Tales From The United Colours Of Football

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 April 2019.

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

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

This was a familiar drive north indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2007 A

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

2006 A

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

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

Here are some moments from the previous ten league visits.

2008/09

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

2009/10

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

”Go on my son.”

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

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

2010/11

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

Not big, not clever, but totally understandable.

2011/12

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

2012/13

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

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

2013/14

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

2014/15

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

I had one thought : “Munichesque.”

2015/16

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

2016/17

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

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

2017/18

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

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

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

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

Back to 2018/19…

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

Perfect.

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

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

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

“Is City still 1-0?”

“Yep.”

“Good, good.”

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

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

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

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

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Willian – Higuain – Hazard

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

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

Oh well. Fuck’em.

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

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

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

Anyway.

Khaki. Black shorts. Yellow socks.

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

United – a blurring of red and black,

Chelsea – royal blue and white.

The game began.

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

“Ole’s at the wheel.

Tell me how good does it feel?

We’ve got Sanchez and Pogba and Fred.

Marcus Rashford – he’s manc born and bred.

Duh du, du du du du du

Duh du, du du du du du

The greatest of English football.

We’ve won it all.”

Fackinell.

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

“Fucksake.”

I looked down at my feet again.

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

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

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

They didn’t like this one though :

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

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

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

Passionate, loud, venomous.

“Come on Chelsea.”

Gary, meanwhile, had a new twist.

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

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

A look to the skies this time.

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

I screamed “hit it.”

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

We went fucking doolally.

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s lucky to stay on, Gal.”

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

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

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

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

I looked down at my trainers one last time.

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

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

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

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

We made a very clean and quick getaway.

“Job done boys, job done.”

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

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

See you there.

Tales From 1905 To 2016

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 7 February 2016.

I love a good list. If it is football-related, even better.

A week or so ago, I stumbled across a little gem which I had originally seen a year or so ago. It was a complete list of the teams with the highest average home attendances, year on year, since the Football League’s inaugural season of 1888/1889 to the current day. The timing was impeccable; it came just in time for the visit of Manchester United. The Red Devils, in my lifetime, have topped the list of highest home attendances in what seems like nearly every season. They have dominated, much to the chagrin of their closest rivals. And yet I knew full well that Chelsea, especially in our early years, drew phenomenally large crowds at Stamford Bridge. I have touched on my desire to debunk the myth about Chelsea being a “small club with money” on a few occasions before and so it was with great relish that I studied this list once more.

Of course, there is a famous line about “lies, damned lies and statistics” but this particular statistical nugget provided a really intriguing insight into the growth of football, and football fandom, over a span of one hundred and fifteen seasons – of which I have attended games in forty-three of them – and helped to illustrate how certain clubs dominated certain eras.

Let’s start at the beginning.

For the first ten seasons, from 1888/1889 to 1897/1898, one club dominated the attendance record. That club was Everton, who finished with the highest average gate in every single one of those seasons, despite being league champions just once. During the very first season, the average attendance in the top division was 4,639, and Everton’s average was 7,260. By 1887/1898, the average had grown to 9,558, while Everton’s had swollen to a weighty 17,390.

Next up were Aston Villa, taking over Everton’s mantle as top drawers, with six straight seasons of league-leading averages. In 1898/1899, Villa’s average was a sizeable 23,045. In the league’s first twelve seasons, Villa were the first real powerhouse force, claiming the league five times. The early years of professional football in the late nineteenth century were dominated by teams from the Midlands and the North. For many years, the Football League did not consist of a single southern team.

Taking over from Aston Villa were Newcastle United, with three straight seasons of leading the league in average home gates, which mirrored three championships for the Geordies in the first decade of the twentieth century. The average on Tyneside in 1906/1907 of 33,235 dwarfed the top flight average of 15,526. Interestingly, my grandfather – the cricketer and footballer, from whom I think I received my sporting genes – was a young boy at around this time, and perhaps it is no wonder that, although he was not a fervent fan, if ever pressed, he always said that he used to follow the results of Aston Villa as a young lad, and also – to a lesser extent – Newcastle United, as he became a young man.

In to this new sport, with clubs jousting for attention, came Chelsea Football Club.

Chelsea, formed in 1905, were able to take part in the Second Division during 1905/1906. In that inaugural season, our home average was 13,370, compared to the divisional average of 13,429. That seems a reasonable start, yet this only tells half of the story. Most attendances at Stamford Bridge were around 8,000 to 10,000. But there were 25,000 present for the visit of Bristol City, who would end up as Second Division Champions, and 30,000 for the game against Glossop on Easter Bank Holiday Monday.

However, this is where the story comes alive.

The Chelsea vs. Manchester United game on Good Friday 1906 was watched by a staggering 67,000.

I have always been astounded by the size of this gate. It seemed to come, unannounced, out of nowhere. I have no evidence to back it up, but I’d suggest it created a new league attendance record at the time. It would be Stamford Bridge’s first colossal crowd. One can only imagine the frenzied activity around the pubs and saloons on the Fulham Road and the melee at each of the busy turnstiles as such a number of spectators feverishly entered the stadium, ascended the steps, and then saw the vastness of the Stamford Bridge arena from the top of the terracing. Both Chelsea and Manchester United were excelling towards the top of the table, and I can only imagine that the Easter crowd were drawn to watch two promotion hopefuls going toe to toe. I hope they all witnessed a fine game. It ended 1-1. However, Chelsea would not win any of our remaining five games in 1905/1906, finishing nine points away from Manchester United, who were promoted alongside Bristol City.

Of course, in those days, virtually all of the spectators would have lived in London and the Home Counties, travelling in by train, tram and charabanc. Unlike in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies – and later – there would have been no sizeable United following at Stamford Bridge. The mere thought of all of those people, all those lives touched by the sport of football, the enormity of it all makes me lose myself in thought. For many, perhaps, it would be their first ever football match. I wonder what they thought of it all. It must have been an amazingly potent and visceral experience. The sense of occasion, the colour, the cigarette smoke, the ribald laughter, the cheers from the crowd, the players.

67,000 in our very first season; what a start for the young pretenders.

Chelsea had made their mark.

Is this the end of this trip down memory lane? Not a bit of it.

It gets better.

In season 1907/1908, Chelsea were the team with the highest home league attendance with a hefty 31,965, almost double the First Division average of 16,809. It was our first season in the top flight. The young pretenders, despite finishing in an unremarkable thirteenth place, were setting the football world alight. By comparison, Arsenal were one place behind us, but their home average was a lowly 13,765.

In fact, from 1907/1908 to 1925/1926 – fifteen seasons, allowing for the hiatus enforced by World War One – Chelsea finished top of the averages on nine occasions. It would be our high water mark in terms of attendances. In 1919/1920, we finished third in the First Division but we topped the attendances with an average of 42,615, which – at the time – was an all-time record across all clubs. It was a heady time to be at Stamford Bridge, despite silverware eluding us. A particularly impressive season was 1925/1926 when we recorded a league leading high of 32,355 despite playing in the Second Division.

So, take a moment and suck all of that information in.

Chelsea were always a small club with poor gates? Not true.

In later years, other clubs’ periods of dominance were reflected in high average attendances. In the ‘thirties, Arsenal ruled, with nine consecutive seasons ahead of the pack with an impressive high of 46,252 in 1934/1935. Newcastle United – again – and then Tottenham Hotspur dominated in the immediate years after World War Two. Chelsea’s last season of topping the attendance chart was our Championship year of 1954/1955 with 48,260.

Interestingly, Manchester United did not register the league’s highest average until as late as season 1956/1957. The year after, of course, the supreme sadness of the Munich air disaster galvanized an entire nation and Manchester United have dominated attendances ever since. In the past fifty-nine seasons, they have finished with the highest home attendance some forty-eight times. Since 1966/1967, their dominance is especially marked; only five Liverpool seasons have interrupted their procession. For the past twenty-two straight seasons, United have finished in first place.

For as long as I can remember, they have always pulled the crowds.

My first Chelsea game was in 1974, yet it took me ten years until I saw those famous red shirts of United at Stamford Bridge for the very first time.  A grainy photograph from the West Stand benches takes me back.

On that occasion, just after Christmas 1984, the gate was 42,197 and we sadly lost 1-3. Alongside me on that day were Alan and Glenn, and we would be watching together some thirty-two years later. In those days of course, the open north terrace housed up to eight thousand away fans and United certainly brought thousands.

However, it was a black day for me; seeing United for the first time, yet losing.

Before I close this walk through the turnstiles of the past, here is a summary of teams that have finished with the highest average home attendance each season.

Manchester United – 48 times.

Everton – 13 times.

Arsenal – 12 times.

Newcastle United – 11 times.

Chelsea – 10 times.

Aston Villa – 7 times.

Liverpool – 7 times.

Tottenham Hotspur – 6 times.

Manchester City – 3 times.

For those with an interest in all of this, here is a link to the website.

http://www.european-football-statistics.co.uk/attn/nav/attnengleague.htm

…from 1905/1906, I need to bring all of this up to date.

The weekend drew near, but although the lure of another Chelsea vs. Manchester United game – my thirty-fourth at Stamford Bridge – was exciting enough, the chance to meet up with my mates again was even more important. After three away games in north London and to the north of London, it would be good to be back home again in deepest SW6.

On the Saturday before the game, which marked the fifty-eighth anniversary of the previously-mentioned Munich air disaster, I was pleased to see so many of my fellow Chelsea supporters being respectful on “Facebook” with quite a few posting kind words and pictures in remembrance of those that were killed so many years ago. It really warmed me. It contradicted the still widely-held view that a lot of football followers are mindless hooligans.

This fact was touched upon during an hour or so spent at “The Bottlery”, near Earl’s Court, where I shared a couple of pints with Glenn and Dave. Glenn had volunteered to drive us up to Chelsea, and so this allowed me a few pints for a change. Dave was over from France, and was following up Wednesday’s evening of fun – cough – in Watford with a home game. Parky and P Diddy had diverted off to “The Goose” where they were launching into a gallon of cider apiece. So, on a perfect Sunday, Dave, Glenn and myself supped some beers, had a bite to eat, and talked about a few topics close to our heart. We spoke about Leicester City’s amazing season. It seems everyone wants them to win it. We touched on the protest among Liverpool fans at their game at the weekend. If pushed, I would walk out from a Chelsea game too, if all other avenues of discourse were blocked. We spoke of the away game in Paris. Dave is going, though is honestly not convinced that he knows why. We spoke about Hillsborough. The horror still haunts. We spoke about standing areas. Celtic will be a test case. We spoke about the redevelopment of Stamford Bridge. We were optimistic. We spoke about an exile at Wembley. We were pessimistic. We spoke about all sorts.

