An away trip to Southampton early this season meant that we were repeating three of the last four away games of the last campaign in the first three matches of the current one.
Last season we lost to Everton 1-0; this season we beat them 1-0.
Last season we beat Leeds United 3-0; this season they beat us 3-0.
Last season we beat Southampton 6-0; surely not?
The Famous Five left Melksham at around 3.15pm. I was driving again, and my fellow passengers were PD, Parky, Sir Les and Glenn the birthday boy, celebrating his fifty-fifth birthday a day before he was to begin a new job.
Southampton away is a breeze. At around 5pm, I was parked up in the small car park outside the city’s Central train station.
The evening heat surprised me.
“It’s nice out” I said.
“It is yes, but put it away, someone will see it” replied Parky.
The others dashed off to “Yates” for a pre-match tipple while I decided to grab a bite to eat in a nearby Italian restaurant. There were a couple of familiar Chelsea faces in there – “alright, boys?” – and I soon sat down for a pizza. This is standard for me. I reckon we could play in Kazakhstan, Bolivia or Zimbabwe and I’d still order a pre-match pizza.
I joined up with the lads in the pub, but none of us were keen to stay for any longer. There was a quick “hello goodbye” to a few troops before we set off to walk the twenty minutes or so to the stadium. The three Norwegians – four actually, I neglected to mention Jon in the Leicester City report – had been spotted in the pub. A couple of local lads were there too.
“Good trip down, Chris?”
“Oh yeah, easy.”
“Did Les come with you?”
“Yeah mate. But with PD in the passenger seat and Les sat behind him, the car kept veering to the left. It took me three attempts to get out of Melksham.”
We were down at the stadium as early as 6.15pm. It felt odd being there so early. I had to sort out a ticket for Young Jake, who none of us had seen for ages. We thought that his last game with us was the Norwich City FA Cup game at Carrow Road in 2018. There was time to chill out a little and relax. I shot off to take a few shots of the stadium.
“It’s no San Siro but surely there’s the chance to take a few decent photographs?” I thought to myself.
St. Mary’s is as bland as bland can be.
Talking of the San Siro, we – PD, Parky and I – are booked to head over in October, but we will be staying in Turin for three nights and will be joined by Dave who now lives near Nice and was last seen before the Tottenham away game late in 2018. I will be driving in to Milan on the day of the game. A version of “The Italian Job” perhaps? In a Fiat Chucklecento maybe? No, too much of a tight fit for four of us. Why Turin? When I returned home from Chelsea on Saturday night, it seemed that all the cheap flights to Milan had gone. The accommodation looked expensive too. I have no qualms about returning to Turin once again; it’s my favourite Italian city and far more interesting that Milan. As for the other Champions League aways, we are not going to Zagreb but I suspect that a trip to Salzburg is likely.
This was my second game in two days. On the Bank Holiday Monday, I drove to Bath to see Frome Town wallop local neighbours Larkhall Athletic 4-0. With the upcoming game against West Ham now taking place on Saturday, I am forced to miss Frome’s home FA Cup tie against Tiverton Town.
Now is a good time to slip into the conversation my second memory of the 1982/83 season. On Saturday 28 August, Chelsea opened up our fourth consecutive season in the old Second Division with an away game at Cambridge United’s Abbey Stadium. Did I go? No. I was still at school and would only go to four games that season, the same as in the previous campaign. On that particular afternoon, Frome Town got my attention as I watched a 0-0 home draw with Wellington in the old Western League – “a terrible game” says my diary – but I would have been no doubt elated with a 1-0 win.
Chelsea finished mid-table in 1981/82 and only the most optimistic of Chelsea fans would have hoped that we would make a sustained promotion push in 1982/83. Our only real outlay throughout the summer had been the almost laughable acquisition of much-travelled Bryan “Pop” Robson, who was thirty-six when we bought him. I for one, was not impressed.
The team that day?
Steve Francis in goal. Gary Locke and Chris Hutchings the full backs. Micky Nutton and Micky Droy as centre-backs. Colin Pates, John Bumstead and Mike Fillery in midfield. Colin Lee, Clive Walker and Pop Robson upfront, with Paul Canoville as a substitute.
Interestingly, Pates, Chivers, Bumstead and Canoville are currently employed by Chelsea to this day as match-day hosts in the corporate areas.
Even more interestingly, my friend Daryl spotted Pop Robson near Red Square before the Champions League Final in 2008, presumably on some junket with a UEFA sponsor.
Our match winner forty years ago?
Bryan “Pop” Robson.
I was to eat my words, for one game at least.
The gate was 8,124, and I am sure that around half would have been Chelsea.
Back to 2022.
Jake soon arrived and there was the chance to chat to a few friends from near and far. The “Ticket Man” arrived on schedule at 7pm and we were in the stadium just after. Down in the darkened but spacious concourse, more chit-chat with some and a few “nods” to others. With plenty of time to kick-off, I swapped tickets with PD and sat next to Glenn towards the back of the away section, right behind the goal. I usually watch from down low so this made a nice change.
Glenn is often with us at Southampton. There were a few games at The Dell and he was also with us in August 2001 when we opened up the new stadium with a 1-0 win. I have seen all of our fourteen games against the Saints at St. Mary’s – minus the COVID ones – and I kept saying to the lads “we’ve only lost once down here, the Benitez spell in 2013.”
As we waited for the game to start, there were a few half-hearted flames in front of the stand to our left. A brass band appeared, walking towards us, left to right, and they played “Oh When The Saints” as a large banner surfed along from right to left.
I turned to Glenn and said “I always remember a game here in 1994 when you were excited about starting a chant in the away end.”
We were in the seats along the side and Glenn began bellowing “Dennis plays for England” which the rest of the Chelsea support joined in with. Glenn’s recollection was that Wisey scored a late winner. Looking back, it was actually Paul Furlong on eighty-nine minutes. Perhaps Glenn had mentally confused the two moments.
To my surprise, Billy Gilmour and Ethan Ampadu were among the named substitutes.
The team drew a few shocked reactions.
Dave – Silva – Koulibaly – Cucarella
Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Mount
Ziyech – Sterling – Havertz
No Reece James, no Trevoh Chalibah, we presumed injured.
The teams entered. As at Leeds United, we played in dark blue socks and I wondered why. Surely we have some royal blue socks knocking about somewhere. The home team’s kit was a shocker. Hummel brought out some absolute killers back in the ‘eighties and Saints even had their copy of the half-and-half Denmark kit. This current shirt – predominantly white – misses by a mile. The shirt of the Keegan era would surely have looked better; predominantly red with a broad white central stripe rather than the current version. I wasn’t even sure I liked the white socks either. Very odd.
The home areas took ages to fill up and there were quite a few empty seats dotted around. I saw no unused seats in our allocation of around three thousand. We took a while to get going but the songs soon boomed around the away end.
It was a muggy night in the Northam Stand.
As is so often the case with away matches in Southampton, the home team enjoyed the best of the early exchanges. We then began to get a foothold on the game. The pitch, usually excellent, was worn in many places, as if it was a mid-season game.
Our chances, or half-chances, started to stack up. Raheem Sterling scuffed a shot right at the Saints ‘keeper Gavin Bazunu. A chance for Hakim Ziyech came and went. Sterling looked as lively as any player on the pitch and on twenty-three minutes, a lovely move down our left involving first Kai Havertz and then Mason Mount set up the central striker. Sterling appeared to lose control of the ball on the six-yard box but was the first to react as it spun loose. He stabbed the ball in and wheeled away in delight.
I suspect that this is just the sort of goal that is practised ad infinitum on the practice pitches at Cobham; all movement, all together.
The away crowd soon responded.
“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel.”
Not long after, Ziyech played in Havertz in the inside-left position. He got his shot in from an angle but the shot was hit right at the Saints keeper.
From that moment, our play drifted.
Just five minutes after we had scored, Dave decided to whack the ball out for a corner rather than play it back to Edouard Mendy to deal with. At the time, I understood that call.
What were we always told at school?
Sadly, the resulting corner fell to an unmarked Southampton player – Romeo Lavia – who was loitering with intent outside the box. He took one touch and lashed it home. Glenn was raging. Only a few minutes earlier he had spotted two Saints players unmarked at the back stick at a previous corner.
Of course the home fans roared.
Our play deteriorated as the home team became stronger. I lost count of the number of passes that Ruben Loftus-Cheek misdirected. One run out of defence by him seemed to be in slow motion.
“Ross Barkley is a big unit but even he had a burst of pace” I moaned to Glenn. “Ruben makes Micky Fillery look quick.”
Our midfield in general – without a midfield general – looked so poor. Dave was caught out of position on a couple of occasions. We had no bite. The only plus point was watching Thiago Silva scoop a few balls up and over the heads of the advancing opposition out to the right wing. I could watch that man play football for hours.
Glenn was getting frustrated further : “no tackles!”
There was an awful moment when I thought that I had been transported back to the early nineties under Ian Porterfield when there seemed to be a never-ending sequence of head tennis on the halfway line. This was rotten football.
With the home support energised, it turned into a temporary Pompey Hate Fest. Mason Mount was deemed public enemy number one.
With the half-time whistle approaching – “blow up ref, let’s regroup at the break” – a laughably poor attempt at a tackle by Jorginho failed dismally and Southampton advanced with speed and purpose. As the move progressed I repeatedly shouted two words :
“Too easy! Too easy! Too easy!”
The ball was smashed home after a fine move by Adam Armstrong.
Two-one to Southampton.
“Oh When The Saints” boomed around the home areas.
The referee blew for half-time almost immediately.
I turned to Glenn at the break : “this has been a timid performance.”
We both wanted Tuchel to bring on Armando Broja for the miss-firing Havertz. Towards the end of the half-time break, with the grass getting an extra dose of water from the sprinklers, we spotted Tuchel chatting with Mateo Kovacic on the pitch. The manager then sat alone on the bench for a number of minutes.
I just found all of this a bit odd.
One presumes that he had said enough to the players in five minutes and didn’t need ten. Personally, I would have taken fifteen.
“Oh, before you go back out on that pitch, just be aware that there are supporters out there who have travelled down from the north of England, from the Midlands, from East Anglia for tonight’s game and they won’t get home until about 2am in the morning but will need to be up again for work within a few hours, knackered, and they will do it all again and again and again…”
I saw him studying some sheets in a folder.
It almost raised a wry smile.
“Never mind the first-half stats, pal, just fire some fucks into them.”
No real surprises, Tuchel replaced Loftus-Cheek with Kovacic.
“Kovacic, Our Croatian Man…”
Soon into the second-half, Southampton broke down our right and a shot from close in was blocked on the line by Cucarella. Mendy made a fine reaction save to tip over the follow-up effort.
The home fans really turned up the heat on Mason.
“You skate bastard. You skate bastard.”
“Mason Mount, we fucking hate you.”
We struggled to get things moving. Oh for a playmaker, oh for a Cesc Fabregas.
On the hour, there was a loud, proud and defiant “Carefree” from us followed by derisory applause from the home fans.
Sadly, our play stagnated further. I saw little movement off the ball and the mood in the away end was falling fast.
With twenty minutes or so left it was all change, three substitutions :
Ben Chilwell for Jorginho.
Armando Broja for Dave.
Christian Pulisic for Havertz.
I expected a ripple of applause for Broja from the home fans; there was nothing, the ungrateful sods.
We all revelled in the great rush into space from Broja and his strength in twisting and turning past two players. He left them for dead before sending in a cross. This augured well for the rest of the game or so we hoped. In reality, despite his more aggressive movement and enthusiasm, his only other noticeable action involved a header near a post that never looked like troubling the ‘keeper. Kovacic added a little burst of energy too, but this soon petered out as moves slowed down and died. Pulisic looked remote and uninterested wide on the right. My recollection is of him hardly bothering to go past players, but my photographs would prove otherwise. How Ziyech stayed on all game is a mystery.
The minutes ticked by.
From a corner, Silva was in the right place at the right time. The ball hit him on the line.
I fully expected us to lose another goal.
3-1 would not have flattered them.
In a scene that was reminiscent of the Leicester game, Mendy appeared in the opposing box for a late corner or two.
When the ball was hoofed up field, one of my photographs completely captured our night, with Cucarella nervously falling to head the ball away, being pressured by a Saints attacker, the goal open and vulnerable.
I spent some of the last minutes of the game watching that fucking dachshund on the “Vitality” advertising boards trot around the stadium at roughly the same pace that our team had been doing all match.
The final whistle blew.
Southampton 2 Chelsea 1.
We got what we deserved, no doubt.
A posse of young Southampton fans to our right spent many a minute goading us as we waited to drift away into the night. I was pragmatic about it.
“Bollocks. Let them enjoy themselves, the little twerps.”
Some other Chelsea supporters were a little more hostile.
It was all a pantomime show to me.
In days gone by, there is no doubt that Chelsea would not have taken such a defeat well. Recriminations would have been enacted outside the stadium as fans would have sought revenge.
“We’re a right bunch of bastards when we lose.”
We all met up outside and slowly trudged back to the car. That walk always seems twice as long when we lose.
There was a small scale altercation.
A mouthy young Southampton fan wearing the hugely odd combination of a bar scarf and a Stone Island sweatshirt was heard to shout “Chelsea Rent Boys.” This was like a red rag to a bull to one or two in our support. The youngster escaped into the night with a warning.
All five of us were at a low ebb. There really were no positives from the night. Only two or three players had average performances.
On a muggy night in Southampton, we were the mugs.
We stopped off at the always-busy “McDonalds” at the bottom end of the A36 at about 10.30pm. A couple of lads enjoyed a burger. I downed the inevitable coffee. Outside, the air still warm, I got a little philosophical.
“We are so unused to defeats. Over the last twenty years, we have had a magnificent ride. It’s all been massively good fun. But remember that ninety per cent of people who go to football in this country have no hope of seeing their team win anything. That’s quite something really. That so many go just for the love of their team. Quite admirable really. Not saying we should not get concerned about defeats, but maybe we just need to re-focus our targets.”
That reset button might have to be adjusted again over the next few weeks.
The immediate reaction out there in Chelsea Land was split. Some want Tuchel gone. Some want to persevere.
I’m fucking looking forward to the San Siro in October I know that.
I am sure that I wasn’t the only Chelsea supporter who wasn’t a little fearful going into the 2022 FA Cup Final against Liverpool at Wembley. On the early morning drive into London – I collected PD as early as 6am – the feeling was of worry and impending doom. As has been proven by the league table – “the league table does not lie, it just sits down occasionally” – we are a fair distance behind both Liverpool and Manchester City this season, as we were last season and the season before it. Additionally, a defeat at the hands of the Scousers would mean a record-breaking third consecutive FA Cup Final loss. And that thought was just horrible too.
But, bollocks to all that, we were off to Wembley again and we kept ourselves contented with the usual badinage of wisecracks as I ate up the miles. I was hopeful that one of the great FA Cup Final weekends was upon us. We all live in hope, right?
But first, a walk down memory lane.
The first FA Cup final that I can ever remember watching took place in 1972. It was between Arsenal and Leeds United. My best friend Andy was an Arsenal fan, though I can’t honestly remember wanting them to win. I was a neutral. I can still remember a few bits about the day. I was six, coming up to seven, and already a mad-keen Chelsea supporter. I remember that it was the centenary of the first competition that took place in 1872, though of course not the actual one-hundredth final due to the wartime interruptions. I remember representatives of all of the previous winners parading around the perimeter of the old Wembley pitch with flags. I was proud to see the Chelsea flag. Leading up to the final, Esso were running a promotion celebrating the game. Collectible coins – to go in an album – were rewarded for petrol purchases. Suffice to say, I must have pleaded with my father to only fuel up at Esso for a few weeks. I still have the album, completed, to this day.
I remember Allan Clarke, from around the penalty spot, scoring with a diving header and David Coleman exploding “one-nil” as if the game was over at that exact moment. I can recall Mick Jones dislocating his shoulder as he fell awkwardly attempting a cross and hobbling up the steps to the royal box, bandaged like a mummy. Fifty years ago. Bloody hell. Looking back, this is the very first club game I can remember seeing live, though I am pretty sure the England vs. West Germany game just one week before it is the first full game I saw live on TV. Or at least the first I can remember seeing.
The FA Cup Final was huge in those days. It was the only club game shown live on TV – both channels – and would remain that way until 1983 apart from rare one-offs. On a trip to London in the autumn of 1973 we called in to see Uncle Willie, my grandfather’s brother, at either his house in Southall or at a nursing home at Park Royal (where my father would park for my first Chelsea game in 1974, but that is – and has been – another story.) After the visit, my father granted my wish to drive up to see Wembley Stadium. That I had not asked to see Stamford Bridge is surprising from fifty years away, but I am sure that my father would have been intimidated by the thought of traffic in those more central areas.
Wembley it was.
I can vividly remember sitting in his car as we wended our way up to Wembley. On that fateful cab trip to Wembley for the “aborted” FA Cup semi-final recently, I half-recognised the journey. I have always had a heightened sense of place and a recollection and memory of places visited in other times.
I remember Dad parking off Olympic Way and me setting eyes on the magnificence of the historic stadium. It sat on top of an incline, and the twin towers immediately brought a lump to the throat of the eight-year-old me. I remember walking up to the stadium, the steps rising to the arched entrances, the dirty-cream colour of the walls, the grass embankments. I veered left and possibly tried to peer down the tunnel at the East End, an end that would become known as the “lucky tunnel end” for FA Cup Finals over the next few decades. The stadium was huge. However, it needed a bit of a clean-up. It looked a bit grimy. But I loved the way it dominated that particular part of North London. The visit has stayed etched in my mind ever since even though I was only there for maybe twenty minutes.
“Come on Chris, we need to head home.”
I can almost picture my father’s worried look on his face, chivvying me on.
Our appearance in the 2022 FA Cup Final provided a perfect time to recollect our appearance in the much-loved 1997 FA Cup Final; the quarter of a century anniversary.
Here are my recollections.
The 1996/97 season was a beautiful one, but also a sad one. The death of Matthew Harding in October 1996 hit all of us hard, and the immediate aftermath was tough on us all. Remarkably, our spirits rose not so long after Matthew’s tragic death when we signed Gianfranco Zola from Parma. It felt like, in the same way that getting Mickey Thomas in 1984 completed that wonderful team, the signing of the Italian magician helped complete the team being assembled by Ruud Gullit.
