Tales From Three Leaps

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 14 September 2019.

Football – of the right kind – was back after a self-imposed interruption of a fortnight. The international break saw England play Bulgaria and then Kosovo, and despite both matches being shown on “free-to-air” terrestrial ITV, I saw just five minutes of the second game. Even with appearances from Ross Barkley and Mason Mount, I’m afraid that my interest in our national team continues to wane. In the break, instead, I saw two consecutive home games involving my local team. Frome Town drew 1-1 with Evesham United and then beat Barnstaple Town 3-1. Both were excellent matches and I continue to feel an emotional attachment to my most local team, something that I struggle to do with England.

But now it was all about Chelsea.

The Chuckle Bus carried just two of its Brothers to our game against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Parky was still recuperating after his hip operation and Glenn was otherwise engaged. I was parked-up in the city centre at 11.30am, and the two of us – PD and CA – were soon settled in “The Sunbeam” pub outside the city’s bus depot and not too far from the train station, right in the middle of everything. There were signs saying “HOME FANS ONLY” but we skipped past the security guard on the door and were soon inside, despite PD wearing shorts and thus allowing a loud and proud Chelsea tattoo on his leg to be seen by all.

We kept to ourselves and there was no bother nor trouble. This was despite the presence of some locals of a certain vintage who – if their clobber was anything to go by – might have been involved in some fisticuffs a few years back. However, not everyone who goes to football these days who sports a Stoney is a psycho and not everyone who likes the Lacoste label is a lad. We were joined by Scott, Paul and Kim. The mixture of accents must have confused the bouncers, although I suspect that Scott’s Wolves mate, who he met at the Chelsea Legends game at Real Madrid a few months back, might well have aided their entrance into the pub.

The sun was out, we had a good chat, and I liked being able to partake in a little bit of people-watching through the windows. By the time we had decided to move on, there was a large gaggle of Wolves lads drinking outside but the occasional Chelsea fan wearing colours who walked past received no trouble.

“Wouldn’t have been like this in the ‘eighties, PD.”

Wolves fans wearing all different types of replica shirts waltzed past. I soon realised how off the mark the home club was in 2018/19 with the yellow shirt rather than the warmer old gold of the current design.

There were more “home fans only” signs in a few other pubs. One day I’ll make it inside “The Billy Wright”, but maybe not on a match day. We bumped into Alex – originally from Sofia – and he moaned that the “away pub” down near the train station was rammed, so we decided to cut our losses and leisurely walk down to the ground, passing the university buildings and the leafy surrounds of the local church. Molineux was soon spotted, and we disappeared down to the infamous “subway” which was the scene of many an ambush in days of yore.

Despite my decision to forego home programmes this season, I just could not resist purchasing the £5 special edition that marked the one-hundred and thirtieth anniversary of the club moving to their current site. The famous old club was one of the twelve members of the inaugural Football League which began in 1888/89 and Molineux is their fourth home. The programme was wrapped in an evocative panorama featuring an artist’s adaptation of the stadium in 1889, 1958 and 2019. I can well remember the multi-span roof of the stand which used to sit on the land from where we would be watching the game in 2019. The old stadium was in poor repair for many years, but Sir Jack Hayward, whose statue welcomes spectators as they arrive with eyes blinking after walking through the darkness of the subway, helped renovate the stadium with huge success in the ‘nineties and the stadium has since been improved with a new double-deck north stand. It works well. If Goodison Park is my favourite away venue, then Molineux is surely my favourite “new build.” It is ridiculously close to the city centre, there is a perfect use of old gold in much of its structure and it all seems to fit together with a minimum of fuss.

In fact, I bought two programmes. When I was over in Italy during the summer, I spent a few hours in a bar on the beach in which one of the bar staff was a Swedish lad who, after I told him I was a Chelsea fan – I soon get this key fact out of the way pretty sharpish when I start chatting to a stranger for any length of time – he told me that he was a Wolves fan, and had been to Molineux a few times. I decided to send him a copy and he was very grateful when I quickly messaged him.

We waited in the cool of the concourse, PD supping lager, and little old me on my third and fourth Diet Cokes of the day. We welcomed a few friends as they arrived.

We made our way inside and I was well happy with our seats; right on the half-way line, just three rows from the front. For the FA Cup game in 2017, we were located in the lofty heights of the double-decker to my right. For this game, all 2,600 Chelsea were strewn out along the entire length of the lower tier of the Steve Bull Stand. I knew from the off that getting consistent singing from us all would be a difficult task.

I centered my gaze on the ten outfield players going through their warm-ups. There were three centre-halves involved; Christensen, Rudiger and Tomori. I wondered what plan Frank Lampard had hatched.

The sun was beating down. This would not be “Dublin in July hot”, but this was a lovely early autumn afternoon. “Love will tear us apart” by Joy Division improved my enjoyment of the moment, but this was then cut short as we were treated to a prolonged display of pyrotechnics just before the teams entered the pitch. Our faces were scorched by the heat of the flames.

OK – old gold, orange, I get it. I can make the connection between the fingers of flame which darted into the air and the club colours, but on a bright sunny day it seemed rather pointless.

Surely a display at night games only would be better.

Old gold and black.

Perfect.

The teams entered the pitch. We had jettisoned the blue shirts, and even the blue socks from Norwich City, and were in all white.

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Christensen – Rudiger – Tomori

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Willian – Abraham – Mount

It was an Antonio Conte-style 3-4-3.

The game began and it was a quiet beginning. Tammy was soon booed for his Aston Villa connections. On the Wolves right, we were treated to a few lightning bursts from Adama Traore – built like a sprinter or a modern-day winger in rugby – but who (classic football cliché warning) “flattered to deceive.” We looked composed on the ball without creating too much. Things were a little quiet off the pitch too. It took a full twenty-five minutes for a pitch-long chant to unite the Chelsea support. I spotted that Willian and Mason Mount swapped wings once or twice. We tried hard to reach Tammy, but it was a struggle. If I was honest, I’d say that Wolves possibly edged the opening half-an-hour, if only in terms of possession. But there were no efforts on target. A wild shot from Willian which blazed over was our one notable effort. Before the game, in whispered tones, a few of us had been worried about the three games in the next week.