Intelligent football talk? If only the people who still think that we are knuckle-dragging oafs could have heard us.

We were having a lovely time.

We then sped over to a local pub, “The Pembroke”, where two visitors from California were waiting. Alex and Annissa were in town for a few days, and I had arranged to spend a bit of time with them before they watched their first ever Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge. They just wanted to experience an authentic pre-match with some of us regulars. The two of them watch most of our games at the famous “Olde Ship” in Santa Ana, California, and were full of giddy excitement at the thought of seeing Chelsea, and no doubt Manchester United. It certainly was a great game, on paper, for a Stamford Bridge debut. In an email exchange, I had written, tongue in cheek:

“See you in the pub. We’ll be the ones not wearing Chelsea shirts.”

We ordered some beers, and the chat accelerated away. They were so happy to be able to meet some old-school supporters.

After a few moments of getting to know each other, Annissa whispered to me “so why don’t you wear Chelsea shirts?”

“Oh gosh. How long have you got?”

We then gave the two visitors a crash course in a few Chelsea fundamentals. We spoke about how I first met Glenn at school in 1977 and on The Shed in 1983, and how I first met Dave in Los Angeles in 2007. We chatted about our usual routines on match day, the Chelsea pubs, which are sadly closing one by one. The days of ska at “The Imperial”. How skinheads and boots gave way to Adidas trainers and Lacoste polo shirts in the days of our youth. Talk of Gus Mears and Brompton Cemetery. The fact that Stamford Bridge, unable to be expanded in 2011, is now looking to expand by 18,000. The Banter. Pints. Memories of Munich. The three of us were taking the piss out of each other and everyone else. The two Californians were lapping it up.

In “The Goose” Arsenal were on the TV, but nobody was watching. With so many nearby pubs closing, the pub gets busier and busier with each passing game. Annissa and Alex purchased the iconic “Chelsea and Proud” pensioner pin badge. Their smiles were wide. I could tell they were loving it.

In among the laughter, there was a moment of farce.

My friend Alan had written to the club and had asked that an obituary for dear Tom be placed in a match programme. Alan had texted me on Friday to say that there would be a short piece, written by Alan, plus a photo of Tom, in the Manchester United programme on the Sunday. The photo chosen was a rather nice one, featuring Tom at the front, with Alan, Glenn and myself, behind.

Imagine our displeasure when we heard that the imbeciles at Chelsea had cropped Tom from the photograph completely, leaving just a head shot of Alan to accompany the obituary. I was fuming. Alan, after his initial exasperation, was still annoyed, but was sure that Tom would be finding the funny side of it.

What a bloody farce.

After a while, a few texts started coming in from those friends who had already purchased a match programme.

“Bloody hell, Alan, you looked fine at Watford.”

Annissa and Alex left early to catch the pre-game stuff. They had seats in the MHL, down below Alan, Glenn, P Diddy and myself, all seated together. To be honest, there had hardly been much time to pay attention to the team. Suffice to say, Guus Hiddink went with the same team that began against Watford; no place, again, for Eden Hazard.

I had predicted 0-0 for the game at Old Trafford in December. My prediction for the return game was the same.

The United fans, the men in black, were already singing by the time I reached my seat. They had brought a few more flags than usual. One with the Munich clock. One for the “Ralph Milne Ultras.” Ferguson’s most unlikely signing in 1988, Ralph Milne became something of a cult figure at Old Trafford. He is their Robert Fleck. Kinda. Milne sadly passed away in 2015 and his flag bore the tangerine and black of his former club Dundee United, with whom he won a Scottish championship medal in 1983.

So, the Ralph Milne Ultras.

Not everything in Planet Football makes sense.

With Stamford Bridge full to its current capacity of 41,000, it was time for the focus to turn to the game itself.

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Manchester United have reverted back to Adidas this season, and their red, white and black is deeply reminiscent of the kits that were worn by United in their under-achieving years of the mid-‘eighties. I have to say it is a classic kit. The three stripes looked at home.

Sadly, United got out of the traps the quickest. Chelsea seemed unable to stop their quick passing, and although I was trying my hardest to ignore how much possession they were enjoying, by the time they started to rack up corner after corner, it was obvious that we were second best. It still hurt to see the smiling face of Juan Mata in red. His delicious touch made it all the more difficult to watch. However, a Courtois save from Martial was thankfully the only time that our goal was seriously threatened in the opening period of play. We struggled to create anything of note. A shot from Diego Costa flew wide of the post. The United fans were, unsurprisingly, the loudest. In all honesty, it wasn’t much of a contest. The Chelsea support hardly sang a note. There had been loud shouts in honour of John Terry at the start, but it was as quiet a Chelsea vs. Manchester United game as I could remember. Although Kurt Zouma shows great promise, both Alan and myself wished that he had more confidence in his own ability to allow him other options than a quick hoof of the ball in to row Z.

We were warmed slightly with a couple of half-chances, but then United, in turn, threatened us too. The big bearskin of Fellaini met a corner, but he was thankfully off target. It was a decidedly humdrum affair. Towards the very end of the first period, a John Terry effort struck the arm of Blind. It didn’t seem to be “ball to hand.” From my viewpoint, it was hardly point-blank range. Surely Blind could have moved his arm away? Despite our howls of derision, no penalty was given.

At the break, all was quiet.

United continued where they had left off as the second-half began. This was tough to watch. Shots flew at Courtois.

Hiddink, admonished for using just one substitute at Watford, soon replaced the quiet Oscar with Eden Hazard. Then, Kurt Zouma fell awkwardly. A stretcher was soon called for, but it seemed to take a while for him to leave the pitch. We wondered what the problem was; it was not clear. It didn’t look good. I felt guilty for being negative towards him earlier. Gary Cahill was the easy replacement.

On the hour, the best move of the match. United worked the ball out to the left, where Borthwick-Jackson (who?) struck a low cross in to the box. Wayne Rooney touched it to Lingard, who seemed to be unhindered as he brought the ball under control and struck it past Courtois.

Ugh.

All was not good.

The home fans still sat silently. There seemed to be no will to generate much noise. I felt for Annissa and Alex down in the tier below.

We slowly created a few more chances. A Willian free-kick, and then a powerful volley from Ivanovic both tested De Gea. Fabregas was the next to threaten the United goal, but another fine stop from the United ‘keeper. Pedro replaced Matic.

There was only a slight response from the Chelsea support.

However, as the minutes ticked by, we enjoyed more and more of the ball. A few wayward efforts frustrated us. It seems churlish to knock Willian after his exemplary form in the first few months, but he seems to have faltered of late. Some of his corners and free-kicks were woeful.

Then, a hope of salvation.

There were an added six minutes.

The crowd at last responded.

“Come on.”

With the United defence massed behind the ball, Cesc Fabregas miraculously found an unmarked Diego Costa in the middle of the penalty area. I could hardly believe it. Time seemed to stand still. I immediately stood up, expecting a goal. Diego turned, rode the challenge of a defender and pushed the ball wide of De Gea. With me just about to go in to orbit, Diego coolly slotted home from an angle. At last The Bridge thundered. I turned to see Alan screaming right at me.

Get in.

Down below, a fist pump from Diego Costa, and a hug from John Terry, who had sauntered up field to add support to the attack. Stamford Bridge echoed to the sound of a relieved home support. And I bet Annissa and Alex were in heaven.

In the final minute, a lovely moment. Juan Mata was replaced by Herrera and Stamford Bridge rose, seemingly as one, to applaud our former number ten.

Just like in 1906, the game had ended 1-1, though I can only hope that the match that drew 67,000 all those decades ago was a far better game.

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Tales From My Football Timeline

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 18 April 2015.

For the first time in ages, I spent a Saturday morning at work in Chippenham. However, with the Chelsea vs. Manchester United game not kicking off until 5.30pm, I was still able to finish at midday and reach London in good time. Glenn had collected PD and Parky en route. I then took over and headed in to London.

If I am honest, I was slightly nervous about the early-evening game. Without Diego Costa to cause panic and concern in the United ranks, and with a few key players hitting a dry spell, I was very wary that we just might be catching an in-form United at the wrong time. I soon commented to my three companions that a draw would suffice. A win would be lovely, of course, but I was aware that we were not, collectively, setting the bar too high. We were becoming as pragmatic as our manager.

“A draw against United this weekend and a draw at Arsenal next weekend and we can start thinking that the league really is ours.”

The game at Stamford Bridge, however, was not the only football match troubling me. My local team Frome Town had lost on the previous Wednesday to a gut-wrenching last minute goal at local rivals Paulton Rovers and with two games left of the season, were only three points clear of relegation from the Southern League. A little part of me toyed with the notion of watching the first-half of the Slough Town vs. Frome Town game before heading in to London.

I decided against it. Who the hell watches halves of football games? Not me.

Heading east along the M4, the weather was magnificent. It was a lovely day for football. I spotted a few Reading scarves and immediately dismissed the afternoon’s FA Cup Final as unimportant, and not worthy of further thought. This, in a nutshell, shows how the importance of that once revered competition has decreased.

The game at 5.30pm would be my thirty-third Chelsea vs. Manchester United match at Stamford Bridge, dating back to a Saturday just after Christmas in 1984 – Glenn was with me on the benches, and I am sure many readers were there too  – when I set eyes on those famous red shirts for the very first time.

Thirty-three games. It’s quite a number. I have only seen the reds of Liverpool more often than the reds of Manchester at The Bridge. Interestingly – or not, as the case may be – a split of the first sixteen games and the second sixteen games against United reveals a seismic shift in results.

1984 to 2002.

Chelsea wins : 3

Draws : 5

Manchester United wins : 8

2002 to 2014.

Chelsea wins : 9

Draws : 5

Manchester United wins : 2

The two losses against United in that second period are quite recent too; a Champions League defeat in 2011 and a League defeat in 2012. For quite a while at Stamford Bridge, we have held the upper hand.

Among the wins, two stand out.

The 5-0 annihilation in 1999.

The 3-1 title-clincher in 2006.

Two of the happiest of days in almost forty-five years of supporting Chelsea.

Where does the time go?

Where did the time start?

I am sure that I am not the only Chelsea supporter who often thinks back upon the first few moments of our support and attempts to discover the defining moment when Chelsea became our team and our club. I’ve personally tied this down to a moment in my primary schoolyard in the first few weeks of spring term 1970 and those events have been detailed here before. As I have been coming to terms with the events of the past two months, there have been many hours spent thinking back on my childhood years.

Another trip down memory lane coming up everyone.