The FA Cup run was the stuff of legends. I went to most games.
West Brom at home : an easy win, 3-0.
Liverpool at home : the greatest of games, losing 0-2 at half-time, we turned it round to triumph 4-2.
Leicester City away : a 2-2 draw, I watched on TV.
Leicester City at home : Erland Johnsen’s finest moment and a Frank Leboeuf penalty gave us a 1-0 win in extra-time.
Pompey away : a 4-0 win in the mist, I watched on TV.
Wimbledon at Highbury : 3-0, a breeze, Zola’s twist to score in front of us in the North Bank.
On the Thursday before the Cup Final itself, we watched Suggs perform “Blue Day” on “TOTP” and the pleasure it gave us all is unquantifiable. Everything was well in the world, or in my world anyway. In the January of 1997, I was given a managerial job in my place of employment, a bit more dosh to follow the boys over land and sea, and maybe even Leicester next time.
On the Saturday of the final, a beautiful sun-filled morning, Glenn drove to London with two passengers; our friend Russel, eighteen, about to sit his “A Levels”, and little old me. I was thirty-one with no silverware to show for years and years of devotion to the cause. We parked-up at Al’s flat in Crystal Palace, caught the train at the local station, changed at Beckenham Junction and made our way to “The Globe” at Baker Street via London Bridge. We bumped into a few familiar faces from our part of the world – can you spot PD? – and enjoyed a sing-song before heading up to Wembley Park.
Funny the things I remember.
Lots and lots of singing on the way to Wembley. We felt unbeatable, truly. Ben Shermans for Daryl and myself. Lots of Chelsea colours elsewhere. I had just bought a pair of Nike trainers and I had not worn the bastards in. They pinched my feet all day long. We posed for my “VPN” banner underneath the twin towers. However, I tried to hoist it once inside, using small sticks, but was immediately told to hand it all in at a “left luggage” section in the concourse. Our seats were low-down, corner flag. Unfortunately, I had a killer headache all bloody game.
The Roberto di Matteo goal after just forty-three seconds was insane. Limbs were flailing everywhere. Oh my fucking head.
The dismal 1994 FA Cup Final was recollected, briefly. For that game, we only had about 17,000 tickets and it seemed that all neutral areas were United. In 1997, all the neutral tickets seemed to be hoovered up by us. Not sure how that worked to this day. I remember virtually nothing about the game except for Eddie Newton’s prod home at our end to make it safe at 2-0.
When Wisey lifted the famous silver pot, twenty-six years of waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting were evaporated.
It was always going to be “Matthew’s Cup” and so it proved. At the time, it was the best day of my life. Since, I have had two better ones; Bolton in 2005 and then Munich in 2012. But for anyone that was supporting the club on Saturday 17 May 1997, it was a feeling that was pretty indescribable.
So I won’t even try. Just look at the fucking pictures.
After the game, I remembered to collect my banner but I don’t remember how we reached Fulham Broadway. It seemed that all of the bars around the stadium had closed. We weren’t sure if this was because there was no beer left or if the police had said “enough.” One image stays in my mind. The Fulham Road was still closed for traffic and a sofa was sat in the middle of the road. Thankfully, we de-camped to our pub of choice that season, The Harwood Arms, and Pat and his three “Sisters of Murphy” let us in.
If there is a more blissful photo of Chelsea fans from that day – Neil, me, Daryl, Alan, Glenn outside the pub – then I would like to see it. We made it back to South London via Earls Court and God knows where else. We watched the game, taped, when we reached Alan’s flat late that night. We fell asleep happy.
On the Sunday morning, the big man made us breakfasts. We all hopped into Glenn’s car and made our way back to Fulham with “Blue Day” playing on a loop the entire day. Both Alan and I took our camcorders for the parade. The film I have of us driving along Wandsworth Bridge Road, Chelsea bunting everywhere, is a wonderful memory of another time, another place, lost in time.
We plotted up outside the old tube station. The double-decker with Chelsea players stopped right in front of us. Photographs. Film. Everyone so happy. Fans wedged on shop roofs. Almost hysteria. Chelsea shirts everywhere. A wonderful weekend.
I made good time heading East. The roads were clear. As I was lifted over the Chiswick flyover, we all spotted the Wembley Arch a few miles to the north. Maybe it thrills the current generation in the same way the Twin Towers used to thrill others…
In the pub against Wolves, some friends from the US – step forward Chad, Josh and Danny – said we could kip in their AirB’n’B for the Saturday night. The plan was, originally, for me to drive up and back and therefore be unable to partake in a few bevvies. This kind offer solved that problem. But this wasn’t just any AirB’n’B…this was a little studio flat right underneath the old Shed Wall at Stamford Bridge.
“From Stamford Bridge To Wembley” was about right.
But first a magic breakfast at a café in Hammersmith.
Sausages, fried eggs, baked beans, bacon, hash browns, mushrooms, two rounds of toast and a mug of Rosie Lea.
I looked over at PD.
“I say this so often. Hope this ain’t the high spot of the fucking day.”
We weren’t sure.
I drove to Baron’s Court, parked up, then we caught the tube to Fulham Broadway. We soon bumped into the Minnesota Triplets. We left our bags in the apartment and set off. The Americans were waiting, nervously, for their tickets to arrive via royal mail post.
Time for a photo outside the Bovril Gate.
“From Stamford Bridge To Wembley.”
I had planned a little pub-crawl that mirrored the one in 2018 that we had enjoyed before our win against Manchester United. We made our way to London Bridge. “The Mudlark” next to Southwark Cathedral was closed, so at just after 11am we made our way to one of London’s glorious pubs “The Old Thameside Inn” where we met up with Russ from Melbourne, the Kent boys, Steve from Salisbury, Dan from Devon and the three Americans. The weather was red hot. There were the usual laughs. After an hour or so, we sought shade in “The Anchor At Bankside”, another riverside favourite.
Six pints of “Peroni” hardly touched the sides.
But we were still all loathe to talk about the game.
Thankfully, I had seen very few Liverpool supporters at this point; just one in fact.
At around 2.15pm, we set off for Wembley. A Jubilee Line train from London Bridge took us straight up to Wembley Park, a repeat of 1997.
I lost PD and Parky, and walked with Steve up towards Wembley for a while. Whether it was because of the abhorrent abundance of half-and-half scarves being worn by many, or the fact that the famous vista of Wembley from distance is no longer as spine-chilling as in decades gone by, or just…well, “modern football”; I was having a bit of a downer to be honest.
Wembley is now absolutely hemmed in by flats, hotels, restaurants. There is no sense of place about the new gaff at all.
After my issues with getting in against Palace, this one was easy. No searches, straight in. I took the elevators up to the fifth level, with no bloody Scouser sliding in behind me like at the League Cup Final.
We were in ridiculously early, at about 3.30pm or so.
I was so pleased to Les from nearby Melksham. He had ‘phoned us, distraught, at 6.30am and asked us to keep an eye out for a spare. His ticket had gone ten rounds with his Hotpoint washing machine the previous evening and was much the worse for wear. Thankfully, he kept the stub – there’s a stub? – and Wembley were able to reprint it.
As the seats filled up around us, a surprising number of friends were spotted close by.
The two Bobs, Rachel and Rob, Kev, Rob Chelsea, Dave and Colin.
I was, in fact, in a Wembley section that was new to me; the north-east corner of the top tier. This would be my twenty-fourth visit to Wembley with Chelsea apart from the Tottenham away games. Of the previous twenty-three, I had only been seated in the lower deck on five occasions. And the East/West split has provided vastly differing fortunes.
The West End 14 : Won 11 and Lost 3
The East End 9 : Won 4 and Lost 5
So much for the lucky “tunnel” end. The West End at new Wembley was clearly our luckier-end.
The seats – the ones in our end, or at least the ones in the lower tier, would be baking, with no respite from the sun – took ages to fill up. It annoyed the fuck out of me that every spare foot of balcony wall in the Liverpool end was festooned with red flags and banners. Our end was sparsely populated.
Chelsea tend to go for geographical locations on our flags honouring fan groups in various parts of the UK and beyond. Liverpool tend to go with white text on red honouring players and managers. Obviously, you never see St. George flags at Anfield, nor at Old Trafford for that matter.
The kick-off approached.
With about half an hour to go, we were introduced to a spell of deafening dance music from DJ Pete Tong, who was visible on the giant TV screens, seemingly having a whale of a time. The noise boomed around Wembley. This annoyed me. Rather than let fans generate our own atmosphere in that final build-up to the game, we were forced to listen to music that wasn’t football specific, nor relevant to anything.
It was utter shite.
“Pete Tong” infact.
With minutes to go, the Liverpool end was packed while our end had many pockets of empty red seats. Surely not the biggest ignominy of all? Surely we would sell all our Cup Final tickets? I had a worried few minutes.
The pre-match, the final moments, got under way.
The pitch was covered in a massive red carpet. Ugh. More bloody red.
I joined in with “Abide With Me” though many didn’t.
“In life. In death. Oh Lord. Abide with me.”
The only surprise was that said DJ didn’t mix it with a Balearic Anthem from the ‘eighties.
With the teams on the pitch, and Chelsea in all yellow – why? – it was now time for the national anthem. Again, I sang heartily along to this even though I am no fervent royalist. I wanted to be respectful and to add to the occasion.
With my awful voice booming out, I did not hear the Liverpool end booing it. But I was soon reliably informed by many that they were.
There was a time in the ‘seventies, at the height of the era of football fans revelling in being anti-social, that supporters often sang club songs over “God Save The Queen” but no team actually booed the national anthem at Cup Finals.
Liverpool seem to love doing it. It’s their “thing.” And while I can understand that some sections of the United Kingdom feel unloved and disenfranchised, it is this feeling among Liverpool Football Club supporters of them being “special cases” that grates with me and many. Do supporters of clubs from other currently and previously impoverished cities throughout England take such great pleasure in such “anti-Royal / anti-establishment” behaviour?
Save it for the ballot boxes, Liverpool fans.
Stop besmirching the name of your club and your city.
As Tracey Thorn once sang “narrow streets breed narrow minds” and there must be some awfully narrow streets around Anfield.
There were flames as the pre-match nonsense continued. It meant the opening minutes of the game was watched through a haze.
Those seats were still empty in our end.
We lined up as below :
Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger
James – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso
Mount – Lukaku – Pulisic
A big game for Trevoh. A big game for Christian. A massive game for Romelu. Happy to see Mateo starting after his gruesome injury at Leeds United.
Liverpool began very brightly, attacking us in the east, and at the end of the first ten minutes I was supremely grateful that they were not one, or more, in front. They peppered our goal. We were chasing shadows and other clichés. However, Chalobah did well to recover and thump a goal-bound shot from Luis Diaz away from inside the six-yard box after Edouard Mandy had initially blocked the shot. A rebound was flashed wide. At the end of this opening flurry, I counted five decent attacks from the men in red.
We were hanging on.
Thankfully, ten minutes later, all of our seats were now occupied.
That temptation of “one last pint” at Marylebone is always a tough one.
I have often thought that our current team lacks a little personality, undoubtedly compared to certain teams that we have known and loved over the years. It often feels the current crop are missing charisma – even Quaresma would be half-way there – and I really wanted the team to show some mettle and get back into this game. The Liverpool fans were by far the loudest in the opening quarter and I wanted us, the fans, to show some charisma too.
We improved, both on and off the pitch.
A decent move down the right, probably the best of the match thus far, involving James and Mount set up Pulisic but his delicate shot rolled just wide of the far post. Next up, Pulisic set up Alonso but Alisson blocked after a heavy first touch from our raiding wing-back,
Chelsea were now much louder while Liverpool had quietened down considerably. It became a cagier game in the last part of the first-half, but I thought it a good game. This is however based on the fact that we weren’t getting pummelled, that we were in it.
My worst, worst, nightmare was for us to lose…pick a number…3-0? 4-0? 5-0?
But this was fine. Silva was looking as dominant as ever. With him in the team, we had a chance right?
More of the same please, Chelsea.
Into the second-half, we blitzed Liverpool in the opening few minutes, mirroring what had had happened in the first-half, though with roles reversed.
A smart move allowed Alonso, always a threat to opposing teams in the opposition box, but so often a threat to us in our own box, drilled one wide. Pulisic then wriggled and weaved but Alisson again foiled him. The scorer against Arsenal in 2020 – a game I often forget about for obvious reasons – was getting into good positions but needed to find the corners.
The third of three decent chances in the first five minutes of the second-half came from a free-kick from a tight angle, with Alonso slamming a direct hit against the crossbar.
The wing-backs were often the focal points, and we were finding space in wide areas. This was good stuff.
Diaz screwed one just wide.
“CAREFREE” absolutely boomed around Wembley.
A young lad standing behind me initiated a loud “Zigger Zagger”; good work, mate.
We were in this game. All along, I had toyed with the Football Gods by silently wishing for a penalty shoot-out win as revenge for this season’s League Cup Final defeat.
The game continued, but we couldn’t quite keep the attacks going. There were only half-chances. But I still thought it a decent tight game.
On sixty-six minutes, N’Golo Kante replaced Kovacic.
Diaz, again a threat, bent one wide of the far post.
A few players were looking tired now, as was I. My feet were killing me. With less than ten minutes to go, Diaz cut in on our left and slammed a shot against Mendy’s near post.
A largely ineffectual Lukaku was replaced by Hakim Ziyech with five minutes to go.
A deep cross from the horrible Milner, on as a substitute, evaded everyone and David Robertson hot the back post. Another curler from Diaz always looked like going wide. It is so weird that even from one-hundred yards away, the trajectory of shots can be surmised.
I guess I watch a lot of live games, eh?
The referee blew up for full-time.
My wish for penalties – down our end please – looked a strong possibility.
The red end sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before the first-period of extra-time and we prepared for an extra thirty-minutes of terror.
More tired bodies on the pitch and up in The Gods. The two periods of fifteen minutes were not of high quality. Were both teams hanging on for penalties? Were we all?
We went close from a cross on the right but a Liverpool defender hacked it away before Pulisic could make contact. I loved how Kante chased down a Liverpool attack out on their right. What a player.
I painfully watched as Alonso just didn’t have the legs, try as he might, to match the pace of his marker as a ball was pushed past him.
Dave replaced Chalobah and Ruben replaced Pulisic.
The players were now dead on their feet and so was I.
Then, a bizarre substitution in the last minute of the game.
Ross Barkley for Ruben.
I think that I last saw him at Bournemouth, pre-season.
The referee blew up.
I got my penalties, and – thankfully – at our end too. I hoped that Liverpool would lose in the most tragic way possible.
We began OK with Alonso striking home. Then Thiago scored. Dave hit the post and our world caved in. I was dumbstruck as I saw more than a few Chelsea fans walk out. Wankers. We then exchanged goals – James, Barkley, Jorginho – with Liverpool but with their last kick, Sadio Mane’s strike was saved low by Mendy.
Hugs with the stranger next to me.
He beamed : “That’s for those that walked out.”
Ziyech : in.
Jota : in.
Mount : saved.
Tsimikas : in.
We were silent. The Liverpool end roared. Red flares cascaded down onto the pitch. We trudged silently out, up to Wembley Park, a horrendous wait in a warm train, oh my bloody feet, and back – trying to rely on gallows humour to get us through – eventually to Earl’s Court for a few drinks and some food. It was our year in 1997 but not in 2022.
Three FA Cup Final defeats in a row. We have now played in sixteen of them, winning eight and losing eight. After our dominance from 2007 to 2012 – four wins – we need our fucking lucky West end back.
The three of us eventually got back to Fulham Broadway at about 10.30pm and met up with Josh, Chad and Danny.
From Wembley to Stamford Bridge, the return journey over, we fell asleep under The Shed Wall.
Chelsea Football Club was hurting. Two consecutive home defeats, to the disparate talents of Brentford and Real Madrid and with conceding seven goals in the process, had surprised us and had made us smart. Were we that bad in both games?
Yes, sadly. We had created many chances during the second-half of Wednesday’s game, but our finishing had been poor.
The Chelsea conundrum was continuing. We were in third place in the league; admittedly no mean achievement. And it was quite likely that we would finish the season in that placing. But for much of the campaign our performances had been unconvincing. We hadn’t pushed on from last season. But the talent was there. It just needed to be harnessed correctly.
However, after a bleak few days following The Great Unpredictables, I was thoroughly looking forward to a little spin down to Hampshire, to Southampton, to St. Mary’s. It was nice to have a game so close to my home; it was barely a ninety-minute drive. And our record down there has been pretty decent. In my twelve previous visits to this stadium, there was just one defeat.
There were five in my blue Chuckle Bus on Saturday morning. I collected PD, his son Scott, Parky and Glenn at 8am and we made excellent time.
With blue skies overhead, the road south from Warminster hugged the River Wyle to my west with the chalk uplands of Salisbury Plain to my east. The magnificence of Salisbury Cathedral’s spire, resplendent in the early morning sun, took my breath away as it always does. I hugged the eastern edge of the New Forest as I continued south. Entering into Southampton, I am always reminded of two moments.
The first came in 1981. On a sunny Saturday in April of that year I attended a game at The Dell, their old shoe-box stadium, between Southampton and Nottingham Forest, the then European Champions. One of my father’s customers had kindly gifted us two of their season tickets and I was very happy to be able to see one of my non-Chelsea heroes, Kevin Keegan, play at last. It was my second non-Chelsea professional game. The first also involved Nottingham Forest, the 1978 League Cup Final, again a gift from one of my father’s work associates. There haven’t been many over the years. This was Chelsea game number 1,344. In the UK, I have seen maybe thirty professional club games not involving Chelsea, of which around ten were in Scotland.
The second came in 2003. We were heading to “The Victory” pub outside the train station – alas no more – and on the last approach as the road rises into the city centre we were listening to the 2003 Rugby Union World Cup Final on the car radio. We heard “Jonny Wilkinson kicks for glory” and had the briefest of “whoops” before turning the radio off and getting back to supporting a sport that mattered.
It was the same approach into the city this year.
To my right, the horizon was pierced by the towers of the cranes that load and offload thousands of sea containers every day. Then, a gasp, a massive cruise ship – ugly, grotesque, hideous, an eye-sore – appeared. I am sure I have seen the same one berthed at Southampton before. Southampton as always is the embarkation point of many cruise ships. In my childhood, a very early memory, I am sure my parents drove down by the quayside to see the QE2 before it set off. I personally hate the idea of cruises. Fuck that. I like to self-govern my holidays, not leave my sightseeing plans to others.
