Tales From The Beautiful South

Chelsea vs. Hull City : 16 February 2018.

During the pre-match chat ahead of the West Brom game on Monday, all was going well until I was reminded that we were playing Barcelona at home on the following Tuesday. Bloody hell, that made me gulp. As at 7.59pm on Monday, we were a team and club that appeared to be low on confidence. Antonio Conte’s honest admission that his team lacked “personality” at Watford seemed to sum things up succinctly for me. Thankfully, we brushed the hapless Baggies away without too much fuss on Monday, and we looked forward to a second home win of the week against Hull City in the FA Cup as the week progressed. However, there is no doubt that the looming shadow of Barcelona dominated my thoughts for a few days. On Thursday, we had to apply for tickets for the Camp Nou game.

Tickets were purchased. Roll on Tuesday 20 February – another gulp – and Wednesday 14 March – and another.

We will be there.

The working week finished, I was a relaxed and smiling soul as I met up with Parky and PD in the pub opposite work. I was not initially a fan of Friday games – all that travelling after a hard week at work seemed a nightmare at first – but as I drove the lads to London, the realisation that I could have a lie-in on Saturday morning was a lovely thought. Outside, it was a sunny and crisp afternoon. There was a nice vibe in The Chuckle Bus. The traffic slowed a little on the M4 and it took me a little shy of three hours to reach London.

I met up with Andy and Antony from Los Angeles, and a handful of a few more locally-based faces, in “Simmons Bar” at just before 6pm. It was a lovely pre-match. Everyone seemed so relaxed, but maybe it was just me. It’s always a pleasure to meet up with Andy, who helped form the famous or – infamous – “Orange County Hooligans” (who knew Americans could be ironic?) a decade or so ago. I have met his pal Antony at a couple of stateside shindigs. I first met Andy in Santa Monica in the summer of 2007. I had arrived at LAX with Cathy for our series of three games in Palo Alto and Los Angeles, and the plan was for Cathy, Beth, Andy and me to head a few miles inland to watch Hollywood United play in the evening. That was the plan. Sadly, we managed to get a little lost on the freeways of LA, and only arrived as the second-half was starting. We had just missed Frank Leboeuf playing the first forty-five minutes, which was particularly galling. I do remember a Hollywood United strike from distant being one of the best goals that I have ever seen. Thankfully, Leboeuf joined us all for a boozy question-and-answer session at the Chelsea pub a week later.

Andy and Antony were over for the Hull City and Barcelona home games – a whirlwind trip to Prague and Brussels was planned between the two matches – and Andy informed me that the Hull City match was his fifty-ninth Chelsea games, a superbly impressive figure.

“When I get to one hundred, I’ll retire” he said, far from convincingly.

I picked up a copy of the match programme, and in-keeping with other cup games this season, the front cover was based on a previous encounter with the opponents. This time, the season featured was 1981/1982. The memories flooded back; this was a season which marked going to games by myself for the first time, aged just sixteen. I remember one school friend being quite shocked that I was OK to head up to London by train on my Tod. I might have been a rather quiet and shy youngster, but travelling alone never scared me. In season 1981/1982, I subscribed to the home programme for the first time and I would always wait with great anticipation on the Monday or Tuesday for the programme to drop through the letter box. Invariably, I would devour every part of it. I always used to enjoy reading the pages from our past which were magnificently penned by Scott Cheshire. From these pages, I learned about players such as Tommy Law, Hughie Gallacher, Ken Armstrong, John Harris, Tommy Lawton and Vic Woodley, and my interest in our history was re-ignited.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I wondered again if the attendance would hold up. Clearly, as with West Brom on Monday, the away section was far from full. But generally, there was a good show. Only the top seven or eight rows of the East Upper – at the top corners – were not used. Deep down, what with our run of midweek games of late, I wondered if we would struggle to sell 32,000 to 35,000 tickets.

Another good show from our support.

With it being a Friday might game, there were many more children dotted around our area and it was great to see.

“I’d best tone down the swearing tonight.”

The team was a mix of fringe players, first team regulars and youngsters.

Willy

Toni – Ethan – Gary

Davide – Danny – Cesc – Emerson

Willian – Olivier – Pedro

In a repeat of Monday, the lights were dimmed and the teams then appeared. Hull City had around eight-hundred supporters.

The game began with a perfect start. A Hull City move broke down and Olivier Giroud pushed the ball on to Willian. Maybe a top-tier team would not back off, but Willian was able to shuffle the ball between his two feet and gain a clear view of the goal. He adeptly curled a fine shot into the goal. It was such a fine strike.

Only two minutes were on the clock.

The Hull accent is neither particularly well known, nor easy to do. Apart from the locals using “I nerr” – for “I know” – all the time, it has little distinguishing features. But Alan and me had a little stab at it.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

It was a perfect start, happy days.

The singing was good at the start, but I inwardly tut-tutted every time I heard the tedious “Steve Gerrard / Demba Ba” chant and the equally tiresome “Frank / 200“chant. Shouldn’t we be singing about current players? Certanly not about Liverpool players. I suspected, actually, that Lampard and Gerrard had been spotted in the TV studio above the MHL.

Willian was on fire in the first part of the match. The next chance fell to Giroud, staying onside, after Pedro shovelled a lovely over-the-top dink to him. He slammed the ball over. We were well on top, moving the ball well. As usual the crowd yelled our support of the manager, and the man in black was soon clapping us for our support. Let’s all hope that recent horrible blip will act as a stimulus for positive change. The debutant Emerson had begun well, showing an ability to seek out space down the left.

