Tales From Eight Pubs And Two Clubs

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 30 September 2017.

On Wednesday evening, I was a football fan with split loyalties. While many of my friends were over in Madrid for the Champions League encounter, I was at a football game a lot closer to home. I had decided earlier in the week to avoid watching Atletico Madrid vs. Chelsea, either on a streaming site at home or in a local pub, and instead to embrace the non-league scene and attend my local team Frome Town’s game at home to Hereford. The visitors were arguably Frome’s biggest ever opponents in a regular league game and I know that I had been relishing the game for some time. Hereford had been flooding grounds for a while with away support in their hundreds, and I would have felt bad about missing Frome’s biggest home gate for ages. The Hereford club, a phoenix from the ashes of the now defunct Hereford United – who Chelsea played in the Second Division season of 1976/77 – had an average gate of some 2,500, a fine figure at the seventh tier of English football. For one night only, I would eschew Chelsea in favour of my local team. I would watch the Chelsea highlights on ITV after. After a little soul-searching, I was OK with my decision. It dawned on me that, in years to come, there will surely be a time when my trips to watch Chelsea might dwindle away – lack of finances, lack of mobility, the passing of time – and I will be found watching my local club more often than Chelsea. My first Frome Town game, after all, was in 1970, some four years before my first-ever Chelsea match. They say that everything goes in a full circle.

And then Wednesday evening arrived, and I felt as though I was letting Chelsea down. I had a change of plan. I decided that I would watch the Champions League game in the Frome Town clubhouse, hopefully see a fair proportion of the first-half and then saunter out, ideally with us winning, to catch some of the Hereford game.

I arrived just before kick-off and noted a bigger-than-average crowd. I paid my £10 and headed inside. However, the Chelsea game wasn’t being televised in the clubhouse and so my plan was blown asunder. I took my seat alongside three mates in the main stand and, unable to watch the CFC game on a streaming site on my phone, watched on as Frome conceded three first-half goals. A friend told me that Chelsea were losing 1-0.

“Oh great. This whole night is going well.”

The second-half at Frome was a mundane affair and I got the impression that both teams were saving themselves for FA Cup games, financially beneficial these days, and were happy for the status quo. The news came through that Alvaro Morata had equalised; a quick “yes” was uttered. I knew that thousands would be celebrating in Atletico’s spanking new stadium. At the final whistle, with a 0-3 loss but a healthy 531 in attendance, I quickly walked back to my car as the rain fell. Then, two simultaneous text messages from Alan, in Madrid, and Glenn, elsewhere in Frome, confirmed a last minute winner at the Wanda Metropolitano.

I’m not usually a jealous type, but for a moment, I was – I admit – pretty jealous of the away army in Spain, no doubt falling over themselves in joyous oblivion.

What an away win for Chelsea. It was undoubtedly one of the best away performances in Europe for a while. And I missed it. Bollocks.

Not to worry, there was another game on the immediate horizon – Manchester City at home – and, bolstered by that fine win in Madrid, it was all that I could think of as the weekend approached.

I collected the lads – Jake in Warminster, PD and Glenn in Frome and Parky in Parkyville – and the Chuckle Bus was full to the rafters. Like on a few other occasions, I had planned a pre-match pub-crawl in London for the chaps.

At bang on 11am, I parked-up right outside the first one, The Black Lion, just off the A4 and not too far from the Fullers Brewery at Chiswick. We were the first ones in. Parky and I had called in to the same pub on one other occasion, after the monumental Napoli game in 2012. It did not seem five minutes ago. Outside, there were brilliant blue skies. The first pint did not touch the sides. Next up, “The Dove” right on the river, with lovely views of Hammersmith Bridge. There were rowers on the Thames. The boys were enjoying this. In the third pub, “The Blue Anchor” we were joined by my friends Diana and Ian from Chicago, who last appeared in these dispatches when I went out with them for one night of boozy fun in Chicago on the 2015 tour of the US. It is always a pleasure to see them. There was talk of football and music, everyone’s twin loves. We popped, quite literally, next door and into “The Rutland.” Another lovely pub, though by now, with myself on designated driving duties, I was off the lager. We said temporary “cheerios” to the two Chicagoans and hot-footed it back to the car, via a final scoop in “The Old Ship.” It had been a fine pub-crawl – we had been blessed with excellent weather for the most part – and it mirrored the one that Parky and myself completed before Arsenal away in 2015. What a joy it is to be able to dip into these historic, charming and quaint pubs in the nation’s capital.

 

 

We met up with Diana and Ian in “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, and then split up again. Glenn and Jake stayed on for some food, while the rest of us piled in to the Chicagochuckle Bus as we stopped off at “The Goose.” I had managed to get hold of some match tickets for Diana and Ian, and – at last –  it was a relief to see the tickets handed over and paid for. I then darted back up to “The Clarence” to pick up a ticket for Jake.

Phew. All sorted.

Eight pubs.

Now for the football.

On the walk to the ground, I heard that Frome Town had lost 1-2 to Heybridge Swifts in the FA Cup. I whispered a melancholic “oh well” to myself and thoughts returned to my first love.

We were in early, and I had hoped that there would be a nice buzz of anticipation in the stadium, just like we used to have before the big games of old, when the terraces used to fill up early, when songs were sung by The Shed, when the thrill of the match used to capture our imagination. Alas, it was all pretty mundane really. I watched as the three-thousand City fans slowly filled their section, but there was no real electricity in the air. This was, after all, the biggest game of the weekend by some margin, and one of the biggest games in world football. I expected more.

We had heard that the team was tweaked slightly, what with David Luiz suspended. Victor Moses was benched, and Dave was pushed out to the flank to allow for Antonio Rudiger to play. Just as in Madrid, Antonio Conte went with a 3-5-2.

Courtois

Rudiger – Christensen – Cahill

Azpilicueta – Kante – Bakayoko – Fabregas – Alonso

Hazard – Morata

Sergio Aguero was out, but there was quality throughout the City ranks.

My thoughts on the game? I’d take a draw but a win would be bloody magnificent. Anything but a defeat.

The banners were paraded – “The Shed” to the south and “Pride of London” to the north – and the game started.

Just like Fiat and their innovative use of new colours a decade or so ago, Nike are certainly dabbling in all areas of an artist’s palate with their kit colours in 2017. The Manchester City away colours were fruity alright. The colour being worn reminded me of damson jam or blackcurrant Chewits. I wonder what outer reach of the spectrum will be chosen by Nike’s designers in years to come for us. Best not dwell on that, eh?

The first few minutes was all about singing that new song for Tiemoue Bakayoko and N’Golo Kante.

Well, it was the last day of September after all.

An early header from danger man Morata suggested that we would continue from where we left off on Wednesday, but we watched as City started to move the ball around us with ease. I was aware that I was leaning forward, on the edge of my seat, quite different than normal. I expected a tough game. A lot was expected of Bakayoko in the central position, and Kante seemed a little out of position to his right. I had spoken to Glenn on the drive to London about how football these days often resembles a chess match and how some managers might lose a game by being “half a position out” – playing someone just five yards away from his ideal position – and, sadly, it looked like this was the case with Kante, who tried his best to support the front two, but was then out of position once City broke.

There were howls as a clearance from Thibaut struck Gabriel Jesus; from our position, it was surely going in. We exhaled sharply. Phew. Soon after, reticence from Rudiger almost caused another City chance. The natives were getting restless. With each passing minute, City improved. Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva looked especially tricky.

And yet, rather than roar the team on, the home crowd struggled to get in the game. Perhaps we were half a position out, too.

In quick succession, our attack was called back for a few offside calls. At the far end, where I am of course unable to be certain at all, I always look for the reaction of the supporters in the East and West Stands behind the flagging linesmen. In all occasions, there was no uproar, no forest of pointing arms, no shouts of exasperation. In each occasion, I can only assume the linesman and referee were correct. But it didn’t help our cause. There was a mixture of frustration with the players and officials. The home crowd were not as one.

After a little Chelsea pressure, Azpilicueta struck low inside the box and forced a low, late, save from Ederson, the City ‘keeper.

Throughout the first period, we were second-best in all areas. We were slow in closing space, and our passes were not crisp. But the new additions in defence, Christensen and Rudiger, continued to impress. The young Dane, especially, looks a natural, both positionally and technically. Gary Cahill, never the easiest on the eye, was a mixture of nervy clearances and solid tackling. But he drew a few moans from the supporters around me. Even now, the jury is out on him.

I spotted Morata hold his leg and stop. I wondered if he was injured.

Thibaut saved from Silva.

With ten minutes to go before the break, Morata – my fears justified – slowly walked off, to a massive round of applause.

Surely, it was Michy Batshuayi’s chance. Well, amazingly, apparently not. Instead, Conte chose Willian. How odd. Was the idea for the diminutive Willian and Hazard to buzz around the tall City defenders and wreak havoc? I was not convinced.

Willian, at times unplayable in previous times, drew the ire of the crowd with an implausibly poor free-kick. The boo boys were starting to gather.

Glenn commented “it’s not very often we get out-played at home, lads.”

Just before the half-time whistle, more City pressure and a corner from the impish de Bruyne. His cross found the head of Fernandinho, but his effort was beaten out by Thibaut. It was a cracking save, and one which kept us in the game at the break.

Chelsea hardly got out of our half in the first period of the second-half. We were well and truly penned in, with City flashing the ball neatly around us. We were being outplayed on our own turf and – yes – it felt odd.

As the rain started to fall, the City fans were hardly making a racket, but they certainly could be heard.

“We’re Not Really Here.”

Eden – at last – ran at pace at City and was fouled. His shot from the resulting free-kick was easily saved.

City continued to move the ball into our box. I remember a sublime gutsy block from Alonso. Soon after, typically incisive play found that man de Bruyne who smacked a rising shot past the valiant dive of Courtois.

“Bollocks.”

City were well worth their lead.

And save for a very few sporadic outbursts, the home crowd stayed as docile as before.

Antonio replaced Hazard with Pedro and Bakayoko with Batshuayi. In all honesty, things did not improve one iota. City still pushed, and should have scored a deserved second goal, when a shot from outside the box from Jesus was miraculously headed off the line by Rudiger. We tried, but the City defence was well in control. Christensen showed a different side of his game with a fine pass towards Batshuayi, but the ball was intercepted.

