Tales From The League Cup

Chelsea vs. Everton : 25 October 2017.

After parking the car, and before we were able to enjoy a very pleasant pre-match drink-up in two Chelsea pubs, I could not help but notice that there were posters advertising the Moscow State Circus at Eel Brook Common, no more than half a mile from Stamford Bridge. At times in Roman’s fourteen years at the epicentre of Chelsea Football Club, a few of my mates have often likened proceedings to that of the famous Russian spectacle.

I silently hoped that I would not have to reference said circus in a negative way during the match report for the evening’s game.

The five Chuckle Brothers were split up for the visit of Everton and their dog’s dinner of an away kit for the League Cup tie; I was alongside PD and Glenn in The Sleepy Hollow of the Matthew Harding wraparound, Parky was in the Parkyville section of The Shed Lower, while Young Jake was watching in what is officially the Matthew Harding Upper, but what is really the connecting section of the East Upper.

It was another mild night in SW6, and I expected a mild atmosphere too if I was honest.

Over in The Shed, there was a yawning gap where the missing one thousand away fans should have been. Two-thirds of a Nike swoosh was visible instead. The away section took ages to fill; I was full of disdain when I first saw how empty it was at about 7.30pm. Everton do not always bring the numbers to Stamford Bridge. The evening’s match day programme was another retro edition and I immediately recognised the font and design from season 1985/86, and I am sure that our League Cup game from the late autumn of that campaign against the same opposition was the inspiration. It brought back memories for me of midweek afternoon jaunts by British Rail to London from Stoke for Chelsea games. On that particular evening – Daryl had to remind me that the game ended 2-2 – I well remember how few Evertonians had bothered to attend. They numbered around five hundred. Remember, back in 1985 they were reigning champions. In the league match at Chelsea a month earlier, they had only brought a thousand. A poor show on both counts in my book. It seemed that the Everton tradition was continuing in 2017. However, I soon remembered back to our League Cup semi-final at Goodison in 2008 when we sadly failed to fill our three-thousand allocation. A Joe Cole goal on the break gave us a narrow 1-0 win on that very pleasing night on Merseyside – there have been a few – and the game is remembered for the best Chelsea away support of that particular season. I woke up the next day with a sore throat. The way it should be. It was the last time that the two clubs met in the League Cup.

On the walk from the bar to the stadium, I had announced that Danny Drinkwater was to make his debut for the club. There were also, possibly predictable, starts for Charly Musonda and Ethan Ampadu.

Our manager had certainly rung the changes since the weekend.

Caballero

Rudiger – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Drinkwater – Ampadu – Kenedy

Willian – Batshuayi – Musonda

If ever there was a Chelsea “B” team, this was it.

The Everton line-up included a lad with the most ridiculously Scouse name that I think that I have ever heard; Johnjoe Kenny.

“Sound, la.”

There was, quite evidently, another full house for a League Cup tie at HQ. Quite fantastic.

For a great part of the first-half, the football formed a backdrop as Alan and myself chatted away about the players on show, our recent performances, our plans for the trip to Rome, and the days when the League Cup actually meant something. If the FA Cup has fallen from glory over the past two decades, them this is even more true of the nation’s secondary cup competition. We remembered how crestfallen we were when we lost to Sunderland in the 1985 semi, the QPR quarter final in 1986, away at Scarborough in 1989, the Sheffield Wednesday semi in 1991, away at Tranmere Rovers in 1991, at Crystal Palace in the rain in 1993, Bolton 1996, the list goes on. It felt – stop sniggering at the back – that for a decade or more the League Cup represented Chelsea Football Club’s only realistic chance of silverware.

These days, it is way down our pecking order. An irrelevance? It hurts me to say it, but yes.

Unless we play a major rival of course.

Are Everton a major rival? Not quite.

Danny Drinkwater soon impressed with a display of crunching tackles and solid passing. Alongside him was Ethan Ampadu looking like a crusty at a Levellers gig circa 1991. At just seventeen years of age, although not his debut, this was a huge night for him. In that first half, with his nerves jangling, he did not look out of place though some of his long-range passing was amiss.

The two-thousand away fans could not seem to get past their one song.

“And if you know your history it’s enough to make your heart go…”

However, no Chelsea songs were forthcoming from us, save the rousing “Antonio.”

Alan and myself chatted about our players.

We hardly noticed Charly Musonda. He was having a very quiet night. I noticed a passing resemblance of Davide Zappacosta to Groucho Marx. I wondered if our right back’s moustache was real. I pondered if Michy Batshuayi would have a memorable a game as his white undershirt.

My mind was clearly drifting…

After twenty-five minutes of huff and puff, but not much quality – nor any noise – we had our first corner, in front of the away fans in the far corner. Willian played it short to Musonda, who sent over a long cross towards the far post. We watched as Rudiger, falling back, did ever so well to head the ball back across the goalmouth, over ‘keeper Jordan Pickford, and into the far corner of the goal. The crowd loved that.

We were up one-nil, get in.

Everton created hardly anything during the first-half. Wayne Rooney was as innocuous and insipid as his grey shirt. A tame effort from Michy straight at Pickford was the only effort on goal. One from Groucho rippled the side netting.

There was wholesome applause from the Chelsea faithful at the break, but there was a realisation that this was in support of the youngsters, the fringe players, the manager, rather than for a recognition of any great period of play. However, Willian had been predictably busy, Christensen looked so natural, and everyone warmed to Zappacosta’s honesty and desire, to say nothing of his ability to stoop low, twiddle a cigar between his fingers, and crack one-liners to the West Lower.

But it had not been a memorable forty-five minutes.

At the interval, Bjarne Goldbaek trod the sacred turf. Forever etched in our minds is that thunderbolt of an equaliser at Three Point Lane in 1998. He looked well, bless him. I’m sure for many new fans – why do I always think of that prick Jeremy Clarkson when I talk about new fans? – it had might as well have been Barney Rubble out on the pitch.

We had heard that Tottenham were winning 2-0 at home to Wembley. There was the rival that would undoubtedly make the competition interesting.

The second-half started.

I commented to Alan that there did not seem to be a weight of expectation on the players. If mistakes were made, especially by those without much first-team exposure, there were less boos than normal.

The second-half had more urgency, and the challenges became more physical. Without warning, the away team turned the screw. Their resurgence was a shock.

Willy Caballero was right in the thick of it. A fantastic save from Rooney drew loud applause, but then soon after a terrible clearance from the ‘keeper gave us all kittens. Thankfully, he cleared before an Everton player could capitalise.

An effort from right under the bar at the Shed End was diverted over for a corner. Everton were on top for sure.

On the hour, the Chelsea support – realising that the team needed us – suddenly roared.

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

Danny Drinkwater, possibly our best player until then, was substituted and replaced by Cesc Fabregas. The former Leicester City player with the classic footballer’s name was given a very fine round of applause. There is just something about players with the same letter starting both of their first names and last names; Joey Jones, Damien Duff, Didier Drogba…Steve Sidwell. Er, perhaps not.

Our man Caballero kept pulling off some stunning saves. This was becoming a man of the match performance.

In a rare break, Willian ran at pace but drilled his shot wide of the near post.

Pedro replaced the unimpressive Musonda.

Everton still bossed it.

However, it was so gratifying to hear that the Chelsea support was back in the game. The quiet first-half seemed a distant memory. Batshuayi pick-pocketed a loose ball and touched it past Pickford, only for himself and his undershirt to see the back-tracking ‘keeper recover and push the ball away. Michy smacked the upright and for a few minutes looked like he had done himself a classic ‘seventies sitcom “mischief.”

An Everton effort rattled the top of Caballero’s bar.

Alvaro Morata replaced Michy.

We took an ineffectual short corner. I moaned to Alan.

“I bloody hate short corners. By all means, do it to get a different angle and whip the ball in early, but don’t just play it to a team mate, idly, then ponce about with it for a few moments. Certainly don’t bloody receive it back from the person you passed to.”

With injury time being played, Fabregas played a short corner to Willian. He shimmied and danced past Tom Davies, then played a sublime one-two with Fabregas who had accelerated away into space. Willian caressed the ball past Pickford into the Everton goal.

Chelsea 2 Everton 0.

I turned to Alan.

“As I said, I bloody hate those short corners.”

In the aftermath of the goal, Willian was mobbed by his team mates right down below us in Cathy’s Corner. He had been, I think, our star performer on the night.

 

 

As an afterthought, Dominic Calvert-Lewin toe-poked a goal for Everton. How typical of football that a team chasing a game admirably could only score once they conceded a further goal.

Into the last eight we went. Not a great game, not one that will live long in my memory, but a win is a win is a win is a win.

On the walk back to the car, I could hardly believe that Tottenham had managed to lose 3-2 to West Ham. Oh how I laughed. Not even Groucho Marx makes me giggle as that lot from N17.

Back in the car, we all agreed.

“Bristol City away please.”

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Tales From Tricks Among The Trees

Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest : 20 September 2017.

Our midweek League Cup match against Nottingham Forest would be our fourth of seven games in the month of September. It would certainly be a chance for manager Antonio Conte to rest some regulars and try some youngsters. But once the draw was made, though, I certainly toyed with the notion of missing this game against Forest.

I did not attend a League Cup home game against Bolton Wanderers in 2014 and that was probably the only first team home game since around 1995 that I simply – to put it bluntly – decided to avoid it. For all of my other games that I have missed – they number around fifteen – there were always extenuating circumstances; holidays, work, my mother’s ill-health.

But without too much thought nor deliberation, I paid my £25 for the ticket. The Forest game did not really excite me, though. It hardly had me giddy with excitement.

When I explained this to Glenn over the previous weekend, he asked me –

“Why are you going then?”

I was stumped.

It was a tough question. Why was I going?

Is “because I can” too flippant a response? I don’t know. My lack of clarity didn’t really bother me…maybe, one day, it will all make sense though?

Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest.

Just like games against teams such as Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United, it is a rare fixture indeed these days. Once proud members of the top division, the former European Champions have experienced troubled times over the past two decades, even dipping into the old Third Division at one stage. Our last meeting was in the FA Cup in 2007, when we won 3-0 at the Bridge. Their last season in the top flight was 1998/99. It certainly seems a long time ago.

