Tales From An Evening Of Cat And Mouse.

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 5 April 2017.

There is no need for a fanciful and overly-elaborate scene-setter for this one.

The loss to Crystal Palace on April Fool’s Day was an unwanted shock to the system. As a result, Tottenham Hotspur were – if not breathing down our neck, yet – then at least shouting abuse at us from a shorter distance than before. The home game with Manchester City was a – cliche #418 – must-win game.

If Tottenham were to win, out west in Wales, and we were to lose to City – God forbid – then our once impregnable lead at the top would be cut to just four points, with eight games left. Even a draw against City, in my mind, would not be enough.

“Three points or bust, Chelsea.”

Before the possible dramatic events at Stamford Bridge were able to unfold, I was embroiled in my own little moment of drama at work. As the day rolled on – with work piling up – I wondered if I would be able to get away on time. At just after 2pm, I called over to see PD and LP who were just about to launch into their traditional pre-Chelsea home game gammon and chips at “The Milk Churn.” I passed over Glenn’s season ticket to PD so he could in turn pass it on to Bournemouth Steve. Reluctantly, I had to tell PD to make his own way up. There were severe doubts that I would be able to make kick-off, at best, or the game itself, at worst. Thankfully, things fell in to place during the next two hours and, with a big chunk of onerous work being able to be delayed for others in the morning, I was able to leave for SW6 at 4pm. I could relax a little, even though I would now hit all of the traffic going in to London. A journey that usually takes two and a quarter hours would now take three. And it felt odd to be driving to a game alone. It unsurprisingly felt like a potentially seismic Champions League night. A massive game, for sure.

As is so often the case, I noted one car – a red mini – that I constantly passed on the tedious last ten miles, as we accelerated and then slowed, passing each other every few minutes, and I wondered if this was a metaphor for the final stage of the season. Would one team slow right down, allowing another to catch up, before their positions changing over the very final stretch? I remembered a similar instance a few years back when I played one particular bout of cat-and-mouse with one car on the last few miles of the M4, before eventually seeing it lose me at Chiswick. It rather freaked me out when I saw it was parked up just a few yards away from my usual parking space at Chelsea. As I saw the little red mini disappear over the Hammersmith flyover, I waited with baited breath to see if I would spot it again in the streets that surround Queens Club. Thankfully I didn’t. My own little bout of football madness was over. And in any case, the girl who was driving the red mini was unlikely to be a Spurs supporter, right?

Bloody hell, relax.

It still took me a further ten minutes to find a parking spot in the usual areas. At around 7pm, I was evidently one of the last ones to arrive. Bramber Road, Normand Road, Chesson Road, Archel Road, Turneville Road were all chocker. I eventually parked up on Star Road, a good few hundred yards from where I saw PD’s car.

I briefly met up with the troops in The Goose. Time for a bolted “Peroni” and the briefest of chats. Bournemouth Steve eventually arrived to collect the ST card. Rush, rush, rush. A few US pals were still in town and I wanted to meet up with them briefly in “The Cock Tavern” before they disappeared into the ether of international travel. They were leaving just as I arrived; perfect timing. No time for a beer, the time was racing on. We walked to the stadium together.

The Chelsea team had been re-arranged by the manager since the previous game.

Courtois.

Zouma, Luiz, Cahill.

Azpilicueta, Fabregas, Kante, Alonso.

Pedro, Costa, Hazard.

My first worry – perhaps there were many – was that the guile of the slight Aguero, Silva, Sane and De Bruyne might be too much for the tall trio at the back. A big test for Kurt Zouma. He just needed to stay tight to his man and do the simple stuff. I was concerned.

My second worry was that I would be suffering an intense migraine by the end of the night after being blinded by the shocking orange of the Manchester City kit. Bloody hell, if that is an indication of our upcoming life with Nike, I might even pine for the days of the Chelsea Collection of 1986/1987. Kevin de Bruyne, the strawberry-blonde and rosy-faced winger, must bloody well hate it, in exactly the same way that David Hopkin must have detested wearing the tangerine and graphite debacle of 1994 to 1996.

Shudder.

City had three-thousand away fans. As they should. One poxy flag : “Kidderminster.” Must do better.

The atmosphere was buzzing at the start. Ripples of noise grew louder as each chant enveloped the stadium. This felt like a proper game of football.

I wondered if Chelsea would spend the entire night confirming one of modern football’s oxymorons –

“The Manchester City defender.”

City had the infrequently-used Kompany alongside the maligned Stones, with the attack-minded Clichy and Navas on the flanks. Going forward, they looked fearsome. But our team looked top-heavy too, with Cesc in place of Matic. It looked like N’Golo would have his work cut out.

I whispered to Steve : “Never mind, if any man can, Kante can” and immediately sounded like Suzi Quatro.

Almost astonishingly, we heard that Swansea City were 1-0 up against “that lot.”

I wondered if this might, just might, turn out to be a legendary night.

We certainly began well. I soon spotted that we kept hitting early balls out wide in an attempt to stretch their defence. After just ten minutes, the ball was worked forward by Azpilicueta to Pedro on the right. Pedro held the ball momentarily, but Dave had pushed on and Pedro slipped the ball through to him. A quick look up, and the ball was ably played into the path of Eden Hazard. Much to my surprise, his low shot ended up flashing past Caballero.

In my mind I was thinking “how the hell did that go in?” but outside I was shrieking a loud and sustained roar of pleasure. I soon turned to Alan and said “of course, on bloody Saturday, that would have been deflected wide.”

In the replay, it was unclear to me that the slightest of deflections off Kompany’s shiny pate had edged the ball away from Caballero’s sway to his left. Football games are often won and lost by inches.

However, I turned to Alan and admitted my worry : “You know it won’t stay 1-0?”

The crowd were roaring, but Manchester City began working the defensive three, five, seven. Their movement impressed us all. It seemed that everyone of their attacking players were never seen in the same place twice. They tested Thibaut a few times.

A pass from the excellent Hazard to Fabregas resulted in a shot which deflected high off a defender and dropped on to the crossbar. This was such an open game. Sadly, on twenty-six minutes, a dithering Courtois hacked a clearance away, but it fell right at the feet of the neat and tidy David Silva. We groaned the hugest groan. He advanced and shot straight at Courtois. The ball travelled only a few yards from Thibaut’s block and now ended up at Aguero’s feet. He easily dispatched the ball home.

Luiz comforted the ‘keeper with a slapped handshake, but Thibaut must have been hurting.

It was an equaliser that, if I am truthful City, warranted. I remembered that their play in the opening segment of our 2-1 win against them in 2011/2012 was as good as I could recall by an away team at Stamford Bridge over the years, and this was an updated version of it. Constant movement everywhere. On the touchline, the two suited Europeans Guardiola and Conte were stood the whole game.

Courtois shifted his feet well to tip over a Leroy Sane lob. We were under the cosh alright.

For a few fleeting moments, the City fans could be heard.

“We’re not really here.”

With thoughts of keeping it tight and reaching half-time – a Conte half-time masterclass from us to counter a Pep-talk from them – the ball found Pedro inside the City box. A crude chop by Fernandinho made referee Mike Dean quickly point to the spot.

“Nailed on penalty, that.”

Without any need of a prompt, Albert – who sits in front of me – upped and visited the gents. We have lost count of the number of times over the years that we have scored when he has disappeared off to turn his bike around.

Eden placed the ball on the spot. We waited. His shot was low and saved by the ‘keeper. Thankfully, the ball rebounded right in to the path of Eden and as Caballero dived to his right, the ball was stroked to his left.

GET. IN.

Albert returned to his seat, beaming.

“Job done, saahn.”

A few more City attacks were thwarted. After a few dodgy moments by both, both Luiz and Zouma defended well.

It was still Swansea City 1 Tottenham 0.

At the break, Neil Barnett spoke of the recent passing of former goalkeeper John Phillips, who played 149 games for us in the days of my childhood. In fact, he played in goal in my very first game : Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, 1974. You could argue he is the first Chelsea player I saw play. He is certainly the first-name entered in the 48,762 cells of my ever-increasing “Chelsea Games Spreadsheet” which sits proudly in my computer at home.

Garry Stanley – he of the US Tour this summer – toured the pitch as images of three players from the ‘seventies were featured on the TV screen.

John Phillips.

David Stride.

Ian Britton.

There was clear structural changes to our team at the break. Simply put, Nemanja Matic replaced Kurt Zouma, but the pack was significantly re-shuffled.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahil,

Pedro, Kante, Matic, Alonso

Fabregas, Costa, Hazard.

And what a half of football. Chelsea chances were at a premium as City swarmed at us throughout the forty-five minutes. I seemed to spend the entire period clock-watching. Thankfully, the Chelsea defence was proving a tough nut to crack, but that didn’t stop everyone’s’ nerves from jangling.

The first major worry involved a header from a deep City free-kick that bounced on to the bar with Dave right underneath if needed. We heaved a sigh of relief, but City kept us worried. For all of their possession, however, they did not pepper our goal. As tackles crunched, Fernandinho volleyed ridiculously wide and Stones headed right at Courtois.

We were nervy in the stands, but there was a great reaction to a Marcos Alonso pass to Eden which was miss-hit and went off for a throw-in. Rather than howls of derision, the Matthew Harding replied – loudly, with encouragement – “CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

It warmed my heart.

But generally we were too nervous to sing constantly. There were great “Carefree” moments when the whole ground were together, but the nerves were in control alright. I watched the clock, tick-tock.

A rare Chelsea chance but a David Luiz free-kick went to waste.

Then, a gift-wrapped chance after a fine move, starting with a break from the inimitable Hazard down our left. The ball was moved across the pitch, several players involved, and eventually played back by the intelligent Pedro towards the central Hazard. He kicked through the ball, but it flew over. It was the hat-trick goal that never was. Bollocks.

Sadly, it got worse.

Late on – FUCK – we heard that Spurs had not only equalised at the Liberty Stadium, but had scored two and then three.

That car in the rear view mirror – white, navy trim – was getting closer.

A ten-point gap had shrunk to seven within minutes.

Whether or not it was because of Pep Guardiola’s reappearance again at Stamford Bridge, but as City kept searching for a late equaliser, I kept thinking of that Iniesta heart-breaker in 2009. The linesman on the far side continually flashing the red and yellow flag of Catalonia clearly did not help.

It was evident I was suffering. We all were. I have never seen Alan look so nervous.

Willian replaced Cesc.

Tick tick tick tick.

A long searching ball towards the far post was ably reached by the lunge of Aguero. We could not see if his toe-poke was saved by ‘keeper or post.

“Not long left now, Chelsea, keep going.”

Loftus-Cheek replaced Hazard, our best player on the night.

One last corner was swung in. The ball evaded everyone at the front post – all it needed was a nod – and Stones stabbed at it from a few yards out. Ridiculously, miraculously, the ball thumped against the turf and ballooned over. It was another of those “clasp the back of your neck with your hands” moments.

“Phew.”

The three minutes of added-time were running out. The ball was deflected for a Chelsea goal-kick. My eyes, and camera, was on referee Dean.

I snapped at the moment he blew up. It seemed the most significant moment of the entire night.

“Thank fuck for that.”

Another “phew.”

“One Step Beyond” boomed around The Bridge, but I let others bounce up and down. I was just grateful that it had ended in our favour.