One last chance – hell, there were only three or four the entire game – fell to the head of Andreas Christensen, but his towering lunge resulted in the ball going well over the bar.

The rain fell on the walk back to the car. We were honest in our quick post-match analysis.

“We could have lost 3-0 or 4-0, boys.”

“City look the business.”

It was a long old trip back to Frome. My two clubs had both lost, but the Chelsea one hurt most, and by a mile. I almost dreaded looking to see what nonsense had been posted throughout the day by the social media darlings, and there was the expected melt-down by some.

Some cocksocket in Chicago was adamant that “Willian is the worst footballer on the planet” and I shot him down in flames.

We were clearly not at our best against City. But there are surely some positives at the moment. I like the way that we can set up in a 3-4-3 as of last season, a slightly narrower 3-4-2-1 and now a 3-5-2. And Conte will fine-tune these formations too. He will be hurting after this, and he will rebound. I love the form of Christensen, and Bakayoko could well trump anything that Matic has done for us. We always have a chance with N’Golo on the pitch. Eden Hazard, on his day, is unbeatable. And before anyone of us, or anyone outside our club, thinks that Manchester City have the title sewn up, let us all remember what was happening twelve months ago.

After seven games in 2016, City were top with nineteen points out of twenty-one. Chelsea were on thirteen points.

After seven games in 2017, City are on top with eighteen points out of twenty-one. Chelsea are on thirteen points.

See you all at Palace.

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Tales From Our Home City

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 6 August 2017.

The Football Association Community Shield. The Premier League Champions versus the F.A. Cup holders. A full house at Wembley on a sunny afternoon in the nation’s capital.

It sounds fantastic doesn’t it?

Well yes, in theory.

In practice, maybe not.

The trouble is that the Community Shield has become something of a wearisome burden these days; it’s akin to a practice run-through for a wedding or an interview for a job that you don’t really want. Or – even worse – a practice run-through for a wedding that you don’t really want. There is not much of a thrill these days. There was a certain “familiarity breeds contempt” at work here too. This would be my third consecutive Chelsea match featuring Arsenal. Never before have I seen the same opponent in three games back-to-back-to-back. This would also be my tenth Charity Shield / Community Shield in twenty-one seasons – oh, how blasé does that sound? – and, of course, it would be yet another traipse up to the new but derided Wembley Stadium. It would be – believe it or not – our seventeenth visit to Wembley in just over ten years.

So, taking all of this in to consideration, the general feeling among a sizeable section of the Chelsea support leading up to the game was of pained acceptance that this was a glorified friendly that we were almost duty bound to attend.

And yet, and yet. When I picked the Fun Boy Three up between 8am and 8.30am, I would not want to be going anywhere else. First and foremost, of course, the day would be all about seeing a few good mates once again after the summer break. A little banter, a catch-up, a gentle easing-in to the new season.

The meet was arranged for around 11.30am at “The Moon On The Mall”, a traditional and spacious London boozer on Whitehall, just a hundred yards to the south of Trafalgar Square. As I skirted the southern edge of the famous London landmark, I was taken back to my first-ever visit to London in 1972 — or rather the first I can remember – when we momentarily stopped off to see Nelson’s Column on the way back from the Tutankhamen exhibition at the British Museum. I remember being fascinated by the buildings, the tourists – the bloody pigeons – and that day came hurtling back into my consciousness. How right that we should be beginning the domestic campaign slap-bang in the middle of London; Chelsea’s home, Chelsea’s town, Chelsea’s city.

A couple of crisp lagers were quaffed and the boys chatted about the new signings, or lack thereof.

Lacoste Watch.

PD – royal blue

With it being a 2pm kick-off, we only had time for an hour’s revelry. My main agenda for the time in the pub was to not get all “China Wanker” in front of my mates. Glenn and myself did OK. We only mentioned our trip to Beijing and Shanghai fifty-three times. Good effort. Up to Marylebone, and away, the familiar twelve-minute mainline train to Wembley Stadium station. With it looking like our forced exile from the beloved Bridge would see us plot up at Wembley – post Tottenham – for three years or more, we are going to have to decide on a new routine for home games when we eventually move in as tenants in 2019 or 2020. A drink in central London before flitting up to Wembley could be the norm. It’s not as if we have a limited supply of pubs from which to choose. Watch this space.

The team news filtered through. I was surprised – but of course pleased – that Pedro had recovered from his horrible injury to start out wide. The rest of the team picked itself. New signing Morata would surely become the resident striker as the season progressed – alone or alongside Batshuayi – but for now he was on the bench.

3-4-3 it was in 2016/2017 and 3-4-3 it was for this game.

Thibaut

Dave – David – Gary

Victor – N’Golo – Cesc – Marcos

Willian – Michy – Pedro

The sun was beating down as we made the short walk up to the stadium. I noted that there was a seemingly thorough bag search taking place inside. I circumnavigated this by diving past the security. I see that – officially – cameras are banned from Wembley. I foresee a war of wits once we move in. I think I’d have a OCD breakdown if my trusty camera was not allowed inside the stadium during our tenancy.

We reached our seats high up in the south-west corner – a new part of the stadium for me – with ten minutes to spare. The Grenfell Choir were in the middle of singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and a couple of club-coloured “For Grenfell” banners were being passed along the Chelsea and Arsenal lower tiers.

Such a tragedy.

There were gaps all over at this stage, but as kick-off time approached, seats were filled. There were still some noticeable gaps at kick-off, however. So much for a sell-out.

On the referee’s whistle, the huge stadium fell silent – completely silent – in remembrance of the souls who perished in the Grenfell fire. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea was remembered in the borough of Brent. Two communities united.

The game began. There was no roar. There was no crescendo of sound. The game began with a whimper. In addition to the players trying their damnedest to attain match fitness, so were the fans. Again, we were in all blue. The white socks will debut for me next week against Burnley. But the kit looks bloody lovely. The royal blue is just perfect. We began comfortably and enjoyed a little early possession. We looked comfortable on the ball. David Luiz became our main play maker in the first quarter of an hour, knocking the ball ahead for Batshuayi, or out to Alonso and Moses. Arsenal then seemed to get a grip on the game and looked the more dominant, making advances down our right flank especially. Welbeck’s header was easily saved by Courtois, and then new signing Lacazette was allowed time to pick a corner and curl a fine effort which bounced back of the post.

One young lad, buoyed by too many lagers or too much Colombian marching powder, was constantly urging us to get involved in some community singing. He was constant. I’m sure he will come good as the season progresses, but he was in danger of peaking way too soon.

He was just too much.

“On your own mate.”

A rasping “Zigger Zagger” then took hold from a few rows below him and we all joined in.

“That’s how to do it, pal.”

The game then faded a little.

But Kante looked match fit and eager. He ate up the ground and looked the same player who cheered us so much last season. David Luiz was calmness personified. Pedro looked fit and agile. Alonso was getting plenty of space down the left. Elsewhere, there was not much. Batshuayi found it hard going. The ball does not stick to him too much, eh? As the old cliché goes, his second touch is a tackle. He needs to toughen up still. Willian was not involved. Fabregas was marginal. Moses was frustrating.

The atmosphere, as to be expected really, was dreadful. Little pockets of noise threatened to develop but we had to wait until an enforced stoppage – Mertesacker injured – for the Chelsea choir to get things together.

At last Wembley boomed.

“We’re the only team in London with a European Cup.”

We then dominated possession for the remainder of the first-half. A fantastic ball from Willian, arched diagonally across the Wembley pitch, found the darting Pedro, who took a touch before forcing Petr Cech to save.

But still there was hardly a murmur from the crowd. Chelsea were quiet and Arsenal worse.

Willian was alleged to have dived inside the Arsenal box. It took place about three miles from where I was sat. I could not tell.

Two American kiddies in the row behind were annoying the fuck out of me as the game progressed. Constant chitter-chatter. Constant opinions. I was not sure if they were Chelsea; I suspect not. At one point, one of them blurted out –

“Chelsea suck.”

The chap next to me fidgeted. I quickly turned around and glowered.

“Just remember where you are mate.”

A cushioned flick and back-header from David Luiz to Courtois drew sumptuous praise from the Chelsea hordes. It was almost the highlight of the first period.

At half-time, no goals, and not too many thrills.

Many supporters were still in the bar or the toilets when the second-half began. A corner on the far side by Willian was cleared, but only as far as Gary Cahill, who headed the ball forward. Victor Moses – arguably our poorest player until that stage, and probably still smarting from the Cup Final – was able to sweep the ball past Cech.

“GETINYOUFUCKER.”

He dived headlong onto the Wembley pitch and was mobbed by Michy and then the rest of the team.

Phew.

The goal seemed to calm us a little and we enjoyed a little spell. Kante was again in the middle of it all. He has, thank heavens, hit the ground running this season. We enjoyed a couple of chances, but then Arsenal countered. A Luiz block saved our skins.

With around a quarter of an hour to go, Antonio replaced Michy with Morata. He received a fine reception.

Substitute Walcott played a fantastic ball in to the penalty box but thankfully no Arsenal player was able to connect. It was the ball of the game. Soon after, Thibaut produced the save of the game, flinging himself high to his right and finger-tipping a long shot from Xhaka around the post. It was simply stunning.

Then, Willian surpassed Walcott and floated a fantastic ball in to the path of Morata. Sadly, it was slightly too long. A stretching Morata could only deflect the ball wide.

Ten minutes to go.

We watched as a coming together of Pedro and Elneny resulted in both players lying prostrate. We thought nothing of it. The time passed. Pedro was still down. As he rose to his feet, referee Truly Madly Deeply waved a red card at Pedro.

“Answers on a postcard.”

From the ensuing free-kick, we watched as the Chelsea defence back-peddled en masse. There was a massive sense of doom. I guess we have just watched too much football. We knew. Substitute Kolasinac rose with not a care in the world and headed in, past Courtois.

Oh fuck.

For the first time in the game – honest, honest, honest – the Arsenal end sung something that was able to be heard at our end.

Give yourselves a biscuit.

Antonio had replaced Alonso with Antonio Rudiger just prior to the sending off. He now brought on Charly Musonda for Willian. Arsenal attacked our box in the final ten minutes, but thankfully our defence held firm. A Morata header from a Fabregas free-kick flew past the post. I’m pretty sure that a goal then, late on, would have been absolutely roared. But, alas, it was not to be.