I am sure that I am not alone in my quest to attempt to assemble some sort of time-line of devotion, possibly involving memories of certain early games, conversations with friends, TV clips, pictures, favourite players and the like, which aid us to remember those critical moments when Chelsea became our team.

After my first game in 1974, it’s easy, remarkably easy. Before that, things get a little blurred.

Of course, some of my earliest memories involve Chelsea’s appearances on TV and of other games too. Knowing my parents, it is very likely that I was not allowed to stay up to watch “Match of the Day” on Saturday nights on BBC1 in the first few years of my growing love of football – let’s say 1970 to 1972 – because of the 10pm start. My TV-watching in these years was, I think, limited to watching ITV’s “The Big Match” on Sunday afternoons. Yes, the memories of this are clearer. I even have feint recollections of a sun-drenched Stamford Bridge in the days of the old East Stand, prior to its destruction in the summer of 1972. The earliest football game per se that I can ever remember seeing is the 1972 FA Cup Final, when an Alan Clarke header gave Leeds United a 1-0 win over Arsenal. Which is the first Chelsea game that I can remember watching? I’m pretty sure that it is the Chelsea vs. Leeds United home opener in August 1972 – with me, just over the age of seven – when 51,000 crammed in to a three-sided Stamford Bridge to see a 4-0 win, no doubt abetted by the fact that Leeds’ goalkeeper was injured and was replaced by Peter Lorimer. Typically, Peter Osgood scored.  In that season, I can also remember the Chelsea vs. Arsenal FA Cup game in March 1973, when there was an incredible buzz in the village school leading up to the match. Peter Osgood’s screamer in that game won the goal of the season that year. I also remember seeing the highlights of the replay on the nine o’clock news the following midweek, after pleading with my parents to allow me to stay up later than normal to watch. I can remember the sadness of defeat from that evening forty-two years ago.

I also recollect the very last game of that season, which involved the visit of Manchester United to Stamford Bridge. After the scenes of chaos at the Leeds game – which must have involved trying to force 41,000 into two end terraces – it was decided to limit the attendance at Stamford Bridge to a more reasonable figure. From memory, 44,000 still assembled for the United game. I am sure that it was not the first time that I had seen United on TV, but it is the first United match that I can remember – which is the point here – seeing. Both teams were struggling that season, but the large attendance was mainly due to the fact that it would be Bobby Charlton’s last ever game for Manchester United. Although Chelsea won that afternoon – Peter Osgood again, scored – my abiding memory is of the hullabaloo surrounding Charlton. I can distinctly remember the Stamford Bridge crowd – no doubt bolstered by thousands of visiting United fans, maybe not all wearing red favours – singing “We all love you Bobby Charlton.”

I am sure that this song was sung at the village school on the Monday, possibly by the younger children watching us older boys playing football on the school yard. I am also positive that a few of us re-enacted Peter Osgood’s goal in that game too, when he almost stumbled as he forced the ball over the line. His “to camera” shrug of the shoulders, as he was kneeling in The Shed End goal, was impersonated by me for sure.

I was lucky enough to meet Peter Osgood on several occasions and I was very honoured to be able to shake Sir Bobby Charlton’s hand as he brushed past me at Old Trafford last season.

Two iconic players from my early football world remembered.

Bless them both.

A Chelsea vs. Manchester United match first appeared on my football timeline, then, in April 1973.

Incidentally, while at the Frome Town match on Wednesday, I was rather taken aback when my friend Steve announced that the very first Frome Town game that I had seen – with my mother – was neither in 1971 nor 1972 as I had first thought but, in all probability, as early as 1970, when I was just five. Let me explain. During a summer holiday at a Dorset caravan site, I often played football with a former Bristol Rovers player called Mike Brimble, who was now playing for Frome. My father didn’t tend to like kicking a ball around with me – I remember he often used to “toe poke” the ball, which I didn’t approve of – ha – but I spent many hours kicking the ball to-and-forth with this chap from the adjacent caravan. There is no doubt that, during the kick-abouts with Mike, on hearing that I was a Chelsea supporter, that he would have mentioned our cup win against Leeds United that spring. And there is no doubt that this would have left a lasting impression on me.

After a week or so, my mother took me to see Frome Town play…we lost heavily…and I can remember to this day the little conversation I had with Mike at the end of the game.

“Nice to see you could make it Chris.”

I was so happy that he remembered my name.

I always thought that it was in 1971 or 1972, but Steve told me on Wednesday that Mike’s last season for Frome was 1970-1971. So, that game – with my mother – was undoubtedly as early as early autumn 1970.

1970 was obviously a defining year in my life.

It was the year that I chose Chelsea Football Club and it was the year that I saw my very first football match.

My football timeline had begun.

While out in the full-to-overflowing beer garden of The Goose, Alan and I spoke about these early moments in our football, er Chelsea, life. The first game that Alan can remember seeing on TV was the 1970 FA Cup Final.

1970.

I’d bet that many Chelsea fans’ timelines began in this year.

1970 and Peter Osgood. One and the same.

I mentioned to Alan about the nervousness that I had with the Frome Town game. His local team, Bromley, were on the brink of promotion from the Conference South to the Conference. We hoped for a triple of wins during the next few hours; Bromley, Frome Town and Chelsea. A text from a Frome Town follower in California – yes, really – informed me that Slough were 1-0 up against Frome. I groaned. He then texted me to say that the team three points below Frome, Arlesey Town, were a goal up at the high-flying Truro Town. I groaned again. If it stayed like this, it would all go to the last game of the season and relegation would be a distinct possibility.

Elsewhere in the beer garden, there were mixed thoughts about the upcoming game. Some were positive, some were cautious. We prayed for a fit Loic Remy leading the line. When we heard that Didier Drogba had been chosen, our spirits sank a little. At 36, he is not the man of 2012. I reconfirmed my view that a draw would be good enough for me.

Then, better news…Frome town had equalised at Slough Town.

“Yes.”

Then, just after 4.30pm, came some wonderful news.

Truro City 2 Arlesey 1 .

I punched the air.

Fantastic. In the end, Frome drew 1-1 and Arlesey lost 3-1.

Safe, barring a deluge of goals next Saturday, for another season. Bromley, meanwhile, had beaten Weston-Super-Mare 3-0. Beautiful.

Outside the West stand, I took a long-overdue photograph of Alan in front of the Peter Osgood statue.

We were inside with fifteen minutes to spare. The United hordes were already in good voice. I noted two flags playing on the point of United fans being “Manchester Born & B(red)” as if they have to constantly state, to the point of tedium, about Manchester being their territory and not City’s. Anyway, the United fans always put on a good show and they didn’t disappoint, singing loudly, in the first-half especially.

There was nothing but pure blue skies overhead. Despite the bright sun, there was a cold wind which blew in and around Stamford Bridge throughout the game. As the sun lowered, changing shadows formed different geometric shapes across the pitch and the towering East Stand.

So, the team.

Courtois – Dave, JT, Cahill, Ivanovic – Zouma, Matic – Hazard, Fabregas, Oscar – Drogba.

The big news was King Kurt alongside Matic, with Fabregas pushed forward. We presumed Jose wanted to toughen up that area, with a nod towards the improving Fellaini.

The first-half was a mainly frustrating affair. We began well, but United soon started pushing the ball around, and I lost count of the number of times that our right flank was exposed. Ivanovic, the former centre-back, tends to drift inside too often for my liking. Ahead of him, Oscar provided little cover. United peppered our goal with a few long range efforts, but thankfully their shooting was amiss. I noted how deep Wayne Rooney was playing. We gave him, and others, too much time and space. I longed for our midfield to get closer. It was Rooney who struck a shot against the back stanchion of the goal, and it looked to me – and the away fans – that it was a goal. I looked at Alan in disbelief.

As Juan Mata, much loved during his relatively short spell with us, walked over to take a corner down below us, the Matthew Harding stood and clapped generously. It was a fantastic moment. I am trying hard to remember the last time we gave a former great a hard time.

A run by an energised Fabregas deep in to the penalty box at the Shed End raised our spirits. But, our chances were rare. Drogba battled on, but often his touch ran a yard too short or too long for the supporting midfielders. United continued their dominance of the ball, and only rarely did our midfielders bite at their heels. The atmosphere was good, though. The underperforming Chelsea team was thankfully not matched by the support in the stands.

We roared the boys on.

With the half-time interval in sight, John Terry broke up another United move and fed the ball to Fabregas, who in turn passed to Oscar, now central. As soon as Oscar adeptly back-heeled the ball in to the path of a raiding Hazard – a magnificent touch – I sensed a goal. Eden calmly advanced and slotted the ball in to the United goal.

Inside, my body buzzed. There was only one thing for it. There is a walkway right behind where I sit and I leapt up the three steps to my right, took off my sunglasses, and just jumped up in the air continually for a few seconds.

Joy unbounded.

…while thinking “I bet I look like a right twat, I’m almost fifty, not five, but what a bloody goal.”

There were smiles of relief everywhere and The Bridge boomed.

“We’re top of the league.”

At half-time I sent a text to a mate ;

“Bit lucky. Only got closer to them in the last quarter. Cesc looks a bit livelier. Great goal. Utd have too much space down our right. But…halfway to paradise.”

Into the second-half, the first big chance fell to us. Matic won the ball and played the ball on for Drogba. I immediately wished for a time machine that could send Didi back to his powerful and absurdly potent form of five years ago, fearing that Smalling would easily deal with him. To be fair, Didier assembled just enough strength to stab a ball at De Gea, despite Smalling’s attentions. The ball took a bizarre path towards goal, deflecting off both United players, but landing just too far past the far post for the on-rushing Hazard to control. In the end, he did so well to get any attempt in on goal. Bizarrely, his flick touched the ball up on to the bar.

Zouma grew throughout the game. His war of attrition with Fellaini was pure box office. Ramires replaced  Oscar. Juan Mata did not create too much for United; good lad.

Falcao, not firing on all cylinders, cut in on goal in a similar to position to Hazard’s goal, but his powerful shot rose and hit the side netting. The atmosphere remained noisy throughout the second half, but there was incredible tension as the game grew older. United still dominated. Chelsea constantly defended well. It was, no doubt, a typical Mourinho performance. I would have liked to have seen more attacking verve, of course, but our time for that had passed. The salad days of autumn are over; it’s now all about putting meat on the plate.

Juan Mata received a fantastic and heartfelt round of sustained applause as he was substituted.

United continued to attack. Shots were dealt with. Nerves were continuing to be frayed.

The last meaningful moment caused immediate concern. Herrera and Cahill met in a corner of our penalty box. From over a hundred yards away, it looked a penalty, to Glenn, to Alan, to me. However, miracles happen and the referee Mike Dean – who had been the target of increasing levels of abuse from the home fans as the game continued – waved it away.

