Tales From City, Chips And Gravy

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 23 November 2019.

At around 1pm – bang on target, just as I had predicted, have I mentioned I work in logistics? – I pulled into the car park of The Windmill pub just off the roundabout on the M6 which crosses with the A556.

Exit 19.

It did not seem five minutes since we were last there. It was, in fact, three months ago that we stopped for an hour or so as we met my old college mate Rick before the league opener against Manchester United. On this occasion, ahead of our enticing game with Manchester’s other team, we were stopping for considerably longer. I had enjoyed the trip north; grey skies, but no rain, a clear run. The usual three – PD, Parky and little old me – were joined by PD’s son Scott. This would be his first visit to Manchester, for football or for anything else for that matter. The drive was four hours in length, and we chatted intermittently about all sorts of shite. The game itself was touched upon but only fleetingly. We mentioned that it was likely that Frank Lampard would go for a little more robust midfield three than against other teams; Jorginho, Kovacic, Kante. But other topics of conversation were wide, and wild, and various. This is often the case. I have mentioned before that on match days we often treat the game itself as a discussion topic as if it was the eye of a storm – tranquil, peaceful, calm – while other games are voraciously discussed, with whirlwinds of memories cascading around of past matches and past battles, with the future games discussed at length too, with plans and itineraries debated ad nauseam.

We ordered drinks – three ciders and a diet Coke, no point in guessing which was mine – and studied the varied menu. For some reason that I cannot recall, one of the various “non-football” chats en route to the north-west was of types of food, maybe from our childhood, I can’t remember. I had mentioned steak and kidney pudding – home-made, with suet – and lo-and-behold, a steak and ale pudding was on the menu. PD and I ordered it. Parky chose lasagne. Scott chose ham, eggs and chips.

Is everyone still awake?

The suet pudding was crammed full of steak, the chips were authentic chip-shop style, the garden peas were sweet and juicy, and in typical Northern fashion, everything was set off with thick gravy.

Northerners love gravy.

It was bloody lovely.

Although the City stadium was twenty miles away, and we didn’t think that we would see anyone we knew, after an hour or so Mark from Slough spotted me and came over to sit nearby with two fellow Chelsea mates. I bump into Mark occasionally, but our paths do not cross too often. The most memorable occasion was in China when he was a late addition to the coach trip to the Great Wall of China that I had booked in 2017. Mark, like me, follows his local non-league team. For a few moments we bored the others rigid with stupefyingly dull talk of the two Towns, Frome and Slough, respectively.

After three diet Cokes and a large cappuccino, I was raring to go to the game.

We left there at just after 3.30pm. It was an oh-so familiar drive to the Etihad, and it took us right past the site of Maine Road. Now then, dear reader, I have already detailed two of my three visits to this much-loved old stadium in these reports before so it is appropriate that I complete the story with some notes from the away game in 1985/86.

I am nothing if not consistent.

In fact, on this occasion I am lifting some words straight out of my 1985 diary.

“Caught the 8.32am to Manchester. A pleasant journey through the usual South Cheshire towns. Arrived at Piccadilly at 9.30am. Saw football coaches pull up at the station, so hopped on one. A chap from Stafford had a natter; definitely remember him from the Chelsea vs. Sunderland train. Let inside at 10.30am. A 60p hot dog and up on to the small corner terrace. I suppose we had 2,000, maybe 2,500. A pretty poor turn out really. Chelsea had seats behind the goal. Didn’t see any of the lads. Chelsea began well, causing City’s defence many problems. In about the tenth minute, Speedie flicked the ball to Dixon who, by the penalty spot, calmly lobbed the ball over the ‘keeper. A super little goal really. Chelsea had a good spell, then City put in some long crosses but didn’t cause Eddie much of a problem. The game deteriorated in the last fifteen minutes of the half. I can’t honestly say the second-half improved at all. Only Canoville – on for Hazard – seemed to want to take the play to the home team. We were made to look very plain by a team that were not exactly high on confidence. The highlights were three great blocks by Eddie which saved us from a boring draw. I think he was our best player, always a bad sign. He didn’t put a foot wrong. We were kept in for a while. Spotted our firm waiting to my left as I boarded the bus back to the station. Spotted Winkle. Eventually back to the station for 2pm. A quarter-pounder. Caught the 2.42pm back to Stoke, getting back at 3.45pm. Many flared cords today. Even Chelsea.”

Some notes to add.

I was living in Stoke-on-Trent at the time. Far be it for me to suggest that its location slap-dab between the football “awayday” cities of Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester might have, perhaps, influenced my decision to live there for three years.

My proclivity to record fine detail of train times, and timings in general,  continues to this day. Did I mention I work in logistics?

The early kick-off? Probably, no undoubtedly, a result of our reputation at the time of being Public Enemy Number One, and on the back of the previous visit, in late 1983/84, which resulted in seven thousand Chelsea roaming Moss Side and taking unbelievable liberties.

I travelled alone and did not chat to any close friends. Sometimes it was like that.

Winkle. A young lad, a bit of a face, who was pointed out to me by Alan – probably – and who was in and around the firm at the time. I learned quite recently that he had passed away some time ago; a relatively young death, a heart attack I believe. He is often mentioned on a few chat sites.

Flared cords. After the bright sportswear of 1983/84, it all went a little undercover and muted in 1984/85, and even more so in 1985/86. I have recently seen reference to this period in terrace subculture as the “anti-suss” era. After the skinhead and boots era passed, and as casualdom took hold, it eventually dawned on the police that those lads in smart sportswear with expensive trainers and the wedge cuts were hooligans. Lads needed to divert further. Out came plain pullovers, darker trainers, black leather jackets, darker jeans. Less gregariousness, and still one step ahead of the authorities. In the north-west, and Leeds – always Leeds – this manifested itself in slightly flared cords and jeans, a new trend after tight and faded jeans of the early ‘eighties. In fact, it all looked – hugely ironically – quite mainstream. But the devil was in the details. Heavy Armani pullovers, Hard Core jeans, Aquascutum and Burberry, Berghaus and Boss.

Hot dogs and hamburgers. The fodder of football. Nobody asked for a salad at games in 1985, and nor do they do now.

The gate on that Saturday morning was just 20,104, but this was especially low because – I do not doubt – it was at such an early time. In addition, I have a feeling our allocation was all-ticket, a rarity for those days. That season was eventually won by Liverpool despite Manchester United going on a nine or ten game winning streak at the start. As if it needs stating again, no leagues are won in October nor November. Low gates predominated in our football at this period, a time when football hooliganism had scared many away. Those that went were often treated shamefully. Out of interest, the top ten average gates from that season are featured below.

  1. Manchester United – 46,322 (4)
  2. Liverpool – 35,319 (1)
  3. Everton – 32,388 (2)
  4. Manchester City – 24,229 (15)
  5. Arsenal – 23,813 (7)
  6. Newcastle United – 23,184 (11)
  7. Sheffield Wednesday – 23,101 (5)
  8. Chelsea – 21,986 (6)
  9. West Ham United – 21,289 (3)
  10. Tottenham Hotspur – 20,862 (10)

It always makes me giggle to see that West Ham’s highest ever league placing still resulted in a lower gate than ours.

“Where were you when you were shit?” they ask us.

We should sing this to them :

“Where were you when you were good?”

Enough of 1985/86.

I made my way through the city. The traffic flowed surprisingly well.

I always find it odd that Manchester is often abbreviated to “M’cr” on many road signs.

“T’ls F’rm M’cr” anyone?

I dropped the lads off outside The Etihad at about 4.15pm and then drove on to park up. For the first time ever, my away ticket had failed to materialise and so I had needed to call Chelsea the previous day for a reprint to be arranged. I soon collected it at the away end ticket office. We bumped into others; Deano from Yorkshire, the Bristol lot, Scott and Paul. Everyone excited about the game.

PD and LP were in the middle tier. Scott and I were up in the third tier. This added a little frisson of excitement for me; my first time in the lofty heights of Level Three since the stadium was expanded in 2015. Others were sampling the top tier too, and were equally looking forward to it.

My seat – as if I’d be seated, none of us were – was in row W, but this was only halfway back. The tier goes on forever. But due to the layering of tiers, and the steepness of the rake, the pitch honestly does not seem too distant.

We had heard horrible news from elsewhere; a Tottenham win, a Liverpool win, and my local team Frome Town had let a 2-0 lead in Portsmouth evaporate against Moneyfields, who themselves were down to ten men, conceding an equaliser in the final minute. It is not known how Slough Town did.

Frome at Moneyfields.

Chelsea at Moneyfields.

I’d be more than happy with a 2-2 in Manchester.

The team had been announced. No real, huge, surprises.

Arizzabalaga

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Zouma – Emerson

Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante

Pulisic – Abraham – Willian

Barkley and Pedro are way down in the pecking order now, eh? It is clear that Frank loves Willian. He is enjoying a fine season, again, after an indifferent start.

The night had fallen by kick-off time.

I waited as the minutes ticked by. Scott ascended the stairs after squeezing in a final lager. There were a surprising number of people that I knew settling down alongside me.  I had incorrectly presumed that most ASTs would have been located in the other levels. With no cameras allowed at The Etihad, I was planning to utilise my ‘phone and I therefore knew that my match photographs would be limited to broad panoramas. There was the usual audio visual countdown to kick-off, but how many times can the world hear Martin Tyler scream the word “Aguero!” without feeling slightly jaundiced by it all. Yeah, I know, even if that goal was a kick in the solar plexus for Manchester United and its millions of fans.

I am surprised, actually – knowing how City like to “one step beyond” wind us up – that Frank Lampard’s goal against us in 2014 was not part of the countdown on the TV screens.

Yeah, Frank Lampard at Manchester City.

What the fuck was all that about?

At last, the final minutes. A huge City banner – “125 years” – welcomed the teams onto the pitch. To the side, an equally large banner declaring “This is our city.”

Blue Moon boomed.

As at many stadia, banners covered every inch of balcony wall. I am always bemused by the small flag to the left on the Colin Bell Stand that simply says “Reddish Blues.”

For the geographically-challenged, Reddish is a part of the Manchester conurbation.

In another universe, it might represent a small band of Mancunians who like United and City.

And it would be a very small band, marooned in Reddish for eternity.

Both clubs despise each other alright.

United and City.

Reds and Blues.

Munichs and Bitters.

A City most definitely not united.

A City divided.

I looked over at Frank Lampard, track suited, and wondered if he ever gave his bizarre stint as a City player much thought. Guardiola in the other technical area was casually dressed as always.

City in blue (with an odd hint of purple on the sleeves) shirts, white shorts and white socks. They seem to change that blending every year. I prefer them in the blue socks of my youth.

Chelsea in royal blue shirts, royal blue shorts, royal blue socks out of necessity.

If only City had kept to blue socks.

The game began.

I had mentioned in the pub, or the car, how City often start peppering our goal at The Etihad from the off. And it invariably involves Sergio Aguero. On this occasion, soon into the game, it was Kevin De Bruyne who flashed a low shot from an angle just inches past Kepa’s far post. I looked to the skies, or at least the towering stand roof above my head.

“Here we go again.”

But as the game developed, we showed no cowardice in taking the game to City. The last two league games at the same stadium had produced different game plans, but still the same result.

In 2017/18, Antonio Conte played ultra-defensively, lost 1-0, and lost many friends, despite it almost paying off.

In 2018/19, Maurizio Sarri attempted to play City at their own game and lost 6-0, one of the worst days out of my life, so thank you for that.

In 2019/20, Frank Lampard’s team played with great spirit, good movement, a fast tempo, and for a while it looked like we could pull off a wonderful victory.

A Willian shot from the inside the box in the inside-right channel missed Ederson’s far post by the same margin as the De Bruyne effort a few minutes earlier. Tackle for tackle, pass for pass, punch for punch we were matching them.

I focused on Tammy Abraham for a while. There always seems to be an element of doubt about how successful Tammy will be when he receives a ball. I am never sure of his intentions, and I am not sure if he is either. Did he really mean to keep possession or did he really intend to control it quickly and then distribute it to a team mate? Did he mean that flick? However, one scintillating feint and a quick turn into a sudden patch of space left his marker questioning his career choice. This was just wonderful.

“Well done, Tammy, son.”

Willian was full of intelligent running, sometimes the overlap option and often the underlap option, and saw much of the early ball. Christian Pulisic looked in fine form on the opposing flank. A shot from Fikayo Tomori went close.

A rare City foray into our box was met by not one but four Chelsea defenders lining up to block a goal bound shot. Magnificent.

With twenty minutes or so gone, Mateo Kovacic released a magnificent ball right into the heart of the City defence. It dropped majestically into the path of N’Golo Kante, who touched it on. I felt myself relax, as if I knew a goal was coming. I sensed that he only needed to poke it past a manically exposed Ederson.

He touched it, and it slowly rolled goalwards.

I remained remarkably calm.

Tammy followed it home.

City 0 Chelsea 1.

I was calm no more.

I exploded with noise.

This place has not been a happy hunting ground for us of late. We usually lose. Could we repeat those – magnificent – rare wins in 2013/14 and 2016/17?

Scott hoped so; he had bet £50 on us at 13/2.

City had been quiet all game, and were silent now.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

We looked imperious. City’s defence looked porous. We prodded and teased all over the pitch. This was a great game. I was loving it.

Out of nowhere there was a ridiculous “Fuck Off Mourinho” and I was pleased that very few joined in.

We were playing with skill, speed, purpose and pleasure.

But then.

We lost possession poorly and the ball was quickly threaded through to De Bruyne. A shot from outside the box drew the attention of three or four defenders willing to throw their bodies towards the ball, but on this occasion luck was not with us. A shot was cruelly deflected off a limb and Kepa was beaten.

City 1 Chelsea 1.

Fackinell.

The home team was roused and we gulped as a De Bruyne shot was slashed narrowly over. Just eight minutes after the first goal, Mahrez cut inside – past Pulisic and Emerson, both dumbfounded by the trickery – and we watched as his low shot nestled inside the far post.

The game had been turned on its head.

And now the score line had a sadly typical feel.

City 2 Chelsea 1.

Sigh.

Now City’s fans roared.

“City. Tearing Cockneys apart. Again.”

Our play grew nervous. Kamikaze back-passes, nervy touches. A shocking clearance from Kepa went straight towards that man Aguero – “here we fucking go” – but to our relief (not pleasure, this was not pleasurable) his shot struck the bar full on.

At the break I muttered some usual phrases from the earlier part of this season.

“Naïve defending. We need to know when to clear our lines, we are just inviting them on. Silly mistakes.”

The first quarter of the game, with us playing so well, had seemed like a cruel false dawn, a fib, a lie.

I bumped into some good pals at half-time and their smiles cheered me. It was great to see Dave from Brisbane, over for this and Valencia, again. In the toilets, I involuntarily began smoking for the first time since my schooldays.

Cough, cough, cough, cough.

Sadly, the second-half was a poor shadow of the high-tempo attack and counter-attack of the first period.

N’Golo – a real force of nature in our purple patch – struck at goal down below us but his shot was blocked. It would be our only goal bound effort for ages.

Reece James replaced Emerson, with Dave swapping wings.

“It worked last time, Scott.”

City came close at the other end. We were riding our luck. We found it hard to repel City, who were growing stronger with each passing minute.

Michy Batshuayi for Tammy.

Mason Mount for Jorginho.