Ugh.

At the final whistle, it ended 1-1.

Penalties.

And a new format.

And plenty of Abba song titles.

I am sure plenty of computer programs, capturing all sorts of empirical data, have been run over the past few seasons with the conclusion that the team taking the second penalty are disadvantaged. And indeed I am sure it is a laudable attempt to reduce the impact of pure chance, the flick of a coin, on the outcome of penalties. But the rank and file support at Wembley Stadium were clearly not impressed.

I commented to the bloke beside me –

“If the penalties are at their end, we’ll lose. If they are at our end, we’ll win.”

They were at their end. Oh great. The sense of foreboding was palpable.

We waited.

Gary Cahill – boom, get in you beauty.

Theo Walcott – goal, bollocks.

Nacho Monreal – goal, prick.

We then collectively groaned as we saw Thibaut loitering towards the penalty spot. I remembered his penalty against PSG in Charlotte but – again – we knew. We bloody well knew.

The ball soared way over the bar.

Alvaro Morata – wide, bollocks.

Many Chelsea left.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – goal, prick.

Olivier Giroude – goal, fuck.

We had lost the Community Shield again. I have seen us play in ten and we have only won three.

We gathered our belongings and slowly shuffled out. A little post-mortem. No team was overly dominant on the day. We obviously need to make some more signings. It had been a middling performance. Definitely room for improvement. But everything is now focused on the all-important opener against Burnley and we all know it.

At Barons Court tube station, on the walk to my waiting car, I was the ultimate philosophical pragmatist.

“Hey lads, Arsenal would swap the FA Cup and the Community Shield for our League Trophy in an instant.”

The boys agreed.

I drove home, the game a fading memory.

“Good day out apart from the football.”

“As always.”

“Yep. As always.”

Let’s reconvene at Stamford Bridge on Saturday afternoon and get this season started.

As for Arsenal, they can go fourth and multiply.

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Tales From A Game Too Far

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 27 May 2017.

The F.A. Cup Final. The grand finale to the domestic season. Chelsea’s last game and my last game of 2016/2017. The final hurrah.

There is nothing quite like an F. A. Cup Final.

Or to be precise, there was nothing like an F. A. Cup Final.

Before we experienced wall-to-wall football on TV, before the Champions League skewed club priorities every season, back in the days of when the nation stopped as one and all the talk in the preceding week was about the game, the F.A. Cup Final was a truly magical event. When did the magic start fading? For me, it was when the game left the old Wembley Stadium, before it took temporary refuge at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff for six seasons, and then returned to the spanking new, but generally unloved, new Wembley.

The Cup still stirs emotions, but that magic – difficult to describe to anyone who never grew up in an England which only showed one club game of football live on TV each season – has long since gone.

But, after the season-long chase for the title which was undoubtedly the main focus – to the point of obsession – we were gifted the chance to end the campaign with further glory and further fun. Tickets were purchased, plans were made. This was going to be a fine end to the season.

And then, two events happened which changed everything.

Staying up late, as I often do, on Monday night, I watched – horrified – on TV as news filtered through regarding the atrocity which befell the proud city of Manchester. I felt sadness, pain and anger. I slipped into a disturbed sleep and awoke the next day to the news of the full extent of the carnage. What sorrow. Immediately, there was the realisation that the F. A. Cup Final would be under intense scrutiny as there was the risk for similar attacks on personal freedom. There was, of course, no way that I would not go.

However, there was more sadness. At work on the Tuesday morning, I received a message from my wonderful friend Alan. After the game against Sunderland on Sunday, we had said our goodbyes at “The Lillee Langtry” and as we headed home, he paid a visit to his dear mother in a South London hospital. Sadly, the message relayed the heart-breaking news that his mother had passed away that Tuesday morning.

I fell silent and felt a great deal of pain. I only met Alan’s mother once – in around 1996 or 1997 if memory serves – but she was a lovely South London lady, just as her son is a lovely South London man. I passed on my sincere condolences to Alan – an only child like myself, our friendship goes deep –  and our solid group of friends rallied support for Alan throughout the week. We hoped and prayed that he would be well enough to attend the game on Saturday.

There was a real feeling of relief, and happiness – if that is the right word – to hear on Friday that Alan would be attending.

This brought back some bittersweet memories for me of course. And it made me think. How very odd that my mother’s passing in 2015 was followed by a Chelsea Cup Final at Wembley Stadium, and that the first game after Alan’s mother’s passing would be a Chelsea Cup Final too. Two years ago, I needed to be around the greatest of friends to help me through the day. I am sure that Alan’s thoughts were along similar lines. And as he explained to me, his mother – who keenly followed all of our matches – would not have wanted him to have missed the game on behalf of her.

The football, at times, seemed irrelevant throughout the week, but as Saturday finally arrived, there was a new focus for all of us.

An intense lightning storm woke me at 3am during the night, followed by deafening thunder and a monsoon-like deluge. It was a dramatic start to the day for sure. I struggled to get back to sleep. Would Saturday be sunny, as forecast, or would the rain continue? With a Chelsea Football Club statement asking for no bags to be brought to Wembley in light of the terrorist threat, I pondered options for getting my camera into the stadium. Eventually I drifted back to sleep.

Glenn picked me up at 7.45am. He drove in to Frome to collect PD, who had also awoken amid the light show at 3am. On to collect Parky, a breakfast of champions at Bradford-on-Avon at 8.30am, and Glenn then headed east, London-bound for the last time this season.

We wanted to continue a theme for this season; a little pub-crawl in previously virgin territory. Yes, we knew that there would be songs and chants and revelry at a number of watering holes throughout the capital, but we opted for a little tranquility before joining forces with Alan and others later. From 11.30am to 2pm, we nestled ourselves within the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and sampled four pubs within a few hundred yards of each other; “The Wilton Arms”, “The Nag’s Head”, “The Star” and “The Grenadier.” We were in Belgravia, one of the most expensive pieces of real estate going. It felt right that we should be starting our day in Chelsea, although of course Stamford Bridge itself is in Hammersmith & Fulham. Each pub had hanging baskets outside, wooden interiors, tons of character, lots of history. The sun was out, LP’s and PD’s shorts were on, and the beer was certainly hitting the spot.

At “The Nag’s Head” we chatted to a Russian Chelsea fan from Moscow, living in London since 2004, and off to the match too.

Just as we arrived at “The Star”, two US Arsenal fans, wearing replica shirts – shocker – were just leaving. I reminded them of the Arsenal way : “remember to beat the crowds, stay until the end.” They laughed, but I’m not convinced they understood what I meant.

Four pints to the good, we headed up towards Paddington, where the London-based lads were waiting at “Fountains Abbey” on Praed Street.

A hug for Alan, and I was pleased to see that he was full of smiles. We chatted away and it was lovely to see that he had made the right decision. His dear mother, although probably in a little pain on Sunday night, had enquired how Chelsea had fared in our last game of the season. That simple question – his mother asking about the team – had probably swayed him further. There was no way that Alan would miss the Cup Final.

Ah, the final. Throughout the week, when the game flitted in to my head, I remained confident. I hadn’t been more confident leading up to a major final since the 1998 trip to Stockholm. It seemed that everyone shared similar thoughts. I chatted to Ed, who was one of the few who were mentioning the game itself. He had been confident, yet was beginning to worry as kick-off approached. I calmed him a little.

“Nah, we’ll win. We’re too good for them. No doubt. And there is no point feeling guilty about being confident. Listen, it’s what Liverpool fans in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties were, and what United fans around fifteen years ago were. They were great teams and their fans knew it. Nothing wrong with being confident.”

After five pints or more, I was even beginning to convince myself too.

In another moment – maybe when I was less confident – I spoke quietly to Glenn.

“Of course, you realise that if we lose to these fuckers, our next two games will be against them too; in July in Beijing and in August at Wembley.”

Shudder.

In light of the call to be inside the stadium an hour before kick-off, we headed off for the tube earlier than normal. No last minute flit to Wembley this time. In previous finals, we have often arrived just in time for the last few formalities. No chance of that this time.

We tubed it to Marylebone and caught the train north. Our carriage was mainly Chelsea. The few Arsenal fans spotted were wearing replica shirts in the main. Of course, many Chelsea were too – it’s a Cup Final tradition, I wore a 1970 replica in 1994 – but there was a noticeable difference before the two sets of fans. Of our group of ten, only Gary and John were wearing club merchandise.

Lacoste Watch :

Parky – white.

Ed – chocolate.

Chris – pale blue.

(Incidentally, I was wearing blue all over : blue shirt, blue jeans, blue trainers, blue rain jacket and even my aftershave came from a blue bottle. And there was blue language too of course.)

We arrived at Wembley Stadium station at around 4.30pm. Chelsea were all around. I suspect Arsenal were using the more traditional Wembley Park option. The sun was beating down. There was not much of a queue to get in. My camera, slung around my neck, was waved in, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Up the escalators and inside. Wembley looked vast and we were in with plenty of time to spare, located in the upper tier, above the “Frank Lampard corner flag.” Alan, Gary, Ed and Neil were about thirty seats away. There were a few familiar faces nearby. It is amazing how we always seem to find ourselves among friends. At each seat, there was a Chelsea flag and a Chelsea bar scarf. A young lad appeared in the row in front and he was wearing an authentic Benetton rugby top from the mid-‘eighties. If ever there was a garment which is much desired to this day from that golden age of football clobber, then this was it. It is the holy grail of casualdom. I once owned one, albeit for only a few weeks, and that is a tale which I will eventually tell when the mood takes me, and originals now fetch ridiculous sums. I told the kid that I wanted to kill him and he smiled.

At the Eastern end, a huge Arsenal banner hung from the rafters :

“History. Tradition. Class.”

I think they left out “pomposity.”

At our western end, a simpler message :

“Pride Of London.”

As the minutes ticked by, the stadium filled. Our end appeared to fill quicker. Glenn noted a new feature, a thin section of obviously corporate spectators in the upper deck above the Royal Box; no colours on show there. In the corporate middle tier, I reckoned that there was just as much blue as red, a positive sign. Wembley has recently tightened the rules on bringing flags and banners into the stadium and the arena looked less football-like because of it. It’s as if they are saying “leave the atmosphere to us.”

