Tales From Life In A Northern Town

Huddersfield Town vs. Chelsea : 11 August 2018.

The new league season was upon us. The disappointment of last Sunday’s Community Shield loss was quickly swept under the carpet and all thoughts centered upon our away game at Huddersfield Town. This was a perfect start for me personally. I only missed two league games last season – both due to work – and these were the two trips to Huddersfield and Burnley. I was certainly upset to miss the Huddersfield game just before Christmas because I had never seen Chelsea play there before, either at Leeds Road or their new stadium. In fact, I had only ever visited the town en route to a couple of games at Elland Road in the late ‘eighties. As Huddersfield flirted with relegation for a while, I was pulling for them to stay up. I desperately wanted to cross another ground off, in that worryingly train spotter style of us football supporters. In the circumstances, I loved the fact that the often temperamental league fixtures computer had churned out an ideal match for us to get the ball rolling.

Saturday 11 August : Huddersfield Town vs. Chelsea – 3pm.

It was bloody perfect.

We decided to stay the Saturday night too. I wondered if they might last more than two seasons. This might be my only chance to visit the town for a while. It would give me the chance to have a little poke around the former mill town. A chance to get under its skin. The other lads – Glenn, PD, Parky – hardly needed any persuading. Tickets were purchased, hotels were booked.

We set off from home at 6am. The traffic was light. We drove right through the heart of England and as we neared our destination, the road signs on the M1 were a reminder of a time when we were playing teams in a lower division.

“Leicester, Derby, Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley, Leeds.”

It was the ‘eighties all over again.

The weather had kept fine. It was a reasonable drive. I ate up the 240 miles and we were soon knocking back the first pint of lager in “The Crown Hotel” in the town centre.

Mission accomplished.

The pub was a mix of Saturday shoppers, home fans and a smattering of Chelsea supporters, with only one wearing colours. We stayed two hours and it was a lovely time, apart from the fact that Tottenham, in a lurid green strip, won 2-1 at Newcastle United in the televised game.

We had obviously dissected our chances for the new season during the five-hour drive in the morning. The general consensus was that we thought it might take a while for the new manager to get his players to fully understand the high tempo and high press style of football he wanted. We were pragmatic and philosophical. If it took a few months, even a whole season, so be it. As for predictions, I thought we might struggle to finish in the top four, and hinted at a similar position to last season. Unsurprisingly, I chose Manchester City to win it again, with Liverpool a reluctant pick as runners up. Then, perm any two from Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and us. My gut feeling was a repeat of last season; fifth.

We left the boozer at just after two o’clock, with a nice warm buzz from the four pints of lager. We didn’t go mad; we wanted to be able to savour the game. On the walk to the stadium, a mile or so to the north, the vibe was certainly of a typical Northern town. There was occasionally ornate stonework on some of the larger shops and civic buildings, but all in that rather dull cream hue which is typical of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Nearby, there were old mill buildings and canals. The flow of home supporters in their light blue and white shirts guided us to the stadium. I noted the reintroduction of the Umbro diamonds on their shirts; this time as a trim to the cuffs, unlike the piping which used to adorn the sleeves of our Umbro kit from 1977 to 1981. Hardly any away fans were wearing colours.

Oranges, pinks, light blues, greys, racing greens, dark blues, lime greens, whites, the light beige and cream of Huddersfield stone.

The garb of a typical away fan in the UK in 2018.

In its day the current Huddersfield Town stadium, which opened in 1994, was seen as quite a departure from the more mundane new builds. It originally had just three sides I seem to remember – the away end came at a later stage – and its arched roof trusses were quite unique. A couple of work colleagues, who had visited the stadium on a number of occasions with Swindon Town, had warned me that it was looking rather tired after almost a quarter of a century and was overdue a lick of paint. In fact, I was totally impressed with it. It looked every inch a fine stadium, not unlike the new builds at Bolton and Brighton, and it certainly pleased me. It was nestling beside a hill, festooned with trees. It was a fine sight.

Just half a mile further north is the site of the team’s former Leeds Road stadium, which was a sizeable ground in its day, with its famous Cowshed stand along one side. It was the home of the league championship in three consecutive years from 1925 to 1927, before the manager Herbert Chapman sullied his reputation by joining Arsenal.

It is also, regrettably, the sight of a very sad day in the history of Chelsea Football Club. On the first day of October in 1983, Chelsea won 3-2 at Huddersfield Town, but the day will be remembered when a young student from Stroud in Gloucestershire, Richard Aldridge, was killed during a fracas after the game when he was hit over the head with a pool cue. He was an innocent, sadly caught up in a typical moment of stupidity which was sadly all too prevalent in those days.

A lot of nonsense has been written about football hooliganism over the years, but I am afraid this incident shamefully spotlights the insanity of a large part of it.

Richard Aldridge, a Chelsea supporter and a student from the west of England, attending a game due to his love of football.

The parallels with me are just too scary for words.

RIP.

Thankfully, in 2018, everything was super-relaxed. There was a little good natured chat with some of the locals as we neared the stadium. We talked to many friends in the bar area outside the stadium, which is cut into the hillside. It was great to be back amongst it once more. There is nothing like an away game with Chelsea.

The minutes ticked by.

We had tickets in row F, just behind the goal. The attendance would be around 25,000. We had 2,500 away fans.

The minutes ticked by.

The team had been announced earlier.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz- Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Pedro – Morata – Willian

The skies were clear overhead. A fine day. Not oppressively hot. Just right.

The players entered the pitch.

2018/2019 was just minutes away.

The yellow, yellow, blue of our away kit looked simply stunning. It is a winner. I wish I could say the same for the flecked nonsense of the home kit.

Ross Barkley kicked off the new campaign.

My fear was of 0-0 draw from which no assumptions could be drawn for the season ahead, rather like the Villas-Boas opener at Stoke in 2011.

Over the course of the first quarter of an hour, I quickly spotted that the Chelsea players were very quick in releasing the ball to others. This really was high tempo. It was if the ball was a hot potato. More than two touches and there would be a scalding pain.

Touch, touch, pass. Touch, touch, pass. We were moving the ball into space with Ross Barkley and Pedro especially involved. It was interesting to see N’Golo Kante in a more attacking role. He was afforded a fair bit of space. This was a fine start.

Throughout the opening section of the game, the home fans were making a right racket. Sadly, they were aided by those bloody hideous cardboard noisemakers and there was one monotonous drum in the home half of the end that we were sharing. But there was noise, and the Huddersfield fans should be commended for that.

Willian looked lively on the left, but it was our new ‘keeper from Athletic Bilbao who was forced to make the first real save of the afternoon. He handled a long shot with ease. The home team went close again, and then we enjoyed a little spell.

The Chelsea support was trying its best to counter the noise of the home fans.

“He came from Napoli.

He said fuck off City.

Jorginho – wha – oh.

Jorginho – wha – oh – oh – oh.”

Oh well, at least it is better than the infamous Morata one.

With half-time approaching, Willian raced past his full back and played a ball into the box. Beyond the angle of the six-yard box, the ball ended up in the vicinity of N’Golo Kante. His quick reaction guided the ball goal wards, but not before looping up after hitting the turf.  To everyone’s surprise – not least N’Golo Kante – the ball nestled in at the far post.

Get in you bastard.

Shortly after, Alan and I enjoyed the first “THTCAUN / COMLD” of the new season.

Right after, in virtually the next move of the match, Huddersfield hit the post after a flick-on at a corner fooled everyone.

Just before half-time, Ross Barkley – who had looked nimble and involved – passed to Marcos Alonso with a lovely back heal. Just as the Spaniard was about to let fly, Schindler took him out with an ugly tackle.

Penalty.

The locals were far from happy.

We waited an age.

Jorginho slowly approached, sold the goalkeeper Hamer a ridiculous dummy. It was so convincing that the ‘keeper hopped in to a cab to take him to Halifax.

Jorginho simply slotted the ball into the empty net.

We were winning 2-0.

Love it.

At the break, all was positive in the packed away end. We had hardly peppered the home goal with efforts – far from it – but we were just happy to be ahead. In the first-half, I was impressed with David Luiz. Does the phrase “calm efficiency” seem right? Whatever, welcome back David.

Chelsea dominated the opening exchanges of the second period, with Willian and Alonso getting behind the right full back in front of the main stand time after time. But chances were at a premium. Morata’s movement improved and space opened up a little. A deep corner from Willian was met with a fine leap from the impressive Rudiger, but Hamer dropped to push the ball past his post. From another Willian corner, Rudiger was again involved, with his header teeing-up an overhead swipe from Alonso which skimmed the Huddersfield bar.

It seemed to be all Chelsea.

After a foul on Morata, an Alonso free-kick was smacked too centrally and too high of the target.

On sixty-eight minutes, Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Ross Barkley.

The most bizarre part of the entire game took place right in front of us when our new keeper touched a header over.

“Goal kick” said the referee.

The natives grew even more restless.

A wild shot from substitute Depoitre hardly troubled Arrizabalaga, our new kid in the box.

On seventy-five minutes, Eden Hazard replaced Willian. He looked energised and “up for it” in the fifteen minutes that he was involved. A trademark run deep into the home third set up a square pass to Pedro, who clipped his shot past Hamer.

Huddersfield Town 0 Chelsea 3.

Game, set and match.

I loved the fact that Pedro went straight to Eden and hoisted him up onto his shoulders.

Victor Moses then replaced Pedro. He had been one of our stars. Always running, always smiling, I am a big fan. Another trademark run from Eden was ended with a rugged challenge, and then after yet another run deep into their final third, the ball was played out to Morata who should have at least hit the target.

No further goals followed.

So. That was easy, eh?

My pre-match worries were ill-founded. The boys done good. I especially liked Luiz, Kante and the quiet efficiency of the new boy Jorginho. I also liked the way that our new ‘keeper was actively shouting instructions at corners and free-kicks.

Thibaut who?

The players thanked us for our support, but the new manager Maurizio kept his distance, as did Gianfranco Zola.

Let’s hope we can build on this steady start to the season.

After the game, we wandered back in to town and enjoyed some relaxing drinks at four different pubs and bars, of admittedly varying standards. We ended up in a part of town which was worryingly called the Beast Market.

