Tales From The Wrong Seat

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 21 January 2023.

I think that I am going to enjoy writing this one.

Going into our match at Anfield, there was much gallows humour about this being a mid-table clash, a battle for ninth position, and that some fancied our chances because “they are bloody worse than we are”. It must surely be a while since Liverpool and Chelsea have occupied such lowly positions ahead of a league encounter.

There was a nice little bit of symmetry ahead of the game; our first match this season was at Goodison against Everton and the match at Anfield would be our twentieth. Therefore, both halves of the current campaign would commence on Merseyside.

I was up early. The alarm sounded at 4.30am and after de-frosting the car and picking up a couple of tinned coffees for the journey at a local garage, I collected PD and then Glenn at 6am, and Lord Parky bang on 6.30am as planned.

We were full of talk about the club for the first half-an-hour, with Glenn bemoaning many in the media, both social and unsocial, for calling our new buying policy “scattergun” and with me being foolish enough to admit the fact that I fancied a win later in the day.

We stopped at Strensham on the M5 for a quick breakfast between 7.40am and 8am, and I then made a bee-line for Merseyside. As I slowed down to a halt to wait for a green light to turn onto Queens Drive, we spotted “The Rocket” pub to our left; the very pub where hundreds of Scousers had been stranded ahead of the Champions League Final in Paris last May, the victims of a prank by playful Evertonians.

At this moment, amidst a little side-chat about the merits of managers Thomas Tuchel and Graham Potter, and how fans have moaned about both, I summed things up as succinctly as I have ever done.

“Well, we’ve been going through a rebuild since Conte left. And since then, we have won the Europa League, the Champions League and are current World Champions. That’s not a bad rebuilding stage, is it?”

I was half-tempted to drive past the new Everton stadium at Bramley Moore Dock to check on its considerable progress since I visited the site in August, but we just wanted to get parked up and into Anfield. The five months that have elapsed since game one in August seemed like five minutes. I was parked up outside the away turnstiles at Goodison Park just after 10.30am; the price had increased from £10 in 2021 to £15 in 2023. Outside, the winter weather was biting hard. We headed off up the gentle slope to the top of Stanley Park with parts still touched by frost. The extension to the Anfield Road end, where we would be stationed, dominated my focus.

It was eleven o’clock. Just right. While I waited outside for a while to hand over a spare ticket, the others marched inside. Two Liverpool team buses appeared from my right and were then swallowed up by the huge shutter doors beneath the gigantic new stand. Mobile phones were held aloft by the hundreds of Liverpool fans. This must be a regular occurrence, part of the Anfield routine. But there was no real buzz about the place. Times must be hard at both ends of Stanley Park these days. Since my last visit, a mural of Ian Rush had been painted on the end wall of some terraced houses. There were voices and accents from everywhere.

The weather was tough. I have never seen so many North Face jackets and bobble-less hats.

I chatted to many fellow Chelsea fans.

“They are shite. They’re worse than us.”

“Yeah, I fancy us today, God knows why.”

Kim arrived and I handed her a ticket. At the security checks, I had the usual little panic that my camera would be shown the red card but the seemingly short-sighted security guard just frisked me without spotting the camera bag draped over my shoulder.

In.

I checked my ticket but soon spotted that I had mistakenly ended up with the ticket intended for Kim in row 20. Not to worry, Kim would be with Parky, John, Al and Gal down in row 7. Not a problem. There were only fifteen minutes to go so there was no time to waste. As I edged through the tight concourse, I was aware of a new song being enthusiastically chanted by the younger element.

…”said to me.”

I entered the familiar away end and my spot was in line with the touchline in front of the main stand, not as far jammed into the corner as I had feared. This was my twenty-sixth visit to Anfield, level-pegging with visits to Old Trafford; only five Chelsea wins at each venue, though. That pre-match hope for a win suddenly seemed unlikely.

There was rail-standing in the away quadrant now. Of all places, standing at Anfield. I never thought I would see it.

I once stood on the old Kop, though, and this was way different.

Joe Cole, Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand took part in pitch-side interviews. Joey was serenaded. And so was Gerrard. As he walked past us – he must have dreaded that – he momentarily cupped his hands over his ears.

The usual pre-match ritual at Anfield.

Flags on poles, banners, huge crowd-surfing mosaics, the teams, mascots, the PA announcer with ridiculously low voice, The Kop waiting for “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and scarves held aloft.

I remembered my first visit in April 1985 when a big pot of Crown Paint used to take pride of place on the centre spot.

Noticeably, I spotted the highest concentration of scarves in the lower corners of the main stand and the Centenary Stand – née Kemlyn Road – where those Rangers fans congregated in November 1985.

Our team?

I tried, again, to work it all out.

Kepa in goal.

A back four of Cucarella, Badiashile, Silva and Chalobah.

Lewis Hall was tucked into midfield, somewhere, maybe just alongside Jorginho.

A three of Mount on the left, Gallagher in the middle, Ziyech wide right.

Kai Havertz up top.

Liverpool’s team involved players such as Gakpo and Bajcetic, and these two were completely unfamiliar to me. They reminded me of the final hopeless selection of letters in a game of “Scrabble”

Here we were. At the football again. Waiting to see Chelsea again. Everyone together, the lucky ones, the lucky three-thousand. This meant that I was thankfully able to avoid the unappetising avalanche of buzzwords that the TV folk habitually, and without any self-awareness, foist on our poor ears.

“The press”, “transition”, “between the lines”, “little pockets”, “overload”, “high press”, “low block”, it goes on and on, like a relentless deluge of shite. On a recent “MOTD2” I am sure I heard Danny Murphy mention “overload” three times in ten seconds without the merest hint of irony.

Fuck adventures in TV Land.

We were at the football.

“Into them Chelsea.”

As the game kicked-off, no surprises us attacking The Kop, four spaces to my left were unfilled. Not long into the match, four young lads sidled in. Up in front of The Kop, my eyes straining in the mist, a corner came over from Conor Gallagher and in the resulting melee we gasped as the ball was thwacked against the left-hand post. A leg prodded the rebound home, the net gently rippling.

“GET IN.”

Now then dear reader, there have certainly been tough moments in my recent history when I have questioned my devotion to the cause, especially in the post-COVID era, and I have publicly shared my concerns about me losing the passion for football and maybe even Chelsea. So I am so pleased to report that at 12.33pm on Saturday 21 January in the Anfield Road Stand, there was no ambivalence nor doubt. I, like the thousands around me, was going fucking doolally.

My celebration of choice on this occasion was a Stuart Pearson fist pump, but a double one for good measure.

I turned to the lads to my left…”great timing.”

Alas, we then suffered that horrible delay that these days suggests that VAR was about to rear its ugly ahead once again.

When the goal was disallowed, Mr. Deep Voice on the PA mumbled something incomprehensible. There was no follow-up explanation on the screens. Unlike those in TV Land, I was left to ponder the mystery of why the goal was disallowed.

Modern football.

Unlike in our last visit in August 2021, there would be no Anfield goal for Kai Havertz this time.

Both teams started brightly enough, and Liverpool started to attack. I could hardly believe that James Fucking Milner was starting for them. Gakpo fired over. On a quarter of an hour, things were even.

We then hit a decent spell. There were a couple of lovely long bombs from Thiago Silva towards Kai Havertz, one slightly over hit, another better, but a slip from Mount when free. Havertz then played in Hall, but his shot from an angle was wild. There was a lovely cushioned lay-off from Havertz, a lot more physical in this game, for Gallagher. This was good stuff, or at least, better than we had been used to.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

Let’s sing that all season.

The home crowd was so quiet, easily the quietest that I had ever witnessed at Anfield. We were yet to hear the infamous “History” chant.

Two crosses from a reassuringly decent Ziyech caused a few concerns in the Liverpool box.

The new song was aired again and I spent a ridiculous amount of my time trying to work out the lyrics.

I liked the look of Benoit Badashile again, and even Marc Cucarella was impressing. The youngster Lewis Hall was having a tough game though. Silva was as imperious as ever. Gallagher was fantastic, charging balls down, running to close space, maybe not winning the ball, but forcing a mistake for others to gather the ball.

Liverpool did cut through us on a couple of occasions but their final passes, and shots, were poor.

Just before the half-time whistle, at last an audible chant from The Kop.

…”where we watched King Kenny play.”

Mo Salah took a touch when in previous years he might well have volleyed without much thought, and the ball curled high and wide.

Advantage Chelsea at the break? I think so.

At half-time, I noted empty seats in the afore-mentioned lower corners of the side stands, proof that these were hospitality areas in addition to the top tier of the Centenary and the middle tier of the main stand. Does this matter? It just shows how clubs are going after the extra-revenue these days. They’re going after day trippers, the tourists, the moneyed classes, the same old story.

Less and less seats for the average Joe. More and more for the average Johann, Jan, Jonty and Julian.

And although – I know from experience – many of English football’s overseas fans are wildly passionate about their teams, I shudder at the thought of a bigger and bigger percentage of ticket sales being aimed at the corporate sector. It used to be a game for the working classes. I can’t imagine what Bill Shankly would think of it all.

No wonder Anfield was quiet.

By the way, it made me chuckle that among the electronic messages that advertised hospitality packages on the perimeter of the pitch there was the stunning revelation that match day tickets were included. Thanks for clarifying that, Liverpool Football Club.

There were prolonged chants in honour of John Terry and it soon became known that our former captain was in the away section with us. I am guessing but I think he was maybe ten or fifteen yards away from me though I never saw him. I remember him at Burnley too.

I remembered a famous photo of Shanks in The Kop after he had left the club, unable to let go.

We began the second-half poorly, so poorly. The first two minutes seemed to take an eternity. There was an outrageous effort from Ibrahima Konate that was walloped from the half-way line towards Kepa at The Kop. Thankfully, it dropped just wide. There were a few more Liverpool attempts. This was desperate.

It was also still bloody freezing. It was bloody freezing in January 1983 too. There, that’s the 1982/83 reference taken care of.

On fifty-five minutes, Graham Potter replaced the struggling Lewis Hall with the Ukranian Mykhailo Mudryk, the undoubted subject of the new song, and from my vantage point I was able to capture him entering the field, his first touch, his first few dribbles and spins in the wide expanses of our left. In the end, my “wrong seat” had turned out to be a God send.

On the hour, Ziyech came in from his right wing position and drifted past player after player…each time the away end pleaded with him to shoot…and in the end his effort was typically high and wide.