In the pubs before the game, we again wondered if the apparent full house would materialise. Yes, we had heard that the game had sold out, but I knew for sure that there were a fair few spares floating around. Nottingham Forest had taken a hefty allocation – fair play to them – but it meant that Parky had been shifted from his seat in The Shed Lower. The 4,250 away fans, as has happened on other League Cup nights at Stamford Bridge the past three seasons, were to be placed in the entire lower tier and also the Western half of the upper rather than the usual Eastern side.

Good news – outside Stamford Bridge at about 7.15pm, the roads were as crowded as usual. There was the usual hubbub of pre-match activity. There were a few miserable looking touts seeking to offload some spares. I can spot their miserable faces a mile away. And although I was hoping for a good gate, I paradoxically wanted them to be unable to sell their tickets.

I was inside early. The place was almost empty.

Thank heavens, as the minutes ticked by, the stadium filled and it filled me with a great deal of pride. There were only 24,000 at the Tottenham vs. Barnsley game the previous evening, but here was a robust attendance of around 38,000 to 40,000. Well done us.

The manager certainly mixed things up. There were fresh faces everywhere and an all-Belgian attack to boot. Eden Hazard was to have his heralded first start of the season.

Caballero.

Rudiger – Christensen – Cahill.

Zappacosta – Bakayoko – Fabregas – Kenedy.

Musonda – Batshuayi – Hazard

After his indiscretion in China, it certainly seems that Kenedy has been given an olive branch to extend his stay at Chelsea. There is no doubt that he is one lucky boy; he is surely on thin ice though.

Just before the teams were announced, Neil Barnet spoke about Forest’s famous and iconic manager Brian Clough. The game, poignantly, was taking place on the thirteenth anniversary of his sad passing in 2004. There was a black and white image on the TV screen and there was warm applause from both sets of fans. What a character Brian Clough was. I have spent hours watching clips of him on “You Tube” over the years. It is ironic that after achieving legendary status as a goal scorer with Middlesbrough and Sunderland and then as a manager with Derby County and Nottingham Forest, the only film devoted to him details his brief and inglorious spell as Leeds United manager in 1974.

On came the teams.

Forest’s shirts seemed to have a very rosy hue – lighter, pinker than I remember them – and there were early ‘eighties pinstripes too.

Alan and myself soon spotted a Walker playing up front for Forest.

“Wonder if that is Des Walker’s son. Looks like him?”

“You know what, I think it is.”

It was – a Google search confirmed it.

We also spotted a Clough. Zach Clough.

“Surely not?”

It wasn’t – again Google to the rescue.

We wondered if somewhere in the midst of Forest’s youth teams were players called Josh Shilton, Benny Burns, Bradley Birtles, and Wayne Wigley.

The Forest captain was ex-Chelsea defender Michael Mancienne.

File under “I expected great things from him part 529.”

The Forest fans were making a fair bit of noise as the game began and it didn’t take long for the nonsense to start. They bellowed “WWYWYWS?” at us and we soon replied with a “You’re not famous anymore.” I remember back in 2007, a few old school Chelsea got the famous “We hate Nottingham Forest” chant going, but I think that one has now passed away, and discarded into the great rubbish bin of obsolete ‘seventies football classics. It was one of the first, generic, football chants that I can ever remember singing, at school in around 1972.

“We hate Nottingham Forest.

We hate Liverpool too (with an optional “they’re shit”).

We hate Man United.

But Chelsea we love you.”

After just twelve minutes of good Chelsea pressure, with a couple of efforts on goal, a fine move involving Charly Musonda, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Antonio Rudiger developed down our right. Rudiger looped in a hard and deep cross and Kenedy met it on the volley, but cushioned it past the Forest ‘keeper Henderson rather looking to break the netting. It was a fine goal.

Alan, conjuring up a Shane Meadows “This Is England” tone : “They’ll have to come at us naaah.”

Chris, thinking about Tommy Lawton’s win bonus against Moscow Dynamo : “Come on mah little diamonds.”

There were further words from Alan –

“Ah, I always remember where I was when Kenedy shot and scored.”

Not long after, we worked the ball to Eden Hazard who picked out Batshuayi inside the box. The ball was deflected towards Michy who deftly struck home. At that moment, it seemed like the game was already won. The Chelsea crowd in the Matthew Harding immediately relaxed and invited both side stands to “give us a song” and, then, The Shed. A Zappacosta goal was ruled as being offside.

Every time Forest got past the halfway line, there was a noticeable roar. This always happens when lowly teams come to Chelsea. You almost feel like saying “bless them” but there was a time when Chelsea fans, very much aware of our status as underdogs, would also purr at a rare attack against stronger teams. And I miss those times.

Forest were awarded a free-kick about twenty-five yards out and Kieran Dowell crashed a rasping curler onto Caballero’s bar. The rebound was ballooned over. It was a rare Forest attack.

Kenedy shot over. Bakayoko forced a low save. Five minutes before the break, Fabregas picked out the lively Musonda who took one touch and walloped a shot past the luckless Henderson.

Chelsea 3 Forest 0 : surely no Bradford 2015 comeback now.

I watched as Musonda set off on an ecstatic run, away from the usual celebratory zone of the corner flag, and towards the halfway line, his arms spread, his smile wide. What a lovely few moments for the lad.

A stupendous long ball from Fabregas set up the raiding Musonda again, but his effort dropped just wide.

The second-half began and it really was all Chelsea again. Hazard, twisting in the same style and in the same position as his shot at Cech on Sunday, was denied by the post. Rudiger, impressive again, raked a long shot over. Seven minutes into the half, Fabregas lofted a ball towards Hazard – it looked offside to me – and we watched as Eden advanced on goal. A shot would certainly follow. He was forced wide but had the presence of mind to stop and set up Batshayi, whose low shot gave us a deserved 4-0 lead.

You had to feel sorry for Forest. I felt for Mancienne, being humiliated by his former employer. Down in front of us, we often pulverised their defence, with not only Musonda and Kenedy doubling up, and playing one-twos, but with Eden Hazard also involved. There were over-the-top back heels, indulgent one-twos, chips, mazy dribbles, everything. Musonda looked particularly impressive; lively and assured, comfortable on the ball, yearning to set up a dribble and hurt Forest again. Top marks.

On came Ethan Ampadu – a new signing from Exeter City – and his big hair reminded me of Mike Brolly c. 1973. He looked confident too, although his long-passing did not reach Fabregas levels of efficiency.

To their credit, Forest had a couple of chances.

Their fans were involved again, singing their take on “Mull Of Kintyre.”

“City Ground.

Oh mist rolling in from the Trent.

My desire is always to be here.

Oh City Ground.”

The Matthew Harding demanded another song from them –

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

More substitutions : Jake Clarke-Salter replaced the faultless Andreas Christensen, Dujon Sterling – a debut – for Frank Zappacosta.

There were a couple of Forest long shots but we were not wholly bothered. Kenedy capped a fine performance down the left with a whipped shot from an angle which smacked the bar, with the ball dropping onto Batshuayi and over the goal.

“He never misses from there.”

Chelsea 5 Forest 0.

The celebrations were rather muted. A hat-trick for Michy but the easiest goal he will ever score.

Spoiling the purity of a clean sheet, Forest scored in what would prove to be the very last kick of the day, with Darikwa slotting home.

Their fans celebrated painfully excitedly.

Bloody hell.

“Were we ever like that?”

We all agreed that it had been a fun night. We had witnessed some great attacking football and the whole game felt a little different, like something from a parallel universe. As we reached the car, we soon learned that we had drawn Everton at home in the next round. Happy with that. No complaints.

On we go.

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Tales From Stratford

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 26 October 2016.

There was no doubt about it; there was a definite edge to this one. All of the ingredients were there. A cup game under lights between two rival teams – and supporters – plus the added intrigue of our first-ever visit to a stadium which has been in the news all season. The football world has looked on from outside with bewilderment at the mess which has surrounded West Ham’s move to their new stadium. Not only has there been sporadic outbreaks of old-fashioned hooliganism outside the ground, but outbursts of fighting inside the stadium, between West Ham fans no less, too. Additionally, there has been a sense of alienation among the West Ham faithful at the awful atmosphere, and the poor sight-lines within the stadium. It has been, thus far, a tough move away from the intimate and well-loved Upton Park.

Usually I dread a mid-week away game at West Ham, but at least the drive was easy. I had collected the troops at 3.30pm and we were parked-up at Barons Court at 6pm. Until this season, the route to West Ham United would have involved staying on the District Line for over an hour, and a journey encompassing twenty-three tube stations. It is one of the most tedious train trips. On the last two visits, we have missed the kick-off due to congested traffic flow nearing the final stop.

I got the chaps to pose for a photograph, clutching the most sought-after away ticket of the season, outside Barons Court tube, and we then dived down the stairs to begin our journey to Stratford. We changed at Notting Hill Gate, and then sped along the Central Line.

We arrived at Stratford train station just before 7pm. This was a definite improvement on the painful schlep out to Upton Park. Strangely, I had spotted only one West Ham fan en route. The tube is usually full of them.

At Stratford, a quick handshake with Kenny and Rob who had evidently been on our train, and then a quick look to see which way we had to head. Outside into the mild London night and we followed the crowd, keeping close together. For a while we walked, I noted, in a diamond formation, with myself at the base, Parky and PD to my flanks and Glenn at the tip. It made me chuckle.

There was a certain boisterousness in the air. Occasionally, West Ham fans would bellow out “Irons!” and it sounded like a mating call.

Soon, we spotted the electric blue neon of the London Aquatic Centre, and then the lofty sculpture to its left – the oddly-named ArdelorMittal Orbit – which was glowing a deep red. Taking as a duo, it was a good enough effort to create a claret and blue welcome to West Ham’s new home. Beyond – quite a walk away by the look of it – was the illuminated London Stadium, a dash of white on the horizon.

Thus far, there was no trouble.

At Upton Park, it eventually became an easy away ground to negotiate ever since they moved away fans from the South Bank to the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand. Out of Upton Park tube, past the market, past the Queens pub, then over the road and through some Chelsea-only side streets, with plenty of police on hand in case there was ever any trouble. There never was.

Here, in Stratford, at the site of the 2012 Olympics, everything was vastly different. For one thing, we were in unfamiliar territory. And it was night time.

But to be fair, this was easy. There was no trouble, no mobs, no nonsense.