Wolves away, Valencia at home, Liverpool at home.

“We could…possibly…lose all three.”

On thirty-one minutes, everything changed. An attack on our right floundered and the ball was knocked away by a Wolves defender. The ball rolled at pace towards the onrushing Fikayo Tomori and he shaped to hit the ball without the need of a second touch. I snapped just as he connected. We watched, eyes bulging, as the ball made the net ripple.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBASTARD.

Oh my.

What a goal for this match, for this season, for any season.

His leap in front of me was euphoric.

After a few seconds…

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

Chris : “Come on moi little dimonddddds.”

Three minutes later, with the Wolves defence on their heels, we found our way into the box. Mount appeared to be fouled but the ball rebounded off a Wolves leg to Tammy who spun one-hundred and eighty degrees and lashed it in. The net bulged again. There was a kiss to the Chelsea support from an ebullient Tammy, back among the goals again.

Seven minutes later, and after a slight Wolves resurgence, a Jorginho cross was headed out. Alonso picked up the loose ball.

I had commented to Alan earlier that because we only had Tammy up front, our crosses needed to be on the money.

Alonso’s cross was.

He picked out Tammy perfectly and the tall striker headed home with ridiculous ease. It was a fantastic goal. Yet more lovely celebrations. I caught his leap towards the Chelsea support in the corner on film. This was another great celebration. It pleased me that I evidently took a better photograph of Tammy’s leap than that of Tomori.

Bloody hell.

We were 3-0 up at the break.

We could hardly believe it.

We had caught fire in the last fifteen minutes and the Wolves fans standing in the South Stand, the old Kop, were as scorched as we were from the pre-match flames. Our three goals might have flattered us a little, but we cared not. Wolves, after all, had not really forced a save from Kepa the entire half.

During the first forty-five minutes, I had mentioned our 5-0 win at the same stadium in 2003, which was my first-ever visit to Molineux. Alan had then spoken to me about his first visit too.

“To her dying day, my Mum never knew I came up here in 1977.”

Alan was just fourteen – I was eleven – and had been going to Chelsea for a few years. Our famous game in 1977, in which our travelling support was officially banned, was a huge occasion. Alan simply had to be there. He had told his mother that he was out to see friends and stayed out the entire day, via a secret trip to Wolverhampton, returning late. In those days – God, they seem so distant, before mobile phones and constant attention and interaction – kids would often disappear for hours on end. On this day – with Wolves needing a point to secure the Second Division Championship and with Chelsea requiring a point to gain promotion – thousands of Chelsea flooded Molineux. We drew 1-1 and, as I have reported previously, my one recollection of that day was hearing the result on “Final Score” at my grandparents’ house, opening the front door, running up the slope to the main road and jumping up, punching the air in a leap not too dissimilar to those of Tomori and Tammy forty-two years later.

Alan and I chuckled about the ridiculousness of it all.

We imagined Alan returning home at 10pm, in a scene not too dissimilar to that of Perry’s return from Manchester in the “Harry Enfield Show.”

“You’re back late, son.”

“Aye, I yam.”

“Why are you talking funny?”

“What yow talking about? Anyway, I’ve brought you a present.”

“What’s this, pork scratchings?”

“Bostin’ ah.”

Kurt Zouma replaced Toni Rudiger at half-time. Very soon, he was causing a few nervous jitters in the away section. However, we withstood some early Wolves pressure. On fifty-five minutes, Jorginho lofted the ball forward to Tammy. He controlled the ball, stood tall against Conor Coady, twisted into a little space, leaving Coady for dead, then struck a low shot past Rui Patricio.

He had silenced the Yam Yam Boo Boys in fine style with a sublime hat-trick.

Smiles everywhere.

Alan, knowing full well our past, uttered the immortal line :

“We’ve got the draw, let’s go for the win” and those close by chuckled.

Mount was set free and should have scored after darting past the ‘keeper after a magnificent pass from Jorginho, but his effort was wide.

With twenty minutes to go, Wolves grabbed a goal back after a corner was scrambled in after Kepa made an initial save. We would only learn much later that it was Tammy’s fourth of the game. Dave, playing wide, had several gut-busting runs down the right and should have created more with his final ball. At times, we were purring.

Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic. Michy replaced Tammy. We kept attacking. There was a lovely looseness to everything we did. Michy impressed me in the final quarter and could have scored a couple himself.

Bizarrely, Patrick Cutrone made it 4-2 with five minutes to go, stabbing home from close range after Kepa fumbled.

…maybe Alan was right after all.

“Bloody hell, we are 4-2 up, why are we all as nervous as hell?”

Wolves appealed for a penalty. The referee did not give it. VAR did not give it.

What a fucking non-story.

With six minutes of extra-time signalled, we found ourselves clock-watching.

“Come on ref, blow up.”

In the final minute, Michy controlled a bouncing ball, and fed in Mount in the inside-left channel. With ridiculous ease, he turned his defender and slotted home.

5-2.

Memories of the 5-0 in 2003.

Game, set and match.

Beautiful.

At the end of the game, Tammy grabbed the match ball. What a time to be alive for this young lad. May he go from strength to strength.

We are all right behind him.

On Tuesday, we reassemble at Stamford Bridge for our first Champions League match since Barcelona away in March 2018.

I can hear the music now…

…see you there.

 

Tales From The Mancunian Way

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 10 February 2019.

Sunday Four O’Clock.

This was another away game that would test me. How I miss matches on Saturday at three o’clock. Our game at Manchester City would begin at 4pm, which meant that my footballing exploits over the weekend would not really finish until 11pm, or 11.30pm or maybe even later. This annoyed me more than ever on the Friday and Saturday as I tried to muster up some enthusiasm for the long journey north. City away was a tough trip at the best of times, but four o’clock on a Sunday was the worst of times and it just didn’t seem fair on any of us. Those travelling on the Chelsea coaches would not even be back at Stamford Bridge until almost midnight. The day began with me setting off from home at 9.15am and I collected PD, Lord Parky and Sir Les and we were on the road after a quick breakfast in Melksham at 10.30am. The drive north took me a few minutes’ shy of four hours. I was met with speed restrictions on the M5 and M6, and an odd assortment of weather – blinding sun, rain, sleet, hailstones – against an ever-changing backdrop of various cloud formations, a dull grey bathwater glaze one minute, vibrant and brooding and billowing the next.

