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.

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

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

2007 A

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

2006 A

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

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

Here are some moments from the previous ten league visits.

2008/09

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

2009/10

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

”Go on my son.”

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

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

2010/11

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

Not big, not clever, but totally understandable.

2011/12

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

2012/13

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

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

2013/14

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

2014/15

Hazard was clean in on goal, but De Gea was able to save. The Chelsea choir looked away disconsolately, but roared the team on as a corner was rewarded. I held my camera still and waited for the ball to reach the box. In a flash, I saw Didier Drogba leap, virtually untroubled, at the near post. I clicked. The ball crashed into the net and the three-thousand Chelsea fans in the south-east corner screamed in ecstasy. I was knocked sideways, then backwards and I clung on to the chap next to me, not wanting to fall back and injure myself. If the goal was a virtual carbon copy of Didier’s leap and header in Munich, then so too were the celebrations. This time, though, I managed to keep hold of my glasses. The scenes were of pandemonium; away goals in big games are celebrated like no other. I steadied myself just in time to witness Didier and his team mates celebrating wildly in front of us. Euphoria.

I had one thought : “Munichesque.”

2015/16

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

2016/17

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

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

2017/18

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

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

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

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

Back to 2018/19…

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

Perfect.

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

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

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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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Tales From The Pack

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 16 December 2017.

The four of us were hurtling towards London in The Chuckle Bus, and we were chatting about the current state of affairs at the top of the table. We spoke about our recent performances, and those of our immediate rivals. Manchester City, who were due to play Tottenham later in the day at tea-time, appear to walking away with the title this season. Of course all we can aim to do is keep winning as many games as possible, and to finish as high as we can. If, as is likely – though not certain – City go on to win the title, then so be it. There are many other, darker, alternatives.

I thought about things and did my best to sum it all up.

I slowed myself down, and spoke gently and firmly, and my tone reminded me of Tommy Shelby.

“If we finish above Arsenal. If we finish Manchester United. If we finish above Liverpool. If we finish above Tottenham. That will bloody well do for me.”

“Too bloody right.”

“By order of the Chuckle fucking Brothers.”

I was unable to attend the away game at Huddersfield Town during the week due to work commitments. I listened with interest as Parky and P Diddy spoke of their time in The Crown public house and the John Smiths Stadium. Of all the teams likely to be embroiled in the relegation battle this season, Huddersfield are the team that I would like to scramble clear; I had never visited Leeds Road, I have never visited their new place. It is on my footballing bucket list.

Our pre-match was spent under the large TV screen in “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, which was showing the Leicester City vs. Crystal Palace match. We touched on those teams battling at the bottom. Over half of the teams in the top flight, I would suggest, will be mentioned in dispatches about those likely to be relegated.

It’s turning into a strange season.

Manchester City striding alone at the very top. A chasing pack of six or seven, battling each other for Champions League spots. And then, the rest who are scrapping under a threat of relegation, while swapping and trading managers in some sort of bizarre ritual along the way.

Our visitors Southampton suffered a setback during the week after losing to Leicester City, who themselves were getting slammed by Crystal Palace on the TV. In a season where teams appear to be taking points of each other, three points are king. I was not overly-worried by Southampton, but hoped that the players would be totally focused.

Outside, there were grey skies, and occasional rain. The pub was pretty quiet.

We spoke about our chances of silver wear this season.

I was brutally frank.

“To be quite honest, we might not win anything this season.”

It doesn’t matter. We’ll still show up week in, week out. We have nights away already planned for Norwich, the Nou Camp, and Newcastle.

Whatever will be will be.

We chatted about the various shapes that Conte can chose from. We all admitted that it is a benefit to have options at our disposal. The 3-4-3 of last season with wider support players for Morata. The 3-5-2 of this season with Eden tucked in. The “false nine” – or not, please don’t email me – of the three chosen for Huddersfield, with Eden, Pedro and Willian flitting around with menace.

