Tales From The Minerva

Hull City vs. Chelsea : 25 January 2020.

The third game in eight days was another away day in the North of England. After gliding past Nottingham Forest in the third round of the FA Cup, we were drawn against Hull City who are enjoying – or not – a middling season in The Championship.

On my four previous visits to Kingston upon Hull, I had driven up and back from each and every one of them on the day of the game. But it’s a tough, tough ask. It’s around a ten-hour return trip by car. For this game we decided to stay the Saturday night. As the weekend quickly approached, the trip took over my thoughts. There was plenty to keep me pleasantly occupied.

I needed to plan a pub crawl, probably based around the marina. On my last visit to Hull during the 2016/17 season – the match report was titled “Tales From A Day Of Sobriety” – I had left Parky and PD in a large “Spoons” in the city centre, while I pottered off on a little walk around the city centre and the marina. I spotted a few pubs and I made a mental note of their whereabouts. I hoped for a larger, more expansive, tour this time around.  There would be no sobriety on this visit.

I was also looking forward – with a kind of schoolboy giddiness – to seeing us in our beautiful blue and yellow FA kit once again.

And there was the matter of the hotel that I had booked. I had sorted out some digs close to City’s KCOM Stadium for the princely sum of £29 for two rooms. I was intrigued, for the want of a better word, how that would pan out.

The game? That would take care of itself.

Let’s go to Hull.

My alarm was set for 4.30am on Saturday morning and I woke a few minutes ahead of it. After a strong coffee, I was ready. This was going to be another long day, but it would be a day that we live for. I fuelled up nearby and collected the father-and-son combination of P-Diddy Daddy-O and Scott at 6am.

Everything was dark until we stopped at Strensham Services on the M5 for a McBreakfast at 7.30am. From then on, the day slowly broke. I made excellent time and the morning flew past. I rarely drive up the M1 for football and I was enjoying the change of scene. After passing East Midlands Airport on the A42, I spotted the familiar cooling towers to the east at Ratcliffe on Soar as I joined the M1 and these signalled, to me anyway, that my journey to “The North” was in full flow. There would be cooling towers-a-plenty on the road to Hull.

Unlike the M6 to the west of the midlands which is predominantly flat, the M1 undulates as it takes everyone north. It’s not a photogenic road. For miles upon mile, the motorway is flanked by huge distribution warehouses, retail parks, the flattened hills of former coal-mining areas, and cooling towers. Past Mansfield, past Chesterfield. Signposts for the footballing cities of Sheffield and Leeds.

There were bittersweet memories of my second and third visits to see Chelsea play at Hull City.

In January 2014 – my match report was titled “Tales From A Road Less Travelled” – I collected friends Andy, Alan and Seb in the midlands en route – and headed up to Hull. The game resulted in a standard 2-0 win for Chelsea, but marks the last game that I attended before my mother became incapacitated through rheumatism. By the time of the next visit in March 2015, barely a year later, my mother had sadly passed away and it was my first away game since her death. On that visit, a 3-2 win on our way to a title, I felt rather numbed by everything. I called that one “Tales From The Beautiful North” and it summed up my melancholy mood. It was a delicate, tender blue day. Memories, no doubt, raced back to the half-term holiday of October 1973 when I first visited Hull with my parents, a day trip from visiting friends in Grimsby, a ferry over the Humber from New Holland, the huge bridge far from completed.

Bridges and elevated sections took us over the rivers which would eventually drift into The Humber. We veered off onto the M18. As we hit the M62, my eyes focussed on the far horizon in several directions. A bleak vista was dominated by cooling towers and wind turbines. It all started to resemble a bleak scene from a sci-fi film.

The winds howl over these flat lands.

Another bridge took us over the wonderfully named River Ouse. Out and away, Hull was not too far now. I drove on past the huge Humber Bridge, the World’s longest until 1998, and I was soon on Clive Sullivan Way, named after a rugby league icon.

In the pub on Tuesday, my pal Tim from Bristol spoke of his last visit to Hull in 2016. If anyone remembers, it was our first game of the long unbeaten run, win after win after win. But on that day, just as he reached the city’s inner suburbs, he spotted a rag and bone man, with cart and horse, like a latter day “Steptoe & Son.” He then spotted a bare-chested man riding a horse through the streets.

Bloody hell, a real city on the edge.

As I drove through the surprisingly wide streets of Hull, I found myself behind a van carrying scrap. I half expected Dublin-style horses to gallop past.

Welcome to Hull.

At around 10.30am we had reached base camp, our hotel on Anlaby Road.

Well. What can I say? It was a pub, with rooms, but hardly worthy of a single star, not so much a hotel as a notel. I soon posted my thoughts on “Facebook.”

“Well, our £7.50 a night hotel has lived down to expectations.”

Much banter followed.

We booked in, and at 11am the barman poured the first pints of the day for us. Friends much further south were yet to set off. You can’t say that we aren’t keen.

There was a little chat with a couple of locals. The pub had openened at 10am, one silent chap was already on his second or third pint. Another grisly local warned us –

“There was some fighting in town last night, Chelsea.”

But we ignored him.

I fiddled with my camera bag, making sure my match ticket was secure.

He looked over and said :

“Ha, is that your first-aid kit?”

Now that made me laugh. All part of the spice of life, eh? Indeed, the place was starting to grow on me.

Like a fungus.

Outside, I took a photo of PD and Scott in front of a chalkboard of the week’s coming attractions, blank apart from karaoke on Sunday. I was just surprised that karaoke was spelled correctly.

At about 11.45am we caught a cab into town.

The cab driver was gruff.

“I fucking hate Chelsea.”

I feared that he might be a Leeds United fan. But no, far from it. In spite of a northern accent, he was from Fulham, a Fulham fan, but living in Hull for forty years. I felt that life had dealt him a tough hand of cards. From the cosmopolitan bustling city of London to the dustbowl of Kingston upon Hull, until recently one of the UK’s forgotten cities.

“I go and watch City a bit. It’s sold out today, isn’t it? Only £12.”

I was warming to him now, it’s funny how football can break down barriers.

We dropped into the second of the day’s seven pubs. It was a familiar haunt. We had visited “The Admiral Of The Humber” in 2015 and 2016. PD was hoping to spot a local that he had chatted to on both occasions. In 2016, there was a funny anecdote.

The Hull City fan had spoken about a visit of Newcastle United, when the very same pub was mobbed by visiting Geordies. They very soon started singing a song, aimed at him, based on the fact that his grey beard and glasses made him resemble an infamous person in Britain’s recent past.

“One Harold Shipman, there’s only one Harold Shipman.”

He smiled as he re-told the story of how he remonstrated with them, and how this resulted in the Geordies buying him drink after drink.

“I love that about football, the banter” he joked.

Alas, no Harold Shipman this time. A couple of Chelsea supporters dropped in, but it was mainly “locals only.” It was a lovely Saturday afternoon mixture of football lads in designer gear, scarfers, a chap in a Dukla Prague away kit, and a table full of overly-made up middle-aged women that do lunch, dinner, tea, an evening meal and breakfast if you ask them nicely.

The three of us were now getting stuck into our second and third pints and the laughter was booming. We chatted about our hotel.

Chris : “I was a bit concerned when all the windows in your room were wide open. I wondered if it meant that the room needed some fresh air. That it would have been otherwise musty.”

PD : “That was to let the rats out.”

Chris : “No, that was to let them in.”

On a wall inside the pub, getting busier and busier now, was a copy of The Housemartins’ “Hull 0 London 4” album.

As the jokes continued, PD and Scott were grinning themselves to death.

At 1pm, we hopped into another cab to embark on the next stage of the pub crawl.

“The Minerva” was to be the highlight of the day and we stayed a good hour. On rather a different scale, it reminded me of The Flatiron Building in New York; a squeezed building, triangular in shape, it sat right on the quayside looking across the river to Lincolnshire. As soon as we arrived, three fellow Chelsea supporters arrived too, faces familiar, names unknown. The pub was a joy. Little rooms, a couple of snugs, a good selection of ales and lagers, antique décor, and it looked like it served excellent food too. The further you went away from the tip of the building, more rooms kept appearing. On a wall was a framed copy of one of Spencer Tunick’s “Sea of Hull” photo shoots which kick-started Hull’s year as the UK’s “City of Culture” in 2017.

I just thought everybody was blue with the cold in Hull.

I could have stayed in “The Minerva” for hours. But I wanted to pack as much in as possible. We still had a few more to visit; “The Barrow Boys”, “The Humber Dock”, “Bar 82” and lastly a real ale pub called “Furley” where I bumped into Kev who sits around ten feet away from me in “The Sleepy Hollow.”

Phew. Seven stops on this pub crawl. It was just right. Perfect even. Friendly locals, no trouble, what it is all about. The pubs and bars on the cobbled streets near the marina were excellent.

“Hull on Earth?”

No.

Or, as the locals would have pronounced it : “nurrrr.”

I like Kingston upon Hull. There, I said it.

Time was moving on now, so we hopped in to a cab, which took us back along the same Anlaby Road that our hotel was on, from the city centre, past The Admiral Of The Humber, and it deposited us a few hundred yards to the south of the KCOM Stadium. Night was falling, and there was a rush to get inside for kick-off.

Surely this was football to a tee. I had awoken at 4.30am and yet thirteen hours later I was rushing to get in on time.

But get in on time I did.

Just in time.

Have I mentioned that I work in logistics?

The stadium was packed, a full-house. I half expected to see swathes of empty seats in our end, with tickets purchased – just £12 remember – for loyalty points alone. A great show of support, four thousand strong.

Frank Lampard chose this starting eleven :

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Zouma – Alonso

Barkley – Kovacic – Mount

Hudson-Odoi – Batshuayi – Pedro

I like Hull City’s stadium. I like the rising roof, and the blue lighting of the metal at the rear of the lower deck. For the first time since my first visit I was positioned towards the main stand. On that day in 2008, I celebrated my seven-hundredth Chelsea game with a pre-match “Nando’s” – still my only ever visit – and I detailed the day in “Tales From The Roman Road”. On that Wednesday, I travelled along two roman roads to Hull, the Fosse Way and then Ermine Street. It was fortuitous that I did as many Chelsea missed the kick-off due to traffic problems on the M1. The detail of the match was scant.

“What a goal from Frank – I amazingly captured this on film…just beautiful. A great start. However, Hull did well not to capitulate and had a fair share of the ball in that first period. Cousin hit the post, Cech made a few good stops. We had a few chances too, of course, but the usual suspects didn’t appear to be playing too well. We were begging for a second goal.

At the break, I handed out a few doughnuts to the boys – the Game 700 Meal overspill.

A much better team performance in the second-half. Hull gave Frank too much space and I thought he ran the game. He has been great this season. All of the first-half under performers stepped up in the second 45 – Anelka after his goal especially…the chances came and went…one miss from Malouda especially. However, it ended up 3-0 with the much-maligned Frenchman touching home.

I couldn’t understand a lot of the Hull songs to be honest. You had to admire their cheek, though, because they serenaded us with a song about fucking off back to our shit hole. The cheeky young whippersnappers.”

So, back to 2020.

The Chelsea team lined up in all white and it annoyed me. Was the limited colour clash of Hull City amber socks and Chelsea yellow socks enough to enforce a change? Or were Chelsea beholden to play in the second kit at least once in this cup run? Either way, I was not impressed. The home team were kitted-out in amber, black, amber, but with tigerish stripes on the top section of the shirts, how Cincinnati Bengals.

