Tales From The Thick And The Thin.

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 15 May 2016.

Even though we had gathered from near and far for the final game of this oddest of seasons to cheer on the boys one last time, to stand and applaud the astounding achievements of Leicester City, and especially their cheerful, funny and charismatic manager Claudio Ranieri, the huge presence of John Terry loomed over every moment. Our captain, dismissed at Sunderland the previous Saturday, would not be playing, but all of the talk – or at least a sizable chunk of it – in the pub beforehand was about his future.

In the words of Joe Strummer, “shall I stay or shall I go?”

As recently as last Wednesday, while we played out an entertaining draw at Anfield in the evening, there had been no move, no gesture from the club about his future. On Thursday, still nothing. Then, in the early afternoon of Friday 13 May, it was announced that the club, leaving it ridiculously late, had handed John Terry a lifeline and the chance of a one-year contract extension. Immediately, I felt joy and triumph, but then as we witnessed John’s tears at the Player Of The Season “do” on Friday, I personally wondered if the contract would ever get signed for a variety of reasons. There was an announcement that he would need to consider the deal. It looked like – guessing from outside – that his role in one final year in royal blue would be greatly changed, greatly diminished. The conjecture continued among friends on the Saturday and Sunday. Nobody was sure. I hated myself for thinking it, but I had a gnawing doubt about him returning.

There was rumour and counter-rumour, talk of brinkmanship, conspiracy theories and heaven-knows what else.

Regardless of John Terry, this would be Guus Hiddink’s last game in charge – unless a manager yet-to-be-named royally messes up and the Dutchman gets a third stint at the helm – and although there have been a few poor performances under his tutelage, Guus has steadied the ship since taking over before Christmas. We have steadily risen throughout his spell in charge. There have been a few memorable highlights. A fantastic win at Arsenal, an iconic draw against Tottenham, plus some notable victories elsewhere. As seasons go, it has been “interesting.”

I loved the US tour – a few days in Charlotte, North Carolina was the highlight – but not the bizarre aftermath when we seemed to self-destruct. Those days of autumn were, honestly, some of the oddest times I have experienced as a Chelsea supporter. Although the relegation seasons of 1974/1975, 1978/1979 and 1987/1988 were much worse, those maddening days under Mourinho, with the entire football world watching and laughing, were excruciating. Yet I loved the away jaunts to Portugal and Israel – Jerusalem was, well, my Jerusalem, the very best of 2015/2016 – and I enjoyed the bonhomie and camaraderie of my extended Chelsea family throughout the campaign. The simple pleasure of a lovely pre-match meal with Glenn and Dave before the Bournemouth home game, a riotous pre-match in Norwich with a cast of thousands, being able to watch the PSG home game alongside my mate JR from Detroit, and two lovely visits to Tyneside were some of the most memorable moments of this crazy season. But there have been others, too many to mention.

On this last day of the season, the fun continued on. In the hotel, it was lovely to see Beth, Tom and Andy from the US once again. It was the first time that my dearest and oldest Chelsea mate Glenn had met Andy since that night in Munich, when we met up after the game at “The Shakespeare” pub near the train station, and then shared his hotel room; a place to crash after the best night of our lives.

In The Goose, I had a good old chat with Paul – once of Knoxville, Tennessee but now living in Los Alamos, New Mexico – and also a brief chat with Austin from Houston, Texas.

Pints were shared.

“Friendship and football.”

There were a few Leicester City fans in The Goose. They were causing no harm and we let them be. Only at the end, after the beers stirred their vocal chords, did they start singing.

“Leicester City – Five Thousand To One.”

I wished a few my heartiest congratulations. I like two of the T-shirts that I saw them wearing :

“les-tah.”

“Dilly Ding Dilly Dong.”

One final walk down to Stamford Bridge.

Ah, I’ll miss this.

Unfortunately, I managed to get my timings all wrong and I sadly missed all of the pre-game pageantry. One last pint of “Peroni” in The Goose, and some elongated “goodbyes” to friends, resulted in me arriving at my seat in the Matthew Harding just as the teams were shaking hands with each other. I had therefore missed the guard of honour that the Chelsea players had bestowed on the new champions of England. A massive John Terry banner was being held aloft in The Shed, and I missed the chance to take a photograph of that too. The banner depicted JT in a typical pose, his right palm beating his heart, something that I noticed him doing around five years ago as a mark of solidarity with us fans. Along with the John Terry chest-pass, it is trademark. If and when the powers that be decide upon a John Terry statue at Stamford Bridge, I would suggest that it will be of his hand-to-heart pose. It certainly strikes a chord.

At times, the ensuing football match seemed nothing more than a side-show.

This would be my fifty-fourth game of the campaign. Although I have seen more games during four other seasons ( a 58, a 57 and two 55s), this would be my highest ever percentage. Fifty-four out of fifty-six.

96.4%

I don’t think that figure will ever be matched by myself again. I only missed the CL games in Kiev and Paris. Happy with that.

With the sun shining down, and the stadium packed to the rafters, but with my head full of thoughts about the craziness of the current season, with the close season looming, I found it difficult to get too involved with the game being played out before me.

Hiddink had chosen a strong team, but I was a little annoyed that Ruben was a substitute.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Cahill, Ivanovic, Baba – Fabregas, Matic – Pedro, Willian, Hazard – Traore.

We were wearing the new kit for the first time, and I really wasn’t impressed. I don’t mind the Adidas stripes down the sides of the main body of the shirt, but I think the collar looks messy, like someone has pulled it out of shape, and the lions all over the shirt look infantile.

Not for me.

The last Chelsea shirt I bought was in 2005.

I can’t see myself ever buying another one.

It wasn’t a bad game, and Chelsea began well. A nice move involving Willian, Matic and Pedro resulted in the ball just missing the target.

Leicester had their full three thousand, though I was a little dismayed to see many – too many – of their fans wearing blue curly wigs. Shocking.

On twenty-six minutes, there was a hearty round of applause for John Terry, and a sea of “number 26” cards were held aloft in the Shed Upper.

Vardy, the unlikeliest of heroes for Leicester this season, caused a couple of moments of panic in our defence.

Pedro then caused Kasper Schmeichel to scamper on all fours to keep out a loose ball, before Traore was unable to convert as the ball broke again. The Leicester City ‘keeper was certainly the busier of the two. It had been a decent enough opening period.

There hadn’t been a great deal of noise throughout the first-half. The Leicester City fans seemed a little subdued. Maybe it still hadn’t sunk in.

Soon into the second period, Hiddink replaced Pedro with Loftus-Cheek and Traore with Tammy Abraham.  On the hour, debutant Fikayo Tomori replaced Ivanovic, with Dave moving in to central defence alongside Cahill.

The game, which had quietened down with all of the substitutions, suddenly came alive. Eden Hazard, the shadow of the man against Liverpool thus far, raced past his markers and played in Abraham. The ball fell to Matic, who was upended just as he was looking to gather himself to shoot.

Fabregas slotted home.

One-nil to the former champions.

I had always fancied our chances in this game, and I was confident that we would hold on. Leicester tried to retaliate but their possession amounted to nothing. I joined in the applause as Riyad Mahrez was substituted by Ranieri with ten minutes to go. I remembered his goal against us in December on that night of “betrayal.” Sadly, just after, a Danny Drinkwater shot from way out – a blot into the blue – caught us all unawares and the game was tied at 1-1.

I spotted a handful – no more than twenty – Leicester fans get to their feet in the West Upper, but there were no handbags.

The funniest moment of the day? Hearing that Tottenham had lost 5-1 at Newcastle United. How we laughed.

The Chelsea fans – who had been generally quiet all game – were roused to honour Claudio Ranieri as the game continued on.

“One Ranieri, there’s only one Ranieri.”

Tammy Abraham caused us all to inhale quickly as he spun tidily and whipped a curler towards Schmeichel’s goal. It only narrowly missed the far post.

Referee Craig Pawson blew the final whistle of the 2015/2016 season and that was that.

A few fans – in fact more than a few – disappeared as soon as the whistle sounded, but many stayed. We applauded the Leicester team as they walked over to celebrate with their fans. The John Terry flag appeared at the Matthew Harding, draped over both tiers. I stood with Alan and Glenn as the team reappeared. John Terry, of course, lead them out. There was a noticeable gap between him, with his two children, and the rest of the squad. Suddenly it was all about him.

He was wearing a white training top, which made him stand out.

He beat his heart, he clapped us. He walked down to the MH and shook hands with a few fans, and handed out a shirt or two. There were calls of his name. He seemed to be very touched. There was still a gap, a respectful space, between John Terry and the rest of the players.

The sun shone down.

Glenn sped off for a burger from his favourite burger girl at “Chubby’s Grill.”

“See you back at the car.”

I shook Alan’s hand.

“Have a good summer. See you in Vienna.”

The players walked down to The Shed End. I had decided to stay on, to watch the last few moments of this ridiculous season. Neil Barnett then, unexpectedly I thought, announced that John Terry wanted to say a few words. I remembered JT’s rousing speech after the last game of the season against Blackburn Rovers before Munich in 2012. That was good, but this one was one for the ages.

He praised Claudio Ranieri and Leicester City for their deserved title win.

“I’m delighted Leicester have won it and I’m just glad Tottenham haven’t.”

He thanked us for our support in such a difficult season.

In many respects, at this stage this seemed like a “goodbye speech.”

He thanked us for sticking with us “frew the fick and the fin.”

“We’ll be back next year and we’ll be fighting for the title.”

This was music to my ears, the use of “we” and the notion that he would be with us.

With a new manager, new to the English game, having JT as a “bridge” between the old and new regimes would be priceless.

He thanked us for our support in an emotional few weeks.

His voice croaking now.

Oh boy.

I felt the emotion.

I looked up at the TV screen and he was holding back some tears.

He thanked Guus Hiddink, almost the forgotten man in all of this, and much applause from the fans.

“A great man.”

He praised the first team staff.

The crowd responded : “John Terry, we want you to stay.”

He then – his voice croaking a little more and I turned to one side, almost croaking too – said that the club and him wanted the same thing.

“I wanna stay. The club know that. The fans know that.”

There were words for the young boys, for Tammy, for Ruben, and then a few more words of thanks.

“Blue Is The Colour” began booming.