“Sounds like a nightclub.”

The evening ended with pizza and Peronis in a nearby Italian restaurant. We were sat next to a Huddersfield Town season ticket holder – I have a feeling that his wife was used to him talking football with strangers – and he spoke about his aspirations for the new season. He was hopeful that his team could stay up, but was just enjoying the ride to be honest. I thought it was noticeable that although he had gone to see two England games in Italia ’90, he too had struggled to get too wrapped up in this summer’s World Cup.

We asked him about Leeds United, the wicked witch of West Yorkshire, and – yes – he did regard them as a very special foe. They still dominate the support in that part of the world, and – yes – he couldn’t stand them.

Eerily, he knew the Huddersfield Town fan that had killed the youngster from Stroud way back in 1983.

We chose a few words to sum up the absurdity of it all.

Sigh.

We caught cabs back to the hotel and the night was over.

Our next game is at Stamford Bridge against Arsenal.

I will see many of you there.

Tales From Winter On Wearside

Sunderland vs. Chelsea : 14 December 2016.

This was the longest trip of the season. I had set off from deepest darkest Somerset at 6am, with PD and LP keeping me company for the long – 320 miles – drive north. After around seven hours battling the traffic, we finally arrived. We checked into our hotel, no more than a mile from the Stadium of Light. The stadium in fact was clearly visible from my room on the fifth floor. There were clear skies overhead. Winter on Wearside didn’t appear to be as bleak as I had originally thought. Our good friend Kevin, from Edinburgh, soon arrived and joined us for a pint at the hotel bar. The plan was to travel by train to Newcastle – a far more interesting and photogenic city a few miles to the north – but we soon decided to cut our losses and stay in Sunderland. On the walk in to the centre, we spotted a few half-decent pubs. We popped in to the first one – “Vesta Tilley’s” – and were suitably impressed that four pints cost just over a tenner.

Over the road, we popped into “The Dun Cow” and I immediately fell in love with it. It was a fantastic find. Outside, it was an architectural gem, with intricrate stone carvings above its bay windows, ornate roof gables and even a clock tower. Inside, it was a classic old-fashioned pub, with mirrors, stained-glass, wooden panels, shiny beer pumps, a plethora of ales, and a very warm atmosphere.

The four of us spotted a free table in the “snug” at the rear of the pub.

A “Birra Moretti” never tasted better.

I quickly toasted Everton Football Club, who had miraculously defeated Arsenal 2-1 the previous night. This simply meant one thing; if we won our game against Sunderland later that evening, we would be six points clear at the very top of the most competitive league in the world. And it would mean that we would stretch our consecutive win streak to a mighty ten games.

We chatted about the season so far, and a host of other topics. Two lads from Stockport – Mike and Liam, both Chelsea – were sat close by, and soon into the introductions it transpired that Liam had sat right next to Kevin in the home seats at Porto last September. What a bloody small world. Quite ridiculous.

My good friend Orlin – from first Sofia and then San Francisco – arrived with his two pals Ivan and Plamen, and it was a pleasure to see them. Orlin, evidently keen to experience as many new football experiences in England as he can, had dropped in to Elland Road on the previous night for Leeds United’s game with Norwich City. He had enjoyed it. The rawness of it all. The fervour of the home support. The noise. The passion. I reminded him of Leeds’ last league game against us, at Stamford Bridge in May 2004, when I remember the South Yorkshire legions claiming – with certainly a hint of truth – “if it wasn’t for the Russian you’d be us.” Peter Ridsdale and Ken Bates had gambled on spending big and gambling on immediate success, but there was no sugar daddy to step in at Leeds.

Orlin, though still disliking Leeds United, came away from their game with a little respect, and I think it shocked him.

Fellow season ticket holder Ian, with a few mates, and then Pete arrived. This was clearly becoming a base camp for many.

Kev’s two pals from Edinburgh John and Gary then joined us and the beers flowed at a more rapid pace. All three are Hearts fans first, and I had an enjoyable chat with them about my visits to Tynecastle in 1982 and 1997, Scottish football in general, and our differing opinions of Pat Nevin. This was obviously turning out to be a fantastically enjoyable pre-match. The four hours raced past.

“Bloody hell, it’s seven o’clock.”

We buttoned our jackets and bounced outside into the night, and over the oxidised green iron Wearmouth Bridge, looking rather beguiling in the evening light, with the rail bridge – ancient and green too – just a few yards to its left. There is something quite wonderful about supporters walking towards a football stadium, lights shining in the distance, our pace quickening as we get close to the ground. I never ever made it to the old Roker Park and it is a shame. It was a mile from the site of the current stadium, towards the North Sea, planted among the terraced streets of Roker. The Stadium of Light stands alone, high on the exposed banks of the Wear as it wriggles its ugly way into the sea.

I quickly gobbled down a cheeseburger with onions. Past the Bob Stokoe statue – Leeds again, ha – and I made my way up the many steps to the away deck.

We were inside the stadium with about ten minutes to spare. It meant that we had missed out on those special moments involving Sunderland supporter Bradley Lowery, the brave five-year-old lad who has been given a few more months to live, and who has captured the hearts of many. As the teams entered the pitch down below, the hearty Chelsea following of almost three thousand roared our support.

The news that Eden Hazard had not travelled to Sunderland had been the breaking story of the morning. We had wondered if Willian would come in for him; it was no surprise to see him in the starting line-up. A bigger surprise, no doubt, was the inclusion of Cesc Fabregas at the expense of Nemanja Matic. Elsewhere there were familiar faces.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill.

Alonso, Kante, Fabregas, Moses.

Pedro, Costa, Willian.

Our seats were virtually in the same position as our visit in May. On that day – when we had meekly lost 3-2 – we were concerned that we had probably witnessed John Terry’s last-ever game for us. Who would have thought that he would get an extra season, yet we would not be unduly worried that his absence from our team over the past two months would cause little concern? It is a mark of his professionalism that he has quietly supported the team from the side-line, knowing that a winning team is paramount. Nine wins in a row without John Terry? Who would have ever thought it?

Sunderland’s team included three former Chelsea players; Patrick Van Aaanholt, Papy Djilobodji and Fabio Borini. I had bright hopes for two of those, but never the other. On the side-lines were our man Antonio Conte and their man David Moyes. The football world had bright hopes for Moyes at one stage. How his star has fallen since leaving Goodison Park.

The stadium was pretty full, but there were sections of empty seats in the upper tier to our right, beyond the packed Chelsea section.

The game was in its first few nascent stages when both sets of fans acknowledged brave Bradley. A number five shirt – Lowery – was displayed on the TV screen – and we all clapped, the noise ringing around the stadium. Very soon we joined in with a song.

“One Bradley Lowery. There’s only one Bradley Lowery. One Bradley Lowery.”

Lovely stuff.

Lovely apart from one boorish fan behind me who decided to sing “one Matthew Harding” instead. I turned around, shook my head and glowered at him. I won’t mention him by name, but he’s a prominent face – and famously ugly – at all Chelsea games, and he has always struck me as a tedious fucker. And that moment just proved it.

Chelsea enjoyed much of the early possession, but Adnan Januzaj had the first effort on goal. I was proud of the way we got behind the team. It was clear that not only our little group of Chelsea followers had enjoyed the hospitality and cheap prices of the boozers of the North-East. We were keeping the ball well, moving it quickly, and we tried our best to carve out a chance. Sunderland had the occasional effort, but Courtois was in commanding form. A chance fell to Diego, bit his volley was well off target. In a packed box, Pedro was found, and he drew a fine save from Sunderland’s Jason Pickford. A David Luiz free-kick tested the Sunderland ‘keeper. We were turning the screw. With five minutes of the half remaining, a fine move through the middle resulted in a lovely one-two between Cesc and Willian. I was able to watch the path of the ball as Fabregas calmly stroked the ball past the home ‘keeper and in to the goal.

How we roared.

And how we celebrated, with the players down below us enjoying it equally as much as us.

GET IN.

Whisper it, but our tenth win in a row was on the cards.

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

Chris : “Come on wo’little diamonds.”

The away end soon sung praise to the scorer.

“He’s got a magic hat.”

Diego headed weakly over and then Willian went close with a free-kick from just outside the box.

There were positive vibes at the break. The drinkers in our support topped up their alcohol levels and the noise continued as the game continued.

In virtually the first move of the second-half, the ever-troublesome Jermaine Defoe attacked us at the heart of our defence and played in Januzaj. His low shot was flicked away by Courtois’ outstretched left leg. It was a fine save.

For virtually the rest of the game, it was all Chelsea. Willian set up Moses who blasted wide. Willian’s shot was deflected on to the bar. It seemed that a second goal was only a heartbeat away. A fine run and shot from Costa. Moses flashing wide, then Willian, both after losing markers with a shimmy this way and that. It was all Chelsea.

“We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league.”

Alonso at Pickford. Willian at Pickford. For some reason the second goal just would not come. A single thought flashed through my mind –

“Bloody hell, how disappointing it will be if we conceded a goal and we only drew.”

Nemanja Matic replaced Pedro, and the domination continued.

A run from deep from Costa and their ‘keeper scrambled to save at his feet before he could pull the trigger. A delightful dink from Costa to Fabregas but his volley was well wide.

Chalobah for Willian. Ivanovic for Moses.

Sunderland then caused us to rue all of our missed chances when they pumped a few high balls into our area. After one clearance was knocked out to Van Aanholt on the edge of the box, we watched – agonising stuff – as the ball seemed to be flying into the goal. Thibaut leaped to his right, flung his arm up, and clawed it away.

It was a stunning save.

The away end erupted as if a goal had been scored.

“Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut!”

Phew. It should have been 3-0, maybe 4-0. It could have been 1-1.

We had done it.

Ten league wins in a row.

I quickly posted an image of Bo Derek on “Facebook” and I felt sure more than a handful of fellow fans would “get it.” Down the stairwell, the noise bounced off the walls.

“Antonio, Antonio, Ten In A Row.”

Outside, we strode back in to town, and it seemed that the majority of home support had buggered off early, leaving our path clear. We met up with Daryl and Simon, who along with Alan and Gary had travelled up on the discounted club train. There was a long and tiring journey for them to look forward to. I, for one, after a long drive, eight pints and a tense game of football, was supremely happy that I had a bed just ten minutes away.