Chelsea were attacking the opposite end in the first-half. We were all stood, of course. As always. On just six minutes, a great ball out by Mateo Kovacic found Dave in acres of space. He quickly pumped in a cross, possibly over-hit, but it fell for Mason Mount to stab at goal. It rebounded out and Michy Batshuayi, lurking nicely, was on hand to follow up. A deflected shot gave the Hull City ‘keeper George Long no chance.

It was our first real attack.

Get in.

Alan, no more than ten rows in front of me : “THTCAUN.”

Some incisive passing from Kovacic set up good chances for Ross Barkley and Mason Mount, but Long was able to pull off two fine blocks. There had been an earlier half-chance for Michy. Callum was involved on the right, Pedro not so much on the left. But throughout much of the first-half it was the Chelsea story of the season; more passing than required, less shooting than required.

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

It was as if we were attempting to crabwalk.

Even so, we were on top. Not exactly coasting, but looking the more likely to score the next goal. Just before the whistle for half-time, a deep cross from Marcos Alonso was chested down by Dave who then shot at Long in the Hull goal but he pulled off another fine save.

Around me – despite us winning – I had endured voices of discontent during that first-half. And where we could, and should, have been cheering the boys on, there were periods of quietness in our ranks. Sometimes there is hot and cold in our support, often during the same game.

Hot and cold.

Noise and quiet.

Stillness and mayhem.

Frost and fire.

It would be nice to be warmed constantly by our support during every single game. For every fine pass to be applauded as loudly as ever wayward pass is booed.

“Yeah right.”

Me, looking at my phone at halftime: “COMLD.”

Sorry Alan. Better late than never.

The second-half began, and the home team came out of their shells a little. They had offered a few attacks in the first-half but not a great deal. In the second period they looked a little livelier. They definitely had the edge of the opening period. Jarrod Bowen, who reminded me of “Eriksen from Tottenham but not much longer”, was a threat and he raced on to a through ball before punching a shot just over Caballero’s bar.

Our play had deteriorated. Not much bite, not much ingenuity. Shot-shy.

Just after an hour, Barkley steadied himself before sending over a deep free-kick. Fikayo Tomori, who had formed a steady relationship again with Kurt Zouma, rose unhindered at the far post to head down, a perfect finish, past Long. My photos of the free-kick and the header are not great, but at least I was on hand to snap away as the players celebrated just yards away from me.

There is always a great fascination to see the body language of our players as they celebrate together. Smiles, hugs, knowing winks, loving looks. I must confess I go overboard at such moments, but these photographs take care of themselves really.

Time for some substitutions.

Billy Gilmour for Our Callum.

Willian for Our Mason.

Fine work from Willian, and a reverse pass to Pedro, but the winger edged it just past the far post. The same player finished weakly from the other side of the penalty area.

With twelve minutes remaining, I captured the free-kick by substitute Kamil Grosicki that hit our wall and ballooned up and into our goal.

Bollocks.

With me unable to watch a potential replay in ten days’ time, I was grimly aware that another Hull City goal would cause me grief for more than one reason. After cheaply giving the ball away, Bowen fed Grosicki but his shot was thankfully wide.

Tariq Lamptey replaced Pedro late on. We survived an even later home corner.

Hull 1 London 2.

Phew.

The soft Southerners, thankfully, had not been a soft touch.

Into Round Five we went.

We took our time exiting the stadium. Out onto Anlaby Road once more, and we walked past our hotel on the search for nosebag. A Greek restaurant was fully-booked, but I soon spotted the sign for “Tandoor Mahal.”

Perfect.

I was on the “Diet Cokes” now – my Sunday morning drive on my mind – but we settled in and enjoyed a lovely meal.

Prawn puri, lamb dhansak, boiled rice and peshwari naan.

I filled my boots. It was one of the best curries that I have eaten for a while. Top marks.

On the adjacent table was Lee, a Hull City supporter of around the same vintage as little old me, and we spent ages talking – lamenting – how football has changed over the past thirty years. We soon found that we had so many things in common. He was with his young daughter, and he really wanted to stay out with us, but after an elongated leaving ceremony he reluctantly said “cheerio.”

He wanted me to mention him in this blog.

So, there you go Lee. See you next time.

At about 10pm, we wandered back to our digs, passing some locals, who we engaged in some witty banter as is our wont.

“Where are you off lads”?

“Back to our hotel.”

“Oh no. It’s not The Carlton is it”?

“Oh yes.”

“Oh God.”

There was time for one last nightcap at the hotel before bed. Next to us at the bar were three Chelsea fans; a young couple from Birmingham and a chap from Stafford. I was, at last, comforted that other Chelsea supporters had chosen the same hotel as us.

It had been a long day. At just before 11pm, I called it a night. Anlaby Road had treated us well.

Next up, an away day – up the Fosse Way once more – to Leicester City.

I will see you there.

Featured album :

“Eden” : Everything But The Girl 1984.

 

Tales From Three Generations

Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest : 5 January 2020.

On the train back to Lewes on New Year’s Day, after our 1-1 draw at Brighton, Glenn set me a question to consider.

“Who did we play in the first game of the last decade, then?”

It got me thinking.

“2009/10, the double season…mmm, I don’t think it was an away game…”

It took me a few seconds, but the memory of the day – if not the opposition – soon came to me.

“I know. I can remember. We were at home in the FA Cup on Saturday 3 January. It was my mother’s eightieth birthday, and we had stayed at the hotel at Stamford Bridge on the Saturday night. Can’t remember the opposition, though.”

It was Watford and we won 5-0. And it would be my mother’s last visit to Stamford Bridge.

On this day of our game with Nottingham Forest, a day when Chelsea Football Club would be looking back fifty years to our first ever F. A. Cup win in 1970, it seemed right that I would be looking back ten years to a game in the F. A. Cup too. Season 2009/10 was my second full campaign of these match reports and here are a few notes from that lovely day.

“Mum has been to Chelsea many times before and I guess she has been to The Bridge around twenty-five times…mainly in the 1974 to 1979 period, when Dad would drive us up from Somerset twice per season. Mum also went to games at Bristol Rovers, Bristol City and Swindon Town. The last game that Mum saw at Chelsea was the Birmingham match in 2005, our centenary championship. Happy memories.

I peered out of our hotel room down at the old Shed wall, the winter sun lighting up the South London horizon beyond. A few fans were already clutching Megastore bags.

With the cold weather showing no signs of letting up, we sat in the hotel foyer / bar area from 11am to 2.15pm. It was a lovely time. The place gradually filled-up with Chelsea fans. My two mates Glenn and Parky arrived at about 11.30am and we sat in a cosy corner with Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti, chatting about all sorts. Peter was there with his daughter and grand-son. We spoke about our shoddy form of late, but we didn’t let it spoil our time.

We left the hotel, coats buttoned, scarves on. We battled against the crowd. The 6,000 away fans were out in force. The weather was brutal, but Mum wasn’t complaining. There was the usual ten-minute wait to get inside the MHU. We managed to take the lift up to the top tier. Mum is in good health, but six flights of stairs is too much (sometimes for me). Once inside the stadium, it didn’t seem so cold. A full Shed End of away fans, but only three paltry flags. They didn’t make much noise. No balloons.

The big surprise that Anelka wasn’t playing and I wasn’t sure of the formation…was it not a “Christmas Tree” (with Malouda and Joe behind Sturridge)? To be honest, after three early goals, I was far from caring…whatever formation it was, it was definitely working. What attacking options down the left with Ashley and Zhirkov and Malouda. I was very pleased that Sturridge scored his first goal for us, but the other two goals were scrappy. Not to worry – coasting. I think I counted just two Watford shots in the entire first-half.

At half-time, more congratulatory handshakes and kisses for my mother. Anna brought us some coffees and Russ gave some mince pies. It was a lovely feeling for Mum to meet my match day mates.

Loads more Chelsea pressure in the second period and what a strike from Frank – especially for Mum. I was really impressed with the cool finish from Sturridge for his second goal…very nice. We all thought it a shame that Carlo took the lad off when he was “on” for his hat-trick.

The Chelsea support was quiet and were only really roused after each goal.

I was so pleased when I glimpsed Mum singing along to “Chelsea, Chelsea” to the tune of “Amazing Grace.” How sweet the sound. She could teach a few JCLs a lesson or two.

Carlo made a few substitutions but it stayed at five. I shan’t make any further comments about our performance because – after all – it was only Watford. I was impressed with Sturridge and Zhirkov. JT seemed intent on going on more mazy runs in the attacking third. Maybe he’s a frustrated striker. I’m convinced that one day he’ll score a goal of the season contender from forty yards. Towards the end, our former left-back Jon Harley (he of the scuttling runs) came on as a Watford substitute and was given one of the noisiest songs of the game. That was a nice touch. The “referee has added on a further five minutes” announcement was met with frost-bitten groans.

We walked back to the car, stopping off for a good old-fashioned plate of pie and chips and a mug of tea on the North End Road. We eventually thawed out. On the drive back home to Somerset, we listened to the FA Cup draw and I was elated that we face an away jaunt to Preston. At last a new stadium to visit (well, actually a very old stadium, but a first-time visit for me.)”

So, 1970, 2010 and 2020 linked already.

But there is more.

Going back to the notes for the game with Everton last season, played on the one-hundredth anniversary of the cessation of hostilities in the First World War, I introduced the story of my mother’s father, my grandfather, and his link to Stamford Bridge.

“My grandfather was a good sportsman. He played football for Mells and Vobster United and cricket for Mells. I remembered the black and white photographs of both sides, taken in around 1925, on display in a bedroom when I was a child. He was, apparently, the star of the cricket team, and after studying the scorebooks from that era – priceless items – I can vouch for this. However, a family friend would not be afraid to tell me that he had a mean temper on a cricket pitch. Quiet off the pitch, a bit of a demon on it. A familiar story for many I suppose.

For all of his adventures on both football and cricket pitches, though, there is one sporting story involving my grandfather that I have been enchanted about for decades. Once I chose Chelsea as my team in 1970, I can remember my grandfather telling me that he once visited Stamford Bridge with his great friend – and fellow Mells sportsman – Ted Knapton. It was, I am pretty convinced, the only football stadium that he ever visited.

My grandfather, however many times I pressed him, could not remember the teams involved though. But I know that he said he favoured Aston Villa – possibly a first love – as a child, and then latterly Newcastle United – through a friend. And I have often wondered if the two Teds, because of their association with Mells football, were gifted tickets for the 1920 FA Cup Final at Stamford Bridge between Villa and Huddersfield Town.

I am no detective, but that might be the answer.

Heaven knows, I have visualised his visit to Stamford Bridge in the ‘twenties so many times.

In later years, whenever I stood on The Shed, as part of that unhindered mass of terrace that originally swept all around the stadium, including the small paddock in front of the old East Stand, I had a wonderful feeling of being a physical part of the history of the club. Of a link with the past. I miss that terrace. It was immense, in more ways than one.

I wonder if my grandad stood here.”

I like the fact that, in addition to the club’s official celebration of the 1970 victory in 2020, I am going to be having my own private centenary celebration of 1920 too. This was the first of three consecutive years that our beloved Stamford Bridge was chosen to host the final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup.

