Tales From A Humdrum Town

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 16 April 2017.

I awoke early, and I will admit that I felt slightly agitated. I wasn’t particularly calm. My nerves were jangling. The massive game at Old Trafford had obviously dominated my thoughts as the Easter Weekend had approached. It not only represented our toughest remaining league fixture of the 2016/2017 campaign but there were some heavy sub-plots, too. We had already beaten Jose Mourinho’s new team twice this season, and by the law of averages alone, it would be no surprise for United to give us a tough old time. In fact, I was damned sure that Mourinho would be making sure that a third defeat of the season at the hands of our new man Antonio Conte would simply not happen. Jose, for all his faults, is no mug in these big matches. A draw – I reconciled – what be totally acceptable in the circumstances.

But we live for days like these, don’t we? The stakes were high. This was going to be one of the away trips of the season, or any season for that matter.

Before I set off, I began with a post on Facebook. I had arranged to meet up before the game with my old college friend Rick – a United season ticket holder for many a year, and like me, a fan of The Smiths – and with this in mind, I referenced one of the band’s iconic images. It came from a United away game in 2006 (a 1-1 draw, a Riccy Carvalho header) when I dropped in to visit a local landmark that was famously featured on the band’s “The Queen Is Dead” album of 1986.

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With the game resting heavily on my mind, I added a comment which hoped that our charming manager would prevail.

In fact, I  soon thought about the two men in charge of the respective teams. Compared to the sour-faced Mourinho – with that dismissive smirk never far away these days – our manager is a picture of positivity and light. Indeed, with Mourinho – totally unlovable at United – now ensconced at Old Trafford, I could not help come to a quick conclusion about our former boss.

He was looking for a job, and then he found a job, and heaven knows he’s miserable now.

I collected The Chuckle Brothers and we headed north. The traffic was surprisingly light. The day had begun with clouds but sun too. Just north of Birmingham the rain started. By the time I pulled in to the car park of “The Windmill” pub just off junction 19 of the M6, the drizzle was continuing. This was going to be a typical football day out in rain town. I got a round in and looked up to see my pal Rick approaching. I had my opening line sorted :

“The rain falls hard on a humdrum town.”

Rick smiled and we set about a good old natter about our respective football teams. Rick was with his eight year old son Frazer, who has just started going to games with his father. Rick had recently been in Brussels with 1,200 United fans for their game with Anderlecht. I told Frazer that over thirty years ago his father and myself played upfront in our departmental football team, with Rick as the elbows out battering ram and with me feeding off the scraps. I asked Rick what United thought of Mourinho. His answer was favourable, but he did mention that at times the entertainment value has only just surpassed that of the Van Gaal era. Before we knew it, the time was pushing on – 2.15pm – and we needed to be on our way.

The new A556 road – which was mid-construction for the City game in the autumn – helped our approach to Old Trafford. I was parked-up at the usual £10 garage at around 2.45pm. Just right. The rain was easing slightly but there always seem to be dishwater skies in Manchester.

We plodded off to the stadium. We met up with Big John on the way – “take a draw now” – and we were soon on the famous forecourt. I took a few photographs of the match-day scene. I know they sell half-and-half scarves at Stamford Bridge, but at Old Trafford it is on a different scale.

“Ten pound yer match day scarf.”

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, but I noted with sadness that there was a huge advertisement for one of United’s commercial partners – Aeroflot – right behind the statue of Sir Matt Busby. In fact, who else but United would place such a statue of their much-loved former manager right in front of their megastore?

We had heard rumours that Thibaut Courtois was out. We then heard talk that Cesc Fabregas was in.

“Going for it.”

At the turnstiles, I was met by an over-zealous team of stewards who stopped me from taking my camera inside. This is the second time that this has happened at Old Trafford and it meant I had to traipse around to a “bag drop” porta cabin behind the Alex Ferguson Stand. On the walk underneath the Stretford End, I noted many supporters holding those God-forsaken noise-makers, much-beloved at Leicester City and Fulham. I tut-tutted. Modern bloody football.

I eventually made it in with ten minutes to spare. The away support was strong in number and voice. Not so many women. Hardly any kids. Hardly any colours. Just a couple of divs away to my right with half-and-half scarves.

Not only was Courtois out, but Marcos Alonso too, apparently injured during the warm-up. This had resulted in a last minute shift of personnel which must have greatly disrupted everyone’s thoughts.

Begovic.

Zouma – Luiz – Cahill.

Moses – Kante – Matic – Azpilicueta.

Pedro – Costa – Hazard.

No Fabregas, then. Maybe just as well. I was surprised that Ibrahimovic was relegated to a place on the bench. I tried, briefly, to work out Mourinho’s game plan.

Old Trafford is a huge stadium these days. I am told they are looking to enlarge it further. Up, up and away, reaching up in to the sky.

To my right, the famous “Manchester Is My Heaven” banner.

A new song has been doing the rounds at United of late and the tune on which it is based, “I’m Into Something Good.” by Herman’s Hermits was played on the PA with a few minutes to go. There were banners everywhere – too many to mention. As the teams entered the pitch – a smudge of blue in the far corner – I spotted a forest of flags on sticks over to the opposite corner of the old “K Stand” just where Rick has his season ticket. Chelsea are trying to do the same in The Shed. Think The Kop, if you must, but on a smaller scale. To the left of the Stretford End – presumably the corporate section – I spotted hundreds of those damned noisemakers. They must have contained a message or a slogan, because many were being held aloft.

It probably said –

“I don’t really like football. I’m here on a freebie. I haven’t a clue.”

The two managers took their places in the technical areas. Antonio Conte chose to wear a baseball cap with his usual smart suit. It jarred. I wondered what on earth possessed him to do so. Ugh.

United were the first out of the traps. Marcus Rashford was allowed a run in on goal, with Luiz floundering, but screwed the ball well wide of Asmir Begovic’ far post. I grimaced and exchanged words with Alan. His reply summed up the mood of the hour :

“Please, please, please let me get what I want, this time.”

A Chelsea attack petered out, but we spotted a handball. Sadly, the referee Bobby Madley waved play on. Ander Herrera stroked an inch-perfect ball in to the path of that man Rashford. David Luiz was nowhere, and the United striker pushed the ball through Begovic’ legs. That horrible sight – the ball hitting the back of the net – was met with a huge roar from the home support. The game was but seven minutes old.

“Oh fuck.”

For a few moments, Old Trafford was a cauldron of noise.

“U. N. I. T. E. D – United are the team for me.”

We had spoken in the car of how, if asked to choose between a win against United in the league, or a win against Tottenham in the cup, all four of us chose the former, since the league is the more prestigious one to win. Now I was renegotiating with the Football Gods.

“A draw, please.”

United dominated the play. It wasn’t that they flooded our half every time that they won possession, it was just that with Rashford and also Lingard attacking at will, we just looked so fragile. On the far side, I really needed Victor Moses to assist Kurt Zouma. That looked a problem area straight away. Elsewhere, we struggled to get any sort of pattern to our play. Eden Hazard was marked to oblivion. We were struggling all over. After only twenty minutes, Conte decided to swap the wing-backs, with Dave disappearing over to the far side and Moses taking up a position in front of us.

Ashley Young went close on two occasions. Moses slipped inside the box, allowing Rashford to cross. Cahill watched as his headed block looped up and on to the bar.

Diego Costa was getting in to all sorts of bother with players and officials alike. I have spoken up for him over the past few weeks, but in this game, he seemed to be channelling everything towards confrontation rather than towards the team ethic. There were wails of protest from the Chelsea support every time that referee Madley gave a decision against us. However, I have to say that many of our tackles in that first-half were poorly timed and poorly executed. They summed up our performance. We couldn’t even tackle.

A shout from Gary : “Matic, you couldn’t pass water.”

In fact, our only shot at goal during the entire first period was a wild shot from distance from Diego Costa which went well wide. That came in about the forty-third minute. This just wasn’t good enough. In the closing seconds, Ashley Young shot wide again. Nobody, with the possible exception of N’Golo Kante, had played well during the first-half. A typically spirited run from him in the closing seconds of the half hinted at a better second-half of football.

But there were bleak faces in the Chelsea quadrant during the break. I tried to look for positives.

“Put it this way, surely we can’t play as bad in the second-half.”

The Chelsea players were out a good two minutes before the United players for the start of the second period. The Manchester United mascot Fred The Red was gesticulating to both sets of fans right in front of us for a few moments. Hand signals were exchanged. The mascot was trying to wind us up.

Another gem from Gary : “That’s Mourinho.”

The second period began. A United free-kick from out wide on the right appeared to be going off, and I thought the whole team had momentarily switched-off. United kept the ball alive and the ball eventually fell to Herrera. He took a swipe inside the box and we watched, aghast, as the ball took a wicked deflection and spun over Begovic, stranded forever. Only four minutes were on the clock.

This was awful. The United hordes boomed again. It seemed like 72,000 were gazing and smiling at each and every one of us. We were right in the firing line. Hateful stuff.

“With a nick nack, paddy whack, give a dog a bone, why don’t City fuck off home?”

We stood silent. We had been kicked in the bollocks. Bigmouth had struck again.

In those moments, there are really no places to hide. The lead down to four points. Tottenham chasing us. Sky TV and BT Sport would be salivating. Tottenham on Saturday. Panic on the streets of London. Sigh.

But then, out of nowhere, we responded. For ten, eleven, twelve minutes – maybe more – we sang and sang and sang.

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

I kept looking around at my fellow fans and was pleased to see smiles among the defiance. It made me proud. We sang on. This seemed to inspire the United fans too, who themselves responded. The atmosphere was electric. Louder than bombs.

Sadly, on the pitch, everything was still flat. Conte replaced Moses with Fabregas and there was a change in formation. To be fair, we dominated possession for the rest of the game, but never really looked like scoring. Diego – sorry, but I have to single him out again – kept coming too deep. We needed him on the last man, ready to explode in to space. Pedro ran his socks off in the second-half and went close on two occasions, but still De Gea did not have a shot to save. Elsewhere we lacked any real cohesiveness. Hazard was the centre of most of our attacks but Mourinho knew what he had to do. The supporters’ coaches from Devon, Surrey, North Wales and Norfolk were parked in front of the United goal.

Matic was replaced by Willian. It was really nothing.

Lingard went close, hitting the side netting with a long-range effort and then the lively Rashford forced Begovic to block down low. Our passes went astray with scary regularity. The confidence had been knocked out of our side early on and we never ever recovered.

You know it is a bad day at the office when Fellaini bosses the midfield.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Kurt Zouma. I had lost the will to work out the formation by then.

We still never looked like scoring. In fact – let’s be blunt here – a goal would have flattered us. De Gea never made a save.

The final whistle signalled the end of a pretty miserable game. The lads made their way back to the car while I – oh deep joy – walked through thousands and thousands of United fans to reach the bag-drop. The rain was falling now. My shoes stepped through the puddles. The United fans were in full voice and I hated every minute of it as they brushed past me.

“Woke up this morning feeling fine. Got Man United on my mind. Jose’s got us playing the way like United should. Oh yeah. Something tells me I’m in to something good.”

I retrieved my camera. The heavens opened again. Splash. Splash. Splash.

As I bought a cheeseburger on Sir Matt Busby Way, I bumped into Neil Barnett, himself looking drenched with both weather and our poor showing. He quickly told me that Thibaut had allegedly been injured during the filming of an advertisement for the NBA. Oh bloody hell. We chatted away, then went our separate ways as the rain continued.

Splash. Splash. Splash.

