We stepped into “The Counting House” at 11.30am. This pub, formerly part of an old cattle market, is equidistant between Leicester Tigers’ Welford Road stadium and the Leicester City Foxes’ King Power Stadium. It must do a great trade during these two sporting seasons. We only heard about this pub being the designated “away” pub before our game, just before COVID struck, in 2020. It’s a great boozer, modernised well with a long bar, and plenty of room for an overspill outside where beers are poured at a “pop-up” facility. We – the four of us, PD, Parky, Salisbury Steve and little old me – soon settled at one of the last remaining high tables. We had timed it just right.
This was another relatively long day following The Great Unpredictables.
I had set my alarm for 6.30am and I picked up PD and Steve at 8am, his Lordship just after. The drive up the Fosse Way was as picturesque and as pleasurable as ever. We breakfasted at Moreton-In-Marsh, then zipped around Coventry and headed towards Leicester. We used the last disabled parking space right outside the pub. As trips go, it had been nigh-perfect.
I have known Steve for a couple of years. He watches games near Parky in the Shed Lower and now drinks with us down “The Eight Bells”. It was good to have him on board. He added a little sanity to the day.
When we reached the pub only fifty or so other Chelsea supporters were present. I didn’t recognise any of them, not one. There is a rumour flying around at the moment that there is a way to “beat the system” of the VWR by using an app that opens up hundreds of browsers at one time. It is no wonder that many established old-school regulars at Chelsea, not au fait with such nefarious processes, never seem to get hold of away tickets these days.
The place soon filled up and at just after 12.15pm the first “Carefree” echoed around the bar. Two games were being shown on the bar’s large TV screens; Bournemouth vs. Liverpool and Bristol City vs. Blackpool. I didn’t really bother too much with either of them, though we loved to see Bournemouth take the lead against Liverpool and Mo Salah strike a penalty well-wide of the goal towards the end of the game.
How we laughed.
I wasn’t sure if I’d be laughing later. It would be “typical Chelsea” to follow up that fine win against Borussia Dortmund with a draw or, gasp, even a defeat against Leicester City. My prediction was a draw. To win three games in eight days might, I thought, be pushing it just a bit.
This would be my eighth visit to the King Power Stadium; I have missed three due to a holiday, being snowed in and “not being arsed” for a midweek League Cup game.
We walked the short distance to the ground just after 2pm.
I had swapped my ticket with PD’s so I could get a different perspective. Previous visits have always plotted me down the front; I fancied a change. I was well-rewarded with a seat right in the middle of the upper reaches of our away corner. Steve was ten yards away to my left, a row in front. PD was way down in row three alongside Al, Gal, John and Parky.
King Power Stadium slowly filled up and eventually came to life.
Fofana – Koulibaly – Cucarella
Loftus-Cheek – Enzo – Kovacic – Chilwell
Mudryk – Havertz – Felix
We have certainly raided Leicester City in recent years; Kante, Drinkwater, Chilwell, Fofana. I suppose their revenge was the 2021 FA Cup win, a fair trade-off, though I am sure they will never admit it.
The teams appeared.
The home team were dressed completely in royal blue while the away team were kitted out in garments based on foundation cream.
At the other end of the stadium, a rather pathetic “tifo” display took place involving a few white flags – presumably not of surrender – and a banner depicting the club’s trophies. The stadium is as bland as bland can be, quite different from Filbert Street with its four lop-sided stands.
Modern football, eh?
Around the ground, tucked under the roof at the rear of the home seated areas, Leicester City parade hundreds of small flags – not sure what they depict – but this looks messy, as if they have hung out all of their laundry to air.
The game kicked-off.
The badinage between both sets of supporters began early.
“Wesley Fofana. He left ‘cus your shit.”
“Potter and Boehly are fucking shit.”
“Ben Chilwell’s won the European Cup.”
A shot from James Maddison was easily saved by Kepa.
Ben Chilwell took a corner over in the far corner and as the ball dropped into the six-yard box, I experienced an immediate flashback to last season when I photographed a similar delivery onto the head of Antonio Rudiger and a goal followed. He loved playing at Leicester did Rudi. This year, Wesley Fofana headed the ball on and Kalidou Koulibaly kept the ball alive despite it ending well past the framework of the goal on our left. His cross went way deep. Chilwell, out on the right still, was the recipient and he was shaping up to make a direct hit, which I thought was being optimistic in the extreme. The angle was so tight. To my joy, he kept the ball low and it scudded into the net.
How he enjoyed that, running over to the crowd in the main stand, cupping his ears, and loving it all. My former work colleague Sally, watching with her young daughter Lily, was only a few yards away in her season ticket seat in the corner. Ouch.
Despite my pre-game reservations, we were 1-0 up.
The Chelsea crowd, buoyant before the goal, turned the volume up further.
“We’ve got Enzo in the middle. He knows exactly what we need.”
The front three were fluid, with Mykhailo Mudryk often in the middle with Kai Havetz on the right. Mudryk’s first touch was excellent in that first part of the game. I wanted him desperately to succeed. In the bar and at the game, his song was sung loudly.
“Mudryk said to me…”
Maddison zipped a free-kick over from the left but Daniel Amartey headed wide from very close in. This was developing into a fine game of football.
The songs continued.
“Oh Roman, do you know what that’s worth, Kai Havertz is the best on Earth.”
I had said to Steve in the pub that I liked this one, since it was born out of the 2021 Champions League Final in Porto, yet also mentions, and honours, Roman.
It was mid-way through the half, and the songs still rattled along nicely.
“Vialli” Vialli! Vialli! Vialli!”
“Kovacic our Croatian man…”
A fine cross from Havertz from the right found Felix who was one on one with the Leicester ‘keeper Danny Ward. He advanced and dinked the ball over him. Surely this was going in. We waited for the net to ripple. To our amazement and dismay, the ball struck the right-hand post.
“He’s gotta score those.”
On twenty-five minutes, the whole away end combined for a thunderous “Ten Men.”
Just after, Keirnan Dewsbury-Hall (not just a footballer but the site of temperance movement meetings in West Yorkshire), let fly from outside the box and his shot took a deflection off the considerable bulk of Koulibaly. To our relief, the ball crashed against the bar.
The barrage of songs continued.
“From Stamford Bridge to Wembley…”
“Hello, hello we are the Chelsea boys.”
“His hair is fucking massive.”
Marc Cucarella was, again, having a decent game. When he man-marks closely, he is decent. When he gets pulled all over the place, his sat nav throws a wobbly and he gets shown up. But on this occasion, fine.
“Oh when the blues go steaming in…”
“Oh Frankie Lampard scored two hundred…”
Another fine move followed. Mudryk cut in from the left with pace and set up an advanced Ruben Loftus-Cheek on the right, who then played a delightful low ball towards that man Felix. His tap in made us roar again, and the players raced over to Sally’s Corner.
VAR reared its ugly head.
Not long after, Felix lost possession, trying to be too fancy in our defensive third, and Leicester won the ball. It was touched on to Patson Daka, whoever he is, and his shot fizzed past Kepa at the near post. It was a decent strike to be fair.
The quiet home fans to my left were now chirpy.
“You’re not singing anymore.”
Next, two fine saves from Kepa in very quick succession from Maddison and Kelechi Iheanacho. The game kept providing thrills and spills.
Some folk around me were losing their patience with Mudryk whose ball retention was lessening with each pass.
With half-time approaching, Enzo found himself with a little space and spotted the central run from Havertz. He scooped the ball up with deft precision – Zola to Poyet in 1999, anyone? – and over the defence right into the path of Havertz who beautifully lobbed the ball over Ward. Magnificent. One of the great goals.
But nobody celebrated.
Not Havertz. My gaze centered on him. Was he sure he was offside?
Not any of the players. Were they sure too?
The stadium seemed still, frozen in time.
Leicester fans – football fans always fear the worst – were stony silent as they presumed a goal had been conceded.
We were quiet too. And mightily confused. There were, maybe, a few yelps of pleasure. But the majority of us were predominantly numbed into silence. I twice looked around to check the reaction of the bloke behind me, and neither of us knew what was going on. With the players idly walking back to our half and with the referee on the centre-circle, we all came to the slow realisation that the goal stood.
But the fear of VAR had ruined that goal celebration – once bitten twice shy – and, although we were laughing and joking at the time, we all knew that VAR had insidiously buggered-up that moment, our moment.
Incidentally, I have to mention it; this goal was eerily similar to one that I witnessed in deepest Devon in August when Owen Humphries scooped a ball over the Buckland Athletic defence for Jon Davies to score for Frome Town in an FA Cup tie. No fucking VAR at that level, though.
We were happy at half-time. I popped down to see the lads in the third row. All of them were bemused by the second goal too.
A change at the break.
Conor Gallagher for Felix.
We enjoyed a couple of early corners with Fofana forcing a fine save from Ward at his near post.
“Oooh Wesley Fofana.”
A new one this, I think.
Then Leicester enjoyed a little spell. The challenges were crashing in and Kepa went down injured after a save. This was an open game now. Leicester dominated for ten minutes or so. We held firm.
“Super, super Frank…”
“That’s why we love Salomon Kalou…”
I’d prefer songs about current players to be honest. Can we not serenade former players when we are winning 4-0 and 5-0?
On the hour, spaces opening up as we countered and there was an effort from Havertz, off balance, that flew wide. Gallagher had to awkwardly block off the line on sixty-five minutes as Leicester attacked at a corner.
“Oh Dennis Wise…”
There was a header from Havertz on the penalty spot but it was right at the ‘keeper
“We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea…”
The boke behind me was in a quandary.
“I like Gallagher, I really do, but I struggle with what he does apart from basically run around a lot.”
I knew what he meant.
A fine move, but our man Conor shot right at the ‘keeper.
Kepa tipped a shot over. There were surely no complaints about entertainment value here. After Tuesday, here we all were enjoying another thoroughly enjoyable game of football. Throughout it, we were the team that showed a little more quality in all areas.
Up the other end, the ball came loose and Dewsbury-Hall missed a sitter. Phew.
On seventy-three minutes, Graham Potter made some substitutions.
Christian Pulisic for Chilwell.
Trevoh Chalobah for Loftus-Cheek.
With fifteen minutes to go, the ball was played to Mudryk who raced on and calmly slotted but we were all able to sadly spot the lineswoman’s flag raised for offside. His joyous slide was in vain.
A Leicester substitute became the latest victim of the away choir.
“Jamie Vardy, your wife is a grass.”
Songs still roared on in memory of Gianluca.
“Vialli! Vialli! Vialli! Vialli!”
On seventy-eight minutes, I watched the movement of Havertz just as Enzo brilliantly played a ball into space.
Havertz outpaced his marker and kept possession well. He then crossed, deeply, towards Mudryk who was back-peddling somewhat but still managed to keep the ball alive by heading it back into the six-yard box.
Enter Kovacic who blissfully volleyed home from close quarters.
We celebrated wildly now.
The scorer, surrounded by team mates, sprinted down to our corner while fists and arms pumped into the air. These were superb scenes.
I silently groaned.
FOR FUCK SAKE.
But I had seen Havertz break. He had to race past his marker. I was confident.
I turned to bloke beside me :
“Six goals in eight days!”
The away end was now the loudest it would be for the entire day.
“Kovacic our Croatian man.
He left Madrid and he left Milan.
He signed for Frank. Said fuck off Zidane.
He signed for Chelsea on a transfer ban.”
It seemed, at last, that things were looking up.
Some very late tweaks, and God knows who was playing where but I did not care one jot.
Carney Chukwuemeka for Mudryk and Benoit Badiashile for Fofana.
“You are my Chelsea, my only Chelsea…”
Empty seats appeared. I was so proud to see Sally and Lily still staying until the very end.
“Is there a fire drill?”
“You’ve had your day out…”
“We’re gonna bounce in a minute.”
“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”
There were seven minutes of extra time and, in it, Wout Faes – whoever he is – got sent off for a second yellow.
I loved seeing the players – and the manager, great stuff – celebrate a fine win with smiles in front of our section at the end of the game. Let’s hope the corner has been turned.
This was a bloody excellent day of football, the away support was back to its best after the no-show at Tottenham, the colour was back in our beautifully toned cheeks, and I even got to see Kev Thomas smile.
We met up back at the car and all was good with our world. I slowly navigated myself away, the route taking my car right past the old away entrance to their old Filbert Street ground at the end of those tightly-packed houses on Burnmoor Street.
There is one positive that came out of last Sunday’s humiliating defeat at Elland Road. As I stood in the upper section of our away area until the referee blew his whistle, I was at a low ebb, deflated. But it struck me that at least the fortunes of this great club still mattered to me. I was still emotionally attached to Chelsea. In an era when I am still occasionally doubting my devotion to the cause – have I ever said I hate modern football? – the defeat against Leeds certainly made me smart. I hated conceding three goals. It felt like a triple kick in the bollocks. I also hated us being the target of the large-scale piss-taking from those lads in the South Stand.
I also found it harrowing that many fellow fans had left the away enclosure way before the final whistle. I reacted that this was a further slight on my team, my club. However, as we sloped back to the car last Sunday, I realised that my season, only three games in for me, had been reset.
I was emotionally locked-in again. I cared.
Our next game would be at home to Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City, a bête-noire for us in recent years. On the face of it, this was a rather mundane match, but one that was engendering a new level of importance for me.
As an aside, my local team Frome Town were playing pre-season promotion favourites AFC Totton at home at the same time. I have commented before that there might well become a time when I have to choose between an important Frome Town game and a run-of-the-mill Chelsea game. This wasn’t going to be that occasion.
Chelsea needed me and I needed Chelsea.
Chelsea vs. Leicester City it was.
As an hors-oeuvre to the game, the Champions League draw had taken place on Thursday evening. We had briefly discussed options outside “The Drysalters” in Leeds on the Sunday.
“Bloody hell. Imagine Celtic. It would be like a military operation. We’d have to collect our match tickets in Motherwell and be flown in by police helicopter.”
On Thursday morning, I sent a message to a few friends.
“Milan and Glasgow please.”
With the San Siro due to be replaced by a new state-of-the-art stadium in its current car park, a visit to Milan was undoubtedly priority “numero uno” for me. With Milan and Inter in the draw, we had a chance. Even though I watched Internazionale play against Empoli in 1987 and Bologna in 1990, I unfortunately missed the Chelsea Champions League games in 1999 and 2011 due to work commitments. There was an earlier friendly in 1995 against Milan too, but that was never on my radar.
Parky and I were at a Chelsea wedding reception – congratulations Gemma and Ludo – on Thursday evening and as we stopped at a pub close to the venue in Maidenhead, I finally checked my ‘phone and was so pleased that we had drawn Milan.
We just had to wait for the dates to be finalised. My only doubt involved Matchday 2; there was already someone away on holiday from our small office that week. Surely work wouldn’t bugger things up for me yet again?
Saturday arrived. Alan would be unable to attend the Leicester game – work buggering things up for him on this occasion – and so Glenn was able to take his ticket.
In the low countryside around Frome, everything was shrouded in mist. Tree tops pierced the white blanket. It was a stunning scene. Away in the distance, the hills past Trudoxhill and Chapmanslade stood like islands above a white foaming sea.
At road level, thankfully visibility was fine. As I drove east, my car was fully loaded.
The two Glenns and Ron at the back, Paul and me up front.
“Some five-a-side team, this.”
The weather was decent, the chit-chat provided a lovely back-drop to my driving. All was good in the world. Glenn – he has a ticket for Southampton away, on his birthday, on Tuesday – will be starting a new job next week and he is happy about that.
“You played at the San Siro in the ‘sixties, right, Ron?”
“Yeah, we got through on the toss of a coin.”
It sent a shiver down my spine when I realised that one of my passengers had played against Milan legend, their golden boy, Gianni Rivera.
The pattern for pre-match at Stamford Bridge is well set these days.
I drop the boys off on the Fulham side of Putney Bridge. I park up on Bramber Road and walk down to Fulham Broadway with Ron, who dives off to wait at the hotel bar until his corporate gig starts. I have a chat with a few early risers and then catch the two-minute train down to Putney Bridge before joining up with the lads in “The Eight Bells.”
At Steve Smyth’s stall, I picked up a copy of “Soccer The Hard Way” by Ron Harris. It’s pretty rare so I didn’t mind paying a fair bit for it. I’m friends with Steve, so he kindly gave me a decent reduction. In an ironic twist, Ron’s petrol money helped to pay for it.
In case any Americans are getting excited about the use of the word “soccer” in the title of the book, I need to comment that for a decade or so, from the mid-‘sixties to the mid-‘seventies, the word “soccer” often appeared in the UK media; on TV programmes, in books, in magazines. I have no explanation for this. In the school playground and in the workplace, pub and stadium, it was always football.
There was a nice chat with Marco and DJ outside the “CFCUK Stall“ and I then made my way south.
