed to be up at 6am on Thursday and, with penalties, I would not get home much before 3am.

Another “ugh.”

We heard from a chap from Gloucester that a Chelsea crowd of around three hundred had been the victims of Police kettling outside the stadium, at the bottom of the steps leading to the away turnstiles, for a full thirty minutes, thus missing most of the first-half. I have no idea why.

There seemed to be a strange atmosphere surrounding the game all night.

The second-half began and within just three minutes of the re-start, we were groaning again. Begovic saved from Payet, but the ball broke to Edmilson Fernandes who drilled the ball back and into the net.

2-0, bollocks.

More goading from the home fans to my left.

I had hoped that Conte would pair Batshuayi with Costa upfront, but instead our young striker was just replaced.

Hazard came on for Chalobah, Pedro for Aina.

It amazed me that Oscar had remained on the pitch.

There was a good chance for Willian, inside the box, but his shot narrowly missed the far post.

We built up a little head of steam, but we were plainly not “on it.”

Two consecutive corners from Willian failed to clear the first man.

Hazard and Diego fluffed good chances.

This was hurting.

There was still no end of aggressive pointing and gesturing from the West Ham fans to my left. One fan in front of me, clearly drunk, was annoying the fuck out of me with his solitary and boorish goading of the home fans, which involved the monotone singing, ad infinitum of “where were you at Upton Park?”

Ugh.

“And only four hours sleep if I am lucky.”

John Terry headed wide, a penalty claim on Eden Hazard was not given. With ten minutes to go, many Chelsea fans headed for the exits. There was talk of us being given an escort (how ‘eighties) back to the wonderfully-named Pudding Mill Lane, and so I wondered if the early-leavers would be allowed to leave the stadium.

And then the madness started.

The walkway behind the seating area of the lower tier became the subject of everybody’s attention. It appeared that objects were being thrown from both sides of the seated area, which then instigated a rush towards the stewards guarding the small wall of segregation behind the seated area. From memory, I thought that the West Ham fans were the instigators but “I would say that wouldn’t I?”

Fans from the upper tier moved downstairs. I noticed how fans could easily rush towards the problem area along unguarded alleyways connecting the lower tier seats to the concourse below us. It was an ugly scene. The stewards were in the brunt of it, though few punches were thrown. Many had vacated the lower seats, but were replaced by others who evidently wanted to join in the antagonism. The flashpoint was still the walkway behind the lower tier of seats; there was a mesh of segregation between the fans in the lower level which remained virtually intact the entire time.

My pre-match thoughts about the new stadium were being proved right; there was just too much space to monitor, too much shared-space, and not enough segregation. At last, as a token gesture, a few police arrived on the scene, woefully late, and apparently without much direction or idea.

Gary Cahill knocked a goal in, if anyone cared, and I had this sudden thought.

“Bloody hell, if we score an equaliser, another thirty minutes of this will be a nightmare.”

Was I surprised that there was this nasty outbreak of civil disobedience?

Not at all.

For an element among both sets of fans, this night was – sadly – always going to be more than about the football. The throwing of objects – plastic bottles, seats, even coins – was sheer stupidity. It has no place in football.

At the end, I was glad to hear the final whistle so I could go home and get some sleep.

We all met up downstairs in the concourse.

Outside, bizarrely, there was an overkill of police waiting for the Chelsea fans. They were all lined up, geared up too, and told us to head to Pudding Mill Lane. I thought like saying “where were you lot inside the bloody stadium?”

On the quick walk to the station, I turned around and expected to see hundreds of Chelsea fans behind me. There were hardly any. I had a chuckle to myself.

The others had obviously avoided the escort and had decided to run the gauntlet – for better, for worse – back to Stratford.

The four of us met up with a few old friends and were soon away, catching the Docklands Light Railway train to Poplar, where we stopped momentarily beneath the towering masses of the towers at Canary Wharf, before heading back to normality and west London.

We chatted to a couple of lads who were among the thousands who had returned via Stratford. There had been outbreaks and scuffles all the way back.

“All of a sudden – course you don’t know who is who – we found ourselves among the West Ham lot, so we drifted off, and lost them.”

We spoke about the game. The euphoria of Sunday had dissipated by the time we all reached Earl’s Court. There was talk that Conte should have played a stronger team, yet there is always a call that we don’t play the youngsters. It is a tough balancing act.

“Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.”

The real problem has been that good players such as Chalobah and Aina have been played so sparingly by Mourinho and Hiddink in the past, that a potentially strong squad on paper includes many youngsters who are simply not experienced enough.

It is time that we give these youngsters more games, not less.

At the moment our signing of young players, and then putting them out on loan, or not playing them in the first team at all, is akin to stockpiling carrier bags, stuffing them in the drawer beneath the sink, then forgetting that they are there, and yet still paying money for new ones.

It is a mania that has to stop.

It had been a strange evening. We felt sure that West Ham would be fined for the problems with crowd segregation. In fact, we found it difficult to comprehend that a safety certificate had been awarded to the stadium at all. Already, some Chelsea fans were saying that they would never return. I will be back later this season, but it is a stadium that does not thrill me. I can completely understand the West Ham support’s displeasure at the sterile structure, so unbefitting of football. I am just so relieved that our stadium redevelopment involves more intimacy and more consideration towards those things that we hold dear.

On Sunday, it’s back to league football. See you there.

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Tales From A Heavy Loss And A Heavy Win.

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 2 April 2016.

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I sometimes wonder what on Earth I am going to find to write about in these match reports, which now number over four hundred. What story? What angle? What back-story? With an upcoming game at Villa Park coming up, after a two-week break, I began thinking about possible subject matter. I was tempted to head off on a tangent and rant about my growing dissatisfaction with the way that certain parts of the football world is headed. I thought about several options. I was going to quote a few words from the recent edition of “When Saturday Comes” about the sense of a shared footballing history that people of my generation have, but does not seem to be prevalent today. And then, late on Wednesday evening, I spotted something on “Facebook” that turned my thought-processes upside down. I read that Ian Britton, one of my favourite all-time players – who I knew was battling prostate cancer – was in a poor way. The next few words struck me down.

“He’s not got very long.”

Oh my. How very sad. Thoughts whirled around in my head, and I must admit that there were a few tears. I braced myself for some imminently sadder news.

The very next day, the last day of March, we all learned that Ian Britton had passed away.

As we all get older, and as we all advance in years, it is an unavoidable truth that more of our idols, our peers, our friends, our close family members will pass.

In my time as a Chelsea supporter, I can remember the sadness of the Matthew Harding tragedy in October 1996 and the sudden death of Peter Osgood in March 2006. Of course, other players – and just as importantly fellow fans – have passed away too. It was only in November that we lost Tom, who sat next to us from 1997.

But the sadness that I felt on hearing that Ian Britton had died was as deep as any Chelsea loss. This one felt very personal. It hit me sideways.

It brought back memories of my childhood, when I was Chelsea daft, and doted on players. They were my absolute idols and my heroes. I can remember the very first time that Ian Britton came in to my consciousness. During the 1973/1974 season, I used to get “Shoot!” magazine and would always hope that there would be Chelsea players featured. One week, there was an article about two young Scottish youngsters – Ian Britton of Chelsea and Jim Cannon of Crystal Palace – finding their feet in the English game. I cut the article out and stuck it with drawing pins on the wall beside my bed, along with other Chelsea photographs. There was something about the photograph of the cheeky grin of the nineteen-year-old from Dundee that struck a chord. Those early recollections are slightly hazy. Ian’s debut had been against Derby County in December 1972, and although I have recently seen footage from that game, which involved a sparkling goal from Peter Osgood and a horrific miss from Derby’s Roger Davies, which I can remember, I have no recollection of Ian Britton’s substitute appearance.

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

In truth, it took me a while for Ian Britton to become a common name. The fact of the matter is that in those days, my only exposure to Chelsea Football Club was via rare highlights on TV – when Ian would not always appear – and magazines such as “Shoot!” In my grandparents’ “Sunday Express” not every Chelsea game was featured since we ended up with the West of England edition, focussing on the Bristol teams and Plymouth Argyle.

Living in Somerset, I was in the Chelsea wilderness.