Four minutes of extra time.

We waited, but with fantastic noise continuing to boom around the packed stands.

The final whistle.

Euphoria.

I captured a few shots of players hugging, smiling, and enjoying the moment.

“One Step Beyond” boomed out.

After clapping us, they began to walk away, but John Terry dragged them back and, in a tight line facing the Matthew Harding, they stood.

Their joy was our joy. United in triumph.

One step closer. Ten points clear. Mind the gap.

There was another notch on my football time line.

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Tales From The Football Association Challenge Cup

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 26 January 2014.

The build-up to our F.A. Cup Fourth Round tie with Stoke City was somewhat overshadowed by the intrigue involving the transfer of Juan Mata to Manchester United. Rather than obsessing about the intricacies of the move and its possible Machiavellian undertones, my mind was elsewhere. My mother had been taken ill the previous week, thus providing me with ample reason to dismiss the ramifications of this surprising transfer and instead concentrate on much more important issues. As the week progressed, thankfully my mother’s health improved. I visited my mum for an hour on Sunday morning and Lord Parky, bless him, made his way over to the Royal United Hospital in Bath for us to make a speedy getaway just after midday.

As I drove east, headlong into yet more English winter rain, we were able to discuss Mum’s past week. To be honest, nothing else mattered. That I was going to be able to have a couple of relaxing hours with friends was – of course – a wonderful medicine for my own worries, but I couldn’t help but think as I passed the usual landmarks on the M4 that this was all superficial stuff.

I was parked-up just in time for the two of us to nip into The Goose for a pint of Peroni apiece. On the TV, a meagre crowd at Bramall Lane were watching the Sheffield United vs. Fulham cup tie. An even more meagre crowd in the pub was paying attention to it. It seems that with every new round of the F.A. Cup, I need to go back and reiterate again and again why the competition has lost so much of its twinkle in the past twenty years. I won’t do that again on this occasion.

However, it dawned on me that – in some ways – it seems like the Champions League has taken on the role of the F.A. Cup for Chelsea Football Club since our first youthful advances in the 1999-2000 season. The glamour, the atmosphere, the fascinating sub-plots, the magnificent away games; it is all there. However, I think I’m being honest enough to say that Chelsea has certainly given the F.A. Cup more respect than most other teams. Damn it, we’ve won it four times in seven years and we play to full houses in the competition at Stamford Bridge. Quite why other clubs feel different is not for me to answer.

Inside Stamford Bridge, it was the same story as ever; four packed stands save for a paltry away following. When we played The Potters in the F.A. Cup in 2010, I am sure they brought 1,400. On this occasion, it was less than half that number. Maybe it was just a matter of weighing up priorities; maybe the money to be spent on league away trips was more important. I shrugged my shoulders and settled down for the game.

Over on The Shed balcony wall, a fine new flag, with critically placed gold star.

CHELSEA FC – BY BIRTH – NOT BY GLORY

I admired those sentiments.

Except for…um…shuffle shuffle…cough cough…

I wasn’t born in to a Chelsea family.

Far from it.

My father didn’t follow a particular team. My maternal grandfather had soft spots for Aston Villa and Newcastle United in his youth.

Why Chelsea?

I started primary school in my Somerset village just after Easter in 1970. The Cup Final was earlier than usual that year because of England’s preparations for the Mexico World Cup. I am not sure of the exact dates, but school began for me just as Chelsea beat Leeds in the F.A. Cup Final. Talk about serendipity. Sadly, I have no recollections of either the first game at Wembley or the replay. But I do know that I used to watch the older schoolboys play football in the schoolyard at break times. Up until that point, I had shown little interest in the sport. I guess I looked on in awe at the skills of the boys. One team would be Leeds United and the other team would be Liverpool or the next week, Manchester United and Arsenal or maybe Chelsea and Tottenham. I think (and this is the story I always tell) that I heard that either Chelsea were a good team or they had just won a big game. There must have been something in the mention of Chelsea that drew me in. Maybe it was just the sound of the name. I think that is how it all began. Who knows…maybe on that fateful day, I perhaps joined in with the bigger boys for the first time and maybe I was in the Chelsea team. It would be nice to think so. I wonder if I mentioned to my mother, as she collected me from the school gates on that eventful day, that I had discovered Chelsea a few hours previously. Anyway, from the littlest of acorns do mighty oaks grow – from that initial mention of the name Chelsea, they became my team.

Looking back, I suppose that I would be classed these days, even though I was only four years old at the time, as a glory hunter.

There I said it.

That we won bugger all from 1971 to 1997 serves me right, eh?

The game began and Samuel Eto’o swivelled low inside the box and dragged a low shot just wide of Begovic’ post. At the other end, former Chelsea season ticket-holder Peter Crouch slashed wide. It would be the last real Stoke chance of the half. Chelsea monopolised possession and took a stranglehold on the game. The darting runs of Hazard and the steady prompting of Oscar helped us dominate.

What a sublime strike from Oscar from that free-kick. I was able to capture on film – click! – the exact moment that he made contact with the pink match ball. As the ball flew through the air, careering away from the Stoke ‘keeper in an arc of pure fantasy, I was dumbfounded. It was as perfect as it will ever get. As he ran away to the south-west corner, I roared with joy. And then, a little tremor went through me; how typical for Mourinho’s man Oscar to open the scoring at the first match without Mourinho’s discarded man Mata.

It had to be him.

Immediately after the goal, a couple of minutes of sun bathed the otherwise bleak London sky in light.

A scintillating run from Eden Hazard deep into the box gifted the recalled Frank Lampard with a fine chance but Frank slapped it over the bar. Then, a shot from Oscar rattled the base of the near post. Then, Lampard – again – blazed over.

It could’ve been 3-0 at the break.

Stoke weren’t in it. Their fans were unsurprisingly silent.

At the half-time break, Frank Blunstone made a lovely appearance on the pitch and milked the applause. A member of both the 1955 Championship team and the 1963 Second Division promotion team, he amassed well over 300 appearances for us. His face was a picture.

I absolutely love the way our club honours all of our ex-players.

Top marks.

The second-half was a cavalcade of intricate passing and surging runs. Andre Schurrle blasted against the bar. Oscar was so strong and his passing almost perfect. Samuel Eto’o was always involved and looks better with each game. In midfield, playing alongside the more offensive Lampard stood the impressive Nemanja Matic. As the game progressed, he really stood out. OK, Stoke hardly threatened, but he looked very natural and at ease. He won headers, he tackled, and he covered. One slide rule pass to Ramires was the best of the entire afternoon.

A curling shot from Oscar after neat possession had us all gasping; it drifted just wide.

A lone effort from Jonathan Walters ended up in the Shed Upper; Stoke, quite simply, were awful.

However, despite some 40,000 “home fans” at times there were moments of almost complete silence.

Yes, I know.

After seventy minutes, I noticed the bloke to my right struggling to stay awake.

A Lampard shot was hit low, but did not trouble Begovic. Still the second goal would not materialise. Yet another mesmerising run from Hazard (I love the way he stands, teasing, and then suddenly explodes past his marker), teed up Ramires and Eto’o but to our bewilderment the ball stayed out. The last real chance for Chelsea was a thunderbolt of a free-kick from David Luiz which the ‘keeper managed to thwart.

On any other day, we would have rattled in six.

A late Stoke rally caused us a little worry, but the danger was averted.

Into the last sixteen.

Job done.

Walking along the North End Road, past the shops and pubs, a fan called out that we had been drawn away to Manchester City.

“Oh great.”

“Two tough away games in two weeks up there.”

“Time for Nemanja Matic to stand up to Yaya Toure?”

“You bet. A battle royal beckons.”

Parky and I soon made tracks. For the second week in a row, we stopped off in Marlborough for a pint. Last week, it was “The Green Dragon” and this week “The Royal Oak.” Within a few months, we will hope to have ticked-off every pub on the A4 from Devizes to Hungerford.

The road to Wembley begins in Wiltshire, right?

In a quiet corner, we supped another pint of Peroni apiece.

A chat and a chance to unwind a little.

Phew.

On a day when my mind was occupied with concerns for my nearest and dearest, at least good old Chelsea was able to bring me a little cheer.

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Tales From A Day Of Pints And Points

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 1 January 2014.

Outside, the rain lashed against the van windows in irregular gusts. The damp winter air was shrouded in a deadening blanket of dense cloud. There were many puddles of dirty grey rain water alongside roadside kerbs and pavements. The streets around Southampton Central train station were virtually deserted. The station car park was practically empty too. The New Year was only eleven hours old and the game was still four hours away, but here we were; ready for the first Chelsea match of 2014.

While it may be true that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, one wonders if anybody or anything accompanies Chelsea fans in a late morning downpour in the middle of winter.

Ducks, maybe.

“Nice weather for ducks.”

“Right then boys. Shall we go for it? Head up to the first boozer and shelter there a bit?”

“Let’s go.”

Glenn had collected me at 9am and Parky had been picked-up from an equally deserted Warminster station at 9.30am. The A36, a main trunk road which links Bath with Southampton, was almost devoid of vehicles. For once, there was no traffic jam in the city of Salisbury. However, it was 10am on New Year’s Day; what other idiots would be out and about at that time?

Chelsea fans, ducks, mad dogs and mad ducks.

The first pub – “The Encore” – was closed until midday.

“Oh great.”

“Let’s just aim for the main drag, then. Button up.”

The brisk walk from the station took us close to the city’s large civic centre, where I once saw Everything But The Girl in 1999, and which has a rather stunning white stone Italianate clock tower. It reminded me of a few of Mussolini’s brutal civic buildings in Italy.

Ten minutes later, having been buffeted by the wind and rain as we pitifully scampered across roads and pavements, we arrived at “Yates’s.”

“This will do, chaps. Base camp. Becks Vier for you Parky?”

We soon found a cosy corner upstairs and settled ourselves for three hours of drinking and community singing. Outside, looking through steamed-up windows, pedestrians were rare. The rain continued to fall. It seemed that every person baring the elements was headed for “Yates’s” too. The central area of Southampton was badly bombed by the Luftwaffe during World War Two; the result is a strange mix of open green space where buildings originally stood and a charmless shopping centre.

The pub soon filled with match-goers. Chelsea fans were in the majority. There were a few familiar faces from near and far. Very soon, the music began pumping out some songs much loved by the football-loving clientele.

The Jam, The Clash, Madness, you can guess the rest.

“Another pint, Chris?”

“Be rude not too, Porky.”

With Glenn driving, this was a chance – at last! – for me to unwind and enjoy a few game day liveners.

Soon, the Chelsea fans downstairs were singing along to “It Must Be Love” by Madness.

