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.

Tales From An Unhappy Birthday

Norwich City vs. Chelsea : 10 March 2022.

Just after midnight on the day of our game at Carrow Road, I posted on Facebook the following :

“Happy Birthday Chelsea Football Club. Let’s celebrate it with a win later today.”

This was going to be another long old day. I had booked the day off work but was unable to get Friday off too. So it meant that I would be driving straight back after the match. I envisaged around ten hours’ driving in total. I did wonder if we’d completely fill our section, what with the game being only recently re-arranged, but that was soon to be the least of my worries.

I collected the gruesome twosome and by 9am we had stopped for a McBite to eat in the Wiltshire town of Melksham. Just as we were leaving, a friend messaged a group of us on WhatsApp to say that the government were putting sanctions on Roman Abramovich. My immediate reaction was that I wasn’t wholly surprised. But then, within minutes, the word was that it didn’t look good for us. It didn’t look good at all. I quickly turned my ‘phone off and recommenced the long drive east. PD, alongside me in the passenger seat, relayed some snippets of further information. Only season ticket holders were to be allowed at Stamford Bridge, the club shop was to be closed, but also – most worryingly of all – came the news that we couldn’t be sold.

PD summed it all up : “We’re fucked.”

Driving along the M4, nearing Swindon, I advised the chaps to turn their ‘phones off too. In the way that bad news travels much faster than good news, I suspected that the morning would soon be rife with awful rumours and doom-laden opinions about the immediate future of Chelsea Football Club. For a good hour or so, my car has never been quieter on the way to a Chelsea game. All three of us were stunned.

“And on our bloody birthday too. Stick the knife in and turn it, why don’t you?”

And yet. And yet, I could not help think of the poor people of Ukraine, who were at that very moment in time getting shelled by the Russian invaders. A part of me knew that in the very grand scheme of things the comings-and-goings of a football club seemed way less important.

Still we remained largely silent.

But we did mull over a few thoughts. I will admit, at some stage in that mid-morning mess, the three of us contemplated the most horrible “what if?” of all time.

What if Chelsea ceased to exist? What on Earth would we do?

My answer was obvious.

“I’d watch Frome Town. I know I wouldn’t enjoy it anything as like as much, but that’s always been part of my exit plan.”

I could hardly believe that we were thinking it and that I was discussing it. It was a rotten time. Looking back, that hour-and-a-half drive east along the M4 is a blur, a foggy memory, a fugue.

We hit the M25, the M11, the A11 and eventually the fine city of Norwich. I parked up not long after 1.30pm, some five-and-a-half hours since picking up PD in Frome. Despite the sullen thoughts racing through our minds, we promised each other to make the most of the day. Outside, the weather was mild, and overhead the sky was a cloudless blue miracle. I was parked just outside the city centre, just to the north of the River Wensum. We were honing in on one of my favourite pubs, “The Ribs Of Beef” but first we shot into “The Mischief”, a pub that we visited on the day of our FA Cup game in Norwich in 2018.

We all remembered our last trip to Norwich, only two-and-a-half years previous, but that day seems so distant now. In August 2019 – the sun blazing – we watched as Chelsea won 3-2 and Frank Lampard picked up his first win as a Chelsea manager. So much has happened since that it seems almost ridiculous to contemplate it all.

COVID19, several lockdowns, my heart attack, the dismissal of Lampard, the hiring of Tuchel, Champions League glory, Cup Finals, World Championships, a war in Europe and now the forced departure of Roman Abramovich.

My head is spinning as I am listing all of this.

We spent some quality time in the two pubs, and then hopped over the street to finish off at “The Glass House”, where Adam and his merry men and women of the Eastern Blues were enjoying a pre-match drink-up. It was in another pub on that street, “The Lawyer”, where we bumped into Adam and a few more of his crowd in 2018. Alas, that pub is no more. Sadly, the Eastern Blues lost a fine member the past year – Leigh – and it was in “The Lawyer” that we first met him. He was a well-respected Chelsea supporter and I know that he is dearly missed.

RIP Leigh Reeder.

Morsels of information and disinformation percolated through to us while we were drinking. I had allowed myself a single pint of “Praha” in the “Ribs Of Beef” and tried my best to relax. But what about away tickets for Middlesbrough? Was it true that we could be sold after all? How would a new owner work with the CPO? What about us retaining our players? Buying new ones? Would the club even exist by the end of the season?

We decided to let nature runs its course. We were but supporters, and all we could do was support the current team.

I parked up closer to the ground in a multi-story. After quickly saying “hi” to Rob and Martin in a restaurant, we dipped into “The Queen Of The Iceni” by the river. This is a pub that Parky and I first visited in 2012 and we had a quiet word with Noel and his wife. The mood was sombre and contemplative. But it was good to share a few thoughts. This pub was virtually full of home fans. Chelsea supporters, it seemed, were amassed in a pub on the other bank of the river, and their songs could be head from some distance. But we had given all that a large swerve. None of us were in the mood for it.

We decided to head into the stadium relatively early. As we turned the corner, I half-expected TV crews and reporters to be pouncing on Chelsea supporters as we neared the away turnstiles, but things were surprisingly quiet.

This would be my tenth consecutive Chelsea game away from Stamford Bridge, a run that is never likely to be repeated.

Tottenham, Manchester City, Brighton, Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi, Crystal Palace, Wembley, Luton, Burnley and Norwich.

I swapped seats with PD so he could be with Parky for a change; they were down the front with Alan and Gary. I was towards the back. There was reassuringly plain and concise talking with Jonesy, King Kenny, Neil, Tim and Cliff. I need not have been worried about the Chelsea crowd. Our section was rammed.

Suddenly, the game was upon us and I flicked my focus to our team.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Christensen

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Saul

Mount – Havertz – Werner

What a lovely first-half, eh?

We created more in those first ten minutes than we did in the entire first-half at Burnley in the previous game. After just two minutes, that rare thing; a Chelsea goal from a corner. Mason Mount slapped it in from the far side and a leap from Trevoh Chalobah did the rest. His glancing header down flew into the net, and the Chelsea contingent roared.

Soon after, the chances mounted up, oh dear please excuse the pun. Two efforts from Kai Havertz were followed by the same player sliding the ball square to Mount, who shimmied and struck high into Tim Krul’s goal. His subsequent slide towards us was euphoric, pure emotion, pure Chelsea.

More of the same please.

The Chelsea crowd were noisy and continuously so.

There were loud chants of “Roman Abramovich” but not everybody joined in.

Ironically, a friend in Detroit – hello Andy – asked me a few months back why we no longer shout Roman’s name at games. I had no real answer to this question. Maybe only on days when we are presented with league trophies at Stamford Bridge? I can’t remember any other occasions in recent times.

I also saw the home fans’ reaction – “Scum! Scum! Scum!” – and I simply didn’t want to contribute to that particular debate.

I remembered the famous exchange in 2005.

“We’ve got a super cook, you’ve got a Russian crook.”

“We’ve got Abramovich, you’ve got a drunken bitch.”