A kebab and chips on the walk back to the hotel was followed by a gin and tonic in the hotel bar.

It had been a long day and now it was time for slumberland in Sunderland.

Our third game in seven days takes place at Selhurst Park on Saturday.

Let’s make it eleven.

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Tales From The Longest Journey

Chelsea vs. Monterrey : 13 December 2012.

I can well remember travelling back from Munich in May when a few of us spoke about the chances of heading over to Tokyo for the World Club Championships. On that flight from Prague to Bristol, my view was that it was “one trip too far.” After the dust had settled and after I had mulled over the possibilities, my view soon changed. The tipping point was the realisation that the date of the final – Sunday 16 December – was my late father’s birthday. Once I heard that, little could stop me. In June I booked flights, in July I sorted a hotel and in October I purchased match tickets. I think it is safe to say that I have rarely looked forward to games with greater relish in all of my years of support of the club. The thought of seeing us become World Champions in Tokyo sent me dizzy.

2012 has truly been unlike no other.

By its eventual completion, I will have seen Chelsea play in Naples, Barcelona, Munich, New York, Philadelphia, Turin and Tokyo.

I need to get out more.

Since the start of 2012-2013, the games have mounted up and I have attended the vast majority. The two games in Tokyo would be games 26 and 27. What another tumultuous season for us all. Even in the opening five months of this campaign, we have had enough success, despair and madness at Chelsea to last a lifetime. The low point was the awful trip to West Ham when there was near civil war in the Chelsea section.

Enough was enough. I wanted to put the past few crazy weeks behind me. An away trip to Sunderland was avoided as I wanted to get my head straight for last-minute preparations for my longest ever Chelsea journey. I spent the Saturday, instead, watching my local team Frome Town. The contrast with my next game would be immense. Saturday gave way to Sunday. Sunday gave way to Monday. The hours passed. And then the minutes.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

As I headed out of Somerset en route for Heathrow on Tuesday 11 December, I couldn’t resist a text to a few close friends.

“Jack Kelouac.”

It seems almost superfluous for me to mention my trip to London when my end destination was many thousands of miles further east. However, for me, every mile counts. The hundred miles that I spent alone, listening to some Depeche Mode, enjoying the winter sun, letting my mind wander was the perfect start for my journey. As ever, it gave me the chance to put some sort of perspective on the upcoming events over the next few days. As I drove past Andover and Basingstoke, I was reminded of my first ever trips by car to Chelsea back in 1991-1992. I learned to drive relatively late at the age of 26 and my first few trips to Stamford Bridge, along the A303, up the M3 and around the M25 to a mate’s house in Worcester Park, were landmark events. It’s funny how certain music takes me back to that time. Those first few trips to Chelsea were often accompanied by rave anthems, but also by several Depeche Mode albums. Every time I hear “Black Celebration” I am transported back to driving home from a Sunderland F.A. Cup game in 1992. A John Byrne equaliser broke our hearts and stopped us advancing to our first semi-final in twenty-two years. It was a long and lonely drive home that night. Twenty years ago, trips to Tokyo to watch Chelsea would have been regarded as the stuff of fantasy.

So, there’s the perspective.

Over the last few miles of my journey, I couldn’t resist playing “Tin Drum” by Japan, a fantastic band from my teens. David Sylvian’s fractured voice, dipping in and out; with synthesisers producing a uniquely sparse sound provided the perfect backdrop for me. One of my favourite tracks from the early ‘eighties was David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s classic “Forbidden Colours.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1YkHJJi-tc

Visions of China and Japan echoed around my brain.

My good mate Russ dropped me off at Heathrow in plenty of time to catch the first leg of my gargantuan trip east. The 5.40pm Air China flight to Beijing left a little late. Chelsea stalwarts Cathy and Maureen were also onboard, plus a couple more fans who I didn’t recognise. We eventually took off, sweeping north and then east over London, before flying over The Netherlands, Germany, Russia – just south of St. Petersburg – and further beyond. My head was spinning at the enormity of it all. I hoped to catch plenty of sleep on the flight but, after a meal, I decided to check out the movies on offer. Of the forty to choose from, there was an over-abundance of Shirley Temple films. I obviously found this odd, but presumed that the People’s Republic of China has an obscure obsession with the tousle-haired child star of the ‘forties. It was proof, if any was required, that things would be getting slightly weird over the subsequent few days. I remembered how Albania was equally besotted with Norman Wisdom, the accident prone comedian from the post-war films of my childhood. Sometimes there is no reason behind anything.

Eventually, I chose “Citizen Kane”, the classic film about an enigmatic multi-millionaire. I didn’t last too long into the film as my eyes were soon feeling tired, but there was time for me to raise a smile at the line –

“If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”

I had seen the film a few times. A few scenes are marvellous. On this trip, when thoughts of my father would never be too far away, I was reminded of one of my most treasured memories from my childhood. Forget all of the Chelsea trips, the family holidays to Blackpool, Dorset, Italy and Austria and my father’s silly jokes; probably my most cherished memory of my father was when he pulled me, aged around three, on a home-made sled around my village, with snow falling and the two of us just chatting away. It was a rural winter wonderland. Perfect.

It was perhaps my “Rosebud” moment.

Our flight across the frozen wastes of Russia, Mongolia and China took over ten hours. Thankfully, I slept for half of this. I eventually peeked out of the window when we were an hour away from Beijing and saw snow-capped mountains. My heart skipped a beat. We landed in a freezing Beijing at around midday. Cathy and Maureen rushed through to catch their connecting flight to Tokyo, but my flight was much later. I had over five hours at the airport. But not just any airport.

Beijing.

Peking.

China.

Oh boy.

I was in China.

It was one place that I never thought that I would visit. Tiananmen Square was but ten miles away. I was not worried that I was locked “in transit” at the airport. This was enough for me. I paced around the airport and then endured, rather than enjoyed, an authentic Chinese meal. I had beef and noodles and so unfortunately wasn’t able to utter the immortal line–

“Waiter – this chicken is rubbery.”

The connecting flight to Tokyo left at around 5.30pm. I was now the only Chelsea fan left. The plane was less than a third full and so I had time to stretch out and relax. More sleep. I awoke with the bright lights of several cities down below. Using the flight map overhead, I soon worked out that we were over South Korea. As we headed out over the ocean, I then saw several hundred golden lights bizarrely stretching out in a diamond shape. They obviously belonged to ships that were passing underneath, some 35,000 feet below. Along with seeing the frantically busy waters near Bangkok from a plane last summer, it was one of those incredible sights of my life.

Oh lucky man.

The Japan coast appeared and, then, the myriad lights of the cities of Osaka and Kyoto. It was another overwhelming sight. The approach into Tokyo Haneda airport seemed to take forever, but we eventually touched down at around 9.30pm. I was amazed how quickly I was through the various checks and by 10.30pm, I had paid 1,200 yen (£10) and was on a “Friendly Limousine” bus into the city. As the driver edged out of the airport, I kept repeating one line.

“I’m in Tokyo. I’m in Tokyo. I’m in Tokyo.”

It was as if I needed some convincing.

The first thing I noticed was that the bus was being driven on the left-hand side of the road; the same as in Malaysia and Thailand. This genuinely surprised me. I was pretty tired, but the hour-long coach-ride kept me awake. The driver soon climbed onto an elevated expressway, though it was only one lane in each direction. As we weaved around the city centre, we rose and fell, with ramps being surprisingly steep. Then, the next surprise –

Less than half a mile to my right was the gaudily illuminated Tokyo Tower, like an oriental Eiffel Tower, but brightly lit with thousands of gallons of gold paint and thousands of electric lights. I snapped a few photographs as we raced by, alongside darkened skyscrapers and the first few sightings of the many neon signs that so dominate the city.

I was deposited right in the very epicentre of the pulsing heart of the city; Shinjuku. There was neon everywhere. I quickly caught a rather old-fashioned looking taxi-cab, like something out of Yugoslavia in 1976, up to Higoshi-Shinjuku and tried to take it all in. I booked into my hotel just after midnight. I had been “on the road” for almost twenty-eight hours. I was tired, but in no mood to call it a night. After a quick wash in the world’s smallest bathroom, I darted over to a local bar called “Fuma” where I quickly knocked back three small Carlsberg lagers, along with a dish which caught my eye; blue cheese pizza with honey. Believe it or not, it was fantastic. If truth be known, I could have stayed there for ages. I always think there’s nothing like the thrill of a first night anywhere, the visitor being absorbed by every single sight and sound. I quickly noticed that the two wafer-thin waiters were ridiculously eager to please. They seemed to be almost apologetic in their nature and went about their tasks in an endearingly bashful manner. It would be a trait that I would often notice again during my stay.

At 1.30am, I decided to call it a night. Thursday was another day and I couldn’t wait for it to unravel before me.

On Thursday morning, the main objective was get up to Ikebukuro, around three miles to my north. Here, I was to meet Mike and Frank from NYC at their hotel at midday. I trotted down to the hotel lobby and was in the middle of a fragmented conversation with the hotel receptionist when I heard an English voice.

“No photographs, please.”

It was Darren Mantle. He was in the middle of a heated conversation with the hotel manager about the validity of his credit card. Just as it looked like I might become embroiled, Darren intelligently said that he didn’t know me and I was on my way. First, a cup off coffee from the McDonalds opposite and then my first exposure to the vaunted Tokyo tube system. With surprising ease, I negotiated a travel card and headed north on the – wait for it – Fukotoshin line. The tube trains and stations were amazingly clean. I was soon out in the winter sun. it was a gorgeous day, despite a cold wind, and I soon located the Hotel Metropolitan. I soon spotted a gaggle of familiar Chelsea faces, including Neil Barnett, enjoying a coffee. They were off to the Imperial Palace.

Mike soon appeared in the grand lobby and quickly updated me on the antics of the previous evening. He had arrived in Tokyo with Frank on a direct flight from JFK at much the same time as me, but had decided to hit the ground running. They had been out in a bar not far from my hotel, with the Mantles and a few others, until 8am. Frank was out for the count, sleeping like a baby, so Mike and I quickly decided to head down by tube to the area around the Imperial Palace.