So, that “Shoot!” article proved totemic. As the 1972/1973 season gave way to the 1973/1974 season, I guess I became more and more aware of the young lad from Dundee, only five feet five inches tall, and with his trademark hair, and as my first Chelsea hero Peter Osgood departed early in 1974, I surely hoped that Ian Britton would play in my very first game in March 1974. Alas, he didn’t. At the start of the 1974/1975 season, Ian Britton was now my personal favourite. Again, he didn’t play in my next game against Tottenham, but I was very happy to see him play in my third-ever game against Derby County on a wet Saturday in March 1975.

Alas we lost 2-1, but I was excited to have seen my new favourite play.

The relegation team of 1974/1975 stalled in the Second Division in 1975/1976 but Ian was now a regular. I can remember being on holiday in Wareham, Dorset in August 1975 and being horrified to read on the back page of a Sunday tabloid that Manchester United were putting in a £600,000 joint bid for “starlets” Ray Wilkins and Ian Britton. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

In 1976/1977, Ian was a star as we took the Second Division by storm and gained promotion behind Wolves. I remember being upset – “gutted” in modern parlance – that Ian didn’t play in two of the three matches that I saw that season.

He was such an energetic and honest player. I loved his work rate and his attitude. He played wide, and had a lovely pass. He scored his fair share of goals. He was always so neat and tidy. For such a small player, he scored a fair few headers. I remember how giddy I was hearing him speak – yeah, I know, we were all football daft at one stage – on “The Big Match”, answering questions from Brian Moore about an Achilles injury.

He played through another relegation, then starred in 1979/1980 as we came so close to automatic promotion. I was so thrilled to see Ian score a match winner against Orient in March of that season, watching in the East Lower alongside my parents.

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

As we became mired in the Second Division, other players caught my eye…Clive Walker, Mike Fillery…but Ian Britton was still a favourite. I last saw him play against Wrexham in October 1981. He left us in 1982 after 263 games in royal blue and signed for his childhood team – which I knew from that “Shoot” article in 1974 – of Dundee United. At that time, Dundee United had signed a few former Chelsea players – Peter Bonetti, Eamonn Bannon, Jim Docherty – and they became my Scottish team. While Chelsea were battling relegation to the old Third Division over Easter and then in to May of 1983, I was exhilarated to watch from afar as Dundee United won the Scottish Championship for the only time in their history.

It felt just right that Ian Britton had played a part. He played a couple of games for Arbroath, then played 106 games for Blackpool before finishing his career at Burnley, playing 108 games. At Turf Moor, he became a Burnley legend.

In 1986/1987, the Football League decided to move on from the much derided voting system for admitting non-league teams in to the league, and on the final day of the season, Burnley – Football League Champions in 1960 – were facing the prospect of being the first club to be automatically relegated from the league. Ian Britton scored – with a header – as Burnley overcame promotion hopefuls Orient. Burnley went 2-0 up with his goal, but let Orient back in at 2-1. History books will show that it was Ian Britton’s goal which kept Burnley safe.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2sQG_f1fLU

I can well remember seeing a huge photograph of Ian Britton from that game in 1987 as part of a mural on the main stand as I visited Turf Moor for the very first time in 2010. During that game, Ian made the half-time draw and he waved over to us, with that endearing cheeky smile of his. We responded with a chant from the ‘seventies –

“Ian – Ian Britton – Ian Britton on the wing.”

Later in 2010, I travelled down to Eastleigh with my mother to watch a Southampton Old Boys team take on the Chelsea Old Boys. Not only did I see Ian Britton play one last time, I also got to meet him for the very first time in the bar afterwards, and I do not mind admitting that I was uncomfortably giddy – for a forty-four-year-old man – as I chatted to Ian for a few moments. It was one of my Chelsea highlights. I found him to be very friendly and I really appreciated that he called me “Chris.” It meant a lot. That he was so personable. It was a lovely memory to take away from that day. I mentioned Dundee United. It was a lovely few moments.

As the sad news swept around the Chelsea family on Thursday and Friday, one thing became clear.

Nobody ever had a bad word to say about Ian Britton.

I made a vow to try to attend his funeral, even if it would mean that I would only stand outside the church or crematorium. These players – these special players, these special people – touch our lives in ways that people outside the football world can only vaguely understand.

So, with all of this Burnley claret and blue flowing around in my thoughts, I drove to Villa Park and was met with more of the same.

There was not a great deal of enthusiasm for this game with the doomed Villains. As Parky and Young Jake – his first game this year, his first trip to Villa Park – dropped in to the Witton Arms, I had decided upon a different pre-match. I have been visiting Villa Park since my first game in 1986, but for some reason I had yet to take a look at the nearby seventeenth century Aston Hall, which sits on a small hill overlooking Villa Park, and is but a ten-minute walk away. With Aston Villa’s future looking rather bleak, I wondered if this would be my last visit for a few seasons. It was high-time I paid a visit, however fleeting.

Whereas it might be debated about Aston Villa being a big club, despite their rich history, there is no doubt that Villa Park is a grand dame of English football stadia. There is red brick everywhere at Villa Park. On the walk to the away turnstiles on Witton Lane, I passed an old tramway shed, with another red brick building opposite. As I walked past the bleak concrete of the North Stand – which housed our support in the 2002 semi against Fulham – I was struck with how much room Villa have behind that goal. Should they ever wish to expand, unlikely at the moment, they could build a huge stand at that end, perhaps mirroring the huge Holte End to the south. When it was built, the Villa North Stand was the latest in modernity with its darkened executive boxes. At the time of my first visit, Villa Park was a very piecemeal stadium. The low Witton Lane, the huge Holte End terrace, the classic and ornate Trinity Road, the ultra-modern North Stand. Since then, all three stands have been altered and the North Stand is now the antique. Although there was an outcry from Villa fans when the unique Trinity Stand was bulldozed, at least Villa have kept the red-brick motif in the new builds.

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Back in 1991, when this photograph was taken, who new how the Taylor Report would systematically change how people thought about new stadia? Out with terraces, in with seats and executive areas. The charming Trinity Road entrance did not stand a chance.

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Ah, 1991. This was our last game of the season and I had traveled up by train for the game. It was memorable for being Bobby Campbell’s last game in charge. It had been another season of underachievement but the Chelsea hordes were going to make a day of it. I took my position in on the terraces, which had been recently seated. I remember seeing white socks again for the first time in six long years and hoping that this would be repeated in 1991/1992. The old Trinity Road Stand – with those lovely curved balconies – really was a treasure.

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At the end of the game, which we drew 2-2, a few Villa rapscallions raced on to the pitch, but Chelsea – there in huge numbers – soon chased them off. At the height of the rave culture, the pitch was awash with baggy Joe Bloggs jeans, Chipie sweatshirts, baggy pullovers and Umbro Chelsea shirts. Bobby Campbell, ironically I felt, was chaired off. It was a crazy day.

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The entrance to the Holte End brought back memories of our 1996 semi-final against United, when the Chelsea fans descended on Villa Park with balloons and banners and – in fact – I had not visited this south side of the stadium since. The steps, the stained-glass windows and the gables bow their heads in a nod towards the old Trinity Road stand.

Up the hill, and outside Aston Hall – a lovely structure built between 1618 and 1635 – I was able to take it all in. It really was a fine view, a gracious Villa vista. Aston Hall is constructed of red brick too. Everything blends in so well. I will no doubt be taking an increasing interest in various types of bricks over the next few seasons, on visiting stadia near and far, since our new proposed stadium is said to be using particular London brick – various shades, but generally a warm yellow – on all of its outside surfaces. I could not help notice that I have been approaching mighty Villa Park from completely the wrong direction in all of these years. For ease of access to the M5, I park to the north and head in past terraced streets and shops. It’s all rather tawdry. From the south, however, with Aston Hall and its pleasant park to the left, and with the Edwardian splendour of the large Holte pub ahead, Villa Park looks fearsome and yet aesthetically pleasing at the same time. It is just a shame that acres of ugly grey cladding blot the stand roofs.

But I think the new Stamford Bridge will be fine. No cladding there.

I sorted out some tickets outside the away turnstiles. As kick-off approached, I spotted Peter Bonetti over the road, looking good at seventy-four bless him. The troops arrived and we ascended the steps.