So, 1920, 1970, 2010 and 2020 all linked-up now.

I love the fact that I am the third generation of my family to have seen football at Stamford Bridge.

That feels just perfect.

As last season progressed, we were gifted three home ties in the F. A. Cup and so I was able to add to my flight of fancy concerning my grandfather. I include these below, taken out of the Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday and Manchester United match reports.

“My grandfather, being careful not to walk into the onrushing crowds as he picked his way along the pavement from the Walham Green tube station to the main entrance of Stamford Bridge, was approached on several occasions by Cockney ticket touts, offering the chance to watch from the main stand. His ticket, and that of his friend Ted, had been given their general admission tickets by the Somerset Football Association in lieu of their role in the running of their local team Mells and Vobster United, for whom they had both played for a few seasons. My grandfather’s brother Christopher also played both sports for the village. My grandfather wondered how the touts had managed to get their hands on these tickets. It was a surprise to him. This was his first football match, and he was simply unaware that such tickets would be available.

“No thank you. We have tickets.”

“OK governor. You want to sell them to me?”

This confused and surely bemused my grandfather. He thought to himself, simplistically, “how would we get in without tickets?” and he paused for a while with a look on his face which probably was more serious than it really should have been.

“No. No thanks. No – they are ours.”

His long-time pal chipped in :

“We’ve come from Somerset for this match. Why would we give them to you?” “

“On the Fulham Road, as I stopped for a bite to eat at the al fresco café, I looked up at a tablet of stone containg words that commemorated a visit by the Duchess of Wessex to the Oswald Stoll buildings – for ex-servicemen – in 2009. It mentioned a respect for the “fortitude and resilience” of those soldiers of both World Wars. I looked up and saw the sepia figures – “ghosts” – of Ted Draper and Ted Knapton marching purposefully towards Stamford Bridge for the 1920 FA Cup Final.”

“Almost one hundred years ago, on Cup Final day 1920, my father Ted Draper and his long-time friend Ted Knapton made the slow ascent up the damp terraced steps – being jostled by other fans, some drunk already – at the rear of the great slug of terracing on the West side of Stamford Bridge. The air was expectant ahead of the Aston Villa vs. Huddersfield Town tie. It would be the only professional football match that my grandfather would ever attend. He had remembered, as a ten-year-old boy living in Somerset, how he had been astounded when told by others that a mighty crowd of 67,000 had attended a game at Stamford Bridge in Chelsea’s first-ever season in 1905/06. It confused him. How did a new club such as Chelsea suddenly have 67,000 supporters? And for a Second Division game too. It was an unheard of figure at the time and was the talk of the schoolyard for many a day. It had captured the imagination, wildly, of my dear grandfather. The visitors on that day in April 1906 were Manchester United and it was a promotion-decider of sorts. My grandfather was convinced that the vast number of spectators had been Chelsea fans, since Manchester was such a long way north, but how was it possible for so many to be lured to the new stadium? Chelsea had mainly played to crowds in the mid-teens throughout that inaugural campaign after that first-ever game at Stockport County. It was one of the biggest league crowds that England had ever seen, although FA Cup Final attendances at Crystal Palace sometimes reached six-figures. Apart from being a fan of the sport, my grandfather soon realised how magnificent it would be to part of such a spectacle and for many years he had daydreamed about being in a similar sized crowd.

In April 1920, he had his wish.”

We sometimes moan, as Chelsea fans, that we always seem to end up playing the same old teams in European competitions, and this often seems to occur in domestic cups too. This annoyance came to light when, for the second successive year, we were drawn at home to Nottingham Forest in the third round of the F. A. Cup. And, taking the biscuit this, the game would be played exactly one year later.

2018/19 : FA Cup Round Three – Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest, 5 January 2019

2019/20 : FA Cup Round Three – Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest, 5 January 2020.

Talk about Groundhog Day.

Additionally, we played the Tricky Trees at home in the League Cup in 2017/18 too.

We were in the boozer at just after 11am. Inside “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, all was quiet. The pub – a first visit for us this season – has had a recent re-fit, and it’s to our approval. There was a familiar clink of glasses as Parky, PD and I sat on the high bench seats and waited for others to arrive.

“Cheers.”

Dave from Wellingborough – one of the lads that I used to sit with on The Benches in 1984 and 1985 – soon arrived and it was a pleasure to see him again. Ironically, we bumped into each other for the first time in years at the F.A. Cup away game at Norwich almost two years’ ago. There was positive talk of our form so far this season, and there was talk of the special commemorative kit that Chelsea are using on this – hopefully long – F. A. Cup run this season. It is an almost exact replica of the blue, blue, yellow of the 1970 replay, and we all agreed that it looks the Mutt’s Nuts.

For those who don’t know (and I know many do, so please bear with me), the reason for the yellow trim is because both Chelsea and Leeds United played in white socks. In the first game at Wembley, Leeds were forced to wear the odd choice of Lancastrian red socks as we kept to the white. In the replay it was our turn to change; in came the yellow. To be honest, it could have been easy for us just to don some yellow socks, so fair play to the club for opting for matching yellow trim on the shirt and socks too. The kit re-surfaced for the 1972 League Cup Final too – minus the two blue rings on the socks – but has not been seen since.

Writing in these reports in the Spring of last season, I commented :

“Chit chat about kits came to the fore in recent days. There was a leaked image – as yet unconfirmed – of a truly horrific kit for Chelsea next season. I am sure everyone has seen it. It’s garbage. But it got a few of us thinking. Going into the fiftieth anniversary of the iconic 1970 FA Cup win at Old Trafford, it would be nice to honour that occasion with a one-season only kit of royal blue with yellow trim, including yellow socks.”

Looking back, I liked the fact that our kit in 1996/97 came with a little yellow trim for the first time ever. And we know how that season ended-up; our first silverware for twenty-six years, our first FA Cup since 1970.

We found ourselves talking about European trips. Dave mentioned an away game in Copenhagen in 1998. After the game, at the airport, he was feeling a little worse for wear, and was choosing some items for breakfast at the airport departure lounge. The cashier tallied up his purchases and he found himself a few “krone” short and so shouted over to a mate to see if he had any spare.

Dave heard a voice behind him.

“How much do you want mate? I’ll sort you out.”

Dave looked around and it was none other than Peter Osgood.

Just beautiful.

It seemed that 1970 was going to dominate the day. As if anyone needs reminding, my love of Chelsea Football Club began in April or May 1970, and I am wondering how many more bloody anniversaries will make an appearance in this edition.

Here’s one more.

In May 2000, we beat Aston Villa 1-0 to win the last-ever F. A. Cup Final at the old Wembley Stadium, and we will soon celebrate the anniversary of that triumph. Oh, and guess what? We played Forest at home in the Cup that season too.

Andy and Kim – the Kent lot – arrived unannounced, and the laughter was upped a few notches. They are off to Newcastle in a fortnight, like us, but were looking for tickets. I was glad to be able to assist with the search.

We caught the 28 bus down the North End Road and joined up with Alan and Gary in a very quiet “Simmons”.

Glenn, back in Frome, texted me :

“Chelsea – 9 changes, Forest – 10 changes.”

I replied :

“Chuckle Brothers – 1 change.”

There was just time for a last bottle of “Peroni” and we were off to the game. It was a mild day. We walked ahead of a few Forest fans, who were mulling over the inevitability of the changes announced by the Forest manager. Sadly, it is all about the Premier League these days, and promotion to it. But they seemed to have a “whatever will be will be” attitude. We hoped that our “B Team” would be better than Forest’s.

I bought three copies of the commemorative programme for friends, and caught the lift – like in 2010 – with PD, who struggles with stairs these days.

With not long to go to kick-off we were in. Alan and Gary were down in The Shed Upper for a change and I soon spotted them in row six. So, just PD and little old me in The Sleepy Hollow. There was a mix of usual season ticket holders and new faces which was good to see. I noted a smattering of children nearby which is a very rare sight in The Sleepy Hollow.

It usually resembles a SAGA day trip.

1920 returned to my thoughts.

He was inside Stamford Bridge now, and the enormity of it all hit home. The closeness of everything. The colours of the rosettes. The clamour for attention of the programme sellers, official and otherwise. The sellers of iced lemonade, of ginger beer, of cigarette salesmen. The shouts of the crowd. The Birmingham accents. The Yorkshire dialect. The smoke. The Londoners and the spivs, the touts, the brashness of the city. The musty aroma of overcoats. Caps, bonnets and hats. The swell of the crowd. The bands marching before the game. The huge advertisements adorning every spare inch of space, on hoardings at the back of the huge curve of the terrace, and on the backs of the houses on the Fulham Road. The appearance of the teams. The surge of those on the terrace as a chance goes close. The unstable nature of the terrace beneath the feet, of wooden risers and of mud and cinders. The clouds of dust. Pockets of cigarette smoke drifting over the spectators. The trees in Brompton Cemetery. The smoke rising from chimneys. The wounded Chelsea pensioners – that vivid splash of red – watching from the side of the pitch in antiquated wheelchairs, some without limbs, some without sight. My grandfather, wistful, lost for a moment, a flashback to Amiens or Ypres or Valenciennes.

“There but for the grace of God, go I.”

Forest had 3,000, the same as last season.

The teams entered the pitch – yellow flames, how in keeping – with Chelsea wearing blue trackie tops over the shirts. But the yellow trim looked magnificent. Off came the tops, and we all fell in love with the iconic 1970 Chelsea kit all over again.

It was, quite simply, stunning.

It was a vision in blue and yellow.

Everything was beautiful. The old style crest, the very subtle sponsorship branding in blue, the yellow stripe on the shorts, the shade of yellow, the two blue stripes on the socks, even the font of the numbers. Oh, and the lack of players’ names?  Superb.

Not sure of the little yellow tab at the rear of the colour, though.

The team lined-up as below.

Caballero

James – Tomori – Christensen – Emerson

Jorginho – Barkley – Kovacic

Pedro – Batshuayi – Hudson-Odoi

Chelsea in blue and yellow, Forest in red and white.

They were soon singing “Champions of Europe, we won it two times.”

At 2.01pm, the game kicked-off.

For a change, we were attacking the North Stand in the first period. How ‘seventies.

“Come on Chelsea.”

In the first few minutes, Callum and Reece were dribbling down the right wing and I was dribbling all over my top as I looked on with awe at the amazing kit on show. I wasn’t paying attention, but PD was purring as Reece sent over a tantalising cross.

Before we knew it, Callum was played in by Pedro after a lovely interchange of play and found himself in the inside right channel, though with noticeably more space than in recent league games. He cut inside, picked his spot and rifled low past the Forest ‘keeper. After only six minutes, we were on our way to Wembley.

GET IN.

Very soon, a text from The Shed appeared on my dog and bone.

“THTCAUN.”

I replied.

“COMLD.”

We were all over Forest, and two more excellent crosses from the increasingly trustworthy boot of James caused panic in the Forest six-yard box. Alas, despite the lead, the atmosphere was unsurprisingly wank, and – like last season – the away fans were asking us if Stamford Bridge was a building in which books could be temporarily loaned out and then returned free-of-charge.

We had no reply really.

At least nobody retorted with “you’re just a shit Derby County.”

Ah, Derby. Because of last season, there was a largely indecipherable ditty about Our Frank and his former charges throughout the first half, but it is not worth any more comment.

