Tales From The Wrong Seat

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 21 January 2023.

I think that I am going to enjoy writing this one.

Going into our match at Anfield, there was much gallows humour about this being a mid-table clash, a battle for ninth position, and that some fancied our chances because “they are bloody worse than we are”. It must surely be a while since Liverpool and Chelsea have occupied such lowly positions ahead of a league encounter.

There was a nice little bit of symmetry ahead of the game; our first match this season was at Goodison against Everton and the match at Anfield would be our twentieth. Therefore, both halves of the current campaign would commence on Merseyside.

I was up early. The alarm sounded at 4.30am and after de-frosting the car and picking up a couple of tinned coffees for the journey at a local garage, I collected PD and then Glenn at 6am, and Lord Parky bang on 6.30am as planned.

We were full of talk about the club for the first half-an-hour, with Glenn bemoaning many in the media, both social and unsocial, for calling our new buying policy “scattergun” and with me being foolish enough to admit the fact that I fancied a win later in the day.

We stopped at Strensham on the M5 for a quick breakfast between 7.40am and 8am, and I then made a bee-line for Merseyside. As I slowed down to a halt to wait for a green light to turn onto Queens Drive, we spotted “The Rocket” pub to our left; the very pub where hundreds of Scousers had been stranded ahead of the Champions League Final in Paris last May, the victims of a prank by playful Evertonians.

At this moment, amidst a little side-chat about the merits of managers Thomas Tuchel and Graham Potter, and how fans have moaned about both, I summed things up as succinctly as I have ever done.

“Well, we’ve been going through a rebuild since Conte left. And since then, we have won the Europa League, the Champions League and are current World Champions. That’s not a bad rebuilding stage, is it?”

I was half-tempted to drive past the new Everton stadium at Bramley Moore Dock to check on its considerable progress since I visited the site in August, but we just wanted to get parked up and into Anfield. The five months that have elapsed since game one in August seemed like five minutes. I was parked up outside the away turnstiles at Goodison Park just after 10.30am; the price had increased from £10 in 2021 to £15 in 2023. Outside, the winter weather was biting hard. We headed off up the gentle slope to the top of Stanley Park with parts still touched by frost. The extension to the Anfield Road end, where we would be stationed, dominated my focus.

It was eleven o’clock. Just right. While I waited outside for a while to hand over a spare ticket, the others marched inside. Two Liverpool team buses appeared from my right and were then swallowed up by the huge shutter doors beneath the gigantic new stand. Mobile phones were held aloft by the hundreds of Liverpool fans. This must be a regular occurrence, part of the Anfield routine. But there was no real buzz about the place. Times must be hard at both ends of Stanley Park these days. Since my last visit, a mural of Ian Rush had been painted on the end wall of some terraced houses. There were voices and accents from everywhere.

The weather was tough. I have never seen so many North Face jackets and bobble-less hats.

I chatted to many fellow Chelsea fans.

“They are shite. They’re worse than us.”

“Yeah, I fancy us today, God knows why.”

Kim arrived and I handed her a ticket. At the security checks, I had the usual little panic that my camera would be shown the red card but the seemingly short-sighted security guard just frisked me without spotting the camera bag draped over my shoulder.

In.

I checked my ticket but soon spotted that I had mistakenly ended up with the ticket intended for Kim in row 20. Not to worry, Kim would be with Parky, John, Al and Gal down in row 7. Not a problem. There were only fifteen minutes to go so there was no time to waste. As I edged through the tight concourse, I was aware of a new song being enthusiastically chanted by the younger element.

…”said to me.”

I entered the familiar away end and my spot was in line with the touchline in front of the main stand, not as far jammed into the corner as I had feared. This was my twenty-sixth visit to Anfield, level-pegging with visits to Old Trafford; only five Chelsea wins at each venue, though. That pre-match hope for a win suddenly seemed unlikely.

There was rail-standing in the away quadrant now. Of all places, standing at Anfield. I never thought I would see it.

I once stood on the old Kop, though, and this was way different.

Joe Cole, Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand took part in pitch-side interviews. Joey was serenaded. And so was Gerrard. As he walked past us – he must have dreaded that – he momentarily cupped his hands over his ears.

The usual pre-match ritual at Anfield.

Flags on poles, banners, huge crowd-surfing mosaics, the teams, mascots, the PA announcer with ridiculously low voice, The Kop waiting for “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and scarves held aloft.

I remembered my first visit in April 1985 when a big pot of Crown Paint used to take pride of place on the centre spot.

Noticeably, I spotted the highest concentration of scarves in the lower corners of the main stand and the Centenary Stand – née Kemlyn Road – where those Rangers fans congregated in November 1985.

Our team?

I tried, again, to work it all out.

Kepa in goal.

A back four of Cucarella, Badiashile, Silva and Chalobah.

Lewis Hall was tucked into midfield, somewhere, maybe just alongside Jorginho.

A three of Mount on the left, Gallagher in the middle, Ziyech wide right.

Kai Havertz up top.

Liverpool’s team involved players such as Gakpo and Bajcetic, and these two were completely unfamiliar to me. They reminded me of the final hopeless selection of letters in a game of “Scrabble”

Here we were. At the football again. Waiting to see Chelsea again. Everyone together, the lucky ones, the lucky three-thousand. This meant that I was thankfully able to avoid the unappetising avalanche of buzzwords that the TV folk habitually, and without any self-awareness, foist on our poor ears.

“The press”, “transition”, “between the lines”, “little pockets”, “overload”, “high press”, “low block”, it goes on and on, like a relentless deluge of shite. On a recent “MOTD2” I am sure I heard Danny Murphy mention “overload” three times in ten seconds without the merest hint of irony.

Fuck adventures in TV Land.

We were at the football.

“Into them Chelsea.”

As the game kicked-off, no surprises us attacking The Kop, four spaces to my left were unfilled. Not long into the match, four young lads sidled in. Up in front of The Kop, my eyes straining in the mist, a corner came over from Conor Gallagher and in the resulting melee we gasped as the ball was thwacked against the left-hand post. A leg prodded the rebound home, the net gently rippling.

“GET IN.”

Now then dear reader, there have certainly been tough moments in my recent history when I have questioned my devotion to the cause, especially in the post-COVID era, and I have publicly shared my concerns about me losing the passion for football and maybe even Chelsea. So I am so pleased to report that at 12.33pm on Saturday 21 January in the Anfield Road Stand, there was no ambivalence nor doubt. I, like the thousands around me, was going fucking doolally.

My celebration of choice on this occasion was a Stuart Pearson fist pump, but a double one for good measure.

I turned to the lads to my left…”great timing.”

Alas, we then suffered that horrible delay that these days suggests that VAR was about to rear its ugly ahead once again.

When the goal was disallowed, Mr. Deep Voice on the PA mumbled something incomprehensible. There was no follow-up explanation on the screens. Unlike those in TV Land, I was left to ponder the mystery of why the goal was disallowed.

Modern football.

Unlike in our last visit in August 2021, there would be no Anfield goal for Kai Havertz this time.

Both teams started brightly enough, and Liverpool started to attack. I could hardly believe that James Fucking Milner was starting for them. Gakpo fired over. On a quarter of an hour, things were even.

We then hit a decent spell. There were a couple of lovely long bombs from Thiago Silva towards Kai Havertz, one slightly over hit, another better, but a slip from Mount when free. Havertz then played in Hall, but his shot from an angle was wild. There was a lovely cushioned lay-off from Havertz, a lot more physical in this game, for Gallagher. This was good stuff, or at least, better than we had been used to.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

Let’s sing that all season.

The home crowd was so quiet, easily the quietest that I had ever witnessed at Anfield. We were yet to hear the infamous “History” chant.

Two crosses from a reassuringly decent Ziyech caused a few concerns in the Liverpool box.

The new song was aired again and I spent a ridiculous amount of my time trying to work out the lyrics.

I liked the look of Benoit Badashile again, and even Marc Cucarella was impressing. The youngster Lewis Hall was having a tough game though. Silva was as imperious as ever. Gallagher was fantastic, charging balls down, running to close space, maybe not winning the ball, but forcing a mistake for others to gather the ball.

Liverpool did cut through us on a couple of occasions but their final passes, and shots, were poor.

Just before the half-time whistle, at last an audible chant from The Kop.

…”where we watched King Kenny play.”

Mo Salah took a touch when in previous years he might well have volleyed without much thought, and the ball curled high and wide.

Advantage Chelsea at the break? I think so.

At half-time, I noted empty seats in the afore-mentioned lower corners of the side stands, proof that these were hospitality areas in addition to the top tier of the Centenary and the middle tier of the main stand. Does this matter? It just shows how clubs are going after the extra-revenue these days. They’re going after day trippers, the tourists, the moneyed classes, the same old story.

Less and less seats for the average Joe. More and more for the average Johann, Jan, Jonty and Julian.

And although – I know from experience – many of English football’s overseas fans are wildly passionate about their teams, I shudder at the thought of a bigger and bigger percentage of ticket sales being aimed at the corporate sector. It used to be a game for the working classes. I can’t imagine what Bill Shankly would think of it all.

No wonder Anfield was quiet.

By the way, it made me chuckle that among the electronic messages that advertised hospitality packages on the perimeter of the pitch there was the stunning revelation that match day tickets were included. Thanks for clarifying that, Liverpool Football Club.

There were prolonged chants in honour of John Terry and it soon became known that our former captain was in the away section with us. I am guessing but I think he was maybe ten or fifteen yards away from me though I never saw him. I remember him at Burnley too.

I remembered a famous photo of Shanks in The Kop after he had left the club, unable to let go.

We began the second-half poorly, so poorly. The first two minutes seemed to take an eternity. There was an outrageous effort from Ibrahima Konate that was walloped from the half-way line towards Kepa at The Kop. Thankfully, it dropped just wide. There were a few more Liverpool attempts. This was desperate.

It was also still bloody freezing. It was bloody freezing in January 1983 too. There, that’s the 1982/83 reference taken care of.

On fifty-five minutes, Graham Potter replaced the struggling Lewis Hall with the Ukranian Mykhailo Mudryk, the undoubted subject of the new song, and from my vantage point I was able to capture him entering the field, his first touch, his first few dribbles and spins in the wide expanses of our left. In the end, my “wrong seat” had turned out to be a God send.

On the hour, Ziyech came in from his right wing position and drifted past player after player…each time the away end pleaded with him to shoot…and in the end his effort was typically high and wide.

Soon, Mudryk had us all purring, playing a “give-and-go” with Gallagher and spinning into the box, but we groaned as his effort only troubled the side netting. Soon after, Milner cruelly chopped him down. But Mudryk looked the business, he excited us all.

A rare Liverpool chance, but Kepa was able to thwart Gakpo’s goal-bound prod with a fine save.

We went on the attack again, and at times our play was a joy to behold. On seventy-one minutes, the best move of the match – full of quick passing – resulted in a Ziyech cross hitting the far post area but with nobody able to connect. A shot from Ziyech was blocked.

With ten minutes to go, more changes.

Dave for Trevoh.

Sadly, our defender had picked up a knock, such is life in the Chelsea trenches these days.

Carney for Mase.

Mount had been quiet for much of the game.

Pierre-Emerick for Kai.

I liked the effort from Havertz in this game. He was more involved than before. More up for the fight.

The away crowd were in fine form now. We had spotted a new desire in the team and we roared the team on with every sinew. Just the way it should be.

“You are my Chelsea, my only Chelsea. You make me happy when skies are grey. You’ll never notice how much we love you. Until you’ve taken my Chelsea away.”

Fantastic stuff.

Dave, off the pace at times these days, was excellent in his cameo at the end of the game.

I was convinced that we would strike at the death but our chances sadly petered out. But this was a fine day out from us. It felt, whisper it, that a corner had been turned.

I wished that I had sussed out the new song though.

We walked back to the car amid a lovely exuberance. This was a special feeling.

I pulled out of the car park at 3pm and circumnavigated Goodison Park’s four stands and it honestly felt as though I might never be returning. Those blue stands have given me plenty of memories over the years. Out onto the Bullens Road, past the Dixie Dean statue, past the Winslow Hotel, thoughts of my father in the Second World War, past the player’s entrance – I remembered a recent ‘photo of Pele walking across the street in 1966 – past the Holy Trinity statue, past the Gwladys Street turnstiles and away.

It took me a whole hour to get past The Rocket and onto the M62.

Everton were to lose 2-0 at West Ham of all places.

”Frank’s gone, isn’t he?”

The four of us stopped off at “The Vine” – yet again – at West Bromwich at around 5.30pm where we each enjoyed glorious curries.

Lamb Rogan Josh, Chicken Balti, Lamb Madras, Chicken Jalfrezi.

There was a quick review from myself of our starting; “Conor Gallagher an eight, everyone else sevens apart from Mount a six and Hall a five.”

There was more chat about the match. We all admitted that we might have been getting a little carried away about our performance – ”after all, it was only Liverpool” – and we were sure that “MOTD” would dismiss it as a poor game, but for those of us of a Chelsea disposition, we definitely spotted a new belief, a more rounded performance, and better quality. We mused that the last five games against Liverpool had all consisted of draws. Well, more or less.

There was patchy fog all of the way back, but horrific clawing fog around Frome.

I eventually reached home at 9.30pm.

It had been a good day.

Tales From The North By Northwest Corner

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 27 December 2022.

After a break of forty-five days, Chelsea were back in action. To be honest, compared to the extended hiatus due to COVID in 2020 and 2021, this had been a breeze. In fact, we had all agreed that after the Newcastle defeat, the third league loss in a row, we were clearly at a low ebb and so the enforced break came at just the right time. I know that I needed the rest too. The match at St. James’ Park was my twelfth in forty-one days.

Fackinell.

I didn’t watch a single second of the Qatar World Cup. Instead, the plan always was for me to get my football fix from watching my local team in November and December. However, due to Frome Town’s schedule getting hit with a few postponements, I only saw three games; a 4-1 home win against Slimbridge, a 0-1 defeat at Bashley and a 2-3 loss at Melksham Town. I did, however, attend a game up in Scotland in early December; a Queens Park match against Hamilton Academical that was played at their traditional Hampden Park home for the first time in a few seasons.

For the home game with Bournemouth we planned to be up in London at around midday. I had woken with not too much enthusiasm, and I must admit I felt a little guilty. Despite the fact that I hadn’t seen the team for a month or more, a home match against Bournemouth was hardly going to set the pulses racing. Such games are never a visceral assault on the senses, nor are any Boxing Day – which this effectively was – encounters these days, more’s the pity.

None of the passengers in my car were expecting too much from the game. We guessed it wasn’t set to be a feast of football. We just wanted a win, any win.

Three points was king.

But oh the guilt. I was only too aware that my enthusiasm was lacking and a dark cloud of guilt followed me up the A303 and the M3 into London. While PD and Parky began drinking at our usual hostelry, Glenn and I had decided to have a pre-game wander around Stamford Bridge and the local area. We found ourselves in the Copthorne Hotel way before the match day crowds would appear. The bar area was quiet. I spotted a favourite photograph on a wall, far from the madding crowd, and it is one that always brings a smile to my face.

I love this.

There is so much to take in.

The four players are John Boyle, Terry Venables, Ron Harris and Eddie McCreadie. The photo is from around 1965, and I always think that the photographer is about to get pelted with those recently formed snowballs. There are a couple of other players in the frame too. The pitch has evidently been cleared of snow and you just wonder what sort of a mammoth task that must have been. I have an image of the regular ground staff being augmented by a legion of apprentices, armed with brushes, rakes, spades and shovels, clearing the pitch in preparation of the upcoming game. I am sure that I can spy the traps of the greyhound racing beyond the players. The crush barriers on The Shed terrace are clearly those patented by Archibald Leitch, the Glaswegian architect responsible for so many of the old stadia in Britain, who not only designed stands and terracings, but crush barriers too. Those originals were eventually replaced in the mid-seventies by an altogether different design. I can see what might well be braziers, equally placed on the mid-terrace walkway, presumably lit with coal or wood to clear those walkways of snow and ice. And look at the Harlem Globetrotter shorts, which I remember, from colour photos in various publications, being red and red stripes. I can’t even imagine how Chelsea ended up with those.

Snow, striped shorts, snowballs and The Shed.

It’s a classic, eh?

Despite the brief appearance of some snow and some decidedly cold temperatures during the week before Christmas, this particular day was much milder, but with rain forecast to hit London later.

Glenn and I circumnavigated the stadium and I took a few photographs of the pre-match scene. We chatted a little about the club wanting to purchase the land currently owned by the Oswald Stoll Foundation, and we await further details of how all of that extra land might aid a stadium upgrade. If nothing else, it will surely assist in the thorny topic of entrance and egress.

There’s new signage atop the central column of the West Stand facade. God knows why.