Last season, I missed our narrow win at Villa Park as my mother had been taken ill that morning. There was an air of melancholy inside me. There were haunting thoughts of that particular day. I remembered how my mother’s father had a soft spot for Villa, though I am sure that he had never visited Villa Park.

Villa Park was hardly half-full. Sure, we had sold our three thousand tickets, but elsewhere there were thousands of claret and sky blue seats clearly visible. I know their team are going through a really rough spell, mismanaged from board level down, but even so. The poor crowd really shocked me. I am sure that the advertised gate of 31,120 included thousands of “no shows.”

Guus Hiddink, I am sure, surprised many with his team selection. At last the kids, were being given their chance to shine. A Chelsea debut was given to the American Matt Miazga. I envisioned the Chelsea chatter boards among the various supporter groups in the US going into meltdown.

“Awesome” – Nate, New Jersey.

“Awesome” – Ian, Idaho.

“Awesome” – Calvin, California.

“Way To Go” – Grant, Georgia.

“Awesome” – Micky, Minnesota.”

“Awesome” – Phil, Pennsylvania.

“Awesome” – Bubba, ‘Bama.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Miazga, Baba – Mikel, Fabregas – Pedro, Loftus-Cheek, Kenedy – Remy.

Scott Sinclair did not even make the Villa starting eleven. What a waste of a once promising career. I wonder if I will eventually see him playing alongside his brother Jake for my local team Frome Town.

The morning rain had stopped and the pitch was soon bathed in sunshine. Villa, heaven knows how, tested Thibaut with a few efforts, but we soon got in to a groove. Pedro, looking our liveliest player, tested Guzan then was offside soon after.

An injured Loic Remy was substituted by the forgotten man Alexandre Pato. The appearance of the Brazilian instilled a little life into the rather subdued Chelsea support. There was a little ironic cheering. I was just intrigued to see what he had to give the team.

Soon after, a lovely move gave us the lead; Mikel kept possession well and released Azpilicueta, who played in Loftus-Cheek. His low shot swept pass Guzan. Mikel’s fine play soon warranted his own chant from the travelling hordes.

A bizarre chance for Villa next, when Courtois saved from Gill, and then again as the ball bounced back off Ayew. Villa then kept their momentum going, but our defence coped well, with Miazga only rarely out of position. Baba drove in on goal but shot weakly. Kenedy promised much but, like Pedro at times, chose to either hang on to the ball or slipped on the wet surface.

Pato was bundled to the ground and the referee had no option but to give us a penalty.

Fair play to Pato for having the balls to step up and take it. His strong shot evaded the ‘keeper’s dive. He looked overjoyed as he ran away, jumping in the air in front of the half-empty Holte End.

The Chelsea support had an easy response to this :

“We were there when Pato scored.”

Awesome.

At the break, Oscar replaced Kenedy. We soon broke down the Villa left and Pato played in Oscar, who slid the ball to Pedro. It was a very fine goal. Gary remarked to Alan that it was very similar to Frank’s record breaker in 2013.

Villa, it has to be said, were bloody awful by now. They were demoralised and pathetic.

Their fans, those in the stadium, seemed to be a mixture of anger and disconsolation. Throughout, they bellowed “Villa Till I Die” – almost as if they were warming up for The Championship, since it is a proper Championship song, bellowed by the likes of Barnsley and Derby and Forest for years – and the Chelsea fans, to my surprise to be honest, applauded them.

Alan wondered if there would be a protest.

“Maybe they will stage a walk-in on seventy minutes.”

Ha.

Joleon Lescott was the target for much of the Villa fans’ ire, in light of a horrible piece of gloating a while back.

“Joleon Lescott – he’s got a new car.”

I piped up –

“Joleon Lescott – he wants a new face.”

Pato forced a save from Guzan, but Pedro slotted home from the tightest of angles. His kung-fu kick on the corner flag showed how excited he was. Who says our players do not care?

4-0 and I hoped for more. There was still half an hour to go.

The Chelsea crowd bellowed “catch the ball” to Courtois after he flapped at a high ball and I noted a rising air of disquiet among our ranks about our young ‘keeper’s attentiveness. I have noticed it too, of late. Too often he seems to resemble a fielder at third man, idling by his time thinking about tea, rather than being on his toes in the slips.

This was becoming an odd game though. Villa were so poor. And rather than push on, we seemed to be happy to play within ourselves. Another debutant, Jake Clarke-Salter, came on for Baba, who was pushed forward. He went close as the game dragged on.

Villa fans held up small placards with the words “Proud History, What Future?” but they honestly looked like white flags.

Alan Hutton was dismissed for a second yellow.

It was not Villa’s day or season.

Miazga had looked competent all game and Pato showed a neatness which I found gratifying. Elsewhere, Loftus-Cheek put in a sound performance. And Pedro too.

As I drove away, I didn’t take too much comfort in our win. A four goal triumph surely should have elicited greater joy?

No. It was only Villa.

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Tales From Albert Dock And Gwladys Street.

Everton vs. Chelsea : 12 March 2016.

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It seems to be all about away games at the moment. Whereas home matches at an increasingly sterile Stamford Bridge are continuing to lose their appeal, trips to various away stadia still manage to thrill me. After trips to Southampton and Norwich, here was another classic Chelsea Away Day. Our FA Cup Quarter Final against Everton had all the hallmarks of a very memorable day out in support of The Great Unpredictables.

There was an invading army of six thousand and we were planning on making a day of it.

I collected the usual suspects; first PD, then Glenn, then Parky.

The Fab Four were heading to Merseyside in The Chuckle Bus.

“All aboard.”

As we headed north, the weather was magnificent – blue skies – and the day stretched out in front of us, expectant with moments to treasure.

We were loving the buzz of it all.

“Happy days, boys.”

Six thousand supporters. It was some number, yet there would be similarly large away supports at Old Trafford and The Emirates on Sunday too. Whereas league allocations are always locked at 3,000, at least domestic cup games can evoke times past when away supporters would often travel up to 10,000 strong for league games. For this, I am grateful for the FA Cup. There is nothing better than being in a strange town, and being able to support the club in such numbers.

At Chelsea, we love the FA Cup.

Although my ticket was marked £35, Everton had taken the decision to only charge Chelsea £30 for season ticket holders, to mirror the price they had charged their own season ticket holders; a fine gesture. Additionally, Chelsea had taken an additional £10 off all tickets. My ticket therefore only worked out at £20 plus a £1.50 booking fee.

£21.50 for a Cup quarter final.

Superb.

Of course, there has been a lot of talk in the media about the £30 cap on away tickets to be phased in over the next few seasons. This has been met with unilateral approval; without a substantial number of away fans acting as a catalyst to generate noise from home fans, the atmosphere at games in 2016 would be dead. Although the Football Supporters’ Federation has been campaigning for a few seasons for a “Twenty Is Plenty” limit, one wonders if the sight of ten thousand Liverpool supporters leaving en masse a month or so ago was the tipping point.

After Birmingham, the skies became full of cloud, but there was no rain, thankfully. As we continued to head further north, we replayed Parky’s mix of Northern Soul which served the four of us so well on the trip to Old Trafford just after Christmas.

One of the highlights this time was Judy Street’s “What.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmPb95SUZF0

Just before we passed over the Manchester Ship Canal, I commented to the boys that we had not seen a single Chelsea car, which surprised us all. Then, within a few minutes, my mate Andy passed us.

Onto the M62 and the excitement was rising.

A song from R. Dean Taylor : “A Ghost In My House.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jG700BojpH0

And one from the Just Brothers : “Sliced Tomatoes.”

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Music and football, music and football, music and football, repeat to fade…

I headed in to town, down the hill past the huge red brick cathedral, and I was parked-up at the Albert Dock at around 1.45pm.

This mirrored the pre-match that Parky and I enjoyed last season prior to our surreal 6-3 win at Goodison. We headed in for a drink at a very busy “Pan Am Bar”, as in 2014. It was crowded, and ridiculously warm. We spun out for a little walk around the Albert Dock, and I found out from Glenn that his grandfather – like my father – had undergone his RAF training at nearby West Kirby on The Wirral. Before our game at Goodison in 2012, Parky and myself had paid it a visit.

We then popped into “Vinea”, a wine bar overlooking the dock. This was all very pleasant. Our party was joined by Kev, down from Edinburgh for the day, and newly arrived from Lime Street.

