Tales From The Cup.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 13 March 2017.

Here was my mindset for this game.

“An evening game on a Spring weekday. This almost feels like a European home game. We are so used to those in March, April and May. Manchester United at home in the FA Cup. But it’s all about the League this season. This game feels odd. Whisper it and with caution, but it almost feels like an inconvenience. It’s not my fault that the FA Cup has lost its gloss. Blame the FA for that. Semi-finals at Wembley. The final being played during the season. The final being played on the same day as league games. The final being played at 5.30pm. Wembley Stadium has lost its appeal and it has lost its mystique. Wembley being used for the play-off finals. Wembley hosting Arsenal and Tottenham’s European games. We can also blame the Champions League and the shift in prestige to that competition. We can blame the FA for belittling the FA Cup with sponsorship and commercialism. We can even blame Chelsea too. We have won it in four of the new Wembley’s ten finals. The rush of adrenalin that used to accompany those 1997, 2000 and 2002 FA Cup runs seem an ancient memory. Blame our success.”

But this was Manchester United and Jose Mourinho. Plenty of anticipation there, right?

“Yes, of course.”

This game almost seemed more about beating United – and Mourinho – than the FA Cup.

After a torrid day at work, there was the release of getting away, and driving to my freedom. But the worry of work, I will freely admit, stayed with me throughout the evening. I had been swamped at work the previous Monday, and it was the sole reason why I was reluctantly forced to miss my third game of the season against West Ham United.

Our pre-match was well away from Stamford Bridge, in The Colton Arms near Queens Club. I remembered that our one previous visit was before the crazy 3-3 with United on an icy day in early 2012, with Villas-Boas (remember him?) still in charge. Two pints of “Birra Moretti” went down well. The pub was cosy and it was good to momentarily unwind for a while. There were brief memories of other FA Cup games with United at Stamford Bridge. The horrid memory of being 0-5 down to them in 1998 still haunts me to this day.

We bumped into some pals on the walk to the stadium.

“Seen any United?”

“None.”

“Wonder where they are drinking. Up in town, maybe. Six thousand of the buggers. They will be noisy tonight, alright.”

The four of us made our way in to the stadium.

PD, Alan, Walnuts and myself.

As we reached our seats, there were plumes of dry ice wafting around the touchlines.

“Fuck knows what all that is about.”

I looked towards The Shed, and there they all were. The dark wall of United’s away support, with only occasion hints of scarlet. The banners were out in force.

“Edinburgh Reds.”

“Bring On United.”

“Mockba 2008.”

“Buxton Reds.”

“Jose Mourinho’s Red Army.”

“I may be a wage slave on Monday but I watch United when they play.”

I knew of course that they would be in good voice. Even the truest bluest Chelsea supporter, blue-tinted spectacles and more, must surely acknowledge that United’s away support ranks right up there in terms of noise, variety of songs and balls out swagger. The massed ranks of United from near and far were already making a din. I recalled previous eras. The Red Army of the ‘seventies. The Cockney Reds and the Inter City Jibbers of the ‘eighties. The Men in Black. The whole story. On a night of Conte and Kante, six thousand similarly-named fuckers were making their presence felt in The Shed. There is, of course, a great irony when Chelsea fans around the world take the piss out of United fans not living in Manchester. I knew of at least three Chelsea fans from the US who were in the stadium. I used to dislike – is hate too terrible a word? – United more than any other, but other clubs nurture strong feelings of contempt too, and for different reasons.  But although I still have little time for United fans who watch only from their living rooms, I have a grudging respect for those who go, support, sing and bawl.

The news of the team had filtered through to us. A strong team for sure. A team based on the League campaign. But no room for Pedro nor Cesc.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill – Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso – Willian, Costa, Hazard.

There was no Ibrahimovic and that was a good thing. Although he has surprised me with his prowess this season, I still loathe him and it irritates the bejesus out of me when fellow Chelsea supporters call him “Zlatan” or “Ibra”. Less of the sycophancy you fucknozzles. He is not our player.

Rashford was playing up front instead and 35,000 Chelsea fans yawned at another Mourinho mind game.

There was the now familiar darkening of the lights and the Stamford Bridge lighting technicians put on a show for the sell-out crowd and the watching millions – we hoped – at home.

I remembered back on the Chelsea vs. Manchester United match in October when – long in to the game – I suddenly realised that I had not purposefully looked over to Jose Mourinho once. On this occasion, soon into the game, I watched both managers in their technical areas, and I realised how our affections have done a 180 degree turn as dramatic as those of Eden Hazard.

The king is dead, long live the king.

There is something classic about the blue, blue, white and the red, white, black of a Chelsea versus United game. In all their visits, I have never known United to wear anything else. Both of the Adidas kits were festooned with the biggest numbers seen on sports jerseys since the 1970’s Irish rugby team.

In the opening quarter, United seemed on top. They were more dynamic, more focussed. They moved the ball well. A very early chance for Rojo was headed over. Then Mkhitaryan went wide. The fans around me were on edge.

The United fans were standing and singing.

There was a “Na na hey hey” from them – not heard that one before – and a “Hey Jude” from us.

It was up to our creative genius to single-handedly get us involved. A sublime turn – on a sixpence – from Eden Hazard left Smalling wondering why and how he ever left Fulham. Eden sprinted away, with defenders fearful of diving in, and he skipped deep in to the box. His low drive was ably finger-tipped away by De Gea. The noise followed as the dormant Stamford Bridge crowd awoke.

“What a run.”

From Willian’s corner, Gary Cahill did well to change shape to connect. The ball seemed destined to go in, but De Gea again clawed it away. It was a stunning save.

We were back in this now, and our play vastly improved. There was a beguiling battle between the lofty Pogba and Kante, our diminutive destroyer of dreams, if only in terms of physicality. It seemed Kante was on top throughout.

United seemed to be intent on fouling our men whenever the chance arose. Herrera was booked, but the tackles still came thick and fast.

Eden Hazard fired over. He was our main threat. United knew it.

Jones crashed into Hazard, and we were amazed that a booking did not follow. With the crowd still baying, Herrera then quickly fouled Eden from behind, and the noise level increased. The referee Michael Oliver had clearly had enough and the second yellow for Herrera was quickly followed by a red.

“Off you go, knobhead.”

The Stamford Bridge crowd roared.

I looked over at Mourinho, and there was that familiar false smile as if to say “I know what you are all doing, it’s all a big conspiracy.”

There had been loud cries of “Fuck Off Mourinho” from the home areas already in the game. I cringed when I heard that to be honest. He’s not our favourite grouchy Portugueser right now, but that was not warranted.

Mkhitaryan was replaced by Fellaini. Walnuts bellowed “Hair Bear Bunch” and I giggled. It’s something when you are known for your hairstyle rather than your footballing abilities. Isn’t that right, Paul Pogba?

This was turning into a compelling game of football, but even during the match, work concerns kept flitting in to my head.

“Concentrate on the football you twat.”

The half ended with us well in control but I wondered if the reduction in their numbers would make United even more difficult to break down, as is so often the case. Courtois had hardly been forced to make a save. Moses was full of running and Willian full of ingenuity.

In the concourse, I watched a TV screen to see that Frank Lampard, among others, was discussing Mourinho and Conte coming together after the sending off. It felt odd that Frank was so close, but yet so far away.

I watched as Peter Houseman was remembered during the half-time break – it would soon be the fortieth anniversary of his tragic death – as his sons and grandsons walked the pitch. I remembered their last appearance; was it really ten years ago?

“One Peter Houseman, there’s only one Peter Houseman.”

I always thought that he never ever looked like a footballer. In the age of sideburns and moustaches, long hair and fringes, Peter Houseman looked like a librarian, a draughtsman or a geography teacher, bless him.

Not long in to the second-half, with Chelsea attacking the Matthew Harding, N’Golo Kante – finding himself involved in an attacking position quite frequently now – steadied himself and, although with Pogba close by, rattled a low strike past De Gea’s dive. The ball nestled in the corner and we went doolally.

“YES.”

We bristled with fine play for a while, moving the ball from wing to wing, intent on tiring United.

Then, a potential calamity. David Luiz jumped and mistimed a clearance, leaving Rashford with acres of space. He advanced, steadied himself, and I was convinced that he would level it. His low shot was blocked by Thibaut.

“Fantastic save.”

Chelsea created chance after chance as the half progressed. We were relentless. Dave had two long-range efforts. Willian went close. Costa headed wide from close-in. At one stage I had to remind myself that Pogba was even on the pitch. United were – cliche warning – chasing shadows by now, but I was very wary that one goal would change things dramatically. With another hard day at work on the Tuesday, I obviously feared extra-time, penalties, then getting home at 2am.

United created nowt.

Everyone in the media seems to be fawning over Mourinho’s United of late – I would say that, wouldn’t I? – but there doesn’t seem to be too much identity in the United team at the moment. And there doesn’t seem to be too much steel nor too much style either. It is a very sub-par United team compared to the ones of previous eras such as those of 1994, 1999 and – fuck – 2008.

Conte replaced Willian with Cesc Fabregas. We hoped he could open up the close spaces in and around the United box. There was one United attack of note remaining; Fellaini rose to an insane height and headed down, but Pogba could not pounce.

Conte replaced the tireless Moses with Zouma, and then Costa with Batshuayi. The four minutes of injury time only delayed United’s exit.

The final whistle went and we were through to our twelfth FA Cup semi-final in the past twenty-four seasons.

In the first of those (Wolves 1994, detailed only recently), we invaded the pitch and were euphoric. In 2017, we clapped, put our hands in our pockets, and exited.

Sigh.

Not far down the Fulham Road, we learned that we had been paired with Tottenham in the semi-finals.

My immediate thoughts were of dread – “imagine losing to that lot, is hate too strong a word?” – but then I let reality sink in.

“We’re by far the best team in English football this season. Why worry?”

After a customary cheese burger with onions at “Chubby’s Grill”, I grabbed PD by the arm and said –

“On to Saturday, now, and a bigger game. Stoke away in the league.”

Suddenly, the league became the important focus again.