We walked up the deserted King’s Road – admittedly the game was still four hours away – but bloody hell it was quiet. We stayed to the east of Stamford Bridge – Chelsea, not Fulham – and there was just no sign that there was a top-ranking game of football taking place half a mile away. Heading north to the Fulham Road, we stumbled across a previously unvisited pub, “The Sporting Page”, and we dipped in alongside four other drinkers. In my quest to visit every hostelry within two miles of Stamford Bridge, I had ticked another one off the list.

On our wander around the deserted streets of SW10, Glenn had admitted that he had been far from enthused about the game against Bournemouth and this made me feel a little better about myself…that I wasn’t in the boat alone.

We briefly touched on my retrospective of the 1982/83 season.

And so.

13 November 1982 : Barnsley 1 Chelsea 1 – 13,286.

My diary entry for this day starts with a brief synopsis of events at Oakwell.

“We were one-nil up at half-time so a bit fed-up we only drew 1-1. That’s our sixth draw this season. Gary Locke was sent off – pillock.”

Our goal was scored by Mike Fillery, who was probably our best player at the time and possibly the most adored. Born in Mitcham, he had come through the ranks and debuted during the end of the dreadful relegation season of 1978/79. He soon became a crowd favourite in the Second Division seasons that followed, where his stylish passing and scoring ability shone in many games. He was left-footed, and could piece together some lovely passes. He had a languid style, but was never one for a 50/50 tackle, and I can see him gliding around the pitch to this day.

20 November 1982 : Chelsea 1 Shrewsbury Town 2 – 8,690.

A week after, another Saturday, and my diary began with a depressing moan.

“How the hell can Chelsea lose at home to a snotty little team like Shrewsbury? That means that we have only won four games out of fifteen. And we are away to Rotherham next week. Oh dear. Please God don’t let Rotherham score six against us again. All I can say is that Chelsea must be shit.”

The seventeen-year-old me was clearly unimpressed. Indeed, this was a very poor result.  It was goal-less at half-time, and Colin Lee scored for us but the visitors nabbed two. Just as worrying as the result was the crowd figure. Although attendances had dipped to below 10,000 in the closing stages of the previous season – the nadir being 6,009 for the London derby with Orient – this was the first sub 10,000 gate of 1982/83. I remember being pretty depressed about the state of the club after this game and my previously positive spin on our squad seemed to be based on fantasy and not fact. I had been off school with mumps for a week too, so life was pretty depressing in late November 1982.

27 November 1982 : Rotherham United 1 Chelsea 0 – 8,793.

In the previous season, we had lost both games against Rotherham United by the horrific aggregate score of 1-10. We had lost 0-6 at Millmoor in October and then 1-4 at Stamford Bridge in March. The 0-6 loss is often cited as our most embarrassing defeat. I can understand that. In the circumstances, a narrow 0-1 loss in 1982/83 could almost be seen as a moral victory. Yes, dear reader, things really were that bad forty years ago. The game also marked the Chelsea debut of Mark Falco, on-loan from the hated Tottenham, and this was regarded as pretty much a low point in the credibility of the club. A loanee from Tottenham? Good fucking grief. My diary summed it up.

“A bit depressed about Chelsea. No promotion again.”

4 December 1982 : Chelsea 2 Burnley 1 – 8,184.

Out of nowhere, an upturn in my fortunes. Not only was a girl in the Lower Sixth, Rachel, showing interest in me – the fool – Chelsea managed to eke out a slender 2-1 victory against Burnley at Stamford Bridge. Goals from Micky Droy and David Speedie, both in the first-half, gave us three points and my diary even conceded that I was happy with the 8,184 gate as I had expected one of around 6,000. The game marked the home debut of Falco, and I can only imagine the horror. This time it was the turn for Colin Lee to get sent-off. But, the three points were all that mattered.

11 December 1982 : Middlesbrough 3 Chelsea 1 – 8,836.

My diary entries throughout the week detailed my futile attempts to summon up enough courage to ask Rachel out. A couple of words, exchanges, took place, but I am afraid my shyness had got the better of me. On the Saturday, Chelsea travelled up to a probably cold and hostile Ayresome Park where John Neal’s team lost 3-1 against his former club. Mike Fillery scored our solitary goal via a penalty. In the home team was former Chelsea youngster Paul Ward and in the ‘Boro team, future Chelsea midfielder Darren Wood. Amid my fluttering heartbeats, my diary ended with a blunt message.

“Chelsea sont merde.”

18 December 1982 : Chelsea 2 Bolton Wanderers 1 – 6,903.

On the Monday after the Middlesbrough game, at a Sixth-Form Disco, my shyness disappeared and all was good with the world. Rachel and I danced the night away. I always remember that as I tentatively approached her on the dance-floor for the first time, the bastard DJ started playing “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye, and there is no need for a punchline. Throughout the week, we chatted a little and exchanged Christmas cards.

On the day of the Bolton game, the last Saturday before Christmas, I was called in to assist at my father’s menswear shop in Frome. It was the first time that I had worked a shift in his shop. After a nervous start, I almost enjoyed it. I never really saw myself as a salesman. My father always had a little wireless tucked away on his desk in the small office and it would have been via this medium that I would have heard that Chelsea had scrambled a narrow 2-1 win against Bolton. The goals came from Colin Pates and an own goal. Bloody hell, a love interest and a Chelsea win. What on Earth was happening?

27 December 1982 : Queens Park Rangers 1 Chelsea 2 – 23,744.

On the Monday after the Bolton win, I had planned to meet Rachel in a pub in Frome with some friends, but she never showed up. Bollocks. My World caved in. I plucked up enough courage to ‘phone her the next evening but she was non-committal about future plans.

“Back to Chelsea, mate” I no doubt thought to myself. Rachel, in fact, favoured the hated Manchester United and there is no need for a punchline here either.

Christmas 1982 was a pretty dull one. However, I was pleased to be heading up to Stamford Bridge on 28 December for the Fulham game at Stamford Bridge. It would act as an emotional safety harness after my recent romantic rebuttal. However, the day before it we visited QPR for another West London derby. At Christmas 1981, we had won 2-0 on their plastic pitch, and – miracles at Yuletide – in 1982 we won again. The goals came from Clive Walker and David Speedie as QPR were beaten 2-1.

I always remember that the attendances on this particular day were monumental, and I was so pleased that football could still attract such numbers at a time when gates, not just ours, were plummeting.

These were the First Division games, and the attendance at St. Andrews really shocked me; it was almost three times their average.

Arsenal vs. Tottenham – 51,497 /average 24,153.

Birmingham City vs. Aston Villa – 43,864 / average 15,593.

Brighton vs. Southampton – 21,794 / average 14,673.

Ipswich Town vs. Norwich City – 29,596 / average 19,679.

Liverpool vs. Manchester City – 44,664 / average 34,836.

Luton Town vs. Watford – 21,145 / average 13,429

Manchester United vs. Sunderland – 47,783 / average 41,574.

Nottingham Forest vs. Coventry City – 24,487 / average 17,567.

Stoke City vs. Everton – 25,427 / average 16,631.

West Bromwich Albion vs. Notts. County – 17,756 / average 15,258.

West Ham United vs. Swansea – 23,843 / average 22,774.

In retrospect, they don’t look too large do they? But in 1982/83, the average gate in Division One was just 20,158. My diary noted that I hoped for 20,000 for the Chelsea vs. Fulham game on Tuesday 28 December 1982.

From a Christmas past, to a Christmas present.

We headed west to Stamford Bridge and the pubs of Fulham. We were soon back in familiar territory.

Down in deepest SW6, at “The Eight Bells”, we joined forces with PD and Parky, alongside Salisbury Steve. This pub was pretty quiet too. But it was good to be back. It is the epitome of the word “cosy”; wooden-panelled walls were festooned with old prints of old river traffic and old London scenes, tables, settles and chairs were squeezed miraculously in, a chalkboard described the food on offer, pint glasses and wine glasses were stacked above the bar, a Christmas tree twinkled in the corner. I half expected Bob Cratchit to hobble in and ask for a pint of porter.

Outside, the rain was falling. It was time to make a move.

We were inside Stamford Bridge with well over half-an-hour to go. The team was announced and it looked like a standard 4/3/3.

Kepa

James – Silva – Koulibaly – Cucarella

Zakaria – Jorginho – Mount

Sterling – Havertz – Pulisic

Before the game, we observed a minute of applause for George Cohen, a member of the England 1966 World Cup winning team who recently passed away.

RIP.

A quick scan around. A few empty seats. Around two thousand away fans. The night had fallen. The rain continued.

However, my pre-match vibe hadn’t really improved.

“We’re World Champions, but we’re half a team.”

A few agreed.

My match day companions in the North by Northwest corner of Stamford Bridge arrived.

John, Gary, Alan, PD, Clive, JD, Kev and Anna, Paul.

For the first time in ages, Glenn was down in The Shed. Since the rebuild in 1997, we all agreed that he had only seen a game down there once before; in the upper tier alongside Alan and myself for the Vicenza game on a rainy night in 1998. On this occasion, he was a few yards away from Parky.

Despite my negativity, we began brightly, less laboured than in recent games, and a thrusting run from deep from Christian Pulisic showed our intent. There was an early Bournemouth free-kick from Phillip Billings that Kepa easily saved. A strong low cross fizzed in from our right but there was nobody in the box to connect. Soon after, a header from kai Havertz did not worry Mark Travers in the Bournemouth goal. A fine ball in from Kalidou Kouilbaly set up Pulisic but as his shot was released, there appeared to be a shirt pull. Alas, no penalty was given. But this was a good positive start from us.

Soon after, on sixteen minutes, while Alan and I were abusing Clive for watching Arsenal on TV, a nice move developed. Mount to Raheem Sterling and a low skidder of a cross that had just enough legs and drift on it to reach Kai Havertz, who delicately prodded it home.

Phew.

The stadium, however, was hardly bubbling over with noise.  But things would improve ten minutes later when a move again developed down our right. A neat series of passes moved the ball on and Havertz kept the move alive. The ball was pushed back by Havertz to Mount and his sweetly-placed shot nestled inside the right-hand post.

Excellent stuff.

There were a few late chances for us as the first-half was played out, with Denis Zakaria looking a fine player in midfield and Thiago Silva as impressive as ever in defence. Travers saved well at the near post after a strong shot towards goal from Sterling. Another penalty shout for a foul on Havertz was waved away.

As the referee blew for the half-time whistle, I was full of praise.

“Nice one Chels. Well done.”

Alas, the second-half did not run along similar lines. After just eight minutes into the second period, a player went down on the far touchline. A quick scan of other players confirmed my darkest fears.

“It’s Reece.”

He walked off and we wondered how serious this latest setback would be. He was replaced by Dave.

A lovely move ended with a Zakaria shot being deflected over and we enjoyed a little pressure. On fifty-eight minutes Havertz forced his way into the box with a strong dribble but screwed his shot wide.

An effort from Mount, a wild shot from Pulisic, a header from Zakaria and that was about it.

We really faded in the last quarter, inviting them on, and barely able to maintain possession when needed. Too often our passes were mishit, too often we gave them too much space.

Some changes.

Conor Gallagher for Zakaria.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for Pulisic.

Trevoh Chalobah for Sterling.

A fine save, down low, from Kepa at his near post kept Bournemouth at bay, but they definitely finished the stronger. In their Denis the Menace colours, I half expected them to claim a goal to set up a nervous finale. Kepa certainly earned his colours late on. Thankfully, their menacing came to nothing.

Chelsea 2 Bournemouth 0.

We climbed to eighth.

I battled some awful weather along the M4 on the drive home, but thoughts were already on our next match.

“It’s great that we have a game at Forest next. It’s not a new ground, but it seems like it. A new experience. Our first visit in decades. Just what we need to keep our spirits up. And our interest.”

See you there.

xxx

Tales From One Over The Eight

Brighton And Hove Albion vs. Chelsea : 29 October 2022.

So this was it then. The ninth and final game of the month; a trip down to Sussex-by-the-Sea and a match against Graham Potter’s previous team Brighton & Hove Albion. Of the nine fixtures, six would be away from Stamford Bridge but despite this, as far as gathering results, this had been a fine month with six wins and two draws thus far. 

Brighton is a fair old stretch from Somerset.

Or rather, Lewes and Falmer. We wouldn’t be touching the actual city of Brighton.

I set off from my house at 7.45am, and I predicted that I’d be pulling into the car park at Lewes train station at around 11.30am. With me were P-Diddy, Lord Parky and Sir Les. Between the four of us, we have well over two hundred years of Chelsea support.

The weather forecast was decent. I packed a jacket but wasn’t sure that I’d honestly need it. Last season’s trip to the Amex was not a good memory for me. We drew 1-1, no problems with that, but as the game progressed I felt worse and worse. I just wanted to leave. It would transpire that I had caught a stomach bug and would be off work for a week. Grim memories.

1982/83 produced some grim memories too. My fortieth anniversary wallow in our worst ever season continues with a couple of games from that season.

On Saturday 23 October 1982, Chelsea played Charlton Athletic at Stamford Bridge in a Division Two fixture. All the talk leading up to this game focussed on the visitors’ imminent signing of the former European footballer of the year Allan Simonsen. The Danish international was out of favour at Barcelona after the signing of Diego Maradona from Boca Juniors. Spanish clubs at the time were only allowed to field two foreigners and he found himself down the pecking order behind Maradona and the German Bernd Schuster. In a move that I still find bizarre forty years later, he was due to sign for Charlton but the registration was delayed and his debut came a short while after. Looking back, it is hard to believe that the English Second Division in 1982/83 played host to two former European footballers of the year; Allan Simonsen from 1977, Kevin Keegan from 1978 and 1979. Before a crowd of 14,492, Chelsea won 3-1 with goals from John Bumstead, Pop Robson and a screamer from Colin Pates. That evening in Frome, my former love interest Julie made an appearance at a school disco on a brief return to the town and I probably uttered and stuttered less than ten words to her all night. That particular romance was over and I am still hurting now.

During the following midweek, Chelsea won 2-1 at Tranmere Rovers in the League Cup in front of 4,579 with a brace from the veteran Robson giving the club an easy aggregate win and a place in the next round.

Les had been over in Salzburg too, and as I ate up the miles we shared a few tales from Austria. My route took me up the M3, around the M25 and then south on the M23. One sight thrilled me; the road undulating over a series of hills as the South Downs lay ahead. It was just one of those moments that fill me with a sudden and odd burst of pleasure.

Football, travel, the combination of the two and the realisation that this lark is still a joy.

Parky shared a couple of songs from The Jam on his ‘phone as I drove into Lewes from the A27.

“News Of The World.”

“That’s Entertainment.”

As I promised myself, I reached Lewes train station car park bang on 11.30am. Just after, the four of us were drinking in “The Lansdown” pub which had just that minute opened. There were a few Chelsea already there. The first song on the pub’s juke box?

“That’s Entertainment.”

Talk about continuity.

There was a little chat with Cath, Dog and Mark, then another Mark, then Walt. Walt spoke how he wasn’t exactly overcome with enthusiasm for this game and I knew what he meant. Sometimes, you just don’t feel it. Since going away to Austria, I had been getting by on less than sleep than normal. When my alarm sounded at 6.30am – an hour earlier than on workdays, damn it – I just felt tired, so tired. The thought of driving seven hours to-and-from Brighton didn’t exactly have me brimming with excitement.

“But then you see the lads, share some laughs, take the piss out of each other, touch on the game, make plans for the day, reminisce, you’re soon back at it again…”

While the other three stayed inside, I was on my travels. It was glorious outside. From our fleeting glimpses of Lewes on the last few visits, it looked a lovely and historic town. I made my way over the river to a pub called “The John Harvey” where I was meeting up with my Brighton mate Mac and a few of his pals. A chap from Houston in Texas, Alex – a “Facebook” acquaintance – was on his way too, although he was clearly suffering from the same logistical trauma that we experienced between Munich and Nuremburg because he was originally waiting for me in the Lewes Road Inn in Brighton rather than Lewes, the town.

At around 1pm we all met up and we stood outside in the warm sunshine exchanging stories and laughs.

Alex is from Moscow but has worked in other countries for many years. He told a nice story of when he was working in Ireland in around 1992 and a moment that sparked an interest in Chelsea. He was in a bar, Chelsea were on TV, a live game I think, and he recognised someone he knew. It was Dmitri Kharin, our Russian goalkeeper, who he played football with as a teenager. He still had his ‘phone number and they spoke but I don’t think that the two of them ever met, certainly not at a Chelsea game.

We spoke about our first experiences of live football.

My mother and I with a bag of cherries at my first ever match, a Frome Town game in 1970.

Mac with his father at the old Goldstone Ground in 1966 when he was just five, and him being in awe of the whole event. But also a few years later in 1973, when he happened to be at the Brighton ground when newly arrived manager Brian Clough gathered together around thirty young boys outside the entrance and gave them a talk about how he wanted the team to play and, basically, his vision for the future.

