Tales From Now And Then

Brentford vs. Chelsea : 19 October 2022.

I took a turn to drive for this Wednesday evening game at Brentford. I had worked another early shift – up at 4.45am, ah the joy – and met PD, Lord Parky and Sir Les in the pub car-park outside work just after 2pm.

It was a stunning afternoon. Oh that autumnal sun. I had booked a car-park space about half-a-mile from the stadium from 5pm so I needed to crack on and get up to London.

Here we all were, two-thirds of-our way through our nine game marathon in the month of October. Five down, this was number six, with three to go.

And, thus far, unbeaten too.

Stopping briefly on the A303 for a re-fuel of myself, the road was kind to me. Only in the very last segment, heading towards Kew Bridge from the south – a new way in – was there congestion. Not to worry, I was parked up a few minutes early.

Outside, a breeze.

The trip up had been a breeze too, but outside the wind was blowing and the trees were being whipped into shape. We set off, not for the stadium, but the “Bell & Crown” pub on the northern bank of the River Thames, just slightly downstream from Kew Bridge. Here, in the same pub where we had enjoyed an hour or so before Christmas in the League Cup, there was to be a gathering of the clans.

We made our way through the pub to the river terrace. Already waiting for us was a face from the past. Clive – or to give him his cherished nickname from his youth “Trotsky” – was waiting for us with his teenage son Frankie. Trotsky first came to my attention when I used to go and watch Frome Town in around 1980. He was at many games. And I knew that he was a Brentford fan. He moved away from Frome around twenty years ago and now lives in Launceston in Cornwall. I have met him at a couple of Frome Town games over the past few seasons. And, inevitably, we became friends on “Facebook” as is often the case. Trotsky and his son are Brentford season ticket holders and we arranged to meet up for a natter.

Soon into the evening, he pulled out a Frome Town scarf and the four Frome lads – himself, Frankie, PD and yours truly – posed for a photo.

I then back-tracked even further. I recently remembered that we must have first met in around 1976 on a caravan site in the shadow of The Mendips. Caravans were never the trendiest thing were they? When my father bought one in 1975, I was rather embarrassed by it all. Nevertheless, during the summer of 1976 we journeyed the short distance to Rodney Stoke and it soon became apparent that a chap that my father knew, a fellow Frome shopkeeper and probably a fellow member of the town’s Chamber of Commerce, was parked close by. Ken Secker would later become Frome mayor. He was Trotsky’s father. And I have some very feint memory of chatting to Trotsky, but it is no further than that; a vague shadow of a memory, nothing more. Even with my shyness at that age, I am sure we must have shared a few words.

Five decades on, we were chatting for sure on a fine autumn evening in West London.

Next to arrive was my pal Ben from Boston in Massachusetts, who arrived with a lad that I had not met before, Mike, who was proudly sporting a New York Yankee cap, and was originally from New York, but now lives on the outskirts of Boston. I had swapped tickets around so that I could sit next to Ben, the lucky beneficiary of a ticket that a friend could not use. Mike, sadly, was without a ticket for this game but at least he had one for the upcoming Manchester United game.

Three New York Blues visited us too, and I am not sure if they all had tickets.

Tickets for away games. It’s a shady subject isn’t it? It often grates among established – local, or at least from the UK – fans that an admittedly miniscule proportion of our away games get shared out among overseas supporters’ clubs. But that’s the way the club decides to allocate tickets, so there is little that can be done. I know there have been lengthy discussions about ticket distribution at fans’ forum meetings over the years.

Emotions often run high. Nothing is perfect. Everyone has an opinion though. How to reward loyalty? What a tough subject.

I remember, so very well, our first away game at Bournemouth in 2016. I know for a fact that not one ticket from the 1,200 that we were allotted went to any overseas club. But I do remember only too well that around ten people in the row behind me fucked off at half-time. I was seething at the sight of those empty seats.

I guess the lure of a couple of pints was too hard to resist.

Sigh.

I often try to help friends from the US obtain home tickets and it was a major struggle when the sanctions were brought in at the end of last season, but I was very happy to help. But away tickets are by definition so difficult to obtain. However, I will assist if I think it is deserved. If someone I don’t know from Badgercrack Nebraska asks me to get them an away ticket, especially if it is a first away game, or worse, a first-ever Chelsea game, I will politely decline.

Next to arrive were Nick and Kimberley from Fresno in California.

By now, Trotsky’s mind was blown.

“Wait. You have come all this way to see Brentford?”

We laughed.

It was true. Nick and Kimberley, who I first met in “The Pensioner” five seasons ago, almost to the day, were over for the football, but obviously Chelsea first and foremost. Sadly, their trip was to be curtailed as Nick’s mother had been taken ill. They would therefore, sadly, miss the United game on Saturday.

Trotsky was generally overwhelmed by our overseas support. I guess it is normal, now, in these modern times for foreign fans to latch on to Europe’s most successful teams. However, I told the story of how several of my US-based Chelsea mates helped support a lower-level team a decade or so ago. A few friends helped Frome Town raise £25,000 for a new stand to enable the club to remain in the Southern League. So, it’s not just top level teams that attract foreign fans. It’s level eight teams too.

Ben and Mike shot off early to try to rustle up a spare.

The pre-match chat continued. This was a very pleasant evening. If anything, the area south of Brentford’s new pad is even more swish than the Kings Road and parts of Chelsea.

It was time to walk the short distance to the snug stadium.

Outside, Paul from Swindon shouted over to me. He was with another long-distance acquaintance, who I quickly introduced to Kimberley and Nick.

“You two think California is a long way from London? Bank is from Bangkok.”

There was no bag search on entering the stadium. Myself and my notorious camera were in.

Last season, I watched from nearer the corner flag, along the side. This time I was further behind the goal and higher up. Excellent. It was lovely to see so many familiar faces before kick-off. We had two thousand seats for this one. Everyone would be used. Sadly, Mike was not one of those in attendance.

Graham Potter chose this side.

Kepa

Dave – Trevoh – Kalidou

Ruben – Jorginho – Conor – Marc

Kai – Mase

Armando

The lights dimmed, the stadium then pulsed with flashing strobes.

The teams entered.

“Hey Jude” was played and we soon hi-jacked it.

Brentford gave us three difficult games last season. We rode our luck in the two away games, then got mullered at Stamford Bridge. This one was a test for us no doubt.

The game began with Chelsea on top, but that soon changed.

Kepa made a fine early save down to our left from the always dangerous Ivan Toney. His central header was thankfully aimed straight at our in-form ‘keeper. The effort was tipped over.

Our chances were few and far between in that first part of the game. The home team, however, were looking to stretch us open with some incisive passing and intelligent running. On more than one occasion, it was our defensive acumen that was exposed.

Conor had begun brighter than most but he was sadly substituted by Mateo on fifteen minutes.

There was a shout from the home areas when Ruben tangled with Mbeumo. No penalty.

Not long after, Ruben got himself caught between two players as he attempted to clear the ball away up the line to safety.

“Ruben got sandwiched.”

Ben groaned.

“Corny, right?”

Not always dominant in the box, it was good to see Kepa come and punch a tantalising cross from the Brentford right. The ‘keeper, a hero in Milan and Witton, was again called into action. A long free-kick that was taken by the Brentford ‘keeper David Raya and the ball was inadvertently headed towards goal by Ruben. Frank Onyeka was lurking, but Kepa palmed his effort over. Rapturous applause again.

“He’s better than fucking Thibaut.”

But things weren’t great.

I turned to Ben.

“No threat up our right. No threat up our left. No threat in the middle.”

Kai was at his perplexing best, or worst, failing on a few occasions to be physical enough, nor as determined as he needed to be.

A shot from distance from Dave forced Raya to scramble down to his right.

I did like the look of young Armando on his first start. He kept running channels, chasing lost causes, an irritant to the defenders in the Brentford team. One determined run, with the striker out-chasing a marker and showing grim determination to push forward, ended up with a ball being flashed across the box. Kai was a yard short of reaching it.

“After Porto, I am not saying Kai had the world at his feet, but he hasn’t pushed on, has he?”

On this mild evening in West London, Mason was ridiculously quiet.

Just before the interval, a relatively quick break that was instigated by Armando’s harrying of a defender found Marc loitering on the edge of the box.

I screamed at him :

“Shoot. Shoot! SHOOT. SHOOT!”

He didn’t shoot.

Fackinell.

The ball was played out to Ruben whose shot was high and wide.

Sigh.

At the break, Brentford had enjoyed the better chances. I hoped for an improvement.

Soon into the second period, a tame header from Mbeumo – completely bloody unmarked – was gathered by Kepa.

The game stumbled along.

For some unfathomable reason, the “Dennis Wise” song was aired.

Why? Was he playing?

Seriously, let’s sing this when we are winning 6-0 but not at 0-0. Even worse was to follow. For a few minutes, the “that’s why we love Salomon Kakou” chant was sung, and it was probably the loudest chant all night.

Answers on a postcard.

On the hour, three substitutions.

Carney Chuklebrother for a poor Mason Mount.

Christian Pulisic for Marc Cucarella.

Raheem Sterling for Armando Broja.

I was amazed that Kai was still on the pitch. And a little annoyed that Armando had been replaced. He was one of our plus points.

Carney soon had a pacey run into the box down below us.

As the game continued, the three new players started to inject much-needed urgency. Space was at an absolute premium in the middle but Christian twisted and toiled with skill in search of an opening. A shot from Kai forced a point blank save from Raya.

At the other end, we warmed to intelligent play from Kepa who forced Toney wide and blocked the subsequent shot.

With ten to go, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang replaced Kai Havertz.

This game was wide open now. An optimistic shot from virtually the half-way line thankfully didn’t have the legs to beat Kepa. Brentford then hit the side netting with another shot.

Shots from Pierre-Emerick, Christian and even another blaster from Dave put the pressure on the Brentford ‘keeper. But I wasn’t convinced that we would get a winner, as blatantly undeserved as it would have been.

One last chance fell to Carney but his shot at the near post was saved well by Raya.

It ended 0-0.

Another clean sheet, if nothing else, but a far from “joined up” performance.

With this being a 7.30pm kick-off, I was away just before 10pm and I made very good time to get back to Melksham for midnight. I dropped the lads off and made my way home, getting home at 12.30am. I eventually made it to bed at 1.45am. I can never ever fall asleep as soon as I get home after these midweek flits to London.

4.45am to 1.45am.

Bloody hell.

“What?” I hear you ask, “no mention of 1982/83?”

There is no football to report from forty years ago but I was always going to mention a Stiff Little Fingers gig that I saw with a mate in Bristol on Sunday 17 October 1982, if only for the reason that I saw the same band in Frome on Monday 11 July 2022.

The show took place at the now defunct and demolished “Studio” and was the second time that I had seen the band in 1982. This latter gig was during the “Out Of Our Skulls” tour to promote their final album “Now Then.”

And I wondered how I could shoe-horn it in to this report, without it sticking out like a, er, stiff little finger. Then, after the game had ended, out in the concourse, a Chelsea supporter who I did not recognise approached me.

I looked a bit vague.

“Stiff Little Fingers.”

My mind whirled and it soon clicked. It was Richard, a friend on “Facebook” who I had not previously met. He was a big SLF fan too. And we briefly spoke about the band. It made me chuckle that so often I have bumped into someone and, seeing my look of befuddlement, they have uttered the word “Chelsea.” Yet here I was, at a Chelsea game, yet someone who I was unfamiliar with chose to say a band name rather than a football club name.

Thanks Richard. You helped create a far-more worthy final paragraph.

Well, almost a final paragraph.

Driving home, while the other three intermittently slept, I briefly thought about Stiff Little Fingers and their current line-up. Only two of the original four members remain – Jake Burns and Ali McMordie – but they are certainly still going strong. And I had a little chuckle about them being their own tribute act, maybe in the way that I see this current Chelsea team – not one of my favourites I have to be honest, not one that I feel a strong connection with – being a tribute act to the sides that I still adorn with love and admiration; the 1983/84 team, the 1996/97 team, the 2004/5 team, maybe the 2011/12 team.

Is that what I really feel?

Is this the phase that I am at?

God knows, it had been a long day.

See you against United.

Tales From The Villa And The Vine

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 16 October 2022.

It was a relatively late start for me. The 8am alarm sounded and I then collected the Gruesome Twosome by 9.30am. All three of us had chosen black tops – Fred Perry, Ben Sherman, Robe di Kappa – and as we stopped in Melksham for the first McBreakfast for absolutely ages we looked like the senior members of some “ultra” battalion.

Kinda.

Milan was still dominating my thoughts when I woke and over the first hour or so of the journey up to Birmingham. This is often the case, eh? The thrill of a European trip is difficult to forget easily. I soon told PD “I will be honest; I am trying my best but I am finding it hard to get up for this game. It’s a bloody good job I am not playing.”

I stopped for a coffee at Frankley Services on the M5 and I was soon turning off at West Bromwich.

To my right, the angled floodlights at The Hawthorns were easily spotted – “one of only three grounds where Chelsea have won the league, lads” – and the sighting of the stadium from half-a-mile away brought back immediate memories of Milan. On the elevated A4, approaching the end of our journey last Tuesday morning, I was keeping my eye out for the San Siro roof which I knew was a few miles to my right, to the south. Lo and behold, despite the grey and hazy view, I found it relatively easy to catch the ridiculously huge roof beams appearing in a void between some rooftops.

My heart jumped in Milan. But my heart jumped in West Bromwich too as I quickly remembered one of the finest nights of recent memory.

I dropped the lads off about a five-minute walk from the away turnstiles at Villa Park but then turned around and drove three-quarters of a mile north to my usual parking spot for Villa at Perry Barr. On the mile-long walk south, I noted that the horrible walkway – an underpass and a footbridge over the busy A34 – was no more, thus cutting a few valuable minutes off my approach to Villa Park. “The Crown & Cushion”, where we enjoyed a very boozy pre-match before the 2002 FA Cup semi-final, had been razed to the ground a few years back.

There were no real pre-game plans on this occasion. There aren’t too many pubs to the north of Villa Park and beers aren’t served in the away end.

This always was going to be a quick smash and grab raid against Aston Villa.

There is red brick everywhere on the way to the stadium. The terraced houses on Willmore Road where I parked for maybe the tenth time in a row, Perry Barr Methodist Church, the houses on Aston Lane, the Aston pub, the old tramway building and then of course the surrounds of Villa Park itself. Alas, the old Trinity Road stand with ornate gables was demolished in around 2000, but its design features are mirrored in the huge Holte End at the southern side of Villa Park. These days the only terrace in town is the steps which lead up from Witton Lane to the base of the Holte End. These steps are speckled with deep claret railings. Squint and it almost feels like an old-style football terrace.

I needed to wait a while to pass over a spare ticket.

I made it in at 2.02pm.

Phew.