I reached home at 1am, and briefly watched a post-match interview with the Manchester United manager, who – in all seriousness, with no hint of irony – claimed that Paul Pogba had been, unequivocally, the best player on the pitch.

Well, well, well.

I just had one solitary thing to say to that :

“Fuck off, Mourinho.”

IMG_3499

Tales From The King Power Stadium.

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 14 January 2017.

The Chuckle Bus was on the road again. There had been a breakfast at a canal-side café in Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, a lunchtime drink at a pub with a roaring fire in Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire while watching a few moments of the televised Tottenham vs. West Brom game, and a further pub stop in the Warwickshire village of Wolvey. We were taking our time. The kick-off in Leicester was not until 5.30pm. There was no rush. In all honesty, the mood in the car was a little pessimistic. I think it shocked us.

The reason for our noticeable solemnity was due to the rumours flying around the internet, the radio and the TV about Diego Costa. There was no absolute ratification from Chelsea regarding the reasons for Costa not travelling to Leicester. But the rumours were rife. Was he genuinely injured? Was he seeking a change in China? Was he the centre of a media-led campaign to unsettle us? We didn’t know. We tried not to get sucked in to a maelstrom of negativity, but it was difficult.

In a nutshell, Diego Costa is currently at the peak of his game. If he was genuinely injured, no problems. If there were darker Machiavellian reasons for his absence, what a mess.

Either way, it darkened the mood considerably. After a loss at Tottenham ten days previously, we briefly considered a team affected by the loss of Diego, a subsequent second successive loss in the league in 2017 and storm clouds gathering ahead of tough games against Liverpool and Arsenal. Well, Liverpool anyway. I simply do not fear playing Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. The match at a hostile Anfield will be a different kettle of fish, or dustbin of cats.

But by the same token, we trusted Antonio Conte to enliven his troops against a Leicester City team which would be missing a few key players. Against the immobile rugby-players Huth and Morgan, I fully expected the three-pronged attack of Hazard, Pedro and Willian to turn them inside and out.

We were parked up in good time. Although I had dressed for the Baltic – quilted jacket, and warm pullover, Timbers – the walk to the stadium was not as cold as I had expected.

The three sporting stadia in Leicester are clustered together to the south of the city centre; cricket’s Grace Road, rugby’s Welford Road and football’s King Power Stadium. They are all within a twenty-five-minute walk of each other. The latter, replacing Filbert Street, is a typical new build. A single-tiered identikit stadium. Replace the blue seats with red, and it could be Southampton’s St. Mary’s. It perfectly suits Leicester City, but it’s hardly an interesting site, or sight.

Our own beloved Stamford Bridge had been at the forefront of my mind since the last game. On Wednesday evening the local Hammersmith & Fulham Council met to vote on the planning application for our spectacular re-build.

At around 10pm it was announced that they had said “yes.”

What wonderful news.

I remembered the black days of autumn 2011 and the invigorating “Say No CPO” campaign, which defeated the club in their attempt to buy our shares, but which then forced the club to do a complete 180 degrees on a re-build at Stamford Bridge.

Just magnificent.

Thank you so much for listening Roman. And thank you so much for taking every care in choosing a team of architects that has produced such a breath taking and iconic design. I think the design, bearing in mind the considerable constraints forced upon it, is wonderful. It will break the mould of football stadia in this country. No copycat stadium for this club. Not everyone is a fan, but I feel that the detractors are focussing on the aerial view. But that misses the point. From street level, I believe that the structure – London brick, rising high, strong, iconic, unique – will be mesmirising. At night time, for an evening game, with the roof under lit, the stadium will be spectacular.

Of course the negative in all of this will be a hiatus at Wembley, in all probability, but compared to the dark days of the “Save The Bridge” campaign in 1986 – buckets outside The Shed End – and the attempted land grab in 2011, we should not be too disheartened. It is up to the club to be creative in its match day pricing during our seasons among the red seats at Wembley in order for us to maintain our level of support.  My real fear is of a mediocre team with sub 30,000 gates for lesser opponents.

No pressure, Antonio.

I rewarded myself for getting the lads to yet another game with a pint of lager. In the bar area below the steps to the stadium, there were the usual faces, and the Chelsea fans were in good voice. Yet more Aquascutum scarves.

A text came through on my phone : Frome Town were beating Redditch United 6-1. It soon became 8-1. My hometown team are currently enjoying their best ever season, a nine-game unbeaten run, and now their biggest win at that level. Good times indeed.

Back in the rarefied atmosphere of the Premier League, the main two results went against us; there were easy wins for Tottenham and then Arsenal.

The team was announced. Conte had opted for solidity with Nemanja Matic alongside N’Golo Kante.

We had seats down low by the corner flag. Just before kick-off – out of nowhere – my mate Tuna from Atlanta suddenly appeared, bouncing down the steps. What a small world.

This would be my first sighting of Leicester City this season; I had missed the 4-2 League Cup win and the 3-0 home victory in the league. On a dark evening, Gary and myself wondered why we were wearing black and not white. Thank goodness the home fans had not been issued with those damned noise-makers.

Not long in to the game, the away fans roared our support of a missing player.

“Diego, Diego, Diego, Diego, Diego,”

I approved.

The home team started on the front foot and Thibaut Courtois was called on to thwart an early attempt on our goal. We reacted superbly well to this early threat. After just six minutes, a cross from Cesar Azpilicueta reached Pedro. He was falling, under pressure, inside the box, but was able to touch the ball to Eden Hazard. The away section held our breath. A goal was on the cards. Eden played it out to Marcos Alonso, who smashed the ball past low Kasper Schmeichel.

Get in.

Wild celebrations, get off Tuna.

Leicester City responded well to be honest. Although Chelsea maintained high levels of possession, pushing the ball around well, the home team caused us a few problems. A ball from out wide often caused us concerns, but on every occasion, the defensive three plus the reliable Courtois were able to clear.

On ten minutes, the stadium lit up with mobile phone spotlights as a nod of support to former player – and now match day host – Alan Birchenall, who suffered a heart-attack on the previous Thursday. Birchenall once played for Chelsea, and one of his ports of call after leaving Leicester City was to manage Trowbridge Town from my neck of the woods back in their hay days, when they battled away in the Conference for a few heady seasons. The ups and downs of non-league football; Trowbridge Town are now many levels below Frome Town.

Mark Albrighton, Danny Drinkwater and that man Jamie Vardy looked dangerous at times. I was able to focus on Vardy’s battle with Gary Cahill; a good old-fashioned drama.

Over on the far side were two loved Italians; Claudio Ranieri and Antonio Conte.

The home fans to our left were engaged in a bit of banter with us. They were clearly enjoying their post-championship European campaign.

“Are you going to Seville?”

While we patiently played through our midfield, with Alonso overlapping well and enjoying a fine game, Leicester played the role of counter-attacker. Vardy caused more anxiety for Courtois. There were few chances for either side, though. A free-kick from Pedro failed to test Schmeichel just before the break.

Six minutes into the second-half, we struck again. A Willian corner from down below us was only partially-cleared and the ball fell invitingly to none other than Marcos Alonso. He swiped at the ball – using his left foot this time – and he kept the ball down well. A slight deflection steered it away from Schmeichel.

Bloody hell, Alonso again, get in.

I caught his joyous run down to our section on film.

img_1827-2

It was all Chelsea now, with everyone playing to their maximum. Kante seemed to win every 50/50. He was inspired. Matic was solid. Alonso and Moses were full of graft and running. Every time that Alonso received the ball, he was urged to “shoot” by the away faithful. What fun.

Gary Cahill had an outrageous overhead kick which surprised us all, and then Alonso had a big moment. The ball ballooned up in the air. At that moment in time, Alonso had two options.

“Do I hit it on the volley? Do I score my first-ever hat-trick since I was in Senorita Ramirez’ class in secondary school, that sunny day in Madrid, I can still see it now, Juan Martinez you did not stand a chance, you horrible little twat, the Chelsea fans will love me, it will make up for Tottenham, not my best game, yes I’ll plant this into the goal and the match ball will be mine. Or do I trap it and lay it off? Am I confident? Too bloody right I am. I’ll hit the fucker. Here I go.”

It whistled narrowly wide.

We were purring. I lost count of the one-touch angled passes played into space by Hazard, Pedro and Willian. It was spectacular stuff.

With twenty minutes to go, we scored a lovely third goal. More dogged perseverance from Moses, a clean and crisp ball from Kante, an impudent back-heel from Pedro. Willian reached the ball just before Schmeichel, and his lofted chip was headed home by Pedro.

3-0, get off Tuna.

More lovely celebrations in front of us.

Pedro had enjoyed another fantastic game for us. One moment sticks in my mind. After the third goal, he flung himself in front of a Leicester defender as he attempted to clear from just a few yards outside their penalty area. It summed up the spirit coursing through the veins of our whole team this season. Top marks.

Conte made some late change; Cesc Fabregas for Eden Hazard, Michy Batshuayi for Willian, Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Pedro.

It stayed at 3-0.

At the end of the game, the entire team walked over to us. The away support were bouncing in praise of the manager and his troops.

The memories of our match at the same stadium last season – that bleak night, Mourinho speaking of “betrayal” and his last-ever game as our manager – seemed from another age, another era.

In 2016/2017, there is a new leader of our team.

“Antonio, Antonio – Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

img_1791

Tales From Our Rejuvenation.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 23 October 2016.

We all remember where we were when we heard that Matthew Harding had died. For a generation of Chelsea supporters, it is our Kennedy moment.

On the morning of Wednesday 23 October 1996, I was at work in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, in a factory’s quality assurance office. I had not been present at the previous evening’s League Cup tie at Bolton, where we had lost 2-1. I tended to mainly go to just home games in those days. In fact, another sport was occupying my mind during that week as I was in the midst of watching my New York Yankees playing in a World Series for the first time since 1981. I had listened to the League Cup game on the radio before catching a few hours’ sleep before waking at around 1am to watch Game Three from Atlanta. The Yankees won that night, and after the game had ended at around 4am, I squeezed in a few more hours of sleep before waking at 6am for a 7am start at work. While setting off for work that morning, I briefly heard a mention about a helicopter crash involving Chelsea fans returning from Bolton. It was possibly just a rumour at that stage. With me being rather sleep deficient, I possibly wasn’t giving it the gravity that it deserved.

