Tales From The Last Game

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 22 October 2022.

The busy month of October was continuing for Chelsea Football Club. The tea-time kick-off with Manchester United at Stamford Bridge would be match number seven with the two away games at Salzburg and Brighton to follow. On a personal level, this would be my seventy-ninth Chelsea game against Manchester United in total. I have seen Chelsea play against no other team more. It would also be the forty-third time that I would see us play Manchester United at Stamford Bridge. It seems relevant, acknowledging United’s rivalry with Liverpool, that this is the most games that I have seen against one team at home apart from Liverpool who weigh in with forty-seven games. In the grand total league table, Liverpool are right behind United in second place.

  1. Manchester United 79
  2. Liverpool 78
  3. Arsenal 69
  4. Tottenham 67
  5. Newcastle United 53

By the end of this season, there might well be a tie at the top.

This would be Chelsea match 1,367 for me.

Of these, 11.5% will have been against either Manchester United or Liverpool.

One in ten games.

No wonder they say familiarity breeds contempt.

I saw that on the morning of the game, Mark Worrall said on “Facebook” that he rates the visit of Manchester United as his favourite home game. For me, it’s Tottenham, but I can understand why Mark named United. The aura surrounding the club has existed for decades and there is always a special buzz when United are in town. Due to the sheer number of their away support, especially when travelling en masse to away games became more popular in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, there was no club that brought more away fans than Manchester United on their travels around the Football League. Stamford Bridge, surely, must have been a favourite destination for them. In those days, there was no rigid segregation at games and the Bridge was no different. But in those times, with the capacity at around the 60,000 figure, that large north terrace alone could hold fifteen thousand or more with ease. And on the occasions of United’s visit to SW6, let’s not kid ourselves, at times more than 15,000 United fans would flow through the turnstiles on the Fulham Road.

The first time that I remember seeing a Chelsea vs. Manchester United match on TV – on highlights, for those foreign readers, let’s not forget that the first live league football on TV in England only began in 1983 – was the last game of the 1972/73 season. I have written about this game before here – Bobby Charlton’s last-ever game for United, the comical knock-in from Peter Osgood at the Shed End, his shrug of the shoulders on his knees in the goalmouth – but it is worth telling again that at a three-sided Stamford Bridge, the gate was 44,000 (I didn’t have to look that up) and there must have been the best part of 20,000 United supporters inside.

The “Red Army” as they were known in the ‘seventies would flock to all of their away games in a way that no other club has done before or since. In those days of pay-on-the-gate admission and no segregation – certain ends were only suggested for fans to segregate, hence the rather loose adherence to this policy by the hooligan element of many teams – clubs could, and would, flood games depending on the circumstances.

I remember Liverpool flooding Molyneux in 1976 with 20.000 supporters. And it has come to light that in 1977, Chelsea were given the home end at Nottingham Forest by the police simply because enough had congregated there early in the afternoon. That must still hurt the Forest fans; we will find out, perhaps, on New Year’s Eve.

But no team did all this as consistently as United.

Much later, in the ‘nineties, when Wimbledon played at Selhurst Park, they attracted very low crowds, but this ground in south London became the favourite of Manchester United, and no-doubt its much-lampooned Home Counties support, as it was easy for them to access tickets in all areas of the stadium, year on year. It became the ‘nineties equivalent of Stamford Bridge in the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies.

For example, in 1993/94 Wimbledon averaged 10,474, but the Manchester United game drew a massive 28,553. The following season, the figures were 13,246 and 25,380. It was a feature of London football at the time. No other London stadium had such a laissez-fare attitude to away support, nor the room anyway. By then, segregation was rife and away “takes” greatly diminished.

Stamford Bridge was still an exception though. And in the first few games of 1993/94, although the gate was 37,000 – ditto – for the Chelsea vs. Manchester United game, I would suggest that around 12,000 away fans were present. I can well remember getting into The Shed early and the north terrace was soon packed. I remember many United fans – no colours – being led out of The Shed for their own safety and escorted up to the north stand by the police. I never did find out how this procedure manifested itself. Was it simply a case of handfuls of United fans presenting themselves to stewards and pleading to be let into the north stand? I don’t know.

It was rather ignominious, being a Chelsea fan, seeing our ground swamped with United. In those days, football was about “how many did we take?” just as much as “how did we get on?” or “how did we play?”

I miss those days. You might have guessed.

The north stand probably held around 10,000 in those times. And the United presence that day was huge. There is no doubt that in addition to those United fans in the sweeping north terrace, there must have been a couple of thousand in the home seats and a residual amount in The Shed. I was stood next to one; my mate’s young brother who used to accompany me to a few Chelsea versus United games at the time. However, we will never know since United never scored.

In those days, it always pained me to see hundreds of United fans react to their team scoring in both stands; more so the East Stand to be fair, the nutters at Chelsea tended to go in the West Stand and only a brave away fan would sit there with the risk of getting slapped.

All of this is a very long way from 2022/23 where the police reduced the United away following from 3,000 to 2,400, though I am not sure why. I know that United have received many complaints over recent seasons for “consistent standing” at away games, but their spot in The Shed for this game was a “safe standing” zone anyway. Was it because the London Old Bill were admitting that they were unable to control three thousand? Who knows? It’s all very odd indeed. This move was very poorly received by the United away support, and quite rightly too.

I was in the stadium very early for this game. It had been a typical pre-match; a rush-around at the stadium and then to the pub with friends from near – Parky and Paul, Steve from Salisbury – and far – Ben and Mike from Boston, Bank from Bangkok, Mark from Spain, Luca and Robbie from The Netherlands, Andy and Josh from Orange County.

I was inside as early as 4.40pm. I soon decided to take a smattering of photographs of a virtually empty Stamford Bridge. Only a couple of thousand spectators, at most, were inside. As such, there was no atmosphere building anywhere. At the same comparative time at the 1993 game – effectively 2.10pm – the place would have been packed with the buzz building nicely.

Pre-match tunes, pre-match chants, pre-match songs, the gentle swell in numbers, the jostling for position, the anticipation rising.

I miss those days.

In 2022, there was music playing but elsewhere there was complete silence.

I took some photos from different angles of the same old features. I hope that you like them.

I soon spotted on my approach earlier in the day, out on the forecourt, there were rainbow-themed Chelsea kits welcoming supporters to a game when there was to be a nod towards equality in the game via the “Rainbow Laces” campaign. Out on the pitch, a banner with the Chelsea lion multi-coloured.

I wondered if the United support, vociferous with their “Chelsea Rent Boys” chants the past decade or more, would tone it down. I doubted it.

The minutes ticked-by. I was aware that I wasn’t as “up” for this as I should have been. I was a little wary of United’s recent run of form and of our two recent away, middling at best, performances. I think these thoughts dampened my spirits.

In the pub and elsewhere not only had I predicted a “0-0” but I would have been happy with a “0-0” too.

This was hardly a well-established United team. I wasn’t in awe of it. It was a mere shadow of former sides. And I thought the same of us really; my “tribute act” comment in the last episode, a throw-away line maybe, seemed to hit the spot.

The pre-match had no gravitas. There was no real thrill of what the evening would bring. It had the feel of a “run of the mill” game involving teams on the cusp of something better.

Graham Potter chose this starting eleven.

Kepa

Calobah – Silva – Cucarella

Dave – Jorginho – Loftus-Cheek – Chilwell

Mount – Aubameyang – Sterling

The United team? Who cared. I didn’t. But it looked like the retirement home for former Real Madrid players and that’s without “you-know-who” in the picture.

There was light drizzle just before the pre-match routines kicked in. It seemed to dampen the atmosphere further.

Before the entrance of the teams, a Matthew Harding flag travelled from east to west in the lower tier of the stand named after him. I have scanned the match programme four times now and I am yet to spot a mention of the death of our former director who was killed twenty-six years ago to the very day.

The fans in our stand, and those elsewhere, demand better.

Flames in front of the East Stand started flying up into the air – we had this American-style shite before Todd Boehly arrived and I guess we will have it after too – but at least my camera appreciated the reflections of the amber flames in the now sodden “Rainbow” banner on the centre-circle.

The game began.

I don’t always make notes on my ‘phone at every game, but on this occasion, I decided to. I suspect that the paucity of excitement on the pitch in the first-half and then throughout the game allowed me time to do so.

8 minutes.

Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang –  I conjured up a short-hand of “pea” a few games back then completely forgot what it meant when I studied my notes later – was away but his effort was neither a shot nor a cross.

I wondered if his “peashooter” days were over.

9 minutes.

After Jorginho was beaten to a ball, and he tried to block, his body shape reminded me of the wonderful phrase from an ‘eighties fanzine that was used to illustrate a similarly derided midfielder, Darren Wood. His efforts to block the path of the ball likened him to a “stranded starfish.” It’s one of the great footballing phrases.

10 minutes.

Luke Shaw flashed wide.

11 minutes.

A half-decent “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

17 minutes.

United were in the ascendency now. They were finding extra players with ease. Yet their tendency to over-pass reminded me of us.

19 minutes.

“No foothold yet, Al.”

21 minutes.

I tapped out a phrase that I hate and may I forever reside in hell; “unable to beat the press.”

23 minutes.

Another fine “Amazing Grace.”

25 minutes.

A strong United spell had evolved. We looked second best here.

26 minutes.

The Stamford Bridge crowd clapped in memory of Matthew Harding and our stand sung his name.

31 minutes.

A fine Kepa block from Marcus Rashford.

33 minutes.

Frustration all around.

37 minutes.

A substitution and Mateo Kovacic for Marc Cucarella. There was a change in shape to a 4-3-3. This met with our approval.

38 minutes.

A very messy chance, after United failed to clear, but Peashooter scuffed it wide.

39 minutes.

An Eriksen shot from distance was well wide.

40 minutes.

A cross from the left and a leap from Aubameyang but contact was light and off-target.

42 minutes.

The same player was played in with a ball rolled across the box but he could not quite reach.

44 minutes.

Anthony – a player that I am proud to say I know nothing about – shot from distance and, as it struck a supporting stanchion, my mind played tricks with me and I thought it was in. It certainly was a close one.

I was just pleased to get to the break at 0-0. We had been poor. United had bossed the middle section of the first forty-five minutes. I wasn’t so sure where a goal would originate. Maybe my 0-0 guess wasn’t so far off. A pal who sits behind me commented :

“Get any good photos that half? I suspect not.”

“No. Shite.”

Only two are shared here.

Things were better in the second-half, but I soon commented “we have dragged them down to our level.”

50 minutes.

A scare when Kepa raced out to reach a ball near our left touchline and we then nervously gasped as the ball was eventually passed out of defence. We took forever. The chance of a quick break, exposing space, was lost.

56 minutes.

United, I noted, were not as loud as in the past. I wondered if the missing six-hundred were the singers.

58 minutes.

Sterling elected to pass inside when a shot was probably the best option.

60 minutes.

The noisiest moment of the game, perhaps, helped escort Varane off the pitch.

62 minutes.

“Chalobah playing well, lads.”

64 minutes.

“We have looked tired from the start, really.”

70 minutes.

A header from Clever Trevoh skimmed the top of the bar.

71 minutes.

We were hitting a little spell now, easily the best of the game, and the noise grew with our intensity.

74 minutes.

Christian Pulisic for Aubameyang, not surprisingly.

75 minutes.

The ever-frustrating Ruben Loftus-Cheek lost the ball in a dangerous position but a Bruno Fernandes shot was saved so well by Kepa.

79 minutes.

Armando Broja for Raheem Sterling, not surprisingly.

84 minutes.

I captured the very start of the pushing and shoving by substitute McTominay on our boy Broja. But I was watching the flight of the ball when the man-handling reached silly proportions. I saw the referee point. Oh boy. What drama.

86 minutes.

Just like in Milan, Jorginho walked away with the ball as tempers raged in the United team.

87 minutes.

Goal. Get in you bastard. What a clean penalty.

88 minutes.

CAREFREE WHEREVER YOU MAY BE WE ARE THE FAMOUS CFC.

89 minutes.

The stadium was a riot of noise now alright. For too long, the noise had been shite.

90 minutes.

AND IT’S SUPER CHELSEA. SUPER CHELSEA FC. WE’RE BY FAR THE GREATEST TEAM THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN.

94 minutes.

Chelsea unable to clear. A floater from the left. Two United players leap. That gut-wrenching feeling. The ball dropped into the goal. But no, wait, it came back off the post. And Kepa miraculously claimed it.

No.

Goal.

Bloody Casemiro.

Noise now from the two thousand odd in the away end.

95 minutes.

The Bridge was absolutely silent apart from 2,400 voices.

“WHO THE FUCK ARE MAN UNITED?”

At least there was nobody jumping up and being a twat in the home areas.

It was, sadly, a very fair result.

I reached home to see the game’s highlights on “Match of the Day” and it was the last match featured.

Chelsea and United, the last game on “MOTD”? The absolute shame of it.

See you in Salzburg on Tuesday.

Tales From Yahnited

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 April 2022.

Manchester United was going to be our last regular season away game in 2021/22. However, our appearance in the FA Cup Final brought it forward just over two weeks.

Chelsea : “What are you doing Thursday 28 April?”

United : “Nothing. Absolutely nothing, why?”

Chelsea : “Well, we have a problem with Saturday 14 May.”

United : “Go on.”

Chelsea : “Well, we reached the Cup Final.”

United : “Shut it.”

Our last three domestic away games, then, were to be Manchester United, Everton and Leeds United. Three trips up north to three football giants. Three trips to the former warring counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire.

Three colours : red.

Three colours : blue.

Three colours : white.

These days, the cities and teams reside in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and West Yorkshire. And hopefully, fingers crossed, I would be attending all three. I have not fared too well with home games this season, but by the end of 2021/22, I will have hopefully chalked up a full set of away games in the league, mirroring that of 2008/9 and 2015/16.

I booked a half-day holiday at work for the day of the game and also a half-day holiday on the Friday. I collected Sir Les in a pub car park opposite work at midday, then Parky, then eventually PD at just before 1pm. My route to Manchester then needed to take me home. The reason for this needs explaining. Two tickets for two friends up north had been sent to me on Monday but had not yet materialised. I was hoping that they would be waiting for me in my front porch. Alas it was not to be. I had already warned them that the tickets were unlikely to arrive in time for my departure up north at 1pm as our post usually arrives mid-afternoon. My text to them was still a horrible thing to have to do.

The Royal Mail 1.

The Ticket Man 0.

Bollocks.

Undeterred, I set off.

There was a different route to get up onto the motorway network; Writhlington, Bath, Saltford, Keynsham, Bristol. I was soon onto the M32, then the M4, the M5…

By the way, It has occurred to me that during my match report for the recent West Ham United game, I missed an open goal. Surely, somehow, I could have referred to myself as the ticket man on Fulham Broadway Station?

What a waste.

The trip north was filled with football talk.

On the Tuesday, I had attended the Frome Town vs. Bristol Manor Farm game at Badgers Hill. This was the Southern League Southern Division play-off semi-final over just one leg. I aimed to drag as many people along as possible in order to boost the gate. In the end, just one was able to make it. I watched in the seats of the main stand as Joe O’Loughlin, the raiding left-back, unleashed a right-footed bullet to put us 1-0 up. How we all celebrated that one. I was just messaging some friends with the words “WHAT A FUCKING GOAL” when Manor Farm equalised within a minute of our goal. Sadly, the away team scored two further second-half goals to win it 3-1. Well done to them. They now travel to Winchester City in the final. I was predictably saddened with this loss. “Gutted” to use the football equivalent. Frome had been flying high in the two COVID seasons which were then sadly abandoned, and had led from the front this season until March. I rue two tame derby draws against Larkhall. The gate on Tuesday was a quite remarkable 1,158. It showed how the club has grown over the last three years.

I will be there again, when I can, next season. I attended eighteen Frome Town games this season – seven away – and each one has been so enjoyable. The club has been revitalised and – yes – I am still hurting that we didn’t reach the play-off final. Ironically, the final will be between the teams that finished fourth and fifth this season. Our second place finish – with a league best four defeats all season – meant nothing.

