Tales From Turf Moor.

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 12 January 2017.

It seemed wholly appropriate that our visit to the most austere town on our travels this season was coinciding with the worst weather of the campaign thus far. There had been a short burst of winter sun as I had climbed towards Blackburn on the M65, but the bleakness soon returned. Lo and behold, as I raced on past signs for Accrington and then Clitheroe, I spotted snow on the distant Pennine Hills beyond Burnley.

We were well and truly “up north.”

We had set off from Somerset at 6am. Five hours later, I fitted my car inside a parking space outside Burnley’s bus station in its compact town centre. We gingerly opened up the car doors. Within seconds, we were scurrying to grab coats, scarves, and hats from the car boot. An arctic wind was howling and for fuck sake it was cold.

I had driven through the town centre and had noted a few pubs which seemed to be overflowing with locals. Rather than chance our arm there, we quickly decided to cut our losses and head towards the stadium, where – like at Swindon Town – there is a cricket club adjoined to the football club which allows away fans a drink or two.

Burnley. Such is the nature of the town that it allows no added affectation to its football club. Even the town’s stadium, Turf Moor, is named as abruptly as possible. But for all of the hackneyed jokes which would undoubtedly be aimed at the much-maligned town during the day by the visiting hordes, I approved. This was a grand old football team – twice Champions – playing in a grand old football town – population just 75,000 – and there is much to admire of the way the area has supported its club over the years.

I even approved of the quick ten-minute walk from the car to the stadium; it was a walk deep into Football Land.

Locals rushing by. The proud claret and blue. Ancient mill chimneys in the distance. Narrow streets and terraced houses. Police cars flitting past. A grafter selling scarves and trinkets. An ornate and historic bridge carrying a canal over the busy road. Echoes of an industrial past. A Balti take-away. The thin floodlights of Turf Moor. A couple of pubs. The rain starting to fall. A working men’s club. The grey of the main stand. Grizzled old locals selling lottery tickets. Programmes. Flags billowing in the wind.

We settled in at the cricket club and watched from the warmth of the first-story bar as the rain turned to sleet and then to snow. There was the usual chat with an assortment of friends from near and far. We all expected a tough game against Burnley, who had won nine of the thirteen games played at Turf Moor previously.

“A win would be bloody great though. Twelve points clear. What a message to the rest.”

Outside the away end, I was dismayed to see that the montage of past Burnley players was no longer present. I had hoped to pay my silent respects to the lovely image of Ian Britton, bless him, which was originally just along from the away turnstiles. It did not seem plausible that it was a full ten months since I had attended his funeral at the local crematorium. Instead of the montage, the stand was now covered with more formal photographs of former players.

The lads supped one last cider in a marquee outside the away concourse, and we then made our way inside. Memories of my only two previous visits came flooding back.

January 2010 : an equally bleak day, just after the John Terry / Wayne Bridge fiasco, when JT scored a late winner. There was snow on the way home after that one I remember.

August 2014 : my one-thousandth Chelsea game, and Chelsea league debuts for Thibaut Courtois, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa. The night of “that” pass from Cesc to Schurrle.

We had predicted an unchanged side on the long car ride north; Antonio did not let us down.

Thibaut – Dave, Luiz, Cahill – Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso – Pedro, Costa, Hazard.

What a cosmopolitan set.

In contrast, the home team was singularly Anglo-Saxon and solidly no-frills 4-4-2.

Heaton – Lowton, Keane, Mee, Ward – Boyd, Barton, Westwood, Brady – Barnes, Gray.

It was noticeable that the exotic Tarkowski, Darikwa and Gudmundsson were banished to the bench.

Nowt fancy at Turf Moor.

The sleet was still falling as the players went through their drills. I took the time to ask a steward why there is always a section of seats which are empty in the away end at Turf Moor. She answered that it is for the team members of both clubs that are not involved, plus other club officials, and sometimes wives and girlfriends. Glenn and I were down in the front row, and we were immediately soaked.

For the opening game of the 2014/2015 season, Chelsea had over 4,000 seats and the entire end. At the time, Burnley wanted to concentrate all of their support in three stands. For this game, the end was shared with Chelsea having to “make do” with around 2,400.

As the game began, it was the home fans in our end – to my left – who were the noisiest. As before, they shared taking pot shots at us with songs of derision for their bitter local rivals from Blackburn.

“And its no nay never, no nay never no more ‘til we play bastard Rovers, no never no more.”

Lots of hatred between these two cities, eh? The venom was there alright.

“We are those bastards in claret and blue.”

They rolled up with a song calling us “rent boys” and I wondered why it had taken fifteen years to reach Burnley from Liverpool and Manchester.

To my right, John Terry was spotted in the cordoned-off area. Many fans posed with him for selfies. He looked cold, too.

We began very brightly indeed with tons of crisp passing and quick one-touch possession. It was a joy to watch. Pedro, Moses and Kante were always involved. After a fine passing move, an Eden Hazard shot should have caused Heaton in the Burnley goal more trouble. Just after, a Burnley attack disintegrated and we quickly exploited gaps in their defence. Hazard played an early ball wide to Victor Moses, who rode an ugly tackle before playing the ball in to Pedro, who arrived just at the right time to steer the ball low past Heaton. The Chelsea end exploded.

I screamed and stretched my arms out wide and could not help noticing Thibaut, just a few yards away, jump up, turn towards us in the away stand and do the same. His face was a picture. A lovely moment.

The Pedro strike was reminiscent of Frank Lampard at his very best. However, it was noticeable that it was Victor Moses, in lieu of his strong run and pass, that drew the plaudits and applause rather than the goal scorer.

Soon after, very soon after, parts of the away end decided to sing – ugh – “we’re gonna win the league” and I turned around to spot who was perpetrating this monstrosity and glowered accordingly.

A woman behind me bit back:

“But we will, though.”

I retorted:

“But it’s bloody February.”

At least wait until April when we are on the brink.

Back in 2005 – when we were ten points clear in early February – I think we sung it first at Southampton in early April. Even then, I wasn’t too happy.

There then followed the equally obnoxious “we’ve won it all.”

Another “ugh.”

At least we were saved from hearing the nastiest chant of them all – “Chelsea till I die.”

I could not help but notice that David Luiz, for once, was beset with problems with his distribution. I let it go the first couple of times, but as the half progressed, I became increasingly annoyed that he found it increasingly difficult to hit Diego or Eden or Victor. It was all Chelsea in the opening quarter, though, and I hoped for a crucial second.

The sleet continued. This would not be a day of too many photographs; a shame since I was virtually pitch side.

Burnley began to attack with a little more conviction – Ashley Barnes shot wide – but we always looked dangerous on the break.

Then, after twenty-five minutes, Burnley won a free-kick just outside the box. I watched as Thibaut arranged the all blue wall. We waited. Robbie Brady, with a fine curling effort whipped it over the Chelsea players and it screamed into the top corner of the net, just fifteen feet away from me. Courtois’ dive was in vain. It had might as well have been in Spain. He was nowhere near it. Brady was in ecstasy – like a proper Clitheroe – and the home fans roared.

For a few moments, we were reeling. Thibaut blocked a save at close range and Gary Cahill flung his whole body to block another goal-bound shot.

It was definitely a case of “game on.”

Glenn and myself walked back to join up with the lads at half-time and shelter from the sleet and rain.

“Eden has been quiet.”

Our support had died a little during the closing moments of the first-half. I think my support had died from the feet up. They were bloody freezing.

Glenn quickly shook Cesc’s hand as the substitute raced past us before taking his position on the bench. His face was covered in a black scarf. He looked freezing too.

The second-half resumed. More rain. More sleet. More plunging temperatures. My toes were tingling with the chill. Everybody had their hoods up, their hats on. One nearby steward wore a bobble hat and a baseball cap.

“Johnny two hats.”

His icy cold stare back at me suggested that his brain had already seized.

With Chelsea attacking our end, and with me yards from the pitch, I was looking forward to tons of action right in front of me. Instead, it was Courtois who was called in to action at the start of the second-half. He saved well, down low, after a ball evaded the lunges of both Cahill and Luiz. I am not sure if this was some sort of reaction to Luiz playing with his hair tied back, but his passing continued to disappoint. Maybe there are some sensors within that usual free flowing frizz, but against Burnley in the wet and the cold, his mechanics were off. He defended well, but his distribution was shocking.

Chelsea – not surprisingly – dominated possession. We kept the ball well, but just could not break the two banks of four. Time and time again, the ball was pushed out wide for either Moses, Pedro, Hazard or Alonso, but we failed to play in any balls to hurt the defence. The twin pillars at the back – Keane and Mee – won virtually every high ball. Diego simply could not reach.

A shot from Azpilicueta did not really trouble Heaton.

My feet ached with the cold.

Conte replaced Matic with Cesc Fabregas and we prayed for a Schurrle repeat. Matic had not been at his best, though to be honest many players were not performing too well. But they never stopped trying. They never stopped running into space, to try and tease an opening, nor did they shirk any tackles. There were no complaints from me about the effort from the boys.

Willian replaced Moses. The crosses still came over, but were dealt with admirably. It was all Chelsea again in the final quarter of an hour, and I was convinced that we would nab a late winner. I looked hard at Fabregas and saw him spot runners before lofting balls towards his team mates. I was enjoying the game from this fresh viewpoint; despite the extreme temperatures, this was a good enough game, full of tough tackles and earnest endeavour. The skilful stuff was missing, but if football is a chocolate box, there has to be room for the occasional nut brittle.