I was parked up outside the train station at 9.30am. Sadly the usual café where we have enjoyed breakfasts and pints for a few years had closed. We ended up doing a little tour of three of the city centre’s pubs.
“Yates” : already mobbing up with Chelsea, a few familiar faces. We ordered some breakfasts. This is the main Chelsea pub in the town centre. It’s OK at the start but gets too busy. And uses plastic glasses. I met up with Mark from Westbury, Paul from Swindon and Bank from Bangkok.
“The Standing Order” : we spotted a little pocket of Chelsea so joined them for a drink. This is a home pub, but as nobody tends to wear colours at away games, we glided in easily.
“Stein Garten” : we met up with Alan and Gary in this German-style bar. We were joined by Kathryn and Tim, still smarting from the two losses on their trip. Before they headed back to Virginia, they – we – were all hoping for a win to put the run of poor form to a close.
Time was moving on and we still had a twenty-minute walk, at least, to reach the stadium. Our route would take us serendipitously through the churchyard of St. Mary’s. The first incarnation of Southampton Football Club was as St. Mary’s Young Men Association. The church certainly has its history. This is the church that inspired the Southampton’s nickname and also their current stadium name. When the new stadium opened in 2001 – we were the first league visitors – it was known as the Friends Provident Stadium, and I am glad that has now changed.
I silently said a little prayer for our chances later as I walked past the church’s grey stone walls.
I was in the right place for a prayer.
Beyond the church’s steeple, I spotted a tower block that was clad in red and white.
I marched Kathryn and Tim towards the main entrance, past the Ted Bates statue, and we joined the throng of away supporters at the turnstiles.
“Bollocks, it’s ten to three. I can’t see us getting in on time.”
Lo and behold, the Footballing Gods were on my side. I got in with ten seconds to go.
Have I ever mentioned, perchance, that my line of work just happens to be in the world of logistics? I think it may have passed my lips once or twice.
For a change, we were out of the sun in the front rows and half-way back by the corner flag. Sadly, this stadium is quite possibly the dullest of all of the new builds that have infested the United Kingdom in the past two or three decades. The only remotely interesting features are the red and white panels under the roof at the rear of the stand and the red astroturf around the perimeter of the pitch. At least there are no executive boxes. Despite the bland feel of this stadium, over the years I have managed to tease a few decent photos out of my camera at St. Mary’s. The shadows on a sunny day, like this one, have helped add something to my photographs of the players as they confront each other on the pitch. I hoped for more of the same on this occasion.
I quickly scanned the players on the pitch – I much prefer us in all yellow than with black shorts – and tried to piece it all together.
Christensen – Silva – Rudiger
Loftus-Cheek – Kante – Kovacic – Alonso
Mount – Havertz – Werner
No Broja for the home team, but Livramento was at right-back for them.
Mase with a new haircut, shades of Johnny Spencer in Vienna. Ruben as a wing-back again, but we had heard that Dave had tested positive for COVID. Pleased to see Kovacic playing. A chance for Werner. So many had painfully admitted that they had given upon him, myself included.
The game began.
We attacked the other end in the first-half.
Very soon into the game, with me still getting my bearings – “where the fuck is Parky?” – and trying to work out the team’s shape, that man Timo Werner saw a low shot ricochet back off the far post. Soon after, Kai Havertz slammed one over the bar. We were dominating this one, despite a couple of rare Southampton attacks, and we could hardly believe it when a Loftus-Cheek cross from the right found Werner’s head, but he had the misfortune to hit the bar this time.
“He has generally been poor for us, but he has also been so unlucky.”
On eight minutes, Loftus-Cheek played the ball in to Mount with his back to the goal. He controlled the ball so well and deftly spooned the ball out to his right, our left, where Marcos Alonso was raiding.
Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now.”
Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”
We tended to prefer our left flank as an attacking avenue – “listen to me, attacking avenue, for fuck sake man” – but on sixteen minutes the ball was played into Mount from the right and after setting himself up nicely, he swept a perfectly-struck shot into the goal, just inside the far post.
2-0 and coasting on the South Coast.
Werner went close again, but then on twenty minutes a rapid break from us, with Werner the spearhead, had us all willing him on. He rounded the ‘keeper, shades of a Torres at his peak – er for Liverpool – and the lively calmly slotted the ball in from what looked like a pretty slim angle.
Well done that man. Well deserved.
On the half-hour mark, after another searching ball down our left, Werner wriggled into the box and let fly with a shot that rattled the other post – “oh no” – but luckily the ball rebounded nicely to Havertz who, to his credit, was supporting the attack well.
On the half-hour, we were 4-0 up.
But what bad luck for Timo, who had hit a “hat-trick” of sorts thus far; left post, cross-bar, right post.
Alan summed it all up rather succinctly :
“Timo has hit the woodwork more times than Pinocchio does when he has a wank.”
With the goals flying in, I surely wasn’t the only Chelsea supporter who was suddenly becoming fixated with the number nine. In 2019, Saints lost 0-9 at home to Leicester City. In 2021, Southampton lost 0-9 at Old Trafford.
Next to me, Dave remembered the time, in early 2015, when we went 4-0 up at Swansea City within the first forty-five minutes.
What was my biggest away win? I recollected a 6-0 at Wigan in 2010, the week after we beat West Brom 6-0 at Stamford Bridge.
Goals, goals, goals.
We were on fire.
We attacked and attacked. We spotted more than a few home fans disappearing down exit tunnels well before the half-time whistle.
“You’ve had your day out, now fuck off home.”
Meanwhile, where was Parky?
At the half-time break, the always crowded concourse at Southampton was a pretty joyful place. I was so pleased that Kathryn and Tim, not to mention Bank from Thailand, were finally witnessing a win.
We saw Christian Pulisic warming up.
Alan : ”Who’s coming off?”
Chris : “Havertz, I reckon, give him a rest.”
For once I was right.
The second-half began and it was the same old story.
Just four minutes into the second forty-five minutes, Alonso played the ball in to N’Golo Kante. He advanced and attempted a little dink over Forster. This was palmed away but only into the path of Werner who shot just as I shot but at the same time that a chap in front threw his hand up. A ‘photo ruined but I did not care one jot.
There was a rare save from Mendy – a belter actually, a fine save – but this was the home team’s only real chance all game.
To be fair, most home fans remained and urged their beleaguered team on.
“Oh when the Saints go marching in.”
Our reply was obvious.
“Oh when the Saints go marching out.”
On fifty-four minutes, a ball stretched them out down their right and Alonso pushed the ball square to Pulisic. His effort was stopped by Forster but Mount was on hand to tuck it in.
The joy of six.
The game, even more so now, was over. Southampton were dead and buried. At last Parky showed up. He had been doing a tour of the away end.
Reece James replaced Thiago Silva.
Hakim Ziyech replaced Mount.
I liked it that Livramento was applauded by us when he was substituted.
The home team looked shell-shocked, well beaten. To be fair, more stayed to watch the last half-an-hour than Dave and I expected. Fair play to them. There was time for a few songs.
“Kovacic our Croatian man.
He left Madrid and he left Milan.
He signed for Frank and said “fuck off” Zidane.
He signed for Chelsea on a transfer ban.”
I urged the team on. We all wanted more. We wanted tons of optimism ahead of the trip to Madrid. Although no more goals came, the away end was a fine place to be on this particular Spring afternoon. The best effort was from Alonso but it flew low past the far post.
Southampton 0 Chelsea 6.
In the city of ships, this was a real cruise.
On the slow walk back to my car, I took the chance to get my camera out and take a few photographs of some features and buildings that took my eye. We stopped off for a curry just before the Civic Centre with its imposing clock tower. As I sat down, I realised that I had previously been on my feet for around eight hours. The curry hit the spot, and the trip home – the roads clear of traffic now – was quick and easy.
Just after midnight on the day of our game at Carrow Road, I posted on Facebook the following :
“Happy Birthday Chelsea Football Club. Let’s celebrate it with a win later today.”
This was going to be another long old day. I had booked the day off work but was unable to get Friday off too. So it meant that I would be driving straight back after the match. I envisaged around ten hours’ driving in total. I did wonder if we’d completely fill our section, what with the game being only recently re-arranged, but that was soon to be the least of my worries.
I collected the gruesome twosome and by 9am we had stopped for a McBite to eat in the Wiltshire town of Melksham. Just as we were leaving, a friend messaged a group of us on WhatsApp to say that the government were putting sanctions on Roman Abramovich. My immediate reaction was that I wasn’t wholly surprised. But then, within minutes, the word was that it didn’t look good for us. It didn’t look good at all. I quickly turned my ‘phone off and recommenced the long drive east. PD, alongside me in the passenger seat, relayed some snippets of further information. Only season ticket holders were to be allowed at Stamford Bridge, the club shop was to be closed, but also – most worryingly of all – came the news that we couldn’t be sold.
PD summed it all up : “We’re fucked.”
Driving along the M4, nearing Swindon, I advised the chaps to turn their ‘phones off too. In the way that bad news travels much faster than good news, I suspected that the morning would soon be rife with awful rumours and doom-laden opinions about the immediate future of Chelsea Football Club. For a good hour or so, my car has never been quieter on the way to a Chelsea game. All three of us were stunned.
“And on our bloody birthday too. Stick the knife in and turn it, why don’t you?”
And yet. And yet, I could not help think of the poor people of Ukraine, who were at that very moment in time getting shelled by the Russian invaders. A part of me knew that in the very grand scheme of things the comings-and-goings of a football club seemed way less important.
Still we remained largely silent.
But we did mull over a few thoughts. I will admit, at some stage in that mid-morning mess, the three of us contemplated the most horrible “what if?” of all time.
What if Chelsea ceased to exist? What on Earth would we do?
My answer was obvious.
“I’d watch Frome Town. I know I wouldn’t enjoy it anything as like as much, but that’s always been part of my exit plan.”
I could hardly believe that we were thinking it and that I was discussing it. It was a rotten time. Looking back, that hour-and-a-half drive east along the M4 is a blur, a foggy memory, a fugue.
We hit the M25, the M11, the A11 and eventually the fine city of Norwich. I parked up not long after 1.30pm, some five-and-a-half hours since picking up PD in Frome. Despite the sullen thoughts racing through our minds, we promised each other to make the most of the day. Outside, the weather was mild, and overhead the sky was a cloudless blue miracle. I was parked just outside the city centre, just to the north of the River Wensum. We were honing in on one of my favourite pubs, “The Ribs Of Beef” but first we shot into “The Mischief”, a pub that we visited on the day of our FA Cup game in Norwich in 2018.
We all remembered our last trip to Norwich, only two-and-a-half years previous, but that day seems so distant now. In August 2019 – the sun blazing – we watched as Chelsea won 3-2 and Frank Lampard picked up his first win as a Chelsea manager. So much has happened since that it seems almost ridiculous to contemplate it all.
COVID19, several lockdowns, my heart attack, the dismissal of Lampard, the hiring of Tuchel, Champions League glory, Cup Finals, World Championships, a war in Europe and now the forced departure of Roman Abramovich.
My head is spinning as I am listing all of this.
We spent some quality time in the two pubs, and then hopped over the street to finish off at “The Glass House”, where Adam and his merry men and women of the Eastern Blues were enjoying a pre-match drink-up. It was in another pub on that street, “The Lawyer”, where we bumped into Adam and a few more of his crowd in 2018. Alas, that pub is no more. Sadly, the Eastern Blues lost a fine member the past year – Leigh – and it was in “The Lawyer” that we first met him. He was a well-respected Chelsea supporter and I know that he is dearly missed.
RIP Leigh Reeder.
Morsels of information and disinformation percolated through to us while we were drinking. I had allowed myself a single pint of “Praha” in the “Ribs Of Beef” and tried my best to relax. But what about away tickets for Middlesbrough? Was it true that we could be sold after all? How would a new owner work with the CPO? What about us retaining our players? Buying new ones? Would the club even exist by the end of the season?
We decided to let nature runs its course. We were but supporters, and all we could do was support the current team.
I parked up closer to the ground in a multi-story. After quickly saying “hi” to Rob and Martin in a restaurant, we dipped into “The Queen Of The Iceni” by the river. This is a pub that Parky and I first visited in 2012 and we had a quiet word with Noel and his wife. The mood was sombre and contemplative. But it was good to share a few thoughts. This pub was virtually full of home fans. Chelsea supporters, it seemed, were amassed in a pub on the other bank of the river, and their songs could be head from some distance. But we had given all that a large swerve. None of us were in the mood for it.
We decided to head into the stadium relatively early. As we turned the corner, I half-expected TV crews and reporters to be pouncing on Chelsea supporters as we neared the away turnstiles, but things were surprisingly quiet.
This would be my tenth consecutive Chelsea game away from Stamford Bridge, a run that is never likely to be repeated.
Tottenham, Manchester City, Brighton, Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi, Crystal Palace, Wembley, Luton, Burnley and Norwich.
I swapped seats with PD so he could be with Parky for a change; they were down the front with Alan and Gary. I was towards the back. There was reassuringly plain and concise talking with Jonesy, King Kenny, Neil, Tim and Cliff. I need not have been worried about the Chelsea crowd. Our section was rammed.
Suddenly, the game was upon us and I flicked my focus to our team.
Chalobah – Silva – Christensen
Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Saul
Mount – Havertz – Werner
What a lovely first-half, eh?
We created more in those first ten minutes than we did in the entire first-half at Burnley in the previous game. After just two minutes, that rare thing; a Chelsea goal from a corner. Mason Mount slapped it in from the far side and a leap from Trevoh Chalobah did the rest. His glancing header down flew into the net, and the Chelsea contingent roared.
Soon after, the chances mounted up, oh dear please excuse the pun. Two efforts from Kai Havertz were followed by the same player sliding the ball square to Mount, who shimmied and struck high into Tim Krul’s goal. His subsequent slide towards us was euphoric, pure emotion, pure Chelsea.
More of the same please.
The Chelsea crowd were noisy and continuously so.
There were loud chants of “Roman Abramovich” but not everybody joined in.
Ironically, a friend in Detroit – hello Andy – asked me a few months back why we no longer shout Roman’s name at games. I had no real answer to this question. Maybe only on days when we are presented with league trophies at Stamford Bridge? I can’t remember any other occasions in recent times.
I also saw the home fans’ reaction – “Scum! Scum! Scum!” – and I simply didn’t want to contribute to that particular debate.
I remembered the famous exchange in 2005.
“We’ve got a super cook, you’ve got a Russian crook.”
“We’ve got Abramovich, you’ve got a drunken bitch.”
They don’t write them like that anymore, eh?
Back to 2022, and there followed a bizarre chant from us :
“Chelsea get sanctioned everywhere they go.”
Answers on a postcard.
And then, the rarest of songs.
“Chelsea Til I Die.”
This has always been a song that failed to register at Chelsea games, despite many fans thinking that it did. In my mind, and a few friends, it always seemed to be sung by lower level teams for some reason. Yet here we were in deepest Norfolk, and hundreds of Chelsea were giving it an airing for the very first time that I can ever remember.
I guess on this particular occasion it can be forgiven.
Though, to be honest, I’ll be supporting Chelsea after I die too.
We kept pouring forward. Every attack seemed to be with pace, at last, and the front three were continually on the last line of the defence, waiting to pounce. Dave’s energy levels were amazing to witness at close quarters. I lost count of the number of runs he made; many were inch perfect, but sadly many were ignored too. I was impressed with Mase, a bundle of energy, racing forward one minute, tackling back the next.
That shimmy from Thiago Silva as he brought the ball out of defence.
“Now you see it, now you don’t”
A flurry of corners caused concern in the Norwich penalty area. Kovacic and Christensen went close. It was as dominant half of football that I have seen for a while. Oh, since the second-half at Burnley anyway. Norwich were simply not in it. How come we only scored bloody two?
Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Dave at the break. He looked out of place at right wing-back; my eyes took a while to adjust.
In contrast, a stark contrast, the second-half was poor. There was such little quality in the first twenty minutes that I wondered what on Earth the Chelsea players had drunk at half-time. It was the home side that looked the more aggressive as the game continued and Chelsea looked to be tiring. The noise in the away section died a little. On sixty-five minutes, there was a shot that hit a Chelsea defender. My reaction was “handball” before Teemu Pukki gathered the loose ball and Mendy saved well.
The initial handball was given though.
A penalty to Norwich.
Pukki drilled it low, Mendy going the other way.
“On The Ball City” boomed.
Oh – and another – “Yellarmy!” as encouraged by electronic displays.
Yellarmy. I ask you.
Norwich fancied their chances now, and I didn’t fancy ours. But we needed a win here to silence the baying hordes in the outside world. We needed to hang on.
With five minutes to go, a double flip.
Romelu Lukaku for a poor Timo Werner.
N’Golo Kante for a tireless Mateo Kovacic.
The big Belgian fluffed a chance from inside the box.
“CAM ON CHELS.”
On ninety minutes, Kante passed to Havertz and our slim and silky German thundered the ball high into the goal.
Norwich City 1 Chelsea 3.
We walked slowly back to the waiting car. Our mood had been brightened by the result. We tried to be positive. The road west was waiting for me. I eventually reached home at 3.15am.
My dear father was born on 16 December 1923, and I thought it quite apt that we were playing Everton at Stamford Bridge on his birthday. Everton’s Goodison Park was the only football stadium that my father, who was more into swimming, diving, tennis and badminton, ever visited before I came along. Since my first game in 1974, he was with me on many trips to Stamford Bridge, Ashton Gate and Eastville in Bristol and the County Ground in Swindon in my childhood and beyond.
In total, Dad saw Chelsea play around thirty times. And it was again quite fitting that his last ever game was against Everton bearing in mind his Goodison Park visit in around 1944. This last match took place on New Year’s Day in 1991. I had travelled by train to spend New Year’s Eve with some college mates and then met up with my parents in the West Stand before the match. Watching the game with us were a couple of family friends and a young lad Edward, about eight years of age, attending his very first Chelsea game. When one of those family friends passed away – Jack lived four doors away and reached the grand age of ninety-eight – Edward’s father spoke about that day in 1991 and it pleased me that Edward is still a Chelsea fan. For the record, despite us going ahead with a goal from Kevin Wilson, Everton equalised at The Shed End in the first-half via Graeme Sharpe. In the second-half, to my horror, Pat Nevin pushed the ball across the six-yard box and it deflected in off Jason Cundy. We lost 1-2. The gate was just 18,351. I was on the dole at the time, not even drifting, and the game summed up the gloom in my life at the time.
