Tales From The Last One Of Seventy-Three

Chelsea vs. Watford : 22 May 2022.

It’s pretty difficult to sum up what I wanted from this last game of the season. Such events can often be inherently strange affairs; often there is nothing to play for, nothing to fight for, and these games are invariably played out in sunshine, thus giving the matches the feel of summer friendlies, or training games.

Against Leicester City on the preceding Thursday, I had said “if I don’t see you on Sunday, have a good summer” to a few friends.

And, I suppose, this was the main raison d’etre for turning up for the visit of relegated Watford. It was important to wish friends and faces, brothers and sisters, fellow fans and fellow obsessives, the best of summers until the start of the next season. Of course, to support the team one last time is a given, right?

Maybe not.

A couple of weeks back, I spotted a few “can’t wait for this season to end” posts from near and far. There was an online altercation with a fan a few thousand miles away who even stated this before the FA Cup Final had taken place. I wasn’t having that. Talk about entitled new fans. That just about summed up our current predicament with some of our brood.

Sigh.

We are supporters. That is our name and that is who we are. Sometimes this is lost amongst the hubbub of social media chit-chat. Sometimes we take on the air of tactical geniuses, of football gurus, of experts on this and that. I am not so sure this is different now than before.

It’s just louder.

Against a backdrop of possible indifference to this last game of the season, the day certainly gave me a timely reminder of how lucky us regular match-goers are. We are incredibly lucky. We get to see our team play each week, maybe twice a week, whereas the vast majority of our global support base – pick a number, one hundred million? – will never see the team in the flesh. It’s easy to scoff at our foreign fans, too easy, but I know for a fact that many of my most cherished Chelsea friends live overseas, and their knowledge of the club and their understanding of what makes Chelsea tick is to be admired.

Some, admittedly, don’t get it.

Their loss.

This was a 4pm kick-off, but I was up early. The alarm sounded at 5.45am. I collected PD at 6.45am, then Chopper, then Parky. We stopped for a couple of breakfast rolls at “Greggs”on the A303 – thankfully the regular server, Sweet Caroline, a bloody Liverpool fan, was not in – and I was soon depositing PD and Parky outside “The Temperance” on the Fulham High Street at 9.30am. They would pop into a nearby café for a coffee before “The Eight Bells” opened up at 10am. I parked up and walked to Stamford Bridge with Chopper. We were there that early that not even Marco’s “CFCUK” stall was set up. There was a chat with Steve at his programme stall. Marco appeared and I took a photo of Marco and Chopper, knowing full well that Marco often likes to post photos of former players on match days on his various social media feeds.

Chopper and I turned left to walk into Stamford Bridge via the entrance to the West Stand. My mind back-tracked. On that exact piece of terra firma, in 1974, I had turned into Stamford Bridge with my parents for the very first time. It was another sunny day. My first game. My first walk up those terraced steps into the West Stand.

“Home.”

I have said it before, but that moment in time – over forty-eight years ago – is etched in my mind forever and ever and ever. That I was repeating it alongside Ron Harris, who played on that day – I mentioned it to him – was particularly poignant. I took a photo of a smiling Chopper with the statue of Ossie in the background.

It will probably turn out to be one of my favourite ever Chelsea photographs.

I back-tracked and caught the tube away from Stamford Bridge – always an odd sensation – and was soon in “The Eight Bells.” We were joined by friends from all over. With the help of a few accomplices, I had been able to sort out spares for a few fans from the US. I enjoyed a good, very good, “state of the nation” chat with Cal who I have known for a good few years now. I always remember seeing him on that long walk to the stadium in Munich before the game – I wasn’t sure that I shared his gung-ho enthusiasm – but also in the concourse immediately after we had all been ushered out of the Nord Kurv, the last to leave, smiles and handshakes, the best of times. We spoke, briefly, about the stresses and the madness of the Porto game too.

Memories to last a very long time.

PD and Parky were in the middle of an extended drinking sesh and the laughter was booming. Dave from Northampton called in for a drink, a couple of the US visitors called in to collect tickets, Josh from Minnesota – still here from the FA Cup Final, stranded with COVID but now able to squeeze in one extra game – was with us. Johnny Twelve and his wife Jenny called in. Andy and Sophie from Nuneaton. The Kent boys, at the bar, roaring with laughter in the background.

All the world in one place.

I loved it.

At around 3pm, we caught the tube to Fulham Broadway for the last time of the season. We encountered some Watford fans. What an odd bunch. I will leave it there. Outside the steps to the Matthew Harding, we sorted one last ticket and I made my way in.

After Leicester City not filling their 3,000 spaces on Thursday, Watford showed them up. A full three-thousand and the highest percentage of replica shirts from any team all season. Bless’em.

Over in The Shed, I spotted wires that would be used to hoist a huge banner over the heads of supporters. I was primed for that exact moment.

Jenny settled in next to me in The Sleepy Hollow. Johnny Twelve was a few seats behind. We waited for the final few moments before the game would begin. Of course, elsewhere there were a few games that would be getting our attention too.

Manchester City at home to Aston Villa. A win please, City.

Liverpool at home to Wolves. Anything you can do, Wolves, would be greatly appreciated.

Norwich City vs. Tottenham. Could they do the ultimate “Spursy” and lose, thus finishing fifth?

Down in The Shed, things were stirring.

The huge mural of current and former players, managers, catchphrases and moments was stunning. And huge. What an effort.

A critique?

Not so sure Jody Morris really deserves a place despite his iconic celebration against United in 1999 and his work with the academy.

Lovely to see Micky Greenaway featured.

Not sure why Frank Lampard and John Terry are featured twice.

Personally, I would have loved to see that famous photo of Hughie Gallacher, pointing.

Hopefully, everyone reading this can name all of the faces featured. If not, sort yourself out.

The teams entered the pitch.

Our starting eleven?

Edouard

Dave – Long John Silva – Rudi

Reece – Saul – N’Golo – Kenedy

Hakim – Kai – Mase

Kenedy was a surprise start. I noted Saul this time; it gave me a warm feeling that Al admitted that he hadn’t noticed him playing the second-half against Wolves too. We were pleased to hear that Ben might be getting a few minutes off the bench.

The game began with us attacking The Shed End. We began relatively brightly with a couple of efforts from Havertz and Saul.

Very soon into the game, we heard that Wolves were 1-0 up at Anfield.

Oh the joy.

I looked over to see Roy Hodgson, his last ever game as a manager, and alongside him the former Chelsea midfielder Ray Lewington. Seeing them on the bench reminded me of a chat that I initiated on “Facebook” during a particularly desolate spell last season.

I find it odd, with the half-way line being off-centre in relation to the tunnel and dug-outs at Stamford Bridge, that Chelsea don’t sit in the northern one since it clearly offers a better all-round view of the pitch. The current away dug out, in fact, currently sits right on the half-way line, whereas the Chelsea one is way off-centre.

This is especially strange since Chelsea have the northern changing rooms. It would make sense for them to have the northern bench too. Back in the ‘seventies, Chelsea originally had the northern dug-outs. I am not sure why it changed.

The current location of the Chelsea dugout being so off-centre has never made sense to me.

In next seasons tales, I aim to provide a thorough review of the location of soap dispensers in the Matthew Harding bogs. Stay tuned.

In the eleventh minute, a fine ball from Kenedy on the left was nicely aimed towards Kai Havertz who could not miss, unmarked and with the goal at his mercy.

I thought, perhaps, he might have been offside, the Watford defence having seemingly stopped.

We enjoyed a few more chances, but the high spot of the middle section of the first-half was a perfectly executed sliding tackle from behind by Saul, hooking the ball away nicely from a Watford player. The same player then shot from outside the box. There was a Mount header. But then Watford enjoyed a little of the play as the first-half continued. There was a save from Mendy after a rare attack on our goal.

It was far from a great game, this. Watford wilted a little and we looked tired. A few more chances came our way, the best falling to Havertz, raiding from the left but his rising shot clipped the top of the bar.

Elsewhere, Manchester City were losing 1-0 at home to Villa and Liverpool were drawing 1-1 at home to Wolves. It was still advantage City.

Although we were winning, this was mundane stuff. I wondered if we were to get our real thrills from games taking place away from SW6.