I watched, now confused beyond belief, wondering if John Terry would be playing for us again or not. For all of the positive words, the cynical me still wasn’t sure. I walked to an exit, but stood mesmerized, unable to leave Stamford Bridge, as I watched the man with the white training jersey shake hands with a few last well-wishers and then disappear down the tunnel.

IMG_7664

Tales From A Long And Winding Road.

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2016.

There was a moment, not long in to the trip north, when the heavens opened and a spell of intense rain fell. The sky darkened, to an almost surreal dark green hue, and the light diminished. The spray from the cars ahead made visibility a struggle. I heaved a heavy sigh. After the second-half slow-down, and eventual capitulation at Sunderland, I had already made it quite clear that I was not relishing the long trek up to Liverpool for a Wednesday night game. I had picked up an annoying cough since just before the weekend, and as I battled the rain and the spray and the darkness, I kept barking every few minutes. There was a hint of a headache. I was not in a good place. If the rain continued on, this would surely turn out to be one of the most tedious away trips of them all.

I had taken a half-day holiday, and alongside me were Young Jake and Old Parky. They could both tell that I was getting stressed at the thought of another four hours on the road. Up on Merseyside, a few friends would be waiting for me. Jason had flown in to Liverpool from Dallas the day before, especially for the game, and I had managed to get him a ticket in the away end. It would be his first-ever Chelsea away match. If I was feeling sorry for myself a little, I was certainly feeling for him too. Let’s be honest, after our poor show at Sunderland, I think most Chelsea supporters – apart from those ridiculously optimistic ones, of which I know around four – were fearing the worst against a Liverpool team that, on their day, could shine. Jason would also be missing John Terry too, banished to some excruciating nether world. I was also mindful that our end might possibly be full of empty seats. I had memories of our 4-1 loss at Anfield on the Wednesday after we beat them in the 2012 Cup Final, when our end had swathes of empty seats. Our end was maybe only half-full. As far as first away games went, for Jason this could well be a most rotten one.

Thankfully – and I really was thankful – at around Cheltenham, the sky miraculously cleared and the sun eventually started to burn its way through the layers of foggy cloud.

By the time I had reached Birmingham, the day was turning out to be very pleasant.

I had become suddenly, yawningly, tired though. At Hilton Park Services, just out of Walsall, I decided to have a thirty-minute power nap. Jake and Parky were banished into the services as I reclined the seat. I closed my eyes. I was away. Only my bloody coughing woke me. Feeling instantly refreshed, I made light work of the remaining ninety miles or so. These away trips can be so tiring. Thankfully, I was pencilled in to do a late shift starting at 2pm on the Thursday; there would be no doubt that I would be sleeping for England once I would eventually return.

We were parked up near Albert Dock at just after 4.30pm, some five hours after I left work in Melksham. We met up with an excited Jason at a bar adjacent to “The Beatles Story” in the Albert Dock complex. I last saw him when he came over for a game in SW6 in 2013. He was having a fine time in Liverpool; he had popped up to have a look around Goodison Park on the Tuesday. This was the same bar that we chose for pre-match beers before the Everton cup game; it serves excellent Warsteiner lager.

“Four pints please.”

As at Everton, we were joined by Kim and Eddie, and it was lovely to see them both again. As before, music and football dominated the chat. We spoke about places for Jason to visit on the Thursday, and a few ideas were suggested. We chatted about The Beatles. Eddie was rather taken aback when it transpired that the five of us – Kim, Parky, Jake, Jason and myself – were not really fans of Britain’s greatest ever pop band. Coming from Merseyside, and a musician himself, his astonishment was real.

What a tragedy. What a mystery.

Time was moving on and I wanted to make sure that I was parked-up in good time. I wanted to make sure that Jason wasn’t rushed on his first visit to Anfield, and – more importantly – got to squeeze as much as possible into his two hours with the Chelsea hard-core.

Our walk through a housing estate would have caused me a severe anxiety attack back in the ‘eighties, but there was thankfully no antagonism or nastiness from any loitering youths. Strangely enough, we found ourselves on Robson Street, near the very bus stop that I had first alighted at Anfield on my first trip in May 1985, over thirty-one years ago. I easily remembered walking down the terraced road, with the almost mystical Kop at the bottom of the street. In 1984/1985, I only went to five away games due to finances, and the visit to Anfield was one of the highlights for sure. Liverpool were European Champions in 1984 and reigning League Champions too. They were in their pomp. Growing up as a child in the ‘seventies, and well before Chelsea fans grew tired of Liverpool’s cries of history, there were few stadia which enthralled me more than Anfield, with The Kop a beguiling wall of noise.

No gangways on The Kop, just bodies. A swaying mass of humanity.

Heading up to Liverpool, on an early-morning train from Stoke, I was excited and a little intimidated too. Catching a bus up to the stadium outside Lime Street was probably the nearest that I came to a footballing “rite of passage” in 1985. I was not conned into believing the media’s take that Scousers were loveable so-and-sos. I knew that Anfield could be a chilling away ground to visit. Famously, there was the “Cockneys Die” graffiti on the approach to Lime Street. My first real memory of Liverpool, the city, on that murky day over three decades ago was that I was shocked to see so many shops with blinds, or rather metal shutters, to stave off robberies. It was the first time that I had seen such.

The mean streets of Liverpool? You bet.

We walked down Venmore Street – I am adamant it was the same street I walked in 1985 – with the new main stand dominating Anfield. It will be a huge structure once completed, adding 10,000 more to the stadium’s capacity. There has been extensive housing clearance around the stadium for a while. Venmore Street has grassy areas now, and only The Albert pub underneath the new stand has been left standing, solitary, for ages, it’s terraced neighbours razed to the ground.

Back in 1985, the local scallies – flared cords and Puma trainers by the look of it, all very 1985 – were prowling as I took a photograph of the old Kop.

280530_10150303622767658_5384288_o

Back in 1985, traveling down to Chelsea from Stoke, I was well aware of the schism taking place in the casual subculture at the time. Sportswear was giving way to a more bohemian look in the north-west – flares were back in for a season or two – but this look never caught on in London.

I always maintained that it was like this :

London football – “look smart.”

Liverpool and Manchester football – “look different.”

We walked around past The Kop – and mirrored the route that I undoubtedly took in 1985.

The Centenary Stand, in 2016, was the site of the Kemlyn Road Stand – complete with newly-arrived police horses – in 1985. You can almost smell the gloom. Note the mast of the SS Great Eastern, which still hosts a fluttering flag on match days to this day.

279448_10150303622907658_5982373_o

We were now outside the site of the old away end at Anfield. Back in 1985, the turnstiles were housed in a wall which had shards of glass on the top to deter fans from gaining free entry. Note the Chelsea supporters’ coach and the Sergio Tacchini top.

272055_10150303623067658_1859073_o

To complete this visit down memory lane, and to emphasise how bloody early I was on that Saturday morning in May 1985 – it was an 11.30am kick-off to deter excessive drinking and, ergo, hooliganism – here is a photograph of an empty, waiting, expectant Anfield. I guess that this photograph of the Chelsea squad in their suits was taken at an hour or so before kick-off. This is something we never see at games now; a Chelsea team inspecting the pitch before the game. I suspect that for many of the players, this would have been their first visit to Anfield too. Maybe that half-explains it.

266645_10150303623262658_7820773_o

Incidentally, we lost that game at Anfield 4-3, but it was a fantastic Chelsea performance. The attendance, incidentally, was only 33,000 – way below capacity at the time. Maybe we should take to inquiring of the Scousers “Where were you when you were good?”

Inside the stadium, with the new upper tier peering over all, I was pleasantly surprised how many Chelsea fans were already in attendance. My worries of an embarrassingly small “take” were proving to be unfounded. In the concourse, I introduced Jason to a smattering of the loyalists. The mood among us was not great.

“I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

Hiddink had tweaked the team since Saturday.

Begovic – Baba, Mikel, Cahill, Azpilicueta – Matic, Fabregas – Pedro, Hazard, Willian – Traore.

Eddie, the Liverpool supporter – he has a season ticket in the Kemlyn, er Centenary Stand – was convinced that Klopp would put out a “B” team ahead of their Europa League Final, but it looked pretty strong to me. It included the England’s most boring international of recent memory, the plodding James Milner.

The Chelsea fans were assembled, and the home fans too.

Liverpool supporters always mock our plastic flags at Stamford Bridge, and they poke fun at our supposed plastic and manufactured atmosphere. Well, just before the teams came out on to the pitch, we were treated to “We Will Rock You” in an effort to get the locals energised and I rolled my eyes.

The teams.

Red.

Blue.

The atmosphere heightened.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

I looked around. Familiar faces everywhere and not too many empty seats. A fantastic effort on a Wednesday night.

Liverpool, as they always seem to do at Anfield, began very brightly and that man Coutinho seemed to be everywhere. I really like him. He’s a fine player. We were immediately concerned about Baba’s waywardness – “Have you turned your GPS on Baba?” bellowed Alan – but through a mixture of poor finishing, and strong defending we survived the early onslaught. Sturridge was wasteful early on with a ridiculously high free-kick, and we loved that. We never really warmed to him at Chelsea, and since joining Liverpool, there has been no love lost. Soon into the game, we rounded on him.

“Chelsea reject.”

Rather than smile it off, he pulled a stern face, and encouraged us to sing up, waving his hands in mock encouragement. He was the target of our abuse for ages.

“Well this is going to end one of two ways” I laughed.

Begovic was particularly active, saving well, but many of their shots were right at our ‘keeper. A heavy touch from Firmino when through was met by howls of derision. Our goal was, if I am honest, living a rather charmed life. Chances from Lallana and Lovren were wasted. After around twenty minutes, we kept possession for a lovely spell, and seemed to get a foothold in the game, as so often happens at Anfield. We began to get Eden Hazard involved, and how he warmed to the task. He danced and weaved past defenders with ease and came close with a long shot that Mignolet saved. Our support was strong throughout the opening period, and grew noisier, while poking fun at the docile home fans.

“Where’s your famous atmosphere?”

A blue flare was set off to my right, and the away end was filled with sulphurous fumes. I spotted a banner in praise of John Terry.

“Sign him up, sign him up, sign him up.”

