Tales From A Must-Win Game

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 2 October 2021.

It had not been a great five days. A 0-1 home defeat against Manchester City on the Saturday was followed by a 0-1 away loss at Juventus on the Wednesday. There was much introspection and self-assessment. The second-half at Tottenham suddenly felt a long time ago. Were we not as good as we had thought after we bounced along the High Road? We weren’t wholly sure. And although the two defeats were not thumpings – far from it – they were worrying enough. We suddenly looked an average team – “bang average” as the football chatters would have it – and we needed some sort of salvation against the Saints of Southampton.

There was one phrase that was surely being used throughout the various Chelsea nations.

Chris, England : “This is a must-win game.”

Boomer, Scotland : “Fucking must-win, game, no?”

Kev, Wales : “Must-win game, this.”

Russ, Australia : “Must-win game. Fackinell, mate.”

John, USA : “This is a freaking must-win game.”

Leigh-Anne, Canada : “Must-win, game, eh?”

I had returned from a sensational four days in Turin at around 9pm on the Friday night. At 5.30am, I was up and ready for the next chapter of the season. I called for PD at 7am and Parky at just before 7.30am. It felt odd to be driving east on the A303 and then the M3 just twelve hours after I had been heading in the opposite direction. To be honest, my head was full of Turin, and this just seemed like “The Italian Job, Part Two.” With no fuel drama on this occasion, I was parked up at around 10am. While my co-supporters made a bee-line for “The Eight Bells” I spent a little time at Stamford Bridge, chatting to a few acquaintances and sorting out something at the box office.

At around midday, I met up with PD and Parky in the tiny interior of the best pub in Fulham. We had a typical pre-match. We were joined by friends from near – Ray, Watford – and far – Courtney, Chicago. I first bumped into Ray, who was meeting a former work colleague, at the Rapid friendly in Vienna in 2016. I had never met Courtney before, but he had been reading this blog, the fool, for a while and fancied meeting up for a chin-wag. It was good to see them both.

Courtney was “fresh meat” for PD and Parky who were full of tales of Chelsea’s far-from pristine past, and there was even a tale of a more modern, ahem, bout of boisterousness at Arsenal from a few years ago. There was a bit of rough and tumble at Arsenal before our 1-0 win there in early 2016 and Parky was nowhere to be seen throughout the first-half. During the half-time break, he showed up in the away seats, alongside Al, Gal and myself, but with an ear heavily bandaged.

“Fackinell. He looked Vincent Van Gogh.”

Courtney laughed.

“Anyway, do you fancy a beer, Parky.”

“No. I’ve got one ‘ere.”

Boom.

We were inside Stamford Bridge in good time once again. The three thousand away fans were already settled into the away section, and this already had the feel of a good old-fashioned football Saturday. The pleasant weather of late was now replaced with grey clouds and rain. It had the air of a traditional autumnal football game. Some would say “run of the mill” but I was pleasantly excited as the minutes clicked towards the old-fashioned kick-off time of three o’clock.

Blur’s “Park Life” got the juices flowing further as it was aired with ten minutes to go.

“All the people. So many people.”

It just seemed to add to the air of anticipation.

The teams entered. There was a minute of applause in memory of one of England’s 1966 winners, the recently deceased Roger Hunt.

RIP.

The rain was falling as I checked the Chelsea team.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – Chilwell

Werner – Lukaku – Hudson-Odoi

In Thursday’s “La Gazzetta”, Mateo Kovacic was judged to have been our best player on the night against Juventus, scoring a 6.5 mark out of 10. Federico Chiesa was quite rightly judged to be Juve’s star performer with a justifiably fine 8.5. Most of Chelsea’s troops scored 5 and 5.5. It was a fair summary to be honest. Against Southampton, we needed a few players to score 7 and 8 or more. But our opposition would be no mugs. They still boasted the Munich man Oriol Romeu but also the new acquisition Tino Livramento.

Martin Atkinson blew his whistle and the game began.

The malaise in our midst seemed to have been exorcised after only a few minutes of play. We started very well, brightly probing away in all areas of the pitch.

After just nine minutes, a corner from deep in Parkyville – near where Courtney was watching – was taken by Ben Chilwell. It swing in and reached the leap of Ruben Loftus-Cheek at the edge of the six-yard box. His flick on bounced down and Trevoh Chalobah stooped at the far post to head it home. There was a roar from the Chelsea faithful – “back on track” – as the scorer ran over to the other corner flag, sliding on his knees, triumphant.

“Nice one, Clever Trevoh” and I suddenly realised that Clive, sitting alongside me, deserved an assist for this goal. He had just been mentioning a concert coming up involving Ian Dury’s son Baxter.

“Knock me down with a feather.

Clever Trevor.”

One-nil to Chelsea and everything was alright in the world again.

We attacked with pace, and found space, but it certainly helped that the away team were happy to attack us when they could. This opened up the game and we fully exploited the spaces to be found in their defensive third. It was already proving to be an entertaining game. In their most fruitful attack, the trusted boot of James Ward-Prowse sent a shot narrowly wide.

A peach of a volley from our Ruben went narrowly wide too.

Next up, Ben Chilwell advanced but a shot was blocked.

“Alonso would’ve volleyed that.”

But Saints were not playing dead, and Theo Walcott should have finished with a goal but his header was wide. The away fans were not particularly loud but their “Oh When The Saints” was a constant backdrop in the first half of the first half.

Antonio Rudiger embarked on a typically spirited dribble up through the inside left channel, and players backed off. He shaped to shoot, but instead played in Lukaku with a deft pass. The striker turned it in. I celebrated for a nano-second but soon saw the raised yellow flag in front of the West Lower.

Bollocks.

I loved the way that Ruben was playing. Strong, determined and running in straight lines, how old-fashioned. Long may he flourish.

With four minutes of the first-half remaining, the ball was switched from one side of the box to the other. Near the goal-line, Callum Hudson-Odoi took his time to review his options. A fine scooped cross easily found the leap of the often lambasted Timo Werner. His leap was clean, as was his header from close-in.

Get in.

At last a goal for the under-fire German. How he celebrated. How we celebrated. Two-up, happy days. But…there is often a but these days. There seemed to be a delay. To our obvious dismay the TV screen signalled “VAR Review : Possible Foul Play.”

Who? What? Where? When? Why?

Not only was there no recollection of a foul in the build-up to the goal, the decision took a while to come through.

No goal.

Boos. Lots of them. An incandescent Tuchel was booked.

Bollocks.

It transpired that Dave had committed a foul on a boy wearing an Athletic Bilbao striped shirt when he was a mere twelve years old, thus rendering Timo’s goal illegal.

Oh boy.

This last action spoiled the first-half, but there was much to admire. Chalobah looked in fine form, strong in possession, and positive when under pressure. Loftus-Cheek was a lovely revelation. We hoped for further dominance in the second period.

We began well enough with the honest endeavour of Timo the highlight. But then we seemed to fall apart a little. I found myself thinking “this isn’t joined up” just as Clive spoke about things being “disjointed.”

On the hour, a terrible lunge by Chilwell on Livramento inside the box gave Atkinson the easiest of decisions.

“Nailed on penalty. What was he thinking?”

Ward-Prowse tucked the ball in.

Bollocks.

Tuchel exchanged Mason Mount for the disappointing Hudson-Odoi. There was a slight improvement, but only just. We stumbled along and Southampton looked a little stronger.

“We could lose this.”

Another half-chance for Werner.

Jorginho for Kovacic.

With the substitute trying to scoop the ball out to Rudiger after a Mendy faux-pas, he was brought to the ground by the scorer Ward-Prowse. The Italian seemed to make the most of it to my eye. Atkinson waved a yellow at the Southampton midfielder, but then VAR wriggled its way into the game again. Another delay. A few people chanted “VAR.”

“I ain’t cheering if this is a red. Looked like Jorginho went down too easily to me. Bloody VAR.”

We waited and waited.

Red.

I didn’t cheer.

The rain was falling heavily. The stadium had a typical autumnal vibe.

“Don’t fancy the walk back to the car, PD.”

Chelsea, maybe seizing the advantage now, suddenly looked stronger.

Barkley for Loftus-Cheek, who had tired in the second-half.

Chelsea dominated again now, and a sublime lofted pass that split the defence from the last substitute Barkley out to the raiding Azpilicueta was simply sublime. A first time cross from Dave picked out the run from Werner, who guided the ball past McCarthy in the Saints goal.

Get in.

“WHATAFUCKINGGOAL.”

The Bridge erupted. A slide from Timo this time. He was then mobbed justifiably, by his team mates.

Superb.

There was time for a crazy denouement. Sustained Chelsea pressure in the Southampton box resulted in the goal frame being clipped not once but twice in quick succession, by Lukaku and Azpilicueta, and the crowd were quickly into convulsed with frustration. The loose ball broke to Chilwell, the left-back. He swiped at the ball as it sat up nicely for him. The goal bound shot looked perfect. McCarthy clawed at it, but from my viewpoint, it looked like it had crossed the line.

Goal Line Technology spoke : goal.

Yes!

To Clive : “Alonso would’ve volleyed that.”

The players celebrated wildly down below us.

Chelsea 3 Southampton 1.

Beautiful.

The Saints had been beaten in the October rain.

This indeed was a lovely, action-packed game of football. VAR had been involved, never a good thing in my mind, and had annoyed most of the fans present. But we came away with three points, and three points that put us top of the pile once more. However, our joy was about to be clipped.

Downstairs, my good friend Rob approached me. I had seen him ever so briefly before the game. But he spoke to me in greater depth now.

His face was red.

“Just to let you know. My Mum passed away today. I saw her this morning in the home. The last words I said to her were “I am off to see Chelsea now” but I took a ‘phone call from the home on the way here.”

I gave Rob a big hug. What words are of use at a time like this? It was a terrible end to an otherwise fine day.

“It’s weird because my first ever game at Chelsea was a 3-1 win over Southampton.”

I wished Rob well and I sent him a little text message later in the evening.

We got drenched on the walk back to the waiting car – soaked, absolutely soaked – but that seemed irrelevant.

Betty Luxford RIP.

Tales From Three Stadia In Turin / Racconti Da Tre Stadi Di Torino

Juventus vs. Chelsea : 29 September 2021.

Are you ready to go to the match with me?

“Let’s go. Andiamo!”

It was just after four o’clock. This was a full five hours before the Juventus vs. Chelsea game was due to start at the Allianz Stadium in Continassa to the north of Turin’s city centre. But I was heading south. I had decided that I would undertake a magical mystery tour of the city’s footballing past before our second Champions League game of the autumn. I was ready to immerse myself once more in the city’s footballing heritage and in my football history too. I had sorted out the timings. I was sure it would all work itself out. I would have five hours to soak myself inside Turin’s story.

I was ready.

There was no need for a jacket or top. The weather in the Northern Italian city had been exemplary, a surprising antidote to the increasingly changeable weather back home. I set off out into the warm afternoon wearing the football staples of a polo, a pair of jeans and trainers. In my camera bag, in addition to my Canon SLR and lenses, was the small Sony camera that I had purchased specifically for Porto in May, just in case the stewards at the Juventus stadium were overzealous and would decide that my long lenses were unable to be taken inside. Also inside the bag was my passport, my match ticket and my proof of two vaccinations against COVID19.

My hotel was tucked into the narrow grid of streets to the immediate south and east of Turin’s Porta Nuova train station, and I walked a few hundred yards to the Marconi tube station. The city’s one tube line would serve me well. I caught the train to Lingotto, the site of the famous old Fiat factory with its test-track on the roof, so memorably featured in the wonderful “The Italian Job” from 1969. On my last visit to Turin in 2012, I had enjoyed a very fine meal at the rather posh restaurant on the roof terrace, and had walked around the test-track, a life-time wish fulfilled.

Lingotto was the nearest metro station to my first footballing port of call; Stadio Filadelfia which was around a mile or so to the west. However, when I checked the quickest way to reach this famous old stadium, I was mortified to see that there was no quick walking route from Lingotto.

Bollocks.

It was perhaps typical that my plans had quickly taken a turn for the worse. In the build-up to this away game, there had been much anxiety as I struggled to come to terms with what exactly I needed to do to get myself to Italy. There had been tests, forms, emails, pdf attachments, vouchers, and stress at every turn. For example, when I sat down to take my “pre-flight” lateral flow test at home on the preceding Sunday, I discovered that the liquid within the vial had leaked in transit and so I had to use the kit intended to be used in Turin for my flight home. This would mean that I would need to locate a chemist’s near my hotel to take my second test. What a palaver. Even on the seemingly straightforward drive from deepest Somerset to Stansted in the small hours of Tuesday, there was extra worry. With many garages short of fuel, I became obsessed at how fast my fuel gauge was fading. I was sure that I was OK for the trip to Stansted, but I needed to fill the car with petrol in readiness for my return trip on Friday evening. Four filling stations on the A303 had no fuel. Thankfully, Fleet Services on the M3 were open and fully stocked. There was a heavy sigh of relief. With a section of the M25 closed, I then ludicrously spent twenty minutes following diversion signs that then deposited me back to where I had left the M25 and I found myself heading west and not east. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Thankfully, I arrived at my pre-booked parking spot bang on my allotted start time of 4.45am.

Phew.

Undeterred, I returned to the Lingotto subway station and quickly took a train north – retracing my very recent steps – to Carducci Molinette. From here, the stadium was around a twenty-five-minute walk away. I made haste and sped westwards. My route took me over a wide bridge that rose over the train tracks into the city’s main station.

It was along these very tracks that I would have travelled on my inaugural visit to Turin in November 1987, the city bathed in a grey mist that would not disappear all day. I remember sitting alone in the great hall of the main train station and pinning some British football badges onto a board that I had constructed at home prior to my latest Inter-Railing extravaganza. I had bought several hundred football badges from a company in Blackburn and aimed to sell as many as I could at games in Italy and Germany to help finance my travels in Europe. The Juventus vs. Panathinaikos UEFA Cup game later that evening would be my first opportunity to test the water. I had high hopes for this venture, and was equally as excited about seeing Juve, my favourite European team, for the first time.

Why Juve? A quick re-cap. They were the very first “foreign” team that I remembered seeing on TV, a European Cup game in exotic Turin against Derby County in April 1973. I made friends with Mario on an Italian beach in 1975; a Juventus fan, I had found a kindred spirit. In 1981, at the same beach resort, I met his friend Tullio, also a Juve fan. We have been friends ever since. I last saw Mario in that home town in 2019. I last saw Tullio in London in 2018. But these are just the essentials. Our three lives have intertwined for decades now.

As I walked south on Via Giordano Bruno, I stopped at a small shop to buy a “Coke” as my throat was parched. The previous day had been a long one; up at midnight, a flight at 6.45am, a tiring walk from Porta Sousa train station to my hotel, and then two spells of drinking, the second one long into the night with friends old and new at “The Huntsman” on the main drag. I was awake, in total, for around twenty-five hours. The “Coke” gave me just the kick I needed as I approached Stadio Filadelfia.

This stadium was the home of the all-conquering Torino team of the 1940’s, Il Grande Torino, who were so cruelly killed in the Superga air disaster of 4 May 1949. Growing up in England, I had heard Superga mentioned many times. At first I presumed that Superga was a small town near Turin where the plane, returning from a friendly in Lisbon, had crashed. Only later did I realise that Superga was a hill right on the eastern edge of the city. I then, with a mixture of amazement and horror, realised that the plane had crashed into the rear of a basilica perched right on top of that hill.

I always say it was akin to the successful Arsenal team of the ‘thirties crashing into Big Ben.

On the bus from the Turin airport at Caselle on Tuesday morning, I was telling this story to Pete, who along with my great pal Alan (and a host of other familiar Chelsea faces including a fanzine editor, an erstwhile Chelsea media man, a former Headhunter and a porn star) had been on the same Ryanair flight as myself. Just as I mentioned Superga – “you probably can’t see it in this haze” – Pete immediately spotted it away in the distance.

“Is that it?”

Indeed, it was.

As I approached the stadium, which has recently been painstakingly updated after decades of neglect, the memories of a previous visit to Turin came flooding back. In May 1992, three college friends – Pete, Ian, Trev – and I drove through France to attend a Juventus vs. Sampdoria game at Stadio Delle Alpi. On the day after the game, we drove up to Superga on the forty-third anniversary of the crash. We spent some time there. I remember I took my father’s new, and huge, camcorder on this trip and I shot a few segments of our visit. After, we drove down into Turin and parked up outside Stadio Filadelfia and hoped that we could peek inside. In 1992, the terracing on three sides were still intact, if very overgrown. The old main stand was held up with scaffolding. But we were able to walk onto the famous pitch and we even found a football to kick around for a few joyful minutes. The goal frames were still intact. Goals were scored at La Filadelfia. What fun. We then sat on the east terrace in quiet contemplation; Superga in another haze in the distance, the old Fiat factory nearby, the stadium still surrounded by tight working class flats on three of its sides. I imagined the roar of the crowd in those halcyon days. We took it all in.