Batshuayi came on too late for my liking. It was another “three minute hero” appearance, but he hardly touched the ball. On a day when we needed to flood the Burnley box, I found his late appearance a little baffling. Surely better to support Diego with Batshuayi if the crosses continued to come in. Although it was difficult to tell from such a low angle, we wondered if Conte had changed to a 4/4/2 since Dave seemed to support Willian in an advanced position. He even found time to put in a few crosses from out wide on the right.

Wayward efforts from Pedro and Hazard just about summed the game up.

It was not to be.

Instead of a gap of a dozen points, we were now ahead of the pack by ten points.

We slowly walked back up the icy steps of the away end, gathered together, then headed back to the car. The walk back began to get some life back in to my frozen limbs. Inside the car, off came the wet jacket and pullover, the blowers were turned to turbo, and I began the five-hour drive home. The draw, we admitted, had been a fair result. No complaints at all.

“Hey listen, we’re not going to win every bloody game you know. Tough place Burnley. Especially on a day like this.”

I had enjoyed it. Despite the wind and the rain and the sleet and the snow – or maybe because of it – it had felt like a good old-fashioned football day out in good old, ugly Burnley. Not every away game is the same, thank heavens, and I relished the whole adventure.

Next week we visit another classic football town, Wolverhampton, that used to have a grand old team of their own a few years ago.

I will see many of you there.

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Tales From A Simple Saturday.

Chelsea vs. Burnley : 27 August 2016.

Oh dear. How soon people forget. It wasn’t long into the journey to Stamford Bridge that – despite our struggles against most teams last season – I was heard to comment that I expected us to easily win our game against Burnley, despite their recent surprising 2-0 win against Liverpool. This was based on the assumption that our manager Antonio Conte had managed to reverse the malaise of the previous campaign, which in itself was based on a handful of pre-season games, a narrow win against Bristol Rovers, and two equally close victories in two league games. Two league games. My – our, the other three Chuckle Brothers shared my view – new found optimism in all things Chelsea was, really, based on our performances in just two league games.

After such a troublesome season in 2015/2016, I wondered if my optimism was misguided. Was I overdosing on positive-thought? Surely, there are no games in the top division these days which should be taken as lightly as I evidently was taking this one? The others had predicted theirs scores, and I don’t usually join in with these parlour games. I jokingly retorted “7-0”, not wishing nor wanting to be taken seriously.

As the day unfolded, I was to find out if all of this new-found confidence in the manager and team was warranted.

There was something strikingly satisfactory about the game against Burnley. It would start up a three-day bank holiday weekend and it was a three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. There is just something about this; the traditional kick-off time for all football games in the United Kingdom before the TV companies got their grubby hands on the TV schedules, sending fans off around the country to witness ridiculous games at ridiculous times in ridiculous places.

3pm, Saturday, simple.

Glenn and myself had our own little pub-crawl before the game. We started off with a quiet drink in the newly re-opened “Wellington” on Haldane Road, tucked away behind the busy North End Road. We recently heard that the landlords at “The Goose” (our regular pub, in the main, since around 1999, apart from a few months of exile in “The Mitre” and the “Fulham Dray”), were to leave at the end of September and I suppose there will be a chance we will move on too, if the new incumbents do not run the pub in the way that we have been accustomed with Lorraine and Reg.

We spoke about the transfer policy of the club, or lack thereof.

I almost feel that everyone within the Chelsea Nation feels – roughly – the same way about all of this, so I have nothing much to gain from sharing my own particular views.

Ake, Bamford, Christensen, plus twenty-three others, an A to Z of confusion and mess.

I just hope that Kurt Zouma – the last on the A to Z, but the first in my mind – recovers as soon as possible this autumn. Most fans recognise that we need extra bodies in defence, but if Kurt can recover soon, and it is the biggest worry that he will not, we might – just might – be able to get through all of this without spending typically silly money on a panic buy. Daryl and myself spoke about this on Tuesday. This was before the promising Ola Aina had a knock.

I mentioned to Glenn it is the strangest thing that with all of our Italian managers, dating back to 1998, we have never bought a tried and tested Italian defender, apart from the short-lived and unsuccessful loan of Christian Panucci in 1999. You would have thought that an Italian manager at Chelsea would love a trusted defender from his own country. They know how to defend, those Italians.

In The Goose, there was a cast of thousands, seeping out from the bar and into the packed beer garden. There was the usual alcohol-induced banter, apart from me, a miserable bastard on “Cokes.” Daryl was knocking out a nice line in new Chelsea badges, while Gary was chatting away to two South London “sorts” and was the subject of much piss-taking.

“They’re from my area, Chris; Croydon.”

“Oh nice – are you talking about chip shops you all frequent?”

Wayne pointed at Gary and said “he’s quite the magnet, isn’t he?”

“Yeah,” I said. “You’ll always find him near a fridge.”

There were a few – around twenty – claret-and-blue clad away fans in the beer garden, minding their own business. We wondered if, given that the most away fans pay for away games is now £30, they would take their full 3,000 allocation.

Glenn and I also called in to “The Malthouse,” just as the team came through on our phones, before continuing our walk to the stadium. We had heard on the grapevine that the “Lillie Langtry” at West Brompton had recently re-opened, and I noticed that the pub on Fulham Broadway previously known as “Brogan’s” has re-opened, or re-branded as they say these days, as “McGettigan’s.” It is a pub that I have only ever visited once and I don’t know of anyone that goes there. Odd. I guess we all have our favourites. If “The Goose” fails to impress, we might need to find alternatives.

As for the starting-eleven, Antonio Conte had kept Oscar instead of Fabregas and this surprised me, especially after his assists at Watford.

Courtois.

Brana – Gary – JT – Dave.

Kante.

Willian – Matic – Oscar – Hazard.

Diego.

There were a few spots of rain as we waited in line at the turnstiles this would soon pass. Inside, a quick glance over to The Shed, and only 1,500 Burnley fans.

Oh well, I have to remember how small the town of Burnley actually is. It has a smaller population – 73,000 – than places such as Bath, Gloucester and Eastbourne.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, Neil Barnett said a few nice words about Ian Britton, who sadly featured in these match reports last season.

I applauded his memory but the vast majority decided not to.

Thankfully there were no flames being thrown up in to the air from in front of the East Stand as the teams emerged. I looked over to see if Roman Abramovich was present. He had watched the Rovers game on Tuesday, with Andre Shevchenko sitting a few seats in front, but he was not able to be spotted for this game.

“Typical JCL, picking and choosing his games.”

It was a perfect afternoon for football.

For the second successive home league game, our opposition was in claret and blue. We hoped that Burnley would go the way of West Ham.

The pre-match drizzle had given the pitch an extra zip, and we were soon celebrating. With the game not even ten minutes old, Nemanja Matic released Eden Hazard inside his own half. He had the entire right flank of Burnley’s defence at his mercy and he drove on in to acres of space. He teased and toyed with his markers, but effortlessly drifted inside with his trademark drop of the shoulder and softly curled a beautiful low shot beyond the dive of goalkeeper Tom Heaton. As the team gathered around him to celebrate, he was soon to thank Diego Costa for a run which took the attention of other defenders away from his own run. It was textbook stuff.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

We were then treated to a period of sumptuous football from Chelsea, if not a little over-indulgent on occasion. Both Willian, stopping, then darting past his marker, on the right, and Hazard, gliding with 2014/2015 ease past everyone, were the main stars going forward, but that man Kante soon impressed me with his energy, work rate and industry. It would turn out to be a masterclass from him.

Burnley were simply not in it.

Hazard again went close. A Gary Cahill volley, which reminded me of that scissor-kick goal from JT at The Shed a few years back, was deflected for a corner. Dave went close. A Terry header was at Heaton.

With Kante anchoring the midfield, Matic was able to move further up the field. He needs to be teased out of his defensive shell. He needs support from everyone to reach his 2014/2015 level, when he was magnificent. Maybe we can help him. Support him. Cheer him on. That’s our job, right?

Fair play to their fans, though. From mid-way through the first-half for a good fifteen minutes, they supported their team well. They sang non-stop, presumably about the hated Blackburn Rovers, and it was a fine performance. I didn’t catch much of it, nor – more to the point – was able to decipher it, save for their most famous song.

“And it’s no nay never.

No nay never no more.

Till we play Bastard Rovers.

No never no more.”

I am sure that all of the other songs and chants uttered in thick Lancastrian were similarly aimed at the fans and players of Blackburn Rovers.

Songs about how the Burnley Womens’ Institute regularly get more gold medals in the Lancashire frock making competition than that of Blackburn. Chants about how the “Pig and Whistle” darts team in Burnley whip the arse of Blackburn’s “Red Rose” pub every year. Ditties extolling the virtues of the fair maidens of Burnley as opposed to the gin-addled whores of Blackburn. It’s a local vibe in that part of East Lancashire, alright.

Fantastic play between Willian and Oscar set up Diego, who shot low, and Heaton was able to parry. There was a little frustration, certainly within me, that our domination – total – was not being rewarded. Thankfully, we were soon to be rewarded with a deserved second goal. Diego had time to play a lateral ball out wide to Willian, who quickly assessed the situation. He moved the defender out of his way with a shake of the hips, then guided a low shot towards Heaton’s far post. It was a beautiful goal. It was what we had deserved.

Bloody lovely stuff, Chelsea.