There was a breakfast in the café opposite the tube station at 11am. There’s just something about a fry-up (I don’t have many for those concerned) in a London caff on match days. It’s timeless. I checked my phone to see that the Footballing Gods had smiled on me. Everything was clear for Milan in early October. Zagreb was just too early for me to get my head around it and work is busy at the moment. Salzburg is a likely trip too.
We’re lucky people.
I decided that I would check Milan flights and suchlike when I returned home later that evening but knew that all of the cheap deals would have been snapped up quickly.
I thought back to the first-ever time that I saw Leicester City play us. It was early on in the 1982/83 season. I will detail that game later this season, but as a lead-in to my memories of that season, our worst-ever, I am heading back to Sunday 22 August 1982.
I was mid-way through the Sixth Form at Frome College and hardly relishing the final year. I would take “A Levels” the following June. Emotionally, I was rather low. I was lamenting the departure of my first-ever girlfriend Julie who had moved away to the Reading area not long after we first started going out. For those wondering, these two facts were not linked. Smiley face.
Her father had been working in Bath for the Ministry of Defence but had taken up a new position in Berkshire. I needed some cheering up and I had talked my parents into taking me up to Stamford Bridge for a family day a week before the season began. I remember that I had asked Julie if she fancied coming along for the day, my Dad picking her up en route, but her letter that declined the offer resembled a bullet to my heart. The end was nigh. Her family were more into rugby anyway. It would never had lasted. Another bloody smiley face.
I have a feeling that my parents went shopping while I spent a few hours at Stamford Bridge. My memories aren’t particularly strong. I certainly remember getting quite a few autographs; assistant manager Ian McNeil and players Gary Locke, new signing Bryan “Pop” Robson, Mike Fillery, Alan Mayes, Bob Iles, Colin Pates, Gary Chivers, and Peter Rhoades-Brown. I remember I ascended the upper tier of the East Stand for the first time and thought that the old stadium looked an absolute picture.
There were funfairs and sideshows dotted around the stadium and the highlight was a practice match at three o’clock.
As a pre-curser to that, and I have no recollection of this, I was probably chasing players for autographs :
“Sherriff Danny Arnold Wild West Demonstration.”
No smiley face.
Tickets for the upcoming home game with Wolves started at £3.50 and the most expensive were £7.
I bought a photo of the squad. I loved that Chelsea shirt. I still have it,
The one thing I do recollect is a small chat with Colin Pates, amazed by the turn out.
“God, if it’s like this now, what will it be like if we actually win anything?”
Two years later Colin found out.
I strolled into the pub at about 11.30am. The boys had been in there since opening time at 10am.
We were soon joined by Even, Ray and Hans from Oslo who have been relatively recent additions to my Facebook friends list, lured in by this very blogorama.
It was a pleasure to spend some time with them. They are over for a week or so and will be at Southampton on Tuesday and at the West Ham game next weekend. They have all been Chelsea since the early-‘seventies. Ray and Hans are season-ticket holders in the MHL, and from what I could work out sit relatively close to the Kent Boys – Kim, Andy, Dan, Graham and more – who were nestled around another table in the boozer.
“I’ll try to keep a look out for you.”
Ray and Hans come over for fifteen to twenty games every season.
We were joined by Sophie – fresh from her enjoyable trip to Milan of all places – and Andy and then we all left for the game at two o’clock.
Parky made his way to join his pals in The Shed. PD, Glenn and I continued on to the familiar stairs of the Matthew Harding. Inside, we were joined by Gary – who sits a few yards away from me in the MHU but is within earshot of those sitting in The Shed Upper – and Clive.
So, alongside me was Glenn, then Clive, then PD.
The Famous Four.
A Saturday league game at three o’clock. Weekends were made for this.
A typical day at the office.
Let’s go to work.
On the pitch, the team lined up with Edouard in goal, what seemed like a back four of Reece, Thiago Silva, Trevoh and Marc, a midfield of Ruben, Jorginho, Conor and Mase, with Havertz and Raheem up top. But it wasn’t always easy to see exactly who occupied what part of the pitch. Where’s my heat map when I need it? The Famous Four’s heat map was mainly four dots the entire first-half with one solitary excursion to the gents for Clive. Thomas Tuchel’s heat map must have been a single dot too, banished to the stands after the altercation with Antonio Conte after the last home game.
We attacked the Matthew Harding in the first-half. It always seems odd.
Early on, Raheem advanced centrally and rolled an absolutely perfectly-weighted ball into the path of Ruben – I expected a goal, I was up on my feet – but Leicester ‘keeper Danny Ward was able to recover and block well at his near post.
On twelve moments, we were awarded a penalty after a clumsy challenge on Ruben by Youri Tielemans – our 2021 FA Cup Final nemesis – and I was up on my feet again. For some reason, I immediately glanced around me and was shocked (shocked, I tell ya) to see that 90% of my close neighbours in the MHU were fully seated.
What? We have just been awarded a penalty! Good God. Has our support become that dull and unresponsive?
Ah, but maybe they knew something. After a few seconds, VAR was called into action. We waited with that dull ache of inevitably.
In the build-up, Kai had been spotted in an off-side position.
Those watching on TV at home – the important ones – probably had a much better view, and explanation, than us in the stadium.
We had definitely begun the better team, with Raheem buzzing about nicely, but then our play drifted and we lost a lot of intensity and Leicester came into the game.
I think I heard a “Dennis Wise is a wanker” chant from the Foxes. Answers on a postcard. I guess he wasn’t particularly liked when he played for them after leaving us.
On the half-an-hour, Marc wasted a corner on the far side and the ball was punted away. Conor then made a terrible lunge on Harvey Barnes in his own half. The youngster – again seemingly eager to impress – had begun the game with a lovely crunching tackle, but I apparently missed a yellow that he had received earlier. This absolutely silly tackle was rewarded with a second yellow. While Clive fucked off to the little boys’ room, Conor fucked off to the dressing room.
I lamented the fact that we were down to ten men for the second successive game and had mustered just one shot on goal in just over thirty minutes.
Next, Edouard jumped at a ball from corner and the appeared to fluff his lines completely. The ball was turned in but thankfully a foul on Mendy had been spotted.
On forty-two minutes, a ball dropped nicely for Reece but his powerful strike hit the angle of near post and cross-bar.
Two shots. Oh boy.
Next, a pass from Tielemans sliced through our last line and the advancing Jamie Vardy – his wife is a grass – scuffed his shot wide and this reminded me so much of the Kane miss a fortnight earlier.
This was a pretty poor performance from us. It was a pretty poor game. The atmosphere was not worthy of the name. Sigh.
I turned to Clive : “our link up play just doesn’t hurt anyone.”
Just before the half-time whistle, Dennis Praet was in on goal and there was a fear of impending gloom. Thankfully Edouard raced from his line and made a very fine save indeed.
At the break, the doom mongers were out, including me.
“0-0 – can’t see us scoring…”
One of the bright spots in the first forty-five minutes had been Trevoh’s solid showing. I said to Gal “is Fofana really £70M better than Chalobah?”
As the second-half begun, I saw Dave in his number twenty-eight shirt, on the pitch. I missed the fine detail of the substitution. I soon worked out that Mason had been replaced and I realised that he had hardly played any part in the first-half. Weird times.
Dave played in a three with Reece and Marc moving to wing-backs.
After just two minutes of the second-half, the game changed. A very fine ball from Marc found Raheem in the inside left channel. A little shimmy, some space gained, and then a shot that was subtly deflected up and over the despairing leap of Ward in the Leicester City goal.
The crowd roared.
One-nil to Chelsea.
At last Stamford Bridge boomed.
“Sing when we’re winning? Yes.”
Soon after, another lucky deflection – this time on another Marc to Raheem pass – set things up nicely but his shot cannoned back off the far post with Ward well beaten.
I loved how Trevoh twisted in mid-air to stretch and head a dangerous cross out for a corner, his braids flying every which way.
A break from Ruben with Marc in acres of space outside him but he chose to continue on and attempt to beat a man, one of his “things” that annoys me. The ball was lost.
Half-way through the second period, we witnessed a fine move. Jorginho guided a ball out wide. Havertz, almost walking, played a ball forward into space down in Parkyville for Reece. His smart cross was zipped across the goal and Raheem was beautifully positioned to tap in.
With no James Maddison, it was Harvey Barnes who was causing us a few problems. Not long after our second goal, he played a neat one-two with Vardy and smashed the ball past Edouard at his near post.
That wasn’t on the script. Fackinell.
This, then, set up a very nervy final quarter of the game.
There were worried looks in the Matthew Harding as the away team attacked our end. But it was a major plus that we possessed the calming influence of Thiago Emiliano da Silva in our defence. He was putting on another sublime performance. A sliding tackle on seventy-seven minutes was worth the admission money on its own. The applause boomed around the stadium.
I loved the way the home crowd got behind the team in those last nervy minutes.
“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”
There was a fine Mendy save from Barnes, down low.
Two substitutions :
Mateo for Jorginho.
Christian for Raheem.
These freshened things up nicely.
Late on, I spotted Ray and Hans in the MHL.
The most worrying moment occurred on eighty-two minutes when that man Vardy raced away and clear of Trevoh. Our last defender made a valiant effort to stop him, chopping high, but the ball ran on. He rounded Mendy but with a heavy touch. His slashed shot thankfully only hit the side netting.
Ben for Marc.
With continental-style whistling and the constant “CAM ON CHOWLSEA” combining for a deafening finish, Leicester broke through one last time. Ayoze Perez ran through and slammed a fierce shot goal wards. But Mendy had stayed tall, narrowing angles, closing free space, and the ball thundered against the underside of the bar.
Four league games. Two wins. A draw. A loss. A solid start, nothing more.
I will see some of you at Southampton on Tuesday evening.
The finishing line was in sight now. With Champions League qualification already achieved, the next target was to attain third spot in the Premiership, a position that I have been saying all season long would be our rightful place in May. If we couldn’t win the league, let’s at least finish as the pyramid’s top London team. And the pain of another FA Cup Final defeat was behind us now. But I did wonder how the exertions in the baking sun would impact on an already tired squad against Leicester City. I certainly wasn’t expecting a spectacle of scintillating football.
But this game, on this date, meant a little more than a run-of-the-mill match at the arse end of the season. On the tenth anniversary of our monumental Champions League victory in Munich, what no better way to celebrate than all of us being together for an evening game at Stamford Bridge.
I worked until 3pm. Dan, from Frome, joined us on the trip to London. Dan had taken my ticket for the Tottenham league game back in January when I was hit with a bug and this would be the first time that I would be sat with him at Stamford Bridge. He has played for my village team in the Mid-Somerset League for a few years now – I turned out in the reserves on a few occasions from 1978 to 1981 – and I was aware that the team had recently won three trophies.
PD drove to London and he made good time. Parky was with us too. It was a typical mid-week pre-match. First, a pizza for me on the North End Road at about 5.30pm. At the end of my meal, I spotted two tables of Chelsea supporters near the door and so approached them.
“Happy Munich Day!”
All four looked at me as if I had grown an extra head and I silently wished that I hadn’t fucking bothered.
I popped next door for a meet up with a few pals in the beer garden of “The Goose” and a nice and relaxing time ensued. A special mention to Kev from South Gloucestershire who was clocking up Chelsea game number 1,500 against Leicester City.
Great effort, mate.
This would be number 1,352 for me.
Finally, a quick chat with others in “Simmons”. Both boozers were as quiet as I have ever seen for a Chelsea home game. There were spares floating around all over the place. Daryl had recently enjoyed a wonderful trip up to the outer reaches of Scotland with his wife Pam, but it was typical that ninety-five percent of his recollections about the holiday detailed how he had bumped into Ally McCoist at a hotel on the Isle of Lewis, as far away from the mainland as it is possible to get. Daryl confirmed that the Rangers legend is a Chelsea supporter,
Outside “Simmons” a pop-up bar has opened over the past six months and, with hindsight, we really ought to have added that to the itinerary too. “Biergarten” is a little bar in the style of those German Christmas market huts that now appear all over Europe, resplendent with light blue and white Bavarian flags and steins of beer. I recognised a couple of mates quaffing some lager at a table.
We were inside with a good ten minutes or more to spare, but there were too many yawning gaps everywhere, sanctions notwithstanding. It was clear that Leicester hadn’t sold their allocation of 3,000; it was nearer 2,000.
What with the sanctions hitting hard – still – I was pretty sure that the club would not be able to fly any of the glorious 2012 squad over and, indeed, the celebrations of Munich just involved a paltry video show on the TV screens before the entry of the teams. In days gone by, the sadly-missed Neil Barnett would have been in his pomp, and it annoyed me that the club had been unable to celebrate Munich in a proper fashion. Before the game, a huge crowd-surfing “tifo” – a bit of a misnomer really – appeared over both tiers of The Shed honouring Thomas Tuchel. However, could that not have waited until next season? We only had one opportunity to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Munich and it turned out to be a damp squib.
This was our Munich Day and we messed it up.
The fading sun again turned the light brickwork of The Shed hotel into a warmer hue and the sky was a mix of blue and white. I spotted the saddest of all Chelsea flags draped from the Shed and overlooking the West Lower. Kyle Broadbent and his father Tony travelled together to Munich on that iconic day ten years ago. Not many years after, Kyle died in a horrific accident at work, while labouring with his father. Then, sadly, Tony passed away from cancer. I did not know Kyle. Tony was a friend on “Facebook” and I met him once or twice in “The Goose.”
The teams entered the pitch.
Thomas Tuchel chose this starting eleven :
Rudiger – Siva – Chalobah
James – Jorginho – Kante – Alonso
Pulisic – Lukaku – Ziyech
Not too many changes from the marathon on Saturday; only two players were dropped, Mount and Kovacic.
I accepted that this might be a struggle from the start. People can moan all they like about “players on £100,000 a week playing two games in six days” but the sixty-three games this season must surely have taken its toll.
Leicester appeared in a jade green kit that looked half-decent. Thank God I only had to endure our jaw-dropping monstrosity for two more games this season.
The English Football Gods : “Sorry, Chelsea. You’re not collecting any fucking silverware this season looking like that.”
We attacked the Matthew Harding as the game began. I always feel uneasy when that is the case. The match got off to a slow start but one which we were easily dominating. However, after just seven minutes, a long throw out from Kasper Schmeichel into space down their right was not dealt with properly. Marcos Alonso dawdled and Antonio Rudiger dallied. Neil Maddison was able to move the ball in to space and – damn it, I hate it when this happens – I was in line with the flight of the ball and able to see a firmly-struck shot curve in at the very last moment. It was a superb strike. I guess that why they are paid hundreds of thousands of pounds per week.
In “The Goose” before the game, Andy from Nuneaton and I were talking about the noisy Leeds support the previous Thursday. I liked how they immediately got behind their team when they conceded the first goal.
“Just like we used to do. We don’t do that anymore.”
Well on this night, we did.
A loud and defiant “Carefree” echoed around Stamford Bridge and I liked that a lot.
I liked our response too. There was a trademark shot from distance from Trevoh Chalobah – “shooooooooot” – that Schmeichel – a thorn in our side, a hero in theirs, for years now – did ever so well to tip over. Then Kante won the ball and slid in Lukaku but a defender recovered with a sliding block.
But then we reverted to type and were guilty of the two Chelsea cardinal sins of the latter part of this season; runners not running, passers not passing.
Alan : “Jorginho has more square balls than Sponge Bob Square Pants.”
Midway through the half, I was stifling a few yawns.
“If they get a second, it’s game over, Al.”
I spotted advertisements for the upcoming US Tour splashed over the electronic signs at pitch-level.
16 July : Chelsea vs. Club America, Las Vegas, Nevada.
No thanks. I’m not a fan of Vegas. I hate it in fact. I prefer real cities.
20 July : Charlotte FC vs. Chelsea, Charlotte, North Carolina.
No thanks. I saw Chelsea play PSG there in 2015 and see no point in returning.
23 July : Chelsea vs. Arsenal, Orlando, Florida.
No thanks. Florida in the height of summer? Are you taking the piss?
On thirty minutes, a shot from Ziyech was blocked. From the corner that followed, Silva headed over. Five minutes later, Kante prodded the ball on to Reece James and – I was in line with the ball, but more enjoyable now – lofted a ball out wide towards the on-rushing Alonso. It was absolutely perfect.
“Have a bash, Alonso.”
Wallop. It was a trademark Alonso finish, another volley, another goal. That boy owns that part of the opposition penalty box, eh? I just wish he owned more of the defensive left-flank too.
The game limped along until half-time. I was sure that their only shot on goal the entire game thus far was the one from Maddison for their goal.
At the end of half-time, Dan left us in The Sleepy Hollow and watched from the front row of the MHU, utilising one of the many vacant seats nearby. Throughout the stadium, gaps were everywhere. This was easily the worst-attended game in recent memory. Sadly, Dan’s new prime viewing position did not mirror prime viewing. It was to be a sluggish half.
On fifty-two minutes, the much-maligned Lukaku showed great perseverance to win the ball back and push on down into Parkyville, but his low cross into the six-yard box went begging with nobody set to pounce.