Soon, Mudryk had us all purring, playing a “give-and-go” with Gallagher and spinning into the box, but we groaned as his effort only troubled the side netting. Soon after, Milner cruelly chopped him down. But Mudryk looked the business, he excited us all.

A rare Liverpool chance, but Kepa was able to thwart Gakpo’s goal-bound prod with a fine save.

We went on the attack again, and at times our play was a joy to behold. On seventy-one minutes, the best move of the match – full of quick passing – resulted in a Ziyech cross hitting the far post area but with nobody able to connect. A shot from Ziyech was blocked.

With ten minutes to go, more changes.

Dave for Trevoh.

Sadly, our defender had picked up a knock, such is life in the Chelsea trenches these days.

Carney for Mase.

Mount had been quiet for much of the game.

Pierre-Emerick for Kai.

I liked the effort from Havertz in this game. He was more involved than before. More up for the fight.

The away crowd were in fine form now. We had spotted a new desire in the team and we roared the team on with every sinew. Just the way it should be.

“You are my Chelsea, my only Chelsea. You make me happy when skies are grey. You’ll never notice how much we love you. Until you’ve taken my Chelsea away.”

Fantastic stuff.

Dave, off the pace at times these days, was excellent in his cameo at the end of the game.

I was convinced that we would strike at the death but our chances sadly petered out. But this was a fine day out from us. It felt, whisper it, that a corner had been turned.

I wished that I had sussed out the new song though.

We walked back to the car amid a lovely exuberance. This was a special feeling.

I pulled out of the car park at 3pm and circumnavigated Goodison Park’s four stands and it honestly felt as though I might never be returning. Those blue stands have given me plenty of memories over the years. Out onto the Bullens Road, past the Dixie Dean statue, past the Winslow Hotel, thoughts of my father in the Second World War, past the player’s entrance – I remembered a recent ‘photo of Pele walking across the street in 1966 – past the Holy Trinity statue, past the Gwladys Street turnstiles and away.

It took me a whole hour to get past The Rocket and onto the M62.

Everton were to lose 2-0 at West Ham of all places.

”Frank’s gone, isn’t he?”

The four of us stopped off at “The Vine” – yet again – at West Bromwich at around 5.30pm where we each enjoyed glorious curries.

Lamb Rogan Josh, Chicken Balti, Lamb Madras, Chicken Jalfrezi.

There was a quick review from myself of our starting; “Conor Gallagher an eight, everyone else sevens apart from Mount a six and Hall a five.”

There was more chat about the match. We all admitted that we might have been getting a little carried away about our performance – ”after all, it was only Liverpool” – and we were sure that “MOTD” would dismiss it as a poor game, but for those of us of a Chelsea disposition, we definitely spotted a new belief, a more rounded performance, and better quality. We mused that the last five games against Liverpool had all consisted of draws. Well, more or less.

There was patchy fog all of the way back, but horrific clawing fog around Frome.

I eventually reached home at 9.30pm.

It had been a good day.

Tales From Home And Away

Fulham vs. Chelsea : 12 January 2023.

When I was driving home from Manchester City on Sunday evening, mid-way through the packet of Fruit Pastilles maybe, I realised that I had acquired a sore throat. In these days of COVID and an apparently vigorous new ‘flu strain, I was obviously fearing the worst. As I drove on, I thankfully didn’t experience any other ‘flu or COVID symptoms, and in fact the sore throat thankfully lessened as time passed. It soon dawned on me that it was all due to the singing that I had done during the game at the Etihad Stadium. In a way, it made me happy, it comforted me. It confirmed that my appearance at the game had not been merely passive. It meant that I had been actively involved in cheering the boys on.

It often used to be like this.

Sore throats after football.

Often at work after games the previous day, I would be ridiculed for my first few utterances. But it was part of football back then.

Turn up. Have a beer. Pay your money at the turnstiles. Cheer the team on. And on. And on. And on.

I suspected that many Chelsea supporters were experiencing sore throats after Manchester. What a show of force and resilience that indeed was.

Top fucking marks.

Next up was a game at Craven Cottage, down in deepest SW6, against our nearest rivals Fulham. This was a game from September that was postponed due to the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and would now take place on a Thursday evening in January.

My alarm woke me at 4.45am. I was to work a “flexi” shift from 6am to 2pm, then drive up to London with Paul and Glenn, PD and Parky, P Diddy and Lord Parky, my match day companions for much of the last five years and beyond.  

During my shift at work I told a few football fans (sic) that I feared the result and that we’d lose. I may have said that I fancied Willian to score, just to rub it in. Fulham were faring well this season. This would not be an easy game. The previous evening, I had delved into the record books as I prepared some thoughts about what I should include in this edition of the blog. I knew that our recent record against Fulham – London’s oldest club – was excellent in recent times, but our dominance over them stretched back decades.

Since a 0-2 loss at Stamford Bridge in October 1979, we had played Fulham forty times across all competitions and lost just once. We had won our last seven games against Fulham. I saw all this domination and it made me gulp. Not only did I feel that a Fulham win was long-overdue I had a sixth sense of it happening later in the day. I explained these figures to a couple in the office and said “and I reckon tonight they will beat us for the second time” but their expressions suggested that I was being overly-dramatic.

I thought to myself…”mmm, they don’t know Chelsea like I do.”

I had pre-booked a JustSpace spot outside a flat in Putney, just south of the bridge. I made good time, the roads were relatively clear. I dropped PD and Parky outside “The Eight Bells” at around 4.45pm. My parking spot was from 5pm. I reached it at 5.05pm. I work in logistics.

Normally at Fulham – from memory, every time except once since 2004 – we drink at “The Duke’s Head” in Putney, but we would return to our local “The Eight Bells” on this occasion because it was just easy to meet others there to hand over tickets. We are pretty familiar with this particular spot now, the area both sides of the river, and as I donned my baseball cap – New York Yankees – and zipped up my rain jacket – Victorinox – it felt nice and secure as I walked north towards Fulham.

St. Mary’s Church was floodlit as I passed. The apartments at Putney Wharf were illuminated blue – pretty sure David Luiz used to reside here – and Putney Bridge itself was floodlit too. Craven Cottage was hiding behind a slight bend in the river.

I would soon be in the warmth of “The Eight Bells”, our home away from home at Chelsea, er Fulham – the borough, not the football club, confusing isn’t it? – the past four years. I always presumed that the pubs in this neck of the woods were Fulham pubs on their match days, but the landlady recently confirmed that the three nearest boozers nearest Putney Bridge – the tube station, not the bridge, confusing isn’t it? – were designated as “away” pubs. Thus, “The Eight Bells”, “The Temperance” and “The King’s Arms” were all Chelsea pubs on this night.

I reached the pub just at 5.20pm. It seemed odd, I must admit, to see an “Only Away Fans” sign on a window. It was crowded, lots of the younger element, virtually no colours, all Chelsea. PD and Parky were sat close to our usual table with a few other friends. As I squeezed out at 6.30pm to hand over tickets, a young chap entered and exclaimed “small, innit?” and I replied “and getting smaller.” There was no space anywhere.

The mood in the pub was mainly boisterous with a few songs being aired. For once, I wanted to reach Craven Cottage in plenty of time. It is usually a struggle to reach kick-off time due to the comforts of “The Duke’s Head” and a slightly optimistic guess of how long it takes to walk through Bishop’s Park. On this particular evening, it was just a few hundred yards less than a mile. As we walked through the park, the bright floodlights came into view to the north and I could not resist stopping to take a few atmospheric photographs of the gnarled silhouetted trees and the gnarled masses walking purposefully to the match.

The area outside the away turnstiles is by far the best part of Craven Cottage and, along with the narrow street adjacent to the main stand at Goodison, is my favourite away day location for photographs and ambiance. The red brick, the signage, the historic cottage itself, the hawkers, the Haynes statue, the floodlights. It’s magical but, I guess, in only a way that a football fancier would really appreciate.

This spot is the definition of the phrase “Fulhamish.”

I was in at around 7.20pm. I spoke with a few friends and some – the fools – thought that we would win. My mouth went dry and I found it hard to answer their obvious optimism.

This was my first visit since March 2019, a 2-1 win. Since then, Fulham have been relegated, promoted to a COVID-hit season, relegated and promoted again. They are the ultimate “yo yo” team, or if their much-derided middle class support might say, a “yah yah” team (Peter York, 1981, thanks for that.)

At last the new Riverside Stand is functional for match days, if not fully. I have been keeping tabs on its slow progress for years. On this night, the lower section and the outer flanks of the upper tier were able to be used.

My mate Nick, born in Battersea, called over to say that he saw his first-ever game here, back in the ‘fifties, when many Chelsea supporters used to pop over to Craven Cottage when we were away. Joe Cole and Gary Cahill, with huge BT Sport mics, walked past and were serenaded.

It was announced that our new loan signing Joao Felix was starting.

Kepa

Chalobah  – Silva – Koulibaly

Dave – Kovacic – Zakaria – Hall

Mount – Havertz – Felix

Chelsea in those crappy Tottenham navy socks. Why?

Willian was starting for the home team.

PD and Parky made it in just before the game began, PD having trouble getting in on a ticket that initially appeared to be null and void. There were six of us squeezed into five spaces; PD, Parky, John, Gal and Al, with me somewhere in the middle. It was our version of a high press.

Fair play to Fulham. As with Manchester City, they honoured the memory of Gianluca Vialli before the game – there was a minute of applause – and I thank them for that. Previously dry, the evening’s only rain thankfully came and went very soon into the game.

It felt odd to be attacking the Putney End in the first period.

We started so well, with Joao Felix involved in most of our attacking thoughts. He had started the game so positively and his touch and urgency shone like a beacon in those first moments of the game. I counted three efforts on goal in the opening fifteen minutes alone. He also drew fouls from two separate Fulham players who were both booked. This was some debut. Shots from him, and others, flew at the Fulham goal.

Halfway through the first-half, this was an open game, and the Chelsea crowd were buoyant.

As with Cucarella at Goodison Park, though, I was a little picky with a song for the Portuguese signing being aired so soon in his Chelsea career. Others wait years.

“He came from Portugal. He hates the Arsenal.”

This was a remake of the Tiago chant from 2004; I suppose it is better than nothing. There is no doubt that Felix was the spark in our team and it was so good to see a player with a constant willingness to go forward. It was a jolt to our system. Other players – I am talking about you Mount, Ziyech, Havertz, Pulisic – must have looked on and thought “oh yeah I remember now.”

We had enjoyed most of the attacks on goal. Fulham had been neat but mainly on the defensive, with only an occasional attack worthy of the name.