Among all this was the enigma of Batshuayi.

Some strikers have always struggled at Chelsea.

Even in the all-conquering 2004/2005 season we had Mateja Kezman, another player who left us for Atletico Madrid, but with his reputation sullied.

Do not be surprised if Michy is moved on in the summer.

We caught the tube down to Fulham Broadway. We spotted that the little gaggle of lads who had been drinking in the pub looked a little lost at Earl’s Court, and mistook P Diddy’s West Country burr to be that of a Southampton supporter. They were obviously away fans. On the slow walk out of Fulham Broadway, a few of the lads growled a chant.

“Red Army.”

It was soon met with a robust “Carefree.”

There was no trouble though, why would there be?

I was in early at 2.45pm. I soon spotted that Southampton would be backed by a full three thousand. They don’t always turn up at Stamford Bridge, even though their city is but seventy-five miles away.

Over in the lower tiers of the East Lower, I spotted specks of white. Santa Hats had been draped over the seats as a gift from the club, and a few hundred were already wearing them.

I then realised that not only children were wearing them.

I suspect that the adults wearing them were the same type of person who revels in wearing Christmas jumpers.

And comedy ties.

And comedy socks.

They should get out more.

Or stay in.

Preferably the latter.

We reviewed the team that Antonio Conte had chosen. Again no Michy. See above.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Moses – Bakayoko – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

I was surprised that neither Austin, Tadic and Van Dijk were not starting for the visitors.

The flags drifted over the heads of those in the Matthew Harding and The Shed. Southampton have gone retro this season, wearing a reasonable replica of their Patrick kit from the early ‘eighties, which was worn by Kevin Keegan in his two seasons at The Dell.

The game began.

After an even start, Southampton edged the first quarter of an hour. A rare mistake by N’Golo Kante resulted in Southampton picking up his loose pass and Nathan Redmond crossed into the box, and Gary Cahill nervously cleared, but not before stumbling in that way of his.

Chelsea started to create some chances of our own. A busy Willian carved out a fine chance down the left but his shot was just wide. An Alonso volley. Tiemoue Bakayko struck from distance but a defender was able to block. A Cahill shot from outside the box was saved by Fraser Forster. A rising shot from Kante was hit with power but Forster moved well to save.

Santa hats or not, the atmosphere was dire.

At the half-hour, there had not been a single stadium-wide song or chant, not even the standard “go to” one in praise of the manager.

A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.

I know.

I bloody heard it.

A quick break involving all three of our strikers and a shot from Willian was blocked. At times we were a little self-indulgent, but we were well in control. An Alonso turn and shot was saved by the Saints ‘keeper, who was by far the busier of the two.

There was a muted “come on Chelsea”, barely audible, from the Matthew Harding Lower.

Ryan Bertrand was often involved in the rare forays that Southampton enjoyed throughout the first-half. As he chased an over hit ball down by in front of the corner flag, he ended up next to some Chelsea fans; one fan must have said something amusing because Ryan beamed a lovely smile. It was a super moment.

I wondered what the fan had said. It was, no doubt, Munich-related.

With half-time approaching, Pedro danced into the box with a typical shimmying run, but saw his shot bounce off the post.

Then, just as half-time was surely only a few seconds away, we were awarded a free-kick around twenty-five yards out. It was to the left of the “D.”

Chris : “Willian territory.”

Glenn : “Come on Marcos.”

Chris : “Nah. Wrong side, Willian will have this.”

With that, Marcos Alonso took me – and Forster – by surprise, and curled a free-kick over the leaping wall, which crept in just inside the post.

GET IN.

Much laughter from myself, from Alan, from Glenn, plus Albert in front, who was thinking the same thing as me.

Ha.

It was, of course, the perfect time to score, bang on the half-time whistle.

Willian began the second-half in the same way that he had begun the first period, speeding into space despite being heavily marked but blasted over.

A shot from Dave was high and wide. Damn.