Those memories, those feelings for football, these shared stories. Those emotions that get stirred. The friendships. Being among fellow supporters of the game, those that travel to support their team whenever they can. That shared bond.

Ah, football, you beautiful thing.

You beautiful game.

There was a brief mention of the local stadium, the home of Lewes Football Club, which was recently voted the greatest football ground in Britain. Its name is The Dripping Pan, which warrants a medal by itself. Maybe Frome Town will play there in an FA Trophy game one of these days. It looks a cracking venue.

Rush, rush, rush, I know needed to get my arse down to the Amex where I was meeting up with my mates Paul – Benches 1984 – and Andy – Black Bull 1989 – and Andy’s son before the game to sort out tickets. The weather was still warm, so I was able to drop a pullover and a light jacket in my car. A simple T-shirt would suffice.

Alex and I caught the 2.22pm train to Falmer and were soon waking up to the Amex.

I met up with my pals and there was just enough time for a quick photo outside. I had no time to go through the nonsense of yet another tiresome bag search, so I blindsided my way in past two stewards whose gaze was elsewhere.

It was the textbook move of a devious and cunning “false nine.”

Anyway, I was in.

I soon made my way to my seat, tucked to the right-hand side of the goal this year. I half-expected the surroundings of the Amex to rekindle those sickly feelings of last winter, but I was just glad to be healthy, and rejuvenated after a few “diet Cokes” in the two pubs.

Mac – soon spotted by me in the lower tier of the surprisingly large three-tiered stand to my left – had hoped that there would be no booing of Potter by sections of the home fans. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t. In fact, it’s pretty hard to imagine the Brighton fans booing anyone, Crystal Palace apart. They are a gentle bunch.

The team line-ups were shown on the TV screens at either end of the stadium.

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Cucarella

Pulisic – Kovacic – Loftus- Cheek – Sterling

Mount – Gallagher

Havertz

Or something like that.

An Italian flag floated over the heads of those in the home end opposite, marking the arrival of their new manager Roberto de Zerbi.

“Sussex By The Sea” on the PA. Some rainbow-coloured flags were waved on another “Rainbow Laces” day.

“Hey Jude” was aired and we hijacked it once again.

We were dressed in the “muted beige” third kit for the first time and you have to wonder why. Brighton were wearing a jersey with very broad stripes, and it just didn’t look right, with an odd yellow trim. Last year they played in blue shorts. This year they were in white shorts. That lack of an adherence to an established kit would annoy me.

The game began.

And how.

Brighton were breezy. They came at us as if their lives depended on it, and perhaps they did. Thiago Silva miraculously headed away two goal-bound efforts from Leandro Trossard and then the wonderfully named Pervis Estupinan right underneath the cross-bar just a few yards away from us.

A couple of minutes later, they came at us again with Silva being pick-pocketed by Trossard. A neat pass inside by Kaoru Mitoma set up Trossard to round Kepa with some footwork that Fred Astaire would have been pleased with and slot the ball home. This was a real hammer blow. The home fans bellowed as I saw the scorer gurn undeniable pleasure.

Fackinell.

It was all Brighton in that torrid first third of the first-half, and they enjoyed a fair few corners to augment their dominance. From one that was whipped in towards the near post, a Brighton player flicked it the ball on. Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s unfortunate knee-jerk reaction meant that the ball flew past a stranded Kepa.

The home stands were roaring again.

“You’re getting sacked in the morning.”

We had nowhere to hide.

I said to Gary “this could be a rout, this.”

At last, we enjoyed a spell of steadying the ship, with a little more possession. One fine move developed through the middle with Raheem Sterling setting up Conor Gallagher who shot directly at Robert Sanchez. His reaction save allowed the ball to fall for Christian Pulisic. However, he was unable to adjust and his volleyed effort flew past the near post.

The Chelsea support got it together in an effort to rally behind the team.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

But all was not well on the pitch. Marc Cucarella was having a torrid time, and the raids down the Brighton right were leaving him exposed time and time again. I wondered if he was the modern equivalent of Robert Fleck, playing well against us but not so great for us. But where was the cover? He was continually caught ought, but so too was Trevoh Chalobah by Estupinan down the Brighton left. I hadn’t seen our defence run ragged like this for ages.

But the shape seemed to be shapeless. From my far-from-ideal position in row two, it looked like the two appointed wing backs Sterling and Pulisic were never part of our defensive plan. Where were they?

They were so far forward in that opening spell that they might well have been promenading up and down on the Brighton seafront, and just about to dip into the Royal Pavilion. Or maybe having a flutter at the Brighton racecourse. Or re-enacting a few scenes from “Brighton Rock” or “Quadrophenia.” I can just see Pulisic as a bell-boy.

Had they been told to play so forward or were they too lazy to track back? It was a mystery. Answers on the back of a Donald McGill postcard.

Gallagher then glanced a header goal wards but Sanchez saved Brighton again. Then a Kai Havertz effort was tipped around the post.

Brighton hit a post.

Our play wasn’t worthy of the name at times.

“Is Mount playing” I asked Gary.

Just before half-time, we groaned as we witnessed a trademark break down our right with tons of space for Brighton to exploit. I leant forward to get a better view but wished I hadn’t. A low cross from Estupinan was drilled into the box where Chalobah slide to block but could only divert the ball past the hapless Kepa.

Fackinell.

Absolute gloom at the break.

Gary : “I’ll take 3-0 now.”

Indeed, the real worry was of more goals to follow, a cricket-score. Back in the West Country, Frome Town were losing too, 1-3 down at half-time in a derby at Paulton Rovers.

I had spotted that when Kepa sprinted out for a long ball in the first period, he appeared to pull up as if he had sprained something. He did not appear for the second-half, with Edouard Mendy appearing between the sticks at the other end. We moved to a back four with Loftus-Cheek slotting in at right-back. I was reminded of a line from Eric Morecambe.

“We’ve got all the right players. But not necessarily in the right positions.”

Skippy from Brisbane – last seen on these shores at Middlesbrough, but recently in Salzburg – suddenly appeared behind me and I shook his hand.

Not long after I whispered to Gary “get a goal now and we’re back in this”, Gallagher – possibly the best of a poor lot in the first-half – sent over a teasing cross for Havertz to head home powerfully at the far post.

Bosh.

I turned to Skippy : “You’re not going anywhere. You’re a good luck charm.”

Our form definitely improved, with Mount a lot more involved, pushing the team one. A half-chance for Havertz.

Just after the hour, two changes.

Ben Chilwell for Cucarella.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for the utterly woeful Sterling.

The newly-introduced striker ran at the Brighton defence and shot low from the outside of the box but the ‘keeper was equal to it. Shots from Chilwell and Mount were easily dealt with. We kept pushing forward, but I was never convinced of any “Cardiff 1984” style comeback. Brighton were happy to defend and catch us on the break.

A Havertz shot was skied in front of us.

In the last ten minutes, two more changes.

Armando Broja for Pulisic.

Hakim Ziyech for Gallagher.

I looked over to my left and spotted my old pal Chopper from Greenwich Village in New York, veteran of many a trip to these shores to see us play. I hadn’t seen him for years.

The minutes clicked past and by now our away end resembled the arse-end of a wedding reception, with seats left empty and guests already on their way home, the best man speech long-forgotten, debris everywhere, people shuffling away with blank stares on their faces.

Up the other end, Mendy made a fine save to thwart Julio Encisco but Pascal Gross was on hand to tuck in the rebound.

Brighton 4 Chelsea 1.

Our ninth game in October had resulted in our first loss, and our first loss under Potter.

One over the eight had been too much for us; one game too many, too many beers at that wedding reception.

We slumped off home.

To complete a miserable afternoon of football, I checked my phone.

Paulton Rovers 3 Frome Town 2.

It was a long old trip home, but a short stop outside Shoreham for some food – “saveloy, chips and curry sauce please” – helped alleviate some of the doom and gloom.

I reached home at about 9.30pm.

Next up, a dead rubber game in the Champions league against Dinamo Zagreb, our position at the top of our group table already determined.

Into November we go.

LEWES

FALMER

Tales From Platform 11 And Platform 25

FC Red Bull Salzburg vs. Chelsea : 25 October 2022.

When we heard the dates for the games in Group E of this season’s Champions League, my first task was focussed on sorting out Milan. I am, after all, used to just attending one away game of this stage in the competition. But after discussion with the Paul and Parky, I then turned my attention to the away match at FC Red Bull Salzburg. It took a while to resolve but I eventually sorted out a trip for us all.

2022 (Milan and Salzburg) would join 2015 (Porto and Haifa) and 2017 (Rome and Baku) as the only years that I would complete two of the three group phase games. I am in awe of those that continually attend all three, and in absolute awe of those who rarely miss any European away games.

Quickly, then, after the home game with Manchester United on the Saturday came a trip out to Austria on the Monday.

I collected my fellow troops late on Monday morning and we headed up to Heathrow where a British Airways flight to Nuremburg in southern Germany would take off at around 3.45pm. There was much traffic in the last section of the trip east and we arrived a little later at Terminal Five than planned, but all was OK. I had hoped for something a little more substantial on the outbound flight than a packet of crisps and a glass of water but “hey ho.” A fortnight after I was looking down on the port of Dover en route to Turin, I was looking down on it again, though from a much higher elevation. We had left a little later than planned but the pilot clipped thirty minutes off the flight time. We touched down at Nuremburg airport at 6.45pm.

We caught a cab to our digs – a really nice apartment in the middle of an industrial estate – and then soon headed for some drinks. We stopped at a little neighbourhood bar en route to a U-Bahn station for the first drink of the trip, and I had to conjure up some German for the first time in ten years. Amazingly, I realised that the very last time that my little tootsies had been on German soil was the day after a certain game in Munich in 2012. Nuremburg city centre was pretty quiet. We had further drinks in three bars and the lagers, of course, went down well.

I was last in this old city in the summer of 1985. I had stopped off on a month-long Inter-Rail trip to primarily visit Zeppelin Field where Hitler held those rallies in the horrific days of the Third Reich. I traipsed all over the southern half of the city on a Sunday afternoon. Eventually I found it all. The Grosse Strasse was still in place, as was the Congress Hall, and the tribune and podium remained. I clambered up on to the very podium where Hitler addressed his followers. It was, I have to admit, a very eerie sensation.

It pains me to report that a Chelsea mate, a Jew, was abused after a recent game by some of our so called supporters.

Words fail me.

I spoke to Paul and Parky about Hitler’s plans to build the biggest stadium of them all, just to the west of the Grosse Strasse – “Deutsches Stadion” – which would have held 400,000 in a huge horse-shoe shape, but this monster was never built. It would have been the biggest stadium ever.

I saw their eyes glaze over before me.

Sadly, my hunt for a German sausage, a crusty bread roll, with some sauerkraut and a dab of mustard did not materialise. We made do with a chicken kebab.

The wurst was still to come.

…more eyes glazing over.

On the Tuesday, the day of the game, we took the U-Bahn into town and caught the 8.12am train south to Munich. It was a quick and easy service and only took an hour or so. I tried to snooze a little. Outside there was mist and fog, with limited visibility.

But I was awake to see a gorgeous image that I think will remain in my memory forever. Looking out to my right, in the middle of a field shrouded in mist, a lone white church tower stood, with sunlight crashing against it.

It took my breath away.

I quickly thought about my two previous games in Austria.

1994/95 : Austria Memphis 1 Chelsea 1 and two words – “John Spencer.”

2016/17 : Rapid Vienna 2 Chelsea 0 and another two words – “shite friendly.”

There was a quick turnaround at Munich’s Hauptbanhof, a place that I remembered not only from post-match meanderings in May 2012, but from my wanderlust years of my youth. My most common trip in those days was Milano Centrale to Munich Hauptbanhof, via a change at beautiful Verona. It afforded me a fine sleep between Verona and Munich. I must have travelled that route ten times or so.

Our onward leg left from Platform 11, right on the southern edge of the main section of the station, which – I have to remark – was not as large as I remembered it. Nothing on the scale of Milan’s beauty anyway.

Platform 11 brought back a funny memory or two from late September 1987.

Ian, Trev and I – three college mates, as featured in the Milan episode – had spent the evening at the city’s famous Oktoberfest. We were blitzed. Four had consumed massive steins apiece. We were walloped. I am not sure how, but I walked away with two “Spatenbrau” steins, the others had one apiece.

Fellow travellers were slumped, snoozing, comatose, all over the station, a scene that was repeated after the 2012 game where Glenn and I tip-toed among Bayern fans on the way to the left-luggage lockers.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, in a beer-induced haze, my two companions first lost their left-luggage keys, but eventually found them. Trev was out of money so decided to catch an overnight train to Paris and head back to the UK early. Ian and I would travel to Hamburg. But I then realised that I had lost my wallet and Inter-Rail card and that Trev must have had them both; he was already asleep and far from impressed when I woke him. It was lucky that I had awoken him to be honest. He was on the wrong train so I quickly hooked him off. By sheer luck, I had rescued him just in time. We all then decided to catch an overnight train to Vienna to get some sleep after the Hamburg train never materialised.

We slept like babies.

When we woke, all was still. Ian and I presumed that we had miraculously arrived in Vienna. Trev, bless him, thought that he was newly arrived in Paris.

I looked outside.

We were still stuck on platform 11 at Munich.

Fackinell.

My only explanation for this is that the Germans, bless them, had put on train compartments for revellers to sleep in overnight during Oktoberfest.

But none of us never found out for sure.

Later that day we headed up to Stuttgart and Dortmund to see a football game that had already taken place.

Drink. What a perilous friend.

Back to 2022, we arrived at Salzburg train station at just before 11am. The last few miles of the jurney had been simply magnificent. The Alps to the South were just splendid. What a joy to travel in support of our team.

Salzburg. I was last here with my then girlfriend Judy, en route to a few days in the Alpine resort of Kaprun in late 2010. I had dropped into Salzburg from Vienna once in the ‘eighties by train, I think I never left the train station, but stayed an afternoon in the city on a day trip with my parents in 1977 from Seefeld in the Austrian Tyrol.

We picked up our match tickets at the quaintly named Fanny von Lenhert Strasse – I heard we had sold all 1,500 – and then quickly nabbed a cab to take us to our digs, a one room apartment a mile outside the city centre. Within an hour of arriving in Salzburg, we were sat at a table in a local restaurant drinking a pint of Stiegl, awaiting the arrival of plates of pork schnitzel with parsley potatoes.

The beers went down well. I remembered the beer from 2010.

The food was gorgeous too.

Fantastic.

We walked into town and soon spotted some friendly faces outside a sun-kissed bar in the square next to the train station.  It was about 1pm.

“Corner Am Banhof” was to be our base for around two hours. It was bliss. Although our friends Alan, Gary, Daryl, Nick and Pete were down in the old town, where I had visited with mater and pater forty-five years ago – I remember a castle atop a hill and Mozart’s birthplace and lots of antiquity – we found it hard to move. Leigh and his son Darren invited us over to share a table and their two friends from Norway had brought them a bottle of “Fisk” to consume; a heady drink consisting of eucalyptus, liquorice, menthol and vodka. The bottle was shared.

“It’s like getting pissed on Lysterine.”

A local woman, with a shapeless hat, kept pestering us for cigarettes and money.

Leigh’s son Darren asked me if I knew who she was.

“Badly Drawn Girl.”

Friends of Leigh and Darren from Basingstoke called in, suffering a little from a Stiegl brewery tour on the Monday.

Talk of alcohol, talk of football, talk of alcohol again.

The sun beat down. My face was heating up.

“You love the Limoncello, Leigh.”

“Love it? He bought the T-shirt.”

Leigh, wearing a vivid yellow Stone Island T-shirt, beamed in the autumnal sun.

Many friends drifted in and away. A group of Chelsea supporters were sat across the way. I felt sorry for the lone bartender. She was pulling pints of “Stiegl” at record speed.

It was time to move on. We had heard that some friends were massing at the “Shamrock” in the old town so another cab was hailed. We usually avoid Irish bars, preferring local ones, but the weight of friendship was pulling us. Inside, there were more familiar faces.

Fifteen minutes, we sauntered into the “Shamrock” and yes, faces everywhere.

Cathy and Dog, Josh and Andy from LA, the Gloucester boys, Big Rich, George from Prague, Charlotte, Donna and Paul from Somerset, Skippy from Brisbane, the famous Druce brothers.

The drinks flowed. Smiles and laughter. We stayed around two hours.

Andy led the march to a cab rank and we hopped in. Andy, now a family man, used to be ever present at games at the Chelsea pub in Orange County but can’t attend so many these days.

“I miss the sticky floors.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

It took forever, maybe forty minutes to travel just a few miles. We were dropped off outside the Red Bull Arena to the west of the city centre with about forty-five minutes to go before the game was to begin at 6.45pm. This would be the second Red Bull Arena that I would have visited after the one in Harrison in New Jersey in 2015.