As you were. Seven points. Catch us if you can.

Big John looked up and smiled.

“Didn’t enjoy one bit of that.”

I knew what he meant.

Outside, Andy admitted City had been impressive. Over the past two home games, we bossed one yet lost, and were dominated in another yet won. Such is football, such is life. We even spoke about how Spurs don’t give up; they deserve a little praise from us for that. Ugh.

“But imagine how gutted they must feel. Coming back to score three late goals to win. Get inside the dressing room. Wait twenty minutes for our result. And then hear that we hung on. Ha.”

Outside, as a trip to a curry house was aborted, I waited to hear from a few US friends. I spotted Claudio Ranieri brush past and I seized the moment. We posed for a selfie. I don’t know who was more embarrassed, him or me.

I was able to meet up with a few pals – Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Pennsylvania – in “The Butcher’s Hook” for a while. The place was packed and buzzing at first, but eventually thinned out a little. The visitors had enjoyed two varying games at Stamford Bridge from the supporters’ club section of the Shed Lower over the past few days. They had seen both of our goals at The Shed tonight of course. They loved the atmosphere. It was reassuring to hear. Neil Barnett popped in and we had the first real chat since Minneapolis in the summer. Like me, he did not predict us to win the league this season. I had us finishing third behind City and United. Neil had us finishing sixth. This season has fooled us all, eh?

Late on, I scoffed down a late night kebab with Frank from Queens, New York and Taryn from Reading, Pennsylvania. It had been Taryn’s birthday and what a lovely result for her. I soon realised that the premises of the kebab shop on Fulham Broadway were the same as the “Wimpy” restaurant where my parents and I stopped for burger and chips after my very first game all those years ago.

At 1.30am, I left London. At 3.45am, I reached home, tired but contented.

Eight games to go, four at home, four away.

Keep it tight Chelsea.

On Saturday, this busy week finishes with the jolly to Bournemouth.

I will see some of the very lucky ones there.

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Tales From A Top Day In Manchester.

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 3 December 2016.

It had been a truly horrible week for football.

There was the desperately sad news that the up-and-coming Brazilian team Chapecoense had been virtually wiped out after a plane taking them to a game in Medellin in Colombia had crashed. The football world was in mourning and rightly so. What sad news. The club will forever be linked to the names of Torino and Manchester United, fellow football clubs which also suffered air disasters; lives lost, teams destroyed.

Closer to home, there was the story involving the abuse of young footballers in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, which began with the brave claims by former apprentices at Crewe Alexandra, and continued throughout the week, ending with the gut-wrenching story of former Chelsea player Gary Johnson having suffered ritual abuse by a Chelsea employee, former scout Eddie Heath. I remember Gary Johnson well. He came in to the team around 1978/1979 and I can recollect seeing him score two goals against Watford in September 1979. To think that he had suffered years of sexual abuse while at my beloved club made me turn pale. Then there was the news that the club had seemingly tried to keep the news from going public by paying him off to the tune of £50,000.

These were two of the worst stories to hit football for years.

In the circumstances, our game at title rivals Manchester City seemed superfluous and of little relevance. However, on a personal level, I had just endured a tiring and stressful week at work, and certainly viewed the trip north as a gratifying distraction from the previous five days of toil.

As always, Chelsea Football Club often acts as a wonderful counter-balance to the humdrum of our daily routines.

At 6.30am I collected PD and we headed north. He too had endured a tough old week at work. We soon came to the conclusion that although a win would be unbelievably fine, a draw at Eastlands would suffice. I was under no illusions that this would probably be our toughest away game of the season. Manchester City are arguably the richest club in the world. They have one of the brightest managers in the world. And they are clearly blessed with some of the league’s star players.

This would be a tough nut to crack.

We picked up Dave en route at Stafford train station; the last time I did this was before the Gerrard “slip” game at Anfield in 2014. We reminisced and hoped for a similarly positive outcome. Dave was in agreement too, though; a draw would be just fine.

I ate up the miles, drifted around the Manchester orbital, and made my way through the red brick terraced streets of Denton and Gorton. We were parked up at about 11.15am. The weather was mild. The grey skies of Manchester were so familiar. The roof supports of the City stadium were away in the distance. It was a familiar walk along Ashton New Road, past the sparkling City training complex, possibly the most impressive sports facility of them all. Sheikh Mansour has certainly made his mark on this particular part of inner-city Manchester.

On every trip to the Etihad, there seems to be new décor splashed on the walls and spirals outside. City are no longer the club of locals; a display advertised supporters clubs from all over the world.

Timperley, Ancoats, Cheadle, Hyde but also Scandinavia, Malaysia, San Francisco and Ghana.

A quick chat with Kev from Edinburgh, and a few others, and then inside. There is the usual severe security check at City. I had to plead with the chief steward to allow me to take my camera in. I’d have to be a bit wary though; a game of cat-and-mouse would certainly take place.

We had heard that Cesc Fabregas was in for Nemanja Matic. It was our first team change in two months. We presumed an injury to Matic had forced Conte’s hand. It might have caught Guardiola by surprise; no doubt he was expecting the usual suspects.

There were many familiar faces in the middle tier at the Etihad. Everywhere I looked were friends from near and far. We may be – gulp – one of the biggest clubs in the world these days (this still sounds preposterous to me) but it is lovely that there is still a close-knit and homely feel to our support, especially at domestic away games.

Kev, Bryan, Julia, Tim, Tom, Ian, Kev, Tim, Maureen, Stan, Cathy, Dog, Becky, Fiona, Ronnie, Rob, Callum, Pam, the two Robs, Alex, John, Alan, Gary, David, Allie, Nick, Glenn, Karen, Alex, Adam, Nick, Paul; plus the supporters without names, those you only know on nodding terms. It’s great. The away club.

Last season at the corresponding fixture, there was Argentina ’78 style tickertape announcing the opening of the new third tier but as the teams entered the pitch just prior to the 12.30pm start, City’s support seemed quite subdued. The PA was loud and drowned out conversations. Down below however, in the shared lower tier, City flags were waved furiously. Elsewhere, empty seats were discernible. City’s support has always held strong, but it has been severely tested with the building of extra tiers. I have a feeling that the third tier at the other end, intended to bring a capacity up to around 62,000, might be shelved for the foreseeable future.

The minute of silence, announced in both English and Portuguese, for the dead of Chapecoense was perfectly observed.

What a tight and enjoyable first-half. City no doubt edged it but we played some super stuff at times. Very soon into the game, maybe after a quarter of an hour, I turned to PD and said “we’re doing OK here.” And we were. City were continually asking questions of us with their quick and nimble players De Bruyne, Silva and Aguera darting in and around our box, but we were able to hold firm.

Although the away support is split over three levels at City, we were all doing our best to rally behind the troops. There was even a raucous “OMWTM” up above, which we were happy to join in with.

I loved the way that David Luiz broke up many City attacks with an interception by head and foot; but not an agricultural hoof up field. Instead, a gently-cushioned touch to a nearby team mate. He was at his best. He has been tremendous since his two years away in Paris.

Eden Hazard came close from distance, with a low shot just missing its intended target. Our movement of the ball was pleasing me. We were keeping the ball, getting City to chase after us.

However, as the half continued, City caused us more and more problems. Aguero forced a fine save from Thibaut. Out wide, they were doubling up and exposing us. De Bruyne whipped in a few perfect crosses. We were getting edgy in the away end. Fernandinho headed home from a De Bruyne free-kick but was adjudged to be off-side.

“Phew.”

Aguero broke down below and Luiz challenged.

The home fans were incandescent with rage that the referee saw nothing. I bobbled nervously on tip-toe.

Another “phew.”

Victor Moses was cruelly exposed and Silva was able to run in behind him, but thankfully Gary Cahill threw himself and the kitchen sink at Aguero’s shot.

Another “phew.”

Just as the half was nearing completion, a Jesus Navas cross caused panic inside the box. This time, Cahill’s kitchen sink diverted the ball past Courtois and in to the net, a calamitous deflection. The City fans suddenly woke up. They had been ridiculously quiet – Everton standards – all game, but at last they were involved.

“We’re not really here. We are not. We’re not really here.”

Indeed.

At the break, I was praising a fine game, but others were surprisingly down beat. I thought we were in it. None of our players were playing poorly. I was hopeful for my predicted draw, but surely not much more. On the TV screen was former City goalkeeper Alex Williams, who was in goal back in 1984 for Pat Nevin’s infamous penalty miss. On the pitch was an inane competition involving Team Santa and Team Elf, but I can’t describe what it entailed as I avoided it. Such entertainment might go down well in American sports, but the cynical English avoid it and turn our collective backs.

The second-half began and for a while, City dominated. They broke at pace and caused us more problems. Sane fed in De Bruyne but Courtois saved well. Conte replaced Pedro with Willian, who soon shot wide. Some Keystone Cops defending allowed Aguero to nip in after a poor Alonso back-pass but Cahill was able to block. It felt we were certainly riding our luck. Everyone in the away end was standing. Who needs seats? The Chelsea support was good and earnest. We never stopped. Then, another moment of high drama, with De Bruyne striking the bar from only a few yards out. City were wasting chance after chance. Their fans were still pretty quiet though.

On the hour, Cesc Fabregas picked out Diego Costa with a sublime lofted ball that an NFL quarterback would have been happy with. Diego was one on one with Otamendi after he chested the ball in to space with a delightful touch. He advanced, sold Bravo a dummy, picked his spot and slotted home. We went berserk.

“GET IN.”

There was my 1-1.

I grabbed my camera – redundant all game – and took a photo of Diego pointing towards the skies.

Fantastic.

This resembled a heavyweight boxing match now, with punches being thrown by both protagonists. Moses was full of running, and so too Willian, who thankfully chose to run at his defenders rather than across the field, as so often is the case. Conte had obviously instructed him to test City’s leaky defence. The noise in the away end increased.

“Hey Jude” was sung by both sets of fans at the same time.

On seventy minutes, the ball broke for Diego Costa who out-maneuvered a pensive City defender before slotting a perfectly-weighted ball – with just the correct amount of fade – in to the path of that man Willian. We watched, on our toes, hearts in our mouths, expectant, waiting. He advanced and struck early. I was able to see the course of the ball elude Bravo, hit the back of the net, catch a glimpse of the Chelsea fans in the lower tier explode, and then lose myself as I was engulfed by fellow fans, grabbing hold of me, pushing me, screaming praise. The players swarmed below me. There were riotous scenes everywhere.

2-1.

Fackinell.

I photographed Willian and Luiz in a solemn moment of remembrance, holding up black armbands, no doubt thinking of their fellow Brazilians.

This was fantastic stuff, but there was still twenty long minutes to go.

I became ridiculously nervy. I watched the clock continually. I became obsessed by it.

Around me, one name was dominating.

“Antonio. Antonio. Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

Diego slumped to the floor and for a few odd moments, was sat behind the City ‘keeper midway in the City half as play developed at the other end. I presumed he had cramp. He was replaced, not by Batshuayi but by Chalobah. City rang some changes too; the spritely Iheanacho and Clichy, the bulky Toure.

The clock was ticking. We were almost there.