They don’t write them like that anymore, eh?

Back to 2022, and there followed a bizarre chant from us :

“Chelsea get sanctioned everywhere they go.”

Answers on a postcard.

And then, the rarest of songs.

“Chelsea Til I Die.”

This has always been a song that failed to register at Chelsea games, despite many fans thinking that it did. In my mind, and a few friends, it always seemed to be sung by lower level teams for some reason. Yet here we were in deepest Norfolk, and hundreds of Chelsea were giving it an airing for the very first time that I can ever remember.

I guess on this particular occasion it can be forgiven.

Though, to be honest, I’ll be supporting Chelsea after I die too.

We kept pouring forward. Every attack seemed to be with pace, at last, and the front three were continually on the last line of the defence, waiting to pounce. Dave’s energy levels were amazing to witness at close quarters. I lost count of the number of runs he made; many were inch perfect, but sadly many were ignored too. I was impressed with Mase, a bundle of energy, racing forward one minute, tackling back the next.

That shimmy from Thiago Silva as he brought the ball out of defence.

“Now you see it, now you don’t”

Sublime.

A flurry of corners caused concern in the Norwich penalty area. Kovacic and Christensen went close. It was as dominant half of football that I have seen for a while. Oh, since the second-half at Burnley anyway. Norwich were simply not in it. How come we only scored bloody two?

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Dave at the break. He looked out of place at right wing-back; my eyes took a while to adjust.

In contrast, a stark contrast, the second-half was poor. There was such little quality in the first twenty minutes that I wondered what on Earth the Chelsea players had drunk at half-time. It was the home side that looked the more aggressive as the game continued and Chelsea looked to be tiring. The noise in the away section died a little. On sixty-five minutes, there was a shot that hit a Chelsea defender. My reaction was “handball” before Teemu Pukki gathered the loose ball and Mendy saved well.

The initial handball was given though.

A penalty to Norwich.

Pukki drilled it low, Mendy going the other way.

Bollocks.

“On The Ball City” boomed.

Oh – and another – “Yellarmy!” as encouraged by electronic displays.

Yellarmy. I ask you.

Norwich fancied their chances now, and I didn’t fancy ours. But we needed a win here to silence the baying hordes in the outside world. We needed to hang on.

With five minutes to go, a double flip.

Romelu Lukaku for a poor Timo Werner.

N’Golo Kante for a tireless Mateo Kovacic.

The big Belgian fluffed a chance from inside the box.

“CAM ON CHELS.”

On ninety minutes, Kante passed to Havertz and our slim and silky German thundered the ball high into the goal.

Norwich City 1 Chelsea 3.

Phew.

We walked slowly back to the waiting car. Our mood had been brightened by the result. We tried to be positive. The road west was waiting for me. I eventually reached home at 3.15am.

It had been the strangest of days.

Tales From East Somerset To East Lancashire

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 5 March 2022.

We were in the midst of a run of away games at venues that could well be described as “old school.” After Selhurst Park and Kenilworth Road now came Turf Moor. Many in our support hate a trip to Burnley’s home and many dislike the team too. Under Sean Dyche, and over the past eight seasons of top flight football, the team has become known for its rather rudimentary and physical style of football. But I love a trip to this particular corner of East Lancashire. I especially love the approach up to the ground from the town centre. I have shared a few words about this walk in previous episodes so I won’t repeat myself again. Suffice to say, it takes me back to an older time, and that is no bad thing. And in this old mill town, football goes back a long way. Burnley Football Club have played at Turf Moor since 1883.

I had set off from East Somerset at 7.30am and had made perfect timing. As I turned onto the M62 from the M6, the road signs soon indicated that I was in the middle of the old football heartland of England. There were signs for Manchester and Leeds, but also for Blackburn and Bury, for Rochdale and Oldham, for Accrington and Burnley. On my last visit to Turf Moor in the October of 2019, our pre-match took us to a pub in Clayton Le Moors. On this occasion, I had highlighted a pub in Accrington. But this was not just any pub. My destination was “The Crown Inn” and what made this pub so special was that it was right outside one of the entrances to Accrington Stanley Football Club. We arrived bang on midday.

This was just perfect. Burnley was only a ten-minute drive away. The pub looked warm and inviting. PD, PDs’s son Scott – on his birthday – and Parky ordered pints of lager, and I sipped at something a lot less alcoholic. It was time to relax for an hour and a half or so. A friend of a friend – David from Silverdale on Morecambe Bay, last seen at Anfield in late August – soon arrived and picked up a spare ticket.

I zipped outside to take a small selection of photos of the nearby Wham Stadium, a ground where I am yet to witness a game, looking neat and tidy in the winter sun. A local, who had been sitting in the pub when we arrived, walked past me on his way to watch Accrington’s away game at Portsmouth in a brand new hospitality suite that was opening for the very first time that day. He spoke to me about his joy of how the ground has been recently developed. The club has risen from the ashes after being turfed out of the Football League in the ‘sixties. He enthusiastically answered my question about the whereabouts of their old Peel Park ground which was evidently just a mile away.

“Where are you from, then?”

“Oh, Somerset. We’re Chelsea.”

“Are you going to the game?”

“Yeah.”

“Hope you beat those bastards.”

This was a view shared by a lad in the pub, who was drinking next to us with a mate. I had to ask of his allegiance.

“Are you Blackburn?”

“Oh aye. He’s a Knob Ender, like, but yeah.”

The fact that the two lads were watching Blackburn Rovers’ game at Craven Cottage – in SW6, of all places – was a clue, but nothing is ever a certainty in football.

In a space of five minutes, I had met supporters of Accrington Stanley, Blackburn Rovers and Preston North End. It was a perfect welcome to the area.

Back in 1888, all three clubs – plus the seemingly despised Burnley – were founder members of the Football League. It seemed just right that we should be drinking at the epicentre of the origins of the game in England.

All four clubs lie within twenty miles of each other. Bolton Wanderers, another inaugural member, are close by. The other seven clubs – Everton, Stoke City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa, Derby County and Notts County – are further afield.

At the end of our spell in the cosy pub, we wished each other well and the Blackburn fan said “I hope you beat them four nil.”

The short drive from Accrington to Burnley was a breeze. I must admit I love the sight of the naked Pennines to the north-east of the town and on this occasion they didn’t disappoint. I have noted before that other clubs might well be geographically more northern, but there is no club that is spiritually more northern that the one that resides along Harry Potts Way in deepest Burnley.

We nabbed what seemed like the last car park spot near the town centre and were soon walking towards Turf Moor. The cold wind almost cut me in two, but nearer the stadium, in among the terraced houses, the wind seemed to quieten. There has been a fair amount of gentrification of good old Turf Moor of late – a splash of paint here and there, the wooden seats in the away end have eventually been replaced, there are corporate tiers rising up above two of the corner flags and the Blackburn fan had warned us of every spare inch now being devoted to neon signage – but I liked how “Burnley Football Club”, in ‘sixties font, was still emblazoned on the old stand adjacent to Harry Potts Way.

