Tales From The Park, The Pier, The Beach And The Stadium

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 29 February 2020.

The heavens had opened during the night and, although I thankfully slept through the deluge, the scenes as I left my home village at just before eight o’clock in the morning seemed to be from a different world. There were huge puddles of surface water lapping at my tyres as I drove down past the pub, the church, the war memorial and the village shop. As I started to head up Lime Kiln Hill, two separate torrents of murky brown water cascaded across the road. I splashed through it all and continued my drive into Frome. I soon collected PD and Parky. We were on our way.

Not long into the fifty-five mile journey to Bournemouth, there was relief :

“I’m just happy that I have an away game that doesn’t involve a four-hour drive.”

This was an easy one. The easiest of the season. The only blot on the horizon was a possible continuation of the atrocious weather of the past twenty-four hours. At Shaftesbury, where Wiltshire rubs up against Dorset, I turned off and headed across the hills and across country. I’m all for exploring different routes to away games and I think that PD, alongside me, was a little nervous that I had chosen an unfamiliar route. My first ascent was up the wonderfully named Zig-Zag Hill – not Zigger Zagger, more of that later – which is a series of tight bends. I was enjoying this. The weather was fine, if not a little overcast. Good vibes.

I made excellent time. By 9.30am, I was parked up at the Bournemouth International Centre, site of the former Winter Gardens, where in the summer of 1980, I was forced to attend a Max Bygraves concert while on holiday in nearby Southbourne with my parents. I still haven’t forgiven them.

By 9.45am, we had ordered a hearty breakfast at “The Moon On the Square” which is one of the few ‘Spoons that I like. I think it might have been a department store in a previous life. There are still a few art deco flourishes on the main stairwell. The breakfast went down a treat. We spotted the first of a few friends arrive. But, rather than sit – stone cold sober – and watch others drink for four hours, I had plans to get out and see a little of the town, despite the threat of inclement weather. I had remembered that “John Anthony” – I often visit the menswear shop in nearby Bath throughout the year, especially when there are sales on – has a store in Bournemouth, and that this was the final day of an afore-mentioned sale.

“It would be rude not to.”

I headed off in search of cut-price clobber.

“John Anthony” did not let me down. I picked up a navy blue Hugo Boss sweatshirt for just £44 (and I immediately thought to myself that this will not look out of place alongside the ninety-seven other navy tops that I bloody own.) I had only been reminiscing about Boss sweatshirts during the week as there was a post on “Facebook” about them when they came out in around the 1985/86 football season, and the first wave of them had the “Boss” logo on the back of sweatshirts and not the front. I liked that. Something different. Though I never owned one, they always looked the business. The era of Timberland shoes. At the time I opted for a lime green “Marc O’Polo” which were very similar in style. This one, thirty-five years later, would be – I think – my first ever “Boss” sweatshirt.

Better late than never, eh?

Football, music, clobber.

The staples of so many of my generation.

The sun was out, I was happy with my purchase, I was bouncing. I began to walk through the Central Gardens, knowing full well that the Chelsea squad – for the past few years – always walk through this small and narrow area every match day morning. The team always stay at the nearby Hilton, which we had walked past on our way from the car park to the pub. I stood in the sun for one moment, and texted a mate to let him know that I had struck gold in the sale, when I happened to look up and to my right. Around twenty yards away, I spotted a burst of blue.

Blue tracksuits. It was the team. Perfect timing.

I quickly sent my text, then caught up with the players.

I wished Antonio Rudiger all the best and offered my hand.

He declined.

“Corona virus.”

Ah, of course…

”OK, sorry.”

I spotted Billy Gilmour in conversation with Mason Mount. I said a few words. They were dead friendly and posed for a great photo – “thumbs up” – with a gaggle of other players behind them. A nice moment. As the players drifted past – alas no Frank Lampard, unless I missed him – I changed from ‘phone to SLR and took a few more.

“Thumbs up” from Willian.

“Thumbs up” from Mateo Kovacic.

Good stuff.

My two minutes of giddiness completed, I continued on towards the pier. The sun was out now, and despite the strong wind, it was gorgeous.

I was feeling rather proud of myself. This day was going perfectly. A good drive down. A full English. A bit of clobber. A few fleeting moments with the players. Lovely.

Of course, I could easily have followed the squad around their circumnavigation of the gardens, but that would have been painful. I would never want to overdo it. It reminded me of the rush of pure Adrenalin that I used to get if I was lucky enough to get some players’ autographs pre-match at Stamford Bridge in the ‘seventies. I remember being a few feet away from Ray Wilkins in the tunnel – Ray Wilkins! – in 1978 and being beside myself with unquantifiable joy. It was hardly the same in 2020, but it was a nice moment regardless. I hope that I never lose that childlike – not childish, that’s different – wonderment when I am ever lucky enough to meet our heroes.

God knows what I’ll be like if I ever meet Clare Grogan.

Our match tickets included a neat graphic of the Bournemouth pier, including the large Ferris wheel that sits alongside it. It’s quite stylised, quite fetching. I approved. As I walked on, beneath the Ferris wheel – not in use – I headed towards the pier to take a few shots with the waves were crashing in on both sides. Towards the east of the pier, there were around twenty surfers braving the elements. The wind was so strong that I had visions of my top flying out of my shopping bag into the murky mire down below. Everyone was happy, everyone was smiling, in the way that a combination of sun and seaside always elicits this response. I don’t often get to the coast these days so hearing the waves crash brought back some lovely childhood memories. Many trips to the beach were spent in and around this part of the world; Bournemouth, Southbourne, Sandbanks, Shell Bay, Studland, Swanage. It’s a beautiful part of the world.

I stepped off the pier and thought about hiking down to Boscombe and visiting that pier too. But that was a little too far. As a kid on holiday in Southbourne, when I obviously possessed unlimited energy, I often used to walk the promenade from Southbourne to Boscombe to Bournemouth and back. I took some more photos. The brightly coloured pastels of the regimented beach huts were an easy target. The sand flew off the beach as the waves crashed. It was, and it surprised me, a bloody fantastic little walk.

“Shame the bloody football will inevitably bugger all this up” I thought to myself.

I turned to return to the pub and at that moment I felt a few spots of rain. Thankfully, this soon passed. I met up with the drinkers again – PD, Parky, augmented by Andy and The Two Ronnies, and also Nick, Pete and Robbie, then Leigh and Jason and their team – at about midday or so.

“Good time, Chris?”

“Yeah. Superb.”

We chatted about the state of the team at this exact moment in time. Plenty of different opinions, plenty of concerns, plenty of hope too.

“Gotta win this one boys.”

At about two o’clock, we returned to the car. I had booked a driveway space – using “JustPark” – as I had done last season on a road a few minutes’ walk from The Vitality Stadium. It only took me a quarter of an hour to find it, though I took the home owner by surprise. I think I was her first-ever customer. She had to ask her friend to move her car to allow me to slip in alongside. Sorted.

There was a little deluge of rain, damn, as we walked around the ground to reach the away turnstiles on the far corner. A bag search – “is that a professional camera?” – and I managed to bullshit the camera in with a little sweet talk.

We were in with about twenty minutes to go.

Overhead, the weather was changing constantly.

We were in the fifth row.

The stands filled up.

We were playing in white. Have we ever played in blue at Bournemouth in the Premier League?

Some annoying tosser on the PA must have recently realised that the words “noise” and “boys” rhyme because the fool kept repeating the basic phrase “make some noise for the boys” as if he was on piece work.

“Oh do shut up you twat.”

The team?

Wing backs again.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Tomori

James – Kovacic – Jorginho – Alonso

Pedro – Giroud – Mount

The Chelsea twelve-hundred were in relatively good voice at the start.

As always, we attacked the goal to our right in the first-half. Apart from the fact that there wasn’t really a great deal of meaningful attacking by us in the first quarter of an hour or so. Indeed, there was moaning from everyone around me regarding our sluggish play in the first part of the match. I remembered Philip Billing and his retro hair from the defeat that Bournemouth inflicted on us in December and Willy Caballero was called into action in the first few minutes to deny him. This was a good reaction save with his legs. Fine stuff. Fikayo Tomori then misjudged the ball and let the same player have a second shot on goal, but this went narrowly wide.

You can imagine the mood in the away segment.

“Fackninellchels.”

Our play was slow, slow, slow. No urgency. The ball was hardly ever played to the two wing backs, but neither were pushed-on anyway. We were content to knock the ball sideways and never forward.

“Someone take ownership of the ball.”

Eventually, we got it together. Mason looked neat and blasted a couple of efforts towards goal. Reece James was more involved. At last we were starting to run, to exploit gaps. Olivier Giroud made a couple of darting runs into space, not really his thing, and it almost – almost – paid off.

“This is better Chelsea.”

A couple of rows in front, “The World’s Most Tedious Chelsea Fan” was sadly positioned within earshot. All by himself, he was singing songs incorrectly and with no desire to get the words right. On and on he bellowed.

“For fuck sake, shut up.”

Poor old Beardy couldn’t take it. He was trying to edge away.

The home fans – no noise for the boys – were ridiculously quiet. We were quiet too.

On thirty-three minutes, Reece James sent in a fine low ball from the right which Giroud met perfectly. His touch sent the ball rising up against the bar and the ball spun off at an angle. Thankfully, Marcos Alonso – whose role had been increasing – slammed the ball home from an angle with a fierce volley.

GET IN.

We celebrated that one alright. And so did the players. I loved Giroud’s fist pump. There was a slight – slight – thought of VAR, but nothing came of it.

Alan, quite matter-of-factly : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Chris, the same : “Come on my little diamonds.”

BOSH.

Bournemouth 0 Chelsea 1.

We continued to play the upper hand as the first-half continued. A shot from James forced Aaron Ramsdale in the Cherries’ goal to save well.

We finished the half in control.

And, with the sun out, at times it was surprisingly warm.

At the break, with “TWMTCF” leaving for a half-time pint, I suggested to everyone within earshot “right, everyone change seats” in an effort to confuse the fucker.