The second-half began. Soon into the game, on the forty-ninth minute, we joined in applause in remembrance of Scott Conlon, a season-ticket-holder, who had recently passed away. I had spotted a small blue and white wreath at Peter Osgood’s feet in front of the West Stand before the game. A banner was hoisted in his memory in The Shed Upper.

RIP.

Watford created a few chances in the opening part of the second forty-five and Mandy needed to be at his best to save a low shot from Joao Pedro.

We shuffled about without causing much harm. Mount was guilty of trying to dribble through a forest of legs once too often. We were a mess of miss-hit passes.

It was pretty dull stuff. I stifled some yawns.

Thomas Tuchel made some changes.

Malang Sarr for Kenedy.

Ross Barkley for Rudiger.

Rudiger was warmly applauded as he left the pitch. He has been undoubtedly outstanding for us the past eighteen months or so. And even though I was utterly impressed with his letter of goodbye – a great deal of emotion, humour and intelligence – I am not going to get overly emotional about him leaving. We made him. I wish him well. And let’s hope for a fine replacement in the summer.

Barkley injected a good burst of urgency and Ziyech attempted his trademark “cut in and shoot” once or twice.

On seventy minutes :

“God. There’s still twenty minutes’ left.”

It was almost a plea for help.

Elsewhere, grim news filtered through; City were now losing 0-2 to Villa.

FORFUCKSAKE.

We were one Liverpool goal at Anfield for this all ending horribly.

Then, crash bang wallop.

Two goals in as many minutes at City. The games were a little out of synch but on eighty-three minutes at Stamford Bridge, the noise erupted.

“COME ON CITY. COME ON CITY. COME ON CITY. COME ON CITY.”

Of the two evils, City seem quite angelic.

There was a fine shot from Barkley, but an equally fine save from Daniel Bachmann in the Watford goal.

“He did always have a fine shot on him.”

The game sparked to life, or at least three games together.

The news came through that Manchester City had gone 3-2 ahead against Aston Villa, managed – gorgeously by Steven Gerrard – and the Stamford Bridge crowd roared.

“Steve Gerrard, Gerrard. He slipped on his fucking arse. And gave it to Demba Ba. Steve Gerrard, Gerrard.”

Watford scored – I missed it, I was making notes on my mobile ‘phone – and nobody cared fucking less.

The chant continued seamlessly…

“…and gave it to Demba Ba. Steve Gerrard, Gerrard.”

Then came the loudest “Carefree” of the whole day.

Surreal. Bizarre. To the outsider quite unexplainable. To us, normal. Fuck’em.

Ben Chilwell came on for Mason Mount.

Mount was voted our player of the year. An odd choice, I think. For chunks of this season, his career has stalled. My vote would have been for Thiago Silva. Chilwell received a fine reception from us of course.

The noise was still bowling around The Bridge.

Amid all of this schadenfreude, Reece James danced and jinked just outside the box on the far side. My camera was poised…click, click, click. He “toe’d” over a perfect ball for Ross Barkley to stoop and conquer. His strong header was parried by Bachmann but its pace continued it over the line.

GET IN YOU FUCKING BEAUTY.

My immediate thoughts, as he ran and jumped towards me : “that’s one happy Evertonian.”

Phew.

Chelsea 2 Watford 1.

What a breathless end to an otherwise mundane afternoon.

Rather than stay on to see the players and the management on their lap of appreciation, I had to drive precious cargo home. I made my way over to collect Chopper outside the hotel. Everyone was staring for updates on their phones.

It was over.

In the end, Liverpool’s two late goals at Anfield were to be worthless.

What a crazy season, eh? Such highs – Belfast, Abu Dhabi, World Champions, Tottenham, always Tottenham, four times this season, the drive to Newcastle, Luton, Middlesbrough, a trip to Turin but not the result – and lows – the two domestic Wembley finals, the car ride to Norwich on the day we heard about the sanctions, the worry of it all – but a season that marked my return to football and football’s return to me.

Last season, I saw just two Chelsea games.

In 2021/22 I saw fifty-five Chelsea game.

In 2021/22 I saw eighteen Frome Town games.

Seventy-three games. I have never seen more in one football season.

I need to get out more.

As I walked under The Shed Wall, I spotted Chopper reach up to his Chelsea Football Club tie and un-do the knot. He rolled the tie up and placed it ceremoniously inside his jacket pocket.

Here’s to seeing it again in August.

Have a good summer.

Tales From The Burger Van

Everton vs. Chelsea : 1 May 2022.

Well, that was a bloody long way to go for a curry.

I had always thought that our match at Goodison Park would be a very tough fixture. In fact, leading up to it, I was telling everyone that was interested to know my opinion, and maybe some who weren’t, that I thought that we would lose at Everton. It was set up for it. A notoriously difficult place for us to get results of late, the Frank Lampard thing, an absolutely red-hot atmosphere, the fact that it would be “typical Chelsea”, the entire works. Coming out of Old Trafford on the Thursday, I said to the boys :

“Yeah, we’ve done really well tonight, but it will be much harder at Everton on Sunday.”

Everton harder than Manchester United? An away game against a team in the bottom three would be harder than one chasing a European place?

Oh yeah. Oh definitely.

There was a very early start to my Sunday. The alarm rang at 5am and I picked up PD at 6am and Parky at 6.30am. I planned in a little more slack than usual because, damn it, I was flashed on the way home from Old Trafford on Thursday evening. After years and years of no speeding offences, I was now looking at six points in around four months.

Three after Villa on Boxing Day.

Three – I presumed – after United.

Six points. Ugh. I would need to slow things down for a long time now.

At just after 9am, I navigated my way through the streets of Stafford to make an additional stop. Through my network of mates at Chelsea, an extra ticket in the Chelsea section had become available. It belonged to Alex, a Londoner who I often see in “The Eight Bells” but who has been residing in Stafford for around thirty years. When I heard about the spare, I quickly put two and two together. My pal Burger – aka Glenn – has himself been living in Stafford for almost twelve years since his arrival, with his wife Julie, from Toronto in the summer of 2010. I got to know the two of them on the US tours in 2007 and 2009 and we have become good friends over the years. A couple of texts were exchanged and, yes, Burger was in. I left it to Alex and Burger to sort out the ticket in due course.

I collected passenger number three and immediately called “The Chuckle Bus” an alternative name.

For one day only it was “The Burger Van.”

Lo and behold, there was quite a tale involved in the extra ticket. Burger and Alex had chatted and had arranged to meet up in a local pub. For years I have told Burger about Alex and Alex about Burger.

“You must know him. There can’t be too many Chelsea in Stafford.”

Well, it became apparent that the two of them used to drink – and probably still do – in another Stafford pub. After European aways, Burger would always bring home a friendship scarf from his travels at the behest of the barman. And Alex would always spot that a new scarf had appeared behind the bar and would ask the barman where it came from.

“Oh, from that bloke I told you about. You sure you don’t know him?”

They must have missed each other drinking in that pub on many occasions. They were like shadows haunting the pubs of Stafford. They even lived in the same area for a while. And all along, I had pestered both of them with tales of each other’s existence. Well, at last they had met, and I took a little pride that it had eventually been through me. They were only going to meet up to pass over the ticket over a single drink but they stayed for four.

Proper Chelsea.

On the drive north, we chatted how you never see club colours on show in cars on match days – or any other days for that matter – in England anymore. Tensions have generally cooled since the mad old days and yet you don’t even see a mini-kit on display. Those were all the rage thirty years ago. On this trip, covering almost five hours, I didn’t see one Chelsea nor Everton favour.

PD : “My old car used to be a shrine. By the rear window. Scarves. Cushions. Rosettes.”

It’s an odd one alright.

I was parked up in Stanley Park at around 10.30am with memories of the last league game of 2010/11 at Goodison when I had travelled up with Parky, Burger and Julie. That ended terribly, with Carlo Ancelotti getting the “Spanish fiddler” in the tunnel after the game. I wonder whatever happened to him?

