Tales From Sunshine And Schadenfreude

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 12 May 2019.

It seemed quite apt that Chelsea Football Club should end its domestic travels in 2018/19 in a city in the East Midlands which is situated on the River Soar, with a population of 330,000, which hosts cricket, rugby and football teams and is home to the world’s largest crisp factory. Where else could we end up? Our visits to away cities throughout the league campaign, chronologically listed, mirrored the words of a certain song.

“We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea: Huddersfield, Newcastle, London, Southampton, Burnley, London, Wolverhampton, Brighton, Watford, London, London, Bournemouth, Manchester, London, Liverpool, Cardiff, Liverpool, Manchester and Leicester.”

This season, although certainly not the most-loved, has zipped past at a ridiculous rate of knots. Our first game in the sun of West Yorkshire seemed only recent and it seemed implausible that this one was the final game of the season. But game thirty-eight it was. With qualification to next season’s Champions League assured, the game at Leicester City took on a much more relaxed air than we had expected. I collected PD at just after eight o’clock and LP at just after eight-thirty. It was a stunning Sunday morning; not a hint of a cloud, the sun out, and a fine chilled-out air of relaxed anticipation. After travels north, east, south and west, the league fixture list had saved me – possibly – the best to last.

A three-hour drive along the Fosse Way, the old Roman road – straight as a die, from Exeter to Lincoln – is always a treat for me. It didn’t let me down. I thoroughly enjoyed the undulating road as we swept past quintessentially English place names on our way through the Cotswolds.

Stanton St. Quentin, Malmesbury, Cirencester, Ampney Crucis, Bourton-on-the-Water, Upper Slaughter, Stow-on-the-Wold, Moreton-in-Marsh, Stretton-on-Fosse.

We had breakfasted at Melksham. We stopped for a drink in “The Star” at Moreton-in-Marsh. After heading off the Fosse, and after skirting the lost football city of Coventry, through Warwickshire and into Leicestershire, we stopped at another pub “The Hinckley Night” on the outskirts of the town with the same name.

It was quite apt that I had chosen the Fosse Way as our route. Way back in the mists of time, Leicester City were first known as Leicester Fosse.

At about 2pm, after our breaks for sustenance – we watched a little of the Old Firm game at the second pub – I was parked-up. There were clouds in the sky, and we all decided to take jackets “just in case.” Leicester City’s stadium is a mile to the north of the Leicestershire cricket ground and half a mile to the south of Leicester Tigers rugby stadium. While PD and LP popped inside for a top-up, I circumnavigated the stadium, which lies just a couple of hundred yards to the south of their old Filbert Street ground. This old stadium was ridiculously lop-sided with two large stands on adjacent sides and two minuscule ones opposite.

I took in the pre-match atmosphere. This was only my fifth visit to the new place. I was on holiday in the US at the time of our first visit in the FA Cup campaign of 2003/4 and I have missed the two recent cup fixtures too. It’s a relatively neat, yet overwhelmingly bland stadium, with no real distinguishing features. “King Power” is everywhere. On the rear of the north stand is a large image of their former chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who so sadly perished in the helicopter crash at the stadium last October.

I took the usual smattering of photographs. Their new shirt – laced with gold Adidas stripes rather than white – looked neat and tidy.

Inside the stadium, and into the concourse, I soon spotted a few mates.

A standard greeting was “going to Baku?”

I gulped down a soft-drink – no alcohol at all for me on this day – and met up with Alan and Gary in the seats. Bringing a jacket, I soon realised, was being over-cautious. The sun was relentless. I wasn’t the only person who had over-dressed. My jacket was placed on my seat.

The teams soon appeared.

A hand-written banner was held up in the away end:

EDEN HAZARD BLEEDS BLUE.

CHELSEA IS YOUR HOME.

We were in all yellow, and it brought back memories of our huge 3-1 win in 2014/15 when the Fabregas song stole the show. I remembered, too, how the Morata song was a strong memory of last season’s league game. With what has happened since – another song, another place – it is actually hard to believe that fans were singing the “y” word so forcefully and loudly only twenty months ago. Leicester City had reverted to an old-style blue / white / blue. It did look like a neat kit.

Our team?

Caballero

Zappacosta – Azpilicueta – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Loftus-Cheek – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Willian

I had a look around at those in the away end. For some reason, there seemed to be a disproportionately high number of old replica shirts on show; many more than usual. I even spotted a Chelsea Collection number from 1986/87. I only saw two of the 2019/20 shirts.

Our game began.

And so did all the others.

Three games stole the show; Brighton vs. Manchester City, Liverpool vs. Wolves and Tottenham vs. Everton.

Ross Barkley went close within the first few minutes, after a good ball from Jorginho, but his shot hit Schmeichel. It was a chance that promised good things, but was a false dawn. The home fans to my left – I was only a matter of a few feet from them, were noisy as hell in that first part of the game. They sang of their former owner.

“Vichai had a dream.

To build our football team.

He came from Thailand and now he’s one of our own.

We play from the back.

We counter attack.

“Champions of England.”

You made us sing that.”

Indeed, they do counter-attack. And we smother the ball and pass to ourselves to oblivion. It was a massive difference in style between the two teams. Leicester broke at pace with Jamie Vardy and Youri Tielemans looking useful. We passed the ball here there and everywhere, but did not create too much.

Liverpool went, unsurprisingly, a goal up at Anfield.

Then, a score flash which made us groan.

Brighton had taken the lead at home to City. Then, just as I was passing on the news to a few close friends, a noticeable cheer in the Chelsea end. My spirits were raised.

City had equalised.

On the pitch, there was lots of square passes, with little quality penetration. The banter in the stands was proving to be more entertaining. The Leicester fans alongside us had sung about Eden Hazard leaving for Madrid.

We retorted “He’s won more than you.”

There were schoolyard taunts from them. Then came the killer blow, loud and with venom :

“Eden Hazard. He won it for you.”

Fair play, the Leicester lot clapped that. I winked at a few of them, a “thumbs up” here and there.

Ha.

In the other game of interest, Tottenham had scored a very early goal against Everton. We needed to match that to finish above them. But we had to rely on the out-of-sorts Gonzalo Higuain. He slammed one shot wide of the post on the half-hour mark.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

A Vardy header from a free-kick forced a save from Willy Caballero.

The bloke behind me then cheered me : “City have got a second.”

Phew.

In the closing moments of the first-period, a slip from David Luiz allowed Vardy to race on but his ball through to Tielemans was overhit and the chance went begging.

Then, right before the whistle, Higuain missed from only a few yards out, his brain doing the waltz, his feet doing the samba.

“Fackinell.”

Leicester City 0 Chelsea 0

Brighton 1 Manchester City 2

Liverpool 1 Wolves 0

Tottenham 1 Everton 0

Things were going our way in the title hunt, but not our way in our more local battle with Tottenham.

At the break, I bumped into Alex and Reece.

“Would you keep Sarri, Chris?”

Oh God. Me on the spot. Yes, I would.

“I have never warmed to the bloke. He is so one-dimensional. But has he got his own players to play his system? Not yet. I am full of doubt, but give him a full pre-season, give him time. We have the chance to finish top three. We have reached two cup finals. We would have taken that in August. In February we would have for sure.”

The lads were in agreement, with reservations.

“What do we know, we’re not experts.”

But – oh – the football has been so poor at times this season. It has proven one thing; Chelsea supporters want to be entertained. It is in our DNA.

Neal 1983/84

Gullit 1996/97

Mourinho 2004/5

Ancelotti 2009/10

Conte 2016/17

The best I have known…

The second-half began and my forehead was starting to burn up. Parky arrived back from the bar.

“You haven’t missed anything, mate.”

If the first-half was tepid, the second-half was turgid. Chances – real gilt-edged chances – were so rare. A Leicester volley did not hit the target. Barkley shot wide.

Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass – but without the movement from the players to allow the passes to hurt the tight Leicester defence. Elsewhere, goals were being scored. Manchester City went 3-1 up and eventually 4-1 up, and Liverpool scored a second. The title was City’s.

I hummed “Blue Moon” to myself.

The away end was loving it. We were loving it even more when Everton equalised. And then – to a chorus of “it’s happened again” – we heard that Everton had gone 2-1 up. This was turning into a fantastic afternoon despite the poor game taking place before my very eyes. The noise from the home fans had long since subsided.

There had been, on sixty minutes – and while a player was getting treatment – a minute of appreciation, with white scarves being held aloft by the Leicester supporters in memory of their former chairman. Many Chelsea fans joined in. Good stuff.

Eden Hazard replaced Willian.

His last game in England? Almost certainly.

Mateo Kovacic replaced Barkley.

Olivier Giroud replaced the lackluster and lazy Higuain.

Tottenham scored a second.

Our game petered out.

A Chelsea draw and a Tottenham draw.

“As you were.”

I did not wait around too long to make a move. I saw a few players walking over. There were several – eight? ten? – fans with cardboard signs asking for shirts. There were a few adults among them. One sign was eight-foot long.

I hate modern football.

Outside, I shook hands with many.

“Have a good summer.”

“See you in Baku.”