Michael Dawson was booed by some in the home support, all very tedious.

Against the run of play, Forest were awarded a penalty when Fikayo Tomori was adjudged to have fouled a Forest striker. The tedious VAR was called into action and, lo and behold, no penalty but an offside instead.

“FUCK VAR” shouted Forest and I wholeheartedly agreed.

A shot from Tomori, a shot from Pedro, a shot from Barkley, a shot from Michy Batshuayi. Our chances were piling up. Behind, Jorginho the prompter was having a fine game. On around the half-hour mark, a lovely move set up a shot for Our Callum which was only half-saved by the ‘keeper and Ross Barkley was on hand to tap in with almost an involuntary action. Ross had already wasted a few early moments of possession, irritating some, so perhaps if he had time to think about his finish he might not have fared quite so well. We immediately stood up and applauded and, as I snapped away, there was no thought of a VAR involvement. It looked a perfectly sound goal to us in The Sleepy Hollow. Ross celebrated with his team mates below.

VAR?

No offside, well on. Goal.

“Surely it’s safe now, PD. Mind you, we were 2-0 up against Bradford City in 2015.”

Another cross from Reece, but a glancing header from Michy was sent just wide of the post. We had totally dominated the first-half, and it had been a breeze.

At the break, as I had predicted, we were treated to the appearance of five of the 1970 twelve.

Ron Harris.

Marvin Hinton.

Tommy Baldwin.

John Dempsey.

John Hollins.

Of course, sadly Peter Osgood, Peter Houseman and Ian Hutchinson are no longer with us, and Peter Bonetti is very poorly. PD made the point that it was a shame that there was no 1970 goalkeeping kit on show. Bearing in mind that The Cat is struggling with his health it would be a lovely gesture if this can be remedied. A “Bonetti kit” – green cotton gloves, too – with proceeds going to his medical requirements. It would sell I am sure. Over to you, Chelsea.

Of the remaining players, Eddie McCreadie and Charlie Cooke are in the US, and David Webb – the maverick – never seems to be invited to these sort of occasions, a real shame.

The second-half began. There was not quite the same drive and intensity as the first-half and I got the distinct impression that Forest were looking at this as some sort of training exercise. We created a few chances, though, with a header from Barkley after a fine dribble and cross from Hudson-Odoi grazing the post below Alan and Gary in The Shed.

From a Forest free-kick down below us, Ryan Yates rose in the six yard box to head home but, as he taunted us as he celebrated, the flag was raised for offside, which VAR upheld.

The crowd went mild.

Still the atmosphere was poor. Only a rousing “Stand Up If You Hate Tottenham” chant on the hour united the whole stadium. But that’s another chant that is over-worked these days.

Oh how the Forest fans loved it when Mason Mount – Derby County last season – replaced Kovacic on seventy minutes. He was roundly booed every time he received the ball. There was also an appearance for Tariq Lampty replacing Pedro, who might have been playing his last game for us if his clapping of all four stands was anything to go by. Lampteys number “48” took up the entire back of his shirt.

The game dwindled a little, but it was still Chelsea who dominated throughout. Late efforts from Batshuayi, Emerson and Hudson-Odoi did not increase the score. But this was as easy a win as I can remember.

Groundhog Day again, even the scores were the same.

2018/19 : FA Cup Round Three – 5 January 2019.

Chelsea 2 Nottingham Forest 0.

2019/20 : FA Cup Round Three – 5 January 2020.

Chelsea 2 Nottingham Forest 0.

Frank Lampard soon raced on to the pitch to thank us, but by then my mind was elsewhere, and I was pondering what sandwich to buy on the walk back to the car, and which away venues were up for grabs in the next round.

And I wondered what next as this homage to 1970 continues on in to the next stage; sideburns for the players, perhaps?

On the drive home, or at home, I found out that this was our twenty-second successive advancement into the Fourth Round. Now that is some achievement (the less said about what happened in 1998, when we were F. A. Cup holders, the better.)

Wembley – here we come?

It would be nice. We certainly like our fiftieth anniversaries and our centenaries at Chelsea.

Next up, we have a run of the mill league encounter at home to Burnley next Saturday. Before that game, I might even pop into the Megastore to purchase a pair of blue and yellow shorts for an Argentinian summer.

I have some missionary work to do in Buenos Aires.

 

Tales From Sunshine And Schadenfreude

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 12 May 2019.

It seemed quite apt that Chelsea Football Club should end its domestic travels in 2018/19 in a city in the East Midlands which is situated on the River Soar, with a population of 330,000, which hosts cricket, rugby and football teams and is home to the world’s largest crisp factory. Where else could we end up? Our visits to away cities throughout the league campaign, chronologically listed, mirrored the words of a certain song.

“We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea: Huddersfield, Newcastle, London, Southampton, Burnley, London, Wolverhampton, Brighton, Watford, London, London, Bournemouth, Manchester, London, Liverpool, Cardiff, Liverpool, Manchester and Leicester.”

This season, although certainly not the most-loved, has zipped past at a ridiculous rate of knots. Our first game in the sun of West Yorkshire seemed only recent and it seemed implausible that this one was the final game of the season. But game thirty-eight it was. With qualification to next season’s Champions League assured, the game at Leicester City took on a much more relaxed air than we had expected. I collected PD at just after eight o’clock and LP at just after eight-thirty. It was a stunning Sunday morning; not a hint of a cloud, the sun out, and a fine chilled-out air of relaxed anticipation. After travels north, east, south and west, the league fixture list had saved me – possibly – the best to last.

A three-hour drive along the Fosse Way, the old Roman road – straight as a die, from Exeter to Lincoln – is always a treat for me. It didn’t let me down. I thoroughly enjoyed the undulating road as we swept past quintessentially English place names on our way through the Cotswolds.

Stanton St. Quentin, Malmesbury, Cirencester, Ampney Crucis, Bourton-on-the-Water, Upper Slaughter, Stow-on-the-Wold, Moreton-in-Marsh, Stretton-on-Fosse.

We had breakfasted at Melksham. We stopped for a drink in “The Star” at Moreton-in-Marsh. After heading off the Fosse, and after skirting the lost football city of Coventry, through Warwickshire and into Leicestershire, we stopped at another pub “The Hinckley Night” on the outskirts of the town with the same name.

It was quite apt that I had chosen the Fosse Way as our route. Way back in the mists of time, Leicester City were first known as Leicester Fosse.

At about 2pm, after our breaks for sustenance – we watched a little of the Old Firm game at the second pub – I was parked-up. There were clouds in the sky, and we all decided to take jackets “just in case.” Leicester City’s stadium is a mile to the north of the Leicestershire cricket ground and half a mile to the south of Leicester Tigers rugby stadium. While PD and LP popped inside for a top-up, I circumnavigated the stadium, which lies just a couple of hundred yards to the south of their old Filbert Street ground. This old stadium was ridiculously lop-sided with two large stands on adjacent sides and two minuscule ones opposite.

I took in the pre-match atmosphere. This was only my fifth visit to the new place. I was on holiday in the US at the time of our first visit in the FA Cup campaign of 2003/4 and I have missed the two recent cup fixtures too. It’s a relatively neat, yet overwhelmingly bland stadium, with no real distinguishing features. “King Power” is everywhere. On the rear of the north stand is a large image of their former chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who so sadly perished in the helicopter crash at the stadium last October.

I took the usual smattering of photographs. Their new shirt – laced with gold Adidas stripes rather than white – looked neat and tidy.

Inside the stadium, and into the concourse, I soon spotted a few mates.

A standard greeting was “going to Baku?”

I gulped down a soft-drink – no alcohol at all for me on this day – and met up with Alan and Gary in the seats. Bringing a jacket, I soon realised, was being over-cautious. The sun was relentless. I wasn’t the only person who had over-dressed. My jacket was placed on my seat.

The teams soon appeared.

A hand-written banner was held up in the away end:

EDEN HAZARD BLEEDS BLUE.

CHELSEA IS YOUR HOME.

We were in all yellow, and it brought back memories of our huge 3-1 win in 2014/15 when the Fabregas song stole the show. I remembered, too, how the Morata song was a strong memory of last season’s league game. With what has happened since – another song, another place – it is actually hard to believe that fans were singing the “y” word so forcefully and loudly only twenty months ago. Leicester City had reverted to an old-style blue / white / blue. It did look like a neat kit.

Our team?

Caballero

Zappacosta – Azpilicueta – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Loftus-Cheek – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Willian

I had a look around at those in the away end. For some reason, there seemed to be a disproportionately high number of old replica shirts on show; many more than usual. I even spotted a Chelsea Collection number from 1986/87. I only saw two of the 2019/20 shirts.

Our game began.

And so did all the others.

Three games stole the show; Brighton vs. Manchester City, Liverpool vs. Wolves and Tottenham vs. Everton.

Ross Barkley went close within the first few minutes, after a good ball from Jorginho, but his shot hit Schmeichel. It was a chance that promised good things, but was a false dawn. The home fans to my left – I was only a matter of a few feet from them, were noisy as hell in that first part of the game. They sang of their former owner.

“Vichai had a dream.

To build our football team.

He came from Thailand and now he’s one of our own.

We play from the back.

We counter attack.

“Champions of England.”

You made us sing that.”

Indeed, they do counter-attack. And we smother the ball and pass to ourselves to oblivion. It was a massive difference in style between the two teams. Leicester broke at pace with Jamie Vardy and Youri Tielemans looking useful. We passed the ball here there and everywhere, but did not create too much.

Liverpool went, unsurprisingly, a goal up at Anfield.

Then, a score flash which made us groan.

Brighton had taken the lead at home to City. Then, just as I was passing on the news to a few close friends, a noticeable cheer in the Chelsea end. My spirits were raised.

City had equalised.

On the pitch, there was lots of square passes, with little quality penetration. The banter in the stands was proving to be more entertaining. The Leicester fans alongside us had sung about Eden Hazard leaving for Madrid.

We retorted “He’s won more than you.”

There were schoolyard taunts from them. Then came the killer blow, loud and with venom :

“Eden Hazard. He won it for you.”

Fair play, the Leicester lot clapped that. I winked at a few of them, a “thumbs up” here and there.

Ha.

In the other game of interest, Tottenham had scored a very early goal against Everton. We needed to match that to finish above them. But we had to rely on the out-of-sorts Gonzalo Higuain. He slammed one shot wide of the post on the half-hour mark.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

A Vardy header from a free-kick forced a save from Willy Caballero.

The bloke behind me then cheered me : “City have got a second.”

Phew.

In the closing moments of the first-period, a slip from David Luiz allowed Vardy to race on but his ball through to Tielemans was overhit and the chance went begging.

Then, right before the whistle, Higuain missed from only a few yards out, his brain doing the waltz, his feet doing the samba.

“Fackinell.”

Leicester City 0 Chelsea 0

Brighton 1 Manchester City 2

Liverpool 1 Wolves 0

Tottenham 1 Everton 0

Things were going our way in the title hunt, but not our way in our more local battle with Tottenham.

At the break, I bumped into Alex and Reece.

“Would you keep Sarri, Chris?”

Oh God. Me on the spot. Yes, I would.