While the three of them headed off to “The Thomas Frost” I began a little wander of my own. My friend Chris – the brother of Chelsea fan Tommie – is an Evertonian from North Wales who now lives near Newcastle. We had been talking about meeting up for a pint before the game in a pub called “St. Hilda’s” which is just a couple of hundred yards from “Thomas Frost”. Chris – and Tommie – gave me invaluable advice for my Buenos Aires trip in early 2020, and we owed each other a meet up. During the week, it dawned on me that this could be my last ever visit to Goodison Park, what with the threat of relegation and a new stadium by the river, and so I was determined to wring every ounce of football out of it. I asked Chris if the church that abuts the ground, St. Luke the Evangelist, was open on match days. I was told that the church hall next to it has an upstairs room devoted to Everton memorabilia. That would be perfect. I even had a working title for the blog worked out.

“Tales From St. Luke’s, St, Hilda’s And The School Of Science.”

The trouble was that Chris was currently waylaid on his cross-Pennine trek, courtesy of inefficiencies of the British rail network. Not to worry, I walked along Goodison Road, underneath the towering blue of the main stand, a path that my dear father may well have chosen on his visit to Goodison for a war-time friendly in around 1942 or so. It would be his only football game before Chelsea in 1974. I reached St’ Luke’s at around 11am and approached a couple of ladies that were seemingly guarding the entrance to the church hall, but were actually pedalling match programmes from a small table. It soon transpired that I had caught the both of them at a bad moment.

“You’ve got a bad mental attitude.”

“No, you have.”

“Let’s go outside.”

I could hardly believe my ears. These frail women were having a proper go at each other. It made me chuckle.

With hindsight, it set the tone of aggression that would mark the entire afternoon in and around Goodison Park.

After the dust settled, I was told that the room upstairs would only be open at 11.30am. I had twenty minutes to kill and so set off for Kirkdale train station? Why? My good friend Alan – another aficionado of Archibald Leitch, the architect of so many iconic football stands and stadia – had noticed a little homage to Leitch’s cross-hatch balcony walls at that station when he caught a train to Southport a few years ago after a game in Liverpool. I owed it to myself to go and take a visit myself.

The only problem was that there was a little drizzle in the air. I zipped up my Paul & Shark rain jacket, flipped the hood and set off. My mind wandered too.

In November 1986, on my second visit to Goodison – my second visit of 1986 in fact – at around that exact same spot where I crossed Goodison Road, a gang of around four scallies – early teens, no more – had begun talking to me well before the game began. They had soon sussed I was Chelsea and started to ask me a few questions. I was, it is true to say, a little wary. However, I must have a non-aggressive demeanour because the lads – after my initial reluctance to engage in a conversation – just seemed football-daft and chatted to me for a while. Thankfully they posed no threat. These weren’t spotters leading me to danger and a confrontation with older lads. We chatted about the game and all other associated topics.

“Where you from mate?”

“Is Nevin playing today?”

“What’s Chelsea’s firm called?”

“You going in the seats at the Park End?”

I remembered that they were from Kirkdale, just a twenty-minute walk from Goodison. I also remembered that these lads were on the prowl for free tickets which, a surprise to me, were sometimes handed out to local lads by Everton officials. A nice gesture.

Yes, I thought of those young lads. They’d be in their late ‘forties by now.

Bizarrely, we played at Anfield in December 1986 and, walking along the Walton Breck Road behind The Kop before the game, the same lads spotted me again and we had a little catch up. I never did find out if they were red or blue, or maybe a mixture of both.

I crossed County Road. This wide road inspired the name of one of Everton’s earliest gangs – “The County Road Cutters” – and the rain got worse as I crossed it. Would I regret this little pilgrimage to Kirkdale in the rain this Sunday morning? I wondered if my father had taken the train to Kirkdale all those years ago and if I was treading on hallowed ground.

I reached the station and headed down to the platform where “The Blue Garden” – sadly looking a little shabby and needing a makeover – was placed. The rain still fell. I took a few photographs.

I retraced my steps. I passed “The Melrose Abbey” pub, itself sadly looking a little shabby and needing a makeover. I was tempted to dive in – I saw a huge pile of sandwich rolls stacked on the bar ahead of the football rush – but decided against it. I was lucky in 1986 with some lads from Kirkdale and although time has moved on, I didn’t want to push my luck thirty-six years later.

On the walk back to Goodson the hulk of the main stand at Anfield could easily be seen despite the misty rain over Stanley Park. I approached Goodison again, a fantastic spectacle, wedged in among the tightly terraced streets of Walton. Ahead, things were getting noisy and getting busy. In the forty-five minutes that I had been away, the area beneath the main stand had become packed full of noisy Evertonians. Some were letting off blue flares. We had heard how some fireworks had been let off outside the Chelsea hotel. And now this. The natives were gearing up for a loud and confrontational day. I guessed that they were lying in wait for the Chelsea coach. I sent an image of the blue flares outside The Holy Trinity statue to Chris, still battling away in Rochdale. His reply suggested he wasn’t impressed.

“Kopite behaviour.”

Pungent sulphurous fumes filled my nostrils. Ex-player Alan Stubbs walked through to the main entrance. The atmosphere was electric blue. I hadn’t experienced anything like this at a game in the UK before apart from a European night or two at the top of Stanley Park. I was hearing Everton songs that I had never ever heard before. The home support was going for broke.

I must admit that it felt so surreal to hear Scousers singing “Super Frank.”

I entered the football exhibition at St’ Luke’s and was met by a black and white photo of Tommy Lawton. He would sign for us after the Second World War. It still baffles me that we bought two of the greatest strikers of the immediate pre and post-war era in Hughie Gallacher and Tommy Lawton yet didn’t challenge in the First Division at all.

Typical Chelsea.

Of course, the greatest of all was William Dean, or simply Dixie. He must have been some player. I snapped a few items featuring him. His statue welcomes visitors to Goodison on match days. I always used to love that he scored sixty goals in the 1927/28 season, just after the other sporting hero of that era Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs for the New York Yankees in 1927. That Dixie Dean should die at Goodison Park during a Merseyside derby just seems, in some ways – as odd as it sounds – just right.

Proper Everton.

I could – and should – have stayed longer in that attic at St. Luke’s but I needed to move on. I sadly realised that I wouldn’t be meeting Chris, not even for a pre-match handshake, so I headed away from the ground again. I battled the crowds outside. There was a line of police – Bizzies – guarding the main stand and it took me forever to squeeze through. I may or may not have said “scuse me mate” with a slight Scouse twang a few times. The songs boomed in my ears.

“The boys from the royal blue Mersey.”

Eventually I was free and raced over to “The Thomas Frost”, one of my least favourite football pubs. There was, according to the steward, no room at the main entrance. I simply walked over to a corner door, chatted to Darren from Crewe, and went in there. I eventually met up with PD, Parky, Burger but also Deano and Dave. The Old Firm match was on. There were plenty of Scottish accents in the crowd and I supposed they were ‘Gers fans down for the game.

Shouts above the noise of a frantically busy pub, pints being consumed, everything so boisterous.

This football life.

Chelsea songs too. To be fair, both sets of fans – Everton and Chelsea – were drinking cheek by jowl with no nastiness. Chelsea tend to side with Rangers. Everton tend to side with Celtic. I had noticed a box of Celtic programmes at St. Luke’s – but no Rangers ones – as if no further proof were needed. A potential tinderbox – Everton, Chelsea, Rangers, Celtic – was passing with no trouble at all.

We left for the ground. I remembered seeing Burger with his father outside Goodison for the away game in early 2015/16, another loss. I had travelled up with just Deano for that one. All these lives intertwined.

I was inside in good time. Yet again our viewing position was awful, shunted way behind the goal line. Since our last visit in December 2019 – guess what, we lost – a mesh had been erected between the two sets of fans between the Bullens Road and the Park End. Everton certainly missed a trick in around 1994 when the simple single tier of the Park End replaced the older two-tiered stand. There is a lot of space behind that stand. It could have been much grander. But I bloody love Goodison and I will be so sad when it is no more.

It’s the antithesis of the old Stamford Bridge, the first ground I fell in love with. Our home was wild and rambling, spread-out, away from the road, a land of its own, a land of undulating terraces, inside and out, of shrubs and trees, of turnstiles, of forecourts, of differing stands, of corrugated iron, of floodlight pylons, of vast stretches of green, of views of Brompton Cemetery, of Earls Court, of London.

Goodison was – and is – cramped, rectangular, uniform, encased and with only St. Luke’s church of the outside world visible from inside.

I loved and love both.

We were at the very front of the top tier.