Everton have never been relegated from the top flight, unlike their neighbours across Stanley Park, and so it is not surprising that I have seen them play a fair few times; thirty-five games at Stamford Bridge, twenty matches at Goodison, a Cup Final at Wembley.
PD, my work-colleague Simon and I were on our way to game fifty-seven. Sadly, Parky was unable to join us. There was the usual midweek dip into “The Goose” and then “Simmons” and I could not help notice that both places were much quieter than usual. We had noted light traffic en route to London too. It certainly seemed that this “Lockdown / Plan B” was having a real impact on people’s ability to get out and about as per normal. In both pubs, talk was of COVID19, and there were very real concerns that this football season might be pulled out from under our feet, if only for a few weeks. In the back of my mind, there was the eerie memory that the very last game before lockdown in 2020 was our home game against Everton.
There were reports of three of our players being out with fresh cases of COVID19; Lukaku, Werner and Chilwell, though were other rumours too of a couple more. As we supped our drinks, I was genuinely expecting the news to break that our game against Everton would be postponed. Regardless, we walked to Stamford Bridge, and I slapped on a face mask just outside the West Stand forecourt. I wore it all the way to my seat as per the new advice though it was clear that I was in the minority.
Not only was Chelsea’s team depleted with injuries and now COVID19, but Everton’s too. We heard on the grapevine that there would be a couple of debuts for them. Over in The Shed, the best part of three thousand Evertonians were amassed. Elsewhere, as kick-off time rapidly approached, it was clear that thousands of seats that would not be filled. In The Sleepy Hollow alone, we were missing one or two. Alan was still away with COVID19 – he hopes to be back for Wolves – and the elderly chap who sits next to PD was also absent. Simon was taking Clive’s ticket alongside me. Thus, in our little section of five seats, two were empty. Our friend John sits in the same row but around fifteen seats along. Next to him were six or seven empty seats that were never occupied the whole game.
I looked around Stamford Bridge. Easily five thousand empty seats, probably more.
We learned that Callum Hudson-Odoi was out with COVID19 too.
So, the team?
Dave – Thiago – Rudi
Reece – Jorgi – Ruben – Marcos
Hakim – Christian – Mase
The Everton debutants were Jarred Branthwaite and Ellis Sims.
It was a very mild night in SW6. I didn’t bother with my coat which was draped over the back of my seat.
As is so often the case at home, we dominated early on and it continued throughout the first-half; for Manchester United and Leeds United, read Everton. We were soon peppering the Everton goal. A slick ball out to Reece from Jorginho set up our right wing-back, but his shot was sliced past the near post netting at The Shed End. Then came a low shot, wide, from Mount that should have hit the target. Ziyech looked keener than usual in the opening quarter and a lovely spin and turn – it drew gasps – and his pacey burst set up Pulisic with an opportunistic flick but Pickford was his equal.
The chances, pardon the pun, mounted up. I counted six in the first twenty minutes. A shot from Ziyech, two efforts from Reece, a free-kick from Alonso.
Everton rarely got out of their half.
Thiago Silva played a quarterback role again, teasing others to show for him, playing neat passes to feet and lofted chips out wide.
There was a nice little atmosphere brewing I felt. Everton had their standard selection and so did we.
“We don’t care what the red shite say…”
“Carefree wherever you may be…”
The chances continued at The Shed End.
I was enjoying an in-match chat with Simon, and we seemed to share a few opinions. After feeling distanced from football throughout all of last season, although there were frustrations that our almost total domination had not resulted in goals, I felt really involved in this game. It felt like I was back. I didn’t take nearly as many photos either; possible proof that I wanted to concentrate on the match being played out in front of me. I offered encouragement under my breath to our players, joined in with the chants, sang the praises of others.
It felt good.
We continued to dominate. Ziyech blazed over. Everton were defending so deep though and space was at a premium.
Rudiger found himself inside the penalty area and set up Mount just outside the six-yard box.
I was up celebrating the goal.
But Jordan Pickford saved it with a reactionary twitch of his leg.
I turned to Simon :
“Oh please God let this not be one of those games.”
I didn’t think Ruben Loftus-Cheek was looking particularly dominant. It also concerned me that I have started to call him “Rubes” during games. This must be akin to the “Chels” moniker that was always only ever used during games, but now seems to be hideously omnipresent.
With the end of the first-half approaching, there seemed to be warm encouragement from the stands.
I joined in a vibrant “CAM ON COWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”
As late as the forty-second minute, Everton struck at Mendy’s goal for the first time.
The half-time stats showed that we had enjoyed eighty percent of the ball.
As the second-half began, I spotted the increasingly more rotund figure of pantomime villain Rafa Benitez gesticulating on the touchline. I for one was pleased that the dull “we don’t care about Rafa” chant was not aired the entire match.
A song from 1984 : “Feed the Scousers, let them know it’s Christmas time.”
For some reason, that always makes me chuckle.
The chances for Chelsea did not occur at the same rate as in the first-half. And the atmosphere was generally quieter.
Efforts from Mount and Loftus-Cheek did not really bother Pickford.
On the hour, there was a guttural roar of support from the Matthew Harding but it was not to be often repeated.
The frustrations were rising all around me. Very often I realised that my head was in my hands.
“Nobody is a threat upfront, Si. Seems to me that the biggest problem with a False Nine is that nobody has the urgency to score. Everyone is too busy running around that nobody thinks it’s their responsibility to fucking shoot.”
It was just my frustration getting to me.
Don’t worry, BT and Sky won’t be calling on me for tactical analysis in the near future.
But the “running around” part of the plan had stalled and both Simon and I were getting annoyed with our strikers being unable to twist and turn a la Vialli or Crespo.
I decided it was time for an Alan impersonation.
I rocked forward and spoke to PD and Si :
“More fucking movement in a Burton’s shop window.”
On sixty-five minutes, Thomas Tuchel did things his way.
Barkley for Loftus-Cheek.
Saul for Alonso.
Pulisic was shunted back to wing back and for a few minutes at least, Saul was centrally placed up front.
I know his options were limited, but that really caught us all out.
On seventy minutes, a breakthrough. Barkley to James to Mount, and we watched as he bore in on Pickford’s goal from an angle. My camera was poised and ready.
I loved that. It looked like the points would be ours.
Just four minutes later, and – honestly – a ridiculously rare Everton attack resulted in a free-kick from wide on their left. Anthony Gordon played a magnificent cross into the oft-quoted “corridor of uncertainty” and debutant Branthwaite touched the ball past the stranded Mendy. Should he have come out? My first thoughts were “yes” but my position was some one hundred yards away. There is no doubt about the outstanding quality of the cross.
But the defending reminded me so much of our defending under Frank Lampard twelve months ago.
The Everton players celebrated maniacally in front of their fans.
It was another head in my hands moment.
There was no final ten-minute push and, if anything, we seemed to play within ourselves. A late Chalobah for Azpilicueta substitution didn’t add to our potency or our desire. From a Barkley corner, Silva rose well and forced a fine sprawling save from Pickford. A towering leap from Rudiger and a header that flew over. But it simply wasn’t to be.
It was a frustrating end to the game.
There were a few boos at the final whistle.
“Will the real Chelsea please stand up?”
I’ll go back to my words from a few games ago; we are still developing, we are still learning about each other. But the frustrations are real nonetheless.
Walking back to PD’s car, it struck me that this might be the last Chelsea game for a while if the Omicron variant continues to wreak havoc. I have a feeling our that our away game at Wolves on Sunday is under threat, and I did wonder if it might be a few weeks before I see another game at Stamford Bridge. Outside forces will govern our football for a while I think.
To be quite honest, despite the possible cessation of top flight football for a while, I am sure that all of the games will eventually be played.
But it is so ironic that on a night that I definitely felt that I was “one hundred percent back” Chelsea might be taken away from us all again.
I hope to see some of you at Molineux on Sunday.
For the record, here’s how Everton shape up in the list of my most-viewed opponents.
I have penned six-hundred-and-thirty-four of these match reports. Such has been Leeds United’s absence from the top flight in English football that not one of them has featured our oldest and nastiest rivals from South Yorkshire. There was one rare meeting in December 2012 – away in the League Cup – but I didn’t attend that one; it came just too soon after the World Club Cup in Tokyo. I was in no mood to make a lone trip north for a mid-week game. And then, just over a year ago, there was the high-water mark of Frank Lampard’s tenure as Chelsea manager, the 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge that took us to the top of the league, but there was a limited attendance for that one of around a few thousand. Recovering from my heart attack, it was a game I really wasn’t in a fit enough condition to attend. The return game at Elland Road in March had no spectators at all.
As I drove to London early on Saturday morning – a fleeting but beautiful sunrise over Salisbury Plain, a beguiling mix of orange and pink, was the memorable highlight – I pondered a few topics and angles to use in this blogorama. It soon dawned on me that many of our newer fans, of which there are utterly millions, have never witnessed the heated rivalry of a Chelsea and Leeds United league game at a packed Stamford Bridge stadium.
The last such occasion was in May 2004.
The last game of the season, Claudio Ranieri’s last game in charge, a 1-0 win for us, Goodnight Vienna, Goodbye Leeds. I watched that one in the West Lower, freeing up my ticket for Glenn’s mate Tomas from Berlin. A Jesper Gronkjaer goal gave us the points to secure a second place finish behind Arsenal. I wonder whatever happened to them?
But let’s go back further.
The first time that I saw Leeds United in person was in the Second Division in October 1982, a game with a phenomenally malevolent atmosphere before, during and no doubt after. Chelsea had been playing in the second tier since 1979, Leeds were newly-relegated. It seemed almost implausible, to my eyes and to others, that these two giants were now out of the top flight. But the thought of Chelsea playing Leeds, with me able to attend, certainly galvanised me during the close season. The anticipation was palpable. Throughout the previous campaign, our highest home attendance was 20,036. Yet this game smashed that; 25,358 attended and it no doubt drew in the hooligan element of which we had thousands. Leeds had signed off their long membership of the old First Division with a loss at West Brom, sending them down, and their equally notorious hooligans wrecked the away end as a parting gift.
I will not lie. In those days, football was often an afterthought in many attendees’ minds. It was all about “how many away fans, did they go in the seats, any trouble?”
Chelsea and Leeds.
Back against each other for the first time in three seasons.
It was a huge match.
I watched a dire 0-0 draw from The Shed, but can well remember the amazingly heated and noisy atmosphere. I can recollect the northern sections of The Benches and the Gate 13 section of the East Lower to be absolutely rammed with Herberts, goading the travelling thousands from the north in the middle two pens in the sweeping away terrace. How many did Leeds bring? I am not sure. Maybe 3,000, maybe more. There was a welcome and a warning on the front page of the programme for all Leeds fans; “don’t be a mug, don’t be a thug and help your club achieve greatness once again” but there were outbreaks of violence throughout the game.
I also vividly remember The Shed goading the away support :
“Did the (Yorkshire) Ripper get your Mum?”
Different, crazy, brutal times.
From that encounter in 1982/83 I was then able to watch every single Chelsea versus Leeds United league game until that match in 2003/04. This was a run of seventeen unbroken games, and for around ten of these I would always meet up with my college mate Bob, a Leeds season-ticket holder, who got to know my closest Chelsea mates in the pub before disappearing into the away section. Bob also came down to Stamford Bridge for the Liverpool game in 1986, the West Ham game in 1987 and went with me to Forest in 1987 and also to Old Trafford for the FA Cup game in 1988. I accompanied him to Elland Road to see West Brom in the last league game of 1986/87, and I remember smirking as the Leeds fans alongside me in the South Stand – hoolie central – sang about guns and Chelsea scum.
I wore it as a badge of honour that they sung about us when we weren’t even playing each other.
There were the blissful moments when our promotion from the old Second Division was reached in 1984 with a memorable 5-0 demolition of Leeds United at home, then the wonderful repeat in 1989 albeit with a narrower 1-0 win to secure promotion once again against the same opponents.
I can well remember meeting up with Bob, another college mate Trev who also followed Leeds, and my Rotherham United mate Ian, all of whom watched many of Leeds’ games as they closed in on the 1991/92 League Championship. We were sat in a pub in Worcester Park on an afternoon session after the season had finished, and the lads were reminiscing on a few of the games that had given Leeds the title, and not Manchester United. Because of my friendships with these lads, I was definitely in the Leeds corner as 1991/92 came to its conclusion. I just despised Manchester United in those days. Deep down, I still do. I remember asking Bob “what did it feel like when you won the game at Bramall Lane to win the league?” and the sub-text was undoubtedly “what will it feel like if Chelsea ever win the league?”
In the summer of 1992, Chelsea Football Club seemed light years away from silverware.
But I was genuinely happy for my Leeds mates; all lovely chaps, bless ‘em.
From relegation in 1982 to a Football League Championship – the last “real” one, and one with Eric Cantona playing for Leeds – was some turnaround.
Sitting in that pub on a warm summer day, I could not help but think back on that classic Second Division season of 1983/84 – arguably the strongest ever – when the five powerhouses of Chelsea, Leeds United, Manchester City, Newcastle United and Sheffield Wednesday faced-off. At the end of it all – my favourite ever season – Leeds, along with City, missed out on promotion. Yet here they were, finally promoted in 1990, winning the bloody league ahead of the other four. In fact, all four other protagonists had managed to get themselves relegated again since 1984.
The saying “whoever laughs last, laughs longest” never felt more applicable.
Our rivalry, of course, dates back specifically to 1970 – and arguably for a few seasons before it – but there was definitely a renaissance at certain times since. In the early ‘nineties, Leeds tended to have the upper hand over us, and I hated it. They beat us at Stamford Bridge in 1990/91 and 1991/92 and also in 1994/95, a horrible 0-3 loss.
But I remember a game in April 1996 too. I watched that game in the temporary seats of the Shed End alongside Rotherham Ian and his father too – a nice memory – while Bob and Trev were in the away section of the East Lower. Chelsea won 4-1 with Mark Hughes getting a lovely hat-trick; that must have annoyed the fuck out of the away fans. Sadly, the gate was only 22,000 at a time when our capacity was at the 31,000 mark. The gaping holes in the North Stand – yet to become The Matthew Harding – make my eyes smart. Sigh.
Leeds United were relegated at the end of that 2003/04 season. There was a certain amount of schadenfreude when their last game that season was at Stamford Bridge.
“Be off with you, and take your father’s gun too.” Or words to that effect.
In 2005, our erstwhile chairman Ken Bates took over as Leeds chairman and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The Leeds fans, to a man, woman and dog, definitely cried.
They eventually crawled back to the top flight of English football at the end of the 2019/20 season.
“What took you?”
There had been the usual pre-match at “The Eight Bells” with friends from near and far. For the first time, I approached Putney Bridge by car from the south side of the river and was able to drop Paul and Parky right outside the pub; door to door service indeed. By the time I had parked-up and then caught the tube to join them it was 10.30am. Gillian and Kev from Edinburgh were already with them; lucky enough to grab tickets from the ticket exchange at the last minute. They were not watching together though; Kev was in the MHU, Gillian was in the West Lower. Luke and then Aroha showed up, and also Courtney and Mike from Chicago. A few of the Kent lads sat at the bar. At last I was able to meet up with revered Chelsea author Walter Otton and it was a great pleasure to be able to personally thank him for his support in my endeavours over recent seasons.
There was talk of not only Chelsea but Leeds hiring boats to the game; a River Thames cruise apiece from out east to nearby Putney, across the river. I had visions of some bizarre medieval boating battle with jousting poles, or maybe a violent version of the university boat race (“with more than two cox”)
Outside the Fulham Broadway tube, I sensed the presence of a little mob of Leeds; just by their looks and stares. They were close by a line of police. We edged around them. By the time I had reached my seat in the MHU – with Gary talking about Leeds lads slapping a few Chelsea fans outside, unchallenged – I was absolutely ready for the football to begin.
Azpilicueta – Silva – Rudiger
James – Jorginho – Loftus-Cheek – Alonso
Mount – Havertz – Werner
So, still no starting place for our number nine.
Leeds United were without Patrick Bamford, the former Chelsea youngster. Unlike on many occasions at Stamford Bridge, Leeds wore the all-white kit, albeit with some nasty luminous yellow socks. On quite a few times over the years they used to opt for the all yellow kit. There were three thousand Leeds fans in The Shed, but I didn’t spot a single flag nor banner.
The match began and, just like against the United of Manchester, we absolutely dominated the first quarter of an hour or so.
An early free-kick from Reece James went close but not close enough. It was all Chelsea. My usual match-going companion Alan was absent – COVID19 – so I was sat in his seat next to Clive. In my seat, a Chelsea fan from Scunthorpe.
There was a rising shot from Ruben Loftus-Cheek that crashed into the Shed Upper.
“They’ve hardly attacked us yet, mate.”
On thirteen minutes, a loud “Marching On Together” – their battle hymn – and soon after, Leeds enjoyed their first real attack. A shot from the lively Raphinha was blocked, but the Brazilian then forced a fine save from Mendy.
It’s interesting that the Mendy song did not make an appearance during the game. I am not sure that if there is an agreed-upon life-cycle of a chant at football, but this one is still in its infancy; heard at the densely-packed away terraces, but not yet widely-known enough to warrant a full-throttle rendition at Stamford Bridge. Yet.
There was a Leeds corner, and this elicited the other Leeds battle-cry which always follows the awarding of a Leeds corner.
“Leeds! Leeds! Leeds! Leeds!”
Loud and original. I can’t fault that.
Thiago Silva was trying his best to orchestrate things, looking to float balls into space or to pick out runners. But it was a hard slog. There was little room in the final third.
Mid-way through the half, a loud chant from the away quadrant :
“Marcos Alonso. You should be in jail.”
This was answered by the Chelsea faithful with a typically antagonistic chant of our own aimed at a Leeds native. I don’t like even thinking about the man, let alone saying it, singing it, nor writing it.
The Alonso chant was repeated and almost without pause for thought, our left wing-back took a wild swipe at Daniel James. It was a clear penalty.
