Tales From This Football Life

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 11 August 2019.

Exactly one year after our first league game of last season, we were on the road to a northern city once again. On the eleventh day of August in 2018, we assembled in Huddersfield for new manager Maurizio Sarri’s opener. That day felt like a huge step into the wide unknown, and a step outside of our comfort zone. It was meant to be intoxicating and different, with a new system, new players and a new approach. It wasn’t a bad day out at all to be honest. It was an easy win. At the end of that game though, I noted that the new manager did not walk over to us at the end of the game. I was to learn later that it was one of his many quirks and superstitions to never enter the pitch on game day.

What an odd fellow he was.

But one thing is for certain. If somebody had suggested that come the opening league game of the following season – and despite a third place finish, a domestic cup final appearance and a Europa League win – Frank Lampard would be our manager, there would have been widespread surprise and disbelief.

But this is football these days. Or, rather, this is Chelsea these days. Nothing is for certain, nothing seems constant, nothing seems ordinary.

Yes, dear reader, season 2019/20 was upon us with our beloved and admired former midfielder in charge and the general consensus within the Chelsea Nation was that it was time for the nonsense to stop. We just wanted a period of stability within the club. We wanted Frank Lampard to oversee a calm period. The transfer ban meant that for a year or so, we would have to look within ourselves – in more ways than one – and promote from our ranks. Again, the consensus was that we were OK with that, not that we had any choice.

Pre-season had been completed; seven games all told. I had managed to get to two of them; the wins in Dublin and Reading. My season opener against St. Pat’s was a full four weeks ago but it had felt like a short close season and time had soon passed.

The season was now upon us.

We were on our way.

It was going to be, inevitably, a long day on the road in support of The Great Unpredictables. I had woken one minute before my alarm clock at 7.30am – I suppose this loosely means that I was ready – and I collected PD and Glenn at 9.30am, and Parky at 10am. The first part of the journey was not devoted to football, but rather an update on various health issues that have affected the four of us, and some of our loved ones, over the summer. Thankfully, news was generally upbeat. Of the four of us inside The Chuckle Bus, I was able to report – perhaps – the healthiest news. I have been on a diet of late and am pleased with my progress.

And then we spoke about the football.

Many words were shared.

My take was this :

“Happy with the ‘keeper. Not sure about the defence, especially now that Luiz has gone. That might be a big loss. He’s experienced and a good presence. But – let’s be frank, or even Frank – if he didn’t want to fight to retain his place, then he is best away. We are over stacked in midfield. Some real talents there. Especially if Ross and Ruben step up. But our attack worries me. Not sure about either of the three central strikers. Giroud is half a striker. Michy is half a striker. Tammy is half a striker. Real worries exist.”

Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire.

There were periods of rain, periods of cloud, brief periods of sun.

Stupidly, I hadn’t packed a light rain jacket, only a thick coat from last season remained in my boot. I was horrified by my tactical naivety.

We glossed over the games so far. Typical heavy wins for City and Liverpool. A late, horrible, win for Tottenham. I hoped that Arsenal, never good travellers, might come unstuck at the day’s early game at Newcastle.

Staffordshire, Cheshire, Lancashire.

We recalled the horror show which had unfolded at West Ham; the VAR crimes on football, the frustration of ecstasy being denied, the ersatz pleasure of applauding an electronic decision, the mess of it all.

Fucking hell.

There had been delays en route, but this is nothing new on the M5 and M6. As with the previous two visits to Old Trafford, we called into The Beehive, just off junction nineteen of the M6. Waiting for us to arrive, at just gone 2pm, was my old college mate Rick, from nearby Northwich, and a long time United season ticket holder. It was a pleasure to see him once more. Since graduating in 1987 and going our separate ways, it was only the fourth time that we had seen each other, but it is always lovely to see a face from the past. We chatted about our summers, our thoughts on the immediate season, and about mutual friends from those grainy days in Stoke-on-Trent in the mid-‘eighties.

“To be honest, we were glad to see the back of Mourinho in the end.”

And we knew exactly how Rick felt.

I mentioned to Rick how the highlight of my summer was a weekend flit over to Italy three weeks ago, primarily to meet up with my oldest friend in the whole wide world Mario, who was visiting his father in the town on the Italian Riviera where I first met him in 1975. Mario has appeared within these reports over the years as an endearing token of how football can add so much to our lives through the people that we meet along the way. People are mistaken if they think that football is just about tactics, players, formations, counter-attacks, transition, blocks, presses and assists.

Football is about people. It’s about the fans. The ones we meet. The ones who provide humour and laughter. The ones who provide comfort and support. The ones that you just love meeting again and again.

It’s true with Rick. It’s true with Mario.

In Diano Marina, it was magical to step inside Mario’s family home for the first time since 1988, and to meet his father Franco – now a ridiculously healthy and busy eighty-four-year-old, but still suffering as a long time Genoa fan – for the first time since then. Since those days of my youth, I had met Mario, and stayed at his house, for the Bayer Leverkusen Champions League game in 2011, and then again in 2016 when we toured Stamford Bridge in the morning and saw Leverkusen win 1-0 against Tottenham in the evening.

What memories.

I met up with his wife Gabi, and their football-mad boys Ruben, Nelson and Valentin. They reminded me of us in 1979,1980,1981…absolutely smitten with football, the teams, the players, the history, the colours, the fans.

In Diano Marina, I walked on the section of beach where Mario and I first kicked a ball to each other in 1975, and we re-created a photograph from that summer in his father’s garden, which abuts the Mediterranean Sea, and with a ball always close by.

What memories.

And we thought of potential Champions League match-ups in 2019/20 involving Chelsea, Bayer Leverkusen (Mario and two of his sons are season ticket holders, Ruben the lone Borussia Dortmund fan) and Juventus (Mario is a long time Juve fan, he had a ticket for Heysel, it is a story told before) and we thought of return visits to London and Leverkusen.

What memories waiting to happen.

This football life is a wonderful thing, eh?

At just after 3pm, we said our goodbyes and set off in our two cars. As the driver, no beers, no Peronis, I wanted to be fresh. There were still clouds overhead. I prayed for no rain, but the forecast was gloomy.

The new A556 link road zoomed us onto the M56, and I found myself navigating the familiar Manchester Orbital once more. At about 3.45pm, we were parked up at the usual garage off Gorse Hill Park. This would be my twenty-fifth visit to Manchester United with Chelsea. In all of the previous twenty-four, I had seen us win just five games; 1985/86, 1986/87, 2004/5, 2009/10 and 2012/13.

We had whispered it among ourselves within the first hour or so of the day’s journey.

“Of course, we could get walloped here.”

There were nods, silent nods.

“Bloody hell, be happy with a draw.”

The rain was holding off. The others had light jackets, I just wore a sombre black Benetton – how ‘eighties – polo.

We were soon at Old Trafford, and the same old approach to the famous stadium. Some United fans aired a new song.

“Harry Maguire. Harry Maguire. He fucked off Leicester for Manchester. His head’s fookin’ massive.”

We dived inside pretty sharpish amid taunts of “Chelsea Rent Boys.”

There were handshakes and nods of acknowledgement with many of the travelling three thousand. I immediately sensed a noisier crowd, a far more enlivened crowd, a happier crowd. The Frank Lampard effect? Oh yes.

We heard the team.

“Mason Mount in, big game for him.”

On the way up in the car, Glenn had asked me who I would start up front.

“I’ll trust Frank, but Giroud has the experience for places like this. I’d start him.”

But it was Tammy.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Zouma – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic

Pedro – Mount – Barkley

Abraham

It was lovely to see Alan and Gary again. The away club was back together for another season of sunshine and smiles, rain and agony. I stopped to chat to a few in the away quadrant. Our seats were in a similar spot to last season.

Neil Barnett breezed past.

“I’m happy with the team.”

The rain was holding off. Old Trafford looked the same, apart from one or two new banners.

“Every single one of us loves Alex Ferguson.”

I chatted to JD, who had posted on Facebook earlier that he was a little underwhelmed by it all. He aired a few of my pet peeves – VAR, the farce of Baku, a support base that is full of irksome divs – and I tended to agree with him.

I commented :

“When they announced Frank as the manager, I got a proper buzz, but that seems to have worn off a bit. It’s all the other shite that goes with it.”

But JD is a good man and his humour will see him through.

As kick-off time approached, our section was full of support of the new manager but one song dominated, a song from our last visit.

“Just like London, your city is blue.”

United were back to their usual white shorts this season, but with a muted red shirt.

Our kit? You know the story. Shudder.

The game began and as usual we attacked the Stretford End. It soon dawned on me that United were doing the defending, they were letting us dominate. How different from days gone by when the midfield would be a warzone, with tackles flying in, and attacks jumping to life when advantage had been gained. United let us play. And we looked good. We played coherently with confidence. After only four of five minutes, a corner was not cleared and Tammy received the ball, spun nicely and unleashed a waist-high drive which bounced back in to play off the far post with De Gea beaten.

The away end “ooooohed.”

A Kurt Zouma error allowed Martial a shot on goal but the effort did not bother Kepa.

We were bossing the game. Barkley looked at ease. Kovacic was winning the ball and moving it on. We definitely had the advantage. A cross from Dave, a shot from Mason Mount. It was going well.

Then, on eighteen minutes, Jorginho swiped at a United attacker but play was moved on, and with Rashford advancing at pace into the box – and with me fearing the worst – a horrible lunge from Zouma gave the referee no option but to award a penalty.

Rashford struck it high past Kepa.

We were 1-0 down.

Bollocks.

We hadn’t allowed the United cheers to subside before we got behind the team, though.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

More of that all season long please.

United, strengthened in spirit and desire after the goal, now dominated for a little spell, though they did not create too much of note.

But Zouma looked at sixes and sevens. He looked clumsy and awkward, like me in front of a woman. His limbs don’t seem to be programmed correctly. The fans around me noticed it too. But we kept the support up.

“One-nil and you still don’t sing.”

It is a mystery how United have the most vociferous away support of any in the top flight yet their home games at Old Trafford tend not to fizz these days. The quietness even shocked me. I almost wanted the bastards to make some noise.

United had the ball in the net a second time though every man and woman in the stadium surely realised that the player was a few yards offside. But on came the VAR review and a huddle of sweaty nerdicians in Stockley Park got to work.

“Offside.”

Thanks for that.

I hate modern football.

Mount chose to pass rather than shoot and there was little weep of frustration. But we kept attacking. A shot from Barkley drew a messy save from De Gea and the rebound was not cleared. Jorginho’s follow-up effort was blocked for a corner. The best chance of the closing moments fell to an unmarked Emerson, who picked up a cross by Jorginho that just evaded the leap of Mount. His swipe hit the same post as Tammy’s effort in the first five minutes.

It was, clearly, one of those halves.

At the break, the mood in the camp was positive.

“How are we losing?” was a common question asked.

I certainly had few complaints, though if I was to be picky, I would look at our A to Z.

Tammy Abraham – I wanted him to move his marker more, be more cunning, be more devilish, be stronger.

Kurt Zouma – I wanted him to look more relaxed, to trust himself more, to look more at ease, to gel.

For old times’ sake, The Baku Half-Time Moaners club was revived as I chatted to Welsh Kev, though to be truthful we had little to moan about. On my way back to my seat, I stated the bloody obvious.

“Next goal is massive.”

There were no changes at the break.

Overhead, the clouds were classic Mancunian. November in August. Tupperware skies.

I commented to Alan :

“Those clouds have more rain in them and this game has more goals in it.”

The second-half began mildly, with no team dominating. Our chances were rare.

On fifty-eight minutes, Christian Pulisic replaced Ross Barkley, who had enjoyed a mixed game and was certainly starting to tire. Pulisic, from Hershey in Pennsylvania, is touted for great things. I have only seen highlights of him, I do not have the time to endlessly gorge on football, but he looks the business. If he can make that tract of land down the left wing his own in the same way that Eden Hazard did from 2012 to 2019, we will all be very happy.

Sadly, on sixty-seven minutes – and with Tammy pole-axed in United’s box – a very quick counter resulted in our defenders scampering around like chickens having glimpsed the pointed ears and bushy tail of a fox enter their coop. A cross from the right from the boot of Andreas Pereira was inch-perfect, but Dave will be unhappy that Martial reached the ball before him. He poked it past Kepa.

We were now 2-0 down.

No way back? Nah. We looked out of it.

Bollocks.

Olivier Giroud replaced Tammy.

Just a couple of minutes later, we were 3-0 down. I must admit that I missed the long pass out of defence from Paul Pogba which lead to Rashford running unhindered through our defence and poking the ball past a hapless Kepa. In the split second that my mind wandered, I found myself looking at the horrific Chelsea tattoo on the shin of a nearby supporter but don’t worry my concentration levels will increase as I get match fit. I saw the neat finish alright. Fuck it.

The United fans went doolally.

There is a problem at Old Trafford. From the curve of the away section, spectators have an unimpeded view of the home supporters down below us, especially in the paddock in front of the old main stand. Their faces were of delirium. They were bloody loving it. I felt ill.

Our little prince N’Golo Kante replaced Jorginho with twenty minutes remaining and I guess that Lampard just wanted to give him “minutes.”

Lo and behold, despite our best efforts to stem the tide and to, maybe just maybe, grab a goal ourselves, the fates contrived against us, and just after an odd moment. Jose Mourinho must’ve been spotted in a TV studio because a sizeable proportion of the United support in the nearby main stand and “Stretty” spotted him and serenaded him

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

Now, that was an odd sensation.

With that, United broke – supremely well – and Pogba ran and ran and ran. His cute pass to substitute Daniel James set the debutant up, though he needed two bites of the cherry.

A deflection hindered Kepa and we were 4-0 down.

Fackinell.

My mind spun.

“That’s my biggest defeat up here.”

“The biggest loss to them since the 1994 FA Cup Final.”