We waited.

The noise increased.

“And if you know your history.”

It seemed that the whole day was about Everton. Yes, we were chasing a third place but it was all about them. And that was what scared me. I envisioned them fighting for everything, the dogs of war of the Joe Royle team of around 995 revisited.

“Z-Cars.”

Spine-chilling stuff. I closed my eyes and breathed it in.

As the teams entered the pitch from different entrances, flags and banners took over, and the heavy smell of the flares hit my senses once again. I spotted a flag in the Gwladys.

“We Are The Goodison Gang.”

What on earth was that? It sounded like a ‘seventies children’s TV programme.

Thomas Tuchel had chosen an eleven against Frank Lampard’s Everton.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Azpilicueta

Alonso – Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – James

Mount

Werner – Havertz

Alan : “Not the most mobile of midfield twos.”

There was a mixture of new and old names for Everton. I had heard good stuff about Anthony Gordon.

As for Seamus Coleman, wasn’t it time he retired and fucked off to run a pub in Cork?

Borussia Chelsea in yellow and black. Everton in old-style white socks, la.

I would later learn that Chris got in with five minutes to spare. He works in logistics too.

It was fifty-fifty for much of the first-half and although the Everton fans seemed noisy as hell in the first segment of the game, the noise fell away as the game progressed. I noticed that for virtually the entire first period, the denizens of the Park End to our left were seated.

“Just not good enough. Must do better.”

A save from Edouard Mendy from Demarai Gray was followed by a dipping shot from Mason Mount and this indicated a bright start. But thrills were rare. On eighteen minutes we witnessed an amazing piece of skill from Mount, juggling on the run, flipping the ball up, and bringing it out of defence. Sublime stuff. Just after, sublime play of a different kind when Antonio Rudiger recovered well to make a magnificent run to cover the right-wing thrusts from Everton with a great tackle.

I could not understand the chants from our end for Frank Lampard. We love the bloke, of course, but I thought all that was silly and miss-guided. We were struggling on the pitch. I was not sure how a song about Dennis Wise in Milan was helping the cause either.

Parky was annoyed too : “Is he playing?”

Another shot from Gordon, just wide.

This was dreary stuff.

Only a lovely run from deep from Ruben Loftus-Cheek enlivened the team and the fans. With each stride, he seemed to grow in confidence. It was a graceful piece of play, but one that begged the question “why doesn’t he do it more fucking often?”

There was a fine block from Thiago Silva late on in the half, but – honestly – was that it?

It was.

For the second-half, Tuchel replaced Jorginho with Mateo Kovacic and we hoped for better things.

Alas, we imploded after just two bloody minutes.

Oh Dave.

Our captain dithered and Richarlison pounced.

Everton 1 Chelsea 0.

Bollocks.

A little voice inside my head : “yep.”

Howls from the Chelsea sections of the Bullens Road. Yet again a moment of huge indecision in our defence had cost us dearly. When Tuchel came in last season, our defensive errors seemed to magically disappear. The current trend is so worrying.

Just after, Everton really should have been two goals to the good but Vitalii Mykolenko shot high and wide at the Gwladys Street.

We tried to get back into the game but the movement upfront was negligible. But, to be honest, there was more room on the Goodison Road at 12.30pm than there was in the Everton final third. We were met with block after block, tackle after tackle. They harried and chased like their lives depended on it. Which they probably did.

There seemed to be more than normal amounts of time-wasting. Richarlison went down for cramp twice, as did others. The away fans howled some more.

On the hour, we howled again as a Marcos Alonso cross picked out Havertz who did well to head on to Mount. His shot not only hit both posts but the follow up from Dave was saved – magnificently, I cannot lie – by Pickford.

From the resulting corner, a header was knocked on and Rudiger raced in to smash the ball goal wards but the ball hit Pickford’s face.

Fucksake.

The Evertonians seemed to relish a new-found love of England.

“England’s Number One, England’s, England’s Number One.”

We kept going, but I wasn’t convinced that we’d break them down. Two headers in quick succession from Kai and Timo amounted to nothing.

Tuchel made some substitutions.

Christian Pulisic for Dave.

Hakim Ziyech for Werner.

There was a little injection of skill from Pulisic, wriggling away and getting past a few challenges but there was no end product. We enjoyed another barnstorming run from Ruben, even better than the one in the first, but we lacked invention. Everton appeared to take time-wasting to a new level. A scally in the paddock on the far side simply shoved a ball up his jumper rather than give it back.

A hopeful but hapless blooter from Rudiger.

A rising shot from Ruben after a neat run again.

A shot from Gray was smashed just over the bar up the other end. I envisioned seeing the net bulge on that one.

The noise was loud now alright.

Seven minutes of extra time were played but we could have played all night long without getting a goal.

A scuffler from Kovacic proved to be our last effort but Pickford collapsed easily at the near post to smother.

The home crowd erupted at the final whistle and we shuffled out along the wooden floorboards.

Everton are still not safe.

I wonder if I will ever return to Goodison Park?

We met up outside and I summed up the game and the season.

“No cutting edge.”

I overheard an Evertonian from South Wales talking, rather exuberantly, to a friend as we walked back to the car.

“Best game I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been to a few.”

He was about the same age as me too, maybe a tad younger.

Bloody hell, mate.

I made good time getting out of Stanley Park, Queens Drive, then onto the motorways. I dropped Burger home and then headed, once more, to “The Vine” at West Bromwich. We were joined by Michelle, Dane, Frances and Steve, Chelsea supporters all.

I had honey and chilli chicken, chilli chips and a peswari naan.

It was indeed a bloody long way to go for a curry.

Next up, Wolves at home.

See you there.

This Is Goodison.

The Blue Garden.

Flags And Flares.

History, La.

Pre-Match.

The Game.

Tales From The Toon

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 26 September 2015.

When I left the office at around 5pm on Friday, and slowly paced across to my waiting car, there was a rising feeling of contentment. My week’s work completed, I would now be on holiday for five days, with a couple of Chelsea trips, to Newcastle and Porto, thrown in for good measure. Five days of relaxation with a few good mates and The Great Unpredictables.

Life rarely gets much better.

On the Saturday morning, I needed to be up early. I set the alarm for 4.30am, and meticulously packed for two trips. On the Sunday, the schedule was tight. I would be arriving back from the North-East at Bristol airport at 2.15pm, but heading out from the same airport to Portugal at 6pm. It is just as well that some good friends of mine live but a five minute car ride from the airport. It meant that I could leave my car, and bag for the European leg, at their house without having to drive back home.

I left home on the Saturday at around 6.15am. There was a great feeling of escape. The Mendip Hills were waking, and the air was crisp and perfect, with mist hugging the lower levels of land. Childhood memories flooded my mind. At Burrington Combe – a less dramatic version of Cheddar Gorge – one distinct memory returned. When I was a young’un, from the age of four or five onwards, whenever we went on a trip, I always seemed to take my football. There might be a lawn at the house of an uncle and aunt where I could pop out and kick a ball around while conversations inside continued. I always took my ball to beach visits. It was a constant companion.

A boy and his ball.

On one particular occasion, when my parents and I visited Burrington Coombe – I was surely no more than six years of age – we walked up to the top of a hill overlooking a deep valley. Until then, my father would always kick the ball back to me. On this occasion, I always remember that my mother joined in too. And I always remember being really impressed with this. It showed my mother in a new light, happy to join in a previously “father and son” activity, with dear Mum laughing and smiling as we kicked the ball between ourselves. That afternoon always sticks in my mind. It was one of those early moments of my childhood that brings me great pleasure in remembering.

A father, a mother, a son and a ball.

It has been a tough year, but these memories bring me great sustenance.

On the short drive from Pete’s house to the airport, we chatted about football, family and work (possibly in that order, I can’t remember) and it is ironic that Pete supports Newcastle United. When Newcastle United were newly-arrived in the Premier League in 1993, we always said that we would drive up to Newcastle for a game against Chelsea. We never did. I hope we can do it over the next few seasons, especially since air travel between Bristol and Newcastle has made this such a great option. Sadly, Pete has – like many Newcastle supporters – become totally disillusioned with the way the club is run of late. He would be tuning in to the England versus Wales rugby match after the game between our two clubs, and I had a horrible feeling that I knew which game he was looking forward to more.