“Shouldn’t he be in there, Al?”
A few minutes later, there were two weak Ziyech efforts. The first from a free-kick, the second after cutting in but hitting centrally. Then just after, Lukaku fed Pulisic with a square pass but much to everyone’s consternation, the patchy American made a complete hash of a relatively easy finish.
The crowd howled.
We sought pleasure elsewhere.
“Jamie Vardy. Your wife is a grass.”
We had a few chances. We were absolutely dominating this half, even more so than the first. Leicester’s lack of desire was depressing.
A couple more efforts came our way. A glancer from Lukaku at the far post, wide, after a fine pass from Ziyech that really should have tested the ‘keeper. A shot from Rudi in the inside the box was then saved well by Schmeichel.
Dave for Christian.
Ruben for N’Golo.
Chalobah rose inside the box from a corner but his header was easy meat for the Leicester ‘keeper.
Kai for Romelu.
Time was running out now, and so were the chances. Havertz’ legs seemed to become entangled as he was fed by Ziyech inside the box, and couldn’t get his shot away.
However, with just four minutes remaining, Edouard Mendy needed to put down his crossword puzzle and come out to smother a rare, very rare, Leicester attack when it was case of one versus one.
In a show of solid defiance, despite the poor fare being offered on the pitch, the Chelsea choir were loud and constant during the closing minutes of the game.
After the away game on Tyneside, I was going to miss the trip to Malmo, and so my next planned game was going to be Burnley at home. Then, sadly, I tested positive for COVID and was forced into self-isolation for ten days. I was lucky though. My symptoms were similar to a mild head cold, and I was easily able to work from home for a week. I was back into work, and the office, last Monday. The International break could not have happened at a more convenient time.
Instead of Chelsea, two games at Frome Town – the first before I tested positive, the second after I tested negative – gave me my football kick. The home games against Barnstaple Town and Plymouth Parkway were won 9-2 and 1-0, thus cementing my local team’s undefeated position at the top of the Southern League Division One South. When I am either unable or unwilling to attend Chelsea games in the future – I think I know deep down that it is coming – at least I have an exit strategy. But let’s not dwell too much on that right now.
Leicester City – away – was now primed for my first Chelsea game in three weeks.
I set the alarm for 5.45am. Many others throughout the Chelsea Nation had equally early starts. All over Facebook, two words dominated.
The idea was to collect PD at 7.30m, then Parks, and arrive at our usual spot just off Saffron Lane to the south of the King Power Stadium at around 11am.
Obviously I had not seen the two lads for a while. Like me, PD had succumbed to a mild variant of COVID since Newcastle. Parky had experienced a more painful COVID not long after Belfast and was still suffering, a little, from long COVID.
Sadly, Parky had lost his ninety-three-year-old mother last Monday. As I picked him up at 8am, we both shook his hand and offered him words of comfort.
Outside, there was drizzle in the air.
At Melksham, a breakfast, and then the drive straight up the Fosse Way to the middle of England. Although the roads were fringed with autumn colours, there was a grey murkiness outside. The Fosse Way remains my favourite road for an away game, though not on this occasion.
Although this would be my first Chelsea game for three weeks, I was suffering a little with a general malaise. Whether this was born out of my recent COVID attack – a re-focussing on priorities, maybe – I am not sure. In a nutshell, I was not as fired-up as I ought to have been. I just hoped that this feeling would turn out to be a little blip in my love of the game, of Chelsea, of this lifestyle.
I am fifty-six. I have seen over 1,300 Chelsea games. “We’ve won it all” (no, we haven’t). We won the European Cup last May in what turned out to be an emotionally-distanced cake-walk. That experience alone caused my brain to fry.
Clearly I am still struggling to get my pre-lockdown levels of passion, involvement, fanaticism – call it what you will – back.
I guess I am allowed the occasional off-day.
As I ate up the miles I was reminded of a drive up the Fosse Way, with my parents in early 1983, which was surely my most pointless journey ever. I was taking my “A Levels” in the June of that year and had applied to a few colleges, including Sheffield Polytechnic. As part of the process, I had to attend an interview up in South Yorkshire. The problem was that I was miss-firing in all three subjects and I was convinced that I wouldn’t get the necessary grades for a degree course in geography, nor did I particularly want to spend three years in Yorkshire should a miracle happen. The journey took forever. It was a bitterly cold day. The countryside was covered in the remnants of a snowfall. My poor Dad had taken a day off work to ferry me north. I hated every minute of the entire day.
What a waste of a day.
For the record; yeah, I did bomb my “A levels” but took them again in the November with a much better set of results.
1982/83 and 1983/84 were vastly different years for both myself and Chelsea Football Club.
I was parked up in Leicester at 11.05am and there would normally follow a trite remark from me about working in logistics.
I’m not one to disappoint.
It had been a mild start to the day in deepest Somerset, despite the drizzle, but things were a little colder in The Midlands. Not to worry, the fifteen-minute walk north warmed us a little and brought some colour to our cheeks. An elderly Leicester fan spoke to us for a few minutes.
“Chilwell is doing well, ain’t he? I didn’t rate him here.”
We were all soon inside the larger-than-usual concourse underneath the away stand. I spoke to a few friends and was happy to pass on the good news about my recent ill-health. I was getting back into the groove, step by step, fist bump by fist bump, handshake by handshake, smile by smile.
“Leicester away. What else yer gonna do on a Saturday?” or something like that.
We had far from great seats, sadly. Right in the corner, third row, even behind the goal line. One hundred and eighty degrees around the bowl of the stadium my friend Sally – former logistics colleague, I am sure her timings were bang on – was sat in the front row of The Kop, but in the corner too.
I expected a tight game. But hoped for a win.
“Absolute top pre-match analysis, that pal…fucksake.”
Romelu Lukaku was still unable to re-join the fold, but our starting eleven wasn’t half bad.
Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah
Chilweel – Kante – Jorginho – James
Hudson-Odoi – Havertz – Mount
The teams entered the pitch on the far side. Our away kit of yellow-black-yellow was to make an appearance for the first time this season. I found it amazing that the club had decided not to parade it previously; it is not unknown for an away kit to be worn even when there isn’t a clash in colours. As the players lined-up, I spotted the geometric shapes from the blue kit monstrosity mirrored in a chest panel on some black tracksuit tops.
“Now that’s not bad. That I can warm to. Everything in moderation. Less is more.”
Only the previous evening, I had watched a BBC programme about Bridget Rily, a leading light in the Op Art movement in the ‘sixties, and I was – naturally – reminded of the abomination that has currently happened to our home kit, shudder.
Generally speaking, I appreciated the paintings of Op Art – I think all of us at Frome College dabbled in geometric shapes during our art class in 1978/79, “another crap season” – but what place does it have on a fucking football shirt?
Eh? Tell me.
As I watched on Friday, I had stumbled upon with a far more agreeable design. If – and I mean if – an homage to Op Art was of absolute necessity, then why not a simple panel of Zigger Zagger mayhem, but everything else plain? Certainly the shorts needed to remain plain.
Whoever ordained the geometric pattern on the home shorts needs shooting.
So, lo and behold, the panel of slip-sliding squares (the kitchen floor after a night of excessive alcoholic intoxication?) on the plain black top not only met with my approval but had me wondering if I was absolutely in the wrong job.
The game began, and Borussia Dortmund attacked Sally and The Kop.
Despite an early start, the away choir had clearly been on it. Alcohol-inspired community singing rang out from the 3,300 in the expansive away corner; the seats go a long way back at Leicester. There was a little jabbing from both sets of supporters, with our left-back a natural target for the home fans, but then an uppercut onto the chin of the home fans :
“Ben Chilwell’s won a European Cup.”
We began ever so brightly.
And, yeah, the away kit looks fine. Not particularly “Chelsea” but that doesn’t seem to matter one iota these days.
The first chance arose when Jorginho took a quick free-kick from the middle of the pitch. The perfectly-flighted ball out to the left hand side of the penalty box was met by that man Chilwell. A touch to control, but the shot smashed against the top of the cross bar.
“Alonso would’ve volleyed that.”
It was end-to-end stuff in the first ten minutes, with a couple of lightning quick Leicester raids causing us concern, but we were equally strong in our attacking third.
Just on the quarter of an hour, we won a corner in front of Sally on our right.
Alan : “Get your camera out. Rudiger likes corners up here.”
I smiled. Indeed he does. Only on the drive up, we remembered his two headers here in 2020, just before lockdown struck. No surprises that none of us could remember the result up here in 2020/21.
“If a tree falls in a forest, but nobody sees it fall, does it make a sound?”
My camera was poised.
A Chilwell corner. On the money. A leap from Rudi. Click. I watched the ball drop into the net.
We were back, I was back, Rudi was back, Alan was beaming and so was I.
“That’s going in your blog.”
Ha, what joy.
Alan : “They’ll have to come at us naaaa.”
Chris : “ Come on my little diamonds.”
I was genuinely worried about this one. The Cup Final had been on my mind. But here we were a goal up already.
I found it odd that during the Chelsea choir’s early chants, the home fans did not respond with one song about the game in May.
“Did it mean nothing to you?”
The hero of that game, Kasper Schmeichel, made a super save from the unlikely boot of N’Golo Kante.
We were rampant.
Callum was clipped just as he was about to ping a shot on goal after cutting in from the left, and Mason Mount dipped the resulting free-kick over the wall but over the bar too.
A rare Leicester attack, and a tap in from Ademola Lookman, but the linesman’s yellow flag soon went up.
I looked over to the Chelsea section next to the home fans. In front, tied to the rails was a flag from Zurich and two from Bulgaria. My good friend Orlin, one of the strong Bulgaria contingent, had called by to say “hi” before the game. I last saw him in Porto, ah Porto. But I also spotted Jonesy, from nearby Nuneaton, in that section too. Over the course of the game, I spotted not only Jonesy, but Andy and Sophie – Porto, ditto – and also The Youth, Neil, Jokka and Chopper, all Nuneaton Chelsea. Good work everyone.
Leicester were nibbling away at us in the first part of the game, but the referee resolutely avoided bookings.
I liked the look of Jorginho, pushing the ball on as quickly as he could. Right from the off, Thiago Silva looked so cool, so calm, and his class immediately shone. Our passing was quicker and more incisive than is often the case. Our cross-field switches were inch-perfect. Havertz looked lively, Callum too. We were simply on top, in control, playing some gorgeous stuff.
Just before the half-hour mark, the ball was won on our right and pushed inside to Kante. He was allowed so much space and so simply did what anyone would; he advanced, and advanced, and advanced.
I watched as he took a swipe at the ball with his left foot. I’ll be honest, I did not immediately react. I – for some reason – thought the ball had drifted past the post and hit a supporting stanchion. But no, the roars of the away fans told me that he had hit the target.
I spoke to Gal : “Best we have played all season.”
We eased off a little as the break approached, but the singing certainly didn’t. Nobody can accuse us lot of only singing one song.
So many positive comments at the break. Lovely.
Brendan Rodgers made two substitutions at the break, and on came Maddison and Iheanacho. Edouard Mendy, not needed for most of the first-half, made a low save from Maddison, but the Chelsea attack were soon causing problems again. Hudson-Odoi did well and squirmed into the box before setting up Chilwell. Schmeichel made a magnificent save.
On the hour, Callum shaped well but curled one over the bar.
A double substitution from our manager.
Hakim Ziyech for Mount, Christian Pulisic for Havertz.
Mason had been one of our quietest performers I thought. Havertz had impressed. I was a little cautious.
…”mmm, two key players…the game ain’t won yet.”
The home team became a little stronger, and we had to rely on another stunning leap and save from our ‘keeper to foil a rising drive from Daniel Amartey. The home team dominated for a short period, but we were always a threat. The substitute Pulisic looked lively and went close from fellow substitute Ziyech’s cross. Both subs looked keen, looked energised, what do I know about football?
On seventy-one minutes, a wonderful quick break, with Leicester scampering around us, found Ziyech down in front of us on the right. A deft movement past a defender and the ball was played into space. Pulisic arrived with perfect timing and prodded the ball in.
3-0, game over.
Sadly, Jorginho was injured – replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, what a bench – and as he walked past us in the north-west corner, he was serenaded by all.
“That’s the World Footballer Of The Year, there, Gal.”
Those sorry days of Sarri are well behind him, and us, right?
Incredibly, we hit the back of the net on three further occasions late in the game, but the goals scored by Hudson-Odoi, Pulisic and James were all – rightly – chalked off for offside.
There was still time for another cracking save from our man Mendy.
I have commented of late that, despite our fine run of results, we seem to be several steps away from our potential. Well, this game hinted at that level. It reminded me of a game at Fulham in November 2004 when everything clicked and we began to seriously think about a league title.
It was a decent drive home, and we were cheered – to the point of laughter – at Manchester United’s 4-1 defeat at Watford.
Good old Claudio, eh? Loved at Chelsea, loved at Leicester and maybe Watford too.
We have a busy week ahead.
Juventus and Manchester United.
Do they get any bigger?
I will see some of you there.
Valerie Jayne Crespin : 24 April 1929 to 15 November 2021.
My match report for the home game against Everton in March of last year – a really fine 4-0 win – ended with a typical few words.
“Right. Aston Villa away on Saturday. See you there.”
Then, as we all know too dearly, life – and football – changed. The corona virus that had first been spoken about just after Christmas in 2019, almost in a semi-humorous way at the start, took hold and started claiming victims at an alarming rate. A global pandemic was on our hands. Very soon the United Kingdom was placed in lockdown, a situation that none of us could have ever envisioned witnessing in person during our lives.
Suddenly and without too much thought, football seemed of little real relevance to me.
The trials and tribulations of Chelsea Football Club in particular seemed small compared to the news appearing on my TV screen, on my phone and laptop. As friends found their own way of coping with the surreal nature of lock down, and then being furloughed from work, I quickly realised that football, Chelsea in particular, was way down my list of priorities.
I simply had other, more serious, issues to deal with. And this is how my thought process, my coping mechanism, remained for weeks and weeks. While others pushed for football to return I simply asked myself :
It was irrelevant, for me, to concern myself with millionaires playing football.
Eventually after a prolonged break, when the football season began again in the middle of June, I had become emotionally distanced from the sport and from Chelsea too. I had simply turned inwards, as did many; working from home, travelling as little as I could manage and trying not to impact – socially – on the outside world. I joked that I had been practising for this moment my entire life. Earlier in my life, I was the ultimate shy boy.
But the noisemakers in the game and the media were adamant that it would be a major moral boost for the nation to see football return.
It just didn’t sit well with me, this notion of football to be seen as the great saviour. Other priorities seemed to overshadow it. I just could not correlate what I was hearing in the media about football and what I was feeling inside.
I will not lie, I absolutely hated watching the games on TV, with no fans, in silence, and I became more and more distanced from the sport that I had loved with each passing game. I watched almost with a sense of duty, nothing more. What had been my lifeblood – to an almost ridiculous level some might say, and with some justification – just seemed sterile and distant. I have very few memories of those games in the summer.
The FA Cup Final seemed particularly difficult to watch. On a hot day in August, I mowed the lawn, and even did some work in my home office for an hour or two, and then sat alone to see us score an early Christian Pulisic goal but then be over-run by a revitalised Arsenal team. That result hurt of course, and I was annoyed how some decisions went against us. The sad injury to Pedro – a fine player for us over five years – in the last kick of the game seemed to sum up our horrible misfortune that day. However, and I know this sounds funny and odd, but I was pleased that I was hurting. That I still cared.
But by the evening, the loss was glossed over.
Football still didn’t seem too important to me.
The one positive for me, and one which combines my own particular brand of OCD – Obsessive Chelsea Disorder – married with a possible smidgeon of shallowness, was the fact that I didn’t have to delete the games I had witnessed in 2019/20 from both my games spreadsheet and – gulp – this blog site.
A small victory for me, and I needed it.
Off the field, work was becoming particularly stressful for me. In August I came oh-so close to handing in my notice. The workload was piling up, I was battling away, and I was getting some worrying chest pains again.
In mid-September, the new season began and I openly hoped for a new approach from me. There was nothing up in the air here; we knew games would be played behind closed doors, we knew the score from the start. I renewed my NOWTV package to allow me to see most of our games. We began the league campaign at Brighton. For some reason, I didn’t see the game, I can’t remember why not. The first match I witnessed on TV was the home defeat to Liverpool.
It was no good. I could not deny it. I was as distanced as ever. The hold that Chelsea Football Club had on me for decades was under threat.
Conversely – at last some fucking positivity – as soon as my local team Frome Town started playing friendlies and then league games, I was in football heaven. I especially remember a fantastic pre-season friendly against Yeovil Town two days before Chelsea’s game at Brighton. A warm Thursday evening and a capacity 400 attendance, a fine game with friends, just magnificent. In September and October, I attended many a Frome Town game including aways at Mangotsfield United in Bristol – it felt so good to be back home in my living room uploading photos just an hour after the game had finished, a real positive – and on a wet night in Bideford in North Devon. Home gates were significantly higher than the previous season. There was a magnificent sense of community at the club. There had even been a tremendous crowd-funder to raise £25,000 in April to keep the club going. We even had a little FA Trophy run – before being expelled for refusing to play an away tie in an area with a high infection rate. Soon after, the club’s records for a second successive season were expunged and that early season flourish was put on hold until 2021/22.