We were on top now, and playing some lovely stuff. Matic was the Matic of old, breaking play up and moving the ball on. We grew stronger with every tackle won. What a Jekyl and Hyde season. Why were we not so fired up against Sunderland?

The ball broke to Eden Hazard, who waltzed out wide, and then exchanged a pass with Baba, before cutting in, like a slalom skier, and dancing past innumerable Liverpool defenders – I use the term with a little reticence, since none of them bothered to put in a tackle – and slotted home, the ball nestling just inside the far post

One-nil to Chelsea and The Kop go mild.

Fantastic. What a sublime goal. He’s having a goal of the season contest all to himself as this campaign closes. We celebrated wildly.

Ah, this game could turn out to be alright in the end.

Traore, full of running, but with a tendency to cut back on himself rather than push on, then came close to making it 2-0. Baba, playing better now after a shaky start, was in place to hack away after a timely block.

One-up at the break and time for a photo with Jason, who was watching right down the front.

At half-time, Star Wars paratroopers and a dance routine.

First, Queen and now Star Wars. This was turning into a “Room 101” evening for me.

Queen, shite, Star Wars, shite.

The second-half, with Chelsea attacking the loud and proud away fans, will be remembered by myself for the number of times that Eden Hazard, looking every inch, every centimetre, the player who so beguiled us last season, took flight and attacked the cowering Liverpool defenders. I brought my camera up to my eyes and captured several of his wonderful flights of fancy.

The puff of the cheeks, the body getting ready to explode with pace, the eyes wide open and in focus, the acceleration past a defender, the sudden stop, the change of direction, a feint, the move again, the flick, the touch, the energy.

It was truly mesmerising.

Baba of all people went close.

I thought of two mates in the US.

Steve, soon heading off to see a Liverpool vs. Chelsea pairing, of sorts, in Pennsylvania; Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole now team mates at LA Galaxy, playing at Philadelphia Union.

JR, his wife Erin expecting the birth of their first child and the birth very imminent. If we could hold on for an unexpected win, and the baby was born on Wednesday 11 May, maybe they might be tempted to name the baby Eden.

Sturridge was having a ‘mare in front of The Kop. Maybe we had got to him after all.

This was turning into a great game of football. We broke at will on a few more occasions, and Pedro – the latest of our masked men – should have done better on two occasions.

Mikel was coolness personified as he chested down a cross before releasing a great ball out.

“Jon – Obi – Mikel” sang our support, with no hint of irony.

To be honest, there had not been the all-out songfest in praise of John Terry that some had perhaps expected.

Liverpool slowly clawed their way back, but the noise was quiet. I remembered my first visit to the same stadium in 1985. We had all been brought up on the notion of Anfield being red hot, but I remember coming away all those years ago being very underwhelmed.

Kenedy came on for a quiet, again, Willian. He began in a blaze of glory with a spectacular dribble, but faded.

News came through that Sunderland were beating Everton.

Newcastle United and Norwich City were no more.

The Chelsea choir were celebrating :

“He’s going down, he’s going down. Rafa’s going down.”

So much for my bloody cough. Despite the risk of irritating my throat further, I was joining in with all of the songs; there is no rationality to it, is there?

Baba blocked an on-target Coutinho effort.

Traore came close before being replaced by debutant Tammy Abraham. The play swayed from end to end, with both teams looking to score. Abraham, clean through, could not finish. Pedro was wasteful again. I was convinced that we would hang on for a win – for you, Jason, for you JR – but with extra-time being played, a cross from the Liverpool left was parried by Begovic, but we watched aghast as the ball fell for a Liverpool player to head home.

Bollocks.

At least it wasn’t Sturridge.

The Liverpool fans were now noisy as hell and I wondered where they had been all game. Of course the goal hurt, and I think our play definitely deserved a win, but I would have taken a draw before the game, as would many. I had thoroughly enjoyed the game. What a surprise. It had been a cracker. And Eden Hazard; at times, unplayable.

Outside in the concourse, we said our goodbyes.

Parky, Jake and I walked back to the waiting car, at the top of the hill, equidistant between the two football cathedrals of Goodison and Anfield. Out onto the East Lancs road, around the city and the long trip south.

And it was a long trip south. We were diverted off the M6 on two separate occasions, and I took a silly error-ridden detour through Birmingham city centre. It was a proper Chelsea-themed magical mystery tour.

The evening’s game at Anfield would represent only the second time in my life that I had completed all away league games in a single season.

Nineteen out of nineteen.

I did it in 2008/2009 and I have done it in 2015/2016.

I dropped the lads off, feeling so tired now, driving on auto-pilot. This long and winding road – The Away Club 2015/2016 – finally ended as I turned into my drive at 3.45am on Thursday.

It was time to sleep.

 

For Harrison Patrick Lotto, future Chelsea supporter, born 12 May 2016.

IMG_7488

 

Tales From Tyne And Wear.

Sunderland vs. Chelsea : 7 May 2016.

The four of us were in town. I had traveled up from the West of England with PD and Parky. Kev had traveled down by train from Edinburgh. The plan was to enjoy a little pub crawl in Newcastle, where we would be staying that night, before heading off by metro to the game in Sunderland. First up – my choice – was “The Strawberry” right outside the Gallowgate End at St. James’ Park. Away fans rarely get a look in on match days, hence my desire to visit it on this particular day. What a fantastic pub; small and cosy, with Newcastle United photographs and memorabilia on every wall. We continued our little trip, heading down the hill towards the station, and called into “Rosie’s Bar” and then “The Mile Castle.”

We bumped into a few Chelsea fans at the train station, then grew frustrated as our journey was delayed by a slow-moving train.

“Don’t think we’ll make the kick-off, boys.”

The walk from the Stadium of Light metro station to the ground took around ten minutes. We found ourselves walking through the alleyways between red-bricked terraced streets. The white steel supports of the Stadium of Light were shrouded in mist. It might have been May, but it seemed like the month of November. There was no time to waste. We could hear the crowd’s muffled sounds from inside the stadium’s white casing. Deep inside there was a voice begging Chelsea not to score until we were in. It was a deep irony that even though I had been awake before the alarm at 3.40am, I would still miss the bloody kick-off. The eight or ten flights of stairs were eventually navigated and – deep breaths – we were in. I glanced up a TV screen inside the concourse. We had missed just eight minutes.

Phew.

I am a very rare visitor to Sunderland. I never ever made it to Roker Park. This would only be my third visit to the Stadium of Light. My first visit was in 1999, when a Kevin Phillips hat-trick helped inflict a 4-1 defeat on the boys. In 2009, the last game of the season, we won 3-2 in a game which brought me a fair bit of pride at the time; it marked the first time that I had watched all thirty-eight league games, home and away, the full set. On that day, while we were battling Sunderland, their fierce local rivals Newcastle United were losing at Aston Villa, a result which relegated the Geordies. I can well remember the home fans booming with joy when they heard the Newcastle result. Damian Duff, if I am not mistaken, assisted in the loss, scoring an own goal.

In 2016, seven years on, fate had transpired to replicate the set of fixtures.

Aston Villa vs. Newcastle United.

Sunderland vs. Chelsea.

The joke during the week had been that Chelsea would win at Sunderland, Newcastle would win at Villa – of course – and we would get back to a jubilant Newcastle town centre, where friendly locals would buy us drinks all night.

That was the idea.

Before these two twin games, we heard that Norwich City – the other protagonists attempting to avoid the relegation trap door – had narrowly lost 1-0 at home to Manchester United. I wasn’t exactly sure of how that left things. At one stage it appeared that our weekend on Tyne and Wear might well be a “so long farewell” to the region’s two teams. Now, with Norwich looking unlikely to avoid the drop, the script had further changed.

I shuffled along the row to stand beside Alan and Gary, with Parky soon joining me. Our away end seemed pretty full. It was a good showing. In the previous two visits, the away section was in the southern end; the single tier. In 1999, to the left, in 2009, to the right. Since then, shades of St. James’ Park, the away crowd has been banished to an upper tier, behind the goal to the north. It was a fine view to be fair. The crowd was virtually a sell-out. A few pockets of empty seats around and about, but a good show by the locals.

Sunderland in their famous red and white stripes, black shorts and black socks.

Chelsea – keeping it simple – in the traditional blue, blue, white.

Time to quickly scan the starting eleven.

Courtois – Dave, JT, Cahill, Brana – Matic, Mikel – Willian, Fabregas, Hazard – Diego Costa.

In 2014/2015, this would have been regarded as our strongest starting eleven. This season, we have been wondering why the same eleven have rarely showed up en masse. What a year it has been.

Just as I was settling, getting my bearings, warming up my vocal chords, we pushed deep in to the Sunderland box, and Diego Costa picked up a loose ball down below us. An instinctive shot at goal – one touch – had Mannone beaten. As easy as that, we were 1-0 up.

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

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

How nice of the boys to wait until we had settled in before scoring.

The game opened up a little, with Chelsea in the ascendancy, but there were a number of half-chances for both teams. Ivanovic zipped a low cross right the way past the goal, but there was no Chelsea body close enough to convert. Down at the far end, the Chelsea defence was well-marshaled by John Terry, and Courtois was able to gather any high balls lofted towards him.

However, a free-kick was not sufficiently cleared, and it fell to USPA (Unknown Sunderland Player A). Although a long way out, USPA steadied himself, and took a swipe at the ball. We watched mesmerised as the ball flew into the Chelsea goal.

Bloody hell. What a goal. I didn’t applaud it, but I felt like doing so.

“Cracking goal. The way he kept it down.”

It brought me no satisfaction to see USPA – Wahbi Khazri, I think I prefer USPA – celebrate with the home fans, who hadn’t been as loud as I had expected until then. It ignited them, but we were soon back on top. Just a few minutes later – deep in to injury time in fact – Sunderland’s defenders were at sixes and sevens, allowing Dave to set up Matic. He had not had a great first-half, in the same way that he has not had a great season, so it was odd to see him calmly advance and slot home. We celebrated wildly, while he was mobbed by his team mates below us.

Phew. We rode our luck a bit, but in we went at the break.

2-1 up.

Those free drinks back in The Toon were on my mind.

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles to the south, it was 0-0 at Villa Park.