The sun was beating down. My God it was hot. My choice of a black wool pullover seemed rather ridiculous. I sidled in alongside Gal, John and Parksorius.

The team? I tried to work it all out. With Reece James out, we wondered who Graham Potter would play at right wing-back if he decided to choose that system. We wondered about Ruben Loftus-Cheek. As I peered out into the bright sun, I attempted to piece it all together.

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Cucarella

Sterling – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – Chilwell

Havertz – Mount

Aubameyang

I think.

Before I had time to ponder it all, Tyrone Mings headed a cross from Ben Chilwell up rather than away, and Mason Mount, lurking centrally, was able to pounce. He adroitly touched the ball past Emilio Martinez. Luckily enough, my camera captured it all.

Aston Villa 0 Chelsea 1.

A dream start, eh?

I looked around at Villa Park. It is a really fine stadium. It has been modernised but it still feels like an old ground because the four stands are reasonably different. The oldest current stand at the north end of the ground may not last too long though. There are plans to bulldoze it and build afresh with an even larger two-tiered structure in its place. An acquaintance, who lives nearby, had evidentially been invited in for a hospitality gig in the North Stand. He sent over a ‘photo of former Villa players Tony Morley and Kenny Swain who were in one of the lounges and were now hosting some guests. These two players had taken part in Villa’s European Cup triumph against Bayern Munich in 1982.

Ah that year again.

On Saturday 16 October 1982 – forty-years ago to the very day – Chelsea lost 0-3 at Ewood Park against Blackburn Rovers. The gate was a paltry 6,062. It was that bad that Alan Mayes made his first appearance of the season.

There is no punchline.

I was really happy with our start. In addition to the early goal, we were moving the ball well and the whole approach to attacking seemed to hark back to a more free-spirited time. We were looking to attack in a variety of ways.

Long and short. Over the top. Sideways into space.

And despite my ambivalence on the way up, I was absolutely enjoying this game. I was on it and hopefully not likely to fall off.

But then, imperceptibly, the home team grew into the game and for the rest of the first-half we were second best. There were defensive errors – Cucarella was the main culprit but even Silva on occasion – as Villa ran at our retreating backline.

A cross from the Villa left resulted in a melee at the back post. A header crashed against the top of the bar.

Kepa had already been involved before we were treated to three magnificent saves during the same move as Villa peppered our goal. The second one, especially – down low – was magnificent. The third save, in the end, did not matter as an offside flag was raised.

Regardless, our ‘keeper was cheered loudly by the Chelsea contingent.

“He’s magic, you know.”

An errant pass from the poor Aubameyang let in Danny Ings. Kepa was equal to a strong shot, pushing it away for a corner.

The best was yet to come. On the half-hour, Ings headed at goal from close in and I absolutely expected a goal, the equaliser. From right underneath the cross-bar, the Spanish ‘keeper managed to claw it out. I always cite a Carlo Cudicini save at Tottenham as the best save that I have ever seen by a Chelsea ‘keeper but this might well have beaten it.

I was in absolute awe.

“He’s better than fuckin’ Thibaut.”

We had spotted that Loftus-Cheek was now asked to deploy the right wing-back berth with Sterling further forward. Mount withdrew deeper. Both players then initiated a fine move, our first for a while. Loftus-Cheek strode out of defence and passed to Mount. The ball was moved on. A strong run from the previously quiet Kai Havertz was followed by a pass to Raheem Sterling.

“Curl the fucker.”

Curl it he did, but the ball smacked the bar.

Ugh.

At the break, we all knew that we had rodden our luck.

“Getting roasted here Gal. On and off the pitch.”

Potter reacted with some substitutions.

Kalidou Koulibaly for the battle-weary Cucarella.

Dave for the weak Havertz.

The team was re-jigged.

We were soon treated to a John Terry-style chest pass from the current “shirt 26 wearer” Koulibaly. I am sure that I wasn’t the only one who noticed JT’s trademark resurfacing.

The Chelsea crowd were giving the Villa manager some Ba-llistic pain with a certain song from 2014 being repeated again and again. This was followed up with a chant that was also aired in Milan last week.

“Just like London, your city is blue.”

Now, I can concede that Internazionale might well have a claim to “own” the Italian city. But I wasn’t having Birmingham City being the top dogs in our Second City.

I turned to Gal : “Maybe they are including West Brom too, a joint bid.”

Chances were shared at each end.

Further changes ensued.

Conor Gallagher for a quiet Aubameyang.

Jorginho for Kovacic,

“Kovacic has run about today but he hasn’t done too much, Gal.”

On sixty-six minutes, a run into space by Mount resulted in a foul by Mings the merciless.

“I fancy this, Gal.”

Mount sized it all up. His dipping free-kick was perfection personified.

Goal.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Aston Villa 0 Chelsea 2.

Phew.

Steven Gerrard was again getting it in the neck.

“You’re getting sacked in the morning…”

On the right wing, down below us, Gallagher mirrored the current government with a quick U-turn to free himself of his marker. A fine searching cross found the head of Sterling but his downward header bounced past the near post.

In the last minute, one last sub.

Armando Broja for Sterling.

I fancied us to score another to rub salt in the wound, but it stayed at two.

Phew.

I’ll say it again.

Phew.

“That’s five wins in a row now, John.”

“Four clean sheets too.”

“Unbeaten in six.”

“Off to a great start, Potter, eh?”

Mason Mount, with his first two goals of the season, took the eye, but Kepa – surely – was our star man. Without him, we could have been 3-1 down at the break. Conor Gallagher injected some energy and movement when he came on. Thiago Silva was excellent. Kalidou Koulibaly looked like the footballer that we thought we had purchased rather than a mistake waiting to happen. I liked Ruben Loftus-Cheek too; steady, though I am not sure that when he runs with the ball he is deceptively fast or deceptively slow. The negatives were Cucarella, Havertz and Aubameyang.

On the walk back to the car, PD mentioned the now missing underpass by the A34 as being the location of an almighty ambush by some Villa lads after the mad 2-2 draw on the last day of the season in 1990/91.

As is so often the case, we called in at “The Vine” at West Bromwich for an early-evening curry. PD enjoyed his Lamb Madras. Parky and I had the same dish, Manchurian Chicken. All very tasty, all immediately served within five minutes of ordering. I was just surprised that Michelle, Dane and Frances didn’t show up.

Please come back into the top flight West Brom so we have another excuse to stop off.

It was a decent drive home.

I was back inside at about 8pm.

Next up, our sixth game of nine in October is on Wednesday at Brentford.

I will see some of the lucky ones there.

Outside

Inside

Tales From A Long Day At The Start Of A Long Month

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 1 October 2022.

My alarm sounded at 6.45am.

Good morning universe.

Here I was, here we were, back in action after an enforced lay-off. Our last game was the home match with Salzburg some seventeen days ago. Yet in this new month of October we faced nine games in just twenty-nine days. The plan will be to try and attend all of them. We were to begin this manic month with a trip to Selhurst Park for a game with Crystal Palace.

My weekend had begun with yet another concert – my sixth in a summer and autumn of music – that involved an act that was around in 1982. On Friday, I saw Toyah perform at the local venue in Frome.

She had opened the set with “Good Morning Universe” and it was stuck in my mind as I drove home after the concert. And it evidently remained in my ahead until the next morning too.

Toyah was a huge name in the UK music scene from 1980 to 1982, but her stardom soon drifted. I had seen her perform to a pretty small crowd in Frome back in 2015, but her popular “Sunday Lunch” videos with husband Robert Fripp, since lockdown in 2020, have put her back into the public eye once again. For someone who is sixty-four, her show was full of energy. I enjoyed it. The venue was packed.

There was always a slight resemblance between Toyah and my first-ever girlfriend from the summer of 1982. Although I did not dwell too much on it at the time, it later dawned on me that Toyah had a lisp, and that my girlfriend had the slightest of lisps too. I was always so delighted that Toyah’s determination to overcome a speech impediment allowed her to fulfil her career path. Forty years on, my own speech impediment still rears its very ugly head at unsuspecting moments and I hate it now as I fucking hated it then.

As I watched the singer on stage in Frome, my mind kept catapulting me back to summer and early autumn some four decades ago.

Here comes another seamless slide into 1982/83.

My reflective look at “the worst season of them all” continues with two Second Division games from forty years ago.

On Saturday 18 September, Chelsea played Oldham Athletic at Stamford Bridge. This game was notable as marking the debut of firebrand striker David Speedie who we had acquired from Barnsley for £80,000 in the previous May. I honestly cannot remember why his first start was delayed. The new boy got off to a flier, scoring two with a goal in each half. The attendance was 10,263. I remember being disappointed with this gate but philosophical too. In those days, such a gate was often reached by a few of the smaller clubs in the then First Division. My diary noted that I was “pleased that we thrashed Oldham 2-0” and I doubt that I was being ironic. A win, any win, in those forlorn days was definitely a thrashing. Trust me.

A week later, Chelsea travelled up to Hillsborough to play Sheffield Wednesday, who were always one of the bigger and more-fancied sides in the division at that time. The team remained unchanged from the Oldham game. The youngster Steve Francis in goal. A back four of Micky Nutton, Gary Chivers, Micky Droy and Chris Hutchings. A midfield of Mike Fillery, John Bumstead, Tony McAndrew and Paul Canoville. The striking partnership of Colin Lee and David Speedie upfront. The new season’s starting striker Pop Robson was already – ominously – relegated to a substitute role. A pretty decent attendance of 18,833 assembled for this game. Sadly, the home team went ahead after just twelve minutes and scored two more goals in the second period before two late Chelsea strikes from Fillery and Lee probably gave the result a much closer ending than it deserved.

I can confirm that I was at home that afternoon, listening to the score updates on Radio Two, because I can remember what was happening elsewhere at other games in England on that particular afternoon. It turned out to be a Saturday for the record books. As always, the striking music that heralded “Sports Report” at five o’clock, followed by the measured tones of James Alexander Gordon as he read out the day’s results, was the highlight of the afternoon. The Scot’s raising or falling intonation would allow the listener to know the result even before the scores were completed. He was a master of his craft.

“Sheffield Wednesday – rising – three, Chelsea – falling – OH SHIT WE’VE LOST – two.”

On this particular day, throughout the Football League, it was raining goals. We have not witnessed the like of it in English football ever since. The First Division led the way. In its eleven games, a mammoth fifty goals were scored.

Aston Villa 2 Swansea City 0

Brighton 1 Birmingham City 0

Coventry 4 Everton 2

Liverpool 5 Southampton 0

Manchester United 0 Arsenal 0

Norwich City 1 West Brom 3

Notts County 0 Ipswich Town 6

Stoke City 4 Luton Town 4

Tottenham 4 Nottingham Forest 1

Watford 8 Sunderland 0

West Ham 4 Manchester City 1

Meanwhile, in Division Three, Doncaster Rovers walloped Reading 7-5 at home. However, one Reading player scored four and still ended up on the losing team. His name? Kerry Dixon.

Chelsea’s start to the new campaign had been fair-to-middling. Nothing more. After seven league games, we had won two, drawn three and lost two. It was hardly inspiring stuff from a team that had finished in twelfth position the previous season. But they were my team, my club, and I loved them dearly. On the near horizon was a trip to Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea play Leeds United and, even forty years later, the thrill of the anticipation of that match still resonates.

As I have often documented, a trip to Crystal Palace’s stadium, deep in the hinterlands of South London, is always a troublesome one. I had been monitoring the best way in for a few days and all of the technical aids at my disposal were adamant that after collecting PD and Glenn, and finally, Lordy, the quickest route would be along the M4. So, this was what I did. Lordy was picked-up at 8.30am, but on nearing Swindon, our world caved in. There was a diversion ahead and so I was forced first south and then north of the motorway along smaller roads. It probably cost us an hour.

At Reading Services, I reset my sat-nav and it was sending me right into the heart of London rather than around the M25.

I drove on.

The route in was familiar. It took me along the A4, up to the junction with the North End Road, past those familiar Chelsea match day pubs. It even took me along Lillee Road, only a few yards from where I normally park for home games. But then, with the realisation that the national train strike had forced thousands onto the road network, our plans were hit hard again. Our slow drive through Fulham took the best part of an hour. We were not aided by some very slow changing temporary traffic lights just before Wandsworth Bridge. Eventually, around five-and-a-half bastard hours after leaving sleepy Somerset, we were parked up at my JustPark spot on Woodville Road with the massive TV pylon that dominates that hilly part of South London clearly visible yet still over two miles away. This huge structure was the tallest in London until as recently as 1990. We had given up on getting a drink before the game, but as we headed towards the already overflowing “Prince George”, we spotted a few friends drinking on the pavement outside a small jerk chicken café. We crossed the road to join them.

Rachel from Devon and Donna from Somerset were there. Rob from South West London was there, but without his mate Bob who was in Somerset watching his local team Waltham & Hersham in the FA Cup against Taunton Town. He has evidently reached that key stage – “local non-league team over Chelsea” – before me but I know that time will come for me too.

Drinks were guzzled. A blue flare was let off on the pavement outside the pub opposite. PD and Parky shot off to collect a ticket. Glenn and I set off just before 2.30pm to sort out tickets too.

By 2.40pm, I was in the queue for the Arthur Wait.

“Makes a bloody change to get to a game at Selhurst Park and it’s not pissing with rain.”

There was the usual bag check. While I waited in line, I spotted a listing of “prohibited items” on a poster next to the turnstile. Featured was an image of a camera with a “detachable lens” and the cold sweats came on. I had memories of the last encounter with Crystal Palace, at Wembley, and we all know how that ended. Thankfully, my camera was allowed in.

I shuffled through the packed concourse.

Selhurst Park. If it didn’t exist, you’d have to invent it.

However, for all of its cramped inefficiencies, people would soon lament its passing should it ever be replaced by a single-tiered stadium – “soul-less bowl” is the go-to phrase, eh? – either on the same site or elsewhere.

Each stand is different. Opposite our viewing area is the main stand, an Archibald Leitch original, eerily similar to the Johnny Haynes Stand at Fulham, and thus, the old East Stand at Stamford Bridge. To the right, the slight tier of seats of the Whitehorse Lane Stand, with ugly executive boxes above. In the corner between the two stands is the platform where Bex and his cohorts appeared in the original “The Firm” film from 1989. To the left, the steep two-tiered Holmesdale Road Stand, with its curved roof, a throwback to the Edwardian era but the newest of all the current stands. The Arthur Wait Stand was once all standing, and it remains a dark and brooding beast of a stand. The three thousand Chelsea fans, as always, were to be based here, though this hasn’t always been the case. The sightlines aren’t great. In fact, with my position in row eight, down low, I soon decided early on to try not to snap too many photos since my view of the game would be so poor.