We caught a tube down to the central area and spent a relaxing hour or so walking around the perimeter of the Imperial Palace grounds. We took a plethora of photographs of the moat and the pagoda-style palace. These contrasted well with the skyscrapers of a business district to the east. We bumped into the first four Corinthians fans of the trip. There had been rumours that there would be 15,000 Brazilians in Tokyo and the number amazed me. Chelsea had 1,000 tickets, but we believed that only around 600 would be attending through the club. I personally knew of around 20 friends who were in Tokyo.

One of the Brazilians whispered to me “here is a secret – David Luiz was a Corinthians fan as a boy.”

Ah, OK…I soon remembered the game in Monaco when Fernando Torres’ boyhood team Atletico Madrid handed us a thumping defeat. I put that memory to the delete folder of my brain.

Another Corinthians fan said “just make sure you win tonight, we want to play Chelsea in the final.”

Yes, indeed. Here was my biggest fear; that we’d go all this way to Japan and yet lose the semi-final. Wouldn’t that be typical? We posed for photographs together and wished each other well. Mike continued his re-hydration by buying drinks at every opportunity and we then caught a train back to Ikebukuro. On our return to the hotel, Frank (who also leans towards Napoli since his family are from that area), was still sleeping. Mike’s words did not arrest his slumber and so I decided to wake him.

“Napoli – Napoli – Vaffanculo – Napoli – Napoli – Vaffanculo.”

It worked.

Mike’s mate Foxy from Scotland, who I had not previously met, came down to join us and we then spent many minutes encouraging Frank to get out of bed, take a shower and get ready for the game.

The game. Yes, there was a game on in four hours but none of us had given it any thought.

Frank then tried the patience of all of us by unpacking and then re-packing all ten of his Chelsea shirts before deciding which one to wear. He then did the same with his socks. He then unpacked and packed his camera, toiletry bag, belt, computer, cigarettes, wallet and wristbands.

“No rush, Frank.”

To be honest, there was an amazing view of Mount Fuji from the hotel window and although Foxy and I were pulling faces of agony at Frank’s frustrating tardiness, the outside view compensated. Eventually, we left the hotel at around 4pm. Matt, another NY Blue, had joined us too. He had seen the Corinthians victory the previous night in Nagoya. I called in to my hotel to pick up a few things and we were soon on our way to Shibuya, a few miles to the south where we needed to change trains. The buzz was now there.

Tokyo away. Love it.

The journey down to the stadium was a manic blur. At Shibuya, we were right in the middle of the Tokyo rush hour and passengers, some with those infamous face masks, were rushing everywhere. Foxy lead us out from the tube station into the neon-lit mayhem outside, before we dipped into another part of the station which housed the Japan Railways service. It was frantic stuff, but we were soon on the right train. We were packed in like sardines, or maybe tuna. There was little interaction with the locals at this stage, despite our English accents. I expected a few people to be asking us about the game. Frank was still feeling rough from the previous night’s excesses in Shin-Okubu. As we changed trains one last time, Frank calmly vomited in the six inch gap between train and platform at Kikuna. I told him that I hoped that Fernando Torres was as accurate later that evening.

At Kikuna, we avoided the first train because the carriages were simply at bursting point. However, we soon alighted at Shin-Yokohama and noted a few Japanese fans with Chelsea colours, plus three Mexicans with requisite sombreros. Outside, on the walk towards the stadium, there were many street traders with a variety of dodgy souvenirs on offer. Most of the half-and-half scarves (Chelsea / Monterrey and, not surprisingly, Chelsea / Corinthians) were being hawked by English chaps.

“Wherever I lay my tat, that’s my home.”

We dipped into a store and bought some tins of Kirin for the short walk to the Nissan Stadium, but then soon stumbled across a bar on a street corner, which was full of Australian Chelsea. They were full of song. Oh, and beer. We soon decided to head on up to the ground which was a further 15 minutes away. This stadium hosted the 2002 World Cup Final. A quick Axon Stat coming up…this was the fifth such venue that I have visited, along with the stadia used in 1966, 1974, 1982 and 1990.

On the slow incline up towards the gates, we caught up with Cathy and Maureen, and then posed for photos with Dave Johnstone. Surreal is a word that can only describe seeing familiar faces so far from home. The small entrance plaza was full of sponsor tents and fast food stalls. There was a Coca-Cola truck parked up and I couldn’t resist a quick photo with the female Santa. Never has a red and white kit looked so appealing. Away in the corner was a substantial Chelsea stand where I entered a draw to win a trip to London so I could get my hands on a Japan 2012 lanyard. Local kids posed with Stamford and there was a massive line for this photo opportunity. Good to see.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

A few Mexicans were singing on the steps leading up to the second set of turnstiles and their antics were being recorded by a TV crew.

I entered the stadium and met up with the Chelsea contingent, most of whom had opted for the cheaper ticket option in the lower level behind the goal. In among our support were many locals. At the north end, we spotted a few Monterrey flags, but there was no real way of guessing their total number. To my left, the main stand was only a quarter full. To my right, the other stand contained barely 1,000 spectators. I looked around and spotted some familiar Chelsea faces from home. The teams soon appeared from beneath the main stand; Chelsea in blue, Monterrey in a change strip of Blackpool tangerine. The stands were set back from the pitch and, to be honest, it was difficult to see any action at the far end. It was reminiscent of Stamford Bridge until 1994. Behind me on the upper tier balcony were a few flags; notably one of The Rising Sun, named after the public house – now the Butcher’s Hook – where the club was formed in 1905. Darren and Steve had managed to get the “Super Frankie Lampard” banner up too. Orlin and his wife Katerina soon appeared behind me. I’ve only known Orlin since meeting him before the Arsenal away game in April, but it seems I have known him for ages. I last saw him in Turin. I was therefore huddled with the US contingent; Matt, Fun Time Frankie, Mike, Orlin and Katerina. Cathy and Maureen were away to my left and the Australian lot, complete with inflatable kangaroo, were beyond. I just missed photographing the large Monterrey flag which had been held up at the other end of the stadium.

The game began and it was all Chelsea, with Eden Hazard and David Luiz causing much concern to the Mexican defence. Luiz was again playing in a deep midfield role, much to the blissful contentment of all the FIFA13 obsessives among our support. To be honest, I always thought this a better option than playing him at right back, which was a common request a while back. The Chelsea support, chilled in the Yokohama evening, was hardly vocal. A chorus of “We don’t care about Rafa” (which I find pretty dull and uninspiring – I’d much rather sing about positives) had already been aired when we reached the sixteenth minute. A respectful minute of applause began and I joined in; in memory of Munich and Di Matteo. I commented to Fun Time that “wouldn’t it be great if we scored now.” With that, the ball was worked into Mata, from the left wing, who calmly slotted home.

Get in.

The rest of the half was played out in near total silence. The Japanese fans in the stadium did not utter a word. To be honest, the Chelsea fans around me were remarkably quiet too, apart from a stirring “We all hate Leeds and Leeds and Leeds.” Monterrey only threatened a few times. This was going well. It was certainly reassuring to see the team, invigorated by the win at Sunderland, to be playing so well and seemingly en route to the final.

At the break, 800 yen beers were purchased from a girl who was carrying a cask among us in the stadium. What a nice idea.

“Arrigato.”

The second half began with a large proportion of the Chelsea fans still outside in the concourse. Sadly, a lot of these missed our two quick-fire goals which effectively killed the game off. First, a nice move from Hazard allowed Fernando Torres to score via a deflection. After his new-found confidence after the two goals on the Saturday, I for one hoped that he had finally turned the corner. I even forgave him for scoring (and not once, but twice I tell ya!) without me in attendance. Within a minute, we were 3-0 up after a strong ball into the six-yard box by Mata was deflected in by a Monterrey defender.

Phew.

Start celebrating; we’re going to the final.

The rest of the game was easy. We enjoyed serenading all of the Chelsea substitutes – Frank especially – as they warmed-up in front of us. In fact, Frank’s appearance in place of David Luiz drew the biggest applause of the night. At last the locals were awake. In truth, Frank should have scored with a clipped shot from close in just after he came on. He had another shot which sailed over which he was visibly upset about. It was annoying that we let in a cheap goal through De Nigris in the very last minute of play.

The final whistle blew and some of the players trudged over to the near goal and clapped us. I rather naively hoped that all of our players would hop over the advertising hoardings and get close to us. Of course, this never happened. Had the 1983-1984 team played in Tokyo – with 600 or more Chelsea fans from the UK in attendance – there is no doubt that the entire team would have been mere yards from us, probably throwing their Le Coq Sportif shirts at us.

More perspective.

After the players had left the pitch, it was now the turn of us to be the focus of the Japanese fans’ attention. We were all asked to pose for photographs, with scarves and flags being brandished, while the locals smiled and giggled excitedly. By this time, we were all giggling too. I then explained to five young lads about Peter Osgood (who is a screen saver on my mobile phone), but of course they had never heard of him. Mobile phones were used to film us singing and we all joked about being on “Facebook in the morning.”

I had been in Tokyo for less than 24 hours, yet was already wildly in love with the crazy place.

On the walk out of the stadium concourse, we were again mobbed by passing fans and were asked to pose for yet more photographs. We handed out “US Tour 2012” wristbands to a few of the younger members of our supporters.

Their faces were a picture.

On the walk away from the stadium, I succumbed to a half-and-half scarf after we managed to barter down from 2,000 yen to 1,000 yen. For a World Club Cup Final, I was ready to make allowances. We dipped into the pub on the corner and stayed for around two blissful hours, drinking and chatting, toasting the team and the city. I had always planned this to be the big night for drinking; a berth into the final was a fine reason to celebrate. Even if we ended up as World Champions, too many of us would need to be up and early for flights on the Monday. We raced back to Shin-Yokohama and caught the last train back to Shibuya. From there, we caught a couple of cabs to the little bar at Shin-Okubu where Mike and Frank had spent the previous night.