Honestly, I have never seen him sober at a Chelsea game.

As luck would have it, as the second-half began, “TWMTCF” was nowhere to be seen.

I have never seen Beardy look so relieved.

And then, the football went pear-shaped.

Soon into the second-period, Alonso nimbly set up Olivier Giroud, but the shot was rushed and whizzed wide.

“TWMTCF” then appeared but in the wrong section completely. He was told to “fuck off” to the correct seat. Bollocks. Beardy disappeared to try to find another seat.

The football then nose-dived. A corner to Bournemouth on their right. A well-flighted ball into the mixer, and Jefferson Lerma rose unhindered to head home.

“Bollocks. Another free header. Another set piece. Fuck it.”

Just after, a swift passing move cut right through us. We were collectively and individually nowhere. A few neat passes and Josh King swept the ball home.

Memories of the four second-half goals being scored, and celebrated, at the same end last January.

Winning 1-0 with ease, we were now 2-1 down.

Bollocks.

There was half-an-hour left.

Willian for Tomori.

We changed to a flat four at the back.

Ross Barkley for Jorginho.

For the rest of the game, with the home side more than happy to defend very deep with a very low block, we absolutely dominated possession. But Bournemouth defended well and gifted us no space. We were then treated to rain hammering down on the players and supporters alike. Those in the first few rows scurried to the back of the seats. We then were pelted with sizeable hailstones.

“Lovely.”

Then, the sun came out, and we could concentrate a little better on the game. It felt odd not to have Eden Hazard down in front of us on the left wing at this intimate stadium. Instead, Pedro and Alonso did the twisting and the dancing. A Giroud header wide.

I was hoping that the manager might be tempted to play two up front, but Giroud was replaced by Michy Batshuayi, whose first real involvement was to score an offside goal.

Fackinell.

We kept piling on the pressure, but there seemed to be no fissures in gritty Bournemouth’s defensive rock. We passed and passed. Ross Barkley was centrally involved. But there was no space to exploit. At least we kept possession well. A shot from Barkley, a shot from Batshuayi, a shot from Azpilicueta.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

A very poor “Zigger Zagger.”

Thankfully, “TWMTCF” had stopped singing. He had run out of fuel.

On eighty-five minutes, Pedro was gifted a few inches of space. His shot was well saved by the excellent Ramsdale but the alert Alonso was on hand to pounce, and adeptly headed home. His finish was similar in reality to his first goal; on hand to stab home a rebound.

“GETINYOUFUCKER.”

Alonso picked up the ball and raced back to the centre spot.

Bournemouth 2 Chelsea 2.

Altogether now : “phew.”

A header from Alonso – rising well – dropped wide from just outside the six yard box. It would have been the unlikeliest of winners, the unlikeliest of hat-tricks. He has had quite a week.

A few youths behind me gloated –

“Champions of Europe. You’ll never sing that.”

“Bloody hell lads. This is Bournemouth.”

Embarrassing. Highly so.

No more goals.

The game petered out.

In the end, I think most of us were just grateful that we had salvaged a point against one of our recent bogey teams.

On a day of parks and piers and beaches, thank heavens that the football part, heaven knows how, did not let us down.

Liverpool in the FA Cup next.

See you there.

THE PARK

THE PIER

THE BEACH

THE STADIUM

Tales From A Lilywhite Christmas Present

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 22 December 2019.

On the drive to London, PD and I were not confident at all about our chances of drawing, let alone winning, at Tottenham Hotspur’s glistening new stadium, that they have decided to name – showing amazing intuition and originality – the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. We were on a dismal little run of games and “that lot” had – heaven knows how – managed to score goals for fun under their new manager Jose Mourinho, picking up wins in most of the games under his tutelage.

The signs did not look good.

I had spent the previous afternoon at Badgers Hill watching a Betvictor Southern League Division One South game between Frome Town and Thatcham Town. I had met up with a pal in the town centre, bustling with Christmas shoppers, for a pre-match drink and had assembled at the Frome ground with close on four hundred others for a top of the table clash, pitting my local team against the team in second place. Despite blustery and difficult conditions, Frome Town flew into a deserved 2-0 lead at the break, but the recent rain had left areas of mud all over the pitch. With around twenty minutes remaining, a crunching tackle took place in a particularly sticky and dangerous patch of mud, for which the word quagmire could well have been invented, and the referee brandished a yellow card, and had no real option but to abandon the game.

It was the first game in my match-going life that had been abandoned during play.

My mind had whirred into gear :

“…mmm, I wonder if I will be wishing for an abandonment at Tottenham tomorrow?”

Deep down, I wondered if the abandonment was a foretaste of gloomier things on the Sunday.

Some more bad news; Parky was unable to come with us. Not only was he unwell, his village was unreachable, isolated by flooded country lanes. So, a double whammy.

As I drove towards Stonehenge I saw a tailback and wondered if my finely-tuned journey to London was about to be disrupted and that the gloom would continue. There were police cars ahead.

“What’s this PD? Hunt saboteurs?”

No, I was quickly reminded of the date. The Winter Solstice. Within a minute or so, we were flagged through by the police as they then returned to their task of funneling the revellers away from their designated car park.

I continued on.

At least the weather was fine. The roads were clear. There was a hint of winter sun. I was grasping at positives.

“Should be a clear drive in, mate.”

PD and I chatted about the Champions League draw, and our plans for getting to Munich. I won’t bore everyone this far out, but it will be a carbon copy of 2012; flights from Bristol to Prague, a night in Prague, coach to and from Prague to Munich, a night in Munich. That’s still three months away. It will take ages to finally arrive. But it is a lovely “gift” at the end of a potentially cold winter spell.

At around 10.45am, we stopped for a bite to eat at a “Greggs” on the A303, and then I drove straight in to London, the roads ridiculously clear of traffic. At midday – exactly as I had planned – we were parked-up outside Barons Court tube station.

Inside my head : “at least this was a perfect start to the day.”

We made our way in to town. Throughout all the years of going to Tottenham, there has never been a set routine. I know that a lot mob up at Liverpool Street at “The Hamilton Hall” or “Railway Tavern” but on the one occasion that I did that, it did not look an awful lot of fun; packed pubs, loons chanting, the OB filming everyone. Not for me.

I had other plans.

We had a few hours to kill.

Leading up to my planning for this game, I remembered a pub crawl that I had sorted for the lads for our home game with Manchester City last season; it was centered on Whitehall. Sadly, I was too ill to attend, so the pub crawl never happened. Bearing in mind that we won – against all odds – that day, the superstitious part of me decided to have another stab at it.

So, from 12.30pm to around 2.45pm, PD and I visited “The Clarence”, “The Old Shades”, “The Silver Cross” and “Walkers of Whitehall”, all of which are within one hundred yards of each other. It was a lovely and relaxing time, away from the madness of Liverpool Street.

We toasted absent friends – not just Parky, there were friends that had missed out on tickets for this, the most sought-after away game in years and years – and chatted about European games past, European games present and European games future.

One thing struck me.

“Still not seen any Tottenham fans, nor Chelsea fans for that matter.”

London would be full of 61,000 match-goers, but we had seen not one of them the entire day, or at least nobody sporting club favours, more to the point.

As we walked from one glorious boozer to the next, pub two to pub three – a full six yards – PD moaned.

“I do wish you wouldn’t make me walk so far between pubs, Chris.”

Our drinking over – I was mixing my drinks, lagers and cokes, the designated driver – we moved on. We walked to Charing Cross station and then caught the Northern Line to Tottenham Court Road. From there, the Central Line to Liverpool Street.

“Still no Tottenham. Still no Chelsea.”

At Liverpool Street, up on the concourse, I looked around and saw a familiar face.

Les from Melksham, but no club colours of course.

We hopped onto the 3.30pm train with only a few seconds to spare.

Perfect timing.

On the train – at last a few Tottenham scarves – we sat with Les and some Chelsea mates, no colours. We ran through the team.

“Three at the back, then.”

“Alonso.”

“Mason.”

This train seemed to take forever.

At just before 4pm, it slowed and we pulled into White Hart Lane station, which – in order to cope with an extra 25,000 match-goers every fortnight – had undergone a fine upgrade.

In the distance, high above the shop fronts on the High Road, a first glimpse of the steel and glass of their new gaff.

We approached the stadium, time moving on now, ten past four, but realised that there was no noticeable signage for away fans. We were shooed north, through a supermarket car park – ambush anyone? – and out on to Northumberland Park. Another glimpse of the outer shell of the stadium, and then the approach to the away section. But here, it seemed that the planners had realised way too late that the away turnstiles were several feet higher than pavement level, resulting in some short steep steps being required to lift fans the final few yards.

An odd arrangement. I have no doubt that the Tottenham stadium is better than the Arsenal one, but it certainly seems cramped. There is not the space nor sense of space that you encounter at The Emirates.

Amid all of this rush to get in, I needed to collect tickets for future games.

Twenty past four.

Thankfully, I spotted one friend – “three for Southampton” – right at the top of the steps from the pavement.

Perfect.

I spotted lines of stewards all lined up, patting people down, and with tables for bag searches too. I had no time for that. I gazed into the distance, avoided eye-contact and shimmied past about eight stewards, with body swerves that JPR Williams would have been proud. Not one single search. Get in. I flashed my ticket against the sensor and I was inside.

The first person that I saw in our cramped concourse was the other friend – “Brighton away” – and I was sorted.

A double dose of “perfect.”

Twenty-five minutes past four.

Chelsea were banging on the metallic panels of the concourse, kicking up a mighty fine racket. I needed to use the little boys’ room. Rush, rush, rush.

Phew.

As I entered the seating bowl, I saw the Chelsea players break from the line-up and race over to us.

Chelsea in all blue. Love those red, white and blue socks.

We had made it.

Two minutes to go.

Perfect.

More positivity.

Initial thoughts about the stadium?

Impressive.

They have obviously learned from Arsenal’s mistakes (seats too far from the pitch, a shallow rake in the lower tier, corporate tiers that get in the way of a continuous wall of noise) and – bloody hell – that single tier at the South End reaches high into the sky. It is very impressive.