Out of nowhere, a shot from Bobby Decordova-Reid smashed against our bar. Soon after, on twenty-four minutes, Willian wriggled inside the box and I spoke to John next to me.

“You know he’s going to bend one in, there you go.”

Sadly, I had a premonition about a Willian goal before the match but found myself calling the goal in real time too. It is a habit that I need to get out of. Maybe I should stay stony silent all game.

Willian wheeled away but did not celebrate. Top man.

Soon after, my phone lit up with images of myself being featured on BT’s coverage of the game.

I looked depressed, eh?

We kept attacking with shots from Felix, again, and Hall causing concern for Bernd Leno in the Fulham goal.

There was a piece of sublime skill from Thiago Silva towards the end of the first-half, a cushioned caress of the ball and a prod to safety, that only I seemed to spot. In the ‘eighties, it would have drawn applause, I am sure, from everyone in our end.

Late on in the half, a shot from Dave was deflected over after good combination play involving the new man Felix and a seemingly revitalised Havertz, and then Havertz set up Felix – yet again – but his shot was blocked from my view by a bloke in front of me. I had not got a clue how it avoided the goal.

So, the first-half, Chelsea with decent attacking, five efforts or so from Felix, but we looked naïve at the back. Grumbles at the break? Oh yes.

In that chat about Chelsea’s fortunes at work during the day, a work colleague had mentioned that someone on “Talk Sport” had mentioned that Chelsea were third out of three in the “West London League” and I mentioned that we were bottom of the same league in 1982/83 too.

Right, 1982/83, let’s go.

On Wednesday 12 January – forty years ago exactly – Chelsea played Huddersfield Town in an FA Cup third round replay at Stamford Bridge, just a mile and a half away from the current location of Chelsea Football Club’s first team. We won 2-0 with two late goals from John Bumstead, who didn’t get many, and Mike Fillery, who got more, in a match watched by a decent enough gate of 14.417. My diary that evening was surprisingly gung-ho, predicting that we would go to Derby County in the next round and win. I must have been light-headed and delirious.

Two minutes into the second-half at Craven Cottage in 2023, I captured the lone figure of Mason Mount taking aim with a free-kick against the backdrop of the inhabitants of the Hammersmith End. I watched the ball sweep goal wards. There was a mighty kerfuffle in the six-yard box as there appeared to be a save, a shot, a save, but then a goal given. I had no idea if the ball had crossed the line directly from Mount or via another player.

We were level.

I looked over to spot Alan’s face, a picture of determination and involvement. Loved that.

The Chelsea choir were suddenly in a playful mood.

“We are staying up. Say we are staying up.”

Sadly, Denis Zakaria fell to the floor in front of the dugouts and looked in considerable pain. He would play no more and was replaced by the less-than-appetising sight of Jorge Luiz Frello Filho, who currently has more names than fans at Chelsea right now. Zakaria – yet another injury, we must be experiencing our worst-ever run – looked utterly dejected as he limped around the pitch.

Worse was to come. Barely a minute or so after, Kalidou Koulibaly struck a firm ball at Felix’ upper body – “fuck was that?” – and the Portuguese player lost control. In attempting to rob Kenny Tete, he scythed him down, and a red looked likely.

Yes, a straight red.

A debut to remember for Joao Felix.

Collective brains whirled back forty years.

Chris : “Al, didn’t Joey Jones get sent off in his first game in 1982?”

Al : “Yes mate, Carlisle away.”

A little later.

Rob : “I bet Joey Jones didn’t have six shots on goal before he got sent off at Carlisle.”

Now we were up against it alright. A man down, I really wondered where our attacks would originate. But we kept going. There was a chance for Havertz breaking on the left but his shot was somehow blocked by Leno.

On seventy-three minutes, the former Manchester United winger Anders Pereira sent over a teasing cross that had Kepa beaten all ends up.

More commentary from me : “Kepa’s nowhere.”

Our ‘keeper came but misjudged the flight of the ball completely, leaving Carlos Vinicius to head into an empty net.

The vitriol aimed at Kepa was intense.

Immediately after, the away end sent out the equivalent of a “thumbs down” to the current ownership.

A Roman thumb, if you will.

“Roman Abramovich. Roman Abramovich.”

At the break, I had moaned to a friend who was standing behind me that I honestly wondered if the new owners have a clue about football. There are certain aspects about this new lot that shouts desperation. And maybe naivety too. Hopefully the season will improve and I will be completely wrong.

Then, a chant that has been heard sporadically over the years.

“We want our Chelsea back.”

I wondered which Chelsea this was.

The 1905 to 1954 Chelsea that won fuck all?

The 1971 to 1996 Chelsea that won fuck all?

Or maybe just the last twenty years of Chelsea that have won rather a lot?

Regardless, the mood in the Putney End was a feral one now, with shouts and chants raining down from behind. But amidst all of this, “Three Little Birds” made a very surprising appearance.

“Don’t worry about a thing ‘cus every little thing is gonna be alright.”

On seventy-nine minutes, Graham Potter changed things.

Carney Chukwuemeka for Chalobah.

Conor Gallagher for Kovacic.

Marc Cucarella for Hall.

Then, just after.

Hakim Ziyech for Mount.

We conjured up a couple of late chances for Havertz, but I think it is safe to say it was no surprise that we could not find the net.

For Fulham, our former player Nathaniel Chalobah came on in the last few seconds, thus missing his brother by around twenty minutes.

The final whistle blew.

Fulham 2 Chelsea 1.

I had sadly been right all along.

There were boos at the end, not from many, but from enough to make themselves heard.

“You’re not fit to wear the shirt.”

I was inwardly grimacing.

I’m still not a fan of booing after all these years.

At the end, I was keen to race back to my car. Both PD and Parky had struggled with walking the mile to the game and I did not want them to have to walk a mile and a half back to the car. I tried to leave quickly. I wasn’t able to pay too much attention to the interaction between players and our supporters. I was aware that a stern faced Mason Mount had the balls to come over to face the ire of some of our support. I believe, from comments that I would later hear, only Silva and Dave joined him. Many of my fellow supporters were yelling abuse, indiscriminately, though just as may were clapping the players off.

To boo or not to boo?

To clap or not to clap?

Answers on a postcard.

I raced back to Putney, walking close to the icy chill coming off the river. Walking over Putney Bridge, I overheard a middle-aged chap say to his friend :

“I guess I have seen some players down here over the years, but I think Willian is the best I have seen.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I thought back to Fulham’s last win against us, in March 2006, and walking over the exact same bridge, surrounded by jubilant Fulham fans – more so than in 2023 – and the memories were strong. Jose Mourinho oddly took off both Shawn Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole on just twenty-six minutes. Luis Boa Morte – who I had spotted on the touchline during the evening’s game, now a coach at Fulham – gave the home team their first win against us in twenty-seven years. Thankfully, the loss didn’t stop us winning the league in 2005/6.

Our eventual fate in 2022/23 is not certain.

My parking slot was to end at 10.30pm. I reached my car at 10.25pm. I work in logistics.

My car was pointed north once more, and I headed over Putney Bridge for the second time of the day. What a strange old evening it had been. An evening at home, but away, in this little part of SW6. Within ten minutes, I was able to park up on Finlay Road as it cut across Fulham Palace Road. PD and Parky soon found me. I edged up towards the A4 and we were away.

It had been an eventful evening for sure. What with the sending-off for Felix, the injury to Zakaria, the Kepa miss-hap, and the ultimate defeat, contrasting chants in the away end, it had been a typically chaotic Chelsea night of pain. There were half-serious concerns about relegation – “no, we have too much quality” – and I openly question those who yearn for a year in the second tier (mainly to flush out certain demographics in our support it seems) because as many clubs have seen over the years, promotion is never guaranteed.

Well, promotion is never guaranteed unless your name is Fulham – but not necessarily for all clubs that play in Fulham, confusing isn’t it? – of course. Those buggers seem to get promoted at every opportunity.

I eventually reached home at 1.30am, but I am never the best for dropping off to sleep straight away. It was while I was at home in the small hours that I learned that our scorer was given as Kalidou Koulibaly. I would eventually drop off to sleep at 3am.

4.45am to 3am.

It had been a fucking long day.

On Sunday, we head back to SW6 for a home game with Crystal Palace with the “Eight Bells” as a home pub once again.

See you there.

Tales From The London Stadium

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 4 December 2021.

This was another early start. At 7am I called for PD and at 7.30am we collected LP. Another cold day was on the cards as I pointed my car eastwards. As with any other Chelsea trip, there was the usual early-morning sequence of chit-chat, laughs and piss-takes. Outwardly, my main conversation point to my two travelling companions was this :

“Never bloody seen us win at their new place.”

For it was true.

26/10/16 : League Cup – lost 1-2

6/10/17 : League – won 2-1 (I did not attend – work)

9/12/17 : League – lost 0-1

23/9/18 : League – drew 0-0

1/7/20 : League – lost 2-3 (I did not attend – behind closed doors)

24/4/21 : League – won 1-0 (I did not attend – behind closed doors)

Inwardly, I was humming a tune to myself, but I was not convinced that I would be able to remember the exact words later in the day if required.

The key word was “zangalewa.”

“Tsamina mina, eh, eh.

Edouard Edouard Mendy.

Tsamina mina zangalewa.

He comes from Senegal.”

After the really lucky win at Watford on Wednesday, everyone seemed to be of the same opinion ahead of our game with West Ham who were surprisingly flying high, albeit not from Stamford Bridge to Upton Park.

“Tough game coming up.”

Despite the undoubted strength of our overall squad, despite the fine managerial nous of Thomas Tuchel, despite our fine showing in several recent games, there were of course questions everywhere. But this is to be expected. We are still a learning team, a growing team, a team in embryo.

Despite our real worries about our fate in East London, we were on our way.

One of these days, the Premier League fixtures will be kinder to us for an away game at the former Olympic Stadium in Stratford. Of my three – soon to be four – visits, one has been a night game and three have been early kick-offs. We have a traditional East-End pre-match lined up to take place at some point in the future; a pint at “The Blind Beggar” and some pie and mash somewhere local. Time was against us on this visit, but one day we’ll do it.

I was parked-up at Barons Court at bang on 10am. Our race out east involved three railway lines and changes at Green Park and Canary Wharf. We arrived at Pudding Mill Lane at bang on 11am. The walk to the away turnstiles took just ten minutes.

Just over four hours from PDs’s door to an Iron door.