A dipping effort from Willian caused a fingertip save from Ederson, but it seemed that we would never score. Mason Mount took responsibility for a very central free-kick in the dying minutes but the effort drifted well wide.

Sigh.

Just after, Raheem Sterling slotted home, but VAR ruled it offside. Nobody in the away end celebrated it, nor should they.

Fuck VAR.

It ended at approaching 7.30pm with our first league loss since the home game with Liverpool.

As I slowly began the slow walk down many flights of stairs, I muttered “no complaints” to many.

And there really were no real complaints.

In the grand scheme of things, we played OK, but no more. At times we were fantastic, at times not so. But City – “Stating The Bleeding Obvious Part 859” – are a very fine team. They are not firing on all cylinders just yet, but when they do…

There were steady 7/10s across the board.

I met the boys outside.

“At least we have pissed off ninety-five billion Liverpool fans this evening.”

We walked along Ashton New Road in the rain, in Raintown, as is so often the case.

Not the glory of 2014 nor 2016 this time.

At 8pm I began the long drive home.

I made good time as I headed south, stopping off at Stafford Services where we feasted on a ridiculous amount of junk food. Jason Cundy was spotted in the adjacent “Costa” though I did not have the energy to say hello.

The rain continued for hours. But I was cocooned in my car. I had no concerns, of the game nor my long drive home. We had seen worse, eh? I eventually arrived back home – no rain, now – at 12.30am, the day’s total mileage hitting 420 miles.

It had been a good day out.

I am not going to Valencia – safe travels to all – so the next instalment will feature the home match with West Ham United.

And I will see some of you there.

Talking of the ‘eighties…

Tales From Both Sides Of The Ninian Park Gates

Cardiff City vs. Chelsea : 31 March 2019.

After away games in Ukraine and Scouseland we were now due to play our third consecutive away match on foreign soil. On the last day of March and the first day of summer we were headed over the Severn Bridge to Cardiff to play Neil Warnock’s Bluebirds. The Everton away game seemed ages ago. The Sunday trip into Wales could not come quick enough.

This was a drive of only seventy-five miles, a relatively brief excursion, but it would be a journey back into time too.

Let me explain.

There might have been the chance that our game at Cardiff City in 2019 might only have induced the slightest of mentions of our epic match at Ninian Park during the 1983/84 promotion campaign. I have already written about that encounter in two of these match reports already – during 2008/09, the twenty-fifth anniversary, and 2013/14, our last visit to Cardiff – and in normal circumstances I might have penned a brief mention. And then the Footballing Gods got involved. The match was moved to Sunday 31 March 2019, and it did not take me long to realise that this date would mark, exactly, the thirty-fifth anniversary of the 1984 game.

I mentioned the anniversary on a “Chelsea In The 1980s” page on Facebook during the preceding week and there were many replies, most of which seemed to centre on the crowd trouble that day rather than the game itself. But it was certainly a day that many recalled easily. And football hooliganism was often an inherent part of the day to day travails and travels of a Chelsea supporter in that era, and I suppose I should not have been shocked by the myriad of memories stirred by the mere mention of “Cardiff 1984”. There has always been a morbid fascination with hooliganism at football for many, much in the same way that violent films and TV series always stir some basic instinct among us. If “The Sopranos” was about opera singers and not New Jersey mobsters and if “Peaky Blinders” was about Birmingham milliners I suspect that viewing figures for both series would never have reached such stratospheric levels.

But more of 1984 later. You have been warned.

I set off for “Welsh Wales” – as we call it in Somerset, thus not confusing it with the local cathedral city of Wells – at just before eight o’clock. The usual Fun Boy Three of PD, Parky and little old me were joined by PD’s son Scott and Johnny, a local lad who we first met prior to the League Cup Final. It would be his first ever Chelsea away game. Tickets for this game seemed to be springing up all over the place. The media were in a shit-stirring mood and claimed that Chelsea fans were boycotting games after falling out of love with manager Sarri. I suspect that the glut of tickets for Cardiff City might well have been more to do with the game falling on Mothering Sunday.

Even football supporters – and hooligans and wannabe hooligans too – love their muvvers, just like the Kray twins.

The drive into Wales was so easy, though the fantastic weather of the previous day was nowhere to be seen. Heading over the Severn Estuary, it was all grey and cloudy. However, I was parked up on Mermaid Quay at just before 10am and we soon made the local pub “The Mount Stuart” our base. We devoured our various breakfasts and, while others got stuck into a variety of ciders and lagers, I made ample use of free coffee refills, as if I suspected that the upcoming game might induce torpor. There was a Cardiff Bay 10km race taking place and the pub was mobbed with runners ahead of the 11am start, but they soon vacated the large pub and we settled on high stools near the bar and overlooking the murky grey waters of the bay. Outside were flags of St. David and, in the distance, the cranes of commerce and trade.

A Cardiff City fan, John – Adidas gazelles and a Lacoste rain jacket – befriended us, and we chatted away about all sorts. Joining the dots, I think it is wise for me to assume that he had a chequered past as he knew of various names and events of days gone by, nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more. He remembered 1984. He spoke of the 2010 FA Cup game. But he was a friendly lad and was kind enough to take our team photo once we had been joined by fellow Chelsea fans Charlotte and Paul from Yeovil. I found it interesting that John mentioned that fans of Swansea City  – he called them “that lot” – and Cardiff City, especially in times when both teams existed further down the football pyramid, often had a second team, an English team. Again joining the dots, I reckoned his other team was Liverpool since he spoke highly of their 2001 FA Cup win in Cardiff against Arsenal and of “a mate” – oh yeah? – who went to Kiev for last May’s European Cup Final. His wife was taking part in the run. I think he was happy to have company while he waited for her return. We wished each other well.

We made tracks. I had arranged a parking place right outside the ground. In the middle distance I kept spotting the towering roof supports of the Millennium Stadium in the nearby city centre. It dominates the skyline.

There has always been something very special about spotting a football stadium.

In the late ‘sixties or early ‘seventies, I have a vivid memory of my father driving through Cardiff to visit relatives in Llanelli – in the days when the M4 in South Wales was still being built – and him pointing out the floodlights of Ninian Park. After Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road, Ninian Park was almost certainly the second football ground that I ever saw.

We were parked up at about 1.30pm. There was just time – but only just – for me to splinter away from the others and have a rushed walk around the new Cardiff City Stadium. I was unable to do so in 2014, when we similarly enjoyed a pre-match drink on Mermaid Quay but then left it very late in arriving at the game.

Outside the entrance to the away section on Sloper Road, police cars were parked up, with their blue lights flashing, and a fair few policemen were walking in a mob of Chelsea. The game had recently been elevated to a high risk “Cat C” ranking.

I walked on, and I soon spotted a feature which linked Cardiff City’s past with their future. The old Ninian Park used to sit on the northern side of Sloper Road. The new stadium sits on the southern side. I was heartened to see that the old Ninian Park gates – and their concrete surrounds – were not demolished but were moved en masse to form the basis of an entrance plaza (admittedly half-arsed and scruffy) into the new stadium.

I definitely approved.

And my mind returned to 1984, quite easily in fact.

On that Saturday thirty-five years ago, Glenn and I had met up at Wallbridge Café opposite the Frome railway station. Inside, I was met by a sobering site. There was one other Chelsea fan – Dave – but also a couple of Frome’s Finest, two lads who I knew were only coming along for a bundle; Gulliver, a fan of Manchester United, and Sedge, a fan of Arsenal. Alongside them was Winnie, a friend from my year at school, who was anything but a wannabe hooligan. We made our way to Wales by train. As we neared Newport, I remember peering out at the scruffy grass alongside the tracks as if it was yesterday. At Cardiff train station, I met up with another school friend, Rick – a Pompey fan, studying at a polytechnic in Pontypridd – who was lured to Cardiff for the game.

Glenn and I soon lost the others and made a bee-line for Ninian Park. We knew that there would be pockets of trouble at various locations in the city centre and en route to the stadium. We kept our heads down, and feared the prospect of locals approaching us and asking us the usual “got the time mate”? We surmised that it would be better to get inside the away end early. I always remember that I was, in fact, the very first Chelsea fan to pass through the “click click” of the away turnstiles. Having the entire away end to myself, if only for a fleeting few seconds, was a memorable moment. Opposite the huge Bob Bank loomed, a massive terrace which backed onto some railway sidings and whose roof was etched with a ginormous Captain Morgan advertisement. To my left the main stand. Straight ahead the roof of the home end. Throughout the game, Chelsea fans would end up in three sides of the ground. The weather that day was grey and overcast too.

I continued my walk around the Cardiff City Stadium. Since my only other visit in 2014, a new tier has been added to the stand nearest Sloper Road. It has the infamous red seats, and the less said about that the better. The stadium now holds a healthy 33,000. There was a poorly executed statue depicting Fred Keenor, the club’s captain in 1927 when, as any good schoolboy will know, Cardiff City took the FA Cup out of England for the only time. I liked the fact that the signage on the main stand is an exact replica of that used at Ninian Park. The same words, the same font, though oddly in light grey and not Bluebirds blue. But I approved of that too. It was another nice nod to the past.

On the way in to the away section, there seemed to be an over-bearing presence of OB, but the security searches were completed with the minimum of fuss.

After six coffees, I was still buzzing.

I made my way in, behind the goal this time, and took my seat alongside Alan, Gary and PD. The others were dotted around.

Mother’s Day had won. There were quite a few empty seats in both home and away sections.

The teams came on. The yellow and blue “Chelsea Here, Chelsea There” banner was held aloft to my right.

The game began without me knowing the team. I soon worked it out.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kovacic – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Willian

So, no Kante, no Hazard, no Hudson-Odoi.

Words failed me, and not for the first time. Our Callum was undoubtedly the talk of the town, the player on everyone’s lips, but Sarri could not find a place for him against lowly Cardiff City. I could not get inside Sarri’s head. I was befuddled.

The game began with a few half-hearted shouts of support from the Chelsea faithful. But it was a slow start to the match. Both Alan and I were surprised that the home fans were not getting behind their team. However, Saturday had been a particularly painful time for them with both Burnley and Southampton victorious. Perhaps they had simply lost the will to battle and fight. Their team were happy to let us have the ball. But Neil Warnock is a wily old sod.

“Let them have it. Save yourselves. They’ll soon tie themselves up in knots.”

It was a cold day. I was glad that I had my jacket. The first real chance of the game fell to Pedro who danced his way into a central position and curled an effort narrowly over the bar. Soon after, a similar effort from the home team – in all blue, the aberration of red shirts consigned to the rubbish bin of memory – just span past the far post.

I turned to Gary : “I think their effort was closer than Pedro’s.”

We had most of the ball, but did fuck all with it. Sound familiar? I noted that it took until twenty-five minutes for any chant of noise and menace to emanate from the away fans and a further five minutes for the whole end to be united in song.

Sigh.

It was dire, both on and off the pitch. I had to step in when one of the traveling party continually ranted about virtually every Chelsea player. I just wanted to see positive noise. That’s our role as supporters, right?

Did we have any other chances? I captured a Willian effort on goal from a free-kick. There was a scramble in which the derided Alonso failed to poke home. Cardiff rarely threatened.

“Oh God, this is awful.”

In 1984 it wasn’t much better.

We had been riding high since the timely addition of Mickey Thomas in January added the requisite amount of energy and skill to our promotion-chasing team. My previous game that season had been the iconic 1-1 draw at promotion favourites Newcastle United. Chelsea were the in-form team, closing in on leaders Sheffield Wednesday. We had gone into the game at Ninian Park high on confidence. Although Dale Jasper was a young debutant alongside captain Colin Pates we did not foresee any trouble in garnering three points. As the away end filled up, I was well aware of the dress code of the day. Many were wearing those blue and white Patrick cagoules.  There were Pringles and Nike Wimbledons everywhere. For the very first time, I had joined in too; a yellow, light grey and navy Gallini sweatshirt, a £10 purchase in Bath the previous weekend, though if I am honest Gallini didn’t really cut it. It is a brand that is rarely mention in the various “clobber” pages on the internet these days. However, I did see three of four other lads wearing the same top that afternoon in Wales. As the kick-off neared, outbreaks of violence erupted in a variety of locations all over the stadium.

Chelsea were in town.

However, at half-time we were losing 3-0. Just like in 2019, we had been dire. We were shell-shocked. We had been second-best throughout.

Cardiff City 3 Chelsea 0.

Altogether now –

Fackinell.

Back to life, back to reality. In 2019, there were whispers between Alan and myself that this game might well mirror the Everton match where we had been well on top in the first forty-five minutes but had not prised open the home defence. The worry was, undoubtedly, that there was only a couple of chances against Cardiff rather than the five or six against Everton. Alan slipped in the phrase “we’re on the road to nowhere” and I had reminded him that this phrase had aided me on the naming of a blog a few years ago for a game at Manchester City.

“Tales From The Road To Nowhere.”

Alan replied “You can call this one ‘Tales From Groundhog Day.’”

Within seconds of the restart, a cross from Harry Arter was excellently clipped in by Victor Camarasa.

“Groundhog Day!” yelped Alan.

We stood silent. It is a horrible feeling being in the bear pit of an away section with the home fans baying.

“One nil to the sheepshaggers.”

The away fans, rather than support the team, turned on the manager.

“We want Sarri out, say we want Sarri out.”

Oh great. I didn’t join in. I understood everyone’s frustrations, but surely with a team being 1-0 down and in need of encouragement, we needed to dig deep, real deep, and muster up some noise from the depths of our souls. I’ll say it again. That’s our role as supporters, right?

The Cardiff fans responded : “We want Sarri in.”

Oscar Wilde need not be worried.

Alan commented “it’s getting toxic.”

Indeed it was.

“FUCK SARRIBALL.”

I looked over to the bench. The manager must’ve heard. No reaction. Probably just as well.

Eden Hazard replaced Pedro on fifty-three minutes and the Belgian immediately lit up the pitch. A free-kick involving Willian playing the ball through Ross Barkley’s legs to David Luiz resulted in the wall being hit. The groans continued.

There was a strong shout for a Cardiff penalty after a messy challenge by Rudiger on Morrison. No whistle. Phew.

Our Ruben replaced – shock, horror – Jorginho, who had been quite terrible.

We dominated most of the ball now but despite countless wriggles and shimmies by Eden, Willian and others it looked like Cardiff’s back line would simply not be breached. I lost count of the times Alonso played the ball back rather than into the box. Frustration was everywhere. But I stood silent, not enjoying much of anything. I contemplated us winning all four home games, but easily losing all away games, here at Cardiff, at Anfield, at Old Trafford, at Leicester City. The thought of those two away games at Liverpool and Manchester United are certainly starting to cause me pain.

An effort from Willian went wide. The ineffectual Higuain shot meekly but was then replaced by Olivier Giroud.

Three substitutes used, but Callum stayed on the bench. Maybe Sarri was resting him for his next England game.

A cross from wide was whipped into the box but with Chelsea legs stretching out to meet the low ball, a Cardiff defender managed to reach the ball first. We were awarded a corner.

There were six minutes to go.

In 1984, Kerry Dixon stroked a low shot inside the post from outside the box and this was met with a roar of approval from the Chelsea hordes, but surely this was just a rogue consolation goal.