“Our biggest opening day loss in memory.”

But most of the Chelsea support stayed to clap the boys off. Frank Lampard approached and clapped us too. He had looked the part the entire game, suited and elegant in the technical area, although he did retire up to the seated area in the stand at 3-0.

The four of us regrouped and began the walk back to the car, up the famous forecourt, where I watched one United lad swagger across, smile wide, and bounce right into the middle of us. I half expected someone to get a clump, but there was no “afters.”

There was the usual “Hollow Hollow Hollow” and yet more “Chelsea Rent Boys” schoolyard chants. We kept together, kept our heads down, looked after each other, moving slowly out.

A few United fans, talking among themselves, said that they had been lucky to get four. I had to agree. It didn’t feel like a 4-0 throughout the match, although at the end I felt it certainly did.

Crossing the main road, I spoke about our attacking options.

“I’m not sure Frank knows who is his best striker. I hope he soon decides. If it is Tammy, then he needs time to embed himself in the team, to work with his team mates, to know when to move, to know when to go.”

The game – yes, I know it is only the first one – worried me.

“I just don’t think we’ll score enough goals this season.”

We walked past supporters’ coaches headed for North Wales, for Fife, for Devon.

In the car, we heard Frank Lampard speak intelligently, with clarity, with a little humility, with calmness.

I expected nothing less really, but it was wonderful to hear someone talk so much sense.

Stuck in traffic, I posted a selfie of the four of us in my car, smiles wide and defiant.

“Oh Chelsea We Love You.”

It ended up getting a lot of likes.

The drive home went well, maybe those tedious trips south after games at Manchester United are a thing of the past.

I was back home at 11.30pm, a little bruised, but still proud to have been at Old Trafford.

Where else would I have rather been?

Nowhere.

 

Tales From The United Colours Of Football

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 April 2019.

There was definitely a different vibe going into the away game at Old Trafford compared to the match at Anfield a fortnight earlier. For the Liverpool game, it was all about damage limitation. With hindsight, a draw was a rather fanciful hope. Along with Manchester City, Liverpool have been head and shoulders ahead of the pack this season. A loss against Klopp’s team was almost inevitable. But an away game against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s miss-firing team was an entirely different proposition. Due to our lack of potency in front of goal, I was still pragmatic / pessimistic (delete where appropriate) about us scoring, so my prediction was a 0-0 draw. But this was a result that was far more difficult to call. On the drive up in the car – I won’t bore everyone into the early stages of rigor mortis, our drive up to Manchester United takes the same form as always – I explained my thoughts to P Diddy and L Parky.

“Hey, this could be a game where we play well and lose, or it could be a game where we play crap and win. We could lose three-nil or we could win three-nil.”

This was a familiar drive north indeed.

I was parked up at the usual place, a twenty-minute walk away from the famous crossroads on the Chester Road, where the match day experience at Old Trafford starts to crackle and to ignite. “The Bishop Blaize” pub, the row of take-aways, the Red Devils and Lou Macari fish and chip shops, the coming together of United fans from all parts of the city, the north-west, the United Kingdom, Europe and the world, the “Trafford” pub, the lights of the Lancashire Cricket Ground, the fanzine sellers, the off-licences, the match-day routines.

As I looked over at the “Trafford” pub, I was reminded of a few scenes set in and around Old Trafford during the film “Charlie Bubbles” that featured the recently departed actor Albert Finney – a local boy made good both in this film and in real life – and I remembered that the mock Tudor beams, still visible in 2019, were able to be spotted in the film too.

MU6 (2)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfFTeiV_ti4

This piece of film is from a match day in October 1966, and depicts the walk to Old Trafford – along what is now Sir Matt Busby Way – that Finney and his son took, ending up with a walk across the forecourt. The three of us were taking this exact same route in 2019. There is something warming about that. That the match featured fleetingly in the film was our away game at Old Trafford makes the clip even more poignant.

MU7 (2)

I am adamant that Albert Finney was on the pitch before a United vs. Chelsea game in relatively recent times. Maybe the 2-2 FA Cup game a few seasons ago.

This would be my twenty-fourth away game at Old Trafford with Chelsea. That’s one more than the twenty-three that I have made with Chelsea to Anfield. But there have been two FA Cup semi-final visits too, against Liverpool in 2006 and Blackburn Rovers in 2007. On both of these occasions, we were in the Stretford End, mirroring the location of our support in the 1970 FA Cup Final replay. It is not known which end was Chelsea in the Khaki Cup Final of 1915.

2007 A

For the 2006 game, with Chelsea looking likely to dominate English football for a while, we produced stickers which were applied with liberal abandon on anything that we could find.

2006 A

I always rate the London derby with Tottenham as the biggest home game of the season, but I make our annual trip to Old Trafford as our biggest away game.

We have certainly had some history in this famous old stadium, certainly 1915 and 1970, but in recent years too.

Here are some moments from the previous ten league visits.

2008/09

Five minutes later I was on the forecourt, scene of much ‘naughtiness’ in days of yore. The new ‘United Trinity’ statue of Best / Law / Charlton was the new focal point. It’s a splendid statue actually, facing the one of Matt Busby, beneath the Manchester United sign on the East Stand. As I took a couple of photos, I noted one middle-aged bloke say ‘who is the bald one?’ I had great pleasure in answering him.

2009/10

And then it happened. A through ball from Kalou, the other sub, and Drogba was offside…but no flag…

”Go on my son.”

Drogba slammed the ball towards Van der Sar and the net rippled. Is there a more beautiful sight in football? That was it. We exploded. I screamed, then jumped up onto my seat and ended up in the row in front. Gary ended up two rows in front. I screamed and shouted “it was offside, it was offside – you beauty!”

The consensus was that, yes, Didi was offside, but we couldn’t care.

2010/11

I texted a curt “well done” to four United friends from back home at the final whistle and I was soon out on the forecourt, battling the gentle slope and the crowing United fans alike. Parky had been delayed in his exit; he had said that two United fans – not from England – had somehow got tickets in the away seats and had unzipped their jackets at the end of the game to reveal red shirts. A punch in the face from an enraged Chelsea fan was the response.

Not big, not clever, but totally understandable.

2011/12

A few years back, you would see banners which said “Exeter Reds”, “Devon Reds”, “Dublin Reds” and “Malta Reds” at away games. Today, it seems that you are now more likely to see “Urmston Reds”, “Salford Reds”, Sale Reds and “Clayton Reds.” It’s as if they are reclaiming Mancunia as their own. There always used to be a certain amount of “niggle” among local United fans and their fans from elsewhere in the UK. This is certainly true of Liverpool, too. There is a notion that out-of-town United fans are the glory hunters, forever besmirching the name of Manchester United. It was United who invented the derogatory nickname “day-trippers” which described the out-of-towners arriving en masse at Old Trafford, buying United paraphernalia and not really “getting” what United is about.

2012/13

Inside Old Trafford, we took our seats in row 24, in the side section where the 500 or so away season-ticket holders were allocated. There were familiar faces everywhere. Sadly, I soon spotted a section of around four-hundred seats in the away section which had not been sold. I have never known us not to sell our three thousand seats at Old Trafford ever before. It made me angry.

“The fcuking seats are fcuking red.
The fcuking fans are home instead.
The fcuking seats are full of air.
The fcuking seats are fcuking spare.”

2013/14

It didn’t take long for me to find my gaze centered on the twin figures of Jose Mourinho and David Moyes. Not long into the game, we sung Jose’s name and he flapped a quick wave of acknowledgement. A torrent of abuse from the Stretford End – “Fuck Off Mourinho” – was met by a wave too. Mourinho, hands in pockets, relaxed, was clearly revelling in the moment. He was on centre-stage at Old Trafford, enjoying the limelight, loving the drama. Moyes, in comparison, looked stiff and awkward. It can’t be easy for Moyes to have to face the mammoth north stand, with fifteen feet high letters denoting Sir Alex Ferguson, at every home game. I noted that Mourinho chose to wear a neat grey pullover with his Hackett suit; a style much favoured by Roberto di Matteo last season. The urbane Mourinho, like so many Europeans, can carry off the pullover and suit combination, but I often think that Englishmen wearing the same seem to resemble sweaty librarians or train spotters with personal hygiene deficiencies. Just think Sam Allardyce.

2014/15

Hazard was clean in on goal, but De Gea was able to save. The Chelsea choir looked away disconsolately, but roared the team on as a corner was rewarded. I held my camera still and waited for the ball to reach the box. In a flash, I saw Didier Drogba leap, virtually untroubled, at the near post. I clicked. The ball crashed into the net and the three-thousand Chelsea fans in the south-east corner screamed in ecstasy. I was knocked sideways, then backwards and I clung on to the chap next to me, not wanting to fall back and injure myself. If the goal was a virtual carbon copy of Didier’s leap and header in Munich, then so too were the celebrations. This time, though, I managed to keep hold of my glasses. The scenes were of pandemonium; away goals in big games are celebrated like no other. I steadied myself just in time to witness Didier and his team mates celebrating wildly in front of us. Euphoria.

I had one thought : “Munichesque.”

2015/16

We were simply over-run and out-paced and out-played. From Alan’s seemingly reassuring words about a rather reasonable start, it seemed that all of that pent-up angst and anger about their inability to play expansive and thrilling football in “the United way” was being unleashed, and for my eyes especially. Ivanovic, so often the culprit in this car-crash of a football season – but seemingly improved of late – was back to his infuriating form of August and September, allowing Anthony Martial a ridiculous amount of space, then seemed unwilling to challenge. Martial struck a low shot against Courtois’ near post and we watched as it spun across the six-yard box. Thankfully there were no United attackers in the vicinity. The home team continued to dominate, and Rooney shot from distance. Chelsea’s attacking presence was sadly lacking. Our breaks soon petered out. I wondered how on Earth John Terry had forced a save from De Gea while I was still outside in the Manchester night.

2016/17

I soon thought about the two men in charge of the respective teams. Compared to the sour-faced Mourinho – with that dismissive smirk never far away these days – our manager is a picture of positivity and light. Indeed, with Mourinho – totally unlovable at United – now ensconced at Old Trafford, I could not help come to a quick conclusion about our former boss.

He was looking for a job, and then he found a job, and heaven knows he’s miserable now.

2017/18

Beyond “The Bishop Blaize” pub, and hovering over the red brick terraced houses of Stretford were the glistening silver-grey roof supports of Old Trafford, and it took my breath away. Yes, I have seen it all before, but the sunlight made the cold steel so much sharper and it just looked other-worldly. We turned left at the gaggle of chip shops and onto Sir Matt Busby Way. It is such an inconspicuous approach to one of the world’s foremost football stadia.

“United We Stand. New issue. Out today.”

“Yer matchday scarf. Ten pound yer matchday scarf.”

Burgers with onions, burgers without, the noise of a match day, grafters, those old red, white and black bar scarves, selfies in front of the stadium, the Munich Clock, hot dogs, programme sellers, winter jackets, red and white United ski-hats, the Holy Trinity statue, scarves, the megastore, three policemen keeping an eye on things from their raised platform by the executive car park, accents from Ireland, fanzines, the well-heeled making their way to the corporate lounges, the guttural shout of “Red Army”, foreign accents, northern faces, northern scowls, North Face jackets, the occasional dash of blue.

Back to 2018/19…

On this day, thoughts were not only concerned with our game at Old Trafford. I was keeping a close watch on the City game at Burnley. Thank God for Sergio Aguero’s single strike. It was just what I wanted to see. Arsenal, meanwhile, were beating Spurs at their own game, contriving to lose 3-0 at Leicester City. This was opening up ever-so nicely for us. A loss for Tottenham on Saturday, a loss for Arsenal on Sunday. A win – a possibility – at Old Trafford would surely make us favourites for a top four finish.

Perfect.

While Parky and PD made their way in to the stadium, topping up the three pints they enjoyed at a pub just off the M6 an hour earlier, I had my usual walk around the forecourt. There was an image of Juan Mata high above the statue of Sir Matt Busby. I still fidget nervously when I see him in United red.

The entrance to the away turnstiles was now cordoned off with a barrier of solid United red separating us from the home fans. It was not too dissimilar to those red, white and black United bar scarves from the ‘seventies.

MU14 (3)

A quick security pat down – no cameras at Old Trafford these days, my phone would have to suffice – and I was in. Up into the crowded bar, I had one thought on my mind.

“Is City still 1-0?”

“Yep.”

“Good, good.”

It was clear that we had a full house of three-thousand away fans. There were no gaps. There was no need for a 2013-style John Cooper Clarke rage about unused seats.

I bumped into Harry and Paul, both living in Yorkshire now, and there was a slight worry that Burnley had equalised. There is a photograph of myself on the internet with them, with my smile as broad as a Cheshire cat, as I had just heard that City had indeed managed to hold on to a narrow 1-0 win.

One away club regular was sadly missing. There was no Alan alongside Parky, Gal and myself. I soon texted him a “get well soon.”

The team was announced earlier, of course, and I was surprised that Eden Hazard was not being deployed as a false nine.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Willian – Higuain – Hazard

United’s team included the three former blues; Juan, Nemanja and Romelu.

Everywhere filled up. It was to be another massive attendance at Old Trafford. But things were subdued. These must be testing times for the United faithful; a false-dawn under the new manager perhaps, and that awful sense of betrayal, wanting City to win every game they play.

Oh well. Fuck’em.

The teams came onto the pitch from the corner and it was the first time that I have seen United this season in their black shorts. They opted for the more traditional white ones at both home games. It doesn’t look right. I have no idea why United took the decision to change it. Chit chat about kits came to the fore in recent days. There was a leaked image – as yet unconfirmed – of a truly horrific kit for Chelsea next season. I am sure everyone has seen it. It’s garbage. But it got a few of us thinking. Going into the fiftieth anniversary of the iconic 1970 FA Cup win at Old Trafford, it would be nice to honour that occasion with a one-season only kit of royal blue with yellow trim, including yellow socks.