“I never thought I’d miss you
Half as much as I do.
And I never thought I’d feel this way.
The way I feel
About you.
As soon as I wake up
Every night, every day.
I know that it’s you I need
To take the blues away.”

Ah, the “Blues Away.”

Love it.

In the adjacent booth, five foreign student types – presumably unused to an English match day vibe – were giggling to themselves at the sound of two hundred Chelsea fans singing about love, love, love.

Next up, “The Liquidator” and the whole pub was up.

“We hate Tottenham. Chelsea!”

Then, later, K.C. and the Sunshine Band got an airing.

“Michael Essien, Essien – Michael Essien.”

Rob, Graham, Dan and Kirsty – all from my home area – joined us. I last saw Graham on the lookout for tickets to the final in Amsterdam. It was great to see him again. Then, from down below, a loud voice took the lead for “Chelsea Alouette.”

Then “Three Little Birds.” I remember the Chelsea faithful singing that particular song – and meaning it – just down the road at an equally rain-soaked Fratton Park in 2010 when our league campaign took a sudden jolt with a fantastic 5-0 win. Good times then, good times now.

2014 was off to a good start. I was loving every minute of it.

At 2.15pm, we set off for the stadium, past the park, through the subway, past some down-at-heel shops. Thankfully, the rain wasn’t quite so strong on the fifteen minute walk to St. Mary’s. We were soon inside.

“One last pint, Parks?”

The youngsters serving pies and pints were wearing special blue Chelsea t-shirts; a nice touch, I thought.

The area beneath the away stand at St. Mary’s is a particularly dark and dismal place, but the Chelsea fans weren’t worried. The songs were coming thick and fast.

Inside the bowl of the stadium, the floodlights were on, the spectators were assembled and I giddily made my way to join up with Alan and Gary right behind the goal. It looked like virtually every seat was sold for this one. Chelsea were in good voice as the teams entered the pitch. Hopefully the game would follow our 5-1 F.A. Cup win last season – almost a complete year ago – rather than the lame 2-1 defeat in the league a few months after.

The rain was still falling. Despite being under the cover of the roof, we experienced the occasional splash of windswept rain. I pitied the poor fellows in the first few rows. At the same stadium in 2002, in similar circumstances, I was one of the unfortunates getting drenched down the front.

I quickly glanced at our starting eleven; with a few forced changes, we knew there would be a different selection from against Liverpool. Notably, in came Juan Mata, Andre Schurrle and Fernando Torres.

We began very brightly, with Fernando Torres the immediate star, dribbling his way into the Southampton penalty area on a number of occasions. Shots from Schurrle and Ramires, after a fine dribble from deep, suggested that the songs emanating from the Northam Stand would soon be replaced by cheers. However, I couldn’t help but notice that our play seemed to be mainly down our left flank. Very often Juan Mata, in acres of space out on the right, was not picked out. I felt his frustration. Slowly, our dominance seemed to fade as Southampton, strangely minus Ricky Lambert, grew more dominant. A succession of timely interceptions and brave blocks kept Southampton at bay.

On the terraces, there were plenty of songs.

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

Saints : “Johnstone Paints Trophy – you’ll never win that.”

Chelsea : “You’re only here for the Chelsea.”

Saints : “Live round the corner, you only live round the corner.”

At the break, I squeezed in another pint.

“I’m only here for the Carling.”

With us now attacking the three thousand predominantly neutrally-dressed away followers – I’ve never seen so few wearing Chelsea colours, Gourlay must hate us – we hoped for greater things in the second-period. Soon into the half, the manager made changes, replacing Schurrle and Mata with Willian and Oscar.

The away end was soon up in arms.

With Oscar clean through inside the penalty area, charging in on Davis in the Southampton goal, he attempted to push the ball to the ‘keeper’s right. He appeared to be swept off his feet and, in that split moment of thought, I was shouting with glee at an obvious penalty rather than being upset that he had not scored. I watched as Martin Atkinson reached for a card, so my immediate thought was “sending off or at least a booking for the ‘keeper.”

Well, we were incandescent with rage when – instead – Oscar was shown a yellow for a dive.

Soon, however, the texts came in to say that the little midfielder had indeed dived.

Oh you silly boy.

I was just filled with disbelief.

Surely…just try to bloody score?

On the hour, the same player jinked and weaved in from the left and his chipped effort was pushed onto the far post by a scrambling Davis. The ball bounced back into play and Torres was able to readjust quickly to head home.

1-0 Chelsea.

Get in!

The Chelsea fans screamed delight.

The supreme irony of no Chelsea striker scoring away in the league throughout 2013 and yet Nando taking just an hour into 2014 was not lost on me, nor the three thousand other away fans at Southampton nor the countless millions around the globe.

Chelsea : “You’ve had your day out. Now fuck off home.”

Southampton brought on Lambert to replace former blue Jack Cork. The bustling centre-forward was soon involved, but Chelsea added to our lead on seventy minutes.

Oscar enjoyed another lovely run, with gorgeous close control, to the edge of the “D” and then picked out Willian. A quick body swerve to throw the defender off balance and a fine low shot found its way inside the corner of Davis’ goal.

2-0 Chelsea.

More screams of pleasure.

Chelsea : “Gone to the sales. You shoulda gone to the sales.”

More Chelsea pressure followed and Oscar capped a fine performance with another run into the Southampton box following a lofted ball into space from Eden Hazard. He struck quickly this time and the ball took a slight deflection before ending up in the Southampton net.

3-0 Chelsea.

With that, there was a mass exodus.

Chelsea : “Oh when The Saints go walking out.”

With three points secure, there was just time for a cameo from Michael Essien and the chance for us to serenade him with his own personal song.

“Give it up” for The Bison.

Lovely stuff.

The Mourinho magic – the substitutions, early in the second-half – were perfect. It’s unlikely that two substitutions will pay off so perfectly again for a while. Oscar and Willian added fresh drive to our team. They were simply superb.

Christmas 2013 and New Year 2014 had been excellent. We had tasted victory on three occasions and had shared the spoils at a title contender’s home stadium.

Ten points out of twelve.

Not perfect, but bloody good enough.

Just to complete the perfect away game, the DJ at St. Mary’s chose – bizarrely – to air a favourite song from the pen of Stephen Patrick Morrissey as we slowly descended the crowded steps. Alan’s face was a picture. And so was mine…

“You have never been in love until you’ve seen the stars reflect in the reservoirs.”

Sometimes, some moments are just there to be savoured.

I think 2014 is going to be fine, just fine.

See you at Derby.

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Tales From The Internationalists

Steaua Bucharest vs. Chelsea : 1 October 2013.

There was a moment during the breaking hours of Monday, as I circumnavigated the M25 from the M3 to the M1, when I was lost in thought, already planning my next travel burst. Even though I was headed out for a first-ever visit to Romania for our game with Steaua Bucharest the following evening, here was proof that I am never happier than letting my mind wander and allowing it to flit from city to city, dreaming of possible itineraries, buoyed by the knowledge that another destination will soon be awaiting me. I suppose this is the definition of wanderlust; always wanting to be elsewhere, the constant preoccupation with other lands, other cities, other experiences. If life is a journey, does this mean that I am unhappy with my own journey, since I am forever willing myself to new lands? Who knows? Not me. Especially at 5.30am on a drab Monday morning.

Back to basics; for now, Bucharest was my destination.

I had left home at just after 4am and there was the inevitable text to a few night owls in the US to let them know that I was “On The Road.”

“Jack Kerouacu.”

All of my goods and chattels had been forced rather strenuously into a 42cm x 30cm x 25cm Karrimor ruck-sac. It was the maximum size allowed for an item of hand luggage for my Wizz Air flight from Luton to Bucharest Coandi airport. In truth, my trusty camera and lenses took up around 40% of this space; there was no room for a pullover. I might be freezing in Bucharest, but at least I’d be able to record it all on film.

Stonehenge looked even more spooky than usual as I shot past it on the A303. I dropped into Fleet Services for a coffee. All was quiet. On the M25, I glanced across at Heathrow’s Terminal Five and, with memories of that building being the starting point of a trip to Philadelphia with my dear mother in 2010, came a cavalcade of yearnings to be elsewhere. That my craving for foreign lands has been partially-satiated by the international travels of Chelsea Football Club, of course, is one of the joys of my life. The trip to Bucharest would be my twenty-sixth Chelsea game in mainland Europe .

I reached Luton airport at 6.30am. On the bus from the long term car park to the small terminal building, with me unable to stifle the early-morning yawns, I spotted the first Chelsea fan of the trip (“face familiar, name unknown”) and I knew there would be more as the morning progressed.

It is one of the great annoyances of following Chelsea in European competitions that we always seem to get drawn against teams that we have already met. How is it possible for us to continually meet Porto, Valencia, Barcelona, Schalke, Juventus, Lazio et al? In this year’s CL Group Phase, UEFA had tucked us up even further; not only have we played all three group members before, but we only met Steaua and Basel last spring. Have they never heard of wanderlust, damn it?

At the gate, I noted a few Chelsea fans – FFNU – but then spotted a trio of very familiar faces; Rob, Callum and DJ. Here were three members of the very loyal band of Chelsea supporters who – quite literally – follow Chelsea over land and sea, and Bucharest. Only a couple of friends had travelled out to see us take on Steaua in the Europa League last March – I believe we only took around 200 to 300 – but their comments about the city made me choose Romania over Germany and Switzerland in 2013. Although a German trip is always brilliant, a previous visit to a grim Gelsenkirchen in 2007 easily dissuaded me. Basel? No. Bucharest it was.

The flight lasted around three hours; thankfully I was able to catch up on some sleep. The rest of the trip was spent chatting about various flights, travel options and prices of current trips and of previous escapades following Chelsea. There is no doubt that Chelsea supporters – like those of the other clubs in England who have been blessed with European competition – are masters in the art of winkling out the cheapest route from the UK to any given city in Europe. It seems that certain fans know the schedules of Ryanair, Easyjet, Wizz-Air and others off by heart. Often, routes are quite bizarre.

London to Berlin, then to Madrid.

London Gatwick to Bergamo, then to Bucharest, but returning via another airline via Vienna to London Heathrow.

London to Porto, then train to Lisbon, but back via a train to Faro then home.

All to save £20 here and £20 there.

Top marks to everyone. Top marks to the Chelsea Internationalists, the masters of budget air travel. In fact, among the talk of flight combinations and ridiculous routes, there is almost a hidden agenda to come up with the most tortuous itinerary of all, but only if a cash saving is to be had.