A few friends spoke of similarly difficult journeys to the stadium. As kick-off approached, I spotted many clusters of empty seats in the home stands. Palace surely have a more local fan base than us, but I suppose the train strike must have had an adverse effect on numbers. It is a pet peeve that not all attendances are published either online or in the Sunday ‘papers these days. It has all changed after all of those games without fans in the nightmarish seasons of 2019/20 and 2020/21. Not even Chelsea’s home programme includes attendance figures anymore. So, maybe we’ll not know the official attendance for a while, anyway.

This annoys the fuck out of me.

My spreadsheet has half-empty columns.

And what is a world with half-empty columns, eh?

Kick-off approached. The teams entered from that far corner. It suddenly dawned on me that we would be wearing that God-awful away strip. Overhead, there were clouds but there was no hint of rain. I was glad that a rain jacket was left back in the car. I was wearing a subtle-coloured Marc O’Polo sweatshirt; an homage to one I that bought in 1986 or so when that particular brand was much-loved by football fanciers at the time. If the 1986 version was apple green, this one was more mint.

There was a minute of silence in remembrance of Queen Elizabeth II and this was followed by a hearty rendition of “God Save The King.”

This, of course, was Graham Potter’s first league game in charge.

In a “Costa Coffee” on the walk to the stadium, I had briefly spoken to fellow-fan Andy about the switch.

“Is Potter an upgrade on Tuchel?”

I just shrugged my shoulders, unsure.

The game kicked-off and it was clear that we were playing four at the back.

Kepa

James – Fofana – Silva – Chilwell

Jorginho – Kovacic

Then God knows what…

Sterling – Havertz – Aubameyang – Mount

From my position down low, it wasn’t clear.

The game began and we dominated the first – er – seven, count’em, minutes. Thiago Silva was our main pass master, touching the ball often, and looking to play balls in to others. However, the home team had hardly touched the bloody ball when Wesley Fofana gave up possession too easily and the ball quickly found Jordan Ayew. I watched in horror as his perfectly whipped-in cross dropped perfectly at the foot of Odsonne Edouard and Kepa was beaten. Sadly, I caught this goal on camera, but thankfully the image is too blurred for my stringent quality assurance department to allow it to be shared.

It was a killer cross. But where was our defence? Answers on a postcard.

Michael Olise impressed me with his direct play in front of me, but it was Eberechi Ebe who then forced Kepa into action.

With a quarter of an hour gone, we had no attempts on target. Then, an easy header looped up easily into Vicente Guaita’s reach.

Gal was getting annoyed with Aubameyang, though to be fair, the striker had not received much service. It’s difficult when players from rivals find themselves at Stamford Bridge. I know full well that I am going to find it hard to warm to Aubameyang. Is it irrational? Who knows? Gal, from his words – that were certainly annoying the bloke behind me – it will be longer for him to approve of the former Arsenal striker.

Put it this way, at this moment in time, Gal rates Mark Falco more than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

There was a header from Mason Mount that flashed wide of the near post.

Halfway through the first period, I leant forward to chat to Calvin : “this is all a bit boring mate.”

Sterling hit the base of a post but I think the move was offside anyway, as was another that quickly followed.

This was hardly inspiring stuff.

The sun was out by now and it was surprisingly hot on this October afternoon.

The central section of around four hundred of their “ultras” – yeah, I know – were now jumping up and down to a chant that was so loud that I couldn’t hear it.

They looked like they were doing some sort of silent flash mob thing.

Bless’em.

(I know they are doing their best to get the atmosphere going, God knows we need it in this bloody country, and they are easy targets…but why just can’t people get behind their teams without this fucking contrived nonsense?)

In their defence, they did produce a few banners in the first-half about the lack of fan involvement in our national game but I am not sure who this was aimed at.

I hope there are similar banners throughout Europe as we rush headlong into the monster of the Qatar World Cup.

There next followed some confusion and more than a little worry. One on one, Silva appeared to hold back Ayew. The defender was booked. VAR then signalled a possible red card. Having not seen the apparent swipe of the ball by Silva’s hand, this was all a bit difficult to work out. Anyway, panic over, no red card.

“Think we got away with that” I said to John, two seats along.

With around ten minutes of the first half remaining, a fine move brought us some cheer. A diagonal found the leap from Silva – strangely well-advanced – and his header found Aubameyang. His quick turn, a swivel, and a shot was exquisite.

GET IN.

The bloke behind might well have ruffled Gal’s hair.

I am sure it wasn’t, but it felt like Aubameyang’s first touch.

It certainly seemed to me that it was an unlikely goal. Unsuspected. Out of the, er, blue.

Chelsea roared : “How shit must you be? Our number nine scored.”

In the closing moments of the half, a back-pass to Gaita was punished with a direct free-kick inside the box. More anguish from the under-performing Mount as his shot cleared the near post. There had been a lovely loose run from Havertz, drifting with ease, past several defenders and I was prepared to celebrate one of the great goals but the shot drifted wide of the far post.

There was time for a quick photo-call with Lordy at half-time.

Soon into the second-half, Potter replaced Jorginho with Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

His slow trudge across the pitch suggested to me – maybe it was just me, I am sure it was – that he realised that he had eventually been found out.

We had a couple of half-chances as the game continued; Chilwell over, a shot blocked from Havertz. Sterling was as lively as anyone, but our link-up play was a little too laboured for my liking, and the away crowd was getting a little frustrated.

As for the defenders, James was the star. I hardly noticed Wilfred Zaha at all.

An upturn in our form was mirrored in the Arthur Wait.

“On when the blues go steaming in, oh when the blues go steaming in, I want to be in that number, oh when the blues go steaming in.”

“Oh when the blues.”

“Oh when the blues.”

“Go steaming in.”

“Go steaming in.”

“I want to be in that number, oh when the blues go steaming in.”

“Oh when the blues.”

“Oh when the blues.”

“Go steaming in.”

“Go steaming in.”

“I want to be in that number, oh when the blues go steaming in.”

It was deafening. Top work everyone.

This was followed by an equally loud “Ten men went to mow.”

Lovely stuff.

With twenty minutes, two superb saves from Kepa, foiling Zaha on both occasions.

On seventy-six minutes, a double switch.

Conor Gallagher for Havertz.

Armando Broja for Aubameyang.

The play creaked along.

A look towards Alan.

“Shite, mate.”

He nodded.

I spent some moments preparing an epitaph to post on “Facebook” at the final whistle.

On eight-five minutes, a final substitution.

Christian Pulisic for the poor Mount.

The epitaph was nearing completion.

“That was a hard watch. Milan must be quaking in their boots. At least Frome Town won.”

Just at that moment, maybe two seconds later, a sideways push of the ball from Pulisic to Gallagher.

A touch, a shot.

I watched the ball fly into the goal despite what looked like a valiant attempt by Guaita to claw it over. His fingertips could not deny us a goal.

I roared.

The away end roared.

Fackinell.

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

Chris : “come on my little diamonds.”

For the second time in eight months, a last minute goal at Selhurst Park had sent us into a frenzy.

At the final whistle, Gal and his nemesis – at it like hammer and tongs in that feisty encounter in the first-half – embraced with smiles.

I thought to myself : “get a room, lads.”

This was a fortuitous win, no doubt. I am not going to enthuse too much about it. I have to say that I am particularly worried about our two games against Milan over the next week or so, but I am filled with a huge sense of anticipation too.

Maybe not as much as the Leeds game in 1982 but you catch my drift I am sure.

In reality, more than a few friends have admitted that if we do drop into the Europa League, at least we might get some good trips out of it.

“The final is in Budapest” Calvin had reminded me.

But it’s just the fear of getting humiliated against Milan that I fear most. Nobody wants that. They should be two huge games. I honestly can’t wait.

With traffic locked, we popped into a cheap and cheerful “Chicken Cottage” – they evidently love their chicken in around Selhurst Park – to let the flow ease up a little and eventually left Thornton Heath at 6.15pm. Via another diversion on the A303, I eventually reached home four hours later.

I had picked PD up at 8am. I had dropped him off at 10pm.

Just in time for “Match of the Day.”

Just right.

Next up, one of the Italian greats.

Chelsea versus Milan at Stamford Bridge.

I’m off to practice some Italian swear words.

See you on Wednesday evening.

Postscript :

The BBC recently took the shocking decision to drop the reading out of all of the classified football scores on Radio Five Live at five ‘clock every Saturday.

Words fail me.

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 Arabian Peninsula

Chelsea vs. Al Hilal : 9 February 2022

Of the many irritants involved with my recent footballing past, nothing continually manages to annoy me more than the Chelsea chant “We’ve won it all” which is sung with gusto by thousands, some of whom should definitely know better. I roll my eyes every time I hear it. I am pretty sure I have never sung it. The fact of the matter is that due to our meek 0-1 loss to Corinthians in Yokohama in 2012, there was still one prize remaining for us to claim. In those days it was known as the World Club Championships. Earlier, when it was a one-game final between the South American and European Champions, it was known as the Inter-Continental Cup. Now, rebranded again, it is known as the FIFA World Club Cup.

After our win in Porto last May, we were presented with the chance to have another stab at it. I openly hoped for a return visit to Japan; I loved my time there in 2012, an almost perfect trip. We waited and waited. There were rumours of the United Arab Emirates, there were rumours of Las Vegas. Talk about one extreme to the another, eh? In December, it was decided that the delayed 2021 World Club Cup would take place in Abu Dhabi in February 2022.

My immediate response was this.

“I’m going.”

But then I became slightly side-tracked with my boycotting of the Qatar World Cup of 2022, and pondered whether it would be hypocritical for me to go to Abu Dhabi. All things considered, I decided that Abu Dhabi was “on.” Initially, a few friends seemed interested too. In the end it boiled down to PD and myself. On the face of it we are an unlikely pairing, as different as chalk and cheese – with me a very soft brie – but we are good friends and I began preparing a list of things that we needed to sort out.

But.

The worry of COVID19 tests, registration procedures, and the possibility of the pandemic flaring up again, and the risk of getting caught in Abu Dhabi, COVID-positive and thus forced to miss even more time off work ate away at me.

Heading into the last few days of 2021, I was still 50/50 about the whole damn thing.

Then the game dates were announced. Others began booking. I re-examined all the clutter that would get in the way of a trip to the Arabian Peninsula. The tests, the forms, the costs, the risks.

And then I did it. I booked our flights. We were on our way.

But did the stress, anxiety and worry disappear? No. Did they fuck.

However, with each passing week, things began to drop into place. I sought advice from a few good friends. Other friends sought advice from me, the fools.

The Alhosn App would haunt me for weeks.

Then at the Brighton game, I was aware that I was coming down with something unpleasant. It knocked me for six to be honest. I was off work for the best part of a week and I even missed the Tottenham league game, damn it. After the tests, it was found that I had been hit with a campylobacter infection. This, I have to admit, just got in the way of the last few things that I needed to do before the trip. These were a few dark days. It absolutely clouded my thinking and hindered my planning.

There was one last remaining worry too. We were off to Abu Dhabi on the first Monday in February. On the Saturday, we were set to play Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup. Like a few people I know, I didn’t attend the game. I just couldn’t risk catching COVID again at Stamford Bridge. But I still spent the day in SW6.

It was one of the oddest days. Because Parky and PD still wanted to attend, I drove them up but then occupied myself for a few hours. I fancied a walk, rather than sitting in my car for three or four hours, and so I meandered down through the deserted streets of Fulham to Craven Cottage. I arrived at the Johnny Haynes statue bang on 12.30pm, just as the game was kicking-off at Stamford Bridge.

How odd did that feel? Oh, very odd.

There were a few bouquets, wreaths and cards on the gate in front of the cottage in memory of the Fulham fan who had recently died at a game there. One card was from a close relative. It brought a tear to my eye.

With the score at 1-1 on ninety minutes, the game at Stamford Bridge went to extra-time.

But we had other plans. In order to meet pre-flight requirements, I had arranged for PD and I to have PCR tests at Heathrow at 5pm. With that in mind, the lads had arranged to leave on ninety minutes even if extra-time was required. Bless them. Just before 3pm, they joined me in my car. Despite a little problem tracing PD’s registration for the test, both PCR tests were taken and the three of us returned home.

It was indeed, one of the oddest days. Good job we eventually won.

Driving home, I was heard to mutter “would love Luton away, before they move to their new stadium, never been to Kenilworth Road.”

On the Sunday morning, texts came through to both of us. We were both negative.

Get in.

I finished packing early on Monday morning and called for PD in Frome at 5am.

Rather than a flight from London, I had managed to save some money and fly from Manchester. The drive up went perfectly. I had parking booked from 9am. We arrived at 9.05am. There was a long wait to check in…always a nervous time, even in normal times, but our PCR tests were quickly glanced, our bookings reconfirmed, we were on our way. I spotted a few Chelsea fans that I knew in the line too. And, ominously, one Palmeiras fan.

I remembered the 25,000 Corinthians fans in Japan.

It was a lovely irony that we were setting off from City’s airport using their airline. It was even more delicious that other friends were setting off in a “Manchester City” liveried plane at Heathrow.

“Here’s what you could have won.”

The 12.35pm flight was delayed an hour. With the inherent four-hour time difference, we touched down at Abu Dhabi airport at around 12.30am in the small hours of Tuesday.

Glenn and I had spent a few hours in the same terminal building en route to watch Chelsea play in Australia in 2018. Who could have thought that I’d be returning to see us play in the desert in 2022? This almost mirrored my movements in 2012 and 2017. In 2012, I transited in Beijing en route to the 2012 games in Japan. Yet in 2017, I exited the Beijing airport to see us play Arsenal at the Bird’s Nest Stadium in 2017.

Funny game, football.

On arrival at the airport, we were ushered into a PCR testing area. It was all very simple and straight forward. I was impressed. We then caught a £20 cab over to our hotel, a journey that took half-an-hour. The impressive Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was floodlit as we drove past, certainly an impressive sight.

The “day one” story did not come to a clean and simple ending unfortunately. We arrived at our hotel a few blocks from Abu Dhabi’s beach at around 2am. The hotel had not noted my late arrival – although I had an email to say they had – and so only had us staying for five and not six nights. After six or seven calls to other hotels, the concierge managed to get us in for one night at a lovely five-star hotel.

Phew.

At 3am, we fell asleep.

We woke to see that the infamous Alhosn App had been updated with our two negative test results.

Such relief.

This now cleared us for the game on Wednesday.

The Tuesday was spent relaxing at our original hotel. The management had upgraded us to a lovely suite on the fifteenth floor with a room each. Our rooftop pool was perfect and Paul wasted no time in soaking up some rays.

The view from the terrace summed up Abu Dhabi; white bricked houses and homes, mosques and minarets, high-rise apartments, sky scrapers in a business district on the horizon, the gulf and some man made islands too. We had a brief excursion to see the local beach. Our route took us past three or four expensive car dealerships; Bentley, Lotus and the like. But, like China, there were no advertisement hoardings anywhere. Acres of steel and glass, a modern city, but one that need seem so alien to me. I’d need a month to work it out.