In 2019, the corner was played in by Willian. Alonso got a touch and – we breathed in expectantly – the ball reached Azpilicueta who headed home. I immediately sensed “offside” but there was no flag, no reaction, the goal stood.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

I turned to Alan.

“Bloody hell. Six minutes to go. Just like 1984. Maybe we’ll draw 3-3.”

A lucky escape at the other end. Another clumsy Rudiger challenge, but after a long deliberation, the referee only gave a yellow card. Was he the last man? It looked messy. Phew.

In 1984, with two minutes to go Colin Lee – the experienced striker now playing right back – found himself inside the six-yard box and bundled the ball home. Game well and truly on. The Chelsea crowd went doolally. We were losing 3-2 but the game sprang to life.

In 2019, there was praise for Chelsea, but the chants of “Maurizio” dried up around Christmas.

In 1984, on ninety minutes, a Cardiff defender handled the ball. A penalty.

Pandemonium.

Nigel Spackman slammed it home.

The away end erupted. Unfettered by seats, we jumped and shouted, and stumbled, and screamed, and hugged, and kissed. Our arms were thrusted heavenwards, our voices sang roars of triumph. As we marched out onto the bleak Cardiff streets, we were invincible.

In 2019, deep into stoppage time, a cross from Willian on the right perfectly found our Ruben. I snapped just as he lent forward and headed the ball towards goal. Just like in 1984 – all those years ago – the Chelsea end erupted. A leap from Ruben in front of me. I was screaming with joy. No chance of a photo.

Carpe diem.

Get in.

I did capture the aftermath.

Joy unbounded.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds, boyo.”

There’s nice, look you.

Smiles, relief.

And then Barkley shot wildly over.

Oh boyo.

And that was that.

Despite the win, we all knew that we had been quite awful for eighty minutes. It was truly woeful. It was like watching players walking through treacle.

Football, bloody hell.

In 1984, on the train back to Frome, we regrouped, but two of our party were missing. Dave and Gulliver had been nicked for something or other. It had to happen. They were to spend the night in a police cell. On that train ride home, with me sitting quietly in one of those old compartments, a lad appeared in the corridor and he was serenaded by those who knew him.

“Daniels is our leader. Daniels is our leader.”

It was PD.

It was the first time that I had ever met him.

He was dressed in jeans, DMs and full regalia. He was a fearsome sight.

I had mentioned this to PD when I had picked him up at eight o’clock.

“Me and Nicks and Andy thought that we’d go into the Cardiff end. We got in, looked around, this, that and the other, and soon left.”

Outside the away end, the 2019 party regrouped. We knew how poorly we had played. We were no fools. But we had won. At this stage in the season, three points is all. The traffic heading home was ridiculous. We were caught in an hour-long traffic jam just leaving the immediate area of the stadium. I slowly edged north and then south and then, eventually, west. I looked over at the roof of Cardiff City’s current home, the roof of the Millennium Stadium and imagined Ninian Park in between the two.

Thanks for the memories, Cardiff. I have a feeling that our paths will not be crossing next season.

On Wednesday, we play Brighton at Stamford Bridge, our first home game in bloody ages.

See you there.

The 1984 Game.

Many will be seeing this for the first time. Fill your boots.

Part One.

Part Two.

The 1984 Cast.

Chris – I still go to Chelsea, you lucky people.

Glenn – still goes to Chelsea.

Dave – he occasionally goes to Chelsea.

PD – still goes to Chelsea.

Nicks – still goes to Chelsea.

Andy – still goes to Chelsea.

Gulliver – now a Millwall fan, he goes occasionally and I see him around town occasionally for a chat.

Sedge – I see him around town occasionally.

Winnie – I see him around town occasionally.

Rick – a Pompey season ticket holder, now living in Portsmouth, and at the EFL Trophy game against Sunderland.

Tales From The Birthday Club

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 10 March 2019.

A common phrase uttered by Paul, the two Glenns and little old me over the past few days, and certainly on the drive to London, was this :

“Wolves won’t be easy, mind.”

I have been impressed by Nuno Espirito Santo’s team all season. They have consistently garnered points from both home and away games. I was not in attendance at our 2-1 defeat at Molineux in early December, but at all other times their spirit, attacking zip and defensive tightness has been impressive. They would, I was convinced, be a tough nut to crack.

This was a special day.

Our game at Stamford Bridge would come on the one-hundred and fourteenth anniversary of the formation of Chelsea Football and Athletic Company. There was an early start – I left my village at 6.45am – to enable a busy pre-match. The other three made their way to “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge, but I headed for Stamford Bridge, arriving at just after 10am. It made a change to walk along the Fulham Road without being accosted by touts. I was too early for even them. In the Copthorne Hotel, I met up with a few of the supporters from the US who have been visiting these shores the past week or so. Not only were the Ohio Blues in town for this match, but a few other fans from the US too. I soon met up with Mike from the New York Blues who many people at Chelsea know. It was a pleasure to see him again. There were twenty-five more folk from the New York, Connecticut, Boston and Pittsburgh supporters’ groups attending the Wolves game. It’s always splendid to see some friends from over the water. The Ohio Blues were out in force and they were getting a major hit of adrenaline from being able to mingle informally with such Chelsea legends as Ron Harris, Bobby Tambling and John Hollins from our original “golden era” and those such as Colin Pates, Kerry Dixon, John Bumstead and Paul Canoville from “my era.”

While there were broad smiles from Andrew, Kristin, Steve, Billy, Clint, Rafa and Jessica as they posed with photos with our former players, there was a very pleasing birthday present for myself. None other than Pat Nevin appeared and chatted to his former team mates. I could not resist having a few words with Pat. From memory it was only the fifth or sixth time that I have spoken to him. The first time was before the Fulham match at Stamford Bridge in March 1984 when he signed my programme and this brief interchange took place.

Chris : “Blimey. I am taller than you.”

I am not taller than many.

Pat : “That’s not difficult.”

The next time would be on a rainy day in Moscow in 2008.

Anyone who knows me will know that Wee Pat is my favourite footballer – ever – bar none.

It was a thrill, a real thrill, to see him again.

A funny thing happened on the way to “The Eight Bells.” I needed, at some stage, to meet up with my friend Jason who had two Everton tickets for me. As I made my way to Fulham Broadway tube, we exchanged a few texts, but soon realised that our pre-match meanderings would be taking place in separate parts of Fulham. We arranged, then, to meet up after the game at the Peter Osgood statue to exchange tickets and monies. I made my way down on to the southbound platform, and as an incoming train approached and then stopped, who should be looking out, right by the door, but Jason. His carriage stopped right where I was standing. The doors slid open. We had no time to stand on ceremony. Out came wallets, out came tickets, out came three crispy twenties, job done.

“It’s all about timing, Jase.”

I laughed as I hopped into the train as it carried me south.

For those who know Chelsea Football Club, this might raise a wry smile, as one of the opening scenes of the film “Sliding Doors” was filmed at Fulham Broadway.

Down at “The Eight Bells”, things were already in full flow. The lads had commandeered a table, roasts had been ordered for midday, and I sidled in next to Glenn and opposite PD and LP. The pub was full of Wolves fans and on my return to the table after ordering my food, I could not help talking to one chap in his sixties. He was wearing the old Wolves shirt from 1974.

“I used to love that shirt. Quality. Tell me, what do most fans think of the new kit? Too yellow?”

“Ah. Too yellow, ah.”

Glenn had been talking to a Wolves fan and his young daughter. Both had been at all their games this season. After a short while, the Ohio Blues arrived and squeezed in at an adjacent table. The Wolves fans were then politely asked to leave. I guess the bar staff wanted to look after their regulars. Most popped next-door to the roomier “King’s Head.” As he left, Glenn’s Wolves mate thanked him for “taking care of us.” This made me smile. They were proper football people. I have loads of time for them, like others, no matter who they support.

The food arrived.

Roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, parsnips, swede, thick gravy and horseradish sauce.

Ten out of ten.

On the TV, the roar went up as Burnley scored at an increasingly icy Anfield. Sadly, that story did not pan out as we would hope. The laughter roared as our US friends relaxed and enjoyed this most intimate of pubs. It was, I will admit, ridiculously busy. It was rammed solid. Getting up to go to the bar was like moving in a real-life Tetris puzzle. The Kent boys arrived. Kristen taught them the Ohio Blues song. Another little group of friends arrived and stood by the doors. “The Eight Bells” could surely not accommodate any more people if it tried. There was not a spare inch anywhere. What a blast.

“Shame we have to go to the game.”

…mmm.

The team news came through.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

We made our way up the steps at Putney Bridge tube and onto the northbound train. There was a blustery wind that almost blew my face into April. We said our goodbyes to the Ohio contingent who had been great companions over the past week.

Inside the stadium, three-thousand Wolves fans were in position. Overhead were clear blue skies. In the sheltered Stamford Bridge, the wind could not cut us in quite the same way. I was pleased to see that the visitors did not chose a change kit. I would be able to make up my own mind about the effectiveness of Wolves’ new kit colour. The pensioner in the pub was right. It was too yellow. Old gold is a very subtle colour. For too long, Wolves’ shirts were too bright, too lurid, too orange. But this edition was certainly off too.

“Must try better.”

In the first quarter of the game, such was the paucity of entertainment on show on the pitch that Alan and I talked through our plans for Kiev, and we also reviewed how our two respective local non-league teams are faring (Alan’s Bromley far better than my Frome Town). Suffice to say, we did not miss much.

It was all so damned slow.

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

Like an idiot on “Mastermind.”

Added to the poor standard of play, it was a dreadful atmosphere. The away supporters chided us :

“Can you hear Chelsea sing? I can’t hear a fucking thing.”

In an effort to conjure up a goal from somewhere, Glenn, Alan and I took it in turns to repeat my move from Thursday evening and took turns to visit the toilets. Even the two lads in front joined in. It did not work. The Wolves team, boasting two towering centre-backs, defended deep from the off, and they simply did not allow us room to roam. We needed to get behind them, and we didn’t. Mateo Kovacic was especially useless. Pedro was all spins and juggles and twists but with no end product. Eden Hazard was quiet. Gonzalo Higuain had a couple of very vague half-chances. That was it, that was the first-half. Wolves hardly bothered attacking at all.

At half-time, I turned to Alan and said “that was dire.”

Sigh.

“If anybody was to mark our players in that half (and I always quote the Italian sports paper system of scores ranging from three to seven most of the time, rarely an eight nor certainly not a nine), nobody apart from Kante would get more than a three or a four. Kepa would be unmarked as he hasn’t touched the ball.”

Surely we could not play so poorly in the second period.

Hazard was fouled right on the line of the penalty box – a large shout went up for a penalty, my photo was inconclusive – but David Luiz slammed the free-kick at the wall.

After ten minutes of lackluster football, Wolves suddenly found their compass and Ordnance Survey map and charged forward after a timid Chelsea move petered-out. We were completely exposed as their two strikers raced into our half. Raul Jimenez was able to dink the ball – slow motion in full effect – over Kepa and into The Shed goal. The Wolves players huddled in front of their supporters who were, of course, somersaulting with joy.

Before the game I had expected a more open match and, with it, the chance for Chelsea to cut Wolves to threads in the spaces provided behind them. Well, that shows how much I know about anything. Wolves did exactly this to us. Damningly, horrifyingly, the goal came from their very first effort the entire game.

Bollocks.

There were two quick changes and on came the youth, moves which were met with approval from all.

Our Ruben for the awful Kovacic.

Our Callum for Pedro.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

Then, a miracle, Jorginho was replaced by Willian.

Kante withdrew a few yards. Hazard slipped inside alongside Loftus-Cheek. Pedro and Callum were out wide and saw a bit more of the ball. The substitutions breathed a little life into our support. A couple of shots tested the Wolves ‘keeper. There were efforts from Higuain and a curler from Willian. A flick on from a corner went past ten players in the Wolves six-yard box and also past a lunge from Higuain at the far post. But our play was poor. I lost count of the times that I looked up and saw a player looking for a pass but nobody – and I really mean nobody – bothered to shift their ‘arris and move into space, which surely has to be the most important aspect of this manager’s playing style. It was deeply disappointing and the crowd were restless, but quiet, an odd combination. Willian blasted two free-kicks which ricocheted back off the wall. A shot from Dave was blocked.

Frustration, frustration, frustration.

This really was turning into an unhappy birthday.

I could not see us scoring in a month of Sundays. The two central Wolves strikers had occasional breaks which thankfully petered out. There was another shot from Willian. Time was running out and quickly. We stepped up the pressure a little. Four minutes of extra-time were signaled.

“COME ON CHELS.”

On ninety-two minutes, with hopes fading fast – I felt for the US fans in the Shed Lower, a few of whom were watching their first-ever game at Stamford Bridge – Eden Hazard moved the ball square some twenty-five yards out. He looked up and took aim. His low shot traced its unhindered way through a packed penalty area. The ball nestled in to the far corner. It was the one moment of class of the entire sorry game.

GET IN.

Eden took the handshakes of thanks from his team mates and Kirsten waved a “Ohio Blues – Full Of Booze” scarf in The Shed.

Phew.

At last we roared but, despite some noise at last, there was no chance of a second. It had taken us ninety-two minutes to score one. There was little likelihood of us getting another.

It had been a poor game, but we had at least salvaged a point.

On Thursday, Chelsea Football Club play in Kiev.

I might bump into a few of you out there.

Давайте підемо на роботу.

Tales From Our Rejuvenation

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 23 October 2016.

We all remember where we were when we heard that Matthew Harding had died. For a generation of Chelsea supporters, it is our Kennedy moment.

On the morning of Wednesday 23 October 1996, I was at work in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, in a factory’s quality assurance office. I had not been present at the previous evening’s League Cup tie at Bolton, where we had lost 2-1. I tended to mainly go to just home games in those days. In fact, another sport was occupying my mind during that week as I was in the midst of watching my New York Yankees playing in a World Series for the first time since 1981. I had listened to the League Cup game on the radio before catching a few hours’ sleep before waking at around 1am to watch Game Three from Atlanta. The Yankees won that night, and after the game had ended at around 4am, I squeezed in a few more hours of sleep before waking at 6am for a 7am start at work. While setting off for work that morning, I briefly heard a mention about a helicopter crash involving Chelsea fans returning from Bolton. It was possibly just a rumour at that stage. With me being rather sleep deficient, I possibly wasn’t giving it the gravity that it deserved.

At around 8am, the news broke that Matthew Harding had been aboard the helicopter, and that he had been killed, along with the fellow passengers. I was full of sudden and overwhelming grief. I had been so impressed with Matthew since he had arrived on the scene at Chelsea in around 1993, and saw him as “one of us.” I remember I had seen him on a Sunday morning politics programme just a few weeks before, lending his support to the New Labour campaign. He seemed to be perfect for Chelsea’s new vision; young and enthusiastic, one of the people, but with a few bob to spare for our beloved club. It almost seemed too good to be true.

Soon after I heard the news, I received a phone-call on the office phone from a friend and journalist, who lived locally in Chippenham, and who had – with Matthew’s assistance – written a book about Chelsea’s 1994 FA Cup Final appearance and consequent European campaign the following season (“Blue Is The Colour” by Khadija Buckland). Within seconds, we were both in tears. My fellow co-workers, I think, were shocked to see such emotion. Khadija had only spoken to Matthew on the phone on the Monday. My head was in a spin. I was just devastated.