At around 8am, the news broke that Matthew Harding had been aboard the helicopter, and that he had been killed, along with the fellow passengers. I was full of sudden and overwhelming grief. I had been so impressed with Matthew since he had arrived on the scene at Chelsea in around 1993, and saw him as “one of us.” I remember I had seen him on a Sunday morning politics programme just a few weeks before, lending his support to the New Labour campaign. He seemed to be perfect for Chelsea’s new vision; young and enthusiastic, one of the people, but with a few bob to spare for our beloved club. It almost seemed too good to be true.

Soon after I heard the news, I received a phone-call on the office phone from a friend and journalist, who lived locally in Chippenham, and who had – with Matthew’s assistance – written a book about Chelsea’s 1994 FA Cup Final appearance and consequent European campaign the following season (“Blue Is The Colour” by Khadija Buckland). Within seconds, we were both in tears. My fellow co-workers, I think, were shocked to see such emotion. Khadija had only spoken to Matthew on the phone on the Monday. My head was in a spin. I was just devastated.

I had briefly met Matthew on one or two occasions, but I felt the loss so badly. I remember shaking him by the hand in The Gunter Arms in 1994, the night of the Viktoria Zizkov home game. My friend Glenn and myself watched from the Lower Tier of the East Stand that game, and I remember turning around, catching his eye in the Directors’ Box, and him giving me a thumbs up. His face was a picture of bubbly excitement. I am pretty sure that I met him, again briefly, underneath the East Stand, after a game with Bolton in 1995, when he appeared with Khadija, and we quickly shook hands before going our separate ways. In those days, both Glenn and myself would take Khadija up to Stamford Bridge where she would sell copies of her book in the corporate areas of the East Stand.

We all remember, too, the outpouring of emotion that followed on the Saturday, when Stamford Bridge was cloaked in sadness as we brought bouquets, and drank pints of Guinness in memory of Matthew, before a marvellously observed minute of silence took place before our game with Tottenham. The Spurs fans were magnificent that day. We won 3-1, and the victory seemed inevitable. It had been the most emotional game of football that I had ever witnessed. Later that Saturday night – in fact in the small hours of Sunday morning – I watched as the Yankees came from 2-0 down to win the World Series 4-2. At the end of that sporting day / night doubleheader, I was an emotional wreck. It had been a tough week, for sure. Sadness and joy all tumbling around together. Later, my mother sent a letter of condolence to Matthew’s widow Ruth, and I have a feeling that she replied.

I remember how happy a few friends and I were to see Ruth Harding in a Stockholm park ahead of our ECWC Final with Stuttgart in 1998.

Matthew would have loved Stockholm. He would have the triumphs that he sorely missed over the past twenty years. He would have loved Munich.

As our game with Manchester United, and the return of you-know-who, became closer and closer, I thought more and more about Matthew. And I was enthralled that the club would be honouring him with a specially crafted banner which would be presented to the world from the stand which bears his name.

Tickets were like gold dust for this one.

It promised to be a potentially epic occasion.

I had missed a couple of our most recent games – both the matches against Leicester City – and nobody was happier than myself to be heading to Stamford Bridge once again.

We set off early. In the Chuckle Bus – Glenn driving, allowing me to have a few beers – there was caution rather than confidence. Despite the fine performance against Leicester last weekend, Mourinho’s United would surely be a tough nut to crack. I am sure that I was not alone when I predicted a 0-0 draw.

“Just don’t want to lose to them.”

Once at Chelsea, we splintered in to two groups. PD, his son Scott and Parky shot off to The Goose, while Glenn and myself headed down to the stadium. I met up with good friends Andy, John and Janset from California, and Brad and Sean from New York, over for the game, and trying to combat jetlag with alcohol and football.

It was a splendid pre-match and the highlights were personalised book signings from both Bobby Tambling and Kerry Dixon. Glenn was able to have quite a chat with Colin Pates, and it is always one of the great joys of match days at Chelsea that our former players are so willing to spend time with us ordinary fans. It really did feel that we were all in this together, “Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army” for sure. Into a packed “Chelsea Pensioner” (now taking over from “The Imperial” as the place to go for pre-game and post-game music) for a beer and then along to “The Malthouse” for a couple more. We chatted to former player Robert Isaac – a season ticket-holder like the rest of us – once more and shared a few laughs.

A couple of lads recognised Glenn and myself from “that night in Munich” and it was bloody superb to meet up again and to share memories of that incredible day in our lives. We had all caught the last train from the Allianz Arena at around midnight, and we were crammed together as the train made its painfully slow journey into the centre of Munich. They were Chelsea fans – ex-pats – now living in The Netherlands, and it was great for our lives to cross again after more than four years.

With a few pints inside me, I was floating on air as I walked towards The Bridge.

The match programme had a retro-1996 season cover, with Matthew featured prominently. The half-and-half scarves were out in force, and I aimed a barb at a dopey tourist as I made my way through to the turnstiles.

The team had been announced, by then, and Antonio Conte had kept faith with the same team that had swept past Leicester City.

So far this season, our usual 4-2-3-1 has morphed into 4-2-4 when required, but here was a relatively alien formation for these shores; a 3-4-3.

Conte was changing things quicker than I had expected.

Thankfully I was inside Stamford Bridge, in the Matthew Harding, with plenty of time to spare. The United fans had their usual assortment of red, white and black flags. There was a plain red square, hanging on the balcony wall, adorned with Jose Mourinho’s face. It still didn’t seem right, but Jose Mourinho was not on my mind as kick-off approached.

The stadium filled. There was little pre-match singing of yesteryear. We waited.

The balcony of the Matthew Harding had been stripped of all other banners, apart from two in the middle.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

I noted the phrase “Matthew Harding – One Of Our Own” stencilled on the balcony wall too. That was a nice touch; I hope it stays.

Of course, should the new Stamford Bridge come to fruition, the actual stand will be razed to the ground, but surely the club will keep its name in place.

Without any fuss, a large light blue banner appeared at the eastern edge of the Matthew Harding Lower. It was stretched high over the heads of the spectators and slowly made its way westwards.

It depicted that famous image of Matthew leaping to his feet at a pre-season game in the summer of 1996.

MATTHEW HARDING

ALWAYS LOVED

NEVER FORGOTTEN

There was no minute’s silence, nor applause, the moment soon passed, but it suited the occasion very well. There was no need for excessive mawkishness much beloved by a certain other club. Matthew would have hated that.

The teams appeared, but my pals in the Sleepy Hollow did not; they were still outside as the game began. To be fair, I was still settling myself down for the game ahead – checking camera, checking phone, checking texts – as a ball was pumped forward. It fell in the middle of an equilateral triangle comprising of Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and David De Gea. Confusion overcame the three United players. In nipped the raiding Pedro, who touched the ball square and then swept it in to an open goal, the game just thirty seconds in.

The crowd, needless to say, fucking erupted.

The players raced over to our corner and wild delirium ensued. It was like a mosh pit.

Shades of Roberto di Matteo in the Matthew Harding Final of 1997? You bet.

This was a dream start.

Alan, PD and Scott appeared a few moments later. There were smiles all round.

I was so pleased to see us a goal up that the next few minutes were a bit of a blur. The crowd soon got going.

“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”

Luiz jumped with Ibrahimovic and the ball sailed over Thibaut Courtois’ bar.

Eden Hazard – his ailments of last autumn a distant memory – drove one past the United post. So much for a dour and defensive battle of attrition that myself and many others had predicted.

After around ten minutes, it dawned on me that I had not once peered over to see what Jose Mourinho was doing. Apart from taking a few photographs of the two managers, the men in black, on the touchline with my camera, I did not gaze towards Mourinho once the entire match.

This was not planned. This was just the way it was.

I loved him the first-time round, but grew tired of his histrionics towards the end of his both spells with us. When he talks these days, the Mourinho snarl is often not far away; that turned-up corner of his lip a sign of contempt.

My own thought is that he always wanted the United job.

Conte is my manager now.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

Twenty minutes in, a little more Chelsea pressure forced a corner. Hazard centered, and the ball took a couple of timely touches from United limbs before sitting up nicely for stand-in captain Gary Cahill to swipe home.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Two bloody nil, smelling salts please nurse.

Gary ran over to our corner and was again swamped with team mates.

United had the occasional chance at The Shed End, but our often criticised ‘keeper was in fine form.

A swivel and a shot from Diego Costa was blocked by a defender.

At the half-time whistle, all was well in the Matthew Harding.

Neil Barnett introduced Matthew’s three children to the crowd, along with former legend Dan Petrescu. We clapped them all as they walked around the Stamford Bridge pitch. The travelling Manchester United support duly joined in with the applause and this was a fine gesture. Of course, such disasters have united both clubs over the years.

Like Tottenham in 1996, respect to them.

As the second-half began, Alan and PD were showing typical Chelsea paranoia.

“Get a third and then we can relax.”

Although I was outwardly smiling – we were well on top – I agreed.

Juan Mata joined the fray at the break, replacing Fellatio, who had clearly sucked in the first-half.

Soon into the half, the little Spaniard came over to take a corner down below us and we rewarded him with a lovely round of applause. I still respect him as a person and player. He will always be one of us.

The second-half began with a few half-chances for Chelsea, and a few trademark Courtois saves thwarting United. Just past the hour, a lovely pass from the revitalised Nemanja Matic played in Eden Hazard. He dropped his shoulder, gave himself half a yard and curled a low shot just beyond, or below, the late dive of De Gea.

Three-nil, oh my bloody goodness.

Thoughts now of the 5-0 romp in 1999 when even Chris Bloody Sutton scored.

It was time to relax, now, and enjoy the moment. Every time Courtois and Ibrahimovic went up together for a cross, I had visions of their noses clashing in a football version of the rutting of stags, bone against bone.

We continued to dominate.

