Tales From Boxing Day 1996 And Boxing Day 2021

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 26 December 2021.

We don’t always play on Boxing Day, but when we do it’s usually at Stamford Bridge. However, for once this was going to be a rare trip to the Midlands for this particular festive fixture and that suited me. Sometimes Boxing Day fixtures at Stamford Bridge, especially the dreaded early kick-offs, can be eerily quiet affairs.

Back when I was younger, attending Boxing Day football was fraught with logistical problems. I didn’t see my first Boxing Day Chelsea game until as late as 1992 when, at last with a car to drive, I made my way up from deepest Somerset to see us play Southampton at home.

Since then, I haven’t attended every Boxing Day game; most but not all.

However, the game at Villa Park on Boxing Day 2021 would only be the fourth away game out of twenty Boxing Day fixtures that I would have watched. The league computer certainly favours us to play at Stamford Bridge on this most traditional of footballing days. We missed out on an away game at Arsenal last year; and that was probably just as well.

I set off at around 9.15am but instead of heading off to collect PD, Glenn and Parky, I was headed due south for half an hour to collect Donna in Wincanton, a town in Somerset that I rarely visit. I fuelled up, then drove through Bruton and I soon realised that unless we play Yeovil Town in the FA Cup it’s unlikely that I would ever take this road to see Chelsea ever again. It was mightily heavy with fog as I crept past the Wincanton Race Course, opening up for its annual Boxing Day Meet. I collected Donna at 10am, then made a bee-line for Frome. I’ve known Donna for a while – I spent some time with her and some other friends in Porto in May – but even though I had seen her at various Chelsea games over the past ten years or so, I only found out from Parky that Wincanton was her home relatively recently.

Donna’s first ever Chelsea game was a pre-season fixture against Bristol City in 1995 just after Ruud Gullit signed for us. I remember that I eagerly travelled down to Devon to see us play Torquay United and Plymouth Argyle during the week before the game in Bristol on the Sunday. Supporters of our club that were not around in the summer of 1995 will, I think, struggle to comprehend the excitement that surrounded the Gullit signing. It absolutely thrilled us all. We both remembered it as a swelteringly hot day – we drew 1-1 – and Donna reminded me that for a long period during the pre-match “kick in”, our new Dutch superstar wandered around the pitch talking on his mobile phone. It just felt that only he would ever be allowed such a privilege.

Twenty-six years ago and a Chelsea pre-season tour in the West of England.

I can’t see that ever happening again, eh?

The first Chelsea away game that I attended on a Boxing Day was at Villa Park too; in 1996/97, a nice 2-0 win, two goals from Gianfranco Zola , and I even won some money on him as the first scorer. Our lovely “1997 FA Cup Final” season was just gaining momentum and times were good, now with a team including Gianluca Vialli, Gianfranco Zola and with Ruud Gullit now as the player-manager. The greatest of times? It absolutely felt like it.

Only the previous April we had assembled at Villa Park for an ultimately agonising FA Cup semi-final with Manchester United; the memory of walking back to my parking spot amidst a sea of United fans haunts me to this day.

But Boxing Day 1996 was a cracking day out; twenty-five years ago to the day. Blimey. File under “where does the time go?” alongside many other games.

I collected the remaining passengers and we were on our way. There was fog, but not as heavy as on the trip up the same M5 to Wolverhampton a week earlier. I made good time and I pulled into the car park of “The Vine”, tucked under the M5 at West Bromwich, for the second time in a week at bang on 1pm. We had enjoyed our meal there so much after the Wolves game that we had decided to do so again.

“The Vine” – good food, a quiet chat, a few drinks – would do for us.

Curries and pints were ordered. Chelsea tales were remembered. Three hours flew past. A trip to Villa Park was long overdue. It has been a mainstay on our travels for decades, but the last visit was as long ago as April 2016 when Pato scored. We remembered that, ironically, I had plans to take Donna to Villa Park for our game in March 2020 – Donna had broken her wrist and was unable to drive – but of course that game was the first one to be hit by the lockdown of two seasons ago. Like me, Donna kept the tickets for that game on her fridge as a reminder that, hopefully, football would be back in our lives again.

It didn’t take me long to drop my four passengers off near Villa Park before I doubled-back on myself and parked up on the same street that I have been using for years and years. We used to drop into “The Crown And Cushion” pub on the walk to the stadium but that is no more; razed to the ground, only memories remain. We had mobbed up in that very pub for the Fulham semi-final in 2002; there is a photo from that day of a very young-looking Parky and a very young-looking me.

I stood outside the away end, a few “hellos” to some friends. I had a spare ticket but couldn’t shift it. Unperturbed, I made my way inside the Doug Ellis Stand. I was rewarded with a very fine seat; the very front row of the upper deck. Alas, Alan wasn’t able to attend again, but Gary and Parky were alongside me.

I dubbed it the “Waldorf & Statler” balcony.

Villa Park is a large and impressive stadium. I looked around at the familiar-again banners, flags, tiered stands and other architectural features. Was I last here almost six bloody years ago?

Tempus fugit as they say in Sutton Coldfield.

The stadium was full to near capacity. The players appeared from that quaint “off-centre” tunnel that Villa decided to keep as a motif from the old, and much-loved, Trinity Road stand of yore. Chelsea as Borrusia Dortmund again; yellow, black, yellow.

The team?

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

James – Jorginho – Kante – Alonso

Hudson-Odoi – Pulisic – Mount

We were up against Ings, Mings and otherlings.

Let battle commence.

The first thing of note during the game was the realisation that I had forgotten to include a good four of five songs and chants from the Chelsea catalogue at Brentford on the previous Wednesday. I had mentioned thirty; a few friends had added a few more later, yet I was hearing some others too, repeated in The Midlands. It’s a fair assumption that the tally at Brentford must have reached forty.

I doubt if it has ever been bettered.

On the pitch, there were some early exchanges and Thiago Silva continued his lovely form from the previous Sunday at Wolves. The singing in the two-tiered Doug Ellis quietened down as our play deteriorated a little.

But we were still the loud ones.

“Shall we sing a song for you?” was robustly answered on around twenty minutes by the home fans in the North Stand, which was met with sarcastic clapping from the away section.

No surprises, we were dominating possession but Villa were looking decidedly useful when they countered with pace. A run and strike by Ollie Watkins was ably blocked by the nimble reactions of Trevoh Chalobah, and the away fans applauded.

We were having a little difficulty in building our attacks. Reece James struggled with crosses and gave away the occasional ball. From a wide position on the left, Mason Mount slung in a ball that tickled the crossbar; I am not sure if the attempt on goal was intentional.

Sadly, Villa themselves were breeching us too often for our liking. Just before the half-hour mark, a cross from Matt Targett was flicked on – in an effort to block the cross – by James. The ball spun up and over Mendy’s head and outreached arms. Our goalkeeper was stranded and the ball nestled in the net. Villa probably deserved their lead.

At that time, we were looking a little weak as an attacking threat, with only Kante – “imperious” the bloke next to me called him – living up to his billing. Callum Hudson-Odoi seemed as reticent as ever to take people on and Christian Pulisic just looked lost. Thankfully our response was quick and a little surprising. Marcos Alonso pushed the ball forward and Matty Cash lunged at Callum inside the box. It was an ugly challenge and a clear penalty.

Despite Martinez’ merry dance on the goal line, Jorginho rarely misses and he didn’t this time.

1-1.

Back in the game.

The first-half ended with a period of huff and puff with not much real quality.

At the break, the fifth cavalry appeared on the horizon. Although Chalobah had performed admirably, it was his place that was jeopardised in favour of Romelu Lukaku. Pulisic, out-fought and out-puzzled in a central attacking role “of sorts” was pushed back to right wing-back. Soon after the restart, Silva slowly walked off to be replaced by Andreas Christensen.

There is no doubt at all that the changes resulted in a noticeable improvement in our play, the vast majority of which seemed to take place down below us on our right wing. Pulisic looked a lot more potent and of course it was a huge advantage to have a target, a hit-man, a goal scorer on the pitch.

But there were the usual moans and grumbles when Hudson-Odoi fluffed a goal scoring opportunity in his favoured inside-left channel. However, those chastising our youngster were soon eating humble pie. His perfectly floated cross towards the incredible bulk of Lukaku just outside the six-yard box was nigh-on perfection. Our number nine lept and angled the ball past the Villa ‘keeper.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

Our play improved. We looked more confident, more at ease. There was greater intent.

On the hour, Mateo Kovacic replaced Kante and we hoped our little miracle-worker wasn’t badly hurt.

A fine long ball from Christensen played in Mount. He drew the ‘keeper on an angle but with two team mates in good positions, decided to go for goal. With the ‘keeper having over-run his challenge and in no man’s land, Mount’s effort didn’t hit the target. The ball kissed the side netting.

There were howls from the Chelsea support.

At the other end, a rare Villa attack and – if I am honest – a cumbersome challenge looked a definite penalty but we were saved by an offside flag.

A strong run from Lukaku eventually tee’d up Callum again. But this was followed with a weak finish but also an excellent low save from Martinez.

More howls.

Late, very late, in the game, I was poised with my camera as Lukaku started a chase to reach a ball pumped forward by Hudson-Odoi. I watched through my lens as he quickly made up ground on Targett, and raced past. The defender lost his footing and ended up stumbling around like a newly born fawn. Our striker raced on, seemingly ripping up the turf as he sprinted away. It was simply a glorious sight. It was an instant classic, a reminder of older days when strikers were unshackled and free. He advanced into the box, and I was preparing for a Roy Of The Rovers – or Hotshot Hamish – thunderbolt. Instead, Ezri Konsa took his legs away.

Another penalty.

We waited.

Jorginho again.

Goal.

Phew.

But that run from Lukaku. The highlight of the season? Possibly. More of the same please. The second half had been a fine turnaround. Everyone was happy. I kept saying “round pegs in round holes, square pegs in square holes” as we made our way down the many flights of stairs to street level.

As we all walked back to the car, a group of Chelsea fans were singing in the dark distant night.

“Oh what fun it is to see Chelsea win away…”

Boxing Day 1996.

Boxing Day 2021.

Tales From Good Old Chelsea

Chelsea vs. Leeds United : 11 December 2021.

I have penned six-hundred-and-thirty-four of these match reports. Such has been Leeds United’s absence from the top flight in English football that not one of them has featured our oldest and nastiest rivals from South Yorkshire. There was one rare meeting in December 2012 – away in the League Cup – but I didn’t attend that one; it came just too soon after the World Club Cup in Tokyo. I was in no mood to make a lone trip north for a mid-week game. And then, just over a year ago, there was the high-water mark of Frank Lampard’s tenure as Chelsea manager, the 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge that took us to the top of the league, but there was a limited attendance for that one of around a few thousand. Recovering from my heart attack, it was a game I really wasn’t in a fit enough condition to attend. The return game at Elland Road in March had no spectators at all.

As I drove to London early on Saturday morning – a fleeting but beautiful sunrise over Salisbury Plain, a beguiling mix of orange and pink, was the memorable highlight –  I pondered a few topics and angles to use in this blogorama. It soon dawned on me that many of our newer fans, of which there are utterly millions, have never witnessed the heated rivalry of a Chelsea and Leeds United league game at a packed Stamford Bridge stadium.

The last such occasion was in May 2004.

The last game of the season, Claudio Ranieri’s last game in charge, a 1-0 win for us, Goodnight Vienna, Goodbye Leeds. I watched that one in the West Lower, freeing up my ticket for Glenn’s mate Tomas from Berlin. A Jesper Gronkjaer goal gave us the points to secure a second place finish behind Arsenal. I wonder whatever happened to them?

But let’s go back further.

The first time that I saw Leeds United in person was in the Second Division in October 1982, a game with a phenomenally malevolent atmosphere before, during and no doubt after. Chelsea had been playing in the second tier since 1979, Leeds were newly-relegated. It seemed almost implausible, to my eyes and to others, that these two giants were now out of the top flight. But the thought of Chelsea playing Leeds, with me able to attend, certainly galvanised me during the close season. The anticipation was palpable. Throughout the previous campaign, our highest home attendance was 20,036. Yet this game smashed that; 25,358 attended and it no doubt drew in the hooligan element of which we had thousands. Leeds had signed off their long membership of the old First Division with a loss at West Brom, sending them down, and their equally notorious hooligans wrecked the away end as a parting gift.

I will not lie. In those days, football was often an afterthought in many attendees’ minds. It was all about “how many away fans, did they go in the seats, any trouble?”

Chelsea and Leeds.

Back against each other for the first time in three seasons.

It was a huge match.

I watched a dire 0-0 draw from The Shed, but can well remember the amazingly heated and noisy atmosphere. I can recollect the northern sections of The Benches and the Gate 13 section of the East Lower to be absolutely rammed with Herberts, goading the travelling thousands from the north in the middle two pens in the sweeping away terrace. How many did Leeds bring? I am not sure. Maybe 3,000, maybe more. There was a welcome and a warning on the front page of the programme for all Leeds fans; “don’t be a mug, don’t be a thug and help your club achieve greatness once again” but there were outbreaks of violence throughout the game.

I also vividly remember The Shed goading the away support :

“Did the (Yorkshire) Ripper get your Mum?”

Different, crazy, brutal times.

From that encounter in 1982/83 I was then able to watch every single Chelsea versus Leeds United league game until that match in 2003/04. This was a run of seventeen unbroken games, and for around ten of these I would always meet up with my college mate Bob, a Leeds season-ticket holder, who got to know my closest Chelsea mates in the pub before disappearing into the away section. Bob also came down to Stamford Bridge for the Liverpool game in 1986, the West Ham game in 1987 and went with me to Forest in 1987 and also to Old Trafford for the FA Cup game in 1988. I accompanied him to Elland Road to see West Brom in the last league game of 1986/87, and I remember smirking as the Leeds fans alongside me in the South Stand – hoolie central – sang about guns and Chelsea scum.

I wore it as a badge of honour that they sung about us when we weren’t even playing each other.

There were the blissful moments when our promotion from the old Second Division was reached in 1984 with a memorable 5-0 demolition of Leeds United at home, then the wonderful repeat in 1989 albeit with a narrower 1-0 win to secure promotion once again against the same opponents.

I can well remember meeting up with Bob, another college mate Trev who also followed Leeds, and my Rotherham United mate Ian, all of whom watched many of Leeds’ games as they closed in on the 1991/92 League Championship. We were sat in a pub in Worcester Park on an afternoon session after the season had finished, and the lads were reminiscing on a few of the games that had given Leeds the title, and not Manchester United. Because of my friendships with these lads, I was definitely in the Leeds corner as 1991/92 came to its conclusion. I just despised Manchester United in those days. Deep down, I still do. I remember asking Bob “what did it feel like when you won the game at Bramall Lane to win the league?” and the sub-text was undoubtedly “what will it feel like if Chelsea ever win the league?”

In the summer of 1992, Chelsea Football Club seemed light years away from silverware.

But I was genuinely happy for my Leeds mates; all lovely chaps, bless ‘em.

From relegation in 1982 to a Football League Championship – the last “real” one, and one with Eric Cantona playing for Leeds – was some turnaround.

Sitting in that pub on a warm summer day, I could not help but think back on that classic Second Division season of 1983/84 – arguably the strongest ever – when the five powerhouses of Chelsea, Leeds United, Manchester City, Newcastle United and Sheffield Wednesday faced-off. At the end of it all – my favourite ever season – Leeds, along with City, missed out on promotion. Yet here they were, finally promoted in 1990, winning the bloody league ahead of the other four. In fact, all four other protagonists had managed to get themselves relegated again since 1984.

The saying “whoever laughs last, laughs longest” never felt more applicable.

Our rivalry, of course, dates back specifically to 1970 – and arguably for a few seasons before it – but there was definitely a renaissance at certain times since. In the early ‘nineties, Leeds tended to have the upper hand over us, and I hated it. They beat us at Stamford Bridge in 1990/91 and 1991/92 and also in 1994/95, a horrible 0-3 loss.