I ordered pints of “Warsteiner” and awaited for the next guests to arrive.

My friend Kim, visiting from Florida, arrived with her friend Eddie, who – apart from being an avid football fan, like us all – plays guitar in China Crisis, a band who I loved back in the ‘eighties, and who still tour to this day. I saw China Crisis just after I came back from Tel Aviv in November. The song “African And White” had a certain resonance that night. It was a fantastic gig. Kim – who has been working with the band recently – introduced me to Eddie after, and it was a pleasure to see them both once more.

Fate and ridiculous coincidence seem to play an increasingly large role in my life these days. Before the home game with Arsenal in the autumn, I had flippantly thrown the phrase “flaunt the imperfection” into a conversation with my mate Daryl – I forget the context – and Daryl immediately knew that I was referencing a China Crisis album. For a few minutes, we chatted in The Goose beer garden about the band. I had three of their albums; I was a fan and so was Daryl. He had seen them years ago in London. Lo and behold, I briefly mentioned this in my match report a few days after. One or two weeks later, I was chatting to Kim, and I remembered that she had seen China Crisis in concert recently. I wondered if she had read my Arsenal match report and had spotted my brief comment about the band; she hadn’t so I decided to sent Kim the link. At this point, I was completely unaware that Kim was friends with the band. Imagine my surprise when Kim informed me that she was with Eddie at that very match.

Football and music, football and music, football and music.

For an hour, we were able to relax, old and new friends together, and talk about these two great passions of ours. Kim was especially keen to hear how the five of us had all met. Of course, Glenn and I go back to 1977. It’s a lifetime of friendship. I met PD on a train back from Cardiff City in 1984. I met Parky at work in 2000. I met Kev for the first time in Lisbon last season. Eddie, although a Liverpool a season ticket holder for thirty years – the old Kemlyn Road, now the Centenary Stand – was enjoying our tales of friendship and fandom. We spoke about games that we had both attended; the two games in 1986 at Stamford Bridge, Kerry getting injured in the FA Cup tie on a Sunday, then Kenny scoring the championship clincher in May. We spoke of ticket prices, the Liverpool protest on 77 minutes recently, and we occasionally spoke about the antipathy between the two sets of fans.

Eddie : “When did it really start?”

Chris : “That Luis Garcia game. That bloody song about history.”

Eddie : “To be fair, you’ve given it to us since then.”

He was at Heysel and Hillsborough, and he shared a few harrowing tales from those two days. Heysel distressed him so much, that he has not traveled in Europe with his team since. I told him about my friend Mario, Juventus, having a ticket, but not travelling to the game due to an overload of school work that week. Incredibly, Eddie told me that the very first time that he had heard about the deaths at Heysel was when he was back at the airport before catching a flight back to the USA. I found that staggering. These days, the news would be all around the world in seconds.

Eddie was particularly fearful of Everton, with new backers, enjoying an imminent period of dominance in the city. Despite our different allegiances, we were getting on fine.

“Another beer?”

There was limited talk about the upcoming game, though all of us were confident that we could prevail against a typically hot and cold Everton team, whose supporters were starting to turn against the manager Martinez. We were subconsciously dreaming of a Wembley semi-final.

But maybe that was just wishful drinking.

Kev and the boys were talking about further away games at Bournemouth and Liverpool. We might be having a poor season, but these away days are still to be treasured.

Eddie spoke to Parky, the Chuckle Bus’ resident DJ, about music, sampling, and a few other related topics. Somewhere over the hill, past Everton and Anfield and Stanley Park, a game of football would be taking place very soon, but we were enjoying the chance to be together and talk – and laugh, there is always laughter – about football.

I suppose that you could call it a “Crisis Meeting.”

Sadly, we had to move on. Kim and Eddie set off to hunt down a cab, before taking their places in the lower tier of the Bullens Road stand at Goodison in the Chelsea seats. I drove up the hill towards the cranes at Anfield and found a very convenient place to park.

Just £6.

This was indeed a cheap day out.

The walk towards Goodison brought back memories of my first couple of visits in 1986.

We arrived with about twenty minutes to kick-off. I was looking forward to be able to watch the game, for once, without being stuck in the corner, and usually behind the goal line.

By a strange quirk of fate, my seat in row P was directly in front of Glenn and PD. Things were decidedly cramped in the rear rows of the upper tier, with little leg room among the tight wooden seats. Not that anyone was sitting of course. Everyone among the six thousand strong travelling army of Chelsea supporters was standing. I suppose that the split was 60% / 40% with most in the lower tier below. We had heard that the club had decorated each of the 6,000 seats with a Chelsea scarf; a nice touch. And there they were, neatly draped over the seat-backs.

On one side “Chelsea FC” and on the other “Over Land And Sea.”

Maybe the club expected us to hold them aloft, “YNWA”-style, to wind up the Everton fans.

…mmm, that was never going to happen.

So, there we were, perched at the top of the antiquated Bullens Road stand, loathed by some but loved by me, almost on the halfway line, with the haphazard struts and supports of the TV gantry blocking our view of the grand old main stand opposite. Alan and Gary were in the same row, but a few seats along. Their trip to Goodison, on the club coach, was free in lieu of them arriving late at Norwich City last week. The six thousand Chelsea fans were in fine voice.

Away to my right, the classic and old-fashioned Gwladys Street Stand was packed full of Evertonians. I love the way that the Leitch balcony has been left alone, bare, with no advertisements, and no hindrances. I love the way that the stand bleeds into the Bullens Road.

As the teams entered the pitch, I couldn’t even hear the “Z Cars” theme tune.

This felt like a proper cup tie, a proper game of football, a proper football stadium.

What followed was a proper let down.

Our team looked good on paper. Hazard was out, but some would argue that might be a blessing. At least we had Diego Costa, recovered from the PSG game, to lead the line. If he was playing, we would always have a chance of scoring.

We were in all white and attacked the Gwladys Street in the first-half.

A shot from Tom Cleverley was easily claimed by Thibaut early on, and I wondered if that early shot might set the scene.

How wrong I was.

It was such a poor first-half and I can barely recall more than three efforts on the Everton goal. An early effort from Kenedy flew over the bar. There was a Willian effort, charged down by a defender before it had travelled more than a few yards, and there was a free-kick from the same player right at the end of the half, which Robles tipped over. Apart from those two efforts, it was a football desert. As I kept looking up at the BBC commentator – Guy Mowbray? – I wondered what on Earth he had to talk about. We enjoyed a fair amount of the ball, but just looked so bloody lethargic.

Amid all of this, tackles were being ignored on one hand by Oliver, then punished with little rhyme or reason. It was a niggly game of football. The support in the upper tier quietened a little. No doubt they were still roaring downstairs, but I could not hear them.

The most disappointing aspect for me was our lack of movement off the ball. It was so frustrating. I urged Pedro on.

“Come on Pedro, move.”

At that moment – he must have heard me – he spun away from his marker into space and Fabregas played in a lovely ball. Sadly, he overrun the ball and the move petered out.

Everton hardly caused us any real danger, despite Ross Barkley parading the central area with a fine touch. An errant header from Lukaku was the only effort of note.

It was dire.

I wondered what the watching millions at home were thinking.

After the half-time break, in which a racehorse was bizarrely paraded around the perimeter of the pitch – “and I thought I had a long face” – Everton began the brighter, with a Funes Mori header flying over from a corner. Gary Cahill, after his Parisian walkabout on Wednesday, tackled Lukaku in a danger area with superb timing and composure.

As the game continued, the support grew weaker. Everton were quiet too. The game needed a spark. I lost count of the number of times that Matic advanced, taking too many touches, before playing a safe ball square. I lost count of the number of times Pedro cut back on himself. Fabregas offered little. And Everton hardly shone. Lukaku, the threat, seemed to be well marshalled by our central pairing.

Just before the hour, at last a good ball from Cesc found Diego Costa, who did ever so well to hone in on goal, and although he was forced wide, he managed to get a shot in on goal from a ridiculously acute angle. We were sure he had scored. The ball slowly ran across the goal line, virtually all six yards of it, but did not cross the line.

Bollocks.

Oscar came on for a quiet Willian.

We still struggled to break through. A few crosses from Pedro were not met by any threat from our attacking players. Oh for a Drogba or a Dixon. Our unwillingness to shoot really gets me. It eats away at me. Why don’t we do it? Why are we so scared to put our laces through the ball and to cause chaos in opposition defences?