Ten minutes later, we watched with smiles on our faces as N’Golo Kante found himself inside the box with the ball at his feet. He sold a superb dummy with an audacious body swerve and cut a low shot past the United ‘keeper to make it four.

Chelsea 4 Manchester United 0.

Conte, who must have been boiling over with emotion, replaced Pedro with Chalobah, Diego Costa with Batshuayi and Hazard with Willian.

Willian, after losing his mother, was rewarded with his own personal song.

The noise was great at times, but – if I am honest – not as deafening as other demolition jobs of recent memory.

Courtois saved well from Ibrahimovic, but the game was over.

“Superb boys – see you Wednesday.”

There was a lovely feeling of euphoria as we bounced away down the Fulham Road.

There was a commotion over by the CFCUK stall, and we spotted Kerry Dixon, being mobbed by one and all. The excitement was there for all to feel.

“One Kerry Dixon.”

Back at the car, we had time to quickly reflect on what we had seen.

“It’s hard to believe that Arsenal, when we were dire, was just four weeks away.”

Sure enough, we were awful on that bleak afternoon in North London. I am almost lost for words to describe how the manager has managed to put in a new system, instil a fantastic work ethic, and revitalise so many players. It’s nothing short of a miracle really. Antonio Conte has only been in charge of nine league games, but he has seemingly allowed us to move from a crumbling system to a new and progressive one in just three games.

What a sense of rejuvenation – from the man who once headed the Juve Nation – we have witnessed in recent games. The three at the back works a treat. Luiz looks a much better defender than ever before. Cahill is a new man. Dave is as steady as ever. Courtois has improved. On the flanks, Alonso has fitted in well, but Moses has been magnificent. Matic is back to his best. Kante is the buy of the season. Hazard is firing on all cylinders. Pedro and Willian are able players. Diego is looking dangerous again. It’s quite amazing. And the manager seems happy to blood the youngsters.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

A fantastic result to honour a fantastic man.

The five teams at the top of the division are now separated by just one point.

All of a sudden, there is confidence and enjoyment pulsating through our club.

Matthew would certainly approve.

img_9976

Tales From 2015/2016.

Chelsea vs. Watford : 26 December 2015.

What were my expectations for this game? It would be easy to simply say “a win.” But in this most ridiculous of football seasons, where north is south and where black is white, it seems that I am constantly having to re-calibrate my hopes on a match by match basis. Here was another game that illustrated how this campaign has been turned 180 degrees. Watford, newly arrived in the top flight after an eight year hiatus and with a new manager to boot, were enjoying a recent burst in form, taking them up to the heady heights of seventh place in the table.

Chelsea, the Champions, were languishing in fifteenth position.

Yep.

This is 2015/2016.

Up is down. Big is small. Wet is dry. Bill Gates is Apple. Coke is blue. Puma has three stripes. The Confederates are from the North. The Pope is agnostic. A bear shits in a bathroom.

It is as difficult to unravel as an Agatha Christie whodunit with half the pages missing.

I had traveled up to London on a very mild but also a very grey and nondescript Boxing Day morning with Lord Parky and P-Diddy. My Christmas Day had come and gone with little cheer. Having lost my mother in February, the first Christmas without her warm smile was always going to be a tough one. My Christmas Day was somewhat of an emotional wasteland for me. As I drove towards London, its grey shadow lingered long in my thoughts. To be honest, I was struggling to conjure up too much enthusiasm for the game at Stamford Bridge against Watford. My thoughts were more focused on Monday’s away game at Old Trafford – always one of “the” trips each season – what with the current malaise affecting that particular club too. Add all of the conjecture about Mourinho joining United in to the mix, and you have a highly intriguing scenario.

Monday will be a cracking day out.

Prior to the game with Watford, I spent a couple of hours in the company of Peter, a pal now living in the United States. I last met him on his own turf, in Washington DC, for the game with Barcelona during the summer. We were joined by two Stamford Bridge game day virgins Chris and Kate – also from the US – all giddy with excitement about seeing the boys in the flesh in SW6 for the first time. I gave them a few insights into our club as we set off to meet up with the usual suspects in The Goose.

The pub seemed quieter than usual. As soon as we had settled, there was a roar as Stoke City went a goal up against Manchester United. A second soon followed. After United’s poor run of form, a trip to the Potteries is the last place that they would have wanted to visit. The stakes for Monday were raised further.

I met up with Jeff from Texas, who had just flown in that very morning. It was lovely to see him again. This was a similar scenario to our game at St. Andrew’s on Boxing Day in 2008 when Jeff and two friends had driven straight from Heathrow to Birmingham. This time, Jeff was with his wife, another Stamford Bridge game day virgin. In order to save money for this trip, Jeff – who is a school teacher – took on a second job throughout the summer, mowing lawns, possibly with a dog called spot. I heartily approved of this. It annoys me at times how so many of our US fans moan about not being able to travel to England to see us play – hell, some even moan about Chelsea not playing in their part of the country during US pre-season tours – so “fair play” to Jeff for working a second job to see us in England. It immediately reminded me of the story that my good friend Andy told about his schooldays. Andy would often go without school meals during the week in order to save money for the train fare down to London from his Midlands home to see Chelsea play at Stamford Bridge.

Top work from Andy in 1979 and top work from Jeff in 2015.

Outside the West Stand, and underneath Peter Osgood’s boots, I met up with three or four more acquaintances from the US, those that I have befriended through Facebook or met on pre-season tours, but these were only part of a bigger “Chelsea In America” ensemble – those who have been saving their lunch money over the past few years – and I was very happy to take a group photo of them all. There were a good few Stamford Bridge virgins among this little group too, although some were on a repeat visit.

Peter, Chris, Kate, Su, Tim and Dan posed with Howard, Marion, Ralph, Richie, Arnold, Al, Fonzie, Joanie, Chachi, Potsie and Pinkie. Laverne and Shirley were still in the pub.

Happy days.

After taking the photo, I repeated something that I always say to first-time visitors –

“And if we lose today, you’re not fucking coming back.”

Some would be at Old Trafford on Monday too, the lucky bleeders.

Inside Stamford Bridge – I was in early – both sets of players were going through their re-match drills. Unsurprisingly, Watford brought their full three thousand.

Neil Barnett introduced Guus Hiddink to the Stamford Bridge crowd and he drew a fine reception. Hiddink seems a good man, a steadying influence after the storm which accompanied Mourinho’s closing months, and if memory serves he was well-liked by all of the players during his tenure in 2008/2009.

I whispered to Alan : “When we sang ‘we want you to stay’ to Guus at Wembley in 2009, who would honestly have thought that we would be welcoming him back almost seven years later. And that he would be replacing Mourinho.”

The team was virtually unchanged from the win against that very poor Sunderland team. Gary Cahill replaced Kurt Zouma.

Chelsea dominated the first quarter of an hour with the opposition, in all black, hardly crossing the halfway line. An early chance for Diego Costa from inside the six yard box was headed over. I wondered if the watching guests from the US – in the Shed Lower, Parkyville – would be rewarded with a first-half goal. We came close with a couple of efforts and the mood inside The Bridge was good, although the atmosphere was not great. Watford then seemed to awake from their slumber. They perhaps subconsciously remembered that they were, statistically, the better team. They came to life with Ighalo looking dangerous on two occasions.

Watford, famously sticking two fingers to the football world, and playing a traditional 4-4-2, had originally seemed content to hump long balls forward towards Ighalo and Deeney. It had been a nod towards their own particular footballing heritage under Graham Taylor in the ‘eighties when their rudimentary long ball game was a particular component of that footballing era. In those days, the two strikers were Ross Jenkins and Luther Blissett. Even in the more traditional ‘eighties – before we had heard of “false nines”, “double pivots”, “transition phases”, “attacking mids” and “tiki taka” – Watford’s style of play was the most basic of all. I always thought that it contrasted, ironically, so well with the more pleasing football played by their great rivals Luton Town under David Pleat. Both teams romped to promotion from the Second Division in 1981/1982, when we were still trying to harness the very unique talents of Alan Mayes in our own 4-4-2 variant.

Watford were indeed posing us problems, and our midfield – Fabregas in particular – was finding it hard to shackle their movement. However, rather against the run of play, a corner from in front of the US guests found the high leap of John Terry at the far post. The ball bounced down, not specifically goal wards, but towards where Diego Costa was lurking. A quick instinctive spin and the orange ball flew high in to the net past Gomez.

The crowd roared as Diego reeled away, accepting the acclaim from the crowd, and especially those in Parkyville. Throughout the game, there had been no significant boos for any player to be honest. Perhaps there was just the slightest murmurs of disdain for Costa when the teams were announced. But nothing on the scale of the previous game, which the media took great pleasure in highlighting. Maybe the protest at the Sunderland match was well and truly behind us now. I am pleased, if this is the case. Under Hiddink, we need to move on.

Oscar came close, but then Watford attacked us again. A free-kick was deflected over and from the resultant corner, Matic was correctly adjudged to have hand-balled inside the box. Deeney converted, low past Courtois.

“Here we go again.”

Just before the half-time whistle, a fine run by Pedro down the Chelsea left was followed by a low cross which just evaded the late run of Diego Costa.

It had been a frustrating half. Our early dominance had subsided and we were back to questioning various aspects of our play.

There was a surprising substitution at the break, with Hiddink replacing the admittedly lackluster (aka “shite”) Fabregas with none other than Jon Obi Mikel.

Soon into the second period, Watford peppered our goal with two shots in quick succession. Capoue was foiled by Courtois and then a follow-up was bravely blocked. I thought to myself “under Mourinho, one of those would have gone in.” Sadly, just after I was to rue my thoughts. The ball found Ighalo on the left, but hardly in a particularly dangerous position. To be honest, I was quite surprised that he had decided to shoot. I looked on in horror as his shot deflected off a defender and into the empty net, with Courtois off balance and falling to his left.

We were losing 2-1.

“Here we go again.”

