Tales From The Match

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 10 March 2013.

There was every reason to suggest that the trip to Old Trafford for our F.A.Cup quarter final with Manchester United would be a tough one. Our season seems to have taken a downward trajectory in recent weeks, culminating in that dire ninety minutes in Bucharest, one of the worst Chelsea performances in living memory. One phrase kept resonating in my mind on Sunday morning.

I was travelling in blind faith.

I’d try to make the most of the day – of course I would – and I already had a visit to the Lowry Art Gallery planned to take place before the match, but there were negative vibes running through to my core. I chose a black Henri Lloyd polo to wear to the game and I did wonder if it might be an ominous sign for the day ahead.

The man in black.


This would be my seventeenth visit to Old Trafford to watch the boys play Manchester United. I have only visited Anfield – eighteen – on more occasions. Of course, there have been good and bad memories. There were two previous F.A. Cup games that I had attended; in 1988 and in 1999. In truth, we have only been totally outclassed on a few of those seventeen occasions. Who remembers the surreal atmosphere and the false dawn last season under Andre Villas-Boas? We lost 3-1 but left the stadium singing “we’re gonna win the league” – and meaning it. Of course, there was a Torres goal, but also the career-defining Torres miss, too, both in front of the Stretford End. Somehow the Rooney penalty fluff seems to have been forgotten. Such is life.

I left home in Somerset at 9.45am. This was yet another solo away trip, this one. Not to worry. Music was soon blaring – Robin Guthrie, then Depeche Mode – as I drove north and onto the motorway network. It was mightily cold outside, but at least the grey skies were not issuing forth some of Manchester’s finest rain. No doubt that would come later.

I texted Alan – due to set off from Chelsea on one of the club coaches – to tell him that I was now “on the road.”

“Spring-Heeled Jack Kerouac.”

He soon replied “Ian Dury.”

As I headed north, I tried not to ruminate too much about the game. However, one topic kept dominating my thoughts. Ron Gourlay had recently reconfirmed the club’s priorities for the rest of the season; that of securing a Champions League place rather than silverware. Now, I’m no fool, and I understand the pure economic reasons behind that thought process. His view has probably placated some of our fans. But what a sad indictment on the modern game that my beloved Chelsea Football Club would put finishing fourth higher than winning the F.A. Cup.

“If that is the case, Ron…why the hell am I bothering with this eight hour return trip to Manchester?”

At just after 10.30am, I received a text from Californian Andy Wray, evidently over for the game.


I had seen on “Facebook” that he was meeting up with Cathy and was travelling up by train. It would be his first-ever match at Old Trafford.

Then, an hour later, I received the exact same text. This time it was from Burger, the transplanted Canadian, and now living in Stafford.


At 11.45am, I spotted the first United coach – from Devon, I believe – as I drove past West Bromwich.

Just after, I again texted Alan to let him know my progress.

“Five Goal Gordon.”

On the CD, Depeche Mode sang about a “Black Day.” In my mind, things were starting to take shape. A theme was definitely starting to evolve here. Would the day be black or would it be white? To be truthful, I expected a black thumping. The chances of the opposite seemed desperately remote. When snow started to fall, fleetingly, at around Stoke, the white flakes brought a smile to my face.

I changed the music and chose The Stranglers.

The men in black.

This was a proper black and white day. At that exact moment, I glanced to my right and spotted a herd of black and white Friesian cattle. Around thirty minutes earlier, I had spotted a large flock of both black and white birds suddenly take off from a field adjacent to the M6. This seemed an odd occurrence to me.

Yep – black and white…the theme for the day.

As I headed north through Staffordshire, there were the first few spots of rain. And then I saw some snow on the highest parts of the Peak District to my east. However, I was making good time and – I’ll be honest – I was in my element.

“What else ya gonna do on a Sunday?”

I’m rather familiar with the sights of Manchester now. It was, after all, only two weeks since that dire trip to Eastlands. Away in the distance, in the city centre, I spotted the tall hotel where Real Madrid had recently stayed. Further beyond, the desolate moors. More snow.

At 1.15am, I had parked-up, just three-and-a-half hours after leaving home. This was probably a personal best for Old Trafford. But my goodness, the wind was bitterly cold. I briskly walked through Gorse Park, with the European-style floodlight pylons of the Lancashire cricket ground to my right and the local council office block where Morrissey worked in his first ever job to my left.

Welcome to Manchest’oh. The home of Unih’ed.

Outside the stadium, the “half-and-half scarves” sellers were busy, as were the lads selling the two main United fanzines (“United We Stand” and “Red Issue”). Not many Chelsea were on the forecourt. I had a look around. The Munich memorial always looks classy. Without further ado, I headed north and soon found myself at the Salford Quays. Originally, this busy inland dock area allowed the products of the world’s first industrialised city to be transported west on the Manchester Ship Canal and out into the Irish Sea and beyond. The deep-seated rivalry between the cities of Liverpool and Manchester was, if not initiated, deepened by the building of this canal by Manchester’s entrepreneurs, who were unwilling to pay the expensive dock fees at Liverpool. The area has been revitalised in recent years, with the BBC having moved many of their staff north from the TV centre in London to the Media City complex at Salford Quays. In addition to waterside apartments, there is the Imperial War Museum North and the Lowry Art Gallery on either side of one of the widest channels.