The Red Bull franchise, for the want of a better word, has many enemies in the world of football. Since taking over at Austria Salzburg in 2005, the club changed colours from violet and white to red and white – a sure way to upset existing fans, eh? – and have hoovered up titles ever since; thirteen since 2005.

A breakaway club – SV Austria Salzburg – was soon formed and there are factions within the current sporting landscape of the city.

I was reminded of a conversation that I had in a Viennese bar en route to Bratislava in 1997. I was chatting to an Austria Memphis fan – sponsorship has long been part of this nation’s football scene, this club is now known as Austria Vienna but was temporarily named after a cigarette brand – and he spoke of a pre-season tournament that used to take place between teams in Europe that played in violet, that rarest of football colours. The three teams that I remembered were his own Austria Memphis, Anderlecht and Fiorentina. I suspect that a fourth team was Austria Salzburg.

Reb Bull Salzburg fans hated the way Red Bull Leipzig stole some of their best players since its formation in 2009; seventeen all told. This can’t be how football will be run in future generations, can it? There is no more hated club in Germany than Red Bull Leipzig. The fans of Locomotive Leipzig must loathe the club like no other team.

I guess that Red Bull Salzburg are equally loathed in Austria.

I am sure it wasn’t by design, but we ended up virtually circumnavigating the stadium which was built in 2003. We set off outside the east stand, bumping into fellow Chelsea on the way, before finally ending up outside the away entrance in the south-western corner. A factory was pumping flumes of smoke into the bright blue sky near the stadium, and as we walked underneath the dark stands, walkways above allowed fans, presumably enjoying pre-match festivities in adjacent corporate blocks, to traverse into the seating area. They resembled skywalkers. There was something bleak and futuristic about this, almost dystopian, an odd image that I had to capture on film.

Fritz Lange’s “Metropolis” as a football game? Maybe. He was born in Vienna. Maybe he knew something.

Chelsea played a pre-season game against this team at this stadium in July 2019; a 3-0 win. I am sure nobody I know went.

We were inside with about half-an-hour to go. The Chelsea support was split into two. We were based in the rather dark and dingy lower corner at the southern end. I took many photos of friends as they waited for the game to begin.

I approached Tim, DJ, Neil and Pete.

“Not sure I am ready to do this game on my blog. I am bollocksed.”

The result of around five hours of solid drinking was having an effect.

The three of us spotted space where the Famous Five – Nick the Whip, Pete, Alan, Gary and Daryl – were stood so we joined them. There was rail seating and of course everyone stood. There was netting ahead of us, obscuring the view, with fences to the front and screens to the sides. We are so used to no segregation in the UK that it still comes as a slight shock to see what others in Europe put up with.

Before kick, the dimming of lights, the boom of the PA, then mosaics and a huge “Salzburg” banner at the opposite end.

I had again, as in Milan, opted on my pub camera for this trip. In this dark corner, I was sadly resigned to the fact that my photos wouldn’t be too great for this game.

Chelsea were wearing those poxy navy socks; why? The home team were in a meek and weak grey kit, like something from an Alex Ferguson dystopian nightmare, circa The Dell 1996.

Our team?

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Cucarella

Pulisic – Kovacic – Jorginho – Sterling

Gallagher – Aubameyang – Mount

Or something like that.

It was probably easier to surmise the shape upstairs in the other section. Very soon into the game I mentioned to Pete that we were exhibiting the exact same stance, leaning on the metal barrier in front, but with our fingers smothering our faces in fear of a misadventure.

An early chance for Kai Havertz. Reacting well to collect a miss-timed headed back-pass, he stretched but crunched the Salzburg ‘keeper Philipp Kohn who lay on the deck for a while.

Chances at either end were exchanged in the first quarter of an hour and it was an even game. Maybe Pete and I were right to be a little concerned. It had been a lovely trip this far, and although these European forays are never all about the football in itself, the onus was on us to secure a win here and, with it, our passage into the knockout phase in 2023.

The home fans were raucous. But we were in good voice too.

“And it’s Super Chelsea.”

The referee, from Switzerland (um, is that akin to us having a Scottish ref in charge at Chelsea, answers on a postcard…) was wearing a red shirt, black shorts and red socks. This elicited a super bit of trivia from Nick who has been going to Chelsea since the ‘fifties and always, always, has a cupboard full of interesting facts about our wonderful club.

“We wore those colours at Maine Road in 1966, the game when Osgood flicked some V-signs at the City supporters.”

“Love it.”

A Salzburg shot flew over the bar at our end.

A forest of wanker hands to the home areas, thank you very much.

On twenty-three minutes, a move broke down at the other end and the ball fell to Mateo Kovacic. With the quickest of reactions, our Croatian man guided the ball high past the Salzburg ‘keeper from twenty yards out.

What a finish. He gets too few goals, but they are often classy efforts.

Alan, to my right :

“Zey vill have to come at us now.”

Me :

“Come on meine kleine diamonds.”

Chelsea were 1-0 up.

Phew.

“He signed for Chelsea on a transfer ban.”

From a Conor Gallagher corner, a glanced header from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang soon followed, but there was a sublime stretch and save from their ‘keeper. After a magnificent flowing move from south to north, Havertz set up Aubameyangr but our whole section groaned when the chance was spurned.

More chances were exchanged but Chelsea were in the ascendency, often with long passing moves aimed to find spaces in the packed Austrian defence.

A save down low from Kepa.

A save from another Gallagher cross and a meek Havertz header, close in.

Just before the break, our best move of the game thus far, with the impressive Havertz dancing in from the left touchline and the ball ending up with Aubameyang, but yet another fine save by their ‘keeper.

At the break, I had a little wander and began watching the second-half at the back of the section for a different perspective. The area next to the home fans to our right afforded such a poor view.

Soon into the second-half, Salzburg equalised when Junior Adamu latched onto a searching ball from out on their left cut out everybody. It was a fine goal and reignited the home fans.

Two quick chances followed for Aubameyang – another fine save – and Jorginho, a header swiped away on the line.

At the half-way stage of the second-half, Christian Pulisic twisted and turned the ball inside to Havertz, who dragged the ball back.

I shouted “Kai – SHOOT!”

He did.

His left foot conjured up some magic, the ball flying into what the Americans call the “upper 90.”

I hugged Daryl – I was now at the other end of our line – and we celebrated a really fine goal.

“It’s still nice to know that after all the years I have known you, and after witnessing so many Chelsea goals, it still elicits the same response.”

We were now 2-1 up.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for the excellent Kovacic.

A fine save, now, from Kepa down low. A clearance from Thiago Silva off the line. Phew.

Armando Broja for the frustrating Aubameyang.

A few more chances came and went, with Kepa now the busier of the two ‘keepers.

Two late substitutions.

Hakim Ziyech for Sterling.

Mason Mount for Gallagher.

Thankfully, there were no late scares. With us winning 2-1 and Milan beating Dinamo Zagreb 4-0, our qualification for the next phase, and holiday roulette, was secured. A first-place finish is teasingly close.

Right after the match, we sped outside, over a grass verge and straight onto a waiting bus that took us straight back to the centre of the city. As the bus reached its destination, there was a spontaneous round of applause for the driver. This was just excellent. What great organisation.

Five of us, Team Druce and us Three Chuckle Brothers wandered off into the city. We hoped to get some food, but two places were shut. We caught a cab after a drink in the first restaurant of the day and ended up a few doors down from the “Shamrock” in the old town, or rather right on the very edge of it.

“I saw more of bloody Salzburg in 1977 with my parents.”

More “Steigls”, more laughs. The night continued on. We stayed for two hours. At around 1am, it was time to call it a night. We got a cab back to Ausstrasse and soon fell asleep.

I was awake at around 9am on the Wednesday with not the slightest hint of a hangover. I just love those Austrian and German beers.

We wandered down to the city centre, killed some time with some food, alas no wursts, and caught the train to Munich at midday.

At Munich Hauptbanhof, there was an hour wait. Our pre-printed itinerary said that our return train to Nuremburg would depart at just after 3pm from platform 25, this one on the northern edge of the main station.

At just before 3pm, we saw a train marked up for Nuremburg pull in to platform 22.

We hopped on it.

Easy.

Well, not quite.

After an hour or so, with me trying but failing to nod off, I noticed we were making very slow progress. We were on the wrong train.

This one, instead of arriving at 4.45pm ahead of our 7.50pm flight home, would get in to Nuremburg at 6.16pm.

Bollocks.

We had obviously missed an announcement about our booked train, much faster, leaving from another platform.

From 4pm to 6pm, we sat still and silent, consumed about our plans once we hit Nuremburg. It was the slowest two hours of my life. The train tantalisingly stopped right outside the final destination for ten minutes.

Tick tock, tick tock.

It eventually pulled in at 6.25pm.

I almost expected a German army officer in plain clothes to wish us “good…luck.”

We hurriedly raced out into the evening air and I shouted to the first cab driver.

“Flughafen. Schnell. Schnell. Schnell.”

As I said it, I knew it sounded ridiculous.

Thankfully, the cab only took ten minutes to reach the airport and by 7pm, we were through security and waiting for our – now typically delayed – plane. We were there with an hour to spare.

I heard the theme to “The Great Escape” in my head.

“And relax.”

But still no German sausages. Damn it. Next time.

The flight left a little late, but we were back at Heathrow in good time. We left there at just before 10pm, and I was home just after midnight. It had been the easiest part of the entire trip home.

This had been a lovely trip.

And I have enjoyed writing this one.

Why does its title reference a train station in Germany, though?

Because it’s Munich. I just like talking and writing about Munich.

My friend JD always lists the number of stadia that he has attended seeing Chelsea games outside the UK, and the one in Salzburg was number seventy-six. That’s some number, eh?

While I am in the mood, and everyone knows that I love a list, my current foreign experiences with Chelsea are as follows (and I include games in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland here as these countries are outside of our home league which includes England and Wales) :

Camp Nou, Barcelona, 4.

Stadio Olimpico, Rome 3.

Allianz Stadium, Turin 2.

Dignity Health Sports Park, Carson, California 2.

Estadio Dragao, Porto 2.

FedEx Field, Landover, Maryland 2.

Johann Cruyff Arena, Ajax 2.

Mohamed Bin Zayem Stadium, Abu Dhabi 2.

Nissan Stadium, Yokohama 2.

Olympic Stadium, Baku 2.

Parc Des Princes, Paris 2.

Yankee Stadium, New York 2.

Allianz Arena, Munich 1.

Allianz Stadion, Vienna 1.

Bank Of America Stadium, Charlotte 1.

BayArena, Leverkusen 1.

Benito Villamarin, Seville 1.

Birds Nest Stadium, Beijing 1.

Bukit Jalil Stadium, Kuala Lumpur 1.

Cowboys Stadium, Arlington 1.

Estadio Jose Alvalade, Lisbon, 1.

Giants Stadium, Meadowlands, New Jersey 1.

Groupama Arena, Bucharest 1.

Heinz Field, Pittsburgh 1.

Ibrox Stadium, Glasgow 1.

La Romareda, Zaragoza 1.

Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow 1.

M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore 1.

Mercedes-Benz Arena, Stuttgart 1.

Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor 1.

Nef Stadium, Istanbul 1.

Olympic Stadium, Kiev 1.

Optus Stadium, Perth 1.

Prater Stadium, Vienna 1.

Rajamangala Stadium, Bangkok 1.

Rasunda Stadium, Stockholm 1.

Red Bull Arena, Harrison, New Jersey 1.

Red Bull Arena, Salzburg 1.

Richmond Park, Dublin 1.

Sammy Ofer Stadium, Haifa 1.

San Siro, Milan 1.

Stade Louis 2, Monaco 1.

Stadion Strelnice, Jablonec 1.

Stadio Olimpico, Turin 1.

Stadio San Paolo, Naples 1.

Stanford Stadium, Palo Alto 1.

Steaua Stadium, Bucharest 1.

Subaru Park, Chester, Pennsylvania 1.

Telhelne Pole, Bratislava 1.

Toyota Park, Chicago 1.

Ullevaal Stadium, Oslo 1.

US Bank Stadium, Minneapolis 1.

Veltins Arena, Gelsenkirchen 1.

Vicente Calderon Stadium, Madrid 1.

Weserstadion, Bremen 1.

Windsor Park, Belfast 1.

Total Stadia : 56

Total Games : 71

UEFA Games : 43

FIFA Games : 4

Friendly Games : 24

Tales From Diego’s Return

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 8 October 2022.

This was undoubtedly a very fine day out in London. I enjoyed every bit of it. This is how it played out.

I had finished work at 5pm on Friday with the realisation that I had a busy few days ahead. I still had to finish the Milan blog. I then needed to drive the usual suspects to London on a day when the roads were likely to be much busier than usual due to the nationwide train strike. There would be the game itself. Then the return trip home. Then a write-up of the day’s blog after selecting and editing some photographs. A night’s sleep. And then some packing ahead of a trip to Gatwick on Sunday morning and then up, up and away to Italy.

It’s a great life as long as I don’t weaken.

By 7.20am I had collected PD, RH and LP. I didn’t stop en route to London. I wanted to crack on and arrive. The morning traffic was much thicker than the norm during the last fifteen miles. However, I was parked up at 10am. So far so good.

It was already a beautiful morning in London. There were cloudless skies overhead. Outside the stadium, I stopped underneath the old retaining wall of The Shed. On a weekend when our own “Italian Job” was dominating all of our thoughts, I stopped under the image of Gianluca Vialli, one of our most loved Italian players, and had a moment of appreciation. On the walk to Stamford Bridge, there had already been a fair few “hello mate” nods and handshakes to friends and acquaintances. There was the marvellous anticipation of a trip to Italy, not to mention the day’s game which was to involve the return of Diego Costa. That pre-match buzz was hitting me hard. And I was absolutely loving it.

I walked down to Putney Bridge in order to blow some cobwebs out of my system. It only took me twenty-five minutes. Saturday morning people, with a Fulham twist, were out-and-about, and I didn’t spot too many football-goers among the pedestrians, shoppers, cyclists and those enjoying the fine autumnal weather.

In “The River Café”, I enjoyed a fine fry-up, and then noticed a faded Juventus team photo from 1985/86 high on a wall. On exiting, I thanked the staff in Italian – a practice for Turin and Milan – and asked the young chap who was behind the counter if he was Juve.

He pulled a face.

“No. Milan.”

“OK. Tomorrow, I go to Turin.”

“Why?”

“Milan versus Chelsea.”

“But why are you going to Turin?”

“Oh, I have friends there.”

“I go on Monday to Milan.”

“For the game?”

“Yes, sure.”

“Buona fortuna.”

I didn’t fucking mean it of course.

I stayed in “The Eight Bells” with PD and LP for two hours. It was superb to see “Munich Mark” – with his son Luca, you can guess why he is called that – who we had not seen since Christmas 2019 on a pub crawl around Fulham. I memorably first met Mark and his mate Paul, who were living in The Netherlands, on the very last U-Bahn away from the stadium in Munich on that famous day in 2012. He now lives in Spain. We had a riot of laughs. It was great fun.

We caught a 414 bus just after two o’clock to Fulham Broadway and were soon inside the stadium.

At first, there were many empty seats dotted around but they were eventually filled despite some very late arrivals. We were to hear of friends experiencing drives that had taken two-and-a-half hours that would normally take forty-five minutes. My heart sank. Just how long would my return trip west take? I needed to be home as early as possible.

Bollocks.

The team that Graham Potter had chosen was clearly one that was formed with the game in Milan in mind. Not exactly a “B Team” but…

Kepa

Dave – Kouilbaly – Chalobah – Cucarella

Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Gallagher

Mount – Havertz – Pulisic

…or something like that.

At ten minutes to three, the usual musical countdown.

“London Calling.”

“Park Life.”

“Liquidator.”

As the teams arrived on the pitch, a sizeable segment of the home crowd serenaded the returning hero.

“Diego, Diego, Diego, Diego.”

The sun was beating down and the Wolves old gold shirts seemed to augment the ambiance. It was a gorgeous afternoon. I did wonder why on Earth the floodlights were on though. Answers on a postcard?

We attacked the Matthew Harding in the first-half. It still feels odd after all these years. Soon into the game, Conor Gallagher received the ball and my brain had not slipped into gear and I was surprised when the player turned towards us instead of moving towards the Shed End.

After just two minutes, a gentle prod by Gallagher slipped just wide of the far post. It was a bright start from us, especially with the floodlights on, but Wolves had a half-chance with a Daniel Podence header but this thankfully did not worry Kepa. We carved out a steady supply of chances for Kai Havertz, Jorginho and Christian Pulisic without causing their ‘keeper Jose Sa any undue concern down below us.

I, however, was concerned about his lavender uniform with orange boots.

Fackinell.

A brisk break from Wolves was halted with a well-timed tackle by Dave on the edge, but outside, of our penalty area. The resulting free-kick was well-saved at full stretch by Kepa.