I wondered if his middle name was “Lake.”

Emerson Lake Palmieri.

I’ll get my coat.

On twenty-seven minutes, Cesc Fabregas received the ball from Giroud inside our half and played an inch-perfect lob ahead of the on-rushing Pedro. He caressed the ball with a lovely touch, bringing it down, and then steering it low into the goal. What another lovely goal. Superb.

Five minutes later, we built another attack, and again Giroud was involved. He passed to Willian, raiding at will, and he raced at the back-peddling Hull defence.

“They can’t live with us, Al.”

Indeed, they couldn’t.

Willian steered a low shot into the goal, just clipping the far post en route.

Alan had mention that he had bumped into Andy from Trowbridge on the walk to the stadium and Andy had said that he had us to win 4-0.

“Bet he’s getting excited now.”

Lo and behold, just before half-time, a poor Gary Cahill shot was not cleared and the ball fell to Emerson, who did well to send over a low cross towards the near post. Giroud was on hand to deftly tap home. Get in. It had been a fine show of finishing, and Hull had been blitzed.

“Andy is probably thinking we need to declare now.”

I wondered what was in store for us in the second-half. Alan was hoping that Callum Hudson-Odoi would play a large part in the proceedings. He was happy to see that the manager agreed. He replaced Pedro. As the second period began, I realised that Callum’s shirt number – 70 – was as good as it gets for a player called Hudson.

I have to say that the resulting forty-five minutes was a pale imitation of the first forty-five.  Hull began far brighter than us at the start of the second period. Ethan Ampadu was forced to clear off the line, but a braindead foul by Cesc inside the box gave Hull City a penalty.

All thoughts were on Andy and his 4-0 bet.

After a little delay, David Meyler slammed the ball at goal. Willy Caballero flung himself to the right and saved. The hero from the Norwich marathon had done the job once more. Alan and I cheered and smiled.

The bet was still on.

On the half-hour, youngster Kyle & Scott replaced Fabregas. Bloody hell, the kid looked young, with the frailest of frames and a haircut from the ’eighties or modern North Carolina.

“He looks about twelve, Alan.”

The youngster looked at ease though, showing no real signs of nerves at all.

I announced to Alan that “I’m going to call him Kyle & Scott.”

Alan smirked.

Silently, I wondered if he was good in the air.

The voice inside my head replied : “Yep, he’s a nice jumper.”

I’ll get my other coat.

Hull threatened our goal again, who were by far the better of the two teams in the first fifteen minutes of the second-half. Hudson-Odoi raced away and played the ball to Zappacosta, who had the chance to shoot, but instead chose to pass to Willian. His deliberation allowed defenders to recover and his shot was blocked. As the ball then spun loose, Zappacosta forced a low save from the Hull ‘keeper Marshall.

The bet was still on.

As the game drifted past, Alan and I waffled.

Alan : “I’ve seen it all now. The Hull ‘keeper wearing all green. Whatever next?”

Chris : “Not only that, the referee in all black. Stop the madness.”

We then realised that Willy Caballero was wearing all orange, thus clashing rather spectacularly with Hull’s predominantly amber kit. We remembered how such topics were feverishly debated by Brian Moore on “The Big Match”, often eclipsing any talk of tactics and styles of play. I blame Brian Moore for both Alan’s and my continued annoyance with kit clashes.

The minutes ticked by. Hull’s little period of possession had passed now, and we were again in the ascendancy.

I loved the way that with every Willian corner, two young lads sitting behind me were yelling at him, almost feverishly. It was great to see and hear. The noise had been pretty good in the first-half, but had lessened in the second.

With twenty minutes remaining, Olivier Giroud was replaced by Alvaro Morata. The former Hipster Gooner Knobhead was given a fine reception. He is well on his way along the Mickey Thomas path of redemption and acceptance. Danny Drinkwater kept a rising ball down and the driven shot was saved. I found it hard to believe that the score was still 4-0. The last chance of the game – very late on – fell to the game’s most lively player Willian, who advanced and curled a shot towards the goal. The ball spun off the far post, with the ‘keeper well beaten. Alan and I sighed, but soon laughed. Andy, I am sure, punched the air with joy.

Funny game, football.

The bet was won.

The game ended, and there was a hearty roar.

The PA announced that we had reached the FA Cup quarter finals for the thirteenth time in seventeen seasons. As I left the MHU, I realised how much we have owned this competition since 2007. It is time we won it again.

We had all witnessed a fine evening of football.

London 4 Hull 0.

It had been a beautiful night in The Beautiful South.

 

Tales From My Second Home

Chelsea vs. Hull City : 22 January 2017.

Sunday at half-past-four. What a bloody annoying time for a game of football.

The lads had been deposited in The Goose – “see you later” – while I had to pick up some tickets for a couple of future away games down at the stadium. We were in town ridiculously early – midday – but with a little time to kill, I thought I would spend a while with my trusty camera and take a smattering of photographs of Stamford Bridge. This would be our first home game since the announcement that the local council had approved the plans for the rebuild, and it made sense for me to pay homage to Stamford Bridge’s current hotchpotch of stands, irregular angles and unique aspects. The new stadium will be very different of course; there will be one design, one style, one theme, one vision. The current stadium, built between 1972 and 2001, is typical of many stadia in England at the moment. There have been piecemeal additions over the years and although the interior hints at a common design, the overall result – especially from the outside – would suggest otherwise.