I had briefly met Matthew on one or two occasions, but I felt the loss so badly. I remember shaking him by the hand in The Gunter Arms in 1994, the night of the Viktoria Zizkov home game. My friend Glenn and myself watched from the Lower Tier of the East Stand that game, and I remember turning around, catching his eye in the Directors’ Box, and him giving me a thumbs up. His face was a picture of bubbly excitement. I am pretty sure that I met him, again briefly, underneath the East Stand, after a game with Bolton in 1995, when he appeared with Khadija, and we quickly shook hands before going our separate ways. In those days, both Glenn and myself would take Khadija up to Stamford Bridge where she would sell copies of her book in the corporate areas of the East Stand.

We all remember, too, the outpouring of emotion that followed on the Saturday, when Stamford Bridge was cloaked in sadness as we brought bouquets, and drank pints of Guinness in memory of Matthew, before a marvellously observed minute of silence took place before our game with Tottenham. The Spurs fans were magnificent that day. We won 3-1, and the victory seemed inevitable. It had been the most emotional game of football that I had ever witnessed. Later that Saturday night – in fact in the small hours of Sunday morning – I watched as the Yankees came from 2-0 down to win the World Series 4-2. At the end of that sporting day / night doubleheader, I was an emotional wreck. It had been a tough week, for sure. Sadness and joy all tumbling around together. Later, my mother sent a letter of condolence to Matthew’s widow Ruth, and I have a feeling that she replied.

I remember how happy a few friends and I were to see Ruth Harding in a Stockholm park ahead of our ECWC Final with Stuttgart in 1998.

Matthew would have loved Stockholm. He would have the triumphs that he sorely missed over the past twenty years. He would have loved Munich.

As our game with Manchester United, and the return of you-know-who, became closer and closer, I thought more and more about Matthew. And I was enthralled that the club would be honouring him with a specially crafted banner which would be presented to the world from the stand which bears his name.

Tickets were like gold dust for this one.

It promised to be a potentially epic occasion.

I had missed a couple of our most recent games – both the matches against Leicester City – and nobody was happier than myself to be heading to Stamford Bridge once again.

We set off early. In the Chuckle Bus – Glenn driving, allowing me to have a few beers – there was caution rather than confidence. Despite the fine performance against Leicester last weekend, Mourinho’s United would surely be a tough nut to crack. I am sure that I was not alone when I predicted a 0-0 draw.

“Just don’t want to lose to them.”

Once at Chelsea, we splintered in to two groups. PD, his son Scott and Parky shot off to The Goose, while Glenn and myself headed down to the stadium. I met up with good friends Andy, John and Janset from California, and Brad and Sean from New York, over for the game, and trying to combat jetlag with alcohol and football.

It was a splendid pre-match and the highlights were personalised book signings from both Bobby Tambling and Kerry Dixon. Glenn was able to have quite a chat with Colin Pates, and it is always one of the great joys of match days at Chelsea that our former players are so willing to spend time with us ordinary fans. It really did feel that we were all in this together, “Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army” for sure. Into a packed “Chelsea Pensioner” (now taking over from “The Imperial” as the place to go for pre-game and post-game music) for a beer and then along to “The Malthouse” for a couple more. We chatted to former player Robert Isaac – a season ticket-holder like the rest of us – once more and shared a few laughs.

A couple of lads recognised Glenn and myself from “that night in Munich” and it was bloody superb to meet up again and to share memories of that incredible day in our lives. We had all caught the last train from the Allianz Arena at around midnight, and we were crammed together as the train made its painfully slow journey into the centre of Munich. They were Chelsea fans – ex-pats – now living in The Netherlands, and it was great for our lives to cross again after more than four years.

With a few pints inside me, I was floating on air as I walked towards The Bridge.

The match programme had a retro-1996 season cover, with Matthew featured prominently. The half-and-half scarves were out in force, and I aimed a barb at a dopey tourist as I made my way through to the turnstiles.

The team had been announced, by then, and Antonio Conte had kept faith with the same team that had swept past Leicester City.

So far this season, our usual 4-2-3-1 has morphed into 4-2-4 when required, but here was a relatively alien formation for these shores; a 3-4-3.

Conte was changing things quicker than I had expected.

Thankfully I was inside Stamford Bridge, in the Matthew Harding, with plenty of time to spare. The United fans had their usual assortment of red, white and black flags. There was a plain red square, hanging on the balcony wall, adorned with Jose Mourinho’s face. It still didn’t seem right, but Jose Mourinho was not on my mind as kick-off approached.

The stadium filled. There was little pre-match singing of yesteryear. We waited.

The balcony of the Matthew Harding had been stripped of all other banners, apart from two in the middle.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

I noted the phrase “Matthew Harding – One Of Our Own” stencilled on the balcony wall too. That was a nice touch; I hope it stays.

Of course, should the new Stamford Bridge come to fruition, the actual stand will be razed to the ground, but surely the club will keep its name in place.

Without any fuss, a large light blue banner appeared at the eastern edge of the Matthew Harding Lower. It was stretched high over the heads of the spectators and slowly made its way westwards.

It depicted that famous image of Matthew leaping to his feet at a pre-season game in the summer of 1996.

MATTHEW HARDING

ALWAYS LOVED

NEVER FORGOTTEN

There was no minute’s silence, nor applause, the moment soon passed, but it suited the occasion very well. There was no need for excessive mawkishness much beloved by a certain other club. Matthew would have hated that.

The teams appeared, but my pals in the Sleepy Hollow did not; they were still outside as the game began. To be fair, I was still settling myself down for the game ahead – checking camera, checking phone, checking texts – as a ball was pumped forward. It fell in the middle of an equilateral triangle comprising of Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and David De Gea. Confusion overcame the three United players. In nipped the raiding Pedro, who touched the ball square and then swept it in to an open goal, the game just thirty seconds in.

The crowd, needless to say, fucking erupted.

The players raced over to our corner and wild delirium ensued. It was like a mosh pit.

Shades of Roberto di Matteo in the Matthew Harding Final of 1997? You bet.

This was a dream start.

Alan, PD and Scott appeared a few moments later. There were smiles all round.

I was so pleased to see us a goal up that the next few minutes were a bit of a blur. The crowd soon got going.

“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”

Luiz jumped with Ibrahimovic and the ball sailed over Thibaut Courtois’ bar.

Eden Hazard – his ailments of last autumn a distant memory – drove one past the United post. So much for a dour and defensive battle of attrition that myself and many others had predicted.

After around ten minutes, it dawned on me that I had not once peered over to see what Jose Mourinho was doing. Apart from taking a few photographs of the two managers, the men in black, on the touchline with my camera, I did not gaze towards Mourinho once the entire match.

This was not planned. This was just the way it was.

I loved him the first-time round, but grew tired of his histrionics towards the end of his both spells with us. When he talks these days, the Mourinho snarl is often not far away; that turned-up corner of his lip a sign of contempt.

My own thought is that he always wanted the United job.

Conte is my manager now.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

Twenty minutes in, a little more Chelsea pressure forced a corner. Hazard centered, and the ball took a couple of timely touches from United limbs before sitting up nicely for stand-in captain Gary Cahill to swipe home.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Two bloody nil, smelling salts please nurse.

Gary ran over to our corner and was again swamped with team mates.

United had the occasional chance at The Shed End, but our often criticised ‘keeper was in fine form.

A swivel and a shot from Diego Costa was blocked by a defender.

At the half-time whistle, all was well in the Matthew Harding.

Neil Barnett introduced Matthew’s three children to the crowd, along with former legend Dan Petrescu. We clapped them all as they walked around the Stamford Bridge pitch. The travelling Manchester United support duly joined in with the applause and this was a fine gesture. Of course, such disasters have united both clubs over the years.

Like Tottenham in 1996, respect to them.

As the second-half began, Alan and PD were showing typical Chelsea paranoia.

“Get a third and then we can relax.”

Although I was outwardly smiling – we were well on top – I agreed.

Juan Mata joined the fray at the break, replacing Fellatio, who had clearly sucked in the first-half.

Soon into the half, the little Spaniard came over to take a corner down below us and we rewarded him with a lovely round of applause. I still respect him as a person and player. He will always be one of us.

The second-half began with a few half-chances for Chelsea, and a few trademark Courtois saves thwarting United. Just past the hour, a lovely pass from the revitalised Nemanja Matic played in Eden Hazard. He dropped his shoulder, gave himself half a yard and curled a low shot just beyond, or below, the late dive of De Gea.

Three-nil, oh my bloody goodness.

Thoughts now of the 5-0 romp in 1999 when even Chris Bloody Sutton scored.

It was time to relax, now, and enjoy the moment. Every time Courtois and Ibrahimovic went up together for a cross, I had visions of their noses clashing in a football version of the rutting of stags, bone against bone.

We continued to dominate.

Ten minutes later, we watched with smiles on our faces as N’Golo Kante found himself inside the box with the ball at his feet. He sold a superb dummy with an audacious body swerve and cut a low shot past the United ‘keeper to make it four.

Chelsea 4 Manchester United 0.

Conte, who must have been boiling over with emotion, replaced Pedro with Chalobah, Diego Costa with Batshuayi and Hazard with Willian.

Willian, after losing his mother, was rewarded with his own personal song.

The noise was great at times, but – if I am honest – not as deafening as other demolition jobs of recent memory.

Courtois saved well from Ibrahimovic, but the game was over.

“Superb boys – see you Wednesday.”

There was a lovely feeling of euphoria as we bounced away down the Fulham Road.

There was a commotion over by the CFCUK stall, and we spotted Kerry Dixon, being mobbed by one and all. The excitement was there for all to feel.

“One Kerry Dixon.”

Back at the car, we had time to quickly reflect on what we had seen.

“It’s hard to believe that Arsenal, when we were dire, was just four weeks away.”

Sure enough, we were awful on that bleak afternoon in North London. I am almost lost for words to describe how the manager has managed to put in a new system, instil a fantastic work ethic, and revitalise so many players. It’s nothing short of a miracle really. Antonio Conte has only been in charge of nine league games, but he has seemingly allowed us to move from a crumbling system to a new and progressive one in just three games.

What a sense of rejuvenation – from the man who once headed the Juve Nation – we have witnessed in recent games. The three at the back works a treat. Luiz looks a much better defender than ever before. Cahill is a new man. Dave is as steady as ever. Courtois has improved. On the flanks, Alonso has fitted in well, but Moses has been magnificent. Matic is back to his best. Kante is the buy of the season. Hazard is firing on all cylinders. Pedro and Willian are able players. Diego is looking dangerous again. It’s quite amazing. And the manager seems happy to blood the youngsters.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

A fantastic result to honour a fantastic man.

The five teams at the top of the division are now separated by just one point.

All of a sudden, there is confidence and enjoyment pulsating through our club.

Matthew would certainly approve.

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Tales From Vanessa’s Birthday Weekend

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 19 March 2016.

PSG hurt. And Everton really hurt. Those were two tough losses.

Heading in to our game with West Ham United, our season suddenly felt rather flat. Season 2015-2016 now had an end in sight. We had nine games left – four at home, five away, all in the league – and I was wondering where on Earth our season had gone. From a results perspective, it had clearly gone up in smoke, but this has seemed a very quick season, despite the troubles along the way. It did not seem five minutes ago that I was catching a train with my friend Lynda en route to the season’s first game in New Jersey in July.

And now I could hear New Jersey’s favourite son Frank Sinatra singing.

“And now the end is near.”

Nine games left. These games would soon fly past. And yet I’m still relishing each and every one of them. The five away games would be enjoyable just because they are away games. The four home games would be important, for varying reasons.

And there would be the usual laughs along the way.

There was an extra-special reason for me to be relishing the visit of West Ham to Stamford Bridge. My friends Roma, Vanessa and Shawn – often mentioned in dispatches – were visiting London for five days, lured by the chance to see our captain John Terry one last time before he, possibly, heads west to the US or east to China. I have known Roma since 1989, when my cycling holiday down the East coast of the US took me to her home town of St. Augustine in Florida. Since then, there have been many laughs along the way, and also many Chelsea games too.

Roma announced to me a couple of months back that she was planning a visit to London, specifically Chelsea-centred, with her daughter Vanessa and son Shawn. Tickets were hastily purchased, and we waited for the day to arrive. Vanessa, fourteen years after her first game at Stamford Bridge against Fulham in 2002, was especially excited. She would be celebrating her twenty-fifth birthday while in London. This was very much her trip.

And I so hoped that John Terry, side-lined for a while, would be playing. He was the reason, in a way, why the three of them had decided to visit us. I was so relieved when our captain made a late appearance off the bench at Goodison last weekend.

I made an early start. I left my home town as early as 8am. Just after 11am, I turned the corner outside the West Stand and spotted my three friends from North Carolina and Tennessee walking towards me. It was lovely to see them again. Shawn was wearing not one but two Chelsea shirts, plus a Chelsea tracksuit top. His favourite player is Diego Costa and he was wearing a “19” shirt. Vanessa favours Cesc Fabregas and was wearing a “4.”

My love of Chelsea Football Club has certainly rubbed off on Roma’s family. Her other daughter Jenny now has a two-year-old boy, who himself yells “Chelsea” at the TV set whenever we are playing. This is all too crazy for me to comprehend at times. Back in 1989, Chelsea were off the radar in the US.

We spent a lovely hour or so mixing with a few of the former Chelsea players who meet up in the Copthorne Hotel before each and every home game. The three visitors first met Paul Canoville at Yankee Stadium in 2012; there was an updated photocall in 2016. The girls loved being able to meet Bobby Tambling again too. They recreated a photograph from Charlotte. John Hollins and Colin Pates gave them signed photographs.

Good times.

My friend Janette from LA was also in town, excited at getting a last minute ticket, and it was great to meet up with her at last. Elsewhere, there was a contingent from the New York Blues honing in on The Goose. Chopper – the NYC version – called by at the hotel before moving on. There was talk of how I picked up Chopper and two others at Bristol airport on a Saturday morning in 2007, before our Carling Cup win against Arsenal in Cardiff, and how – just over an hour later – we were drinking fluorescent orange scrumpy in a Somerset cider pub.

Good times then, good times now.

This was another mightily busy pre-match.

On leaving the hotel, I spotted Kerry Dixon and offered a handshake. It was good to see him again, especially at Stamford Bridge, and he appreciated my well wishes. Back in 2005, Roma had posed for a photo with Kerry in “Nevada Smiths” before a game with Milan, but there would not be time, alas, for a repeat in 2016.

Back at The Goose, more New York Blues arrived. I think around twenty were over in total. It was lovely to see some old friends once again. Mike, the NYB’s chief bottle-washer, was over from NYC for a bare twenty-four hours, flying in at Heathrow at 10.30am and leaving on Sunday morning, his birthday. Such dedication is truly heart-warming. There was whispered talk of the upcoming 2016 US summer tour, and the inevitable moans from some “huge” stateside Chelsea fans about the club not playing in their part of the country. Some of them should take a leaf out of Mike’s book.

We worked out that Shawn, only nine, would be seeing his seventh Chelsea game.

“Seven! You are a lucky boy. When I was nine, I had only seen three, and you live four thousand miles away!”

Team news filtered through.

“John Terry is playing.”

Fist pump.