I had to laugh when we spotted a gathering of magpies in the middle of a country lane as we approached the airport. They soon flew off. I quickly counted them.

“Five.”

“One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl and four for a boy.  Five for silver.”

“Silverware, Pete.”

“You’re joking aren’t you?”

“Yes, perhaps you are right. Silver hair maybe.”

As Pete dropped me off at Bristol airport, we exchanged pleasantries.

“Cheers mate. Enjoy the Toon. See you tomorrow.”

“Cheers Pete. Enjoy…the rugby.”

The flight left Bristol at 8.40am and I recognised a smattering of West Country blues on board. I don’t attend every Chelsea game at St. James’ Park – far from it – due to the long distances involved. This would only be my ninth such trip. But I have enjoyed them all. Newcastle is one of my favourite away destinations. In 2013, I flew up for the first-time and, despite the 0-2 defeat, had an enjoyable time, though I am still struggling to remember how I managed to get back from the centre of the city to my hotel that evening. In 2015, there would be no boozy repeats; I needed to keep a clear head for Sunday.

On the metro in to the city, I chatted to a Chelsea fan from Weston-Super-Mare who was on the flight. He used to sit right behind me in the MHU for around five seasons. I see him sporadically. It was great to see him again.

Although the West of England was full of early morning sun, a bank of cloud enveloped the North of England as we crossed the Pennines. Newcastle was grey, but thankfully not cold. As soon as I reached the city centre at around 10.15am, I retraced my steps from 2013 and headed down to the quayside where I enjoyed a late breakfast, overlooking the River Tyne.

This area is wonderfully photogenic, with four or five bridges of various styles traversing the river. My camera clicked away madly, especially when the Gateshead Millennium Bridge was raised to allow a yacht pass underneath.

The iconic rail bridge was adorned with a “Rugby World Cup 2015” banner and I noted many rugby fans drinking in the river-side bars. Maybe there is a game at St. James’ Park on the Sunday. I really would not know, nor even care. I enjoyed a pint in the “Hop and Cleaver”, which is a wonderfully renovated old pub, with exposed brickwork and high ceilings. I then huffed and puffed my way up the 107 steps to the high land by the site of the original castle. Porto, too, is a city located on a river with high gorges and iconic bridges. It will be a theme for these few days.

At around 1pm, I met up with Kev from Edinburgh in “The Victoria Comet.” I passed over his match ticket, and we chatted about our trip to Porto. I first met Kev over in Lisbon virtually a year ago and here we were again. I then met up with Joe and Michelle, from Chicago, who I first met in Turin in 2009, and – most recently – in Charlotte in the summer. Another ticket was handed over, amid talk about their plans for Porto, too. Joe and Michelle distribute “CFCUK” in the USA and it was a pleasure to see them again.

I excused myself and headed up to my hotel in West Jesmond to check in. I enjoyed a pint in a local pub, The Lonsdale, as I waited to catch a metro train back in to the centre. I overheard a group of Newcastle fans bemoaning the state of their club. I had a quiet chuckle to myself when I heard one of them recount the famous story of the loathed Joe Kinnear, as their director of football, hearing good stories from a club scout about a player playing in a foreign team and making tentative requests to sign him. This player, infamously, already was a Newcastle player and was merely on loan with this team.

As they say :

“You couldn’t make it up.”

On the walk to the stadium, on that little cut through in the Chinatown area, I happened to spot “The Back Page” which was an Aladdin’s Cave of football memorabilia, and not just of the home town team. I have mentioned before in these reports of my fascination with the former Newcastle United and Chelsea player Hughie Gallacher, a ticking time bomb of a centre forward, who starred for both teams in the ‘thirties. I have long wanted to buy a book written on the 5’ 6” firebrand by Paul Joannou, so I thought I would try my luck. At first, I was met with a negative response from Kev, the shop owner.

“Maybes on Amazon like, and then yez talking silly money, maybes £150.”

We continued talking and he could tell that I knew my football. He then seemed to think they might have copies and so disappeared downstairs. He came back with not one but three copies.

“We have so many Newcastle books down there. I had this inkling we might have one.”

I was ecstatic, but the price was a £50.

“Put it to one side and I’ll be back after the game.”

On the short walk up to the stadium, I stopped to take a photograph of the Bobby Robson statue.

After the 107 steps earlier in the day, I was now confronted with 140 steps to the top of the towering stand at the Leazes End. I had forgotten how small the pitch looks from the top tier. The Chelsea support, as always in Newcastle, was swollen by a large number of Rangers – and Hearts – fans, who took over the bar areas with some of their songs and chants. I momentarily spotted Simon’s son Milo – eighteen now, and travelling independently of father – soaked in beer. His face was a picture, though.

We had tickets for three thousand and there were only a few empty seats.

The home areas took forever to fill up. At 5pm, the ground looked empty.

Newcastle were in a terrible run of form, and many conversations that I enjoyed throughout the day included these words :

“Surely we will win today.”

The news was that Jose Mourinho had again decided to go with Cahill and Zouma; no JT. Upfront, I was glad to see Loic Remy given the start. Elsewhere, there were few surprises.

Begovic.

Ivanovic, Cahill, Zouma, Apilicueta.

Matic, Fabregas.

Oscar, Hazard, Pedro.

Remy.

There were unfamiliar faces aplenty in the home team. At last the home areas were populated, but I spotted many empty seats; those of disinterested and disenfranchised Toon fans.

We began OK – lots of the ball – but as the first-half progressed, there were rising levels of frustration within the Chelsea support at our general play. After our three consecutive wins and a presumed upturn in our confidence, we were showing exactly the types of problems inherent within our poor start to the season.

Lack of movement off the ball.

No pace.

No width.

A lack of intensity.

No pressing.

Defensive frailties.

Exposure down our right.

Possession with no penetration.

A lack of leadership.

The nine deadly sins.

As the half progressed, our noisy support waned. I remember a Remy snapshot and a fine effort from Febregas. But Newcastle were creating more chances than us, and we had to rely on Asmir Begovic to keep us from going behind. The mood in the away seats was of disbelief and at times anger.

“Cam on Chowls, get in to them.”

Blame the first goal on me. I stupidly commented to Gary :

“Oh God, the last thing we want is to conceded just before half-time.”

With that, an innocuous cross from the Newcastle right from Anita drifted over the head of Kurt Zouma and Perez, to our disbelief, was able to bring the ball down, with Ivanovic too far away to act, and adroitly touch the ball in off the post.

It was a goal which absolutely summed up our woes in 2015.

The home support roared, we were gobsmacked.

During half-time, this typical of my comments :

“Shite. Absolute shite. We had two or three chances, they have had six or seven. Have we won a tackle? We have made a very poor team look good. With City losing again, here was a chance for us to make a statement.”

In the second-half, the roundly booed Remy (who played for Newcastle in 2013/2014 and scored against us in the corresponding fixture that season) had two headers, though one was offside. Our play improved, with a little more drive, but a goal seemed as distant as ever. After a fine run by Hazard, the move broke down, and Newcastle immediately broke away in one of their first real attacks of the game. A corner ensued and we watched – absolutely aghast – as Wijnaldum managed to get his stooping head to a low cross to head home past Begovic. I am not usually angry with our heroes, but on this occasion I screamed “free header” in absolute anger.

I was silent, stewing in my own juices, for minutes after.

“For Fuck Sake.”

I wondered what John Terry was thinking.

So, here we were.

0-2 in 2013.

1-2 in 2014.

0-2 in 2015.

Despite our slight improvement in our play, we were staring defeat in the eyes. The away end was now full of supporters who were venting more and more scorn on the manager and the players. The manager had been wanting to bring on Falcao – for Remy – and Willian – for Matic – for a while, but they now appeared.

“To be honest Kev, I can see them getting a third.”

Our play was still frustrating us all. Some supporters left to return to the bars of The Bigg Market.

Ramires replaced Oscar. His impact was great.

Eden Hazard was showing a little more spirit, and he played the ball square to our Brazilan number seven. Without hardly a thought, he ripped a fine shot high past Krul in to the top corner.

“Get in.”

It was as surprising as it was impressive.

The spirit raised within our ranks, our support levels climbed several notches. Hazard led the way, but was often crowded out. A magnificent ball from deep from Fabregas, his head bandaged now, picked out a run from Pedro, but his touch was heavy and the chance gone.