There was a “Fado” Irish pub in our hotel and on the Tuesday night we met up with Della and Mick from Kent before Mike and Frank, veterans from Japan in 2012, strolled in at about 10pm. There were a group of around eight Chelsea fans I semi-recognised at another table. The two ladies of the night soon disappeared due to the lack of interest being directed at them. Pints of Peroni were at the £9 mark. Ouch.

“Another Peroni please.”

Tons of Chelsea stories, tons of Chelsea laughs. It was a great night.

Not so far away, Palmeiras had beaten the Egyptians 2-0. They were waiting for us in the final.

Wednesday was game day. After a late start – due to us both being sleep deficient and the alcoholic intake of the previous night – we welcomed Foxy down to our hotel. He, again, was a veteran of Japan 2012, and due to his life on the ocean waves was well versed to the ways of the UAE having spent many times in Dubai, though only a limited amount of access to Abu Dhabi. We loitered around the pool area and then zipped inside the adjacent restaurant where I had a very healthy pre-match meal of grilled chicken with a pear and blue cheese salad. It certainly differs from a Sunday roast at the Eight Bells or a Greggsfast on the A303.

The game was to begin at 8.30pm, and we wanted to ease into it. We caught a cab from our hotel at 5pm. By 5.30pm, we had gained entrance to the super sleek Dusit Thani hotel opposite the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium. The local Al Jazira football team plays at this stadium, but they had lost to our opponents Al Hilal from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia by the score of 6-1 on the Sunday. In the other second round game, Al Ahly from Egypt had beaten Monterrey of Mexico 1-0. By an odd twist, we had beaten Monterrey in our semi-final in 2012.

Al Jazira, Al Hilal, Al Ahly, Alhosin. We just needed Al Yankovic, Al Molinaro, Al Jarreau and Al Davidson to show up and we would be totally flummoxed.

We settled in at a quiet bar in the hotel. I met up with Robert, a Yorkshireman who once lived in Houston, but has flitted between Dubai and Baku in recent years – he is employed within the oil industry – and I last saw him out in Baku. I leisurely enjoyed two pints of Peroni although the prices were a little more expensive than at our hotel; up to £13 here.

Foxy spotted three lads sat at the bar opposite; their shirts were Celtic, Leeds United and Ajax. A lad with a Barcelona shirt was stood behind them.

“Brave or stupid.”

On the next table were two Saudi lads, timidly sipping two small glasses of lager.

“Cheers lads.”

They smiled.

“Bet this is like a trip to Benidorm for them.”

Now the moment of truth. At 7pm, we left the bar and walked over a pedestrian bridge, which went up and over a busy road, to get to the stadium. At the entrance gate, a check of the ticket, a check of my Alhosin App, and we were in. My small pocket camera was waved through too.

After all the worry and stress…my smiles were absolutely authentic.

I was happy. I mean, really happy.

It was 7.30pm. An hour to kick-off. My immediate goal was to try to find the stadium’s wifi password, but this was an impossible task. My data had run out and so I would be jettisoned from the outside world until I could hook back up with a hotel wifi. But not to worry. Life goes on, eh? In the concourse, there was a group of around twenty Muslims, including a few Chelsea supporters, kneeling on mats and praying to the west.

I got mine out and prayed for myself.

Our tickets placed us midway into a half in the lower tier of the northern side stand. The view was decent. Over the course of the hour, we spotted a few familiar faces; Scott, Roy and Margaret, Leigh and Darren. Later, I would spot the increasingly familiar face of Astrijd vlogging away a few seats to my right. Robert from Baku was close by. Dave Johnstone was spotted. Elsewhere in our section, there was a tremendous mix of people. Local Chelsea fans, Chelsea fans from further afield, Al Hilal fans – dressed in blue – and even fans of other competing teams. I won’t lie, it felt odd to be in and among the opposition. I tried to spot Chelsea fans that I knew from home in the lower tier behind the goal. No luck. Lots and lots of Chelsea flags though. Good work!

The consensus was maybe one thousand Chelsea from the UK. Maybe a few more.

At various moments we were treated to the stadium lights being dimmed and then spotlights flying around, but then a couple of morons asking us all to “make some noise.”

The British contingent stood with our hands in our pockets and muttered obscenities beneath our breath.

Using a few screeches from AC/DC as a scene setter seemed a very odd choice I have to say.

Soon, the kick-off was upon us.

Chelsea in all yellow. I loved that. Bollocks to Borrusia Dortmund. Al Hilal in all blue. The teams lined up. The end to my right housed the Saudi militants – perish that thought – and they put on a fine show with steamers and banners.

Chelsea :

Kepa

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Havertz – Ziyech

Lukaku

Facemasks were worn by many. Mine was on and off every ten minutes.

The game began and Al Hilal soon pounced on an early mistake but a weak shot caused Kepa no concerns.

Soon into the game Al Ultra turned on his loud speaker and tried to stimulate the Al Hilal supporters around him to cheer the team on. It sounded so much like an imam and a call to prayer. It was such a surreal sound.

We grew into the game. It wasn’t a particularly hot evening. I was wearing jeans as were many others. Hakim Ziyech immediately caught my eye and looked to be keen and interested to set up chances for himself and others. Thiago Silva looked his usual composed self. Dave was often wide right, unmarked, but we often chose to ignore him. The chances began to stack up with Lukaku just missing out on passes and crosses. One strong run from him on twenty-five minutes impressed me. If only he could show such willingness to create opportunities for himself more often. Kovacic was running the midfield. We were well on top.

Our support was trying its best but we were easily out sung by the opposition.

Once or twice, Ziyech danced and weaved into the box from the right and attempted that “far post” bender” that he loves. Other shots were blocked. Our dominance continued. Al Hilal were not in it. They hardly escaped their half.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

On the half-hour, Kovacic raced up field and released Havertz on the left. His first cross was blocked but on the rebound, he pushed the ball inside again. The cross hit an Al Hilal defender and the ball fell into the path of Lukaku who smashed it home from close range.

The goal was met by a guttural roar, from me especially.

I punched the air, then caught a few celebratory snaps.

Phew.

I just couldn’t face questions at work the next week : “How did that third and fourth place play-off go, Chris?”

We looked more confident after that goal. It must have calmed us; players and fans alike. We needed another, but Al Hilal now threatened a little. Thankfully, we looked solid and their attacks misfired.

We had dominated possession; 62% Chelsea in the first-half.

At the break, N’Golo Kante replaced Jorginho.

Soon into the second period, Kai Havertz broke away down in front of us and kept running. He drew the ‘keeper and chipped the ball over him from inside the six-yard box. It clipped the post.

Bollocks.

Another goal then would have steadied the ship. Sadly, the second-half was a mightily poor affair indeed. Al Hilal warmed to the challenge and threatened us on too many occasions for my liking. Our singing completely faded in the second-half. Their number seventeen Moussa Marega looked half-decent – a more mobile version of Lukaku – and he was aided in attack by Odion Ighalo, who used to play for Watford.

The move of the game brought me lots of pleasure though. A cross from Kante, after he ridiculously knocked the ball over the head of his marker, was headed back by Lukaku and Ziyech “faded” his shot to keep it down. The Al Hilal ‘keeper pulled off a fine save.

There was a magnificent block from Kepa on the hour mark; that man Marega’s shot was adeptly stopped by our young ‘keeper. Mohammed Kanno’s firm drive was then saved at full stretch by Kepa. The boy was keeping us in it.

There was worry and concern among all the Chelsea supporters now.

When Mason Mount replaced Ziyech with twenty minutes to go, there were boos around the stadium; although from The Netherlands and now playing for Morocco, he was obviously a local favourite.

A shot from the impressive Pereira went close.

“Come on Chelsea.”

Malang Sarr replaced Alonso, who had been his usual mixture of raiding wing play but defensive slips. Mount went close at the death, but that elusive second goal never came.

Thankfully, we held on.

Our possession had steadied out to 55% at the end.

It was a rotten second-half, but we had reached the FIFA World Club Cup Final. The gate was given as 19,751. I had said to PD that it seemed about half-full. The Al Hilal fans looked genuinely crestfallen. We just looked relieved.

PD and I slowly returned to the same bar as pre-match. We soon met up with Frank and Mike from New York. I met Dutch Mick too – also there in 2012 – and there was time for one last “Peroni” before PD and I caught a cab back to our digs.

We knew of several Chelsea fans who were flying over especially for the final; I was so pleased for them.

Now it was time to relax. And for a date with some camels.

Tales From The Depths Of Winter

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 15 January 2022.

I was up at 5.15am and by 7am I had collected both PD and Parky. Outside, the weather was cold and we were on our way to Manchester City. We always seem to get City away in the depths of winter, eh? In contrast, just think of all those end of season matches at Old Trafford over the years. Yet we always seem to have to endure an often chilly trip to the Etihad, or the City of Manchester Stadium or Eastlands as it was originally called.

I enjoy the vast majority of our current away trips in the Premier League. West Ham is an exception; such a crap view, plus – so far – the games have tended to be early kick-offs, thus eliminating the chance of a pub-crawl or suchlike. But the other exception is Manchester City. There is nothing of note surrounding the ground – not for away fans anyway – and although the stadium is decent enough, it’s all a bit anaemic. It also has no real history. Once I set foot inside, I am not overwhelmed with memories of games from the depths of time that visits to Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton provide.

Or maybe I am turned off by Manchester City’s new stadium because of our poor record in recent seasons. I had been present at our previous thirteen league visits to the stadium – last season excepted – and although our record is 4-1-8, in the last ten visits it is even worse; 2-1-7.

All three of us were hoping for a draw. We were realists. I am sure that in our support base of millions, not many were expecting us to win.

I was parked up at around 10.45am.

It had been freezing when we stopped for breakfast at Strensham Services on the M5 and although the weather had warmed slightly, it was still “hands in pockets” on the fifteen-minute walk to the stadium.

The stadium is at least recognisable; it’s shape is unique, what with its towering roof supports and San Siro-style helix exit ramps.

For the second visit in a row, I was up in the towering top tier. We were officially in row C, but with the first two rows blocked out, we were effectively in the front row. With a good half-an-hour to go before the game began, it was clear that more than a few fans had purchased some inflatable silver cups in the shape of the European Cup. I suspected a few songs about that night in Porto as the day developed.

The time soon passed.

Before I had time to think, the teams were on the pitch on the far side and “Blue Moon” was booming. Suddenly, more and more inflatable silver cups appeared throughout the three tiers of our support. It annoys me – I can’t explain why – that City sometimes adopt an all sky blue kit in preference to their standard one with white shorts. I may be picky, but that’s the mark of a lesser club in my opinion.

The game was now in sharp focus. In my mind, too, were the two recent extremes.

2017/18 : Conte giving up possession, defending deep and narrowly losing 0-1.

2018/19 : Sarri going for it but getting beaten 0-6.

There was just time to acquaint myself with the team that Thomas Tuchel had selected :

Arrizabalaga

Sarr – Silva – Rudiger

Alonso – Kovacic – Kante – Azpilicueta

Ziyech – Lukaku – Pulisic

We all hoped for a performance akin to what we had witnessed in Porto, but I certainly wasn’t getting my hopes up.

The four of us in the front row of the upper tier joined the formation.

Parkins – Axon – Phillips – Davidson

Every man was needed.

It was 12.30pm.

The game began and, no surprises, City enjoyed most of the ball. Soon into the game, it became readily apparent that when we were out of possession the shape collapsed as below :

Arrizabalaga

Alonso – Sarr – Silva – Rudiger – Azpilcueta

Ziyech – Kovacic – Kante – Pulisic

Lukaku

A bank of five and a bank of four, squeezing space as best they could. Ironically, despite City’s opening domination, we had the game’s first real chance on ten minutes. A run from Lukaku up field, with us willing him on – if we were jockeys, we would have undoubtedly had the whip out – but just as he looked set to shoot, he bizarrely passed to the offside Ziyech.

Fackinell.

The game soon settled into one monotonous pattern. City were in control, we were sitting deep, but tried to build the occasional break. However, despite Kante’s usual prowess in intercepting passes and setting attacks in motion, we were hindered by Lukaku’s remoteness and the poor support play of Ziyech and Pulisic. Playing out from the back, using those little triangles that Tuchel must dream about at night, we fell prey to the manic way that the home team closed down space.

There were mixed views in the away section. Some were urging the team on, some were getting frustrated with certain players. I wasn’t too upset with our shape, but I just wished that we were more aggressive.

There is no doubt that at moments of high pressure, with City’s front three running at us and closing down space and then winning the ball and running again, it almost looked like this :

Arrizabalaga

Parkins – Axon – Phillips – Davidson

Alonso – Sarr – Silva – Rudiger – Azpilcueta

Ziyech – Kovacic – Kante – Pulisic

Lukaku

Off the pitch, there were battles in song. This was our chance to shine.

“Champions of Europe, we know what we are.”

“Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that.”

“So here’s to you Vincent Kompany. Have you won the European Cup? No. No.”

“The silky German is just what we need. He won Chelsea the Champions league.”

City’s responses were concerned with the English title.

How parochial.

Kepa was involved on a few occasions. There was a simple save from a John Stones header and then a catch at the near post from a Kevin De Bruyne shot from an angle.

With the half-time break approaching, we lost possession and Jack Grealish was through, one-on-one. He appeared to draw the ‘keeper, and I was fully prepared to see the net ripple. Thankfully, Kepa was up to the challenge and made the save of the match thus far, his spread-eagled legs blocking the goal bound effort. A shot from De Bruyne was wild and flew over the bar.

Christian Pulisic was not playing well. There was one moment when he held on to the ball for far too long, thus missing the chance to play the ball out to a free Dave on the wing and in acres of space but then also missing the chance to play a simpler ball inside. Later, I just found myself getting irritated with the way he played a square ball behind Alonso rather than in front of him; the momentum of that move was lost and City recovered.

Alan chirped :

“Captain America? More like Captain Mainwaring.”

However, we reached the base camp of half-time with the score 0-0.

All along, I would have settled for a draw. Is that too negative? I call it being pragmatic. Despite us getting the upper hand in May, City are arguably the best team in the world right now. In the build-up, I kept calling them an established team. Each player knows his role. They swarm like fireflies at the opposition. But we were half-way there. Half-way to paradise.

The second-half began with Chelsea attacking the three thousand in three tiers in the South Stand.

In the first minute, a heavy first touch from Lukaku was pounced upon by City and the end result was a raking cross from the left that begged out for a City striker to prod home. I heaved a sigh of relief. Soon after, in the next move almost, we broke and Lukaku’s curling shot was well saved by Ederson. The rebound was lofted high into tier four by Ziyech.

Just after, a wild shot from Alonso reached tier five.

Fackinell.