Then, out of nowhere, we spotted two middle-aged women appear on the far side underneath the faded burgundy of the antiquated main stand. They were carrying two wreaths, and strode slowly on to the pitch, before stopping at the centre-circle to place the flowers on the turf.

It remains one of my most special football memories.

Torino played at Stadio Filadelfia from 1926 to 1960 and then shared the larger Stadio Communale with Juventus from 1961 to 1990. For many years, as the two teams hopped around stadia in the city, it was hoped that Torino would eventually return to their spiritual home. A while back, I was truly saddened to see it was in a very poor condition. So imagine my elation when I recently found out that a startling metamorphosis has taken place. A new main stand has been constructed, and a new pitch has been sewn. It now houses 4,000, and in addition to housing the club HQ, it also hosts the club museum and the team’s youth teams play games on this most sacred of sites.

As I circumnavigated the stadium, I remembered how decrepit the place had become. Its resurgence since 2015 has been sensational. I chatted to a Toro fan as I walked around and took some photographs. He was even wearing a burgundy – officially pomegranate – T-shirt and I thought to myself –

“You can’t get much more Toro than that.”

There is another Torino story, and one that tends to give the city an air of sadness in terms of football, and specifically with regards to the Torino club. I recently read the excellent “Calcio” book by John Foot. One chapter concerned the life and subsequent death of the Torino player, a real maverick, called Gigi Meroni. He joined Torino in 1964 and soon became the idol of the team’s supporters. A skilful and artistic ball-player in the style of George Best – a flamboyant playboy off the pitch, much admired by both sexes – he was out with a team mate after a Torino home game in 1967. Crossing the road near his flat on Corso Re Umberto, he was hit by two cars. He sadly died later in hospital. Bizarrely, the driver of the first car lived thirteen doors down from Meroni on that very street, and idolised Meroni, even adopting the same hairstyle. Over 20,000 people attended the funeral. In a bizarre twist, in 2000 the Torino club appointed a new president; a native of Turin, an executive at Fiat. His name was Attilio Romero, who just happened to be the driver of the first car that had hit Meroni in 1967. On my walk to my hotel on the previous day, I had stopped by the memorial on Corso Re Umberto to pay my respects. With the Juventus tragedy at Heysel haunting many in the city, Turin certainly has its share of sadness.

It was approaching 5pm now and I walked a few blocks west. Next up was Stadio Olimpico, formerly Stadio Communale, and the current home of Torino. The two stadia are only a quarter of a mile apart. I walked past a bar where two friends and I had visited in 1989. This was another trip into Turin for a Juventus game with college friends. We caught a bus down to have a mosey around the stadium on a sunny Saturday morning before the game with Fiorentina on the Sunday and spent a couple of hours chatting and drinking and basically enjoying each other’s company. I was twenty-three, we had just won the Second Division Championship, and I was off to the US in the September. At the time, it seemed like a dream weekend in the middle of a dream summer, and it does even more so now. Bob was Leeds, Pete was Newcastle, I was Chelsea. But for that weekend we were all Juventus. I remember we all bought Juventus polos in the ridiculously small Juve store within a central department store.

Memories were jumping around inside my head now. I walked along Via Filadelfia and the years evaporated.

On my first visit in 1987, I arrived outside the home turnstiles as thousands of Juventus fans were singing and chanting a full three hours before they made their way inside the preferred home end of the Curva Filadelfia. I set up shop outside and sold around thirty badges – Chelsea and Liverpool the best sellers – before then plotting up outside the Curva Maratona, selling a few more, then heading inside to see Ian Rush and Juventus defeat Panathinaikos 3-2, but sadly get eliminated due to away goals. I remember the pink flares before the game, I remember the noise of the passionate bianconeri, I remember I was positioned in the very back row of the Maratona, right next to the main stand, Gianni Agnelli and all. Antonio Conte’s right-hand man Angelo Alessio scored one of the three Juventus goals that evening. It is a night I will never forget, my first European night, and my first visit to the home of Juventus, a sprawling stadium with those iconic curved goal stanchions, and the team with those baggy white shorts.

I remembered March 1988 and the visit of Internazionale, their masses of fans packing out the Maratona, while I proudly stood on the Filadelfia for the first time. Two banners in the Maratona : “WIN FOR US” and “RUSH – YOUR WIFE IS FUCKING.” Juve won that game 1-0 with a Marino Magrin penalty.

A visit in November 1988, my first flight into Europe for football, and I watched with my friend Tullio on the distinti as Napoli – with Diego Maradona at the very heart of its team in light blue shirts – defeated Juventus by the ridiculous score of 5-3. Tullio, aware that his Napoli friend Giorgio was in the Maratona, memorably wanted to leave at half-time when the visitors were already 3-1 up.

The game against Fiorentina in 1989, and the memory of piles and piles of the magazine “Guerin Sportivo” lying at the base of the Curva Filedelfia, intended to be claimed by home fans and then torn up as the teams entered the pitch. Instead, I gathered three different copies to take away from the game and to add to my collection. In those days, I would often buy “La Gazzetta” in Bath or “Guerin Sportivo” in London to keep up-to-date with Italian football. In 1988/89, I could probably rattle off most starting elevens of the dominant teams in Italy. In 2021/22, I struggle with the starting elevens of the main English teams.

I guess I have seen too much.

Also from that game, Roberto Baggio, of Fiorentina, getting sent-off in a 1-1 draw, but also the 2,000 strong visiting Fiorentina fans leaving early, possibly to avoid an ambush or perhaps to carry out an ambush en route back to the main station.

As with the scene that greeted me in 1987, there was masses of graffiti adorning the wall opposite the turnstiles. In 2021, all football related, and undoubtedly inflammatory against certain teams. In 1987, graffiti of a more political nature; the names Pinochet and Hess hinted at the rumoured right-wing bias of some dominant Juve supporter groups.  The old adage was Juve, Lazio and Inter right, Torino, Roma and Milan left though those rules seem to have diluted and changed in the subsequent years.

I turned the corner and peaked inside at the main stand. From our 1992 visit, I remember the four of us had sidled into the Stadio Communale unhindered – our version of “The Italian Job” – and had scrambled over to the main stand as easy as you like. The stadium was deserted, it was used occasionally for athletics, and I remember I even spent a few minutes sitting in the old directors’ box, possibly the seat used by either the owner Agnelli or the president Giampiero Boniperti.

As I turned north, with the turnstiles to the Curva Maratona in view, I remembered my very last visit to the stadium, in March 2009, with Chelsea. As you can imagine, what with my Juventus side-line, the meeting of the two teams was pretty much my dream tie. I remember I had gambled on Bristol to Turin flights – £37 – and I well remember my old boss coming into a meeting one morning to tell me “Juventus” when the draw was made. My gamble had paid off. While the unloved Delle Alpi was being demolished and then the new Juventus Stadium rebuilt on the same site, both Turin teams decamped to their former home, now remodelled and upgraded for the 2006 Winter Olympics. Now with a roof, and a deeper distinti – but bizarrely looking smaller than the Communale – around 3,000 Chelsea loudly supported the boys on a fantastic evening in Turin, a 2-2 draw enough for us to advance on away goals. It was, indeed, the game of my life.

By the way, the Juventus manager that night? Claudio Ranieri. I wonder what happened to him.

It was now around 6.30pm and I needed to move on. But I liked the view of the Stadio Olimpico from the north. The marathon tower, which I believe was once known as the Mussolini Tower – the stadium was once known as Stadio Benito Mussolini – looks over the roofed stadium and there are huge sculptures by Tony Cragg, similar to those that I saw outside that wonderful art gallery in Baku in 2019. On my hurried walk back to Carducci Molinette – past joggers and cyclists and power-walkers, and folk practising tai-chi – I walked alongside a park that I remembered from my very first visit in 1987, saddened with Juventus’ exit from the UEFA Cup and not sure where – on what train – I would be sleeping that night.

Who would have possibly thought that thirty-four years later, I would be preparing myself for my third Juventus vs. Chelsea game of my life? Certainly not me. That season, Chelsea were relegated to Division Two.

We’ve come a long way baby.

And this was the crux of this whole trip. Despite this trip to Turin coming too soon in a COVID-confused autumn – the first away trip of the campaign – and with the pandemic still active throughout Europe, with all of the allied concerns and stresses, it was the lure of Chelsea playing Juventus that did it for me. I am not bothered about going to Malmo. A trip to St. Petersburg in December would be superb, but maybe too expensive and too “involved”. But Juventus? I just had to be there.

At around 7.10pm, I was headed into the city on the subway and the evening’s game was now in my sights. At every station, I expected more fans to join. But there were hardly any. Admittedly, the attendance would be clipped at around the 20,000 mark – we had allegedly sold 500 of our allotted 1,000 – but I just expected more fans to be on their way north. It was all very odd.

At around 7.30pm, I exited at Bernini station. Here, we had been told on the official Chelsea website, to take a shuttle bus to the stadium. Again, hardly any match-going fans were in the vicinity. The stadium was a good two and a half miles away. I began to worry. What if there was no bus? I toured around all points of the compass and eventually spotted a few likely match-goers at a bus stop. Phew. The bus took maybe twenty-five minutes to finally reach the stadium. Three young Chelsea lads in full replica-shirt regalia were sat close by.

Too noisy. Too full of it. Too eager. Too annoying.

God, I am getting old.

Just after 8pm, the bus deposited us at the northern end of the stadium and I made my way past a few street vendors selling fast food, panini, hot dogs, crisps, wurst, drinks, and also various Juventus trinkets. Outside the away turnstiles, a ring of police guarded our entrance. Ahead stood the two “A” frame supports that are effectively the sole remnants of the old Delle Alpi stadium which stood on the site from 1990 to 2009.

My first visit here was during that 1992 trip; we watched high up along the western side in the upper tier towards the home Curva Scirea. Sadly, the game with Sampdoria – Gianluca Vialli in attack – was a poor 0-0 draw. A couple of years earlier, of course, the stadium witnessed Gazza’s tears amid the tumultuous England vs. West Germany World Cup semi-final.

My only other game at the old Delle Alpi came on a Sunday after Tullio’s wedding to Emanuela on a Saturday in May 1999. Rather bleary-eyed from the excesses of the wedding reception, I caught a cab to the stadium and arranged with the cab driver to pick me up right after the game with Fiorentina, yes them again, and whip me up to Caselle to catch the flight home. Juventus had just lost to Manchester United in the Champions League semi-final the previous midweek, and the mood was a little sombre. I nabbed tickets in the other side stand, again near the Curva Scirea, and watched as Juventus – Zinedine Zidane et al – beat the hated Viola 2-1 with a very late goal from none other than Antonio Conte. Our former manager went into Juventus folklore that afternoon. After scoring, he ran towards the 1,000 or so away fans located, stranded, in the middle tier, and taunted them by pulling out the corner flag and waving it at them in a show of braggadocio.

The time was drawing on and there was a crowd waiting to enter the Allianz Stadium.

“Good job we have time on our side.”

I patiently waited in line, and spotted a few friends amid the Chelsea faithful. This was where it could have gone all so wrong. After I had picked up my match ticket at the city centre hotel at around 3pm – a police van parked outside just to keep us company – I returned to my hotel room. I almost put my passport to one side – “won’t need that again” – but then remembered that in Italy a passport is required at the turnstiles. Time was moving on but the line didn’t seem to be diminishing too quickly. Tempers were getting a little fraught. Just three stewards checking five-hundred passports. Police spotters – Goggles and his cronies – were loitering, and a few unidentified persons were filming our every move. It did feel a little intimidating.

A familiar voice :

“Hurry up. Only two euros.”

Eventually, I made it to the front of the huddle.

The first check married up my passport with my COVID19 pass, and then there was a temperature check.

OK so far.

Then a passport check against my match ticket.

OK.

Then a quick pat down and a very quick check of my camera bag.

OK.

Then, further inside, another passport and match ticket check.

OK.

I walked on, up the steps, a quick visited to use the facilities and I was inside at around 8.35pm.

“Good job I work in logistics.”

I made my way into the sparsely populated lower tier and chatted to a few friends. A quick word with Ryan from Stoke, with whom I had enjoyed some mojitos the previous night.

“Good night, wannit, Ryan?”

“Was it? Can’t remember getting in.”

I soon spotted Alan and Pete and made my way over to see them. We would watch the match from almost the same position as the November 2012 game.

At the time of that visit, the Allianz Stadium was known as the Juventus Stadium and had only opened in 2011. It was a horrible night, Chelsea suffered a lame 0-3 loss, and the game signalled the end of Roberto di Matteo’s short reign as Chelsea manager. I remember the sadness of the following morning and a text from a work colleague that informed me of the sudden news. Nine years later, I remember little of the game. I know we played with no real striker, a false nine, and Juventus were well worth their win. The loss would cost us our place in that season’s competition.

Oh well. We just sailed full steam ahead and won the Europa League in Amsterdam instead.

First thoughts?

It is a decent stadium. But it was odd to see it at half-strength. I had forgotten that there are odd corner roof supports that rise up and cause an irritating intrusion to an otherwise fine view of the pitch. The stands rise steeply. There are more executive areas on the far side, the East Stand, than on the adjacent West Stand. Down below us, the goal frame where – approximately – Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle saddened us in 1990 and where Antonio Conte scored in 1999 stood tantalisingly close.

The colour scheme is, of course, black and white, and there are three yellow stars – denoting Juventus’ 36 title wins – picked out in the seats of the southern Curva Scirea.

The trouble I have with the new pad is that it is still jettisoned out on the northern reaches of the city away from – in my mind – the club’s historical roots to the south of the city. I first fell in love with that amazing team of the ‘seventies of Zoff, Scirea, Gentile, Tardelli, Bettega, Causio, Cabrini et al…then Boniek, Platini, Laudrup, those Ariston shirts, the Stadio Communale, the old lady, the old team, the old club. Juventus at the Allianz Stadium – all flash, all corporate boxes, all show – just seems all rather false.

Modern football, eh?

My visits to the stadia of Turin was now updated.

Stadio Communale : 4 games, 1 visit inside on a non-match-day and 1 visit outside on a non-match day.

Stadio Delle Alpi : 2 games.

Juventus Stadium : 1 game.

Allianz Stadium : 1 game.

Stadio Olimpico : 1 game and 1 visit outside on a non-match day.

Stadio Filadelfia : 1 visit inside on a non-match day ( and at least 1 goal…) and 1 visit outside.

Five stadia, but only three sites. It’s a confusing story, isn’t it?

But there’s more. I helped to arrange a delivery of office chairs to Juventus on Corso Gaetano Scirea a few years ago. And only on the day before I left for Turin, I learned that a company that I use for express vans around Europe takes care of delivering VAR equipment around Europe for UEFA and had just delivered to Juventus.

Small world, eh?

The clock quickly approached the nine o’clock kick-off time. Just as the Juventus anthem was starting to be aired – “La Storia Di Un Grande Amore” – Alan whispered to me.

“Don’t want you singing along.”

I smiled.

“I know the words.”

“I know you do!”

As I changed lenses on my camera, I could not help lip-synching a little. Both teams appeared in blue tracksuit tops. The Champions League anthem played. I was surprised to see a few folk wearing Chelsea replica shirts in the home area to my left, beyond the plexi-glass. They were soon moved along, or out, I know not which.

As the game began, I could hardly believe the amount of Juventus fans wearing replica shirts. There has certainly been a sea change in Italian terrace fashion in the years that I have been attending games in Turin. Just as in England in the late ‘eighties and early ‘nineties, hardly anyone bothered with team shirts. In Italy, more than in the UK, it was all about the scarves in those days. Trends change, and there are more replica shirts on offer than ever before these days, yet a huge section of match-going regulars in the UK refuse to be drawn in. For the English connoisseur of football fashion, many look upon the Italians – “Paninaro, oh, oh, oh” – as excellent reference points in the never-ending chase for style and substance. Yet here we all were, a few of us decked out in our finery – Moncler, Boss and Armani made up my Holy Trinity on this warm night in Turin – yet the locals were going 180 degrees in the opposite direction and opted for replica shirts with players’ names.

Et tu Brute? Vaffanculo.

The Chelsea team?

We had heard that King Kante had succumbed to the dreaded COVID, while Reece James was injured. The manager chose an eleven that we hoped would fare better than in the miserable capitulation to Manchester City a few days previously.

Mendy.

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Ziyech – Havertz

Lukaku

The match began and we started decently enough. There was a stab at goal from inside the box by Roemelu Lukaku from a corner by Marcos Alonso but this did not cause the former Arsenal ‘keeper Wojciech Szcezsaczsaeisniey any anxiety. Soon into the game, the Chelsea loyalists in the tiny quadrant decided to go Italian and honour some of our former Italian greats.

“One Di Matteo, there’s only one di Matteo.”

“Gianfranco Zola, la, la, la, la, la, la.”

“Vialli! Vialli! Vialli! Vialli!”

There wasn’t even a flicker from the black and white fans to my left.

Then a memory from a night in Milan.

“Oh Dennis Wise scored a fackin’ great goal in the San Siro with ten minutes to go.”