Ideally, I wanted to circumnavigate the stadium for the first time to take some photos but we were soon funnelled into the away turnstiles. I had taken a photo of the ArcelorMital Orbit on the walk to the stadium, but it was a terribly flat photo. I had been hoping to take other photos of not only it but of the stadium too. Again, some other time maybe.

It was all rather ironic that I chose to wear a classic navy New York Yankee cap on this cold day in London. Back in June 2019, the Yankees played two “away” games against the Boston Red Sox at West Ham’s stadium and it was natural that many of my friends expected me to attend as I have been a long-distance admirer of the Bronx Bombers since 1990. But I wasn’t having any of it. As a vehement opponent of the “thirty-ninth game” or any variant of it, it would have been pretty hypocritical of me to watch the Yanks outside of North America.

We were inside with a long wait until kick-off and I was able to chat to many good people in the large concourse area outside the seating bowl.

It was fantastic to chat to Tommie and Kevin for the first time in a while. Both follow Wales over land and sea. They feel ill at ease contemplating a possible place in the finals of the Qatar World Cup. They feel conflicted should Wales win their two play-off games. Both dislike the idea of that nation hosting the tournament; the ridiculous heat, the lack of a local football culture, the obvious back-handers involved in the process of choosing that country, the deaths of migrant workers in the construction of the shiny new stadia, the human rights violations.

I feel for them.

Personally, I have decided to boycott watching the FIFA 2022 World Cup. It’s a personal choice. I recently decided not to watch any qualifiers either.

Talking of the Arabian Peninsula, I heard that a few fellow fans had already booked their passage to Abu Dhabi for the long awaited World Club Championships. This is now finalised for the first few days in February. I want to go. Under normal circumstances, my flight and accommodation would be booked. There are of course other outside influences to consider. A couple of The Chuckle Brothers are interested too. Let’s see how COVID behaves over the next few weeks.

I sense an incoming barrage of “whataboutery” questions heading my way.

Is it hypocritical of me to boycott Qatar but to embrace Abu Dhabi?

Possibly. I’ll do some research. I’ll get some answers. It might prove to be a difficult decision. It might be an easy one. This is what Tommie thinks about Qatar too.

…a voice from the gallery : “you OK on that soap-box, mate? You finished pontificating?”

Well. If you insist.

I saw that the Chelsea U-21 team again took part in the autumn group phase of the “EFL” Cup, which was originally known as the Associate Members Cup when it was originally floated back in the mid–eighties. For years and years, this was the sole preserve of teams in the third and fourth tiers of the professional pyramid and gave the competing teams the chance to reach Wembley Stadium. For a while this was known as the Johnstone Paints Trophy, and allowed Southampton to have a self-deprecating dig at us in recent years.

“Johnstone Paints Trophy – you’ll never win that.”

Premier League teams have been allowed to enter their U-21 teams since 2016 and I – and many others – are dead against this. I see no merit in it. It could potentially rob a smaller club of their day out at Wembley. In 1988, for example, Wolves beat Burnley 2-0 in the Sherpa Van Trophy in front of 80,000 supporters at a time when both clubs were floundering. As recently as 2019, over 85,000 saw Portsmouth beat Sunderland.

Seeing Chelsea U-21 at Wembley in a final would not thrill me; far from it. Despite us playing at nearby Bristol Rovers and Forest Green Rovers in the past month, I boycotted those two games. No interest, no point and just wrong in my book.

The two Robs appeared.

“Have you got the Mendy song sorted?”

I replied I wasn’t sure but I thought there was mention of the word “satsuma” somewhere within it.

I made my way up the steps to the upper level of the seating bowl. This was my first time back in over three years and I had forgotten how ridiculous a stadium it really is. I was in row thirty-six, so heaven knows what the view was like in row seventy at the rear. That vast amount of wasted space between the two end tiers is such an eyesore. For a one-time Olympic stadium, I am always struck with how undeniably bland it all is. The only unique feature about it is the upturned triangular pattern of the floodlights. The “running” track area is now claret-coloured, the one change since 2018.

On the balcony of the main stand, or at least the one with the posh boxes, which is the only one not named after a former player, a potted history of West Ham’s successes is listed.

The list does not extend too far.

FA Cup 1964

ECWC 1965

FA Cup 1975

FA Cup 1980

Not much of a list, really.

I said to Gary : “I am surprised they haven’t added ‘East 17 Xmas Number One 1994’ to it…”

To be honest, silverware-wise, Chelsea and West Ham were scarily similar for decades; only four major trophies apiece up until 1997. Since then, well…our two trajectories have differed.

We knew that Thomas Tuchel was still battling injuries but we had also heard that Reece James and Jorginho were to return.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Christensen

Alonso – Jorginho – Loftus-Cheek – James

Mount – Havertz – Ziyech

Still no sight of Romelu Lukaku in the starting eleven; we guessed he wasn’t 100% and was being eased back in.

Ex-Chelsea favourite Kurt Zouma was in the West Ham team.

Chelsea, in yellow and black, attacked the home end in the first-half and quickly dominated possession.

In the opening few minutes, the two sets of fans went with some tried and tested chants :

“From Stamford Bridge to Upton Park, stick your blue flag up your arse.”

“You sold your soul for this shit hole.

On six minutes, the mood in the stadium dramatically changed as an image of the murdered young boy Arthur Labinjo-Hughes was shown on the two giant TV screens. It seemed that everyone stopped to clap. What a terrible waste of a beautiful young life. I have rarely felt such sickening sadness and anger as when I saw, and heard, his sweet voice on the TV.

Bless you Arthur. Rest in peace.

Despite our dominance, West Ham were actually ahead on chances created in the first quarter of an hour, with one shot from Jarrod Bowen going wide and a free header from another who I thought was Mark Noble but then realised he wasn’t even playing. It is, after all, a long way from the pitch in the away end.

All of the noise seemed to be coming from us.

A well struck shot from Reece James was easy for Fabianski to hold.

“One shot on goal in fifteen minutes, Al. That equates to just six in the whole match.” My eyesight might have been shite, but my maths was up to scratch.

Another chance to the home team, but Mendy saved from Craig Dawson.

In the wide open space between the two tiers of Chelsea support, around twenty police were positioned.

“Most Old Bill I’ve seen inside an away ground for ages, Al.”

It had made me chuckle just before the match had started to see Goggles, the football-liaison officer at Fulham Police Station, chatting away to a known Chelsea hooligan, admittedly of yesteryear. It also made me laugh to see, at various stages of the match, all twenty police officers avidly watching the game, seated in a separate section, rather than eyeballing the crowd.

I called it The Goggle Box.

At last, another effort on the West Ham goal; on twenty-five minutes a very fine cross from James picked out the unmarked leap of Kai Havertz. Sadly, this was saved.

A corner followed, and then another. Mount crossed to meet the unhindered leap of Thiago Silva inside the box. His header forced the ball downwards and it bounced up and into the goal. The net rippled and the three-thousand Chelsea fans roared. The goal immediately reminded me of the first Chelsea goal that I ever saw in person, another “up and down” header from Ian Hutchinson in 1974.

Twenty-eight minutes had elapsed and all was well in the world.

“Maybe I will see us win here after all.”

We spotted Joe Cole and Gianfranco Zola, and Rio Ferdinand, out in the open, in front of the BT studio no more than thirty yards away.

Hakim Ziyech was involved in some nice flourishes, and the fleet-footed trio up front were causing West Ham more problems than they would have wished. There was still a reluctance for any of our team to take a pop at goal though. It was infuriating the hell out of Alan and myself. At last, an effort from distance from Mason Mount – nothing special to be honest – cheered us.

“Need to do more of that. Get players following up, it might squirm away from the ‘keeper, let’s keep firing shots in, deflections, touches, make the ’keeper work.”

Two more shots at the West Ham goal followed.

West Ham were still offering an occasional threat, though. Sadly, on forty minutes, an under-hit back pass from Jorginho put Edouard Mendy under all sorts of pressure. Knowing that our fine shot stopper is not gifted with even average distribution, we always wonder Why The Fuck do we seem obsessed in playing the ball back to him, especially when opposing teams are putting us under pressure in our third. It is fucking unfathomable. Well, surprise surprise, a heavy touch from Mendy followed, and as he saw himself lose control, he took a low swipe at that man Bowen.

It was a clear penalty.

Fucksake.

Lanzini smashed in the equaliser from the spot.

Only four minutes later, a fine move involving Ruben Loftus-Cheek pushing the ball out to Ziyech resulted in a long cross-field pass to Mount, unmarked, in the inside-right channel. His first time effort was incredible; a potent mixture of placement and power, the shot being cushioned with the side of his foot, but with so much venom that Fabianski did not get a sniff. It crept in low at the near post.

It was a fucking sublime goal.

There were generally upbeat comments at the break. The noise hadn’t been too loud throughout the half, but it is so difficult to get the away support – in two distinct areas – together to sing as one. I hardly heard the Mendy song, but on its rare appearance, the young bloke behind me was making a spirited effort to mangle every syllable in the entire song.

I kept quiet. I knew I would hardly be any better, satsuma or not.

At half-time, Lukaku replaced Havertz.

“Is it me, Al, or has he put on some weight? He was pretty trim when he returned from Italy.”

He must love Greggs’ steak bakes and sausage rolls. And their doughnuts and yum yums.

There was a little nip-and-tuck as the second-half began. Ten minutes in, Gal chirped “the next goal is massive.” Within a minute, West Ham broke with ease down our left and just before Bowen struck, I feared the worst and sighed “goal”; it was therefore no surprise to me to see the net ripple again, this time at the far post.

Bollocks.

Our Callum came on in place of Ziyech; a tad unlucky I thought, but maybe he was tiring. Callum began up front in a three and had a few nibbles. But ten minutes later, Alonso was replaced by Christian Pulisic, so Callum reverted to a left wing back. We enjoyed a little spell of around ten minutes when we looked to be knocking on the Irons’ door, but I have to say that the integration of a returning Lukaku – either unable or unwilling to shake off markers – was a problem. We enjoyed reasonable approach play but floundered in and around the box.

“Hit the fackin’ thing.”

Our efforts on goal hardly caused Fabianski to break sweat.

“Fackinell Chels.”

Callum’s reluctance to drift past his man was frustrating. On the rare occasions that he was in a good position to shoot, he declined.

Sigh.

With three minutes to go, and with a few Chelsea fans already trickling out of the away end, a relatively rare West Ham move found itself wide on our right.

Out of nowhere, Arthur Masuaku took a swipe at the ball, no doubt intending to send a cross into our box for the impressive Michail Antonio – much more agile than Lukaku – or anyone else who was nearby to attack. To our horror, the ball appeared to be sliced. It made a bee-line for the goal, and Mendy – expecting the cross – was caught out. His back-peddling and side-shifting was a terrible sight to see. Again that same net rippled.