“I have never warmed to the bloke. He is so one-dimensional. But has he got his own players to play his system? Not yet. I am full of doubt, but give him a full pre-season, give him time. We have the chance to finish top three. We have reached two cup finals. We would have taken that in August. In February we would have for sure.”

The lads were in agreement, with reservations.

“What do we know, we’re not experts.”

But – oh – the football has been so poor at times this season. It has proven one thing; Chelsea supporters want to be entertained. It is in our DNA.

Neal 1983/84

Gullit 1996/97

Mourinho 2004/5

Ancelotti 2009/10

Conte 2016/17

The best I have known…

The second-half began and my forehead was starting to burn up. Parky arrived back from the bar.

“You haven’t missed anything, mate.”

If the first-half was tepid, the second-half was turgid. Chances – real gilt-edged chances – were so rare. A Leicester volley did not hit the target. Barkley shot wide.

Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass – but without the movement from the players to allow the passes to hurt the tight Leicester defence. Elsewhere, goals were being scored. Manchester City went 3-1 up and eventually 4-1 up, and Liverpool scored a second. The title was City’s.

I hummed “Blue Moon” to myself.

The away end was loving it. We were loving it even more when Everton equalised. And then – to a chorus of “it’s happened again” – we heard that Everton had gone 2-1 up. This was turning into a fantastic afternoon despite the poor game taking place before my very eyes. The noise from the home fans had long since subsided.

There had been, on sixty minutes – and while a player was getting treatment – a minute of appreciation, with white scarves being held aloft by the Leicester supporters in memory of their former chairman. Many Chelsea fans joined in. Good stuff.

Eden Hazard replaced Willian.

His last game in England? Almost certainly.

Mateo Kovacic replaced Barkley.

Olivier Giroud replaced the lackluster and lazy Higuain.

Tottenham scored a second.

Our game petered out.

A Chelsea draw and a Tottenham draw.

“As you were.”

I did not wait around too long to make a move. I saw a few players walking over. There were several – eight? ten? – fans with cardboard signs asking for shirts. There were a few adults among them. One sign was eight-foot long.

I hate modern football.

Outside, I shook hands with many.

“Have a good summer.”

“See you in Baku.”

I don’t think we will sell remotely close to our allotted 5,800 in Azerbaijan. But at least I was cheered to speak to a few that were going. I just have this dread of Arsenal heavily outnumbering us. Of my closest one-hundred Chelsea mates, maybe only fifteen are going. It is a sign of the absurdity of UEFA choosing such a host city. But that is a story for another day.

Outside, I chatted briefly to Long Tall Pete and Liz. We all loved the fact that both Chelsea and Tottenham drew. It was pure comedy gold. All that Tottenham had to do, with hindsight, was to win a home game against Everton and the twats would have finished above us. To think that they were being touted as possible title contenders at Christmas…

Third in a two-horse race in 2015/16.

Fourth in a three-horse race in 2018/19.

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

Back in the car, it was time to drive south, and complete this story of our 2018/19 league campaign. Huge respect to PD for attending all thirty-eight games, I think for the second time in three seasons. I ended up missing two, the back-to-back games at Wolves and at home to City.

It has been, as the saying goes, emotional. But it has also been excruciating at times. There have only been rare games where I have been genuinely entertained. It has been a grueling slog. I have watched as supporters splinter into pro-Sarri and anti-Sarri factions. I have struggled with it all. I have struggled with this new type of football. I have become bored reading the never-ending appraisals of how – I hate this word, I rarely use it – “Sarribal” is meant to work.

I have lost count of the many deeply earnest and wordy explanations of “Sarribal” on social media that I have studied over the past year. All of a sudden “regista” is a buzz word. After virtually all of these appraisals, I have been so tempted to write “I bet you are fun at parties.” I see a worrying new sub-section of Chelsea followers who are not died-in-the-wool supporters in the most basic sense of the word, but critics and self-appointed “experts.”

Football, to me, is about passion, involvement, support, belligerence, suffering, humour, laughs, beers, a shared kin-ship, a devotion to the cause. And maybe some trophies thrown in for good measure.

OK, rant over, as the kids say.

We stopped at the pub in Hinckley for some nosebag. I continued enjoying the drive home, the spring colours fading as the sun dipped.

Cirencester, Malmesbury, Chippenham, Melksham, Bradford-on-Avon, Frome…home. Just in time to tune in to the highlights on “MOTD2.” Old habits die hard.

I will see some of you next season.

I will see some of you in Baku.

Cheers.

The Star, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire & The Hinckley Knight, Hinckley, Leicestershire.

Tales From Third Place

Chelsea vs. Watford : 5 May 2019.

At around 7.30pm on a clear and sunny but occasionally chilly evening, Glenn dropped me off outside my house. It had been another excellent day out in London with some fine friends. For Glenn, it was sadly his last game of this ridiculous season. I reached over and shook his hand and thanked him for driving for the second home game in a row. We very briefly exchanged thoughts about the manager once more. I thought back to the very first match of the season and I smiled as I said the word “Perth.” How can the campaign be almost over? How can that game that Glenn and I attended in Western Australia in late July seem like it only happened a month ago? Time and life is accelerating away far too damn quickly for me, for all of us.

Glenn had collected me at 7am. PD was already riding shotgun, and Lord Parky joined us soon after.

Both PD and Lord Parky were rather tattered and torn after their European travels in the week. Due to a delayed flight from Cologne, they did not get home until 4.30am on Saturday morning. They were both – as the saying goes – “hanging.” It was such an odd feeling to be watching their activities via Facebook on Wednesday and Thursday, with me being confined to barracks, working the late shift in Melksham. But by forgoing the semi-final – I don’t always make European semi-finals, Madrid 2014 certainly springs to mind – at least I had engineered some time off for the potential trip to Baku for the final.

Yes, it was an odd one alright. PD, Parky and little old me have been joined at the hip for most of this season and it was strange not to be over there in Frankfurt. It reminded me of an occasion, which sticks very vividly in my mind, from my early teen years when my parents, my grandparents and I squeezed into my father’s Renault and drove down to visit relatives in South Somerset. It hadn’t been a particularly long journey. But at the end of, it while my father tried to locate a place to park, my mother – who had been sitting alongside me – got out of the car and walked behind the car as it drove away, in order to pre-warn the relatives that we had arrived. I looked back at my mother, now separate from the main party, and it felt odd. That all happened almost forty years ago. Why do I mention it? I don’t know. It was if a connection had been lost, that my mother was now adrift, that she was on her own.

Forty years on, I never ever thought I would be referencing it to a Chelsea game in Frankfurt, but there you go.

Just before 10am, we entered the now familiar surroundings of “The Eight Bells” once again. The bar staff recognised us. It is soon becoming my local, one hundred miles from home. We were joined by Ollie and Julien from Normandy. I have known Ollie for a few years and we bump into each other at occasional games here and there. He is well known in the Chelsea family. It was lovely to see him again. I had not previously met Julien, his cousin, and it gave me a chance to reel off a few loosely remembered phrases from French “O level” in 1981.

I thanked Ollie for being one of the first few subscribers to this blogarama. We chatted about our love of “old school” stadia and we are both looking forward to the trip to Bramall Lane next season. I’m pretty happy with Sheffield United and Norwich City’s promotion to the top flight. We have already spoken about staying over in those cities next season, depending upon kick-off times. Elsewhere in the Football League pyramid, there were some sobering developments. Somerset’s only Football League team Yeovil Town were returned to non-league football after a spell of sixteen years in the Football League, rising to one single season in the Championship in 2013/14. A sadder tale involves the world’s oldest professional club, Notts County, who joined Yeovil Town in the second relegation spot. It does not seem so long ago that while Chelsea were toiling in the Second Division, Notts County were enjoying a few seasons – 1981/82, 1982/83 and 1983/84 – in Division One. We were last in the same division in 1991/92. A college pal, Craig, went to the Notts game at Swindon Town on the Saturday. I felt for him.

Why mention this?

I remember Notts County getting promoted ahead of us in 1980/81 when our season fell away dramatically after Christmas. And now they will be playing non-league football next season. A lot of newer Chelsea fans have a dig at people like me, always harking back to the days when Chelsea Football Club were under-performing and that these days are, by comparison, nothing to get too overemotional about. But I don’t care. Chelsea’s history in those bleaker years have coloured my opinions over the past twenty-five years of sustained success.

And that ain’t going to change.

We were then joined by John, Kev and Rich, from Edinburgh, all Hearts supporters. I have a lot of time for all three of them. On the Saturday, John had taken his two-year-old grandson to Tynecastle for the very first time. The pictures on Facebook had made me smile. The young lad fared better than the Jambos who lost 1-0 to Steve Clarke’s Kilmarnock. Then the Kent lads showed up. It was all very pleasant. The pints of “Grolsch” were hitting the spot. I laughed as I turned to John and said “bollocks to the football, let’s just stay here.”

Ah, the football. After Tottenham’s calamitous performance against Bournemouth the previous afternoon – two sendings off and a late winner from Nathan Ake – we were now in a position where two more wins would secure us automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League.

Oh what a crazy bloody season.

In previous conversations, we had been worried about getting points at Leicester City, and Watford would hardly be easy pickings. But two wins. Just two wins. It seemed achievable, and yet…

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

As is the case these days, the last home game of the season gives the commercial team at Chelsea Football Club a chance to display the new home kit for the forthcoming season, despite the fact that we will no doubt revert to the 2018/19 design for the games against Eintracht Frankfurt and Leicester City. As for the potential final in Baku, I am hoping for a repeat of 2012 and 2013 – when kits from those seasons were used – and not 2008, with a kit which was destined to bring back awful memories throughout the following campaign.

So. The 2019/20 Chelsea kit.

Have you got a minute?

I didn’t spot too many supporters wearing the new shirt on the walk to Stamford Bridge. I, like many, have spent the past few weeks fearing the worst, ever since a photograph of a new design was shared on the internet.

My thoughts?

The notion of honouring Stamford Bridge on the home shirt is not a ridiculous idea. Way back in 1995, Umbro took the decision to go for a panoramic shadow print of Old Trafford on the Manchester United home shirt. I wasn’t a huge fan, but it sold by the thousands, and millions. At the time, we all joked that it was the nearest many United fans would get to Old Trafford.

Stamford Bridge has – let’s be honest – rather a hotchpotch selection of stands. The East Stand is probably the most iconic – the most recognisable – but the three newer ones are of varying heights, with differences in sizes, in shape, in impact. So, dear reader, if I was given the brief to design a new Chelsea shirt embodying our home since 1905, I may well have chosen other sights and motifs.

The Peter Osgood statue, on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1970 FA Cup Final triumph – when The King scored in every round – would be a good place to start. A subtle shadow print of a single image over the chest perhaps. Or if the mantra of “less is more” is not adhered to, and the brief was for multiple images, then how about the ivy on The Shed Wall, or the Gatling Gun weather vane from atop the East Stand? How about the “Chelsea Football Club” signage on the wall between The Shed and the West Lower, which in itself is a nod to the wording used on the old Leitch East Stand which welcomed supporters to Stamford Bridge for decades?

Or how about a single panoramic image – as subtle as possible – of that often-referenced sweeping black and white panorama from the ‘twenties?

Well, instead of this, the design team chose – as far as I can muster – repeated images of circular roof trusses, roof supports and side screens.

And not just a few subtle dabs here and there. The ramshackle design covers the entire shirt. It appears that random geometric shapes have been thrown together.