Raphinha’s stuttering run was almost against the spirit of the game, but Mendy took the bait. However, he seemed to collapse too soon and the Brazilian’s gentle prod to his right ended up a mere yard or so away from him.
The Leeds fans roared, Rapinha wound up the MHL, game on.
On the half-hour, a very loud “Marching On Together” was met with an even louder “Carefree” and everything was alright with the world. At last, the atmosphere was simmering along nicely. But I couldn’t help saying to Clive “there’s a lack of invention and guile out there today.”
A few minutes later, the third Leeds battle cry of the day.
“We are the Champions, the Champions of Europe.”
This harks back to May 1975. A hotly disputed disallowed goal from Peter Lorimer and Leeds United would eventually lose the European Cup Final to Bayern Munich in Paris. I remember watching it on TV. They still feel aggrieved.
The Leeds fans still sing this almost fifty years later. Bloody hell, lads and lasses, let it go.
They must have hated seeing our “Champions Of Europe” signage on the West Stand if any of them got close to it.
With half-time approaching, sinner turned saint. Alonso won the ball on our left and played a brisk one-two with Timo Werner.
I whispered “(needs a) good cross Alonso”…and it was.
It flew low to the near post and Mason Mount whipped it home with one sweet swipe.
Soon after, a dipping free-kick from that man Alonso did not dip enough. Then the young Leeds ‘keeper Illan Meslier saved from Kai Havertz.
Chances had been rare and it was 1-1 at the break. There were no complaints with the score, but plenty of moans at the lack of quality in key areas.
We began a little brighter in the second-half but goal scoring chances were absolutely at a premium. Werner threatened a little, Havertz tried to link things together, but we missed a focal point.
Just before the half-hour mark, down below me, Raphinha slid in to prevent a raiding Antonio Rudiger cross. But the challenge was untidy and legs were tangled. Everyone yelled for a penalty. Some divs even yelled “VAR” which is anathema to me.
Penalty it was.
Get in you beauty.
I snapped away like a fool.
At the other end, a very fine save from Mendy from James, but still no song. Silva messed up a great chance to further our lead and held his head in his hands. It wasn’t a great second-half, but we noted that Alonso improved as the game continued. He was always looking to get close to the man with the ball and on a number of occasions did just enough to help win the ball back.
Clive and I wondered if Tuchel might bolster the midfield and bring on Ross Barkley to bulk it up a little. Leeds were tending to swarm through us and we looked out of shape, physically and positionally.
Christensen for Azpilicueta.
Hudson-Odoi for Werner.
Then, a lightning bolt of an attack down the Leeds left and another low cross, a la Alonso, from in front of the East Lower. Joe Gelhardt arrived with perfect timing to knock the ball in past Mendy. The Leeds fans roared some more.
In a seemingly desperate “last throw of the dice” moment, Lukaku replaced Alonso. There were three minutes to go, and then an extra five.
“COME ON CHELS.”
With ninety-four minutes played, and with Clive having headed for the exits a few minutes earlier, Rudiger again found himself in the Leeds United box. There was a half-hearted challenge from behind but my first thoughts were that Rudiger crumpled far too easily. I didn’t even appeal. I’d be no good at cricket. This one went to VAR again. Another positive decision. And a quicker decision, I think, this time.
GET IN YOU BEAUTY.
Chelsea 3 Leeds United 2.
It hadn’t been a great game in terms of quality. We had hardly peppered the Leeds goal. But it was certainly an old-fashioned battle which became more intriguing as the game developed. As I walked out of the MHU, there was one almighty melee occurring on the far side between the players of good old Chelsea and good old Leeds.
Some things don’t change, eh?
To be continued at Elland Road in April, no doubt.
Next up, Everton at home on Thursday. See you there.
This was another early start. At 7am I called for PD and at 7.30am we collected LP. Another cold day was on the cards as I pointed my car eastwards. As with any other Chelsea trip, there was the usual early-morning sequence of chit-chat, laughs and piss-takes. Outwardly, my main conversation point to my two travelling companions was this :
“Never bloody seen us win at their new place.”
For it was true.
26/10/16 : League Cup – lost 1-2
6/10/17 : League – won 2-1 (I did not attend – work)
9/12/17 : League – lost 0-1
23/9/18 : League – drew 0-0
1/7/20 : League – lost 2-3 (I did not attend – behind closed doors)
24/4/21 : League – won 1-0 (I did not attend – behind closed doors)
Inwardly, I was humming a tune to myself, but I was not convinced that I would be able to remember the exact words later in the day if required.
The key word was “zangalewa.”
“Tsamina mina, eh, eh.
Edouard Edouard Mendy.
Tsamina mina zangalewa.
He comes from Senegal.”
After the really lucky win at Watford on Wednesday, everyone seemed to be of the same opinion ahead of our game with West Ham who were surprisingly flying high, albeit not from Stamford Bridge to Upton Park.
“Tough game coming up.”
Despite the undoubted strength of our overall squad, despite the fine managerial nous of Thomas Tuchel, despite our fine showing in several recent games, there were of course questions everywhere. But this is to be expected. We are still a learning team, a growing team, a team in embryo.
Despite our real worries about our fate in East London, we were on our way.
One of these days, the Premier League fixtures will be kinder to us for an away game at the former Olympic Stadium in Stratford. Of my three – soon to be four – visits, one has been a night game and three have been early kick-offs. We have a traditional East-End pre-match lined up to take place at some point in the future; a pint at “The Blind Beggar” and some pie and mash somewhere local. Time was against us on this visit, but one day we’ll do it.
I was parked-up at Barons Court at bang on 10am. Our race out east involved three railway lines and changes at Green Park and Canary Wharf. We arrived at Pudding Mill Lane at bang on 11am. The walk to the away turnstiles took just ten minutes.
Just over four hours from PDs’s door to an Iron door.
Ideally, I wanted to circumnavigate the stadium for the first time to take some photos but we were soon funnelled into the away turnstiles. I had taken a photo of the ArcelorMital Orbit on the walk to the stadium, but it was a terribly flat photo. I had been hoping to take other photos of not only it but of the stadium too. Again, some other time maybe.
It was all rather ironic that I chose to wear a classic navy New York Yankee cap on this cold day in London. Back in June 2019, the Yankees played two “away” games against the Boston Red Sox at West Ham’s stadium and it was natural that many of my friends expected me to attend as I have been a long-distance admirer of the Bronx Bombers since 1990. But I wasn’t having any of it. As a vehement opponent of the “thirty-ninth game” or any variant of it, it would have been pretty hypocritical of me to watch the Yanks outside of North America.
We were inside with a long wait until kick-off and I was able to chat to many good people in the large concourse area outside the seating bowl.
It was fantastic to chat to Tommie and Kevin for the first time in a while. Both follow Wales over land and sea. They feel ill at ease contemplating a possible place in the finals of the Qatar World Cup. They feel conflicted should Wales win their two play-off games. Both dislike the idea of that nation hosting the tournament; the ridiculous heat, the lack of a local football culture, the obvious back-handers involved in the process of choosing that country, the deaths of migrant workers in the construction of the shiny new stadia, the human rights violations.
I feel for them.
Personally, I have decided to boycott watching the FIFA 2022 World Cup. It’s a personal choice. I recently decided not to watch any qualifiers either.
Talking of the Arabian Peninsula, I heard that a few fellow fans had already booked their passage to Abu Dhabi for the long awaited World Club Championships. This is now finalised for the first few days in February. I want to go. Under normal circumstances, my flight and accommodation would be booked. There are of course other outside influences to consider. A couple of The Chuckle Brothers are interested too. Let’s see how COVID behaves over the next few weeks.
I sense an incoming barrage of “whataboutery” questions heading my way.
Is it hypocritical of me to boycott Qatar but to embrace Abu Dhabi?
Possibly. I’ll do some research. I’ll get some answers. It might prove to be a difficult decision. It might be an easy one. This is what Tommie thinks about Qatar too.
…a voice from the gallery : “you OK on that soap-box, mate? You finished pontificating?”
Well. If you insist.
I saw that the Chelsea U-21 team again took part in the autumn group phase of the “EFL” Cup, which was originally known as the Associate Members Cup when it was originally floated back in the mid–eighties. For years and years, this was the sole preserve of teams in the third and fourth tiers of the professional pyramid and gave the competing teams the chance to reach Wembley Stadium. For a while this was known as the Johnstone Paints Trophy, and allowed Southampton to have a self-deprecating dig at us in recent years.
“Johnstone Paints Trophy – you’ll never win that.”
Premier League teams have been allowed to enter their U-21 teams since 2016 and I – and many others – are dead against this. I see no merit in it. It could potentially rob a smaller club of their day out at Wembley. In 1988, for example, Wolves beat Burnley 2-0 in the Sherpa Van Trophy in front of 80,000 supporters at a time when both clubs were floundering. As recently as 2019, over 85,000 saw Portsmouth beat Sunderland.
Seeing Chelsea U-21 at Wembley in a final would not thrill me; far from it. Despite us playing at nearby Bristol Rovers and Forest Green Rovers in the past month, I boycotted those two games. No interest, no point and just wrong in my book.
The two Robs appeared.
“Have you got the Mendy song sorted?”
I replied I wasn’t sure but I thought there was mention of the word “satsuma” somewhere within it.
I made my way up the steps to the upper level of the seating bowl. This was my first time back in over three years and I had forgotten how ridiculous a stadium it really is. I was in row thirty-six, so heaven knows what the view was like in row seventy at the rear. That vast amount of wasted space between the two end tiers is such an eyesore. For a one-time Olympic stadium, I am always struck with how undeniably bland it all is. The only unique feature about it is the upturned triangular pattern of the floodlights. The “running” track area is now claret-coloured, the one change since 2018.
On the balcony of the main stand, or at least the one with the posh boxes, which is the only one not named after a former player, a potted history of West Ham’s successes is listed.
The list does not extend too far.
FA Cup 1964
FA Cup 1975
FA Cup 1980
Not much of a list, really.
I said to Gary : “I am surprised they haven’t added ‘East 17 Xmas Number One 1994’ to it…”
To be honest, silverware-wise, Chelsea and West Ham were scarily similar for decades; only four major trophies apiece up until 1997. Since then, well…our two trajectories have differed.
We knew that Thomas Tuchel was still battling injuries but we had also heard that Reece James and Jorginho were to return.
Rudiger – Silva – Christensen
Alonso – Jorginho – Loftus-Cheek – James
Mount – Havertz – Ziyech
Still no sight of Romelu Lukaku in the starting eleven; we guessed he wasn’t 100% and was being eased back in.
Ex-Chelsea favourite Kurt Zouma was in the West Ham team.
Chelsea, in yellow and black, attacked the home end in the first-half and quickly dominated possession.
In the opening few minutes, the two sets of fans went with some tried and tested chants :
“From Stamford Bridge to Upton Park, stick your blue flag up your arse.”
“You sold your soul for this shit hole.
On six minutes, the mood in the stadium dramatically changed as an image of the murdered young boy Arthur Labinjo-Hughes was shown on the two giant TV screens. It seemed that everyone stopped to clap. What a terrible waste of a beautiful young life. I have rarely felt such sickening sadness and anger as when I saw, and heard, his sweet voice on the TV.
Bless you Arthur. Rest in peace.
Despite our dominance, West Ham were actually ahead on chances created in the first quarter of an hour, with one shot from Jarrod Bowen going wide and a free header from another who I thought was Mark Noble but then realised he wasn’t even playing. It is, after all, a long way from the pitch in the away end.
All of the noise seemed to be coming from us.
A well struck shot from Reece James was easy for Fabianski to hold.
“One shot on goal in fifteen minutes, Al. That equates to just six in the whole match.” My eyesight might have been shite, but my maths was up to scratch.
Another chance to the home team, but Mendy saved from Craig Dawson.
In the wide open space between the two tiers of Chelsea support, around twenty police were positioned.
“Most Old Bill I’ve seen inside an away ground for ages, Al.”
It had made me chuckle just before the match had started to see Goggles, the football-liaison officer at Fulham Police Station, chatting away to a known Chelsea hooligan, admittedly of yesteryear. It also made me laugh to see, at various stages of the match, all twenty police officers avidly watching the game, seated in a separate section, rather than eyeballing the crowd.
I called it The Goggle Box.
At last, another effort on the West Ham goal; on twenty-five minutes a very fine cross from James picked out the unmarked leap of Kai Havertz. Sadly, this was saved.
A corner followed, and then another. Mount crossed to meet the unhindered leap of Thiago Silva inside the box. His header forced the ball downwards and it bounced up and into the goal. The net rippled and the three-thousand Chelsea fans roared. The goal immediately reminded me of the first Chelsea goal that I ever saw in person, another “up and down” header from Ian Hutchinson in 1974.
Twenty-eight minutes had elapsed and all was well in the world.
“Maybe I will see us win here after all.”
We spotted Joe Cole and Gianfranco Zola, and Rio Ferdinand, out in the open, in front of the BT studio no more than thirty yards away.
Hakim Ziyech was involved in some nice flourishes, and the fleet-footed trio up front were causing West Ham more problems than they would have wished. There was still a reluctance for any of our team to take a pop at goal though. It was infuriating the hell out of Alan and myself. At last, an effort from distance from Mason Mount – nothing special to be honest – cheered us.
“Need to do more of that. Get players following up, it might squirm away from the ‘keeper, let’s keep firing shots in, deflections, touches, make the ’keeper work.”
Two more shots at the West Ham goal followed.
West Ham were still offering an occasional threat, though. Sadly, on forty minutes, an under-hit back pass from Jorginho put Edouard Mendy under all sorts of pressure. Knowing that our fine shot stopper is not gifted with even average distribution, we always wonder Why The Fuck do we seem obsessed in playing the ball back to him, especially when opposing teams are putting us under pressure in our third. It is fucking unfathomable. Well, surprise surprise, a heavy touch from Mendy followed, and as he saw himself lose control, he took a low swipe at that man Bowen.
It was a clear penalty.
Lanzini smashed in the equaliser from the spot.
Only four minutes later, a fine move involving Ruben Loftus-Cheek pushing the ball out to Ziyech resulted in a long cross-field pass to Mount, unmarked, in the inside-right channel. His first time effort was incredible; a potent mixture of placement and power, the shot being cushioned with the side of his foot, but with so much venom that Fabianski did not get a sniff. It crept in low at the near post.
It was a fucking sublime goal.
There were generally upbeat comments at the break. The noise hadn’t been too loud throughout the half, but it is so difficult to get the away support – in two distinct areas – together to sing as one. I hardly heard the Mendy song, but on its rare appearance, the young bloke behind me was making a spirited effort to mangle every syllable in the entire song.
I kept quiet. I knew I would hardly be any better, satsuma or not.
At half-time, Lukaku replaced Havertz.
“Is it me, Al, or has he put on some weight? He was pretty trim when he returned from Italy.”
He must love Greggs’ steak bakes and sausage rolls. And their doughnuts and yum yums.
There was a little nip-and-tuck as the second-half began. Ten minutes in, Gal chirped “the next goal is massive.” Within a minute, West Ham broke with ease down our left and just before Bowen struck, I feared the worst and sighed “goal”; it was therefore no surprise to me to see the net ripple again, this time at the far post.
Our Callum came on in place of Ziyech; a tad unlucky I thought, but maybe he was tiring. Callum began up front in a three and had a few nibbles. But ten minutes later, Alonso was replaced by Christian Pulisic, so Callum reverted to a left wing back. We enjoyed a little spell of around ten minutes when we looked to be knocking on the Irons’ door, but I have to say that the integration of a returning Lukaku – either unable or unwilling to shake off markers – was a problem. We enjoyed reasonable approach play but floundered in and around the box.
“Hit the fackin’ thing.”
Our efforts on goal hardly caused Fabianski to break sweat.
Callum’s reluctance to drift past his man was frustrating. On the rare occasions that he was in a good position to shoot, he declined.
With three minutes to go, and with a few Chelsea fans already trickling out of the away end, a relatively rare West Ham move found itself wide on our right.
Out of nowhere, Arthur Masuaku took a swipe at the ball, no doubt intending to send a cross into our box for the impressive Michail Antonio – much more agile than Lukaku – or anyone else who was nearby to attack. To our horror, the ball appeared to be sliced. It made a bee-line for the goal, and Mendy – expecting the cross – was caught out. His back-peddling and side-shifting was a terrible sight to see. Again that same net rippled.
The home fans, I have to say, made an absolute din.
With that, hundreds of Chelsea fans poured out of both tiers.
Alan, Gary, Parky and I stayed to the end, but I had packed away my camera long before the final whistle.
“Still not seen us win here.”
The Chelsea crowd shuffled out. Jason – another Chelsea fan from Wales – cheered me with a positive spin on things.
“Tough one but we move on mate” and a smile.
On the walk away from the stadium, there was honest annoyance but also a little pragmatism too.
“Should have won that. Fluke goal, the winner. A mate reckoned it deflected off Ruben’s leg. But we didn’t create enough clear chances. God, we miss Kante.”
As we walked on, the mood shifted further. Let’s not get too silly about this. Nobody likes losing but on this day, a day of two Arthurs, maybe a little perspective is needed.
Do I have to spell it out?
The return trip out west went well. Pudding Mill Lane station was soon reached. It must be one of London’s hidden secrets; we never wait too long there. In the short line for the lift to take us up to the platform, a West Ham fan, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Bernie Winters, soon sussed that we were Chelsea but when he heard that we went to all the games could not have been friendlier.”
I finally took my photo of the ArcelorMital Orbit from the platform as we waited for a train to whip us back to Canary Wharf.
We were back at Barons Court for around 4pm. Our trip back to Wiltshire and Somerset was quick and uneventful, but one moment disrupted us.
“Liverpool just scored. Ninety-fourth minute.”
With Manchester City winning too, we suddenly found ourselves in third place. There will be no dishonour if this fledgling Chelsea team, still learning about itself and its manager – and vice versa – finishes third this season.
Personally, I’ve got my beady eyes on the World Club Championships. If we win that, the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy really won’t matter at all.
There is no midweek flit to Russia for me, so next up it’s the old enemy on Saturday.