I don’t think we will sell remotely close to our allotted 5,800 in Azerbaijan. But at least I was cheered to speak to a few that were going. I just have this dread of Arsenal heavily outnumbering us. Of my closest one-hundred Chelsea mates, maybe only fifteen are going. It is a sign of the absurdity of UEFA choosing such a host city. But that is a story for another day.

Outside, I chatted briefly to Long Tall Pete and Liz. We all loved the fact that both Chelsea and Tottenham drew. It was pure comedy gold. All that Tottenham had to do, with hindsight, was to win a home game against Everton and the twats would have finished above us. To think that they were being touted as possible title contenders at Christmas…

Third in a two-horse race in 2015/16.

Fourth in a three-horse race in 2018/19.

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

Back in the car, it was time to drive south, and complete this story of our 2018/19 league campaign. Huge respect to PD for attending all thirty-eight games, I think for the second time in three seasons. I ended up missing two, the back-to-back games at Wolves and at home to City.

It has been, as the saying goes, emotional. But it has also been excruciating at times. There have only been rare games where I have been genuinely entertained. It has been a grueling slog. I have watched as supporters splinter into pro-Sarri and anti-Sarri factions. I have struggled with it all. I have struggled with this new type of football. I have become bored reading the never-ending appraisals of how – I hate this word, I rarely use it – “Sarribal” is meant to work.

I have lost count of the many deeply earnest and wordy explanations of “Sarribal” on social media that I have studied over the past year. All of a sudden “regista” is a buzz word. After virtually all of these appraisals, I have been so tempted to write “I bet you are fun at parties.” I see a worrying new sub-section of Chelsea followers who are not died-in-the-wool supporters in the most basic sense of the word, but critics and self-appointed “experts.”

Football, to me, is about passion, involvement, support, belligerence, suffering, humour, laughs, beers, a shared kin-ship, a devotion to the cause. And maybe some trophies thrown in for good measure.

OK, rant over, as the kids say.

We stopped at the pub in Hinckley for some nosebag. I continued enjoying the drive home, the spring colours fading as the sun dipped.

Cirencester, Malmesbury, Chippenham, Melksham, Bradford-on-Avon, Frome…home. Just in time to tune in to the highlights on “MOTD2.” Old habits die hard.

I will see some of you next season.

I will see some of you in Baku.

Cheers.

The Star, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire & The Hinckley Knight, Hinckley, Leicestershire.

Tales From Nine Goals And Ten Penalties

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 24 February 2019.

At the end of the first-half of this League Cup Final at Wembley, I tapped out a simple note on my ‘phone – I often record a few things for these match reports in such a fashion – which summed up my feelings at the time.

The one word that I used was “humdrum.”

This is not to say that the game was boring me rigid. Far from it. We had managed to contain the swift passing and incisive finishing which is such a trademark of this modern day Manchester City, and all of the Chelsea players were playing at a level far greater than I, and I suspect many others, had anticipated. After the awful start to the league game up in Manchester just a fortnight previous, there must have been many that would have been overjoyed at the thought of reaching the half-time mark without a goal conceded. No goals after forty-five is much better than four after twenty-five. We were level at the break and, really, there had been no shocks and scares, and no defensive lapses, no calamitous back passes, no switching off, no rash tackles, no dramas. We were in with a shout, and not a shout of anguish that was too often heard from the Chelsea ranks at The Etihad. There had been a compactness to our shape which we have not often seen this season, and although we had created little ourselves, we had limited Pep Guardiola’s team to just one lazy strike by the always dangerous Sergio Aguero. We had contained the City team, and that was fine with me.

I mention this moment, and the choice of that word, because it is exactly the same word that the respected chief football writer of “The Times” Henry Winter used at the very start of his subsequent match report.

Yet “humdrum” belies the emotion and drama that went into this game.

We had travelled up from the west of England at the break of dawn with an uneasy feeling in our stomachs. We acknowledged that the match under the arch at Wembley had the potential to illustrate the difference in the two teams; City blossoming under Guardiola’s third season at the helm, Chelsea struggling to acclimatise to Maurizio Sarri’s new regime.

The four of us – PD, Parky, PDs’s son Scott and little old me – did not dwell too much on the Final. We had other things to talk about. The upcoming trip to Kiev – only two and a half weeks to wait for that one unlike the three month wait for Budapest – dominated our thoughts. It should be a cracker. We had set off early and at just before 10am, I had parked-up in the car park beneath the Premier Inn at Putney Bridge, and then joined the others over the road at one of our favourites, “The Eight Bells.”

The first of many pre-match pints were downed. We chatted to a couple of other Chelsea fans. The day had begun well.

I was trying to fathom out if I was truly sure that we would lose against City, or was there a Munich-style win, against all odds and other clichés, lurking somewhere in the shadows? I honestly wasn’t sure.  I had told the boys in a moment of unbridled positivism that Chelsea tended not to lose finals. And I wanted to believe that on this day too. Since 1994, there had been final wins against Middlesbrough, Middlesbrough, Stuttgart, Aston Villa, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, Everton, Portsmouth, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Benfica, Tottenham and Manchester United. There had only been losses against Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester United and Arsenal.

It has been, of course, a brilliant run.

Until 1994, the previous final of any note or significance was the 1971 win over Real Madrid.

Yet in this story of Chelsea and Manchester City at Wembley, we have to mention 1986 don’t we?

Too bloody right we do.

Yes, we played City in the Community Shield in August – and humdrum was surely the key word on that day out – and we lost to them in the FA Cup semi-final of 2013, but the Full Members Cup Final almost thirty-three years ago meant so much at the time. It was the first time that I had ever seen Chelsea play at Wembley. It was the day we took fifty-thousand to the national stadium. It took place on the Sunday of the same weekend where we had played at Southampton on the Saturday. It was the day David Speedie scored a hat-trick. And it was the day we almost buggered it up, leading 5-1 with five minutes to go, only for City to score three more times. It was the day we won 5-4 at Wembley. It was as mad as a bucket of frogs.

The Full Members Cup was an odd creation, and came in the wake of the UEFA ban on English clubs after Heysel in 1985/86.

A little history. Try to keep awake.

In 1983/84 the bottom two divisions were given a competition all of their own. It was called the Associate Members Cup, and would become the Freight Rover Trophy, the Sherpa Van Trophy, the Leyland DAF Trophy, the Autoglass Trophy, the Auto Windscreen’s Shield, the LDV Vans Trophy and, when our car industry ceased to exist, it became the Johnstone’s Paints Trophy. It is now the EFL trophy.

In 1985, it was decided that the clubs in the top two divisions were to have their own cup too. Ken Bates was a leading light in its foundation. This competition only lasted until 1992 and was latterly known as the Simod Cup and the Zenith Data Systems Trophy.

In that inaugural 1985/86 season, Chelsea played against Portsmouth, West Brom, Charlton and Oxford United at games with very few spectators. I didn’t attend any. I was not alone.

But we had to go to the final, despite the rather laughable nature of the competition itself. It is worth noting that the teams that missed out on UEFA competitions after Heysel took part in their own competition, the Screensport Super Cup, with games being shown on that cable station. It lasted just one year. I remember watching an Everton vs. Tottenham game one night and counting twelve Spurs fans at Goodison. The ‘eighties were a strange time.

I was living in Stoke in 1986, and I caught a 1am train in the early hours of the Sunday morning to Euston. While we were winning at The Dell, City were embroiled in a Mancunian derby at Old Trafford. As I boarded the train, I realised that their main lads were packing the train to the rafters. There were bodies everywhere. After battling United on and off the pitch, their testosterone levels must have been sky-high. I saw one Chelsea fan getting battered so I quickly took off my badges. I remember talking to a long-haired City fan – very inebriated – but although he soon sussed I was Chelsea he left me alone for which I am eternally grateful. To be honest, I should have been punched for wearing a red jacket. I eventually caught some sleep and arrived at Euston at about 5.30am. Then a two hour wait until the tube started. God knows what I did. The Mancs must have swarmed the place. I got to Wembley as early as 10.30am, and bumped into Alan outside, who had been to Southampton the previous day.

Inside the stadium, I bumped into two lads from college in Stoke that I knew. Once on the terrace, I met another lad – Swan – from my home area. I was disappointed that City did not bring more.We had 50,000. They had 17,000. Our end was absolutely rammed, the section that I was in especially. Packed in like sardines.

A Chelsea banner said “Never Drop Nevin.”

Another said “We Are Here.”

At the start, a few Chelsea got into the City end but were escorted out. Steve Kinsey soon put City ahead, only for us to retaliate in fine fashion. Three goals from David Speedie and two from Colin Lee – in place of the injured Kerry Dixon – put us 5-1 up. My diary tells me Speedo could have scored six and Wee Pat was at his best. We applauded – in jest, no doubt – City’s second and third goals, but not their fourth. There were two goals for Mark Lillis and an inevitable Doug Rougvie own goal. And we applauded City as they did a lap of honour at the end. How quaint.

Our celebrations were ridiculous though. They hardly matched the importance of the trophy. But we loved it.

However, I couldn’t help but think “bloody hell, fifty thousand for this tin pot cup, what will it be like if we ever won anything important?”

It had been a super day out.