There was time for one more drink in the awning adjacent to the away concourse and we then made our way to our seats in the away end. In that packed concourse, it again seemed that Aquascutum scarves were everywhere. It must have been the threat of the cold. As with my last visit, I was adjacent to the home fans, right behind the goal. A few very drunk youngsters stumbled in. I was stood next to Parky and Gary, but also Sophie – Porto 2021 – and her father Andy was two rows in front. PD and Scott were ten rows behind us.

The minutes ticked by.

The teams were shown on the two large TV screens in the corners.

Chelsea lined-up as follows :

Mendy

Chalobah  – Silva – Rudiger

James  – Jorginho – Kante – Saul

Mount – Havertz – Pulisic

Talking points? No room for Romelu Lukaku then, and I had no complaints. Saul at left wing-back? I trusted the manager.

The teams appeared. Chelsea wore the nasty and messy jade, orange and black. I suddenly felt nauseous.

There was an announcement from the PA that detailed a minute of applause for the people suffering in Ukraine. The teams stood in the centre circle. The scoreboard, the advertising boards, the balcony walls and the roof fascia all around the ground turned yellow and blue. I took a few quick photos and then joined in by clapping alongside thousands. I was far from pleased that hundreds of Chelsea fans decided at that moment – during the minute of applause – to yell out the name of our owner.

Sophie and I spoke.

“We’ve done ourselves no favours there.”

Indeed.

The timing of this support of Roman Abramovich was completely wrong. This was no time to roar his name. This was no playground pissing contest. This was a moment to show solidarity with the poor folk who were being shelled by Russian troops. It came over, I am sure, as a reaction against the minute of applause rather than a show of support for our owner. I just didn’t need it. Chelsea Football club didn’t need it. The locals a few yards from me were pretty livid. And I think they had a point.

Fackinell.

There were prolonged periods of debate about our recent funding between a few Chelsea fans standing nearby and some equally headstrong locals throughout the game. It was a sideshow that I didn’t warm to.

It was a dire first-half. In the first twenty minutes, Burnley – playing with light blue shorts at home just didn’t look right – easily carved out the better chances. Thankfully our defence were strong both individually and as a unit. As with the last visit – OK, not last season, that doesn’t count, I couldn’t even remember the score – Dwight McNeil looked dangerous on their right. Wout Weghorst is a big lump, eh? A cross from Aaron Lennon found Weghorst but that prince among men Thiago Silva was able to clear off the line. A few defensive headers at set pieces kept Burnley at bay.

Thankfully, Chelsea saw off the early Burnley pressure and saw more and more of the ball. However, a long shot from outside the box from Toni Rudiger, which the ‘keeper Nick Pope did well to smother at his post, was the only real effort on goal.

The locals to our left were noisy at the start of the game but neither Sophie nor myself could decipher much of it.

It’s funny how I sometimes pick on certain things during games. In that first-half, as we were positioned right behind the goal, it was so noticeable that on three or four occasions when Silva was bringing the ball out of defence, I noticed a channel of space right up the middle of the pitch – maybe five yards wide – with no players blocking a pass to a run from a player into space. Alas, there were no runners and thus no ball was pinged at pace into the final third. And if anyone could ping a crisp ball to feet it was Silva. It was so annoying. But this lack of movement encapsulated our play in that woeful first forty-five minutes. It was exasperating stuff.

With our goalkeeper only a few yards away, he was serenaded loudly with his own song.

“He comes from Senegal.”

Thankfully, the home team ran out of ideas and were pushed back by us.

Gary : “they’re playing for 0-0.”

Chris : “So are we, mate.”

On the half-hour, a ball was skied way high and Mendy had to time his leap to perfection. Sadly, he seemed to mist-time everything and his punch fell to Jay Rodriguez, but his shot was off target. We applied a little more pressure as the first-half came to its conclusion but created only half-chances.

In the crowded concourse, I crept past a few pals on the way to the miniscule gents. Our performance was summed up by myself in the briefest of ways.

“Shite, eh?”

The second-half began and how. Chelsea were now attacking us, the two and a half thousand members of the away army. With the second-half just three minutes old, I had a perfect viewpoint to watch Reece James collect the ball just outside the box with a defender immediately up against him. Some sublime skills – a beguiling mixture of twists and dummies – allowed him a spare yard. I expected a cross. Instead, the ball was drilled into the far corner, low at the post.

We erupted.

Reece beamed. His face was a picture as he raced off down to the far corner. We love our post-goal celebrations at the corner posts, eh?

Just five minutes later, a magnificent cross from the boot of Christian Pulisic was absolutely inch perfect, allowing Kai Havertz to leap and head in at the far post. Space was at a minimum. The header had to be as perfectly placed as the cross.

It was.

We roared again.

Two minutes later, we watched a cracking move involving Mason Mount, N’Golo Kante and James develop. A low cross was bundled home by Havertz from very close in.

Three goals in ten minutes. Bloody hell. Nobody could have expected such a blitz at the start of the half. Surely the game was safe? Maybe not. In 2019, we went 4-0 up with goals that included a perfect hat-trick from Pulisic, only for us to gift the home team two late goals.

The home fans were quiet now, with only the occasional song about “Bastard Rovers” to keep them warm.

Sophie joked that three goals in ten minutes had given us a false expectation as the second-half continued. As ten minutes and then twenty passed, we grew restless.

“Boring now, innit?”

I laughed.

With twenty minutes to go, Saul knocked a ball into the danger zone. James Tarkowski took a swipe in an attempt to clear but Pulisic was on hand to smash it in from inside the six-yard box. Thankfully there were no chants of “USA” – ironic or not – to accompany our fourth goal unlike in 2019.

Burnley 0 Chelsea 4.

Excellent.

We had now scored four goals on each of my last three visits to Turf Moor. That Blackburn fan in the pub would be happy.

Thomas Tuchel made some late changes to rest weary legs.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for James.

Mateo Kovacic for Kante.

Timo Werner for Mount.

“Bloody hell, Soph, Ruben is playing right back now.”

We saw the game out. I summed the game up in one sentence.

“First-half everyone was 5/10, second-half 8/10.”

We shuffled out into the dusk of a Burnley evening and there was the usual amount of posturing behind the guard of two police horses from the home fans as both sets of supporters headed under the bridge on Harry Potts Way. We made it back to the car in double-quick time; it was our quickest ever exit from the town centre. A smash and grab raid? Maybe. As I headed west towards the M6 on top of the ridge of high land on the M65, the views of the Ribble Valley beneath the hills to the north and the peaks of the Lake District further west were quite spectacular.

Burnley never lets me down.

Next up, a long drive east to Norwich City on Thursday.

“Thursday?”

“So am I, see you in the pub.”

Tales From Under A Blue And Yellow Arch

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 27 February 2022.