I posted on Facebook once again : “Soaked to the skin. Worst cheeseburger of the season. Two hundred miles from home. Oh Chelsea we love you.”

I eventually reached the car, threw my soaked jacket in the boot, pulled out on to the Chester Road and headed south. Over the next four hours or more, we spoke about the game, our poor performance, our remaining games. As always, there is usually a prolonged chat when things do not go our way. If we win, the game is not dissected quite so much. The lads had heard the rumour about Courtois. We spoke about all sorts. Of the game, we concluded that Conte was undoubtedly rushed into making those last minute changes. With more time to think about things, maybe he would have chosen different personnel. We mentioned the recalled Nathan Ake. Maybe he should have played. It just looked to us like Conte was never at ease with his eventual team selection, nor were the players themselves.

We spoke about how odd it was, really, to see such a team as Manchester United, with its rich history of attacking flair, to be so happy to play spoilers. But that is not to take anything away from them. They did a job on us, no bloody doubt.

Six huge league games are left. They are the undoubted priority. But we are four points clear of Tottenham and we have a better run in. We didn’t think that Spurs would win all six of their games. It’s certainly “advantage us” still, although it doesn’t bloody feel like it. We are not used to this. In 2005, 2006 and 2015 it was a procession. In 2010, it was us doing the chasing. We are not used to being the ones being chased. What difference does it make? Only time will tell.

However, in the final month or so of the season, the next game in the FA Cup might well define our campaign. Win, and we might just knock the stuffing out of Tottenham, the new media darlings. If we lose, it will be a different story.

See you at Wembley.

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Tales From The Cup

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 13 March 2017.

Here was my mindset for this game.

“An evening game on a Spring weekday. This almost feels like a European home game. We are so used to those in March, April and May. Manchester United at home in the FA Cup. But it’s all about the League this season. This game feels odd. Whisper it and with caution, but it almost feels like an inconvenience. It’s not my fault that the FA Cup has lost its gloss. Blame the FA for that. Semi-finals at Wembley. The final being played during the season. The final being played on the same day as league games. The final being played at 5.30pm. Wembley Stadium has lost its appeal and it has lost its mystique. Wembley being used for the play-off finals. Wembley hosting Arsenal and Tottenham’s European games. We can also blame the Champions League and the shift in prestige to that competition. We can blame the FA for belittling the FA Cup with sponsorship and commercialism. We can even blame Chelsea too. We have won it in four of the new Wembley’s ten finals. The rush of adrenalin that used to accompany those 1997, 2000 and 2002 FA Cup runs seem an ancient memory. Blame our success.”

But this was Manchester United and Jose Mourinho. Plenty of anticipation there, right?

“Yes, of course.”

This game almost seemed more about beating United – and Mourinho – than the FA Cup.

After a torrid day at work, there was the release of getting away, and driving to my freedom. But the worry of work, I will freely admit, stayed with me throughout the evening. I had been swamped at work the previous Monday, and it was the sole reason why I was reluctantly forced to miss my third game of the season against West Ham United.

Our pre-match was well away from Stamford Bridge, in The Colton Arms near Queens Club. I remembered that our one previous visit was before the crazy 3-3 with United on an icy day in early 2012, with Villas-Boas (remember him?) still in charge. Two pints of “Birra Moretti” went down well. The pub was cosy and it was good to momentarily unwind for a while. There were brief memories of other FA Cup games with United at Stamford Bridge. The horrid memory of being 0-5 down to them in 1998 still haunts me to this day.

We bumped into some pals on the walk to the stadium.

“Seen any United?”

“None.”

“Wonder where they are drinking. Up in town, maybe. Six thousand of the buggers. They will be noisy tonight, alright.”

The four of us made our way in to the stadium.

PD, Alan, Walnuts and myself.

As we reached our seats, there were plumes of dry ice wafting around the touchlines.

“Fuck knows what all that is about.”

I looked towards The Shed, and there they all were. The dark wall of United’s away support, with only occasion hints of scarlet. The banners were out in force.

“Edinburgh Reds.”

“Bring On United.”

“Mockba 2008.”

“Buxton Reds.”

“Jose Mourinho’s Red Army.”

“I may be a wage slave on Monday but I watch United when they play.”

I knew of course that they would be in good voice. Even the truest bluest Chelsea supporter, blue-tinted spectacles and more, must surely acknowledge that United’s away support ranks right up there in terms of noise, variety of songs and balls out swagger. The massed ranks of United from near and far were already making a din. I recalled previous eras. The Red Army of the ‘seventies. The Cockney Reds and the Inter City Jibbers of the ‘eighties. The Men in Black. The whole story. On a night of Conte and Kante, six thousand similarly-named fuckers were making their presence felt in The Shed. There is, of course, a great irony when Chelsea fans around the world take the piss out of United fans not living in Manchester. I knew of at least three Chelsea fans from the US who were in the stadium. I used to dislike – is hate too terrible a word? – United more than any other, but other clubs nurture strong feelings of contempt too, and for different reasons.  But although I still have little time for United fans who watch only from their living rooms, I have a grudging respect for those who go, support, sing and bawl.

The news of the team had filtered through to us. A strong team for sure. A team based on the League campaign. But no room for Pedro nor Cesc.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill – Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso – Willian, Costa, Hazard.

There was no Ibrahimovic and that was a good thing. Although he has surprised me with his prowess this season, I still loathe him and it irritates the bejesus out of me when fellow Chelsea supporters call him “Zlatan” or “Ibra”. Less of the sycophancy you fucknozzles. He is not our player.

Rashford was playing up front instead and 35,000 Chelsea fans yawned at another Mourinho mind game.

There was the now familiar darkening of the lights and the Stamford Bridge lighting technicians put on a show for the sell-out crowd and the watching millions – we hoped – at home.

I remembered back on the Chelsea vs. Manchester United match in October when – long in to the game – I suddenly realised that I had not purposefully looked over to Jose Mourinho once. On this occasion, soon into the game, I watched both managers in their technical areas, and I realised how our affections have done a 180 degree turn as dramatic as those of Eden Hazard.

The king is dead, long live the king.

There is something classic about the blue, blue, white and the red, white, black of a Chelsea versus United game. In all their visits, I have never known United to wear anything else. Both of the Adidas kits were festooned with the biggest numbers seen on sports jerseys since the 1970’s Irish rugby team.

In the opening quarter, United seemed on top. They were more dynamic, more focussed. They moved the ball well. A very early chance for Rojo was headed over. Then Mkhitaryan went wide. The fans around me were on edge.

The United fans were standing and singing.

There was a “Na na hey hey” from them – not heard that one before – and a “Hey Jude” from us.

It was up to our creative genius to single-handedly get us involved. A sublime turn – on a sixpence – from Eden Hazard left Smalling wondering why and how he ever left Fulham. Eden sprinted away, with defenders fearful of diving in, and he skipped deep in to the box. His low drive was ably finger-tipped away by De Gea. The noise followed as the dormant Stamford Bridge crowd awoke.

“What a run.”

From Willian’s corner, Gary Cahill did well to change shape to connect. The ball seemed destined to go in, but De Gea again clawed it away. It was a stunning save.

We were back in this now, and our play vastly improved. There was a beguiling battle between the lofty Pogba and Kante, our diminutive destroyer of dreams, if only in terms of physicality. It seemed Kante was on top throughout.

United seemed to be intent on fouling our men whenever the chance arose. Herrera was booked, but the tackles still came thick and fast.

Eden Hazard fired over. He was our main threat. United knew it.

Jones crashed into Hazard, and we were amazed that a booking did not follow. With the crowd still baying, Herrera then quickly fouled Eden from behind, and the noise level increased. The referee Michael Oliver had clearly had enough and the second yellow for Herrera was quickly followed by a red.

“Off you go, knobhead.”

The Stamford Bridge crowd roared.

I looked over at Mourinho, and there was that familiar false smile as if to say “I know what you are all doing, it’s all a big conspiracy.”

There had been loud cries of “Fuck Off Mourinho” from the home areas already in the game. I cringed when I heard that to be honest. He’s not our favourite grouchy Portugueser right now, but that was not warranted.

Mkhitaryan was replaced by Fellaini. Walnuts bellowed “Hair Bear Bunch” and I giggled. It’s something when you are known for your hairstyle rather than your footballing abilities. Isn’t that right, Paul Pogba?

This was turning into a compelling game of football, but even during the match, work concerns kept flitting in to my head.

“Concentrate on the football you twat.”

The half ended with us well in control but I wondered if the reduction in their numbers would make United even more difficult to break down, as is so often the case. Courtois had hardly been forced to make a save. Moses was full of running and Willian full of ingenuity.

In the concourse, I watched a TV screen to see that Frank Lampard, among others, was discussing Mourinho and Conte coming together after the sending off. It felt odd that Frank was so close, but yet so far away.

I watched as Peter Houseman was remembered during the half-time break – it would soon be the fortieth anniversary of his tragic death – as his sons and grandsons walked the pitch. I remembered their last appearance; was it really ten years ago?

“One Peter Houseman, there’s only one Peter Houseman.”

I always thought that he never ever looked like a footballer. In the age of sideburns and moustaches, long hair and fringes, Peter Houseman looked like a librarian, a draughtsman or a geography teacher, bless him.

Not long in to the second-half, with Chelsea attacking the Matthew Harding, N’Golo Kante – finding himself involved in an attacking position quite frequently now – steadied himself and, although with Pogba close by, rattled a low strike past De Gea’s dive. The ball nestled in the corner and we went doolally.

“YES.”

We bristled with fine play for a while, moving the ball from wing to wing, intent on tiring United.

Then, a potential calamity. David Luiz jumped and mistimed a clearance, leaving Rashford with acres of space. He advanced, steadied himself, and I was convinced that he would level it. His low shot was blocked by Thibaut.

“Fantastic save.”

Chelsea created chance after chance as the half progressed. We were relentless. Dave had two long-range efforts. Willian went close. Costa headed wide from close-in. At one stage I had to remind myself that Pogba was even on the pitch. United were – cliche warning – chasing shadows by now, but I was very wary that one goal would change things dramatically. With another hard day at work on the Tuesday, I obviously feared extra-time, penalties, then getting home at 2am.

United created nowt.

Everyone in the media seems to be fawning over Mourinho’s United of late – I would say that, wouldn’t I? – but there doesn’t seem to be too much identity in the United team at the moment. And there doesn’t seem to be too much steel nor too much style either. It is a very sub-par United team compared to the ones of previous eras such as those of 1994, 1999 and – fuck – 2008.

Conte replaced Willian with Cesc Fabregas. We hoped he could open up the close spaces in and around the United box. There was one United attack of note remaining; Fellaini rose to an insane height and headed down, but Pogba could not pounce.

Conte replaced the tireless Moses with Zouma, and then Costa with Batshuayi. The four minutes of injury time only delayed United’s exit.

The final whistle went and we were through to our twelfth FA Cup semi-final in the past twenty-four seasons.

In the first of those (Wolves 1994, detailed only recently), we invaded the pitch and were euphoric. In 2017, we clapped, put our hands in our pockets, and exited.

Sigh.

Not far down the Fulham Road, we learned that we had been paired with Tottenham in the semi-finals.

My immediate thoughts were of dread – “imagine losing to that lot, is hate too strong a word?” – but then I let reality sink in.

“We’re by far the best team in English football this season. Why worry?”

After a customary cheese burger with onions at “Chubby’s Grill”, I grabbed PD by the arm and said –

“On to Saturday, now, and a bigger game. Stoke away in the league.”