Who would have guessed that Loic Remy would have been given the nod over Bertrand Traore? There was no Eden Hazard, injured. The surprise was that Kenedy, who Roma, Vanessa and Shawn saw make his debut in DC, was playing in an advanced midfield role. Elsewhere there were the usual suspects. There were grumbles that Ruben Loftus-Cheek was not involved from the start.

The beer garden was packed.

There were memories of last season’s game against Southampton, when Shawn was filling The Goose beer garden with bubbles from a toy. I joked with Roma then that it was a West Ham thing. Suffice to say, there were no bubbles in The Goose beer garden in 2016. There were, however, a small group of West Ham fans, wearing no colours, minding their own business. As we left the pub, early, at just before 2pm, I sensed that another little mob of West Ham walked past. I decided to hang back and let them walk on. The last thing that I wanted was for my guests to witness any match day silliness. To be fair, I didn’t see any trouble the entire day.

It is not always the same story when West Ham come visiting.

Roma, Vanessa and Shawn took their seats in the rear rows of the West Stand, underneath the overhang. They would soon be posting pictures. Fantastic.

The stadium slowly filled. How different this all is to the “pay on the gate” days of yesteryear, when the terraces often became full a good hour before the kick-off oat some games. In those days, the atmosphere would gradually rise with each passing minute. There would be songs from The Shed. On occasion, the pre-match “entertainment” would involve scuffles in the North Stand as opposing fans battled for territory.

In 1984, the ICF arrived very early in the seats of the old West Stand, causing me – a teenager on the benches – to worry about my safety.

Different times.

Prior to the game, Ron Harris presented John Terry with a memento marking his seven-hundredth Chelsea game the previous week. For a while, I wondered if Ron’s 795 might come under threat. Unless the club have a change of heart regarding John Terry, that record will go on forever.

There were three thousand away fans – three flags – in the far corner. They were mumbling something about “pwitty bahbles in de air” as the game began.

The first-half was a poor show to be honest. From the moment that Manuel Lanzini looked up twenty-five yards out and fired a fine curling effort past Thibaut Courtois on seventeen minutes, we struggled to get much of a foothold. A few chances were exchanged, but I felt that West Ham looked a little more focussed when they attacked. A penalty claim was waved away by new referee Robert Madley as the ball appeared to strike the arm of Enner Valencia. I am not one to moan about referees as a rule, but this was one of the first of many odd decisions made by the man in black.

We plugged away, but it was hardly entertaining or productive. I was slightly surprised that West Ham didn’t hit us further; they seemed to resist the temptation to attack at will, despite having a one-goal cushion.

This was not going well.

Aaron Cresswell struck a shot wide, Willian hit a free-kick over.

In the third minute of extra-time in the first-half, we were awarded another free-kick and I am sure that I am not the only one who presumed that Willian would take another stab at goal. Instead, Cesc Fabregas struck a magnificent free-kick over the wall and past the flailing Adrian.

Vanessa’s man had done it. We exchanged texts.

“Happy?”

“Extremely.”

“Bless.”

I instantly remembered Vanessa’s funny comment in Charlotte after Fabregas had fluffed an easy chance against Paris St. Germain…

“Ah, he’s always nervous around me.”

Not so today, Ness.

I am not sure what magical dust Guus Hiddink sprinkled in the players’ half-time cuppas, but it certainly worked. Pedro replaced the injured Kenedy, and we then upped the tempo. Apart from a John Terry goal-line clearance from the mercurial Payet in the first attack of the half, we dominated the second-half right from the offset.

An effort from Oscar, a header from JT. We were getting behind the West Ham full backs and causing problems.

And yet…and yet…completely against the run of play, Sakho played in the overlapping Cresswell who smacked a shot against the bar with Courtois rooted to the floor.

Remy, twisting, forced a save.

The crowd sensed a revival but the noise was not thunderous as I had hoped.

Andy Carroll, who scored the winner at Upton Park earlier this season, replaced Sakho. His first bloody touch turned in Payet’s through ball.

Bollocks.

With West Ham going well this season, I almost expected a few to get tickets in the home areas of The Bridge. When they nabbed this second goal I looked hard to see if there were any odd outbreaks of applause from away fans in home areas – the corporate West Stand especially – but there was nothing.

Traore replaced Remy, who had struggled.

Over in the far corner :

“Fawchunes always idin.”

We rallied well, and the West Ham goal suddenly lived a very charmed life. A Fabregas header went over, an Oscar shot was blocked, and Fabregas’ bicycle kick flew over. Corner after corner. A Terry header went close.

Carroll then twice tested Courtois, but the threat was averted.

The time was passing.

This would be Guus Hiddink’s first loss in the league.

Keep plugging away boys.

At last Ruben Loftus-Cheek appeared, replacing Oscar, who had another indifferent game. Ruben’s run into the box was curtailed by Antonio. It looked a clear penalty to me.

Fabregas coolly sent Adrian the wrong way.

2-2.

Phew.

Vanessa’s man did it again.

At last…at last…the noise bellowed around Stamford Bridge.

I thought that we had definitely deserved a draw on the back of a more spirited second-half show. The first-half had been dire. We kept going. I thought JT was excellent, as was Mikel. Elsewhere, I liked Kenedy and Loftus-Cheek. They must be given more playing time in the remaining eight games.

At the Peter Osgood statue, my three American friends were full of smiles.

Lovely stuff.

As I drove towards Barons Court, I realised that there would be no home game, now, for four whole weeks.

Oh Stamford Bridge, I will miss you.

“Oh wait. Hang on. I’m back again tomorrow.”

On Sunday, there would be day two of Vanessa’s birthday weekend, with a stadium tour, a quick call at the highly impressive Chelsea museum – and my first sighting of the excellent 3D model of the new stadium – a Sunday lunch on the banks of the Thames at Chiswick and a couple of hours under the shadow of Windsor Castle in Peter Osgood’s home town.

It would turn out to be a simply wonderful weekend.

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Tales From The Clock End

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 24 January 2016.

I began the day early. This was going to be a long one. I had everything planned out. As with last season’s trip to Arsenal, there would hopefully be a little pub crawl for the four of us from the Somerset and Wiltshire border, ahead of meeting up with more friends nearer kick-off. This would be my tenth trip to Arsenal’s new stadium. For the vast majority of those games, and a couple at Highbury too, the meet would be at “The Shakespeare’s Head” at Holborn. Last season, after Parky and I went on an enjoyable walk on the north bank of the Thames in Chiswick and Hammersmith, we arrived late, just as the pub was reaching a Magic Hat crescendo. This year, we would be aiming for a walk through the West End before joining the massed ranks of the Chelsea Loyalists. It was going to be a fine day out.

The actual football itself worried me of course. I am sure that I wasn’t alone with those thoughts.

As I set off at just before 8am, I turned the car radio on. I was automatically tuned to Radio Two, and a Sunday morning show was playing a musical version of “The Lord’s Prayer.” On a day when I might be seeking for divine intervention in the quest for goals and points, I thought that this was quite apt.

The Chuckle Bus was fully laden for the trip to the capital. PD and myself in the front. Glenn and Parky in the back. When I had picked up PD, we both agreed on one thing.

“I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

Whisper it, but I was almost expecting us to get gubbed.

“I can see us losing 3-0.”

Glenn, who was coming with me to Arsenal for the first time since those two back-to-back FA Cup games in 2003 and 2004, was much more upbeat.

“Nah, we’ll do ‘em.”

The roads were quiet. We parked at Barons Court and rode the dark blue Piccadilly Line in to the West End. The pubs were relatively quiet, but it made a nice change to be seeing a different part of the city. Our ramble took us slowly east.

“The Sussex.”

“The Round Table.”

“The White Swan.”

“The Sun.”

“The Shakespeare’s Head.”

We were able to relax and enjoy each other’s company. Football was only part of the equation. Each of the first four pubs were cosy and full of character. “The Round Table” is a particular favourite of mine, its reputation slightly tarnished only because it brought back memories of Tottenham away last year, when we assembled there prior to heading north to N17. We stumbled across a few familiar faces in “The Sun” – off the beaten track really, quite a surprise – and then headed off to the last pub of the day, which – unlike the others – is far from cosy. Outside, my work colleague Bruno was waiting for me. It was just a minute or so before 2pm.

Bruno : “Hey, you’re on time.”

Chris : “We work in logistics, mate.”

Bruno is from Fortaleza in northern Brazil and had been working alongside me in our office in Chippenham and then Melksham since late Spring. He, typically, is a devoted football enthusiast. While studying in Portugal, he played for a lower level football team, somewhere in the Portuguese footballing pyramid, and his eighteen year old brother is currently on trial with us here in England. His team back home in Brazil is Palmeiras, from San Paolo, the city which hosts our 2012 World Club Championship opponents Corinthians. I was tickled to hear that Bruno has nothing but bad things to say about Corinthians. I heard a whisper that he had a slight inkling towards Arsenal, but I think it is fair to say that since we have been sharing the same office, my devotion to the Chelsea cause has inevitably worked a little magic on him. Throughout the week, I had semi-seriously joked that his life would change on Sunday 24 January 2016.

“Your life will never be the same, Bruno.”

Bruno studied for his Master’s degree at Bath University – he has loved being in England – but was yet to see a football match of any description while over here. Luckily, a ticket became available at the very last minute from a good mate, and so I was very happy to be able to invite him along. The timing really was perfect. His last day of work with us was on the preceding Friday and his flight back to Brazil would be on the Thursday. His wife had left for Brazil a week or so ago. This really would be a royal blue send off. There was just the worry about sending him away from Arsenal with a fine Chelsea performance. I knew that he would enjoy the experience of being in and among three thousand of us, but the actual match result was not so clear.

Regardless, I soon introduced Bruno to a smattering of my match-going companions in the large and noisy pub. Very soon, the boozer was reverberating with a few Chelsea songs. I could see that Bruno was impressed.

“I can see why this takes up so much of your life, mate.”

We were stood next to Alan and Gary. I casually mentioned that Gary has missed just one home game since 1976…”Sheffield United at home, 1992, Jason Cundy scored, we lost 2-1, chicken pox”…and this blew Bruno away.

“Fantastic.”

As always, Arsenal away brings back memories of 1984. I spoke to Bruno about that momentous day, and showed him a YouTube clip of Kerry scoring in front of a packed Clock End.

“Our first game back in the top flight in five years.”

“You were there, right?”

“We were all there, Bruno. And there is an entire book, in which I have written a few words, devoted to that one game.”

By the end of our hour or so in the pub, Bruno was asking about membership and season tickets.

I had a little chuckle to myself.

The team news came through.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Matic, Mikel – Oscar, Fabregas, Willian – Diego Costa.

Inside the tube, full of Chelsea, there were songs, one after the other.

“Make way for the champions…”

Bruno was full of smiles.

On the walk from Arsenal tube station – I was a little dismayed that I didn’t have enough time to show Bruno the classic art deco stands of Highbury – there were a few more Chelsea songs, but these soon petered out as we got closer to the towering stadium.

There was that odd little Arsenal chant as we walked up and over the railway lines.

“What do you think of Tottenham?”

“Shit.”

“What do you think of shit?”

“Tottenham.”

“Thank you.”

“That’s alright.”

Away in the distance, an altercation between rival fans, an echo from the past.

A shove, a punch, a stand-off, a kick.

There was time for one last photograph of Bruno and myself outside the Clock End, and we were inside.

We only reached our allotted seats with a few seconds to spare. As usual, I was positioned midway back, firmly behind the corner flag, alongside the usual suspects. Glenn was in the front row. PD was further back. Bruno towards the rear. The sky was full of low cloud. The air was still and mild. This seemed like a typical footballing day in the capital. A grey day on the surface, but full of colour – red, white, blue – underneath. The undulating upper tier of Arsenal’s stadium matched my thoughts of the day thus far. There had been lovely highs in the five pubs with good friends, but now my thoughts were full of worry about the ensuing ninety minutes.

Our play from the offset looked calm and assured. I was quickly impressed. There was efficiency in our movement and passing. This was as good a start as I could ever have hoped. I am not sure if the mind plays tricks, due to the fact that the stands are so far from the pitch at The Emirates, but there always seems to be tons of space down our right at Arsenal’s new stadium. Ivanovic and Willian were soon exploiting it.

Chances were traded, but there were no real threats on either goal.

While I waited to hear any noise from the home support, our corner quadrant was full of noise. Of course, I lament the atmosphere in the home areas of Stamford Bridge on virtually a weekly basis, so I can’t be hypocritical and say too much. However, the silence at The Emirates shocked me. Yes, home areas are usually quiet at most stadia these days, but Arsenal seem to continually set the bar high – or low – and it gets worse with every passing season.

A fine move found Willian inside the box, but his volley was wildly off target. However, it hit an Arsenal defender, allowing him a second bite of the cherry. Petr Cech – I’m over him, by the way – easily blocked Willian’s snatched follow-up.

Soon after, Willian played the ball in to space, dissecting the Arsenal line, and Mertesacker felled Diego Costa. There was a slight delay, but in my mind I was hoping that the much-maligned Mark Clattenburg would show a red card. He didn’t let me down. Get in. The Chelsea contingent roared. This was going too well. Bizarrely, Wenger took off Giroud.

A few minutes later, the ball ricocheted out to Ivanovic, lurking in space on the right. He wasted no time in punching the ball low in to the box, and I had a perfect view as Diego Costa met the ball perfectly. The ball crashed in to the net, past Cech, 1-0 to the champions.

The south-eastern section of the Clock End erupted. I punched the air continually. Such joy.

“He’s done it again.

He’s done it again.

Diego Costa.

He’s done it again.”

This soon morphed into the more sinister –

“He’s done you again.

He’s done you again.

Diego Costa.

He’s done you again.”

Arsenal never really threatened us in the rest of the first-half. Our defenders were supremely solid, no more so than the captain, who was simply dominant. We had a few chances. A towering header from Ivanovic was headed off the line. This was fantastic stuff. Our section was in full voice, almost embarrassingly so. Elsewhere, the residents of the Emirates – middle-class, middle-of-the-road, middling – were deadly silent.

Arsenal’s best chance of the half fell to Flamini – I struggled to acknowledge that he was still playing for them – but his flick was well over. Arsenal appeared to be missing a cutting edge, as always.

I briefly met up with Bruno at the break.

“Enjoying it, mate?”

“I know you hate the word, Chris, but…awesome.”

The second-half was a different affair. There was less noise from the away fans as the game carried on. I think the nerves were increasing as the minutes passed by. Soon in to the second period, Fabregas, who was enjoying his best game for ages, danced in to the box. He was upended, and bounced into the air. I felt that Fabregas overdid it.

Wenger brought on Alexis Sanchez. Chances were still at a premium. Courtois was hardly troubled. Mikel was enjoying another masterclass in controlled containment, and alongside him Matic was playing better than usual. Only his distribution let him down at times. Diego Costa, the Arsenal irritant, was replaced by Loic Remy. We watched the clock on the far side. Inside, I was surprisingly confident that we would hold on. Eden Hazard replaced the excellent Oscar.

In the last part of the game, the defenders seemed tired and dropped further and further back. Our sporadic breaks up field soon ran out of steam. Remy’s touch had deserted him; he was poor.

An almighty scramble followed as Thibaut dropped a cross at the feet of several Arsenal players. The ball was frantically hacked away. A couple of half-chances for Arsenal were blocked. Courtois, at last, had a real save to make, falling to his left to save from Monreal. At the other end, Willian broke free but scuffed his low shot wide.