My alarm sounded at 5.45am on the day of the League Cup Final. With all of the recent news from Ukraine that had sadly dominated everyone’s thoughts, I think it is safe to say that I was not wholly ready for the game at Wembley against Liverpool. I wasn’t particularly focussed. Far from it. The horrific scenes from Ukraine – and the national capital of Kiev specifically, a city that I had visited only three years ago with Chelsea – had dominated my thoughts for the previous few days. Football seemed a frivolous pursuit. In fact, my thoughts about the game were quite similar to those that I had felt for the 2015 League Cup Final against Tottenham. Just three days previously, I had lost my dear mother.

On both occasions, my mind was elsewhere, way elsewhere.

On that Sunday seven years ago, we travelled up to London by train. In 2022, we travelled up by car. I collected PD at 7am and Parky not long after. It would be our third drive to London in nine days, but only the second to involve a game.

Last Tuesday, the three of us had arrived in London at our usual parking space on Normand Road at around 5.45pm for the Champions League game against Lille, but PD – who had been feeling ropey during the last thirty-minutes of his drive to London – suddenly felt very ill indeed. He felt sick, experienced hot sweats but was also shaking with the cold too. Without too much thought, I knew we had to get him home. I jumped into the driving seat of his car and drove us back west. Our stay in London had lasted five minutes. Thankfully, PD improved a little on the drive home. By the time I eventually reached my house, the game at Stamford Bridge was approaching half-time. Our eventual two-nil win was met with a little indifference from me. I was more concerned about PD.

Bizarrely, this followed on from my “ghost” trip to London for the Plymouth Argyle game in which I didn’t go in. Two trips to SW6 but no football. My next game at Chelsea is against Newcastle United in a couple of weeks. I hope I make it to my seat.

We had decided to stay over in London. The Premier Inn near Putney Bridge would be our home for the Sunday night. From 10am until about 3pm, we knocked back some ciders and lagers in three local boozers; “The Eight Bells”, “The King’s Arms” and “The Golden Lion”. In the last pub, we bumped into the former Chelsea midfielder Alan Hudson, himself a participant in a League Cup final for Chelsea against Stoke City, almost fifty years ago to the day.

We were adamant that we would arrive on time for this match at Wembley. However, the tube line between Putney Bridge and Earl’s Court wasn’t operating. Instead, we bit the bullet and cabbed it – past Stamford Bridge – to Marylebone Station. It was no surprise to see a few stragglers, a few familiar faces, outside the sports bar as we exited the taxi. We soon squeezed onto the 3.45pm train to Wembley Park. What should have been a twelve-minute journey, took nearer thirty. Our carriage was full of Chelsea, including a couple of lads from home. All eyes were on the clock. Suffice to say, we again struggled to get into Wembley on time.

The game was due to start at 4.30pm.

We made our way around to the eastern end. At least there was no queue and a minimal security check. On the way in, a Scouser in his twenties squeezed-in behind Parky as he scanned his ticket. Old habits die hard, I guess. I uttered two choice words to him as we all ascended the escalator.

Time was against me.

Race, race, race.

I managed to reach my seat while the players of both teams were taking the knee.

Despite my alarm waking me at 5.45am, I was in with just five seconds to spare.

Bloody hell.

We had heard that Romelu Lukaku wasn’t chosen in the starting eleven while we were on the train. No surprise really. It would have been my choice too.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

Alonso – Kante – Kovacic – Azpilicueta

Mount – Havertz – Pulisic

I had consistently said to Chelsea mates, old school friends, work colleagues and the like that I expected us to lose this. Although our two league meetings were even games and hotly contested, it felt like we have gone off the boil of late. In fact, in Abu Dhabi I had prioritised the FIFA World Club Cup over this one. The Chelsea fans that I shared this with agreed with me.

The match began. Chelsea attacked the Scousers who were located in our usual end, an end that tends to be a “lucky” one for us.

The game was a cracker, eh?

On so many occasions, our recent Cup Final appearances at Wembley have tended to be dull affairs. But here was a contest that was at last an open and entertaining match for one and all.

It was a wild start to the game. Christian Pulisic was fed in by Dave. His snap shot was too close to the Liverpool ‘keeper with the unpronounceable first name. The chance went begging.

Liverpool then attacked at will. On one occasion, Mo Salah was closely marked by four Chelsea defenders. All eyes were on him, but elsewhere Liverpool were a threat.

It can be a sobering experience to watch Chelsea at Wembley. At home games, I have managed to get acclimatised to periods of quiet in The Sleepy Hollow. It’s not an ideal scenario but I’m used to it by now. Not many of the fifty or so spectators who sit near me get too involved. They have their moments, but these seem more fleeting as the years go by. At away games, it’s a different story. A far more uplifting experience. There’s nothing like cheering the team on in a packed and exuberant away section. At Wembley – and this has happened on far too many occasions for my liking – I soon get exasperated by those nearby who don’t support the team. Two lads in their early thirties alongside Parky were a case in point. No singing, no encouragement, no clapping. It was the same story with a couple in front. Nothing.

I couldn’t resist a loud “song sheets are available.”

Thankfully, a good group of singers to my left restored my faith in humanity.

Down below me, Mane headed well-wide from Alexander-Arnold. It felt like Liverpool were dominating much of the first twenty minutes, thirty minutes, but we managed the occasional counter-thrust. At no stage did I feel we would buckle to their attacks.

On the half-hour, we witnessed an amazing double-save from Edouard Mendy. First, a low shot from Keita was parried by a dive, and our ‘keeper then managed to reconfigure the neutrons, protons and electrons in his body to readjust his limbs and deflect Mane’s close-range effort over the bar. There were immediate memories of Jim Montgomery in the 1973 FA Cup Final.

It was a breath-taking piece of football.

The atmosphere, despite some good quality fare being played out on the Wembley pitch, was a little underwhelming. The Liverpool anthems “You’ll never walk alone” and “The fields of Anfield Road” occasionally boomed from the western end. “Carefree” was our main reply. In the big spaces of Wembley, it’s difficult to generate anything more intricate. The Mendy song, as an example, didn’t stand a chance.

Kai Havertz played in Pulisic, but his finish was again too close to Kelleher. A rising shot from Dave didn’t threaten the Irish ‘keeper either.

Chelsea were breaking nicely, with good mobility and a sense of freedom, and Havertz played in Mount just as the first-half was closing. His prod at goal was rather poor and the ball was sent wide. From a central position near the penalty spot, he really should have done better.

No goals at the break.

“Happy with that. Playing much better than I had predicted.”

The second-half began with Chelsea playing towards us in the eastern end of Wembley. A fantastic ball from Pulisic found the equally excellent run from Mount. The whole world seemed to stop. From inside the box, one on one with the ‘keeper, Mount struck.

The ball rebounded off the near post.

Fackinell.

Dave was injured, but on came Reece James to huge applause.

Another injury occurred when Keita and Trevoh Chalobah clashed in the middle of the pitch. From my vantage point high in the top tier, I had no real view of the incident. But Chalobah stayed down the longest.

The atmosphere was better now. Our end was showing some kind of unity.

“And it’s super Chelsea.”