We lost possession via Kovacic and Chiesa broke away in the inside right channel, but his speculative shot from an angle was well wide of the far post.

Chelsea enjoyed much of the possession in that first-half. Whereas City had been up and at us, pressurising us in our defensive third, Juve were going old school Italian, defending very deep, with the “low block” of modern parlance. And we found it so hard to break them down. It became a pretty boring game, with few moments of skill and enterprise.

I spoke to Alan.

“There’s not much space in their penalty box. In fact, there’s even less space when Lukaku is in it.”

Despite Romelu’s weight loss from his days at Manchester United, he still resembles the QE2 with a turning circle to match.

It just wasn’t going for us. Very rarely did we get behind the Juventus back line. Balls were played at Lukaku, rather than to him, and the ball bounced away from him on so many times. It seemed that he often had three defenders on him.

He was full of De Ligt.

At the other end, Federico Chiesa looked to be Juventus’ main threat, and a shot flashed wide. He followed this up with another effort that did not trouble Mendy one iota. A rising shot from Rabiot was well over. The former Chelsea player Juan Quadrado rarely got involved. Juventus were easily leading in terms of efforts on goal.

At our end, there were hardly quarter chances let alone half chances.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

The players couldn’t hear us. This was a dull game, and getting poorer by the minute. At half-time, I received a text from Tullio, now living in Moncalieri, a few miles south of Turin, but watching in a Turin pub with friends :

“Boring.”

Tuchel replaced Alonso with Ben Chilwell at the break.

It is my usual modus operandi to mainly use my zoom lens once the action starts, but I often take a few panorama shots with my wide angle lens just at the start of the second-half just to vary things a little. Thus, once the Spanish referee instigated the restart, I lifted my camera and took one and then two shots of the stadium with the game being played out below it. The first photograph was of a Juventus break; the second photograph was of a Juventus goal.

And just like that, crash, bang, wallop, we were losing 1-0.

Fackinell.

The goal was conceded after just eleven seconds of play in the second-half. It was a wicked smash and grab raid by that man Chiesa. The goal shocked and silenced the away fans. In reality, I doubted very much that Juventus, with Bonucci on the pitch and Chiellini waiting in the wings, would let this slip.

We still created little.

On the hour, more substitutions.

Jorginho, Dave and Ziyech off.

Chalobah, Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi on.

Juventus, mid-way through the half, really should have put the game to bed when a long ball was cushioned by Cuadrado into the path of Bernardeschi, but his heavy touch put the ball wide.

The final substitution with a quarter of an hour to go.

Barkley on for Christensen.

We had all the ball but never ever looked like scoring. I just willed Callum to get his head down and get past his man but he rarely did. There was a lame header from Lukaku, and after Barkley – showing some spirit and a willingness to take people on – tee’d up Lukaku, the Belgian striker fluffed his chance close in on goal.

“We won’t score, mate.”

Late on, a lazy header from Havertz only bothered the ball boys and press photographers at the Curva Scirea.

It was, again, a rotten night in Continassa.

In the last few minutes, Chelsea supporters in the top tier had decided to throw beer on the Juve fans to my left, but ended up soaking myself and a few fellow supporters.

For fuck sake.

We made our slow, silent way out to the waiting fleet of around seven buses that took us back to the centre of the city. Sirens wailed as we were given a police escort, with blue lights flashing.

Did I imagine it, or did someone spray “Osgood Is Good” on one of the buses?

I chatted with a bloke who I had not seen before. He told me that of his seventeen trips to Europe with Chelsea, he had seen just three wins. I begged him to stay away in future.

It was, after the stresses of getting out to Turin in the first place, such a disappointing game. We all walked en masse back into the pubs and hotels of Turin. I chatted briefly to Neil Barnett as we slouched along Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, and we agreed –

“That was a hard watch.”

A chat with Cal.

“Fancy joining us for a beer at The Shamrock?”

“Nah mate. My hotel is just around the corner. I am off to bed.”

It was approaching 12.30am. I darted into a late night café and devoured a kebab, washed down with two iced-teas. It was my first real meal of the day.

It was time to call it a night.

My trip to Turin stretched into Thursday and Friday. On Thursday, there was a quick “tampone rapido” test at a nearby chemist, and thankfully I was negative. I met up with my work colleague Lorenzo and his wife Marina. Although they are both natives of Milan, this was their first ever visit to Turin, despite being in their late ‘fifties. I remarked to Lorenzo, an Inter fan, that it’s “because of Juventus isn’t it?” and he was forced to agree. That Inter / Juve “derby d’Italia” animosity runs deep.

We met up with Serena, who works for a furniture dealership in Turin, and she gave us a super little tour of a few of the palaces and piazzas of the city centre. We visited Palazzo Reale, the former royal palace of the governing Savoy family, and enjoyed an al fresco lunch in the September sun. We later visited Superga – of course – and Lorenzo loved it, despite the sadness. One last photo call at Monte Dei Cappuccini, and he then drove me back to my hotel.

In the evening, saving the best to last, Tullio collected me outside my hotel and picked up his mother en route to an evening meal at Tullio’s apartment in Moncalieri. Sadly, Tullio lost his father last year, so the evening was tinged with a little sadness. But it was magical to see his family again. His daughters Sofia and Lucrezia are into canoeing and rowing. At seventeen, Sofia – who practices on the nearby River Po – is a national champion in the under-23 age group.

We reminisced about our past and remembered the times spent on the beach in Diano Marina in those lovely days of our youth.

Ah, youth.

Juventus.

Maybe that’s it.

On Friday, it was time to leave Turin. It had been, “assolutamente”, a simply superb four days in the sun. At Caselle airport, there was time for one last meal – gnocchi, my favourite – and one last bottle of iced tea. There was a quick chat with a couple of the Juventus women’s team en route to an away game against Roma. And there was time for a raid on the Robe Di Kappa shop, that famous logo reminding me so much of the Juventus kits of yore. There was even a photo of Roberto Bettega in his prime behind the till.

I walked a few yards across the tarmac to board the waiting 3.30 plane home, and I spotted Superga away on the hill in the distance.

Until next time, Turin, until next time.

Stadio Filadelfia

Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino

Allianz Stadium

Postcards From Turin

Tales From The Club With Two Stars

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 25 September 2021.

Just another Saturday? Hardly.

Even without the added weight of Porto, this was always going to be one of the games of the season. The current European Champions versus the current English Champions. Undoubtedly the biggest game in club football over the weekend, not just in England, but the entire World, was due to kick-off at 12.30pm at Stamford Bridge. And that was the only downer; that such a big game was being played at such an awful time. Well, I hope that the watching millions in Malaysia, Japan, The Philippines et al appreciated the match goers getting up at silly o’clock for them.  I am not so sure the TV viewers in North America were quite so excited; in California this meant a 4.30am kick off. Ouch.

The biggest game in the entire world. That’s quite something. When you grow up with a football club and try to get to as many live games as is physically, economically and geographically possible – why? That doesn’t need an explanation does it? – sometimes it is easy, too easy, to take the match day experience for granted. The grizzled old “every-gamers” can be a curmudgeonly lot at times, and we can sometimes forget to realise how excited those fans who only get to see us live once in a blue moon – sorry, poor analogy that – when the moons align – ditto – and they too join the match-going crowds at Stamford Bridge or elsewhere.

But this never felt like any other game.

I had been relishing it all week. City are a well-established team, tutored by the Catalan Pep Guardiola, and worthy champions in three of the last four seasons. They are still the team to beat this season. Although Chelsea has made great strides – leaps – the past eight months since Frank Lampard was jettisoned in favour of the Teutonic teacher Thomas Tuchel, we are still a work in progress, a team finding its feet, its optimum way of playing, its groove.

And I will say it once again. We are a team that is in a building phase, yet we are European Bloody Champions.

Weird ain’t half of it.

In the packed “Eight Bells” at the bottom end of Fulham, we were all enjoying a lovely, yet brief, pre-match. I had booked a table for five at 10am. PD and Parky were on time. After I had parked the car, I bumped into Kev and Rich on the District Line train as it pulled into Putney Bridge. We joined the fray at 10.20pm. It would leave us barely ninety minutes of “pre-match” but we were not fazed. Kim, Dan, Andy and the Kent boys (including three brothers, the Loaders, a load of Loaders) were already ensconced in the corner, and the three late-comers sidled in alongside. I was driving, so on Diet-Cokes. But that’s fine. The laughs ripped through the cosy pub. We chatted with enthusiasm about the upcoming game, and the pub was noisier than usual. There was a real buzz to the place. One of the most overworked words in modern parlance – along with shenanigans, are you paying attention America? – is “proper”, so excuse me if I lazily use it here.

The “Eight Bells” is a proper football pub.

It is so old school, traditional, working class, call it what you will, that of the one hundred or more Chelsea fans squeezed inside, or overflowing onto the seated area outside, there was not one single woman. I realised this as I walked through as we exited at just after 11.45pm. To be truthful it shocked me. I am all for the fairer sex attending games, but the complete lack of females took me by surprise. To be blunt, I was shocked.

We caught the train, and we were soon walking along the Fulham Road. Rain had been threatening to make an appearance, but thus far all was fine. On the West Stand forecourt, scarves bearing the name of a company – I won’t bother saying which one – and the two club crests were being handed out by a few happy smiley types, who were also trying to persuade the match-goers to take a concertina’d noise-maker too.

I walked by and said “no, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

This ain’t fucking Disney World, this ain’t Fulham, this ain’t Leicester.

As club historian Rick Glanvil pointed out as he walked alongside me they were even the wrong bloody colour; light blue, but light blue was the corporate colour involved.

Fuck that.

Anyway, suffice to say, I did not spot one single noisemaker inside the stadium.

Good work everyone.

As the teams took to the pitch – I have to say I miss the walk towards the West Stand – two flags floated above the heads of spectators at both ends of the stadium; a simple outline of the European Cup in The Shed, the “Pride of London” one in the MHL now adorned with two yellow stars.

I absolutely love that the club badge that I grew up with from 1971 to 1986 – with two stars either side of the lion rampant – has now developed a new meaning. If I had my way, this old lion would be reinstated in favour of the 2005 badge which already looks a little jaded.

It was our best badge.

I can well remember visiting a menswear shop in the nearby town of Warminster with my father in around 1971 or 1972. I had already been gifted a plain blue cotton shirt, but there was nothing to signify that it was “Chelsea.” While my father was talking business with the shop owner, my gaze was fixed on what looked like iron-on patches of a few football crests on display way above the counter. The Arsenal gun, the Tottenham cockerel, the Liverpool bird. I looked at a patch with a lion with “CFC” below and wondered if that was the Chelsea badge. On walking back to my father’s car, I mentioned the badges to him, and to my great surprise and undoubted joy, he marched me back into the shop and bought me the Chelsea patch badge. My mother would affix to my royal blue shirt, but alas it was soon to fade. There must be hundreds of Chelsea fans from that era with a faded Chelsea badge on their shirts.

It’s nice that those two stars, signifying the twin cup successes in 1970 and 1971, now represent the grander triumphs of 2012 and 2021.

Proper.

The minutes soon ticked by to kick-off.

Our team was with a new formation, albeit that which took command in the second-half during that heady game at Tottenham last Sunday.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – James

Alonso – Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante – Dave

Werner – Lukaku

One suspects that there were few complaints about this line up and personnel at kick-off. Be honest with yourself here. It was OK for me, though the duo up front was obviously a gamble as they had only played together in the Wednesday game against Villa late on.

The game began and I wish it hadn’t.

I soon wished that the coach bringing the City players into town had not been able to be refuelled and was stuck on the M25 near Watford. There had been a sudden mania for filling up cars with diesel and petrol amid rumours of a lack of tanker drivers being able to re-fil bunkers of fuel at garages all over the UK. We had witnessed a few queues on the way into London that very morning.

But no. The City players were at Stamford Bridge and were soon running amok. They absolutely bossed the first-half. Jack Grealish, the pantomime villain, was enjoying tons of the early ball down below us, and the energy and running of the City players made our movements look insipid and half-paced. While Tuchel had gone back to the ‘nineties with a twin pairing up front, Guardiola had gone the other way, backing into the future with a false nine in the guise of the diminutive but nimble Foden.

They shook us to our foundations in that first forty-five minutes.

Although we goaded the City entourage with songs from Porto, the City players did the fans’ talking on the pitch. They buzzed around like fireflies, and put us under immense pressure once we had the ball.

Alas, we did not show the same willingness to close them down.

In days of old I would shout “put’em under” and I am resisting to shout the ridiculously over-used word “press” with every sinew in my body. But they did. They pressed us all over the pitch as if it was going out of fashion, and God I wish that phrase would. They hunted in packs like the great United midfield of Beckham, Scholes, Keane and Butt. They were relentless.

Early on, maybe five minutes into the game, a ball was launched forward and Romelu Lukaku rose to head it at an angle in the general vicinity of Timo Werner. But it didn’t work, nor did it really come off for the rest of the game.

I turned to Al :

“What did I just see? A big central striker trying to play in a slighter second striker? Can you explain that to me, mate? I have a vague memory, but…”

City gathered momentum and our attacks were rare. Timo Werner bent a forward run to perfection on fifteen minutes to receive a ball from the trusted left boot of Marcos Alonso, and the German prodded the ball in to Lukaku but his effort was blocked. There would be not much else to give us hope and sustenance in that arid first half.

City were penning us in and we were lacking ideas on how to attack once we had the ball. The midfield three that had rampaged at will against Tottenham looked tired and weary. The front two upfront were stranded.

“I’ll take a draw now.”

Sadly, just on the half-hour, Reece James was forced to leave the field. He was replaced by the calming presence of Thiago Silva. After being substituted in Porto, it was ironic that he would now enter the pitch in this game with City.

“Champions of Europe. You’ll never sing that.”

For all of City’s possession, and it was impressive, Mendy was virtually untroubled. A mixture of wayward shooting from City and some excellent blocks, often from close in, from many Chelsea defenders meant that the game continued without a goal. There was City corner after City corner. A wild finish from Rodri just before the break summed up City’s profligacy.

We were really struggling. There was a massive gap between the midfield three and the two upfront. Nobody was breaking to support.

“Lukaku’s second touch is a tackle.”

City’s defenders had hardly been turned all of the first-half; all of the play was in front of them. This was too easy for them.

It had been a really poor half.

“Have we had a single shot on goal? I can’t remember one.”

It was time for a technical master class from our manager at half-time. While fellow supporters chatted with worried expressions in the stands, I hoped that Tuchel was conjuring up a change of system, or at least a change in attitude.

“Tell you what, Guardiola is going to be gutted, annoyed even, they are still without a goal at the break.”

Chelsea needed to change things around.

What would I have done?

No idea. I am a mere supporter.

Over to you, Tommy, lad.

Sadly, and seamlessly, City’s dominance absolutely continued in the first opening minutes of the second period.

At last an invigorating run from Timo down our right brought a ray of hope.

Al : “Need something like that to get the crowd involved.”

The noise from the Matthew Harding had been sporadic; loud at times, but not often enough.

Not long after, Grealish wriggled free in the inside-left channel and buzzed a low shot just past the far post. The deflection earned a corner which was taken short. Sadly, the inevitable happened. Gabriel Jesus was able to turn and prod the ball home inside a packed Shed End goa. From the northern end, I was unable to pick out an apparent deflection. It appeared to be in slow motion.

But the goal was on the cards.

The City legions boomed :

“We’re not really here.”

Mendy did so well to tip a shot from Grealish past the post.

An Alonso corner summed up our afternoon; it didn’t clear the first man but when the ball ended up at the feet of a tired N’Golo Kante, the French midfielder could only shuffle the ball all of the way back to Mendy.

“Fackinell Chels.”

Silva cleared off the line.

“Fackinell Chels.”

On the hour, Kai Havertz for Kante. I focussed on his chiselled features as he took position up front on the left and dreamed of Porto.

Back to a 3-4-3 formation.

I was up celebrating a Lukaku tap in from an early Havertz ball, but the German had strayed into an offside position.

Bollocks.

On sixty-seven minutes, our first shot on goal. But this would be an Alonso free-kick, in prime territory, that hit the wall. Soon after, at last, a bursting run from Kovacic warmed our spirits, but it all petered out rather too predictably.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

Edouard Mendy was keeping us in the game, or so we naively hoped, with a succession of fine saves. To be truthful, all of the defenders in that central three had been excellent; no complaints. It was just our attacking players that had struggled all day long with the tenacity and hunger of the away team.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced the very poor Jorginho with a quarter to go. The noise increased as the crowd sensed that a sudden late upsurge in our play might entice a slightly unwarranted goal from someone in our midst. Despite some nice flourishes and a little more bite and energy from our Ruben that had been sadly missing, the late substitute just couldn’t ignite the team. The other substitute, Havertz, had offered little.

Mendy made one last save, a super one at that, from that man Grealish, but the game was done, the game was over.