In 2019, our travels took us up to Fulham Broadway where we were joined by Dan and Johnny, friends of Scott, from Frome. We enjoyed a few more beers at “The Oyster Rooms” above the tube station, and we sat opposite the balcony of the Fulham Town Hall where Ossie and Co restored our pride in 1970 and 1971. I was intrigued to hear that Dan had played for my local village team, Mells and Vobster United in its final season of 2017/18, the same team that my grandfather played for in the ‘twenties, and for whom I played a few games – in the reserves – in the early ‘eighties. From there, we joined the lads at The Fountain’s Abbey on Praed Street at Paddington, although we paid scant regard to the United vs. Liverpool match that was being played out on TV. Two Californians, Andy and Brett, popped in to see us, and it was a pleasure to chat to them. By now, the time was moving on and so Parky, PD, Scott, Dan, Johnny and I hailed a cab to take us to Wembley. We arrived a few minutes late.

Shocker, eh?

The team had been announced at some stage and our reactions were muted.

No striker?

Does that mean a more cat-and-mouse approach? OK.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Barkley

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

Of course we had missed all of the pre-match hoopla. High up in the East Terrace, I soon realised that I had left my glasses back in the car.

Bollocks.

I took it all in. A full house. Empty seats were few and far between. Blue skies above. We stood the entire match, as did everyone.

The first-half passed without too much of a scare. With each passing minute, our spirits were raised. Without stating the obvious, I was very impressed with N’Golo Kante, who ran and ran and ran. Limiting City to one real chance emphasised how well we had played. Our attacks were rare, but with Eden Hazard we always have a chance.

The second-half began. Ageuro scored from close in but I immediately saw the linesman’s raised flag over to the right. Phew. A David Luiz free-kick down below us after a foul on Ross Barkley – who I favoured over Mateo Kovacic – flew over the bar. But the Chelsea crowd certainly sensed that we were gaining an upper hand, and the noise boomed around Wembley. City’s legions, on the other hand, were deadly quiet, or so it seemed. Little pockets of noise in our end soon joined up and often the entire end was rocking. I felt so proud. This was what supporting a team should always be like. Maybe it was a simple realisation that, as huge underdogs going into the match, the players just needed us more. We certainly did ourselves proud. At last the sad memory of the 2008 League Cup Final was put to history when our support simply did not turn up against Tottenham. That afternoon – with us in the same end – was probably a low water mark for me in forty-five years of attending Chelsea games. We were shocking, and – it hurts me to say it – Tottenham had never been louder.

Ugh.

With just over an hour gone, Emerson fed Hazard who attacked the space down the Chelsea left. He waltzed past Vincent Kompany and pulled the ball back to Kante, whose first time shot flew over the bar. A shot from Barkley. A City free-kick but a poor effort from a subdued De Bruyne. Then Pedro chose to pass when a shot on goal would surely have been more beneficial.

Still the songs rumbled around Wembley.

“CAREFREE…”

Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced Pedro.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Barkley.

In the last kick of the ninety-minutes, a well struck effort from Willian, from a free-kick out on the left, forced Emerson to flex back and tip over. A winner then would have sent us in to bloody orbit. We had played with guts and grit, and had limited City to a ridiculously small amount of chances.

Advantage us? It felt like it.

I got my timings all wrong, and chose the wrong moment to turn my bike around, sentenced to a long spell in the gents – others had timed it all wrong too – as extra-time started without me. When I reappeared, I realised that Gonzalo Higuain had replaced Willian. The time soon passed with little incident, although our noise levels were still the better of the two sets of supporters. I only really heard City sing en masse in the period of extra-time. Flags were waved in their end. Free bar scarves, for those in our lower sections, were twirled in response. The whole team were still defending resolutely, though our attacking bursts had not continued, despite some nice twists and turns from our Callum and a few strong runs from our Ruben. There was a ridiculous scramble at the other end as the minutes ticked by. A fine full length save from Kepa kept out that man Aguero.

And then it went mad.

Kepa went down. Willy Caballero was spotted on the touchline. We put two and two together. Word among ourselves was that Caballero, a former City player, and a bit of a hero in the penalty-saving game, would come on for the injured Kepa. But, wait a minute. Kepa was having none of it. To be honest, we were one hundred and fifty yards away, and not only was I high up at Wembley, my glasses were at Putney Bridge. But we got the message alright.

Kepa 1 Sarri 0.

What a mess.

The final whistle soon blew.

To our relief, penalties were to be taken at our end.

Advantage Chelsea? We thought so.

I took a few photos more. Two photos told a story, perhaps.

City looked united. They were in a tight group, embracing each other, no doubt being given calming words from the manager.

Chelsea looked the opposite. Some were chatting, some were alone. In the photo that I took, Sarri was absent, although I did not realise it at the time.

Penalty One.

Jorginho. A repeat of his two previous penalties for us. A hop, a slow push to the ‘keeper’s left, the same as the other two. An easy save. Fuck.

Penalty Two.

Gundogan. Low and in.

Penalty Three.

Azpilicueta. An odd run up but a strong, high penalty.

Penalty Four.

Aguero. Damn, Kepa almost reached it.

Penalty Five.

Emerson. No nerves. In.

Penalty Six.

Sane. A fantastic save from Kepa.

COME ON! PD and I yelled and hugged, hugged and yelled, and yelled and hugged some more.

Penalty Seven.

Luiz. A long run up, that side foot, the base of the post.

BOLLOCKS.

Penalty Eight.

Silva. Right down the middle, right down Regent street, bollocks again.

Penalty Nine.

Hazard. An impudent chip. In.

Penalty Ten.

Sterling. On the money. In.

BOLLOCKS.

We soon left the stadium. We were all proud of the boys, and of ourselves, but it was not to be. There were some positives. We had played much better than I had expected. The manager had been pragmatic and had changed his philosophy. Jorginho had been fine, no complaints. To be honest, we had deserved to win.

One thing pleased me, and I know this is going to sound strange. I was pleased that I was hurting. After forty-five years of going to football, and almost fifty years of being a Chelsea fan – damn, am I really that old? – I was very upset and disappointed to lose what some fools might call a Mickey Mouse Trophy. I took some real solace in that.

We marched out into the night. I took umbrage at a fan who was lambasting Sarri, Jorginho and Luiz (“fuck off to Napoli”) and I stood up to him.

“Because of their penalty misses? But Luiz scored in Munich. Don’t be a twat.”

He soon disappeared.

Back to Marylebone, a cab to Fulham, some more “Peroni” at “The Goose” and the night loosened-up a little. We made plans for the next few games amid the usual gallows humour, a night out in Liverpool for the Everton game, talk of Kiev, plans for Fulham, then next door for a late night pizza and one last “Nastro Azzuro” then one last cab back to the hotel at the southern tip of Fulham. Despite the result, the day had been magnificent.

Our sequence was now in full flow.

Won, lost, won, lost, won, lost, won, lost.

We play Tottenham on Wednesday.

See you there.

Tales From The Mancunian Way

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 10 February 2019.

Sunday Four O’Clock.

This was another away game that would test me. How I miss matches on Saturday at three o’clock. Our game at Manchester City would begin at 4pm, which meant that my footballing exploits over the weekend would not really finish until 11pm, or 11.30pm or maybe even later. This annoyed me more than ever on the Friday and Saturday as I tried to muster up some enthusiasm for the long journey north. City away was a tough trip at the best of times, but four o’clock on a Sunday was the worst of times and it just didn’t seem fair on any of us. Those travelling on the Chelsea coaches would not even be back at Stamford Bridge until almost midnight. The day began with me setting off from home at 9.15am and I collected PD, Lord Parky and Sir Les and we were on the road after a quick breakfast in Melksham at 10.30am. The drive north took me a few minutes’ shy of four hours. I was met with speed restrictions on the M5 and M6, and an odd assortment of weather – blinding sun, rain, sleet, hailstones – against an ever-changing backdrop of various cloud formations, a dull grey bathwater glaze one minute, vibrant and brooding and billowing the next.

Manchester Remembered.

It had been a week in which the city of Manchester had flitted into my mind on a few occasions. On the Wednesday, Manchester United had paid their respects to the Flowers of Manchester, remembering those that had perished on the ice of a Munich runway or in a Munich hospital all those years ago. On the Thursday, the actor Albert Finney had passed away. He was a native of Salford and the star of those cutting-edge “kitchen sink” dramas of the ‘early-sixties, in which the Northern cities in which they were filmed were as much a star as the actors themselves. Manchester was often used as the backdrop in some sort of homage to the scenes depicted by LS Lowry, another son of Salford. I remembered seeing Albert Finney on the pitch at Old Trafford before a United vs. Chelsea game a few seasons ago. And I certainly remembered him in the 1967 film “Charlie Bubbles” in which a small segment is filmed at Old Trafford – outside on what is now Sir Matt Busby Way and on the famous forecourt, inside from the interior of a box above the United Road seats – at a Manchester United vs. Chelsea game from November 1966 (a 1-3 defeat).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfFTeiV_ti4

And then, sadly, we all heard the horrible news that former Chelsea and Manchester United winger Mickey Thomas was battling stomach cancer. Mickey was a mid-season addition to our iconic promotion winning team of 1983/84 and he energised the side from the off with his tenacious spirit and drive, to say nothing of his fine skill which caught us all by surprise. He instantly became one of my most beloved Chelsea heroes, and even now might feature in a “favourite players XI.”