We began the second-half in relatively fine fettle. We dominated possession, and looked at ease. However, time and time again, we seemed intent on taking one extra touch, and one extra touch especially in front of goal. We were getting behind the Sunderland defensive line, and creating a few chances. Hazard seemed to be full of tricks, and set up Diego Costa, but his shot was blocked by the ‘keeper.

Another lovely move, reminiscent of our play from last season, involving Hazard and Fabregas, and then Diego Costa, had us all on our feet, expecting a goal.

It went something like this.

Eden Hazard.

Pass.

Cesc Fabregas.

“Shoot, for fuck sake.”

One touch.

Pass.

Diego Costa.

“Shoot, for fuck sake.”

One touch.

Shot.

Smothered by Mannone.

“Bollocks.”

Although I was stood in the first half, now I was sat, resting my feet. It had been a long old day. I had already been awake for more than twelve hours. I was awake before the alarm sounded, and awake even before the dawn chorus. Our early-morning flight from Bristol to Newcastle seemed ages ago. Our singing wasn’t great as the game went on. There was one song which dominated, and – if I am honest – it is starting to annoy me a little.

Frank Lampard. Two hundred. West Ham United.

Sunderland weren’t giving up, and they grew stronger. I noticed that Branislav Ivanovic was on the floor on the half-way line, and it was easy to spot that a few Chelsea players were distracted. As the move developed I sensed fear. Patrick Van Aanholt – when he first broke in to our team, I rated him more than Ryan Bertrand – was able to pull the ball back for Fabio Borini – another former Chelsea player – to strike. Courtois, not exactly flavour of the month in the away section, seemed to react slowly, and the ball half-heartedly, apologetically, squeezed past his late dive.

2-2.

“Bollocks.”

Hiddink replaced Ivanovic with Baba Rahman, with Azpilicueta switching to right back.

Within a few seconds, we were all regretting the substitution. A rash, poorly-timed challenge by Baba, set USPB – DeAndre Yedlin –  up to cross from the right. We again sensed fear. A deflection set the ball up perfectly for Jermaine Defoe to smack home.

The Stadium of Light boomed. I watched as the folks sitting in the front row of the main stand to my right– plus those on the Sunderland bench – jumped to their feet and raced a few yards ahead, energised and electrified. I knew how they felt. On Monday, we had felt the same against Tottenham.

Hiddink replaced a very quiet Willian with Oscar, and Mikel with Traore. We still kept pressing, but a goal never ever seemed likely. Baba continued to make hopeless, ill-timed challenges. I want him to do well, but he looks so green it hurts. Our play stalled. We lost all drive. The mood among the away support was deteriorating with every minute. Bloody hell, Chelsea.

Things would get worse still.

I had missed Gary Cahill’s booking in the first minute.

I witnessed John Terry’s booking on the eighty-seventh minute.

As yet another Chelsea attack looked like petering out, the ball was cleared and was bouncing in no man’s land on the halfway line. I saw John Terry racing towards the ball, along with Sunderland’s Sebastian Larsson. My thoughts were this :

“Good on you John. At least you care. Good to see you trying your damnedest to keep the ball alive, to keep the ball in our possession, go on my son!”

Both players leapt for the ball, both legs were high. My honest appraisal at the time was this :

“50/50 ball. Maybe our free-kick.”

Both players stayed on the floor.

My next thought.

“Not like JT to stay down. God, hope his Chelsea career hasn’t ended right there.”

I then saw referee Mike Jones brandishing a yellow card at John Terry, scrambling to his feet, and then – the enormity of it all – a red card.”

Oh no.

Thoughts whizzed through my head.

There had been no news about a contract extension over the past few months. The silence had been deafening. No news from the club. No news from Antonio Conte. No hint of another year. Silence. Damned silence.

A red card. A two game ban?

That’s it.

We had – surely – just witnessed John Terry’s last-ever game for Chelsea Football Club.

I watched through my telephoto lens as he walked, stony-faced, past Hiddink and down the tunnel.

Photograph one.

Photograph two.

No more.

No more John Terry.

My heart sank.

The game ran its course. It was a horrible loss. After the euphoria of the draw against Tottenham on Monday – football at its best, Chelsea at our best – we stood disbelieving at the lack-lustre show from the team in the second-half. Outside, with the wind bitterly biting at us from all directions, we met up, and began a slow march in to Sunderland town centre. Alan and Gary were due to catch the subsidized Chelsea special back to London at 6.45pm, so we decided to share a couple of pints with them in a central pub. Sunderland fans, of course, were boiling over with joy. We edged past the lovely statue of Bob Stokoe – Wembley 1973 – and then out on to the main road. The bridge over the River Wear, a poor man’s version of the grander one over the Tyne, was shrouded in mist. Whereas Newcastle is a grand city in every sense of the word – architecturally pleasing, an iconic and photogenic setting on that deep gorge, with fine shopping, nightlife, attractions – Sunderland pales by comparison. Its town centre resembles a ghost town. It is no wonder Geordies look down their collective civic noses at their near neighbours.

Inside “The William Jameson”, we raised pints to John Terry.

Reports came through of him throwing his armband down, of a two game ban, of this being his last game.

How typical of this mess of a season. It was the perfect metaphor for the campaign. And how typical for John Terry too. Undoubtedly he has enjoyed a wonderful career at Chelsea; a fantastic leader, a respected captain, and well honoured in his time at Stamford Bridge. And yet. And yet. John missed our most famous game – Munich 2012 – due to an indiscretion in Camp Nou. He missed the Europa League Final too. His most famous moment, in some circles, was the infamous slip in Moscow. It has not been a career without blemishes. There have been indiscretions. And how typical, how Terryesque, that his Chelsea career would end with a sending off. There would not even be a grand finale at Stamford Bridge against Leicester City.

Bloody hell.

Newcastle had only managed a 0-0 draw at Aston Villa. Sunderland were now in the ascendency. A win for them against Everton on Wednesday would keep them up.

All of a sudden, I wanted the season to end. The trip to Anfield on Wednesday hardly enthused me; it would surely prove to be one of the least anticipated trips with Chelsea for ages. There would be the bittersweet last game of the season against the new champions, but I was ready for the summer.

We said our goodbyes to Alan and Gary, then headed back in to Newcastle. There were laughs on the return journey, and the four of us were soon enjoying pints in a number of town centre pubs. Newcastle is such a fantastic city that our poor loss against Sunderland soon drifted away from our collective thoughts. “The Bridge Hotel” overlooking the river, and live action on the TV of Leicester City’s celebrations. “Akenside Traders” and an ‘eighties sing-song, and some Burnley fans celebrating a promotion. A quiet pint in the “Pitcher & Piano” overlooking the floodlit Millennium Bridge. Then up in to town and yet more drinks at “Sam Jack’s” and laughs with a few Chelsea fans out on the town. Then down to “The Rose & Crown”, with a karaoke, and a chat with a Leicester City fan – so happy – and a Brighton fan – so low after only a draw at ‘Boro. The lagers gave way to gin and tonics. Our chats became blurred. After a day in Tyne and Wear, we were getting a little tired and weary. The night continued but there were no free drinks for us Chelsea fans this time. In fact, I think I bought the Leicester City fan a drink, but it’s all a bit hazy.

Ah, the madness of a night on the toon.

IMG_7360 (2)

Tales From Vanessa’s Birthday Weekend.

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 19 March 2016.

PSG hurt. And Everton really hurt. Those were two tough losses.

Heading in to our game with West Ham United, our season suddenly felt rather flat. Season 2015-2016 now had an end in sight. We had nine games left – four at home, five away, all in the league – and I was wondering where on Earth our season had gone. From a results perspective, it had clearly gone up in smoke, but this has seemed a very quick season, despite the troubles along the way. It did not seem five minutes ago that I was catching a train with my friend Lynda en route to the season’s first game in New Jersey in July.

And now I could hear New Jersey’s favourite son Frank Sinatra singing.

“And now the end is near.”

Nine games left. These games would soon fly past. And yet I’m still relishing each and every one of them. The five away games would be enjoyable just because they are away games. The four home games would be important, for varying reasons.

And there would be the usual laughs along the way.

There was an extra-special reason for me to be relishing the visit of West Ham to Stamford Bridge. My friends Roma, Vanessa and Shawn – often mentioned in dispatches – were visiting London for five days, lured by the chance to see our captain John Terry one last time before he, possibly, heads west to the US or east to China. I have known Roma since 1989, when my cycling holiday down the East coast of the US took me to her home town of St. Augustine in Florida. Since then, there have been many laughs along the way, and also many Chelsea games too.

Roma announced to me a couple of months back that she was planning a visit to London, specifically Chelsea-centred, with her daughter Vanessa and son Shawn. Tickets were hastily purchased, and we waited for the day to arrive. Vanessa, fourteen years after her first game at Stamford Bridge against Fulham in 2002, was especially excited. She would be celebrating her twenty-fifth birthday while in London. This was very much her trip.

And I so hoped that John Terry, side-lined for a while, would be playing. He was the reason, in a way, why the three of them had decided to visit us. I was so relieved when our captain made a late appearance off the bench at Goodison last weekend.

I made an early start. I left my home town as early as 8am. Just after 11am, I turned the corner outside the West Stand and spotted my three friends from North Carolina and Tennessee walking towards me. It was lovely to see them again. Shawn was wearing not one but two Chelsea shirts, plus a Chelsea tracksuit top. His favourite player is Diego Costa and he was wearing a “19” shirt. Vanessa favours Cesc Fabregas and was wearing a “4.”

My love of Chelsea Football Club has certainly rubbed off on Roma’s family. Her other daughter Jenny now has a two-year-old boy, who himself yells “Chelsea” at the TV set whenever we are playing. This is all too crazy for me to comprehend at times. Back in 1989, Chelsea were off the radar in the US.

We spent a lovely hour or so mixing with a few of the former Chelsea players who meet up in the Copthorne Hotel before each and every home game. The three visitors first met Paul Canoville at Yankee Stadium in 2012; there was an updated photocall in 2016. The girls loved being able to meet Bobby Tambling again too. They recreated a photograph from Charlotte. John Hollins and Colin Pates gave them signed photographs.

Good times.