But I remember a game in April 1996 too. I watched that game in the temporary seats of the Shed End alongside Rotherham Ian and his father too – a nice memory – while Bob and Trev were in the away section of the East Lower. Chelsea won 4-1 with Mark Hughes getting a lovely hat-trick; that must have annoyed the fuck out of the away fans. Sadly, the gate was only 22,000 at a time when our capacity was at the 31,000 mark. The gaping holes in the North Stand – yet to become The Matthew Harding – make my eyes smart. Sigh.

Leeds United were relegated at the end of that 2003/04 season. There was a certain amount of schadenfreude when their last game that season was at Stamford Bridge.

“Be off with you, and take your father’s gun too.” Or words to that effect.

In 2005, our erstwhile chairman Ken Bates took over as Leeds chairman and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The Leeds fans, to a man, woman and dog, definitely cried.

They eventually crawled back to the top flight of English football at the end of the 2019/20 season.

“What took you?”

There had been the usual pre-match at “The Eight Bells” with friends from near and far. For the first time, I approached Putney Bridge by car from the south side of the river and was able to drop Paul and Parky right outside the pub; door to door service indeed. By the time I had parked-up and then caught the tube to join them it was 10.30am. Gillian and Kev from Edinburgh were already with them; lucky enough to grab tickets from the ticket exchange at the last minute. They were not watching together though; Kev was in the MHU, Gillian was in the West Lower. Luke and then Aroha showed up, and also Courtney and Mike from Chicago. A few of the Kent lads sat at the bar. At last I was able to meet up with revered Chelsea author Walter Otton and it was a great pleasure to be able to personally thank him for his support in my endeavours over recent seasons.

There was talk of not only Chelsea but Leeds hiring boats to the game; a River Thames cruise apiece from out east to nearby Putney, across the river. I had visions of some bizarre medieval boating battle with jousting poles, or maybe a violent version of the university boat race (“with more than two cox”)

Outside the Fulham Broadway tube, I sensed the presence of a little mob of Leeds; just by their looks and stares. They were close by a line of police. We edged around them. By the time I had reached my seat in the MHU – with Gary talking about Leeds lads slapping a few Chelsea fans outside, unchallenged – I was absolutely ready for the football to begin.

The team?

Mendy

Azpilicueta  – Silva – Rudiger

James – Jorginho – Loftus-Cheek – Alonso

Mount – Havertz – Werner

So, still no starting place for our number nine.

Leeds United were without Patrick Bamford, the former Chelsea youngster. Unlike on many occasions at Stamford Bridge, Leeds wore the all-white kit, albeit with some nasty luminous yellow socks. On quite a few times over the years they used to opt for the all yellow kit. There were three thousand Leeds fans in The Shed, but I didn’t spot a single flag nor banner.

The match began and, just like against the United of Manchester, we absolutely dominated the first quarter of an hour or so.

An early free-kick from Reece James went close but not close enough. It was all Chelsea. My usual match-going companion Alan was absent – COVID19 – so I was sat in his seat next to Clive. In my seat, a Chelsea fan from Scunthorpe.

There was a rising shot from Ruben Loftus-Cheek that crashed into the Shed Upper.

“They’ve hardly attacked us yet, mate.”

On thirteen minutes, a loud “Marching On Together” – their battle hymn – and soon after, Leeds enjoyed their first real attack. A shot from the lively Raphinha was blocked, but the Brazilian then forced a fine save from Mendy.

It’s interesting that the Mendy song did not make an appearance during the game. I am not sure that if there is an agreed-upon life-cycle of a chant at football, but this one is still in its infancy; heard at the densely-packed away terraces, but not yet widely-known enough to warrant a full-throttle rendition at Stamford Bridge. Yet.

There was a Leeds corner, and this elicited the other Leeds battle-cry which always follows the awarding of a Leeds corner.

“Leeds! Leeds! Leeds! Leeds!”

Loud and original. I can’t fault that.

Thiago Silva was trying his best to orchestrate things, looking to float balls into space or to pick out runners. But it was a hard slog. There was little room in the final third.

Mid-way through the half, a loud chant from the away quadrant :

“Marcos Alonso. You should be in jail.”

This was answered by the Chelsea faithful with a typically antagonistic chant of our own aimed at a Leeds native. I don’t like even thinking about the man, let alone saying it, singing it, nor writing it.

The Alonso chant was repeated and almost without pause for thought, our left wing-back took a wild swipe at Daniel James. It was a clear penalty.

Raphinha’s stuttering run was almost against the spirit of the game, but Mendy took the bait. However, he seemed to collapse too soon and the Brazilian’s gentle prod to his right ended up a mere yard or so away from him.

Fackinell.

The Leeds fans roared, Rapinha wound up the MHL, game on.

On the half-hour, a very loud “Marching On Together” was met with an even louder “Carefree” and everything was alright with the world. At last, the atmosphere was simmering along nicely. But I couldn’t help saying to Clive “there’s a lack of invention and guile out there today.”

A few minutes later, the third Leeds battle cry of the day.

“We are the Champions, the Champions of Europe.”

This harks back to May 1975. A hotly disputed disallowed goal from Peter Lorimer and Leeds United would eventually lose the European Cup Final to Bayern Munich in Paris. I remember watching it on TV. They still feel aggrieved.

The Leeds fans still sing this almost fifty years later. Bloody hell, lads and lasses, let it go.

They must have hated seeing our “Champions Of Europe” signage on the West Stand if any of them got close to it.

With half-time approaching, sinner turned saint. Alonso won the ball on our left and played a brisk one-two with Timo Werner.

I whispered “(needs a) good cross Alonso”…and it was.

It flew low to the near post and Mason Mount whipped it home with one sweet swipe.

GET IN.

Soon after, a dipping free-kick from that man Alonso did not dip enough. Then the young Leeds ‘keeper Illan Meslier saved from Kai Havertz.

Chances had been rare and it was 1-1 at the break. There were no complaints with the score, but plenty of moans at the lack of quality in key areas.

We began a little brighter in the second-half but goal scoring chances were absolutely at a premium. Werner threatened a little, Havertz tried to link things together, but we missed a focal point.

Just before the half-hour mark, down below me, Raphinha slid in to prevent a raiding Antonio Rudiger cross. But the challenge was untidy and legs were tangled. Everyone yelled for a penalty. Some divs even yelled “VAR” which is anathema to me.

Penalty it was.

Jorginho.

A skip.

Goal.

Get in you beauty.

I snapped away like a fool.

At the other end, a very fine save from Mendy from James, but still no song. Silva messed up a great chance to further our lead and held his head in his hands. It wasn’t a great second-half, but we noted that Alonso improved as the game continued. He was always looking to get close to the man with the ball and on a number of occasions did just enough to help win the ball back.

Clive and I wondered if Tuchel might bolster the midfield and bring on Ross Barkley to bulk it up a little. Leeds were tending to swarm through us and we looked out of shape, physically and positionally.

Christensen for Azpilicueta.

Hudson-Odoi for Werner.

Then, a lightning bolt of an attack down the Leeds left and another low cross, a la Alonso, from in front of the East Lower. Joe Gelhardt arrived with perfect timing to knock the ball in past Mendy. The Leeds fans roared some more.

Bollocks.

In a seemingly desperate “last throw of the dice” moment, Lukaku replaced Alonso. There were three minutes to go, and then an extra five.

“COME ON CHELS.”

With ninety-four minutes played, and with Clive having headed for the exits a few minutes earlier, Rudiger again found himself in the Leeds United box. There was a half-hearted challenge from behind but my first thoughts were that Rudiger crumpled far too easily. I didn’t even appeal. I’d be no good at cricket. This one went to VAR again. Another positive decision. And a quicker decision, I think, this time.

Jorginho again.

Another skip.

In.

The winner.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

Chelsea 3 Leeds United 2.

It hadn’t been a great game in terms of quality. We had hardly peppered the Leeds goal. But it was certainly an old-fashioned battle which became more intriguing as the game developed. As I walked out of the MHU, there was one almighty melee occurring on the far side between the players of good old Chelsea and good old Leeds.

Some things don’t change, eh?

To be continued at Elland Road in April, no doubt.

Next up, Everton at home on Thursday. See you there.

1995/1996 : From The Shed.

2003/2004 : Joe And Jesper.

2021/22 : High Fives.

2021/22 : Chelsea Smiles.

2021/22 : The Winner.

Tales From Saturday And Sunday

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 28 November 2021.

Chelsea drew 1-1 as the team failed to capitalise on almost total domination against a defence-minded Manchester United team on a bitterly cold afternoon at Stamford Bridge. The goals that were so forthcoming against Juventus in the previous home game never materialised and the points were shared when a penalty by Jorginho equalised a goal from Jadon Sancho that was scored earlier in the second-half.

Right, that’s the game sorted. What else happened?

Some numbers. The game against Manchester United was to be my twentieth match of the season. By the end of December, that total would – hopefully, health and lockdowns permitting – be up to twenty-eight. Starting against Watford on the Wednesday, December was going to be a very busy month indeed. And this obviously does not include the away game against Zenit, which may not even take place in St. Petersburg if the current rumours are true.

This would also be my seventy-seventh game against Manchester United.

“That’s more United games than all of my United acquaintances’ games combined.”

That’s almost a true story. My former college friend Rick, who occasionally gets a mention when we play at Old Trafford, is a season ticket holder at United and skews the figures. But apart from him, of the ten or so United fans that I know of, hardly any have seen United play more than a handful, at best, of times.

This was the second game in SW6 in six days. Juventus and Manchester United, eh? What a lovely double of home fixtures.

But first, a Saturday night in Old London Town. When I heard that my mate Jaro and his son Alex were coming over from the US for a week, we soon conjured up a plan to spend a little quality time with them around the United game. We would only see them for an hour at the Juventus match. I booked Parky, PD and yours truly into an apartment – a flat in usual parlance, right? – in Fulham for the Saturday night and I got to work on a pub-crawl in a part of town that would be new for all of us. I drove up to London in the early afternoon and thankfully the rumoured snow showers did not amount to anything. However, we were waylaid by some heavy traffic around Twickenham and didn’t get up to the apartment, where Lillie Road meets the Fulham Palace Road, until just after 2.30pm.

Not to worry, by 3.30pm we were sipping our first bevvies in a pub which we often spot on our drive-in to SW6 for match days.

“The Distillers” – on our walk to Hammersmith tube – and “The Duke Of Cornwall” – on our walk back to the flat late at night, a few doors down from the first pub, were to be the two book-ends of a hugely enjoyable drinking session. It lasted from 3.30pm to around 12.30am. The main action took place around St. James’ Park tube; “The Old Star”, “The Adam & Eve”, “The Buckingham Arms”, “The Albert” and “The Greencoat Boy.”

Jaro joined us for five hours in the last four pubs.

We had a blast. There had been a constant worry, of course, that both Jaro and Alex would succumb to COVID on this trip, but I can confirm that after the Saturday night with Parky and PD, Jaro became infected by a far more agreeable virus :

CHUCKLE19

There is no cure.

Sunday, and game day, soon arrived.

As I was the dedicated driver for the return journey, there was no match day boozing for me. I dropped Parky and PD off at West Brompton tube and they sauntered down to “The Eight Bells” for the second heavy session of the weekend. They were to be joined for a couple of hours by two United lads from Frome – I was only vaguely familiar with them – and who, much to PD’s amusement, had to be constantly assured that they would be “safe”.

Meanwhile, I parked up and then spent a couple of quiet hours in and around Stamford Bridge itself. I was outside the ground as early as 10.30am. It was a bitter morning in London town. I took a photo of the Peter Osgood statue with a clear and deep blue sky above. Jaro and Alex duly arrived and there were chats with Ron Harris and Colin Pates, the captains of my childhood and late youth.

They then needed to head back to their Earls Court hotel so we said our goodbyes, but not before a couple of photos in front of the old Shed Wall.

I backtracked and caught the tube down to Putney Bridge tube to catch up with the lads again.

I had been doing a lot of back-tracking in preparation of this game.

A current total of seventy-six games against United put them at the top of my list of opponents, with Liverpool a close second on seventy-five.

41 at Stamford Bridge.

25 at Old Trafford.

8 at Wembley.

1 at Villa Park.

1 in Moscow.

Won 25.

Drew 20.

Lost 31.

A quick top five of favourites?

Chelsea 5 Manchester United 0 – 1999/2000

Manchester United 1 Chelsea 2 – 2009/2010

Chelsea 4 Manchester United 0 – 2016/2017

Manchester United 1 Chelsea 2 – 1985/1986

Chelsea 1 Manchester United 0 – 1993/1994

There is a famous photo that does the rounds on social media of that last game, a shot taken above the North terrace at Stamford Bridge looking towards The Shed. It appeared recently and took me back to that game. The match took place in early September 1993, with Chelsea playing its first few tentative games under Glenn Hoddle. Manchester United were rampant and in their pomp. They had been crowned English Champions in the May, their first title in twenty-six long years. I was in The Shed early, watching with the younger brother of my oldest mate Pete, both United fans. I had taken Kev up to three Chelsea vs. United games, once with Pete too, in the early ‘nineties.

My one abiding memory that day was of United fans being led out of The Shed and into the North terrace before the game began. There had been no hint of trouble, as far as I was aware, but the word must have got out that there were packs of United in amongst the home fans and the police must have acted with thoughts for their safety. I am guessing that the queues had been so long to enter the North terrace that many United fans had simply diverted to The Shed instead. I have since been reliably informed that the game at Chelsea in 1993 was the very last “pay on the day” away game for Manchester United Football Club.

Back in the days of less than full attendances at Chelsea, it was always – always! – part and parcel of the match day experience to guess, pre-match, how many away fans would dare to attend, and then guestimates of numbers immediately after. The huge sprawling North Stand held up to 10,000 in those days, and it was always impressive when away clubs filled it.

From personal memory, the best away followings I have personally seen at Chelsea were :

Liverpool 1985/1986

Tottenham 1978/1979

Manchester United 1993/1994

West Ham 1984/1985

Manchester United 1984/1985

Another memory from days out at the old Stamford Bridge. Very often the away team coach would appear in that gap between the derelict part of The Shed and the towering East Stand. It’s appearance always drew ribald abuse from The Shed regulars.

To complete the picture, we won 1-0 on that day in September 1993, a Gavin Peacock goal – a nemesis for United that season – and it remains as one of my favourite games against United.

Down in the “Eight Bells” PD and Parky had been joined by Rich and John from Edinburgh, and – yes – a full on session was in progress. Danny and Nick from Minnesota called in too. The pub was rammed.

It was still oh-so cold as we made our way to Stamford Bridge. I wolfed down a cheeseburger with onions outside the stadium in a vain attempt to get some (lukewarm) food inside me. It almost worked.

I was inside by around 4pm. For once the United end – 3,000 not 10,000 this year – was not festooned with flags and banners.

A solitary “One Love” banner timidly peeked out.

The Chelsea team?

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

Alonso – Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – James

Hudson-Odoi – Werner – Ziyech

A big game for Reuben. Not a big game for Ronaldo, relegated to the bench.

We dominated early in the game, and we dominated all of the first-half. Timo Werner looked lively but continued his frustrating ability to freeze in front of goal. Hakim Ziyech, starting the game well, forced a save from De Gea. There was a fine shimmy from Callum Hudson-Odoi, running with that stooping style of his, his centre of gravity falling with each yard covered, and he slid a low shot across the goal that the United ‘keeper did ever so well to save. There was a header from Rudiger and another effort from Ziyech. A long cross from Reece to Alonso, but for once it was not met with a volley.

The atmosphere, I have to be honest, was not great.

In days of yore, a huddle of bodies on a packed terrace helped maintain not only noise, but assisted against the cold. On this day, I was just so aware of how cold a plastic seat could be.

The temperature was dropping, and the noise levels were dropping alongside.