It was the substitute Oscar who tamely lost possession in our attacking third, and we then watched – aghast – as the ball was worked out to Lukaku. With a deceptive turn of pace, he swept inside past Azpilicueta, Mikel, Cahill, Ivanovic, Terry, Desailly, Pates, Harris, McLaughlin, Hinton, Dempsey, Carvalho, Droy, Clarke, Elliot, Thome, Hogh, Wicks, Duberry, Sinclair, Leboeuf and Alex to strike a fine shot past Courtois.

Ugh.

There were just over ten minutes left and we were heading out of the cup.

At last the Evertonians made some noise.

“And if you know your history.”

History. That word again.

Remy for Matic.

“Come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea.”

Four minutes later, with our defence flat footed and half-asleep, Barry played in that man Lukaku again, and his low shot thundered past Courtois.

2-0.

No way back now.

The Gwladys Street were bumping now, making absolutely tons of noise. Although I was silent, annoyed, hurt, I had to admit that it was an impressive sight.

Ugh.

Over on the far side, after a flare up, I saw Diego Costa nudge his head against an Everton player.

“Silly bastard.”

He had to go. A second yellow was waved towards Costa, quickly followed by a red.

A few Chelsea began to leave.

Barry then was yellow carded for a silly challenge on Fabregas and was sent off for this second caution.

The forlorn figure of John Terry replaced Kenedy and played upfront for the final eight minutes.

At the end of the game, only four or five Chelsea players had the balls to come over and thank the travelling away support for our efforts. John Terry looked close to tears. Fabregas and Azpilicueta looked dejected. I knew how they felt.

Whereas we had to hold our hands up on Wednesday against PSG and admit that the better team had won, this game was so much more damning. We hadn’t been up for the fight. Hardly any player did well. It was a tragedy. It was a mystery.

Out in the Liverpool night, we gathered together and slowly walked back to the waiting car. The Evertonians were singing a favourite from 1984 :

“Tell me ma, me ma, to put the champagne on ice, we’re going to Wembley twice, tell me ma, me ma.”

A few youths had an impromptu “set to” on the main road – one lad was punched to the floor – but it soon died down. We walked, slowly on. I found myself walking next to an elderly Evertonian couple – “I mean we’ve been coming here since 1959” – and I wished them well at Wembley.

“I hope you win it.”

This was met with smiles and a word of thanks.

The lady, all bobble hat and teeth, then amazed me :

“I thought it was a good game, like, both teams kept attacking, they didn’t sit back.”

Sometimes, I truly wonder if I watch the same game as others.

It was a poor game and we were a poor team.

We said our goodbyes to Kev, and then edged out of the terraced streets of Anfield.

We stopped oft for a pint in one pub and then a curry in an Indian restaurant, just outside the city, near the rugby league towns of St. Helens, Widnes and Warrington. We had the briefest of post mortems over poppadums, pickles and pints. Then, the long drive home. The first signpost on the approach road of the southbound M6 always puts a shudder in to me after an away game in Liverpool.

“Birmingham 96 miles” – not even bloody half way.

While others dozed, I listened to music, music, music.

The football could wait.

I reached home at 1.30am.

It had been a long day.

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Tales From A Shock To The System.

Chelsea vs. Bradford City : 24 January 2015.

After the Champions League group phase is completed in December, it always feels that the months of January and February are a relatively quiet period of the season before the games ramp up again later. However, this season does not fit this model, with our club active in all four trophies. Games are coming in rapid succession. Blink and you will miss them.

Sandwiched in between two games in the League Cup against Liverpool, came an F.A. Cup game against League One side Bradford City, who were making their first appearance in SW6 since the 2000-2001 Premiership campaign. The headline-making tie with Millwall was averted thanks to the Bantams’ fine 4-0 win in West Yorkshire and I – for one – was relieved. A Chelsea vs. Millwall cup tie might enthuse and excite a sizeable section of our fan base, but I was dreading such a tie, simply because there would undoubtedly be trouble – if not at the game, then in side streets and on train platforms – and the name of Chelsea Football Club would be besmirched once again. It just wouldn’t be worth the – pardon the pun – aggro.

Football hooliganism has played an integral role in the social history of our national game for decades. Although I – like many – get drawn almost subconsciously in to certain aspects of the subculture and I have always been intrigued by it, I have always remained an outsider, an observer, rather than wanting to actively participate in it. For ages, it was part of the game. Growing up as a child and then a teenager who attended games in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, there was no denying its brutal attraction. I can remember sitting, in the relative security of the East Lower, and watching untold scenes of violence at games against Tottenham, Cardiff City and Millwall. The noise and intensity was mesmerising. At the time, it was all part of the football scene. With hindsight, my ambivalence to it was, looking back, quite disturbing. However, after I was punched in the face at a friendly against Bristol City in 1984, I suddenly became more wary of the threat of violence. Things got real. Thankfully, despite near misses at a few games since, I have avoided further encounters with opposing fans intent on causing me physical harm.

Many romanticise the ‘eighties, me included. The noise and passion at games could be mesmerizing. I miss parts of it. However, with hooliganism, came fences to separate rival factions, which added to the brutal landscape of football and almost inspired thuggish behaviour. In addition to grief from opposing fans there was also antagonism from police forces. The match going scene in the early ‘eighties was not for the feint hearted. Part of the away game experience was avoiding getting slapped. These days, I am glad that “trouble” tends not to rear its head too often. I love the noise, passion and tribalism of football, but I’ve never felt the need to hit someone simply because our football teams are playing each other.

So, there would be no Millwall Hoolie-Porn Fest this season. We last played them in 1995. This is fine with me.

I travelled up to London with a few mates and we decided to pop in to The Rylston, rather than head straight in to The Goose. It was quiet. You would never know that there was a game on. Apart from us five, there were no other Chelsea fans present. The Goose, only a five minute walk away, was however rammed with home supporters. In a quiet corner, we chatted about all sorts of football-related topics, though the game with Bradford was hardly mentioned. There was talk of Bristol City – them again – away in the cup in 1990, the brief Chelsea career of Paul Hughes – whatever happened to him? – a few minutes talking about non-league football, fellow Chelsea mates and all sorts of stuff. I was dismayed to see a paltry crowd at Ewood for the televised Blackburn Rovers vs. Swansea City match. The attendance seemed to be around 7,000. Here was awful proof that the FA Cup, despite the hyperventilating rhetoric of every media presenter touting the competition, was dying on its feet. There would be a full house at Stamford Bridge, boosted by six thousand away fans, but elsewhere gates continue to decline. In a climate where fourth place in the league is seen as a better prize, this is no surprise.

I may not hate modern football, but I do hate the way that the FA Cup has had its allure systematically tarnished in the past twenty years.

There was a time, maybe as recently as the ‘fifties, when the winning of the FA Cup was more prestigious than winning the league.

On the walk to the stadium, with the weather milder than I had expected, I spotted several people handing out fliers asking for spare tickets for the Chelsea vs. Manchester City game, with a telephone number brazenly advertised. This was taking touting to a new level. Obviously next Saturday’s game is a massive event – it will probably be this season’s defining moment, along with Parky eventually buying a round – but I have never seen touts so desperate for tickets that they would resort to this.

I always remember, back in the brief period when our capacity in a stadium being modernised was temporarily at the 34,000 mark, in early 1998, touts asking £120 for a ticket for a standard league game with Barnsley. I was staggered. The match day price at the time was around £25. Heaven knows how much tickets for the City game will sell for.

A few Bradford fans were spotted, their accents cutting in to the cosmopolitan London air. We rarely get Yorkshiremen and women along the Fulham Road these days; long gone from the top flight are any representation from either West or South Yorkshire. Our old foes Sheffield Wednesday last appeared in 2000, the universally-disliked Leeds United in 2004 and – most recently of all – Sheffield United in 2006. It is odd that Yorkshire’s only representative of late is Hull City, who are based in a city more known for its rugby league.

Inside Stamford Bridge, my focus was immediately drawn to The Shed.

There they were, six thousand strong. No balloons, but many amber and yellow bar scarves, and several flags.

I was in my seat just before kick-off.

Jose Mourinho had certainly rung the changes.