Manchester Remembered.

It had been a week in which the city of Manchester had flitted into my mind on a few occasions. On the Wednesday, Manchester United had paid their respects to the Flowers of Manchester, remembering those that had perished on the ice of a Munich runway or in a Munich hospital all those years ago. On the Thursday, the actor Albert Finney had passed away. He was a native of Salford and the star of those cutting-edge “kitchen sink” dramas of the ‘early-sixties, in which the Northern cities in which they were filmed were as much a star as the actors themselves. Manchester was often used as the backdrop in some sort of homage to the scenes depicted by LS Lowry, another son of Salford. I remembered seeing Albert Finney on the pitch at Old Trafford before a United vs. Chelsea game a few seasons ago. And I certainly remembered him in the 1967 film “Charlie Bubbles” in which a small segment is filmed at Old Trafford – outside on what is now Sir Matt Busby Way and on the famous forecourt, inside from the interior of a box above the United Road seats – at a Manchester United vs. Chelsea game from November 1966 (a 1-3 defeat).

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

And then, sadly, we all heard the horrible news that former Chelsea and Manchester United winger Mickey Thomas was battling stomach cancer. Mickey was a mid-season addition to our iconic promotion winning team of 1983/84 and he energised the side from the off with his tenacious spirit and drive, to say nothing of his fine skill which caught us all by surprise. He instantly became one of my most beloved Chelsea heroes, and even now might feature in a “favourite players XI.”

A Drive Down Memory Lane.

The route took me right into the heart of Manchester. It took me through Didsbury, past Fallowfield, past some rented rooms in Whalley Range, and right through Moss Side to Hulme. It took me within a few hundred yards of where Manchester City played football from 1923 to 2003. I only ever visited Maine Road on three occasions. In my mind, it seems more. But three it is; a First Division game on a Saturday morning in 1985, a Saturday afternoon game in Division Two in 1989 and a Sunday afternoon game in the Premier league in 2001. My memories of Maine Road are strong, though. I watched the action from three different sides on those three visits (Anfield remains the only away stadium where I have watched from all four sides) and it was a large and atmospheric old place. I bet the City fans of 2019 miss it terribly. My last visit on the last weekend of the 2000/2001 season – marking the last appearances of Frank Leboeuf and Dennis Wise in our colours – seems like only yesterday. A few of us stayed the Saturday night in Blackpool and a mini-bus took us down to Manchester, depositing us among the red-brick terraced houses outside the ground and collecting us after. But the main memory from that day – we won 2-1 if it matters – was of the City lads who encroached onto the pitch at the final whistle (or just before it, if memory serves the referee “blew up” early) and stared us down. We were glad to hop into the waiting mini-bus and make our retreat after that game. By then, Maine Road had lost its large, deep Kippax side terrace and its equally cavernous Platt Lane seats. It was on odd and lop-sided stadium by 2001.

One Final Visit.

On a Saturday in 2004, I paid one final visit to Maine Road. City had played their last game there in the April, and I was on my way to our first-ever visit to the City of Manchester Stadium – remember when it was called that? – at Eastlands – remember when it was called that? – but I wanted to call by and photograph it for my own personal satisfaction. The stands were intact at that stage, though cordoned off for safety’s sake, and I took a few snaps. Memorably, “MUFC” was daubed on an adjacent end of terrace house. Also, very poignantly, there was some graffiti in memory of the former Manchester City player Marc Vivien Foe, who had scored Manchester City’s last-ever goal at Maine Road on 21 April, but who had died on a football pitch just over three months later. The City fans, leaving many fond memories at Maine Road, must surely have wondered if this was an ominous warning of the fates that might befall them further east.

They need not have worried.

On that same day, less than half a mile away, I visited one of only two streets in the whole of the UK that feature my surname. There is an Axon Square in Moss Side in Manchester and there is an Axon Crescent in Weston Coyney in Stoke-on-Trent. My surname is geographically strong in both areas (a Percy Axon was the chairman of Stoke City in the ‘seventies) but my surname is centered on Manchester. It is a bloody good job that my forefathers moved to Kent and then Dorset; I wouldn’t care too much to be a City fan.

[I thought about inserting a comment here suggesting that if my father’s grandfather had stayed in Kent or Dorset, I wouldn’t care too much to be a United fan. But then realised that I am a Chelsea fan in Somerset, so had best not be too damning].

On that very first visit to Eastlands, we won a dour game 1-0 and I was warmed to see the Kippax remembered with a banner draped over a balcony wall to my right. However, I have never seen it since.

The Mancunian Way.

With a Style Council CD playing us in, I crept onto the Mancunian Way which wraps itself around the southern edge of the city centre, and found myself driving along an instantly recognisable section of road. Despite only three visits to Maine Road, this would be my fourteenth visit to City’s new stadium. Manchester is a cracking city on a number of counts and my blood pumps and heart bumps on every visit. I deposited the lads right outside the stadium – LP and PD scuttled inside for some beers while Les chanced his arm in a nearby City pub – while I shot off to park up. Rain threatened but did not amount to much. I peered in to see the closing segments of the City Ladies vs. Chelsea Ladies game at the nearby academy stadium. The chill wind bit me. I sorted some spare tickets for a mate and decided to take a slow walk around the stadium. I had to laugh when I saw a lad with a United bag being searched outside the main stand. The steward had not spotted it. I warned her.

“He’s having a laugh, isn’t he, the boy? Ha.”

“Oh, thanks – I didn’t spot that.”

She hid it inside another bag.

Overhead the skies suggested a certain downpour. They were dark, and ominous. But the sun shone through too. It made for some dramatic shapes in and around the towering stadium. A band were playing in the post-modern “fan zone” to the north by the City shop. There were police on horseback. There were half and half scarves. There were a couple of buskers. Hot food stands. On the Ashton New Road stood an old school Fish and Chip shop blinking in the winter sun.

The Lower Tier.