I hated the play-offs in 1988 with Chelsea and I hate them now in 2022 with Frome Town.

My good mate Kev, Chelsea, bumped into me before the game as he is a board member of Manor Farm. He enjoyed chatting to the one person I had brought along, a certain Mr. Harris, and he gave me a mix-tape – with a slight football flavour – to take to Manchester.

So that got an airing.

I loved it.

I did, though, wonder if I was upsetting the Chelsea Gods by playing it. There were songs from Manchester-based The Stone Roses and The Fall within the twenty-odd tunes involved.

At least Mr. Harris got a mention in Laurel Aitkens’ “The Zigger Zagger Song.”

We stopped at “The Windmill” pub, just off the M6, for about the fourth time. It’s our base before getting to Manchester. The boys enjoyed a couple of pints.

It was soon time to leave the pub for the final approach to Old Trafford.

The “sat nav” changed its mind four times in about five minutes as I looked at the best way to reach our usual parking spot near Gorse Hill Park, which is around a fifteen-minute walk from Old Trafford. In the end, it dragged me in a wide arc to the west, through some ridiculously quiet country lanes, sending me close to United’s training ground at Carrington, before pushing me through Urmston. Before I knew it, I was joining the slow-moving match-going traffic heading north along the Chester Road. I crept past the abandoned sky blue art deco cinema – it annoys me every time I see it, I would love to see it saved – past those red brick houses, signs for parking – the match day buzz growing now – and then the light grey of the Old Trafford stands in the distance. I parked up and paid £10 to the usual people. There was a nip in the air. Jackets were fastened.

This was my twenty-sixth visit to Old Trafford to see us play United. There were two FA Cup semi-finals too.

The last was in August 2019; the 0-4 shellacking with Frank at the helm.

Since my first time of walking along the Chester Road to Old Trafford around twenty years ago, a few things have changed. Nearer the ground, there are a couple of new car dealerships and a large modern supermarket. But past The Bishop Blaize pub, I was glad to see the small knot of fast food outlets still going strong. Old Trafford itself has undergone monstrous redevelopment itself in the past twenty-five years – it isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing of stadia – and so it always gives me a warm glow to see these six or seven cafes still eking out a living. A link to the past. A link to our youth. It’s silly, but I hope they continue to thrive. The match day experience at Old Trafford would suffer if they were to disappear.

The Lou Macari chip shop is still there. After the work that Macari has done for the homeless in his adopted city of Stoke-on-Trent, I have a lot of respect for that man. Talking of Macari, if you call yourself a football fan and haven’t seen “Marvellous” you need to have a word with yourself.

We reached the forecourt, the famous forecourt – another link to the past, the Munich clock et al – at around 7.15pm. The ticket man handed over tickets to Deano.

There was just time for a photo to share on Facebook, with me outside the away turnstiles. There are certain games that require a little attention in the sartorial stakes and this was one of them.

United away : Vivienne Westwood shirt, Hugo Boss jeans, Hugo Boss top, Paul & Shark jacket and Adidas gazelles.

The caption?

“Tonight is my seventy-eighth Chelsea vs. Manchester United game across all competitions and venues. It takes them top just past Liverpool in my all-time list.

It is the only competition they will win this season.”

Without much fuss, I made my way in. The away segment of East Stand, formerly K Stand, is one of the oldest remaining parts of the stadium now. It reeks of ‘sixties concrete and pillars.

I simply could not have asked for a better viewing position. The much-enlarged disabled section at Old Trafford – very laudable – is at the front of the away corner, and so it means that our seats in “row two” were a third of the way back. Not only that, to my left was a clear view of the rest of the stadium; there was an abyss immediately next to me and then a gap before the home areas of the main stand, the South Stand. I had an even better than usual view of one of Old Trafford’s nicest features; the pitch is raised, as if indeed a stage, and the drop-off to the pitch surrounds always looks dangerously steep.

Old Trafford was quiet and not particularly full. Certainly in those areas to my left there were easily visible red seats. But our section had gaps too. Clearly this Thursday night fixture had proved to be problematic. We had heard rumours of “Glazers Out” protests but I had witnessed nothing before the game. The ground tried its best to fill up.

Just before the entrance of the teams, billowing sulphurous smoke emerged from the bowels of the South Stand. We presumed that a flare had been let off in protest.

The teams appeared from the tunnel in the south-east corner, below a “Glazers Out” sign held aloft by supporters.

Right. The game. The teams.

Chelsea lined up as below :

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Azpilicueta

James – Kante – Jorginho – Alonso

Mount – Havertz – Werner

The “fluid” system rather than the one with Lukaku in it. Right, kids?

Long gone are the days when I could reel off a United team.

This United team weren’t :

Schmeichel

Parker – Pallister – Bruce – Irwin

Kanchelskis – Ince – Robson – Giggs

Cantona – Hughes

Some bloke called Telles and some bloke called Elanga were playing for United, whoever they were. Cristiano Ronaldo, however, started.

The game – roll on drums – began.

What a start from us. We absolutely penned United into their own half and the home crowd, quiet before the game, were soon making negative noise.

The Chelsea faithful were first out of the traps too :

“Chelsea boys are on a bender. Cristiano’s got a coffee blender.”

…or something, I’m not sure.

I spoke to Parky :

“There’s some grass over there, left-hand side of the box, that marks the point where Ron Harris took out Eddie Gray in 1970.”

Unlike the first-half against West Ham on Sunday, we managed two efforts on target in the first seven minutes. A shot from Reece James and another from Timo Werner were saved well by De Gea.

It was all us. The action on the pitch and the noise off it.

Then, some scares came in quick succession. Bruno Fernandes, buzzing around from deep, looked to be their main threat and they had a little of the ball. A free-header from Fernandes was easily saved by Edouard Mendy, then an attempted bicycle kick from that man Ronaldo thankfully ballooned over.

But after this little blip, it was business as usual.

N’Golo Kante quickly shot at De Gea. We were playing so well. United were nowhere, nowhere at all. With Kante eating up space with two majestic and energetic runs from deep, he twice set up Kai Havertz with fine balls into space. The first resulted in a shot that was slashed against the side netting and the second was hit at an angle. The second move was undoubtedly the best of the game thus far.

There was a chant in honour of our Russian owner…the last days of the Roman Empire…but the United fans were so lethargic and apathetic that there was none of the usual boos that would normally accompany this.

We were especially dominant down our right with James making an absolutely marvellous return to the team. His cross was headed towards goal by Havertz, but this was again right at De Gea.

On thirty-eight minutes, an absolutely thunderous “Chelsea” – to the tune of “Amazing Grace” –  galvanised the entire away support.

Thinking to myself : “they must have heard that on the TV in London, Paris, New York, Munich.”

Did you?

It was almost total domination from Chelsea. The half-time talks and chats were all positive.

The second-half began and I was aware that both police and stewards had positioned themselves in front of the main stand and in the far corner where the “Glazers Out” sign had made a reappearance. The club were presumably expecting further rumblings of discontent.

The dominance continued on. A fine cross from Mason Mount just evaded Timo.

Ten minutes in, I honestly heard the first “Yahnited” chant of the night.

On the hour, a cross into the box from that man James was flicked on by Havertz. I saw two blue shirts unmarked at the far post. I gulped some Mancunian air. The slight wait. The trusted left boot of Marcos Alonso sent the ball low past De Gea and into the net.

GET IN YOU FUCKING BEAUTY.

The away end boomed.

You probably heard that in London, Paris, New York and Munich too.

Sadly, just like with Frome Town on Tuesday night, a goal was conceded just after we scored. We conceded possession and United pounced. A fine scoop up by Matic – one of their better players, I thought – found Ronaldo inside the box and grotesquely unmarked.

It had goal written all over it and other clichés. He brought the ball under control superbly and smashed it past Mendy.

Old Trafford woke up.

Ugh.

“Viva Ronaldo. Running down the wing. Hear United sing. Viva Ronaldo.”

What a disappointment.

“They’ve only had three attempts on goal, Gal.”

With twenty minutes to go, changes from the sideline.

Romelu Lukaku for Havertz.

Christian Pulisic for Werner.

Lukaku, to his credit, again repeated Sunday’s entrance by trying to sprint into spaces but was cruelly ignored by all.

I noted that Matic was booed off by us whereas Juan Mata – lovely player, lovely man, I sound like Alan Partridge – was warmly applauded.

We seemed to have corner after corner in that second-half.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

We conjured one last real chance. With ten minutes to go, Kante broke in the inside left position and played a fine ball into Mount. With a lovely understanding of his positioning and of others, he back-heeled to James.

There was a wait for the ball to reach him and for him to reach the ball.

We inhaled again.

The ball was crashed goal wards and it clipped the left-hand post.

We howled.

In the back of my mind, now, was the Football Gods completely fucking us over and allowing United an absolutely unmerited winner. There was indeed a late chance for Garnacho – who? – but Mendy saved well.

The draw felt like a loss.

Definitely.

Throughout thhis excellent game, Kante, Alonso and Silva had been magnificent but the real star was Reece James. Some of his close control was mesmerising, and his positional play superb. He really will be one of our very greats.

On Sir Matt Busby Way, Sir Les and PD indulged in a polystyrene tray of chips and curry sauce while I had a burger with onions. The food of the footballing Gods.

We made our way back to the car. Out on the Chester Road, the everything was moving quicker than usual. It was a tough old drive home but I eventually reached my house at 2.45am on Friday morning. The two tickets had still not arrived.

On Sunday, we’ll be heading up the same roads all over again.

I love a trip to Goodison. Who knows, it could – sadly – be my last.

I hope to see some of you there.

Tales From The Depths Of Winter

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 15 January 2022.

I was up at 5.15am and by 7am I had collected both PD and Parky. Outside, the weather was cold and we were on our way to Manchester City. We always seem to get City away in the depths of winter, eh? In contrast, just think of all those end of season matches at Old Trafford over the years. Yet we always seem to have to endure an often chilly trip to the Etihad, or the City of Manchester Stadium or Eastlands as it was originally called.

I enjoy the vast majority of our current away trips in the Premier League. West Ham is an exception; such a crap view, plus – so far – the games have tended to be early kick-offs, thus eliminating the chance of a pub-crawl or suchlike. But the other exception is Manchester City. There is nothing of note surrounding the ground – not for away fans anyway – and although the stadium is decent enough, it’s all a bit anaemic. It also has no real history. Once I set foot inside, I am not overwhelmed with memories of games from the depths of time that visits to Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton provide.

Or maybe I am turned off by Manchester City’s new stadium because of our poor record in recent seasons. I had been present at our previous thirteen league visits to the stadium – last season excepted – and although our record is 4-1-8, in the last ten visits it is even worse; 2-1-7.

All three of us were hoping for a draw. We were realists. I am sure that in our support base of millions, not many were expecting us to win.

I was parked up at around 10.45am.

It had been freezing when we stopped for breakfast at Strensham Services on the M5 and although the weather had warmed slightly, it was still “hands in pockets” on the fifteen-minute walk to the stadium.

The stadium is at least recognisable; it’s shape is unique, what with its towering roof supports and San Siro-style helix exit ramps.

For the second visit in a row, I was up in the towering top tier. We were officially in row C, but with the first two rows blocked out, we were effectively in the front row. With a good half-an-hour to go before the game began, it was clear that more than a few fans had purchased some inflatable silver cups in the shape of the European Cup. I suspected a few songs about that night in Porto as the day developed.

The time soon passed.

Before I had time to think, the teams were on the pitch on the far side and “Blue Moon” was booming. Suddenly, more and more inflatable silver cups appeared throughout the three tiers of our support. It annoys me – I can’t explain why – that City sometimes adopt an all sky blue kit in preference to their standard one with white shorts. I may be picky, but that’s the mark of a lesser club in my opinion.

The game was now in sharp focus. In my mind, too, were the two recent extremes.

2017/18 : Conte giving up possession, defending deep and narrowly losing 0-1.

2018/19 : Sarri going for it but getting beaten 0-6.

There was just time to acquaint myself with the team that Thomas Tuchel had selected :

Arrizabalaga

Sarr – Silva – Rudiger

Alonso – Kovacic – Kante – Azpilicueta

Ziyech – Lukaku – Pulisic

We all hoped for a performance akin to what we had witnessed in Porto, but I certainly wasn’t getting my hopes up.

The four of us in the front row of the upper tier joined the formation.

Parkins – Axon – Phillips – Davidson

Every man was needed.

It was 12.30pm.

The game began and, no surprises, City enjoyed most of the ball. Soon into the game, it became readily apparent that when we were out of possession the shape collapsed as below :

Arrizabalaga

Alonso – Sarr – Silva – Rudiger – Azpilcueta

Ziyech – Kovacic – Kante – Pulisic

Lukaku

A bank of five and a bank of four, squeezing space as best they could. Ironically, despite City’s opening domination, we had the game’s first real chance on ten minutes. A run from Lukaku up field, with us willing him on – if we were jockeys, we would have undoubtedly had the whip out – but just as he looked set to shoot, he bizarrely passed to the offside Ziyech.

Fackinell.

The game soon settled into one monotonous pattern. City were in control, we were sitting deep, but tried to build the occasional break. However, despite Kante’s usual prowess in intercepting passes and setting attacks in motion, we were hindered by Lukaku’s remoteness and the poor support play of Ziyech and Pulisic. Playing out from the back, using those little triangles that Tuchel must dream about at night, we fell prey to the manic way that the home team closed down space.

There were mixed views in the away section. Some were urging the team on, some were getting frustrated with certain players. I wasn’t too upset with our shape, but I just wished that we were more aggressive.

There is no doubt that at moments of high pressure, with City’s front three running at us and closing down space and then winning the ball and running again, it almost looked like this :

Arrizabalaga

Parkins – Axon – Phillips – Davidson

Alonso – Sarr – Silva – Rudiger – Azpilcueta

Ziyech – Kovacic – Kante – Pulisic

Lukaku

Off the pitch, there were battles in song. This was our chance to shine.

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

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

“So here’s to you Vincent Kompany. Have you won the European Cup? No. No.”

“The silky German is just what we need. He won Chelsea the Champions league.”

City’s responses were concerned with the English title.

How parochial.

Kepa was involved on a few occasions. There was a simple save from a John Stones header and then a catch at the near post from a Kevin De Bruyne shot from an angle.

With the half-time break approaching, we lost possession and Jack Grealish was through, one-on-one. He appeared to draw the ‘keeper, and I was fully prepared to see the net ripple. Thankfully, Kepa was up to the challenge and made the save of the match thus far, his spread-eagled legs blocking the goal bound effort. A shot from De Bruyne was wild and flew over the bar.

Christian Pulisic was not playing well. There was one moment when he held on to the ball for far too long, thus missing the chance to play the ball out to a free Dave on the wing and in acres of space but then also missing the chance to play a simpler ball inside. Later, I just found myself getting irritated with the way he played a square ball behind Alonso rather than in front of him; the momentum of that move was lost and City recovered.

Alan chirped :

“Captain America? More like Captain Mainwaring.”

However, we reached the base camp of half-time with the score 0-0.

All along, I would have settled for a draw. Is that too negative? I call it being pragmatic. Despite us getting the upper hand in May, City are arguably the best team in the world right now. In the build-up, I kept calling them an established team. Each player knows his role. They swarm like fireflies at the opposition. But we were half-way there. Half-way to paradise.

The second-half began with Chelsea attacking the three thousand in three tiers in the South Stand.

In the first minute, a heavy first touch from Lukaku was pounced upon by City and the end result was a raking cross from the left that begged out for a City striker to prod home. I heaved a sigh of relief. Soon after, in the next move almost, we broke and Lukaku’s curling shot was well saved by Ederson. The rebound was lofted high into tier four by Ziyech.

Just after, a wild shot from Alonso reached tier five.

Fackinell.

On the hour, a De Bruyne free-kick from distance drew a very fine save from Kepa.

And then just after, a perceived poor decision by the referee stirred the home support into making a racket for the first time in ages. Chelsea joined in too. It was bubbling along nicely now. What a lovely din.