City had totally deserved the win. A hundred thousand post-mortems would suddenly be happening at once all over the world. But the manager is no fool, no simpleton, and he will be soon at work to identify what decisions, including his own, engendered such a poor performance.

Don’t worry. We are in good hands.

We reconvened in the austere beer garden at “The Goose” to meet up with Kev and Rich before their evening return from Gatwick to Edinburgh.

Poor Kev’s last three visits to Stamford Bridge – Bournemouth, West Ham and now Manchester City – have all ended up as 0-1 Chelsea losses.

Imagine what Tottenham fans must feel like.

We headed home, philosophical, but pleased that both Manchester United and Liverpool had dropped unexpected points. However we couldn’t disguise how poorly we had played. On a day when the United Kingdom scurried around in search of fuel, it certainly seemed that Chelsea had been served two-star petrol, while City had been issued turbo-charged four-star.

Before I returned home, I was pleased to be able to fill my tank at my local garage in preparation for my early morning jaunt to Stansted on Tuesday for my, hopeful, flight to Turin.

I just need to get a negative reaction to a lateral flow test.

Juventus lie in wait.

I will see some of the famous five hundred out there.

Andiamo.

Tales From Porto : Part One – The Blue Room And Beyond

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2021.

I had set the alarm on my ‘phone for 12.30am in the very small hours, small minutes even, of Saturday. I had only fallen asleep at around 8.30pm on the Friday. This was going to be a trip that would likely end up with battles against tiredness as the day would draw on. But I wasn’t concerned about that. I had overcome larger battles over the previous eight months. And some smaller ones, of a different nature, over the previous week or so.

I closed my last match report with an open question :

“There is a chance that this might be my last report this season. It depends on how Chelsea Football Club looks after its own supporters’ hopes of reaching the Portuguese city of Porto in a fortnight.”

After what seemed like an agonisingly long wait, Chelsea stepped up to the mark. With the 2021 Champions League Final bumped from Istanbul on the Bosporus to Porto on the Douro, there was a tense wait. With rumours of Porto being used as an alternative to the Turkish city, and the more logical stadia of Wembley and Villa Park, I had originally been tempted to gamble on flights before the Wembley FA Cup Final. But I held firm, and hoped for the club to answer some prayers. With an uncanny knack of timing, most unlike the club these days, on the afternoon of Wednesday 19 May it was announced that there would be club-subsidised day trips to Porto for £199.

Within half-an-hour of the announcement at 3pm, I was in.

The game was a mere ten days away and things were moving fast now. If you blinked, there was the chance of missing key information. As I was on the club’s trip, my application for a match ticket was taken care of by the travel company and Chelsea. I surely had enough points to be sure of one of the 5,800 tickets offered to the club. Independent travellers would be able to apply on the very next day, the Thursday (D-Day minus nine), but it was soon apparent that many were unsuccessful. Of course, for various reasons, others decided not to apply for tickets. There was a mixture of protest against UEFA, of not being able to afford the trip with all of the extra add-ons, of the rigorous tests for the COVID19 virus, and of course the real fear of the virus itself. There was no control on where it might flare up once more.

When I returned home from work on the Thursday, I was elated to see that Sportsbreaks had debited my credit card to the tune of £199 for the flight and £60 for the cheapest match day ticket available.

I was immediately grateful, unapologetically ecstatic and calm at last.

And well done Chelsea. Although Sheik Mansour had paid for a sizeable percentage of City’s supporters to travel to Portugal for nowt, the club dipped into its reserves to subsidize official travel. Thankfully, the rumours of a far-from edifying “bubble” was not going to be in place once we were to land in Portugal, but – there is always a but these days – all supporters had to follow strict guidelines to enable us to attend. It all took a fair bit of deciphering, and I didn’t want to fry my brain with worry immediately, so I gave it a day or two. But it eventually all made sense. We had to have a PCR test to cover our outbound and inbound travel. After a couple of deliberations on the timings, I eventually booked a test for 0900 on Thursday 27 May in the nearby city of Bath. We also needed to book a similar test on our return from Portugal, and to have evidence on our ‘phone – or hard copy – of both. The cost for those two beauties? A cool £315. Wallop. There was also the requirement to complete locator forms for both Portugal and the UK. I kept reading and re-reading all of these instructions. Over and over and over. It was a worry; I am not ashamed to admit.

Against the backdrop of all this activity during the week leading up to our third Champions League Final, the actual football match was at the bottom of my list of priorities of thought. Like everyone, I had to work, and to fit in all of these activities around work patterns. I worked from home for the most part, but then did an early stint on the Friday in the office to ostensibly give me an extra few hours to settle myself before heading away for the game.

But then there was an extra worry. When I visited the Dragao Stadium in 2015 for our game with Porto, my SLR camera was confiscated and I had to rely on my mobile ‘phone for match photos. With much annoyance, the ‘phone battery died and I only took a handful of mediocre snaps that night. For a good ten days, I was mulling over all sorts of plans of smuggling my SLR in, a “Great Escape” in reverse, and I even thought about tunnelling in, with tunnels called John, Frank and Didier.

It was frying my brain. In the official UEFA blurb for the final, it strictly mentioned no cameras with long lenses. Damn, there it was in black and white. And it also stated that only a very small A4-sized bag would be allowed. I needed a Plan B. I didn’t call Maurizio Sarri. I decided to buy a bum bag – how 1989 – for the camera that I had bought especially for my trip to Argentina last season. Then, with disbelief, I could not track down a charger for the camera. This was killing me. I remembered Moscow in 2008 and how my SLR ran out of charge two hours before the game and I again had to rely on sub-standard ‘phone photos. Not a good precedent.

My Plan B involved calling into “Curry’s” in Trowbridge after work on the Friday and purchasing a new camera. In my haste, I overlooked being able to simply take my existing camera in and getting a charger. My brain was clearly frazzled.

Friday arrived. My PCR test was negative. Phew. At the shop in Trowbridge, I spotted a Sony camera that met all the requirements.

“Sorry, it’s not in stock.”

It is mate, there it is there, I can see it.”

“That’s just a display model.”

“Fucksake.”

But there were two in stock in Salisbury. Off I drove to the “Curry’s” in the spired city of Salisbury, an hour away. I quickly purchased it. The assistant was Chelsea, a nice twist. I eventually reached home at about 6pm.

I chilled out a little, prepped my clothes and travel goodies and then prayed for a solid four hours of sleep.

Match day began in deepest Somerset and would end in deepest Portugal. It seemed so odd to be travelling so light. And alone. None of my local usual travelling companions would be going with me. I only knew of one local lad, Sir Les, who would be in Porto. The previous night, I had laid out all of my clothes in the front room, on a sofa, away from the piles of books and magazines on my coffee table in my main living room and away from all the other detritus of day to day living. I wanted a little clarity.

And it suddenly dawned on me how apt this was. Over the past year, my house and garden has undergone a major tidy-up, and a main part of this has resulted in my front room becoming part home office and part Chelsea museum. I have named it The Blue Room. It is my pride and joy. There are framed, signed photographs of various players, framed programmes, photo montages, framed posters, framed shirts.

Immediately above the sofa – blue – where my clothes were placed were three items.

At the top, a canvas print of my photo of Didier’s penalty in Munich. A sacred memento of the greatest day of my entire life.

In the middle, a much-loved present from relatives in around 1980, a pub-style mirror featuring our total trophy haul up to that point; the 1955 League Championship, the 1965 League Cup, the 1970 FA Cup and the 1971 European Cup Winners’ Cup. For years upon years I used to gaze up at it and wonder if my club would ever win a damned thing in my lifetime. I became a supporter in 1970, remember nothing of that final nor the 1971 one, so in my mind I had never seen us win a bloody trophy. I was thirty-one years of age in 1997. New fans will never understand how magical that day was. Many new fans now want a fourth place finish over FA Cup glory. It seemed that Thomas Tuchel was of the same opinion a fortnight ago.

At the bottom is a photograph of myself with my favourite-ever footballer, Pat Nevin. The photo was taken pre-match in Moscow in 2008 and is signed by the good man. I have recently started reading his very entertaining autobiography. Not only was he a winger for Chelsea, he loves the Cocteau Twins and went out with Clare Grogan. The holy trinity in my book. However, when I read – open-mouthed – that at the age of eight he was able to do ten thousand keepy-uppies, I just hated him. My record is 246. How could he do that bloody many at eight? Git.

So beneath these three images, I dressed and made sure everything was packed. As a superstition, I decided to take a light top that I wore on that magical night in Barcelona in 2012. I needed something to protect my fair arms from the sun. My light beige Hugo Boss top served me well high up in Camp Nou. I hoped for a similar outcome in Porto. I also took a New York Yankees cap for a similar reason; my thatched roof is getting thinner and thinner these days. I wore a New York Yankees cap in Moscow in 2008, but fear not. This was a new one, not the unlucky one of thirteen years previous. The old one was lost in Bucharest on CL duty in 2013.

Superstitions, there were two more.

The first was easy.

Before the European finals in 2012, 2013 and 2019 I had bought breakfasts the day before travel for the office team at work. I continued the tradition this year.

The other one is a little more bizarre.

In 2012, on the Thursday, my car was absolutely spattered with bird shit. Remembering that if this horrible substance lands on you personally, it is regarded as a good luck charm, I decided not to wash it off. It’s worth a gamble, right? I memorably was hit by a pigeon in The Shed during the first game of the 1983/84 season – the famous 5-0 clobbering of Derby County – and I took this as my CFC reference point. 1983/84 is still my favourite-ever season. In 2013, guess what? Splattered again. Before my jaunt to Baku two years ago, my car also took a direct hit. This is no surprise; seagulls nest in and around our premises. Once a month a chap with a hawk appears and tries to scare the buggers away. On Friday, I popped out to my car mid-morning to make a call. Imagine my elation and amusement when my bonnet and lower windscreen had appeared to have been drenched by a pot of Dulux. Ha.

So, yeah – breakfasts and bird shit. Covered.

I set off – “Jack Kerouac” – at 1.45am. I turned the radio on as I backed out of my driveway.

“I wonder what song it will be? Wonder if it will sum up my thoughts, or be a sign for the day.”

“Even Better Than The Real Thing” by U2 assaulted my shell-likes, and I quickly turned it off. But the words “the real thing” struck home. After a year of ersatz training-game football, this was indeed the real thing, no doubt. As I mentioned in the FA Cup Final report, I have really struggled with watching us on TV this season. At last, here was a game I could witness in person with all of the accompanied involvement and sense of belonging. The FA Cup Final was OK but I struggled acclimatising myself with live football after fourteen months away. I hoped for a better feeling in Porto. Maybe it really would be better than the real thing.

I made really good time en route to Gatwick. Passing over Salisbury Plain for the first time in ages, I passed an owl perched on a roadside post. I imagined it thinking –

“Ah, Mister Axon. I have been expecting you.”

The roads were clear. Hardly anything as I drove past Stonehenge and then onto the deserted A303 and M3. Even the M25 was devoid of much traffic. I pulled in to the car park at Gatwick North just a few minutes before four o’clock.

Four AM. Fackinell.

There were already masses of Chelsea folk in the departure area. I joined the queue. “Hellos” to a few faces – Luke, Aroha, Doreen – then John and Maureen, all on the same 0700 flight. But familiar faces were in short supply. I hardly recognised anyone. To my chagrin, a few were sporting the 2021/22 Zig Zag monstrosity. I was eternally grateful the club chose not to repeat wearing it for this final. Another good decision, Chelsea. This will have to stop; you’ll be ruining your reputation. Many lads chose the bum bag option. Many were in shorts. The usual assortment of Stone Island patches, Lacoste, Gant, Ralph, CP, Adidas trainers a-go-go. But there was a proper mix; more replica shirts than usual for a European trip.

I handed over my passport and the various forms to the official and there were no exclamations nor questions. It was satisfactorily smooth, there had been no balls-ups from my underpaid PA and I was checked in. Inwardly, I did a somersault of joy.

Panic over.

Others had a customary pre-match bevvy. I met up with some good friends; Charlotte and Donna completed the Somerset Section. Rachel from Devon. Rob from Chester. An “A Squad” of European travellers no doubt. I spent a good few minutes chatting to Charlotte who is the same age as me. Charlotte was diagnosed with cancer a while back, has since undergone chemotherapy and is on the road to recovery. We traded health updates. Everyone was pleased to see that I was doing well after my heart attack in October. I wandered a little, spotted a few faces, a chat here and there.

On reaching Gate 49, I spotted Andy and Sophie, father and daughter, good friends from Nuneaton. I famously first met Andy to talk to on Wenceslas Square in Prague after the Zizkov game in 1994 although he was always a face I would spot everywhere including in Glasgow for a Rangers versus Motherwell game in 1987. Andy and Sophie were in Baku, that final being exactly two years ago to the day. I was in Baku for six days two years ago. I would be in Porto for sixteen hours in 2021.

Another anniversary for 29 May.

Heysel Stadium 1985.

Never forgotten.

More of that later.

I wasn’t too happy that TUI’s corporate colour was City sky blue but was just happy to be en route to Porto now. There would be a light breakfast, but also the chance for a small sleep. Every minute counts on breaks like these. While waiting for clearance on the runway, I was just drifting off but I heard my name being called out.

“Chris Axon.”

“Oh God, what have I done now?”

The CFC steward was handing out match tickets, alphabetically, and I was one of the first to be mentioned. Stadium seating plans were studied. I was down in a corner behind the goal in row three, just like at Wembley against Leicester City. A bad omen? Possibly.

I chatted to the two lads to my right. We were seated in the very last row. None of us were too confident. I reckoned our chances to succeed to be around 33%, maybe the same mark as against Bayern in 2012. Against United in 2008 it was bang on 50% from memory. I posted a photo of the ticket on Facebook, turned the phone off and waited.

Flight TOM8400 took off at 7.30am.

After a while, the seatbelt signs were turned off and there ensued a rampage to join the queue for toilets situated right behind us. But the male air steward wanted to start serving breakfast.

“Please go back to your seats, there is no room for so many in the queue. I can’t get past.”

There was no reaction. Eye contact was avoided. Quiet murmurings of discontent. English people queue for fun, and especially for comfort – or discomfort – breaks, nobody was moving.

“Please can you all go back?”

With that, the steward began pushing his trolley down the aisle. The passengers backed off.

I turned to the lads next to me :

“Fucking hell, Chelsea ran by a trolley dolly.”

The flight soon passed. We landed at Porto’s Francisco Sa Carneiro airport at 9.30am. There was a fair wait at passport control. Social distancing simply did not take place. But we all were negative, so I guess it was irrelevant. I handed over my passport and forms. I was in. Another great moment. Andy and Sophie were waiting for me. We had agreed to spend some time together before the day got going. I made a quick visit to the busy gents. While I was turning my bike around, there was an almighty explosion taking place in one of the cubicles behind me. One wag joked :

“Bloody hell, somebody has smuggled someone else in.”

I replied :

“Yeah, a Tottenham fan.”

We were given yellow wristbands on boarding a coach to take us into the city. This would act as evidence of our negative test result and meant we did not have to show security at the fan zone or stadium our forms. A good move, although one friend would later comment that it signalled to the outside world that we had tickets and might be the target for pickpockets. In 2015 on our visit, a few friends were pick-pocketed including my dear friend Alan and Wycombe Stan.

There was cloud overhead but the rising sun soon burned through. We were dropped off at the fan zone on Avenue dos Aliados. It wasn’t far from our hotel in 2015. We decided to enter and kill some time. It was pleasant enough. Andy and Sophie had a beer. But I promised to be tee-total all day long. I had not dropped a touch of alcohol since the first day of September. And the thought of me drinking even a few pints under a burning sun scared me. I wanted to be completely in charge of my senses on this day, especially should there be any sort of plea-bargaining regarding my camera at the stadium.

There was music, a few sideshows, and I met my friends Kenny and then Leigh, lovely Chelsea folk. My good friend Orlin from Sofia appeared outside but did not have his identity wristband so was denied access. We chatted, farcically, through the barricades…we would keep in touch and see each other later no doubt.

Andy spotted Billy Gilmour’s parents, with his two lookalike younger brothers. Billy’s parents looked relaxed and were drinking beer too. As we decided to move on, we walked past them just as Leigh presented Billy’s mother with a “Scottish Iniesta” sticker. I had stopped and decided to say a word or two to Mrs. Gilmour.

“I am sure you are as proud of your son as we are. I hope he goes right to the very top” and gave her a fist-bump. She was lovely.

“Awe, thanks very much.”

Outside, the three of us stood outside a small bar. Beers and Cokes. Andy spotted Michael Gove walk past. Regardless of any political persuasion, he surely has to have the most slappable face in Westminster. A friend back home reminded me that we once saw him walk past “The Three Kings” in West Ken on a match day a few years back. Apparently his son supports us. I reminded Andy how he – much to the bemusement of Sophie – berated former MP Tony Banks, and Chelsea fan, outside the Monaco stadium at the Super Cup game in 1998.

“Leave it out mate, I am here for the football.”

We giggled.