I had run out of things to photograph – with my phone, proper cameras were banned, along with food and drink, file once more under “I hate modern football” – and so reluctantly made my way in with just under an hour to go. There was a security pat down and I was in. I had swapped tickets with PD and made my way into the lower tier for only the second time. The last time was on a very wet day in 2004 when a Nicolas Anelka penalty inflicted on us our only defeat of that season. I was worried about that precedent, but I was worried about a lot more tangible things too; City’s attacking strength, our defensive frailties, their impressive passing patterns, our buggering about with no incision, their Sergio Aguero, their Kevin de Bruyne, their David Silva, their Raheem Sterling.

As I entered the stadium I felt myself thinking “do I have to?”

I made my way to my place, about ten rows back, but close – ugh – to the home fans. The bottom of that tier has very shallow terracing. There was a fleeting memory of the sight lines from 2004. I tried not to dwell on it. We were treated to “Transmission “and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division. At least the music was bang on.

Out in the small concourse and the terraces, I chatted to a few friends.

“I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

“Fuck, yeah.”

One fellow fan said “as long as we give it a go” and I grimaced. I knew that we didn’t “give it a go” last season and Antonio Conte took some heat for it. But City were still a very fine team and we – without stating the bloody obvious – aren’t, not yet, not for a while.

I was wary so wary of trying to play them at their game. I picked a number out of thin air.

“I’d rather lose 1-0 than 6-0” (meaning that – and remembering last season –  if we gave them spaces to exploit, exploit they bloody well would).

Yes, we had – somehow, I know not how, I wasn’t there – managed to raise our game and beat City 2-0 at home before Christmas, but boy have we struggled during most games since. The recent 5-0 walloping of Huddersfield Town did not get my pulses racing. I was glad Gonzalo Higuain was in our ranks, but he was new, adapting, possibly not at his fighting weight nor his fighting strength.

I was still worried as the minutes ticked by. Up in the middle tier, I just saw the heads of Alan, Gary, PD and Parky if I stood on tip toe.

We exchanged waves.

Or was it more “not waving but drowning?”

We would soon find out.

The stadium filled up. A few empty seats dotted around, include some in our section. Flags were waved by the City fans to my left. There was a moment of applause for the memory of Emiliano Sala.

RIP.

I had almost forgotten to check our team.

Here it was.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

Four.

The game began. Chelsea, in three tiers, tried to get songs together but it proved so difficult. We threatened at the very start but I knew we couldn’t keep that up for ninety minutes. I was half-pleased at our bright opening but also half-scared to death.

After just three minutes, with Marcos Alonso away with the fairies, Bernardo Silva crossed from our left and the ball found its way to Raheem Sterling. He knew what to expect. I prepared myself for a goal.

Wallop. One-nil. Oh bollocks.

Ross Barkley turned and chastised Alonso, the missing man.

The City fans to my left – 99% male, and local – erupted and gave us loads of verbal. They pushed and shoved towards us. I bloody hated them but admired their passion in equal measure. I bloody hate you football. Soon after, Sergio Aguero fluffed an easy chance from just a couple of yards. It was our turn to smile, but we were not smiling for long. A shot from Hazard was easily saved by Ederson. It fired City up even more. They broke and moved the ball to that man Aguero who curled a magnificent shot past Kepa from outside the box. The PA announced that Aguero had tied two others as City’s all-time highest goal scorer in league football.

We were 2-0 down after just thirteen minutes.

I felt like shouting “blow up now, ref.”

After nineteen minutes, Barkley – for reasons known only to him – headed a high ball back to Kepa. Aguero waited in line and popped it home. He became City’s number one striker.

City 3 Chelsea 0.

We were at sixes and sevens, eights and nines. How worse could this get? On twenty-five minutes, we found out. Gundogan shot low from outside the box with Kepa just unable to reach it.

City 4 Chelsea 0.

We still tried to attack and, ironically, had looked reasonably good at times. There had been a shot from Barkley, one from Pedro, and a well-struck volley from Higuain was dramatically punched over by Ederson.

But, of course, every time that City broke they looked like scoring

There was shock and anger in the away section. Two young lads, northerners, were very vocal but their dexterity did not extend further than “this is shit” and they did not reappear in the second-half. At the half-time whistle, I quickly realised that in the last ninety minutes of football away from the Bridge we had conceded eight goals.

Altogether now; “fackinell.”

At half-time, I met up – briefly – with my friend who had shared her thoughts with me before the game.

She smiled : “it’s all your fault.”

I met up with a few more friends. Blank expressions. Shock.

Gallows humour tried to get us through the half-time break but this was so hard. We had been ripped to bloody shreds. Our midfield was not closing people down; their runners were afforded so much space. It was so sad to see a good man like Dave being given the run around by Sterling. I had lost count of the times that Aguero was able to cause havoc in yards of space. That was inexcusable. I had not honestly realised how formidable Aguero is. Up close he is made for football, he has legs like tree-trunks. Take away his dodgy barnet and he is a perfect striker.

As for us, there were no leaders anywhere.

Oh God.

Six.

Into the second-half, and I noticed more empty seats around me, but most had stayed. I was pleased about that. I prayed for some sort of damage limitation. We had learned that Tottenham, bloody Tottenham, had won 3-1 at home to Leicester City in the early game, and I just wanted the game over. Aguero headed against the bar, but then on fifty-six minutes Dave fouled his nemesis Sterling and Aguero made it 5-0 from the spot.

City 5 Chelsea 0.

My spirits fell as my mind did some calculations.

In the very last away game, we had suffered our worst defeat in the league since 1996. Twenty-three long years. We had taken, now, just eleven days to better it.

Oh bloody hell.

I had never seen us lose 5-0 before. I had been lucky. I was not at our most infamous defeat of all, the 6-0 at Rotherham United in 1981. Nor the 7-0 at Nottingham Forest in 1991. Nor the 7-2 at Middlesbrough in 1979. Nor the 7-1 at Wolves in 1975. I missed the 6-0 at QPR in 1986 and the 6-2 at home to Forest in 1986. But here I was staring at a 5-0 defeat. My mind had gone to be honest. I just wanted the final whistle to blow. I wanted to go out.

A lone shot from Hazard hit the side-netting. By now, Kovacic had replaced Barkley, Loftus-Cheek had replaced Pedro, Emerson had replaced Alonso.