It was the smallest bar that I’ve ever witnessed, on the second floor of a narrow building. It was adorned with European football pennants and patrons were able to play FIFA13 on the large TV screen. Rounds of Kirin were ordered and we settled in for the night. There were a few of the Australians present. “The Liquidator” was played. The owner brought some bar snacks, while Orlin and Katerina tucked into some food at the end of the bar. I was buzzing. The beers were flowing. I had a good old chat with Foxy, who is a Dundee United fan too. This made me smile because many years ago, I kept a look out for their results. Foxy and I spoke about Tannadice, The Shed, Eamonn Bannon, Willie Pettigrew, Hamish McAlpine, Paul Hegarty and Paul Sturrock. Fun Time Frankie took his iPod out and arranged for a few songs to be played through the bar’s speakers. Songs from Stiff Little Fingers and The Smiths reverberated around the cosy confines of the “1863 Bar” and I was a happy man. Good times. Steve Mantle then arrived on the scene and, when the rest departed, I sat with him at the bar discussing a whole host of interesting topics such as songs, new fans, the board, football culture and the banners on show at The Bridge.

We eventually left at about 7am.

I began walking in a happy, warm and fuzzy state, with dawn breaking and early morning commuters sliding past, oblivious to my blissed out condition. Feeling hungry, I dived into a convenience store but simply didn’t recognise a single item of the food on offer. I walked on, but was totally unsure of which direction I was headed. I can honestly say that I have never felt in such an alien or surreal environment. In some ways, I could easily have walked for another few hours, ready to experience whatever I would stumble upon. With a sudden jolt, I suddenly came to my senses and realised that this was silly.

I was in Tokyo and had no idea where my hotel was.

I quickly flagged down a passing cab, mumbled something about Higashi-Shinjuku and made my way home…or whatever “home” was at 7.30am in Tokyo.

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Tales From A Sobering Week

Queens Park Rangers vs. Chelsea : 15 September 2012.

At last. At long last another Chelsea game. A whole three weeks had passed since I attended our fine win over Newcastle United. Thankfully, I didn’t venture to the south of France for the Super Cup game. Yes, three whole weeks. Twenty-one days. It felt like an extra close-season. And I hated every minute of it.

It was a sunny morning in deepest Somerset as I slotted my coffee mug into the drink holder alongside my car seat. I flicked the ignition on; I was back on the treadmill. Japan’s “Quiet Life” reverberated through the speakers and I was on my way.

I texted the briefest of messages to Alan in London.

“Jack Qprouac.”

I was on the road once more.

With no detour north to collect Lord Porkinson on this occasion, I was soon driving through Frome, past Warminster and then up and over Salisbury Plain. It was soon clear that it was going to be a cracking day. The sun was up, the sky was blue, it’s beautiful and so are you. On the long straight before I dipped into the miniscule village of Chitterne, the view ahead made me smile. Hay bales were stacked in the fields to my left and right. It was a perfect scene of rural England. It was a perfect day for football.

And then it came back into my mind once again.

Hillsborough.

I’m sure that there were many fans that set off for Sheffield on that sunny day in 1989 that had a similar outlook; a sunny day and a perfect day for football.

My mind had been full of thoughts about Hillsborough since the news of the enquiry into the disaster came through on Wednesday. Without much prompting, my original thoughts on those events came rocketing back. And I recoiled at the memories.

The recollections from that day in April 1989 are still surprisingly clear. On the previous Saturday, I had travelled by train to see our enjoyable 3-2 win at West Brom. As I was saving hard for my first-ever trip to North America throughout the 1988-1989 season, I had decided to save some money and not travel to Filbert Street for our game with Leicester City. I remember that it was the day that we could have been promoted and many Chelsea travelled to the game.

Instead, I was at home. I remember I was sat at the table, pen in hand, attempting to put further meat on the bones of my skeletal planning of my US trip. I had a few brochures strewn over the table and the radio was on. The commentary game on BBC Radio Two was from Hillsborough and there had already been mention of a little crowd disturbance. This surprised me; there was no “previous” between the two teams as far as I was aware. If anything, there was a general easing off from the, dare I say it, hooligan hay days of the early ‘eighties. We had the second summer of love in the UK in 1988 and there was a tendency for hooligans to start a slow drift away from decaying football terraces and into nightclubs, warehouses and fields as a drug called ecstasy took hold.

After just six minutes, the game was stopped and I was bemused.

“Why?”

I couldn’t work out why there was any trouble in Sheffield.

As news of the events unravelled, I soon realised that the BBC would have TV cameras at the game. I turned the radio off. I turned the TV on. Within a few moments of watching the scenes of confusion at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium, the news came through that several Liverpool supporters had died.

I was in shock. I can solemnly say that the news chilled me to the core.

The travel brochures were brushed aside as I watched with a mixture of sadness, horror and disbelief as the afternoon turned into a scene of devastation.

The rest of the day is a blur. Chelsea lost 2-0 at Leicester and it didn’t matter. Pat Nevin scored for Everton in the other semi-final and it didn’t matter.

To be honest, not much mattered that evening.

Football wore a black armband the following few weeks; the events cast a deep shadow over us all.

Our next game was on the following Saturday and the fates contrived for a massive game at Stamford Bridge; Chelsea vs. Leeds United. Not only a game against our old rivals from West Yorkshire, but the game which could see us promoted. I met up with three college mates – Ian, Bob and Trev. Ian was a Rotherham fan, but Bob and Ian were Leeds. We had a few pre-match pints in The Black Bull alongside my Chelsea mates Alan and Paul. We spoke in earnest about Hillsborough. By then, the death toll was a massive ninety-five (*it became 96 in 1993 when Tony Bland’s life support machine was turned off. Bland was the only victim with whom I had a link. He worked for the same company that I did between 1991 and 1998 ). The over-riding feeling throughout the talk was that “it could have been us.” I had watched Chelsea from the Leppings Lane enclosure in 1985. We had all experienced moments on terraces where the crush had been slightly scary. From what I remember, there was a muted atmosphere in and around the stadium. The attendance was only 30,000; under normal circumstances, I would have expected more. There was a well observed minute’s silence before the game. A John Bumstead goal gave us a 1-0 win, but it was a weird day. There wasn’t the euphoria of the 5-0 win over Leeds which got us promoted in 1984. This was a far different feeling.

After the game, Bob, Trev, Ian and I had a few pints at Earls Court and then in central London. We ended up in one of my favourite boozers – “The Round Table” near Covent Garden. Talk was still dominated by Hillsborough. I remember I said to Bob “in a way, we’re all responsible” and he wanted me to explain myself.

Every violent song, every violent gesture helped stir the atmosphere at games and the language of hate was never far away in those days. And although I had never been in involved in football violence, I – like many – enjoyed the banter and badinage that went with football hooliganism in that era. It was part of the scene, part of the culture, part of football.

There had even been moments when I had shouted “go on Chelsea” as it kicked off at a game. We had all been ambivalent to it. But Hillsborough was an eye-opener for me and a few of us. It made me question myself and the part I had played, however miniscule, in the erecting of those fences at Hillsborough which had, ultimately, caused the death of ninety-six football fans.

And it really could have been me. If Hillsborough hadn’t happened in 1989, it may have happened at Highbury in 1990, Old Trafford in 1991 or Stamford Bridge in 1992. I can well remember a game at Chelsea in 1988. We played Charlton Athletic in a real relegation dogfight. My parents arrived late and, intending to get seat tickets, were forced to sit on a part of the crumbling Shed terrace which had been sectioned off as unsafe under the Safety of Sports Grounds Act. Thankfully, only around three hundred were sat on this terrace, but the point is that Chelsea Football Club broke all the rules about crowd safety that day. They were lucky nobody was hurt. They were also lucky that nobody was hurt when the same thing happened against Middlesbrough a few weeks later. My photos from that day show the central part of The Shed heavily over-populated to the point of danger.

Ring any bells?

Big John, who sits near me at HQ, posted on Facebook on Thursday about Hillsborough. He mentioned that in that game against Leeds United in 1989, the spectators raised £15,000 for the Hillsborough disaster fund. In today’s climate, today’s money, today’s 41,000 full house, that equates to around £75,000.

I think this evidence illustrates that most football fans’ view back in 1989 was of sadness and solidarity with the Liverpool fans.

Even Chelsea.

Since then, there is no doubt that perceptions have changed, presumably triggered by our on-going unhealthy spat with Liverpool Football Club. Blame Luis Garcia, blame “that” song about history. However, my own view – though not widely expressed – has always been that the emergency services were to blame for the deaths of the ninety six in 1989. I certainly never believed those scurrilous lies which were peddled by The Sun newspaper, but which became “fact” as the years passed, about fans stealing from the dead and urinating on the police.

And I abhorred my fellow fans’ chant about “killing your own fans.”

I never joined in. It always felt so wrong.

For the reasons mentioned, I’m not a fan of the “Chelsea – hooligans” chant either.

There is, however, one black mark against Liverpool Football Club. It was always seen as the “done thing” amongst their support (and more so than any other team’s fan base) to try to “jib in” – or find a way to get in without paying, sometimes by the most ingenious ways – and this is one part of the Hillsborough tragedy that they have been shamefully quiet about.

Not even I could have expected such an exoneration of the Liverpool fans, not even I could have expected the scale of the cover-up by the emergency services and the government alike. I found it quite incomprehensible that Hillsborough, seen at the time to be one of the best stadia in the country, did not have a valid safety certificate at the time of the game on 15 April 1989. For this, the Football Association and Sheffield Wednesday should be held accountable.

I learned this week that each of the pens at the Leppings Lane end was fitted with small gates at the front, which were locked. When the crush started to occur, a simple unlocking of those gates would have eased the pressure on those fans at the front and the disaster could have been averted. I’d suggest that the keys to those gates were not within easy reach of anyone at Hillsborough. I’d even suggest that nobody even knew where those keys were kept.

One final image.

While the Liverpool supporters ferried the injured and the dead away from the pitch, using advertising hoardings as impromptu stretchers, a line of policemen – with Alsatian dogs – stood across the entire width of the pitch. They were there to stop the Liverpool and Forest fans – in their eyes – from fighting each other.

It all beggars belief.

The past week has been a sobering time.

It has provided me with a very sombre reminder of how we, as football fans, were regarded back in the late ‘eighties.

And it was too important topic for me not to mention.