My friend Janette from LA was also in town, excited at getting a last minute ticket, and it was great to meet up with her at last. Elsewhere, there was a contingent from the New York Blues honing in on The Goose. Chopper – the NYC version – called by at the hotel before moving on. There was talk of how I picked up Chopper and two others at Bristol airport on a Saturday morning in 2007, before our Carling Cup win against Arsenal in Cardiff, and how – just over an hour later – we were drinking fluorescent orange scrumpy in a Somerset cider pub.

Good times then, good times now.

This was another mightily busy pre-match.

On leaving the hotel, I spotted Kerry Dixon and offered a handshake. It was good to see him again, especially at Stamford Bridge, and he appreciated my well wishes. Back in 2005, Roma had posed for a photo with Kerry in “Nevada Smiths” before a game with Milan, but there would not be time, alas, for a repeat in 2016.

Back at The Goose, more New York Blues arrived. I think around twenty were over in total. It was lovely to see some old friends once again. Mike, the NYB’s chief bottle-washer, was over from NYC for a bare twenty-four hours, flying in at Heathrow at 10.30am and leaving on Sunday morning, his birthday. Such dedication is truly heart-warming. There was whispered talk of the upcoming 2016 US summer tour, and the inevitable moans from some “huge” stateside Chelsea fans about the club not playing in their part of the country. Some of them should take a leaf out of Mike’s book.

We worked out that Shawn, only nine, would be seeing his seventh Chelsea game.

“Seven! You are a lucky boy. When I was nine, I had only seen three, and you live four thousand miles away!”

Team news filtered through.

“John Terry is playing.”

Fist pump.

Who would have guessed that Loic Remy would have been given the nod over Bertrand Traore? There was no Eden Hazard, injured. The surprise was that Kenedy, who Roma, Vanessa and Shawn saw make his debut in DC, was playing in an advanced midfield role. Elsewhere there were the usual suspects. There were grumbles that Ruben Loftus-Cheek was not involved from the start.

The beer garden was packed.

There were memories of last season’s game against Southampton, when Shawn was filling The Goose beer garden with bubbles from a toy. I joked with Roma then that it was a West Ham thing. Suffice to say, there were no bubbles in The Goose beer garden in 2016. There were, however, a small group of West Ham fans, wearing no colours, minding their own business. As we left the pub, early, at just before 2pm, I sensed that another little mob of West Ham walked past. I decided to hang back and let them walk on. The last thing that I wanted was for my guests to witness any match day silliness. To be fair, I didn’t see any trouble the entire day.

It is not always the same story when West Ham come visiting.

Roma, Vanessa and Shawn took their seats in the rear rows of the West Stand, underneath the overhang. They would soon be posting pictures. Fantastic.

The stadium slowly filled. How different this all is to the “pay on the gate” days of yesteryear, when the terraces often became full a good hour before the kick-off oat some games. In those days, the atmosphere would gradually rise with each passing minute. There would be songs from The Shed. On occasion, the pre-match “entertainment” would involve scuffles in the North Stand as opposing fans battled for territory.

In 1984, the ICF arrived very early in the seats of the old West Stand, causing me – a teenager on the benches – to worry about my safety.

Different times.

Prior to the game, Ron Harris presented John Terry with a memento marking his seven-hundredth Chelsea game the previous week. For a while, I wondered if Ron’s 795 might come under threat. Unless the club have a change of heart regarding John Terry, that record will go on forever.

There were three thousand away fans – three flags – in the far corner. They were mumbling something about “pwitty bahbles in de air” as the game began.

The first-half was a poor show to be honest. From the moment that Manuel Lanzini looked up twenty-five yards out and fired a fine curling effort past Thibaut Courtois on seventeen minutes, we struggled to get much of a foothold. A few chances were exchanged, but I felt that West Ham looked a little more focussed when they attacked. A penalty claim was waved away by new referee Robert Madley as the ball appeared to strike the arm of Enner Valencia. I am not one to moan about referees as a rule, but this was one of the first of many odd decisions made by the man in black.

We plugged away, but it was hardly entertaining or productive. I was slightly surprised that West Ham didn’t hit us further; they seemed to resist the temptation to attack at will, despite having a one-goal cushion.

This was not going well.

Aaron Cresswell struck a shot wide, Willian hit a free-kick over.

In the third minute of extra-time in the first-half, we were awarded another free-kick and I am sure that I am not the only one who presumed that Willian would take another stab at goal. Instead, Cesc Fabregas struck a magnificent free-kick over the wall and past the flailing Adrian.

Vanessa’s man had done it. We exchanged texts.

“Happy?”

“Extremely.”

“Bless.”

I instantly remembered Vanessa’s funny comment in Charlotte after Fabregas had fluffed an easy chance against Paris St. Germain…

“Ah, he’s always nervous around me.”

Not so today, Ness.

I am not sure what magical dust Guus Hiddink sprinkled in the players’ half-time cuppas, but it certainly worked. Pedro replaced the injured Kenedy, and we then upped the tempo. Apart from a John Terry goal-line clearance from the mercurial Payet in the first attack of the half, we dominated the second-half right from the offset.

An effort from Oscar, a header from JT. We were getting behind the West Ham full backs and causing problems.

And yet…and yet…completely against the run of play, Sakho played in the overlapping Cresswell who smacked a shot against the bar with Courtois rooted to the floor.

Remy, twisting, forced a save.

The crowd sensed a revival but the noise was not thunderous as I had hoped.

Andy Carroll, who scored the winner at Upton Park earlier this season, replaced Sakho. His first bloody touch turned in Payet’s through ball.

Bollocks.

With West Ham going well this season, I almost expected a few to get tickets in the home areas of The Bridge. When they nabbed this second goal I looked hard to see if there were any odd outbreaks of applause from away fans in home areas – the corporate West Stand especially – but there was nothing.

Traore replaced Remy, who had struggled.

Over in the far corner :

“Fawchunes always idin.”

We rallied well, and the West Ham goal suddenly lived a very charmed life. A Fabregas header went over, an Oscar shot was blocked, and Fabregas’ bicycle kick flew over. Corner after corner. A Terry header went close.

Carroll then twice tested Courtois, but the threat was averted.

The time was passing.

This would be Guus Hiddink’s first loss in the league.

Keep plugging away boys.

At last Ruben Loftus-Cheek appeared, replacing Oscar, who had another indifferent game. Ruben’s run into the box was curtailed by Antonio. It looked a clear penalty to me.

Fabregas coolly sent Adrian the wrong way.

2-2.

Phew.

Vanessa’s man did it again.

At last…at last…the noise bellowed around Stamford Bridge.

I thought that we had definitely deserved a draw on the back of a more spirited second-half show. The first-half had been dire. We kept going. I thought JT was excellent, as was Mikel. Elsewhere, I liked Kenedy and Loftus-Cheek. They must be given more playing time in the remaining eight games.

At the Peter Osgood statue, my three American friends were full of smiles.

Lovely stuff.

As I drove towards Barons Court, I realised that there would be no home game, now, for four whole weeks.

Oh Stamford Bridge, I will miss you.

“Oh wait. Hang on. I’m back again tomorrow.”

On Sunday, there would be day two of Vanessa’s birthday weekend, with a stadium tour, a quick call at the highly impressive Chelsea museum – and my first sighting of the excellent 3D model of the new stadium – a Sunday lunch on the banks of the Thames at Chiswick and a couple of hours under the shadow of Windsor Castle in Peter Osgood’s home town.

It would turn out to be a simply wonderful weekend.

IMG_6542 (3)

Tales From Hertfordshire.

Watford vs. Chelsea : 3 February 2016.

We were parked up at just before 6pm. There was a chill to the air and I was expecting the night to get colder still. The pedestrianised Watford High Street was eerily quiet, and the many large pubs which lined the wide street seemed to be largely devoid of punters. On Facebook, it seemed that the Chelsea faithful were located in just two pubs; “The Flag” near the town’s train station, and the central “Moon Under Water.” We aimed for the latter.

It was full of Chelsea. On walking to the packed bar, I was able to spot many friends and acquaintances. Pints in hand, Parky, PD and I headed over to meet up with the other members of the Away Club. The ever-present Alan and Gary were joined by Dave, back visiting us again from his home in the South of France. Beers were sunk, stories told, plans were forged for upcoming games.

I chatted to Noel, who lives so close to Milton Keynes Dons’ stadium that he was able to walk to and from the game on Sunday. I’ve only ever been able to do that once in my life, back in 1985, when I lived ten minutes away from Stoke City’s old ground. We both agreed that it is a very strange sensation.

“All these Chelsea fans were in my local, I couldn’t get to the bar.”

Noel’s “Bletchley Blues” flag is seen everywhere. I can even remember photographing it in Kuala Lumpur in 2011.

The pub did house a few odd looking locals, but Chelsea were in the ascendency. A few songs rung out.

The furore following John Terry’s frankly surprising statement, seemingly unprovoked, about the club’s reluctance to offer him a deal for 2016/2017 has obviously been one of the hot talking points since Sunday. We briefly touched on it. Was it a bargaining tool for John Terry to shame the club in to action, or just the stark admittance that this was the beginning of the end for him in Chelsea colours? A few of us thought that Terry, in the interests of team harmony, should have kept quiet. The last thing that the team wants is a John Terry sideshow between now and May. Of course, the crux of the matter is that on form and leadership alone, he should be offered a new deal. Replacing him, our heartbeat since 2004, will be almost impossible. However, it is everything else that is murky and unclear. His motives. His character. His misdemeanours. Not everything is black and white. Nor blue and white. Let us not forget how he was sorely tempted to become a Manchester City player in the summer of 2009. John Terry has always been a surprisingly complex character for someone who is, on the surface, a fundamentally old-fashioned blocker and tackler and an unreconstructed leader of men. I have a feeling that this story will run for a while yet.

However, if this is his last few months as a Chelsea player, the difference between his send-off and that of Frank Lampard’s could not be more marked.

Thankfully, Watford’s Vicarage Road is only a twenty minute walk away from the town centre. The difference in the feel to the surroundings between our last game, in Buckinghamshire, and this one, in neighbouring Hertfordshire – just thirty miles away as the crow flies – could not be greater. On Sunday afternoon, there were wide roads, a modern stadium, purpose built restaurants, wide open spaces. On this Wednesday evening, there were narrow terraced streets, with a stadium nestled in among the fabric of a town, with hardly an inch to spare.