(A note to the fools who still blather on about a similar single tiered Shed End at a revamped Stamford Bridge – where are we going to get the room to do that, then?)

I really do not know why the place isn’t still called White Hart Lane though. If anything, the new stadium is nearer the street by the same name by a good fifty yards.

Naming rights, I guess.

I Hate Modern Football Part 519.

Everyone – apart from Parky – was in, and the 3,000 away fans in our section around the north-east corner flag seemed more.

We were ready.

But first, a moment to remember a hero from 1966, Martin Peters, who sadly passed away the previous day. I am not old enough to remember Peters as a West Ham player, but I certainly remember him as a Tottenham player alongside Chivers, Gilzean, England, Jennings and all. He is a strong link to my childhood, so he is another one will who be sadly missed.

There was warm applause from both sets of fans.

RIP.

The game began, and how.

In the first two minutes it was all Chelsea, in the first five minutes it was all Chelsea, in the first ten minutes it was all Chelsea.

It was as if we were the home team.

And I’ll say this. I was expecting great things from the wall of support from the opposite end – after all, they hate us right? – but the lack of noise from the Tottenham fans really surprised me. They had been right on it at Wembley in 2008, and at virtually every game at the old White Hart Lane around that era, but this was a very poor show.

On the pitch, everyone shone, confidently passing to each other, with the wide full-backs stretching play nicely. There were a couple of half-chances from us and yet nothing from Tottenham. From my lowly position – row seven – I did not have a great view of our attacks down the left, but it was from this area that provided some early cheer.

A corner played short by Willian to Kovacic was returned to him. The Brazilian received the ball, fleet-footed it into space and in prime territory, curled a shot (I was right behind the course of the ball once again) past Paulo Gazzaniga into the goal in front of seventeen thousand of the fuckers.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

Just before the goal, a fan had tapped me on the back to tell me that Andy from Trowbridge had spotted me; he had prime seats above the exit to my right. I seized the moment and snapped Andy’s euphoric celebrations.

And then it was time for me to smile, to scream, to celebrate.

Good on you, Willian.

Braziliant.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Phew.

This was a dream start.

We continued on in the same vein for the next portion of the game; always in control, always looking to puncture the Tottenham defence with incisive passing, always determined to halt any approach by the home team. We had chances throughout that first-half, with Tammy looking vibrant, but they had to wait for their first one.

On the half-hour, Harry Kane skied a chance from close in, and not long after Son Hueng Min walloped a shot high too, though from a tighter angle.

The three defenders looked in control and relaxed. This might not be our standard formation for much of the remainder of this season but here it worked a treat.

Tomori. Zouma. Rudiger.

“Young, gifted and at the back.” (…thanks for the inspiration John Drewitt, the cheque is in the post.)

Tottenham – damn, another cliché – really were chasing shadows.

They were simply not in it.

At all.

Chelsea were in fine voice. One song dominated.

“We’ve got Super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

And it repeated and repeated. I am sure the watching millions heard it on TV because it was deathly silent in all of the 58,000 seats of the home areas.

Another tried an tested chant was aired :

“Champions of Europe. You’ll never sing that.”

On the balcony walls between the tiers, electronic messages flashed.

“THE GAME IS ABOUT GLORY.”

Snigger snigger.

“THIS IS MY CLUB, MY ONE AND ONLY CLUB.”

Yes, and you are fucking welcome to it.

“COME ON YOU SPURS.”

Fuck off you Spurs.

There was a worrying moment when Kepa hesitated to reach a ball into the box and he was clattered by Moussa Sissoko. Just after, there was a kerfuffle involving Kovacic, Kane, Rudiger, Zouma and Delle Ali. It was clear that tensions were rising.

Over on the far touchline, Frank Lampard was the more animated of the two managers by far, constantly cajoling and encouraging his players whereas Jose Mourinho looked unresponsive.

Some in the Chelsea end roared “Fuck off Mourinho” but that chant was not for me.

Forty-five minutes were up, but the first-half was far from finished. Willian lobbed the ball in to the box but the Tottenham ‘keeper bizarrely, and dangerously, chose to claim the ball with a ridiculously high challenge (reminiscent of Schumacher versus Battiston in 1982) and almost decapitated Alonso. For reasons known only to the referee Anthony Taylor, he awarded a free-kick to Tottenham.

We were rightly incandescent with anger.

“His legs were up before Alonso even got close. For fuck sake.”

Then, VAR.

I made a pact with myself – as did Alan, two seats along – not to cheer if the decision went our way.

VAR – penalty.

All eyes on Willian. A halt in his run, but his shot was to the ‘keeper’s left as was the first goal.

GET IN.

What a half of football.

The referee blew up and the Chelsea faithful roared. It had been, make no mistake, a beautiful half of football. At half-time, as I gleefully trotted through the away seats and out to the concourse, shaking hands with a few, and hugging a few more, and I can rarely remember such a joyous bunch at half-time anywhere. And it was great to see a few old stagers present – you know who you are – who had managed to beg, steal or borrow to get in.

Good times.

On the way up in the car, we had highlighted Son as probably Tottenham’s most influential player, but Christian Eriksen was surely not far behind. It was a surprise that Mourinho had not picked him to start, but he replaced Eric Dier as the second-half began.

There were two early attempts on goal from Tammy, and as the game continued it was the away team who still dominated.

Inside my head : “bloody hell, we can do this.”

Willian was bundled off the pitch, and found himself way below the pitch behind the goal. Just like at Old Trafford, there is a marked “fall-off” from the pitch to the surrounds of the stands. I was reminded that there was a retractable NFL – another reason to hate the twats – pitch under the grass pitch for football at this new stadium.

Inside my head : “and below that, a fucking full size circus ring.”

At around the hour mark, my visibility not great, I was vaguely aware of the “coming together” of Son and Rudiger down on the Spurs left. I honestly did not see anything, and perhaps my mind was elsewhere.

Out of nowhere, VAR became involved. Nobody around me really knew what was going on. The TV screen displayed “possible violent conduct” but we were clueless. After a good minute or so, probably more, came the message :

“Decision Red Card. Violent Conduct.”

And Taylor brandished the red to Son.

Oh my days.

Could life get any better?

In the aftermath of this incident, we spotted a few Tottenham fans getting up from their seats and it appeared that they were doing one of three things :

Heading off to try one of the craft ales on sale at the “Moustachioed & Bearded Hipster” bar.

Heading off to buy some Christmas presents at one of the ninety-seven retail outlets at the new stadium.

Heading home.

I suspect the latter, don’t you?

There were a couple of long announcements about “racist chanting” on the PA, but I did not think that this was in any way related to any one incident that had just taken place. I only learned about this while heading back in to London long after the game had finished. For the record, there was only a barely audible “Y” word at the end of the “Barcelona, Real Madrid” chant from the Chelsea contingent, most people deciding not to join in, and many deciding to “sssshhhhh.”

The game continued. It was eleven against ten, we were 2-0 up at the home of our bitterest rivals on our first-ever visit to their new gaff.

Oh, and our Frank was having the best of it against a formerly-loved, but now derided, manager.

“We used to love you Jose, but you’re a bit of a twat really aren’t you?”

Although there was not the high quality of the first-half, everywhere I looked there were sublime performances. Kante was his usual self, winning virtually all the 50/50 battles. One strong run was the stuff of legend. Mount ran and ran and ran, his energy just fantastic. Willian was sublime, the man of the match by far. One piece of control on the far side was worth the admission money alone. Special praise for Marcos Alonso too, a game that reminded me of his special role in 2016/17. I loved the spirited Azpilicueta too. I admired how he stretched – and reached – for a high ball that was going off for a throw-in, thus keeping the ball “live.”

Inside my head : “if I had tried that, I would have sprained seven different muscles, two of which weren’t even mine.”

Jorginho for Kovacic.

A Kante swipe from distance went close.

Reece James for Azpilicueta.

Michy Batshuayi for Abraham.

Fresh legs.

We dominated still. Tottenham were now launching balls high from deep.

“Hoof.”

Or “Huth” to be more precise. Remember Mourinho playing him upfront a few times? I think we should have seen that as a warning sign way back in 2005.

Eight minutes of added time were signalled.

Oh boy.

There was still time for a couple of lightning breaks – Willian usually involved – and Michy went close with a left-footed strike from outside the box. At the other end, the stadium now full of empty seats, Kane – who? – forced Kepa to make his very first save of the entire game.

I watched as the referee blew up and a forest of Chelsea arms flew into the air.

There was a little lull…a feeling of “I can’t believe this” permeated the mild North London air, and then the players and managers walked over towards us. I clambered up on to my seat (I noted that there are horizontal retaining bars above the back of each seat, almost paving the way – I suppose – for safe standing…well done Tottenham) and waited. I then photographed the frenzy of smiles, laughs, hugs and fist punches.

Then, ridiculously, the Tottenham PA chose to play the de facto Christmas song from my childhood (I can vividly remember sitting around the lunch table at my primary school in December 1973 when Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody” took over the number one slot).

“Are you hanging up a stocking on your wall?
It’s the time that every Santa has a ball.
Does he ride a red-nosed reindeer?
Does a ton-up on his sleigh?
Do the fairies keep him sober for a day?

So here it is, Merry Xmas.
Everybody’s having fun.
Look to the future now.
It’s only just begun.”

It wasn’t quite ten thousand Jocks singing “Rocking All Over The World” at half-time at Wembley in 1996, but it felt good enough.

What a giggle.

Frank was a picture. Look at the evidence below.

No words.

Outside, PD and I darted into “Sam’s Chicken” on the High Road to let the crowds subside. The food warmed us, and the dead man’s stare of many a Tottenham fan made me giggle some more.

We had not let them play, and they had been oh-so poor. It was a lovely Christmas present from them on our first-ever visit to their new home.

We caught a train back to Liverpool Street at about 7.30pm. Who should scuttle past me on the platform but Dan Levene? I would soon learn about the “racist chanting” and I wondered what spin he would put on it all.