But for a month, I was felling inexorably closer to Frome Town than to Chelsea. It seemed that my entire world was turning in on myself.
Was the world changing?
On Saturday 10 October it certainly did. For the second time in a few days I experienced chest pains. There had been a similar attack in my bed and breakfast in Bideford on Thursday morning. That drive home was horrible. I wanted to be brave enough to phone for a doctor. On the Saturday, I knew I had to act. I phoned the emergency services and – to cut a very long story to a quick few lines – I was whisked into a local hospital in Bath. On the Sunday, I was told that I had suffered a mild heart attack, and on Monday I underwent an operation to have two stents fitted into my heart. My Tuesday afternoon, I was home again.
I remained off work for five weeks, and slowly returned in stages. A half-day here, a half-day there. I remained calm throughout these weeks. I knew, deep down, that something had been wrong but being a typical bloke, decided to let things slide and hope for the best. Since then, I have improved my lifestyle; decaffeinated coffee – boo! – and healthier food, more exercise and all of the associated improvements that go with it.
With all this going on, Chelsea seemed even more remote. I was momentarily cheered when fans were allowed back inside Stamford Bridge, and that for a few hours we were top of the table after Leeds United were despatched. For a fleeting moment, it seemed that Frank Lampard, who had teased a very creditable fourth place finish in July out of his youngsters, was now able to similarly nurture his new signings too. But there had been failings in 2020/21 too. Our defence was at times calamitous. But I was solidly behind Frank all of the way. I really felt for him. Back in March, with Billy Gilmour the new star, we had enjoyed quite wonderful wins over Liverpool and Everton. There was positivity, hope and the future looked utterly pleasing.
Then the pandemic struck. Damn you COVID19.
In December and early January our form dipped alarmingly. I watched Frank’s interviews through my fingers. It was not pleasant viewing. It saddened me that so many rank and file Chelsea supporters, across all demographics – from old school fans in England to younger ones abroad – had seen fit to kindly forget the “I don’t care if we finish mid-table for a couple of seasons, let’s build a future with our youngsters” mantra in August 2019.
It got to the stage where I didn’t want Chelsea to simply win games but to simply win games for Frank.
I had returned full-time to work in mid-January. To their credit my employer has been first rate throughout my ordeal. While I was in the office on a day in late January, it was sadly announced that Frank Lampard had been sacked. I was numbed yet not at all surprised. I firstly hated the decision for reasons that are probably not difficult to guess. So much for long termism, eh Chelsea?
My interest in the exploits of Chelsea Football Club probably reached an all-term low. Or at least since the relegation season of 1978/79 when we were shocking throughout and I was being pulled away from football with a new interest in music and other teenage distractions.
A nerdy-looking chap, skeleton thin, probably a diamond with Powerpoint and with a marginally worse hairstyle than me? I wished him well but football again seemed distant.
Our form improved but the football itself seemed sterile. I was still struggling.
On a Saturday in March, I debated whether or not I had time to go off on a ten mile walk to a local village and get back in time to watch play at Elland Road. I considered binning the football in favour of my new found enjoyment of walks in the surrounding winter Somerset countryside. In the end I compromised; I went for a walk on the Sunday.
I know what I found most enjoyable.
Of late, our form has really improved. Again, I haven’t seen every game. But we look a little more coherent, defensively especially. Apart from an odd blip, to be honest, the results since the new manager took over have been sensational even if many of the ways of getting those results have lacked a certain “I know not what.”
I’m being mean. The bloke has done well. I like his self-effacing humour, his humble approach. He has started to grow in me (Parky : “like a fungus”).
Of late, our progress in the latter stages of the Champions League has been the most impressive part of our recent resurgence. And yet this competition has been haunting me all season long. In a nutshell, the thought of us reaching our third European Cup Final and – being selfish here, I know it – me not being able to attend is a nightmare.
(OK, not a nightmare. I know. I know 127,000 people have lost their lives due to COVID19. That is the real nightmare. I realise that. This is just football. Just football.)
I shrugged off last August’s FA Cup Final. I coped remarkably well with that. I soon decided that I could even stomach missing a second-successive one this year. But the thought of us lifting the big one for a second time and me – and others – not being there is bloody purgatory.
So, it was with a heady mix of genuine pride and impending sadness that accompanied the glorious sight of us beating a hideously poor Real Madrid side over two-legs to reach the final.
But that spectacle, or debacle, needs another chapter devoted to it. And it doesn’t seem right to talk too much about that at this time. In fact, going into the weekend I assured myself that I would not dwell too much about the 2021 European Cup Final. Let’s be honest here; the twin crushing of the hated European Super League and the farcical and immoral desire of UEFA to send 8,000 UK citizens to Portugal in the midst of a global pandemic warrants a book, a Netflix series even, all by themselves.
Let’s talk about the FA Cup.
For those readers of this blogorama who have been paying attention, I have been featuring the visit of my grandfather Ted Draper to Stamford Bridge for the 1920 FA Cup Final between Aston Villa, his team, and Huddersfield Town. This is a work of fiction since I only know that my grandfather once visited Stamford Bridge, but was never able to remember the game. Suffice to say, in the report of the home game against Liverpool last March, I continued the story.
After a break of fourteen months, a re-cap.
On Saturday 24 April 1920, on this very same site, if not this very same stadium – but certainly one which was in situ for the 1982 game, those lovely packed terraces – my grandfather stood on the great slug of the West terrace with his old school friend Ted Knapton alongside him. It was half-time, and the score between the two teams – Aston Villa, who he favoured, and Huddersfield Town – was 0-0. It had been an exhilarating game of football for my grandfather, though the spectacle of seeing fifty-thousand spectators in one sports ground had proved to be the one abiding memory that he would take away with him.
Fifty thousand people.
And virtually all were men, and so many had fought in the Great War.
My grandfather was twenty-five years old. He silently gazed out at the main stand on the far side, the open terraces behind each goal, and looked behind him at row after row of fellows in caps and hats, some with the colourful favours of the two competing teams. A claret and blue rosette here. A light blue hat there.
It struck home.
My grandfather had just that week spotted a local girl, a few years younger than him, who was beginning work in the manor house of his home village. She was a young cook, with a lovely smile, and had caught his eye.
My grandfather was a rather quiet man. He looked out at all those faces. He did not speak to his friend Ted, but he – at Stamford Bridge on Cup Final day 1920 – had decided that the stadium, indeed the whole of England was full of men, and the thought of one of them asking the young cook out before he had a chance to utter a shy “hello” ate away at him.
He had survived the Great War. He lived in a great village and now this great spectacle had stirred him in a way that he had not expected.
“You had better get your act together, Ted Draper. On Monday at lunch time, I think I will ask Blanche if she would like to accompany me to next weekend’s village dance. I can’t be second in that race.”
I was so annoyed that I could not continue this story last season. The team did their part, defeating Manchester United in a semi-final, but of course there was no Cup Final Tale in which I could tie up rather conveniently tie up the end of my 1920 story on the centenary.
Thankfully, good old Chelsea, the team defeated Manchester City in this season’s semis to enable me to continue and to honour my grandfather again.
The quality of the play down below on the surprisingly muddy Stamford Bridge pitch deteriorated throughout the second-half. But Ted Draper, along with his friend Ted Knapton, were still enthralled by the cut and thrust of the two teams. The players, wearing heavy cotton shirts, went into each tackle with thunderous tenacity. And the skill of the nimble wide players caught both of their eye.
“Ted, I wonder what the crowd figure is here today. There are a few spaces on the terracing. I suspect it would have been at full capacity if Chelsea had won their semi-final against the Villa.”
“I think you are right. What’s the capacity here? I have heard it said it can hold 100,000.”
“Trust Chelsea to mess it up.”
“Yes. Good old Chelsea.”
The crowd impressed them. But they were not too impressed with the swearing nor the quite shocking habit of some spectators to openly urinate on the cinder terraces.
“To be honest Ted, I haven’t seen any lavatories here have you?”
“I’m just glad I went in that pub before we arrived.”
The play continued on, and the crowd grew restless with the lack of goals. The programme was often studied to match the names of the players with their positions on the pitch. With no goals after ninety-minutes, there was a short break before extra-time, and more liquid cascaded down the terraces.
“Like a bloody river, Ted.”
After ten minutes of the first period of extra-time, Aston Villa broke away on a fast break and the brown leather ball held up just in time for the inside-right Billy Kirton to tuck the ball past Sandy Mutch in the Huddersfield goal. There was a mighty roar, and Ted Draper joined in.
The Aston Villa supporters standing nearby flung their hats into the crowd and many of the bonnets and caps landed on the sodden floor of the terracing.
“Buggered if I’d put those things back on my head, Ted.”
There then followed a period of back-slapping among the Villa die-hards, and Ted Draper was very pleased that his team had taken the lead. The game stayed at 1-0, with both teams tiring in the last part of the match. The crowd stayed until the end, transfixed. There was just time to see the Aston Villa captain Andy Ducat lift the silver trophy on the far side. The teams soon disappeared into the stand.
With a blink of an eye, the game was done, the day was over, and Somerset was calling.
As the two friends slowly made their way out of the Stamford Bridge stadium, Ted Knapton – who favoured no team, but had picked the Huddersfield men for this game – spoke to my grandfather.
“That goal, Ted.”
“What of it?”
“It looked offside to me.”
“Not a chance, not a chance Ted. The inside-right was a good half-inch onside.”
“Ah, you’re a bugger Ted Draper, you’re a bugger.”
On Cup Final Day 2021, I was up early, a good ninety minutes ahead of the intended 8am alarm clock. One of my first tasks was to swab my mouth and nose. Now there’s a phrase that I never ever thought that I would utter on a Cup Final morn. Part of the protocol for this game, the biggest planned event to take part in the UK since lockdown in March 2020, was that all attendees should take a lateral flow test at an official centre from 2.15pm on Thursday 13 May. I was lucky, I was able to work a late shift on the Friday and I travelled to Street for my test. The negative result soon came through by email. We also were advised, though not compulsory, to take a test at home on the morning of the game and five days after the event in order for data to be gathered. A small price to pay.
This felt odd. To be going to a game after so long. I took some stick from a few people that saw me comment that my love of football was being rekindled.
“Chelsea get to two cup finals and all of a sudden Chris Axon loves football again.”
I laughed with them.
The joy of football had been rekindled because I was now able to see a live game. There are many ways for people to get their kick out of football. By playing, by writing, by watching on TV, by refereeing, by betting, by coaching, by fantasy leagues. By I get my kick through live football.
It has been my life.
I posted the carton with the vial containing my swab at Mells Post Office just after I left home at 10.30am. I was genuinely excited for the day’s events to unfold. Outside the same post office a few days earlier, I had announced to two elderly widows of the village – Janet and Ann – that I was off to the FA Cup Final a few days earlier.
“I have missed it badly.”
They both smiled.
And I realised that this final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup represented a final tie to my childhood – I am known around the village as a Chelsea supporter – and it also represented a nod to the tie that Chelsea Football Club has on me.
But did it really represent one last chance to bring me back in from the cold?
I know that I needed something to help me regain my love of the game before my dislike of VAR, obscenely-overpaid players, ever-changing kick-off times, blood-sucking agents, the continuing indifference to game-going fans despite the limp platitudes that might suggest otherwise, the threat of the thirty-ninth game, knobhead fans, the disgraceful behaviour of UEFA and FIFA in so many aspects of their stance on so many things (I have already decided I am not watching a single second of the Qatar World Cup) all combine in one horrible mixture to turn me away even more.
I have aired all this before. As well you know.
No pressure, Chelsea.
On my way to collect Lord Parky, my sole companion on this foray back to normality, I passed near the village of Westwood. Until recently, I was unaware – as were many – that this is the final resting place of our former ‘keeper Vic Woodley. There is a group on Facebook that actively try to locate the graves of former players and on occasion headstones are purchased if there are unmarked graves. It is an admirable cause. Two Saturdays ago, I placed some blue and white flowers on the grave. Although it is open to debate, I would suggest that until 1955, Vic Woodley was our most successful player at Chelsea.
Hughie Gallacher was probably our most famous player, George Smith had played more games and George Mills had been our record goal scorer.
But Woodley had played 252 games for Chelsea and 19 for England. He was in our team for the Moscow Dynamo game in 1945 too.
I vote for Vic Woodley.
I soon passed The Barge pub, on the outskirts of Bradford on Avon where he was a landlord in later years.
We must pay a visit when normality returns.
Parky soon reminded me that he had heard of his Uncle Gerald, a Derby County fan, talk about Vic Woodley – who played thirty times for Derby before moving to Bath City – living locally when Parky was younger. Parky also recounted meeting a chap in nearby Melksham who had been at that Moscow Dynamo game just after the Second World War.
1994 And 2021.
I had collected Parky at 11am. His first task had been to replicate a photo of me setting off outside Glenn’s house in Frome before the drive to the 1994 FA Cup Final. I wanted a little comparison. Me at 28 and me at 55.
This would be my eleventh FA Cup Final that I will have attended. The twenty-eight year old me what have laughed at such a notion.
We had a lovely natter on the way up. We hardy stopped chatting. Sadly, neither Glenn nor PD could make it up but we promised to keep them in our thoughts. Our route took us towards High Wycombe before we doubled back on the M40. This was quite appropriate since a very well-known and popular supporter at Chelsea, Wycombe Stan, had recently passed away. He was well-loved by all and will be sadly missed at Chelsea. Stan has featured in these reports a few times. A smashing bloke.
RIP Wycombe Stan.
I had purchased a pre-paid parking slot for £20 only a ten-minute walk from the stadium. Traffic delays going in meant that we didn’t arrive much before 3pm, but it felt good, for once, to not have to race like fools to get in to a Cup Final. Those “last pints” on Cup Final day are legend.
The environs around modern Wembley Stadium are much different than as recently as 2007, the first final at the new place. Flats and hotels abound. It is very much a retail village first, a sporting venue second. We bumped into two Chelsea fans on the walk to the stadium. Gill B. said that the place was full of Leicester, that there were hardly any Chelsea present yet. I knew of two Leicester City season ticket holders who were attending the final and one had said that most of their fans were arriving on an armada of coaches. Gill R. wasn’t planning on meeting up with anyone, but as we turned a quiet corner, she shouted out : ”Chris!”
It was so lovely to see her. We chatted for quite a while, talking about the surreal nature of the past year, the sad departure of Frank, the whole nine yards. We both admitted we had not missed football as much as we had expected. Strange times.
At the southern end of what is now normally called “Wembley Way” – but was really called “Olympic Way” – the rather unsightly access slope has been replaced by steps, which I must admit remind me of an old style football terrace. But it is rather odd to see steps there. One supposes that crowd control has improved since the Ibrox disaster of 1971, but the straight rails, with no cross rails to stop surges, did bring a tremor to my memory banks. At least the steps do not immediately start near the stadium.
At the base of the steps, we scanned our match ticket and showed our test result email to Security Bod Number One.
We neared the turnstiles at the eastern end – not our usual one – at around 3.30pm. Hardly anyone was around. We went straight in.
Thankfully, Security Bod Number Two didn’t react negatively to the sight of my camera and lenses.
For an hour and a half – the equivalent of a match – and by far the most enjoyable ninety minutes of the day, we chatted to many friends who we had not seen for fourteen months. I was driving, of course, so was not drinking. In fact, as I never drink at home, my last alcoholic intake was way back in September. But Parky, himself almost teetotal since June, was off the leash and “enjoying” the £6 pints. I updated many friends with the latest news regarding my health. I summed it up like this :
“I’ve had a good six months.”
There had been rumours of the whole game being played under constant rain. We were low down, row three and right behind the goal. If anyone was going to get wet, we were.
It was soon 5pm. A quick dash to the loo, things have improved since 1920. Within seconds I was spotting more familiar faces and I added to the gallery.
A Chelsea Gallery.
The Cup Final hymn – Abide With Me – was sung and I sang along too. It is always so moving.
A quick look around. Most people in the lower tier. Team banners all over the south side of the top tier. A few people dotted around the middle tier and the north side of the top tier. Altogether surreal. Altogether strange. We had been gifted a Chelsea flag and a small blue bag was placed beneath the seat too. I didn’t bother to look in for a while. Time was moving on. I was starting to gear up for my first Chelsea game of the season and, possibly – only possibly – my last. Some fireworks, some announcements, the entrance of the teams. I spotted Prince William, a good man, and snapped away as he was introduced to the two teams.
“Oh bollocks. The teams. Who’s playing?”
I had been so busy chatting in the concourse that my mind had not given it a moment’s thought.