But I enjoyed the contrast.

Dave and I laughed at the ridiculously long lines at each and every fish and chip shop en route to the stadium.

“Oh, they love their battered haddock in deepest Watford.”

We were soon outside the away entrance, which had evidently had a lick of paint since my last visit in 2009. The whole place looked a lot smarter. There were more familiar faces everywhere I looked. The concourse inside the away stand was still ridiculously cramped, but that had been freshened up too. I suppose Vicarage Road is like a smaller version of Selhurst Park, cramped and intimate, with the turnstiles at street level high above the pitch below, in some sort of natural dip in the land. Vicarage Road holds just over 20,000 now, and is a neat enough stadium. The three rather odd structures to the left of the away end were demolished and replaced by a new structure in 2014.

It is named after Watford’s former chairman and most famous fan Sir Elton John.

Along the black rear wall, running the entire length of the stand, there are words to one of Reg Dwight’s most famous songs.

“You can tell everybody this is your song. It may be quite simple but now that it’s done. I hope you don’t mind. I hope you don’t mind. That I put down in words. How wonderful life is while you’re in the world.”

It is not known if Watford thought about stenciling in “Saturday night’s alright for fighting” above the away seats.

There were plenty of moans from myself and others regarding our seats. There are around seven hundred people in Chelsea’s away season ticket scheme, of which Parky, Alan, Gary and I are all members. This is my tenth such season. In our annual application process, we indicate to Chelsea whether or not we would prefer seats in the front, rear or middle of the respective away allocations. Generally, we get our seats in the desired area; the middle. On this occasion, not only were we around eight rows from the front, but we were way beyond the touchline in the bottom corner. What a bloody joke.

Oh well, at least I’d get a good view of Willian hitting the defender on the near post at every corner.

As the teams entered the pitch, the opposite end, the home Rookery Stand, was awash with yellow and black flags. I presume this is a Watford “thing” insomuch that fans are encouraged to bring them to games, rather than Watford giving them out for free at each home game. Watford seem to have jettisoned the colour red in their kit these days, which is a bit odd since over half the seats at Vicarage Road are coloured red.

There was surprisingly no place for Eden Hazard.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Mikel, Matic – Willian, Fabregas, Oscar – Diego Costa.

Although we looked comfortable on the ball in the opening moments, chances were not forthcoming. We moved the ball around, but Watford were proving to be a tough nut to crack. Like so many teams these days, they were working hard for each other, and tackling hard. Watford suddenly looked the more likely to score, with several good passages of play, and our defenders looked nervous and edgy, with the twin threat of Ighalo and Deeney causing us concern. From such close quarters, I was impressed with how John Terry is able to twist and move to block his attacker. Only rarely was he embarrassed on the floor.

We were drifting, though, with no real urgency in anyone’s play. Courtois did well to keep out a strong header from Prodl and then saved again from Capoue. The mood inside the away end, or at least the bottom corner, was of growing concern. It seemed to some that it would be a case of damage limitation from Hiddink.

Then, our best chance. The ball was played up to a snarling Diego Costa, who controlled the ball well, and sun away, in that devilish way of his, before dragging a low shot wide.

This seemed to inspire the Chelsea faithful. And although, there was noticeable support for John Terry from within our ranks, we chose to sing a song in praise of our other modern day legend as the first-half drew to a close. For many a minute, we sang and sang and sang.

“Frankie Lampard.

Frankie Lampard.

Frankie Lampard.

[PAUSE]

Oh Frankie Lampard scored two hundred against the Pikeys.”

At half-time, my phone quickly alerted me to the fact that Frank, watching in New York City, had commented on social media about this, thanking us for the support. I was also informed that one of the 2,200 had been texting Frank throughout the chanting too.

At times like that, it really does seem that we are all in it together.

I noted an immediate increase in intensity in our play in the second-half. Apart from a fine block tackle, Fabregas had been largely missing in the first period. However, he set up Oscar, whose shot was saved. Mikel thundered in from the rebound but his shot was blocked too. Watford countered with a couple of attacks, but I wondered where a goal was coming from. I kept thinking of a last minute Salomon Kalou winner in 2007. I wondered if we would have to wait as long as that.

I was very frustrated when Diego Costa broke down the left, but only Oscar was in a dangerous position. Many yards behind, three midfielders were hardly busting a gut to join the attack. It seemed to be a perfect metaphor for the evening.

The frustration grew.

Watford’s home support was pretty tame.

“Watford FC” soon segued in to “Fuck PSG.”

Oscar shot wide from a Costa pass. A clean strike from the otherwise unimpressive Matic was hit straight at Gomes. Another shot from Oscar. Our chances were slowly piling up, but nobody seemed to be too impressed.

Watford’s players were wilting at the merest hint of a challenge from the Chelsea players. Alan was not impressed.

“You lot go down quicker than Elton John’s chauffeur.”

With twenty minutes to go, at last a substitution, with Eden Hazard replacing Matic. A lovely passing move ended up with a firm strike from Ivanovic testing Gomes, who saved well. Then, we had a great view of Willian teasing his marker, and getting an extra yard to play in Hazard, but his touch was heavy and the chance passed us by.

Then, with time marching on, the best chance of the entire game. John Terry ran at the defence – memories of a winner at Burnley just after the Vanessa Perroncel story broke, could he do it again? – but rather than shoot, he passed to Hazard. His cross was met well by Diego Costa. His header appeared destined to make the net ripple. Memories of Salomon Kalou in 2007. We gulped, we stretched on our tiptoes. Gomes clawed it away.

“What a save. Fackinell.”

And it was. It was a stunning save.

I turned in disbelief.

Ugh.

The game offered no more chances, no more drama. It was an off night for us. Many had felt unfulfilled. For large parts of the game, I suspect that many had hoped for a little bout of narcolepsy to kick in. It hadn’t been exciting. It was a disappointing let down.

“Three points tonight would have got us up to eleventh. Bollocks.”

There was quite a wait for us in the lower section of the away end. With only a very small exit, it took ages for the 2,200 away fans to disperse. Parky and I soon met up with PD, and we then joined the thousands heading back in to town. It seemed everyone was making the same trip, through the tight terraced streets, with cars squeezed together on the pavements, and past several fish and chip shops, fried chicken shops, many Indian restaurants, kebab shops, Chinese takeaways and pubs. Everything for a night out, it seemed. There was even a seedy sauna. In fact, just before we were back on the High Street, there was a Gentlemen’s Club called “Diamonds And Strings”, with several girls poised outside. As the three of us brushed past, one thrust a flier into my hand, advertising a Wednesday event called “Fantasy Night.”

Fantasy night?

“How about Chelsea finishing in the top half of the table this season?”

That’ll do me. Where do I sign up? How much to get in? How much will that cost?

In PD’s car, there was the briefest of summaries of the players’ performances.

“I think Mikel was as good as any to be honest. Zouma and Terry solid, Dave too. Ivanovic a little bit off tonight. Courtois didn’t have much to do. Fabregas bloody rubbish. Matic too slow. Willian off the pace a bit. Diego Costa tried his best to be fair. Oscar OK. Played better when Hazard came on.”

Just as PD made had made great time on the drive up to Watford – barely over two hours covered the 111 miles from a pub car park outside Melksham to a car park just north of the Watford High Street – he did even better on the return drive. I was home by 12.30am.

It hadn’t been the best of evenings following the team, but it never feels like a waste of time nor money. If or when it does, a part of me will be lost forever.

Manchester United at home on Sunday.

See you there.

IMG_5655

Tales From The Madness.

Chelsea vs. Everton : 16 January 2016.

IMG_5399 (6)

THE FIRST HALF : pallid, boring, slow, inert, lethargic, quiet, lukewarm, tedious, frustrating, dull.

THE SECOND HALF : dynamic, rousing, intense, dramatic, noisy, warming, entertaining, heartening, emotional, breathless.

The third home game of the week paired us with Everton, in a game which certainly made me nervous. Although Roberto Martinez’ team often flatter to deceive – what a lovely football only phrase – we all knew too well that on their day, they can be a tough nut to crack. We only have to recall our away game in September and Steven Naismith’s finest hour.

Looking back though, our home record against the Evertonians is very healthy. Our last league defeat to them occurred way back in the late autumn of 1994, with a Paul Rideout goal giving Everton a win on a day when the then North Stand officially opened. Although we lost on penalties to Everton in an F.A. Cup replay in 2011, we were looking for our twenty-first league game in a row without defeat at Stamford Bridge against them. I had been present at all previous twenty games. They are familiar visitors.

It was a quick and easy commute to our place of pilgrimage, with myself back behind the wheel once again, and I was joined by Andy from Trowbridge in addition to Parky and PD. It was a perfect winter day. The fields touched by early morning frost, but blue skies overhead. A proper blue and white day in fact. The others dropped in to “The Oak” on the North End Road – one of the few remaining old school pubs left – while I headed down to meet up with Charles from Dallas, still in England and knee deep in the delights of London town. On the walk back up to “The Goose”, I made sure he called in to the “CFCUK” stall, where he picked up a copy of Mark Worrall’s book from 2013 “Making History Not Reliving It.”

It was a cold lunchtime in London, but not unbearably so. There was no bitter wind.

It was, again, a perfect day for football.

“The Goose” was as packed as I have ever seen it. It was crazy. The cricket was on the TV, and garnering a fair bit of attention. I introduced Charles to a few close friends, and wondered if he needed a crash course in the basics of our summer sport. A few quick wickets in Johannesburg in South Africa were met with raucous cheering in the pub. Meanwhile, Charles got stuck in to a plate of fish, chips and mushy peas. Another box ticked for him on his whirlwind tour.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I was rather astounded that Everton had brought a full three thousand. It doesn’t always happen. Last season, the number was around two-thousand. In that midweek game, almost a year ago, a very late Willian goal gave us three points. It is strange to think that at that stage Willian’s attributes were widely unrecognised by the majority of the match-going faithful, despite a loudly sang ditty in his name. I can remember thinking throughout the season that never had there been such a miss-match between Chelsea supporters’ love of a song and love of a player.