A terrible clearance from Mendy allowed Liverpool to break in acres of space. The ball was worked to Salah who clipped the ball past the onrushing ‘keeper, trying to atone for his mistake. Thankfully, the reassuring figure of Thiago Silva appeared and hacked the ball away.

Not long after, a quickly-taken free-kick was pumped towards the area past our far post. A Liverpool header back across goal was headed in.

Ugh.

The Liverpool end roared.

There were red flares. They had scored the all-important first goal.

Our end was silent.

But then, after what seemed like an age, we saw that VAR was being called upon.

No goal.

Why? Was the first header from an offside position? Who knows.

A double substitution on seventy-three minutes.

Timo Werner for Pulisic.

Romelu Lukaku for Mount.

At around this time, the announcer at Wembley did something that I have never witnessed at a game in the UK before; he effectively did an in-game commercial for Carabao. Well, you can imagine my reaction.

Fackinell.

A cracking save by Mendy from Diaz drew more applause from our end. This was a really open game. Kante and Kovacic covered so much ground in our midfield. Alonso was always looking to stretch Liverpool’s right flank. Our defensive three rarely looked troubled. A ball was lobbed into the inside-left channel for Werner to attack. His fine cross was headed in by Havertz but – after a nano-second – we realised that an offside flag was raised.

Another magnificent save from Mendy kept us in it; a towering leap from Van Dijk was followed by a downward header but a stretching save kept it out.

Inside my head : “Mendy man of the match so far.”

Right at the death, Alonso did so well to shake off attention and rifle in a cross towards the near post but a shake of the leg from Lukaku and a flick was parried by Kelleher.

We had been standing for an hour and three quarters. We would be standing for thirty minutes more.

Extra time.

A magnificent ball in the channel from the excellent Chalobah found Lukaku, who advanced, stopped, settled himself and tucked the ball home.

We screamed. But then, the grim realisation that a flag had been waved.

Bollocks.

For Lukaku to score right in front of the Scousers would have been utterly perfect.

The night had fallen now, and the underside of the Wembley roof was picked out in yellow and blue in a show of solidarity with the people of Ukraine. The arch was yellow and blue too.

The game entered its final fifteen minutes.

My legs were aching and my throat was parched.

“Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea.”

A precise move involving Lukaku and Alonso in a tight area on our left allowed our much-maligned Spaniard to drill a pass to Havertz. His neat finish was soon flagged for offside too.

“God. Three times.”

Late on, Kepa replaced Mendy, a repeat of Belfast in August.

The game continued to its conclusion.

0-0.

The dreaded penalties. I didn’t like it that they were to be taken at their end.

“Munich was the other end though. And Belfast.”

“I fancy our chances here, Paul.”

There then ensued the best part of fifteen minutes of more drama. Pure drama? Maybe. They were all fantastic penalties to be honest. The agony continued after no misses in ten attempts. We went to sudden death. Kick after kick.

It went to 10-10.

Time for the two ‘keepers.

Alas, it was not to be.

Kelleher : hit.

Kepa : miss.

We fell silent once again.

The arch turned red.

We returned to Marylebone, then back to Fulham. Our last four domestic Cup Finals have ended in defeat now. I can hardly believe it.

Next up, Luton away in the cup that matters. I’ll see some of you there.


Tales From The Chelsea Corner

Chelsea vs. Palmeiras : 12 February 2022.

Our passage into the final assured, it would be natural to think that there would be a reasonable amount of contentment in the air on the Thursday. Well, yes and no. Everyone had agreed that our performance against Al Hilal was middling at best. The way our form nosedived in that terrible second-half was concerning. We also factored in the huge amount of Palmeiras supporters who were now amassed in Abu Dhabi; not on the same scale as their Sao Paolo rivals Corinthians in 2012, but still so impressive, especially since we were in the middle of a global pandemic. We presumed that a total of around 1,500 Chelsea supporters would be over from the UK for the final. In comparison, we estimated an easy 10,000 from Brazil, most of whom had endured a seventeen-hour flight. We feared that the game at the same stadium would be akin to a home game for them. We sensed that they really would be the oft-cited “twelfth man.”

Lingering in my mind too, was the last PCR test, slated to take place at a nearby walk-in clinic on the Friday.

Inside my head : “chill mate, let Friday and Saturday take care of themselves. This is a holiday.”

There was another relaxing morning by the pool on the Thursday, but there was a special treat planned for the afternoon. JD had booked seven of us on a desert safari and so PD and I took a cab over to his hotel early on Thursday afternoon.

JD met us in reception and we relaxed for a while by the pool with Andy and Kev, and were then joined by Liz and Mark. We piled into a 4 x 4, then set off for the desert. We had a whale of a time. The drive inland to the sandy interior took about an hour. The driver parked up, deflated the tyres to gain more traction, and then gave us a twenty-minute adventure through some sand dunes. I have not laughed so much in ages.

At a stopping-off point, a few Palmeiras fans posed for a photograph with us and their flag was held up between us. We were then driven to an encampment where we had a beer or two, took a ride on some camels, were joined by around fifty other tour groups – a good three-quarters of which were Palmeiras – and were served a lovely al fresco meal before night fell and a belly dancer performed for us. Alas, a Brazilian had given her a flag too. As the end of the evening approached, the host suggested that we just did a little stargazing, but our little group bellowed out “Blue Is The Colour” to disturb the serenity. However, the two or three hundred Palmeiras fans then completely drowned us out.

Bugger.

I had to admire their passion. Having seen some Argentinian games two years ago – almost exactly – I knew only too well what football means to South America. Think the UK is a football hotbed? It is, but South America is on a different scale.

We had loved every minute of the desert adventure. And I think it tired us all out. The drive back to the city was mainly in silence, save for a few worried conversations about the final.

Friday arrived and it was another cracking day. PD and I soon sorted out a PCR test – only £12 – and we then arranged to meet up with Julie, Tim, Pete, Brian and Kev at their hotel in the afternoon. The Radisson Blu was where I had originally booked PD and myself, only for Etihad to bump our homeward flight from the Sunday to the Monday. We relaxed by the pool area which abutted the inlet of the Persian Gulf. By mid-afternoon, our Alhosn App was updated with the negative test result from the morning.

Big grins all round. We were now clear for the final on Saturday and the flight home on the Monday.

That evening we spent drinking in the hotel bar with “the Bristol lot” but also Paul and Spencer from Swindon. We had a riot.

Saturday arrived. Game day. The day of the final.

Nervous?

Yes.

This followed a similar pattern to Friday. We cabbed it over to the Radisson Blu, where our pal Foxy was staying too. There was another lazy afternoon by the pool, where we were serenaded rather loudly by some Palmeiras fans, and we then trotted back to Foxy’s room where we showered and changed into our clothes for the final. We met up with the Bristol lot – OK, South Gloucestershire, right Tim? – and enjoyed a few quiet pints during the bar’s Happy Hour. Della and Mick were nearby, both worried stiff that their Alhosin App was malfunctioning. It seemed that many people were experiencing problems with it, not least myself; somehow I was registered as Christopher David Cox.