On the half-hour mark, a strong dipping shot from Rudi forced a fingertip save onto the bar from De Gea.

As for United, there was just a lazy shot from Fernandez that drifted well wide and a couple of Rashford-led breaks that caused us minimum concern.

There were further efforts on the United goal; from Werner, from Callum, from James, from James again. If only Gavin Peacock was playing.

At the break, at Stamford Bridge and elsewhere, Chelsea fans were lamenting our failure to break the deadlock, and we hoped – and prayed – that such profligacy would not haunt us.

Oh dear. Just five minutes into the second-half, following a Chelsea corner, the ball was hoofed into our half. The lone figure of Jorginho was holding the fort. Sadly, a poor touch splayed the ball into the path of the otherwise quiet Jadon Sancho. His was an easy task. He raced up the pitch and knocked it past Mendy. The roar from the United support chilled me further.

To my absolute joy, the Chelsea support immediately bellowed a magnificent response to going behind.

“COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.”

A half-volley for Werner, fail. A pattern was emerging. Sadly, Ziyech, so full of promise in the first-half, seemed to be nervous and unsure of himself.

Ronaldo replaced Sancho the scorer, but did little.

We regained our dominance.

We seemed to be enjoying corner after corner. After one, Wan-Bissaka chopped at Thiago Silva. To be truthful, I missed the challenge, but was overjoyed – if not a little surprised, Anthony Taylor was having his usual odd game “against” us – when a penalty was rewarded. Seventy minutes were on the clock. Jorginho stepped forward.

Albert in front of us, slid past and said “I’ll take one for the team, lads” and sprinted off to the gents. On many other occasions over the last twenty-four years, an Albert Toilet Break has resulted in a Chelsea goal.

Alan asked me : “Skip, or no skip?”

I gave it some thought.

“Skip.”

A skip it was, and the ball flew to De Gea’s right.

Chris : skip.

Albert : to the loo.

Jorginho : my darlin’.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

“Al, when he does his skip, he usually goes to the ‘keeper’s left. But it’s almost like Pavlov’s Dog now. A ‘keeper sees the skip and goes left. He’s won the mind games.”

The noise was, then, at last, stratospheric.

Superb.

We kept firing in, but continued to miss-fire. An odd cross-shot from Werner, and another miss from the same man. On a good day, he could have nabbed a hat-trick. Those good days are few and far between.

Three substitutions:

Christian Pulisic for Alonso

Mason Mount for Hudson-Odoi

Romelu Lukaku for Werner

“The stage is set, Al.”

Despite a continuation of corners and crosses, the winning goal proved elusive.

At the other end, a Mendy error almost gave United an undeserved win. The United attacker’s lob was poor and our ‘keeper gathered. In the very last move of the game, a suddenly impressive Pulisic crossed for Rudiger but his first-time volley blazed way over.

“Coulda, woulda, shoulda.”

A frustrating game, a game devoid of real quality, with a United team that had rarely – ever – been set up so defensively.

Next up, Watford on Wednesday.

See you there.

Gallery

Game 77

1993

Mister 795

Tales From The Loony Toon

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 30 October 2021.

At 1.37am on Saturday morning, I posted this on “Facebook” :

Get Daniels. Get Parkins.

And then a six hour drive to The Loony Toon where a team awaiting transformation lie in wait.

“You’re a big club but you’re in bad shape.”

I watched “Get Carter”, the 1971 original and not the US remake, a few months ago. I was shocked with how shocked I was. The film’s subject matter featured the criminal underworld of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and the brutality of a few scenes matched the brutal architecture that appeared in the ‘sixties in that particular city.

For the second time in around six weeks I was heading to a black and white city, a favourite along with Turin, and to a place where Michael Caine had starred in films. In the build-up to the bank raid in Turin, his famous line about “blowing the bloody doors off” is well-remembered. In “Get Carter” the line about a fellow gangster, altered slightly on this occasion to describe our opponents, is equally memorable.

Anyway, enough of this waffle.

We usually fly up from Bristol for games in the North-East. On this occasion, the prices of flights were much higher than usual, so after a little deliberation, I decided to take the bull by the horns and drive up. I wangled an early shift at work on the Friday, finished at 3pm, and was asleep by 6pm.

The alarm woke me at 12.30am. I fuelled-up en route to collect PD at 2am. We collected Parky at 2.20am. What God-forsaken times, eh? Needs must.

We were on our way to The Toon.

I had booked an apartment in the city’s West End, around a twenty-minute walk from St. James’ Park, and hoped that the rain that was expected to fall later in the day would not drag on until the evening. The aim was to get to Newcastle at around 9am, then join in the pre-match fun on the quayside, but then have a relaxing evening, not go too crazy, in preparation for the return journey on the Sunday.

Now then, there are many who take the time to read these match reports who appreciate the most minute details of these trips. For those living far away from these shores, and especially those who have not been able to see us play, I love the fact that many like being able to experience my match days and my match day routines. The word that I hear most is “vicarious”.  These next few paragraphs are for those who live vicariously through my words ( he says rather pompously)…

For the others, feel free to skip ahead. I won’t be offended.

Driving to Newcastle from my part of the world is around a three-hundred and thirty-mile journey. With non-stop driving, it’s five-and-a-half hours. It’s a long one. I have driven to Newcastle for Chelsea games on two other occasions; once for our 1-3 loss in the spring of 1997, and again in early autumn for a dire 0-0 draw, a game that would mark Gianluca Vialli’s last game in charge.

Incidentally, the longest trip that I have undertaken without stopping over was Middlesbrough in 2008. That topped out at 580 miles and I vowed “never again.”

I soon found myself bypassing Bath and by 3am I was joining the M5 from the M4. There was a little rain through Gloucestershire but nothing too heavy. PD had managed five hours’ sleep, Parky four. I fully expected them both to “drop-off” at some stage on the long haul north. There were two diversions, near Gloucester on the M5, and near Tamworth on the M42, the result of roadworks. A few more minutes were added to our travel time. PD was in charge of the mobile tuck shop and as I wended my way through some quiet Warwickshire roads, I wolfed down a couple of treats that he had prepared for the journey. We hit the M1 at around 5am and I was happy with our progress. Outside the night was black, and the traffic – even on the M1 – was pretty sparse. Parky was asleep in the back.

I continued the long road north. It seemed that signs for Leeds appeared often, too often, like ghosts from the past. As I veered off the M1 near Sheffield, I thought I had seen the end of them, but Leeds still appeared for many miles.

Up and onto the A1, I soon stopped to refuel at Beverley Services. The traffic thinned out further as we saw signs for Scotch Corner and Teeside. At around 7.30am, just south of Durham, I decided that I needed a rest. My eyes were heavy and a “power nap” was in order. I dropped off for about thirty minutes. When I awoke at 8.15am, it was light. I soon realised that I had done the right thing. That thirty minutes would see me well for my final approach into Newcastle, but would also give me fresh energy for the rest of the day.

Anthony Gormley’s “The Angel Of The North” overlooks the main approach road through Gateshead and into the city centre. It looked dark and foreboding on this visit, its usual rusty colour now blackened in the morning murk.

I spotted, for the first time, road signs for Low Fell, and it brought a lump to my throat. Here, on the main London to Newcastle railway line, former Newcastle United and Chelsea legend Hughie Gallacher committed suicide in 1957 by throwing himself in front of a train. One day, on one visit to this area, I will pay my respects. He remains the one player from our distant history that I wish I had seen perform.

On the train home after the famous 1-1 draw in March 1984, on the same line, our train carriage was “bricked” by locals. I remembered a young lad getting bloodied from the shattered window. About a year or so ago, on a “Chelsea In The ‘Eighties” forum on “Facebook” I happened to mention it, and the actual chap who had been hit soon replied to my comment. How often do I mention how small our Chelsea World can be?

So, here I was; on the cusp of driving over the River Tyne in my own car for the first time since 2000. The A184 served me well. A slight curve and there she was; Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in all her glory. The buildings rising up from the quayside, the wonderful array of seven bridges traversing the river, and the glass and steel edifice of St. James’ Park perched at the top of the hill. Everything so clear, everything so immediate. It was a wonderful sight. It took me back to the first time I ever crossed the River Tyne for that game in 1984. Wild times then, not so wild now. But the city was still so dramatic. It was super to be back.

The route took us to within five hundred yards of the stadium, but we then veered west. At just before 9am, as per my planning, we had arrived. We left our bags in my car, ‘phoned for a cab – which never arrived, so a second call was needed – and at just before 10am we had ordered our breakfast at the already busy “Wetherspoons Quayside” pub.

We had made it.

A few familiar faces were already inside and we were to be joined by a few more.

A special mention for our pals Gillian and Kevin from Edinburgh. Kev had proposed to Gillian the previous evening – Newcastle is a favourite city of theirs too – and Gillian was sweetly, and proudly, flashing the silver engagement ring.

“Ah, congratulations you lovebirds.”

Unfortunately, they were not fortunate enough to get match tickets. I had heard a familiar story from others. The demand wasn’t able to be met. I guess a fair few had travelled to Tyneside without the hope of a ticket. This just shows how much fellow fans have missed matches since the game was taken from us in March 2020, but also illustrates the lure of a night in Newcastle, and on Halloween weekend to boot.

We wolfed down the breakfast but outside the rain became worse by the minute. The idea was to hit five or six quayside pubs. But the rain stalled our plans. We stayed put for an hour and a half. Two “San Miguels” and a lighter “Coors” went down well. More and more Chelsea arrived; Pauline, Mick, Paul, Rob, Dave, Alex, Chay, Dave, Rich, Donna and Rachel.

Then Andy, from our area, with his mate Russ, who we have met a few times. Russ is from Newcastle and a fan of his home town team. Like many, he was relieved to see the back of Mike Ashley. We didn’t talk too much about the Saudi takeover. It’s too much of a moral minefield in my opinion. I am just glad that my club isn’t now owned by a group from Saudi Arabia. Shudder.

This would be my twelfth visit to St. James’ Park with Chelsea. For many years, I just couldn’t afford these trips. Thankfully, my financial situation has improved over the past twenty years and I try to make it each season. As everyone knows, our recent record up there is rather wobbly. But this game never felt like a potential banana skin to me.

On that visit in 2000 to Newcastle, I travelled up with Mark, a former work colleague who went to university in the city in the late ‘eighties. He was, and is, a Blackburn Rovers fan, and just fancied revisiting his old stomping ground for the first time in a while. Memories of that weekend got me thinking.

I haven’t seen too many non-Chelsea games in my life. I have seen half a dozen at Stoke City, plus a handful at Fulham, Swindon Town, Derby County, Brentford, Portsmouth, York City, Port Vale, Bristol City, Bristol Rovers, Yeovil Town and Blackburn Rovers within the English league structure. A grand total of around twenty games, as opposed to over 1,300 Chelsea matches.

However, in 1992/93 I actually saw Newcastle United at three away venues during their Second Division promotion campaign. Around that time, I wasn’t in a particularly well-paid job and in the seasons 1990/91 to 1993/94 I only averaged around twelve Chelsea games per season.

I think a little explanation is required, don’t you?

My good friend Pete – a college friend living nearby in Bristol then and just outside Bristol now – and a lifelong Newcastle United fan coerced me into the away game at Brentford when I was visiting mates in London. He also asked me to attend the more local matches at Bristol City and Swindon Town.

I am sure it’s not too uncommon for fans of one club to watch other teams, though I definitely haven’t made a habit of it.

“Chelsea one week, Fulham the next” as the saying went in days of yore.

Pete is from Scunthorpe, and he memorably went to see us win the Second Division Championship on the final day of 1983/84 with our game at nearby Grimsby Town. He was also present, of course, at that game in Newcastle in 1984.

At the game against Brentford at Griffin Park in October 1992, Pete watched in the away end, but I watched the match with two other college mates in the home end. Memorably, we bumped into Kevin Keegan and Terry McDermott hours before the game began outside the stadium. Newcastle won that 2-1. In January 1993, I was in the wet away end with Pete to see Newcastle beat Bristol City 2-1, with Andy Cole playing for City. In March, I watched with Pete in the packed away end at Swindon Town as Andy Cole made his Toon debut, but Swindon won 2-1.

I also saw Chelsea beat Newcastle United 2-1 in the League Cup at Stamford Bridge in the October of that season – 30,000 and a good 5,000 Geordies – so I actually saw them play four times that season.

I enjoyed the experience of watching them in 1992/93. It was something different. Under Keegan, they were a very entertaining outfit.

In fact, in around 1996/97, I’d hazard a guess that Chelsea and Newcastle vied for being most fans’ “second favourite team.”

Strange but true.

The rain abated slightly, so we moved on down the river. I had discovered a new pub – or at least one not previously visited by us – and on the way to the “Head Of Steam” we bumped into Kimmy and Andy. Three pints in there – “Angelo Poretti”, a relatively new kid on the block – and we were joined by Jack and Andy too.

I was feeling a little light-headed, but oddly after one pint of the tried and trusted “Peroni” in “The Slug And Lettuce” I was feeling fine again.

Outside “The Akenside Traders” we were so lucky to catch a cab up to the stadium at around 2.30pm.

Unbelievably, despite leaving home at 2am, I reached the seats in the upper tier a mere few seconds before 3pm.

“Just in time” logistics at your service.

My first view of the pitch way down below me allowed me to see the two teams standing silently in the centre-circle in memory of the fallen.

I soon located Alan and Gal. Parky and I took our seats (*we obviously stood) alongside them.

The game started and I had to play “catch up” to take everything in. A full house, but not much immediate noise from the home fans. I was expecting more. The team?

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Christensen

James – Kante – Jorginho – Chilwell

Ziyech – Havertz – Huson-Odoi

But then.

Those hours of driving through the night, the time spent down on The Quayside and then the rushed cab ride seemed to be pointless. The first-half was a damp squib. What a let-down. Newcastle, no surprises, sat back and let us attack and grimly hoped that their defence would hold out. This was their Plan A, but there was no hint of a Plan B. They did occasionally offer a rare attack, but for most of that first forty-five minutes their team were so deep that every punted or hoofed clearance did allow support to Wilson nor Saint Maximin, their undoubted two stars.

Chelsea, of course, dominated the game yet there was little to admire. I have mentioned before how dull modern football can be at times, especially when one team is so defence-orientated. With players’ fitness levels so good these days, space in the final third was at an absolute premium. However, what space there was, we didn’t really exploit.

Many Chelsea fans hate being so high up at Newcastle. I don’t mind it at all. It only happens once per season. This time, as with many others, I usually get a very central viewing position. It does, undoubtedly, offer a very unique perspective on the positioning and placement of the attacking and defending teams.

I also love that it allows a view of the outside world, squeezed between The Gallowgate and the horizon. In days gone by, this was often the case. The Thames at Fulham, the church at Goodison, the tower blocks at Upton Park, Earls Court at Stamford Bridge. The stadium as a part of the city.

It’s lovely that so many of the city’s landmarks can be seen from inside St. James’ Park.

Our first real chance of note came on around the half-hour mark, but Hakim Ziyech’s goal after a lovely Jorginho pass was called back for off-side. I saw the flag early so wasn’t guilty of premature jokulation.

The same player then skied a shot wildly over the bar.

Fackinell.

I pleaded with Hudson-Odoi to stretch the defence, to get past his marker. I found him particularly frustrating.

Our only other notable effort was again from Ziyech. It looked like Reece James was shaping to take a centrally-placed free-kick just outside the “D” but it ended up in The Gallowgate. Maybe Reece should have demanded the ball.

I sent this message to a few friends in the US at the break.

“No intensity. No passion. No invention. No nuffing.”

Into the second-half, and somewhat surprising for someone who certainly hasn’t really impressed too much at Chelsea thus far, it was Ziyech who again threatened Darlow in the Newcastle goal down below us. A couple of shots, with a save and the post saving the home team. Shots from Havertz and James stirred the crowd.

The manager had obviously said a few things at the break.