A huge FA Cup mosaic adorned the pitch. Young dancers sprung on to the pitch waving bar scarves.

“It wasn’t like this in 1997.”

Of course, the team picked itself. It was the team that I would definitely have chosen.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill

Moses – Matic – Kante – Alonso

Pedro – Costa – Hazard

The minutes ticked by.

The next part of this FA Cup Saturday was about to unfold. And it is quite a story. Over a year ago, my good mate Rob took part in a short film which followed two football fans on a personal journey into the once elitist world of opera. Rob and Harry are Chelsea fans of a certain vintage and were not into opera at all. They were coerced by their pals Mike and Adam to attend various operatic shindigs, culminating in a performance of Giussepe Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the Royal Opera House, all the while being filmed along the way. It is a lovely film and won awards at the London Film Awards in 2016. Adam and Harry recently attended a film festival in LA too.

London.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QxaLMiHsUU

Los Angeles.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEI1PmgMLVA&t=328s

To cut a very long story short, Rob and Adam – Harry was on a family holiday so could not attend – were to join twenty other football fans from around the country in the singing of the traditional Cup Final hymn “Abide With Me.” I promised Rob that I would capture the moment with my camera; it is why I was so worried about getting the long lens inside the stadium. I spotted the group walk onto the pitch. My camera was ready.

Just before their moment, a montage appeared on the huge TV screens. As Eddie Newton and Sol Campbell were chosen to bring the FA Cup on to the pitch, a grainy clip of Eddie’s goal against Middlesbrough in 1997 was shown. An echo of a different era really. How time flies, eh?

The crowd quietened. I have noticed how “Abide With Me” seems to play less and less a role in the FA Cup Final these days. On my first visit in 1994, with my father having passed away the previous year, the words drew tears from myself as I sang along. Since then, on all subsequent visits, I have noted fewer and fewer fans joining in. Whether or not it was because of the events of Manchester or not, and the need to show a sense of community and shared kinship, on this occasion I sensed more than usual joining in.

As the words flowed, I joined in, and clicked away.

My thoughts were with Alan, just yards away.

Next up, the national anthem. Another show of solidarity. It was as loud that I can ever remember at Wembley.

The stadium was full now. A red-half and a less prominent blue-half. The two teams assembled on the centre-circle. Thoughts were now centred on the events of Monday night. At first there was applause but as the announcement continued, everyone hushed. I was very impressed. There followed a minute of complete silence in memory for those slain in Manchester.

RIP.

The game began. We stood, high up in row 22 of the top deck, for the entire game. Not everyone was stood, though. A fine long ball from David Luiz found Pedro but we failed to capitalise. For the next few minutes, we struggled to get a foothold. Arsenal looked livelier and more focused. N’Golo Kante struggled to keep the ball and we watched as an Arsenal move developed. A ball was slung in to our box. A clearance was knocked towards Alexis Sanchez who raised both arms and appeared to pat the ball down with his hands.

“Handball” thought everyone.

There was no referee’s whistle, nothing. Our players appeared to momentarily stop, but play continued. Sanchez slotted home.

“Well, that was good of you, you prick. It was handball, knobhead.”

But there was still no whistle.

The referee, oddly, raced over to the linesman.

“Not sure why he is doing that. He was only a few yards away from the handball.”

The referee and linesman chatted for a few seconds. I was absolutely adamant that the goal would be disallowed. It wasn’t. The referee pointed to the centre-circle. Disbelief all round. The Arsenal players seemed to not celebrate as if they were shocked too. Bollocks. Barely five minutes were on the clock.

During the first quarter, we really struggled and it was a huge surprise to us all. Where there had been fight and togetherness during the league campaign, here we looked listless and disjointed. We were slow in closing Arsenal’s attacking threat, and I lost count of the number of misplaced passes. As our play failed to live up to the standards set by the team this season, our support quietened. We were all in shock.

Sanchez set up Ozil, whose touch took him a little wide. His shot beat Courtois, but Gary Cahill’s nimble back-heal on the goal-line saved us from going 2-0 down. Then, Welbeck headed down and onto the post from a corner, and an Arsenal player was thankfully unable to follow it up.

We could have been 3-0 down. Heads were shaking all around me.

“When have we played as bad as this?”

“Arsenal away.”

We tried to rally.

“Come on Chelsea.”

We tried moving the ball into dangerous areas. To be truthful, Pedro was his usual energetic self and was our biggest threat of the opening period. Diego Costa had a couple of half chances. Eden struggled to get involved; I had hoped that this would be his final. Moses out on the right had a lot of the ball but struggled with the final ball. But it was our defensive frailty which caused us more worry. Matic was especially slow in covering ground and blocking.

Arsenal threatened further with Sanchez a huge threat. Courtois saved well from Xhaka.

With the first-half moving on, we improved slightly. Hazard fed in Pedro, but his shot from only fifteen yards out flew high over the bar and in to the packed Arsenal lower tier, full of jester hats, and face-paint too, no doubt. That was our best chance of the game thus far. But we were clearly second best.

Just before the whistle, we won a free kick on the edge of the box after Pedro’s heels were clipped. It was a perfect position for the left foot of Marcos Alonso. His effort sailed over, knocking the jester hat off an Arsenal fan in row Z.

At the break, neighbouring fans passed on news that the Arsenal goal should have been disallowed for offside in addition to the obvious handball. The ghost of David fucking Elleray lingers on.

Only one phrase dominated my thoughts at half-time :

“We can’t play as badly in the second half.”

I would have like to have been a fly on the wall inside our changing room during the interval. Thankfully, we started the second period a lot more positively. It roused the Chelsea support, who had been generally quiet as the first-half passed. A few shots from Pedro, Kante and Moses hinted at a fine reaction. The Chelsea support roared.

“Carefree.”

Pedro continued to be our biggest threat. We watched as he curled a fine effort just past the far post.

PD wanted Pedro to drop back and replace Moses at right back with Willian being brought on. I concurred. The manager had a different idea. On the hour, Conte replaced the very poor Matic with the much-lauded Cesc Fabregas. “The Magic Hat” reverberated around our end. He was met with boos from the the Goons of course. The Wembley pitch looked huge and we seemed unable to exploit its spaces. Bellerin tested Courtois from just inside the box, and our ‘keeper made the save of the match, pushing the ball out with outstretched arms. We roared our approval.

Down below us, Cesc shot wide. The minutes were ticking by.

With about twenty minutes remaining, Moses – who was having an up and down game – fell weakly inside the box. The referee judged a dive. It was his second yellow. Despite much protest, he left the field.

Twenty-eight thousand fans inside the stadium thought the same thought : “that’s fucked it.”

Willian replaced Pedro, who had arguably been our best player. He was soon involved down our right. Strangely, we looked more effective. A rare corner amounted to nothing, but then Willian crossed in to the box. For the first time all match, the Arsenal defenders were sloppy and indecisive. Diego took a touch and volleyed past Ospina.

“GET IN YOU BASTARD.”

Our end exploded. A moment of pandemonium mixed with real disbelief.

“How the bloody hell are we back in the game?”

Less than a minute later, that bearded knobhead Giroud sent over a cross which Ramsey headed in, past Courtois, a gaping goal an easy target.

Despair.

The Pompous Ones boomed with joy at the other end, and probably spilled their popcorn.

“Fuck.”

With time quickly disappearing, we tried to counter. David Luiz, who had supplied the attackers with a couple of excellent long passes, and who had been well-placed to head away several Arsenal efforts, went close with a header from an angle.

Bellerin, breaking with pace, could have sealed our fate but brushed a low shot wide. I turned around and sighed. This was too much.

In a position which mirrored his goal, Diego volleyed at Ospina. A yard either side of the ‘keeper and we would have miraculously levelled it again.

The clock ticked on.

Conte replaced Diego with Michy Batshuayi. Ozil hit the post at the other end. Luiz spent a fair portion of the last few minutes as a spare attacker.

It was simply not to be.

As the last few seconds ticked by, we slowly edged our way out.

The final whistle blew. We just wanted to leave, to get ourselves on the train back to the city centre. We should have, in hindsight, stayed to applaud the team, but we just wanted to get home. This was my forty-seventh game of the season and I felt exhausted.

Bizarrely, there were a few Arsenal fans in the line for the train. We wondered why they did not want to stay to see the trophy lifted. The magic of the cup, eh? In that line for the train – gallows humour to the fore, jokes helping us through – it appeared that we were in brighter spirits than the victorious Gooners. What an odd bunch they are. Maybe it was dawning on them that this would not be Wenger’s last game at the helm after all. How we laughed.

On the train, there was a fair bit of mainly good-natured banter between both sets of fans. A little knot of Arsenal kept singing in praise of Petr Cech, and it got boring. There was nothing malicious. However, they then decided – oh, you fools – to sing “WWYWYWS?” at us and this was met with a far more prickly response. The message was clear; you can take the piss out of our players, our club, but do not take the piss out of us, the fans. And do not, ever, sing that song to us.

Our support has never weakened. We have always shown up.

One Chelsea supporter stood up, and ranted at them, and it was powerful stuff. Although I can’t condone violence nor the threat of it, it certainly shut the fuckers up.

Very soon we sang :

“It’s gone quiet, over there.”

They had no answer.

Fuck’em.

We made our way back to Barons Court. The last tube journey of the season. We chatted to a few fellow fans. There was the briefest of post-mortems. One chap advocated using Cesc from the very start to open up the vast Wembley spaces. But, in hindsight, I would not have altered the starting eleven that the manager chose. It just seemed that it had been one game too far. Regardless of the farce of the first goal, we knew that we were well beaten. It had been a long day. At a service station on the A4, where Glenn and myself once bumped into Mark Hughes after a Chelsea game in 1998, we had an impromptu feast. The last food had been at breakfast. My mouth was as dry as a desert; a bottle of Coke has never tasted better. We were exhausted. I fell asleep on the drive home. Glenn made good time and I was back home before midnight.

It had been a long old day and a long old season. It ended with a poor performance, but we must not focus on that. It has been an exceptional campaign, hasn’t it? I must say that I have loved every damn minute of it; from the excesses of the US in the summer to the biting tundra of Ice Station Burnley, from the pubs of Sunderland and Liverpool to the bars around Chelsea, from the many highs to the few lows, from the Chuckle Bus and beyond, one step beyond, it has been one of the most rewarding seasons ever.