Foxy, PD and I caught a cab to the game, though the cabbie took us initially to the city’s other football stadium where the third and fourth place play-off was due to start. Luckily, the correct stadium was only five minutes away. The crowds were far greater than on Wednesday. The three of us were allocated tickets in the lower tier of the western end of the stadium, the section used by the Al Hilal support previously. There was quite a wait to reach the security checks. Palmeiras fans again dominated; the green and white was everywhere. I noted how many of the Brazilians had adopted the local Arabic headgear, again in green and white.

“Can’t see that catching on among our lot to be honest.”

My Alhosn App had gone grey where it ought to have been green, but I was waved through.

Phew.

Then, a personal hell. A “jobsworth” told me that I had to hand in my small camera. His supervisor said the same. I kicked up a bit of a fuss and they went off to see another supervisor. Thankfully, another chap allowed me to take it in.

“Thank you my friend.”

In an exact copy of Wednesday, we were in with an hour to go.

I took my position. Seat 8. Another red seat. Oh well, it worked on Wednesday.

Inside, my first thoughts were dominated by the realisation that there was no worthwhile segregation present in the entire stadium. How easy would it have been for FIFA to have given us one stand? It annoyed me because not only were around 10,000 Palmeiras fans crammed in at the other end (although, mysteriously, with a little section of around three hundred Chelsea fans in one corner), our area was adjacent to a section with around 5,000 Palmeiras fans. I wasn’t worried about it kicking off at all – far from it – but I just wanted a solid block of Chelsea so that we could noisily get behind the team.

I spotted many people that I recognised in our section. As kick-off time approached, the ground swelled. The lower tier of the western end really was full to bursting, the central section especially. It looked like this was the home of their ultras, “La Manche Verde” – the green spot – and many seemed to be wearing special edition white shirts.

The minutes ticked by.

Throughout, the Brazilians were in fine voice. Many songs were aired.

One chant dominated :

“Pal – meeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiiiir – as.”

With the middle syllable stretched out forever.

At the back of our terrace, a large banner proclaimed “Palmeiras Dublin.”

We were pretty quiet at this stage; outnumbered and out sung.

I looked around.

Foxy was a few rows in front. Mike and Frank were down the front. Close by were the South Gloucestershire contingent, the couples Liz and Mark, Karen and Feisal. My good mate Andy from Nuneaton was there too. Welsh Kev called over for a photo. Over in the corner I spotted Big Rich who had suffered for a day or two after being given a positive test result on arrival. Thankfully he tested negative soon after and was able to attend both games. He was with a few people I recognised; Darren, Ryan, Denise, Andy, Rob. King Kenny and Rob were there. Then in the front row of the side stand, the north stand, I spotted Della and Mick, Clinton who had flown in for the final – along with Tombsie who I saw outside – and Darren and Leigh.

There were a hundred or so Chelsea fans, dressed all in blue – how quaint – from the local Dubai supporters’ group. JD had mentioned a large contingent from Kerala in India at the Al Hilal match; they were here too surely.

There was more “Chelsea – are you ready?” hoopla (no, let’s just call it “bollocks”) but at least it managed to quieten down the Brazilians.

With kick-off approaching, the stadium lights were dimmed and some fearsome fireworks exploded into the sky.

Then, the teams.

Chelsea in blue / blue / white.

Palmeiras in white / white / green.

A few years back, I worked with Bruno – from Fortaleza in the sweltering north of Brazil – who was getting some local work experience while taking a Masters’ Degree at the University of Bath. He is a Palmeiras supporter. On his last weekend in the UK, I took him to Arsenal vs. Chelsea – 2016, a Diegoal gave us the points – and leading up to this game we had been in contact again. We had wished each other well.

But now it was time for friendships to be put on hold.

This was serious stuff.

Thomas Tuchel, himself only just returned to the fold after a bout of COVID, chose these players to bring home the…er, bacon in the Abu Dhabi night.

Mendy

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Kovacic – Kante – Hudson-Odoi

Mount – Havertz

Lukaku

“Big night for Callum.”

How many Chelsea fans were in the stadium? It was so difficult to hazard a guess. Maybe four thousand all told, including those from the UK and elsewhere. This compared to around slightly more than fifteen thousand Palmeiras. That leaves around twelve thousand neutrals, mainly locals. I spotted shirts of the other competing teams.

The game began.

From the off, it was obvious that Palmeiras were more than happy to let us have the ball. And we had it in spades. I was amazed how far Thiago Silva was allowed to carry the ball; over the half-way line and beyond. In modern parlance, this was a very low block.

Off the pitch, the Brazilian fans were on fire. Their noise dominated. Curls of white paper cascaded down from the Palmeiras fans above me in the upper tier. It felt like we were in a hornets’ nest.

Palmeiras enjoyed a couple of half-chances but Edouard Mendy was not bothered. On ten minutes, Kai Havertz to Callum Hudson-Odoi but his shot was blocked. On twenty-two minutes, Mount misjudged the pace of the ball as it dropped into the six-yard box and he let it run on. Soon after, two shots from Havertz were screwed wide.

Out of nowhere, a lightning break from Palmeiras but the aptly named Dudu slapped his shot well wide. It was, however, the half’s biggest chance. Sadly, on the thirty-minute mark, Mount was injured and was replaced by Christian Pulisic. I was honestly surprised that Ziyech was not given the nod. Every time that Silva advanced, I just wanted him to go another five or ten yards, drop his shoulder and rattle in a shot on goal. At last, a few moments before half-time, he did just that. The beautifully named Weverton leapt to force it around the post for a corner.

Half-time came with the game scoreless.

Although we were finding it hard to break down this Palmeiras side, I was relieved. I was relieved that they were clearly not as able as I had presumed them to be.

At half-time, more “bollocks” as the lights were dimmed and spectators were asked to shine their mobile torches. It brought me immense pleasure to see one corner of the stadium not joining in.

It was akin to the blackout during the Second World War, for those who enjoy such hyperbole.

The second-half began and maybe noticing that the Palmeiras fans were in a moment of quiet and rest, the Chelsea corner were roused and our loudest chant of the night cheered me.

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

Good ol’ “Amazing Grace.”

Other teams mock us when we sing that, but it’s ours and ours alone.

A Rudiger rocket was blasted at goal. We continued to dominate. The ball was played out to Hudson-Odoi on our left. He had not enjoyed a great game thus far to be honest. I bellowed at him :

“Come on Callum, dig it out.”

Well, dig it out he certainly did.

His cross was well hit, on the money, and a bullet header from Lukaku at the near post sent us all delirious.

Two games in Abu Dhabi. Two goals for Lukaku. A part of me wanted it to end there. He is not enjoying a great spell right now. I wondered if Lukaku getting both our goals might just set him off on a run of form.

Just after, a shot from Pulisic was drilled just wide.

“Ooooooooh.”