I visited the Lowry once before, on the day that Avram Grant made his bow as Chelsea boss, and I could hardly believe that it was over five years ago. As I walked over the gently swaying footbridge, the wind was bitter as it came off the choppy waters of the former docks. Away to my right, the hulking structure of Old Trafford dominated the view.

I spent a very enjoyable hour and a quarter inside The Lowry. I made a confession to the rosy-faced chap on the information desk.

“I’m a Chelsea fan and I’m here just to take my mind off the game.”

He smiled and replied “oh, I’ll be a fan for you today.”

“Are you City? Ah,good man.”

What is it that they say about your enemy’s enemy being your friend?

L.S. Lowry was one of England’s most revered painters of the twentieth century, with his heavily stylised images of urban life in the industrialised centres of northern England. A short twenty minute film, including black and white film of him at work, was utterly fascinating. It was wonderful to hear his voice, too, matter-of-factly explaining how he went about his daily painting routine. He seemed a very complex character. A loner. Possibly autistic. In love with his work.

I then spent a while viewing a selection of his work in four or five rooms. His home in Pendlebury – in Salford, no more than a couple of miles to the north – afforded him easy access to the streets and mills, the bustling city-scapes, the desolation of urban blight, which became the focus of his work.

His trademark was of simplistic pencil-thin figures made famous in a 1978 song which I found myself constantly singing to myself –

“He painted Salford ‘s smokey tops.
On cardboard boxes from the shops.
And parts of Ancoats where I used to play.
I’m sure he once walked down our street.
Cause he painted kids who had nowt on their feet.
The clothes we wore had all seen better days.”

His famous painting “Going to the match” – based not on Old Trafford or Maine Road, but Bolton Wanderers’ Burnden Park – drew this comment from Jack Charlton, the brother of Bobby –

“This is just like it was when I was young; wooden open stands, cinders underfoot, terrible conditions in the toilets…it’s fabulous.”

Some script alongside the photo told its own story –

“Lowry’s interest in football was partly in the crowd itself and how a match brought them together. It is this, rather than the match itself, that he depicts.”

As I left, I looked over to Old Trafford and took a few photographs of the 21st Century equivalents of his Bolton spectators heading over the bridge, the skies now clear and blue, their eyes set on the stadium.

Adjacent to the art gallery, there is a large shopping outlet – surprisingly, I did not venture in. There were a couple of restaurants nearby and these were full of singing United fans. However, as I myself headed back over the bridge, I heard a defiant “Oh Dennis Wise” and then “Carefree.”

Accents from all parts of England were being spoken by the United fans going to the match. There was even a voice from Yorkshire. Now, even to my ears, that didn’t sound right. Yorkshire and Lancashire have animosities far out-reaching those of Manchester and Liverpool. For a Yorkshire native to support Manchester United was surely the oddest marriage. I immediately thought of my college mate Bob, a Leeds fan from Bramley in West Yorkshire, a few miles from Elland Road. He memorably once announced to me that “I’ve hated Manchester United longer than I’ve liked Leeds.”

I thought back to the cup game in 1988. On that day, Bob attended the game alongside me and some eight thousand rabid Chelsea fans. Of course, that 1987-1988 season eventually resulted in relegation via the dreaded play-offs (we are the only team to finish fourth from bottom and still get relegated – imagine how I felt that summer. Black ain’t half of it.)

However, in January 1988, we had not yet reached the relegation places, though manager John Hollins was under considerable pressure. I had just eleven days previously seen us lose 4-0 to Swindon Town in the Full Members Cup. Things were getting grim. Yet on that day some 25 years ago – and despite gates averaging only around 20,000 – we were roared on by almost half of our home crowd…the equivalent today of 16,000 away followers.

My diary from the day tells the story…

”pink Lacoste, Marc O’Polo sweatshirt, Aquascutum scarf, leather jacket, Reeboks…caught the train from Frome…there were ten familiar faces – all MUFC – who were on the train too, but they got off at Bath (probably to catch the supporters’ bus to Old Trafford)…sat with a young Chelsea lad from Bath…chatted to two girls from Cardiff who were Spurs fans on the way to Port Vale…missed our connection at Birmingham, so had to go via Stafford…a can of Grolsch…Chelsea lads joined at Crewe…got to Piccadilly at 2pm, a raucous bus to Old Trafford…pleased to see Bob already present…we had all of K Stand…we played poorly…Freestone saved a 7 minute McClair penalty…but Whiteside (42) and McClair (71) sealed our doom…no confidence in our team…we hardly had any attacks at all…brightened up when Nevin and Hazard came on…alas no fat copper to take the piss out of this time…a bloody long wait in the mud to catch the train back to Piccadilly…a row at the station, but not severe…eventually back to Bristol at 10.40pm…Dad picked me up…Spurs lost too…so much for Wembley.”

I was soon outside the away entrance. Unlike 1988, our “allowance” was 6,000 but I had heard that we had only sold 4,500 or so. I hoped that there would be no gaping holes in our section. The last thing I wanted was to hear the “WWYWYWS” nonsense being sung at us by 70,000 United fans.