This was a superb performance. Moses and Willian had run their socks off throughout the second-half, aided by the masterful Luiz and competent Cahill. Diego Costa had produced one of the great attacking performances; he had been quite unplayable. And there was still time for one more additional Chelsea dagger to the heart of City.

A long ball out of defence from Marcos Alonso picked out Eden Hazard. With so much space around him, he easily swept past a lone City defender and advanced. My camera was out now for good. I focused on him.

Click.

Click.

Click.

Click.

Click.

He swept the ball home and we exploded again.

I was grabbed by a million different hands, pushed sideways, forward and back, but was able – gasping – to capture the celebrations down below me. As always, the David Luiz leap of ecstasy on top of the pile of bodies, but also a Cesc Fabregas fist pump towards our fans.

Manchester City 1 Chelsea 3.

Oh my.

Soon after, a wild and reckless challenge by Aguero on Luiz left our defender sprawling.

Just as I turned to say to a friend that this felt one of the landmark away performances by Chelsea Football Club, all hell broke loose down on the far touchline. Players pushed each other, players swarmed around the referee, hands were raised. A Chelsea player appeared to walk back on to the pitch from the stands. What on Earth? As the dust settled, we counted up the players on the pitch. City were down to nine.

Rusholme Ruffians, indeed.

Alan whispered “can’t believe we didn’t get anyone sent off there.”

I agreed.

There was still time for Willian to drill at Bravo; possibly only our fourth shot on target all game long.

At last, the whistle.

Top.

We were euphoric. I waited to capture Conte and the team on their triumphant walk down towards us. Conte with a wide smile, hugging Cahill and Chalobah. The Chelsea fans were bouncing, breathless with joy. It had been a stunning performance. We slowly drifted out of the stadium.

A blonde, wearing Chelsea leggings, had been watching the entire game in front of us. She was one of the last to leave. I was just glad that Parky wasn’t with me.

Ha.

There were songs as we exited the stadium, and handshakes with many outside before we met up with Kev and Dave, who had watched all four goals from the very first row of the lower tier. We were all gasping for air. I bumped into Neil Barnett, the match-time host at Stamford Bridge, and I joyfully reminded him of the derisory comments that he had made about virtually all of the first team squad in Ann Arbor in the summer. For once he was silent.

We laughed.

We were both effusive with praise about our win – he agreed that it had been a landmark win – but also the ridiculous turnaround since Arsenal.

I was deadly serious as I looked him in the eye and said – “it’s a miracle.”

He agreed again.

“It is.”

We hugged and went on our way.

PD, Dave and I bounced back to the car. It was one of those moments. One of the great performances over the past few seasons.

This was not from the bottle; this was a special one.

It took forever to get out of the city, but the three of us were delirious. The Chuckle Bus had never been happier. We spoke of how wonderful football can be, and how lucky we had been to witness it.

“Bloody hell, it’s great when we go away from a game knowing that we will still be top tomorrow, even next Friday.”

“Superb.”

And with more hope than expectation I even said “you never know, Bournemouth might even take a few points off Liverpool tomorrow.”

We stopped off in Stafford for an amazing buffet at a Chinese restaurant, just a few minutes away from the M6. It topped off a brilliant day in support of The Great Unpredictables. We were so enamored by the place that we vowed to return. We began planning an FA Cup run involving away games against Stafford Rangers, Stoke City, Port Vale, Crew Alexandra and Macclesfield Town so we could keep returning.

What a laugh.

We said our fond goodbyes to Dave and I headed south, getting home at around 9pm, just in time for the first game on “Match of the Day.”

Perfect.

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Tales From The Magic Of The Cup.

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 21 February 2016.

For the first time in ages, two cars from my home town of Frome in Somerset traveled up together for a Chelsea home game. In the Chuckle Bus, I drove up with Glenn, PD and Parky, while Martin and his fourteen year old son Morgan followed us as we headed towards London. I had bumped into Martin at the Frome Town versus Chippenham Town game on the Saturday, and we had arranged to travel up together, with Martin a little uneasy about navigating the streets of Hammersmith and Fulham in order to find a parking place.

I had thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Southern League fixture. Despite blustery conditions and a soft pitch, relegation-haunted Frome defeated high-flying local rivals Chippenham 1-0, and – all of a sudden – a precarious position in the relegation places didn’t seem to be so terminal. I had not seen my home town team play since a game against Cirencester in October, due mainly to a ridiculous procession of postponements, and I was genuinely excited at the prospect of watching a long-overdue home game. Frome had played six successive away games, getting fine draws in the last three, and were in desperate need of a win to spark a revival.

A new stand, providing cover for several hundred along one touchline – but not yet fully operational – is the latest in a line of ground improvements undertaken since 2012, and the stadium now looks more professional with each passing season.  I wandered down to the touchline at the start of the second half and could not help but notice that the cavernous roof amplifies the most subdued of conversations from the watching supporters. Once it is all completed, it could house a noisy section of the home support.

I approve.

Frome’s home ground now has substantial cover on all four sides. That we maintain our position in the seventh tier of English football is becoming more and more important to me. I have rediscovered a love of non-league football after the best part of two decades away, and as I have said before, it provides a lovely balance to my fanaticism for Chelsea.

In fact, as I awoke on the Sunday morning, I remembered my roar which met Frome’s winning goal against Chippenham. It was genuine and heartfelt. It made me reflect on things. I actually wondered if I would have trouble getting “up” for two important games on consecutive days.

And I thought about my support of Chelsea, my support of Frome Town, and how the two can co-exist. I didn’t dwell too much on it. I didn’t want it to drag me down or spoil my day, but it did make me think. Chelsea will always come first, but I have to acknowledge how my enjoyment of seeing my home town, which continues to punch above its weight both culturally and sportingly, grows and grows with each year.

I saw my first ever “proper” football match at Frome Town in 1970 and, as time marches on, who is to say that when I reach my latter years I will be returning “home” to Frome Town with increasing regularity?

I am not so sure that the Chuckle Bus will be rolling to Stamford Bridge when I reach my ‘eighties.

Maybe, there will be a conversation which might take place in the year 2046.

“Have you got your ticket for the Frome Town versus Chelsea FA Cup tie, Chris?”

“I’ve got bloody two. One in each end. I just don’t know which one to fackin’ use.”

Before joining up with the usual suspects in The Goose, Glenn and myself enjoyed a small pub crawl of our own, taking in “The Cock And Hen” (where I had my first-ever alcoholic drink at Chelsea in 1984 : Leeds 5-0, oh yes) and then over the road in “The Malt House.”

We chatted about the team, of course, but also turned the conversation on ourselves, and spoke about how things have, in a subtle way, become a little more chilled-out and reflective since a night in Munich almost four years ago. We are both thoroughly enjoying this season, and as Glenn said, it reminds him of the Ruud Gullit era when we just couldn’t be guaranteed what result Chelsea would provide each game. He smiled as he told the story about a conversation between him and some acquaintance that he bumped in to recently in town.

“Don’t suppose you are seeing Chelsea much this season?”

“Sorry?”

“This season. Chelsea.”

“Of course I am. You think I only go when we are winning?”

Glenn looked at me and rolled his eyes.

“Some people just don’t get it do they, Chris?”

“Indeed they don’t.”

In “The Goose” I was relieved to hear that the Chelsea programme had, at the second attempt, managed to combine the correct photograph of dear Tom with Alan’s touching eulogy.

There was a little talk of Alan and Gary’s trip to Paris. Thankfully, after various concerns, the whole event passed with no real incident, and they both seemed to enjoy themselves. It had been a fine, mature performance from us, and sets things up beautifully for the return leg in March.

Fair play to West Ham United for taking seven thousand to Ewood Park for their FA Cup tie, which we halfheartedly watched in the pub. For a team with little silverware, there is obviously a desire among their support to cheer their team all of the way to Wembley. I fancy them to do well in the competition this year.

The magic of the cup certainly exists for them.

I was inside Stamford Bridge with time to spare.

In and around our usual seats, there were many unfamiliar faces. Some regulars had evidently decided to stay at home to watch the game on the Beeb, but it was pleasing to see some youngsters dotted around. One little lad, sitting down below Glenn, was one of the youngest supporters that I have seen in our section for ages; he was no more than five, replica shirt on, excitement raging.

I had heard whispers than Manchester City had returned some of their allocation, but it was evidently too late in the day to sell them on to Chelsea supporters. A block of around five hundred in the Shed Upper were empty. This surprised me to be honest. Surely a club with aspirations on being one of the major players in not only English football, but across Europe too, could have done better. I immediately thought back to our FA Cup game on a similar Sunday in 2014, when we took close on 6,000 up to the Etihad. In 2016, City had brought barely 2,500 down to London.

It was a poor show.

Alan commented that he found it surprising. When City plummeted down through the Football League a while back, residing in the third tier for one season in 1998/1999, they managed to keep a sizeable support base. And now, with success commonplace, they were struggling to show up in numbers for the FA Cup’s tie of the round.

There were stories of course of City’s sour-faced manager Manuel Pellegrini playing a purposefully weakened team – with a key Champions League tie in Kiev in midweek – and as I scanned the line-ups, there could not be a greater contrast. Chelsea’s starting eleven was completely unchanged from the PSG game, while City’s team contained few first-teamers, a couple of fringe players, plus many youngsters that I had not previously heard of.

Garcia, Garcia, Adarabioyo, Celina, Ineanacho, Faupala.

It sounded like a Latino version of “Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub.”

The news that we were fielding a very strong team was met with the “thumbs up” in the boozer beforehand. It emphasised yet again how seriously we take the competition. With the FA floating the idea of abandoning cup replays – and thereby scraping yet more luster from the tradition of the world’s oldest football competition – at least we could hold our head up high. Over the past twenty years, we have continually fielded strong teams, and played to full houses at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup. Last season’s patchwork team against Bradford City was a rare deviation from the Chelsea way.

The FA Cup? We take it seriously.

Of course, in this strangest of seasons, the cup represented our strongest chance of silverware. As the game began, on a mild afternoon, I hoped for a safe passage into the hat for the quarter final draw at 6pm.

City appeared before us in a ghastly highlighter yellow away kit and began the game slightly livelier, with Faupala breaking away and causing Thibaut Courtois to save low at the near post. Despite a stronger team, on paper, there was already nervousness among the home fans. Gary Cahill collapsed on the grass, and we feared the worst. With Kurt Zouma out for months, and John Terry out too, the last thing that we wanted was another defensive problem. Thankfully, he soon recovered.

Soon after, a delightful interchange between Cesc Fabregas and Pedro resulted in a shot which bounced back off the far post with Caballero well beaten.

Around me there was little noise. The City fans sang the occasional ditty, but in general things were rather tame. The game, despite occasional flashes, was struggling to ignite. We were enjoying possession, but – well, you know the rest.

Thankfully, with ten minutes to go in a rather disappointing first-half, a lovely Chelsea move carved City apart. Fabregas was allowed space to flick a ball outside to Eden Hazard, who had been rather quiet until then. His pinpoint cross was headed home by a completely unmarked, but masked, Diego Costa. It was a goal of crisp simplicity. At last, Stamford Bridge flickered to life.

Phew.

City, despite an early flourish, had not made major inroads into our defence, so it was with a fair degree of surprise that they equalised in the very next move. The ball was played down the right, and one of the Pugh twins pushed the ball in to the box. Cesar Azpilicueta, back-peddling, covering ground, re-positioning under pressure, could only kick the ball against Faupala, and the ball ricocheted in.