A Drive Down Memory Lane.

The route took me right into the heart of Manchester. It took me through Didsbury, past Fallowfield, past some rented rooms in Whalley Range, and right through Moss Side to Hulme. It took me within a few hundred yards of where Manchester City played football from 1923 to 2003. I only ever visited Maine Road on three occasions. In my mind, it seems more. But three it is; a First Division game on a Saturday morning in 1985, a Saturday afternoon game in Division Two in 1989 and a Sunday afternoon game in the Premier league in 2001. My memories of Maine Road are strong, though. I watched the action from three different sides on those three visits (Anfield remains the only away stadium where I have watched from all four sides) and it was a large and atmospheric old place. I bet the City fans of 2019 miss it terribly. My last visit on the last weekend of the 2000/2001 season – marking the last appearances of Frank Leboeuf and Dennis Wise in our colours – seems like only yesterday. A few of us stayed the Saturday night in Blackpool and a mini-bus took us down to Manchester, depositing us among the red-brick terraced houses outside the ground and collecting us after. But the main memory from that day – we won 2-1 if it matters – was of the City lads who encroached onto the pitch at the final whistle (or just before it, if memory serves the referee “blew up” early) and stared us down. We were glad to hop into the waiting mini-bus and make our retreat after that game. By then, Maine Road had lost its large, deep Kippax side terrace and its equally cavernous Platt Lane seats. It was on odd and lop-sided stadium by 2001.

One Final Visit.

On a Saturday in 2004, I paid one final visit to Maine Road. City had played their last game there in the April, and I was on my way to our first-ever visit to the City of Manchester Stadium – remember when it was called that? – at Eastlands – remember when it was called that? – but I wanted to call by and photograph it for my own personal satisfaction. The stands were intact at that stage, though cordoned off for safety’s sake, and I took a few snaps. Memorably, “MUFC” was daubed on an adjacent end of terrace house. Also, very poignantly, there was some graffiti in memory of the former Manchester City player Marc Vivien Foe, who had scored Manchester City’s last-ever goal at Maine Road on 21 April, but who had died on a football pitch just over three months later. The City fans, leaving many fond memories at Maine Road, must surely have wondered if this was an ominous warning of the fates that might befall them further east.

They need not have worried.

On that same day, less than half a mile away, I visited one of only two streets in the whole of the UK that feature my surname. There is an Axon Square in Moss Side in Manchester and there is an Axon Crescent in Weston Coyney in Stoke-on-Trent. My surname is geographically strong in both areas (a Percy Axon was the chairman of Stoke City in the ‘seventies) but my surname is centered on Manchester. It is a bloody good job that my forefathers moved to Kent and then Dorset; I wouldn’t care too much to be a City fan.

[I thought about inserting a comment here suggesting that if my father’s grandfather had stayed in Kent or Dorset, I wouldn’t care too much to be a United fan. But then realised that I am a Chelsea fan in Somerset, so had best not be too damning].

On that very first visit to Eastlands, we won a dour game 1-0 and I was warmed to see the Kippax remembered with a banner draped over a balcony wall to my right. However, I have never seen it since.

The Mancunian Way.

With a Style Council CD playing us in, I crept onto the Mancunian Way which wraps itself around the southern edge of the city centre, and found myself driving along an instantly recognisable section of road. Despite only three visits to Maine Road, this would be my fourteenth visit to City’s new stadium. Manchester is a cracking city on a number of counts and my blood pumps and heart bumps on every visit. I deposited the lads right outside the stadium – LP and PD scuttled inside for some beers while Les chanced his arm in a nearby City pub – while I shot off to park up. Rain threatened but did not amount to much. I peered in to see the closing segments of the City Ladies vs. Chelsea Ladies game at the nearby academy stadium. The chill wind bit me. I sorted some spare tickets for a mate and decided to take a slow walk around the stadium. I had to laugh when I saw a lad with a United bag being searched outside the main stand. The steward had not spotted it. I warned her.

“He’s having a laugh, isn’t he, the boy? Ha.”

“Oh, thanks – I didn’t spot that.”

She hid it inside another bag.

Overhead the skies suggested a certain downpour. They were dark, and ominous. But the sun shone through too. It made for some dramatic shapes in and around the towering stadium. A band were playing in the post-modern “fan zone” to the north by the City shop. There were police on horseback. There were half and half scarves. There were a couple of buskers. Hot food stands. On the Ashton New Road stood an old school Fish and Chip shop blinking in the winter sun.

The Lower Tier.

I had run out of things to photograph – with my phone, proper cameras were banned, along with food and drink, file once more under “I hate modern football” – and so reluctantly made my way in with just under an hour to go. There was a security pat down and I was in. I had swapped tickets with PD and made my way into the lower tier for only the second time. The last time was on a very wet day in 2004 when a Nicolas Anelka penalty inflicted on us our only defeat of that season. I was worried about that precedent, but I was worried about a lot more tangible things too; City’s attacking strength, our defensive frailties, their impressive passing patterns, our buggering about with no incision, their Sergio Aguero, their Kevin de Bruyne, their David Silva, their Raheem Sterling.

As I entered the stadium I felt myself thinking “do I have to?”

I made my way to my place, about ten rows back, but close – ugh – to the home fans. The bottom of that tier has very shallow terracing. There was a fleeting memory of the sight lines from 2004. I tried not to dwell on it. We were treated to “Transmission “and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division. At least the music was bang on.

Out in the small concourse and the terraces, I chatted to a few friends.

“I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

“Fuck, yeah.”

One fellow fan said “as long as we give it a go” and I grimaced. I knew that we didn’t “give it a go” last season and Antonio Conte took some heat for it. But City were still a very fine team and we – without stating the bloody obvious – aren’t, not yet, not for a while.

I was wary so wary of trying to play them at their game. I picked a number out of thin air.

“I’d rather lose 1-0 than 6-0” (meaning that – and remembering last season –  if we gave them spaces to exploit, exploit they bloody well would).

Yes, we had – somehow, I know not how, I wasn’t there – managed to raise our game and beat City 2-0 at home before Christmas, but boy have we struggled during most games since. The recent 5-0 walloping of Huddersfield Town did not get my pulses racing. I was glad Gonzalo Higuain was in our ranks, but he was new, adapting, possibly not at his fighting weight nor his fighting strength.

I was still worried as the minutes ticked by. Up in the middle tier, I just saw the heads of Alan, Gary, PD and Parky if I stood on tip toe.

We exchanged waves.

Or was it more “not waving but drowning?”

We would soon find out.

The stadium filled up. A few empty seats dotted around, include some in our section. Flags were waved by the City fans to my left. There was a moment of applause for the memory of Emiliano Sala.

RIP.

I had almost forgotten to check our team.

Here it was.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

Four.

The game began. Chelsea, in three tiers, tried to get songs together but it proved so difficult. We threatened at the very start but I knew we couldn’t keep that up for ninety minutes. I was half-pleased at our bright opening but also half-scared to death.

After just three minutes, with Marcos Alonso away with the fairies, Bernardo Silva crossed from our left and the ball found its way to Raheem Sterling. He knew what to expect. I prepared myself for a goal.

Wallop. One-nil. Oh bollocks.

Ross Barkley turned and chastised Alonso, the missing man.

The City fans to my left – 99% male, and local – erupted and gave us loads of verbal. They pushed and shoved towards us. I bloody hated them but admired their passion in equal measure. I bloody hate you football. Soon after, Sergio Aguero fluffed an easy chance from just a couple of yards. It was our turn to smile, but we were not smiling for long. A shot from Hazard was easily saved by Ederson. It fired City up even more. They broke and moved the ball to that man Aguero who curled a magnificent shot past Kepa from outside the box. The PA announced that Aguero had tied two others as City’s all-time highest goal scorer in league football.

We were 2-0 down after just thirteen minutes.

I felt like shouting “blow up now, ref.”

After nineteen minutes, Barkley – for reasons known only to him – headed a high ball back to Kepa. Aguero waited in line and popped it home. He became City’s number one striker.

City 3 Chelsea 0.

We were at sixes and sevens, eights and nines. How worse could this get? On twenty-five minutes, we found out. Gundogan shot low from outside the box with Kepa just unable to reach it.

City 4 Chelsea 0.

We still tried to attack and, ironically, had looked reasonably good at times. There had been a shot from Barkley, one from Pedro, and a well-struck volley from Higuain was dramatically punched over by Ederson.

But, of course, every time that City broke they looked like scoring

There was shock and anger in the away section. Two young lads, northerners, were very vocal but their dexterity did not extend further than “this is shit” and they did not reappear in the second-half. At the half-time whistle, I quickly realised that in the last ninety minutes of football away from the Bridge we had conceded eight goals.

Altogether now; “fackinell.”

At half-time, I met up – briefly – with my friend who had shared her thoughts with me before the game.

She smiled : “it’s all your fault.”

I met up with a few more friends. Blank expressions. Shock.

Gallows humour tried to get us through the half-time break but this was so hard. We had been ripped to bloody shreds. Our midfield was not closing people down; their runners were afforded so much space. It was so sad to see a good man like Dave being given the run around by Sterling. I had lost count of the times that Aguero was able to cause havoc in yards of space. That was inexcusable. I had not honestly realised how formidable Aguero is. Up close he is made for football, he has legs like tree-trunks. Take away his dodgy barnet and he is a perfect striker.