I spotted Jonesy, and caught him up. He had a different tale to tell. A few of them had been quietly drinking in a West Ham pub, maybe half-a-mile away, and had witnessed a mob of West Ham attacking the Old Bill.

We walked on.

“Irons!”

We approached the stadium, walking underneath the twisted metal of the Orbit statue, then past a long line of punters at the match-day ticket office. A friend, Maggie, grabbed me by the hand and said “nice to see someone we know – nobody is wearing colours” and she was right. As we veered towards the security check outside entrance D, it dawned on me that nobody was wearing colours; no Chelsea scarves, no Chelsea shirts, no Chelsea jackets, no Chelsea caps, no Chelsea hats. It was hardly surprising.

I hadn’t seen many home fans wearing too much other.

It had only taken us twenty minutes to reach the away end from Stratford.

Inside the packed concourse, there were Chelsea songs at last.

PD and Glenn shot off to their seats in the very front row of the lower block 119, whereas His Lordship and myself ascended to midway back in the upper tier 218.

And here was my real problem with West Ham’s new stadium. In truth, I was never a fan of the aesthetics of the former Olympic Stadium – quite bland, quite dull – but as it became apparent that the oft-quoted “football refit” had resulted in away fans being split in two tiers, it did not take me long to tell friends that I had spotted a problem.

The bottom tier seemed to be ridiculously isolated from the upper tier. Surely there would be a segregation issue here, especially since there would be home fans sharing the lower tier too. And then as the season began, we heard rumours that segregation inside the stadium – surprise, surprise – was a major problem. And wait – there’s even more. Police were not patrolling the inside of the stadium due to radio communication issues.

In my mind, right from the off, surely it would have been better to allocate away fans with a single block of tickets in a thoroughly-segregated upper tier, which is what happens at Sunderland and Newcastle. This would keep all away fans together in an area which would be easier to marshal.

I mentioned this, but with more succinctness and with many more swear words, to Jason who was two rows in front. He agreed.

I looked around.

Lots of empty seats. Such a wide open stadium. Not a football stadium.

“Thank heavens we don’t play here.”

The empty seats never did fill up as kick-off approached. There would be around ten thousand empty seats on the night. Conversely, I did not spot a single empty seat in our 5,200 allocation, which was probably split something like 1,700 downstairs and 3,500 upstairs.

We hadn’t spoken too much about the actual game on the drive up. We had heard that Michy Batshuayi and John Terry were playing. We wondered if John would play centrally in the back three.

Antonio Conte had mixed youth and experience. It was a typical Chelsea approach to the early rounds of League Cup football.

Asmir Begovic.

David Luiz – John Terry – Gary Cahill.

Cesar Azpilicueta – N’Golo Kante – Nathaniel Chalobah – Ola Aina.

Willian – Michy Batshuayi – Oscar.

The PA pumped “Bubbles” before the teams came out and then faded at the “fortunes always hiding” line to allow the home fans their big moment. It was loud, I’ll given them that.

The teams entered the pitch. The Chelsea fans were in good voice. The scene was set.

I did note that the manager had jettisoned his usual neat black suit for blue Chelsea gear.

I guess nobody had bothered to tell him the dress code for the night –

“No club colours.”

He was casual, but not in the way that some of our away support was; I just hoped his approach to the match wasn’t casual either.

The PA then repeated “Bubbles” again just before the kick-off and I groaned; nothing like overdoing it, eh?

I had a quick thought blitz through my mind.

“A sterile stadium and manufactured atmosphere. I hate modern football.”

I simply could not believe how far the directors’ box was from even the nearest touchline; it must’ve been fifty yards. The subs and management team were a good thirty yards from the same touchline. It is no wonder that Conte and Bilic stood in their respective technical areas all evening.

We began well to be honest, moving the ball around well. We had a couple of chances. First from John Terry at the near post and then from a Kante shot.

The mood in the away sections would soon change.

West Ham won a corner down below us – OK, some thirty yards away – and the cross was headed away, but only as far as Mark Noble out on the West Ham left. His cross was played in with pace and was met unchallenged by a perfectly-timed leap and header from Cheikhou Kouyate. The ball screamed past Begovic.

With this, the home areas boomed. The West Ham players gleefully celebrated at the near corner flag, and we were met with quote a surreal scene as both sets of fans goaded each other – separated by fifteen feet of open space – while bubbles from a machine drifted around in the background.

The West Ham fans to my left in the upper tier then began antagonising us and I tried my best to ignore them.

We reminded them of the poor show from them :

“They’re here, they’re there, they’re every fackin’where, empty seats, empty seats.”

They responded with the oh-so tiresome “WWYWYWS?”

The banter was flying now and our “You’ve won fuck all” soon morphed into a new Chelsea song –

“WE’VE WON IT ALL.”

And so we had.

Ha.

On the pitch West Ham then dominated the rest of the first-half. Our goal lived a rather charmed life as Michail Antonio drilled a shot wide. Manuel Lanzini then misfired on the half-hour mark.

John Terry was grimly exposed for pace when one-on-one with a West Ham attacker and it was horrible to see. Elsewhere, Oscar was especially poor, quick to pull out of tackles and awful in possession. Aina and Chalobah did their best but were not aided by the more experienced players on show. Kante was not at his best. Batshuayi did not get the early ball, nor the late ball for that matter; his service was poor. At the back, we looked nervous. It was a pretty grim story all round. Thank heavens for the excellent Begovic between the posts who kept us in it with a few fine saves and blocks.

In the closing moments of a dire half, Oscar found Batshuayi inside the box. From around one-hundred and fifty yards away, it looked an easy chance. But from twenty yards, it proved otherwise. Batshuayi shot high and over the bar.

Ugh.

At half-time we expected changes.

“And please – no extra time and penalties.”

I needed to be up at 6am on Thursday and, with penalties, I would not get home much before 3am.

Another “ugh.”

We heard from a chap from Gloucester that a Chelsea crowd of around three hundred had been the victims of Police kettling outside the stadium, at the bottom of the steps leading to the away turnstiles, for a full thirty minutes, thus missing most of the first-half. I have no idea why.

There seemed to be a strange atmosphere surrounding the game all night.

The second-half began and within just three minutes of the re-start, we were groaning again. Begovic saved from Payet, but the ball broke to Edmilson Fernandes who drilled the ball back and into the net.

2-0, bollocks.

More goading from the home fans to my left.

I had hoped that Conte would pair Batshuayi with Costa upfront, but instead our young striker was just replaced.

Hazard came on for Chalobah, Pedro for Aina.

It amazed me that Oscar had remained on the pitch.

There was a good chance for Willian, inside the box, but his shot narrowly missed the far post.

We built up a little head of steam, but we were plainly not “on it.”

Two consecutive corners from Willian failed to clear the first man.

Hazard and Diego fluffed good chances.

This was hurting.

There was still no end of aggressive pointing and gesturing from the West Ham fans to my left. One fan in front of me, clearly drunk, was annoying the fuck out of me with his solitary and boorish goading of the home fans, which involved the monotone singing, ad infinitum of “where were you at Upton Park?”

Ugh.

“And only four hours sleep if I am lucky.”

John Terry headed wide, a penalty claim on Eden Hazard was not given. With ten minutes to go, many Chelsea fans headed for the exits. There was talk of us being given an escort (how ‘eighties) back to the wonderfully-named Pudding Mill Lane, and so I wondered if the early-leavers would be allowed to leave the stadium.

And then the madness started.

The walkway behind the seating area of the lower tier became the subject of everybody’s attention. It appeared that objects were being thrown from both sides of the seated area, which then instigated a rush towards the stewards guarding the small wall of segregation behind the seated area. From memory, I thought that the West Ham fans were the instigators but “I would say that wouldn’t I?”

Fans from the upper tier moved downstairs. I noticed how fans could easily rush towards the problem area along unguarded alleyways connecting the lower tier seats to the concourse below us. It was an ugly scene. The stewards were in the brunt of it, though few punches were thrown. Many had vacated the lower seats, but were replaced by others who evidently wanted to join in the antagonism. The flashpoint was still the walkway behind the lower tier of seats; there was a mesh of segregation between the fans in the lower level which remained virtually intact the entire time.

My pre-match thoughts about the new stadium were being proved right; there was just too much space to monitor, too much shared-space, and not enough segregation. At last, as a token gesture, a few police arrived on the scene, woefully late, and apparently without much direction or idea.

Gary Cahill knocked a goal in, if anyone cared, and I had this sudden thought.

“Bloody hell, if we score an equaliser, another thirty minutes of this will be a nightmare.”

Was I surprised that there was this nasty outbreak of civil disobedience?

Not at all.

For an element among both sets of fans, this night was – sadly – always going to be more than about the football. The throwing of objects – plastic bottles, seats, even coins – was sheer stupidity. It has no place in football.

At the end, I was glad to hear the final whistle so I could go home and get some sleep.

We all met up downstairs in the concourse.

Outside, bizarrely, there was an overkill of police waiting for the Chelsea fans. They were all lined up, geared up too, and told us to head to Pudding Mill Lane. I thought like saying “where were you lot inside the bloody stadium?”

On the quick walk to the station, I turned around and expected to see hundreds of Chelsea fans behind me. There were hardly any. I had a chuckle to myself.

The others had obviously avoided the escort and had decided to run the gauntlet – for better, for worse – back to Stratford.

The four of us met up with a few old friends and were soon away, catching the Docklands Light Railway train to Poplar, where we stopped momentarily beneath the towering masses of the towers at Canary Wharf, before heading back to normality and west London.

We chatted to a couple of lads who were among the thousands who had returned via Stratford. There had been outbreaks and scuffles all the way back.

“All of a sudden – course you don’t know who is who – we found ourselves among the West Ham lot, so we drifted off, and lost them.”

We spoke about the game. The euphoria of Sunday had dissipated by the time we all reached Earl’s Court. There was talk that Conte should have played a stronger team, yet there is always a call that we don’t play the youngsters. It is a tough balancing act.

“Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.”

The real problem has been that good players such as Chalobah and Aina have been played so sparingly by Mourinho and Hiddink in the past, that a potentially strong squad on paper includes many youngsters who are simply not experienced enough.

It is time that we give these youngsters more games, not less.