Burnley – let me say – had been poor and it was not until the forty-second minute that they attempted a shot on goal. Scott Arfield, who had scored against us on that drizzle-filled day in Burnley in 2014 – ah that pass from Fabregas to Schurrle still warms me – banged in a low shot which fizzed past Thibaut Courtois’ far post.

At the break, all was well. We had played some sumptuous stuff at times. It could easily have been 4-0 at the break. Maybe my “7-0” would not be such a stupid remark after all.

As the second-half began, it was more of the same. High intensity everywhere across the midfield, and constant forays into the Burnley defence. Burnley were twisted this way and that. They probably didn’t know what day of the week it was. Diego failed to hit the corners of the goal after a fine passing move found him in the box. Heaton, a fine young goalkeeper, kept thwarting our efforts with a few fine saves. From a pin-point Willian corner, Hazard volleyed at goal, but Heaton saved well, down low, after probably seeing the ball late. John Terry blazed over, from inside the six-yard box, and we all wondered “how.”

Hazard broke in on goal once more, but another fine Heaton save, damn it.

Kante continued to impress during the second-half. It seems sacrilegious to even write these words, but this small, slight player, so much like Makelele in many respects, could even turn out to be a better player than our former midfield legend. I have mentioned it previously, but I love the way he wastes not one second of time in moving the ball on. He covers space, he tackles, he blocks, he hustles, he harries, he chases, he destroys. He is bloody magnificent.

Typically, a mere minute after I said to Alan “Kante has not put a foot wrong all day” he miss-played a simple pass to Diego.

The exception that proves the rule? Possibly.

With the end of the match approaching, I could hardly believe that Burnley had managed to keep it to 2-0. There was the usual flurry of late changes. With Willian having played well all game, he was given a good ovation when he was replaced by Victor Moses. Soon after Michy Batshuayi and Pedro replaced Diego and Hazard; much applause for them too.

Batshuayi made room for himself well, but blasted over, wildly. He needed ice in his veins at that last crucial moment. It looked like a third goal would be elusive.

At the death, I applauded the fact that Mark Clattenburg – never flavour of the month at any time of the year – allowed play to continue after a late challenge on Oscar by Tarkowski. Batshuayi played the ball out to a raiding Pedro. Burnley were wide-open.

“We’ll score here” I whispered to Alan.

A few touches from Pedro, and a perfect ball was played towards the on-rushing Moses, who prodded the ball home perfectly.

Alan and myself, smiles as wide as the gaps in Burnley’s defence, looked at each other with glee.

Three goals, three points and a perfect day.

It seemed that my pre-match concerns about being overly-confident were wide of the mark. Burnley, for all their huff and puff, were poor. They did not have a single effort on target the entire game. Thibaut has surely never had an easier day at the office.

Although the noise from the home sections did not match the quality of football on the pitch, thankfully Chelsea did not bother with that Conte chant from Watford – hopefully resigned to a place in the list of “Chelsea One Hit Wonders” – and Burnley, God bless’em – didn’t do a Billy Ray Cyrus.

There was another feel-good vibe as we slipped back to our car. Parky was even waiting for us on Lillie Road with a pizza for us to share.

Three games, nine points, simple.

Top of the league, having a pizza.

Good times in SW6.

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Tales From Lancashire And London.

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 16 April 2016.

I was inside Stamford Bridge earlier than usual and it seemed to take ages to fill. There was one section, though, that would remain empty. Despite all of their recent successes, Manchester City were unable to fill the three thousand seats allotted to them. A large swathe of around six or seven hundred seats in the Shed Upper stayed empty. I’ve always had a grudging respect for City – especially when their supporters were tested in the lower divisions fifteen or more years ago  – but at times their current support is woeful. We always take three thousand to Manchester, except when there was a hastily re-arranged midweek game in 2012, and we too left five hundred unsold.

There was hardly a crackling atmosphere in the stadium beforehand. As kick-off grew nearer, the stands filled. There would be empty seats, but not many. I had managed to sort out two tickets for a couple of acquaintances – from the USA and Finland – in the West Upper, and I wondered what their match-day experience would be like. They would know what to expect though. Joni, formerly from Helsinki and now living in Austin, Texas, had watched from the whispering gallery before.

With about ten minutes to go before the game would kick-off at 5.30pm, Neil Barnett took to the microphone and said a few words regarding the sad loss of former midfielder Ian Britton. There was a black and white image of Ian on the large TV screen above the City fans in the far corner. I checked my match day programme, and indeed there was a small article regarding Ian’s death on page eleven. However, there had been considerable debate among the Chelsea support since Ian’s passing on 31 March, and rising disdain that black armbands were not worn at neither Villa Park nor the Liberty Stadium. It had transpired that the club had assisted Ian’s family financially with his care over the past few years, but there was still the feeling that the club had not acted quite correctly on the detail over the past two or three weeks.

As Neil finished his words, I joined in with a rousing show of remembrance for Ian, one of my most very favourite players. As the clapping died down, and the noise drifted away, it still felt that this was still not enough. There was talk of a minute’s applause on the seventh minute, but was that it? I wasn’t even sure if black armbands would be worn against City.

It still seemed a little disrespectful.

Ian Britton had played 289 games for Chelsea between 1972 and 1982. Someone had worked out that only thirty-three players had played more games for Chelsea Football Club than Ian Britton. Ian had played more games for us than Ray Wilkins. More games than Jimmy Greaves. More games than Tommy Baldwin. More games than Eidur Gudjohnsen.

At Ian Britton’s funeral it seemed that Chelsea had not done enough either.

It felt right that I should attend the funeral. I have often written about key moments in my life as a Chelsea supporter, and I have tried to piece together certain touchstones, or staging posts, along the timeline of my support of the club. Looking back, to my first game of March 1974, and the little article from “Shoot!” magazine that I carefully pinned to my bedroom wall featuring the dimpled smile of the young Dundonian, there is no doubt that I owed it to Ian Britton – and to the eight-year-old me – to attend Ian’s funeral. I have recently detailed why he meant so much to me, but to recap he was my favourite Chelsea player from 1974 to 1982. That was reason enough.

The funeral would take place at 3.30pm on Monday 11 April, meaning that it would be a long old day should I decide to drive up and back on the same day. Instead, I had other plans. On the Sunday, I drove up to Morecambe and stayed one night in The Midland Hotel, a recently renovated art deco masterpiece, looking out at Morecambe Bay. It felt odd that I would be enjoying the ambiance of a hotel that I have wanted to visit for years on one day, yet on the following day I would be paying my last respects to a hero of my youth. It felt strange. The highest high and the lowest low. On the Sunday evening, the western sky provided a magnificent panorama, with the sun setting across the bay. I raised a glass of “Peroni” to Ian Britton, as the sky turned from blue to orange, or maybe tangerine.

Chelsea blue, Dundee United tangerine.

“Bless you Ian.”

On the day of the funeral, I slowly edged along the seafront past the lovely statue of comedian Eric Morecambe, and headed south to Burnley. I was caught in a little traffic, but entered the grounds of Burnley Crematorium in good time. With around an hour to go before the funeral was due to start, people were already massing in the car park and outside the chapel. I quickly spotted Cathy and Dog, then Rodney, a fellow fan who I had not previously met in person, but who had very kindly kept in contact with me regarding the arrangements for the day.

On the lapel of my dark grey suit, I wore two badges.

Chelsea.

Dundee United.

The sun was out. There was a wind blowing. But it was a fine day.

Hundreds of Burnley fans had shown up in force. I spotted Brian Flynn, the former Burnley player. I had the briefest of chats with Neil Barnett, then a few words with a couple of Ian’s former Chelsea team mates.

There would be no official representation from Chelsea Football Club.

Just let that sink in one moment.

As we waited outside, more people arrived. More Burnley favours. I spoke to John Reilly, wearing a Dundee United scarf, who was a team mate of Ian during the 1982/1983 Scottish Championship winning team.

Ian’s team mates from the ‘seventies had done him proud.

Ray Wilkins, Graham Wilkins, Steve Finnieston, Clive Walker, David Stride, Tommy Langley, Kenny Swain, Garry Stanley, Paul Canoville. Chris Mears, the son of former chairman Brian, was also present.

And then, in the distance, the eerie lament of the bagpipes. The cortege had assembled outside Turf Moor at 3pm, where there is a lovely photograph of Ian Britton after scoring that goal in 1987 on a montage by the old stand wall, and it had now reached the leafy grounds of the cemetery. A row of black cars followed the hearse. Suddenly this all hit home. We were here to say goodbye.

I did not possess a ticket for the ceremony, so I chose to stay a respectful distance away from the cemetery and watched, silently, as the coffin was hoisted onto shoulders and in to the chapel. I bit back some tears and turned away, looking out at the bleak Lancashire hills.

Memories of that “Shoot!” clipping, memories of goals, memories of my childhood.

I turned back, and could not help but notice that some of the people that had previously been stood outside were walking towards the doors of the chapel. I wondered if there was room for a few more. Within a few seconds, I found myself standing at the rear of the chapel, alongside some heroes of my youth. I immediately felt a sense of guilt;

“Oh damn, I really shouldn’t be here.”

Outside there were hundreds, yet I was inside.

But I couldn’t leave. I was stood right next to Garry Stanley and Kenny Swain. I bowed my head.

The first few minutes belonged to “Blue Is The Colour.”

I silently mouthed the words.

