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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Tales From The Cup

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 13 March 2017.

Here was my mindset for this game.

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

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

“Yes, of course.”

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

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

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

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

“Seen any United?”

“None.”

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

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

PD, Alan, Walnuts and myself.

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

“Fuck knows what all that is about.”

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

“Edinburgh Reds.”

“Bring On United.”

“Mockba 2008.”

“Buxton Reds.”

“Jose Mourinho’s Red Army.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The king is dead, long live the king.

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

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

The United fans were standing and singing.

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

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

“What a run.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Off you go, knobhead.”

The Stamford Bridge crowd roared.

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

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

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

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

“Concentrate on the football you twat.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“YES.”

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

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

“Fantastic save.”

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

United created nowt.

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly, the league became the important focus again.

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

Well, well, well.

I just had one solitary thing to say to that :

“Fuck off, Mourinho.”

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Tales From The King Power Stadium

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 14 January 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What wonderful news.

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

Just magnificent.

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

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

No pressure, Antonio.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Diego, Diego, Diego, Diego, Diego,”

I approved.

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

Get in.

Wild celebrations, get off Tuna.

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you going to Seville?”

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

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

Bloody hell, Alonso again, get in.

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

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

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

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

It whistled narrowly wide.

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

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

3-0, get off Tuna.

More lovely celebrations in front of us.

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

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

It stayed at 3-0.

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

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

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

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

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Tales From Our Rejuvenation

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 23 October 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tickets were like gold dust for this one.

It promised to be a potentially epic occasion.

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

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

“Just don’t want to lose to them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conte was changing things quicker than I had expected.

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

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

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

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

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

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

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

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

MATTHEW HARDING

ALWAYS LOVED

NEVER FORGOTTEN

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

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

The crowd, needless to say, fucking erupted.

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

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

This was a dream start.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conte is my manager now.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

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

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Two bloody nil, smelling salts please nurse.

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

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

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

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

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

Like Tottenham in 1996, respect to them.

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

“Get a third and then we can relax.”

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

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

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

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

Three-nil, oh my bloody goodness.

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

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

We continued to dominate.

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

Chelsea 4 Manchester United 0.

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

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

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

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

“Superb boys – see you Wednesday.”

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

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

“One Kerry Dixon.”

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

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

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

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

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

A fantastic result to honour a fantastic man.

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

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

Matthew would certainly approve.

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Tales From 2015/2016

Chelsea vs. Watford : 26 December 2015.

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

Chelsea, the Champions, were languishing in fifteenth position.

Yep.

This is 2015/2016.

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

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

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

Monday will be a cracking day out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here we go again.”

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

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

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

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

We were losing 2-1.

“Here we go again.”

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

2-2.

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

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

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

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

Phew.

Here would be my third Diegoal of the afternoon.

Here would be a deserved winner.

Hazard needed treatment and the penalty was delayed.

We waited.

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

The Stamford Bridge crowd groaned.

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

I had to be honest.

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

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

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

“Not a bad game. Should have won it.”

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

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

Yep.

This is 2015/2016.

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Tales From Work

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 19 December 2015.

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

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

“Let’s Go To Work.”

Work.

It made me think.

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

Chelsea? I’d rather be in Philadelphia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We grumbled about Michael Emenalo.

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

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

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

Yes, that was the real conundrum of the day.

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

More questions than answers.

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

But here was my last word before the game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the clock ticked, the stadium filled up.

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

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

“He would, wouldn’t he?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where were you when we were shit?”

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

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

I wish I knew the answer.

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

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

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

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

I almost expected a second goal.

“It’ll get nervous then, Al.”

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

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

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

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

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

At the final whistle, there was relief.

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

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

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

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

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