Andy and I have seen some things. We remembered how he said in Monaco “there’s a Real fan in Madrid right now saying…”

I continued “Chelsea always beat us.”

We wondered what he thought about the semi-finals this year.     

Andy and I travelled together to Stockholm and Monaco in 1998. We were both in Moscow in 2008, Munich in 2012, Amsterdam in 2013. I saw him in Baku in 2019. We had heard that City were all mobbed up down by the waterfront. This top part of the town centre was all Chelsea. Everything was pretty quiet to be honest. A few sporadic shouts. We saw Pat Nevin on the stage inside the fan zone.

…mmm, I saw him in Moscow, but not in Munich. Was that a bad sign? Time would tell.

Sophie had heard from two friends who were further south so we trotted down the street to meet up with them. I was waiting to hear from Orlin, who had promised to bring along a power pack for me to charge up my quickly dwindling moby. The City shirts now outnumbered Chelsea ones. Porto tumbles down to the Douro, it is a lovely city, and the streets looked quite familiar. Orlin, who I bumped in to in Porto in 2015, texted me to say he was at a restaurant. We walked on, with City jeers of “Rent Boys” aimed at Chelsea fans every fifty yards or so. We walked into a small square and Andy and Sophie’s friends shouted out from a table outside a restaurant. Lo and behold, who should be sat four yards away but Orlin. What luck. The three of us joined them for lunch at 1.30pm. I was sat with several of the Chelsea Bulgaria contingent. Their flag was near me at Wembley. Two of Orlin’s friends are on the UEFA Away ST Scheme so were sure of tickets. Orlin had to search the black market for his.

It was magical to spend time with him again. We updated each other; travels, health, mutual friends, a little talk about football. He was a lot more confident than me. I always call him “Mister 51%” because he says he is more of a Chelsea fan now, in preference to Levski, his boyhood team.

I remained as Mister 33%.

I had the briefest of words with two City fans in the restaurant itself, the only ones I would talk to all day.

“Good luck tonight. I have no problem with City. We have both had a similar history really. Second Division and all that.”

“Third Division for us. Cheers mate.”

Another fist bump.

I soon realised that we were sat outside on exactly the same table where Parky, Kev and I had an equally enjoyable meal on match day in 2015. Shit, we lost that time. I enjoyed a meal of grilled vegetables and flat breads. Not only no alcohol but a vegetarian meal.

“You’ve changed.”

We said our goodbyes and I needed a little time to myself. It was three o’clock and as I descended to Praca da Ribeira – City Central – some fears enveloped me. There seemed to be way more City in the city than us. This area was mobbed with every City shirt imaginable; like us they have had some shockers. All of this was eerily similar to United dominating Moscow in 2008.

This was my worst case scenario pre-departure from England :

“I won’t meet any close friends, I’ll get sunburned, the bars will be too packed, I won’t enjoy it, my camera will get confiscated again, we’ll concede an early goal ten minutes in, we’ll have to chase the game, City will rip us apart, I think we will get pummeled, delays at the airport, misery in masks.”

Mister 33% for sure.

I left City behind me and slowly ascended a few tight streets. It was close and humid down by the river but nice and airy further north. I popped into a deserted café for a gorgeous fishcake and another Coke. Blue skies overhead. As I slowly walked towards Chelsea Central, I saw a Chelsea Belgium flag draped over a balcony. I inevitably took a few photographs of this highly photogenic city. I loved its trademark blue and white tiled houses. Like Wedgewood or Delft pottery.

Snap, snap, snap.

I met up with the “A Squad” again and bought myself an iced-tea from a nearby shop. The shops around the fan zone were stocked with Super Bock and were doing a fine trade. A large group of around three hundred Chelsea were in good voice…I joined in. We were starting to get our vocal chords prepared. Donna was interviewed for a live piece on “Sky News.” Luke was nicely buoyed by Super Bock. His lovely wife is seven months pregnant. How lovely if we could win tonight so their first-born could claim being present at a European triumph.

My oldest friend Mario sent through a photo of his youngest son Nelson in a Chelsea training top and my heart leapt. Mario lives in Germany and his local team is Bayer Leverkusen. Two of his three boys are Leverkusen fans. Mario and Nelson are ST holders. Nelson met Kai Havertz at a training session a year or so ago. Mario also supports Juventus – he is Italian – and on this date in 1985 he was meant to be in Section Z at Heysel, but had too much school work that week so it was decided he would not attend. And thank God.

On 29 May 1985, I was in England and supporting Juventus in a European Cup Final.

On 29 May 2021, Mario and Nelson were in Germany and supporting Chelsea in a European Cup Final.

Football. Fackinell.

Time was moving on now. Charlotte and I had decided that we would leave earlier than the rest. Chemo has tired Charlotte a little. We needed to allow ourselves plenty of time to travel by subway and then the final mile or so by foot to reach the stadium. I was more than happy to leave. I had thoroughly enjoyed my day thus far. The negative vibes were starting to subside though I had not dwelt on the game at all. We left the others behind at 5.15pm. A subway stop was just a few yards away. We had been given a subway card on the coach with our match ticket; a nice touch.

We walked down the steps into Aliados station just as a huddle of Chelsea fans had the same idea.

We were on our way.

Tales From This Football Life

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 11 August 2019.

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

What an odd fellow he was.

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

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

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

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

The season was now upon us.

We were on our way.

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

And then we spoke about the football.

Many words were shared.

My take was this :

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

Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire.

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

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

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

Staffordshire, Cheshire, Lancashire.

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

Fucking hell.

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

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

And we knew exactly how Rick felt.

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

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

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

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

What memories.

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

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

What memories.

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

What memories waiting to happen.

This football life is a wonderful thing, eh?

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

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

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

“Of course, we could get walloped here.”

There were nods, silent nods.

“Bloody hell, be happy with a draw.”

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

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

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

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

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

We heard the team.

“Mason Mount in, big game for him.”

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

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

But it was Tammy.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Zouma – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic

Pedro – Mount – Barkley

Abraham

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

Neil Barnett breezed past.

“I’m happy with the team.”

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

“Every single one of us loves Alex Ferguson.”

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

I commented :

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

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

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

“Just like London, your city is blue.”

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

Our kit? You know the story. Shudder.

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

The away end “ooooohed.”

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

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

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

Rashford struck it high past Kepa.

We were 1-0 down.

Bollocks.

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

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

More of that all season long please.

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

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

“One-nil and you still don’t sing.”

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

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

“Offside.”

Thanks for that.

I hate modern football.

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

It was, clearly, one of those halves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Next goal is massive.”

There were no changes at the break.

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

I commented to Alan :

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

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

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

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

We were now 2-0 down.

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

Bollocks.

Olivier Giroud replaced Tammy.

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

The United fans went doolally.

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

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

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

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

Now, that was an odd sensation.

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

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

Fackinell.

My mind spun.

“That’s my biggest defeat up here.”

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

“Our biggest opening day loss in memory.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh Chelsea We Love You.”

It ended up getting a lot of likes.

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

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

Where else would I have rather been?

Nowhere.

 

Tales From The Opposite Corner

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 7 October 2018.

An away trip down to Southampton is an easy one for us. It is only a journey of around an hour and a half. At eight o’clock on a clear, if cold, Sunday morning, Glenn collected me. PD was already on board the Chuckle Bus. We headed for half an hour north and Parky joined us. Glenn then did a one-eighty turn south, soon heading over Salisbury Plain, close to Stonehenge, yet to be inundated with day-trippers.  Autumnal sun was lighting up the entire sky now. We journeyed on, and everything seemed well in our world. As we neared the city of Salisbury, we passed through an avenue lined with tall and proud trees, and then the road opened out and away in the distance, straight ahead, stood the classic tower of the city’s cathedral, piercing the blue sky. As we drive around the highways and byways of this green and pleasant land, this particular view of the tallest spire in England always takes my breath away.

Salisbury. Who would ever have thought that this historic city would ever play a part in the history of Chelsea Football Club? Any yet, following the poisoning of the former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the relationship between the United Kingdom and Russia has been severely tested since the incident in March, and has lead – most people have surmised – to Roman Abramovich seeking out domicile in Israel rather than continuing to live in London. What a strange world we live in.

“Southampton away” now takes a familiar shape. We park at the train station, devour a hearty breakfast at a nearby café, and then get stuck in to some beers before heading off to the stadium on the other side of the city centre. We were parked up at 9.45am, and we were soon tucking into a lovely fry-up along with a strong coffee or two. We then re-positioned ourselves outside in a sun trap, and got stuck into some lagers. The sun warmed us. It was a perfect Sunday morning. We were joined by some friends from our local area; around a dozen of us in total. Unsurprisingly, chuckles of various pitches and volumes rebounded off the concrete of the nearby walls and steps.

“Brilliant. Just like a European away.”

I think Glenn was exaggerating slightly, but we all knew what he meant.

Out in the open air, catching some rays, drinking a “San Miguel”, sharing a laugh with some mates, occasionally talking football – “we should win this one, eh?” was about as far as we got – and generally enjoying each other’s’ company. Real life problems, outside our football bubble, occasionally tried to enter my head, but it was easy to push them aside.

“Cheers, lads.”

It might not have been quite such a perfect Sunday in Southampton. Glenn and PD had missed out on tickets among the three thousand away supporters. We needed to think outside the box, or even the box office. Thankfully, Glenn knows a Southampton season ticket holder – I remember he once came with us to Stamford Bridge to see the Saints some twenty years ago – and two tickets were purchased in the home section, the Kingsland Stand, so all four of us were “good to go.” As at Swansea City in 2014, Glenn and I volunteered to sit among the home support, since – without putting too fine a point on it – PD admitted that he would find it hard to keep schtum for ninety minutes.

This visit to Southampton would be added to the list of away stadia where I have watched Chelsea from the home sections.

Bristol Rovers – 1975, 1976, 1980, 1981.

Bristol City – 1976.

Liverpool – 1992, 1992, 1994.

Everton – 1992.

Viktoria Zizkov – 1994.

Austria Memphis – 1994.

QPR – 1995.

Leeds United – 1995.

Blackburn Rovers – 1995, 1995, 1996.

Arsenal – 1996.

Southampton – 1996, 1996, 2018.

Barcelona – 2005.

Portsmouth – 2008.

Swansea City – 2014.

(…and not counting the friendlies at Rangers, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Swindon Town.)

There haven’t been that many in over 1,200 games. I’ve managed to live to tell the tale. Having a mate from Yorkshire – not a Leeds fan, I hasten to add – probably helped my cause in 1995. We lost that game 1-0, and I don’t think I was too quick to spring to my feet after Tony bloody Yeboah scored a late winner. I think his accent – drip-feeding the locals over the whole game – might well have saved me. After Wisey scored a last minute equaliser in a 3-3 at Highbury a year later, the four of us sitting in the last few rows of the West Upper could not contain ourselves. We jumped up – “giving it large” – and I even turned around and stared down the Arsenal fans behind me. I was lucky to get away without a slap on that occasion, methinks.

We caught a cab to St. Mary’s. While PD and LP turned left to join in with the Chelsea support in the Northam Stand, Glenn and I continued on and entered the Kingsland Stand. Our seats, in Block 28, were three-quarters of the way back, quite close to the corner flag, and diametrically opposite the Chelsea support.

I looked around. The supporters close by looked pretty harmless. I didn’t expect there to be any problem on this occasion.

Maurizio Sarri had finely-tweaked the team.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

No complaints from me.

Ryan Bertrand was the captain of the Southampton team.

The stadium took a while to fill, and there were odd gaps in the home section in the Chapel Stand to my right which ever filled. We were treated to more flames as the teams entered the pitch from the Itchen Stand opposite.

Southampton have disregarded their homage to the Kevin Keegan kit of 1980 to 1982 which they wore last season in favour of more traditional stripes. For the first time, we wore the new third kit.

Glenn : “You know what. From this distance, it looks half decent.”

Chris : “It looks better from two miles away.”

Glenn : “Looks bloody rubbish up close.”

Chris : “Up close, yes. Bloody awful.”

But I had to concede, it didn’t look as bad as I expected. But that isn’t saying too much. I absolutely loathed the God-awful tangerine and graphite kit of the mid-nineties, which the kit is said to reference. It was a minging kit.

If the ridiculous non-Chelsea colour scheme was ignored, there was still too much going on; two-tone grey stripes over-stenciled with a thin cross-hatch, panels here there and everywhere, a hideous badge in an over-sized shield, tangerine epaulets, and for some reason the tangerine of the collar was a different colour tangerine to the main body of the shirt, plus a hideous stone-washed look to the grey resulted in it just looking grubby.

Have I made myself clear? It was fucking hideous.

The game began, without hardly a ripple of noise or appreciation from the residents of Block 28. Over in the far corner, the Chelsea 3K were soon singing.

“Oh, oh oh, it’s Kepa.

You know.

He’s better than fucking Thibaut.”

With my zoom lens, I eventually spotted Alan, Gary, PD and Parky.

On the pitch, all was good. In fact, Glenn and I were blessed, being able to watch from close quarters as we dominated the opening portion of the game with mouth-watering possession football, and swift passing between all of our players. Whereas we struggled at West Ham a fortnight previously, we purred in the Hampshire sun. In that early period, with Hazard the main catalyst, shot after shot seemed to be blocked by Southampton limbs. An effort from Willian looped up onto the bar. Around me, I heard whispers of admiration every time that Hazard caressed the ball. In the pub, I commented to the lads that – unlike in previous seasons – we had no “hate figure” in our midst. No Diego Costa. No John Terry. No Ashley Cole. No Dennis Wise. No Vinnie Jones. I would be interested to see how the locals received us.

Two chaps – neutrals maybe – right behind us were in admiration of Hazard. I did well to bite my lip and not give the game away.

I looked around. There really was no noise from our area at all. Nothing. I looked behind me, and the sight made me smart. No more than five feet away was a gormless looking young chap – about twenty-two maybe – wearing, as brazen as you like, a navy blue Manchester United replica shirt.

I was speechless.

Altogether now; “what the fuck?”

I caught his eye, and mouthed “United?”

He nodded.

I scowled and returned to the game.

The phrase “football is dead” is often shared these days and here was damning evidence.

Inwardly, I thought to myself “there’s no way I am going to leave here without saying something to the prick.”

On the pitch, all was sweetness and light. We were playing some sublime stuff, some of the best of the season thus far. Our one-touch, maybe two-touch, stuff was creating havoc in the Saints’ final third. Surely a goal would come?

Well, with that, somehow – I don’t know how – Southampton pulled themselves up with their boot strings and carved out a few chances, mainly emanating down our right where Dave was often exposed. The best chance of the entire game fell to the home team. Nathan Redmond released Bertrand on the left and his cross from the goal-line was inch perfect, but Danny Ings somehow managed to get his bearings confused and made a great defensive clearance from six yards out.

By this time, at last, the home fans were making some noise.

“Oh when the Saints…”

Our stand was pretty quiet though, and to be honest only those home fans who shared the Northam Stand with the away supporters tried to show some support for their team. Everywhere else, people were quiet. I swear blind that the teenager sat next to me, wearing a Southampton home shirt, did not speak the entire game. In fact, it was if I was in the middle of a ridiculous sponsored silence.

“Football Is Dead Part 584.”

Our play was far the sharper. Ross Barkley won the ball off a Saints player and fed Hazard. He was level with us, and we were able to admire his quick snapshot which flew past the Saints’ ‘keeper.

Saints 0 Singers 1.

I looked over to see the away end bubbling away like a big bowl of soup.

With the Chelsea supporters in fine voice for the rest of the game, our section opposite was deathly quiet. I had not heard a single shout of support from any individual the entire game, and I wanted to make my mark and break the silence, if only to be able to get a bizarre kick out of being able to say I was the loudest supporter in Block 28 the entire game.

“COME ON SAINTS.”

Glenn giggled.

I wouldn’t have done this at Leeds United back in 1995, mind you.

There are limits.

More Chelsea shots were blocked. Giroud stumbled in the box but it did not look like a penalty.

At the break, we were 1-0 up and coasting on the South coast. It had been an enjoyable, if not particularly loud, first-half in Section 28.

Oriel Romeu, another Munich Boy, appeared for Southampton in the second-half, adding a little more solidity to their midfield. Over on the far side, Sarri was his usual sartorially-challenged self, while Gianfranco Zola was referencing his first ever Chelsea game (Blackburn 1996, see above) when he pleaded “please, not an XL shirt again” by wearing a rain-jacket which resembled a tent.

But on the pitch, we were looking as good as ever. However, the home team carved out a couple of chances, with Bertrand wasting the best of them. As the second-half continued, I was particularly pleased with the way that Toni Rudiger was defending; he hardly put a foot wrong. Elsewhere, Jorginho was finding others with regularity. Barkley was having a very fine game. Just before the hour, that man Hazard was fouled and we waited for Willian to signal his intent to his team mates. Throughout the first-half, I had spotted his signals at corners; one finger, two fingers, three fingers. Against Vidi on Thursday there had even been a thumbs down. The ball was curled over towards the far post and Olivier Giroud attempted a rather spectacular scissor-kick. The ball bounced through a forest of legs and Ross Barkley was able to score his first Chelsea goal with an easy tap in from inside the six-yard box. His joyous run and leap in front of the celebrating away fans were captured on camera.