Inside the train compartment, I spotted the actor Matthew Horne who plays Gavin in the excellent “Gavin & Stacey” comedy series on the BBC. He is a Tottenham fan in the show and I knew that he was a Tottenham fan in real life too. He was with his girlfriend so I left him alone. He was, oddly, combining a white and navy bar scarf with a Stone Island jacket.

Inside my head : “typical Tottenham.”

I overheard him say :

“We just didn’t show up today.”

That raised a giggle too.

After changing tube lines a few times, we eventually reached Barons Court at 9pm. It was a quiet but peaceful ride home and we reached Frome at 11pm.

It was, after all the initial worry, a bloody perfect day out.

Next up, Southampton at home on Boxing Day.

See you in the pub. Don’t be late.

Tales From Game One Repeated

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 19 October 2019.

The international break was over. Thank the Lord. I had found it a particularly tough fortnight; I had missed Chelsea much more than usual. Thankfully there is always “Chelsea stuff” to keep me as buoyant as possible. I have realised for a while that my brain must crave “Chelsea activity” of one sort or another to keep me as upbeat as possible, whether it is the planning of upcoming trips, away trips especially, or the sometimes difficult process of trying to procure match tickets, or even thoughts about where I can take the next match few reports. If I am feeling a little low – work, life’s problems or other serious stuff – I can often rely on Chelsea to lift my spirits.

As the preparations and plans for the home game with Newcastle United became overlaid with the dramas of getting Ajax away tickets, clarifying the final travel plans for Amsterdam, booking up – ironically – a weekend away on Tyneside in mid-January, and sorting out a few other Chelsea plans, it became a busy few days.

I had been working lates for the first time in almost two years, as holiday cover, and at 10pm on Friday, I was able to leave for home with thoughts of a fine week ahead; games in London, in Amsterdam, in Burnley.

But I’d need to be up at 6.30am on the day of the Newcastle United game; a long and busy day lay ahead, with plans to meet two sets of friends from the US, two sets of friends from Canada and one set of friends from Australia before the match.

I woke, typically – was it excitement? – early at 6am.

The day was beginning.

The most important news was that Parky was back among us for the first time since the cracking away trip to Norwich in late August, a gap of eight whole weeks. He had been missed by all of us. His hip-operation had resulted in a long, slow rehabilitation period. Parky will, unfortunately, be unable to join us in Amsterdam.

I collected PD and his son Scott at eight o’clock and Parky soon after.

London beckoned.

It was a cracking autumnal morning.

I live for mornings like these.

Because PD and Parky are unable to walk long distances, and because the District Line was closed, I drove right to the bottom end of the North End Road to drop them off. Their pre-match would be spent close to the ground at “The Oyster Rooms” at Fulham Broadway. I then drove back to park up at my usual spot off Lillee Road and then hot-footed back to reach Stamford Bridge at 11.30am.

I walked past The Shed Wall, topped with autumnal leaves, past the photographs and tributes of all our former legends. It is quite a sight.

I was really looking forward to meeting, for the first time at Chelsea, my mate Jaro from Washington DC, who was to see a Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge for the very first time. I got to know Jaro when we contributed to the much loved, and much-missed, bulletin board on the old Chelsea In America website, and where these match reports started to appear, on an ad hoc basis at first, in around 2006/7, and then regularly from 2008/9.

Jaro is originally from Poland – Legia Warsaw his team – but has been living in the US for over twenty years. I have bumped into him on a few tour stops in the US over the past few seasons – New York, Philadelphia, DC – and he has always been accompanied by his football-daft son Alex, who is well known by a few of the old-school US fans (in relative terms, I refer to those of c. 2006 vintage).

We met on the forecourt and I soon whisked them up to the foyer of the Copthorne Hotel, where they both met Ron Harris, although – sadly – most of the other ex-players had just left. But we sat in a quiet corner and chewed the fat, reminiscing on our respective childhoods in England and Poland, and how the working class sport of football was seamlessly woven into our respective cultures, along with the other staples of our youth, music and clothes.

Ah, clothes.

Clobber.

It may have started on the Scotland Road in Liverpool in 1977, but by the mid-‘eighties, it was to be found in little pockets all over Europe.

Jaro confirmed this.

“In Poland, it was Lascoste. Lacoste everywhere.”

There was little surprise that we were both wearing the little green crocodile on this sunny day in SW6. Alex was wearing a DSquared2 top. A relatively new addition. Something for the youth. But Alex also spoke of how fashionable it was in the more austere and isolationist era of those times for foreign football shirts and scarves to be worn at Legia games. He mentioned one fellow fan, who gained a few fashion points and added credibility, by wearing a jacquard Chelsea scarf at matches. I mentioned some Verona fans who I saw at a UEFA game in 1988 wearing a “You can’t ban a Chelsea fan” T-shirt. And I mentioned that I occasionally, maybe no more than once or twice, wore a Juventus shirt at Chelsea in the ‘eighties.

It was part of the scene in those days.

Rare clothes. Rare labels.

Good times.

We then, probably to Alex’ disgust, had a “Moaners Five Minutes” as we vented about the ailments of modern football, VAR, the 29th Game and all that bollocks.

Jaro and Alex had, unknown to me, called in to Stamford Bridge – a squeezed visit on a brief layover from Poland back to the US – in the summer. They had managed to do an official tour of the stadium. It was hearing the two tunes – the pre-cursors to the match itself these days – “Park Life” and “Liquidator” being streamed through his headset that really hit a chord with Jaro.

“We had to come back. To experience the atmosphere. The steepness of the stands. We had to.”

They had arrived Friday morning and would be leaving Sunday morning. Let’s not all tar “foreign fans” with the same brush please. Some of the most devoted and inspirational Chelsea supporters that I have had the pleasure to meet do not live in SW6, London, the Home Counties, nor the UK.

We trotted over to “The Butcher’s Hook.” Sadly, the disruption of the tube during the day meant that the other friends from various places were severely delayed. Not to worry, they will all be back at some stage. The day was really all about Jaro and Alex.

Of course, there is a nice little bit of serendipity here. My first game at Stamford Bridge was against Newcastle United too.

I took Jaro and Alex down to meet Mark and Dave at “the stall” and the intention was then to have a drink with Parky, PD and Scott – you had forgotten about them, right? – but there was a strict “no kids” policy being enforced. Damn.

Jaro and Alex wanted to get inside to sample every last second out of their first game at HQ. We hugged and said our goodbyes.

“Hope to see you again soon.”

I meandered around the two forecourts, chatted to a few match day friends, and then took my seat inside The Bridge at a very early time, maybe about 2.15pm. It’s amazing how empty the place is until around 2.45pm these days. In the ‘eighties – “here he fucking goes again” – the terraces often used to be jammed for big matches by 2.30pm. This added to the atmosphere, the sense of anticipation, the sense of occasion.

These days, there is nothing warming about getting into a stadium full of empty seats at 2.30pm.

The stadium eventually filled.

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. Al and his son from Toronto were in the West Lower, the poor bastards, and Kim from Florida was, I think, in The Shed.

It would take me a while, but Jaro and Alex were spotted in the East Lower. It would be a section of SB where I watched all games from 1974 to 1980 with my parents.

The team news came through.

It was almost unchanged from the last match against Southampton, but with Ross Barkley in for N’Golo Kante.

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta.

Zouma.

Tomori.

Alonso.

Jorginho.

Barkley.

Mount.

Willian.

Hudson-Odoi.

Abraham.

Overhead, a changing mix of clear skies, clouds, dark clouds, intermittent rain, bright sun.

A typical London autumn afternoon.

Newcastle United, with the two Longstaff brothers the talk of the toon since their lovely defeat of Manchester United, were wearing broad stripes this time, as opposed to thin stripes the previous year. Both look wrong to me. The away team didn’t create a great deal in the first part of the game, but neither did we. They caught us on the break a few times, but never really threatened. There were a couple of shots from the twin strikers Allan Saint-Maximin (not really a footballer, more a type of thermometer) and Joelinton, but Kepa was not troubled. He would be able to complete a few more pages from Thibaut Courtois’ Word Search book from 2016/17 as the game progressed.

The first real chance was created by some trickery from Callum Hudson-Odoi in front of the black and white hordes, but a weak Willian header was well wide.

It took until a few minutes after this chance for me to notice the first real, loud, chant of the game from the home supporters.

“CAN ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

We noted that Marcos Alonso was getting dog’s abuse every time he ventured into the final third, right in front of the away fans.

Quick feet from Callum set up Mason Mount, but his quick turn was followed by a shot which was straight at Martin Dubravka.

As Newcastle attacked, Gary shouted abuse at Saint-Maximin.

“It’s Davey Crockett.”

The play deteriorated a little. Joelinton headed, stretching, wide.

The atmosphere was pretty dire. I felt for Jaro and Alex. I so wanted it to be a cracking atmosphere for them. The Geordies, unable to completely fill their allocation for the first time in ages, with a section of around two hundred in the Shed Upper unsold, were making all the noise. Willian cut in from the right but his shot missed the near post.

It was far from encouraging stuff.

It seemed to me that players and fans alike needed to be roused from the lethargy of the international break. There was a spell of stern challenges, free-kicks and the game did not flow. Tammy seemed to go too easily for our liking, but it is a part of his game he will hopefully improve upon. A free-kick from Willian failed to clear the wall. A few groans.

Just before the break, an injured Ross Barkley was replaced by Mateo Kovacic.

Ho hum.

It had hardly been a scintillating forty-five minutes.

I turned to PD.

“Well, that was shite.”

At half-time, I looked over to the front row of the East Upper, just above where a “Philly Blues” banner has been positioned for a while.

One seat was empty, and there looked to be a floral display – a wreath – instead. This was to mark the memory of Trizia Fiorellino, who so sadly passed away recently. Trizia worked steadfastly with the club on a matter of issues as chair of the Chelsea Supporters Group, and as a member of the often-derided Fans Forum, and often wrote Chelsea reviews in “The Observer.” Trizia always smiled and said hello when our paths crossed so many times in recent years. I always remember sitting next to her on the coach which took us to the San Paolo Stadium in Naples in 2012 and we excitedly swapped stories about football and specifically Italy. Trizia was a discerning and perceptive supporter of Chelsea Football Club. There was a lovely full page obituary, penned by Bruce Buck, on page nine of the match day programme.