As for us, there were no leaders anywhere.

Oh God.

Six.

Into the second-half, and I noticed more empty seats around me, but most had stayed. I was pleased about that. I prayed for some sort of damage limitation. We had learned that Tottenham, bloody Tottenham, had won 3-1 at home to Leicester City in the early game, and I just wanted the game over. Aguero headed against the bar, but then on fifty-six minutes Dave fouled his nemesis Sterling and Aguero made it 5-0 from the spot.

City 5 Chelsea 0.

My spirits fell as my mind did some calculations.

In the very last away game, we had suffered our worst defeat in the league since 1996. Twenty-three long years. We had taken, now, just eleven days to better it.

Oh bloody hell.

I had never seen us lose 5-0 before. I had been lucky. I was not at our most infamous defeat of all, the 6-0 at Rotherham United in 1981. Nor the 7-0 at Nottingham Forest in 1991. Nor the 7-2 at Middlesbrough in 1979. Nor the 7-1 at Wolves in 1975. I missed the 6-0 at QPR in 1986 and the 6-2 at home to Forest in 1986. But here I was staring at a 5-0 defeat. My mind had gone to be honest. I just wanted the final whistle to blow. I wanted to go out.

A lone shot from Hazard hit the side-netting. By now, Kovacic had replaced Barkley, Loftus-Cheek had replaced Pedro, Emerson had replaced Alonso.

Emerson shot meekly from a futile free-kick at Ederson.

I sighed.

With ten minutes to go, a sublime ball from substitute David Silva split open our defence and the resulting cross was slotted home by Sterling.

City 6 Chelsea 0.

The City fans, at least showing a little self-deprecation, roared :

“Six nil to the Empty Seats.”

I grimaced.

And then – this really is their Joy Division, right?  – reprised a song from last season’s game :

“City – tearing Cockneys apart, again.”

Silence from us. Ugh.

The City fans then sang at those remaining in our area : “you’re fucking shit.”

Horribly, some of our fans joined in. I wasn’t having that. I turned around, wondering who I was going to be talking to, and saw three youngsters, smiling and laughing like simpletons.

“Behave yourselves.”

For the best part of the next five minutes, I heard them mocking me, but I did not bite, nor look around. Let’em have their fun. Fans of other clubs would be doing the same over the next few days. I needed to toughen myself up.

And then at 6-0 we were at our loudest of the entire day.

“Oh Chelsea we love you.”

Good stuff. Proper Chelsea.

At the final whistle, I made a quick retreat to the top of the lower tier but looked around to see Eden head over and give his shirt to a young fan. A few players walked over. Those still in the lower tier clapped them.

I waited outside for Les, PD and Parky. I shook hands with a few others.

Gallows humour got me through :

“They’re having a minute’s silence in Liverpool right now.”

I spoke to a few friends who drifted out into the cold Manchester evening :

“To think Conte was lambasted for losing 1-0 up here last season. They are an elite team, one of the best, that was just suicidal.”

We walked back to the car. My phone had ran out of charge in the last few minutes of the game and it was just as well. I drove along the Ashton New Road to the M60. It was a quick and clean getaway, the highlight of the day. While others in the Chelsea Nation vented on social media, I just drove south. As we saw signs for Wythenshaw, Les told us that his mother was from there, a much tighter link to Manchester than mine. We stopped at Sandbach for food, at Strensham for fuel. It was a long old drive home.

6-0.

Fackinell.

Last season, after the City game I found myself attempting to get inside Antonio Conte’s head – not to be an apologist for him, but to try to work out his game plan – and I wrote this :

“There was the inevitable post-mortem in the car as I headed away from Manchester. Many words were exchanged. I still liked Antonio Conte. He had not suddenly become a horrible manager overnight. Three Juventus titles after a few seasons of draught. Then a World Cup with Italy had everyone using the phrase “a tactical masterclass” – to the point of cliché – as we described him and relished him joining us. A league title with Chelsea followed. I have a feeling, as I have said before, that this feels like a first season; transition, change, conflicts. He has not managed the pressure particularly well, but the hatred aimed at him from some sections of our support openly shocked me. As I drove home, Glenn kept me updated with some highlights from the wonderful world of social media. From the comments of some, it honestly felt like we had lost 7-0 rather than 1-0. And from the way some people were allegedly talking, some fans would rather that we lost by such a score rather than a 1-0 defeat using the tactics employed.

Be careful what we wish for.

I am not so sure a possible 4-0 or 5-0 shellacking against – possibly – the second best team in the game right now would have been the best preparation for the next few games, one of which is against the best team in the world. I again thought about the manager’s thought processes; he knows his players, their mentalities. Again, his view was to keep it tight.

I drove on.

Glenn read out quotes from the manager :

”We wanted to close space, stop them playing between the lines, limit them.”

It was as I expected. A critique of the manager can’t ignore his background, his Italian history. His decisions were a reflex response to danger to defend first. It obviously upset some people.”

Our last four games this season?

Chelsea 3 Sheffield Wednesday 0

Bournemouth 4 Chelsea 0

Chelsea 5 Huddersfield Town 0

Manchester City 6 Chelsea 0

A penny for Antonio Conte’s thoughts?

As for Maurizio Sarri.

To put it bluntly, I’m not convinced. Are you?

I dropped off Les at 11pm, Parky just after and PD at 11.30pm. I was home just before midnight. Parky’s main task on waking on the Monday morning was to sort out PD’s away ticket for Fulham. We will still go to as many games as we can. It seemed like the end of the world, but I have seen Chelsea relegated in 1975, 1979 and 1988. Everything is relative.

Numbers.

The Manchester City game was match number 1,235 for me.

Of those, I have seen us concede five or more goals on just seven occasions.

I have seen us score five or more goals on fifty-eight occasions.

That does not make the 6-0 loss at Manchester City any less shocking but it certainly helps me cope.

Much respect to those travelling out to Malmo in Sweden this week. My next game is the FA Cup tie at home to the second-best team in Manchester on Monday.

See you there.

For those wishing to donate to a fighting fund for Mickey Thomas, please note : https://www.gofundme.com/help-mickey-t-fight-cancer

Thanks!

 

Tales From A Long Hot Summer

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 5 August 2018.

Picture the famous opening sequence of “The Simpsons” and the scene where we see Bart in detention and writing on the chalkboard. Ahead of this match report, I am Bart Simpson and I am writing :

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

In the build-up to this game, there were the same feelings that I had experienced in recent years’ Community Shield games. In a nutshell, I was supremely underwhelmed by the prospect of having to schlep over to Wembley yet again for this seemingly regular curtain raiser. I remember getting pretty excited about my first one, way back in 1997 when – guess what? – we lost on penalties to Manchester United. And then we went to more and more and more and more. I can’t say I even enjoyed the few we have won too much.

We had set off early. Glenn’s mate from Berlin, Ulf, was with us, and as Glenn drove up the M4, I explained to him about the history of the Charity Shield and Community Shield. I told him that it hadn’t always played between the previous season’s champions and cup winners. In its early years, it was played between amateurs and professionals; what a novel concept. I had a vague recollection of Stamford Bridge holding a few of the first ones. I remember seeing photographs of us parading the FA Cup before the 1970 Charity Shield against Everton at Stamford Bridge. Images of our 1955 win are rarer. Our record is hardly one of legend :

1955 : won

1970 : lost

1997 : lost

2000 : won

2005 : won

2006 : lost

2007 : lost

2009 : won

2010 : lost

2012 : lost

2015 : lost

2017 : lost

Our thirteenth shield was one in which I felt an over-riding sense of duty to attend. I would have been riddled with guilt had I not bothered with it. At least it was just £20. But, really, it was all about seeing the chaps again and slowly, slowly getting back in to the swing of things.

On the drive up to London, we were only in the car for around thirty minutes when I became embroiled in a series of text messages regarding match tickets for future games. From that perspective, I was back into it. I love nothing more than planning away days, sorting out hotels, snapping up spare tickets and suchlike. Coming up, we have overnight stays in Huddersfield and Newcastle coming up.

It gets me out of the house, eh?

Glenn made good time. We were parked up at Barons Court at 11am. However, disruption of the Circle and District Lines messed up our plans to head up to Paddington for an abbreviated pub crawl. In the end, we took a cab from South Kensington. At least, it meant that we were able to give Ulf a little tour of West London. Our route took us right through Hyde Park. As we neared the Royal Albert Hall, I was reminded of my first ever visit to that wonderful venue back in June, just as the summer was warming up, when I saw Echo And The Bunnymen on a sultry Friday night. It was a fine gig – yet again one of my match reports includes music and football – and I even bumped into a Chelsea mate, quite unannounced, halfway through it. After the gig, I was slowly making my way back to the nearest tube when a couple of chaps who had been to the gig were chatting about where to go for a drink. I mentioned that there was a pub tucked away behind a main road, and – without really thinking – joined them as they crossed the road. I fancied one more pint for the road, but as I entered the pub, there was a moment of clarity when I realised the difference in football and music, or at least music on this particular occasion. With Chelsea, after a game, if I had bounced into a pub with two strangers we would have bought each other drinks and nothing would have been made of it. Here, there was a distinct difference. It would have felt odd joining these two strangers at the bar. I did an about turn and headed back to my hotel.