Emerson shot meekly from a futile free-kick at Ederson.

I sighed.

With ten minutes to go, a sublime ball from substitute David Silva split open our defence and the resulting cross was slotted home by Sterling.

City 6 Chelsea 0.

The City fans, at least showing a little self-deprecation, roared :

“Six nil to the Empty Seats.”

I grimaced.

And then – this really is their Joy Division, right?  – reprised a song from last season’s game :

“City – tearing Cockneys apart, again.”

Silence from us. Ugh.

The City fans then sang at those remaining in our area : “you’re fucking shit.”

Horribly, some of our fans joined in. I wasn’t having that. I turned around, wondering who I was going to be talking to, and saw three youngsters, smiling and laughing like simpletons.

“Behave yourselves.”

For the best part of the next five minutes, I heard them mocking me, but I did not bite, nor look around. Let’em have their fun. Fans of other clubs would be doing the same over the next few days. I needed to toughen myself up.

And then at 6-0 we were at our loudest of the entire day.

“Oh Chelsea we love you.”

Good stuff. Proper Chelsea.

At the final whistle, I made a quick retreat to the top of the lower tier but looked around to see Eden head over and give his shirt to a young fan. A few players walked over. Those still in the lower tier clapped them.

I waited outside for Les, PD and Parky. I shook hands with a few others.

Gallows humour got me through :

“They’re having a minute’s silence in Liverpool right now.”

I spoke to a few friends who drifted out into the cold Manchester evening :

“To think Conte was lambasted for losing 1-0 up here last season. They are an elite team, one of the best, that was just suicidal.”

We walked back to the car. My phone had ran out of charge in the last few minutes of the game and it was just as well. I drove along the Ashton New Road to the M60. It was a quick and clean getaway, the highlight of the day. While others in the Chelsea Nation vented on social media, I just drove south. As we saw signs for Wythenshaw, Les told us that his mother was from there, a much tighter link to Manchester than mine. We stopped at Sandbach for food, at Strensham for fuel. It was a long old drive home.

6-0.

Fackinell.

Last season, after the City game I found myself attempting to get inside Antonio Conte’s head – not to be an apologist for him, but to try to work out his game plan – and I wrote this :

“There was the inevitable post-mortem in the car as I headed away from Manchester. Many words were exchanged. I still liked Antonio Conte. He had not suddenly become a horrible manager overnight. Three Juventus titles after a few seasons of draught. Then a World Cup with Italy had everyone using the phrase “a tactical masterclass” – to the point of cliché – as we described him and relished him joining us. A league title with Chelsea followed. I have a feeling, as I have said before, that this feels like a first season; transition, change, conflicts. He has not managed the pressure particularly well, but the hatred aimed at him from some sections of our support openly shocked me. As I drove home, Glenn kept me updated with some highlights from the wonderful world of social media. From the comments of some, it honestly felt like we had lost 7-0 rather than 1-0. And from the way some people were allegedly talking, some fans would rather that we lost by such a score rather than a 1-0 defeat using the tactics employed.

Be careful what we wish for.

I am not so sure a possible 4-0 or 5-0 shellacking against – possibly – the second best team in the game right now would have been the best preparation for the next few games, one of which is against the best team in the world. I again thought about the manager’s thought processes; he knows his players, their mentalities. Again, his view was to keep it tight.

I drove on.

Glenn read out quotes from the manager :

”We wanted to close space, stop them playing between the lines, limit them.”

It was as I expected. A critique of the manager can’t ignore his background, his Italian history. His decisions were a reflex response to danger to defend first. It obviously upset some people.”

Our last four games this season?

Chelsea 3 Sheffield Wednesday 0

Bournemouth 4 Chelsea 0

Chelsea 5 Huddersfield Town 0

Manchester City 6 Chelsea 0

A penny for Antonio Conte’s thoughts?

As for Maurizio Sarri.

To put it bluntly, I’m not convinced. Are you?

I dropped off Les at 11pm, Parky just after and PD at 11.30pm. I was home just before midnight. Parky’s main task on waking on the Monday morning was to sort out PD’s away ticket for Fulham. We will still go to as many games as we can. It seemed like the end of the world, but I have seen Chelsea relegated in 1975, 1979 and 1988. Everything is relative.

Numbers.

The Manchester City game was match number 1,235 for me.

Of those, I have seen us concede five or more goals on just seven occasions.

I have seen us score five or more goals on fifty-eight occasions.

That does not make the 6-0 loss at Manchester City any less shocking but it certainly helps me cope.

Much respect to those travelling out to Malmo in Sweden this week. My next game is the FA Cup tie at home to the second-best team in Manchester on Monday.

See you there.

For those wishing to donate to a fighting fund for Mickey Thomas, please note : https://www.gofundme.com/help-mickey-t-fight-cancer

Thanks!

 

Tales From A Sunday In Manchester : Part Two – Blue

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 4 March 2018.

Part One finished with these words :

“Bollocks. Fifth place now. Bollocks!”

For a while, it honestly looked like there would be no Part Two. With most parts of the country being attacked by a winter chill during the early part of a week which was to see us play two matches in Manchester, I waited for the snow to hit the West of England. My home area was clear until Thursday, but then I was sent home from work in light of the impending snowfall. Indeed, my county of Somerset was on “red alert” as I worked at home on Friday. On Saturday, with the country still gripped by a Baltic freeze, I sounded out the others. There were concerns about roads out of my village being impenetrable with more Arctic weather to follow. I was especially concerned about getting stuck up north in the middle of a fresh fall of snow and thus not being able to get to work on Monday.  We took the decision not to travel to Manchester. It was a wise decision, we all thought. There was no need for us to make heroes of ourselves in support of our team. We had nothing to prove.

But the guilt – yes, guilt – kept nibbling away at me. Should I make an attempt to go if the roads had cleared by Sunday? I had a troubled mind – or rather an unsettled mind – for quite a while. I was not in a comfortable place. And then I dismissed these silly feelings, and made tentative plans to watch the City game in the pub with PD and Glenn in Frome.

That was the plan.

I woke on Sunday at about 9.30am after a nice lie-in. I peered outside. There had evidently been a sizeable thaw overnight and the main road outside my house was almost clear of ice and snow, with just a slushy residue left at the roadsides.