A new chant was aired at a game for the first time and, although I wasn’t too happy that the Frank Lampard chant had been re-jigged, it certainly gathered momentum in that second-half.

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. Timo in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

Funny, when we sang it about Frank winning the Champions League, it did seem somewhat preposterous. But Tommy has already won the bastard.

Crazy, right?

On sixty-four minutes, a double-swap.

Barkley for Ziyech.

Loftus-Cheek for Kante.

Within a minute, at last a devilish wriggle down the left from Callum and a cross into the box. The ball eventually fell to James. A touch with his right foot, a smash with his left. The ball flew into the net from an angle. What a clean strike.

GET IN.

Would the single goal be enough? I suspected so. However, around ten minutes later, the ball ricocheted back off a Newcastle defender after a shot from Loftus-Cheek. It ended up, rather quickly, at the feet of James again. No time for thought, he smashed it in with his right foot this time. Two amazing goals. Euphoria in the top tier of The Leazes.

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. Timo in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. Timo in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. Timo in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

Frank’s version had Tomori and Tammy. The new song kept the theme going.

The Teutonic technician Thomas Tuchel – plus Thiago and Timo – at the top in The Toon.

Phew, I need a drink.

Maybe a tea.

Not long after, a clear foul on Havertz gave Paul Tierny no option.

Penalty.

“Give it to Reece!”

No, Jorginho claimed the ball.

Alan : “A skip or no skip?”

Chris : “A skip.”

No skip, but a goal.

Newcastle United 0 Chelsea 3.

Love it.

Saul came on for Callum, but by then the vast majority of the home fans were heading, er, home.

The final whistle blew.

And Newcastle was blue.

Superb.

With Manchester City, incredibly, losing 2-0 at home to Crystal Palace and with Liverpool letting a 2-0 lead slip with a draw at home to Brighton, this was a magnificent day. We were, unbelievably, three points clear at the top.

The three of us slowly walked back to our digs and then reconvened at “The Bridge Hotel” at just after 7.30pm. A relaxing few drinks with Gillian and Kev was then followed by a curry. It topped off a perfect day in The Loony Toon, which was clearly living up to its reputation as the UK capital of alcoholic excess, debauchery and hedonism. I am not quite sure what the Saudis would make of it.

We set off for home as early as 9am on the Sunday. Despite some truly horrific driving conditions during the first two hours or so – so much spray, so much rain, but then when blinding sun arrived it was like driving through snow – I made it home at 4pm.

Seven hours up, seven hours down, three points in the bag.

See you, I hope, next season Newcastle.

My next game is at home to Burnley on Saturday.

See you there.

Under The Tyne Bridge.

Autumn In The Toon.

The Gallowgate.

Sir Bobby.

The Baltic Art Centre, Grey’s Monument And The Millennium Bridge.

All Saint’s Church, Sage Gateshead, Autumn Colours And Wind Turbines.

Windscreen.

Hakim Ziyech.

The Tyne Bridge.

In The Air.

The High Ground At Gateshead.

Swipe.

Second-Half Panorama.

Crowded Out.

Jorginho.

A Goal One Celebration.

A Goal Two Leap.

A Goal Three Certainty.

Let’s Gan, Like.

Tales From The Memory Game

Chelsea vs. Malmo : 20 October 2021.

Ahead of the game with Malmo, we had assembled in “Simmons” as per our normal midweek match at Stamford Bridge. When we arrived at around 6.15pm, it was pretty quiet. For once, Chelsea supporters were definitely in the minority. In fact, with most of the Chelsea fans present being of around the same age, not only were we outnumbered, we felt a little out of place too. The rest of the fellow revellers were in their teens. Since school desks make up a fair proportion of tables in this cosy bar, I had a wry smile to myself. There was a Guernsey reunion – an old school one at that – with my friends Daryl, Neil, Chris and Simon meeting up for a few beers, along with Simon and Daryl’s two lads. This was the first time I had seen Neil since before lockdown in 2020 and it was great to see him again. Daryl and Neil, brothers, went down to Kingstonian in the afternoon to watch the Chelsea and Malmo under-nineteen teams do battle, a game that Chelsea won 4-2 after being 2-0 down.

Daryl said that while he was at the game, our Europa League match against Malmo in 2019 was brought up. Rather sheepishly, he admitted that he had forgotten that the score was a 3-0 win. I smiled and replied that I had completely forgotten the score too.

How is it that we can remember scores in games against Notts County and Luton Town in 1980, but not from a few years back? I had a similar – brief – conversation with Nick The Whip on the walk from “The Goose” too. Nick is in his ‘seventies – though looks younger – and has a fantastic encyclopaedic knowledge of all the Chelsea games that he has attended, and I am always staggered by his memory. In the brief few minutes we spent walking along the North End Road, he mentioned a couple of games we played against Bury.

Yes, he’s that old.

“But I can’t remember last season’s games.”

Me and Nick both.

My very vague memory of the Malmo game was of their fans. They made a very impressive din, full of noise, and I remember flares too. We wondered how many of their fans would show up in London on this October evening. Surely more than the twenty or thirty Zenit fans in the first group phase game.

I guess it’s only natural that some games remain in the memory more than others. This would be my one hundred and fourth European game at Stamford Bridge. So many fine games. So many battles. So much emotion. Seven have featured Barcelona, five against Liverpool, four against Valencia, Porto and PSG. It is so annoying that the one visit of Real Madrid was played in a vacuum last season.

But here’s a quick exercise in memory recall. Off the top of my head, I would name these ten games as my favourites, in chronological order, not to prove any particular point but to stir some lovely memories of some magical nights under the lights in SW6.

Chelsea vs. Viktoria Zizkov 1994 : the first-one, a hand-shake with Matthew Harding in the pub beforehand, a wet old evening, but an absolutely wonderful occasion.

Chelsea vs. Bruges 1995 : a very noisy night as we swept past Bruges and some say the noisiest in modern times at Stamford Bridge despite a gate of only 28,000.

Chelsea vs. Vicenza 1998 : another wet night, but a stunning performance with three goals from Poyet, Zola and Hughes sending us through to our first European Final since 1971.

Chelsea vs. Milan 1999 : our first Champions League group phase game at home and despite a 0-0 draw, a very intense atmosphere and an equally impressive display against a crack opponent.

Chelsea vs. Barcelona 2000 : we were soon 3-0 up amid hysterical scenes and the noise was again on another level. But oh that away goal.

Chelsea vs. Barcelona 2005 : probably my favourite ever game at Chelsea in terms of excitement, pride and enjoyment. Nights hardly get any better.

Chelsea vs. Liverpool 2008 : a superb win, and the drama of Frank Lampard’s penalty, as we made it to our first ever Champions League Final.

Chelsea vs. Liverpool 2009 : the ridiculous 4-4 draw, just a crazy night against our rivals, that had us all checking our calculators to see how safe we were.

Chelsea vs. Napoli 2012 : another stupendous night, and an incredible recovery considering we presumed ourselves dead and buried after the first leg.

Chelsea vs. Eintracht Frankfurt 2019 : a surprise choice, but a big night for me since I had gambled on us getting to Baku. My elation after Eden’s penalty was off the scale.

I first saw Malmo in the flesh on a stag-weekend in Dublin in 1991, but as I have already recalled that game on two separate occasions, I’ll pass this time.

We were in the ground at around 7.45pm. There had been light queues at the turnstiles and for the first time this season, nobody had bothered to check my COVID19 status. I looked over at The Shed and was impressed with the 1,000 away fans and their decent selection of banners. Many were draped in team scarves.

How cute.

This was a game that we had to win. After the loss against Juventus, there was no other option available. I had no problems with the manager’s team selection. Both Timo and Romelu needed goals to get themselves back in the groove, so I had no issues with them starting.

Mendy

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

Azpilcueta – Kante – Jorginho – Chilwell

Mount – Lukaku – Werner

Another near full house, and a superb effort from all involved. This was another busy spell with five games in fifteen days.

I loved the atmosphere at the start of the match, and it’s not always the case for these group phase games. Although I could visibly discern that the away fans were bouncing around and singing heartily, the sound didn’t carry particularly well. There was, after all, only a thousand of them. The Matthew Harding was in very fine form, even if we overdid the “Champions of Europe” thing a bit. The noise rattled around Stamford Bridge and, who knows, maybe it helped the team because we certainly began well, with plenty of attacking verve.

A few chances had threatened Dahlin in the Malmo goal before, on nine minutes, Thiago Silva crossed from deep into the box. Andreas Christensen did well to adjust and stab the ball in. A first Chelsea goal for our great Dane against the Swedes.

The rain started to fall heavily.

PD leaned over : “another wet walk back to the car?”

On twenty-one minutes, a swift break found the quick feet of Werner, who played in Lukaku. The Belgian toyed with his marker as he advanced into the box and was just about to take aim on the edge of the six-yard box when his legs were taken from under him. A definite penalty. But Lukaku was on the floor for ages after the foul.

We all wondered if Jorginho would deviate from his Plan A. Deviate he did; rather than a stop, a skip and a prod to his right, the ‘keeper went to the right as the ball went central / left. Easy.

And this was easy.

Lukaku hobbled to the half-way line and I hoped he could run off his injury but he was quickly replaced by Kai Havertz, the hero of Porto.

Malmo would only have one real attack and one goal attempt during the first-half. We completely dominated. I hoped that the away fans had enjoyed their sightseeing in London during the day because I doubted that they were going to get any pleasure from their team. However, to their credit, their fans never stopped singing and offering encouragement. Fair play to the fair haired ones.

A Rudiger run from deep sent us all dizzy with excitement – “shoot” – and this is now his trademark. I love it.

Behind me in the Matthew Harding Upper, I heard an Arsenal chant.

And it annoyed me.

“What do we think of shit?

“Tottenham.”

“What do we think of Tottenham?”

“Shit.”

“Thank you.”

“That’s alright.”

I glowered. For fuck sake. This must not continue.

Go to your rooms.

A shot from Chilwell, a shot from Havertz, we were all over Malmo.

We heard that Manchester United were 0-2 down at home against Atalanta. This engineered a related song from the lower tier.

“Chelsea boys are on a bender. Cristiano’s a sex offender.”

Late on in the half, Timo Werner pulled up and we collectively grimaced. He was replaced by Callum Hudson-Odoi, who joined Kai and Mason in a rather lightweight attacking trio. I could hear all the internet nerds getting high and mighty.

“See. I told you Tuchel should not have started Werner and Lukaku. Where’s my Playstation?”

As the half drew to a close, I commented to PD and Rich from Edinburgh “we should be more than two goals to the good here.” And it was true. We had completely dominated. Malmo looked poor, so poor.

At the break, the Malmo manager said “move over, Dahlin” and replaced the ‘keeper with Diawara.

Lo and behold, the second-half began with a rare Malmo break. As the move broke down on our left, the ball was played to Our Callum, who ran and ran and ran. He avoided an easier ball into the middle to Mount and instead found the overlapping Havertz. With the pink clad ‘keeper out of his goal, a delicate dink sent the ball into the goal off the far post.

Silky.

Diawara had not yet touched the ball.

We were three-up and I was hoping for six.

From the Matthew Harding choir :

“You’re shit but your birds are fit.”

We continued to dominate, and on fifty-seven minutes a great bit of “nibbling” from Rudiger wrestled the ball from a Malmo midfielder. The ball ran to Haverzt, who played it back to Rudi. An industrial challenge gave the referee no option but to award another penalty.

Jorginho stepped up, and again the spot-kick went centre / left, although the skip probably sent the ‘keeper the wrong way. I think it is safe to say that after mixing it a little of late, opposing ‘keepers had best throw away their notes on Jorginho’s penalty techniques. Because nobody knows what he is going to do now.

Meanwhile, United had clawed it back to 2-2 at Old Trafford.

Shots from Hudson-Odoi and Kante were smashed goalwards.

Saul Niguez replaced King Kante.

Marcos Alonso and Reece James were late substitutes too.

Instead of six goals, or even five, the chances were squandered and it looked like no further goals would ensue.

Bastard Ronaldo had scored and United were winning 3-2.

That’s for all those in the lower tier, tempting fate earlier.

When that man Rudiger blasted into row ten of the Matthew Harding Upper, many spectators upped and headed for the exits.

At the final whistle, Chelsea 4 Malmo 0.

“We should have scored seven or eight.”

I had enjoyed the game. It was another tick on my journey back to football.

It was just a bit ironic, though, that on a night when Tuchel was hoping to kick-start the Lukaku and Werner scoring tandem, it was last season’s top scorer Jorginho who led the way with two penalties.

Outside, the spectators scurried away into the night and – yes – we got soaked once again.

Fackinell.

On the drive back home to the West of England, PD battled against torrential rain, huge puddles of surface water, debris on the roads, and fallen trees. I eventually made it home at about 1.30am.

We play Norwich City at Stamford Bridge on Saturday and I’m bringing my boots. With our lack of a decent strike force, I fancy a shot at leading the attack.

See you there.

Tales From Game 66/200

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 21 January 2020.

The bookends to the week were the two trips to the north, to the river cities of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Kingston-upon-Hull. Tucked in the middle was the home game with a team from North London. Islington-upon-Woolwich anyone?

If anything, the Chelsea vs. Arsenal game could have come a day later. My head was still full of the fun memories of three days and two nights in Newcastle in the way that such trips take over our thoughts and minds for a while. The Tuesday evening game came a little too soon for me. On the journey into London I admitted to PD, Parky and Simon “good job this is against Arsenal, a match with a much lesser team would leave me rather underwhelmed.”

A lot was being made on all of Chelsea Football Club’s social media sites about it being the two hundredth game between the two sides. I quickly did some research, I delved into “the spreadsheet” and discovered that the game would be my sixty-seventh such game, though that included the pre-season friendly in Beijing in 2017, so I am sure that the club were not counting that one.

So it would be “officially” match number sixty-six out of two-hundred.

That made me gulp. But I am sure I must know of fellow fans who must be close to 100 of the 200 games. Fantastic stuff.

So, sixty-six Chelsea vs. Arsenal matches with games at Highbury, Stamford Bridge, Cardiff, Wembley, The Emirates and Baku.

Six venues. The most that I have ever seen us play another team.

The first game? Easy. That season opener in 1984. It was so famous that a book has been written about it.

Game sixty-six followed the usual midweek pattern.

Pub one, pints of lager, pub two, bottles of lager, game.

The kick-off time for this match was 8.15pm. Another “I hate modern football” moment coming up. This is 2020 – and 2015 in 2020 – and not many football fans live close to their home stadia these days. This isn’t 1930 when most of Chelsea’s match-going fans lived a short distance away, and Stamford Bridge was reachable by foot, by bus, by tube. In the pubs, we had spoken to friends from Wiltshire, from Warwickshire, from all points of the compass.

8.15pm, fucking hell. I wouldn’t be home until 1.30am.

Altogether now.

“Ugh.”

We were in with a few minutes to spare. I spotted the appearance of a new – I think – crowd-surfing banner drifting along in The Shed Upper.

“PRIDE OF LONDON” with cups a-plenty.

Six of them.

A beautiful sight.

A quick run through of the team.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Christensen – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Willian – Abraham – Hudson-Odoi

Arsenal were their usual assortment of bit players with the letter Z in their surnames…Luiz, Lacazette, Ozil, Guendouzi, Martinez…like the last players to be picked at school football maybe?

A relatively cold night, people were wrapped up, some with quite hideous and ill-fitting headwear.

“Fuck me, it’s not that cold” I thought to myself on many occasions.

After the heartache of the last minute loss at St. James’ Park, one thing was agreed in car and pub.

“We gotta win this one tonight.”

Three thousand away fans and I could not spot a single flag nor banner.

I bet they could not be Arsed.

We began well.

The first player to catch the eye – and it pleased me – was Callum Hudson-Odoi on the right. He was playing with tons more confidence, tons more urgency, tons more energy. It was if he had been given a kick up the arse. He looked a different player to the reticent one on Saturday.

“We need to feed him.”