To be fair, we upped our play and began to look livelier. A key move began in inauspicious circumstances, though. Watford played a long ball out to their left and Ivanovic had appeared to have lost his man. However, with grim determination and resilience – the Brana of old – he recovered remarkably well. A sturdy tackle halted the Watford attack. Brana played the ball simply to Oscar. Oscar passed to Willian. Our little Brazilian livewire played – probably – the pass of the season into the box, and into the path of Diego Costa, who was thankfully central. He met the ball and adeptly cut it past the despairing dive of Gomez.

2-2.

The crowd roared again. Diego Costa ran towards the sidelines. My photographs captured the joy on the faces of the fans in the East Lower, but also the look of – what? Disdain? Annoyance? Umbrage? – on Costa’s face as he turned towards the Matthew Harding and remembered the boos against Sunderland.

Regardless of the politics of booing, we were back in the game.

After capturing both of Diego’s goals on film, I clasped my camera and wondered if I might be able to photograph a possible third.

We went close on a couple of occasions, and it honestly felt as if a winner was on the cards. Watford were offering little now. It was all Chelsea. Hiddink brought on Hazard for Pedro. Thankfully there were no boos. We need to move on. Dancing and moving in that mesmeric way of his, Hazard soon got the bit between his teeth with a couple of dribbles down below me. He was clattered by Behrami, and referee Marriner quickly pointed towards the spot.

Phew.

Here would be my third Diegoal of the afternoon.

Here would be a deserved winner.

Hazard needed treatment and the penalty was delayed.

We waited.

Alas, Oscar decided to take the kick and his dramatic slip resulted in the ball being ballooned high over the Watford bar.

The Stamford Bridge crowd groaned.

Then it was Watford’s turn to go close at the other end. It was a pulsating game of football, if not the most technically brilliant. Apilicueta was maliciously scythed down but the Watford miscreant was not red carded. Then, so stupid, a wild tackle by Diego Costa – also on the half way line – resulted in a yellow. I half-expected a red. It would mean that Costa would not be joining us at Old Trafford on Monday. It undoubtedly took the shine off a much better performance from Diego Costa, who was back to – almost – his best. Mikel, by the way, was exceptional in the second-half. It was his shot, late on and from a good thirty yards out, which whizzed past Watford’s post in the last meaningful moment of the game.

I had to be honest.

As a game of football, I had enjoyed it. It was a decent game.

As a Chelsea fan, however, there are still questions to be asked of our troubled team.

Back in the car, my views were shared by my two mates.

“Not a bad game. Should have won it.”

Before I knew it, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim were soon fast asleep. I drove on, eating up the miles. Thankfully I made good time and I was back home by 7.30pm, with my mind now realigned towards Old Trafford.

Oh, and Southampton, where Arsenal were being dicked 4-0.

Yep.

This is 2015/2016.

IMG_4927

Tales From Work.

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 19 December 2015.

On most mornings, prior to myself leaving my home to collect the usual suspects en route to football, I invariably post on “Facebook” some sort of Chelsea-related message allied with the phrase “Let’s Go To Work.”

This reflects the rather business-like nature of football these days. It underlines the sense of focus that is required to progress at the top level of football. Over the past few seasons, especially under Jose Mourinho, I have considered it to be most apt. It is the phrase that the Milanese allegedly use, on occasion, rather than a standard greeting such as “good morning.” It cements the predominant work ethic in Italy’s industrial north. I can’t separate this from the old Italian saying “Milan works, Rome eats.” And while other teams and clubs have been doing a lot of eating recently – growing flabby and lazy, lacking focus and determination – Chelsea Football Club has been working hard.

“Let’s Go To Work.”

Work.

It made me think.

To be quite frank, as I stumbled around in the early-morning, for once, a trip to support my beloved Chelsea – never usually a chore – actually seemed like a work day. The decision by the board to dispense with the services of manager Mourinho on the afternoon of Thursday 17 December had meant that, in my mind, the game with Sunderland would not be an enjoyable event. In recent memory, there had been the toxic atmosphere of Rafa Benitez’ first game in charge after the sacking of Roberto di Matteo. I suspected something similar three years on. Yes, this seemed like a work day. A day when my appearance at Stamford Bridge was expected. It was part of my contract. There would be no chance of phoning in for a “sicky”. I had no choice but to don my work clothes, collect fellow workmates and “clock on.”

Chelsea? I’d rather be in Philadelphia.

There was even a small part of my mind that was glad that I had a duty to collect Glenn and Parky and to drive them to London. I was also glad that my local team Frome Town were away, at Kettering Town. Who knows what thoughts might have been racing through my mind had this just been about Chelsea and me, with the Robins playing a home game just three miles away.

In all honesty, it is very unlikely that I would forgo a Chelsea home game for a Frome Town game, but that the fact that I was even thinking these thoughts is pretty significant.

I collected Glenn and on the drive over the border from Somerset to Wiltshire, we spoke about the troubles and travails of Chelsea Football Club. There was talk of player power, a lack of summer signings, Mourinho’s intense and relentless demands, and dissension in the ranks. Not many stones were left unturned. There was concern that there would be boos for some players. There was never a chance that this would be part of my modus operandi for the day. I recalled, with Glenn, the one moment in my life that I had booed a Chelsea player. Back in 2000, the board chose to sack the loved Gianluca Vialli, and “player power” – yes those words again – was muted as the main reason for his demise. In the much-used phrase of the moment, Vialli had “lost the dressing room.” Frank Leboeuf was seen as one of the main instigators. In the home game which followed Vialli’s demise, against St. Gallen, as Leboeuf came over to retrieve the ball from a ball boy, a section of the crowd collectively decided to let him have it. I momentarily joined in the booing. If people think that I like Mourinho, I simply loved Vialli. However, the look of disbelief on Leboeuf’s face – of bewilderment and shock – quickly made me rue my actions. There would be no more boos from me.

As I have often said, “it’s like booing yourself.”

But I knew that there would be boos for some Chelsea players later in the day. And although it would not be for me, I wasn’t pompous enough to say that others would be wrong to vent however they felt fit. I usually grumble if there are boos at half-time if there has been a poor performance, but this day would be a bit different.

There were rumours of some players under-performing on purpose. I was not sure of the validity of these rumours, but this would not stop a certain amount of negative noise. I wondered if players would be individually targeted. Or would there be a blanket booing?

“Is that fair though? Not all players should be tarred with the same brush.”

I quickly listed those who I believed should be exonerated from any talk of players conniving against Mourinho.

“Willian stands alone, fantastic season. No problems with him. John Terry has tried his best, as always. And you can’t complain about the two ‘keepers Courtois and Begovic. Zouma too. And Dave. No complaints there. Even Ivanovic, who has had a pretty crap season, but nobody could accuse him of not trying. Cahill and Ramires, not the best of seasons, but triers. Pedro borderline, not great. Remy always tries his best. No complaints with Kenedy. You can’t include Loftus-Cheek as he hasn’t played too much.”

I then spoke of the others. If there was some sort of clandestine plot, then these under-performing players would be my main protagonists, based purely on lack of fight and application.

“No, the ones that you have to wonder about are Hazard, Fabregas, Diego Costa, Matic and even Oscar. Those five. So it’s only those five in my book.”

We very quickly spoke about our options for a new manager. Glenn made a very insightful comment about the world of top class football managers.

“Maybe there will be some sort of reaction against Chelsea. These managers obviously speak to each other. If they see that Mourinho didn’t last, maybe they will shy away from it. Too much a poisoned chalice. Too much pressure.”

Inside the pub, and outside in the beer garden, the troops assembled from near and far. The weather was mild for December. And the debate about Mourinho was mild too. Several of us spoke in little groups about the state of the nation. And all of it was level-headed and intelligent. It was good stuff, and I only wish that I could remember more of it to share here.

Rather than limit the discussion to a stand-off between Mourinho and players, which undoubtedly the media seem to want to focus on, we broadened it to include the whole club, embracing the various strands of its operation. We spoke about the ridiculous tour to Australia and the Far East right on the tail of last season. We chatted about a poor pre-season and questioned why the players were flown in to our three games in the US from a base in Montreal in Canada. We moaned about Mourinho’s increasingly weary outbursts and his tendency to blame others. For sure, his complex character was discussed. We questioned a very ineffectual set of summer signings. I condemned the over-long obsession with John Stones. We were annoyed with our manager’s continued reluctance to play our heralded youngsters.

“What has Loftus-Cheek got to do to get a game?”

“Say what you like about Benitez, but at least he played Ake.”

We grumbled about Michael Emenalo.

“Out of all the wonderful players that have come through this club over the past twenty years, surely we could find someone of greater credibility and standing than Emenalo. Our club, the director of football and other key positions, should be stacked full of former players.”

There was one point that took a few minutes to discuss.

“What I don’t understand, is that if Mourinho was having problems with some key players – maybe those five named above – why did he constantly pick them?”

Yes, that was the real conundrum of the day.

Fabregas was only recently dropped, yet has struggled for months. Matic awful all season long. Costa has lacked focus. Hazard has either suffered a horrendous drop in confidence – quite possible – or has not been up for the fight. Either way, he was rarely dropped. Oscar has not shown the fight.

More questions than answers.

The gnawing doubt in the back of my mind was that, despite his former prowess in cajoling the best out of his players, Mourinho had lost that gift. It’s possible.

But here was my last word before the game.

“Regardless of the relationship between Mourinho and the team, on many occasions it seemed to me that the players were simply not trying. And that doesn’t just mean not running around like headless chickens, but not moving off the ball, not tracking back to offer cover for the defenders, not working for each other. They have been cheating us. The fans. Inexcusable.”

That was where the “palpable discord” existed in my mind. Between players and fans.

However, before we knew it, the beers were flowing and our little group of Chelsea lifers from London, Essex, Somerset, Bristol, Wiltshire and Edinburgh were smiling and laughing.

At around 1.45pm, it was announced by Chelsea FC that former boss Guus Hiddink would be rejoining us. I reverted to old habits on “Facebook.”

“Welcome Back Guus. Let’s Go To Work.”

I was inside Stamford Bridge a little earlier than usual. Glenn was in earlier than me and had commented that some players had been booed when the teams were announced for the first time at about 2.15pm.

The team? Much the same as before, but without the injured Hazard.