The service lasted an hour and a quarter. It was a privilege to be present. There were a few wet eyes, I am sure, but it was an uplifting occasion. There was a photo – that photo from 1987, the most famous photo in the history of Burnley Football Club it seemed – at the front of the coffin. The funeral celebrant David Carson had been present at the Orient game in 1987. It gave the service a sense of authenticity.

Friends and family members shared memories of Ian. Throughout, his sense of humour and his positive attitude shone through. Ian’s great friend Mark Westwood told many stories of Ian’s early years at Chelsea. There was laughter as tales were shared. One episode gave me a wry chuckle. After a game at Luton Town, the Chelsea players were sat in the away dressing room, awaiting to catch the coach back to Stamford Bridge. Who should poke his head around the door, but comedian Eric Morecambe – yes, him again – and he immediately spotted young Ian Britton, who happened to be wearing a full length leather trench coat.

Morecambe quipped “are you standing up?”

This was met with laughter in the Luton dressing room in 1976 and in the Burnley crematorium in 2016. However, the comedian’s next line was better still.

“I’ve always wanted a full size leather wallet.”

Ian had won promotion with Chelsea in 1977, had won the Scottish Championship with Dundee United in 1983 and had scored the most important goal in the history of Burnley in 1987, but Ian had also been the butt of two Eric Morecambe jokes.

Life doesn’t get any better than that, sunshine.

Wonderful.

It was not a particularly religious ceremony and pop songs were played during the service.

“Day Dream Believer.”

Vicki Britton, Ian’s daughter-in-law, told stories of Ian’s devotion to his family and John Smith, a Burnley fan and close friend, really did a very fine job in sharing a lot of what made Ian so special. There were more laughs. It was a very nice ceremony.

“Saturday Night At The Movies.”

At the committal, we all stood. This is where it all got serious again.

Goodbye Ian.

“Simply The Best.”

After the service, we reassembled at Turf Moor, home of Burnley Football Club, where Ian had often been a guest on match days. His last appearance had only been a few weeks before he was admitted to the hospice where he spent the last couple of weeks. Hundreds were in attendance. I was able to chat, in a more relaxed fashion, with a few of Ian’s former team mates. I spoke briefly, my mouth suddenly dry, to Ian’s brother Billy and his son Callum. It was important that I passed on some personal thoughts. They were very grateful.

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I looked out at a quiet and silent Turf Moor, where I had enjoyed my one thousandth Chelsea game at the very start of last season. Who could possibly guess that I would be back so soon under wildly differing circumstances? There was a recollection, still vivid, of that pass from Cesc Fabregas to Andre Schurrle at the left-hand goal. It was the same goal where Ian Britton had scored against Orient in 1987.

There was clearly so much love for Ian Britton at Burnley Football Club. As we tucked in to a classic northern dish of meat and potato pie and mushy peas, the sense of place, of the club’s identity, really hit home. I think I have always had a little soft spot for Burnley – Leighton James, Brian Flynn – and I certainly hope that they get promoted this season so that I can pay a return visit to Ian Britton’s home for the past twenty-five years or more.

In a quiet corner, I spotted a small array of bouquets. In addition to one from Ian’s family, there was one from Burnley Football Club, there was one from Blackpool Football Club, there was one from Dundee United Football Club.

There was nothing from Chelsea Football Club.

Let that sink in too.

So, although Chelsea did the typical Chelsea thing of aiding Ian via financial support over the past few years – admirable, of course – they did not do other, smaller, respectful, subtle things on the day of the funeral.

Is that any surprise to anyone?

Chelsea flashing the cash, but fucking up the fine detail?

Not me.

Over the past few days leading up to the game with Manchester City, it had been a case of looking back at the past, assessing the present and anticipating the future. There had been Ian’s funeral and warm and fuzzy memories of the past when I had true admiration for my childhood idols. Those days seem distant. There had been a solemn appraisal of the current problems of the team, and with it the gnawing acknowledgement that I’d hardly like to spend much time in the company of too many of the current squad. I would even be pressed to name my current favourite Chelsea player if I was honest. There is, to coin that famous phrase from the goon Emenalo a “palpable discord” between the current players and myself. It would be too easy to class them all as pampered and cosseted mercenaries, but I find it increasingly hard to have any real affection for too many of the buggers. Far too many seem aloof and distant. Too many seem to be passionless automatons. Has anyone seen Thibaut Courtois smile? Has anyone seen Oscar laugh while playing football for Chelsea? Where is the joy, where is the passion, where is the fun in our team? As for the future, it didn’t take long for me to book up a flight to Vienna for what is likely to be new boss Antonio Conte’s first game in charge of Chelsea Football Club. It will be “game one” of season 2016/2017, and I will be there, revisiting the scene of John Spencer’s run and swerve and shot against Austria Memphis in 1994/95, which ranked as one of the very best Chelsea games in my life. It was a proper Chelsea Euro Away and I bloody loved it. Ah Vienna.

At the time – 1994 – with Chelsea on the up at last, European football returning for the first time in over two decades, and with exciting ground redevelopment on the horizon, I remember thinking “there is no better time to be a Chelsea fan. What a buzz.”

Now, as a comparison, in 2016, it seems that Chelsea fans would rather miss out on European football in the guise of the Europa League next season, and most seem underwhelmed to be renting Wembley for three years while Stamford Bridge is renovated further. The football team is better placed, surely, than in 1994, but still it seems that everything was so more enjoyable back then.

Anyone care to explain all that?

As the teams strode out on to the pitch, with billowing clouds overhead, and the sun shining down, we were set for a game between two teams that had, together, seriously underperformed during the current season. Regardless of Chelsea losing ten games – ridiculous enough – who could have imagined that City, backed by all that wealth and with such attacking riches, could have lost nine?

Crazy.

For Chelsea, Courtois was back in goal and at the other end Diego Costa was upfront.

In between, there were the usual suspects.

Thankfully, three games too late, Chelsea – and City – were wearing black armbands in memory of Ian Britton.

At The Shed, there were two new banners, in praise of Gianfranco Zola and Bobby Tambling. A nice touch.

On seven minutes, I began clapping in memory of Ian Britton, but I was seemingly alone.

I thought we had moments, little pockets, in the first-half, but Manchester City looked more dangerous. The free-spirited runs of Kevin De Bruyne and the fat-arsed Lesbian Samir Nasri caused us anxiety every time they broke. It was, incidentally, nice to see De Bruyne getting applauded as he walked over to take a corner within the first few minutes of the game, and to see him reciprocate. To reiterate, this is something Chelsea fans simply do not get enough credit for. Last season, Lampard, this season De Bruyne. It goes on.

We were unlucky to see Pedro’s shot slammed off the line by Otamendi, but further chances were rare as the first-half developed. Rueben Loftus-Cheek showed moments of good control and penetration, but elsewhere we found it hard-going.

Courtois did ever so well to thwart De Bruyne.

Still no smile though.

After a little cat and mouse, sadly some defensive frailties allowed Sergio Aguero to pounce on a De Bruyne cross.

City, in a horrific Stabilus lime kit, were 1-0 up.

At the break, I commented to near neighbour Dane “we’re not out of it.”

Tellingly, Dane replied “not yet, no.”

The game was over – and our second successive league defeat – just ten minutes in to the second half when another break caught us out. This time, Nasri played in that man Aguero, who never looked like missing.

He didn’t.

2-0, bollocks.

The game then died, and the atmosphere – which had never been great – died with it.

Up in the lofty heights of the West Upper, Joni was furious :

“Biggest problem I have is that I hear City fans. Not ours. What’s with that?”

Well, I think it is pretty standard across the board these days, no matter where you go. Quiet home fans, noisy away fans.

The second-half wearily continued with only rare moments of passion or fight.

A spirited run from Pedro.

A series of blocks by Mikel.

But, it was a sad old game.

With ten minutes remaining, Fernandinho raced through and was blocked by Courtois. A red card followed, and that man Aguero calmly slotted home the penalty past Asmir Begovic.

Chelsea 0 Manchester City 3.

Ugh.

This mess of a season continues and although I plan to attend the remaining five games, it will not be fondly remembered. Already, I am looking towards the future.

Vienna. Season 2016/2017. Game One.

It can’t come quick enough.

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Tales From A Heavy Loss And A Heavy Win.

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 2 April 2016.

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

“He’s not got very long.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living in Somerset, I was in the Chelsea wilderness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Awesome” – Nate, New Jersey.

“Awesome” – Ian, Idaho.

“Awesome” – Calvin, California.

“Way To Go” – Grant, Georgia.

“Awesome” – Micky, Minnesota.

“Awesome” – Phil, Pennsylvania.

“Awesome” – Bubba, ‘Bama.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chelsea support had an easy response to this :

“We were there when Pato scored.”

Awesome.

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

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

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

Alan wondered if there would be a protest.

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

Ha.

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

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

I piped up –

“Joleon Lescott – he wants a new face.”

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Hutton was dismissed for a second yellow.

It was not Villa’s day or season.

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

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

No. It was only Villa.

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Tales From No Nay Never Land.

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 18 August 2014.

My first ever Chelsea game took place in 1974. I’ve detailed that match on a few occasions before. I don’t think it’s being too pompous for me to say that it changed my life. On that day in West London, I became part of Chelsea Football Club. The abiding memory of Ian Hutchinson’s high leap at the North Stand end and scoring past the Newcastle ‘keeper is a strong one.

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I occasionally wear the “Chelsea the Blues” scarf that my mother bought me after the game. I still occasionally flick through the tattered 5p programme. That game was a key moment in my life.