What to do? What to do?

I contacted PD and Glenn.

“Get your boots on.”

The kick-off was at 4pm, so if we left at 10.30am we could make kick-off. Sadly, Oscar Parksorius was unable to join us, but we set off from Frome – kinda bright-eyed and kinda bushy-tailed – at 10.45am.

The Chuckle Brothers were on the road.

“Of course, you know we’re going to get mullered, don’t you?”

There were grimaces from my travelling companions.

I ate up the miles as the morning became afternoon. Not too many others had decided to travel and the roads were relatively clear of traffic. At times, the sun attempted to break through the cloud. There was snow on roadside fields, but the motorways were fine. We stopped for snacks en route; there had not been time to even grab a coffee before I had raced out of the house.

We thought about the team that Antonio Conte might play. Glenn wondered if we would pack the midfield in a 3/5/2, and asked if I preferred Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata to lead the line. I think that my response would have mirrored that of many Chelsea fans that early afternoon:

“Giroud.”

Although, if I was honest, I had a feeling that the manager might settle with the three amigos of Willian, Hazard and Pedro.

With both arch-rivals Liverpool and Tottenham winning on Saturday, there was an unease in my mind as my thoughts drifted sporadically back to our game at The Etihad. I wasn’t kidding myself, City were a fine team, and even the thought of grabbing a point later that afternoon seemed fanciful and unlikely.

We listened to the radio as Brighton stormed to a 2-0 lead at home to Arsenal – that cheered us up, bloody hell Dunk scored and in the right goal this time – and we were soon on the familiar approach into Manchester, though this time turning east towards Stockport rather than west towards Carrington. As the M60 heads through – or rather over – Stockport, I always and without fail think back to our club’s first-ever competitive game at Edgeley Park in 1905. The ground – a non-league ground now – sits right by the main London to Manchester railway line and I always used to peer at it with a certain feeling of nostalgia each time I passed it. In fact, with the grand railway viaduct and a couple of huge red-brick mill buildings dominating the valley that the town sits in, my once-a-season hurtle through Stockport is one of my favourite pieces of urban driving in the UK.

At Ashton Under Lyne, I turned off the M60 and I knew that the San Siro style towers of The Etihad would soon be in view.

Although the drive to Manchester had been full of laughs, and we were just so happy to be able to be attending the game – number forty-five of the season for me – the mood in the car as the stadium drew closer and closer became a little sombre.

As I waited for a red light to change at a junction, I blurted out –

“Fucking hell, I’ll be happy with 3-0 lads.”

And I think I was serious. City had just beaten Arsenal twice by that score in the space of five days, and we had the impression that they had played within themselves during the second-half of Thursday’s game in order to save themselves for this one.

“They’re a great team. We could get found out here.”

I silently gulped.

At last the stadium was in view. The days of calling it simply Eastlands seemed from a different era, and rather old hat, like a bobble hat maybe. I slowly drove along Ashton New Road, which was flanked by red-bricked terraced houses, and with tramlines now running its course. We were parked up outside a home fans only pub at 3pm. The weather wasn’t too hurtful.

I paid some locals £7 to keep our car safe.

This was a mighty three quid cheaper than United.

I could hear the nasal whine of some United fans baying “always in our shadow.”

The familiar walk to the stadium, criss-crossing the road, and the tram line. To my left, a graffiti-lined wall overlooked a lock on the Ashton Canal.

This was “up north” alright.

Bloody fantastic. I never tire of travelling to these football-mad cities on our historic little island.

You may have noticed.

I spotted many City fans “of a certain age” – my age – wearing sky blue and white bar scarves edged with the purple of earlier kits. I wondered if it was how some fans denoted that they were “old school” in the same way that some Chelsea fans sometimes wear red, white and green bar scarves.

There was a swift security check. No bags, no cameras allowed, the same as last week, so my phone became all important. After the atrocity at the Manchester Arena last year, I understood why there was tightened security.

Inside I met with a few fellow foot soldiers.

“Did Arsenal lose?”

“Yeah, 2-1.”

“Love it. I love it that they had a little glimmer of hope but still lost.”

Alan passed on the team news.

“No Kante.”

“Oh no.”

“And no Morata or Giroud.”

Things were sadly slipping in to place. It looked like it would be an afternoon of attempted containment and I sensed that the mood among the little band of Chelsea fans was far from buoyant. My seat was at the front – row C, but rows A and B were unused – of the little middle tier, with Chelsea fans below and above. I was positioned just eight feet from the home support.

“Oh lovely.”

I soon spotted PD and Glenn down below in the front row of the lower tier. The fans above were out of view, but it certainly looked that our away section was pretty full. It was a great effort from everyone. We waited for a while and the pre-match wind-up then started, with a Mancunian voice taking over the tannoy, as in other years, jabbering on about “We Are City” and other “stirring” soundbites. Alan joined me and we remembered last season’s game. He had re-watched the full game on Chelsea TV during the week.

“I’d forgotten how dominant they really were before we scored.”

I agreed. That miss from Kevin De Bruyne spurred us on to a classic display of counter-attacking excellence. I had watched the highlights during the week too. The strength with which Diego Costa beat off the defenders and steadied himself to slot home was just sublime, and it was a goal which I sadly realised Alvaro Morata could not be relied upon to repeat on current form. I had to admit it; he was a bit of a prick at times, but bloody hell we have missed Diego Costa.

The teams entered the pitch and I ran through the starting eleven.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Drinkwater – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

“Big game for Danny Drinkwater” I thought to myself.

There was a banner depicting De Bruyne down below and to my left; I wondered how he would perform. I have obviously watched from afar this season, but some of his passing has been simply magnificent. He can certainly thread a ball through a tight area. He is some footballer. And there was David Silva. And Leroy Sane. And Sergio Aguero too.

The City lot roared a healthy “Hey Jude” and the game kicked-off.

There was one inflatable banana being waved around in the lower tier. Maybe it was his version of the sky blue, white and purple bar scarf.