At the moment our signing of young players, and then putting them out on loan, or not playing them in the first team at all, is akin to stockpiling carrier bags, stuffing them in the drawer beneath the sink, then forgetting that they are there, and yet still paying money for new ones.

It is a mania that has to stop.

It had been a strange evening. We felt sure that West Ham would be fined for the problems with crowd segregation. In fact, we found it difficult to comprehend that a safety certificate had been awarded to the stadium at all. Already, some Chelsea fans were saying that they would never return. I will be back later this season, but it is a stadium that does not thrill me. I can completely understand the West Ham support’s displeasure at the sterile structure, so unbefitting of football. I am just so relieved that our stadium redevelopment involves more intimacy and more consideration towards those things that we hold dear.

On Sunday, it’s back to league football. See you there.

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Tales From Bristol, Bath And London

Chelsea vs. Bristol Rovers : 23 August 2016.

The last time that I saw Bristol Rovers play was in February 1993 when I was lured to Bath – my nearest city and the place of my birth – to see the visit of Tranmere Rovers and, more specifically, Pat Nevin, in the second tier of English football, which was then called the First Division of the Football League. This was a season when I didn’t attend too many Chelsea games in the latter part of the season, since I was saving for a bumper trip to the US in the autumn of 1993, but I managed to gather enough money together to drive to Bath on a bitterly cold afternoon to watch my favourite ever player play one more time. Since I was supporting Pat, I took my place in the sparsely-populated away end at Twerton Park – Rovers’ home from 1986 to 1996 – among the Tranmere fans, and watched, with my extremities getting colder and colder as the game progressed, with decreasing interest in a game that neither excited me or even mattered too much. The home team won 1-0, thus pleasing the vast majority of the 5,135 crowd, but it did not save them from relegation that season. I looked on, disconsolate, as Pat Nevin struggled against the Bristol Rovers defence and I was left wondering how such a gifted player was now playing in the yellow and green away colours of Tranmere Rovers.

That I was lured to Bath for a Bristol Rovers game all those years ago was pretty typical of many like-minded souls from my local area around that time. When Bristol Rovers were forced out of their traditional Eastville Stadium, their temporary exile in the Roman and Georgian city of Bath at the home of Bath City resulted in many football fans in the Frome area adopting Rovers as a second team, or even a first team. There is no doubt that Rovers’ support – traditionally the northern areas of Bristol and neighbouring parts of Gloucestershire – took on new characteristics in that ten years of alternative domicile. Their demographics definitely shifted east. I know of several local lads who now support Rovers ahead of other, larger, teams, and I think their base in Bath for ten years sparked this. I remember watching a couple of other games at Twerton too; against Middlesbrough in 1986 and Notts County in 1988. It was a poor ground to be honest, but suited Rovers’ needs.

Growing up, the two local football teams to me were Bristol City and Bristol Rovers. My father always contended that City were always a second division team and Rovers, the scrappy underdog, a third division team. I hardly knew any supporters of the two Bristol teams. They must have existed, but it wasn’t until I began middle school in the autumn of 1974 that I met one.

On my very first day at Oakfield Road Middle School in Frome, I happened to sit opposite Dave, a lad from Frome, whose roots were in Bristol. It is very likely that some of the very first words that we said to each other were of our two football teams. I was Chelsea and he was Rovers. I had been to my very first Chelsea game in the March of that year, but I quickly learned that Dave had been to many Rovers games over the previous few seasons. In 1973/1974, Rovers had won promotion to the Second Division – I can still hear Dave extolling the virtues of the “Smash and Grab” striking partnership of Alan Warboys and Bruce Bannister – and he was full of stories of games at the endearingly ramshackle Eastville Stadium, especially involving the rough and tumble which used to accompany football in those days. We used to talk about our two teams. We even used to draw detailed drawings of Eastville and Stamford Bridge – both were oval, both had hosted greyhound racing – and our friendship grew and grew.

In the autumn of 1974, I played in my first-ever 11-a-side football match; it was a house match, Bayard – blue – versus Raleigh – red – and both Dave and myself were in the Bayard team.

We won 2-0, and I opened the scoring with a left-footed volley, while Dave followed up with the second goal as we won 2-0.

As football debuts go, it was damned perfect.

Bayard 2 Raleigh 0.

Chris 1, Dave 1.

Chelsea 1, Rovers 1.

Blue 2 Red 0.

The next season – around March 1976 if memory serves – the two of us were selected, as mere ten year olds, to play in the school team against a team from Bath, the only two from our year to be selected. It was a proud moment for me, yet – looking back with hindsight – it probably represented the high water mark of my footballing career. I would never reach such heights again, eventually dropping to the “B team” by the time I reached the age of fourteen, right at the end of the 1978/1979 season, unsure of my best position, and riddled with a lack of confidence in both myself as a person and as a player. Dave turned out to be a far more rounded footballer – a combative midfielder with a good pass – and played football at a reasonable level for many years. My mazy runs down the wing soon petered out against tougher opposition.

I will say something, though – and I was only speaking to Dave about this a couple of months ago after a “From The Jam” gig in our home town – there was a ridiculous chemistry between the two of us on a football pitch, which probably stemmed from the hours we played with a tennis ball in the schoolyard. I was a right winger and Dave played in midfield. We seemed to be able to read each other’s minds.

I would play the ball to Dave, set off on a run, and he would find me. After a while of this – time after time, game after game – it almost got embarrassing.

Dave agreed.

“Baker – our games master – would say “what is it with you two?””

Good times.

No, great times.

Leading up to our League Cup tie against Bristol Rovers, I was in contact with Dave, though was sorry to hear that he would not be attending. I had to bite my lip from uttering the classic schoolboy line “shall I get you a programme?”

This would – hopefully – be a fun evening for myself, perhaps for Dave, and for the others from my home area who are afflicted with Chelsea and Rovers devotion.

As I caught a glimpse of the local BBC TV news bulletin at 6am on the day of the game, there was a brief mention of the game at Stamford Bridge. The graphic came up on the TV screen :

“Chelsea vs. Bristol Rovers”

I shuddered and had a second look. It brought back immediate memories of when the two clubs were in the same division – the old second division – on a few occasions in my youth. But more of that later.

After another torrid day at work, I collected the Chuckle Brothers and we were on our way. Talk was all about the game at the start of the drive to London. A few friends would be in the Rovers end. News came through that a lot of Rovers’ fans had made a day of it and had been on the ale all day. This was brewing up nicely. A Chelsea game of course, but a game with a lovely local interest for us all. Whisper it, but Glenn often used to go and watch Rovers with his brother and a few other Frome rapscallions from 1986 to 1993, but he has since seen the light and now regards Rovers as an afterthought; a fling which had no long-lasting meaning.

Bristol Rovers. The Pirates. The Gas. The blue half – or maybe quarter – of Bristol, and therefore more palatable to me than Bristol City. Rovers spent most of their existence in the second and third divisions, before cascading down to the fourth division in the early-eighties along with their hated city rivals. Whereas City have enjoyed a little more success of late, Rovers were relegated from the Football League as recently as 2014. It was Dave’s worst ever moment. However, successive promotions have now hoisted Rovers back in to the third tier. Things are looking up for The Gas, a relatively recent moniker from the ‘eighties, which originated firstly as “Gasheads”, a derisory term from the City end of town, since an old gasometer used to stand over Eastville. The Rovers fans have now adopted it as a badge of honour.

Some stories to tell.

Of my first-ever twenty Chelsea games, four were against Bristol Rovers, at Eastville.

Because so much of who I am as a Chelsea supporter stems from my childhood passion for the team, I always say that my first one hundred games are the bedrock of my devotion. I can remember distinct details, most probably, from all of my first one hundred games. And as I am about to demonstrate I can certainly remember oodles from my first twenty.

Game 5 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 29 November 1975.

My first-ever Chelsea away game, and I can distinctly remember waiting outside my grandparents’ house in my local village for a lift to take my mother and I to the game. My father, a shopkeeper, was unable to get time off, but he had arranged for one of his customers, a Rovers season-ticket holder from near Cranmore, to take us to the game, along with his wife and daughter. I can remember the drive to Bristol, and the chat with the attractive blonde girl – a couple of years older, phew – to my right. I always remember she wore a blue satin jacket, edged in tartan.

“Blue for Rovers, tartan for the Bay City Rollers.”

Mum and myself took our seats in the main stand, and I loved being able to see Eastville in the flesh, at last, after all of Dave’s diagrams and related details. Chelsea wore the lovely old Hungarian red, white, green, and we won 2-1, despite Bill Garner getting sent off. I remember the angled flower beds behind the Tote End goal. There were outbreaks of fighting in the stadium. It was a fantastic first away game. The gate was a pretty healthy 16,277. Oh – I also remember a Chelsea fan getting a little too interested in my mother – awkward – and I remember seeing the very same bloke at Ashton Gate later in the season, this time with my father on the scene. My mother and I would have a knowing glance and smile at each other.

Game 9 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 5 October 1976.

I always remember that my parents and I travelled up to see the Chelsea vs. Cardiff City game on the Saturday, and were amazed to read in the programme that our away game at Eastville, originally planned for later that autumn, had been brought forward to the following Tuesday. Tickets were hastily purchased – again in the main stand – and this time it was a full family carload that left my village after my father had picked me up outside my school on the way home from work. Both my parents and, from memory, my grandfather (his only Chelsea game with me) watched us on an autumnal evening in Bristol. I remember Dad got a little lost nearing the ground, but that was the least of our troubles. We lost 2-1 after getting it back to 1-1. Chelsea in red, red, blue. My first midweek game. More crowd trouble. A gate of 13,199. Despite the sad loss, we were promoted at the end of the season,

Game 16 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 23 February 1980.

An iconic game, for all the wrong reasons. On my travels around the country with Chelsea, I bump in to many of our fans from the West of England. It seems that every single one of them, to a man, was at this game. We were riding high in the second division after relegation in 1978/1979, and I was relishing the visit to Eastville to see a good Chelsea team against a mediocre Rovers eleven. I watched from the main stand yet again, and was thrilled to see my friends Glenn – yes, the very same – and his brother Paul, with their grandfather, watching from a few rows behind me. There was untold fighting before the game, with Chelsea in the Tote End, and police horses in the Tote End too. It was pandemonium. On the pitch, a below-strength Chelsea team (Bob Iles in goal, for starters) lost 3-0 to a fine Rovers performance. The crowd was a feisty 14,176. There must have been 4,000 Chelsea there. Debutant Dennis Rofe was sent off. Tony Pulis – yes, him – scored for Rovers. It would eventually cost us our promotion place at the end of the season and we would not recover until 1984. A grim day.