James in the middle three, Kepa in goal, Ziyech? Oh dear. I was amazed that Havertz was not playing. I was reminded last week that the young German’s first ever appearance at Wembley was in late 2016 against Tottenham. He came on as an eighty-sixth minute substitute for Bayer Leverkusen as they won 1-0. It was memorable for me too; I was there, tucked away among the Leverkusen hordes with my childhood friend Mario.
So, yes, the team.
James. Silva. Rudiger.
Dave. Kante. Jorginho. Alonso.
Mount. Werner. Ziyech.
I always say that I need a few games at the start of each season to get used to watching football again. To learn the habits, strengths and weaknesses of new players. To pace myself. To try to take it all in. Sadly, such a staggeringly low viewing position was of no use whatsoever. Everything was difficult. There was no depth. I really struggled.
And I really struggled with the latest dog’s dinner kit that the wonder kids at Nike have foisted upon us.
Does anybody like it?
To be honest, with players in motion the bizarre chequered pattern is not too discernible. It is only when players are still that the mess is fully visible. That the nasty pattern is continued onto the shorts without the merest hint of an apology makes it twice as bad. After getting it so right – sadly for one game – in 2020, the Nike folk thought that the yellow trim was obviously worth repeating.
Right. Enough of that. I’m getting depressed.
With only 12,500 fans of the competing clubs in the vastness of Wembley, it was so difficult to get an atmosphere going. For the first time in fourteen months, my vocal skills were tested. I joined in when I could. But it was all rather half-hearted.
The game began and we edged the opening spell quite easily with Mason Mount busy and involved. A couple of very early attacks down the right amounted to nothing. The rain was just about staying off.
Our loudest chant in the game thus far had been the statistically inaccurate “We’ve won it all”, a comment that Corinthians of San Paolo will note with a chuckle, as will the Saints of Southampton.
After a full quarter of an hour, an optimistic effort from Toni Rudiger flew tamely wide of the Leicester goal. A rare foray into our half saw a cross from Timothy Castagne for Jamie Vardy but Reece James blocked well. Chances were rare though. Mount advanced well but shot wide. An effort from Timo Werner replicated the curve of the arch overhead as his shot plopped into the area housing the Leicester fans.
We were clearly dominating possession but after a reasonable start we became bogged down with keeping the ball and trying to force our way in to Leicester’s well-drilled defence. I could almost hear the commentators describing the play. And it’s maybe a subtle new type of play too, possibly a side-effect of having no fans at games for over a year.
Watching on TV, and I admit I get so frustrated, I get bored to death of teams sitting back and letting teams pass in and around them. I watched some old footage from the ‘eighties recently, highlights of the 1982 and 1988 Scottish Cup Finals, and from the kick-off the teams were at each other. It was like watching a different sport. It was breathless, maybe not tactically pleasing, but it had me on edge and dreaming of another era.
Today there is just so much I can take of commentators talking about “the press, a low press, a high press, a high block, a low block, between the lines, transition, the counter, little pockets, passing channels.”
It seems that football is – even more – a sport watched by experts and critics rather than supporters. Yes, everyone seems more educated in tactics these days, but the repetition of some key phrases surely grates on me.
For the high priests of the high press, I sometimes wonder if they are even aware of how often they use this phrase during a normal match.
Players have always closed space and targeted weak spots, just as teams have in the past been happy to soak up pressure when needed. It just seems that teams do it all the time now. In every bloody game. And with no supporters in the stadium to inject some passion and intensity, I get drained watching training game after training game on TV.
A few long crosses and corners from the right did not trouble Schmeichel in the Leicester goal. His father was in the Manchester United goal in 1994. It infamously rained that day and just around the half-way mark of the first-half, the heavens opened. The omens were against us. My camera bag got drenched, my jacket was getting drenched. The blue cardboard bag from Chelsea was getting drenched.
Someone asked: “what’s in the goody bag?”
I replied “a return air ticket to Istanbul.”
Tuchel hurried back to the bench to get a blue baseball cap from his goody bag. Not sure if he had a metal badge too, though.
For twenty minutes, my photos stopped. I couldn’t risk my camera getting waterlogged. Leicester had a few rare forays towards us at the eastern end. I liked the look of Thiago Silva. Bizarrely, of course, these were my first sightings of Werner, Ziyech and Silva in a Chelsea shirt.
The rain slowed and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was in no mood for a “Burnley 2017.” Around me, the rain had dampened the fervour of our support. Leicester were beginning to be heard.
“Vichai had a dream. He bought a football team.
He came from Thailand and now he’s one of our own.
We play from the back.
And counter attack.
Champions of England. You made us sing that.”
Thankfully no mention of a high press.
The last real chance of the half, a poor-half really, fell to Caglar Soyuncu but his effort dropped wide of the far post.
At half-time, there were mutterings of disapproval in a Chelsea support that had quietened down considerably. Throughout that first-half, neither team had managed a shot on goal. But I tried to remain positive. I was buoyed by the pleasing sight of blue skies in the huge rectangular window above us…I hoped the clouds would not return.
No changes at the start of the second-half. I prayed for a winner at our end, just yards away from me.
The first effort of the second-half came from the head of Marcos Alonso, a surprising starter for many, who rose to meet a cross from N’Golo Kante but headed too close to Schmeichel. Leicester showed a bit of life, some spirit, but it was dour football.
Sadly, this was to change. Just after the hour, the ball was pushed square to Youri Tielemens who advanced – unchallenged, damn it – until he was around twenty-five yards out. As soon as the ball left his boot, from my vantage point, I knew it was in. Not even Peter fucking Crouch could have reached it. The Leicester end erupted.
Five minutes later, Christian Pulisic for Hakim Ziyech and Ben Chilwell – loud boos – for Marcos Alonso. Pulisic immediately added a little spice and spirit. He seemed positive. Two more substitutions, Callum Hudson-Odoi for Azpilicueta and Kai Havertz, the slayer of Tottenham, for Jorginho. Our attack had stumbled all game but with fresh legs we immediately looked more interested.
The Leicester fans were in their element, raucous and buoyant. We tried to get behind the team.
“COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.”
It didn’t exactly engulf the Chelsea end in a baying mass of noise.
Kante was strangely finding himself engaged as a supplier of crosses and one such ball was met by Chilwell but his strong downward header, coming straight towards me, was palmed on to his post by a diving Schemichel.
I was right in this game now; it had taken so long for us to get any momentum, but with time running out my eyes were on stalks, watching the ball and the players running – or not – into space.
“COME ON YOU BLUE BOYS.”
With eight minutes’ left, The Charge of the Light Brigade as Olivier Giroud raced on to replace a very disappointing Werner. It was the fastest any Chelsea player had run all game.
The Chelsea pressure increased. I didn’t even think about the stresses that might be induced should we score a late equaliser. But that’s good. I felt fine. No problems.
A delicate cross from James was knocked back to our Mase. He steadied himself momentarily and then let fly with his left foot. I was about to leap in joy. But Schmeichel flung himself to his left and clawed it out.
I called him a very rude name. Twice. Just to make sure he heard me.
In the closing minutes, a lofted ball – into space, what joy – found a rampaging Ben Chilwell. He met it first time, pushing it into the six-yard box. In the excitement of the moment, I only saw a convergence of bodies and then…GETINYOUFUCKER…the net bulge. I tried my damnedest to capture him running away in joy, but I needed to celebrate. I brushed past Parky and found myself in the stairwell. King Kenny virtually slammed me into the fence at the front – ha – but I kept my composure and snapped away. The results are, mainly blurred. A second or two later, I looked back and Kenny was screaming, his face a picture of joy, and the scene that I saw me was a virtual copy, with less people, of the aftermath of Marcos Alonso’s winner in 2017, a mere thirty yards further south.
I heard a voice inside my head.
“Fucking hell, Chris, we’ve done it.”
And then. Someone mentioned VAR. At first, I thought someone was being a smart-arse. Didn’t seem offside to me. Nah. And then I realised as I looked up at the large scoreboard above the Leicester City fans that the awful truth was for all to see.
A red rectangle…
VAR : CHECKING GOAL – POSSIBLE OFFSIDE.
My heart slumped. How often do these end up with the advantage being given to the attacking side?
Ironically, on the car drive in to London, both Parky and I quoted a recent game when Harry Kane’s toe was deemed to be offside and we both admitted that we felt for the bloke. When Chelsea fans are upset with a VAR decision is given against Tottenham, something is definitely up.
A roar from the other end, no goal.
King Kenny wailed : “what has football become?”
I had no answer.
There is a chance that this might be my last report this season. It depends on how Chelsea Football Club looks after its own supporters’ hopes of reaching the Portuguese city of Porto in a fortnight.
So there we were. Four of us in our row, re-united at Stamford Bridge for the first time since the Watford game towards the tail end of last season.
From the left, facing the pitch; myself, Alan, Glenn and PD.
PD has been sitting alongside us since inheriting dear Tom’s season ticket midway through 2015/16, but the other three of us have been season ticket holders in The Sleepy Hollow since the first game of 1997/98.
So, our twenty-third year of sitting together, and always in our own seats. We never swap around. That wouldn’t be right, would it? I love my seat – number 369 – as it is right next to some steps. I am not hemmed in. I don’t have to whisper an apologetic “’scuse me” as I get up to turn my bike around. And I can jump up onto the little viewing platform to my left, should the gravity of the occasion warrant it, to rigorously celebrate a goal. I have some memorable moments within those few square yards. You had better believe it.
In front were Albert and Paul, themselves season ticket holders like us from the glorious summer of 1997. Behind us, other pals dotted around.
Rousey, Lee, Mick, the two Robs and Alex, Frank, Tim, Gary, Dane, Nick, Big John in the front row, The Sleepy Hollow’s some-time cheer-leader (the dent in the advertising hoarding is his sole responsibility), Mark, Gary…and several whose names are not known to us even after all these years, we are English after all.)
There were a few empty seats in our section, but not many.
We were all in early. I was in at about 4pm, just after having a lovely photo with Andy, my long-time mate from Yorba Linda in Southern California, and one of the two Robs outside the West Stand, under Peter Osgood’s gaze.
In the last quarter of an hour before the kick-off, the stadium rapidly filled and – with it – came an increase in noise levels, of anticipation, of excitement. I am not sure if the atmosphere could have been cut with a knife because they, along with selfie-sticks, flares, cans, air horns and celery are banned.
But you get my drift.
The atmosphere was bubbling along nicely.
No surprises, it had been a lovely day thus far.
We had set off from our home town early; eight o’clock early. Within five minutes of parking up near Queens Club, I soon bumped into Eck from Glasgow and then Rob from Essex. I can walk around my home town for an hour and see nobody that I know. On match day at Chelsea, it is a vastly different story. Over the course of the day, I would meet around one-hundred fellow Chelsea devotees. It is a lovely feeling. To many I simply shook their hands and wished them a “happy new season.”
We met up with a reliable gaggle of friends – Aroha and Luke from Harrow, Kev and Rich from Edinburgh – in “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge at just after 11am. It was a joy to be back. Kev and Rich had been present for the Watford game in May; it seemed like just five minutes ago that we were huddled around a table a few yards away from where we were now ensconced.
Aroha, Luke and little old me reminisced about Baku and the time our pub reverberated to the same song for what seemed like an eternity :
“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor, Lyon down to Rome. Tottenham get battered everywhere they go. Everywhere they go.”
There was talk of desired destinations in the Champions League. Luke thought we might well finish third in the group, but go all of the way to Gdansk and win back-to-back Europas. You read it here first.
PD and Parky were just happy to be knocking back some lagers. Aroha, Glenn and PD ordered roasts. The chat continued – but mainly the laughs continued.
Football was back.
And it felt bloody marvellous.
We then caught the tube up past Fulham Broadway to West Brompton and eventually met up with Daryl, Alan, Gary, Duncan, Lol – and a few others, unplanned, Ray and his daughter Gaby, Tom, Woody, some just nodding acquaintances – in The Old Oak, only the second time that I have ever visited it. Capacity was a big issue though, and it was a strict “one out, one in” policy. I sauntered over to where four of the lads were waiting to be allowed in, and I quipped “fackinell, if Tommy Murphy leaves, all four of you can enter.”
Daryl soon retorted –
“Done that joke five minutes ago, mate.”
What a giggle.
Inside the stadium, the minutes ticked away towards kick-off. Aroha and Luke had spent three hours of their Saturday morning along with a dozen other supporters arranging mosaics for The Shed’s supporters to create a chequered mosaic before kick-off, to be augmented by a huge “tifo” – banner – to honour the return of Frank Lampard to SW6. In truth, it was his fourth homecoming since his last game for us at Stamford Bridge in 2014.
January 2015 – in the colours of Manchester City, a ridiculous moment.
February 2017 – as a guest at half-time, suited and elegant, and able to receive absolute adoration.
October 2018 – as the manager of Derby County, but with banners to honour his Chelsea past.
Our team had been announced of course. There was a surprise, in my mind and many others’ – that Frank Lampard had chosen Olivier Giroud over Tammy Abraham, especially after all of the positive noise emanating from the manager, and elsewhere within the club, about how we need to back the striker after Tammy’s unfortunate penalty miss against Liverpool in Istanbul.
Azpilicueta – Christensen – Zouma – Emerson
Kante – Jorginho
Pedro – Mount – Pulisic
In the pub, we had discussed how to pronounce Christian’s name. I had presumed that it mirrored the pronunciation of Stanic, Matic, Ivanovic, Jokanovic and Kovcic.
Oh no. My good made JR from Michigan confirmed that the natives of the US were instead opting for “Pewl-a-sick.”
As long as nobody calls him “Pool-o’-sick.”
Stamford Bridge looked a picture as the teams entered the pitch. Way up on the orange brick of the hotel and apartment were two new additions; a square, slightly blurred, photo from The Shed circa 1982 – if I have to guess, Tottenham at home in the FA Cup – and I had to note that the photo hardly embraces the ethos of diversity that the club wants to foster inn 2019.
All of the faces were male, all apart from one was white.
There was also a photo of Kerry Dixon wining a header against Watford at home in 1984; another odd ‘photo.
Still, it sure beats “Thrilling Since 1905.”
There were flames to add – or detract – to our moment of seeing the team stride across the pitch. The mosaics were raised. The banner unfurled.
“Welcome Back Super Frank.”
Bizarrely, the additional spot lights under The Shed and under the Matthew Harding Upper were on, despite it being an August afternoon.
Frank went smart casual with a fetching white tracky top and royal blue bottoms. He looked ten times the part compared to Sarri, the paraffin.
We were wearing the shirt of a thousand roof supports while Leicester City – and a fair few of their fans – were wearing a light pink shirt, and it looked alright but nothing more.
The game began.
And how. We were on fire. Not the chess-like moves of the previous regime. But high-tempo action, with the crowd involved and loving it. We were all so pleased to see Kurt Zouma looking far more relaxed in his first few touches than at Old Trafford. And we applauded those touches. As we should. It was a very energetic start indeed. Very early on, Pedro slammed a shot just wide of The Shed End goal, with many in the crowd thinking that a goal had been scored. There was a shot from the lively Mason Mount, whose inclusion had surprised me too.
On six minutes, Casper Schmeichel gently rolled the ball out to Wilfred Ndidi, but the central defender dillied and dallied, dallied and dillied, lost his way and didn’t know where to roam. Mount pounced and robbed the defender before steadying himself before a potential stumble and prodded the ball past the luckless ‘keeper.
Suffice to say, Stamford Bridge roared.
The players raced over to Parkyville.
Alan looked at me.
“They’ll have to come at us naaar.”
“Come on my little diamonds.”
We laughed and Alan gave me a lovely hug.
“It’s fucking great to be back, innit?”
“It fucking is mate.”
A lovely moment.
“Hopefully no VAR.”
We all just hoped and prayed that we were in for a VAR-less afternoon.
Because we all fucking hate it.
On ten minutes, not nine as planned, a sizeable section of the crowd sang in praise of Tammy Abraham.
Good work everyone.
We played some lovely stuff in the first twenty minutes, with everyone on song. The noise was good, if not constantly thunderous, and there was a lovely vibe. Our next real chance again fell to the youngster Mount, but his snap header was straight at Schmeichel. A yard either side and we might have been two to the good. A shot from Kante was blocked close in.
Watching Kante is a joy.
I shared my thoughts with Alan.
“I don’t want to talk in clichés about black athletes, but Kante looks so graceful, his limbs are so loose, he has such perfect balance. He glides over the surface of the pitch.”
Until midway through the half, we had oozed confidence, and our play was warmly appreciated. At that point, Pedro – energetic as ever – and Pulisic – neat and tricky – swapped wings.
There is a joke there, surely, about a Christian right winger from the United States, but I am buggered if I can think of one.
Leicester, on the other hand, had been rank, just voyeurs of this wonderful blue movie. They had hardly touched the ball. Our relentless pressure on them once they had the ball was impressive.
Please note that I am trying to avoid, like the plague, the word “press” – the buzzword of the moment – in these reports. I will try to find alternatives. Oh, and “block” too.