With ten minutes of the second-half on the clock, at last a song rang out around Stamford Bridge, to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea – Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

Southampton brought on Charlie Austin and the striker caught us a little flat-footed at the back, causing a Thibaut to save well.

Antonio Conte replaced Pedro with Cesc Fabregas.

Down below us, Eden Hazard smashed home after being teed up by Fabregas, but it was obvious that Cesc had drifted into an offside position.

There was a little more noise, but not much more.

Willian drilled a chest-high pass towards Alonso, who did well to control before volleying towards goal. No surprises, Foster – rather dramatically – saved.

Another change; Alvaro Morata replaced Eden Hazard.

The substitute soon forced another save from Forster.

Down at the Shed End, the lively Austin forced another save from Courtois, on his haunches, and the chance went begging.

A quickly-played free-kick down below us resulted in Fabregas gliding into the box, drawing the goalkeeper out, then subtly pushing the ball past him. Time slowed to a standstill as the ball rolled along the line, but without the necessary spin to carry the ball over.

Bollocks.

Oh for a second goal.

The rain fell.

Davide Zappacosta replaced Moses.

With a slender 1-0 lead, things became predictably nervous. Southampton had certainly improved after the addition of Austin. Nathan Redmond had developed into a threat as the game progressed.

That man Austin went close at the near post after a low cross.

In the last remaining minutes, we thankfully dominated. A Bakayoko header was followed by efforts from Alonso, Morata, Fabregas and Azpilicueta. But Forster, the man of the moment, was not to be beaten a second time.

So there we have it. A game that will not live too long in the memory.

There was no standout player.

There were steady 7/10 performances throughout.

But sometimes it is just fine to have a team full of Daves.

On the drive home, with thankfully no traffic nightmares this time, we listened half-halfheartedly as Manchester City demolished Tottenham 4-1. There was pleasure at Spurs’ defeat more than displeasure at City’s win.

On the M4, the Chuckle Bus overtook the Southampton team coach just before it turned south on to the M25.

Chelsea’s pursuit of Manchester City will not be so straightforward.

If this is to be some sort of bizarre chase to second place this season, then so be it.

See you on Wednesday.

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Tales From Sunshine On A Rainy Day

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 9 September 2017.

With the international break behind us – I watched a total of around ten whole minutes from England’s two matches – we were thankfully back to proper football; football that means something, football that raises our spirits, football that brings us all together. An away game at Leicester City was in fact just what the doctor had ordered. From my home in the South-West of England, my route would take me right into the heart of England, mainly following the course of the old Roman road The Fosse Way, and through some achingly beautiful countryside. A perfect road trip lay ahead. It would, in fact, be our first domestic game outside London since the league championship clincher at West Brom last May. And it was an ideal game to get back into the swing of things; difficult but not insurmountable. However, the month of September would be a testing time for sure, with seven games lined-up, and it seemed that the football season was beginning to heat up.

Our visits to the King Power Stadium over the past few seasons have tended to be defining moments in each campaign. In 2014/15, a dominant performance and a 3-0 win set us up for the league clincher four days later. In 2015/16, a dismal evening of “betrayal” and a 1-2 defeat resulted in the sacking of Jose Mourinho the following day. In 2016/17, Antonio Conte declined the services of Diego Costa and with vultures gathering overhead, a potentially huge banana-skin was avoided as another 3-0 victory pushed us away from the pack and towards an eventual second title in three seasons.

Of course, that Leicester City were the surprise champions in that middle season, and that N’Golo Kante and now Danny Drinkwater, had since swapped the royal blue of Leicester for the royal blue of Chelsea added a certain extra piquancy to the game.

The Chuckle Brothers were buzzing for it.