As I walked down behind the East Stand, now a grand old lady of forty-three years of age, I was struck with how little room had originally been set aside for extra-curricular activities such as restaurants, bars and corporate suites.  From the rear, it reminded me of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, with all of its skeletal construction, heating pipes, air-conditioning units, roof supports and associated infrastructural necessities all on show. Although this stand won a few architectural awards in its day – London had never seen a three-tiered stand of such size and scale before – it remains rather ugly from the rear. My memory from watching games inside the East Stand – especially the East Upper – is of how cramped everything was behind the scenes. And yet, when the current stadium is razed to the ground in just a few years’ time, I will miss the East Stand more than any other. When I saw my first-ever game at Chelsea in 1974, watching from the wooden benches of the West Stand enclosure, the East Stand was still being built opposite. It dominated Stamford Bridge in those days in a way that is difficult, now, to imagine. It dwarfed all other parts of the ground, and certainly the adjacent low and rambling North Stand terrace and Shed End. I watched football from the East Lower from 1974 to 1980 with my parents – a total of thirteen games – and it will always have a place in my heart.

As I continued my walk around the outside of The Bridge, I remembered “Drakes” on the corner of the Matthew Harding Stand – now re-named the Champions Club – and how it was the sole domain, when it opened up in 1994, of CPO shareholders only, and how Glenn, Alan and myself used to frequent it for a pre-match meal and pint. It used to be remarkably quiet and an enjoyable place to meet-up. In around 1996, it was opened up for club members and suddenly became ridiculously busy, and we soon moved on to The Harwood for our pre-match festivities.

The outside of the West Stand is vastly different to the East Stand. All of its pre-match function rooms are concealed in a huge wall of brick, but I have to say it would hardly win any design awards. It serves a purpose I suppose, but I am not a huge fan. I love the way that the Peter Osgood statue always casts a shadow on its lower reaches.

The Shed End is lost within the guts of the Chelsea offices, the apartment block and the Copthorne Hotel. From the forecourt, Stamford Bridge doesn’t even resemble a football stadium any more.

How everything has changed over the past twenty years. It is one of my big regrets that I didn’t take as many photographs – both outside and inside – of the old Stamford Bridge in its last few years as I ought. How I wish I had captured those little kiosks embedded within the supporting wall of the Shed terrace as it swept its way around to the East Stand. Or those huge floodlight pylons. Or the corrugated iron of the away turnstiles behind the West Stand. Or the dark and moody walkways which ran behind the main body of The Shed terrace. Or the steps leading down from the top of the West Stand to those extra turnstiles within the stand before you reached the benches. Or the unique angled aisles of the old West Stand. Or the Bovril Gate, a gaping hole, in the large Shed terrace. Or that exit walkway that lead down at an angle behind the West Stand. Or those fading advertisements which were etched on to the rear of the shops on the Fulham Road. All of those images, lost and gone forever, but my memory of the old place remains strong.

Stamford Bridge really was – and is, and hopefully shall be in the future – my second home.

There was a couple of drinks in “The Goose” where Daryl and myself chatted with Mick, a fellow-Chelsea supporter who we had not seen for quite a while, possibly for the first time in ten years. We remembered a lovely trip to Rome in 1999 for the Lazio game and how we were drinking brandies in Piazza Venezia at an ungodly hour as early morning risers were coming in for their “wake me up” espressos. After that game, we somehow found ourselves getting a lift back to the centre of Rome on the same coach as Ron Harris and Peter Osgood. I had forgotten, but Mick said that he had sat next to Ossie on the coach and what a lovely memory for him.

We watched on a TV screen as an image of Diego Costa arriving at the stadium was shown. And just like that, Diego was back in the fold, and the China crisis was over. The game had been discussed but only very briefly throughout the day. I think it is very fair to say that three points against Hull City was absolutely expected. On the Saturday, we had been enlivened by Swansea’s surprising lunchtime win at Anfield and then, in the evening, points had been shared between Manchester City and Tottenham. The fact that Manchester United had dropped points at Stoke City seemed inconsequential.

The team was announced.

Courtois.

Cahill, Luiz, Azpilicueta.

Alonso, Matic, Kante, Moses.

Hazard, Diego Costa, Pedro.

Daryl and myself then had another drink in “The Malt House” before heading in to the stadium. I peered into The Broadway Bar & Grill and uttered an obscenity as I saw that Arsenal had taken a 1-0 lead at home to lowly Burnley. On walking towards the MH turnstiles, a fan announced that Burnley had miraculously equalised. I gave him a hug. By the time I had reached my seat, my mood had completed a 180 degree switch; Arsenal had scored a ridiculously late winner.

Not exactly a Carlsberg weekend, but maybe a Carlsberg top weekend.

Within the very first few seconds, Diego Costa raced on to a long ball from David Luiz and belted a low shot just past the Hull post.

It’s hard to believe that Tom Huddlestone is still playing football; he seems to have been around for ages. However, much to my chagrin, he seemed to be at the heart of a lot of Hull’s moves. I was soon getting annoyed at how much space we were giving him.

“Come on. Get on him. He’s their playmaker.”

His shot narrowly missed Thibaut’s post.

Hull City had brought around 1,200 fans, but were hardly noisy. Neither were we. In fact, it was ridiculously quiet.

Not long in to the game, Gary Cahill rose for a high ball, but only connected with Ryan Mason. Both fell to the floor. Both seemed immobile for a while. There was genuine concern as players from both teams swarmed around their two team mates. The minutes ticked by. Thankfully Gary Cahill stood, then walked off to the side line. Ryan Mason had evidently fared worse as a stretcher took him off for attention. The entire stadium rose as one to clap him off. Chelsea fans in laudable behaviour shock.