On more than one occasion, both sets found themselves singing exactly the same tune – “Hey Jude” – but with different lyrics.

Next it was our turn to feel aggrieved; a rotten challenge on Ziyech on the far touch line went unpunished.

Fackinell ref.

Raheem Sterling, tormenting Alonso all game yet without too much end product, dragged a shot wide.

Overhead, the sun broke through. There was a blue and white mottled sky over a sky blue stadium. But my God, my feet were cold.

On sixty-nine minutes, a double-switch.

Timo Werner for Pulisic.

Callum Hudson-Odoi for Ziyech.

Sadly, a minute later, a fine City move cut through our bank of four and the ball found the advancing De Bruyne. He dribbled, moved the ball out of his feet, and curled a breath-taking shot past Kepa.

“Great goal.”

The stadium erupted. What noise.

Ugh.

We attacked soon after, but an effort from Werner was well saved by Ederson.

Another change.

Mason Mount for Alonso.

I had given up on our formation now.

Stupid me, as the game reached its final few minutes, I still had this silly notion that – out of nowhere – we would somehow conjure up a late, very late, equaliser.

I must have read too many “Roy Of The Rovers” as a kid.

The equaliser never came of course, and in the end, I took the 0-1 loss on the chin.

“City, tearing Cockneys apart again” rang out once more.

And the City fans were full of taunts from behind the metal wall that separated the two sets of fans as we descended the many flights of stairs to reach the concourse outside. The line of police was tested at the bottom.

“Handbags” really.

We walked solemnly back to my car; a very familiar walk of late, hands in pockets again, heads down, well beaten.

Thankfully I made good time on the drive home, and we were able to call into “The Vine” at West Bromwich once again, our third visit in a month. Friends Michelle and Dane had the same idea; they walked in five minutes after us. I am tempted to write “if only the Chelsea team had shown such togetherness” but that would be slightly churlish. We were beaten by a very fine team. Was Tuchel wise to go for a cautious approach? I am not sure. To be honest, it almost came off. It wasn’t as if City had twenty shots on goal.

Of course, the doom mongers were out in full force after the game had finished in Manchester. A million fans, a million opinions, a million different formations, a million different moans.

But, that’s to be expected, right?

As one son of Manchester once wrote “everybody’s clever nowadays.”

As I have said before, everyone is entitled to air their views. But some of the over-reactions were quite laughable. I took it all with a pinch of salt. To be honest, this game won’t be long remembered. It won’t define our season. It won’t make or break us. Tuchel is no mug. He’ll learn from this.  

Next up, a Tuesday night trip to Sussex by the sea.

Let’s go to Brighton.

Tales From Boxing Day 1996 And Boxing Day 2021

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 26 December 2021.

We don’t always play on Boxing Day, but when we do it’s usually at Stamford Bridge. However, for once this was going to be a rare trip to the Midlands for this particular festive fixture and that suited me. Sometimes Boxing Day fixtures at Stamford Bridge, especially the dreaded early kick-offs, can be eerily quiet affairs.

Back when I was younger, attending Boxing Day football was fraught with logistical problems. I didn’t see my first Boxing Day Chelsea game until as late as 1992 when, at last with a car to drive, I made my way up from deepest Somerset to see us play Southampton at home.

Since then, I haven’t attended every Boxing Day game; most but not all.

However, the game at Villa Park on Boxing Day 2021 would only be the fourth away game out of twenty Boxing Day fixtures that I would have watched. The league computer certainly favours us to play at Stamford Bridge on this most traditional of footballing days. We missed out on an away game at Arsenal last year; and that was probably just as well.

I set off at around 9.15am but instead of heading off to collect PD, Glenn and Parky, I was headed due south for half an hour to collect Donna in Wincanton, a town in Somerset that I rarely visit. I fuelled up, then drove through Bruton and I soon realised that unless we play Yeovil Town in the FA Cup it’s unlikely that I would ever take this road to see Chelsea ever again. It was mightily heavy with fog as I crept past the Wincanton Race Course, opening up for its annual Boxing Day Meet. I collected Donna at 10am, then made a bee-line for Frome. I’ve known Donna for a while – I spent some time with her and some other friends in Porto in May – but even though I had seen her at various Chelsea games over the past ten years or so, I only found out from Parky that Wincanton was her home relatively recently.

Donna’s first ever Chelsea game was a pre-season fixture against Bristol City in 1995 just after Ruud Gullit signed for us. I remember that I eagerly travelled down to Devon to see us play Torquay United and Plymouth Argyle during the week before the game in Bristol on the Sunday. Supporters of our club that were not around in the summer of 1995 will, I think, struggle to comprehend the excitement that surrounded the Gullit signing. It absolutely thrilled us all. We both remembered it as a swelteringly hot day – we drew 1-1 – and Donna reminded me that for a long period during the pre-match “kick in”, our new Dutch superstar wandered around the pitch talking on his mobile phone. It just felt that only he would ever be allowed such a privilege.

Twenty-six years ago and a Chelsea pre-season tour in the West of England.

I can’t see that ever happening again, eh?

The first Chelsea away game that I attended on a Boxing Day was at Villa Park too; in 1996/97, a nice 2-0 win, two goals from Gianfranco Zola , and I even won some money on him as the first scorer. Our lovely “1997 FA Cup Final” season was just gaining momentum and times were good, now with a team including Gianluca Vialli, Gianfranco Zola and with Ruud Gullit now as the player-manager. The greatest of times? It absolutely felt like it.

Only the previous April we had assembled at Villa Park for an ultimately agonising FA Cup semi-final with Manchester United; the memory of walking back to my parking spot amidst a sea of United fans haunts me to this day.

But Boxing Day 1996 was a cracking day out; twenty-five years ago to the day. Blimey. File under “where does the time go?” alongside many other games.

I collected the remaining passengers and we were on our way. There was fog, but not as heavy as on the trip up the same M5 to Wolverhampton a week earlier. I made good time and I pulled into the car park of “The Vine”, tucked under the M5 at West Bromwich, for the second time in a week at bang on 1pm. We had enjoyed our meal there so much after the Wolves game that we had decided to do so again.

“The Vine” – good food, a quiet chat, a few drinks – would do for us.

Curries and pints were ordered. Chelsea tales were remembered. Three hours flew past. A trip to Villa Park was long overdue. It has been a mainstay on our travels for decades, but the last visit was as long ago as April 2016 when Pato scored. We remembered that, ironically, I had plans to take Donna to Villa Park for our game in March 2020 – Donna had broken her wrist and was unable to drive – but of course that game was the first one to be hit by the lockdown of two seasons ago. Like me, Donna kept the tickets for that game on her fridge as a reminder that, hopefully, football would be back in our lives again.

It didn’t take me long to drop my four passengers off near Villa Park before I doubled-back on myself and parked up on the same street that I have been using for years and years. We used to drop into “The Crown And Cushion” pub on the walk to the stadium but that is no more; razed to the ground, only memories remain. We had mobbed up in that very pub for the Fulham semi-final in 2002; there is a photo from that day of a very young-looking Parky and a very young-looking me.

I stood outside the away end, a few “hellos” to some friends. I had a spare ticket but couldn’t shift it. Unperturbed, I made my way inside the Doug Ellis Stand. I was rewarded with a very fine seat; the very front row of the upper deck. Alas, Alan wasn’t able to attend again, but Gary and Parky were alongside me.

I dubbed it the “Waldorf & Statler” balcony.

Villa Park is a large and impressive stadium. I looked around at the familiar-again banners, flags, tiered stands and other architectural features. Was I last here almost six bloody years ago?

Tempus fugit as they say in Sutton Coldfield.

The stadium was full to near capacity. The players appeared from that quaint “off-centre” tunnel that Villa decided to keep as a motif from the old, and much-loved, Trinity Road stand of yore. Chelsea as Borrusia Dortmund again; yellow, black, yellow.

The team?

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

James – Jorginho – Kante – Alonso

Hudson-Odoi – Pulisic – Mount

We were up against Ings, Mings and otherlings.

Let battle commence.

The first thing of note during the game was the realisation that I had forgotten to include a good four of five songs and chants from the Chelsea catalogue at Brentford on the previous Wednesday. I had mentioned thirty; a few friends had added a few more later, yet I was hearing some others too, repeated in The Midlands. It’s a fair assumption that the tally at Brentford must have reached forty.

I doubt if it has ever been bettered.

On the pitch, there were some early exchanges and Thiago Silva continued his lovely form from the previous Sunday at Wolves. The singing in the two-tiered Doug Ellis quietened down as our play deteriorated a little.

But we were still the loud ones.

“Shall we sing a song for you?” was robustly answered on around twenty minutes by the home fans in the North Stand, which was met with sarcastic clapping from the away section.

No surprises, we were dominating possession but Villa were looking decidedly useful when they countered with pace. A run and strike by Ollie Watkins was ably blocked by the nimble reactions of Trevoh Chalobah, and the away fans applauded.

We were having a little difficulty in building our attacks. Reece James struggled with crosses and gave away the occasional ball. From a wide position on the left, Mason Mount slung in a ball that tickled the crossbar; I am not sure if the attempt on goal was intentional.

Sadly, Villa themselves were breeching us too often for our liking. Just before the half-hour mark, a cross from Matt Targett was flicked on – in an effort to block the cross – by James. The ball spun up and over Mendy’s head and outreached arms. Our goalkeeper was stranded and the ball nestled in the net. Villa probably deserved their lead.

At that time, we were looking a little weak as an attacking threat, with only Kante – “imperious” the bloke next to me called him – living up to his billing. Callum Hudson-Odoi seemed as reticent as ever to take people on and Christian Pulisic just looked lost. Thankfully our response was quick and a little surprising. Marcos Alonso pushed the ball forward and Matty Cash lunged at Callum inside the box. It was an ugly challenge and a clear penalty.

Despite Martinez’ merry dance on the goal line, Jorginho rarely misses and he didn’t this time.

1-1.

Back in the game.

The first-half ended with a period of huff and puff with not much real quality.

At the break, the fifth cavalry appeared on the horizon. Although Chalobah had performed admirably, it was his place that was jeopardised in favour of Romelu Lukaku. Pulisic, out-fought and out-puzzled in a central attacking role “of sorts” was pushed back to right wing-back. Soon after the restart, Silva slowly walked off to be replaced by Andreas Christensen.

There is no doubt at all that the changes resulted in a noticeable improvement in our play, the vast majority of which seemed to take place down below us on our right wing. Pulisic looked a lot more potent and of course it was a huge advantage to have a target, a hit-man, a goal scorer on the pitch.

But there were the usual moans and grumbles when Hudson-Odoi fluffed a goal scoring opportunity in his favoured inside-left channel. However, those chastising our youngster were soon eating humble pie. His perfectly floated cross towards the incredible bulk of Lukaku just outside the six-yard box was nigh-on perfection. Our number nine lept and angled the ball past the Villa ‘keeper.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

Our play improved. We looked more confident, more at ease. There was greater intent.

On the hour, Mateo Kovacic replaced Kante and we hoped our little miracle-worker wasn’t badly hurt.

A fine long ball from Christensen played in Mount. He drew the ‘keeper on an angle but with two team mates in good positions, decided to go for goal. With the ‘keeper having over-run his challenge and in no man’s land, Mount’s effort didn’t hit the target. The ball kissed the side netting.

There were howls from the Chelsea support.

At the other end, a rare Villa attack and – if I am honest – a cumbersome challenge looked a definite penalty but we were saved by an offside flag.

A strong run from Lukaku eventually tee’d up Callum again. But this was followed with a weak finish but also an excellent low save from Martinez.

More howls.

Late, very late, in the game, I was poised with my camera as Lukaku started a chase to reach a ball pumped forward by Hudson-Odoi. I watched through my lens as he quickly made up ground on Targett, and raced past. The defender lost his footing and ended up stumbling around like a newly born fawn. Our striker raced on, seemingly ripping up the turf as he sprinted away. It was simply a glorious sight. It was an instant classic, a reminder of older days when strikers were unshackled and free. He advanced into the box, and I was preparing for a Roy Of The Rovers – or Hotshot Hamish – thunderbolt. Instead, Ezri Konsa took his legs away.

Another penalty.

We waited.

Jorginho again.

Goal.

Phew.

But that run from Lukaku. The highlight of the season? Possibly. More of the same please. The second half had been a fine turnaround. Everyone was happy. I kept saying “round pegs in round holes, square pegs in square holes” as we made our way down the many flights of stairs to street level.

As we all walked back to the car, a group of Chelsea fans were singing in the dark distant night.

“Oh what fun it is to see Chelsea win away…”

Boxing Day 1996.

Boxing Day 2021.

Tales From Saturday And Sunday

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 28 November 2021.

Chelsea drew 1-1 as the team failed to capitalise on almost total domination against a defence-minded Manchester United team on a bitterly cold afternoon at Stamford Bridge. The goals that were so forthcoming against Juventus in the previous home game never materialised and the points were shared when a penalty by Jorginho equalised a goal from Jadon Sancho that was scored earlier in the second-half.

Right, that’s the game sorted. What else happened?

Some numbers. The game against Manchester United was to be my twentieth match of the season. By the end of December, that total would – hopefully, health and lockdowns permitting – be up to twenty-eight. Starting against Watford on the Wednesday, December was going to be a very busy month indeed. And this obviously does not include the away game against Zenit, which may not even take place in St. Petersburg if the current rumours are true.

This would also be my seventy-seventh game against Manchester United.

“That’s more United games than all of my United acquaintances’ games combined.”

That’s almost a true story. My former college friend Rick, who occasionally gets a mention when we play at Old Trafford, is a season ticket holder at United and skews the figures. But apart from him, of the ten or so United fans that I know of, hardly any have seen United play more than a handful, at best, of times.

This was the second game in SW6 in six days. Juventus and Manchester United, eh? What a lovely double of home fixtures.

But first, a Saturday night in Old London Town. When I heard that my mate Jaro and his son Alex were coming over from the US for a week, we soon conjured up a plan to spend a little quality time with them around the United game. We would only see them for an hour at the Juventus match. I booked Parky, PD and yours truly into an apartment – a flat in usual parlance, right? – in Fulham for the Saturday night and I got to work on a pub-crawl in a part of town that would be new for all of us. I drove up to London in the early afternoon and thankfully the rumoured snow showers did not amount to anything. However, we were waylaid by some heavy traffic around Twickenham and didn’t get up to the apartment, where Lillie Road meets the Fulham Palace Road, until just after 2.30pm.

Not to worry, by 3.30pm we were sipping our first bevvies in a pub which we often spot on our drive-in to SW6 for match days.

“The Distillers” – on our walk to Hammersmith tube – and “The Duke Of Cornwall” – on our walk back to the flat late at night, a few doors down from the first pub, were to be the two book-ends of a hugely enjoyable drinking session. It lasted from 3.30pm to around 12.30am. The main action took place around St. James’ Park tube; “The Old Star”, “The Adam & Eve”, “The Buckingham Arms”, “The Albert” and “The Greencoat Boy.”

Jaro joined us for five hours in the last four pubs.

We had a blast. There had been a constant worry, of course, that both Jaro and Alex would succumb to COVID on this trip, but I can confirm that after the Saturday night with Parky and PD, Jaro became infected by a far more agreeable virus :

CHUCKLE19

There is no cure.

Sunday, and game day, soon arrived.

As I was the dedicated driver for the return journey, there was no match day boozing for me. I dropped Parky and PD off at West Brompton tube and they sauntered down to “The Eight Bells” for the second heavy session of the weekend. They were to be joined for a couple of hours by two United lads from Frome – I was only vaguely familiar with them – and who, much to PD’s amusement, had to be constantly assured that they would be “safe”.

Meanwhile, I parked up and then spent a couple of quiet hours in and around Stamford Bridge itself. I was outside the ground as early as 10.30am. It was a bitter morning in London town. I took a photo of the Peter Osgood statue with a clear and deep blue sky above. Jaro and Alex duly arrived and there were chats with Ron Harris and Colin Pates, the captains of my childhood and late youth.

They then needed to head back to their Earls Court hotel so we said our goodbyes, but not before a couple of photos in front of the old Shed Wall.