Suddenly, the league became the important focus again.

I reached home at 1am, and briefly watched a post-match interview with the Manchester United manager, who – in all seriousness, with no hint of irony – claimed that Paul Pogba had been, unequivocally, the best player on the pitch.

Well, well, well.

I just had one solitary thing to say to that :

“Fuck off, Mourinho.”

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Tales From Our Rejuvenation

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 23 October 2016.

We all remember where we were when we heard that Matthew Harding had died. For a generation of Chelsea supporters, it is our Kennedy moment.

On the morning of Wednesday 23 October 1996, I was at work in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, in a factory’s quality assurance office. I had not been present at the previous evening’s League Cup tie at Bolton, where we had lost 2-1. I tended to mainly go to just home games in those days. In fact, another sport was occupying my mind during that week as I was in the midst of watching my New York Yankees playing in a World Series for the first time since 1981. I had listened to the League Cup game on the radio before catching a few hours’ sleep before waking at around 1am to watch Game Three from Atlanta. The Yankees won that night, and after the game had ended at around 4am, I squeezed in a few more hours of sleep before waking at 6am for a 7am start at work. While setting off for work that morning, I briefly heard a mention about a helicopter crash involving Chelsea fans returning from Bolton. It was possibly just a rumour at that stage. With me being rather sleep deficient, I possibly wasn’t giving it the gravity that it deserved.

At around 8am, the news broke that Matthew Harding had been aboard the helicopter, and that he had been killed, along with the fellow passengers. I was full of sudden and overwhelming grief. I had been so impressed with Matthew since he had arrived on the scene at Chelsea in around 1993, and saw him as “one of us.” I remember I had seen him on a Sunday morning politics programme just a few weeks before, lending his support to the New Labour campaign. He seemed to be perfect for Chelsea’s new vision; young and enthusiastic, one of the people, but with a few bob to spare for our beloved club. It almost seemed too good to be true.

Soon after I heard the news, I received a phone-call on the office phone from a friend and journalist, who lived locally in Chippenham, and who had – with Matthew’s assistance – written a book about Chelsea’s 1994 FA Cup Final appearance and consequent European campaign the following season (“Blue Is The Colour” by Khadija Buckland). Within seconds, we were both in tears. My fellow co-workers, I think, were shocked to see such emotion. Khadija had only spoken to Matthew on the phone on the Monday. My head was in a spin. I was just devastated.

I had briefly met Matthew on one or two occasions, but I felt the loss so badly. I remember shaking him by the hand in The Gunter Arms in 1994, the night of the Viktoria Zizkov home game. My friend Glenn and myself watched from the Lower Tier of the East Stand that game, and I remember turning around, catching his eye in the Directors’ Box, and him giving me a thumbs up. His face was a picture of bubbly excitement. I am pretty sure that I met him, again briefly, underneath the East Stand, after a game with Bolton in 1995, when he appeared with Khadija, and we quickly shook hands before going our separate ways. In those days, both Glenn and myself would take Khadija up to Stamford Bridge where she would sell copies of her book in the corporate areas of the East Stand.

We all remember, too, the outpouring of emotion that followed on the Saturday, when Stamford Bridge was cloaked in sadness as we brought bouquets, and drank pints of Guinness in memory of Matthew, before a marvellously observed minute of silence took place before our game with Tottenham. The Spurs fans were magnificent that day. We won 3-1, and the victory seemed inevitable. It had been the most emotional game of football that I had ever witnessed. Later that Saturday night – in fact in the small hours of Sunday morning – I watched as the Yankees came from 2-0 down to win the World Series 4-2. At the end of that sporting day / night doubleheader, I was an emotional wreck. It had been a tough week, for sure. Sadness and joy all tumbling around together. Later, my mother sent a letter of condolence to Matthew’s widow Ruth, and I have a feeling that she replied.

I remember how happy a few friends and I were to see Ruth Harding in a Stockholm park ahead of our ECWC Final with Stuttgart in 1998.

Matthew would have loved Stockholm. He would have the triumphs that he sorely missed over the past twenty years. He would have loved Munich.

As our game with Manchester United, and the return of you-know-who, became closer and closer, I thought more and more about Matthew. And I was enthralled that the club would be honouring him with a specially crafted banner which would be presented to the world from the stand which bears his name.

Tickets were like gold dust for this one.

It promised to be a potentially epic occasion.

I had missed a couple of our most recent games – both the matches against Leicester City – and nobody was happier than myself to be heading to Stamford Bridge once again.

We set off early. In the Chuckle Bus – Glenn driving, allowing me to have a few beers – there was caution rather than confidence. Despite the fine performance against Leicester last weekend, Mourinho’s United would surely be a tough nut to crack. I am sure that I was not alone when I predicted a 0-0 draw.

“Just don’t want to lose to them.”

Once at Chelsea, we splintered in to two groups. PD, his son Scott and Parky shot off to The Goose, while Glenn and myself headed down to the stadium. I met up with good friends Andy, John and Janset from California, and Brad and Sean from New York, over for the game, and trying to combat jetlag with alcohol and football.

It was a splendid pre-match and the highlights were personalised book signings from both Bobby Tambling and Kerry Dixon. Glenn was able to have quite a chat with Colin Pates, and it is always one of the great joys of match days at Chelsea that our former players are so willing to spend time with us ordinary fans. It really did feel that we were all in this together, “Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army” for sure. Into a packed “Chelsea Pensioner” (now taking over from “The Imperial” as the place to go for pre-game and post-game music) for a beer and then along to “The Malthouse” for a couple more. We chatted to former player Robert Isaac – a season ticket-holder like the rest of us – once more and shared a few laughs.

A couple of lads recognised Glenn and myself from “that night in Munich” and it was bloody superb to meet up again and to share memories of that incredible day in our lives. We had all caught the last train from the Allianz Arena at around midnight, and we were crammed together as the train made its painfully slow journey into the centre of Munich. They were Chelsea fans – ex-pats – now living in The Netherlands, and it was great for our lives to cross again after more than four years.

With a few pints inside me, I was floating on air as I walked towards The Bridge.

The match programme had a retro-1996 season cover, with Matthew featured prominently. The half-and-half scarves were out in force, and I aimed a barb at a dopey tourist as I made my way through to the turnstiles.

The team had been announced, by then, and Antonio Conte had kept faith with the same team that had swept past Leicester City.

So far this season, our usual 4-2-3-1 has morphed into 4-2-4 when required, but here was a relatively alien formation for these shores; a 3-4-3.

Conte was changing things quicker than I had expected.

Thankfully I was inside Stamford Bridge, in the Matthew Harding, with plenty of time to spare. The United fans had their usual assortment of red, white and black flags. There was a plain red square, hanging on the balcony wall, adorned with Jose Mourinho’s face. It still didn’t seem right, but Jose Mourinho was not on my mind as kick-off approached.

The stadium filled. There was little pre-match singing of yesteryear. We waited.

The balcony of the Matthew Harding had been stripped of all other banners, apart from two in the middle.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

I noted the phrase “Matthew Harding – One Of Our Own” stencilled on the balcony wall too. That was a nice touch; I hope it stays.

Of course, should the new Stamford Bridge come to fruition, the actual stand will be razed to the ground, but surely the club will keep its name in place.

Without any fuss, a large light blue banner appeared at the eastern edge of the Matthew Harding Lower. It was stretched high over the heads of the spectators and slowly made its way westwards.

It depicted that famous image of Matthew leaping to his feet at a pre-season game in the summer of 1996.

MATTHEW HARDING

ALWAYS LOVED

NEVER FORGOTTEN

There was no minute’s silence, nor applause, the moment soon passed, but it suited the occasion very well. There was no need for excessive mawkishness much beloved by a certain other club. Matthew would have hated that.

The teams appeared, but my pals in the Sleepy Hollow did not; they were still outside as the game began. To be fair, I was still settling myself down for the game ahead – checking camera, checking phone, checking texts – as a ball was pumped forward. It fell in the middle of an equilateral triangle comprising of Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and David De Gea. Confusion overcame the three United players. In nipped the raiding Pedro, who touched the ball square and then swept it in to an open goal, the game just thirty seconds in.

The crowd, needless to say, fucking erupted.

The players raced over to our corner and wild delirium ensued. It was like a mosh pit.

Shades of Roberto di Matteo in the Matthew Harding Final of 1997? You bet.

This was a dream start.

Alan, PD and Scott appeared a few moments later. There were smiles all round.

I was so pleased to see us a goal up that the next few minutes were a bit of a blur. The crowd soon got going.

“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”

Luiz jumped with Ibrahimovic and the ball sailed over Thibaut Courtois’ bar.

Eden Hazard – his ailments of last autumn a distant memory – drove one past the United post. So much for a dour and defensive battle of attrition that myself and many others had predicted.

After around ten minutes, it dawned on me that I had not once peered over to see what Jose Mourinho was doing. Apart from taking a few photographs of the two managers, the men in black, on the touchline with my camera, I did not gaze towards Mourinho once the entire match.

This was not planned. This was just the way it was.

I loved him the first-time round, but grew tired of his histrionics towards the end of his both spells with us. When he talks these days, the Mourinho snarl is often not far away; that turned-up corner of his lip a sign of contempt.

My own thought is that he always wanted the United job.

Conte is my manager now.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

Twenty minutes in, a little more Chelsea pressure forced a corner. Hazard centered, and the ball took a couple of timely touches from United limbs before sitting up nicely for stand-in captain Gary Cahill to swipe home.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Two bloody nil, smelling salts please nurse.

Gary ran over to our corner and was again swamped with team mates.

United had the occasional chance at The Shed End, but our often criticised ‘keeper was in fine form.

A swivel and a shot from Diego Costa was blocked by a defender.

At the half-time whistle, all was well in the Matthew Harding.

Neil Barnett introduced Matthew’s three children to the crowd, along with former legend Dan Petrescu. We clapped them all as they walked around the Stamford Bridge pitch. The travelling Manchester United support duly joined in with the applause and this was a fine gesture. Of course, such disasters have united both clubs over the years.

Like Tottenham in 1996, respect to them.

As the second-half began, Alan and PD were showing typical Chelsea paranoia.

“Get a third and then we can relax.”

Although I was outwardly smiling – we were well on top – I agreed.

Juan Mata joined the fray at the break, replacing Fellatio, who had clearly sucked in the first-half.

Soon into the half, the little Spaniard came over to take a corner down below us and we rewarded him with a lovely round of applause. I still respect him as a person and player. He will always be one of us.

The second-half began with a few half-chances for Chelsea, and a few trademark Courtois saves thwarting United. Just past the hour, a lovely pass from the revitalised Nemanja Matic played in Eden Hazard. He dropped his shoulder, gave himself half a yard and curled a low shot just beyond, or below, the late dive of De Gea.

Three-nil, oh my bloody goodness.

Thoughts now of the 5-0 romp in 1999 when even Chris Bloody Sutton scored.

It was time to relax, now, and enjoy the moment. Every time Courtois and Ibrahimovic went up together for a cross, I had visions of their noses clashing in a football version of the rutting of stags, bone against bone.

We continued to dominate.

Ten minutes later, we watched with smiles on our faces as N’Golo Kante found himself inside the box with the ball at his feet. He sold a superb dummy with an audacious body swerve and cut a low shot past the United ‘keeper to make it four.

Chelsea 4 Manchester United 0.

Conte, who must have been boiling over with emotion, replaced Pedro with Chalobah, Diego Costa with Batshuayi and Hazard with Willian.

Willian, after losing his mother, was rewarded with his own personal song.