The extended delay seemed to affect Chelsea more than Hull City, who enjoyed a little spell. Marcos Alonso saw his effort from outside the box take a wicked deflection and dip alarmingly, but the Hull ‘keeper was able to scramble back and tip over. In all honesty, Chelsea were enjoying a lot of the ball, but were finding it difficult to break Hull down. Eden Hazard, very often the main threat, seemed to have a lot of the ball, but kept being forced wide. Pedro was quiet. Moses was often used, but wasn’t at his best. Still the atmosphere was morgue like. At times, I am sure there was complete silence.

Harry Maguire, who sounds like a petty criminal from a ‘sixties film – “I never did nuffink, see” – forced a fine save from Courtois.

This was not going to plan at all.

Bollocks.

A weighty nine minutes of injury time was added to the first-half. Can anyone remember anything longer? Not me.

The silence continued, a few disappeared off for half-time pints.

Sigh.

Then, with time running out, Moses was able to get behind Hull’s defence and send over a low ball. It miraculously ended up at the feet of Diego Costa who calmly slashed the ball home.

Chelsea 1, Hull City 0, thank fuck.

Diego danced over to Parkyville. Of all the people it had to be him. The Chelsea team mates mobbed Diego. What a moment.

Not long in to the half-time interval, Neil Barnett – in hushed tones – spoke of the recent death under highly suspicious circumstances of the Chelsea supporter Carl O’Brien. He spoke of how Carl once worked on the ground staff at Stamford Bridge, and how he attended games at Chelsea for decades. An image of Carl appeared on the large TV screens, and Neil spoke of the planned minute of applause which was to commence on fifty-five minutes. It would mark Carl’s age on his passing. Fifty-five; it is a very Chelsea number, but it represents a terribly young age to be taken from us. Carl was one of probably hundreds of Chelsea supporters who I knew by face only, and who float in and out of my life at various stages, various moments, various games. I remember first spotting him on a terrace in Zaragoza way back in 1995 when the Spanish police decided to baton charge us. He was a tall chap, with long hair; quite distinctive really. I can remember seeing him only a few months ago at Stamford Bridge. According to the eulogies, he was a gentle giant, a lovely man. I just hoped that the minute of applause on the fifty-fifth minute would be well-respected. I also hoped that it wouldn’t get lost in, for example, a cacophony of abuse being aimed at the referee, or maybe even a rousing song or chant, which would cloud the moment.

The two teams exchanged efforts on goal in the first ten minutes of the second-half. Huddlestone was still a main threat for Hull.

On fifty-five minutes, with the ball in a neutral area, Stamford Bridge celebrated the life of Carl O’Brien. Many stood, including myself.

“God bless, Carl, memories of Zaragoza in the sun.”

At the end of the minute, I realised that the Shed had held up a banner in memory of him too.

The game continued, but with the visitors dominating for a while. PD was feeling the frustration of an eerily quiet Stamford Bridge, often joining in alone with chants emanating from other parts of the stadium. I joined in too, but it’s difficult to keep it going when there are only two or three singing in a section of several hundred.

This was turning into a proper struggle, both on and off the pitch.

I must’ve thought “we need a second” many times.

Conte replaced the ineffectual Hazard with Cesc Fabregas and Pedro with Willian with twenty minutes to go. I struggled to see if there was a slight adjustment to our formation and after trying to see where Fabregas fitted in I gave up. To be fair, both additions revitalised us a little.

Willian was upended after a fine run down below me. We waited for Cesc to take the free-kick. His delivery was Postman Pat perfect and Gary Cahill rose unhindered inside the six-yard box to head home.

There was that second goal.

Phew.

Gary ran over to our corner, fell to the floor, and was then mobbed by his team mates.

The joy was palpable.

Just after, Fabregas – running the show now – fed a sublime ball through for Diego. We expected a third goal, but his shot was blocked by the ‘keeper.

Michy Batshuayi then replaced Diego, and the Stamford Bridge crowd rose again.

At last there was some noise worthy of the occasion.

“Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego!”

This was clearly not a memorable Chelsea performance, but if ever we needed to win ugly, with Diego Costa we certainly have the man to do it.

And with points being dropped by three of our main rivals, our hard-fought win had put us eight points clear.

Catch us if you can.

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Tales From A Day Of Sobriety

Hull City vs. Chelsea : 1 October 2016.

A few years ago, it was announced that the city of Kingston-Upon-Hull was to be awarded the title of UK City of Culture of 2017. This is a relatively new award, with the city of Londonderry in 2009 wining the inaugural competition. It is not to be confused with the European City of Culture, which encompassed Glasgow in 1990 (I can still remember Rab C. Nesbitt’s thoughts about that) and Liverpool in 2008. When Chelsea visited the home of Hull City during the 2013/2014 season, the natives were full of self-deprecation, chanting at us that we were only “here for the culture.” With 2017 approaching, I remained a little oblivious to the events planned for the city on the River Humber, er Hull, but presumed that events were taking shape to give the much-maligned city – once voted the UK’s most boring town –  a boost for their big year.

Then, back in the summer, a news story gathered pace over a weekend which brought the city back into the limelight. Photographer Spencer Tunick was up to his old tricks again, enticing thousands of people to assemble at daybreak on a Saturday morning in July, disrobe, and daub themselves in subtle shades of blue paint, in order for Tunick to capture several photographs around the quiet city centre. The resulting photographs were stunning.