1970 is, after all, the catalyst for many of us.

But, here is the thing. I bet that there was not one single mention of the fiftieth anniversary of that tumultuous win against Leeds United in any of the brainstorming sessions at Nike over the past few months.

Anyway.

Khaki. Black shorts. Yellow socks.

It was time for the united colours of football in 2019 to get us all excited.

United – a blurring of red and black,

Chelsea – royal blue and white.

The game began.

First thoughts? Their side is huge. Our midfield is tiny. And United got off to a flier. Lukaku looked ready to run past a stagnant defence but Rudiger recovered to challenge and Kepa saved well. It seemed to be all United. They carved open a chance on eleven minutes, with Lukaku again involved. His dink towards Luke Shaw always looked like causing us trouble. His pass across the box was slammed home. Only when I was returning home a few hours later did I learn that it was scored by Juan Mata, on his birthday too. My eyes, I am sure, would have dropped to the floor immediately after the goal had rippled the Stretford End goal nets. The song that kept going for ages and ages at our FA Cup game in January – which I had not heard, really, at that juncture – was repeated.

“Ole’s at the wheel.

Tell me how good does it feel?

We’ve got Sanchez and Pogba and Fred.

Marcus Rashford – he’s manc born and bred.

Duh du, du du du du du

Duh du, du du du du du

The greatest of English football.

We’ve won it all.”

Fackinell.

The noise coming from the Chelsea section was good, though. We always raise our game at Old Trafford. The team, slowly, tried to get a foothold in the match. As ever, it was the tireless energy of N’Golo Kante and the ability to spin out of danger of Eden Hazard which were our main positives. A foul on Hazard resulted in a Willian free-kick but the chance was wasted. We had more of the ball, but could not do a great deal with it. We howled with displeasure when Hazard played the ball out to Gonzalo Higuain out on the right wing, with the entire pitch in his sight, but he was offside.

“Fucksake.”

I looked down at my feet again.

We attempted a few long-range efforts and a few half-chances came and went. But De Gea was untested. After a shaky start, with a few silly and mistimed tackles, Dave was warming to the task in hand. He stayed limpet-like close to opponents as many United attackers tested him. Alonso was putting in a good shift on the other flank, too. As the game developed, I could not help but think that this was a sub-par game in terms of quality, especially compared to some of the other mighty tussles between the two teams in this part of Manchester over the past twenty years.

A lot is made of modern football and the atmosphere getting worse and worse with every season. I have made that point on numerous occasions. Here was a case in point. Over seventy-thousand United fans, yet only a section in the far corner of our stand were really bothering. Nothing at all from the side stands, nor – awful this, really – from the Stretford End, which, by now, is a pale shadow of its former self. It is United’s “home end” in name only.

There was the singing-by numbers chant from us – “Just like London, your city is blue” – but that didn’t get much of a reaction.

They didn’t like this one though :

“Just like the Scousers, you live in the past.”

This riled them up a bit, and for a few moments, the noise was electric as three thousand away fans shouted “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” to the United fans above us. This was bloody fantastic. Both sets of fans going for it.

It was – briefly, so briefly – life-affirming stuff.

Passionate, loud, venomous.

“Come on Chelsea.”

Gary, meanwhile, had a new twist.

“Just like the Scousers, you live in Norway.”

Surprisingly, United didn’t take the game to us. Only a few efforts rained in on our goal. It was a humdrum game being played under light clouds. The hot weather of the previous weekend was nowhere to be seen. It was a day for jackets and jeans. The referee Martin Atkinson was not reacting to many rugged United tackles. The noise levels in our section were raised at every such occasion. Higuain was offside again.

A look to the skies this time.

With not much time remaining in a poor half, the ball bounced out to Rudiger, some thirty-five yards out. His body shape quickly cheered me.

I screamed “hit it.”

He hit it alright. The ball kept low and De Gea could only clumsily parry it. The ball bounced out to Alonso, who touched the ball past the clumsy United ‘keeper. We watched as it agonisingly bounced in off the far post.

We went fucking doolally.

MU40

My name is Chris Axon and I am a goal addict.

It was just a perfect time to score. Tim, Julie, Brian and Kev – the oft-mentioned “Bristol lot” – were stood behind us, and had parked-up near the cricket ground. They ended up watching the last few overs of the Lancashire vs. Leicestershire game (they got in for free, not sure how that works, county cricket is an odd affair) and I had to make a comment about De Gea.

“If he was playing cricket, you wouldn’t put him in the slips, would you?”

I sensed that we had taken the wind out of United’s sails. We hoped for just one more Chelsea goal as the referee signalled the start of the second period.

We bossed the opening moments. Even Mateo Kovacic, poor in the first period, looked a better player. Kepa was rarely forced into action. There were bookings for Willian and Kovacic. But then a rash challenge on a United player by Kovacic made me wonder if Sarri would take him off.

“He’s lucky to stay on, Gal.”

But then Rudiger went down, and it was Christensen who came on.

Although the second-half was a much better performance – we honestly dominated, easily – it was also a frustrating one. Higuain was offside three or four more times. He was having a ‘mare. There was one moment, soon into the second-half when he broke over the half-way line, but it looked like he was running in treacle. Hazard was twisting and turning and getting into good positions, but how we missed a late-arriving midfielder – no names, no pack drill – to finish it all off. Too often the ball ended up at the feet of Kante or Willian, both who seemed shot shy.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek came on for Kovacic. But his first few touches were heavy. His shot, later in the game, cleared the Stretford End crossbar by an embarrassing amount. Pedro then replaced Willian. We still controlled most of the ball. Pedro shot wildly over too. But United had the best chance for the winner. Thankfully, Pedro was ideally placed on the goal-line – shades of Ashley Cole in Naples – to head away an effort from Rojo.

The referee signalled a ludicrous seven extra minutes. There was still time for Higuain to fluff his lines at the death.

I looked down at my trainers one last time.

At the final whistle, there was a massive cheer from the away end. It was a priceless point.

The natives were quiet on the walk over the forecourt and onto Sir Matt Busby Way. A few gobby United fans – no more than two or three – were doing their level best to antagonise the Chelsea fans walking cheek by jowl alongside. I heard one Chelsea fan whisper “stick together” but it never really looked like kicking-off. Parky, PD and little old me kept silent.

In the end, the two United youths threw a couple of wayward punches and were soon smothered by a few policemen.

Out on the Chester Road, the United fans were very subdued.

We made a very clean and quick getaway.

“Job done boys, job done.”

On the long drive home, both PD and Parky caught some sleep, no doubt dreaming of German beer and German food ahead of their trip to Eintracht Frankfurt on Wednesday. I am sure I saw them dribbling.

As for me, my next one is on Sunday against Watford.

See you there.

Tales From Ninety-Six Minutes

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 20 October 2018.

With the international break over – I watched Frome Town capitulate to Harrow Borough last weekend, thanks for asking – it was time for arguably the biggest match of the season. Say what you like about Manchester United, or the Forces of Darkness as I occasionally call them – but they are always a huge draw. Personally, I’d probably rate the visit of Tottenham as our biggest home game each season, but there is not much between them.

Just the three of us headed east to London early on Saturday morning; Parky, PD and little old me. There was early morning patchy fog as I headed through Somerset and Wiltshire, but the sun occasionally cleared. On the M4 in Wiltshire, the fog and mist descended again. Away in the distance, the view of a line of monochrome trees atop a slightly sloping horizon was so pure that I even got PD agreeing with me as to how stunning it looked.

The sun soon evaporated any moisture as we headed into Berkshire and beyond. It was to be a stunning day for football. We had set off at 7am so as to maximise pre-match drinking time. We settled on “The Goose” for ease more than anything else. As the other two shot on, I stopped to take a photo of a mackerel sky high above the old school flats of the Clement Atlee Estate just off the Lillee Road. These high-rise blocks of low-cost accommodation, hovering over The Goose, The Wellington and The Rylston pubs, must have housed thousands of Chelsea supporters over the years. I would not be surprised if some of the “North End Road mob” of the late-‘sixties and early-‘seventies were housed within. A friend of mine, Paul – now living in North Devon, and a Chelsea supporter – lived within one of the towers. There is a lot mentioned of “proper Chelsea” these days, and I often think, as I gaze up at the windows and balconies of the Clement Atlee, named after the leader of the Labour Party and the Prime Minister of the coalition government for a few years after the Second World War, that this is a good example. Occasionally, I see a Chelsea flag hanging from one of the balconies – there used to be a dusty and weather-beaten “Munich 2012” one a few years back – but I wonder how many inhabitants get to see Chelsea Football Club play these days.

Not so many as in the late ’sixties I’d guess.

In The Goose – I had limited myself to a couple of Peronis – and the beer garden outside, I spent a good hour talking to friends from far and near. There was, as is always the case, little talk of the game ahead.

Deano from Yorkshire, Welsh Kev from Port Talbot, the boys from Kent, Eck from Glasgow, the lads from Gloucester, the Bristol lot, Rich from Loughborough.

I was aware that several friends from the other side of the Atlantic were over for the game.

And we chastise United fans that don’t come from Manchester.

Oh, the irony.

It was a pleasure to meet up with Brad, now living in New York but originally from Texas, and his father who was attending his first-ever Chelsea game.

I say this to everyone : “if we lose, you ain’t coming back.”

Pride of place during this particular pre-match meet-and-greet went to my friends Leigh-Anne and John from Toronto, now married, and dipping into see us play again after a busy holiday in Ireland. I last saw them in DC in 2015. They were to announce the fact that Leigh-Anne was pregnant to all their friends back home – baby due in March – with a photo of them holding up a little Chelsea shirt outside the West Stand.

Now that, my friends, is proper Chelsea.

The time flew past. I supped the last few sips and headed to the ground.

We were sure that Olivier Giroud would start. It was a foregone conclusion.

He didn’t.

I hoped that man-of-the-moment Ross Barkley would start.

He didn’t.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Morata – Hazard

My main concern was that we might be out-muscled by Matic and Pogba in midfield.

This would be my thirty-second Chelsea vs. Manchester United league game at Stamford Bridge. My first one came in our first season back in the top flight after a five-season break – I like to think of it as our “this relationship is going nowhere and we need a bit of space” phase – when I assembled with 42,000 others just after Christmas Day in 1984. I don’t know about anyone else, but I was super-excited. After my first game in 1974, Chelsea then played seven of the next ten seasons in Division Two, and my sightings of top teams was severely limited. It seems incredible these days, but from March 1974 to August 1984, I only ever saw us play seven home games in Division One.

Newcastle United – 1974

Tottenham Hotspur – 1974

Derby County – 1975

Aston Villa – 1977

Liverpool – 1978

Tottenham Hotspur – 1978

Queens Park Rangers – 1979

(…it would appear this random sample would support my theory of Tottenham being the biggest game each season in my mind.)

December 1984, with me on the benches with Alan and Glenn, and a few other close friends, and the visit of Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United. It was a huge game. We were doing well in the league, and United were in the mix too. There was an expectant buzz before the game, and we were in The Benches early, as always, and watched the large and sprawling North Stand fill up with United fans.

“Not as many as Liverpool earlier this month” I remember thinking at the time.

These days, we are so used to inflated gates with clubs being scared to death to publish actual “bums on seats” at games, instead going for the number of tickets sold. It is why Arsenal always announce gates of 60,000 despite swathes of empty seats in the latter years of the Wenger reign. In those days, it was the exact opposite. Why pay tax on the income generated by 45,000 if you can announce the figure as 35,000? Nobody would ever check. So, in those days with that cunning old fox Ken Bates in charge, there were many times when we scoffed at some of the gates which were announced. In May 1984, Stamford Bridge was packed to see us beat Leeds United to clinch promotion but the gate was only 33,000.

“Yeah right, Batesy.”

Sitting in The Benches in those days, I always used to keep a check on the top row of the East Stand. If every seat was taken, I expected a 42,500 capacity figure to be announced.

Very often it wasn’t.

Sadly, we lost 3-1 that day and I was as disappointed as I had felt for a good few years as I exited Stamford Bridge and took the train back to Somerset. It was our first big loss at home after promotion the previous year and the little doubts about our place in the new world order were beginning to peck away.

Our home record against United used to be bloody awful, and yet paradoxically our league record at Old Trafford was excellent; from 1966/677 to 1987/88 we were unbeaten in thirteen league matches, a very fine record. And we have intermittently nabbed good wins at Old Trafford in the past thirty years.

Our home form has certainly improved.

From that game in December 1984, we lost eight out of seventeen league games at Stamford Bridge.

Since 2002, we have lost just one of sixteen.

For once, I was confident – not even quietly confident – of a Chelsea win.

“God knows where our goals will come from, but I am sure we’ll win.”

It has been a mystery to me why the movers and shakers at Adidas decided to jettison the classic Manchester United red / white / black in favour of a red / black / red this season. It was a classic kit. Why the change? All I know is that none of the United fans that I know have bothered to mention it. Perhaps they haven’t noticed.

After the usual “Park Life” and “Liquidator” segment gave way to the flag waving and flame-throwing bollocks of the immediate pre-match, the teams appeared.

United oddly chose to wear white shorts for this one match. But the kit still looked a mess.

A new Eden Hazard flag – simplicity itself – surfed over the heads of those in the tier below me.

I looked around. Ken Bates or no Ken Bates, nobody could lie about the attendance for this one. It was a full-house for sure.

Except for a few of the boxes in the West Middle.

Empty.

The mind boggles why these tend to be empty every game.

Another TV game. The nation, and parts of the world, was ready.

The game began and there was a decent buzz in the stadium. I only rarely looked over to spot Mourinho and Sarri. The red of the United substitutes was very light, almost pink. Liverpool have gone darker, United have gone lighter. Anything to distance themselves from each other. By comparison, there was more immediate noise at the Liverpool home game, but everyone was in the boozers, all fifty-two of them, for much longer three weeks ago. These lunchtime starts are usually quieter affairs.