With three minutes remaining, Willian swung in a free-kick towards Krul’s goal. I had my camera poised and clicked just as the ball evaded Ramires’ lunge and dropped in past the dithering Newcastle ‘keeper. It was a goal which was so similar to the one against Tel Aviv recently.

“YEEEES.”

Kev and I grabbed each other around the waist and bounced up and down for ages.

We were loud now.

“Champions Of England. We Know What We Are.”

There was joy and also disbelief in our and. It was an amazing turnaround. We even had the chance to win it in the last few minutes, but Ramires’ header was dramatically clawed away by Krul.

Two points dropped or a point gained?

We will know in May.

I bounced down the 140 steps and we were out in to the Newcastle night. I said my goodbyes to Kev outside “The Back Page” – it billed itself as “A Football Pervert’s Paradise” – and went in to purchase the book on Hughie Gallacher. The shop owner slipped in a couple of other books too. That was a nice gesture. We had a good old chat about the game and our two respective clubs. Perfect.

It had been a fine day on the banks of the River Tyne.

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Tales From The Blue, The Black, The White

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 10 January 2015.

There is something essentially timeless about a Chelsea vs. Newcastle United match at Stamford Bridge. Other opponents engender far greater passions and there are certainly deeper rivalries, but – for me, anyway – I always love it when it is the turn of the black and white hordes to descend upon SW6 from Ashington, Wallsend, Byker, Hexham, Gateshead, Gosforth, Jarrow and Hebburn. As I never tire of saying, my first ever game at Stamford Bridge – March 1974 – was against the Geordies, and that match, plus a few others, are always in my mind when we play them afresh each year. Before the trip to London, I did some investigating, using my 1,000 game plus spreadsheet – you didn’t think I had one, shame on you – and it became apparent that I have seen every single one of the past twenty-two league encounters at Stamford Bridge between the two teams. The game on Saturday 10 January would be game number twenty-three. From season 1986-1987 to this season, I’ve seen them all. All have been in the top flight, but there are a few yearly gaps, as both teams have “missed” each other by doing the unthinkable and getting relegated and playing in the second tier; most recently them in 2009-2010 and us in 1988-1989. However, in many seasons in the early ‘eighties, we were in the second division together, like bosom buddies. There is simply no escaping them. Newcastle United are always there.

They are, in fact, my second-most viewed team at Stamford Bridge. The current totals are –

  1. Liverpool – 38
  2. Newcastle United – 33
  3. Manchester United – 32
  4. Tottenham Hotspur – 32
  5. Arsenal – 29

Quick, someone get hold of Liverpool…they’re top of something.

I really admire one thing about Newcastle United; the simple fact that they have always showed up at Stamford Bridge in their first choice black and white kit.

Year after year, season after season.

To be honest, they have only beaten us twice in that run of league games…1986-1987 and 2011-2012…you might think they would try another kit, if only as some desperate measure to reverse their fortunes.

I travelled up to London with LP and PD. My pre-match was rather hectic. Firstly I passed on match tickets to a couple of friends and I then met up with Helena and Iain outside the Peter Osgood statue at just before 1pm. Helena was at the tail end of a fortnight-long visit to London from her home in Nashville, Tennessee, while Iain was visiting for the day from Glasgow. I had not met either before, but it had been suggested by one of my US Facebook pals that I meet up with Helena to give her a little pre-match tour. Helena had bumped into Iain at their local in Nashville while he was over in the US. One or two clicks on a Facebook page, and a meet-up was arranged. I was more than happy to hear that both were keen to join me back at The Goose…

“It’s only fifteen minutes away at the most, but the way a lot of Americans talk, it had might as well be in Neasden.”

As we walked up the North End Road, I mentioned a few snippets of Chelsea folklore. For me to get everything in, we would have needed to crawl to a snail’s pace, but I did my best. It was a busy Saturday lunchtime in SW6. Supporters were milling around, popping from bar to street to bookie, and there seemed to be more than the usual share of touts in attendance.

Inside The Goose, I think that the sight that greeted Helena took her aback; she had probably never seen so many Chelsea supporters in one pub before. And, my, it was bloody crowded. I fought my way to the bar, and it seemed to take an age to get served. Of course, in reality, a relatively small percentage of supporters were actually wearing Chelsea colours; it is something that we, as a club, tend not to do. Apart from PD, nobody in my little band of amigos ever wears a Chelsea shirt. Chelsea fans not wearing Chelsea shirts?  It must be one of the biggest head fucks which first time visitors to a Chelsea game are forever asked to deal with.

It seems to me that supporters from Adelaide, Bangkok, Chicago, Dubai and Everywhere apart from the UK tend to cover themselves head to foot in royal blue favours. One presumes that it helps to forge bonds in faraway places. Yet I personally stopped doing this when I was about sixteen, along with many others. I used to wear Chelsea shirts occasionally, maybe a retro one for a Cup Final, but hardly ever over the past fifteen years. Frequent visitors to this site will know how a sea change happened within football subculture in the late ‘seventies, and most of my generation still adhere to these principles.

Less is more.

While I had been roaming the streets of Fulham (head fuck number two – “Chelsea” is in Fulham), the rest of the boys had been diving head first into copious amounts of alcohol. It was time to ask Helena the all-important question :

“How did you become a Chelsea supporter?”

Well, I may have got the story a little wrong, but it seems that Helena had been a fan of football – not many of my US pals call it soccer, thank heavens – for a while and was wondering which team to support. Her then boyfriend favoured Arsenal, but that wasn’t a valid enough reason. After watching a few of our games, Helena plumped for us.

“So you chose Chelsea to piss-off your boyfriend. Excellent.”

“We’re not together anymore.”

“No. Obviously.”

There are a regular bunch who show up in Nashville to see our games early on Saturday morning each week. This is tremendous.

As soon as Parky heard that Iain was “fae Glasgow”, Iain had to quickly say that he supported “neither of them, just Chelsea.” There always seems to be an easy assumption that all Scottish Chelsea fans favour Rangers. This is simply not true. Helena was enjoying herself in the pub. I kept telling her that everywhere you looked in The Goose, you would see fans who go week in and week out, home and away, wherever. I think that this impressed her. She was keen to mark her attendance with a team photo.

A rose among thorns could never be more apt.

Daryl and I spoke, wistfully, about the two thumpings that we served to Newcastle in the year of 1980…4-0 in January and 6-0 in October. Daryl was at both, I was at the latter. We agreed that the last time Newcastle played with anything other than a black and white kit was the January game.

The memory of the October game still gives me goose-bumps.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wdHleV7I7pw

At 10.24, in about the fifth row of the East Lower, my blue and white bar scarf is just about visible.

“This first time football of Chelsea is a joy to watch.”

Last week, I mentioned a Gary Chivers goal…this was it.

Incidentally, listen to the noise of that buoyant home crowd…it makes me yearn even more for those days.

On the walk to the ground, more bloody touts. They had ventured even further out than normal and were looking to buy extras rather than just sell spares. This obviously suggested massive demand. As I have said before, even though our attendance is always around the 41,500 mark, we don’t always sell-out. There are usual empty seats here and there. On this occasion, a sell-out would be on the money.

All £2.5M of it.

Opposite the West Stand entrance, some graffiti honoured those murdered in Paris.

As I was lining up at the turnstiles, I flicked through the match programme and was very pleased to see a long feature on Hughie Gallacher, our star centre-forward, who bewitched and beguiled fans of both Chelsea and Newcastle United in the inter-war years. Those black and white photographs of Gallacher, who committed suicide in 1957, haunt me and fascinate me in equal measure. Gallacher, along with Lawton and Greaves, has achieved mystical and mythical status in my mind. He is a player that I am intrigued with. He is one of many superstars who were lured to The Bridge in that period; there always was an allure to Chelsea Football And Athletic Company, as it was then known, despite the fact that for fifty years we won nothing.

I might be talking nonsense here, but there might be a very strong case for Chelsea and Newcastle United to be the two teams in England with the biggest average home attendances up until the start of World War Two in 1939. I am positive that the Geordies constantly had the highest attendances until the Tottenham boom in the ‘fifties and then the Manchester United boom soon after. Maybe Arsenal might have threatened to be in that top two, but we would certainly be in the top three until 1939.