The home fans, I have to say, made an absolute din.

Ugh.

With that, hundreds of Chelsea fans poured out of both tiers.

Alan, Gary, Parky and I stayed to the end, but I had packed away my camera long before the final whistle.

“Still not seen us win here.”

The Chelsea crowd shuffled out. Jason – another Chelsea fan from Wales – cheered me with a positive spin on things.

“Tough one but we move on mate” and a smile.

On the walk away from the stadium, there was honest annoyance but also a little pragmatism too.

“Should have won that. Fluke goal, the winner. A mate reckoned it deflected off Ruben’s leg. But we didn’t create enough clear chances. God, we miss Kante.”

As we walked on, the mood shifted further. Let’s not get too silly about this. Nobody likes losing but on this day, a day of two Arthurs, maybe a little perspective is needed.

Arthur Labinjo-Hughes.

Arthur Masuaku.

Do I have to spell it out?

The return trip out west went well. Pudding Mill Lane station was soon reached. It must be one of London’s hidden secrets; we never wait too long there. In the short line for the lift to take us up to the platform, a West Ham fan, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Bernie Winters, soon sussed that we were Chelsea but when he heard that we went to all the games could not have been friendlier.”

“Good lads.”

I finally took my photo of the ArcelorMital Orbit from the platform as we waited for a train to whip us back to Canary Wharf.

We were back at Barons Court for around 4pm. Our trip back to Wiltshire and Somerset was quick and uneventful, but one moment disrupted us.

“Liverpool just scored. Ninety-fourth minute.”

With Manchester City winning too, we suddenly found ourselves in third place. There will be no dishonour if this fledgling Chelsea team, still learning about itself and its manager – and vice versa – finishes third this season.

Personally, I’ve got my beady eyes on the World Club Championships. If we win that, the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy really won’t matter at all.

There is no midweek flit to Russia for me, so next up it’s the old enemy on Saturday.

Chelsea vs. Leeds United.

Salivate away everyone.

I’ll see you there.

Tales From Porto : Part Two – Reach Out, Touch Faith

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2021.

Just as in Moscow in 2008 and Munich in 2012, I travelled the last few miles to the venue of the Champions League Final by tube. In Moscow, the carriage was full of noisy fans of both clubs. In Munich, the stifling air of the U-bahn made singing uncomfortable for the Chelsea fans who almost filled the entire carriage. This time, Charlotte and I stood the few miles in comfort as there was space to both talk and think. Only Chelsea fans were inside this carriage. We were on our way to Combatentes tube station to the west of the Dragao Stadium to the north east of the city centre. The Manchester City support would be heading to a different station. In Moscow, the Chelsea hordes were housed in the southern end of the Luzhniki Stadium. In Munich, we took our place in the three tiers of the Nord Kurv. In Porto, Chelsea would again be located at the northern end.

Charlotte and I, both from Somerset, continued our match day chat and touched on our early memories of going to games. Charlotte’s first game at Stamford Bridge was a 3-1 win over the then European Champions Liverpool in 1978, a game that I attended too. I liked that. We spoke of how Chelsea had become a major part of our lives, and how people “on the outside” probably never come close to understanding the pull that it has on us all. I only met Charlotte for the first time in Kiev in 2019, but have bumped into her and her husband Paul – injured for this final, a broken ankle – at a few games since.

As in the crowds outside the bars near the fan zone, one song dominated the ten-minute journey north. I have often maintained that the football song that stems from the Depeche Mode song “Just Can’t Get Enough” should always have been a Chelsea song long before Liverpool and Celtic, and then others, grabbed hold of it. Band members Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher are big Chelsea fans. It should have been The Shed and not The Kop “do, do, do, do, do, do, do”-ing these past ten years. But this song was now – at last – a new and vibrant part of the Chelsea songbook. Timo Werner is the subject matter of our version and the song was being bellowed out with gusto as the Chelsea faithful exited the train and clambered up the stairs. Tube stations are always fine locations for a pre-match sing-song, the bare walls echoing nicely.

On the coach down to Munich from Prague with Glenn in 2012, one song got inside my brain, the iconic “The Model” by Kraftwerk. We kept singing it to each other. A real ear-worm for that day. By the time we joined up the rest of the lads in a sunny Munich beer garden, Alan had changed the words slightly.

“Gal’s a model and he’s looking good. He loves his main course and he loves his pud.”

Alas neither Alan nor Gary would be in Porto this time around; nor the other members of our Munich tour party, Daryl, Neil, Glenn, Simon and Milo.

Kraftwerk in Munich, Depeche Mode in Porto. A nice progression.

As we reached the top of the stairs, I spoke to Charlotte :

“Never before in the history of football has a song been sung so loudly and so devotedly in honour of a striker who has scored such a paltry number of goals.”

Outside, the air was perfect. We slowly walked east to the stadium which eventually appeared in the distance, it’s large roof trusses discernible through some trees and over some rooftops. This was a well-to-do part of the city. A tree-lined road, with decent houses nearby, steadily dipped down to the stadium. We bumped into Scott, Gerry and a very giggly Paul, who was looking like he had imbibed one too many ports. It was great to see them; they go everywhere. I remember chatting to Scott and Paul in Australia in 2018.

At just before 6pm, it was my big moment. At the turnstiles outside the north-west corner of the stadium, I scanned my match ticket and showed my yellow bracelet, which basically took the place of my printed negative test result email.

I was in.

A little rush of adrenalin. I then moved towards the security guard inside the perimeter of the stadium. While a chap next to me was sounding off about not being allowed to take his “ever so slightly bigger than A4 size” bag in to the stadium, I pushed through. I had my mobile phone in my left jeans pocket and my new camera in my right pocket. The steward brushed them without really being too bothered. He was more concerned for me to open up the three compartments of my newly-purchased CP bag. Inside was my passport, my medication, my glasses, my boarding passes, a pen, some wet wipes and a couple of chargers. He barely looked inside.

My camera was in too.

Another adrenalin rush.

We walked on, and I took a few photographs of the stadium, it’s bright curving stands beneath a perfect Portuguese sun.

It was a gorgeous evening. I had been pleasantly surprised how many Chelsea had taken head of the warning to travel to the stadium in good time. I was inside the grounds of the stadium before 6 o’clock. Too sensible by far. In Munich, we all got in with ten minutes to spare.

I bought myself an espresso and slowly walked down to my seat in block 23.

The stadium opened up before me, the green turf ahead, blocks of concrete, the colour blue, great expanses of steel overhead.

It was as if I was waking from a complete season in hibernation. My alarm clock had sounded very late; it allowed me to watch the FA Cup Final on that wet and dreary Saturday two weekends ago, but there was such insipid performance that day that it soon became distant. That game was so difficult for me to rationalise. In retrospect, that whole day seemed like a dream. In fact, I have almost sleepwalked through the past nine months, aware that my interest in the love of my life was waning with each passing week.

But I was awake now.

As I have said on many occasions recently, the thought of us reaching a European Cup Final and me not being present had haunted me all season long. Others were excited by our European run. I was not so enthusiastic. The thought of me being absent from the final was killing me.

But here I was. In Portugal. In a pandemic. With my face mask and my camera and a head full of emotions to last a lifetime.

I guzzled that coffee and toasted absent friends, sadly too many to mention.

To get my bearings I quickly looked up to my left and spotted the section of the upper tier of the east stand where I watched us play Porto in 2015. I noted that the black netting that spoiled our view six years ago was tied back under the roof for this game.

The stadium looked a picture. Large multi-tiered stands to the side, topped by huge curving roofs. Behind both goals, a single tier but in two sections. The roof above both end stands floated in the air, supported only from the sides and not from the rear. I have rarely seen a stadium with such a feature. The colour scheme of royal blue seats met with my approval, and the deep blue sky above completed a perfect setting.

I stood the entire time and kept a lookout for friends and acquaintances. I soon spotted Ali and Nick from Reading around ten rows behind me. Andy and Sophie too. Aroha, Luke, Doreen close by. Then Big John appeared, dressed in all black, but far from impressed with his seat for the evening. He was located right in the corner, as low as me, but John had paid a higher priced ticket than everyone else in the section. We briefly spoke again how crazy this season had been. And this night in Portugal was typically odd too.

“Surreal, innit?”

Fellow spectators slowly entered the stadium. Music played on the PA. There were a few rare chants. At our seat, there was another Chelsea goody bag. I had already been given a Chelsea badge in the fan zone and here, in a specially logo’d Porto royal blue kitbag was a jacquard Final scarf. A flag was propped up by my seat too. The kit bag soon housed all my goods and chattels. It came in very useful. I dropped my top on the back of my seat and tried to take it all in.

In the build-up during the previous week, I had mentioned to a few friends that in 2012 it seemed that we were a well-established team, long in the tooth when it came to the Champions League. It seemed that 2012 was “the last chance saloon” for many; for Drogba, for Terry, for Cech, for Cole, for Lampard. In reality we really should have won the biggest prize in world club football in any year from 2005 to 2010.

So 2012 came along at just the right time. And how.

Since then, despite Amsterdam in 2013 and Baku in 2019, I had admitted to myself that we simply would not win the European Cup again, or at least not in my lifetime. Going into this season I certainly felt that. Last season, as youngsters, we were torn apart by a hugely impressive Bayern ensemble.

This season? It has been sensational. First, Frank getting us out of the group phase. Secondly, Thomas navigating the stormy waters of the knock-out phase, which included a couple of games against Porto – of all teams – in Seville.

But here is the sad fact. I never felt close to this team. I never felt that involvement. I was emotionally distanced from it all. Until Wembley, I had never seen Timo Werner, nor Ben Chilwell, nor Kai Havertz, nor Edouard Mendy, nor Thiago Silva, nor Hakim Ziyech. Not in Chelsea blue anyway.

None of them.

What a fucking mess.

It felt that this team was only just beginning. It was in its formative stage. A baby turning into a toddler, no more. Yet here we were at a Champions League Final. Whisper it, but it almost didn’t seem right to me. I have been saying for a few months “we’re not even a team” insomuch as apart from a couple of sure-fire starters – N’Golo, Mason – not many Chelsea fans would be even able to name their favourite eleven. We never had this problem in 1983/84, 2004/5 nor 2016/17.

And there was a considerable feeling of personal guilt too. It would appear that thousands of Chelsea fans were more involved than me this season. Yet here I was in Porto at the Champions League Final. What right did I have to be here?