Bollocks.

The City youngsters, a blur of yellow, celebrated right in front of the Chelsea fans in the far corner.

We came close with efforts from Pedro and Willian, but we were level at the break.

Daryl joined us at half-time. He was evidently sitting close by, not in his usual season ticket seat, but was hopeful that there was a spare seat near us, since the people that he was sitting alongside were evidently getting on his “thruppeny bits” with their constant moaning and grumbling.

“Where do these people come from?”

I had my own problems. I was now sweating on a potential replay, which would put the kibosh on our planned jaunt to Norwich in ten days’ time. I have taken two days’ holiday, and booked the usual suspects in to a hotel for that one. A replay at Eastlands would royally bugger those plans up.

A Chelsea win please, oh footballing Gods.

Meanwhile, there was no magic of the cup for Tottenham, 1-0 losers at home to Palace.

It was a lively start to the second-half, thankfully, and within three minutes Willian collected a pass from Eden Hazard, and adeptly struck a low shot past Caballero at the far post.

“Get in.”

2-1 and the trip to Norwich was on again.

The crowd were buoyed again, and the players seemed keener to attack at will. A Hazard cross was deflected towards Gary Cahill who took a swipe at the ball. It slammed in to the net, too low and – ironically – too close for the ‘keeper to adjust and block.

3-1 and more noise.

Songs of Wembley and of Frankie Lampard…scoring two hundred…against the pikies.

Some of our play was wonderful to watch, albeit against a team of rusty fringe players and youngsters with too many vowels in their names. Pedro particularly took my eye, with his energy and enthusiasm. His spins and runs were almost Willianesque. On many occasions, Fabregas played that killer ball, the one which dissects centre-back and full-back. When played correctly, it is so pleasing to watch. Of course, it only works if the runner trusts the player in possession to pass. So often under Mourinho, that trust seemed to be missing. Of course, confidence helps, but for a while our play was fantastic. There were signs that we were back to our best.

Baba, after a fine game in Paris, continued to race up and down the left flank at will. Where there was concern, there are now glimmers of hope.

Hazard was fouled centrally and we wondered if he or Willian would take the free-kick.

Eden struck and sent it goal wards. Caballero appeared to be stuck in cement.

4-1.

“Yes.”

I now had dreams of cricket scores, or at least hockey scores. After four, I always start dreaming.

Hiddink replaced Costa and Pedro with Traore and Oscar.

Demichelis was adjudged to have fouled Traore down below us – a little harsh to be honest – but Oscar tamely hit the penalty kick at the City ‘keeper, who palmed it away.

It stayed 4-1.

Mikel, with another steadying performance (“it’s my ball, and you are not taking it off me”) was replaced by Matic, and he was given a standing ovation. Whereas there were elements, possibly, of sarcasm at Crystal Palace, the singing of his new song, and the warm applause meted towards him, proved to me how much he means to large segments of the Stamford Bridge crowd.

Even Glenn, never his biggest fan, has warmed to him of late.

Traore, neat in possession and confident too, struck the post, but then was luckier when he flicked on an Oscar cross, which looped up and over the hapless ‘keeper and in to the only unguarded two square feet of the entire goal.

5-1.

Job well and truly done.

To be fair to the travelling City fans, virtually all of them stayed until the end, and I commend them for that.

Back at the car, we learned that we had been paired with an away trip to Goodison Park for the quarter final tie.

Six thousand tickets up for grabs? Who’s in?

I know that I am. It’ll be some occasion. My favourite away ground and an invading army of Chelsea fans.

Superb.

[…incidentally, Daryl’s annoying neighbours left with ten minutes to go. The magic of the cup only goes so far, it seems]

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Tales From A Litmus Test.

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 16 August 2015.

It was around 8.30am. Parky and I were briefly summarising our start to the season, and our hopes for our game at Manchester later in the day. I was being truthful when I told him that I wasn’t looking forward to the day as I ought to be. There was no specific reason, but I suspect that the fear of defeat was breathing heavily down my neck. Was there anything else, more sinister perhaps, to be the reason for my melancholy about another trip north? I honestly wasn’t sure. I know that I have often spoken about the thoughts that I have regarding my level of support for Chelsea Football Club and the – whisper it – inevitably that it might start to wane. As I entered the M4 on the slip road a few miles to the north of Chippenham, I admitted to Parky “that moment will come.”

Like King Canute and the incoming tide, once that moment strikes, there will be little I will be able to do to stop it. As I headed north, with the weather turning sunny one moment and cloudy the next, I wondered if the day, and the key encounter with one of our biggest title challengers, might prove to be some sort of litmus test for my support over the coming season.

I was ready to be tested.

Of course the football season of 2015/2016 was only in its infancy, but there were already thoughts about the madness of modern football, with all of its associated nonsense. At Chelsea, of course, in addition to the dropping of – shock horror – home points against Swansea City, we had to endure the fall out of the “Eva-Gate” revelations during the rest of that first week. Sometimes, I just have to shake my head at the antics of those connected with football. Sometimes I wish it really was “only a game.” As the week unfolded, with respective factions taking pot shots across the bows, I watched from behind my sofa, through my fingers held up to my face, just as many children of my generation apparently did when “Doctor Who” was shown on TV. Oh to be a psychiatrist with Jose Mourinho as a patient, trying to understand his complex personality. Is everything that he does stage managed to perfection? Is everything part of some grand Machiavellian plan? Does he have an “edge” on everyone? Is this desire to lay blame elsewhere a natural or manufactured trait?

In an email to some pals on the Friday, I jested that I would ensure that I was given a parking ticket in Manchester on the Sunday, so that it would give Mourinho something to get the media talking about rather than the inadequacies of his players during a possible defeat against City.

Yes, it had been a crazy first week of the season alright. There had been some daft knee-jerk reactions from parts of the media – lauding Claudio Ranieri after two wins, castigating Dick Advocat after just two losses, even niggling away at Louis Van Gaal after just three shots on goal – but the media’s obsession with Eva Carneiro just about tipped me over the edge. Thankfully, acting as a lovely balance against the madness of modern football and its obsession with the cult of personality, I watched my local non-league team Frome Town eke out a creditable 1-1 draw with a very impressive Merthyr Town side on a lovely Wednesday evening. It stirred my spirits and I almost enjoyed it as much as the Chelsea game against another Welsh side, Swansea City, a few days before.

As an aside, it irritated me that Carneiro was erroneously portrayed as a club physio on at least one BBC news report. The corporation should know better.

Additionally, I have never been able to fathom the hold that Carneiro has on some of our support. Have these people never seen a woman before?

Back to the football.

The trip north – oh so familiar over the past ten years – was going well, but I was still not getting that match day tingle. We drove past The Hawthorns, scene of our last domestic away game in May, and a three-nil defeat which meant little. Up on to the M6 and the traffic was fine. We spotted a Manchester City car, boasting a sticker for the Weymouth Blues. The skies cleared and I ate up the miles. It was a familiar drive in to the city of Manchester and one which has almost become automatic for me; the Manchester Orbital, past Old Trafford, past Salford Quays, past the Salford Lads Club, right in to the city centre.

I parked up at midday, four hours after collecting Parky.

Out in to the bright Mancunian sun, surrounded by the familiar red brick, I suddenly got the kick that I was hoping for.

Chelsea away in a northern city, four hours to kick-off, boom.

The buzz was back.

Fantastic.

Parky and myself spent an hour or so enjoying a couple of bottles of beer apiece in the bar of The Lowry Hotel, right in the heart of the city, overlooking a narrow “cut” of The River Erwell as it winds its way out to Salford and beyond. We had visited this hotel before our famous win at City in the 2013/2014 season – one of the best away days of recent memory – and I suppose it was the superstitious part of me that made me want to revisit. Just as we were about to leave, I spotted the black and gold of an Ellison coach pull up outside the main entrance. This was a sure sign that Chelsea, as I had hoped, had been staying in the hotel. We loitered around for a while, despite the overzealous questioning of a few hotel staff, and were able to wish the players well as they quietly walked through the lobby in their white Adidas tracksuits and on to the waiting coach.

Chris : “Good luck, Eden.”

Parky : “Score two for me today, Eden.”

There was no response, no eye-contact, from him, nor the others. They looked, as you probably might expect on such an important day, focussed and serious. From another direction, came the suited Mourinho, again deadly serious. He looked straight ahead as I wished him well. A gaggle of fans, no more than ten, were waiting outside and only John Terry and Diego Costa had stopped to sign and pose for photographs.

Back at the city centre car park – no word of a lie – a young attendant was sheepishly waiting by my car and handed me a £25 parking ticket.

“I blame Mourinho and his bloody team talk Parky.”

Bollocks.

“Is that a bad omen, Parky? Shall we bugger off home now?”

We were caught in a little traffic, but were parked up in our usual place – a £5 spot at a car wash on the Ashton New Road – only ten minutes from the stadium.

Since the last visit of almost twelve months ago, another Sunday afternoon game, Manchester City’s stadium had been enlarged by a further seven thousand seats, with a high third tier now sitting on top of the south stand. The San Siro style exit ramps still exist at the sides, but the new stand has an encased look, with dull grey cladding at the bottom and windows above. It hardly adds to the aesthetic appeal of The Etihad. Down below, many familiar Chelsea faces were milling around. I met up with Alan and Gary. Alan handed me my match ticket, plus the one for West Brom the following Sunday. It was just after three o’clock. There were handshakes and a few grimaces.

“Take a draw today, son.”

More than one acquaintance admitted that Mourinho had been “a bit of a tit” regarding his outburst against Carneiro and Fearn.

There was ample time for a meet and greet with a few more friends in the bar area of the concourse of the middle tier. Inside the stadium, I was immediately met with the sight of five huge banners, held aloft by helium balloons, yet tethered by some folks at pitch level, announcing the new tier on the south stand. There was quite a festive feel. The new structure would bring the capacity up to around 55,000.

Two things to note.

City have been quite crafty in allowing away supporters into the new top tier too. The support, three thousand strong (at £58 a ticket, no less), was now split in to three tiers, thus making it rather difficult for all of us to synchronise the singing. I always thought that slicing our away section in to two at City resulted in a sub-standard noise level. With three thin sections, piled high upon each other, it would be even more difficult to get our support together.

As I have said before, I have always linked City and Chelsea historically; loyal, yet undervalued support, a sprinkling of trophies over many years, now powerhouses in the new order, with foreign investment bringing new levels of success and expectation. I will watch with great interest to see if City manage to fill those extra 7,000 seats on a weekly basis, what with our new stadium plans taking shape at the moment. It’s a litmus test for City, and maybe one for us too.

The team was announced.

Begovic – Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta – Matic, Fabregas – Willian, Hazard, Ramires – Diego Costa.

The loud PA stoked up the home support, with various players featuring on the TV screens – “I play for you” – interspersed with the faces of fans – “I sing for you.”

“I play for you.”

“I sing for you.”

“I play for you.”

“I sing for you.”

“I play for you.”

“I sing for you.”

I remember commenting on something similar last season.