It had taken me two-and-a-half hours to drive up to Watford from Melksham. We were parked up at the northern end of Watford’s pedestrianised high street and were soon ordering drinks at the bar inside “The Horns” public house. It was around a quarter to five on another cold winter day. The match was due to kick-off at 7.30pm, the second of three games in the London area within seven days. I was driving to all of them; a total of 670 miles.
Just as I had arrived in Watford, a text from a long, lost mate.
Jesus from California was in town. Parky and I first met him at a game at Goodison Park in May 2011 – the Carlo Ancelotti sacking debacle – but he was a major fixture in that amazing 2011/2012 season when his university sent him on an internship to London for a few months. We met him a few times at Stamford Bridge, but also at Manchester City, Fulham, Arsenal and Napoli. He went to the Champions League games at Benfica and Barcelona too. But then he returned to Calexico and, despite me trying to get him to head back to Chelsea, his studies ended and his new business venture started, and getting away was proving difficult.
The years passed.
A month or so ago, he told me he was heading over – without match tickets – for the games at Watford and West Ham.
PD and Parky sipped on Stellas while I sipped a Diet Coke. We eagerly awaited his arrival. It was all a bit ironic really, since I had two extra tickets in my wallet but which were already promised to another. We waited for Andy to arrive at “The Horns” too. Sadly, he was running late.
At around 5.30pm, Jesus and his mate Rafael arrived. What a joy to see him again. A hug and handshakes. They had been down near Vicarage Road in a pub called “The Red Lion”, trying to source a ticket or two. There was a rushed update on our lives – and football – but I explained that they really needed to head down to the main Chelsea pub, “The Moon Under Water”, and put the feelers out for spares. They set off at about 6pm.
Andy was caught in traffic so I arranged to see him outside the ground.
Suddenly, it was all about tickets.
There is absolutely no doubt that the football public are mad for football once again; for away games especially so. The buzz of away games far outweighs home matches. We all love them.
This was going to be a long day. I was up at 4.45am to enable me to get in to work to do a very early 6am to 2pm shift. We were glad we had set off at just after two o’clock. We had been caught in some heavy traffic as we wended our way around the notorious M25 and Andy was stuck in that same slug of traffic. Apart from the delay on the London orbital, it was a painless drive up to Hertfordshire; the highlight being the sight of two intense rainbows as we drove through rain clouds on the M3.
Ahead, dark grey brooding clouds. Behind, an intense yellow wash over the clouds in my rear view mirror. Above, multicolours.
We set off – coats buttoned, that winter chill was a frightener – at around 6.30pm. We arrived at Vicarage Road just before 7pm. I stayed outside and left PD and Parky to get inside. There was no news of tickets for Jesus, nor any news from Andy battling the M25.
I positioned myself right under the sign at “The Red Lion” and waited for news.
The match-goers rushed past, the short walk from the pubs of central Watford almost over. I love that little walk; it’s absolutely packed full of cafes, restaurants and take-aways of every variation and from every nation. There was a wide variety of spectators too. Young and boisterous youngsters. Middle-aged men with coat collars turned up with scarves tight against necks, the cold biting away. Couples. Little groups. Many solo figures. Folk walking with stares down at the pavement and road, watching out for any uneven bumps. Watford scarves, but hardly any Chelsea colours. A few familiar faces.
“Hello Mark, alright mate?”
The floodlights were turned away from these faces but the light they gave off helped illuminate the night. Hot-dog stands. Gulps from tins. The neon signs of the last couple of take-aways. The quick shuffle of feet. Kick-off approaching.
At last a text from Andy. He was parking up and would be around ten minutes. I kept looking at my watch. This was our first of nine games in December. It was looking like I’d miss the first few minutes of the first one.
At 7.25pm, he arrived with his son, full of apologies.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry. You’re here.”
I squeezed into the away end with the match clock showing “1.11” having elapsed.
I found my seat next to Al, Gal and Parky my pal.
The next few minutes were spent acclimatising myself to everything though I was soon aware that we were enjoying none of the ball on the pitch.
Alan : “you ain’t missed much.”
This was my eighth visit to Vicarage Road. I quickly spotted a rainbow effect in the Elton John Stand to my left. Multicolured T-shirts in deference to the diversity campaign had been placed on all of the seats. However, this highlighted – more than ever – how many of the available seats were empty. And not everyone was wearing the T-shirts. I am not surprised. Donning a T-shirt over a chunky jacket would not have been the easiest task. The two sunsets of the M3 had evidently followed me up and around the M25 and down the A411 to Watford.
No news from Jesus.
I looked at the team, evidently floundering on the pitch against a Watford team looking decidedly waspish in their yellow and black hoops.
From “The Horns” to the Hornets and it looked like we were getting stung. Mendy was soon called into action.
Yeah, so, the team.
Rudiger – Christensen – Chalobah
Azpilicueta – Loftus-Cheek – Saul – Alonso
Mount – Havertz – Pulisic
“No Lukaku, then Gal.”
With many key players unavailable, Thomas Tuchel had been forced to shuffle the pack.
Then it all became rather surreal. Play was stopped with about eleven minutes on the clock and everyone’s attention was drawn to the upper tier of the small Graham Taylor Stand to our right. It was clear that a spectator was receiving some medical attention. I am sure in previous seasons this would have taken place with no break in play but in today’s climate, the game was stopped for a few minutes and then the referee led the players off.
There was a row going on close by; a couple had arrived a little late and it seemed that others were in their seats. Some stewards were trying to quell another intra-Chelsea squabble a few rows behind.
Stingray was stood next to Tombsy, talking gibberish to himself as is his wont.
We stood around, not wholly sure of how the evening would continue. As minutes passed, a few folk nearby were quickly redrawing their plans on how to get home. Andy and Tombsy were thinking hard about leaving the game early in order to catch trains to their homes in the north. Dave was thinking about an early exit too. We were fine; we had my car parked up and ready to be used whenever we needed it. The minutes ticked by.
Gallows humour, of course, was to the fore.
“With the start we had, not unhappy we had to go off.”
The short chap helping the Watford ‘keeper Daniel Bachmann warm-up again caught Gal’s eye.
“Oh Danny DeVito, oh Danny DeVito, oh Danny DeVito, oh Danny DeVito.”
For those of you who know Gal, this song was more than ironic.
Al : “Gary doesn’t do irony, mate.”
Word got out that there had been a cardiac arrest. With my heart-attack of last October, you can imagine the thoughts that were running through my mind. The person receiving attention was seemingly taken away and the crowd mildly applauded.
Half-an-hour passed before the teams re-appeared. We then had the odd sight of both sets of players warming up again. Even more bizarrely, Watford made a substitution, with Danny Rose coming on. The ex-Tottenham full-back was roundly booed for the rest of the night.
The game restarted with Watford continuing their domination.
Bluntly, we weren’t in it.
Then, out of nowhere on eighteen minutes, a break in front of us, and Mason Mount slammed a shot from a very acute angle against the near post.
“That was our first attack, Al.”
The game continued on, and I sighed as I said to Alan “we have hardly put four passes together mate.”
Watford were more aggressive and we lacked intensity off the ball and quality on it. Saul was reliving his nightmare debut.
“Shades of Bakayoko up here” lamented the bloke behind me.
Oh God, that performance by Bakayoko in that 4-1 loss in 2018.
Over on the touchline, managers old and new.
I adapted the song of the moment.
“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. A stupid baseball cap. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”
But the trademark cap was exchanged for a ski hat on this particular night. Ranieri chose the same. Ranieri edged the sartorial battle though, if only because Tuchel’s trackie bottoms looked like they had shrunk in the wash.
On the half-hour, at last we looked like ourselves. A long searching ball from Rudiger found the galloping Alonso. His first touch flummoxed his marker and he switched the ball inside to Havertz, surprisingly free. He decided not to shoot, but instead played the ball square to Mason Mount. He smashed the ball in.
He celebrated down in front of us. There was the usual tumble of bodies towards the base of the terrace.
“There’s the four passes, Al.”
There was euphoria but also the knowledge that this was absolutely against the run of play.
Mendy saved well from a low drive from an angle from Rose five minutes later. Sadly, just before half-time, the very disappointing Loftus-Cheek lost the ball and Watford moved the ball quickly and with purpose.
“I don’t like this” I said to Gal, almost impersonating Graham Taylor’s most famous line without even meaning to. Emmanuel Dennis advanced and slotted home.
There were five, I think, extra minutes of time to be played at the end of the half. The half should have ended at 8.15pm. It came to a halt at around 8.55pm.
“Well, that was crap.”
During the break, Tuchel rang the changes.
Thiago Silva for Our Saul.
Chalobah moved into midfield alongside Ruben.
Thankfully, we began brighter in the second period and Silva’s calming influence shone as brightly as the Vicarage Road floodlights. But it comes to something when a common or garden shoulder charge by Havertz gets a round of applause from the away faithful.
Mendy rushed out to intercept a ball but crashed into Tom Cleverley. The ‘keeper was down for a while. There were concerns for his health, but the break in play allowed a new chant to be aired in his honour.
I’ll be honest, I had not heard it before and was both shocked and surprised how many supporters knew it. It was a bloody tough one to work out though. I got the “Edouard Mendy” bit and the “he comes from Senegal” bit but the rest was a mesmerising flow of undecipherable syllables.
It got louder and louder.
I felt like a spare prick at a wedding.
John Redwood mouthing the Welsh national anthem?
No, not that fucking bad.
At least I joined in with the clapping.
With Mendy recovered, the medical team then turned their attention to Chalobah, lying prostrate on the halfway line.
“Fuck sake. This game won’t finish until 11pm.”
Hakim Ziyech replaced Chalobah. The reaction around me was of disbelief to be honest. We needed to toughen up the midfield. We wondered why Ross Barkley wasn’t chosen.
There was a brief chat about the team.
“Nobody has done well tonight really, but Havertz has done the most. At least he has showed for the ball, moved the ball on, an odd dribble.”
Another substitution, Romelu Lukaku for Dave, so the very quiet Pulisic shifted to wing-back.
Within three minutes, a cross from Mount on the left and the ball was flashed into the net. The strike was hit right at the ‘keeper but with just too much pace. But I just saw a confluence of blue in the box; I had no idea who had tucked it in.
As I tracked the celebrations, I realised – gulp, humble pie please waiter – none other than Ziyech receiving the adoration of others.
The rest of the game resembled a battleground. I can hardly remember a game in which so many players were on the floor receiving treatment. This was a game that truly did not want to end.
One last Watford chance, a thunderous free-kick from Juraj Kicka was flicked over by Edouard Mendy and this ensured a noisy replaying of his song.
Six extra minutes.
At last – at last! – the whistle.
“Got out of jail there, mate.”
“Lucky as hell.”
“How did we win that?”
“How much do we miss Kante?”
We slowly walked back to the car, stopping off on the high street for a dirty hot kebab.
I eventually got home at 1.30am.
It had been a long game and a very long day.
4.45am to 1.30am.
But job done and on we go. I am amazed we are still leading the pack. If pressed – high – I still think we will finish third behind City and Liverpool. But we’ll see.
Oh, by the way, Jesus and Rafa got in.
West Ham away next. It won’t be easy. See you there.
My alarm sounded and I was soon up. This was another early kick-off at Chelsea. Our second of five matches in fifteen days matched us against Norwich City, a team who – along with Watford, West Brom and Fulham – seemed destined to spend their eternity bouncing between the top two divisions.
This trip to London was going to be slightly different. A little explanation is needed.
Back in the days when I was working in a factory’s Quality Assurance department in the nearby town of Westbury, I started to hear stories of Chelsea legend Ron Harris running a small holiday complex centered around a fishing lake in the nearby town of Warminster. On the eve of our 1994 FA Cup Final with Manchester United, I visited “The Hunter’s Moon” with my copy of the 1970 Cup Final programme, intent on meeting Ron – who I had never ever met before – and getting him to sign it. I remember walking in, and my first view of Chopper was of him clearing some plates away from the small dining room next to the bar area. He duly signed the programme and I can easily remember his words.
“You’re a Chelsea fan, then?”
I spent a fair bit of time talking to his wife Lee, who I remembered from a couple of player profiles in match programmes from the ‘seventies. I was, of course, hoping that the meeting of our 1970 captain would bring us luck; so much for that plan as we were walloped 4-0 in the Wembley rain. Over the next few seasons, we began calling in at “The Hunter’s Moon” en route back from Chelsea. On one memorable occasion, Ron cajoled us into continuing our drinking and volunteered to drive us back to Frome later that night. We would return to collect Glenn’s car the following morning.
Glenn’s voice of disbelief as we reached his front room lives with me to this day.
“Ron Harris drove us home!””
I remember Ron invited Glenn up to the club’s ninetieth anniversary celebrations with him in 1995, and there were chats with both Peter Osgood and Tommy Langley at Ron’s over the years. He drove Glenn and I up to a game at Chelsea in around 1999.
I didn’t see Ron too much for a while after he moved out of “The Hunter’s Moon” – there was one memorable night with Ron, Ossie and Kerry in 2005 – but I then began seeing him again on the odd occasion at Chelsea. In February 2009, he was due to do a gig before our game at Anfield and asked me if I fancied a lift up to Liverpool. I, of course, jumped at the chance. Although I reported on that match in a blog at the time, I didn’t fancy coming over as a Billy Big Bollocks, so referred to Ron as “Buller” – the nickname bestowed upon him by the players, which was used rather than “Chopper” – and nobody guessed who was driving me to Merseyside. We lost 0-2 that day, those two bloody Torres goals right in front of us.
Meeting up with Ron in Manhattan in 2012 before a Chelsea game at Yankee Stadium was – looking back – a rather special moment. Ron played in the first game that I ever saw in 1974. He played in each one of my first seven games from 1974 to 1976. In fact, of the seventeen games that I saw Chelsea play during his time at the club, he started thirteen, came on as a sub in one, was a non-playing sub in one and missed only two.
Mr. Chelsea ain’t half of it.
There was a Chelsea vs. PSG supporter’s five-a-side game at Chelsea Piers during those few days in New York. I was lucky enough to play for the Chelsea team and after the game I couldn’t help a cheeky dig at Ron.
“I saw you play thirteen games for Chelsea Ron. Didn’t see you score a single goal. You’ve seen me score today. Just one game.”
We both laughed.
After moving south to the coast at Mudeford, Ron returned to Somerset at Shepton Mallet a few years back and now lives just nine miles away from me in Wiltshire, between Westbury and Trowbridge. A few weeks back, his daughter Claire contacted me and asked if I fancied sharing the driving on match days. We agreed midweek games would be difficult due to my work times and Ron’s need to be at Chelsea a few hours before kick-off. We agreed that I could take him to as many weekend games as possible.
Chelsea versus Norwich would be the first one, a tester for timings if nothing else.
So, when I set off at 6.30am, my first port of call would be for Paul at 6.40am, my second would be for Ron at 6.55am and the third one would be for Parky at 7.15am.
All aboard the Chopper Bus.
We usually stop for a bite to eat on the A303 on the way to London, but after hearing that Ron needed to be at Chelsea for his corporate activities at 9.30am, we made haste and made a beeline for Stamford Bridge. I have known for years that Ron is a stickler for being on time – “I’m only ever late for my tackles” – so this didn’t faze me.
There was quality chat in the Buller Bus all the way to London. I kept looking in my rear view mirror as I sped past Stonehenge and all of the familiar sights and saw Ron sat alongside Parky.
Yeah, it was surreal.
Ron ran through some stories and talked of a few managers. He was no fan of Danny Blanchflower – new fans, Google away now – nor Geoff Hurst. As we rose up onto the M3 at just about the same location I heard “That’s Entertainment” last Saturday I remembered one particularly awful season.
“Yeah, in 1978/79 we were shit weren’t we?”
After a few seconds, I realised what I had said. Ron had played virtually every game that season, often as a defensive midfielder.
“Fucking hell Ron, just realised you were playing that season.”
Ron’s smile in the rear view mirror was wide.
As we passed Twickenham, Ron told the story of how manager Dave Sexton took the players one afternoon to the home of rugby to see the Varsity game between Oxford and Cambridge universities. He wanted to show the players how the rugby backs used the overlap as a potent form of attack. For those not into rugby, like me, it is so odd that the attacking players play at the back.
Stupid bloody sport.
Ron was full of praise of Sexton, by far his most admired manager in his nineteen years in the first team at Chelsea. He was certainly one of England’s first tactical gurus, who would win two cups while at Chelsea with Ron his captain.
At 9.20am, I dropped the three passengers off opposite the CFCUK stall at Fulham Broadway.
I went off to park up on Normand Road and then caught the tube down to Putney Bridge. I had booked a table for 10am. I arrived at 9.50am to see around twenty regulars waiting for the boozer to open.
Did I say that I work in logistics?
For just a tad under two hours, we relaxed and enjoyed the pre-match. I could chill out now. I won’t deny that there was a little extra pressure on my driving on this particular day. The three of us ordered breakfasts. I will be honest; it was my first full-blown breakfast since my heart attack just over a year ago. The food was bloody lovely. As is so often the case, we were joined by a few mates from near and far.
Shawn – who I met for the first time at that New York weekend in 2012 – and his brother Dan are from Boston and lucked-out on utilising some cheap flights and then coming up trumps on the ticket exchange. They sat alongside us and tucked into a full English too. We were joined by Rich from Edinburgh and Ed from Essex. We had a whale of a time.
The dedicated driver, I was on coffees and Cokes. The time whizzed past. Up onto the platform just as a train pulled in. We were soon at Fulham Broadway, we were soon inside.
At around 12.15pm, I was relieved to hear the PA announce that there would be a minute of applause in the memory of Matthew Harding before the game.
The crowd sang.
“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”
Our much-loved vice-chairman was killed twenty-five years ago. Where does the time go? It remains one of the most horrible times of my life. Only the deaths of my parents, my gran, and maybe of Peter Osgood, have left me more desolate. There was a montage of images of Matthew and a few reflective voice-overs. I am not sure if anyone remembers, but on the Saturday before the helicopter crash on the Tuesday, we lost 2-4 at home to Wimbledon. Before that game, there was a minute’s silence in memory of a stadium disaster in Guatemala during the previous few days. I often thought it poignant that Matthew Harding would have stood silent that day.
I have written about Matthew Harding before here; about how I met him once, how his wife Ruth replied to my mother’s sorrowful letter after his death, of what he meant to us all at Chelsea.
On the Saturday after the crash, I placed a bouquet amongst many others in the East Stand Forecourt.