Guus Hiddink had fine-tuned from Wednesday. In came Nemanja Matic to sit alongside Jon Obi Mikel, allowing Cesc Fabregas to move alongside Pedro and that man Willian. Pedro’s presence in our team seemed to leave many cold. He reminds me of Florent Malouda, to be honest, in that he is ostensibly a wide man, yet seems to dislike running past his marker.

To my pleasant surprise, there were few empty seats in the stadium. Before the game, in “The Oak”, the lads had been approached by six Swedish tourists, nervously concerned about the validity of the tickets that they had bought off the internet. The tickets, for the West Lower, normally sell for around £50, yet these lads had paid £150 apiece for them. It annoyed me so much that they had paid out £600 extra between the six of them for these tickets.

Regardless, Stamford Bridge was full.

The game started slowly. Very slowly. It was not until the fifteenth minute that a well-worked move found Willian scampering down the right wing, but his shot was well saved by Tim Howard. Ross Barkley is one of the few bright hopes in the English game that I admire from afar, and his shot was well-blocked by Kurt Zouma, with Bryan Oviedo flashing the rebound wide.

This was pretty dire stuff in the main. Charles, for his second game at Stamford Bridge, had swapped ends and was watching in the lower tier of the Matthew Harding. With the atmosphere eerily quiet, I was desperate for the game and the atmosphere to improve. It took a full thirty-five minutes for the first significantly loud song to permeate the cold Stamford Bridge air.

Out of nowhere, “Amazing Grace.”

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

On the pitch, Chelsea were dominating possession no doubt, but movement off the ball was virtually non-existent. It was painful to watch. I lost count of the number of times Pedro played it back to Dave, or Brana played it back to Willian, only to push the ball further back. It really was dire. A lovely sliding tackle by Kurt Zouma – sure to become his trademark, in addition to a no-nonsense hoofed clearance – was almost a highlight for us. I was expecting a little more from Romelu Lukaku, but he was well-marshalled by Kurt Zouma and John Terry.

Just before half-time, an impressive turn by Kevin Mirallas took him past Kurt Zouma and his low shot was well struck, but equally well-saved by Thibaut Courtois.

At the break, I was pleasantly surprised that there were so few boos from the Chelsea stands. Booing is something I abhor. I just can’t stomach it. Although Chelsea had dominated, Everton seemed a little more dynamic in possession. But really, this was a tedious game of football. I was glad that my pre-match drinking had been kept to two coffees and a “Coke.” Sleep was not an option.

Soon in to the second-half, a strong run from Lukaku and I immediately sensed danger. We seem to cope poorly when balls are switched quickly to our flanks. Barkley moved the ball on to Baines. I muttered the words “low cross” to PD, and – ugh – the ball was whipped in. There was a blur of bodies and the ball ended up in the net.

“That had a goal written all over it” I mumbled.

Soon after, Barkley rattled the post after being set up by Mirallas. Things were looking shaky.

Oscar replaced the disappointing Matic. Again, I was surprised that there were no boos. At least that was pleasing.

However, a well-worked move from our visitors across our box resulted in a cross towards Mirallas, who swivelled and connected well. We were 2-0 down and the Evertonians in the far corner were bouncing and buoyant.

Chelsea 0 Everton 2.

I turned to PD.

“Well, we’ll never score two.”

“Nah.”

The away fans were now full of noise.

“Martinez said he’s not for sale and I was satisfied.

Chelsea want those kind of things that money just can’t buy.

I don’t care too much for money.

Money can’t buy me Stones, can’t buy you Stones.

Money can’t buy you Stones.”

Never known for their volume, I think it was the loudest that they have ever been at Chelsea. However, Chelsea then reacted. The stands reverberated to the sound of the supporters rallying and getting behind the team.

As it should be.

If we are winning, sing and cheer.

If we are losing, sing and cheer louder.

I was so proud. Fabregas attempted a very audacious flick with his back heel, which looped up towards goal, but Howard tapped it over. Soon after, a long ball from Cesc was aimed, hopefully, towards Diego Costa. A calamitous mix-up between Phil Jagielka and Howard allowed the ball to roll free. Diego swooped and slotted the ball in to an empty net.

Game on. The crowd erupted and Diego pumped his fist towards the MHL.

Barely two minutes later, the ball was worked between Fabregas and Costa, with the former taking a speculative shot at goal. A deflection took it the despairing dive of Howard.

2-2.

The Bridge roared again.

Kenedy replaced the poor Pedro.

We were attacking at will now, with the crowd fully involved, and fully supporting the team. Diego stretched at a cross from Dave, but was too far away to connect. Sadly, our number nineteen was hurt in a challenge and was replaced by Loic Remy with ten minutes remaining.

Still the noise echoed around The Bridge.

“And its super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC.”

Mikel, another fine game from him, blasted wide. This was a pulsating game and we watched nervously as that man Mirallas broke through on goal, but Courtois blocked well. In the last minute of normal time, an Everton corner was cleared, but as substitute Deulofue swung a ball in, the Chelsea players appeared to be ball-watching. At the far post, another substitute Ramiro Funes Mori stretched to hook the ball in.

2-3.

“Fuck.”

The Everton players again ran over to their fans in the far corner.

I turned to Alan and said “this season doesn’t want to go away, does it?”

We had played well for so much of the second-half, but how typical of our season that our efforts would go unrewarded. I felt unsurprisingly low. To my annoyance, a notable number of Chelsea supporters upped and left, despite the PA announcing a hefty seven minutes of extra time.

Insert comment right here :________________________________________

However, the noise continued and we urged the boys on. Willian struck a shot which flashed wide. We never ever gave up. As the clock-ticked by, the crowd were on tenterhooks.

With surely not long left, a long ball was pumped forward. I spotted that John Terry was up, supporting the attack. I snapped as Ivanovic headed on. I missed the most delicate of touches from Oscar, but as the ball fell towards John Terry, an unlikely recipient, I snapped as he attempted the most ridiculous of flicks with his heel. I watched, mesmerized, as the ball was touched by Howard, but the momentum could not stop the ball flying up and in to the goal.

The stadium gulped and then quickly roared.

I remained remarkably calm and snapped away as John Terry, boiling over with emotion, ran towards the supporters in the MHL. I watched as he stepped in to the crowd, then snapped further as he became engulfed by fans and team mates alike.

“Bloody hell, Chelsea, we did it.”

My photos complete, I looked over and saw Alan, his face contorted with joy.

I had a little moment to myself, crouching, breathing it all in. It was hardly a Munich moment, but I was just acknowledging how utterly amazing this wonderful game of football can be. What heights of emotion it can bring. I was in awe of the game itself – football, you beauty – as much as the goal.

It was a stunning end to a ridiculous game of football.

As a few friends chatted to me as we breathlessly spoke about the match, I had one recurring thought :

“And that is for the knobheads who left at 3-2.”

After a mundane and tedious first-half, the second-half was simply exceptional. There was a lovely mix of surprise, joy and relief on the Fulham Road as I walked back to the car. It certainly felt like a win. And although we gained only one point, I was hopeful that it would represent so much more. It might just give our team and club a little more belief and, that elusive commodity, a little more confidence. 3-3 draws in the top division seem all the rage of late, and this one will live long in the memory banks.

I exchanged messages with Charles, who I would later learn that night was right in line with John Terry’s leap into the Matthew Harding Lower, and who was able to catch the madness on film. I was so pleased that his four thousand mile journey to London had been worth it.

To complete a fine day of football, I soon learned that my local team, mired in a relegation place in the Southern League, had won a tough away game with a goal in the ninetieth minute.

It was one of those days.

IMG_5437 (2)

 

Tales From Tinsel Town.

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 24 May 2015.

This was it, then. The last game of the season. To be truthful, it was a game in name only. With the league already won, the day was all about one particular moment which would happen at around 5.15pm.

The sun glinting off the Premier League trophy as John Terry lifts it high above his shoulders.

In fact, there was a part of me that wanted to fast forward through the actual match in order to just reach that point. Sure, there would be friends to meet and memories of the season to share along the way, but I just wanted to see the trophy back in SW6.

Best not to wish my time away though. Surely it would be best to relax and enjoy the day as it unfolded before me. That was the plan.

However, it was perhaps inevitable in this most difficult of seasons for myself, what with the recent loss of my mother overshadowing almost everything, that even this most potentially joyous of all days should be tinged with sadness.

On Wednesday, we sadly learned that one of the Bristol group, Clive, had sadly passed away. Although Clive was not in my immediate circle of close Chelsea friends, he was one of the many acquaintances that I have enjoyed talking to over the years, whether it was in The Goose or at any home or away game. That Clive lived in Bristol, relatively close to me in the West Country, meant that there was an empathy with him. He was a fine man, a very loyal Chelsea supporter and, for the want of a better phrase, one of the undoubted “good guys.” He has featured in these tales over the years as one of the un-named members of “the Bristol boys” and, to be honest, his unexpected passing hit me for six. Although the Chelsea family has lost a few well known supporters of late, Clive was the only one that I can honestly say that I knew. That he passed away on 19 May is an irony that was not lost on any of his close Chelsea friends. In the packed beer garden of “The Goose”, I had a quiet few words – a difficult few words – with Clive’s sons Kelvin and Rich. We raised a glass to their father and to my mother.

I had travelled up from the West Country for the final league game of the season with Southern Parky and Northern Dean. At the Chelsea hotel, The Copthorne, we had joined forces with a few good friends from the United States – Kathryn and Tim from DC, Tom from Los Angeles – and had met a first time visitor to Stamford Bridge, Jim, also from the DC area, too. Jim was over with his son CJ, and was supremely happy that I had managed to sort out a spare match ticket for him. On the way to “The Goose” we had stopped off at a ridiculously quiet “Malt House” for a pint and a chat about all things Chelsea. In “The Goose” the atmosphere was predictably boisterous.  The beer garden was rammed. Burger, Julie and Andy, veterans of many a Chelsea US tour, joined the celebrations. It was lovely.

The sun was shining and the championship was ours.

The beer tasted even better than usual. It was perfect, just perfect.

Sadly, we left the pub just a little too late for my liking. There was a typical melee at the turnstiles and I sadly missed the pre game presentation to the crowd of several members of the 2004/2005 championship squad. Alan, who was in early, was able to tell me that even William Gallas, probably the only ex-Chelsea player of recent memory who has received a tough time during his subsequent outings against us, was on show.