Saints 0 Singers 2.

I have always rated Ross Barkley. We might just have found another great English midfielder. Let’s hope so. He has poise and strength. I desperately want him to succeed at Chelsea.

We continued to dominate but play opened up a little. There was more defensive strength from Rudiger. And David Luiz, too. His renaissance has been hugely enjoyable.

Alvaro Morata replaced Olivier Giroud and then Pedro took over from Willian. Then Mateo Kovacic replaced Barkley.

In section 28, still no noise.

The sponsored silence was going well.

We continued to push the ball around with ease.

But then, two Southampton chances to eat into our lead produced fantastic saves from Kepa. Redmond let fly from distance, but our young custodian leapt and finger-tipped over from right under the bar. He hasn’t the height of Big Pete or Big Nose, but if he has spring in his heels like that, who cares? Morata went close when he showed too much of the ball to the ‘keeper. I heard the grinding of three-thousands sets of gnashers from one hundred yards away. And then came the second super-save from Arrizabalaga; a similarly agile jump thwarted Ings. Sensational stuff, and we had great seats to see it all up close.

As the game was nearing completion, and as a Chelsea move was progressing, I was aware that the Chelsea supporters were singing out an “ole” with every fresh touch. I don’t usually like this. It seems overly arrogant. Maybe OK, if we are winning 6-0 but not before. The two neutrals behind me were not impressed.

“…mmm, don’t like that, taking the piss.”

Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass.

The ball was worked to Hazard and with that shimmying approach of his, he created a little space and passed to Morata. This time, there was no annoyance from the away fans. His finish was clean and simple. As he dispatched the ball, Glenn and I spontaneously rose to our feet and whooped a little.

“Great goal.”

The final whistle soon came.

Saints 0 Singers 3.

Glenn and I packed up and watched as the Chelsea players slowly moved over and clapped the away support. They didn’t seem to walk over too far towards the Northam Stand. Maybe the 3-0 win seemed too easy. It was certainly easier than the come-from-behind win of last season which brought more prolonged celebrations at the final whistle.

As I exited row BB, I spotted that the United fan – remember him? – was waiting alone near the exit. I couldn’t help myself.

I motioned towards him, pointing at the United shirt.

“What’s with all this?”

Almost apologetically, he threw his arms back and said “it’s football.”

My response? Take your pick.

  1. “Ah that is fine mate. I know that United are a great club and their tickets are hard to come by. “
  2. “Oh, you’re English. Presumed you were foreign. Not understanding the subtleties of fandom in England. Whatever.”
  3. “And what a game. Cheers mate.”
  4. “You’re a twat.”

He then repeated his first answer and I then repeated mine.

As I walked down the steps, a grinning Glenn was waiting for me.

“You had words, then?”

To be honest, I was surprised that a steward or a home supporter had not approached him to tell him to either put a jacket on and cover himself up, or maybe go into the toilets and turn it inside out. At Chelsea, it surely would have been dealt with differently. I am not an advocate of violence in any shape or form, but honestly. The chap was lucky not to get a slap. He showed complete disrespect for Southampton Football Club.

And it – as is obvious – infuriated me to high heaven.

“Football Is Dead” indeed.

Manufactured atmospheres. Flames and fireworks. Orchestrated flag-waving goal celebrations. Noisemakers. Painted faces. Jester hats. Noiseless fans. People as critics and not supporters. A fan base of nerds.

And now Manchester United shirts being worn at games not even involving them.

For fuck sake.

I momentarily thought back to a time in the mid-to-late ‘eighties when it was pretty difficult to obtain foreign football jerseys. Occasionally, such jerseys were worn on the terraces, although not to any great degree due to the rarity of them.

They had a certain cachet to them. They looked the business. But always foreign shirts. And maybe, at Chelsea, the occasional Rangers one.

In those days, in the era of Half Man Half Biscuit and their football-based singalongs, and The Farm, with their scally heritage, and the music-football crossover, it would be quite common to see bands sporting foreign shirts. I seem to remember that I wore a cotton Kappa Juventus shirt on the benches once or twice in around 1986. It was all part of the burgeoning, and rapidly changing, casual scene which enveloped many of us all those years ago.

But not one of us would have been seen dead in a fucking Manchester United shirt at Stamford Bridge.

Then. Or ever since.

To that div in Section 28, this match report is not dedicated.

And now, damn it – modern football – the dreaded international break and a fortnight of inactivity.

Our next game is against Manchester United.

I wonder if knobhead is going.

See you there.

 

Tales From The Piccadilly Line

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 3 January 2018.

On London Underground trains and station platforms on the Piccadilly Line, there is a graphic poster – maybe not as stylish as those wonderful ones from the ‘thirties – extolling the virtues of that particular line, which wends its way from out in the west through London, heading east and then north-east and then north to its eventual resting place. It shows a train disappearing underground at Hammersmith, with all of the major tourist attractions to be seen en route annotated on a map, and it is evidence of that particular line – “the purple one” – hitting many of the main tourist areas.

On the Hammersmith to Kings Cross section, especially from South Kensington to Leicester Square, there are certainly some sights to be seen.

Museums, department stores, royal palaces, theatres, squares, cinemas, parks and more. It is the very centre of an increasingly visited London.

Of course, just beyond Earls Court lies Stamford Bridge – on the District Line, “the green one” – while a few miles north of the stations of Kings Cross and St. Pancras, on into the darkness of North London, lies the Arsenal tube station, and with it not only Highbury, the former home of our opponents on the third day of 2018, but their gleaming new stadium too.

The Chuckle Bus – the PD Line, “the white one” – had picked me up from work at 2pm and, by 4pm, it was parked in a side-street adjacent to Barons Court. The four of us – PD, Parky, Scott and I – waited in the coolness of the early-evening air and were soon sent hurtling underground as the Piccadilly Line train took us into town. The game was not until 7.45pm. There would be time for a little pre-match revelry, which is not always possible for a London midweek away game. The weather in the West of England had been spiteful during the day, with showers and strong gusts of winds. Throughout the day, the weather had been bleak enough to remind me of the infamous game at Arsenal in December 2013 which had resulted in my car – my Chuckle Bus, “the blue one” – getting stranded in several feet of water with me having to walk a few miles to reach home at 5am the following day, Christmas Eve.

We soon reached our staging post. Piccadilly Circus was an electronic dream. Christmas lights strewn across Regent Street, floodlit shops, huge neon advertisements, excited tourists with cameras clicking. It was nothing compared to Times Square in New York or Shinjuku in Tokyo of course, but still pretty mesmerizing. I met up with Kyle from LA, who was still in town, giddy with excitement for more Chelsea football.

At about 4.30pm, the five of us entered “The Queens Head” just to the north of Piccadilly Circus. The pub was snug and warm, a typical old-style London boozer. Pints of lager were ordered. I could relax. I had not enjoyed the first couple of days back at work after a ten-day interlude. Here was a chance to unwind. Just opposite was the site of a former pub – “The Devonshire Arms” – which I remember well from a Chelsea game against West Ham in 1987. I had traveled down from Stoke with a college mate, Bob, whose pal Kev was a barman in the pub. As luck would have it, it was Kev’s last day of serving in the boozer, and he started pouring us free beers. By the time we left the pub to head over to Stamford Bridge, we were bollocksed. At the time, it was the most drunk that I had ever been at football, and the game was a huge blur.

Kyle had loved his Chelsea experience on Saturday. He watched from directly behind the goal and to quote him, had experienced “sensory overload.” I suspect it was quite a shock to be so near to the action. It would be akin to me watching my first ever baseball game at Yankee Stadium just four yards behind the catcher’s mitt.

At 5pm, I headed back outside into the London evening. My friend of over thirty-six years Tullio – often featured in these reports – was in town with his wife Emanuela and their two daughters Sofia and Lou Lou. We had arranged to meet up, albeit only for a few minutes. My Italian friends had enjoyed a long day of walking around the sights but were full of smiles. It was bloody magnificent to see them again; the last time had been in their apartment in Moncalieri, just to the south of Turin, ahead of our infamous 2012 Champions League game.

I quietly whispered to Tullio, with my head subtly nodding in the direction of “The Queen’s Head”, about him joining us for a quick pint.

He whispered back.

“Boh – I am a married man now.”

“Boh” is one of my favourite Italian phrases. It means that there is no answer to whatever question has been asked, and even if there was an answer, there would be no point in saying, whatever is done is done.

In the ten minutes that we were together, football dominated our chat, and the three girls looked on in awe at our ability to talk football under any circumstances.

Tullio : “What do you think of Conte?”

Chris : “We love him. A good man. You remember I went to the Juve versus Fiorentina game in 1999 the day after your wedding?”

Tullio : “I forget.”

Chris : “I am not surprised. Well, Conte scored the winning goal and taunted the Viola fans with the corner flag.”

Tullio : “Yes!”

Chris : “I met Conte very briefly in Beijing in the summer. I wanted more time so I could explain that to him.”

Tullio : “But he would not understand English. He barely understands Italian.”

We laughed.

I also mentioned that if Tullio had told me of his plans, I could have tried to get him a ticket for the Arsenal vs. Chelsea game.

But his reply did not surprise me :

“No. Tonight is Juve /Toro.”

We laughed again and soon said our goodbyes. It was lovely to see him and his family once more.

Back in the pub, there was time for more “Peroni” and a lot more laughs. This was a lovely time, another sweet spot, another great Chelsea moment. At just before 6.45pm, we set off for the last section of the journey. As we disappeared into the underground, I noted that Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” was being played by a nearby busker.

“Seems appropriate, Kyle.”

Kyle mentioned its appearance in Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange” and, just as we walked through the into the ticket hall, I had nightmarish visions of being accosted by some “droogs”. I also had an equally nightmarish vision of having my eyes forced open to watch the dour and defensive Arsenal team of the early ‘nineties on a constant loop.

On the train, the chuckling continued.

“Did Kyle enjoy the Arsenal game?”

“He never made it. He is still curled up on the Piccadilly Line laughing at the name Cockfosters.”

Parky piped up –

“Cockfosters. That’s what happens when you have too much lager, innit?”

I replied –

“Oh God. That’s the end of the line for you mate.”

At Holborn, on the platform, we spotted a few Chelsea faces.

“Runs down the wing for me…”

At Arsenal tube, there were random shouts of support for Chelsea but nothing from the Gooners. I had warned Kyle that the tube at Arsenal was like a rabbit warren, so much unlike the airy Fulham Broadway. Every time I revisit this particular stop I am reminded of my first-ever visit.

August 1984.

Ah. What a day.

I quickly gave Kyle the quickest of history lessons as we sped up to take a few photographs outside the still impressive façade of Highbury on Avenell Road. He was mesmerized by it all. The closeness of one of our great, huge, stadiums, to run-of-the-mill terraced houses. The clean lines of the stand. The sense of place.

We then hot-footed it to the larger, but hardly greater, Emirates Stadium. After a bag search and a trial to find my place, I reached Alan, Gary and Parky with a few minutes gone.

A quick check of the team.

“Packing the midfield, Cesc playing, Hazard behind Morata.”

I noticed that all was quiet. Very quiet.

After a few minutes, a few Chelsea were singing “empty seats, empty seats” but I didn’t see many.

For a few horrible seconds, I had a flashback to September of 2016; God, it seems so long ago now. Our beloved Chelsea team was completely over-run and out-played, especially in the first forty-five minutes. In hindsight, of course, the game marked the turning point in our season. It was a huge game in our history. Few defeats have ever been doted on as lovingly as that one.

I turned my attention to the game.

“You haven’t missed much, Chris” said Gal.

I have to admit, what with a combination of getting in late, a very low viewing position – row two – and the gnawing pain of knowing that I would be waking up at 4.45am in the morning for work after the drive home, I struggled to get to grips with the game in the opening moments of the first-half.

But Arsenal appeared to be in control, attacking down Victor Moses’ flank in front of us at will. I lost count of the amount of times that Alexis Sanchez was allowed to drift in and attack space on our right. Mezut Ozil too, looking even more gaunt than ever, was often breaking into our box. It was as if we were allowing a special little show of Arsenal prowess just for the away fans only.

I hated it.

I also hated the continuing – and eerie – quietness which had enveloped the stadium. I simply did not hear a single Arsenal song nor chant during the entire first-half. And that is truly shocking. I know I berate our own fans at Stamford Bridge for long periods of quiet, but this was on a different scale. How was it possible for nigh on sixty thousand people to make so little noise?

After constant Arsenal probing – ooh, matron – the ball broke for Alvaro Morata in the inside left channel, and we held our breath as he sprinted clear.

“Go on ma sahn.”

He inexplicably steered it past the far post. On the replay on the huge screen behind me, it looked even worse.

Then, an Arsenal chance for the effervescent Sanchez and a goal seemed assured. Remarkably, his effort was saved by Courtois onto his near post and we watched, hating every second of it, as the ball struck the far post and then rolled back, mesmerizingly, into his arms.

“Phew.”

A sublime save by Coutois from Lacazette followed, and it was undoubtedly one of the best this season so far. Stupendous stuff.

Chelsea were under the cosh, but a rare break resulted in a strike from Bakayoko and a save from Petr Cech.

The Chelsea support, three-thousand strong, behind me and to my left and right, were surprisingly quiet for a London derby. I have noted similar quiet away atmospheres at the new Arsenal stadium on a few occasions now. There is never as much noise, I feel, as at White Hart Lane on our visits. Maybe we are quietened by the osmosis of watching among so many Goons.

A yellow card by Jack Wilshere on Cesc Fabregas brought howls. A couple of half-chances were exchanged. Marcos Alonso’s free-kick in prime territory sadly did not test Cech. Just before half-time, a nice interplay involving Hazard and Fabregas resulted in the former Arsenal midfielder ballooning the ball high and wide. The first-half had not been much to write about, but it could have ended 2-2.

At half-time, I wondered if my pre-match prediction of a 1-1 draw might prove to be right.

We certainly began the livelier in the second-half. Hazard, after a nice run and set-up by Morata, went close. An Alonso header too. We were looking more focussed.

After ten minutes of play, the manager replaced Moses – a little under-the-weather – with Davide Zappascosta.

A little Arsenal pressure followed, but I was full of praise of our three defenders, throwing their bodies at everything and hounding those carrying the ball. From my vantage point, it looked like Gary Cahill had cleared off the line. In front of the defence, Kante was magnificent, Bakayoko not so. A few more chances were exchanged. A Hazard shot straight at Cech.

Just after the hour, a ball ran through to Wilshere and the ‘orrible little runt slammed the ball in.

“Bollocks.”

The stadium jumped to life at last. Until that point, I had still not heard a song, God’s honest truth.

“One nil to the Arsenal.”

I looked around and I bloody hated them.

Just four minutes later, Hazard danced into the Arsenal box down in our own special viewing gallery corner. He was up against Bellerin. His first cross was blocked but as he stretched to control the rebound, Bellerin caught his leg.

Penalty.

Eden slammed it in.

We were level. There was my prediction.

The game continued with us now looking the more confident and assured. A chance for Morata went begging, lifting the shot wide.

Danny Drinkwater replaced Fabregas. A show of solidity.

Oddly I felt, Willian came on for Hazard.

Salvation came on eighty-four minutes when fantastic diligence from Zappacosta out wide after a great pass by Willian allowed him to slam the ball low into the danger area. To everyone’s surprise, it was the wing back Alonso who arrived – Lampardesque – to touch the ball past Cech.

Euphoria at The Emirates.

Our left-back ran towards us and was jumped upon by his team mates. It was a happy and glorious pile of blue in front of our corner of the Clock end. The away end was now the ones singing, and how.

“Runs down the wing for me…”

The minutes ticked by.

Ninety minutes were up.

“Blow up, ref.”

Down in the corner, Willian had a chance to hoof it away, but meekly cleared. Eventually the ball was played into the box and Bellerin slammed home after a header was knocked towards him.

“Oh fuck.”

Amazingly, in the very last moments of the game, the ball was pumped behind the Arsenal back line and we watched again as Morata was one on one with Petr Cech. His unconvincing shot was smothered among cries of pain in the away end. The ball broke to Zappacosta. His heavy drive crashed against the bar.

“FUCK!”

A draw, in all honesty, seemed a fair result. We had all said that a draw would have been fine before the game. We headed off into the night, with the feeling of what could have been. There was one word on every body’s lips.

“Morata.”

My lasting memory of the game, though, will be of the long periods of quiet in the Arsenal areas for the hour before their goal. And, I will say again, our support was far from noisy. For me, the lack of atmosphere really had a negative effect on the game. It is a common saying that “football without fans is nothing” but just as true is that “football without an atmosphere is nothing.” I can never remember an important away game against huge rivals being so bloody quiet, with a distinct lack of “crackle” that surely should go hand-in-hand with games under lights. It just didn’t seem to be that much of a spectacle. I found it difficult to get emotionally involved in it.