Champions League Final Wanker? Quite possibly.

I knew only this; I had to be in Portugal, in Porto, at Estadio do Dragao, in the north terrace, in section twenty-three, in row three, in seat fourteen for my sanity.

At around ten minutes to seven, two UEFA officials brought the Champions League trophy – daintily decked in one royal blue ribbon and one sky blue ribbon – to the adjacent corner flag. It was placed atop a clear plastic plinth. The press photographers nearby took a photo as did many fans. The photographs that I took, on my new Sony camera and my Samsung phone, were sadly not great quality. Maybe I panicked.

One thought raced through my head.

“I can almost reach out and touch it.”

Then my mind re-worked it.

Reach out.

Reach out, touch faith.

Faith. This football lark is all about faith isn’t it?

I uploaded my phone photo to Facebook, with the simple caption.

“Reach Out, Touch Faith.”

I stood and checked that it had uploaded. Within maybe sixty seconds, my ears detected an oh-so familiar electronic beat on the stadium PA.

The jarring of synthesisers and the pounding of a drum machine…

“Feeling unknown and you’re all alone, flesh and bone by the telephone.”

My brain fizzed, my senses sparkled.

“Things on your chest, you need to confess, I will deliver, you know I’m a forgiver.”

Oh my bloody goodness.

“Reach out, touch faith.”

At that moment, at that fucking moment, I knew that we would win the 2021 European Cup Final. Depeche Mode had come to the rescue and “Personal Jesus” boomed around the stadium. Now, let’s get serious, it would take a bloody fool to openly declare Chelsea Football Club as some sort of sporting personal Jesus to many of us : to cheer, to bring sustenance, to provide warmth, to bring succour, to provide nourishment, to add depth to our lives.

I am that bloody fool.

Football. Fackinell.

The Chelsea team was announced, and was met with cheers from the ever growing band of supporters.

Mendy.

Dave. Silva. Rudiger.

James. Jorginho. Kante. Chilwell.

Mount. Havertz. Werner.

It was the team that I would have selected. Maybe Kovacic for Jorginho. But I wanted Havertz to start.

I mentioned to two lads to my left : “Everyone is talking about Werner having a big night tonight, but I think Havertz is the man. He has an edge.”

From 7.15pm to 7.30pm, the players trotted on to the pitch and went through a few drills to warm their bodies up further. The messy training top that they were wearing was less hideous than both the 2019/20 kit and the 2021/22 kit.

The minutes passed by.

I had presumed that the stadium would be split down the middle; northern section Chelsea, southern section City. However, not only was the entire top section of the stand to my left City but there were City fans mixed in with Chelsea fans in the presumably CFC section of the lower tier too. We all know that City sold 5,800 but we had only sold 5,000 (rumours of Chelsea unable to move the extra 800 to independent travellers due to stringent UEFA rules were yet to be ratified), but City seemed to have more than an extra 800. It worried me. I hated the thought of this being their final, their evening.

But we had spoken about all of this during the day. This was City’s biggest ever game. Someone had likened their boisterousness in the city during the day to our type of support when we took over Stockholm in 1998. We must have had 25,000 in the 30,000 crowd against Stuttgart. It was the biggest airlift out of the UK since World War Two, but was sadly beaten by United in Barcelona the following year.

In recent years, we have enjoyed UEFA finals in 2008, 2012, 2013 and 2019. Without sounding like knobheads, or being blasé, we were used to this. But I hoped our support would match City’s which was starting to call the shots in the stadium.

Two songs on the PA : “Blue Moon” first and then “Blue Is The Colour”.

I sang along to every word.

…”cus Chelsea, Chelsea is our name.”

At around 7.45pm, a firework show took over the pitch and the Champions League anthem roared via the PA. Both the City and Chelsea support booed throughout, but I am not so sure the result was particularly loud nor noticeable to those watching at home and the executive areas. My real wish was for both sets of fans to come together with a loud and constant chant during the game.

Two sets of four letters.

Have a guess.

The teams entered the pitch; two hues of blue under a sensual sky.

Flags were enthusiastically waved in distinct parts of the stadium; City in the top deck to my left, City in the far end of the lower tier to my left, Chelsea to my right in our end.

The players met the dignitaries, the huge silver trophy glinting in the distance.

The City team didn’t really interest me. I knew who to look out for. Both teams were playing without a centre-forward and a sizeable part of my brain struggled with the basic concept of this, but then jerked back into life as I imagined experts talking about “pockets of space” and “creating space” and maybe even “space the final frontier.” Football is supported by more and more nerds these days after all.

The 2021 Champions League Final began.

There was a lively start to the game, and within the first fifteen minutes it seemed that we had enjoyed more strikes on goal than in the entire final in Munich. I immediately liked the look of young Mason Mount as his energy shone. And Timo Werner was making those trademark runs out wide, taking players with him. Ben Chilwell really caught my eye throughout the opening quarter, staying tight to Mahrez and Walker, robbing both of the ball, flicking the ball on to team mates, showing great skill and tenacity. Thiago Silva – his name sung probably more than any other Chelsea player at the start – looked in control.

I glanced at the two coaches. Tuchel, at last not festooned in royal blue, and looking smart in black. Guardiola, so slight, but a master tactician too.

The City support had been dominant in the city and also in the half-an-hour leading up to kick-off. Their noise boomed out in the first quarter of an hour of the game too.

“Blue Moon, You Saw Me Standing Alone.”

“City, City, The Best Team In The Land And All The World.”

“We’re Not Really Here.”

The first real chance of the match followed a laser-like missile from the boot of the City ‘keeper Ederson, dressed in all pink, and my muscles tightened as Raheem Sterling edged past Reece James but our right back recovered well and robbed the winger of a worthwhile strike on goal. It was a warning for sure.

At the other end, Kai Havertz played in Werner but this resulted in a shank, an air-shot, a fluff. City countered and a Sterling chance was blocked by that man Chilwell. Then, the tide seemed to turn a little. Within a few minutes, Werner had two chances. The first although straight at Mr. Pink, at least hit the target. His second slithered against the nearside netting.

At around this time, the Chelsea support grew.

One song dominated and was our call to arms.

“He’s Here. He’s There. He’s Every Fucking Where. Joey Cole. Joey Cole.”

He had to be in the stadium I surmised.

“Carefree, Wherever You May Be.”

The old stalwart.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

A nice touch. Do we even have a song for Thomas Tuchel? See what I mean about a team that is not yet a team?

“Oh Dennis Wise.”

This song continued for a while, longer than usual, I wondered if he too was in the stadium.

I turned to the two lads to my left (I realise I will never recognise them if I see them again because they, like me, were mask-compliant) and said that the City support had quietened.

“The beer buzz is gone.”

But I sensed that they were far from happy that we were now dominating play. A rare break, a shot by Phil Foden and a sublime block by Toni Rudiger only emphasised the rarity of their attacks.

Kante found himself dribbling inside the box and set up Havertz but his shot was smothered.

Chelsea were letting City have it from both barrels now.

“Your support is fucking shit.”

It had certainly quietened, no doubt.

“You’re only here on a freebie.”

Love it.

There had been a worry when Thiago Silva stopped not once but twice, in pain with what looked like a strain of some description. Sadly, with around ten minutes of the first-half remaining, he could carry on no more. I felt for him. He covered his head with his shirt. There must have been tears.

Chelsea in adversity, but we have found a way past that imposter in previous European triumphs. Andreas Christensen joined the fray.

Not so long after this substitution, I looked up to see a ball touched inside to Mount. He was in space, but so too was a rampaging Havertz. The ball that Mount played through to our young German was inch perfect. The City defence, loitering towards the halfway line as is their wont, were asleep.

They weren’t really there.

One touch from Havertz.

I was able to move slightly to my left – ah, the joy of being able to move on a terrace – to see him move on past Ederson, and knock the ball in to an empty net. I was in line with the ball. I saw the net bulge.

That glorious sight.

I turned to the lads to my left, my two forearms stretched out, tight, my muscles tense, and I screamed.

“Fucking, yeeeeees.”

The lad in the front row looked at me, pointed to me :

“You called it. Havertz.”

I turned to my right and snap, snap, snapped as fans tumbled down to the front row.

Limbs everywhere.

Off the scale.

Fackinell.

Euphoria.

Joy.

Relief.

Pandemonium in the North Stand.

I updated Facebook.

“THTCAUN.”

Garrett in Tennessee was the first one to reply correctly :

“COMLD.”

Noice one, shun.

I had a little laugh to myself…

“Manchester City 0 Adversity 1.”

The half-time whistle soon came. What a magnificent time to score a goal. Beautiful. There was an air of bewildered disbelief at the break, but also one of joy and hope. I spoke to a few friends :

“Savour these moments. They don’t come around too often.”

I dreamed of a second goal.

The half-time break shot past.

I soon realised, and it was regardless of the goal, that I was back. Football had got me. The months of wandering in the wilderness was over. My first game against Leicester City was difficult. I couldn’t concentrate, I was too easily distracted, and I didn’t know the players. On this night, in lovely Porto, I was kicking every ball, watching the movement of the players, singing songs, laughing and joking with nearby fans, listening for new chants.

I was in my element.

Throughout the second period, I watched the clock in the far corner and announced to the bloke to my left when a five-minute period had elapsed. It helped the time pass quicker, no doubt.

“Five minutes.”

“Ten minutes.”

“Fifteen minutes.”

Of course City enjoyed most of the possession. But did they really enjoy it? I don’t believe their fans enjoyed it at all. Their silence was deafening.

And their players did not create too much at all. My abiding memory of the second-half is of an array of truly awful crosses into our box from various City players. Rudiger seemed to head every single one of them away. Reece James kept Sterling at bay with an absolutely brilliant display of cool and resolute defending. N’Golo Kante just got better and better and better all game. I was convinced that with City on the attack, he would pinch the ball on the half-way line and play the ball in to Havertz a la Claude Makelele and Frank Lampard at Bolton in April 2005. To say Kante was everywhere would not be too much of a ridiculous over statement.

I did not see the challenge by Rudiger on De Bruyne. But I was more than happy when he exited the field. I certainly saw the rising shot from Sterling that struck Reece on the chest in the penalty box. No penalty and quite right too.

“Carefree” rung out.

We really were loud now. I was so happy. To be truthful, when the gate of almost 15,000 was announced, I could hardly believe my eyes. It certainly seemed so much more. And yet an empty stadium, with empty seats echoing the noise away rather than the fabric of clothes muffling it, surely helped.

“Twenty minutes.”