Five minutes of extra time.

Then four.

Then three.

Then two.

Then one.

The whistle.

Glenn was right.

We did’em.

We all met up after the game. Bruno, the boy from Fortaleza, had bloody loved it. The mood was buoyant. Glenn, especially, was full of smiles.

The Arsenal support was obviously glum as they headed back to Middle Earth.

The seven of us headed back to civilisation. On the tube, our faces were full of smiles. The red and white scarfed Gooners had their heads buried in their programmes. Their misery was our joy.

Ten visits to the Emirates in the League with Chelsea, and our record is excellent.

Won 4

Drew 4

Lost 2

Goals 14-9

I wished Bruno well as we alighted at Kings Cross.

“Take care mate, safe travels, stay in touch.”

It had been a good day.

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Tales From A Lucky One

Chelsea vs. Wigan Athletic : 7 April 2012.

Another Saturday, another Chelsea home game. I collected Young Jake in Trowbridge just before 9am and we were soon on our way to collect Lord Parky. As I have said, my mind is full of the Spurs and Barcelona cup ties at the moment and I soon commented to Jake that I expected that the rest of the crowd at Stamford Bridge would be thinking along similar lines. I reluctantly added that I expected that there would be a resultant poor atmosphere. Parky was still suffering with his cold and the drive up to London was a little quieter than usual. I was pleased to be able to give Glenn’s semi-final ticket to Jake and he was very thankful. Jake is a new acquaintance and is full of youthful enthusiasm for Chelsea. Parky and I were asked for our opinions on all sorts of Chelsea-related subjects as we headed towards London. Jake wondered how many miles all of these pilgrimages to Stamford Bridge equate to. Although I wasn’t able to answer him there and then, the game against Wigan Athletic would be my 579th Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge. That adds up to over 127,000 miles of travel.

This would be my 47th. Chelsea game of the season and Parky was keen to add that he is not far behind; Wigan would be his 40th. The 1-1 draw up at the DW stadium before Christmas was one of only two leagues game in which he was not alongside me, riding shotgun and talking nonsense.

The weather was nondescript, but the traffic quiet. I slapped on the Depeche Mode “Sounds Of The Universe” CD and the familiar tones of Dave Gahan and Martin Gore provided a nice backdrop as I drove on. Approaching the Hogarth roundabout, I was expecting traffic arriving for the Oxford and Cambridge boat race which would soon be taking place on the nearby River Thames. I was pleasantly surprised when I was able to drive on through unhindered. I was parked up at 11.15am.

The three of us walked straight down to the ground and soon met up with Gill and Graeme on the walk underneath the old Shed wall. I commended Gill on her refreshingly upbeat report on the Benfica game. We spent about two hours in the hotel bar and the time absolutely flew past. We shook hands with Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti and waited for a few more friends to arrive. Mick the Autograph King was already there, to be soon joined by Beth and her friend Terri (!) – her first game at Chelsea – from Texas, then Jesus, then my good mate Alan. This was Alan’s first ever visit to the hotel bar on a match day as far as I could remember; he was with a friend called Richard and Richard’s young son Jake. This was a big day in Jake’s life – his first ever Chelsea game. He was bedecked in the white away shirt and had a lovely beaming smile. Alan had arranged for a photo of Jake to appear in the match programme and he soon had his photo taken with Chopper. Mike from NYC soon arrived and we chatted very briefly about Tour 2012 “logistics.” I spotted Kerry Dixon over by the bar and we all sauntered over to meet him and get photographs taken with the great man. By this stage, Trowbridge Jake had thanked me five times for getting him up to this area; he was clearly thrilled to be about to meet three of our greatest ever players. Jesus, too, loved it, though he admitted to me that he needed to sharpen up his Chelsea history. Jesus was relieved to be able to buy Graeme’s Arsenal ticket; Jesus had been busy at work when the tickets went on sale and hadn’t been too happy with himself.

All of us were trying to avoid Jesus / Easter jokes, but a few slipped through. I think we got away with it.

Jesus and the two Jakes descended to watch the Chelsea players walk through from their team briefing room to the Centenary Room. I stayed upstairs with Parky, but caught a few of the players from above –

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v…type=2&theater

It was 1.30pm now and we needed to move on. As we waited for Parky to join us, I noted two Chelsea fans wearing replica shirts over undershirts and I had a little conversation with Trowbridge Jake and Jesus about cockney rhyming slang.

“If my mate Rob was here, he’d say those two blokes had no Plymouth.”

“No Plymouth?”

“Yeah – Plymouth Argyle…style. No style.”

Jake’s late father was a Londoner and so knew exactly what I meant, but Jesus was left wondering, I think, what on Earth I was talking about. We dropped in for a very quick stop at the CFCUK stall, then plotted up at The Maltsers as none of us could be bothered to walk up to The Goose. Time was against us. One last pint, then further acknowledgement of what a lovely pre-match it had been. During the previous few hours, we had made plans for the meet ups for Fulham and Spurs. It was still surprisingly cold on the quick walk back to The Bridge.

Wigan wore the exact opposite of our home kit. Around 200 had made the journey down from Lancashire. I have no real catalogue of previous Chelsea vs. Wigan games to draw on, but there is, of course, one game which sticks out; the title decider on the final day of the 2009-2010 season.

Chelsea 8 Wigan Athletic 0.

One of the most joyful days in our history and our biggest ever league win. Magnificent. No more words are needed.

A quick scan of the line-up revealed many changes. Gary Cahill in for JT, Ryan Bertrand starting at left-back, with Essien, Meireles and Malouda in the midfield, Sturridge and Drogba recalled in attack.

After a nondescript start, the first real moment of interest took place on 19 minutes when the ball broke to Gary Cahill some 30 yards out. It seemed that thousands shouted “shoooooot” and our new defender soon took heed. A fine rising shot was ably palmed over by Al Habsi, one of the most under-rated ‘keepers in the division. In a matter of seconds, first Raul Meireles won a tackle and then Daniel Sturridge passed the ball to a team mate.

“Miracles never cease” exclaimed Alan.

“Well, it is Easter” I replied.

Wigan had two long range shots which didn’t really trouble Petr Cech. Soon after, a delightful turn from Didier Drogba had us all salivating, but his finish ended up just wide. Chances were rare and the atmosphere was eerily quiet.

In fact, I will go further. The atmosphere in that insipid first-half period was the worst I can remember in those 579 games.

Three late chances fell to Chelsea but we couldn’t capitalise. Juan Mata wriggled free to receive a ball from Drogba but shot at the ‘keeper. The rebound reached Drogba, but Didier’s header lacked both power and placement. It came straight at him though; he did well to connect in the first place. Then, a header from Drogba and a shot from Studge did not trouble Al Habsi.

It was hardly inspiring stuff and The Bridge remained morgue-like.

Alan quipped “we don’t need cheerleaders, we need a medium.”

The second-half began and the noise level increased a little. Alan and I always try our best, but it gets totally dispiriting after a while. One of these days, I may just give up completely and watch like the thousands of others.

Please take a gun to my head if this happens.

On 54 minutes, Mata worked the ball to Didier but his shot was saved from close in. Fernando Torres, a real crowd favourite now, came on for Malouda, despite Sturridge not really enjoying a great game. Just after, our first goal relieved some of the building tension inside The Bridge. A free-kick was cleared but an intelligent chip by Meireles was met by an on-rushing Ivanovic who poked home from close range. His first reaction was to glance at the linesman, but no flag was raised. He ran down to the corner flag below us and his team mates soon joined him. Texts from Philadelphia and Guernsey told us that we had got away with that goal. Phew.

A minute later, our talismanic Serbian saved the day when a rapid Wigan break resulted in a shot from former Chelsea starlet Di Santo being cleared off the line by Brana.

It was annoying to see an advancing Fernando Torres twice slip in almost the same place when clear of a defender. At no time did the crowd get on his back though; if anything the “Torres Torres” shouts grew louder. Didier Drogba set up Daniel Sturridge in the inside-left position, but his shot was slashed wide when the youngster really ought to have taken an extra touch.

What then happened really sickened me; Sturridge was booed.

His own fans in both tiers of the Matthew Harding booed him.

This hardly surprised me; it was noticeable that there were vast periods of the game when the Chelsea fans around me chose to sit on their hands and barely talk to each other, let alone actively cheer the team on. They were sat there like dummies. Then, as soon as an errant pass or miss-timed tackle took place, these same people were audible and noisy. It did my nut in.

Rather than move our support up a few notches, The Bridge reverted to type. With eight minutes remaining, Diame enjoyed an unhindered dribble at the heart of the defence and unleashed a fine shot which left Cech static.

1-1.

Moses came close for the visitors, the industrious Torres set up Kalou but the shot was wide.

With four minutes of extra time signalled, the crowd were buoyed. Could we go again?

Mata found Drogba down below me. Despite a packed penalty area, he lofted the ball delightfully to an unmarked Torres. Thankfully, he stayed on his feet this time and volleyed at goal. It was a beautiful thing; the timing was perfect as Torres kept his eye on the ball dropping before him, then hitting through the ball, keeping it down, following through perfectly.

To our disgust, the ball hit the base of the far post.

To our joy, the ball bounced up into the path of Juan Mata and the ball flopped over the line. Al Habsi’s desperate swipe was in vain.

2-1.

Torres could have added a goal at the death, but 3-1 would have flattered us further.

This was clearly a pretty poor performance against a surprisingly spirited Wigan team. We’re limping from game to game at the moment, but the last three games have produced three wins, engineered in a similar style; ahead, level, ahead. At least that shows spirit and desire.

Fulham on Monday evening, on the banks of the River Thames, will not be a walk in the park.

See you all there; we’re meeting at The Duke’s Head in Putney.

Mine’s a Peroni.

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Tales From The Last Day Of 2011

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 31 December 2011.

A day of poor performances on and off the pitch and a day of quiet contemplation as one year drew to a close, with another one ready to start.

I was back in the hot seat once again. I love driving, to be honest, so it’s never a chore. I pride myself in not knowing anything about cars – I don’t get turned on by engine capacities, turbo systems or leather interiors – but I love driving as a means to travel and as an activity in itself. I love the buzz of driving, the allure of new cities, observing new architecture, and I relish the joy of seeing magnificent countryside as I hurtle past. Combining driving with football is an added perk for me.

You might have noticed.

Of course, if a new ground is involved, even better. I especially enjoyed driving up to Burnley two seasons ago on a bitterly cold day and heading into alien territory. It was one of my very special personal memories from that momentous closing period of The Double season. We have away games at Norwich City and Swansea on the horizon and I am already looking forward to those two; a shame they come within ten days of each other. What is the expression about eggs being kept in the same basket?

Parky had unfortunately missed out on tickets for the away game at Norwich when they went on sale this week, though. The club had stupidly decided not to use loyalty points to decide who gets the chance to apply for this prime ticket and Parky missed out during the mad scramble.

It is my view that the right to purchase tickets for the away games at the three newly promoted teams should always be on loyalty points; this invariably results in the “new ground” scenario. Look how crazy it was for Blackpool away last year; the hottest ticket for an away game for years. Likewise, QPR in October. Tickets went on sale for that game with no loyalty point system in place. Yet another example how out of touch the club is with regards to their rank and file support.

High profile away games really are a mad scramble. For the Norwich City game, Chelsea receives 2,389 tickets. The 550 folks in the away season ticket scheme (of which my friends Alan, Gary and Andy, along with myself, are members) are assured tickets. The remaining 1,839 get split 60-40 amongst season ticket holders (1,103) and members (736). So, around 25,000 season ticket holders got the chance to apply online for just 1,103 tickets with no loyalty weighting in place and is it any wonder that Parky missed out?

Parky and I had a new travelling companion for the game with Villa. Young Jake – he will be known as Young Jake in these chronicles as he is only 23 – is a friend of Parky’s son-in-law Kris and he goes to a few home games each year. We first met him in The Goose at the start of this season. He would be taking Glenn’s season ticket alongside me for this game so I had arranged to collect him in Trowbridge at 9am. A few minutes later, Parky was on board, too.

This would be my 48th Chelsea game within the calendar year of 2011. My highest ever total was 57 in 2009. I can’t see that ever getting beaten to be honest. I briefly looked back on the year. After the euphoria of 2010 (a stunning year for Chelsea, but also a deeply enjoyable one for myself on a personal level), is it any wonder that 2011 has not lived up to expectations? When one considers that the year of 2011 involved three losses at Old Trafford within seven months and three home defeats by Liverpool, it never was going to be a classic Chelsea year. My favourite personal moments of the past twelve months are easy; beating United 2-1 in the league, a great week of the Royal Wedding and victories over West Ham United (the Torres goal still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention) and Tottenham Hotspur at either end of it, the amazing games in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, the noise and passion of the defeat of Manchester City a few weeks ago and – the highlight – meeting my old friend Mario for the Leverkusen away game in November.

Actually – think about it. What fan of Lincoln City, Leicester City or Leeds United would not want to experience what I did in 2011?

We drove in via the M25 and then the A40 again. Jake usually travels up to London by train and so this was a little treat for him. I usually get a little frisson of excitement as I ascend the elevated section of the M4 on my approach to Chelsea, but this other approach is not without merit. In addition to driver, I acted as a tour guide to Jake as I pointed a few sights on our quick journey into London. We passed the art deco magnificence of the Hoover Building and we then caught a quick glimpse of The Shard away on the horizon, amongst the skyscrapers of The City. The Shard will soon become the tallest building in Europe and is designed by Renzo Piano. This architect was first brought to my attention when he oversaw the transformation of the old Lingotto Fiat factory in Turin; the one with the test track on the roof as featured in “The Italian Job” and where my friend Tullio’s grandfather worked.

Past the floodlights of Loftus Road to our right and Jake got a proper buzz in being able to see a new stadium, only yards away, for the first time. As we drove past the Westfield Mall, I mentioned that the BBC Television Centre at White City was nearby. I spoke about the classic BBC sitcom “Steptoe & Son” being based in Shepherd’s Bush and Parky piped up

“Oil Drum Lane.”

With that, we treated Jake to a gravelly rendition of the series’ theme tune.

We zipped through Earls Court and I explained how the area’s moniker of “Kangaroo Valley” got its name and then we sped past Brompton Cemetery; the final resting place of the club’s founder Gus Mears. I pointed out the roof supports to the Matthew Harding to Jake as we neared the end of our 136 mile pilgrimage. I thought back to my childhood; seeing the embankment of the old North Stand as the District Line train came out of the tunnel was always a tantalising moment for me on my childhood forays to Stamford Bridge.

I got the feeling that Jake was getting those same feelings.

At the Yadana Café we breakfasted like kings.

Bacon, egg, sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, baked beans, fried bread, black pudding, toast and coffee.

The Full Monty.

Young Jake’s pre-match prediction was of a 3-1 Chelsea win and he repeated this forecast at regular intervals throughout the day.

Jake and Parky popped into The Goose and I flew down to The Bridge. I wanted to take a quick look at what was on sale in the shop. I just bought one item – the book “Chelsea Uncut” – and that was quite enough for me. I rarely spend my hard-earned on club merchandise, though I did see a few reasonable T-shirts on sale, including one which said something about the club being founded in The Rising Sun; nice, a bit different. The place was packed, though. It was too crowded to be enjoyable, though. I only stayed about ten minutes.