She will be sorely missed by all those who knew her.

RIP.

At the half-time break, Ron Harris – playing in my first match in 1974 and at Jaro and Alex’ first match in 2019 – came down to the pitch and said a few words about how the team is playing at half-time.

Thankfully, the lethargy and lack of invention seemed to subside as the second-half began. Kovacic, the substitute, seemed to be one of the catalysts, driving on and playing in others. A lovely jinking run from Callum down below me created space but his shot was blocked. This stirred those around me and the noise started to, thankfully, increase. A weak Zouma header from a corner was soon followed by a thundering header from Tammy which crashed against the bar.

“Oh God, please not a 0-0 for Jaro and Alex.”

But we continued our improvement. There were a few lovely through-balls from Jorginho and our runners were being hit. Our pressure mounted.

Christian Pulisic replaced Mason.

More jinking runs from Callum. A free header from Tammy sailed over. He knew that he should have done much better. A deflected shot ended up at the feet of Pulisic, right in front of goal, but the young starlet appeared stage struck. His effort was swatted away by Dubravka, a fine save. A Willian shot saved at the near post.

Andy Carroll – “he always scores against us” – emerged from the bench.

Time was racing past.

Come on Chelsea.

With a quarter of an hour to play, Callum touched a ball out towards Marcos Alonso. A low angled drive followed. His shot was to perfection. My shot was blurred. But I caught his exultant run down towards us on film.

GET IN.

After the hysteria had died down.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now, but.”

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

Phew.

1974 all over again? Just maybe.

Kovacic set up Pulisic but as we were all expecting a shot on goal, the American right winger snowflaked it and instead played the ball to Tammy instead. His fumbled effort flew over.

Bollocks.

Virtually Newcastle’s first effort on goal in the second-half resulted in a shot from Willems ending up in The Shed Upper. A weak Geordie header soon flowed but floated over.

Reece James replaced Callum late on and we held on.

This was a much improved second-half and our win was deserved. I liked Kurt Zouma, who I thought played a little better than Tomori, who has been a little error-ridden of late. Callum was fantastic at times. Kepa was hardly tested at all. We solidified our place in the top four. There were Chelsea smiles all round at the end, and these will be remembered rather than the looks of concern at the break.

Jaro and I swapped messages at the end. They had loved it.

It had been 1-0 for me in 1974 and it had been 1-0 for them in 2019, too.

That just seemed right.

So. Thoughts turn to Wednesday.

Ajax away.

Europe.

The Champions league.

Makes everything tingle doesn’t it?

See you there.

RIP

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.

MU7 (2)

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.

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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.

Tales From November In August

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 26 August 2018.

Not so long after I picked up Parky from his Wiltshire village at around 6am on Saturday, my car slowed to allow a black cat, leaping from one hedgerow to another, to cross the narrow country lane. PD and I could not immediately decide if a black cat crossing one’s path was deemed as good or bad luck, though we feared the latter.

I thought about Sunderland’s relatively new, and quite ridiculous, nickname as being certified evidence that it was indeed bad luck, a warning of misfortune at best or something graver still at worst. The Black Cats was surely dreamt up by some marketing consultant for Sunderland so as to instil fear into their opponents.

Beware the Black Cats. Although not in their current third tier predicament.

The Black Cats. Destined to strike fear into Sunderland’s opposition.

Meow bloody meow.

But the message was clear. Black cats were definitely seen as a bad omen. It was just what I bloody needed at the start of our trip to Tyneside. I had not seen us win at St. James’ Park since 2009, and our last win up there was in 2011.

I needed all the good luck charm I could find.

And then, just moments after, it just got worse.

A single Magpie flew past.

Sunderland’s menacing Black Cats and Newcastle United’s sorrowful Magpie.

I felt like turning the car around there and then.

But I drove on. I wasn’t going to let such irrationality influence another, hopefully, memorable jaunt to the North-East.

My alarm had sounded at 4.15am, and I collected PD at 5.30am. It was safe to say that we were the only ones on the road. It did not seem five minutes ago since we were last headed to Bristol Airport, and then to Newcastle. Our last league game of last season was of course against the same opposition. The two fixtures were fifteen weeks apart, but in league football terms, just one hundred and eighty minutes apart.

At the airport, we faced a two-hour delay.

Bollocks.

The flight would eventually leave at around 10.45am.

Maybe we should have taken heed of the Black Cat and the Magpie after all.

Not to worry, we soon landed at the airport, took a cab into town and booked into our hotel down on the quayside, right under the darkened shadows of the green ironwork of the Tyne Bridge. We were out and about – “The Slug & Lettuce” – by about 12.45pm. The first three pints of the day – “Peronis” – did not touch the sides. We were soon joined by Andy, a friend from back home, and his good friend Russ, who is a Newcastle season ticket holder, and who we met back in May. Russ and Andy were in the army together, and I have known for a few years that Andy always stays with Russ when Chelsea play in the north-east. We then dropped into the “Newcastle Arms”, a first-time visit for me. Here was another delightful Geordie pub, stripped bare to expose its red brick, but with comfortable chairs and good food too. The plastered walls of dingy pubs of the past have long since been banished from this part of the Toon.

And it is a fantastic little area, right under the high arches of Newcastle’s famous bridge, full of pubs and bars, with rowdiness and laughter, with shrieking females and strutting lads, not so mad as the Bigg Market atop the hill, but a wonderfully evocative location.

On a whim, Russ invited us back to his local pub to continue the drinking session. We were more than happy to head out of the city centre. I, for one, didn’t want this trip to be a simple repeat of the one in May. We hopped into two cabs outside the “Akenside Traders”, and were soon “ganning” over the Tyne, into Gateshead, past Paul Gascoigne’s home town of Dunston and past the Metro Centre. After only ten minutes, we found ourselves in The Sun at Swalwell, where we met the landlord Dave, who quickly bought us a round of lagers.

We chatted to the locals, who were more than welcoming, and we had an absolute blast. We bloody loved it. I chatted to Russ about all sorts of football stories, and the beers and laughter flowed. There was an impromptu photo call with one of the locals, who proceeded to take off his shirt to expose his NUFC tattoos. Bit of a Geordie tradition that, I fear.

Dave, the landlord, was wearing a Bobby Robson shirt. Bless him.

Amid the laughter, there was one sad story. In 2014, two Newcastle United supporters – John Alder and Liam Sweeney – perished when the plane on which they were passengers was shot down over the Ukraine in a sickening act of terrorism. They were on their way to see their team play in New Zealand.

John Alder, who only missed one Newcastle United game in forty years, and who was affectionately known as “the undertaker” because of the black suit that he wore to games, often used to drink in “The Sun” at Swalwell.

RIP Bonny Lads.

Dave bought us a round of Sambucas as a leaving gift and we jumped back into a waiting cab to take us back into town.

At the Redhouse, we again met up with Kev, Gillian and Richard from Edinburgh– no strangers to these tales – and then Alan and Jo from Atherstone. We nipped over the road for a curry, and then the drinking continued at the “Akenside Traders” and then up the hill at the oddly named “Colonel Porter’s Emporium.”

We had been “on it” – and had valiantly stopped ourselves from falling “off it” – for around ten hours.

Although The Toon was still bouncing, we decided to call it a night at around 11pm.

On the Sunday, in an exact copy of May, we breakfasted at “The Quayside” pub. We were first joined by Foxy, from Dundee, who last appeared in these tales for the Barcelona away game, and it was a pleasure to see him again. He had only decided to come down to the game at 6am that morning. I was happy to offer him my one spare ticket. We were also joined by my work colleague Craig who, with his young son, had driven up from Wiltshire in the wind and rain on the day, a horrific journey which had taken him seven hours. Outside, the rain was lashing down. The difference between May and August was black and white.

Four more pints of lager to the good, I hopped into one of the two cabs that took us to the ground.

We took our seats way up in the upper tier of the Leazes End.

Everything was grey, the seats, the stadium, the steel of the roof, the city outside, the hills on the horizon.

We all had jackets on. It wasn’t ridiculously cold, but when the wind blew you knew about it. It was like November in August.

The kick-off approached. There had been changes from the Arsenal game.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante

Pedro – Morata – Hazard

Eden’s inclusion surprised me; Sarri had hinted that he would be rested further.

The Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop” thundered around the stadium, complete with images of Newcastle victories over us in recent seasons on the TV screens. This then gave way to Mark Knopfler’s “Local Hero”, a song which I find particularly stirring. I always remember that after England’s exit to West Germany in Italia ’90, as a precursor to our third/fourth place play-off against Italy in Bari, the BBC team aired a five-minute segment in which the rich and varied talents of the wunderkind Gascoigne were featured, and the instrumental “Local Hero” was chosen to illustrate it. It was as one of the most evocative pieces of imagery that I had ever seen. It captured my imagination in 1990, and hearing the same song, high up and above St. James’ Park in 2018 I was again stirred.

It was just a lovely moment. I stood and looked out over the grey rooftops of the ancient city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and breathed it all in.

Football.

Music.

Mates.

History.

Chelsea.

“It’s not a bad life is it, this?”

I had a little smile to myself, only for myself, but now shared with everyone.

The moment fair took my breath away.

Behind me, the yellow “away” flag fluttered past.

Memories of my first game up in Newcastle in 1984 when Kerry, Wee Pat and Speedo wore the famous “lemon” hoops.

This would be my eleventh trip to St. James’ but nothing compares to my first time.

This little clip brings the memories tracing back.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8yqG0IfPYI

In 2018, Chelsea were in all blue. We were far enough away from the kit for it to look semi-respectable. The Newcastle United kit this season jars a little too; thin stripes, not their style, and white socks too, not their usual black. It did not look right. It did not look like Newcastle United to me. I noted a surprisingly number of unoccupied seats in the directors’ box area of the main Milburn Stand, plus many empty ones in the top tier to our right. The locals’ displeasure with Mike Ashley is obviously continuing.