The noise was great at times, but – if I am honest – not as deafening as other demolition jobs of recent memory.

Courtois saved well from Ibrahimovic, but the game was over.

“Superb boys – see you Wednesday.”

There was a lovely feeling of euphoria as we bounced away down the Fulham Road.

There was a commotion over by the CFCUK stall, and we spotted Kerry Dixon, being mobbed by one and all. The excitement was there for all to feel.

“One Kerry Dixon.”

Back at the car, we had time to quickly reflect on what we had seen.

“It’s hard to believe that Arsenal, when we were dire, was just four weeks away.”

Sure enough, we were awful on that bleak afternoon in North London. I am almost lost for words to describe how the manager has managed to put in a new system, instil a fantastic work ethic, and revitalise so many players. It’s nothing short of a miracle really. Antonio Conte has only been in charge of nine league games, but he has seemingly allowed us to move from a crumbling system to a new and progressive one in just three games.

What a sense of rejuvenation – from the man who once headed the Juve Nation – we have witnessed in recent games. The three at the back works a treat. Luiz looks a much better defender than ever before. Cahill is a new man. Dave is as steady as ever. Courtois has improved. On the flanks, Alonso has fitted in well, but Moses has been magnificent. Matic is back to his best. Kante is the buy of the season. Hazard is firing on all cylinders. Pedro and Willian are able players. Diego is looking dangerous again. It’s quite amazing. And the manager seems happy to blood the youngsters.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

A fantastic result to honour a fantastic man.

The five teams at the top of the division are now separated by just one point.

All of a sudden, there is confidence and enjoyment pulsating through our club.

Matthew would certainly approve.

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Tales From 1905 To 2016

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 7 February 2016.

I love a good list. If it is football-related, even better.

A week or so ago, I stumbled across a little gem which I had originally seen a year or so ago. It was a complete list of the teams with the highest average home attendances, year on year, since the Football League’s inaugural season of 1888/1889 to the current day. The timing was impeccable; it came just in time for the visit of Manchester United. The Red Devils, in my lifetime, have topped the list of highest home attendances in what seems like nearly every season. They have dominated, much to the chagrin of their closest rivals. And yet I knew full well that Chelsea, especially in our early years, drew phenomenally large crowds at Stamford Bridge. I have touched on my desire to debunk the myth about Chelsea being a “small club with money” on a few occasions before and so it was with great relish that I studied this list once more.

Of course, there is a famous line about “lies, damned lies and statistics” but this particular statistical nugget provided a really intriguing insight into the growth of football, and football fandom, over a span of one hundred and fifteen seasons – of which I have attended games in forty-three of them – and helped to illustrate how certain clubs dominated certain eras.

Let’s start at the beginning.

For the first ten seasons, from 1888/1889 to 1897/1898, one club dominated the attendance record. That club was Everton, who finished with the highest average gate in every single one of those seasons, despite being league champions just once. During the very first season, the average attendance in the top division was 4,639, and Everton’s average was 7,260. By 1887/1898, the average had grown to 9,558, while Everton’s had swollen to a weighty 17,390.

Next up were Aston Villa, taking over Everton’s mantle as top drawers, with six straight seasons of league-leading averages. In 1898/1899, Villa’s average was a sizeable 23,045. In the league’s first twelve seasons, Villa were the first real powerhouse force, claiming the league five times. The early years of professional football in the late nineteenth century were dominated by teams from the Midlands and the North. For many years, the Football League did not consist of a single southern team.

Taking over from Aston Villa were Newcastle United, with three straight seasons of leading the league in average home gates, which mirrored three championships for the Geordies in the first decade of the twentieth century. The average on Tyneside in 1906/1907 of 33,235 dwarfed the top flight average of 15,526. Interestingly, my grandfather – the cricketer and footballer, from whom I think I received my sporting genes – was a young boy at around this time, and perhaps it is no wonder that, although he was not a fervent fan, if ever pressed, he always said that he used to follow the results of Aston Villa as a young lad, and also – to a lesser extent – Newcastle United, as he became a young man.

In to this new sport, with clubs jousting for attention, came Chelsea Football Club.

Chelsea, formed in 1905, were able to take part in the Second Division during 1905/1906. In that inaugural season, our home average was 13,370, compared to the divisional average of 13,429. That seems a reasonable start, yet this only tells half of the story. Most attendances at Stamford Bridge were around 8,000 to 10,000. But there were 25,000 present for the visit of Bristol City, who would end up as Second Division Champions, and 30,000 for the game against Glossop on Easter Bank Holiday Monday.

However, this is where the story comes alive.

The Chelsea vs. Manchester United game on Good Friday 1906 was watched by a staggering 67,000.

I have always been astounded by the size of this gate. It seemed to come, unannounced, out of nowhere. I have no evidence to back it up, but I’d suggest it created a new league attendance record at the time. It would be Stamford Bridge’s first colossal crowd. One can only imagine the frenzied activity around the pubs and saloons on the Fulham Road and the melee at each of the busy turnstiles as such a number of spectators feverishly entered the stadium, ascended the steps, and then saw the vastness of the Stamford Bridge arena from the top of the terracing. Both Chelsea and Manchester United were excelling towards the top of the table, and I can only imagine that the Easter crowd were drawn to watch two promotion hopefuls going toe to toe. I hope they all witnessed a fine game. It ended 1-1. However, Chelsea would not win any of our remaining five games in 1905/1906, finishing nine points away from Manchester United, who were promoted alongside Bristol City.

Of course, in those days, virtually all of the spectators would have lived in London and the Home Counties, travelling in by train, tram and charabanc. Unlike in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies – and later – there would have been no sizeable United following at Stamford Bridge. The mere thought of all of those people, all those lives touched by the sport of football, the enormity of it all makes me lose myself in thought. For many, perhaps, it would be their first ever football match. I wonder what they thought of it all. It must have been an amazingly potent and visceral experience. The sense of occasion, the colour, the cigarette smoke, the ribald laughter, the cheers from the crowd, the players.

67,000 in our very first season; what a start for the young pretenders.

Chelsea had made their mark.

Is this the end of this trip down memory lane? Not a bit of it.

It gets better.

In season 1907/1908, Chelsea were the team with the highest home league attendance with a hefty 31,965, almost double the First Division average of 16,809. It was our first season in the top flight. The young pretenders, despite finishing in an unremarkable thirteenth place, were setting the football world alight. By comparison, Arsenal were one place behind us, but their home average was a lowly 13,765.

In fact, from 1907/1908 to 1925/1926 – fifteen seasons, allowing for the hiatus enforced by World War One – Chelsea finished top of the averages on nine occasions. It would be our high water mark in terms of attendances. In 1919/1920, we finished third in the First Division but we topped the attendances with an average of 42,615, which – at the time – was an all-time record across all clubs. It was a heady time to be at Stamford Bridge, despite silverware eluding us. A particularly impressive season was 1925/1926 when we recorded a league leading high of 32,355 despite playing in the Second Division.

So, take a moment and suck all of that information in.

Chelsea were always a small club with poor gates? Not true.

In later years, other clubs’ periods of dominance were reflected in high average attendances. In the ‘thirties, Arsenal ruled, with nine consecutive seasons ahead of the pack with an impressive high of 46,252 in 1934/1935. Newcastle United – again – and then Tottenham Hotspur dominated in the immediate years after World War Two. Chelsea’s last season of topping the attendance chart was our Championship year of 1954/1955 with 48,260.

Interestingly, Manchester United did not register the league’s highest average until as late as season 1956/1957. The year after, of course, the supreme sadness of the Munich air disaster galvanized an entire nation and Manchester United have dominated attendances ever since. In the past fifty-nine seasons, they have finished with the highest home attendance some forty-eight times. Since 1966/1967, their dominance is especially marked; only five Liverpool seasons have interrupted their procession. For the past twenty-two straight seasons, United have finished in first place.

For as long as I can remember, they have always pulled the crowds.

My first Chelsea game was in 1974, yet it took me ten years until I saw those famous red shirts of United at Stamford Bridge for the very first time.  A grainy photograph from the West Stand benches takes me back.

On that occasion, just after Christmas 1984, the gate was 42,197 and we sadly lost 1-3. Alongside me on that day were Alan and Glenn, and we would be watching together some thirty-two years later. In those days of course, the open north terrace housed up to eight thousand away fans and United certainly brought thousands.

However, it was a black day for me; seeing United for the first time, yet losing.

Before I close this walk through the turnstiles of the past, here is a summary of teams that have finished with the highest average home attendance each season.

Manchester United – 48 times.

Everton – 13 times.

Arsenal – 12 times.

Newcastle United – 11 times.

Chelsea – 10 times.

Aston Villa – 7 times.

Liverpool – 7 times.

Tottenham Hotspur – 6 times.

Manchester City – 3 times.

For those with an interest in all of this, here is a link to the website.

http://www.european-football-statistics.co.uk/attn/nav/attnengleague.htm

…from 1905/1906, I need to bring all of this up to date.

The weekend drew near, but although the lure of another Chelsea vs. Manchester United game – my thirty-fourth at Stamford Bridge – was exciting enough, the chance to meet up with my mates again was even more important. After three away games in north London and to the north of London, it would be good to be back home again in deepest SW6.

On the Saturday before the game, which marked the fifty-eighth anniversary of the previously-mentioned Munich air disaster, I was pleased to see so many of my fellow Chelsea supporters being respectful on “Facebook” with quite a few posting kind words and pictures in remembrance of those that were killed so many years ago. It really warmed me. It contradicted the still widely-held view that a lot of football followers are mindless hooligans.

This fact was touched upon during an hour or so spent at “The Bottlery”, near Earl’s Court, where I shared a couple of pints with Glenn and Dave. Glenn had volunteered to drive us up to Chelsea, and so this allowed me a few pints for a change. Dave was over from France, and was following up Wednesday’s evening of fun – cough – in Watford with a home game. Parky and P Diddy had diverted off to “The Goose” where they were launching into a gallon of cider apiece. So, on a perfect Sunday, Dave, Glenn and myself supped some beers, had a bite to eat, and talked about a few topics close to our heart. We spoke about Leicester City’s amazing season. It seems everyone wants them to win it. We touched on the protest among Liverpool fans at their game at the weekend. If pushed, I would walk out from a Chelsea game too, if all other avenues of discourse were blocked. We spoke of the away game in Paris. Dave is going, though is honestly not convinced that he knows why. We spoke about Hillsborough. The horror still haunts. We spoke about standing areas. Celtic will be a test case. We spoke about the redevelopment of Stamford Bridge. We were optimistic. We spoke about an exile at Wembley. We were pessimistic. We spoke about all sorts.

Intelligent football talk? If only the people who still think that we are knuckle-dragging oafs could have heard us.

We were having a lovely time.

We then sped over to a local pub, “The Pembroke”, where two visitors from California were waiting. Alex and Annissa were in town for a few days, and I had arranged to spend a bit of time with them before they watched their first ever Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge. They just wanted to experience an authentic pre-match with some of us regulars. The two of them watch most of our games at the famous “Olde Ship” in Santa Ana, California, and were full of giddy excitement at the thought of seeing Chelsea, and no doubt Manchester United. It certainly was a great game, on paper, for a Stamford Bridge debut. In an email exchange, I had written, tongue in cheek:

“See you in the pub. We’ll be the ones not wearing Chelsea shirts.”

We ordered some beers, and the chat accelerated away. They were so happy to be able to meet some old-school supporters.

After a few moments of getting to know each other, Annissa whispered to me “so why don’t you wear Chelsea shirts?”