I was happy with what I was seeing here. We seemed to be playing with a much greater freedom than during the closing period of Tuchel’s regime and Gallagher’s running and spirit epitomised this new looseness. There was some nice passing between players who seemed to be able to link up in a more colourful way. The interplay at times was excellent.

Down on the Chelsea left, Adama Traore splatted Pulisic to the floor in the absolute definition of a shoulder charge.

“And Traore has got a lot of shoulder to charge with” I said to Alan.

The attempts continued to roll in, or rather wide or over. Efforts from Mount and Loftus-Cheek were off target and I began to wonder if we would ever score. The atmosphere was pretty weak again, despite a nice barrage of noise at the start.

Diego Costa created a little space for himself on the right but nobody in the Wolves team had gambled to reach his cross.

There was ironic cheering from Wolves when the Matthew Harding got it together with a chant for the first time in a while. It wasn’t exactly loud; I am surprised that the away fans heard it at all.

A fine arching effort from Pulisic was adeptly tipped around the far post by Sa.

On forty minutes, a strong cross from Traore was headed over from just under the bar by Matheus Nunes. It was the best chance of the match thus far. Bloody hell.

The half-time break was approaching but Mount was able to send over a deep cross from our right towards the thin frame of Havertz who was positioning himself at the far post. He lept well to meet the ball and dolly-dropped it into a yawning net after Sa had been caught flat-footed.

It was a fine goal.

On Wednesday, this part of SW6 had witnessed an Aubameyang somersault. It now witnessed a Havertz slide.

One-nil at the break but Gary was still moaning.

“I think we are playing well, Gal.”

And so did several around me. I thought it was a refreshing performance with plenty of positives; good movement, clinical passing, a nice fluidity, with some strong defending when needed.

At the start of the second period, Wolves enjoyed much of the possession. But we then gained control again. Gallagher thumped in a hard and deep cross from the right but Havertz’ header looped over.

On fifty-three minutes, a delicious move ripped Wolves apart. Mount passed to Pulisic who then advanced steadily and returned the ball to Mount. With Pulisic continuing his run, Mount adeptly picked out his movement with a delightful slide-rule pass. Pulisic gathered the ball with the finest of touches and despite being forced wide, gently lifted the ball over the ‘keeper into the goal.

What a beauty.

Safe now, surely?

Not long after, with play down below us, the ball went out and Wolves decided to replace Diego Costa. The substitution could not have been better stage-managed. Our former, feared, striker shook Jorginho’s hand and then slowly walked around the touchline, clapping supporters on several occasions, as the Matthew Harding and then the entire stadium sang his name.

“Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego!”

Three seasons. Two league championships. Brilliant.

He was a bastard, but he was our bastard. How we have missed his nigglesome pilfering of defenders’ pockets these past five years. It was a treat to see him in SW6 once again, but I am not sure his stay at Wolverhampton will be for too long. It was just right that we were able to give a decent goodbye to him on this occasion, especially since we were unable to do so in 2017.

A few chances were exchanged as the teams continued a fine battle.

There was a raft of changes in the final twenty-five minutes.

Matteo Kovacic for Loftus-Cheek.

Armando Broja for Mount.

Reece James for Pulisic.

Hakim Ziyech for Havertz.

Carney Chukwuemeka for Gallagher.

The last substitute was making his debut and he immediately impressed with a pacey run from deep along the left flank in front of the sun-drenched East Stand.

I had earlier found myself staring at the East Stand, and I was momentarily lost in thought. Should Todd Boehly’s plan to redevelop the stadium gather strength, I am not convinced that it would pay to tear down this huge structure. Indeed, I am not sure how many more seats could be added to a new stand that by law cannot go any higher and whose footprint is limited by the railway line behind it and, thus, the already steep rake cannot change. Maybe I am just being selfish. The stand – that steel, those rivets, that concrete – was there for my very first game in 1974 and, apart from that Shed wall, it is the only thing left from those days. I stared again.

That roof, those balconies, those side screens…I looked all this during my first game…it is a link with that moment…I want it to remain until my last visit whenever that will be.

Sentimental twat aren’t I?

When Broja appeared, I mentioned “he needs a goal.”

In the ninetieth minute, a fine Kovacic pass found the young striker who jinked towards the penalty box.

“Hit it Broja.”

He did.

A lovely drilled shot flew into the goal just inside the far post. The Albanian international ran into Parkyville and the crowd roared again.

Chelsea 3 Wolves 0.

Ah, this was just lovely.

A great performance, some great goals, a nice boost for Tuesday’s game in Milan.

Super.

Outside, under the Peter Osgood statue, I met up with Andy from Michigan – formerly south-west London – who, way back in around 2010, started to to sew some seeds in my mind about starting my own self-contained blog about my football adventures and anecdotes rather than upload them to a bulletin board.

He is the one to blame for all this shite.

Good to see you, Andy.

In closing, I continue my look back at our worst-ever season forty years on.

My diary entry for Wednesday 6 October mentions a sixth-form football game away at Cannington near Bridgewater in the afternoon. We lost 5-2 and I apparently squandered three good scoring chances. I was “very disappointed.” I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever of travelling, nor playing, in this match. My memory is usually pretty decent. Maybe for Chelsea games only, eh? Later on in the day, I was pleased that Chelsea beat Tranmere Rovers in the League Cup 3-1 at Stamford Bridge. I was particularly enthusiastic about “Speedie Gonzalez” – well, that never caught on, did it? – nabbing two more goals. It was six in four games for him. Mike Fillery scored the other goal in front of just 7,982. I was hopeful that this win would bolster the gate for the visit of Leeds United on the following Saturday…”to around 20,000.”

In 1982, I was looking forward to a game involving 20,000.

In 2022, I am looking forward to a game involving 70,000.

Let’s go.

Andiamo.

I will see some of you in Italy.

Tales From September 1982 And Forty Years Later

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 3 September 2022.

September 1982.

Due to the timings of games and thus match reports this season, my personal recollection of 1982/83 in this edition encompasses two consecutive home games at Stamford Bridge.

On the evening of Tuesday 31 August 1982, Chelsea played Wolverhampton Wanderers at Stamford Bridge. After winning the Football League Cup in 1980 against the then European Champions Nottingham Forest, Wolves suffered relegation just two years later. They dropped down into the Second Division alongside Leeds United and Middlesbrough. I suppose that they must have been one of the favourites for promotion that season. Our team was the same one that had played at Cambridge United on the Saturday. The game finished 0-0. The gate of 14,192 was a pretty decent one considering our predicament at the time. In the previous season we had averaged 13,133.

Next up was a match with Leicester City on Saturday 4 September. I was seventeen and just back at school. I was now in the Upper Sixth, with a worrying year ahead with A Levels in Geography, Mathematics and Technical Drawing on some hideous distant horizon. It was a horrible time. At Frome College, everywhere I looked I saw Julie’s face but she was now living in a little village to the east of Reading. At the time, Reading seemed like being a thousand miles away. A few years ago, I had a little sigh to myself when I heard that a mate’s schoolgirl daughter was seeing a boy in Reading. Distances seem to be squashed these days. It didn’t really help matters that the Westbury to London Paddington line took me to within half a mile of Julie’s house on that trip up to see Chelsea play Leicester. As the train whizzed past Charvil, I peered out of the window with a lump in my throat and a pain in my heart.

In those days, my school mates rarely went to football, proper football. My pal Steve often used to go to see his Bristol City play on their nosedive through the divisions. He also watched many Frome Town games. Steve would have been with me at the Wellington game the previous Saturday, just as he is alongside me at Frome games forty years later. He is currently the club’s official historian. Another mate, Francis, saw his Liverpool team at Ashton Gate in 1980.  Another mate, Kev, went to see his Tottenham team around 1980 too, but that was it. I was one of a very few who used to go to league football. The Leicester City game would be my twenty-fourth Chelsea match. I didn’t have a part-time job in those distant days. I just saved my pennies to watch my team. Chelsea was my life.

Living over a hundred miles away, I could only afford a few games each season. From 1981/82, I started going up alone by train. The independence that I gained on those trips to London put me in good stead for further travelling adventures in the future. But in 1981/82 and 1982/83, I became closer to the club by subscribing to the club programme. I loved the small programmes of that era, nicely designed, they had a stylish look about them I thought. I used to love the arrival of the postman in those days. I have no idea why I stopped in 1983/84 when the programme became larger but lost a little of its style in my opinion.

My father would have dropped me at Westbury train station to catch an 8am train to The Smoke. It would arrive in Paddington at about 9.45am from memory. In those days, with no spare money and plenty of time to kill I usually walked over to Hyde Park and sat beside The Serpentine on a park bench – it became a superstition in 1981/82 – and I probably did the same on this occasion. Then a walk to Lancaster Gate tube and the journey down to Stamford Bridge. In those days, I knew nobody at Stamford Bridge, not a soul. Before the game, I bought the newly published “The Chelsea Story” by John Moynihan with money that my mother had given me. The book cost £5.95, a costly sum in those days. I watched the game in The Shed, my usual place towards the tea bar, but under the roof.

I am not honestly sure if I bought a programme on the day of the game. It cost 50p. I have a feeling I would have waited until I received one through the post.

Times were hard.

On viewing that same programme forty years later, I am reminded of the perilous financial predicament that we were in. Although Ken Bates had bought the club for “only a pound” in the Spring of 1982, we were still struggling to balance the books. On the rear cover of the programme, in a space reserved for sponsors, there is a stark message against a black, and blank, page :

“We’re known by the company we keep, we’d welcome your company on this full colour back page. For full details please contact the Club’s Marketing Department.”

It’s hard to believe I support the same club in 2022 where every square inch of the club’s body and soul is sold for profit.

The team was almost unchanged again, but with debutante Tony McAndrew replacing Clive Walker, although not by position. The game ended 1-1 with Micky Droy scoring for us in the fiftieth minute and then Gary Lineker equalising in the last five minutes. The gate was another respectable one of 14,127.

The old joke about the crowd changes being announced to the players at Stamford Bridge did appear in this case to be spot on.

I have one distinct memory from the game. I looked over to the Whitewall and the Middle and thought this :

“We may be in the Second Division with a slim chance of getting promotion, and this ground might look a third full but still around 15,000 supporters have gone out of their way to come and support the team today. There is something rather noble about that. It feels right that I am there.”

On the way back, I devoured the new book. I loved the introduction by athlete Seb Coe.

“Following the club could be as frustrating as chasing spilt mercury across a laboratory table.”

I was a quiet and world-shy teenager, but I remember a smile from within and me nodding in agreement, as if I was a footballing sage.

My diary for the day reports “probably one of the most boring games I have seen – a shame really after spending all that money.” There was talk of a party when I returned to Somerset although I am not sure where this was. My diary continues “enjoyed it, only slightly drunk, but soon sobered up.” It is probable that my father would have picked me up at the end of the night.

So there we have it. My twenty-fourth Chelsea game. My twenty-fourth Chelsea day. My Dad at the start of it. My Dad at the end of it. How I miss those times.

Forty Years Later.

The build-up to this game was way different. There was a drive to London with friends, a quick visit to Stamford Bridge to take some early scene-setting photographs, a spot of breakfast in the café and then my usual seat in the pub.

Outside Fulham Broadway, DJ had thrust a copy of “CFCUK” into my hands and I read a little of it in the café. While I waited for my food, I couldn’t help but notice the characters already sitting at tables. There was one loud voice, an American with the voice of a woman, sharing his thoughts a few tables away. Two English chaps close to me were deep in conversation and one appeared to be re-writing a script or manuscript of some description in between bites of a bacon sandwich. A group of younger folk were behind me, gregarious and chatty. The café owner, foreign by birth, my guess was Italian, bellowed orders and chivied his staff as if he was the conductor in an orchestra.

I devoured a piece in “CFCUK” by Walter Otton who wrote about his experiences of the Tottenham game which he watched in a pub after a tortuous day spent walking for miles and miles in the hinterlands of suburbia with friends. He detailed the people he observed while waiting for a train at Worcester Park, a station that I know well after parking at a mate’s near there for football between 1991 and 1993. I loved these words :

“To my right, I study a haunted young man with high cheekbones as he stares directly at his feet. He’s got the regretful face of man who last night had a vacancy sign up, but then he went and let the wrong person in.”

I messaged Walts to say how much I loved this. I had seen him briefly after the debacle at St. Mary’s on Tuesday.

I spent two-and-a-half hours in the cosy “Eight Bells” and I was surprised how quiet it all was at 11.30am. It took an hour to fully reach respectable figures. The Norwegians called in again, this time with an extra fan from Bergen, the wonderfully nicknamed Einstein. The Kent lads were close by, as were three young lads from Ilminster in Somerset who we had not seen before, but were dead chatty about the current malaise in the team. Steve from Salisbury appeared alongside Simon from Andover, another new face.

Andy and Sophie arrived and I spent some quality time at their table.

Andy and I raised a glass to “Ginger Terry.”

With a great deal of sadness, I learned on Thursday that Terry O’Callaghan had passed away that day. He was a lovely man, softly spoken, a true gent and was well-loved by those at Chelsea who knew him. I would bump into him at all sorts of odd, and far-flung, locations. He always stopped to say hello. Ironically, I first met Terry on a coach from Gothenberg in Sweden to Oslo in Norway alongside Andy for our match against Valerenga in 1999.

During the summer, I was shocked to hear of the passing of another of life’s good guys. I first met Henry Hughes Davies out in New York on a trip to see the New York Mets play a baseball game alongside around ten other Chelsea supporters. Unfortunately the game was rained-off but I remember how pleasant he was on that occasion and during the two or three other times I met him in “The Goose” with other US-based Chelsea fans. From London, Henry was killed in a road accident out in South-East Asia and it hit me hard.

RIP Terry.

RIP Henry.

I also, sadly, need to mention the passing of Depeche Mode member and life-long Chelsea supporter Andy Fletcher. During the summer, I attended a lecture by Chelsea Communications Director Steve Atkins at his former school in Warminster – he came across well – but the night was soured when, immediately after, I heard that “Fletch” had suffered a heart-attack and had passed away at the age of just sixty.

The music of Depeche Mode first thrilled me in 1982 – that year again – and has been a constant companion to me over the years. I have seen the band in 1993, 2001, 2006 and 2017.

RIP Fletch.

Andy, Sophie and I had a very enlightening “state of the nation” chat about Chelsea Football Club and other clubs.

How sometimes it can be a bit hard to get “up” for some games for example.

“I woke with the alarm at 5.45am this morning. I know exactly what you mean.”

How we have 22 million followers on Twitter yet we were outnumbered by Arsenal in Baku in 2019.

“They, Arsenal, are still the biggest club in London.”

How we only sold six-hundred for Dinamo Zagreb.

“Too early for me, for sure.”

How we might struggle to pack in 60,000 at a refurbished Stamford Bridge in light of Tottenham playing to capacity crowds at their new stadium.

“Saw some Tottenham at Fleet Services and also some at Putney Bridge tube, no doubt on their way to the Fulham game. Admittedly, there is the “wow” factor of a superb new stadium but their crowds have been constantly full-houses. They have a huge support in the home counties.”

How the pricing structure at West Ham is paying dividends.

“After a dodgy first season, they seem to have got it right. Full houses now, eh?”

How some Chelsea fans want Thomas Tuchel gone.

“But come on. We have only played five bloody games.”

How Sophie was looking for a spare for Crystal Palace in a few weeks.

“Might have one. Will let you know.”

We marched off to the tube station together and I spotted ex-England cricketer Alex Stewart chatting at Fulham Broadway.

I was inside with around fifteen minutes to go.

It was time to focus on the team.

Alas, a fleeting look at Billy Gilmour pre-match at Southampton on Tuesday would be the last that I would see of him in Chelsea colours. His permanent move to Brighton disappointed me. But at least this sad news was tempered by the fact that Armando Broja had signed a new multi-year deal. But, to our annoyance, Thomas Tuchel still went with the “after you Claude” false nine with Broja on the bench. A debut for Wesley Fofana in defence. We had all tried to remember if he had played against us in the 2021 FA Cup Final. I hoped for a more successful career for Wesley Fofana than Tony McAndrew. Mason Mount and Kai Havertz were both dropped and I was OK with that. It was generally accepted that in Southampton they were sinners, no saints.

No Jorginho, either.

A brave Tuchel?

Maybe.

Here we were :

Mendy

Fofana – Silva – Koulibaly

James – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – Gallagher – Cucarella

Sterling – Pulisic

I had to laugh when Clive appeared in a claret-colured Stone Roses T-Shirt. Both PD and I were wearing light blue T-Shirts; Paul, Lambretta, me, Paul & Shark.

“Bloody West Ham.”

“Jesus.”

I thought back to a photo that I had taken in the hotel bar looking out onto the forecourt earlier in the day. The plastic flowers on show there were shades of purple in light blue vases.

Good job, I’m not superstitious, cough, cough.