I could not help but watch the clock as the minutes ticked past. I kept thinking to myself “10 minutes – safe so far” and “15 minutes – one sixth of the game gone” and “20 minutes – almost a quarter of the game.” Of course it was all City. They pushed the ball around with ease, but their advances were kept at bay. Our defensive unit looked in good condition. Two City fans to my left were keeping me occupied. After Leroy Sane skied an effort over the bar, I turned to my left and pulled a face of relief to a City gent in his ‘seventies. He gestured that the ball had just cleared the bar by inches. I stretched my arms up to signify “and the rest.” He laughed and I laughed. The City fan just in front of him – scruffy beard, scruffy scarf and scruffy shoes – was a different matter altogether. He loved the sound of his own voice and would not bloody shut up.

“Champions? You’re shit. You’re in fifth place.”

I glowered and glowered some more.

A very reckless challenge by their young defender Zinchenko on Victor Moses brought howls from us. The move was allowed to continue but the referee only showed the player a yellow card once the attack inevitably petered out. A City fan to my left scowled and shouted across to me “he got the ball.”

“Ah bollocks, did he.”

As the game continued, I realised that Chelsea were allowing City the ball, allowing possession, conceding possession even. I had not seen the like of it – on such a scale – ever before. And I suppose from that moment, the game took on a different dimension. Not only did I watch as a supporter of the team – trying to will the team on with song – and as a spectator of a game in which the players were cast as often spectators too, but I watched as a fan of Antonio Conte as I tried to get inside his head and to attempt to evaluate his methodology.

I turned to Alan :

“It’s as if the manager has told the players not to expend any extra energy in charging around and making reckless challenges. He has told them to soak, soak, soak. To sit back and cover space rather than man mark.”

This approach is not new to football, but it certainly felt that this was anathema to us. It seemed so alien. Yet Conte is an Italian. This is a common approach – or it used to be in the suffocating systems of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies – and he obviously felt that the threat of an on-fire City was worthy of this very cautious method of football. The supporters around me were caught in two minds; some were voicing annoyance among themselves, but there were still shouts in praise of the manager.

Us British love to see a player charge around, closing space but also making tackle after tackle. Or maybe we used to when the midfield was the most important part of the game plan in my youth. What were we told?

“Whoever wins the midfield, wins the game.”

These days, with many teams happy to sit off and let other teams hold the ball – “there you go, see what you can do” – it is often the transition from defence to attack that wins games. The days of enthusiastic tackles in the midst of a midfield battle seem long gone. You see blocks these days, but not so many great tackles.

The match continued and I tried my best to get behind the team. Our attacks were very rare. We were able to reach the wide players on occasion but were unable to create much at all. It was, of course, very frustrating.

I got rather bored with our constant “Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that” goading of City.

But then scruffy City Fan irritated me further.

“Ha, you won it on penalties! Penalties!”

I thought to myself “I bet you would not be fackin’ complaining if City won it on spot-kicks in Kiev this season.”

Our same modus operandi continued. I still thought hard about the tactics that the manager had asked of his players. It was evident that he was of the opinion that a gung-ho approach – “taking it to them” in popular parlance – was not a gamble that he was willing to take. I had to admit to myself that if we were to allow them any space, by stretching the game, by over-indulging, a City team twenty-two points clear of us in the table would probably score at will. If anybody thinks otherwise, they have not been paying attention.

What were our pre-match thoughts? I would have murdered for a 0-0. Damage limitation, I am sure, was on many peoples’ minds. Although there had been a red alert during the week, here was a blue alert which had evidently troubled the manager and many more besides.

But bloody hell it was hard to watch. City peppered our area with crosses and there were strong blocks from Rudiger and others. We held on.

The City fans in the East Stand – the modern equivalent of The Kippax I guess – were adamant that we were “fookin’ shit.”

Scruffy boy was still ranting away.

“We’re twenty-two points clear. We’re mint.”

At one stage, the elderly City fan bent forward and told him to be quiet.

Bernardo Silva went close with a curler which again flew over the bar and the elderly City fan looked across at me and smiled, his hands coming together as if to say “that was closer, lad.”

The first-half continued on – “30 minutes, a third of the way there” and our defence limited City to few chances. There was, if I remembered correctly, just one Kevin De Bruyne cross into the box but it was quite poor and evaded everybody. City’s finishing was quite poor to be honest.

Dave had starred during a first-half of constant pressure. Nobody had hounded and blocked and harried better than him throughout the first-period.

The first-half came to an end. Apart from a couple of rousing “Blue Moons” the City fans had not been too noisy at all. At Old Trafford – in Part One – hardly a seat was not used, whereas at City there were hundreds of seats dotted around the stadium not filled. I looked back on the half. For all of our defending, we had kept City at bay for long periods. Our attacks were very rare. It annoyed me that when we attempted long balls out of defence, unless they were to the wings, they were often over hit which just meant that Ederson raced off his line to claim. I remembered a couple of fine through balls by Cesc Fabregas, but I had to admit that there was very little attacking verve from us.

As I made my way out to the concourse at halftime, I spotted Pete – now living in Manchester – and I smiled as I said “halfway to paradise.”

The second-half began. During most games – though not all – I write a few bullet points on my phone as the day and the game develops. After thirty seconds, I debated writing “can we hold on?” but decided against it. A move by City was not cleared by the otherwise fine Andreas Christensen and the ball broke to Aguero, who helped move it on to David Silva. His low cross into the six-yard box was prodded home by Bernardo Silva, with Marcos Alonso sadly adrift of play. And yet it would be churlish to be too scathing of Alonso, who must have been crushed by the news of the death of his former Fiorentina team mate Davide Astori as he awoke before the game.

But we were a goal down with barely a minute of the second-half had gone.

Bollocks.

The City support roared.

A song that I have not heard at City before got an airing :

“City – tearing Cockneys apart again.”

And yet this re-working of the Joy Division number was originally a United song, and one which exalted the gifts of the presumably hated Ryan Giggs. Alan and I were mystified and we both shouted over the great divide at the home fans and asked why on earth they were singing that?

“That’s a United song.”

“Ryan Giggs.”

They just smiled benignly and were having none of it.

The scruffy lad suddenly started rabbiting about our support, chastising it, and wondering if we were United fans a few years back. He then referenced, for reasons unbeknown to me, a game from almost thirty years ago.