In the bar areas, Chelsea were in good voice. I noticed the DJ Trevor Nelson, quietly stood to one side, and caught his eye. He nodded back. I suspect that his work for the BBC brings him up to Salford quite often. I bumped into Alan and Gary, then the Bristol lads – fresh from Bucharest – and then Burger and Julie. It would be Julie’s first ever game at Old Trafford. I said to one of my Chelsea acquaintances “well, we need to keep them out for the first twenty minutes…hell, no…the first five.”

I got to my seat…row 12 of the large upper deck, right in line with the penalty spot…the roof overhead afforded little light and there was a dark and gloomy atmosphere inside Old Trafford. For the first time ever at Old Trafford, I was able to see the outside world; a thin sliver of land above the lower main stand roof and the high roof overhead. Old Trafford is huge. The three-tiered North Stand was immense…the upper tier wasn’t even in view.

I took a look at all of the United flags and banners which decorate the balconies. They add so much character to the stadium in the same way that those at The Bridge add to our match experience.

The surprising news was that Van Persie was on the bench for United. As for Chelsea, there were masses of team changes since Bucharest.

The main one; Axon in.

As the two teams entered the pitch, the Stretford End unfurled a large banner featuring a photograph of the Busby Babes…black and white…but with bright scarlet shirts…from the fateful game in Belgrade, prior to the crash.

A Ba effort went wide and I commented to the bloke to my right “well, that’s one more shot than I thought we’d get.” I wasn’t smiling for long, though.

Before we had time to settle, Carrick pumped a great ball through to Chicarito. There was indecision from Cech and Cahill was lost at sea. A softly cushioned header from the little Mexican sent the ball looping up and over the stranded Cech and into the United goal. The stadium erupted. I looked at the clock to my left.

We hadn’t even lasted five minutes.

For Fcuk’s Sake.

Within five more minutes, a Wayne Rooney free-kick was played towards the far post and – how often do we see this in modern football? – the ball evaded everyone’s lunge and bounced past Cech into the goal.

Ten minutes gone.

2-0 down.

This could be a long day. With thoughts of a score resembling that of a rugby match, I sighed a million sighs. The Chelsea crowd, originally quite buoyant, were now resorting to the chants which have trademarked this season.

“We don’t care about Rafa…”

“When Rafa leaves Chelsea…”

“Roman Abramovich – is this what you want?”

“We want our Chelsea back…”

United were singing their songs too, needling the benched John Terry.

“Viva John Terry…”

“Where’s your racist centre-half?”

To be honest, I wanted to hide. We seemed to be on the end of a leathering both on and off the pitch. We had a few half-chances, but shots from Moses and Lampard were wasted. Cech made a sublime double-save, first from Rooney and then from the rebound which Luiz inexpicably headed back towards him. He rose, like Gordon Banks in Guadalajara in 1970, to tip it over. It was a sublime save.

We did manage to create a few more attempts on goal. I began talking to the two chaps to my left. Face Familiar Name Unknown #1, Face Familiar Name Unknown #2 and I agreed that although United had been on top, the first half had not been without chances. But then we agreed; United didn’t really have to attack. The mood was mixed…there was derision from some quarters, but I was ever hopeful. It was gratifying to note a few seeds of optimism amongst my two neighbours. To be honest, amongst the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the away section, it was lovely to chat with two lads who were forever cheering the team on – like me – and who were intelligent in their comments. There had already been an altercation further along the row which almost ended up in a fight. It was another example of near Civil War in the Chelsea ranks this season.

I chatted with Tim at half-time and we mulled over the game…”they don’t have to attack…they can just wait for us to attack and exploit our gaps…”

We expected more goals.

Soon into the second-half, I almost wanted the referee to blow up such was my fear for conceding more goals.

In the end it was the clichéd game of two halves.

One black, one white.

Soon into the second period, the manager made two key substitutions. Firstly, Mikel for Lampard. To be truthful, Frank had not enjoyed a great game and I thought that he gave Rooney far too much space. Secondly, Hazard – not the 1988 version – for Moses. Again no complaints.

In the upper tier of the East Stand our support increased.

Out of nowhere, a goal. Hazard picked the ball up on the edge of the box and, with hardly a moment’s thought, curled an exquisite shot past De Gea into the United goal. It was the same corner that United’s two goals had ended up.

Oh boy. The Chelsea support went crazy, jumping up and punching the air. I felt the sharp plastic of the seat in front cutting into my shin as I jumped and cavorted like a drunken fool.

Game on.

From then on, we dominated the game in a way that I have rarely seen. It was certainly our best 45 minutes this season and our best ever 45 minutes that I had ever seen at the home of United. With every passing minute, United’s support diminished.

Van Persie replaced Hernandez.

Worried? Of course.

“She said no, Robin, she said no…”

As I remember it, the increasingly confident Luiz won possession deep in our box and the worked the ball through. It found Oscar and he played in Ramires. Our little Brazilian dynamo wriggled inside Evans and found himself inside the box. With the entire Chelsea support roaring him on – “go on Rami!” – he coolly slotted the ball past the goalkeeper.