On the hour, a De Bruyne free-kick from distance drew a very fine save from Kepa.

And then just after, a perceived poor decision by the referee stirred the home support into making a racket for the first time in ages. Chelsea joined in too. It was bubbling along nicely now. What a lovely din.

On more than one occasion, both sets found themselves singing exactly the same tune – “Hey Jude” – but with different lyrics.

Next it was our turn to feel aggrieved; a rotten challenge on Ziyech on the far touch line went unpunished.

Fackinell ref.

Raheem Sterling, tormenting Alonso all game yet without too much end product, dragged a shot wide.

Overhead, the sun broke through. There was a blue and white mottled sky over a sky blue stadium. But my God, my feet were cold.

On sixty-nine minutes, a double-switch.

Timo Werner for Pulisic.

Callum Hudson-Odoi for Ziyech.

Sadly, a minute later, a fine City move cut through our bank of four and the ball found the advancing De Bruyne. He dribbled, moved the ball out of his feet, and curled a breath-taking shot past Kepa.

“Great goal.”

The stadium erupted. What noise.

Ugh.

We attacked soon after, but an effort from Werner was well saved by Ederson.

Another change.

Mason Mount for Alonso.

I had given up on our formation now.

Stupid me, as the game reached its final few minutes, I still had this silly notion that – out of nowhere – we would somehow conjure up a late, very late, equaliser.

I must have read too many “Roy Of The Rovers” as a kid.

The equaliser never came of course, and in the end, I took the 0-1 loss on the chin.

“City, tearing Cockneys apart again” rang out once more.

And the City fans were full of taunts from behind the metal wall that separated the two sets of fans as we descended the many flights of stairs to reach the concourse outside. The line of police was tested at the bottom.

“Handbags” really.

We walked solemnly back to my car; a very familiar walk of late, hands in pockets again, heads down, well beaten.

Thankfully I made good time on the drive home, and we were able to call into “The Vine” at West Bromwich once again, our third visit in a month. Friends Michelle and Dane had the same idea; they walked in five minutes after us. I am tempted to write “if only the Chelsea team had shown such togetherness” but that would be slightly churlish. We were beaten by a very fine team. Was Tuchel wise to go for a cautious approach? I am not sure. To be honest, it almost came off. It wasn’t as if City had twenty shots on goal.

Of course, the doom mongers were out in full force after the game had finished in Manchester. A million fans, a million opinions, a million different formations, a million different moans.

But, that’s to be expected, right?

As one son of Manchester once wrote “everybody’s clever nowadays.”

As I have said before, everyone is entitled to air their views. But some of the over-reactions were quite laughable. I took it all with a pinch of salt. To be honest, this game won’t be long remembered. It won’t define our season. It won’t make or break us. Tuchel is no mug. He’ll learn from this.  

Next up, a Tuesday night trip to Sussex by the sea.

Let’s go to Brighton.

Tales From Chelsea Smiles In North London

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 12 January 2022.

It had just turned three o’clock in the afternoon and I pulled up in my car alongside PD’s motor in the pub car park opposite where I work. I clambered out.

“I’ve got to work on lads. You’ll have to drive up and I’ll go solo. Can you give me my ticket?”

Work had been going swimmingly well, but I had just been hit with two problems – in The Netherlands and Ireland – that needed my immediate attention. I sped back to the office and tried to get my head around what needed to be done. Of course, typical, a few other problems arose too. But, thankfully, at around 3.45pm I was able to eventually head off to London.

The race had begun.

I had been awake since 5.45am and, ironically, at around 2pm, when I started to feel a little tired I thought to myself :

“Not to worry, I’ll get a little shut-eye on the drive to London in PD’s car.”

So much for that, eh?

I sped off east towards Salisbury Plain but soon stopped for refreshments and an all-important coffee at a petrol station in Tilshead. A woman at the till who was buying lottery tickets – slowly – wound me up – quickly.

Thinking to myself, again :

“Come on, this is Tottenham away.”

Luckily, the traffic was light, the weather was fine, the roads were dry. I made good time but there was always that risk of getting caught in a London rush-hour in reverse. It’s always a lottery. I reached the M3 at about 5pm and was able to speed on. Thankfully the tiredness that I had feared never enveloped me. I tried to compute my projected arrival time in London and my chances of reaching the all-important main line station at Liverpool Street.

It seemed like ages since I had driven alone to London for a game.

As I passed Twickenham, PD called me and asked for advice on how to get to Liverpool Street. The two Chuckle Brothers were on the loose in London and it brought a wry smile to my face.

“Change at Holborn I think.”

At exactly 6pm, I was parked outside Barons Court tube station, a few car lengths down from PD’s car. There was a slick change of trains at Holborn and I was soon on the short journey to Liverpool Street. I arrived there at 6.35pm.

“Hour and ten minutes to go. Should be OK, but it all depends on the frequency of trains to White Hart Lane.”

As I came out of the underground tunnels and walkways and was almost up at ground level, there was a sound that brought another smile to my now masked face.

“We love Tuchel, we love bugle, Chelsea’s won the Champions league.”

This meant that Chelsea were in the vicinity and – presumably – there was a train to take me to the game in good time.

I quickly glanced at the train timetable.

“Platform 1 : Cheshunt – 1845, stopping at White Hart Lane.”

I had exited the underground station right next to platform one.

Perfect.

I walked all of the way to the front of the train since the rear carriages were full, but also full of Chelsea too. This was going well. The train stopped at around ten stations and the time flew. At Seven Sisters, there was an extended stop of five minutes or more. There was an announcement.

“For those going to the football, please get off here. People on the platform need to get on to use the service.”

I didn’t see one single person alight.

Fuck that.

Eventually, at just gone 7.15pm, we reached White Hart Lane station and everyone shuffled along the platform like penguins. Downstairs, the two sets of fans were forced left and right unlike at any of the previous two games that I had attended at Tottenham’s spanking new stadium.

“Chelsea left please, Chelsea left.”

Once split, the singing began. But beers were thrown at us by the Tottenham fans descending some stairs. The police waded in on a few Chelsea fans who retaliated. I walked on. Outside the station, much-modernised these days, was a row of potted plants, with up lighting, all very modern. Around fifteen Chelsea fans in a strict line, their bladders unable to cope, were watering the plants as if it was part of a military operation.

In the London night there was noise, anticipation, a palpable sense of danger.

Opposite there was a shop that caught my eye.

“Tottenham Hot Spuds.”

That made me chuckle.

“Hate to think what is on sale at Arsenal.”

Down on the High Road, there was more noise, but with scurrying crowds, a few engaged in fisticuffs, a swarm of police and I saw that the road was blocked off. The police had no desire for the two tribes to mix. Things were definitely feisty. As I took a few photos with my camera phone, a police horse reared up close to me and I had to adjust my footing to avoid getting struck.

I raced on towards the away turnstiles, the clock ticking. Outside were more police, and more noise. The bright illuminated cladding of the stadium contrasted with the shadows of the Chelsea supporters clambering to get in to the game in time for the start.

Up the steps, a COVID check, a check of my ticket and then a bag check.

“Camera?”

“Yes.”

“Need to check.”

He called over his supervisor. I was one step ahead. I lifted up the camera with the small wide-angle lens attached. I didn’t open up the bag to show the larger zoom lens.

“Nah, that’s alright. In you go.”

Time for a last minute visit to the gents. “Hellos” to a few mates. I bumped into the bloke who I was stood next to at the Chesterfield game. It was his first visit to the new stadium.

“Brilliant, innit?”

I agreed.

I eventually located block 113, then row 10, then Parky.

“Made it.”

It was 7.42pm.

Fackinell.

Just in time.

Have I mentioned that I work in logistics?

We were right behind the goal and only a few yards from the Tottenham fans.

Oh lovely.

Unfortunately, a few stewards were close by too. I knew it would be a case of cat and mouse with my camera all night long.

The stadium took my breath away again. On the previous two visits I was tucked away in the corner. This time, the view was even more spectacular. Way above the metallic cockerel at the top of the huge South Stand, way up in the clear night sky was the crescent of the moon, as clear as you like. It was certainly a dramatic setting.

The game kicked off and it took me a while to put players to positions. Back to a 4-4-2?

Kepa

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Christensen – Sarr

Mount – Kovacic – Jorginho – Hudson-Odoi

Werner – Lukaku

Things were pretty even at the start. I tried my best to take it all in. I tried to catch up with Parky. They had arrived at Barons Court at 5.15pm. PD had taken two and a quarter hours just like me. All was good. I was just so relieved to have made it. Another fifteen minutes of work would have killed my timings and connections. I spotted tons of familiar faces dotted around.

As the game developed, we looked at ease and confident. But the home team were not without threat. A shot from Kane at a free-kick was blocked. A forest of “wanking hands” greeted his miss-fire. There was an effort from Moura that went well-wide.

I sang a song from the ‘eighties to myself :

“How wide do you want the goals?”

Timo Werner was full of running in the first part of the game and his lob over the Tottenham ‘keeper from the angle of the penalty box dropped just over the bar. Next up, his striking partner Romelu Lukaku was released with an early ball and he did well to fight off a challenge, bring the ball down and shoot. Sadly, the ‘keeper was able to save. It was a bright start, this.

On eighteen minutes, we won a corner. I hadn’t used my camera too much thus far. But on this occasion, I asked Parky to lean forward to block the view of the nearest steward. Mount swung the ball in. A leap from Rudiger. I snapped. The ball – in slow-motion – dropped into the goal.

Scenes.

Get in you beauty.

There were the wildest of celebrations in the away segment which encompassed two tiers for this match. We had around 5,500 fans and every single one was going doo-lally.

“There’s that third goal.”

The one we couldn’t quite score last week.

“Safe now surely.”

A few minutes later, a steward spotted my camera and I was asked to pack it up. I wasn’t too worried. I knew I’d be able to use it again if I chose the right moment. At least I had nabbed the goal.

The home team threatened with a flurry of misdirected efforts and shots that were blocked. I never really felt that we were in danger.

Of course, the away choir was on fire.

“Tottenham get battered everywhere they go.”

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

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel.”

I watched as a fine sliding tackle by Antonio Rudiger robbed Hojbjerg outside the box. The Tottenham player then seemed to dive once the ball had gone, but this dive was inside the box. I had a great view. I was adamant that everything was fine. To my horror, the referee pointed at the spot. Well, that seemed ridiculous. Somebody in the crowd reckoned that VAR wasn’t being used for this game. I wasn’t sure.

After a while, it flashed up on the TV screen that VAR was being used.

We waited. And waited. And waited.

No penalty.

Whoop.

As the Chelsea players lined-up in a wall for the resulting free-kick, we spotted Dave squatting behind the wall and peeking through his team mates’ legs. At the last minute he fell to the floor. It was such a bizarre thing to see and I wished that my camera had been able to capture it.

I turned to the couple behind me.

“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dave.”

Anyway, the free-kick was headed over by a covering defender. The Chelsea support roared. We had quelled a little bubble of resurgence.

Apart from some noise at the very start when, naturally, the home support might have thought that a comeback was possible, the noise from the home stands was pretty minimal. Only on the half-hour did the place shake when a loud “Come on you Spurs” rattled around.

It dawned on me recently that only Tottenham fans call their team Spurs. Chelsea fans tend to say Tottenham.

Interesting fact #547.

The first-half ended. Time for a chat with a few folks. I spoke with the Bristol lot. Since the last game I have taken the plunge and booked up Abu Dhabi. I am going with PD. I am sure there will be a plethora of WCC worries along the way but I had to gamble and go. Let’s hope that the COVID thing doesn’t ruin all that. I chatted to Tim, Kev and Bryan briefly about it the trip. By pure luck, we are all in the same hotel.

At the break, I remembered the comments from a visibly crestfallen Antonio Conte after his new team lost 0-2 at Chelsea last week. He spoke solemnly of how far Tottenham are from Chelsea right now. I still like the bloke, even with his miss-guided decision to join forces with the numpties from N17. I would imagine that his straight-talking must have irritated the Tottenham support, but – lusciously – must have struck a chord too.

They have slid since a few years back. They were a decent team under Pochettino.

No more.

Fuck’em.

I loved the way that we dominated possession in the opening moments of the second-half, killing the game further. We never ever looked in trouble.

A Lukaku header from a corner flew just over.

Just before the hour mark, the away fans were at it.

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

Now, my immediate reaction was this :

“I know we are 3-0 up on aggregate, but that is a bit premature.”

A ball was immediately pumped forward and Kepa appeared to time his run to perfection to rob Moura with a sliding tackle. To our sadness, the referee pointed at the spot once more. It was as if the footballing Gods had unanimously agreed with me about singing that song. The Tottenham fans roared again. However, much to our joy, VAR was called into play.

The same decision. No penalty.

Now it was time for that chant.

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

Oh my aching sides.

On the hour, a magnificent save from Kepa from the head of Emerson Royal kept us ahead on the night. The ‘keeper was enjoying a very fine game. It was the save of the night thus far.

But the home team had built a little momentum and we needed to be at our best.

Kepa appeared to go walkabouts as a ball was played into Kane well inside the box. With only a covering Rudiger to beat, he blasted the ball low into the far corner.

The home fans properly roared this time.

It was a horrible feeling, despite our 3-1 lead.

But wait.

Oh my God.

Ha.

VAR again.

And again it went our way.

Chelsea smiles in North London.

I posted on Facebook :

“This is just three easy.”

I always thought that the funniest Chelsea win over Tottenham happened in 2000 when George Weah hopped off a plane at Heathrow and came on as a substitute to score the winning goal in a slender 1-0 win.

But this just might edge it.

Three disallowed goals.

Spur3y.

Tuchel strengthened things with a flurry of substitutions.

Thiago Silva for Christensen.

Marcos Alonso for Werner.

Hakim Ziyech for Mount.

And then N’Golo Kante for Kovacic.

Tottenham fans, all forty-thousand of them :

“Of for fuck sake, Kante. I’m going home.”

And then Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Jorginho.

The shape had changed to three at the back. Thiago Silva was warmly applauded and his song was sung with gusto. Likewise, N’Golo Kante.

“He’s indestructible. Always believing.”

These were great moments as the home support dwindled away. Everyone was so happy. Smiles everywhere. There were gaps appearing all over the stadium too.

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

I love that we seem to be the only club to sing that. Is that correct?

I was able to take a few photographs as the game wore on. The stewards, like Tottenham, had given up by now. The fresh legs had re-energised us. We seemed to have more of the ball once again. We finished the game strongly and never ever looked in danger.

Towards the end of the game, a recognisable chant from a few years back quickly spread in the away end. It pleased me.

“Antonio. Antonio. Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

I loved that we were at last able to honour Antonio Conte. I loved him to bits. One supposes that if, miracle of miracles, Tottenham had turned it around on the night – no 2002 here – we would obviously have resisted. But there it was. A nod to our former manager who won the league in 2017 and the cup in 2018. It’s just a shame that he now manages that lot.