After our recent games – two sad losses – against Liverpool and Arsenal, all eyes were on our manager and players. The pressure was on Chelsea to reshape, to re-group and to bounce back.

However, I wondered if my trip to Hull would result in Chelsea Football Club’s very own homage to Spencer Tunick.

Was the football world about to be horrified by the sight of many blue arses being exposed and solemnly embarrassed in a public place?

We hoped not. We bloody hoped not.

This was always going to be a long day. I set off early at 6am, the night still shrouding everything in darkness. I collected PD first, then Young Jake and Old Parky. We wolfed down a McBreakfast on the hoof, and then the long drive north began in earnest. The sun crashed through towering banks of cloud as I drove along the Fosse way, through the Cotswolds and its charming countryside. I was last on this famous old Roman road a mere two weeks previously, when I was tempted to Stratford-Upon- Avon to watch Frome Town play. We skirted Coventry on a new city by-pass, and we soon found ourselves on the M1. This was my fourth visit to see Chelsea play at Hull City, and there had been three victories out of three. I made great time, and the weather was exceptional. I drove into Hull, past the large and impressive Humber Bridge, at bang on 10.30am, and bang on time.

We made a bee-line for a drink in the large and impersonal Wetherspoon’s in the city centre. “The Admiral Of The Humber” would be base camp until we would leave for the game later in the day. We were last there in March 2015, and PD soon spotted a local chap who he and Parky chatted to on that occasion. Parky went over to say “hi” and he soon recognised us. He was wearing an old retro amber Hull City shirt from years ago. I am quite fond of their club colours; very effective. We chatted away to him and he told us a few home truths about the recent events at his club in recent months. It seems that discounted season tickets are no more, and everyone pays the same price, even if they are pensioners or youngsters. In fact, season tickets in general are no more. Now, everyone has to be a member, with home games having to be bought – ad infinitum – via direct debit. The club owner Assem Allam is hardly flavour of the month in Hull. His desire to rebrand Hull City as Hull Tigers caused outrage a few years back, and he continues to upset many. Steve Bruce, a decent enough manager, left during the summer, seemingly tired of the politics. The gates thus far into the new season have not reached capacity. Despite a promotion campaign last season, I sensed that all was not well.

The Hull City fan spoke about a visit of Newcastle United, when the very same pub was mobbed by visiting Geordies. They very soon started singing a song, aimed at him, based on the fact that his grey beard and glasses made him resemble an infamous person in Britain’s recent past.

“One Harold Shipman, there’s only one Harold Shipman.”

He smiled as he re-told the story of how he remonstrated with them, and how this resulted in the Geordies buying him drink after drink.

“I love that about football, the banter” he joked.

I popped out for an hour, but my little tour of the city was disrupted by a sudden downpour. The city centre seemed to be in a state of disruption, with virtually every pavement getting re-laid, presumably in preparation for 2017. I spotted a couple of colourful “bugs” on the walls of buildings and wondered if this was the Hull equivalent of Liverpool’s “Super Lamb Banana” sculptures in 2008, Bristol’s “Gromits Unleashed” in 2013 and Dundee’s current “Oor Wullie” trail. There will be a time when every city in the UK is overrun with comic sculptures and what a fine time that will be. I popped into “The Mission” – a converted building, once ecclesiastical, now a place for revelry – to get out of the rain.

No beer for me though, being the driver, and with a tiring drive home ahead of me. In fact, the superstitious part of my nature came to the fore on this day in Hull; in all of the previous domestic games this season, Chelsea were unbeaten when I had gone without a beer, whereas the two occasions when I had enjoyed a pre-match beer had resulted in losses.

I was taking one for the team.

No beers for me.

Outside the rain stopped.

Kingston-Upon-Hull was full of Saturday shoppers and it went about its way, oblivious to the two-thousand Chelsea fans that had descended upon it. I once described Hull as the UK’s unknown city and it remains so. It does not have the clout of others. It is not famous. In Elvis Costello’s famous song, the boys from the Humber did not even make the shortlist. I inwardly wished the city well in its year in the spotlight in 2017. Many might deride the decision to award Hull the title of City of Culture, but I suppose that the whole point is to use it as a stepping stone to some sort of rejuvenation to the area, to give the locals something to invoke some civic pride, and to celebrate the area’s culture, however it manifests itself. Past Everything But The Girl and The Housemartins, I was struggling to pin down some cultural reference points but I am sure there are others. Do Hull Kingston Rovers count?

Back in the boozer, the boys recounted a funny story. A few Chelsea fans had heard that some others were in a pub called the New King Edward. A six-seater taxi was booked and it pulled up outside. The six Chelsea fans piled in.

“Right, where do you want to go?”

“The New King Edward.”

The driver reversed ten yards. The pub was next door.

Ha.

The place was heaving with Chelsea now, and the large pub was reverberating with song. We watched, sadly, as Liverpool came from behind to beat Swansea 2-1.

Also in town were some Salford rugby league fans, playing at Hull KR, but we did not bump into any of them, save for one who seemed to think it would be mayhem later in the evening with three thousand Mancunians in town. We gave him a wide berth.

At about 2.15pm, we hopped into a cab outside the railway station, and were soon dropped-off right outside the renamed KCOM Stadium.

The team news had filtered through. We already knew that John Terry was out with an injury, and the news that Gary Cahill was the stand-in captain was met with a few disdainful comments. Elsewhere, Victor Moses was handed a start for the first time since the days of Rafa Benitez.