2016/17 : the numbers –

650 miles by train.

8,000 miles by plane.

12,500 miles by car.

115,000 words.

7,500 photographs.

1 league championship trophy.

We went to work, didn’t we? Too bloody right we did.

Grazie mille Antonio.

Have a great summer everyone – and many thanks for your continued and precious support.

In memory of Eileen Davidson : 28 July 1931 to 23 May 2017.

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Tales From Blue Saturday

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 26 November 2016.

It all began on Saturday 1 December 1990 when the visiting Tottenham Hotspur team kicked-off at Stamford Bridge, with football in England enjoying a resurgence after the exploits of England during Italia ’90.

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The Tottenham side included England stars Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne – forever linked to that “have a word with him” moment at the Stadio delle Alpi semi-final against West Germany – but we had a strong side too, including Italia’90 squad members Dave Beasant and Tony Dorigo. I watched the ensuing ninety-minutes from the West Stand seats with my mate Pete, a Newcastle United supporter on his first-ever visit to Stamford Bridge. It was a cracking game, bristling with good football and played out in front of a vibrant Chelsea crowd of 33,478 which was as about as good as it got in those days. Chelsea deservedly won the game 3-2 but who would possibly guess that the same fixture would not provide an away win in the ensuing twenty-six years?

As the four of us alighted at Paddington Station at around 10.30am, there was a strong desire to see us win our seventh straight league game of a surprisingly golden autumn, but much of my focus was to just keep the run going. I just hated the thought of us losing to them, and thus ending a ridiculous show of ascendancy over our rivals from N17. In my mind, a draw would be satisfactory. Over breakfast in a diner out on Praed Street, my stand point had toughened.

“Let’s beat them.”

And Tottenham were beatable. After a disastrous defeat in Monaco, they were out of the Champions League, and were probably at a low ebb. We, on the other hand, seemed invincible.

With the kick-off some seven hours away, we had planned a pub-crawl away from the gathering legions around Stamford Bridge. We have decided that we aim to do this more frequently over the next few years. We have certainly visited virtually all of the pubs around Stamford Bridge; it is time for us to broaden our horizons. After a very enjoyable pub crawl along the Thames in September before the away game at Arsenal, we settled for a small walking tour around Covent Garden. The four of us – The Chuckle Brothers, Parky, PD, Glenn and myself – took the tube down to Embankment, and inadvertently bumped into Kim, Dan and Craig, fellow Chelsea supporters, who we knew from The Goose. They didn’t take much convincing to join us. We started off with three pints in “The Coal Hole”, alongside The Savoy Hotel on The Strand. We were joined by Andy and Wayne, from Kent, like the others. From there, a brisk walk past Covent Garden to “The White Swan”, “The Round Table” and then “The Salisbury.” The beers were flowing, as were the tears of laughter.

The game was hardly mentioned. We were too busy laughing.

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We split up, with the five lads from Kent shooting off to pick up tickets near the stadium. We grabbed a slice of pizza at Leicester Square and then caught the tube from Piccadilly Circus to South Kensington. Time for a quick drink at “The Zetland Arms” and then a cab down to Stamford Bridge. Actually, as pub crawls go – with the idea being to experience new boozers – we failed miserably; we had been to all of the pubs before. Must do better next time.

“The Chelsea Pensioner” was heaving and we weren’t allowed to enter. Not to worry. It was about 5pm. Let’s get inside. Not surprisingly, the alcohol was keeping the winter chill at bay.

With Christmas approaching, the West Stand was festooned with blue and white lights, and I have to say it looked pretty effective; a waterfall of neon greeted us as we headed off to the MH turnstiles.

We were inside with time to spare. Spurs had a few flags hanging over the balcony of The Shed. With fifteen minutes to go before kick-off, there was a buzz of excitement. For me, with each passing season, there is no bigger home game than Tottenham. I looked over at their fans and wondered how many had endured, in the same corner of the stadium, the traumatic events of 2 May.

This would be the second time that I would be seeing Tottenham play this month.

“What?” I hear you ask. Let me explain.

Back in the first week of November, I met up with my old friend Mario, who I have known since the summer of 1975, and who I have mentioned many times before in these chronicles of Chelsea Madness. Mario is a Juventus supporter from Diano Marina in Italy, but has been living in Germany for twenty years. His adopted club is Bayer Leverkusen (we watched the Bayer vs. Chelsea game in 2011 together), and he was able to get me a ticket for the Bayer game against Tottenham at Wembley. What a magnificent day we had. It was Mario’s first-ever visit to England and, after knowing him for forty-two years, it just seemed so right that the first time that I would see him in England would be at Stamford Bridge under the Peter Osgood statue. I treated Mario to a tour of Stamford Bridge, before we explored the capital’s main sights on a whirlwind tour; Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, Downing Street, Westminster, The Thames. We ended up with a cracking meal in a pub on the South Bank. And then, the odd sensation of a Champions League game in London not involving Chelsea. I hated the walk down Wembley Way from Wembley Park tube station, with the whole area covered in Tottenham favours and trinkets. I hated seeing the Spurs badge superimposed on Wembley’s façade. I just wanted to get inside, away from them all.

The game itself was hugely enjoyable. Bayer Leverkusen had the upper hand throughout and I loved the experience. They were noisily supported by around 2,500 fans; they made a fantastic din. By comparison, the home support was woeful. I can honestly say that I only ever heard two Spurs’ songs during the entire evening.

“Oh when the Spurs – go marching in…”

“Come…on…you Spurs.”

Two. That was it. Honest.

For huge periods of the match, they hardly sung at all.

Bayer’s fans were led by a capo at the front of the lower tier who orchestrated each song, using a loudspeaker and what looked like a series of hand codes.

Clenched fist – song A.

One finger – song B.

Two fingers – song C.

It was odd to be in an away section that was so different to that which we experience in England. At a Chelsea away game, there are constant murmurs of songs being started throughout the away enclosure, and once a critical point is reached, songs envelope the whole area. It’s pretty democratic and organic. Songs rise and fall. At Wembley, the Bayer fans around me did not sing at all, or at least they did not start their own songs. Once the capo began, though, they all joined in. There was an awful lot of “sha-la-la-las” and a lot of rhythmic clapping.

“SHA – LA – LA – LA – LA – LA – LA.”

“LE – VER – KU – SEN.”

I must say I preferred the English model though.

When Bayer’s Kevin Kampl slammed a goal past Hugo Loris from inside the six-yard box on sixty-five minutes, I can honestly say I went doo-lally.

Tottenham Hotspur 0 Bayer Leverkusen 1.

Oh my aching sides.

Walking back up to Wembley Park after the game with Mario was schadenfreude at its very best. The Spurs fans were silent again, except for the occasional moans about how poor they had been. I lapped it up. A wink and a smirk to Mario was enough for me.

Oh happy days, oh happy night.

The stadium filled to capacity and Stamford Bridge grew expectant.

These memories of Wembley toyed in my mind as I looked over towards them.

“Hey, Tottenham. I have a song for you. Do you know this one?”

ONE FINGER.

The team was unchanged once again. Why change it? No reason.

We were treated to the darkening of the lights and another electric storm of flashing strobes, blinding flashes and a pulsing heartbeat. It looks impressive, but I’d much prefer us to be left to our own devices, and to generate some atmosphere ourselves. Additionally, there was just enough time for a two-tiered display in The Shed just before the teams entered the pitch.

In the Upper Tier : “ONE STEP BEYOND.”

In the Lower Tier : “CHELSEA ACID HOUSE.”

This football and music crossover continues on. The staples of the English working classes.

I’m personally waiting for a Cocteau Twins banner to be flown from atop the East Stand.

At 5.30pm in deepest darkest SW6, the game began with not a seat in the house empty.

Let’s not ignore the facts. Tottenham completely bossed the first-half. I captured on film the free-kick which resulted in Spit The Dog bundling the ball in but photographic evidence backed up the linesman’s decision that he was clearly – “clearly I tell ya” – in an offside position. Tottenham then took the lead on just eleven minutes when the ball was worked to Christian Eriksen, who unleashed an unstoppable drive, with minimal back lift, past Thibaut Courtois.

They celebrated down below us. The Spurs fans roared. We had conceded our first goal since the last ice age. Fiddlesticks.

We looked lethargic in possession and lacking confidence. It came as a major shock to all of us. Spurs, in comparison, resembled the team that had – “cough, cough” – pushed Arsenal to second place in the league last year, showing a greater determination to work as a team. Our first real effort on goal was a trademark David Luiz side footed free-kick, which Loris easily gathered. In the stands, frustrations were overflowing. Our back three at times looked like a plan gone wrong. And Spurs continued to dominate. Spurs peppered our goal with shots from everywhere.

There were small – ever-so-small – signs of improvement. A Hazard shot.

“Let’s just get to half-time. Conte needs to talk to them.”

On the cusp of half-time, Matic played the ball forward to Pedro. He was around twenty-five yards out and for once was allowed time to turn. In an instant, he moved the ball out of his legs, and with no Tottenham challenge forthcoming, curled an exquisite shot past Loris and in to the goal, just inside the far post. It was not dissimilar to Diego Costa’s strike at Southampton. And the turn reminded me of Oscar’s goal against Juventus in 2012.

Anyway – “YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

Mad celebrations.

Undeserved but level at the break.

Phew.

Time to take stock, time for the manager to try to instill some confidence in the team. At this stage, I probably would have taken a point. We had been, as if I have to say it again, quite poor.

With Chelsea attacking the MH in the second-half, the crowd seemed enlivened as the game re-started. A shot from N’Golo Kante stung Loris’ hands, but the Spurs ‘keeper was not troubled.

Soon after, Eden Hazard pushed the ball on to Diego Costa, who dribbled deep, and with real skill, into the Spurs box. He slowed, then drifted past the last challenge before pushing the ball diagonally across the box. From my viewpoint, I saw it all. I saw Victor Moses rush in completely unmarked at the far post. If we were playing three at the back, Spurs must have been playing two because nobody was near him. We watched – the time seemed to stand still – as he smacked the ball goal wards. In reality, the ball struck two Spurs players on the way in, but I just waited for the net to bulge.

2-1.

The Bridge roared once again; the noise was deafening. It must have woken some of those in the adjacent Brompton Cemetery. All around me, people were bouncing with joy. The look on Alan’s face was a picture.