West Ham kicked off and a high ball was pumped forward. After four seconds, the new boy Fofana had his first touch as a Chelsea player, a strong header putting the ball back whence it came.

Alan : “I hope Fofana is more Kante than Drinkwater.”

Clive : “Drinkwater had one good season for Leicester.”

Chris : “I had one good season. Summer 1982.”

It wasn’t much of a first-half. And the atmosphere was very poor for a London derby.

The highlights?

How about the lowlight first?

Marc Cucarella failed to beat the first man on two early corners down in Parkyville.

“Bloody shite, should be fined for that. No excuses.”

Despite our almost total domination of possession – it was absolutely all us in the first fifteen minutes – West Ham packed their defence solid and we soon seemed to look flat.

There was a shimmying run from Raheem Sterling into the box but the resulting corner was a Cucarella special.

Reece James out on the right fizzed a low ball into the danger area, pinball ensued, but Christian Pulisic’ effort was blocked for another corner.

Finally, we were treated to a flowing move with passes hitting runners into space.

Then, a low shot from Mateo Kovacic but he drove the ball just wide.

It wasn’t as bad as Southampton, but it was all pretty dire stuff.

I suspect that the first-half against Leicester City in 1982 was no better.

At the half-time break, the three of us posed in our claret and blue shirts, the shame.

For the record, during the first-half Kurt Zouma was neither clapped nor booed. It was if he had never played for us.

The second-half begun with a still woeful atmosphere in the stadium. I was surprised how quiet the three thousand West Ham fans were. I wasn’t surprised how quiet we were.

There was a clash between James and Michail Antonio; both booked. This stirred some emotions within the stadium.

At last, the atmosphere improved and it felt like a proper game of football rather than some computer-generated monstrosity.

There was a very loud and piercing “Amazing Grace” :

“Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea, Chelsea – Chelsea.”

Exactly on the hour, Tuchel changed it around.

Armando Broja for Gallagher.

Mason Mount for Pulisic.

At the Shed End, a corner to West Ham.

Chris : “You know what’s coming.”

It was hoofed away by Reece James.

A second corner was fisted high and away by Mendy. The ball was then volleyed back at goal by Jarrod Bowen. This effort from distance was nervously palmed away by Mendy again. This was the first real scare for us, but also the only meaningful shot on target for either side. However, from the corner that followed, there was an almighty scramble with Mendy not exactly covering himself in glory. His jump and save from under the bar only kept the ball alive. The ball landed at the feet of a West Ham player who prodded the ball back into the six-yard box. That man Antonio slammed it in from close range.

Fackinell.

Thomas Tuchel’s doubters were sharpening their pencils.

The new man Broja was soon sniffing inside the box, and I was purring with his intent. We now had a natural striker up front, a physical presence, a predator. Whereas Sterling was like an eel, slithering into space, Broja was shark-like, ready to snap at anything.

On seventy-two minutes, another double-switch.

Kai Havertz for Kovacic.

Chilwell for Cucarella.

The noise levels were ever-increasing now. We prayed for an equaliser.

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

Havertz almost had an immediate impact, trying to reach a through-ball but Lucasz Fabianski foiled him with a brave challenge on the edge of the six-yard box.

Just after, a lofted chip from the cultured boot of Thiago Silva from deep found the on-rushing Chilwell down below us in The Sleepy Hollow. His head beat the rather stunted leap of two defenders and the ball dropped nicely for him to run onto. In the blink of an eye, he had touched the ball through the legs of a star-jumping Fabianski and I could hardly believe my eyes as the ball continued over the line.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Chilwell’s leap was perfect for me.

Snap, snap, snap.

He celebrated with Broja but I was impressed that nobody else joined in. There was business to be done. Top marks.

This was a real game now and the Chelsea hordes had now found their voices.

With four minutes to go, a huge scare and a massive “get out of jail card.”

Alan and I were actually mired in the middle of a pun fest.

Alan : “Surprised Cornet ain’t wearing number 99.”

Chris : “That’s a flaky comment.”

Alan : “Saucy.”

Chris : “You got hundreds and thousands of these, mate?”

With that, a cross from the West Ham left found the leap of that man Cornet but his free header hit the post.

Fackinell.

The game continued.

Broja was up against Vladimir Coufal down below us. He teased and cajoled the West Ham defender before finding some space with some fine control. His pass to Chilwell on the overlap was perfect. The ball was drilled into a packed box. Havertz was waiting to pounce.

BOSH.

Chelsea 2 West Ham 1.

GET IN.

I caught the celebrations on film too. Havertz brought his finger up to his mouth, no doubt a reaction to some doubters among the Chelsea support. I found it a little odd, a little disrespectful.

Was he right to do so?

Answers on a postcard.

But, directly after, West Ham broke and I watched aghast. This all happened so quickly. Mendy rushed out, went down, the ball ran to Cornet. He lashed it home.

Fackinell.

West Ham screamed :

“You’re not singing anymore.”

Back to 2-2, bloody hell.

But then, a delay, and it slowly became apparent that VAR was being summonsed. Yet again, the spectators in the stadium – no commentary for us of course, as if it needs to be stated – seemed to be the last to know what on Earth was happening.

Yep, VAR.

The referee Andrew Madley eventually walked over to the pitch-side monitor. I didn’t like the way that he was being hounded by players of both teams.

After an age – but with each passing second, I felt more positive – he signalled “no goal.”

I was relieved but honestly did not feel like celebrating.

Bollocks to VAR.

Elsewhere, the Chelsea support was howling :

“YOU’RE NOT SINGING ANYMORE.”

We hung on.

This wasn’t a great game of football, but we kept going which is all you can ask for. The stupor of the first-half gave way to a far more entertaining spectacle in the second-half as we loosened the shackles and played, what I am going to term, a more emotional type of football.

There were relieved smiles at the end, but only at the end.

I am not going to Zagreb, but Alan is going. He is one of the six-hundred. As he wriggled past me, I said.

“Have a great time in Croatia. You’d best split.”

He groaned.

Immediately after the game, we received texts from others…

It looked like we got away with murder.

Next up for me, our home away from home.

Little old Fulham.

See you there.

Tales From Yahnited

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 April 2022.

Manchester United was going to be our last regular season away game in 2021/22. However, our appearance in the FA Cup Final brought it forward just over two weeks.

Chelsea : “What are you doing Thursday 28 April?”

United : “Nothing. Absolutely nothing, why?”

Chelsea : “Well, we have a problem with Saturday 14 May.”

United : “Go on.”

Chelsea : “Well, we reached the Cup Final.”

United : “Shut it.”

Our last three domestic away games, then, were to be Manchester United, Everton and Leeds United. Three trips up north to three football giants. Three trips to the former warring counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire.

Three colours : red.

Three colours : blue.

Three colours : white.

These days, the cities and teams reside in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and West Yorkshire. And hopefully, fingers crossed, I would be attending all three. I have not fared too well with home games this season, but by the end of 2021/22, I will have hopefully chalked up a full set of away games in the league, mirroring that of 2008/9 and 2015/16.

I booked a half-day holiday at work for the day of the game and also a half-day holiday on the Friday. I collected Sir Les in a pub car park opposite work at midday, then Parky, then eventually PD at just before 1pm. My route to Manchester then needed to take me home. The reason for this needs explaining. Two tickets for two friends up north had been sent to me on Monday but had not yet materialised. I was hoping that they would be waiting for me in my front porch. Alas it was not to be. I had already warned them that the tickets were unlikely to arrive in time for my departure up north at 1pm as our post usually arrives mid-afternoon. My text to them was still a horrible thing to have to do.

The Royal Mail 1.

The Ticket Man 0.

Bollocks.

Undeterred, I set off.

There was a different route to get up onto the motorway network; Writhlington, Bath, Saltford, Keynsham, Bristol. I was soon onto the M32, then the M4, the M5…

By the way, It has occurred to me that during my match report for the recent West Ham United game, I missed an open goal. Surely, somehow, I could have referred to myself as the ticket man on Fulham Broadway Station?

What a waste.

The trip north was filled with football talk.

On the Tuesday, I had attended the Frome Town vs. Bristol Manor Farm game at Badgers Hill. This was the Southern League Southern Division play-off semi-final over just one leg. I aimed to drag as many people along as possible in order to boost the gate. In the end, just one was able to make it. I watched in the seats of the main stand as Joe O’Loughlin, the raiding left-back, unleashed a right-footed bullet to put us 1-0 up. How we all celebrated that one. I was just messaging some friends with the words “WHAT A FUCKING GOAL” when Manor Farm equalised within a minute of our goal. Sadly, the away team scored two further second-half goals to win it 3-1. Well done to them. They now travel to Winchester City in the final. I was predictably saddened with this loss. “Gutted” to use the football equivalent. Frome had been flying high in the two COVID seasons which were then sadly abandoned, and had led from the front this season until March. I rue two tame derby draws against Larkhall. The gate on Tuesday was a quite remarkable 1,158. It showed how the club has grown over the last three years.

I will be there again, when I can, next season. I attended eighteen Frome Town games this season – seven away – and each one has been so enjoyable. The club has been revitalised and – yes – I am still hurting that we didn’t reach the play-off final. Ironically, the final will be between the teams that finished fourth and fifth this season. Our second place finish – with a league best four defeats all season – meant nothing.

I hated the play-offs in 1988 with Chelsea and I hate them now in 2022 with Frome Town.

My good mate Kev, Chelsea, bumped into me before the game as he is a board member of Manor Farm. He enjoyed chatting to the one person I had brought along, a certain Mr. Harris, and he gave me a mix-tape – with a slight football flavour – to take to Manchester.

So that got an airing.

I loved it.

I did, though, wonder if I was upsetting the Chelsea Gods by playing it. There were songs from Manchester-based The Stone Roses and The Fall within the twenty-odd tunes involved.

At least Mr. Harris got a mention in Laurel Aitkens’ “The Zigger Zagger Song.”

We stopped at “The Windmill” pub, just off the M6, for about the fourth time. It’s our base before getting to Manchester. The boys enjoyed a couple of pints.

It was soon time to leave the pub for the final approach to Old Trafford.

The “sat nav” changed its mind four times in about five minutes as I looked at the best way to reach our usual parking spot near Gorse Hill Park, which is around a fifteen-minute walk from Old Trafford. In the end, it dragged me in a wide arc to the west, through some ridiculously quiet country lanes, sending me close to United’s training ground at Carrington, before pushing me through Urmston. Before I knew it, I was joining the slow-moving match-going traffic heading north along the Chester Road. I crept past the abandoned sky blue art deco cinema – it annoys me every time I see it, I would love to see it saved – past those red brick houses, signs for parking – the match day buzz growing now – and then the light grey of the Old Trafford stands in the distance. I parked up and paid £10 to the usual people. There was a nip in the air. Jackets were fastened.

This was my twenty-sixth visit to Old Trafford to see us play United. There were two FA Cup semi-finals too.

The last was in August 2019; the 0-4 shellacking with Frank at the helm.

Since my first time of walking along the Chester Road to Old Trafford around twenty years ago, a few things have changed. Nearer the ground, there are a couple of new car dealerships and a large modern supermarket. But past The Bishop Blaize pub, I was glad to see the small knot of fast food outlets still going strong. Old Trafford itself has undergone monstrous redevelopment itself in the past twenty-five years – it isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing of stadia – and so it always gives me a warm glow to see these six or seven cafes still eking out a living. A link to the past. A link to our youth. It’s silly, but I hope they continue to thrive. The match day experience at Old Trafford would suffer if they were to disappear.

The Lou Macari chip shop is still there. After the work that Macari has done for the homeless in his adopted city of Stoke-on-Trent, I have a lot of respect for that man. Talking of Macari, if you call yourself a football fan and haven’t seen “Marvellous” you need to have a word with yourself.

We reached the forecourt, the famous forecourt – another link to the past, the Munich clock et al – at around 7.15pm. The ticket man handed over tickets to Deano.

There was just time for a photo to share on Facebook, with me outside the away turnstiles. There are certain games that require a little attention in the sartorial stakes and this was one of them.

United away : Vivienne Westwood shirt, Hugo Boss jeans, Hugo Boss top, Paul & Shark jacket and Adidas gazelles.

The caption?

“Tonight is my seventy-eighth Chelsea vs. Manchester United game across all competitions and venues. It takes them top just past Liverpool in my all-time list.

It is the only competition they will win this season.”

Without much fuss, I made my way in. The away segment of East Stand, formerly K Stand, is one of the oldest remaining parts of the stadium now. It reeks of ‘sixties concrete and pillars.

I simply could not have asked for a better viewing position. The much-enlarged disabled section at Old Trafford – very laudable – is at the front of the away corner, and so it means that our seats in “row two” were a third of the way back. Not only that, to my left was a clear view of the rest of the stadium; there was an abyss immediately next to me and then a gap before the home areas of the main stand, the South Stand. I had an even better than usual view of one of Old Trafford’s nicest features; the pitch is raised, as if indeed a stage, and the drop-off to the pitch surrounds always looks dangerously steep.

Old Trafford was quiet and not particularly full. Certainly in those areas to my left there were easily visible red seats. But our section had gaps too. Clearly this Thursday night fixture had proved to be problematic. We had heard rumours of “Glazers Out” protests but I had witnessed nothing before the game. The ground tried its best to fill up.

Just before the entrance of the teams, billowing sulphurous smoke emerged from the bowels of the South Stand. We presumed that a flare had been let off in protest.

The teams appeared from the tunnel in the south-east corner, below a “Glazers Out” sign held aloft by supporters.

Right. The game. The teams.

Chelsea lined up as below :

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Azpilicueta

James – Kante – Jorginho – Alonso

Mount – Havertz – Werner

The “fluid” system rather than the one with Lukaku in it. Right, kids?

Long gone are the days when I could reel off a United team.

This United team weren’t :

Schmeichel

Parker – Pallister – Bruce – Irwin

Kanchelskis – Ince – Robson – Giggs

Cantona – Hughes

Some bloke called Telles and some bloke called Elanga were playing for United, whoever they were. Cristiano Ronaldo, however, started.

The game – roll on drums – began.

What a start from us. We absolutely penned United into their own half and the home crowd, quiet before the game, were soon making negative noise.

The Chelsea faithful were first out of the traps too :

“Chelsea boys are on a bender. Cristiano’s got a coffee blender.”

…or something, I’m not sure.

I spoke to Parky :

“There’s some grass over there, left-hand side of the box, that marks the point where Ron Harris took out Eddie Gray in 1970.”

Unlike the first-half against West Ham on Sunday, we managed two efforts on target in the first seven minutes. A shot from Reece James and another from Timo Werner were saved well by De Gea.

It was all us. The action on the pitch and the noise off it.

Then, some scares came in quick succession. Bruno Fernandes, buzzing around from deep, looked to be their main threat and they had a little of the ball. A free-header from Fernandes was easily saved by Edouard Mendy, then an attempted bicycle kick from that man Ronaldo thankfully ballooned over.

But after this little blip, it was business as usual.

N’Golo Kante quickly shot at De Gea. We were playing so well. United were nowhere, nowhere at all. With Kante eating up space with two majestic and energetic runs from deep, he twice set up Kai Havertz with fine balls into space. The first resulted in a shot that was slashed against the side netting and the second was hit at an angle. The second move was undoubtedly the best of the game thus far.

There was a chant in honour of our Russian owner…the last days of the Roman Empire…but the United fans were so lethargic and apathetic that there was none of the usual boos that would normally accompany this.

We were especially dominant down our right with James making an absolutely marvellous return to the team. His cross was headed towards goal by Havertz, but this was again right at De Gea.

On thirty-eight minutes, an absolutely thunderous “Chelsea” – to the tune of “Amazing Grace” –  galvanised the entire away support.

Thinking to myself : “they must have heard that on the TV in London, Paris, New York, Munich.”

Did you?

It was almost total domination from Chelsea. The half-time talks and chats were all positive.

The second-half began and I was aware that both police and stewards had positioned themselves in front of the main stand and in the far corner where the “Glazers Out” sign had made a reappearance. The club were presumably expecting further rumblings of discontent.

The dominance continued on. A fine cross from Mason Mount just evaded Timo.

Ten minutes in, I honestly heard the first “Yahnited” chant of the night.

On the hour, a cross into the box from that man James was flicked on by Havertz. I saw two blue shirts unmarked at the far post. I gulped some Mancunian air. The slight wait. The trusted left boot of Marcos Alonso sent the ball low past De Gea and into the net.

GET IN YOU FUCKING BEAUTY.

The away end boomed.

You probably heard that in London, Paris, New York and Munich too.

Sadly, just like with Frome Town on Tuesday night, a goal was conceded just after we scored. We conceded possession and United pounced. A fine scoop up by Matic – one of their better players, I thought – found Ronaldo inside the box and grotesquely unmarked.

It had goal written all over it and other clichés. He brought the ball under control superbly and smashed it past Mendy.