It was the old familiar route in to London. I rarely travel in via the “southern route” these days; straight in on the M3 which then took me hurtling past Twickenham’s towering stands and all of the way through to Chiswick, then Hammersmith, then Fulham. I turned the radio on at midday in order to catch a sniff of the football chatter on “Five Live.” It was all about “the handshake.”

I quickly uttered a “FFS” to myself and turned it off. After the events of Hillsborough this past week, it seemed ludicrous that a handshake was getting so much attention.

Although we were playing at Loftus Road, I first had an appointment at Stamford Bridge. I quickly trotted down to the little shop outside the main forecourt and collected a couple of photographs of myself – smiling like a fool – with the twin trophies from last May. I aim to frame one of them along with a couple of photographs from Munich and the ten match tickets that are evidence of my attendance throughout last season’s maniacal assault on the Champions League trophy. I also purchased the double-disc DVD of the same Champions League campaign. As I stepped out into the surprisingly warm September sun, the players’ coach slowly drive past. I tried to peer in, but the windows were tinted. I just stood there, smiling, again like a fool.

When it comes to Chelsea, there will always be part of me that is an awestruck eight year old at my first ever game.

I returned to my car and it only took me fifteen minutes to reach my familiar parking spot off Askew Road. It even surprised me how quick I was able to traverse the borough; from Stamford Bridge to Loftus Road in a heartbeat. If there had been no traffic, I expect I could have driven it in around eight minutes flat.

I spotted a few QPR fans in their hooped shirts, but there was no over-riding feeling that there was a “big match” in the vicinity. Loftus Road now barely holds 18,000. Our biggest ever game at this compact stadium took place during the march to the 1970 F.A. Cup Final when around 30,000 attended. No doubt the streets would have been swarming with fans on that particular day.

In 2012, there was a hush around the immediate environs. We had read on the internet that the Rangers fans were aiming to recreate “hell” for our visit.

“Mmm – let’s see how that pans out.”

I dipped into a cosy café for a bite to eat. There were a few home supporters there too. I didn’t let on I was Chelsea; why would I? There were no negative comments about us, nor no reason to believe that they regarded us as the beasts with horns that sections of their support would have us believe. Talk was of QPR players, past and present, their recent form and general football chat.

I was soon outside the entrance to the away end. I spotted the habitually morose Zac (“I’m still worried about the manager, Chris”) and then the cheerier Long Tall Pete and Liz. I didn’t fancy bringing my “proper” camera to this game; with the heightened frisson between our clubs, I didn’t want an overly keen steward to stop me entering the ground with my long lens. Instead, I opted for my small “pub camera.” I took a few shots of the cramped approach into the stands, all corrugated iron and narrow passageways, and then had a quick chat with the contingent from Bristol who I often speak about.

We all agreed that the gap between games was unwanted. It felt – it really did – like the first game of the season again.

The School End at Loftus Road – or Rangers Stadium as they like to call it – houses the away support in two tiers. The upper tier is only thirteen rows deep. The lower tier possibly smaller. The seats are cramped. The Loft at the other end is larger, but only slightly. It took a while for the place to fill up. To my left, there were a few empty seats in both tiers of the main stand. I spotted the idiot with the sombrero; we all remembered him from last season. To my right, the dark shadows of the single tier stand, home to some of the QPR’s more boisterous support.

Above, signage stated “QPR, Loftus Road, 1882.”

This is a clear lie.

Sure, Rangers were formed as long ago as 1882. They have played at a large variety of locations in west London, but only at Loftus Road since 1917. The deep corrugated fascia on the stand roofs appeared to have been given a lick of paint over the summer; a darker blue, a royal blue.

“Mmm.”

To be fair, Loftus is a neat stadium, but oh-so small.

Alan and Gary arrived with five minutes to spare. We stood the entire game. I only slouched into my seat at half-time when I gave my feet a rest.

The teams were announced and then we awaited the arrival of the teams on the pitch. With a blink of an eye, the teams had lined up and the pre-game ceremonies took place. I squinted to see what Anton Ferdinand decided to do, but – to be truthful – nobody could tell. The Chelsea players were warmly applauded by the loyal 2,500 in the School End. Three songs dominated the day.

“We are the champions – the champions of Europe.”

“John Terry – Ashley Cole – John Terry – Ashley Cole.”

“We don’t hate – ‘cus you’re shit.”

After the coin toss, the teams changed ends and so we were treated to Anton Ferdinand sprinting deep into his half, all by himself, to within a few yards of the Chelsea fans in the corner. He turned to acknowledge the home fans but – of course – his intentions were clear; to wind up the away fans, to maybe illicit some abusive reactions, to maybe get a Chelsea fan arrested. According to Alan, he did exactly the same in the home game last season.

A lad next to me had to be reassured that, yes, the QPR goalkeeper was indeed Julio Cesar, the same Julio Cesar who had stood between the posts for Internazionale of Milan. There are strange things happening on Planet Football these days and no transfer is weirder than that. From 80,000 screaming Milanese to 18,000 dreaming West Londoners. It mirrors the absurd move, some thirty years ago, of Allan Simonsen from Barcelona of the Primera Liga to Charlton Athletic of the second division.

In truth, it was a poor game.

I thought that Fernando Torres began brightly and seemed to be full of confidence. Little things; the confident touch as the ball was played to him, the step-over, the impudent flick, the consummate ease with which he spun a ball out to the wing with the outside of his foot. This was promising stuff.

An early passage of play found Eden Hazard bearing down on the goal down below me. The shot was at the ‘keeper and the save drew groans from us. Then, Torres did well to turn inside the box under pressure, but his shot was weak.

And then the referee played his part. I thought that a high foot on Ashley Cole, inside the box, warranted a penalty, but the play wasn’t even halted. Andre Marriner then annoyed us all when he called a foul back when we were breaking through with the ball. Then a free-kick and John Terry ended up on the floor. Then a delicate run by Eden Hazard deep into the box and a tangle with Shaun Wright-Phillips. I didn’t get a clear view, but the appeal by my fellow School Enders was loud and sincere.

The sun was casting clear shadows on the green rectangle below. Above the tall spindles of the floodlight pylons at the Loft End, jet flumes were creating patterns in the sky. Down below, the huff and puff of a typical London derby was producing few clear chances, few passages of entertaining play.

At the break, I said that the game “had 0-0 written all over it.”

Long Tall Pete, a few rows in front, agreed.

After the initial flurry of songs in support of both teams, the atmosphere was pretty lame. An illustration of how low Chelsea really regards QPR is that no mention was made of our 6-1 win against them last Spring.

As the second-half progressed, we seemed to go into our shell. For the first twenty-five minutes, it was the home team who were edging it. They had a few half-chances. At last, the home fans were in the game: they urged on their beloved hoops with the slightly pornographic “Come on you Rs.”

It was all frustrating stuff from us. Fernando Torres, all alone at the pinnacle of our 2-3-1, was hardly given any service. When he did have the ball at his feet, his tendency was to dribble through the defence single-handedly. He was clearly getting frustrated. On more than one occasion, Marriner did not see fit to give a free-kick in his favour. Elsewhere, our method of play was oh-so familiar…pass, pass, pass.

I am one of Mikel’s supporters, but his tendency for a back-pass was winding me up. His most annoying trait is not looking up to see his options available before receiving the ball. His mind is often made up. And it’s usually to pass back to JT or Luiz. I’m sure that if Mikel is ever asked to take part in a penalty shoot-out, he will pass the ball back.

QPR carved a few chances. Jose Bosingwa – given only the briefest round of applause by the away fans at the start – was testing our defence, but the other Chelsea old-boy SWP was not so great. After a couple of shots missed the target, we duly serenaded him –

“Shaun Wright-Phillips – we’ve seen that before.”

However, our own players were hardly shining. JT – typically – was solid, but most other players were struggling. Frank looked tired. Ramires was drawing a few negative comments too. For most of the second period, things were dire.

Two late chances gave us ample opportunity to scramble a win, but wayward shots from Hazard and then Lampard blazed over the bar.

It was one of those days. It was clearly one of those games. There was palpable dismay as we sloped out of the ground. The home fans were chirpy, the Chelsea fans were less so. I suppose that the pragmatic view is that we didn’t lose, we didn’t concede, we are still top of the table. Obviously, Juventus on Wednesday will be far more of a test.

I’m sure I speak for many when I say that I can’t wait to hear that Champions League anthem once again.

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Tales From A Stamford Bridge In Hibernation

Chelsea vs. Everton : 4 December 2010.

Please Note – It may appear that certain segments of this match report have been cut and pasted from a variety of older reports ( keep a look out for comments about the lack of noise at Stamford Bridge ), but I can assure you all that this is all new.

What with all of the freezing weather we have been experiencing of late, I decided to head up to Chelsea a little later than usual. To be honest, a few days ago, I was actually wondering if my unbroken home attendance run (which goes back almost seven years) would be under threat. I gingerly drove out of my village and the ice had the upper hand on a couple of occasions. Once onto the gritted main roads though, I was thankfully in full control. Parky was duly collected at about 10am and we were back in the familiar routine. December was going to be a very difficult month, with the deadly trio of Spurs / United / Arsenal games on the horizon. We simply had to defeat Everton, who had slumped to a 1-4 home defeat versus West Brom last week.

What with the probable poor weather, I knew I wouldn’t be up in London Town until about 12.30pm. I had arranged to meet Ian from Chicago in The Lily Langtry, but I spoke to Beth on the drive up and knew that it would be unlikely, due to the time constraints, to meet up with her. A shame. It seems that I missed quite a reunion up at St. James’ Park last weekend, with Burger and Gumby joining Beth and the four visitors from California, Danny, Andy, Josh and Ed.

Over the final 45 minutes of the journey, Parky put a Ministry Of Sound CD on and we enjoyed some re-mixed synthesised anthems from thirty years ago. Magical music from the 1979-1982 era accompanied us on our drive in past Slough, Windsor and Brentford, with songs by Visage, Joy Division and Japan taking me back to the days when CFC were mired in the old second division. I’m not really sure if it means that the onset of a mid-life crisis is approaching, but I have consistently reminisced about those late teenage years a lot recently. From 1980 to 1985 everything was so fresh, magical, exhilarating and intense – yet also frightening and confusing – and I realise that I yearn for it with a passion. Of course, all of those old songs brought memories of school and college days back to me – not to mention the odd Chelsea game, goal, player…

Approaching our final destination, Simple Minds were singing “Promised You A Miracle.”