We went berserk.


Complete madness.

Arms up, bodies bouncing, screams of ecstasy, bodies falling, noise.

It was a Munich Moment all over again.

Ouch, my bloody shins.

The game now opened up further with Van Persie wasting several chances. However, United’s midfield gave us so much space that we were able to run at them each time we were in possession. Oscar and Mata twisted and turned, rarely losing the ball and Hazard provided much-needed thrust. A special word, though, for Mikel who continually broke up play in that indomitable way of his and provided the de facto defensive shield for Luiz and Cahill. Cahill, who had suffered badly in the first-half, grew with each minute. Luiz was very good.

With United fans starting to stream out, we chided them –

“Race you back to London – we’re gonna race you back to London…”

We roared the team on.

Torres replaced Mata. After last season’s game, could he be the saviour?

With the time running out, one amazing chance. Mata, stretching to take control of Luiz’ pass, and miraculously holding on to the ball despite appearing to run out of pitch in which to play, stayed on his feet, then twisted inside before prodding the ball towards goal. I immediately thought of Gianfranco Zola against United in 1997. I’m sure I saw the bloody net bulge.We jumped up as one, but turned aghast as the ball flew off of De Gea’s boot for a corner.


The referee blew soon after and the Chelsea crowd roared their approval.

The United support was full of moans as I hot-footed back across Gorse Park. I was back at my car at 6.45pm…warmth! The incoming texts had provided me with a few moments of satisfaction on that walk back to the car.

From United fan Mike –

“Well done mate. Can’t see how you didn’t win that though. We were awful second half, mediocre in the first.”

From United fan Pete –

“Unlucky mate. The best team drew. Great pressing and control from your lot. Never seen us give the ball away so badly, so often.”

From me to them –

“Proud as fcuk.”

From United fan Pete –

“Rightly so.”

From United fan Mike –

“You should be mate. Showed great team spirit and were the better team over ninety minutes.”

I got back to the M6 in super-quick time. However, detours through Stoke and then the Black Country meant that I didn’t get home until 11.20pm. I was still buzzing when I got home…still buzzing as I trawled the internet at 1am.

Still buzzing at 1.30am…

Buzzing now…


Tales From A Wake-Up Call

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 2 May 2012.

As I drove from Chippenham to London with Parky, I was well aware that there was a feeling of impregnable invincibility in the air. After the flurry of our recent results, the goals and the glory, I honestly felt that we could make a good stab at winning all five of our remaining games in this roller-coaster of a football season. I was confident of winning the next four, at least. The last one, our sixty-sixth game of the season – and my fifty-eighth – might be beyond us, but I was gung-ho about the others. Yes, I know what everyone is thinking; this unfamiliar optimism was most unChelsea, but it is amazing what a run of success brings to the zeitgeist around any football club. Football is surely all about confidence.

This would be my last midweek venture up the M4 motorway this season. I commented to Parky how different the midweek games are compared to the weekend ones. I prefer the weekend games, but I must admit there is no better feeling than heading out of Chippenham on the A350 with the stresses of a working day behind me and Chelsea in my thoughts.

It is very fortuitous that I work in Chippenham. Admittedly, the daily commute is 45 minutes in length, but Chippenham is but a mere ten minutes from junction 17 of the motorway. Once on that road, I can hurtle along and be parked up on a good day in two hours. Just right for a Carling Cup game, a Champions League game or a midweek league game. If I worked 45 minutes to the south or west of my home down in Yeovil or Langport or somewhere, the midweek scramble to Stamford Bridge would be almost impossible. So – I’m a lucky chap.

And this was a good day. I collected Lard Porky at 3.45pm and we strolled into The Goose at 5.45pm. On the drive to London, we briefly chatted about plans for those remaining games of the season. It’s hard to believe that 2011-2012 is nearing completion. It seems only yesterday that we were down at Fratton Park for that celery-ridden friendly back in July.

I was surprised to see a smattering of black and white Newcastle shirts in the boozer, but I wasn’t bothered. I must admit to having a slight soft-spot for Newcastle United and I think I have alluded to this in the past. My first ever Chelsea game took place on a sunny March afternoon in 1974 against The Geordies and our paths seemed to cross all the time in my youth and on into my twenties. Our time in the second division from 1979 to 1984 provided some gorgeous memories (I saw three Chelsea vs. Newcastle games in this period) and set the trend for our magnificent home record against them which has continued on ever since. Our last home league defeat against the Tynesiders was in November 1986.

Although I remember a lot of “Chelsea stuff” without the need of memory aids, let me dip into my diary once again to pick out a few salient points from that Chelsea vs. Newcastle United game on Saturday 22nd November 1986. That particular game was my 91st Chelsea game, but already my 7th game against The Geordies. By the way, Newcastle have only been called The Toon (outside of the North-East, at any rate) since around 1990. Back in those days, they were simply Geordies. It’s funny how nicknames come and go. Insert “The Chels” reference here.