Petr Cech.

Andreas Christensen.

Gary Cahill.

Kurt Zouma.

Cesar Azpilicueta.

Jon Obi Mikel.

Ramires.

Loic Remy.

Oscar.

Mohamed Salah.

Didier Drogba.

As soon as the match began, the Bradford City contingent copied the Watford fans in the preceding round by goading the home support :

“Mourinho’s right. Your fans are shite.”

All of these Mourinho comments about our – admittedly – lack lustre support is very odd. I wish I understood, completely, why he has chosen to do this.

The match began and the first action of any note took place down below us in the goalmouth at the Matthew Harding end. A Bradford corner was met by a fine header from Andrew Davies, but Petr Cech reacted superbly, swatting the ball away for a corner. It was a simply incredible reflex save. We stood to applaud that; magical stuff. We began to impose ourselves, and we took the lead when an Oscar corner was flicked home by Gary Cahill at the near post. I watched as Cahill raced, fist-pumping, away, obviously delighted to score. Gary has divided opinion of late; many fans want him dropped.

On the subsequent replay, both Alan and I responded with one word, spoken at exactly the same time.

“Zola-esque.”

Next, it was the turn of Didier Drogba to turn his marker and force a save from the Bradford ‘keeper. Didier’s inclusion was an odd one for me; poor Remy has hardly had a look in this season, so I would have like to see him spearhead our attack. Drogba generally laboured throughout the first-half. Elsewhere, we looked tired, with Mo Salah being singled out as the most disappointing. Here was a player who was simply trying too hard. He often chose to dribble when easier options were available. In truth, we were struggling. However, a firm Ramires tackle on the half-way line set up a fine flowing move with Salah, and our number seven scored with a shot which bounced in off the post.

We were up by two goals to nothing, but we hadn’t been convincing.

The away fans sang –

“Two nil, and you still don’t sing.”

Just before the break, a Bradford free-kick wasn’t cleared and journeyman striker Jon Stead composed himself well and fired high past the partially unsighted Cech. The away fans roared. Bradford had possibly deserved the goal. At the break, Neil Barnett walked the pitch with three heroes of yesteryear.

Ron Harris, Peter Bonetti, John Hollins.

Thankfully all of the home stands afforded fine responses as these three greats paraded past. I wondered why these fans had been so damned quiet during the actual match.

In an attempt to get a reaction for the formidable away following Neil chirped –

“The conquerors of Leeds…Chopper, Holly and The Cat.”

The Bradford fans, enjoying the moment, applauded heartily.

Growing up, these three players were the three highest-ever appearance makers at our club; only recently have John Terry (number three) and Frank Lampard (number four) breached this little group.

Soon into the second half, and after a flurry of Bradford corners, we were hanging on by the skin of our teeth. Shots and headers flashed in, but we held on. We had the occasional effort on goal, but both Alan and myself knew that Bradford were in with a chance. Our play seemed to be without flair and purpose, and there were clearly no leaders on the pitch. As the game continued, we went into our collective shell. The limited spirit withered away. Zouma was in the wars, but carried on, but Mikel was forced to be substituted after a clash of heads. In fact, Jose Mourinho made two changes with twenty minutes remaining…Willian for the poor Salah, Fabregas for the unlucky Mikel.

Our play took an immediate upturn, with a couple of chances testing Williams in the Bradford goal.

However, Bradford were still full of fight and running and vigour.

The ball was launched into our box and ex-Chelsea youth prospect Billy Knott forced a save from Cech. The rebound fell invitingly for Filipe Morais to belt home. Both players and fans celebrated wildly.

Ugh. The thought of a replay in West Yorkshire made me shudder.

“Filipe Morais…didn’t he play for us? There was a Nuno Morais, wasn’t there? Strange – no mention in the programme.”

Jose replaced Remy with Eden Hazard.

At last – AT LAST! – the home support rallied behind the team and the noise seemed to inspire our play, with Hazard full of energy.

Ridiculously, though, it was Bradford who kept attacking and kept stretching us. A well-worked move involving Stead allowed the ball to be tee’d up for Halliday to thump past Cech.

Oh shite.

The away end exploded. What a sight.

Things were now deadly serious. The mood changed and all around me, instead of passive support, the spectators were instantly nervous and vocal.

In an echo of past times of when Mourinho sent Robert Huth upfront at Anfield in 2005, Kurt Zouma was deployed alongside Drogba. Both, agonisingly, then wasted fantastic chances to spare our ignominy with an equaliser.

Sections of the home crowd were now incandescent with rage. A few songs of support urged us on.

A lifeline was handed to us when the referee signalled a massive seven minutes of extra time.

There was hope.

Yet it was Bradford who kept the pressure on us and Stead, again – the key to their attack – did well to set up Yeates to nonchalantly prod past the spread-eagled Cech.

Chelsea 2 Bradford City 4.

Hundreds left for the exits.

We were beaten.

We were well beaten.

I wondered if this FA Cup defeat was the biggest shock, at home, for decades.

I was numb.

Crystal Palace in 1976…Wigan in 1980…Oxford City in 1991…Millwall in 1995.

Ugh.

The reasons for this pitiful performance?

My own take is that Jose has been too loyal to the usual starting eleven for our league games. The fringe players simply haven’t had enough worthwhile playing time this season. Yes, we have a very busy schedule at the moment – four games in just twelve days – but I am not convinced such wholesale changes were needed for this game. The players used against Bradford were just too unfamiliar with each other’s style. With more exposure and match-day experience throughout the season, our play might have been more cohesive.

As for desire and hunger and fight, only the players can answer why these key elements were in such short supply.

As others silently left, I made sure that I clapped the players…both Chelsea and Bradford City, especially Bradford City, off the pitch. Down at The Shed, it looked like they were having the time of their lives.

As I walked back to the car, my thoughts were centered on two games within four days in January 1986, when we were turfed out of the two domestic cups, both at Stamford Bridge, by Liverpool and QPR. I traveled down from Stoke from both of them; Kerry Dixon was injured in the Sunday FA Cup game with Liverpool, and Eddie Niedzwiecki was injured in the Wednesday League Cup game with QPR. Neither player would be the same again. Those two crushing defeats still hurt to this day.

On Tuesday, I’m expecting all of us – manager, team, support – to ensure that 1986 is not repeated.

We travelled back to Wiltshire and Somerset in a state of shock. We had certainly witnessed one of the most almighty cup shocks of living memory. With a little gallows humours and a few ciders – for the others – we managed to survive.

As I dropped Parky off, I wound down the window, and paused.

“See you next Tuesday.”

The car jolted with laughter.

I watched “Match Of The Day” later…I must be a glutton for punishment…and people might find this odd, but I actually reveled in seeing the ecstatic expressions on the faces of the travelling Bradford fans as each of their goals were scored. It was just fantastic. Fans and players together, enjoying the moment, jumping up and down in joy, faces so happy, as one.

As it should be.

It reminded me of other times, when us Chelsea fans used to celebrate wildly, when success was hoped-for and not expected, when things were different.

Sigh.

Well done Bradford City.

An enemy of Leeds United is a friend of mine.

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Tales From Montmartre.

Paris St. Germain vs. Chelsea : 2 April 2014.

Paris St. Germain vs. Chelsea was a hot ticket. In all of my time of travelling to Europe with Chelsea Football Club, I can very rarely remember a game which had elicited so much worry and concern – and then either joy or despair – about the distribution of tickets. There was the annoyance that a stadium that holds around 45,000 only had an away section which held 2,200. The irony was that Stamford Bridge held less, but would house 3,000 PSG fans for the return leg. I was content with the draw. To be honest I can’t remember a stronger last eight in the Champions League in recent years. The obvious exception was the underperforming Manchester United; all other remaining clubs were of top notch pedigrees. PSG – formed in 1970 and therefore a  relatively new club in the grand scheme of things but now boosted by new money and designs on a glittering future – were undoubtedly a fine team, but I clung to the belief that they were relatively inexperienced in the latter stages of the tournament. I was hoping for Paris’ only major football club to choke.

While other friends were arriving in Paris by planes, trains and automobiles, I had a leisurely day away from work on the Tuesday. I was desperate to join them, though. My flight was from Bristol at 4.10pm. I was itching to leave.  Just after 2pm, I texted a few mates to let them know that my journey had begun.