With Love And Appreciation.
We Will Never Forget You.”
Before the game with Tottenham, emotions were high. We decamped to Matthew’s favourite pub, The Imperial on the King’s Road, and I raised a pint of Guinness to his memory. This would soon become my drink of choice at Chelsea for many years (I think, as my own special mark of respect) and the minute’s silence before the game – the second in eight days – was pure emotion.
High up in the stand bearing his name, twenty-five years on I had a little moment to myself.
Rest In Peace, Matthew Harding.
With fifteen minutes to go, “London Calling” and then “Parklife” changed the mood a little.
The team news came through.
Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah
James – Kovacic – Jorginho – Chilwell
Mount – Hudson-Odoi
With five minutes to kick-off, the Matthew Harding banner surfed the lower tier while the balcony confirmed “One Of Our Own.”
The players stood in the centre circle. The crowd applauded.
It took me back to those years of Hoddle, Harding, Hughes, Gullit and – for Glenn and little old me – Harris. To complete the reworking of the “Harris, Hollins, Hudson, Houseman, Hutchinson and Hinton” years, we drank in The Harwood in those days too.
These were great – it has to be stated – “pre-success” times at Chelsea. I loved the team in that era. It was the saddest thing that Matthew died just six months before our first success in twenty-six years.
How he would have enjoyed Wembley 1997, Stockholm 1998, Bolton 2005, the double in 2010, Munich in 2012, Amsterdam in 2013, Baku in 2019 Porto in 2021.
The song again.
“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”
The game began.
Norwich City only had around 1,500 I think. I bet they soon wished that they hadn’t bloody bothered. Malmo on Wednesday were poor, but I think Norwich were even worse.
We began brightly.
The visitors didn’t look interested from the off. Their players looked off the pace. They lolloped around like zombies in a film, unwilling to walk faster than they need to, almost in a trance-like state. Their fight was absolutely missing. How Billy Gilmour has only played four games for them this season is a travesty. Of their players, I only recognised Krul and Pukki, a sure sign of my fading knowledge of football outside of SW6 these days. It’s an age thing.
We were jabbing away nicely at the flabby gut of the Norwich defence from the off, and our play brought applause on a mild autumnal day. Callum Hudson-Odoi was involved early on and we began trying to puncture the back-line. On just nine minutes, crafty approach play from Callum ended up with a cross into the box. Mateo Kovacic won a second ball and played it to Mason Mount on the edge of the box. His well struck swipe flew low into the goal, and I was in right in line with its path.
Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now.”
Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”
Norwich’s response was lukewarm. We had virtually all of the ball and were finding spaces to exploit. There were a few poor choices of final balls, but we were purring when Kovacic released a superb pass from deep into the path of an on-rushing Hudson-Odoi. He relaxed, looked at the goal, and adeptly threaded the ball past Krul and into the waiting net.
Two-nil and coasting.
Callum found Mount, but Krul saved.
A first shot from Norwich via Ozan Kabak on thirty-six minutes troubled those in the Harding Upper more than Edouard Mendy.
The noise in the stadium had quietened. These early starts often follow this pattern.
We then witnessed one of Dave Sexton’s overlaps. This one involved Mason Mount playing the ball to Reece James and this allowed the rampaging wing-back to advance and deftly chip the ball over Krul. It was a fine goal, but one I almost missed as I was mid-conversation with Clive.
But 3-0 it was.
And three academy players too, though it wouldn’t dawn on me until later. It’s an age thing.
There had been goals, but Alan and I had spoken about how often we seemed to be wanting to wait and play a perfect ball, rather than shooting on sight. How we missed a Frank Lampard. We were happy with three, of course, but we could have scored more for sure.
At the break, in the Matthew Harding Upper :
Me to Tim : “after Wednesday, when we should have scored six, we simply have to score six today.”
At the break, in the away dressing room :
“Farke knows how we’ll win this.”
The second-half began and we certainly improved, though soon into the game the noise at Stamford Bridge had reduced almost completely.
We peppered the Norwich goal with a few teasers, but had to thank that man Mendy once again as a Ben Chilwell played in Rashica who ran onto the ball and it appeared that he just needed to round Mendy to score. However, our magnificent man intercepted with an outstretched limb. The crowd roared and so did our ‘keeper.
Just before the hour, Norwich afforded us way too much room and a move involving James and Kovacic played in Chilwell down below me. No volley this time, but a drilled carpet-burner flew into the net.
Keep’m coming Chels.
Our Callum was finding oodles of space on the left and, five minutes after our last goal, he broke inside the box once again. A low cross was deflected in off the luckless defender Aarons. The ball was just out or reach of the equally luckless Krul and the ball spun into the net.
Callum looked embarrassed.
Next up in this action-packed demolition job, Norwich were down to ten men after a rugged tackle on James by Gibson saw the referee Madly reaching for a red card.
The crowd were involved now alright. The atmosphere was bubbling away nicely.
On the hour, the loudest chant of the day thus far.
“Champions Of Europe, We Know What We Are.”
A minute later, louder still.
The game safe, on came three substitutes.
Ruben Loftis-Cheek, Ross Barkley and Hakim Ziyech replaced Jorginho, Havertz and Hudson-Odoi.
There was a lovely sing-off in The Shed.
“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.
“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”
“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.
“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”
“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.
“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”
“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.
“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”
“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.
“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”
“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.
“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”
I was just waiting for the Whitewall…
On the pitch, our team was suddenly full of Frank Lampards. Shots from new boys Barkely and Ziyech – with three whipped-in efforts – caused Krul to leap every which way possible to stop further embarrassment.
But there was time for yet more drama.
A neat one-two played in Rudiger and his shot seemed to be blocked by a defender’s arm. We waited for the VAR decision.
Mason Mount waited, and shot strongly but Krul saved well.
After a few seconds, we realise that the referee was told that the ‘keeper had stepped off his line. Therefore, a re-take, and this time Mount bashed it home.
During these routs, there is often an injury-time goal and this was one of those occasions. A sweet move involving Ziyech, who looked inspired in his twenty-minutes on the pitch, set up Loftus-Cheek, who advanced, drew the ‘keeper before selflessly squaring for Mason to prod home for his hat-trick.
Another VAR wait; a suspicion of offside. No. Seven it was.
On reflection, even though the last two games had yielded eleven goals, the tally ought to have been so much more. On Wednesday, we could have scored seven. Against Norwich, we could have scored ten. I can’t remember two more one-sided, consecutive, home games. Norwich City, it pains me to say, were the worst league team that I may well have ever seen us meet at Stamford Bridge.
They were lucky to get naught.
I met up with Mister 795 outside the hotel and we slowly made our way back to the car on Normand Road. Ron was equally scornful of the opposition.
“The club should dip their hands in their pockets and pay for those tickets.”
There was a message from Steve in Philly.
“Chris, if you could travel back in time and tell your teenage self that one day you would be taking Ron Harris to and from Chelsea matches, what would teenage Chris have to say”
The answer was easy.
I battled the traffic to get out past the M25, but made great time on the return journey. There was a lovely mixture of chit-chat and laughs all the way home. Ron Harris will do well in our Chuckle Bus.
I dropped Parky off at 6.10pm, Ron at 6.30pm, PD at 6.45pm, and I was home at 7pm.
The perfect day continued as I found out that Frome Town, who were 0-2 at half-time at Cinderford Town came back to win 3-2 with a Kane Simpson hat-trick. And I was also able to sort out a couple of tickets for mates for the United game next month. It really was a nigh-on perfect day.
Next up Southampton at home on Tuesday and then the long-awaited expedition to Tyneside on Saturday.
My match report for the home game against Everton in March of last year – a really fine 4-0 win – ended with a typical few words.
“Right. Aston Villa away on Saturday. See you there.”
Then, as we all know too dearly, life – and football – changed. The corona virus that had first been spoken about just after Christmas in 2019, almost in a semi-humorous way at the start, took hold and started claiming victims at an alarming rate. A global pandemic was on our hands. Very soon the United Kingdom was placed in lockdown, a situation that none of us could have ever envisioned witnessing in person during our lives.
Suddenly and without too much thought, football seemed of little real relevance to me.
The trials and tribulations of Chelsea Football Club in particular seemed small compared to the news appearing on my TV screen, on my phone and laptop. As friends found their own way of coping with the surreal nature of lock down, and then being furloughed from work, I quickly realised that football, Chelsea in particular, was way down my list of priorities.
I simply had other, more serious, issues to deal with. And this is how my thought process, my coping mechanism, remained for weeks and weeks. While others pushed for football to return I simply asked myself :
It was irrelevant, for me, to concern myself with millionaires playing football.
Eventually after a prolonged break, when the football season began again in the middle of June, I had become emotionally distanced from the sport and from Chelsea too. I had simply turned inwards, as did many; working from home, travelling as little as I could manage and trying not to impact – socially – on the outside world. I joked that I had been practising for this moment my entire life. Earlier in my life, I was the ultimate shy boy.
But the noisemakers in the game and the media were adamant that it would be a major moral boost for the nation to see football return.
It just didn’t sit well with me, this notion of football to be seen as the great saviour. Other priorities seemed to overshadow it. I just could not correlate what I was hearing in the media about football and what I was feeling inside.
I will not lie, I absolutely hated watching the games on TV, with no fans, in silence, and I became more and more distanced from the sport that I had loved with each passing game. I watched almost with a sense of duty, nothing more. What had been my lifeblood – to an almost ridiculous level some might say, and with some justification – just seemed sterile and distant. I have very few memories of those games in the summer.
The FA Cup Final seemed particularly difficult to watch. On a hot day in August, I mowed the lawn, and even did some work in my home office for an hour or two, and then sat alone to see us score an early Christian Pulisic goal but then be over-run by a revitalised Arsenal team. That result hurt of course, and I was annoyed how some decisions went against us. The sad injury to Pedro – a fine player for us over five years – in the last kick of the game seemed to sum up our horrible misfortune that day. However, and I know this sounds funny and odd, but I was pleased that I was hurting. That I still cared.
But by the evening, the loss was glossed over.
Football still didn’t seem too important to me.
The one positive for me, and one which combines my own particular brand of OCD – Obsessive Chelsea Disorder – married with a possible smidgeon of shallowness, was the fact that I didn’t have to delete the games I had witnessed in 2019/20 from both my games spreadsheet and – gulp – this blog site.
A small victory for me, and I needed it.
Off the field, work was becoming particularly stressful for me. In August I came oh-so close to handing in my notice. The workload was piling up, I was battling away, and I was getting some worrying chest pains again.
In mid-September, the new season began and I openly hoped for a new approach from me. There was nothing up in the air here; we knew games would be played behind closed doors, we knew the score from the start. I renewed my NOWTV package to allow me to see most of our games. We began the league campaign at Brighton. For some reason, I didn’t see the game, I can’t remember why not. The first match I witnessed on TV was the home defeat to Liverpool.
It was no good. I could not deny it. I was as distanced as ever. The hold that Chelsea Football Club had on me for decades was under threat.
Conversely – at last some fucking positivity – as soon as my local team Frome Town started playing friendlies and then league games, I was in football heaven. I especially remember a fantastic pre-season friendly against Yeovil Town two days before Chelsea’s game at Brighton. A warm Thursday evening and a capacity 400 attendance, a fine game with friends, just magnificent. In September and October, I attended many a Frome Town game including aways at Mangotsfield United in Bristol – it felt so good to be back home in my living room uploading photos just an hour after the game had finished, a real positive – and on a wet night in Bideford in North Devon. Home gates were significantly higher than the previous season. There was a magnificent sense of community at the club. There had even been a tremendous crowd-funder to raise £25,000 in April to keep the club going. We even had a little FA Trophy run – before being expelled for refusing to play an away tie in an area with a high infection rate. Soon after, the club’s records for a second successive season were expunged and that early season flourish was put on hold until 2021/22.
But for a month, I was felling inexorably closer to Frome Town than to Chelsea. It seemed that my entire world was turning in on myself.
Was the world changing?
On Saturday 10 October it certainly did. For the second time in a few days I experienced chest pains. There had been a similar attack in my bed and breakfast in Bideford on Thursday morning. That drive home was horrible. I wanted to be brave enough to phone for a doctor. On the Saturday, I knew I had to act. I phoned the emergency services and – to cut a very long story to a quick few lines – I was whisked into a local hospital in Bath. On the Sunday, I was told that I had suffered a mild heart attack, and on Monday I underwent an operation to have two stents fitted into my heart. My Tuesday afternoon, I was home again.
I remained off work for five weeks, and slowly returned in stages. A half-day here, a half-day there. I remained calm throughout these weeks. I knew, deep down, that something had been wrong but being a typical bloke, decided to let things slide and hope for the best. Since then, I have improved my lifestyle; decaffeinated coffee – boo! – and healthier food, more exercise and all of the associated improvements that go with it.
With all this going on, Chelsea seemed even more remote. I was momentarily cheered when fans were allowed back inside Stamford Bridge, and that for a few hours we were top of the table after Leeds United were despatched. For a fleeting moment, it seemed that Frank Lampard, who had teased a very creditable fourth place finish in July out of his youngsters, was now able to similarly nurture his new signings too. But there had been failings in 2020/21 too. Our defence was at times calamitous. But I was solidly behind Frank all of the way. I really felt for him. Back in March, with Billy Gilmour the new star, we had enjoyed quite wonderful wins over Liverpool and Everton. There was positivity, hope and the future looked utterly pleasing.
Then the pandemic struck. Damn you COVID19.
In December and early January our form dipped alarmingly. I watched Frank’s interviews through my fingers. It was not pleasant viewing. It saddened me that so many rank and file Chelsea supporters, across all demographics – from old school fans in England to younger ones abroad – had seen fit to kindly forget the “I don’t care if we finish mid-table for a couple of seasons, let’s build a future with our youngsters” mantra in August 2019.
It got to the stage where I didn’t want Chelsea to simply win games but to simply win games for Frank.
I had returned full-time to work in mid-January. To their credit my employer has been first rate throughout my ordeal. While I was in the office on a day in late January, it was sadly announced that Frank Lampard had been sacked. I was numbed yet not at all surprised. I firstly hated the decision for reasons that are probably not difficult to guess. So much for long termism, eh Chelsea?
My interest in the exploits of Chelsea Football Club probably reached an all-term low. Or at least since the relegation season of 1978/79 when we were shocking throughout and I was being pulled away from football with a new interest in music and other teenage distractions.
A nerdy-looking chap, skeleton thin, probably a diamond with Powerpoint and with a marginally worse hairstyle than me? I wished him well but football again seemed distant.
Our form improved but the football itself seemed sterile. I was still struggling.
On a Saturday in March, I debated whether or not I had time to go off on a ten mile walk to a local village and get back in time to watch play at Elland Road. I considered binning the football in favour of my new found enjoyment of walks in the surrounding winter Somerset countryside. In the end I compromised; I went for a walk on the Sunday.
I know what I found most enjoyable.
Of late, our form has really improved. Again, I haven’t seen every game. But we look a little more coherent, defensively especially. Apart from an odd blip, to be honest, the results since the new manager took over have been sensational even if many of the ways of getting those results have lacked a certain “I know not what.”
I’m being mean. The bloke has done well. I like his self-effacing humour, his humble approach. He has started to grow in me (Parky : “like a fungus”).
Of late, our progress in the latter stages of the Champions League has been the most impressive part of our recent resurgence. And yet this competition has been haunting me all season long. In a nutshell, the thought of us reaching our third European Cup Final and – being selfish here, I know it – me not being able to attend is a nightmare.
(OK, not a nightmare. I know. I know 127,000 people have lost their lives due to COVID19. That is the real nightmare. I realise that. This is just football. Just football.)
I shrugged off last August’s FA Cup Final. I coped remarkably well with that. I soon decided that I could even stomach missing a second-successive one this year. But the thought of us lifting the big one for a second time and me – and others – not being there is bloody purgatory.
So, it was with a heady mix of genuine pride and impending sadness that accompanied the glorious sight of us beating a hideously poor Real Madrid side over two-legs to reach the final.
But that spectacle, or debacle, needs another chapter devoted to it. And it doesn’t seem right to talk too much about that at this time. In fact, going into the weekend I assured myself that I would not dwell too much about the 2021 European Cup Final. Let’s be honest here; the twin crushing of the hated European Super League and the farcical and immoral desire of UEFA to send 8,000 UK citizens to Portugal in the midst of a global pandemic warrants a book, a Netflix series even, all by themselves.
Let’s talk about the FA Cup.
For those readers of this blogorama who have been paying attention, I have been featuring the visit of my grandfather Ted Draper to Stamford Bridge for the 1920 FA Cup Final between Aston Villa, his team, and Huddersfield Town. This is a work of fiction since I only know that my grandfather once visited Stamford Bridge, but was never able to remember the game. Suffice to say, in the report of the home game against Liverpool last March, I continued the story.
After a break of fourteen months, a re-cap.
On Saturday 24 April 1920, on this very same site, if not this very same stadium – but certainly one which was in situ for the 1982 game, those lovely packed terraces – my grandfather stood on the great slug of the West terrace with his old school friend Ted Knapton alongside him. It was half-time, and the score between the two teams – Aston Villa, who he favoured, and Huddersfield Town – was 0-0. It had been an exhilarating game of football for my grandfather, though the spectacle of seeing fifty-thousand spectators in one sports ground had proved to be the one abiding memory that he would take away with him.
Fifty thousand people.
And virtually all were men, and so many had fought in the Great War.
My grandfather was twenty-five years old. He silently gazed out at the main stand on the far side, the open terraces behind each goal, and looked behind him at row after row of fellows in caps and hats, some with the colourful favours of the two competing teams. A claret and blue rosette here. A light blue hat there.
It struck home.
My grandfather had just that week spotted a local girl, a few years younger than him, who was beginning work in the manor house of his home village. She was a young cook, with a lovely smile, and had caught his eye.
My grandfather was a rather quiet man. He looked out at all those faces. He did not speak to his friend Ted, but he – at Stamford Bridge on Cup Final day 1920 – had decided that the stadium, indeed the whole of England was full of men, and the thought of one of them asking the young cook out before he had a chance to utter a shy “hello” ate away at him.
He had survived the Great War. He lived in a great village and now this great spectacle had stirred him in a way that he had not expected.