I travelled down by train from Stoke-on-Trent to London on that November morning. At Euston, I noted that a mob of Manchester City casuals jumped over the barriers at the tube station down below the mainline station en route to Highbury. Although City’s firm were called “The Guvnors” back in those days, I’m pretty sure they used to have a splinter faction called “The Maineline.” It was often the fashion for followers of teams in the north-west to travel down to London on trains with no train tickets and attempt to “blag” their way south. The bundling over the tube barriers was just a manifestation of this. Pre-match was typically spent wandering around the clothes and record shops of the West End. On this particular day, I spotted a new Cocteau Twins album and I purchased a lime green Marc O’Polo sweatshirt from their flagship store at Covent Garden. Marc O’Polo, a German company, was well-favoured by the football lads around this time. It died out at football around 1990, but I’m always tempted to get some more of their gear. Who wants to join me? Football fashion had gone from lurid sportswear in 1983-1984 to a more mature look in 1984-1985. In 1986-1987, it was all black leather jackets, Reebok trainers, Hardcore jeans (remember them?) and Armani pullovers.

Pre-match was spent in “The Crown & Sceptre” near “Harrod’s” and I then walked down the Fulham Road before a pint in the more working class “George” at Chelsea. I chatted to a few members of the Yeovil supporters’ group before meeting up with Alan. He too had seen the new Cocteau Twins’ album. It must’ve been the “Victorialand” album; a more ambient sound, subtler, gentle and soothing. Alan and I watched from The Benches, along with our friend Leggo, who sadly doesn’t go anymore, and Mark, who does (he got a mention in the Barcelona report last week.) The gate of 14,544 included around 1,000 Geordies. Gordon Durie gave us a 1-0 lead, but Newcastle came back strongly to win 3-1. The crowd were baying for the demise of manager John Hollins at the end and Alan’s opinion was that he would resign. He lasted until the Spring of 1988, in fact. Alan, Mark and I have lasted considerably longer.

Little did we know that the 3-1 defeat handed out to us by the likes of Peter Beardsley and co on that day in 1986 would be the last league defeat for years and years and years…

No wonder I like Newcastle United.

Parky and I grabbed some pints and wandered off into the beer garden in search of some mates. For the first time that I can recall, a bloke was set up to sell T-shirts and friendship scarves for the European Cup Final in Munich. Amongst the little gaggle of friends, Munich was unsurprisingly garnering all of the attention. One chap from Bristol – Clive – had already collected his ticket from the box office; he opened up his wallet to allow me a slight peek. Unlike the red of the Moscow ticket, I am heartened by the blue, white and yellow of the 2012 edition. It got me thinking about Munich. Bayern are not the only team in the city. The suburban team of Unteraching have recently played in the Bundesliga, but the “other” team in the Bavarian city is TSV1860, a famous old team, who share the Allianz Arena with Bayern, just as they used to share the Olympic Stadium previously. TSV’s colours of light blue and white match the colours of the Bavarian flag and I well remember that during our over-achieving ECWC campaign of 1994-1995, a few 1860 fans followed Chelsea to stadia in the Czech Republic, Austria, Belgium and Spain. On one of my two visits to Munich’s magnificent Oktoberfest, I remember chatting in very broken German to an old Polish guy from Munich who was an 1860 fan. Ironically, I think this alcohol-fuelled chat took place in the Lowenbrau tent and, of course, the Lowenbrau logo features the blue and white diamonds of the Bavaria crest too. Daryl has already carried out some reconnaissance work on Munich for 19 May and we spoke briefly about a beer hall which could act as our base camp for the day’s activities.

Two guests from across the pond soon arrived. Chris Cruz – aka captdf – and Ben Horner – aka NUhusky13 – spent a very enjoyable hour or so with us in the beer garden. I had met Chris in 2008-2009 and Ben in 2010-2011 and it was a pleasure to welcome them back into the bosom of Chelsea Football Club. Chris explained how his daughter Ava had enjoyed her first ever match at The Bridge – the humiliation of QPR on Sunday – and that it is a wonderful feeling to witness the attractions of a foreign city through the eyes of a child. I will no doubt feel the same with Glenn in Munich.

“Look Chris – a big glass of beer!”

“Look Chris – a hot dog!”

Ben, newly arrived from Boston mid-morning, was holding up well in spite of a little jet lag. There was the usual pre-match banter, but typically no talk whatsoever of the game.

“I respect the etiquette” said Ben, who was sporting a natty Boston Blues / CIA top.

The time flew past and it was 7pm. I had to shoot down to meet Steve outside the tube. I waited for him by the CFCUK stall and I spotted more red and blue scarves for Munich. Bizarrely, Mark had a replica of the European Cup on his stall. Steve soon arrived and we were off.

It was a pretty mild evening, but with horrible drizzle and a blustery wind. Inside The Bridge, there were 1,500 away fans and two away flags. Newcastle, despite some legendary numbers in that 1983-184 season, have not brought more than 1,500 down to a league game at Chelsea for ages. I always note away followings. I think it is a true sign of the size of a club, perhaps more so than home attendances. Who regularly fills out the maximum 3,000 at Chelsea? The usual suspects. Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and West Ham United. No more than these, season after season. Aston Villa? Everton? Manchester City? Leeds United? Sunderland? Forget it. They only bring 1,400 or 1,500. And yet I’d suggest that Chelsea regularly take maximum amounts to 90% of our away venues. I’d say that we are up there alongside United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs as the top five supported clubs in England away from our home stadia.