It was a very odd night.

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Tales From Six Of The Best

Chelsea vs. Qarabag : 12 September 2017.

European football was back. Parky, PD and myself were parked up earlier than usual for a midweek game. We dipped in to “The Goose” for old times’ sake at about 5.30pm and chatted to a few old friends but it seemed pretty quiet. I had heard that the game against Qarabag from Azerbaijan had sold out, but I was genuinely worried that a sizeable number of supporters had bought tickets for loyalty points only, with the intention of moving tickets on, and there would be gaps throughout the stadium. We also popped into The Malt House for a couple more pints and, over the next hour, my spirits were raised. The pub grew busy. I hoped that there would be a near capacity crowd. When the group phase of the Champions League churns out our three opponents every autumn, I always wonder if our gates will hold up. There is usually a game against a “minnow” team, and – thankfully – our home support has responded well. Ever since the nadir in the autumn of 2007 when only 24,973 turned up for our home game with Rosenborg – Mourinho’s last game of his first spell – we have only once failed to fulfil expectations. Our 2011 group phase game with Bayer Leverkusen only drew 33,820, but all other home gates have reached the 37,000 to 41,000 mark.

On the short walk to Stamford Bridge, I spotted one Qarabag supporter, with an Azerbaijan flag draped over his shoulders. I knew that there would not be many present.

Inside, with a good quarter of an hour to go before kick-off, there were gaps everywhere. I wasn’t hopeful that we would end up with a decent gate. Thankfully, and to my surprise to be honest, the place filled-up quickly. Over in the far corner, around four hundred away fans were spotted in the lower tier of the away section. Baku is 2,500 miles away from Stamford Bridge. I guess it was a fair turnout.

Thoughts turned from our support to the team.

Not surprisingly, Antonio Conte had tinkered with the starting eleven.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Pedro – Batshuayi -Willian

The teams took to the pitch and, after a hiatus of one season, the Champions League anthem rang out around Stamford Bridge. It was a shame, in my mind, that our first game this autumn was not against more prestigious opponents – how I remembered the sense of occasion that accompanied our first-ever game in the Champions League in 1999 against the mighty Milan – but at least a home game against Qarabag would hopefully give us a fine chance for an easy win, with plenty of goals, in a potentially tight group.

In The Malt House, we had honestly admitted that we expected an easy win – 3-0, 4-0, 5-0 – against a team that we knew nothing of.

At kick-off, I scanned the crowd and was very happy. There was hardly a spare seat in the house, save for a block of around four-hundred above the away fans in The Shed. I spotted a new banner on The Shed Balcony wall – “Cahill, He’s Won It All” – and also an outing for one for the manager – “The King Of London.”

Rain started to fall.

As the game began, Alan and myself chatted about the aftermath of the Morata chant at Leicester City. Typically, the programme featured our Spanish striker on the cover. I certainly did not expect the chant to be repeated against Qarabag. Thankfully, it didn’t.

It was a bright opening from both teams. After only five minutes, Willian passed to Pedro, and although he was on the edge of the D, with the path to goal seemingly blocked by many players, his first-time strike zipped past everybody and into the top corner. It was a magnificent strike and the crowd responded with a reassuring roar. Pedro raced towards the Chelsea bench with a joyous hop, skip and a jump. Get in you beauty.

Chelsea dominated play, with some solid performances throughout the team. All eyes were on Michy Batshuayi after his disappointing show against Burnley. We hoped that he would seize his opportunity. A shot from Michy went close. There were rare attacks from Qarabag and I was impressed with the form of Andreas Christensen.

The song for Willian boomed out, as maybe an extra dig at Tottenham, on account of the anti-Spurs chant on Saturday getting such wide condemnation. Soon after, the ever-popular “Stand Up If You Hate Tottenham” rang out too.

On the half-hour mark, Davide Zappacosta received the ball from Thibaut Courtois. As he set off on a gut-busting run up the right wing, I had a nightmare. Rather than watch the new signing rampage past various Qarabag players, my thoughts were focussed on sending a text message to a friend in Chicago, who had helped put together the new Cahill flag. I looked up just as the ball was slammed with his right foot and flew past the away ‘keeper.

Boom. Two-nil.

I jumped up, but felt embarrassed that I had basically missed most of it. However, I had already sussed out that it seemed to be a fluke, rather than a genuine shot on goal. This did not stop Zappacosta, who enthusiastically celebrated down in Parkyville.

From then on, every time the Italian full back was in possession of the ball, sections of the crowd urged him to shoot. We continued to dominate. We did not let Qarabag settle. Our control of the game was very impressive. Thibaut had only had one save to make the entire half.

At the break, I summed things up with Alan.

“2-0 now, I reckon it’ll be 5-0 at full time.”

There was a read of the match programme at the break. I was reminded of our phenomenal home record in UEFA competitions.

Played 110

Won 77

Drew 25

Lost 8

That is just stunning.

There was also a complete list of our opponents in all UEFA games and one team dominated.

Barcelona 15 games

Liverpool 10 games

PSG 8 games

Porto 8 games

Schalke 6 games

Valencia 6 games

Atletico Madrid 5 games

Milan 5 games

I have witnessed nine of those fifteen Barcelona games, and what a set of memories are evoked. Some of my very best days supporting Chelsea – and one or two of the worst – took place against FCB. The Chelsea /Barcelona timeline goes back to the ‘sixties of course, and long may the story continue. Conversely, just three games against Real Madrid seem scant reward. We await our first-ever match at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Maybe this season.

With European football so common these days, it seems crazy that I had to wait a full twenty years – 1974 to 1994 – for my first taste of European football at Chelsea. In truth, my European story began slightly earlier than 1994. My first-ever UEFA game was in Turin in 1987; Juventus vs. Panathinaikos. The memory of the thrill of a noisy and atmospheric evening in a misty Turin is strong to this day. My European debut almost took place a few months earlier. In September 1987, when I was travelling around Europe on the trains with two college mates, we found ourselves in Stuttgart. It was a Wednesday and I spotted in the weekly sports paper that Borussia Dortmund were playing Celtic. We decided, on the spur of the moment, to head up to Dortmund and watch the game. We arrived at the city’s train station with only three quarters of an hour to spare. After quickly depositing our ruc-sacs in the left luggage room, we tried our best at getting directions,  blurting out “fussball stadion” and we even mimed kicking and heading a ball to assist us as we tried to make headway with the bemused locals. At last, we hopped on to the U-bahn train. We were running so late that we didn’t spot any other fans. Outside, I approached a middle-aged woman, and asked her about the stadium.

“Wo is der stadion? Borussia.”

She then said the immortal words –

“The game was yesterday.”

Oh bollocks. What a bastard.

I had, it seems, neglected to spot that the sports paper had detailed the Wednesday fixtures thus :

Borussia Dortmund vs. Celtic (Di)

Di meaning Dienstag meaning Tuesday.

Ugh.

Oh well. In the circumstances, it seems just right that fate was to hand me a Juventus tie for my first-ever UEFA game. Let me explain. Over this summer, after re-watching “The Damned United”, it dawned on me that the very first European game that I ever saw – live – on TV was the Juventus vs. Derby County game from Stadio Communale in Turin in 1973. It was on a Wednesday afternoon, and I have a sustained memory of watching it on our black and white TV with my father after he returned from work. There are solid recollections of the names Pietro Anastasi and Franco Causio for sure. And there is a very strong chance, in fact, that I saw Juventus live on TV before I saw a live match involving Chelsea. The first live Chelsea match would have been, undoubtedly, the away game at Manchester City in 1984 some eleven years later. But, anyway, as for my interest in Juventus, this was where it all began for me.

Ten minutes into the second-half, a free-kick released Cesc Fabregas, who clipped a lovely ball into the box with the outside of his foot and the cross was adeptly headed in by Cesar Azpilicueta, whose little dart into space was timed to perfection. He ran off to the far corner and celebrated with Alvaro Morata, who was warming up in front of the East Lower. I don’t think there is a more popular player at Chelsea than Dave. His joy in scoring was matched by us.

At last, Stamford Bridge responded en masse with a stadium-wide song. It had taken almost an hour, but the place was booming.

“Carefree, wherever you may be, we are the famous CFC.”

My 5-0 was looking good.

Eden Hazard soon replaced Pedro, and then Bakayoko replaced Kante.

Hazard set up Willian and his firm shot slammed against the crossbar. At the other end, Qarabag had a couple of wild shots over the bar.

Alan and myself were scratching our heads when we were awarded a corner – we thought that a Qarabag player did not get a touch – but Hazard played a short corner, received the ball back, and then sent over a low cross into the box. Qarabag failed to clear and the ball fell nicely for Bakayoko to slam home off a defender.

His celebrations were right in front of us – and just beautiful.

Antonio Rudiger replaced Azpilicueta and we kept attacking. We did not let up. We kept going, attacking at will. Although he had endured a quiet game, Batshuayi received the ball from Bakayoko some twenty-five yards out, quickly set his sights, and struck a fine low shot deep into the corner of the Qarabag goal.

OK, there’s the 5-0. Excellent.

We still kept pressing. Fantastic work from Zappacosta on the right forced an error from the shell-shocked left-back and his low cross was bundled in by a mixture of Michy Batshuayi and Qarabag defender Maksim Medvedev.

Chelsea 6 Qarabag 0.

There was still time for a fantastic dribble down below us from Eden Hazard, and I had to chuckle at the look of annoyance on his face – masked with a smile – as an errant touch gave the ball away cheaply. Having him back in the side is such a lift.

In the closing minutes, the Stamford Bridge crowd gathered together again for one last communal chant.

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

The whistle blew and “Blue Is The Colour” rang out.

Qarabag were poor all night long. We gave them a proper caning.

In the other game in our group, Roma drew 0-0 at home to Atletico Madrid, and I was very happy with that.

After only one match in the autumn of 2017, advantage Chelsea.

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Tales From A Night Of Ignition

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 15 August 2016.

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As soon as I reached the familiar surroundings of the upper tier of the Matthew Harding Upper, I was met by the odd sight of many green tin foil flags being brandished by my fellow supporters. It was a bit of a shock to the system.

“Green?” I asked Alan, who left the pub a little before the rest of us.

“The Italian flag, mate” replied Alan.

Ah yes. The Italian flag. It all made sense now. I looked over, past the green section and spotted silvery-white and red flags too. Once combined, the mosaic of an Italian flag was taking shape in the upper tier, while it seemed that fans – or at least some of them – in the lower tier had been given standard royal blue flags.

An homage to our new manager Antonio Conte.

I approved.

Conte would be the latest in a revered and respected group of Italians who have managed our club.

Gianluca Vialli. Claudio Ranieri. Carlo Ancelotti. Roberto di Matteo. Antonio Conte.

In addition, we have had our fair share of Italian players too, from the idolised Gianfranco Zola and Carlo Cudicini to bit-part players such as Pierluigi Casiraghi, Sam Dalla Bona, Christian Penucci, Gabrielle Ambrosetti and Marco Ambrosio.

It has always felt right, this Italian thing. The passionate azzurri playing with pride and passion in the royal blue of Chelsea. That there has been a strong Juventus link – Vialli, Casiraghi and now Conte – has made it all the more sweeter for me personally. It has evolved into a lovely subplot of my love affair with Chelsea over the past twenty years.

Back in the August of 1996, I welcomed Di Matteo and Vialli to Stamford Bridge with my very own “VINCI PER NOI” banner draped over the MHU balcony wall against Middlesbrough, and I ended that particularly wonderful season at Wembley against the same opponents with an Italian flag adorned with “FORZA AZZURRI” as we won our first trophy since 1971.

1996/1997 was a season with a distinctive Italian flavour.

And I wondered if the current campaign would be similarly seasoned.

As the first weekend of the Premier League got underway without us, all of my focus seemed to be on our new manager, our new don, our new capo, our new “Mister.” After the ersatz atmosphere of the US tour, suddenly I was thrust right into the venom of a bitter London derby against West Ham United and I wondered how the new man would get us playing.

This was the real deal, the real thing, the league opener, us against the world.

After a torrid day at work, it took a while for me to fully focus on the evening’s game as I drove up to London, but once inside Stamford Bridge, the anticipation was rising. I was getting back in the groove.

“What else you gonna do on a Monday evening?”

And the focus was certainly on Conte.

I have mentioned already that I have a particular phrase for the new manager Conte which sums him up.

“Quietly spoken but with eyes of steel.”

It seems apt. Tons of passion too. Passion by the bucket load. That is fine by me. Passion is good. Passion is a good thing. Bring it on Antonio.

Let’s get my Antonio Conte story out of the way early, although I have touched on it once before in these despatches.

Back in 1999, I attended my friend Tullio’s marriage to Emanuela in their home city of Turin. It was a fantastic day, and evening, and night, and one of the nicest weddings that I have ever attended. Many beers were quaffed by myself (I honestly think they had got the beer in especially for me) and when I woke the next morning, I always remember my bloodshot eyes looking back at me from my hotel bathroom mirror. The wedding had been on the Saturday, and on the Sunday afternoon, I was to attend the Juventus vs. Fiorentina game at the Delle Alpi. It was perfect timing really. It could not have been better.

Juve, with Thierry Henri playing for them – and Zinedine Zidane too, as a substitute – were a team of superstars and I watched high up in the stands, towards the home Curva Scirea, as Juve went a goal up. During the previous week, the same stadium had witnessed the visit of Manchester United in the Champions League semi-final, and the atmosphere during the game had not been great. But a win against bitter rivals Fiorentina would cheer the bianconeri after their defeat at the hands of Roy Keane et al. Sadly, the viola equalised late on. I had arranged with a local taxi driver to collect me outside the stadium at the final whistle in order to scoot me back to the city’s airport at the end of the game. I pondered if I should leave with a few minutes left in order to beat the crowds and possible traffic congestion. A little voice inside my head told me to hang on.

Right at the death, who else but Antonio Conte – an industrious box to box midfielder – popped up inside the Fiorentina area to fire home. I watched, delirious, as he raced over to the segment of travelling away fans and picked up the corner flag and brandished it towards them.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHotoVK13T4

It was a perfect end to my weekend in Turin. Immediately after, Conte gained a great deal of notoriety within the Italian media for his actions, since many thought it confrontational, while in Juve circles he gained a great deal of respect. Incidentally, Conte was the Juve captain in those days and his manager on that day over seventeen years ago? Carlo Ancelotti.

This is the Antonio Conte that I observed during the otherwise lacklustre Euros over the summer. This is the Antonio Conte that I want to see at Chelsea. Passion, fire, vigour, energy.

God knows we missed these qualities last season.

On the walk from the pub, I had checked my phone for the manager’s first starting eleven of the new season. Chelsea Football Club had described the formation as 4-1-4-1, with this team :

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Terry – Cahill – Ivanovic.

Kante.

Willian – Matic – Hazard – Oscar.

Costa.

It was no surprise to me that his much vaunted 3-5-2 was not chosen. The players – his players – were not in place for that yet. If this is his preferred option, it will be a while before the team is morphed to a new shape. It is always a balancing act of players and formations, form and function. I trust that the new man will manage the changes with his apparent studiousness and professionalism. I certainly liked what I had heard about him; his Mourinho-esque attention to detail, his obsessive devotion to the game, his management style.

It was a perfect evening for football. There was not a single cloud in the sky.

Eight o’clock was approaching fast.

By a strange quirk of fate, our first league game of 2016/2017 was another landmark game for me.

Just over two years ago, I had driven Glenn, Parky and PD in the Chuckle Bus up to Burnley for our away game at Turf Moor – the league opener – for my one thousandth Chelsea game. Here, in 2016, two years later, I had driven the same three friends up to London for our league opener against another team in claret and blue for game number 1,100.

A little coincidence there, for those that like them.

Let’s hope that this season ends in the same way as 2014/2015, eh?

(…incidentally, I don’t usually do predictions on here, but I had the top four for this new season as follows : 1 – Manchester City, 2 – Manchester United, 3 – Chelsea, 4 – Tottenham Hotspur).

Over in the far corner, three thousand away fans were sat and stood, with more than the usual number of flags. Maybe they made a special effort. Elsewhere, Stamford Bridge appeared full, save for a few late arrivals in the top rows of The Shed. Familiar flags were spotted.

Zola.

Tambling.

Ulster Blues.

Tim Rice.

As the teams entered the pitch, the mosaics in our end were furiously waved.

Three colours green.

Three colours white.

Three colours red.

“I tricolori.”

Maybe I need to buy myself a retro away scarf of 1973 red, white and green this season.

It was a grand old sight and I feverishly clicked away. I hoped that they would not be the most exciting snaps of the entire night. Flames were thrown up in front of the East Stand – just a little bit too much razzmatazz for my liking to be honest – and we watched as the teams went about their usual routines.

It was then time for Alan and myself to make some comments about the tin foil flags in our midst.

“Knowing Gary, he’ll be collecting these at the end of the game and will use them to wrap his Christmas presents.”