United were singing, as they always do, in the far corner, but Chelsea had the best of the opening period of the game. There was far greater fluidity from our ranks. Hazard was hacked down by Young, but no card was shown. Soon after, Eden was fouled just outside the box, but Willian curled the free-kick way over the bar. United had a little spell; it made a change to see them in our box. Lukaku headed wide. It would be the last that we would see of him for a while.

At the other end, we dominated again.

On twenty minutes, we won a corner. Willian struck a firm cross over towards the penalty spot where Toni Rudiger rose, seemingly unhindered and at will, to thump a header past De Gea. Again, I had a clear view of its trajectory. I knew that it was a goal straight away.

BOOM.

Blue / Blue / White 1 Red / White / Red 0.

Alan – in a Mancunian Red Army accent : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Chris – in a Cockney Reds accent : “Come on my little diamonds”

Young chipped away at Hazard again; this time a card.

Next up, a sublime pass from Rudiger – lofted from afar – caught the run of a raiding Alonso, but the defender’s first touch was heavy as De Gea approached.

A similar lofted pass from David Luiz was so well disguised, none of his team mates went for it.

“That ball had a moustache and false glasses on it, Al.”

For virtually all of the first-half, while Juan Mata was involved in occasional bursts and a couple of dead-balls, the other two former Chelsea players Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku struggled to get involved at all. Matic was his usual ambling self and of little consequence. And Lukaku, sporting ridiculous XXXXL shorts – “If Gary was wearing those, he would have to have turn-ups” quipped Alan – was hardly noticeable. I was mesmerized, though, by the size of Lukaku. His arse must have a postcode all to itself. How times change; when he first joined Chelsea, I wanted him to bulk up a little as he didn’t seem to have the physical prowess to dominate defenders. Bloody hell, since those days, he has bulked up quite considerably. He must eat at every greasy spoon, twenty-four-hour truck stop and all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant between Bournemouth and Tyneside.

It was lovely to see Juan Mata applauded by the home support as he took his first corner over in the far corner. I would expect nothing less, to be honest. Mata is a class act, and will always be a blue in my eyes. There was no show of love or appreciation for Matic and Lukaku.

The play continued to pass Lukaku by. He seemed slow and disinterested, and of no consequence.

In fact, he looked like the biggest pile of shite to be seen on TV from a location in West London since Lulu the elephant had stage fright in the Blue Peter studio.

The first-half came to an end, with Chelsea well in control, but without creating a great deal of chances. It gives me no comfort nor pleasure to report that Alvaro Morata was his usual self; playing in name only. Not much movement, not much guile, not much anything really.

In the much-improved programme, there was time to dip into the contents. Oddly, the Red Banner game that I covered a couple of games back was featured in depth; I learned that the game, on a Wednesday afternoon in 1954, was shown “live” on the BBC.

A Pat Nevin column detailing his love, like mine, of the Manchester music scene, was excellent. Pat has a musical column in the programme this season, similar to his piece in the old “Bridge News” of the mid- ‘eighties and it is well worth reading. There have been a couple of excellent pieces on the internet about Wee Pat of late.

After reading one of them during the morning, Glenn – who was missing the game due to work – sent me a message to say that “Pat is just like you.”

I half-guessed what he meant.

I presumed that there would be a comment about the Cocteau Twins.

“I like driving. I can listen to music. And think about football.”

Sadly, there was no hope of me playing for Chelsea Football Club nor going out with Clare Grogan, so that is where the comparison ends.

The second-half began. Early on, Morata would frustrate us further. A Jorginho through ball set him up, he did all the right things, but then meekly shot wide.

With us in charge, but desperate for a second to wrap things up, I hoped the miss would not haunt us.

David Luiz, raiding in the inside-left position, supported the attack and did well to exchange passes with Eden, but his shot was deflected for a corner. I loved the bursting runs of Kovacic which continued to breathe life into our play.

The game then, sadly, changed.

With ten minutes of the second-half played, Kepa did ever so well to push out a firm strike from Mata, but the ball was kept alive. The ball was dolloped back inside the box and although Luiz got a head to the ball, I sensed danger – “they’ll score here” – and it fell to Martial who nimbly poked it home.

London 1 Manchester 1.

Bollocks.

United roared, singing some song about Liverpool, if my hearing was correct.

Chelsea then seemed to crumple. Matic started dominating the midfield and Mata looked influential. Lukaku roamed from his central position and caused problems. Suddenly, we looked half the team we were in the first-half.

I grew more annoyed with Alvaro Morata.

Every player has a trademark play – the John Terry chest-pass, the Frank Lampard thumbs up run, the Eden Hazard 180 degree turn, the manic Pedro run, the Willian burst, the David Luiz feint – but it seems to me the Morata speciality is holding the back of his head after yet another half-hearted jump at a high ball.

“FUCKSAKE.”

David Luiz seemed to be having a hit and miss game, but I lost count of the times his fantastic interceptions stopped United causing further damage. One run to shield the ball away from the lump of Lukaku was sublime.

A Luiz header went close from a Willian free-kick. The flight of the ball was almost perfect, but the stretching Luiz just had too much to do. But his leap was well-timed. His was an increasingly important role in the game.

Ross Barkley then replaced Kovacic. A round of applause for both.

Kante – not as involved as I would like if I am honest – then let fly outside the box but De Gea scrambled the ball away.

This was a tight game, if not high on real quality. Eden had been shackled all afternoon, often with three players hounding him, but we hoped his moment of genius would come.

Then, seventy-three minutes, a calamity. Luiz mistimed an interception out wide (there had been other similar ones during the game where his timing was spot-on) and this allowed the mercurial Mata to set up Rashford, then Martial. Moving the ball quickly out of his feet, he effortlessly struck a low shot right into the bottom corner of our net.

Nike 1 Adidas 2.

The United hordes roared again.

“U – N – I – T – E – D, United are the team for me.”

And then a song which United have taken on board as a badge of honour over the past fifteen years or so :

“Who the fuck are Man United, as the reds go marching on, on, on.”

Their thought process must be this : ”as if anyone should question who United are.”

It honestly boils my piss when I hear our fans singing this.

It’s their fucking song these days.

“Chelsea Till I Die” is another one. Hardly ever sung at a Chelsea game of any description, home or away, at any time. A song of Football League teams. A dirge much beloved by smaller clubs. A song which seems to have found a firm footing among our overseas fans, though God knows why.

Please stop it.

Immediately, Pedro replaced Willian. Soon after, Olivier Giroud took over from the non-existent Morata.

But he mood had certainly darkened around me. Just like in 1984, we were about to be handed our first big home defeat of the season. And I had a flashback to the Tottenham game last Spring, when an early goal at The Shed was eventually wiped out and overtaken.

Eden became a little more involved. The intensity rose.

I spoke to Alan.

“Barkley to get a goal.”

The referee signaled a whopping six minutes of extra-time.

Hope, however small, existed.

The clock ate up the minutes. A few fans decided to leave.

With time surely running out, Dave swung in a high and deep cross towards the far post. I snapped as David Luiz climbed a step ladder to jump higher than two United defenders. We watched as the ball slowly looped towards the far post.

The ball struck it.

The disbelief.

The ball cannoned out and Rudiger headed towards goal.

The anticipation.

David De Gea magnificently saved.

The agony.

Ross Barkley was on hand to smash the ball in.

The pandemonium.

The noise.

Chelsea 2 Manchester United 2.

By this time, I was at the top of the steps to my immediate right and I snapped away as Ross Barkley celebrated wildly. I felt my head spinning.

I was light-headed.

I grabbed hold of the hand rail in front of me and steadied myself.

Such joy.

I looked over to see Al and Bournemouth Steve shouting, smiling and pointing.

Alan’s face says it all.

All around me, there seemed to be another wave of noise and then, I wasn’t sure why, a loud “FUCK OFF MOURINHO.”

I immediately thought that this was a little distasteful. Yeah, I know the bloke is – now – a knob head but there were some good times too.

We tried to piece together what had happened, and over in the tunnel, there was a lot of handbags being thrown. Players on the pitch were pushing and shoving each other.

I didn’t care.

The whistle went and it had seemed like a win. After the ninety-sixth minute goal conceded against Liverpool, this was a lot more enjoyable. And Ross Barkley, our token Scouser, making all those Mancunians miserable now?

“Sound, la.”

Unbeaten in nine league games, a nice round dozen in total, we are doing just fine.

And Brad’s father enjoyed the game so much that he soon asked around for a spare for Thursday against BATE Borisov.

He will be sitting, apparently, two runs in front of me.

I’ll see him there.

 

Tales From The Naughty Section

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 19 May 2018.

So, the last game of the 2017/2018 season.

The final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

It simply did not seem one whole year ago that the four of us were assembling to head up to London to attend the 2017 Final. Where has the time gone? Where has it indeed? Life seems to be accelerating away, almost out of control at times, and shows no signs of slowing down. This would be my fifty-sixth game of the season – bettered only twice, 58 in 2011/2012 and 57 in 2012/2013 – and even the first one in Beijing in late July only seems like last month. It has been a demanding and confusing campaign, with many memories, and fluctuating fortunes. There was a crazy period in January and February when it seemed that I was heading up to London for football every midweek for weeks on end. It was a particularly tiring period. Looking back, it has not been a favourite season but I have enjoyed large chunks of it. We have rarely hit anything approaching the heights of last year when we took the football world unawares and stormed to a Championship. This season has been riddled with poor performances, the usual soap-opera of conflict between players, manager and board. And, of course, there has been a couple of moments of deep sadness. We lost two thoroughbred captains in Ray Wilkins and Roy Bentley. But in the depths of darkness, there have been glimpses of glory.

Chelsea Football Club. It seemed that all of human life was here.

Would the last game of the season, seemingly stacked against us, provide us with a day of silverware and joy?

We bloody well hoped so.

However, as we left St. James’ Park last Sunday, there was a genuine fear of us not only losing but losing heavily. Our performance on Tyneside was truly mind-boggling in its ineptitude, and I honestly feared for the worst. A repeat of 1994? God forbid.

The day did not begin well. Glenn, PD and little old me were stood, impatient, excited, on the platform of Frome train station, intending to catch the 8.07am to Westbury and then on to Melksham, where Lord Parky would join us, and to Swindon and eventually London. Glenn then noted that the train was running late. We needed to get to Westbury. So, we hopped into a taxi which took us over the state line and in to Wiltshire, despite the dopey cab driver declining our protests to “stop talking and drive faster” and idling his way through Chapmanslade and Dilton Marsh.

He was as annoying a person as I have met for some time.

“Going to the Cup Final, eh? Oh nice one. Don’t worry, I will get you there for twenty-to.”

“TWENTY PAST!”

“Oh, thought you said, twenty-to. Ha.Ha. I’d best hurry up. Ha ha.

“Stop talking and drive faster, mate.”

“Go on Chelsea. I hope they win. Ha ha. Do you think you will win? Ha?”

“Stop talking and drive faster.”

“I hate United you see. I’m a Liverpool fan.”

“Stop talking and drive faster.”

“Go on Chelsea! Ha ha.”

…this inane nonsense continued for what seemed like ages. Thankfully, we reached Westbury station with a few minutes to spare to catch the 8.22am train to Swindon.

Parky joined us at Melksham, we changed at Swindon, and arrived on time at Paddington at 10.14am. I love those arches at this famous old London station. It has played a major part in my Chelsea story. All of those trips to London – sometimes solo – from 1981 onwards. I remember sitting on a barrier, desolate, after the 1988 play-off loss to Middlesbrough, wondering if Chelsea would ever return to the top flight, let alone – ha – win anything.

That moment is a defining moment in my Chelsea life. That seems like five minutes ago, too.

Our 2018 Cup Final pre-match jolly-up was planned a week or so ago. At 10.45am, the four of us assembled at the “Barrowboy and Banker” outside London Bridge. There was talk of surprise guests. Glenn ordered the first round.

“Peroni please.”

I popped outside to take a shot of the pub and the modern towers on the north side of the river. I was just finishing the framing of a second photograph when I heard a voice in my ear.

“Those hanging baskets are lovely, aren’t they?”

My first, initial, thought?

“Oh bollocks, weirdo alert.”

A nano-second later, I realised who it was; my great friend Alex from the New York Blues, who I had arranged to meet at 11am. He quickly joined us inside. I had last seen him over in New York on a baseball trip in 2015. He kindly let me stay in his Brooklyn apartment for the 2013 Manchester City game at Yankee Stadium while he was visiting Denmark with his girlfriend.

“Still waiting for the special guest.”

Alex : “It’s not me? I’m mortified.”

The Chuckle Brothers roared.

Next through the door were Kim, Andy and Wayne – aka “The Kent Lot” – who have been stalking us on numerous pub-crawls now. We reminisced about the laugh we had in Newcastle last weekend.

“Get the beers in boys, don’t talk about the game.”

Next to arrive was former Chelsea player Robert Isaac, who had been chatting to Glenn about pre-match plans during the week. We occasionally bump into Robert at The Malthouse before home games, and it was an absolute pleasure to spend some time with him again. Robert is a Shed End season ticket holder and we have a few mutual friends. When he broke in to the first team in 1985, no player was more enthusiastically cheered; he had been the victim of a near-fatal stabbing at the Millwall League Cup game in September 1984.

I can easily remember a game in which he started against Arsenal in September 1985 when the entire Shed were singing :

“One Bobby Isaac. There’s only one Bobby Isaac.”

What a thrill that must have been for a young player who grew up supporting us from those very terraces.

Next to arrive was Lawson – another New York Blue – who I had last seen on these shores at the Cardiff City away game on the last day of the 2013/2014 season. He had been working some music events in Brighton on the two previous nights and was officially “hanging.” A pint of Peroni soon sorted him out. I have a lot of time for the New York Blues, and we go back a while. It is always a pleasure to welcome them to games over here.