It was all Chelsea in the first fifteen minutes with a few raids and chances created. It was a promising start. Efforts from Kovacic, Christensen and Abraham threatened Leno in the Arsenal goal. Then, a lofted “dink” from Hudson-Odoi from an angle fell on top of the bar. We were not completely sure that he meant it. But it was certainly a bright start.

I wasn’t particularly happy with all the boos that David Luiz was receiving from a sizeable section of the home support.

Munich 2012.

But then it seemed that he became the focus for a few minutes, involved in a couple of rugged challenges.

I commented to Simon alongside me “he’s going to implode tonight.”

And then Arsenal came into it the game and enjoyed a little spell.

On twenty-five minutes, a ball was pumped up early for Tammy to run onto. Mustafi made a hash of a back-pass, and our centre-forward pounced. His first touch took him past Leno, and it appeared that he just had to keep his composure and stroke it in to an unguarded net. He knocked it wide, took one or two touches but was then flattened from behind by David Luiz.

An easy penalty.

And a red card to the player in red.

All of a sudden the Chelsea choir changed tunes.

“Oh David Luiz, you are the love of my life…”

We waited.

Would Jorginho keep to form and hop his way towards the ball, stop, then punch the ball to Leno’s left.

This is exactly what happened.

Leno had done his homework, but Jorginho’s placement was perfect. The dive was strong, but the ball won.

Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0.

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

Chris, though : “Come on my little diamonds, fam.”

Very soon, a new song.

“David Luiz. He’s one of our own.”

The Bridge had not exactly been a riot of noise, but at last the home support was stirred.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

…mmm, we haven’t heard that for a while, eh?

A well-worked one-two between N’Golo Kante and Hudson-Odoi, but the volley was just too near Leno. Efforts from Rudiger and Kovacic did not trouble the Arsenal ‘keeper further.

Just before half-time, Arsenal made me chuckle.

“Is this a library?”

Fucking hell, talk about irony.

It would have been a lot funnier if they had followed it up with “is this The Emirates”?

At the break, there was the time-honoured worry about us only being 1-0 up despite having dominated. It just felt that a list of half-chances had gone to waste. But there were a fair few positives in that first-half. Kante was sublime, and Kepa was untroubled.

The second-half began. There was a typically errant piece of distribution from Kepa but it ironically set off a ridiculously long piece of possession that seemed to go on and on for ever. At last the move petered out. In fact, many of our moves did the same. Lots of possession, the ball being passed around on the edge of the box, but sadly no end product. The natives began to get restless.

It was, after all, eleven men against ten.

On the hour, and from a Chelsea corner down below us from Willian, the ball was headed out and Arsenal began a counter. Martinelli raced past Emerson, but just as the last man Kante was moving into position there was a fateful slip. The Arsenal forward had a clean route on goal. Inside the box he calmly side-footed past Kepa, bollocks.

Was it their first shot on goal?

Bollocks again.

A red flare was set off inside the away section of the Shed Lower.

I decided to stand for much of the rest of the game. It felt that I needed to expel some energy, some nerves, and – you know what? – I find that hard to do when I am meekly sat on a seat.

It just ain’t football to be sat for ninety minutes.

I needed to move my limbs, to get a bit agitated, to step up and down, to feel as though I would be better placed to join in with a song of support should the need arise. I wanted to head every cross, to kick every ball.

“Come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea.”

This was not a top quality game of football, but it had emotion and a drama, a little needle, and for once Stamford Bridge felt like a fucking football stadium once again.

Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic, and Mason Mount replaced N’Golo Kante.

We produced a few efforts on goal. Jorginho lofted the ball in to a packed box and a twisting leap from the substitute Barkley produced a header that deserved more. It was, sadly, well saved by Leno at his near post. The Arsenal custodian was by far the busier of the two goalkeepers.

“Come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea.”

Michy Batshuayi replaced Willian with ten to go.

“Two up front, good. Frank must have read my Newcastle blog.”

With only three minutes remaining, Tammy did ever so well to chase down a long ball and put an Arsenal defender under enough pressure to give away a corner.

I was certainly stood up now.

“Come on!”

The corner was played short by Mason to Hudson and his low cross was aimed at a bevy of players inside the six-yard box. It was all a jumble of limbs, but Dave prodded home. Huge scenes, huge joy, and my immediate thoughts were of a strike from the same player in a similar position late in the Ajax game, and his ecstatic run towards our corner flag. I snapped away just like I did in November. After a while, I spotted Alan standing quietly…

”Oh no.”

Seeing his face dulled my emotions for a moment.

“VAR”?

From what I remembered, Dave was onside. Surely not.

Not.

Phew.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 1.

And then, and then…with time running out, I watched as an Arsenal move developed. The ball was played to Hector Bellerin who shuffled towards the box. Two Chelsea players made half-hearted attempts to close down space, but one was the limping Tammy Abraham. I watched, disbelieving, as Bellerin stroked the ball through the space inside our penalty area. The ball rolled in slow-motion towards the far post. Just like at Newcastle on Saturday, I was in perfect line with the movement of the ball.

Inside my head : “this is going in.”

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 2.

Their second shot on goal?

Fuck it.

Bizarrely, we still had one last chance to win it. A sublime cross on the right from Hudson-Odoi was played right in to the danger zone but Michy shanked it and the ball flew past the near post. It was a rare quality ball into the box. Throughout the night, during the second-half especially, our crossing was not up to much. Emerson again frustrated the hell out of me.

And again, we were up against ten men. They were playing with a man short for an hour. It was another frustrating night for sure, and there have been many this season.

No need for boos at the end though, eh?

After the midweek games, we would find ourselves six points clear in fourth place on forty points.

But no need for boos.

It’s Liverpool’s title. Leicester City and Manchester City are shoe-ins for an automatic Champions League place. We are ahead of the chasing pack.

Ah, the chasing pack. Not much of a pack, eh?

Manchester United are in fifth place on thirty-four points, just four points ahead of Newcastle United who are in fourteenth place.

It’s a lack-lustre season all round.

But no need for boos.

To be honest I am getting bored with many fans’ opinions about Chelsea Football Club these days. But here is the thing. The ones who are moaning about Frank, his naivety, his lack of nouse, his tactics, our dearth of quality strikers, our poor play…well, they are usually the ones that I find moaning on social media about TV programmes, about pot holes, about celebrities, about their work, about their play, about music, about schools, about youngsters, about the price of petrol, about current affairs, about modern life, about politics, about Brexit, about fucking everything.

Football used to be a release from the burdens and troubles of modern life.

Now it seems as if it is just a tedious part of it.

Fucking hell.

Come the revolution.

See you all at Hull.

Postscript.

Chelsea & Arsenal.

Played 66

Won 23

Drew 22

Lost 21

For 93

Against 84

Tales From The Second-Half

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 December 2019.

I was sitting in a cosy corner of “The St. James Tavern” just off Piccadilly Circus with PD and Lord Parsnips. There was just time for a couple of scoops before it was time to head on up the Piccadilly Line to Arsenal. Pints of Peroni had been poured, but not just any pints. At £6.30 a go, these were – I am quite sure – the most expensive pints in the UK that we had ever purchased. Bloody hell, they must have seen us coming. In fact, they certainly had seen us coming; we had popped in at 11.30am but had been unceremoniously told “no alcohol until midday” so we just had a little meander to kill some time, so imagine our annoyance when we re-entered at 11.55am to see some punters with pints three-quarters imbibed already.

“Oh, so you were serving alcohol before midday then.”

The bar staff chose to ignore me. To be honest, two pints was ample, but it was a shame they were a little rushed. The day had started off quietly – I was away at 8am – and the weather outside was mid-winter bleak, but at least with no rain. We had again parked-up at Barons Court – like last Sunday, bang on time at 11am, a three-hour trip exactly on target – and I liked the fact that right in front of me was a car with a Chelsea number plate – JC03 CFC – and I wondered if the owner had driven in like myself or was a local. Either way, I looked on it as a good omen.

There was a good deal of symmetry about the game at Arsenal.

We had played nineteen games. The end of the first-half of the season had been completed. The last away day of the first-nineteen games was also in North London, at Tottenham, and the first away game of the second nineteen games was just four miles away in Islington. Heading into 2020, our twentieth league game of the season was just a couple of hours away.

There and then, I decided to call this particular match report – number 597 – “Tales From The Second-Half.”

It would be rather prescient.

We arrived at a sunny Emirates bang on time at 1.15pm. To be honest, this made a refreshing change. Arrivals at Arsenal are usually ridiculously hurried. Very often, we get in with seconds to spare. I was able to take my time and take a few mood shots outside. Walking over the southern bridge, a statue of Herbert Chapman greets supporters.

It’s a fine statue. I imagined that many of our new supporter base – FIFA ready, eager to impress, scarves and replica shirts at the ready – do not know who Ted Drake is, let alone Herbert Chapman. Mind you, it’s quite likely that many of Arsenal’s new supporter base – FIFA ready, eager to impress, scarves and replica shirts at the ready – do not know who Herbert Chapman is. It is a major shame that many believe that football began in 1992, and is even more galling to hear those in the media forever banging on about Premier League records as if all other data has been expunged from the record books.

I was hanging around to make sure the safe transfer of a spare ticket had taken place OK. Although I didn’t need to meet the two parties, I didn’t want to leave them stranded.

At about 1.20pm, I got the OK by text. I could relax a little. I bumped into a few mates. Took some more photos. We weren’t sure, collectively, how to regard this match.

“At Tottenham last week, I would have been happy with a draw. No question. With Arsenal, I feel we need to beat them. We are away, after all. Less pressure. Hopefully more space. But, it could go one of any three ways – a win, a loss, a draw. They’re poor though. Worse than Tottenham.”

Inside the stadium, everything was so familiar. This would be my fourteenth consecutive league visit to this ground; the only game I have missed was when we took 9,000 in that League Cup game in 2013. There was also a ropey League Cup semi in 2018.

It has been a stadium of mixed results.

Thus far in the league –

Won : 4

Drawn : 5

Lost : 4

Stepping out of the Arsenal tube, I am always reminded of how magnificent Highbury was. Those art deco stands were beauties. And on the corner of Gillespie Road, as it turns into Drayton Park, is one of my favourite art deco houses of all. I just never seem to have the time to stop and take a photograph. Maybe next season. Can somebody remind me? I consider it a failing of whoever designed the new Arsenal stadium (and that is what it should really be called, it won’t be sponsored by Emirates in twenty years’ time will it?) that there is no reference to the old Highbury ground. Not a single nod. Not one.

It’s an Arsenal Stadium Mystery.

And, I know it sounds silly, but compared to Tottenham’s new home, Arsenal’s pad looks less impressive with every visit. Yes, there is comfort. Yes, every seat is padded (imagine that in 1984 when we scurried out of the Arsenal tube and queued up at the Clock End to squeeze our young bodies onto that large terrace – padded seats in the away end!), yes it’s modern, but it lacks a visual impact, it lacks charm, it lacks intimidation. As my mate Daryl commented in the concourse “it’s like a shopping centre.”

Indeed.

Kerching.

We were down the front for this one, row three. I met up with Alan, Gary and Parky. I tried to remember if the stewards at Arsenal gave me a hard time with my camera; I think I would be OK.

The team news filtered through.

Another outing for the 3/4/3.

I guess it worked at Tottenham.

Arrizabalaga

Rudiger – Zouma – Tomori

Azpilicueta – Kovacic – Kante – Emerson

Willian – Abraham – Mount

I had been in contact with two Arsenal lads that I had met on the outbound trip to Baku in May – it still seems like a dream – but I would not be able to meet up with them for a quick handshake as they were both pushed for time. I wished them well.

Kick-off soon arrived.

As always, we attacked the North Bank in the first-half.

First thoughts?

Yes, it was odd seeing David Luiz in Arsenal red and white. Very odd.

In fact, our former defender was heavily involved in the very first few minutes, jumping and narrowly missing with a header from a cross, attempting an optimistic scissor-kick from inside the box, and a trademark free-kick from outside it. Thankfully, Kepas’s goal remained unscathed. Sadly, despite our manager’s emotional and heartfelt protestations about his under-performing players against Southampton, it was sadly business as usual for the early part of the game. Arsenal seemed more invigorated, livelier, and they put us under pressure from the off.

We managed to create a chance for Mason Mount at the North Bank, Willian working a short free-kick, but his tame shot was saved by Bernd Leno.

Shortly after, a whipped-in corner from Mesut Ozil was headed on at the near post and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang nodded in, with our marking awry.

“One nil to The Arsenal” sang the home areas. It was the first real noise of the entire game.

With their nippy winger Riess Nelson looking impressive on the Arsenal right and with their other players closing space, we drifted in to a very uncomfortable period of play. Our passing was strained, and there was a lack of movement off the ball. Yet again, Toni Rudiger was given the task of playmaker as others did not have the time and space to do so. But he, like others, found it difficult to hit targets. I’d imagine that teams have sussed out the diagonal to Emerson by now. Arsenal were full or funning and intent. They looked by far the better team. To be brutally frank, a better team than Arsenal would have punished us further, because we were not at the races, the amusement arcade, the pantomime or the family outing to Ramsgate. It was dire stuff and the fans around me were huffing and puffing their disdain.

Nothing vitriolic – we save that for the home games – but noticeable.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

The usual terrace regulars were regurgitated.

“Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that.”

“We’ve won it all.”

(We haven’t.)

No, this was poor football. Only Kante and, possibly – only possibly – Kovacic seemed up for the task ahead. Tammy was not involved; of course there was a drought of service, for sure, but there was poor involvement through being unwilling to move his marker.

Just after the half-hour mark, Frank changed it. Off came Emerson, to be replaced by Jorginho. And a change of formation. Dave switched sides, Tomori moved to right back. There was, of course, immediately more solidity in midfield. Emerson was always a steady player – I rated him, generally – but his form has certainly dipped of late. I struggle with his reluctance to take players on when “one-on-one” and he has recently been a subject of the boo boys at games and the ranters on social media.

Our attacking abilities noticeably changed and we, arguably, had the best of it over the last ten minutes of the half. There were half-chances for both teams. However, over the course of the entire half, I think, generally, we had got off lightly. And yet. How many times did Kepa have to scramble to save shots, to tip over, to lunge at an attacker’s feet? Not many.

It wasn’t the best of games.

It was 100 % doom and gloom in the crowded concourse and in the padded seats at the break.

Inside my head : “Frank is new to this game. It’s only his second season as a manager. Has he got it in his locker to motivate the players, to get across his ideas, but to remain calm and focussed too?”

I bloody hoped so.

For all our sakes.

Soon into the second-half, I whispered to Alan.

“Seems like a proper game now, this.”

Tackles were being won, passes were being threaded through, players were running off the ball, this was more fucking like it boys.

A special mention for Jorginho. Excellent.

How to accommodate both him and Kante in their strongest positions?

This season’s $64,000 question.

On the hour, fresh legs and a fresh player for that matter. Making his debut as a replacement for Tomori was Tariq Lamptey.

Bloody hell, he looked about twelve.

Even I would tower over him.

He was soon involved, and impressed everyone with a turn and run into the heart of the Arsenal defence before slipping a ball right into the path of Tammy Abraham. The steadily improving striker’s first time shot was blocked by the long legs of David Luiz. There was the usual noise of discontent about Tammy not shooting earlier, but – honestly – he struck it first time and I am not sure he could have reacted any quicker.

Dave headed tamely over.

The final substitution took place; number 20 Callum with 20 to go.

Again, he looked lively from the off, and seemed more comfortable in his own skin, dancing past players and intelligently passing to others. Behind all this was the magnificent work rate of Kovacic, Kante, Jorginho – some splendid tackles, one nasty one, unpunished – and Willian looked a different player.

“Come on Chelsea.”

“Come on you blue boys.”

“Come on Chels.”

A simple header from Tammy at a corner was straight at Leno. A yard either side and we would have been celebrating.