As the last few months of last season progressed, I kept calculating – and recalculating – if I would reach my one thousandth Chelsea game before the end of the 2013-2014 campaign. Sadly, we fell one match short. We just ran out of games. Our defeat against Atletico Madrid – match number 997 – meant that there would be no Champions League Final in Lisbon for me to celebrate my landmark moment. Games against Norwich City – 998 – and Cardiff City – 999 – left me hanging, stranded over the summer, awaiting news of our 2014-2015 fixture list. I wasn’t tempted with any of the pre-season friendlies. There would be European trips in the Champions League to savour instead. I’d best save my money for those. I didn’t fancy hitting one thousand against Real Sociedad in a home friendly either. Nope, I’d wait for the league opener. Our first league game of 2014-2015 would be it.

Number one thousand.

I silently hoped for a home match. I love my synchronicity and a game against Newcastle United – our opponents on 16 March 1974 – would have been perfect.

Alas not.

Burnley away it was and Burnley away it would be.

Not exactly Lisbon is it?

As the summer meandered by, with the World Cup in Brazil an enjoyable distraction (but nothing more than that) my focus gradually turned towards the opening weekend of the new season. Fate had dealt us travelling fans a rough hand. Our game – over two hundred miles from HQ – was to take place at 8pm on a Monday evening.

Sigh.

I booked a half-day as soon as the fixture change was announced, and waited.

Thoughts about the new season centered on our new players. How would they settle in? Which of the new acquisitions would we immediately “take to” and fully embrace as Chelsea players. For some reason, we regard some of our players as “more Chelsea” than others. Is there any fathomable reason for this? Is it due to personality rather than talent? Is there some secret unquantifiable element to some players’ psyche which endears them to us more than others? I wanted the new season to begin; I wanted to assess Diego Costa’s body language, Cesc Fabregas’ demeanour, Filipe Luis’ passion and Thibaut Courtois’ personality in addition to their playing strengths.

The summer of 2014 was imbued with a healthy dose of positivism in the Chelsea camp. There was a general feeling of hopeful optimism among the Chelsea ranks, both locally in the UK and elsewhere. There was a feeling that a fine new team was taking shape, with a healthy competition in all positions. Prolonged debates were held over the relative merits of our twin goalkeeping giants. Some loanees were brought back to the fold. Others were passed over. Meanwhile, Chelsea fans in Nerdistan were getting all sweaty at the thought of Didier getting his number 11 shirt back.

Predictions? I kept telling friends that we had a great chance to win the title for the first time in five years. My guess was that it would be between us and the new powerhouse in Manchester.

“Between us and City. Too close to call. But those two teams will be clear of the rest.”

Elsewhere, I was wondering if my passion – for the want of a better word – for football was subsiding a little. I always have these troublesome worries every summer; that the next season could be the one where football loosens its grip and I go off and live a more sedentary lifestyle. For example, I had already written off the twin games in the North-East this winter…too far, too much money, within one week of each other. I was thinking about knocking Man City on the head too; 4pm on a Sunday, stuff that. Due to a change in my working hours, plus the need to assist with the care of my mother who has dementia and arthritis, European and domestic midweek games might take a hit this year too. After all these years, there has to be a moment when Chelsea means that little bit less, doesn’t there?

Doesn’t there?

We’ll see.

A few weeks ago, I saw one of my favourite bands Stiff Little Fingers in Bath. I enjoyed it, of course. However, I had only seen them in Exeter in April and I explained to my mate Pete that I was having trouble getting “up” for the gig. Two SLF gigs in four months had resulted in me questioning myself, and inevitably comparing my ability to get “up” for football. In a nutshell, I don’t ever want Chelsea to be a chore. Let’s see how this season goes.

At 2pm on Monday 18th August, I set off from my home town in Somerset. Alongside me were Glenn, PD and Parky. I allowed four-and-a-half hours to reach Turf Moor, sheltering beneath the bare moorlands of The Pennines. After only a few miles, PD selected one of a few compilation CDs that he had brought for the trip. Parky slipped it in the CD player. The first track?

“One Step Beyond.”

The others knocked back some ciders.

We were on our way.

In truth, it was a dreadful trip. Just shy of Birmingham, the signs on the M5 warned of slow-moving traffic ahead. For two hours, the traffic slowed. It was a grim trip North.

Accelerate – brake – slow down – stop – wait – moan – accelerate – brake – slow down – stop – wait – moan – accelerate– brake – slow down – moan – stop – wait – accelerate – brake – slow down – stop – wait – accelerate – brake – slow down – stop.

With each passing mile, I could see the pained expressions on my fellow travellers worsening and worsening.

“I can see why I don’t do too many away games now.”

We sighed when “I Don’t Like Mondays” was played not once, but twice, on two consecutive CDs.

Bristol Tim was ten miles ahead of us and advised us to avoid the M62 around Manchester. This always was my plan. Thankfully, the traffic quietened after the signs for Liverpool and then Wigan. I veered off on to the M65, past Blackburn, and the sudden release of a clear road resulted in me venting my pent-up frustration on my accelerator pedal. I almost took off on a brow of a hill. The music CDs were from the punk / ska / mod revival days of the ‘eighties and I wondered if a Stiff Little Fingers – yeah, them again – song would appear before Burnley.

They didn’t let me down. Racing past Accrington, I sang along to “At The Edge” and I smiled…

“It’s exams that count not football teams.”

I’ve only ever visited Burnley once before; that 1-0 win back in 2009-2010, when a John Terry header created headlines just as the Vanessagate story surfaced. In all honesty, that solitary trip to the heart of Lancashire was one of my favourite trips of that season. Our paths have rarely crossed in the league. Those two encounters in 2009-2010 have been our only games against Burnley since 1982-1983. Glenn and PD were yet to visit Turf Moor. Parky had been once.

At 7.30pm, I eventually parked up. It had been a tedious journey; if I’m honest, one of the worst in those forty-odd years.

Turf Moor was reached in around ten minutes. The weather had been changeable en route. At least the rain held off as we raced to meet Gary, who had tickets for Glenn and PD, outside the away end. Burnley, a small town of around 75,000, could well be the stereotypical northern town. Its grey stone buildings exude weather-beaten bleakness. Its mills have closed and it faces unemployment and austerity. Racial tensions have blighted the area’s recent social history. However, at the heart of the city, possibly binding it together is Burnley Football Club, league winners in 1920-1921 and 1959-1960. On the wall outside Turf Moor is a collage of former players. Just along from the away turnstiles is a fuzzy photo of ex-Chelsea midfielder Ian Britton, caught in an ecstatic pose after scoring a goal which helped keep the team in the Football League when they faced relegation in 1987. Ian Britton, after Peter Osgood left, became my favourite Chelsea player as a child and he is well respected by my generation. Meeting him after an old boys’ game in 2010 was a real thrill. Today he lives in Burnley and is fighting a battle against prostate cancer. Everyone at Chelsea wishes him well.

Gary was full of moans because the match programmes had all gone. He too, like hundreds of others, was snarled up on the M6 too. I said “hi” to a few mates and headed inside with only minutes to spare.

Despite the evening kick-off, some four thousand Chelsea foot soldiers had battled work commitments, family pressures and the motorway network.

We were there in force.

We had the entire David Fishwick Stand; a single-tiered structure dating from the early ‘seventies, full of surprisingly wide wooden seats. Parky and I were right behind the goal in the front row. I looked around and spotted a few mates. A nod here and there.

The Chelsea choir were in fine voice.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, from a corner this time, rather than from the centre of our stand as in 2010, the home fans in the opposite stand held up claret and light blue mosaics:

“OUR TURF – BFC.”

The clouds were gathering overhead and the evening was turning murky.

Within seconds, the teams appeared.

The big news was that Thibaut Courtois was starting ahead of Petr Cech.

Elsewhere, Cesar Azpilcueta held off the challenge of Filipe Luis and started at left-back.

Cesc Fabregas lined up alongside Nemanja Matic, with a “three” of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Andre Schurrle, whose last competitive game was the World Cup Final.

From the Maracana to Turf Moor.

Upfront was the swarthy Diego Costa, our new number nineteen, looking trim and no doubt eager to impress.

To be honest, the pleasure of the first sightings of all these new Chelsea players was balanced by the realisation that my mate Alan, my away match companion for years now, was not at the game. He was unable to get time off work. He doesn’t miss many. It felt odd not seeing him.

It also made me feel sad for me to report to Parky that I did not know a single Burnley player. Long gone are the days when I could reel off the starting eleven of most teams in the top division, maybe even a few in the old second division. The Burnley team of my childhood featured players such as Leighton James, Frank Casper, Peter Noble and Bryan Flynn. They were a cracking team. I think I almost had a soft spot for them.

I have strong memories of that old open terrace at Turf Moor, packed with spectators, with those bleak moors behind. It is a shame that modern football stadia now separate the game and spectators from the immediate setting of the club. I always enjoyed seeing the buildings which abutted old Stamford Bridge, or the trees over in Brompton Cemetery. They added to the character of a stadium.

The game began. My view of the match was through the nets of the near goal. Despite the close proximity of several stewards I was able to snap away with impunity. A little drizzle fell.

Chelsea were roared on by the away contingent, virtually all standing.

A couple of chances were exchanged before the home team took the lead. Our defence was caught flat-footed and a ball was played into the box where the waiting Scott Arfield, given time to take a touch by the closest defender, drilled a rising ball hard past a possibly unsighted Courtois. I was right behind the path of the ball. The net rippled a mere fifteen feet away.