The game began. A kick on Eden Hazard in the first minute was not punished.

It was quickly evident that Newcastle were quite happy to sit deep. We absolutely dominated possession. With Jorginho and Hazard seeing a lot of the ball, we tried to cut in to the massed ranks of the thin-striped black and white shirts.

Ironically, the only effort that troubled either of the two goalkeepers came from the boot of Murphy, but his low speculative shot was ably saved by Arrizabalaga. A deep cross, into the corridor of uncertainty – which sounds to me like it should be in a hospital where doctors carry out gender-reassignment – from the trust right foot of Azpilicueta could not – quite – reach the not so trusty foot of Alvaro Morata.

We passed and passed. We passed and passed. It was rather one-paced, and not exactly thrilling. But the away fans were in very fine voice in the first thirty minutes of the game. But one song grated, as it always grates.

Rafa Benitez last managed us over five years ago.

If Chelsea fans really do not care about Rafa, why do they bloody sing about him to this day?

How about a song for the current manager or – shock horror – current players?

A song about Rafa, in 2018, is as fucking tedious as it gets.

We still controlled the game, with little quick triangles played in an attempt to create space, or at least a diversion, from which space could be gained. A Rudiger effort was well wide. Hazard curled one past the post. A Morata effort was driven wide. The Toon ‘keeper still had not made a save in anger.

Then, a rare Newcastle effort, a deep cross from a free kick, but Rondon headed well wide.

“Free header, though, Alan” I muttered.

On thirty-four minutes, the home fans eventually raised a song for their home town heroes.

“Newcasuuuuul, Newcasuuuuul, Newcasuuuuul.”

I had never known them so quiet.

In 1984, their mesmeric “Howay The Lads” sent shivers down our spines, and made our knees tremble. But on this drizzly August afternoon in 2018, this was post-modern support at its most timid, lukewarm and insipid.

A Pedro effort cleared the bar. But space was at an absolute premium. Only once did I remember us playing an early ball, out to Pedro, but nobody else reacted quick enough for us to seize an advantage by gambling and drifting past players. After some luxurious tip tap toe shuffling from Hazard, a Pedro shot at last made the Geordie ‘keeper make a save.  At half-time, despite us having so much of the ball, I did wonder if we would ever pierce their defence.

The second-half began with the script unchanged. If anything, Newcastle defended deeper still.

Kante often attacked his area of the pitch, but it seemed to me that this was – at the moment – like a square peg in a round hole. One of the best holding midfielders of his generation, worldwide, being asked to go into uncharted territories seemed odd to my layman’s eyes. In contrast, Jorginho was hardly asked to do much defending, but he acted as a metronome for our play – pass, pass, pass – and I noted that he grew a little frustrated with the lack of movement of his runners ahead of him. Azpilicueta shot at the ‘keeper. And then a heavy touch from Morata and the moment was lost.

On the hour mark, I spoke to Alan.

“This is like a game of chess, but we have too many pawns. We are missing knights, rooks and queens.”

We were missing movement off the ball. We were devoid of pace. Of course, they were closing down all space and suffocating us, but I wanted a little more craft, a little more vision, a little more magic. And we then seemed to stretch them, just as I had wanted. I suspect that the home team were tiring. Hazard and Alonso were now turning their men inside and out.

With twenty-five minutes to go, Olivier Giroud replaced Alvaro Morata.

Then Willian came on for Pedro. There is surely not much to choose between these two wide men.

Rudiger, who had been a calming influence alongside the more tempestuous Luiz, crashed a howitzer against the bar from the southern banks of the River Tyne.

The support turned up the notches.

It was only us making the noise.

The locals were not vocal.

With fifteen minutes to go, Hazard played in the raiding Alonso. From my vantage point – through my telephoto lens, “snap” – it looked like the trailing leg of a defender had stopped him in his tracks.

Penalty.

Eden Hazard flicked the ball past the ‘keeper’s dive and how we – and he – celebrated.

Alan Price : “They’ll have to come at us now like pet, man.”

Chris Donald : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

Without irony, the Geordies sung.

“Sing when you’re winning.”

Sickeningly, our lead – deserved, surely – only lasted a few minutes. Out on the right flank, an agricultural challenge by Yedlin on Giroud – from our vantage point some five miles away, it looked like a forearm smash, as much loved by Mick McManus and Kendo Nagasaki – and some Chelsea players appeared to stand like pillars of stone, waiting for a free-kick that never came. Yedlin whipped in a cross towards the near post and with David Luiz horribly flat-footed, substitute Joselu headed strongly past our kid to equalise.

“Bollocks.”

The home support at last roared.

The clock ticked on.

With three minutes remaining, a long searching (as in “slightly over hit”) ball found Giroud, who did ever so well to head the ball back towards Marcos Alonso on his wrong wing. He volleyed the ball through the legs of a defender and we watched, open mouthed, as the leg of Yedlin – karma – diverted it into the yawning goal.

“GETINYOUBASTARD.”

Newcastle United 1 Chelsea 2.

A huge celebration took place in the upper section, three-thousand strong, of the Leazes End. We had won our third consecutive league game of the season.

Nine points out of nine.

Well done, lads.

We met up outside the away end, and slowly walked down to the Quayside. The three of us were joined by Raymondo, who tends to favour Chelsea colours, unlike us. As we walked past Sunday evening revelers, lads full of bravado and beer and girls in short skirts and high heels, past bar after bar, a local man in his ‘seventies, spotted Raymondo and approached him. I looked back and saw him shake Raymondo’s hand, wishing us well this season.

Canny people, the Geordies, like.

 

 

At last we had beaten the Geordies.

And, for those upset with my comments about Rafa Benitez, here is a photograph of him walking alone.

 

 

Tales From The Piccadilly Line

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 3 January 2018.

On London Underground trains and station platforms on the Piccadilly Line, there is a graphic poster – maybe not as stylish as those wonderful ones from the ‘thirties – extolling the virtues of that particular line, which wends its way from out in the west through London, heading east and then north-east and then north to its eventual resting place. It shows a train disappearing underground at Hammersmith, with all of the major tourist attractions to be seen en route annotated on a map, and it is evidence of that particular line – “the purple one” – hitting many of the main tourist areas.

On the Hammersmith to Kings Cross section, especially from South Kensington to Leicester Square, there are certainly some sights to be seen.

Museums, department stores, royal palaces, theatres, squares, cinemas, parks and more. It is the very centre of an increasingly visited London.

Of course, just beyond Earls Court lies Stamford Bridge – on the District Line, “the green one” – while a few miles north of the stations of Kings Cross and St. Pancras, on into the darkness of North London, lies the Arsenal tube station, and with it not only Highbury, the former home of our opponents on the third day of 2018, but their gleaming new stadium too.

The Chuckle Bus – the PD Line, “the white one” – had picked me up from work at 2pm and, by 4pm, it was parked in a side-street adjacent to Barons Court. The four of us – PD, Parky, Scott and I – waited in the coolness of the early-evening air and were soon sent hurtling underground as the Piccadilly Line train took us into town. The game was not until 7.45pm. There would be time for a little pre-match revelry, which is not always possible for a London midweek away game. The weather in the West of England had been spiteful during the day, with showers and strong gusts of winds. Throughout the day, the weather had been bleak enough to remind me of the infamous game at Arsenal in December 2013 which had resulted in my car – my Chuckle Bus, “the blue one” – getting stranded in several feet of water with me having to walk a few miles to reach home at 5am the following day, Christmas Eve.

We soon reached our staging post. Piccadilly Circus was an electronic dream. Christmas lights strewn across Regent Street, floodlit shops, huge neon advertisements, excited tourists with cameras clicking. It was nothing compared to Times Square in New York or Shinjuku in Tokyo of course, but still pretty mesmerizing. I met up with Kyle from LA, who was still in town, giddy with excitement for more Chelsea football.

At about 4.30pm, the five of us entered “The Queens Head” just to the north of Piccadilly Circus. The pub was snug and warm, a typical old-style London boozer. Pints of lager were ordered. I could relax. I had not enjoyed the first couple of days back at work after a ten-day interlude. Here was a chance to unwind. Just opposite was the site of a former pub – “The Devonshire Arms” – which I remember well from a Chelsea game against West Ham in 1987. I had traveled down from Stoke with a college mate, Bob, whose pal Kev was a barman in the pub. As luck would have it, it was Kev’s last day of serving in the boozer, and he started pouring us free beers. By the time we left the pub to head over to Stamford Bridge, we were bollocksed. At the time, it was the most drunk that I had ever been at football, and the game was a huge blur.

Kyle had loved his Chelsea experience on Saturday. He watched from directly behind the goal and to quote him, had experienced “sensory overload.” I suspect it was quite a shock to be so near to the action. It would be akin to me watching my first ever baseball game at Yankee Stadium just four yards behind the catcher’s mitt.

At 5pm, I headed back outside into the London evening. My friend of over thirty-six years Tullio – often featured in these reports – was in town with his wife Emanuela and their two daughters Sofia and Lou Lou. We had arranged to meet up, albeit only for a few minutes. My Italian friends had enjoyed a long day of walking around the sights but were full of smiles. It was bloody magnificent to see them again; the last time had been in their apartment in Moncalieri, just to the south of Turin, ahead of our infamous 2012 Champions League game.

I quietly whispered to Tullio, with my head subtly nodding in the direction of “The Queen’s Head”, about him joining us for a quick pint.

He whispered back.

“Boh – I am a married man now.”

“Boh” is one of my favourite Italian phrases. It means that there is no answer to whatever question has been asked, and even if there was an answer, there would be no point in saying, whatever is done is done.

In the ten minutes that we were together, football dominated our chat, and the three girls looked on in awe at our ability to talk football under any circumstances.

Tullio : “What do you think of Conte?”

Chris : “We love him. A good man. You remember I went to the Juve versus Fiorentina game in 1999 the day after your wedding?”

Tullio : “I forget.”