Our journey had taken us from Somerset to Wiltshire to Gloucestershire to Warwickshire and to Leicestershire. We had set off with sunny skies overhead, but with warnings of scattered showers throughout the day. We stopped for a pint at a pub at Charlecote, just off the Fosse Way, and soon into our hour-long drive in to Leicester, the heavens opened. What a downpour. The surface water made driving difficult. Thankfully, the storm soon passed and although huge billowing clouds were gathering on the horizon, the remaining miles were covered with no further rain. As we parked up at our usual place on Shakespeare Street – William, not Craig –  the sun was out and warming the air. Coats were worn, but rather reluctantly.

We were soon inside the away end.

“Time for a quick beer, Parky?”

We had chatted about the possible starting eleven on the journey, and the team that Antonio Conte chose contained few surprises.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Pedro – Morata – Fabregas

The Chelsea crowd, three-thousand strong in the corner, seemed full of voice as the minutes ticked down to kick-off.

An extended toot of the fox hunter’s horn sounded and the teams appeared. There was disdainful chatter about Everton’s “dirty grey” shirts a fortnight ago, but our “white” away colours hardly look pristine. The shirts and shorts were decidedly off-white. Only the socks looked crisp. It just looked odd.

Leicester City, in all blue these days, were on the back foot in the first few moments of the game. A forceful run from Bakayoko set up the prowling Morata, who steadied himself before curling a shot at Schmeichel. We looked impressive, and there was some good early pressure. A superb ball from Fabregas, playing a little deeper than his usual position – maybe it was a different formation that I had thought – released Morata but the ball did not drop favourably, allowing a smothering save from the Leicester City ‘keeper.

A new song – for me anyway, though I suspect others have been aware of its presence – swirled around the away section.

“Marcos. Marcos Alonso runs down the wing for me.”

I approved, and joined in.

Another new song then appeared from the ether.

“He came from Real Madrid. He hates the fuckin’ yids.”

My heart sank. It sank further as I looked around and spotted, sadly, hundreds joining in.

Suffice to say, I did not.

I whispered to Alan :

“Well, that will get a load of people nicked.”

That word is just not welcome at Chelsea games. Its presence shocked me to be honest. Over the past few seasons the Chelsea crowd has almost policed itself and kept that word to a minimal level. I remember back to around 2006 or 2007 when “The Bouncy” first appeared en masse at Chelsea. Originally a Rangers song, its first edition at Chelsea included the “Y” word. Over a couple of seasons, this was replaced and the set up was changed to “we’re gonna bounce in a minute.” It was an intelligent way of changing the focus. There is another famous Chelsea song that begins “We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea” but I always stop myself from singing the next line after “Barcelona, Real Madrid…”

I know some sing it. I choose not to. I just don’t fancy getting CCTV’d singing that word.

People can bleat as much as they like about Tottenham singing it. That is simply their choice, their concern, their problem. There is a strong argument about that club now using it in a positive light as a defence mechanism after decades of negativity from outside. There are easy parallels within the black community and the equally divisive “N” word. And I do feel slightly queasy about non-Jewish Spurs fans singing it. But my thoughts are that Chelsea fans should not even be thinking about using the “Y” word, especially with our sadly dubious record with racism over the decades, let alone be singing it.

As I looked around at our support joining in, giggling, I wondered if the camera might be turned on them. Beside the use of the “Y” word, it is a pretty dull song anyway. And it doesn’t really scan. There are too many syllables for a start; always a bugbear of mine. Chelsea fans from the US especially – bless’em – seem to have immense difficulty with this. They seem to love shoe-horning too many syllables into any standard song.

Alan quickly came up with an alternative.

“He came from Real Madrid. I’m glad he fucking did.”

I laughed.

I offered an alternative.

“We bought him from Madrid. For sixty million quid.”

It scanned. The right number of syllables. It rhymed. No offensive racial slur.

It’ll never catch on.

The game continued with Chelsea dominating possession. Kante – who was warmly applauded by the home fans before the game when his name was announced – patrolled the middle of the pitch, with Bakayoko providing a fine foil alongside. We pinged the ball around nicely. Morata looked at ease, with a lovely first touch. He brought others into the game well and it was a pleasure to see. Alonso offered great width down the left. Indeed, as the game progressed it honestly seemed that we had an extra man on the pitch, which is always a good sign. Rudiger again impressed, as if he has been playing for Chelsea for years, not weeks.