I found myself shunted further around the corner at the KCOM stadium. Back in 2007, I watched behind the goal, towards the west stand, and since then the away end has moved further east with each season. Parky, Alan, Gary and I were in row E, PD and Jake were in row B. It made a lovely change to be so close to the action. Thankfully, after hundreds of no shows at Swansea, virtually every seat was filled in the cramped away corner. And the Chelsea fans were in good voice for sure. I spotted a few patches of empty seats around the home areas, including a large block of the upper tier opposite. I like Hull’s stadium. Low on three sides, it rises dramatically on the western side. It’s a little different. I approve.

The game began, and it seemed that the home team started with a little more bite than us. Robert Snodgrass – one of the few City players I recognised – was heavily involved. Very soon into the match, it was a fine free-kick from the former Leeds United and Norwich City midfielder which forced an equally fine save from Thibaut Courtois.

For once, the home fans decided not to play the role of gobby Northerners, and their reluctance to make much noise surprised me. Maybe the malaise within the club is deeper than even I imagined. Whereas the Chelsea supporters were making some noise, we struggled to get going on the pitch. With Marcos Alonso playing in a very advanced position on the left, it gradually became apparent that Conte was playing a three at the back for the first time. David Luiz had Gary Cahill to his left and Cesar Azpilicueta to his right. On the right flank, Victor Moses was up and down like a yo-yo.

To be fair, there were no boos, nor negative noise, aimed at Gary Cahill. I approved. At a time when football clubs seem to be increasingly followed by a nerdy tribe of experts and critics, it is time for the match-goers to revert to the role of supporters, cheering the players on, and thus creating a platform for them to perform.

Chances for us were at a premium. I remembered our last visit in 2015 when we were abysmal but still eked out a win. Mbokani looked a bit of a handful up front for attack. We tried to get in to the game, but Hazard – playing a little more central than usual – was peripheral, and Moses lacked a quality final ball despite all of his resourceful forays down the far flank. But Moses was soon getting applauded by us.

A Chelsea winger who goes past defenders? Whatever next.

A Cahill shot bothered the home fans in the south stand rather than Marshall in the Hull goal.

A few half-chances, but nothing of note.

Just before the half-time whistle, Hull City broke but Courtois did well to save from Mason.

There was a fair amount of doom and gloom at the interval.

Sigh.

I commented to Gary : “Apart from coming for crosses, the Hull ‘keeper has hardly touched the ball.”

During the break, around a thousand flag-waving, blue track-suited City of Culture volunteers walked around the perimeter of the pitch. They were virtually all pensioners. A veritable army of Doreens, Normans, Norahs and Brians – we saluted them. Thankfully there was no Spencer Tunick moment on the centre-circle.

Soon into the second-half, it was easy to spot an added desire in our play. That man Conte had obviously spoken a few “bon mots” in the interlude. First Alonso threatened, and then a classic dribble, body shake, and shot from Eden brought us renewed hope. The rasping shot from Hazard was spectacularly tipped-over by Marshall.

“It’s all Chelsea, Gal.”

Then, a dynamic run by Diego Costa, out-muscling two defenders, and rounding the ‘keeper, but his firm shot hit the post. The ball fell to N’Golo Kante, but we were gobsmacked as his effort flew over.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.”

On the hour, after more Chelsea pressure. Willian worked his way into a little pocket of space inside the box and carefully curved an effort past Marshall and into the goal. It was a divine effort and one which was met with wild approval in the Chelsea quadrant.

Lovely to see the players celebrate so wildly. A hug from Willian from David Luiz.

Braziliant.

Willian dropped to his knees, pointed to the sky and no doubt silently whispered a word of dedication for his ailing mother.

More Chelsea pressure. A shot from Diego Costa. A shot from Nemanja Matic was blocked, but it fell conveniently at the feet of Costa. He automatically, without having time to doubt himself, curled the ball wide of the Hull ‘keeper. It was a pretty good copy of Willian’s goal.

Hull City 0 Chelsea 2.

Phew.

Moses, hardly similar to his aged namesake, and certainly without the need of a mobility scooter, kept racing past his foes. He had a great game. We could hardly believe that Willian was not awarded a penalty after having his legs clipped.

Victor Moses was given a fine reception, and his personal “Pigbag” song had a thorough airing, when he was replaced by Pedro. There were further appearances, off the bench, for Pedro and Nathaniel Chalobah.

When Tom Huddlestone came off the bench for the home team, Gary was soon to comment.

“Fackinell, you’ll never get past him. He’s like a barrage balloon.”

After a poor first-half, but a much better second-half, we exited the tight stands of the KCOM Stadium in good spirits.

I left the City of Culture 2017 at 6pm. The sun was soon to set. The road south seemed endless.

At Goole, we stopped off for some good honest Northern food from a chippy.

“Have we ever lost to Hull City?”

“Nah. Not in my memory.”

“Great chips.”

“Yeah, great chips.”

I reached home at 11.30pm.

It had been a good day.

Our next game is in two week’s time against Leicester City.

Do I have a beer or not? Let me think on that.

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Tales From A Road Less Travelled

Hull City vs. Chelsea : 11 January 2014.

My seemingly never-ending trail around the highways and byways of England and Wales, after consecutive away days in Hampshire and Derbyshire, now had me heading up to Yorkshire for Chelsea’s lunchtime encounter with Hull City. I once described Hull as England’s forgotten city, but following Hull City’s promotion to the top flight in 2008, at least football fanciers are now aware of the city on the banks of the River Humber. This would be a long day, but one that I was relishing.

At 5am the alarm sounded and I was soon cobbling together my match day essentials. I noted that a few fans were already referencing an “Only Fools And Horses” episode on “Facebook.”