Old Trafford woke up.

Ugh.

“Viva Ronaldo. Running down the wing. Hear United sing. Viva Ronaldo.”

What a disappointment.

“They’ve only had three attempts on goal, Gal.”

With twenty minutes to go, changes from the sideline.

Romelu Lukaku for Havertz.

Christian Pulisic for Werner.

Lukaku, to his credit, again repeated Sunday’s entrance by trying to sprint into spaces but was cruelly ignored by all.

I noted that Matic was booed off by us whereas Juan Mata – lovely player, lovely man, I sound like Alan Partridge – was warmly applauded.

We seemed to have corner after corner in that second-half.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

We conjured one last real chance. With ten minutes to go, Kante broke in the inside left position and played a fine ball into Mount. With a lovely understanding of his positioning and of others, he back-heeled to James.

There was a wait for the ball to reach him and for him to reach the ball.

We inhaled again.

The ball was crashed goal wards and it clipped the left-hand post.

We howled.

In the back of my mind, now, was the Football Gods completely fucking us over and allowing United an absolutely unmerited winner. There was indeed a late chance for Garnacho – who? – but Mendy saved well.

The draw felt like a loss.

Definitely.

Throughout thhis excellent game, Kante, Alonso and Silva had been magnificent but the real star was Reece James. Some of his close control was mesmerising, and his positional play superb. He really will be one of our very greats.

On Sir Matt Busby Way, Sir Les and PD indulged in a polystyrene tray of chips and curry sauce while I had a burger with onions. The food of the footballing Gods.

We made our way back to the car. Out on the Chester Road, the everything was moving quicker than usual. It was a tough old drive home but I eventually reached my house at 2.45am on Friday morning. The two tickets had still not arrived.

On Sunday, we’ll be heading up the same roads all over again.

I love a trip to Goodison. Who knows, it could – sadly – be my last.

I hope to see some of you there.

Tales From A Spring Cruise

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 9 April 2022.

Chelsea Football Club was hurting. Two consecutive home defeats, to the disparate talents of Brentford and Real Madrid and with conceding seven goals in the process, had surprised us and had made us smart. Were we that bad in both games?

Yes, sadly. We had created many chances during the second-half of Wednesday’s game, but our finishing had been poor.

The Chelsea conundrum was continuing. We were in third place in the league; admittedly no mean achievement.  And it was quite likely that we would finish the season in that placing. But for much of the campaign our performances had been unconvincing. We hadn’t pushed on from last season. But the talent was there. It just needed to be harnessed correctly.

However, after a bleak few days following The Great Unpredictables, I was thoroughly looking forward to a little spin down to Hampshire, to Southampton, to St. Mary’s. It was nice to have a game so close to my home; it was barely a ninety-minute drive. And our record down there has been pretty decent. In my twelve previous visits to this stadium, there was just one defeat.

There were five in my blue Chuckle Bus on Saturday morning. I collected PD, his son Scott, Parky and Glenn at 8am and we made excellent time.

With blue skies overhead, the road south from Warminster hugged the River Wyle to my west with the chalk uplands of Salisbury Plain to my east. The magnificence of Salisbury Cathedral’s spire, resplendent in the early morning sun, took my breath away as it always does. I hugged the eastern edge of the New Forest as I continued south. Entering into Southampton, I am always reminded of two moments.

The first came in 1981. On a sunny Saturday in April of that year I attended a game at The Dell, their old shoe-box stadium, between Southampton and Nottingham Forest, the then European Champions. One of my father’s customers had kindly gifted us two of their season tickets and I was very happy to be able to see one of my non-Chelsea heroes, Kevin Keegan, play at last. It was my second non-Chelsea professional game. The first also involved Nottingham Forest, the 1978 League Cup Final, again a gift from one of my father’s work associates. There haven’t been many over the years. This was Chelsea game number 1,344. In the UK, I have seen maybe thirty professional club games not involving Chelsea, of which around ten were in Scotland.

The second came in 2003. We were heading to “The Victory” pub outside the train station – alas no more – and on the last approach as the road rises into the city centre we were listening to the 2003 Rugby Union World Cup Final on the car radio. We heard “Jonny Wilkinson kicks for glory” and had the briefest of “whoops” before turning the radio off and getting back to supporting a sport that mattered.

It was the same approach into the city this year.

To my right, the horizon was pierced by the towers of the cranes that load and offload thousands of sea containers every day. Then, a gasp, a massive cruise ship – ugly, grotesque, hideous, an eye-sore – appeared. I am sure I have seen the same one berthed at Southampton before. Southampton as always is the embarkation point of many cruise ships. In my childhood, a very early memory, I am sure my parents drove down by the quayside to see the QE2 before it set off. I personally hate the idea of cruises. Fuck that. I like to self-govern my holidays, not leave my sightseeing plans to others.

I was parked up outside the train station at 9.30am. Sadly the usual café where we have enjoyed breakfasts and pints for a few years had closed. We ended up doing a little tour of three of the city centre’s pubs.

“Yates” : already mobbing up with Chelsea, a few familiar faces. We ordered some breakfasts. This is the main Chelsea pub in the town centre. It’s OK at the start but gets too busy. And uses plastic glasses. I met up with Mark from Westbury, Paul from Swindon and Bank from Bangkok.

“The Standing Order” : we spotted a little pocket of Chelsea so joined them for a drink. This is a home pub, but as nobody tends to wear colours at away games, we glided in easily.

“Stein Garten” : we met up with Alan and Gary in this German-style bar. We were joined by Kathryn and Tim, still smarting from the two losses on their trip. Before they headed back to Virginia, they – we – were all hoping for a win to put the run of poor form to a close.

Time was moving on and we still had a twenty-minute walk, at least, to reach the stadium. Our route would take us serendipitously through the churchyard of St. Mary’s. The first incarnation of Southampton Football Club was as St. Mary’s Young Men Association. The church certainly has its history. This is the church that inspired the Southampton’s nickname and also their current stadium name. When the new stadium opened in 2001 – we were the first league visitors – it was known as the Friends Provident Stadium, and I am glad that has now changed.

I silently said a little prayer for our chances later as I walked past the church’s grey stone walls.

I was in the right place for a prayer.

Beyond the church’s steeple, I spotted a tower block that was clad in red and white.

Perfect.

I marched Kathryn and Tim towards the main entrance, past the Ted Bates statue, and we joined the throng of away supporters at the turnstiles.

“Bollocks, it’s ten to three. I can’t see us getting in on time.”

Lo and behold, the Footballing Gods were on my side. I got in with ten seconds to go.

Have I ever mentioned, perchance, that my line of work just happens to be in the world of logistics? I think it may have passed my lips once or twice.

For a change, we were out of the sun in the front rows and half-way back by the corner flag. Sadly, this stadium is quite possibly the dullest of all of the new builds that have infested the United Kingdom in the past two or three decades. The only remotely interesting features are the red and white panels under the roof at the rear of the stand and the red astroturf around the perimeter of the pitch. At least there are no executive boxes. Despite the bland feel of this stadium, over the years I have managed to tease a few decent photos out of my camera at St. Mary’s. The shadows on a sunny day, like this one, have helped add something to my photographs of the players as they confront each other on the pitch. I hoped for more of the same on this occasion.

I quickly scanned the players on the pitch – I much prefer us in all yellow than with black shorts – and tried to piece it all together.

Mendy

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

Loftus-Cheek – Kante – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Havertz – Werner

No Broja for the home team, but Livramento was at right-back for them.

Mase with a new haircut, shades of Johnny Spencer in Vienna. Ruben as a wing-back again, but we had heard that Dave had tested positive for COVID. Pleased to see Kovacic playing. A chance for Werner. So many had painfully admitted that they had given upon him, myself included.

The game began.

We attacked the other end in the first-half.

Very soon into the game, with me still getting my bearings – “where the fuck is Parky?” – and trying to work out the team’s shape, that man Timo Werner saw a low shot ricochet back off the far post. Soon after, Kai Havertz slammed one over the bar. We were dominating this one, despite a couple of rare Southampton attacks, and we could hardly believe it when a Loftus-Cheek cross from the right found Werner’s head, but he had the misfortune to hit the bar this time.

“He has generally been poor for us, but he has also been so unlucky.”

On eight minutes, Loftus-Cheek played the ball in to Mount with his back to the goal. He controlled the ball so well and deftly spooned the ball out to his right, our left, where Marcos Alonso was raiding.

Bosh.

Goal.

Get in.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

We tended to prefer our left flank as an attacking avenue – “listen to me, attacking avenue, for fuck sake man” – but on sixteen minutes the ball was played into Mount from the right and after setting himself up nicely, he swept a perfectly-struck shot into the goal, just inside the far post.

2-0 and coasting on the South Coast.

Werner went close again, but then on twenty minutes a rapid break from us, with Werner the spearhead, had us all willing him on. He rounded the ‘keeper, shades of a Torres at his peak – er for Liverpool – and the lively calmly slotted the ball in from what looked like a pretty slim angle.

Superb.

Well done that man. Well deserved.

On the half-hour mark, after another searching ball down our left, Werner wriggled into the box and let fly with a shot that rattled the other post – “oh no” – but luckily the ball rebounded nicely to Havertz who, to his credit, was supporting the attack well.

On the half-hour, we were 4-0 up.

But what bad luck for Timo, who had hit a “hat-trick” of sorts thus far; left post, cross-bar, right post.

Alan summed it all up rather succinctly :

“Timo has hit the woodwork more times than Pinocchio does when he has a wank.”

With the goals flying in, I surely wasn’t the only Chelsea supporter who was suddenly becoming fixated with the number nine. In 2019, Saints lost 0-9 at home to Leicester City. In 2021, Southampton lost 0-9 at Old Trafford.

Next to me, Dave remembered the time, in early 2015, when we went 4-0 up at Swansea City within the first forty-five minutes.

What was my biggest away win? I recollected a 6-0 at Wigan in 2010, the week after we beat West Brom 6-0 at Stamford Bridge.

Goals, goals, goals.

We were on fire.

We attacked and attacked. We spotted more than a few home fans disappearing down exit tunnels well before the half-time whistle.

“You’ve had your day out, now fuck off home.”

Meanwhile, where was Parky?

At the half-time break, the always crowded concourse at Southampton was a pretty joyful place. I was so pleased that Kathryn and Tim, not to mention Bank from Thailand, were finally witnessing a win.

We saw Christian Pulisic warming up.

Alan : ”Who’s coming off?”

Chris : “Havertz, I reckon, give him a rest.”

For once I was right.

The second-half began and it was the same old story.

Just four minutes into the second forty-five minutes, Alonso played the ball in to N’Golo Kante. He advanced and attempted a little dink over Forster. This was palmed away but only into the path of Werner who shot just as I shot but at the same time that a chap in front threw his hand up. A ‘photo ruined but I did not care one jot.

Five.

Wow.

There was a rare save from Mendy – a belter actually, a fine save – but this was the home team’s only real chance all game.

To be fair, most home fans remained and urged their beleaguered team on.

“Oh when the Saints go marching in.”

Our reply was obvious.

“Oh when the Saints go marching out.”

On fifty-four minutes, a ball stretched them out down their right and Alonso pushed the ball square to Pulisic. His effort was stopped by Forster but Mount was on hand to tuck it in.

The joy of six.

Lovely.

The game, even more so now, was over. Southampton were dead and buried. At last Parky showed up. He had been doing a tour of the away end.

Reece James replaced Thiago Silva.

Hakim Ziyech replaced Mount.

I liked it that Livramento was applauded by us when he was substituted.

The home team looked shell-shocked, well beaten. To be fair, more stayed to watch the last half-an-hour than Dave and I expected. Fair play to them. There was time for a few songs.

“Kovacic our Croatian man.

He left Madrid and he left Milan.

He signed for Frank and said “fuck off” Zidane.

He signed for Chelsea on a transfer ban.”

I urged the team on. We all wanted more. We wanted tons of optimism ahead of the trip to Madrid. Although no more goals came, the away end was a fine place to be on this particular Spring afternoon. The best effort was from Alonso but it flew low past the far post.

Southampton 0 Chelsea 6.

Superb.

In the city of ships, this was a real cruise.

On the slow walk back to my car, I took the chance to get my camera out and take a few photographs of some features and buildings that took my eye. We stopped off for a curry just before the Civic Centre with its imposing clock tower. As I sat down, I realised that I had previously been on my feet for around eight hours. The curry hit the spot, and the trip home – the roads clear of traffic now – was quick and easy.

It had been a superb day out.

Good old Chelsea.

Tales From The Chelsea Conundrum

Chelsea vs. Real Madrid : 6 April 2022.

So, here we were then. The first visit by Real Madrid to Stamford Bridge in a UEFA competition where spectators were allowed in. Our paths have crossed, very infrequently, in the past and in a variety of locations. Officially there have been five contests under the UEFA umbrella. In 1971, we battled in the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final over two games in Athens. In 1998, we met in the Super Cup in Monaco. And then, infuriatingly, we met last season in the semi-finals of the Champions League at a time when no spectators were allowed.

So far so good. Five games and not a single defeat.

There have been other games too. There was a charity game at Stamford Bridge in 1966 and there have been two relatively recent friendlies in the US; one in Miami in 2013 and another in Ann Arbor in 2016.

But this one was the one we had all been waiting for.

Real Madrid.

At home.

…shudder, just writing those words.

This was the real deal.

But this would be it for me. Unfortunately, I am unable to get time off from our beleaguered office for the equally eagerly anticipated away game. And, should we progress, I am still thwarted in my attempt to see a potential away game in a semi-final against Atletico Madrid due to others being away and others being off sick.

I was pretty ambivalent about it all though. With the Bernabeu getting a refit, it will be around for a long time yet. And let’s hope Chelsea get another stab at the Spanish giants. And I have already visited the stadium on two occasions already. In 1987, two college mates and I paid a ridiculously small fee to have a wander around the stadium. There was no tour, no guide. We were simply let loose on the mainly-terraced stadium. We even made it to the top of that famously high terraced section, even though I am sure we were not meant to. There was simply nobody around to chase us off. In 2009, myself and a few Chelsea mates went on a far more civilised tour of a modernised Bernabeu on a trip that saw us visit Atletico. This time, everything was a lot more swish. The difference between the stadium on the two visits could not have been greater.

This was a typical Champions League pre-match. There was a pint of Peroni in “The Goose” – revamped, refurbished, re-painted and pretty decent – and then the standard two bottles of Staropramen for a fiver in a packed “Simmons”. This bar had also benefited from a slight refit since my last visit in the group phase stage before Christmas. The lights had dimmed, music was playing. In the far corner, the chaps were fully assembled; Nick, Al, Gal, Ed, Parky, PD, Daryl, Chris, Simon and Milo. And me.

Thousands upon thousands of Chelsea games between us all.

Real Chelsea.

Gary made the point that, with music blaring and the beers going down well – laughter booming – it actually felt like a European Away. The eleven of us plotted up in a small bar, enjoying each other’s company, not a care, not a care.

“All Night Long” by Lionel Richie was playing.

With a wink and a snigger, Gal said “ah, they’re playing my song.”

I replied “the only bloody thing you do all night long these days, Gal, is the evening buffet.”

It was time to set off to Stamford Bridge. Sadly, I got drenched on the fifteen-minute walk to the Matthew Harding turnstiles. The rain in Spain was falling mainly in London SW6.

Fackinell.

But I was in with plenty of time before the match was to begin at eight o’clock. Over in the opposite corner, the away fans were massing up. It looked like Los Merengues would be cheered on by around two thousand supporters. I spotted a line of about thirty in the front rows dressed in white tops.

How cute.

Back in the ‘eighties, the Ultras Sur were their hooligan element. Banned in 2014, I glanced over and wondered if any former members had made it over. The atmosphere was bubbling along nicely. This had all the feelings of a top European night. Flickering squares of blue and silver were spotted in our section of The Shed and it was obvious that a pre-match mosaic had been planned.

With the teams appearing from the tunnel, it was time for me to juggle phone camera and SLR at the same time. I spotted Real wearing blue socks. Deep down I was hoping for them to appear in all white but knew this would never happen. At least they showed up in white shirts and socks.

Our team? Back to the more trusted 3-4-3.

Mendy

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

James – Jorginho – Kante – Azpiicueta

Mount – Havertz – Pulisic

Still no Lukaku, no complaints from me.

Right from the off, and from some moments before, the atmosphere was simply excellent. This was more like it. This is what I signed-up for. I never wanted spectators to become experts and critics at games. I simply wanted supporters to stay as, er, supporters. So far my fellow fans were not letting me down.

This was the business.

Compared to Saturday, this was a different ball game.

The contest began, a vibrant start, Real on the front foot, but the first chance came to us, a Mason Mount cross pumped low into the box. I clocked a few of their famous players; Kroos and Modric, Casemiro, Vinicius, Benzema. Oh, the ogre Courtois. The unloved Courtois. We would have a few songs lined up for him later.