And I love that. I love our away support. It helps define us as a club, more so than the thousands who turn The Bridge into a morgue at times. I remember the abuse that Evertonians and Manchester City fans gave us this season when we didn’t fully fill our 3,000 allocations. And yet, as I have pointed out, when was the last time either of those “massive” clubs ever brought the maximum down for a league game? City may win the league this year, but they only brought down 1,500 in December.

And these things count to me and people like me.

Football is all about showing up.

Another 41,500 showed up for this game and we were hopeful that di Matteo’s team changes would result in another win, a few more goals and another three points.

To be truthful, Newcastle United – still smarting from their heavy defeat at Wigan – were excellent and caught us off-guard, out of shape, lacking in desire and bereft of attacking nous. The insipid first-half was pretty dire, despite a strong start from the Boys In Blue From Division Two. A couple of half-chances for Chelsea and then a bicycle kick from Demba Ba threatened our goal. Ba impressed me for West Ham a year ago, but his season has been eclipsed by the arrival of Papiss Cisse, the Senegalese striker. The skilful Ben Arfa set up Cisse on 19 minutes and the Toon Goal Machine walloped the ball past Cech from 15 yards. It was a fine goal. He celebrated down in front of us and I was beginning to re-assess my friendliness towards Newcastle United.

Chelsea laboured against a resolute Newcastle defence and the crowd were not happy. It took until the 37th. minute for our next real chance when the always industrious Torres advance down the right and sent in a superb whipped cross towards the head of Florent Malouda, but the effort whistled past a post. From the resultant corner, Meireles lofted the ball into the six yard box but Ivanovic thundered the ball over from a position almost under the bar.

Then it was Newcastle’s turn. Ba wriggled away from his marker and struck low, but the lunging Cech managed to get a fingertip to the ball and divert it past the far post. Just before the half-time whistle, Ba hit the crossbar. This was clearly a tough Newcastle team and we were in for a massive fight to even get a draw, let alone a win. With so many team changes, our play struggled to flow. Malouda and Sturridge were especially poor.

At the half-time whistle, I listened for the boos and one fellow fan did not disappoint. The mean white haired bloke in his early ‘fifties who sits and bellows behind Gary could be heard booing as the teams traipsed off the pitch. He then mouthed an obscenity and I just looked at him with despair. I have mentioned him once before this season and I popped down to mention him to Big John and Young Dane. They both were aware of him. One of these days he’ll get a mouthful from all three of us.

He was a picture of festering displeasure and he acts as a totem for all that is wrong with our spoilt and blasé support in 2012. My late gran would comment, I am sure, that he had a face “like a hen’s ass.” He had the scowl that would curdle milk.

And one of these days, he’s going to get it.

Gus Poyet – he of two F.A. Cup semi-final goals against Newcastle in 2000 – was the guest at the break. I loved Poyet, but still haven’t fully forgiven him for moving to Tottenham, kissing their badge against us and then coaching at Tottenham.

Juan Mata came on for the woeful Sturridge at the break and we lived in hope. After a quiet opening, Malouda was replaced by Didier. Di Matteo was making all the right moves. An amazing “reverse-cross” from Torres was the first talking point of the half, but nothing came of the ball into the box. The impressive Tiote fell awkwardly from a jump alongside Mikel and there was concern when he stayed on the pitch for many minutes. It is always sad to see a stretcher appear. He was warmly applauded as he was taken off the field.

All eyes were on the scoreboard as updates from the Wigan vs. Spurs game came through, but with each goal, more moans. Fourth place was looking as likely as a Mikel goal. Another change; Frank Lampard for Raul Meireles. Meireles was undoubtedly one of the heroes in Catalonia but was now reduced to chasing shadows in SW6. The crowd were buoyed by the presence of the three big substitutions, but we still struggled. Hardly any effort of note troubled Tim Krull, who was eventually booked for continual time-wasting at goal kicks. In the 87th minute, a towering JT header from a corner was goal bound but Santon managed to head clear.

The fourth official signified a further ten minutes in light of the injury to Tiote. With Tottenham now enjoying a 4-1 win, our league season plunged into darkness when that man Cisse struck a swerving, dipping shot past the dumbfounded Petr Cech and into the Shed End goal. It was an amazing goal and I almost…almost…applauded it.

With that, thousands of Chelsea fans shamefully did a Tottenham and vacated their seats.

The Geordies were now in full voice.

“ E I E I E I O – Up the Premier League we go.”

“With an N and an E and a Wubble-You C, an A and an S and a T, L, E – U, N, I, T,E, D – Newcastle United FC.”

“Ah me lads, ye shud only seen us gannin’,
We pass’d the foaks upon the road just as they wor stannin’;
Thor wes lots o’ lads an’ lasses there, all wi’ smiling faces,
Gawn alang the Scotswood Road, to see the Blaydon Races.”

So – our first home league defeat to Newcastle since I was 21.