Turf Moor boomed.

This was not good. This was not how this was meant to be.

“Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea.”

The home support, with memories of an opening day victory over Manchester United in 2009, was laughing, but they were not laughing for long.

Within minutes, an attack resulted in Ivanovic drilling in a low cross which bizarrely evaded everyone, before rebounding off the base of the far post. Luckily for us, it fell right at the feet of the waiting Diego Costa who slashed it high into the net.

Phew.

Our new striker couldn’t have wished for a better start to his league career at Chelsea. The thoughts of Fernando Torres at this exact juncture would have been interesting to hear.

A blue flare was set off to my right.

Within minutes, another Chelsea goal.

Eden Hazard, afforded time and space, ran at the home defence before setting up Ivanovic. His pass in to the waiting Cesc Fabregas was met on the volley by our new Spanish midfielder. His fantastically weighted ball into the onrushing Andre Schurrle made me gasp. It was simply magnificent. It disrupted the time space continuum. It was sublime.  Schurrle slotted in and we were 2-1 up. In the away stand, we erupted.

I turned to a chap behind me:

“Whatafackinball.”

So mesmerised were the Burnley players by this incredible feat of fantasy football, which defied all spatial logic and temporal reasoning, that they suddenly found themselves in the 1930’s wearing heavy cotton shirts, chasing shadows in blue, and calling each other names such as Grimsdyke, Ogglethorpe, Sidebottom, Blenkinsopp, Eckersley, Butterworth, Snotter and Crump.

Never mind his Arsenal past; in one special moment, Cesc Fabregas had arrived.

For a while, we purred.

Diego Costa was then booked for a dive in the box, according to the referee, after he broke free.

Alan, watching in South London, texted me.

“Penalty that!”

Not to worry, a third goal was soon scored by a dominant Chelsea. A Fabregas corner evaded everyone and Ivanovic prodded in from close range.

3-1 and coasting.

The Chelsea choir aired an old favourite from the late ‘eighties.

“OLE, OLE, OLE, OLE – CHELSEA, CHELSEA.”

With the team on top, the noise continued with loud songs of support for heroes past and present; Frank Lampard, Dennis Wise, Peter Osgood, Willian, Diego Costa.

With the new ‘keeper in earshot…”Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut!”

A quick nervous wave was cheered by the away fans.

The oddest moment of the entire night was the continued sight of the blue-shirted number 8 playing for Chelsea; the slight body of Oscar. On many occasions, my mind quickly saw Frank Lampard, so engrained is he in my football memory.

I met up with a few of the usual suspects at the break.

“A few more goals, boys?”

“I’m confident.”

Parky had predicted a 4-1 win.

“I fancy six.”

“Definitely more goals to come.”

Sadly, the second-half was a let-down. The undoubted highlight was the fine leap and finger-tipped save from our young ‘keeper which stopped Blenkinsopp from scoring. The noise fell away and at times Turf moor was silent. Jose Mourinho rang the changes with Willian and Mikel replacing Oscar and Schurrle.

The two sets of fans exchanged a volley of antagonistic, lame and predictable chants at each other as the game wore on.

“Where were you when you were shit?”

“Here for the Chelsea, you’re only here for the Chelsea.”

“We support our local team.”

“You’ve had your day out, now fcuk off home.”

“Your support is fookin’ shit.”

It was abuse by numbers and the home fans soon gave up, preferring to turn their attention to their most hated, local, rivals.

“And it’s no nay never.
No nay never no more.
Till we play bastard Rovers,
No nay never no more.”

Didier Drogba had sprinted past me – a mere ten feet away – at the start of the second-half and the sight of him, so close, thrilled me. Indeed, all eyes were on our returning hero throughout his warm-up and subsequent appearance as a late substitute for Eden Hazard. One sublime touch and volley wide was a hint of his prowess, though if I am honest, I was as surprised as anyone to see him return to Chelsea.

At the final whistle, I watched as the management team, with the substitutes, walked across the pitch. They acknowledged our support. There was a shake of the hand from Mourinho for Diego Costa. Torres and Costa shared a joke. Petr Cech, smiling too, bless him. Didier threw his shirt in to the crowd and there was a mad scramble.

Outside, we assembled.

“We’re top aren’t we?”

“Yeah, top, deffo.”

We walked back to the waiting car amidst subdued locals. Ahead, another long journey was waiting.

Thankfully a sudden downpour on the M6 amounted to nothing. My spirits dived when I saw a sign for Birmingham (not even half-way home) :

100 miles.

The roads were quiet. Only fools – and Chelsea fans – are out in the small hours of Tuesday mornings.

Eventually I reached home at 3am.

Here’s to game 1,001.

The Story So Far : 

Played – 1,000

Won – 578

Drew – 227

Lost – 195

For – 1,817

Against – 934

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Tales From Home.

Chelsea vs. Cardiff City : 19 October 2013.

The phases of the moon were providing a timetable to this season; another full moon, another home league game. Aston Villa on 21 August, Fulham on 21 September, Cardiff City on 19 October. At this bloody rate, the 2013-2014 season won’t be finished until 2015. It has been an odd first two months of the campaign. There seems to be an odd rhythm to this season and I can’t be the only one who thinks that this one hasn’t really begun yet. Thankfully, the latest – disliked – international break was over and Chelsea, recently competing at four away venues, were now heading home.

Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. 3pm. Saturday.

Just like it always should be.

I didn’t reach the pub until 12.30pm. Parky and I edged our way through the packed bar and eventually ordered two pints of Peroni. There were familiar faces at the bar. After a month’s absence, it was good to be back home. All of my mates were outside in the beer garden; they were eschewing the Newcastle vs. Liverpool game which was being watched half-heartedly by the clientele inside. Within a few minutes of meeting up with Daryl, Alan, Rob and everyone, the rain started. Clearly, there was not room inside for the seventy or so souls in the beer garden, so we stood stoically under the large awnings of the beer garden as the rain sheeted down , nestling pints, shuffling from side to side, maybe like a pack of penguins, keeping warm, on an Antarctic ice field.

“Your turn to stand on the outside, Ed.”

It was a scene which was begging for someone to take a photograph; looking down on the group of Chelsea supporters nestled together as the rain tormented us. For those around the world who mock the miserable weather of England – what? How dare they! – this was a self-deprecating photograph waiting to happen.

“Greetings from England.”

Rob had represented us at the Ian Britton fundraiser in Cheam on the Friday night. If I lived closer, I would have gone. Rob reported back that it was a brilliant night and many of Ian’s team mates attended including Ray Wilkins, Colin Pates, Ray Lewington, Paul Canoville, Tommy Langley, Steve Finnieston and Garry Stanley. After Peter Osgood left Chelsea, Ian Britton was my favourite Chelsea player for years and years. We all loved his energetic style and his cheeky smile. I followed his fortunes after he left us, which included a Scottish Championship medal at Dundee United in 1983, and a goal for Burnley which kept them from relegation out of the Football League in 1987. Meeting him at an old boys’ game at Southampton in 2010 was one of the highlights of recent years. The news that he is battling prostate cancer hit me hard.

We all wish him well.

Talk was of the upcoming away games. Many were heading out to Germany on Monday and Tuesday; the internationalists were buzzing with talk of Dusseldorf, Dortmund, Gelsenkirchen, Cologne and Bochum. I chatted to Andy, boasting a fine new brown Barbour, and Ed about the away game at Newcastle in a few weeks. I am staying overnight in that mythical city on the banks of the Tyne. I have stayed overnight up there for a game on a couple of other occasions – 1997 and 2000 – and am quite giddy with excitement about doing so again in 2013. I’m treating it as a European away.

Andy : “It’s like the wild west, mate. You won’t see anything like it anywhere else in Britain.”

Chris : “Someone punched a police horse after the Sunderland game last season.”

Ed : “A group of us stayed up there a while back. The only town I’ve visited where cab ranks are policed.”

Andy : “Yeah, better get a cab back to your hotel early. You’ll see fights over cabs at 2am.”

Ed : “And the women…”

Chris : “I remember locals wearing black and white kilts up there in 1984.”

Andy : “You know when you look around a bar, late at night, and you see one or two people grimly hanging on to the bar, wavering, clearly pissed out of their heads…in Newcastle, everyone is like that.”

I let my imagination run riot…I pictured a scene, at a Chelsea game in the near future.

“Anyone see much of Chris these days?”

A hushed silence…

“Um…you didn’t hear? Grab yourself a pint mate, have a seat.”

“What happened?”

“Newcastle away.”

“What about it?”

“Well – it’s like this. He was spotted before the game drinking with some locals. Someone said they saw him knocking back some whisky, which he hates. Nobody saw him at the game. Alan reckoned he had a text from him  midway through the game saying he was in the directors box…the story goes that he was mixing with Geordies, one thing lead to another…there was a bet…there was a netball team involved…Mike Ashley’s niece, it got messy…seems he ended up in a casino down by the river late on….for ten minutes, he actually owned Newcastle United Football Club, but Ashley bought it back when Chris wanted to change the team colours to blue and white…with the profit, it seems he ended up buying a house up there…no, actually, three houses…and a cab firm. And a nightclub. And a ship. And a zoo. He tucked Ashley right up.”

Andy and I also spoke about the more subdued Mourinho of 2013, compared to the more bombastic Mourinho of 2004. Maybe – deep down – there is less bravado because, simply, Jose believes that silverware is no certainty in this current campaign.

“Why look like a fool?”