“Oh gosh. How long have you got?”

We then gave the two visitors a crash course in a few Chelsea fundamentals. We spoke about how I first met Glenn at school in 1977 and on The Shed in 1983, and how I first met Dave in Los Angeles in 2007. We chatted about our usual routines on match day, the Chelsea pubs, which are sadly closing one by one. The days of ska at “The Imperial”. How skinheads and boots gave way to Adidas trainers and Lacoste polo shirts in the days of our youth. Talk of Gus Mears and Brompton Cemetery. The fact that Stamford Bridge, unable to be expanded in 2011, is now looking to expand by 18,000. The Banter. Pints. Memories of Munich. The three of us were taking the piss out of each other and everyone else. The two Californians were lapping it up.

In “The Goose” Arsenal were on the TV, but nobody was watching. With so many nearby pubs closing, the pub gets busier and busier with each passing game. Annissa and Alex purchased the iconic “Chelsea and Proud” pensioner pin badge. Their smiles were wide. I could tell they were loving it.

In among the laughter, there was a moment of farce.

My friend Alan had written to the club and had asked that an obituary for dear Tom be placed in a match programme. Alan had texted me on Friday to say that there would be a short piece, written by Alan, plus a photo of Tom, in the Manchester United programme on the Sunday. The photo chosen was a rather nice one, featuring Tom at the front, with Alan, Glenn and myself, behind.

Imagine our displeasure when we heard that the imbeciles at Chelsea had cropped Tom from the photograph completely, leaving just a head shot of Alan to accompany the obituary. I was fuming. Alan, after his initial exasperation, was still annoyed, but was sure that Tom would be finding the funny side of it.

What a bloody farce.

After a while, a few texts started coming in from those friends who had already purchased a match programme.

“Bloody hell, Alan, you looked fine at Watford.”

Annissa and Alex left early to catch the pre-game stuff. They had seats in the MHL, down below Alan, Glenn, P Diddy and myself, all seated together. To be honest, there had hardly been much time to pay attention to the team. Suffice to say, Guus Hiddink went with the same team that began against Watford; no place, again, for Eden Hazard.

I had predicted 0-0 for the game at Old Trafford in December. My prediction for the return game was the same.

The United fans, the men in black, were already singing by the time I reached my seat. They had brought a few more flags than usual. One with the Munich clock. One for the “Ralph Milne Ultras.” Ferguson’s most unlikely signing in 1988, Ralph Milne became something of a cult figure at Old Trafford. He is their Robert Fleck. Kinda. Milne sadly passed away in 2015 and his flag bore the tangerine and black of his former club Dundee United, with whom he won a Scottish championship medal in 1983.

So, the Ralph Milne Ultras.

Not everything in Planet Football makes sense.

With Stamford Bridge full to its current capacity of 41,000, it was time for the focus to turn to the game itself.

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Manchester United have reverted back to Adidas this season, and their red, white and black is deeply reminiscent of the kits that were worn by United in their under-achieving years of the mid-‘eighties. I have to say it is a classic kit. The three stripes looked at home.

Sadly, United got out of the traps the quickest. Chelsea seemed unable to stop their quick passing, and although I was trying my hardest to ignore how much possession they were enjoying, by the time they started to rack up corner after corner, it was obvious that we were second best. It still hurt to see the smiling face of Juan Mata in red. His delicious touch made it all the more difficult to watch. However, a Courtois save from Martial was thankfully the only time that our goal was seriously threatened in the opening period of play. We struggled to create anything of note. A shot from Diego Costa flew wide of the post. The United fans were, unsurprisingly, the loudest. In all honesty, it wasn’t much of a contest. The Chelsea support hardly sang a note. There had been loud shouts in honour of John Terry at the start, but it was as quiet a Chelsea vs. Manchester United game as I could remember. Although Kurt Zouma shows great promise, both Alan and myself wished that he had more confidence in his own ability to allow him other options than a quick hoof of the ball in to row Z.

We were warmed slightly with a couple of half-chances, but then United, in turn, threatened us too. The big bearskin of Fellaini met a corner, but he was thankfully off target. It was a decidedly humdrum affair. Towards the very end of the first period, a John Terry effort struck the arm of Blind. It didn’t seem to be “ball to hand.” From my viewpoint, it was hardly point-blank range. Surely Blind could have moved his arm away? Despite our howls of derision, no penalty was given.

At the break, all was quiet.

United continued where they had left off as the second-half began. This was tough to watch. Shots flew at Courtois.

Hiddink, admonished for using just one substitute at Watford, soon replaced the quiet Oscar with Eden Hazard. Then, Kurt Zouma fell awkwardly. A stretcher was soon called for, but it seemed to take a while for him to leave the pitch. We wondered what the problem was; it was not clear. It didn’t look good. I felt guilty for being negative towards him earlier. Gary Cahill was the easy replacement.

On the hour, the best move of the match. United worked the ball out to the left, where Borthwick-Jackson (who?) struck a low cross in to the box. Wayne Rooney touched it to Lingard, who seemed to be unhindered as he brought the ball under control and struck it past Courtois.

Ugh.

All was not good.

The home fans still sat silently. There seemed to be no will to generate much noise. I felt for Annissa and Alex down in the tier below.

We slowly created a few more chances. A Willian free-kick, and then a powerful volley from Ivanovic both tested De Gea. Fabregas was the next to threaten the United goal, but another fine stop from the United ‘keeper. Pedro replaced Matic.

There was only a slight response from the Chelsea support.

However, as the minutes ticked by, we enjoyed more and more of the ball. A few wayward efforts frustrated us. It seems churlish to knock Willian after his exemplary form in the first few months, but he seems to have faltered of late. Some of his corners and free-kicks were woeful.

Then, a hope of salvation.

There were an added six minutes.

The crowd at last responded.

“Come on.”

With the United defence massed behind the ball, Cesc Fabregas miraculously found an unmarked Diego Costa in the middle of the penalty area. I could hardly believe it. Time seemed to stand still. I immediately stood up, expecting a goal. Diego turned, rode the challenge of a defender and pushed the ball wide of De Gea. With me just about to go in to orbit, Diego coolly slotted home from an angle. At last The Bridge thundered. I turned to see Alan screaming right at me.

Get in.

Down below, a fist pump from Diego Costa, and a hug from John Terry, who had sauntered up field to add support to the attack. Stamford Bridge echoed to the sound of a relieved home support. And I bet Annissa and Alex were in heaven.

In the final minute, a lovely moment. Juan Mata was replaced by Herrera and Stamford Bridge rose, seemingly as one, to applaud our former number ten.

Just like in 1906, the game had ended 1-1, though I can only hope that the match that drew 67,000 all those decades ago was a far better game.

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Tales From A Lesson In Double Dutch

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 December 2015.

Regardless of the current troubled predicaments of both teams, “United away” is always one of the very best Chelsea trips each season. Some would say it is the best of all. There is just something about visiting Old Trafford that never fails to stir the senses.

North against South.

Manchester against London.

Red against Blue.

As the day got underway, I was relishing the chance to be one of three thousand tightly-packed away fans in that sweeping corner, trying our best to be heard against the four-thousand United followers in the lower tier of “K-Stand” – I’m showing my age here – if not many more in all of the other home areas. It would surely promise to be a visceral treat for those of us who enjoy the noise and passion of a top-notch away fixture as much as the football played before us.

Old Trafford.

“The Theatre Of Dreams” as the advertising executives at Manchester United have called it.

Of course, there have been Chelsea defeats, but it was historically a venue which always used to be a pretty successful hunting ground for Chelsea Football Club in my youth.  Until 1970, it was the scene of our most famous match, our most famous win. And for many years we were undefeated in league games at Old Trafford and it annoys me to this day that I was present to see us relinquish that record on the last day of August in 1987.

From season 1965/1966 to season 1985/1986, we visited the home of Manchester United on thirteen occasions in the league and never lost once.

My first visit was in the spring of 1986, when two goals in front of us in the tightly-packed paddock sent us wild. The atmosphere that night was as visceral as I had ever experienced in my eighty Chelsea games to that point. A late Kerry Dixon winner sent us into ecstasy long before it was a staple drug of delight in Madchester. The natives were not happy that night. I can remember running the gauntlet back to our coach which was parked at the now long-gone Warwick Road train station. Fantastic memories from almost thirty years ago. You always remember your first time, right?

This would be my twenty-first visit to Old Trafford with Chelsea. In the previous twenty, my own personal record is five wins, six losses and nine defeats.

In my mind, it seems a better hunting ground than that. Maybe it is the strong memory of the emotion connected with those five wins (1986, 1986, 2005, 2010, 2013) which have altered my perception.

Regardless, as I collected Glenn and Parky at around 9am, I just knew that a classic day out was waiting for me.

Before we headed north on the busy motorway network, though, we diverted in to Bath for an archetypal post-Christmas spend-up. After a bite to eat, the three of us raided a few shops in the city’s crowded centre for some classic football clobber.

Two pairs of Adidas trainers, a Lyle and Scott Harrington jacket, a Paul & Shark hooded top and a pair of New Balance trainers were purchased between the three of us. I’ve noticed how New Balance are being worn more and more at football these days; a hark back to around 1985/1986 when they shared the limelight with the usual suspects. In one of the shops that we visited, there was a little banter with the two shop assistants.

Shop Assistant One : “Chelsea are not doing too well this season, eh?”

Chris : “Nah. Not too brilliant at the moment.”

Shop Assistant Two : “It could be worse. Could be United.”

Glenn : “We’re off to the game later this evening.”

Shop Assistant Two : “Oh right.”

Chris : “Who do you follow then?”

Shop Assistant Two : “United.”

This little exchange took me back somewhat. Although Chelsea are going through a ridiculously poor run of form, the United fan thought that his club were in a worse predicament.

But then I realised the mind set of many United supporters, who expect – nay, deserve – success.

I would like to think that Chelsea fans like Parky, Glenn and myself are a little more grounded, a little more pragmatic.

Shop Assistant One : “Predictions for tonight?”

Chris : “0-0 I reckon. I’d be happy with that.”

Regardless, purchases all bagged-up, we were on our way to the delights of Mancunia with an added spring in our step.

Sadly, the trip north – M4, M5, M6 and beyond – was yet another in the ever-growing list of horrific away journeys. A trip that should have taken three hours took over five. There were traffic delays every few miles. I had to divert through Stoke to avoid further problems on the M6. In the car, Parky had compiled a Northern Soul tape which was keeping us entertained. This was the stand out track.

“Moonlight, Music and You” by Laura Greene.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OE2H92jGoS0

Heaven.

However, I was getting frustrated with my slow progress.

News came through that Guus Hiddink was to employ a “false nine” in the game which was now getting close. With Diego Costa out through suspension, we presumed that Loic Remy was injured. Getting Radamel Falcao back on the pitch to score a winner at Old Trafford was beyond the stuff of fantasy.

In a similar scenario to that used by Mourinho at Tottenham, Eden Hazard was to be deployed in the furthest forward position. To be fair, the draw at Spurs was one of our most palatable performances of the season. For an old-stager such as me though, there is something decidedly odd about a “false nine.” It seems to rank up there with Peter Kay’s exclamations and protestations of “Cheesecake?” and “Garlic Bread?”

“False Nine?”

“Football with no striker?”

“False? Nine?”

It sounds like something that a transvestite might wear.