I popped up to the hotel foyer, had a quick word with Mick and bought a pint of lager. I noticed that none other than Kerry Dixon appeared with a few guests. Kerry was a big hero for me during his time at the club and I have been very lucky to spend a few hours in his company on two events in the West of England. These were undoubtedly two of the best nights ever. On the second occasion, a friend of a friend took us on to a country pub in his small Vauxhall Corsa. Being wedged in the back seat of a small car next to Kerry Dixon as the driver navigated the narrow country lanes around Farrington Gurney is one of my most surreal memories as a Chelsea fan.

I waited to catch his eye and offered my hand. He wished me a Happy New Year and we both uttered the phrase “always a pleasure” at the same time. Always embarrassing that, isn’t it? The same words. D’oh.

I sat myself down and had a flick through the book that I had just bought and I loved it. There can’t be many Chelsea photographs from our ancient history that I am yet to see, but the book contained several. I especially enjoyed the old black and white photographs from the early years. A favourite photograph is of a Chelsea goalkeeper – almost certainly Vic Woodley – pumping the heavy leather ball up field on a cold and misty afternoon, with the terraces out of view.

There’s a superb snap of Pat Nevin, the dribbler supreme, crouched and about to spin away from a Newcastle defender from “that” game in November 1983.

There is the iconic photo of the substituted Johnny B patiently waiting in the tunnel during the closing moments of the Leeds game later that season.

Photographs of Matt Damon, Raquel Welsh, Tiger Woods, Lana Turner, Kobe Bryant , the New York Giants and the Chicago White Sox.

Superb stuff.

At the bottom of the escalators, I spotted Gill and Graeme and waited for few minutes for the players to walk through.

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v…type=2&theater

I then battled the crowds of match day tourists on my scramble out of Stamford Bridge and back up to the pub. I made my way to the bar and glanced up at the TV screen to see that Blackburn Rovers were winning at Old Trafford.

Get in.

Just one more pint, but plenty of chat with the usual suspects. I welcomed the two Texans Wes and Jeff back to Chelsea; Wes now resides in Southfields, but Jeff was on a flying visit. He was last over two years ago and we spent a few moments dissecting the recent performances of the team. We agreed that – altogether now – this is a season of transition.

It really is.

Does anyone not believe this?

If we have to down before we go up, so be it.

I chatted to Andy about the away games at Swansea and Norwich. Andy had decided that he wouldn’t be travelling down on the Tuesday evening for the Swans game, so he sold his ticket to Parky. To complete Parky’s good fortune, Daryl sold him his ticket for the game at Norwich. Parky had a beaming smile after these two transactions.

Excellent.

Andy and I had the briefest of chats about Rangers – he is more a fan than I – and we ended up chatting about the Rangers legend Davie Cooper. I spoke about a goal I saw him score against Celtic in around 1979 in the pre-season Drybrough Cup. I promised to send him a YouTube link if I could find it. It is one of my favourite goals of all time.

The inevitable fight back by United was met with typical groans, but we then exploded when Rovers miraculously went ahead.

Young Jake and I walked down to the ground and we overheard that, indeed, United had been beaten. I quickly texted my Blackburn mate Mark.

“Keen Must Stay.”

We were inside with only a few moments to spare. I just caught Neil Barnett running through the Chelsea subs and caught Neil Barnett saying “Number 27 Sam Hutchinson.”

What a lovely moment for the lad; welcome back, Sam.

Villa had brought down around 800 fans from Birmingham and they didn’t waste too many moments in asking us if we had won a European Cup. Elsewhere, there were empty seats, but the crowd was larger than the Fulham game.

The game? Sigh.

Villa last won in the league at Stamford Bridge in May 2002 and I didn’t expect them to provide a massive threat to us. We enjoyed the early possession but shots from Daniel Sturridge (high) and Didier Drogba (wide) didn’t threaten the Villa goal. Villa had a few chances, mainly involving Agbonlahor on the break. The move which lead to the foul on Drogba was the best passage of play in the game to that point. Drogba seemed to have a verbal spat with Mata over who would take the penalty; there was only going to be one winner, there, with Didi just one goal away from Roy Bentley and Peter Osgood on 150 Chelsea goals.

It wasn’t a clean strike but he scored and I captured it in film.

It was fitting that Didier scored his 150th from the penalty spot at The Shed, in front a banner proclaiming “Born Is The King.”

Bobby Tambling – 202.
Kerry Dixon – 193.
Roy Bentley, Peter Osgood, Didier Drogba – 150.

However, five minutes later Villa equalised with a poorly-defended and scrappy goal from Stephen Ireland. In a poor first-half, our only other chances involved a half-chance from Mata and two free-kicks from Drogba, who clearly fancied himself as the star of the show. Ramires had been surprisingly quiet, but Luiz was steady at the back. Our play was so slow, though, and we didn’t take advantage of the occasions when the play opened up due to Villa’s frequent breaks. At the half-time whistle, there were audible boos.

Soon into the second-half, a lovely run from Juan Mata down below me was exhilarating to observe at such close quarter. I really do have a great seat at Chelsea and Jake was loving it too; his first ever time in the Matthew Harding. On this occasion, Drogba’s run was too soon and the ball rolled away behind him. A Villa free-kick came close, and we had been warned. A Chelsea move broke down and a rapid break from the visitors found the pacey Agbonlahor. We expected the worst, but his weak shot was easily saved by Peter Cech and the covering Luiz averted further danger.

Frank came on for Oriel Romeu and we hoped for the best. How odd it must be for Frank, now, to be limited to rare starting appearances. From that game in 2002, only John and Frank remain. How frustrating for him and for us to watch on as his prolific career undergoes a heart-breaking decline.

Daniel Sturridge was having a very poor game – shirking his defensive responsibilities and rarely threatening up field. He was replaced by Fernando Torres and virtually his first touch almost resulted in a goal. He moved the ball onto his right foot, shaped nicely, then unleashed a cracker which dipped wickedly and slammed against the bar. I know I am biased, but how damn unlucky has Torres been during his Chelsea career? He should be on 15 goals, not 5. If only that first chance in the first-half against Liverpool in February had gone in.

If. The biggest word in football.

The promising Albrighton bamboozled Ashley Cole but Cech saved. A lovely move involving Frank and Fernando set up Drogba, but a week shot ended up well wide and didn’t bother Guzan in the away goal. By now, the natives were restless and the support – hardly ever rising to more than a muffled groan – was now being even more derisive. Chances were as rare as an Arsenal trophy parade.

The newly arrived substitute Bosingwa – for Ferreira – gathered the ball from around thirty yards out and I uttered the line –

“Not from there, Bos.”

Well, what do I know? He sent in a wickedly dipping blast which the ‘keeper palmed over. This optimistic effort from distance proved to be our last real scoring chance. In a cataclysmic final ten minutes, we conceded not one but two goals, both from typical Villa breaks. Just after two penalty claims were waved away, Agbonlahor raced through a massive gap in our rear guard to slot cleanly past Cech.

We groaned and I noticed people leave their seats. More and more blue seats appeared and the mood was of dismay and annoyance with the team. Then, the final wound; a wayward Lampard pass and Ireland advanced on goal before squaring for substitute Bent to score. Thousands more now departed and I sat in stony silence. To be fair, the residual 4,000 in the bottom tier of the MHL were stirred with a defiant “COME ON CHELSEA.”

I’m proud of them for that.

At the final whistle, half the crowd had departed and a few hundred around me booed.

I’m not proud of them for that.

As Jake and I walked miserably down to street level, there was a horrible tone amongst the supporters, accusing various players of lack of effort. I hate to hear these words, but I had to agree that our fight was missing throughout the game. In football, you have to fight for the right to play. Once in possession, you have to move and support the man with the ball. There was little evidence of that too.

A solemn day in SW6.

I felt like saying “Good Riddance 2011.”

However, I suddenly remembered Jake’s 3-1 prediction and playfully took a swipe at him.

It was a pretty reasonable journey home – time wise – but it wasn’t the easiest of drives to make. The usual self-inspection after defeat is never easy is it? A double espresso at Reading put bounce in my step, though, and the music emanating from Parky’s 80’s CD cheered us. On the closing moments, we spoke with Jake about his love of the team and also of his past games and we were, at last, able to put things into perspective. His Dad was a Chelsea fan and took Jake to his first game in the autumn of 1998 for a game against ‘Boro. Sadly – and neither Parky nor I knew this – his father passed away three years ago and Jake said that, poignantly, he feels closer to his father at Stamford Bridge than anywhere else. Through a shared sense of belonging amongst friends, at the stadium where his father spent many an afternoon no doubt, Jake felt better placed to cope with what life could throw at him.

I returned home at about 8.30pm and hated the idea of seeing our game on “Match of the Day.” I watched, through fingers covering my eyes, as our team was taken apart by Alan Shearer and Mark Lawrensen. How typical for Lawrensen to incorrectly miss-read the muted celebrations after Drogba’s penalty as a sign that he was off, siting his solemn waving to the crowd as a “goodbye.” The truth, of course, was that he was showing considerable class in pointing to the penalty spot where The King Of Stamford Bridge lies…

Just before we hit 2012, I quickly scanned the internet for that Davie Cooper goal. While Scotland was celebrating the alcohol-fest that is Hogmanay, I watched open-mouthed as the great Rangers left-footer continuously juggled the ball against Celtic at Hampden Park in 1979. Cooper was a “tanner ball” player in the mold of our own Scottish dribblers Charlie Cooke and Pat Nevin and I just couldn’t resist playing and re-playing that amazing clip time after time.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=js4PK73nIRs

Superb stuff.

A trip to Molyneux awaits. Let’s hope that 2012 starts in decidedly better health than which 2011 ended.

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Tales From The Unbeaten Run

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 30 April 2011.

Another amazing game, another wonderful day in London, another busy day with friends. If there is a slight chance that these days, these games and these match reports get to sound eerily similar and contain the same happy themes, I for one will only be too glad. It would be churlish for anyone to complain. Chelsea Football Club – or, at least this current team – continue to surprise me with their spirit and determination. Who knows where this will end this season? Just two weeks ago, we travelled to West Brom with no thoughts of the title. Now – who knows?

Admittedly, we got two massive pieces of luck against Tottenham, but we were due our little piece of good fortune.

The Journey.

Just outside of Frome, I dropped in to a farm shop and bought a few pints – in a clear plastic container – of Somerset Scrumpy for Michigan JR, who had expressed an interest in this lethal drink last week against West Ham. Soon after, I collected Lord Parky at just after 10am and it was a perfect drive in. We commented that we could hardly believe that there were only four games left in 2010-2011. The time has flown by these past few weeks. The end is in sight, damn it. The skies were lovely and clear. A slight breeze. Not so much traffic. Good vibes. We briefly discussed the team and possible formation. We wondered if Carlo would go with a 4–4–2 and employ Ramires wide right to counter the threat of Gareth Bale. However, 4-4-3 has worked these past two weeks, so big decisions for Carlo.

The Music.

New Order from 2001 and The Killers from 2004.

Lloyds.

We were parked-up at a quiet Chesson Road at bang on midday. With five-and-a-half hours to go until kick-off, we were well ahead of the game. Just as well, we had lots to do. You know how it is. We raced down to Fulham Broadway and met up with some friends from North America. Beth was there with Dave from Toronto (formerly from Essex) but also the lovely Texas JR – and his wife, Grace – from San Antonio. JR is the elder statesman of CIA and is well respected. I brought ten old Chelsea programmes, dating from as far back as 1947, to show the guests from across the pond. JR was lapping it up, commenting on former players Roy Bentley and Len Goulden. Next to arrive was Ben (nuhusky13) from Boston, via Poughkeepsie, along with Steve and Darren Mantle. A big welcome to him; this would be his first ever game at The Bridge after arriving on Friday. He was clearly buzzing and it was lovely to feel his enthusiasm. Steve and Darren had a treat for him – they went off to find Dave Johnstone and help realign some of the match day flags and banners which give The Bridge such a distinctive feel.

The veterans from last week, Anna, Dennis and JR, then arrived and joined us for a few drinks. I don’t often go into Lloyds, but it’s not a bad place. Lloyds is just one of the 25 or so pubs and bars which are within a 15 minute walk from the stadium. We’re pretty lucky with respect to that. Lots of cafes and restaurants too – many have gone upmarket of late, but that’s typical of England.

Ben came back to join us and he had another Stella. However, I was concerned that we needed to move on. I gathered the troops and we set off.

The Hotel.

Thankfully, we just managed to grab a few special moments with Ron Harris in the hotel bar. I took a couple of photographs of Ben with Chopper and then sat down beside them briefly. Ben is a fellow Yankee fan and I had been wearing my NYY cap. I placed it down on the table in front of us.

“There you go Ben. You’ve made it to Stamford Bridge. You’re sat next to Ron Harris and there’s a Yankee cap right in front of you.”

Ben quickly replied – “It would be better if Chopper was wearing the Yankee cap.”

Everyone laughed and – for a split second, I toyed with the idea of getting Ron to put it on. I quickly decided against it. I slipped off to the bar and left Ben to chat with Chopper. I’m not sure what was said, but I am sure Ben has some extra special memories of those five minutes. Again, he repeated the comment that “this just wouldn’t happen” in America. It would be like myself sitting down next to Yogi Berra for a quick natter at my first ever Yankees game.

“Yogi – hiya, mate. I’ve got this Chelsea cap…”

We met Gill and Graeme again – always a pleasure – and then we just happened to be at the right place at the right time as Kerry Dixon arrived downstairs. Another photograph with Ben. Lucky boy. Just before we left the hotel, Hilario appeared and posed for a photo with Gill. It was now 3.15pm and we needed to move on again.

The Pelican.

Parky, Michigan JR, Ben and myself slipped down to another boozer, The Pelican, positioned halfway between the Fulham and Kings Roads. I had arranged to meet my good pal Pete – from San Francisco – who I first met at the Chelsea vs. Bluewings game in LA in 2007. Sadly, Pete lost his father last week and I just wanted to personally pass on my condolences. I needed to make a phone call, so just popped outside for a split second. I looked up and saw the face of an old mate, Roger, suddenly appear. I used to work with Rog about 15 years ago in Trowbridge and we went to a few games together. I had lost contact with him and – get this – he presumed I had stopped going. What a lovely moment. He was on his way to The Imperial but spent ten minutes with me, catching up. He now lives down in Exmouth. Great to see him.

In Chelsealand, it’s never a small world.

The Goose.

We eventually made it to The Goose at 4pm and I was just happy to have completed my circuit. Another Coke, photos with Ben and JR in the packed beer garden, chat with the boys. The usual mix of replica shirts for some, designer gear for others. None of my mates were wearing The Crocodile – Lord Parky in a black Fred Perry, myself in a light orange Boss – but I have to say that I saw many lads sporting the classic polo of Rene Lacoste on this most summery of days. Even after all these years – in football circles, 1981 to date – there is nothing like the sumptuous quality of a Crocodile.

Ben was now in Chelsea Heaven, sipping on another Stella. A quick chat with Neil about baseball – Mickey Mantle, no relation of Steve and Daz, I guess – just to make him feel at home.

Good times.

No – the greatest of times.

Let’s just take a moment to reflect.