Despite the hooliganism which surrounded the Cardiff game in 2010, I saw no evidence of any anti-social behaviour this time. The police in the four vans at Vanston Place were apparently minding their own business. Thankfully, the rain had stopped on the walk to the ground. I quickly scanned the match programme; again, there is an in-depth article from our glorious, fabled, 1983-1984 campaign. On 15 October 1983 – oh God, over thirty years ago – we played Cardiff City on a wet and windswept afternoon. The game was memorable for me in that it was my first sighting of Pat Nevin in a Chelsea shirt. Pat scored the opening goal and Colin Lee, partnering Kerry Dixon upfront for one of the very last times, scored the second. I can remember the feeling of being under The Shed roof, sheltering again like penguins, on that autumnal day three decades ago like it was yesterday. Ah, memories.

Another Chelsea vs. Cardiff City memory was from October 1976…even further away, yet the reminiscences remain strong. I had travelled up to London with my parents and an uncle. For once, Ian Britton didn’t fill the number seven berth – that position was filled by Brian Bason, remember him?  Stalwarts Ken Swain and Ray Lewington scored as we won 2-1 in front of a healthy 28,409. Lewi didn’t score many, but his goal was a net buster from 30 yards. In those days, I always seemed to manage to choose Chelsea home games that were marred by football hooliganism. Earlier in 1974, there had been trouble at the Spurs home game. Later in 1976-1977, we witnessed untold agro at the Chelsea vs. Millwall game. Then, more of the same at the Chelsea vs. Spurs game in 1978. I think my parents weren’t fazed by it; it never took place in the new East Stand. I can definitely remember punches being thrown at the Cardiff fans as we walked past the old North Stand entrance after the game. I remember my father telling me –

“Always rough, that Cardiff lot.”

Another strong memory was the presence of TV cameras at the Cardiff game in 1976. Ah, the excitement of spotting a huge TV camera – the ones with the cameraman sitting on the back of it, ready to pivot around and follow the action – behind The Shed goal was magical in those days. It meant that the game – the game that I had seen in person – would be shown on TV, usually “The Big Match”, and much chat at school on the Monday would no doubt follow. On one memorable occasion, I even saw myself on TV. What a thrill.

Inside the ground, I met up with Bournemouth Steve, who was sitting alongside Alan, Tom and I. Although Steve isn’t a Chelsea fan, I was pleased to hear him refer to Chelsea as “we” on a number of occasions.

Unlike in 2010 when 6,000 Cardiff fans attended the game, barely 1,500 were present. There was one solitary Welsh flag. A poor show.

After the initial buzz of seeing the team back on home soil for the first time in a month, the atmosphere was typically muted. At least the rain had headed off to cause misery elsewhere. The sun was out. It was a fine day for football.

In 1976 and 1983 – more strong memories – Cardiff played in all yellow due to the colour clash. Due to the ludicrous decision of Malaysian owner Vincent Tan to change the Bluebirds’ colours to red and black in 2012, a change was not required.

Ryan Bertrand was in for the wounded Ashley Cole and Samuel Eto’o was preferred to Fernando Torres. Frank Lampard and Ramires again paired up in the deep-lying midfield positions. It seems to me that Jose likes this pairing. He also prefers Brana to Dave at right back. Elsewhere in the team, there are still question marks. With JT recalled after being ignored by Benitez, Jose seems unable to choose between partnering him with Luiz or Cahill. Does the midfield of Oscar, Hazard and Mata pick itself? Clearly not. Up front, I think that Mourinho favours Torres, but don’t quote me.

Chelsea’s first chance fell to Juan Mata, but Eto’o’s pass was met with an “air shot” from our little number ten; from the follow-up, Branislav Ivanovic blasted over.

My mind was distracted for the Cardiff goal, thinking about 1983 or 1976 maybe, so I only caught the Luiz / Cech “after you Claude” manoeuvre which resulted in Jordon Mutch – who? – being able to chip an effort into our goal.

In the far corner, the Welsh were buoyant :

“One nil to the sheepshaggers.”

Oh boyo.

We were rusty for most of the first-half. John Terry came close with two headers from corners. At the other end, Peter Cech leapt high to turn a Cardiff free-kick past the far post. Apart from a couple of rare excursions into our half, Cardiff offered little. It was a half to forget, though. I spent an inordinate amount of time watching the airplanes on their approach into Heathrow, just like we all did during those grim days in the ‘eighties.

On 32 minutes, I was watching one of the famous Chelsea pigeons swoop through the sky and settle on the north stand roof; I therefore momentarily missed Marshall lose control as Eto’o pounced. I only saw the ball with Eden Hazard – up to then, quite invisible – and wondered what on earth had happened. Then, the disbelief as Eto’o buggered up his chance, to be quickly displaced with relief as Hazard slammed home the loose ball.

I’d missed the build-up to the first two goals, though; not good enough.

Luiz was booked for a silly block; he had endured a poor first-half.

We all had.

There was a treat at half-time. Pat Nevin, my favourite ever Chelsea player by a ridiculously wide margin, was on the pitch with Neil Barnett.

A nice bit of 1983/2013 symmetry Chelsea. Thank you.

There was one of those lame half-time competitions, this time involving various star struck youngsters dribbling and – mainly – scoring past Stamford at the Matthew Harding end. Neil Barnett then demanded that Pat tried his luck; for a few seconds we were transported back in time as Pat dribbled towards goal. Alas, almost typically, his shot was saved.

Don’t worry Pat; at least it wasn’t as bad as that penalty against Manchester City in 1985.

The second-half began and I relied on my mantra of “we always play better attacking our end in the second period” to see us through. I had been cheered by Liverpool’s dropped points at Newcastle, but this was a “must win” for us. Marshall was booked for time-wasting, which had been noted by the referee and home supporters alike. A shot from Eto’o straight at Marshall but other Chelsea chances were rare. Mourinho replaced the subdued Mata with Oscar. Soon after, Torres entered the pitch, replacing Ryan Bertrand.

Jose was clearly going for it, with just three at the back now.

Mourinho was seemingly sent to the stands for an argument with the fourth official; at the time, the reasons were unsure.

After a Lampard corner had been cleared, a pass from Hazard right down below me found Eto’o inside the Cardiff penalty box. He moved his body to the right, caught the defender off balance, and drilled his shot home, low just inside the near post. I caught his exultant sprint, arm-raised Shearer-like, and his jump into the air over in the far corner. At last, a Chelsea striker had scored a league goal for us. Get in you beauty.

Alan, as Tom Jones : “THTCAUN.”

Chris, as Rob Brydon : “COMLD.”

Tidy.

Typical Mourinho now; with a lead, he reverted back to playing four at the back as Dave replaced Eto’o. Although Cardiff substitute Kim ran at the heart of the Chelsea defence, causing Petr Cech to save on a couple of occasions, we increased our lead in the last quarter of an hour.

Firstly there was a gorgeous goal by Oscar. Our Brazilian picked the ball up and went on a little run before chipping an exquisite dipper that just grazed Marshall’s bar before bouncing down and into the net.

Secondly, Eden Hazard danced into the Cardiff box, shooting low. His shot hit Marshall. Just like at Carrow Road, the goalkeeper took the sting out of the shot, but was helpless to stop the ball roll over the line.

I’ll be honest. The 4-1 score hugely flattered us.

However, our record in the league is now a healthy 5-2-1.

We’re in second place.

And we haven’t even “clicked” yet.

Very tidy.

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Tales From Beneath The Pennines.

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 30 January 2010.

This was a classic trip north to support my team. So many things to shoe-horn into this match report.

This has been a strange week for me at work as I begin with a new company on Monday and there are the usual worries and concerns. But, I tried to put all non-Chelsea thoughts to one side. With football the focus, nothing else matters.

The kick-off at Turf Moor was 5.30pm, thus allowing me a little lie-in, for once. This would be my first ever visit to Burnley and made it two new grounds in eight days, after last Saturday’s foray to Preston. To say I was looking forward to my solo mission to Lancashire would be a big understatement.

But first, a quick shopping expedition to Bath. I set off at 9.30am. My goodness, the weather was spectacular. A heavy frost and bright sunlight greeted me. No clouds. I spent about 45 minutes in Bath and I made a bee-line for “John Anthony.” I have been visiting this well-known menswear shop for about 15 years as it has always sold a great selection of “football clobber.” There was a post-Xmas sale on and I picked up a couple of half-price bargains…a muted blue Lacoste rain jacket and a deep red Victorinox baseball cap. I had a bit of banter with the Arsenal-supporting sales assistant. He was surprised to hear I was going to Burnley. It’s always fascinating, for me, to note how the clothes at football change and develop over the years. It’s a shame we no longer have the regional differences in terrace fashion that we had in the ‘eighties – it’s a homogenised look these days. For a while, the usual brands such as Lacoste, CP, Paul & Shark, Henri Lloyd, Armani, Boss and Hackett have held sway, with only the occasional new brand, such as Victorinox, coming to the fore. I wondered what the Burnley lot would be wearing. I was wearing a warm Schott jacket, which I bought at “John Anthony” many years back. I well remember the look on my mate Glenn’s face when I showed up at his house to take him to football and he came to the door wearing the exact same coat. Oh boy – we were known as the Schott Brothers. I have to say, he “won” the bragging rights on that as he bought his first, but I got it cheaper. Happy days. For my mates and me, who have been brought up in terrace culture since we were in our youth, we feel happy eschewing replica kits and the associated garb. We know who we are. If we’re in that away end, we are Chelsea. Maybe a little in badge here or there. That’s enough for us.