As I turned off the M60 and joined the Chester Road on that long familiar approach to Old Trafford, I reluctantly ‘phoned an old college mate, Rick, who had been waiting for me to arrive so that we could have a chit-chat before heading in to the game. Rick is a Manchester United season-ticket holder and lives in nearby Northwich. We had been looking forward to meeting up. Sadly, I advised that he should head on in.

“May the best team win and all that bollocks.”

Although we had left the city of Bath a few minutes before midday, we did not reach our allotted parking place – “a tennoh, please mate”- until around 5.15pm.

We quickly walked across Gorse Hill Park. Out on the Chester Road again, all was eerily quiet. Time was moving on and virtually everyone else was seated, or standing, inside the vastness of Old Trafford. It was a mild night as we walked as quickly as possible.

It seemed that the three of us were alone in the city of Manchester.

The red bricks. The Victorian streets. The car lights. The emptying pubs. The road signs for the neighbouring suburbs. The vast steel supports of the stadium roof. The colour red.

Manchester.

A couple of years ago, I went to see the great punk poet John Cooper Clarke, a native of the neighbouring city of Salford, in my home town of Frome, with a few good friends. Supporting him that evening was the poet Mike Garry, who went down equally well. One of Mike Garry’s most evocative poems is a tribute to the late TV presenter, journalist, and Factory record label owner Tony Wilson. DJ Andy Weatherall recently put this poem – “St. Anthony : an ode to Anthony H. Wilson” – to a dance beat and it has been in my head ever since. As a tribute to a much-revered impresario, the poem hits the spot. Hearing Garry’s emotional words, in a heavy and lazy Mancunian accent, put to music is perfect. Of course, it acts as an ode to Manchester itself. I love it. These football travels, these trips of faith and devotion, take me to some wonderful sporting cities. Surely Manchester is one of those.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LUE9PPiZ7W0

[A tip from this honest hardworking blogger; play this in the background as you read below. Don’t be passive. Engage.]

St. Anthony is the patron saint of things lost, of people missed. Everything about the poem seems very poignant for me and my 2015.

As I walked towards Old Trafford, one more time, Garry’s words resonated.

“Talk to me of Albion, of Anderton and of art.

Of The Arndale.

Alan Turin.

Acid House.

Alexandra Park.”

Past the Bishop Blaize pub, for once devoid of sound. United song master Pete Boyle had left for the game.

“Of Bez, the Buzzcocks, the bouncing bombs.

And the beautiful Busby Babes.”

Past the take-aways and the offies, and in to a very empty Sir Matt Busby Way. The grafters and the fanzine sellers were no more. How odd to be outside a football stadium after kick-off.

“Of Curtis.

Cancer, Christies, Catholicism.

Crack and Curt Cobain.”

We met up with Kev, from Edinburgh, who was waiting on my ticket. We quickly disappeared into the away section underneath the Munich clock. There were other Chelsea fans arriving late. We were evidently not the only ones. For the first time in ages, the away season ticket holders were in the curve, not down below to the left in the South Stand.

We had missed seven minutes. A quick “hello” to Alan and Gary. Apparently, it had been an eventful opening period. I heard how Juan Mata had struck the woodwork, but also how John Terry had gone close with a header. I took a few photographs. I tried to settle in. Everyone standing, everyone shouting. There seemed to be no seat unused as I looked across to the Stretford End, now partly corporate, its heart ripped out years ago, and then the towering North Stand. I looked across to where Rick would be watching, somewhere near the rear of the lower tier as it curved around. A quick run through the teams. I was pleased to see the steadying choice of Mikel alongside Matic, who – from memory – does well at Old Trafford. For the home team, I quickly spotted Bastian Schweinsteiger amid thoughts of that night, that penalty and that foreign city, whose name brings awful memories to this part of Manchester. How odd that one word can elicit such vastly differing emotions.

It was the first viewing of a few of these United players for me. To be frank, it just didn’t seem like a Manchester United team. With the two teams now being overseen by two Dutch managers, I pondered on what was before me. Guus Hiddink was playing without a striker and Louis van Gaal was playing Ashley Young at left-back. I had a feeling that my understanding of all of the traditional footballing rules were being tested.

To be honest, it looked double Dutch to me.

Pure football gibberish.

“Dance, Design, Durutti, Devotto.

Development of a dirty Northern city.

De La Salle.

Dignity.

And how in the end you hated all the pity.”

What then happened over the next ten minutes or so was horrible. We were simply over-run and out-paced and out-played. From Alan’s seemingly reassuring words about a rather reasonable start, it seemed that all of that pent-up angst and anger about their inability to play expansive and thrilling football in “the United way” was being unleashed, and for my eyes especially. Ivanovic, so often the culprit in this car-crash of a football season – but seemingly improved of late – was back to his infuriating form of August and September, allowing Anthony Martial a ridiculous amount of space, then seemed unwilling to challenge. Martial struck a low shot against Courtois’ near post and we watched as it spun across the six-yard box. Thankfully there were no United attackers in the vicinity. The home team continued to dominate, and Rooney shot from distance. Chelsea’s attacking presence was sadly lacking. Our breaks soon petered out. I wondered how on Earth John Terry had forced a save from De Gea while I was still outside in the Manchester night.

Tackles were thundering in from both sets of players.

The Chelsea crowd were in reasonable voice. Yet again I will make the point of how away fans are more prone to creating an atmosphere than the home fans. Old Trafford is no different. The game continued. I just wanted us to get to the break unscathed, so that Hiddink could fine-tune our performance.

At half-time, there were long faces in the Chelsea section. In reality, this was as poor a performance as we had seen all season. Maybe the first-half at Leicester was the worst, but this was not much better.

I wondered what we had lost. I wondered if a prayer to St. Anthony was needed.

“Saint Anthony – Saint Anthony,

Please come around.

Something is lost that can’t be found.

Oh talk to me.

Oh talk to me.

Of Gretton, God, Granada.

Hooky and Hannett.

And how the fighting just got harder.

Hamlet, Ibsen, The IRA.

Jesus Mary and Keith Joseph.

Joy Division.

Judaism.

The importance of the moment.”

I remembered back to my last visit to Manchester, the game with City in August. I reminisced how Parky and I had waited in the foyer of the Lowry Hotel and had observed the Chelsea players walk through to their awaiting coach. At the time they looked focussed. With hindsight, they looked joyless, without a spark. I remember, too, how Mourinho walked to the coach independently, away from the team. Now the separation seems important.

“Something is lost that can’t be found.”

Our team seems to have lost a spark, a sense of vitality, the desire.

It hurts.

“Liam.

London.

Lust for Life.

Louis Louis.

Linnaeus Banks.

Manchester.

Music.

Marijuana.

Majesty.

And Karl Marx.”

Thankfully, Chelsea began with a lot more zest as the second-half began. Eden Hazard set up a chance for Pedro, who forced a fine save from De Gea. The follow-up shot from Azpilicueta was also blocked by De Gea. How we had not taken the lead still escapes me. The away support stepped it up a notch. At the other end, a sublime block by John Terry stopped Wayne Rooney advancing. Throughout the evening, Terry’s control of Rooney was a Chelsea highlight. On the hour, a sublime block from close range by Courtois kept the score goal-less; a cross from the artful Martial on the right had gifted Herrera a wonderful chance to score. With the Stretford End already celebrating, the ball ricocheted off Thibaut. Stupendous stuff indeed.

We were definitely improving as the game wore on. I noted a greater desire amongst our players. With United flooding our half, they left themselves exposed when Pedro played in a bursting Nemanja Matic.

This was our moment.

I brought my camera up to eye-level. With any luck I would capture a game-winner, just as I had memorably captured a Juan Mata strike grazing Phil Jones’ thigh on the way past De Gea in 2013.

I brought the camera up to my eyes. I was aware that Dave was alongside.

Snap.

The ball was struck high and wide.

“Fuck it.”

Another shot from Matic went wide.

Willian was replaced by Ramires with twenty minutes remaining. He had looked tired. Clearly not at his best, he had been consistently fouled all evening. His departure was no surprise. I noted how quiet the United crowd had become. I had expected more disdain, more barracking of van Gaal.

I commented to Gary how poor Wayne Rooney had been, fluffing his lines on two occasions in the second-half and prone to over-hitting some passes. I wondered about Mourinho’s pursuit of him in 2013. I thought that Terry and Zouma had performed well. Further forward, there had been more positive signs as the game progressed. Eden Hazard had proved to be less effective than at Tottenham but I thought that he had tried his best in a very difficult role. At times, he was too distant from a supporting cast. But this always going to be a tough assignment without a Diego Costa or a Loic Remy. Pedro had run his socks off all game. You had to look hard, but there were pluses.

“Tony talk to me of Sex Pistols, the substance, the streets, the sounds.

The sniffed and snorted, stolen, swigged multi million pounds.

And talk to me of the greatest ever Man United team.

Greg

Burns

Jones

Edwards

Robson and Roy Keane

Was it Best

Law

Charlton

Stiles and Eric Cantona?

Unknown Pleasures of the doubles and the trebles

Incantation from the stars.”

At the end of the game, there was a general feeling of relief from Parky, Alan, Gary and myself – stood in a line – and from Glenn, stood several rows in front.

A goal-less draw is what I had predicted and a goal-less draw is what we had witnessed.

We walked back to the car. It was not even 7.30pm. It seemed later. We were caught up in more slow-moving traffic as we joined the red surge around the M60 and then south, homeward bound.

We were now on twenty points.

“Halfway to paradise.”

To complete a full day of friendship and football, we stopped off for a curry in Walsall, not so far away from our League Cup away day a few months ago. The game had been discussed on the motorway. It was now time to relax and enjoy a madras, a jalfrezi, a pathia.

I eventually reached home at around one o’clock. Of course I had enjoyed the day. Others, watching further away, were apparently not so happy. What have we lost? Maybe they need to have a word with Saint Anthony too.

“Guus talk to me.

John talk to me.

Jose talk to me.

Roman talk to me.”

On the third day of January, we reassemble at Selhurst Park. See you there.

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>>Tales : A Lesson In Double Dutch.

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Tales From My Football Timeline

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 18 April 2015.

For the first time in ages, I spent a Saturday morning at work in Chippenham. However, with the Chelsea vs. Manchester United game not kicking off until 5.30pm, I was still able to finish at midday and reach London in good time. Glenn had collected PD and Parky en route. I then took over and headed in to London.

If I am honest, I was slightly nervous about the early-evening game. Without Diego Costa to cause panic and concern in the United ranks, and with a few key players hitting a dry spell, I was very wary that we just might be catching an in-form United at the wrong time. I soon commented to my three companions that a draw would suffice. A win would be lovely, of course, but I was aware that we were not, collectively, setting the bar too high. We were becoming as pragmatic as our manager.

“A draw against United this weekend and a draw at Arsenal next weekend and we can start thinking that the league really is ours.”

The game at Stamford Bridge, however, was not the only football match troubling me. My local team Frome Town had lost on the previous Wednesday to a gut-wrenching last minute goal at local rivals Paulton Rovers and with two games left of the season, were only three points clear of relegation from the Southern League. A little part of me toyed with the notion of watching the first-half of the Slough Town vs. Frome Town game before heading in to London.

I decided against it. Who the hell watches halves of football games? Not me.

Heading east along the M4, the weather was magnificent. It was a lovely day for football. I spotted a few Reading scarves and immediately dismissed the afternoon’s FA Cup Final as unimportant, and not worthy of further thought. This, in a nutshell, shows how the importance of that once revered competition has decreased.