A sunny day in London. In the beer garden with ten or so of my very best mates. Lads I can trust and rely on. Mates who share a common bond, but also the same sense of humour, the same outlook on life, the same joy of sharing our friendships with others. Six years ago to the day, we were all together at Bolton watching our beloved club of illustrious underachievers, much maligned for decades, finally put the ghosts of 1955 behind us and lift the League title once again. On the day that our captain, derided by many, loved by us, would be playing his 500th first-team game. Ah, these are good times. Don’t let the nay-sayers tell you otherwise.

I walked JR and Ben down to the Fulham Broadway at about 4.45pm and pointed them in the direction of HQ. Fulham Broadway – formerly Walham Green, to give it the former name – is our own little Piccadilly Circus and Times Square rolled in to one. It’s where five roads converge and it’s where I watched on with joyous glee as our 1997 and 2000 F.A. Cup victories were gloriously celebrated. It’s where thousands of Chelsea fans alighted at the old red-brick tube station and then imbibed gallons and gallons of beer and spirits at the immediate vicinity’s three or four pubs. From there on in, the Fulham Road is closed to thru-traffic and you get a real sense of place walking past the Hammersmith & Fulham town hall and the CFCUK stand to the right, Bob the T-Shirt’s stall to the left, Chubby’s Grill to the right. Fanzines and scarves, charity collections, voices, songs, laughter.

There had been rumours of a Spurs presence on the North End Road, but nothing materialised. JR had asked me in the pub where away fans drink and I had to tell him that I really didn’t know. Up by Earls Court, maybe. As I approached the West stand, I realised that I hadn’t seen a single Spurs fan all day.

No last minute downpour this week.

I reached my seat at 5.15pm. Not a cloud in the skies. A very slight breeze. Chelsea weather. A bloody perfect day.

Neil Barnett spoke of the anniversary of the 2005 title – with a few pointed barbs aimed at the away fans, 1961 and all that – in the far corner and the two Lampard goals were shown on the big screens. Surprisingly, the crowd didn’t really react and this saddened me.

“Oh God – I hope we are up for it today. This is Tottenham. Nothing else matters.”

Zoom lens out, I tried to locate Ben, JR, Beth and co, but no luck.

The teams were announced and I took a few moments attempting to work out if we were going back to a 4-4-2.

The Game.

We began brightly, but the first real chance fell to Pavlyuchenko, who shot wide after Ivanovic slipped. Didier, playing wide it seemed, played in Frank but his shot was deflected wide for a corner. I took a photo of Didier about to slam a viciously dipping free-kick which slammed against the bar from a good 35 yards out. Gomes got a touch, but only just. However, a little bout of tardy marking from a throw-in presented Sandro the ball and he unleashed an unstoppable effort which crashed past Petr Cech. As the ball dropped down inside the net, I could hardly believe it. The away team ran off to celebrate with the Spurs management team and it was a hideous sight.

“OK – let’s keep going. We have ages to equalise. Keep calm.”

Fernando Torres, playing in a variety of central positions – sometimes in the hole, sometimes on the shoulder of the last man, sometimes in the channels – was full of energy and seemed revitalised after his goal last week. Some of his passing was sublime. However, a lot of the balls needed him to be on the end of…

Essien headed over and, from the corner which followed, a glancing header from Drogba bounced up at Torres, who could not react quick enough and headed over from close in.

“Oh when the Spurs…”

On 34 minutes, a lovely shimmy from a rampaging Ivanovic fooled the entire 41,000 but his brave run into the box was snuffed out. Yet again – despite tons of possession – we appeared to be over-passing and the crowd were again restless. After a bright half an hour, Torres was now quiet. With the half-time break approaching, the ball broke to Lampard.

“Go on Frank – shoot.”

Thankfully, he took my advice and hit a low swerving shot straight at Gomes. The Spurs ‘keeper, always prone to horrendous gaffs, did not stop the ball and it seemed to go through him. Despite a desperate lunge to keep the ball from crossing the line, the crowd were up and celebrating, claiming the goal.

Time stood still.

I looked at the linesman, who didn’t seem to be doing anything. The Chelsea players seemed to be hounding the referee. What was going on? I wasn’t sure, but there was a sudden roar from the Chelsea fans. A massive sigh. We’ll take it.

Amazingly, Malouda was through – one on one – just after but couldn’t connect. As the players strode off at the break, the home fans were baiting the Tottenham ‘keeper, with echoes of chant with which we serenaded David Seaman in 1995 –

“Let’s all do the Gomes” (with flailing arms).

The texts had arrived at the break to say that the goal hadn’t completely crossed the line. Oh well – even better! After the World Cup debacle in the summer, Fat Frank was entitled to a little luck.

As the Spurs ‘keeper took his place in front of the baying Matthew Harding Stand at the commencement of the second period, the Chelsea fans applauded him wildly and he looked bemused…or confused. I don’t know – the bloke looks flustered and confused all the time if you ask me.

Another bludgeoning run from Ivanovic caused problems for the Spurs defence, but he was stopped short with a decidedly dodgy tackle. I took another photograph of a Drogba free-kick from way out and this one again dipped. This was straight at the nervous Gomes, but he just stuck out his hands and never really attempted to save it “properly.” The ball bounced down, but nobody could get on the end of it. We sensed Gomes’ fear and we wanted his blood.

“Let’s all do the Gomes.”

Ramires on for Essien. Maybe a knock, but happy with Ramires joining the fray.

On the hour, the Chelsea crowd – at last – sang as one and the noise roared around The Bridge.

“Carefree – Wherever you may be. We are the famous CFC.”

Torres, jinking here and there, such lovely close control, was looking good, so it was a shock to see him replaced by Kalou.

I had a feeling that the referee had been told that the Chelsea goal “wasn’t” during the break and so would be loath to reward us any 50-50 decisions in the second period. On 68 minutes, we broke into the penalty area – contact.

But no penalty.

The Bridge – me included – was incensed. We howled and howled.

I remained confident that the goal would come. I was nervous that Jermaine Defoe came on as a Spurs substitute and I was hoping that Modric would not feed him. However, Spurs rarely threatened Pet’s goal in that second-half and we continued our assault on Gomes’ goal. A Lampard shot flew wide after nice interplay between Didier and Nico, now on as a substitute.

The clock was ticking.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

A move down below me and we suddenly had extra blue shirts everywhere. We watched on as the ball was played in to Didier and he had his typical run with the ball – shielding it well. Anelka made a move, but almost got in Didier’s way…oh boy! Thankfully, Didier remained in control of the ball and sent the ball in to the six yard box.

An outstretched leg – Kalou – and the ball was played into the goal. The ball hit the back of the net – what a gorgeous sight – and The Bridge went wild.

YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.

Such noise. Such joy. Tottenham – we’ve done you again! I picked up my camera and snapped the Chelsea players down below me. The expressions on their faces were euphoric. David Luiz was screaming with ecstasy. A lone Chelsea fan raced across and jumped on Frank Lampard. The celebrations continued, but the stewards were now trying to get the fan off the pitch. Luiz and Lampard pleaded with the stewards to be lenient with the fan – there was obviously no malice – and were doing their level best to calm the fan down, too.

Calm down? Easier said than done.

Alan – “They’ll have to come at us now.”
Chris – “Come on my little diamonds.”

Down below, three rows in front of me, Big John began banging the metal hoarding of the MH balcony and the whole Matthew Harding, and then what seemed the entire ground joined in.

“BANG BANG – CLAP CLAP CLAP – CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP – CHELSEA.”

The final whistle and we were bouncing. Another Chelsea win over Spurs at The Bridge. Lovely, lovely stuff.

The Chelsea PA played the new crowd favourite “One Step Beyond” and for a minute or so we all bounced along…as it played out, the last bars fading, we were left with the sound of the Matthew Harding singing, deep, resonant, defiant…to the sound of “Tom Hark.”

“We hate Tottenham, we hate Tottenham, we hate Tottenham, we hate Tottenham.”

I spotted JT, his 500th game over, and he was caught up in the moment. Screaming at us – screaming with joy.

Smiles all over my face at the end – “see you at Old Trafford, Al” – and my immediate thoughts were with young Ben, over there in the Shed Lower. I really wondered if he was still in orbit. I bounced down the Fulham Road and Big Pete told me that Kalou’s goal was offside.

“Even better. Happy days.”

Back at the car, I handed over the container of Scrumpy to JR and I realised that he had just enjoyed a week that he would never ever forget. He took a swig of the potent, smoky brew and said –

“Wow.”

Wow indeed.

The Journey Home.

We pulled out of Chesson Road at 8pm and Parky could hardly speak. What a fantastic week it has been. A coffee stop at Heston and some Stranglers for the rest of the journey home. Since 1990, we have now played Tottenham at home in the league on 21 occasions and we have remained undefeated in every single one of them.

1990 to 2011 – and so it goes on.

I reached home at 10.45pm just in time to see the “Match of the Day” team dismissive of our 4-3-3 shape and apoplectic about our two goals.

You know what? I couldn’t care less.

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Tales From Big Brother vs. Little Brother

Chelsea vs. Fulham : 10 November 2010.

After the misery of Liverpool, I was happy that we would be able to get back into the swing of things with two home games in five days against teams which we ought to beat.

That was the theory. How about the practice?

Andy from Trowbridge accompanied Lord Parky and me up to London. There was no tube strike-induced mayhem this week and so I was parked up at about 6.15pm. We quickly called in at the pub and the usual suspects were all clustered in a group. I spotted that more than a few were wearing the popular Royal British Legion poppy / Chelsea crest pin badge, no more than two centimetres in length. Remembrance Sunday is just around the corner after all. I remember when small beautifully crafted pin badges such as these were all the rage in the mid-‘eighties. They would often be the only sign of what team you were supporting. I often used to wander back from the buffet on trains down to London from my home in Stoke and eye-up which badges were on show. In those days, not even scarves tended to be worn. I often used to wear my Chelsea pin badge on the upper part of my pullover sleeve.

In those days, less was most definitely more.

I spoke with my mate Russ and predicted “a poor first-half, undoubted discontent and possible boos at the break, we’ll be out sung by the Fulham fans, but we’ll scrape through 2-0.”

I had to shoot off early and meet Paul, a friend of a friend, who was using Glenn’s season ticket for the Fulham game. We met by the Peter Osgood statue in front of the West Stand. He was impressed with our seats – my season ticket is in the fourth row of the “wraparound” of the Matthew Harding Upper, as it curves towards the West Stand. Alan, Glenn and I have had these three seats since 1997 and I wouldn’t swap them for the world. We briefly spoke about the rumours about Chelsea moving into a new stadium at nearby Earls Court. That’s the toughest question ever, eh? However, before we get swamped down in discussions of the pros and cons, it is worth pointing out that there were many empty seats on show for this encounter with Fulham. Don’t be fooled by the full house figures. I suspect there were a few thousand empty seats. Chelsea, like many clubs, perpetuate the myth of sell-out crowds at The Bridge, thus fuelling false demand, by publishing total ticket sales rather than spectators through the turnstiles.

Alan and I discussed the team. Drogba back in from the start, but Nico out. Bosingwa in and so Ivanovic alongside The Captain in place of Alex. I noted two new supporters club banners on show in the East – the Channel Islands and South Dorset ( which I believe is based in Weymouth ). It took me a few moments to realise that the Fulham number 16 was Duffer.

As with so many home games, Chelsea enjoyed long periods of possession as the game unravelled. We kept moving the ball around, but it wasn’t long before the home support grew a little restless. We seemed to be obsessed with hitting diagonals over the midfield to Ashley Cole. Very often, it seemed that this was our first thought once we had secured possession. Of course Fulham sat deep and so it is difficult to break such teams down. Fulham rarely threatened us to be honest. However, our desire to over-pass or over-dribble was driving us to distraction. I lost count of the number of times that Bosingwa or Kalou wanted to beat their marker rather than pick a man early. Far better, surely, to hit an early ball and catch the defenders off-balance. I looked to my left and spotted a new banner on the balcony. It simply said “House Of Blues” and I wasn’t too impressed. It’s hardly snappy is it? It sounds a bit bland in my mind. With Chelsea driving us to distraction against our little brothers from down the road, I wondered if “House Of Pain” might be a better nickname for The Bridge.

Yeah, that’s better – “House Of Pain” as a nod to our years of hurt when we stuck with the team despite 26 long seasons with no silverware, but also “House Of Pain” for our current run of victories over teams since 2004…3 league defeats in 126 games remember. “House Of Pain” for all of our opponents, for sure.

Drogba was not particularly involved and Essien was miss-hitting a fair proportion of his longer passes. The frustration was rising. To make matters worse, we were being out sung by 3,000 annoying Fulham fans. We often passed the ball back rather than forward and I shouted –

“Come on lads, it’s not rugby!”

Then, at last, a great cross to an unmarked Michael Essien who leaped up and headed the ball down and into the Shed End goal. Mark Schwarzer didn’t have a chance. Soon after, Duffer took a corner right down below me and I, plus hundreds of others, gave him some warm applause in recognition of his service for us between 2003 and 2006. On 41 minutes, Salomon Kalou broke through in the inside right position and ran unhindered towards the goal. We begged him to shoot, but he carried the ball on and on, deep into the box. From an acute angle, his low shot ripped past the ‘keeper, but also past the far post. Typical Kalou. Alan commented that Edvard Munch must have seen Kalou play in order for him to produce a work of art such as “The Scream.” I knew what he meant for sure.

Kerry Dixon – 193 Chelsea goals – was on the pitch at the break. How we needed a second goal for us all to relax. Soon after the restart, that man Kalou again broke through in that favoured inside-right channel. He advanced, shimmied, but his shot hit Schwarzer and was cleared off the line. It was one of those nights for him. It was much the same story for the rest of the second-half…lots of Chelsea possession, but not so many great chances. A shot from the quiet Malouda was blocked and then shots from Mikel and Didier were also repelled. The nerves were jarring as the minutes passed. A wicked swerving shot from way out was magnificently tipped over by Petr Cech on 74 minutes and then a fine volley was struck straight at our great Czech. Fulham were finding opportunities coming their way, but our defenders were in resilient moods. I thought John Terry was back to his best and Ivanovic threw his head at countless crosses. Drogba was getting more and more into the game though and on a couple of occasions he treated us to his rampaging runs. Kalou was hit and miss, but never gave up. He did create a fair few chances on the right in that second period. We broke away time and time again, but often our final passes went astray. We begged for that precious second goal.

The referee’s assistant signalled an extra four minutes – enough time for a Fulham equaliser for sure! – and we prepared ourselves for the worst. Essien was sent off, though I didn’t spot what for. Would we hold on? Fulham gave it their best shot, but we limped over the line. To be fair, it hadn’t been a bad game…a fair few incidents, a few moments of drama, but just the one goal.

Three points would do nicely though. No complaints.

As I walked past The Goose, I peered in at a TV screen which was showing the dieing embers of the Mancunian derby. It was 0-0 and soon realised that if I continued to watch, United would score. Back in the car, we heard that it had ended goalless, so we were four points ahead of the pack. Parky, Andy and I quickly discussed the night’s events before heading back to Wiltshire and Somerset. Kelly texted me and, of course, had been watching his first ever game at HQ and I felt for him…not a brilliant game, but I was more perturbed that the atmosphere had been non-existent for large chunks of the match. However, we go into the Sunderland game on Sunday, which he will be attending too, with a little dignity restored…and with still no goals conceded at home in the league campaign.

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