Game 19 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 14 March 1981.

This was a poor season and this was a poor game. This time, my father and two school friends stood on the small terrace in front of the main stand. We were drifting towards a lowly position in the second division while Rovers were on their way to relegation. The atmosphere, for want of a better word, of the previous season, had dissipated. The stand on the other side of the pitch – where I had watched a couple of speedway matches in 1977 and 1978 – had been burned down the previous summer and the gate was just 7,565. We were woeful. We lost 1-0. I remember Micky Droy playing upfront in the last ten minutes and hitting the bar with a header. A dire afternoon of football.

So, those paying attention will realise that of the last three times I have seen us play Bristol Rovers, we have lost every one.

In 2016, bizarrely, it was time for revenge.

We didn’t see many Rovers fans on the M4. I expected an armada. It was just a trickle. Most were already in the pubs and hostelries of London. A former boss, up for the game with his two sons, texted me to say they had been asked tom leave The Goose. No trouble. Just, I guess, for safety’s sake.

I was parked-up at about 6.30pm. The ridiculously warm London air hit me hard. It was like a sauna. PD, Parky and Glenn had chosen shorts. I wish I had done the same. In The Goose, there were a residual few Rovers fans, but everything was quiet. It was not as busy as I had expected. We had heard that some of the 4,000 were drinking at Earl’s Court, quite a common occurrence these days.

The team news broke.

Begovic – Dave – Cahill – Brana – Aina – Matic – Cesc – Pedro – Moses – Loftus-Cheek – Batshuayi.

A mixture. A chance for some to shine. We presumed Ruben would play off Michy.

The air was thick and muggy on the walk down the North End Road, along Vanston Place and up the Fulham Road. There were Rovers fans about – in their iconic quarters – but there was no hint of 1980-style nastiness.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I was more than happy with the crowd. Only a few rows at the top of the East Stand remained empty. For some reason, like Liverpool in 2015, the away fans had the western side of the upper tier of The Shed, in addition to the whole of the bottom tier. Only three flags; a poor effort to be honest.

It was clear from the onset – and no real surprise to anyone – that the good people of Frenchay, Easton, Yate, Pucklechurch, Mangotsfield, Kingswood, Fishponds and Bradley Stoke would be making all the noise.

Very soon I heard the familiar sound of the Rovers’ theme tune.

“Irene, Goodnight Irene.

Irene, Goonight.

Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene.

I’ll see you in my dreams.”

More bloody silly flames were thrown up in to the air from in front of the East Stand as the teams entered the pitch. For a League Cup game. In August. Do me a favour, sunshine.

Chelsea in blue, Rovers in yellow.

The game began. It was still ridiculously warm.

It was all Chelsea for the first part of the game. With Moses and Pedro out wide, and Ruben alongside Batshuayi, we moved the ball well, and – cliché coming up – the Rovers players were chasing shadows. Chances piled up in the first twenty minutes with shots from all areas. Batshuayi dragged his shot wide after a fine move, and Ruben drove a low drive hard against the far post. In The Shed, the away fans were singing away.

“I’ll see you in my dreams.”

Rovers hardly threatened. They put together a crisp move featuring over twenty passes, but got nowhere.

On the half-hour, Loftus-Cheek played in Matic, and his ball in to the box was deflected towards the waiting Batshuayi; he swivelled and lashed it high past Steve Mildenhall in the Rovers’ goal.

Fred Wedlock : “CHTCAUN.”

Billy Wedlock : “COMLD.”

Soon after, a cross from Dave was played right across the goal and Victor Moses had the easiest job to touch it home.

It was 2-0 to us, and we were well on top.

But, no. Just before the break, Rovers swept in a fine ball from a free-kick in front of the East Stand and Peter Hartley rose to head the ball past Asmir Begovic, who until that point had not been tested.

The Rovers end ignited and, no bias, the version of “Goodnight Irene” that greeted their goal was truly deafening. Good work, my luvvers.

They then aimed a ditty at City and Glenn and myself thought about joining in.

“Stand up if you hate the shit.”

City call Rovers “Gas Heads.”

Rovers call City “Shit Heads.”

It’s all very colloquial in Brizzle.

Ellis Harrison then went close with a header.

Thankfully, we soon restored the lead when Batshuayi turned in a Loftus-Cheek pass, again from close range. It was good to see us getting behind defenders and hitting the danger areas.

We lead, then, 3-1 at the break.

It was still a sultry and steamy evening as the second-half began. It was Rovers, though, who began on the front foot and a deep run by their bearded talisman Stuart Sinclair caused us problems. A clumsy challenge by Pedro – yeah, I know – gave the referee an easy decision. Harrison dispatched the penalty with ease.

Rovers soon started singing Billy Ray Cyrus. Fuck off.

We rather went to pieces, and for the next twenty minutes, the away team held the upper hand. Their reluctance to attack for most of the first-half was cast aside and they caused us a few problems. Moses twisted and turned but shot wide. Then, the loose limbed Harrison unleashed a fine shot from distance which Begovic did well to turn over. It was becoming quite a competitive match.

We slowly got back in to our stride, but our finishing was quite woeful. I watched Ruben Loftus-Cheek as our moves developed, but his movement was non-existent. On more than one occasion, I was begging him to make an angle, to lose his marker, to create space, but he did not do so. I guess that instinct is not inside him.

Dave Francis would have found Chris Axon in 1976, no problem.

Thankfully, Rovers began to tire in the final quarter. By then, almost ridiculously, the manager had brought on Eden Hazard for a poor Pedro, John Terry for Ola Aina – sadly injured – and then Oscar for Loftus-Cheek. Our play was invigorated again, but no further goals followed, despite Michy bundling the ball in after good work from Hazard; sadly he was offside.

The away end was still bristling.

“We’re Bristol Rovers, we’ll sing to the end.”

Batshuayi had impressed me throughout the game. He is strong, does not lack confidence, is mobile and has a good first touch. I have a feeling he will be among the goals this season. It was a pretty reasonable game, save for our second-half dip, and I am sure that the travelling Bristolians enjoyed themselves. I was in contact with Dave throughout the match, and I am sure he was proud of his team, and supporters.

However, for the blue and white quarters – the travelling Gas Heads – it was “Goodnight Vienna.”

We set off home, on the M4, along with thousands of others heading west. At Reading Services, the Rovers fans outnumbered us, but they were in good spirits. After delays at a couple of spots on the journey home, I eventually pulled into my drive at 1.15am. These midweek games, Chuckle Brothers or no Chuckle Brothers, do not get any easier.

It had been thirty-five years since my last Chelsea game against Rovers. I wonder if I will ever see another one.

If so, I’m looking forward to it already.

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Tales From Mourinho’s Men

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 27 October 2015.

After Saturday’s narrow loss to West Ham United, here was a chance for immediate redemption. A trip to the Britannia Stadium for a Capital One cup tie against Stoke City offered the chance for a little respite from the travails of our surprising implosion in the league. Here was a match in which we could show some fight and bottle. Here was the chance for a calming victory ahead of two monumental home games against Liverpool and Dynamo Kiev. Here was the opportunity to halt our faltering slide.

Or, if some sections of the media would have it, here was a potential banana skin on which Chelsea Football Club could have an almighty slip.

In other seasons, perhaps, I may not have fancied a three-hundred mile round trip during the week for a League Cup tie. Historically, this game might have been one that I might have missed. However, I have an emotional tie with the city of Stoke-on-Trent which meant that I had decided as soon as the draw was made that I would be attending. I have not missed a Chelsea game in my old college town since a League Cup tie in 1995. I have attended all eight of our games at Stoke City’s new windswept stadium at the top of the hill. Parky was “up for it” too. And last week, Glenn decided to go. The more the merrier.

I left work bang on 3.30pm. Ahead of me, unfortunately, was a grinding three and a half-hour journey, with the early winter evening enveloping us in increasing darkness, in to the heart of The Midlands. I was forever clock-watching. It was a tedious journey, thankfully enlightened with banter along the way.

Once again it seemed that Chelsea Football Club was at the eye of a media storm. All of the focus was on us, and our manager – and owner – especially.

From reading opinions of supporters both in the UK and abroad, both old and new, it was clear that there was a myriad of views. The majority, I have to say, were in support of the beleaguered manager. Yet opinions were hugely varied.

On one hand we had the slash and burn merchants, who wanted the club to dispense of the services of Jose Mourinho, citing the clichéd “losing the dressing room” as one of their main reasons, though there were others. That’s a pretty extreme view in my opinion and not one that I adhere to. And it would be easy, too easy, to make the broad-sweeping assumption that this view was that of the new wave of post Roman, post 2005, post Munich “Johnny Come Lately” half-and-half scarf-wearing new supporters that have sprung up in various parts of the world. This is the view, too, of a few of the so-called “old school” fans also; that we should get shot of Mourinho the loose cannon.

On the other hand, we have the pro-Mourinho faction who believe that dispensing with the services of Chelsea’s most successful manager ever – let that sink in – would be a sure sign of idiocy on a grand scale by the Chelsea board. There was even talk in some quarters of allowing the manager a leave of absence in order for him to be with his very ill father in Portugal, and for him to get his head straight after an increasing number of typically rambunctious outbursts. The view was that Mourinho was “one of our own” and that the club “owed him one.” This is more in line with my feelings. Did you expect anything else?

But I am not a fawning sycophant either. I certainly acknowledge our manager’s odd idiosyncrasies. Some of his outburst have made me cringe. And yes, Mourinho is a cantankerous bugger at times – though, which successful manager isn’t? – but I take great stock in the wise words of respected former players who continually triumph our manager’s fastidious preparations, tactical nous, man-management skills and his love of the club.

Some of his decisions this season – well documented elsewhere, I won’t bore you – have been odd. But I honestly have to say that I find it hilarious – I mean, really hilarious – to read the opinions of various Chelsea supporters who sanctimoniously and pompously deride one of modern football’s greatest managers. And yes – I know – we all have opinions. That’s OK. That is a given. What is the famous cliché? “Football is all about opinions.” Yep. But unfortunately, sadly, I have to read some of them.