The game at 5.30pm would be my thirty-third Chelsea vs. Manchester United match at Stamford Bridge, dating back to a Saturday just after Christmas in 1984 – Glenn was with me on the benches, and I am sure many readers were there too  – when I set eyes on those famous red shirts for the very first time.

Thirty-three games. It’s quite a number. I have only seen the reds of Liverpool more often than the reds of Manchester at The Bridge. Interestingly – or not, as the case may be – a split of the first sixteen games and the second sixteen games against United reveals a seismic shift in results.

1984 to 2002.

Chelsea wins : 3

Draws : 5

Manchester United wins : 8

2002 to 2014.

Chelsea wins : 9

Draws : 5

Manchester United wins : 2

The two losses against United in that second period are quite recent too; a Champions League defeat in 2011 and a League defeat in 2012. For quite a while at Stamford Bridge, we have held the upper hand.

Among the wins, two stand out.

The 5-0 annihilation in 1999.

The 3-1 title-clincher in 2006.

Two of the happiest of days in almost forty-five years of supporting Chelsea.

Where does the time go?

Where did the time start?

I am sure that I am not the only Chelsea supporter who often thinks back upon the first few moments of our support and attempts to discover the defining moment when Chelsea became our team and our club. I’ve personally tied this down to a moment in my primary schoolyard in the first few weeks of spring term 1970 and those events have been detailed here before. As I have been coming to terms with the events of the past two months, there have been many hours spent thinking back on my childhood years.

Another trip down memory lane coming up everyone.

I am sure that I am not alone in my quest to attempt to assemble some sort of time-line of devotion, possibly involving memories of certain early games, conversations with friends, TV clips, pictures, favourite players and the like, which aid us to remember those critical moments when Chelsea became our team.

After my first game in 1974, it’s easy, remarkably easy. Before that, things get a little blurred.

Of course, some of my earliest memories involve Chelsea’s appearances on TV and of other games too. Knowing my parents, it is very likely that I was not allowed to stay up to watch “Match of the Day” on Saturday nights on BBC1 in the first few years of my growing love of football – let’s say 1970 to 1972 – because of the 10pm start. My TV-watching in these years was, I think, limited to watching ITV’s “The Big Match” on Sunday afternoons. Yes, the memories of this are clearer. I even have feint recollections of a sun-drenched Stamford Bridge in the days of the old East Stand, prior to its destruction in the summer of 1972. The earliest football game per se that I can ever remember seeing is the 1972 FA Cup Final, when an Alan Clarke header gave Leeds United a 1-0 win over Arsenal. Which is the first Chelsea game that I can remember watching? I’m pretty sure that it is the Chelsea vs. Leeds United home opener in August 1972 – with me, just over the age of seven – when 51,000 crammed in to a three-sided Stamford Bridge to see a 4-0 win, no doubt abetted by the fact that Leeds’ goalkeeper was injured and was replaced by Peter Lorimer. Typically, Peter Osgood scored.  In that season, I can also remember the Chelsea vs. Arsenal FA Cup game in March 1973, when there was an incredible buzz in the village school leading up to the match. Peter Osgood’s screamer in that game won the goal of the season that year. I also remember seeing the highlights of the replay on the nine o’clock news the following midweek, after pleading with my parents to allow me to stay up later than normal to watch. I can remember the sadness of defeat from that evening forty-two years ago.

I also recollect the very last game of that season, which involved the visit of Manchester United to Stamford Bridge. After the scenes of chaos at the Leeds game – which must have involved trying to force 41,000 into two end terraces – it was decided to limit the attendance at Stamford Bridge to a more reasonable figure. From memory, 44,000 still assembled for the United game. I am sure that it was not the first time that I had seen United on TV, but it is the first United match that I can remember – which is the point here – seeing. Both teams were struggling that season, but the large attendance was mainly due to the fact that it would be Bobby Charlton’s last ever game for Manchester United. Although Chelsea won that afternoon – Peter Osgood again, scored – my abiding memory is of the hullabaloo surrounding Charlton. I can distinctly remember the Stamford Bridge crowd – no doubt bolstered by thousands of visiting United fans, maybe not all wearing red favours – singing “We all love you Bobby Charlton.”

I am sure that this song was sung at the village school on the Monday, possibly by the younger children watching us older boys playing football on the school yard. I am also positive that a few of us re-enacted Peter Osgood’s goal in that game too, when he almost stumbled as he forced the ball over the line. His “to camera” shrug of the shoulders, as he was kneeling in The Shed End goal, was impersonated by me for sure.

I was lucky enough to meet Peter Osgood on several occasions and I was very honoured to be able to shake Sir Bobby Charlton’s hand as he brushed past me at Old Trafford last season.

Two iconic players from my early football world remembered.

Bless them both.

A Chelsea vs. Manchester United match first appeared on my football timeline, then, in April 1973.

Incidentally, while at the Frome Town match on Wednesday, I was rather taken aback when my friend Steve announced that the very first Frome Town game that I had seen – with my mother – was neither in 1971 nor 1972 as I had first thought but, in all probability, as early as 1970, when I was just five. Let me explain. During a summer holiday at a Dorset caravan site, I often played football with a former Bristol Rovers player called Mike Brimble, who was now playing for Frome. My father didn’t tend to like kicking a ball around with me – I remember he often used to “toe poke” the ball, which I didn’t approve of – ha – but I spent many hours kicking the ball to-and-forth with this chap from the adjacent caravan. There is no doubt that, during the kick-abouts with Mike, on hearing that I was a Chelsea supporter, that he would have mentioned our cup win against Leeds United that spring. And there is no doubt that this would have left a lasting impression on me.

After a week or so, my mother took me to see Frome Town play…we lost heavily…and I can remember to this day the little conversation I had with Mike at the end of the game.

“Nice to see you could make it Chris.”

I was so happy that he remembered my name.

I always thought that it was in 1971 or 1972, but Steve told me on Wednesday that Mike’s last season for Frome was 1970-1971. So, that game – with my mother – was undoubtedly as early as early autumn 1970.

1970 was obviously a defining year in my life.

It was the year that I chose Chelsea Football Club and it was the year that I saw my very first football match.

My football timeline had begun.

While out in the full-to-overflowing beer garden of The Goose, Alan and I spoke about these early moments in our football, er Chelsea, life. The first game that Alan can remember seeing on TV was the 1970 FA Cup Final.

1970.

I’d bet that many Chelsea fans’ timelines began in this year.

1970 and Peter Osgood. One and the same.

I mentioned to Alan about the nervousness that I had with the Frome Town game. His local team, Bromley, were on the brink of promotion from the Conference South to the Conference. We hoped for a triple of wins during the next few hours; Bromley, Frome Town and Chelsea. A text from a Frome Town follower in California – yes, really – informed me that Slough were 1-0 up against Frome. I groaned. He then texted me to say that the team three points below Frome, Arlesey Town, were a goal up at the high-flying Truro Town. I groaned again. If it stayed like this, it would all go to the last game of the season and relegation would be a distinct possibility.

Elsewhere in the beer garden, there were mixed thoughts about the upcoming game. Some were positive, some were cautious. We prayed for a fit Loic Remy leading the line. When we heard that Didier Drogba had been chosen, our spirits sank a little. At 36, he is not the man of 2012. I reconfirmed my view that a draw would be good enough for me.

Then, better news…Frome town had equalised at Slough Town.

“Yes.”

Then, just after 4.30pm, came some wonderful news.

Truro City 2 Arlesey 1 .

I punched the air.

Fantastic. In the end, Frome drew 1-1 and Arlesey lost 3-1.

Safe, barring a deluge of goals next Saturday, for another season. Bromley, meanwhile, had beaten Weston-Super-Mare 3-0. Beautiful.

Outside the West stand, I took a long-overdue photograph of Alan in front of the Peter Osgood statue.

We were inside with fifteen minutes to spare. The United hordes were already in good voice. I noted two flags playing on the point of United fans being “Manchester Born & B(red)” as if they have to constantly state, to the point of tedium, about Manchester being their territory and not City’s. Anyway, the United fans always put on a good show and they didn’t disappoint, singing loudly, in the first-half especially.

There was nothing but pure blue skies overhead. Despite the bright sun, there was a cold wind which blew in and around Stamford Bridge throughout the game. As the sun lowered, changing shadows formed different geometric shapes across the pitch and the towering East Stand.

So, the team.

Courtois – Dave, JT, Cahill, Ivanovic – Zouma, Matic – Hazard, Fabregas, Oscar – Drogba.

The big news was King Kurt alongside Matic, with Fabregas pushed forward. We presumed Jose wanted to toughen up that area, with a nod towards the improving Fellaini.

The first-half was a mainly frustrating affair. We began well, but United soon started pushing the ball around, and I lost count of the number of times that our right flank was exposed. Ivanovic, the former centre-back, tends to drift inside too often for my liking. Ahead of him, Oscar provided little cover. United peppered our goal with a few long range efforts, but thankfully their shooting was amiss. I noted how deep Wayne Rooney was playing. We gave him, and others, too much time and space. I longed for our midfield to get closer. It was Rooney who struck a shot against the back stanchion of the goal, and it looked to me – and the away fans – that it was a goal. I looked at Alan in disbelief.

As Juan Mata, much loved during his relatively short spell with us, walked over to take a corner down below us, the Matthew Harding stood and clapped generously. It was a fantastic moment. I am trying hard to remember the last time we gave a former great a hard time.

A run by an energised Fabregas deep in to the penalty box at the Shed End raised our spirits. But, our chances were rare. Drogba battled on, but often his touch ran a yard too short or too long for the supporting midfielders. United continued their dominance of the ball, and only rarely did our midfielders bite at their heels. The atmosphere was good, though. The underperforming Chelsea team was thankfully not matched by the support in the stands.

We roared the boys on.

With the half-time interval in sight, John Terry broke up another United move and fed the ball to Fabregas, who in turn passed to Oscar, now central. As soon as Oscar adeptly back-heeled the ball in to the path of a raiding Hazard – a magnificent touch – I sensed a goal. Eden calmly advanced and slotted the ball in to the United goal.

Inside, my body buzzed. There was only one thing for it. There is a walkway right behind where I sit and I leapt up the three steps to my right, took off my sunglasses, and just jumped up in the air continually for a few seconds.

Joy unbounded.

…while thinking “I bet I look like a right twat, I’m almost fifty, not five, but what a bloody goal.”

There were smiles of relief everywhere and The Bridge boomed.

“We’re top of the league.”

At half-time I sent a text to a mate ;

“Bit lucky. Only got closer to them in the last quarter. Cesc looks a bit livelier. Great goal. Utd have too much space down our right. But…halfway to paradise.”

Into the second-half, the first big chance fell to us. Matic won the ball and played the ball on for Drogba. I immediately wished for a time machine that could send Didi back to his powerful and absurdly potent form of five years ago, fearing that Smalling would easily deal with him. To be fair, Didier assembled just enough strength to stab a ball at De Gea, despite Smalling’s attentions. The ball took a bizarre path towards goal, deflecting off both United players, but landing just too far past the far post for the on-rushing Hazard to control. In the end, he did so well to get any attempt in on goal. Bizarrely, his flick touched the ball up on to the bar.

Zouma grew throughout the game. His war of attrition with Fellaini was pure box office. Ramires replaced  Oscar. Juan Mata did not create too much for United; good lad.

Falcao, not firing on all cylinders, cut in on goal in a similar to position to Hazard’s goal, but his powerful shot rose and hit the side netting. The atmosphere remained noisy throughout the second half, but there was incredible tension as the game grew older. United still dominated. Chelsea constantly defended well. It was, no doubt, a typical Mourinho performance. I would have liked to have seen more attacking verve, of course, but our time for that had passed. The salad days of autumn are over; it’s now all about putting meat on the plate.