As the clock ticked, the stadium filled up.

I was pleased to see that the Mourinho banners were still up behind both goals. To drag them down would have been unforgiveable. It was clear that he would remain a presence, spiritually, at our stadium for years.

IMG_4807 (2)

In the match programme, John Terry said that there had not been any player power. In the words of Mandy Rice-Davies :

“He would, wouldn’t he?”

Just before the teams entered, the teams were announced again.

Yes, there were boos. But there were claps and applause too.

The last three names to be announced – 22 : Willian, 26 : Terry, 28 : Azpilicueta – drew most applause, quite thunderous. Zouma was applauded well. I was saddened to hear Ivanovic booed. Others clearly did not share my view of him. Unsurprisingly, Fabregas, Matic and Costa were booed, though of course not by a large number. Many had chosen to stay silent. After all, the naming of the players at this stage every home game is usually met with varying degrees of indifference.

To be honest, as the game began, the backlash was not as great as I had feared. Maybe, just maybe, we are getting too used to all of this. Too used to the serial sackings. Too used to ups and downs and the slash and burn mentality of the current regime. I certainly didn’t feel the venom of the 2012 sacking of Di Matteo.

There can be no doubt that Roman Abramovich, watching alongside Hiddink and also Didier Drogba in his box in the West Stand, had agonised long and hard about the dismissal of Mourinho. For a moment, I had thought that we would ride it out, but no. In the end, there was an inevitability about it all.

The ground was rocking in the first few minutes in praise of our former manager. As we attacked The Shed, I joined in almost without thought.

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

With an almost eerie sense of timing, Branislav Ivanovic rose to head home a Willian corner as the name of Mourinho continued to be sung. In reality, from Sunderland’s perspective, it was that bad a goal that we could have conceded it. An unchallenged header. As easy as that.

We were 1-0 up after just five minutes. There was a roar, but this soon died down.

Soon after, with Chelsea playing with a little more spring to their step, a loose ball fell at the feet for Pedro to smash high in to the Sunderland net. After both goals, the name of Jose Mourinho rung out.

The Matthew Harding, capturing the moment, the zeit geist, burst in to spontaneous song.

“Where were you when we were shit?”

Self-mocking but sarcastic and poisonously pointed, it summed things up perfectly.

Oscar, undoubtedly much improved than during all previous appearances this season, was enjoying a fine game. His long run deep in to the Sunderland box, with the defence parting like the Red Sea, was sadly not finished with a goal. Elsewhere there was more high-tempo interchange, and our play was noticeably more cohesive. How is that possible after months of a more conservative approach?

I wish I knew the answer.

Sunderland hardly crossed the halfway line. It was virtually all one way traffic. Diego Costa, a little more involved in a central position, came close on two occasions.

Our visitors began the second-half with a lot more verve. However, from a counter-attack, Pedro – also showing a lot more zip – raced away before playing in Willian. He touched the ball forward but the Sunderland ‘keeper Pantilimon took him out. We waited as former Chelsea full-back Patrick van Aanholt was attended to, but Oscar coolly despatched the penalty. Again a burst of applause, but this soon died down. In truth, the game continued on with very little noise.

To be honest, a silent protest is difficult to ascertain at Stamford Bridge, since many home games are played out against a backdrop of sweet-wrappers rustling and birds chirping.

Soon after substitute Adam Johnson, booed for other reasons, sent in a free-kick and Courtois could only watch as his parry was knocked in by former Chelsea striker Fabio Borini. Sunderland then took the game to us, and went close on a few occasions. Shots from Borini and the perennial Defoe whizzed past our far post.

I almost expected a second goal.

“It’ll get nervous then, Al.”

Oscar shimmied to make space and hit a fine curler just past the post. Oscar was turning in a really fine performance. We briefly discussed his Chelsea career. He has undoubted potential – skillful, a firm tackler – but that potential is yet to be reached.

It is worthwhile to mention that there was not wide scale booing throughout the game. I was happy for that. However, when Mikel replaced Fabregas and Remy replaced Costa, boos resounded around The Bridge. I looked on as Costa slowly walked towards the Chelsea bench. He looked disgusted. He made a great point in looking – scowling, almost – at all four stands as he walked off. No doubt the noise had shocked him.

It was, if I am honest, as visceral as it got the entire day.

Ramires came on for Oscar. There were no boos. Maybe the Stamford Bridge crowd were changing their opinions, being more pragmatic, more forgiving.

There were a few late chances, with one being set up by a run from Jon Obi Mikel deep in to the Sunderland box. Yes, it was one of those crazy days.

At the final whistle, there was relief.

Out on the Fulham Road, there were still cries of “Jose Mourinho” but the mood was lighter than before the game.

Back in the car, we were just so happy with the three points and that another tough day was behind us. We quickly recapped on the day’s events, but then looked forward to the next couple of games, when we can hopefully continue some sort of run. It worked out rather well with Guus Hiddink in the latter months of 2008-2009, so let’s hope for a similar scenario.

On hearing that unfancied Norwich City had beaten The World’s Biggest Football Club, I went back on “Facebook” one last time.

“Van Gaal out. He never even won the league last season.”

IMG_4817

Tales From Lambeth And Leicester.

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 14 December 2015.

In all of my Chelsea days past, present and future, this one would surely stand alone. It would be a day of mixed emotions in two cities, remembering the past, appreciating the present and contemplating the future. At lunchtime, there was the sadness of dear Tom’s funeral in South London, with three of my closest friends. Then, a drive north for an evening match in the East Midlands. In between, and after, all points of the compass; heading east, heading north, heading south, and heading west. A circle of life in sixteen hours.

Sadness, joy, hope, fear.

And Chelsea.

Here are my recollections of the day that we said goodbye to Tom.

I collected Glenn from his house in nearby Frome just after 9am. Of course, despite the sadness of losing Tom, who sat alongside us at Stamford Bridge in the North West corner for almost eighteen years, there was a very tangible element of relief that the Footballing Gods had aligned Tom’s funeral on the very same day as a Chelsea game. Glenn and I were thankfully able to take a day’s holiday to combine the two. Alan, the fellow South Londoner who regarded Tom as his “football Dad” was able to do the same. The moons had aligned and we were so thankful. Alan had commented that Tom would have been livid if the three of us would miss a Chelsea game because of his funeral. To that end, there was a deep contentment that we were all able to attend both. Parky, not quite as familiar with Tom as the rest of us, was collected at 9.45am and we made our way east into London.

We all knew that this would be a testing day.

From my perspective, it was all about Tom.

With the M4 devoid of rush hour traffic, we made good time. We stopped at Heston just as the news of the Champions League draw came through at about 11.15am. Fate had drawn the cities of London and Paris together once again, for the third year in a row. In 2014, great memories of a trip to Paris and a fine Chelsea victory at Stamford Bridge. This year, darker memories with both of the games coming either side of my own mother’s passing. I had already decided that I would not be bothering with an away game at Parc des Princes in 2016 should we draw PSG again. I was nervous enough about Tel Aviv. Paris for a game of football? Thanks, but no thanks.

I pressed on, down the Fulham Palace Road and past Craven Cottage. Over the River Thames at Putney Bridge and further south, I was in relatively unfamiliar territory, but ironically in Chelsea heartland. Outside Lambeth Crematorium, stood Alan, awaiting our arrival. I wound down the window and shook his hand. I gripped it strongly. I was glad to see a sizeable crowd had gathered in the car park.

Also representing Chelsea Football Club were Steve and Frank, faces from our section of the Stamford Bridge stadium, who originally sat with Tom in the old West Stand in the ‘seventies. A hug for Tom’s daughter Debbie, who is now living only half an hour or so from Glenn and myself in Somerset, alongside her daughter Anna, and other family members. We watched as the hearse slowly drove towards the chapel. Heads were bowed.

As we took our seats in the small chapel, “That’s Life” by Frank Sinatra was played.

“That’s life (that’s life) that’s what all people say.
You’re riding high in April.
Shot down in May.
But I know I’m gonna change their tune
When I’m back on top, back on top in June.

I said that’s life (that’s life) and as funny as it may seem.
Some people get their kicks
Steppin’ on a dream.
But I just can’t let it, let it get me down,
‘Cause this fine old world, it keeps spinnin’ around.

I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate,
A poet, a pawn and a king.
I’ve been up and down and over and out
And I know one thing.
Each time I find myself flat on my face,
I pick myself up and get back in the race.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIiUqfxFttM

A Chelsea flag was pinned on the platform where Tom’s coffin rested. It was a lovely memorial service. Tom’s story was told. Born in Battersea in 1936, his national service was in Kenya. Tom worked many years for Watney’s, the brewers, in Whitechapel, before moving on to work for Hammersmith and Fulham Council. He lived in Sutton, further south, and was truly a proper South London Chelsea man and boy. The word “Chelsea” in fact dominated the eulogy. His love for the club shone through. It seemed that his TV was perpetually tuned to Chelsea TV.

Of course, no surprises, “Blue Is The Colour” was played in the middle of the ceremony.

My eyes were moist. I am sure I was not alone.

At the end, “We Are The Champions” by Queen – probably not Tom’s favourite, but chosen by Debbie because, well, just because – was played and the curtains in front of the coffin were closed.

We all said a little silent prayer for Tom.

“God bless you mate.”

Outside, there were a few bouquets, but three blue and white floral tributes stood out.

“DAD.”

“TOMMY.”

“CFC.”

12360218_10153812884732658_4469647923026430119_n

Alan, bless him, had planned and purchased the last one, and the words are shared here.

“To a loyal and true blue and friend to many. You are very much missed by all of us who had the pleasure of knowing you. Keep the blue flag flying high in heaven. From your friends Alan, Chris, Glenn, Frank, Joe, Gary, Alan and Steve. Rest in peace Tom.”

After, there was an hour or so spent reminiscing about our own particular memories of Tom at the Leather Bottle pub, a lovely old Victorian boozer, smelling of mulled wine ahead of Christmas. I spoke to his daughter –

“Looking back, I’ve only ever seen Tom in two places. Stamford Bridge and Wembley. That says a lot about our football club the past few years.”