Only John Terry really bothered to applaud us at the end. It had been a lack-lustre performance by the boys for sure and Newcastle deserved the win. It will surely act as a reference point for our game with Liverpool on Saturday. No win is gained without due attention and effort. We must improve and surely will.

Outside, the supporters made a subdued walk past the hot dog stands and the souvenir stalls.


The mood was somber, but with no real malice. We had bigger fish to fry this season.

After a slow trudge along the North End Road, Parky was waiting for me by the car. The rain fell as I ate up the miles on my return trip to the shires of Wiltshire and Somerset. I eventually reached home at 1pm and I soon searched the internet for footage of Cisse’s second goal.

Oh my.

It was often said, in jest, with irony, with sarcasm, that whenever Chelsea were knocked out of the FA Cup each year, we could at least “concentrate on the league.”

How ironic then, that as our faltering pursuit of the cash cow that is fourth place comes to an end, we can now utter the words – and truthfully, too :

“Oh well – we can now concentrate on the cups.”

Four games left. Two Cup Finals.

Who are we? We are Chelsea. Let’s go to work.


Tales From A Sunny Saturday In SW6

Chelsea vs. Wigan Athletic : 9 April 2011.

With our Champions League game against Manchester United on Tuesday looming large, the game against Wigan Athletic seemed suddenly way less important, maybe like an irritant in the way of the bigger picture.

But, every game counts.

This would be a simple Chelsea Saturday for me. No special plans, no frantic pre-match with visitors, just an old-fashioned day at football. With a 3pm kick-off to boot.

I set off from my home at 9am. Parky was on board at 9.30am. This was always going to be a lovely, sunny day, but the morning began with a slight haze. On the drive up the M4, we passed the Swindon Town team coach. They were on their way to Brentford. For the first hour or so, Parky and I were chatting away; a constant stream of interlinked football stories, which helped the time pass.

Millwall 1984 : “I had my crutches just after the bike crash and I was only about eight stone at the time, so Les picked me up on his shoulders and ran with me through the streets to get away from the Millwall.”

Stockholm 1998 : “And there were about 300 Chelsea in the middle of this main road, doing One Man Went To Mow and we all just sat down. The locals loved it, mate. They were cheering us. And there were these office girls looking and they took their tops off to give us a flash.”

As we passed the towns of Slough and Windsor, Parky delved into his little bag of tricks and pulled out a CD for our final approach into London.

New Order’s “Waiting For the Sirens’ Call.”

New Order is the perfect band for an exhilarating drive. The weather outside was magnificent. Blue skies with a few wispy clouds way up high.

A right turn at the lights onto the North End Road and we were soon parked up. Then, a quick breakfast. By midday, just three hours after I had left my house, we were in The Goose.

Lacoste Watch.

Parky – lemon
Chris – lavender
Andy – lime

We were, of course, stationed in the beer garden for the duration of this pre-match. For a change, the team got a mention. Andy and myself spoke a little of the recent failings, allied with pragmatic comments about the fans’ role in the support of the team. Familiar ground, nothing new. Thoughts tended to centre on the game at Old Trafford on Tuesday. I am taking another half-day, so will probably be up there at about 4.30pm. My plan is to hit the Salford Quays and maybe pay another visit to the Lowry art gallery before the tribal warfare begins in earnest. The lads were discussing the logistics of the game; Daryl and Rob were driving up to Nuneaton, then two cars taking eight up from there. Andy spoke about some of the old photographs from past years that I have recently been uploading on to Facebook. The memories were stirred. After one particularly boozy end-of-season pub crawl in 2000, he spoke of The Youth, who was so inebriated that he left the game against Derby at half-time, thinking that the game had ended. Oh boy – that’s some achievement. At that same game, Bryan – from Frome – was similarly affected and slept the entire game. We soon presented Bryan with a T-Shirt which proudly stated –

“No Sleep Till Kick-Off.”

Wes – remember him? – joined us at about 2pm. He has now fully settled in our nation’s capital – living in Putney and teaching at a school in Ealing. I did give him a load of playful banter, though, about his non-attendance at Chelsea this season. This would only be his fourth game. He is soon off on a mini-Euro tour, taking in the lovely cities of Prague, Munich, Vienna and Salzburg – and he spent a few moments asking for my views on each of those great places. Looking back, my tips centred on beer and football (and past Chelsea trips to Vienna), but there you go.

Wes was sitting next to Alan and myself in The Sleepy Hollow for this game. We arrived at our seats just as the teams were lining-up. The first thing I spotted was the huge quadrant of empty seats in the south-east corner. Yet again, Wigan had failed to bring the numbers down to Stamford Bridge. There were around 100 in a small section in the upper tier and around 200 in the lower tier. I did not a few empty seats dotted around where I was sat, too. I think a few Chelsea fans had decided to give this game a swerve. I hope these very same fans won’t be demanding a ticket for Wembley should we get to the Champions League Final.

There was a photograph of Fernando Torres on the cover of the match day programme. Torres was on the bench for this game against Wigan. John Terry and Michael Essien were rested; Ivanovic was moved to the middle of the defence, with Paolo slotting in at right-back. Mikel came in for Essien.