I backtracked and caught the tube down to Putney Bridge tube to catch up with the lads again.

I had been doing a lot of back-tracking in preparation of this game.

A current total of seventy-six games against United put them at the top of my list of opponents, with Liverpool a close second on seventy-five.

41 at Stamford Bridge.

25 at Old Trafford.

8 at Wembley.

1 at Villa Park.

1 in Moscow.

Won 25.

Drew 20.

Lost 31.

A quick top five of favourites?

Chelsea 5 Manchester United 0 – 1999/2000

Manchester United 1 Chelsea 2 – 2009/2010

Chelsea 4 Manchester United 0 – 2016/2017

Manchester United 1 Chelsea 2 – 1985/1986

Chelsea 1 Manchester United 0 – 1993/1994

There is a famous photo that does the rounds on social media of that last game, a shot taken above the North terrace at Stamford Bridge looking towards The Shed. It appeared recently and took me back to that game. The match took place in early September 1993, with Chelsea playing its first few tentative games under Glenn Hoddle. Manchester United were rampant and in their pomp. They had been crowned English Champions in the May, their first title in twenty-six long years. I was in The Shed early, watching with the younger brother of my oldest mate Pete, both United fans. I had taken Kev up to three Chelsea vs. United games, once with Pete too, in the early ‘nineties.

My one abiding memory that day was of United fans being led out of The Shed and into the North terrace before the game began. There had been no hint of trouble, as far as I was aware, but the word must have got out that there were packs of United in amongst the home fans and the police must have acted with thoughts for their safety. I am guessing that the queues had been so long to enter the North terrace that many United fans had simply diverted to The Shed instead. I have since been reliably informed that the game at Chelsea in 1993 was the very last “pay on the day” away game for Manchester United Football Club.

Back in the days of less than full attendances at Chelsea, it was always – always! – part and parcel of the match day experience to guess, pre-match, how many away fans would dare to attend, and then guestimates of numbers immediately after. The huge sprawling North Stand held up to 10,000 in those days, and it was always impressive when away clubs filled it.

From personal memory, the best away followings I have personally seen at Chelsea were :

Liverpool 1985/1986

Tottenham 1978/1979

Manchester United 1993/1994

West Ham 1984/1985

Manchester United 1984/1985

Another memory from days out at the old Stamford Bridge. Very often the away team coach would appear in that gap between the derelict part of The Shed and the towering East Stand. It’s appearance always drew ribald abuse from The Shed regulars.

To complete the picture, we won 1-0 on that day in September 1993, a Gavin Peacock goal – a nemesis for United that season – and it remains as one of my favourite games against United.

Down in the “Eight Bells” PD and Parky had been joined by Rich and John from Edinburgh, and – yes – a full on session was in progress. Danny and Nick from Minnesota called in too. The pub was rammed.

It was still oh-so cold as we made our way to Stamford Bridge. I wolfed down a cheeseburger with onions outside the stadium in a vain attempt to get some (lukewarm) food inside me. It almost worked.

I was inside by around 4pm. For once the United end – 3,000 not 10,000 this year – was not festooned with flags and banners.

A solitary “One Love” banner timidly peeked out.

The Chelsea team?

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

Alonso – Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – James

Hudson-Odoi – Werner – Ziyech

A big game for Reuben. Not a big game for Ronaldo, relegated to the bench.

We dominated early in the game, and we dominated all of the first-half. Timo Werner looked lively but continued his frustrating ability to freeze in front of goal. Hakim Ziyech, starting the game well, forced a save from De Gea. There was a fine shimmy from Callum Hudson-Odoi, running with that stooping style of his, his centre of gravity falling with each yard covered, and he slid a low shot across the goal that the United ‘keeper did ever so well to save. There was a header from Rudiger and another effort from Ziyech. A long cross from Reece to Alonso, but for once it was not met with a volley.

The atmosphere, I have to be honest, was not great.

In days of yore, a huddle of bodies on a packed terrace helped maintain not only noise, but assisted against the cold. On this day, I was just so aware of how cold a plastic seat could be.

The temperature was dropping, and the noise levels were dropping alongside.

On the half-hour mark, a strong dipping shot from Rudi forced a fingertip save onto the bar from De Gea.

As for United, there was just a lazy shot from Fernandez that drifted well wide and a couple of Rashford-led breaks that caused us minimum concern.

There were further efforts on the United goal; from Werner, from Callum, from James, from James again. If only Gavin Peacock was playing.

At the break, at Stamford Bridge and elsewhere, Chelsea fans were lamenting our failure to break the deadlock, and we hoped – and prayed – that such profligacy would not haunt us.

Oh dear. Just five minutes into the second-half, following a Chelsea corner, the ball was hoofed into our half. The lone figure of Jorginho was holding the fort. Sadly, a poor touch splayed the ball into the path of the otherwise quiet Jadon Sancho. His was an easy task. He raced up the pitch and knocked it past Mendy. The roar from the United support chilled me further.

To my absolute joy, the Chelsea support immediately bellowed a magnificent response to going behind.

“COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.”

A half-volley for Werner, fail. A pattern was emerging. Sadly, Ziyech, so full of promise in the first-half, seemed to be nervous and unsure of himself.

Ronaldo replaced Sancho the scorer, but did little.

We regained our dominance.

We seemed to be enjoying corner after corner. After one, Wan-Bissaka chopped at Thiago Silva. To be truthful, I missed the challenge, but was overjoyed – if not a little surprised, Anthony Taylor was having his usual odd game “against” us – when a penalty was rewarded. Seventy minutes were on the clock. Jorginho stepped forward.

Albert in front of us, slid past and said “I’ll take one for the team, lads” and sprinted off to the gents. On many other occasions over the last twenty-four years, an Albert Toilet Break has resulted in a Chelsea goal.

Alan asked me : “Skip, or no skip?”

I gave it some thought.

“Skip.”

A skip it was, and the ball flew to De Gea’s right.

Chris : skip.

Albert : to the loo.

Jorginho : my darlin’.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

“Al, when he does his skip, he usually goes to the ‘keeper’s left. But it’s almost like Pavlov’s Dog now. A ‘keeper sees the skip and goes left. He’s won the mind games.”

The noise was, then, at last, stratospheric.

Superb.

We kept firing in, but continued to miss-fire. An odd cross-shot from Werner, and another miss from the same man. On a good day, he could have nabbed a hat-trick. Those good days are few and far between.

Three substitutions:

Christian Pulisic for Alonso

Mason Mount for Hudson-Odoi

Romelu Lukaku for Werner

“The stage is set, Al.”

Despite a continuation of corners and crosses, the winning goal proved elusive.

At the other end, a Mendy error almost gave United an undeserved win. The United attacker’s lob was poor and our ‘keeper gathered. In the very last move of the game, a suddenly impressive Pulisic crossed for Rudiger but his first-time volley blazed way over.

“Coulda, woulda, shoulda.”

A frustrating game, a game devoid of real quality, with a United team that had rarely – ever – been set up so defensively.

Next up, Watford on Wednesday.

See you there.

Gallery

Game 77

1993

Mister 795

Tales From A Crossroads

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 17 February 2020.

There had been a break of sixteen long days between our last league fixture away to Leicester City and our home game with Manchester United. It was such a long break that it enabled me to travel to South America and back, but more of that later. And we were now faced with three top notch home games within the space of just ten days.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur.

Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich.

It felt like the start of the second-half of the season.

And how!

These were three huge matches.

Welcome back everyone.

I worked from 7am to 3pm, and then joined PD – the driver – Lord Parky and Sir Les for the drive to London.

“Bloody hell, lads, how long ago was the last home game? Arsenal, wasn’t it? A month ago? Feels like it, too.”

There were a few questions from the lads concerning my trip to Buenos Aires, but the conversation soon dried up and I took the chance to catch up on some sleep on the familiar drive to London. These Monday evening flits to London are typically tiresome, an imperfect start to the week, a tough ask. I enjoyed an hour’s shut-eye. PD made very good time and we were parked-up at the usual place by 5.30pm.

In “The Goose” – it was so good to briefly see Wycombe Stan who is not in the best of health – and in “Simmons” a few people enquired of my trip to Argentina. I could only utter positives about the whole experience. In fact, as I had initially feared when my trip came to fruition, the only negative about my week in Buenos Aires could well be that the modern day English football experience – watered down, moneyed, sedentary, muted, played-out – would pale, completely and utterly, by comparison.

Little did I know that on this night, against Manchester United, my first game back, there was to be such a brutal and harrowing comparison between the Primera Division in Argentina and the Premier League in England.

Argentina 2020 had slowly evolved over the past few years. Ever since I read the Simon Inglis book “Sightlines” in 2000, Buenos Aires was on my radar. As I explained in a recent tale, this wonderful book – concerning various sporting stadia throughout the world – was underpinned with regular chapters in which the author attempted to visit as many of Buenos Aires’ twenty-five plus professional football stadia in a crazy few days in 1999.

The four chapters were referred to as “Ciudad de los Estadios”.

I took “Sightlines” with me on my trip.

A few passages made me smile, a few passages made me think, a few passages made me question my own sanity, my own credibility.

“Maybe I am a train spotter at heart, ticking off the stadiums for no other reason than to say that I’ve seen them. The words of the American novelist Sinclair Lewis came to mind : ‘He who has seen one cathedral fifty times, knows something. He who has seen fifty cathedrals once knows nothing.’ “

“There are more football grounds in Buenos Aires than in any other city in the world. Not just dozens of ordinary grounds, however, but a whole string of major stadiums, each holding thirty, forty, fifty thousand or more spectators, all within a few square miles of each other. A comment in a Buenos Aires newspaper seemed to confirm as much. It read “we have more stadiums than public libraries. Never has so much knowledge of football been possessed by so illiterate a people.”

“Before I left for the airport, my wife kissed my furrowed brow. ‘Just go with the flow,’ she counselled. ‘It doesn’t matter if you don’t get to them all.’ What did she mean, not get to them all?”

“In 1869, Buenos Aires had 187,000 inhabitants. By 1914, there were over 1.5 million, a figure which would double over the next fifteen years. Most of the immigrants were European, so forming a neighbourhood football club was as natural as unpacking grandma’s pots and pans.”

“There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. I wish I had written that line. But the Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano got there first.”

“If there is one thing I love more than a good map it is a great stadium at the end of a long bout of map reading.”

With the kick-off at 8pm, there was more than ample time for a few drinks in both pubs, and some chat with some pals. I’d suggest that the inaugural winter break was originally met with the derision when it was announced for this season – “we need our football!” – but a lovely by-product of it was the chance for me to head off to exotic climes (my jaunt to Argentina was my first-ever holiday in search of winter sun in my entire life) and a few pals took the chance to explore other exotic locations. My break, I know, did me the world of good.

However, I did find it typically English that the subsequent FA Cup fifth round games then had to be squeezed into a midweek slot. Less games here, more games here. What a Jackie Brambles

The team news came through.

Still no Kepa.

Michy up front.

With no other options, Pedro and Willian – the old couple – were the wingers.

Caballero

James – Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Kovacic – Kante

Willian – Batshuayi – Pedro

We made our way to Stamford Bridge on a cold night. I bumped into Rick Glanvill, the club historian, outside the West Stand. We briefly mused about Buenos Aires. Quick as a flash, Rick mentioned Chelsea’s South American tour in 1929 when we played eight games in the Argentinian capital.

I was in with around ten minutes to spare. There was the usual dimming of the lights, some electronic wizardry and flames, followed by the derisory chant from the away section of “what the fookin’ hell was that”?

It was almost a year to the day since United beat us 2-0 in last season’s FA Cup. Since then, we drew at Old Trafford in the league last season, lost to them on the opening day of the season at Old Trafford this season and lost to them in the League Cup in October at Stamford Bridge. And they are a poor team. It felt right that we should get some sort of revenge on them. The last time we beat United was at the 2018 FA Cup Final.

Ciudad de los Estadios : Argentinos Juniors vs. Lanus, Friday 7 February 2020

I spotted two new banners.

In the East Stand, one for Frank Lampard : “Player. Manager. Legend.”

In The Shed : “Peter Bonetti, The Cat.”

Proud to say I put a few bob behind the latter one.

I was genuinely surprised that there was no minute’s silence, or appreciation, for Harry Gregg – a survivor of the Munich air disaster in 1958 – before the game began.

As always, we attacked the Shed in the first-half and I was generally rather pleased with our play for most of the first half. Our passing and movement – or movement and passing – was fine, and nobody impressed me more than Mateo Kovacic, whose drive from deep was very heartening. We had a little array of chances early on.

Two things to note.

Nemamja Matic and his shorts. Huge.

Harry Maguire and his boots. Yellow. Fucking yellow. Like fucking Bananaman. Ridiculous.

Sadly, N’Golo Kante pulled up in the first quarter of an hour and was replaced by Mason Mount.

The United fans, usually the noisiest season on season, were discernibly quiet. Maybe they were just as embarrassed about Maguire’s boots as I was.

But then the “Rent Boys” chant began and we all tut-tutted in faux outrage.

There was a bit of noise from us in the first part of the game, but nothing to write home about.

The incident between Maguire and Batshuayi on the far touchline passed me by to be honest. I saw a crunch of bodies, but the fine detail was lost. Up came a VAR moment on the scoreboard, but nothing was given. At the time, I had no clue as to who was the aggressor and who was the aggressed.

A lovely move right from our own box, involving yet more lovely passing and movement had us all purring, but a weak finish from Batshuayi – who had started promisingly – caused the first of a few groans throughout the night.

The Willian yellow card seemed appropriate. It looked like a dive from even one hundred yards away.

United, though not dominating at all, came into the game a little. Anthony Martial wasted their best chance of the game when he tamely shot wide of the far post after easily getting behind a defender.

In the dying embers of the first-half, Aaron Wan-Bissaka twisted Willian into oblivion and his snappy cross was glanced in by Martial, who had edged past his marker.

Bollocks.

Here we go again.

We were crestfallen.

Sadly, Batshuayi did not force a save from De Gea as he scuffed a shot from an angle.

Weak finishing and defensive lapses? Sounds like a broken record, doesn’t it?

Ciudad de los Estadios : Boca Juniors vs. Atlético Tucumán , Saturday 8 February 2020

So, a cruel blow had left us 1-0 down at the break. It seemed that we had been unlucky. We hoped for our luck to improve in the second-half. On came Kurt Zouma for Andreas Christensen, evidently injured in the closing moments of the first period.

Very soon into the second-half, a Willian corner – which cleared the first man! – was headed home by Kurt Zouma, down and low, De Gea no chance. He sped away to the far corner.

GET IN.

Back in it and deservedly so.

But wait. After a few moments, the dreaded VAR was signalled.

What for?

No idea.

We did not know.

After a little wait…”I don’t like this”…no goal.

So, celebrations nullified, the emotions deleted, I stood in a daze.

The annoying thing for me, here, is that the spectators / fans / customers in the stadium were shown a brief repeat of the goal in which I saw a United player sprawl to the floor. But at no time was there a clear and valid reason for the goal being disallowed being shared with those of us in the stadium.

We could only guess.

That cannot be right, can it?

This seemed to harm us, and our play did not flow. The mood among the home fans worsened. I am obviously too naïve to expect the Chelsea supporters to rally behind the team with a barrage of noise, to lift the players and to scare the living daylights out of United. Because it didn’t happen.

And here’s a startling comparison between England and Argentina. Those who read these reports will know that I often make a note of how long it takes for a stadium-wide chant or song to envelope the entire stadium. Often at Chelsea, it can take fifteen minutes – like in this game – or as long as half an hour or even more. In Argentina, in two of the three games, this moment came half an hour before kick-off.

Incidentally, in Argentina, there are songs, often long songs. In Europe we tend to go for short venomous chanting. I prefer the European model.

Ciudad de los Estadios : Racing vs. Independiente , Sunday 9 February 2020

United hit the post from a free-kick and from the ensuing corner, Maguire thumped a header down and past Caballero.

“Definition of a fucking free header, that.”

Bollocks.

These defensive lapses are the trademark of our season. Damn it.