JT was being discussed on the radio and so I turned it off. As I headed north, with the Malvern Hills dusted with snow to my west, I listened to Everything But the Girl, that under-appreciated band from my ‘twenties.

“Wherever You Go I Will Follow You.”

Alan and Gary were coming up on the official Chelsea coach. As I hit the outskirts of Manchester, I was listening to “The World Of Morrissey” and I was bouncing. I don’t listen to him much these days, but when I do, it always pleases me. I was chuckling along to the lyrics of “You’re The One For Me, Fatty.” Who else writes such fruity lyrics?

I was now in my element. In my search for new footballing experiences, I had planned to travel around Manchester on the eastern ring-road, simply because I hadn’t ever driven it before. With the two Manchester clubs located in the inner-city area, Manchester is ringed by five “satellite” teams, from Bolton in the NW, via Bury, Rochdale and Oldham, to Stockport in the SE. This greater Manchester area, so important in the industrial revolution and the formation of the professional game, has played a simply massive role in Chelsea Football Club’s history. Our first ever game at Stockport in 1905, the Khaki Cup Final at Old Trafford in 1915, our first FA Cup win at Old Trafford in 1970, Clive Walker’s goal at Bolton in 1983, the tragedy of Matthew Harding at Bolton in 1996 and our first championship in 50 years at Bolton in 2005.

At Bury, I noted wind turbines on the snow-capped moors overlooking the town. Lots of red-brick mill buildings. Smoke stacks. Still no clouds – a perfect day. As I turned off the M60 – Manchester’s M25 – onto the M66, there were signposts for classic Northern towns such as Ramsbottom, Rawtenstall and Clitheroe. With those names came images of a by-gone era, of boyhood comics telling the stories of football-mad boys playing in the streets with tennis balls and of long-forgotten teams such as Glossop and Worksop. On the approach to my destination, I noted rows of small houses perched on the hillsides the colour of which, sombre grey, that I had never seen before. As I drove over the brow of a hill, Accrington was down below me to my left, an absolutely classic Northern town, rows upon rows of terraced houses, with chimneys puffing grey smoke. Then, ahead, a magnificent view of the moors above Burnley, devoid of trees, naked, ancient brown. It was – to be blunt – just what I had expected.

I remember watching Burnley many times on TV in my childhood. They were a good little team, managed by former player Jimmy Adamson…the names trip off my tongue. Frank Casper, Dave Thomas, Peter Noble, Bryan Flynn, Martin Dobson…and my favourite, the Welsh winger Leighton James. They won the league in 1960 and had a fantastic scouting network, especially in the North-East. Burnley is the smallest town – only 75,000 – to have sustained a top flight team for any length of time. I remember being entranced by the classic Turf Moor ground on TV – a terrace to the right with houses and moors behind, but a modern stand – with seats! – behind the goal to the left. You didn’t always get seats behind the goals in those days.

On the last roundabout before I entered Burnley, to my left, yet more slate grey houses. How bleak. I was getting a proper buzz about this. A real sense of place. There are certainly footballing cities further north in England, but I was strongly sensing that there are few that evoke such a strong sense of “northern-ness.” I had looked at Burnley on many maps and thought of it as “the end of the line for Lancashire” – beyond, only the Pennines and that foreign land, Yorkshire.

My mother, just after the war, had befriended a mill-worker from Burnley and had stayed with her one week. What my mother thought of it, in austere post-war Britain, one can only imagine.

I reached Burnley at 3.45pm and paid £5 for “secure match day parking” in the town centre. I popped my head inside one local pub, noted a few local “boys” and decided against it. I back-tracked and walked the half mile to the stadium, the chill wind biting at me from every direction. Police vans were parked on the approach to Turf Moor. There were about ten policemen outside “The Princess Royale” pub, another grey building. There were a few pubs on this main road, but I didn’t fancy it. Too risky. I noted several billboards promoting the club under the slogan “Together – We Are Burnley.” Outside the main stand, a montage of former Burnley players and I was s0 pleased to see a large photo of former Chelsea winger Ian Britton, arms outstretched, in ecstasy, having just scored one of the most decisive goals in their history. In May 1987, Burnley were facing relegation to non-league football in the first-ever year of automatic relegation. On the day, Burnley beat Orient 2-1 and Ian Britton scored the second. The look on his face, always cheeky, is a picture.

For the best part of an hour, I waited for mates to arrive. The weather was getting worse. Everyone was wearing hats and caps. I was wearing my trusted Yankee one. There were the inevitable gaggle of reporters and cameramen questioning us about JT. I was asked by a BBC bod to comment, but declined. We’ll close ranks and see what happens. Chelsea will stand by him, no issue. We have had bigger worries than his infidelity – bankruptcy, tragedy, hooliganism – but I still feel let down. I had to laugh at one Burnley fan who was being interviewed. He ended his piece to camera with a prolonged howl which I could only liken to a rebel yell, that Southern speciality, now evident Up North.

Nick and his son Robbie arrived. Nick’s sister now lives in Accrington and is a Burnley season-ticket holder. She was there with her husband .They wanted to arrange a family photo, but Robbie was having none of it! No inter-club friendliness in that family. The Nuneaton boys arrived – Andy, Jonesy, The Youth, his son Seb and Lovejoy. Andy was wearing a fantastic mid-brown Berghaus jacket which gets better every time I see it. I noted quite a few Chelsea arriving with Aquascutum scarves wrapped around their necks. These were so popular in the 1985-1989 period. Classics to this day. More faces arrived. A quick word with Cathy. A few people mentioned our last visit – a painful 0-3 defeat in the last few weeks of the 1982-83 season. After that, I was absolutely convinced that we would be relegated to the Third Division. Convinced! Dark days.

Alan and Gary eventually arrived at about 5pm. Seems all the Chelsea coaches had been parked in a holding area out of town after rumours of trouble involving Chelsea and the Burnley mob, the wonderfully blunt “Suicide Squad.” I met Ajax again and sold him a spare for Arsenal.

Inside, we had superb seats, in the second row, to the right of the far post. Gill from Kent was ten seats away. Since redevelopment, the TV cameras swapped sides, like at The Bridge. Turf Moor holds 22,000 and this represents one-third of the town’s population. Putting club loyalty to one side, that’s an amazing achievement. However, my mate Mark, from eight miles up the road in Darwen, is a Blackburn fan and loathes Burnley. He calls them The Bastards, or The Dingles, after a family of low life ne’er do-wells in the UK soap opera “Emmerdale.”

Burnley, ably supported by a noisy home support, gave us a tough game. This was one we had to win, though. Burnley made life hard for us and I kept thinking of the old adage “there are no easy games in The Premiership.” We scored after good work from Malouda and a simple tap-in from Anelka right in front of us. Eagles seemed to be a threat on their left, but it was a first-half which simmered without producing many chances. We seemed to be unable to stretch the home defence. Cech didn’t really have to make a save. I was snapping away like a fool and half-expected a steward to ask me to put my camera away. Thankfully this never happened. I took a lovely shot of Malouda, our best player in the first-half, whipping a ball in. I noted a full moon appear in the gap between north and east stands, just above the scoreboard. It seemed to add to the drama…

Ian Britton made the half-time draw and he waved over to us, with that endearing cheeky smile of his. We responded with a chant from the ‘seventies –

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

I also had a – sadly – great view of the mess which lead to their equaliser. Not Alex’ finest moment. All of a sudden, we became more urgent and the second-half was all ours really. Branislav Ivanovic had a great game and caused more of a threat than the poor Joe Cole. Lamps and Ballack seemed to be labouring. JT was having a stormer, though, and was ignoring the boos from the home support. We peppered Jensen in their goal and a Joe Cole was disallowed for offside. Our support found it hard to battle the vociferous locals. Alan, Gary and myself kept singing. We stood the entire game. After a typically robust piece of defensive play by our captain, I commented to Gary

“JT will score the winner tonight.”

As the game continued, I was still confident we’d get a goal. With five minutes left, Frank swung in a corner, JT leaped and the ball bounced in.

We went ballistic. I grabbed Gary – looking back, quite violently! – and we bounced up and down with me yelling “I told you! I told you! I told you!” After the build-up to the day, it just had to be. Some things are just meant to be.

The away end was now bouncing. My mate Glenn texted me to say he saw us on TV. The players made a quick getaway – clearly under orders. JT kissed the badge and a stern Frank gave us a thumbs up. We sang a few songs beneath the stand. We were all happy. I said to a few friends “that is a defining game in our season.” It reminded me of that tough night just up the road at Ewood in early 2005. Five years on, the same feeling. This will be our year. This was not a great Chelsea performance. Hell, at times, it wasn’t even good. But we look the likeliest team to win the league. So, let’s enjoy it.

I left Burnley at 8pm and wondered if I would ever be back. I retraced my steps, stopping off for a filling Chinese buffet in Ashton-Under-Lyme, the place full of Mancs of both hues no doubt. There was heavy snow near Stafford and I feared the worst. However, it didn’t follow me south. Japan were now on the CD player. More memories of those tough Chelsea winters of my youth. Then a tiring detour through Wolverhampton, with Molyneux sleeping in the distance, followed by a couple of Red Bull pit stops, resulted in me not getting home until 2.15am.

Another long day, but a magical day of childhood memories, of new experiences, of music, of terrace culture, of laughter, of friendship and of football.

Hull and Arsenal next. Let the Chelsea roll continue.

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