After just 35 seconds, Didier had a strong run and laid the ball into the path of Frank Lampard. His shot was scuffed and was heading well-wide of the far post. Ironically, it ended up in the path of the onrushing Ramires, but I think it caught him by surprise. He didn’t really connect with the wayward shot and the ball continued on its path out of play. In retrospect, that early move set the tone for the entire game.

8 minutes – a Drogba pass through to Florent Malouda, quite central, but a heavy first touch and the shot was very well saved by Ali Al Habsi.

14 minutes – a Drogba free-kick, blazed ridiculously high.

16 minutes – a Florent Malouda shot wide from an angle.

Wigan then enjoyed a prolonged spell of possession, with the ball being moved around at will. This caused understandable frustration amongst the home support. To be honest, this game was being played out in such a quiet atmosphere that it felt like the last game of the season, just like that game in 2000. I looked around to make sure nobody was napping. Mid-way through the first-half and there had been no rousing song from the terraces.

33 minutes – a great show of strength from Drogba, down in that far corner in front of the 300 away fans, but a cross to the far post was not met by a Chelsea forward.

38 minutes – a Petr Cech hoof – we don’t always go for a direct approach – was flicked on by Didier to Malouda, but again saved.

43 minutes – a delightful turn and spin from Drogba, but a left-footed shot over the bar.

Ex-Chelsea player, captain and manager John Hollins was on the pitch at half-time and he looks really well. He is at number three in our list of attendance makers.

Ron Harris 795
Peter Bonetti 729
John Hollins 592
Frank Lampard 500
John Terry 495

At the break, Yossi Benayoun took over from Jon Obi Mikel and his reintroduction into Chelsea blue was met with loud applause. How ironic that this should is now the case. Joe Cole has floundered at Liverpool and now, many Chelsea supporters are looking at Yossi to help unleash the potential goals from his erstwhile Anfield team mate Torres. So, Carlo had changed it. I had to do something, too. I’m not overly superstitious at games, but I pulled out my trusty New York Yankees cap and wore it for the rest of the game. I spoke to Wes about a little superstition that I had back in the ‘seventies. My parents and I always used to sit in the East Lower from 1974 to 1980 and I always used to take Wrigley’s gum to games. If we were losing – and if I was chewing gum – I would spit it out. If we were losing – and if I wasn’t chewing – I would start chewing. My success rate is not known, only the memories of this little ritual.

53 minutes – a nice, neat move found Frank Lampard who spun on himself and hit a firm shot which flew past the far post.

On 59 minutes, the Stamford Bridge crowd reacted positively with the introduction of that man Torres for Nicolas Anelka. The majority of us haven’t given up on The Boy From Fuenlabrada. At last, there was some noise.

61 minutes – another Didier Drogba free-kick, deflected by a member of the defensive wall. The ball looped up, but fell suddenly. The Wigan ‘keeper did very well to tip the ball over.

64 minutes – a tricky dribble from Fernando Torres, but a weak shot at the ‘keeper.

65 minutes – a Drogba corner, right into the centre of the six-yard box. A mad scramble. There were lots of Chelsea bodies in the mix and I was optimistic that somebody – maybe even Torres – might connect. In the end, the ball came out to Florent Malouda. He struck it home.

I watched as he ran, arms outstretched, towards to East Lower. It was a great scene, reminiscent of JT against Aston Villa in December. We don’t often celebrate over there. The players soon joined up with him and you could see their jubilation. Great stuff.

On 73 minutes, it was lovely to see Alex back on the pitch. He replaced Paolo – who had been steady – and Ivanovic moved over to right-back. It wasn’t long before we were demanding that Alex should “shoooooot!”

82 minutes – a chance for the Wigan substitute Franco Di Santo (last seen scoring for us in Arlington) who had a header from quite a way out, but Petr Cech did ever so well to turn it around the post.

88 minutes – a Chelsea break. This is what we used to do so well. Yossi played in Torres with a little reverse ball behind him. Torres was through…one on one…the whole ground was mesmerized…he poked at the ball, but Al Habsi easily saved.

To be fair, we rallied behind Torres all game and I think I saw a small smirk of appreciation at one stage.

90 minutes – another chance for Franco Di Santo, but his whipped shot was again saved by Petr Cech. Phew.

The final whistle went and there wasn’t much celebration…more a case of “thank God that is over.” What were my main feelings from the game? Ramires continues to impress. His constant snapping away at loose balls, his running, his strong tackling and his enthusiasm were the one major plus. With effort like that, I can forgive him a few wayward passes. Frank Lampard continues to struggle, though. His place in the team at the moment is purely down to reputation. I am genuinely concerned for him. He is off the pace and sluggish. Drogba was hot and cold – nothing new there.

The other results – wins for Manchester United and Tottenham especially – were confirmed, but the day was massively overshadowed by Tuesday’s summit meeting in Salford.

I made a great early exit from Chelsea and we even had time for a lovely pint in a country pub, The Pelican, on the A4 between Hungerford and Marlborough. A gorgeous evening drive home, through the quaint Wiltshire downs, past thatched cottages, small market towns and with some more classic music on the CD.

“This is the life, Parky.”

Even when the football is bad, it’s bloody brilliant.