It’s lovely – just lovely – when a back-bedroom keyboard warrior in Badgercrack, Nebraska, armed with no experience of playing the sport, nor coaching it at any level, but a rich history of gaming skills on FIFA2016 (“we need to buy Bale as he is awesome”), a nerd like devotion to spending a vast fortune on every Chelsea shirt from the past ten seasons (“no, I can’t afford to travel to London to see The Chels”) and a stomach-churning sense of entitlement (“we have to win at least two cups this year”) starts deriding Jose Mourinho.

At around 6pm, Glenn noted on Facebook that some Chelsea supporters were already ensconced in a few Stoke boozers.

“Tell them we’re still at Walsall, stuck in the last round.”

Eventually, I was parked up. It was bang on 7pm. Just right. I had predicted a crowd of around 20,000, but the roads around the stadium were full of cars. On the slow ascent up the hill and over the canal, the lights of the stadium lit up the darkness of a Staffordshire evening. Inside the stadium, it was soon clear that we had brought reassuringly large numbers up to The Potteries on this Tuesday night. The away section – an entire end, just like my first visit for that FA Cup tie in 2003 – was filling up nicely. This was a great show of strength from the Chelsea support.

There were rumours that the entire Chelsea board had traveled up for the game. I have to be honest, I was surprised by my reaction to this. At first I thought “ah, good for them – showing support for the team and manager.” But then, another thought entered my head.

“Wait a bloody minute. Shouldn’t they be at every bloody game? We are.”

There is no doubt, though, that certain sections of the media would be twisting this story, putting extra pressure on the manager, with something along the lines of “Chelsea board in crisis meeting at Fenton Travel Lodge as pressure mounts on Mourinho.”

Pah.

We had discussed options for the evening’s team on the drive up.

In the end, the manager went with Begovic, Baba Rahman, Terry, Cahill, Zouma, Mikel, Ramires, Oscar, King Willian, Hazard, Diego Costa.

Before the game, the crowd were treated to the appearance of some members of the League Cup winning team of 1972. In normal circumstances, this would not illicit much of a reaction from the Chelsea following, but the mere mention of the name Gordon Banks meant that these players were given a good round of applause as they posed for photographs. Banks, a World Cup winner in 1966, is one of our most revered football icons. I last saw him at a Tony Waddington testimonial at the old Victoria Ground in the last few months of my life as a student in 1987. It was lovely to see him again, along with some familiar – in my memory – names from the past such as Terry Conroy, Mike Pejic and John Mahoney.

That win – against us of course – in 1972 is Stoke’s only piece of silverware. I wonder if their fans are quite so needy.

There were areas of empty seats in the periphery of the home stands, and a few empty seats in our end, but this was a healthy crowd. The fact that the ticket prices were just £20, and that this was half-term, meant that there were many more schoolchildren in attendance than normal.

With that very quaint, ‘fifties-sounding “We’ll Be With You” song accompanying the teams on to the pitch, the noise was ramped up and the 4,500 or so away supporters were in good voice.

Chelsea began really well, attacking the home end, The Boothen End, away in the distance. This was more like the Chelsea of old, with intelligent passes from Oscar setting Hazard away down the left, and solid work from Mikel and Ramires allowing Willian to shine. Diego Costa looked a threat. We created several chances, though Stoke enjoyed a couple of efforts on our goal too. An overhead kick by Muniesa just dropped over. There was a neatness to our play and it was pleasing to see. Very soon in to the game, the away support rallied behind the manager with loud and extended shouts of his name. It was clear from the onset that the team, the supporters and the manager were as one for this tough encounter.

As it should be on game day.

As I have said before, save the internet jousting for now, and the moans for the bar and car; match days should all be about supporting the team.

A lovely move set up Ramires, but from a very tight angle he could only hit the side netting. It was the closest that we had come.

In the stands, the noise was impressive.

There were songs for Dennis Wise, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Tore Andre Flo.

After a few Stoke challenges were waived away, a new song, born of frustration at West Ham :

“Mourinho’s right, the refs are shite.”

Sadly, Diego Costa was forced to leave the field, after play stopping on two occasions for our medical staff to attend to him. Loic Remy entered the fray. A ferocious effort, again from an angle, from Hazard was blocked well by Butland. Just before the break, Stoke’s best chance of the entire game was snuffed out by a fine falling block by Begovic at the feet of Walters.

There was positive noises at the break; this was better, though the thought of extra-time and penalties (I wouldn’t be back home until around 2am, and I’d have to be up for 6am) loomed large.

Soon into the second period, Stoke took the lead when an unstoppable strike from Jonathan Walters crashed in off the underside of the bar from around twenty-five yards. The goal came out of the blue. It was a rare Stoke attack. We were dumbfounded. Walters reeled away and, for a few moments, was able to forget his nightmare against us in 2013 when he scored two own goals for Chelsea and missed a penalty. The Stoke fans, not as loud these days as ten years ago, belted out “Delilah.”

The mood within the Chelsea end changed a little. We became more anxious. Three visitors from Scotland – Glasgow from their accents – behind me provided a constant barrage of negativity.

“Get about it Chelsea.”

“That Remy is pish, by the way.”

Elsewhere the songs of support were quieter.

I became a little frustrated with the lack of movement, but we kept the ball well. Kurt Zouma was an unlikely threat on the right and he crashed a low shot against the base of Butland’s bar.

Around me, a few Chelsea fans began singing a song from our recent past which doesn’t get aired too often. I first heard it at a wet Fratton Park in 2010. It slowly grew as more and more fans joined in.

“Don’t worry about a thing, ‘cus every little thing is gonna be alright.”

Blind faith, positivism or irony?

I’m not sure.

Mourinho brought on Kenedy for Rahman and Ramires slotted in at left-back. He immediately looked the part and struck a low shot after gliding past a lunge but Butland saved easily. On several occasions, from a grassy knoll behind me, our Glaswegian friends urged the substitute to do the same :

“Shoot, Kenedy.”

Mourinho replaced Ramires with Traore. Things were looking desperate as the ninety minutes neared. To be honest, despite all of our possession, I simply could not see us equalising.

Four minutes of extra-time.

A lifeline.

We won a corner and Willian planted the ball in the six yard box. Like at West Ham on Saturday, King Kurt managed a touch, and the ball fell invitingly for Loic Remy to smash high in to the net.

Get in.

The away end exploded, with bodies falling forward, and arms flailing everywhere. There is nothing like a last minute goal, to win or at least to draw.

“Pish, right?”

Now the Chelsea fans roared the noisiest of the entire match. It was deafening. To add to our joy, Bardsley was sent off for a rash challenge on Kenedy as he broke down below us. I was convinced that we would now prevail. Our confidence would be high, Stoke’s low, and we had the extra man. Let’s win this one boys.

It was more of the same in both periods of extra-time. Tons of Chelsea possession, but unable to break through the Stoke ranks. I loved the way that Mikel was applauded by sections of our support for his steady play throughout the game. He rarely gave the ball away and even played a few fine balls forward. Traore and Hazard came close. The time flew past. Our attempts on goal stacked up, with Stoke only rarely threatening. A fine save from that man Butland from Kenedy was the last effort of the one hundred and twenty minutes.

Penalties.

Although I had witnessed penalties on the summer tour in Charlotte and DC, this would be most Chelsea supporters’ first experience of them since a night in Munich over three years ago.

I was annoyed that they would be taken, like Munich, at the home end.

Stoke – Adam : in.

Chelsea – Willian – in.

Stoke – Odemwingie – in.

Chelsea – Oscar – in.

Stoke – Shaqiri – in.

Chelsea – Remy : in.

Stoke – Wilson : in.

Chelsea – Zouma : in.

Stoke – Arnautiovic : in.

Chelsea – Hazard.

Oh dear. It was all down to Eden, our troubled maestro. A goal for survival, or a miss and a continuation of his personal nightmare. A goal to save Mourinho more misery, or a goal to go in to sudden death. A goal for survival. His run up was relaxed, but his high blast was spectacularly palmed over by Butland. He slumped. We all slumped.

I gathered my bag and quietly and quickly left.

During the entire evening, there had been nothing but noisy encouragement from the travelling hordes, and this tide of positivism continued as I joined in the clapping of the players as they left the pitch. There was certainly no hint of any boos.

It had been a tough loss, but there were lots of fine things to come out of the night.

A phenomenal away support had roared the team on. On another night, in any other season apart from this one, we would have won easily. This season, we seem fated to miss out, occasionally by the narrowest of margins. As I drove home, there were similar messages of hope being shared by many. Glenn, his away games a rare treat these days, had bloody loved it.

It was a tiring drive home. As I turned off the M4 at Bath, I was plagued with heavy fog lapping at my car, which meant that – painfully – I had to slow right down. I eventually reached home at 1.45am.

It had been, I’ll be honest, an enjoyable evening and night in Staffordshire.

There were more positives than negatives.

I’ve seen us lose so many over the years, that one more won’t kill me.

And I always love a sing-song with four thousand close friends.

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Tales From Two Hours Of Noise

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 27 January 2015.

In the middle of our lengthy and, so far successful, league campaign came a hiatus of eight days in which Chelsea Football Club were set to play three cup games. Some European leagues shut down for a winter break at this time of the year; we just got down and dirty with games against Liverpool and Bradford City in our two domestic cup competitions.

The game at Anfield was a strange one for me. I set off a little later than planned, but just after catching wind of a large traffic snarl-up on the M6. There was also a looming threat of snow in the north-west. I was forced to divert, south of Birmingham, and take some minor roads through Kidderminster, Bridgenorth and Telford. We experienced some snowfall, and at just after 5pm, still miles from the M6, I decided to head home. Parky and I re-traced our steps and ended up watching the semi-final first leg in a pub in Tewkesbury, surrounded by squealing Liverpool supporters. My friend Tim, who is from the same neck of the woods and had set off thirty minutes before me and who advised on the detour, missed the kick-off. It is likely that we would have missed the entire first-half had we decided to plough on. It would be the first game in over forty years that I have missed in such circumstances. Games have been postponed once I have set off– I can think of four or five – but this is the first one in over one thousand where I was forced to return back with a ticket in my pocket. Well, apart from one occasion – another Anfield game, this time in 2002 – when car trouble caused me to head home after just a few miles. On that occasion, I have to give full credit to Liverpool Football Club, who were more than helpful in allowing a mate of mine to attend in my place using a faxed copy of my match ticket.