We spoke a little about the difficulties of some overseas supporters getting access to tickets; Chelsea has tightened things across the board of late. I knew of a few – but no more than seven or eight – Chelsea mates from the US who were over for the game, and who had all managed to secure tickets from one source or another. There would be supporters’ groups meeting up all over the world to watch. Yet I know from a few close friends in the US that, often this season, the FA Cup has failed to draw much of a crowd at some of their so-called “watch parties.” I can feel their frustrations. I know only too well from the viewing figures provided for this website that the FA Cup reports, for a while now, have attracted significantly fewer hits than for regular league games. And it is especially low in the US, for some reason, usually a stronghold of support for these blogs. I can’t fathom it. It seems that the FA Cup, for those who have not grown up with it, nor have witnessed it at length, seems to exist in some sort of parallel universe.

And yet I would be sure that many of the FA Cup Final “watch parties” would be packed to the rafters.

Big game hunters? Maybe.

At last, the special guest, who I had kept secret from the three other Chuckle Brothers, just for the thrill of surprise on their faces as he walked through the door. As of last Sunday in Newcastle, Rich from Edinburgh was without a ticket. Luckily, our mate Daryl jumped in to get him one of the extra thousand tickets that had surfaced during the week.

There were hugs all around for Rich, who had quickly negotiated a couple of last minute flights to London. It was great to see him again.

We took our party, a dozen strong, over the road to “The Bunch of Grapes” under the shadow of The Shard. Here, we were joined by the final piece in the jigsaw, Dave, who had just missed us at the first pub. Dave is one of the “Benches 1984” reunion lads from the Leicester City home game not long in to the New Year. It was just fantastic to have so many good folks around me. It had been a very testing time for me at work during the week. My stress levels had gone through the roof. I certainly needed a little of my own space to “chill.”

And a lunchtime drinking session on FA Cup Final day with the dirty dozen was as perfect as it gets.

We then walked through the bustling Borough Market and rolled in to “The Old Thameside Inn” which is one of my favourite pubs in the whole of the city. The terrace overlooking the river was bathed in sunshine, and the drinking – and laughs – continued. It was great to see everyone getting on so well, although many had only met for the first time a few hours before.

“Don’t talk about the game though, for fuck sake.”

A few of us then split up, and some went on to meet others. The four Chuckle Brothers stopped momentarily in the market for some sustenance.

“Ein bratwurst mit sauerkraut und senf bitte.”

On Munich Day, it seemed wholly appropriate.

We then spilled in to “The Southwark Tavern” for one last tipple. The time was moving on, and we needed to head up to Wembley.

We caught the Jubilee line to Wembley Park, thus avoiding the Mancs at Wembley Stadium. This would afford a fantastic view looking down Wembley Way, which I remember visiting with Alex and a few other NYBs before the 2010 Portsmouth FA Cup Final.

The team news came through.

Antonio had decided to pack the midfield, but the scene was set for Eden Hazard to set Wembley alight. Gary Cahill, sensibly, had got the nod over young Andreas.

Thibaut

Dave – Gaz – Rudi

Vic – Cesc – N’Golo – Timmy – Marcos

Eden – Olivier

It was the same team – our strongest eleven, maybe – that had played so well against Liverpool a few weeks back. My spirits were raised a little, but time was moving on and we were still a while away.

Sadly, there were unforeseen delays up to Wembley Park, and we were struggling to make kick-off, let alone see any of the orchestrated nonsense that goes before any event at Wembley these days. Luckily, we had managed to avoid Manchester United fans throughout the day. On walking up Wembley Way, there was a little banter between a United fan and me, and I offered a handshake but his response shocked me :

“Fuck off, you Chelsea prick.”

I just laughed.

Close by, I bumped into another United fan, who was a little better behaved.

“Good luck pal.”

“And you mate.”

We slowly edged up and to the left, the clear blue sky above the arch bereft of any cloud cover. I scrambled towards our entrance.

We were some of the last ones in.

Tickets scanned.

Security pat-down.

Camera bag check.

Security tie threaded.

Five minutes to go.

Up the escalators.

The stadium was hazy from all of the smoke of the pre-match bluster.

We were inside just before United kicked-off.

Just like in Munich six years’ previously, we had arrived in the nick of time.

We were right at the back of the upper tier bar one row. The players seemed minute. In the rush to get in, my sunglasses had gone walkabout. This would be a difficult game for me to watch, through the haze, and squinting.

I hope that I would like what I would see.

The game kicked-off.

I looked around. Virtually everyone in our section, high up, were stood. There must have been some empty seats somewhere, but I could not see any.

But the haze was killing me. And the strong shadows which cut across the pitch. It made for some rather dramatic photographs, but it made viewing difficult.

Chelsea attacked the United hordes at the west end, which is our usual end. As ever, there were United flags – the red, white, black “Barmy Flags” standard issue – everywhere, and from everywhere.

On a side note, there is nothing as ironic as Chelsea fans in Chicago and Los Angeles – or Sydney or Brisbane – taking the piss out of United fans coming from Surrey.

As the kids say : “amirite?”

Down on the pitch, Eden Hazard was soon to be seen skipping away down the left wing, after being released by Bakayoko, and forced a low save from David de Gea at the near post. In the early part of the game, we matched United toe to toe. Although my mind was not obsessed with Jose Mourinho – my mind was just obsessed with beating United, fucking United – I could not resist the occasional glance over to the technical areas.

Antonio Conte – suited and booted. Involved, pointing, cajoling.

Jose Mourinho – tie less, a pullover, coach-driver-chic. Less animated.

There were some Chelsea pensioners seated behind the Chelsea bench; they must have been sweltering in their scarlet tunics.

The heat was probably playing its part, as most of the play was studied and slow. Both teams kept their shape. There was no wildness, nor a great deal of anything in the first twenty minutes. Olivier Giroud was moving his defenders well, and we were keeping possession, but it was an uneventful beginning to the game.

Everything was soon to change. Moses won a loose ball just inside our half, and he spotted Fabregas in space. Hazard was in the inside-right channel now, and Cesc spotted his run magnificently. Hazard’s first touch and his speed was sensational and he raced alongside Phil Jones. Just as he prodded the ball onto his right foot, just as he saw the white of de Gea’s eyes, the cumbersome Jones reappeared and took a hideously clumsy swipe at him.

Eden fell to the floor, crumpled.

We inhaled.

Penalty.

“GETINYOUFUCKER.”

There were wails from all around us that Jones should have been sent-off.

Regardless, he was just shown a yellow.

We waited and waited.

“COME ON EDEN.”

At last, the United players drifted away and the referee Michael Oliver moved to allow the penalty to be taken.

De Gea looked left and right.

Hazard with a very short run up.

Eyes left, a prod right.

Goal.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

At 5.37pm on Saturday 19 May 2018, Manchester United were royally fucked.

Meghan’s moment would come later.

These photographs show the goal and the celebrations.

Between the sixth and seventh photographs, I screamed and screamed.

Get in you bastard.

The game, really, floundered for a while, and the fact that United had no real response surprised me. What also surprised me was the lack of noise emanating from the 26,000 fans in the opposite end. I heard nothing, nothing at all. And although I am sure that United were singing, there was simply no audio proof. But I also saw no arms raised, nor clapping, to signal songs being sung, which I found just as strange. The Chelsea end was – or at least bloody well looked like being – a cauldron of noise, with both tiers singing in unison.

Our two previous finals against Manchester United were recalled.

That 4-0 loss in 1994, do I have to talk about it?

The 1-0 win in 2007, revenge for 1994 of sorts.

I remembered more noise in 1994 for sure.

The noise was a bit more sporadic in 2007.

But this was quieter still.

Modern football, eh?

United rarely threatened. The match drifted past Paul Pogba. Alexis Sanchez, the star for Arsenal against us last year, was quiet too, save for occasional corner kicks.

A Pogba shot from outside the box was well wide, but Courtois surely would have covered it.

After a little Chelsea pressure, Fabregas could only hit a free-kick against the wall. We were happy to sit back and let United pass into cul-de-sacs and into dead-end turns.

A Jones header dropped wide. Thibaut had hardly had a shot to save. It was not an afternoon for him to get his “Word Search” out, but not far off it.

Our midfield was strong – Kante on form, thank heavens – but the three defenders were even better. A couple of Rudiger challenges – strong, incisive – were magnificent and drew rapturous applause.

“Rudi, Rudi, Rudi, Rudi.”

At the break, we were halfway to paradise, but there was still a long way to go.

United, perhaps unsurprisingly, began on the front foot as the second-half began. The sun was starting to drop, causing more shadows to appear on the pitch, and it all became a lot clearer. Marcus Rashford – I can’t honestly believe how Mourinho chose to roast the young lad in his pro-Lukaku rant a few weeks back – was the first to trouble Thibaut, but his shot was easily saved. United pushed with more urgency now, but we generally defended with great shape and resilience.

Just after the hour, that man Phil Jones managed to get his constantly gurning head on to a free-kick and this drew a brilliant late, swooping save from Thibaut. The rebound was pushed home by Sanchez.

The Mancs roared, I stood silent.

Then, a split second after, we saw the raised flag for an offside.

Phew.

But the pattern had been set now, with United controlling possession but not really forcing us into compromising positions.

The Chelsea end were on it.

“And it’s super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC.”

But then, with twenty minutes to go, a tantalising run by N’Golo Kante deep into the United box released Marcos Alonso outside him. He seemed to take a touch that wasted time and allowed de Gea to close down the angles. A save was almost inevitable, with Victor Moses unable to dab in the rebound.

Courtois raced out to deny Rashford.

A save from Matic, who had been one of their better players.

From a corner in the last few moments, the hidden man Pogba suddenly rose unhindered and headed down and wide. We all breathed a heavy heavy sigh.

There were too very late substitutions;

Alvaro Morata for the tireless Olivier Giroud.

Willian for the spirited and game-changing Eden Hazard.

I watched with sorrow as Juan Mata came on to play a bit part; I am sad that we let him go, he should still be a Chelsea player.

The minutes ticked by.

The Chelsea end still kept going.

“CAREFREE.”

We thankfully enjoyed a fair proportion of the added minutes playing “keep ball” in the United half. Eventually, the referee blew up.

At just past 7pm on Saturday 19 May, a huge roar echoed around the east end of Wembley Stadium.

The FA Cup was ours once more. Our eight victories now put us in third place – equal with Tottenham – and behind only Arsenal and Manchester United.

1970 – Leeds United.

1997 – Middlesbrough.

2000 – Aston Villa.

2007 – Manchester United.

2009 – Everton.

2010 – Portsmouth.

2012 – Liverpool.

2018 – Manchester United.

Chelsea Football Club rarely get any praise for treating this historic competition with nothing but respect. We rarely play weakened teams, we treat it with earnest attention from round three onwards, and we play to win every game. It has seemed like a long old campaign this one; from the dull draw at Norwich – but what a great weekend away – to the elongated extra time and penalties in the replay, to the home games against Newcastle United and Hull City, to the away game at Leicester – which I missed due to being snowbound – and the semi-final against Southampton, to the final itself.

It has almost summed up Chelsea’s season.

A lot of troublesome opponents, a few dodgy results, a couple of fine performances, and ultimately, glory.

We watched the trophy being lifted, of course, but drifted away before the after-match celebrations took hold. We had, I guess, seen it all before. We walked – slowly, blissfully – up Wembley Way with another piece of Silverware in our back pocket. We caught the underground to Paddington, the train to Bath, the train to Westbury, the bus – a Chuckle Bus, of sorts – to Frome.

On the bus – the last logistical link of the season – were a few local girls who had been in Bath on a hen night. One of them saw my Chelsea flag, which is going to Alphie, the young lad I spoke about a while back – and she piped up.

“Did you go to the wedding?”

“Blimey, no. We’ve been to the Cup Final.”

She giggled and seemed excited.

“Ooh. Were you in the naughty section?”

Yes. I suppose we were. And proud of it.

Ha. The naughty section. Is that how some people think of football and football fans? How odd. How quaint. Fackinell.

It was an odd end to a pretty odd season.

So, what now?

Who knows.

There always seems to be trouble afoot at Stamford Bridge. There are constant rumours, counter-rumours, whispers, accusations, conspiracy theories, unrest, but – ridiculous, really – tons of silverware too. I hate the unrest to be honest. I would much rather a Chelsea of 2016/2017 with a quiet Conte charming us along the way, than a Chelsea of 2017/2018 and a disturbed manager at the helm. But who can blame him? This has turned into the very first year that he has not won a league championship. For the hard-working and intense Conte, that must have hurt.

But there seems to be a slight groundswell in support for Antonio Conte. I have always been in his camp. Winning the 2017 League Championship and the 2018 FA Cup Final is fucking good enough for me.

But oh Chelsea Football Club. It would be so nice, just for once, to win trophies in a harmonious way. As I was thinking about what to write for this last match report of the season, and the last one of my tenth season, I thought back to the last time that Chelsea Football Club seemed to be run in a harmonious way, with everyone pulling together, with the chairman and chief executive signing fine players with no fuss, with a well-liked manager, and loved players. I had to venture back to the wonderful season of 1996/1997 with Ruud Gullit as manager, with Gianfranco Zola as our emblem of all that is good in the game, and when – this is true – Chelsea were often cited as everyone’s second favourite team.

A perfect time? Our first silverware in twenty-six years?

Those days were mesmerizing and wonderful. And yet, within nine months, Ruud Gullit was sacked as Chelsea manager. As they say somewhere, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And never is that more true than at Stamford Bridge.

Sigh.

Thanks for everyone’s support throughout the season.

I sincerely hope that everyone has a fine summer and that we can all do this all over again next season.

I will see a few lucky souls in Perth, but first I need a bloody rest.

 

 

 

…and yes, it was revenge – again – for 1994.