A very rare attack on our goal followed within ten minutes of our goal. The ball was lofted into the box from a throw-in and a shot was smothered by Mendy with ease. The moment passed. But then some commotion and some noise. There was a VAR review.

“Bollocks.”

The penalty was given and I had no complaints after seeing the replay; Thiago Silva’s arm was up at an angle, a definite penalty.

Raphael Veiga converted.

Game on.

We drifted a little now, our impetus broken a little. But we still carved out chances with Havertz and Pulisic going close.

Timo Werner replaced Lukaku and Saul replaced Hudson-Odoi on seventy-six minutes. To be fair, their fresh legs helped us. We turned up the heat but Palmeiras defended well.

With five minutes to go, fresh green and white vertical streamers were held aloft over the lower tier of the end opposite. I guess this was to spur their team on in the last portion of the game. I always remember that we used to sing “Chelsea” to “Amazing Grace” during most second-halves back in the ‘eighties. It was “our thing.”

The last kick of normal time saw Mateo Kovacic blast high over the bar.

We settled our nerves for an extra thirty minutes and – gasp – possible penalties. Foxy came and stood with PD and little old me.

“Hope you’re our good luck charm, mate.”

Into extra-time we went.

Malang Sarr for Christensen.

Hakim Ziyech for Kovacic.

I had been standing for hours. My “lucky” yellow Adidas trainers – Porto – were starting to pinch. I was tired and weary.

“Come on Chels.”

More Chelsea domination, more Palmeiras resistance. A rare Palmeiras break, but Rudiger held firm with a sensational shoulder charge. He had been exceptional all game. I spotted rows of Palmeiras fans in the opposite end gently swaying from side to side. Another sight that you don’t see back home.

Into the second period of extra time we went. The night was drawing on. And to think that one of my initial travel options had been to catch a 2.55am flight home on Sunday morning.

We found new life again. Werner wriggled and went close. The game became tense. I willed us on.

“Come on you blue boys.”

With only four minutes remaining, a Ziyech corner was swung into the box. It was knocked down and Dave swung at it. There was a block from a defender and the three or four nearest Chelsea defenders instantly appealed for a handball. Play continued but when the ball went out of play, the referee signalled for another VAR review. PD and Foxy was adamant that we’d get the decision. The Australian referee again trotted off to look at the pitch side screen.

Penalty.

I loathe VAR but I could not resist a yelp of joy.

Then ensued pure drama. Dave, the one who had won the penalty, the captain, claimed the ball. My immediate thoughts?

“Dave? Shades of JT in Moscow. Oh bloody hell. Brave man.”

The Palmeiras players were in Dave’s face for ages. Or what seemed like it. Then, a dialogue with Timo. Give it to him? Not my choice. Then, the last twist; Dave calmly handed the ball to Kai Havertz, the hero in Porto.

A moment of stillness.

A moment of drama.

I held my camera ready.

The run up.

Click.

He sent the ‘keeper the wrong way, shades of Didier in Munich, the ball flew in.

YES!

I yelled with joy and looked to the sky. But I then became light-headed. By the time I had steadied myself, Havertz had run to the Chelsea corner and was being mobbed by everyone.

Click, click, click.

Joy.

Joy.

Joy.

The Palmeiras fans were quiet now. The Chelsea section was buzzing.

One last twist; the Palmeiras player Luan, after another delay, was sent off for wiping out Havertz the scorer. Just after the resulting free-kick was taken, the referee blew.

At around 11pm on a balmy night in Abu Dhabi, Chelsea Football Club became World Champions.

Fackinell.

Postcards From Abu Dhabi.

Tales From Us And That Lot

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 5 January 2022.

I have to say that I was a lot more confident going into the first of three games against Tottenham Hotspur in just eighteen days after the Liverpool match than I was before it. That tussle on the second day of the year really helped to settle my nerves; we were good weren’t we?

This would be our fourth League Cup semi-final against Tottenham.

I have no recollection of the one in 1971/72. I would have been six years old. We went through after a Chris Garland inspired second-leg at Chelsea.

I can easily remember the one in 2001/2. Shudder. We won the first-leg 2-1 at The Bridge but I was working a late shift on the day of the return leg. I remember bringing in a portable TV to watch the game while I was at work in our portacabin outside the main warehouse of a company in Trowbridge. We lost 1-5 and I have never been more miserable after watching a Chelsea game on TV. The thought of having to come face to face with my Tottenham-supporting manager the next day was the stuff of nightmares.

In 2018/19, there was a much a nicer memory as we went through on penalties, David Luiz scoring the winner, in the second leg at Chelsea.

Three previous ties. Two wins with the second leg at home. One loss with the second leg away. Well, you can imagine my thought process.

There was just the three of us in The Chuckle Bus for this game. PD collected me outside work and we were parked-up in SW6 bang on two hours later. While my co-passengers visited “The Goose” I popped to the Italian restaurant two doors down on the North End Road.

I had only been sat at my table for a minute when the door opened and my good friend Andy walked in. What a nice surprise. He had visited it recently and fancied a return. Andy often features in these march reports; most memorably mentioned during the Porto trip last May. We both ordered pizzas and had a cracking natter for an hour or so. Andy is going to Abu Dhabi, and of course I hope to join him. Andy mentioned the pre-season game at Bournemouth that we both attended in the summer. Andy brought up the team on his ‘phone. We could hardly believe that Danny Drinkwater and Davide Zappacosta played, to say nothing of Baba Rahman. We briefly spoke about Romelu Lukaku. I personally wanted a line to be drawn under the whole shebang. Time to move on.

It was a cold old night on the border of Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea. PD had gone into the ground early and I joined him at around 7.15pm. Parky, ousted from the Shed Lower, would be watching in the West View.

I looked over at The Shed. There they were. Tottenham. There’s just something about them. And I am sure they feel the same way about us. Probably more so these days.

Our home record against “that lot” is still bloody magnificent, and of course I am not letting the moment pass without mentioning it once again.

Since December 1990, it goes something like this.

Won fucking loads, drew some others, lost just once.

The magic numbers were in fact 23-13-1.

I suppose that in the circumstances, I should not have been too worried. The weight of all that history, and misery – “misstory” – must be a heavy yoke for Tottenham to carry on their trips to Stamford Bridge.

The lights were dimmed at around 7.40pm just as I shot off for a last minute visit to turn my bike around. When I came back, and peered out through the exits, the lights were being slowly turned back on. I settled down next to PD, Clive and Alan and readied myself for the evening’s entertainment.

Lukaku was on the pitch. As his name was mentioned in a run-through of the team, there were no boos at all, just a hint of applause. I was happy with that.

As the game began, it took me a good few minutes to work out if my first thoughts on the shape changing to an old-fashioned 4-4-2 were correct, or was Hakim Ziyech really a very very very pushed-on wing back?

No, I was right the first time.

Kepa Arriabalaga in goal.

A back four of Marcos Alonso, Antonio Rudiger, Malang Saar and Cesar Azpilicueta.

The wide players in midfield were Mason Mount and Hakim Ziyech, with Jorginho and Saul in the middle.