At the other end, a rare Arsenal chance, but Joe Willock, the silly pillock, swept it wide.

A second goal then would have killed us.

Throughout the game, I thought the home areas were dead quiet. Only when they sensed a home victory did they bother.

“We’re the North Bank. We’re the North Bank. We’re the North Bank Highbury.”

“We’re the Clock End. We’re the Clock End. We’re the Clock End Highbury.”

“We’re the North Bank. We’re the North Bank. We’re the North Bank Highbury.”

“We’re the Clock End. We’re the Clock End. We’re the Clock End Highbury.”

Seems the Arsenal fans have remembered the old stadium in the new stadium, even if the architects hadn’t.

The minutes ticked by.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

On eighty-three minutes, I steadied my camera to snap Mason as he weighed up the options before taking a free-kick just fifteen yards from me. He swiped and I snapped. I saw the ‘keeper miss the flight of the ball and I exploded as Jorginho tapped the ball in to an empty net.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

That I managed to get any photo at all of the delirious scenes is a minor miracle.

Beautiful.

Three minutes later, Chelsea in the ascendency, we found ourselves momentarily defending deep. The ball broke, and I thought to myself “here we go” and brought the trusty Canon up to my eyes. Over the next thirty seconds or so, I took twenty-seven photos – and the better ones are included. The strong and purposeful run from Tammy – up against Shkodran Mustafi – and the pass outside to Willian. The return pass.

I steadied myself, waiting for the moment – “We’re going to fucking win this” – and watched as Tammy turned a defender – Mustafi again, oh bloody hell – and prodded the ball goal wards.

Snap.

Right through his legs.

FUCKING GET IN.

Pandemonium in the South Stand, pandemonium in South Norwood, pandemonium in Southsea, pandemonium in South Korea, pandemonium in South Philly.

I felt arms pushing against me – I steadied myself – but missed Tammy’s slide. But I captured the rest, more or less. What a joy to see the players – Tammy especially – so pleased.

Tales From The Second-Half?

You had better fucking believe it.

Screams, smiles, roars.

“Scenes” as the kids say.

I prefer to call it “Chelsea Soup.”

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

We were in our element. One song dominated. It dominated at Tottenham a week previously and it took over the away end at Arsenal.

“We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

(I whispered an add-on – “but not this season.”)

“We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League. We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League. We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League. We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League. We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

It was our Christmas carol for 2019.

Tammy fired over in the last few minutes, but we did not care one jot.

The whistle blew and we roared.

We had done it.

No, wait, Frank had done it, Tammy had done it, the players had done it.

We had played our part, but the players had stepped up.

Top marks.

Inside my head : “So, so pleased for Frank. These have been worrying times. And so pleased for Tammy. He may not be a Didier or a Diego, but he gets goals. Well done him. Until it changes and we have an alternative, let’s sing his name.”

Won : 5

Drawn : 5

Lost : 4

The players came over. As some returned to walk towards the tunnel, Frank turned them around. The manager wanted his charges to thank us. I clambered onto my seat and snapped away. Smiles everywhere. Just lovely.

Tottenham Mark Two.

Franktastic.

There was no rush to leave the stadium. My car at Barons Court was safe. As with last January’s game, we dropped into a Chinese restaurant on the Holloway Road for some scoff. We made our way slowly back, via the tried and tested Piccadilly Line once again, reaching my car at 6.30pm. We eventually made it home for 9.30pm, another six hours in the saddle.

No doubt many Chelsea supporters / fans / wannabees had been venting huge displeasure on every platform available about our ropey first-half performance, but I think that they might have failed to realise that a game is just not a first-half, a season is not nineteen games, this project will not be finished in May.

Chelsea is for life, not just for Christmas.

Next up, we play our first game of 2020 at Brighton.

Another away game.

Frankie says relax.

Postscript 1.

I recently joined in with the Facebook Ten Football Images In Ten Days “thing.” One of them was the cover of the “Shoot” annual of 1973. I chose it for a couple of reasons. I was in hospital in December 1972 for a minor operation. Gleefully it meant that I was able to miss taking part in the school nativity play which would have bloody terrified me. I can distinctly remember – as a pre-Christmas present I guess, a “pick-me-up” – a copy of this said publication. I remembered buying a normal copy of the weekly “Shoot” earlier that autumn while on holiday in North Wales (I can even remember that an Arsenal vs. Manchester City game was featured in the centre pages; a game that I had seen on “The Big Match” that involved Brian Moore getting very opinionated about an Arsenal handball on the line that stopped a City goal, but was not given as a penalty. I remember a very irate Francis Lee. VAR anyone?) This annual featured a photograph of my Chelsea hero Peter Osgood climbing high in the Highbury sun to win a header against Frank McLintock, the rugged Scottish centre-back. This book played a big part in my growing love of football. I can even remember a feature.

“Chelsea’s Deadly H Men.”

Step forward John Hollins, Peter Houseman, Ron Harris, Ian Hutchinson, Marvin Hinton and Alan Hudson.

Sadly, I lost my copy.

Imagine my happiness when I spotted an edition in the shop window of a second-hand shop in Frome about twelve years ago. What luck.

I snapped it up.

It brought back some lovely memories.

Frank McLintock, whose eightieth birthday was on the Saturday, was featured in a half-time chat on the pitch during the game. It was good to hear his voice. These players of our childhood are starting to leave us now. It’s so sad.

I almost thought about renaming this “A Tale Of Two Franks” but that has already been taken.

Postscript 2.

As we leave one decade, and enter another, time to reflect a little. It has been a wild time. Late on, after I had flicked through some photos and just before I settled down to watch “MOTD2”, I posted this on Facebook and I think it struck a chord because it has been shared twenty-two times already.

“2010 : League & FA Cup.
2012 : FA Cup & Champions League.
2013 : Europa League.
2015 : League Cup & League.
2017 : League.
2018 : FA Cup.
2019 : Europa League.

10 trophies in 10 seasons. Please excuse me if I am not too bothered about winning fuck all for a bit.”

May I wish everyone a happy new decade.

Keep the faith.

See you all at Brighton.

Tales From A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Match

Chelsea vs. Ajax : 5 November 2019.

I was born in 1965. I was therefore alive when England won the World Cup in 1966, and even though I am well known for my memory, it would be impressive if I could recollect seeing that one. 1970 seemed to pass me by, and I have no recall of that tournament nor that final. The first one that I can fully remember seeing – and being part of, which is what it is all about – is the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. We were used to just one club football match per year on TV in those days – the FA Cup Final – and also the yearly England vs. Scotland match in The Home Internationals. But there was the odd international game too. I can certainly remember watching the England vs West Germany qualifier for the European Championships on 29 April 1972. I am positive that this is the first football match that I can ever remember seeing on TV. This narrowly beats the 1972 FA Cup Final between Leeds United and Arsenal on 6 May 1972.

The 1974 World Cup Finals – England failed to qualify after memorably, and infamously, drawing 1-1 with Poland on 17 October 1973, I remember seeing that one too – were shown on TV at reasonable viewing times and I loved every minute of it. It was a magnificent time. In those days, it seemed OK to want Scotland to do well. They were the United Kingdom’s only qualifiers. I remember that they were drawn against Brazil and The Netherlands in their group. Although I had heard of the Ajax team of around that time – European Champions in 1971, 1972 and 1973 – I had not been exposed to many of their actual games on TV. So, the World Cup in 1974 would open my eyes to Dutch football, and to the many Ajax players involved. A quick scan of the Dutch players who lost the 1974 final to West Germany brings back some rich memories.

Jan Joengblood – FC Amsterdam

Wim Suurbier – Ajax

Wim Rijsbergen – Feyenoord

Arie Haan – Ajax

Ruud Krol – Ajax

Wim Jansen – Feyenoord

Johan Neeskens – Ajax

Wim Van Hanegem – Feyenoord

Johnny Rep – Ajax

Rob Rensenbrink – Anderlecht

Johan Cruyff – Ajax

The venerated Ajax Amsterdam therefore provided six of the starting eleven, with their arch rivals Feyenoord three. I always thought it odd that the wonderful winger Rensenbrink plied his football in Belgium and it is only through research for this report that I found out that the ‘keeper Joengblood played for a lesser team.

But they were a magical team. The World was bowled over by them in 1974, and in my village school their players captivated us all. How ironic that there were six Ajax players, and four called Wim.

[Shit joke coming up. You know it’s coming.]

No wonder they wiped the floor with most teams.

And now, at long last, the famous Ajax were playing at Stamford Bridge for the very first time.

I could not wait.

On the drive to London in PD’s car I mentioned that I really hoped that they would show up in their famous red and white kit. Of all the sporting kits in the world, none can be more – and I am sorry for using an overworked word – iconic than that of Ajax. Back in the early ‘seventies it really captured my imagination.

I was inside Stamford Bridge at about 7.45pm ahead of the 8pm kick-off. There had been an emergency scare, with an ambulance, outside the West Stand and so I was asked to walk all of the way around Stamford Bridge and access the Matthew Harding from right behind the stand rather than the usual entrance on the corner of the West Stand. I was worried that the delay would make me late, but all was well. I walked under the illuminated Shed Wall, and past “the away entrance” to The Shed near the East Stand. Except there would be no away fans on this night. They had been banned, en masse,  from attending. We had even been warned, via email, that we needed to bring photo ID to the game to ensure that we were valid spectators. Quite how this might have affected my pals Mark, Paul and Mick who live in The Netherlands is not known.

Anyway, I was in.

The Shed was all Chelsea, save for a gap in the lower tier where around eight hundred seats that had originally been set aside for Ajax were left unused.

Kick-off was approaching.

The team was the same as against Watford, apart from Alonso for Emerson.

Arrizabalaga

Apilicueta – Zouma – Rudiger – Alonso

Jorginho – Mount – Kovacic

Pulisic – Abraham – Willian

Thankfully I spotted the famous red and white Ajax kit as the players emerged from the tunnel. I honestly felt cheated in 2009 when Juventus showed up in SW6 wearing a bronze shirt.

Over in The Shed, somewhere, was my friend Dennis and his wife Kazuko, who live in Virginia. They had met us for a few drinks in “The Goose” and had followed us down to “Simmons” where we treated them to a Chuckle Brothers pre-match. On the walk down the North End Road, the night fizzed with fireworks on Bonfire Night. I assured Dennis that this didn’t happen every night, nor was it a special Chuckle Brothers welcome for them both. I met Dennis on the 2015 US Tour and this was his first-ever visit to England, to London, to Stamford Bridge. Thankfully he didn’t follow Chelsea because of playing FIFA.  Top marks to Dennis who didn’t seem to have a problem, unlike some US visitors – no names, no pack drill – in understanding the concept of “rounds.”

My pre-match beers went down well, a rare treat these days.

Just before kick-off, I spoke to PD.

“Part two, mate.”

The game began, and how. I had just finished uploading one of my customary photographs on to Facebook –

“Ajax. In their classic kit. Priceless. Let’s go to work. Chelsea Football Club, 8.01pm, London.”

And then the bastards scored. After one poxy minute. Ajax had taken a free-kick down below me in The Sleepy Hollow. I had just slipped my ‘phone back in my pocket to see the ball crashing towards the net. As the Ajax players celebrated right below us, the stadium was eerily quiet. But it annoyed me that there was a little knot of around two-hundred Ajax fans in the corporate tier of the West Stand. It was a real metaphor for modern football. The normal rank and file were banned, but their Executive Club were allowed in. I can understand club officials being allowed in; directors, squad players, doctors. But not two-hundred of them. Shameful really.

Anyway, we had succumbed to a Tammy Abraham own goal, apparently.

Bollocks.

We’ll have to go at them now.

Thankfully, just a few minutes later, we worked the ball through to Christian Pulisic and he was clipped just inside the box (pictured) by Joel Veltman. It looked a sure penalty.

It was.

“Jorginho. Jorginho. Jorginho, Jorginho, Jorginho.”

We waited.

A hop on his approach, and a fine penalty (pictured).

It was 1-1 after just five minutes.

…little did we know.

In the Matthew Harding, an attempt at humour.

“Your support is fucking shit.”

I spotted that one of the electronic hoardings behind The Shed mentioned the phrase “Intelligent Mobility” and it flashed-up right in front of where Parky was stood.

Good old Parky.

Highly intelligent. Highly mobile.

Cough, cough.

The images of the Heineken logo brought back memories of the away game.

Ajax looked more of a threat at Stamford Bridge than the away match. They certainly impressed me with their passing and movement in the first quarter of the game. They looked technically sound and they kept the ball with the minimum of fuss. But we were the next to threaten. Kovacic passed forward to Tammy, who looked offside (pictured) and he seemed to look across at the linesman such was his guilt. He finished impeccably but – yes – it was offside.

Bollocks.

Ajax continued to drift in to decent areas, and carved out some good chances. On twenty minutes, there was another free-kick in a wide position, this time on our left. Noussair Mazraoui (“what a fine assemblage of vowels”) whipped-in a sublime cross into the danger area. I always thought that a corridor of uncertainty was an ill-lit alleyway in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, but it could certainly be used to describe this cross. It was exceptional, played in with pace and curve between ‘keeper and stranded defenders. Quincy Promes stooped to conquer and then came over to celebrate below us, his shorts pulled up as he jigged away.

He was met with some abuse.

I said to PD : “well, we can’t concede again.”

However, this was becoming a good tussle with both teams moving the ball well. I did feel that, despite our midfield trio seeing much of the ball, we were missing some killer passes in the final third. Sadly, with ten minutes of the first-half remaining, we became unstuck once again. Another delivery from wide – on our left again – caused our undoing. A free-kick, not far from the corner flag, was whipped in towards the goal. With painful precision, I captured the ball just before it cannoned off the far post and Kepa’s face before making the net bulge.

Fuck.

Chelsea 1 Ajax 3.

At the time, nobody realised that the ball had hit Kepa.

But the madness was starting.

Two Chelsea own goals.

We kept prodding away with shots at the Ajax ‘keeper, playing in front of banners which said “Keep The Blue Flag Flying High” over the empty seats in the Shed Lower. Willian and Alonso tested him.

I said to PD, and Big John at half-time, “it’ll be 5-5 tonight” and I was only half-joking. To be honest, despite our pitiful defending, I had enjoyed the first-half. I thought that Ajax were good – very good – and it felt like a traditional European game, despite the lop-sided support. Big John and I chatted about Tammy. We both love him to bits, but we agreed that – constructive criticism here, not moans for the sake of it – Tammy needs to toughen up still, be more physical. I used the phrase about him using his body as a shield. John said that he needed to learn “the dark arts.”

“Yep. Agreed.”

So, two goals to the worse at half-time, but Ajax had not completely dominated the game. I hoped that another goal in our favour would help to turn the tide.

Reece James replaced Marcos Alonso, with Dave swapping flanks to allow the substitute a run at the Ajax left. Soon after the re-start we were treated to a ridiculous run from deep from Kurt “Total Football” Zouma. He raced through, striding like a mad man, right into the heart of the Ajax defensive half, then third. A couple of ridiculously good step overs had us all wondering if we were about to witness the best goal ever at Stamford Bridge from a central defender. He took aim and the ball ended up in the MHU. As shots go, it was a great defensive clearance.

But the madness had started.

And the noise too,

The volume kept going up and up and up.

I was rightly proud.

Tammy twice threatened the Ajax goal as we looked a far more decent team. A header down (pictured) was an easy save. And he then forced a one-handed save from Andre Onana in the Ajax goal but really should have done better. The raiding of Reece James on our right certainly added a fresh dimension to our play. The crowd were invigorated.

But ten minutes into the second-half, the game took another twist. Ajax, against the run of play, broke away and a cross from our left was turned in with the minimum of fuss by Donny Van de Beek.

Chelsea 1 Ajax 4.

“This will be our heaviest home defeat in Europe. Bollocks.”

In the other game, Valencia were creeping ahead of Lille.

This was going pear-shaped.

But we kept going and the crowd too.

Frank made another positive change.

Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced Mason Mount.

On sixty-three minutes, a fine run into the box from Pulisic – in and out of the game, but always dangerous – resulted in a low cross into the danger area. The course of the ball was deflected slightly by Tammy, and Captain Dave pounced to touch the ball over the line (pictured).

There was a slight delay for a VAR moment.

Offside? Surely not.

The goal stood.

Was the comeback on?

The crowd seemed to think so.

We roared the boys on.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

On seventy-minutes, the night turned into one of pure drama. Fireworks had been lighting up the sky all over the UK, but nowhere was filled with more wide-eyed excitement and awe than at Stamford Bridge. Daley Blind was adjudged to have tackled late on Tammy but the referee – fair play – let play continue. He then spotted that a shot from Callum hit a defender’s hand inside the box. In a surreal moment, the referee blew up, raced over to red card Blind, and then pointed at the spot.

By now the place was electric.

But it got so much better. The referee brandished a red card again and in that nano-second, I just thought that he was re-emphasising the Blind sending-off. But no, Veltman was sent packing too. For dissent? We did not have a fucking clue but we did not fucking care.

Ajax were down to nine men, we had a penalty to make it 4-3 and there were still twenty-minutes on the clock.

Fackinell.

“Jorginho. Jorginho. Jorginho, Jorginho, Jorginho.”

We waited.

A hop on his approach, and a fine penalty (pictured).

Chelsea 3 Ajax 4.

GET IN.

“Fasten your seat belts, lads.”

More MHumour : “you’re not singing anymore.”

Just three minutes later, a corner from our right was met with a high leap under pressure from Zouma (pictured) and his powerful header rebounded back off the bar. With our hearts in our mouths – and other cliches – we watched, mesmirised, as substitute James slotted the ball in with consummate ease.

Chelsea 4 Ajax 4.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

My head was boiling over but I managed – heaven knows how – to capture Reece’ run and slide on film, although only a few photographs are of sufficient quality to share.

Stamford Bridge had rarely seen a night like it.

I leaned forward and spoke to Albert.

“Remember the 4-4 with Liverpool in the Champions League? That was a mad one. But not many people talk about that. I guess because it followed that 3-1 win at Anfield. There was always a cushion.”

I spoke to the bloke beside me.

“My 5-5 might still might happen.”

It seemed that, unbelievably, we were now favourites to win. Fifteen minutes, plus stoppage time, were still to be played. Understandably, the noise was the best all season.

It was just beautiful.

Heaven knows what was going through Dennis’ mind.

In the pub, he had spoken about future travel plans for the next year and probable trips to Mexico City and back to Japan where he met his wife while serving for the US Marines. I replied “nah, after one game at Chelsea, you’ll scrub those plans and be back at Stamford Bridge within six months.”

Just four minutes after the equaliser, an attack developed down the Chelsea left. I shouted “spare man.” Callum received the ball and ran. He played in Dave, the spare man, overlapping and not spotted, with a deft flick. A near-post cross. The ball was pushed towards goal. There was a scramble and the ball was booted away. Jorginho let fly outside the box. A headed clearance. The ball flew back out. Dave pounced. A shot. Pictured.

FUCKING PANDEMONUM IN SOUTH-WEST LONDON.

The next few moments were mad, mental, mesmerising, magnificent.

The photographs tell the story

But they are greyed-out because, alas, VAR stopped our celebrations and after a horrible wait…tick tock, tick tock…the referee ruled that there had been a handball somewhere.

I have thought long and hard about including these photographs. My rule is usually to not bother if a photographed goal is disallowed. But I have to include these. They are a huge part of the night’s story.

The minutes, sadly, raced past.

Ajax, to their credit, kept attacking and Kepa repeated his heroics at Vicarage Road with another fine save to his left to deny the Dutch masters a horrible fifth.

I lost count of the chances that we had in the final minutes. Michy Batshuayi replaced the excellent Kovacic on eight-seven minutes as Frank went for a top-heavy formation. And it was Michy who, undoubtedly, had the best chance, turning to shoot low, but Onana dropped to his left and saved magnificently. I remember a lame header from Tammy that went well wide, but it was all a blur.

Scandalously, the referee decided that only four extra minutes were to be added to the night’s play.

How? Why? What? Who? When?

This was plainly wrong.

If we have to endure VAR…sigh…OK.

But don’t fucking short-change us.

I hate modern football.

At the final whistle, I was light-headed. It was no surprise. It had indeed been mad, mental, mesmerising, magnificent and more.

This game had it all.

PD shot off to get a head start on the walk back to the car. I gathered my thoughts, let the crowds disperse and shook hands with a few mates. I packed away my camera.

“I got a few tonight.”

Down in the basement of the Matthew Harding Stand, I heard a bloke dissing Tammy but, alas, with a little bit more venom and nastiness than Big John and I had chosen to use at half-time, but I thought to myself “I’ll hear him out.” But I then had the misfortune to float past – it honestly felt like I was floating – the same bloke a few minutes later and I heard the same geezer moaning about another player.

Sigh.

Some people are never bloody happy, eh?

We are going through a rather enjoyable learning experience at the moment – it has taken everyone by surprise, and how wonderful it all is – yet some in our midst seem to avidly enjoy the negatives.

Does my nut.

I thought this season was all about giving everyone time and space…to let Frank bed all this down.

Seems not.

Among the overjoyed at Fulham Broadway, I treated myself to a cheeseburger and onions at “Chubby’s Grill” to cap off a bloody magnificent evening in SW6. I know how to live.

Next up Crystal Palace.

See you there.

 

Tales From Easter Monday

Chelsea vs. Burnley : 22 April 2019.

Sunday, Thursday, Monday, Thursday, Sunday, Wednesday, Sunday, Thursday, Sunday, Thursday, Sunday, Sunday, Wednesday, Monday, Thursday, Sunday, Thursday and Easter Bank Holiday Monday. The stretch of non-Saturday games was continuing. After our home game with Burnley, there were at least another five coming up too. Should we get to Baku, it will be a run of twenty-four matches with no Saturday football. It seemed particularly annoying that all other Premier League games were played on Saturday and Sunday. And that our match took place on the Monday evening, with a day of work right on its heels. There was not even the luxury of a three o’clock kick-off.

It was Glenn’s turn to drive and we were on our way at 10am. The reason for the very early start? Well, no surprises, there was a Fulham pub crawl planned. We were slightly surprised by the volume of traffic on the M4, boosted by folk returning to London from the fields and beaches of the West Country. But London was reached in the usual three hours. All four of us have developed an unhealthy interest in the construction of the new Brentford stadium over the past twelve months. As we drove past, high up on the elevated section of the M4, we looked over to check any recent changes. It’s going to be a compact little stadium, each stand different, and a good addition to London football.

We were parked-up near West Kensington. The heat hit us. It was setting up to be a beautiful day in London. The first problem was side-stepped; the District Line was closed over the weekend so we hopped into a cab to take us down to “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge. This cosy boozer wins our “Pub Of The Year” by some margin. As we pulled up, we spotted Luke and Aroha sitting outside.

“Save us a seat, we’ll be back in a bit.”

Inside, the Jacksonville Five were boosted by an extra member, Steve. And thus the drinking party was set.

Aroha, Luke, Jennifer, Brian, Danny One, Danny Two, Danielle, Steve, Parky, PD, Glenn and some bloke with a camera and a mental notebook.

The Thirsty Dozen.

We quickly came up with a game plan; a few pubs at the southern tip of Fulham, and then a few cabs up to “Simmons” at the southern tip of the North End Road to meet the usual suspects.

The story of the weekend was of Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United all losing. Tottenham’s 1-0 loss at Manchester City worked well both ways; a win for City in their race for the title and no points for Tottenham. It was, perhaps, expected. The other two results – proper miracles on Easter Day – were not anticipated; Everton beat United 4-0 and Palace won 3-2 against Arsenal in North London. A win against Burnley in the evening, after a lovely pub crawl, would be the perfect end to the footballing weekend.

We live in a place called Hope.

The game would be Chelsea match number one thousand, two-hundred and fifty for the bloke with a camera and a mental notebook. From Saturday 16 March 1974 to Monday 22 April 2019, I have made a record of all of them.

Some milestones –

Game 1 : 16 March 1974 – Chelsea vs. Newcastle United

Game 250 : 7 September 1996 – Chelsea vs. Sheffield Wednesday

Game 500 : 8 August 2004 – Chelsea vs. Real Zaragoza

Game 750 : 15 September 2009 – Chelsea vs. Porto

Game 1,000 : 14 August 2014 – Burnley vs. Chelsea

Game 1,250 : 22 April 2019 – Chelsea vs. Burnley

I could suck out all sorts of data and statistics from all of these games, but a particular favourite of mine is that by the end of my fifteenth season of support (Game 117 : 28 May 1988 – Chelsea vs. Middlesbrough) the player that I had seen more than any other was Pat Nevin, my favourite-ever Chelsea player. And that date, that horrible game, marked Pat’s last-ever appearance for Chelsea Football Club.

81 starts, all wearing that number seven shirt, plus two substitute appearances.

83 out of 117 games.

In the summer of that horrible summer of 1988, I wrote to Pat – thanking him for his services – and I was so elated when he took the time to write back to me.

Meeting him in Moscow in 2008, another horrible game, was magical.

Cheers Wee Pat.

In fact, I found myself checking out some Pat Nevin rarities over the previous week or so.

Here’s a few gems :

1987 :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIy7K2xMHjI&fbclid=IwAR1LAcchmu8Ub96RZbuLXM6Wy7Jk8aPDF9C43TfqMQG-JL7dA85c3sfhLJk

1989 :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFChBeYhoso&fbclid=IwAR3t__j_DjNmhzVWh00Z5YCDAk6s1P-3jhQ1QILxD1rfCE5sUCMtviVWGOk

2015 :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAETjZMOSq0&fbclid=IwAR3g_pr6NMuD9CS5eu9mq2F8ct7LGo363hWXVEVdv3QGq77oMP1-J7CkyS8

Having spent a good deal of time with Aroha and Luke in Kiev, European adventures were not far away from our minds. We spoke, inevitably of Frankfurt and Baku. Over the weekend, Parky and PD finalised their plans for Frankfurt. On many occasions, friends have often said to me that they live vicariously through these match reports, but in a couple of weeks’ time I will be living vicariously through Parky and PD.

Our American visitors were thoroughly enjoying their stay in London. Banter was soon flying around. It’s great to hear and see some fresh perspectives about Chelsea Football Club. There was even time for a very quick chat with Jennifer and Brian about our predilection for some staples of terrace fashion – a crash course in casualdom – rather than Chelsea favours.

We moved on to “The King’s Arms” – just around the corner – and I changed from pints of “Grolsch” to bottles of “Peroni.” Glenn, bless him, was imbibing a heady mix of coffees, orange juices and “Cokes.” Both pubs were pretty quiet to be honest. We ended up over the road in “The Temperance”, a roomy bar which used to be a billiards hall in days long ago. Time was moving on. We then jumped into some sherbet dabs – a little bit of rhyming slang for you, Danny One – and ended-up at “Simmons.”

There was talk of foreign travel further afield this time. Andy and Gary collared me and asked if I was planning on going to Japan in the summer. The quick answer was “no” although once I realised that we are now playing two games in Japan – in Tokyo and Saitama – I did momentarily look at options. But no, Tokyo in 2012 for the World Club Championships was exceptional. That visit could never be beaten. Talk moved to the following season. Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck has recently dropped some heavy hints that we would be returning to the US in 2020.

Andy, who is a big Elvis fan, told me “if we are going, we are going with you Chris. You can be our travel agent. I want us to play in Memphis.”

“Uh-huh.”

In the first pub, Jennifer had asked me which city in the US would I like to see us play.

“New Orleans would be good.”

If Chelsea Football Club do return to the US for a fully-fledged US tour (I am not going to the game in Boston next month), it would be my twentieth trip across the pond.

Number 20 in 2020.

That has a nice ring to it, eh?

On the façade of the West Stand, there were large displays of a few of our players advertising Beats headphones. With his musical background, Wee Pat should have been involved alongside Rudi, Eden and Ross. His musical column in the 2018/19 match day programme mirrors that of his column in the inaugural “Bridge News” of the mid-‘eighties.

Inside, there were more empty seats dotted around than usual.

Burnley, essentially needing a point for guaranteed safety, were to be watched by around 1,500.

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Higuain – Hazard

I honestly think that Sarri regards Higuain and Giroud in the same way that Ron Greenwood regarded Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence in the late ‘seventies. In one game, out the next.

It was a warm and sultry evening in SW6.

And a quintessential game of two halves for sure.

There was early pressure from us, with our wide men getting behind their defenders in wide positions in front of the Burnley contingent on the left and Parkyville – where the Jax 6 were watching – on the right. There was a rifled shot from Eden Hazard straight at Tom Heaton, then a lob from Gonzalo Higuain that was hoofed off the line.

However, on eight minutes we conceded a corner and the long ball to the far post was headed back into a dangerous area by Dave. It fell invitingly towards a spare Burnley man. Jeff Hendrick volleyed it straight through a scrum of players and Kepa was well beaten. Well, Chelsea – that was bloody marvellous.

Four minutes later, some textbook jinking from Hazard, with one defender on his arse, resulted in a pull-back from the bye-line towards N’Golo Kante. His sweet strike, high into the net, meant that we were right back in the game.

And then two minutes after, some equally pleasing passing inside their box involving Jorginho, Higuain and Azpiliceta – a subtle flick – resulted in Higuain lashing the ball high past the Burnley ‘keeper and into the net.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

While I was up celebrating, I just happened to glance behind me and I couldn’t help but spot around five or six fellow season ticket holders sitting, hardly clapping, nor moving.

“Oh right.”

But how the players celebrated. They raced over to the south-west corner. The flags waved. The crowd roared. Lovely.

This was an open game of football. But my camera was working faster than my mental notebook, dulled by the alcoholic intake of the previous six hours. Our Ruben fancied his chances with a curler from just outside the box but it didn’t have quite enough dip. Sadly, on twenty-five minutes, a free-kick to Burnley was lumped towards our back post again. My camera caught the flight of the ball, the header back from Ben Mee – a free header, Ruben was all over the place – and the flick-on from Chris Wood. Ashley Barnes volleyed the ball in from close range with our defence ball watching. Not one defender had picked-up Barnes, zonal defending my arse. There was – of course – not one player on the back post. My next photo was of the Burnley players celebrating in a close huddle.

Bollocks.

I thought Italian managers were known for their defensive nous.

It was 2-2 and the mood changed a little. But we kept going. There were long shots. Hazard blasted over from an angle. Higuain was narrowly wide. Emerson and Hudson-Odoi were getting space out on our flanks. Sadly, our Callum was injured just before half-time. Pedro replaced him. He forced a save from Heaton, who had just been booked for time-wasting. Thankfully, Burnley had very few forays into our half.

It was level at the break. It had been, at the start especially, a pretty good performance. But it was all about three points. And I was far from convinced. How “typical Chelsea” for us to balls it all up.

As the second-half began, we saw that Mateo Kovacic had replaced Kante. Our spirits fell a little.

Pedro fed Higuain who forced Heaton to get down quickly. Soon after, Hazard dribbled and set up Kovacic. Here was another shot that worried the spectators behind the goal rather than the Burnley goalkeeper. On the hour, a rasper from Emerson flashed wide of the far post. But our attacking play lacked much cohesiveness. The crowd grew frustrated with our play and also with the deliberate time-wasting and “agricultural” challenges from the away team. All eyes were on Hazard, but his path was often unscrupulously blocked. Space was a premium. As so often happens this season, our opponents were so happy to sit deep and for us to pass ourselves to oblivion. I am not sure about a heat map, but Jorginho was so often involved in the middle of the park that his position was like those tube maps with a “you are here” sign which has been worn out by thousands of grubby fingers. The problem was that there were line closures in all directions, not just the District Line.