“What I remember about Tom, more than one particular thing, is his childlike and giddy enthusiasm for Chelsea.”

And how true this was. I can picture him now, rosy cheeked and bubbling over with joy as he retold a particular goal, or a described a favourite player. Alan joked that he had a particular dislike for West Ham, maybe born out of the years working at Whitechapel, and how Tom would have got a chuckle out of the West Ham fans in the chapel having to sit through “Blue Is The Colour.”

We were some of the very last ones to leave. At around 2.30pm, I rustled up the troops and looked back at Debbie and Anna as I said “come on, let’s go and win this for Tom.”

I wended my way back through Lambeth, Wimbledon and Wandsworth and over the Thames once more. Out through Hammersmith and past Griffin Park, out towards Heathrow, then a quick stop at Heston to change from suits and black ties to jeans and trainers. North on to the M25, then north again on to the M1. The four of us were on the road once more, following the love of our lives.

Parky, who had opened up his first cider of the day not long after a McBreakfast in Chippenham at 10am, passed a can to Alan who was alongside me in the front. This was a rare treat indeed for Alan, usually cocooned without alcohol, and with little leg room, in a Chelsea coach on away days such as this.

I was now heading north – the second leg of a triangle – on the M1, which was quite an unfamiliar road for me, at least this far south. The rain began to fall, but our spirits were raised with some music from Parky’s Magical Memory Stick. There was talk of the evening game against high-flying Leicester City.

“If someone had asked a thousand football fans before the season began which team out of Leicester City and Chelsea would be on one defeat and which would be on eight in the second week of December, not one would have guessed correctly.”

In fact, the sample size could be increased to 10,000 and a winner would not be found.

I eventually pulled in to the anointed parking place about a mile to the south of the King Power Stadium at around 6pm, just as “Up The Junction” by Squeeze sparked up on the Memory Stick. A little bit of South London in deepest Leicestershire. Without missing a word, Al and and I sang along to every single verse. I turned the engine off. We had arrived.

The rain had eased, and we had a good period of time to relax before we needed to turn our attentions truly to the game at 8pm. There were immediate memories of returning to the car, triumphant, after our 3-1 win at Leicester last May when a rather subdued first-half performance was followed by a fantastic second-half, with goals from Didier, JT and Rami. Fabregas’ hat was never lauded so loudly. It was one of the games of the season. As we marched towards the stadium, all four of us were wise enough to know that a repeat would be a very tall order. Leicester City were ahead of us in the league with good reason; from my viewpoint they seemed to boast all of the very qualities that we had so far lacked in this most disheartening of seasons.

Vim, vigour, pace, confidence, togetherness, fight.

If only Chelsea Football Club had shown even half of these attributes thus far in to 2015/2016.

On the flipside, the team had showed signs of the Chelsea spirit of old in the reassuring 2-0 win over Porto the previous Wednesday. All four of us hoped that Fabregas would again not be selected to start. How that hat has lost its magic since May. We plotted up at The Local Hero, a busy bar, looking out on a car park. The view wasn’t great, but the beers were going down well. My two bottles of Peroni were the first of the day and gave me the chance to properly toast Tom.

We gathered together and Alan took a photograph of the four plastic glasses touching.

“Team Tom.”

With the rain falling again, we quickly moved on.

The stadium was only a ten minute walk and we were soon outside the away end. Leicester City’s stadium is one of those much-maligned identikit stadia which have been built over the past fifteen years or so. Outside, it is nothing special. Inside, although it is neat and tidy, there is not one single design feature which lets you know that you are at the home of Leicester City. How different it is from the lop-sided and intriguing Filbert Street, which once stood not more than a few hundred yards away. Filbert Street’s large main stand and double-decker behind one goal contrasted wildly with the ridiculously petit stands on the other two sides. Ironically, the one feature that sets the King Power Stadium apart from all others is seen only by spectators within the concourses. Oddly, the steps leading up from the ground level to the upper level, double back on themselves to provide a viewing platform of the lower concourse, and from where I got sprayed with beer when over-excited members of The Youth went a bit doolally before the game.

There were familiar faces in the away corner, which seemed to be deeper than that of most of the new stadia. We quickly learned that – yes! – the team was unchanged from Porto. At last Mourinho and the fans were on the same page, even if it did have several names scratched out and then written over again. Alan was especially confident that we would win. I was not so sure. Anything but another defeat for me please.

Kick-off approached and I sensed a palpable air of expectation from the home ranks. The touchlines were lined with youngsters waving flags. The unique sound of the “Post Horn Gallop” was piped through the PA. As the teams entered, the corner section away to my left – I noted they were the noisiest of all back in May – held up shiny blue and white mosaics. I also noted – sigh – that the home fans had been given thousands of those damned noise-makers again.

So much expectation and so much build up, but what a shocking first-half. It left us at half-time fully depressed and lamenting, again, our demise into woeful mediocrity.

As the game began, the home fans were constantly pounding out noise to support their team. We were in good voice too though, quickly singing across to our beleaguered manager.

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

Across the technical area stood our former manager Claudio Ranieri, unbelievably back in England with his quaint version of the English language, but also even more unbelievably looking to take his team back to the top of the table.

The lively Mahrez quickly forced a fine save from Thibaut Courtois and I worried every time that Leicester City broke in to our half. There were echoes of last May as Leicester quickly lost a player, Danny Drinkwater (who?), replaced by Andy King (who?) but they never looked perturbed.

We struggled to find any rhythm as the first-half progressed. Our main attacking threat seemed to be – not finding Diego Costa early, nor playing in Eden Hazard – pushing the ball eventually out to Branislav Ivanovic, who tended to take a touch before hitting the back of a defender’s head. As every sideways pass was played, the sense of frustration increased in the away corner.

“Fackincomeonchels.”

Hazard was fouled and received treatment. It is such a rare event to see our Belgian disappear from the pitch, except for a late substitution, that we looked on with horror as he appeared to be too injured to continue. He then seemed to step back on the pitch. But then walked away. There was confusion among the Chelsea fans. I think – I hope – some were jumping to the wrong conclusions.

“Hazard didn’t want to know.”

Regardless, Pedro replaced him.

Then, calamity. A rapid Leicester break out to their right and Mahrez was able to whip in a waist-high cross towards the penalty spot. Jamie Vardy, who else, appeared from nowhere – or rather with John Terry and Kurt Zouma nowhere near him – to majestically volley past Courtois.

“Bollocks.”

That feeling is all too prominent this season. Leicester had harried and chased us all evening but had not created a great deal. One gilt-edged chance and a goal conceded. Here we go again. All eyes were on John Terry really. A player of his distinction should have got closer to Vardy. The away end muttered three thousand swear words.

I turned to a couple behind with a pained expression.

“Confidence is draining out of us at every turn.”

At the other end, miracles of miracles, Matic rose to meet a header, but the ball flicked away off the bar. We were not fooled though. In a first-half of dwindling penetration, our play was tepid. Matic looked slower than usual, and the attacking players around him only rarely provided any moments of intelligent passing.

You know the score, we’re losing.

I’ve not seen so many long faces at the break in a long time. Although it is always lovely to bump in to many good friends at half-time, it seemed that all of us were going through some sort of post-Armageddon zombie-like state, trying to work out how we had reached this stage in our Chelsea life. Some were hiding the feeling through beer, but the sense of befuddlement was still there. Some didn’t even come back for the second-half, preferring to drink and chat down in the concourse with a few others. Grasping at straws, Alan and myself reminded each other that we were 1-0 down at half-time in May.

Soon in to the second-half, Ramires lost possession with a weak header and Leicester moved the ball from wide left to wide right. The mercurial Mahrez twisted in front of Azpilicueta and dispatched a firm shot which elegantly curled past Courtois.

We were losing 2-0.

For fuck sake, Chelsea.

Leicester’s support had mocked us throughout with cries of “going down with the Villa” and taunts of “worst champions we’ve ever seen.” However, much to my chagrin, sections of our away support began singing “we’re fucking shit” which annoyed me. That sort of talk is best left outside the stadium. There was also the self-mocking “you’re nothing special, we lose every week” which would have been funnier if it had been original rather than stolen from other teams’ fans.

All in all, not two of our greatest moments.

But not all was negative. There were no boos for Mourinho. At times our support tried to get behind the team.

Jose made a bold substitution, taking off John Terry and replacing him with Cesc Fabregas. We went with three at the back. The manager sometimes does this, but not usually so far out. Remy then replaced the woeful Oscar. To be fair, we enjoyed a lot more of the ball, but with the home team 2-0 up, they did not need to attack at will. A few crosses caused Schmeichel some moments of worry, but often our crosses were easily dealt with by the massive Germanic forehead of Robert Huth.

There was no doubt that lour play was improving and, with it, the away support rallied too. Now I was truly proud of the away support. The noise roared around the stadium. We went close again and again.

“Get a goal now and we are right back in this.”

The goal came. A delightful cross from an improving Pedro picked out the leap of Loic Remy who headed firmly in past the despairing block of Schmeichel.

2-1.

And the Chelsea crowd roared.

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

The mood was of sudden optimism and of that four letter word “hope.”

“Let’s have a repeat of Geordies away. Two late goals.”

If anything, our goal strengthened Leicester City’s resolve to keep things tight and our players were simply unable to offer further threat. A few late chances were exchanged and despite a further five minutes of extra-time, we slumped to our ninth league defeat of the league campaign.

“See you Saturday, boys.”

As I exited the seats, I looked down to see just Branislav Ivanovic, Cesar Azpilicueta and Thibaut Courtois walk over to thank the loyal three thousand for our efforts on a wet night in Leicester. A lot of us had taken half days and whole days off from work, a lot of us would be back in at work after minimal sleep. Some players would be wrapped up in their warm beds as I would be dropping Parky and then Glenn off in the small hours.

As a quick glimpse at the ailments within Chelsea Football Club at this exact moment in time, the fact that just three could be bothered to walk thirty yards to say “hey, we know we lost again but bloody hell, thanks” speaks volumes.