Juan Mata received a fantastic and heartfelt round of sustained applause as he was substituted.

United continued to attack. Shots were dealt with. Nerves were continuing to be frayed.

The last meaningful moment caused immediate concern. Herrera and Cahill met in a corner of our penalty box. From over a hundred yards away, it looked a penalty, to Glenn, to Alan, to me. However, miracles happen and the referee Mike Dean – who had been the target of increasing levels of abuse from the home fans as the game continued – waved it away.

Four minutes of extra time.

We waited, but with fantastic noise continuing to boom around the packed stands.

The final whistle.

Euphoria.

I captured a few shots of players hugging, smiling, and enjoying the moment.

“One Step Beyond” boomed out.

After clapping us, they began to walk away, but John Terry dragged them back and, in a tight line facing the Matthew Harding, they stood.

Their joy was our joy. United in triumph.

One step closer. Ten points clear. Mind the gap.

There was another notch on my football time line.

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Tales From Old Trafford

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 26 October 2014.

Bluff And Double Bluff.

During the several days of build-up to the Manchester United vs. Chelsea match at Old Trafford, there seemed to be constant rumours in the media and among fellow Chelsea supporters concerning the fitness of Diego Costa. Would he be fit or would he not? There were fears about his delicate hamstring injury, but some Chelsea fans were of the opinion that this was a smoke screen used by Jose Mourinho and the club in order to stay “one step ahead” of the opposition, with our new striker likely to undergo a Lazarus-like improvement before our game at Old Trafford. There was also a shady report of a stomach bug too. The home match against Maribor on Tuesday, which I missed, provided further problems and confusion. Loic Remy, Diego Costa’s likely replacement at Old Trafford (should his injury prove scare prove to be justified – “wink wink”) managed to injure himself, thus ruling him out of the game in Manchester. Didier Drogba, Remy’s replacement on Tuesday, then played around seventy minutes himself. Would Jose Mourinho have played Didier for such an elongated spell, knowing full well that he would likely be his Hobson’s Choice of a starter on Sunday? From one perspective, it appeared “odds-on” that Diego Costa would be miraculously recover and start against United. On the long and familiar drive north to Old Trafford, the talk in the car was almost devoid of football chat, but on the rare occasions that we mentioned the game ahead, the main talking point was centred on Diego Costa.

“Would he or wouldn’t he?”

Parky and PD, my fellow travellers on the five hour car journey were gung-ho about our chances, but as we swung around the orbital motorway to the south of Manchester, I was a little more pragmatic.

“To be honest, I wouldn’t be too upset with a draw. I just want to avoid defeat.”

Manchester United, top-heavy with summer signings, was a team of unknown risk in my eyes. Sure, their defence was prone to silly errors and could be harmed by our tricky offensive players, but they possessed a combustible cocktail of attacking options themselves.

However, I was surprisingly confident as I drove into Manchester. I’m sure we could cause them problems. Even without Diego Costa.

Under The Munich Clock.

We were parked-up at around 2.30pm. We paid the requisite £10 to a weather-beaten local, who resembled the third Chuckle Brother, to park outside a garage on the road which leads from the Chester Road to Old Trafford cricket ground.

“Are you lads Chel-seh?”

“Yeah, mate.”

“I want you to win today.”

He reached out to shake my hand.

“City?” I asked.

“I’m blue through and through, me.”

Within twenty minutes, we had walked through the park and then past more parking spots, then past The Bishop Blaize pub – with songs from inside – and then past the chippies at the crossroads. These sights – and sites – were oh-so familiar by know. The red brick of the houses, the red scarves of the United fans, the towering white steel of the stadium behind. Down on the forecourt, we waited for a few moments on the off-chance of bumping into some friendly faces. Alan and Gary soon appeared, fresh from the official coach trip which left Stamford Bridge at 9am. There had been trouble on the trains, apparently, with another mate – Dave the Hat – forced to travel up to Sheffield and across from there. Tickets were handed over for future games. The forecourt, as always, was a volatile mix of United and Chelsea. Squabbles only tend to happen after the games at Old Trafford these days, though. With the Munich clock looking down on the hub-bub of activity below, we decided to head inside. It was 3.15pm.

In Previous Episodes.

This would be my twentieth Manchester United vs. Chelsea away game, and my eleventh consecutive away league fixture. It all started, for me, on an electric night at Old Trafford in April 1986, when a Kerry Dixon brace gave us a breath-taking 2-1 win, with four thousand Chelsea fans crammed into the pens in front of “K Stand” – as it was called in those days – with thousands of belligerent United fans right behind us, glowering, gesticulating and screaming support of their team.

Their shrill shouts of “United! United! United!” is a very strong memory, some twenty-eight years later.

Since then there have been tons of memories. Two odd – recent – games are fresh in my mind. In the opening period of the 2011-2012 season, we travelled north under Villas-Boas. Although we lost 3-1, there were lots of positives on that sunny afternoon; I can never remember a game where we had lost, yet the fans had departed the stadium in such a positive mood. Then, last season, we witnessed a very dour performance – from both teams – and a 0-0 draw, with Jose Mourinho electing to play without a recognised striker.

Strange ways in deepest Manchester.

As I waited for an announcement of our team, I wondered if Mourinho would spring a surprise on us again. Last season, Andre Schurrle was the one man asked to run from deep and pose the biggest offensive threat. Who would be asked to lead the line this time?

The South-East Corner.

I took my place, high up in the corner quadrant of the away section. I tut-tutted as I sidled past a family of four, each wearing a half-and-half scarf, calmly sitting and observing.

“Tourists” I mumbled silently to myself.

Of course, as I have said before, Chelsea has thousands of passionate and committed supporters the world over, who truly “get” what Chelsea is all about, but why do so many others who attend in person have to be such divs?

Answers on a postcard.

There was noise from the crowded bar areas below, but all was quiet within the stadium, which seemed to take forever to fill. At last, the Chelsea team appeared – in their jade warm-up gear, how 1986 – and I quickly scanned the ten outfield players.

“No Diego Costa.”

There were looks of dismay on the faces of my companions in the south-east corner.

“Up to you then, Didier, son.”

I was momentarily subdued. Could our returning hero stand up to two games in six days? We would soon find out. As kick-off approached, the stands filled and the noise-levels rose. The United PA tried its best to rouse the locals.

“Dirty Old Town.”

The Chelsea choir dipped into its songbook. The players appeared from the tunnel in the south-west corner. We were ready.

The First-Half.

I was pretty content with our performance in the opening forty-five minutes. From the start, it seemed that we were confident in possession and resolute in defence. I noted that our use of Didier Drogba was now different than in previous years. Before, we would knock balls into channels or over the top and ask our marauding Ivorian to use his speed and strength to strike fear into opposing defences. Now, he was being asked to come deeper and retain the ball in order to set up runners off him. Our play was a little more compact. A lot depended on our midfield three, or five. Eden Hazard was at times unplayable in the first-half. One shimmy dumbfounded two United players in a gorgeous moment of play. Matic harried and blocked and then supported his team mates with a number of surging runs. Oscar and Fabgregas, though, seemed adrift. It was a pleasing first half, but with only two golden chances. The lively Januzaj played in Robin van Persie who found himself in on goal, but Thibaut Courtois blocked superbly. At the other end, in front of the Stretford End, Oscar reached the by-line, and pulled the ball back to Didier Drogba. His low shot was blocked by the legs of De Gea. United had peppered our goal at regular intervals throughout the first period, but we were largely untroubled. It was odd to see Juan Mata in United red, in person, against us.

The North-West Corner.

I had been in contact with a newly-acquainted friend from Orlando in Florida during the day; we had hoped to meet up outside, but Kim and her friend Jenna were firmly ensconced in one of Old Trafford’s hospitality lounges by the time I had arrived at the stadium. They were watching from way up in the north-west corner, in one of the quadrants that were “infilled” around eight years ago. I wondered how Kim was coping in a sea of United. I wondered if she could hear us singing. I wondered how her day was going; I bet she would rather swap her seat to be among us a hundred yards away and a hundred feet lower.

The Second-Half.

We began brightly, with Hazard again leading the charge. At the other end, Fellaini wasted a good chance by skimming a shot wide. Hazard was clean in on goal, but De Gea was able to save. The Chelsea choir looked away disconsolately, but roared the team on as a corner was rewarded. I held my camera still and waited for the ball to reach the box. In a flash, I saw Didier Drogba leap, virtually untroubled, at the near post. I clicked.

The ball crashed into the net and the three-thousand Chelsea fans in the south-east corner screamed in ecstasy. I was knocked sideways, then backwards and I clung on to the chap next to me, not wanting to fall back and injure myself. If the goal was a virtual carbon copy of Didier’s leap and header in Munich, then so too were the celebrations. This time, though, I managed to keep hold of my glasses. The scenes were of pandemonium; away goals in big games are celebrated like no other.

I steadied myself just in time to witness Didier and his team mates celebrating wildly in front of us.

Euphoria.

I had one thought.

“Munichesque.”

I then had a thought about Tuesday night and Didier’s penalty, hit to the left, which so resembled his winning penalty in Munich. I playfully wondered if his role now was to just replay these two historic moments from “that night” on a constant loop for the rest of the season.

“And Drogba, with his twelfth near post header of the season…”

Kim sent me a text; the two of them had screamed with delight at Didier’s goal and were now being treated like Ebola victims in the North-West Upper.

We continued to impress, with Matic being especially dominant.

I received a text from Steve in South Philadelphia :

“On comes Mikel, Mourinho’s closer.”

In baseball, with a team winning late on, a coach brings in a steady and reliable pitcher – “a closer” – to keep things tight and maintain the advantage. Closers tend to have nerves of steel. It was typical Mourinho. He replaced the subdued Oscar.

Juan Mata was clapped by the Chelsea contingent as he too was substituted. Ivanovic, who had enjoyed a physical battle with De Maria all game, broke in to the United box, but his cross come shot flashed past the far post. The impressive Willian, bundles of energy, went close. As the game wore on, we tended to drop deeper and deeper and our energy levels dropped. United kept probing. I had memories of a late equaliser in 1997 at the Stretford End. Ugh.

Schurrle replaced Hazard, then Zouma replaced Willian.

Four minutes of extra time.

Then, a “coming together” of bodies down our right and Ivanovic, already booked, was adjudged to have tripped De Maria. From over one hundred yards away, it looked like Brana had clipped him. He was given a second yellow and was dismissed.

“Come on Chelsea.”

The delivery from the free-kick found the leaping mop of Fellaini, but Courtois blocked. The ball fell advantageously to Van Persie who lashed the ball in.

Fcuk.

Old Trafford roared and I watched, sick to the stomach, as the scorer ripped off his shirt and threw it into the Stretford End as if it was a match winner.

Twenty seconds later, the referee blew.

1-1.

Within seconds, the away fans reminded everyone –

“We’re Top Of The League.”

Outside on the forecourt, there were police horses and scuffles.

We quickly raced back to the waiting car. I was at my pragmatic best. Although it was disappointing to give up a goal in the last twenty seconds, a draw meant that we had gone six points ahead of Manchester City, who remain our closest title rivals. I must admit that I was warmed with the thought of millions of United fans happy to draw at home with us. I edged out into the dark Manchester night and began our five hour drive home. After the familiarity of Old Trafford, we reconvene at a new stadium, Shrewsbury Town, on Tuesday.

I’ll see you there.

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