And I suspect that he thinks exactly the same.

The game over, we waited for crowds to move on. The plan had been to escort all 5,500 Chelsea to Tottenham Hale, a good half-an-hour walk. We were having none of it. We met up with PD and waited. In the shadows, we edged past police near the away end and slowly walked back to an almost deserted White Hart Lane station. It absolutely worked in our favour that so many home fans had left early.

As we reached the platform, a train arrived. We were on our way home.

By 11.30pm, we were in our separate cars, at Barons Court.

At Chiswick roundabout, I turned left towards the M3 and PD drove straight on towards the M4.

Job done.

On Saturday, it’s back to one car for Man City away.

All aboard.

Tales From A Christmas Choir

Brentford vs. Chelsea : 22 December 2021.

After the game at Molineux on Sunday in which we just couldn’t find a way to pierce the Wolves resistance, we were now set to play West London neighbours Brentford with a further-depleted starting eleven in the League Cup quarter final.

I again worked an early shift – up at 5.45am, in at 7am – in order to be able to meet up with the troops and drive them to London at 3pm. With the emergence of an extra ticket via my friend Steph, we were able to move tickets around so that the four of us – PD, Parky, Glenn and I – were all able to attend. This was a repeat of those attending the league game in October, though the pre-match was vastly different.

In October, Glenn was at the wheel, and we enjoyed a superb pre-match pub crawl along the river that took in five boozers. This time, once I had parked-up bang on schedule at 5.20pm a mile or so to the west of the Brentford Community Stadium, the pub-crawl was a lot more local to the game and a lot less extensive.   

At around 5.45pm, the four of us dipped into the dimly-lit back room of “The Steam Packet” a few yards from the river at Kew Bridge but we soon decided to head on to another. Just a two-minute walk away stood “The Bell And Crown” and we sidled in. Some friendly Brentford lads made room for us at the front of the pub. It looked a cracking boozer, full of Christmas decorations, and a few fellow match-goers. Brentford’s support might miss the old ground with the pubs on the four corners but the little knot of hostelries at Kew Bridge are a fine replacement. My diet-Coke was served in a plastic Brentford logo-d cup, the first time I had ever seen such a thing. My friend Trev and his son Luke arrived and it was great to see them. I had only mentioned Trev in this blog – for the Leeds United game – a few days back and here he was, appearing right in front of me. The last time I saw him was at a mate’s fiftieth in Bristol in 2016.

I whispered to Trev “maybe if I mention Jennifer Anniston in the blog for this game, I’ll see her in the pub before Brighton.”

Trev lives in nearby Twickenham – we probably drove within a few hundred yards of his house on the way up – and although he is a Leeds United fan, he has a membership at Brentford. This would be both his and Luke’s first game at the new stadium.

There was a nice pre-match buzz and I was enjoying the vibe in our little corner of the pub. We had heard Thomas Tuchel mention that a few youth players would be given a chance in the game. If Brentford were to field a full strength team, the match would be a real test. The memory of our slightly fortuitous win in October was fresh in all of our minds.

I needed to excuse myself and spirited myself away from the charms of the warm and welcoming boozer. I backtracked and met up with Steph outside the away end at around 7.15pm. Steph now lives in Portland, Oregon. I first met her – we worked out later – in 2007 in “The Elk Bar” at Fulham Broadway before a Champions League game with Valencia when the then leader of the New York Blues, the famous Mike Neat, pointed me in her direction. We have stayed friends ever since. I last saw Steph in New Jersey when we lost 4-2 to what was ostensibly the New York Red Bulls youth team in 2015.

We made our way into the stadium; our seats were in the slim North Stand, two rows from the rear, but not too far away from where I had watched the league game in October. After that first game, I had made the point that it felt that many old school Chelsea fans had managed to attend that game; I hope those who had missed out then were luckier a second time around.

There was a flashing light show well before the entrance of the teams with accompanying music. I wondered if I had stumbled into a Beyonce concert. It was easy to spot empty seats in the home areas despite Brentford camouflaging them in various colours. There were no such gaps in the away section.

The away support was raucous well before the game began.

It was a cold night, but not too cold.

The Chelsea team was shown on the screen above the main stand.

Arrizabalaga

Chalobah – Saar – Azpilicueta

Simons – Kovacic – Saul – Alonso

Barkley – Soonsup-Bell – Vale

So, three debuts.

Xavier Simons, starting as the right wing-back down below us.

Harvey Vale, alongside Ross Barkley and supporting the main striker, with the looks of a ‘fifties film star.

Jude Soonsup-Bell, a youngster from Chippenham – not so far from us – and asked to lead the line.

There were the requisite photos of Steph brandishing her New York Blues scarf, and we were ready to go.

Right from the off, the Chelsea choir were in fine form. In fact, as early as the first fifteen minutes, I was stunned with the number of different songs and chants being aired. I will go as far as to say that it might well have been the best ever.

Really?

Yes really.

“We love you Chelsea we do, oh Chelsea we love you.”

“Carefree wherever you may be.”

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

“We’ve got Tuchel, we love bugle, Chelsea’s won the Champions League.”

“Hello, hello we are the Chelsea Boys.”

Chelsea began bright and eager. We had all of the ball in the first few opening minutes. But Brentford threatened with the first of a few lightening breaks. After an initial ball in was blocked by Trevoh Chalobah, a deep cross was hooked up towards Wissa who was completely and damningly unmarked. His weak header was punched out by Kepa. The ‘keeper was dressed all in orange, how Spanish. The away crowd roared.

“He’s Kepa you know. He’s better than fucking Thibaut.”

Saul, thankfully, started really well, winning tackles and looking more at ease. One turn and beautiful pass out to Marcos Alonso drew warm applause. The songs and chants continued to cascade down the terracing from that higher section behind the corner flag. The next section triumphed individual players, including one that nodded towards the awful news that one of our dearest former players now has to battle cancer all over again.

“Vialli! Vialli” Vialli! Vialli!”

We wish Luca all the very best. Everyone loves him at Chelsea.

“Oh Dennis Wise, scored a fucking great goal, in the San Siro…”

“It was Wayne Bridge’s goal that sent us out of control and knocked Arsenal out the euro.”

“Oh Roman do you know what that’s worth? Kai Havertz is the best on earth.”

And it’s always nice to hear this one at Christmas.

“Osgood, Osgood, born is the king of Stamford Bridge.”

We were teasing them down the left flank with Alonso always involved. A cross to Ross Barkley but an easy save. There was a build-up of pressure but only really what could be called by the most optimistic of Chelsea supporters as half-chances. Saul was arguably our best player of the first thirty minutes.

Brentford always looked threatening on the break. Thankfully most of these petered out. But there was another save from Kepa, at stretch to keep out another header, this time from Jansson.

For the first time that I can ever remember, a certain pub song made it in to the away end.

“There’s a girl who I love best…”

The “Chelsea Ranger” continued on.

Other songs followed.

“One man went to mow, went to mow a meadow.”

“Marcos, Marcos Alonso runs down the wing for me (crashing Beamers, scoring screamers).”

“Zigger Zagger, Zigger Zagger.”

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel.”

The home fans, in comparison, were absolutely quiet.

This was proper “men against boys” stuff.

They must have looked on in absolute awe.

Vale flung himself at a cross from Dave, and perhaps should have done better with what was effectively a free header. A late flurry of activity at the same end resulted in more half-chances from Vale, Chalobah and Simons. Hand on heart, we didn’t look like scoring and I half-wondered if this tie would end up being decided on penalties. The half-time whistle blew. For all of our domination, Kepa had kept us in the game.

At the start of the second period, two substitutions.

Jorginho for Kovacic.

Pulisic for Soonsup-Bell.

I was pleased for Steph. It gave her the chance to see more of our time line players.

An effort from Saul almost caused an embarrassing own goal from Pinnock.

The Chelsea choir reacted.

“If Saul scores, we’re on the pitch.”

And the chants, if not the chances, continued on.

“Feed the Scousers, let them know it’s Christmas time.”

Ah, Ross Barkley. He wasn’t having the best of games but his song was still aired.

“Viva Ross Barkley.”

And there were more.

“He could’ve been a scouser but he said get fucked”

And more.

“Tsamina mina zangalewa, he comes from Senegal.”

“Fabregas is magic, he wears a magic hat.”

More substitutions.

Mount for Vale.

James for Simons.

More “A listers” for Steph.

“Reece James, he’s one of our own.”

The momentum swayed even more our way. Again, Alonso was so often used as an attacking option. He rarely gave the ball away.

A free-kick down below us and a direct effort from Reece James caused problems in the Brentford goalmouth. Barkley steered a shot just wide of the far post. The former Evertonian just wasn’t on it.

With fifteen minutes to go, he was yanked.

On came N’Golo Kante.

Steph was happy.

Our little maestro had an immediate impact, eating up space as he ran past defenders.

“He’s indestructible, always believing.”

On eighty minutes, it was Kante’s adroit control that set up Reece James on an overlap. His studied cross was fired in and the leg of Jansson deflected the cross high into the red and white chequered net.

Get in.

Time for jubilation in the tiny away segment.

“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Oh what fun it is to see Chelsea win away.”

This was followed by :

“We’re gonna bounce in a minute.”

Five minutes later, Mount pushed the ball forward for Pulisic, who was clumsily upended by the ‘keeper. An easy penalty.

Jorginho. A skip. A goal.

Brentford 0 Chelsea 2.

“Jorginho, Jorginho, Jorginho.”

As the players swarmed around the scorer down below us, there was time for one more song.

“Azpilicueta, we’ll just call you Dave.”

For those counting, that’s twenty-eight songs.

Throw in “Chelsea, Chelsea” to the sound of “Amazing Grace” and the standard “Come on Chelsea” and that’s a nice round thirty.

A superb effort by everyone.

Outside in the concourse, the boys met up with Steph, and we then went our separate ways. The four of us headed west, and I reached home at about 12.45am.

Tottenham await us in the two-legged semi-final in January; shades of 2019 and not 2002 I hope.

But first, Villa away on Boxing Day.

See you there.

Tales From Glenn’s Return

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 26 October 2021.

Another midweek home game, another two-hundred-mile return trip to London, and another League Cup tie against opposition that we had recently played at Stamford Bridge in the league. But most importantly of all, this was Glenn’s first game at Chelsea since the Everton match in March 2020. He has seen action at Arsenal, Liverpool and Brentford this season, but this would be his first game at HQ in nineteen months.

After two games against Aston Villa in League and League Cup, here was the second of two games against Southampton in the same competitions.

As I worked a 7am to 3pm shift, altered to allow me an early finish, I thought a little about my motivation for the evening’s game. I soon realised that despite the chance to see the league leaders play again, it was all about sharing Glenn’s excitement of being back at Chelsea and – equally important – being back in his former season-ticket seat in The Sleepy Hollow alongside PD, Al and little old me.

PD collected me outside work and I sat in the back seat alongside Glenn, with Parky riding shotgun in the front.

While the lads visited “The Goose”, I was feeling peckish and so dived into the adjacent pizzeria for sustenance, a rare treat on a midweek game. I joined up with them all at “Simmon’s” along with Daryl, Simon, Alan, Gary, Pete, Andy, Luke and Doreen. On the walk down the North End Road, I remembered that it was forty years ago – almost exactly – since we played Southampton in a two-legged League Cup tie, and I mentioned this to a few people throughout the night.

On the face of it, there was nothing too special about the 1981/82 season. We were solidly entrenched in the Second Division, our third of five seasons in the second tier, and we would finish it twelfth out of twenty-two. Our highest gate was for an early-season game with Watford of 20,036 while the lowest was an end-of-season date with Orient which drew 6,009. Importantly for me, it marked the first season of independent travel to Chelsea, including my first-ever game in The Shed for the season opener against Bolton.

We had tied the first leg at The Dell 1-1, notable for the debut of seventeen-year-old ‘keeper Steve Francis’, and this was against a formidable Southampton team that included Kevin Keegan. The second leg at Stamford Bridge – on 28 October 1981 – drew 27,370 and we defeated the First Division team 2-1. I attended neither game, but I can easily remember the buzz of victory in the sixth-form the next day. In typical Chelsea fashion, three days later at Rotherham United we lost 0-6, probably the most infamous result of them all. PD attended both the Southampton games and the match at Rotherham.

Forty years ago. Bloody hell. Although we were playing some average football in the league, the League Cup victory against Southampton would be a taster for an even bigger upset in that season’s FA Cup, when we defeated the European Champions Liverpool 2-0 at Stamford Bridge.

1981/82 – with a huge dose of hindsight, to say nothing of a yearning to be that young once again – was one of my favourite seasons. It marked me starting to find my way in the world, partly through going to a few Chelsea games by myself, but also by attending the local youth club in Frome on Friday evenings which helped me overcome my shyness, baby step by baby step. By the summer, there was a few blissful moments with my first girlfriend.

As I said, forty years ago. Fackinell.

The bar seemed quiet. Apart from our merry band of a dozen, there were very few of the regulars in the bar. The talk was of Newcastle at the weekend more than Southampton that night. I know that a fair few Chelsea that are still going to Tyneside despite not having a match ticket. The lure of a night out in the Loony Toon is hard to resist.

The crowds were milling around the forecourt outside the West Stand though, and – as is often the case on midweek games – there were the usual gaggle of perplexed folk, clutching tickets, unsure of which entrance to use.

Just outside the steps to the Matthew Harding, I spotted a sallow youth wearing not only Chelsea tracky bottoms, but a hideous long sleeved training shirt – the one with yellow and blue geometric shapes that are likely to induce fits – with the equally horrific short-sleeved home jersey – ditto – on top.

I fear for the future of humanity.

Just as I was about to scan my ticket, after queuing for around ten minutes, a gentleman was turned away with “you need the lower tier turnstiles” ringing in his head.

I hoped that our false nine, tens and elevens would reach the goal easier than his quest for his seat.

Inside, a decent away turnout of three-thousand and another splendid near-capacity gate of around 40,000.

I mentioned the 1981 Southampton game to Alan.

“In those days, it was a massive competition for us.”

“Yeah. The only one we had a realistic chance of doing well in, to be honest.”

There was no Tino Livramento in the Saints team. We guessed that Armando Broja was unable to play against us.

Chelsea’s team?

Arrizabalaga

James – Chalobah – Saar

Hudson-Odoi – Kovacic – Saul – Alonso

Ziyech – Havertz – Barkley

I wondered what was going through Our Callum’s mind. From an attacking outside left position in one game to a right wing-back role the next.

Typically, the stadium was full of parents with young kids, making good use of the half-term holiday. The atmosphere was never great, but there were outbreaks of support throughout.

We began the brighter team and I joked “anything less than a 12-0 win and I’ll want my money back”. After 4-0 and 7-0 home triumphs, there was a very real hope for more goals. An early header from Saul was well saved by Fraser Forster.