It is – let me be clear here – fucking hideous.

The blue of the shorts looks to me, from my subsequent match photos, to be a slightly darker hue than the main body of the shirt. And although the decision was to, thankfully, maintain the classic white socks, the design seems to be a year late. The current 2018/19 kit design is meant to reflect the 1983/84 kit, but next season’s socks are closer to the 1983/84 style than this season. And whereas both new shirts and shorts are solidly blue – albeit in three different tones – the socks have a red band, therefore not tying it in with either shorts or socks. Oh, apart from an oddly-placed red stripe under the rear of the collar. Additionally, the images of the rectangles and circles that make up the design appear to be smudged. Not crisp. Not clear. As a metaphor for the way parts of the club operates, it is – however – perfect.

It’s a bloody mess.

Why should I care, though?

Well, the sad fact is that I do care. It looks like a dog’s dinner. It looks like the sort of children’s pyjamas that are on sale in the bargain aisle at “Asda.” And, if the reaction of the vast majority of Chelsea supporters that I interact with is to go by, it is rated as one of the worst ever. And that means, ergo, that Nike won’t be getting the desired sales returns that they might have hoped. Which defeats the bloody object of designing a new kit in the first place.

I hate modern football part 259.

On the pitch down below me, Watford surprised us all with their attacking verve in the first-half. They were by far the more enterprising of the two teams. They buzzed about us like proper hornets in their waspish shirts. The highlight from our players was a truly magnificent save from Kepa as he flung himself to his right to tip over a Troy Deeney drive. The away fans in their yellow and black were enjoying their team’s early dominance. We, however, struggled to get a foothold on the game. Sadly, N’Golo Kante was injured within the first ten minutes and we missed his drive in the first-half. He was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Although I did not see the game on Thursday, many mentioned that he was our best player in Frankfurt. Gerard Deulofeu managed to find space to threaten our goal and shots were fired in from outside the box. We really struggled, and rarely carved out chances.

There was, at last, a nice little give and go between Gonzalo Higuain and Pedro. The Spaniard’s drive flashed past the far post.

There was an penalty shout for a foul on David Luiz. I wasn’t convinced.

At the break, although I am sure the people that I bumped into didn’t all offer this blunt, and hardly erudite, opinion, but the general consensus was :

“Fucking shit.”

Thankfully, the second-half was a vast improvement.

I am not normally a huge fan of short corners at all. However, after Eden Hazard forced a save from the Watford ‘keeper Ben Foster, the subsequent corner was played short to Pedro. Hazard clipped the return into the six-yard box and our Ruben rose virtually unchallenged.

A strong downward header, and we were one up.

Hazard blasted at Foster. We were all guns blazing now.

Two minutes later, another Hazard corner on the far side, but this time a direct approach. Another free header though, this time from the head of Luiz.

Two up and coasting.

Those three points were looking good.

This was more like it, Chelsea. With the confidence of a two goal cushion, our play looked a lot more appetising. There was one surging run from our Eden – possibly the last that I will ever capture on film at Stamford Bridge – which had the Watford defence back peddling and questioning their choice of career.

We went close with efforts from Pedro, Loftus-Cheek and Higuain. The dangerous Deulofeu would not be quietened at the other end. He slammed a low shot wide of the far post.

With fifteen minutes to go, Higuain – who had attempted a few tricky passes to others – saw a hint of space and lost his marker. He was set free inside the box by the excellent Pedro, and the Argentinian – we share the same shit barber – dinked a delicate lob over the ‘keeper.

Chelsea 3 Watford 0.

Game over. Almost.

Watford hit the bar. They deserved a goal to be fair.

Olivier Giroud came on for Higuain and contrived to bugger up a couple of chances. In the very last minute, Dave gave the captain’s armband to Gary Cahill, who replaced David Luiz. His season has been a painful one. It was lovely to see him in Chelsea blue one last time.

He’s won it all, you know.

A last jink from Eden and a last shot on goal.

It did not matter. A three-nil win was the final result.

Meanwhile, up in Huddersfield, the home team had – somehow – managed to hold Manchester United to a 1-1 draw. On the way home, all but the driver caught up on some sleep, and as we woke we heard that Brighton had drawn 1-1 at Arsenal.

That was it. The others had committed hari kari and Chelsea Football Club were guaranteed Champions League football in 2019/20.

What a bloody crazy season.

On Thursday, we take on Eintracht Frankfurt and some of their ten thousand-strong travelling army.

I will see some of you there.

I’ll be the one not wearing pyjamas.

Tales From The United Colours Of Football

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 April 2019.

There was definitely a different vibe going into the away game at Old Trafford compared to the match at Anfield a fortnight earlier. For the Liverpool game, it was all about damage limitation. With hindsight, a draw was a rather fanciful hope. Along with Manchester City, Liverpool have been head and shoulders ahead of the pack this season. A loss against Klopp’s team was almost inevitable. But an away game against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s miss-firing team was an entirely different proposition. Due to our lack of potency in front of goal, I was still pragmatic / pessimistic (delete where appropriate) about us scoring, so my prediction was a 0-0 draw. But this was a result that was far more difficult to call. On the drive up in the car – I won’t bore everyone into the early stages of rigor mortis, our drive up to Manchester United takes the same form as always – I explained my thoughts to P Diddy and L Parky.

“Hey, this could be a game where we play well and lose, or it could be a game where we play crap and win. We could lose three-nil or we could win three-nil.”

This was a familiar drive north indeed.

I was parked up at the usual place, a twenty-minute walk away from the famous crossroads on the Chester Road, where the match day experience at Old Trafford starts to crackle and to ignite. “The Bishop Blaize” pub, the row of take-aways, the Red Devils and Lou Macari fish and chip shops, the coming together of United fans from all parts of the city, the north-west, the United Kingdom, Europe and the world, the “Trafford” pub, the lights of the Lancashire Cricket Ground, the fanzine sellers, the off-licences, the match-day routines.

As I looked over at the “Trafford” pub, I was reminded of a few scenes set in and around Old Trafford during the film “Charlie Bubbles” that featured the recently departed actor Albert Finney – a local boy made good both in this film and in real life – and I remembered that the mock Tudor beams, still visible in 2019, were able to be spotted in the film too.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfFTeiV_ti4

This piece of film is from a match day in October 1966, and depicts the walk to Old Trafford – along what is now Sir Matt Busby Way – that Finney and his son took, ending up with a walk across the forecourt. The three of us were taking this exact same route in 2019. There is something warming about that. That the match featured fleetingly in the film was our away game at Old Trafford makes the clip even more poignant.

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I am adamant that Albert Finney was on the pitch before a United vs. Chelsea game in relatively recent times. Maybe the 2-2 FA Cup game a few seasons ago.

This would be my twenty-fourth away game at Old Trafford with Chelsea. That’s one more than the twenty-three that I have made with Chelsea to Anfield. But there have been two FA Cup semi-final visits too, against Liverpool in 2006 and Blackburn Rovers in 2007. On both of these occasions, we were in the Stretford End, mirroring the location of our support in the 1970 FA Cup Final replay. It is not known which end was Chelsea in the Khaki Cup Final of 1915.

2007 A

For the 2006 game, with Chelsea looking likely to dominate English football for a while, we produced stickers which were applied with liberal abandon on anything that we could find.

2006 A

I always rate the London derby with Tottenham as the biggest home game of the season, but I make our annual trip to Old Trafford as our biggest away game.

We have certainly had some history in this famous old stadium, certainly 1915 and 1970, but in recent years too.

Here are some moments from the previous ten league visits.

2008/09

Five minutes later I was on the forecourt, scene of much ‘naughtiness’ in days of yore. The new ‘United Trinity’ statue of Best / Law / Charlton was the new focal point. It’s a splendid statue actually, facing the one of Matt Busby, beneath the Manchester United sign on the East Stand. As I took a couple of photos, I noted one middle-aged bloke say ‘who is the bald one?’ I had great pleasure in answering him.

2009/10

And then it happened. A through ball from Kalou, the other sub, and Drogba was offside…but no flag…

”Go on my son.”

Drogba slammed the ball towards Van der Sar and the net rippled. Is there a more beautiful sight in football? That was it. We exploded. I screamed, then jumped up onto my seat and ended up in the row in front. Gary ended up two rows in front. I screamed and shouted “it was offside, it was offside – you beauty!”

The consensus was that, yes, Didi was offside, but we couldn’t care.

2010/11

I texted a curt “well done” to four United friends from back home at the final whistle and I was soon out on the forecourt, battling the gentle slope and the crowing United fans alike. Parky had been delayed in his exit; he had said that two United fans – not from England – had somehow got tickets in the away seats and had unzipped their jackets at the end of the game to reveal red shirts. A punch in the face from an enraged Chelsea fan was the response.

Not big, not clever, but totally understandable.

2011/12

A few years back, you would see banners which said “Exeter Reds”, “Devon Reds”, “Dublin Reds” and “Malta Reds” at away games. Today, it seems that you are now more likely to see “Urmston Reds”, “Salford Reds”, Sale Reds and “Clayton Reds.” It’s as if they are reclaiming Mancunia as their own. There always used to be a certain amount of “niggle” among local United fans and their fans from elsewhere in the UK. This is certainly true of Liverpool, too. There is a notion that out-of-town United fans are the glory hunters, forever besmirching the name of Manchester United. It was United who invented the derogatory nickname “day-trippers” which described the out-of-towners arriving en masse at Old Trafford, buying United paraphernalia and not really “getting” what United is about.

2012/13

Inside Old Trafford, we took our seats in row 24, in the side section where the 500 or so away season-ticket holders were allocated. There were familiar faces everywhere. Sadly, I soon spotted a section of around four-hundred seats in the away section which had not been sold. I have never known us not to sell our three thousand seats at Old Trafford ever before. It made me angry.

“The fcuking seats are fcuking red.
The fcuking fans are home instead.
The fcuking seats are full of air.
The fcuking seats are fcuking spare.”

2013/14

It didn’t take long for me to find my gaze centered on the twin figures of Jose Mourinho and David Moyes. Not long into the game, we sung Jose’s name and he flapped a quick wave of acknowledgement. A torrent of abuse from the Stretford End – “Fuck Off Mourinho” – was met by a wave too. Mourinho, hands in pockets, relaxed, was clearly revelling in the moment. He was on centre-stage at Old Trafford, enjoying the limelight, loving the drama. Moyes, in comparison, looked stiff and awkward. It can’t be easy for Moyes to have to face the mammoth north stand, with fifteen feet high letters denoting Sir Alex Ferguson, at every home game. I noted that Mourinho chose to wear a neat grey pullover with his Hackett suit; a style much favoured by Roberto di Matteo last season. The urbane Mourinho, like so many Europeans, can carry off the pullover and suit combination, but I often think that Englishmen wearing the same seem to resemble sweaty librarians or train spotters with personal hygiene deficiencies. Just think Sam Allardyce.