Up front were Romelu Lukaku and Kai Havertz.

For all of the advantages of other formations, there is something about a 4-4-2. It’s the system I grew up with – although 4-3-3 was the first system I ever played, way back in 1975 – but there is a nice solidity about it.

There was an unsurprisingly loud and unwelcoming noise aimed at the 4,500 away fans in The Shed.

“Champions Of Europe, You’ll Never Sing That.”

They were soon up and running with their couple of songs which hark at their Jewish identity but now seem to be a little out of place.

Fuck’em.

Well.

This is what we did alright.

In the first five minutes, too.

Signor Alonso has his detractors, but he magnificently nipped in to steal the ball before it reached a Tottenham defender on our left. He played a perfect pass in to Herr Havertz who slammed the ball goal wards. His effort took a deflection off a Tottenham defender – I cared not who – and the ball ended up inside the goal, to be followed not so long after after by the scorer and his team mates.

Get in you bastard.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds. Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit, yap, yap, bunny, bunny.”

It seemed perfect that the Chelsea celebrations involved the blue-clad players celebrating inside the goalmouth with the away fans looking closely on in misery.

Chelsea in front, and in front of their fans too.

On the balcony wall of The Shed, the simple words : “Pride Of London.”

Gertcha.

Well, this was a cracking start to the game. In the myriad of Chelsea victories at Stamford Bridge against “that lot” I always have a little chuckle to myself about “how will we beat them this time?” and this match was off to a perfect start.

However, Havertz appeared to injure himself in the process of scoring and was off the pitch for a while.

We purred in that first-half and they hardly threatened at all.

I must admit it looked odd to see our former manager patrolling the opposition technical area, and looking pretty fed-up too, from the first few minutes.

A shot from Havertz was easily saved by the Tottenham ‘keeper.

Next up were blocked shots from Mount and Saul, who was enjoying a very fine half, and then Ziyech set himself up nicely but his left-footed curler was off target.

The opposition rarely got out of their half.

There was a lovely piece of recovery after a Tottenham attacker broke and avoided an offside trap. Ziyech was able to nibble and pinch the ball away. The threat was over.

On the half-hour, Alan and I couldn’t believe how Rudiger wasn’t able to pounce after a Ziyech corner was helped on its way by a Tottenham defender. From our perspective, it looked like a goal waiting to be struck. His eventual effort was blocked.

Soon after, a strong run from Lukaku – who indeed had been warmly encouraged thus far – resulted in a free-kick out on the right. Ziyech, right in the action again, punched a ball towards the six-yard box. Fortuitously I snapped just as one Tottenham defender headed the ball against another, and the ball flew into the net.

Get in.

At that point in the proceedings we wondered if the first goal had been credited as an own goal too.

Two OGs?

“Oh, let’s beat them like this.”

How Spursy.

I turned to “the bloke behind me” (copyright “When Saturday Comes” 1986) :

“He never misses from there.”

Oh my aching sides.

The players, almost embarrassingly, ran over to congratulate Ziyech. Well, they had to run somewhere. They could hardly run to the Tottenham player, whoever he was.

Next came, the ultimate piss-take.

“Tottenham, give us a song. Tottenham, Tottenham, give us a song.”

Not sure I have heard that before, or at least not in the way it was intended, enticing them to join in our fun. Top marks.

We tried to stifle a little laughter when Lukaku had an awful first touch on the centre circle and resembled an out-of-control express train as he sprinted to retrieve the ball before it went out for a throw-in. He failed. The terrace wags were soon on his case.

“He can control it further than I can fucking kick it.”

“His second touch is a tackle.”

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

But then, a golden chance. A beautifully flighted ball from that man Ziyech dropped right on the head of Lukaku but his purposeful downward header guided the ball just past the far post.

Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda.

A goal there, three at the break, would have killed the game, killed the tie, helped to evacuate The Shed and would have led to forty-five minutes of arsenic-laced mickey-taking and tom foolery, and maybe even Micky Fillery.

But it had been a most excellent first-half. We were neat and purposeful, and seemed to over-run them in all areas of the pitch. Did they have a shot on goal? Hardly. Did Kepa make a real save? I think not. Stars of the half were Ziyech, Saul, Havertz and maybe even Alonso too.

As the second-half began, I settled in my seat but had missed the substitution announcement. It took me a few seconds to realise that Timo Werner had replaced Havertz.

The opposition were all over us in the first minute, then the second, third and fourth. Their manager had obviously fired some fine words into their shell-likes in the break. But we never really looked too troubled in this period. If anything, I hoped it would create chances for us to counter-attack at will.

On fifty minutes, a shot from them at a free-kick, but Kepa was able.

It annoyed me – saddened me even – to see three Italian flags being waved among the away fans. That was us. That was Zola, Vialli, di Matteo, that was Ranieri, that was Ancelotti, that is Jorginho. Damn you.

This game was more of a contest now. But our chances still dominated. Ziyech should have done better after a very fine move linking Werner and then Lukaku. I have to say the thought of a Lukaku and Werner partnership started to thrill me a little.

Saul was enjoying this game and we were enjoying seeing him play so well. There was a cheeky back-heeled volley, but I turned to Al and said :

“He’s no Zola.”

On the hour, I watched Werner as he collected the ball, opened his body up and attacked his marker. His pace took him past and he let loose a powerful strike that oh-so narrowly missed the far post.

“Three-nil and it’s all over, mate.”

There was a very rare outing of the “William song”; because, well, that lot, eh?

Lukaku set up Ziyech and he zipped the pass of the night towards Werner on the edge of the box. He chose to lift the ball over the ‘keeper but an outstretched arm defeated him. It was a fine save. Not long after, Ziyech blasted over from an angle.

“He could’ve brought that down, Al.”

We begged our heroes for one more goal. Just one.

I must say that I thought it was a little premature to be singing “Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happened again” so let’s save that for White Hart Lane. Fingers crossed, eh?

Some late substitutions.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Saul.

Mateo Kovacic for Mount.

Christian Pulisic for Ziyech.

Down in the far corner, a Tottenham substitute tied Christian Pulisic up in knots and his shot was, thankfully, well-saved by Kepa at full stretch on the floor. The ball was unceremoniously hacked clear. This was followed immediately by a much-desired counter-attack, involving Ruben, but a pass to Lukaku only resulted in a corner.

A free-kick in prime Alonso territory. Alas not. His shot only troubled the wall.

One last change.

Harvey Vale for Dave.

It was Vale who helped to combine neatly with others to set up the last chance of the match for that man Lukaku, but his shot was tame and hit centrally.

It’s finely balanced at 2-0.

One more goal would have meant that our trip to White Hart Lane next week would be one of lick-lipping eagerness. As it stands, it will be a little more difficult.

But we are suddenly in a good place again. The doom mongers have quietened down. We’ve got Lukaku back in the fold. Players are returning. We are on the march.

Next up, Chesterfield in the FA Cup and my first-ever visit to “The West View.”

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