Leicester slowly awoke from their stupor, though. They began moving the ball and threatened with one or two rare attacks. Jamie Vardy is always a threat. I certainly felt that we needed the all-important second goal. But as Leicester improved, we seemed to stall. It looked like we needed a second wind.
However, at the break, the home fans were pretty contented. Claude Makelele was briefly introduced to us all as he stepped on to the pitch. There were a few words. Bless him.
The away team began the second half by far the livelier, and I waited for them to fade. But to be fair to them, they never did. With Vardy always pushing into space, James Maddison began to shine in the inside-left channel. He really impressed me as the second period developed. On one occasion, he rounded an unsure Kepa, but was unable to finish. The warning signs had certainly been sounded and the warning shots were not far behind.
A rare Giroud header at the Matthew Harding did not trouble Schmeichel. Leicester kept attacking us.
For Fox’ sake.
An effort from Hamza Choudray was saved by Kepa, a Maddison effort was swept across the face of the goal.
I held my head in my hands.
On the hour, Tammy replaced Giroud and he was warmly applauded as he took to the field. We all urged him on at every opportunity and, as we tend to do with our youngsters, overly-applauded his every touch.
Positive discrimination? I guess so.
On sixty-six minutes, though, that man Maddison looped a fine corner into the danger area and Ndidi rose to head the ball, way too easily, into the goal.
Did he celebrate?
The away team were emboldened now, absolutely bursting with confidence, with the two danger men Vardy and Maddison spurning golden chances.
“They’re ripping us to shreds, here.”
With twenty minutes to go, Willian replaced the fitful Pulisic and Kovacic replaced Jorginho. Our play didn’t really get the jolt that we were hoping for. We stumbled and bumbled along. Our play had certainly dropped off from the first quarter of the game. Was this due to the extended play in Istanbul? Almost certainly. Leicester still kept raiding away.
“I’ll take a draw now.”
Willian was particularly disappointing in his twenty minutes on the pitch. Wearing the vaunted number ten shirt might may well be hazardous for him if our expectations continue to be dashed. A terrible corner here, a misplaced pass there.
Must do better.
If only we could meld together the positive attributes of Pedro and Willian (oh, I await the negative comments).
Tammy toiled away, but his only run into the channels was when he forlornly chased a back-pass. He tried, but had no service. One loose shot was blazed ridiculously high.
“How many minutes’ extra time?”
“Hopefully not many. Blow up ref!”
In the last heart-in-stomach moment, Kepa raced out to, just, clear before Vardy could pounce. It summed up the day.
We were grimly hanging on.
There were, dear reader, a few boos at full-time.
No fucking words.
On the walk out of the stadium, across the forecourt, I spoke briefly with Mark, a fellow-dweller of The Sleepy Hollow.
“I bet loads of people, fans, are giving Frank grief right this very minute. But we’re not experts. We need to get off his back, we need to give him time, we need to let him breath.”
It had been an odd game. We began like a shooting star, but one which soon fizzled out. Leicester City had been well worth the point. In truth, they could’ve won it.
It seemed quite apt that Chelsea Football Club should end its domestic travels in 2018/19 in a city in the East Midlands which is situated on the River Soar, with a population of 330,000, which hosts cricket, rugby and football teams and is home to the world’s largest crisp factory. Where else could we end up? Our visits to away cities throughout the league campaign, chronologically listed, mirrored the words of a certain song.
“We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea: Huddersfield, Newcastle, London, Southampton, Burnley, London, Wolverhampton, Brighton, Watford, London, London, Bournemouth, Manchester, London, Liverpool, Cardiff, Liverpool, Manchester and Leicester.”
This season, although certainly not the most-loved, has zipped past at a ridiculous rate of knots. Our first game in the sun of West Yorkshire seemed only recent and it seemed implausible that this one was the final game of the season. But game thirty-eight it was. With qualification to next season’s Champions League assured, the game at Leicester City took on a much more relaxed air than we had expected. I collected PD at just after eight o’clock and LP at just after eight-thirty. It was a stunning Sunday morning; not a hint of a cloud, the sun out, and a fine chilled-out air of relaxed anticipation. After travels north, east, south and west, the league fixture list had saved me – possibly – the best to last.
A three-hour drive along the Fosse Way, the old Roman road – straight as a die, from Exeter to Lincoln – is always a treat for me. It didn’t let me down. I thoroughly enjoyed the undulating road as we swept past quintessentially English place names on our way through the Cotswolds.
We had breakfasted at Melksham. We stopped for a drink in “The Star” at Moreton-in-Marsh. After heading off the Fosse, and after skirting the lost football city of Coventry, through Warwickshire and into Leicestershire, we stopped at another pub “The Hinckley Night” on the outskirts of the town with the same name.
It was quite apt that I had chosen the Fosse Way as our route. Way back in the mists of time, Leicester City were first known as Leicester Fosse.
At about 2pm, after our breaks for sustenance – we watched a little of the Old Firm game at the second pub – I was parked-up. There were clouds in the sky, and we all decided to take jackets “just in case.” Leicester City’s stadium is a mile to the north of the Leicestershire cricket ground and half a mile to the south of Leicester Tigers rugby stadium. While PD and LP popped inside for a top-up, I circumnavigated the stadium, which lies just a couple of hundred yards to the south of their old Filbert Street ground. This old stadium was ridiculously lop-sided with two large stands on adjacent sides and two minuscule ones opposite.
I took in the pre-match atmosphere. This was only my fifth visit to the new place. I was on holiday in the US at the time of our first visit in the FA Cup campaign of 2003/4 and I have missed the two recent cup fixtures too. It’s a relatively neat, yet overwhelmingly bland stadium, with no real distinguishing features. “King Power” is everywhere. On the rear of the north stand is a large image of their former chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who so sadly perished in the helicopter crash at the stadium last October.
I took the usual smattering of photographs. Their new shirt – laced with gold Adidas stripes rather than white – looked neat and tidy.
Inside the stadium, and into the concourse, I soon spotted a few mates.
A standard greeting was “going to Baku?”
I gulped down a soft-drink – no alcohol at all for me on this day – and met up with Alan and Gary in the seats. Bringing a jacket, I soon realised, was being over-cautious. The sun was relentless. I wasn’t the only person who had over-dressed. My jacket was placed on my seat.
The teams soon appeared.
A hand-written banner was held up in the away end:
EDEN HAZARD BLEEDS BLUE.
CHELSEA IS YOUR HOME.
We were in all yellow, and it brought back memories of our huge 3-1 win in 2014/15 when the Fabregas song stole the show. I remembered, too, how the Morata song was a strong memory of last season’s league game. With what has happened since – another song, another place – it is actually hard to believe that fans were singing the “y” word so forcefully and loudly only twenty months ago. Leicester City had reverted to an old-style blue / white / blue. It did look like a neat kit.
Zappacosta – Azpilicueta – Luiz – Alonso
Loftus-Cheek – Barkley
Pedro – Higuain – Willian
I had a look around at those in the away end. For some reason, there seemed to be a disproportionately high number of old replica shirts on show; many more than usual. I even spotted a Chelsea Collection number from 1986/87. I only saw two of the 2019/20 shirts.
Our game began.
And so did all the others.
Three games stole the show; Brighton vs. Manchester City, Liverpool vs. Wolves and Tottenham vs. Everton.
Ross Barkley went close within the first few minutes, after a good ball from Jorginho, but his shot hit Schmeichel. It was a chance that promised good things, but was a false dawn. The home fans to my left – I was only a matter of a few feet from them, were noisy as hell in that first part of the game. They sang of their former owner.
“Vichai had a dream.
To build our football team.
He came from Thailand and now he’s one of our own.
We play from the back.
We counter attack.
“Champions of England.”
You made us sing that.”
Indeed, they do counter-attack. And we smother the ball and pass to ourselves to oblivion. It was a massive difference in style between the two teams. Leicester broke at pace with Jamie Vardy and Youri Tielemans looking useful. We passed the ball here there and everywhere, but did not create too much.
Liverpool went, unsurprisingly, a goal up at Anfield.
Then, a score flash which made us groan.
Brighton had taken the lead at home to City. Then, just as I was passing on the news to a few close friends, a noticeable cheer in the Chelsea end. My spirits were raised.
City had equalised.
On the pitch, there was lots of square passes, with little quality penetration. The banter in the stands was proving to be more entertaining. The Leicester fans alongside us had sung about Eden Hazard leaving for Madrid.
We retorted “He’s won more than you.”
There were schoolyard taunts from them. Then came the killer blow, loud and with venom :
“Eden Hazard. He won it for you.”
Fair play, the Leicester lot clapped that. I winked at a few of them, a “thumbs up” here and there.
In the other game of interest, Tottenham had scored a very early goal against Everton. We needed to match that to finish above them. But we had to rely on the out-of-sorts Gonzalo Higuain. He slammed one shot wide of the post on the half-hour mark.
“COME ON CHELSEA.”
A Vardy header from a free-kick forced a save from Willy Caballero.
The bloke behind me then cheered me : “City have got a second.”
In the closing moments of the first-period, a slip from David Luiz allowed Vardy to race on but his ball through to Tielemans was overhit and the chance went begging.
Then, right before the whistle, Higuain missed from only a few yards out, his brain doing the waltz, his feet doing the samba.
Leicester City 0 Chelsea 0
Brighton 1 Manchester City 2
Liverpool 1 Wolves 0
Tottenham 1 Everton 0
Things were going our way in the title hunt, but not our way in our more local battle with Tottenham.
At the break, I bumped into Alex and Reece.
“Would you keep Sarri, Chris?”
Oh God. Me on the spot. Yes, I would.
“I have never warmed to the bloke. He is so one-dimensional. But has he got his own players to play his system? Not yet. I am full of doubt, but give him a full pre-season, give him time. We have the chance to finish top three. We have reached two cup finals. We would have taken that in August. In February we would have for sure.”
The lads were in agreement, with reservations.
“What do we know, we’re not experts.”
But – oh – the football has been so poor at times this season. It has proven one thing; Chelsea supporters want to be entertained. It is in our DNA.
The best I have known…
The second-half began and my forehead was starting to burn up. Parky arrived back from the bar.
“You haven’t missed anything, mate.”
If the first-half was tepid, the second-half was turgid. Chances – real gilt-edged chances – were so rare. A Leicester volley did not hit the target. Barkley shot wide.
Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass – but without the movement from the players to allow the passes to hurt the tight Leicester defence. Elsewhere, goals were being scored. Manchester City went 3-1 up and eventually 4-1 up, and Liverpool scored a second. The title was City’s.
I hummed “Blue Moon” to myself.
The away end was loving it. We were loving it even more when Everton equalised. And then – to a chorus of “it’s happened again” – we heard that Everton had gone 2-1 up. This was turning into a fantastic afternoon despite the poor game taking place before my very eyes. The noise from the home fans had long since subsided.
There had been, on sixty minutes – and while a player was getting treatment – a minute of appreciation, with white scarves being held aloft by the Leicester supporters in memory of their former chairman. Many Chelsea fans joined in. Good stuff.
Eden Hazard replaced Willian.
His last game in England? Almost certainly.
Mateo Kovacic replaced Barkley.
Olivier Giroud replaced the lackluster and lazy Higuain.
Tottenham scored a second.
Our game petered out.
A Chelsea draw and a Tottenham draw.
“As you were.”
I did not wait around too long to make a move. I saw a few players walking over. There were several – eight? ten? – fans with cardboard signs asking for shirts. There were a few adults among them. One sign was eight-foot long.
I hate modern football.
Outside, I shook hands with many.
“Have a good summer.”
“See you in Baku.”
I don’t think we will sell remotely close to our allotted 5,800 in Azerbaijan. But at least I was cheered to speak to a few that were going. I just have this dread of Arsenal heavily outnumbering us. Of my closest one-hundred Chelsea mates, maybe only fifteen are going. It is a sign of the absurdity of UEFA choosing such a host city. But that is a story for another day.
Outside, I chatted briefly to Long Tall Pete and Liz. We all loved the fact that both Chelsea and Tottenham drew. It was pure comedy gold. All that Tottenham had to do, with hindsight, was to win a home game against Everton and the twats would have finished above us. To think that they were being touted as possible title contenders at Christmas…
Third in a two-horse race in 2015/16.
Fourth in a three-horse race in 2018/19.
“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”
Back in the car, it was time to drive south, and complete this story of our 2018/19 league campaign. Huge respect to PD for attending all thirty-eight games, I think for the second time in three seasons. I ended up missing two, the back-to-back games at Wolves and at home to City.
It has been, as the saying goes, emotional. But it has also been excruciating at times. There have only been rare games where I have been genuinely entertained. It has been a grueling slog. I have watched as supporters splinter into pro-Sarri and anti-Sarri factions. I have struggled with it all. I have struggled with this new type of football. I have become bored reading the never-ending appraisals of how – I hate this word, I rarely use it – “Sarribal” is meant to work.
I have lost count of the many deeply earnest and wordy explanations of “Sarribal” on social media that I have studied over the past year. All of a sudden “regista” is a buzz word. After virtually all of these appraisals, I have been so tempted to write “I bet you are fun at parties.” I see a worrying new sub-section of Chelsea followers who are not died-in-the-wool supporters in the most basic sense of the word, but critics and self-appointed “experts.”
Football, to me, is about passion, involvement, support, belligerence, suffering, humour, laughs, beers, a shared kin-ship, a devotion to the cause. And maybe some trophies thrown in for good measure.
OK, rant over, as the kids say.
We stopped at the pub in Hinckley for some nosebag. I continued enjoying the drive home, the spring colours fading as the sun dipped.
Cirencester, Malmesbury, Chippenham, Melksham, Bradford-on-Avon, Frome…home. Just in time to tune in to the highlights on “MOTD2.” Old habits die hard.
I will see some of you next season.
I will see some of you in Baku.
The Star, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire & The Hinckley Knight, Hinckley, Leicestershire.
Good heavens, a Saturday three o’clock kick-off. What were they thinking?
I was on driving duties again, and our route to London took a different route for a change. Lord Parky had stayed at PD Towers in Frome Friday night as they had seen the Neville Staple Band in town. I collected them at 8am. Glenn had been out on Friday evening too, on his Christmas works “do”, and he joined us a few minutes later. My Friday evening had been spent typing up my second match report in twenty-four hours (easily the least number of views of the whole year; perhaps posting it on a Friday night before Christmas was not the best idea, but thanks to those who took time to click and read).
On this Saturday, my route took me east via the A36, then up and over the Salisbury Plain, onto the A303 and then in to London via the M3 and the A316, a journey of 108 miles. At Stonehenge, the car park was full of visitors who had witnessed the Winter Solstice. As we drove past the famous World Heritage site, we spotted thousands standing in and around the sarsen stones, the most people that I have ever seen at the monument. We stopped at Fleet Services for a bite to eat, and it wasn’t long before I was heading past the three rugby stadia of Twickenham, the home of the England team, then The Stoop, home of the Harlequins, and then the home stadium of Richmond at Old Dear Park, which also hosts London Welsh. London’s rugby clubs have moved around ad infinitum in recent years. London Irish currently play at Reading Football Club but are due to move in to Brentford’s new stadium underneath the M4 in 2020. Saracens, based in the north, now play in Barnet but have played previously at Watford’s Vicarage Road. London Wasps, originally based in south-west London, moved to Loftus Road in the ‘nineties and then to Adams Park, in leafy Buckinghamshire. In 2014, they moved – bizarrely and ridiculously – to the midlands city of Coventry where they play at the same stadium as the city’s football club. What the supporters of Coventry Rugby Club think of this imposition is not known, but they can’t be happy. Wasps’ exodus to Coventry makes Wimbledon’s move to Milton Keynes look almost acceptable.
I dropped the boys off at “The Famous Three Kings” and I drove on and was parked-up at about 11am on Normand Road, not far from where a blue plaque marks a former home of the 1976 Formula One Champion James Hunt. I dropped in to “The Curtain’s Up” for a coffee, and asked the Albanian barman if the pub gets used by Chelsea fans for games. He replied “yes, for big games” but I suspect he meant it gets filled by people watching on the bar’s TVs since every game at Chelsea is a big game. We always play to 41,000 full houses these days. My walk continued and I spotted two further blue plaques; one for Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, aircraft designer, and one for Mahatma Gandhi.
Boys from Essex, Kent and Gloucestershire were also in “The Famous Three Kings”, joining us four boys from Somerset and Wiltshire. I was still feeling tired and ordered some “Cokes.” We chatted about Budapest and the current state of the team. After a while of sitting and chatting, I still felt drowsy, and could easily have curled up in a corner of the pub and had a quick power nap. Glenn, still slightly delicate from the alcohol of the previous night, was feeling tired. And so too were PD and Parky, tired from the previous night too. I admitted to the lads that I have been “sleep deficient” from Budapest. The midweek flit to London for the League Cup quarter-final clearly did not help. On the horizon, I am not honestly looking forward to the upcoming midweek trips to London for the Southampton and two Tottenham games.