Maybe I’ll do some further investigating.

Whatever, it is very unlikely that fans of other teams, once we had secured our first piece of silverware in 1955, were ever presupposed to politely enquire :

“Where were you when you weren’t quite so good, old chap?”

Inside – yes – Stamford Bridge was full to bursting. Not so much a Toon Army this time though; as Daryl commented in the pub…”more like a platoon army.”

Not 3,000 this time – nearer 1,500.

And not one single flag. They don’t do flags, the Geordies. Not sure why.

We had heard that Courtois had injured his finger and so Petr Cech was recalled. A change in the middle of the defence too, with Gary Cahill rested and Kurt Zouma taking his place. Elsewhere, we fielded a team with familiar names. And yet it was the away team who carved out the best chances throughout a mundane, from our perspective, first-half. We had much of the ball, but found it difficult to prise open the Newcastle defence. Once we had the ball, our movement was poor. Even Diego Costa was found lacking.

“Move’em about” yelled Alan.

I thought of previous years and previous strikers. I remembered how Gianluca Vialli, especially, was a constant blur, with all of his selfless running, pulling defences out of shape.

And it was bloody quiet too. It was as if the quietness of the Watford game last Sunday had continued into this one.

On seventeen minutes, the away supporters remembered John and Liam, the two fans killed over the Ukraine as they traveled to Kuala Lumpur last summer to watch their team play. Alan, PD and I joined the applause for a few moments, but we were the only Chelsea fans in our section that did. In 2011, I traveled to Kuala Lumpur to see Chelsea, so their deaths certainly hit home. As Alan remarked :

“It could have been any of us.”

Remy Cabella was the main thorn in our side in that worrying first-half period, showing great endeavor and skill, raiding at will and prompting others with fine passes. Only a last-ditch clearance from John Terry stopped the visitors taking a deserved lead.

A Chelsea break, involving the relatively quiet Eden Hazard and Diego Costa petered out when our centre-forward elected to pass rather than fire on sight. The home crowd moaned.

A fine low shot from Cabella produced an equally fine save from Cech, who collapses on low shots so well for a tall man. Then, Sissoko slammed the ball against the upright. We were struggling. Amid the worry, an injured Azpilicueta was replaced by Filipe Luis.

Then, the game changed.

It was all a blur really.

A corner was conceded by Newcastle and Willian reacted incredibly quickly. With the defence half-asleep, the ball was quickly played in to the path of Ivanovic – that most forward of defenders – and he played the ball back for Oscar to thump home. Krul was at sixes, sevens, eights and nines and could only slam the ball into the roof of the net once he had realised what had happened behind his back. The Stamford Bridge crowd roared. But I knew the score; our lead was quite undeserved.

Wor Alan : “They’ll have to come at wo’now,like.”

Wor Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

In the last moment of the half, Krul made amends by saving well from a Willian free-kick.

We were leading, but it had been a poor half. I walked past Gal and heard him say three words which I thought would never pass his lips :

“We’re missing Mikel.”

Soon into the second-half, Coloccini – he of the David Luiz comparison – stopped a ball from entering the danger zone with his raised arm, but the referee waved play on. Maybe it was “ball to hand” but why was his arm raised so high if his intention was not to stop the ball?

Alan : “Who is the referee?”

Chris : “Roger East. Should be Roger North-East.”

We were driven on by the devilish skills of Eden Hazard and the tenacity of Diego Costa, and we stepped-up in the second period. It was a much more pleasing performance. On the hour, a delightful move right in front of me involving Hazard and Oscar, worked the ball in to the path of Diego Costa. He was afforded just a little too much space and he rolled the ball square. Time seemed to stand still, and he took an extra touch – just to be sure – before drilling the ball back across Krul into the corner.

The stadium jumped to life in adoration as our scorer ran, arms outspread, in an arc, with Willian joining his celebratory run, before he joined up with the rest of the Chelsea brothers in blue. I managed to stay as calm as I could and snapped this most joyous of moments.

Fantastic.

The game was, now, surely safe.

Newcastle rarely threatened, save for a speculative cross shot from Ameobi, which Cech turned over. As our dominance continued, Matic impressed with his typical shows of defensive prowess and tireless running. Young Zouma hardly put a foot wrong all game and there was something inately reassuring about his simple clearances and strong challenges. A mesmerizing run by Hazard set up Costa, who glided through the Newcastle defence, only for his goal-bound shot to be cleared. News came through that Manchester City had gone ahead, only for Everton to equalise soon after. Loic Remy, sadly underused thus far into his Chelsea career, replaced Costa and his one effort buzzed across the six-yard box.

It remained 2-0 and it was, no doubts, a well fought win.

However, on a day when our play in both halves was as different as black and white, we were to thank our brothers in blue to help us back on to the top of the standings, with no need for numeric or even alphabetic assistance.

It had been a fine day.

Next up – one of my favourite away trips at the moment.

Over the water to Wales. Tidy.

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Tales From Tyneside

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 2 November 2013.

Damn it. Damn it. Damn it. There are many occasions when I just wish that the football didn’t get in the way of a football weekend. This was clearly one of those times.

This was only my eighth trip up to St. James’ Park to see Chelsea. There are simple reasons of economy and geography for this; to put it bluntly – too expensive and too far. My last trip to Tyneside was in 2008-2009. When the season’s fixtures were announced way back in June, I quickly decided that a visit was long overdue. No six hour drive up and six hour drive back for me though – for the first time ever, I had decided to fly to a game in England.

A return flight from nearby Bristol to Newcastle was duly booked for £63 and I counted the months and days until it was time to head north to the mad city on the banks of the River Tyne. I was clearly treating this as an equivalent to a European away game.

Excited?

Why, aye pet.

At just after 5.30am, I texted Alan to let him know that I was – once more – on the road.

“Wor Jackie Kerouac.”

The reply?

“Wor Georgie Stephenson.”

As I headed over the Mendip Hills once again towards my most local airport, I was reminded of the special significance of flying to Newcastle – of all places – for a game of football. In the ‘seventies, Chelsea Football Club produced a yearbook and one of its most tantalising features was the listing, towards the back covers, of many miscellaneous facts and figures pertaining to the club. I was a glutton for such items of trivia and often used to devour the contents. There are a few items which still stick in my head to this day.

  1. Chelsea’s youngest ever player was Ian “Chico” Hamilton.
  2. Eddie MacCreadie – at the time – was our most capped player with twenty-three appearances for Scotland.
  3. Our record aggregate score was 21-0 versus Jeunesse Hautcharage in 1971.
  4. Newcastle United’s record gate was 68,000 to see the return of Hughie Gallacher in a Chelsea shirt to St. James’ Park in the ‘thirties.
  5. Chelsea were the first English team to use air travel for a football match; or to be more exact, to travel back from a football match. The venue? Yes, you’ve guessed it – Newcastle.

The flight was over in a flash; just time for a cursory glance through the inflight magazine and a coffee. Within fifty minutes, the plane had dipped its wings – I glimpsed a pristine white lighthouse guarding the Tyne estuary as the plane banked – and the descent into Geordieland had begun. Although there had been a cold shiver down everyone’s spine when the pilot had gleefully announced that the temperature in ‘Castle was “minus one”, in truth the temperature outside was a minor disturbance.

I was soon on my way into town on the city’s metro. A few fellow football fans were on board. The buzz had begun. As I headed into the city, eventually beneath the streets, I felt that Chelsea were impregnable. We had found our feet, we were scoring goals, we were playing some great stuff. I felt an echo to our dominant form of November 2004, when things really started clicking under Jose Mourinho the first time around. And what an away game to revel in our new-found invincibility.

Newcastle away.

Fantastic.

I had a superb time wandering around along the banks of the River Tyne for a few hours. From the area around the central train station, it is a steep descent down to the quayside. There is almost a gorge-like feel to the river. The iconic Tyne Bridge dominates, but the recent addition of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge augments the view rather well. There are three more bridges which cluster together linking Newcastle to the north and Gateshead to the south. It’s all too photogenic to resist. I happily snapped photographs as I walked in the fresh winter morning air. To be honest, there was a dull grey stillness to the early hours, but it seemed to encapsulate the mood of the city perfectly.