“You are advised to seek an alternative route”

But no route was forthcoming. And all the ubers were otherwise engaged.

Burnley’s attacks were still rare. Our attacks dried up too. Olivier Giroud came on for Higuain. Big surprise, eh?

Frustrations grew and grew, it became an ill-tempered game of football. It was hard to believe that Heaton was Burnley’s sole booking. We heard that the manager had been sent to the stands. On the walk back to the car, I tried to be as philosophical as I could.

“Hey, three games left. We’re still in it.”

Our next game, on Sunday afternoon, is at Old Trafford where we play the second-best team in Manchester.

I will see you there.

Tales From The Quiet Neighbours

Fulham vs. Chelsea : 3 March 2019.

It seemed to be all about sequences.

We were playing the fifth of seven consecutive games in London. We were playing the seventh match in a row of fourteen that did not include a Saturday game. And we were due to play the tenth game in a run in which there had been alternate wins and losses in the previous nine.

Oh, and in the pub, having mentioned that Slavisa Jokanovic, Claudio Ranieri, Scott Parker – their three managers so far this season – were all former Chelsea personnel, I could not resist yelping

“Bloody leave us alone Fulham.”

Ah yes, the pub. Parky, PD and I had set off early on the morning of the game in order to get ourselves lodged into a pub between 10am and 10.30am. I had completed some research and it looked like “The Rocket” in Putney would be open at 10am. Those following along with these rambles this season will know that we have often enjoyed some splendid pre-match drinks in a few pubs at the southern tip of Fulham – “The Eight Bells” and “The King’s Head” mainly – but our plan was to avoid those two because they would be undoubtedly rammed with supporters, probably of both clubs, as they were so near Craven Cottage. As has been the case on every single visit that I have made to Fulham Football Club, the plan in 2018/19 was to drink in Putney.

We were parked-up at just after 10am. There was light drizzle. The sky overhead was grey and threatened more rain. As we headed towards “The Rocket” on the south bank of the River Thames, we met up with Andrew from Columbus in Ohio who was visiting for three games. I had last met Andrew in Ann Arbor in 2016 for the Real Madrid friendly although he was over for the Palace home game last March. We located the pub easily but I was gobsmacked when the barman uttered the infamous line “we are open yes, but we are not serving alcohol until midday because of the football.” We could hardly believe it. And this was a “Wetherspoons” too; hardly the classiest of joints.

I uttered the first “fackinell” of the day. There would be a few more later.

In days of old, before more modern means of communication, the telex address used by Fulham Football Club was “Fulhamish London” and I immediately thought of this. A “Wetherspoons” pub not opening until midday because of football? How Fulhamish.

For those whose interest is piqued; our telex address was the far less whimsical “Chelstam London SW6”.

We back-tracked a little, closer to where we had parked-up in fact, and settled on “The Duke’s Head” – again on the banks of the river – where we had visited on many other occasions. We were inside when it opened at 10.30am.

Phew.

The troops started to arrive. Brad and Sean from New York appeared, as did Nick and Kim from Fresno. From closer to home, Alan and Gary from London, Duncan and Daryl from Essex, then Jim from Oxfordshire. We were spilling over onto three tables now. Mehul and Neekita from Detroit met up with us again, fresh from seeing the West Ham versus Newcastle United match on Saturday. I met two chaps from the US for the first time; Steve from Ohio, another Steve from New York. There was the usual chatter, banter and laughs. Brad and Sean had watched John Terry and Frank Lampard go head to head at Villa Park the previous day. This would be their first official Chelsea away game. And they were loving every damn minute of it.

With the US friends huddled close by, I spoke about some events which took place in the first few years of the twentieth century.

“I suppose we need to be thankful that Fulham said “no” to playing at Stamford Bridge, or none of us would be here today.”

And there was a moment of silence and clarity.

A few people seemed to gulp.

Indeed, we were grateful.

“If they had said “yes” there would have been no Munich, Peter Osgood may never have been a footballer, and Gianfranco Zola might never have been a crap manager for Watford and Birmingham City.”

“Blimey, that last bit didn’t pan out the way I was expecting” replied Andrew.

We laughed.

The chit chat continued.

“Another beer, lads?”

When Andrew had posted the obligatory “airport photo” on Facebook on leaving the US, alongside his passport and a pint of Peroni, there was a Chelsea badge styled on The Clash’s “London Calling” album cover. My great friend Daryl had produced these, so I introduced the two lads to each other.

“Chelsea World is a small world” part two hundred and fifty-seven.

I hinted to the lads that I had already come up with a title for the match blog.

“Remember when City started to threaten United and Alex Ferguson called them ‘the noisy neighbours’? – well, Fulham are far from noisy.”

It was a shame to leave the cosy confines of this great pub, but time was moving on and, at just past 1pm, so were we. Outside, the weather was murky. I had visions of being blown to bits on the walk across Putney Bridge, but the predicted high winds were still gathering elsewhere and the rain was only a slight hindrance.

On walking towards Craven Cottage – past the All Saints Church where we stood on Remembrance Sunday in November, past the Fulham Palace, and up into Bishop’s Park – I bumped into Kenny, who reminded me that I said that I would include him in the blog at Wembley, but then didn’t. This time, I am making amends for it, and as the date becomes closer, I will include Kenny’s sponsorship link for the London Marathon. I first met Kenny on tour in the US in DC in 2015, and he was also in Ann Arbor the following year. To say that he has lost some weight since 2016 would be a massive understatement. He deserves our support on 28 April. Watch this space.

In Bishop’s Park, we came across a selection of food stalls – some looked fantastic – and quite a few match-goers stopped to soak up some pre-match alcohol. Bizarrely, however, there were a few stalls that would not have looked out of place at a Farmers’ Market. One stall was selling fresh fruit and vegetables.

How Fulhamish.

We reached Stevenage Road at about 1.40pm and I had just enough time to take a few “mood shots” outside Craven Cottage. The red-bricked turnstiles, the rear of the cottage itself, the Johnny Haynes statue, the carved stone plaques, the black and white timber, the crowds rushing past, the match-day scene in all its glory. Craven Cottage rarely disappoints. The main stand on Stevenage Road – renamed the Johnny Haynes Stand after their most-loved player – is a Grade II listed building and is so protected from demolition. And it is a beauty. I have mentioned it before – and I mentioned it to Sean in the pub before the game, in a little segment devoted to the guru of stadium design Archibald Leitch – that the dimensions of Fulham’s oldest stand are exactly the same as the old East Stand at Stamford Bridge which lasted from 1905 to 1972. The two stadia in Fulham could not be more different, now nor in the past. Of course Craven Cottage is a gem, but part of the reason why the old Stamford Bridge was so loved by us Chelsea supporters was that it felt like a proper stadium, and to be blunt, there was so much of it. It was a rambling beast of a stadium with huge rolling banks of terracing, two forecourts, ranks of turnstiles, cobbled alleyways, ivy-covered offices, huge floodlight pylons, everything befitting the name “stadium.” Craven Cottage has always been slight. It has always been small. It has always only had that one stretch of entrances on Stevenage Road, that long expanse of warm red-brick.

On the old East Stand at Chelsea, the large painted letters “Chelsea Football Club” – in block capitals, mirrored on a wall of The Shed today – used to welcome all to Stamford Bridge and at the rear of the cottage to this day are the words “The Fulham Football Club” – in block capitals too. Like big brother, like little brother. Of course it is a cliché now that Fulham hate us but we are ambivalent to them. In fact, if pressed, most Chelsea have a soft-spot for Fulham, which infamously winds them up even more…bless ‘em.

There was the most minimal of security checks and I was in. Such is the benign nature of Fulham Football Club that home fans in the Riverside Stand use the same turnstiles as the away fans. And there is only one stadium in the realm of UEFA that has a designated “neutral zone”, a nod to Fulham’s non-segregation history of the Putney End.

And that is as Fulhamish as it gets.

I made my way to the back of the stand. I had swapped seats with PD as I had visions of my allotted place at the front being a tough place for cameras, and there was also a very strong threat of rain. Rain and cameras certainly do not mix. As it happened, I was in row ZZ, the very back row.

Row ZZ, but I am sure that I would not be tired of this game.

Fulham versus Chelsea, a very local affair, and a pretty friendly rivalry if truth be told.

“London Calling” boomed but it seemed odd that Joe Strummer’s most famous song was being used by Fulham. Joe Strummer was a Chelsea fan and if Chelsea are The Clash, then Fulham are…well, Neil Sedaka.

“I live by the river.”

The teams walked out from beneath the cottage to my right, the red-bricked chimney pots of the terraced streets behind. I quickly checked the team that manager Maurizio Sarri had chosen. The big news; Kepa was back in. Again, OK with me, move on.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Christensen – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Barkley

Willian – Higuain – Hazard

The management team took their positions in the dug outs in front of the stand to my left. It was announced before Christmas that Fulham would at last move ahead on extending the Riverside Stand in May, thus increasing the capacity of their tidy stadium from 25,700 to 29,700, and opening up the rear of that stand so that there would, at last, be an unrestricted walk from Hammersmith Bridge to Putney Bridge. The images of the new stand looks sensational. During the game, there would be rolling adverts on the perimeter of the pitch for the boat race in April, with Craven Cottage a prime site to bring in some extra income.

I did not attend the game, but I can remember Paul Canoville scoring at Craven Cottage in 1983 on the same afternoon as the boat race. I bet the pubs in Fulham were a very odd mix of clientele that day.

Chelsea in all blue. Fulham in white and black.

I soon noticed that the Fulham support were brandishing those damned cardboard noisemakers.

File under “Fulhamish” once more.

With Tottenham and Arsenal eking out a draw at Wembley on the Saturday, here was a fantastic chance to tighten things at the top. A few weeks ago, we were all adamant that we would finish sixth. As Kepa walked towards us, he was loudly clapped, and he responded similarly.

“It’s Kepa you know. He’s better than fuckin’ Thibaut.”

The game began.

Chelsea began well and were backed with some noisy and boisterous singing. The Putney End at Fulham goes back a surprisingly long way, and the last section consists of metal platforms which are extended past the natural bank of terracing below. It allows for a formidable bounce once the away stand gets going.

There was an early outing for the “Barcelona, Real Madrid” chant, but this sadly finished with more than a few adding the “Y” word at the end…maybe that battle is not yet won, after all.

Gonzalo Higuain was involved early, but dawdled with a chance in front of goal and took an extra touch. He then headed well wide. Down below us, a typically selfless block from Dave stifled a goal scoring chance for Fulham. We were on top, but only just. There was almost a calamity when Kepa rose for a ball, with the red-headed Ryan Babel bowed beneath him. He could only fumble and we watched with a degree of horror as the ball came free of his clutches and bounced. Thankfully, the former Liverpool player was oblivious to the loose ball, our ‘keeper quickly clutched the ball and the moment of panic had gone.

Just after, the move of the match thus far developed below us. Rudiger to Willian, then to Dave. He whipped in a low ball towards the near post. Higuain met the cross and dispatched the ball effortlessly past the Fulham ‘keeper Sergio Rico with one touch. He jumped high in front of the seated denizens of the Hammersmith End.

SW6 0 SW6 1

“One team in Fulham, there’s only one team in Fulham” sang the Chelsea hordes.

We were on our way. Or were we?

After only a few minutes, Fulham tested us. Mitrovic swung a left foot, swiveling, and forced a really excellent save from Kepa, but a corner thus followed. In front of the filigree of the balcony, the grey slate of the roof and the red brick of the chimney stacks of the cottage away to my right, the ball was played short and then long, very long. The cross found the unmarked Calum Chambers at the far post. His down and up shot bounced past Kepa and Fulham had equalised.

SW6 1 SW6 1.

The noisemakers were heard. Just.

“Where was the marking?” I screamed.

Two or three minutes later, Jorginho managed to win the ball and knocked it outside to the shuffling Eden Hazard. Jorginho had continued to support the attack and Hazard easily spotted him. Just like Higuain, he did not need more than one touch. I was right behind the course of the ball as it was slotted high into the net. It was almost too easy.

SW6 1 SW6 2.

I watched as the scorer raced over to celebrate with Emerson, and I am surprised that any photographs were not blurred, such was the bounce in the metal flooring below me.

“Jor-jee-nee-oh. Jor-jee-nee-oh. Jor-jee-nee-oh, Jor-jee-nee-oh, Jor-jee-nee-oh” sang those to my right.

“You fickle bastards” I shouted.

Then, just after, a lovely chipped through-ball from Jorginho met the run of Higuain perfectly. The disappointingly wild shot – blasted over – from the striker could and should have made the ‘keeper work. Hazard then ran and shot right at the ‘keeper. Virtually the same move as our opening goal – almost identical – involving a pass from Willian, a low cross from Dave, enabled another first-time shot from Higuain but this time the Fulham ‘keeper scrambled low to his left to save.

At the break, I had memories of the 4-1 win at Craven Cottage in the early winter of 2004, when we – Alan, Gary, Daryl and I from the 2019 party – had met at the Duke’s Head and had witnessed one of the games of the season in Jose Mourinho’s first triumphant campaign at the helm. Would there be a similar score line this time around? I hoped so.

In truth, we struggled for most of the second period and even though we created a few half-chances, there was growing frustration in the Chelsea ranks as the game progressed. Eden struck another low shot at Rico. Willian went close at the near post. There was a strong penalty appeal down below us, but it was waved away. Azpilicueta held his head in his hands and squatted in an odd show of disbelief. I could hardly believe it as the referee Graham Scott repeated Dave’s actions in a clear case of Micky-taking.

“Never seen that before. What a twat of a referee.”

Willian went close but hit the side-netting. A ball was pumped across the face of the goal by Hazard – “too good” I complained to the bloke next to me – but there was nobody close to get a touch.

We found it difficult to create much more. If anything, Fulham finished the far stronger of the two teams. Mitrovic thumped one over and the noisemakers were called into use again.

Sarri rang the changes.

Kovacic for Jorginho.

Pedro for Hazard.

Loftus-Cheek for Barkley.

All were surprising in their own way.

By now, the rain was falling in SW6 and the wind blew the rain in gusts. The River Thames was cutting up, visible in two slithers to my left. The rather odd corporate boxes at Fulham have been likened to large filing cabinets, and they inhibit the views of the outside environs at Craven Cottage. A few chimney pots and a few rooftops close by to my right, a tall block of flats further away. The river and some trees on the far bank to my left. The top floors of the Charing Cross Hospital above the roof of the Hammersmith End. Craven Cottage is hardly claustrophobic but there is not much to see of the outside world.

On the pitch we were, bluntly, holding on.

Kepa saved low from Cairney and then again from Bryan. The nerves were jangling in the Putney End.

With the clock ticking, we were chasing shadows as Ayite found Mitrovic with a quick cross. The strong striker’s instinctive header was met by a very impressive leap from Kepa and the ball was pushed away.

Fackinell.

I had memories of a late Fulham equaliser from Clint Dempsey in 2008. Remember that?

Fulham had thought that they had repeated this feat in the very last move of the match when their young starlet Ryan Sessegnon tucked the ball in, but I – and possibly three-thousand or more Chelsea supporters – saw the raised yellow flag of the linesman on the far side. The clacking noisemakers were soon silent.

With that, the final whistle.

Phew.

We met up outside the turnstiles on Stevenage Road.

“Made hard work of that, eh? I grumbled.

“Did we ever” replied PD.

The rain lashed against us on the walk back to the car. We walked silently through the park. I had the worst-ever post-game hot dog and onions. At last there was the comfort of my warm and dry car waiting for me on Felsham Road. We eventually made our way home. This game on the banks of the Thames will not live long in the memory. But at last we had two back-to-back victories. But, I have to say that Fulham look like they are down, though. And I think that is a shame. I love our little derby. I love a trip to the southern tip of the borough. I wonder who their next manager will be. He’s due to be appointed very soon.

Teddy Maybank, anybody?

On Thursday, we play Dynamo Kiev in the Europa League at Stamford Bridge.

See you there.