“Twenty-five minutes.”

I watched with a mixture of hope and panic as a City shot was miraculously scooped high over the bar by Dave. I remembered, exactly at that moment, a similar clearance – under his bar – by a lad called Wayne Coles in a Frome College game against a team from Chateau-Gontier, a twin town, in the spring of 1979, with me watching from the centre-circle. Both were astounding.

Christian Pulisic for Timo Werner.

“Thirty minutes.”

Our best, perhaps only, chance of a tight second-half fell to Pulisic, raiding the City half and put through by Havertz, but his dinked lob dropped wide of the far post.

“Thirty-five minutes.”

Mateo Kovacic for Mason Mount.

“Forty minutes.”

The nerves were starting to bite now. Please God, no fucking Iniesta – Spanish or Scottish – moment now.

“Forty-five minutes.”

But by now an awful seven minutes had been added. I stopped counting. I was focussed on the game, but needed to expel some energy.

“Carefree Wherever You May Be, We Are The Famous CFC.”

Seven minutes…tick, tock, tick, tock.

The last chance, very late, fell to Mahrez. His tired shot never looked like troubling Mendy, who – apart from reaching a few crosses – hardly had to stretch for a shot all night.

In the last minute, I clock-watched again. I wanted to photograph the exact moment that the referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz blew his whistle. But I wanted to capture the fans, who had serenaded the team all night long, in the north stand. I wanted them – us – to be the Final stars. I stood up on the seat in front of my row. Arms aloft. Camera poised. The fans still sung. A quick look to the field. Another City attack. I saw the referee bring a hand up to his mouth.

Tales From The Boleyn Ground

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 23 November 2013.

As I drove in to London on the elevated section of the M4 motorway, I caught sight of the cluster of skyscrapers in the City, some five or six miles further east. London is neither Chicago nor New York, but I am always excited by the sight of the Nat West Tower, Canary Wharf, The Gherkin and The Shard. Within an hour or so, I would be beyond these monoliths to industry, trade and finance and I would be nestled in an East End hostelry. The journey to the nation’s capital had been quick and easy. The late autumnal gold and orange hues of the journey from Somerset contrasted with the light greys of the London afternoon. I was soon parked-up and quickly disappeared through the large and imposing art deco façade of Acton Town tube station. The District Line took me to Westminster, and from there the Jubilee Line snaked south, east and then north towards West Ham tube station.

A visit to Upton Park has never been an enjoyable trip for me; it is, undoubtedly, my least liked away game. Thirty years ago, the threat of violent acts was reason enough for me to be wary. The aura surrounding the tightly-knit ICF meant that a foray down Green Street was akin to walking the gang plank. Thankfully, those days have passed. Today however, there is still a general tawdriness about the locale which eats away at my enthusiasm on match days.  In the violent ‘eighties, the away end was the infamous South Bank, now the site of the Bobby Moore Stand and the home supporters. My first two visits were horrendous affairs; a 5-3 loss in the early months of 1986-1987 and a 4-1 loss in the closing stages of 1987-1988. The latter game effectively saw us relegated. It was gut-wrenching stuff. Since then, my visits have been relatively rare and I’ve only started visiting Upton Park regularly over the past five or six seasons. In the years when I could only afford to go to five or six away games each season, Upton Park remained way down the pecking order. This would be my ninth visit.

Of course, with West Ham United soon to de-camp to the former Olympic Stadium in 2016, there will only be a few more trips to the scruffy, down-at-heel streets around the Boleyn Ground left. I’m not convinced that many West Ham fans are too enamoured with a move away from their spiritual home. It would be trite for me to say that I am not going to waste too much time concerning myself with what West Ham fans think, but we should all be wary about teams moving out of their historic homes into new stadia. I’d imagine that, given the choice, most Hammers would prefer to see Upton Park redeveloped rather than move a few miles north-west to Stratford. However, I am sure that the board members of Chelsea Football Club be watching with interest once West Ham United move in to their new luxurious residence in August 2016. The dream scenario for me would be for The Irons to be opening up in The Championship. In such circumstances, surely gates of 35,000 rattling around inside a sterile new stadium will be a nightmare for West Ham fans who, at times, used to produce an intimidating atmosphere in the tightness of Upton Park.

I’ll watch with interest to see how this stadium move eventually works itself out.

At just after three o’clock, I alighted at Plaistow tube station. In the ticket hall, I looked back west towards those tower blocks and skyscrapers of the City of London, the mid-afternoon sky darkening by the minute but with the slight tint of the first few moments of an eventual sunset. I soon joined up with a few fellow Chelsea mates who were drinking in “The Black Lion.” This was a first-time visit for me. Just inside the long narrow bar, Rob, Gary, Andy, Daryl, Walnuts, Dave, Steve and I spent an enjoyable ninety minutes, supping lager and sharing laughs. It goes without saying that none of us were marked as Chelsea supporters. We were a small Chelsea enclave in a hot bed of West Ham supporters. The boozer was crowded and the bar staff busy. We were in enemy territory. We kept ourselves to ourselves. We blended in well. Contrary to popular belief, the locals were neither happy, smiling Cockneys, prone to singing “Bubbles” nor psychopathic hoodlums. They seemed quite – whisper it – normal.

At just before 5 o’clock, we threw our jackets on and walked the best part of a mile east towards the ground. There was time for the briefest of chats with Gary about how watching England now disinterests both of us. In fact, International breaks tend to bore us all to death these days. I made the point to Gary that, seasoned football follower that I am, I find myself picking and choosing what aspects of the wide world of football I choose to pre-occupy myself with these days. To be blunt, I’d rather watch my local non-league team than the national team. I’d rather read a good book on football than watch a game on TV. I’d rather plan the next away day than bother listening to another Premiership team on the radio.

“Been there, seen that, got the replica shirt with number and player’s name.”

There was a brief “meet and greet” outside the away turnstiles with a few friends and this resulted in me missing the kick-off. By the time I had squeezed my way in to row N behind the goal, I’d missed the entrance of the teams and all of that “Pretty Bubbles In The Air” bollocks. I find that the away end at West Ham – formerly the Centenary Stand, now the Trevor Brooking Stand – is particularly shallow.

The first thing that hit me was how good we looked in the white / blue / blue. Next, I realised that Mikel and Ramires were in the holding positions and so this must mean that Frank Lampard was one of “the three.”

I’ll be honest; Frank has looked a little tired of late and so maybe Jose was risking it a little. Alongside Frank were Oscar and Hazard. At the back, JT was paired with GC again. After a couple of fine performances, Dave retained his place at left-back.

A quick scan of the West Ham team and it soon became obvious that Sam Allardyce was playing with no obvious striker.

The first-half began and it was a scrappy affair. A few Chelsea half-chances and a block from John Terry denied former Blue Joe Cole. Then, a silly and clumsy challenge by Jaaskelainen on Oscar resulted in a penalty to Chelsea.

At moments like that, how I wish I had put £20 on Frank to score first. True enough, with camera poised, up-stepped our leading goal scorer to blast high into the West Ham net. Frank couldn’t resist; he ran towards the spectators in the Bobby Moore, right arm lifted, and no doubt muttered a few personal epithets to the watching thousands.

Alan : “They’ll ‘Ave Ta Cam At Us Nah.”

Chris : “Cam Own Moi Li’ul Dimons.”

I even did a Cockney – arms in braces – victory jig.

To my right, the blue smoke from a flare billowed in and around the celebrating hordes.

Our play became more focussed and our goal scoring chances increased. We moved the ball intelligently and Frank Lampard found himself in acres of space in the middle of the park. He in turn moved the ball on to Eden Hazard, who flicked the ball into the path of a raiding Oscar. The away end were on tip-toes as our little Brazilian dribbled forward, with no West Ham defender able to shackle him, and we watched as he dispatched the ball into the goal, tucking it neatly just inside the left post.

We roared again.

The Chelsea fans around me had been in good voice for all of the first-half and we goaded the home fans further :

“We’re the only team in London with the European Cup.”

How I love that song…it was sung over and over and over.

And then, a song especially for West Ham’s most successful former player :

“Frankie Lampard – he’s won more than you.”

Just before the break, a sad sight. Joe Cole was substituted. I watched as he raced off the pitch. I’m sure I wasn’t the only Chelsea fan who remembers Joe being hooked off at Fulham in 2006 after just twenty minutes by Jose.

A few hundred West Ham fans in the East Stand to our left decided to take on the might of the Chelsea away support by initiating a few songs aimed at us. One rather rotund West Ham fan was singled out and taunted :

“Gone for the salad. You should have gone for the salad.”

The first-half had been all Chelsea. There has to be one special mention for a great piece of defensive covering by Cesar Azpilicueta, who raced over from his left-back position to quell a rare West Ham attack. Top marks. The boy is doing well at the moment.

Soon into the second-half, a thunderous Gary Cahill header was hacked off the line by Mark Noble.

Then, a fine flowing move which involved an improving Eto’o, found Oscar unmarked on the far post but he volleyed over.

With the match seemingly safe, the three thousand Chelsea fans – all standing, of course – dipped into the pages of the travelling support songbook and created a roll-call for an assortment of much-loved former players. We began, as so often is the case, with a song – almost seasonal now – for Peter Osgood.

“The Shed looked up and they saw a great star, scoring goals past Pat Jennings from near and from far.”

Then, in a five minute period, the songs continued, praising several other Chelsea legends.

“Oh Jimmy, Jimmy – Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink.”

“He’s here, he’s there, he’s every fackin’ where  – Frank Leboeuf, Frank Leboeuf.”

“Eidur Gudjohnsen, Eidur Gudjohnsen.”

“Super, Super Dan – Super Dan Petrescu.”

“Oh Dennis Wise, scored a fackin’ great goal.”

“One Di Matteo, there’s only one Di Matteo.”

Then, a song which brought a smile to my face.

“He’s here, he’s there, he’s every fackin’ where – Joey Cole, Joey Cole.”

Although Joe has completed a full footballing circle now, from West Ham to West Ham, and although he joined Liverpool with a few disparaging comments aimed at Chelsea Football Club, he is still in our hearts. This was, to use the oft-quoted phrase, “Proper Chelsea” – singing the name of a rival player. In light of the abuse that Frank Lampard has received at the hands of the bitter followers of his former team, this made a refreshing change. I sincerely hope that Joe, showered and changed, was sitting within the stadium and was able to hear the words aimed towards him. As if to rub it in further, there was just time for one more.

“Joey Cole – he’s won more than you.”