Just an example of the kinship that exists at Chelsea – and nothing else in my life is really comparable.

“Discuss.”

Our first stop was “The Sussex Arms”, much-loved by Chelsea fans from Reading, Swindon, Bristol and all-stations west who use Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s magnificent terminus as their gateway into London. A quick pint there and a chat with a few Chelsea season ticket-holders from my neck of the woods; a couple of villages in the shadow of the Mendips, Kilmersdon and Clutton. Then chat with Paul from Swindon and Paul from Reading, who spoke about his brief appearance on Arsenal Fan TV en route to Dublin.

From there, we marched up to a pre-Wembley favourite, “The Victoria” where I enjoyed the first domestic Peroni of the season. Outside, I chatted to Dan and Cliff. We had heard that we had sold virtually all of our 30,000 tickets but City had only sold around 20,000 of theirs. But it is what it is. I was sure that if the game had been held at Old Trafford, as a geographical equivalent, we would have struggled to sell 10,000. Cliff and I remembered the 2006 Community Shield at Cardiff against Liverpool when the red half was packed, and we barely had 15,000 in the stadium.

From there, a quick walk up to “Fountains Abbey” where Alan, Gary and Ed were drinking. Handshakes all round. The team were back together again. I spent a little time with my mate Jim, who I have got to know over the past few seasons, and who remains one of the wittiest people I know…on Facebook and in real life. He spoke of his growing Chelsea programme collection and of his long-suffering girlfriend Lisa.

I am not sure what the collective noun is for a group of fifty-year old blokes in polo shirts and shorts – a “stretch” maybe? – but in the heat it was the only way to go. And mighty fine we looked too.

From there, Parky, PD, Ed and I had time to pop in to the famous “Sports Bar” at Marylebone Station, where we bumped into five or six of The Usual Suspects – aka “the drinkers” – outside in the afternoon sun. I suspected that a few of them might struggle to make the match.

We caught the 2.27pm train, and I bumped into Rich who I last saw in Perth.

On the drive up to London, I promised not to mention Wembley Stadium and 1966 too much.

We were inside, high up above the south-east corner flag but thankfully out of the sun, with around five minutes to go. The timings were virtually the same as for the Cup Final in May.

Yes, it was a hot one alright. Ironically, Glenn and I had missed the height of the English summer while we were enjoying a very pleasant Antipodean Winter, but it has certainly been a very hot one this year. It was a summer, though, where I – somewhat predictably – failed to warm too much to the World Cup, for reasons that are probably well known by most. Was I thrilled by England’s progress to the semi-finals? If I am perfectly honest, “no, not really.” I generally gave the tournament a wide berth, though I did enjoy a few games. But wasn’t the Russian World Cup (and the one in Qatar) meant to be the one that a lot of people were dead against when the decision was announced in 2010?

FIFA collusion, Russian hooliganism, racism in the stands. I never ever really bought into it from the start. As for Qatar, and with it the disruption of the European leagues before and after, the horrible working conditions of many of the immigrants being used to build the stadia, and the fact of games being played in ridiculous conditions, well I am certainly boycotting that one in 2022.

Oh, and another thing FIFA. How come England are never mentioned as a host nation. Since 1966, Mexico will have held the competition three times (1970, 1986, 2026), the USA twice (1994,2026 – not bad for a country that has only really woken up to the World’s favourite sport in the past two decades) and Germany twice (1974 and 2006).

Feel guilty, FIFA?

No. I thought not.

Anyway, to sum it all up, in Sydney on the evening of Saturday 14th July 2018, while England played Belgium in the third/fourth place play-off, it was being shown in a crowded Irish pub, and both Glenn and I hardly watched more than ten seconds of it.

Club over country, or at least club over FIFA every time for me.

Down below us, I felt for the thousands of Chelsea supporters in the lower tiers, exposed to the bleaching sun. away to my left, there was a huge expanse of empty seats in the upper tier. Down below were the sky blue shirts of the City fans. The teams entered the pitch. Two flags were passed around the lower tiers.

The Chelsea team?

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger – Alonso

Fabregas – Jorginho – Barkley

Pedro – Morata – Hudson-Odoi

We enjoyed the larger portion of the ball in the first-half, though found it difficult to get either behind Manchester City or between them. We held the ball well and picked out passes. But it was soon evident that City were happy to soak up the pressure as we struggled to find killer balls in the scorching heat.

There was no noise from anyone in the Chelsea end. Everyone was sat. There was no sense of occasion or any discernible enjoyment either. I looked over at Ulf – “I’m not really a football fan” – and wondered what on Earth he made of it all.

The track suited Sarri – with his belly stretching the Nike training top – reminds me of the Kray Twins gone pub casual, and it is quite a harrowing image. Alongside him, Guardiola looked like his son, back from a night out with the lads.

City started with Riyad Mahrez. He would have been a good addition to our team. Oh well.

After just a quarter of an hour, we gave up possession way too easily and backed off from Sergio Aguero, allowing him to pick his spot and drill a low one past Caballero.

The first “bollocks” of the season.

We still had most of the ball – pass, pass, pass – but Caballero was called into action to rob Sane when he was clean through.

On the half-hour, Callum Hudson-Odoi, clearly one of our more eager performers, curled a shot over. He followed it up soon after with another shot. All eyes were on him. We see him as a great hope for this season.

“No pressure, son.”

The torpor was evident in the stands all around me. I had reached half-time without joining in with a single song, although to be honest, I can hardly remember a song in the first place.

At the age of fifty-three, I was turning into the football fan that I had always hated.

Sitting, not standing, silent not singing.

I kept saying to myself “it’ll be different in Yorkshire next Saturday.”

And of course it will be.

It was the Willy Caballero show in the second-half as a number of agile stops, blocks and saves stopped Manchester City from adding to their tally. However, on around the hour mark, a clinical pass found that man Aguero again and he was able to steer another low shot past Caballero to make it 2-0.

The City fans roared, and we slumped further into our seats.

On the hour, on came Danny Drinkwater and Willian (who had been serenaded during his warm up with virtually the first Chelsea song of note the entire day) in place of Fabregas and Hudson-Odoi.

Tammy Abraham replaced the lacklustre Morata, but in all fairness the Spaniard had received hardly any service the entire match.

At last a rare Chelsea song, the horrible “We’ve Won It All “ dirge.

And then, the inevitable –

“Champions Of Europe, You’ll Never Sing That.”

Victor Moses replaced Pedro.

At the death, Tammy went close, and then our boy Willy denied Aguero once more.

On another day, it could have been 4-0.

2018 : lost

Outside, waiting for the train at Wembley Stadium station, the sun was relentless. I can only imagine how horrific the playing conditions must have been. There had been several drink breaks during the game (as indeed there was for us before it).

Back at Marylebone, I chatted first to Neil Barnett, just back from a trip over to the US, and then Clive Walker, who still looks as fit and trim as ever.

Neil and I were both philosophical after a disjointed performance. But we knew that we have seen such riches in recent years, that it is not hard to feel that “after Munich, so what?”

“Doesn’t matter to me. I’ll still be there next week” I said.

Clive mentioned that he thought the game against Lyon would be vital to get more practice in before Huddersfield and the new league programme. But I have a feeling that the Sarri project might take a while to come to fruition.

Do we have the players to make it work? Watch this space.

See you all in West Yorkshire.

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Tales From A Sunday In Manchester : Part Two – Blue

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 4 March 2018.

Part One finished with these words :

“Bollocks. Fifth place now. Bollocks!”

For a while, it honestly looked like there would be no Part Two. With most parts of the country being attacked by a winter chill during the early part of a week which was to see us play two matches in Manchester, I waited for the snow to hit the West of England. My home area was clear until Thursday, but then I was sent home from work in light of the impending snowfall. Indeed, my county of Somerset was on “red alert” as I worked at home on Friday. On Saturday, with the country still gripped by a Baltic freeze, I sounded out the others. There were concerns about roads out of my village being impenetrable with more Arctic weather to follow. I was especially concerned about getting stuck up north in the middle of a fresh fall of snow and thus not being able to get to work on Monday.  We took the decision not to travel to Manchester. It was a wise decision, we all thought. There was no need for us to make heroes of ourselves in support of our team. We had nothing to prove.

But the guilt – yes, guilt – kept nibbling away at me. Should I make an attempt to go if the roads had cleared by Sunday? I had a troubled mind – or rather an unsettled mind – for quite a while. I was not in a comfortable place. And then I dismissed these silly feelings, and made tentative plans to watch the City game in the pub with PD and Glenn in Frome.

That was the plan.

I woke on Sunday at about 9.30am after a nice lie-in. I peered outside. There had evidently been a sizeable thaw overnight and the main road outside my house was almost clear of ice and snow, with just a slushy residue left at the roadsides.

What to do? What to do?

I contacted PD and Glenn.

“Get your boots on.”

The kick-off was at 4pm, so if we left at 10.30am we could make kick-off. Sadly, Oscar Parksorius was unable to join us, but we set off from Frome – kinda bright-eyed and kinda bushy-tailed – at 10.45am.

The Chuckle Brothers were on the road.