After the Bradford City game, maybe I would have preferred to have missed that one, too.

All of this came after our barnstorming win in the league at Swansea when we annihilated our opponents in a footballing masterclass.

January 2015 was turning into a soap opera all of its own for Chelsea.

After the Bradford City defeat – yes, it seems strange typing these words – it was like being back at school in the early ‘eighties, when school friends would habitually seek me out after yet another demoralising defeat against Wigan, Watford, Rotherham or Shrewsbury. At work on Monday, for once everyone wanted to talk to me about football. I wondered where they had been since August.

To be honest, there was something quite liberating about the whole experience. It enabled me to put things into perspective and – vitally – it helped me appreciate the game against Liverpool even more.

This was going to be – I was absolutely bloody sure of it – a night to remember. I was just so happy that we only had to wait a few days for the manager, players and supporters to form one unbreakable unit against the visiting hordes from Merseyside. This, I hoped, would be a night for the ages. I was convinced that the Chelsea support would want to show our love for the team by cheering the team on to another Wembley final. I wasn’t sure how Jose Mourinho’s recent bombast which ridiculed the Chelsea support would affect the noise levels. I just hoped that the manager’s game plan for the rest of the season would show better focus and reasoning than the frankly embarrassing outbursts in which he ridiculed us. If the noise levels against Liverpool proved to reach the predicted high levels, I was not sure that Jose Mourinho should get any credit. The team would need our support regardless of our manager’s recent comments.

PD had collected LP en route to Chippenham and they picked me up at just after 3.30pm.

As we pulled out of the pub car park, “The Story Of The Blues” by The Mighty Wah! was playing on PD’s CD player.

We drove up to London as night fell.

The illuminated signs above the M4 guided us in.

Lucozade.

Audi.

Mercedes.

EMC2.

We reached the pub at around 6pm. Time for a couple of pints and a few laughs.

On the walk to Stamford Bridge, I stopped to take a few photographs of the bustling crowds heading in to the stadium. Blurred bodies in dark coats rushed by. I spotted a grafter selling red and blue half-and-half scarves and snapped. As others rushed past, he looked straight at my camera. The expression on his face suggested a variety of emotions.

“Ah, you’ve got me. Fair play. I know these are crap. Embarrassing. But I’ve got to make a living somehow, haven’t I? It’s knock-off T-shirts outside Wembley Arena and the O2 on Sunday and Monday, and these bloody scarves at football tonight. They sell, mate. They sell. Kerching.  A fiver each. Who wants one?”

I was inside a darkened Stamford Bridge with a few minutes to spare. The main floodlights were dimmed, leaving just the perimeter lights and those on the balcony walls to produce any illumination.

Blur’s “Park Life” was played.

The lights stayed dimmed. There was an ethereal quality to the scene in front of me. I took my camera and trotted to the rear of the MHU and took a few panoramic shots as the two teams entered the vibrant green of the arena. Gradually the main floodlights grew stronger.

The crowd was invigorated and roared.

As I re-joined Alan and PD, I soon realised that The Shed looked different. The 4,100 away fans were housed in the entire lower tier, as I expected, but were also occupying the west half of the upper rather than the east. There were around two thousand Chelsea fans, including the displaced Parky, in the area usually occupied by away fans. It looked odd. There were a few Liverpool flags draped over the balcony wall.

The team?

Courtois –Luis, JT, Zouma, Ivanovic – Matic, Cesc – Hazard, Oscar, Willian – Diego Costa.

From the very first kick of the ball, the home support was involved. It was beautiful. My prediction about the noise levels was proved correct. We rose to the challenge. The tickets were only £25 and I got the distinct impression that there were more “proper” fans in attendance than usual for a midweek game. It was stirring stuff. Of course, there were the usual barbed songs and anthems throughout the night, plus a couple of new ones.

Liverpool : “Where’s your famous plastic flags?”

Chelsea : “Steven Gerrard, he lost you the league.”

Liverpool : “Diego Costa, the elephant man.”

If I am truthful, I think that Liverpool slightly edged the first forty-five minutes. The opening portion of the game was so tight, with possession split evenly. I was unsighted for the foul by Skrtel on a twisting and turning Diego Costa. Then two good Liverpool chances;  a searching ball by Gerrard found the raiding Moreno, but Thibaut saved, then our defence opened-up for the impressive Coutinho to race through, but our ‘keeper pulled off an even better save.

This was already a fine match.

And the home crowd roared on.

A couple of late chances fell to Oscar, but he misfired. Fabregas was playing deep, and hardly in the game. Willian was infuriating everyone with his tendency to continually cut inside, rather than sweep past his marker or pass to the advanced Ivanovic. Tensions always tend to be heightened during our recent tussles with Liverpool and there was an underlying sense of antagonism as the half developed. This was akin to our battles with another northern team, some forty years on.

Liverpool as the new Leeds, anyone?

At the break, no goals.

Fabregas, injured, was replaced by Ramires. The challenges kept crashing in. An altercation involving Skrtel and Costa again took place down below me though I was again unsure of the detail. Referee Oliver was surrounded by players and the noise continued.

We began to turn the screw.

Our talisman Hazard enjoyed a devastating run deep in to the Liverpool defence, twisting and turning, before unleashing a shot which screamed past Mignolet’s left post.

Chances for both teams, the pace relentless, the noise thunderous.

Then, sudden drama. The ball was slotted through, slightly ahead of Sterling, and Courtois was able to rush from his goal and save. Filipe Luis, playing well, was injured and replaced by Cesar Azpilicueta. A few chances to both sides did not bother either goalkeeper.

With away goals only counting after extra-time, the 1-1 result from Anfield meant that there would be extra time.

The two squads regrouped underneath the towering East Stand.

At times it looked like we were tiring. Eden Hazard, full of running, seemed to be totally exhausted one minute, only to embark on yet another spirited run at the Liverpool defenders the next. His spirit was magnificent.

We roared them on.

“And it’s super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC – we’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen.”

The bookings had stacked up throughout the game and we were howling when Lucas – one of those booked – was allowed to remain on the pitch after a rash foul on Hazard. Willian took the resulting free-kick, in front of the away supporters, whose noise had dwindled as the night progressed, Jose please note. The ball was sent in to the six yard box with pace and precision. Amazingly unmarked, Ivanovic rose and planted the ball into the Liverpool net.

Yes.

The Bridge, no doubt nervous at times despite the noise, roared as one.

Chelsea  1 Liverpool 0.

Advantage – even more so – to us.

The noise enveloped Stamford Bridge further; it had to be one of the best atmospheres at Chelsea for ages.

Lovely.

There was still an air of tension, though; a Liverpool goal would almost certainly mean penalties. Nobody wanted that. Thankfully, despite yet more antagonism between players, and more bookings, Chelsea were able to dampen Liverpool’s scarce efforts on goal.

There was, thankfully, just one minute of added time on top of the 120 minutes.

The referee’s whistle was met by a punch to the sky from me.

Wembley.

Fantastic.

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Tales From Wiltshire

Swindon Town vs. Chelsea : 24 September 2013.

Chelsea’s Capital One Cup game at Swindon Town’s County Ground was always going to be a special one for me. It would be our first competitive match at Swindon for almost twenty years but, more importantly, it also represented the nearest that I would get to a “home” game – of sorts – during this season and, probably, for many a season to come. From my place of work in Chippenham, right on the A4 – on the path of the old Roman road which linked Bristol and London – to the County Ground in Swindon is a journey of just over twenty miles. After countless midweek jaunts up the M4 to London, this was almost too good to be true.

The county of Wiltshire is not known for its footballing heritage. For many years, though, it was 1-0 up over my home shire of Somerset. Swindon Town’s presence in the Football League ensured that the rural county of stone circles and chalk horses stayed ahead in the local football bragging rights. Only since the emergence of Yeovil Town in the past decade has Somerset equalised; both counties now have a Football League team. Maybe my home county wins though; it has a county cricket team, while Wiltshire doesn’t. I have lived my entire life in Somerset – save for my college years and the three years of wanderlust which followed – but I have always worked over the border in Wiltshire; my twenty-three years of employment has taken place in the small towns of Westbury, Trowbridge and Chippenham. During my childhood in Frome the local teams, supported by a few school friends, were always the City and Rovers of Bristol; Swindon Town was definitely off the radar. Since working in Wiltshire though, I’ve encountered more followers of Swindon. It must be a county thing.

As soon as the draw was made, it was obvious that this match would entice many of my local Chelsea friends to attend. A hefty “gathering of the clans” from my surrounding home area was guaranteed. However, the game at Swindon turned out to be an extra-special “local” game for one friend in particular, even although her home is on another continent.

The plans for the game at Swindon came together over a few days. I nabbed my ticket at the earliest opportunity. After a few days of waiting, Parky thankfully acquired his ticket too. We made tentative plans to meet up with Mark from Westbury at the Red Lion pub in the midst of the historic stone circles of Avebury on the way to the game. There was quite a local “buzz” about the game. A few Swindon fans from work had tickets; it would be their biggest home game for years. Then, out of leftfield – or at least outside the penalty box – came a bolt from the royal blue. My friend Karen, from Connecticut, contacted me and explained that she would be in Swindon, of all places, on a work visit on the day of the Chelsea game. Talk about serendipity. Although I promised to try to attain a ticket for her, I wasn’t sure any remained. At the very least, we could meet up for a pint. I had first met Karen, surreally, on a yellow school bus, which was used to ferry bevvied-up Chelsea fans from a pub in central Philadelphia to nearby Chester for the MLS All-Star in the summer of 2012. We had chatted about Chelsea in between swigging warm beer and singing a few old favourites. I had briefly bumped into Karen at Yankee Stadium last May, too.

Miraculously, the very next morning more tickets went on sale.

I was able to get hold of one.

Karen was a lucky girl.

Ticket requests from a few friends continued, but I had given up hope of getting hold of any extras. However – quite fortuitously – at the Fulham game on the Saturday, two more tickets became available; one for Les from Melksham, one for Glenn from Frome. Things were falling into place. This was going to be a great night of football.

Then, the good luck continued. Bristol Tim informed me that he had heard that the Chelsea team were staying at the very same hotel, just off the M4, that – yes, you’ve guessed it – Karen was staying in.