“You had better get your act together, Ted Draper. On Monday at lunch time, I think I will ask Blanche if she would like to accompany me to next weekend’s village dance. I can’t be second in that race.”
I was so annoyed that I could not continue this story last season. The team did their part, defeating Manchester United in a semi-final, but of course there was no Cup Final Tale in which I could tie up rather conveniently tie up the end of my 1920 story on the centenary.
Thankfully, good old Chelsea, the team defeated Manchester City in this season’s semis to enable me to continue and to honour my grandfather again.
The quality of the play down below on the surprisingly muddy Stamford Bridge pitch deteriorated throughout the second-half. But Ted Draper, along with his friend Ted Knapton, were still enthralled by the cut and thrust of the two teams. The players, wearing heavy cotton shirts, went into each tackle with thunderous tenacity. And the skill of the nimble wide players caught both of their eye.
“Ted, I wonder what the crowd figure is here today. There are a few spaces on the terracing. I suspect it would have been at full capacity if Chelsea had won their semi-final against the Villa.”
“I think you are right. What’s the capacity here? I have heard it said it can hold 100,000.”
“Trust Chelsea to mess it up.”
“Yes. Good old Chelsea.”
The crowd impressed them. But they were not too impressed with the swearing nor the quite shocking habit of some spectators to openly urinate on the cinder terraces.
“To be honest Ted, I haven’t seen any lavatories here have you?”
“I’m just glad I went in that pub before we arrived.”
The play continued on, and the crowd grew restless with the lack of goals. The programme was often studied to match the names of the players with their positions on the pitch. With no goals after ninety-minutes, there was a short break before extra-time, and more liquid cascaded down the terraces.
“Like a bloody river, Ted.”
After ten minutes of the first period of extra-time, Aston Villa broke away on a fast break and the brown leather ball held up just in time for the inside-right Billy Kirton to tuck the ball past Sandy Mutch in the Huddersfield goal. There was a mighty roar, and Ted Draper joined in.
The Aston Villa supporters standing nearby flung their hats into the crowd and many of the bonnets and caps landed on the sodden floor of the terracing.
“Buggered if I’d put those things back on my head, Ted.”
There then followed a period of back-slapping among the Villa die-hards, and Ted Draper was very pleased that his team had taken the lead. The game stayed at 1-0, with both teams tiring in the last part of the match. The crowd stayed until the end, transfixed. There was just time to see the Aston Villa captain Andy Ducat lift the silver trophy on the far side. The teams soon disappeared into the stand.
With a blink of an eye, the game was done, the day was over, and Somerset was calling.
As the two friends slowly made their way out of the Stamford Bridge stadium, Ted Knapton – who favoured no team, but had picked the Huddersfield men for this game – spoke to my grandfather.
“That goal, Ted.”
“What of it?”
“It looked offside to me.”
“Not a chance, not a chance Ted. The inside-right was a good half-inch onside.”
“Ah, you’re a bugger Ted Draper, you’re a bugger.”
On Cup Final Day 2021, I was up early, a good ninety minutes ahead of the intended 8am alarm clock. One of my first tasks was to swab my mouth and nose. Now there’s a phrase that I never ever thought that I would utter on a Cup Final morn. Part of the protocol for this game, the biggest planned event to take part in the UK since lockdown in March 2020, was that all attendees should take a lateral flow test at an official centre from 2.15pm on Thursday 13 May. I was lucky, I was able to work a late shift on the Friday and I travelled to Street for my test. The negative result soon came through by email. We also were advised, though not compulsory, to take a test at home on the morning of the game and five days after the event in order for data to be gathered. A small price to pay.
This felt odd. To be going to a game after so long. I took some stick from a few people that saw me comment that my love of football was being rekindled.
“Chelsea get to two cup finals and all of a sudden Chris Axon loves football again.”
I laughed with them.
The joy of football had been rekindled because I was now able to see a live game. There are many ways for people to get their kick out of football. By playing, by writing, by watching on TV, by refereeing, by betting, by coaching, by fantasy leagues. By I get my kick through live football.
It has been my life.
I posted the carton with the vial containing my swab at Mells Post Office just after I left home at 10.30am. I was genuinely excited for the day’s events to unfold. Outside the same post office a few days earlier, I had announced to two elderly widows of the village – Janet and Ann – that I was off to the FA Cup Final a few days earlier.
“I have missed it badly.”
They both smiled.
And I realised that this final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup represented a final tie to my childhood – I am known around the village as a Chelsea supporter – and it also represented a nod to the tie that Chelsea Football Club has on me.
But did it really represent one last chance to bring me back in from the cold?
I know that I needed something to help me regain my love of the game before my dislike of VAR, obscenely-overpaid players, ever-changing kick-off times, blood-sucking agents, the continuing indifference to game-going fans despite the limp platitudes that might suggest otherwise, the threat of the thirty-ninth game, knobhead fans, the disgraceful behaviour of UEFA and FIFA in so many aspects of their stance on so many things (I have already decided I am not watching a single second of the Qatar World Cup) all combine in one horrible mixture to turn me away even more.
I have aired all this before. As well you know.
No pressure, Chelsea.
On my way to collect Lord Parky, my sole companion on this foray back to normality, I passed near the village of Westwood. Until recently, I was unaware – as were many – that this is the final resting place of our former ‘keeper Vic Woodley. There is a group on Facebook that actively try to locate the graves of former players and on occasion headstones are purchased if there are unmarked graves. It is an admirable cause. Two Saturdays ago, I placed some blue and white flowers on the grave. Although it is open to debate, I would suggest that until 1955, Vic Woodley was our most successful player at Chelsea.
Hughie Gallacher was probably our most famous player, George Smith had played more games and George Mills had been our record goal scorer.
But Woodley had played 252 games for Chelsea and 19 for England. He was in our team for the Moscow Dynamo game in 1945 too.
I vote for Vic Woodley.
I soon passed The Barge pub, on the outskirts of Bradford on Avon where he was a landlord in later years.
We must pay a visit when normality returns.
Parky soon reminded me that he had heard of his Uncle Gerald, a Derby County fan, talk about Vic Woodley – who played thirty times for Derby before moving to Bath City – living locally when Parky was younger. Parky also recounted meeting a chap in nearby Melksham who had been at that Moscow Dynamo game just after the Second World War.
1994 And 2021.
I had collected Parky at 11am. His first task had been to replicate a photo of me setting off outside Glenn’s house in Frome before the drive to the 1994 FA Cup Final. I wanted a little comparison. Me at 28 and me at 55.
This would be my eleventh FA Cup Final that I will have attended. The twenty-eight year old me what have laughed at such a notion.
We had a lovely natter on the way up. We hardy stopped chatting. Sadly, neither Glenn nor PD could make it up but we promised to keep them in our thoughts. Our route took us towards High Wycombe before we doubled back on the M40. This was quite appropriate since a very well-known and popular supporter at Chelsea, Wycombe Stan, had recently passed away. He was well-loved by all and will be sadly missed at Chelsea. Stan has featured in these reports a few times. A smashing bloke.
RIP Wycombe Stan.
I had purchased a pre-paid parking slot for £20 only a ten-minute walk from the stadium. Traffic delays going in meant that we didn’t arrive much before 3pm, but it felt good, for once, to not have to race like fools to get in to a Cup Final. Those “last pints” on Cup Final day are legend.
The environs around modern Wembley Stadium are much different than as recently as 2007, the first final at the new place. Flats and hotels abound. It is very much a retail village first, a sporting venue second. We bumped into two Chelsea fans on the walk to the stadium. Gill B. said that the place was full of Leicester, that there were hardly any Chelsea present yet. I knew of two Leicester City season ticket holders who were attending the final and one had said that most of their fans were arriving on an armada of coaches. Gill R. wasn’t planning on meeting up with anyone, but as we turned a quiet corner, she shouted out : ”Chris!”
It was so lovely to see her. We chatted for quite a while, talking about the surreal nature of the past year, the sad departure of Frank, the whole nine yards. We both admitted we had not missed football as much as we had expected. Strange times.
At the southern end of what is now normally called “Wembley Way” – but was really called “Olympic Way” – the rather unsightly access slope has been replaced by steps, which I must admit remind me of an old style football terrace. But it is rather odd to see steps there. One supposes that crowd control has improved since the Ibrox disaster of 1971, but the straight rails, with no cross rails to stop surges, did bring a tremor to my memory banks. At least the steps do not immediately start near the stadium.
At the base of the steps, we scanned our match ticket and showed our test result email to Security Bod Number One.
We neared the turnstiles at the eastern end – not our usual one – at around 3.30pm. Hardly anyone was around. We went straight in.
Thankfully, Security Bod Number Two didn’t react negatively to the sight of my camera and lenses.
For an hour and a half – the equivalent of a match – and by far the most enjoyable ninety minutes of the day, we chatted to many friends who we had not seen for fourteen months. I was driving, of course, so was not drinking. In fact, as I never drink at home, my last alcoholic intake was way back in September. But Parky, himself almost teetotal since June, was off the leash and “enjoying” the £6 pints. I updated many friends with the latest news regarding my health. I summed it up like this :
“I’ve had a good six months.”
There had been rumours of the whole game being played under constant rain. We were low down, row three and right behind the goal. If anyone was going to get wet, we were.
It was soon 5pm. A quick dash to the loo, things have improved since 1920. Within seconds I was spotting more familiar faces and I added to the gallery.
A Chelsea Gallery.
The Cup Final hymn – Abide With Me – was sung and I sang along too. It is always so moving.
A quick look around. Most people in the lower tier. Team banners all over the south side of the top tier. A few people dotted around the middle tier and the north side of the top tier. Altogether surreal. Altogether strange. We had been gifted a Chelsea flag and a small blue bag was placed beneath the seat too. I didn’t bother to look in for a while. Time was moving on. I was starting to gear up for my first Chelsea game of the season and, possibly – only possibly – my last. Some fireworks, some announcements, the entrance of the teams. I spotted Prince William, a good man, and snapped away as he was introduced to the two teams.
“Oh bollocks. The teams. Who’s playing?”
I had been so busy chatting in the concourse that my mind had not given it a moment’s thought.
James in the middle three, Kepa in goal, Ziyech? Oh dear. I was amazed that Havertz was not playing. I was reminded last week that the young German’s first ever appearance at Wembley was in late 2016 against Tottenham. He came on as an eighty-sixth minute substitute for Bayer Leverkusen as they won 1-0. It was memorable for me too; I was there, tucked away among the Leverkusen hordes with my childhood friend Mario.
So, yes, the team.
James. Silva. Rudiger.
Dave. Kante. Jorginho. Alonso.
Mount. Werner. Ziyech.
I always say that I need a few games at the start of each season to get used to watching football again. To learn the habits, strengths and weaknesses of new players. To pace myself. To try to take it all in. Sadly, such a staggeringly low viewing position was of no use whatsoever. Everything was difficult. There was no depth. I really struggled.
And I really struggled with the latest dog’s dinner kit that the wonder kids at Nike have foisted upon us.
Does anybody like it?
To be honest, with players in motion the bizarre chequered pattern is not too discernible. It is only when players are still that the mess is fully visible. That the nasty pattern is continued onto the shorts without the merest hint of an apology makes it twice as bad. After getting it so right – sadly for one game – in 2020, the Nike folk thought that the yellow trim was obviously worth repeating.
Right. Enough of that. I’m getting depressed.
With only 12,500 fans of the competing clubs in the vastness of Wembley, it was so difficult to get an atmosphere going. For the first time in fourteen months, my vocal skills were tested. I joined in when I could. But it was all rather half-hearted.
The game began and we edged the opening spell quite easily with Mason Mount busy and involved. A couple of very early attacks down the right amounted to nothing. The rain was just about staying off.
Our loudest chant in the game thus far had been the statistically inaccurate “We’ve won it all”, a comment that Corinthians of San Paolo will note with a chuckle, as will the Saints of Southampton.
After a full quarter of an hour, an optimistic effort from Toni Rudiger flew tamely wide of the Leicester goal. A rare foray into our half saw a cross from Timothy Castagne for Jamie Vardy but Reece James blocked well. Chances were rare though. Mount advanced well but shot wide. An effort from Timo Werner replicated the curve of the arch overhead as his shot plopped into the area housing the Leicester fans.
We were clearly dominating possession but after a reasonable start we became bogged down with keeping the ball and trying to force our way in to Leicester’s well-drilled defence. I could almost hear the commentators describing the play. And it’s maybe a subtle new type of play too, possibly a side-effect of having no fans at games for over a year.
Watching on TV, and I admit I get so frustrated, I get bored to death of teams sitting back and letting teams pass in and around them. I watched some old footage from the ‘eighties recently, highlights of the 1982 and 1988 Scottish Cup Finals, and from the kick-off the teams were at each other. It was like watching a different sport. It was breathless, maybe not tactically pleasing, but it had me on edge and dreaming of another era.
Today there is just so much I can take of commentators talking about “the press, a low press, a high press, a high block, a low block, between the lines, transition, the counter, little pockets, passing channels.”
It seems that football is – even more – a sport watched by experts and critics rather than supporters. Yes, everyone seems more educated in tactics these days, but the repetition of some key phrases surely grates on me.
For the high priests of the high press, I sometimes wonder if they are even aware of how often they use this phrase during a normal match.
Players have always closed space and targeted weak spots, just as teams have in the past been happy to soak up pressure when needed. It just seems that teams do it all the time now. In every bloody game. And with no supporters in the stadium to inject some passion and intensity, I get drained watching training game after training game on TV.
A few long crosses and corners from the right did not trouble Schmeichel in the Leicester goal. His father was in the Manchester United goal in 1994. It infamously rained that day and just around the half-way mark of the first-half, the heavens opened. The omens were against us. My camera bag got drenched, my jacket was getting drenched. The blue cardboard bag from Chelsea was getting drenched.
Someone asked: “what’s in the goody bag?”
I replied “a return air ticket to Istanbul.”
Tuchel hurried back to the bench to get a blue baseball cap from his goody bag. Not sure if he had a metal badge too, though.
For twenty minutes, my photos stopped. I couldn’t risk my camera getting waterlogged. Leicester had a few rare forays towards us at the eastern end. I liked the look of Thiago Silva. Bizarrely, of course, these were my first sightings of Werner, Ziyech and Silva in a Chelsea shirt.
The rain slowed and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was in no mood for a “Burnley 2017.” Around me, the rain had dampened the fervour of our support. Leicester were beginning to be heard.
“Vichai had a dream. He bought a football team.
He came from Thailand and now he’s one of our own.
We play from the back.
And counter attack.
Champions of England. You made us sing that.”
Thankfully no mention of a high press.
The last real chance of the half, a poor-half really, fell to Caglar Soyuncu but his effort dropped wide of the far post.
At half-time, there were mutterings of disapproval in a Chelsea support that had quietened down considerably. Throughout that first-half, neither team had managed a shot on goal. But I tried to remain positive. I was buoyed by the pleasing sight of blue skies in the huge rectangular window above us…I hoped the clouds would not return.
No changes at the start of the second-half. I prayed for a winner at our end, just yards away from me.
The first effort of the second-half came from the head of Marcos Alonso, a surprising starter for many, who rose to meet a cross from N’Golo Kante but headed too close to Schmeichel. Leicester showed a bit of life, some spirit, but it was dour football.
Sadly, this was to change. Just after the hour, the ball was pushed square to Youri Tielemens who advanced – unchallenged, damn it – until he was around twenty-five yards out. As soon as the ball left his boot, from my vantage point, I knew it was in. Not even Peter fucking Crouch could have reached it. The Leicester end erupted.
Five minutes later, Christian Pulisic for Hakim Ziyech and Ben Chilwell – loud boos – for Marcos Alonso. Pulisic immediately added a little spice and spirit. He seemed positive. Two more substitutions, Callum Hudson-Odoi for Azpilicueta and Kai Havertz, the slayer of Tottenham, for Jorginho. Our attack had stumbled all game but with fresh legs we immediately looked more interested.
The Leicester fans were in their element, raucous and buoyant. We tried to get behind the team.
“COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.”
It didn’t exactly engulf the Chelsea end in a baying mass of noise.
Kante was strangely finding himself engaged as a supplier of crosses and one such ball was met by Chilwell but his strong downward header, coming straight towards me, was palmed on to his post by a diving Schemichel.
I was right in this game now; it had taken so long for us to get any momentum, but with time running out my eyes were on stalks, watching the ball and the players running – or not – into space.
“COME ON YOU BLUE BOYS.”
With eight minutes’ left, The Charge of the Light Brigade as Olivier Giroud raced on to replace a very disappointing Werner. It was the fastest any Chelsea player had run all game.
The Chelsea pressure increased. I didn’t even think about the stresses that might be induced should we score a late equaliser. But that’s good. I felt fine. No problems.
A delicate cross from James was knocked back to our Mase. He steadied himself momentarily and then let fly with his left foot. I was about to leap in joy. But Schmeichel flung himself to his left and clawed it out.
I called him a very rude name. Twice. Just to make sure he heard me.
In the closing minutes, a lofted ball – into space, what joy – found a rampaging Ben Chilwell. He met it first time, pushing it into the six-yard box. In the excitement of the moment, I only saw a convergence of bodies and then…GETINYOUFUCKER…the net bulge. I tried my damnedest to capture him running away in joy, but I needed to celebrate. I brushed past Parky and found myself in the stairwell. King Kenny virtually slammed me into the fence at the front – ha – but I kept my composure and snapped away. The results are, mainly blurred. A second or two later, I looked back and Kenny was screaming, his face a picture of joy, and the scene that I saw me was a virtual copy, with less people, of the aftermath of Marcos Alonso’s winner in 2017, a mere thirty yards further south.
I heard a voice inside my head.
“Fucking hell, Chris, we’ve done it.”
And then. Someone mentioned VAR. At first, I thought someone was being a smart-arse. Didn’t seem offside to me. Nah. And then I realised as I looked up at the large scoreboard above the Leicester City fans that the awful truth was for all to see.
A red rectangle…
VAR : CHECKING GOAL – POSSIBLE OFFSIDE.
My heart slumped. How often do these end up with the advantage being given to the attacking side?
Ironically, on the car drive in to London, both Parky and I quoted a recent game when Harry Kane’s toe was deemed to be offside and we both admitted that we felt for the bloke. When Chelsea fans are upset with a VAR decision is given against Tottenham, something is definitely up.