“Ah yes, that came out in the summer of 1982, if I am not mistaken, Parky. The World Cup in Spain and my first girlfriend, bless her, all golden hair and freckles…now that was a bloody miracle.”

At 12.30pm, I dropped Parky off at the Lily Langtry pub near West Brompton tube while I shot off to park up. By the time I had returned, Chicago Ian was outside, enjoying a roll-up. We reconvened inside, the pub full of familiar Chelsea faces of a certain age. Ian was with a fellow scooter-enthusiast (and Chelsea fan, of course) Paul from Dorset. We enjoyed a quick chat. Paul is from the same part of the world as my paternal grandmother, so we had a few things to talk about. Paul used to work in Parky’s town of Melksham and they had a mutual friend who ran a scooter shop. Yet another example of what a ridiculously small world this can be at times. David from Houston – who I first met in Chicago in 2006 – had texted me on the drive up to say he was in town en route to a job assignment in Uganda and he was soon spotted, too. He joined our little group before we then headed down to The Goose to join up with the rest of the lads. David works for The World Bank and I spoke of a number of shipments that I am involved in for them – we are currently in the middle of sending some furniture to their office in Istanbul. David has plans about seeing the World cup in Brazil in 2014 and I asked him to keep on touch…

From 1pm to 2.15pm, we spent our time chatting away to various friends from all over. So many people and yet so little time. Parky was flitting around talking to all and sundry, while I spent most of the time with Ian. Now, unbeknown to me, he had got married back in Chicago in October – so I toasted his marriage – but his wife, Denise, was a Blue of a different hue. Yes, you’ve guessed it – an Evertonian. She was having a different pre-match with fellow Toffees down at Parson’s Green and this amused me, yet of course I approved. I could tell that Ian was enjoying the mad intensity of The Goose, jam-packed full of loyal Chelsea servants, and he had a wide grin on his face. In that short spell together, we covered a lot of ground, including a mention of the Dundee football scene, in light of his family’s roots in that city of jute, jam and journalism on the banks of the silvery Tay.

As always, the time for the walk to Stamford Bridge came too quickly and we said our “goodbyes” to each other. We never leave together though – Rob is invariably the last to leave (just one more Amaretto, Daryl! ) and on this occasion, Parky walked down with Rob. I zipped up my coat and donned my 1986 vintage Rangers scarf, the classic red, white and blue. Daryl must have been thinking along similar lines when he chose his game-day apparel in deepest Essex that morning…he was wearing the even more iconic Chelsea red, white and green scarf from 1972-1973.

I bought a match programme and spotted that Petr Cech was on the cover on the occasion of his 200th league game for us.

My mate Andy caught up with me at the turnstiles and commented about my ‘Gers scarf. He is again going up to Ibrox later this month. He was with a chap who, like me, was at the Rangers vs. Chelsea Ibrox friendly in 1986 and we briefly spoke about that game. I was in Stoke at the time, at college, and travelled up on the day of the game, a Friday in February. British Rail was doing cheap Young Persons Railcard deals that month and I got a return up to Glasgow for just £8. Scotland had all day drinking at the time ( in England this only came later ) and that game in Glasgow 24 years ago easily wins the award for the Game Where I Was Most Pissed. The game was a blur…my mate Alan was there, Cathy too. About 200 Chelsea went up. We lost 3-2 and I was steaming. The weather was bitter. Despite the fraternity between Rangers and Chelsea, I didn’t take too kindly to the home support booing Keith Jones, our young black player. I think I might have annoyed a few of the home support ( I was watching with a mate in the home Copeland Road Stand ) as I complained about this to a few home fans nearby…however, the story goes that Jonah was replaced by a Chelsea youth player called Phil Priest.

A Priest at Ibrox? Surely not. The Rangers fans roared their disapproval!

Back to 2010.

I got to my seat just in time to hear Neil Barnett say – “Good Afternoon.”

I knew that JT was in the team and of course it was great to see him back. Just before the game began, I visited the MHU loos…on the way out, I wrote ‘CFC’ on the steamed-up mirror by the wash basins. I couldn’t believe that nobody else had done so, to be honest.

Everton, in an off-white / “whose Mum forgot to keep the whites separate?” kit, looked lively in the first few minutes and Petr Cech had to get down to save after just 25 seconds. However, we soon won the small battles and dominated the first-half. However, apart from a few off-target efforts, our first real effort came from an unlikely source. A corner was cleared out to JT and he nimbly changed shape and lobbed the ball towards the goal from about 15 yards out. The ball hit the bar and we groaned. I don’t think Howard would have reached it had it been on target. We still await JT’s first goal from distance.

We had tons of possession, but there was more passing for the sake of it…Malouda was very quiet and Kalou was Kalou. Despite a sustained bout of “Chelsea / Champions” from Parky’s corner of The Shed, the atmosphere was again funereal. I know it was cold, but it seemed that vast swathes of The Bridge were hibernating. I swear the atmosphere is noticeably worse game on game, yet alone season by season. With the decibel count decreasing, we’ll eventually reach complete silence and then what? Will we get noise in reverse? For anyone yet to visit Stamford Bridge – that once fabled hot bed of partisan support – I urge them to do it very soon, before the place produces Negative Noise.

What is Negative Noise? I’m not sure, but maybe we’ll be experiencing it over the next few years…maybe when the spectators within the stadium are being out sung by sparrows in the Brompton Cemetery, when the only noise in the stadium are the shouts of the players, when we can hear copies of the Evening Standards being sold by vendors outside Earl’s Court tube station.

Negative noise. You heard it here first.

With no breakthrough forthcoming, I said to Alan “no doubt there’ll be boos at half-time.” That would have been unfair, since we were well on top…we just couldn’t penetrate. One moment of play perfectly summed up our lack of belief at the moment. Mikel – who has had a good season thus far – received the ball right in the middle of the attacking third, well in range of the goal, with no defender near. Rather than move the ball on to his best foot and drop his shoulder, a la Bobby Charlton, and take a pot shot, his first thought was to move the ball to another player, probably Malouda, who was marked and soon lost the ball. How frustrating. We hardly got behind them at all.

Then, a calamitous back-pass by one of The Brothers Grim and Nicolas Anelka only had the ‘keeper to beat. The coming together of bodies – clear obstruction – and a penalty.

YES!

However, I just knew – in a week of poor decisions by football’s ruling classes – that their ‘keeper wouldn’t get a red. And so it proved…the ref’s decision was met with a stadium-wide moan. However, Didier easily despatched the pen and we went into the break 1-0 up. No complaints.

In the loos at half-time, I was warmed by the sight of two additional ‘CFCs’ on the mirrors. During the break, I spotted a great match report in the programme from Rick Glanvill of an eventful Chelsea vs. Everton game in that previously-mentioned 1985-1986 season ( missed penalties, sendings off, I remember it well…it was my first ever Chelsea vs. Everton game, in fact ).

The second-half was horrible. Our confidence deteriorated and Everton sensed fear. The crowd rallied on only a couple of occasions. Leighton Baines was causing havoc down the left and Ancelotti replaced Bosingwa with Paolo. This was met with derision though – the supporters around me wanted a more positive response. We wanted to go for the kill. A cross from Baines was headed goal wards by Rodwell and his effort hit the right upright with Cech easily beaten. Soon after, Cahill studded Cech and he appeared to be in pain…thoughts of Stephen Hunt. Thankfully, Cech recovered.

Everton were really giving this a good go, though. Jermaine Beckford came on as a substitute and, by way of some Pavlovian sub consciousness, the Matthew Harding went into ‘Dambusters’ mode and taunted his Elland Road pedigree. It seemed so natural.

Chelsea and Leeds United – it’s still there, even after all these years.

Drogba turned cheerleader after a failed attack, turning towards the MH and urging us all on, to get behind the team, to make some noise. I can’t say the crowd responded. However, it was a typical Drogba game…brutal strength and power one moment, laziness personified the next. A quick interchange of passes allowed Paolo to send in a sublime low ball into the six-yard box…Ashley Cole lunged but missed the ball. Alan claimed he had been held, but it was all too quick for my eyes.

And then, the horrible equaliser. Banes shimmied past three Chelsea defenders and crossed deep into our box. I sensed fear. A header back and there was – who else? – Beckford to head home. This was so similar to too many late goals conceded at The Shed in recent years…always a knock down, always a close-range finish. The ghosts of previous games raced through my mind. To be honest, I thought our best two players had been John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic and so it was doubly disturbing to be conceding goals right in the heart of our defence.

Phil Neville jogged back, alone, into his half and pumped his arms, yelling at the West Stand and then at us in the North. Memories of his brother at Old Trafford against Liverpool. God, his gurning face will live with me for a while. Hateful.

The referee signalled an additional seven minutes, but more than a few fans left…”thanks for your support.” Of course, it wasn’t to be…more dropped points, more boos, another bad day at the office, another “difficult moment.” As I descended the MHU stairs, I dreaded Tottenham next Sunday.

Parky and I were forced to sit in a line of traffic before heading home and we spotted three smiling Arsenal fans at Barons Court. They had obviously travelled straight down from their game on the Piccadilly Line, but yet it seemed wrong for Arsenal fans to be living so near Stamford Bridge. It was the final twist of the knife on a depressing day at HQ. I try not to be too pessimistic, but we need to snap out of this poor run of form. We need Essien fitter – he was quiet – and we need Frank. We need to find our self-confidence, but that’s easier said than done. Malouda and Kalou are clearly confidence players but they need our support to help dig themselves out of their own personal nightmares. Lastly, crucially, we need more passion. That is down to the management team and the players themselves. As supporters, we can only do so much.

Over to you, Carlo. Over to you, the players. Your club need you.

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Tales From Green Street And Fulham Road

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 25 April 2009.

This is what we call the “business end of the season” – just a shame we have to do business in the hell hole that is Upton Park.