Maybe we just don’t have that sense of collectiveness anymore. We might be a team, but maybe we are not a family. Maybe the players – despite the quotes of togetherness and spirit – just don’t get on. Maybe there are cliques. Something has to be wrong. Maybe that spirit of 2004 to 2012 is gone and lost forever. And that is so sad.

I soon met up with Glenn and Parky outside and we sloped off back to the car. I was soon spinning around the city by-pass before heading west, then south – the last leg of the triangle – on the M69, the M42, the M5, the M4.

As the night rolled on, I grew tired. I battled the roads.

Our mood was not great. I am sure every Chelsea supporter was equally confused and disappointed with our latest poor performance. Glenn wanted to talk football, but I was simply too tired for that. On a day when we said a final farewell – physically, never emotionally – to dear Tom, it would be easy for me to brush aside Chelsea’s latest capitulation and talk about putting things into some sort of “football, life, death” perspective. However, I am sure that dear Tom, watching from above, would have hated to have seen yet another defeat and I trust he won’t object at all if I say that the loss hit us all hard.

Glenn played me a “You Tube” segment from a post-game interview with Jose speaking about betrayal and my mood slid further.

There is the gnawing realisation that this season will not only be trophy less, but will probably result in our first campaign without European football since 1996/1997. I do not sense that relegation will worry us, but who knows where this season will end?

On Saturday, it’s back to Stamford Bridge and a game with Sunderland.

See you there.

IMG_4779

Tales From Tottenham.

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 28 November 2015.

OK, how many Chelsea supporters muttered, either to themselves or in hushed tones to fellow supporters, these words on Sunday morning?

“I’ll take a 0-0 draw now.”

Come on, admit it. Virtually everyone, right?

Certainly me.

My words were spoken early on the drive in to London with my two fellow Away Club members, Lord Parky and P-Diddy. They were in agreement. This would be a tough assignment on a bleak Sunday lunchtime. If truth be told, I had been fearing this trip to our bitterest London rivals for a while. Our struggles so far this season, allied to the form of Tottenham, had been weighing heavily on my mind and now the battle royale – or maybe a battle royal and navy –  was about to take place.

We had parked up at Barons Court station, not so far away from Stamford Bridge, at around 10am and had traversed the capital on a mixture of underground and overground trains. There was a little delay at Seven Sisters as we waited for the last connection. It was a blustery old day. Not particularly cold, but certainly grey and bleak. By the time we had alighted at White Hart Lane station, daubed in graffiti and battle-worn, I was reminded of how the area around Spurs’ home ground is so very different to that around Stamford Bridge. After slowly descending the steep steps from the platform to ground level, we joined the rush of fans on their way to the stadium. I stuffed my hands in the pockets of my lightweight but warm North Face jacket, and quickly walked past some flats, before crossing the High Road. I spotted that the excavations and groundworks for Spurs’ new stadium had hardly advanced from 2012, let alone New Year’s Day 2015. However, now was not the time to wonder how long their new 60,000 stadium would take to rise to the north of the current stadium, nor if Chelsea and Spurs would share Wembley over the next few years. My mind was focussed on the imminent game. We rushed through the checks outside the away end and met up with a few friends in the crowded bar area on the concourse of the upper tier of the away corner, which is squeezed between the West Stand and the Park Lane.

I was with just Lord Parky now. P-Diddy had left us to watch from the lower tier. I gulped down a bottle of lager and Parky did the same with a cider, while reminiscing with a few fellow fans about the recent pilgrimage to Tel Aviv and Haifa. How ironic that fate would have us following up our game in Israel with a game at White Hart Lane, the home of the club which has engineered a strong Jewish identity over the decades.

I met up with Alan, who had been with me in Israel. I shook his hand and gripped it hard. Alan had passed on some very sad news to me late on Friday evening. Our dear friend Tom, who had sat alongside Alan, Glenn and myself in the Matthew Harding since 1997 had passed away in a Tooting hospital ward. I had been so proud of Alan popping in to see Tom after the Norwich City game last Saturday. We will miss his giddy excitement of all things Chelsea. It was an absolute joy to know him, and to share his love of our club, our players, our history.

12227225_10207790886631715_5012797036673846509_n

Tom Crowe RIP.

We hoped that Chelsea could provide a win at the home of our great rivals to mark Tom’s passing.

News came through that Jose Mourinho had chosen not to deploy a regular striker, but to instead select Eden Hazard in the quote-unquote “false nine” position. This is something that Chelsea have done on occasion in the past. I can remember Roberto di Matteo doing the same in Turin three years ago, and Mourinho himself doing the same at Old Trafford two years ago.

Of course this threw up a few questions about Diego Costa, specifically, and also Mourinho’s mind-set about the game. I suppose the term “damage limitation” came to my mind. I presumed that we would flood the midfield and close down any space available. Elsewhere there were no surprises. John Terry, sadly, was not fit after his jarring injury in Haifa.

Begovic, Ivanovic, Cahill, Zouma, Azpilicueta, Matic, Fabregas, Willian, Oscar, Pedro, Hazard.

There was only the slightest hint of sun as the game began. It soon disappeared. The grey skies overhead mirrored my thoughts on the game. Tottenham would surely start as favourites. Indeed, the home team – playing with that horrible tyre tread sash over their white shirts – began the better. We had chosen to attack our end in the first-half and it seemed strange. We are so used to see us attacking the Paxton Road in the first halves of games at White Hart Lane. Unlike at Stamford Bridge, there are few individual flags at Tottenham. One new addition was notable on the Paxton Road balcony, referencing former manager Bill Nicholson.

“It’s been my life, Tottenham Hotspur, and I love the club.”

Well, as sporting quotes go, it’s hardly memorable or stirring. One wonders what other quotes from Nicholson were not chosen.

“Come on Tottenham, kick and rush.”

“The goal is over there.”

“That’s it, kick it.”

“Well, well, well, that’s a lovely pass.”

“Lovely stuff, Tottenham, that’s marvellous.”

“Ah bugger it.”

Tottenham were on the front foot but thankfully Harry Kane, especially, seemed to be misfiring. A rare half-chance for Pedro, just unable to reach a long booted clearance from Asmir, gave us hope. The home fans who shared our end had opened up the game with the slow dirge of “Oh when the Spurs go marching in” but had then been silenced by repeated chants from the noisy three thousand in our corner.

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

“We won 6-1 at the Lane.”

“We won 5-1, Wembley.”

A few of us attempted to get a chant from Tuesday night in Haifa going – “Shalom, shalom, we are the Chelsea boys” – but nobody else were joining in. Instead, the original rang out.

“Hello, hello – we are the Chelsea boys. Hello, hello – we are the Chelsea boys. And if you are a Tottenham fan, surrender or you’ll die. We all follow the Chelsea.”

A strong wind was making close control difficult at times. For some reason, several polythene bags had found their way on to the White Hart Lane pitch – the shabbiness outside was mirrored inside – and they swirled around as the players fought out battles nearby. I am sure, at one stage, I saw a carrier bag tackle Harry Kane. A fine cross from Oscar down below us on the right wing was clipped in perfectly towards Eden Hazard, who leapt well, but could not keep his header down. This was promising stuff, though, and after weathering a slight Tottenham storm at the start, we were growing in confidence by the minute. Pedro was the next to threaten Loris in the Spurs goal. He controlled well and worked the ball past his marker and struck a fierce shot which was deflected above the bar.

Tottenham then themselves had the best chance of the game thus far, with Son heading straight at Begovic from close in.

Phew.

Pedro, full of running down the left, then came close from an angle.

Meanwhile, Tottenham were racking up the yellow cards.

At the break, I was very happy with our first-half performance. Hazard, Pedro and Willian (of course) had been full of energy and running. Matic slowly grew as the game developed, but Fabregas was mainly missing. How ironic that our two lauded signings of the summer of 2014, Fabregas and Costa, are the two most likely to be derided by Chelsea fans in the autumn of 2015. In defence, all was well.

However, I commented to Alan that there was a great disparity in the distribution techniques of our two central defenders. Gary Cahill would often take one too many ponderous touches. Kurt Zouma would rather launch a ball in to row Z. Surely the best approach is of John Terry, somewhere between the two.

The quality decreased a little in the second-half, but Kurt Zouma came close from a Willian free-kick. Our energy levels were fine though, no complaints there. Maybe Tottenham were feeling fatigued after their travels to and from Azaerbaijan on Thursday, but they looked off the pace as the game progressed. The “tonking” that many had expected – our heavy loss on the first day of 2015 was still fresh, surely, in everyone’s memory – had not happened.

Another Tottenham yellow card; up to four now. Matic was booked; our first.

As the match continued, I realised that the home spectators were ridiculously quiet. In almost thirty years of attending Chelsea games at White Hart Lane, this was the quietest that I had ever known them. I suppose that the austere weather and the sobering midday kick-off were the main reasons. However, it left me ruing days of yore when even a mid-table London derby between our two teams would have been thunderous and noisy.

Then, a long searching cross from Ivanovic found the excellent Eden Hazard running at pace on the far post. His sharp volley was goal bound, but Loris managed to deflect the ball up and away. It was our best chance of the second-half. I cannot remember Tottenham having an equally threatening effort on our goal. Jose Mourinho chose, strangely, to leave his two substitutions to very late. Firstly Kenedy replaced Willian. Then Loftus-Cheek replaced Pedro. Both had been excellent.

The game petered out really, in the closing moments, with both managers seemingly content with shared points. With Tottenham’s Clinton and Chelsea’s Kenedy now on the pitch, a draw was a democratic outcome.

We quickly exited and were soon headed south and back to civilisation.

White Hart Lane, Seven Sisters, Green Park, Barons Court.

We all agreed that we had played well. It had been a fine, bustling performance, and was possibly our best show of the season. We left London with a little unbeaten run intact, and three consecutive clean sheets. However, we have a tough month ahead with five league games on the horizon, including two difficult aways at Leicester City and Manchester United, plus a possible season-defining game against Porto in Europe. In this season of false starts, and now false nines, let’s hope that by the last day of 2015, we have continued our resurgence.

IMG_4588