“Yeah, I travelled out on a flight to Paris for only £20, but I knew that there was a budget coach going to Milan every second Tuesday in the month for just £5. I hopped on that. From Milan, I caught a train to Como using my Italian mate’s rail season ticket and then cycled, like James Coburn in “The Great Escape,” over the border into Switzerland. Job done, son.”

The rumours were true; it was raining in Bucharest as our flight landed at 1.30pm. The airport looked bleak; tired concrete buildings and associated fittings. Rob and I managed to get ourselves on a bus into the city for a ridiculously cheap price. Patiently waiting on the bus, just arrived from Heathrow on a Tarom flight, were Alan, Gary, Tom and a few other familiar Chelsea fanatics. Good stuff. The bus ride in to the city reminded me of the journey into Moscow in 2008; rain beating down on the windows, slow-moving traffic, but vast warehouses, garages and superstores lining the road.

Carrefour, Ikea, Porsche, BMW, Harley Davidson.

We passed the Romanian version of the Arc de Triomph and continued along the main artery into the city. We alighted at the end of the line at Piata Unirii, the large central square, surrounded by large shops to one side, the hint of the old town to another, and the vast open space of the east-west Bulevardi Unirii to the south. It was teeming with rain. Tom, Alan and Gary made their way to their hotel in the old town, while I headed off in another direction, with my pronunciation of a street name drawing nothing but consternation from a local policeman.

I reached my hotel on Strada Mantuleasa at 3.30pm. On the twenty minute walk from Piata Unirii, the rain hadn’t stopped. It was time to have a shower, dry my clothes and take a power nap. It was going to be a long night ahead.

At 7pm, I met up with a work acquaintance, Elena, who I have been communicating with on email and the occasional phone call, for the past seven years. She works, just a few miles to the north, right next to the Dinamo Bucharest stadium in fact, for an office furniture company. We hopped next door in to the adjoining restaurant and spent an hour or so chatting about work, Bucharest, her personal family history under the old communist regime, and the particular circumstances that brought me to her home city on an autumnal day in 2013. It was, of course, fascinating to hear her speak of the old regime and, I am ashamed to say, made me realise how little I knew – or know now, even – of the countries in the former Eastern bloc and how they all existed before the walls came tumbling down, quite literally, in the late ‘eighties. Elena spoke of her parents who both worked at a factory making engines. I made the stupid mistake of asking the name of the company. Of course, there was no company; her parents were working for the state. In that exact moment, my mind did cartwheels attempting to understand what it must have been like in the old regime where poor productivity was hidden, where objectives and goals were masked in a cloud of bureaucracy and where the fear – in Romania especially, one of the most terrifying communist states – of being investigated by the state was omnipresent.

In truth, I could only imagine. And I was sad that I would just be brushing the surface of Bucharest on this trip. There was a long day ahead on the Tuesday, but – if the rain continued to fall – I wondered how much of the city I would actually manage to see.

At 8.15pm, Elena kindly deposited me on the eastern edge of the old town, with the flashing neon of the advertisements in Piata Unirii, a hundred yards to the south. Within a minute, I had stumbled upon Base Camp Bucharest 2013.

The “Old City” bar had been used by the Chelsea expeditionary force during the visit in 2012-2013. A return visit in 2013-2014 was a necessity. The owner, Cristian, had again decorated his bar with Chelsea flags and a few of his female friends were wearing blue Chelsea T-shirts. The girls weren’t working behind the bar; they just welcomed us in at the front door and posed for photographs.

Lovely jubbly.

Just inside the door, I soon stumbled into a bevy of good friends; the ever-present Alan and Gary, but also Rob, Tom and Pauline, everyone already deep into beer and vodka. They had been enjoying the warm welcome from the bar staff since around 4pm. The night was already rocking.

“Fasten your seatbelts, Chris, my son, this is going to be a good one.”

Within a few seconds, that Chelsea stalwart “The Liquidator” was booming throughout the long, narrow bar, deep in the heart of Bucharest’s old town; a cramped hotchpotch of cobbled streets, lined with bars, restaurants, ice-cream parlours and fast-food stalls.  Outside, the rain was falling and the streets were near-deserted. Inside, it was noisy and the songs continued.

“Stop dreaming of the quiet life, ‘cos it’s the one you’ll never know.”

There was talk of a myriad number of topics, but laughter was the one constant. The music pounded. At the opposite end of the bar, Chelsea fans in their ‘fifties – all FFNU – were stomping.

“We’re going down the pub.”

Tom soon acquired a navy blue cap from one of the local constabulary and flitted from friend to friend with the look of someone who was enjoying a second – or third or fourth – childhood. His face was a picture. The songs, from my youth, were continuing and we were shouting out the lyrics.

“Echo Beach, far away in time, Echo Beach far away in time.”

Goggles, one of the Fulham OB especially assigned to keep an eye on the Chelsea supporters on our European adventures, was in the bar, chatting to a few faces. What a crazy life for the Chelsea Internationalists.

“It’s just gone noon, half-past monsoon on the banks of the River Nile.”

My good mate Orlin – San Francisco via Sofia – soon arrived with three mates with ridiculously unpronounceable names and joined in the fun. In March, our support in Bucharest was bolstered by Chelsea fans from Sofia and Varna. Orlin told me that around sixty Chelsea fans from his home town of Sofia would be in town for Tuesday’s game.

“When I’m with you baby, I go out of my head.”

Out of nowhere, two Chelsea fans decided to do a streak through the bar.

“I am an anti-Christ, I am an anarchist.”

As the night rolled on, the local Ciuc beer (7 lei for a pint or around £1.30) gave way to vodka and Red Bull.

“Poor old Johnny Ray.”

The crowds grew and the singing increased.

“London calling to the faraway towns.”

Then, Alan and I camping it up good and proper.

“I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar.”

It was 1985 all over again. Rob, Gary and Alan then, predictably, hit the amaretto.

The crowds eventually began to drift away; maybe at 2.30am, maybe at 3am. Then a sudden influx of a few late guests and an impromptu song contest involving some very rare Chelsea songs. At around 3.45am, I teetered out of the bar, the rain still falling, and set off on a walk back to my hotel.

“Get to the main square, Chris, and then it’ll be easy.”

Oh boy.

After walking for around twenty minutes or so, I remember being tempted by an all-night petrol station on the opposite side of the road. My receipt for a sausage strudel indicates it was 4.12am. On exiting, my powers of self-navigation had evidently been upturned. I had no idea where I was and no idea of how I had approached the filling station. I was lost. In Bucharest. I yelled out a shriek of pain. I continued walking. The rain got worse. Passing traffic splashed rain water from the kerbside puddles onto my already soaked jeans. My socks were saturated. I shouted again.

“FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK.”

At a relatively busy road junction by a garage, I flagged down a yellow cab. I hopped inside. I mentioned the name of my hotel, but the cab driver looked befuddled. I tried to remember the name of the street. My mind was blank. There was a moment of silence. He looked at me. I looked at him. He spoke no English. I spoke no Romanian. This was ridiculous. I exited the cab and slammed the door behind me. For around twenty minutes, I sheltered in a bus shelter. I couldn’t have been wetter if someone had thrown me into a swimming pool. At last another cab; let’s try again. Thankfully, this cabbie – a far friendlier bloke – was equipped with GPS and the back-up of a tablet…he soon pumped in my hotel name. Thankfully, it registered.

“Strada Mantuleasa?”

“Yeah, that’s it!”

What relief.

The cab ride was just 20 lei – around £4 – so I couldn’t have been too far from the hotel; maybe a mile or so. At around 5.30am, I entered the foyer of the hotel; it had been an eventful – for the want of a better word – end to the night.

I slept like a baby, not waking until 11.45am. Miraculously, the ten beers and five vodkas (again the bar receipts tell a story) from the previous night had no effect. I had no hangover, nor the merest hint of one. It was the Miracle of Mantuleasa Street. I showered, checked out and…then what?

It was just after midday. The game was almost ten hours away. Despite no hangover, boy was I tired. Despite the lure of heading back to the Old City bar, I resisted. I wanted to see, at least, a little of the city. I walked a few blocks in search of a coffee house in which to shelter from the rain which was still falling. Not only is Bucharest devoid of bars, except in the old town, it is also deficient in cafes and restaurants. I walked along uneven pavements, with flagstones at every angle possible, avoiding further puddles (there are a lot of puddles in Bucharest) and was dismayed to witness only fast food outlets with no room to sit inside; just a serving counter onto the pavement.

“Bloody hell.”

From 2pm to 3.30pm, I sheltered in a “Subway.” The wind was howling outside. The trees which lined the street were being blown to the left and to the right. The rain – God, the rain – still fell. In truth, it reminded me of travels in distant cities in my youth when I had time to kill, little money, and when I waited for the next train connection – to Verona, to Stuttgart, to Genoa – in a local café and observed the locals. It was OK.

Then, typical me. I emptied the chest pocket of my still wet jacket; although it was rather sodden, there was the Bucharest city map that I had deposited before I set off the previous evening.

Oh boy.

If only I had remembered; my lonely traipsing of the streets of Bucharest would have not happened.

I growled.

I set off to take a few photographs of the Palace of the Parliament, the massive edifice constructed under the guidelines of the ruthless dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in the ‘eighties. The building is huge. I had to take some photographs of it while in Bucharest, if nothing else. Ceausescu, who was shot during the uprising in 1989, never lived to see it finally completed. It remains the largest civilian building in the World. At Piata Unirii, there was a feeling of complete bleakness. The wide boulevard to my left and to my right, and the wide open void of the square, just made me contemplate the absolute greyness of life in the old regime. I took a few atmospheric wide angle shots with my camera as the rain fell and cars flew past. Away to my left, the Palace beckoned me; I walked slowly towards it, the rain still falling. Although Bucharest was known as Little Paris in the inter-war years, with wide streets and pleasing architecture, it was clear to me that this was not one of Eastern Europe’s jewels. This was not Budapest, nor Prague, nor Krakow, each with charismatic architectural treasures and beauties. This was Bucharest, tarnished with the brush of communism and struggling to acclimatise to a new world.  I had noted a few ornate churches, but the city centre had shown little to charm me.

At the western end of Bulevardi Unirii stood the imposing monument to Ceausescu. Its subtle and delicate light brickwork belied the building’s dark secrets. I pointed my camera, shielding it from the rain, and snapped some photographs. I sheltered on the steps of an adjacent governmental building, under the yellow, red and blue of the Romanian flag and let my imagination run away with me for a few short moments; what secrets could these buildings tell? During the days of the communist bloc, my sole foray behind the iron curtain took place in 1976 when, on a family holiday to Italy, we paid a visit to some impressive caves in the former Yugoslavia. I remember my father informing me at the time that Yugoslavia was probably the most welcoming of communist states. Not so Romania under Ceausescu. A trip to Romania for football thirty years ago would not have been anything like a visit in 2013.