Olivier Giroud, the forgotten man, replaced the miss-firing Michy. Just like with the introduction of Zouma, the substitution seemed to produce an instant hit. Mason shaped to cross from the right and I had spotted the movement of the substitute.

“Go on Giroud, feed him in, feed him in.”

The cross was on the money. An adept stooping header by the substitute, and we were back in it.

GET IN YOU BASTARDS.

Twenty minutes left. We can do this.

We waited for the restart.

Oh no.

Oh no.

VAR.

Fuck this.

A wait.

No goal.

No fucking goal.

We stood silent and still, our emotions having ran their course.

At least, I knew that it was for offside via the TV screen announcement. At least the folk in the stadium had been treated correctly. How nice of them.

In the scheme of things, fair enough.

But for all of these VAR decisions, how much have we lost?

How much?

I’d say nearly everything.

We go to football, not only to support our team, not only to meet up with mates, but for that prospect of losing it when a goal is scored.

That moment. Ecstasy. Limbs. The rush. The buzz. There is nothing like it.

That has been taken away from us in every single game we see.

Many of the spectators around me left. The Bridge seemed dead, lifeless, spent.

Back in Buenos Aires, my new pal Victor had smiled as he said “at least there is no VAR here.”

Even in Argentina, it is hated.

My good friend Rob apologised as he passed me, and would later comment on “Facebook.”

“I’ve never left a game early. Tonight, I realised what I’d worried about all season. Football is dead. I’ve left roughly fifteen minutes early. I didn’t even stand to celebrate Giroud’s goal. I don’t actually want to come to football anymore. VAR has done what my ex-wife tried to do for years. Put me off coming to football.”

My good mate Kev would comment on “Facebook.”

“I honestly believe that if we have a fiasco Saturday, even in our favour, that will be my last game. Munich all paid up, but it won’t matter. It’s not in the spirit of the game. If you’re in the house or the pub, I guess it’s great. If like us you’re match going, it’s diabolical.”

In the last seconds of the game, Mason Mount hit the post but by that time nobody fucking cared.

At the final whistle, or soon after, my comment on Facebook was this.

“Football. But with life drained out of it.”

And that is how I felt, and how many felt. It seems that football is trying its best to kill the golden goose. Football resurrected itself after the troubles of the ‘seventies and ‘eighties – although I miss the passion of those days, I don’t miss the violence – and football has been at the absolute epicentre of our national identity for ever and ever. England’s sport is not cricket, nor rugby, nor tennis, nor horse racing, nor boxing, nor hockey.

It’s football.

With all its flaws.

But VAR is killing it, and not even slowly.

The mood was sombre.

But it was more than that.

I was just numbed by the whole sorry mess.

There was disappointment, obviously, that we had succumbed to a poor United team. There is work to do, as we knew from day one. I’m right behind Frank, nothing has changed, there is no fresh news. I love him to bits. His post-match interview was as intelligent and brutally honest, frank, as ever. I want him to succeed so fucking much. The next two games are as huge as they get.

But the over-riding emotion centered on VAR. And that can’t be right. I hate it with a bloody passion.

Outside the West Stand, under the Peter Osgood statue, I met up with a chap – Ross – to receive a ticket for an upcoming game. Alongside him – blatant name drop coming up – was the Irish novelist Roddy Doyle, he of “The Commitments”, “The Van” and “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.” It was a pleasure to meet him.

We grumbled about VAR.

Roddy quipped about how scoring a goal is always likened to an orgasm, and now with VAR, even that pleasure is being taken away.

Imagine that, eh?

When is an orgasm not an orgasm?

Fackinell.

I replied.

“Well, with VAR and no orgasms, at least there are plenty of clean sheets.”

I walked back to the car.

A cheeseburger with onions at “Chubby’s Grill” and three – fucking three! – bars of chocolate could not dull the pain of VAR.

I slept like a baby on the way home.

It feels like I am at a crossroads. It seems almost implausible that I can even consider giving up football – Chelsea – but I simply cannot stomach another twenty years of VAR. It is as hideous a prospect as I can ever imagine, but I might – might – walk away.

God only knows I loathe much of modern football as it is. I always thought that it would be the dreaded thirty-ninth game in Adelaide, Beijing, Calcutta or Durban that might be the last straw, but the dynamic has changed since August.

Could I live without Chelsea? Of course I will always be a fan, a supporter, but how could I live without the sanctity of going to games? I shudder to think. Already, many mates go for a drink-up at Chelsea but don’t go in. Is that on the cards for me? I don’t know.

What would I do on weekends?

I’d go to see Frome Town.

I’d collect football stadia.

After all, I have stadiumitis and I have it bad.

The Maracana? Yes please.

The Azteca? Yes please.

Atletico Bilbao’s new stadium?

That stadium in Braga with a rock face behind one goal?

I still have a few stadia to see in Budapest.

A return to Buenos Aires? Yes. After all, that art deco tower – pure Flash Gordon – at Huracan warrants a trip all by itself.

Yes. I like this.

But life without Chelsea?

Fucking hell.

If – and it is obviously a massive “if”- I decide to walk away, it will be the right decision and the correct decision…

Don’t cry for me.

If anybody feels as desperate as me, please sign this.

https://www.change.org/p/the-premier-league-remove-the-use-of-the-video-assistant-referee-var-from-premier-league-football?recruiter=false&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=psf_combo_share_initial&utm_term=psf_combo_share_initial&recruited_by_id=21029800-5279-11ea-8486-eb0cd2d9b781&utm_content=fht-19272164-en-gb%3Av13

Tales From City, Chips And Gravy

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 23 November 2019.

At around 1pm – bang on target, just as I had predicted, have I mentioned I work in logistics? – I pulled into the car park of The Windmill pub just off the roundabout on the M6 which crosses with the A556.

Exit 19.

It did not seem five minutes since we were last there. It was, in fact, three months ago that we stopped for an hour or so as we met my old college mate Rick before the league opener against Manchester United. On this occasion, ahead of our enticing game with Manchester’s other team, we were stopping for considerably longer. I had enjoyed the trip north; grey skies, but no rain, a clear run. The usual three – PD, Parky and little old me – were joined by PD’s son Scott. This would be his first visit to Manchester, for football or for anything else for that matter. The drive was four hours in length, and we chatted intermittently about all sorts of shite. The game itself was touched upon but only fleetingly. We mentioned that it was likely that Frank Lampard would go for a little more robust midfield three than against other teams; Jorginho, Kovacic, Kante. But other topics of conversation were wide, and wild, and various. This is often the case. I have mentioned before that on match days we often treat the game itself as a discussion topic as if it was the eye of a storm – tranquil, peaceful, calm – while other games are voraciously discussed, with whirlwinds of memories cascading around of past matches and past battles, with the future games discussed at length too, with plans and itineraries debated ad nauseam.

We ordered drinks – three ciders and a diet Coke, no point in guessing which was mine – and studied the varied menu. For some reason that I cannot recall, one of the various “non-football” chats en route to the north-west was of types of food, maybe from our childhood, I can’t remember. I had mentioned steak and kidney pudding – home-made, with suet – and lo-and-behold, a steak and ale pudding was on the menu. PD and I ordered it. Parky chose lasagne. Scott chose ham, eggs and chips.

Is everyone still awake?

The suet pudding was crammed full of steak, the chips were authentic chip-shop style, the garden peas were sweet and juicy, and in typical Northern fashion, everything was set off with thick gravy.

Northerners love gravy.

It was bloody lovely.

Although the City stadium was twenty miles away, and we didn’t think that we would see anyone we knew, after an hour or so Mark from Slough spotted me and came over to sit nearby with two fellow Chelsea mates. I bump into Mark occasionally, but our paths do not cross too often. The most memorable occasion was in China when he was a late addition to the coach trip to the Great Wall of China that I had booked in 2017. Mark, like me, follows his local non-league team. For a few moments we bored the others rigid with stupefyingly dull talk of the two Towns, Frome and Slough, respectively.

After three diet Cokes and a large cappuccino, I was raring to go to the game.

We left there at just after 3.30pm. It was an oh-so familiar drive to the Etihad, and it took us right past the site of Maine Road. Now then, dear reader, I have already detailed two of my three visits to this much-loved old stadium in these reports before so it is appropriate that I complete the story with some notes from the away game in 1985/86.

I am nothing if not consistent.

In fact, on this occasion I am lifting some words straight out of my 1985 diary.

“Caught the 8.32am to Manchester. A pleasant journey through the usual South Cheshire towns. Arrived at Piccadilly at 9.30am. Saw football coaches pull up at the station, so hopped on one. A chap from Stafford had a natter; definitely remember him from the Chelsea vs. Sunderland train. Let inside at 10.30am. A 60p hot dog and up on to the small corner terrace. I suppose we had 2,000, maybe 2,500. A pretty poor turn out really. Chelsea had seats behind the goal. Didn’t see any of the lads. Chelsea began well, causing City’s defence many problems. In about the tenth minute, Speedie flicked the ball to Dixon who, by the penalty spot, calmly lobbed the ball over the ‘keeper. A super little goal really. Chelsea had a good spell, then City put in some long crosses but didn’t cause Eddie much of a problem. The game deteriorated in the last fifteen minutes of the half. I can’t honestly say the second-half improved at all. Only Canoville – on for Hazard – seemed to want to take the play to the home team. We were made to look very plain by a team that were not exactly high on confidence. The highlights were three great blocks by Eddie which saved us from a boring draw. I think he was our best player, always a bad sign. He didn’t put a foot wrong. We were kept in for a while. Spotted our firm waiting to my left as I boarded the bus back to the station. Spotted Winkle. Eventually back to the station for 2pm. A quarter-pounder. Caught the 2.42pm back to Stoke, getting back at 3.45pm. Many flared cords today. Even Chelsea.”

Some notes to add.

I was living in Stoke-on-Trent at the time. Far be it for me to suggest that its location slap-dab between the football “awayday” cities of Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester might have, perhaps, influenced my decision to live there for three years.

My proclivity to record fine detail of train times, and timings in general,  continues to this day. Did I mention I work in logistics?

The early kick-off? Probably, no undoubtedly, a result of our reputation at the time of being Public Enemy Number One, and on the back of the previous visit, in late 1983/84, which resulted in seven thousand Chelsea roaming Moss Side and taking unbelievable liberties.

I travelled alone and did not chat to any close friends. Sometimes it was like that.

Winkle. A young lad, a bit of a face, who was pointed out to me by Alan – probably – and who was in and around the firm at the time. I learned quite recently that he had passed away some time ago; a relatively young death, a heart attack I believe. He is often mentioned on a few chat sites.

Flared cords. After the bright sportswear of 1983/84, it all went a little undercover and muted in 1984/85, and even more so in 1985/86. I have recently seen reference to this period in terrace subculture as the “anti-suss” era. After the skinhead and boots era passed, and as casualdom took hold, it eventually dawned on the police that those lads in smart sportswear with expensive trainers and the wedge cuts were hooligans. Lads needed to divert further. Out came plain pullovers, darker trainers, black leather jackets, darker jeans. Less gregariousness, and still one step ahead of the authorities. In the north-west, and Leeds – always Leeds – this manifested itself in slightly flared cords and jeans, a new trend after tight and faded jeans of the early ‘eighties. In fact, it all looked – hugely ironically – quite mainstream. But the devil was in the details. Heavy Armani pullovers, Hard Core jeans, Aquascutum and Burberry, Berghaus and Boss.

Hot dogs and hamburgers. The fodder of football. Nobody asked for a salad at games in 1985, and nor do they do now.

The gate on that Saturday morning was just 20,104, but this was especially low because – I do not doubt – it was at such an early time. In addition, I have a feeling our allocation was all-ticket, a rarity for those days. That season was eventually won by Liverpool despite Manchester United going on a nine or ten game winning streak at the start. As if it needs stating again, no leagues are won in October nor November. Low gates predominated in our football at this period, a time when football hooliganism had scared many away. Those that went were often treated shamefully. Out of interest, the top ten average gates from that season are featured below.

  1. Manchester United – 46,322 (4)
  2. Liverpool – 35,319 (1)
  3. Everton – 32,388 (2)
  4. Manchester City – 24,229 (15)
  5. Arsenal – 23,813 (7)
  6. Newcastle United – 23,184 (11)
  7. Sheffield Wednesday – 23,101 (5)
  8. Chelsea – 21,986 (6)
  9. West Ham United – 21,289 (3)
  10. Tottenham Hotspur – 20,862 (10)

It always makes me giggle to see that West Ham’s highest ever league placing still resulted in a lower gate than ours.

“Where were you when you were shit?” they ask us.

We should sing this to them :

“Where were you when you were good?”

Enough of 1985/86.

I made my way through the city. The traffic flowed surprisingly well.

I always find it odd that Manchester is often abbreviated to “M’cr” on many road signs.

“T’ls F’rm M’cr” anyone?

I dropped the lads off outside The Etihad at about 4.15pm and then drove on to park up. For the first time ever, my away ticket had failed to materialise and so I had needed to call Chelsea the previous day for a reprint to be arranged. I soon collected it at the away end ticket office. We bumped into others; Deano from Yorkshire, the Bristol lot, Scott and Paul. Everyone excited about the game.

PD and LP were in the middle tier. Scott and I were up in the third tier. This added a little frisson of excitement for me; my first time in the lofty heights of Level Three since the stadium was expanded in 2015. Others were sampling the top tier too, and were equally looking forward to it.

My seat – as if I’d be seated, none of us were – was in row W, but this was only halfway back. The tier goes on forever. But due to the layering of tiers, and the steepness of the rake, the pitch honestly does not seem too distant.

We had heard horrible news from elsewhere; a Tottenham win, a Liverpool win, and my local team Frome Town had let a 2-0 lead in Portsmouth evaporate against Moneyfields, who themselves were down to ten men, conceding an equaliser in the final minute. It is not known how Slough Town did.

Frome at Moneyfields.

Chelsea at Moneyfields.

I’d be more than happy with a 2-2 in Manchester.

The team had been announced. No real, huge, surprises.

Arizzabalaga

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Zouma – Emerson

Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante

Pulisic – Abraham – Willian

Barkley and Pedro are way down in the pecking order now, eh? It is clear that Frank loves Willian. He is enjoying a fine season, again, after an indifferent start.

The night had fallen by kick-off time.

I waited as the minutes ticked by. Scott ascended the stairs after squeezing in a final lager. There were a surprising number of people that I knew settling down alongside me.  I had incorrectly presumed that most ASTs would have been located in the other levels. With no cameras allowed at The Etihad, I was planning to utilise my ‘phone and I therefore knew that my match photographs would be limited to broad panoramas. There was the usual audio visual countdown to kick-off, but how many times can the world hear Martin Tyler scream the word “Aguero!” without feeling slightly jaundiced by it all. Yeah, I know, even if that goal was a kick in the solar plexus for Manchester United and its millions of fans.

I am surprised, actually – knowing how City like to “one step beyond” wind us up – that Frank Lampard’s goal against us in 2014 was not part of the countdown on the TV screens.

Yeah, Frank Lampard at Manchester City.

What the fuck was all that about?

At last, the final minutes. A huge City banner – “125 years” – welcomed the teams onto the pitch. To the side, an equally large banner declaring “This is our city.”

Blue Moon boomed.

As at many stadia, banners covered every inch of balcony wall. I am always bemused by the small flag to the left on the Colin Bell Stand that simply says “Reddish Blues.”

For the geographically-challenged, Reddish is a part of the Manchester conurbation.

In another universe, it might represent a small band of Mancunians who like United and City.

And it would be a very small band, marooned in Reddish for eternity.

Both clubs despise each other alright.

United and City.

Reds and Blues.

Munichs and Bitters.

A City most definitely not united.

A City divided.

I looked over at Frank Lampard, track suited, and wondered if he ever gave his bizarre stint as a City player much thought. Guardiola in the other technical area was casually dressed as always.

City in blue (with an odd hint of purple on the sleeves) shirts, white shorts and white socks. They seem to change that blending every year. I prefer them in the blue socks of my youth.