Tales From A Sunday In Manchester : Part One – Red

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 25 February 2018

It had been a near perfect journey north; light traffic on the motorways, cloudless winter skies, bright sun, and only a couple of stops for breakfast and fuel. Four and a half hours after picking up PD in Frome, and then Parky and Young Jake, we were now located at our usual parking space a mile or so from Old Trafford, outside a small unit which would normally be used to sell tyres. The locals – City fans – took my £10 and guided me back alongside other cars. The car would be safe there. We have used it three or four times now. Fearing the worst – near Baltic conditions were forecast – we fastened buttons on jackets and set off towards Old Trafford. This was Young Jake’s first-ever visit to Manchester United. It would be my twenty-third. In my loose circle of friends who grew up locally to where I live, there are only a few United fans. Yet I am sure that my total of twenty-three visits was considerably more than the three or four United fans could muster between them.

It’s a strange one alright.

For a stadium that holds 75,000 – and is nigh on full to capacity every week, please take note Arsenal – you would think that more of their supporters would actually attend games. I just think that it shows how huge a club Manchester United are. Growing up, working, meeting football fans, meeting people who say they are football fans yet clearly aren’t, it seems that you are never far away from a United supporter. There must be several million United fans in the UK alone. I suppose they can’t all get tickets.

Of course, many never intend doing so, which is another topic completely and which, quite frankly – showing the apathy that would make many United fans proud – I simply can’t be bothered to address.

The twenty-minute walk towards Old Trafford was fine, apart from when we crossed the Chester Road and the wind howled.

Chattering teeth yelled out obscenities.

We were apparently in for a wintry week, which would finish with us playing another game in Manchester, at City’s stadium a few miles further east on the following Sunday. Two supremely tough games indeed. It could turn out to be a very cruel month. Beyond “The Bishop Blaize” pub, and hovering over the red brick terraced houses of Stretford were the glistening silver-grey roof supports of Old Trafford, and it took my breath away. Yes, I have seen it all before, but the sunlight made the cold steel so much sharper and it just looked other-worldly.

We turned left at the gaggle of chip shops and onto Sir Matt Busby Way. It is such an inconspicuous approach to one of the world’s foremost football stadia.

“United We Stand. New issue. Out today.”

“Yer matchday scarf. Ten pound yer matchday scarf.”

Burgers with onions, burgers without, the noise of a match day, grafters, those old red, white and black bar scarves, selfies in front of the stadium, the Munich Clock, hot dogs, programme sellers, winter jackets, red and white United ski-hats, the Holy Trinity statue, scarves, the megastore, three policemen keeping an eye on things from their raised platform by the executive car park, accents from Ireland, fanzines, the well-heeled making their way to the corporate lounges, the guttural shout of “Red Army”, foreign accents, northern faces, northern scowls, North Face jackets, the occasional dash of blue.

While the other three went ahead for a pre-match pint inside the away section, I decided to spend thirty minutes or so outside, in front of an old abandoned club shop, and observe.

The famous forecourt sloped down from right to left from Sir Matt Busby Way. I watched the match-going traffic head off to their seats inside. In truth, it was a generally quiet scene. But there was still that great sense of occasion that you get ahead of any important football match. That sense of unquantifiable anticipation – and apprehension for some – with the knowledge that something big, huge, will soon be taking place but a few hundred yards away.

The forecourt. It is the definitive Old Trafford “space.”

In the days of my childhood, and then my youth, before I ever visited Old Trafford, the TV camera crews would always assemble underneath the Munich Clock if there was anything worth reporting at Old Trafford. A Tommy Docherty scandal, or a new signing, the reporter would stand underneath the façade at the eastern end of the stadium, and the image would become locked in my memory bank. On my first visit to Old Trafford – a night game in 1986 – I suspect I only glanced at the Munich Clock as we had arrived late and I am sure I was in a rush to get in. In those days, the forecourt stretched all of the way down towards the corner of the United Road Stand. Since then, the stands have grown exponentially at Old Trafford and the huge megastore now sits on a large portion of the former wide open space.

It was the site of many a battle in the hooligan era. We all remember the scenes from that “ICF” documentary in 1985 when West Ham got rather lippy with some United lads on the forecourt and along the terraced streets nearby. I can remember myself some punches being thrown at a few United versus Chelsea games over the years on this concrete slope. There is an understated commemorative plaque overlooking the remaining forecourt quadrant now, and of course the Munich Clock remains. It is a myth that the clock shows the actual time of the crash; although once a day it does.

I remembered back to our game on a sunny afternoon in late August of 2013 when I spotted Sir Bobby Charlton unobtrusively walking through the forecourt and being thrilled that I was able to shake his hand. That was a great memory for me. One of the better “non-Chelsea” spine-chilling moments of my life. I remember a United supporter waxing lyrical about the importance of the forecourt in the club’s history and how it’s relatively gradual slope tended to resemble the north face of the Eiger after a particularly painful defeat.

There have been additions on three sides at Old Trafford since 1994. And although there are still discussions rumbling on about increasing the capacity of the oldest stand, now named the Bobby Charlton Stand, by building over the railway line behind, I can’t see the capacity increasing in the near future. As I stood for a few final minutes, I realised that the curved quadrant above the away turnstiles at Old Trafford is one of the oldest remaining parts of the stadium still intact. Those red bricks could tell a few stories I am sure. Underneath, there is a permanently shuttered serving hatch, which may well have sold scarves, hats and favours in the past. How quaint. The megastore now takes care of all that.

One sallow youth wearing a lopsided beanie hat managed to get a few Manchester United fans, and then Chelsea fans, to squeak and yelp into his handheld camera. I inwardly tut-tutted. But he had something special for me. A few minutes later, a United fan in a black away shirt and a Chelsea fan in a blue home shirt – probably friends, possibly even brothers – and each with a half-and-half scarf, both posed and yelled at the camera.

“Go United. Go Chelsea.”

I rolled my eyes to the clear blue heavens.

Oh well, there have always been dickheads who go to football.

I began chatting to a bloke from Madrid, who was taking some crowd shots – some mood shots as I call them – with a couple of cameras. I wanted to warn him that bags, and cameras, would need to be checked before entering the game. But he had no match ticket, he was simply drawn to the game, to the stadium, to capture the pre-match buzz. He was a Real Madrid fan, and we joked about the upcoming Barcelona versus Chelsea game. As my normal camera was abandoned at home, I made sure that I took a few basic shots of the stadium using my mobile phone, focussing on large blocks of colour rather than the up-close and personal details of match action that I usually capture.

Old Trafford is a very photogenic stadium, if you know where to point.

Inside and up the steps and I immediately bumped into the lads; Young Jake, Lord Parky, PD were chatting to John, Alan and Gary. Alan had left his house at 4am that morning and would not be home again until the small hours. We had passed two of the three Chelsea coaches on the M6 at around Stafford earlier. It is the knowledge that loyal supporters like Alan, Gary and John – and hundreds more – make these horrendous journeys for our away games up North each season that fires a lot of my rude responses to many knob head Chelsea fans around the world who mope and moan at the slightest dip in form.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinions blah blah blah” – yes, and many of them strike me as being fucking worthless.

There was quiet optimism among our little group. Personally, I predicted a 0-0 draw.

I ascended the final few steps of the day, and gulped in a breath of expectation.

This stadium had provided me with some fantastical memories over the years. Let’s hope for one more.

James and “Sit Down” was on the tannoy. How apt.

We had great seats, row eight, right on the curve behind the corner flag. The stadium took a while to fill. With fifteen minutes remaining, I went down to the concourse to turn my bike around before kick-off, and fortunately just missed “ten men went to mow” and beer being thrown over everyone.

See my previous comment about dickheads at football.

The manager had chosen to go back to a 3-4-3 with Alvaro Morata given the nod. I had wondered if Fabregas would be dropped in favour of Danny Drinkwater; he was.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Drinkwater – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Hazard

With a quarter of an hour remaining, in a vain attempt to engender any sort of atmosphere, the United DJ played “Dirty Old Town” and then a newer version – with a female vocalist – of “Take Me Home.”

“Take me Home, United Road.

To the place, I belong.

To Old Trafford, to see United.

Take me Home, United Road.”

Chelsea soon responded with a few loud salvos of our own.

It was the first pre-match sing-song of the day and it was almost kick-off.

Bloody hell. In days gone by – “here he goes again” – the singing before the game was an expected appetiser ahead of the match. It set the mood. It got us all ready.

I remembered back to the days when we used to be given that slim little paddock behind the goal. It is where I stood, crammed in with thousands of others like bloody sardines, for my first three games at Old Trafford in 1985/1986, 1986/1987 and 1987/1988. In those days, Old Trafford was a cauldron of noise. The lads in the seats behind us used to stand and bellow out “United, United, United, United” as if their lives depended on it. It was a spine-chilling sound, even more so when there used to be tales of pool balls being launched from the seats behind us into that small away paddock.

These two grainy photos are from the September 1987 fixture when we sadly lost our first league game at OT in ages; we always had a fantastic record up there. We had gone unbeaten in thirteen league visits to Old Trafford since 1965/1966. My very first two visits to United’s home resulted in two back-to-back wins within five months in 1986. What a fantastic couple of matches; King Kerry with all three goals and Tony Godden with two penalty saves.

Of course the view was crap; but as an away fan we knew no different.

The teams came onto the pitch from the corner. I was waiting for the noise to snap, crackle and pop.

It never really did.

The self-generated atmosphere at Old Trafford back in those early visits sizzled like a Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976.

In 2018, it was eerily similar to the ambiance of a mid-‘seventies Berni Inn; softened muzak, embarrassed silences and prawn cocktails.

Despite the cold gusts of arctic air outside, the temperature inside was fine. Not a cloud could be seen above. There were good vibes in the away end. I still fancied a draw. Tottenham were still drawing at Crystal Palace.

The game began.

And how.

We began on the front foot with an early corner.

Soon after, with only two minutes played, Toni Rudiger ran and ran from the Chelsea half – “keep goin’ Rudi”- to deep inside the United half. It was a barnstorming run, which summed up our early dominance, and free-flowing football. The away fans certainly sensed that we were on top.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

Right after, a sublime move allowed the ball to be played out wide to Marcos Alonso, who volleyed a cross at waist height towards Alvaro Morata. The ball crashed onto the cross bar. It was a stunning start to the game from us and set the tone for the first-half.

Without wishing to over-exaggerate, it felt like it was all Chelsea.

Time after time we played a long diagonal over to Victor Moses, who seemed to be United’s forgotten man, he was in so much space. Once or twice, he played the ball in, but far too often there was the trademark extra touch, or – even more frustrating – the desire to beat the same man twice. Throughout that first-half, Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kante stifled many a United attack. Eden Hazard and Willian hopped, skipped and jumped away from tackles; they were the stars alright.

The atmosphere from the home areas inside Old Trafford was virtually non-existent. Even I was shocked.

A new song from the away fans made me chuckle.

“Your city is blue. Your city is Blue. Just like London your city is blue.”

(I wonder if we will be quite so magnanimous next Sunday…)

There wasn’t much of a reaction from the United lot, whose only song was aimed at Merseyside.

We continued to find space between the lines. United were clearly second best.

However, a half chance fell to Alexis Sanchez, usually so prolific inside the box, so we were all relieved when his shot was easily gathered by Thibaut. It had been United’s first real effort on goal. Not long after, just after the half-hour mark, the twin threats of Willian and Hazard combined magnificently. Willian, his toes twinkling, ran with the ball from inside our box and the space opened up in front of him. He pushed the ball on to Hazard, who continued the move, and spotted the Brazilian’s “underlap” and returned a perfect pass into space. The whole away end lent forward. This smelled like a goal. After one touch, Willian smashed it past De Gea.

Manchester United 0 The Champions 1.

GET IN.

I saw Calvin race down to the front of the aisle and – in a scene which reminded me of a late winner against Tottenham – I joined him. The away end was on fire. I overlooked the balcony wall at the bottom of our section and punched the air.

FUCKING YES.

It was certainly deserved. The Chelsea support had been providing constant noise during the entire match, but the noise levels increased again. My college pal Rick – a season ticket holder in the back row of J Stand, at the other corner of our end –  always rates our away support at Old Trafford. He has told me that we are consistently in the top three or four. I wondered how he was rating the noise in this game. I was certainly proud of our racket. Of course it helps that the team was playing well – “helping each other” – but I always think we should be making tons of noise regardless of how well the team are performing on the pitch.

I grew nervous when some supporters started singing “Jose, what’s the score?”

…mmm, not at just 1-0, lads.

See my previous comment about dickheads at football.

Inexplicably, and against the run of play, United countered and the large and looming presence of Romelu Lukaku held up the ball in a central position. The ball was pushed back to a waiting United player. Despite a great deal of congestion in our box, Martial found Lukaku, who did well to steer the ball past Courtois.

United 1 Chelsea 1.

BOLLOCKS.

Lukaka, the big Belgian lump, took great pleasure in crossing his arms in front of his chest and sneering at the three thousand away fans.

“Noted.”

We broke again, but the entire end was left fuming as Eden raced into the box but bizarrely opted not to shoot. The moment was gone. The ball broke to Alonso, but his rushed shot cleared the bar. It is one aspect of his play that is lacking.

As one or two Americans are prone to exclaim : “He needs to shoot the ball.”

Shoot. Shoot will do. We all know there is a ball involved.

So, all square at half-time. I reviewed our players’ performances in that first forty-five minutes. All came out positively apart from that man Moses, who so infuriates, and Morata, who was largely quiet, and relatively uninvolved. I had kept looking over at Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho, both dressed in black, as the first-half developed. For some reason, maybe an air of inevitability, I have been a Chelsea fan for too bloody long, I sensed that although United had been lucky to escape with just one goal conceded, Mourinho just might have the last laugh.

The second-half began. As always, United attacked the Stretford End.