With that sobering thought, I headed back into the old town, where I knew that a warm welcome awaited me. At the bottom of Strada Selari, I sat in The Bankers pub for a while, but the place was empty. As I headed north, past more bars, Chelsea fans were conspicuous by their absence. I wondered just how many fans were in town.

At the top of the cobbled street, the Old City was overflowing with Chelsea fans. As so often happens on foreign trips, this was evidently “the” Chelsea pub. Inside, the place was rammed, and I sat quietly in a corner, happy to watch on as others continued on at the same pace as the previous night. The Bristol boys arrived. Orlin and the Bulgarians were over in the far corner. The five blue-clad Chelsea girls were again happy to pose with photographs. A TV crew were present and Pauline made a couple of appearances. One of the bar girls hopped up on to the bar and did an impromptu dance routine. The owner had clearly done his research; his CD of Chelsea songs even included the rarely heard Cup Final song from 2000 : –

“Now the blue tomorrow gets closer each day.
We will follow the Chelsea
Til our dying day.
Just look over your shoulder
See the army dressed in blue.
We’ll go where you go.
And fight every fight with you.”

There was talk of buses taking us over to the stadium from 7pm. The game was to be played at the National Arena, a new structure which hosted the 2012 Europa League Final. Steaua – the team of the army in the old regime – have their very own stadium to the west of the city. For big games, they decamp to the larger national stadium. I can remember the stadium’s predecessor which was typically named “August 23 Stadium” from an England game in 1979. I remember the stereotypical shallow banks of terracing, but especially the central platform, or loggia, where dignitaries watched the games. It was like nothing I had seen at a football stadium before or since.

Four buses took the Chelsea fans from the city centre out to the stadium at around 8.15pm. Our bus featured around twenty of the Bulgarian chapter; it was they alone who were singing on the way to the game. Everyone else was quite subdued; I guess we had seen it all before.

I commented to Alan : –

“I hope they are singing good things about us. Or, at least, bad things about Tottenham.”

We were deposited right outside the stadium. With the lights shining from underneath the roof, the new structure certainly looked impressive. Its main feature was the roof itself; hoisted high on supports, adding height to the structure from inside and out. We were, unbelievably, searched an incredible seven times, involving seven different people, on our way in to the stadium.

One – a ticket check.

Two – a full body tap down.

Three – a full body tap down and bag search.

Four – a check of our upper body.

Five – a check of our pockets.

Six – a check of our legs.

Seven – at the turnstile, a full body and bag search once more.

With the rain still falling, we just wanted to get inside the stadium. Although there was no unpleasantness from the police and the security, this was surely being overzealous? I was just glad I was allowed to take my camera inside. We assembled high on the upper tier, a little knot of Chelsea fans in the cavernous stadium.

If we had 200 at the game in March, I’d guess we had 400 at this one. The Bulgarians lead the chanting as the players went through their drills down below. In truth, I was still feeling the effects of my sightseeing; although my jacket was slowly drying out in the cold wind, my socks were still soaking. All around me, fellow fans stood, shuffling from one foot to the other in an attempt to keep warm. The crowd appeared quite sparse. The stadium only looked half-full. In March, Alan had said it was virtually a full house. We couldn’t work it out, although Alan mentioned that the price of tickets for the game in March was half the price of the 90 lei demanded for this one.

The local kick-off time was 9.45pm. The players took to the field, with the tarpaulin of the large roof keeping the night sky out of sight and giving the stadium a strangely surreal feel. The Chelsea players looked smart in the new white / white / blue.

At the northern end, many flags were constantly waved by one group of Steaua ultras in the lower tier. Down below us, another group of ultras were clapping and cheering throughout the game, with capos at the front leading the orchestration. The Bulgarians in our section taunted them. What pleasantries were exchanged is not known.

“Romanian cheese tastes sour and is overated.”

“That’s nothing; Bulgarian cheese tastes like my grandfather’s socks.”

Who knows?

This was clearly a “must win” game after our surprising defeat against Basel. Our early play, in which Andre Schurrle out on the left wing was heavily used, promised that this would be a good night of football. All of our possession was met with a wall of whistling from the home fans. After a few raids, we were all sad to see Fernando Torres replaced by Samuel Eto’o. We were unsure of his injury. A rare Steaua attack was thwarted. We opened the scoring on 19 minutes after another break from Schurrle, who passed to Eto’o. He lost control but Ramires was on hand to stab the ball home. The net bristled and the Chelsea fans cheered in relief rather than an outpouring of elation. Soon after, we sung “Jose Mourinho” and our manager, looking smart himself in trademark coat and scarf, waved back.  Our chances kept coming with the German Schurrle still standing out with his direct runs at his marker. Elsewhere in the midfield, Mata and Oscar kept probing away. Ramires and Lampard, playing deeper, were not afraid to support the forwards. There was little cheering or singing in the away section; the shuffling continued.

Cech saved well down below us, thwarting a cross shot with his left hand.

Just before the break, Mata played in Eto’o. We held our breath as he aimed. His shot was parried by the ‘keeper but the rebound struck the hapless Georgievski.

2-0 at the break. Easy.

During half-time I asked Alan if, during the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, he could ever imagine himself seeing Chelsea play in Bucharest twice within six months. He looked wistfully across at home fans in the other half of the stadium and smiled.

Both teams exchanged chances soon into the second-half, but we added a third goal when more diligent work from Schurrle on the left flank was rewarded when his pass found Oscar, who played in an advancing Ramires. His shot was struck hard past the home ‘keeper.

3-0. Cruising.

Juan Mata smacked a ball against the near post. The home fans’ whistling had now subsided. We were well on top. Some Chelsea fans left on the hour; the lure of a warm bar was too much. At the other end, Steaua’s Tanase struck at goal; Cech back peddled and flung his hand up to push the ball over the bar. We watched on, horrified, as he crashed into his left post. It looked quite horrific. He stayed down. After a few minutes of concern, he rose to his feet and we were mighty relieved.

Shots from Schurrle and Eto’o caused the Steaua ‘keeper to save again. In the last minute, substitute Willian was found by Eto’o and he set up Frank Lampard who calmly struck a low shot past a crowd of players in the box. The ball grazed the far post and crept in.

4-0.

More songs for Mourinho. He again waved.

Job most definitely done.

At the end of the game, long after the Chelsea players had applauded us as they had walked off, the home players, although clearly disconsolate, walked slowly right up to within yards of both of their ultra groups at opposite ends of the stadium and applauded them. I thought this was a lovely gesture. Even the Chelsea fans applauded the Steaua team off.

We feared that we would be kept inside for ages after the game, but the wait was not long. In fact, even the rain had stopped once we slowly exited. The buses were waiting for us. With a police escort, we were returned to the city centre. There was a mood of cool relief at the outcome of the game. A Chelsea fan from Abu Dhabi, in Romania especially for the game, chatted to us about his fanaticism for the team. He had been present at the game in Barcelona in 2012 too. His enthusiasm was heartening.

“It’s a religion” he exclaimed.

Chelsea truly is an international club these days; off it as well as on. I had inadvertently bumped into a lad from Sweden during the game too. England, Bulgaria, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates. Our appeal knows no bounds and no geographical boundary.

Truly over land and sea.

As my flight home was to take off at the ungodly hour of 6.15am, there was simply no point in paying for a second night in a hotel. I took a bus back to the airport at 1.30am, past the illuminated Arcul de Triumf, and waited patiently in the terminal building for the return to England.

At least I was dry.

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Tales From Fergie Town

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 5 May 2013.

Manchester is possibly my favourite musical city. I make no apologies for this. The Smiths and New Order are right up there in the upper echelons of any list of my most revered bands. Add in The Buzzcocks, a dash of Joy Division, plus a smattering of bands from the Madchester era – James, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets – and it’s a quite formidable selection. For some unfathomable reason, I was never in to the Stone Roses – I should be – or the more eclectic The Fall. Magazine was a good punk band, though. So, ahead of my trip to Manchester for our massive game with the newly-crowned Champions, I was well aware of the whole trip turning into a personal voyage into my musical history.

John Cooper Clarke, a native of Salford – that strange city within a city – rode the punk rollercoaster back in the late ‘seventies and early ‘eighties. He was the poet of punk, sporting big black-rimmed glasses and mountainous back-combed hair. I was aware of his stuff, but – like Mark E. Smith and The Fall – found it too difficult for my ears. I then saw him recite one of his most famous poems in the film “Control” and was taken aback at its style and resonance. For me, it summed up the greyness of Manchester in those days of unemployment, recession and urban blight.

“The bloody cops are bloody keen.
To bloody keep it bloody clean.
The bloody chief’s a bloody swine.
Who bloody draws a bloody line.
At bloody fun and bloody games.
The bloody kids he bloody blames.
Are nowhere to be bloody found.
Anywhere in chicken town.

The bloody scene is bloody sad.
The bloody news is bloody bad.
The bloody weed is bloody turf.
The bloody speed is bloody surf.
The bloody folks are bloody daft.
Don’t make me bloody laugh.
It bloody hurts to look around.
Everywhere in chicken town.
The bloody train is bloody late.
You bloody wait you bloody wait.
You’re bloody lost and bloody found.
Stuck in fcuking chicken town.

The bloody view is bloody vile.
For bloody miles and bloody miles.
The bloody babies bloody cry.
The bloody flowers bloody die.
The bloody food is bloody muck.
The bloody drains are bloody fcuked.
The colour scheme is bloody brown.
Everywhere in chicken town.

The bloody pubs are bloody dull.
The bloody clubs are bloody full.
Of bloody girls and bloody guys.
With bloody murder in their eyes.
A bloody bloke is bloody stabbed.
Waiting for a bloody cab.
You bloody stay at bloody home.
The bloody neighbours bloody moan,
Keep the bloody racket down.
This is bloody chicken town.

The bloody pies are bloody old.
The bloody chips are bloody cold.
The bloody beer is bloody flat.
The bloody flats have bloody rats.
The bloody clocks are bloody wrong.
The bloody days are bloody long.
It bloody gets you bloody down.
Evidently chicken town.
The bloody train is bloody late.
You bloody wait you bloody wait.
You’re bloody lost and bloody found.
Stuck in fcuking chicken town.”

Stirring stuff, eh?

“Evidently Chicken Town” was also used in a closing scene of an episode of The Sopranos.

I just love it.