Chelsea in royal blue shirts, royal blue shorts, royal blue socks out of necessity.

If only City had kept to blue socks.

The game began.

I had mentioned in the pub, or the car, how City often start peppering our goal at The Etihad from the off. And it invariably involves Sergio Aguero. On this occasion, soon into the game, it was Kevin De Bruyne who flashed a low shot from an angle just inches past Kepa’s far post. I looked to the skies, or at least the towering stand roof above my head.

“Here we go again.”

But as the game developed, we showed no cowardice in taking the game to City. The last two league games at the same stadium had produced different game plans, but still the same result.

In 2017/18, Antonio Conte played ultra-defensively, lost 1-0, and lost many friends, despite it almost paying off.

In 2018/19, Maurizio Sarri attempted to play City at their own game and lost 6-0, one of the worst days out of my life, so thank you for that.

In 2019/20, Frank Lampard’s team played with great spirit, good movement, a fast tempo, and for a while it looked like we could pull off a wonderful victory.

A Willian shot from the inside the box in the inside-right channel missed Ederson’s far post by the same margin as the De Bruyne effort a few minutes earlier. Tackle for tackle, pass for pass, punch for punch we were matching them.

I focused on Tammy Abraham for a while. There always seems to be an element of doubt about how successful Tammy will be when he receives a ball. I am never sure of his intentions, and I am not sure if he is either. Did he really mean to keep possession or did he really intend to control it quickly and then distribute it to a team mate? Did he mean that flick? However, one scintillating feint and a quick turn into a sudden patch of space left his marker questioning his career choice. This was just wonderful.

“Well done, Tammy, son.”

Willian was full of intelligent running, sometimes the overlap option and often the underlap option, and saw much of the early ball. Christian Pulisic looked in fine form on the opposing flank. A shot from Fikayo Tomori went close.

A rare City foray into our box was met by not one but four Chelsea defenders lining up to block a goal bound shot. Magnificent.

With twenty minutes or so gone, Mateo Kovacic released a magnificent ball right into the heart of the City defence. It dropped majestically into the path of N’Golo Kante, who touched it on. I felt myself relax, as if I knew a goal was coming. I sensed that he only needed to poke it past a manically exposed Ederson.

He touched it, and it slowly rolled goalwards.

I remained remarkably calm.

Tammy followed it home.

City 0 Chelsea 1.

I was calm no more.

I exploded with noise.

This place has not been a happy hunting ground for us of late. We usually lose. Could we repeat those – magnificent – rare wins in 2013/14 and 2016/17?

Scott hoped so; he had bet £50 on us at 13/2.

City had been quiet all game, and were silent now.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

We looked imperious. City’s defence looked porous. We prodded and teased all over the pitch. This was a great game. I was loving it.

Out of nowhere there was a ridiculous “Fuck Off Mourinho” and I was pleased that very few joined in.

We were playing with skill, speed, purpose and pleasure.

But then.

We lost possession poorly and the ball was quickly threaded through to De Bruyne. A shot from outside the box drew the attention of three or four defenders willing to throw their bodies towards the ball, but on this occasion luck was not with us. A shot was cruelly deflected off a limb and Kepa was beaten.

City 1 Chelsea 1.

Fackinell.

The home team was roused and we gulped as a De Bruyne shot was slashed narrowly over. Just eight minutes after the first goal, Mahrez cut inside – past Pulisic and Emerson, both dumbfounded by the trickery – and we watched as his low shot nestled inside the far post.

The game had been turned on its head.

And now the score line had a sadly typical feel.

City 2 Chelsea 1.

Sigh.

Now City’s fans roared.

“City. Tearing Cockneys apart. Again.”

Our play grew nervous. Kamikaze back-passes, nervy touches. A shocking clearance from Kepa went straight towards that man Aguero – “here we fucking go” – but to our relief (not pleasure, this was not pleasurable) his shot struck the bar full on.

At the break I muttered some usual phrases from the earlier part of this season.

“Naïve defending. We need to know when to clear our lines, we are just inviting them on. Silly mistakes.”

The first quarter of the game, with us playing so well, had seemed like a cruel false dawn, a fib, a lie.

I bumped into some good pals at half-time and their smiles cheered me. It was great to see Dave from Brisbane, over for this and Valencia, again. In the toilets, I involuntarily began smoking for the first time since my schooldays.

Cough, cough, cough, cough.

Sadly, the second-half was a poor shadow of the high-tempo attack and counter-attack of the first period.

N’Golo – a real force of nature in our purple patch – struck at goal down below us but his shot was blocked. It would be our only goal bound effort for ages.

Reece James replaced Emerson, with Dave swapping wings.

“It worked last time, Scott.”

City came close at the other end. We were riding our luck. We found it hard to repel City, who were growing stronger with each passing minute.

Michy Batshuayi for Tammy.

Mason Mount for Jorginho.

A dipping effort from Willian caused a fingertip save from Ederson, but it seemed that we would never score. Mason Mount took responsibility for a very central free-kick in the dying minutes but the effort drifted well wide.

Sigh.

Just after, Raheem Sterling slotted home, but VAR ruled it offside. Nobody in the away end celebrated it, nor should they.

Fuck VAR.

It ended at approaching 7.30pm with our first league loss since the home game with Liverpool.

As I slowly began the slow walk down many flights of stairs, I muttered “no complaints” to many.

And there really were no real complaints.

In the grand scheme of things, we played OK, but no more. At times we were fantastic, at times not so. But City – “Stating The Bleeding Obvious Part 859” – are a very fine team. They are not firing on all cylinders just yet, but when they do…

There were steady 7/10s across the board.

I met the boys outside.

“At least we have pissed off ninety-five billion Liverpool fans this evening.”

We walked along Ashton New Road in the rain, in Raintown, as is so often the case.

Not the glory of 2014 nor 2016 this time.

At 8pm I began the long drive home.

I made good time as I headed south, stopping off at Stafford Services where we feasted on a ridiculous amount of junk food. Jason Cundy was spotted in the adjacent “Costa” though I did not have the energy to say hello.

The rain continued for hours. But I was cocooned in my car. I had no concerns, of the game nor my long drive home. We had seen worse, eh? I eventually arrived back home – no rain, now – at 12.30am, the day’s total mileage hitting 420 miles.

It had been a good day out.

I am not going to Valencia – safe travels to all – so the next instalment will feature the home match with West Ham United.

And I will see some of you there.

Talking of the ‘eighties…

Tales From A Milestone

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 30 October 2019.

Manchester United at home. Regardless of the competition, it is a huge match. I was well aware that a home game against any other opposition at this stage in the League Cup competition might have induced feelings of weariness, but this one was different. The chance to get one over the biggest club in England, and a chance to seek some sort of revenge for our 0-4 defeat on the opening day of this season, was welcomed by myself and many others.

This build-up to this game followed the same course as many similar midweek fixtures at HQ; I finished work at 3pm, PD drove, into “The Goose” for one, then down to “Simmons.” I spent some quality time with some special friends from Australia in “Simmons.” Glenn and I spent a fair few hours in the Chelsea pub in Perth last summer with Neil and Sammy – husband and wife, from Oxfordshire, now living in Adelaide – and although we missed each other against Newcastle United, we planned a meet-up for this game.

A funny – “almost” – story coming up.

Those observant souls will remember me mentioning them in the Newcastle match report :

“My missing friends eventually made it in; Neil and Sammy from Adelaide down below me in the MHL, probably quite near Leigh-Anne and John from Toronto.”

Not only were Neil and Sammy indeed close to where Leigh-Anne and John had watched the game, but the four of them had spent a fair while chatting to each other, oblivious to the fact that I knew them all, in “The Blackbird” pub at Earl’s Court while they waited for the arrival of match tickets, all from the same source, a mutual friend. As I have said before, Chelsea World is a very small world.

PD, Parky and I set off early to meet up with a Chelsea mate who had tickets for Watford and Manchester City. We waited outside Fulham Broadway, and waited, and waited. I spotted a large mob of United whistle past – without colours, but I knew they were United – and we then raced on to try to reach our seats for kick-off. We made it just, but missed the usual stage-managed pre-match activities /atrocities.

As I mentioned in the closing words of my Burnley match report, this game would be the seventy-fifth time that I would see Manchester United play Chelsea across all competitions and all venues. The first time was in December 1984, a harrowing 1-3 loss at home.

But not only was this game number seventy-five against United, this represented – believe it or not – the first time that I had ever watched a match alongside Parky at Stamford Bridge. In all the other games, he has either watched from his own seat in The Shed Lower, or elsewhere. On this night, PD, Parky and I were able to sit together in The Sleepy Hollow.

And – I’ll be honest – it felt odd.

During the second-half, I was to take a photo of the match framed through his crutches.

There was a quick scan of our team. Frank had definitely chosen a B team of sorts.

Caballero

James – Guehi – Zouma – Alonso

Kovacic – Jorginho – Gilmour

Pulisic – Batshuayi – Hudson-Odoi

On the other hand, although I am not as familiar with the Manchester United squad as in previous years – a sure sign of their demise – I recognised many regulars. I spotted Daniel James, the little prick who scored on his debut against us in August. But Brandon Williams, a full-back, was a new face to me. Additionally, I hardly recognised Fred, whoever he is. I knew that Fred the Red was the United mascot, but I didn’t realise he actually fucking played for them. And I thought that Sergio Romero was a fucking golfer.

You can tell from my rich use of the English language that after seventy-five games, familiarity certainly breeds fucking contempt.

I gazed over at The Shed. The sight surprised me.

It was solidly United, but with netting over the first four rows of the upper tier.

“Is that to stop United throwing things at the United fans below?”

It was an odd arrangement. My quick presumption was that the police had stopped Chelsea giving them a full six thousand. It looked nearer four and a half thousand. They were all stood.

There were a few typical United flags on show in the upper.

“ICJ.”

The Inter-City Jibbers, a sub-section of their support back in the ‘eighties who took great quasi-Scouse delight in jumping trains and tubes en route to games.

“One Love. Manchester Born & Bred.”

Yep, seen that one before.

“Levenshulme. MUFC. No Mither.”

I originally thought that it said “no bother.” I needed a second look. I had heard of the term “mithering” but this would need some research. I Googled it. Interesting. Go on, have a look.

“MUFC Swinton.”

I surmised that this referenced Swinton, Lancashire and not Swinton, Yorkshire.

It shocked me that there is a new “Chelsea Paris” banner on the East Upper, but it would have shocked me further to see a Manchester United flag from Yorkshire. It takes a certain degree of obnoxiousness for someone from Yorkshire to support Manchester United. Step forward Sir Geoffrey Boycott.

The game began, and it didn’t exactly live up to its billing. We certainly had much of the ball during the first period, but could do little with it. I got the feeling that the United defence was too solid, too deep, too regimented for us to break it down. Scott McTominay took the eye in the first part of the game, breaking up play one minute, shooting at goal from inside the box the next. Our midfield three struggled to link up, and struggled to find the runners. I lost count of the number of times that Callum, out wide on our right and with potentially lots of space to exploit, chose to pass inside to others. On the other wing, Christian Pulisic – the hero at Turf Moor – hardly got in the game.

The noise inside the stadium was far from great, either. United were making most of the racket – par for the course really – but not at the same level as in February this year when they dumped us out of the FA Cup. That missing thousand and a half made all the difference, I guessed.

On twenty-five minutes, a burst into our final third from United spelled danger. James carried the ball into the box. Rather than a block tackle from Mark Guehi, who stood off too much for my liking, it was left to a poorly-timed slide from behind from Marcos Alonso to halt the United attacker. It was a penalty all day long.

Marcus Rashford dispatched it, and I ummed-and-ah’d about bothering to take a photo of the fuckers celebrating down below.

Ugh.

Chelsea 0 Manchester United 1.

The United hordes stepped up the volume.

“Who the fuck are Man United as the reds go marching on, on, on?”

We stumbled and bumbled our way through the rest of the first-half. It was not pleasant viewing. It was disjointed and tepid. United had done a job on us. I do not remember a single shot on goal.

Sigh.

On my mind, although I didn’t fancy sharing it – a hint of superstition – in case I jinxed it, was the thought that we surely could not play as poorly in the second-half.

Thankfully, we upped the tempo, the desire and the quality soon in to the second-half. There was a low cross from Alonso down below PD, Parky and I which set up Callum perfectly on the edge of the six yard box but our young striker fluffed his lines, and sent the ball way past the far post. But the home crowd responded to this.

“About bloody time.”

We had the best of it for a while. We had silenced the United lot in The Shed. It was all Chelsea. A blocked shot from Billy Gilmour, a Pulisic shot well wide, crosses whipped in. Next up was a dipping effort from Callum, after a great chipped pass from Pulisic, that dropped narrowly over the bar.

On the hour mark, a long punt from Caballero found the leap and head of Michy Batshuayi five yards inside his own half. The ball dropped further up field, and our Belgian striker was able to race on to his own assist. I immediately remembered Mark Hughes doing the same against Vicenza in the same part of the pitch – roughly – in 1998. I usually reach for my camera at moments like this but I decided to savour the moment.

Michy still had it all to do. He was in a race with two chasing defenders, with another trailing behind, and another between him and the goal. He raced on, beating his two main protagonists with ease, and slotted home a superb low shot at the far post.

It was simply magnificent.

How we roared.

GET IN.

His best goal for us by a country mile.

Chelsea 1 Manchester United 1.

Phew.

Michy loved his celebrations.

“Remember me?”

Bless him.

Some substitutions.

Pedro for Pulisic.

Mason Mount for Gilmour.

I loved the energy of Mason as he raced after two breaking United attackers and robbed them from behind with two perfectly-timed tackles. Unfortunately, Pedro was not so skilled in his attempt to rob the United mascot as he raced forward.

A free-kick was awarded.

For the first time the whole evening, I selected sports mode on my camera. I click, click, clicked as I followed the course of the ball from Marcus Rashford’s toe, up over the wall and into the corner of the goal.

Bollocks.

The ball dipped all over the place.

It was some strike.

Chelsea 1 Manchester United 2.

Bollocks.

There were twenty minutes, more or less, remaining.

We kept trying but it would be oh-so difficult.

United sang again.

A chorus of “Jose Mourinho” just to wind us up.

Is that the closing line on him, then? He is theirs not ours? So be it.

Tammy Abraham came on for Michy.

United knew what to do, and despite our strongest eleven being on the pitch for the final fifteen minutes of the match, chances were rare. A few supporters began to drift away. The 8.05pm kick-off time would mean a race for some to catch last trains and coaches home. It was not to be. We tumbled out of the League Cup.

So, my milestone match against United took my total number of defeats to a round thirty.

Here’s the numbers.

Stamford Bridge

Played 40

Won 16

Drawn 12

Lost 12

Old Trafford

Played 25

Won 5

Drawn 8

Lost 12

Neutral

Played 10

Won 4

Drawn 0

Lost 6

Total

Played 75

Won 25

Drawn 20

Lost 30

Goals For 94

Goals Against 107

During the course of the match, someone asked me for my favourite games against United, and my immediate reaction was this –

Chelsea 5 Manchester United 0 – 1999.

Manchester United 1 Chelsea 2 – 1986.

Chelsea 3 Manchester United 0 – 2006.

But that meant that I had neglected to mention the twin FA Cup Final wins in 2007 and 2018 and also the magnificent 4-0 in 2016. But I still stand by my top three, for what it all meant at the time.

The three worst? Do I have to?

Easy.

Chelsea 0 Manchester United 4 – 1994.

Chelsea 1 Manchester United 1 (lost on penalties) – 2008.

Chelsea 3 Manchester United 5 – 1998.

The three of us ambled back to the car – we could hardly believe the nonsensical 5-5 at Anfield – and I was, thankfully, able to catch some sleep on the drive back West. By the time I reached home at just before 1am, this year’s League Cup campaign had been forgotten.

Next up, a Saturday evening game at Watford.

See you there.

Tales From This Football Life

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 11 August 2019.