Mourinho’s men were certainly more involved, but we kept pressing and probing. Another fine run from Willian set up Morata in the inside-left channel, but rather than hit a first-time effort, decided to turn back on himself and shoot meekly at De Gea. A few Chelsea attacks tended to peter out rather lamely, and United were now the dominant force. They are such a big and physical team. Pogba, Matic and Lukaku suddenly seemed to grow an extra few inches. On the hour, De Gea fumbled a long shot from Drinkwater and Alonso, busting a gut, could not reach the loose ball. Our chances were becoming rarer and rarer.

Lukaku dramatically attempted a spectacular overhead kick but Courtois did well to finger-tip it over.

The home crowd were uttering the occasional song of support, but the atmosphere was still surprisingly quiet.

A Willian free-kick, way out wide, caught us all unawares as he chose to target De Gea’s near post. Although De Gea was well positioned to gather it, the low trajectory surprised him and the ball bobbled on the line before he finally grabbed hold.

These were crumbs of comfort as United, I sensed, were gathering momentum.

To our surprise, Conte decided to take off Eden. He was replaced by Pedro. I watched for a handshake. There was one, though only just.

A popular view was this :

“Fackinell Conte, are you fackin’ sure? Eden is our best player, our match winner. Why take him off? Why not take that useless facker Morata off?”

My view was similar, but without the swearing.

Morata had disappeared, really, as the second half continued. I lost count of the amount of times that he went down too easily, holding some sacred body part, eyes glaring at the referee.

With fifteen minutes remaining, Lukaku controlled the ball and sent over a perfect cross for the substitute Lingard to head home. There seemed to be no challenge, nobody close.

BOLLOCKS.

United 2 Chelsea 1.

Conte replaced Moses with Olivier Giroud. I presumed that Pedro would revert to right wing-back, but here was an odd line-up for sure. We were playing with two lanky centre-forwards…on the pitch…at the same time…bloody hell. Just after, Cesc Fabregas replaced Danny Drinkwater.

The personnel change and the shape change can be discussed from here to eternity, or at least until next Sunday, but there is no doubt that the new mix of players looked ill at ease with each other. On more than one occasion, with the ball out wide, we chose to play to feet in front of the box, rather than hit high balls in for Morata and Giroud. But we kept attacking, we kept trying. A linesman on our side of the pitch was quick to flag when Alvaro Morata drifted into a slightly offside position. His effort on goal was hardly applauded since we all saw the flag early.

In the last moments, at a corner, deep in to five minutes of extra-time, Thibaut Courtois raced up field to try to put pressure on the United goal. It amounted to nothing. The ball was cleared.

The final whistle went seconds after.

A text from Glenn in Frome :

“Not offside.”

I had to think. What offside? Oh, the Morata one? Blimey. That was a surprise. Looked it to me.

Outside, we walked up the north face of the Eigur and the United faithful were goading us with songs about “that big Russian Crook.” On the walk back to the car, we dissected the game. In my mind – call me biased –  I thought we had deserved a point, no doubt.

Once inside the car, I turned the radio on. Like a voice from the grave, someone spoke about Tottenham getting a late winner at Crystal Palace.

“Bollocks. Fifth place now. Bollocks!”

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Tales From A Day Of Heroes

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 5 November 2017.

It was approaching 4pm and I was walking towards Stamford Bridge a little earlier than usual. I wanted to ensure that I was nicely settled before the annual display of remembrance that Chelsea Football Club always does so well, but which would take place a full six days before Saturday 11 November and a whole week before Remembrance Sunday. We had already stood for a minute of silence at Bournemouth last weekend to show our appreciation for those who had fallen while serving in our armed forces. It is right that football pays its respects. With each passing season, the displays become more impressive. I am sure that twenty years ago there was just a toot of the referee’s whistle, a minute of silence, and that was all. There was, of course, nothing wrong with that. I would hate to think that clubs want to “out-do” each other – that is surely not the point – but at the moment the balance seems to be just right.

I had purchased a paper poppy in the morning, but as so often happens, I soon managed to lose it as I walked down the North End Road. I then purchased a “1917 – 2017” enamel badge from a serving soldier underneath the old Shed wall in the early afternoon. I would have felt naked without a little splash of red on such a day.

As I approached the CFCUK stall outside the Fulham Town Hall and opposite the Fulham Broadway tube, I called in to say “hi” to a few of the Chelsea faithful. I chatted to Neil. Our paths have crossed a fair bit of late. I admitted that there seemed to be a general air of nervousness around the streets and pubs – I had visited three of them, but was on driving duties so was limited to “cokes” – and on the drive up to London, I think that the general view was “anything but a defeat.” But then I turned a little more optimistic.

“Imagine we get a win, though. It’ll be celebrated like the Chelsea of old. Say we win 1-0 with a goal in the second-half. The place will go wild.”

With a smile, I went on my way.

Thankfully, we had heard that N’Golo Kante had returned from injury and there were a few other changes too. Davide Zappacosta was in at right back. Andreas Christensen was in. But there was no David Luiz amid a sniff of a bust-up with Antonio Conte. There was no place for the wide men Pedro and Willian. But Bakayoko and Fabregas retained their spots. As I headed inside the stadium, I decided to wait until I saw the players line up at the kick-off before I could fathom out the shape of the team to face Manchester United.

Ah, United. I had picked them to finish in second place this season, behind their City rivals and ahead of us, but they have faltered lately. All three of us expected a defensive game-plan from the ultimate pragmatic strategist Mourinho. After two defeats at Stamford Bridge last season in league and cup, a third defeat for Mourinho’s new charges would be a tough pill to swallow.

But we lived in hope.

In the other Sunday games at the top, City continued to impress with a win against Arsenal while Spurs crawled over the line against Crystal Palace.

While wolfing down a McBreakfast in Melksham, we spotted two replica-kit wearing Arsenal fans, a father and young son. They were off to Manchester.

“Is it your son’s first away game” I enquired.

“No, no. We go to all the games. I’m teaching him to be a thug” – and a loud laugh.

I turned to PD and Parky and rolled my eyes.

Once I heard that Arsenal had lost 3-1, I quickly thought of Thug Life and Thug Lite and hoped that they were suffering a thoroughly miserable return journey from The Etihad.

I was inside Stamford Bridge at just after 4pm. A quick scan of the away end. A couple of flags from the visiting hordes caught my eye.

“Immerse Me In Your Splendour.”

Yet another musical reference from the United support; this time The Stone Roses.

Another one was a little more basic and direct : “UTFR.”

The Chelsea flags were out in force too. Over at The Shed, the white banner with a red poppy was on show again:

“Chelsea Supporters Will Remember Them.”

The place filled to capacity.

It had been a busy day for me, flitting around, taking a few photographs, soaking in the atmosphere, “tut-tutting” at friendship scarves.

Earlier, I had met Janette – visiting from Los Angeles – in the Copthorne Hotel, but her visit back home to England was heart-wrenchingly emotional. Her brother, who I had briefly met a few seasons ago in The Goose, has been ill with cancer for some time and is now in a hospice in South London. It was difficult to know what to say. The two of them recently celebrated their birthdays – on consecutive days – and I am sure that this brought a small but priceless morsel of joy in tough times.

Janette certainly touched a nerve when she admitted that it would be fitting for him to leave as a “champion.”

It was good to see Janette again, albeit in tough times.

With ten minutes to go, with no real introduction, “Heroes” by David Bowie was played. It provided the understated backdrop as members of the armed forces carried a large banner on to the centre-circle, then stretched it out. A Chelsea crest and a scarlet poppy was featured and it mirrored a large banner pinned to the upper heights of the hotel above The Shed.

This was just right.

“I, I will be king.

And you, you will be queen.

Though nothing will drive them away.

We can beat them, just for one day.

We can be heroes, just for one day.”

It brought back memories of Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode singing the same song as his tribute to David Bowie at the concert I saw at the London Stadium in the summer. In the opposite corner of the Matthew Harding, another large flag bearing club crests and a poppy appeared over the heads of supporters. On the pitch, members of the air force, army and navy stood between large letters denoting “Chelsea Remembers.”

Just enough.

The teams appeared from the tunnel. I looked up to see a few Chelsea Pensioners in the East Middle. A penny for their thoughts. The teams walked past the poppy in the centre circle. The red of the visiting United team seemed apt on such an afternoon.

Then, a few moments later, the shrill sound of the referee’s whistle.

Silence.

Not a sound.

Perfect.

I hoped that a few Chelsea heroes would shine on this bristling afternoon in West London, but the focus was really on the heroes who have gone before and on those who protect us today.

I turned once again to football.

Nemanja Matic received a pretty decent round of applause from the home supporters. Not so much the opposing management team.

The game began.

It took me a few moments, but it looked like we had packed the midfield, with Eden Hazard playing off Alvaro Morata in attack.

So much for a dour and defensive game. After Rome – I still contend that we were well in it until the second goal was conceded – I was absolutely gushing with praise for the way that the manager had re-energised his troops. It was a breathless start to the match.

The returning hero Kante struck from distance within the first few minutes, but De Gea saved easily. Then, with us breaking at pace, Marcos Alonso crossed into the box and from my position one hundred yards away, the ball was seemingly steered into the United goal by Morata. I celebrated wildly, but soon realised that the goal had been disallowed. Offside? Handball? A foul?

At the other end, Rashford – full of running – dolloped a ball over Courtois but on to the roof of the net.

With Romelu Lukaku attacking our end, I was reminded how much weight he has put on since he was with us. He is a huge unit. With a touch of a refrigerator.

United struggled to cope with our energy and vibrancy in the first-half. I loved the way that we pressed every United player caught in possession. The constant nibbling by Kante and company meant that United players struggled to get the ball under control, and were forced into errant passes, which were pounced upon by our players. From the off, Andreas Christensen was so cool on the ball. Davide Zappacosta stretched out the United defence with a few gut-busting runs down the right.

But the star, even early-on, was N’Golo.

Although I had not been drinking, I soon exclaimed –

“Kante I fucking love you.”

His selfless harnessing of the United threat enabled Bakayoko to gallop forward. At once, the new purchase looked like the player of September and not October. He looked to be enjoying himself too. A shot wide from a Zappacosta pass hinted at greater things from him. Another shot soon followed. Cesc Fabregas, playing deep at times, played the ball short, then long, then high, then angled into space. I purred at the sight of Alvaro Morata’s first touch. It was sublime. One pass, shades of Rene Higuita’s scorpion kick at old Wembley, was ridiculous.

Over in the far corner, United were remembering a night in Moscow.

“Viva John Terry.”

A rare shot from Lukaku was saved by Courtois.

I was really in to this game.

“Close him down. Great pressure. Play it square. Use the width. Go on son. Go on. Touch it. Pick a man. “

A firm effort from Hazard was pushed out by De Gea but Fabregas, following up, never looked like getting his header on target from an angle.

United sang “Twelve Days Of Cantona.”

The Chelsea choir then really got our act together towards the end of the half.

“Carefree, wherever you may be…”

Deafening stuff.

No goals in the first-half, but I was oh-so pleased and proud of our performance. At that moment in time, I had to laugh when I thought that some sections of the media were talking about our manager either –

  1. Not enjoying life in London.
  2. Losing the trust of some of the players.
  3. Being in a strained relationship with Roman.
  4. Losing his motivational edge.
  5. Close to getting the push.

What a load of cock.

Doug Rougvie was on the pitch at the break, and a clip from 1984 of that tackle with Viv Anderson on his debut at Highbury was shown on the TV screen. What memories.

Eden Hazard was constantly getting fouled – assaulted, molested, chopped – throughout the first-half and it continued in the second-half. Phil Jones – a player more famous for pulling faces than his footballing abilities – was rightly carded for such a foul. That horrible little player Ander Herrera, a latter day Nicky Butt, then fouled Hazard and his name was taken too. The noise levels were raised.

Fabregas played in our little Belgian but his opportune volley on the edge of the box was straight at De Gea. Was this turning in to Roma all over again?

Just after, a deep but perfect cross from the trusty Spanish boot of Cesar Azpilicueta picked out the unmarked leap of Alvaro Morata. I was amazed how much space he had. He jumped, so gracefully – shades of Peter Osgood – and headed the ball back across the goal, so that it nestled, quite beautifully, in the far corner.

Pandemonium in SW6.

There was the goal. It was what we deserved. Morata raced over to the corner, followed enthusiastically by Bakayoko and posed a la Fernando Torres in Amsterdam as an archer.

What a moment.

Not long after, The Bridge was in unison.

“Super Chelsea FC…”

We continued to dominate, but the game changed as first Mourinho brought on Fellaini and Martial. Antonio replaced the tiring Zappacosta with Rudiger, his Roman moment forgotten.

“Rudi, Rudi, Rudi.”

We continued to pepper De Gea’s goal. There were shots from Bakayoko and Hazard. United looked tired and listless. They resembled us in 2015/15. We were still firing on all cylinders and – ironically – reminded me of the Ferguson team at their peak in around 1998, when their midfield terriers chased all game long. Matic? I thought he was very poor. As leggy as ever. Lukaku was hardly involved. In fact, hardly any United players warranted more than a 5/10 apart from De Gea. This is simply not a typical United team.

And for once, the usually noisy and vociferous away support were very quiet. I heard an occasional song mocking Merseyside, but that was it.

Danny Drinkwater added some solidity – alongside N’Golo for the first time since Leicester City – and replaced the majestic Fabregas, who was given a standing ovation. His performance was a real surprise after floundering of late.

N’Golo kept going and going and going and going. He was our star.

It then got a little nervy. No, I tell a lie, it got very nervy.

Mourinho regurgitated an old Chelsea tactic of his – memories of Robert Huth and John Terry playing upfront in the final few minutes – and his players lumped the ball high towards Fellaini and Lukaku. There is no doubt that Fellaini is useful in the air, all elbows and afro, and he did cause us some shaky moments. A rasper from Rashford flew past the far post.