Chris : “I am not surprised. Well, Conte scored the winning goal and taunted the Viola fans with the corner flag.”

Tullio : “Yes!”

Chris : “I met Conte very briefly in Beijing in the summer. I wanted more time so I could explain that to him.”

Tullio : “But he would not understand English. He barely understands Italian.”

We laughed.

I also mentioned that if Tullio had told me of his plans, I could have tried to get him a ticket for the Arsenal vs. Chelsea game.

But his reply did not surprise me :

“No. Tonight is Juve /Toro.”

We laughed again and soon said our goodbyes. It was lovely to see him and his family once more.

Back in the pub, there was time for more “Peroni” and a lot more laughs. This was a lovely time, another sweet spot, another great Chelsea moment. At just before 6.45pm, we set off for the last section of the journey. As we disappeared into the underground, I noted that Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” was being played by a nearby busker.

“Seems appropriate, Kyle.”

Kyle mentioned its appearance in Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange” and, just as we walked through the into the ticket hall, I had nightmarish visions of being accosted by some “droogs”. I also had an equally nightmarish vision of having my eyes forced open to watch the dour and defensive Arsenal team of the early ‘nineties on a constant loop.

On the train, the chuckling continued.

“Did Kyle enjoy the Arsenal game?”

“He never made it. He is still curled up on the Piccadilly Line laughing at the name Cockfosters.”

Parky piped up –

“Cockfosters. That’s what happens when you have too much lager, innit?”

I replied –

“Oh God. That’s the end of the line for you mate.”

At Holborn, on the platform, we spotted a few Chelsea faces.

“Runs down the wing for me…”

At Arsenal tube, there were random shouts of support for Chelsea but nothing from the Gooners. I had warned Kyle that the tube at Arsenal was like a rabbit warren, so much unlike the airy Fulham Broadway. Every time I revisit this particular stop I am reminded of my first-ever visit.

August 1984.

Ah. What a day.

I quickly gave Kyle the quickest of history lessons as we sped up to take a few photographs outside the still impressive façade of Highbury on Avenell Road. He was mesmerized by it all. The closeness of one of our great, huge, stadiums, to run-of-the-mill terraced houses. The clean lines of the stand. The sense of place.

We then hot-footed it to the larger, but hardly greater, Emirates Stadium. After a bag search and a trial to find my place, I reached Alan, Gary and Parky with a few minutes gone.

A quick check of the team.

“Packing the midfield, Cesc playing, Hazard behind Morata.”

I noticed that all was quiet. Very quiet.

After a few minutes, a few Chelsea were singing “empty seats, empty seats” but I didn’t see many.

For a few horrible seconds, I had a flashback to September of 2016; God, it seems so long ago now. Our beloved Chelsea team was completely over-run and out-played, especially in the first forty-five minutes. In hindsight, of course, the game marked the turning point in our season. It was a huge game in our history. Few defeats have ever been doted on as lovingly as that one.

I turned my attention to the game.

“You haven’t missed much, Chris” said Gal.

I have to admit, what with a combination of getting in late, a very low viewing position – row two – and the gnawing pain of knowing that I would be waking up at 4.45am in the morning for work after the drive home, I struggled to get to grips with the game in the opening moments of the first-half.

But Arsenal appeared to be in control, attacking down Victor Moses’ flank in front of us at will. I lost count of the amount of times that Alexis Sanchez was allowed to drift in and attack space on our right. Mezut Ozil too, looking even more gaunt than ever, was often breaking into our box. It was as if we were allowing a special little show of Arsenal prowess just for the away fans only.

I hated it.

I also hated the continuing – and eerie – quietness which had enveloped the stadium. I simply did not hear a single Arsenal song nor chant during the entire first-half. And that is truly shocking. I know I berate our own fans at Stamford Bridge for long periods of quiet, but this was on a different scale. How was it possible for nigh on sixty thousand people to make so little noise?

After constant Arsenal probing – ooh, matron – the ball broke for Alvaro Morata in the inside left channel, and we held our breath as he sprinted clear.

“Go on ma sahn.”

He inexplicably steered it past the far post. On the replay on the huge screen behind me, it looked even worse.

Then, an Arsenal chance for the effervescent Sanchez and a goal seemed assured. Remarkably, his effort was saved by Courtois onto his near post and we watched, hating every second of it, as the ball struck the far post and then rolled back, mesmerizingly, into his arms.

“Phew.”

A sublime save by Coutois from Lacazette followed, and it was undoubtedly one of the best this season so far. Stupendous stuff.

Chelsea were under the cosh, but a rare break resulted in a strike from Bakayoko and a save from Petr Cech.

The Chelsea support, three-thousand strong, behind me and to my left and right, were surprisingly quiet for a London derby. I have noted similar quiet away atmospheres at the new Arsenal stadium on a few occasions now. There is never as much noise, I feel, as at White Hart Lane on our visits. Maybe we are quietened by the osmosis of watching among so many Goons.

A yellow card by Jack Wilshere on Cesc Fabregas brought howls. A couple of half-chances were exchanged. Marcos Alonso’s free-kick in prime territory sadly did not test Cech. Just before half-time, a nice interplay involving Hazard and Fabregas resulted in the former Arsenal midfielder ballooning the ball high and wide. The first-half had not been much to write about, but it could have ended 2-2.

At half-time, I wondered if my pre-match prediction of a 1-1 draw might prove to be right.

We certainly began the livelier in the second-half. Hazard, after a nice run and set-up by Morata, went close. An Alonso header too. We were looking more focussed.

After ten minutes of play, the manager replaced Moses – a little under-the-weather – with Davide Zappascosta.

A little Arsenal pressure followed, but I was full of praise of our three defenders, throwing their bodies at everything and hounding those carrying the ball. From my vantage point, it looked like Gary Cahill had cleared off the line. In front of the defence, Kante was magnificent, Bakayoko not so. A few more chances were exchanged. A Hazard shot straight at Cech.

Just after the hour, a ball ran through to Wilshere and the ‘orrible little runt slammed the ball in.

“Bollocks.”

The stadium jumped to life at last. Until that point, I had still not heard a song, God’s honest truth.

“One nil to the Arsenal.”

I looked around and I bloody hated them.

Just four minutes later, Hazard danced into the Arsenal box down in our own special viewing gallery corner. He was up against Bellerin. His first cross was blocked but as he stretched to control the rebound, Bellerin caught his leg.

Penalty.

Eden slammed it in.

We were level. There was my prediction.

The game continued with us now looking the more confident and assured. A chance for Morata went begging, lifting the shot wide.

Danny Drinkwater replaced Fabregas. A show of solidity.

Oddly I felt, Willian came on for Hazard.

Salvation came on eighty-four minutes when fantastic diligence from Zappacosta out wide after a great pass by Willian allowed him to slam the ball low into the danger area. To everyone’s surprise, it was the wing back Alonso who arrived – Lampardesque – to touch the ball past Cech.

Euphoria at The Emirates.

Our left-back ran towards us and was jumped upon by his team mates. It was a happy and glorious pile of blue in front of our corner of the Clock end. The away end was now the ones singing, and how.

“Runs down the wing for me…”

The minutes ticked by.

Ninety minutes were up.

“Blow up, ref.”

Down in the corner, Willian had a chance to hoof it away, but meekly cleared. Eventually the ball was played into the box and Bellerin slammed home after a header was knocked towards him.

“Oh fuck.”

Amazingly, in the very last moments of the game, the ball was pumped behind the Arsenal back line and we watched again as Morata was one on one with Petr Cech. His unconvincing shot was smothered among cries of pain in the away end. The ball broke to Zappacosta. His heavy drive crashed against the bar.

“FUCK!”

A draw, in all honesty, seemed a fair result. We had all said that a draw would have been fine before the game. We headed off into the night, with the feeling of what could have been. There was one word on every body’s lips.

“Morata.”

My lasting memory of the game, though, will be of the long periods of quiet in the Arsenal areas for the hour before their goal. And, I will say again, our support was far from noisy. For me, the lack of atmosphere really had a negative effect on the game. It is a common saying that “football without fans is nothing” but just as true is that “football without an atmosphere is nothing.” I can never remember an important away game against huge rivals being so bloody quiet, with a distinct lack of “crackle” that surely should go hand-in-hand with games under lights. It just didn’t seem to be that much of a spectacle. I found it difficult to get emotionally involved in it.

It was a very odd night.

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Tales From A Second-Half Renaissance

Chelsea vs. Brighton And Hove Albion : 26 December 2017.

We bloody loved the trip up to Everton at the weekend. It had been a text-book away day, apart from that elusive win. And here we all were again, heading up to Chelsea once more for the Boxing Day encounter with newly-promoted Brighton and Hove Albion.

The four Chuckle Brothers were joined by PD’s eldest Scott, who is an occasional visitor to Chelsea with us. Within minutes, Glenn was confusing his name with PD’s other son. This seemingly embarrassing faux pas is not unusual. Very often, PD himself confuses the two. I blame it on the cider. Within minutes, a new song was soon invented :

“Scotty Daniels, we’ll just call you Grant.”

The chuckling had begun.

I had left Frome at 8am and, at 11am, I was parked-up on Bramber Road, amid acres of empty parking spaces. The idea was for a quick couple of pints in “The Rylston” for a change, but they were not open. We de-camped to the familiar confines of The Goose, and took residence in a pokey corner.

“Peroni please, mate. Cheers.”