Exactly one year after our first league game of last season, we were on the road to a northern city once again. On the eleventh day of August in 2018, we assembled in Huddersfield for new manager Maurizio Sarri’s opener. That day felt like a huge step into the wide unknown, and a step outside of our comfort zone. It was meant to be intoxicating and different, with a new system, new players and a new approach. It wasn’t a bad day out at all to be honest. It was an easy win. At the end of that game though, I noted that the new manager did not walk over to us at the end of the game. I was to learn later that it was one of his many quirks and superstitions to never enter the pitch on game day.

What an odd fellow he was.

But one thing is for certain. If somebody had suggested that come the opening league game of the following season – and despite a third place finish, a domestic cup final appearance and a Europa League win – Frank Lampard would be our manager, there would have been widespread surprise and disbelief.

But this is football these days. Or, rather, this is Chelsea these days. Nothing is for certain, nothing seems constant, nothing seems ordinary.

Yes, dear reader, season 2019/20 was upon us with our beloved and admired former midfielder in charge and the general consensus within the Chelsea Nation was that it was time for the nonsense to stop. We just wanted a period of stability within the club. We wanted Frank Lampard to oversee a calm period. The transfer ban meant that for a year or so, we would have to look within ourselves – in more ways than one – and promote from our ranks. Again, the consensus was that we were OK with that, not that we had any choice.

Pre-season had been completed; seven games all told. I had managed to get to two of them; the wins in Dublin and Reading. My season opener against St. Pat’s was a full four weeks ago but it had felt like a short close season and time had soon passed.

The season was now upon us.

We were on our way.

It was going to be, inevitably, a long day on the road in support of The Great Unpredictables. I had woken one minute before my alarm clock at 7.30am – I suppose this loosely means that I was ready – and I collected PD and Glenn at 9.30am, and Parky at 10am. The first part of the journey was not devoted to football, but rather an update on various health issues that have affected the four of us, and some of our loved ones, over the summer. Thankfully, news was generally upbeat. Of the four of us inside The Chuckle Bus, I was able to report – perhaps – the healthiest news. I have been on a diet of late and am pleased with my progress.

And then we spoke about the football.

Many words were shared.

My take was this :

“Happy with the ‘keeper. Not sure about the defence, especially now that Luiz has gone. That might be a big loss. He’s experienced and a good presence. But – let’s be frank, or even Frank – if he didn’t want to fight to retain his place, then he is best away. We are over stacked in midfield. Some real talents there. Especially if Ross and Ruben step up. But our attack worries me. Not sure about either of the three central strikers. Giroud is half a striker. Michy is half a striker. Tammy is half a striker. Real worries exist.”

Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire.

There were periods of rain, periods of cloud, brief periods of sun.

Stupidly, I hadn’t packed a light rain jacket, only a thick coat from last season remained in my boot. I was horrified by my tactical naivety.

We glossed over the games so far. Typical heavy wins for City and Liverpool. A late, horrible, win for Tottenham. I hoped that Arsenal, never good travellers, might come unstuck at the day’s early game at Newcastle.

Staffordshire, Cheshire, Lancashire.

We recalled the horror show which had unfolded at West Ham; the VAR crimes on football, the frustration of ecstasy being denied, the ersatz pleasure of applauding an electronic decision, the mess of it all.

Fucking hell.

There had been delays en route, but this is nothing new on the M5 and M6. As with the previous two visits to Old Trafford, we called into The Beehive, just off junction nineteen of the M6. Waiting for us to arrive, at just gone 2pm, was my old college mate Rick, from nearby Northwich, and a long time United season ticket holder. It was a pleasure to see him once more. Since graduating in 1987 and going our separate ways, it was only the fourth time that we had seen each other, but it is always lovely to see a face from the past. We chatted about our summers, our thoughts on the immediate season, and about mutual friends from those grainy days in Stoke-on-Trent in the mid-‘eighties.

“To be honest, we were glad to see the back of Mourinho in the end.”

And we knew exactly how Rick felt.

I mentioned to Rick how the highlight of my summer was a weekend flit over to Italy three weeks ago, primarily to meet up with my oldest friend in the whole wide world Mario, who was visiting his father in the town on the Italian Riviera where I first met him in 1975. Mario has appeared within these reports over the years as an endearing token of how football can add so much to our lives through the people that we meet along the way. People are mistaken if they think that football is just about tactics, players, formations, counter-attacks, transition, blocks, presses and assists.

Football is about people. It’s about the fans. The ones we meet. The ones who provide humour and laughter. The ones who provide comfort and support. The ones that you just love meeting again and again.

It’s true with Rick. It’s true with Mario.

In Diano Marina, it was magical to step inside Mario’s family home for the first time since 1988, and to meet his father Franco – now a ridiculously healthy and busy eighty-four-year-old, but still suffering as a long time Genoa fan – for the first time since then. Since those days of my youth, I had met Mario, and stayed at his house, for the Bayer Leverkusen Champions League game in 2011, and then again in 2016 when we toured Stamford Bridge in the morning and saw Leverkusen win 1-0 against Tottenham in the evening.

What memories.

I met up with his wife Gabi, and their football-mad boys Ruben, Nelson and Valentin. They reminded me of us in 1979,1980,1981…absolutely smitten with football, the teams, the players, the history, the colours, the fans.

In Diano Marina, I walked on the section of beach where Mario and I first kicked a ball to each other in 1975, and we re-created a photograph from that summer in his father’s garden, which abuts the Mediterranean Sea, and with a ball always close by.

What memories.

And we thought of potential Champions League match-ups in 2019/20 involving Chelsea, Bayer Leverkusen (Mario and two of his sons are season ticket holders, Ruben the lone Borussia Dortmund fan) and Juventus (Mario is a long time Juve fan, he had a ticket for Heysel, it is a story told before) and we thought of return visits to London and Leverkusen.

What memories waiting to happen.

This football life is a wonderful thing, eh?

At just after 3pm, we said our goodbyes and set off in our two cars. As the driver, no beers, no Peronis, I wanted to be fresh. There were still clouds overhead. I prayed for no rain, but the forecast was gloomy.

The new A556 link road zoomed us onto the M56, and I found myself navigating the familiar Manchester Orbital once more. At about 3.45pm, we were parked up at the usual garage off Gorse Hill Park. This would be my twenty-fifth visit to Manchester United with Chelsea. In all of the previous twenty-four, I had seen us win just five games; 1985/86, 1986/87, 2004/5, 2009/10 and 2012/13.

We had whispered it among ourselves within the first hour or so of the day’s journey.

“Of course, we could get walloped here.”

There were nods, silent nods.

“Bloody hell, be happy with a draw.”

The rain was holding off. The others had light jackets, I just wore a sombre black Benetton – how ‘eighties – polo.

We were soon at Old Trafford, and the same old approach to the famous stadium. Some United fans aired a new song.

“Harry Maguire. Harry Maguire. He fucked off Leicester for Manchester. His head’s fookin’ massive.”

We dived inside pretty sharpish amid taunts of “Chelsea Rent Boys.”

There were handshakes and nods of acknowledgement with many of the travelling three thousand. I immediately sensed a noisier crowd, a far more enlivened crowd, a happier crowd. The Frank Lampard effect? Oh yes.

We heard the team.

“Mason Mount in, big game for him.”

On the way up in the car, Glenn had asked me who I would start up front.

“I’ll trust Frank, but Giroud has the experience for places like this. I’d start him.”

But it was Tammy.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Zouma – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic

Pedro – Mount – Barkley

Abraham

It was lovely to see Alan and Gary again. The away club was back together for another season of sunshine and smiles, rain and agony. I stopped to chat to a few in the away quadrant. Our seats were in a similar spot to last season.

Neil Barnett breezed past.

“I’m happy with the team.”

The rain was holding off. Old Trafford looked the same, apart from one or two new banners.

“Every single one of us loves Alex Ferguson.”

I chatted to JD, who had posted on Facebook earlier that he was a little underwhelmed by it all. He aired a few of my pet peeves – VAR, the farce of Baku, a support base that is full of irksome divs – and I tended to agree with him.

I commented :

“When they announced Frank as the manager, I got a proper buzz, but that seems to have worn off a bit. It’s all the other shite that goes with it.”

But JD is a good man and his humour will see him through.

As kick-off time approached, our section was full of support of the new manager but one song dominated, a song from our last visit.

“Just like London, your city is blue.”

United were back to their usual white shorts this season, but with a muted red shirt.

Our kit? You know the story. Shudder.

The game began and as usual we attacked the Stretford End. It soon dawned on me that United were doing the defending, they were letting us dominate. How different from days gone by when the midfield would be a warzone, with tackles flying in, and attacks jumping to life when advantage had been gained. United let us play. And we looked good. We played coherently with confidence. After only four of five minutes, a corner was not cleared and Tammy received the ball, spun nicely and unleashed a waist-high drive which bounced back in to play off the far post with De Gea beaten.

The away end “ooooohed.”

A Kurt Zouma error allowed Martial a shot on goal but the effort did not bother Kepa.

We were bossing the game. Barkley looked at ease. Kovacic was winning the ball and moving it on. We definitely had the advantage. A cross from Dave, a shot from Mason Mount. It was going well.

Then, on eighteen minutes, Jorginho swiped at a United attacker but play was moved on, and with Rashford advancing at pace into the box – and with me fearing the worst – a horrible lunge from Zouma gave the referee no option but to award a penalty.

Rashford struck it high past Kepa.

We were 1-0 down.

Bollocks.

We hadn’t allowed the United cheers to subside before we got behind the team, though.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

More of that all season long please.

United, strengthened in spirit and desire after the goal, now dominated for a little spell, though they did not create too much of note.

But Zouma looked at sixes and sevens. He looked clumsy and awkward, like me in front of a woman. His limbs don’t seem to be programmed correctly. The fans around me noticed it too. But we kept the support up.

“One-nil and you still don’t sing.”

It is a mystery how United have the most vociferous away support of any in the top flight yet their home games at Old Trafford tend not to fizz these days. The quietness even shocked me. I almost wanted the bastards to make some noise.

United had the ball in the net a second time though every man and woman in the stadium surely realised that the player was a few yards offside. But on came the VAR review and a huddle of sweaty nerdicians in Stockley Park got to work.

“Offside.”

Thanks for that.

I hate modern football.

Mount chose to pass rather than shoot and there was little weep of frustration. But we kept attacking. A shot from Barkley drew a messy save from De Gea and the rebound was not cleared. Jorginho’s follow-up effort was blocked for a corner. The best chance of the closing moments fell to an unmarked Emerson, who picked up a cross by Jorginho that just evaded the leap of Mount. His swipe hit the same post as Tammy’s effort in the first five minutes.

It was, clearly, one of those halves.

At the break, the mood in the camp was positive.

“How are we losing?” was a common question asked.

I certainly had few complaints, though if I was to be picky, I would look at our A to Z.

Tammy Abraham – I wanted him to move his marker more, be more cunning, be more devilish, be stronger.

Kurt Zouma – I wanted him to look more relaxed, to trust himself more, to look more at ease, to gel.

For old times’ sake, The Baku Half-Time Moaners club was revived as I chatted to Welsh Kev, though to be truthful we had little to moan about. On my way back to my seat, I stated the bloody obvious.

“Next goal is massive.”

There were no changes at the break.

Overhead, the clouds were classic Mancunian. November in August. Tupperware skies.

I commented to Alan :

“Those clouds have more rain in them and this game has more goals in it.”

The second-half began mildly, with no team dominating. Our chances were rare.

On fifty-eight minutes, Christian Pulisic replaced Ross Barkley, who had enjoyed a mixed game and was certainly starting to tire. Pulisic, from Hershey in Pennsylvania, is touted for great things. I have only seen highlights of him, I do not have the time to endlessly gorge on football, but he looks the business. If he can make that tract of land down the left wing his own in the same way that Eden Hazard did from 2012 to 2019, we will all be very happy.

Sadly, on sixty-seven minutes – and with Tammy pole-axed in United’s box – a very quick counter resulted in our defenders scampering around like chickens having glimpsed the pointed ears and bushy tail of a fox enter their coop. A cross from the right from the boot of Andreas Pereira was inch-perfect, but Dave will be unhappy that Martial reached the ball before him. He poked it past Kepa.

We were now 2-0 down.

No way back? Nah. We looked out of it.

Bollocks.

Olivier Giroud replaced Tammy.

Just a couple of minutes later, we were 3-0 down. I must admit that I missed the long pass out of defence from Paul Pogba which lead to Rashford running unhindered through our defence and poking the ball past a hapless Kepa. In the split second that my mind wandered, I found myself looking at the horrific Chelsea tattoo on the shin of a nearby supporter but don’t worry my concentration levels will increase as I get match fit. I saw the neat finish alright. Fuck it.

The United fans went doolally.

There is a problem at Old Trafford. From the curve of the away section, spectators have an unimpeded view of the home supporters down below us, especially in the paddock in front of the old main stand. Their faces were of delirium. They were bloody loving it. I felt ill.

Our little prince N’Golo Kante replaced Jorginho with twenty minutes remaining and I guess that Lampard just wanted to give him “minutes.”

Lo and behold, despite our best efforts to stem the tide and to, maybe just maybe, grab a goal ourselves, the fates contrived against us, and just after an odd moment. Jose Mourinho must’ve been spotted in a TV studio because a sizeable proportion of the United support in the nearby main stand and “Stretty” spotted him and serenaded him

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

Now, that was an odd sensation.

With that, United broke – supremely well – and Pogba ran and ran and ran. His cute pass to substitute Daniel James set the debutant up, though he needed two bites of the cherry.

A deflection hindered Kepa and we were 4-0 down.

Fackinell.

My mind spun.

“That’s my biggest defeat up here.”

“The biggest loss to them since the 1994 FA Cup Final.”

“Our biggest opening day loss in memory.”

But most of the Chelsea support stayed to clap the boys off. Frank Lampard approached and clapped us too. He had looked the part the entire game, suited and elegant in the technical area, although he did retire up to the seated area in the stand at 3-0.

The four of us regrouped and began the walk back to the car, up the famous forecourt, where I watched one United lad swagger across, smile wide, and bounce right into the middle of us. I half expected someone to get a clump, but there was no “afters.”

There was the usual “Hollow Hollow Hollow” and yet more “Chelsea Rent Boys” schoolyard chants. We kept together, kept our heads down, looked after each other, moving slowly out.

A few United fans, talking among themselves, said that they had been lucky to get four. I had to agree. It didn’t feel like a 4-0 throughout the match, although at the end I felt it certainly did.

Crossing the main road, I spoke about our attacking options.

“I’m not sure Frank knows who is his best striker. I hope he soon decides. If it is Tammy, then he needs time to embed himself in the team, to work with his team mates, to know when to move, to know when to go.”

The game – yes, I know it is only the first one – worried me.

“I just don’t think we’ll score enough goals this season.”

We walked past supporters’ coaches headed for North Wales, for Fife, for Devon.

In the car, we heard Frank Lampard speak intelligently, with clarity, with a little humility, with calmness.

I expected nothing less really, but it was wonderful to hear someone talk so much sense.

Stuck in traffic, I posted a selfie of the four of us in my car, smiles wide and defiant.

“Oh Chelsea We Love You.”

It ended up getting a lot of likes.

The drive home went well, maybe those tedious trips south after games at Manchester United are a thing of the past.

I was back home at 11.30pm, a little bruised, but still proud to have been at Old Trafford.

Where else would I have rather been?

Nowhere.

 

Tales From The United Colours Of Football

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 April 2019.

There was definitely a different vibe going into the away game at Old Trafford compared to the match at Anfield a fortnight earlier. For the Liverpool game, it was all about damage limitation. With hindsight, a draw was a rather fanciful hope. Along with Manchester City, Liverpool have been head and shoulders ahead of the pack this season. A loss against Klopp’s team was almost inevitable. But an away game against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s miss-firing team was an entirely different proposition. Due to our lack of potency in front of goal, I was still pragmatic / pessimistic (delete where appropriate) about us scoring, so my prediction was a 0-0 draw. But this was a result that was far more difficult to call. On the drive up in the car – I won’t bore everyone into the early stages of rigor mortis, our drive up to Manchester United takes the same form as always – I explained my thoughts to P Diddy and L Parky.