The game continued on with Chelsea in the ascendency. Eto’o curled one just wide of the post. There was an air of relaxed calm in the away end, but I feared a West Ham goal might change things dramatically. West Ham substitute Maiga fluffed his lines at the far post and steered the ball wide when it looked easier to score. After an Eden Hazard shot was blocked, the ball fell invitingly for Frank to effortlessly guide the ball low and into the West Ham goal.

“YES!”

Frank raced over to celebrate in front of the celebrating three thousand and I hopped up on to my seat.

Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.

In one photo, Frank seems to be looking at me right in the eyes.

West Ham United 0 Chelsea 3.

Get in.

We quickly walked out into the cold East London night with a bounce in our step. The home fans, some with claret and blue bar scarves wrapped around their necks, were mute. Alan and Gary decided to wait in line at the back of the large queue at Upton Park tube, but I decided to retrace my steps back to Plaistow. The “clip-clop” of a couple of police horses accompanied a few stragglers as we hurriedly walked the mile west. Once at Plaistow, there was a further wait on a crowded platform, but eventually the train took us back to West Ham tube station. I can well remember the journey on this District Line that my friend Gill and I took just under a year ago, our beloved team humiliated 3-1 by West Ham amidst turmoil, unrest and acrimony in the Chelsea end with Benitez at the helm. At the time, we sincerely hoped that it wouldn’t get any worse in 2012-2013.

Actually, it didn’t.

From my perspective, Upton Park 2012 was a recent low-water mark for Chelsea Football Club.

In 2013, Upton Park provided a far rosier picture. I texted Gill and she was able to share the moment.

By 9pm, I was back at Earl’s Court, knee deep in penne arrabiata in my favourite Italian restaurant, watching Benitez’ new team lose 1-0 at home to Parma.

And we were back in the hunt for the title.

Happy days.

IMG_3510

Tales From Pompey

Portsmouth vs. Chelsea : 24 March 2010.

They say that baseball is a game of inches. Well, getting to midweek Chelsea games is a game of seconds. I wanted to get away from work by 5pm at the absolute latest in order to reach Portsmouth by 7pm – maybe time for just one pint in the “Good Companion” outside Fratton Park. I sat in my car at 4.59pm and reached my seat in the away end at 7.46pm. Needless to say, there was not any time for pre-match festivities. Instead, I endured a stressful two-and-a-half hours fighting the traffic on the M4, A34, M3 and M27. Lord Parky had been on the ale all day and was therefore in an especially jovial mood. To be truthful, the time flew.

I was parked up at 7.25pm and it was no surprise that there was drizzle in the air – there always seems to be so in Portsmouth. It’s a shame we have never enjoyed an away game at Pompey at any other time than in the depths of winter and usually mid-week. A game in September would have been lovely. With Pompey’s demise, I wondered when our next visit would be. Let me just declare an interest here – I’ve developed a slight soft spot for Portsmouth of late. They’re a real old-fashioned club with a quintessential old-school stadium. It is rough around the edges, but it oozes character, wedged into the tight terraced streets of Fratton. Their fans are pretty passionate. I tip my hat to them. Some clubs you just naturally loathe…some clubs, not so.

Parky and myself joined the back of the line at the antiquated turnstiles. It was moving so slow I presumed that Michael Ballack was ahead of me. I note that a souvenir stall was selling pink and burgundy scarves, Pompey’s original colours, and I guessed this was a sad copy of United’s Green & Gold protest. I ascended the steps behind the terrace, underneath a twisted mess of roof supports and beams. Mike Oldfield’s “Portsmouth” was being played on the PA system – the home crowd were joining in with the clapping – and I saw the Chelsea players in white, preparing for the start. I must have just missed the kick-off. At least I made it. I sidled up alongside Alan and Gary, right next to the mesh between us and a small section of Pompey fans. Parky and Steve Azar, plus other friends, were dotted around amongst the 2,000 away contingent.

I was very happy that Petr was playing. Petr Cech for us, Bouncing Cheques for them.

Prior to departing from work, I was hardly enthused about this game – I knew it would be a toughie and that our form had dipped. I think the fans around me shared this view as I haven’t heard quite so much blatant moaning at a game for quite a while, especially in that meandering first period. We had tons of possession with little end product. It was a typically frustrating game, just as I had expected really. However, there were moments. After ten minutes, Frank let fly from well outside the box. I was right behind its flight and it swerved wickedly. James arched to his right and touched it over.

Great football.

I noted that Sturridge was playing deep, playing wide…not involved. Deco was quiet, too. The home fans in the Fratton End provided the first score update of the night…they chanted “1-0 to Fulham” and I approved. Of course, Portsmouth would meet the winners of the Spurs vs. Fulham cup replay taking place in North London. Rocha was laid out by an errant arm from Malouda and the home fans near me weren’t happy. They sang about the referee not being fit to do so. JT was getting the usual barracking too. We replied with chants about their perilous financial straits.

“Harry’s got your money.”

Riccy was injured, to be replaced by Alex. It was a rough old game, with tackles flying in. I noted the ball bobbling quite badly on a few instances. A lot of our play went down the left in front of the old Leitch Stand, but invariably all of this ended up with a miss-placed cross or a variety of shots from distance. I noted a few excellent cross-field balls from Jon Obi Mikel – most unlike him. Alan and myself chatted about this…his distribution is usually limited to square balls over ten yards. The frustration was increasing when a loose ball was completely missed by James as he raced out to clear. Drogba had the easiest chance of his Chelsea career. We celebrated, but it was difficult to shout too loudly when laughter was the first impulse.

Ho ho ho.

At half-time, Joe Cole warmed up right in front of me and I got my telephoto lens out to take a succession of shots of his close control, including one of that “reverse cross” that he likes. As we waited for the game to recommence, we noted a fan in the North Stand being led out on a stretcher. It looked serious. Fans and players alike were dropping like flies. Right – as at Blackburn on Sunday, we needed that second goal. We knew that one was not good enough. Joe continued to warm up alongside the side stand and we serenaded him

“We want you to stay, we want you to stay – Joey Cole – we want you to stay.”

Soon after, this morphed to –

“We want you to play, we want you to play – Joey Cole – we want you to play.”

We enjoyed a purple patch in the first twenty minutes or so of the second period. A sublime ball from Lampard, enjoying more space, was played to Florent Malouda in the inside left berth. I thought he had taken it too far, but as James came out, he drilled it high into the net, no more than ten yards away from me. It was a superb finish. The players raced over and I tried desperately to shout some yelps of support and take some snaps of the players at the same time. Never easy!

Joe came on for the increasingly absent Sturridge and he joined in the fray with his usual vigour. Frank was in his element and soon set up Joe with another perfectly-paced through ball right in front of us. A strong shot, but James did well to save. Just after, our third goal came after Malouda pounced on a James fumble of a Lampard effort. Three-nil and coasting. This was quite a stunning turnaround. More photos of the celebrations. This was good stuff. The Chelsea crowd got into the game.

I had to laugh when I noticed Didier Drogba and Herman Hreidarsson tussling inside the box, off the ball. They were pushing and pulling each other, then they realised the opportunity for a comic moment and appeared to be dancing – maybe a waltz – and smiling. I don’t think anyone else noticed it. It made me giggle.

The only downer was the news filtering through that Spurs were 2-1, then 3-1 up.

Van Aanholt, the youngster, came on for Zhirkov and there was a conversation amongst us about his “52” shirt number. Surely the highest ever. The bloke behind me thought it was too. He then asked me the old favourite –

“Who had shirt number 25 before Zola?”

With the home team fading fast, another superb ball from deep from Mikel found Drogba who advanced on the goal from an angle. This was Didi at his best, forcefully holding off a challenge and slamming into the net. There was a roar from the Chelsea fans, but Drogba ignored his usual celebratory posing and raced back to thank Mikel for the sublime through ball. Neither Alan nor myself could believe it – Mikel as a quarterback, anyone? Just after, a superb run and low cross from Malouda was skied over from just six yards by Drogba. How did he miss? Portsmouth’s chances were few, but a late header should have tested Cech more. It drifted, rather pathetically, past the post. Portsmouth’s support was quiet – not surprisingly – but the trademark drum and bell kept sounding throughout the game. The noise is usually louder at Fratton Park, so I don’t often hear these. There was a bit of banter between the sets of fans, but nothing serious.

A Frank Lampard header from close range after an initial parry gave us a 5-0 win and I, for one, could hardly believe it. David James, who hadn’t had the best of nights ( ! ), kicked the ball away in disgust and the referee decided to book him…presumably for some sort of “physical dissent” as it surely couldn’t have been for time-wasting. This seemed churlish in the extreme. The referee was poor all night and this crazy booking just about summed it up. So – we won 5-0. A fantastic result, but Portsmouth were very poor. We will have far greater challenges in our remaining games in 2009-2010. However, this equalled my highest ever away win, on a par with Wolves 2003 and ‘Boro 2008. My mate, Rick – from Frome, now residing a mere mile away from his beloved Pompey – had been watching from the North Stand, but had not been in touch since pre-match. I guess he was hurting.

In the last few minutes of the game, my ears registered a new song emanating from the rowdy fans to my right. It didn’t take long to work out that it was a few lines from a Bob Marley song. More and more Chelsea joined in as our brains deciphered it. It had been an easy night, so we needn’t get carried away, but the song provided a nice uplift…a positive vibe for once.

“Don’t worry – CLAP CLAP – about a thing…CLAP CLAP CLAP – ‘cus every little thing – CLAP CLAP – is gonna be alright.”

What a great song…incredibly slow, but everyone was joining in. Let’s see if it shows up against Villa on Saturday.

On leaving the ground, I glimpsed across at the deserted light blue seats in the North Stand, row after row, and it reminded me a little of Fenway Park, all roof supports, dark corners, row upon row of seats and little legroom. Good old Fratton Park. I wondered if Chelsea would ever be back…

I met up outside with Parky and spent £2.50 on the worst burger ever. We then decamped back to the pub to wait for the Chelsea traffic to subside. We agreed that Portsmouth is a quite unique city and its club has a strong character all of its own. We wished them well. As we set off for home at 10.30pm, the floodlights of Fratton Park still lit up the night sky. We were surprised – a club in their position should be saving energy, not wasting it.

It seemed like we were the last Chelsea fans to leave Portsmouth.

“Can somebody turn off those flippin’ lights?”

There was terrible weather on the drive home. I drove, Parky slept, I stopped for junk food refills, Parky slept. Eventually, he woke up and we pondered the chances of Chelsea and Pompey meeting for one last time this season.

Stranger things have happened.

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