“Were you here in ’89 when you were shit?”

I was having some of that.

“Yes! Yes I was. And we fucking beat you 3-2.”

Ah, yes. Tony Dorigo running for ever and ever and turning it in at the Platt Lane in front of a cool ten thousand Chelsea supporters. Bliss. I have detailed that iconic away match in these reports before, but here are a few photographs of another era, another time, another club. Another two clubs.

This seemed to impress Scruffy Boy.

He nodded…and was rather subdued now.

”Yeah, so was I.”

He motioned towards me to shake my hand. You know what went through my mind? The prick is going to pull his hand away – “Soccer AM schoolboy error” style – and leave me stranded. But no. He held his hand out. Rather than shake it, I slapped it derisively.

Then, presumably in a show of some sort of Mancunian wit, the whole ground sang  as one :

“Sing when we’re winning. We only sing when we’re winning.”

I guess they have been singing rather a lot this season.

To add to the gloom, the rain fell heavier and I saw that PD and Glenn were getting soaked.

Bizarrely, City struggled to capitalise further in the next fifteen minutes, and it was Chelsea who came closest to scoring. After a ball was played into space, Victor Moses raced in to the penalty area, with the entire away end praying for a goal. He hesitated just slightly, and rather than wrap his boot around the ball, and force Ederson to save, he sliced the ball high and wide of the near post. I daren’t look at the elderly City fan who probably had his hands poised to signify “high.”

Then City came into it again, and Courtois was able to save well from David Silva at the near post. A few of our clearances from defence were shocking; hoofed up high in to the air. Reckless, rushed, ruthless.

Bloody hell.

We seemed to have a few more breaks as City pushed for a second goal – I guess this was the plan –  but our final ball and our movement was off-kilter. But each time either Pedro or Hazard or Willian broke, the away support roared the team on. The support inside the stadium, though difficult to sustain over three disjointed tiers, did not relent. I was proud of that. We were all baying for a change from the hour mark, so it was surprising – to say the least – that Conte took until the seventy-seventh minute to replace the tiring Willian with Olivier Giroud. He had kept it tight for so long, I guess his Italian past did not allow him the freedom to gamble. Just after, Pedro was replaced by new boy Emerson. Although it had not been pretty to watch, there is no doubt that the players had carried out their manager’s wishes to the letter. They at least worked with him. But I am sure it could not have been easy. As the game continued, I did not give up hope. As bizarre a result as it would have been, I sensed that we might just grab a late equaliser. As we attempted sporadic attacks, there was definitely a nervousness among the City support. I could sense it. They were not happy. The game had a couple of bizarre final twists.

Conte brought on Alvaro Morata for Eden Hazard with just two minutes remaining.  Hazard had relentlessly shuffled around closing space all afternoon long.  I watched Eden as he exited the pitch and hoped that he did not head off down the tunnel in a huff; he did not, he donned a jacket and took his seat on the bench.

And then, ridiculously, right at the final whistle, Marcos Alonso slashed at a ball on the edge of the box but we watched – such pain – as the ball spun away from the goal rather than towards it.

At the final whistle, I stood and let the immediate rush of people leave. I watched as a few players – maybe five or so, Giroud, Fabregas I think, Azpilicueta, Courtois, maybe Alonso – walked over to acknowledge a damp and dejected support. We clapped them too.

I turned to Al and Gal :

“See you next Saturday, boys.”

As I walked away, I looked back at the City Gent and Scruffy Boy. I gave them a small clap and they responded similarly.

I thought to myself : “Yep. Good team City. Anyone but United. Anyone but Tottenham. Anyone but Liverpool.”

I soon caught up with a drenched PD and Glenn and we began a silent march back to the car. Last season, that walk was triumphant. This season, we just got wet.

There was the inevitable post-mortem in the car as I headed away from Manchester. Many words were exchanged. I still liked Antonio Conte. He had not suddenly become a horrible manager overnight. Three Juventus titles after a few seasons of draught. Then a World Cup with Italy had everyone using the phrase “a tactical masterclass” – to the point of cliché – as we described him and relished him joining us. A league title with Chelsea followed. I have a feeling, as I have said before, that this feels like a first season; transition, change, conflicts. He has not managed the pressure particularly well, but the hatred aimed at him from some sections of our support openly shocked me. As I drove home, Glenn kept me updated with some highlights from the wonderful world of social media. From the comments of some, it honestly felt like we had lost 7-0 rather than 1-0. And from the way some people were allegedly talking, some fans would rather that we lost by such a score rather than a 1-0 defeat using the tactics employed.

Be careful what we wish for.

I am not so sure a possible 4-0 or 5-0 shellacking against – possibly – the second best team in the game right now would have been the best preparation for the next few games, one of which is against the best team in the world. I again thought about the manager’s thought processes; he knows his players, their mentalities. Again, his view was to keep it tight.

I drove on.

Glenn read out quotes from the manager :

”We wanted to close space, stop them playing between the lines, limit them.”

It was as I expected. A critique of the manager can’t ignore his background, his Italian history. His decisions were a reflex response to danger to defend first. It obviously upset some people.

I drove on.

Who ever said supporting Chelsea was easy?

Remembering the horrific traffic after the United game, it was a joy to be heading home on the Manchester orbital and then the M6 at normal speed. The rain had stopped. The roads were clear. We eventually reached home at about 11pm. It had been a tough game – but I can honestly say that I would not have wanted to have been anywhere else in the world than in deepest Manchester with many good friends.

I skimmed through many comments on social media, and the majority were scathing of the manager’s tactics. That’s fine, we are all entitled to an opinion. It had been an odd day for sure.

And this has been an odd match report to write; a difficult one, but one which has summed up my feelings as honestly as I can.

I’ve tried to get inside the manager’s head. I’ve tried to be objective as possible.

As the night wore on, and I continued reviewing some comments on “Facebook”, I took a great deal of solace in a couple of comments from one Chelsea pal, whose pragmatic views about the game were level-headed and mirrored a few of my own. The bonus was that he was a former Chelsea player – 1985 to 1987 – and it was nice to read his thoughts.

Robert – I owe you a drink next time I see you.

In memory of Joe Buchmann.