I picked up two lads – Ashley and Andy – from Trowbridge en route to collecting Lord Parky at 8.15am from his village between Trowbridge and Melksham. There was strange weather as we headed up the M4…the phrase “sunny intervals and scattered showers” was never more appropriate. Luckily, the inclement weather had finished by the time we hit Chelsealand. I was parked up by 10am and a breakfast soon followed. The plan was to meet up at The Spotted Dog in Barking, JT’s home town, a couple of stops past Upton Park on the District Line. From West Brompton to Barking is a full twenty-five stops…we set off at 11am and hit Barking at midday. For anyone who cares, the West Ham ground is at Upton Park tube, not West Ham.

On the train, I was talking to Parky about the rivalries between the big London clubs. West Ham seem to hate Millwall and dislike Spurs and us intently. Not sure what they think of Arsenal. I personally dislike Spurs most and Alan loathes Arsenal. What of West Ham? Back when I was a youth, in the early ‘eighties, West Ham and Chelsea were both in the Second Division and I bracketed us together in terms of “size” at the time, though we were always potentially massive. Since then, Arsenal have moved on in terms of comparisons with Tottenham, while we are on a different footballing planet to West Ham. And how we love it.

Twenty-five years ago, Chelsea were hitting the business end of the 1983-84 season. Our entertaining team was on the brink of promotion, having let a 2-0 lead at Pompey slip, ending up with a 2-2 draw. I didn’t go to that game, on a Wednesday evening, but was going to the next game…the momentous encounter with Leeds ( yeah them – of all teams ) on Saturday 28th April. For those new to this site, I have been detailing my matchday experiences over this season and that fantastic season, all those years ago.

But in some ways – it seems like yesterday.

On that Saturday morning, my father dropped me off in Frome and I met Glenn near his house before we walked down to PD’s flat. Gary and Mark, from Westbury, arrived outside by car and we were soon off. I was sat in the back with Glenn and PD ( just as I often do in 2009! ) and the talk was of Chelsea all the way up to London. We parked near the ground – near Worlds End I reckon – and were soon heading back towards the North End Road. The others had some food in the Pie And Mash Shop ( now long gone, alas ) before hopping over the road for pre-match bevies in The Cock ( now The Cock And Hen ). This was a historic day for me. I was eighteen, but this was the first time I had ever been in a pub at Chelsea. Before then, I was always broke, and I seem to remember having a single lager and lime. The pub filled up and I remember talking to a lad from Reading. The songs started up and “One Man Went To Mow” was the song of that season…we all sat until “nine”, then exploded onto our feet on “ten.” The pub was a riot of noise. I felt as if I was coming of age…this was my tenth game of the season…not bad for someone who spent the entire season on the dole, getting by on £25 per week. I guess a trip to Chelsea used to cost me £15 in those days. It was my life – maybe even more so than now.

Glenn and myself headed off to get into The Shed at 1.30pm or so – no tickets in those days, we had to be sure we could get in! We paid the extra £1 to get a transfer on to The Benches, that hot bed of young and exuberant Chelsea support. The weekend before, I had travelled to Bath to buy my first ever bona fide casual garment, a mid blue and white Pringle, which cost me £25 or one week’s dole. I wore that with my Chelsea shirt underneath, some jeans and a pair of white shoes. I felt the business. I belonged.

It was a gloriously sunny day. I was hoping that our season best gate of 35,000 would be surpassed – I hoped for one of 40,000. The place was buzzing. Lo and behold, the lads who had been sat in front of us against Fulham were now sat behind us…perfect. I think they admired the fact we were from Somerset. Extra kudos for us! Amongst the lads ( Alan, Paul, Mark, Leggo, Rich, Dave and Simon ) the labels were out in evidence. It was like a fashion parade.

And Chelsea were going up! We just had to get a draw, I think.

For anyone who was there, I am sure these words are taking everyone back. It was as near a perfect game as I can ever remember..

Chelsea beat Leeds United – our old foes, both on the pitch, on the terraces and in common folklore – by five goals to nil that sunny April day in 1984. The atmosphere was electric. Mickey Thomas – our unlikely new hero – opened the scoring. Kerry Dixon scored a hat-trick and Pat Nevin – I remember – wove in and out, around and around, before setting Kerry up for one of the goals. Johnny Bumstead hit the post, in the same place, twice. Ken Bates, the chairman, came onto the pitch at half-time to appeal for us all to stay in the stands. He was applauded – and his name was song with gusto. There is a classic picture taken by John Ingledew of The Benches that day, looking up and back at thousands of Chelsea faces…99% male, 99% white, 75% between the ages of 18 and 25. It’s a picture that is worth a million words and – every time I see it – I am taken back to a wilder, crazier time. Believe it or not, at 4-0, Leeds got behind their team with a noisy song and the Benches stood up to applaud them.

In the last ten minutes, thousands of pastel-clad Chelsea fans lined the pitch in preparation for the final whistle. We were winning 4-0 and the PA had to keep telling the fans to stay in the stands. Then, a mazy dribble from supersub Paul Canoville and – you silly boy! – he scored at The Shed End.

Pandemonium!

Thousands of hysterical Chelsea fans flooded the pitch and the players were lost. After five minutes of pleading, the pitch was cleared and the referee soon blew up. Within seconds, the stands emptied and about 5,000 Chelsea fans invaded the pitch. I was one of them – my first foray onto the sacred turf – and it was fantastic to be there. The Leeds fans, unsurprisingly were not enjoying the proceedings. This must have been purgatory for them. A few of them began smashing our scoreboard. There was a charge by some Chelsea towards them, but the police kept the two factions apart. To be fair, the Leeds fans ( the Service Crew and all ) were penned in, anyway. There were about 3,000 of them.

The players and the management team appeared in the front row of the East Upper – I remember Pat Nevin sitting on the balcony! – and all was perfect in my world. After five years of ridicule by my peers, jettisoned in the Second Division – Chelsea were back,

You’d better beware!

We eventually left the pitch. I remember the dry dirt being kicked up by us all and there was a smell of football in the air – a heady mix of grass, mud, beer and testosterone. We walked off behind the Shed goal and a stranger came up to me and said “We’re playing Tottenham!” and I said

“Yep…Tottenham…and Liverpool…and Man United…and Arsenal..and West Ham!”

He gave me a big hug.

We got back to the car and began an oh-so slow drive home…on Radio Two, coach John Hollins was describing Pat Nevin’s cross for Kerry Dixon.

…”and Pat, bless him, went on this amazing run…I don’t know if he beat three players four times or four players three times.”

On the elevated section of the M4, Chelsea cars were blaring their horns…thumbs up from strangers…one car slowed down and passed us a can of beer. It was an idyllic moment as we drove west into the setting sun, past Slough and beyond…oh just beautiful.

Chelsea were back.

Of all my current friends at Chelsea, virtually all of them were at that iconic game in 1984. We have come a long way, baby.

On Saturday, a few of us were enjoying our pre-match meet in Barking. Parky and myself were chatting to Bob from San Francisco – he flew over for just one game. At the adjacent table, laughter was booming out from Daryl, Gary, Alan and Whitey. Soon, Beth and Jenni joined us, but Mo and Tom were yet to appear. The beers flowed and stories were exchanged. At last Mo showed up at about 2pm and it was soon time to leave for the game. Tom eventually arrived by cab ( despite Beth telling him to take the tube ) and I had to say

“There has to be anotherway, Motherway.” He grimaced.

Parky, Bob and myself lost the others and got to Upton Park at 2.40pm…out into the bright sunshine of Green Street.

Ah, Green Street…I did find it superbly ironic that American Bob had successfully infiltrated our tight little crew. Maybe we can make a film about it.

Through the terraced streets behind the away end – no fear of an ambush these days – and we were soon inside the Centenary Stand. We arranged to meet up after…I was stood next to my two away buddies, Alan and Gary. The three beers had set me up nicely. It was sunny, with white fluffy clouds taking over from grey ones as the afternoon drew on.

A minute’s applause for ex-hammer Jimmy Neighbour was well respected by us. Good to see.

The game? We had so much possession, in the first period especially, but West Ham had the best two chances, especially the shot from Dyer which Cech saved. All eyes were on Bosingwa, getting some practice ahead of a potentially messy time on Tuesday night in Catalonia. I was impressed with the solid midfield of Mikel, Belletti and Frank. Mancienne did well. It was just upfront where we became unstuck. Kalou had a lot of the ball but was frustrating the hell out of Gary. Anelka was having one of his lazy days too. At half-time we wondered if all of our easy possession would account for nothing.

Ball juggler Billy Wingrove put on a superb show of skills at half-time. I watched, mesmerized.

Soon into the second period, Frank did so well to hook out a ball from the goal-line and Kalou slammed the ball high into the net. Get in! A couple of women in front unfurled an Ivory Coast flag and muttered something about Gary being “happy now” about Kalou. Until that point, they had watched in silence. 1984 seemed a long way off.

I thought the West Ham fans were pretty quiet, but they apparently sung some nasty songs about Frank and JT. What a deeply jealous, odious, set of fans they are. Jealousy seeps out of every pore.

What a phenomenal penalty save from Cech, down to his left, a mere five yards away from me. I wish I had taken a photo, but I don’t often like taking snaps of opposing penalties. We controlled the game and should have scored more. However – players rested, three points, job done!

The funniest part of the entire day was seeing Frank slowly walk towards us at the end, the last player to come over. He glanced over towards the last few West Ham fans left in the Chicken Run and – for want of a better word – swaggered towards us, just like a casual from 1984, legs wide, arms outstretched. It was poetry in motion. He acknowledged us and pumped the air…he milked the applause and why not? We love him and he loves us. West Ham can perish for all I care.

I caught the tube with Bob and at 6.15pm we were back at Earls Court. Eventually, Parky, Ashley and Andy arrived too. Straight around the corner for a pizza at Salvo’s. United were on the TV, losing 1-2, but within ten minutes of us sitting at a table, they were 5-2 up. What a mad game, but we didn’t care. The League is over this season, but we have Wembley and Rome ahead.

In 1984, we listened to Slade on the drive back to Wiltshire.

In 2009, we listened to Drum And Base.

Yep – we’ve come a long way, baby.

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