“Look at his kit, Al. Virtually red stripes. Brian Moore must be turning in his grave.”

We remembered how the erstwhile presenter of “The Big Match” seemed obsessed with kit colour clashes back in the ‘seventies.

We created a few more attacks, with Ross Barkley looking keen to impress with some neat touches and a few encouraging passes. A shot from Kai Havertz went close. But Southampton were proving a far sterner test than Malmo and Norwich City. After they found their feet, they began attacking themselves and managed a few shots at Kepa in our goal. There was a nice moment when Saul controlled the ball with ease and neatly passed. He hasn’t had the best of starts to a career with us, but the applause that followed must have warmed him. It felt that the home crowd were going out of their way to try to encourage him. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

On the stroke of half-time, even better was to follow. A magnificent ball from Saul out to Marcos Alonso on the left was a joy. The subsequent cross was knocked behind for a corner. Subsequently, Ziyech aimed at the six-yard box and the leap from Havertz was well timed. The ball flew into the goal.

Chelsea 1 Southampton 0.

Excellent.

At half-time, there were updates from the other cup ties.

“Bloody hell, Al, that QPR versus Sunderland game throws up some League Cup horror stories from the mid-’eighties.”

1985 : a loss to Sunderland in the League Cup semis.

1986 : a loss to QPR in the League Cup quarters.

Shudder.

I had barely settled in my seat at the start of the second-half when a surge from Kyle Walker-Peters was followed by a low shot from an angle. Kepa lost it and Che Adams tapped it in from under the bar.

Bollocks.

The roar from the 3,000 away fans was horrible.

Two goals either side of the half and “game on.”

Although not rich in quality, the game opened up and chances began to accumulate at both ends. Havertz squirmed inside his marker on a run towards goal but Forster saved well. The German then over-ran the ball when he was clean through.

Well, that was far from silky.

No matter about making a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

He had made a pig’s ear of that.

Kepa was occasionally called into action down at The Shed End.

Forster then saved well from Barkley, then from a Saul header and then from a fine James free-kick.

I was surprised that Barkley was substituted, but not that Ziyech was replaced. On came Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell, who played out on the right with Our Callum now back to the outside left position that he surely prefers.

A fine effort from Saul, curling in on goal from a distance, forced another agile save from Forster.

Then, schoolboy humour as Southampton made a substitution.

Enter the marvelously named William Smallbone.

“Bloody hell. If your surname is Smallbone, you ain’t gonna call yer son Willie, are you? Is his middle name Richard?”

But the sub was soon causing Kepa to save from a close-in header.

Southampton made a total of five late substitutions. Tino Livramento received a warm reception, as did the Munich man Oriol Romeu. Old warhorses Theo Walcott and Shane Long appeared too.

With tensions rising a little, Big John in the front row stood up, yelled some support – or otherwise – and the onlooking bobble-hatted young lad, no older then four, looked on in awe.

The last ten minutes sped past. Callum hit the side-netting, with Glenn getting wildly excited a few seats away, but Kepa stole the show with two fantastic saves, both stretching cat-like to his left, to deny Southampton a possibly deserved win. Real quality at the death. Phew.

With the game finished at 1-1, it was another case of penalties in front of the Matthew Harding to decide the tie.

With Theo Walcott hitting the post – Kepa with a slight touch – and Young Willie skying his effort (“Smallbone, big foot” – Alan) it did not matter that Forster brilliantly saved from Mount because James struck the last penalty coolly home.

Into the quarters we went.

Back at the car, all of us having raided a nearby shop for late-night Scooby snacks, we were relieved.

We hadn’t played well. Southampton must have felt aggrieved not to have won the tie themselves. Our intensity wasn’t great, and it all felt rather loose and disjointed. Both ‘keepers had enjoyed fine games, which probably says a lot. For every good pass, there seemed an equally poor pass a few seconds later. In the first-half, Hudson-Odoi seemed to spend half his time running towards our half with the ball. I am going to resist calling him “Wrong Way Callum” for now. Apart from Kepa, our team were 6/10.

But we won, and that can only breed confidence.

Glenn had enjoyed seeing everyone in the pubs again. And it was lovely to have him back in The Sleepy Hollow.

On Saturday, the most enjoyable domestic away game of the season awaits.

See you on Tyneside.

Tales From Our Time In The Sun

Chelsea vs. Villareal : 11 August 2021.

There was a moment in The Harp bar in Belfast’s historic and beguiling Cathedral Quarter that will live with me for a while. Parky and I had met up with our good friends from Edinburgh Gillian, Kev and Rich at just after 2pm on the day of the game. We were then joined by old friends Daryl, Ed, Gary and Pete in our favourite Belfast bar. We loved the décor, the attentive staff, the choice of beers – including draft Peroni – and the excellent music. We had crowded around a couple of tables for a few hours and had been predictably catching up with each other after almost a year and a half apart. There was the usual flow of stories, jokes and laughter but also – in these rather odd times in which we have found ourselves – a few sobering tales of health issues, of how we tried to overcome the stresses of lockdown and a few fleeting mentions of Chelsea Football Club where time permitted. The time, of course, absolutely flew past. The kick-off between Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea and Unai Emery’s Villareal was at 8pm. We had decided to leave for Windsor Park at around 6pm, but I was hoping for some sort of suspension of time so that we could just enjoy this wonderful pre-match for a few precious moments more.

And then things improved further still. One of the bar staff decided to open the concertina windows that fronted onto the narrow street outside. The sunlight suddenly shone into the bar, and the late afternoon air immediately hit us.

It seemed that after our yearlong hibernation from watching Chelsea, we were now catapulted into a warm – and warming – future.

“After those dark, bleak months away from Chelsea, this is our time in the sun boys.”

It really was sheer bliss. We were all livened by the sun’s rays.

We got more beers in.

Perfect.

There was a time when the city of Belfast in Northern Ireland would have been a no-go for me. Even as recently as twenty years ago, it seemed a rather intimidating place, as it endeavoured to escape the shackles of its sectarian past. When I started travelling around Europe independently and also with friends, Belfast was simply a place too far. I can remember being genuinely scared of the city, a result of watching all of those awful images on TV in the ‘seventies of bombs and desolation. For a while, it seemed that every time I stayed up late on a Saturday night in the early ‘seventies to watch “Match Of The Day”, there would be harrowing film of a city under siege on the preceding news on BBC1. Names such as the Falls Road, the Shankhill Road, the Crumlin Road and Divis Flats have stayed in my consciousness from early those days.

Thankfully, times have changed. For a few years I have been promising myself a trip to Belfast – EasyJet run cheap flights from nearby Bristol – so there was a sense of real joy when it became apparent that Belfast would be hosting the 2021 UEFA Super Cup Final. I love the way that Chelsea has dragged me to some of the cities that I have always wanted to visit; Moscow, Jerusalem, Tokyo, Beijing…St. Petersburg is waiting in the wings.

What luck.

Not long after our – still – surprising journey to this Champions League Final and subsequent victory against Manchester City, it did not take me long at all to book flights and a hotel to Belfast. I managed to coerce Parky to join me. We would be in town for three long days. Compared to the stresses of last summer, this year has been a relative breeze at work but I have to admit the thought of a lovely Chelsea-fuelled break in Belfast has kept me going when things darkened a little.

I was, deep down, hoping to be something of a lucky charm for Chelsea. I have only ever attended one UEFA Super Cup before, the only one where we have been victorious; our first one in Monaco in 1998. I did not travel again to Monaco in 2012, nor Prague in 2013 nor Istanbul in 2019.

But Monaco 1998. What a trip.

As winners of the European Cup Winners’ Cup against Joachim Low’s Stuttgart, Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea were assured of a place in the subsequent Super Cup match against Guus Hiddink’s Real Madrid – winners of the European Cup against Juventus – in Monaco in August. Of course, in those days both finals were held on Wednesdays. We won in Stockholm on 13 May, then had to wait a week to see who we would be playing. It will surprise nobody that I was hoping that Juventus would be our opposition in Monaco. It would have been my dream matchup, even though we would have been ridiculously out-numbered by the Italians with Turin only a few hours away.  But just as we won in Sweden with a single goal from Gianfranco Zola, it was the Castilians who triumphed by the same score in Amsterdam with a goal from Predrag Mijatovic.

At the time of the game in Sweden, I was famously unemployed; I had lost my job the previous month. But by the time that August came around, I had moved into a very satisfying job in logistics, although those first few months were pretty frantic. But my employer granted me time off at the end of the month, so all was well. A company called Millwest – a Manchester sports travel firm, formerly Universal – had advertised a four-day coach trip to the South of France that included a night in nearby Nice for a decent price of £129. The match ticket was extra.

My mate Andy – who travelled to Porto with me in May this year – was the only one of my close Chelsea mates that fancied it. The season was two games old. I didn’t attend the opening 1-2 loss at Coventry City, but was at the following weekend’s 1-1 draw at home to Newcastle United. New players included Brian Laudrup, Pierluigi Casiraghi, Albert Ferrer and Marcel Desailly. It was a considerable upgrade to our squad.

Andy and I met up at a pub near Victoria around lunchtime on the Thursday ahead of the game in Monaco on the Friday evening. We boarded the coach and started talking to our travel companions. I think we semi-recognised a few from The Harwood Arms which was one of the hardcore pubs around that time. I remember a gaggle of lads from Highbridge in Somerset who had brought along a few flagons of the local “Rich’s” cider. One lad – Jamie – I see on odd occasions to this day. One of his crew was a lad who wasn’t really into football, attending his first-ever game, and bore an uncanny resemblance to serial killer Fred West. I remember a lad who was Tommy Langley’s cousin on the coach. Most were blokes. Virtually all in fact. Once in France, we stopped at the “Eastenders” wholesale drinks warehouse and stocked up on beer and cheese. The banter among new friends slowly faded away as we all fell asleep on the ten-hour drive south. We all occupied double seats. There was plenty of room.

Not long after waking on the Friday morning the coach broke down on the wide approach towards the coast. We were only shy of our destination by around twenty miles.  After a couple of nervous hours on the side of the motorway, we eventually limped into Nice. We sensed that the relationship between the drivers, an American and a Canadian, was already strained. Our surprisingly good quality hotel was on the western end of Promenade D’Anglais, the main road that hugged the beach. We were suitably impressed.

A quick change around lunchtime and then a bus into the town centre. Typically, we bumped into Jonesy from Andy’s home town of Nuneaton. We plotted up at a table and enjoyed some beer and pizza.

We later found ourselves outside a bar at the main station at Nice, where a decade or so earlier I had slept al fresco on my travels around Europe as I waited for an early morning train into Italy. Andy spotted Hicky in the distance, the first time I had seen him since the ‘eighties, a visitor from Thailand and at one time the nation’s most infamous football hooligan. We hopped on a train for the short twenty minute into Monaco.  The stadium is a stone’s throw from the train station.

The pre-match was memorable for Andy’s altercation with the Labour MP and Chelsea supporter Tony Banks outside the VIP entrance.

Previously, the Super Cup had been played over two legs.

1998 was the first year of it being played in Monaco where it resided until 2012. It was always held on the same weekend as the UEFA draws and I believe most draws were made in Monaco during that era.

Of course, the Monaco stadium is an odd creation. The pitch is famously above several stories of facilities including a basketball arena and a car park. It holds 16,000 but the gate on that night in 1998 was 11,589. My guess is that no more than one thousand Chelsea supporters were present. We were allocated the open away end with its nine high arches at the rear of the yellow seats.

It was a case of “sit where you like” and Andy and I chose to stand behind the goal.

Chelsea played in all blue, which was considered unlucky by many until we won the league at Bolton in 2005 in that colour combination.

I remember little of the game. I think the pitch was pretty bumpy and didn’t play true. Real Madrid had many more supporters than us at the opposite end; maybe four thousand. Real’s team included Roberto Carlos, Christian Panucci, Fernando Hierro, Clarence Seedorf and Raul. They were no mugs for sure. But we won it with a solitary goal from Gus Poyet in the eighty-third minute, a low strike at our end. I remember our new signing Brian Laudrup made his debut for us just after our goal.

At the time, it seemed we were invincible in the cup competitions.

1997 FA Cup

1998 Football League Cup

1998 European Cup Winners’ Cup

1998 UEFA Super Cup

After the game, Andy uttered the famous line…

“In a bar in Madrid right now, there’s an old Real Madrid fan who is saying” –

“Chelsea. They always beat us.”

We hopped onto a waiting train, triumphant. We enjoyed a few more beers before calling it a night.

In the morning, we were to learn that out on the promenade in the small hours of Saturday morning, Fred West had an altercation of his own with a woman who revealed herself to be a transvestite and then, if that wasn’t enough a shock for our Fred – after a little provocation from what I remember – drew a pistol and fired a few shots into the air. Fred West raced back to the safety of the hotel and according to Jamie when I saw him a few years back has not been seen at a game since.

On the Saturday, we dipped into Nice again for a few more beers and a bite to eat. These were simply super times. The Chelsea stories came thick and fast. This was all a bit like the second coming of Chelsea; we were all in love with the 1970/71 team and here we were witnessing a repeat in 1997/98.

We caught a cab back to the hotel and I can remember this moment as if it was yesterday.

A little boozy, light-headed with beers, the window open, laughter from my new-found friends alongside me, the Mediterranean sky overhead, the warm air brushing my cheeks, high on life, high on Chelsea, high on everything.

It was my time in the sun, and one that I was to repeat twenty-three years later.

Super.

But this was to be the briefest of away trips in reality. We left for the long return trip home during early afternoon on the Saturday.

Sadly, the coach broke down again near Marseille. A few lads needed to be back in the UK on the Sunday so got off and caught a cab to Marseille airport. There followed another frustrating wait for a few hours. Eventually we got going. I slept fitfully. I remember sitting in a French service station eating a dodgy sandwich around midnight when the news broke that one of the coach drivers had stormed off in a moody fit. I can recollect seeing him walking away with his little bag on wheels being towed behind him. We pleaded with him to return. One driver would not be able to get us to Calais in light of the driving regulations. Eventually he relented. On the approach to Calais there was a further fuel leak and the coach limped home. On the motorway back in Blighty, we pulled into a services and changed coaches. We arrived back in London at around 5pm on the Sunday, a good five hours later than planned.

It was, as we joked, a character-building trip and one that always brings a smile of happiness when Andy and I remember it.

Twenty-three years ago, though.

Fackinell.

Postcards From Monaco.

The trip to the 2021 Super Cup had begun for me with an early alarm at 2am in the small hours of Tuesday, the day before the game. I collected Parky at 4am. By 5am we had arrived at Bristol Airport. It was no surprise that we saw a gaggle of familiar Chelsea faces from the West of England on our 7am flight to Belfast International Airport. There were around thirty Chelsea on the flight which lasted less than an hour. Friends Foxy from Dundee and Rich from Edinburgh were waiting for us outside the terminal and we soon hopped into a cab to take us into the city. We were joined by Jason from Newport, who decided to swap his accommodation in favour of the last room that was available at our – cheaper – hotel just south of the city centre.