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Diego Costa then similarly set up Marcos Alonso, but his shot was rushed and flew high over the Tottenham bar. It felt that Chelsea were back on top, although chances were proving to be rather rare for both sides.

On sixty-three minutes, a poignant moment as the crowd applauded the memory of Chelsea fan Robert Huxley, so tragically killed in the recent Croydon tram disaster. It is a tram that Alan has used on many a day.

The game continued. No team dominated. It was a game of only half-chances, quarter-chances. Antonio Conte replaced Eden Hazard with Willian, Victor Moses with Branislav Ivanovic and Pedro with Oscar. The crowd roared the team home.

The run had continued.

Saturday 1 December 1990 to Saturday 26 November 2016.

Played : 27

Won : 18

Drawn : 9

Lost : 0

After the game, everyone was euphoric. We quickly met up with some pals outside the Ossie statue, and then some others back at “The Malt House.” No room at the inn there either. We cut our losses and headed back to Paddington. Pub number seven of the day was “The Sawyers Arms” and there was still time for a couple of rounds of shorts before the train home.

One thought kept racing through my mind. I know hate is a strong word, a horrible word really, but if Chelsea dislike Tottenham, they must fucking hate us. Our dominance continues even when we play below par. They must be truly sick of the sight of Fulham Broadway tube station, the CFCUK stall, Chubby’s Grill, the knobhead with the loudspeaker, the Oswald Stoll Buildings, Café Brazil, The Butcher’s Hook, the whole bloody stadium. And I would not have it any other way.

Another huge game awaits next Saturday; a lunch time kick-off at Manchester City.

I will see some of you there.

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Tales From The South Bank

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 24 September 2016. 

0557 : I am awake before the 0630 alarm, and there is simply no point in trying to get back to sleep. I have been buzzing for this game all week. I can’t wait to get going. A pre-planned pub crawl along the South Bank of the River Thames is the pre-curser to the London Derby later in the day. 0730 : I hop in to my car and turn the radio on. The song playing is by Madness and it seems wholly apt – “Lovestruck.” 0738 : PD, sporting a new navy Fred Perry, is collected and we are on our way. No words needed to express our sense of excitement. Belly laughs from the two of us. 0745 : Car parked at Glenn’s, the three of the four Chuckle Brothers are now on our short five-minute walk to Frome train station, where so many of my Chelsea trips had begun in the early ‘eighties. 0802 : Frome to Westbury, a beautiful sunny morning. 0821 : A text from Parky, the fourth Chuckle Brother, “just had a pint at the “Wetherspoons” in Melksham.” Off to a head start, Parky, you crafty old bugger. 0822 : Onto the Swindon train at Westbury, coffee tasting great. 0835 : Parky, with four cans of cider, joins us at Melksham. More laughter. The ciders are for the drinkers, PD and Parky. Myself and Glenn, the “B Team” will wait until we hit the first pub. This is already a fun time, and there are almost nine hours to go before the game starts. 0906 : At a windy Swindon station, all aboard the Paddington train. And relax. The journey flies by. Didcot, Reading, and in to London. We really should do this more often. 1015 : With a spring in our step, we step off the train, and go in search of a breakfast. 1030 : We are proper tourists now. Into a “Garfunkels” – a first-ever visit for me, surely no people from England visit this restaurant – on Praed Street for some nosebag. A decent fry-up hits the spot. The waitress even gets a decent tip. 1100 : The tube to London Bridge. 1130 : “The Barrowboy And Banker” – the first pub, right outside the station, and a pint of Peroni. Glenn spots some Millwall fans, who eye us up and leave. A walk past Southwark Cathedral, through Borough Market, thronged with people, our senses smacked sideways by the dizzying array of aromas emanating from the stalls selling a superb selection of nosh. 1200 : Into pub number two, “The Old Thameside Inn” right next to a replica of The Golden Hind. We sit outside, on a terrace right above the river, and note a few more football types, but can’t pin down their teams. The view is spectacular. “This seems like a European away.” And it’s true. We come up to London from our sleepy Somerset and Wiltshire towns and villages, yet very rarely open ourselves up to the majesty of London. We talk about how the move from Upton Park to the London Stadium, ahead of our trip there later in October, has proved to be so difficult for so many West Ham fans. Watching football in a sterile environment was always a fear that I had should we ever move away from Stamford Bridge. 1230 : “The Anchor” at Bankside, with the Manchester United vs. Leicester City game in an adjacent room. We prefer to sit inside, in the atmospheric snug, with a low-slung ceiling, with exposed beams. Our smiling beams were exposed too. What a brilliant time. “Let’s do something similar for Spurs at home, another 5.30pm.” “How about a stroll down the Kings Road?” United race ahead 3-0 on the TV game, and we mutter something about Jose Mourinho. Out into the sun, and I am gearing myself up for my round. 1315 : “The Swan” right next to the reworked Globe Theatre. “Looks a bit pricey, lads, wish me luck.” Again, more stunning views of the river, with the dome of St. Paul’s dominating. What a touch, the cheapest round yet. “Less than £20 boys – result.” Past Tate Modern – I last visited there in around 2002 – and past the Millennium Bridge. 1400 : “The Founders Arms” and the beers are flowing, the laughter is continuing. I last visited this pub on a Sixth Form trip in the summer of 1983, just before a gaggle of us watched Toyah Willcox in “Trafford Tanzi” in the Mermaid Theatre on the opposite bank. An England vs. New Zealand test match at The Oval in the day and a bit of culture in the evening. Back then, it was of the first pubs that I had ever bought a drink, and certainly the first in London. I remember thinking how charmless it was back in 1983, like something out of the Thamesmead setting of “A Clockwork Orange” but now everything was a lot lighter and welcoming. It was rammed with tourists. In 1983 – even on a Friday evening – it was a lot less busy. The plan was to head north and to join up with others at Holborn. We head south to Southwark train station. “Ah, bugger it, there’s ages to go yet, let’s pop into there for one more.” 1430 : “The Prince William Henry” and a quiet one, with no tourists, just a few locals. I am sticking to Peronis, PD and Parky are swerving from cider to lager, Glenn is – worryingly – on the Guinness. From Southwark, via a change at Green Park, to Holborn. 1530 : We quickly spot Alan, Gary and Daryl in a corner at the front of the final pub of the day, “The Shakespeare’s Head”, which is mobbed – as per usual – with Chelsea. Familiar faces everywhere I look. Two more pints. Up to a gallon for the day. Phew. “Not used to this.” Chelsea laughs and Chelsea smiles, and things are starting to get a little blurred. My good friend Starla, from San Francisco – a Chelsea fan for a while, and one of my first Chelsea “internet” friends from as long ago as 2006 – is over for a week, but we had not been able to rustle her up a ticket. I remember I was able to sort her out with a ticket for her first-ever Chelsea game in England at Newcastle in 2008. At least she can experience the pre-match with us. There are Chelsea songs bouncing around the pub. The team comes through on our phones, and it seems that for once a Chelsea manager and the club’s fans are on the same page. Cesc Fabregas in for Oscar. A return to The Emirates once more and let’s hope it is successful. There is – of course! – little talk of the game among all this drinking and boisterousness, but we all know that this will be a tough game. We have gone off the boil – wait, were we ever on the boil, yet, this season? – and I agree with PD. “I’ll take a point now.” 1645 : We shuffle down the escalators at Holborn and jump on a northbound train. The tube carriage is mobbed with Chelsea. Parky’s mate Ben leads the sing-song. “You want Wenger in. You want Wenger out. In out, in out, shake it all about. You do the Arsene Wenger and you turn around that’s what it’s all about.” There is also a shrill, high pitched chant of “Ar-senal Ar-senal, Ar-senal” from us and this is met with a few sniggers from the Goons among us. 1700 : I suddenly realise – as if I need reminding – how much they love their replica shirts, the Arsenal fans. Not us. 1715 : A quick bag search, and I’m in, quick to find my seat next to Alan and Gary. From the South Bank of the River Thames to the South Bank – the Clock End – at The Emirates. 1730 : The kick-off, and I’m trying to juggle photographs, text messages, some songs of support and the effects of a gallon of lager. It’s not going well. On the pitch it soon gets worse. 1741 : A calamity as Gary Cahill – heading towards the top of the unpopularity stakes – delays in playing an easy ball back to the waiting Thibaut Courtois, and Alexis Sanchez picks his pocket, and races towards goal. He dinks the ball over Courtois and sends the home fans delirious. “We’ll have to go at them now.” But we don’t. 1744 : A fine passing move in and around our defence – who are still and lifeless – ends up with Theo Walcott pushing the ball in from close-range. It is a typical Arsenal goal in many respects. For the rest of the half, Chelsea seem to have much of the ball but do absolutely nothing of note with it. 1810 : Arsenal go three-up as Ozil races through to volley a cross from Sanchez down, and up and over Courtois. This is grim, as grim as it can be. 1830 : The second-half begins, and I am just concerned about “damage limitation.” We beat Arsenal 6-0 in 2014, and I wonder if a horrible evening of retribution is about to befall us. Previously, our record at Arsenal’s new stadium is pretty decent, with four wins in ten games and just two defeats. The second-half is a little similar to the first. A decent amount of possession, but no end product. Around me, there is a dissatisfaction with our players. And that is putting it mildly. There are strong words among fellow fans, but I am pleased to see that as the second-half drifts by, very few Chelsea fans decide to leave. There are not many red seats on show. Out of nowhere, one song dominates. It soon gathers strength and is repeated, with clapping to give it an extra resonance, for what seems like ages but was probably not even ten minutes. “We’re the only team in London with a European Cup.” Elsewhere, despite Arsenal winning their first game against us home since December 2010, I am amazed – no stirred, to be truthful – by the lack of noise from the home sections. “Three-nil and you still don’t sing” seems to sum it up. The manager makes changes as the half progresses. Marcos Alonso for Cesc. Ugh. It hasn’t worked out. Pedro for Willian. Batshuayi for Hazard. The game continues. It’s dire stuff. Eventually a few fellow fans slink off into the murky London night. In the closing moments, Batshuayi has a couple of openings, and at last he produces our only shot on target throughout the entire game. 1930 : The referee signals a few minutes of extra time. “Come on Parky, let’s go.” I send a text to Glenn before my phone dies. “See you Paddington.” 2130 : The train back to the West of England pulls out of Paddington, and I just want to get home. The game I had just witnessed was one of the most lifeless and depressing performances in living memory. Where now, Chelsea? It might turn out to be a long long winter this one. There are a few boisterous Bristol City fans at the buffet as I get PD and myself a drink for the return journey. They are full of cheer about their 4-0 victory at Fulham, and there is a song for Tammy Abraham. I dislike – no, I hate – Bristol City and I must be one of a very small group of Chelsea fans who, although pleased for our young player, is far from happy about his spell at Ashton Gate. As the train heads west, the horrible Bristolian accent haunts me. Some City fans gave me a proper kicking in 1984 – Glenn and PD were with me that night – and this is the final twist of the knife on this most disheartening and depressing of days. 2330 : The night train to Frome sets off from Bath station, full of shrieking females from Trowbridge and Westbury. I just want to get some sleep. 0008 : The train slides in to Frome station and we say our goodbyes. “Have a good week Paul, see you at 6 o’clock next Saturday.” 