I always remember my first-ever trip to St. James’ Park in March 1984; a Chelsea special, my first proper Chelsea away game, a 1-1 draw and the likes of Kerry Dixon, Colin Pates, Mickey Thomas, David Speedie and Pat Nevin playing for a mythical Chelsea team. I remember crossing the Tyne, high on the railway bridge to the west, and spotting the magnificent and striking Tyne Bridge away to my right. What fantastic memories from almost thirty years ago.

I dipped into a hotel and soon devoured a fulfilling breakfast and then continued walking towards the converted Baltic Flour Mill which has been rejuvenated over the past fifteen years and is now renamed the Baltic Art Centre. I ascended to the viewing platform on the fifth floor and what a vista greeted me.

The Tyne River, the bridges, the spires, the layers upon layers of streets, the deep gorge, the city.

And there, right at the top of the hill to my right, the towering stands of St. James’ Park, where I would be positioned in under three hours for the game.

I retraced my steps and sheltered from the rain in The Redhouse pub right under the shadows of the Tyne Bridge. A pint of Erdinger went down well; I toasted absent friends and supped away. The pub was magnificent; it had darkened rooms, dingy alcoves and there were echoes of its historic past at every turn. My mind cascaded back to when the nearby quayside would have been manically busy with ships, traders, sailors, rogues and thieves.

The rain had thankfully subsided as I began a slow walk north towards the stadium at the top of the town. There are several fine Georgian streets in the city centre and none is more elegant than Grey Street which slowly curves up towards the monument to Earl Grey. From here, the stadium is but a few hundred yards away.

Here was Newcastle United’s saving grace; a city-centre location. It’s the real heart of the city.

The rain began falling again as I sidestepped protests against Mike Ashley under the massive steel structure of the Gallowgate Stand, with the famous Strawberry pub nestled underneath, quite out of place, like an historic throwback to a more simple time.

As I headed around towards the away entrance, I spotted the statue in honour of Newcastle United’s most loved son, Sir Bobby Robson, standing proud and looking out into the Tyneside mist. Above was the towering steel of the Milburn Stand; quite astonishing in its scale.

The fourteen flights of stairs at St. James’ Park are always a test; I passed this time, but without flying colours. A plastic bottle of Coors – hardly on the same scale as an Erdinger – was my reward as I waited for Alan and Gary to arrive. We had three thousand tickets for this game and we had sold out. With no Rangers game on the Saturday, our legions were bolstered by many from their royal – and loyal – blue ranks. I spotted a few friendly faces, but many amongst our support did not register.

Eventually, Alan and Gary arrived and we entered the away section. We were in row V, maybe only around six or seven rows from the very top. The view which greeted me was, despite the dull grey weather, quite phenomenal.

Away in the distance, on the horizon, was the high ground of Gateshead. A solitary spire broke the line of where land met sky in a fuzzy grey smudge. Sadly, only a few miles to the west from that high land, in 1957, Hughie Gallacher – the fiery and tormented former Newcastle United, Chelsea and Scotland centre-forward – took his own life by descending from a footbridge and walking out in front of a train. Hughie Gallacher is a Chelsea player that fascinates me. One of these days I will try to hunt down a biography written by Newcastle fan Paul Joannou about this most loved of players.

Down below, way down below, to my left, just visible through the perspex glass screens of the Leazes Stand can be seen the Georgian terraced houses of Leazes Terrace. In the days when St. James’ Park was virtually all standing, these houses overlooked the eastern terrace at the stadium. They were very distinctive. In around 1972, a new concrete stand was constructed on that eastern terrace, thus blocking their view of the stadium. It is their presence today, though, that gives St. James’ Park such a lop-sided feel. That 1972 stand – the most modern aspect of the stadium when I visited in 1984 – can’t be enlarged due to the fact that the houses on Leazes Terrace are listed buildings; some are used for university students, some are in private hands.

They can’t however, be demolished. In the meantime, the monolithic west and north stands at St. James’ tower over all. Their size is truly mesmerizing.

Ahead of me, the home end – the Gallowgate. Once a relatively slight terrace, containing very distinctive concrete crush barriers, this end was dismantled and built anew around 1993. I can always remember a sight from the days when Kevin Keegan reinvigorated the club when he joined them from Southampton in 1982. At the time, this story was unheard of – an England international signing for a struggling team in the second division. I remember a winter’s game, rain lashing down on the open Gallowgate terrace, the stadium packed with Geordies and steam coming up of their boiling bodies, piled high on the crush barriers.

Truly amazing.

In the distance, clearly visible was the curving green iron of the Tyne Bridge. The traffic was heavy, the cars’ lights were on and I wondered if they were tuned in to the match.

The unlucky ones outside. The lucky ones inside.

The teams entered the pitch. There was an impeccably well-observed minute of silence for those who have fallen.

The grey Tyneside air turned darker.

We quickly ran through the Chelsea team and there were few surprises.

Juan Mata was playing. David Luiz was playing.

The Chelsea support, massed high on the upper tier of the Leazes Stand stood the entire game. It is something that we do without even thinking about these days; a subconscious statement of defiance to those who try to sanitise and sterilise our beautiful game.

To the memory of those ten thousand Geordies huddled together in the rain in 1982.

Chelsea certainly had most of the possession in that first-half, but sadly had nothing to show for it all at half-time. Our play at times was slow. There were occasional thrusts from Hazard on the left and Torres on the right, but Krul was hardly tested apart from at a succession of corners midway through the half. A John Terry header crashed against the bar. A deflected Torres effort too.

The home support during the first-half had been dire. We had begun well with the new Moyes & Wenger song getting some airtime along with the Willian effort. Our support, like the form of the team, drifted away as the half continued.

At the break, there were the usual murmurs of discontent, but we knew we were in good hands.

“Just hope Mourinho weaves his magic at the break and we change things in the second-half.”

I wandered down to the toilets at half-time, the concourse absolutely packed with away supporters. In the middle of the crowd, quietly talking to a fellow fan, was Pat Nevin, sporting a blue and white Chelsea scarf. A quick handshake for that most wondrous of Chelsea players. I reminded him that he was my favourite player of all time.

The rain continued to fall as the game continued. Mourinho surprisingly replaced Torres with Eto’o. Although Torres had not enjoyed his best of games, his level of service in the first hour was poor. I was surprised when he was substituted. Additionally, Juan Mata was replaced by Willian. This was another surprising move by Jose. We all thought that Oscar – and maybe Hazard – was more deserving to be replaced. Elsewhere, Lamps struggled to get a foothold. In defence, David Luiz was having one of those games which left even me mouthing expletives at his reckless challenges.

A couple of half-chances for the home team suddenly galvanised the home support and there was a definite change in the sway of the game. This was now getting tougher by the minute. Our play was deteriorating fast.

A header from an unmarked Gouffran on 68 minutes gave the Geordies a deserved lead and the stadium rocked.

Mourinho immediately replaced Frank with Andrea Schurrle, whose initial industry promised an upturn in our fortunes. Half-chances for Willian and Eto’o didn’t convince the away support that our luck would change.

Only the barnstorming Ivanovic and the solid defensive play of Terry provided any comfort.

A late goal from Remy, cracked in off the near post settled the game for sure. With that, hundreds of Chelsea fans decided to head into the bars and pubs of the city centre. Five minutes of extra time was signalled but we all knew that we wouldn’t score if we had played all afternoon.

That was as clear as black and white.

It had undoubtedly been a very poor Chelsea performance. We were lost for words to be honest. Our fine form of the past month – wins, flair, goals – had shrivelled up in the Tyneside rain. We looked for answers. In the warmth of The Union Rooms opposite the train station, a few of us tried to put together an explanation of our failures, but we struggled.

“It’s not as if they’re a great time.”

Alan and Gary then left for London.

“See you Wednesday, boys.”

The night was still young. I chatted away to a couple of locals. There were warm memories again of 1983-1984 and the tantalising forward line of Keegan, Beardsley and Waddle. I mentioned the very memorable hip-shake move that Peter Beardsley used to effectively confuse and befuddle opposing defenders. The locals talked about their loathing of Joe Kinnear and Mike Ashley, the painful wait for silverware on Tyneside, the skill of former midfielder Tony Green and the talk went on and on and on.

And then, alone, out into the craziness of a Newcastle night.

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