After Jack Kerouacu for Bucharest and Jack Kerouaglu for Istanbul, there was no surprise that for Paris I simply texted –

“Jacques Kerouac.”

I have been steadfastly listening to a New Order album in my car of late and, just as I slowly drove through the lanes, edged with daffodils, of my Somerset village, I turned back to the first track.

“Regret.”

How appropriate.

Paris’ most famous songstress Edith Piaf once sang a similar song.

The flight only took fifty minutes; surprisingly I was the only Chelsea fan on-board. Although I have visited Paris on several occasions (it was often the starting point of my Inter-Rail adventures in my youth), I have never flown into the city. Looking out of the windows of the plane as we approached Charles de Gaulle, I spotted some of the many apartment blocks that infamously house some of the disaffected youth of the French capital. On the train into the city, I have never seen so much graffiti. I took this to be a further sign the city’s edginess. The journey in took around forty minutes; I was in my element. A foreign city, even one which I have visited maybe ten times before, was going to be my home for seventy-two hours and my enthusiasm held no bounds.

I was full of joie de vivre, or at least bonnet de douche, Rodney.

Gare du Nord, such an impressive station inside and out, presented me with immediate memories of my last visit, when three friends and I arrived for the Champions League game in 2004, almost ten years ago. That game marked Jose Mourinho’s first European game as Chelsea manager. On that occasion, we easily won 3-0. A certain Didier Drogba – loudly booed throughout for his Marseille past – scored his first Champions League goal that night. Little did we know then of the circumstances that would mark his last. In 2004, the Chelsea fans arriving at Gare du Nord were met by hundreds of French police in full-on riot gear. It was a mightily disturbing sight; the message was clear.

“You are being watched here. Do not misbehave.”

Chelsea in Paris in 2004 was a fine time for Alan, Gary, Daryl and I. However, many Chelsea fans had a less wonderful stay. We soon heard that many PSG ultras had attacked Chelsea fans on their walk from the metro station towards the south of the stadium to the away section to the north. Thankfully, the four of us had seen no violence; we had used the northern, Port d’Auteuil, stop instead.

At the station there was no welcoming committee from the police this time. As time was of the essence, I quickly caught a cab to Montmarte, where our hotel was located. I was even able to converse to the cab driver in a few minimalist sentences of French. The traffic was heavy around the station, but we soon sped away, the evening sun lighting up the bright signs above shops, the trees lining the roads casting shadows, the locals busy, the jazz on the cab radio most welcome.

Ahead, I glimpsed the famous windmill of the Moulin Rouge. My heart skipped a beat. Our hotel was only one hundred yards away from this most iconic of French landmarks.

After only five hours and ten minutes since leaving my quiet Somerset village, I had bought my first pint of beer in a small bar at the base of the hill that rises up towards the peak of Montmartre. The bar had been busy with the noisy chat from around twenty Chelsea fans for several hours. This, I was convinced, was going to be a great night. Alongside me were Alan, Gary, Andy, Rob, Fiona, Ronnie, Barbara, Pauline, Steve, Peter, Digger and Bob. Bob deserves special mention; newly arrived from San Francisco and over for a week or two of friendship and football. It was the first time that I had seen him since the game in Philly in 2012. An accordion player serenaded us all and Ronnie bought Fi a birthday rose. Behind us, in the bar – out of eyesight but not earshot, were Des and his mates. In a small part of Montmartre, here was Chelsea central. This was emphasised when a car pulled up and “Goggles” – the head of football intelligence at Fulham OB – got out to pay the bar a visit.

“Evening all.”

A second beer and then a third beer. This was heaven.

Feeling famished and in need of some sustenance ahead of a night of more alcohol, I devoured a huge plate of steak with a Roquefort sauce, chips and a salad. It was bloody superb. We then ambled down the hill to O’Sullivans, a large pub right next to the Moulin Rouge.

Let the fun commence.

For over five hours, the beers flowed and the laughs roared. A few more Chelsea fans arrived, including the two Robs – I can’t call them the two Bobs – and joined the fun. Andy and I reminisced about a ridiculously incident packed trip by coach to Monaco in 1998 for the Super Cup Final. There was talk of unruly coach drivers, multiple coach breakdowns, transvestites with shotguns and lots and lots of cheese. A few in the bar were distracted by the Manchester United vs. Bayern Munich game on TV; not me. I simply couldn’t be bothered. Two lads who we chatted to at Palace on Saturday – that seemed like ages ago – sauntered in with some mates. It was quite uncanny that they had chosen this bar. Down in the centre of Paris, they had tried five or six bars but had not encountered any Chelsea at all. Here, it overflowed with Chelsea fans. A few songs were sung. A band played a wide variety of music and then the area at the front of the bar filled up with a younger crowd. As the dance music boomed, a few of the Chelsea faithful showed them how it was done. Beers gave way to shorts. I remember dancing with a rose clenched between my teeth. It seemed like a fine idea at the time. The young New Zealand girl with whom I shared a few square feet of dance floor didn’t object anyway. At one point, the DJ tempted the girls in the bar with free shots if they – er – showed their assets.

“Gary – put your shirt back on son.”

The time flew past. The drinks were not cheap, but who was counting? Eventually, I had to call it a night. At just after 3am, I left the carousing to others. I climbed the hill to the hotel and drifted into an alcohol-fuelled slumber.

C’etait une bonne nuit.

On the day of the game, the Wednesday, it was a predictably slow start for me. The excesses of the previous night had left me a little fragile. At midday, Bob and I set off for a little tour of Paris. Firstly, I paid homage to one of my favourite French films “Amelie” by visiting the café, just a few doors down from our hotel in Rue Lepic, where some of the scenes were shot. I remember watching this magical film a few days before the Paris trip of 2004; it set things up wonderfully. Now that I have visited one of its locations, I must watch it again.

In a repeat of the route that I took on my very first visit to Paris in 1985, we visited the L’Arc de Triomphe at the very top of the Champs Elysees, before walking south to the always impressive Eiffel Tower. On the way, we dipped into the “Sir Winston” pub – as in 1985, but also in 2004 too. I remember my first impressions of Paris in 1985 like it was yesterday; the scorching sun, the still air, sun, the smell of the metro, the thousands of back-packers, the impressive architecture, the aloofness of the Parisians, the wonder of it all. We had heard that Alan and Gary were drinking down in the centre, just off Rue St. Denis. Bob and I caught a cab to join them. From around 3pm to 7pm, it was a tale of two pubs. Firstly, at the ridiculously-named “Frog et Rosbif” (which, when I first heard it, thought was a joke), we sat inside and chatted to several familiar faces. To be truthful, I was a little quiet; I needed a second wind. I was still tired from the night before and – if I am honest – rather apprehensive of the game ahead. This is most unlike me; I usually make a point of enjoying the moment and not even contemplate the upcoming football match. This time, I know not why, I was worried. I was fearful, if I am honest, of Cavani, Lavezzi, Ibrahimovic.

Former Chelsea player Robert Isaac came over to say “hi” and it was a pleasure to meet him. I can well remember his run in the team back in my – our – youth, especially a game against Arsenal in 1986. The Shed took him into their hearts that day –

“One Bobby Isaac, there’s only one Bobby Isaac.”

The pub was on an intersection of streets and a crowd of around two hundred were outside singing and chanting. The police kept a close eye on proceedings. There was no sign of any trouble. At last, after a few pints, I felt a lot more “with it.” After a quick bite to eat, Bob and I re-joined Alan, Gary, Robert and his wife just outside The Thistle bar, which was just across the way from the first pub. For an hour or so, we saw the crowd double in size. I recognised a few faces. There were a few boisterous songs but there was nothing untoward. In the back of mind though, I had memories of 2004 and the need, therefore, for the Chelsea fans to stay together. Among the assembled crowd outside The Thistle bar, there were some Chelsea characters of yore. The tensions began to rise. After a sudden rush of some fans to my left – with associated shouts and noise – we presumed that some PSG fans had been spotted. In truth, calm was restored within twenty seconds. Now we were all nudged together by a growing line of police with riot shields, who had basically corralled us all together. There was a sudden noisy outburst of song from our murky past. I rolled my eyes to the skies.