 

 

 

Tales From Vicarious Pleasures

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 13 January 2016.

When I first started penning – or rather typing – these Chelsea match reports, firstly on a rather ad hoc basis, in around 2006 on the “Chelsea In America” website, there was one word which tended to be mentioned with ever more increasing regularity.

“Vicarious.”

For those folks on the other side of the pond, as the old cliché goes, who had never been lucky enough to be able to attend Chelsea games in person, I received many positive comments which thanked me for allowing them to live vicariously through my personal detailing of my match day experiences. It is a word that still occasionally pops up to this day. Ahead of our midweek match with the Baggies from West Bromwich, I was well aware that for a few hours there would be a certain amount of role reversal taking place.

Charles, a Chelsea supporter from the Dallas area of Texas, would be attending his first-ever Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge, and I had planned to meet up with him before the game. I first met Charles in his home town for our friendly with Club America at the spanking new home of the Dallas Cowboys in 2009, and we have chatted on line about many aspects of football and fandom on a regular basis. In addition to being a Chelsea supporter, he is an FC Dallas season ticket holder and he attends the occasional away game too. We both work in logistics – and Charles loves foreign travel, and has written of his experiences on a personal blog too – so we have a few things to talk about outside of Chelsea. I last bumped into him in Charlotte in North Carolina over the summer. Although he has visited Europe twice before – Italy – this would be his first trip to England. He arrived on the morning of the game. I soon sent him a message.

“Welcome to Chelsealand.”

“Thanks! That line at customs ain’t no joke.”

“Need to make sure that Donald Trump doesn’t get in.”

As I muddled my way through my shift at work, I wondered what Charles would be making of the alien streets of London. The new architecture, awkward accents, different streetscapes, a brand new buzz. I was, oh most definitely, jealous of him. There is nothing like, in my mind, a first few hours in a new country, town or city.

His first few comments back to me were revealing.

“So far, London is great. So diverse.”

And indeed it is. Very diverse. And our current team mirrors it. Belgium, Spain, England, France, Brazil, Serbia, Bosnia, Italy, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Colombia.

The day’s work completed, I met up with PD and Parky. PD was taking a turn to drive and I could relax. We were in the middle of three home games in seven days and an evening with The Great Unpredictables was waiting for us in London.

In The Goose, the usual suspects were assembled. We were all very happy with our F.A. Cup pairing with either the Cobblers of Northampton Town or the knobheads at Franchise FC. As we stood in our corner of the pub, it was confirmed that our game would kick-off at 4pm on the Sunday. This was met with predictable groans. It would mean that I would not get home until around 9pm that night.

Bollocks.

Charles had made his way to Fulham Broadway and then ‘phoned for directions to pub. He sounded rather tired. I suspected that the jet-lag was having an unfortunate effect. He arrived fashionably late, at just after 7pm, but it was lovely to be able to welcome him to The Goose. I had a pint of trademark “Peroni” waiting for him and then introduced him to a few mates.

“Ah, you’re Lord Parky.”

Before we knew it, it was time to head off to the game. Such a fleeting pre-match, but Charles is in town for the Everton game too, so there will be another chance to serve up some Chelsea hospitality then. I was well aware that Charles had a ticket in the corner of The Shed. His front row seat was the stuff of dreams.

“Great position for when we score and the players go down to the corner flag to celebrate.”

Outside the West Stand, we wished each other well.

“Enjoy it mate. See you Saturday.”

Inside Stamford Bridge, I was stunned by the paucity of the away support. The lower tier, maybe able to hold 500 seemed half-full but the 1,000 seats in the upper tier were hardly used. The section filled a little before the kick-off, but West Brom’s contingent was surely no more than four hundred. I moaned at Alan :

“Bloody hell, the next time we go to their gaff and they sing “WWYWYWS” to us. They’re not even here when they’re good.”

The Matthew Harding soon let them know their feelings.

“Is that all you take away?”

To be honest, the gaps in the south-east corner were matched by many empty seats in the home areas. In just the immediate area of where our season tickets are situated, I counted ten empty seats. Over in the south-west corner, I soon spotted Charles. He is well over 6 feet tall. He is easy to spot. He was standing no more than five yards from Parky. Towards the seventeen away fans in the Shed Upper, a large “Chelsea Poland” banner was spotted on the balcony wall for the first time.

Guus Hiddink had finely-tuned the team since Sunday. In came Thibaut Courtois, John Terry and Jon Obi Mikel. When we arrived in London at bang on 6pm, the weather was milder than I had expected. By the time of kick-off, there was a chill to the air. The lights dimmed again, and there was the dramatic entrance of the teams once more.

“The Liquidator” echoed around the stadium.

Here we go.

There was a bright start from both teams, but Chelsea got into their groove quicker than the red-shirted visitors. Diego Costa, blasting ridiculously high into the Shed Upper, and then Willian wasted good chances. But then the visitors went close too, with chances arguably better. Thankfully, we escaped unpunished.

On twenty minutes, we were treated to a fine move. Cesc Fabregas picked out Diego Costa who controlled the ball well and fed Willian. He passed outside to the advanced Branislav Ivanovic, whose low cross was turned in by Cesar Azpilicueta. It was a magnificent move and Stamford Bridge ignited. As I spotted Dave running across the goalmouth and towards the corner, I knew that I had to capture the moment. I snapped away as Dave leaped, rather awkwardly, before being met by his team mates. My pre-game comment to Charles was prophetic. There were the celebrations. And there was Charles, capturing the moment on his phone. A perfect moment.

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For a while, we played some lovely stuff. Maybe we were buoyed by the goal, but I noted a greater willingness to play the ball early. There was movement off the ball. There was a little more energy. I spotted Dave make some excellent blind-side runs behind the West Brom defence, but the playmakers were unable to spot him. Diego Costa was holding the ball up well. Fabregas almost played the pass of the season. Ivanovic put in a few more good crosses. We were playing as a team. This was good stuff.

And then, West Brom bounced back a little. Their new found confidence was rewarded when Pedro, the one who was yet to shine, weakly gave away the ball around the halfway line. Fletcher fed in Gardner, who was able to advance before unleashing a low drive from outside the box, which disappointingly crept in to the goal, just inside the post.

Ugh.

A couple of chances were traded before the break. Although it had been a reasonable first-half of football, the atmosphere was sadly missing. The temperature was dropping further, and although most fans in the lower tiers behind both goals were standing, the noise was poor. There were songs from The Shed on occasion and I was sure that Charles was joining in, but there was no cauldron of noise which we are occasionally treated to at Chelsea.

Pat Nevin was on the pitch at half-time, chatting away to Neil Barnett. Talking of barnets, Cathy had posted a link on Facebook during the day which detailed Pat’s recent hair transplant. This was a really strange story; of all the people who I would have suspected to eschew such cosmetic procedures – vanity, in a word – it would be Pat. The world is a mighty strange place.

Hiddink replaced the poor Pedro with Kenedy at the break. He immediately impressed, shooting on sight from way out. The kid from Fluminense has great energy. One of my current workmates is from Brazil – a Palmeiras supporter, in case anyone is wondering – and Bruno has a younger brother who is a promising footballer. He is currently staying in London and training with Chelsea, with hopes of signing a contract. He once trained with Kenedy in Brazil at a training camp hosted by a club. Who knows, if things go really well, Bruno’s eighteen year old brother could soon be playing for Vitesse Arnhem.

The referee then became the target of our ire. He had – in the eyes of some, maybe not me – blown for the end of the first-half just as we were breaking away, but then chose not to issue a second yellow card to Yacob for a trip on Diego Costa. Willian curled over from the resulting free-kick.

This was turning in to a feisty encounter. The crowd were suddenly the noisiest for the entire night.

I wondered if Charles was able to decipher the London accent.

“Yadontknowwhatcherdoin.”

The temperature dipped further, and now rain fell. I wondered if Charles was getting wet in the front row. All part of a typical London experience.

Temperatures were rising though in the home stands as West Brom seemed to be time wasting. Their goalkeeper Myhill – a fat Jack Whitehall – was booked as he waited for a team mate to put his boot back on. The referee, hardly flavour of the month, booked others. It was a niggly old game. We struggled to create too much in a poor second-half. Oscar and Fabregas seemed distant. Elsewhere others were struggling too. Zouma, so dominant in the air, found himself out of position and struggling on the ground.

Myhill was still getting it.

“You fat bastard. You fat bastard. You fat bastard. You fat bastard.”

Then, the ball was moved out to Willian, always looking to gain a yard, and he spotted the movement of Kenedy. From behind a grassy knoll, he whipped in a troublesome cross. In a flash, Kenedy lunged at the ball and it flew in to the net, squeezing past the loathed Myhill. Kenedy ran off to celebrate in the far corner, and was joined by many others. Alan suspected an own goal. I was not sure. Regardless, we were winning.

Get in.

There were just fifteen minutes remaining. Costa went close again. But then the visitors came at us again. Matic, masked like Dave, replaced the poor Fabregas. The minutes ticked by. We seemed to be at risk with every West Brom attack. The place became nervous once more. With just five minutes remaining, a loose ball fell to the equally loathed James McLean who crisply dispatched the ball past Courtois and in, again creeping in by the foot of a post.

2-2.

Bollocks.