I was absolutely elated to see Tom alongside Alan. Tom is in his late ‘seventies and his health has not been too good of late. His presence was one of the high points of the day.

I noted that everyone had been given blue card mosaics and a royal blue flag to hold and wave before the teams had entered the pitch. Sadly, that infamous Chelsea tradition of “one last pint” had backfired further. I had missed all of that too.

Balls.

And so to the game.

Ah, the game. Yet again, all of the various pre match chats had managed to avoid the game itself. The first big surprise was that Eden Hazard, rumoured to be out due to the lingering side-effects of a dental operation, was playing. We had learned that this would be Didier Drogba’s last ever game for us and he was playing from the start. Also in was Petr Cech; would this be his last game, too? The back line in front of Big Pete was the standard four of 2014/2015, but Jose Mourinho chose Jon Obi Mikel – maybe his last game too? – alongside Nemanja Matic. The attacking three were Hazard, Willian and Cuadrado.

The traditionalist in me was just happy that the men in suits had not decided for our players to jettison the current playing kit for next season’s. It is always a pet peeve of mine. Dare I mention Moscow?

With the Chelsea support in fine form, I soon texted Jim from DC to see how he was doing.

“I’m in heaven.”

With the sun shining – perfect “Chelsea weather” – we began well and Drogba almost touched home a low Cuadrado cross at the near post. The crowd were vibrant and the party was on.

“We want you to staaaaaay. Petr Cech, we want you to stay.”

Two pieces of action involved our rampaging full-back / winger / battering ram Ivanovic. Firstly he tumbled in the box after a challenge but a penalty was not given and then, with a shot mirroring a similar effort against a recent opponent at home, a blistering drive from distance.

Sadly, despite having the majority of the ball, we conceded on twenty-six minutes. A corner was played in to the box and the ball’s path seemed to confuse and bewilder our entire defence. The ball bounced up,  just missing John Terry’s desperate attempt to intercept, allowing Stephen Fletcher to nod the ball down and in past Cech. To say we were stunned would be an understatement. The Mackems in the opposite corner, relatively quiet until that point, roared after a tantalising split second of silence; I suspected that they could not believe it either.

Bollocks.

Next, came a moment of pure theatre. Mourinho signalled for Diego Costa to replace Didier Drogba. The crowd began applauding our hero of Munich – and of course of many other moments too – but then we became aware of something strange. We saw Cech race out of his box and join the rest of his team mates in hoisting Didier up and carrying him, in a blue-shirted chariot, off the pitch. None of us had witnessed anything like this before. It was partly corny, partly magnificent. Didier turned, waved a palm to the stands, then took off his shirt once his chariot ride had finished. An embrace with Diego and Jose and his Chelsea career was over. I am still in two minds about his return to us, but here was a send off fit for a king. I have pictures of his last seconds as a Chelsea player on the Stamford Bridge pitch in 2012.

The pictures from 2015 seem more appropriate.

“Thanks Didier. You take care mate.”

Just after, Cuadrado tempted John O’Shea to lunge as he offered the ball as a prize. The lunge was ill-timed and the referee Lee Mason was left with no option. A penalty.

Diego Costa calmly stroked the ball in.

Unlike in 2005/2006 when our league campaign, after the title-clincher versus Manchester United, ended with two limp defeats, I was convinced that the 0-3 reverse at The Hawthorns would not be followed with another defeat here. We had, after all, another undefeated home record to defend. And there have been a few.

Sadly Cuadrado, enjoying his best game for us – “not hard” I hear you say – was injured and replaced by Loic Remy just before the break.

At the break, there was an air of disbelief around me when we heard that Stoke City were pummelling Liverpool 5-0. Oh dear, Stephen Gerrard, what a shame,  never mind.

We began the second half well, with Remy looking interested. A rare shot from Gary Cahill took us all by surprise. Willian went close too. Then, forty yards out, Hazard turned on a sixpence and ran in that unfettered way of his at Larsson. He gained a few yards and then played in Remy. The ball was moved sideways, then struck firmly. The shot was not particularly hard, but there was enough on it to evade Vito Mannone. I caught this third goal of the game on film too. The crowd roared again.

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

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

With a win now looking more likely, the crowd toasted Chelsea legends past and present. There was also a wave from the bashful owner in the middle tiers of the West Stand.

We heard that Newcastle United had managed to win and so their presence in the top flight would be assured for another season. Newcastle fans have their detractors ( I wonder what they make of Alan Pardew’s fine spell at Crystal Palace) but the Premier League is not the same without them.

Andreas Christensen replaced Mikel. We were coasting now and a bright line of stewards began to line the pitch as the seconds ticked away. We sealed the win when Remy appeared unmarked at the near post to delicately touch home a low cross from Matic. Another goal – the last of the season – on film, captured for posterity.

At the final whistle, hugs from the players.

Another win.

Job done.

The players returned to the sanctuary of the dressing rooms, and we waited. It seemed to take an eternity to construct the special stage on which the trophy was to be presented. Lucky me; not only would this be at our end of the stadium, unlike in 2005, but the players would be facing my way too. My memory card was full, so I spent a few moments deleting some unworthy photographs.

A fair proportion of the Sunderland fans, to their credit, stayed on to watch the post-game pageantry. With their safety assured only within the past week, perhaps they looked on and took some sort of vicarious pleasure in our superbly choreographed celebrations. In the very first few moments of the match, the away supporters in the lower tier had tossed around – if that is the correct phrase in the circumstances – an inflatable penis.  I couldn’t tell if an image of Mike Ashley’s face was added for good measure.

The wives and girlfriends walked on to a strange fenced-off area on the pitch in front of the West Lower. This gave Alan an easy laugh :

“That’s the John Terry area…”want, want, got, got, want, want, want, got…”

The minutes ticked by but eventually the stage was set. With Neil Barnett at the helm, players were announced, and cheers rang out. Although the Barclay’s corporate colour, and that of the stage and assorted props, is of a lighter blue than we normally see at Stamford Bridge, I was not too concerned.

I was hoping for a splash of red in the procedings, though. The presence of a smattering of Chelsea Pensioner scarlet always adds a sense of history and perspective to these occasions at Chelsea. Alas, the Royal Hospital was not represented.

As Jose Mourinho walked towards the platform, he looked towards Roman Abramovich and gave him a prolonged “thumbs up”and an extra wave.

“Thanks for having me back. Waitrose eggs never tasted better.”

There were extra-special cheers for Cech, Fabregas, Hazard, Drogba and Terry. Our captain, of course, was the last in line.

We waited.

With everything set, with the cameras poised, with 40,000 sets of eyes inside the stadium centered on the huge chunk of silver, with millions watching worldwide, with Kathryn, Tim, Andy and Jim watching too, our captain hoisted the 2014/2015 Barclay’s Premier League trophy high.

From above, royal blue and white tinsel cascaded down. There was tinsel in 2005, in 2006, in 2010 and at all of our Wembley cup wins too. It seems that where ever we go these days, blue and white tinsel is not too far away. Long may it continue. Great plumes of orange flame fired into the air from in front of the East Lower. Everywhere there were smiles. Soon, the players reassembled together for obligatory team photographs.

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

And then, Neil Barnett spoke :

“Didier wants a word.”

The crowd hushed as Didier took the microphone.

“I don’t really know what to say…”

He spoke for a minute or so, about his two spells at the club, his thanks to Jose Mourinho, his love of his team mates and of us, the fans. There was also a kind and thoughtful word for Frank Lampard too. It was classy stuff.

I watched, with Dave, Alan, Gary and Tom, as the players walked past us. Their children accompanied them. I took special care in photographing John Terry and Didier Drogba with the trophy. Petr Cech too. Will we see him again in Chelsea orange or yellow or white? Probably not.

The players headed off to The Shed where Parky and others were dutifully waiting. It was a familiar scene this; for the fourth time in my life, the fourth time in eleven seasons, we were parading the championship trophy at The Bridge.

And yet, if I am honest, I was finding it difficult to fully embrace this particular triumph. This has been a tough period of my life. February was the toughest month of all. A lot of my focus over the past three months has been on other far more important matters. The football has been a backdrop to my life rather than the centrepoint. To be blunt, this championship season, running from Burnley in August – game one thousand – through the autumn and in to winter, then out the other side into spring, has been increasingly difficult for me to relate to. If it matters, this one has been the least enjoyable of the four championships that we have won in these past ten years. Yet I am sure that this is no surprise to any. Losing my mother in February has overshadowed everything this season.

But I am sure that I will come back stronger next season. I am already looking forward to a full pre-season in the US in July. There are games in New Jersey, in North Carolina, in DC. It will be the perfect start to a new campaign, with maybe slightly a different focus this time around. I am so looking forward to seeing some good – no, great – friends in all three American cities. I am also looking forward to reminding American fans that there is no real need to wear Chelsea scarves in ninety degree heat in the summer, nor is there any need to refer to Chelsea as “Chels” every five fucking seconds. It will be a great trip. Then there is the Community Shield at Wembley and a home friendly with Fiorentina. By the time of the opening league game of the season, I should already have five games behind me. This season, my mark was just forty-two games. From a high of fifty-eight in 2011/2012, this is a rather low total. Our early dismissals in two cup competitions clearly did not help. By the way, if it matters, our brief foray in the Champions League gave me my most treasured memory this season; drinking Morangoska cocktails in the packed side streets of Lisbon on a magical Monday night alongside some dear friends was truly magnificent, as was, in fact, the entire three days in that historic and charming city.

What of the future, then?

We are in a very strong position here. We have the best manager in England. We have an interested and involved chairman. We have a top-notch academy. We have a great youth team. We are Youth Cup winners again. We will strengthen the squad further in the summer. We seem to be keen to redevelop our Stamford Bridge stadium rather than move to a soul-less stadium elsewhere.

All is good.

What could possibly go wrong?

In closing my reports for 2014/2015, a few words of thanks to our players for keeping the desire to win throughout the season and, of course, thanks to many fantastic mates for supporting me through my dark days.

Thanks also for the support for CHELSEA/esque too.

It is appreciated.

See you in New Jersey.

11377360_10153360183102658_6247124301156700723_n

11235271_10153360220207658_6520028661981443290_n

10957752_10153360194212658_6253778694773791703_n