2014/15

Hazard was clean in on goal, but De Gea was able to save. The Chelsea choir looked away disconsolately, but roared the team on as a corner was rewarded. I held my camera still and waited for the ball to reach the box. In a flash, I saw Didier Drogba leap, virtually untroubled, at the near post. I clicked. The ball crashed into the net and the three-thousand Chelsea fans in the south-east corner screamed in ecstasy. I was knocked sideways, then backwards and I clung on to the chap next to me, not wanting to fall back and injure myself. If the goal was a virtual carbon copy of Didier’s leap and header in Munich, then so too were the celebrations. This time, though, I managed to keep hold of my glasses. The scenes were of pandemonium; away goals in big games are celebrated like no other. I steadied myself just in time to witness Didier and his team mates celebrating wildly in front of us. Euphoria.

I had one thought : “Munichesque.”

2015/16

We were simply over-run and out-paced and out-played. From Alan’s seemingly reassuring words about a rather reasonable start, it seemed that all of that pent-up angst and anger about their inability to play expansive and thrilling football in “the United way” was being unleashed, and for my eyes especially. Ivanovic, so often the culprit in this car-crash of a football season – but seemingly improved of late – was back to his infuriating form of August and September, allowing Anthony Martial a ridiculous amount of space, then seemed unwilling to challenge. Martial struck a low shot against Courtois’ near post and we watched as it spun across the six-yard box. Thankfully there were no United attackers in the vicinity. The home team continued to dominate, and Rooney shot from distance. Chelsea’s attacking presence was sadly lacking. Our breaks soon petered out. I wondered how on Earth John Terry had forced a save from De Gea while I was still outside in the Manchester night.

2016/17

I soon thought about the two men in charge of the respective teams. Compared to the sour-faced Mourinho – with that dismissive smirk never far away these days – our manager is a picture of positivity and light. Indeed, with Mourinho – totally unlovable at United – now ensconced at Old Trafford, I could not help come to a quick conclusion about our former boss.

He was looking for a job, and then he found a job, and heaven knows he’s miserable now.

2017/18

Beyond “The Bishop Blaize” pub, and hovering over the red brick terraced houses of Stretford were the glistening silver-grey roof supports of Old Trafford, and it took my breath away. Yes, I have seen it all before, but the sunlight made the cold steel so much sharper and it just looked other-worldly. We turned left at the gaggle of chip shops and onto Sir Matt Busby Way. It is such an inconspicuous approach to one of the world’s foremost football stadia.

“United We Stand. New issue. Out today.”

“Yer matchday scarf. Ten pound yer matchday scarf.”

Burgers with onions, burgers without, the noise of a match day, grafters, those old red, white and black bar scarves, selfies in front of the stadium, the Munich Clock, hot dogs, programme sellers, winter jackets, red and white United ski-hats, the Holy Trinity statue, scarves, the megastore, three policemen keeping an eye on things from their raised platform by the executive car park, accents from Ireland, fanzines, the well-heeled making their way to the corporate lounges, the guttural shout of “Red Army”, foreign accents, northern faces, northern scowls, North Face jackets, the occasional dash of blue.

Back to 2018/19…

On this day, thoughts were not only concerned with our game at Old Trafford. I was keeping a close watch on the City game at Burnley. Thank God for Sergio Aguero’s single strike. It was just what I wanted to see. Arsenal, meanwhile, were beating Spurs at their own game, contriving to lose 3-0 at Leicester City. This was opening up ever-so nicely for us. A loss for Tottenham on Saturday, a loss for Arsenal on Sunday. A win – a possibility – at Old Trafford would surely make us favourites for a top four finish.

Perfect.

While Parky and PD made their way in to the stadium, topping up the three pints they enjoyed at a pub just off the M6 an hour earlier, I had my usual walk around the forecourt. There was an image of Juan Mata high above the statue of Sir Matt Busby. I still fidget nervously when I see him in United red.

The entrance to the away turnstiles was now cordoned off with a barrier of solid United red separating us from the home fans. It was not too dissimilar to those red, white and black United bar scarves from the ‘seventies.

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A quick security pat down – no cameras at Old Trafford these days, my phone would have to suffice – and I was in. Up into the crowded bar, I had one thought on my mind.

“Is City still 1-0?”

“Yep.”

“Good, good.”

It was clear that we had a full house of three-thousand away fans. There were no gaps. There was no need for a 2013-style John Cooper Clarke rage about unused seats.

I bumped into Harry and Paul, both living in Yorkshire now, and there was a slight worry that Burnley had equalised. There is a photograph of myself on the internet with them, with my smile as broad as a Cheshire cat, as I had just heard that City had indeed managed to hold on to a narrow 1-0 win.

One away club regular was sadly missing. There was no Alan alongside Parky, Gal and myself. I soon texted him a “get well soon.”

The team was announced earlier, of course, and I was surprised that Eden Hazard was not being deployed as a false nine.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Willian – Higuain – Hazard

United’s team included the three former blues; Juan, Nemanja and Romelu.

Everywhere filled up. It was to be another massive attendance at Old Trafford. But things were subdued. These must be testing times for the United faithful; a false-dawn under the new manager perhaps, and that awful sense of betrayal, wanting City to win every game they play.

Oh well. Fuck’em.

The teams came onto the pitch from the corner and it was the first time that I have seen United this season in their black shorts. They opted for the more traditional white ones at both home games. It doesn’t look right. I have no idea why United took the decision to change it. Chit chat about kits came to the fore in recent days. There was a leaked image – as yet unconfirmed – of a truly horrific kit for Chelsea next season. I am sure everyone has seen it. It’s garbage. But it got a few of us thinking. Going into the fiftieth anniversary of the iconic 1970 FA Cup win at Old Trafford, it would be nice to honour that occasion with a one-season only kit of royal blue with yellow trim, including yellow socks.

1970 is, after all, the catalyst for many of us.

But, here is the thing. I bet that there was not one single mention of the fiftieth anniversary of that tumultuous win against Leeds United in any of the brainstorming sessions at Nike over the past few months.

Anyway.

Khaki. Black shorts. Yellow socks.

It was time for the united colours of football in 2019 to get us all excited.

United – a blurring of red and black,

Chelsea – royal blue and white.

The game began.

First thoughts? Their side is huge. Our midfield is tiny. And United got off to a flier. Lukaku looked ready to run past a stagnant defence but Rudiger recovered to challenge and Kepa saved well. It seemed to be all United. They carved open a chance on eleven minutes, with Lukaku again involved. His dink towards Luke Shaw always looked like causing us trouble. His pass across the box was slammed home. Only when I was returning home a few hours later did I learn that it was scored by Juan Mata, on his birthday too. My eyes, I am sure, would have dropped to the floor immediately after the goal had rippled the Stretford End goal nets. The song that kept going for ages and ages at our FA Cup game in January – which I had not heard, really, at that juncture – was repeated.

“Ole’s at the wheel.

Tell me how good does it feel?

We’ve got Sanchez and Pogba and Fred.

Marcus Rashford – he’s manc born and bred.

Duh du, du du du du du

Duh du, du du du du du

The greatest of English football.

We’ve won it all.”

Fackinell.

The noise coming from the Chelsea section was good, though. We always raise our game at Old Trafford. The team, slowly, tried to get a foothold in the match. As ever, it was the tireless energy of N’Golo Kante and the ability to spin out of danger of Eden Hazard which were our main positives. A foul on Hazard resulted in a Willian free-kick but the chance was wasted. We had more of the ball, but could not do a great deal with it. We howled with displeasure when Hazard played the ball out to Gonzalo Higuain out on the right wing, with the entire pitch in his sight, but he was offside.

“Fucksake.”

I looked down at my feet again.

We attempted a few long-range efforts and a few half-chances came and went. But De Gea was untested. After a shaky start, with a few silly and mistimed tackles, Dave was warming to the task in hand. He stayed limpet-like close to opponents as many United attackers tested him. Alonso was putting in a good shift on the other flank, too. As the game developed, I could not help but think that this was a sub-par game in terms of quality, especially compared to some of the other mighty tussles between the two teams in this part of Manchester over the past twenty years.

A lot is made of modern football and the atmosphere getting worse and worse with every season. I have made that point on numerous occasions. Here was a case in point. Over seventy-thousand United fans, yet only a section in the far corner of our stand were really bothering. Nothing at all from the side stands, nor – awful this, really – from the Stretford End, which, by now, is a pale shadow of its former self. It is United’s “home end” in name only.

There was the singing-by numbers chant from us – “Just like London, your city is blue” – but that didn’t get much of a reaction.

They didn’t like this one though :

“Just like the Scousers, you live in the past.”

This riled them up a bit, and for a few moments, the noise was electric as three thousand away fans shouted “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” to the United fans above us. This was bloody fantastic. Both sets of fans going for it.

It was – briefly, so briefly – life-affirming stuff.

Passionate, loud, venomous.

“Come on Chelsea.”

Gary, meanwhile, had a new twist.

“Just like the Scousers, you live in Norway.”

Surprisingly, United didn’t take the game to us. Only a few efforts rained in on our goal. It was a humdrum game being played under light clouds. The hot weather of the previous weekend was nowhere to be seen. It was a day for jackets and jeans. The referee Martin Atkinson was not reacting to many rugged United tackles. The noise levels in our section were raised at every such occasion. Higuain was offside again.

A look to the skies this time.

With not much time remaining in a poor half, the ball bounced out to Rudiger, some thirty-five yards out. His body shape quickly cheered me.

I screamed “hit it.”

He hit it alright. The ball kept low and De Gea could only clumsily parry it. The ball bounced out to Alonso, who touched the ball past the clumsy United ‘keeper. We watched as it agonisingly bounced in off the far post.

We went fucking doolally.

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My name is Chris Axon and I am a goal addict.

It was just a perfect time to score. Tim, Julie, Brian and Kev – the oft-mentioned “Bristol lot” – were stood behind us, and had parked-up near the cricket ground. They ended up watching the last few overs of the Lancashire vs. Leicestershire game (they got in for free, not sure how that works, county cricket is an odd affair) and I had to make a comment about De Gea.

“If he was playing cricket, you wouldn’t put him in the slips, would you?”

I sensed that we had taken the wind out of United’s sails. We hoped for just one more Chelsea goal as the referee signalled the start of the second period.

We bossed the opening moments. Even Mateo Kovacic, poor in the first period, looked a better player. Kepa was rarely forced into action. There were bookings for Willian and Kovacic. But then a rash challenge on a United player by Kovacic made me wonder if Sarri would take him off.

“He’s lucky to stay on, Gal.”

But then Rudiger went down, and it was Christensen who came on.

Although the second-half was a much better performance – we honestly dominated, easily – it was also a frustrating one. Higuain was offside three or four more times. He was having a ‘mare. There was one moment, soon into the second-half when he broke over the half-way line, but it looked like he was running in treacle. Hazard was twisting and turning and getting into good positions, but how we missed a late-arriving midfielder – no names, no pack drill – to finish it all off. Too often the ball ended up at the feet of Kante or Willian, both who seemed shot shy.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek came on for Kovacic. But his first few touches were heavy. His shot, later in the game, cleared the Stretford End crossbar by an embarrassing amount. Pedro then replaced Willian. We still controlled most of the ball. Pedro shot wildly over too. But United had the best chance for the winner. Thankfully, Pedro was ideally placed on the goal-line – shades of Ashley Cole in Naples – to head away an effort from Rojo.

The referee signalled a ludicrous seven extra minutes. There was still time for Higuain to fluff his lines at the death.

I looked down at my trainers one last time.

At the final whistle, there was a massive cheer from the away end. It was a priceless point.