Is the magic starting to fade?
Stay tuned for further updates.
We caught the tube down to Fulham Broadway. The weather was relatively mild. Touts were out in force. One bastard was brazen enough to tout just inches from a policeman.
We were treated to more fireworks and flames bollocks.
What a load of cock.
The team lined up as below :
The exact same team as against Manchester City and Brighton. Another full house. Another three thousand away supporters. Blue skies overhead.
We could not believe that the referee had allowed the Leicester City to wear their dowdy grey away kit, which – to our eyes, anyway – clashed with our home kit. Over in the away corner, many fans were wearing grey and orange Santa hats, free-gifts no doubt, which mirrored our club giving the away fans at Goodison Park similar attire a year ago. I rolled my eyes at every Chelsea fan I saw – there were not many, thank fuck – who were wearing Chelsea Christmas jumpers, and whom I immediately wanted to garrote. Down in the Matthew Harding Lower, there was even a lone Chelsea supporter wearing a red and white Santa hat.
Answers on a postcard…
The game began but there was not a lot of noise in the stadium. The away fans were not particularly loud, but they were making most of the racket. Their voices seemed shriller, higher, than usual. Maybe their Baby Squad were all grown up now, but were still waiting for their balls to drop. There was one song about being Champions of England that I could not get to the bottom off. That East Midlands vernacular needed subtitles.
We began with a large proportion of the possession, and dominated the early exchanges.
But it was David Luiz who first caught the eyes with a couple of timely interceptions to thwart the away team. There had only been one potentially hurtful incision into our box, but the chance came and went.
Our first real goal scoring chance came from a Willian corner which was flicked-on at the near post by Pedro of all people, and as the ball dropped at the far post, it just evaded the ungainly leap of Luiz. In the next few moments, Luiz turned provider with a couple of excellent passes through the packed ranks of the Confederate greys of the Leicester lines to the Union blue of Chelsea. But there still seemed a tendency to overpass, or perhaps underpass, in so much that passes to danger areas were missing. This variant of football was still struggling to win everyone over. There was the usual “to me to you” passing from Jorginho. I have a feeling he regards the ball as a triggered hand grenade.
Inwardly I was urging him to take an extra touch and make a killer pass.
I noted that there were often men over, in space, on our right but were often ignored.
A shot from Dave flew over the bar.
At the half-hour mark, I commented to Glenn “maybe football is careering away at such a fast pace, that I am starting to lose my understanding of it, but I just can’t see what Jorginho gives to this team.”
Lo and behold, in time-honoured fashion, Jorginho sent through a brilliant through-ball.
The lads sniggered.
But we upped our game at this stage and the crowd definitely responded.
“CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”
Eden – who had been rather quiet until then – pounced on a Leicester City mistake inside the box, turned and slammed a fierce shot against the bar. His one hundredth goal in Chelsea blue would have to wait a little longer. Then, the action swapped to the Matthew Harding end, and there was a brilliant strike from Wilfred Ndidi which drew an equally brilliant save, at full stretch, from Kepa. The Stamford Bridge warmly applauded some excellent football.
A rare shot from Jorginho, a thunderous volley, which Schmeichel palmed clear brought the half to a close.
Chelsea had been well on top.
Before the game, I had predicted a dour game that we would squeak 1-0.
Five minutes into the second period, everything went against us.
An incisive move right through our middle cut us to ribbons. Pereira broke through and released Maddison, who easily spotted the movement of Vardy inside the box. His first time shot whipped past Kepa at the near post.
“Why can’t we do that?” I gasped to Glenn.
There was that 1-0 score line that I had predicted but it was to Leicester, whose fans celebrated wildly. Immediately after, the home support was roused to get behind the team, but the noise levels never reached those levels again during the entire match. The visitors threatened again with Kepa scrambling away a cross with Vardy unable to pounce on the scraps. A rapid move down our left resulted in a fearsome shot from an angle from Eden which Schmeichel did well to save at his near post with one hand.
But as we attempted to retaliate, I wondered where our shape had gone. Hazard often dropped deep – way deep – to collect the ball. This was a deeply false nine.
Five minutes after the Leicester goal, Sarri made a double-substitution. Loftus-Cheek replaced Kovacic and Giroud replaced Willian with Giroud moving into the middle and with Hazard pushed wide. But we still looked ill at ease. All eyes were on Hazard – at times it seemed like he was our only hope – who became a little self-indulgent.
To my amazement, Sarri took off his man Jorginho and replaced him with Cesc Fabregas. Giroud was only marginally involved. Loftus-Cheek did not ever really get involved. At the other end Marc Albrighton shot from distance and Kepa did well to keep the ball out with a low drop to his right.
Amazingly, we heard that Manchester City were losing at home to Crystal Palace. Usually, this would have been met with glee, but with Liverpool ahead by four points after their predictable win at Molyneux the night before, this was grim news. We aren’t going to win the league. Anyone but Liverpool or, marginally worse, Tottenham.
A corner from Pedro down below me was floated right into the danger area. Toni Rudiger rose, but Schmeichel managed to put him off with an outstretched arm and his header, admittedly after a prodigious leap, sailed flew wide. There was more agony to follow. A lovely ball from Fabregas was miss-controlled by Giroud.
Then, with the time running out, Kante found the advanced run of Marcos Alonso. The whole stadium held our breath. He steadied himself, but his left-footed shot, seemingly well-placed, hit the left post and rebounded out and across the goal mouth. There was nobody there to tap in the rebound.
It was not to be.
Chelsea 0 Leicester City 1.
Our immediate post-mortem was easy.
This was not a horrific display, but we were well below our best. We just needed a cutting edge. And we looked tired. Not physically tired, but tired of trying new things, tired of taking chances, tired of the challenge. On another day, with a proper striker, we would probably have won the game easily. I am quite certain that the manager is quite a long way away from where he wants his team to be, and – if he has time, that priceless commodity – his two-year or three-year plan might well come to fruition. But this is going to be a long, slow journey. There seems to be a certain dislike of this new style of football among many in our ranks. I know that I am not wholly convinced, although I am truly no expert.
On Boxing Day evening, we reconvene at Vicarage Road.
Last Saturday at Norwich, I bumped into a chap who I had not seen at a Chelsea game for years and years. Dave, originally from St. Albans, used to sit alongside a few of us on The Benches in the West Stand at Stamford Bridge in the mid-‘eighties. I was thrilled to see him again, and even more thrilled to hear that he was planning to meet up with two other lads from that era – Simon, who I see occasionally at Chelsea, and Rich, who I have not seen for three decades – at the Leicester City home game. As the Chuckle Brothers made our way to London, my mind was full of thoughts about this most brilliant of reunions. And it got me wondering about the absurdities of fate.
As I recalled the circumstances that led to us all getting to know each other, it just seemed that some things were just meant to be.
Rewind to the evening of Saturday 10 March 1984.
Glenn and I were on our way back to King’s Cross on the Chelsea Special after an action packed day watching The Great Unpredictables at Newcastle United’s St. James’ Park. Glenn shot off to the buffet, leaving me to read the creased match programme one more time. Coming out of Newcastle, the train had been bricked by some far-from-friendly locals and a window in our compartment had been shattered, leaving a young lad wearing glasses with bloodied cuts to the head. It was a rude awakening to the pitfalls of travelling by train in support of Chelsea. A few others, more experienced, more seasoned, had put the blinds down as soon as we had left Newcastle, just in case this very thing happened, to try to stop the glass flying everywhere. I probably tried to catch some sleep – we had been awake since 4am – but the compartment was so cold that sleep was probably out of the question. After an hour or so – “blimey, what has happened to Glenn?” – my travel companion returned.
“Just been talking to some lads from Brighton. A good laugh.”
I thought no more of it.
Fast forward to the afternoon of Saturday 31 March 1984.
In the days before we had spare money to pop into the pubs around Stamford Bridge on match days, Glenn and I were in early for our game against Fulham. We had watched our first two games together against Newcastle United in November and Manchester City in December on The Shed, but our next couple of matches – Portsmouth, Sheffield Wednesday – had been in the trendier and more enjoyable benches which used to run alongside the old dog track in front of the West Stand. It was where I had seen my very first game at Chelsea ten years’ earlier. But where there was a mixture of middle-aged supporters in suits and ties, young schoolkids, and pensioners mixed in with the teenagers in 1974, in 1984 the benches were occupied by a very different beast. In the main, and certainly at the northern end of The Benches, as near to the hated away fans as it was possible to get, were legions of Chelsea supporters – 99% male and 99% aged sixteen to twenty-five – who were dressed to impress with the latest casual labels of the day.
You would pay your general admission money to get in The Shed – £3? I forget – and then show your membership card at the back of the Shed terrace to a club official and then pay an extra quid at those peculiar turnstiles (a unique feature really, a turnstile inside a stadium) at the bottom of those steps between The Shed and the West Stand. And then you were in, walking the catwalk of that wide walkway at the back of the enclosure, watching the peacocks strut their stuff, and sing their songs.
This was all relatively new to the two of us from Frome.
1983/1984 was a season of enlightenment for the two of us and there has not been a season like it before or after.
The wedge haircut, blonde highlights, Lacoste polo shirts, Sergio Tacchini tracksuit tops, Fila roll-necks, Adidas rain jackets, Patrick cagoules, complete Kappa tracksuits, Lyle and Scott pullovers, Pringle pullovers, Gabicci cardigans, light blue Levi jeans, Lois jumbo cords with side splits, Nike Wimbledons, Diadora Borg Elites, Puma Guillermo Vilas, Kickers, swagger, swagger and more swagger.
The two of us were overdosing on football and fashion and we could not get enough of it.
On that day against Fulham, we had nabbed the very back row of the benches; always a highly-desirable spot. We were on the halfway-line. Prime seats. No tickets in those days; first-come first-served. Lo and behold, who should arrive a little later and be sitting right in front of us than the two lads “from Brighton” who Glenn had met on the way home from Newcastle. In fact, only one was from Brighton; Paul – aka Stamford in lieu of his mane of blonde hair – while Alan was from Bromley, a proper Sarf Londoner. We struck up a little conversation. Glenn must have introduced me. It felt nice to meet some young lads who were as mad on Chelsea as us. Growing up in rural Somerset, it was a rarity to find another blue, let alone one who were as feverish about our club as Glenn and little old me.
The next game that Glenn and I attended at Stamford Bridge was the legendary promotion-decider against Leeds United. Again, we aimed for the back row of The Benches. The pre-match was a little different on this occasion, though, and rather historic too. We had popped into a pub called “The Cock” and I had supped my very first pint before a Chelsea game – a lager and lime if memory serves – and we had arrived a little later than planned. As I remember it, Alan and Paul made us some space on the back row, and I am sure that we also met a few other lads that day too.
Leggo from Bedford, Mark from Sunbury-on-Thames, and the trio of lads from the St. Albans area, Simon, Dave and Rich.
Chelsea won 5-0 and promotion was secured.
They were the days of our lives.
Back in the top flight for the first time in five seasons, the next campaign was one of the best-ever too. Even though I was at college in Stoke, I managed to attend 16 out of 21 home league games. There was a smattering of away games; Arsenal, Sheffield Wednesday, Leicester City, Liverpool, Stoke City. I would save my pennies through the week, eating frugally, and live for my magical footballing Saturdays. Throughout the season, the little gang of us would always gather on the back row at the halfway-line. Often we would get in at 1.30pm when the gates opened. From memory, for the big games – Liverpool, United – the gates were open at 1pm. We would sit, read the programmes, soak up the pre-match atmosphere, laugh and joke about previous games, watch the players warm up, sing out their names, enjoy the camaraderie.
What a buzz.
I used to take my camera in those days too.
In the spring of 1985, on the day the club celebrated its ninetieth anniversary against Tottenham – all-ticket due to the risk of violence, but only 26,310 attended – I snapped away. In the first photo are Stamford, Alan and Dave, sporting the ski-hats which were all the rage that season. In the second one, in profile and with The Shed behind, are Alan, Dave, Rich, Mark and Leggo in his bloody awful ginger leather jacket. It is no surprise that Simon is not in either picture, since he always tended to be the last to arrive, and usually the worse for wear after several pints in the pub.
By then of course, after the riot against Sunderland in the Milk Cup semi-final, the wooden benches were no more. They were replaced by cold concrete slabs. In the picture below, also from the Spurs game in 1985, the full roll-call is as follows :
Gareth (another Bedford lad), Glenn, Stamford, Alan, Dave, Rich, Swan (one of our lot, from Radstock, an Ian Botham-lookalike), Mark with his back-turned and Leggo and Leggo’s jacket.
We would meet up again, with slightly dwindling numbers in 1985/1986, but by 1986/1987 the group had tended to disperse. The wooden benches were no more and the concrete slabs just didn’t cut it. On my visits to Stamford Bridge, I mixed it up a little; The Shed one week, The Benches the next. By the time of 1988/1989 Alan had moved over to a season ticket in the front row of the East Upper, and I only bumped into the others on rare occasions.
Fast forward to Saturday 13 January 2018.
I had dropped Glenn, Parky and PD off at “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, and drove off to park my car on Normand Road, just in front of Normand Mews where former F1 World Champion James Hunt used to live, as the small blue plaque commemorates. I was therefore late to the party when I strolled in at around 11.30am. But there they all were, The Benches from 1984/1985.
Rich, Simon, Glenn, Chris, Dave, Alan.
What a joy to see each other again. It would be the first time that we had all been together since, I reckon, around the autumn of 1985. We wasted little time in turning back the years. We spoke about the others. Swan moved up to Leeds, we think, and the last time I saw him was in Bath in around 1986. Gareth used to go, but has not been seen for two decades. Mark still goes home and away, I see him everywhere. Leggo has not been seen at Chelsea for fifteen years. Neither has his jacket. Stamford aka Paul aka Walnuts still goes, and will be at the Brighton vs. Chelsea match next week. As I said, I still see Simon at games, though for many years, his was a missing face. I remember how pleased I was to see him at Wolves in 2003 after not seeing him since the mid-‘eighties. I saw Dave for the first time in ages at the Luton Town semi at Wembley in 1994 and again at the Nou Camp in 2000, and he still goes, though our paths have not crossed. Rich goes, but not so often.
It was a miracle that we were all together again in 2018.
And we owed it all to Glenn going to the buffet on a Chelsea Special in 1984 and the lure of The Benches at Stamford Bridge.
The banter continued.
Alan : “When Dave saw Glenn he called him “Polly”.
“Polly” – I had quite forgotten this. Indeed. “Polly.” I scratched my head as to why this was.
Dave, Rich, Simon and Alan were soon locked in to a special memory from September 1983 when they drove up to Sheffield Wednesday in Rich’s Ford Cortina and played an impromptu game of football on the moors above Hillsborough.
Alan : “It was cowpats for goalposts.”
Photographs were shared from our mobile phones.
Simon : “Here’s a photo of Kerry and me at Aberystwyth in 1983.”
We remembered the fashions of the day.
Dave : “Rich, I am sure that we went to Highbury in 1984 wearing white tennis shorts.”
Glenn : “Remember those multi-coloured jackets made from suede and leather? We all had them.”
Chris : “Remember those two girls who sold programmes from that hut on the main forecourt and then walked behind the goal at The Shed End to The Benches every home game?”
We did. Of course we did. Ah, Sharon and Paula, where are you now?
I was reminded of the time in 2004 when Glenn and I posed for a couple of photographs outside The Goose with photos from The Benches which Alan had taken. The one of me with the black jacket is the one which appears with my piece on “Arsenal 1984” in Mark Worrall’s book from a few years back. In the photo that Glenn is holding, he is with Dave and Simon.
Chris : “Never mind Polly, we should have called you Shirley Temple with that Barnet.”
We chatted about the hold that Chelsea has on all of us. We updated each other with what we have been doing with ourselves in the past thirty-odd years. I have to be honest, it was the most wonderful pre-match for ages. The chat and the laughter bounced around the pub. It was bloody lovely.
With kick-off time approaching, we started to finish our drinks. We looked up and saw about forty of Leicester’s “lads” enter the pub, a strange mix of middle-aged henchmen and Stone Island patches, Adidas trainers, CP goggles, Aquascutum scarves, Ma.Strum jackets and glowering looks. I suspect that they were remnants of the Baby Squad, but we wasted no time in finding out. Rather than involve ourselves in conversations with them about the export/import imbalance, the threat of global warming, heightened political tension in the far east, the lack of funding for the arts by the current government and the futility of life itself, we decided to down our pints and head out.
With us were Kev and Rich, the Jam Tarts, down from Edinburgh for the day. It had been a proper gathering of the clans.
Inside Stamford Bridge, Leicester City were backed by a strong three-thousand. I recollected a game that I had attended – all on my lonesome, September 1982, hating sixth-form, trying and failing to get over my first girlfriend, not exactly enjoying life – between Chelsea and Leicester City. It was just a run-of-the-mill Second Division game, and yet over 14,000 like-minded souls had evaded the clutches of loved ones, made excuses, saved hard, traveled long distances, and bothered to attend. I remember looking over to the middle of The Shed and thinking :
“We’ve got something here. This huge stadium. A loyal support. If only we had a good team.”