A Luiz free-kick produced an easy save for Schmeichel. Our attacks continued. The Leicester defence was being continually stretched.

Leicester are always a threat on the break though. The once impressive Mahrez – I am surprised that he is still playing for them – played in Jamie Vardy. His rapid shot thankfully screamed past the far post. If memory serves, he scored from a similar position in 2014. Another chance fell to the home side but thankfully Thibaut Courtois parried the shot from Islam Slimani.

With half-time beckoning, an intense rain shower forced some to don jackets, though some headed inside for cover. Under my hood, I watched as a fantastic cross from Cesar Azpilcueta picked out Alvaro Morata. The cross was right on the money. Morata leaped and seemed to hang in the air. He headed it past Schmeichel.

GET IN.

It was a suitable reward for those who had stayed in the stands.

Thankfully, the rain subsided as the second-half began. After five minutes, a Chelsea move developed but my attention was on Morata, twisting and turning and trying to get away from his hefty marker Maguire. Out of nowhere, a shot flew past Morata and Maguire and miraculously crept in at the far post, past a late dive from the ‘keeper. I had not seen who had struck it, so imagine my surprise when I looked over to see players running towards that man Kante, who – typically – was not celebrating at all. Kudos to him for that.

With Chelsea winning 2-0, the pressure seemed to be off, and our third win on the bounce was on the cards.

On the hour, my attention was again diverted. Over on the far side, new signing Danny Drinkwater was warming up on the touchline, and as far as I could see he was getting a pretty good reception from his former fans. I had predicted, perhaps, a slightly more acerbic reception. A roar then went up from the home stands, and I saw the referee pointing to the spot. Vardy slammed it past Thibaut.

Leicester City 1 Chelsea 2.

The game changed.

We had to hold on to our lead for around half-an-hour.

Pedro, one of our quietest players, was replaced by Willian.

Antonio Conte then replaced Moses with debutante Davide Zappacosta.

I whispered to Alan : “It’s always good to have a Frank in the team.”

The changes disrupted our play a little, and Leicester enjoyed more of the ball. For a while, we were on the receiving end of a little pressure and the mood grew tense in the away end, or at least in my row. We did not help ourselves. A lot of our play seemed sloppy and our choices of pass seemed to be off-kilter.

A big cheer greeted the sight of Eden Hazard replacing Cesc Fabregas. He immediately lifted us. Just to see him caress the ball, and look up, assessing options, was enough to warm us. He began on the left but then appeared down in front of us on the right. For a while, it was all of the play was nicely in front of us. Zappacosta was involved, but looked a little nervous. He seemed to take forever to settle himself for a shot but the ball was drilled wide.

Leicester had rung the changes at the start of the half with King and Gray coming on and Craig Shakespeare then introduced the former City striker Iheanacho with fifteen to go. They kept pushing for a goal. I was convinced that we would let in an equaliser. But we were still pushing ourselves. I had a brief thought that a Mourinho team of around 2005 would be just moving the ball around the back four for minutes on end. There was an appeal for handball by Maguire from a Morata header. Willian curled one just past the post. There was another save from the same player as the game reached its conclusion.

There was an element of relief at the final whistle. Phew.

It had been a workmanlike performance, peeking in the first-half, but it was one which confirmed the aberration of the first forty-five minutes of the season. This is a fine team, and we will surely enjoy a fine season. The players – all of them, well done – came over to thank us for our support. I predictably focused on the manager. There was the usual applause for us, but with a straight face, quite solemn. He knew we had eked out a good win, but there was still room for improvement.

A good day at the office? Oh yes.

But the month of September has only just begun and we have a heavy schedule.

On Tuesday evening, Champions League football thankfully returns to SW6.

I will see some of you there.

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