In the opening flurry, one song dominated.

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel.”

There was a shot from Kai Havertz that flew over at our end. Yes, much to my annoyance, we were attacking the Matthew Harding in the first-half.

The rain lashed down.

A slip from Christensen let in the raiding, and instantly impressive, Vinicius who slammed a shot against the top of the crossbar at The Shed End. A free-kick from Reece James was kept out by Courtois.

The MHL entered stage left :

“Courtois – you’re a cnut, Courtois, Courtois – you’re a cnut.”

On twenty minutes, I needed to go to the loo. I made my way out of the seats. While in the gents, I heard a roar, a load roar. My immediate reaction was :

“Too quiet for a Chelsea goal.”

“Too loud for a Real goal.”

What was it? A penalty shout for us?

I was soon to find out.

Real had scored via Benzema.

Bollocks.

Just a couple of minutes later, at the exact moment that Modric played a cross into the box, I said to Al “we need to shape up.” With that, we watched as Benzema rose, without any real hindrance, and headed the ball back across the goal, well past Mendy. Talk about a perfect header.

Shocking defending.

“Free header, Al. How is that possible?”

Real then dominated and hit a purple period. We struggled to get close to them. They cut through us. Carvajal forced a save from Mendy and Christensen was available to hack the ball away. We then seemed to improve – I know not how – and on thirty-seven minutes, Thiago Silva headed over from a corner.

Alan and I were discussing our plans for Southampton as Jorginho sent in a lovely cross that dropped in to the six-yard box at the exact location for Havertz to plant a strong header past Courtois.

Out of the blue, bosh. We were back in it.

I picked up my camera to capture the post-goal celebrations, screaming into my camera all of the time.

Thinking to myself : “well, I’ve never done that before.”

The Bridge was absolutely rocking again. Yet just before the break, Benzema was put through by Vinicius inside the box and we absolutely expected to go further behind.

Inexcusably, the low shot was scuffed wide.

The first-half ended with renewed hope among the fans close to me. There were moments when, in that middle period of that first-half, when I had visions of a repeat of that 0-3 reverse at home to Bayern in 2020.

There were cheers when we saw Mateo Kovacic taking off his top on the touchline. He replaced Christensen as the shape changed to 4-3-3. Hakim Ziyech replaced Kante. Mount was withdrawn into the midfield three. I was inwardly annoyed that Jorginho stayed on. He just seemed to slow stuff down.

Alas, alas, alas.

The absolute horror show that occurred in front of our eyes in the very first minute shocked us all into stunned silence.

A weak pass from Mendy – so far out – to Rudiger was intercepted, Benzema pounced.

Fucksake.

The game died a little, unsurprisingly. We kept plugging away, and actually enjoyed most of the ball in that second-half. Madrid had no reason to go on the offensive. They had already done a job on us. Their job was to contain us. But they never stopped nibbling at us in possession.

Dave let fly with a firmly hit riser that forced a fine save from Courtois.

The singing continued.

“We all follow the Chelsea.”

On the hour I was pleased to hear a massive “Carefree” envelope the whole stadium. We were all pleading for one goal.

Tuchel made further changes.

Romelu Lukaku for the awful Pulisic.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Jorginho.

On sixty-eight minutes, there were two headers from Lukaku in quick succession. The first one almost went off for a corner but was from a difficult chance. The second one brought huge groans; a leap with no defenders close from a central position just outside the six-yard box and the ball whizzed past the right hand post.

Swearing erupted all around Stamford Bridge.

Just after, Mount let fly and his shot sadly whizzed over. We enjoyed a decent spell. Havertz danced into the box and pushed a shot at Courtois. The chances – half-chances – were mounting up.

On the scoreboard, 18 to 8 attempts in our favour.

There was just time for – almost – another Mendy cock-up, but we kept going.

I spoke to Alan : “well, we haven’t played it into Lukaku’s feet once.”

A drive from Mount forced Courtois to make a fine shot down low. The last attempt of the game was another riser, this time from Ziyech, but this one went both high and wide.

Obviously the Mendy mistake killed us. We were showing signs of getting back into the game. The second-half could have been so different. But Real were a fine team. Of our players, only Havertz and James could really hold their heads up.

The Chelsea conundrum continues.

Tales From Block 9 And Gate 17

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 13 March 2022.

As a pre-curser to our game at home to Newcastle United on the Sunday, I followed my local team Frome Town to Bath for a derby with Larkhall Athletic on Saturday afternoon. This was a first-time visit to Plain Ham for me and my first Frome game since just after Christmas. Larkhall play at a picturesque ground atop a hill overlooking the city, and as I settled in to cheer on the Robins on a sunny but blustery afternoon, I chatted to a couple of friends.

“It’s weird. I usually use Chelsea as a break – a getaway – from the stresses of normal life, of work, of everything. Today, I am using Frome Town as a break from Chelsea.”

The noise concerning the sanctions against Roman Abramovich and all of the associated rumours were loud and showing no signs of abating.

I fancied keeping a low profile. It felt like that I would be easy prey for a few fellow Frome supporters who followed other clubs. It felt like I was walking around with a large target on my back. In the end, I got off quite lightly. A few lads even felt sorry for the predicament of us Chelsea fans; how we were getting punished for the sins of others. The game was a poor one; a 0-0 draw but we improved our lot as the team below us, Cirencester Town, lost. Our lead at the top of the Southern League Division One South was extended to two points.

On the Sunday morning, I awoke early with a classic, if not slightly uncomfortable, match day ahead of me.

The football Gods had shone on me favourably. My first-ever Chelsea game was way back in 1974 against Newcastle United, and by a nice quirk of fate, the actual forty-eighth anniversary was out by just three days.

Game 1 : Chelsea vs. Newcastle, Saturday 16 March 1974.

Game 1,340 : Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, Sunday 13 March 2022.

That Ron Harris was again joining Paul, Parky and myself on the trip to London made it all a bit sweeter. We were away by just after 7.15am for the 2pm kick-off at Stamford Bridge. I soon explained to Ron about the lovely synchronicity of the two games. In the programme from that first game, Ron was originally due to miss out in favour of young John Sparrow at left-back, who had debuted the previous Wednesday afternoon – the days of fuel shortages and the three-day week – against Burnley, but I memorably crossed his name out and replaced it with Chopper’s name. Ron was keen to see how the current Chelsea supporters were going to react to the news of the sanctions, the selling of the club, the whole nine yards. I was hoping that everyone would be respectful of our delicate position. To be honest, I wanted the game to pass with as little negative noise as possible.

As I drove through the Wiltshire village of Tilshead on Salisbury Plain, six armoured vehicles passed us. It brought everything into sharp focus. Despite our obvious thoughts about the safeguarding of Chelsea’s immediate and long-term future, everything of a football nature seemed to disappear as each of those trucks, carrying soldiers, passed us.

Salisbury Plain, if not the headquarters of the British Army then certainly its training ground and its playing field, is not far from our four West Country homes. I remember that as a child I would often see tanks in training on one stretch of the road between Warminster – a garrison town and Ron’s former home – and Chitterne. I remembered how, during the First World War the army commandeered the village of Imber and forced its inhabitants to flee so that the buildings could be used for street-fighting purposes. In the late ‘eighties, on that same Warminster to Chitterne road, it was easy to spot a newly built village that was said to resemble that of a Polish town since that is where it was thought that any battle in a potential World War Three would take place. Much of the recent war film “1917” was filmed on the Plain too. We wondered if those young British soldiers that had passed us would soon be sent to foreign lands, maybe not to Ukraine, but to bolster the NATO presence elsewhere.

It seems odd, and awful, to be writing about a potential World War Three in a Chelsea blog.

We made good time. I dropped PD and Parky off outside “The Eight Bells” at 9.30am and they disappeared off for a coffee outside Putney Bridge tube station while they waited for the pub to open at 10am. I dropped Ron off near Fulham Broadway and then shot off to park up at the usual place further north.

I walked back down the North End Road and called in to see Mark Worrall at the CFCUK stall opposite the Fulham Broadway tube station. Here, I picked up my free copy of “Tales From The Shed” that had gone to print recently and was now on sale. I am one of thirty-four Chelsea supporters to have submitted a piece on various aspects of the club. Marco gave me a special extension to detail my experience in Abu Dhabi when Chelsea – gasp – became World Champions. I know eleven of the other folk and I chatted briefly to a few of them during the day. The book is the latest of Marco’s “Gate 17” publications and acts as a fundraiser for the Stoll Foundation, which benefits from Chelsea’s charity work in the local area, including “The Big Sleep Out.”

Details are given at the end of this piece.

It is, of course, heartily recommended. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Down at “The Eight Bells” we then enjoyed a cracking pre-match yet again. The three of us were joined by Daima from San Diego – her first game, against the Geordies, just like me – plus Deano from Lancashire via Yorkshire, Rich from Edinburgh and four of the lads from Kent who often call in. We had a ball.

It actually felt rather odd to be back at Stamford Bridge once again. Due to a variety of reasons, I missed the Tottenham league match, the Plymouth FA Cup tie and the Lille Champions League game. My last match at Chelsea was the Chesterfield cup tie. The last game that I witnessed from my season-ticket seat was the Tottenham League Cup game way back on the fifth day of January. Since the Chesterfield game, there had been ten games at other venues. This Newcastle game seemed like a homecoming for me.

I settled in alongside Alan, Clive and PD in The Sleepy Hollow section of Block 9 and waited for things to develop.

I spotted “The Roman Empire” banner that had apparently drawn some negative comments from the media earlier in the day. Its presence summed up our predicament.

Were we to airbrush our current owner from our history? No, of course not.

Should the club have taken it down? That would have been disrespectful.

Should we have left it up? That could well have been seen as disrespectful too.

Oh what horrible muddy waters.

Down below, “Three” was still being advertised around the perimeter of the pitch.

Confused? So was I.

Since the news of the sanctions against Roman had broken just four days earlier, my head had been sent into a constant spin. I am sure that elsewhere it was a similar case. It was difficult to find lucid and straightforward commentary and insight.

It certainly felt like we were the whipping boys.

But I kept thinking back to the terrible summer of 1976 when Chelsea appeared to be going belly-up. I can remember one moment that I often think back on.

Before I disappeared into my bedroom – one that was quickly becoming a shrine to Chelsea Football Club – I can remember sobbing as I pinned a note up on my bedroom door.

“1974 : Division One. 1975 : Division Two. 1976 : nothing.”

It was a cry-for-help to my parents and, looking back, it was of course all rather embarrassing. My poor parents spoke to me about it the next day and tried to allay any fears of my beloved club disappearing, but of course these were just empty words as they had no real clue.

So, I have been there before.

My have parents passed away now, but maybe I need to see if I have any Blu Tack for a 2022 version.

I was worried about a repeat of Burnley with some unwanted chants taking place during a minute of applause for the people of Ukraine. I hoped that Chelsea would not be holding a similar minute before this game and immediately hated myself for it. Did I really want to see the reputation of the club being upheld instead of us all joining in for a minute for Ukraine? Sadly, yes. Again, I hated myself.

I had spoken to a few friends in the pub that I liked the idea of us wearing yellow shorts for this one game.

Blue shirts. Yellow shorts. United with Ukraine. A big message to the world. And a message to our support that chanting our current owner’s name during the minute of applause was not deemed acceptable.

Among all of this, there was a game to be played. I hadn’t thought much about it.

The teams appeared. Lo and behold, the Chelsea players were all wearing “3” on the shirts and a state of confusion reigned. At one stage, it looked like both sets of players were converging on the centre-circle and my fears about a “minute of applause” was going to come to fruition. In the end, they all backed away. There was the knee, but no more.

The game began. The Geordies, backed by three thousand, must have won the toss because we attacked the Matthew Harding, where Daima was watching from the opposite corner.

Oh, the team?

It looked like a back four, but was Hakim Ziyech playing right wing-back?

No, a four surely.

Mendy

Chalobah – Rudiger – Christensen – Sarr

Jorginho – Kante – Mount

Ziyech – Havertz – Werner

The fact that we were playing against Newcastle United, a club now bankrolled by the oil-rich but highly dubious Saudis, provided a dark undercurrent both before and during the game. I hoped that the possible, no probable, chanting from both sets of supporters would not darken things further.

The first-half was a pretty poor affair and had little real merit. An early shot from Andreas Christensen flew high into the crowd. A header from Antonio Rudiger soon after did not trouble Martin Dubravka in the Newcastle goal.

Thinking to myself : “In 1974, we were already one-up at this stage.”

The game settled but it didn’t really thrill. Unsurprisingly, we dominated but struggled to break down a resilient Newcastle team. There were slim pickings.

A long corner was aimed for a waiting Mason Mount but his speculative volley from way out flew high and wide. On twenty-eight minutes, I noted the best move of the match down our right but the end shot, from Werner, was always drifting wide.

While we were attacking, some supporters in the Matthew Harding Lower sung “Roman Abranomovich” but the general noise and commotion in that section meant that it was missed by the rest of the stadium; it had no chance to picked up and carried by others.

I was relieved.

I just didn’t want the negativity that would have accompanied it.

“We’re grateful Roman for everyting. But you’re not part of our future now. Let’s move on.”

On the half-hour, a Newcastle chance was spurned, and we held on.

The away fans sang : “Mike Ashley he’s coming for you.”

The Matthew Harding responded : “Boris Johnson he’s coming for you.”

The sun appearing overhead was a welcome addition to the afternoon, but the football itself didn’t really warm up at all.

The away fans were still chipping away at us.

The home fans rallied with a loud and defiant “Carefree” as the half entered the last ten minutes. Until then, the support had been subdued, tamed, thoughts elsewhere perhaps.

Efforts from Kai Havertz and Mount were hardly worthy of the name.

Right at the end of the poor first-half, we were soon roaring our approval of a magnificent save by Mendy from Miguel Almiron through a crowd of players.

The second period began.

On fifty-five minutes, a superb ball was lofted forward by Andreas Christensen but after a poor touch from Werner, the chance evaporated.

The second-half followed much the same pattern as the first.

There was untidy play from us, a few half-chances from the visitors, resolute defending from them and a Roman Abramovich chant half-way through the half from the MHL that was again lost in the general hubbub and not spotted by the rest of the support. I again heaved a sigh of relief.

I summed up proceedings to Alan in an embarrassingly poor way :

“Fucking shit, innit?”

But it was. This was a poor match. One to forget.

On the hour, Thomas Tuchel changed it around.

Mateo Kovacic for Mount.

Romelu Lukaku for Werner.

We huffed-and-puffed to no avail and, as happens on these occasions when I know that there are friends watching their first games at Chelsea, I was sad for Daima.

On the seventy-five-minute mark, a header from the leap of Havertz after a cross from Havertz gave us a false rush of hope. The header was easily claimed by Dubravka.

Fackinell.

Christian Pulisic replaced Sarr.

The game ambled along. We had almost given up hope. Clive disappeared off with a minute of normal time remaining.

Then, out of absolutely nowhere, a dream of a ball from Jorginho, who at last gets a mention right at the end of this report and not without good reason. He played a ball over the top and into space for the perfect run of Havertz.

One touch, a shot low.

Goal.

Stamford Bridge exploded.

I turned to my left and stared, eyes wide, at the yellow steps and double-punched my arms in a frankly disturbing way. I’d lost control. But fuck it. Seconds later I grabbed by camera to snap the celebrations.

You beauty.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now, like.”

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds, like.”

Incredibly, the same player almost made it two a few moments later when he raced through in the inside-right channel but saw his delicate chip knocked away by Dubravka.

The Geordies were silent. The final whistle blew.

An incredible ending to a very poor game had given us three more points. I was especially elated for Daima over in Block 16.

The players clapped us as they slowly walked around the pitch. I have usually departed by this stage, but I stayed momentarily to clap them too. It was one of those moments.

“Blue Is The Colour” never felt sounded so emotional.

“Cus Chelsea, Chelsea Is Our Name.”

Tales From The Shed.

The price for a limited edition version from the CFCUK stall on matchdays at Stamford Bridge is just £9, of which £5 goes to the Stoll Foundation.

This version can also be purchased via the eBay link at www.gate17books.co.uk – here there is also a 10% auto donation to the Alzheimer’s Society and £2 will also go to Stoll.

A standard paperback version of the book is also available worldwide via Amazon – sales via this platform will generate £2 per copy for Stoll.

This is the link for Amazon UK https://amzn.to/3tLUg0K

Additionally, I have a spare copy which I am happy to send to a fellow Chelsea supporter – or not as the case may be – as a prize. The competition? I have been thinking long and hard about this and I am stumped for a question. Therefore, I am going to turn the tables a little.

What question should I ask for this competition to win a copy of “Tales From The Shed”?

Let’s see how your minds and your imaginations work.

Please email me your answer…er, question…to : c.axon@talk21.com

Closing date : Friday 25 March.