We set off on a walkabout.

Foxy had visited Belfast on many occasions and so walked and talked us through the city centre. Parky had first visited the city with the British army on two tours in the early ‘seventies. After an Ulster Fry breakfast in the Cathedral Quarter, we decided to head down to Sandy Row, something of a loyalist stronghold, and we dived into a pub called “The Royal” at just after 11am. It was packed, and packed with some very familiar faces. We supped the first beers of the trip and bumped into Daryl and Ed quite by chance. There were nearby murals of George Best, of Hurricane Higgins, of local factory workers, of normal Belfast folk, but also of Joe Bambrick – Linfield and Northern Ireland – who also played for us in the 1930’s. Playing for Linfield, he scored a staggering 286 goals in 183 games. We returned to the city centre for another beer in “Fibber Magees.”

Parky and I then embarked on a pre-paid black cab tour of the city. Our guide – a cabbie called Kieran – was wearing a Leeds United away shirt and was full of smiles when I noticed it.

“Are you Leeds?”

“No, Chelsea.”

The tour was supposed to last an hour, but it lasted two and a quarter hours. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The photographs show some of the sights that we visited. It was – of course – rather eerie to find myself walking along the Falls Road and the Shankhill. More learned and erudite students of the history of this particular part of the world are far better placed than myself to comment on Belfast’s sectarian past. Suffice to say, that afternoon will live long in my memory.

I leave this section of my Belfast story to the lead singer of Stiff Little Fingers, Jake Burns, to sum it all up :

“Well it’s lasted for so long now
And so many have died
It’s such a part of my own life
Yet it leaves me mystified
How a people so intelligent
Friendly, kind and brave
Can throw themselves so willingly
Into an open grave.”

Later that evening, we reassembled in the Cathedral Quarter – the area that we were to grow to love – at around 5pm.

We met Gillian, Kev and Rich in “The Dirty Onion” – hugs. We were all together last in Newcastle in January 2020. It seemed so recent but also a lifetime away. From there, to “The Harp” and from there to “The Duke Of York” where we spotted the first of the yellow-clad supporters of Villareal. Daryl, Gary, Pete and Nick briefly dropped in, but exited after – like us – being rather annoyed with how long it was taking to get served. It was even poorer service in “The Morning Star” – a favourite of many – but as I joked with Rich, it was funny how my spirits had been lifted by just a few swigs of lager. We then stood outside a cracking pub – “Bittles Bar” – which reminded me of The Minerva in Hull, Belfast’s answer to The Flatiron in Manhattan. We then ended up at “Franklins Sports Bar” where the drinking continued long into the night. My pal Stephen – originally from Belfast – but living in New Orleans for twenty years called in with his wife Elicia and her parents.

Then the others drifted off and I was the last man standing.

There was a reunion with a few good friends, some Chelsea songs, some flag-waving.

At about 1am we were turfed out and I managed to find my way back to the hotel.

Outside the hotel, there was more chat with a couple of Chelsea lads and I then stumbled next-door to raid the adjacent chicken joint.

At 2am – awake for twenty-four hours – I called it a night.

Unfortunately, the scene that greeted me on Wednesday morning – game day – was of drizzle in the Belfast streets below my room on the sixth floor. In the distance, pinched between some tall buildings, the slopes of Black Mountain could be seen, but they were shrouded in cloud. Parky and Foxy were up before me, but I eventually met Parky in reception at around 11am. We put on rain jackets and ambled off to pick up our match tickets at the Europa Hotel. As every Chelsea fan in Belfast 2021 now knows, it is the world’s most bombed hotel (43 times according to yer man Kieran).

We inevitably bumped into many Chelsea faces in the fifteen minutes that we were at the Europa. Parky and I then sheltered in a restaurant – another fry up for me – and a lovely pub “The Spaniard” before our get-together in “The Harp” at 2pm.

Peroni, laughs, Peroni, banter, Peroni, chat.

We admitted to each other that we were just so relieved that Villareal had reached the final and not Manchester United. Belfast is a United stronghold. The Manchester club has had a certain affiliation with the Catholic community in the past – though not as strong as Celtic – and so the thought of United and Chelsea with its links to Rangers and, to a lesser degree Linfield, drinking in the same compact city centre drew gasps from us all.

As the afternoon grew older, we looked on as little groups of Villareal fans – their vivid yellow so prominent – stopped for photos beneath the neon signs opposite. It certainly was a photogenic hotspot. We then joked that it was the same fans on some sort of sponsored walk and that when we reached the stadium there would only be fifty inside.

After four hours or so of sublime Chelsea chat, we split up. Sadly, Gillian and Kevin were unlucky to get tickets in the UEFA ballot. Foxy and Rich had been luckier. But so much for heading off to the stadium at 6pm. We eventually left at around 6.30pm. It took us a few nervous minutes to get hold of a cab. But the cabbie was only able to take Rich, Parky and little old me as far as Sandy Row, which looked like a scene from the apocalypse with debris and broken glass littering the street. A good time had certainly been had by all. A police car blocked the road south.

So, out into the now seriously warm evening sun. We embarked on a thirty-minute walk down to Windsor Park which sits a mile or so to the south of the city centre. I enjoyed this. There was a certain old-time feel to it all, walking past decidedly working class terraced houses, the crowd being drawn to the football stadium as in times of yore.

We turned into Donegall Avenue, under a road bridge, a row of police watching us, yet more echoes of a distant past, and then the security checks. Thankfully, no issues with either the COVID19 passport nor my ticket. More familiar faces. Good people. Plenty of old school Chelsea. But then a silly altercation with a fellow fan who was sat in my seat. This all meant that despite waking up at around 10am, and the kick-off some ten hours away, I was only in position for the kick-off at 7.55pm.

Proper Chelsea.

I was behind the eastern goal in row G, but where was Parky? Maybe Chelsea in their infinite wisdom had decided to keep us apart despite me getting our tickets together in the same transaction. Who knows? Answers on a postcard.

Windsor Park holds 18,000 but its limit for this game was 13,000. Chelsea were given 2,000 tickets, Villareal had 1,500. Now I know this club comes from a city with a population of just 50,000 but that split doesn’t seem fair in this day and age. Surely all UEFA Finals should have an even spilt. The side stands – home to the UEFA ballot tickets – were predominantly Chelsea. In the end, it looked like slightly over 1,000 Villareal fans had made the journey. They were residing in half of the western end and in the two tiers of the side stand too. I remember the old Windsor Park. I remember England returning there in 1977 after a spell of Northern Ireland always playing their Home International games away from Belfast during The Troubles. For many years it was a ramshackle stadium, the double tiered north stand being the only modern structure. It has now been totally modernised, with white, blue, light green and dark green seats. It has rather ugly raised executive areas in the main south stand and an even uglier arrangement in – our – eastern end. But it suited UEFA for this game. I remember the Cardiff City stadium hosted Real Madrid and Sevilla in 2014.

So, I predictably missed all of the pre-game pageantry.

I had to quickly run through the team.

Mendy

Rudiger – Zouma – Chalobah

Hudson-Odoi – Kante – Kovacic – Alonso

Havertz – Werner – Ziyech

Villareal’s team included Capoue, ex-Tottenham, and Moreno, ex-Liverpool.

It seemed like every single one of their fans were wearing yellow.

Bless’em.

It is worth noting that in none of the bars and pubs, in none of the conversations among close friends and distant acquaintances did anyone…not one person…mention a “high press.”

So here we all were. The Chelsea away club transplanted to the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park. A row of Chelsea flags along the unused seats at the front of the east stand. Chelsea flags sporadically placed on balcony walls.

The simple efficiency of one that bore the words “Two Steps Beyond.”

We all knew what it meant.

The game began and Chelsea were immediately on top, and its fans too. The first segment of the game was played out in front of a noisy backdrop and one song dominated.

“Oh Roman do you know what that’s worth?

Kai Havertz is the best on Earth.

The silky German is just what we need.

He won Chelsea the Champions League.”

It was sung loudly and raucously for minutes on end.

Chelsea attacked the colourful Villareal fans in the western end. Behind them, the dull outline of the hills that surround Belfast squeezed in between the steel of the stands. A setting sun behind it all.

When the Spanish fans began to familiarise themselves with the sights of Belfast, perhaps they took solace in the bright yellow of the twin cranes of the Harland & Wolf shipyards. Was yellow the key colour of the moment? There was that rather oddly misaligned yellow piping on the Chelsea shirt and then shorts after all.

After five minutes, an in swinging corner from the slight Hakim Ziyech on our right found the predatory Timo Werner on the far post. He connected late, almost between the legs of his marker, and brought a great instinctive save from Asenjo in the Villareal goal. We were finding players in good wide positions and after a sweeping ball in from that man Havertz, the ball was won back by N’Golo Kante, the captain on the night, who thundered the ball wide.

Where was Parky, though? Couldn’t see him anywhere.

We were well on top. Kante was everywhere. Villareal were kept camped inside their half. On twenty-six minutes, after steady Chelsea pressure, the ball was played by Marcos Alonso out to Havertz on the left. His first time cross was hit low towards Werner, but was picked up by Ziyech behind him. He swept the ball fortuitously into the net, bouncing up and in, as if in slow motion.

Get in.

Chelsea 1 Villareal 0.

The players celebrated over in the opposite corner with the noise booming around Windsor Park.

Not long after, a rare Villareal break enabled players to find space inside our box but Dia was foiled by Edouard Mendy, who did well to block the effort on goal.

A Ziyech cross from the left found Alonso, but his snap shot was clawed out by Asenjo at the near post. Then a Ziyech free-kick caught Villareal out. It was perfectly played, dropping at the far post but the outstretched leg of Kurt Zouma just sent the ball crashing over the bar.

The goal scorer Ziyech went down after a challenge and was replaced by Christian Pulisic.

Right on the half-time whistle, a very good Villareal move enabled the ball to be hooked back towards the far post where Moreno met the ball with a thunderous volley. We gasped as the ball crashed against the bar, and bounced down a foot or so from the line.

Fackinell.

At the start of the second-half, Havertz went close at our end. But then Mendy slipped as he cleared and the ball fell to Moreno. Mendy thankfully redeemed himself, touching the ball onto the base of the far post. But the warning signs had been sounded and Villareal dominated much of the possession in the second half. The Chelsea fans grew nervy and quieter.

Just after the hour, Thomas Tuchel changed the personnel.

Jorginho for Kante.

Mount for Werner.

Christensen for Zouma.

Mendy saved at the near post from Estupinan. On seventy-two minutes, the Yellow Submarine cut through our rather static defence and Gerard Moreno slammed the ball in after a nice ball played back to him by Dia. The Villareal players celebrated in the yellow corner.

It was on the cards. No complaints.

Bollocks.

Right in front of me, in the inside left channel, Alonso received a ball, nestled it on his thigh, turned and volleyed. The ball only troubled the side netting. It was the last chance of the ninety minutes.

We moved rather reluctantly into an extra thirty minutes and I suspected that the extra pints that had been gleefully taken throughout the days drinking in the many city centre pubs may have had an adverse effect on the Chelsea support.  

In truth, the extra half an hour provided little thrills. Pulisic stumbled as he prodded a ball towards the Villareal goal and the ball apologetically bounced wide. In the second period, a twist and a shot from Mason Mount inside the box brought another fine save from the Villareal ‘keeper.

Just before the end of the extra thirty minutes, we looked over to the touchline and saw that Kepa was lining up to replace Mendy.

There was a mixed reaction in the Chelsea end. There were moans when we realised that the penalties were to be taken at the Villareal end.

So. The game continued, the night continued. All was dark above Windsor Park now.

All eyes on the penalty takers.

First-up Chelsea. Our support tried to put the fear of God into the Villareal players.

“We know what we are. Champions of Europe. We know what we are.”

Havertz. The hero of Porto. The new hero. An easy save. Bollocks.

Gerard the scorer in normal time. Goal.

Dave. A big penalty. A sweet strike. Goal.

Mandi. Saved not by Mendy, but by Kepa. Get in you bastard.

Alonso. A slip, but in. Goal.

Estupinan. Goal.

Mount. Goal.

Gomez. Goal.

Jorginho. Lots of nerves from us all. Would he hop and go right? No, a hop and left. Goal. Get in.

Raba. Goal.

Sudden death now.

Fackinell.

Pulisic. Goal.

Foyth. Goal.

Rudiger. Nerves again. Goal.

Albiol. My camera was poised. A strike. The Chelsea players blocked my view. I heard a roar. Saved.

GETINYOUBASTARDS.

The players ran towards Kepa in the yellow corner. The submarine was sunk in Titanic’s home city.

I looked for Jonesy, a veteran from Monaco, and we shared a special moment. We had been present at all of the “modern” European Chelsea victories in all those far flung places.

Monaco and Belfast, though; the most unlikely of twinned cities.

There was the usual post-game sequence of the modern age. The rather odd two-stage presentation of the cup. Firstly, the handing over of the cup to Dave and then a walk to the platform to join the waiting team mates.

The hoist, the silver ticker-tape, the screams of delight.

Athens 1971.

Stockholm 1998.

Monaco 1998.

Munich 2012.

Amsterdam 2013.

Baku 2019.

Porto 2021.

Belfast 2021.

Count’em up. Eight. Two of each. I like a bit of symmetry.

It’s lovely that the badge that I grew up with, the lion rampant and the two stars – celebrating 1970 and 1971 – now has an even deeper meaning.

And if the win in Monaco in 1998 was Realy super, the win in Belfast in 2021 was Villarealy super.

OK, enough of the shitty wordplay.

Outside, I met up with Rich. We waited for Parky to emerge from the crowds but soon gave up. We were to eventually find him tagged on to the end of a queue for hot dogs and hamburgers on the Donegall Road.

We walked back, slowly, to the busy area near our hotel, an area that was known as the Golden Mile in the dark days of the ‘seventies, just beyond the high-security of the city centre. A cheap and cheerful pizza, with Chelsea shouts and songs in the distance, and then bed.

It had been a good night.

On the Thursday, there was a visit to the area near the Titanic Museum, a hop-on and hop-off bus tour of the city and even a quick flit over to East Belfast to cram in another football stadium. The Oval is home to Glentoran, Linfield’s main rivals, nestling underneath Samson and Goliath, the twin cranes of the nearby dock area. It is so different to Windsor Park, but I loved it.

It was a perfect end to a magnificent three days in Belfast.

We caught the 10pm flight home and I was able to look down on the lights of the city as we soared high above. The memories will stay a long time.

Thank you Belfast. Thank you Chelsea.

Postcards From Belfast.