“To Hull and back.”

I soon collected Parky at 6.30am and we soon dipped in to McChippenham for our standard football breakfast.

Within minutes, we had crossed the M4 and were heading north on the straight-as-a-dye Fosse Way once again. This ancient Roman road, which stretches from Exeter to Lincoln, is especially picturesque in The Cotswolds, linking small knots of hamlets with larger market towns, each with dwellings built from the local golden stone. At around 7.30am, we saw the sun rise to the east. The road was quiet. The Cotswolds were as photogenic as ever, even in the height of winter. By 8.30am, there was nothing but a clear blue sky overhead.

“I love this time of the day, Parky. Dawn breaking, with a long trip ahead. Perfect.”

Our route eventually took us right through the heart of much-maligned Coventry. The inner-city ring road hurtled us past the two recent former homes of the city’s football team. I would imagine that most Coventry City fans are rueing the club’s decision to move out of Highfield Road, a perfectly fine stadium in the heart of the city, and then decamp to the now abandoned Ricoh Arena. Coventry’s football club now play at Northampton Town’s stadium and this is just a miserable state of affairs.

“This town is coming like a ghost town.”

Our F.A. Cup visit to the Ricoh in 2009 may turn out to be our solitary one.

Just after 9am, we collected Andy from his house in Nuneaton. I’ve been good mates with Andy for almost twenty years (Prague 1994). However, for almost ten years before that, his was a face that I often used to spot at various stadia. I recognised him at first from our travels back to the midlands from Euston station after Chelsea home games. For a spell, it seemed that I couldn’t help noticing him at home games – he used to stand in front of the Bovril Gate in The Shed – and most away games too. I even remember spotting him in Glasgow for a Rangers game in 1986 on a day when there was no Chelsea match.

“Bloody hell, I can’t get away from him.”

Twenty-eight years later, we were headed off to Hull City in the same car.  It’s weird how these things work themselves out.

We then stopped at a nearby village to collect Alan (aka “The Youth”) and his twelve year old son Seb (collectively known as “The Two Ronnies”). In the same way that my home town of Frome used to supply around six to eight fans for many Chelsea games, Andy’s home of Nuneaton used to supply even greater numbers. Whereas, Frome’s presence has dwindled to just a couple, many of the Nuneaton boys still go. On one memorable occasion in 1997, we arranged to play a Chelsea South (essentially Frome and London) versus a Chelsea Nuneaton six-a-side game at a sport centre off the King’s Road on the morning of a Chelsea vs. Manchester United match. The Nuneaton chaps were clear winners, winning 6-1 if memory serves. Good times. We’re long overdue a re-match.

For the second time in under a week, I was headed up the M42. Rather than turn off for Derby, I joined the M1. After all of my journeys up the west side of the midlands for games in Lancashire and Merseyside, this made a refreshing change. Due to the reluctance of both Sheffield teams and Leeds United to join Chelsea in top-flight football, this was certainly a road less travelled. A solitary game at Bramall Lane in the autumn of 2006 has been our only league match at these two cities for ages. It is likely that some new Chelsea fans are completely unaware of the existence of Sheffield Wednesday – unwilling to look beyond the Premier League – such has their status plummeted over the past fifteen years. Maybe some fans believe Sheffield Wednesday to be a type of cake, or a breed of cattle, or a type of rifle.

As I drove north, we spoke of previous visits to see Chelsea play at Hull City.

“Didn’t we play them twice in the F.A. Cup years and years ago?”

“Yeah, 1982…and then again, when the third round was played before Christmas, in 1999.”

“There was that 4-0 League Cup win.”

“Two midweek league games.”

This would only be my second visit to the K.C. stadium to see us play.

“That Frank Lampard chip.”

Surprisingly, I spotted no other Chelsea cars headed north. In addition to the smoke billowing out from the cooling towers of several power stations, there were many wind turbines on the hills to the distance. Here was evidence of the changing face of England in 2014. We swung around, passing Sheffield and then Doncaster, before heading due east on the M62. The sky was still a brilliant blue. Eventually, the Humber Bridge – once the World’s longest single span suspension bridge – came in to view. It’s quite striking, to be honest.

Then, the city of Hull.

A while ago, this grey city ranked “numero uno” in a list of “Crap Towns of Britain” but I can’t honestly comment, since my visits have been such short-lived affairs. If the football club remain in the top flight for more than one season, and if the kick-off slot is more conducive, I promise to take a walk around the recently rejuvenated dock area and try to eke out some worthwhile sights. In 1973, on a family visit to nearby Grimsby, we spent a day in Hull and I remember a visit to the William Wilberforce Museum, devoted to the man who is most credited for abolishing slavery within the British Empire.

Back in the early ‘eighties, one of my favourite bands were formed at Hull University, taking their name from a slogan used by a furniture shop.

“For all your bedroom needs, we sell everything but the girl.”

Hull, like Wigan, is a rugby league town. I’d imagine that Hull would be quite content to emulate Wigan Athletic; in the top flight for eight years with an F.A. Cup and European football thrown in for good measure. Our approach into the city was along Clive Sullivan way, named after one of Hull’s favourite rugby league players. Very soon, we spotted the white floodlight pylons of the K.C. Stadium and we were soon parked-up.

It was 11.45am.

The cold wind was a shock to the system, but we were soon inside, amongst familiar Chelsea faces within the concourse behind the northern goal. There was just time for a pint and a pie. A proud banner reminded us that the city had been awarded the title of the U.K. City of Culture for 2017.