I quickly texted Karen the news and I am supremely confident that her reaction was –

“Awesome.”

I was actually surprised that the team would be staying in a hotel, just 80 miles from London, on the night before a League Cup game. It made me stop and think how professional this game of football now is. Rather than travel down on the afternoon, Chelsea had obviously thought that it was important to get a base in Swindon to fully prepare for the match. I had visions of team meetings, reminders of tactical plans, videos of the opponents and exercises in the hotel gym, but also of monotonous hours spent in anonymous hotel rooms, games on lap-tops, idle banter and possible boredom.

On the day of the game, I thankfully managed to wriggle away from work at a good time. I collected Glenn and Parky and, with chatter between the three of us making the twenty minutes seem like twenty seconds, soon found myself pulling into the Swindon Hilton (yeah, that just sounds funny doesn’t it?) bang on time at 5.45pm. Lo and behold, I soon spotted that the sleek black Chelsea coach was parked right outside the entrance. I screeched into the car park and we hopped out, with my trusty camera in hand. Gary Staker and Eva Carneiro were standing next to the coach, but it was soon evident that the players were yet to emerge. I soon spotted Karen, full of smiles, and we both agreed that this was “perfect timing.” Within just a few seconds, the blue track suited players appeared. I took a few photos. There was a small group of well-wishers nearby, but most players walked straight on to the coach. Kudos to Juan Mata and David Luiz, plus one or two more, for stopping by to sign autographs.

Jose Mourinho was close by and so I gathered my nerve and approached him. As I held out my hand, I wished him “good luck for tonight” but for a horrible moment I was sure that he would blank me. He looked as miserable as sin – I felt like saying “come on mate, Swindon can’t be that bad” – but thankfully he shook my hand, albeit rather dismissively. Glenn wished him well, too. Karen, I think, was near to fainting. As we walked back to the car, I wondered why Parky was nowhere to be seen.

The answer? In my haste to rush off to see Karen and the players, I had unfortunately locked him inside the car.

Not so perfect.

Karen was bubbling as I drove into the town centre. During the afternoon, she had found herself alongside Doctor Eva on the running machines in the gym; they had exchanged words and, once Eva found out that Karen was a CFC supporter, had offered her a ticket.

That’s lovely.

Within a few minutes, we were parked up in a side street, just minutes from the County Ground. The evening was gorgeous; blue skies, warm, no hint of clouds, no hint of rain, the business. As we walked through the rather down-at- heel streets, which reminded me of the area around Fratton Park, Glenn and I spoke about our last visit to Swindon Town. In the summer of 1996, we played at Swindon in a testimonial on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I believe that it marked Frank Leboeuf and Roberto di Matteo’s Chelsea debuts. We won 2-0 in front of a healthy gate of 13,881. The game was unremarkable and dull. It was notable for one reason only; for a year or so, Glenn’s German girlfriend at the time had fancied seeing Chelsea play. Glenn’s rather antiquated view of “football being no place for a woman” was jettisoned for one game, but Anke hated the experience of live footy. In truth, it was a poor game, with virtually no atmosphere to speak of. The look on all three of our faces must have been a picture. Glenn and I vowed never to go to another meaningless pre-season friendly ever again. As we reminisced about that day some seventeen years ago, we joked –

“Anke left you to it from then on, Glenn.”

“Too right, Blue.”

We decided to have a couple of drinks at the adjacent cricket ground, which adjoins the football ground to the north. The rather antiquated, but still ornate, white pavilion housed a small bar and we soon ordered a round of lager and cider. Within seconds, the queue at the bar was formidable; again, we had arrived just at the right time. Outside, there was chat with a few friends as we made our way out into the gorgeous evening as the sun slowly faded to our right. Karen was enjoying the cider as I explained a few things about football in England and how it differs in so many ways from the US sport scene; there’s a book there, or maybe an encyclopaedia, waiting to be written. We chatted with Big John, who sits just a few seats away from us at HQ, about all things Chelsea. Karen was amazed at our collective weight of support for the club and team. Karen asked John if he went to all the games.

“No” replied John, almost apologetically, “most seasons I miss a couple.”

Karen yelped “a couple?!?!”” as if it was beyond belief that someone could be so devoted.

I smiled. Karen was in good company.

This would be Karen’s fifth Chelsea game. Her first one was Juan Mata’s debut at home to Norwich in 2011. After numerous visits to Swindon with work, Karen was still pinching herself that Chelsea were in town and she had a ticket.

Good times.

The night fell and we made our way to the ground. I told Karen to be sure that the next time a rogue Manchester United supporter back in the US confronted her about being a glory hunter, Karen should be sure to respond with the two key words “Swindon away.” Glenn and Parky made their way to the open Stratton Bank – where I stood with a Newcastle  United mate in 1993 as Andy Cole made his Geordie debut – while Karen and I lined up for the seats in the main stand. We bumped into a few lads from Trowbridge and I think Karen was slightly surprised how many people I knew.

“Going away with Chelsea is like going away with a mad extended family, though – everyone knows each other.”

The ground hadn’t changed one iota since 1996. To my left, the Stratton Bank, proper old school, open to the elements. To my right, the small covered Town End. Opposite, the single tiered Don Rogers Stand, which had replaced the idiosyncratic Shrivenham Road Stand in the early ‘nineties. The Shrivenham Road Stand consisted of a small terrace underneath a single tier of seats which had originally been part of the parade ground where the Aldershot Miliary Tattoo took place. It was so antiquated and flimsy that it seemed that a gust of wind would tear it asunder. That it survived so long is a miracle.

It took me back to 1988. On a cold midweek evening in January of that year, we played Swindon Town in the Simod Cup. My father had battled hard against the evening traffic and then found parking almost impossible. He dropped me off and I rushed to the away section, right underneath the upper tier of the old stand. I arrived about five minutes late and, by then, Chelsea were already 2-0 down. My parents were hoping to get tickets for the main stand. Our turn out was about 1,200; not bad for a midweek game in a ludicrously unimportant match. My mate Leggo had informed me – as was the way in those days – that a mob of Swindon had charged some Chelsea chaps back at the train station. At the time, Swindon were a Second Division team. We eventually lost 4-0. I remember gallows humour throughout, but also chants of “Hollins Must Go” too.

At the end of the game, with dogs barking outside and the police trying to ensure that the locals had been dispersed, we were kept inside for around ten minutes. I looked down to my left and there, to my disbelief, were my parents. I had to rub my eyes. My parents – my Dad in his work suit and a sheepskin coat I am sure – in amongst the hoodlums of the Chelsea away pen.

I sauntered down to see them. I was in shock.

Evidently, all seat tickets had been sold – the gate was 12,317 – but my parents were allowed entry into the home turnstiles at half-time for a half-price £2, and were then escorted around the pitch by stewards and taken to the away pen.

Too surreal.

Even now, that makes me laugh.

As the teams entered the pitch, the TV cameras picked out Mourinho on the bench. His image was shown on the large screen to my left. He was looking pensive and still quite miserable.

In addition to around 2,000 fans on the Stratton Bank, Chelsea had around 1,400 in the corner section of the main stand; I was stood right next to the docile home fans, right next to a line of police, though there would be no trouble tonight surely? My mate Simon – from 1984 – came down to sit next to me and I soon retold the story of my parents being led around the pitch in 1988. If only I had my camera with me then.

It was a full house; over 14,000. I hoped that the Chelsea fans would put on a special show for Karen but, in the main, we went through the motions. Only on sporadic occasions did the 3,400 roar as one. Soon into the game, the home fans confirmed who their biggest rivals were :

“Oxford United – We Fucking Hate You.”

It was lovely to see Michael Essien back; he did well throughout. Elsewhere, there were mixed performances. I thought that Willian had a very quiet first-half and did not try anything adventurous. The van Ginkel injury – not far from where I was stood – looked serious and it was with sadness that he was replaced so soon. Ramires entered the fray and his energy gave us a little more vibrancy. A David Luiz free-kick whizzed through the air and the Swindon ‘keeper Foderingham did well to save.

The away fans sang about Dennis Wise and the San Siro and I soon realised that our former captain – and for a short period, Swindon manager – was in the Sky TV studio in the far corner, just where I had stood in 1988. He waved at the Chelsea fans and they roared again. There were pockets of away fans singing, but nothing worth noting.

When my local team Frome Town played the wonderfully named Swindon Supermarine a few seasons ago, the Frome Ultras – yes, really – taunted the away support with the surprisingly witty chant of –

“Inbreds and  Roundabouts.”

Swindon is inundated with roundabouts. I’ll get back to you all on the inbreeding.

Fernando Torres was clean through after a Juan Mata touch, but the Swindon goalie flung up an arm and batted his effort away. Right after, Ramires set up Mata whose effort was parried only for Torres to touch in at an acute angle. He celebrated quietly in front of the home fans who had just recently taunted him. Quickly, a second goal, with a sublime ball from Torres allowing Ramires to deftly chip over the ‘keeper. Swindon, with the diminutive Pritchard at the heart of their attacks, offered a few efforts on goal, but Mark Schwarzer was largely untroubled.

John Terry replaced Rami at the break. Our captain was actually applauded by the home fans as he entered the pitch; this made a refreshing change. I guess that the locals were just happy to see a famous player on their home turf. A Swindon goal was disallowed for offside. De Bruyne, clean through, was unable to finish. Swindon perhaps should have scored after a great cross caught us flat-footed at the back. Torres looked as though he was keen to impress and showed neat footwork on a number of occasions, but his finishing was lacking. Next, a wasted Willian chance. Demba Ba, who replaced De Bruyne, then curled a shot narrowly wide. Lastly, another strong Torres run ended up with over-elaboration and frustration when Willian stabbed at the ball instead of allowing Nando to finish.

On another night, we could have scored five.

The four of us reconvened back at the cricket pavilion. Karen had met a few more Chelsea fans during the night and it was clear that she was integrating herself well into the Chelsea Family. We all agreed that it had been a so-so game of football, but everything else had been perfect. There was time for one last drink back at the Swindon Hilton (admit it, it still sounds odd) and time for reflections on the past few hours. Oh, and time for some typically crap jokes from Lord Parky.

“All part of the Chelsea experience, Karen.”

Until next time.

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