“Of course, you know we’re going to get mullered, don’t you?”

There were grimaces from my travelling companions.

I ate up the miles as the morning became afternoon. Not too many others had decided to travel and the roads were relatively clear of traffic. At times, the sun attempted to break through the cloud. There was snow on roadside fields, but the motorways were fine. We stopped for snacks en route; there had not been time to even grab a coffee before I had raced out of the house.

We thought about the team that Antonio Conte might play. Glenn wondered if we would pack the midfield in a 3/5/2, and asked if I preferred Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata to lead the line. I think that my response would have mirrored that of many Chelsea fans that early afternoon:

“Giroud.”

Although, if I was honest, I had a feeling that the manager might settle with the three amigos of Willian, Hazard and Pedro.

With both arch-rivals Liverpool and Tottenham winning on Saturday, there was an unease in my mind as my thoughts drifted sporadically back to our game at The Etihad. I wasn’t kidding myself, City were a fine team, and even the thought of grabbing a point later that afternoon seemed fanciful and unlikely.

We listened to the radio as Brighton stormed to a 2-0 lead at home to Arsenal – that cheered us up, bloody hell Dunk scored and in the right goal this time – and we were soon on the familiar approach into Manchester, though this time turning east towards Stockport rather than west towards Carrington. As the M60 heads through – or rather over – Stockport, I always and without fail think back to our club’s first-ever competitive game at Edgeley Park in 1905. The ground – a non-league ground now – sits right by the main London to Manchester railway line and I always used to peer at it with a certain feeling of nostalgia each time I passed it. In fact, with the grand railway viaduct and a couple of huge red-brick mill buildings dominating the valley that the town sits in, my once-a-season hurtle through Stockport is one of my favourite pieces of urban driving in the UK.

At Ashton Under Lyne, I turned off the M60 and I knew that the San Siro style towers of The Etihad would soon be in view.

Although the drive to Manchester had been full of laughs, and we were just so happy to be able to be attending the game – number forty-five of the season for me – the mood in the car as the stadium drew closer and closer became a little sombre.

As I waited for a red light to change at a junction, I blurted out –

“Fucking hell, I’ll be happy with 3-0 lads.”

And I think I was serious. City had just beaten Arsenal twice by that score in the space of five days, and we had the impression that they had played within themselves during the second-half of Thursday’s game in order to save themselves for this one.

“They’re a great team. We could get found out here.”

I silently gulped.

At last the stadium was in view. The days of calling it simply Eastlands seemed from a different era, and rather old hat, like a bobble hat maybe. I slowly drove along Ashton New Road, which was flanked by red-bricked terraced houses, and with tramlines now running its course. We were parked up outside a home fans only pub at 3pm. The weather wasn’t too hurtful.

I paid some locals £7 to keep our car safe.

This was a mighty three quid cheaper than United.

I could hear the nasal whine of some United fans baying “always in our shadow.”

The familiar walk to the stadium, criss-crossing the road, and the tram line. To my left, a graffiti-lined wall overlooked a lock on the Ashton Canal.

This was “up north” alright.

Bloody fantastic. I never tire of travelling to these football-mad cities on our historic little island.

You may have noticed.

I spotted many City fans “of a certain age” – my age – wearing sky blue and white bar scarves edged with the purple of earlier kits. I wondered if it was how some fans denoted that they were “old school” in the same way that some Chelsea fans sometimes wear red, white and green bar scarves.

There was a swift security check. No bags, no cameras allowed, the same as last week, so my phone became all important. After the atrocity at the Manchester Arena last year, I understood why there was tightened security.

Inside I met with a few fellow foot soldiers.

“Did Arsenal lose?”

“Yeah, 2-1.”

“Love it. I love it that they had a little glimmer of hope but still lost.”

Alan passed on the team news.

“No Kante.”

“Oh no.”

“And no Morata or Giroud.”

Things were sadly slipping in to place. It looked like it would be an afternoon of attempted containment and I sensed that the mood among the little band of Chelsea fans was far from buoyant. My seat was at the front – row C, but rows A and B were unused – of the little middle tier, with Chelsea fans below and above. I was positioned just eight feet from the home support.

“Oh lovely.”

I soon spotted PD and Glenn down below in the front row of the lower tier. The fans above were out of view, but it certainly looked that our away section was pretty full. It was a great effort from everyone. We waited for a while and the pre-match wind-up then started, with a Mancunian voice taking over the tannoy, as in other years, jabbering on about “We Are City” and other “stirring” soundbites. Alan joined me and we remembered last season’s game. He had re-watched the full game on Chelsea TV during the week.

“I’d forgotten how dominant they really were before we scored.”

I agreed. That miss from Kevin De Bruyne spurred us on to a classic display of counter-attacking excellence. I had watched the highlights during the week too. The strength with which Diego Costa beat off the defenders and steadied himself to slot home was just sublime, and it was a goal which I sadly realised Alvaro Morata could not be relied upon to repeat on current form. I had to admit it; he was a bit of a prick at times, but bloody hell we have missed Diego Costa.

The teams entered the pitch and I ran through the starting eleven.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Drinkwater – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

“Big game for Danny Drinkwater” I thought to myself.

There was a banner depicting De Bruyne down below and to my left; I wondered how he would perform. I have obviously watched from afar this season, but some of his passing has been simply magnificent. He can certainly thread a ball through a tight area. He is some footballer. And there was David Silva. And Leroy Sane. And Sergio Aguero too.

The City lot roared a healthy “Hey Jude” and the game kicked-off.

There was one inflatable banana being waved around in the lower tier. Maybe it was his version of the sky blue, white and purple bar scarf.

I could not help but watch the clock as the minutes ticked past. I kept thinking to myself “10 minutes – safe so far” and “15 minutes – one sixth of the game gone” and “20 minutes – almost a quarter of the game.” Of course it was all City. They pushed the ball around with ease, but their advances were kept at bay. Our defensive unit looked in good condition. Two City fans to my left were keeping me occupied. After Leroy Sane skied an effort over the bar, I turned to my left and pulled a face of relief to a City gent in his ‘seventies. He gestured that the ball had just cleared the bar by inches. I stretched my arms up to signify “and the rest.” He laughed and I laughed. The City fan just in front of him – scruffy beard, scruffy scarf and scruffy shoes – was a different matter altogether. He loved the sound of his own voice and would not bloody shut up.

“Champions? You’re shit. You’re in fifth place.”

I glowered and glowered some more.

A very reckless challenge by their young defender Zinchenko on Victor Moses brought howls from us. The move was allowed to continue but the referee only showed the player a yellow card once the attack inevitably petered out. A City fan to my left scowled and shouted across to me “he got the ball.”

“Ah bollocks, did he.”

As the game continued, I realised that Chelsea were allowing City the ball, allowing possession, conceding possession even. I had not seen the like of it – on such a scale – ever before. And I suppose from that moment, the game took on a different dimension. Not only did I watch as a supporter of the team – trying to will the team on with song – and as a spectator of a game in which the players were cast as often spectators too, but I watched as a fan of Antonio Conte as I tried to get inside his head and to attempt to evaluate his methodology.

I turned to Alan :

“It’s as if the manager has told the players not to expend any extra energy in charging around and making reckless challenges. He has told them to soak, soak, soak. To sit back and cover space rather than man mark.”

This approach is not new to football, but it certainly felt that this was anathema to us. It seemed so alien. Yet Conte is an Italian. This is a common approach – or it used to be in the suffocating systems of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies – and he obviously felt that the threat of an on-fire City was worthy of this very cautious method of football. The supporters around me were caught in two minds; some were voicing annoyance among themselves, but there were still shouts in praise of the manager.

Us British love to see a player charge around, closing space but also making tackle after tackle. Or maybe we used to when the midfield was the most important part of the game plan in my youth. What were we told?

“Whoever wins the midfield, wins the game.”

These days, with many teams happy to sit off and let other teams hold the ball – “there you go, see what you can do” – it is often the transition from defence to attack that wins games. The days of enthusiastic tackles in the midst of a midfield battle seem long gone. You see blocks these days, but not so many great tackles.

The match continued and I tried my best to get behind the team. Our attacks were very rare. We were able to reach the wide players on occasion but were unable to create much at all. It was, of course, very frustrating.

I got rather bored with our constant “Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that” goading of City.

But then scruffy City Fan irritated me further.

“Ha, you won it on penalties! Penalties!”

I thought to myself “I bet you would not be fackin’ complaining if City won it on spot-kicks in Kiev this season.”

Our same modus operandi continued. I still thought hard about the tactics that the manager had asked of his players. It was evident that he was of the opinion that a gung-ho approach – “taking it to them” in popular parlance – was not a gamble that he was willing to take. I had to admit to myself that if we were to allow them any space, by stretching the game, by over-indulging, a City team twenty-two points clear of us in the table would probably score at will. If anybody thinks otherwise, they have not been paying attention.

What were our pre-match thoughts? I would have murdered for a 0-0. Damage limitation, I am sure, was on many peoples’ minds. Although there had been a red alert during the week, here was a blue alert which had evidently troubled the manager and many more besides.

But bloody hell it was hard to watch. City peppered our area with crosses and there were strong blocks from Rudiger and others. We held on.