Who would have thought that thirty-five years later, the two teams involved on that sunny afternoon in 1982 would be Champions of England for three consecutive seasons?
Antonio Conte had opted for a 3-5-2 although all four of us in The Chuckle Bus had wanted a more fluid 3-4-3.
Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger
Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso
Morata – Hazard
At ten to three, the musical countdown began.
“Blue Is The Colour.”
The teams, the flags, “COME ON CHELSEA.”
The game began with a shot that Victor Moses slashed wide from a Cesc Fabregas pass. But then the visitors got their arses into gear. Bloody hell, Leicester– dressed in all black, how original – were all over us. I have no idea why our defenders allowed so much space for the visiting attackers, but they could have been two-up after just eight minutes. Firstly, a cross from down below me from their left was played into Shinji Okazaki but his connection was poor. Then, twice in a minute, Jamie Vardy could have scored on both occasions. We were simply not at the races.
Next up, was a fantastic diving save from Courtois from Wilfred Ndidi. The crowd around me were already restless and barely ten minutes had passed. At least – I was hunting for any scrap of positivity that I could – the crowd seemed to be slightly more involved than of late.
To the tune of “Amazing Grace” – our name boomed from the Matthew Harding. However, amazing we certainly bloody weren’t.
Cesc broke into the box at the other end and drew a smart save from Kasper Schmeichel. But this was very much a “one-off” as the visitors tore us to shreds. On a cold afternoon in SW6, Glenn was huddled up close to PD and Alan, his hat over his ears. He acknowledged that a brilliant pre-match had taken its toll.
“I had an opinion before six pints of Guinness.”
We had to laugh at something. Down on the pitch, we were as lacklustre as it gets. Our tackling was off. Our passing was so slow. Eden was finding it hard to get an inch of space anywhere. I so wanted Tiemoue Bakayoko to have a solid game, and I went out of my way to encourage him. But, let’s not kid ourselves, he had another stinker. His intensity was off, and he gave virtually nothing to the side in that woeful first-half. He struggled to fit in. He seemed unsure of his role, as did I. I wondered if he will continue to exist as some sort of Corporal Sponge to the other more established stars in our team, pottering around like one of those members of McDonalds who are only trusted to wipe dirty surfaces and dispose of debris in the rubbish bins.
We seemed to be overmanned in central midfield, yet we were over-run too. How is that possible?
A great tackle from Cahill managed to repel the threat from the fleet-of-foot Mahrez, enjoying a fine game, and a trademark crunching block from the same player stopped Vardy.
The crowd tried to lift the players.
Gary Cahill was then replaced by Andreas Christensen, after the captain fell, clutching his leg. The youngster soon impressed. Alvaro Morata for once set himself free of his markers and caused Schmeichel to save at his near post. But our chances were rare. At the other end, there were countless breaks from the twin threats of Mahrez and Vardy, and Leicester continued to dominate. Marc Albrighton slammed one wide. Only in the final five minutes of the half did we look like getting back to our old form. When we did, the crowd were noticeably more involved. But it shouldn’t have to be like this, should it?
Back in the “F3K”, Glenn had spoken about our time on “The Benches.”
“We didn’t know too much about tactics or formations. We just showed up and sang until we were hoarse.”
If only supporters could support.
Not rocket science is it?
And although it is surely a myth that Stamford Bridge was a cauldron of noise three decades ago – it wasn’t because so much of the noise generated by our support simply drifted away into the London air, with the supporters so far away from the pitch – at least we bloody well tried. The Shed tried, The Benches tried, Gate 13 tried. We all tried. Once we were in the midst of it, the noise sounded deafening…it just didn’t travel too far.
The second-half began. There was no noticeable step up from us in terms of quality nor intensity. This was all very strange. After ten minutes of play, Leicester City had a penalty appeal turned down and I commented to Alan that instead of Thibaut releasing the ball early to Morata while many of the opposing players were still moaning at the referee, and the team in momentary disarray, our Belgian ‘keeper held on to the ball and allowed the visitors to regroup. For some reason, I heard Jose Mourinho’s voice yelling at Thibaut and not Antonio Conte, not sure why. Maybe it was a definite Mourinho trait for his teams to expose the slightest weakness in any opposing team.
That man Mahrez threatened again. We were lucky that his shot – deflected – ended up spinning wide.
At last, a change.
Hazard was replaced by Pedro. Fabregas was replaced by Willian. Neither had been special. In fact, they had both been poor.
So, we got our desired “3-4-3.”
I was reminded back to Manchester United in around 2005, when we were in our pomp, and it was perceived by many among United’s match-going support that Sir Alex Ferguson was evidently “losing” it with his dalliance of new formations. On many occasions, the United support used to bellow “4-4-2, 4-4-2, 4-4-2” at their manager when things were not going their way. It made me chuckle that plasterers from Prestwich, accountants from Ardwick, taxi drivers from Totnes, nurses from Norwich, electricians from Eccles and lorry drivers from Launceston suddenly knew more about the Manchester United players and their strengths and weaknesses than one of the most revered managers the game has ever seen. Still, in this day and age, the customer is king. It is the way of the world to boo. We are a nation of moaners. And I am not saying that there was no negativity in days gone by, but the vitriol today seems to have reached new, horrible levels. There was, surprisingly, hardly any boos though at halftime, but if the score remained the same, I wasn’t so sure of a familiar outcome on ninety minutes.
Immediately, Pedro on the left and Willian on the right helped to energise us. There was a lot more pressure to win the ball, and we hoped we could breach the Leicester defence.
Chris to Alan : “Bakayoko, thirty yard screamer.”
Unfortunately, the only screaming came after a couple of Bakayoko shots were woefully off target.
“WE ALL FOLLOW THE CHELSEA, OVER LAND AND SEA.”
I was so pleased to hear a reaction from the home support. Not deafening, but at least it was something. The Benches of 1984 would have been proud of us. Maybe.
We were then handed some help when Ben Chilwell was sent off for two yellows in quick succession. It seemed that we had tons of the ball now, but with only Vardy upfront, Leicester were packing their box with players. There was no space. But our crossing was poor. Moratra, the poor bleeder, had not had much quality service the entire match. We tried and tried. I saw effort, in the main, but not much more than that. Our movement off the ball was especially woeful. Morata was at times immobile. It was, perhaps, a miracle that our man Tiemoue stayed on the entire game, but the manager obviously wants to persevere with him. Shots from Kante and Willian did not really test the ‘keeper.
In the last few minutes, a Marcos Alonso free-kick flew over the wall, and dipped, but Schmeichel scrambled low to push the ball around the post. The game ended as it had begun, with a shot from Moses which was so wide of the goal as to almost warrant being called a defensive clearance.
At the final whistle, our third 0-0 in a row and the inevitable boos from a few.
Back in the car, there were of course the expected moans – and not much chuckling – as we went through our usual post game post mortem.
Within twenty minutes, all three passengers were dozing as I headed home on the M4.
It was another day that had been spoiled by the football – ah, that familiar refrain, as pertinent now as in 1984/1985 – and I knew that my phone, tablet and computer would be on fire throughout the evening with rants, moans and complaints. Those who know me well will not be surprised by my response to the bitching and moaning which was taking place across the globe, in cyberspace and in cider space alike. I’d try to be pragmatic. I’d try to keep an even keel. I’d try not to over-react. I’d acknowledge how little we really know about the mechanics of a football team. I’d respect how hard it must be for one manager to work for a trigger-happy owner and to continually try to inspire and cajole a squad of millionaires. After all, it can’t be easy to win the league every year.
Even in 1984/1985, back on The Benches, I always was the boring and sensible one.
With the international break behind us – I watched a total of around ten whole minutes from England’s two matches – we were thankfully back to proper football; football that means something, football that raises our spirits, football that brings us all together. An away game at Leicester City was in fact just what the doctor had ordered. From my home in the South-West of England, my route would take me right into the heart of England, mainly following the course of the old Roman road The Fosse Way, and through some achingly beautiful countryside. A perfect road trip lay ahead. It would, in fact, be our first domestic game outside London since the league championship clincher at West Brom last May. And it was an ideal game to get back into the swing of things; difficult but not insurmountable. However, the month of September would be a testing time for sure, with seven games lined-up, and it seemed that the football season was beginning to heat up.
Our visits to the King Power Stadium over the past few seasons have tended to be defining moments in each campaign. In 2014/15, a dominant performance and a 3-0 win set us up for the league clincher four days later. In 2015/16, a dismal evening of “betrayal” and a 1-2 defeat resulted in the sacking of Jose Mourinho the following day. In 2016/17, Antonio Conte declined the services of Diego Costa and with vultures gathering overhead, a potentially huge banana-skin was avoided as another 3-0 victory pushed us away from the pack and towards an eventual second title in three seasons.
Of course, that Leicester City were the surprise champions in that middle season, and that N’Golo Kante and now Danny Drinkwater, had since swapped the royal blue of Leicester for the royal blue of Chelsea added a certain extra piquancy to the game.
The Chuckle Brothers were buzzing for it.
Our journey had taken us from Somerset to Wiltshire to Gloucestershire to Warwickshire and to Leicestershire. We had set off with sunny skies overhead, but with warnings of scattered showers throughout the day. We stopped for a pint at a pub at Charlecote, just off the Fosse Way, and soon into our hour-long drive in to Leicester, the heavens opened. What a downpour. The surface water made driving difficult. Thankfully, the storm soon passed and although huge billowing clouds were gathering on the horizon, the remaining miles were covered with no further rain. As we parked up at our usual place on Shakespeare Street – William, not Craig – the sun was out and warming the air. Coats were worn, but rather reluctantly.
We were soon inside the away end.
“Time for a quick beer, Parky?”
We had chatted about the possible starting eleven on the journey, and the team that Antonio Conte chose contained few surprises.
Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger
Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso
Pedro – Morata – Fabregas
The Chelsea crowd, three-thousand strong in the corner, seemed full of voice as the minutes ticked down to kick-off.
An extended toot of the fox hunter’s horn sounded and the teams appeared. There was disdainful chatter about Everton’s “dirty grey” shirts a fortnight ago, but our “white” away colours hardly look pristine. The shirts and shorts were decidedly off-white. Only the socks looked crisp. It just looked odd.
Leicester City, in all blue these days, were on the back foot in the first few moments of the game. A forceful run from Bakayoko set up the prowling Morata, who steadied himself before curling a shot at Schmeichel. We looked impressive, and there was some good early pressure. A superb ball from Fabregas, playing a little deeper than his usual position – maybe it was a different formation that I had thought – released Morata but the ball did not drop favourably, allowing a smothering save from the Leicester City ‘keeper.
A new song – for me anyway, though I suspect others have been aware of its presence – swirled around the away section.
“Marcos. Marcos Alonso runs down the wing for me.”
I approved, and joined in.
Another new song then appeared from the ether.
“He came from Real Madrid. He hates the fuckin’ yids.”
My heart sank. It sank further as I looked around and spotted, sadly, hundreds joining in.
Suffice to say, I did not.
I whispered to Alan :
“Well, that will get a load of people nicked.”
That word is just not welcome at Chelsea games. Its presence shocked me to be honest. Over the past few seasons the Chelsea crowd has almost policed itself and kept that word to a minimal level. I remember back to around 2006 or 2007 when “The Bouncy” first appeared en masse at Chelsea. Originally a Rangers song, its first edition at Chelsea included the “Y” word. Over a couple of seasons, this was replaced and the set up was changed to “we’re gonna bounce in a minute.” It was an intelligent way of changing the focus. There is another famous Chelsea song that begins “We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea” but I always stop myself from singing the next line after “Barcelona, Real Madrid…”
I know some sing it. I choose not to. I just don’t fancy getting CCTV’d singing that word.
People can bleat as much as they like about Tottenham singing it. That is simply their choice, their concern, their problem. There is a strong argument about that club now using it in a positive light as a defence mechanism after decades of negativity from outside. There are easy parallels within the black community and the equally divisive “N” word. And I do feel slightly queasy about non-Jewish Spurs fans singing it. But my thoughts are that Chelsea fans should not even be thinking about using the “Y” word, especially with our sadly dubious record with racism over the decades, let alone be singing it.
As I looked around at our support joining in, giggling, I wondered if the camera might be turned on them. Beside the use of the “Y” word, it is a pretty dull song anyway. And it doesn’t really scan. There are too many syllables for a start; always a bugbear of mine. Chelsea fans from the US especially – bless’em – seem to have immense difficulty with this. They seem to love shoe-horning too many syllables into any standard song.
Alan quickly came up with an alternative.
“He came from Real Madrid. I’m glad he fucking did.”
I offered an alternative.
“We bought him from Madrid. For sixty million quid.”
It scanned. The right number of syllables. It rhymed. No offensive racial slur.
It’ll never catch on.
The game continued with Chelsea dominating possession. Kante – who was warmly applauded by the home fans before the game when his name was announced – patrolled the middle of the pitch, with Bakayoko providing a fine foil alongside. We pinged the ball around nicely. Morata looked at ease, with a lovely first touch. He brought others into the game well and it was a pleasure to see. Alonso offered great width down the left. Indeed, as the game progressed it honestly seemed that we had an extra man on the pitch, which is always a good sign. Rudiger again impressed, as if he has been playing for Chelsea for years, not weeks.
A Luiz free-kick produced an easy save for Schmeichel. Our attacks continued. The Leicester defence was being continually stretched.
Leicester are always a threat on the break though. The once impressive Mahrez – I am surprised that he is still playing for them – played in Jamie Vardy. His rapid shot thankfully screamed past the far post. If memory serves, he scored from a similar position in 2014. Another chance fell to the home side but thankfully Thibaut Courtois parried the shot from Islam Slimani.
With half-time beckoning, an intense rain shower forced some to don jackets, though some headed inside for cover. Under my hood, I watched as a fantastic cross from Cesar Azpilcueta picked out Alvaro Morata. The cross was right on the money. Morata leaped and seemed to hang in the air. He headed it past Schmeichel.
It was a suitable reward for those who had stayed in the stands.
Thankfully, the rain subsided as the second-half began. After five minutes, a Chelsea move developed but my attention was on Morata, twisting and turning and trying to get away from his hefty marker Maguire. Out of nowhere, a shot flew past Morata and Maguire and miraculously crept in at the far post, past a late dive from the ‘keeper. I had not seen who had struck it, so imagine my surprise when I looked over to see players running towards that man Kante, who – typically – was not celebrating at all. Kudos to him for that.
With Chelsea winning 2-0, the pressure seemed to be off, and our third win on the bounce was on the cards.
On the hour, my attention was again diverted. Over on the far side, new signing Danny Drinkwater was warming up on the touchline, and as far as I could see he was getting a pretty good reception from his former fans. I had predicted, perhaps, a slightly more acerbic reception. A roar then went up from the home stands, and I saw the referee pointing to the spot. Vardy slammed it past Thibaut.
Leicester City 1 Chelsea 2.
The game changed.
We had to hold on to our lead for around half-an-hour.
Pedro, one of our quietest players, was replaced by Willian.
Antonio Conte then replaced Moses with debutante Davide Zappacosta.
I whispered to Alan : “It’s always good to have a Frank in the team.”
The changes disrupted our play a little, and Leicester enjoyed more of the ball. For a while, we were on the receiving end of a little pressure and the mood grew tense in the away end, or at least in my row. We did not help ourselves. A lot of our play seemed sloppy and our choices of pass seemed to be off-kilter.
A big cheer greeted the sight of Eden Hazard replacing Cesc Fabregas. He immediately lifted us. Just to see him caress the ball, and look up, assessing options, was enough to warm us. He began on the left but then appeared down in front of us on the right. For a while, it was all of the play was nicely in front of us. Zappacosta was involved, but looked a little nervous. He seemed to take forever to settle himself for a shot but the ball was drilled wide.
Leicester had rung the changes at the start of the half with King and Gray coming on and Craig Shakespeare then introduced the former City striker Iheanacho with fifteen to go. They kept pushing for a goal. I was convinced that we would let in an equaliser. But we were still pushing ourselves. I had a brief thought that a Mourinho team of around 2005 would be just moving the ball around the back four for minutes on end. There was an appeal for handball by Maguire from a Morata header. Willian curled one just past the post. There was another save from the same player as the game reached its conclusion.
There was an element of relief at the final whistle. Phew.
It had been a workmanlike performance, peeking in the first-half, but it was one which confirmed the aberration of the first forty-five minutes of the season. This is a fine team, and we will surely enjoy a fine season. The players – all of them, well done – came over to thank us for our support. I predictably focused on the manager. There was the usual applause for us, but with a straight face, quite solemn. He knew we had eked out a good win, but there was still room for improvement.
A good day at the office? Oh yes.
But the month of September has only just begun and we have a heavy schedule.
On Tuesday evening, Champions League football thankfully returns to SW6.