United away is one of the games of the season. A trip to either Merseyside or Manchester always stirs the memories, evoking past trips, past matches, past battles. It is also a chance for me to observe how the other-half – the Northern half – live. There’s definitely a northern culture. And this has permeated to the football world over the years. I like to think that I might occasionally spot a couple of well-turned out old-school Perries from Crumpsall and Urmston, sporting Berghaus rain jackets, Paul & Shark pullovers and Adidas Trimm Trabs. What I usually end up with is a bus load of United divs from Cornwall, Belfast and Dublin wearing replica shirts, friendship scarves and gormless Megastore expressions. I remember reading a United fanzine a few years ago in which one of the regular contributors lamented the passing of legions of well-turned out United supporters; he always used to stand on the forecourt and size up the away fans to see if any new “look” was on the horizon. A new label here, a new pair of trainers there. These days, seeing a new “North Face” jacket is the best we can hope for.

So, United Away. I wanted to make sure I was suitably attired. A Lacoste polo – as old school as it gets – was chosen along with some Levis and a new pair of white and midnight blue canvas Nikes, which I had been saving for an important occasion. Should we win – I was obviously thinking ahead – they might make the trip to The Netherlands. I threw a navy Lacoste rain jacket into the back seat of my car, remembering that the weather forecast was of typical grey clouds in Mancunia, and set off at 10am.

The kick-off was at 4pm and I wanted to be parked-up at my usual place by 2pm. I guzzled a can of Starbuck’s double espresso and pointed my car north, way north. The Depeche Mode CD from Thursday night was still in situ and this took me into Bristol. A Morrissey album accompanied me further north, past the green fields of Gloucestershire and then Worcestershire. I stopped at Strensham and, among the AON clad hordes of “Uni’ed” fans from the West Country, I walked past a chap wearing a classic green “The Queen Is Dead” T-shirt. I had a little smile to myself.

I had only just recently updated my “Facebook” cover with a photograph of myself outside the iconic Salford Lads Club, which I visited before a game at Old Trafford a few years back.

“The Queen Is Dead Boys And It’s So Lonely On A Limb.”

The Buzzcocks accompanied me as I headed north past Stoke-on-Trent. The vibe was good; I was losing myself in the moment, not thinking too much about the game – that would take care of itself – but just kicking back and loving the buzz of travel in itself.

“It’s what I do.”

At Sandbach, it was time for a McDonalds coffee. In the service station, I chatted to The Bristol Four. Talk was of travel to Amsterdam but also of the day’s game. I wasn’t sure of our chances. I felt, for some reason, that the amount of games that we have played this season could haunt us and United could “dick” us. Kev called it right though; it all depended on United’s mind-set really. If they weren’t focused and fired up, we could steal a win. No doubts.

“OK, safe travels, see you in there.”

For a change, I drove in to Manchester via Altrincham and Sale on the A56, rather than navigate the motorway past Manchester Airport. Altrincham were once one of the biggest non-league teams in the country, but the automatic promotion process treated them unkindly. In the time of their pomp, non-league teams needed to be voted in to the Football League. By the time of promotion from the conference to the league eventually came in 1987, Altrincham’s time had passed. Cult Northern comedian Frank Sidebottom – he of the papier mache head – was the Robins’ most famous fan. Sale was the home town of a college acquaintance – Rick – who was both a United fan and Smiths aficionado. His claim to fame was sleeping through the infamous battle between United and West Ham fans on the English cross-channel ferry – the Koningen Beatrix – way back in 1986.

The A56 sped me through the leafy suburbs of Sale and I was soon in familiar territory. The floodlights of the Lancashire cricket ground were spotted and I had a glorious flashback. I saw Morrissey in 2004 here, my favourite gig of all time.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xXwIOvICyVs

Outside the chip shops at the intersection of the Chester Road and Sir Matt Busby Way, The Bristol Four were tucking into chips, peas and gravy. I quickly zipped around to the base of the North Stand – renamed the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand – and took a couple of photos. The statue is rather tucked away, far from the Munich clock, the Munich memorial, the Sir Matt Busby statue and the United Trinity statue. Make no mistakes, though, this is still Fergie Town. The Mancunian lead grey skies were reflected behind him in the panels of the stand.

It was 3.15pm and time to head inside. I met up with a few of the boys – The Bristol Four, Alan, Gary and Alan – and had a couple of bottles of Singha. With four league games left, two wins would effectively be enough to secure a top four finish. If we finished level on points with Tottenham, our far superior goal difference would see us through.

In such circumstances, Spurs fans would be quite baleful I am sure.

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

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

As sad a sight as this was, I spoke to Alan about a recently publicised article by Manchester police in which it stated that hundreds, if not thousands, of seats at Old Trafford are empty for games this season. The new habit of clubs announcing tickets sold, and not simply those attending, has meant that games are generally several thousand below capacity. This happens at The Bridge too. Soon into the game, I spotted hundreds of empty seats dotted around all areas of Old Trafford.

I scanned the teams. Robin van Persie was playing but no Chicarito, Wellbeck or Rooney to support him. There was no Rio Ferdinand. We were without John Terry, but Ba was in, playing ahead of Moses, Mata and Oscar. Lampard was paired with Ramires. Along the backline, we looked strong. I hoped for a strong performance from Luiz alongside Brana. It was fantastic to have Ash back.

This was our fifth game against United this season; hell, it was only eight weeks since our amazing second-half comeback at the same stadium in the F.A. Cup. It seemed like five minutes ago.

We began the game well. Within the first fifteen or so minutes, we had amassed four worthwhile attempts on the United goal. The best effort was a delicate effort from Oscar, in the inside-right channel, which Lindegaard touched onto his near post. United seemed to be very lethargic. Cech was only called into action sporadically. Mata cut inside and passed back to Moses, but his shot was high and wasteful.

The Chelsea choir, split into two sections, were in very fine voice. Mixed in with songs about Munich and Amsterdam were ditties about Robin van Persie and several Coronation Street actors who have recently come under scrutiny for the most horrible of reasons.

“Ken Barlow – He’s One Of Your Own.”

A Ba shot fizzed past the far post and Cech was called in to action to swat away a number of crosses from wide positions. This, however, was not the United of old. They seemed to be a shadow of themselves. It was a full thirty minutes into the game that I honestly heard a loud chant from the Stretford End. The best chance of the entire half, though, went United’s way. An inch-perfect pass from the artisan Giggs found the forward run of van Persie. His delicate touch, with what appeared to be the side of his left boot, steered the ball oh-so close, but just evaded the goal.

We heaved a massive sigh of relief.

A late effort from Oscar gave us hope for the second-half.

Downstairs at the break, we agreed that we would be happy with a point, just to keep the momentum going, just to keep the pressure on Arsenal and Tottenham, who had both managed two narrow 1-0 wins on the Saturday.

We again began brightly and, every time that the ball was played up to our attackers, I lifted my trusty camera to my eyes. I was therefore able to see, through my zoom lens, the tug on David Luiz’ shirt by Ryan Giggs. Alas, no foul – penalty or otherwise – was called. The game was a strange one. We enjoyed most of the ball and United’s players seemed wasteful; poor control here, a miss-placed pass there.

Phil Jones broke through our defence, sprinting forward like a gazelle, but his final ball was neither a shot nor a cross to the waiting van Persie. How often have we seen the prolific Dutchman slam those in? The ball dropped past the far post and out of play.

Tombsie was in loud and rumbustious form in the row in front of Alan, Gary and myself.

“Fourteen days to go. Fourteen days of Rafa. Fourteen days of that fat cnut. Fourteen days of Rafa.”

Buttner and Rooney entered the fray, but Benitez, typically, did not fancy changing our personnel. As the game drifted on with chances at a premium, some of our players seemed to tire. We needed fresh legs. Eventually, Benitez made a change, replacing Moses with Fernando Torres, who drew a few boos from the denizens in the United section of the East Stand. Lampard played in a superb ball towards Juan Mata, but he was just unable to get his head to the ball. Instead, it hit Jones and went off for a corner. Three corners in succession then ensued, but we never troubled the United ‘keeper.

A frustrating free-kick from David Luiz was sent wide and we thought that might be our last chance. Tombsie, plus a few others, surprisingly left.

With the game fizzling out, Ramires broke away from the halfway line. I caught his run on film. I also caught his delicate back-heel into the path of Oscar, who had arrived just behind him. We had the extra man. Oscar played in Juan Mata out wide. As our little Spanish magician struck, I clicked my camera. It is very likely that I still had my camera up to my eye when I saw the ball almost apologetically stumble in to the goal off the far post.

The Chelsea section roared.

YEEEEEEES!

I glanced at Alan, who was screaming, his cheeks red, his face ecstatic. I spotted Juan Mata sprint down to the corner flag. It was his moment to tease, torment and tantalise. I clicked away…I was surprisingly cool. After taking around ten photos, my time had come. I clambered onto the seat in front and screamed.

YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES! GET IN!

That was it. It was time for some bombastic, triumphant chanting.

“Amsterdam. Amsterdam. We Are Coming.
Amsterdam. Amsterdam. I Pray.
Amsterdam. Amsterdam. We Are Coming.
We Are Coming In The Month Of May.”

Our battle song of 2013.

The Chelsea fans around me were full of smiles and joy and I stood on the seat in front for the next few minutes. I was only vaguely aware of the late red card for Raphael as I was still full of song. I felt my throat getting sore, but this was no time to relent.

“Champions Of Europe. We Know What We Are.”

Despite a few last-ditch United chances, we held on. This was my eighteenth visit to Old Trafford with Chelsea and only the fifth victory. It wasn’t comparable to the pivotal win in 2009-2010, but it was a close second.

I raced back to the waiting car with the United fans moaning away all around me. I listened to “606” on the drive through Sale and Altrincham and Dave Johnstone’s voice was the sole Chelsea voice to be heard. Many United fans were phoning in. A couple of Spurs fans too.

They weren’t happy.

How dare “United” lose a match!

To be honest, I could hardly believe my ears at the ruthlessness of some Manchester United fans. They were irate with Ferguson for playing a second-rate team (I hadn’t noticed) and one chap was so fed up with Fergie’s dictatorial nature that he wasn’t renewing his season ticket next year.

Oh boy.

I drove on. Thankfully, the traffic was remarkably light for a Manchester United home game. I passed a coach with a “Surrey Reds” flag flying in the back seat. I again chuckled to myself.

“Enjoy your trip home, boys. Enjoy your United bedspreads, United fridge magnets, United alarm clocks and United pencil cases.”

I eventually reached home at 10pm, just in time to see the highlights of the game on “MOTD2.”

It had turned out to be quite a day following in the footsteps of the team. After our spirited draw at Old Trafford on Sunday 10 March 2013 and our win at Old Trafford on Sunday 5 May 2013, I was more than happy for every day to be like Sundays like these.

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