“Nah, he can wrap himself in these after his latest marathon. Or Snickers, or whatever they call it these days.”

Chelsea in the traditional blue, blue, white, and West Ham in their traditional claret and blue.

An opening game between two bitter rivals, just as in 2000 when Mario Stanic – remember him? – scored on his debut with a sublime volley, with a young Frank Lampard looking on.

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The game began – our season began – and we attacked the MH.  West Ham began on the front foot, but there was a noticeable increase in the intensity shown by our players. It was hardly a new set of players – far from it – as all were on our books last season apart from the new lad N’Golo Kante, but it was remarkable how we easily noted an extra desire, passion and zip.

Oh dear. I apologise now for the number of times I will write the words “passion” and “desire” this season.

Sadly, Kante was booked early on for a tackle on Andy Carroll.

I noticed how animated the new manager was. He had given up his grey training gear of pre-season for a dark grey suit, and black tie, and he certainly looked the part. His trademark stance seems to be him standing with one arm across his stomach, one hand up to his mouth, surveying all and sundry.

West Ham were soon into their tiresome tirade of Chelsea-obsessed songs.

“Fucking hell, sing some of your own songs, will you, it’s getting boring now.”

Although the formation was officially 4/1/4/1, I couldn’t really spot much of a difference from last season’s shape. Matic seemed to be alongside Kante. Maybe there was extra width. Hazard was soon twisting away from markers, turning on a sixpence, and creating chances. Diego looked keen, yet still showed his propensity to dribble, head-down, rather than bring another players in. Matic began well. Kante really took my eye though. Tons of energy, and there is not that Matic-like tendency to dawdle once in possession.

Touch, move, pass.

One, two, three.

Keeping the momentum going.

Of all people, Branislav Ivanovic, ghosting past his man, provided the first real chance for us this season, but his firmly-struck shot went narrowly wide of the near post, forcing a low save from Adrian.

We got in to the game.

Another Ivanovic shot was hardly worthy of the name.

We knew that Carroll would be a problem, but were also thankful that their star Dmitri Payet was only on the subs’ bench. Oh, while I am on the subject : “Achy Breaky Heart” at football.

Fuck off.

West Ham were stood in the Shed lower, but many chose to sit in the upper. There was not a great deal of noise from them.

Oscar went down after a clumsy challenge in the box, but neither Alan nor myself were too convinced that it was a penalty. Chances were at a premium to be honest. Diego was booked amid protests after. It was beginning to heat up.

Eden Hazard proved to be our talisman again and he burst through on goal but a fine shot was narrowly wide of the mark. How I love to see Eden tease his opponents. Often he slows and almost walks towards them, a hark back to the tricky tanner ball players much beloved in Scotland, the intricately skilled wingers such as Davie Cooper, Jimmy Johnstone, John Robertson, our own Charlie Cooke and Pat Nevin. Often Eden will almost lower himself, a crouch, in order to concentrate his thoughts on how to get past his marker. It is one of modern football’s most wonderful moments.

Eden versus his man. What will he do next?

I heard myself saying to Alan “how does he do that?” as he effortlessly swept past a defender. What a player he is when he is in the mood.

Diego fired over, but chances were still rare. It really was all Chelsea. West Ham were poor. They surprised me.

Late on in the first-half, Willian forced a save from Adrian from one of his trademark dead balls. Dave headed the resultant corner over.

All level at the break.

We were treated to Ricardo Carvalho at half-time..

We teased the away fans :

“Riccy Carvalho – he’s won more than you.”

No complaints at the interval.

PD, Glenn, Alan and myself – who sit all together – were happy with things.

I never like it when we attack The Shed in the second-half. It seems odd. Out of kilter. However, we were all howling with pleasure after Dave was bundled over just inside the box after a shot from Diego came back into play.

All eyes were on Eden as he placed the ball on the spot. For once, he blasted it high, and I am sure I was not the only one whose first thought was “oh no, he’s missed.”

We were 1-0 up and the stadium was alive.

Ronny : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Reggie : “Come on my little diamonds.”

We continued to press and Willian went close. West Ham, again, as if to ratify further, were nowhere.

For a while, we turned the tables on West Ham, and there was a prolonged Frank Lampard songfest.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

“He scored two hundred.”

It was lovely stuff.

Gary Cahill chased down a West Ham attacker and made a lovely defensive tackle. Alan and myself spoke how Conte’s intense training sessions over the summer may be bearing fruit already.

“Twelve months ago, he may not have been able to reach that.”

It was a good simple, clear sign that we were a far more focussed, fit and forceful team in this season’s opener. They were handing out free tins of “Carabao” before the game but I am sure that the team’s vim was not due to this new energy drink alone. Conte had got the team playing and how.

The game continued, again with only a few chances. Eden began to tire a little. Willian was having a quiet game. Matic slowed – if that is possible.

Payet, the danger man, came on.

With a quarter of an hour left, I remember thinking “bloody hell, Courtois has hardly had a single shot to save.”

Dave was adjudged to have raised a foot to Carroll, whereas it looked to us that the West Ham totem pole had stooped. From the free-kick, Payet forced a save from Thibaut. From the corner, we blocked the initial effort on goal, but the ball rebounded to ugly bald ginger goon Collins who slammed home.

Bollocks.

Alan : “from a free-kick that should not have been given.”

Ugh.

1-1.

Their first effort on goal.

Billericay Dickie, Dagenham Dave and Plaistow Patricia were making all the noise now.

“Arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks.”

Conte is not the typically cautious Italian and he soon replaced the quiet Willian with Pedro, always a willing worker.

Soon after, further attacking intent with two further substitutions; Batshuayi on for Oscar, who had shown a lot more bite than of late, and Moses on for the tiring Hazard.

This was the fabled 4/2/4, and we pushed and pushed. A forceful run from Moses, followed by a fine volley from Pedro, but his low shot flashed agonisingly past the far post.

Damn.

In the very last minute, a ball was pumped up to the new lad Batshuayi who managed to head on towards the waiting Diego Costa. Costa was a good thirty yards out, and had a lot to do, but West Ham seemed reluctant to close him down. With space ahead of him, Diego had time to stroke a shot towards goal. The ball hit the target and we erupted.

“Getinyoufuckingbeauty.”

Diego ran on down to Parkyville, but my photographs of his intense celebrations were too blurred, too fuzzy.

2-1 to us, oh you lovely man Diego.

It was not Tottenham last season but it was bloody close. The stadium echoed to an old favourite.

“And it’s super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC” and The Bridge was on fire.

A last chance – their second of the match? – fell to Carroll, but Thibaut fell on the ball and we could breath.

The whistle blew and we yelled our joy.

The manager’s emotional response to the winner was shown on the TV screens. Oh my goodness.

Ha.

This was a fine feeling alright. The boys were back in town and the new man Conte had pulled the strings to engineer a lovely win. “One Step Beyond” boomed and we bounced out of the stadium in very good spirits. The feel good factor was back. It felt oh-so good to be a Chelsea fan again.

Thanks Antonio, thanks boys.

A new love affair has been ignited. Let’s go.

See you all at Watford on Saturday.

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Tales From The International Champions Cup

Chelsea vs. Fiorentina : 6 August 2015.

This was a strange evening and a strange game.

In the current climate, a home friendly is a pretty rare occurrence anyway. With our predilection for foreign climes and summer tours, a warm-up match at Stamford Bridge has been a very rare event over the past decade or so. I didn’t bother with last season’s game with Real Sociedad and, if I am honest, the only reason that I decided to attend the game with Fiorentina was because I had attended our other three “International Champions Cup” games in the US. I set off from work, alone, at 3.30pm to complete the set.

My main concern for the evening was the probable traffic chaos in London likely to be caused by the planned one-day tube strike. I sped as quickly as I could along the M4. At Reading Services, I spotted a father and daughter in Chelsea blue.

“Thought I was the only one daft enough to go tonight.”

“Should be a good game.”

Ah, the game. I hadn’t thought much about it until then.

This would be our first ever match with the viola of Florence. My very first encounter with them was on a muggy Sunday afternoon in late May 1989, when I watched a dull 1-1 draw between Juventus and Fiorentina in the home end at Stadio Communale. Apart from my first-ever sighting of Roberto Baggio – the eventual transfer of him between the two clubs would heighten animosities which exist until this day – my main recollection from that balmy Italian afternoon took place with around fifteen minutes of the game remaining.

Around 1,500 Fiorentina paninari – Timberland boots, Best Company T-shirts, Armani jeans, Burlington socks, Invicta backpacks, Schott bomber jackets, sunglasses, attitude – got a signal from their leaders, or maybe a phone call from their Juve counterparts, and quickly packed up their banners in the away end and left the terraces en masse, intent on disturbing the peace of an Italian summer on their way back to the city’s train station.

Ten years later, I was in Turin again, when Juventus boasted Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry in their team, and watched as Antonio Conte scored a very late winner against Fiorentina. He famously went down in Juve folklore that afternoon by sprinting over to the visiting Viola fans and taunting them with a black and white corner flag.

As a Juve sympathiser, there was a frisson of excitement about seeing them again sixteen years later.

As expected, I did hit some slow-moving traffic, but further out than expected. Ironically, the last section into London stayed relatively clear. At 6.15pm, I was inside The Goose, but in the strangest of circumstances. Nursing my first SW6 pint of Peroni of the season, I soon realised that there was not one single person in the pub that I recognised. I felt like I was in a parallel universe. This was going to be a strange one alright.

Thankfully, a few friends soon arrived.

Mick mentioned that he might have to leave just after half-time because of the expected ninety minute wait at the two closest mainline stations. For once, I was glad that I was driving and the master of my own destiny. The Bristol Four soon arrived and we chatted about the pre-season. We briefly spoke about Kenedy, the Brazilian lad who appeared in our team against Barcelona in Maryland. We all agreed that we could not remember the last time that a “trialist” ever appeared in our team. It’s an odd one. Like something from the amateur days of the pre-war years.

Although I was not too bothered about seeing the introduction of the first team squad to the spectators at 7pm – a full hour before kick-off – I wanted to have a leisurely stroll down the North End Road and Fulham Road. I soon noticed US-style pennants hanging from street-lights celebrating our Championship of last season, with torso shots of all of our players looking all mean and moody, and intent on repeating in 2015/2016.

I approved. It added a little to the streetscape around Stamford Bridge.

It was difficult for me to judge the size of the crowd. I didn’t expect a sell-out, especially in lieu of the London Underground strike. The place seemed busy enough. I didn’t spot any Fiorentina fans outside the stadium. I had decided to purchase a ticket in the East Upper for a change. What with the chances of the modern Stamford Bridge being demolished within the next few seasons, it might turn out to be one of my last visits. I promised myself to take more than my usual share of photographs. A different angle, a different perspective, lovely.

I had a great position in the towering East Stand, in row seven towards The Shed. The place was filling up nicely. Flags had been positioned by each seat. It was soon obvious that there were many more youngsters in attendance than usual. By all accounts the pre-game introductions were a little over the top with their US-style razzmatazz. What next? Players being parachuted in from the skies above next season?

As kick-off approached, the area around myself was full. There were chattering kids behind me, plus many more within sight. The next generation was well represented and it was good to see.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture. I like the fact that each of the four stands are slightly different, with idiosyncrasies, yet there is a common design to all. I am stirred that the new stadium designs echo these slight variances. The usual banners were out, though I noticed a few – Captain, Leader, Legend for example – looking rather faded and forlorn.

Our team contained several surprises.

Begovic – Aina, Zouma, Terry, Traore – Mikel, Loftus-Cheek – Cuadrado, Oscar, Moses – Falcao.

It would be home debuts for four.

I am sure that Ola Aina is in for a fine future at the club, but my main worry is that his name contains too many vowels for a defender.

“Too exotic son. See if you can get yourself some consonants. Work on that and you’ll be fine.”

Am I the only one who thinks our home shirts and shorts are – nicely – a deeper and darker shade of royal blue this season? They are certainly darker than the mid-blue of 2012-2013. Fiorentina, sadly but not surprisingly, showed up in white / white / violet.

Asmir Begovic did well to get down low within the first minute to save a rasping shot from distance after a simple passing move cut into our defence. We then enjoyed long spells of possession and our best twenty-five minutes of the evening. With the sun setting in the north-west corner, lighting up the sky nicely, I was settling down and enjoying this. Victor Moses, one of the stars in the United States, was again showing real promise in his determination and desire. Ruben Loftus-Cheek was impressing with his finesse and strength. We were playing some nice stuff. We were treated to a lovely Rabona from Oscar on the goal-line to my left.

I commented to the young couple to my right “I can do that after seven pints.”

I detected a foreign accent in the chap’s confused response, so I then decided to talk my way through the game with the Shed season ticket holder to my left. We had a good old natter throughout the match.

Mikel had been doing the simple stuff well, but then caused much merriment with an effort on goal which more resembled a defensive tackle.

Fiorentina then gradually took hold of the game. They kept the ball well and our play deteriorated alarmingly. On the half hour, a long raking drive smashed against Begovic’ crossbar. We had been warned. Soon after, Begovic saved well but could not smother the ball leaving an easy tap-in for Rodriguez.

The Fiorentina manager – ex-Juventus player and ex- QPR manager Paulo Sousa – was watching down below from the technical area and was increasingly pleased with his team’s performance. The little knot of away fans, no more than 150 in the bottom corner of The Shed, roared with approval too. They were, surely, mainly ex-pats. There was one “Viola Club Stockport” flag.

Fiorentina gained control and we struggled. The game went flat.

The noise, hardly tumultuous, reduced too.

At the interval, the Chelsea Women – in coats, they must have been feeling the cold – were introduced by Neil Barnett with the recently-won FA Cup.

Mourinho changed the personnel at the break, with Azpilicueta, Cahill and Ivanovic joining Zouma in defence. Matic replaced Mikel. The impressive Moses was sadly replaced by Ramires after the second of two knocks.

In truth, the second-half resembled the second-half at Wembley on Sunday; we enjoyed the majority of the ball, but found it difficult to break the opposition down. The frustration was starting to seep down to the players from the stands. Ivanovic seemed to be, again, a main source of our attacks, but again annoyed me with his final ball. As the game progressed I saw him getting increasingly annoyed with things. On one occasion he turned to the bench and had a proper rant, his face clearly contorted with rage about something or other.

“He had a face like a bulldog licking piss off a nettle” as the saying goes.

The comparison with the cool and calm and seldom-flustered Azpilicueta on the other flank could not be more dramatic.

Jose Mourinho, too, seemed to be increasingly annoyed. There were wholesale changes from both teams on the hour mark – on came Willian, Hazard, Fabregas and Remy – and Mourinho took dislike to the amount of time that Sousa orchestrated a similar amount of team changes too. It turned out to be the longest break for substitutes I can remember.

Joaquin, a visitor to Stamford Bridge with both Real Betis and Valencia in previous years, appeared among the viola substitutes. It was one name that I recognised.

“What do you mean Giancarlo Antognoni doesn’t play for them anymore?”

With more established quality in our ranks, surely a goal – and the inevitable win on penalties – would come now. Chelsea controlled possession but seemed to take forever to get going, and I lost count of the number of times the ball was passed laterally. We did improve when Willian, Hazard and Fabregas linked on a few occasions, but chances were rare. A Gary Cahill header from a Fabregas free-kick went close, and we all wondered how Remy, on for the quiet Falcao, managed to shoot wide from close range.

A rather agricultural – no, bloody clumsy – challenge from Kurt Zouma on a poor Fiorentina player – caused much merriment in the seats around me. It was, quite simply, one of the ugliest tackles that I have seen for a while.

The atmosphere, roused at times, was pretty quiet now, and parents with young families began to leave early on their long and tedious journeys home. I had commented to the Shed Ender to my left that I was impressed with the attendance. It looked to be at the 35,000 mark. Imagine my surprise when a full house of 41,435 was announced. Again, even for a friendly game, tickets sold rather than spectators in seats is used. It’s an odd one. Undoubtedly, there were empty seats around the ground too. Even so, on a night of massive travel disruption, this was a great attendance.

Despite five minutes of extra time, no equaliser was forthcoming.

“We could have played until March and not scored.”

The Shed Ender agreed.

“Sorry for the cliché, but as so often happens in these pre-season games, there are more questions than answers.”

He agreed again.

“My biggest worry is that all three of our strikers might be a knock away from being side-lined for weeks.”

I was a little subdued on my slow exit from a warm and sultry Stamford Bridge. And although I wasn’t – honestly – reading too much in to our rather lacklustre performance against a well-drilled Fiorentina team, I knew full well that out there in cyberspace, thousands of virtual Chelsea fans were throwing themselves off the nearest bridge, building or balcony as we endured another pre-season loss.

How these people would have coped in 1975, 1979 or 1988 beggars belief.

I wanted to get home as quickly as I could. Sadly, the journey home turned into one of farce as the roadworks on the A303 meant that I was severely re-routed, almost as far as Southampton damn it, and didn’t get home until 1.30am. Others, living in London, were still catching one final night bus.

A strange evening indeed.

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