We held our breath.

In the very last few minutes, the oh-so-predictable Fellaini equaliser looked to cruelly rob us of a deserved three points. Thankfully his swivel and volley was pushed away by our man Thibaut.

“What a save.”

Still chances came and went.

Willian – on for Hazard – played in Morata but with only De Gea to beat, he fell over himself and the chance went.

United were awarded a free-kick, centrally. I mused that it was a bloody good thing that David Beckham no longer wears their number seven shirt. Rashford’s effort was belted over, but a deflection meant that we had to endure a further corner.

It came to nothing.

On an afternoon when Chelsea Football Club showed the same indomitable spirit of last season, the simple shrill sound of the whistle was met with a resounding roar. It had been our most rounded league performance of the season, and I was just so proud.

Crisis. What fucking crisis?

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Tales From A Humdrum Town

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 16 April 2017.

I awoke early, and I will admit that I felt slightly agitated. I wasn’t particularly calm. My nerves were jangling. The massive game at Old Trafford had obviously dominated my thoughts as the Easter Weekend had approached. It not only represented our toughest remaining league fixture of the 2016/2017 campaign but there were some heavy sub-plots, too. We had already beaten Jose Mourinho’s new team twice this season, and by the law of averages alone, it would be no surprise for United to give us a tough old time. In fact, I was damned sure that Mourinho would be making sure that a third defeat of the season at the hands of our new man Antonio Conte would simply not happen. Jose, for all his faults, is no mug in these big matches. A draw – I reconciled – what be totally acceptable in the circumstances.

But we live for days like these, don’t we? The stakes were high. This was going to be one of the away trips of the season, or any season for that matter.

Before I set off, I began with a post on Facebook. I had arranged to meet up before the game with my old college friend Rick – a United season ticket holder for many a year, and like me, a fan of The Smiths – and with this in mind, I referenced one of the band’s iconic images. It came from a United away game in 2006 (a 1-1 draw, a Riccy Carvalho header) when I dropped in to visit a local landmark that was famously featured on the band’s “The Queen Is Dead” album of 1986.

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With the game resting heavily on my mind, I added a comment which hoped that our charming manager would prevail.

In fact, I  soon thought about the two men in charge of the respective teams. Compared to the sour-faced Mourinho – with that dismissive smirk never far away these days – our manager is a picture of positivity and light. Indeed, with Mourinho – totally unlovable at United – now ensconced at Old Trafford, I could not help come to a quick conclusion about our former boss.

He was looking for a job, and then he found a job, and heaven knows he’s miserable now.

I collected The Chuckle Brothers and we headed north. The traffic was surprisingly light. The day had begun with clouds but sun too. Just north of Birmingham the rain started. By the time I pulled in to the car park of “The Windmill” pub just off junction 19 of the M6, the drizzle was continuing. This was going to be a typical football day out in rain town. I got a round in and looked up to see my pal Rick approaching. I had my opening line sorted :

“The rain falls hard on a humdrum town.”

Rick smiled and we set about a good old natter about our respective football teams. Rick was with his eight year old son Frazer, who has just started going to games with his father. Rick had recently been in Brussels with 1,200 United fans for their game with Anderlecht. I told Frazer that over thirty years ago his father and myself played upfront in our departmental football team, with Rick as the elbows out battering ram and with me feeding off the scraps. I asked Rick what United thought of Mourinho. His answer was favourable, but he did mention that at times the entertainment value has only just surpassed that of the Van Gaal era. Before we knew it, the time was pushing on – 2.15pm – and we needed to be on our way.

The new A556 road – which was mid-construction for the City game in the autumn – helped our approach to Old Trafford. I was parked-up at the usual £10 garage at around 2.45pm. Just right. The rain was easing slightly but there always seem to be dishwater skies in Manchester.

We plodded off to the stadium. We met up with Big John on the way – “take a draw now” – and we were soon on the famous forecourt. I took a few photographs of the match-day scene. I know they sell half-and-half scarves at Stamford Bridge, but at Old Trafford it is on a different scale.

“Ten pound yer match day scarf.”

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, but I noted with sadness that there was a huge advertisement for one of United’s commercial partners – Aeroflot – right behind the statue of Sir Matt Busby. In fact, who else but United would place such a statue of their much-loved former manager right in front of their megastore?

We had heard rumours that Thibaut Courtois was out. We then heard talk that Cesc Fabregas was in.

“Going for it.”

At the turnstiles, I was met by an over-zealous team of stewards who stopped me from taking my camera inside. This is the second time that this has happened at Old Trafford and it meant I had to traipse around to a “bag drop” porta cabin behind the Alex Ferguson Stand. On the walk underneath the Stretford End, I noted many supporters holding those God-forsaken noise-makers, much-beloved at Leicester City and Fulham. I tut-tutted. Modern bloody football.

I eventually made it in with ten minutes to spare. The away support was strong in number and voice. Not so many women. Hardly any kids. Hardly any colours. Just a couple of divs away to my right with half-and-half scarves.

Not only was Courtois out, but Marcos Alonso too, apparently injured during the warm-up. This had resulted in a last minute shift of personnel which must have greatly disrupted everyone’s thoughts.

Begovic.

Zouma – Luiz – Cahill.

Moses – Kante – Matic – Azpilicueta.

Pedro – Costa – Hazard.

No Fabregas, then. Maybe just as well. I was surprised that Ibrahimovic was relegated to a place on the bench. I tried, briefly, to work out Mourinho’s game plan.

Old Trafford is a huge stadium these days. I am told they are looking to enlarge it further. Up, up and away, reaching up in to the sky.

To my right, the famous “Manchester Is My Heaven” banner.

A new song has been doing the rounds at United of late and the tune on which it is based, “I’m Into Something Good.” by Herman’s Hermits was played on the PA with a few minutes to go. There were banners everywhere – too many to mention. As the teams entered the pitch – a smudge of blue in the far corner – I spotted a forest of flags on sticks over to the opposite corner of the old “K Stand” just where Rick has his season ticket. Chelsea are trying to do the same in The Shed. Think The Kop, if you must, but on a smaller scale. To the left of the Stretford End – presumably the corporate section – I spotted hundreds of those damned noisemakers. They must have contained a message or a slogan, because many were being held aloft.

It probably said –

“I don’t really like football. I’m here on a freebie. I haven’t a clue.”

The two managers took their places in the technical areas. Antonio Conte chose to wear a baseball cap with his usual smart suit. It jarred. I wondered what on earth possessed him to do so. Ugh.

United were the first out of the traps. Marcus Rashford was allowed a run in on goal, with Luiz floundering, but screwed the ball well wide of Asmir Begovic’ far post. I grimaced and exchanged words with Alan. His reply summed up the mood of the hour :

“Please, please, please let me get what I want, this time.”

A Chelsea attack petered out, but we spotted a handball. Sadly, the referee Bobby Madley waved play on. Ander Herrera stroked an inch-perfect ball in to the path of that man Rashford. David Luiz was nowhere, and the United striker pushed the ball through Begovic’ legs. That horrible sight – the ball hitting the back of the net – was met with a huge roar from the home support. The game was but seven minutes old.

“Oh fuck.”

For a few moments, Old Trafford was a cauldron of noise.

“U. N. I. T. E. D – United are the team for me.”

We had spoken in the car of how, if asked to choose between a win against United in the league, or a win against Tottenham in the cup, all four of us chose the former, since the league is the more prestigious one to win. Now I was renegotiating with the Football Gods.

“A draw, please.”

United dominated the play. It wasn’t that they flooded our half every time that they won possession, it was just that with Rashford and also Lingard attacking at will, we just looked so fragile. On the far side, I really needed Victor Moses to assist Kurt Zouma. That looked a problem area straight away. Elsewhere, we struggled to get any sort of pattern to our play. Eden Hazard was marked to oblivion. We were struggling all over. After only twenty minutes, Conte decided to swap the wing-backs, with Dave disappearing over to the far side and Moses taking up a position in front of us.

Ashley Young went close on two occasions. Moses slipped inside the box, allowing Rashford to cross. Cahill watched as his headed block looped up and on to the bar.

Diego Costa was getting in to all sorts of bother with players and officials alike. I have spoken up for him over the past few weeks, but in this game, he seemed to be channelling everything towards confrontation rather than towards the team ethic. There were wails of protest from the Chelsea support every time that referee Madley gave a decision against us. However, I have to say that many of our tackles in that first-half were poorly timed and poorly executed. They summed up our performance. We couldn’t even tackle.

A shout from Gary : “Matic, you couldn’t pass water.”

In fact, our only shot at goal during the entire first period was a wild shot from distance from Diego Costa which went well wide. That came in about the forty-third minute. This just wasn’t good enough. In the closing seconds, Ashley Young shot wide again. Nobody, with the possible exception of N’Golo Kante, had played well during the first-half. A typically spirited run from him in the closing seconds of the half hinted at a better second-half of football.

But there were bleak faces in the Chelsea quadrant during the break. I tried to look for positives.

“Put it this way, surely we can’t play as bad in the second-half.”

The Chelsea players were out a good two minutes before the United players for the start of the second period. The Manchester United mascot Fred The Red was gesticulating to both sets of fans right in front of us for a few moments. Hand signals were exchanged. The mascot was trying to wind us up.

Another gem from Gary : “That’s Mourinho.”

The second period began. A United free-kick from out wide on the right appeared to be going off, and I thought the whole team had momentarily switched-off. United kept the ball alive and the ball eventually fell to Herrera. He took a swipe inside the box and we watched, aghast, as the ball took a wicked deflection and spun over Begovic, stranded forever. Only four minutes were on the clock.

This was awful. The United hordes boomed again. It seemed like 72,000 were gazing and smiling at each and every one of us. We were right in the firing line. Hateful stuff.

“With a nick nack, paddy whack, give a dog a bone, why don’t City fuck off home?”

We stood silent. We had been kicked in the bollocks. Bigmouth had struck again.

In those moments, there are really no places to hide. The lead down to four points. Tottenham chasing us. Sky TV and BT Sport would be salivating. Tottenham on Saturday. Panic on the streets of London. Sigh.

But then, out of nowhere, we responded. For ten, eleven, twelve minutes – maybe more – we sang and sang and sang.

“We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league.”

I kept looking around at my fellow fans and was pleased to see smiles among the defiance. It made me proud. We sang on. This seemed to inspire the United fans too, who themselves responded. The atmosphere was electric. Louder than bombs.

Sadly, on the pitch, everything was still flat. Conte replaced Moses with Fabregas and there was a change in formation. To be fair, we dominated possession for the rest of the game, but never really looked like scoring. Diego – sorry, but I have to single him out again – kept coming too deep. We needed him on the last man, ready to explode in to space. Pedro ran his socks off in the second-half and went close on two occasions, but still De Gea did not have a shot to save. Elsewhere we lacked any real cohesiveness. Hazard was the centre of most of our attacks but Mourinho knew what he had to do. The supporters’ coaches from Devon, Surrey, North Wales and Norfolk were parked in front of the United goal.

Matic was replaced by Willian. It was really nothing.

Lingard went close, hitting the side netting with a long-range effort and then the lively Rashford forced Begovic to block down low. Our passes went astray with scary regularity. The confidence had been knocked out of our side early on and we never ever recovered.

You know it is a bad day at the office when Fellaini bosses the midfield.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Kurt Zouma. I had lost the will to work out the formation by then.

We still never looked like scoring. In fact – let’s be blunt here – a goal would have flattered us. De Gea never made a save.

The final whistle signalled the end of a pretty miserable game. The lads made their way back to the car while I – oh deep joy – walked through thousands and thousands of United fans to reach the bag-drop. The rain was falling now. My shoes stepped through the puddles. The United fans were in full voice and I hated every minute of it as they brushed past me.

“Woke up this morning feeling fine. Got Man United on my mind. Jose’s got us playing the way like United should. Oh yeah. Something tells me I’m in to something good.”

I retrieved my camera. The heavens opened again. Splash. Splash. Splash.

As I bought a cheeseburger on Sir Matt Busby Way, I bumped into Neil Barnett, himself looking drenched with both weather and our poor showing. He quickly told me that Thibaut had allegedly been injured during the filming of an advertisement for the NBA. Oh bloody hell. We chatted away, then went our separate ways as the rain continued.

Splash. Splash. Splash.

I posted on Facebook once again : “Soaked to the skin. Worst cheeseburger of the season. Two hundred miles from home. Oh Chelsea we love you.”

I eventually reached the car, threw my soaked jacket in the boot, pulled out on to the Chester Road and headed south. Over the next four hours or more, we spoke about the game, our poor performance, our remaining games. As always, there is usually a prolonged chat when things do not go our way. If we win, the game is not dissected quite so much. The lads had heard the rumour about Courtois. We spoke about all sorts. Of the game, we concluded that Conte was undoubtedly rushed into making those last minute changes. With more time to think about things, maybe he would have chosen different personnel. We mentioned the recalled Nathan Ake. Maybe he should have played. It just looked to us like Conte was never at ease with his eventual team selection, nor were the players themselves.

We spoke about how odd it was, really, to see such a team as Manchester United, with its rich history of attacking flair, to be so happy to play spoilers. But that is not to take anything away from them. They did a job on us, no bloody doubt.

Six huge league games are left. They are the undoubted priority. But we are four points clear of Tottenham and we have a better run in. We didn’t think that Spurs would win all six of their games. It’s certainly “advantage us” still, although it doesn’t bloody feel like it. We are not used to this. In 2005, 2006 and 2015 it was a procession. In 2010, it was us doing the chasing. We are not used to being the ones being chased. What difference does it make? Only time will tell.

However, in the final month or so of the season, the next game in the FA Cup might well define our campaign. Win, and we might just knock the stuffing out of Tottenham, the new media darlings. If we lose, it will be a different story.

See you at Wembley.

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