As the teams entered the pitch, the banners moved infield, and streamers cascaded down on to the pitch from the excited Citizens in the new tier above. With so many sky blue and white streamers filling the air, it reminded me of Argentina 1978.

Alan, Gary and I were in the middle of the middle tier, but right next to the home support.

“Lovely.”

The Chelsea support stood the entire game, which is nothing new.

From the whistle – Diego Costa to Willian – I was in to it.

Reports of my demise had been exaggerated.

Sadly, we lost possession straight away and a sublime ball from David Silva reached the run of Sergio Aguero. We held our breath, but Asmir Begovic saved well.

At the other end, Diego Costa fell in the box but I was unsighted. Down in front of us, City were coming at us at will, but Begovic saved magnificently on two separate occasions from the tormentor in chief Aguero. Our possession always looked like it would soon be coming to an end. A rare Matic header was our only effort which caused Hart to save. City were in the ascendency. Another Aguero chance went begging and as I looked across at the baying City fans, one chap was signalling “it could be 4-0.”

I silently agreed.

Just after the half-hour, the ball found Aguero yet again and he edged himself past Gary Cahill to fire City in front, the ball agonisingly coming off the inside of the far post.

We threatened momentarily, but City had dominated the first period. Our play was laboured and slow. Hazard was quiet. Fabregas, save for a couple of rare tackles, woeful. There were few positives.

Then, in the closing minutes, pure comedy.

An injured Gary Cahill needed attention in the goal mouth down below.

“Oh no.”

On came two unknown Chelsea assistants, scurrying like mad, and attended to our defender. The home sections of the stadium erupted in mirth.

“Sacked in the morning, you’re getting sacked in the morning.”

Only the hardest of Chelsea souls could not find that just a little amusing. I caught Alan having a little smirk to himself. In the lower tier to my right, the City fans were singing “Eva, Eva, Eva.”

After us singing Frank Lampard’s name last season and City singing Eva Carneiro’s name this season, this was getting pretty surreal.

What next?

Chelsea singing the praises of Eddie Large?

Next to receive attention was Diego Costa, clumped by a City defender, but away in the other half. Again, I was unsighted. As he walked off, head bandaged, he seemed to be overly agitated and Ivanovic – I think – had to steer him away from a City player.

At the break, there was the grim realisation that it could have been 4-0 to City. There were long faces everywhere I looked. After dismissing City as a main threat for our title before the season, I was having to re-evaluate, but yet a little voice inside my head kept saying “this is only the second game, don’t judge just yet.”

At the start of the second period, it was announced that Kurt Zouma was coming on as a substitute. My immediate thought was that Mourinho was looking to strengthen the midfield and maybe take off Ramires, put Zouma alongside Matic, and move Fabregas forward.

No. I got that wrong.

Kurt Zouma replaced John Terry.

What?

I had to think back to see if JT had received a knock. That was Gary Cahill injured before the break, surely. I just couldn’t compute that John Terry had been substituted.

Thankfully, much to our surprise, we enjoyed an upturn during the first part of the second-half. The increase in aggression and passion quickly inspired the away contingent to rally. We did our best to support the boys.

A break found Fabregas down below us in the inside-left channel and his lofted pass found Ramires, who controlled the ball and stabbed the ball past Hart. There was an instant roar of approval, but then the gnawing realisation that a linesman had flagged for offside. The City fans alongside us became animated and agitated. They mocked us for our false joy. I just looked across at them and mocked them similarly.

“Alright, calm down for fuck sake.”

Our play had improved since the first-half. Our chances on goal were rare, but we had definitely stepped up a gear.

Mourinho then replaced Ramires, one of the biggest improvements in my mind, with the much-maligned Juan Cuadrado. I am sure that there was a communal shake of the head among the Chelsea supporters inside the stadium and out. Our winger was much-heralded when he signed for us in February for around £24M. Since then, he has disappointed in nearly all of his subsequent games. There is a little part of me who thinks that Mourinho sees him as the 2015 version of Tal Ben Haim, a player so suspiciously “un-Chelsea like” in quality as to warrant the view that Mourinho only bought him, and kept picking him, as a mark of bitterness towards the lack of funds afforded him by the board.

Or is that me being too cynical?

With twenty minutes remaining, and the game delicately poised, a fine move – our best of the match – involving Eden Hazard and Diego Costa almost brought dividends. Diego lost his marker and played in Hazard, who made space well with a typical body shake, but Hart saved well.

We groaned a million “fackinells.”

Radamel Falcao, booed by City for his past season in Salford, entered the fray, replacing Willian, who had begun to tire. There were calls, tongue in cheek, for Falcao to replace Cuadrado. I was always told that it is not advisable to make substitutions before defending a corner. Falcao’s first three seconds of match action resulted in Kompany rising high above Ivanovic.

Bollocks.

2-0.

No way back now.

Insult was added to injury in the last five minutes when Fernandinho fired home from an angle. The home fans exploded in untold glee.

3-0.

Ugh.

In the dying embers, Diego Costa hit the post.

The City fans were in their element.

“Champions of England, you’re having a laugh.”

At the final whistle, a couple of the lads in front of me reached over to shake hands with the City supporters with whom they had been enjoying some good old-fashioned banter throughout the game. It was good to see. Despite a gut-wrenching defeat, I was deeply proud that not many Chelsea fans left before the end of the game.

I met up with Parky outside.

“That’s our second successive 3-0 away league defeat, Parky.”

Parky was with Kev, from Edinburgh, who last featured in these tales on our trip to wonderful Lisbon last autumn. I had managed to get a ticket for Kev before the game, and despite the loss, was full of thanks. Parky, maybe getting a little carried away, was looking forward to relegation and games against Bristol City and Cardiff City.

“Steady on, Parky, it’s not that bad mate.”

Our walk back to the car was alongside joyous sky-blue clothed locals. It was a strange feeling, to be honest. Despite the shifting sands of club rivalries, I still find it hard to genuinely hate City.

I ask you. If Chelsea fall short this season, would you rather that Arsenal, United, Liverpool or Tottenham won it?

Nah.

I wondered what Frank Lampard, in New York, thought about it all.

As with many trips to Manchester, music was in my thoughts throughout the trip. I had opened up the day on Facebook with a few lines from New Order :

“I feel so extraordinary.
Something’s got a hold on me.
I get this feeling I’m in motion.
A sudden sense of liberty.”

After a painful defeat, with home more than five hours away, I quickly decided upon a new update.

On this particular Sunday, it was now time to quote another Manchester son :

“Trudging back over pebbles and sand.”

On the drive south, with parts of the Chelsea supporter base no doubt going in to meltdown, Parky and myself were soon relaxing, enjoying each other’s company and looking forward to the next few games. As we sped past The Hawthorns, we made plans for our pre-match next Sunday. As Parky drank his ciders, I sang along – badly – to some music from the grim old ‘eighties.

I ate up the miles.

I was my usual philosophical self. It had been a tough game, but I was just so proud to be part of it. Hats off to those who continue to travel, to support, to keep the faith. I was so relieved that I had enjoyed the match day experience. I need not have been worried. Maybe the players had failed their test, but at least I had passed my own personal litmus test. I was happy for that at least.

After setting off for Manchester at 7.30am, I reached home at 11pm. It had been a long, tiring day.

Thankfully, I just missed our game on “Match Of The Day 2.”

Next Sunday, a Chelsea goal at West Bromwich Albion will be roared like a goal from our ne’er do well past. The noise will be deafening and the earth will shake.

See you there.

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Tales From On And Off The Pitch.

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 31 January 2015.

I was in my own little spell of Chelsea Mania. The trip to SW6 for the long-awaited appearance of Manchester City would be my fourth visit to Stamford Bridge within just eight days. In addition to the three Chelsea home games, encompassing FA Cup, League Cup and League, there was also the Chelsea Pitch Owners AGM on the Friday.

I don’t always attend these meetings; in fact, the sad truth is that, until the tumultuous events of autumn 2011, I had not bothered too much with the CPO. However, following the club’s toxic handling of the attempted buy-out, I have eagerly awaited any news emanating from the CPO. Other shareholders, I am sure, have felt the same. It certainly galvanised the shareholders and caused all of us to re-focus our thoughts on Stamford Bridge. I attended the EGM in 2011 and also the AGM in 2012, when feelings were still feverish, but did not attend any others. Why did I bother this year? I was keen to hear if there had been any substantial updates on the rumoured expansion plans of the stadium and also to see how the CPO was faring in general terms.

Around one hundred and twenty shareholders, to my reckoning, attended the meeting in the plush surroundings of the Hollins Suite on the third floor of the West Stand. The meeting lasted just over an hour-and-a-half. To be honest, it was all relatively quiet and calm, with few moments of heated discussion. Dan Levine – journalist, Chelsea supporter and CPO shareholder – had requested to be allowed to post immediate updates from the meeting via Twitter and this was put to the vote. It was carried.

It was announced that one of the company’s biggest objectives was to nullify the impact of the over-selling of approximately 1,500 new shares in the period leading up to the football club’s attempted buyout in 2011; that figure will be reached within the next two months.

Questions were asked from the floor regarding the plans to increase the capacity of Stamford Bridge. The CPO board confirmed that there had been no communication whatsoever between the football club and the CPO regarding this. So, no news on that score, unfortunately. I think that many in the room were hoping for progress on this, but alas not.

However, there had been consultation between the local council and 120 interested parties – stakeholders – including the CPO, regarding plans to upgrade the immediate area around the Stamford Bridge site. I, for one, was intrigued by this, since it shows a level of intent by the Hammersmith & Fulham council to develop the relationship between themselves and the football club. It hasn’t always been so. Any positive communication, of which this is a clear example, is to be lauded. It shows a desire by the council to work with Chelsea Football Club. Questions were asked about the size and scope of this possible improvement in the “streetscape” around Stamford Bridge, but very little detail was given. A brief mention of the planting of trees, benches and possible pedestrianized areas whetted my appetite (maybe it evoked memories of an urban geography course I took at college) but elsewhere such talking points were dismissed as being rather boring and not worthy of further elaboration. It was mentioned that Rick Glanvill – club historian and CPO shareholder – was counselled on a possible colour scheme for the area, and I had visions of Rick flicking through a book of pantone references, but there was little other detail. I was keen to ask about the geographical limits of this potential upgrade to the Stamford Bridge streetscape (I presumed it would stretch from the area outside the tube station along the Fulham Road to the railway bridge), but the moment soon passed and the discussion moved on.

There were questions about the selling of new shares, which carries on at a reasonable pace. The board reminded us that they took the decision to set up a “pay as you go” payment plan for those unable to lay out £100 in one hit. This was news to me, and a few others to be honest, but which was well received within the meeting. I raised the issue of overseas supporters and wondered if there had been a change in the geographical profile of new shareholders, since a desire to grow the share base around the world was mentioned at the 2012 AGM. I was pleased to hear that there had been an increase in supporters outside the UK buying new shares and I was keen to point out that, due to the vast size of our global support, this should be encouraged.

It was a good meeting and it was lovely to see a few familiar faces present. It still gives me great comfort to know that I am one of the 19,000 or so landlords of Stamford Bridge.