After about twenty minutes of steadily rising and then falling tension, the police drifted off and allowed us to walk en masse to the Ettiene Marcel metro stop. Bob and I travelled to the game and thankfully encountered none of the nastiness of 2004. To be honest, I had seen hardly any PSG fans in and around the city. This almost reiterated my personal view that Paris isn’t really a football city, not in the way that Marseille or Bordeaux are. Paris is one of the three or four main cities in the whole of Europe, but has PSG ever really made its presence felt? They have only won the French League on three occasions. As a child, St. Etienne were the most famous football team in France, then Marseille enjoyed a lot of success under Bernard Tapie in the ‘nineties. In my mind, Paris dominates France economically, spiritually and culturally but its sole team hasn’t dominated France’s football landscape. Paris St. Germain still remains one of Europe’s underachievers. Additionally, PSG has had a troublesome past with respect to its hooligan element. I remember reading a while back that the Boulogne Boys – which housed a far-right sub-culture – had been forced to disband, while the other group of fans Ultras Auteuil were allowed to continue for a few seasons before being disbanded too.

Back in 2004, there were sulphurous flares in the Auteuil end, while the Boulogne Boys laughably goaded us with a mention of William The Conqueror And 1066, a flag which said “The Queen Is A Bitch” and – surreally – a banner which called us “Hot Water Drinkers.”

The Parc des Princes, the former home of both the French football and rugby teams, has hosted a few European finals; I remember Leeds United losing to Bayern Munich in 1975, Liverpool beating Real Madrid in 1981 and Real Zaragoza beating Arsenal in 1994. It is hardly a picturesque stadium. Its dull grey concrete exterior is hideous. Inside, it is cavernous and dark with just two tiers of seats. The Chelsea fans in 2004 were housed in the north end. In 2014, we were in the opposite end. In both years, I was in the lower tier. I was surprised at the minimal security checks. We were soon inside.

“Have you heard the team? No striker.”

I groaned. Would this be a repeat of Old Trafford, which was one of the most tedious games of the recent past? My sense of worry increased.

As the teams went through their pre-match drills, I was aware that the home supporters had been given plastic flags to wave. I wondered if this would be augmented by flares and mosaics from whatever remained of the old ultra-groups. On the roof, a large sign proclaimed –

“ICI C’EST PARIS.”

It was a phrase which would be often repeated by the highly excitable announcer all evening.

The PA system was mightily involved in the pre-match heightening of noise and atmosphere. It almost acted like a cheerleader. The teams were read out. There were boos for our players. For PSG, there was the typical European routine of the announcer saying the first name and the crowd bellowing the surname –

“Edinson – CAVANI!”

“Zlatan – IBRAHIMOVIC!”

“Ezequiel – LAVEZZI!”

A squad of around thirty riot police stood right between the Chelsea fans and the pitch. They didn’t block our view, but I found their presence to be rather pointless and provocative.

Meanwhile, on the internet, we heard that there were reports of hundreds of Chelsea hooligans rampaging through central Paris.

What?

The music blared, the crowd were whipped into a frenzy.

“ICI.”

“C’EST PARIS.”

The entrance of the teams. Chelsea in that lovely all-white kit. The anthem. No flares this time. Just lots of flags being waved – red in the upper tier, blue in the lower tier – and hundreds of phone lights in the Auteuil end.

Game on.

“COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.”

After just three minutes, and with the home team on top, Matuidi crossed into the box. John Terry stretched to head clear but we all watched aghast as his poorly-directed header fell to Lavezzi, who wasted no time in belting the ball high past Cech.

The home fans roared and a lone flare was ignited to my left. However, rather than put us under continual pressure, PSG allowed us to get a foothold. To my eyes, we enjoyed a fair bit of possession. We worked the ball in to our midfielders – all six of them, playing without a real spearhead – but found it difficult to create any chances. Our support was trying hard to battle the 43,000 home fans.

“UNTIL YOU’VE TAKEN MY CHELSEA AWAY…”

It was reassuring to hear the home fans whistling us.

“At least that means that they can hear us, Bob.”

Ramires was booked for a silly challenge. This is becoming a more and more common occurrence. How often does Rami rule himself out of games after being booked in the first twenty minutes? A surreal turn from Luiz allowed him to get a shot in, but only a weak effort ensued. This was a fascinating game with so many great individuals on show. Gary Cahill did ever so well to shepherd the impressive Lavezzi away from goal.

Then, a breakthrough. Willian played the ball into Oscar’s path and was soon bundled over by Thiago Silva. The fall looked almost too pure. I hoped it wasn’t a dive. It wasn’t; the referee pointed to the spot.

Clenched teeth and clenched fists.

“Yes.”

I steadied my aim with my camera just after Hazard steadily aimed his penalty kick into Serigu’s goal.

What a cool finish.

My reaction was anything but cool.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAASSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

This time, our end went crazy. A blue flare. Blue noise.

“WE ARE CHELSEA – IN PARIS.”

A shot from Lavezzi. A backward header from Dave cleared by Brana. Then, on a breathless Paris night, a Hazard cross shot thudded against Sirigu’s far post. We groaned.

At the break, a chat with Jonesy.

“Doing fine mate. No problems. Thought that even before we scored we were coping OK. An away goal too.”

Well, what do we know eh? Although we usually tend to play with better togetherness and urgency in second halves, this game was an exception. We gave up possession way too easily and looked more and more disjointed as the game progressed. Our support quietened too. PSG had a few half-chances and were then rewarded a free-kick out wide. That man Lavezzi swung the ball in and the ball ended-up in the net from close in. Nobody was really sure what had happened. It was announced as a David Luiz own goal. There certainly seemed to be chaos in the six yard box.

We were 2-1 down.

Mourinho chose to replace Schurrle with Fernando Torres. At last we had a spearhead, but the attack was seemingly blunted after Torres’ appearance. I have tried desperately to stay on Torres’ side these past three years – it has been difficult – but his performance in Paris was shocking. Another striker – Ibrahimovic – hadn’t enjoyed the best of evenings and this meant that when he was substituted due to injury with twenty minutes to go, PSG did not miss his presence.

Lampard replaced the quiet Oscar.

The two sets of fans goaded each other.

“Where were you in World War Two?”

I spotted a PSG gesturing a quenelle at a Chelsea fan.

Oh boy.

I watched the clock tick.

85 minutes.

89 minutes.

I remember watching the stadium clock reach 90 minutes.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

Then, disaster.

Complete and utter disaster.

Javier Pastore scrambled past two – or was it four? – defenders on the touchline and slammed the ball low past Petr Cech at the near post. My heart sunk. I turned around and shook my head. A quick glimpse to my left confirmed what I knew; the PSG fans were jumping around like lunatics. They were sure that they had just qualified for the semis.

We sat in disbelief for what seemed like ages. We sat silently. I couldn’t speak.

Eventually, after about a forty minute wait inside the stadium, we sloped off into the night. There were not many conversations. We all knew. At 2-1, we had a superb chance to progress. That third goal has made it so more difficult. Everyone soon mentioned Napoli of course. The presence of Lavezzi and Cavani reignited memories of that night at The Bridge in 2012.

We dropped in for a single beer near our hotel, but I was in no mood for either a moody post-mortem or another session. I called it a night.

After breakfast on the Thursday, I bade a fond farewell to Andy, Woody, Al, Gal and Bob at the hotel; they were off home in the early afternoon. I stayed in the hotel for a few moments and picked up the paper.

The headline said it all –

“Le but qui change tout.”

My plane wasn’t set to leave until 7pm, so I had promised myself a good few hours of local sightseeing. For a couple of hours, I patrolled the slowly curving cobbled streets in and around Montmartre, an area of the city that I had never yet visited. Despite my displeasure at the denouement of the game, I had a lovely time. I took way too many photos – of course! – but was so pleased to have been able to spend a relaxing time by myself, enjoying such a ridiculously picturesque environment.

I ended up in the iconic Place du Terte, a square which was crammed full of dazzling artists, surrounded by cafes and overlooked by the Sacre Couer. I even had a bowl of onion soup and a chocolate crepe in a small and intimate creperie.

When in Rome.

I then travelled by metro into the centre, took a few steps towards the River Seine, and then caught a train near the always impressive Pompidou Centre to the airport. I had enjoyed Paris. Did I have any regrets?

Non…je regrette rien.

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