I reached my seat a few moments before the teams walked out. I’d imagine we had around 2,500 tickets for this game, together in one tier behind the goal. It was clear that the “gobby” element of the home support were adjacent, to our left, just like at Wigan in fact.

Still clear blue skies.

As the game commenced, I quickly scanned the team and approved.

Luiz in midfield alongside Ramires? No complaints.

However, despite my liking of the Cole/Terry/Cahill/Azpilicueta defensive line, Ashley Cole was continually tested in the first period of the game by several Hull City bursts. We seemed to take a while to get out of the traps and the home team managed a few efforts on Petr Cech’s goal.

The banter on the terraces had started early. The home fans in the corner were firing some bullets our way.

“Here for the culture. You’re only here for the culture.”

“You’re soft. You’re southerners.”

“We support our local team.”

…bollocks, you were all Leeds fans ten years ago.

John Terry gave the ball away right in front of me, but thankfully Sagbo snatched at his shot and the ball flashed wide of the far post. Soon after, our first real chance was provided by an excellent piece of attacking play by Cole and Hazard. Our Belgian maestro crossed the ball to the waiting Oscar and the entire Chelsea end expected a goal. The Brazilian’s shot, though powerful, was right at Alan McGregor, who ably deflected the ball over. I turned away, mouthing “great save” and noticed a few others saying the same.

The home fans were again singing.

“Silverware, we don’t care. Hull City everywhere.”

In truth, there was little noise emanating from the Chelsea faithful as the first-half wore on. Maybe it was the early kick-off which affected our quietness. A late free-kick from David Luiz forced another fine save from the Hull ‘keeper, but there seemed to be a general malaise from team and supporters alike in the lunchtime sun. Both Alan and Gary, who had travelled up from London by train, were of the same opinion as me; we needed to up the tempo, create space, move for each other. Very often, Hull were able to smother our play.

“Bloody hell, we can go top today. That should be all the motivation the players need.”

“I’m sure Jose will sort it at the break.”

Soon after the restart, a ridiculously high and wide effort from Luiz almost reached the corner flag.

“Bloody hell.”

Thankfully, our pressure steadily increased. We were awarded another free-kick and again David Luiz took control. With Gary Cahill standing in the wall, he turned and broke away, allowing Luiz to aim for the space he had vacated. In truth, the dipping ball was easy for the ‘keeper to shield.

A gorgeous dribble from Hazard right into the Hull penalty area, but his shot was smacked wide. Just after, a fine interchange between Luiz and Cole set up Eden Hazard. What happened next was pure joy.

Hazard advanced at speed, sold the defender the most delightful dummy by feinting to shoot, then slammed the ball in at the base of the left post.

Get in!

The Chelsea end roared and Hazard ran to milk the applause, with a knowing smirk which shouted “yeah, I know, that was the bollocks, wasn’t it?”He was soon mobbed by his team mates. We were on our way.

At the birthplace of Everything But The Girl, Eden had registered a hit.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

The Chelsea choir soon greeted our goal with the most obvious chant of the season –

“We are top’o’the league. Say, we are top’o’the league.”

Is it me, or does anyone else think that this chant always seems to be carried out in a Geordie accent?

The noise from the Chelsea fans clearly upset the home fans, who responded with the dreary “City Till I Die” dirge.

Chelsea then responded –

“Hull City Tigers – You Know What You Are.”

Ouch. That must’ve hurt. However, I have a feeling that this particular ditty must have been sung at Hull on many other occasions this season because their response was quick, loud and most definitely to the point.

“I’d rather be a tiger than a cnut.”

A few Chelsea smiles greeted that one.

Chelsea again tested Hull with a few more efforts and Hull were fading fast. However, Mourinho replaced Oscar with Mikel and we expected a tightening of our play.

A 1-0 victory would do for me.

With the game heading towards its conclusion, Willian – who had enjoyed another all-action display – played the ball through to Fernando Torres. Torres had toiled hard all game, but had been fed just scraps. Here was a chance for him to excel, enjoying the exact type of ball with which he so often thrived at Anfield. He pushed the ball forward, drifted past his marker and once inside the box quickly dispatched the ball low with his left foot. McGregor was beaten and the net rippled.

No smirking from Nando. Just relief that his weaker left peg had not let him down.

2-0, game over.

I pulled out of Hull bang on 3pm and I then battled the falling sun as I headed due west. There was a small amount of reflection on the game. In truth, we were hardly troubled. The concern at half-time soon disappeared as the second-half developed and Chelsea’s superiority told. Another three points, top of the league, having a laugh.

It was a tiring drive home. I fought the yawns with copious supplies of caffeine. There were plenty of laughs as we headed south.

We bade our farewells to Alan and Seb :

“It’s goodnight from me.”

“And it’s goodnight from him.”

And then Andy :

“See you next Sunday, God bless.”

As so often happens, I inevitably contrived to get lost in the Bermuda Triangle just south of Coventry. Every damn time, this happens. If ever I go missing over the next few years, I suggest they send a search party out to search the roads around bloody Warwick, bloody Kenilworth and bloody Leamington bloody Spa.

As we headed south on the Fosse, Parky played a couple of CDs from the ‘eighties. We passed Moreton-in-Marsh to the sound of ABC, Stow on the Wold to the sound of The Beat and Cirencester to the sound of Bauhaus.

I eventually reached home at 9pm, fell asleep on the sofa, missed “Match of the Day” and awoke at 4am. I turned over and fell back to sleep.

Top of the league, I’m having a kip.

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