Chairman Steve Frankham’s statement can be found here :

http://www.chelseafc.com/fans/chelsea-pitch-owners/cpo-news/chairman_s-agm-statement.html

Details on how to buy shares are found here :

http://www.chelseafc.com/fans/chelsea-pitch-owners/buy-cpo-shares.html

It is worth noting that as I left Stamford Bridge after the meeting, I was approached by a tout who was asking after spare tickets for Saturday’s game.

Yep. This was going to be a big one alright.

It was my turn, once again, to drive to London. I travelled with Glenn and Parky. At Membury Services, just to the east of Swindon, we stopped at a Starbucks and Glenn spotted an old school mate – a Sheffield Wednesday fan – who was headed to their game at Reading with his wife. I remembered him from way back too, though I haven’t seen him around town for years. There was a time when Sheffield Wednesday was, briefly, one of our biggest rivals. The 1983-1984 Football League Division Two season has been detailed here before, but another mention will do no harm. In that wonderful campaign, six of English football’s big hitters found themselves in the second tier; Chelsea, Newcastle United, Manchester City, Leeds United, Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday. Although Leeds United’s promotion challenge, along with pre-season favourites Derby County, soon withered away, the other four battled for the top three places throughout the season. In the end, it was Manchester City who just missed out.

I wonder whatever happened to them.

During the next campaign, in addition to two feisty league games with Sheffield Wednesday, there were the classic three game set in the League Cup too. What a host of fantastic memories from thirty years ago. A trip to Hillsborough is long overdue.

Before hitting The Goose, we paid a quick visit to another Chelsea pub, a hundred yards further along the North End Road, The Old Oak. The place was rammed with Chelsea “of a certain generation” and we spotted a few mates. One day I’ll make sure I visit every single one of the many pubs which surround Stamford Bridge, although not in one day, unless Parky is buying.

We reached The Goose at around 3.30pm. A few of the lads had been “on it” since midday. The place was heaving. There were a few City fans dotted around. I was told that a few of them even had a little sing-song at the front of the pub. This is a very rare occurrence in The Goose. There was no trouble, though. In fact, their presence was probably the reason for a little spell of singing, which again is a rare event in The Goose.

There was no talk of Frank Lampard during the time I spent – ninety minutes – in the pub.

I reached the seats just as the teams entered the pitch. Again, the club had chosen to dim the lights in the same style as against Liverpool the previous Tuesday. Additionally, the four huge flags denoting out four European trophies hung proudly from the balcony of the MHU.

It was a lovely sight.

Forced to make changes, with no Fabregas and no Diego Costa, Mourinho chose Zouma ahead of Cahill and Remy ahead of Drogba.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Matic, Ramires – Hazard, Oscar, Willian – Remy.

There were four young’uns on the bench; Christensen, Loftus-Cheek, Ake, Brown.

The home crowd continued on in the same fashion from Tuesday against Liverpool, with greater noise levels than usual. Soon into the game, the MHL produced an x-rated ditty aimed at a Sky pundit who may not be allowed back to these parts ever again –

“Frankie Lampard – Your Cousin’s  A C**t.”

Although City brought a full three thousand, they were pretty quiet. I only remember one song of note –

“Champions of England, we know what we are.”

We countered with –

“Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that.”

This was entry-level banter and it never really got any better.

It was a rather tight first-half with chances at a premium. City probably had the best chances. Fernandinho shot wide, then Courtois was called in to action to save from Sergio Aguero. A John Terry error allowed Aguero a strike on goal, but the dangerous striker – always a threat in these games –  screwed wide. Elsewhere, there was passing and possession from both sides, but little penetration. A sublime tackle by Zouma on Aguero was given God-like status.

This boy looks good and – boy – we’ll let him know it.

With five minutes of the first-half to go, a fine deep cross from right to left by Ivanovic found Eden Hazard, who had stealth fully crept behind his marker. His first time cross was met by the unmarked Remy who slotted in from inside the six yard box.

Chelsea 1 Manchester City 0

Alan tee’d me up.

“Come On My Little Diamonds.”

There was an immediate thought of an eight point gap.

Ridiculously, we allowed City right back in to the game just before the break. City were allowed too much space down our right and Courtois, usually so trustworthy in the air, jumped but failed to stop a cross. The ball fell to Aguero who slammed the ball in and Silva dabbed past the stranded Courtois and the two Chelsea defenders standing on the posts.

Ugh.

If City had edged the first-half, they completely dominated the first part of the second period. City dominated possession and we constantly reshaped to soak up their probing. I was impressed with Ramires, ably closing down space and nibbling away at City attackers. Matic, too, was impressive. In contrast, this wasn’t one of John Terry’s best games. Alongside him, Zouma continued to shine.

With Chelsea starting to enjoy a little more possession, I spotted a familiar figure on the far touchline. Frank Lampard, track suit off, in City sky blue, stood next to his new manager Pellegrini.

Ugh.

Here we go, then.

He replaced Fernando.

Initially, I detected boos but these were soon drowned out by warm applause. No name calling – no “Super Frank” – like we experienced at City in the autumn, but just a growing number of Chelsea fans showing their pleasure in seeing an old friend by simply clapping. That this clapping soon morphed into a “Chelsea” chant was perfect. I was proud of my fellow fans. Well done.

I’ll be honest; I spent an inordinate proportion of my time during the remainder of the game keeping an eye on Frank.

My worry was obvious.

“Just put someone on Lampard” I whispered to Alan.

“Two if necessary.”

This was genuine concern amidst our nervous humour.

Please Frank – don’t score.

Mourinho rang the changes and on came Drogba, Cahill and Loftus-Cheek.

We kept them at bay. On at least one occasion, Frank gave the ball away.

“Good boy.”

With five minutes still to play, a few fans left. I was speechless. Not only were they missing the most crucial part of the game, they were also missing out on the chance to say thank you and farewell to one of our finest ever players.

“…mmm…maybe you were the ones booing. Best you leave, then.”

One last period of City pressure was repelled and the final whistle was met with relief all around me.

Phew.

Our first dropped points at home this season and a pretty dour performance. We shouldn’t complain, though. Robbed of two of his key players, this was typical Mourinho.

I watched as the players shook each other’s hands and there were embraces between others. All eyes were on Frank Lampard. He walked alone from The Shed towards us in the Matthew Harding. He clapped us and we reciprocated. No boos, no silliness.

I don’t know the intricacies of Frank’s departure from Chelsea, or the exact detail of his employment at New York City or his temporary deployment at Manchester City.

All I know is that at the away game in September and at the home game in February, on his long walk to say goodbye, there were no smiles from Frank.

He was sombre. He was alone with his thoughts.

He simply looked gutted – on both occasions – that it had to be like this.

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Tales From The Etihad.

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 21 September 2014.

I was on the road at 9.30am. It would be another long day in support of Chelsea Football Cub, and my third successive away game in the North-West.

Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire, Lancashire.

M4, M5, M6, M56, M60.

Leigh Delamere, Michaelwood, Gloucester, Strensham, Frankley, Hilton Park, Stafford, Keele, Sandbach, Knutsford.

West Bromwich Albion, Walsall, Manchester United, Manchester City.

In addition to myself and His Lordship, I was travelling north with Nick and James, two football-mad young’uns from Chippenham. Nick, the Chelsea fan, has been working in the same office as me for a couple of months. When a ticket or two became available for our clash with Manchester City, he jumped at the chance. Nick’s only other Chelsea away game was the League Cup tie at nearby Swindon Town a year ago.

This one was different gravy.

To be honest, it was different pie, chips and gravy.

There wasn’t the maddening traffic on the M6 as for the Burnley and Everton games, but it still took me five hours to park up at the usual place a few hundred yards from The Etihad, formerly the City of Manchester Stadium and formerly Eastlands. On the drive in, I’d given Nick and James – new to this part of England – a whistle stop tour of the area outside Old Trafford.

“Most United fans haven’t been here, lads.”

A few miles away, the sun was shining on the sky blue clad match-goers headed for The Etihad. The area around the stadium is flat and there is a sense of space.  City’s ground, about to be enlarged further after only ten years, has the feel of an American multi-purpose super stadium, with spiral staircases appended to the structure and large car parks adjacent to the bright bulk of the stadium.

Outside the away entrance, a gaggle of familiar faces.

I was able, thankfully, to sort out a couple of spare tickets for Greg, over from San Antonio in Texas for this one game, and his mate Jesse from Australia. I had taken Greg to Old Trafford during the 2006-2007 season, when we had called to see the new gleaming structure of City’s new pad en route to a quick visit to the iconic Salford Lads Club before the game in the red quarter of this city.

I was inside with an hour to spare and relaxed with a pint.

This was, unbelievably really, my tenth visit to City’s new stadium; I had visited Maine Road just three times.

I chatted to The Bristol Four about the possibility of Frank playing against us. There was a general consensus that should he play, his mind might well be muddled with emotion. There was a sense that this might work to our advantage. A couple hoped that he would stay on the bench. I wasn’t sure what to think. There was even some nonsense in the media about us booing him.

What?

Meanwhile, news came through of Manchester United’s incredible capitulation at Leicester City.

“Nice to see Van Gaal has shored up their defence.”

“Incredible.”

“That might ignite the City fans though.”

Inside the sky blue bowl, the two sets of players were finishing off their pre-match drills. My focus was drawn to a lone figure away in the distance. It was Frank Lampard, knocking balls to an unknown team mate. To be able to see Frank in the flesh, at a Chelsea match, but not part of Chelsea Football Club was a difficult sight to rationalise and make sense of.

The stadium slowly filled to capacity and the first few opening volleys took place between the two sets of supporters.

“Where’s your European Cup?”

“We are the champions, the champions of England.”

We were then treated to a montage of flashing iconic images of Manchester City history on the large TV screens in opposite corners of the stadium – from Paul Dickov to Sergio Aguero, from Dennis Tueart to Shaun Goater, from Mike Doyle to Vincent Kompany, from The Kippax to The Etihad – which was backed by a never-ending passage of ridiculous prose honouring “this city” which was delivered in an increasingly dramatic Mancunian drawl. It was full of emotive hyperbole.

“This is the city that was seemingly defeated after years of life in the shadows, yet we looked defeat squarely in the face and decided enough was enough and we rose as one, to come back to win, time after time, again, and again, and again, and again.”

It left me feeling exhausted.

“Fackninell. Turn it in, guv.”

With the kick-off just minutes away, the PA played “Blue Moon” and the home support grew livelier. Despite my comments to the Bristol Four in the concourse about the Manchester United defeat energising the City fans, the stadium had been relatively subdued until that point.

The Chelsea team contained nine ever-presents in the league campaign thus far. There was the usual mix of names in the seven defensive positions; Courtois in goal, Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta in defence and Matic and Fabregas in midfield. Hazard, one of the three attacking midfielders, had played in all the previous four league games and he would be facing City too. Jose Mourinho has only decided to mix things up this season in the final two positions of our attacking trio. On this sunny afternoon in Manchester, it would be the turn of Willian and Ramires, rather than Oscar and Schurrle, to play alongside Hazard. In attack, the last ever-present Diego Costa was recalled.

Here was a stable Chelsea team.

With City in all sky blue, it seemed to make our all royal blue kit look darker, more menacing. I approved. After the joy of last season – probably only bettered by the day out at Anfield – I was full of hope that we would get at least a point.