The natives were quiet on the walk over the forecourt and onto Sir Matt Busby Way. A few gobby United fans – no more than two or three – were doing their level best to antagonise the Chelsea fans walking cheek by jowl alongside. I heard one Chelsea fan whisper “stick together” but it never really looked like kicking-off. Parky, PD and little old me kept silent.

In the end, the two United youths threw a couple of wayward punches and were soon smothered by a few policemen.

Out on the Chester Road, the United fans were very subdued.

We made a very clean and quick getaway.

“Job done boys, job done.”

On the long drive home, both PD and Parky caught some sleep, no doubt dreaming of German beer and German food ahead of their trip to Eintracht Frankfurt on Wednesday. I am sure I saw them dribbling.

As for me, my next one is on Sunday against Watford.

See you there.

Tales From The London Lions

Chelsea vs. Dynamo Kiev : 7 March 2019.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Dynamo Kiev, nor even how to spell their name. Was it Dynamo or Dinamo? And should I go all native and plump with Kyiv, or stick with the anglicised version? I knew that they had only just recommenced their league season after a lengthy winter break of over two months. I knew that they were a famous name from the days of the old Soviet League, when their team included the powerful and iconic striker Oleg Blokhin. When the Ukrainian League itself began after the splintering away from the old regime, there was the nimbler Andrei Shevchenko. I wondered whatever happened to him? I recollected, of course, that we had played them in the group stages of the 2015/2016 Champions League. I vaguely remembered a home win in that competition. But I knew next to nothing of their current team or form.

On the drive up to London – PD was doing the honours once again for this midweek fixture – all the talk was of the upcoming trip to the Ukrainian capital. I had booked the three of us onto flights within forty-five minutes of finding out that we would be playing the famous team from the Ukraine (or just Ukraine, as it now calls itself) and over the past few weeks it has been a hectic time. For one thing, there was the slight worry of a new passport but that was returned to me in double-quick time. An apartment on the main square was booked for a very competitive price even though it was worryingly close to where some innocent Chelsea fans were attacked the night before the game in 2015. Everything else fell into position too. Match tickets were purchased at the princely sum of £1.50 apiece. I booked some parking at Heathrow. Everything was good. When we realised that we had Everton away on the Sunday, arrangements were made for that too. We would not be getting home until around 10pm on the Saturday and would be leaving for Liverpool at 8am the next day. So, we decided to stay Sunday night in Liverpool. Six days of football. Or rather six days of Chelsea. Heaven on Earth.

And a two-centre holiday, of sorts, in Kiev and Liverpool.

Insert punchline here.

It was the usual midweek routine.

“The Goose” to meet one set of friends, and “Simmons” to meet some others.

Some of the US supporters from Fulham on Sunday had surprised me though; a healthy group of around eight from Ohio were drinking at a table in “The Goose” when we arrived at about 5.45pm. I flitted between this group – which included a couple of Facebook friends, Billy and Kristen, that I was meeting for the very first time – and the more local friends that reside in that pub. From Brian, Kev and Pete – the Bristol Posse – there was the surprising news that, allegedly, just one hundred Chelsea supporters from the UK had bought tickets for Kiev. I expected many more.

“I expect I know half of them.”

In truth, I expect I will know three-quarters of them at least.

Alan, Gal, Pete, Nick, JD, Welsh Kev, Cathy and Dog – his first euro away since 2011/2012, fantastic – Luke and Aroha, Dave, Brian, Kev, Pete, Julie and Tim, Rich, Pauline, Nick and Ali, Closey, Neil, Cal, Parky, PD and little old me. There are twenty-five or so certs for starters.

Next Thursday, they will be announcing the supporters’ line-up to the team.

Down at “Simmons” the place was filling nicely. As on Sunday in “The Duke’s Head” in Putney, Jim from Oxfordshire had joined the usual suspects. But Jim had a special guest with him, our former midfield dynamo – or dinamo – John Boyle who played for us with distinction from 1964 to 1973. It was a real pleasure to meet John for the very first time. John is a friend of mine on Facebook and it is a wonderful to see him interacting with so many on social media – he is quite prolific – and also with some good friends in the bar. Two other Facebook friends who I had not yet met – Robert from Helsinki and Jean from Houston – arrived too. It was quite an evening for meeting new friends.

There was a lovely comment from John.

“In my mind, there are more legends supporting this club than players playing for it.”

Bless him.

He also reminded me of this fact.

“Callum Hudson-Odoi is the second youngest Chelsea player to play in the Football League Cup Final. Do know the youngest?”

I looked at John and said “I think it was Susan Boyle’s brother” and he smiled and laughed.

Great times.

I soon introduced the fans from Ohio to John Boyle and he was soon regaling them with tales of his time in the old NASL with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in their championship season of 1975, a team that our own Joe Cole played for between 2016 and 2018. They got a buzz to be chatting with John, who became our first-ever substitute when they were allowed – but for only replacing injured players, not for tactical reasons – in 1965.

The team was announced and Daryl was incandescent with rage that our Callum was not featured.

Arrizabalaga

Zappacosta – Christensen – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Barkley – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Willian

It was an odd mish-mash of a team. A mix of bona fide A team starters, but then squad players.

In Sarri we trust? Not so sure.

The two pubs had been full. On the walk to the ground, there were the usual crowds. In 2012/2013, our Europa League gates had ranged from 28,817 to 39,403. I hoped for a figure nearer the second of those two numbers. Once inside, I looked over to check how many away fans were present. It was around one-and-a-half thousand and I suspected that many were UK-based. We soon saw that Arsenal were losing 1-3 in Rennes.

“Good old Arsenal.”

I spoke to JD, who was relishing a return trip to Kiev.

“It’s great. What looks good is a trip to Chernobyl.”

I wasn’t convinced.

“It’s like Middlesbrough” chirped John.

The opposition were sporting colours of white / white / blue that were the direct opposite to ours. Their New Balance kit had a broad stripe down the sleeves which reminded me of the Puma kits of the mid-to-late ‘seventies. The iconic diamond badge featured a “D” which was exactly the same to that of Moscow Dynamo, but they don’t like to talk about Russia in Ukraine. Let’s move on.

There were noticeable gaps in the corporate middle tier of the East Stand, but everywhere else was well occupied. I soon spotted the Ohio contingent in the Shed Lower, no more than twenty seats along from Parky. The away fans, like the team, were very quiet. It was as if both team and fans really were coming out of hibernation. I guess I don’t know how cold it can get in a Ukrainian winter.

In the first fleeting moments of the match, Pedro was as lively as anyone. I usually have my camera to hand at key moments, but I sadly missed the opening goal. I was not in my seat. Without putting too fine a point on it, when Pedro slotted in from a sublime Giroud pass at The Shed End, I wasn’t holding my camera.

Again, let’s move on.

Quickly.

In what would become a familiar story during a dominant first-half, Pedro wasted a great chance soon after with a shot straight at the Kiev ‘keeper Boyko. We were purring against a very reserved Kiev team, who hardly threatened at all, and were honestly not too bothered about putting us under too much pressure. Please note that I am trying my damnedest not to over-use the verb “to press” in these match reports. It is the most-quoted word in football these days. Pedro and Giroud combined again, but the Spaniard could not get his shot in.

It took just under half-an-hour for me to hear a chant from the Ukrainians, and it was overly simple.

“Dee-nah-mo. Dee-nah-mo. Dee-nah-mo. Dee-nah-mo.”

A defence-splitting ball from David Luiz, captain on this night, set up Pedro with another chance, but this again went begging. I can’t honestly remember a half in which we had been so dominant. They had not tested Kepa, who was half-way through a Thibaut Courtois word search puzzle book left over from last season. One dominant run from deep by an anonymous Kiev midfielder was their only moment that stood out in the first-half. Long bombs from Luiz and scooped chips from Jorginho were the special moves from us. Surely more goals would follow.

There was a half-hearted “bouncy” from the away fans towards the end of the first period. In general, things were quiet. Our lot were hardly creating a din. I was surprised that Willian was not booed, remembering his time with their arch rivals Shakhtar Donetsk.

There was still time for another Pedro effort, his fifth of the game thus far.

At the break, I hoped for more goals. Or at least one that I would actually see.

But it was a time for quiet reflection.

The match programme sadly contained an obituary for Janet Rainbow-King. On this evening of meeting Facebook friends in person for the first time, this was an awful reminder of the fragility of life. Janet, who worked tirelessly for the club a few decades ago, became a Facebook friend a few years back. I only ever met Janet once when she sat with her husband Colin a few rows behind me for the famous Arsenal 6-0 thrashing in 2014. I thanked her for having to deal with the rascal Ken Bates and Janet got a kick out of that.

Janet, who lived – and died – in Malta certainly loved Chelsea. I was so sad to hear of her passing last week. When I received my Chelsea Pitch Owner certificate in 1993, it was counter-signed by Janet. I will regard that as a fine memorial to a wonderful Chelsea servant. Janet was only sixty. Our club is a poorer place without her.

RIP.

The game restarted.

Guess what? Another Pedro effort. This was getting quite ridiculous now. Kiev were there for the taking. We found it difficult to break them down though. On the hour, there were changes.

N’Golo Kante and Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Jorginho and Ross Barkley – I was surprised that he had started two consecutive games to be honest – with Kovacic moving in to the Jorginho role.

“Yeah, I know.”

Ruben was soon fouled outside the box.

We waited an eternity, but Willian took the ball, stepped back, sized up the options, looked again, then despatched a majestic curler over the wall and into the goal. This time, I captured it all.

GET IN.

Chelsea 2 Dynamo Kiev 0.

Phew.

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

We had been here before.

From my 2015 match report, that time a late winner.

“The ball was placed behind a semi-circular flash of shaving foam.

The referee spent a while pacing out ten yards.

Another flash of foam.

The wall retreated.

We waited.

Willian waited.

I had my camera poised. I kept focusing and re-focusing.

“Concentrate you bastard, concentrate.”

I clicked as Willian struck. I looked up to follow the beautiful flight of the ball as it was whipped up and over the redundant wall and watched – these wonderful moments – as it flew into the waiting goal.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

The Bridge burst.

The noise was immense.”

We were 2-0 up in 2019. But would it be enough? I wasn’t sure and neither was Alan. Oddly, this second Chelsea goal awoke Dynamo from their slumbers and a speculative effort from the boot of Sydorchuk rose and rose before hitting someone in the rear rows of The Shed Upper.

Sarri then replaced Willian with our Callum, whose name had been sung loudly for quite some time.

Kiev threatened a little more in the closing fifteen minutes and things became a more nervous than it really should be. We knew a rogue Kiev goal would change the complexion of the tie completely. Then came a lovely move – the Chelsea of old, memories of Frank Lampard on the counter – which resulted in Ruben and Callum linking with Pedro who fired over. Pedro had also had a goal disallowed for offside in the second period.

At the other end, a header underneath The Shed did not hit the target.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

Nerves were tightening for sure now. In these closing periods of European games, I always think of Iniesta in 2009.

Thankfully, right on ninety minutes, another fine move resulted in our Ruben setting up our Callum to strike from inside the box.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

It was a good reflection of a match in which our foreign opponents were oh so reticent.

London Lions 3 Kiev Chickens 0.

Game over, and the tie – surely – too.

Next up, the old gold of Wolverhampton Wanderers visit Stamford Bridge on Sunday.

See you there.