The City fans in the East Stand – the modern equivalent of The Kippax I guess – were adamant that we were “fookin’ shit.”

Scruffy boy was still ranting away.

“We’re twenty-two points clear. We’re mint.”

At one stage, the elderly City fan bent forward and told him to be quiet.

Bernardo Silva went close with a curler which again flew over the bar and the elderly City fan looked across at me and smiled, his hands coming together as if to say “that was closer, lad.”

The first-half continued on – “30 minutes, a third of the way there” and our defence limited City to few chances. There was, if I remembered correctly, just one Kevin De Bruyne cross into the box but it was quite poor and evaded everybody. City’s finishing was quite poor to be honest.

Dave had starred during a first-half of constant pressure. Nobody had hounded and blocked and harried better than him throughout the first-period.

The first-half came to an end. Apart from a couple of rousing “Blue Moons” the City fans had not been too noisy at all. At Old Trafford – in Part One – hardly a seat was not used, whereas at City there were hundreds of seats dotted around the stadium not filled. I looked back on the half. For all of our defending, we had kept City at bay for long periods. Our attacks were very rare. It annoyed me that when we attempted long balls out of defence, unless they were to the wings, they were often over hit which just meant that Ederson raced off his line to claim. I remembered a couple of fine through balls by Cesc Fabregas, but I had to admit that there was very little attacking verve from us.

As I made my way out to the concourse at halftime, I spotted Pete – now living in Manchester – and I smiled as I said “halfway to paradise.”

The second-half began. During most games – though not all – I write a few bullet points on my phone as the day and the game develops. After thirty seconds, I debated writing “can we hold on?” but decided against it. A move by City was not cleared by the otherwise fine Andreas Christensen and the ball broke to Aguero, who helped move it on to David Silva. His low cross into the six-yard box was prodded home by Bernardo Silva, with Marcos Alonso sadly adrift of play. And yet it would be churlish to be too scathing of Alonso, who must have been crushed by the news of the death of his former Fiorentina team mate Davide Astori as he awoke before the game.

But we were a goal down with barely a minute of the second-half had gone.

Bollocks.

The City support roared.

A song that I have not heard at City before got an airing :

“City – tearing Cockneys apart again.”

And yet this re-working of the Joy Division number was originally a United song, and one which exalted the gifts of the presumably hated Ryan Giggs. Alan and I were mystified and we both shouted over the great divide at the home fans and asked why on earth they were singing that?

“That’s a United song.”

“Ryan Giggs.”

They just smiled benignly and were having none of it.

The scruffy lad suddenly started rabbiting about our support, chastising it, and wondering if we were United fans a few years back. He then referenced, for reasons unbeknown to me, a game from almost thirty years ago.

“Were you here in ’89 when you were shit?”

I was having some of that.

“Yes! Yes I was. And we fucking beat you 3-2.”

Ah, yes. Tony Dorigo running for ever and ever and turning it in at the Platt Lane in front of a cool ten thousand Chelsea supporters. Bliss. I have detailed that iconic away match in these reports before, but here are a few photographs of another era, another time, another club. Another two clubs.

This seemed to impress Scruffy Boy.

He nodded…and was rather subdued now.

”Yeah, so was I.”

He motioned towards me to shake my hand. You know what went through my mind? The prick is going to pull his hand away – “Soccer AM schoolboy error” style – and leave me stranded. But no. He held his hand out. Rather than shake it, I slapped it derisively.

Then, presumably in a show of some sort of Mancunian wit, the whole ground sang  as one :

“Sing when we’re winning. We only sing when we’re winning.”

I guess they have been singing rather a lot this season.

To add to the gloom, the rain fell heavier and I saw that PD and Glenn were getting soaked.

Bizarrely, City struggled to capitalise further in the next fifteen minutes, and it was Chelsea who came closest to scoring. After a ball was played into space, Victor Moses raced in to the penalty area, with the entire away end praying for a goal. He hesitated just slightly, and rather than wrap his boot around the ball, and force Ederson to save, he sliced the ball high and wide of the near post. I daren’t look at the elderly City fan who probably had his hands poised to signify “high.”

Then City came into it again, and Courtois was able to save well from David Silva at the near post. A few of our clearances from defence were shocking; hoofed up high in to the air. Reckless, rushed, ruthless.

Bloody hell.

We seemed to have a few more breaks as City pushed for a second goal – I guess this was the plan –  but our final ball and our movement was off-kilter. But each time either Pedro or Hazard or Willian broke, the away support roared the team on. The support inside the stadium, though difficult to sustain over three disjointed tiers, did not relent. I was proud of that. We were all baying for a change from the hour mark, so it was surprising – to say the least – that Conte took until the seventy-seventh minute to replace the tiring Willian with Olivier Giroud. He had kept it tight for so long, I guess his Italian past did not allow him the freedom to gamble. Just after, Pedro was replaced by new boy Emerson. Although it had not been pretty to watch, there is no doubt that the players had carried out their manager’s wishes to the letter. They at least worked with him. But I am sure it could not have been easy. As the game continued, I did not give up hope. As bizarre a result as it would have been, I sensed that we might just grab a late equaliser. As we attempted sporadic attacks, there was definitely a nervousness among the City support. I could sense it. They were not happy. The game had a couple of bizarre final twists.

Conte brought on Alvaro Morata for Eden Hazard with just two minutes remaining.  Hazard had relentlessly shuffled around closing space all afternoon long.  I watched Eden as he exited the pitch and hoped that he did not head off down the tunnel in a huff; he did not, he donned a jacket and took his seat on the bench.

And then, ridiculously, right at the final whistle, Marcos Alonso slashed at a ball on the edge of the box but we watched – such pain – as the ball spun away from the goal rather than towards it.

At the final whistle, I stood and let the immediate rush of people leave. I watched as a few players – maybe five or so, Giroud, Fabregas I think, Azpilicueta, Courtois, maybe Alonso – walked over to acknowledge a damp and dejected support. We clapped them too.

I turned to Al and Gal :

“See you next Saturday, boys.”

As I walked away, I looked back at the City Gent and Scruffy Boy. I gave them a small clap and they responded similarly.

I thought to myself : “Yep. Good team City. Anyone but United. Anyone but Tottenham. Anyone but Liverpool.”

I soon caught up with a drenched PD and Glenn and we began a silent march back to the car. Last season, that walk was triumphant. This season, we just got wet.

There was the inevitable post-mortem in the car as I headed away from Manchester. Many words were exchanged. I still liked Antonio Conte. He had not suddenly become a horrible manager overnight. Three Juventus titles after a few seasons of draught. Then a World Cup with Italy had everyone using the phrase “a tactical masterclass” – to the point of cliché – as we described him and relished him joining us. A league title with Chelsea followed. I have a feeling, as I have said before, that this feels like a first season; transition, change, conflicts. He has not managed the pressure particularly well, but the hatred aimed at him from some sections of our support openly shocked me. As I drove home, Glenn kept me updated with some highlights from the wonderful world of social media. From the comments of some, it honestly felt like we had lost 7-0 rather than 1-0. And from the way some people were allegedly talking, some fans would rather that we lost by such a score rather than a 1-0 defeat using the tactics employed.

Be careful what we wish for.

I am not so sure a possible 4-0 or 5-0 shellacking against – possibly – the second best team in the game right now would have been the best preparation for the next few games, one of which is against the best team in the world. I again thought about the manager’s thought processes; he knows his players, their mentalities. Again, his view was to keep it tight.

I drove on.

Glenn read out quotes from the manager :

”We wanted to close space, stop them playing between the lines, limit them.”

It was as I expected. A critique of the manager can’t ignore his background, his Italian history. His decisions were a reflex response to danger to defend first. It obviously upset some people.

I drove on.

Who ever said supporting Chelsea was easy?

Remembering the horrific traffic after the United game, it was a joy to be heading home on the Manchester orbital and then the M6 at normal speed. The rain had stopped. The roads were clear. We eventually reached home at about 11pm. It had been a tough game – but I can honestly say that I would not have wanted to have been anywhere else in the world than in deepest Manchester with many good friends.

I skimmed through many comments on social media, and the majority were scathing of the manager’s tactics. That’s fine, we are all entitled to an opinion. It had been an odd day for sure.

And this has been an odd match report to write; a difficult one, but one which has summed up my feelings as honestly as I can.

I’ve tried to get inside the manager’s head. I’ve tried to be objective as possible.

As the night wore on, and I continued reviewing some comments on “Facebook”, I took a great deal of solace in a couple of comments from one Chelsea pal, whose pragmatic views about the game were level-headed and mirrored a few of my own. The bonus was that he was a former Chelsea player – 1985 to 1987 – and it was nice to read his thoughts.

Robert – I owe you a drink next time I see you.

In memory of Joe Buchmann.

Tales From Eight Pubs And Two Clubs

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 30 September 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Phew. All sorted.

Eight pubs.

Now for the football.

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

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

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

Courtois

Rudiger – Christensen – Cahill

Azpilicueta – Kante – Bakayoko – Fabregas – Alonso

Hazard – Morata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thibaut saved from Silva.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re Not Really Here.”

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

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

“Bollocks.”

City were well worth their lead.

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

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

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

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

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

“City look the business.”

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

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

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

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

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

See you all at Palace.

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Tales From 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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