However, there is no doubt that the home team were quicker out of the traps. In fact, for the greater part of the first-half, Manchester City enjoyed the greater share of possession, and looked especially dangerous down the flanks. Cesar Azpilicueta, especially, was given the run-around. I was stood next to Gal, and we both sensed that we might concede an early goal. Thankfully, this never materialised. This was mainly due to some staunch defending and some errant City final balls.

We were soon in full voice, singing praise towards one of the home substitutes:

“Super, super Frank.”

Then a dig at City.

“Frankie Lampard – he’s won more than you.”

(It’s a nice story, but sadly City just edge it 13-11.)

The first-half was a feisty affair with referee Mike Dean quickly brandishing yellow cards in an attempt to gain control of the game. One of the early highlights was a physical tussle between Diego Costa and Vincent Kompany away in the distance. Yaya Toure, a player who always seems to dominate City’s play, was at the centre of the action, withholding Chelsea challenges, spraying passes and chipping impudently over our defence to play in others. As the first-half wore on, I was desperate for us to reach half-time unscathed.

However, for all of City’s possession, they rarely threatened our goal. This was a cagey and nervy game and was being played out in an increasingly muted atmosphere. The Chelsea support was split into two tiers, this making a sustained barrage of noise difficult. Last season’s game – the Mourinho master class – was a lot more open.

Our forays into the City half were short-lived affairs. It was almost as if our players were only given a limited supply of oxygen once their bodies had crossed the half-way line, and were soon scurrying back to renew their air supply.

“Come on, move it quicker Chelsea.”

Our midfield was constantly out-muscled and the memories of last season’s game seemed distant.

Only a flurry of late corners towards the end of the first-half gave us much to cheer. An Ivanovic header caused us to roar, but little else brought us any cheer. Down below, I momentarily spotted Nick and James in the second row of the lower tier and wondered what they thought of it all. I had promised them tons of noise in the away end, but I began to doubt myself.

Just before the second-half began, more music to inspire the home supporters; this time “Hey Jude.” How odd that a Liverpudlian band gets star billing at a Manchester stadium. Of course, it’s a song that we have adopted too, so we joined in at the key moments.

“La la la la – Chelsea.”

Chelsea attacked the three thousand away supporters in the second-half. It was still a cagey affair which had yet to fully ignite the passions of both sets of supporters. After fifty-five minutes the surprisingly quiet Sergio Aguero sent a low rasper towards our goal, but Courtois did well to drop his body low and block.

Jose brought on Mikel, who did well in last season’s game, and Schurrle, allowing Fabregas to move forward.

Zabaleta, already booked, tussled with Diego Costa, and in the ensuing debate between the native Argentinian and the native Brazilian – I’m tempted to call it argy-bargy – Mike Dean saw fit to give both a yellow card.

Zabaleta was off.

This stirred the pot nicely.

For the first real time, The Etihad erupted in noise. The stadium has yet to gain a reputation as a cauldron of noise – unlike the din which emanated from the low dark stands of Maine Road – but for a few moments the stadium was alive.

“Here we go, Gal. Let’s get in to them.”

Though – wait a minute. This is a Mourinho team. I imagined the awkwardness now coursing through our manager’s veins. The chance was there, but would he give the order to attack and exploit possible spaces in the City rear guard?

Initially, the signs were not good. With City back-peddling, I grew frustrated at our lack of desire to support each other by running into space. One or two spells of possession stumbled. There was a missing quotient of vitality. Then, the move of the game took us all, if I am honest, by surprise. A lovely passing move found the pacey run of Eden Hazard out on the right. His absolutely perfect ball into the penalty box evaded Joe Hart and super-sub Schurrle arrived to stroke the ball into the net.

Pandemonium in Manchester.

One player up, one goal up, we were winning at City again.

Get in.

For a few moments, both team and supporters were on fire. Diego Costa had been battling hard throughout the afternoon with little opportunity to test Hart. However, a leap and header gave us hope of a second, but the effort was saved. Straight after, our centre-forward wriggled away from a marker to give him enough time to strike a low shot at goal from inside the box. The shot rebounded off the base of Hart’s left post with the England ‘keeper beaten.

Ugh.

The City manager Pellegrini had previously brought on Sagna and Navas, but when a third substitute was seen warming up in front of the technical areas, the away fans did not need much coaxing to start a long and heartfelt song of praise.

“Super, super Frank.

Super, super Frank.

Super, super Frank.

Super Frankie Lampard.”

Yes, Frank was on the pitch and playing against us.

I’ll admit it.  It felt wrong. So wrong.

Yet we don’t know the exact wording of the contract that our beloved former player signed with New York City FC, nor the conversations that may or may not have taken place leading up to his loan period at Manchester City, nor his thoughts about playing in the Premiership against us.

It just felt so wrong.

Frank took his position in the centre of the field and lost control of a pass.

His next touch would be surreal.

A ball was played in by the terrier-like James Milner and a City player met it sweetly, steering it cleanly into Courtois’ goal, just inside the post. Within a split second, I realised who that player was.

It was Frank Lampard.

I turned away in disbelief.

Unbelievable.

My first immediate thoughts – instantly – were of the handful of Chelsea supporters who, on internet forums and chat pages – had denounced Frank on his loan move to Manchester City.

In my head, I heard the character in The Simpson’s pointing at us all.

“Ha ha.”

I banished the thought quickly as I saw Frank walk, crestfallen, slowly away from us, engulfed by his new City team mates. It was, of course, a stereotypical Frank Lampard goal.

Ugh.

Then, the arrow to the heart; the City fans mocking us.

“Super, super Frank.

Super, super Frank.

Super, super Frank.

Super Frankie Lampard.”

Ugh.

But then, pride as I joined in the singing of the exact same song.

“Super, super Frank.

Super, super Frank.

Super, super Frank.

Super Frankie Lampard.”

In over forty years of watching Chelsea, there have been no more surreal moments.

The rest of the match was rather a blur. Jose Mourinho brought on Didier Drogba who replaced Diego Costa.  So, Frank Lampard playing for Manchester City and Didier Drogba playing for Chelsea. Just bizarre.

“Only one thing for it now, Gal – Didier to score the winner.”

A wild free-kick, from Didier, was our only chance on goal. It flew high over the bar.

We groaned.

Everyone said, in the car and in the bar, before the game that we would have taken a 0-0 draw. So, in reality, I cannot complain about the outcome of the game. I would have liked a little more expansive play, but Mourinho is the shrewdest of all managers and would have been pleased with the draw, too. We had, after all, limited them to very few chances throughout the game. After the bonanza at Goodison, this was a more Mourinho-esque performance. These thoughts flitted through my mind as I gathered my camera to focus on Frank’s slow and solemn walk towards us.

He clapped the City fans briefly, but saved the best for us. His face was stern, and certainly sad. There were no smiles. He gave us the thumbs up, and waved. How strange that Frank’s last game for us was against Norwich City and his last slow walk around the Stamford Bridge pitch was witnessed by only a few thousand. Now, maybe his last goodbye was in the colours of Manchester City.

Football, eh?

As he turned away from us, I detected some boos from the City fans to my right; I presume they felt that Frank simply should not have done that.

After thirteen seasons, though, he remains one of us.

Outside, Chelsea fans were still in a state of shock. I saw DJ and simply said “well, that was weird.”

“We won 2-0 mate” and he smiled.

I soon met up with Parky, then Nick and James. They had had a fantastic time. As first “real” away games go, it would be hard to find a more memorable one. Outside on the Ashton New Road, a lone City fan was bouncing.

“Who put the ball in Chelsea’s net?

Super Frankie Lampard.”

We walked silently on, but inside we were hurting. I then looked round to see Parky chatting to a City fan and his young lad. Not for the first time at City, I found myself shaking a City fan’s hand and wishing him all the best.

Me : “Hey, listen. If we don’t win it, I hope you do.”

Him : “Same with you, mate.”

Me : “Cheers.”

Him : “It’s yours to lose.”

Me : “I don’t know.”

With the alternatives – Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal – being too horrific to even contemplate, City represent, to me and to a few others, an almost palatable alternative to our fifth championship. Not all fans think the same way, evidently. We remained silent as we walked past a City fan who had been clumped ; he was on the pavement, clutching a bloodied nose.

We soon reached the car.

There was a quick analysis of the game as I headed east, then south, with the bright orange sun lighting up the sky. It was a beautiful evening. We had witnessed a crazy game of football. On the long drive home, there was a nice mix of chat, music and laughter. Nick and James promised to get themselves to more games. Parky – his ability to talk dwindling by the minute with every gulp of cider, so that in the end all that I could decipher were exclamation marks – slowly drifted off to sleep. James and Nick, however, were buzzing.

I reached home at 11.15am, exhausted, but full of thought. It was too late to be too profound though.

Here were the headlines :

Five games in, we stand three points clear at the top of the table.

Life is good.

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Tales From Blue Monday.

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 3 February 2014.

As our unbeaten run over Christmas continued into 2014, the away game at Manchester City loomed heavily in the distance. Despite the unexpected, and unsettling, presence of Arsenal at the top of the table, this encounter between the two English heavyweights always had the feel of a title decider. The league positions alone – them second, us third, both teams just behind Arsenal – justified that claim.

It would be a massive test. It would be the toughest game of the season thus far.

In the closing words of my previous match report, in which I documented out failings against a resolute West Ham United, I closed with the words –

“Manchester City next.

Lovely.”

Just in case anyone was in doubt, the last of these words was laden with sarcasm.

In my mind, this would be a very onerous task.

Since our fine 3-1 victory in 2008-2009, an away game at Manchester City…the City of Manchester Stadium, Eastlands, The Etihad, call it what you will…has been as barren as it gets.

2009-2010: Manchester City 2 Chelsea 1

2010-2011: Manchester City 1 Chelsea 0

2011-2012: Manchester City 2 Chelsea 1

2012-2013: Manchester City 2 Chelsea 0

A few of these games have morphed into one. I found it difficult to remember too much about last season’s game. At least Carlos bloody Tevez wouldn’t be playing this time.

Yes, we defeated City 2-1 at Stamford Bridge back in October in a fine contest. At the time, City were a Jekyll & Hyde team; swashbuckling at home, fragile away. Our win confirmed the dual-personality of early-season City. Since then, their away form has tightened-up and they have continued to rack up cricket scores – or maybe rugby scores – at home. Eleven league games at their fortress and eleven wins.

This, make no mistake, would be Jose Mourinho’s biggest test of the season.

Even though the pay masters at Sky had deemed this game necessitated a change from a standard Saturday to a Monday night, a full three thousand Chelsea loyalists would be in attendance for this one. To make things easier, I had booked two days holiday for this away game; I simply didn’t fancy showing up at work on the Tuesday after just four hours’ sleep. In the circumstances, this allowed me plenty of time to pay a visit to my mother at hospital in Bath during Monday lunchtime. Again, Parky met me at the hospital. Mum seemed a little weaker compared to previous visits; I left the hospital in a rather subdued frame of mind.

For the first hour or so, there was rather less frenetic chat than is the norm.

“Tell you what, Parky. Why don’t you slap on some music? What have you got for me in your ruc-sac, mate?”

“Electronic ‘eighties. How about that?”

“Perfect.”

As we headed north on the M5 through Gloucestershire – the skies grey, the winter landscape dull, the River Avon flooded, the Malverns looming like Manchester City – Parky fumbled around in his bag, picked the requisite CD and popped it in.