“Hey, this could be a game where we play well and lose, or it could be a game where we play crap and win. We could lose three-nil or we could win three-nil.”

This was a familiar drive north indeed.

I was parked up at the usual place, a twenty-minute walk away from the famous crossroads on the Chester Road, where the match day experience at Old Trafford starts to crackle and to ignite. “The Bishop Blaize” pub, the row of take-aways, the Red Devils and Lou Macari fish and chip shops, the coming together of United fans from all parts of the city, the north-west, the United Kingdom, Europe and the world, the “Trafford” pub, the lights of the Lancashire Cricket Ground, the fanzine sellers, the off-licences, the match-day routines.

As I looked over at the “Trafford” pub, I was reminded of a few scenes set in and around Old Trafford during the film “Charlie Bubbles” that featured the recently departed actor Albert Finney – a local boy made good both in this film and in real life – and I remembered that the mock Tudor beams, still visible in 2019, were able to be spotted in the film too.

MU6 (2)

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

This piece of film is from a match day in October 1966, and depicts the walk to Old Trafford – along what is now Sir Matt Busby Way – that Finney and his son took, ending up with a walk across the forecourt. The three of us were taking this exact same route in 2019. There is something warming about that. That the match featured fleetingly in the film was our away game at Old Trafford makes the clip even more poignant.

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I am adamant that Albert Finney was on the pitch before a United vs. Chelsea game in relatively recent times. Maybe the 2-2 FA Cup game a few seasons ago.

This would be my twenty-fourth away game at Old Trafford with Chelsea. That’s one more than the twenty-three that I have made with Chelsea to Anfield. But there have been two FA Cup semi-final visits too, against Liverpool in 2006 and Blackburn Rovers in 2007. On both of these occasions, we were in the Stretford End, mirroring the location of our support in the 1970 FA Cup Final replay. It is not known which end was Chelsea in the Khaki Cup Final of 1915.

2007 A

For the 2006 game, with Chelsea looking likely to dominate English football for a while, we produced stickers which were applied with liberal abandon on anything that we could find.

2006 A

I always rate the London derby with Tottenham as the biggest home game of the season, but I make our annual trip to Old Trafford as our biggest away game.

We have certainly had some history in this famous old stadium, certainly 1915 and 1970, but in recent years too.

Here are some moments from the previous ten league visits.

2008/09

Five minutes later I was on the forecourt, scene of much ‘naughtiness’ in days of yore. The new ‘United Trinity’ statue of Best / Law / Charlton was the new focal point. It’s a splendid statue actually, facing the one of Matt Busby, beneath the Manchester United sign on the East Stand. As I took a couple of photos, I noted one middle-aged bloke say ‘who is the bald one?’ I had great pleasure in answering him.

2009/10

And then it happened. A through ball from Kalou, the other sub, and Drogba was offside…but no flag…

”Go on my son.”

Drogba slammed the ball towards Van der Sar and the net rippled. Is there a more beautiful sight in football? That was it. We exploded. I screamed, then jumped up onto my seat and ended up in the row in front. Gary ended up two rows in front. I screamed and shouted “it was offside, it was offside – you beauty!”

The consensus was that, yes, Didi was offside, but we couldn’t care.

2010/11

I texted a curt “well done” to four United friends from back home at the final whistle and I was soon out on the forecourt, battling the gentle slope and the crowing United fans alike. Parky had been delayed in his exit; he had said that two United fans – not from England – had somehow got tickets in the away seats and had unzipped their jackets at the end of the game to reveal red shirts. A punch in the face from an enraged Chelsea fan was the response.

Not big, not clever, but totally understandable.

2011/12

A few years back, you would see banners which said “Exeter Reds”, “Devon Reds”, “Dublin Reds” and “Malta Reds” at away games. Today, it seems that you are now more likely to see “Urmston Reds”, “Salford Reds”, Sale Reds and “Clayton Reds.” It’s as if they are reclaiming Mancunia as their own. There always used to be a certain amount of “niggle” among local United fans and their fans from elsewhere in the UK. This is certainly true of Liverpool, too. There is a notion that out-of-town United fans are the glory hunters, forever besmirching the name of Manchester United. It was United who invented the derogatory nickname “day-trippers” which described the out-of-towners arriving en masse at Old Trafford, buying United paraphernalia and not really “getting” what United is about.

2012/13

Inside Old Trafford, we took our seats in row 24, in the side section where the 500 or so away season-ticket holders were allocated. There were familiar faces everywhere. Sadly, I soon spotted a section of around four-hundred seats in the away section which had not been sold. I have never known us not to sell our three thousand seats at Old Trafford ever before. It made me angry.

“The fcuking seats are fcuking red.
The fcuking fans are home instead.
The fcuking seats are full of air.
The fcuking seats are fcuking spare.”

2013/14

It didn’t take long for me to find my gaze centered on the twin figures of Jose Mourinho and David Moyes. Not long into the game, we sung Jose’s name and he flapped a quick wave of acknowledgement. A torrent of abuse from the Stretford End – “Fuck Off Mourinho” – was met by a wave too. Mourinho, hands in pockets, relaxed, was clearly revelling in the moment. He was on centre-stage at Old Trafford, enjoying the limelight, loving the drama. Moyes, in comparison, looked stiff and awkward. It can’t be easy for Moyes to have to face the mammoth north stand, with fifteen feet high letters denoting Sir Alex Ferguson, at every home game. I noted that Mourinho chose to wear a neat grey pullover with his Hackett suit; a style much favoured by Roberto di Matteo last season. The urbane Mourinho, like so many Europeans, can carry off the pullover and suit combination, but I often think that Englishmen wearing the same seem to resemble sweaty librarians or train spotters with personal hygiene deficiencies. Just think Sam Allardyce.

2014/15

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.”

2015/16

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.

2016/17

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.

2017/18

Beyond “The Bishop Blaize” pub, and hovering over the red brick terraced houses of Stretford were the glistening silver-grey roof supports of Old Trafford, and it took my breath away. Yes, I have seen it all before, but the sunlight made the cold steel so much sharper and it just looked other-worldly. We turned left at the gaggle of chip shops and onto Sir Matt Busby Way. It is such an inconspicuous approach to one of the world’s foremost football stadia.

“United We Stand. New issue. Out today.”

“Yer matchday scarf. Ten pound yer matchday scarf.”

Burgers with onions, burgers without, the noise of a match day, grafters, those old red, white and black bar scarves, selfies in front of the stadium, the Munich Clock, hot dogs, programme sellers, winter jackets, red and white United ski-hats, the Holy Trinity statue, scarves, the megastore, three policemen keeping an eye on things from their raised platform by the executive car park, accents from Ireland, fanzines, the well-heeled making their way to the corporate lounges, the guttural shout of “Red Army”, foreign accents, northern faces, northern scowls, North Face jackets, the occasional dash of blue.

Back to 2018/19…

On this day, thoughts were not only concerned with our game at Old Trafford. I was keeping a close watch on the City game at Burnley. Thank God for Sergio Aguero’s single strike. It was just what I wanted to see. Arsenal, meanwhile, were beating Spurs at their own game, contriving to lose 3-0 at Leicester City. This was opening up ever-so nicely for us. A loss for Tottenham on Saturday, a loss for Arsenal on Sunday. A win – a possibility – at Old Trafford would surely make us favourites for a top four finish.

Perfect.

While Parky and PD made their way in to the stadium, topping up the three pints they enjoyed at a pub just off the M6 an hour earlier, I had my usual walk around the forecourt. There was an image of Juan Mata high above the statue of Sir Matt Busby. I still fidget nervously when I see him in United red.

The entrance to the away turnstiles was now cordoned off with a barrier of solid United red separating us from the home fans. It was not too dissimilar to those red, white and black United bar scarves from the ‘seventies.

MU14 (3)

A quick security pat down – no cameras at Old Trafford these days, my phone would have to suffice – and I was in. Up into the crowded bar, I had one thought on my mind.

“Is City still 1-0?”

“Yep.”

“Good, good.”

It was clear that we had a full house of three-thousand away fans. There were no gaps. There was no need for a 2013-style John Cooper Clarke rage about unused seats.

I bumped into Harry and Paul, both living in Yorkshire now, and there was a slight worry that Burnley had equalised. There is a photograph of myself on the internet with them, with my smile as broad as a Cheshire cat, as I had just heard that City had indeed managed to hold on to a narrow 1-0 win.

One away club regular was sadly missing. There was no Alan alongside Parky, Gal and myself. I soon texted him a “get well soon.”

The team was announced earlier, of course, and I was surprised that Eden Hazard was not being deployed as a false nine.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Willian – Higuain – Hazard

United’s team included the three former blues; Juan, Nemanja and Romelu.

Everywhere filled up. It was to be another massive attendance at Old Trafford. But things were subdued. These must be testing times for the United faithful; a false-dawn under the new manager perhaps, and that awful sense of betrayal, wanting City to win every game they play.

Oh well. Fuck’em.

The teams came onto the pitch from the corner and it was the first time that I have seen United this season in their black shorts. They opted for the more traditional white ones at both home games. It doesn’t look right. I have no idea why United took the decision to change it. Chit chat about kits came to the fore in recent days. There was a leaked image – as yet unconfirmed – of a truly horrific kit for Chelsea next season. I am sure everyone has seen it. It’s garbage. But it got a few of us thinking. Going into the fiftieth anniversary of the iconic 1970 FA Cup win at Old Trafford, it would be nice to honour that occasion with a one-season only kit of royal blue with yellow trim, including yellow socks.

1970 is, after all, the catalyst for many of us.

But, here is the thing. I bet that there was not one single mention of the fiftieth anniversary of that tumultuous win against Leeds United in any of the brainstorming sessions at Nike over the past few months.

Anyway.

Khaki. Black shorts. Yellow socks.

It was time for the united colours of football in 2019 to get us all excited.

United – a blurring of red and black,

Chelsea – royal blue and white.

The game began.

First thoughts? Their side is huge. Our midfield is tiny. And United got off to a flier. Lukaku looked ready to run past a stagnant defence but Rudiger recovered to challenge and Kepa saved well. It seemed to be all United. They carved open a chance on eleven minutes, with Lukaku again involved. His dink towards Luke Shaw always looked like causing us trouble. His pass across the box was slammed home. Only when I was returning home a few hours later did I learn that it was scored by Juan Mata, on his birthday too. My eyes, I am sure, would have dropped to the floor immediately after the goal had rippled the Stretford End goal nets. The song that kept going for ages and ages at our FA Cup game in January – which I had not heard, really, at that juncture – was repeated.

“Ole’s at the wheel.

Tell me how good does it feel?

We’ve got Sanchez and Pogba and Fred.

Marcus Rashford – he’s manc born and bred.

Duh du, du du du du du

Duh du, du du du du du

The greatest of English football.

We’ve won it all.”

Fackinell.

The noise coming from the Chelsea section was good, though. We always raise our game at Old Trafford. The team, slowly, tried to get a foothold in the match. As ever, it was the tireless energy of N’Golo Kante and the ability to spin out of danger of Eden Hazard which were our main positives. A foul on Hazard resulted in a Willian free-kick but the chance was wasted. We had more of the ball, but could not do a great deal with it. We howled with displeasure when Hazard played the ball out to Gonzalo Higuain out on the right wing, with the entire pitch in his sight, but he was offside.

“Fucksake.”

I looked down at my feet again.

We attempted a few long-range efforts and a few half-chances came and went. But De Gea was untested. After a shaky start, with a few silly and mistimed tackles, Dave was warming to the task in hand. He stayed limpet-like close to opponents as many United attackers tested him. Alonso was putting in a good shift on the other flank, too. As the game developed, I could not help but think that this was a sub-par game in terms of quality, especially compared to some of the other mighty tussles between the two teams in this part of Manchester over the past twenty years.

A lot is made of modern football and the atmosphere getting worse and worse with every season. I have made that point on numerous occasions. Here was a case in point. Over seventy-thousand United fans, yet only a section in the far corner of our stand were really bothering. Nothing at all from the side stands, nor – awful this, really – from the Stretford End, which, by now, is a pale shadow of its former self. It is United’s “home end” in name only.

There was the singing-by numbers chant from us – “Just like London, your city is blue” – but that didn’t get much of a reaction.

They didn’t like this one though :

“Just like the Scousers, you live in the past.”

This riled them up a bit, and for a few moments, the noise was electric as three thousand away fans shouted “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” to the United fans above us. This was bloody fantastic. Both sets of fans going for it.

It was – briefly, so briefly – life-affirming stuff.

Passionate, loud, venomous.

“Come on Chelsea.”

Gary, meanwhile, had a new twist.

“Just like the Scousers, you live in Norway.”

Surprisingly, United didn’t take the game to us. Only a few efforts rained in on our goal. It was a humdrum game being played under light clouds. The hot weather of the previous weekend was nowhere to be seen. It was a day for jackets and jeans. The referee Martin Atkinson was not reacting to many rugged United tackles. The noise levels in our section were raised at every such occasion. Higuain was offside again.

A look to the skies this time.

With not much time remaining in a poor half, the ball bounced out to Rudiger, some thirty-five yards out. His body shape quickly cheered me.

I screamed “hit it.”

He hit it alright. The ball kept low and De Gea could only clumsily parry it. The ball bounced out to Alonso, who touched the ball past the clumsy United ‘keeper. We watched as it agonisingly bounced in off the far post.

We went fucking doolally.

MU40

My name is Chris Axon and I am a goal addict.

It was just a perfect time to score. Tim, Julie, Brian and Kev – the oft-mentioned “Bristol lot” – were stood behind us, and had parked-up near the cricket ground. They ended up watching the last few overs of the Lancashire vs. Leicestershire game (they got in for free, not sure how that works, county cricket is an odd affair) and I had to make a comment about De Gea.

“If he was playing cricket, you wouldn’t put him in the slips, would you?”

I sensed that we had taken the wind out of United’s sails. We hoped for just one more Chelsea goal as the referee signalled the start of the second period.

We bossed the opening moments. Even Mateo Kovacic, poor in the first period, looked a better player. Kepa was rarely forced into action. There were bookings for Willian and Kovacic. But then a rash challenge on a United player by Kovacic made me wonder if Sarri would take him off.

“He’s lucky to stay on, Gal.”

But then Rudiger went down, and it was Christensen who came on.

Although the second-half was a much better performance – we honestly dominated, easily – it was also a frustrating one. Higuain was offside three or four more times. He was having a ‘mare. There was one moment, soon into the second-half when he broke over the half-way line, but it looked like he was running in treacle. Hazard was twisting and turning and getting into good positions, but how we missed a late-arriving midfielder – no names, no pack drill – to finish it all off. Too often the ball ended up at the feet of Kante or Willian, both who seemed shot shy.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek came on for Kovacic. But his first few touches were heavy. His shot, later in the game, cleared the Stretford End crossbar by an embarrassing amount. Pedro then replaced Willian. We still controlled most of the ball. Pedro shot wildly over too. But United had the best chance for the winner. Thankfully, Pedro was ideally placed on the goal-line – shades of Ashley Cole in Naples – to head away an effort from Rojo.

The referee signalled a ludicrous seven extra minutes. There was still time for Higuain to fluff his lines at the death.

I looked down at my trainers one last time.

At the final whistle, there was a massive cheer from the away end. It was a priceless point.

The natives were quiet on the walk over the forecourt and onto Sir Matt Busby Way. A few gobby United fans – no more than two or three – were doing their level best to antagonise the Chelsea fans walking cheek by jowl alongside. I heard one Chelsea fan whisper “stick together” but it never really looked like kicking-off. Parky, PD and little old me kept silent.

In the end, the two United youths threw a couple of wayward punches and were soon smothered by a few policemen.

Out on the Chester Road, the United fans were very subdued.

We made a very clean and quick getaway.

“Job done boys, job done.”

On the long drive home, both PD and Parky caught some sleep, no doubt dreaming of German beer and German food ahead of their trip to Eintracht Frankfurt on Wednesday. I am sure I saw them dribbling.

As for me, my next one is on Sunday against Watford.

See you there.