Brighton. It had dawned on me the previous evening that, barring a pre-season friendly against them in 2012, I had never seen them play Chelsea. I knew that we played them in two Second Division seasons in the ‘eighties, but I attended none of those four games. Was that it? Just four games? I had to investigate further. Indeed, those four games in 1983/1984 and 1988/1989 were our only games against them in the league. It seemed slightly implausible, to be honest. But it was true. The team from Sussex by the Sea spent most of their history in the lower levels of the Football League, and gained promotion to the First Division in 1978/1979 for the very first time – along with their rivals Crystal Palace, an enmity born through necessity I suspect, every team needs a rival – just as we were relegated from the top tier. By the time we were to meet for the first time in the league, just after Christmas in 1983, Brighton had been relegated, but not before an FA Cup Final against Manchester United. Another meeting in 1988/1989 was then followed by a huge fall from grace for Brighton, who were forced out of their idiosyncratic Goldstone Ground – which I once visited with Scunthorpe United, please don’t ask – and a ground share at Gillingham, some seventy miles away in Kent. There then followed a spell at the unloved Withdean Athletics Stadium in Brighton; but at least they were home. In 2011, they moved into the Amex Stadium at Falmer. Their story, like that of Charlton Athletic and AFC Wimbledon, is a heart-warming tale of how a football club can re-establish itself after years in the wilderness. Their promotion in May must have brought many a tear to some of their older fans.

Fair play.

My mate Walnuts lives in Brighton, and through him, I got to know several Brighton-based Chelsea supporters a while back. On this day, though, I was looking forward to meeting up with a Brighton season-ticket holder in The Goose prior to the game. I bumped into Mac in a lovely bar in New York prior to our game against Manchester City in May 2013, and through our shared love of football, we got on like a house on fire. We kept in touch via the occasional football-related text, and then reconnected via Facebook after my old phone died. With no trains from Brighton to London on Boxing Day, Mac had managed to bribe one of his friends, Nick, to drive up. They were soon parked up on Bramber Road and it was a pleasure to see Mac once again.

I spent a lovely time chatting to Mac, Nick, Mac’s wife Alice, and another friend Bruce in our corner of the pub. It has certainly been an enjoyable time for them this season, though I could tell that the memory of a woeful Albion performance at Huddersfield recently was still raw. We shared a few stories and a few chuckles. It was lovely.

I was reminded of a story that Mac shared with me in New York of that pre-season game at the Amex in August 2012, which Parky and myself attended. It took place on a Saturday afternoon. Nothing too surprising or unremarkable about that, eh? Apart from the fact that it was the day of Mac’s brother’s wedding. Mac was itching to leave the ceremony as soon as he could, though nobody really expected him to carry it off. Midway through the reception, Mac sidled off and – without letting his brother know – zipped over to the game to watch as Albion beat us 3-1. I had to admire his nerve. To make it better, when Mac arrived back at the reception, he brazenly asked his brother “where have you been hiding?” and his poor brother had to apologise for “avoiding” him for three hours.

Classic.

At 2.30pm, we all left the pub and headed off to Stamford Bridge.

A match programme was purchased.

On the front cover was a cheesy photograph of Davide Zappacosta and Alvaro Morata in Chelsea Christmas jumpers.

Kill me now.

No surprises, Brighton had brought a full three-thousand, but – strangely – not one single flag.

We had briefly chatted about the likelihood of Antonio Conte choosing 3-5-2 over a 3-4-3.

It looked like a 3-5-2.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Bakayoko – Alonso

Hazard – Morata

There are always a few empty seats at Boxing Day games, but there were not many around us. This was a good show by the inhabitants of The Sleepy Hollow. Children are rarely seen in this part of the season for regular league games, but a couple were spotted. Christmas treats, no doubts.

This was our fifth consecutive home game on Boxing Day, and our eleventh of the past thirteen Boxing Day games. It means that these games are relatively easy for us to attend, ironically easier than many who live in London, who have to rely on multiple buses and restricted train services. It has, however, taken away a little festive buzz from this most traditional of football fixtures. Oh how I would enjoy a Boxing Day game at another venue for a change.

As the game began, I had visions of thousands of folk across the US wishing co-workers a “happy Boxing Day”, expecting a stony-silence, awaiting the chance to enlighten them on this most English of traditions, but being met by the same response.

Brandy : “You’re an English soccer fan, right?”

Candy : “Ugh…yeah.”

Brandy : “AWESOME.”

Candy : [exit, stage left, crestfallen]

In my thoughts about this game, I was fully expecting Brighton to line-up in their yellow and “colour of indiscernible hue, maybe green, maybe brown, maybe grey” – a Nike disaster – but instead they opted for a more conservative all black.

I had already spoken to Glenn about the Brighton players; “Apart from the boy wonder Dunk – what a name – and his own-goal exploits of magnificence, I am going to find it difficult to name any Brighton player.”

I had to laugh at the Brighton player Propper.

“Bloody good job they have no player called Chels.”

In the pub, a few of us had spoken about how much we loathe the phrase “Proper Chels.”

[gasps from the gallery]

For that matter, the word “Chels” annoys me to death if it is used outside of the ninety minutes of a match. You will never catch any of us saying “going to London to watch Chels”, “I thought Chels played well last night”, “Hazard is a great Chels player”, “I’m a big Chels fan.”

I can feel my teeth grating as I write this. Anyway, those of you who have been reading these match reports over the past ten seasons, will certainly be smiling at all this. My views don’t change much with age.

We began the stronger and Alvaro Morata and Eden Hazard had a shot apiece in the opening ten minutes. Over in the far corner, unsurprisingly the away fans were leading the way in the community singing department. There was a reprise for the song which was sung by our visitors from Bournemouth a few weeks back.

“Just like The Emirates.”

It must be a south coast thing. On a quarter of an hour, the visitors enjoyed a little possession, but this soon petered out against the formidable defensive block of Toni Rudiger, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta.

There was more Billy Ray Cyrus from the away section.

Fuck off.

Stamford Bridge was like a bloody morgue once again, though, and I struggled to find much enjoyment from the match being played out in front of me because of it.

“If I am a Chelsea fan, and you all are too, then why on bloody Earth are so many of you so determined to utter not a word of encouragement nor a song of praise? How can I possibly enjoy spending this most sacred of times with so many of you who do not share my passion. What has happened? Why is everything so different now? I hate it and I hate it as much as I love Chelsea.”

A snap shot from Tiemoue Bakayoko following a Rudiger header at the back post after a Cesc Fabregas cross went wide. We were in control, but with little end product. A beautiful, lofted pass into space from Fabregas allowed Victor Moses to advance, but his shot was smothered at the near post. Rudiger picked out Fabregas with another well-placed lob – a feature of his play, I think – but the ball ran on too quickly.

Chances were as rare as a wise man on Talk Sport and a virgin in Romford.

There was a rare shout of support from the home fans.

“ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

The Brighton fans replied :

“We forgot that you were here.”

So had I. Our play was middling at best, not awful, but just average. But it was the woeful atmosphere that had discombobulated me so much.

Was I here?

I wasn’t sure.

It worried me that Brighton’s Ezequiel Schelotto appeared to resemble a character in “Gladiators”, a show that I have never watched…

I was clearly slipping away into some outlandish world of make-believe…

Needing to jolt out of this, I let out a few desperate yelps of encouragement.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

“COME ON CHELS.”

I am sure Mac heard me in the Shed Lower.

Fabregas planted a low drive straight at the Brighton ‘keeper Ryan. It was our first shot for a while. I had just commented to Glenn that Morata had not yet been involved. To prove me wrong, just before the end of the half, Dave curved a high ball towards Morata. Unfortunately, the Spanish striker headed well wide.

And that was that. One of the dullest forty-five minutes of the season. Thibaut had finished two word search compendiums. I reiterate, the players had not played poorly en masse. Brighton had defended deep. We just lacked a cutting edge.

But the supporters had certainly had a ‘mare.

The one bright spot concerned the news from Old Trafford, where Burnley were winning 2-0 against Manchester United. In our quest for second-place, this was a piece of very good news.

The second-half began and it began with an almighty crash of theatre and noise. From a slightly wider position than his cross in the first-half, Dave thumped one into the Albion box. It is a scene which is particularly familiar this season, but we will never tire of it.

A cross from Dave. A leap from Alvaro.

A downward header, a slam past Dunk, and a beautiful goal.

“GET IN YOU BASTARD.”

At last there was noise.

There are miracles at Christmas in 2017 after all.

With the goal, came a noted upsurge in confidence from the players and a lot more involvement from the home supporters. But I still found it ironic when the Matthew Harding Lower rounded on the away fans :

“You’re not singing anymore.”

Oh boy.

There was a fine layup by Bakayoko – better than in a few of his recent performances – to Hazard, but the shot went wide. We were awarded a free-kick, and both Alonso and Fabregas lined up to take it. Glenn thought it was too far out for Alonso. I wasn’t so sure. Our Spanish left-back swiped and the ball flew over the Albion wall, only for Ryan to provide the save of the match thus far. From the resulting corner, that man Alonso saw his header saved by the ‘keeper. It was all Chelsea now and corner followed corner.

On the hour, Cesc zipped a low corner into the six-yard box, and Alonso did well to reach the ball first. His glancing header forced the ball into the waiting net.

Oh you beauty.

The game was surely safe now.

Just after, we broke with lightning speed, first through the little legs of N’Golo Kante and then via Eden Hazard. Of all people, Dunk recovered to clear off the line. Own goal number four of the season would have to wait. Just after, Hazard was forced wide inside the box, with Bakayoko only able to steer his pass wide of the post.

The Albion fans were still digging us out.

“Two nil and you still don’t sing.”

Willian replaced Hazard. Along with the zest of Moses and Alonso, he had been the star of our second-half renaissance. Elsewhere, Kante was as solid as ever. I liked Rudiger; his stock grows with each game.

Brighton enjoyed a few late efforts on our goal with the game virtually over – “typical” I can hear Mac saying – but our goal never looked like being breeched. Antonio brought on Michy Batshuayi for Morata. There was a shot from distance from N’Golo Kante just before Conte replaced him with Danny Drinkwater. Shots from Willian and Dave did not bother Ryan in the goal down below us.

“Blue Is The Colour” rang out as we exited Stamford Bridge. It had been – cliché warning – a game of two halves, but one which we surely deserved to win. As we walked down the steps, the news drifted through that United had battled back to draw 2-2.

“Bollocks.”

Not to worry, we were now only one point adrift of the fuckers. The season is only just over the halfway mark. I am very confident that we will pip them, and all the rest, for second place.

Stoke City visit HQ on Saturday. I will see some of you there. Please make sure that you bring your songbook.

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