The first tune?

“Blue Monday.”

How apt.

“That’ll do mate, Blue Monday on Blue Monday.”

The familiar beats from over thirty summers resonated as I drove north.

“How does it feel? To treat me like you do? When you’ve laid your hands upon me and told me who you are?”

I stopped for McCoffee at Strensham and at Sandbach. Both service areas were quiet; only one City fan at the former, no Chelsea at either. How different to a Saturday when both would’ve been crawling with football fans of every hue. I was deep in conversation with His Lordship and missed the usual turning for Manchester, so was forced into the city from the west rather than the south. I didn’t mind; although I was caught up in a little rush-hour traffic, at least I was afforded the lovely view of the red brick and the green signage of the iconic Salford Lads Club as I trundled slowly past.

I drove right through the heart of the city – Deansgate, more impressive red brick – and then parked up relatively close to Victoria Station. There were gleaming modern offices everywhere. The grim Manchester of the ‘eighties were suddenly forgotten. I always get quite a kick driving through the city centre, although other areas of the city have not fared so well.  We had nigh on three hours to kill before kick-off. Underneath the railway arches, we spotted a pub called The Rovers Return. This was the real Manchester though; not a TV set. A hundred yards or so further on, I spotted The Lowry Hotel. I had driven past it, by chance, once before. This time, we were going in. I have always wanted to visit it; especially on match days. Let me explain.

Almost ten years ago, I sent out some letters to John Terry, Frank Lampard, Carlo Cudicini and Eidur Gudjohnson – my four favourite players at the time – and asked if there was any way they could find time to meet up with some friends from North Carolina during our visit to Pittsburgh for the Chelsea vs. Roma match in August 2004. One of my friends had just recovered from a cancer scare and I was hoping that the players might be able to meet her and her two daughters at the Chelsea hotel for a few minutes. As it happened, there was no official correspondence back from any of the players, but we met most of the team at The Hilton in any case. It was a wonderful twenty minutes.

Later, in September, I received an envelope stamped “The Lowry Hotel, Manchester” and opened it up to find that John Terry had sent me some signed 8” by 10” colour photographs of him. Evidently, he had been on England duty and The Lowry Hotel was used by the F.A. when England played home games at Old Trafford. What a lovely surprise for me and my friends. Since then, I have often wanted to see if Chelsea used the same hotel when in Manchester. This was falling in to place nicely…

“Maybe we’ll see the team get on the coach, Parky.”

Up in the hotel bar, we kicked back and relaxed. A couple of Peronis were quaffed. I had a bite to eat. There was a little banter with a gaggle of match-going Chelsea and City fans. Below, the cut of the River Irwell provided a contrast to the modern lines of the hotel. It was very pleasant.

At 6.30pm, we left the cosy confines of the bar. I joked with Parky “if we win tonight, I’m coming back next time.” There had been no sighting of Chelsea during the hour we spent at the hotel; some other time maybe.

I battled the Manchester evening traffic and pointed my car towards Eastlands. The neon blue of the stadium made navigation easy. By 7.20pm, I was parked-up at my usual – “superstitious”? – £5 parking spot.

“Parky, I have to ask myself…if we’ve lost the last four times, why am I still parking here?”

All around us were City fans. Again, I pondered on how easy, or difficult, the move from south Manchester had been for these fans since 2003? Maine Road seemed to define City; maybe The Etihad defines them further? The new academy stadium over the road was coming on apace from last season’s visit. City are certainly making this once forgotten part of the city their own.

Outside the away turnstiles, there were familiar faces. There seemed to be a larger than usual police presence, though. There was a little more security. It felt odd.

Soon inside, I bumped into Alan and soon made our way in to the seating bowl of The Etihad. As I ascended the steps, a familiar song was playing.

“How does it feel? To treat me like you do? When you’ve laid your hands upon me and told me who you are?”

The superstitious fool that I am quickly decided that this was too good to be true.

“Blue Monday.”

Alan and I laughed.

Deep inside, I thought to myself…

“…mmm…it had better not be a Blue Moon Day.”

The Etihad is impressive as ever. There are plans afoot to add height to the end stands; a third tier to bring the capacity up to around 61,000 or so.

There was hardly any time to think. The stadium filled-up quickly. The teams entered the pitch. Chelsea in blue/blue/blue. I used to hate seeing us without white socks – superstition again – but ever since we won the league at Bolton wearing all blue, I have been less bothered. The home crowd sang “Blue Moon” and we retaliated with a ditty about the European Cup.

A quick scan of the team; no Oscar, a surprise, but I was pleased to see Matic playing. The surprise was seeing Ramires out wide. There was no time for much further contemplation. The whistle blew and we were away.

It was a familiar story during the first fifteen minutes. We seemed to be a little late out of the blocks and City were soon cutting into the heart of our defence. Without the injured Aguero, I was hoping that City would be disadvantaged. They still had Dzeko and Negredo, plus Silva and Navas of course. Chelsea scrambled to get in to position but the first few half-chances from the home team came to nothing. Chelsea began breaking away, though, and I was immediately impressed with Willian and Ramires as they charged down loose passes and broke.

The City fans down alongside us aimed a hostile chant at our manager.

“Jose Mourinho – Your Football Is Shite.”

Our reply was quick and to the point.

“Jose Mourinho – He’s Won More Than You.”

That shut them up.

I was unhappy with the amount of room that Yaya Toure – yes, him – was being given in the early part of the game. Nemanja Matic was finding his feet and I hoped that the game wouldn’t pass him by. I was reminded of an early outing for Ramires in 2010 when he was left chasing shadows at City against Toure. David Luiz was his usual enthusiastic self. I just hoped there would be no early bookings which might temper our aggression.

There was a little disquiet in our ranks…”come on Chelsea, get stuck in”…but I was happy with each passing milestone.

5 minutes.

10 minutes.

15 minutes.

20 minutes.

We were improving.

A shot from Silva went wide. We countered with a couple of efforts of our own. A Luiz free-kick is still in the air, travelling towards Oldham. Then, a rapid break down the Chelsea left but a tame shot from Ramires, with only Hart to beat, was followed up by a very ambitious bicycle kick from Willian on the rebound. The Chelsea fans were enthused and the City fans seemed worried.

30 minutes.

This was turning out to be a fine game of football. We were showing City little respect, were closing them down at will, and were breaking intelligently. This was great stuff. A move down our right allowed Hazard to play the ball in for Ramires. His initial shot was blocked by Hart, but the ball fell nicely for Branislav Ivanovic outside the box. He had no time to think. He struck the ball hard and low, returning it back past Hart and into the far corner.

The Chelsea supporters screamed heavenly.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

Despite being jostled, I tried hard to get the run and slide of Ivanovic on film.

Click, click, click, click, click.

Three seconds later I was screaming delight again.

A look towards Alan and another Oasis moment.

“They’ll have to come sat us now / come on my little diamonds.”

To be truthful, I could hardly believe it. We had weathered the storm, but were now ahead. With each passing minute, we grew in confidence. Dennis Wise was spotted in the TV studio, his smile wide as he punched the air to the delight of the Chelsea fans in front.

“Oh Dennis Wise – Scoredafackingreatgoal…”

A chance for Hazard, a chance for Dzeko. It began to dawn on me that Demechelis wasn’t a very good player. He wasn’t a very good player at all in fact. Meanwhile, Eden Hazard was on fire. He fed Samuel Eto’o, who unleashed a thunderbolt from an angle which crashed against the bar. Elsewhere, the midfielders were still stifling the City’s attacking thrust. At the break, we were getting into our groove. I hoped and prayed that the interval wouldn’t halt our rising confidence and strength. To be honest, Petr Cech had been largely untroubled.

With Chelsea attacking the away support in the south stand in the second-half, we were able to witness the wonderful skills of Eden Hazard as he bamboozled one City defender after another. It was a joy to watch. Elsewhere, Matic was growing as the game passed. To emphasise this, he collected the ball forty yards out, went on a little run and hit a cracking drive. The ball ripped through the air, but with Hart beaten, the ball crashed against the outside of the post. What a shot though.

City created a few chances, but their finishing was quite woeful. I was truly amazed at the lack of participation and noise coming from the home supporters. All of a sudden, Manchester City looked normal and, whisper it, a little unsure of themselves. Still we carved out chances. A Willian corner was headed back towards goal by the excellent Gary Cahill, but – AGAIN! – the post saved City.

At the other end, an onslaught seemed on the cards. However, the defence was magnificent throughout. All four defenders showed poise strength, determination and did not grow tired as the game grew old. In lost count of the number of Cahill blocks, Terry headers, Ivanovic tackles and Azpilicueta covering sprints.

A David Silva free-kick appeared to be goal bound but Petr Cech flung himself to his left to save. To reemphasise our domination of clear goal-scoring chances, it was his first real save of the night.

70 minutes.

The nerves were starting to build.

Mourinho replaced Eto’o with Oscar. Hazard moved further forward. A half-chance for Ramires after a delightful through ball, but Hart sprinted out to gather.

The stats were displayed on the large TV screens and I was amazed that City were shown to have had 65% possession. It just seemed that we had been in control. I guess, our threats were mainly on the break. For all of City’s ball, our defence was rarely troubled. In the second-half, Matic became a man. He was simply superb. I think we have unearthed a giant.

Then, disgust. Oscar was fed the ball and he broke into the Manchester City half. Barely over the halfway line, Nastasic pulled him down. In my mind, Nastasic was the last man and he had to be shown the red card. When Mike Dean, instead, showed him a yellow, three thousand Chelsea voices turned the air royally blue.

85 minutes.

My nerves were being torn.

Two further City chances. Another fine save – such strong wrists – from Cech foiled Jovetic, and then Nastasic shot wildly in one of the last kicks of the game.

90 minutes.

…thinking…”come on ref…blow up…three minutes extra time…surely there can’t be long to go now…come on, mate…blow that bloody whistle…let’s watch him…let’s watch for that sweep of the arm…come on, blow up…please…YEEEEEES!”

I punched the air and my smile was wide.

…thinking…”that win is for you Mum.”

There were Chelsea fans wildly celebrating all around the away section. I watched as the players came – only halfway, sadly – to our end, but they were full of happiness too. Their joy was my joy. It was a sight to behold.

…thinking…”still only bloody third, though…how the hell can the best two teams in England serve up that treat and Arsenal still be bloody top…that’s bollocks…wait…we still have to play them at home…that’ll sort them out.”

I soon met up with Parky outside. Foxy took a photo of us outside the away end. The City fans, as they had been all night, were quiet.

I pulled out of Manchester at 10.30pm. Down onto the orbital M60, past the magnificent old mill building and the bridges at Stockport, then out past the airport onto the M6 and the road south. I called in at a thoroughly deserted Frankley Services at midnight and dunked my head into a bucket of cappuccino.

The music played on.

I dropped Parky off at 2am. I was home by 2.30am.

So, my fears were unfounded. Chelsea had negated City’s threat with a very polished performance, managed perfectly by Jose Mourinho. We had closed them down, defended as a unit, and attacked as a unit. Every single one of the Chelsea players had been simply superb.

Heroes one and all.

A Blue Monday for the record books.

“How does it feel?”

If felt bloody great.

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