We collectively crumpled. If anything, the visitors seemed more likely to grab a – unwarranted – winner. In the end, the final whistle was almost greeted with relief. On walking back to the car, I chatted to PD.

“Just not good enough mate. Whenever we attacked, we were up against a packed defence. When they attacked us, they always seemed to have more space in which to move the ball. Tough game coming up against Everton. Lukaku. Then Arsenal away. Dreading it.”

I am sure that Charles had enjoyed himself, though. And, again, I had enjoyed sharing his evening in deepest SW6. It had been a vicarious evening if not a victorious one. This bloody strange season continues.

Everton at home on Saturday. On we go.

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Tales From The Arthur Wait Stand

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 3 January 2016.

The rain was falling. I had parked about a mile to the south-west of Selhurst Park. Parky, PD and myself quickly zipped up our jackets in preparation of a twenty minute walk to Crystal Palace’s stadium. After only a few minutes of walking along the tight terraced streets of Thornton Heath – not far enough out, nor leafy enough, to be in suburbia – our coats were sodden. We marched on. This was already feeling like a decidedly old-fashioned footballing day out.

Unlike the area to the north of the River Thames, which is where ninety percent of the stations on the London Underground are positioned, South London is served by a plethora of over-ground railway lines, criss-crossing their way through a part of London that few tourists see. Serving Crystal Palace’s home stadium are three stations; Norwood Junction, Selhurst and Thornton Heath. On this day though, with railway engineering works commonplace, I had decided to drive straight in.

This area of South London is dominated by the Crystal Palace TV mast, sitting high on a hillside to the north of the park which houses the National Athletics Stadium. On the very same site, F.A. Cup Finals were played from 1895 to 1914. There is, therefore, a great sporting history in an otherwise nondescript part of the capital. When I attended our victorious 1997 F.A. Cup Final, I always thought that it was rather fitting that my day had begun with Alan, Glenn and myself catching a train from the red brick Crystal Palace train station – close to Alan’s flat – which was just a few hundred yards from where teams had competed for the famous silver cup decades previously. Back in those days, there were no terraces as such, just a vast natural bowl, which allowed huge numbers to attend, with only a few thousand watching from wooden stands. In the 1913 final between Aston Villa and Sunderland, 121,919 attended. I am sure that the vast majority saw very little of the actual game. However, in those early days of football hysteria, it was surely enough to just be there. The only event that I have attended at this famous footballing location was a Depeche Mode concert in 1993, on the same day that I saw Chelsea play Ajax at Tottenham in the Makita.

We dipped into the Prince George pub and were met by a roaring log fire. We dried out and sipped at cold ciders and lagers. The pub, no more than a ten minute walk from the away turnstiles on Park Road, was mixed with both sets of fans. There were a gaggle of police outside, but there was no hint of trouble. I recognised a few Chelsea faces, and we chatted away. Back outside, the rain was heavier and the wind was howling.

Yes, this had the feel of a rather old-fashioned away game, no doubts.

We tried to avoid getting splashed by passing cars.

Ahead, there was a defiant “Carefree” being bellowed by a few youths.

Thankfully, we soon reached the Arthur Wait Stand, which sits alongside the touchline at Selhurst Park, housing three thousand away fans and six thousand home fans. It is a dark and unforgiving place, with very shallow terraces. It has great acoustics, but unfortunately affords one of the worst views in the current top division. Selhurst Park is a disjointed stadium. The main stand opposite is a Leitch original, very similar to the one at Fulham. To our right is the odd Whitehorse Lane stand, once a large terrace, but now truncated with just a few rows, but with executive boxes above. To our left, sits the two-tiered Holmesdale Road Stand, with its rather old fashioned barrelled roof. Here, there was a large terrace too. When Selhurst Park was in its prime, with terraces on three sides, it managed to hold 49,000 for an old Third Division game with rivals Brighton and Hove Albion. For many years, mirroring the old Crystal Palace Stadium, some of the current terraced areas were merely grass banks. There are talks of stadium redevelopment. I am hopeful that the Leitch original stays and the Arthur Wait is improved.

As I waited for Alan and Gary to join us, I was aware that there were a few residual visitors from across the pond who were attending the game. I wondered what they thought of the old-school charms of Selhurst Park compared to the sleek steel of Old Trafford. I had a feeling that they would be reveling in its tightness and its obvious grubbiness. Well, put it this way; I knew that I would be.

I had a quick chat with an old Chelsea mate Mark (1984 and all that) and I admitted that I was still worried about our predicament.

“I watched Match Of The Day all of the way through last night and it just seems that every team is doing OK apart from us and bloody Villa.”

At the half-way stage, nineteen games in, we were mired in the relegation zone. And Palace, winners at our place a few months ago, would be no pushover. The rain lashed down.

The clock ticked by and 1.30pm was soon approaching. The Palace anthem “Glad All Over” (don’t ask) reverberated around the creaking stands as the away fans countered. The weather was truly awful as the teams entered the pitch from the corner on the far side.

Diego Costa was back from his silly self-enforced exile. Cesc returned too.

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

I immediately sensed a little more aggression from within our black suited ranks; the tackles were seeming to go in stronger, the body language more positive. When we had the ball, we seemed to be keen to move the ball quicker. However, despite all of this, it was the home team – shorn of Bolasie and Cabaye, remember – who somehow managed to get more efforts on goal than us. Campbell and Zaha came close as we looked a little exposed. We certainly rode our luck a little during the first quarter of the game. However, my abiding memory of the opening period is of Thibaut Courtois claiming cross after cross, rather than being stretched and asked to make too many saves close to his body.

Eden Hazard took charge and cut in from his position wide on the left, before testing Hennessey with a low fizzer which went off for a corner. Soon after, Hazard limped off, to be replaced by Pedro, and there were voluble moans aimed at Hazard from the Chelsea section.

Maybe it was due to the sodden conditions, but the atmosphere inside the stadium was not great. The away fans, of course – it goes without saying – were knee deep in Chelsea songs, but elsewhere all was relatively peaceful. The Holmesdale Ultras were only occasionally heard. I found it very interesting that an early chant of “Jose Mourinho” from the back of our stand never really gathered momentum, and in fact, was soon overtaken with a much louder “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” salvo. It was as if the crowd were moving on.

Maybe, just maybe, we are all getting over Mourinho.

Pedro added an extra zest to our play and we started to improve. A fantastic sliding tackle by King Kurt on Zaha on the far side drew rapturous applause. Puncheon soon sliced wide. Courtois was still yet to make a save worthy of the name.

On the half-hour, Fabregas spotted the run of Diego Costa and played a ball from deep. Delaney, the Palace defender, misjudged his attempt to intercept and Costa was through. He advanced, but rather than shoot from an oblique angle, he selflessly played in Oscar, who was ably supporting. It was a simple tap in. The Chelsea Ultras exploded.

Get in.

“We are stayin’ up, say we are stayin’ up.”

Any noise from the home areas reduced further.

Palace immediately countered, but Lee blasted over from close in. I still waited for a Courtois save. Amidst all of this, I noted the calming influence of Jon Obi Mikel, whose plain but effective patrolling of the area in front of the veteran Terry and the exuberant Zouma was wonderful. Only once did he annoy me, when he did not spot Ivanovic free and in hectares of space on the right. A small moan, though. He was otherwise excellent. Dave, bearing down on goal from an angle, saw his thunderous shot parried by Hennessey. With the Chelsea supporters in increasingly good form, we looked a lot more at ease as the first-half continued.

Hell, we were winning. Confidence comes with that, I know, but this seemed a little different. It was more like the Chelsea of old, or at least 2014.

As the second-half began, I was rueing Selhurst’s poor sightlines. We were all stood, of course, but with even Chelsea attacking our end, I had to lean and twist to keep up with play. A pillar right in front of me spoiled too many ensuing photographs. A fine Mikel tackle was perfectly timed to avert a Palace break. Soon after, the murmurings of “Seven Nation Army” started away to my right. I immediately thought it was in praise of “Ooh, Pedro Rodriguez”, but no.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

Ah, this was great.

Hundreds joined in. Where it came from, who knows? It did seem slightly surreal to be honest.

However, there had been a healthy debate in front of me between two fans, who had differing opinions about Mikel, and once the chant grew, the pro-Mikel supporter joined in too. Excellent. Did I sing it? Of course.

Zouma went close with a header. We were now even more buoyant. The noise continued.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

“Jon Obi Mikel – he’s won more than you.”

“Jon Obi Mikel – he scores when he wants.”

This was a fine game now, and Palace worked an opening for Zaha, who forced Courtois to drop and smother. At last it was a save worthy of the name. On the hour, a fine passing move resulted in Oscar being pushed off the ball. The referee let play continue, and without a second’s thought, and with no real backlift, Willian drilled the ball high into the top right corner.

Boom.

The Chelsea section went into orbit as Willian slid down on to his knees in front of us.

2-0.

Game over? Maybe.

It was time for more song.

“We’re gonna win the league.”

In the middle, Mikel was having a blinder and, now, every touch of his was greeted with a cheer. I then wondered if, sadly, some among the Chelsea ranks were simply taking the piss out of our much maligned – and misunderstood, damn it – midfielder.

That simply won’t do.

Palace were finding it hard to cope with our intelligent passing and movement – which screamed “confidence!” at me – and Willian was able to skip past his marker. He played a relatively harmless ball in to the six yard box, but I was happy to see Hennessey make a mess of his attempts to gather. He merely pushed the ball in to the path of Diego Costa who happily banged the ball in. The net bulged.

3-0.

Costa looked well chuffed, and his performance had certainly warranted a goal. He had led the line well. More of the same please. There had been no boos for any player at Selhurst, and this surely needs to be the way forward now. Who knows where this season will end, but we need to be there, offering support at all times, cheering the boys on.

Still the songs continued.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

“We’re the boys in blue from Division Two.”

“Don’t worry about a thing.”

This was a lovely feeling. Chelsea back to the form of last season, and fine performances throughout. Thankfully the rain eventually petered out as the second-half came to its conclusion. Oscar, with a disappointingly lame shot, and Diego Costa, flashing over, failed to add to the score line, but I did not object one little bit. Extra goals would have simply spoiled the symmetry.

On day three of the New Year, three goals, three different scorers, three points and three little birds.

Everything is going to be alright.

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